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.

An additional reason to dislike Chicago McMansions: contributing to lower population density

One Chicago observer suggests teardown McMansions impoverish the city in three ways: they suburbanize neighborhoods, they are poorly built and do not fit in with the architectural context of the city, and help lower the population density of neighborhoods. More on this third point:

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But Chicago’s density is declining, and some of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods have actually started to lose residents. Lincoln Par, once home to 102,000 people, barely housed 70,000 in 2020. Lakeview, once holding 124,000, was at 103,050 around the same time. North Center had decreased from 48,000 to 35,114, and nearby community such as West Town and Bucktown had similar fallen in scale.

These neighborhoods are becoming more expensive, and much of this de-densification may be due to a “spreading out” of sorts; wealthier people are moving in and are able to afford more space.

But there’s more to it than that. Previously, when a neighborhood in Chicago was in demand, builders capitalized, and the housing stock swelled. Chicago’s zoning laws, however, have changed, and while they allow for high-rise development in various downtown areas, they prohibit this same approach in neighborhoods. One thing is for sure, though: No matter how strict the zoning ode is in residential areas, single-family homes are pretty much always allowed.

One theory, termed “The homevoter hypothesis,” speculates that this is due to the control that homeowners have on urban development. Their interests have the most influence on local aldermen and, therefore, residential development. The good of the community and the city is not a factor in their agenda, which instead focuses on home value growth, and how to wield zoning changes in order to achieve it.

The argument seems to make sense: those who want to live in more well-off Chicago neighborhoods bring resources and an interest in larger homes. This could mean converting structures to single-family homes or tearing down older structures and starting over from scratch. If there is indeed an increase in larger single-family homes in Chicago, there should be data to support this. Anecdotally, my occasional travels in some of these neighborhoods suggests a good number of new homes nestled between two-flats and three-flats.

Additionally, there may be other forces at work that could also be leading to de-densification in Chicago neighborhoods:

  1. Chicago residents are leaving neighborhoods faster than people want to come in, regardless of what housing stock is available. The population is down in a number of neighborhoods across the city.
  2. The demand for new housing is higher in locations in and around the Loop because of the concentration of jobs and cultural opportunities plus the activity of developers. While Chicago has been known as a city of neighborhoods for a long time, the neighborhoods might not be as hot as the center.
  3. Developers and builders also want these new single-family homes because they can make a lot of money on each property.

Put all of this together and the new Chicago McMansions represent a change to numerous streets and neighborhoods.

One way suburbs fight affordable housing: concerns about density

This example of how the conversation about a proposed affordable housing project with 58 units in the Chicago suburbs is illustrative:

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The developers propose to build a three-story building on approximately 2.5 acres at 874-920 N. Quentin Road, on the southwest corner with Poplar Street. All of the apartments — one-, two- and three-bedrooms — would be set aside for tenants whose income is between 30% and 80% of the area’s median income.

Village staff members recommended denying the plan, and the plan commission did the same after a public hearing Tuesday night. The village council will have final say and is expected to discuss the matter Aug. 9.

Plan commissioners praised the developer’s successful record of affordable housing developments, but they didn’t like the plan for the Palatine site, saying it’s too dense. The area consists of single-family homes and townhouses, with an apartment complex further north…

Several residents spoke Tuesday against the plan, saying they are worried about traffic, noise and light pollution, and changing the character of the neighborhood.

The final word will come in a few weeks. In the meantime, this set of arguments is a common one when suburbs consider apartments or even townhomes and condos. A key issue is the density of the project. What this often means is the community prefers to have single-family homes. Denser housing is often thought of as smaller housing or cheaper housing. Here, that is clear in that it is affordable housing where, through a sizable tax credit ($15 million) from an Illinois agency, residents will not need to pay full market rate.

