North Idaho Slow Growth
The War on Suburbia Continues: Washington state has proposed a law that would over-ride local zoning codes to permit multi-family rentals in nearly all suburban neighborhoods, and the CDA and Hayden Comprehensive plans are not far behind. Although they permit a few single family neighborhoods to remain unmolested, the whole thrust of both plans is to promote densification. In both plans almost all future growth is in multi-family rentals rather than single family homes. Down with Backyards!! No More Dalton Gardens!!!!
Some people believe there is an intentiona effort to compress all of humanity into compact, car-less, “sustainable”, cities. But even if one believes that market forces, rather than U.N. conspirators are behind the push for densification, it is evident that the assault on suburbia is being underwritten by financial corporations who prefer rental income from multi-family units to mortgages on single family homes. We have discussed this problem elsewhere, but the prospect for investors, is clear: with interest rates near zero, rents are more profitable than home loans, and government subsidized rentals are an absolute bonanza.
In spite of its benefits to investors, we believe that densification of single family neighborhoods in Kootenai country is harmful, unwanted, and does not correspond with the best interests of area residents. Not only that, most of the arguments put forth by proponents of densification are false, misleading, or make no sense for Kootenai county. But before exposing the false justifications for densifying our cities, we will re-emphasize the importance of single family neighborhoods. They are necessary to the community and they are the heart’s desire of most long-term Kootenai residents.
We understand that there are serious affordability problems. We have addressed these issues before and will again. But just because not everyone can afford a suburban home does not mean that we should pretend that most residents desire less; only that some may settle for less. We need to start our discussion of what to do about housing policy based on what residents actually want, not on what wealthy investors, and "sustainability" experts want them to want.
The Necessity of Single Family Neighborhoods
The essential virtues of single family neighborhoods are home-ownership, owner occupancy, and long-term residence. The vast majority of year-round Kootenai residents, who intend to raise families, to build businesses, to plant gardens, and to contribute over the long term to the community, seek homes for themselves in single family neighborhoods. Not everyone needs or wants a large house. But most long term, full-time residents want a yard of some sort, and a stable, predictable, and safe neighborhood.
Obviously there is a demand for more urbanized dwellings in resort communities, especially among investors, snowbirds, vacation-home seekers, and unattached or temporary residents. But increasing the supply of condominiums or apartments should not come at the expense of single family homes.
Safe, stable, neighborhoods are key to civic cohesiveness. Cities that lose their base of middle-class, home-owning residents, open themselves up to a host of disastrous political and economic problems that is apparent in the inner cities of every “blue-state” urban region in America, where gentrified downtowns cater to high income, childless, urbanites, and subsidized low income families. The destruction of single-family neighborhoods means the destruction of home-ownership and of middle class family networks that are the glue the holds healthy communities together.
The False promise of “Affordable Housing”
The enormous increase in the price of homes in Kootenai County has been fueled almost entirely by wealthy out-of-staters seeking single family homes in the area. In spite of this, the “smart growth” solution is to DENSIFY existing single family neighborhoods, and to allow the conversion of Kootenai’s existing suburban home stock into multi-family rentals. This makes no sense. The rental market in the area is already over-built, and it is a well-established fact that no matter how many units are built, rental rates on newer corporate complexes never come down.
When cities encourage the densification of single family neighborhoods to facilitate multi-family rentals, they open up entire communities to non-resident “investors”, who seek to transform single family homes into “income-producing” properties. Densification makes every family home an “investment opportunity”, and makes home ownership unaffordable to anyone who cannot compete with “investors” for property. And the first properties in any neighborhood to be “upgraded” by investors to “multi-family” units are invariably, the oldest, smallest, least expensive homes in the area.
Densification does not produce “affordable” homes. It destroys the affordability of existing homes by making home-seekers compete with investors. There is no example anywhere in the U.S. where densification of a neighborhood has enhanced overall affordability. (If you are skeptical of biased reporting this article from a pro-density institute confirms that densification does not work. ) It’s all lies.
Other Densification Bunkum and Canards
- Missing Middle Housing
The need for “Missing Middle Housing” is an invention of urban planners to justify their desire to densify suburbia. But it’s a complicated, invasive idea that turns traditional zoning on its head and offers nothing that a “house-sharing” want-ad in “Craigslist” cannot achieve with much less disruption.
Missing Middle fabulists love to cite statistics that point out that many suburban homes do not have children under 18. But this is not a new fact—it is characteristic of suburbia that new developments have a high percentage of families with children, and older neighborhoods have a higher percentage of grandparents. And the insinuation that only active parents need or want homes with yards is utterly false. Many childless home-owners are grandparents, pet-owners, or hobbyists who intentionally seek homes in suburban neighborhoods because they want the space and privacy.
