Shortly after taking office President Obama announced his
intention to develop federal policies to induce states and local
communities to embrace "smart growth" land use strategies that
would deter growth, crowd development, and discourage automobile
Dubbed the "Livable Communities Program," several of the
President's cabinet departments have proposed a series of early
initiatives to implement the plan and establish long-term
strategies. As part of this effort, the Administration provided
funding support to the transit industry's Moving Cooler
study, which argued that their greenhouse gas reduction proposals
"may result in higher housing prices, and some people might need to
live in smaller homes or smaller lots than they would prefer."
As the evidence from other countries reveal, the creation of a
federal land use policy will likely lead to a decline in housing
quality, including house size. To prevent this outcome, Congress
should ensure that land use policy remains exclusively the
responsibility of state and local government.
Similar Policies Imposed in the United
Residents of the United Kingdom have indeed experienced a
dramatic shrinkage in the size of their homes as a result of
restrictive land use and housing regulations enacted in 1947 to
discourage suburbanization and preserve the rustic countryside.
Recent studies reveal that these regulations have led to
shortages of land available for housing, and this in turn has
caused the U.K. to have the smallest and most expensive housing in
the developed world. London Mayor Boris Johnson refers to these
tiny units as "hobbit homes," and he promises to change the
As earlier reports by The Heritage Foundation have pointed out,
the smart growth strategies President Obama proposes for the U.S.
have led to high home prices in states and communities where
elements of such programs have been imposed. And the ensuing
affordability problems there have contributed to the mortgage
default and foreclosure epidemic that has battered the nation's
financial markets for the past two years.
The Experience in the United
Whereas some communities in the U.S. did not impose smart growth
regulations until the early 1970s, the U.K.'s experience with
strict land regulation dates to the Town and Country Planning Act
of 1947, which confined residential development within existing
urban areas. By freezing the supply of land for new housing, a
growing population was forced to compete for what little was
available, and house prices soared as a consequence.
According to the 2009 Demographia housing cost study, which
covers the United States, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom,
and Australia, not a single British urban area managed to make it
into the "affordable" or "moderately unaffordable" categories. Of
the 16 U.K. urban areas covered in the report, six were rated
"seriously unaffordable" in 2007, and 10 were rated "severely
unaffordable," meaning that all homes in these areas cost more than
four times a household's annual income. Those rated "affordable"
sell at or below two times average annual income.
On top of these high costs, the British are also forced to get
by with less housing, and a series of new reports show just how
severe the decline has been. According to one report compiled and
published by The Times and the BBC, new housing built in
Britain is now among the smallest in the developed world. This
reflects a notable retrenchment from past international
comparisons, when the Japanese were at the bottom of the list. As the
chart reveals, new British homes are a little more than a third as
big as new U.S. homes.
Another report found that the U.K. also has the smallest average
room size compared with other member states of the European Union.
For example, the average-size room for a newly built dwelling in
France is 289 square feet, compared to 170 square feet in the
These calculations and their recent publication in the British
media were in part spurred by a 2009 report published by the
Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), an
official advisor to the British government on housing issues. The
CABE surveyed 2,249 new homebuyers about their new homes and
Many residents do not believe that the space provided in their
homes is sufficient for basic everyday activities. This has
implications for storage of personal possessions, the arrangement
of furniture, food preparation, recycling, socializing in the home,
privacy, social equity and adaptability. ... And the findings show
the pressures of space impact disproportionately on those who are
more economically disadvantaged.
Preventing America from Adopting this
Although the Obama Administration has yet to produce many
details of its forthcoming housing and land development strategies,
the Secretaries of HUD, EPA, and Transportation have generally
described their goals as encouraging denser housing arrangements to
deter automobile use, accommodate the transit industry, save land
and energy, and clean up the environment.
And under Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the government
has also provided financial and political support to organizations
that favor using the federal government to force Americans to
change the way they live and travel, most notably the Moving
Cooler report funded by the transit industry and environmental
Congress, too, has joined the effort, and the recent House
version of the highway reauthorization bill includes livability
provisions to encourage communities to adopt smart growth
Keep the Federal Government Out of
Land Use Regulations
Both the President and the bipartisan leadership of the House
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have committed
themselves to an unprecedented expansion of the federal government
into new areas of responsibility to limit how American's travel and
how they live.
Currently, these are responsibilities of states and local
governments. Some states and many communities have used their land
use authority to impose counterproductive and exclusionary housing
policy, but most have not. This gives all Americans the opportunity
to escape oppressive regulation by voting with their feet. Members
of Congress should reject any effort by the President or the
congressional leadership to force all Americans into these
Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is Herbert and Joyce
Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for
Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Ronald D. Utt, "President Obama's New Plan to
Decide Where Americans Live and How They Travel," Heritage
Foundation Backgrounder No. 2260, April 13, 2009, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/SmartGrowth/bg2260.cfm;
see also Ronald D. Utt, "Obama Administration's Plan to Coerce
People out of their Cars," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No.
2536, July 10, 2009, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/SmartGrowth/wm2536.cfm;
Ronald D. Utt, "Slouching Toward a Huddled Masses Housing Program,"
Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2281, June 1, 2009.
Among the report's many provisions is one that
would require at least 90 percent of new development to be in
compact, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods with high
quality transit. The report notes that the land use measures
"may require strong regional land use planning and oversight
agencies ... [and] may result in higher Housing prices" and that
"some people might need to live in smaller homes or on smaller lots
than they would prefer." See Ken Orski, "A Tendentious Report Has
the Transportation Community Up in Arms," Innovation
NewsBriefs, August 18, 2009, at http://www.innobriefs.com/ (August 31,
Rebecca O'Connor, "New-Build Dwellers Get That
Shrinking Feeling," The Times (London), August 11, 2009, p.
37. See also BBC Magazine, "Room to Swing a Cat? Hardly," August
15, 2009, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8201900.stm
(August 31, 2009).
Commission for Architecture and the Built
Environment, "Summary: Space in New Homes: What Residents Think,"
2009, p. 8, at http://www.cabe.org.uk/publications/space-in-new-homes
(August 31, 2009). It is important to note that 90 percent of the
households surveyed by CABE had a spare bedroom, so overcrowding
was not the source of space constraints.