No Place Like Home: federal stress test for land use, not just banks

(Counterpunch) Eonomists agree that the collapse in housing markets in the United States plunged world economies into the worst crisis since the 1930’s. A revival of housing markets and new construction is one of the anticipated signs of recovery. In the meantime, the US taxpayer is on the hook for trillions of dollars of debt constituted from the detritus of the housing boom. If value is to be created in service of a new economic order, it is imperative that stimulus money be directed in ways that prevent reigniting a model of growth through construction and development that has demonstrably failed: namely, through the fraudulent wealth creator called suburban sprawl.Congress recently permitted banks to no longer mark to market their toxic assets. In a real sense, this action postpones the day of reckoning for sprawl and its rotted foundation: derivative debt tied to mortgage backed securities. This wink and nod papers over—at immense taxpayer expense—and delays accounting for the excesses of the debt that showered billions on Wall Street and its supply chain.

In the final stage of the housing boom, from California’s Central Valley to the suburbs of Washington DC, it was called “the ownership society”: a marriage of greed and political imperatives accruing mainly to operatives and special interests identified with the Republican Party. Although we are through all that, by not confronting suburban sprawl and its costs directly, the Obama White House takes on considerable risk.

Here, there is danger in letting sleeping dogs lie. The construction and building industries, related to sprawl housing and construction of fringe suburbs, is dead as a doornail. Perhaps it is a pragmatic not to ask too directly; who owns what? On the other hand, the taxpayer does own a multi-trillion dollar share of assets that are rotten, toxic, cratered: our choice.

And since it is our choice, really, whether to shoulder such enormous fiscal burdens as the costs of suburban sprawl rotting on balance sheets everywhere, we might ask some common sense questions. For instance, if the day of reckoning of asset values is being delayed so that an incipient recovery (‘green shoots’) can help financial institutions and jobs through the crisis, what is the end result we have in mind?

A very small, powerful, and wealthy constituency is waiting for the pump to be primed, so that suburban sprawl can rise from its ashes and all asset bubbles begin inflating again. This is, after all, the path of least resistance. Marriages of convenience are convenient precisely because roles are well established. Economists offer no solution to the way greed lubricates political ambition and deforms democracy at the same time.

So if this is where we are headed, then it stands to reason that the recovery-to-be looks exactly like the same sprawling, platted opportunities for growth that are now half-empty subdivisions, or, millions of square feet of empty condos and strip malls and other commercial space built in the last gasp of an artificial boom serving hedge funds, flippers, and banks turned speculators. President Obama says otherwise, but there is nothing in TARP, or TALF, or any other specific funding measure to prevent stimulus moneys from flowing down exactly the same channels in respect to the built landscapes of America’s suburbs.

If we want, as a nation, another model of economic growth; one that does land us in the same crisis we are in, today, then “stress tests” for banks are a very rough tool for a job that requires fine thought and action. Banks are agnostic. They will sell loans to whatever the market wants and is within legal parameters. The market pretends to be agnostic, but it is not.

Indeed, if you pull the thread of controlling regulations intended to keep solid financial institutions far from the hands of speculators—in particular as relates to property development—where you end up is a place much closer to the need for “stress testing”: the underlying zoning and land use for construction and development.

The question of the hour is not why banks should be subject to stress tests but why land use decisions by local—and sometimes state—government are not. This is, after all, the fertile soil from which so much debt exploded like noxious weeds.

Banks and other financial institutions involve economic activities that link the interests of all Americans and so are regulated by the federal government. But test of federal interest is also true of land use, especially in farmland that converts to fringe suburbs through zoning changes by local government. Why should “one size fit all” when it comes to federal regulation of banks and insurance companies, but that control of private property is whatever owners can persuade local government to allow?

Both financial markets and raw land for suburbs have provided the opportunity for speculators arbitrage the inefficiency of laws regulating financial derivatives and what can be built from those confections of debt. The absence of regulations in financial derivatives marches hand in hand with the blushing bride: an empty, hollowed out regulatory structure that has failed to protect quality of life, environment, and communities.

A truer scenario for economic recovery would impose a stress test on zoning for land development, incorporating a higher set of hurdles than “concurrency” models that turn local zoning decisions into a game of counting angels on the head of a pin.

Almost as soon as the housing markets began to crash, the air at conservative foundations was filled with noise that land use regulations were to blame for our economic ills. Indeed, in state legislatures like Florida’s, the economic crisis has provided lobbyists from the Growth Machine with energy to knock down what marginal protections exist for sustainable growth. Instead of solving the budget crises, Florida’s Idiocracy is chasing down and mauling the state agency charged with growth management, pinning blame on too much regulation of development. The truth is that the sorts of development local and state government lavished attention to matched up exactly to the shape and cut of financial derivatives that wrecked the nation’s financial institutions.

