Estimate of over 1 million Americans displaced by highway construction

As the United States constructed highways starting in the twentieth century, how many residents were displaced? Here are some numbers:

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The Times found that more than 200,000 people nationwide have lost their homes because of federal road projects during that time, and that some of the country’s largest recent highway expansions, including in California, have forced out residents in Black and Latino neighborhoods at disproportionately high rates. And that’s in addition to the more than 1 million people pushed out during the initial period of freeway building in the mid-20th century via routes that often targeted Black communities for demolition.

That is a lot of people moved just for highways. In addition to affecting particular groups at higher rates, highways broke through established neighborhoods with existing ways of life.

But, the era of highway construction through certain neighborhoods started facing more resistance decades ago. Jane Jacobs was involved in a movement against a highway that would have cut through the middle of Manhattan. Neighborhoods throughout the United States successfully fought against highways. And some of the highways that once plowed through neighborhoods were changed or removed.

This does not mean highways are on the way out. However, it does mean that constructing a new highway or widening a highway in densely settled locations is not a foregone conclusion.

The scale of agriculture in California

A story about recharging aquifers in California to help beat droughts and high water usage includes this summary of how much food California produces:

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The stakes are high: California grows more than a third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts eaten in the United States, dominating production of artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, dates, grapes, garlic, olives, plums, peaches, walnuts, pistachios, lemons, sweet rice, and lettuce. The Central Valley is America’s agricultural heartland, crucially important to the state’s economy and the groceries of the nation. More wine grapes are grown there than in California’s wine country, more almonds than anywhere else on earth. There are more than a quarter of a million acres devoted to tomatoes, which when plucked, weighed, canned, and shipped add up to around a third of all the processed tomato stuff eaten worldwide. And that’s not to mention all the region’s livestock—chickens, pigs, cows.

When I go to the grocery store, I am not thinking about what goes into all of the food there and instead just enjoy the many options I have within and across stores. When I have a little more time to consider the process, two thoughts come to mind:

  1. The amazing ability for humans to produce this amount of food from this amount of land. I know California is a big state and a lot of people live there and it is still astounding how much food is produced.
  2. The complexity to pull this all off plus the burden on the natural systems that make this all possible. If one piece gets out of whack or the climate changes or human patterns change, the whole system needs to adjust.

It will take significant work to keep the system going and the food growing. While many dystopian works hint at the trouble that would come when normal food systems are disrupted, there would be serious problems if California cannot produce food in the way it does now.

Declaring a mountain lion sanctuary and other NIMBY efforts

Wealthier communities have a variety of means by which to oppose or block cheaper housing or affordable housing. This can include emphasizing conservation in a Silicon Valley community:

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“Woodside declared its entire suburban town a mountain lion sanctuary in a deliberate and transparent attempt to avoid complying with SB 9,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta wrote in a letter to notify the town that the move violates state law and must be amended.

After receiving a letter from the attorney general this weekend that threatened further legal action, the town ended its short jaunt into the world of conservation the next day. In a statement on Monday, the council said that the Department of Fish and Wildlife “had advised that the entire Town of Woodside cannot be considered habitat” and that “as such, the Town Council has instructed staff to immediately begin accepting SB 9 applications.”

Woodside is not alone in recent efforts:

Woodside is far from the only town that has attempted to come up with creative ways to block the statewide rezoning law. Since its introduction last year, local governments and homeowner groups have opposed the plan, claiming that it crushes single-family zoning.

There have been at least 40 cases in which towns attempted to block or limit SB 9 housing, according to affordable housing advocacy group Yes in My Back Yard Law.

I would not expect wealthier communities to just go along with new guidelines. The combination of local government authority over zoning plus wealth means that certain communities can delay and/or fight affordable housing or more housing. Or, state legislation or federal guidelines are written in such a way that communities escape scrutiny or any penalties (see the example of Illinois). Is the situation different now in California such that communities will not be able to delay any longer?

More broadly, how much do efforts to conserve open space in suburban areas really take place to protect wildlife and land versus limiting the amount of development? From my research in the Chicago suburbs, I recall numerous efforts to protect open land and expand Forest Preserves. These often occurred during mass suburbanization in the postwar area as open space quickly disappeared among new subdivisions and roads. Open space can help limit the number of nearby residences, reduce noise and traffic, and boost property values by limiting housing supply.

