Steps for growing the tiny house movement in 2021

If more Americans are interested in tiny houses, what steps might be needed for them to become viable options for more people?

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Experts say the movement’s main goal this year should be to convince more states and municipalities to legalize tiny houses across the country…

Some leaders in the movement hope to end the narrative that tiny houses are for families…

Tiny houses also need to be seen as viable affordable housing in the future, experts say…

Some of the leaders of the tiny-house movement said they hope to distance themselves from the rise in RVs and camper vans this year

It is interesting to see these four strategies together. Based on this article and previous articles I have seen claiming tiny houses are trending up, I have not seen enough evidence that there is a sizable shift toward tiny houses.

But, perhaps those who claim these four strategies are necessary would say that each point addresses something that holds the tiny house movement back. I would put these four into two broader categories that are worth exploring more.

The first category has to do with important local zoning regulations. Communities are prepared to handle single-family homes and many would be prepared to address multi-family housing. But, tiny houses are out of the ordinary and present unique challenges and opportunities. Should they be allowed on the same lot as an existing home? Do they go with micro-lots? Do they threaten the character of single-family homes? How many could be put on a regular residential plot of land? What are their water and services needs? Are these going to be cheaper or more luxury tiny homes? It would take some time to figure this out in many communities.

The second category involves the next three points. These are marketing and perception issues. Who are tiny houses for? What are they about? What social needs do they serve? The three points above try to answer these questions: tiny houses are for smaller households, they could be affordable housing, but they are not like RVs and camper vans. This puts them into an in-between category: not as permanent as a single-family house but not as mobile as an RV or camper van; cheaper than a typical house but there is still a cost (plus possible land costs); for some people but not others. Perhaps growing more quickly within a particular niche is what would help tiny houses as a whole become more popular.

There could be additional issues to address. If many more Americans wanted to order a tiny house in the next few weeks, could the orders be fulfilled relatively quickly? Do we have sufficient public and private spaces around tiny homes so that people can enjoy living in such a small space?

This is a lot to do. That can be okay; not all products have explosive growth and slow positive change could work out in the long run.

Selecting a suburban mayor by picking a ping pong ball out of a hat

Last week, one tied mayoral race in a Houston suburb came down to selecting names from of a hat:

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Sean Skipworth and Jennifer Lawrence were vying to be the next mayor of Dickinson, but they each ended up with 1,010 votes after a runoff election last month and a recount earlier this week.

According to Texas law, a tie in a race for public office can be resolved by casting lots.

Skipworth became mayor after a ping pong ball with his name was pulled out of a hat during a ceremony Thursday that lasted about 10 minutes, the Galveston County Daily News reported…

Dickinson, located about 40 miles southeast of Houston, has more than 21,000 residents.

What a way to peacefully resolve an election.

Two things strike me in reading this. First, many Americans like having local government at a relatively small scale. This is a medium size suburb: it could be small enough to be considered a small town, large enough to feel bigger than a small town. Such elections can be decided by a small number of voters: the article suggests each candidate had 1,010 votes, meaning the front-runners had slightly more than 2,000 votes out of over 15,000 residents who might be available to vote (rough calculations from Census data).

Second, Americans often feel better about their local politics – from their community through their representatives in Congress – compared to national politics. Perhaps people want to think better about those from their places or the stakes at the local level are lower (though local disagreements can get heated). The mayor of Dickinson, Texas may not be able to do much in the grand scheme of things but local officials are often non-partisan and say they are about getting things done.

Because this happened at a very local level, there is likely little from this particular solution – casting lots – to apply to the national level. Yet, the spirit and means of local politics may provide regular reminders of what is possible and how politics can be conducted.

Two examples of suburban governments addressing COVID-19 budget shortfalls: raise the gas tax, delay improvements

The COVID-19 reckoning for municipal budgets is ongoing. Two examples from the end of this week. First, DuPage County is raising its gas tax:

The DuPage County Board has approved a doubling of the 4-cents-per-gallon gas tax in response to revenue losses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The new rate goes into effect July 1. The existing rate has been in place since 1989.

