No to NIMBY, Yes to YIMBY

The housing issues of the Bay Area and other major cities has led to a new YIMBY movement:

The stubbornness of the NIMBYs has sparked a counter-YIMBY movement (“yes in my backyard”) among activists who believe the way out of the housing crisis is to build.

Trauss, the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SF BARF), is one of the more visible members of the growing YIMBY movement in the city. She began her activism shortly after moving to the city from Philadelphia…

The severity of the housing crisis is swinging public policy in favor of the YIMBYs. In May, Trauss and housing activists from around the state went to Sacramento to walk the halls and meet with legislators in the capitol to lobby support of Governor Jerry Brown’s latest “as of right” proposal that would streamline the permitting process for new development that meets affordable housing requirements to prevent NIMBYs from stalling proposed residential projects…

The growing organization of the YIMBYs was evidenced at their first national conference in Boulder, Colorado last weekend. The gathering included representatives from Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, and several other cities, according to The Atlantic CityLab. An international conference is planned for August in Helsinki, Finland.

It will be fascinating to see if this group gets anywhere. How do you convince wealthier residents to voluntarily give up their locational privileges? It will take a lot of sustained political pressure to go against people who have resources and close connections to local officials and people involved in real estate.

If I had to guess, I would think the YIMBY groups are led by middle class people who say that cities should be affordable to college graduates and young families who are trying to start in life. It is a different conversation to push for truly affordable housing; when the average rent in San Francisco for a 1 bedroom is over $3,000, where is there actually room for lower income residents (let alone middle class residents)?

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The geography of minority majority counties

New data on demographic change in the United States highlights counties with minority-majority populations:

In 370 counties across 36 states and the District of Columbia, non-Hispanic whites accounted for less than half the population as of July 2015. That includes 31 additional counties since 2010, such as those encompassing Fort Worth and Austin in Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and parts of suburban Atlanta and Sacramento, Calif.

Of the nation’s 3,142 counties, the so-called minority majority ones—12% of the total—represent an outsize chunk of the U.S. population since they are home to almost one-third of Americans…

In Texas, Latinos are the main group driving the shift, primarily because they are younger and have more children than whites, said Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter. Whites are also moving out of the urban cores of Fort Worth and Austin.

A notable uptick in Asian immigrants is also diversifying these cities, Mr. Potter said. Immigration from Mexico has slowed so much that the percentage of immigrants coming to Texas from Asia is almost as high as the share coming from Latin America. “That’s a very dramatic shift in a relatively short period of time,” he said.

In other words, there are two processes going on:

  1. The spread of minorities – particularly new groups since the 1965 Immigration Act – throughout all parts of the United States, including rural areas.
  2. Continued concentration of non-whites in large urban centers.

There is enough demographic change taking place across the country that many communities have new populations even as minority majority counties are still limited. All of this probably contributes to some of the geographic divides of today such as competing interests between urban, suburban, and rural groups as well as Democrats having city votes, Republicans having rural votes, and the parties fighting over suburban votes.

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Claim: liberals love cities due to “snobbery, graft, and politics”

Glenn Reynolds argues liberals like cities for self-serving reasons:

The snobbery comes from the fact that most media are headquartered in big cities and the people who work there are the kind of people who like big cities — often people who, as one of Taylor Swift’s songs has it, move to a “big ole city” in part as revenge on the places they come from. As Kotkin notes, the writers, pundits and academic types who write on the subject of cities tend to live in big cities; suburban and rural people are treated as losers, or just ignored, despite the fact that most people don’t live in big cities. And there’s a class thing going on, too. As Robert Bruegmann noted in his book, Sprawl: A Compact History, nobody minds when rich people build houses in the country. It’s when the middle class does it that we get complaints.

The graft is probably more important still: Big developments mean lots of permissions, many regulatory interactions and, of course, big budgets — all of which lend themselves to facilitating the transfer of money from developers to politicians. Frequently they’re government subsidized, which allows that money to come, ultimately but almost invisibly, from the pockets of taxpayers…

Finally, there’s politics. Politicians like to pursue policies that encourage their political enemies to leave, while encouraging those who remain to vote for them. (This is known as “the Curley effect” after James Michael Curley, a former mayor of Boston.)  People who have children, or plan to, tend to be more conservative, or at least more bourgeois, than those who do not. By encouraging high density and mass transit, urban politicians (who are almost always on the left) encourage people who might oppose them to “vote with their feet” and move to the suburbs.

This isn’t necessarily good for the cities they rule. Curley’s approach, which involved “wasteful redistribution to his poor Irish constituents and incendiary rhetoric to encourage richer citizens to emigrate from Boston,” as David Henderson wrote on the EconLog, shaped the electorate to his benefit. Result: “Boston as a consequence stagnated, but Curley kept winning elections.”