Additionally, people often have concerns about the aesthetics and daily experiences around apartments. Apartment buildings are taller and are bulkier compared to homes on grassy lots. Because of more residents on less land, there will be more traffic on local roads. This particular proposal is close to a busier intersection but it also would be adjacent to single-family homes. It just looks different than single-family homes. If there are too many denser developments, the impression may be that single-family homes are not valued.

In sum, this density and kind of housing is perceived as a threat to the character of single-family home communities. Municipalities will sometimes respond to such proposals by asking the developer to reduce the number of units. Or, they might reject it all together by saying that it is not a good fit. And the search for land for affordable housing continues.

Getting people back to mass transit after COVID-19 – and a deck stacked against mass transit

Mass transit agencies across the United States are trying different strategies to try to get people back after COVID-19:

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Agencies in Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New Orleans are offering reduced fares or free rides, temporarily, to lure people back onto transit. Others are considering abolishing fares altogether. Los Angeles is exploring a 23-month pilot that would give students and low-income residents free rides. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority scrapped fares in March 2020 and doesn’t plan to bring them back. “The return on investment for empathy, compassion, for social equity, far outweighs the return on investment for concrete and asphalt,” Robbie Makinen, the agency’s CEO, told Stateline last week.

Others are taking aim at an even more sacred cow: rush hour service…

Agencies are using the murky period of pandemic recovery to usher in schedule changes. In Los Angeles, officials for Metra, the local commuter rail, said this month they would test new schedules that “step away” from the pre-pandemic, rush hour norm, “in favor of a more balanced approach” that spaces trains more evenly throughout the day. In Boston, officials in April went ahead with pre-pandemic plans and began running more frequent commuter trains outside the schedules of the 9-to-5ers. It’s part of a bigger vision to transform the system into a more equitable regional rail network that serves more than the traditional office worker. Off-peak riders are more likely to be immigrants, women, people of color, and lower income. The pandemic, as the local advocacy group TransitMatters has observed, may have given the local agency the “political space” to make long-planned changes. There are fewer people now to complain that operators took away their specific train.

Just as the aftermath of COVID-19 offers an opportunity to think about housing, here is an opportunity to reconsider mass transit strategies. Why keep doing things the same old ways when the world has changed? If different cities and regions experiment with different tractics, they might find a few that work and that can be widely adopted.

At the same time, mass transit does not just face COVID-19 fallout. If given the choice, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit. If needing to travel, they would prefer to drive unless this is really inconvenient. Driving offers more individual freedom to come and go and offers completely personal space (outside of seeing other drivers and passengers in nearby vehicles). American governments have spent a lot of money in the last century paying for roads and driving infrastructure while investments in mass transit have lagged or mass transit is often tied to driving (an emphasis on buses).

Additionally, if a post-COVID-19 world means that working from home is more of an option, more people simply will not need mass transit and/or will enjoy not having to use it. Mass transit could still be useful for going out but if it is not needed for work for as many people, this will mean losing a lot of regular riders.

More broadly, this gets at bigger questions in the United States about development, density, transportation, and thriving communities. An ongoing commitment to cars has consequences as would a shift toward a different kind of mass transit or constructing more dense places where mass transit makes more sense. If the best that can be done now is to prioritize transit-oriented development in denser pockets in urban areas, it will take a long time to swing trips toward mass transit compared to driving.

Would city residents rather live next to a 6,000 sq foot teardown McMansion or a fourplex?

With one proposal in San Francisco to tear down a 1,200 square foot older home and replace it with a 6,000 square foot home, the neighbors say they would rather have a fourplex in its place:

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The even crazier part? One super-rich family can live in 6,000 square feet, but the same-size box in Noe Valley and the majority of San Francisco could not include homes of 1,500 square feet apiece for four families. (This proposal would include an in-law unit, but the city doesn’t check whether they’re occupied, and it’s believed there are thousands of vacant units around the city.)…

“We would 100% support this if it was four families,” said Schwarz, who bought his own home in 2004.

