Single-Family Homes Alone Aren’t Enough For Marin County

Over the weekend many people recommended Joel Kotkin’s article on how the party of Lincoln became the party of plutocrats and suggesting some better ways forward for the GOP. It’s a pretty good piece, but like a lot of Kotkin’s work it’s marred by a weird dogmatic suburbanism.

For example, here he is on Marin County:

In Marin County, Calif.—where Obama claimed nearly 75 percent of the vote—expensive energy and higher housing prices represent not a burden but an environmental good, and, when it comes to housing, an economic opportunity for some to benefit from artificial, government-imposed scarcity. Ban new single-family homes, and the value of the existing stock goes up; for the elite investing class, incentives for “green energy” developments offer insider opportunities to enjoy windfall profits at the expense of middle-class-rate payers.

Above I’ve got a Zillow view of Sausalito in Marin County. You can see there something that’s quite typical of over-zoned, high-cost suburbs of America’s coastal cities—lots of single-family homes that are extraordinarily expensive. It’s certainly true that allowing more sprawl west of the 101 could help relieve some of this price pressure. But I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that even if you did that lots of people would want to specifically live in Sausalito. It’s on the coast, and of all the Marin County communities it has the most convenient route into San Francisco.

One natural way to relieve price pressure in the area would be to allow some of this very expensive land to be used for denser construction—townhouses and tall condos and apartment buildings.

That’s not to say Marin County in particular and the Bay Area in general shouldn’t look harder at whether they’re being too tough on new single-family homes. But there are several advantages to upzoning existing developed land over permitting new sprawl. For one thing, the environmental objections to dense development are entirely spurious—denser housing in existing communities is a key environmental win. For another thing, even as upzoning reduces the price of housing it further increases the value of the underlying land so when properly understood it’s compatible with the economic interests of the incumbents. Greater density where development already exists also requires less in the way of new infrastructure.

Long story short, what the area needs is more housing units which can (and should) be obtained through multiple methods. The fact of the matter, however, is that in Marin County just like in basically every suburban county in America whatever restrictions there are on new single-family homes they’re peanuts compared to the restrictions on multi-family and mixed-use developments. Simply leaving that off the table in the housing conversation creates a lot of needless zero-sum battles with environmental protection goals and the interests of incumbent landowners, all for the sake of what amounts to ideological posturing.