Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 28, 2008
POLITICS: Mitt Romney vs. the Suburbs?

mitthouse.jpg

The Hartford Courant's endorsement of Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination starts off on an odd note:

The Republican governor led the fight to control sprawl and bring more affordable housing to the Bay State with groundbreaking laws and a dramatic reorganization of state agencies. In 2003, he combined transportation, housing, environmental and energy agencies into a super-agency, charged it with stopping runaway suburban growth, then appointed a Democrat environmentalist to run it. By comparison, Connecticut is still nibbling around the edges of smart growth.

There's a story behind this, and it's not one that should warm the hearts of suburban voters who play a crucial role in the GOP's coalition in November.

"Smart growth" is a euphemism for a social-engineering movement to stop suburban "sprawl," i.e., the traffic and other problems caused by having housing spread out far away from workplaces and mass transit hubs. As a candidate for Governor in 2002, Romney asserted that "Sprawl is the most important quality of life issue facing Massachusetts." On the surface, concerns about sprawl seem reasonable enough, and advocates of smart growth, Romney included, have argued that this is less about government vs the free market than about how to direct government decisionmaking, including local zoning, that affects housing and other infrastructure patterns. As Romney said in 2004:

To keep Massachusetts economically competitive and to improve our quality of life, it is important to coordinate state resources and implement new policies which encourage sustainable development, especially around town centers where existing infrastructure is already in place.

At the same time, it does not take too much time listening to opponents of sprawl to detect antagonism to the whole suburban way of life - detatched houses, big cars, middle- and upper-middle-class communities. Republicans should throw their lot in with such groups with great caution. The head of Romney's "smart growth" program and one of Romney's first appointments was Douglas Foy, as described by the Boston Globe:

For 25 years Foy was president of the Conservation Law Foundation, a powerful regional environmental group, and observers saw his appointment as Romney's attempt to ''green" his administration. Industry groups were fearful he would push an anti-automobile agenda. Environmental groups were happy to have influence.

And

As president of the Conservation Law Foundation for 25 years, Foy was the hardball lawyer-advocate who coaxed and threatened politicians into following or advancing environmental law, sometimes halting projects, such as oil drilling off Georges Bank, and sometimes even spurring massive projects, such as the cleanup of the Boston Harbor.

While the Globe notes that "Foy turned out to be a lot harder to predict" in office, he and Romney never seemed to have stopped seeing eye to eye on the "smart growth" initiative, and Deval Patrick's administration has carried on with a number of Romney's smart-growth initiatives.

There's no question that Romney made the "smart growth" initiative a major priority. In 2006 he announced a half billion dollar spending program of loans to localities who agreed to go along with the state program, stating that "I think this is going to be the most lasting, visual effect of this administration, perhaps, that we can imagine". A 2004 initiative involved $100 million for the construction of "mixed" (i.e., partially "affordable"/low income) housing. As one observer noted

"They did put it on the map," said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which works for smart growth. "This is really the first time in my recollection of working in politics in Massachusetts that an administration put smart growth front and center as an objective."

So what's the problem? Well, consider the objections from affected suburban localities, and you can see the threat Romney's initiative posed for the very nature of suburban communities:

Officials in about a dozen of the Commonwealth's 351 cities and towns say they are interested in the program, in which the state provides cash for zoning changes that allow dense development in town centers or near transit stations. At least 20 percent of housing built in such "smart growth districts" must be affordable.

Among local leaders' concerns is the lack of money to offset school costs to handle new children in that housing, a provision removed by former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran earlier this year. Towns also say the districts require too much density, especially in suburban areas.

+++

Boston, Somerville, Chelsea, Quincy, Newton, Natick, Weymouth, Watertown, Lowell, Grafton, Charlton, Williamstown, and Pittsfield have shown interest in signing up for the program when it becomes available in February.

