The Planning of the Planning Commission’s Subcommittee

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

Whitewater’s Planning Commission Subcommittee on Housing recently met on 1.17.18. They had single-family homes and rental properties on their minds.  (The discussion is embedded below, and the city’s file is online.)

One could have had this same housing discussion ten or fifteen years ago, and yet, and yet – here we are, ten or fifteen years later. A wider perspective might help.

In the photograph above of two dogs, one is small and the other is large.

A question for Whitewater’s planners:

Is the small dog too small, or the large dog too large?

In any normal understanding of dogs, the answer would be no, of course not: the chihuahua is the right size for a chihuahua, and the Great Dane is the right size for a Great Dane.

For Old Whitewater (a traditional frame of mind), with the small dog representing existing single-family housing, and the large dog representing rental housing, the answer is yes, on both counts: the small dog of single-family housing is too small,  and the large dog of rental housing is too big.

So something has to be done about it – marketing for single-family buyers, moratoriums against renters, money for single-family homebuilders, blandishments for single-family homeowners, warnings against renters, etc… (Truly, in their telling, it’s more like SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE ABOUT IT!!!)

Dog Sizes. There’s nothing wrong with the natural size of either dog in the photo above. Stuffing the little one with treats won’t make it a healthy, big dog. Starving the big one won’t make it a healthy, small dog. That one overshadows the other does not make either unnaturally sized.

The Area Nearby as a Constraint. One could reasonably contend that some dog breeds have particular, natural sizes, but by contrast there’s no natural (inevitable) size for the number of single-family homes or rental properties. That’s right only generally, until one considers that there are constraints against some outcomes.

In a place with no campus, like nearby Fort Atkinson, there is less need for rental housing. The housing demand there understandably meets a proportionately greater single-family need. Whitewater has a greater need for rental properties because she has a campus, of course.

Nevertheless, couldn’t Whitewater simply expand the number of single-family homes?

True enough, different proportions are possible in a city, but yet there are still comparative and competitive environmental pressures that set those sizes. These pressures come from cities nearby. When college-town Whitewater tries to entice single-family homes into her college-town market, she’s competing against nearby cities that excel as single-family markets.

The whole area’s demand – not just Whitewater’s – sets a limit on how individual towns develop. Doing everything planners can imagine won’t make the chihuahua into a giant or the Great Dane into a toy breed.

Rather than develop Whitewater’s comparative advantage as a college town, Old Whitewater wants to be a single-family bedroom community, too: these small-town officials want to be both a college town and a non-college town at the same time.

Markets don’t work that way.

Markets, Deceptively Defined.  Single-family home advocates complain that properties are bought and sold as rentals too quickly, without a chance to reach the market for single-family buyers.

No, and no again: when private buyers and sellers purchase properties, that is a market transaction. It’s just a semantic trick to say that the only market transactions are ones that appear on an MLS somewhere, thereafter sitting for months, until a seller wastes his or her time long enough to satisfy these planners, and then has their permission find a rental buyer.

Clever’s Not Enough. One can readily concede that the principal officials & speakers at the 1.17.18 meeting – Munz-Pritchard, Meyer, Zaballos, Crone, and Knight – are all clever people. Here, one is straightforward – intelligence isn’t in question.

For it all, it doesn’t matter – no amount of clever will be enough to overturn the area market’s allocation of resources. Some towns will be proportionately single-family areas, others college-town rental markets. Each has a specialization, and comparative advantage of its own.

There’s not enough word-play in the world (sly misuse of the word market, rhyming variations on another speaker’s words) to carry the day against the regional demand of thousands of buyers and sellers.

A Minority of a Minority.  A majority of Whitewater’s residents are college students, and of the remaining minority, there are different communities by age, race, ethnicity, and outlook. (To my mind, there’s great beauty and opportunity in this diversity.) When these planners tell the ‘community’ what ‘Whitewater’ wants, they’re speaking as a minority of a minority, however erroneously they may hold the conviction of speaking for all, or even for many.

They and I have this in common, if little else: not one of us is of Whitewater’s largest demographic.

They’ll not comfortably admit as much; I just did. Then again, this is one author’s website of independent commentary – there’s no claim to represent one faction or another, let alone any exaggeration of the importance one’s own cohort.