Multifamily units construction highest since 1973 – but not for the part of the market that needs it most

More multifamily units are under construction than in any year since 1973 but more units are for a particular segment of the market:

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Nearly 836,000 multifamily units are under construction, the most since 1973, according to Jay Parsons, chief economist at RealPage. But most new construction targets higher-income tenants and not the lower end, where supply shortages are most extreme, he said.

I have written about the dearth of starter homes and I would suspect a similar dynamic is at play here. Builders and developers can make more money on multifamily units with higher prices. If someone is going to go to all the effort for development and construction – and this can be quite a bit of effort in certain places – they would prefer to gain more financially in the end. The number of places that require the construction of affordable housing alongside market rate housing or seriously pursue cheaper housing are limited.

If these higher-income units come on line, it will add to a bifurcated housing market where those with enough resources have plenty of choices and those with fewer resources have limited and possibly unpleasant options.

Have a more expensive house, keep the lawn greener with automatic sprinklers

With a recent heat wave plus the upcoming warmer days of summer, different methods for maintaining a green lawn are on full display across suburban neighborhoods. I live in a suburban location where a ten minute walk or run brings me to neighborhoods with homes in multiple different price points. One recent observation about homes at a higher price point: they are more likely to have automatic sprinklers to keep the grass green.

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On my street and with residences at lower price points, I have not seen any automatic sprinklers. I see people out with hoses or sprinklers attached to hoses. Or, some people might do no watering at all or all lawn care is left to a homeowners association.

Step over to a different nearby street with larger and more expensive homes and a morning visit leads to seeing multiple homes with automatic sprinklers. The little black sprinkler heads can be viewed spreading water or the amount of water on the top of the grass blades suggests they were recently in action.

As I have chronicled the efforts of suburbanites to keep their lawn free of dandelions, weeds, and leaves alongside having a well-manicured green grass lawn, seeing the automatic watering of lawns among those with more resources leads to this thought: is the whole system of green lawns held in place by those with money and higher housing values as a means to signaling their status and pride in homeownership? The well-kept lawn is often tied to middle-class values but it costs money and time to keep the yard in a certain condition. And how much does the green lawn connect to higher financial and social standing?

New “Unvarnished” exhibit on Naperville’s exclusionary past

A new project from Naper Settlement shows how Naperville – and several other communities – excluded people for decades:

https://www.unvarnishedhistory.org/local-spotlights/naperville-illinois/

For more than 80 years, Naperville was a sundown town. After working in a household, farm or factory during the day, people of color had to be gone from Naperville by sundown…

A historical look at how diversity in the city and five other U.S. towns grew despite decades historic discriminatory practices and segregation is featured in a free online exhibit spearheaded by Naper Settlement and the Historical Society of Naperville.

“Unvarnished: Housing Discrimination in the Northern and Western United States,” found at UnvarnishedHistory.org, was developed through a $750,000 Institute of Museum and Library Services Museum Leadership grant. The Naperville historical museum and five other museums and cultural organizations collaborated from 2017 to 2022 to research and present their community’s history of exclusion…

“It is our hope that this project will act as a model and inspire other communities to research, share and reflect upon their own history. It is through this process that we are able to engage with the totality of history to better understand today and guide our decision-making for the future,” she said.

In doing research on Naperville and two other nearby suburbs, I had uncovered some of what is detailed in this exhibit. However, the local histories of the community rarely addressed any of this. Instead, they focused on the positive moments for white residents, typically connected to growth, progress, and notable members of the community.

Such an exhibit suggests a willingness for Naperville and other communities to better grapple with pasts built on privileging some and keeping others out. The history of many American suburbs include exclusion by race, ethnicity, and social class. This could happen through explicit regulations and ordinances, through regular practices, or through policies and actions not explicitly about race, ethnicity, or class but with clear outcomes for different groups.

As noted in the last paragraph above, hopefully these efforts do not end with past history but also help communities consider current and future patterns. For example, decisions about development – like what kind of housing is approved – influence who can live in a community.

Social class and the HelloFresh experience

We recently tried HelloFresh when just needing to pay shipping for three meals. The food tasted good and the prep time was at or close to their projections. The experience also caused me to think about social class, food, and who exactly HelloFresh is aiming for as their customers. A few thoughts:

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  1. The food is delivered fresh and it is in exactly the correct proportions for the recipes. Yet, it requires prep time. This appeals to people who like the idea of fresh food and the work that puts the food together. What is really cut out is the planning for meals and shopping for food.
  2. Because of just needing to pay shipping on an introductory deal, we paid something like $5+ for each 4 person meal. That is a good price. Looking at their longer subscriptions or packages, the food turned to be more like $8-10 per portion. This is closer to the price of fast casual restaurants. This money toward fresh ingredients and still needing to put the meal together would add up.
  3. If we paid a little bit more than normal Hello Fresh rates, we could have full meals delivered from restaurants. The prep time would disappear. I would be out more money.

