Did Planners Cause the Housing Bubble?

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Created by Our Guest Blogger Justin Dahlheimer

Did planners cause the housing bubble?  The Cato Institute's resident rabble rouser, Randal O'Toole, thinks so. In his latest of many shots at the discipline of planning, - "How Urban Planners Caused the Housing Bubble," (PDF Link Here) O'Toole blames a historically bad housing market solely on planners.

At the core of O'Toole's argument is a discussion over the impacts of growth management policies (i.e. Oregon's urban growth boundaries) on the supply of housing.  O' Toole argues that growth management policies restrict the supply of housing so much so that housing prices inflate.  Citing housing prices in states without growth management policies, he contends that housing bubbles were avoided because the supply of housing was able to respond to the housing demand.

O' Toole is able to focus sole blame on growth management by finding that nearly all housing bubble states (using questionable methodology, especially in the case of Nevada) have growth management policies. "Housing prices bubbled in 16 states, virtually all of which has some sort form of growth management," claims O'Toole.

While this is not the first (and last) time someone has argued growth management leads to increased housing prices, it is a novel attempt to pin the blame of the housing bubble and foreclosure crisis on planning. Most other explanations of the housing bubble and subsequent foreclosure crisis point toward lax mortgage lending standards and an over-speculative real estate market.  

Keeping in mind that O'Toole is specifically criticizing growth management, not land use regulation in general, answer the following question: Is O'Toole's optimal scenario (no limits on growth) the best way to keep housing affordable and prevent communities from foreclosures resulting from volatile housing prices?  

In your response, you may want to consider some elements O'Toole does not discuss in his article:

  • Rental prices have remained stable, and are even falling in cities
  • The fiscal impacts of sprawl
  • Many urban areas, specifically in the Southwest (with and without growth management policies), over built their housing stock, leaving numerous developments empty
  • Whether the housing market is a perfect market absent growth management policies
  • Homeownership rates in growth management states vs non-growth management states (Go here)

120 Comments

According to articles we have all read in classes so far, I was under the impression that there is competing evidence suggesting both higher as well as average housing prices in cities with growth management policies in place. O’Toole seems to take the idea, that housing prices inflate in cities with growth management policies, for granted.
I have not personally come to any conclusion on what I believe caused the housing bubble. I have noticed that the history of the country has been punctuated by housing bubbles and bursts, growth controls or not. In addition, it seems too simple to assert that one action (or one group of people) could have single-handedly caused the problem.

http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/business/2009/09/29/mcedwards.us.real.estate.cnn.html

The preceding in hyperlink connects to an interesting and somewhat relevant video that CNN had posted a few months back regarding the housing crisis in suburban Atlanta.

My first comment is that planners are an easy target. We are generalists that deal with a broader range of issues than most professions. Consequently, we can be blamed easily because of our vast involvement. (We should also be able to take credit for a lot of good things, right?)

In response to O'Toole's argument I would say that his supply-demand analysis makes some sense if you are a strong believer in classical economics. However, the faults of classical economics reveal some problems with O'Toole's proposition for loosening growth management practices. Classical economics does not factor in externalities--that is, the indirect costs that economic decisions have on society--like the environmental costs.

If we leave the housing market entirely up to the market (and don't change our environmental policies) then our local and global environments will continue to deteriorate. O'Toole makes no mention of the environmental impacts that the cities with relaxed land use regulation have on the local environment and even the rest of the world. He does not seem in favor of greenbelts or conservation that might take away from land that people want to develop.

He also does not address physical constraints on growth, which would impact supply and demand. In fact, he mentions Hawaii in a negative light, as an example of one of the first states with growth management laws. However, he fails to acknowledge that Hawaii has naturally occurring growth limits, called "the ocean". He also leaves out any mention of Hawaii's many natural and environmental assets, which I would imagine that few would be in favor of destroying so that more condos can be built.

And what about other factors that influenced how communities were able to react to the crises of the past few years. I would imagine that people living in more dense areas (likely to also have development restrictions) would have been able to fare better with spiking gas prices. Those people would not have had to rely on automobile transport as much. However, O'Toole claims that the automobile has "reduced the relative importance of 'agglomerative economies'"--which I understand to mean that he doesn't think that people are affected by gas prices and that people don't care or aren't effected by environmental externalities of automobile use.

