What community wants to actually fine residents for not shoveling their sidewalks?

Shoveling sidewalks in front of residences and businesses is important for pedestrians. Many communities have penalties on the books for those who do not clear their sidewalks, including Chicago:

Property owners in the city are legally required to shovel their sidewalks after it snows. And on the South Side, one alderman has been out cracking down on the problem.

Ald. Ray Lopez has been out in his 15th Ward neighborhoods since Tuesday, directing Streets and Sanitation workers to problem spots to hold people accountable.

Department workers were writing tickets to home and business owners who did not comply. Fines range up to $500…

Thirty two businesses got ticketed in the 15th Ward Tuesday, and Lopez said he expects there to be just as many Wednesday.

Even if neighbors get mad at a lack of shoveling, who wants to be the politician or local official who gives tickets to homeowners for this offense? From the information provided in the article above, it looks like the tickets were issued to businesses. It could be argued that businesses have a strong obligation to snow as it would be good for potential customers and they are often located in areas where there are more pedestrians (street corners, commercial areas along busy streets, etc.). But, imagine the optics of giving a ticket to an elderly homeowner or a single mother with multiple small children. Americans may like local government but not when that government appears to be heavy-handed.

A similar comparison might be fines many communities issue regarding long grass. If people do not keep their lawn below a certain height, some communities will come mow that lawn and then send a sizable bill. Neighbors do not like the message tall grass sends (regular lawn maintenance suggests a certain standing). I do not know the recidivism rates after this is done; it would be interesting to know if this helps promote more lawn mowing in the future.

Or, consider traffic tickets. Many drivers speed but few want to be ticketed if they are swept up in efforts to generate revenue for the community, outsiders are targeted, or routine acts are criminalized. Arguments can be made about safety and the good of the community might I would guess few people support getting a ticket.

All of this can put local officials in a tough position. These problems, unshoveled snow, long grass, and bad driving, can create dangers and resentment in a community if not addressed. But, fines may not be the best way to prompt action. Tomorrow, I will consider other options for clearing sidewalks beyond fines.

Housing as the ultimate marker of poorly functioning (free) markets

Alexis Madrigal considers generational access to housing and the high real estate prices in some markets:

There are obviously many reasons that coastal housing markets have gone so bonkers. But it is an ironic twist that residential property, which once served as the bedrock for American capitalism, has become the most obvious sign for young people that something is deeply wrong with the markets.

What exactly has gone “deeply wrong” with these housing markets? Madrigal lays out a number of factors. But, I wonder if we could extend the analysis a bit further from “housing markets” to “economic markets” more broadly. Here is what two opposing sides might say:

One side: these housing markets with high prices have never truly been free. For decades, federal policy has privileged single-family homes. Local policies have made particular choices, often toward protecting property values and limiting density. Open up these markets to true competition. If affordable housing is needed, limit regulations and let all the money of potential buyers drive new development.

The other side: housing markets have not been regulated enough. The federal and local policies have tended to privilege certain actors – like the white middle-class and connected developers – over the needs of many working-class and poor residents as well as non-white residents. Policies aimed at providing more housing for all need more teeth and the ability to compel protected wealthier residents to accept development near their own homes.

As a sociologist who has studied this for over a decade, I tend to side with the latter argument: (1) markets are rarely ever completely and free and (2) the scales have been tipped toward whiter and wealthier residents for a long time. Perhaps the true lesson of these high-priced housing markets is that calls for regulation and oversight only go so far when property values and who neighbors are is truly at stake.

Ordinances and zoning against dollar stores

With evidence that dollar stores provide poor quality food options and limited jobs, some communities have used certain tools to restrict their presence:

While some local governments continue to lure dollar stores to town with tax subsidies and incentives, others are doing the opposite. A dollar store NIMBY movement has been gaining traction.

In Chester, Vermont, for example, residents argued in 2012 that allowing dollar stores to come to town “will be the beginning of the end for what might best be described as Chester’s Vermontiness,” per the New York Times—a statement that itself perhaps signals the class and race associations dollar stores have come to embody. In Buhler, Kansas, the mayor saw what happened to surrounding grocery stores in neighboring Haven and rejected the dollar store chain, also citing a threat to the town’s character.

“It was about retaining the soul of the community,” he told The Guardian. “It was about, what kind of town do we want?”

More recent efforts have used zoning tweaks to limit dollar stores, whose small footprint usually lets them breeze past restrictions big-box stores cannot. In Mendocino County, California, dollar store foes passed legislation restricting chain store development writ large. And in April, the Tulsa City Council passed an ordinance that requires dollars stores to be built at least one mile away from each other in North Tulsa. It also tacks on incentives for healthy grocers and supermarkets providing healthy food to locate in that area. “I don’t think it’s an accident they proliferate in low socio-economic and African American communities,” Vanessa Hall-Harper, a city councillor who grew up in North Tulsa and shepherded the ordinance, told ILSR. Since then, Mesquite, Texas, has followed suit with a similar move.

