Does the Search for Affordable Housing Drive Congestion?

Much of the media is enamoured with Smart Growth, or at least the term. So, it’s refreshing when we get a more balanced and practical perspective, particularly when it comes to housing affordability and traffic congestion. Brent Batten’s January 18th column in the Naples (FL) Daily News is one of those articles. Mr. Batten leads off noting a meeting for the Community Character/Smart Growth Advisory Committee in Naples, but the real story begins a few paragraphs down. Five people were killed on I-75, tying up traffic on this key highway for four hours. They were commuting from Fort Myers to Naples. The standard Smart Growth line is to use this example as yet another reason to stop urban growth, or at least cram more people into dense cities in an attempt to stop commuting. Mr. Batten makes an important, and often ignored, point: “Many [commute] because there aren’t enough affordable homes or apartments in Collier County for people working in construction, landscaping and in many cases even professional fields such as teaching and nursing.” “So the lack of affordable housing is a problem in itself…and it exacerbates another problem, the inadequate north-south road grid.” This is nice empirical point, but Bratten’s next point is worth considering when the rubber meets the road on Smart Growth: “As the process of arriving at something called smart growth unfolds, affordable housing is without a natural voice. To make something more affordable, you generally have to produce more of it, which goes against the enviornmentalists’ predisposition toward building.” He could have also pointed out that local government’s stringent control over land use through comprehensive planning makes building diverse, affordable housing difficult and sometimes impossible, particularly in wealthy enclaves like Naples. This is all very telling because Florida has one of the longest running statewide growth management laws in the nation (since 1985) and improving affordable housing was a critical goal. RPPI’s analysis of Florida’s growth management law found that its implementation boosted housing prices and reversed trends toward more affordable housing. Too often, more planning begets more politics, leading to less market activity. In this case, that’s fewer homes in the affordable range.