Those responsible for the economic disaster are excellent at counting angels on a pin. Instead of medieval monks, we have land use and property rights lawyers, spurred on by speculators and local bankers who bought mortgages and sold them in packages and pools without looking or raising a single eyebrow. They are anti-regulation Idiocrats in a daisy chain with local title companies, mortgage brokers in Florida, and cement manufacturers promoting infrastructure by the ton, scooping up zoning officials and local politicians of every stripe along the way.

They are former Wall Street risk analysts lying low behind gated estates in Fairfield County, Connecticut and executives from Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s and AMBAC, paid billions to miscalculate risk of derivatives bundling suburban sprawl. They are Congressmen and White House economic advisors, past and present, who made sure that derivatives received communion every time they came from the pews. Everyone took a slice. Everyone ate a wafer. Everyone skimmed from the top. (The Miami Herald detailed how more than 10,000 felons permitted to become Florida mortgage brokers. Regrettably, Herald executives never unleashed its investigative team to track the fraud up the political food chain. They had the beast in its hands and let it go.)

Few in the supply chain thought there was a risk to the fetid, lousy development that passed for sound judgment and property rights.

When bankers and the real estate development lobby get hold of reporters, what they say is this: be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. But a stress test of what suburban sprawl has done to our nation would pass no one’s muster except those who profited mightily from making derivatives out of every kind of stable value. The simple home and wetland is equally orphaned by the madness that has allowed “private property rights” to triumph over every reasonable protection of the public commons.

Here is one example that stands for thousands: Vitran Homes of the Preserve; a failed platted subdivision of two baker’s dozen in Southern Miami Dade County. Miami Dade is the epicenter of the housing boom and bust for this reason: the code was broken, here, in the mid 1990’s, tying conservative values in the political sphere, to deregulation of financial instruments in the economic sphere, permitting unfettered building and construction to bludgeon laws protecting the environment, and government agencies, like a copper penny flattened on a railroad track. And it all went very badly wrong.

Today, Vitran Homes exists as shells formed of concrete blocks shaped into a single story, false gabled homes set in weed-strewn, former farmland. To say the development is unfinished is an understatement. Its window openings are open to violation by the elements and squatters: spaces for doors and half-completed stick frame joists propping up Mediterranean tiled roofs.

That’s the outside. Inside, the “homes” have been christened by broken bottles, crushed shopping carts, an aquarium lying in a pool of its own glass, a discarded pair of pants hardened into unintelligible evidence. The development is post apocalyptic; a place for teenagers seeking relief from boredom, drugs and the ritual testing how reality shatters on cement, a haven for stray dogs and squatters. Vitran Homes is not a work-in-progress: it is a work in collapse.

What Vitran Homes does “preserve”, and all that it preserves, is the hubris that accompanied the building boom, scattering low cost production housing into Florida farmland and wetlands like confetti. According to a recent AP story, nearly one in four houses in the neighboring Homestead and Florida City areas are in foreclosure: one of the highest rates in the nation.

When you hear the term “toxic assets”, think: these access roads, these lots, these concrete shells occupy an address in the portfolio of a bank or insurance company or hedge fund that may have used properties like this as collateral for a loan, for another insurance-related product like a credit default swap. Today, you may own it. It may be yours.

Appropriately, Vitran Homes is identified as “theoretical” SW 226th Street. It is theoretical the way that the asset value is represented as theoretical debt still marked on some bank’s balance sheet, and now pegged to a level that retains the simulacrum of value on a balance sheet. There is nothing theoretical about the weeds reclaiming Vitran Homes. There is not a job in sight, unless you count the new hospital at Homestead whose patients were scavenged from other nearby hospitals, mostly uninsured and uninsurable in the wealthiest nation on earth. It was all good, until it was crap.

On the other side of the street from Vitran in South Miami Dade, a Google Earth satellite image shows a massive development by Miami’s homegrown heavyweight production homebuilder—Lennar Corporation–, scarified and prepped and ready for cement. The Google photo is only a few years old. It shows the green land scraped bare: white as bone or the dust of ancient, pulverized coral reef.

Today the Lennar development is finished in a manner of speaking. The entire development has the look as if its building plans were printed from a single computer file: this one has two hundred fifty units, Mediterranean like the rest of South Florida off the Turnpike, fire hydrants spaced and cul de sacs measured according to code, building materials spec’ed in China, etc.

A key feature of the financing underlying platted subdivisions like this is sameness. Ratings agencies like Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s bless derivatives according to computer models that match the theoretical housing, from cement to every other cost element, to theoretical addresses and surrounding demographics: the imagined pool of American consumers who flock to sameness because it is low-cost and filled with features that support consumer “preferences”.

