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Tag: "cities"

Affordable Housing

[ 139 ] April 19, 2017 |


Affordable housing lotteries in New York are really a sign of just how woeful the housing situation is in that city for the poor, not to mention the middle class.

In a January press message, the developers of Pacific Park Brooklyn suggested “the demand for affordable housing in the borough is tremendous,” citing more than 84,000 applications for 181 units at 461 Dean and “roughly 95,000 applications” for 297 apartments at 535 Carlton. These are among the first four residential buildings in the 15-tower project, which will contain 2,250 below-market units among 6,430 apartments in Prospect Heights.

But such catch-all statistics—regularly used in depicting the hunt for below-market units—camouflage how low-income applicants face crushing odds compared to middle-income ones.

Exactly 92,743 households (not quite 95,000) entered the lottery for the “100 percent affordable” 535 Carlton tower, city data show. But only 2,203, according to City Limits’ analysis, were eligible for 148 middle-income apartments, such as one-bedrooms renting for $2,680 monthly and two-bedrooms at $3,223, affordable to those earning six figures. (The massive Excel spreadsheets, with names redacted, were obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request.)

Also, 4,609 entrants vied for 44 units in the building’s other middle-income “band,” which includes one-bedrooms at $2,170 and two-bedrooms at $2,611, with rents set at approximately 30 percent of household income.

For less costly apartments, the competition was fierce. For the 15 moderate-income units, including seven one-bedrooms at $1,320, some 18,680 households applied.

More starkly, nearly 67,000 households, some 72 percent of the applicant pool, aimed at the 90 low-income units, including one-bedrooms at $589 and $929, for singles earning $21,566 to $25,400 and $33,223 to $38,100, respectively.

A good number of them were ineligible because their incomes either were too low or they fell between the two low-income “bands.” Also, 15 low-income units will ultimately be distributed outside the lottery, designated for homeless households under a new city policy.

While New York may be the worst city when it comes to affordable housing (or second, outside of San Francisco) it’s a growing problem throughout the urban core of our nation. The problem is that the new building is too unregulated, in that it allows developers to set the market, where the profit is all on the high end. What we actually need is a new round of public housing building, except that this time, the government needs to actually fund the housing instead of assuming it will generate the expenses needed to keep it up, which was the main problem with the notorious mid-twentieth century public housing projects that gave the whole concept a bad name when they fixed with white flight to make these buildings a living hell for residents. It’s good that there is some requirement for affordable housing, but it flat out isn’t enough and it never will be until the government mandates it.


Small City NIMBYism

[ 104 ] February 13, 2017 |


While I suppose democratic participation in urban planning is a good thing, in practice, it leads to a lot of situations like we are seeing in Eugene. Housing prices are skyrocketing there, yet basic and obvious plans to ease housing prices and create decent public transportation systems flail because of NIMBYism. On the latter, the bus district’s efforts to expand their rapid transit bus system stalled in a combination of business outrage over the construction that it would require and right-wing morons hating public transportation. The signs opposing the project on the farms outside of Eugene were particularly hilarious. If anything, the anti-density forces are even more infuriating, as they are usually at least nominally liberals, especially in that city. Here we have a smart development looking to build density in a section of the city that could use it. It’s in an area where you already have some walkability but where you could use a lot more. But oh no. Not In My Backyard!

Coughlin’s land is zoned for “community commercial” use and designated as commercial land in the Eugene-Springfield Metropolitan Area General Plan, the region’s blueprint for growth that designates areas of land for different uses.

Retail stores and restaurants are allowed outright on community commercial-zoned land. Apartments are allowed as long as certain building height, dimension, parking and landscaping standards are met. Buildings can rise up to 120 feet under the zoning guidelines. That’s 10 or 11 stories in a typical high-rise.

But the land is surrounded to the east by single-family houses on lots zoned for low-density use, and to the west by Hilyard Street, a strip of city-owned park land and more single-family houses. South of 18th Street, only the seven-story Cascade Manor retirement community building is taller than Amazon Corner would be.

The city approved Coughlin’s project on Jan. 27 with some minor conditions, requiring him to pay for a crosswalk across Hilyard between 31st and 32nd Avenues, and create dedicated right and left turn lanes to help traffic on 31st get onto Hilyard.

Neighbors quickly appealed, setting up a March 1 public hearing. More than 100 people have written letters to the city, a vast majority assailing Amazon Corner as a bad fit for the neighborhood.

