The Unintended Consequences of Growth Management

A recent interview with Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole brings to light another significant factor in our greater Seattle housing market’s recent run up and fall down – the effect of our state growth management and local urban planning regulations on the price of housing and the creation of the shortage mentality in buyers during that period.  

Here is a link to the article, courtesy of Realty Times:

In essence, the Cato Institute study found that the bubble wasn’t really national, it was mostly confined to about a dozen states, all of whom were practicing some form of what urban planners call ‘growth management’ – basically pushing the bulk of housing growth into limited urban areas (sure sounds familiar). The effect of that practice was to boost the price of land inside the urban area, and make housing more expensive – and incidentally increase the tax revenues and job growth of cities in preference to counties – hmm.  That same restriction also allowed the cities to impose more and more permitting restrictions that caused more expense and longer lead times for developers – and thereby both restricted supply and raised prices to consumers even further.

My favorite example of some of these practices is the number of brand new houses built in Kirkland in the past few years that have a detached garage with a qualified accessory dwelling unit above it.  How many buyers qualified to buy a $1.5 Million house would want a detached garage, let alone a large ADU they have no intention of renting to a stranger on their property?  But it sure helps the city of Kirkland meet their growth management requirement for additional ‘housing’ units.

There’s a lot more more interesting analysis and discussion in the article – well worth reading.

14 thoughts on “The Unintended Consequences of Growth Management

  1. Sadly, there are a lot of holes in that recycled “study” from the Cato Institute. He mentions how Georgia wasn’t part of the housing bubbles, yet somehow they are within the top 10 states for foreclosures at the moment:

    Texas also has not been immune, and areas there were certainly part of the bubble. I’d post more URLs to provide some counter-points to the articles, but WordPress seems to mark any of my comments with more than one URL as spam.

    An overabundance of cheap credit, so-called experts who were preaching that real estate prices only go up, greed (on wall street and by home owners), all contributed to the housing bubble. Unplanned growth and sprawl are not the answer.

    I’m not saying that urban planning did not play any part, and I do believe there are lessons to learn – but the article (interview) you reference, while “interesting”, plays fast and loose with facts and accuracy. Dig a little deeper, and I think one finds that the issues aren’t so simple.

  2. Chuck — Putting aside the flaws in the study (I have not read it and am relying on Gene’s analysis in assuming there are flaws), your post raises a larger question: So what? Is wholly unchecked development into the exurbs and formerly rural areas really desirable, even if cheaper than growth in designated urban growth areas? Do we really want to emulate the Los Angeles of 50 years ago? Absent growth restrictions, we’ll simply end up with more cars, more roads, more traffic, and of course more emissions. Is that really desirable?

    I think most people (particularly other than the anti-Global Warming crowd) would agree that we need a different approach to urban growth. So even if the study is correct, it does not mean that we should discard urban growth boundaries. Rather, the study simply provides another cost that should be taken into account and addressed (don’t know how — I’m just commenting here) when formulating plans for smart, 21st century growth.

  3. Gene, I appreciate your comments and your note that this study is not brand new – it is in fact part of a series of studies and articles that started coming out in late 2007, but it doesn’t seem like we have paid much attention here, perhaps because our share of the bust came later than for most cities. I think we should be careful not to link the rate of foreclosures too directly to the bubble price cycle we’ve seen. The major foreclosure pits have been driven by two fundamental causes – first: overbuilding, like Las Vegas tract houses and south Florida condos, where a lot of the foreclosure burden is falling on the builders (if you build more houses than you have people, you’re going to have a pricing problem), and second: high job loss, as in places like Detroit, where the burden falls directly on the homeowner. Neither of those causes is particularly linked to growth management.

    The point of these articles (here is the link to Part 2 of the interview: ( – and by the way, I think the single link thing may be RCG/Dustin policy, not a WordPress limit) is that 1. Growth management/urban planning was a significant contributor to the problem, along with several other major factors, and 2. The process we have chosen of forced urbanization is not necessarily at all what a majority of homeowners want, nor is it necessarily an efficient solution to the problems it purports to solve.

