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Fire's Over, Back To Building

The Los Angeles Times had an interesting article yesterday noting that new housing developments in fire-prone areas in the hills that surround southern California's metropolitan areas are moving ahead at full speed, including in areas that were actually burned by last month's fires. The question the article raises is, why is so much of the new housing in the region being built in such high-risk areas?

Part of the answer, of course, is that land is scarce and that's where the open space is. But that's not the whole story. As Virginia Postrel noted in an excellent piece in last month's Atlantic, existing urban and suburban areas in southern California have some of the strictest zoning laws in the country--so that even where there is land available for building new housing in areas closer to city centers, it's usually not permitted. As a consequence, it's often the case that fire-prone areas are literally the only land available for new residential construction in southern California.

The obvious solution, of course, is to increase housing density in developed areas, which could certainly be done if zoning laws were changed. It's easy (and often fair) to criticize the current residents who demand restrictive zoning laws, thus ensuring that their homes skyrocket in value. But, again, it's more complicated than that. A few years back I worked in my city councilman's office in San Diego, and a new, high-density housing development had been proposed close to downtown. Not surprisingly, most of the calls I took were from residents strongly opposed the project. A lot of it was bald-faced NIMBYism, but several of the constituents made a valid point: the neighborhood's infrastructure, like in most of southern California, was built with low population density in mind. The new housing development would have made already-crowded roads and schools even more crowded, and nobody was proposing the type of investment in, for example, mass transit that would have helped alleviate those concerns. (And, of course, nobody in California really wants to use mass transit anyway.)

The point is that there's a good deal of path dependency in land-use patterns: it's very hard to transition from low- to high-density cities in the span of a decade or two. Certainly Californians need to start thinking about ways to build more new residences closer to city centers, but that's a long-term project--and the reality is that even if zoning laws and economic incentives weren't artificially stacked in favor of sprawl (as they are now), and the cost of living in the fire-prone suburbs were made to reflect its true social cost, a lot of people would still choose to settle there, because frankly it's an attractive lifestyle. So, for the foreseeable future, living with fire is something Californians will simply have to get used to.

--Josh Patashnik