Back in the day, the proponents of so much Lennar-type sprawl called it “what the market wants”. What the market wants was shouted from the rafters of the National Association of Homebuilders to the National Association of Realtors, from Associated Industries to the Chambers of Commerce. The mainstream media, especially newspapers, bought it hook-line-and-sinker because it came attached with muscular advertising dollars. Today, the entire region feels as though the oxygen has been sucked out and all that remains are hapless passengers stranded by a bus that never will never arrive.

The Lennar regional VP is the president of the Latin Builders Association; the influential Miami-based lobbying group that controlled Miami politics through vilification of Castro while imposing its own hegemony through the award of county contracts, from road building to the painting of highway stripes, from insider deals at Miami International Airport to the conversion of the last remaining farmland in South Florida to suburban sprawl. The owner of Vitran Homes of the Preserve is a director of the South Florida Builders Association.

Theirs was a game of risk to play private profit through artificial demand, inflated by land use lawyers paid $500 to $750 an hour and especially, to berate citizen objectors (“They don’t know what they are talking about.”) and bedazzle officials with powerpoint presentations and slick graphics papering over campaign contributions delivered, sometimes, in paper sacks. No one knew what they were talking about, and especially not in the vegetable fields where farmers loved pallets of sheet rock more than pole beans, cement trucks more than tomatoes, and the certainty of road graders and ditch witches in irrigation fields.

When it comes to suburban sprawl, everyone was paid and paid well to be dumb as dirt.

Production homebuilders and their associations do excel in this: use profits from mass production housing to blow through calculations of risk in zoning and permitting of development. Whether risk to investors or the environment, it is all the same: a blazing confidence that public policy must keep its mitts off the formulas that worked so well in the past; an imaginary tide lifting all fictitious names and luxury yachts registered in the Bahamas. Developments like Vitran Homes are exactly what the builders’ lobby wanted and lobbied for, turning valuable farmland into the fiction of demand and manageable risk. They were neither.

Lennar recently took out an unusual advertisement in the Miami Herald: “Builder Closeout: Every Condo Must Be Sold”. It was a full page ad in bold red, white and black graphics. No longer, at least in the case of its two enormous Miami developments called Colonnade and North Bay Village, is Lennar trying to lure buyers with the promise of protection if the buyer loses his or her job. Now it’s a “Sealed-Bid Auction: Your Best Price Plus Zero Dollars Closing Costs!”

At the very same time, the corporation is offloading its stale inventory at auction. In the midst of the worst housing markets in a century, Lennar is promoting zoning changes in Miami-Dade farmland—a multi-thousand unit development called Parkland– outside Miami-Dade’s Urban Development Boundary, close to the Everglades. The company wants the zoning change today, even though it will be 2014 before the development is ready for occupancy.

Lennar wants its cake and eat it too: fair enough. As long as you are inside the legal boundaries, why not?

There is nothing mystical about the deals and hand-shakes between developers and officials charged with zoning decisions that lead to so much carnage in farmland and on waterfronts. Across the America’s suburban landscape, there has been nothing like “wise use”. The pattern of low density suburban sprawl has wrecked aquifers, destroyed natural habitats and, at during the political ascendancy of “family values” torn apart families by imposing huge costs on commuters and consumers.

If “wise use” worked, why have American taxpayers been forced to shoulder the trillions in debt, underwriting the horrendous miscalculation of risk that showered wealth from Wall Street down the supply chain of developers and production homebuilders, into the campaign coffers of local city and county commissioners?

In respect to promoting regulatory reform of banks, hedge funds, and insurance companies, the Obama White House has been exceedingly careful. Banks should be subject to stress tests. 

But there should also be a federal “stress test” for local zoning, tied to subsidies to states and local jurisdictions. Without a federal stress test, including measures to prevent fiscal stimulus billions from reviving suburban sprawl, Americans will continue to be driven by a growth machine that is in key respects a Ponzi scheme, requiring future taxpayers to shoulder the costs of trillion dollar mistakes. A top-down approach to stress testing financial institutions will not lead to any kind of recovery—because the revolving door of big engineering firms, planners, government agencies, lobbyists, and elected officials is committed to reviving a failed economic model of growth.

Real estate developers, their supply chain, and land speculators are taking advantage of confusion and the appearance of relative calm in stock markets to harden their bunkers before citizens take up the pitchforks. The conservative foundation gin mills are hard at work buffing and polishing and re-branding failed models of growth.

If banks are stress tested but underlying land use is not, future growth will be along exactly the same pathways leading to the worst economic crisis since the Depression, green shoots and all. It doesn’t have to be that way, but does President Obama understand why it is?

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2 Responses to No Place Like Home: federal stress test for land use, not just banks

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