    My personal belief is that here in our greater Seattle area we have been permitting vertical condominium developments in preference to horizontal residential developments to a degree which leaves us with an oversupply of condominiums and a looming shortage of single family homes. What we are trying to sell is not matching what a lot of people want to buy, and I think it’s going to bite us.

    • I’ll certainly agree that we have an overabundance of overpriced condos in the downtown area. I don’t know that what we’re witnessing points to “we need more single family detached homes” in the suburbs though.

      Personally, I also don’t want to do is start or base this conversation of a set of reports that are “factually challenged” (to be kind).

      Personally, I’d rather look at things like:
      1. Built Green and energy efficient homes have held their value much better than others

      2. Many urban centers (e.g. West Seattle Junction) are making a comeback as more people realize there is a lot of value in living near: mass transit, walking distance to everything, close to schools, etc More time can be spent with family and community, rather than commuting and in traffic.

      3. Resource planning. Energy is not going to get cheaper (e.g. 14% increase in SCL rates was just approved), so being able to reduce energy usage, water usage, etc. will make not just environmental, but also economic sense.

      I could go on, but my main point is that trying to simplify the real estate (and consumerism) bubble down to “it’s all urban planning’s fault” completely misses the big picture that we all need to start looking at.

      I grew up in the suburbs of NY City – not much better than the suburbs of LA. No decent mass transit, had to drive to get anywhere, people who spend more time in their cars commuting than with their families, etc. I know I’m not alone in re-evaluating what makes me happy, and the “single family home with the white picket fence in the suburbs” that has been marketed to all of us for decades is really losing a lot of its luster. We need to look at what people will want (and need) 5, 10, 15 years from now – not what they think they want right now.


  4. Good comment, Craig, and No, I do not want to emulate Los Angeles – I was born and raised there 🙂 But I do think maybe we have over-corrected, and we ought to be thinking about what we’ve learned so far – the lessons aren’t trivial.

    • Chuck, I didn’t mean to imply you blame the bubble on urban planning, but the Cato Institute certainly seems to with the title of their report being “How Urban Planners Caused the Housing Bubble”:

      The author of that study, is the same person being interviewed in the story you linked to. I’m not putting words into the Cato Institute’s mouth, I am quoting those words directly from the title of their policy document.

      If you read my previous comment, I recommend looking at what the market wants – and will want moving forward. This is a Seattle-centric blog, so I used examples from the Seattle region. I’m also not a fan of having the government run my life, but nor am I a fan of subsidizing businesses that provide no long term benefit to the rest of us.

      On a topic much more important than “who said what”:

      Chuck, based on your bio, you seem to have a lot of experience in this area. What types of things would you propose to help areas like Kirkland have more sane and sustainable development policies?


  5. The study focuses on one point of planned development. Banks wanted to make loans. The servicing fees alone were a temptation. Loan generation, which some people fault, was just a teaser.

    It’s simple. A bank, with the help of a developer, created a product. The bank makes the construction loan on a thousand units. The builder takes draws, the loan is paid out, and the end user, the buyer, pays off the loan. For about six years this was a great money maker for banks and developers. It was a game to see how much the end product would sell for. The first units may sell for $450K while the later units sold for $600K.

    The end user is left paying for the whole mess.

    Planned development became the game that pushed up prices. It did have an impact on all new construction. Material costs sky rocketed even though the cost of supply was greatly reduced with Home Depot and Lowes. They could in turn kind of control the supply of materials by their big bulk purchasing power.

    Just as an aside, planned development also reached into every corner of the country. You can go to Butte Montana and see little pockets of sidewalks with a few scattered houses. We own some land in Pinedale Wyoming that has housing development up and down the highway. It just got to be crazy how much money banks would pump into building loans.

  6. Colin, Gene picked that article with that title, not me.

    David, I used to be a geologist working the Pinedale area for Superior Oil – sounds like it sure looks different now 🙂

    Gene, trying to figure out how to make government policy that will have all the desired consequences and none of the undesired ones, or unintended ones, seems devilishly difficult.