William Collinge, a public health researcher who has lived on Kincaid Street off of 32nd Avenue for five years, said he worries about traffic from the development spilling onto side streets such as Kincaid, Alder and Harris streets as motorists try to get downtown from south Eugene while avoiding traffic from Amazon Corner and Albertsons.

“What people are opposed to is the size and the traffic impact, and the implications of that for the character of the neighborhood and quality of life,” Collinge said. “We’re not anti-growth, we’re not anti-development. We’re in favor of smart growth, smart development that respects that character of the neighborhood.”

“We’re not anti-growth, we’re not anti-development. We just oppose any growth and development that might briefly affect my life or make the city livable for the next generation. We have single-family housing to protect after all!”

Obviously, cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco are all dealing with these issues in much more serious situations, where people literally cannot afford to live there, but with enormous homeowner opposition to the density needed to make their city remotely sustainable for most people. In this case, it’s democratic participation undermining a democratic city. And there’s no easy answer in a world where property values are the coin of the realm.

What Should Be Done To Protect Renters in Expensive Cities?

[ 128 ] August 26, 2016 |


Since for at least some of you, evidently rent control is the greatest evil in human history, I am wondering what should be done to protect renters?

More than three dozen New York officials stepped into a high-profile court battle over rent stabilization yesterday, filing a brief on behalf of tenants who have sued their Lower Manhattan landlord, claiming they were denied rent caps that should have been guaranteed under a state tax program.

The fight between residents of 90 West Street and developer Kibel Companies, which ProPublica first chronicled in a story published in May, could determine the legality of two decades of rent increases in more than a dozen downtown high rises.

Developers received hefty tax breaks for converting these former office buildings into luxury rentals under an obscure program known as 421-g. In exchange, they were supposed to provide tenants with leases that limited yearly rent increases to levels set by the city. In practice, they often haven’t, maintaining that units renting for more than a certain amount (now 2,700 dollars) were not subject to rent stabilization.

The amicus brief filed late Thursday afternoon by New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, twelve state senators, twelve assembly members, and thirteen city council members, all Democrats, accuses Kibel of claiming a “windfall grant of tax abatements…in exchange for nothing at all.”

Officials said they decided to wade into the case, in part, to demand stronger oversight of an array of programs that swap tax benefits for rent limits, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of units citywide. Preserving rent-stabilized units has become an increasingly hot political issue, with many local leaders calling for Mayor Bill de Blasio to do more to expand lower-cost housing options.

“The deal behind 421-g was clear—tax breaks for housing in lower Manhattan must include more affordable housing,” State Sen. Daniel Squadron, who represents the neighborhood, said in a statement. “It is not acceptable to shortchange the tenants or the community.”

I am not saying rent control is the only answer. But I do think it can and should be part of the answer. Not having rent control certainly isn’t working. And those who oppose it have no program to fix these problems. Just saying “build more housing units” doesn’t work well in many cities, where foreign billionaires are buying up whole floors of the luxury apartment complexes arising in New York, Seattle, Vancouver, and other cities. Of course, we do need a lot more housing units. But if you are a developer and you have control over what kind of housing unit you build, why not go for the profit on the high-end? Obviously that’s what you are going to do. Far more mandates are needed on rent control and the types of housing that are built. Unfortunately, we do not have that and whole cities are becoming completely unlivable for the working-class, or even the upper middle-class in the cases of New York and Vancouver. And that’s simply not sustainable in any way.

Cities versus States

[ 51 ] August 25, 2016 |


This is a good piece on the battles in conservative states between their liberal enclave cities and the right-wing extremists who control the statehouse.

“PREEMPTION” LAWS ARE not new, nor are they necessarily about undoing local legislation. But with some notable exceptions, past preemption laws have generally enforced what can be called “minimum preemption”: They force localities to do something where they might otherwise have done little or nothing. As it’s often said, they set a “floor” for regulation. For instance, the federal government has been setting minimum standards of environmental protection for years, preempting the states from allowing lower environmental standards. Similarly, states often set a floor for various local regulations, whether regarding pollution, trade licensing, gun ownership, or other matters.

Most current preemption laws, by contrast, are what one might call “maximum preemption.” These laws aren’t about setting minimums; instead, they prohibit local regulation. States have prevented localities from creating paid sick leave requirements for businesses, or raising the minimum wage. Many who oppose these measures blame their proliferation on the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, which has drafted “model” preemption bills for state lawmakers to use. “Pretty much anything you can think of that matters to the American family is under assault by local preemption,” says Mark Pertschuk, the director of Grassroots Change, which fights preemption laws around the country.

