Forests, McMansions, and using land

The construction of new McMansions can threaten forests and the logging industry:

But the terrain for logging is fast disappearing, and with it the jobs. The number of loggers has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, making Gale one of fewer than a dozen working in the area of the Rensselaer Plateau now, he said. The milling companies that once owned huge swaths of forest across the Northeast are gone, leaving the wooded tracts largely in the hands of investor groups and private-equity funds. The local economy embraced tourism, and well-heeled visitors from the city ― attracted to the bucolic charm ― wanted what Gale called “their own little slice of heaven.” Eager to turn a profit, the investors have been divvying up the land and selling it to developers building massive summer homes in the middle of what was once dense forest.

The transformation may seem invisible from the farm-lined state roads that slither out from Albany. But you can see it from above. Clearings pockmark the lush, green canopy, making way for McMansions. On a helicopter flight last month, HuffPost counted nearly a dozen new houses under construction.

One nonprofit is trying to halt the process by preserving forests that form the backbone of rural economies and play a critical role in combatting climate change. On Tuesday, the Conservation Fund, a national environmental and economic development advocate based in northern Virginia, closed a roughly $25 million deal to buy 23,053 acres of forest straddling the borders of New York, Massachusetts and Vermont…

In rural, wooded areas, the gentrification process can be economically devastating. That’s why privately owned forests like the ones the Conservation Fund buys welcome sustainable forestry, which helps clear out dead wood and make the forests less dense. Forestry-related industries currently provide 2.7 million American jobs and contribute $112 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a conservation group.

Sprawl, often marked by the construction of suburban type housing (which can include McMansions), changes the use of land. Common concerns about this include the loss of farmland and habitats as well as changed water systems. Development also affects trees and forests as house builders often just clear sites completely. Trees can be replaced but it is much more difficult to recreate forests.

One aspect of this story that is different from some analyses of sprawl’s effect on nature is that it emphasizes the loss of rural economic opportunities. The idea here is that sprawling McMansions don’t just chew up land; they threaten long-standing local industries. Yet, the choice is sometimes presented this way: either suburban sprawl or untamed, untouched natural land. Is any land truly untouched by human activity? A lot of even protected spaces have been altered over the years for human purposes. This article takes a more realistic approach: the consequences of sprawl aren’t just lost land but the shifting of the land from one economic use (sustainable forestry) to another (the buying and selling of real estate).

On the failure of the High Line

Even as cities around the world attempt to emulate New York City’s High Line (earlier posts here and here), the creator discusses why he thinks the original failed:

But by one critical metric, it is not. Locals aren’t the ones overloading the park, nor are locals all benefiting from its economic windfall. The High Line is bookended by two large public housing projects; nearly one third of residents in its neighborhood, Chelsea, are people of color. Yet anyone who’s ever strolled among the High Line’s native plants and cold-brew vendors knows its foot traffic is, as a recent City University of New York study found, “overwhelmingly white.” And most visitors are tourists, not locals.

“We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” says Hammond, who is now the executive director of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that funds, maintains, programs, and built the space (New York City owns it, and the parks department helps manage it). “Ultimately, we failed.”…

“Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’” says Hammond. “Because people have bigger problems than design.”

His organization finally did launch a series of “listening sessions” with public housing tenants in 2011. What people really needed were jobs, Hammond says, and a more affordable cost of living. Residents also said they staying away from the High Line for three main reasons: They didn’t feel it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it; and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.

While it is easy to link such conversations to gentrification, I think this gets at a deeper issue regarding development in urban areas: who ultimately benefits? The short answer is that it is not typically the lower-income resident. Urban sociologists have made this point for decades; for example, the concept of growth machines suggests development decisions are typically made by political and business leaders who are looking to profit. In other words, developments are judged by how much money can be made (whether through the sale of property or buildings as well as through increased tax revenues) rather than by how many members of the local population experience a better quality of life. Or, see the the sociological study Crisis Cities that shows how money to redevelop lower Manhattan after 9/11 or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina generally went to wealthier actors and made life difficult for the average resident.

