Fighting over affordable housing in Cedar Rapids

Lest you think NIMBY responses to new housing are limited to expensive cities, here is a case of opposition to 45 affordable housing units in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

Neighbors said they didn’t oppose affordable housing per se, but that they feared the burden of the construction on their area, citing issues such as an increase in traffic and car accidents, potential flooding, and a lack of walkability for incoming residents. The developer said it had selected the site because it would immerse residents in a middle-density community with access to family amenities, including a bus stop, parks, and an elementary school.

At first, it looked like NIMBYism had prevailed: The petition and complaints convinced the city planning commission to vote against the request to rezone the property at an April 2016 meeting. But a few months later, the proposal was revived, becoming a test of what it would take to defeat neighborhood concerns and develop affordable housing that was integrated into rather than segregated from low-poverty communities.

That’s when the real animosity started to emerge, according to Phoebe Trepp, the director of Willis Dady, the local homeless services organization that would provide assistance at the development…

City leaders are also interested in spreading affordable housing throughout the city, rather than clustering it in the poorer southeast quadrant. Susie Weinacht, a City Council member at large, says that city staff want “housing options available throughout the community.”

This sounds fairly typical. A decent-sized community has difficulty providing affordable housing as well as dealing with homelessness. The city wants to spread the affordable units throughout the city so that poorer residents are not concentrated in one area (and perhaps to limit political opposition if one area had to host more units). Residents are not happy about this. They raise all sorts of common concerns about new developments – traffic, too much density near single-family homes, water issues, negative effects on property values – while also hinting at issues of race, ethnicity, and class (not cited in the excerpt above but more details are in the full article). A public debate ensues, one side wins, and the other side is not happy.

Is there a better way to do this whole process? Toward the end of the article, an official says that affordable housing initiatives work best when the support is from the grassroots (rather than planned by local or larger governments). This is probably true. Yet, how does one convince working-class to upper-class residents that it is in their interests to live near affordable housing? This is an incredibly tough sell to make to many Americans.

It is also worth asking about how the neighborhood fares within five, ten, twenty years of the construction of affordable housing units. Are the fears of Cedar Rapids neighbors unfounded? Does a denser development significantly alter the character of the community and drive existing residents away? Having some of these facts may not matter to some residents but showing some data could help ground the discussions in reality rather than emphasizing possible negative effects.

The difficulty of building suburban housing for the homeless

A groundbreaking for a new facility providing housing for the homeless recently took place in LaGrange but it wasn’t an easy path:

The three-story brick building will house 20 individuals in single apartments on the second and third floors and have administrative offices and the day program that will provide counseling, job training and referrals for services on the first floor…

In 2015, La Grange residents sought to block the sale of property, then owned by Private Bank in Chicago, to BEDS Plus. The suit contended that a corporation, McGee Family Holdings, with a La Grange resident listed as manager, owned portions of the parcel on which the facility will be built…

At the same time as the lawsuit was being handled, Patrick Johnson, an assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, conducted an investigation into whether the efforts to block the project were a violation of the Fair Housing Act that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities….

La Grange Village President Tom Livingston said he believes the facility is a great thing for the community. At the same time, he said the village will keep an eye out to be sure it doesn’t present any of the problems, such as safety concerns, that opponents had voiced.

Even when plans are presented by local community groups – such as religious congregations or non-profit organizations – suburban residents are often wary of group homes or facilities near residences. But, of course, if such facilities can’t be built near any residence, where in suburban communities can they be located? Industrial parks?

I hope few suburbanites would say that they don’t care at all about what happens to homeless people but it is another thing altogether to ask people to live near homeless people. This reminds me of the Bogardus social distance scale; it is one thing to express concern or interest about a group of people in the abstract or at a great distance but something very difficult if they live nearby. Take race relations in the United States as an example. Attitude questions on the General Social Survey since the 1970s suggest white Americans are more positive regarding African Americans. Yet, these improved attitudes don’t necessarily translate into less residential segregation.

Bringing tiny houses to Chicago’s young homeless

A new plan involves housing homeless teenagers in Chicago in small units:

11,447 – Homeless unaccompanied youth, ages 14 to 21, according to an estimate by CCH

374 – Youth shelter beds across Chicago, according to CCH

The tiny homes, the way they are being planned by the working group, would cost $55,000 to $65,000, excluding the cost of the land or any site work like landscaping. Tenants would have yearlong leases, and the group is hoping that a local nonprofit would play the role of the landlord. Tenants would pay the utilities.

