Suburban municipalities to take own actions regarding COVID-19?

As different government bodies look to act in response to the spread of COVID-19, I was struck by the number of large cities and states that are acting (including the state in which I live). At the same time, I wonder: how are suburban communities responding?

A few thoughts:

-Many suburban communities have limited capabilities and cannot do a whole lot. They may have limited budgets, a relatively small number of employees, and not much power to compel action. Still, decisions to close public spaces – such as libraries, city/village/town halls, community centers – matter to the everyday lives of lots of people.

-Yet, some bigger suburbs in the United States are as large as small big cities. Their actions can be very consequential and they have more budget room to address issues. At this point, the news has primarily focused on the biggest cities in the United States but this matters for numerous other communities over 100,000 people (to use an arbitrary cut-off point for a larger community).

Americans tend to like local control and government but at the speed that a virus can spread and across political boundaries, individual actions across hundreds of American suburbs might not add up to much. Hence, people look to the state and federal level to mobilize resources and direct action.

-What is the role of metropolitan regions in all of this? The City of Chicago can act and affect millions of residents and workers but there are roughly seven million more people in the region. Counties can act and affect more residents. But, then the next level of action regarding COVID-19 seems to be at the state level. Are metropolitan regions working together or is the general lack of metropolitan cooperation revealed again in a time of crisis?

Is Washington D.C. the center of the United States?

I recently heard a promo for a news show that claimed it was going to broadcast from the center of the United States: Washington D.C. Here are a few ways to think about the center of the United States:

-Washington D.C. makes the most sense in terms of government. With the federal government based here and the number of federal employees in the region, Washington D.C. could claim to be the center. (It is the sixth largest metropolitan region in the country and may claim to the current second city.)

-New York City makes the most sense in terms of population size and global influence. The New York City region has the most people by over six million and is a global center for finance, media, the arts, and more. (Yet, it is on the coast in the Northeast region with a particular culture.)

-The center of population has steadily moved west. According to the Census, it is now in Texas County, Missouri. By definition: “The mean center of population is determined as the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all residents were of identical weight.”

-The geographic center of the United States depends on whether it is just for the 48 contiguous states or for all fifty states. If just the contiguous states, the location is just northwest of Lebanon, Kansas. If for all fifty states, it is north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

-Is it possible to measure a cultural center? New York could lay claim to this as could Los Angeles (Hollywood, sprawl) while Chicagoans might hold to the claim that it is the most American of cities. Cleveland, San Francisco, New York, or New Orleans? Are the coasts more representative of America or the Heartland? Perhaps particular locations are less important and common spaces like McDonald’s or Walmart or local government meetings or religious congregations or local libraries are more indicative of the center of the United States.

If Washington D.C. is now the center of the United States, does it provide a hint that national politics has come to dominate American discourse and self-understanding?

Argument: Westchester County and affordable housing better off without federal government involvement

The headline summarizes the argument: “Team Trump just called a halt to the Obama-era war on the American suburbs.”

But the big win came last month, when — based on Westchester’s experience and expertise from groups like Americans for Limited Government — the Trump administration replaced Team Obama’s AFFH regulation with its own.

Gone is the federal mandate dictating the modeling of communities based on statistical formulas. Restored to local officials is the power that gives them the flexibility to weigh real-world factors in making housing decisions. Restored, too, is the prosecution of bad actors by the courts — not bureaucrats — under the Fair Housing Act.

And builders are now more likely to build affordable housing, since the attached strings have been removed.

The Democratic candidates for president didn’t get the memo. They continue to support radical, divisive and failed housing policies aimed at abolishing single-family residential zoning. And they’d use billions of our tax dollars to local communities — and the threat of lawsuits — to get their way.

The United States needs affordable housing. By replacing social engineering with common sense, guarded by strong nondiscrimination laws, the country is now better positioned to meet that need — and that’s a victory for everyone.

See more on the exclusionary zoning and housing in Westchester County: more recently under the Obama administration, in the 1970s, and the affordable housing issue in the county.

Conservatives claimed the Obama administration wanted to push Americans away from suburbs and into cities. This claim of social engineering tends to ignore the social engineering of suburbs, with plenty of federal government help, toward whiter and single-family home communities.

