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.

When local government meetings go past midnight

Suburbanites like smaller local government. But, local government meetings or hearings that go past midnight can be inconvenient. A recent example from an Illinois suburb discussing marijuana sales:

Angering residents who showed up in droves to oppose the sale of recreational marijuana in the village, Buffalo Grove trustees at about 1 a.m. Tuesday approved zoning regulations to allow it.

For 4½ hours, residents spoke passionately against recreational pot sales. But in the end, only one trustee, David Weidenfeld, voted against the regulations, which will allow recreational dispensaries as a special use in nonresidential areas — three business districts and the industrial district.

There are two issues at work here. The first is this: the article suggests there was a vocal set of residents opposed to marijuana sales who were not happy with the results. Local residents can become active if they perceive a change in the community will negatively affect their quality of life and/or property values (see recent suburban cases in Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, and Itasca). If the decision does not go their way – and there are plenty of cases where there are vocal residents and leaders on both sides – then resentment and long-term conflict can develop.

But, the second issue is what I want to focus on here: how late the meeting ran. How many residents, even if they are energized by a particular cause, can afford to stay out past midnight at a public meeting or hearing? Staying up that late can put a severe damper on the next day’s activities, particularly depending on jobs, family situations, and health. Residents may feel they need to stay to the end of a meeting to be heard but that comes at a cost.

Local officials may also be in a bind regarding time. Many municipalities already have rules in place so that individual speakers do not run too long and that plenty of people get a chance to speak. There is other business that needs to be conducted at many local meetings, including considering a variety of proposals, approving payments, and considering reports from other staff or committees. The meeting can only start so early as residents and leaders may be coming from jobs, dinner, and other responsibilities. Stretching meetings over multiple days may not be optimal though multiple meetings or hearings can happen if leaders want to provide more opportunities for people to voice their opinions.

In the particular case above, it looks like the public had a chance to speak – 4.5 hours – and therefore the approval could not come until later (and the approval was overwhelming). The late ending may have only rubbed salt in the wounds of those opposed to pot sales. But, as best practice, local officials should work to avoid concluding meetings in the wee hours in the morning.

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?

Suburbanites can rally en masse against (and for) zoning issues

Suburbanites may participate at low rates in local elections but they certainly can be energized by controversial local zoning proposals. More on the ongoing Haymarket case in Itasca, Illinois:

Itasca plan commissioners admitted they underestimated public interest in a proposed addiction treatment center when a crowd representing 16% of the town’s population packed their meeting Wednesday night…

Demonstrators marched earlier Wednesday evening through downtown Itasca to pressure a Chicago nonprofit group to abandon plans to convert a hotel into a 200-bed drug and alcohol treatment center…

Prominent politicians, advocates and other nonprofit groups have thrown their support behind Haymarket, maintaining that the center would address a shortage of easily accessible residential programs for recovering addicts in DuPage County. Proponents also say much of the outcry stems from the stigma around opioid addiction…

Opponents have focused their main objections on the size and location of a facility they say would put too much of a burden on the village’s police and ambulance services.

Quite the excitement for a suburb with less than 10,000 people. Several parts of this latest news report stood out to me:

1. A public march through the community from those opposed to the center.

2. Public demonstrations of support from those in favor of the facility. While there may be a good amount of NIMBY activity, there are also people willing to stand up for the facility.

3. That this all is based on a medical center. This is not a landfill or huge condominium building in a town of single-family homes. Of course, it is not just any medical center: it is one involving drug treatment. (And many suburbs do not like getting involved with anything to do with drugs.)

4. This is not how such local political activity works but it would be interesting to hear where Itasca residents think the facility should be located or whether they could help broker a deal for another community rather than just reject the local proposal. More broadly, how might communities and residents work together to locate facilities that may be undesirable but are needed?

Not just aiming to have separate school districts; secede and form whole new municipalities

Residential segregation is powerful in the United States and can include looking to secede from a city to form a new largely white community:

The parents’ first petition drive to create a city, which ended in 2015, looked as if it would be successful. Supporters of St. George, arguing that the schools in East Baton Rouge Parish were not doing enough for their children, had amassed more than 18,000 signatures, and submitted them to the registrar to be certified. But the same day as they submitted their petition, a group known as Better Together submitted its own forms to the registrar. “We did a withdrawal campaign,” M. E. Cormier, a spokeswoman for the Better Together campaign, told me. “We went door-to-door, told people about the detrimental effects of the creation of St. George, and we were able to get 1,000 people to withdraw their names from the petition.”…

In between the failed 2015 attempt and the new one, they tried to iron out a new strategy. They cut down the geographic area of their proposed City of St. George. The original map was roughly 85 square miles; the new area was 60. It would be easier to gain the signatures necessary for a new community with a smaller area. As soon as the proposed map was released, several people in favor of keeping East Baton Rouge Parish together noted that the new map, coincidentally, carved out several apartment complexes—places where black and low-income families lived.

St. George supporters vehemently denied the suggestion that the map was drawn with any malicious racial intent. “The decision on what areas to include and not include was based exclusively on the amount of previous support for the effort,” they wrote in a post on their official Facebook page. “If a precinct had a small percentage of signatures and clearly did not want to be in the new city, they were not included in the updated boundaries.” But practically, that meant that the proposed area of St. George became whiter and more affluent.

The organizers did something else significant as well, Michael Beychok, a political consultant who lives in what would become the new city, told me: They stopped talking so much about the schools. “They know, and we know, that the school argument is not their best argument to incorporate,” said Beychok, who is one of the organizers of One Baton Rouge, a group opposed to the creation of St. George.

The United States has a long history of communities being formed to avoid people of particular groups. This could work in multiple ways. For example, many suburbs at the turn of the twentieth century resisted annexation by the adjacent big city. Or, suburban communities incorporated in order to pursue particular zoning or development policies that could exclude certain people.

That this conflict started with school districts should be of little surprise as issues of race and class often are contested through this particular institution. While the issues can be phrased in terms of school performance or behaviors, it is often about race and class. This reminds of a chapter in Rachel Heiman’s book Driving After Class where suburbanites battle over redistricting lines with the goal of preserving privilege in certain school buildings while other students do not get the same access.

If a new municipality is formed, it would be interesting to see how its reputation develops. On one hand, the racial reasons for its formation could dog the community for decades. On the other hand, the residents of the new community may not care about outside opinions as they get to use their resources as they desire.

See a similar case last year outside of Atlanta.

A town of over 53,000 residents can elect a mayor with just over 3,600 votes

Municipal elections in Illinois took place this past Tuesday. In my suburban community of just over 53,000 residents, here are the results for the two races:

WheatonMunicipalElectionResultsApr19

In races for two important local positions, voter turnout was relatively low. Of the roughly 41,000 adults in the community 18 and older, the mayor was elected by 3,617 voters while his opponent had just over 3,200 votes. In the councilman race, the numbers are a little harder to interpret because voters could select two but the numbers are certainly not much higher. Overall, under 20% of adults voted (hard to know how many are registered) and less than 10% of those adults selected the next mayor.

Perhaps there are a variety of factors at work:

  1. Do residents/voters believe that municipal elections matter? What do local officials do anyways?
  2. Holding municipal elections separately from larger races – state and national races that tend to get more attention – could lessen enthusiasm.
  3. Perhaps the candidates are not that exciting (the two mayoral candidates shared multiple characteristics) or they are unknown to broad swaths of the community.

Low voter turnout is now common and it may not take much to be voted in to local office. But if suburbanites claim to value local government, it is not hard to see the disconnect between choosing local leaders and wanting to maintain local control.