All of this requires a decent amount of money to start with. That money purchases ingredients, recipes, and time not having to plan or shop. But, if I paid a little more I could have full meals with no prep.

So how does HelloFresh connect to social class? I suspect they are aiming for middle to upper-middle class families that want to provide a more traditional meal time – healthier food! real labor! – at a certain price point. Given the aggressiveness of advertising, I would guess HelloFresh thinks it has a big enough market to really make some money. This is about market segmentation but also about particular food practices tied to social class in the United States.

Data on whether Americans are moving due to politics

NPR reports on Americans moving to new locations because of politics. Here is some of the evidence presented:

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Residents have been fleeing states like California with high taxes, expensive real estate and school mask mandates and heading to conservative strongholds like Idaho, Tennessee and Texas.

More than one of every 10 people moving to Texas during the pandemic was from California, according to the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University. Most came from Southern California. Florida was the second biggest contributor of new Texans…

Political scientist Larry Sabato posted an analysis on Thursday that shows how America’s “super landslide” counties have grown over time.

Of the nation’s total 3,143 counties, the number of super landslide counties — where a presidential candidate won at least 80% of the vote — has jumped from 6% in 2004 to 22% in 2020…

Bishop’s book explains how Americans sorted themselves by politics, geography, lifestyle and economics over the preceding three decades. Sitting in a Central Texas café, Bishop says that trend has only intensified in the 14 years since the book’s publication.

I have read a lot of similar stories in recent years. All of this data, at face value, seems to make some sense: population flows from one set of states to another, the concentration of politically similar people in certain locations, and an ongoing sorting by politics.

At the same time, I am not completely convinced that it is politics driving moves. How often does a person, family, or business move solely because of politics or politics is the clear #1 reason? Politics might factor in an ultimate decision but I suspect jobs, retirement, and the locations of family are more often prime movers and/or large factors. Plus, the organization or sorting or residents has been going on for decades due to race/ethnicity (see the example of the suburbs) and social class (again, the suburbs). And could we consider how political patterns are related to race and class?

We can always find at least a few people who will describe moves undertaken to be closer to their political allies. I am not sure we are at the point where many are moving primarily or solely because of politics.

The presence of mobile homes in the Chicago area

Remembering a small mobile home community not too far from the suburban home in which I grew up, I was interested to see numbers on how many mobile homes are in the Chicago region and read about the experiences of people living in mobile homes:

Yes, we do! It turns out hundreds of families live in Chicago’s only trailer park, Harbor Point Estates, which is in the far southeast corner of the city. It sits along the shores of Wolf Lake in the Hegewisch neighborhood, just off 134th Street. The community is so close to Indiana you can fly a kite there, a property manager says.

And beyond the city’s borders, there’s another 18,000 mobile homes in the seven-county metro area, according to estimates by regional planners. Mobile home communities are squeezed between expressways and plopped down in exurban cornfields, from the North Shore to Peotone…

Curious City got a question about trailer parks from a listener interested in affordable homeownership. “What is life like in Chicagoland trailer parks?” the listener wanted to know.

So we visited manufactured housing communities in Chicago, Blue Island and Des Plaines to ask residents that question. And we met people with a whole range of experiences. We found some who had moved to the trailer park as a way to make ends meet. We found families looking for peace and safety and a quiet place to raise their kids. We found residents who liked the trailer park because they could live near extended family — adult siblings, cousins — and others who’d adopted neighbors as extended family. We found people living in their familiar mobile home deep into old age. We found folks looking for a foothold to the American Dream.

Many suburban communities and urban neighborhoods would not want or approve mobile homes. As communities tend to prefer development (if they prefer any new development) that matches or exceeds the prices and styles of existing residences, mobile homes can be hard to find in metropolitan regions.

This also reminds me of sociologist Matthew Desmond’s findings about urban mobile home communities in Evicted. Such communities do exist, their landlords can and do make money, and residents in mobile home communities can face a number of issues.

Yet, because of their cost, they can be a housing option for many. Looking to address affordable housing in the Chicago region? Mobile homes could be part of a comprehensive answer.

(Bonus: the title of my published study on religious zoning in Chicago suburban contexts refers to someone saying that would prefer mobile homes nearby rather than a possible Islamic Center.)

Focusing mass transit on those who need it or commuters

Looking at those who continued to use mass transit during COVID-19 helps raise the question of who public transit should serve:

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Yes, public transit ridership dropped like a stone after many places instituted stay-at-home orders. Americans took 186 million transit rides in the last week of February 2020, according to data compiled by the American Public Transit Association; a month later, that number had fallen by 72 percent, to 52.4 million. At the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which operates in the Pittsburgh area, ridership fell 68 percent.