“The New Urban Blight Is Rich People”

Here is a popular magazine treatment of the debate between New Urbanism and Richard Florida against opponents and Joel Kotkin:

Many cities, in consequence, have become “Floridian,” with “loft districts” rising from industrial ashes in Cleveland and Raleigh, hipster enclaves in Chattanooga, a gayborhood in Philadelphia, reclaimed waterfronts in Baltimore and Minneapolis. Much of this work preceded Florida—but there was socialism before Lenin, too. Florida gave the New Urbanists the vision they wanted of themselves, as saviors of the American city emptied by suburban sprawl, champions of creativity and ingenuity who were going to make Indianapolis the Paris of the 22nd century.

But any intellectual movement must encounter a backlash, and the one to the New Urbanism is only growing, in part because it’s now mature enough for us to see its effects. On the face of it, the New Urbanism is very pretty: Court Street in Brooklyn looks splendid, as does San Francisco’s Valencia Street. The aforementioned travel section of The New York Times has a column, called “Surfacing,” that frequently resorts to profiling some forlorn, blighted neighborhood suddenly graced by taxidermy shops that double as yoga studios. I am, as a matter of fact, writing this from a Whole Foods in West Berkeley, California, a formerly industrial district that was recently “Surfaced” in the Times. The coffee I am drinking was roasted about 20 feet away from my Apple laptop. How’s that for local?

Problem is, surfacing is usually whitening: Gentrification by any other name would taste as hoppy, with the same notes of citrus peel. There is really only one strike against the New Urbanism, but it’s a strike thrown by Nolan Ryan: It turns cities into playgrounds for moneyed, childless whites while pushing out the poor, the working-class, immigrants, seniors and anyone else not plugged into “the knowledge economy.” Right around the time that Michael Bloomberg was remaking Manhattan as a hive for stateless billionaires, I saw a slogan that captured perfectly the new glimmer of the city: “New York: If you can make it here, you probably have a trust fund.”

You could accuse me of writing a faux-populist diatribe, but the numbers are on my side this time around. Jed Kolko, a Harvard-trained economist who was, until recently, the chief of analytics for Trulia, has found that from 2000 to 2014, more Americans moved out of urban centers than into them. Using data from the U.S. Census, he concluded, in a recent post on his blog: “While well-educated, higher-income young adults have become much more likely to live in dense urban neighborhoods, most demographic groups have been left out of the urban revival.” The people who continue to move to cities, he concludes, are “increasingly young, rich, childless, and white.” These are the creatives, the hipsters, the pioneers, who fled the countryside for the big city, where cultures would clash and ideas foment. But all they did is turn Bedford-Stuyvesant into Minnetonka.

So what? I posed this question to Joel Kotkin, an urbanist and demographer based in that decidedly suburban setting of Orange County, California. Author of the forthcoming The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, Kotkin defends the suburbs, which is nearly as radical as an evolutionary biologist defending creationism. Kotkin argues that suburbs are where middle-class families want to live, and middle-class families are, as he told me in a recent phone conversation, “the bedrock of the Republic.” A city hostile to the middle class is, in Kotkin’s view, a sea hostile to fish.

What is the answer to this debate, which like many others, have become politicized (Republican visions of small towns and suburbs and Democratic visions of thriving cities)? Could both sides have some merit to their arguments – New Urbanists regarding aesthetics and community life and Kotkin et al. with American’s continued interest in suburbia? One possible solution is to introduce more New Urbanist developments and communities in suburbs. This would allow people to have their suburban life but at higher densities and with planning that might encourage more street life.

At the same time, neither New Urbanists or Kotkin really address issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. Both do so indirectly, suggesting that their models offer better options for non-whites. But, what if the larger issue was really residential segregation, which can occur in New Urbanist communities as well as in suburbs?

Additionally, I cannot imagine too many city or suburban leaders would turn down or discourage wealthy residents moving to their community.

When a neighborhood doesn’t want a budget version of Whole Foods

Whole Foods has selected a LA neighborhood for its first Whole Foods 365 and residents are not happy:

Let’s take a quick trip to Los Angeles’ bourgeois-hip Silver Lake neighborhood, where more than a few residents are up in arms over Whole Foods’ recent decision to not go through with a planned full-service Whole Foods but rather to build the first store in the chain’s new line of budget outlets aimed at millennials, 365 by Whole Foods Market. “Whole Foods! We want the REAL thing,” reads a Care2 petition recently posted by neighborhood resident and music executive Dawn White. “People in this neighborhood are desperate for a local high end market with the best quality foods, which are often not the 365 brand,” White wrote. Online, commenters began to call the proposed store “Half Foods.”

