One way suburbs fight affordable housing: concerns about density

This example of how the conversation about a proposed affordable housing project with 58 units in the Chicago suburbs is illustrative:

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The developers propose to build a three-story building on approximately 2.5 acres at 874-920 N. Quentin Road, on the southwest corner with Poplar Street. All of the apartments — one-, two- and three-bedrooms — would be set aside for tenants whose income is between 30% and 80% of the area’s median income.

Village staff members recommended denying the plan, and the plan commission did the same after a public hearing Tuesday night. The village council will have final say and is expected to discuss the matter Aug. 9.

Plan commissioners praised the developer’s successful record of affordable housing developments, but they didn’t like the plan for the Palatine site, saying it’s too dense. The area consists of single-family homes and townhouses, with an apartment complex further north…

Several residents spoke Tuesday against the plan, saying they are worried about traffic, noise and light pollution, and changing the character of the neighborhood.

The final word will come in a few weeks. In the meantime, this set of arguments is a common one when suburbs consider apartments or even townhomes and condos. A key issue is the density of the project. What this often means is the community prefers to have single-family homes. Denser housing is often thought of as smaller housing or cheaper housing. Here, that is clear in that it is affordable housing where, through a sizable tax credit ($15 million) from an Illinois agency, residents will not need to pay full market rate.

Additionally, people often have concerns about the aesthetics and daily experiences around apartments. Apartment buildings are taller and are bulkier compared to homes on grassy lots. Because of more residents on less land, there will be more traffic on local roads. This particular proposal is close to a busier intersection but it also would be adjacent to single-family homes. It just looks different than single-family homes. If there are too many denser developments, the impression may be that single-family homes are not valued.

In sum, this density and kind of housing is perceived as a threat to the character of single-family home communities. Municipalities will sometimes respond to such proposals by asking the developer to reduce the number of units. Or, they might reject it all together by saying that it is not a good fit. And the search for land for affordable housing continues.

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?

Large actors in the US housing market and building more homes

Derek Thompson argues those interested in more housing in the United States should be more concerned with local NIMBY activity than private investment firms buying up homes to rent:

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Far worse than corporations taking a few thousand units off the market for owners are the governments and noisy NIMBYish residents taking millions of units off the market for owners and renters alike—by blocking construction projects in the past few decades. (California alone has an estimated shortage of 3 million housing units.) From New York to California, deep-blue cities and states have amassed a pitiful record of blocking housing construction and failing to meet rising demand with adequate supply. Many of the people tweeting about BlackRock are represented by city councils and state governments, or are surrounded by zoning laws and local ordinances that make home construction something between onerous and impossible.

One of the issues at play here is a numbers one: who exactly is acting within the US housing market and how much sway do they have. Concerns about corporations and housing can be placed in the larger context of how many housing units there are and how many are being built. Here are the numbers Thompson provides:

The U.S. has roughly 140 million housing units, a broad category that includes mansions, tiny townhouses, and apartments of all sizes. Of those 140 million units, about 80 million are stand-alone single-family homes. Of those 80 million, about 15 million are rental properties. Of those 15 million single-family rentals, institutional investors own about 300,000; most of the rest are owned by individual landlords. Of that 300,000, BlackRock—largely through its investment in the real-estate rental company Invitation Homes—owns about 80,000. (To clear up a common confusion: The investment firm Blackstone established Invitation Homes, in which BlackRock, a separate investment firm, is now an investor. Don’t yell at me; I didn’t name them.)

If I am calculating correctly, institutional investors currently own 2% of the single-family rentals. Of course, this number could grow if these firms find this to be a good investment.

Also of interest is the number of new homes being constructed. Thompson links to figures from the National Association of Home Builders that shows 6.8 million new single-family units were created in the 2010s. So, concerns about big investors buying homes could be considered alongside housing construction: if the investors are buying more quickly than new homes are being built, this could be an issue.

Thompson settles on local actors – governments and residents – as holding back housing construction. In this numbers game, restrictions on a local level collectively are holding back the construction of single-family housing. If these restrictions were lifted or lessened, concerns about institutional investors would presumably diminish because there is a larger supply of houses to choose from.

