The American Dream Fight

Part one of two opinion posts.

If you spend any time with civic minded community planner-types, like I do, most of the banter is about making Transit-Oriented Development real.  Innocuously shortened to T-O-D, like a jolly friend, TOD is a transformative concept intended to radically change the way we live.

Look, I’m all in favor of public transit-friendly higher density living as a high-volume housing option. That is, if it can be produced, owned or rented at a cost working families and young professionals starting off their careers can afford.  Much of this TOD-talk, often occurring in the context of climate change, appears to increasingly imply that having other newly developed housing options available is, well, not done.  This is flat wrong!

Dennis & Beaver had it made.

The American Dream was always associated with owning a home and traditionally that home was a single family detached residence.  How big of a house – or the size of its lot – was never a dream qualifying factor.  It was the suburb, where Dennis the Menace and Beaver Cleaver “grew up,” that provided generations of Americans with aspirations to one day enjoy a similar lifestyle. The dream was simply about living independently in one’s own castle and the suburb was the place to be.  Oh, and they also insist on owning a car, or two.

A solid majority of Americans still want to own or rent a home with a little backyard, on a tree-lined street in a safe community.  Millennials too by far prefer the standalone house, no matter how small or how densely plotted if it offers a unique space suitable to their individual identity.  Plenty research done has Millennials fessing up to this.  Their choice is most often voiced when parenting begins and easy access to an urban latte yields to having access to suburban teenage babysitters and safe spaces to play.

 When housing was pushed out and away it created an even bigger road mess.

The American Dream is, however, experiencing a rude awakening. The type of home many people want is rapidly becoming an elusive pursuit, especially here in San Diego.  The region has plenty space to offer all housing options to successive generations of San Diegans.  A greater effort towards accommodating various housing options would not result in environmental compromises!   Besides, sensitive and responsible planning is already widely practiced, because it is both good business and it’s the law.

The scarce availability of the traditional home happened in a screwy way. Suburban living was fine until it was declared near shameful sometime in the nineties.  People who lived in the burbs were apparently guilty of causing sprawl, guilty of jamming the roads, for fouling the air and water and for killing off insects and bugs no one had ever heard of before.  The exaggeration practice about these adverse environmental impacts became epic.  People weren’t but should be living in “smart growth” communities, a term which apparently lost its mojo since no one uses it any longer.

Instead of worrying about housing its population properly, the obsessive focus of nearly every city hall in California became the chase of the fiscal revenue dollar. New shopping, industry and business centers were to come first, but places where jobs go to sleep at night, were to be delayed or, if possible, blocked.  State and local government happily obliged by adopting one anti-housing regulation after another.  It all pushed housing out and away and created an even bigger road mess.  How ironic is that!

A decades-long regulation bonanza set in motion the wheels of the unaffordable housing bus, which was made to climb a hill so steep it could not possibly transport all who needed to board. This bus’s wheels had to come off and finally they did.  Sadly, the newly built traditional single family home became its primary casualty.  It was hardly accidental and goes against what people want.

The consequences will not be good for San Diego.  To be continued.

Coming Up:   A warning about the ramifications for San Diego’s housing market when single family housing production drops further below present record low numbers.

Written By Borre Winckel
President & C.E.O. at BIA of San Diego County

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