Ah, another story of an overzealous Census surveyor

Worried the Census Bureau is going to force compliance in answering its surveys? Here is another story of a zealous employee:

An East Dallas woman is outraged after she claims one U.S. Census worker showed up at her door for a housing survey and would not take “no” for an answer…

“She’s ringing the bell, knocking on the door. And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to participate.’” Said Platz. The East Dallas resident said it started with a series of three letters from the U.S. Census Bureau. A few days later after receiving the third later, a census worker showed up. Her husband verbally declined.

But a few days later, a different worker showed up at their home and would not leave according to Platz…

The census worker sat on the bumper of her van for the next 30 minutes. Sonia said the worker would only get up from the back of her van every few minutes to see if she had changed her mind about taking the housing survey…

It was a real federal census worker according to the regional office that covers Dallas. A supervisor confirmed more than 100 other workers are out in the area conducting the same work. The regional office said employees are encouraged to be “pleasantly persistent” and never take “no” for an answer at first.

I would guess that at least 95%+ of Census workers don’t cause such problems. But, an occasional case of Census workers who really want survey responses may be enough to keep people worried. And it would be interesting to hear how the Census Bureau deals with such employees.

To be snarky about it, perhaps people shouldn’t worry too much about the zealous Census worker as the NSA could just gather the relevant information without anyone knowing…

Three reasons Millennials are driving less and going fewer places overall

A new study attributes less driving among Millennials to three factors:

The truth might be a little of this, a little of that, and even some of the other. That’s the takeaway from a new analysis of Millennial driving habits from transport scholar Noreen McDonald of the University of North Carolina. Writing in the Journal of the American Planning Association, McDonald attributes 10 to 25 percent of the driving decline to changing demographics, 35 to 50 percent to attitudes, and another 40 percent to the general downward shift in U.S. driving habits…

What makes McDonald’s work especially useful and compelling is that she compared the travel patterns of Millennials (born between 1979 and 1990, by her definition) with those of Generation X (born 1967-1978) at the same age. So she looked at driving data (both trips and miles) from tens of thousands of individuals in 1995, 2001, and 2009 alike.

But, it isn’t just that Millennials are driving less – they are going fewer places overall.

This analysis provides evidence of a long-term decrease in automobility that started in the late 1990s with younger members of Gen X and has continued with the Millennial generation. The decrease in driving has not been accompanied by an increase in other modes of travel or a decline in average trip length, meaning that younger Americans are increasingly going fewer places.

Those smartphones are media gadgets are pretty compelling and make accessing the rest of the world easier. Perhaps there is less need to wander and display independence by leaving the house. Maybe all those fears about crime out there have crept in for a whole generation.

If local mobility is reduced, does this mean this newer generation of Americans will have less geographic mobility within the United States (fewer moves or significant moves throughout their lives)?

Why can’t suburbanites see the destruction and ugliness of sprawl?

Benjamin Ross, transit and environmental activist, makes his position on the suburbs clear in the Introduction to his 2014 book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.

Yet lively, stable, and economically diverse neighborhoods remain hard to find. Decay and gentrification keep nibbling away at what escaped the wrecking balls fo the mid-twentieth century. Builders hasten to transform old factory districts into city neighborhoods. But with their wide streets, condos, and chain stores, the new urban quarters still seem less appealing than places built a century and more ago.

Meanwhile, ugly suburbs still spread outward, consuming rural land and carrying the failings of their predecessors to new extremes. Cheap townhouses, tony high-rise apartments, and pretentious McMansions scatter across the landscape, entangled in an ever-expanding web of highways and parking lots…

I puzzled over questions with import far beyond my own suburbs. Why is our nation still addicted to sprawl, so long after experts raised the alert? What is the compulsion that keeps us building what so many revile? Why are urban streets, so much in demand, so rarely supplied? Why do attempts at cure so often worsen the disease? How can we break free of our addiction, and create the cities we desire? (p. 3-5)

A clear position and I suspect a perspective that Joel Kotkin would dislike. Even with the truth that is present in Ross’ opening statements – Americans have politically and socially supported using more land, building bigger houses, privileging the car over other forms of transportation – this does seem to carry a familiar refrain from suburban critics: why can’t the suburbanites just see all those ugliness and destruction? Why don’t the experts carry more weight? That story is a complicated one and presenting someone with the facts of suburbia likely isn’t enough to change their mind. That single-family home with a lawn and the dream of a better life is hard for many Americans to imagine elsewhere.

