Suing for more suburban housing

A California law makes it possible to sue communities regarding housing:

Pro-housing activist Sonja Trauss, a pioneer in the YIMBY movement, was reading about a controversial 315-unit affordable apartment project in Lafayette in 2015 when she learned about a 1982 state law she’d never heard of before: the Housing Accountability Act.

The law said municipalities must approve a housing development as long as it is consistent with local zoning rules and general plan objectives, would not create a public health hazard or take water from neighboring farms, and would meet state environmental standards…

The California Renters Legal Advocacy Fund, or CaRLA — a group Trauss and her YIMBY allies formed in 2015 — is waging the sue-the-suburbs campaign. CaRLA has used the Housing Accountability Act to sue on behalf of developers in Sausalito, Berkeley, San Mateo, Sonoma, Dublin and Lafayette…

While the lawsuits will eventually result in some increase in the Bay Area’s housing stock — none of the projects in question have opened yet — the bigger impact so far has been to make municipal officials aware that violations of the Housing Accountability Act could result in expensive litigation.

How long until California changes the law to give communities more say over these matters? Not surprisingly, the end of the article mentions a counter group that a co-founder says is “not NIMBYs or anti-housing; for us the issue goes back to democracy and local control.” Suburbanites do like their local control.

This certainly would not be the first time the courts have been used to allow new housing construction in wealthier suburbs. It may be the only way to force compliance from suburbs that would rather not have cheaper housing and different kinds of residents. Unfortunately, it can be a very slow process within specific cases and overall progress is limited. Perhaps the threat of lawsuits and several successful cases in the past could force suburbs to move more quickly but I would guess some would still aim to drag out the process as much as possible.

Final thought: it would be interesting to track what happens to these developments allowed by the courts over time. Do communities eventually accept the housing units and residents? Would a positive response to a new development than encourage the community to pursue other similar developments? Or, does a court victory lead to hardened resistance?

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).

 

Two dead suburban transportation projects: the Metra STAR Line and the Prairie Parkway

A large metropolitan area of over 9 million residents could benefit from more transportation options for residents and visitors. Here are quick summaries about two projects that never got off the ground:

The STAR Line

The suburb-to-suburb STAR Line rail system was intended to loop from O’Hare to Hoffman Estates to Joliet along tracks formerly owned by the EJ & E railroad, providing an alternative to the suburb-to-city commuter lines.

But Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ & E in 2008 and moved freight traffic onto those tracks, effectively putting the STAR Line on ice. In 2011 Schaumburg pulled the plug on a special taxing district meant to spur development around the convention center, which had been envisioned as a STAR Line hub.

Prairie Parkway

The Prairie Parkway would have circled Chicago’s outer suburbs, linking I-88 near Elburn to I-80 near Minooka. The Illinois Department of Transportation began studies in 2003, and in 2005 President George W. Bush came to Montgomery to sign a highway funding bill and call the Prairie Parkway “crucial for economic progress for Kane and Kendall counties.”

Opponents organized and sued. The highway’s patron, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was accused of profiting from land buys near the proposed highway. And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way. It was only in March that IDOT canceled the corridor.

I have always thought the STAR Line was a clever idea in multiple ways:

  1. It would provide needed railroad links throughout the region so that not all riders have to go into Chicago before making transfers. The spoke model in the Chicago region is good for getting to downtown but the biggest number of trips these days are suburb to suburb.
  2. It made use of existing tracks. Although they likely needed more capacity to run regular passenger service and new tracks would be needed along I-90, some of the infrastructure was already there. This is not something to look past in an era when acquiring land can be expensive and time-consuming.
  3. It had the potential to spur transit-oriented suburban development in a number of communities. This is a hot topic in many suburban downtowns and it could have opened up new commuting, residential, and business opportunities.

Yet, the plan was scuttled by several factors:

  1. A lack of money. This project has been around since the 1990s but it was unclear who would fund it.
  2. Control of the EJ&E tracks.
  3. Likely concerns from neighbors to these tracks. When CN purchased these tracks and added freight trains, multiple communities pushed back.

The Prairie Parkway may have not offered as much opportunity to remove cars from roads but could have spurred development on some of the edges of the Chicago region and offered a shorter drive time in these areas. Building belt-line highways like this require some foresight: if they are constructed after too much development has occurred, they can be much more expensive to build. Also, neighbors can object to the plans, such as with the Illiana Expressway which also has not gotten off the ground.