Earlier this year, a fight in North Carolina over Charlotte’s anti-discrimination ordinance cast such maximum preemption laws into the national spotlight. The Charlotte City Council had passed a measure extending civil-rights protections for its LGBT community. The policy also allowed transgender individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity rather than with their biological sex. Including gay and transgender people in anti-discrimination ordinances has become a standard business-friendly move; nationwide, 225 cities and counties have passed similar measures, in part to attract businesses. While Republican Governor Pat McCrory and state legislature leaders threatened to intervene in Charlotte, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, an advocate of the measure, wasn’t overly concerned. “I thought they’d make a big noise about it but they’d recognize it was just Charlotte, it’s a progressive city, and they didn’t need to come in and change anything because it would jeopardize the economy,” she says.

But when the state Republicans responded, they sent shockwaves around the country by passing a maximum preemption measure that invalidated all local anti-discrimination ordinances, including those protecting women and racial minorities. Not only did they force transgender people to use public bathrooms based on their reproductive organs; for good measure, they also rolled a provision into the bill that forbade any North Carolina city from increasing the minimum wage.

There’s a very specific reason why conservatives fetishize state government, even to the point of calling for the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. All the talk about devolution that came out of the 90s stops right at the state capitol. It’s not about principle. It’s about conservative control. The federal government is too big for corporations or movement conservatives to easily control. Cities are too small. States are just right. State legislators can be bought off for incredibly small amounts of campaign donations. So making the federal government powerless, unless it wants to do corporate bidding, and making the cities powerless is part the conservative game to maintain power. And it’s been that way since at least the 1930s, when corporations complained about federal control and wanted power to reside at the state level. That’s what these wars on liberal cities are about in red states. Some of these cases, like the Denton fracking ban or Austin’s rejection of Uber, are about corporate control, others like HB 2 in North Carolina, are not. But for each type of conservative group, the state is where they see power residing precisely because that’s where it’s easiest for them to control that power.

Stop the Sprawl

[ 122 ] July 17, 2016 |


If cities are to keep growing, as they will, they must stop growing outwards and start growing upwards. The environmental and human consequences are too great to consider otherwise.

As cities grow, perhaps our most serious concern should be how they expand out into the surrounding countryside. Contrary to popular belief, over the past century urban settlements have not only expanded demographically, they have also sprawled outwards – covering some of the world’s most valuable farmland in the process.

The result has been a steady de-densification of urban settlements, by about –2% per annum. Even where inner-city areas have densified over the past few decades (Copenhagen, for example), the citywide trend is still for an overall reduction in average densities.

In 2010, the total area covered by all the cement, asphalt, compacted clay, park areas and open spaces that comprise the footprint of the world’s urban settlements was around 1 million sq km. In comparison, the total area of France is 643,000 sq km.

If the urban population and long-term de-densification trends continue, the area of the planet covered by urban settlements will increase to more than 3 million sq km by 2050. And since the most intensively cultivated farmland is typically located near where the bulk of the food is consumed, much of this additional 2 million sq km is currently our most productive farmland.

In short, continued urbanisation in its current form could threaten global food supplies at a time when food production is already not keeping up with population growth.

Moreover, density has to be achieved with people in mind, not cars.

Across the world, it would be a mistake to focus solely on improving the average densities of cities. Los Angeles has a higher average density than New York, for example, yet LA is regarded as a dysfunctional urban form while NY is functional, because it comprises a network of high-density neighbourhoods interconnected by efficient and affordable mass transit systems.

Seoul is similar: a megacity that has avoided sprawl with this approach. When the mayor decided to dismantle the eight-lane highway that used to run through the centre of the city, he said: “Seoul is for people, not cars.”

An alternative road was not built – resulting in an increase in the number of people using mass transit which, in turn, made mass transit financially viable. Building more highways for cars, then introducing trains and buses in the hope that they will be financially viable, simply does not work (the greater Johannesburg region is learning that lesson now).

China, meanwhile, has urbanised hundreds of millions of people over the past three decades. This has tended to be in high-rise, multi-storey buildings located in “superblocks” with wide, traffic-congested streets and few intersections per sq km. The result is relatively low densities in neighbourhoods with virtually no street or community life – in short, not the kind of urban area one would call liveable.

Compare this with the neighbourhoods you find in Barcelona, where buildings are five to eight storeys high, located on narrow streets with pavements, trees and small piazzas for social engagement, and all well connected to both motorised and non-motorised forms of transport.