According to county transportation officials, gas tax proceeds have fallen nearly 25% since April as more people have been staying home and working remotely. The gas tax increase is expected to raise $16 million more a year for an aging system of roads and bridges.

Second, Naperville is putting off one downtown project:

A multimillion-dollar streetscape project in the heart of downtown Naperville is being postponed to mitigate the burden on businesses already struggling under COVID-19 restrictions.

Initially slated for completion last spring, the $3.2 million in proposed improvements — plus an additional $2.2 million in related utility work — were delayed a year due to the challenges and uncertainties of the pandemic, officials said.

These illustrate two different strategies for tackling a budget shortfall. The first tries to raise more revenue. The gas tax is a relatively small increase for each purchase but it adds up since so many suburban lives are dependent on driving. That this tax from the county has not increased for over thirty years is likely to be a small comfort for many as other costs have increased as well. But, raising a number of taxes and fees without huge jumps in any one of them can help local governments close the budget gap.

The second example pushes off planned costs to the next year. Each year, local governments consider improvements and capital projects that will improve the infrastructure of their community. Even in a good year, a number of projects may be dependent on funding from outside sources such as state governments or the federal government. This year, when money is scarce all around, some projects will be pushed into the future. This may not be a big problem for now – unless a lot of projects get pushed back, future budgets cannot handle everything, and infrastructure slowly falls apart. If this year’s budget is bad and next year’s is also affected, when will these local projects get done?

More communities will be making similar decisions in the weeks ahead. How much each community is affected may differ as might their strategies for addressing the budget issues.

Changing political party control at the county level: DuPage County in 2020, the 1930s, and 1856

Voters in DuPage County appear to have supported Democrats more than Republicans at every level in the 2020 election:

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DuPage County, once known as one of the most solidly Republican areas in the country, appears to have given Democrats control of the County Board for the first time since the 1930s. Two more Democrats are leading their races for countywide office, and could be joined by another when the final votes are tallied.

DuPage voters also backed Democrats in every federal race from president to U.S. representative, as well as every state senator and nine of 13 state representatives.

It’s a stunning turn of fortune two decades in the making, observers say, the result of shifting demographics, shrewd campaigning and the divisive reign of President Donald Trump.

The article above tells of recent changes in DuPage County with new residents and a desire for a new party in charge.

But, as the article also notes, this is not the first time such a shift has happened in DuPage County. I do not know much about what happened in the 1930s – I assume the Great Depression and the New Deal were involved – but I have read more about what happened in the 1850s.

In the early decades of DuPage County, which was officially founded in 1839, local political leaders were Democrats. For example, Joseph Naper, founder of Naperville, served in several political positions as a Democrat. Local historian Leone Schmidt details this state of affairs in her 1989 book When the Democrats Ruled DuPage.

This Democrat hold on DuPage politics lasted about two decades. Schmidt concludes her book with the changes that came with the first Republican party candidates in the 1856 elections.

Historian Stephen J. Buck further describes the shift in a 2019 article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society:

In “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men: The Origins of the Republican Party in DuPage County, Illinois,” Stephen Buck synthesizes many of the widely accepted explanations for the Republican Party’s emergence in the 1850s, including the powerful ideal of free-soil in the trans-Mississippi West; opposition to the political clout of the “Slave Power” nationally; and genuine moral commitments to the abolition of Slavery. DuPage County, in Buck’s retelling, serves as a sort of case study in the steady growth of free-soil principles in northern Illinois beginning in the 1840s. Buck finds that by the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, the sectional crisis was so encompassing that it deeply inscribed party identification, even in elections to town and county offices.

This work builds on Buck’s 1992 dissertation where he goes into detail regarding the changes. The issue of slavery and free soil was important in DuPage County and when the Republican Party started in 1854, it quickly attracted support in northern Illinois. In the 1856 elections, Republicans convincingly beat Democrats in local races. And this trend continued in subsequent elections.

Comparing the current shift toward the Democrat party in DuPage County to past shifts, this one seems to be longer in the making. It takes time for suburban populations to change dramatically as different communities attract different residents and national and state politics and forces interact with local conditions. Yet, DuPage residents of the future may well look to the elections of 2016 and 2020 where DuPage turned to the hands of Democrats.

