Australia losing 800 older houses a week

One writer highlights the demolition fate of numerous older homes in Australia:

A record 800 heritage and “character” houses are falling under demolition hammers each week, destroying miles of unique streetscapes and slicing billions off their value…

Original houses remaining in a streetscape transformed by a “McMansion” (a house or apartment considered to be ostentatious or lacking in architectural integrity) can lose between 10 and 25 per cent of their value from the loss of street appeal, say property specialists.

It could also be a short-sighted strategy for owner-developers because scarcity of character houses, which in many cases can be adapted to modern living requirements, will continue to increase their value, according to buyers’ agents (independent consultants acting for property purchasers)…

The “nightmare on main street” for home owners who want to retain the integrity of their neighbourhoods is worsened by the multiplicity of planning rules and codes, which often provide contradictory outcomes.

This sounds very similar to American arguments against teardown McMansions: (1) the large new homes often do not fit the character of the neighborhood; (2) this change in character affects the property values of people in the neighborhood; and (3) local governments and agencies are often limited in what they can or will do in response. Aesthetics is not an unimportant point nor is historic preservation but the economics work for someone (particularly builders/developers as well as the new owners, as noted above) if teardowns keep happening in American and Australian communities.

This article seems to appeal to local authorities to check the spread of teardowns; there are a variety of ways to combat McMansions.

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Visualizing immigration to the United States

Here are three interesting visualization options – an animated map and two infographics – to see immigration to the United States. Three quick thoughts:

  1. The map really does help illustrate the various stages of immigration. It starts from Western Europe, moves significantly to Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, and then opens to Mexico, east Asia, and other parts of the globe in the 1960s.
  2. It is unfortunate that the arrivals from Asia have to go over the “break” in the map since it has the Atlantic in the center. At first, I couldn’t figure out where the dots coming into the United States from the left were coming from.
  3. The second infographic provides some proportional context: even with the jump in migrants from Mexico, they represent a smaller proportion of the total U.S. population than the immigration spikes in the 1800s.
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Why would we want to promote more HOAs with a tax break?

A new proposal in Congress would allow members of a HOA to deduct their association fees from their federal taxes:

Upward of 67 million people live in these communities — ranging from sprawling master-planned subdivisions down to individual condominium or cooperative developments. As of 2014, they contained nearly 27 million housing units. Their homeowners associations often provide the functional equivalents of municipal and county services, and residents nationwide pay roughly $70 billion a year in regular assessments to fund road paving and maintenance, snow removal, trash collection, storm water management, maintenance of recreational and park facilities, and much more.

The same residents also pay local property taxes to municipal, county or state governments. But unlike other homeowners, only their local property tax levies are deductible on federal tax filings. Their community association assessments that pay for government-type services are not.

Now a bipartisan group of congressional representatives thinks that’s inequitable and needs to be corrected. Under a new bill known as the HOME Act (H.R. 4696), millions of people who live in communities run by associations would get the right to deduct up to $5,000 a year of assessments on federal tax filings, with some important limitations…

The bill’s primary author is Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif. Co-sponsors include Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Barbara Comstock, R-Va.. Though the bill has little chance of moving through the House or Senate during this election year, it sends a message to the legislative committees now working on possible tax code changes for next year: Congress needs to acknowledge the role the country’s community associations play in providing municipal-type services. The way to do it is to allow deductions on a capped amount of the money residents are required to pay to support community services.

It will be fascinating to see what sort of formula is used to calculate these deductions as the fees paid to associations do not cover all sorts of municipal services used outside of the association.

At the same time, won’t this promote more HOAs, or at least make them more attractive? And do we really want more? They certainly are popular but they continue a trend that is not necessarily good for society: privatizing municipal goods and helping neighbors guarantee their property values. For the first, instead of paying a municipal government, a new layer of private government is enabled to take care of certain services. Americans tend not to like more and more layers of fees and government. However, this might be outweighed by the second factor: the HOAs help keep the neighbors in line without owners directly having to interact with other neighbors. Instead of possibly having to live next to the neighbor who paints their house purple and starts a garden in the front yard, the HOA polices this. In other words, this tax break might help more and more Americans work out civic life through private associations that they see as a necessary evil.

Given all of the HOAs, is there any analysis that shows they pay off financially in the long run either for the property owners or the municipalities?

