Taking Los Angeles from 10 million planned residents down to nearly 4 million

Today, Los Angeles has almost 4 million residents. At one point, planners thought it could have 10 million residents. What happened in local government in the 1970s helped lead to this change:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Come 1970, there was broad support for a portentous shift: Los Angeles would abandon the top-down planning that prevailed during a quarter century of postwar growth in favor of an ostensibly democratized approach. The city was divided into 35 community areas, each represented by a citizen advisory committee that would draw up a plan to guide its future. In theory, this would empower Angelenos from Brentwood to Boyle Heights to Watts.

In practice, it enabled what the Los Angeles land-use expert Greg Morrow calls “the homeowner revolution.” In his doctoral dissertation, he argued that a faction of wealthy, mostly white homeowners seized control of citizen advisory committees, especially on the Westside, to dominate land-use policy across the city. These homeowners contorted zoning rules in their neighborhoods to favor single-family houses, even though hardly more than a third of households in Los Angeles are owner-occupied, while nearly two-thirds are rented. By forming or joining nongovernmental homeowners’ associations that counted land-use rules as their biggest priority, these homeowners managed to wield disproportionate influence. Groups that favored more construction and lower rents, including Republicans in the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and Democrats in the Urban League, failed to grasp the stakes.

The Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, a coalition of about 50 homeowners’ groups, was one of the most powerful anti-growth forces in California, Morrow’s research showed. It began innocently in the 1950s, when residents living below newly developed hillsides sought stricter rules to prevent landslides. Morrow found little explicit evidence that these groups were motivated by racism, but even if all the members of this coalition had been willing to welcome neighbors of color in ensuing decades, their vehement opposition to the construction of denser housing and apartments served to keep their neighborhoods largely segregated. Many in the coalition had an earnestly held, quasi-romantic belief that a low-density city of single-family homes was the most wholesome, elevating environment and agreed that their preferred way of life was under threat. Conservatives worried that the government would destroy their neighborhoods with public-housing projects. Anti-capitalists railed against profit-driven developers. Environmentalists warned that only zero population growth would stave off mass starvation.

Much like the Reaganites who believed that “starving the beast” with tax cuts would shrink government, the anti-growth coalition embraced the theory that preventing the construction of housing would induce locals to have fewer kids and keep others from moving in. The initial wave of community plans, around 1970, “dramatically rolled back density,” Morrow wrote, “from a planned population of 10 million people down to roughly 4.1 million.” Overnight, the city of Los Angeles planned for a future with 6 million fewer residents. When Angelenos kept having children and outsiders kept moving into the city anyway, the housing deficit exploded and rents began their stratospheric rise.

Americans tend to like local government. And this is one reason why: local citizens get involved and they are able to advocate for what they want.

Whether these local decisions are good for the broader community, city, or region is less clear. On one hand, these homeowners groups wanted their neighborhoods to be a particular way. They purchased a home in a certain setting for a reason. They tried to protect this way of life. (Even a freezing a neighborhood or community in time is difficult.) On the other hand, this had consequences for many others. These are neighborhoods within a larger city. Housing decisions contribute to residential segregation. Decisions about density reduce housing options.

The residents of these specific neighborhoods might have won but at what cost?

American conflict playing out through local school boards

One of the reasons many Americans like suburbs is the local government and local control over land, local organizations, and how local taxes are used. National debates are now playing out in one such local form of government: school boards.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Local school boards around the country are increasingly becoming cauldrons of anger and political division, boiling with disputes over such issues as COVID-19 mask rules, the treatment of transgender students and how to teach the history of racism and slavery in America.

Meetings that were once orderly, even boring, have turned ugly. School board elections that were once uncontested have drawn slates of candidates galvanized by one issue or another…

School boards are typically composed of former educators and parents whose job, at least until recently, mostly consisted of ironing out budgets, discussing the lunch menu or hiring superintendents.

But online meetings during the pandemic made it easier for parents to tune in. And the crisis gave new gravity to school board decisions. Parents worried their children were falling behind because of remote learning or clashed over how serious the health risks were.

