Smart Growth transfers quality of life to the rich at the expense of poor?

A recent article on caught my eye because it criticizes the current fad of “smart growth” policies from the perspective of an avowed leftist. The article is written by Richard Morrill, a professor Emeritus at the University of Washington and his analysis leads him to believe that the liberal land use policies currently embraced by urban planners end up hurting the poor and minorities in Washington state.

I suggest you read the whole thing for context but below are some of the money quotes from Professor Morrill:

Population change in the state of Washington has relevance to the nation and to other states because it tells us something about market preferences of households versus the orientation of planners (e.g., “smart growth”).


To a leftist like me, the tragedy is how smart growth transfers wealth and the vaunted “quality of life” to the rich and the professionals, at the expense of the poor and of minorities. Sadly the Democratic party seems totally blind to the fact that the fixation on new urbanism contributes to the rightward backlash. Folks do not want to be told how to live, especially, dare I assert, when those hectoring them have already cornered the nicest parts of the region for themselves. Middle and working class families are not likely to embrace policies – beloved by affluent professionals – that would deny them a chance to own their preferred kind of residence at a reasonable price.


As the late great UW economist Charlie Tiebout told a seminar 50 years ago, “People vote with their feet”  This is certainly true about residential choices. While perhaps twenty percent at most of Americans may prefer higher density living, for reasons of age, family status or ideology, the large majority does not and likely will not.


Growth management and upzoning have been unable to stem this tide, for two main reasons rarely acknowledged by planners: the preference of families with children for single family houses and greater housing affordability, at least in some areas…

Most people don’t want to be crowded into densely populated concrete jungles. “Smart growth” reduces the acreage available for the single family homes that the vast majority of Americans want. By reducing the supply of single family homes “smart growth” inflates their price which makes the dream of home ownership unattainable for millions of people. It is basic Econ 101. So either urban planners don’t care what people want or their goal to force Americans into more efficient densities whether they like it or not.

Wealthy Americans will always be able to afford single family homes. Forcing land use policies that are abhorred by the majority of people in a city ensures that those areas will only appeal to a minority of the population and the people unable to afford anything else.

That may be efficient but it sure as heck isn’t smart.

4 thoughts on “Smart Growth transfers quality of life to the rich at the expense of poor?

  1. I love the juxtaposition of a post bemoaning the fact that local government is “allowing” private property owners to build all this high density housing that nobody supposedly wants…right next to a two minute clip of Milton Friedman espousing the virtues of free market capitalism.

    I’m also confused by the statement that smart growth drives up surrounding property values. A few weeks ago, smart growth destroyed surrounding property values.

    So do we want free markets (i.e. property rights) or do we want government dictate? Does smart growth inflate property values or destroy property values? We can’t have it both ways.

    • I’m glad you like the posts but your confusion stems from your false assertion that Alpharetta’s zoning issues are a choice between free markets and government dictate.

      That choice was made long ago when the state of Georgia and the City of Alpharetta passed zoning laws which restrict densities and land usage. MetLife, Penn Hodge and every other member of the North Fulton CID knew those laws when they purchased their property. I can’t even cut down a tree in my yard without the city’s approval and there is no way the city will let me build a duplex in my back yard. So until you and every other council member are prepared to approve a brothel in Kimball Farms or a strip club next to Northpoint Community Church I don’t want to hear any nonsense about you defending private property rights. I simply expect the same level of protection under the law that is afforded to wealthy, politically connected developers.

      I am not sure what you refer to when you say “A few weeks ago, smart growth destroyed surrounding property values.” I don’t recall hearing that so you’ll have to refresh my memory before I can help you on that one.

  2. I am not sure what you refer to when you say “A few weeks ago, smart growth destroyed surrounding property values.” I don’t recall hearing that so you’ll have to refresh my memory before I can help you on that one.

    I think it has potential to do both depending on where you live. Those too close to the fire can lose out financially (not to mention their quality of life) while those further out can gain significantly.

    It is kind of like a good local school can help your home value…. unless the field lights are shining in your back yard. Those people lose out.

    On the whole there has been significant study done to show that Smart Growth policies artificially drive up prices. Compare Portland (Smart Growth pioneer) to Houston (no zoning) home prices.

    For all the talk about “workforce” and “affordable housing,” Portland makes the American Dream unattainable except for the privileged few. Portland’s “affordable housing” would be what buys a nice place here (for now), while they are getting rabbit hutches for their $.

    When we considered living out there, we were going to have to purchase a condo or townhome out of necessity rather than desire. Yes, the stacked dwelling units sell, but just because they do doesn’t mean that is what people prefer.

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