A final comment is that the states without growth boundaries and restrictive management (Texas, North Carolina,Georgia, Tennessee) that O'Toole references may be faring all right in the housing bubble... But if you look at recent poverty rates for the above places they are consistently worse than the rates in states he mentions as too restrictive. (Poverty rate is a very rough estimate for quality of life. It would be interesting to see comprehensive quality of life data comparisons between the Restrictive and Non-restrictive states.)

Poverty Rates from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey 2008:

Texas= 15.8%
North Carolina=14.6%
Georgia=14.7%
Tennessee=15.5%

California=13.3%
Nevada=11.3%
Oregon=13.6%
Washington=11.3%
Maryland=8.1%

I don't think getting rid of urban growth boundaries is the best way to go about solving the housing bubble problem. O'Toole focuses specifically on how he believes urban growth boundaries affect the housing market. However, any urban growth boundary implemented in a city can potentially have numerous positive affects on the growth and development of that city. Southern cities, such as Houston and Atlanta, are currently struggling with sprawl issues in part because of unrestricted growth. I am not sure what the biggest cause of the housing bubble is. But I tend to disagree with people such as O'Toole who view the unrestricted growth strategy of southern cities as models that should be followed.

No growth management at all would lead to highly iniquitous development patterns and sprawl. O’Toole cites the metropolitan areas of Atlanta and Houston as optimal solutions? These two MSAs have environmental problems and transportation congestion associated with unfettered development.

To debunk some of his views on the bubble and growth management: Some states with the largest growth management policies (Oregon and Maryland) did not witness huge housing bubbles followed by large drops while others without major growth management (Arizona) did. Also, O’Toole glosses over the fact that almost all metropolitan regions’ home prices have fallen since the bubble burst. I recently heard a talk on housing that suggested median home values for our region will drop an additional $20 to $40 thousand and we are hardly known for our growth management policies.

Finally, O’Toole’s point that the bubble was caused by lack of supply is absurd. Look at any exurban community to see rows of houses that have not been lived in. There is currently plenty of excess demand for single family homes.

No growth management at all would lead to highly iniquitous development patterns and sprawl. O’Toole cites the metropolitan areas of Atlanta and Houston as optimal solutions? These two MSAs have environmental problems and transportation congestion associated with unfettered development.

To debunk some of his views on the bubble and growth management: Some states with the largest growth management policies (Oregon and Maryland) did not witness huge housing bubbles followed by large drops while others without major growth management (Arizona) did. Also, O’Toole glosses over the fact that almost all metropolitan regions’ home prices have fallen since the bubble burst. I recently heard a talk on housing that suggested median home values for our region will drop an additional $20 to $40 thousand and we are hardly known for our growth management policies.

Finally, O’Toole’s point that the bubble was caused by lack of supply is absurd. Look at any exurban community to see rows of houses that have not been lived in. There is currently plenty of excess demand for single family homes.

To back up all previous comments, urban growth management policies do not cause a bubble in the house market but does the exact opposite: it creates a stable, healthy housing environment. A case study we read in the 5204 Cities class last spring revealed that housing prices were not inflated due to urban growth management. These policies actually conserved the amount of housing stock constructed and prevented the market from becoming saturated and allowed for housing to be developed as it was actually needed. Also, instead of constantly building new, these policies encourage investment and redevelopment of deteriorated housing stock.

What O'Toole fails to address is the number of foreclosures and where they occurred during the housing crisis. Foreclosures rates were the worst in areas with no growth management: Atlanta, Phoenix, Las Vegas, South Florida, California, and Colorado. Yes, foreclosures were bad across the board and were substantial in Portland and Maryland but weathered the storm better than most. I don't know what O'Toole does for a living or where he went to school for planning, but stating that growth models should follow sprawling, unrestricted growth as in Housing and Atlanta is ludicrous.

Growth management policies did not cause the housing bubble. Blaming smart growth and planners is really just a witch hunt. Phoenix’s rise and bust was stunning but the region is very pro-business – and from what I understand, not very regulatory. I also don’t believe we can only focus on the supply side of the equation. While I do believe that growth management policies may limit the supply of housing, thus increasing housing prices, I also believe these policies make the city a more attractive, more desirable place to live. Las Vegas had one of the largest housing bubbles in the country, and while they may preserve some land on their urban fringe, they also had built a huge amount of housing comparable to the rest of the rest of the country during their peak. I think larger culprits was runaway credit expansion and subprime lending.