Communities have fairly broad powers to encourage or limit the presence of certain kinds of development. If they do not desire the building or the opening of a dollar store, then they can limit or eliminate the possibilities for a dollar store in that community.

Of course, the dollar stores can respond with their own tactics. Here are a few I could imagine (drawing from similar cases involving other businesses):

  1. Building just outside the jurisdiction of the municipality.
  2. Working with a neighboring community who is willing to have them.
  3. Mounting a public campaign against the community to tout the advantages of their business.

While the third option might be more of a nuclear option, the first two mean that another municipality could benefit from sales tax and property tax revenues, the limited number of jobs, and easier access for nearby residents.

Limiting suburban redtape to installing solar panels

A program is helping a number of Chicago area communities make it easier for residents to add solar panels:

If you want to install solar panels for your house or business, you’re likely to find a faster and more user-friendly permitting process if your community has earned a SolSmart designation.

Illinois has 18 SolSmart communities, including Aurora, Hanover Park, South Barrington, and Cook and Kane counties. Another 22 — including Elgin, Lake in the Hills, Naperville and DuPage County — started the designation procedure last month.

The designation means towns and counties have streamlined processes and reviewed ordinances to clearly spell out requirements, and staff members have been trained to properly examine installation plans and inspect the finished work…

There are 223 SolSmart communities across the country. The program launched in April 2016 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to the International City/County Management Association and The Solar Foundation, which provides technical assistance.

Residents of the American suburbs like their local government and local control yet this is an example where local bodies can get in the way: does every suburb have to go through separate processes to address solar panels? It sounds like the SolMart program helps provide resources and guidance so that suburbs do not have to do all the work on their own.

Thinking more broadly, what other suburban initiatives could be addressed at a similar level? I’m guessing a national campaign to have more permeable driveways might not work as well or one that installs containers to catch rainwater from gutters. I wonder if the solar panels issue works in part because the demand for them is still relatively small in the Chicago suburbs. Or, perhaps it is because it deals with roofs – a part of buildings that is not as visible – so concern is minimized.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #2: Relative size

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

While McMansions are certainly larger than normal, in certain circumstances they can appear even larger than their square footage: when constructed next to smaller homes (often teardowns, sometimes infill properties) or when squeezed onto small lots (so that the homes seem to be bursting off the property). While I know the second case does happen quite a bit, most of the McMansion coverage of this trait in recent years focuses on teardown properties. Some patterns I’ve observed:

  1. The typical case involves someone from outside the neighborhood purchasing an older home (often a postwar house), demolishing it, and constructing a significantly larger home and/or a home that has a different architectural style than nearby homes. This one picture is a great illustration. Note that the new home does not necessarily have to be over 3,000 square feet or even include the worst McMansion architecture; it just has to be different from the existing homes.
  2. Media coverage of teardown McMansions is overwhelmingly negative. This is likely the issue only comes up neighbors upset over the construction of a teardown McMansion start looking for ways to stop the construction or limit future construction. On the flip side, it is hard to know how many teardown McMansions are constructed without much furor.
  3. It is hard to know exactly what motivates neighbors to complain so vociferously about teardown McMansions. Americans seem to want the ability to buy new homes in good neighborhoods (balancing modern features with valuable locations) but don’t like what it happens to them. The complaints often fall into two camps. First, those who live directly adjacent to a teardown may have a range of new issues to confront: people able to see in their windows, a hulking property next door, losing sunlight, the older home now looking dated or different. Second, the larger issue is often couched in terms of the character of the neighborhood. People feel that when they move to a particular place, that street or neighborhood should stay similar – after all, they liked its features enough that they moved there. A teardown McMansion threatens that.
  4. The fights between neighbors can be quite contentious, a rarity in many suburban communities where middle-class decorum suggests conflict avoidance is best. Lawuits occur (example and example), and some neighbors may even pool their resources to buy a nearby home and save it from being torn down. But, if the foundation of American life is owning a home, perhaps it is not surprising that such conflict arises when owners perceive their home to be under threat. See my six steps for responding to a nearby teardown McMansion.
  5. These conflicts often involve local officials. Numerous communities across the United States have guidelines for teardowns (see the example of Austin several years ago and Los Angeles more recently). Outside of historic preservation districts, these guidelines typically limit the size of the new home (through guidelines like a Floor Area Ratio) and/or provide guidance on particular architectural features.
  6. The teardown debates tend to put local officials in a strange position. Whose rights should they defend? Property owners? If so, do they want to allow long-time residents to have a voice in shaping their own neighborhoods or do they want individual owners to be able to sell their property at a good profit? Can they openly support builders and developers? I suspect most communities want to – growth, particularly high-end houses, is an important marker of vitality – but you don’t want to always run roughshod over your constituents. Teardowns are most common in neighborhoods and communities that are already well off – see recent evidence from the Chicago region – and this tends to pit already well-off community members versus well-off outsiders.

