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.