Does “smart-sizing” sound a lot better than “down-sizing”?

One writer suggests “down-sizing” is too negative and instead would prefer to use “smart-sizing” instead:

In the world of real estate, downsizing generally refers to reducing the size of the property you live in and the amount of stuff you have. Downsizing is something most homeowners will do at some point in their lives and it can be a very positive and necessary experience when property needs change. So why do many people have a negative reaction to the word?

When I hear someone say they are ‘downsizing,’ my writer’s imagination goes into high gear and I immediately picture this elderly couple, giving away most of their worldly possessions, leaving the home they have lived in for 50 years to move into an anonymous condo somewhere — maybe in Florida — far away from the familiar faces of friends and loved ones and the city they call home. And even though the move to a more manageable property may be a good thing for a variety of positive reasons — “downsizing” to me still feels like something is being lost…

Buying and selling property comes with some hefty emotional baggage, so why add to it by using words that can have negative associations when new, more positive selections are available?

After a quick Google search, I found precisely the right word to replace downsizing in my vocabulary: Smart-sizing. Don’t you feel a rush of positivity right now?

I’m guessing many people would prefer to affix “smart” to their own activities. But, what exactly does the term mean?

Smart-sizing means finding the right-sized property for your individual needs. It makes sense to purchase a home best suited for your lifestyle, needs and budget, at any stage in life. This applies equally to first-time home buyers who want ultra-energy efficient houses with a smaller building footprint, to property ladder climbers with expanding families, to baby boomers with shrinking families, and to seniors who would rather spend time with loved ones, or travelling, or any other form of recreation without the burden of maintaining (or paying for!) a large property.

Here is what might be happening. “Down-sizing” implies that people are getting out of the status seeking game, possibly because they can’t keep up or no longer want to. Americans tend to like bigger homes and more stuff – it is built into our individualistic, consumeristic DNA. If people are moving to a smaller home and getting rid of stuff, they are moving back down that status ladder. “Smart-sizing” gets at something else. It covers up the bigger is better consumption motives behind homes and stuff and replaces it with customization and what individual homeowners need. Some people might need a pool and hot tub, others might still want a McMansions, others might need a cheaper home that suits their income. All these people win with a “smart-sized” home that fits their needs. Others have made this pitch before; architect Sarah Susanka argues for the Not-So-Big House. However, given the lifestyles of the individual owners, such homes may not really be cheaper or all that less luxurious.

In the end, do people with “smart-sized” homes have smaller, greener homes with less stuff? Maybe…

Collecting data to see if cyclists break traffic laws more than drivers

Cyclists and drivers often do not get along but which group breaks the law more? Some researchers are hoping to find out:

These questions about sociology and infrastructure point to a more nuanced picture of what’s happening on city streets than most heated rhetoric — darn law-breaking bikers! — allows. Marshall, who co-directs the Active Communities Transportation Research Group with Kevin Krizek, wants to research this scofflaw behavior, why people say they do it (drivers and cyclists alike), and when they don’t.

As part of this research project, they and Ph.D. student Aaron Johnson and Savannah State’s Dan Piatkowski are running a survey that they hope will gather broad data on all of our behavior (go ahead and help science out here, even if you’re not a cyclist yourself).

Most of us, whatever mode we travel, break the law at some point, Marshall points out, whether we’re driving five miles over the speed limit, or crossing the street against the crosswalk. And yet, we tend not to treat lead-footed drivers with the same disapproval as cyclists who ride through stop signs, even though the former behavior is potentially more publicly harmful than the latter. Which raises another question: Are cyclists really more prolific scofflaws than drivers anyway?

More data on the scofflaws inside all of us could potentially help create safer streets, even, Marshall imagines, more productive public debate about how cars and cyclists coexist. There is some evidence, for instance, that cyclists may be less likely to ride the wrong way down one-way streets and more likely to wait at red lights when they’re given dedicated bike paths. This would make sense for a number of reasons.

I would like to think that having more data would solve the issues and help both sides look at the situation more rationally. However, I suspect both cyclists and drivers might prefer more anecdotal stories that privilege their own perspectives. People on the roads tend to get angry with the people right in front of them rather than with abstract groups. However, the data could be used to change the infrastructure – more bike lanes? more regulations for cyclists? Roads with no markings or separation from the sidewalks? – which then might have more direct effects.