More broadly, this gets at a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals will argue that government intervention is needed regarding housing. As noted above, this might start with more serious enforcement of housing laws already on the books. But, this would not necessarily tackle the harder issues of residential segregation or exclusionary zoning, These issues would require communities across metropolitan regions to provide cheaper housing so that certain communities do not carry the burden. The conservative argument is different: the government needs to get out of housing and should let local governments make the decisions that would best serve their residents. Builders and developers will be empowered to construct cheaper housing with fewer regulations. Or, perhaps neither party really wants single-family home suburbia.

I have argued before that free markets for housing will not work. When given the opportunity, wealthier communities will not build cheaper housing as they would prefer to remain more exclusive. Recent efforts in California suggest it will take a lot even at the state level to promote more affordable housing. Plus, major political party candidates do not seem too keen to tackle housing. Americans may not like the idea of the federal government weighing in on local development decision but in many metropolitan regions the preference for local control is not moving the logjam of needed affordable housing.

Proposal to build federal government buildings in a classical style

A draft executive order suggests new federal government buildings should be constructed in a particular style:

A draft of an executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” would establish a classical style, inspired by Greek and Roman architecture, as the default for federal buildings in Washington and many throughout the country, discouraging modern design.

The order, spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group that believes contemporary architecture has “created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing,” would rewrite the current rules that govern the design of office buildings, headquarters, and courthouses, or any federal building project contracted through the General Services Administration that costs over $50 million…

If a style other than classical is proposed for a project, the order establishes a high bar for getting approval: it would establish a presidential “re-beautification” committee to review designs and would still give the White House final say. Benjamin Forgey, the former architecture critic for The Washington Post, called the order “profoundly mischievous,” and said it would eliminate the ability of architects to consider contemporary design and context when creating new government spaces…

The proposed mandate has triggered protests from architects and critics of the administration who say the president should not have the ability to issue a top-down mandate on how government buildings should look. News of the draft first appeared in the Architectural Record.

Administrations and bureaucrats only last for a while, buildings can last decades or even centuries. This is no small matter: how buildings are designed and who gets to design them has the potential to influence future workers, visitors, and neighbors for a long time. Together, the collection of buildings in key centers like Washington D.C. create an entire atmosphere that connects to larger ideas about the government and the United States.

There could be several ways to read this debate. Architects need commissions and public commissions like large federal buildings are significant. Perhaps this is more personal; Donald Trump’s design choices would be considered more garish and less sophisticated (let alone his political stances and views). Putting design choices in the hands of a president sends a different message than using a public committee or primarily drawing on the expertise of architects.

If I had to guess, more Americans would side with classical architecture versus modernist designs. I have argued Americans lean away from modernism with houses. I would think the same is true with important public buildings: the public is more comfortable with and familiar with classical design, they associate it with history and longevity, and modernist designs leave them feelings colder even if the structures are impressive. It is hard to imagine a modernist capitol building at the state or federal level. A bureaucratic modernist building might make more sense, particularly given the way many Americans feel about bureaucracy.

 

Reminder: “Americans have no comparable safety net for housing”

Americans generally have limited options in obtaining with housing from the government:

With food and health care, we recognize that some number of people will have trouble paying for the basics, so our government provides a minimum standard of access through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (for food) and Medicaid (for health care). These programs are designed to expand and contract based on need (setting aside current politics).

Americans have no comparable safety net for housing. While the federal Section 8 program does provide rental assistance to low-income families, inadequate public funding means that fewer than half of eligible households actually receive a voucher. The inadequacy of our response has led to a variety of injustices: growing homelessness, overcrowding in small or substandard apartments, and housing costs that squeeze families’ ability to pay for child care, transportation, and other essential needs. Policymakers and housing advocates, especially some of the great ones we have in Massachusetts, have worked hard to cobble together different low-income housing programs and subsidies that help many of these needy families. But it’s a patchwork approach that leaves far too many behind.