This preference for local input and control is not just limited to suburbs: from the beginning, Americans have generally liked the idea of decentralized power. In the realm of education, there is input from the federal government, state government, and local bodies and districts. Local citizens retain some ability to provide their opinion on local education and to serve on local governments that control budgets and other aspects of local education.

Because of this system, people can work through different channels to address issues they are concerned about. Perhaps they can pressure the national Department of Education. They might seek to influence state boards. They can run for local boards and show up at meetings to voice their opinions. All could be useful in terms of promoting particular educational paths or policies. At the same time, I would guess there is an immediate satisfaction at showing up at local meetings, seeing real people in your community that shape schools, and advocating for change. These are not distant bureaucrats grinding out policy decisions; these are local elected residents who meet at regular times.

In the current moment, decisions made by local school boards help to differentiate different communities from each other. One district might be open to teaching something where another says no. Money may be allocated one way in a particular community while it is not a budget line in another. Board members may claim to represent one part of a community and not others. Local schools are not just about education; they symbolize local priorities and concerns. They help address or reinforce racial, ethnic, class, and gender boundaries in and across communities. Schools are both a part of the status of a community and contribute to that status.

In this article, it sounds like many of the school board battles are proxy fights over national issues. Whether this serves individual communities and their residents well remains to be seen.

A growing shortage of starter homes

Those looking for smaller homes to purchase are facing a limited supply:

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

The first rung on the homeownership ladder has long been an affordable “starter home.” These houses, with their smaller footprints and selling prices, allowed young homeowners to build wealth and upsize as they started their families…

Supply of “entry-level housing”—which Freddie Mac defines as homes under 1,400 square feet—is at a five-decade low.

Surging prices and stiff competition mean there aren’t enough smaller, more affordable starter homes to go around in many regions. The pandemic and subsequent recession, along with the student debt crisis and delayed family formation, contributed to frustration and despair among younger house hunters…

Lately, data from the National Association of Home Builders shows new construction is again giving priority to higher square footage for single-family homes, a trend likely spurred by the widespread shift to working from home and house hunters’ need for more space.

This has been building for years now with the factors cited above (and more – and it may not be the fault of millennials). Builders prioritized larger homes as they can profit more from each units and buyers wanted more features and/or larger homes.

I wonder about the role of local governments. How many urban neighborhoods and suburban communities allow for or encourage the construction of smaller homes. It might take some extra work for a community to work with a developer who is willing to construct smaller and cheaper homes. At the same time, some of the existing members of the community might not be happy about the change as smaller homes are often interpreted as dragging down values and the character of the community. At the least, wealthier communities are unlikely to encourage such homes unless they are at a higher price point – and then it is no longer a starter home.

The article also mentions the financial ramifications of not getting into a house earlier: on average, this lowers the amount of house wealth generated decades later. Might then then shift the emphasis of recent decades away from seeing homeownership as a financial nest egg or requiring a necessary return on investment?

The power of local politics to shape national outcomes

A deep look at the changing political tides in suburban Oakland County, Michigan ends with this:

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Such a post-mortem would likely reveal that the party’s disinterest in holding onto the suburbs prevents the rise of new Pattersonian Republicans with their own identities separate from Trumpism and that this will have long-term historical consequences.

“There are dozens, if not hundreds of these local or regional-level political power brokers who shape the outcomes of how our cities and regions function in ways that just aren’t visible to most people,” says Delmont, the Dartmouth historian. “We spend so much time talking about who’s in the White House or even who’s in Congress. But it might be the L. Brooks Pattersons of the world who actually determine, like: Do we have affordable housing? Do we have segregated cities? Do we have police forces that are militarized? The people who actually operate the levers of power are probably much more positioned like a Brooks Patterson than a President Trump or President Biden.”

National politics are indeed often built on smaller units of government. While a lot of attention goes to presidential elections (and this article also focuses on Donald Trump and how this connects to local politics), there is a lot of work that happens at the Congressional, state, and other levels that undergird the larger outcomes. A candidate or political party is going to struggle without grassroots, lower-level support.

