Don’t Be Fooled: Density and Development Create Less Pollution, Foster Economic Diversity

The funny thing about people complaining about new development in downtown and urban areas is that their argument is often paired with an equal complaint about rising housing costs and displaced residents, like this frightening billboard in LA promoting the nightmarish Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (NII):


—and that billboard right there is nothing short of arrogant cognitive dissonance. You can’t bitch about increasing density while also bitching about increasing housing costs and the displacement of residents. If you aren’t building homes at the rate they’re needed, price points will be defined by their scarcity—and considering California is only building about 21 units for every 100 people (as we reported earlier this year), a lack of development creates a rich man’s land.

So when we first told Long Beach about how scary the rent hikes were (and its inherent connection to the housing crisis California is experiencing), we knew other publications would follow suit with the news—and they did, one right after the other. We were also expecting the NIMBYs to come out—and one did in particular: Long Beach resident Jason Harris. We aren’t shocked; after all, his Twitter handle is @ParkingWarrior, an echo of everything wrong in an urban city if there was one, and he is utterly allergic to qualifying his stances with substantiation rather than anecdotal quips. (He once turned the installation of three new bike stations into a rant about, yup, the lack of parking, something that bike share actually helps with! And update: he qualified his stance with the amount of pending lawsuits going around because we all know pending litigation that hasn’t even reached a courtroom is proof of the problem!)

But what we weren’t expecting from Mr. Harris, our favorite anti-density/pro-parking/anti-progress pundit, is something, well, boring. In his first (we think) time being published, Mr. Harris’ common-on-Twitter rants found themselves in article format on the Grunion Gazette by way of a piece called, “Resident Questions High Density In Downtown Long Beach.”

His message? In short, what he’s been preaching all along: Downtown Long Beach is heading in the direction of Santa Monica, where it shall soon be impossible to live here because of huge developments that don’t include parking, force people to take public transit(!), and leave out the poor.

Oh, where to begin with everything wrong with this?

Firstly, let’s just start with Santa Monica (the sole subject of our sister publication, Santa Monica Next). Santa Monica is not overdeveloped; in fact, it is the quite the opposite, having developed very little over the course of the last decade and prompting a housing shortage that has screwed people over more than it has helped. Also, Mr. Harris, the initiative you cite? It has been opposed by The LA League of Conservation Voters.

Make no mistake: “Minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars.”

While the previous point is moot, it does lead us to some very important points about Mr. Harris’s overall argument—so let’s move onto the much bigger fish that Mr. Harris tries to catch (despite trying to catch them all with the single harpoon of “No Density–More Parking!” rhetoric).

Let’s address Mr. Harris’s gripe mentioned in his nom de plume: parking in DTLB—or in his view, the lack thereof.

Firstly, parking isn’t a public good nor is it used by everyone—and it isn’t free but rather the result of gratuitous government spending (when it comes to public parking) or utterly insane developer costs (when it comes to private residential parking). Each on-street parking space? Estimated to cost around $1,750 to build and $400 to maintain annually. Speaking of which…

Parking. Is. Expensiveand bluntly put, we can’t afford it. Even worse for car-free humans? Despite not even owning a car, they can’t escape the cost: thanks to policies like mandatory parking requirements and the practice of “bundling” parking with housing, carless renters pay $440M each year for parking they don’t use, according to a new study by C.J. Gabbe and Gregory Pierce in the journal Housing Policy Debate.

Four-hundred-and-forty million dollars every year by carless renters alone to pay for parking.

Even more, the financial burden works out to an average of $621 annually per household, or a 13% rent premium—and the cost is concentrated amongst households that can least afford it. Per the study, the suggestion is to eliminate minimum parking requirements and bundling to make housing more affordable. So when you’re requiring developers to provide excess parking (at a cost which ranges anywhere from $20K per underground space in Boston to $40K per space in Washington, D.C. to over $50K per underground space in Los Angeles) all you end up with is higher rents and fewer affordable housing units. A grocery store paying for parking for its customers through its high rent passes that cost on to shoppers: there’s a reason bread is so expensive at that downtown store.

You can’t ignore economics, folks: if you have a bunch of people across the entirety of the economic strata are vying for a particular resource but not enough of that resource is being offered, only the highest within that strata are going to get that resource.