Shopping malls have to renovate and adapt in order to survive

Even successful shopping malls like Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg have to innovate in order to stay relevant:

With shopping habits having been permanently reshaped by memories of the recession and the availability of new technology, traditional malls like Schaumburg’s must find new reasons for people to make the trip, said Phyllis Ezop, president of Ezop and Associates, a business strategy and marketing information firm in La Grange Park…

The factors that seem to separate the two categories are location, demographics, the strength of tenants and the availability of other amenities, such as restaurants and movie theaters, that can make the mall more of a destination, Stern said…

With the rising popularity of the largely outdoor lifestyle center, Woodfield’s 44-year-old indoor structure is especially challenged, Stern said.

One Woodfield’s negatives that a cosmetic renovation is unlikely to fix is its split-level nature. This makes the mall harder to navigate for the shopper and causes some spaces to be better than others for the tenant, he said…

“They need to have destinations there,” Aron said. “I really see it going in that direction. You can order things online, but you can’t have a great dinner online.

I’ve seen this idea in numerous discussions of planning, whether thinking about reviving a downtown or a shopping mall or a tourist locale: potential visitors need a destination, something unique to get them there. In this sense, Woodfield already is ahead of the game: it is one of the largest malls in the United States, has over 2 million square feet of retail space, and companies located there treat it as an important location (flagship stores, special concepts, etc.). But, it is not guaranteed that people will continue to visit shopping malls. These days, the hook seems to be entertainment. Sure, the mall has shopping but eating, movies, special events, and unique spaces offer entertaining experiences.

Study suggests thousands more road deaths when gas prices drop $2 a gallon

American drivers certainly like cheaper gas prices but it may come at the price of more deaths:

South Dakota State University sociology professor Guangqing Chi, who analyzes the relationship between gas prices and road fatalities, calculated what the current prices might mean for fatalities by analyzing traffic and crash data numbers from a Minnesota study he conducted from 1998 to 2007.

“A $2 drop in gasoline price can translate into about 9,000 road fatalities a year in the U.S,” Chi said on NPR’s Morning Edition Tuesday. NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam said his “jaw dropped” when he heard the “scary” number. A more conservative calculation based on Chi’s research translates into 3,000 more road deaths per year, Vedantam said…

Chi’s original Minnesota study — from which he extrapolated the 9,000 road deaths figure — showed that even a 20-cent drop in gas prices was linked to 15 additional road deaths in the state per year.

Chi told The Huffington Post by phone Tuesday that it typically takes almost a year for drivers to adopt new driving habits in response to changes in gas prices. Some analysts have predicted low gas prices will persist for the next six months or so.

Those driverless cars (with solar power and electric cars) can’t get here soon enough. Yet, Chi acknowledges that Americans have already been driving less so it will take some time to see if driving picks up just because gas prices dropped significantly.

Cities get creative in finding ways to resolve bankruptcy

As more cities face dire financial straits, here is a quick overview of the means by which different American cities have escaped bankruptcy:

When Bridgeport, Connecticut filed for Chapter 9 in 1991, they received help from a state oversight board, and also convinced Chase Manhattan to keep its Connecticut headquarters in Bridgeport which helped. There were other approaches, too, one part of which was arranging for Donald Trump to buy out 100 acres of publicly owned property to develop an amusement park and motor race track, though that never came to pass. In 1992, The New York Times reported that there were also “measures including a plan to recover delinquent property taxes by selling tax liens to a private collection agency,” as well as acquisitions for aid from the state, and “concessions from the city’s unions.”

Among the more colorful approaches in recent years was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s. In 2011, having been huckstered by a corrupt company to build an up-to-code (and ultimately faulty) trash-to-energy incinerator, the Keystone State’s capital city petitioned for Chapter 9. They sold the incinerator for $130 million, as well as auctioned off a collection of Wild West artifacts owned by a former mayor which brought in nearly $4 million. It also monetized its parking assets, which included privatizing garages, in effect doubling the price of city parking which, for virtually the first time, they began enforcing…

[Jefferson County, Alabama’s] exit from bankruptcy? They cut their payroll, as well as almost a quarter of the workforce. They shut down many of their satellite courthouses in the suburbs, in addition to a number of “nonessential” services: A nursing home sold to a private operator (to the tune of $8.3 million), a public hospital shut down, and the closing of a massive county laundry facility. Patrick Darby, who represented Jefferson County in its bankruptcy filing, said “I have to say in all fairness, what we did here is easier than it would’ve been in California or up north because we don’t have unions… we don’t have public sector unions and so we don’t have to fight that if we want to lay people off.”