Suburban homes can be easily shared by multi-generational families, mixed families, or non-families without remodeling to accommodate separate entrances and kitchen facilities. House-sharing, in either an urban or suburban setting is an excellent way for "income constrained" people to share accommodations and it is not a new or novel idea. We ourselves spent several years in our youth “house-sharing” in an insanely expensive metropolitan area. It’s what rational people do when they want to solve their own housing problems without upending an entire neighborhood.
There has been a growing trend over the past decade of people working from home, but in the last two years, under Covid lockdowns, this practice has exploded. Unfortunately, many urban planners, whose power base is in large metropolitan areas that were built up during the hey-day of suburban expansion and long-commutes, seem not to fully understand what this means for their dreams of densified "smart cities".
A great part of the “modern urbanist” justification for densification is to minimize car usage. But as fewer people need to commute at all, suburban and small-town life will become even more attractive and the rationale for densifying urban cores and extending transit systems will diminish. There is no better place to “live work play” for most people, than in the comfort of their own suburban home, and as more people are freed from the necessity of commuting to work, the demand for single family homes will only increase. The increasing demand for suburban property is a problem for all of North Idaho, but the current strategy of dividing up rural land into 10 acre estates, and stuffing everyone else into high density apartments is just abut the worst imaginable solution. Only oligarchs, not actual citizens, could possibly come up with such a scheme.
Existing urban regions with large industrial operations will always have a considerable need for in person workers, but Kootenai has never has developed a particularly robust industrial economy, and now that the majority of out-of-staters moving to the area are bringing their jobs with them, it’s highly unlikely it ever will.
- Walkable Neighborhoods
The story modern urbanists continually tell themselves is that there is an enormous pent up demand for living in a “walkable community,” where cars are “not needed.” This may be true in the resort areas of CDA, or in "felony flats" where many resident's licences have been revoked, but in most of Kootenai County we prefer a mobile lifestyle, and value the privacy and quiet of a suburban lifestyle. Furthermore, most of the spectacular surroundings that make our area uniquely attractive, require cars to fully appreciate. Furthermore, we have long winters, and months of inclement weather, so walking and biking are limited, seasonal recreations, not practical transportation methods. And we won’t even mention the fact that urban communities can be dangerous for children, and that for any family that can possibly afford one, a home with a private yard is an absolute necessity.
When you study the “new urbanists’” priorities, it becomes clear that the real goal of “walkable” neighborhoods is not convenience, but to provide a captive ridership for their much ballyhooed “public transit” schemes. But Kootenai only has bare-bones public transit and there is no political will to generate a better one, so “walkability” in North Idaho, outside the resort areas, is a urbanist fantasy, and a nonsensical priority for local planners.
- The Urban Sprawl Myth
One of the obsessions of “Smart Growth” Densifiers is that “Urban Sprawl” is a disastrous problem that is taxing resources, and destroying critical farms and forest lands. This myth is best defeated by presenting a few critical statistics. First of all, if you add up all of the incorporated land in Idaho whose population is more than 2000 people per square mile, it comes to less than 400 square miles, out of a total of 52,000 square miles, or less than 1%. In Kootenai county, only about 4% of the land, or 50 out of 1250 acres have urban or suburban densities, and over 70% of the population lives in these areas. Yet our area planners believe it is essential to densify suburbia, even though it consists of only a miniscule percent of Idaho land.
Worse yet, by focusing exclusively on densification, urban planners entirely miss the opportunity to intelligently discuss other solutions to very real problems caused by urban sprawl. No one wants to turn Kootenai into Orange County, but there is more than one way to prevent this from happening while supporting healthy growth. Wrecking our existing communities is not the only way, or even a good or effective way to limit growth.
- The “Save the Prairie” Hornswoggle
The most misleading and disingenuous claim of the Kootenai urbanists is that densification of existing suburbs is necessary to “Preserve the Prairie.” The fact is, much of the prairie is owned by the same investment corporations who favor the densification of existing communities. Land-holding development corporations have very long investment time frames, and as long as they can hold land cheaply by pretending to farm it, it makes more sense to collude to create artificial land scarcity than to develop it while land is plentiful. This will assure that as they slowly annex one subdivision at a time, they will be able to control supply and command the highest possible prices.
When planners talk of “Preserving the Prairie”, they mean “Preserve it for a few more years” until they are able to develop it at maximum density for maximum profit. The people behind “Urban Growth Boundaries”, “Uniform Land Use Codes”, and other zoning innovations have a long term plan of controlling as much new development as possible, on their own terms. They are not “environmentalists”; they are not trying to “protect” open space; and they have an Agenda that is not the agenda of the people of Kootenai county.
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