What is behind this reaction?

Silver Lake is not the first nor likely the last enclave where residents are literally begging for a Whole Foods. Online petitions asking for stores frequently read like crosses between market research reports, sales pitches, and letters from spurned would-be lovers. “Between the families, the young professionals, long-time residents and university students in the neighborhood, we have more than enough demand to satisfy Whole Foods,” went one 2013 plea out of Washington, D.C. As for White, her missive told the organic superstore that it was “wholly wrong” about who lived in the neighborhood. “Residents of this neighborhood can afford this,” she added.

In a world where all too many people define themselves by what they can afford to purchase and do actually buy, Whole Foods gives the sort of person David Brooks so memorably labeled bobos, short for bourgeois bohemians, validation, not to mention a bit of convenience in a busy life. It endorses that decision to drop more than $800,000 on a tiny two-bedroom Spanish or craftsman bungalow with a Viking stove or a Brooklyn brownstone that’s located near a Superfund site. A local Whole Foods is a stamp of approval from the United States’ greater corporate culture, but one that at the same time allows the people who crave it to still believe they remain just a bit outside the mainstream.

Up and coming or hip or gentrifying neighborhoods are interesting places. On one hand, they want to live on the edge with lots of cultural opportunities and relatively cheap housing. They don’t want to be conventional, typically associated with higher incomes and less nightlife. They want to be authentic, gritty, and real. On the other hand, they often want to have some markers of their success as well as amenities. This could come in the form of Starbucks, rising housing values, or even grocery stores. The presence of these upscale places or items hints at the wealth in the neighborhood and suggests it is a place worth investing in.

But, these two competing forces are difficult to reconcile. Is having a Whole Foods hip? What kind of people shop there as opposed to those who shop at budget grocery stores? Do national retail chains hint at rising land values, eventually putting pressure on lower-income residents to move? There are likely more neighborhood discussions to come as residents try to exert their influence in the direction they would like their community to go.

Gentrification as violating UN Human Rights

Some opponents of gentrification argue the process is a human rights violation:

It is the resulting displacement of people who can’t afford increased rents that, in the eyes of these activists, amounts to a human-rights violation. (Homeowners, at least economically, stand to gain from the changes, since their property values often rise as a result.) Drawing on Le droit à la ville, a 1968 work by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre whose title translates to “The Right to the City,” the organization argues that all people, including the disenfranchised, have the right to remain in their apartments and homes and shape the political and cultural landscapes of their communities. The UN Declaration of Human Rights already asserts that everyone has the right to be protected against “interference with his… home.” Lenina Nadal, the communications director for Right to the City, says the group hopes to build on this idea. “It is an ideal time to  expand the idea that inhabitants not only have a right to their home, a decent, sustainable home,” she said, “but also to the community they created in their city.”

This is an interesting argument that suggests people are being moved from their homes and communities against their will. Americans generally don’t like the idea of others dictating where they can live; see the emphasis on local control, property rights, and opposition to eminent domain. Yet, social factors push and pull people to leave their homes and communities all the time as well as limit people from leaving their communities.

How exactly would this work out in a court of law or as an argument at the United Nations? I suspect there could be a lot of argument about what exactly the right to a home and community is. Could a suburbanite who doesn’t like that a big box store is being built nearby make a similar argument? What about residents who are moved through eminent domain or urban renewal?

“The McMansions are coming!” to Modesto

Maybe the broader statistics don’t matter – opposition to McMansions is often strongest at the local level, like when teardowns arrive in Modesto:

In the old College area of Modesto, I’ve spotted an unsettling trend – the sprouting of what folks in the Bay Area call “McMansions.”…

These behemoths bring nothing to the locales, and basically boil down to somebody wanting to live in an older neighborhood in a development-style home with maximum square footage. You can imagine how people who have lived among one-story neighbors feel when a McMansion glares down at them. Many choose to move or erect tall plants as barriers in an effort to recapture a sense of privacy.

McMansions are a hot issue in the Bay Area, with existing homeowners protesting the intrusion. But few cities have any restrictions or guidelines in place for protecting and/or building in older neighborhoods. Those who do have recognized the value of managing older neighborhoods to bring value to their town. Along the same lines as preserving historic downtowns for their appeal, they preserve historic neighborhoods.