What redevelopment will suburbs pursue with COVID-19 induced vacancies?

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating a number of trends already troubling many communities: struggling brick-and-mortar retailers, filling vacant office and commercial properties, and budget uncertainties. What might this lead to as suburbs consider redevelopment? A few possible directions.

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  1. Desirable suburban communities – those with wealthier residents, more white-collar and professional workers, higher quality of life, and stronger economic bases – will do better at attracting and following through on redevelopment.
  2. The “easiest” answer in many suburbs might be to redevelop office or commercial properties for residential units. Given the needs for affordable housing or cheaper housing in many metropolitan areas, many suburbs could fill residential units. They may not want to for several reasons: residences do not bring in sales tax money and services are different for residences, including having more students in local schools. Plus, “affordable housing” implies certain things about the residents and the units that might not be palatable to some communities. But, if the primary goal is to put property to use, this might be the way to go.
  3. Mixed-use redevelopment that combines residential and retail or office space will continue to be attractive. However, these opportunities might be limited to already-advantages suburbs or particular properties that have certain advantages (large enough to create a self-contained community, access to highways and other transportation options, etc.).
  4. Certain properties may just present particular problems. Three come to mind quickly: shopping malls, empty big box stores, and sizable office parks or campuses. A number of communities have tried to tackle each of these (as one example among many, see this shopping mall post here) but the size of the property and their particular configuration present problems. There may a glut of new kinds of suburban properties that present their own issues: restaurants (both sit-down and fast food), strip malls, and movie theaters. Again, the ways the space was initially configured for these specific uses can make it difficult to pursue retrofitting.
  5. Converting private spaces into more public spaces. Imagine the shopping mall to public skating rink or office campus to park. These may have very positive long-term benefits including spaces for civic engagement, leisure, and interaction with nature. Yet, given the state of municipal budgets with COVID-19, it might be very hard to find money to purchase or use what was once private property.

If there are numerous vacant properties in suburban areas post-COVID-19, this will present a challenge for communities. Are there enough uses for these properties? How willing are suburbs to convert land from one use to another as they consider the “best use” for the community?

Research on the power and influence Democratic mayors do or do not have

Emily Badger sums up research looking at how much big cities are affected by having a mayor from a particular political party:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/02/upshot/trump-democratic-cities.html

Numerous studies suggest that the partisanship of mayors has limited effect on much of anything: not just crime, but also tax policy, social policy and economic outcomes.

The researchers Justin de Benedictis-Kessner and Christopher Warshaw have found that Democratic mayors spend more than Republican mayors. “But the differences are pretty small,” said Mr. Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University. “They’re not enough to drive large differences in societal outcomes in things like crime rates.”

This is partly because mayors are constrained in their ability to execute ideological agendas. Cities can’t run deficits. States limit their authority to raise taxes and enact laws on many issues. And cities lack the power the federal government has to shape labor laws, or immigration policies that can affect their population growth…

Cities have been faced with problems far beyond their making. Deindustrialization and globalization wiped out many middle-class factory jobs, destabilizing neighborhoods of blue-collar workers. The federal policy of highway construction enabled both taxpayers and employers to leave cities. Federal housing policies dissuaded or prevented Black residents initially from joining them, cementing patterns of racial and economic segregation that persist to this day…

There are plenty of fair critiques of decisions that Democratic mayors do control — regarding charter schools, or how equitably they deploy city resources, or whether their zoning laws and school policies perpetuate segregation. And there is room to criticize the Democratic Party’s failure to devise a coherent federal urban policy.

