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Monday, August 09, 2004

American Dream=American Nightmare

In my opinion, the misuse of one of our most precious resources, land, is one of the greatest crimes in American history. The combination of rampant largely unregulated capitalism with fragmented, overlapping, competing and usually-bought-off governments has given us the atrocious mess that is the modern American landscape. Those with enough money can afford to get what they've been conditioned to want: a big house on a big lot and a four-car garage which protects the beasts which connect their owner to civilization. They may have to drive an hour each way to work, and drive their kids everywhere, and they'll have to sell the McMansion when they get too old to drive, but hey, they're living the American dream! Those without the money for this nonsense still have to live with the effects: Lots of traffic, noise and pollution, and a lack of affordable housing close to work.

The Washington Post ran the second of a three-part series on DC-area sprawl today. The first article, yesterday, described how some communities, like Montgomery County in Maryland, are explicitly trying to add jobs without adding housing, because the county makes money off of commercial real estate taxes, but loses revenue on housing.From the article:
[A]s a Montgomery County booklet puts it: Creating workplaces faster than homes is "the economic development strategy yielding the greatest long-term net fiscal benefits."
The debate in Montgomery County highlights the political problems. One politician sees his job in broader terms, reflecting not just the interests of current constituents but future ones as well:
Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who voted against the strategy, called the new policy "indefensible."

"It exacerbates two of the most serious problems in Montgomery County: traffic congestion and housing affordability," he said.
But another pol sees no obligation to the rest of the area or the future:
County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who supports the policy, acknowledged that "we have a regional housing shortage because of hurdles put up by local governments."

But, he said: "I get elected to represent the people of Montgomery County, not the region. I support broadening the tax base."
The result of all this stupidity, of course, is sprawl.

The graphic shows in red the parts of the greater DC area which were developed between 1986 and 2000. (A zoomable version of the map is available here.) In the upper left is West Virginia, parts of which are now being developed for American Dreamers willing to drive an hour and a half each way to work. From today's Post article:
According to statistics provided by the developer on the first 100 home buyers, only one will work in West Virginia. Of the others, 72 will work in suburban Virginia, 13 in Maryland and five in Washington. The rest identified themselves as self-employed or retired.
A social conscience doesn't seem to enter into the equation for American Dreamers:
"I'm going to be refreshing my Italian with some CDs during the drive," said Eugene Marino, an archaeologist who gets on the road at 5 most weekday mornings for a voyage from Charles Town to Arlington that takes an hour and 15 minutes each way. "It's not that bad. We wanted to have a nice place that we could afford -- so here we are."
Amy Schmitt, a Huntfield resident, gestures from a lawn chair on the wooden deck of her home. "It's nice out here -- look," she said.

The drawback is that her husband must commute to Reston and Sterling.

"People say, 'You moved where?' But when they come, they're pretty impressed," she said. "Why would I pay more when I can drive 30 minutes more and get something like this?"
Well, Amy, when oil hits $100 a barrel, maybe you'll find out. Your West Virginia dreamhouse will be an anchor on your finances for years to come. And Eugene's Italian may come in handy when he decides to start commuting from Naples in a few years. ("It's not that bad. We wanted to have a nice place that we could afford -- so here we are.") Sorry if my anticipatory schadenfreude isn't adequately concealed here!