A Vision for Housing that Should Guide Development: A View from Kootenai County
The battle between a home-ownership society and a renting society is not the only battle. A decent country can save home-ownership, but lose its sense of community.
The following essay is from the recently-launched Kooentai Strong website. It concerns the problem of suburban sprawl, something Idahoans of the Treasure Valley, Magic Valley, and of eastern Idaho share with Kootenai County. How we live is a very primal thing--it shapes who we are and what we think it good just as it reflects who we are and what we think is good.
The effects of the housing crisis are easy to see, especially here in Kootenai County. The median home price is now $660k. “Starter homes” cost more than $400k. But the median household income is $57,242. For a young family buying their first home—let's say $450k on a 3% FHA loan at 5.6%—the monthly payment is about $3,300. That’s nearly 70% of their pre-tax income!
This math doesn’t work at all. When you combine it with crushing inflation and rising interest rates, young families have little hope at all of ever owning a home—the sine qua non of the American Dream.
At the same time, Kootenai County is facing rabid suburbanization and urban sprawl, increased traffic, and a dramatic change of character as we watch farmland disappear into big development projects. No one is happy with this state of affairs, but there’s been no clear vision for an alternative. Halting all development leads to a dying county as the next generation either leaves or becomes a permanently-renting underclass. Yet allowing the current process of rezoning and suburban building is no better. It feels like a lose-lose situation.
A Vision for Kootenai County
Whenever the path forward is unclear, we should consider our principles and then work forward from there. Here are seven conservative principles that should guide our vision for the future of Kootenai County.
First and foremost, we recognize the family as the fundamental unit of society (not the individual). Therefore, we should always ask ourselves, “what’s best for families in our county?” Sometimes we have to make tradeoffs between what’s best from an individual liberty perspective and what’s best from a family-oriented perspective. I suggest we remember that families are more important than individuals and prefer them in our policy. We should make it as easy as possible to form a family and keep it together.
2. Home Ownership
We recognize that the ownership and cultivation of one’s own land is fundamental to our conception of liberty. If we own our land and exercise property rights, we can be free; if we are forced to rent from corporate and globalist inventors, we are slaves. This is not to say that everyone is entitled to land; merely that it should be attainable through hard work for most young families (meaning you can afford it in your twenties, when you actually need it).
3. Organic Growth
Organic growth should be preferred to big development projects. A homeowner expanding or remodeling his home into a duplex is a better kind of growth than a high-rise apartment building. Allowing wide leeway for people to develop and cultivate their own land both respects property rights and leads to a gradual organic growth with smaller increases in density. We should prefer this to large outside investors and developers putting up entire neighborhoods at once in a sea of monotony.
We want strong communities centered around our churches, our neighborhoods, and our cities. We reject the isolation and atomization that increasingly affects modern society. Real face-to-face interactions between the people we live and work alongside are absolutely vital to building any sense of community ties. Our architecture and development should reflect our nature as social beings.
5. Small Business
As conservatives, we recognize that small business is the backbone of America; not large globalist corporations. To this end, we should prefer mom-and-pop restaurants over McDonalds. We should prefer bodegas over WalMart (here's how to do a value per-acre analysis yourself). We should make it as easy as possible to start a small business, especially out of one’s home.
6. Single Income
It should be possible to meet all these goals for families with a single income. Some families will still choose to maintain two incomes, but mothers should not be forced to put their kids in daycare and work all day just to make ends meet. When mothers have the option of staying home, we can build productive households that enrich our lives through homeschooling, gardening, domestic crafts, and part-time businesses. Although we use the term “stay at home moms,” these women actually form a vital part of a local productive economy.
Subsidiarity is the principle that problems should be solved on the smallest level that’s reasonable—for example, the federal government should not be involved in things that states can do themselves. It also orders our responsibilities into a set or concentric circles. For example, first and foremost, I’m responsible for my own relationship with Jesus and being the kind of man that I ought. Then, I’m responsible for my family. Then my church community, my city, my county, my state, my country, etc. I have some responsibility to people of other countries, but it’s much more remote than my responsibility to my neighbors, which ought to come first.
Applying this principle to our county, we should recognize that the good of the residents of Kootenai County should always come before the good of tourists, visitors, or far-off investors. This is important when we consider things like access to city parks and how many vacation rentals we should have.