A quick response to each of these claims:

  1. I think there is indeed some urban snobbery among academics. Comparatively, there is little attention paid to suburbs even though a majority of Americans live there. Yes, it is convenient to study cities as many research schools are in large cities but to look down on other areas – usually viewed as conservative, backward, and less cosmopolitan – is not good.
  2. Cities do indeed have a lot of regulations. This is almost inevitable given their complexity. Think of cities with power laws rather than linear relationships; doubling the population doesn’t simply create twice the complexity but rather four times. As conservatives have pointed out recently, pretty much all major American cities are run by Democrats and there corruption scandals keep emerging. Yet, conservatives are not immune to such city scandals – see the example of Big Bill Thompson in Chicago. How about a different explanation: big government invites opportunities for malfeasance for all (and Democrats happen to be in charge of most big cities today)?
  3. This is an interesting argument as much as has been made in recent decades about the negative effects of white flight as well as efforts by many cities to attract younger, wealthier residents. Did big city mayors really try to keep conservatives out of cities? Take Chicago again as an example. The mayors and residents did as much as they could to stem the movement of non-whites into certain parts of the city and were fairly successful for decades. But, when their tools disappeared and demographics changed, many left. Did Mayor Richard J. Daley want this? At the same time, Daley made deals with black South Side politicians to have a reliable voting bloc. Perhaps this isn’t exactly the argument; cities really don’t want suburbanites or suburban living. Yet, David Rusk has argued for years that elastic cities – those that have been able to capture suburban growth (mostly in the South and West) – are more successful ones. So, are cities spiting themselves simply to keep a party in power?

Of course, these three reasons ignore other reasons for liking cities: economic opportunities (which both cities and suburbs can benefit from), diverse neighborhoods and public spaces, people watching, and physical and social features not found elsewhere (from skyscrapers to symphony orchestras). Even though suburbia may be more self-sustaining that many give it credit for, imagining a world of suburbs where Americans can live free without having any major cities is very difficult to imagine.

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The first control center Cold War bunker opened in 1958 in Wheaton

If the Soviet Union had unleashed nuclear weapons on the United States, perhaps the country would have gotten up and running again from a bunker in Wheaton, Illinois:

A Cold War bunker in Wheaton — hailed as America’s first Nuclear Age Civil Defense control center — is scheduled to be razed in the coming months, taking with it some of the last pieces of evidence of the tense geopolitical standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The $500,000 bomb shelter, built inconspicuously underneath a one-story highway office on DuPage County’s government campus, was constructed to house up to 60 civil defense workers to keep operations running for weeks post-atomic blast.

Its ribbon-cutting was held almost exactly a year after the USSR launched Sputnik, the man-made satellite that orbited the earth in October 1957 and heightened fears of a Soviet attack on U.S. soil. It was also a time when schoolchildren practiced “duck and cover” drills to protect themselves from nuclear explosions and women’s home magazines included tips for furnishing bomb shelters…

An entrance can be sealed off in the event of a blast and the bunker features a ceiling of 36-inch-thick reinforced concrete and 18-inch cinder block walls. Moving from room to room, I found decontamination showers, a “war room” of sorts designed for tracking Soviet attacks and a secure landline, which at one point could have connected workers to the White House.

It would be interesting to consider how the leaders of DuPage County – quite conservative politically in the decades after World War II and open to suburban growth – might have responded uniquely to the use of nuclear weapons. If the major centers of the United States were knocked out, could the county officials from suburban Chicago be counted on to get the country on the right track?

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Should Baltimore provide $535 million in TIF funds for a new private development?

The CEO of Under Armour wants to develop roughly 260 acres of land in Baltimore but is asking for public funds. A large debate has ensued:

The problem is that Plank, despite being a self-made billionaire, wants a lot of help to make his vision for Port Covington a reality. To that end, his real estate firm, Sagamore, has asked the city of Baltimore for a record-breaking $535 million in so-called tax increment financing. TIFs, as these types of loans are known, are used to fund infrastructure by selling municipal bonds to private investors, and then property taxes generated by the new development are used to pay them back. Though beloved by titans of commercial real estate, TIFs tend to draw scrutiny because they divert so much money away from a city’s general fund. MuniCap, a consulting firm that Sagamore hired to analyze its TIF application, projects that Plank’s development would not yield property tax revenue for Baltimore’s coffers until about 2040, even as the site would require substantial city resources in the interim…

“[We are] outraged that, one year after the world bore witness to the decades of disinvestment in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, city leaders would respond by bending over backwards to back a $535 million playground for the rich,” Charly Carter, the executive director of Maryland Working Families, a progressive political advocacy group, says. “This is the new Jim Crow—black and brown families subsidizing wealthy developers while our own neighborhoods crumble.”…

The campaign to remake Port Covington has been aggressive and well-funded. Sagamore has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing the development to the public, and its forceful slogan—“#WeWill build it”—suggests that the project is a fait accompli.

