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.

Do political signs in yards lower property values?

Homeowner’s associations often have restrictions about signs and displays owners can have on their property. The supposed goal of all of this is to protect property values. Without such community organizations, someone might do something odd to their property (ranging from painting their door an unusual color to having stuff in the yard to hanging) that would affect selling prices nearby.

Two questions:

  1. Do political signs and displays actually lower property values?
  2. Even if they do drive down property values, isn’t political expression worth it?

Regarding the first question, outside of legal opinions, I cannot quickly find scholarship with empirical evidence about this. I could see how such an argument could be made: certain political opinions or just the clutter of political signs or displays could detract from the particular aesthetic of a block or neighborhood. As realtors often suggest that the interiors of homes should be relatively depersonalized and uncluttered so that any prospective buyer could imagine themselves there, perhaps the same applies for the exterior. If political signs do indeed have a negative effect, I imagine it would be quite small. (Could signs have a positive effect? Perhaps it could indicate the political leanings of a neighborhood that some would find worth knowing. Or, it might suggest a level of political engagement that some could find attractive.)

But, even if political signs have a negative effect, how much are they worth regulating given that Americans typically like to have the right to political expression? Should HOAs have special regulations about signs or displays that go beyond what a municipality might have about size or noise or crowding? (See a recent example involving a large “Impeach Trump” sign in Elgin, Illinois that the owner reduced in size after the city said it violated their codes.) HOAs often go beyond municipal regulations to make sure that property owners are protected against possible threats to their property values.  Why not allow a little more politics in HOA developments rather than clamp down on matters that could be handled by someone else? (There is already a sorting process that goes on for homeowners at the municipal level before they even consider entering an HOA.)

Another argument to make in favor of more freedom for political signage in HOAs is thinking about the common good – theoretically what politics is about – rather than individual property owners. If more speech is better so that all sides have a chance to participate, why would we then allow HOAs to limit some political expressions just so owners can benefit?

Ultimately, homeowners voluntarily enter such communities; they do not have to purchase one of the millions of housing units governed by an HOA. At the same time, many Americans seem willing to enter HOAs to protect their property until they run into regulations they do not like. If higher property values are the ultimate goal of suburban life, perhaps these HOA dispute stories will simply continue because people cannot afford to not utilize them. On the other hand, if HOAs do not serve the common political good, perhaps they should be avoided.

 

Township argument: don’t disband us because we only take a little of your money

Continuing with local governments making interesting appeals to suburbanites, I received a newsletter from our township earlier this week. Illinois and DuPage County have had discussions about limiting taxing bodies and dissolving townships because of the state’s large number of taxing bodies. In response, the township put this graphic on the first page of the newsletter:

TownshipGraphic

While other parts of the newsletter described what the township does and how residents benefit, this graphic makes one argument: the township does not really ask for much so leave us alone.

In relative terms, this is a good argument: townships ask for the least amount of money. Even the Forest Preserve, a rather large one, asks for more money. On the other hand, given property values in the township, even 1.69% can add up to some decent money over the years. Plus, how does the money for townships compare to what residents get from the other taxing bodies?

On the whole, the quick appeal to property taxes hints at how suburbanites think: they do not want to pay more in taxes and want to be able to see how the money is being spent. I’m guessing relatively few DuPage County residents could detail what the townships do (compared to other taxing bodies) or connect the township activities to their property values.

Rallying cry: support higher property taxes for schools to have higher property values

I saw a yard sign that made this argument about a proposed tax rate increase for a nearby school district: voting yes to the increase means you are protecting your property values.

This is a circular argument fit for the suburbs. Property values are partly dependent on the perceived status of a community. Generally, higher status suburbs have better performing schools. Thus, paying more in taxes means the property values are likely to increase. For the average suburbanite, this means they should expect a bigger payoff in the end when they sell their home. In other words, vote to hand over some money starting now to guarantee a bigger amount of money later.

There are other reasons a school district and its supporters could give in order to support a tax increase. Provide a better education for the children of the district. Support the important work of teachers. Invest in the community’s future.

But, given the difficulty of asking many suburbanites for higher property taxes, perhaps these abstract notions do not work. Many districts work hard to develop support for a referendum way before it comes to a vote. In this case:

The Board’s vote comes after months of community-engagement work. In January 2018, CCSD 89 Superintendent Dr. Emily K. Tammaru convened a Superintendent’s Finance Committee to examine the district’s financial status and priorities. The committee looked at the nearly $3 million in cuts the district has made since 2009, and examined how rising enrollment and increasing costs have affected the district’s budget.

The members of the Finance Committee eventually recommended two options to the Board of Education:

  • Option A: Increase revenues in order to maintain comprehensive, high-quality educational programming. Increasing revenues would allow the district to avoid cuts to programs that directly impact students.
  • Option B: Reduce programs and increase fees. The district would need to make about $1.2 million in cuts during the 2019-20 school year. These cuts could include reductions of: gifted services, band and orchestra, social work services, library staff, and full-day kindergarten. The cuts could also result in larger class sizes. The cuts could be more significant in subsequent years.

The district then hosted three community meetings to share financial data and gather feedback. Community members who attended those meetings said they valued fiscal responsibility, but did not want cuts that would affect programming and potentially property values.

