How to make a better public case for abundant housing in four steps

After witnessing a positive result in front of a neighborhood council for a small project in Los Angeles, Virginia Postrel suggests four steps can help smooth the process:

Respect matters. Especially in liberal enclaves like West L.A., opposition to new housing — and to change in general — comes wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and procedure. Activist residents, including official representatives, are jealous of their prerogatives as neighborhood incumbents. They’re more likely to say yes — or at least not say no — if they feel they’ve been listened to…

But so do the rules. Under a law signed in 2017, anti-development activists can no longer easily block new housing if it meets zoning requirements and incorporates 10 percent low-income units. One reason the Mar Vista project garnered support was that activists feared the alternative would be something less considerate of neighborhood sentiment.

 

Showing up is important. By answering questions and treating the meeting as important, the developer’s representative helped flip sentiment in Mar Vista. And the Abundant Housing LA speakers made arguments that often go unspoken in such forums. They reminded locals that by not letting people build housing near jobs, they make traffic worse, and that by blocking new apartments, which tend to be expensive, they send high-income renters into places where they push out middle- and lower-income residents. Beyond the specifics, it’s simply harder to argue against housing when you don’t have the overwhelming majority.

Don’t assume residents are against housing. In March 2017, Angelenos had the opportunity to vote for a slow-growth initiative that would have blocked at least a quarter of new housing developments. They overwhelmingly said no, defeating Measure S by a 70-30 margin. “That stereotypical kind of Nimby does exist, but there aren’t really that many of them,” says Burns. “When you really talk to people and you put a face on what it means to develop more — to add more housing — and it’s somebody who lives close by, you can really come to some sensible kind of compromises with folks.”

 

Generally, these look like good steps anybody seeking to redevelop property could benefit from. From some of my own work, these would be helpful for those constructing teardown houses in the suburbs as well as religious groups seeking to alter an existing building or construct a new building. Building a relationship with people in the community as well as presenting a cogent and reasonable case can go a long ways.

At the same time, I wonder if these four steps might be idiosyncratic and apply only to certain places and at certain times. This particular case is from a state and region that has a large need for more housing. The description of the steps above suggest that residents were more open to this project because they feared something worse. Additionally, this project is within a city and region that is already very dense (and one of the densest regions in the United States). Residents are used to denser housing.

I suspect redevelopment would be a much tougher sell in areas or communities that are (1) primarily comprised of single-family homes with some distance from denser land uses and (2) where housing demand is lower (or is perceived to be much lower – the Chicago area may have a big need for affordable housing but it would be hard to convince many communities of this).

 

Controlling private property, as viewed through Nextdoor

Based on Nextdoor, one writer sums up what bothers Americans about their local surroundings:

Steve Wymer, Nextdoor’s vice president of policy, told me that the same topics arise again and again, modulated by region and neighborhood type. Service requests and recommendations constitute 30 percent of chatter, and discussions of real estate make up another 20 percent. About 10 percent of Nextdoor conversations relate to crime and safety, Wymer said. (Suspicious persons come up a lot, often amounting to sightings of people of color in predominantly white areas. Nextdoor has attempted to discourage posts that use appearance as a proxy for criminality by prompting users to add more detail and blocking some posts that mention race.) Public agencies such as police and emergency-management departments also post updates to their constituencies. Noise complaints are another popular subject, according to Wymer—fireworks seem to raise particular ire—as are classifieds, missing pets, and gardening tips.

Judging by the conversations on Nextdoor, it would seem that Americans are concerned first about the safety and security of their property, family, and pets, and then with their property’s, family’s, and pets’ upkeep and improvement. Though the platform breeds its share of conflict, it is notable—in contrast to other social networks—for the commonality it reveals, even in these times of unprecedented political division. No one, Democrat or Republican, wants a neighborhood strewed with dog poop.

I wonder how much this online behavior is driven by two fundamental factors underlying American neighborhoods:

  1. Residents want to be able to control their own property.
  2. They also want to control some of their immediate surroundings, often in the name of property values or the character of the neighborhood.