If developers were allowed to face directly the high land costs of providing so much parking, the number of spaces would be a result of a careful economic calculation rather than a matter of satisfying a legal requirement. Parking would be scarcer, and more likely to have a price — or a higher one than it does now — and people would be more careful about when and where they drove.

Per UCLA Distinguished Research Professor of Urban Planning Donald Shoup: “Minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars.”

Santa Monica (and other cities’) lack of development has led to higher housing costs because there is nothing for lower- to middle-class folks to choose from since there aren’t new developments providing more options. Take a glance at Oakland, which recently had to put a moratorium on rent hikes because costs were skyrocketing so much: it is not because Oakland is suddenly desirable for wealthy folk that rents have gone up. With San Francisco and California not keeping up with housing demands—something we’ve already pointed out—the more wealthy are forced to move into less desirable locations and less desirable homes, prompting gentrification of that neighborhood to the point of displacement.

In other words, any group—whether its the Parking Warrior himself or groups behind LA’s god-awful “integrity” initiative—telling you that your city’s lifestyle and space needs to be “preserved” by not building housing needs to be swiftly dismissed. Don’t be fooled.

Because there is nonpartisan, nonprofit, academically-sound research that proves high density development in urban areas—yes, even luxury high-rise apartments—benefits lower- and middle-income families more than no development at all.

Repeat: building less housing than people demand drives higher housing costs.

You can’t simultaneously bitch about high density while also complaining about increasing housing costs and the displacement of residents because it’s nothing short of cognitive dissonance.

In fact, in the study linked (conducted by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office [LAO]), what is the remedy offered for fixing the housing shortage? Market rate housing complexes in urban coastal cities. That is a direct suggestion. High density development in Long Beach is literally encouraged by a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institution—not an angry Parking Warrior who wants to point the finger at progress as a culprit in his apparently awful living situation.

So the Current and the Edison in DTLB, the buildings that both the rich and the poor have lamented? They help the housing crisis because here’s the thing: if you preserve Downtown Long Beach, protecting what we have while LA does the same, the influx of wealthy folk needing places to live won’t change—and suddenly, you’re going to find a line of people willing pay significantly more than you currently do to live in the same place. Once again, you can’t ignore economics, folks (again, regard Oakland note above): if you have a bunch of people across the entirety of the economic strata are vying for a particular resource but not enough of that resource is being offered, only the highest within that strata are going to get that resource.

If cities want to prevent lower- and middle-income households from being displaced, they need to allow much more housing to be built. Per LAO’s previous report on housing, even new apartments with high price points benefit lower- and middle-income renters because, as long as they don’t replace existing housing, more new housing means less competition for homes in older buildings.

So the belief that construction geared toward higher-income households displaces the poor? The idea that market-rate housing in low-income neighborhoods leads to the displacement of those low-income households? The idea that policy makers should instead focus on expanding government programs that aim to help low–income Californians afford housing? All of those ideas are wrong.

Here’s how the LAO summarized it:

In this follow up to [our previous report], we offer additional evidence that facilitating more private housing development in the state’s coastal urban communities would help make housing more affordable for low–income Californians. Existing affordable housing programs assist only a small proportion of low–income Californians. Most low–income Californians receive little or no assistance. Expanding affordable housing programs to help these households likely would be extremely challenging and prohibitively expensive. It may be best to focus these programs on Californians with more specialized housing needs—such as homeless individuals and families or persons with significant physical and mental health challenges.

Encouraging additional private housing construction can help the many low–income Californians who do not receive assistance. Considerable evidence suggests that construction of market–rate housing reduces housing costs for low–income households and, consequently, helps to mitigate displacement in many cases. Bringing about more private home building, however, would be no easy task, requiring state and local policy makers to confront very challenging issues and taking many years to come to fruition. Despite these difficulties, these efforts could provide significant widespread benefits: lower housing costs for millions of Californians.

Lower housing costs for millions of Californians.

So the next time someone tries to argue that the giant apartment complex going up in a downtown is bad… The next time someone tries to argue that more parking creates a healthier urban community… The next time someone says that density is the devil and creates more pollution… The next time someone says more housing worsens the situation for our poor… Those people are likely to be part of one of two camps: they are uninformed or, as is the case with many, they are trying to preserve their comfortable life so you can’t have one.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.