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Richard Florida: we lack systematic data to compare cities

As he considers Jane Jacobs’ impact, Richard Florida suggests we need more data about cities:

MCP: Some of the research around the built environment is pretty skimpy and not very scientific, in a lot of cases.

RF: Right. And it’s done by architects who are terrific, but are basically looking at it from the building level. We need a whole research agenda. A century or so ago John Hopkins University invented the teaching hospital, modern medicine. They said, medicine could be advanced by underpinning the way doctors treat people and develop clinical methodologies, with a solid, scientific research base. Think of it as a system that runs from laboratory to bed-side. We don’t have that for cities and urbanism.  But at the same time we know that the city is the key economic and social unit of our time. Billions of people across the world are pouring into cities and we are spending trillions upon trillions of dollars building new cities and rebuilding, expanding and upgrading existing ones. We’re doing it with little in the way of systematic research. We lack even the most basic data we need to compare and assess cities around the world. There’s no comparable grand challenge that we have so terribly under funded as cities and urbanism. We need to develop everything from the underlying science to better understand cities and their evolution, the systematic data to assess them and the educational and clinical protocols for building better, more prosperous and inclusive cities. Right now, mayors are out there winging it. Economic developers are out there winging it. There’s no clinical training program. There are some, actually, but they’re scattered about and they’re not having much impact. It’s going to take a big commitment. But we need to build the equivalent of the medical research infrastructure, with the equivalent of “teaching hospitals” for our cities.  When you think of it cities are our greatest laboratories for advancing our understanding the intersection of natural, physical, social and human environments—they’re our most complex organisms. This is going to be my next big research project: I’m calling it the Urban Genome Project. It’s what I hope to devote the rest of my career doing.

The cities as laboratories language echoes that of the Chicago School. But, much of the sociological literature suggests a basic tension in this area: how much are cities alike compared to how much are they different? Are there common processes across most or all cities that we can highlight and work with or does their unique contexts limit how much generalizing can be done? Hence, we have a range of studies with everything from examining large sets of cities at once or processes across all cities (like Florida would argue in The Rise of the Creative Class) versus studies of particular neighborhoods and cities to discover their idiosyncratic patterns.

Of course, we could just look at cities like a physicist might and argue there are power laws underlying cities…

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Getting big companies to pay more for local infrastructure

The mayor of Cupertino, California wants Apple to pay more for local roads and other services:

Many people in Cupertino, a 60,000-person town in the heart of Silicon Valley, are beginning to organize around their overburdened city. They claim the region is struggling with aging infrastructure and booming companies whose effective tax rate is often quite low. Frustrated by traffic and noise, some in Cupertino are trying to put a stop to more development, which they argue brings more congestion on the roads, parking and train system. But Chang says limiting new development would damage the regional economy and that the real solution should be higher taxes on the wealthy and companies such as Apple…

Convincing local politicians to battle Apple is hard, Chang said. He recently proposed that Apple – which is building a massive new campus its own employees nicknamed the Death Star, or more favorably, The Spaceship – should give $100m to improve city infrastructure. To move on the proposal, Chang only needed to get a single vote ‘yes’ among the three other eligible council members. He failed to get that vote…Meanwhile, the mayor of Cupertino plans to keep pushing Apple to contribute more to the town. Apple paid $9.2m in tax revenue to Cupertino in 2012to 2013, which was about 18% of the city’s general fund budget, according to an economic impact report. Coincidentally that was also exactly the same amount CEO Tim Cook was paid in 2014.

Chang is now working on proposals for a business employer tax that would make companies with more than 100 workers pay $1,000 per employee. Chang argues the employer tax is less regressive than the competing program: a higher sales tax.

Local politicians are often in a tough position in situations like this. Large companies provide prestige and jobs. Many communities would love to have white-collar offices that contribute property taxes and opportunities for local residents. These are such desirable facilities that states and communities race to the bottom in providing tax breaks. (See an example here as well as contrast this to a rural town rejecting a meat processing plant.) Yet, large companies may make heavy use of local services as well as be perceived as sending most of their profits out of the community. So, what do you do when your town needs to pay for roads or the police department or schools and the majority of residents don’t want to pay higher taxes?

I’m guessing that Cupertino has little leverage, particularly if fellow officials and residents are unwilling to go against the big company. Yet, perhaps sustained pressure and some negative publicity might help; one Chicago suburb and its large hospital reached an agreement to help the community meet basic infrastructure needs.

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Just how much historical preservation is too much?

