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Sprawl Is Here to Stay as Long as Suburbs Represent the American Dream

Home builders were further called to task for not constructing diverse communities that include homes affordable to less-affluent workers. The critical caller mentioned areas in Ohio where the least expensive new homes start at $300,000.

The builder countered that such homes are affordable with what he characterized as modest annual household incomes of $60,000 to $70,000. His adversary suggested that, if the builder checked current economic statistics, he would discover that many American households have incomes below these levels.

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Of course, this is a public policy issue -- few economic incentives exist to motivate private developers to build low- and moderate-income housing. The issue of incentives relates to another target of the critique: the federal income tax deduction for home mortgage interest. As many affordable housing advocates have observed, the mortgage interest deduction represents a huge annual subsidy for homeowners. Yet there is no subsidy for the millions of Americans who rent.

The radio show critique also touched on the environmental costs and consequences of developing residential subdivisions far from already built-up areas and existing infrastructure. Sprawl exacerbates traffic congestion and air pollution, threatens natural habitats and wetlands and increases storm water runoff. Typically, the costs of moderating and managing these effects are not fully assessed nor paid for by either developers or homeowners.

But home builders are not really the villains. They are just playing by the rules of the game, rules embodied in our national and state constitutions; in our federal and state policies, statutes and regulations; and in our county and city ordinances governing zoning and land use, construction, taxation, budgeting and fiscal management.

Sprawl is here to stay as long as ex-urban land remains a freely traded market commodity; as long as low-density subdivision homes represent the American dream; and as long as infrastructure and transportation planning, land-use planning and land-use regulation remain fragmented.

If we want to combat sprawl and foster a healthy industry willing to build diverse, well-designed communities in "smart growth" locations, the game and its rules must be changed. This requires radical actions:

• Undertake region-wide, comprehensive planning coupled with more prescriptive, coordinated land-use management.

• Designate desirable growth areas for development and redevelopment, and for public infrastructure investment, including the timing of growth and public investments, on a regional basis.

• Specify patterns, densities and types of development in designated growth areas across the region, with open land slated for development planned as hamlets, villages, towns or urban centers, rather than as patchworks of subdivisions strung together by highways.

• Mandate that all growth areas include a range of housing types, prices and densities, plus associated uses -- schools, recreation, shopping, culture, entertainment and employment -- accessible on foot and bicycle as well as by car.

• Generate a region-wide housing plan, linked to other regional plans, that accommodates McMansions as well as dense, compact dwellings.

• Accept the reality that economic incentives and financial subsidies are indispensable to producing privately developed, affordable housing, and commit the necessary public and private resources.

• Revise tax policies that encourage sprawl to the detriment of other forms of suburban and urban development.

Without such intervention, home builders will keep doing what they do best: finding inexpensive land, ever farther out, where they can profitably produce and sell homes to qualified buyers. And sprawl as we know it will continue.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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