Redeveloping golf courses and incurring the wrath of neighbors

Turning land from a golf course to a housing development could be a bumpy process:

Consider that the average 18-hole golf course is 150 acres. At standard densities, that means that your average golf course can host at least 600 new single-family detached homes. Mix in townhouses and apartments, and a single shuttered course could provide housing for thousands of new residential units. This is land in desirable communities: Golf-centric subdivisions built in the 1990s and 2000s feature courses threaded among affluent McMansion-style developments, meaning that the new housing could go in areas with access to high-quality schools and work opportunities…

But the main variable blocking new housing on old golf courses might be old-fashioned NIMBYism. Golf courses, after all, are often interpreted as high-status amenities that raises the value of neighboring homes, despite evidence to the contrary. If golf courses are gone and not coming back, residents often ask, why can’t they turn into permanent parks? Indeed, converting former greens into open space, wetlands, and natural preserves is happening nationwide in places where local land trusts have been able to purchase the tracts.

This can be a more appealing option for neighbors—often much higher income than the average resident of their region—who push to block permits and rezonings that might allow for infill housing redevelopment on idle greens. Earlier this year, voters in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, an outer suburb of Boston with a six-figure median income, voted down a zoning change that would have allowed for a 154-unit senior housing facility on part of the struggling Sagamore Spring Golf Club. Voters in the Rochester suburb of Penfield, New York, meanwhile, recently passed a $3.65 million bond to buy out the golf course and turn it into a park…

Golf probably isn’t coming back, at least not at the kind of scale it once boasted. Whether or not this bust can be a boon or a wash for suburbs and cities will likely be decided by hundreds of small zoning fights like these over the next decade. If recent pushes to downzone and preserve golf courses are any indication, it will take some effort and forethought on the part of planners and policymakers to get former greens productively redeveloped. Once the physical embodiment of tony upper-crust seclusion, these silent driving ranges and ghostly sand traps can be an effective way for more people to find housing in exclusive suburbs—or another means of keeping newcomers out.

There are few things suburban homeowners like less than finding out that the open, green, or park land they moved next to is now going to be a new development. Sometimes this anger is misplaced: if you move into a new subdivision recently created out of farmland and it is next to more farmland, you can probably expect that more farmland is going to be developed. Parks, forest preserves, or land trusts appear to offer more certainty: a private group or local government has committed to that green space and it would take a lot to choose otherwise. It seems like a golf course then falls in between these two options as it looks like green space but it dependent on a steady stream of users. If the golf course does not have enough customers, it cannot remain a golf course forever.

Also taking into account the social class and status of those who might locate on or near a golf course, I imagine communities that try to convert golf courses to new development will have a significant fight on their hands.

 

Fighting homelessness without building homes

A piece at McSweeney’s lists reasons residents do not want to build more housing near them:

Ending homelessness doesn’t mean building more homes because this town is full of homes already, especially mine, which is a single-family mini-mansion on an acre lot that I inherited from my parents and/or managed to purchase with the kind of job and bank terms and economic equality that don’t exist anymore for anyone and only ever really existed for well-educated white Americans. Either that or it’s a magnificent luxury condo with expansive views that I don’t want marred by more luxury condos or — god forbid — affordable housing.

Every room in my Instagram-worthy abode is either filled with clutter or rented out nightly to hipsters from another gentrified, monotone city also suffering from a homelessness crisis — this is a national epidemic, after all. I’m a good person, a generous person, and what made me the person I am is having to work hard for everything my parents gave me, and everything I will, in turn, give to my children.

Listen, I know that the unholy concentration of wealth in America is a big, big, problem, but so is having to constantly say no to people asking for change as I whizz into Whole Foods in my Tesla or Prius (depending on how my startup investments pan out). What’s the point of having all this money if I have to feel bad about it? Also, has anyone actually verified that the homeless people claiming to be veterans aren’t just pulling some elaborate fraud? I’ve never actually met a veteran and I forget for like, decades at a time that the military even exists because the bubble of privilege where I reside is literally impregnable, but I’m suspicious nonetheless.

I know we need more housing, but I was here first and I’m not giving up even one blade of grass on my water-guzzling, pesticide-leaching lawn or a single burner on my twelve-burner Viking range that I never actually use to house another human soul. Tough luck, homeless people. You and your allies can call me names but I won’t hear you over the lushness of my climate-inappropriate rose bushes and the stucco walls I’m paying some desperate immigrant under the table to build for me on the cheap before I low-key call ICE and have them deported.

