Leaving the big city for the suburbs – and then pulling up the drawbridge

In yet another article about the possibility of people leaving cities for suburbsthis time in The Washington Post – the narrative ends with this:

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Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Those who study cities say they will remain in the long term and that many jobs will come back. People such as Bailey, who moved away from the Bay Area, are banking on that. He declined to name the town where he moved for fear more people will relocate there, driving up prices.

“I like keeping the local culture and the area is relatively affordable now,” he said. “I’d rather not see the same price inflation that happened in the Bay happen to smaller communities as well.”

On one hand, this could reflect housing market realities in some of the priciest markets in the country. Prices are so high in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and a few other places that finding reasonably priced housing is something people want to protect. If more people can work remotely, certain places could become more attractive and experience an influx of residents.

On the other hand, is this similar logic to the exclusion in suburbia practiced for decades? This exclusion tended to be along race and class lines; suburbanites wanted to be around those like them and keep others out. When they moved into new subdivisions or what used to be small towns, they later use NIMBY logic to limit opportunities for others. What was an opportunity for them could not become an opportunity for others.

Those with resources and connections will likely have advantages in a race for more attractive or affordable locales. Some will be able to pay more for the privilege of leaving the city. Those moving to the suburbs may simply contribute to ongoing patterns of residential segregation across metropolitan regions, whether they officially live in a city or suburb.

Chicago suburb feared COVID-19 facility in empty hotel

Building on earlier posts on COVID-19 NIMBYism and COVID-19 in suburbs, I return to a particular suburban case: many residents in the Chicago suburb of Itasca opposed a 2019 proposal for a drug rehab facility in an empty hotel. In recent days, concern mounted as the community thought that same hotel could become a facility to treat COVID-19:

The fate of a shuttered hotel in Itasca took another strange turn this week when local officials briefly thought it might be used to quarantine COVID-19 patients suffering mild symptoms or those at heightened risk from the virus.

It turned out to be a false rumor, but its circulation illustrates the opaque process through which government officials are trying to line up buildings for use in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency has asked its county-level counterparts to create “an alternative housing plan” to assist at least 25 people. The federal government would reimburse counties for sheltering those who have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19 but don’t require hospitalization, and “asymptomatic high-risk individuals needing social distancing as a precautionary measure.”

Some counties, though, aren’t saying much about their searches. Asked for specifics, a spokesman for the DuPage County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said only that “we are working with our municipal agencies to identify needs as well as identifying potential community partners for potential housing.”

Read on for more details of official letters from the mayor to the medical company and back, bureaucratic vagueness, sharing theories on a local Facebook group, and the official denial.

Given how this played out, is it a wonder that some officials might follow an “opaque process”? If a county or state feels they need a facility as it has particular advantages, opposition from local residents could make it very difficult to move forward.

According to the DuPage County Department of Health COVID-19 Dashboard (as of 4/10/20), Itasca had seven cases of COVID-19. This is where the typical NIMBY concerns – reduced property values, a threat to an existing way of life or the character of the community – makes less sense: COVID-19 is present in Itasca. Granted, it is less present there than in other DuPage County communities. But, a facility in Itasca could be helpful for local residents. The same question arose with the proposed drug treatment facility; is drug rehab an issue in Itasca, surrounding suburbs, and DuPage County or is it only an issue that occurs elsewhere? In both of these cases, the medical conditions can affect people across all sorts of communities.

Constructing needed housing and other housing during COVID-19

Even during COVID-19, construction goes on in the Bay Area amidst a need for housing:

California’s shelter-in-place order has forced millions of people to stay home and businesses to close to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some construction workers, however, are still reporting for work to build and renovate Silicon Valley mansions and San Francisco luxury condos because of carve-outs in shelter-in-place orders that exempt any housing construction as “essential” business.

Local officials say residential construction of all kinds is necessary to address the region’s housing crisis. The exemption means affordable housing projects are moving forward, too…

In Palo Alto, where the median property value is $3 million, according to Zillow, residential construction has been so ubiquitous that the city’s new coronavirus support line was inundated with calls about what kind of construction was permitted under shelter-in-place, according to the city’s daily coronavirus newsletter Monday. This past week, crews showed up to work on single-family homes valued on Zillow at $7.3 million for an eight-bedroom house and $9.6 million for a five-bedroom house…

Backlash from concerned neighbors is predictable, said Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, a Bay Area network of advocates for increased housing supply at all economic levels. “People find new reasons to believe what they have always believed,” she said. “We have a housing shortage and that is what’s driving up cost. More housing also helps bring down the overall cost.”

The article goes into more detail about the debates over the continued housing. There appear to be multiple issues: whether any construction should go on, whether construction should go on for building luxury or expensive housing, and if construction goes on, whether workers and developers should follow rules about social distancing.