I don’t think that the housing bubble was caused by urban growth management policies (as many of my fellow students appear to agree). I really question the sustainability of the growth that was allowed to occur within Toole’s examples -- as Brad Utecht stated above Atlanta and Houston are facing obstacles that are long-term livability issues. Additionally, the over-building of housing developments allowed in no-limit areas is detrimental to the success of a community as a viable place to live, work and recreate. This over development, allowed by lax development regulations and easily accessible dollars, is now be a potential blight (and waste of building resources) for the cities that house them. I have to believe that analysis and planning would have shown that such developments were not sustainable in the long run.

First of all, I am incredibly impressed that O'Toole managed to dedicate 24 pages placing blame on a single entity when so many externalities are involved. I agree with everyone above about how the author does not take into consideration sustainability goals and that the number he cites are 'iffy.' I was also shocked to see Georgia and Texas topping his lists of 'good growth.' When you look at the homeownership rates by state, you see that Georgia and Texas are in the third tier of homeownership (65-69.9%), and neither state has had a high ownership rate in the past 5 years. One would think this might mean that they were less affected by the housing bubble bursting not because of their growth patterns, but because fewer people owned homes in those states comparatively. This could be because of a lot of reasons, but I would argue that the amount of subprime mortgage lending occurring state-by-state seems to be a better culprit in this scenario more so than growth management.

O'Toole's argument seems to fall flat on its face in many respects. First and foremost, I feel that he equates growth management with housing supply restriction. I am not convinced that the assumption that implementation of land use regulations place a restriction on supply of housing units available. It seems likely that land use regulation may limit or encourage higher densities in an effort to preserve open space, save on infrastructure, and encourage more compact commuting patterns. However, encouraging higher densities does not necessarily restrict the supply of housing units, but rather inhibits new construction at low densities. Justin makes an interesting argument of the availability and accessibility of rental housing in the nationwide housing market.
In addition, O'Toole does not effectively make the transition from discussing specific communities to talking about national trends as a whole. Lastly, as mentioned by earlier bloggers, even if you were to be convinced by O'Toole's argument, it does little to acknowledge other urban quality of life indicators. Or in other words, O'Toole fails to address how a so-called "stable" housing like Houston appears in the urban landscape.

While I believe O'Toole negates any consideration that growth management strategies preserve and consider a much larger portion of concern for society than just housing, I believe his beliefs are based in economics and market cycles. Yes, it is true if you restrict housing with growth boundaries you can artificially inflate housing prices. I believe irresponsible lenders are more to blame for the housing crisis and their lack of knowledge considering market volatility. If one is ill prepared for market cycles they can lose a lot of money. If one gains their wealth in an increasing bull market they will likely overextend their finances and hit hard in a bear market. Housing is typically the largest investment an average family makes and can explain why so many are finding themselves in financial crisis recently.

The overarching purpose of growth boundaries will ideally create a more sustainable future, therefore if we have contributed slightly to the housing crisis currently, I personally think its a loss worth taking. I do not however believe that planners are the primary cause of the housing crisis, and doubt quantifiable evidence that could prove otherwise.


There are a number of arguments about who caused the housing crises. One argument is that states with growth management plans lead to a supply shortage of housing. The argument is that a supply shortage, that is not a lack of housing supply, but restrictive land use regulations that force density development, which drives up home prices to “unsustainable levels” (O’Toole 2009). States that lacked growth management have reported increases home values while growth regulated states have had declines in home values. Others blame the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for causing the crises by risky lending practices and allowing government-chartered mortgage finance firms buy loans that were too affordable to borrowers. HUD acted through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to secure subprime loans to individuals who could not afford to sustain. Worse HUD acted through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to secure additional subprime loans through mortgage backed securities that relied on the stock market to finance the subprime loans. This was a major mistake according to former HUD authorities. According to the Washington Post June 10, 2008, HUD did not use its regulatory power to stop the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae from declaring that the subprime loans were affordable. Millions have lost their homes because they were able to pay the high interest rates on subprime mortgages they really could not afford, when the economy deteriorated, and as credit became nearly frozen.