Teardown McMansions are a subset of McMansions as a whole, often constructed in desirable neighborhoods and sometimes raising the ire of neighbors and concerned citizens. Balancing the rights of neighbors and property owners will likely continue to be a sticky issue for many local governments.

Proposed: self-driving cars need to have drivers at the wheel

California is proposing that self-driving cars take their time in becoming self-driving:

The approach California’s Department of Motor Vehicles offered Wednesday in precedent-setting draft regulations is cautious, though it does allow that Californians could be behind the wheel of a self-driving car by 2017.

Among other safety-related requirements, the cars must have a steering wheel, and a licensed driver must be ready to take over if the machine fails…

Before the DMV grants that three-year permit, an independent certifier would need to verify a manufacturer’s safety assurances. Google and traditional automakers advocated for manufacturer self-certification of safety, the standard for other cars.Drivers would need special, manufacturer-provided training, then get a special certification on their licenses. If a car breaks the law, the driver would be responsible.

This is not too surprising given the newness of the technology as well as the potential safety hazards for others on the road. I don’t think any body of government wants to be responsible if the self-driving technology fails and someone is hurt or dies.

At the same time, this article introduces a new wrinkle to the development of this technology: if companies think these regulations are too onerous, why not develop the cars elsewhere? The suggestion here is that Texas might emerge as another option. Could it be better for consumers and innovation if two states work with different regulations and different companies?

Today’s cars with more 100 million lines of code

Driverless cars will only compound this issue: the increasingly complex programming for cars.

New high-end cars are among the most sophisticated machines on the planet, containing 100 million or more lines of code. Compare that with about 60 million lines of code in all of Facebook or 50 million in the Large Hadron Collider.

“Cars these days are reaching biological levels of complexity,” said Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

The sophistication of new cars brings numerous benefits — forward-collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking that keep drivers safer are just two examples. But with new technology comes new risks — and new opportunities for malevolence.

The article then goes on to discuss two issues: hacking this complex software and regulating it (with the recent VW case serving as a good example). I’d rather the article goes three different directions rather than just highlight what could go wrong:

  1. How exactly do car makers and programmers make sure this all works together? How many people are involved in this? Who coordinates it all? Just putting this all together is quite a task.
  2. Say more about the complexity compared to other items. Based on what was said here, it sounds like this is the most complex mechanical object the typical person interacts with.
  3. The move to driverless cars may just only up the ante. Or, can some of this be reduced if you start with no driver and a fully autonomous system? New codes can tend to simply be built on top of older codes as pieces change but starting anew may make things easier.

Frankly, much of our lives these days is dependent on complex and/or long computer codes. If all that knowledge suddenly disappeared for some reason (perhaps an interesting starting point for a sci fi story), we would have some problems.

How the ADA changed architecture

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 had a profound effect on architecture and design:

The Americans with Disabilities Act created a comprehensive civil rights approach to accessibility at the federal level. Before its passage, architects worked under a varying system of state and local buildings codes that governed design requirements. Federal laws that were precursors to the ADA, such as the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (especially section 504) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, mandated better access. But since they only applied to federal properties, those built with federal money, or housing programs funded by federal sources, they didn’t address varying codes for other structures, and had no impact on privately owned buildings. People with disabilities still had to navigate on unstable terrain, legally speaking. Wright told lawmakers the patchwork of protection was akin to a “piece of Swiss cheese” spread across the country…

The battle for passage, which foreshadowed many of the issues surrounding its implementation and eventual effectiveness, boiled down to three main issues, according to Wright: civil rights, an implicit part of the debate; architects’ desire to have freedom in their choice of designs; and the cost of retrofitting buildings. While architects eventually accepted the changes as another set of guidelines, like a code change, every section of the bill encountered different forms of corporate resistance. During debates over transportation, for instance, Greyhound complained about the cost of retrofitting buses and rebuilding all their stations. During months of negotiations, Wright was assisted by her “right-hand man” Ron Mace, an architect and designer with Barrier-Free Environments, who used a wheelchair due to polio. He continually gave her facts and figures on the costs of different alternatives and upgrades, helping to assuage fears and correct inflated cost estimates from the opposition…

At first, architects greeted the ADA as just another code change, according to many in the field. Patrick Burke, a principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design who started there in the ’70s, admits that his colleagues at the time rarely thought about people with wheelchairs. But a few years after the ADA was introduced, it quickly became “part of design DNA.” While sustainability often provided a quantifiable, monetary impact, accessibility, which almost always requires a bigger building and more money, is just the right thing to do…

“It’s changed the way we enter buildings, and the way we design for monumentality,” says Steinfeld. “The ADA has created a new way of thinking, a much more convenient, egalitarian approach. It’s no longer like the days of imperial Rome and England, with the elite of society standing up on the second floor, watching the peons go by below.”

