There is a power imbalance which discourages affordable infill development. Infill project opponents tend to be vocal and well organized by their neighborhood associations, but the people who will ultimately occupy the additional housing units are generally unaware that they may benefit from the project. Instead, their interests are represented by developers, who are often derided as “greedy” and criticized as “only doing it for the money.” Yet, most of us live in homes built by developers.
It’s time to show developers a little love. To put this into perspective let’s compare developers with farmers.
Developers and farmers both use labor, heavy equipment and land to provide essential consumer goods: housing and food. In fact, farming requires orders of magnitude more land per capita than is used for housing, so anybody concerned about the wildlife habitat and trees displaced should be more concerned about farming practices than infill development.
Of course, infill development can cause local noise, dust and traffic congestion, but farming is neither natural or gentle, it often causes noise, pesticides and fertilizer pollution, and low farmworker wages contribute to rural poverty.
Developers, of course, are motivated by money, but so are farmers, and although some developers are very wealthy, so are some farmers. Critics criticize developers for building luxury homes, but similarly, many farmers grow luxury foods, such as strawberries and radicchio. Of course, farmers and developers will produce whatever is most profitable, whether it is food or housing, but every time public policies restrict development, for example, by reducing densities, or add costs such as parking requirements or amenities, they reduce supply and increase prices. If we want more affordable housing we need to understand the urban economics which affect development costs and housing prices.
Fortunately, there is evidence that many people want to eat healthier foods, including more locally-produced organic products, and similarly, many people want to live in compact housing located in walkable urban neighborhoods where they consume less land and energy, produce less pollution, and contribute more to the local economy. Everybody benefits if public policies help farmers and developers meet these demands.
This is important because households spend about twice as much money on housing, and three times as much on housing and transportation, as they do on food, so development policy has larger potential impacts on our budgets than agricultural policy. If we want affordable housing in walkable urban neighborhoods our community needs policies that encourage developers to build it.