This is both a reminder of the lingering issues in a world very focused on COVID-19 as well as the complications of housing questions in the Bay Area and California more broadly. Fiinding solutions has proven difficult; building more affordable housing in many regions depends on local actions which wealthier communities tend to avoid.

Perhaps the question coming out of the pandemic will be this: will the Bay Area, the Seattle area, New York City, and other tight housing markets be more open to affordable housing conversations and action after everyone had to unite (or at least agree to stay away from each other) for a common cause? Crises tend to reveal inequalities but they do not always lead to efforts to address and rectify the problems.

When communities resist and protest COVID-19 testing and treatment sites

NIMBY attitudes can be present even – or maybe especially – during pandemics:

Last week, residents in Darien, Connecticut, a tony exurb of New York City, successfully lobbied to shut down plans for a coronavirus testing site, despite surging demand. The reason? Complaints from neighbors. As it turns out, the “Not In My Backyard” impulse to block new development — which has been implicated in the severe affordability crisis affecting cities from coast to coast — translates far too neatly into blocking certain measures needed to stop the spread of the virus.

In a similar case in Ewing, New Jersey, a local landlord issued a cease-and-desist letter to the operator of a coronavirus testing center amid complaints about congestion in the parking lot. As The Trentonian reported, one resident who wanted to be tested in order to protect his three-year-old child wasn’t subtle about how he felt about the decision: “It blows my f**king mind.”

Community resistance from neighbors of testing sites is a rerun of the fierce NIMBY reaction to potential coronavirus quarantine sites. Back in February, California began looking for a place to shelter Americans returning from abroad with the virus and settled on an isolated medical campus in Costa Mesa. But after local residents complained, city officials sought and received a court injunction to stop the project.

As the need for quarantine sites expanded, so did the NIMBY backlash. Finding sites that won’t suffer the same fate has proven to be a major hurdle as the federal government attempts to manage the crisis. Back when the focus was still on returning cruise ship passengers, officials in Alabama went to the mat to keep passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship out of a local FEMA facility, eventually forcing the federal government to scrap the plan altogether. Similar fights have played out from Seattle to San Antonio, potentially undercutting the response to the coronavirus at key early stages. As a result, the federal government largely shifted quarantining efforts to military bases, where complaining neighbors hold less sway…

At first glance, it might seem like efforts to block potentially life-saving public health screenings and complaints about community character have little in common. But in both cases, the formula is the same: Whether out of an understandable fear of the unknown or a selfish desire to shift the burden elsewhere, local impulses are given veto power over broader social needs. Under normal conditions, the inability to constructively manage this means higher rents. In a public health emergency, it could be lethal.

In addition to what is in the last paragraph quoted above, I am struck by the resistance to facilities and sites that would be home to temporary concerns. It is one thing to object to a long-term health facility (see recent posts about a drug treatment facility in the western suburbs of the Chicago area here and here) but another to resist something that is needed now and presumably not permanent. Of course, this could be part of the fear: if a site treats COVID-19, could it then later be turned into a more permanent fixture in the community?

The logical extension of the NIMBY claims would be to push COVID-19 treatment sites or testing facilities to communities that could not resist it. When this plays out in areas like housing or unwanted land uses, this means that communities with less wealth and political power tend to become home to land uses that wealthier communities refuse. If such a pattern occurs here (and there is evidence that health differs dramatically by location in the United States), it could be evidence that pandemics further locational and health inequalities.

The little development battles happening across American suburbs

A debate over proposed development in Reston, Virginia might be indicative of debates across suburbs:

You may be well versed in this debate. “What you’ve got in Reston, and really everywhere in suburban America, is a demographic shift that’s occurring. The dominant baby-boom generation ages and expires, and the newer, younger generations look different—they have different interests and different incomes and different commuting patterns,” says Patrick Phillips, former CEO of the Urban Land Institute, who has studied Reston. “These sort of little battles”—bike lanes versus parking lots, open spaces versus outdoor shopping malls, high-rises full of two-bedrooms versus fairways framed by cherry trees—“are fractious,” Phillips says, “but they’re inevitable, too.”

The implication here is that younger suburbanites prefer more density and additional transportation options beyond having to own a car. In contrast, older suburbanites want to retain a suburban emphasis on single-family homes and quieter communities. More from Reston:

Since Metro arrived, Hays explained, traffic had become impossible, schools got crowded. As the county forged ahead with its plans, the Yellow Shirts saw each new rendering of an urban promenade or pocket park as a threat to their town’s character. They weren’t unsympathetic to Merchant’s dilemma—they just didn’t believe condos would fix it. (Were those really what a thirtysomething couple with three kids and a goldendoodle would want?) Also, the high-rises were ugly. “Azkaban Prison” and “Moscow Towers,” Hays called them.

