We had a lively discussion on the previous column about people wanting choices in where they live. One of Phoenix's biggest competitive disadvantages is that is largely lacks the choice of a vibrant downtown and real urban neighborhoods. Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Denver, Portland and Seattle, among others have them. They also have suburbs, malls, championship golf, big boxes and chain restaurants. Phoenix mostly only offers the latter.
I have an urban sensibility; growing up close to a then lively downtown Phoenix I always have. So while I don't "get" the appeal of suburbia, much less the exurbia exemplified by the mess outside Prescott and in the Verde Valley, I don't want to harshly judge those who want that.
I only want them to pay for it. And they don't.
Suburbia and exurbia, for all their GOP "I got mine" individualist attitude, are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Let me count the ways.
• FHA, other federally backed mortgages, and the mortgage tax deduction enabled especially Anglos to buy houses in the Maryvales of America and their successors. Urban neighborhoods were often redlined and assistance was not available. Smart Growth America reported that these federal subsidies cost $450 billion a year.
• Freeways sucked the life out of cities and made suburbs more convenient. Freeways did nothing positive for cities and entailed the destruction of entire urban neighborhoods. In the case of Phoenix, freeways made otherwise worthless desert or land only valuable for agriculture into gold mines for sprawl developers. This, along with the massive subsidies detailed elsewhere, has proved highly distorting to market forces.
• New and wider roads (more than 4 million miles of highways over the past 50 years), sewer and water lines, new schools and emergency services all had to be extended to fringe developments. Lacking the density of downtowns, these areas are extremely inefficient in their use of these services. Streetsblog offers a good example:
In a 2000 report on the costs of sprawl, the Sierra Club highlighted the case of a Denver suburb, Arvada, which agreed to annex a new housing development and hook it into its sewer system, in much the way Celina is considering annexing those six houses. But in Arvada’s case, there were 90 houses, and they were extending the sewer, not 800 feet, but nine miles. The extension would cost up to $2.7 million, but all 90 new homes together would only bring in $116,370 a year in new property taxes.
• Growth doesn't pay for itself. Impact fees rarely cover the costs of sprawl and in many cases they are not levied at all. The sales taxes from new big boxes, malls, shopping strips and auto malls don't pay for this either — or for the costly abandonment of older retail closer in. In some cases, direct tax payments are made to sprawl developers.
• Flood control projects turned unusable land into "master planned communities." Once again, costs were socialized while profits were privatized.
• Corporations play communities against each other to get new tax dollars from isolated office "parks," single-family tract houses, auto malls and big boxes. They wouldn't pay for themselves anyway, but the "competition" drives down the promised benefits to the "winner," often to nothing. The corporations end up with the best subsidies from taxpayers.
• Roads actually don't pay for themselves.
• The costs rise exponentially for exurban sprawl. In addition, subdivisions and McMansions built in fire zones require costly public resources be diverted to dangerous wildfire fighting.
• Sprawl doesn't pay for all its externalities, the hidden costs ranging from the destruction of valuable farmland, generation of pollution, destruction of ecosystems, emission of C02 and its contribution to the enormous costs of climate change, etc. In Phoenix, we once could virtually feed ourselves with locally grown produce, dairy products and meat. Now it's almost all imported via a 10,000-mile supply chain that is worsening climate change and often uses slave labor.
• Suburbia runs on inexpensive and readily available gasoline. Living there requires an automobile for virtually everything. Thus, the United States must maintain large armies and fleets to ensure (and subsidize) the protection of "unlimited" amounts of oil moving around the world and to enforce the Carter Doctrine.
Finally, these policies have been sustained for decades. Sustaining acts as an accelerant and locks in habits, good and bad. The auto-centric suburban "lifestyle" has been around so long that many Americans can't imagine any alternatives. But the critics hurling stones at subsidies for Amtrak and transit live in glass houses. Far out in the fringes, of course, bragging about how they haven't even been downtown in years.
Read top national journalism about cities, downtowns, and urban issues on Rogue's City Desk.