I’ll post about a few more interesting points from Dead End in the next week or so.

The doomed black suburb of Lincoln Heights, Ohio

Here is a look at an early black suburb outside of Cincinnati that has fallen on hard times in recent years:

Then, as Lincoln Heights residents waited to incorporate, the county allowed white landowners in nearby Woodlawn to incorporate, giving much of the western part of what would have been Lincoln Heights to the white town. Then the county gave much of the eastern part of what would have been Lincoln Heights to another new white town, Evendale, including the land where the Wright plant was located. The residents of Lincoln Heights challenged this move in court but lost…

When the county finally allowed the city to incorporate, in 1946, the boundaries were radically different than black residents had once hoped, encircling about 10 percent—one square mile—of the original proposal. The village now included no major factories or plants and no industrial tax base…

But over time, Lincoln Heights residents found it more difficult to maintain that sense of community. For one thing, the jobs in nearby towns in factories and chemical plants started to disappear as American manufacturing began to shrink in the 1970s and 1980s. As unemployment rose, Lincoln Heights lacked a tax base deep enough to underwrite community development and other social-welfare programs. Soon, it became obvious to anyone who grew up in Lincoln Heights that if you wanted to make something of yourself, you had to get out. People who grew up in Lincoln Heights and were lucky enough to go away to college didn’t come back. Those who stayed largely were the ones who couldn’t get out…

Last year, two nonprofit groups, the Cincinnatus Association and Citizens for Civic Renewal, put out a study that concluded that Cincinnati and its suburbs needed to cooperate—consolidate local governments and share services—to thrive. The idea was supported by an editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which argued that cooperation could reduce inequality.

This is a common story among American cities and suburbs: when annexation boxes in communities, they lose the possibility of enlarging their tax base through acquiring more land and development opportunities. See David Rusk’s work in Cities Without Suburbs for more about how elastic cities – those that could annex because of different state laws (primarily in the South and West as compared to the Rust Belt) – have more positive social and economic outcomes. Any suburb would have a hard time recovering from the loss of major job centers and that it was a black community only made it worse.

This case also contradicts the argument that minorities moving to the suburbs is necessarily a positive thing. There are many poor non-white suburban communities and it may be even more difficult to provide social services and pursue economic development there.

For a look at some of the early black suburbs in the United States, see Andrew Wiese’s Places of Their Own.

Houses cursed when can’t sell at original asking price?

Here are brief descriptions of two large Chicago area homes that might be “cursed”:

It’s not the only house in Chicago afflicted with bad juju, but it’s one that has it all: an overspending celebrity (former NBA player Antoine Walker, who built it for his mother), a house way bigger than anything anywhere around it, floods both before and since the foreclosure, and now a series of unconsummated sales. There’s even a lawsuit, which Mack filed in December against a buyer who was under contact to purchase the house last summer for $900,000 but backed out…

The years-long saga of the mansion took yet another twist last year, McClelland said, when a sprinkler on the top floor broke, spilling water down the main staircase and into the kitchen and other rooms. A sizable chunk of the rehab work was ruined, McClelland said…

The Tinley Park manse is not the only snake-bit property around. A three-acre property in Schaumburg that includes a Tudor-style ranch house and an adjacent guest castle complete with three-story turrets and battlements has been on the market since 2009, originally priced at $2.4 million. Several years ago, seller Christopher Kowalski acknowledged that what began as a whimsical project “got out of hand.”