The source of this information is on one side of the issue but it is an interesting question to consider: just how much historic preservation of buildings is too much?

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Act was intended to protect about three or four “historic districts”—Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, etc.—preservationist James Van Derpool told the New York City Council in 1964. That’s all “anyone had seriously considered.”

The Landmarks Act  was passed the following year thanks in part to Van Derpool’s testimony. A half-century later the city has protected 138 historic districts. Nearly a third of the structures in Manhattan have been landmarked. As I argued in a Reason TV video published last year, entire swaths of New York City may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. Out-of-control landmarking is undermining the process of creative destruction that made New York, well, New York…

What justifies these two designations? Landmarks Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan was left straining. She lauded the Pepsi sign for “its prominent siting” and “frequent appearances in pop culture.” The Park Slope blocks are part of an area, Srinivasan explained, that “owes its cohesiveness to its tree-lined streets, predominant residential character, and its high level of architectural integrity.”

If “prominent siting,” “tree-lined streets,” “residential character,” and “architectural integrity” are grounds for landmarking, what’s to stop the Commission from declaring every square inch of the Big Apple too precious to ever change?

Here are the two sides of the issue:

  1. The preservationists will argue that buildings and streetscapes need protecting because (1) capitalism and free markets tend to bulldoze meaningful structures for current residents and future generations in pursuit of progress and (2) residents of particular places should expect that features of the location that helped draw them there should remain there.
  2. Reason and others would argue that such restrictions limit the free market, stopping progress and natural processes of neighborhood change. Such regulations constrict the market for property which can drive up prices as well as freeze areas in time even as the world has moved on to better things.

Perhaps there is some middle point or range where both parties can get what they want? This opinion piece suggests nearly a third of Manhattan is simply too much but where is the empirical evidence to support this? Is Manhattan development suffering because of this? As is common in social life, neither side will likely get all that they want – no such designations vs. always having to get approval from the neighbors when building a new structure – so some compromise should be reached.

It would also be interesting to look at the level of historic preservation in wealthier vs. poorer areas. Can more of Manhattan be saved because there are resources to do so versus an inability to save many noteworthy structures in poorer American neighborhoods because there are few organizations who could handle the burden? In other words, perhaps historic preservation is an issue largely faced by wealthier communities who can afford to protect some of their gloried past.

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Claim: Facebook wants to curate the news through an algorithm

Insiders have revealed how Facebook is selecting its trending news stories:

Launched in January 2014, Facebook’s trending news section occupies some of the most precious real estate in all of the internet, filling the top-right hand corner of the site with a list of topics people are talking about and links out to different news articles about them. The dozen or so journalists paid to run that section are contractors who work out of the basement of the company’s New York office…

The trending news section is run by people in their 20s and early 30s, most of whom graduated from Ivy League and private East Coast schools like Columbia University and NYU. They’ve previously worked at outlets like the New York Daily News, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and the Guardian. Some former curators have left Facebook for jobs at organizations including the New Yorker, Mashable, and Sky Sports.

According to former team members interviewed by Gizmodo, this small group has the power to choose what stories make it onto the trending bar and, more importantly, what news sites each topic links out to. “We choose what’s trending,” said one. “There was no real standard for measuring what qualified as news and what didn’t. It was up to the news curator to decide.”…

That said, many former employees suspect that Facebook’s eventual goal is to replace its human curators with a robotic one. The former curators Gizmodo interviewed started to feel like they were training a machine, one that would eventually take their jobs. Managers began referring to a “more streamlined process” in meetings. As one former contractor put it: “We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”

The angle here seems to be that (1) the journalists who participated did not feel they were treated well and (2) journalists may not be part of the future process because an algorithm will take over. I don’t know about the first but is the second a major surprise? The trending news will still require content to be generated, presumably created by journalists and news sources all across the Internet. Do journalists want to retain the privilege to not just write the news but also to choose what gets reported? In other words, the gatekeeper role of journalism may slowly disappear if algorithms guide what people see.

Imagine the news algorithms that people might have available to them in the future: one that doesn’t report any violent crime (it is overreported anyway); one that only includes celebrity news (this might include politics, it might not); one that reports on all forms of government corruption; and so on. I’m guessing, however, Facebook’s algorithm would be proprietary and probably is trying to push people into certain behaviors (whether that is sharing more on their profiles or pursuing particular civic or political actions).

