History and Housing Policy

Here’s a post on LA Streetsblog by David Levitus, an urban history PhD doing interesting work as leader of a policy and civic engagement nonprofit focused on metropolitan California. Housing is a big deal in the Golden State, with a barbell-shaped income distribution stressing housing affordability and intense debate erupting over what to do about it.

Levitus is mostly concerned here with the emergence of “YIMBY” advocates for deregulated housing construction. YIMBY is a generally developer-friendly position, holding that density, height, and other restrictions make the production of sufficient volume of housing impossible. With what Levitus calls

clear villains and Econ 101 logic at work

YIMBY arguments have gained considerable traction, and are reflected in state legislation that seeks to vigorously enforce local housing production goals and remove restrictions, particularly on large, dense developments near transit. The bill’s sponsor claims an equity and social justice rationale, claiming that this will reverse the exclusion of the working poor from desirable and transit-accessible neighborhoods, as Levitus notes:

In Wiener’s telling, the bill is about equity. He writes “The only way we will make housing more affordable and significantly reduce displacement is to build a lot more housing and to do so in urbanized areas accessible to public transportation.” More audaciously, he frames S.B. 827 as a measure that “tackles head on the ugly reality that mandated low-density zoning excludes poor people and—per the intent when low-density zoning was created 100 years ago—people of color.”

Yet, as Levitus argues, confidence that a simple approach of fostering an increase in the volume of housing stock available will reduce inequity or increase low-income Californians’ access to good housing, depends on a misreading of metropolitan history. Levitus examines several waves of US housing policy to conclude that growth has been perfectly compatible with exclusion, and that long-wave cycles of disinvestment and gentrification show that

There is a lot of money to be made by moving the color line

as investment of housing capital in poor areas bears no necessary connection to housing the residents of those areas (I blogged a while back on Michael Greenberg’s outstanding NYRB article on New York’s deficient plan to supply affordable housing through incentives to high-end developers).

Levitus calls for a revival of past housing movements that sought to build housing not as a commodity but as habitation within networks of employment and social support.

The housing justice movement by and large understands the concept of supply and demand, despite YIMBY’s complaints otherwise. Yet housing justice movements — part of a long line of “housers” and progressives interested in equitable transit-oriented development — are able to see that left alone to produce housing, the market will not meet the needs of a large proportion of the population. That was true in the late 19th century, as slums emerged. It was true in the mid-twentieth century heyday of redlining and subsidized suburbanization and urban redevelopment. And it is true today when redlining and other forms of discrimination and exploitation of the less privileged continue. The market alone does not produce good outcomes for communities who were denied the ability to accumulate wealth in previous housing booms, through redlining and because of an overall economy that has grown increasingly unequal over the last four decades.



Kerner Commission at 50

The surviving member of the Kerner Commission, convened by Lyndon Johnson to study the causes of unrest in America, has written an op-ed (supported with multiple topical graphics) for the New York Times for the occasion. Fred Harris (with Alan Curtis) observes that the commission’s core conclusion, that

our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal

is disturbingly as true today as in 1968. Graphics accompanying the essay demonstrate the resegregation of public schools, particularly showing that the retreat of federal courts from imposing or enforcing desegregation orders (as Nikole Hannah-Jones has argued) has given school districts license to segregate. They also demonstrate socioeconomic inequality, incarceration, and housing inequality on scales that would have been outlandish to the members of the Commission.

The key point is that regression from greater equality is not a product of culture, or of family breakup, or (certainly not) of a natural sorting according to racial capability. It is a product of a political retreat from equality, a political rollback of the Second Reconstruction. As Harris and Curtis conclude:

Policies based on ideology instead of evidence. Privatization and funding cuts instead of expanding effective programs.

We’re living with the human costs of these failed approaches. The Kerner ethos — “Everyone does better when everyone does better” — has been, for many decades, supplanted by its opposite: “You’re on your own.”

Interview: Nikole Hannah-Jones

Here is an interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the MacArthur-winning journalist whose reporting on school resegregation I’ve discussed here.

Interestingly, there is recent news on the school resegregation issue in metro Birmingham, where mostly white parents in an affluent area had sought, and seemingly won approval, to secede from the county school district. A federal appeals court recently overturned a prior ruling in their favor, a ruling in which Judge Madeline Haikala controversially wrote that secession was partly justified because black students might face harassment from resentful white members of the community if whites’ demands were denied (to be fair, Haikala also offered a compelling case that allowing secession within the framework of Jefferson County’s desegregation order was the best possible, though flawed, way of maintaining judicial oversight).


Subways are the Life of Big Cities

Jonathan Mahler’s article in the New York Times Magazine is a great read, and speaks beyond New York to the problems facing virtually all metropolitan transit systems in the United States. Simply put, political leaders at the state, local and federal levels in this country do not conceive of mass transit as an essential component of economic and social life:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways.

