“Hysteria” marks responses from neighbors to proposed nearby developments?

One man who has “monitored and live-tweeted dozens and dozens—and dozens and dozens—of community meetings” regarding development in San Francisco describes the tenor of the public comments this way:

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The meetings tend to be formal. But people’s participation tends to be, well, a little unmeasured, Fruchtman told me. “Hysteria,” he said. “There’s often a sense of hysteria at these meetings that is not reflected in what you read in the press.” He recalled the time that a person described his fight to prevent the construction of a navigation center for homeless services as a kind of personal “Little Bighorn.” Or the time another person objected to the conversion of a parking lot on the grounds that it would increase traffic. Such rhetoric is “intellectual malpractice,” Fruchtman added. And the intemperate rants of the people who show up matter, as city officials hear such impassioned claims mostly from a privileged class trying to keep things as they are.

Having studied my share of public meetings, this description rings true. This does not mean every public comment rises to this level but residents and neighbors can regularly attempt to make their point strongly.

As this article notes, public commenters have little incentive not to state their case forcefully. They are living in the area. They think their property is at risk. Local officials serve at their behest (whether elected directly by residents or not). Who is going to call them out on their strong emotions or statements?

Now this would make for an interesting record: cataloging the ways that residents oppose development proposals. Based on what I have seen, I could imagine these themes would come up regularly: traffic, light, noise, too much density, a difference in character with the existing neighborhood would come up regularly, and a threat to property values. Additionally, how do residents present these concerns, with what tone, and with what public displays?

The complications of switching over from Disney self-governance in Florida to local government

With the Florida legislature voting to strip Disney of its self-governance status regarding the Disney World land, what might this mean for local governments?

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The counties, on June 1, 2023, would assume all of Reedy Creek’s assets and liabilities and become responsible for providing all of the services currently handled by the district, CNBC reported.

Currently, Disney finances the services supplied by Reedy Creek, which would normally be funded by local municipalities. The company, instead, charges itself property taxes to finance its service and pays the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement.

Once Reedy Creek is dismantled, local taxpayers and municipalities would likely be responsible for those services.

’Removing district could transfer $2billion debt from Disney to taxpayers and could potential have an enormous impact on Orange and Osceola residents!’ State Sen. Linda Stewart, who voted against the bill, tweeted Wednesday.

However, Rep. Fine told Insider he believed taxes could go down because the measure was ‘eliminating a layer of government’.

Walt Disney World already pays property taxes to Orange and Osceola counties, so that would not change, however the counties would get to collect the tax revenue Disney currently pays to itself.

The transfer of revenues, services, and infrastructure from a private entity to a set of local governments might take some time to sort out. Who will be responsible for what? How do the revenues compare to the costs required? How does this require local governments to adjust?

Let’s say this process is a complicated one. Does this affect the experience of visitors to Disney properties or to local residents?

While this is a national culture wars story at the moment, it would be interesting to hear from local officials on what they think of this or how they anticipate this working out. Very few local officials would want to lose a major company from their land. Would they vote against their own local economic and political interests in the service of sending a message to Disney?

Differentiating a suburb by declaring it a “trailblazing pro-life city”?

Suburbs compete with other communities. They engage in decisions and branding that might given them a particular status and/or an edge. Does this fit a possible decision in Alvin, Texas?

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Elected officials in the city of Alvin are considering an all-out ban on abortion that would declare the Houston-area suburb a “sanctuary city for the unborn,” even with the procedure virtually banned by a new state law. 

One of the leaders behind this measure said he aimed to make Alvin, a city of about 26,000 residents in northeastern Brazoria County, a “trailblazing” pro-life city. 

City Council Member Joel Castro said he believes the measure is necessary to enforce the statewide ban. He referenced other small Texas cities, including Lubbock in west Texas, that have implemented similar ordinances. 

The ACLU has pushed back on cities that have implemented similar ordinances in the past, arguing they are unconstitutional and that “cities cannot punish pro-abortion organizations for carrying out their important work.” Abby Ledoux, spokesperson for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the ordinance feels “extremely cruel” and just adds more restrictive layers to the statewide ban, ultimately endangering women in an area where access to abortion care is already limited. 

On one hand, there is the aspect of leaders and residents believing this is the right stance. Numerous communities have developed statements, regulations, and ordinances intended to pursue what they think is right.

But, I wonder if this is also connected to branding. Could a community serve its residents and seek to attract residents, businesses, and others based on taking a particular stand? At the least, the suburb of Alvin might be known by more people from taking a stand and others might factor the community’s stance into a decision about staying there or moving there.