So would his neighbor Steve Boeddeker, who said he’s irked developers are scooping up homes all over the neighborhood to turn them into McMansions and resell them for many millions…

The current rules for McMansions aren’t working. They’re allowed, though neighbors can file a discretionary review application, arguing there are “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances” that require more analysis. Five families have done that for the Noe Valley home, including Shannon Hughes and her husband, Schwarz.

This is an interesting case as San Francisco is often considered ground-zero for issues of overpriced housing, the need for affordable housing, and NIMBY responses to new development.

At least in public comment, few people would say they want to live next to a teardown McMansion. The extra-large size of the new home in comparison to the existing older homes plus the new and poorly regarded architectural design mean that plenty of neighbors do not like the new land use. The teardown is a threat to the existing character of the neighborhood.

At the same time, relatively few residents want to have a single-family neighborhood convert land into higher density residential units. Even as one fourplex is not that many more units, Americans often have negative ideas about renters in apartments or feel that increased density will threaten their property values and neighborhood feel.

My guess is that plenty of urban homeowners would prefer that neither option arrive next door: keep the teardowns and the conversions into multiple units somewhere else. But, if the choice is between the two, the McMansion may be the worst option.

Asking in San Francisco why a McMansion is allowed but a fourplex is not

McMansions may not just be undesirable on their own. If a McMansion is built, another kind of dwelling is not. One proposal in San Francisco aims to address this:

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He will introduce an ordinance making it much harder to build giant homes — the ones increasingly dotting the hillsides above Glen Park that many San Franciscans deride as monster homes or McMansions, but which are perfectly legal to build.

He will also ask the city attorney to draft legislation making it legal for any corner lot in the city that’s currently slated for one home to allow up to four units. And, most significantly, the legislation will allow any parcel within a half mile of a major transit stop like the Glen Park BART Station to be converted into a fourplex — corner property or not. The extra units could be rented or sold.

Yes, in large swaths of San Francisco — this supposedly progressive bastion — it’s currently legal to build an enormous, over-the-top house for one family, but illegal to build a small apartment building of the same size for four families.

This question plagues many desirable neighborhoods in big cities and suburbs: should anything that disturbs the existing character and/or property values be allowed? If this is the driving question, a McMansion might be a threat because it is a different kind of home – derided by critics as too big, architecturally incoherent – compared to what is already there. At the same time, the McMansion is still a single-family home. If that single-family home was replaced by a multi-family unit, residents then express concerns about increasing densities. They might also have concerns about renters moving into what was a neighborhood of homeowners as many Americans assume renters are less committed to their community.

And, as the article notes, making changes like this often means neighborhood by neighborhood conversations to consider the implications. Will a change have different impacts in different communities? What might be some of the unintended consequences? What will neighborhoods look like in a few decades with changes?

San Francisco may have a particular need for solutions but so do many other locations. The answers might come slowly on a case-by-case basis.

Population density as a factor in deciding suburban votes

An AP story highlights how “Democrats march deeper into suburbia” and discusses the role of density:

https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-virus-outbreak-phoenix-suburbs-health-care-reform-76dea954e5f5dc13b3ad65fd29ac678c

For decades, an area’s population per square mile has been a reliable indicator of its political tilt. Denser areas vote Democratic, less dense areas vote Republican. The correlation between density and voting has been getting stronger, as people began to sort themselves by ethnicity, education, personality, income and lifestyle.

The pattern is so reliable it can quantified, averaged and applied to most American cities. At around 800 households per square mile, the blue of Democratic areas starts to bleed into red Republican neighborhoods.

A purple ring — call it the flip zone — emerges through the suburbs…

In Dallas, the purple ring through the suburbs was 18.7 miles in 2016 out from city hall, at an average of 714 households per square mile. The border runs close to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, where the Dallas Cowboys play. Arlington is a so-called boomburb that morphed through new construction from a suburb to a city of 400,000.

