Chapel Hill: Opinion

Crayton and De Marco: Not all residential development is created equal

In local debates about growth, one persistent narrative is that residential development never pays for itself and so we should always prioritize commercial development over new housing. This argument is premised on the idea that housing incurs costs through the services local governments provide – schools, police and fire, libraries, roads, water and sewer, and trash collection – and that these costs exceed the tax revenue generated by residential development.

But not all residential development is created equal. The cost of services for a home in a conventional suburban neighborhood (typically, single-family homes that are far apart and beyond walking distance to basic amenities) is not the same as the cost of services for a home in a compact, multifamily, mixed-use, urban-style neighborhood.

A recent report ( from Sustainable Prosperity, an environmental think tank, concluded that serving a single-family home in a suburban-style neighborhood costs a municipality twice as much as providing the same services to a condominium or apartment in an urban development.

Another report (, released by Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C., think tank, analyzed 17 development scenarios in communities across the United States. Comparing suburban-style development to denser, urban development, the report found that dense, urban development costs one-third less for upfront infrastructure, saves an average of 10 percent in ongoing delivery-of-service costs, and generates 10 times more tax revenue per acre than conventional suburban development.

The bottom line: Dense, mixed-use development that allows people to live, work, and play in close proximity and provides opportunities to safely walk and bike to jobs, grocery stores and other destinations pays for itself in a way that sparse, suburban-style development does not.

Why is this important? As we have written previously (, efforts to improve housing affordability in Chapel Hill and Carrboro must include strategies to increase the supply of housing. Increasing housing supply in a dense, urban pattern of development would not only help us achieve our goals, but also support retail and other commercial uses nearby, thus diversifying our tax base and reducing our reliance on residential property taxes.

Part of the reason compact, mixed-use development succeeds where suburban-style development fails is that it provides residential density that can support nearby commercial uses. We cannot simply build commercial and retail in town without increasing residential density to support those uses. Doing so would just encourage further reliance on cars with their environmental and social harms.

Dense, residential development is a critical when it comes to putting our community on a sustainable path. We just have to make sure we do it in the right way, and that means giving up the suburban development patterns that have dominated in the past several decades.

Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco live in Chapel Hill and are editors of the blog