Thursday, February 21, 2008

Housing Bubble Heads

I don't know where Ezra Klein lives. I live in an ungentrified urban neighborhood in a small Mid-Atlantic city that is old enough to have been, for a single day, capital of the United States while the Continental Congress was on the run from the redcoats. But he strikes me in this piece as someone glamored of city living but without sufficient practical experience in it. Sort of like the flip-side of the people who drive hundreds of miles to gawk at the Amish and spout about their superior "simplicity."

And denser areas are also more livable. They're more walkable, which is shown to make people healthier, and more social, which is shown to make them happier. But, of course, policy would need to undergo pretty significant changes to prize density. And we can't have these damn liberals using their social enginnering [sic] to take away our garages.

Which looks like an exercise in how many blanket statements you can throw over one sentence.

I'm in favor of people living in liveable cities, and I'm in favor of driving as little as possible. I happen to love city living and all it offers. But as a father with a family in the city, I'm not going to tell you it's paradise on earth.

For instance, there's a down side to "more social." In another life, I might have developed an appreciation for Puerto Rican music. I might even have bought and listened to some of it. But my entire experience of it for 18 years has been to have it blasted at me, at window-rattling volumes, from neighbors' stereos or cars when I was trying to sleep or read or think. I detest it the way Alex hates Beethoven's "Ninth" at the end of "A Clockwork Orange." You might say, in that case, city living has narrowed my cultural horizons, and socialization has been anything but a boon to my love for my fellow man.

I live six blocks from my job. I walk and bike more than most guys I know my age. I'm not notably healthier than they are, however.

And for years I tried to get to the point where I can live without a car. I have an environmental motive in that, but I'm not narcissistic enough to think that my consumption makes a damned bit of difference to the earth (if I thought it did, I'd just kill myself and solve all the problems). Mainly, it's a combination of orneriness, cheapness, and dislike for oil companies, oil sheiks, the DMV, and the insurance racket.

But you know what? Even living in a city, I can't do it. Not with a young family that needs to be fed by trips to market once a week or more. Not with family obligations in the next town over. Not with winter weather. Not with doctors' appointments. Not with little emergencies. We got it down to maybe 5 miles of driving per day, averaged over a week. But less than that I cannot go. Not without a horse.

As for a garage, frankly I'd love to have one. I don't know any city-dweller who wouldn't. Until you've spent enough chilly rainy nights driving around and around the block trying to find a parking space relatively close to the front door, so you can carry the sleeping baby into the house without jarring her awake with a face-full of sleet, you don't appreciate a garage. Or until you finally give up on that, park in a handy no-parking spot and take the kid inside, only to come out and find a $45 ticket on your windshield.

I'm in favor of village-style housing developments, walkable communities, and expanding the grids of existing cities rather than chewing up farmland for plywood palaces. I also think the cities have better odds than the suburbs for long-term stability (as outlined somewhat apocalyptically here).

But don't tell me it's going to turn us into shiny happy robots. Or that it will do away with the need for cars. You can't just change the way houses are built and call it progress. You still have to connect people and goods and services in a way at least as convenient and appealing as what they now enjoy. And that takes more than a village zoning overlay plan.