This reminds me of my blog post Thursday about addressing housing issues municipality by municipality. We often look at particular issues at a national level. How to provide affordable housing? How to explain the rise and fall of Donald Trump? There are multiple levels of analysis possible and needed. In this post and on Thursday, the reminder is that the local level matters. Does Oakland County and all the local machinations about county seats and redestricting determine who will be president or which political party will control Congress? No, but add up a lot of counties in important areas – particularly with suburban voters who can be swayed election to election – and this can start to matter.

Another side to this is how American residents approach local government. Particularly in suburban areas, they like the idea of local control. Yet, local voting can be very low with turnout around 15-20%. If elections for county boards in places like suburban Detroit matter for national outcomes, shouldn’t suburbanites pay more attention local elections?

Involving public comment in a revision of the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices

There is a federal government manual that guides decisions for transportation engineers regarding roads. While it is notable that it is going to be revised for the first time in eleven years, there is also a process for public comment:

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

The Federal Highway Administration released a draft of proposed changes late last year. The last time the manual got an update, a few thousand people, mostly transportation professionals, submitted comments. This year, 26,000 comments poured in from all over the country.

Some arrived from big companies, including the ride-hail and mobility company Lyft, the Ford-owned scooter-share company Spin, and the Alphabet company Sidewalk Labs. Each asked for a major rewrite that would, as Sidewalk Labs put it, “more closely align with the equity, safety, and sustainability goals of American cities, as well as those of the Biden administration.”

Others came from individuals. “There’s a broader set of people who see that these streets don’t work, that there are too many people getting killed, that they’re too unpleasant. It’s not consistent with what a place or a community should be,” says Mike McGinn, a former mayor of Seattle and executive director of the group America Walks. He credits those everyday activists with the new interest in the design document—and his own group, which urged thousands of people to submit comments to the federal agency…

The last time the manual got an update, the process took more than a year; with the volume of comments this year, it may take longer. A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration says the agency “needs to carefully consider all comments before determining next steps and the timetable for updating the manual.” Given the interest, that might take a while.

One of the reasons Americans like local government is that it is easier to interact with the officials who are making the decisions. For example, in a small town to a moderately sized suburb, a resident who has feedback on a municipal decision can probably even convey this face-to-face or in a public meeting. As the size of the municipality grows, it becomes harder to meet with local officials.

At the federal level, some might feel that decisions are made by an abstract group of people in a place far away. This idea has been expressed regularly in recent years: Washington D.C. is out of touch with the rest of the country.

However, this process of public comment described above offers an opportunity for people around the United States to comment on federal guidelines for roads. In the age of the Internet and social media, this is even easier to do: people can hear about it through email or social media feeds and submit comments online.

How exactly the federal agencies in charge here work through all of these public comments would be interesting to examine. Assuming they are all read or analyzed, do they look for the most common themes? Or, are some comments weighted more than others? This sounds like an important qualitative research process in order to find the patterns in all of the comments, discuss, and then incorporate (or not) into a revised manual.

Become suburban village president by 2 votes in the era of low local election turnout

Local election turnout in 2021 was low in the Chicago area. And the final results of the village president race in one Chicago suburb illustrates one of the consequences of low turnout:

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

On Wednesday, Khokhar was claiming victory in the village president race after unofficial results show him with 475 votes and Ontiveroz with 473.

A two vote margin of victory would be interesting in many elections, local or otherwise. Yet, the vote totals here are striking. The top two candidates received less than 500 votes each, fewer than 1,000 total.

Here is more information on the community in question: the Village of Glendale Heights. According to 2019 Census estimates, the community has 33,617 residents. Nearly a quarter of the population is under the age of 18. I do not know how many people are registered to vote. But, let’s say that roughly half of the adults (18+ years old) are registered to vote. This means the winning candidate for village president had roughly 3.9% of possible voters elect him (475/12,000 possible voters). If we take local turnout to be in the 15-20% range, 16.9% of voters elected the President (475/2,800 possible voters). The numbers suggest that not a whole lot of local residents cast a vote for village president.

The village president of Glendale Heights may not be able to, on their own, to make much change. On the other hand, communities elect such leaders for a reason. And Americans tend to like suburban local government and the ability of local citizens to help determine their own fate. So why don’t they turn out in greater numbers to vote for such officials? The fate of many suburbs and communities could hinge on this question.