So what does this all mean? Every municipality comes up with its own unique solution, and in the case of Jefferson County that meant shutting down a “charity hospital;” in New York that meant laying off 6,000 school teachers who’d leveraged their pensions; and in Vallejo that meant making it possible for the courts to compel unions to break their collective bargaining agreements, a ruling which now extends to the rest of California, and, having some of the strongest labor unions in the country, seems plausible that it could extend to other states, too. And if we’re going to talk about rhetoric, unions are the group often identified as the primary problem behind fiscal insolvency—when, rather, it’s other underlying fiscal crises that make it impossible for those municipalities to fund the pensions they’d committed to long ago. As Marc Levinson says, “It’s just that we’ve made these promises to people who’ve given their lives in service based on this promise and now we can’t afford it!”

As the article notes, “the leniency of the U.S. bankruptcy code” helps allow this creativity. But, I wonder if this kind of creativity ever runs out – what if there is a bankruptcy that is simply too big (though it is hard to imagine one bigger than New York City in the 1970s) or there are too many at once (imagine three or four major cities going through bankruptcy at the same time or within a single state, like California) or creditors and local groups are simply unwilling to budge? What happens then? We haven’t reached that point yet…

Finding residential segregation in the Long Island suburbs

Long Island might be suburban New York but there are sharp racial divides across suburban communities:

Two villages, Hempstead and Garden City, lie adjacent to one another in Nassau County. Hempstead has a medium household income of $52,000. Garden City’s is $150,000. Hempstead, in parts, resembles an inner city—with bodegas, laundromats, low-rise apartment buildings. Garden City is a suburban idyll, with tree-lined streets, gourmet grocery stores, and large colonial-style homes. Garden City is 88 percent white; Hempstead is 92 percent black and Hispanic (split about evenly). The transition between the two villages occurs within one block, a visual whiplash. See for yourself. Travel up North Franklin Street on Google maps.

“Long Island is becoming more diverse, Nassau County is becoming more diverse,” says John Logan, a Brown University sociologist who has been studying demographics since the 1970s. “But within Nassau County there’s been hardly any change in the degree of segregation. The predominantly minority areas are becoming more minority. And the predominantly white areas are staying mostly white.”

That demographic story of Nassau County, Long Island, is the story of the nation’s suburbs at large. Zoom way out, and it looks like the suburbs are becoming more diverse—a welcomed reversal of the racist housing policies of the last century that kept minorities in the cities. But zoom in, block by block, and you see that within those suburbs, stark segregational divides like the one between Hempstead and Garden City still exist…

Here’s the one data point to make that case: When Logan controls for income, he finds that blacks and Hispanics who earn over $75,000 a year live in areas with higher poverty rates than whites who make less than $40,000.

This is an old and ongoing story. As numerous scholars have pointed out, one of the first mass suburbs in the United States, the Levittown on Long Island, refused to have black residents for years. And, even as more minorities have moved to the suburbs in recent decades, whites and minorities don’t always live in the same places.

Read more about sociologist John Logan’s findings regarding Separate and Unequal in Suburbia here.

Presenting “McMansion man”

David Siegel is wealthy and known for building the largest home in the United States (see my review of the film about its construction). Could he be known as “McMansion man”? Read this headline and story:

‘McMansion’ Man Gives Everyone a Raise

You of course remember the head of the Westgate Resorts timeshare billionaire whose efforts to build the largest home in the U.S. were the subject of the documentary “The Queen of Versailles.”

When last we heard from him, he prophesied that the election of Barack Obama would lead to economic ruin. He sent an email to his employees saying that the election of Obama will “threaten your job” and mean “less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone.”

It turns out his crystal ball was clouded. In a company-wide email to employees announcing that he was raising minimum wage to $10 an hour, he noted: “We’re experiencing the best year in our history.” It is not clear what he was paying them or how many of his employees will be impacted, but a company spokesman said it numbers in the thousands.

As I’ve argued before, Siegel is building much much more than a McMansion: a 90,000 square foot home is super mansion territory and is unlikely to show up anywhere near a typical suburban subdivision. (Perhaps this is illustrated best by the years it has taken Siegel to build his gargantuan home.) Thus, I don’t think he qualifies.

