rejectomorph (flying_blind) wrote,

Sense Takes a Holiday: Irony Works Overtime.

The beLabor Day weekend is coming up, and already the neighborhood is half abandoned. Everyone who is able to get away heads off to some crowded resort or campground for the last holiday hurrah of summer. The town grows quiet, and the deer wander undisturbed to munch the flowers in unwatched front yards. Yet, off toward the south, I hear the occasional snap of a nail gun. Work has begun on another house in the former field behind the apple orchard. Of the seven lots on the short street that was built there a few years ago, only two remain vacant, and one of those has been fenced. At the beginning of this year, there were two houses on the street, both built last year. By year's end, there will be at least five. For the first dozen years I lived here, the place remained almost unchanged. In the last four years, thirteen new houses have been built in this neighborhood, which adds up to about a five or six percent expansion. There is room for another dozen or so on existing vacant lots. Any further expansion will require more subdivision. Other parts of town have also seen an acceleration of growth.

Part of this explosion (by local standards) of development is the result of policies being followed in the regional metropolis (population, some 80,000) of Chico. A number of years ago, a developer from Sacramento wanted to build a large tract of houses on several hundred acres there. Local activists lobbied to get the number of houses reduced by more than half, and were successful. As a result, the developer pulled out of the project. Since demand for housing, generated by the city's rapidly expanding economy, remained high, local developers stepped in to fill the gap. This had two main results: Chico's economy began to grow even faster, and more development took place outside the city's designated area of influence.

It is not unusual for people who oppose growth to create situations which have exactly the opposite effect from that which they work so hard to achieve. This is the result of their complete ignorance of how a local economy works. Essentially, when a place imports things, rather than producing them for itself, it requires fewer local workers, and thus is more likely to remain small. If the demand for new housing in Chico had been met by the developer from Sacramento, then almost all the work involved, other than the local construction work, would have been done in that city. The design work, the ordering of materials, the financial arrangements, the writing of paychecks, the purchase of office supplies, the making of lunches for the people doing this office work, etc., would all have gone to residents of Sacramento.

When local Chico developers had to do the work, instead, they hired local workers. They worked with local banks and local insurance agents, they bought from local suppliers, and their local employees bought lunch at local restaurants and got drunk at local bars, many of them on the local brew. And one of the long term results of this expansion of local business was that, when the new houses went on sale, there were actually more people in town to buy those houses. Demand for housing, and everything else, increased as a result of what is called a Multiplier Effect. Demand for everything which Chico already produced for itself increased. Furthermore, when a place grows rapidly as a result of replacing imports with locally made equivalents, the market for certain imports expands enough that it becomes large enough to justify local production of those goods and services, as well.

You might say that Billie Holiday is a better economist than the anti-growth activists of Chico. When she sings "Them that's got, shall get," she is summing up an ancient fact of economic life. With cities, as with individuals, the more wealth they have, the easier it becomes to expand that wealth still further.

One more effect of this expansion of Chico's economy, and of the way it came about, is that it begat the place an increase in suburban commuters. Because the anti-growth activists chose to fight the original development proposal by demanding a lowered density, the available land in Chico is filling up more rapidly, the price of land inside the city's green line (beyond which no development is allowed) is rising more rapidly, and more people are moving out to the smaller towns surrounding Chico. Paradise was once a place where the greatest part of the population was retired. They were people who had sold big houses in Los Angeles or San Jose, and moved to smaller houses in this quiet backwater, where the cost per square foot for land was only a fraction of what it was in the major cities. Now, every year brings more commuters from Chico, and higher prices for existing houses. The rising cost of housing in Chico has helped bring us this recent spate of construction. Meanwhile, Chico grows ever more, shall we say, interesting, as its well-to-do citizens move to the costly new houses being built on the mandated large lots at the edge of town, and the old neighborhoods sit poised at the edge of their slide into slumhood, as their population tilts ever farther toward being entirely low income.

One of the activists who was a major influence on the city's growth and development policies was recently the subject of an article in a local weekly newspaper. Displeased with the changes taking place in town, and apparently still blissfully unaware of his contribution to them, he is taking himself off to some small town in the northwest where, as he put it "there's still a chance to do something about controlling growth." If you live in a small town in the northwest, be alert. You may be in for a boom.

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