The suggestion here is that addressing accessibility led to more open, flowing, lighter designs that all people could benefit from. While the legislation may have been aimed at helping a specific group, the benefits can be shared by all. Think about the trend of having first floor master bedrooms in houses; they may have benefits for those with mobility concerns or allowing the homeowners to stay longer since they don’t have to travel up or down stairs as much but such a layout could have other benefits such as a more private space away from the other bedrooms and having closer access to the main living spaces.

On the other hand, I wonder if the normal person has noticed these changes in public places beyond seeing a ramp here or there. Many people don’t have to think about accessibility issues. Granted, it may be our often lack of attention to architecture and design in our daily lives and the inability to read/understand this architecture that is more of an issue. Yet, I suspect this is still a hidden issue.

Realtors argue their guild needs more professionalization

Real estate is an important part of the American economy but a recent report from the National Association of Realtors suggests realtors need more training:

In an unusual move for a major American trade association, the million-member National Association of Realtors has commissioned and released a frank and sometimes searing assessment of top challenges facing its industry for the next several years. The critiques hit everything from the professionalism and training of agents to the commissions charged consumers, and even the association’s ?leadership.

-“The real estate industry is saddled with a large number of part-time, untrained, unethical and/or incompetent agents. This knowledge gap threatens the credibility of the industry.” Ouch!

-Low entry requirements for agents are a key problem. While other professionals often must undergo extensive education and training for thousands of hours or multiple years, realty agents need only complete 70 hours on average to qualify for licenses to sell homes, with the lowest state requirement for licensing at just 13 hours. Cosmetologists, by contrast, average 372 hours of training, according to the report.

-Professional, hard-working agents across the country “increasingly understand that the ‘not-so-good’ agents are bringing the entire industry down.” Yet there “are no meaningful educational initiatives on the table to raise the national bar …”

 

This is a good example of maintaining professional standards, a key activity of many business associations. (For an award-winning sociological read on trade associations and a book for which I did a small amount of research work, see Solidarity in Strategy: Making Business Meaningful in American Trade Associations.) Keeping track of the actions of thousands of members is a difficult task. The NAR has the ability to bestow the name REALTOR®. Upping the standards with harder tests and stricter requirements has been done by lots of groups in order to improve their status.

But, this might also have some negative consequences:

1. Might it encourage more people to bypass realtors all together? This is easier than ever with the Internet.

2. If I remember correctly, the average age of realtors has increased in recent years. Might this simply increase that?

3. Might this issue be solved in other ways like if realtors worked within agencies that stressed standards or through mentoring programs that offer benefits for both parties?

4. Do realtors want more regulatory oversight like other groups – such as cosmetologists? This may help up their status but could lead to more hoops to jump through.

A tale of two teardown McMansions in Miami and the guidelines that might follow

The Guardian contrasts the teardown fate of two Miami homes and discusses how preservationists want to set new guidelines:

City of Miami Beach figures show that from 2005 to 2011, only 20 requests for the demolition and reconstruction of architecturally significant pre-1942 homes were submitted; another 20 more came in for the calendar year 2012; and from January to October 2013, the latest period for which figures are available, a further 40 applications were received.

James Murphy, principal planner for the municipality, described the trend towards development as “off the chain” and said that the city’s Design Review Board, the ultimate authority in decisions of destruction versus preservation, was trying to keep up…

The preservationists, meanwhile, have been here before. The Miami Design Preservation League, which fought and won a battle in the late 1970s to save the curvy art deco facades of Miami Beach hotels and condominium blocks, is eyeing a way to convert what it claims to be a groundswell of support over the Hochstein villa into new legislation.

It is discussing with city commissioners a proposal that would require any application involving a property more than 50 years old to automatically go through a formal review process before demolition could be approved.

The two stories presented are interesting ones. The first involves a wealthy owner moving an older house on the property and restoring it. The second involves a wealthy owner finding an older house with lots of problems, leading to its demolition and the construction of a 20,000 square foot home. Should both cases be subject to the same rules? Presumably, preservationists would develop a whole set of guidelines that would dictate when owners could and could not make changes but I do wonder if they would prefer that no old homes are demolished for any reason.

Side note: here is the definition of a McMansion in the article.

Already going up in its place is a 20,000 sq ft waterfront palace, complete with an enormous games room, walk-in wine cellar and 17-seat cinema. Such oversized homes, frequently occupied only by successful professional couples or their small families, have become known as McMansions.

The luxuriousness of the home may lean toward a McMansion but (1) the size is simply too big (this is a mass-produced tract home) and (2) it is relatively rare to discuss what kind of family structure is present in a McMansion.