Which isn’t far off the mark. The Baltimore Development Corp., a public-private agency, approved Plank’s $535 million TIF request in March, and the city’s Board of Finance backed it in April. Now all it needs is the Baltimore City Council’s final approval, which could come as early as August. Activists have urged the council to postpone its vote to give the public more time to comb through the 545-page proposal. But according to Councilman Carl Stokes, who heads the body’s economic development committee, Sagamore wants the deal approved by the end of the summer.

This is often how such things are done: a wealthy business leader wants to make more money in real estate development and asks for a tax break from the city or state to help make it more profitable. (There’s nothing in this article to indicate that the Plank has threatened to move to another city.) The big city, often desperate for large projects that supposedly bring lots of jobs but also spruce up areas that few developers would be interested in, doesn’t want to hinder business. The approval is made, the money is diverted, the big development occurs, and the business leaders behind the scenes are the ones who profit the most. This is the essence of the growth machines model in urban sociology and it often involves tax breaks for developers.

What will be interesting to see is if such a project would be voted down or the money significantly cut. Again, most cities are not in the business of angering leaders of big business. But, it isn’t unheard of to negotiate for some changes to the development that might benefit more people or reduce the dependence on public funds.

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Quick Review: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

Joining the subjects of crime and architecture, A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is an interesting if not repetitive read. Some thoughts about a book that would intrigue many general readers:

  1. Manaugh’s main argument is that criminals – burglars in particular – see buildings and cities in very different ways compared to architects. While architects assume people will use the correct entrances and the rest of the building as it is intended, burglars are always looking for unique ways in and out of buildings which leads to going through walls, roofs, and floors. Additionally, the locations of buildings can significantly affect burglary – such as the banks right next to highway on and off ramps in the Los Angeles area. In other words, these criminals are hackers of the built landscape.
  2. Manaugh talks to a number of law enforcement people and records some interesting insights. The best people he talks to are from Los Angeles as he travels with the helicopter crews and tries to see the city from above as well as spot criminal activity from this vantage points.
  3. Oddly, Manaugh doesn’t spend much time talking to architects. Do they think they should pay more attention to possible criminal behavior? Do they need to change how they think about buildings? He does talk to one creator of safe rooms.
  4. Overall, Manaugh seems a bit in awe of the burglars who can see the landscape in the ways that no one else can. He basically admits this at the beginning of the last chapter – he likes heist films – and admits at a few points that the vast majority of burglaries are connected to drugs.

This is an interesting read and those who like examples of daring criminals – such as those bank robbers who build tunnels under bank vaults, emerge from the floor, and escape through water tunnels on 4x4s – will find plenty to like. Yet, Manaugh doesn’t go far enough to connecting of how architects and city planners should respond or even if they should – perhaps this is just collateral damage of living in American cities today.

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Exploring underground cities

Curbed takes a quick look at a number of underground cities around the world. I’ve highlighted a few – the ones that were not constructed for defense purposes:

SubTropolis (Kansas City, Missouri)

Hardly hidden—the development has its own logo—this huge warren of business parks carved into ancient bluffs that line the Missouri River claims to be the world’s largest underground storage facility and business park. Since opening in 1964, this constantly expanding operation, carved into former limestone mines and expanding at roughly 3.2 acres a year, has become a massive commercial success, attracting tenants such as Postal Service, the EPA, a cloud computing company, a food processing plant, and even a special firm that stores old film reels. Turns out giving up sunlight has plenty of business advantages; underground living means a constant temperature, virtually eliminating heating and cooling bills...

Underground City (Montreal, Canada)

Recently renamed RÉSO, a play off the French word reseau (network), this huge tunnel complex spread out underneath Quebec’s biggest city is a lot more utopian than many of the other entries on the list. The city, which now counts 20 miles of tunnels and more than 120 surface entry points, began in 1962 as passageways around and through the Place Ville-Marie, a shopping mall designed by I.M. Pei that helped hide an unsightly former rail depot. Decades later, it has expanded into a massive shopping a recreation district, including a hotel and hockey rink, and stands as one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods, most popular tourist attractions, and an escape from winter weather...