Residents who move into a suburban community or neighborhood can become very invested in wanting to maintain the same look and feel that attracted them in the first place. With the interests suburbanites have in maintaining and growing their property values, exclusion of people who might threaten the character or property values, and the benefits of local government, residents can mobilize.

If growth is often seen as good and suburban residents should be able to protect their property rights, which side will give? The battles within communities about development then often turn into residents wanting to protect their vision versus community leaders (and possibly regional leaders) looking forward to positive changes.Some possible outcomes:

  1. Long-term conflict in the community with no changes but plenty of tension.
  2. A decisive showdown with one side winning and the others retreating for a number of years.
  3. A slow set of changes that add up to something over time.
  4. True generational change as a number of older residents leave or pass on and a new generation decides to do something different in the community.

“98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage” and local decisions

As Itasca leaders and residents debate a proposal for a drug-treatment facility in the suburb, an update on the story included this statistic:

There were 98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage.

Illinois appeared to be in the middle of states with its rate of opioid deaths in 2017 (see the data here). DuPage County has a lot of residents – over 928,000 according to 2018 estimates – and the Coroner has all the statistics on deaths in 2018.

In the debates over whether suburbs should be home to drug treatment facilities, such statistics could matter. Are 98 deaths enough to (a) declare that this is an issue worth addressing and (b) suburbs should welcome facilities that could help address the problems. Both issues could be up for debate though I suspect the real issue is the second one: even if suburbanites recognize that opioid-related deaths are a social problem, that does not necessarily mean they are willing to live near such a facility.

Does this mean that statistics are worthless in such a public discussion? Not necessarily, though statistics alone may not be enough to convince a suburban resident one way or another about supporting change in their community. If residents believe strongly that such a medical facility is detrimental to their suburb, often invoking the character of the community, local resources, and property values, no combination of numbers and narratives might overwhelm what is perceived as a big threat. On the other hand, public discussions of land use and zoning can evolve and opposition or support can shift.

Keeping track of the Democratic field on housing

Curbed is tracking the housing positions of the Democratic candidates for president in 2020. Here is part of the overview of YIMBY policies:

Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY)…

Because these laws are administered at the local level, federal policy can’t do much to directly change these laws and instead attempts to incentivize—or punish—local governments to change them. Castro has proposed a Presidential Commission on Zoning Reform to establish federal guidelines on land use and zoning. O’Rourke would direct HUD to come up with a model for setting zoning and land use policies that let formerly restrictive communities to allow more housing production.

Warren’s plan puts $10 billion into a new grant program communities can use to build infrastructure, but local governments have to reform land-use laws to be eligible.

Booker’s plan uses a similar mechanism by tying more than $16 billion in federal block grant money—including Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)—to local governments reforming zoning laws that serve as barriers to building more housing units. Castro also wants to expand CDBG and rural development programs by $2 billion per year and tie the money to zoning reforms. O’Rourke would double CDBG funding and provide new grants to communities that eliminate restrictive zoning laws.

Klobuchar proposes “prioritizing” local governments that reform local zoning laws when allocating federal housing and infrastructure funds, but doesn’t specify which ones.

Bennet would create a one-time $10 billion competitive grant program for state and local governments that reform zoning laws to allow for more housing density, in addition to increasing the funding of transportation grant program BUILD to $4.5 billion and make it eligible only to local governments that allow for more housing density near transportation hubs. Eligibility for New Starts, a grant program for fixing rail infrastructure, would also be deployed in this manner.

O’Rourke has a zoning-related proposal that’s unique among the candidates. He would allow people to deduct more in state and local taxes from their federal tax returns if they live in areas without restrictive zoning. There’s currently a $10,000 cap on SALT deductions, and that cap affects mostly coastal cities where restrictive zoning is a major issue. He would also pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package to repair transportation lines that would be tied to eliminating exclusionary zoning.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. As the section above goes on to note, it will be difficult to enact change within wealthy communities through federal policy. Without buy-in from whole metropolitan regions regarding housing, would any YIMBY policies at a federal level simply push cheaper housing into communities that already have more of such housing?
  2. The subheadline for this article suggests “Housing policy is taking center stage in the 2020 election.” This is a bold pronouncement as housing seems to attract little attention in debates or drives little national conversation. I would still be interested to see someone really run with the housing issue.
  3. I have not seen recent numbers on this: how does housing as an issue rank among other possible issues among the electorate? There are certain areas of the country – like some of the largest metropolitan areas – where this is a pressing issue while it is less important elsewhere. On one hand, housing effects all possible voters but it rarely attracts national attention, particularly compared to other national economic issues like jobs or income.