And then those who compete in the “free market” may also have few options:

There’s also a second crisis, which affects middle-income families headed by people such as teachers, salespeople, nurses, and retirees living on fixed incomes. This crisis is more directly tied to housing cost. If our private market was functioning properly and producing diverse, family-friendly housing, these families would be able to afford decent housing options without needing public subsidy. But they increasingly struggle to do so. This problem is especially pronounced in Boston’s suburbs, many of which have a long history of banning the construction of townhomes, duplexes, triple-deckers, and modest apartment buildings that would serve these middle-class families. Thanks to these extreme prohibitions, many of our region’s suburbs have instead seen a trend towards larger, and pricier, McMansion-style homes.

Addressing housing may the toughest issue to address in the United States. Still, ousing is a basic human need and not having adequate or consistent housing has detrimental effects on residents. Providing food, health care, and other necessities can help but may not mean as much without a good home.

As an earlier post noted, Americans have supported/subsidized mortgages for single-family homes but this has not benefited all. The system is not really a free market; it helps some people make money, some residents to benefit from long-term property value increases (and then pass on this wealth to future generations), and others to struggle to get into the system. The federal government – and the American people in general – have had little appetite for big government housing programs. Not even a burst housing bubble in the late 2000s truly altered the rules of the American housing game.

Given the number of people affected, perhaps this will eventually grow into an issue that cannot be ignored. But, given the lack of attention this gets during this election season, I am not hopeful with will be adequately addressed soon.

Considering housing shortages and gentrification together

An MIT economist looks at the relationship between gentrification and a shortage of cheaper housing:

Unsurprisingly, the geography of a place and the community residing there are linked. Along the most measurable dimensions, richer people tend to live in places with attractive geographies. Conversely, places with undesirable attributes like industrial or transportation pollution, poor access to jobs, and uninviting climates are usually left for the poorest and most marginalized.

Usually—but not always. Occasionally, physically attractive locations come to be occupied by low-income communities, immigrant communities, black communities. Neighborhoods like these are ripe for gentrification. Changes in labor markets, large investments by public or private institutions, or even just changing preferences among the wealthy move these neighborhoods into the sight lines of richer people, and then they gentrify.

The housing shortage, meanwhile, is a region-wide round of musical chairs, in which the winners sat down before the music even stopped. Whereas gentrification reshuffles which communities occupy which parts of the city, the housing shortage can operate at the scale of cities and regions as well as neighborhoods…

Policies introduced to fight gentrification—rent control and tenant protections—may ameliorate the effects of neighborhood change, but they won’t build new homes. We must allow new construction somewhere, despite the changes this will bring. Of course, we must do so in a way that avoids gentrification.

Four quick thoughts on this argument:

1. This reminds me of my post from the other day comparing the perspective that there is not enough housing and there is plenty of housing but it is not cheap enough. This piece suggests there are multiple housing issues at work and policies might tackle one particular issue and not others (or even make other housing issues worse).

2. Does the multiplicity of housing issues require that Americans prioritize which issue matters to them most? If middle-class people want cheaper housing, that will lead to different approaches (public policies, legislation, urban planning, decisions by developers, etc.) compared to a consensus that gentrification is not desirable. Historically, Americans have tended to prioritize housing for the middle-class (broadly defined) at the expense of housing for the poor or homeless.

3. To truly address all of these issues, metropolitan-wide approaches are needed. Individual neighborhoods or municipalities are often left to tackle these on their own even though decisions by nearby neighborhoods or municipalities have significant effects on their housing.

4. Additionally, a comprehensive housing policy is needed, not just one that tackles the most important or noisiest issue at the moment. On one hand, many Americans would not want the government to become involved in such issues even as the government has promoted suburban homeownership for roughly a century.

Trump administration pushes housing deregulation

A look at the Trump administration’s approach to homelessness includes this summary of how they view housing more broadly:

Housing deregulation is probably the core of the report outlined by the Council Advisors. That lines up with the Trump administration’s overall position on housing—from Carson’s enthusiasm for breaking up exclusionary zoning to the housing plan that the Domestic Policy Council is drafting. Trump signed an executive order establishing a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing in June.

While making it easier to build housing could ease the affordability crisis, it may be hard to achieve those reforms, Hanratty says. Several of the Democratic Party primary candidates have outlined housing plans with various strategies to promote new construction, but all of them would require sweeping new legislation. And in practice, deregulation might not produce housing that is affordable to very low-income families or people with substance-abuse or mental-health afflictions without subsidies.