But many communities are saying no thanks, including Kingston, Dennis, Sandwich, Acton, Braintree, and Hopkinton. Several more are on the fence. The most common concern cited in interviews with town planners and in the Metropolitan Area Planning Council report was the lack of permanent new funding for additional schoolchildren, expected as families fill the housing units. Another concern was the requirement for dense development, which was often described as especially out of character with suburban communities. Local leaders also balked at details such as a provision that towns return money if the housing is not built, and they were wary of the new streamlined approval process.

"I have a real problem with the mandated densities for any community over 10,000 in population," said Kathleen B. Bartolini, director of planning and economic development for Framingham. "I also believe in home rule and do not think we need to give [the state] another layer of review and approval over our zoning. I believe in density and general housing production to help decrease housing costs -- supply and demand -- but this is too superficial to work well as a land-use tool."

Many analysts have noted the crucial role suburbanites and exurbanites in fast-growing communities played for the GOP in 2004, and the losses Republicans suffered among those groups in 2006. Those voters may not see a lot to like in Romney's record on suburban issues.

SOURCES: More here and here.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:34 PM | Politics 2008 | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

I live in the Massachusetts suburbs, and support Mitt's candidacy, though I've appreciated your reasonable critiques of him and his potential as a candidate. (I thought I should state my own bias up front.)

I'm not sure suburbanites need fear these particular policies. The individual towns in the suburbs around Boston wield a tremendous amount of power by their zoning rules. These towns have long established community "personalities" in terms of housing density as well as economic demographics. They have very little incentive to change those traits by allowing more dense housing/affordable housing. But the fact that few/none of them make this change leaves the state with a growing housing problem -- low supply and high demand of near-cit housing leading to greater sprawl. Thus towns farther and farther from Boston become part of the greater Boston area despite lacking the infrastructure to lead to a good commute.

The plan Romney laid out was a very reasonable economic ploy -- try to change the incentive structure to encourage the individual towns to make zoning changes to ease the statewide sprawl problem. In essence, the state provided funding that towns could opt into.

The fact that some towns were interested and others not troubles me not at all. In essence, the new incentive structure was sufficient to overcome some communities' concerns while others declined. You can quibble with the discussion of funding levels/school funding etc. But the state needed (needs) more housing close to Boston and the transportation hubs, and created a reasonable set of incentives to approach that goal. There was no mandate to try to destroy the suburban way of life.

Posted by: Drew at January 28, 2008 2:12 PM

Per usual, Mitt can have it both ways. He did propose all of these ideas (i happen to agree with most of them; why use up our precious open space like its just another plastic item we pick up at Wal Mart); BUT Mitt accomplished none of these goals. So if you're against them, he'll tell you all about how sprawl continued unabated during his tenure as governor.

Posted by: Patrick at January 28, 2008 10:21 PM

Ditto drew. Have lived in the suburbs and Boston proper my whole life, including my time at a great school Boston College (that should anger Crank if he shares his buddy BSG's biases :)

Seriously the Romney plan was better than for example, the anti-snob zoning laws that were the dominant force in development. Generally I'd prefer the state to have no say, but the reality of snob zoning, was any developer could jam in development in most suburbs in metro west (and I'm sure north and south of the city) anyways. It happens in my home town all the time.

Posted by: Brendan at January 28, 2008 10:24 PM

Mitt as usual has done a brilliant sales job. the suburbanites here say it didn't do much and served to increase housing supply; the folks like the Courant think it put the kibosh on tract housing in exurbia

Posted by: Ironman at January 29, 2008 6:39 AM

Ironman,

Sorry Mitt didn't sell me on anything. I never even knew (or forgot) about this law or his campaign on it. Weird huh? It was such a huge deal.

There is a serious zoning problem that lets the state and developers push exemptions to the local zoning laws on communities, called "Anti Snob Zoning" - outside of changing that, everyhting else happens at the margins IMO on this issue.

B

Posted by: Brendan at January 29, 2008 8:43 PM
Site Meter 250wde_2004WeblogAwards_BestSports.jpg