Turnout for local Chicago area elections low again: under 20% in counties

Americans have regular opportunities to vote in local elections and Chicago area voters did not turn out in large numbers in this week’s election:

Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

At the county level, voter turnout mostly hovered in the low to midteens, typical for many counties in consolidated elections. On the lower end, McHenry County reported a voter turnout of 9.5%, and Kankakee County topped voter turnouts across the counties at 18.6%. The pandemic didn’t have a significant effect on voter turnout, according to county clerks’ offices, with sufficient alternative options for people to vote early or by mail instead of in person.

In Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, turnout was 14.7%, 15.6% and 13.7%, respectively.

In Will County, southwest of Chicago, 15.8% of voters cast a ballot Tuesday. That’s nearly 3 percentage points higher than the previous consolidated election in 2019, which had a voter turnout of 13.2%, said Charles Pelkie, chief of staff for the Will County clerk’s office…

Finding information on local candidates presents a challenge for voters, Pelkie said, confined mostly to mailed flyers and local radio or television ads. In general elections, Will County voter turnout can reach about 80%, Pelkie said, but local races don’t “inspire” voters in the same way as presidential or gubernatorial races.

I think this explanation is correct in that residents have to do a lot of work to find out about all the candidates and races. See my post on this yesterday.

But, there are other factors at work as well. As noted in the article, national races drive up turnout. I wonder if national politics has now completely overshadowed local and state politics through the last few presidential cycles. Americans often say they like local government but many eyes are now only turned to Washington.

Big issues in communities can drive up turnout. County level data can obscure higher levels of turnout for intriguing races. Yet, even interesting or important local issues might be drowned out by larger politics or the overwhelming number of choices.

A little thought experiment. Imagine a local government unit decided elections are no longer necessary or will not take place as frequently. They could cite the amount of money that is needed to run elections. Lots of energy is expended from both winning and losing candidates. I would guess there would be local protest; how can you have local government without regular elections? Would it prompt people to vote more often in local elections?

Or, could eliminating government bodies or consolidating such bodies in Illinois help? Reduce the number of candidates to choose from. Limit the number of taxing bodies that local funds go to. Focus some of the positions on broader issues rather than details of particular institutions. Again, this could be viewed as being anti-democratic but the current system does not seem to interest many voters.

The difficulty of keeping up with all the choices in local elections

I voted in the local elections held yesterday. I study suburbs and am aware of the fondness many Americans have for smaller and/or local governments. And I find it difficult to know who or what I am voting for in local elections.

In class yesterday, I started by talking about the importance of local elections. If residents care about their community, they can run for local offices or serve on volunteer committees. Without all of this important work that can require high levels of commitment for limited compensation, things would not get done. Because turnout can be low in local elections, candidates can be elected with relatively few votes.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

In certain elections, certain parts of the ballots stand out. Perhaps it is a development issue. Perhaps it is a referendum on a local tax increase to fund local schools. Perhaps it is a particular race, like a heated mayoral election or a pandemic facing members of the school board.

Beyond those more noteworthy circumstances, there are many choices. Forest Preserve commissioners. County Board members. Local judges. Township leaders. And so on. Sometimes, I know something that helps me make a choice. I read local news that helpfully presents local candidates. I watch some local forums where candidates talk. I am aware of some of the local concerns. I may know someone or know of someone. But, I cannot keep track of everything. Hence, the popularity of just voting a slate or a party for particular positions. Or, a set of endorsements from local media. This is all on top of what might be happening at the state of federal level.

This problem might be exacerbated by the number of units of local government Illinois has. However, I suspect this is a larger issue among Americans. Having many choices for many offices may help lead to lower turnout. Only some people have the motivation and wherewithal to find all of the information needed on local issues and candidates. People are disconnected from local groups and institutions through which they might hear about candidates and issues.

Americans like the idea of local elections but it is hard to keep up with all of the local government activity.