There are additional theories such as interest rates that were too low among a few others. It appears from my perspective, that the housing crises was not caused by a single policy or entity as some suggest, but a combination of factors, and bad policy from the federal government to local government policies, that generated the crises. In some of the literature it appears that some want to project their own political spin on the issue and blame the problem on a set of single policies, or government agency, be it growth management or HUD subprime loans. I believe that most of the theories do represent part of the cause for the current problem, but I do not think one single policy or agency led to this crisis. It was a combination of factors coming together consisting of poor policies, lack of oversight, speculative real estate, greed and natural oscillations in the macro economic cycle, that led to a crises.

I find it hard to believe the notion that planned growth controls led to the housing bubble. The places hit hardest by the housing bubble burst were places like Phoenix and Florida where growth controls were barely present in a meaningful sense and speculative development ballooned. Much of the reason why housing prices swung so rapidly in areas like California is that the speculative markets drove up housing costs to unrealistic heights, despite there being many excellent reasons for growth controls (environmental protection, water management, etc.).

Housing prices and affordability are not the be all end all of urban planning and design. Other factors are equally important. I feel that O'Toole is looking at the issue somewhat myopically and is not considering that while growth management can drive up prices it usually also adds real value to the communities at the same time by promoting higher density development and protecting open space.

I think the author's argument that growth management policies caused the housing bubble is pretty out there. Not to mention the fact that as Justin said, the author is not attacking other kinds of land use regulation. It seems that any sort of regulation would be bad, given his line of thinking. I also agree with Michelle's point that the sub prime lending practices have a lot more to do with our housing issues than growth management policies.

Brad's point about Arizona not having growth management restrictions and still experiencing severe drops and protracted selling time/foreclosures in housing. Maybe this occurred precisely because of a lack of housing growth management. Housing development in Phoenix has run roughshod over the rare desert green space, paving it over into oblivion. Why would it have been a bad thing to have growth management in these areas, even if it resulted in higher priced housing? Housing in close proximity to rare and irreplaceable natural resources has always yielded higher priced real estate, whether is it lake shore, mountains or desert.

The second thing about Arizona, Phoenix, in particular, is the short-sighted type of housing that was constructed. Plenty of real estate sitting around on the market consists of condos and townhouses in senior citizen restrictive complexes. This is not what baby-boomers are said to be after for retirement (to the degree that WWII retirees desired). Boomers may be headed UP North, or to amenity-rich areas that aren't necessarily in Florida, Arizona or Nevada. Powerful developers are the cause in Arizona, with weak planning and little growth management.

Everyone has already summarized and reiterated again and again the arguments I too have about this far fetched argument of Randal O'Toole. Instead, I would like to add one thing. Clearly this is a complex issue that involves so many externalities that it is ridiculous to lay blame on 1 profession. With that said, I must ask how many of us have at some point blamed the housing crisis solely on those greedy bankers or the overzealous developers or the reckless people who had no business buying homes on their income or credit history?? We now know what it is like to be at the receiving end of the housing crisis blame game. We should all use this ridiculous article as a starting point to a greater understanding of the housing crisis and its true cause before jumping to conclusions and blaming anyone. (……,cue music, “The More You Know…”).

I usually take anything O'Toole says with a grain of salt, considering that he is rather prone to hyperbole and assuming correlation is causation.

He assumes that growth management is the cause of housing bubbles in those markets with them, or at least exacerbated the bubble - but he completely ignores (as others state) the insanity of the real estate market, mortgage industry, federal subsidies to home owners, and all that jazz.

O'Toole also mentions in a more broad sense land-use regulations as the cause of the bubble. Oddly enough, from my experiences talking to developers in the South that the general sense is that big lots = lost money. Take a 100 acre parcel, subdivide it into 1 acre lots = 100 houses sold. Divide it into 1/4 acre lots = 400 houses sold. Their profits are made from the construction of the house, less so from the land.

I doubt it. The housing collapse affects any single-family market that had relatively low value before the housing boom. Which is why many very urbanized areas were affected.