Next to funding, the biggest obstacle tiny homes advocates face is zoning. Chicago zoning attorney and Chicago Tiny Home Summit panelist Danielle Cassel said she ran out of sticky notes when logging inconsistencies between tiny home models and zoning code requirements.

Multiple communities have had discussions regarding plans to house the homeless in tiny houses – see earlier posts here and here. But, it seems that their smaller size and lower cost are not automatically enough to overcome the issues that affordable housing generally faces. Namely, there are three concerns: (1) who will finance these units? (2) who is willing to live next to them? and (3) will enough units be constructed to make a sizable dent in the populations that need such housing? Take Chicago: while it isn’t as expensive as New York City or San Francisco, the cheaper land is in less desirable areas, zoning guidelines will have to be altered, and there is a tremendous need for cheap, durable housing.

A cynical take is that several units or colonies will be constructed in a few Chicago neighborhoods and then touted as solutions. However, much would have to change for tiny houses to be a sizable solution for homelessness and affordable housing.

Building tiny houses for Chicago’s homeless

A future community of tiny houses in Bronzeville could help Chicago’s homeless:

Tiny Homes Chicago, a venture from AIA Chicago, Landon Bone Baker Architects, Windy City Times, Pride, is of the firm belief that the tiny homes can help this group of people who are trying to positively contribute, but who are also being negatively affected by the transience of moving from shelter to shelter. Small homes would afford folks the ability to study and seek safety.

That’s why they’re creating a competition to create a Tiny Homes community in Bronzeville to alleviate affordable housing. This neighborhood would be a pilot prototype for other interested communities.

If you think you can come up with a solid design for a home, then attend the upcoming meeting on Wednesday, December 2 for Interested parties. The final proposals will address planned 12-unit developments, where residents have a safe secure space to sleep, study, and store their possessions. In addition, there would be a 1,200 s.f. communal space, as well as secure bike storage.

The 350 s.f. units themselves will have bathrooms, storage, and sleeping space. With a $30,000 limit on material and mechanical systems, the units need to come to life for under $60,000 and follow city building codes.

Tiny houses have been proposed for the homeless before (see here and here) and this effort in Chicago could serve to spur similar efforts. I imagine several important questions will arise during this competition:

  1. How many locations in Chicago could support even small tiny house developments like this one? While affordable housing is needed and the homeless need help, there may not be many neighbors who would want to be near such sites.
  2. Is the budget reasonable both to build lasting units and to make this an affordable project for funders?
  3. How will these housing units be paired with social services? Providing more permanent shelters could go a long way but so would jobs, education, health care, and other needs.

State of emergency over increasing homeless population in LA

The city of Los Angeles is trying to respond to a rise in homelessness:

Los Angeles recently declared a state of emergency over the city’s growing homeless population – up 12% in two years. Residents of the city’s main homeless encampment say a mix of drugs and rising rents are driving the problem…

At the last count there were 44,359 homeless people in Los Angeles County and 25,686 in the city itself, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), an agency set up in 1993 to find a solution to the problem…

“Affordable housing in LA is almost non-existent,” says Mr Smith who points to recent data that suggests that the average two-bedroom unit in the city now costs more than $2,600 (£1,700) per month to rent…

“We have become a city of shanties,” says Mr Bonin, noting that homelessness has not only increased by “a whopping 12%” over the past two years but is now spreading out across the city…

Declaring a state of emergency could make it easier to find homes for residents by easing some housing restrictions and fast-tracking permits for more affordable housing.

This is a consistent issue in many American cities though few present the contrast of a glittering city – skyline, money, Hollywood, attractive weather, beaches – quite like Los Angeles. Imagine the view from afar: the same place that is home to Hollywood can be so close to skid row?

The issues here seem to be one that tend to come up in discussions of homelessness: a lack of positive ways to deal with drug use and a lack of transitional or permanent housing. It is interesting to think how the particular issue of homelessness intersects with these two other issues. Does it take an increase in homelessness for people to seriously think about affordable housing in the Los Angeles region? And what exactly does it take for a city to declare a state of emergency in this area (a certain percent increase, a total number of homeless, a certain number of other residents irritated or inconvenienced)?