This is what makes for liveable urban neighbourhoods. China has realised its mistake, adopting an urbanisation strategy that breaks away from sprawled-out superblocks in favour of a high-density neighbourhood approach, with narrower streets, a high number of intersections, and improved public transport.

The environmental consequences of suburban living will soon be enormous. On the other hand, what this article does not address is cost. At least in the United States, but also certainly in cities like London, Paris, and, yes, Barcelona, the global Gilded Age has driven the costs of urban living through the roof. To some extent this is the lack of housing supply in a nation like the U.S. that had been disdainful of urban living for most of its history. But it’s also about the size of apartments, the profits for building for millionaires instead of the poor, the global mega-rich owning multiple huge apartments in the world’s cities for their jet-setting lifestyle, etc. It’s not just about building up or density or pedestrian-friendly. It’s about affordability and democracy. If those aren’t values in our cities, then they are no more functional than a model of endless sprawl.

Black Protest and Transportation

[ 21 ] July 17, 2016 |


Interesting essay on the connections between recent Black Lives Matter protests that block freeways and the long-term relationship between transportation networks and race.

Transportation, however, has long been central to the black civil rights movement, with the Selma march, the Freedom Rides, and Rosa Parks’s appeal to equal rights on public buses. Fifty years ago this summer, the March Against Fear inspired by James Meredith walked 220 miles of Southern roads from Memphis to Jackson, Miss.

If anything is new, what’s different today may be the occupation of urban interstates for the purpose of bringing them to a standstill. Protesters in Selma, Moss argues, wanted to use the Edmund Pettus Bridge — on their way to Montgomery — not block it.

Reed, who angered many activists with his comments in Atlanta, later defended them on Facebook by saying that King prepared for weeks and worked with Selma officials to ensure public safety, rather than flooding the bridge in a spontaneous and “dangerous” way.

To the extent that activists today are committed to a more urgent kind of disruption, planning ahead with police would defeat some of the purpose of bringing daily life to an abrupt halt, calling attention to the fundamental structures of inequality. And it’s hard to imagine officials assenting ahead of time to closing an entire highway.

Highways also carry a particular resonance for the grievances today of black civil rights activists, given that many deadly encounters with police, such as Castile’s, began with traffic stops (this patten has also prompted a new cry from transportation planners: “not in our name!”).

Historically, the same thing that happened in St. Paul — where the black Rondo neighborhood was destroyed — happened in Minneapolis, and Baltimore, and Oakland, and Atlanta, and in Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s childhood home of Charlotte.

Planner Robert Moses used highways to clear slums through poor and minority neighborhoods in New York. Mayor Richard J. Daley used the new Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago to wall off the old Irish white neighborhoods on the city’s South Side from the black neighborhoods to the east where the city built blocks and blocks of high-rise public housing.

Black neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s had little political power to block these engineering behemoths. And cities that wanted to redevelop poor neighborhoods — another government goal of the same era — got more federal money by building highways through them than by appealing for “urban renewal” funds.

“If your goal was to clear slums,” Connolly, the historian, said, “the best way to get bang for your buck was to use the highway as a slum clearance instrument.”

The resulting highways were then meant to speed whites who’d moved to the suburbs back and forth to jobs and attractions downtown, leapfrogging minority communities along the way. As Connolly suggested, they still serve this function today. And often, highways that passed through black communities weren’t planned with on- and off-ramps to them.

“They’re not designed for, nor do they serve, low-income communities who are actually already close to downtown,” said Brown University historian Robert Self. “If you live in West Oakland, you don’t need a freeway to get to downtown Oakland.”

This infrastructure that destroyed black communities then helped build white ones, in the form of far-flung bedroom communities that boomed once these roads made longer-distance commuting feasible. “Fremont exists before the freeway is built,” Self said of the town 25 miles south of Oakland. “But once you build it, then Fremont becomes this massive possibility. Or San Mateo, or Redwood City.”

Good stuff, quoting several of the best historians working in the United States today.

Sprawl Tax

[ 55 ] June 7, 2016 |


How much does sprawl cost Americans every year?

That got us thinking: What if we could quantify some of these same issues from a city-friendly angle—measuring not the cost of congestion, which suggests that the solution is to build highways until every car is free on its own field of asphalt (a solution, by the way, that we know doesn’t work), but the cost of sprawl: of patterns of building that make people travel longer because their home, work, and other destinations are so physically far from each other?