Helsinki Underground City (Helsinki, Finland)

In a bid to develop within its limited footprint, this Finnish city decided to build underground a few years ago, linking shopping centers and a metro station. Currently, a swimming pool, hockey rink, and church can all be found below the surface. Construction stretches nearly 100 feet below the surface, and the city has a master plan for roughly 200 new underground projects in the works, hoping to connect the region and expand space for industrial facilities, leaving the surface free for more aesthetically pleasing development.

These are quite different from abandoned facilities; these are locations that intentionally have sought out underground space for social activity. At the least, these take advantage of space that otherwise would not be used. Land is expensive in many cities so finding new space – same location, just underground rather than building up – can be quite advantageous. Additionally, such spaces can block out weather and utilize natural cooling and heating. I also imagine the underground status gives them some extra measure of cool. Contrast “do you want to go to the mall” with “do you want to go to the underground mall,” particularly for tourists or teenagers. However, if every city has some underground area (just like if every one has an elevated park like the High Line), they all may become less interesting.

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A significant minority of Chicago area residents can’t find affordable housing

A new report suggests many Chicago area residents – poor and wealthier – have difficulty finding affording housing:

To identify “distressed homeowners and renters,” researchers used a housing rule of thumb that requires affordable housing to cost no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross income. In Chicago, 48 percent of people said they were devoting more than 30 percent of their income to rent or a mortgage. In the suburbs, 40 percent were stretching beyond the manageable 30 percent limit.

According to the research, 11 percent of households in Chicago had cut back on healthy food, and 12 percent had made cuts in health care to afford housing. Another 11 percent moved to less safe areas.

While the problem of finding affordable housing is most acute among people ages 18 to 34, African-Americans and households with incomes under $40,000, 49 percent of those in households with incomes over $75,000 said “it’s challenging to find affordable housing in my area.” Sixty-six percent of people with incomes under $40,000 noted the challenge…

In the Chicago area, 87 percent of adults said having stable housing that is affordable is a very important part of having a secure middle-class lifestyle, while 67 percent said it’s harder to afford stable housing than for previous generations.

Housing is crucial for many other areas in life as it influences daily well-being (do you feel safe?), schools that kids go to, amenities (local municipalities, recreation, retail, etc.) available nearby, what kind of neighbors you will interact with, commuting times, and more. So, if you don’t have the resources to live in a nicer community or have to stretch yourself, that will have consequences.

Is it time to reconsider the 30% rule? Of course, if you spend more than 30% on housing then you have to cut back elsewhere. But, given the housing bubble of the last decade and perhaps a new normal of higher rents and less new cheaper housing, perhaps Americans may have to devote more to housing in the future?

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Mr. Selfridge got his start in Chicago’s department stores

Henry Gordon Selfridge hit it big in London (and on PBS) but got his start in Chicago’s burgeoning department store scene:

“Within a short time after he entered the employ of the Field store he met the first Marshall Field and made a favorable impression by asking for a job as manager of his department,” the Tribune recalled upon Selfridge’s death in 1947. “He won the job and from then on his rise was rapid.”He proved to have a knack for advertising, then a rare business skill. He was the first to promote holiday sales with the reminder: “Only ___ shopping days until Christmas.” Some credit Selfridge with the department store’s celebrated motto: “The customer is always right.”

In 1890, he became a partner in Marshall Field’s and married Rose Buckingham, a member of a prominent Chicago family. One of Rose’s bridesmaids, Kate Buckingham, donated Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. An entrepreneur in her own right, Rose bought property on Harper Avenue between 57th and 59th streets, where she built and sold 42 homes. She also was an accomplished horticulturist. The Tribune reported she had a collection of 2,000 orchids…

The girls got a shot at marrying into the nobility because their father transferred the family’s fortunes to England, almost on a whim. In 1904, Harry Selfridge sold his interest in Marshall Field’s for $1.5 million and bought another Chicago department store, a few blocks south on State Street…

Yes, there was a Selfridge’s in Chicago before there was one in London. But not for long. Having bought it in May, he sold it in June — and the new owners renamed it Carson Pirie Scott & Co. Selfridge then went for a visit to London, where he discovered two differences between doing business there and in Chicago.

Chicago contributed much to the development of department stores which helped transform American retailing. Perhaps London makes for a more attractive place to tell the department store story but Chicago would be a pretty interesting setting in itself with department stores around the turn of the century. Why continue the Dick Wolf Chicago Fire/Med/PD/Justice system when you could go back into an even quicker changing era. Additionally, it would be interesting to see someone tie together several strands of American stores: from general stores and department stores to the big box companies and ubiquitous chain pharmacies of today.

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