Large homes equal larger tax revenues from the city’s point of view. But as historic old neighborhoods succumb to McMansions, it’s just a matter of time before these areas look like the row houses in the 1970s Archie Bunker sitcom; they will have ruined the “old” neighborhood ambiance they sought.

Not a positive view of teardown McMansions. I wonder how this works in communities like Modesto which have been hit hard by foreclosures (though some Central Valley cities are not below national foreclosure rates). Can a city afford a NIMBY approach to McMansions if the housing stock isn’t doing so well on the whole? At least the teardowns suggest there is some demand for living in certain neighborhoods in Modesto – not all communities have even that.

This question regarding teardowns could also apply elsewhere: are big teardowns and gentrification better than no development at all? Both involve changing the character of a neighborhood, particularly upgrading the housing options. Both are often viewed negatively by residents already there. Both typically involve outsiders and new residents. Of course, these aren’t the only choices available in neighborhoods but are they better than negative conditions or decline?

Scatter-site public housing also won’t work in providing affordable housing?

Megan McArdle argues neither concentrated public housing or scatter-site public housing can effectively address the issues of affordable housing:

And so here we are: The government simply has relatively little power to create more affordable housing in the face of massively increasing demand for homes in desirable cities like Washington, New York and San Francisco. It can create some units that will benefit a few people. It can slow the process of gentrification a bit. But the dream of adding all those new, affordable-housing-advocating, affluent young people to the city, while allowing the former residents to stay in place, seems to me to be just that: a dream. A nice dream. But still a dream, which like all dreams will eventually evaporate as reality overtakes it.

McArdle suggests the economic and political realities are too tough for affordable housing to do well and to limit gentrification. I would also suggest that this hints at the ongoing influence of race and class. While this could be spun as the result of economic laws (supply and demand) and politics (certain urban residents have more of a political voice and ability to influence decision-making), race and class underlie much of this. Who are the people who live in affordable or subsidized housing? Who are the people who tend to live in more exclusive communities or who are doing the gentrifying? These patterns of race and class are much broader than just the hot neighborhoods in major cities; they influence many of the settlement patterns across the United States.

Despite the pessimism here, this also means there is a big opportunity to figure this out. Are there contexts where affordable housing on a big enough scale works? Places where race and class matter less? Methods where both protecting property rights and providing for those with resources can coexist?

Gentrification limited in Chicago; should worry more about neighborhoods in severe decline

Gentrification may get a lot of attention in big cities but one journalist suggests the more influential issue in Chicago is the number of neighborhoods that have undergone severe declines.

At WBEZ, a Chicago public radio station, our neighborhood bureau reporters produced a package of stories, “There Goes the Neighborhood” (found here) in December, about the changing conditions of neighborhoods in racially segregated Chicago. We partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago, which created a gentrification index for understanding how to measure neighborhood change in the city, for better or worse. The index measures 13 indicators of neighborhood conditions, including race, income, house values, education, and even the percentage of kids attending private schools. The findings confirmed and challenged some of our own notions, but the main takeaway is that gentrification is not as pervasive throughout Chicago as conventional wisdom might suggest.

Scoring neighborhoods based on the index, Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods were grouped into nine categories ranging from “stable upper/middle class,” meaning index scores remained high since the 1970s, to “severe declines,” meaning those scores dropped significantly since the ’70s. The “gentrification” category captured neighborhoods that had low index scores in the 1970s, but grew significantly higher by 2010. There were only nine neighborhoods that fit that “gentrifying” classification, almost all of them in downtown Chicago (“The Loop”) or just north of it, areas that have been historically white. These places were basically immune to the housing crash, but meanwhile a glut of luxury high rises cast shadows over Lake Michigan.

The category you want to pay attention to, though is “severe decline” — 14 neighborhoods found mostly in South and West Chicago have populations that are, on average, two-thirds African American. Add those to the 12 neighborhoods that have remained in extreme poverty since the ’70s, of which 94.5 percent of residents are African American…

Policymakers, hence, must address the concerns of inequitable development across neighborhoods and income inequality, which are both also national issues. According to a City Observatory report examining urban poverty released last year, the problem over the past four decades is not wealthy whites infiltrating black and Latino neighborhoods with designer Pulaski hatchets and vegan cupcake shops. Governing magazine came to similar conclusions, showing low percentages of gentrified Census tracts in Chicago since 1990.

