Good News, Bad News

A recent article by Issi Romem points toward the importance of historical perspective in urban policy arguments. By which I mean that not only are there historical patterns to the creation of exurban sprawl and its attendant social pathologies, but a useful understanding of how to reverse these effects requires policymakers (starting with the President!) to recognize that the political and cultural contexts of sprawl matter as much as land economics (indeed, are intrinsic to land economics). Romem offers a summary of key takeways that is pretty clear:

  • The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing.

  • Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas.

  • Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion.

  • Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.

The good news is that articles like this point to the phenomenon beginning to be treated less as an artifact of “choice” and more as a product of a sequence of political decisions that have left the majority of Americans with suboptimal housing situations, on top of a historical support for racial and economic segregation and drastically different communities of opportunity.

To be sure, though, Romem looks first to the market:

Why has the pace of densification decreased? One reason is national in scope: despite some fluctuations, the total amount of new housing built each decade in the U.S. has remained fairly constant since the 1950s, but because of urban expansion the area absorbing it has grown much larger. Thus, new housing is spread more thinly, which amounts to less densification. Another way of putting it is that the demand for new housing – or growth pressure – per unit of developed land is less intense than it used to be.

But, a better way of putting it might be that the costs in terms of time, driving miles, and traffic-related social alienation have been gradually shifted onto home buyers and that costs in terms of infrastructure expansion have been shifted onto taxpayers. Despite what sprawl apologists argue (for instance, Wendell Cox at Joel Kotkin’s New Geography embraces a futility thesis critique of “forced density”lateral growth controls), this is not a case of housing priorities being set by rational consumers in a free market, or of liberal-urbanist social engineers tilting in futility against sprawl that is both inevitable and beneficial. Rather, a set of politically motivated and administratively maintained subsidies and incentives to banks, builders, and (in a more conflicted sense) buyers has created sprawl (see Dolores Hayden’s classic Field Guide to start), without the consent of the majority of the people whose daily lives are affected by it. Does not “forced” apply as well to a housing market that imposes a hundred driving miles a day on a home buyer? The equity effects of this form of development are severe; though there are exceptions, mobility in highly decentralized metro areas is a severe impediment to economic opportunity for the poor.

Elsewhere, Romem acknowledges the limits of the market as an explanatory scheme for sprawl, noting that in a real-world setting, markets are affected by choices about resource allocation, and whatever the potential preferences of free agents in the marketplace, the claims made on limited transportation and infrastructure funds by exurban highway expansion are at odds with the expansion of mass transit that is necessary to prevent people from simply bringing their cars into denser developments.

It would also require a leap of faith that in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of density and transportation infrastructure, density can come first.

It’s welcome to see discussions of housing that dig beneath the superficially cheaper houses for sale in sprawling metro areas to consider costs to people, the environment, and the quality of social life.

The bad news stems from Romem’s fourth bullet point: the political (and I’m talking about institutional and cultural forms here) difficulty of enacting densification reforms in already-urbanized areas. While there have been a spate of accounts touting The End of the Suburbs as a seeming market-based response–a back-to-the-city movement based on millennials’ distaste for buying and sitting in cars and Generation X’s reaching an upper limit for commuting endurance–is at best a partial solution, because urban housing is increasing in desirability without a concomitant increase in supply because of land use regulations, cultural norms, and uncoordinated planning and development. The prospect of car-free or car-lite living may be attractive, but as a Brookings Institution report from 2014 indicated, the reduction of car commuting by young workers, while significant, represents a small reduction (workers aged 25-54 showed a 0.9 percent reduction in car commuting between 2007 and 2013).

Romem’s conclusions are intriguing, but there are significant political-economic impediments to achieving them. As Richard Florida notes, Romem describes aptly a “trilemma” of development imperatives, in which cities and metros must balance three objectives, where at least one necessarily suffers.

But this view, as apt a description of the forward-looking policy problems of density and affordability as it might be, leaves out the politics of the trilemma, and the ways in which policies that create sprawl are less a sacrifice of the desire to prevent sprawl for the sake of affordability and growth, but an affirmation of the priorities of political interest groups (real estate developers, home builders, automobile manufacturers, oil companies) in a “sprawl lobby.” Where neither Florida nor Romem quite go is to the conclusion that making density more economic effectively means making sprawl more expensive. We’ll keep waiting for that, I guess.


Of course, there is a role to play for ideas and values in the political arena, and perhaps this seemingly impossible political shift could be enabled by a powerful normative shift around lifestyle. Romem calls, among other things, for an effort to normalize multi-family housing as a child-rearing environment. Again, thinking historically, multi-family, cooperative, and other housing models have been envisioned as not only acceptable, but preferable to the domestic isolation of the single-family house. The problem is, as Dolores Hayden has written, that while the suburban single-family house was a spatial fix for the needs of the real estate, construction, and banking interests of mid-century America as much as those of working families, it met many of those families’ material and emotional needs well enough to become established, and to make alternatives appear impossible.

