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.

Ongoing fights over zoning for religious buildings

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 and still there are numerous local battles between local governments and religious groups who want to use or build a structure for religious purposes:

By the time they take on a zoning challenge, many religious groups are already struggling to find and retain members, and to get by on shoestring budgets. Without an adequate place to gather, they miss opportunities to assemble in study, service, and prayer. The stakes are high for towns, too. Churches, synagogues, and mosques influence life well outside their walls: People who belong to religious institutions are more civically engaged than their secular neighbors. They are more likely to serve on school boards, volunteer at charities, and join clubs. In the absence of these institutions, communities can become fractured and isolated. Neighborly infrastructure decays…

Many of the groups that wind up at the center of RLUIPA cases have it worse than North Jersey Vineyard. Cases can stretch on for decades, and the majority of religious organizations end up losing: According to Dalton, who wrote a book on RLUIPA, roughly 80 percent of RLUIPA claims filed in federal court fail. “This is a very hard statute to follow,” he said. “For the inexperienced, it is easy to lose.” An untold number of religious groups never make it to court at all, either because congregations don’t realize they have special protections under the law, don’t know how to file a claim, or don’t have the resources to pursue a case. Many simply walk away from purchasing a property when they discover that it is not zoned for religious use.

North Jersey Vineyard was also spared the ugly bigotry underlying many zoning disputes. Other than a few awkward comments confusing Catholic and Protestant styles of worship, officials in South Hackensack didn’t seem to oppose North Jersey Vineyard’s purchase based on the congregants’ faith. Often, though, zoning books are wielded by intolerant or ignorant officials; about half of RLUIPA disputes involve religious or ethnic minorities, according to Dalton. As a participant in a Department of Justice listening session recently told government officials, “People don’t come into hearings now and say, ‘I hate Muslims.’ They say, ‘The traffic is going to be terrible on [Fridays,]’” when Muslims gather for Jumah prayer…
This is where the practicalities of land-use law shade into something more philosophical: Where is the line between preserving a community’s character and preventing its evolution? While it’s easy to sympathize with a church that can’t find a space in which to pray, it’s also easy to imagine aggrieved residents sitting in Sunday-morning traffic or searching in vain for parking near their house.

My own take on this is similar: it is not as simple as saying that most communities dislike certain religious groups (though some requests certainly gain more attention – I’ve seen more cases in the last ten years or so involving Muslims and orthodox Jews) as many times the concerns raised by local residents and governments are similar to those raised for any development project. The difference is here that religious groups have certain legal options open to them that are not available to non-religious development projects.

Dissolving governments in DuPage County proceeding at a slow pace

Reducing the number of governments and taxing bodies in Illinois can take a bit of time:

County board members on Tuesday approved a plan to dissolve the Highland Hills Sanitary District and provide Lake Michigan water to customers served by the Lombard-area agency…

The agreement paves the way for Highland Hills to be disbanded within 18 months, officials said…

Cronin said Highland Hills will be the fifth unit of local government dissolved in DuPage. He said it’s more proof that the county’s “accountability, consolidation and transparency model for local government is working.”

In 2013, state lawmakers gave DuPage the power to eliminate Highland Hills and a dozen other local government entities.

If consolidation is working, it is working slowly. A reminder: Illinois leads the way among states with nearly 7,000 local governments. Even when it may look like there are obvious ways to combine government units or get rid of other units, it often requires the approval of residents. Although many would like their taxes to stabilize or go down, giving up local control is also difficult as many then fear a decline in services or that they will have less input to processes that can affect daily life.

CT suburb considering fines for “distracted walking”

The suburb of Stamford, Connecticut is considering penalizing those walking under the influence of phones:

Texting or even talking on an electronic device may soon be illegal in Stamford if a proposal to outlaw ‘distracted walking’ is approved…

“They’re oblivious to cars,” Stamford City representative, John Zelinsky said.

Zelinsky said the Pedestrian Safety Ordinance is modeled after one approved in Honolulu late last month, and would carry a $30 fine if police catch you in the act.

Such behavior can be dangerous for both users and others on the sidewalks and streets. Yet, legislating distractedness out of walking, bicycling, and driving is a tricky business. Does walking and talking with someone count as distracted walking? Is it okay to suddenly stop right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to take a phone call?

I have long wondered about implementing traffic regulations on busy sidewalks (see a story from England about this). Sidewalks are public spaces but also important conduits for foot traffic and some kinds of vehicles. Overcrowding can occur; see the recent example of Manhattan. And how people use the sidewalks can vary dramatically with use ranging from running and powerwalking to strolling to standing or sitting for conversation.