A few thoughts on the potential role of density. First, an additional graphic (see below) works with the last paragraph cited above to draw concentric circles a city. This, however, suggests density is linear as one moves further out from the city. In general, this may be true but it would be interesting to see how pockets of higher density suburbs at different distances from the city affect these patterns.

https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-virus-outbreak-phoenix-suburbs-health-care-reform-76dea954e5f5dc13b3ad65fd29ac678c

Second, Is it density that predicts these outcomes or factors related to density? A third chart in the story looks at the population demographics at different densities and shows differences. Does the density come first or the population changes? The analysis here suggests a relationship or correlation but it is not clear whether this analysis accounts for other possible factors.

In the larger picture, what do Americans think about having these “flip zones” or middle suburbs be the current political battleground? For example, one current argument about getting rid of the electoral college suggests certain parts of the country should not a disproportionate sway over other more populous parts of the country. Right now, these middle suburbanites, particularly in swing states, have the influence and both parties want their votes. Are the interests of these suburban voters the interests of the entire country?

Suburban opposition to apartments has a long exclusionary history

When the McCloskeys of St. Louis spoke at the Republican National Convention about their fears that suburbs would be abolished, what they said specifically would change in suburbs continues a long-standing argument:

They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIL4dft8VNw&feature=youtu.be

What is so important about single-family homes and keeping out apartments? Here are at least three reasons why wealthier suburbs look to avoid most apartments:

  1. A change in aesthetics and character. Single-family homes are emblematic of people who have made it or successful suburbanites. The bigger and nicer the homes, the better off or the higher status the community. Single-family homes are also more spread out while apartments lend themselves to more density. Bigger lots equals higher status.
  2. The contrast between homeowners and apartment dwellers is thought to be stark. Homeowners care about their property and their community. Because their property values are at stake, they will put effort and money into their home and land. In contrast, apartment residents are thought to transient, not interested in the community, and less invested in their property.
  3. Exclusion. Apartments are not just an eyesore and problems for building community; they attract different kinds of residents than wealthy homeowners. In particular, they are connected to lower-income residents, non-white residents, and/or criminal elements. And if a suburb avoids building apartments (or only ends up with more expensive apartments or rental units), certain groups of people are excluded.

Two quick historical examples come to mind.

-My research on the suburban development of Naperville, West Chicago, and Wheaton showed that the subject of apartments was an important one. In my 2013 article “Not All Suburbs are the Same,” I provide some details of fights over apartments in Naperville and Wheaton. In both well-off suburbs, the communities decided not to pursue apartment growth.

The Mount Laurel case in suburban New Jersey involved efforts by long-time black residents to relocate to apartments. The denial of the apartments from the municipality led to a long court battle.

In sum, the argument from the McCloskeys is not just about a change in density; it is also about local control and the ability to keep (stereotyped) apartment dwellers out.

(Update: I have read other commentary that analyzes the coded language used by the McCloskeys. My primary focus in this post is about the mention of apartments: this is a common form of development that wealthier communities often look to limit because they view them as gateways to particular people in a community.)

Argument: COVID-19 cases not necessarily because of density but denser housing and work arrangements

Cities may not be the issue when it comes to COVID-19; rather, the larger issue might be density of homes, work, and travel experienced by some.

The inequalities of cities intersect in the rooms where people live and work. “The densest blocks in New York are in Manhattan, and that is not where cases of coronavirus are most frequent. They’re most frequent in Brooklyn and Queens, and in poorer neighborhoods,” says McDonald, lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy and author of the Nature of Cities analysis. “In Manhattan you might have only two people in a studio apartment, and in parts of Brooklyn or Queens you might have a family of five or six people in a room that size.”

An analysis from the housing-focused Furman Center at New York University lays out this answer more starkly: Mortality rates were higher in neighborhoods with lower incomes and less density across the geographic space but more density in a given home. That is, more people sharing a room or an apartment. Parts of the city with more renters living in overcrowded conditions had higher levels of infection, even though they had lower population density. And where more people had college degrees, fewer people got sick—possibly because people without college degrees are less likely to be able to work from home, and more likely to be riding public transit and working with other people, all potential points of exposure to the disease.