The property has been under contract twice, in 2012 and this past April, but in the end neither buyer has gone on to wear the crown. When the April sale fell through, it was relisted June 29, now at $759,000. The listing agent, Nelson Avila of Accord One Real Estate, did not respond to a request for comment, and Kowalski could not be reached.

I get the idea that housing going for a much reduced rate is not something that realtors like. But, I don’t think “cursed” is the right word here for two reasons:

1. There are not guarantees that houses should retain their value. Granted, most people don’t expect to lose money when they purchase a home. (Hence the angst over the burst housing bubble of the late 2000s.) Yet, these two houses seem to be unusual for their area and there are only so many wealthy buyers.

2. I suspect many readers would read “cursed” as “haunted” or some other horror story descriptor. Ghosts? Violent crimes? Weird sounds and noises? Oh, you mean the house just won’t sell anywhere near an older value? That’s something different than cursed.


New Federal website shows complaints about mortgage lenders

Thanks to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, there is a new website for narratives of consumer complaints regarding mortgage lenders:

The bureau logs each complaint by category in a publicly viewable database and gives the company that is the subject of a complaint time to respond via a nonpublic online portal connecting it with the consumer through a bureau intermediary. In the past three years, according to the bureau, it has received and worked on more than 627,000 complaints. They range from alleged harassment by debt-collection attorneys, to foreclosures, student loan defaults and poor treatment of customers by loan servicers. Roughly 28 percent of all complaints filed to date have been about mortgage issues — the largest single category. What’s been missing, though, has been any real detail about the troubling circumstances that triggered the complaint in the first place expressed in the customer’s own words.

Starting in late June, that all changed. The bureau began posting what it calls “narratives” that name the bank or company involved and go into sometimes excruciating detail. Allegations get pretty serious — charges of lending fraud, violations of federal regulations and illegal overcharges. Some are heartfelt, such as one from a Virginia homebuyer whose closing was repeatedly delayed by the bank: “Who compensates us for the loss of income for the days taken off from work (to attend closings)? For the movers that have been scheduled? For the pre-move-in renovations that cannot now be done because the contractors are fully scheduled for the rest of the summer?” (To see the narratives, go to http://tinyurl.com/phnkq99)

The first batch of 7,700-plus narratives was posted June 25, including hundreds of mortgage complaints. The consumer’s name and address — other than state of residence — are redacted, as are all details the bureau or the consumer considers ?private.

Lenders are not permitted to post their own narratives, but instead must use one of several stock responses, such as “company can’t verify or dispute the facts in the complaint” or “company believes it acted appropriately as authorized by contract or law.” Lenders can also decline to participate in the narratives process by saying, “Company chooses not to provide a public response.”

The article suggests two large threads emerge from the complaints: dislike of being placed in customer service hell without getting answers from anyone and problems with escrow accounts.

Not surprisingly, lenders are not happy with this information on the website. The issue is similar to that which plagues many online reviews: how can businesses or readers be sure that the story or review is credible? Yet, this certainly puts more information on the side of consumers and this is needed in an industry that holds so much debt for so many people.

These narratives posted online would make for some good coding opportunities for social scientists…

To see recent spike in murders in big cities, you have to see the decline before that

New data suggests murders are up in some major American cities. Yet, to see this spike, you have to acknowledge the steady decline in previous years:

Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York City, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., among others, have all seen significant increases in their murder rates through the first half of 2015.

Homicides in St. Louis, for example, are up almost 60% from last year while robberies are up 40%. In Washington, D.C., 73 people have been killed so far this year, up from 62 last year, an 18% jump. In Milwaukee, murders have doubled since last year, while in nearby Chicago homicides have jumped almost 20%…

Criminologists warn that the recent spikes could merely be an anomaly, a sort of reversion to the mean after years of declining crime rates. But there could be something else going on, what some officials have called a “Ferguson effect,” in which criminals who are angry over police-involved shootings like that of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer in August, have felt emboldened to commit increased acts of violence.

