April 24, 2024

Housing Density Unnatural

Ezra Klein gets his response to this article by Alex Steffen about as wrong as he possibly could.

the amount of density the study’s authors call for is extremely modest. They encourage building new projects at a density of 13 homes per acre, raising the average national density from 7.6 units per acre to 9 an acre.

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.

True – we would have destroy the innate need that people have for personal space, privacy, and property in order to make this goal sustainable, a fact that Klein immediately acknowledges, albeit in his own way:

And we can’t have these damn liberals using their social enginnering [sic] to take away our garages.

There’s often a tendency to assume that the status quo is the most "natural" way for things to be, and that rejiggering the relevant subsidies is somehow more artificial and presumptuous.

What Klein calls the relevant subsidies are the home mortgage interest deduction.  Certainly this has a direct impact on whether people can afford to buy a home and how much they’re able to pay for it.  But these incentives have nothing to do with the flight to suburbia and everything to do with the desire that people have to escape the kind of cheek-to-jowl urban prison that Klein and Steffen champion. 

An acre is 43,560 square feet, so 13 homes per acre allots a plot of land that’s less than 60 feet on a side to each home.  Assume a 30′ by 50′, 1500 square foot home and you’re not left with much in the way of surface area for the kids to play in, etc.  Not a situation that most families would choose to be in, given the means and a free market.

Evidently what upsets Ezra is that there is a means-based test to determine who is fortunate enough to escape the inner city that Steffen describes as having a population density of 36-160 homes per acre.

Indeed, there’s nothing natural about our current settlement patterns, and no reason preserving them should be seen as a nod to expressed preference rather than, as it actually is, a status quo bias in favor of the current subsidies and their associated winners.

Actually, it’s entirely natural.  People who possess the ability to earn the means to live as they choose do so, period.  To stop this "destructive" behavior, the government would have to create disincentives to keep families from freely living in the best way they can.  Now that’s unnatural.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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