Disentangling this from the current political moment and debate about running cities, a few themes from the article stuck out to me:

  1. One argument is that mayors are more interested in pragmatic day to day city processes than larger ideological concerns. Mayors themselves make this argument. If a mayor cannot help solve a particular local problem, they may not be in office for long, regardless of what party they align with.
  2. Cities are stuck between multiple bodies of government. A city may be nested within a county (and this is what might make city-county mergers appealing), a state, and then the federal system. On one hand, cities are essential to our modern society – they are economic engines, centers of culture, gathering places for residents and jobs, anchors of entire regions, etc. – but their city interests must be negotiated with other bodies of government above them. Putting it in more sociological terms, cities are between macro and micro social scales yet often are viewed as macro entities and have some capabilities at the macro level (I am thinking of conferences of mayors, transnational conversations between mayors and other mayors or heads of government, etc.)
  3. As a graph in the article shows, there are more Democratic big city mayors than Republican big city mayors and this has been true for decades. Do Republicans want to be mayors of big cities? Also noted in the story: Republican policies and appeals have been made to suburbanites and rural voters for decades, less so to urban residents.
  4. This is not a new political issue; the United States has a long-standing divide regarding cities that goes back to the founding of the country. For more on this as it played out in the twentieth century, I recommend the 2014 book Americans Against the City by historian Steven Conn.

The start of municipal budget issues due to COVID-19? The case of Chicago

COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of life in the United States and it will have consequences for municipal budgets. Here is how Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot describes the fiscal impact:

Google Street View of Chicago City Hall, June 2018

Citing the “catastrophic collapse of our local and national economy” because of COVID-19 and damage to local businesses from civil unrest, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday laid out a $1.2 billion shortfall for what she called Chicago’s “pandemic budget” in 2021…

The ongoing coronavirus crisis has also spiked the 2020 budget shortfall to nearly $800 million, Lightfoot said. She said that deficit would be filled using relief funds and other unspecified aid from the federal government, in addition to debt refinancing, and borrowing…

In laying out the 2021 shortfall, Lightfoot cited dire numbers — more than 900,000 Chicago-area residents filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic, while personal services, hospitality and tourism industries “are still seeing a fraction of their typical revenues and some businesses have sadly closed with no hope of coming back.”…

The bad news has seemed inevitable for months, as tax receipts plummeted with large parts of the economy shut down and spending in Chicago by tourists and conventioneers cratered throughout the summer because of the pandemic.

Chicago has its own particular challenges but the COVID-19 shortfall is one that many communities in the United States, big and small, will experience. Local governments tend to want to diversify their tax base so that they are drawing tax revenues from multiple sources. COVID-19 interrupts or limits a number of these streams: money from visitors (who stay in hotels, visit sites, eat), sales tax revenues (derived from businesses from residents and visitors, who are affected by employment and travel opportunities), and property tax revenue (could be affected if people are moving in or out affecting demand plus whether residents and landlords are able to pay their bills). Furthermore, right now this is posed as an issue for the current budget; what is the effect for months or years down the road as cities and communities try to rebound and/or continue to battle COVID-19?

Closing these COVID-19 shortfalls will provide unique opportunities for politicians. This article suggests all options are on the table; yet, I am sure most, if not all of the politicians involved, have particular budget options they would not consider. Many municipal governments will hope there are extra resources available from above, perhaps from the county, state, and federal governments. Yet, all levels of government are likely to feel the impact of COVID-19. And with the current discord between the White House and big city leaders, it is hard to imagine what a palatable plan for the federal government and municipal governments to work together would look like. Could this/should this be a major issue on the November 2020 campaign trail as multiple levels of government look to address COVID effects?

Less restaurant and retail business, lower local sales tax revenue

The ongoing effects of COVID-19 on business activity, particularly restaurants, will impact communities:

Restaurant dining room closures resulting from the coronavirus pandemic are wreaking havoc on the industry’s bottom line and upending the lives of many working in the service industry. Those losses also will be felt by communities that rely on restaurant sales taxes and special food and beverage taxes to help fund municipal services. Some suburbs will feel the effects much more than others because of how heavily they rely on such taxes.

Sales taxes at restaurants and bars contributed more than $2 million a week to 83 suburbs, a Daily Herald analysis of 2019 tax records on the Illinois Department of Revenue’s website shows.

In a dozen suburbs, sales taxes from restaurants and bars represented more than 20% of all their sales tax revenue last year…

“It’s not just restaurants and bars, though,” said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, pointing out many sources of sales tax have had sharp drops. “Everybody in the retail sector has been negatively impacted, aside from groceries.”