Who might qualify as “McMansion man”? What might such a superhero look like? Or, given the negative attention often paid to McMansions, perhaps a super villain. If you have read a lot of the press coverage of McMansion in the last 15 years or so, perhaps one of the executives at Toll Brothers deserves the title. (But, they are now into urban building.) Maybe the McMansion protestors in Los Angeles could name such a figure.

Plans for an Internet-driven Census in 2020

The next dicennial census may just be largely conducted via Internet:

People may be asked to fill out their census forms on the Internet instead of sending them through the mail. Census takers may use smartphones instead of paper to complete their counts…

Despite outreach and advertising campaigns, the share of occupied homes that returned a form was 74 percent in 2010, unchanged from 2000 and 1990. The majority of the money the bureau spends during a census goes to getting everyone else to fill out their forms, Census Director John H. Thompson said…

Americans are ready for an Internet-driven census, officials said. During 2014 tests in in Washington, D.C., and nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, 55 percent of the families who were asked to fill out their census tests on the Internet responded without major prodding, an “exceptional response,” Thompson said. Census workers used iPhones to collect information in follow-up visits…

For government officials, going digital means they can do real-time analysis on areas to figure out which households have not responded, and be able to use their workers on the ground more efficiently, he said.

Three things I’d love to know:

1. Officials cite a high response rate but how accurate are the responses? In other words, who is likely to fill out the Census online? Internet users as a whole tend to skew toward younger and wealthier users (the digital divide) so this might skew the Internet data.

2. How exactly are households matched to email addresses? Or do people go to a website and input their own address which is then matched with a government database?

3. Given the threats to digital security, is the Census Bureau prepared to defend the data (particularly not allowing information to be matched to particular addresses?

NPR photojournal looks at “The end of Chicago’s public housing”

NPR has put together an interesting site with photos and text that explores the demolition of Chicago’s public housing. Some of the more interesting lines:

Ironically, the [Robert Taylor Homes] were named for a Chicago Housing Authority board member who resigned in 1950 — in opposition to the city’s plans to concentrate public housing in historically poor, black neighborhoods…

The buildings became hulking symbols of urban dysfunction to the suburbanites who saw them from the expressway on their daily commute…

While some have described public housing as a tangle of failed policies and urban planning, to the people who lived there, it was home. But at the end of the 1990s, like the tenement residents before them, they were told that their world would be “transformed.” Many would not be able to live there anymore…

[After the demolitions:] People lost track of each other; the housing authority lost track of them.

A lot of lives were affected even as there really hasn’t been much public conversation about the fate of the public housing residents. Ironically, removing the high-rises may just have made the problems of housing in the Chicago region – and there is a lot of need for good affordable housing, evidenced by recent sign-ups for the public housing waiting lists – even more difficult to see.

See earlier posts about the demolitions of the last high-rises at Cabrini-Green here, here, and here.

Immigrants might save the American housing market?

The real estate market may be sluggish but some data suggests immigrants offer hope with their desires to own homes:

But in some groups the dream, at least of homeownership, is alive and well. During the past two decades, immigrants have accounted for 27.5 percent of all household growth, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. When it comes to growth among younger generations, the foreign-born population is even more significant, accounting for nearly all the household growth for those under the age of 45.

Last year, immigrant households made up 11.2 percent of owner-occupied housing according to the JCHS—that’s up from only 6.8 percent in 1994…

The exact rate of homeownership varies among different immigrant groups, but overall the share of immigrants who own homes is growing. In 2000, the rate of homeownership among immigrants stood at 49.8 percent, according to a study by the Research Housing Institute of America. By 2010 the rate was 52.4 percent, and by 2020 that number will climb to about 55.7 percent, the study predicts. In the third quarter of 2014 the overall homeownership rate in the U.S. was 64.4 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

There are several reasons behind the growth rate in homeownership for immigrants, but part of the impetus may be that many immigrant populations are less cynical about the idea of homeownership than their American-born counterparts. “They view homeownership as a piece of the rock. It’s a benchmark of being settled,” says Dowell Myers, a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at USC. “They view homeownership as the American Dream and they buy into that.”…

Even more compelling are the possibilities for homeownership among the children of immigrants. “When you look at the children of immigrants they actually exceed the native born on a lot of measures: on income, on education, on homeownership,” says Masnick.

Is there some irony here if it is conservative and older whites and immigrants who buy into the American Dream of owning a home the most? Of course, they may not be buying homes in the same places given ongoing patterns of residential segregation as well as different preferences of urban, suburban, and rural living.