It is hard to have it both ways by complaining about high crime rates before this year and then now complaining about a spike. Crime rates were down for nearly two decades in most major cities prior to this year. Yet, this wasn’t the perception. Thus, we might see this spike as “Crime rates were high and now they are even higher!” or it could be “Crime rates declined for a long period and now this is a spike.” These are two different stories.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. This story is unclear about whether this is true across the board in major American cities or just in the places cited here.

2. It is hard to know what this spike is about as it is happening. What will happen in a few months or in the next few years?

American culture wars to move next to fighting over the suburbs?

Joel Kotkin is back with the claim that the next American culture war will be over the suburbs:

The next culture war will not be about issues like gay marriage or abortion, but about something more fundamental: how Americans choose to live. In the crosshairs now will not be just recalcitrant Christians or crazed billionaire racists, but the vast majority of Americans who either live in suburban-style housing or aspire to do so in the future. Roughly four in five home buyers prefer a single-family home, but much of the political class increasingly wants them to live differently…

Yet it has been decided, mostly by self-described progressives, that suburban living is too unecological, not mention too uncool, and even too white for their future America. Density is their new holy grail, for both the world and the U.S. Across the country efforts are now being mounted—through HUD, the EPA, and scores of local agencies—to impede suburban home-building, or to raise its cost. Notably in coastal California, but other places, too, suburban housing is increasingly relegated to the affluent.

The obstacles being erected include incentives for density, urban growth boundaries, attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities, and mounting environmental efforts to reduce sprawl. The EPA wants to designate even small, seasonal puddles as “wetlands,” creating a barrier to developers of middle-class housing, particularly in fast-growing communities in the Southwest. Denizens of free-market-oriented Texas could soon be experiencing what those in California, Oregon and other progressive bastions have long endured: environmental laws that make suburban development all but impossible, or impossibly expensive. Suburban family favorites like cul-de-sacs are being banned under pressure from planners…

Progressive theory today holds that the 2014 midterm results were a blast from the suburban past, and that the  key groups that will shape the metropolitan future—millennials and minorities—will embrace ever-denser, more urbanized environments. Yet in the last decennial accounting, inner cores gained 206,000 people, while communities 10 miles and more from the core gained approximately 15 million people.

This is one long piece but provides a lot of insight into what Kotkin and others have argued for years: liberals, for a variety of reasons, want to limit the spread and eventually reduce the American suburbs in favor of more pluralistic and diverse urban centers. I would be interested to know which issue Kotkin is most afraid of:

1. Maybe this is really just about politics and winning elections. The split between exurban Republican areas and Democratic urban centers has grown with the suburbs hanging in the balance. Perhaps conservatives fear moving people to cities will turn them more liberal and hand all future elections to Democrats. Of course, lots of liberals had fears after World War II that new suburbanites were going to immediately turn Republican.

2. This may be about the growing teeth of the environmental movement operating through legislation but also agencies and others that are difficult to counter. Suburban areas may just take up more resources but Kotkin and others don’t see this as a big issue compared to the freedom people should have to choose the suburbs. Should there be any limits to using the environment on a societal level?

3. Perhaps this is about maintaining a distinctively American way of life compared to Europeans. Some fear that international organizations and the United Nations are pushing denser, green policies that most Americans don’t really want. The suburbs represent the American quest for the frontier as well as having a plot of land where other people, particularly the government, can’t come after you. This ignores that there still are single-family homes in Europe – though on average smaller homes on smaller lots.

Or, maybe this is a combination of all three: “If the suburbs go, then what America was or stands for dies!” Something like that. Imagine “Don’t Tread On Me” making its last or most important stand on the green lawns of post-World War II split levels.

I have a hard time seeing this as the next big culture war topic that reaches a resolution in a short amount of time (say within a decade), primarily because so many Americans do live in the suburbs and the suburbs have such a long standing in American culture. But, perhaps a movement could start soon that would see fruition in the future.

