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.

This is Encouraging

The Intercept has posted what seems to be a leaked Pentagon video about the challenges, from a counterinsurgency and governing perspective, of mega-urbanization. If you’ve been keeping up on your dystopian futurism (my current favorite is Margaret Atwood’s treatment of the Pleeblands outside of the corporate compounds in her Maddadam trilogy, but YMMV) you will recognize a lot of this.

What’s interesting is that the broader alternate possibilities of promoting democratic and humane cities is completely outside the frame for the Department of Defense. If your only tool is a hammer, you start complaining about how many nails there are and wondering why they won’t sit still.

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.