This reminds me of the work of scholar Thomas Vicino in Suburban Crossroads: The Fight for Local Control of Immigration Policy. This book highlights the efforts of three communities to develop and enact their own policies amid concerns about federal immigration policies. The context here is a bit different – Texas has new laws regarding abortion, federal law is clear – but the idea is the same: local governments take it on themselves to address a controversial issue that they feel is important.

Numbers that highlight the scope of local governments in the United States

Some of my published work involves examining the actions of local governments. Thus, I was interested to read some published numbers about the size of local government:

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The United States has nearly 90,000 local governments, with hundreds of thousands of elected officials. Indeed, the vast majority of elected officials serve at the local level. Moreover, local governments employ over ten million workers and collect nearly a quarter of the nation’s total tax revenues (Trounstine 2009, 2010).

(Warshaw, 2019, “Local Elections and Representation in the United States”)

Americans tend to like local government as it reduces the distance between voter and representative and can also address local interests more directly. But, put all of those local government units together – and they are not evenly spread out depending on location, Illinois has more, and population – and many people and lots of resources are involved. Additionally, the interaction between local government and other layers and levels of government also requires a lot.

Chicago aldermen and affordable housing, public housing

HUD is examining the connection between the power of Chicago aldermen over zoning and development in their wards and affordable housing in the city:

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Housing activists and lawyers filed a complaint over aldermanic prerogative with HUD in 2018, alleging that allowing aldermen de facto veto power over most development proposals in their wards promotes housing discrimination by keeping low-income minorities from moving into affluent white neighborhoods.

The complaint against the city alleges that “aldermanic prerogative” helps residents who fear racial change pressure aldermen to block affordable housing projects by publicly raising concerns over school overcrowding, declining property values and other “camouflaged racial expressions.”

HUD officials continue investigating the matter and sent a letter to aldermen Dec. 1 asking them a series of questions about aldermanic prerogative, including how they define the term.

This reminded me of how aldermen helped shape the locations of public housing projects after World War Two. From the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

When Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which provided substantial funding for public housing, CHA was ready with a map of proposed sites for projects to be built on open land throughout the city, but the city council rejected this map altogether. White aldermen rejected plans for public housing in their wards. CHA’s policy thereafter was to build family housing only in black residential areas or adjacent to existing projects. This rejection explains the concentration of public housing in the city center on the South and West Sides.

In a city marked by residential segregation, numerous methods for keeping Black residents out of white neighborhoods, and white flight away from the city, the protection of certain areas has been a major emphasis. Affordable housing and public housing are typically viewed as unattractive land uses in whiter and wealthier communities with residents and leaders expressing concerns about property values, safety, and other matters with a sometimes stated and sometimes not underlying factor of race and ethnicity.

The need for affordable housing is great in Chicago, as it is in a number of major cities. But, who will compel neighborhoods or communities to accept that affordable housing should something everyone should bear responsibility for? Outside of some court cases and occasional legislative (Illinois and California as examples) or executive branch rumblings, the deck is stacked against affordable housing for multiple reasons. This includes an American emphasis on local government, particularly concerning local zoning and land use which is often set up to protect single-family homes. Americans often elect local representatives with the idea that they will protect the voter’s neighborhood and way of life.

Less clear from this article is what exactly HUD or others would if they find aldermen restricted affordable housing in the city.

Acknowledging that a building proposal from a religious group can lead to a “painful” process

Religious groups regularly propose changes for land and buildings and I have studied this both in the western suburbs of Chicago and the New York City region. After a City Council vote to approve changes to land owned by the Islamic Center of Naperville (see earlier posts on the unusual amount of attention this drew and approval by the planning and zoning commission), the mayor of Naperville acknowledged that it had been a difficult process:

A large crowd in the city council chamber erupted in applause when the vote was completed. Each council member and Chirico expressed gratitude for the work put in by all parties throughout the process that played out over nine months in the city’s planning and zoning commission with 500 speakers in 15 meetings.

“We all know it was painful,” Chirico said. “There were times where I was entertained. There were times where I was angry. There were times where I was throwing my shoe at the TV. Every emotion it seemed like it went through.”

Even as life will now continue with the different actors involved, acknowledging the difficult process is noteworthy. In my study of such proposals, the religious groups do not always reach the outcome they desire nor do communities and residents always get what they want. Here, describing the process as “painful” could refer to a number of things – the time it took, figuring out the particulars, working with all of the interested parties, etc. – and very involved may have attained exactly what they wanted at the beginning.

