The domestic political landscape is increasingly altering the physical landscape, and the issue is all about ownership. In municipalities across the country, growing numbers of citizens and businesses want government to get out of the way of landowners who want to build houses on the land they own.
Market forces and private-property rights are being asserted over community interests. Smart-growth, anti-sprawl advocates are on the defensive. Stories appear regularly in the media about battles between the forces generating and sustaining sprawl and the forces determined to control it.
Anti-sprawl arguments tend to follow a familiar pattern: society's need to protect the environment, conserve resources, improve mobility, and ensure housing choice and affordability.
The principal argument on the other side is that constraining market-driven growth drives up the costs of land and housing, putting home ownership out of reach of more people.
A story earlier this week by Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden described the latest battle in Oregon, a paragon among states committed to smart growth. Portland is repeatedly cited as the only major American city with enforceable urban growth boundaries. Asserting their constitutionally guaranteed private-property rights, Oregon landowners and land-dependent businesses are retaliating against government regulations that prohibit property development in areas not already planned and zoned for urbanization.
Oregon's Measure 37, passed by voters last fall, requires government either to relax restrictive regulations or fairly compensate long-standing property owners for diminished property value caused by laws, enacted over 30 years ago, limiting economically productive use of their land.
Compensation is normally paid to owners of property only when a government actually condemns and takes title under eminent domain. With Measure 37, growth management initiatives can be considered tantamount to a taking. As Harden pointed out, governments typically do not have funds to pay for de facto takings resulting from presumably lawful land-use regulation. Clearly this is a major setback for smart-growth, anti-sprawl advocates.
Another setback occurring here in Washington is also emblematic of how the nation's political landscape can affect the physical landscape. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose essential mission is to foster fair and affordable housing development while enhancing the quality of America's urban and suburban environments, is in jeopardy.
The Bush administration is cutting back, eliminating or relocating to other federal agencies many of HUD's housing and community-development programs, and it's no secret that the administration and many on Capitol Hill would be happy to see HUD disappear.
Assaulting HUD is not a new idea. The first attempt to enfeeble HUD, if not shut it down altogether, occurred in the early 1980s during the Reagan administration and met with considerable success. Many of HUD's affordable-housing finance and assistance programs, regardless of their effectiveness, were slashed.
The majority political view today seems to be that, in the age of ownership, governments should not be worrying much about housing supply and affordability, land-use planning and regulation, community revitalization, urban/suburban development and smart growth.
Economic libertarianism is clearly on the rise: Let the market do its thing. So what if income disparity is increasing or people have to spend nearly half their household income on shelter? The unspoken mantra appears to be that hardworking middle-class and low-wage-earning families should just deal with it.
Regrettably, the reality of today's challenges does not overlap the reality of today's political landscape. The need for effective public action regarding stewardship of urban and exurban landscapes is expanding, not shrinking. As free-market, anti-regulation, pro-ownership advocates duke it out with growth-management advocates, finding ways to reconcile conflicting public and private interests is essential.
Despite politics, and notwithstanding the latest news from Oregon, growth-management advocates continue to press their case.
For example, "Housing in the Nation's Capital 2004," a report prepared for the Fannie Mae Foundation by the Urban Institute, details this region's panoply of problems. Using current data and legible graphics, it paints a worrisome picture: unbalanced employment and housing patterns, skyrocketing home prices, shortfalls in housing production and affordable housing, expiring federal subsidies, income inequality, accelerating sprawl, pollution and worsening traffic congestion.
Touching on similar points are some of the books stacked on my desk: "Growth Management and Affordable Housing," edited by Anthony Downs; "A Field Guide to Sprawl," by Dolores Hayden; and "Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money," by Joel S. Hirschhorn.
Only occasionally do we read reports about the other side, about people who see the forces and phenomenon of sprawl differently. The Post published a story recently about Northern Virginia suburbanites taking the initiative and working to create a strong sense of community within their far-flung subdivisions. This is a newsworthy achievement because a common critique of suburban sprawl is that any sense of community, either socially or physically, can be lacking.
More than ever we need balanced, comprehensive policies, laws and plans for growth that are fair, sensible, effective and, most important, capable of responding to evolving circumstances. Oregon's Measure 37 is not this. Rather it is another ad hoc, stop-gap, politically charged reaction to a well-intentioned but static regulatory strategy, one ultimately perceived as unfair after three decades of changing conditions.
Also needed is a properly managed and adequately funded HUD, which could once again be a constructive national catalyst without necessarily threatening local government autonomy or dampening private enterprise. A revitalized HUD could help increase affordable-housing production and could support, both technically and financially, the intelligent planning and development of towns, cities and suburbs in areas of the country most in need of assistance.
Of course, all this may be wishful thinking.
Our nation's physical landscape, like HUD, is at risk as long as those dominating and shaping the political landscape narrowly define ownership. A broader definition recognizes that private-property value and community value are inseparable, that public and individual interests must be in balance. Otherwise, everyone loses.