Why Suburbia Doesn't Align With Our Principles
Do the current building patterns in Kootenai County align with these seven conservative principles that should be guiding development? Let’s take a look.
Isolation Versus Community
Here’s a typical suburban house:
A typical suburban house
The first and most obvious problem is isolation. This is apparent from the aesthetics and layout. This house has a snout—the garage sticking out takes up most of the frontage, completely overshadowing the front door, which ought to be the focus (classic McMansion mistake). When you come home to a house like this, you typically drive right into the garage without ever leaving your car.
There’s no front porch and, with a large setback from the road, casual conversation with neighbors is rare and awkward. You could live here for years and never say more than two words to your neighbors. This doesn’t support our value of community! This is social atomization.
What would be a more community-oriented design?
Slide the house left to the edge of the property line so there’s space for the driveway to wrap around the right side. Side setbacks currently make this illegal.
Now that you don’t need driveway space in front, pull the house forward near the sidewalk and add a front porch that visually frames the front door. This removes the snout and puts you in conversation range of neighbors on the sidewalk. It also moves lawn space to your backyard where it’s more useful—the HOA doesn’t care so much about what you do back there and now you have enough contiguous space to play catch with your kids.
While we’re at it, we might as well reduce the space between the sidewalk and the road, which is primarily there because developers have to meet green space and setback minimums. This would be much more valuable as part of your backyard than the awkward no man’s land that it is.
What has this accomplished? Distance between houses is still the same, usable yard space is increased, the front facade looks much better, and you can have real spontaneous conversations with your neighbors. This is a boon for community formation.
Community Is Where You Are
Another issue with forming communities is who owns the homes. Who has skin in the game. Who wants to make the neighborhood nicer to live in. Who lives there all the time versus just in the summer.
This may be the biggest factor making housing unaffordable in our county. BlackRock, for example, manages over $10 trillion in assets and has been pouring money into real estate. There are many more just like them, and houses in our county are being bought up and turned into rentals. If we don’t stop this, we will absolutely become a nation of permanent renters and it will destroy Kootenai County too. We should pass laws that push back against these big corporations and ensure that our children can afford to live here.
We also have many homes here turned into permanent vacations rentals on Airbnb or VRBO. Having some is good, but we’re way past that. Vacation rentals put foreigners above county residents (violating our principle of subsidiarity) and don’t contribute to building community (violating that principle too). We should limit short-term rentals in the county to ensure we have enough housing for our own families to live in. Our own residents come first. Big Development Growth
classic suburban sprawl, by David Shankbone
Now let’s zoom out a bit. The first thing you’ll see is that every house is almost identical. Not only is this soul-crushingly boring, it’s also a feature of communist architecture used purposefully to suppress the individual spirit. This is largely a result of big developers coming in with only a few approved designs that are as similar as possible in order to build more cheaply. This type of growth is top-down and forced, and doesn’t fit with our principle of gradual organic growth.
Generally speaking, the bigger a company is the more power it has and the less it cares about the local community. Big developers are no different. They like making high-rise apartment buildings and sprawling suburbs because these are (relatively) easy ways to make a quick buck with a minimum of effort. I don’t necessarily blame them; they’re making money and not doing anything illegal. But they don’t have to maintain all the new infrastructure required to support the development. They don’t care whether it exacerbates traffic or overtaxes the aquifer. In fact, these problems could be opportunities for them to make more money. And when it’s no longer profitable to build here, they’ll build somewhere else.
We should prefer small developers who are more invested in the community. We should think carefully about what kind of development would actually benefit the community. There’s clearly a housing shortage and we need more housing, but it has to be in accordance with our principles. Suburban sprawl is not what we want—so let’s exercise legal control through zoning reform and design review to make sure we’re getting good development and not merely cheap and easy development.
What’s near a suburban house? Only other houses. There’s nothing interesting near you. You might have a playground within stroller distance, but it’s probably empty and too hot in the summer because of the tiny ornamental trees. Where do you go to relax and hang out? What will your kids do when they’re old enough to start exploring on their own? If you want to do anything, you have to get the kids in the car (no small feat when you have several) and sit in traffic because everyone has to travel the same stroads to distant parking lots. All because you live in a proverbial desert—nothing interesting nearby. Nothing walkable. This is an artificially sterile environment forced by top-down design and big developers. It doesn’t fit with our principles of family and small business.
