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Why High Density Housing Doesn’t Work (But Could)

When Sacramento’s new General Plan proposed an increase of high-density housing in the county, many real estate brokers and developers howled in protest. Apartment and condominium construction is virtually impossible to finance now. Also, developers are reluctant to take on the NIMBY protests about such projects.

On the other hand, infrastructure and transportation costs—both monetary and environmental—decrease dramatically with higher densities, so the County is eager to encourage such projects. For one thing, viable mass transit is impossible without some increase in the planned densities we build. The question is whether the pedestrian-oriented planning proposed in the new General Plan will make these projects viable when they are not built as suburban sprawl.

I contend what brokers and developers are really protesting is the model of building high densities of the last forty years, or so. This model is called “suburban sprawl.” A typical apartment or condominium building in suburban sprawl is a poor imitation of single-family housing. Their design emphasizes privacy above all else. There is little or no accommodation for meeting outside the individual unit. Most tenants meet neighbors in the parking lot—hardly a place designed for lingering—or when they pound on the common wall to tell their neighbor to shut off the stereo.

Single family homes, even the standard suburban sprawl models, offer a chance to meet neighbors while doing yard work, or taking an evening stroll. So when one neighbor asks another to lower the stereo volume, the neighbors know each other as something other than a whining nuisance, and the whole social fabric of the neighborhood profits by mutual accommodation.

In contrast, high-density, sprawl housing (condominiums) are poor investment in comparison with a single- family home. They don’t appreciate as much or as fast. Perhaps this could be explained by those condo’s uniformity. In any cluster, there’s likely to be a unit for sale just like several other units, also for sale. Because condominiums are likely to be bought by highly mobile owners, turnover is even faster than in single-family suburbs. Since the units are identical the lowest priced, most desperate seller sets the price. Even in sprawlized suburbia identical models are distinguished by differing trim and landscaping. Not so condominiums.

Condo prices also stay low because the homeowners’ association’s dues changes and wrangling. As might be expected, neighbors who have no place for neutral socializing are as contentious in deciding neighborhood issues as they are in getting neighbors to shut off the stereo.

Dues change because, until recently, developers have had every incentive to underestimate expenses collected by the association. Buyers were qualified based on those expenses; more buyers qualify the lower the expenses. Because dues underestimate real expenses, condo owners have typically had to stomach large dues increases. These are anathema to the fixed-income retirees who would otherwise be demanding condominium units.

Fortunately, pedestrian-oriented development offers an answer for the most intractable of the three problems of high density housing. By design, such neighborhoods offer places to socialize outside the housing. People can meet in a park, a walkway, or a front porch. This increases the neutral socializing, and lowers the contentiousness. Variety, and differentiation of units can be part of any high- density building code. This would keep values up. And finally, the Department of Real Estate has been more carefully scrutinizing condominium budgets lately, ending some of the abusively low dues estimates—and the later catastrophic dues hikes.

Educating the public about the possibilities of high density housing is one avenue we can pursue with our planning policies. The alternative is to continue building (and subsidizing) suburban sprawl as we do now. We subsidize sprawl in building permit and tax concessions. Residential sprawl does not pay for the governmental services it demands.

Mark Dempsey is a former Realtor and former vice-chairman of a Community Planning Advisory Council in Sacramento County.

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Bob January 10, 2011, 4:52 pm

    I think you may have missed the real reason why high density housing does not work. It is the increasing selfishness and rudeness of the people that live in that close proximity that is the main deterrent to this cost-effective way of living. Inevitably, you will find it impossible to sleep at night or have any privacy due to the lack of consideration of others in having noisy parties, loud music/television, etc. Totally oblivious to their surroundings, or just plain uncaring individuals always ruin this experience for others.
    Perhaps before writing articles about high-density housing, you should try living in an apartment for a while.

  • Mark Dempsey January 11, 2011, 8:26 am

    Bob, You make a good point. That’s why neighbors’ social contact other than at the of the noisy party is critical to elicit considerate behavior. Believe it or not, most people *are* considerate. If you assume they are only rude, then you may get to be right, but you’ll seldom get to be satisfied.

    As for your advice to live in high-density housing — all I can say is that I’ve done plenty of it, and would do it again. I know how to manage my environment, not just how to complain about it.

  • Tracy Smith May 7, 2011, 1:44 am

    True. In a place where there is noisy surrounding people living in that place can’t live peacefully. With too much population and with different characteristics and behavior, it may lead social conflicts.

  • Briana Morgan May 28, 2011, 8:03 pm

    This article is worth reading for.A high density housing is a good thing for the people who had no place to live in.Although this may not good for other but for a poor family this is better than having no home.Right??so i guess just a matter of your capability to own a house.

  • Ryan March 11, 2015, 10:27 pm

    This is a very interesting subject and is relevant considering the high density housing units being built just down the street from where I live. I have particular interest as to why this does not work.

    I am reminded of dormitory living and have memories of sleepless nights, which had little to do with the consideration of others and a lot to do with me being anxious because I did not get enough done. I am fortunate enough to live in a space whereby have parks around me, 3, and a good neighborhood where community is important. People are considerate, they just might not know what they do not know. So open communication and getting involved in community is important. Understanding, unselfish, and accommodation.

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