This is a common conservative argument to make these days: the housing market needs to be a more free one with less interference from local governments as well as the federal government. Attempts at more explicit intervention – such as in public housing – have not proved popular. If the law of supply and demand could simply take over, the market would provide housing options for all.

However, this may not work as intended. The suburbs, a space seen as desirable by many Americans was not the result of free markets but rather the result of all sorts of social and government interventions. Would Houston’s growth without zoning look attractive for communities around the country? Without any regulations, developers and builders may have little incentive to build cheaper housing and instead pursue units that provide more profit.

Finding some middle ground where specific and limited interventions actually lead to more affordable housing will prove difficult. Without some negative consequences for communities and housing market actors who do not participate in providing cheaper housing, what can be done?

Linking Microsoft giving $500 million for Seattle area housing to tech companies and declining gov’t support for housing

Microsoft is pledging a substantial amount to address the important issue of housing in Seattle:

Microsoft plans to lend $225 million at subsidized rates to preserve and build middle-income housing in six cities near its Redmond headquarters. It will put an additional $250 million into low-income housing across the region. Some of those loans may be made through the federal programs that provide tax breaks for low-income housing.

The company plans to invest the money within three years, and expects most of it to go to Seattle’s suburbs.

The loans could go to private or nonprofit developers, or to governmental groups like the King County Housing Authority. As the loans are repaid, Mr. Smith said, Microsoft plans to lend the money out again to support additional projects.

This article frames the giving as part of the housing issues wrought by the actions of tech companies:

Microsoft’s money represents the most ambitious effort by a tech company to directly address the inequality that has spread in areas where the industry is concentrated, particularly on the West Coast. It will fund construction for homes affordable not only to the company’s own non-tech workers, but also for teachers, firefighters and other middle- and low-income residents.

From this point of view, the health of a region matters for companies. If workers, whether ones employed by a particular company or organization or others, cannot find affordable housing, it will be harder for the region to find and hold on to workers. Whereas businesses often focus on a good business climate (low taxes, tax breaks, business-friendly governments, etc.), housing is a big factor in finding a strong work force. Additionally, Microsoft can help show through these actions that they care about local conditions in ways that tech companies are often said to ignore because of their global status. Would Microsoft be the same if it were not in the Seattle region?

Another way to view this is that private companies are now taking on what the federal government should address:

The government spent about three times as much on housing programs in the 1970s as it does today, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In the years since, the government has gotten out of the business of building public housing. And capital funds to repair the remaining public housing stock have been cut in half over the last 15 years.

Over this time, federal resources have increasingly shifted away from subsidizing the construction of affordable housing to subsidizing renters who find housing in the private market. And now most new below-market-rate housing is built not by public agencies, but by nonprofit developers leveraging tax credits. The value of those credits has declined recently as well, as a result of changes in the tax bill passed in 2017.

In a sense, Microsoft’s proposal is an extension of this story, as private actors continue to step in where the government once stood.

Ed Goetz, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied the history of public housing in America, said: “I don’t want to diminish the magnitude of what they’re doing. I think it’s important, and it will help. But it won’t solve Seattle’s problem.”

This argument suggests that private actors can only do so much to address housing issues. Because so much money is involved and the issue is so widespread, even $500 million may not do much in a single metropolitan region with high land and housing costs. Of course, the government is involved in the housing industry: the federal government for decades has supported single-family homes, primarily in the suburbs. At the same time, the government and the American people have always been more ambivalent about public housing. It is not as if  the housing market is a free market: the United States subsidizes mortgages.

At the least, this will be an interesting experiment: can Microsoft make even a small dent in the housing needs of the Seattle area? Will this help strengthen the metropolitan region or primarily serve as good publicity for the company?

Deciding at which social level to counter a social problem

Once groups of Americans agree that an issue in society needs to be addressed, they encounter an important question: at what social level should we target our efforts? There are numerous options for many important issues. For example, see an earlier post about how efforts to fight smog in Los Angeles did not seriously address driving but rather pushed Detroit to create more efficient vehicles.

