Let the People Decide

The Madison City Council has identified affordable housing as a key city goal and, to its credit, it seems to understand that the best way to restrain the growth in housing costs is to simply build more of it. It’s a refreshing acknowledgement that the free market can work.

But there’s a catch. In 2023 the new F-35 fighters will start flying out of Truax Field. The planes are a good deal louder than the current F-16’s, which are themselves pretty noisy. So, the council is considering blocking housing development in the areas where projections indicate the highest decibels.

But that would rule out an area that is projected to be served by bus rapid transit, which is both dependent on high housing density and where, it is hoped, BRT will itself encourage higher densities. City planners believe there could be about 1,200 units spurred by BRT, but also within the high noise areas.

It’s not really a hard call. Build the housing and let consumers decide.

This map shows where the highest noise levels will be when the F-35s start flying.

It’s not clear to me why, in a city that ties itself in knots trying not to be paternalistic with regard to poor people, it wants to tell them where they can’t live. Now, of course, we shouldn’t assume that all of those 1,200 units will be less expensive. It’s entirely possible that people of any income level will want the convenience of living next to a BRT line and the airport.

But why should the option be denied to anyone? We’re not talking Love Canal here. We’re talking about brief — though no doubt annoying — bursts of noise. And if those bursts mean that developers need to attract renters or owners by lowering prices, why is that a bad thing? Areas near airports tend to be affordable in most communities in America as our areas near factories and other less than pleasant neighbors. It’s just the market at work.

And some additional regulation is appropriate. The city might be able to require additional sound insulation, which would lessen the problem at least when residents are inside. And my own alder, Tag Evers, has raised the legitimate issue of market transparency. The buyer can only beware if the buyer is aware. So, the city should demand that developers make explicit disclosures about the noise to prospective renters and owners.

If the city is serious about building a lot more housing than it has to make some compromises. This is a compromise that should be easy to make.

Welcome to the 231st day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

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