Featured image: Looking over Hood River and towards Mt. Hood, just because. Source.
With media attention to urban issues often focused obsessively on the coasts and major cities, there’s a crying need for a little bit more varied texture in our discussions of planning and urbanism. People like Pete Saunders and Jason Segedy have done important work showing how needs and paradigms differ in a Midwestern/Rust Belt context. And indeed, it’s important to learn from the Rust Belt, since the geography of demand and capital in most American cities looks far more like its cities than those of the coasts. But there’s another, underappreciated set of towns whose experience of housing policy and planning may actually more closely parallel that of the coasts: those towns that are smaller, but are closely associated with a college or resort, and consequently experience a high level of demand and high prices–and as such need solutions similar to those of the much larger cities.
If you follow me on Twitter you know I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I was inspired to finally write about it by the appearance of two items in close proximity. The first was posted by my dad’s cousin Lisa Perry, who with her mom runs Cody Orchards in Oregon’s Hood River Valley (my dad’s family’s ancestral homeland, a gorgeous place to visit, and some of the most fertile fruit-growing land in the world). Titled “The Next Aspen” and posted by a local activist group, this flyer calls citizens to action over increasing housing prices driven in part by the increasing presence of second homes and AirBnB-style part-time rentals in the Hood River Valley. The flyer cites a median listed home price of $533,000, which–to my admittedly-not-a-realtor eye–seems shockingly high for a rural area.
The other article is from the current Aspen, the high-end ski resort in Colorado. Written by Aspen Ski Co. VP of Sustainability Auden Schendler, it takes a fairly standard YIMBY approach to ameliorating Aspen’s notoriously severe housing crunch–a situation so bad that the local transit agency recently initiated a 43-mile BRT-lite service to move commuters around. It’s worth quoting at length:
This worldview is widespread. Mountain communities are often run by environmentalists from 40 years ago whose thinking has not kept abreast of the development in their hometowns. They champion stasis over change, open space over density, and consider development evil. They hate crowds—even though crowds are the foundation of the entire resort economy. “The only thing they hate more than sprawl,” an architect told me, “is density.”
Parts of Aspen look like they did decades ago, with Victorian houses and big, lovely parks. There are, however, no people in those houses (often second, third, or fourth homes), and a long line of traffic every morning and evening as people forced to live downvalley, where real estate is cheaper, end up commuting 20, 30, and even 50 miles to work.
There’s nothing environmental-friendly about any of this. The long commute creates pollution. It blocks guests from the ski hill. It wears out the road. It’s the exact antithesis of all the ideas Aspen was founded on—about renewal and escaping from the world.
Aspen is perhaps the single most extreme example, but we can see here the ways in which towns that are small in terms of population, but have high demand for housing, can mirror the problems of big cities in a way that most of the nation’s midsize cities don’t. Indeed, as Aspen shows the problems in small towns can often be, though on a smaller absolute scale, even more severe on a per-person basis, as poorer citizens are displaced to entirely different towns, which in rural areas may be miles away and entirely lack suitable housing or transit.
The same is often true in college towns. The blog Walkable Princeton and the (sadly silent right now) Twitter account Central NJ YIMBY by one of its authors have chronicled the dearth of affordable housing and walkability in that Ivy League town. I’ve spent a lot of time in Massachusetts’ college-heavy Pioneer Valley, and particularly Northampton and Amherst, both of which are fairly expensive by rural/small-town standards–and lack sufficient housing for their student and young-adult populations.
As with resort towns, college towns are often dominated politically by aging ex-hippies and Boomers who consider themselves environmentalists, but feel ambivalently at best about the popular demand that underlies their town’s economic success. David Roberts’ recent piece in Vox about the difference between environmentalists and climate hawks is perhaps one of the best–although not the only–lenses onto the political dynamic that drives (non)-development decisions in both resort and college towns. College towns suffer from the additional complication of much housing demand being driven by students, who are (with perhaps some justification) generally considered an undesirable class to live near and preemptively zoned out. It was, after all, conflict between “townies” and students that yielded Belle Terre v. Boraas, one of the Supreme Court cases that allows towns to most restrict housing flexibility. College-town homeowners have even been known to speak about student housing with language reminiscent of racial blockbusting:
Smaller towns do present YIMBYs with the challenge of accepting that certain things we (correctly, in my opinion) dismiss as distractions from the housing debate in larger cities do in fact have outsize impacts in some smaller towns. Part-time occupation and the outsize presence of second (and third, and fourth) homes in high-demand small towns and rural areas really do have a huge impact on the local market. I’d argue that you do have to be more careful with development than I’d argue for a big-city context. For some of these towns–particularly resort towns–it’s the existing built environment and character that form a large part of their appeal, and therefore their economic bottom line. There’s no shortage of potentially cute small towns out there in America; there’s always going to be stiff competition for success, and it’s reasonable for leaders to be wary of ceding their core competencies in the face of stiff competition.
Those items aside, the high-demand small-town dynamic in some ways parallels–and can learn from, and inform–the big-city experience more than that of most of Middle America. As such, the solutions to the crisis confronting some of these towns probably parallel big-city solutions as well: a simple willingness to grow and include the people who want to be there as well as old-timers, an emphasis on walkability and a few select transit corridors so that growth can scale without corresponding increases in traffic, and selective application of regulation and mandates like incentive zoning and social housing. Indeed, given the very manageable scale of need in smaller towns, it’s probably not unfair to think of these towns as laboratories for proving the efficacy of YIMBY policies that can then be scaled to apply to larger areas.
The core principles of a growth-accepting worldview still apply. There are almost always corridors where growth can happen without impacting the touristy areas. For Northampton-Amherst, those would be the Route 9 corridor connecting the two towns, with its relatively robust transit and high-quality rail trail:
And the north-south Route 5 corridor in Northampton, much of which was previously railyards and has been developed not as the dense housing that’s needed but as pedestrian-hostile big-box retail.
Smaller towns also present the possibility of the strong alliance between farming/conservation interests and YIMBYs/Smart Growthers that should exist nationally. Dense development close to the core of town ought to absorb sufficient demand to slow or stop the farmland-eating process of sprawl–a process that, as in Hood River, not only threatens the environment but drives up costs for farmers, making a difficult business even harder. This alliance can’t function, though, if core development priorities continue to be set by people with a no-growth agenda; and the result is that farmland continues to be eaten up by sprawl (the same goes, to a lesser extent, for conservation of open land in non-farming areas). Technical tools like a regional Transfer of Development Rights program could help facilitate this alliance, but face several challenges: they are highly complex and unintuitive; are often only legally authorized to follow municipal boundaries, when a rural environment demands a regional strategy (this is true in New York State, where the Hudson Valley would really benefit from such a program); and above all require a willingness for somewhere in the core to accept actual growth.
Northampton isn’t Boston and Hood River isn’t Portland (duh). But if the goal is creating sustainable policy that can meet the needs of today while also nurturing future generations (a particular concern in college towns, I suppose), these smaller towns have in some ways failed nearly as badly as our big cities have. And it’s important not only to recognize those failures as an opportunity (which they are!) but to understand that they are the product of particular choices made by particular people at particular times. The core insight of YIMBYism–its simple power–is the insight that none of this was inevitable. Big-city activists can learn from smaller towns confronting similar issues–and the smaller towns from their big siblings.