NYC Council to Google: mark truck routes, no left turns

Two members of the New York City council have two recommendations for the routes provided by Google Maps:

Council members Brad Lander, deputy leader of policy for the council, and Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, wrote a letter to Google on July 1 suggesting two enhancements to the company’s maps. One would create a “stay on truck routes” option for truck drivers. The other, which has a much broader application, would allow users to select “reduce left turns,” minimizing the number of such turns required on a given trip.

Why reduce left turns? In their letter, Lander and Rodriguez cited an extensive report from WNYC reporter Kate Hinds about the danger of left turns by motor vehicles in an urban environment where lots of people travel on foot and by bicycle. According to data compiled by Hinds and her colleagues, 17 pedestrians and three bicyclists were killed in New York by left-turning vehicles last year. The fatality rate for pedestrians struck by drivers making lefts in the city is the highest in the nation, according to Hinds’s report…

The city’s department of transportation has been redesigning intersections to make left turns safer by changing signals and incorporating other design measures. But Lander and Rodriguez got the idea to ask Google to help by giving its map users the chance to request a “reduce left turns” routing option. “We haven’t heard back yet,” says Rodriguez. “But we hope, knowing that Google is one of those good private entities, that Google can look at this.”…

Nationally, a quarter of motor-vehicle crashes involving pedestrians occur during left turns. A 2013 study found that when drivers make “permitted” left turns—in which they do not have the protection of a left-turn green arrow—they are not even looking to see if there is a pedestrian in their path as much as 9 percent of the time. Such turns, the study found, pose an “alarming” level of risk to pedestrians.

Generally, I would be in favor of Google Maps and others programs offering more route options for those who have particular routes they might want to choose. Routes with late night gas stations? Routes that are more scenic? Routes that avoid long stretches of strip malls? Scenic routes? Routes that involve driving near fewer semis? Routes with more interesting sights along the way? Just like Google Mail has lab features you can turn on and off, why not do some of this for driving routes?

Even if Google makes the left turn information available as an option, how much of an effect would it have on safety? The average driver probably doesn’t think much about reducing left turns. So, Google could help by suggesting people might want this but I could also imagine a public campaign advising against left turns. Now, if Google started eliminating left turns without telling people, that could get interesting…

“Jennifer Aniston leads fight against giga-mansions” in Beverly Hills

Even the wealthy don’t want “giga-mansions” in their neighborhood:

Her own $21 million (£13 million) Bel Air mansion covers a rather more modest 8500 square feet.

But it has been rapidly overtaken by a new trend for the giga-mansions. The ultra-wealthy are buying and bulldozing some of the area’s biggest villas, to build even bigger homes, filled with fountains, swimming pools and space for entertaining.

Opponents say they bring months of construction noise, threaten existing homes by destabilising the ground and that their huge size represents an invasion of privacy as they tower over neighbours.

Prince Abdul Aziz, a Saudi Arabian prince and deputy foreign minister of his country, is among the buyers to have angered neighbours. He bought a Spanish colonial residence from Jon Peters, the film producer behind Superman Returns and Man of steel, before promptly tearing it down and lodging plans for an 85,000-square-foot estate.

But the real fury is reserved for the 30,000-square-foot creation of Mohamed Hadid, a real estate developer and father of Gigi Hadid, the model.

Two quick thoughts:

1. These really are some large homes. They might work on larger pieces of property but not so well when neighbors are relatively close by. A 103 foot tall home is more like a 10 story skyscraper in a small size city than a welcomed member of a residential neighborhood.

2. This does invite questions about how large of a home is too large. A $21 million 8,500 square foot home in Beverly Hills is expensive and large by all measures. Presumably, the Los Angeles regulations allow for this size. But, how exactly does a municipality decide on the cut-off? The way around this in many communities that address teardowns is to insist on certain guidelines and styles that effectively limit the square footage.