Eight (unlikely and unpopular) policy options for addressing housing issues

After a recent conversation with colleagues prompted by reading together the sociological work Evicted as well as my own thinking about residential segregation, I wanted to put together a blog post summarizing possible policy solutions to housing issues. I am not optimistic but here are the possible options I see at multiple levels:

  1. Provide incentives for developers and builders. This is a common strategy across different government levels: builders and developers are given access to choice properties or are able to build higher-end housing if they build cheaper housing or provide monies that could be used for cheaper housing. A number of major cities, including Chicago, have such incentives. However, it does not seem to have made a major dent in the amount of affordable housing that is needed. I have heard that argument that governments have simply not offered big enough incentives – there is a tipping point where this could really push builders and developers to construct cheaper housing. I don’t think I buy this argument. Even though there is clearly a market right now for cheaper housing, why would builders and developers not try to build the priciest stuff they can to bring in more profit?
  2. Other market-driven solutions beyond incentives. I’m on the record here as skeptical that free markets can address issues of residential segregation and housing. Vouchers have their supporters since they theoretically would allow poorer residents to access areas of the housing market they otherwise could not. At the same time, introducing vouchers leads to other issues such as inflated prices/rents and negative reactions to those with the vouchers.
  3. Local government action. Municipal officials have a good amount of control over what can be built within their boundaries. However, they are constrained by (1) local residents who want to protect their community (examples of NIMBY in action here and here) and (2) limited budgets and revenues so they are typically trying to maximize property and sales taxes while minimizing use of social services. The biggest tool municipalities have are local zoning guidelines that often constrict what can be built (see recent suburban non-housing examples here and here). One way that wealthier areas exclude those who are not so wealthy is to not allow multi-family housing or set guidelines requiring larger lot sizes.
  4. Metropolitan action. Housing is really an issue that spans municipalities as the majority of people live in one place and commute to another for work (plus drive elsewhere for other amenities). Yet, metropolitan governance does not exist on a large-scale in the United States. Outside of a few regions, this is not a viable option: people in different communities do not have ways to collaborate nor would they necessarily want to. This is particularly true of wealthier communities. Residents would argue that this is the purpose of local government: local residents should get to make decisions about their own communities rather than handing off money and/or control to an outside body that wishes to damage their quality of life. See examples of how this can play out regarding affordable housing in one region and another involving transportation across a whole region.
  5. State governments. States could decide to impose regulations and guidelines but then they would have to overrule municipalities. This is difficult. For example, Illinois in 2004 an affordable housing guideline where every community was supposed to have a certain percentage of their housing stock within affordable limits. The guidelines could have been useful but they had no teeth and what counted as affordable was loosely defined. As this 2015 Chicago Tribune article suggests, wealthier communities did not submit to the guidelines and “Lee acknowledged that the agency has no authority to enforce the mandate if municipalities do not submit affordable housing plans.” Nothing really changed – and I’m guessing this was intentional.
  6. Federal government. Even though the United States has public housing, it was difficult to get off the ground and is not viewed favorably by many. That whole single-family homes fights communism thing plus the American ideal is everyone owning a home. Even if public housing had some successes, on the whole federal efforts have promoted white suburbs mortgages for single-family homes are subsidized. Results for federal initiatives involving vouchers, such as Moving to Opportunity, are mixed as many of the residents end up in similar poor neighborhoods and it is not clear if certain long-term outcomes such as education and employment are positively affected. Federal efforts consistently draw negative responses from conservatives. Operators in the housing industry – the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Realtors, lenders, and others – mobilize to protect the mortgage interest deduction and single-family homes. American Apartheid suggested we lack the political will to enforce the 1968 Housing Act and thus we still have discrimination in housing (from mortgages to real estate agents to landlords and more).
  7. The court system. Given the relative lack of action by local and state officials, housing and zoning cases do occasionally make it to state and federal courts. I argued a few years back that I could envision the Supreme Court approving inclusionary zoning (I’m not sure I still think this given the current makeup of the court). They can indeed take action and compel other governmental bodies to address issues. Some famous cases include the Gatreaux case in Chicago where a court ordered scattered-site housing and the Mount Laurel cases in New Jersey combating exclusionary zoning. The problem with these is that they require taking legal action in the first place, they can take a long time to litigate, and while the results may be compelling, they are still often viewed unfavorably and putting the changes into action are not easy.
  8. Non-profits and religious groups. Either sets of groups have limited resources – housing is a very expensive proposition on a large scale – or are more interested in other concerns. Groups like Habitat for Humanity may do good things but they can only build so many houses and not all communities or neighborhoods are welcoming to their projects. Churches, particularly big ones, could access a good amount of resources but housing is more of a structural issue that many conservative Christians may not want to get into.