So this week, we present the “Sprawl Tax”: what it is, how much it costs us, and what we can do about it. We found that the in time and money, American commuters have to pay a sprawl tax of over $107 billion dollars a year in the 50 largest metropolitan areas—nearly $1,400 for the average commuter. That includes the costs of the 3.9 billion additional hours American commuters spend traveling to and from work per year, or about 50 hours per worker.

Adding together the sprawl tax for each of the largest 50 metropolitan areas gives $48.5 billion dollars per year—or nearly $630 for every commuter annually. The financial aspect of the sprawl tax varies from $34.7 million in New Orleans to $4.7 billion in Dallas. In per commuter terms, the region with the biggest sprawl tax is Atlanta, where sprawl costs the average commuter more than $1,600 a year. The city with the smallest per capita sprawl tax is New Orleans, at just $60.66 per commuter per year.

But these figures reflect just the out-of-pocket costs of owning and using cars. What if you take time into account? After all, the longer trips forced on commuter by sprawling cities cost money, but they also cost time. Using a similar methodology, we calculated an “excess travel time” index, applying average travel speed for each metropolitan area to its benchmark commute distance, as opposed to its actual commute distance.

The result? In the 50 largest metro areas, sprawl costs commuters 3.9 billion hours per year, or more than 50 hours per year per commuter. That means sprawl makes the average commuter spend over two entire days per year traveling to and from work unnecessarily. The worst offender? Atlanta, where the average commuter loses 112 hours per year, or over four and a half days. In the metro area that performs best, New Orleans, commuters lose just over seven hours per year.

Many Americans think sprawl is a great thing because they own their 2500 square foot home but the cost of commuting 30 or 50 miles to a job is incredibly high, economically and personally. But those costs get naturalized by most people, while the costs of building dense, affordable housing and good public transportation are seen as expensive luxuries that also reek of being un-American, unlike my giant suburban house and big SUV.

The Utopian Paradise of Rochester

[ 63 ] May 23, 2016 |


The scheme of the founder of the Gillette razor company to turn Rochester area into a futuristic socialist utopia is fascinating:


The primary goal when designing the architecture for Metropolis was to make each public space as beautiful as possible. When building a city of such large undertaking Gillette estimated that world renowned architects would fight for the chance to build a structure that would house an entire nation. Architects would each submit their designs to a bureau of architecture then the plans would be voted on based on their beauty and uniqueness as well as there practicality and longevity. Of all the thirty to forty thousand buildings in the city, no two need be alike in artistic treatment.

“Each and every building of “Metropolis” would be a complete and distinct world of art in itself. Every color and every shade of color would be found in their ceramic treatment. In some instances, there would be a gradual dissolving from a dark shade of color at the base to an almost white at the top of the buildings. In others, the general dissolving of one tint into another would give an effect that would combine all the prismatic tints of the rainbow. In others, a single delicate tint would be the predominating feature. Here, one would look as though chiseled from a block of emerald, another from jet, another from turquoise, and another from amethyst.”

Imagine a city sprawled over three counties with massive buildings each with their own unique world renowned architecture. This would become a world wonder in itself, and encourage people to move and live in the city. Coupled with effective infrastructure and an open public space, city living not only becomes a preferable option it became the only logical residence.

While covering our city in multi colored tiles or jade and emerald is a little far fetched the basic principle of his idea remains the same, city building should be unique and beautiful, adding to the city’s environment instead of subtracting from it.

Unaffordable Housing

[ 72 ] May 21, 2016 |


Probably the single biggest challenge facing American cities today is the lack of affordable housing. We are just finding out the details of why this has become such a problem. A random guy decided to track San Francisco rent prices over the past sixty years through the methodology of a quality historical study: he went to microfilm and charted rental ads.

There are some ups and downs, but for the most part there is a very simple trend: 6.6 percent.

That’s the amount the rent has gone up every year, on average, since 1956. It was true before rent control; it was true after rent control. It wasn’t entirely true during the 2000 tech bubble, but it was still sort of true and it became true again afterward.

6.6 percent is 2.5 percentage points faster than inflation, which doesn’t seem like a lot but when you do it for 60 years in a row it means housing prices quadruple compared to everything else you have to buy.

The first thing that stands out is the important point that rent control has not negatively affected rental prices. May not have helped either but this is important evidence against those who demonize rent control. The second thing that stands out is that 6.6 percent over 60 years adds up to a lot of money and suggests that the roots of the housing problem in San Francisco run deeper than the tech boom. What would help solve these problems and make housing affordable?