It is also worth noting that the same group and site may be up for conversation again in the future. In order to help the proposal succeed, the Islamic Center of Naperville agreed to submit future changes for the building and property for review:

The final step pushing the proposal over the finishing line was a concession by the Islamic Center to submit its third, fourth and fifth phase to additional city council review when the time comes. A group representing the nearby subdivisions of Ashwood Pointe, Pencross Knoll and Tall Grass agreed to accept the proposal with those conditions.

Will the process at that point be less painful? The group has made two proposals and both times has encountered numerous questions from neighbors and community members. Some of the particular actors involved in those two discussions may be gone but the underlying questions may not.

The United States as “a decentralized nation”

One analysis of the concentration of people and activity in American cities leads to this conclusion about the country today:

The modern U.S. is thus a decentralized nation, where despite an urban revival in recent years the periphery has kept growing faster than the center. Rural areas aren’t growing; most American counties actually lost population in the 2010s. But low-density suburban counties attached to large metropolitan areas grew faster than either high-density suburbs or urban counties, economist Jed Kolko calculated recently, while the fastest-growing major metro areas (Austin, Orlando, Raleigh, Nashville) aren’t among the largest.

This is a little hard to square with claims that large cities continue to wield great political clout. If it weren’t for the Electoral College, according to one oft-heard argument, voters in New York, Los Angeles and/or Chicago would choose every president. How they would manage to do this with only 4.7% of the nation’s population is a bit of a mystery. True, the three cities’ metro-area populations added up to 13% of the U.S. total in 2020, but that was down from 13.3% in 2010 and traditionally suburbs and cities largely canceled each other out politically — although that has been changing lately.

There’s a stronger argument to be made that economic power and cultural clout remain concentrated in a few places. Gross domestic product grew more slowly in the 10 largest metro areas than the country as a whole from 2010 to 2019 (2020 data aren’t out yet), but per-capita personal income grew faster. New York still dominates finance and the news media, Washington dominates government, Los Angeles rules entertainment and San Jose and San Francisco technology.

Census data suggests that the majority of the American population lives in suburbs. But, population alone cannot explain the importance and persistence of big cities. They will continue to remain powerful and important for multiple reasons. They help anchor broader metropolitan regions. They are centers of finance, innovation, real estate, cultural opportunities, key transportation infrastructure, and other essential activity. They occupy some of the most important and strategic locations. They have long histories.

At the same time, a decentralized landscape means (1) no single city or set of cities may dominate activity and/or (2) residents of the United States may not feel the importance of cities. For example, even with data showing the importance of cities and their regions for economic activity, Americans consistently discuss small businesses and farmers. Or, Manhattan and Washington, D.C. may dominate headlines but many Americans will be more invested in their local regions or communities.

More broadly, it may be safe to describe all of American society as more decentralized than other developed countries. I am thinking of Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy where France is the example of a more centralized state, both in terms of government structure – more power at the state level – and geography – all roads/rails lead to Paris. The United States has had from the beginning a system with distributed powers at the federal, state, and local levels as well as a broad landscape with many kinds of settlements.

Taking extra time to make a decision in Itasca on controversial proposal

I have followed the proposal to convert a suburban hotel to a treatment center from an earlier iteration in Wheaton, a march against the proposal in Itasca, and the ongoing discussion. The process is still ongoing and the final vote was recently delayed:

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Itasca’s plan commission on Wednesday unanimously agreed to recommend the village board deny Haymarket’s proposal. The Chicago-based nonprofit group is seeking permission to convert a former hotel along Irving Park Road into a 240-bed facility for adult patients with drug and alcohol use disorders.

The final decision rests with the village board. But trustees don’t want to rush their decision.

On Thursday, Mayor Jeff Pruyn said the village board plans to have at least two special meetings beginning in the middle of October. The first would allow public comment about the proposal. Haymarket representatives would make their case before the village board during the second.

As a result, the village board will not vote on the proposal until late October or early November.

Making a hasty decision may be in no one’s best interest. Particularly given the controversy surrounding the proposal, making sure everyone has a chance to voice their opinion and the board has all the time to make up their mind seems reasonable.

At the same time, what would change between now and then that would have a big effect on how the board members are viewing the situation? The proposal has been under discussion from some time and community members have made their voices heard.

This is not an easy decision for a smaller community to make. There could be consequences for life in the community and future development. Either way, some people will be upset. The village board decision will either agree with the plan commission or go the other direction (and the board is able to choose either option).

Yet, a decision needs to be made. I will be interested to see what happens: how will Itasca respond? Will Haymarket look for another suburban location? More broadly, what suburban communities might welcome land uses like these that are needed in metropolitan regions?

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:

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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.

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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.