I’ve shown this 1957 industrial film In the Suburbs to my students for several years in the past, and it always provokes interesting responses. Lizabeth Cohen wrote about it in A Consumer’s Republic, suggesting that it heralded a transformative moment in the public embrace of consumerism. I’m a little less sure of that. The film is only incidentally touting consumer goods; it’s really selling Redbook magazine as a marketing tool to tap the wallets of “young adults” moving to the suburbs. I’ve always been struck by the amount of cultural work needed to normalize what the film subtextually portrays as a new and bewildering lifestyle.

There’s no reason to think that density can’t be as effectively sold, if there is the will to do it.

Trumpism’s Urban Roots

It’s tempting, though inaccurate, to look to articles like this weekend’s Washington Post piece following Jim Cooley, a downwardly-mobile former trucker on disability who packs an AR-15 to the local Georgia Wal-Mart while his wife uses Facebook to alert the local sheriff that his intentions are benign and unworthy of forcible response (illustrated thusly, a bit on the nose),


Photo Jabin Botsford, Washington Post

and conclude that Trumpism is a tide that laps the edges of metropolitan areas, but properly belongs to some here-be-dragons space off the map.

While this perception is largely based on the use of “non-college educated” as a shoddy statistical proxy for “working class” and ignores the higher-than-average incomes of Trump supporters, as well as their ample (if, perhaps, electorally insufficient) presence in American suburbs, it’s also worth noting that the key professional basis for Trump’s claims to the presidency (whatever their merit may be) is his career as a real estate developer. And, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that that career would be nothing without the regime of tax abatements and incentives that have characterized post-industrial urban governance in New York City and elsewhere.

Charles Bagli has that story in the New York Times. The long and short? Trump’s New York properties were built using tax abatement programs that lowered costs to Trump during development and shielded buyers of luxury condos from the full tax rate, allowing Trump to charge (and receive) higher prices to make more immediate profits. As Bagli writes, Trump’s Grand Hyatt hotel, which opened in 1980,

set the pattern for Mr. Trump’s New York career: He used his father’s, and, later, his own, extensive political connections, and relied on a huge amount of assistance from the government and taxpayers in the form of tax breaks, grants and incentives to benefit the 15 buildings at the core of his Manhattan real estate empire.

Since then, Mr. Trump has reaped at least $885 million in tax breaks, grants and other subsidies for luxury apartments, hotels and office buildings in New York, according to city tax, housing and finance records.

As a product of public subsidies that have created luxury for a privileged elite, starved the public sector, and stinted on obligations to provide affordable and integrated housing, while cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of competitive enterprise, Trump’s empire reflects the trajectory of urban America, uncomfortable though it may be to recognize.

Cities Versus States

I ran across this piece by Abby Rapoport on Politico (which sponsors some good long-form investigations when it’s not playing DC Gossip Rag), by way of Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money. It’s a good analysis of the significance of the conflict between state legislatures and municipal governments, particularly as the former have been gerrymandered to include more seats where Republican primaries decide who’s elected.

Since I’ve studied and written about this issue in some depth, I would point out that this is one of the best popular accounts of the history of preemption and the legal status of municipal power I’ve read. Rapoport gets into the technicalities of municipal home rule, gets quotes from two of the leading academic legal scholars on the subject, and explains why the subject, which even many civically engaged Americans may not understand, is critically important for democracy, by letting the local activists whose work has been preempted by state governments in Texas and elsewhere tell their stories.

What’s particularly important is Rapoport’s summary of the distinction between “minimum” preemption, where state governments establish minimum levels of regulatory or other action that city governments must meet, and “maximum” preemption, where state governments actively prohibit local governments from taking action. Many critics accurately note that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is an incubator for maximum preemption bills that specifically target corporate or social conservative boogeymen like local fracking bans, living wage laws, and anti-discrimination laws. What I hadn’t recognized before reading this account was that the strategy of maximum preemption actually goes back to the lobbying efforts of the tobacco industry:

The strategic use of maximum preemption laws dates back to the 1980s, when localities began passing smoking bans and smoke-free requirements. As court documents later revealed, R.J. Reynolds began promoting preemption because, in its own words, “state laws which preempt local anti-tobacco ordinances are the most effective means to counter local challenges.” Although further grim research findings eventually dealt the tobacco industry’s campaign mortal blows, other groups learned from its efforts. The National Rifle Association used similar tactics in the 1990s when concerns about crime prompted local gun regulations; 43 states now have some form of maximum preemption preventing localities from passing additional gun regulations on top of state law.

Which makes sense in a head-to-desk sort of way. The tobacco industry pioneered many of the denialist and doubt-seeding tactics thathave proven useful to thwart climate change action, ignore the need for gun control, and slow environmental and consumer safety laws (Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe it in Merchants of Doubt. If you’re really lazy about reading, there’s now a film).

As Americans (rightly) pay attention to the presidential election, it’s important to remember that the battles that define what kind of society we live in will be fought closer to home, in the space between state and local governments. Which space is, sadly filled with lobbyists and hacks operating largely without scrutiny because the state houses are actually far less visible to the typical person than either the Capitol or City Hall.

Loomis offers a good summary of the federalism-of-convenience for the right that I may as well quote here, since I’d be saying the same thing in different words:

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.