While it appears the author is attempt to attribute coincidence of growth management to the housing collapse, they neglect an important fact. Growth management results from growth in the first place which instigates the need for government control. But this is merely a physical aspect, not the financial part. The same collapse might have happened if rows and rows of townhouses or condo buildings were built.

The primary issue at stake are financial products invented after deregulation. And fault also lies in realty groups who take advantage of people to achieve their scams. At the same time, remember, a mortgage is a contract with the buyer and seller, so people were simply too starry eyed in the 1990s and 2000s to realize what they were getting into. Government is not at the table during closing.

Both owner occupied and vacant number increased as total units increased in the past few years. Perhaps growth management has some sort of effect on housing bubbles since prices bubbled in 16 states which has some kind of growth management, but I think certain policies are still essential. In addition, many things went wrong in the financial sector and our banking system, that might be a factor as well. Lastly, Houston's market actually showed a sign of recovery in the last 12 months according to a report done by Movoto, and the article is on Dallas Business Journal:

http://dallas.bizjournals.com/dallas/prnewswire/press_releases/national/Texas/2009/10/28/SF00309

More raw data on Movoto's website: http://www.movoto.com/statistics/tx/houston.htm

I just started looking into this issue and came upon this thread. I agree poor lending standards and speculation fueled the housing bubble, and I can see why individuals who have an interest in professional planning would be opposed to O'Tolle's research. I do think that if you don't agree with him and if you truly believe that there is no correlation between growth management and the housing bubble then you would need provide some insight into why the areas with growth management have been hardest hit and by the way, according to a report by the Brookings Institute Phoenix is considered "Growth Managed" when compared to the largest 50 metropolitan areas in the United States. http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2006/08metropolitanpolicy_pendall.aspx

The state of Arizona owns the land surrounding the city and it sells at for development at a slower rate then would be demanded by the market.

Growth management and good planning does have plenty of merits, but as a planner you can't ignore what is happening in the marketplace.

I just started looking into this issue and came upon this thread. I agree poor lending standards and speculation fueled the housing bubble, and I can see why individuals who have an interest in professional planning would be opposed to O'Tolle's research. I do think that if you don't agree with him and if you truly believe that there is no correlation between growth management and the housing bubble then you would need provide some insight into why the areas with growth management have been hardest hit and by the way, according to a report by the Brookings Institute Phoenix is considered "Growth Managed" when compared to the largest 50 metropolitan areas in the United States. http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2006/08metropolitanpolicy_pendall.aspx

The state of Arizona owns the land surrounding the city and it sells at for development at a slower rate then would be demanded by the market.

Growth management and good planning does have plenty of merits, but as a planner you can't ignore what is happening in the marketplace.

I just started looking into this issue and came upon this thread. I agree poor lending standards and speculation fueled the housing bubble, and I can see why individuals who have an interest in professional planning would be opposed to O'Tolle's research. I do think that if you don't agree with him and if you truly believe that there is no correlation between growth management and the housing bubble then you would need provide some insight into why the areas with growth management have been hardest hit and by the way, according to a report by the Brookings Institute Phoenix is considered "Growth Managed" when compared to the largest 50 metropolitan areas in the United States. http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2006/08metropolitanpolicy_pendall.aspx

The state of Arizona owns the land surrounding the city and it sells at for development at a slower rate then would be demanded by the market.

Growth management and good planning does have plenty of merits, but as a planner you can't ignore what is happening in the marketplace.

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The Constitution and what it meant were greatly debated in the late 1700s and early 1800s. By the end of the 1800s, while the country enjoyed a great century of (INDIVIDUAL) progress, the discussion of the Constitution died off and Americans started to forget what brought/allowed their own advancements. By 1913 a couple of generations had not actively reviewed, thought of, or discussed our God given rights.

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Apple now has Rhapsody as an app, which is a great start, but it is currently hampered by the inability to store locally on your iPod, and has a dismal 64kbps bit rate. If this changes, then it will somewhat negate this advantage for the Zune, but the 10 songs per month will still be a big plus in Zune Pass' favor.

If you're still on the fence: grab your favorite earphones, head down to a Best Buy and ask to plug them into a Zune then an iPod and see which one sounds better to you, and which interface makes you smile more. Then you'll know which is right for you.

Between me and my husband we've owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I've settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are.

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