All of these options are difficult to implement. On the whole, many wealthier suburbanites and urban residents do not want any kind of cheaper or subsidized housing in their neighborhoods or community.

If I had to pick two levels that provide the best opportunities, I might go with local government and the courts. Zoning guidelines are often developed by average citizens sitting on local committees. Get named to such committees and you can influence this process. The courts are a way to get around the unpopularity of introducing cheaper housing as such measure are unlikely to find broad support. At the same time, as noted above, the court route has its own challenges.

Perhaps the most daunting option in my mind is trying to influence the federal level. Does any political party talk seriously about housing? After all, one journalist captured this quote:

The former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told me this: “Most countries have socialized health care and a free market for mortgages. You in the United States do exactly the opposite.”

It will be hard to alter an entire system based on providing socialized mortgages for the middle-class and above.

CHA’s Plan for Transformation didn’t transform public housing much

A new report from WBEZ suggests the Chicago’s Plan for Transformation has not met its goals:

Now, more than 17 years and $3 billion later, only 7.81 percent of the 16,846 households under the Plan For Transformation live in mixed-income communities, according to data from the CHA obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act through a joint study by WBEZ and Northwestern University’s Medill Social Justice News Nexus.

The rest of the households?

  • 20.81 percent live on a Housing Choice or Section 8 voucher
  • 15.97 percent live in traditional public housing
  • 11.99 percent were evicted
  • 9.59 percent have died

The remaining 33.82 percent are living without a government subsidy.

The Plan For Transformation is the largest remake of public housing in the nation. It has simultaneously produced new communities and tracts of vacant land, gentrification and segregation throughout the city.

Arguably, the most “successful” part of the Plan for Transformation was limiting the visibility of public housing  by demolishing high-rise buildings. But, that did little to help the public housing residents or the neighborhoods in which the high-rises were located (Cabrini-Green is an exception because it was already located near wealthier and whiter residents). All that money and effort…could it have worked out better if it (1) wasn’t managed by the CHA (which has a poor record over decades of providing public housing) or (2) wasn’t located in Chicago (the one Rust Belt city that has supposedly made it but still has serious problems including residential segregation)? Efforts elsewhere have also been mixed – leading to the thought that perhaps the federal government can’t do much in this area. This doesn’t mean that the idea of public housing is worthless but maybe that issues of race, class, and residential segregation are really difficult to overcome.

Skepticism on whether the AFFH will improve urban housing

An overview of how the Trump administration might work with the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule includes this skepticism from a sociologist:

While these baby steps are improvements on the status quo, it’s easy to see why many housing experts remain skeptical of the rule. “The whole history of enforcement of fair-housing law … shows that more conservative and more liberal politicians use different rhetoric but act pretty much the same,” Brown University’s John Logan, a well-regarded expert on segregation, told me. “Only through court action, with HUD and/or localities as defendants, have real steps been taken.” The history is certainly not heartening.

The real question regarding housing integration or affordable housing is how government officials can convince wealthier white residents to live near cheaper housing and non-white residents. Residential integration does not come easily, and as Logan suggests, court action is often required before it will happen. If the new AAFH is successful, will it be because fair housing is built in less white and less wealthy areas?

The middle class finding it difficult to find city housing – what to do?

Some urban neighborhoods are hot but this can lead to housing prices that limit how many middle class residents can move in:

The casualties in this war are mostly the middle class. In 2016, rents continued their years-long rise, incomes stratified further, and the average price to buy a home in major US cities rose. The strain pushed the middle class out of cities like Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Austin—the so-called “hot cities.” Some families move to the suburbs. Others flee for less expensive cities. But across the US, the trend holds: cities are increasingly home to high-rollers who can pay the high rents or down payments and lower income people who qualify for subsidized housing.

Macroeconomists say this a good problem to have. These cities are growing. People want to live in them. Stagnating economies in the Rust Belt might envy this kind of trouble. From the perspective of the overall wealth of cities, the middle class being pushed out doesn’t matter. But it matters on the human level, the neighborhood level. In Fort Hill, it means that a teacher at the local elementary school cannot afford to live in the neighborhood where she works. The effects on inequality, mobility, and the demographic composition of cities are very real, their causes multifold, and the solutions difficult…

“It’s very hard to get people to understand that the affordable housing crisis is not for the very poor,” says lawyer Mechele Dickerson of the University of Texas, an expert in housing and the middle class. It’s for people with good jobs who are not poor enough to qualify for subsidized housing, nor rich enough to pay the rising housing prices. “A family that makes $100,000 can’t afford to buy a house in most US cities,” Dickerson says…