It would take a 53% increase in the housing supply (200,000 new units), or a 44% drop in CPI-adjusted salaries, or a 51% drop in employment, to cut prices by two thirds.

OK, so this would mean the way to make San Francisco as affordable as (say) Portland would be to either cut everybody’s salary in half, or fire half of them, or rapidly increase the number of homes by 50 percent, which would let the population rapidly leap to about 1.2 million.

Oh. Well. That’s not good. Is there any way forward? Maybe.

1. Adding new units is mostly only going to keep shit from getting worse.

1a. That’s still a good thing.

2. Rent control does not seem to be a huge cause of the problem per se. Shit was bad before; shit was bad after; shit did not get notably better or worse for the median apartment seeker, at least if you start in 1956. (On the other hand, something odd is going on in Fischer’s early price data from the 40s. If you omit the 1950–1960 dip in rents, then everything before rent control in 1979 starts looking more like a plateau. Here’s his first chart again for good measure.)

2a. The way that rent control might matter indirectly is if it leads indirectly to fewer new units, for example because it gives people a reason to protest or sue to prevent developers from replacing little old rent-controlled buildings with big new market-rate ones. Which is pretty understandable on the part of the poor people but it’s still a shitty outcome, because (as Fischer’s formula suggests) every fancy new roof holds prices down a little bit because the rich people under it don’t push middle-class people out from under their middle-quality roofs, and so on down the line until someone ends up in a tent.

2b. Still, there’s no clear sign in this data that rent control has had this additional anti-new-housing effect on San Francisco. Again: shit was bad before. Shit was bad after.

3. Cutting infill development costs would help if there are ways to do that without screwing other things up too much.

4. If there is something stopping the housing market from building enough new homes for newcomers, then it’s probably got to be something that arrived around 1960 or earlier.

And the alternative, endless sprawl, is a completely unsustainable environmental disaster.

And as rental prices skyrocket around the nation (my own just went up $100 a month…) and with home ownership at a 48 year low, Rachel Cohen highlights a recent report demonstrating how new categories of subsidized rental housing actually encourage racial segregation by appealing to relatively affluent whites that force people of color into more segregated neighborhoods.

Amid this housing policy landscape comes a provocative new report from the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity (IMO), a research and advocacy organization associated with the University of Minnesota, which looks at what they call a new category of subsidized housing—one catering to whiter and comparatively more affluent people than the typical residents of affordable developments. IMO says that while many of these projects, which rely on federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), may advance public policy goals like historic preservation and economic development, they also worsen racial and economic segregation and likely violate fair housing laws. Coining these developments Politically Opportune Subsidized Housing, or “POSH,” IMO suggests that affordable housing development can create segregation not only within and between communities, but also within the subsidized housing system itself.

The report focuses primarily on the Twin Cities—the most segregated predominately white metropolitan area in the United States—but the authors also explore how similar subsidized development projects have proliferated around the country. While many of these projects are marketed specifically to artists, using a special exemption that developers lobbied for from Congress during the recession, other similar projects target teachers and veterans. Such projects carry decided political appeal, as millions of middle-class families struggle with housing costs, too.

But these POSH units, which come with a host of fancy amenities, are extraordinarily expensive. In the Twin Cities, IMO finds the average per-unit total development cost of a POSH project to be $347,500, compared with $266,000 per unit for traditional subsidized housing. For POSH projects specifically designated as artist housing, per-unit costs can reach as high as $670,000. POSH projects are, they say, likely the most expensive subsidized housing developments in Minnesota’s history.

The residents in POSH housing also look quite different than those who live in traditional subsidized housing. While more than 70 percent of residents in Twin Cities Low Income Housing Tax Credit projects are nonwhite, more than 65 percent of Twin Cities POSH residents are white. In some buildings, the resident percentages top 80 percent and 90 percent white.

IMO suggests that these POSH projects may violate federal fair housing laws. Some artist housing, for example, imposes screening mechanisms, many of which could create discriminatory hurdles for low-income minority applicants. IMO quotes a legal aid attorney saying, “You have to try really, really hard to find 80 or 85 percent white people in the poor population of Minneapolis. You have to have a really good sorting system.”

There’s no question that the affordable housing issue needs to be a top priority for policymakers. There are no easy answers, but whatever solution that comes forward is going to have to combine a lot of dense building, public transportation systems without large parking requirements for individual vehicles, and probably mandated public housing with rent control and a funding mechanism to maintain said housing for the very poor.


