Picking up on Jerry’s (typically) thoughtful post on the TAB teardown article, what’s the problem we’re trying to solve or avoid? Are we trying to preserve some sort of visual character — set backs, home style, relationship of home size to lot size, home size to other home sizes? Are we trying to preserve or increase affordable housing? Are we trying to maximize homeowner value? For the selling homeowner? For the remaining homeowner?

The demands are in conflict. They are in conflict because of two unchangeable underlying trends.

  1. The population of the Metro Boston area is growing and the demand for housing is increasing.
  2. This demand is increasing the value of the land in Newton.

Prices are going up not for the homes in Newton, but for the right to live on a particular lot. Teardowns are the very evidence. People pay for a lot and home and then go to the expense (non-trivial) of having it turned into an empty lot. The home itself is a negative value.

When the size and quality of the home on a lot is out-of-synch with the value of the land, the incentive to tear down is going to go up. If a family pays a fortune for a lot, they will be able to afford — and will be willing to spend — to build a nicer home on the lot. (A developer is just an intermediary. People willing to spend to buy the land in Newton expect a nice home on it.)

Once you separate the value of the land from the house on it, things clarify. Ultimately, what’s making housing unaffordable in Newton is not the kinds of homes we’re building on lots, but the costs of the underlying lots. And, while restrictive zoning won’t make a a lot truly affordable, zoning that restricts the size of a home can diminish the value of a lot. So, it’s a tax on homeowners.

If we’re going to make housing affordable in Newton, it’s not going to be in single-family, detached homes. That ship has sailed. (More on that in a separate post.) And, the market pressure for larger homes on our expensive land is going to be too great to contain with restrictive zoning.

What we can do is zone for the visual character of our neighborhoods and the quality of the experience in public areas. We don’t need to have garage-dominated house fronts. And, we can ensure that our neighborhoods remain (or become) pleasant places to walk.

So back to my questions. What problem are we trying to solve?

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