The suburban way of life is not the result of free markets

Even as Americans have exercised some agency in choosing to live in suburbs, the whole system cannot truly be described as being the result of free market activity:

I get the concern and rarely disagree with Shelley, but there’s nothing free market about current single-family zoning rules. The suburban landscape largely is a creation of subsidies and zoning rules, which mandate only one house per certain size of lot and require umpteen parking spaces for every new shopping center, restaurant, office and church. Everything is micromanaged in the planning department.

I’m on the building committee of our church and have closely examined many proposed construction projects. It is so hard to build, expand or try any new development ideas because these planning edicts—designed mainly to protect our suburban way of life, and backed by residents trying to bolster their property values—are costly and inflexible…

But the underlying debate is about two visions of our California landscape. One side wants to protect our suburban model and the other side wants to urbanize. It’s a false choice driven by their own personal preferences. We need more apartments and condos. We need more single-family neighborhoods. We need to allow builders to provide the housing products people want, and different people want different things. The same people want different things at different stages of their lives. I live on an acreage, but now that we’re empty nesters, my wife and I plan to move into the city. That’s why I’m squarely on neither side.

After my housing column last week, I’ve heard from readers who oppose the legislation. Frankly, I’m frustrated by some of their arguments. To summarize some comments: If you can’t afford to live around here, then maybe move someplace else. There are too many people here already and too much traffic congestion. If your kids can’t afford California, they should consider less-costly states. Such views transcend political affiliation.

Zoning is a good example of how regulations can dictate what communities can construct and then who can reside or work in such locations.

Add two other other less-than-free-market aspects of suburbia:

1. A legacy of racial and class discrimination in suburbs.

2. Government subsidies for highways and other local services as well as propping up suburban housing in the form of single-family homes.

Americans might not acknowledge the ways suburbs developed and may even resist seeing them as social products. But, addressing tough suburban issues such as affordable housing probably requires thinking and acting at more collective levels than letting the beloved local governments dictate what they want (which can often deliberately lead to exclusion).

What might be behind a debate over affordable housing in a new Naperville development

Naperville’s Housing Advisory Commission recommends 20% of the units should be affordable housing in a proposed new development of roughly 450 residential units. Let the debate commence:

“Here’s our chance,” said Becky Anderson, a city council member and liaison to the housing advisory commission. “We own this land, so let’s make the most of it and … make sure that we include some more affordable housing.”

The city is required to provide a report by the end of June 2020 to the Illinois Housing Development Authority listing the number of units needed to comply with the 10 percent minimum and identifying sites or incentives to help reach the goal. In a position paper, the housing advisory commission said the city failed to submit such a report by the last deadline in 2015.

Mayor Steve Chirico said it’s best to use multiple sites — not only 5th Avenue — to work toward the requirement…

Mayoral candidate Richard “Rocky” Caylor, however, said incorporating 20 percent affordable units into plans for 5th Avenue sites could help take a step toward 10 percent….

Dan Zeman, who lives in the Park Addition subdivision one block north of 5th Avenue, said he originally was skeptical of affordable housing on the sites slated for redevelopment. But once he researched the topic, he decided “maybe I was just being a NIMBY,” and thinking “not in my backyard.”

A few guesses about what might be lurking behind this affordable housing discussion in Naperville:

  1. As far as I know, the Illinois requirements have little teeth and operate more like recommendations. The repercussions for Naperville for not meeting the targets might be limited.
  2. This is a sizable project near the downtown train station and within walking distance of the downtown. Because of the size and location, this is an important project.
  3. What people actually mean by affordable could differ. The current mayor is quoted in this story saying it is about “entry-level workforce housing.” Does that mean young professionals or people who work in retail or service jobs? Naperville is a wealthy large suburb.
  4. This could be a proxy conversation about poorer residents in Naperville. The poverty rate in Naperville is only 4.4%. But, do Naperville residents and leaders want more poor residents? The status and image of the community is important to many.
  5. Deconcentrating affordable housing may seem like a reasonable idea but would the city follow up in other new projects? Are there other sizable projects in the works (such as a development on the southwest side of the suburb) that could also include affordable units?

Overcoming resistance to solar arrays in the Chicago suburbs

Cutting through municipal red tape could help encourage solar development in the Chicago suburbs but it can also take some work to find suitable sites:

Solar power projects have faced logistical challenges and opposition from residents. Proposed installations in Plato Township in northwestern Kane County and in Yorkville were recently met with concern about their proximity to neighbors…

In Oak Park, where large trees, a concentrated population and many historic homes pose challenges for solar projects, officials plans to subscribe part of its municipal electric aggregation program to small, “community solar” installations elsewhere in northern Illinois likely to be built under a new state program, said Mindy Agnew, the village’s sustainability coordinator. There is not expected to be any change in rates in the aggregation program because of the switch, she said…

It could begin with educating residents, she said. The city could look at land for solar installations that is unlikely to be developed or used for other purposes, such as a site with contaminated soil, she said. The city is already considering approval for a developer to build a solar project on a former landfill.

Riley also envisions solar arrays on rooftops. She sees installations on the roofs of the old buildings that largely make up the city’s downtown, such as one array that a private company installed on the roof of their building, which once housed the city library. And as companies such as Amazon build warehouses in the city, she sees the large, flat roofs as ideal for solar installations.

Even an idea that many people find favorable in the abstract might not be so desirable if proposed for construction near residences. I would guess many suburbanites would desire solar arrays to be mostly out of their view. This means locations away from residences – industrial parks, outside of the metropolitan area, etc. –  or hidden from view – such as on the flat tops of buildings – could work.

This leads to a broader question: is it necessarily the case that having visible solar panels decreases property values? Could they instead add value to properties if installed in tasteful ways (and providing for a greener structure)? Or, perhaps a critical mass of residents or owners has to acquire solar panels in a relatively short period of time to turn the tide of local opinion. Suburban single-family home residents can have knee-jerk reactions against anything near their homes due to what it may do to their property values. But, not all changes are necessarily a threat to the financial status of homes.

Suburban residents tend to object to new housing near them

Over the objections of five residents, a portion of a commercial development in Naperville was recently changed to allow medium-density residences. One city council member responded this way to the concerns raised by residents:

Council member Judith Brodhead, a longtime south Naperville resident, said she was not surprised by opposition to new housing.

“If it were up to residents, most of the subdivisions you live in would never have been built because there were protests or objections to those as well,” Brodhead told residents who voiced concerns. “I’m not too worried about something that is small and is this size.

In my study of suburban growth and development, residents living near the location of a proposed subdivision or housing units can often raise objections including: increased traffic and noise; water issues; lost open or green space; effects on property values; and increased pressure on local services. Of course, these same residents often lived in developments that could have provoked similar concerns from earlier residents. Brodhead’s suggestion rings true to some degree (though I have not systematically analyzed opposition to nearby suburban developments) as suburban residents can oppose the opportunities of others to move into their community.

More broadly, this could hint at a deeper issue: people who move into a neighborhood or community can act as if those places should be frozen in time. They moved to that particular location because of certain features and if those change, particularly if that change is perceived negatively, then some will fight hard against the new proposal.

This is something for homeowners and others to keep in mind if they move: is the new location likely to be subject to such changes in the future? If you move into a new subdivision that is next to a corn field, how likely is it that suburban development will soon continue into that corn field? If you purchase an older home in a neighborhood where teardowns are common, what are the odds that adjacent homes are torn down and replaced? Some of this can be hard to predict but it is worth remembering that neighborhoods and communities do indeed change over time.

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.