Friday, March 19, 2004 
Opinion, The Chronicle Herald

Irrational rationing of home construction

By Wendell Cox

THE Halifax Regional Municipality freeze on new large-scale housing construction outside the serviced area could not be more inappropriate. Unlike just about everywhere else in Atlantic Canada, Halifax is growing, though at a rate slightly below the average of the top 20 Census Metropolitan Areas.

The moratorium could put an end to even that modest growth. Worse, it could hobble regional economic growth and the quality of life of households that do not yet own their own homes.

Home ownership is key to the economic stability of households. As homes appreciate, they provide income that can be used to send the kids to college, to start new businesses and to finance better retirements. Virtually all economists agree that rationing raises prices, and certainly the moratorium is a form of rationing. The higher prices that will result could bar aspiring households from owning their own homes.

For what reason? There is no shortage of land. Urban development consumes less than five per cent of the HRM land area. Urbanization poses no threat to agriculture. All of the urbanization in Nova Scotia represents three per cent of the historical maximum of agricultural land. Indeed, more than 80 per cent of Nova Scotia’s agricultural land has been taken out of production over the past century as production has switched to other parts of the country.

It cannot be that Halifax sprawls too much. Halifax is by far the densest urban area in the province, approximately double the average density of other urban areas. Only tiny McEwan, N.B. is more dense than Halifax among the 116 urban areas in Atlantic provinces.

Maybe HRM officials believe the old saw about how low-density development on the fringe of Halifax does not “pay its own way.” Where is the comprehensive and detailed study that proves it beyond the shadow of doctrinal doubt? Perhaps it is that the current and developing land use pattern of Halifax is offensive to HRM’s planners, who may value the urban equivalent of an unlived-in living room more than a prosperous and fulfilling life for up and coming households?

All in all, it appears HRM has its priorities mixed up. The moratorium is good neither for the people of Halifax nor for HRM itself. HRM is about ready to learn a fundamental principle of human behaviour – that it is a lot easier for governments to tell people what they cannot do than it is to force people to do what government wants. Indeed, the land-use trends that have developed in the last decade should have already taught HRM that lesson.

The moratorium is unlikely to spur development in the serviced area. On the contrary, it is likely to force development even further out – to Hants County, to Lunenburg County or even to Moncton, which doesn’t seem to share HRM’s passion for “shooting itself in its foot.” If people cannot find or afford the housing they want in Halifax, they will go elsewhere.

Attempts to force infill development and to stop sprawl have routinely produced the opposite result. The urban growth boundaries and capital charges implemented in the San Francisco Bay area have driven new households more than 100 kilometres away to new housing in the San Joaquin Valley. Urban development’s “Nirvana,” Portland, Ore., has seen much of its growth transferred across the state line to Washington, beyond the “iron fist” of the planners. The result is a significant retreat, as Portland’s planners are now looking at a massive expansion of land for commercial development. They had already given up on a stingy urban growth boundary for 2040 nearly 40 years early.

Halifax should learn from these failures. Halifax is an attractive, affordable and livable community and it should become even moreso in the future. Many households are not yet participating to the degree that they could if they owned their own homes. It is simply wrong for HRM to undertake any policy that promises to reduce the economic well-being of its citizens. This is precisely what HRM would do by extending the moratorium that will surely raise the price of housing. Haligonians deserve better.

Wendell Cox is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, an international demographics and transport firm headquartered in metropolitan St. Louis. Mr. Cox also serves as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris.