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Opinion: Water, zoning, and the suburban Ponzi scheme

by Clayton Becker

I was intrigued by professor Marks’ opinion piece on water conservation in the July 22 edition of the COURIER. I have known professor Marks since I was a teenager and have great respect for him. Indeed, we agree on several points. We can do much to improve our water efficiency; development in the desert is antithetical to water conservation; and desalination plants — expensive though the technology is — are a necessary part of California’s future water security.

Additionally, I agree that affordable housing construction and subsidies are not a panacea and have important-to-note drawbacks. Given income inequality often maps along racial lines, solely building income restricted housing contributes to de-facto racial segregation and precludes mixed-income neighborhoods.

However, professor Marks’ column leaves out important details. It makes no mention of exclusionary zoning, which has systematically distorted housing markets. In every metro in the state, it is illegal to build anything but a detached, single-family-home in at least 70% of residentially zoned areas, reaching all the way to 94% in San Jose. Not coincidentally, San Jose has the state’s worst housing crisis.

In short, California’s zoning code has resulted in extremely valuable land remaining far sparser than it would be if we truly regulated land use according to incompatible uses rather than according to density and minimum lot size. This, in turn, has caused housing costs to spiral ever upwards.

Simply put, people want to live here. Nowhere matches the ingredients that have made California a destination of choice for everyone from tech “bros” to those who have found their basic rights threatened in the redder parts of the country. Housing is expensive in Southern California because cities have mandated that supply cannot rise to meet demand anywhere but the boonies. Every condo we don’t build in LA is another water guzzling “McMansion” built in Vegas, Phoenix, or yes, Eastvale.

Professor Marks’ column also understates how much water we pour into our lawns. According to research from scientists at the UC’s Agriculture and Natural Resource Program, as much as 50% of California’s residential water goes to our lawns, a figure that is even more imposing when you consider that residential water use includes other landscaping, as well as backyard pools. By contrast, your average apartment dweller uses less than 1/4 of the water of your average homeowner. By permitting more dense housing, California can cut its water use compared to the status quo of new single-family homes going up like clockwork in the desert.

Likewise, your typical golf course uses as much water as 1,200 homes, a number which balloons to an astonishing 4,000 homes for courses which dare to challenge the desert in places like Palm Springs. With 57 courses calling Palm Springs home, some back of the envelope math gives us roughly 228,000 single-family-home’s worth of water each year. [These figures are based on some math between multiple sources, including NPR, the California Alliance for Golf, and clean energy building advocates CONSOL.] Now, far be it from me to suggest we get rid of all the golf courses in Palm Springs, but it does seem an awful lot of water to maintain a space that largely, only the wealthy seem to use.

But, even if none of the above happens to convince you, if, perhaps, your primary concern is your home’s value, it is still in your self-interest to support more multifamily housing going forward.

Car dependent suburban infrastructure is incredibly expensive to maintain — so expensive that suburbs do not produce the necessary tax revenue to do so. Your average cul de sac, for instance, provides less than half of the required revenue to rebuild its street at the end of its lifetime.

Suburbs have historically solved this problem by requiring developers foot the bill for the streets in their new subdivisions, and then using the tax revenue from those homes to fix the roads in yesterday’s “new subdivisions.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is precisely how a Ponzi scheme works. And the only constant about Ponzi schemes is that, eventually, one way or another, they invariably fail. The suburban Ponzi scheme has only kept itself going by continuing to build into the desert, with new suburbs subsidizing old ones.

Without increasing density, suburbs can only maintain their infrastructure by expanding ever outwards. I don’t know about you, but I like the Claremont Wilderness Park the way it is, and I would much prefer more apartments, condos, and townhouses dot today’s vacant lots than see pavement carve up Johnson’s Pasture.

Eventually the bill comes due, and a stagnant suburb is a doomed suburb, no matter how high property values climb. For what it’s worth, I’d take a townhouse in Claremont over a McMansion in Eastvale any day of the week. I trust that Claremonters of all stripes can understand why many others may want the option to make that same choice.

Clayton Becker is a Ph.D. student at UCLA and a 2016 Claremont High School graduate.

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