These values can often come into conflict when one resident’s actions with their own property clashes with the desires of another property owner. Property rights are very important in the United States but property values often rely on neighbors and the surrounding community.

In the long run, it would be interesting to know whether Nextdoor provides a better platform for resolving neighborhood conflicts compared to face-to-face conversations or mediated conversations through other actors (such as calling the police or contacting local government about a concern). For example, many suburbanites are averse to open conflict and moving the conversation online might diffuse some of the tension. At the same time, an online platform could reinforce issues if things are said there that wouldn’t be said face-to-face or conversations take significantly more time.

 

Linking great trick-or-treat neighborhoods to traditional neighborhood design

Maybe a good trick-or-treat location should be defined less by the available candy and more regarding its design:

Great neighbourhoods for trick-or-treating also tend to be great neighborhoods for families everyday:

  • Tree-lined streets designed for walkers more than speeding cars.
  • Enough density and community completeness, to activate what I call “the power of nearness” – everything you need, nearby.
  • Good visual surveillance through doors and stoops, windows (and I don’t mean windows in garages), porches and “eyes on the street.”
  • Connected, legible streets that let you “read” the neighbourhood easily -grids tend to be good for this, but other patterns work too…

If kids ARE being driven in, that can mean it’s a great neighbourhood from a design perspective (or perhaps just that it’s a more affluent community, with “better candy”) — but having too few local kids can show that there isn’t enough housing diversity, new infill, and family-friendly “infrastructure” to keep kids in the neighbourhood. In fact, in many beautiful, tree-lined neighbourhoods popular on Halloween, the number of local kids may be actually dropping, with resulting pressures on local schools to close. This as household sizes decrease, and new density and “gentle infill” that could stabilize the population and keep kids in the neighbourhood, is often locally resisted.

From this point of view, good neighborhoods promote walkability and ultimately sociability. There are few times of years where this matters as much as Halloween as many Americans do not regularly walk down their streets to visit a number of neighbors at once.

More broadly, the practice of trick-or-treating is closely tied to social trust. Even with no documented cases of poisoned candy, parents want to know that their kids are safe. And with declining social trust in the United States, again, there are limited numbers of opportunities where Americans ritually interact with physical neighbors as opposed to seeking out people they whom they share an identity or interests.

It sounds like there is an empirical question to be answered here: do neighborhoods with (1) more traditional design and (2) higher levels of social trust (which may or more not be related to the neighborhood design experience more satisfying trick-or-treat experiences (measured by numbers of children trick-or-treating, percent of households providing candy, and perceptions of whether the neighborhood is a good place for this)?

The difficulty in naming urban neighborhoods

It is not easy to name every neighborhood of New York City:

SoHo, so-called because it is south of Houston Street, was better known until the 1960s as Hell’s Hundred Acres. It was the first to use an acronym, and has spawned imitators. Tribeca (triangle below Canal Street) emerged in the 1970s. Despite, or perhaps because of, its silly name, Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is one of the most sought-after areas in the city. NoHo (north of Houston) and NoLita (North of Little Italy) are now on maps. Others, like SoBro (south Bronx), BoCoCa (Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, which is in fact flat) and Rambo (Right after the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), mercifully did not stick. “None of these worked,” says Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at City University of New York. “At a certain point they got too silly.”

They also didn’t work, he says, because their residents objected. ProCro, a rebranding of Crown Heights, another historically black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, did not take either. Hell’s Kitchen is equally resilient. Attempts to change the name to the generic Clinton have not been successful. It is a lot easier to rebrand when there are few residents, as was the case in SoHo. Brokers also rely on recent arrivals not knowing the city well.

“You can’t talk about this without talking about race,” says Amy Plitt of Curbed, a property blog. Affluent white New Yorkers have flocked to Harlem, followed by restaurants, bars and shops. The stock of cheap housing has dwindled. Longtime residents, already feeling financial pressure, resent what they see as a deliberate move to erase their history. “It’s about identity,” said Brian Benjamin, a Harlem-born state lawmaker. He recently introduced legislation in Albany requiring estate agents to consult the community on any name change, or face a fine. Others see a clumsy attempt to link SoHa to SoHo in the minds of would-be buyers, making it cooler and justifying higher prices.