One problem I see with this among the larger numbers: while local actors might in the aggregate have oversight over millions of units, they individually have control over relatively few units. Let’s say a particular suburb in the Bay Area (and this NIMBY argument often comes back to California) is against building new single-family homes. Depending on the size of the community and the availability of land, this might affect just a few homes to several thousand. This is not many. Zoom out to the whole region and many suburbs doing this adds up to tens of thousands of potential homes. Do this across all of California’s metro areas and the numbers add up. Similarly, you could do this across all the metro areas in the United States.

However, convincing all these municipalities to act in the interests of the region, state, or country as a whole regarding housing is a difficult task. Housing is local and this makes legislation at the state or federal level very difficult. California’s recent efforts with SB 50 did not go through. Illinois just recently gave some teeth – but not all the teeth – to affordable housing guidelines for communities set almost two decades ago. Federal guidelines are met with the suggestions that the suburbs are going to be abolished. One reason Americans like suburbs in the first place is that local government, presumably more responsive to the needs of residents, has the power to exclude (particularly on race and social class) and protect the existing single-family homes.

All of this does not necessarily mean Thompson is wrong. Yet, to get to the numbers of new homes constructed that would make a significant difference – whether in reducing the need many metro areas have for more affordable housing or outweighing the actions of investment firms – would require a lot of change across many communities. State or federal legislation may or may not be successful and would be unpopular in many places without a significant public groundswell of support that this is an issue that all or even most communities need to address.

Together, municipal changes regarding zoning and NIMBY could add up. But, changes would need to come across communities to make a big difference.

What is the acceptable amount of neighborhood or community change for current residents?

A look at possible ways to provide more housing in Los Angeles runs into a problem common to many communities in the United States: how much change is allowed?

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What’s missing? The low-rise, multifamily housing that the city banned in the 1970s and ’80s. Which is why Christopher Hawthorne, the city’s chief design officer, held a competition, “Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles” to solicit new blueprints for so-called “missing middle” housing. “There’s a narrative in L.A., as in many cities, that neighborhoods are changing too fast; but in reality, L.A. is changing less rapidly than at any point in its history,” Hawthorne told me. A former architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times (and for this magazine), he plans to use these designs to win hearts and minds in the community forums where upzoning goes to die.

The winning entrants, announced on Monday, are a reminder that multifamily housing does not need to look much different than single-family housing. Instead, these models weave apartments right into the neighborhood, with understated architecture and clever use of space. In theory, these modest plans ought to take the “neighborhood character” argument against housing growth off the table.

Then again, the whole dialectic of NIMBY vs. YIMBY, Hawthorne contends, doesn’t accurately describe the situation on the ground. “When we actually talk to communities and neighborhoods, we find most people are in the middle. A lot of recent scholarship has clarified historic issues”—such as single-family zoning’s legacy of racial exclusion—”pandemic and wildfire have clarified others. Most people are ready to say our approach of land use and zoning in low-rise neighborhoods is not a sustainable pattern for the 21st century.” They just need help visualizing what change looks like.

There are multiple layers of issues present in these three paragraphs. Here are a few of the issues as I see them:

  1. There is a continuum of change within a neighborhood ranging from frozen in time for decades to immediate massive change in a relatively short amount of time (perhaps in urban renewal style after World War Two). All communities change to some degree but this is affected by time, demographics, and other factors. I wonder how effective it is, as above, to note the relative lack of change to people in a neighborhood who might perceive it differently. I cannot quantify it but I would guess there are plenty of people who move into a location and expect it not to change (or only change in ways that they approve).
  2. The change in character, often equated with adding anything different to single-family homes of the same kind, is hard to combat. Perhaps more people see the need for more housing but how many want it on their block or immediate area as opposed to somewhere else in the city?
  3. I agree that design can help ameliorate these issues. It might be worthwhile to build one of these options with no one’s knowledge and then see who notices. There are ways to construct affordable or even subsidized housing in ways that do raise the attention of nearby residents who might otherwise oppose any efforts to have cheaper housing.
  4. How much would local politicians push for these changes as opposed to representing the existing residential interests? This could matter less if local politicians are at-large representatives but this would also raise the ire of particular neighborhoods.
  5. Neighborhoods with more resources – higher-income residents , people with more connections to politicians and community groups – may be able to slow down or delay possible change more than others. And if the new housing might bring in people not like them, the race/class/”others” issues could be more at play than any actual debate about housing options.