The incoming administration has given experts no reason to expect it will prioritize fixing the affordability crises for the middle class. “In terms of the federal government, I see no hope,” Dickerson says. But as with immigration reform and climate change, housing affordability is something that states and cities can tackle on their own. In 2017, this trend toward decentralized power will continue—that is, if cities make retaining middle class residents a priority. That means relaxing the zoning laws to permit more housing stock to enter the market. This is the single most helpful thing the city of San Francisco could do, for example, to counter the tech money forcing prices on the limited housing stock up, says Shulman.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This article seems to suggest that the government should do something to help middle class residents live in cities and the Trump administration may not help much. So, we do still in America subscribe to the idea that the federal government should subsidize middle class housing (whether in suburbs or cities)?
  2. I’m a little skeptical that the real problem is middle class housing rather than housing for poorer residents. Either this is a very broad definition of the middle class – which is entirely possible since most Americans consider themselves to be middle class – or cities really don’t care about poor and working class residents. I know cities want to keep middle-class residents but about people with less education and job prospects with less pay?
  3. This is an area that could really use some innovation. Big government doesn’t seem to have all the answers (what is the long-term effect of HUD?) nor does the free market (which tends to lead to residential segregation by race/ethnicity and class). What could really work well here is for a number of cities to try new ideas and see what might work.
  4. As the article notes, one of the biggest barriers is existing residents who don’t want to be near “affordable housing.” I’m not sure how you can get around this though there have been some indications that well-designed affordable housing limits some of the stigma. How do you get Americans (urban or suburban) to get past the mentality of pulling up the drawbridge after they move into their desirable neighborhood?

Should Trump promote a third wave of American suburbanization?

Walter Russell Mead suggests Donald Trump could help usher in a new wave of suburbanization:

What President-elect Trump has the opportunity to do now is to launch a third great wave of suburbanization, one that can revive the American Dream for the Millennial generation, produce jobs and wealth that can power the American economy, and take advantage of changing technology to create a new wave of optimism and dynamism in American life.

There’s a confluence of trends that make this possible. In the first place, the Millennials, like the Boomers, are a large generation that needs both jobs and affordable homes. Second, the shale revolution means that energy in the United States will likely be relatively abundant and cheap for the foreseeable future. Third, both financial markets and the real economy have recovered from the shock of the financial crisis, and, whatever hiccups and upsets may come their way, are now ready for sustained expansion. Fourth, revolutions in technology (self-driving cars and the internet) make it possible for people to build a third ring of suburbs even farther out from the central cities, where land prices are still low and houses can be affordably built.

For national politicians, this is a huge opportunity. Creating the infrastructure for the third suburban wave—new highways, ring roads and the rest of it for another suburban expansion—will create enormous numbers of jobs. The opportunity for cheap housing in leafy places will allow millions of young people to get a piece of the American Dream. Funding the construction of this infrastructure and these homes gives Wall Street an opportunity to make a lot of money in ways that don’t drive the rest of the country crazy.

This approach meshes very well both with the President-elect’s economic instincts and with the economic interests of the people who voted for him. It also works for the Republican dominated states around the country. It capitalizes on one of America’s distinctive advantages: less densely-populated than other advanced countries, the United States has the elbow room for a new suburban wave.

There are all sorts of fascinating things going on with this argument. Let’s just pick out a few.

To start, this argument suggests Eisenhower and Reagan were great because they helped make the suburbs happen. How much did they do in this regard? By the early 1950s, suburbanization was well underway with a postwar housing shortage and lots of developers and local officials interested in building out. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 certainly helped the process and is often credited for helping urban residents flee cities (even though highways were already under construction in many places). This is a good example of presidents getting credit for things that don’t have much direct control over.

Second, this equates Republicans with suburbs. There are certainly patterns here: suburbanites have tended to vote Republican for a long time (particularly the further out one gets) and both Republicans and Democrats have argued more sprawl leads to more Republicans. At the same time, not every conservative loves suburbs nor does every Democrat love cities. If you had to summarize Republicanism since World War II, would suburbs come to mind or other things?

Third, it sounds like this argument is in favor of government spending to promote a certain way of life. In other words, the federal government should subsidize more suburban growth because it helps generate jobs and housing. While this may fit older images of moderate Republicans (Eisenhower was one, Reagan not so much), it doesn’t fit well with more libertarian/small government Republicans. Why should the government promote certain ways of life?