A denser suburbia in California and the rest of the United States

The single-family home is the most important feature of American suburbs. What happens when conditions change and pressures lead to more multifamily housing units and denser housing in suburbia? From California:

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In June, as Ms. Coats told me about the house and the neighborhood from the doorstep of her bungalow, she gazed toward a fresh foundation that had entombed the back half of Lot 118 in concrete. Over the next few weeks, a construction crew erected a two-story building that filled in a green rectangle from the Clairemont Villas brochure. A few feet away, the original four-bedroom house was loudly gut-renovated into a pair of apartments.

When the workers head to their next job this month, they will leave what amounts to a triplex rental complex on the type of lot that in the seven decades since Ms. Coats’s family moved in had been reserved for single-family houses. It’s part of a push across California and the nation to encourage density in suburban neighborhoods by allowing people to subdivide single-family houses and build new units in their backyards…

In the vast zone between those poles lie existing single-family neighborhoods like Clairemont, which account for most of the urban landscape yet remain conspicuously untouched. The omission is the product of a political bargain that says sprawl can sprawl and downtowns can rise but single-family neighborhoods are sealed off from growth by the cudgel of zoning rules that dictate what can be built where. The deal is almost never stated so plainly, but it is the foundation of local politics in virtually every U.S. city and cuts to the core of the country’s deepest class and racial conflicts…

“It doesn’t fit.” “It’s adding people.” “We don’t want that here.” “There’s other places for that.” “We just want to keep our neighborhood like it is.” “They want to push us out and tear our houses down.” “Parking.” “Parking.” “Parking.”

Several quick thoughts on these changes in many suburban communities:

  1. Where exactly this density will happen will be fascinating to watch. Will it happen in wealthier suburban communities or will they be able to keep it at bay? Inner-ring suburbs are often already more familiar with such density but this is less common in suburbs further from the big city.
  2. The housing pressure is acute in California but is not so clear or as well publicized in many other locations. If this works in California, where else does it show up?
  3. The NIMBY concerns cited above will be vocally shared again and again. The appeal for many single-family home owners is the space between neighbors, relatively lots of room for parking, and not feeling like the neighborhood is crowded.
  4. How much are #1-3 above linked to another long-term pattern in suburbia: race and exclusion? Homeowners will say it is about protecting their properties – particularly their property values, which single-family home zoning is intended to do – but it is also about who is able to live in the neighborhood and community.
  5. The addition of units and people to existing single-family home neighborhoods is a different approach to denser suburbia than creating larger-scale “surban” projects that some would find desirable near suburban downtowns or in large-scale redevelopment.

“Soccer moms” replaced by “mad moms” in current California gubernatorial race?

According to one grassroots leader, the California gubernatorial recall election has been driven by “mad moms”:

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Now, as recall ballots are dropping in mailboxes, children are returning to school amid heated battles over mask mandates and skyrocketing cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant. Leaders of the effort to remove Newsom for office are confident that women, exasperated by the effect of Newsom’s policies on their children, are the reason they will prevail.

“It’s gas on the fire,” said Anne Hyde Dunsmore, campaign manager for Rescue California, one of the main recall groups. “The whole time, it’s probably the single biggest ingredient in the campaign, in our success.”

Newsom “didn’t understand mad moms, which are the same as soccer moms,” Dunsmore said, referring to the pivotal group of suburban female voters. “Don’t piss off mommy.”

Newsom and his allies agree that these women are critical, but they point to polling that shows that well over a majority of the state’s women approve Newsom’s handling of the pandemic. If these women turn out, they will be a major factor in helping the governor retain his job.

Multiple recent election cycles have included efforts to sway suburban women. These two labels seem particularly aimed at suburban women, not all women in California or the United States. The two major political parties both think they can convince enough suburban women to care about their priority issues under the right conditions (examples here and here) and the suburbs are the spaces where elections are won or lost.

The shift from the “soccer moms” label that goes back decades to “mad moms” in mid-2021 could be worth examining further. In the label itself, soccer moms referred to driving kids to and from local practices. They cared about the future of their children and their communities. Mad moms suggests women are fed up with what is happening and/or what the future might hold for their families and communities. Especially in 2021, anger can be a powerful mobilizing force in politics.

Presumably, the mad moms are conservative women who want different political outcomes. For the women of California who disagree with their perspective, what is an apt moniker for the other side?

The beauty of and danger to California’s Highway One

Over a decade ago, we planned a vacation that involved driving Highway One from San Francisco down the California coast. I had visited California several times before but had never driven this famous road. While our drive was relatively quick as we spent more time in urban centers, we enjoyed the scenery and the contrast of the roadway to typical straight Midwest roads.