Gentrification might be the sexy topic but addressing the pressing issues in persistently disadvantaged neighborhoods would likely help more people in the long run. Of course, addressing the issues in poor neighborhoods is complex and not change may not come as quickly as it does through gentrification. Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, many of these poor neighborhoods – which are often heavily non-white – are not in any danger of gentrification anytime soon because they are far removed from the edges of wealthier white neighborhoods where good real estate deals or trendy spaces appealing to young, white, creative types might be found.

 

You don’t want to win the McMansion award from protesters

Some antitech protestors recently handed out a McMansion award in San Francisco:

Wearing a pig mask and sequined suit jacket, Amy Gilgan stood outside of Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night to accept the McMansion award at the second annual Crappys on behalf of Jack Halprin, a Google lawyer, landlord and frequent target of San Francisco’s antitech ire.

In sparkles and sneakers, technorati streamed past protesters and into the concert hall for the eighth annual Crunchies Awards, the supposed Oscars of Silicon Valley. Few turned their heads to witness the sidewalk satire. Investor Ron Conway, who last year stood on the Crunchies stage and offered his sympathy to the protesters, buzzed by a group of taxi drivers rallying against Uber. Evening news crews scaled back their coverage.

This year the pig masks were new, but the message was old. The verve of the antitech demonstrators felt diminished, and even they noted that the turnout was low.

McMansion sounds like an invasive species for the self-interested and wealthy. Some of the backstory:

Tirado said things started off  badly  as soon as Halprin bought and moved into the seven-unit building two years ago. First, Halprin forced one tenant out under owner move-in laws. Then another existing tenant was evicted,  again through the owner move-in process. Halprin told tenants that his domestic partner would be taking over the second unit. That partner, however, never materialized, according to Erin McElroy, an organizer with Eviction Free San Francisco. The affected tenant has since filed a wrongful eviction lawsuit against Halprin.

The remaining six tenants, which includes two teachers, a small child, an artist and a disabled senior, received Ellis Act eviction notifications in February of this year.

The protests continued through December. This is a big issue right now in San Francisco: in a very expensive housing market, Silicon Valley employees and companies have been perceived by some as throwing their weight around regarding properties and sending buses for workers. While this could be thought of as a more localized issue in some cities – perhaps gentrification occurring in particular neighborhoods – it is bigger than that since prices are high all over the Bay Area.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. It is interesting that we don’t hear as much about protests on this issue in New York City even though Manhattan is similarly expensive and luxury construction is booming. Perhaps the land there is being redeveloped from non-residential uses and/or fewer people are being displaced?

2. Generally, I don’t think winning an award with McMansion in the title is intended as a compliment.

Real estate sign? Prices in Compton, CA back on the rise

The California real estate market is heating up again – and housing prices are rising in Compton:

She is proud that what she has achieved so far was done, not through heavy policing, but conflict mitigation. The last several months have seen a reduction in violent activity of about 65 per cent, she said. For her, seeing people jogging at night is a key indicator of success…

The residential property market is surging, up more than 10 per cent in the last year, as people are priced out of other Los Angeles neighbourhoods. Properties are being snapped up by investors and professional house flippers have started targeting the area. Compton’s first home with a price tag of $1 million recently went on the market.

Key to attracting companies and families is Compton’s geographical location close to LAX airport, Long Beach port which is the second busiest container port in the US, and near office buildings in downtown Los Angeles.

 

Violence and gang activity is down, housing prices in California are rising, Compton sits at an advantageous location, and so the prices in Compton go up. As the graph suggests, prices aren’t near what they were pre-economic crisis but the trend looks like it is heading up.

Two questions this raises:

1. This article makes a big deal about the reduction in violence due to a gang truce but what happens if the two gangs start fighting again? Perhaps the article begins with the gangs and gangsta rap because it is from a UK perspective but it does hint at the fragility in the community.

2. What happens if a community like Compton gentrifies? Not only would this bring new people in Compton but it also gets at one of the big issues in the big cities in California: affordable housing. Housing prices in Los Angeles are already relatively high and there may not be many places left that offer reasonable housing prices.