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Why small rural towns turn down economic development opportunities

Not every rural small town wants to add a meat processing plant:

Regional economic development officials thought it was the perfect spot for a chicken processing plant that would liven up the 400-person town with 1,100 jobs, more than it had ever seen. When plans leaked out, though, there was no celebration, only furious opposition that culminated in residents packing the fire hall to complain the roads couldn’t handle the truck traffic, the stench from the plant would be unbearable and immigrants and out-of-towners would flood the area, overwhelming schools and changing the town’s character…

The village board unanimously voted against the proposed $300 million plant, and two weeks later, the company said they’d take their plant — and money — elsewhere.

Deep-rooted, rural agricultural communities around the U.S. are seeking economic investments to keep from shedding residents, but those very places face trade-offs that increasing numbers of those who oppose meat processing plants say threaten to burden their way of life and bring in outsiders…

Nickerson fought against Georgia-based Lincoln Premium Poultry, which wanted to process 1.6 million chickens a week for warehouse chain Costco. It was a similar story in Turlock, California, which turned down a hog-processing plant last fall, and Port Arthur, Texas, where residents last week stopped a meat processing plant. There also were complaints this month about a huge hog processing plant planned in Mason City, Iowa, but the project has moved ahead…

The question of who would work the tough jobs was at the forefront of the debate, though many were adamant they aren’t anti-immigrant. Opposition leader Randy Ruppert even announced: “This is not about race. This is not about religion.”

On one hand, not all jobs are necessarily good jobs. On the other hand, there seem to be larger issues at play: who will get these jobs? What happens when all the workers – who may not share the background of the small town – show up? It would be intriguing to explore what changes to the processing plants would lead to support from community members: guarantees of local hires? Higher wages? No minorities hired?

It would also be worth tracking where these processing plants end up. What one community turns down may be seen as an economic savior in another area. For example, scholars have noted the rise of immigrant populations in American rural areas in recent decades including places like Iowa and Georgia which don’t have the traditional immigrant gateway big cities.

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High performing school districts driving residential segregation

A new sociological study suggests schools are helping lead to residential segregation:

Study author Ann Owens, an assistant professor of sociology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, examined census data from 100 major U.S. metropolitan areas, from Los Angeles to Boston. She found that, among families with children, neighborhood income segregation is driven by increased income inequality in combination with a previously overlooked factor: school district options.

For families with high income, school districts are a top consideration when deciding where they will live, Owens said. And for those in large cities, they have multiple school districts where they could choose to buy homes.

Income segregation between neighborhoods rose 20 percent from 1990 to 2010, and income segregation between neighborhoods was nearly twice as high among households that have children compared to those without…

She recommended that educational leaders should consider redrawing boundaries to reduce the number and fragmentation of school districts in major metropolitan areas. They also should consider designing inter-district choice plans and strengthening current plans within districts to address inequities.

Generally, wealth and race leads to residential segregation but it is interesting to see through what mechanisms this works. As Bourdieu (and others) suggested, schools tend to reproduce existing social stratification and here they work to reify desirable housing locations.

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Cut LA planning staff and expect more McMansions

Critics suggest that cutting several city employees will lead to more McMansions in Los Angeles:

Garcetti’s 2016-2017 budget calls for cutting two staff jobs in the seven-member Neighborhood Conservation division.

The division helps prepare historical designations — or Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) — for neighborhoods with distinctive architectural or cultural features. An HPOZ designation can help a neighborhood from overdevelopment by setting strict building guidelines, such as requiring that homes have a similar exterior look.

HPOZ designations are in place in dozens of neighborhoods, including Hancock Park, Van Nuys and University Park.

The mayor’s proposed Planning Department budget — released last week as part of his overall $8.7 billion spending plan for next fiscal year — comes at a crucial time for the Neighborhood Conservation division, advocates say. The office is racing to finish HPOZ designations for six areas before a law outlining teardowns of homes in those neighborhoods expires.

Usually such jobs in local government draw little attention, particularly when the city employs over 45,000 people and Los Angeles County has more than 100,000 employees. Yet, a relatively small set of city employees can oversee relatively large or influential projects. And the battle over McMansions in Los Angeles is not over as this tidbit later in the article suggests:

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is leading a March 2017 ballot measure initiative that would temporarily halt construction of so-called mega-projects in the city.

In Los Angeles, the competing forces of an expensive housing market plus property rights will be fighting the forces of historic preservation for a while yet.

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