With the recent washout in Big Sur, the need for constant reconstruction – and why – is interesting:

Highway 1 is a California spectacle, a Depression-era monument to the state’s quixotic ambitions and stunning beauty. It runs from the Orange County surf haven of Dana Point in the south into cannabis-cultivating Mendocino County, carrying heavy traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge and under the bluffs of Santa Monica, where it is better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, on its 650-mile route…

The engineering folly of a road built on sheer cliffs has meant that closures are annual events — the “whens,” not “ifs” — for the people and the economy it supports.

But the wild card now is the increasing frequency of wildfire along a roughly 100-mile stretch from William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle at San Simeon to Carmel, which is stripping fragile hillsides of stabilizing vegetation and causing more slides and more serious washouts across a region known broadly as Big Sur…

An even larger stretch of Highway 1 reopened in 2018 after a 14-month closure at Mud Creek about 20 miles south of here. The road was buried — not washed away, as in Rat Creek’s case — when the rocky ground above it gave way in hard rains.

This is one of the few times in my life where the road itself was a destination – and it was worth it. Keeping this corridor open is important even as it is a difficult stretch to maintain.

When new residents to an area bring a lot more money to spend on housing

A piece in the New York Times highlights what happens when residents from one part of the United States move to another. One aspect of this: the new residents can bring a lot of money with which to purchase a home.

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According to a recent study by Redfin, the national real estate brokerage, the budget for out-of-town home buyers moving to Boise is 50 percent higher than locals’ — $738,000 versus $494,000. In Nashville, out-of-towners also have a budget that is 50 percent higher than locals. In Austin it’s 32 percent, Denver 26 percent and Phoenix 23 percent.

As the commentary goes on to note, this means that prices in certain housing markets can then go up. New residents with resources compete with existing residents who may or may not be able to keep up. Several thoughts arise:

-Imagine current NIMBY practices at a national level instead of just at a local or regional level. The piece hints that people in multiple locations might want to restrict migration from California. Mass movements of people in the United States are not heard of and restrictions have been applied before.

-This presents an interesting conundrum for local officials and local planners. Growth is usually good. Until it is not the kind of growth local residents want or it is growth driven by outside forces. If communities want to grow and attract wealthier residents, are they also willing to accept the changes that might come?

-Just as some communities have requirements that developers of big projects pay fees or provide affordable housing, is there some way for a community to “tax” newcomers to help provide funds to offset changes?

-Do these patterns eventually lead to from a perpetual search for the new hot, lower cost of living location? Once Boise, Austin, and Nashville are different, what places come next – Omaha, Billings, Baton Rouge? This would take quite a while to work out but I do wonder how many attractive lower cost of living places there can be at any one time.

Finding housing in former strip malls and big box stores in California

In a state with a need for cheaper housing, some in California are looking to commercial properties along main roads:

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Joe DiStefano sees boulevards like El Camino Real as more than just spots for takeout or an oil change. He sees a “perfect storm of opportunity.” Cofounder and CEO of UrbanFootprint, a software company that builds urban planning tools, DiStefano has done numerous studies on the housing potential hiding in California’s commercial strips. According to UrbanFootprint’s analysis of El Camino Real, this lone corridor could theoretically accommodate more than 300,000 new units if the road was upzoned to allow residential development and its parking lots and big-box stores became low-rise apartment complexes…

Converting underutilized retail and office space into apartments is not a novel idea, but it’s gaining fresh attention from California lawmakers, especially as pandemic-fueled e-commerce and remote work trends continue to empty brick-and-mortar stores and business parks across the state. In December, California State Senator Anna Caballero, who represents the Central and Salinas valleys and cities such as Merced, helped introduce Senate Bill 6, which would fast-track the creation of walkable infill development and make it easier to turn land zoned for commercial uses into housing. Another member of the state’s legislature, Assemblymember Richard Bloom, has a similar proposal to encourage commercial-to-residential conversions, Assembly Bill 115. (California has a bicameral legislature.) And Senator Anthony Portantino introduced AB15, which would incentivize turning vacant big box sites into workforce housing…

But more than 40% of commercial zones in California’s 50 largest metros prohibit residential development, according to a recent report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at Berkeley. “Residential Redevelopment of Commercially Zoned Land in California” highlights the growing potential of such rezoning proposals. “It’s a perfect infill option,” says David Garcia, a co-author and policy director at the Terner Center. While legislation like these proposed bills hasn’t been passed in other states, he believes they address a universal problem. “You’re really plugging in gaps left by shifts in the commercial marketplace, by Covid and the shift to e-commerce.”