What it would take to approve Musk’s Northeast Corridor hyperloop

Elon Musk may have verbal approval for his underground hyperloop but there is much more work to be done to get the project underway:

“It means effectively nothing,” says Adie Tomer, who studies metropolitan infrastructure at the Brookings Institution. “The federal government owns some land, but they don’t own the Northeast corridor land, and they don’t own the right-of-way.” Sure, having presidential backing isn’t bad—but it is far, far from the ballgame…

First, you have to get the OK from all the states and cities and municipalities involved. This is essential because Musk promises this Northeast hyperloop will pass through city centers, so he’s counting on tunneling under places where lots of people live and work and play. Judging by the the official responses from local agencies and politicians along the proposed route, this process is not quite underway. “This is news to City Hall,” the press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. Looks like the Boring Company has a lot of boring meetings with public officials ahead of it…

And then there’s the little problem of moolah. Just updating the current Northeast corridor railroad—you know, the one run by Amtrak—to high-speed rail standards would cost an estimated $123 billion. Tunneling will be even more expensive. Musk has promised his boring technology will speed up the construction and bring down costs. But boring will never be cheap, especially in populated areas. Carving less than two miles of tunnel under New York for the Second Avenue Subway took $4.5 billion. Even if this hyperloop were entirely privately financed, it would take lots of zeroes…

By law, projects need to be evaluated for the potential environmental consequences of their construction and operations, to create what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement. Federal agencies generally take a while to prepare these documents: One 2008 study found the average writeup took three and a half years, and some have taken as many as 18. They also cost a lot to prepare—millions and millions in government funds.

That is a lot to take on. I’ve seen suggestions in recent years that the United States is no longer able to tackle needed large infrastructure projects. In the past, large projects could be accomplished such as the intercontinental railroad or Hoover Dam. Today, American projects lean more toward interminable delays and huge cost overruns. In contrast, some other countries do not get bogged down in the same ways. Sure, some of that might require more authoritarian regimes – such as the new Silk Road railroad in China or the growth in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – but things get done!

Moving forward, is there a way for a country like the United States to undertake large innovative projects without all the bureaucracy that slows it down? Can we still take risks? Musk’s hyperloop might be a perfect test case: the technology barely exists so it might be an incredible risk. But, the payoff could be tremendous (and not just necessarily for the intended purpose of a new transportation technology but the other helpful pieces that come along the way – including a way forward across multiple governments and requirements).

More findings on poverty in the suburbs

Following Confronting Suburban Poverty in America published in 2014 comes a new book – titled Places in Need and also published by Brookings – with additional findings regarding suburban poverty:

Allard spent years studying Census data and speaking with social service providers across the country, and discovered that while concentrated poverty is still a stubborn issue in cities, it’s also becoming a much larger issue in suburbs. In 1990, there were 8.6 million poor people in the suburbs and 9.5 million in the city. In 2014, the numbers had shifted; 17 million poor Americans living in the suburbs, while 13 million poor were in cities. And it’s not just in the inner-ring suburbs; roughly two-thirds of poor suburbanites live in communities built after 1970, and poverty is growing fastest in suburbs built after 1990…

Allard also found that concentrated poverty was on the rise in the suburbs. He looked at areas with a 20 percent poverty rate, lower than the traditional 30 to 40 percent poverty rate used in many studies, and found many more people in traditional suburban areas falling into this threshold. At that point, there are serious problems, such as discrimination from labor market opportunities, public safety issues, and access to quality housing…

Allard says that sometimes, people mistakenly assume that the poor in suburbs have come from elsewhere and are new arrivals to the neighborhood, a preconception that has made it harder for suburban regions to find the political support to tackle poverty issues.

His research shows the opposite, especially since the Great Recession, which he says hit the suburbs much harder than the rest of the country. The housing crisis hit the mortgage and real estate industry as well as the home improvement business, and the changes in poverty actually became more severe in the suburbs after the larger national recovery started. Grocery markets and retail shops were having a harder time staying afloat in hard-hit suburban regions. The impact inspired the book’s cover image: a strip mall filled with closed or vacated commercial space.

If the poor do become more visible in suburban communities – either because of their numbers or because of increased attention from academics, local officials, and nearby residents – it will be interesting to see how suburban communities and residents respond. Given the exclusionary nature of American suburbs, there could be several possible responses:

  1. Ignore this as long as possible. Suburbanites are not exactly known for their social interactions with a broad range of people so if those living in poverty are outside their immediate social circles, perhaps it can simply be ignored.
  2. Not provide many social services to the suburban poor. This might be with the goal of ignoring the nearby poverty or hoping that the residents go away. Or, communities might refuse to do much on the local government level and wait for non-profits and state agencies to respond.
  3. Move away from communities where there are visible numbers of suburban poor to wealthier suburbs. If this happens, the process of white flight continues as the wealthy just keep moving away from poorer residents.

It will be worth checking in a decade or so down the road to see how exactly suburban poverty has been addressed.

Claim: “Local politics is always…about housing”

In a detailed overview of the policy debates over housing between YIMBY and the Democratic Socialist of America groups in San Francisco, Henry Grabar leads with an interesting argument:

Local politics is always, in one way or another, about housing. In San Francisco, a deep blue city whose fault lines long ago ceased to resemble America’s, that politics is a vitriolic civic scrimmage, where people who agree about almost every national issue make sworn enemies over zoning, demolition, and development. It’s like a circular firing squad at a co-op meeting.

This seems similar to Sonia Hirt’s contention that zoning in America is all about protecting the single-family home.

Ultimately, do local politics always come down to housing? In many ways, housing is the bedrock of a community: it is where residents experience home, it provides numerous signals about the status of the residents and the community (through property values, architecture, the quality of life associated with the dwellings), and it generates property tax revenue (more important in some places than others). If the housing is bad shape or there are major issues, it is a major concern for residents and, by extension, their elected (and unelected) officials.

Perhaps we could even get more specific about which aspects of housing drives local politics. Which issue is most important may differ based on the (1) class status of the community and (2) its stage of development. How about property values? Or decisions about large-scale developments (particularly if they present some differences from already-existing housing)?