In traditional neighborhoods, people live, work, and play all in the same place. There’s a barber shop on the corner. A coffee shop and bookstore on the same street where people actually live. Public squares with live music. Maybe even a bus line so young teenagers can do things on their own before they can drive. Rather than playing video games all day, kids have interesting places to go without needing mom to drive and arrange playdates. This free exploration is a vital part of a good childhood, and many from older generations remember it fondly. And yet we deprive our own kids of these formational experiences by the kinds of developer-focus housing we allow and where we choose to live.
If you look at this zoning map, the problem is obvious. Commercial activity (in red) can only be along two corridors. If you want to do anything, you have to get in the car, drive on the same road as everyone else to get to the same highway as everyone else to get to the same commercial corridor as everyone else. This means traffic, which requires large parking lots and wide roads, which in turn means you can’t walk between stores. Malls used to be popular because they brought back the experience of visiting a variety of stores in a walkable area (before they were killed by online shopping and the monotony of seeing the same boring franchises in every mall, anyway).
Our own building codes and zoning laws prevent the good kind of organic conservative ground-up density that supports families and small business. We wouldn’t need top-down development plans foisted upon us if we could just have the freedom to make incremental changes ourselves—whether that’s running a garage-based business, adding an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) for a mother-in-law, or remodeling into a duplex. (Read: America Needs to Build Strong Towns, Not More Infrastructure.)
The design review process we require for new development is also an obstacle. It’s well-intentioned; we should make sure new development is beneficial to the community. However it can be a big regulatory burden that eliminates small developers. The design review process can be 10% of the developer’s budget, adding overhead that only big developers can afford. Streamlining this process would enable smaller development projects from smaller developers, which aligns with our principles.
The current development model, in which everyone lives in one place and works and shops in another, connected by a single traffic-jammed road does not work—just look at the 2-hour-long commutes in California. If we want to solve traffic problems and allow people to live in interesting places, we need to allow small commercial storefronts in residential areas. If we loosen zoning regulations and allow organic growth and property rights a larger seat at the table, we’ll see a slow return to this more human-scale pattern. And it will alleviate our traffic problems because not everyone will need to go to the same places at the same time. This more free distributed layout fits much better with our principles of small business and organic growth.
It’s an appealing vision. Wouldn’t it be nice if your neighborhood had an ice cream store, a coffee shop, a barber, a gym, a coworking space, and a convenience store all within a short walk from your house? Your place would have a sense of identity. You might actually start to like your neighborhood and befriend your neighbors!
Now that we can see how suburban sprawl undermines our principles, what do we build instead? What would conservative density look like? Here are some ideas:
Beauty. This is perhaps more important than anything else. There’s a great quote from Edmund Burke: to make us love our county, our country ought to be lovely. We must reject ugly Communist architecture and build beautiful things and beautiful places to live. High-rise apartment buildings are usually ugly density. Old Italian villages centered around a cathedral are beautiful density.
Ownership. Although a few apartment buildings are necessary to provide options, most housing should be ownable—even at higher density. Whether the housing units share walls or not, we could require them to be individually sold.
Public squares and community spaces. As Americans, we have a rich cultural inheritance, drawing from many different countries. Yet we risk losing our traditions as our culture becomes more materialist and consumerist. Rather than acquiring things and consuming culture, we need a focus on producing culture. This means having public squares that always have something going on: good food, live music, farmer’s markets, craft fairs, etc.
Reducing regulations. It’s currently illegal to build many types of housing due to laws regulating minimum square footage, large required setbacks, number of closets, and the restrictions on ADUs and duplexes. These are all restrictions on individual property rights that enforce conformity without a clear justification. We should greatly relax these regulations so that people can make their own decisions about what kind of house they want without government interference.
Entrepreneurship. We should allow (and even promote!) home-based businesses. If my wife and teenage kids have a passion for baking, I should be allowed to turn my garage into a little bakery. If a barber wants to cut hair downstairs and live upstairs so that he has no commune and one mortgage instead of two, we should allow it. Residential zoning prevents this kind of American entrepreneurship in favor of big corporations who get sweetheart deals for building shopping centers in Urban Renewal Districts.
Aren’t these cottages more beautiful than suburban sprawl?
Let’s think intentionally about how we’d like our county to grow and develop. What should Kootenai County look like in 10 years? In 50 years? Let’s adopt solid principles and strategies for growth. Let’s embrace incremental and organic change. Let’s make Kootenai strong!