This raises a whole host of questions:

  1. Who gets to name the neighborhood? The article mentions several actors including residents and those in real estate but I could also imagine local officials might want a say. The gatekeepers of neighborhood naming have the power to define a place for years to come.
  2. How long does it take for a name to change? Even if it is a relatively short official process – say the city changes it on its official maps – it may take years before residents and others know and use the new name.
  3. How often can the name for a neighborhood change? Urban neighborhoods can be very fluid yet switching names too often will simply confuse people.
  4. How easy is it to define the boundaries of the named place, particularly if things are changing? Each neighborhood is also affected by the activity of the neighborhoods around them.

It would be interesting to compare these processes across major cities. For example, compare Chicago with its well-defined community areas (little major change in names or boundaries since the early 1900s) to New York City or a booming city in the developing world.

A map that would reveal what was there before the highway was built

This article discusses a cool tool that removes highways on the map so you can see what else is using that space:

In true public-spirited manner, the map is built from an OpenStreetMap, with tags identifying highways, off-ramps, and exits to make the roads vanish or reappear. However, Sisson didn’t set out on a nihilistic quest to annihilate all highways—he just wanted to look underneath them.

I wish this went one step further: when the highway is removed from the map, could we see what was there before? Urban highways have famously altered numerous neighborhoods – whether the highway that was later replaced by the Big Dig in Boston or the fight between Jane Jacobs and activists in Manhattan and Robert Moses to avoid a new highway or the Dan Ryan in Chicago separating black and white neighborhoods – yet those neighborhoods mostly disappear. The highway seems permanent even though most have only been around for 50-70 years. Of course, it would be really difficult to project what those spaces might look like today if the highway had not been constructed but it would still be nice to be able to peel back the layers. Actually, this wouldn’t be a bad idea for many city locations: what if Google Maps had a timeline component where you could set it to 1950 and see what there then (particularly if images could be incorporated) or even earlier?

The most diverse Census tract in America is in…Anchorage?

This information from a 2015 story is still surprising: several Anchorage census tracts are the most diverse in the United States.

Mountain View, a northeast Anchorage neighborhood, boasts the most diverse census tract in all of America. That’s according to University of Alaska sociology professor Chad Farrell, who analyzed the census data.
In fact, Farrell says the country’s three most diverse census tracts are all in Anchorage, followed by a handful in Queens, as in New York, which usually tops everyone’s diversity guess list…
Farrell found that two things boosted Mountain View to the top. First, there is a sizable white population left. In many other places, neighborhoods that have increased in diversity have also seen white flight. Not so in Mountain View.
Mountain View also has a significant Alaska Native population, which other cities in America lack.
Alaska’s diversity has spiked in recent years for a host of reasons. Among them are its economy, which prospered when other states were reeling from recession, because it is driven by fishing and oil.
The state is also home to nine military bases, and Mountain View butts up to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Hawaiian businessman William Hoopai recently opened a new restaurant on the main drag called West Berlin.
Not exactly where many would expect to find such diversity.

The origins of Chicago’s residents-only parking

An article on rethinking Chicago’s residential parking permits system reveals how it all started in the first place:

The first residents-only parking signs were put up in 1979 to protect North Side bungalow-belt homeowners who were tired of fighting Northeastern Illinois University students for spaces. Since then they’ve proliferated across the city, with 1,466 zones currently on the books. Aldermen often don’t want to say no to residents who ask for a parking zone, fearing the political backlash.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It is not surprising that such a program might spread. What was intended for one particular problem suddenly appeared appealing to all sorts of people and before you know it, permits were applied everywhere. This is a good example of the ease of creating such regulations – they spread really quickly – but the difficulty of putting the cat back into the bag when such regulations become normal and institutionalized.
  2. Chicago is often touted as a city of neighborhoods but what this means is that a lot of people are able to keep cars as the neighborhoods have plenty of lower density residences as well as single-family homes. The underlying issue here isn’t necessarily whether there are permits or not; rather, how do encourage people to have fewer cars? Is this even possible in a city that wants people to be able to own detached homes?