Yet, the subway in New York is plagued by archaic machinery, understaffing, and political maneuvering that prevents addressing its problems, abetted by a political culture that hypes ride sharing and other private (and inadequate) substitutes for the mobility needs of millions of New Yorkers.

Even if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, you should scroll through to look at the photos of actual in-use controls for the nation’s largest subway system. They barely qualify as Steampunk.

It’s possible to disagree with some of Mahler’s prescriptive conclusions. In particular, he suggests that the solution to MTA’s funding problems is for the agency to aggressively leverage its expansion plans to entice developers in currently underserved areas to share the profits of speculative investment; if subway expansion can make outlying landowners rich by enabling more profitable development on their land, they can return the favor to MTA. Historically, of course, this has been the model of transit-enabled graft and profiteering and, in the case of 1920s Los Angeles, wholly inadequate to secure the long-term viability of transit systems.

Indeed, New York’s problem is certainly not that the city lacks a pool of wealth sufficient to operate a world class subway system. The problem is that the owners of that wealth refuse to accept an obligation to contribute sufficiently to a public good without being rewarded.

Fulton County Sues Opioid Manufacturers

Charging that the distribution of opioid painkillers is delivering profits to the pharmaceutical industry and public health and criminal justice costs to local governments, Fulton County (GA) recently announced that it is suing a group of companies in the industry.

As federal aid to local governments has declined, and states have become stingier allocating limited block grant funds for social services, someone has to pay for the costs of overdose deaths, treatment, and jail. Under the principles established by the state settlements with tobacco companies, it should be those who profit. This is a fine example of the way that localities can use their power to push for equity (until, of course, state legislatures pass preemption laws to make such suits illegal).

Archives, Knowledge, and Information

Two things from my social feeds this week:

First, James Somers’ “Keepers of the Secrets” in the Village Voice reflects provocatively on the value of archival materials that fall between the cracks of digital search algorithms, accessible only by physical presence. NYPL archivist Thomas Lannon serves as the story’s central figure, displaying both a vast knowledge of the contents of box after box of documents, but also an equanimity about the significance of any one in particular:

That is the paradox of being an archivist. The reason an archivist should know something, Lannon said, is to help others to know it. But it’s not really the archivist’s place to impose his knowledge on anyone else. Indeed, if the field could be said to have a creed, it’s that archivists aren’t there to tell you what’s important. Historically momentous documents are to be left in folders next to the trivial and the mundane — because who’s to say what’s actually mundane or not?

That humility reflects that research in the archives is ideally a symbiosis of archivist and historian. One makes materials accessible, and the other brings contextual knowledge to find meaning in them, relating them to other documents, other narratives, other questions:

Diving into this well is one of the positive side effects of a less-than-detailed finding aid. “The best the finding aids give you is ‘Letters, 1921–1937’,” Syme said. “‘I guess I have to look at every single letter?’ Yeah, you do.” The need to pore through boxes forces you to connect with them. Syme described this as one of the few kinds of formal research left. You can’t google — you have to think about what you want. You have to talk to an archivist, and find the right box, and go through that box.

What I liked best about Somers’s article was the way that, without having to state it directly, he showed the poverty of our present conception of knowledge as mere information. What can be Googled isn’t all that matters.

The information age, unfortunately, has not left archival practices alone. While the volume of paper finding its way to archives after its bureaucratic utility is exhausted has grown, the development of archival best practices for rendering that paper accessible to researchers has purged most qualitative or critical analysis from the work:

A 2005 paper titled “More Progress, Less Process” was a wake-up call to the field. “Truly, much of what passes for arrangement in processing work is really just overzealous housekeeping, writ large…. Pointing out that as much as 80 percent of the archivists’ time was spent “refoldering,” the paper offered shortcuts that, it claimed, would make more collections available without sacrificing much in the way of intellectual accessibility.

“MPLP,” as the paper’s doctrine became known, went on to be the rallying cry of the field, even as it seemed to transform the archivist from an assiduous historian into a corner-cutting technocrat, rushing to get linear feet of record out the door (“linear feet” is an obsession in the world of archives; one standard box of folders is just over one linear foot). Indeed, most archivists got their start because they liked poring over archives. The ethos of MPLP was to read as little of a collection as you possibly could, while still ensuring that you made it usable for research.

As a former practicing historian, I recall a great frustration when my research “productivity” was evaluated by quantitative social scientists whose working assumption was that “data” is standardized and available, awaiting analysis. Maybe not everybody gets this work.

Of course, researchers can do great things make the knowledge in archives accessible in the digital stream of information. My second read to pass along is a great example, the 80s.nyc project by Jeremy Lechtzin and Brandon Liu (described here) to digitize and geocode photos, taken for tax assessment purposes, of virtually every building on every block in New York City in the 1980s. It’s easy to say that the city’s changed since the 1980s; this kind of work, by starting with archives to make information, helps you to see it too.