At the community meetings, 84.7 percent of the people in attendance said they supported increasing the tax rate rather than cutting programs to balance the budget. When the district conducted phone surveys this summer of all residents (parents and non parents), 56.9 percent of residents said they would support a 40-cent referendum.

Even with this supposed support (note the drop-off in support in those who attended the meetings versus those who answered the phone survey; plus, who answered their phone?), the bottom line appeal here is money. Some parts of the district will pay more than others – the referendum page uses a $300,000 value as a baseline while Glen Ellyn has a median housing value of just over $400,000 and Lombard has a median value of $240,000 – but the money will come eventually. Pay us now so you can gain later.

If suburbanites value property values above all, perhaps this is the only way to build support for local tax increases.

Controlling private property, as viewed through Nextdoor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The declining value of shopping mall real estate

The declining shopping mall has led to a drop in value for these properties:

“It’s a tough environment. I don’t think anybody really anticipated the decline of the department store to happen as quickly as it did,” said Joe Coradino, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns 21 malls in the Mid-Atlantic region. “The sellers are clearly on their knees.”

The Philadelphia-based REIT has sold 17 bottom-tier malls since 2013. The last deal, completed in September, was a $33.2 million transaction for the Logan Valley Mall in Altoona, Pennsylvania, anchored by Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears stores. If those same properties were on the market today, prices would be substantially lower, Coradino said…

Not long ago, some of the biggest names in private equity, such as KKR & Co. and Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group, were laying out substantial sums to snap up retail properties. In 2012 and 2013, Starwood purchased a combined $2.6 billion of malls from Westfield, followed less than a year later by a $1.4 billion deal to buy seven malls from Taubman Centers Inc. From 2012 to 2014, KKR bought four regional malls for about $502 million, Real Capital data show. That demand has all but evaporated as timing a wager on American malls becomes increasingly treacherous…

It’s easy to understand their reluctance to sell now. Prices for malls fell 14 percent in the past 12 months, even as values for other types of commercial properties, such as warehouses and office buildings, rose or held steady, according to Green Street Advisors LLC. At least four properties have been pulled from the market in recent months because the bids were too low, Dobrowski said.

Even with efforts to save some shopping malls, from adding restaurants and entertainment options, housing, and community spaces, a good number will simply not survive. They will not be desirable enough for retail activity nor prime spots for redevelopment. They may sit empty for much longer than communities desire or can bear. I suspect we will see a lot of potential creative solutions to these dead shopping malls as land owners, developers, and communities try to turn them into sites that again contribute to the surrounding area.

Perhaps the most interesting question here is how low prices will get before they interest someone who will buy them. Are we headed for the equivalent of $1 homes for shopping malls? Perhaps they will become subject to blight and renewal programs? Will the price be low enough for neighbors or communities to buy them simply to raze them? Perhaps they will be the dystopian spaces featured in films like Gone Girl?

The number of dandelions in the yard as an indicator of social class

It is the time of year around here when dandelions are sprouting now that we have some warmer weather and rain. If you walk, bike, or drive around, it is not hard to spot stark differences between yards with no dandelions and those with a lot of dandelions. Here are some quick connections between the number of dandelions and social class:

  1. There are certain expectations in the United States, particularly in suburbs, about lawns. Americans are obsessed with lawns: it must be green (even under drought conditions), of a certain height (lest you violate local ordinances), and free of weeds. It is big business to help Americans keep their lawn looking good. Residents experience pressure from neighbors to keep their lawn nice. Even senators can be attacked for not keeping their lawn in a way that pleases the neighbors.
  2. Those with more money can more easily (a) pay for lawn care and treatments as well as (b) pay for lawn care products that they apply themselves. It is not necessarily cheap to keep a pristine lawn. It is not just a matter of avoiding dandelions but having lush greenery all around, consistency in the kind of grass, and a regularly manicured height.
  3. A nicer and larger lawn is connected to wealth and social class. It is a signal of the homeowner’s ability to tame and maintain nature. It supposedly shows they care about their property. It suggests they want to present a tidy image, which is always connected to property values.
  4. As a test of numbers 1-3 above, imagine trying to sell a decent priced house in a major metropolitan area where the yard is just covered in dandelions. Even if the house is in good shape, wouldn’t all those dandelions harm the image of the home? How many realtors would want to present an image of a lawn filled with dandelions to prospective buyers?
  5. Homeowner’s associations for townhouses, condos, apartments, and houses tend to do a good job of keeping dandelions in check. I assume this has to do with keeping up a positive appearance for the community. Fewer dandelions means a better image, more exclusivity, and higher rents or prices.
  6. The landscaping on our campus tends to look really good around graduation time when plenty of families and visitors are in town. The dandelions are largely in check.

In sum, I would suggest that the dandelion-free yard is yet another American status symbol. Just as people passing by might infer the social class of residents based on the size of the dwelling and the exterior appearance and the cars in the driveway, the number of dandelions may be used as a marker of social class.

(There certainly could additional factors that influence the number of dandelions in the yard. In addition to resources as noted above, addressing the dandelions requires time and physical ability which could be in short supply for a variety of reasons.)