How much change in a neighborhood or character change is desirable? It could vary from community to community and depend on numerous factors.

“Unprecedented volume of public participation” regarding development plans for Naperville mosque

Updating a case I wrote about in a 2019 article, further plans for a property owned by the Islamic Center of Naperville on the suburb’s southwest side have drawn a lot of public comments:

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The Islamic Center of Naperville, or ICN, is seeking zoning variances so members can develop a mosque, school, multipurpose hall, gymnasium and worship-area expansion in five phases over the next 40 years…

Naperville city planner Gabrielle Mattingly said the city received “an unprecedented volume of public participation” for the hearing, including nearly 2,000 names in support or opposition, 770 written comments and 160 people who signed up to speak…

The commission was able to spend 20 minutes at their meeting this week scrolling through the 1,610 signatures favoring ICN’s plans and the 305 in opposition…

ICN’s development plans show the first phase, expected to start this year, includes constructing a two-story mosque with 26,219 square feet of space to provide space for 692 worshippers, said Len Monson, the attorney representing ICN. It also will include space for offices, conference rooms, storage, multipurpose spaces and washrooms.

One interesting aspect of this proposal is that it lays out several stages that progressively increase the size of the mosque over the next forty years. Building in stages could make sense for a lot of religious groups: they could wait and see how many people are attending and it could help spread out the need for financial resources.

When the Islamic Center of Naperville requested in 2011 that Naperville annex this land with the goal of eventually constructing a facility on the property, neighbors expressed concerns. The City Council unanimously approved the request but the reactions in Naperville occurred around the same time as several other mosque proposals in DuPage County encountered opposition.

Additionally, this property is surrounded on all sides by residences. I have found in my research that locations near homes tends to increase concerns raised by community members. In Naperville and numerous other communities in the United States, residents used to nearby open spaces or agricultural land can hope the land always stays in that form rather than become home to a new building or development.

It is hard to know from this article how many of the public comments are in support of the proposed changes and how many are opposed. Even if the number of supporters is large or a majority, that would still suggest a sizable number of people with concerns.

How garbage is moved out of suburbs

With suburban residents expressing concerns about a possible waste transfer station, this Daily Herald article explains how suburban garbage reaches its final destination:

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The waste transfer station would allow filled garbage trucks to temporarily dump refuse on the ground. The refuse would be hauled away from the site by semi trucks to landfills, meaning no garbage would be stored at the West Chicago facility.

Suburbanites do not want to think about or smell garbage around their single-family homes. They want to be able to put out the cans, have it picked up quickly with little fuss or noise, and then taken away. All at minimal cost and inconvenience to their life.

Yet, Americans generate a lot of garbage. Packaging. Wasted food and food scraps. Plastic everything. Old clothes. Accumulated junk. The weekly garbage pick-up has to happen and the garbage has to go somewhere. Just keep it away from the nice residential neighborhoods.

Hence, the need for a waste transfer station. After making their daily rounds, the trucks need a central point where they can put their garbage. Landfills would not be acceptable near many suburban communities. The transfer station is just that: the garbage is transferred to another truck to take to the far-off landfill.

Of course, it may not always have been like this. The landfills used to be closer before the suburbs kept growing further and further out from the city. Not too far from the proposed waste transfer facility suburbanites can find old landfills now serving as parks.

Presumably, the current landfills are sufficiently far from suburban residences that the suburbanites have little knowledge of where the garbage goes and fewer people live near the new sites. All the suburbanites know is that the garbage is gone – until the next trash day.

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:

ancient architecture black white black and white

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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.