With more Americans eating out in general, the ability of restaurants to draw visitors from other communities, and connections between eating and other recreational and cultural activities, eateries can be important sources of revenue.

Communities can aspire to have a diverse tax base where they draw tax revenues from a variety of sources, including sales taxes and property taxes. At the same time, some communities develop niches where they focus on one business sector or they have a historic strength. Diversification may be difficult to achieve and depend on a variety of forces including actions by local officials and leaders, the demographics of the community, historic patterns, and actions by business owners and larger economic forces. In other words, the character of a community’s tax base develops over time, can change, and at least in part depends on outside actions and forces beyond a community’s control.

It will also be interesting to see where the budget issues that municipalities face fall among the other economic concerns. Sales tax revenues are part of the picture but so might be property values if businesses need to close and there are not other businesses to take their place. If the federal government and states are also facing big hits to revenue, what might happen to municipal budgets?

Suburban municipalities to take own actions regarding COVID-19?

As different government bodies look to act in response to the spread of COVID-19, I was struck by the number of large cities and states that are acting (including the state in which I live). At the same time, I wonder: how are suburban communities responding?

A few thoughts:

-Many suburban communities have limited capabilities and cannot do a whole lot. They may have limited budgets, a relatively small number of employees, and not much power to compel action. Still, decisions to close public spaces – such as libraries, city/village/town halls, community centers – matter to the everyday lives of lots of people.

-Yet, some bigger suburbs in the United States are as large as small big cities. Their actions can be very consequential and they have more budget room to address issues. At this point, the news has primarily focused on the biggest cities in the United States but this matters for numerous other communities over 100,000 people (to use an arbitrary cut-off point for a larger community).

Americans tend to like local control and government but at the speed that a virus can spread and across political boundaries, individual actions across hundreds of American suburbs might not add up to much. Hence, people look to the state and federal level to mobilize resources and direct action.

-What is the role of metropolitan regions in all of this? The City of Chicago can act and affect millions of residents and workers but there are roughly seven million more people in the region. Counties can act and affect more residents. But, then the next level of action regarding COVID-19 seems to be at the state level. Are metropolitan regions working together or is the general lack of metropolitan cooperation revealed again in a time of crisis?

Bringing the City Council meeting to a (participatory) stage

I have read through decades of City Council and other local commission minutes for research projects. Thus, I was intrigued to find out a playwright had taken real City Council experiences and put them together into a participatory performance:

Inside a hushed theater, a voice on the loudspeaker instantly lets the audience know this isn’t your typical performance.

“By joining us tonight” a soft female voice says, “you’ll be standing in for someone who was actually part of a local government meeting somewhere in the U.S. in the last three years.”

The show, for the most part, doesn’t use actors. Instead, theater goers are asked to volunteer to play the role of city council members, the mayor, and regular citizens at a city council meeting. The performance is staged just as if it were a real meeting, with real people participating in a play that reflects the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sometimes nail-biting tediousness of participatory democracy…

“How do you take someone whose way of speaking or obvious demographic might be very different from yours and respectfully put it in the room?” Landsman asks. “How do you give voice to someone else’s language? For me it’s like walking a mile in their shoes – verbally.”

I would love to see this and to participate. The play takes something mundane to most people and provides an opportunity to see how things work and different people approach their community.

Here is why this has the potential to matter: Americans say that they like local government but their involvement is often limited (as exhibited by low turnout rates for local voting). And much of the time in local government boards, committees, and groups may involve arcane discussions of local ordinances, approval of paying bills, and odd local political or interpersonal disputes. Yet, these meetings help shape the character of communities. Even if there is a sizable public discussion about a development project or an annexation or a significant change, it is in the local government meeting that the vote actually takes place. These discussions and decisions can make a difference and set a community down a particular path for decades.

I would guess those who see this play do not immediately show up at all the local meetings eager to observe. However, at the least, it could help reveal some of the local processes that have the potential to impact all of our lives and communities.