Searching for the perfect name for a slate of candidates in local elections

Keeping in mind regulations, non-partisan traditions, and what might appeal to voters, candidates running for local elections in the Chicago area come up with some clever names for their slate:

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

A court ruled in 2017 that candidates in Illinois don’t need to be part of a slate to run under the banner of a political party. So Dubiel decided to create a party of which he would be the only member — LZ Thrive…

When the calendar turns to the spring municipal elections, political passions are no longer contained to Republicans and Democrats. In suburb after suburb, you’ll find parties with monikers like People Before Politics, We’re in This Together, You Are the Village’s Heart, the Common Sense Again Party, the United Party for Progress or, most expansive of all, the Party of the Past, Present and Future…

One way to avoid such complications is to change the party’s name for every election, thereby making it a brand-new entity that can control its slate. That has been a routine practice in Bolingbrook, which for more than three decades was run by former Mayor Roger Claar under a variety of party names…

Those included Citizens for Bolingbrook First, the Bolingbrook First Party, Bolingbrook First and, in its most recent iteration following Claar’s 2020 retirement, the First Party for Bolingbrook.

I imagine there is an art to this. What exactly can capture a particular local spirit? Many of the names quoted above emphasize a bright future or emphasize a collective community spirit. There is a sense of optimism or forward momentum. (There could be the occasional anti-growth or preserve the community slate names in there as well – just not quoted above.)

If many of these are in the suburbs, other names might fit with the broad themes of suburbia: Making the Best Suburb for Your Children! Boosting Your Property Values! Keeping Certain Land Uses (and People) Out! Maintaining Our Lead Over Other Nearby Suburbs! And so on.

What if this was possible at the national level? What could Democrats and Republicans come up with every two and/or four years to really emphasize their particular focus in that election? Since each party does reconfigure their platform each election to fit current priorities, perhaps this would make some sense. It could also help eliminate the confusion over long-term shifts where one party used to support something but now it is the other party that pushes it.

Residential segregation – by political party

Residential segregation by race is a large issue and voting patterns in recent elections generally show Democrats winning in cities and close suburbs and Republicans winning in outer suburbs and rural areas. Put these two ideas together and you have residential segregation by political party.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/17/upshot/partisan-segregation-maps.html

As new research has found, it’s not just that many voters live in neighborhoods with few members of the opposite party; it’s that nearly all American voters live in communities where they are less likely to encounter people with opposing politics than we’d expect. That means, for example, that in a neighborhood where Democrats make up 60 percent of the voters, only 50 percent of a Republican’s nearest neighbors might be Democrats.

Democrats and Republicans are effectively segregated from each other, to varying degrees by place, according to the Harvard researchers Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos. And at least over the past decade, they believe this partisan segregation has been growing more pronounced…

For each individual voter, tied to an address, the researchers looked at their thousand nearest voters, weighting those next door more heavily than those a mile away. Drawn this way, about 25 million voters — urban Democrats especially — live in residential circles where at most only one in 10 encounters is likely to be with someone from the opposite party. Democrats in parts of Columbus, Ohio, and Oklahoma City live this way. So do Republicans in the reddest parts of Birmingham, Ala., and Gillette, Wyo…

These studies together suggest that as places become more politically homogeneous, people there are more likely to conform and to publicly signal their partisanship. Maybe no one says, “I want to move here because of all these Biden yard signs.” But perhaps one neighbor is swayed by the people who put them up, and another neighbor concludes, “This isn’t the place for me.”

Lots of confounding variables to examine across a lot of locales. But, the underlying patterns are fascinating to consider: do geographic communities, even in an era of reduced neighborly contact and participation in local institutions, influence people’s political belief and behavior? With more focus in recent years on how online and social media behavior influences politics, this connection to geography has the opportunity to reinvigorate conversation about the power of local communities.

I would be interested to see how this plays out among local governments of communities with similar traits. Take a suburb closer to a big city that leans Democrat and a suburb further out that leans Republicans. Are the local decisions made that different? Do local elections look different?

Or, how often are there tipping points across communities and neighborhoods where a majority of voters are of one party or another? The patterns now show some stability but these have changed in the past and could change again in the future. What happens when they do change and does the character of the community change?