There are three main types of projects ripe for this kind of reuse, Garcia says: commercial strips in more urban areas, often along existing transit lines; former big box retailers in more suburban areas; and vacant land in the exurban landscape that’s been reserved for future development. Researchers found there was actually more acreage of available commercial space per person in more suburban/outlier areas, an opportunity that, if paired with increased investment in transit, could quickly bring more density and valuable walkable development to fast-growing and diversifying suburban centers, some of which have already done a relatively good job of building new housing. “Instead of thinking about a bill like this as another state mandate cities need to adhere to, it should be looked at as a tool for doing the good planning they need to do anyways,” Garcia says. 

This might be hard sell before COVID-19 but the severe issues for retailers and businesses may make a lot of properties available.

Even with these issues, I wonder how many communities would quickly give up commercial properties to be rezoned for residential use. Many communities rely on commercial properties along major roads for sales tax revenue. If commercial property disappears from the local zoning map, how would a community make up those revenues?

Of course, providing possibly cheaper housing could be desirable to residents, even if it comes at the expense of commercial properties. And new residential units might even revive some local commercial activity.

If this is enabled at the state level, it would be interesting to see how quickly communities and developers would move. Vacant property is not desirable for any municipality. Would this move more quickly in certain kinds of communities compared to others?

The two best pools I have seen in California

I have made a number of trips to California, usually visiting family or for vacation. And while I do not typically seek out pools on my vacation, with the end of summer I was reminded of two pools I really enjoyed seeing.

The first is at Hearst Castle. The house is fun to tour with its unique features and location up on a hill that offers great views all around. The indoor pool is impressive but the outside pool is even better:

Columns, large pool, a sunny day. Although it was the first thing on the property we saw on our tour, I could stopped there.

The second pool is further south at The Getty Villa. In what looks like a Roman villa filled with art, there is a long courtyard with this:

While this pool is only a few feet deep, I could still imagine floating around in this great setting surrounded by palm trees and art.

It may not be a coincidence that both pools are surrounded by classical columns. This is not just swimming, this is fun in the water surrounded by the aura of history (even if these buildings are relatively recent constructions that evoke tradition and opulence). The contrast here would be some of the ultra-modern skyscrapers topped with infinity pools; they sell a pool at the top of the urban world amid steel and glass.

Or, perhaps the lure of the pool knowing that visitors cannot swim in them helps make them attractive. They are part of the scenery – even as they likely cost quite a bit to maintain – that cannot be touched. And with visitors coming on a number of hot days, these pools look refreshing.

In the end, I would be happy to go back and sit by these pools. And if there is ever an event that allows people to use them, I would be interested.

Constructing needed housing and other housing during COVID-19

Even during COVID-19, construction goes on in the Bay Area amidst a need for housing:

California’s shelter-in-place order has forced millions of people to stay home and businesses to close to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some construction workers, however, are still reporting for work to build and renovate Silicon Valley mansions and San Francisco luxury condos because of carve-outs in shelter-in-place orders that exempt any housing construction as “essential” business.

Local officials say residential construction of all kinds is necessary to address the region’s housing crisis. The exemption means affordable housing projects are moving forward, too…

In Palo Alto, where the median property value is $3 million, according to Zillow, residential construction has been so ubiquitous that the city’s new coronavirus support line was inundated with calls about what kind of construction was permitted under shelter-in-place, according to the city’s daily coronavirus newsletter Monday. This past week, crews showed up to work on single-family homes valued on Zillow at $7.3 million for an eight-bedroom house and $9.6 million for a five-bedroom house…

Backlash from concerned neighbors is predictable, said Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, a Bay Area network of advocates for increased housing supply at all economic levels. “People find new reasons to believe what they have always believed,” she said. “We have a housing shortage and that is what’s driving up cost. More housing also helps bring down the overall cost.”

The article goes into more detail about the debates over the continued housing. There appear to be multiple issues: whether any construction should go on, whether construction should go on for building luxury or expensive housing, and if construction goes on, whether workers and developers should follow rules about social distancing.

This is both a reminder of the lingering issues in a world very focused on COVID-19 as well as the complications of housing questions in the Bay Area and California more broadly. Fiinding solutions has proven difficult; building more affordable housing in many regions depends on local actions which wealthier communities tend to avoid.

Perhaps the question coming out of the pandemic will be this: will the Bay Area, the Seattle area, New York City, and other tight housing markets be more open to affordable housing conversations and action after everyone had to unite (or at least agree to stay away from each other) for a common cause? Crises tend to reveal inequalities but they do not always lead to efforts to address and rectify the problems.