Two social institutions regularly come to mind when I think about how many Americans want to address social problems: schools and the federal government. Even as different sides might not agree which problems they think schools or the federal government should, the country has regular debates about how these institutions should be doing something different.

Start with schools. Because attendance is compulsory, children spend so much time there, learning may be the universally recognized need in a knowledge economy, and what is learned as a child can carry through a full lifetime, they seem like they are great places to address issues.

For similar reasons, it may appear prudent to operate at the level of the federal government Because it has broad oversight over the United States, it has the potential to shape numerous lives. Certain issues are so big and/or affect so many people that the federal government may seem to be the only way to adequately address a concern.

Both institutions are important in our society yet enacting change at these larger levels can be very difficult. Change brings a lot of attention. Politicians on all sides get involved. Those opposed to large-scale government action can be energized. Crafting one-size-fits-all policies is difficult.

What, then, are alternatives? Here are three common ways Americans go if they do not want to go large-scale:

Work through local or national voluntary associations. This can range from the local Rotary to religious congregations and a group of neighbors who get together to do something. With de Toqueville’s oft-repeated quote about the zeal with which Americans joined such groups, this option could offer hope (even as Americans are not participating in these like they did before – see Bowling Alone).

Voluntary associations benefit from the eagerness of their members to participate but Americans can also work through local governments which are always present. Americans tend to like smaller-scale government activity and oversight. Why get the federal government or the state involved when a city or community, township, or county could try to address the matter? For some issues, this social level may be too local – larger issues are hard to deal with one community at a time. At the same time, these smaller governments could try a variety of options and this can provide information on what might work at larger levels.

Finally, Americans can work through individual action. There is a reason that we celebrate certain notable individuals who worked tirelessly and successfully to fight for their convictions: it is rare to see such individual level success (and often, these famous figures benefited from organizations and support behind them). The actions of one person may typically not accomplish much but the aggregate actions of thousands or millions of people can add up or passionate individuals can help start movements.

All together, it is not easy to figure out which option might be the most effective in order to address important social problems. For many issues, it is likely that people are trying to find solutions at all of these levels: schools, the federal government, voluntary associations, local governments, and individual action. Actions at these various levels can occasionally intersect and enrich each other, helping provide energy for a broader movement or consensus. Indeed, truly finding solutions to social concerns likely requires broad action, even if the efforts began at just one of these social levels.

Why I’m skeptical housing will become a national political issue

Even as affordable housing is a concern in a number of places in the United States, there is little national political discussion of the issue:

Franzini is joined in this quest by a curious cast of fellow travelers who are committed to raising the political profile of the American housing dilemma. As home prices creep up everywhere from established tech hubs to traditionally inexpensive cities like Boise and Nashville—and as homelessness reaches epidemic proportions on the West Coast—a number of organizations from a diverse array of sectors have recently formed to push for housing policy changes at the highest levels of government. They’re frustrated by the lack of engagement on housing that national political leaders are offering. And they’re finding that, at least for the moment, the first order of business is just educating people about the seriousness of the issue.

Here are four reasons why I believe it will be very tough to have a national political discussion, let alone pressure for the federal government to act, regarding housing:

  1. Housing is local. Americans would like local governments to handle the issue as they prefer, particularly those with more resources, to live in places that can limit others of lesser status from moving in. Residents and smaller governments argue that they should not be forced to build housing that current residents do not desire or give money to less deserving people for housing.
  2. Americans historically do not have much appetite for significant federal involvement in public or subsidized housing even as they like socialized mortgages for single-family homes.
  3. The housing industry has significant influence, from the National Association of Home Builders to the National Association of Realtors, due to the importance of the housing industry for the American economy and particular American ideals about what kinds of housing are preferred. Affordable or cheaper housing might generate fewer profits.
  4. Opponents to federal action will argue that Americans can have cheaper housing if they (a) are willing to move to metro areas that have cheaper housing (and plenty of them exist) and (b) truly take on the local power brokers that usually do not want the working and middle classes to access their wealthier neighborhoods. These arguments are plausible enough (though with issues) for a number of participants in the discussion.

A number of these reasons involve ideas about what should be part of the American Dream as well as perceptions about who can access it (so it involves race and social class).