[ 151 ] May 12, 2016 |

This is a really interesting article on Houston. Probably the most car-centric city and certainly the most anti-zoning, given that it doesn’t have any, city in the nation, Houston is an urban planning disaster. But there are interesting trends taking place there:

Houston’s expansion is going in two directions at once. While development on the suburban fringe continues, there is intense focus on the urban core.

According to the Houston Area Survey published last month by Rice University’s Kinder Institute, fully half of the respondents said they prefer a walkable urban lifestyle to a suburban one. That still leaves plenty of people to fill the master-planned communities and subdivisions going up on the outskirts. But it also indicates that many Houstonians want amenities that only a denser city can offer.

The evidence of the demand is plain: From 2013 to 2014, the average home price in the city of Houston rose from $248,000 to $270,000. That $22,000 is a small step compared to many American cities, but a giant leap for Houston. Even with a slight drop this year, increases like that demonstrate that cheap housing might not be a limitless resource.

Many longtime city residents are understandably nervous, eyeing new development as a threat that could price them out of neighborhoods that have historically been affordable. Along with continuing to lure newcomers, can the city, as it gentrifies, avoid displacing low-income people?

To assess Houstonians’ deepest fears, the most recent Houston Area Survey asked an open-ended question: “What would you say is the biggest problem facing people in the Houston area today?”

Nearly one-third said traffic.

Previous surveys revealed concerns that were arguably more harrowing. In 1987, 71 percent cited economic woes. In 1994, 70 percent named crime. This year’s survey lists both of those concerns at 21 percent. In many ways, the responses mirror the city’s prosperity. The economic boom has meant less desperation, more residents and more cars on the road. Traffic is a sign of economic vibrancy, especially when many Houstonians have no alternative.

“We have been fairly successful at a traditional car-centric approach to providing access and mobility to our residents,” says Walsh.

That’s an understatement. With 16.4 public transit trips per capita per year as of 2013, Houston ranks 91st out of 290 cities included in a National Transit Database study. Philadelphia, with a comparable metro population, ranks 10th, with 68 trips per capita. That means that as the Houston region adds population, it adds a disproportionately high number of car trips.


However radical the retooled bus system is, it is nothing compared to the expansion of the city’s light-rail network.

Last May, the east-west Green Line opened along the median of Harrisburg Boulevard and through the East End, and the southeast Purple Line opened connecting downtown with local universities. Extensions are under construction. Monthly rail ridership is up 24 percent from March 2015.

Rather than shuttle white-collar commuters into a central business district from suburban areas, Houston’s lines are designed to take city-dwellers from one urban neighborhood to others. Some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods are now in easy reach of its biggest employment centers. The new east side lines give residents access not only to downtown but also to the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center, the latter of which is the largest medical center in the world. Its employment base of 106,000 is bigger than that of all but a handful of American downtowns.

“Houston ended up with probably the most interesting rail system in the country in that it really is concentrated on the urban core,” says Zakcq Lockrem, director of planning at planning firm Asakura Robinson, which has offices in Austin and Houston. “It’s about urban people living an urban life.”

The article addresses other problems Houston has–including gentrification and flooding. But just focusing on the transportation and density issues, this is a strong sign that even if the most car-centric city in the country, there’s a strong desire for density and good public transportation. So often we assume that because people move to a place like Houston and buy a suburban house that it’s because that’s what they are choosing. But those choices are heavily determined by public policy. If you are moving to Houston, what other choice have you had for the last 50 years? We need to stop assuming suburbia is the default desire of Americans and start providing actual opportunities for urban lifestyles. If the people of Houston are feeling this way, they almost certainly are everywhere else in the country.

Is Suburban Sprawl Inherently Family Friendly?

[ 239 ] May 10, 2016 |



That’s the point Jeff Turrentine makes in critiquing the new Joel Kotkin book. Suburban sprawl is about a serious of structural choices made by American policymakers that have failed the cities, both in the allowing them to go to seed in postwar period and by allowing them to turn into playgrounds for the wealthy today.

But to defend sprawl by asserting that city life “ultimately offers little for the vast majority” is almost certainly to mistake resignation for motivation. Suburbia itself is not the primary draw for many families on the move. As one of Kotkin’s critics, the writer and urban planner Josh Stephens, puts it: “In truth, a suburban preference doesn’t necessarily connote a preference for suburbs; it connotes a preference for things that suburbs tend to offer.” Everybody—from wealthy, single millennials to middle-class parents to the working poor—likes the idea of living someplace with safe streets, decently sized homes, good schools, public green spaces, and affordable rents or mortgages. The best urban planning, of course, endeavors to nurture or provide these to as many city dwellers as possible, irrespective of race or class or socioeconomic status—all while acknowledging the oversize role that cities necessarily play in our ongoing battles against pollution and climate change.

