The right to live in the suburbs

I was honored and happy that Voice of San Diego published an op-ed that I wrote about density. I was also pleased to see the comments section light up with arguments for and against density. It’s a conversation that needs to happen.

There is one argument that I find interesting, although ill-informed. It is essentially, “ I have the right to live in the suburbs, and government policy should accommodate everyone wherever they choose to live.”

To that I say, yes – you do have a right to choose wherever you live — as long as you are willing to pay for it.

Low density developments are essentially government subsidizes. Land Use in low density areas is so financially unproductive that it is impossible to build and maintain the infrastructure needed for them to exist. Not only do the streets, sewers, water, utilities, etc cost more to initially install, suburbs do not generate the tax revenue required to maintain them. The suburbs are draining city government coffers at an alarming rate. Is it any wonder San Diego has $3 billion dollar infrastructure deficit?

Low density land use

It not just suburban infrastructure that cost the rest of us. Required services like fire, police, garbage, libraries and schools also must be subsidized. We even pay to bus suburban kids to school because it is usually too far for them walk. 

In the USA, citizens have generally agreed that subsidizing freeway construction is worthwhile because it helps increase the movement of goods and services – and therefore increases the GDP. However a 2-3 hour commute to work is not productive. Not only do the extra cars on the road cause congestion and slow the movement of goods, but they cause wear on the freeway, and damage the environment. Gas taxes and tolls (user fees) only cover about one-half the cost of highways – the rest comes from the general fund.

Sure, you can live in low density areas – IF you will pay extra to maintain your infrastructure, bus your kids to school, pay a carbon tax to offset your car dependency, and pay tolls for highway maintenance … along with many other hidden costs.

If the government subsidizes anything, I would prefer we, as a society, subsidize housing for the poor and homeless, instead of subsidizing housing for a middle class fantasy of living the “good life.”

If you can afford to live the life of the “landed gentry”, good for you!  Congratulations. Just don’t expect the rest of us to pay for it.

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4 Responses to The right to live in the suburbs

  1. Rufus says:

    Your argument is logical.

    Another disconnect is “free parking”. No parking is free, not even the curb parking in front of your house. Everybody in your city pays to pave and maintain the “free parking” in front of your house.

    Another example: hotel parking. I hear tourists gripe about the cost of overnight parking at downtown hotels. But if I take a taxi to the hotel and don’t utilize the on-site parking garage, why should I subsidize that capital improvement? I’m a pedestrian!

    However, you lost me when you said that suburban commuters should pay a carbon tax for their long drive. Paying more taxes just encourages the government to grow. We don’t want government to grow fat, we want them lean and efficient.

    What we should encourage is development policy that encourages density and infill (wake up San Diego!) and makes suburban development pay their way in infrastructure costs before the first home is built.

  2. William says:

    Some lifestyles result in huge healthcare costs, often borne by equally huge taxpayer subsidies. Should we apply your “logic” to that as well?

  3. W.C. Varones says:

    What nonsense.

    “Low density developments are essentially government subsidizes [sic]. Land Use in low density areas is so financially unproductive that it is impossible to build and maintain the infrastructure needed for them to exist.”

    Yet humans have lived in low-density communities for centuries, including the entire 20th century in pleasant suburbs with all the modern conveniences. Streets, sewers, and schools were paid for by developers and homebuyers.

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