Building microhouses for the homeless

Several groups across the United States are building microhouses for the homeless. See a few of the different options:

144 square feet is the size of the average McMansion master bathroom. However, for residents at Quixote Village, those 144 square feet represent an entire universe. As the New York Times recently reported, the residents of the village are members of a long-nomadic homeless group called Camp Quixote—which had moved more than 20 times in the past seven years. On December 24, its members took up residence in 30 tiny homes, which each cost $19,000 to build.

Although the Times brought a ton of attention to it, Quixote Village is just one of a number of microhouse projects going on across the country. For example, a ten-year-old development in Portland called Dignity Village serves as a model for Quixote: A tent camp of roughly 60 homeless people, some of whom have set up shacks and cabins on the site, which is officially zoned as a “transitional housing campground.”

And in Provo, Utah, a local builder named Gary Pickering makes wheeled cabins, which he calls Dignity Roller Pods, for local homeless people. On his website, Pickering—who himself was once homeless—argues that “all homeless people should be able to stay on public lands that are clean and safe.”…

Meanwhile, in Madison, Wisconsin, a group run by Occupy Madison is in the process of building 30 even smaller microhouses for Madison’s homeless population.

It would be interesting to compare the costs of these tiny houses versus the costs of typical programs for the homeless, like shelters or other assistance programs. Are these tiny houses better long-term solutions in terms of cost and helping homeless people have more stable lives?

As the article notes, another issue here is where to find land to keep these tiny houses. Because of their size, they wouldn’t take up much space and some of them are quite mobile. Yet, having more permanent structures or spaces would likely meet with some disfavor by nearby residents.

All together, this sounds like an interesting application of tiny houses, but it will take some time to figure out whether they are long-term solutions to homelessness?

Fighting over the most expensive Christmas tree lot in New York City

Prices are higher in New York City. This even extends to the cost of renting Christmas tree lots which has led to a battle between two New York City Christmas tree entrepreneurs:

“SoHo Square,” says Scott Lechner, who pays the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation close to $50,000 a year to sell trees here, “is the most expensive site in the world.” He doesn’t sound proud of it.

But Lechner must bid high to stay ahead of his onetime protégé, George P. Smith, who has been on something of a spending spree since he outbid Lechner and took over his Washington Market space in 2007. Smith has also made waves with a huge takeover bid for the Marine Parkway spot in Brooklyn, and has tried to do the same in SoHo and elsewhere.

Smith now has seven locations; Lechner has nine. The two are bitter enemies. Lechner calls Smith an “unsavory individual,” who was “fired by my organization for malfeasance and dishonorable conduct.” (“He hates my guts,” Smith says.)…

The contested Washington Market space — one of 21 the parks department has auctioned off to vendors for the month — was the site, in 1851, of the first urban tree lot in the United States, for which a Catskill woodsman named Mark Carr paid a silver dollar in rent. Today, Smith says he plays close to $30,000 a year for a mere 33 days of sales.

Even in the nation’s most expensive ZIP codes, these rents are, for the moment, somewhat unusual. Rents for many other tree sales sites in the city remain in the low thousands. In 2011, a space on Central Park West was $1,150. DeWitt Clinton Park on West 44th St. was $2,500. Essex Playground, $3,960.

The rest of the story notes that this has been a good thing for the city’s parks department whose is raising more revenue in the competitive bidding for these lots. With many cities facing fiscal issues, I’m sure New York City is happy to have this extra money. Of course, this has repercussions: people buying trees at these lots now pay higher prices.

This could lead to an interesting discussion about whether Christmas trees should be treated more like public goods that shouldn’t be so expensive. For a resident of Manhattan who has no individual vehicle, acquiring a Christmas tree, real or fake, could be a difficult task. This sounds like a more limited market where the consumer is already behind and may not be able to comparison shop much. The average suburbanite, on the other hand, has more options.

This also reminds me of sociologist Mitchell Duneier’s ethnography Sidewalk. Toward the end of the book, Duneier discusses how a family who comes to the city for a month each year to sell Christmas trees is treated much differently than the homeless black men who are street vendors in the community all year long. The contrast is striking: because the tree vendors are white and respectable, local residents interact with them regularly while having more antagonistic relations with the black street vendors. Apparently, getting into the Christmas tree game in New York City takes some major money and this limits who can can sell such goods and participate in community life.