It’s no mystery as to why people want safety, beauty, quality, and affordability in a place to live. These things can be found in a suburb or an exurb, to be sure. But out there, they carry with them social and environmental costs that many people—lots more of them, I suspect, than Kotkin has estimated—simply don’t want to pay. I know that I’m not willing to pay them; nor are the thousands of middle-class families in my safe, beautiful, kid-friendly, dense—and, yes, expensive—Brooklyn neighborhood.

Kotkin is right to warn us that we mustn’t allow our cities to become culturally stratified zones: one-half playground for the rich, one-half prison for the poor. And he’s right to point out that cities, especially those undergoing revivals or renewals, need to do a better job of addressing the needs of all families, including the middle-class ones.

But he’s wrong to think that sprawl somehow represents the fulfilled desires of “the vast majority.” What sprawl represents, instead, is an eerie distortion of the things that people typically say they want from a city. That so many families are willing to settle for that distortion by moving farther and farther out—constantly redefining our urban periphery and pushing our resources, not to mention our sense of shared civic life, to the breaking point—isn’t something to be celebrated. For planners and policymakers, it’s a challenge to be met.

Cities can provide much of what suburbs do. It’s true enough that they don’t, but that’s not some inevitably. Like with, say, trade policy, what becomes naturalized in the minds of lazy pundits and the general population is actually a series of policy choices that don’t have to be made.

Was Jane Jacobs Mostly Wrong?

[ 162 ] May 6, 2016 |


OK, this is a little Slate-pitchy. But is it wrong? That’s unclear.

But as often happens when we remember the dead, nearly all of these celebrations and tributes fail to recognize Jacobs as a real person with deeply flawed ideas. Yes, she still deserves praise for challenging the urban-planning maxims of her time. But if we really want to honor her belief that cities can be nearly magical places capable of improving the lives of all of their inhabitants, we have to recognize the limits of her philosophies and the limits of the ways in which we’ve interpreted and remembered them. Looking at the Village today is a great place to start.

The same neighborhood Jacobs lauded for its diversity in the 1960s and ’70s is today a nearly all-white, aesthetically suburban playground for the rich. The average price for a two-bedroom apartment is about $5,000 a month. Those small, varied streets are still there, but the small, community-oriented businesses have been replaced by banks and restaurant chains, upscale cocktail bars, and expensive shoe stores. When I walk its streets now, I mostly feel sad and disconnected, not to mention angry that global wealth has transformed my community into an upscale mall.

Jacobs, to a certain extent, warned of the Village’s imminent transition, arguing that a neighborhood’s outstanding success can ultimately be self-undermining. People are attracted to neighborhoods like the West Village, which become more and more expensive until “one or a few dominating uses finally emerge triumphant … [and] a most intricate and successful organism of economic mutual support and social support has been destroyed by the process,” Jacobs wrote.

It’s not only the Village. Seemingly every Jacobsian paradise, from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco to the newly revitalized parts of Detroit and New Orleans, is mostly white and well-off. Governments (no doubt swayed by the urban planners whose graduate programs hew to Jacobs’ philosophies) spend millions on implementing Jacobs’ recommendations—making streets more walkable, supporting new, local businesses, de-emphasizing cars—and nearly everywhere they do, gentrification and displacement follow. Dense, pedestrian-friendly spaces don’t have to be accessible only to the affluent, of course. But without commitments to affordable and public housing and even the regulation of rent, any change to a neighborhood that increases its real-estate values will inevitably lead to increased urban inequality. When we boil down Jacobs’ ideas to their simplest dictates, we risk those unsavory consequences.

Obviously it’s unfair to blame all or maybe any of this on Jane Jacobs. But urban planning does have to be for the masses if it is to work. I do believe we can have dense, walkable cities with a lot of amenities that create community. But there’s no question that right now, it’s not working well. Part of it is the historical legacy of the urban renewal and suburbanization Jacobs spoke out against, as because there aren’t that many sections of cities that survived the postwar onslaught, a change in Americans’ values means that it’s not hard for the wealthy to control these small areas. However, the post-Jacobs vision has to include racial and class diversity if it is too be successful. We are failing that badly, as anyone living, say, in San Francisco can attest to, with the working-class, often brown and black, service workers now often commuting 2 hours from the central valleys to the city, a completely urban planning nightmare.

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