    Two things I think might be worth thinking more about are 1) having a managed but moving development growth boundary the way Snohomish County does it, and 2) having some way for cities to trade development growth rights/obligations so that they don’t have to do weird things to meet their growth quota within their own limited area. Another example of weird is Seattle having to rezone big chunks of the Greenwood area to allow tearing down older homes on 16,000sf lots to put up 4 new townhomes on 4,000 sf lots. Helps meet their growth quota, increases jobs and tax revenues, may not have been the original residents’ choice.

    I note that there has never been a systematic evaluation of the benefits and issues associated with the Growth Management Act, its 14 stated policy goals, and all the following acts and regulations that it spawned. Its very breadth gives local government, often fondly known as the last bastion of piracy in the United States, license to design and enforce almost any policy they want without necessarily understanding all the consequences. For an interesting article on the need for a review, read ‘Is the Growth Management Act Working?’ written by Brian Houskeeper, Policy Analyst for the Center for the Environment, and published in January of this year by the Washington Policy Center

    I do like green, and I do think growth should be managed, but neither of those viewpoints should be considered an unfettered license.

  7. Chuck, what are you talking about? Your original post links to the article about the Cato Institute study that is, in fact, entitled “How Urban Planners Caused the Housing Bubble.” Gene then noted that the study was grossly oversimplified in attempting to pin the blame for the housing bubble on urban planner. You then accused Gene of putting words in the mouth of the Cato Institute. Gene and Colin then responded by correctly noting that Gene did no such thing. The title of the study speaks for itself. Now, in your latest comment, you claim that GENE picked the article. Huh?

    I think its fair to say that you posted on the study without fully appreciating its content (including its title). Gene and Colin correctly called you on it. I say wipe the egg off your face, recognize your error, and move on. Don’t defend the indefensible.

    As for the substance of your latest comment, there is a real disparity. You note that 4 townhouses on a formerly SFR lot “may not have been the original residents’ choice.” So, apparently, you favor zoning that would prohibit this denser development, or at a minimum you want to preserve the existing zoning. But your larger point is that the government often over-utilizes its inherent power over an individual land owner. You are suspicious of the government telling you what is best for you. So why is a zoning change, which allows the owner GREATER flexibility in regards to development of the parcel, bad? This strikes me as inconsistent.

  8. Craig, the article linked in my original post did not have that title, as I have pointed out – ‘Colin, Gene picked that article with that title, not me’. My original intent was to point out that there was some very good food for thought in that article which didn’t seem to have gotten the attention it deserved.

    I have to admit to getting a bit tired of having people tell me that I said something that I didn’t, or that I favor something that I don’t. I would be delighted to hear that someone thinks we should try to better understand the consequences of these acts, and maybe learn something that would be useful going forward.

    I tried to give a constructive response to Gene’s fair challenge, but that seems to have gotten lost. Oh well…

  9. Once fascinating set of numbers I came across recently:

    Seattle population, 1965: 650,000

    It dove from there.

    When did it get back to 650,000?


    It’s now about 680K.

    What does that say about growth management? (Can you say “sprawl”?)

  10. Steve, thanks for your comment. I’d have to say that I’m not surprised that the population of Seattle, the incorporated city area, has not risen much since 1965. By 1965 the city was built out border to border. If it couldn’t expand its borders, then the only way to increase its resident population would be by increasing density. That’s an urban planner way of saying tear some existing housing down and build something else with higher housing density, e.g. high rise condos relacing low rises, like in Belltown, or small-lot townhomes replacing larger-lot conventional homes, like in Greenwood. The offset to that is more business expansion, large or small, that through re-zoning gradually consumes previously residential space, thereby reducing the number of housing units. That increases the number of people working in the city, but not necessarily the number of residents. Sounds like the city of Seattle is about at a balance point.

    In the last 50 years the population growth in residential terms had to go to the suburbs, and created the ‘greater Seattle’ that we see today. As I recall, Bellevue was just incorporated in 1953, and by the end of the ’70’s it and Kirkland were almost fully built out. With their borders confined, the growth moved on to Redmond, Woodinville and the Plateau. Then in the 80’s we got concerned about ‘sprawl’ and passed the Growth Management Act

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