To conclude, it is clear that all of this requires an optimistic view of suburban life. It is the fulfillment of the American Dream. This is a common American image. Does it match all of reality? Are the suburbs open to all? Would the new spending even further from cities open new opportunities for non-whites, immigrants, and the lower class (who are increasingly in the suburbs) or would it allow whiter, wealthier residents to flee even further from urban problems? What are the environmental costs of another ring of suburbia? What does it do to civic life to continue to promote automobile driven culture (even if those self-driving cars are safer and more environmentally friendly)? These are not easy questions to answer even if many Americans would enjoy a third wave of suburbanization.

A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part Two

I posted several observations yesterday from my time at the Urban History Association meetings. I turn today to the three most interesting ideas or debates I heard when attending sessions and panels:

  1. On a session on public housing, the discussant made this observation: with all of these negative cases of big government involvement in public housing, perhaps we need to turn away from seeing this as the solution. The main issue is this: when the federal resources are earmarked for the poor and redevelopment, it always seems to end up in the hands of the wealthy and developers rather than with those who really need the assistance. (For another example of this that involves lots of government money but not public housing, see the book Crisis Cities about New York City after 9/11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) He suggested then and in later conversation that doesn’t mean that government should be completely removed from public housing. However, more local efforts seem to allow more opportunity for success rather than a completely top-down approach.I’ve argued before that the private market can’t do much about affordable housing in the United States, let alone public housing. At the same time, I would agree that the record of the federal government regarding public housing is mediocre at best. Are there some middle-range solutions? (I’ll also acknowledge that sometimes it does seem to take the federal government to help local governments do the right thing. For example, the Chicago Housing Authority was a mess for decades and required some oversight.)
  1. On a panel on Jane Jacobs, one of the scholars highlighted her upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania as being particularly formative. While Jacobs is most associated with New York City and Toronto, she was shaped by this smaller big city, the third most populous Pennsylvania city at the time and a city that attracted a variety of residents to work in the coal mining industry. This made me think of two things: (1) Why don’t more scholars pay attention to smaller big cities that may not be as important on the global stage but still contain a large number of American residents and (2) how might Jacobs and fictional resident and booster Michael Scott of The Office get along?
  1. A later panel discussed the history of Silicon Valley. In a response to a question about the representativeness of Silicon Valley for understanding other places in the United States and around the world, at least one participant suggested the ideas, social life, and spatial dimensions of Silicon Valley were likely to spread elsewhere and become normal. Another participant pushed back, suggesting that many places have no interest in becoming like Silicon Valley or don’t have the knowledge or resources to follow such a path. Such a discussion highlights how a place devoted to creating things for the masses may be in its organization and daily life be very separate from the rest of the country.

A bonus nugget from a session: when the Illinois Tollways first opened, there were not enough customers/drivers. Thus, a marketing campaign kicked off and the commercials featured Mary MacToll. Enjoy.

“Federal Officials Push to Urbanize Suburbia”?

Conservatives are still worried the Obama administration is against suburbs:

In its final months, the Obama administration has set up a strategy to bring inner city living to the suburbs by deploying three federal agencies to dictate to states and local communities how to set up schools, housing and mass transit…

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expanded the reach of its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule to two other federal agencies: the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education…

State and local educational agencies, for example, are urged to develop “boundary-free open enrollment or lottery schools when drawing school attendance boundaries, and selecting sites for such a programs like charter schools or magnet school.”

The three federal agencies also want their local and state education officials to “consult with transportation and housing authorities and housing development agencies” when planning a school site.

The federal authorities want local and state transportation officials to create mass transit plans and more public transportation routes, as well as include local school districts, housing authorities, Head Start programs, community colleges and similar entities in putting together the mass transit plan.

The first two thoughts that come to mind when seeing the specifics here:

  1. It sounds like this applies to communities that receive HUD block grants for redevelopment. So, if suburbs don’t apply for this, the guidelines may not apply.
  2. At the least, the guidelines would encourage more conversations between some important actors – like developers, local officials, school districts, transportation planners, and others – that could build upon and expand existing infrastructure. Instead of doing all of their work independently, a little collaboration could go a long ways.

In other words, wealthier suburbs will still have ways to resist lower-income residents. And isn’t what this is really about? Or, more broadly, suburbs want the ability to have complete local control over land use – which is all about quality of life, property values, and attracting the right kind of people. For example, see this statement from a Westchester County official:

“This document proves what I’ve been saying for six years: The federal government is planning to take control of the American suburb and forever change it in the false name of equality. If HUD gets its way, small town America will literally disappear. It will be forcibly urbanized by Washington social engineers.”

Suburbs are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Plus, market forces may lead to denser suburbs anyway as there is plenty of demand for new housing in attractive suburbs. But, there could be more conflict in the future as wealthier communities want to retain control and regional and federal governments try to spread opportunities around.