I’m not sure this has to be tied to addressing homelessness; many communities and communities do not want to support cheaper or affordable housing. The public arguments may be couched a bit differently than what is listed above – such housing could affect the character of the community, lower property values – but one does wonder how much of what is written above is what is really behind the opposition.

How skate parks became normal in America

There are skate parks in many American neighborhoods and communities and this was not necessarily a sure thing decades ago:

The Tony Hawk Foundation, a leading partner in the construction of skate parks in the United States, estimates that there are roughly 3,500 skate parks in the country now — still about a third of what it says the country needs…

In a different time, hoping for city officials to get on board with building a skate park seemed like an impossible task. Mr. Whitley said a great deal of Nimby-ism once plagued developments.

But aging Gen X grew up alongside skateboarding’s ascent in popular culture, from Bart Simpson plonking down onto the roof of the family car in the opening sequence of “The Simpsons” to blockbuster video game franchises like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Skateboarding is no longer something people fear. The skate punk of the late 1980s is now a suburban dad. Across runways, and in music videos and film, subtle influences of skate culture are noticeable. Everyone wears Vans sneakers…

Iain Borden, a professor of architecture and urban culture at University College in London, wrote the book “Skateboarding, Space, and the City” in 2000. He also sees the growth of skate parks as a social phenomenon. “They’re places of social exchange,” he said. “You could argue that they’re not sports facilities, they’re social landscapes in which skateboarding and riding and scootering and blading are some of the activities that you might do.”

The recreational activities of one generation do not necessarily endure over decades so the spread of skateparks is an intriguing subject. I would be interested to see in what kinds of neighborhoods these parks exist: are they as prevalent in poorer neighborhoods or the wealthiest communities (who might opposed them on NIMBY grounds)?

I also wonder how much race plays a role in this in the United States. The examples of skateboarding cited above – Tony Hawk, Bart Simpson – are white and more middle-class. Come to think of it, many of the X Games competitors fall into this group. Since these are not exactly mainstream sports (compared to the big four of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) plus they require a few resources (at least a skateboard while other X Games sports require more), these may not be available to all. While skateboarding might the punk music of the sports world, is it still more palatable to the white middle-class compared to having basketball courts nearby?

Polarization: California housing bill does not make it out of committee

It is unclear how California intends to move forward in providing cheaper housing to residents after a YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) housing bill did not make it out of committee earlier this week:

On Tuesday night, legislators killed SB 827, which would have allowed the construction of apartment buildings up to five stories tall near every high-frequency mass transit stop in the state.

SB 827 sparked a spirited debate about how the state should address its housing crisis. Its lead sponsor, State Senator Scott Wiener, argued that wresting zoning decisions away from local municipalities and forcing communities to build more densely near transit was the best way to both ease housing affordability in cities like San Francisco and help the state hit its ambitious environmental goals. Supporters of the bill—dubbed YIMBYs, for “Yes In My Backyard”—took on residents from wealthier, single-family home neighborhoods, who deployed the traditional NIMBY argument that the bill imperiled neighborhood character and would lead to traffic and parking woes.

The NIMBY side had some surprising allies, among them the Sierra Club and advocates for “Public Housing in My Backyard,” or PHIMBYs, who argued that the law would enrich developers and exacerbate gentrification in low-income minority neighborhoods…

Wiener also acknowledged how ambitious the bill was, and said he was “heartened by the conversation it has started.” Indeed, the bill was much-discussed nationwide. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called SB 827 “one of the most important ideas in American politics today,” and the Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos said the bill could be “the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

There are plenty of polarizing issues in America today but few would divide people so deeply than the issue of housing. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It is closely connected to race in the United States. While legally discriminating based on race or ethnicity in housing has been illegal for 50 years, residential segregation by race and ethnicity is alive and well.
  2. It is closely connected to social class in the United States. Those with resources do not want to live near those without resources. This can disrupt groups that commonly stick together, such as Democrats who might generally be more in favor of affordable housing but not necessarily when it means providing more housing in wealthier areas.
  3. Some of these polarizing issues are more abstract for many people but housing is an everyday issue that affects who you interact with, school districts, what kids see as normal, communities, parks, safety, and property values. Those who have choices about where they can move typically want those places to stay “nice.”

If California cannot figure this out at a state level, are there other states that can step up and provide affordable housing?

(Of course, the state level may not be the best level at which to address this. However, if it is left to municipalities, the wealthier ones will simply opt out and leave the issue for other communities to address.)