Class and race differences manifest in differing risk. “For some people who have been exposed, or are experiencing symptoms, staying home is not always the obvious course of action,” says Molly Franke, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. People who don’t have sick leave, who might lose their wages or jobs if they don’t show up, don’t have the option of sheltering in place. They’re out in the world, with more chances to encounter the disease and bring it home to the people they live with. And then, Franke says, things get even worse: “For a patient with Covid-19 to successfully isolate, there must be a separate bedroom and at least two weeks worth of supplies.” Who can afford all that?

On May 18, statistics finally confirmed what the Furman Center analysis had implied. The New York City Department of Health released numbers on deaths from Covid-19 by zip code, and the accompanying map is clarifying: The death rate has been higher in poorer neighborhoods where more people of color live. When Covid-19 came to New York City, rich people threw their Rimowa rolling bags into their Audi Q8s and decamped. But people who are less likely to have access to health care, less likely to have jobs they can do from home, more likely to share housing—as usual, they’re the ones who bear the brunt of the disease. Population density hasn’t been the issue, except on the spatial scale where it’s a proxy for inequality.

The logical next question to me is whether these patterns hold across other cities and communities. Are the unequal outcomes among blacks in Chicago and Latinos in the Chicago suburbs due to the same factors? Do the same patterns hold in Los Angeles where car travel is more common? Would the spread of cases in food processing plants also fit within this explanation (denser working conditions, lower-wage workers living in different conditions)? And if people have resources, they have more space and ability to avoid other people. It would be worth seeing if this applies across the board as well or if working in certain jobs or settings would limit the advantages.

Thinking long-term, I am sure there is more to come on the differential effects of COVID-19.

New York City, Los Angeles on different COVID-19 trajectories

To this point, COVID-19 has had different effects in the two most populous cities in the United States:

Public health officials are keeping a wary eye and warning that LA could end up being as hard hit as New York in coming weeks, in part because a planned increase in testing may uncover a dramatic surge in cases. Testing in Los Angeles County is expected to increase from 500 per day to 5,000 by the end of the week…

In both cities, schools have been canceled, many businesses shuttered and employees who can have been ordered to work from home. New York City, with roughly 8.5 million residents, had nearly 45,000 cases and at least 366 deaths as of Friday, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Los Angeles County, which contains its namesake city of 4 million people plus an additional 6 million residents, had nearly 1,500 cases and 26 deaths.

Health experts don’t know why there is such a big difference in the number of cases, but believe several things could be at play, such as urban density, differences in the use of mass transportation and slightly earlier moves by authorities to enact social distancing policies. A difference in the speed and amount of tests could also be factors, as officials warn that many people who get COVID-19 don’t necessarily have symptoms…

While a shortage of tests in California during the early weeks of the crisis is one reason for a much lower number of cases, it doesn’t alone explain the difference. New York has tested about three times as many patients, but it has 10 times as many cases as all of California.

There are a lot of possible moving parts (and combinations of these) that could explain the differences. I’m guessing there will be a lot of interesting research that comes out eventually that examines the interaction between place (and all the factors associated with that) and both the spread and consequences of COVID-19. The virus may spread to all areas eventually but the early stages suggest some differences across places.

Let’s say future research finds some differences between locations not just related to policies but to fundamental features of physical space such as density, mass transit use, and levels of social interaction. Will places be willing to change their behavior for the potential of a pandemic? In a world where locations brand themselves and look to attract residents and businesses (recent example), could traits that mean less exposure to infectious diseases represent a selling point?

One factor that I do not see mentioned in this article is the rate of travel in and out of each of these cities. Both are very important places located on coasts that experience a lot of travel in and out as well as much mobility across the region. But, does New York’s location in the the Northeast corridor matter and does New York City have significantly higher rates of global interaction and trade?