Who kept riding? In a country where race is tied to economic opportunity and geography, transit riders have long been disproportionately low-income and people of color. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but they were the riders who stuck around. An analysis from the APTA found that white men were more likely to have given up transit during the pandemic; people of color, people who spoke Spanish, and women did not…

But US public transit has generally focused on commuters, especially those with traditional 9-to-5 schedules, who travel between city fringes and downtown business districts—riders who are less likely to be low-income and more likely to be white. That’s despite the fact that, even in the biggest cities, where transit use is more common, just half of pre-pandemic trips were to and from work. In smaller systems, the share is even less. The Port Authority of Allegheny County isn’t an exception. “Our system is very downtown centric, and it has historically relied very much on the commuter,” says Brandolph, the spokesperson. As a result, service within cities, serving people with less-regular work schedules or who took transit for other purposes, got short shrift.

That age may be over, says Alex Karner, who studies transportation equity as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. “The pandemic really exposed the truth that there are people for whom public transit is a vitally important public service,” he says. He says agencies now realize they will no longer be able to rely on peak-period commuters. When Urban Institute researchers surveyed 73 US and Canadian agencies on what service might look like in a “post-pandemic” era, more than half said they thought “peak period” travel would decrease. Nearly 70 percent said white-collar workers would take fewer rides. So transit agencies must decide what the new normal will be—and who it will serve.

In a country devoted to driving, those who have alternatives to mass transit to get to work will use those. Additionally, there is a class element to how mass transit is used and regarded and COVID-19 made work from home possible for some and not others.

The underlying assumption here appears to be that public transit cannot or cannot easily serve both groups of users. One aspect of this is that underlying patterns of residential segregation in cities and urban areas mean potential riders live in different locations. Additionally, later parts of the story cited above highlight the money mass transit systems have at the moment due to federal funds.

In the long run, when wealthier residents are asked to devote more funds to mass transit for equity and those who need it, will they agree? In Chicago, this has manifest in limited mass transit service in some areas compared to others. The new federal money means the Red Line can be extended on the South side. How far can efforts go? In other metro areas in recent years, wealthier suburbanites (see Nashville) have rejected efforts to expand mass transit. When suburbs are increasingly diverse and home to poorer residents, is there will to have consistent mass transit service?

Tiny homes for vacations – but for full-time living?

Tiny houses are popular for vacations and getting away from daily life:

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Along with housing a growing number of thrifty millennials and ever-wise minimalists, tiny homes are becoming go-to lodging for travelers looking to embrace that simple-living mindset or get up close and personal with their destination.

They are used as getaways or guesthouses from the Catskills in New York to Vail ski trails in Colorado. Some companies, like Tiny Home Vacations in northern Texas, feature clusters of tiny homes that cater directly to tourists. Airbnb dedicates a section of its website exclusively to its finest tiny home listings.

In the Northwoods of Wisconsin, ESCAPE Homes founder Dan Dobrowolski and his wife, Lisa, have constructed a finely outfitted fleet of petite dwellings near Rice Lake as part of their burgeoning tiny home empire. What began as a lodge built on the site of an abandoned church camp near Chetek, Wisconsin, in 1993 has morphed into high-end Canoe Bay Resort, with accommodations designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé John Rattenbury. Most expensive is the 2,000-square-foot Edgewood Villa, $999 per night, but smaller rentable homes start at $348.

How’s business? “It’s exploding — like a bonfire,” says Dobrowolski, who fished on the 280 acres of northern Wisconsin land as a boy (and worked long ago as a weatherman for WFLD-TV in Chicago). The pandemic “was gas on the fire” of the trend, because “people want to feel safe” yet have a vacation spot or accommodate visitors, he says.

I have argued before that tiny homes often appear to appeal to wealthier Americans who want mobility, minimalism, or a chance to get away. Some escape McMansions for tiny houses and others do not want tiny houses to be associated with lower classes.

Of course, one of the big possibilities of tiny houses is that they offer cheaper housing. Whether they provide housing for the homeless or affordable housing, they can provide options for those who would struggle otherwise to find housing.

If tiny houses become associated with tourism, does this mean they are for those who have the income to spend on getaways? This would make tiny houses a luxury item, not one that could help people.

While the tiny house movement is still small, there is still time to find builders and others who can make tiny homes affordable and common and not just tourist destinations.

Why large communities just for 55+ residents may not be a good thing

One researcher suggests the development of 55+ only communities limits opportunities for the residents and the communities:

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Del Webb of Sun City fame recognized that, rather than rocking away their “golden years” in the northern cold, older adults could be convinced to pull up roots, leave empty nests and move to communities of similar people and lives of leisure. A radio jingle promoting this new model of living sang out: “Don’t let retirement get you down! Be happy in Sun City, it’s a paradise town.”

But is a town without the sounds of children and a diversity of races and styles really a paradise?

A growing number of older adults say no, recognizing that living with neighbors of all ages and from all walks of life just makes sense. They realize that intergenerational connections are not just valuable for them but for their communities and country.

They recognize that ageism will not be defeated by a retreat to age-segregated corners, but only by engagement, collaboration and dialogue across age, race and class divides. They believe that there is more to graying than playing.

I wonder how housing and community organized by age fits with ongoing and persistent processes of residential sorting by race/ethnicity and social class in the United States. Looking at the Census QuickFacts for The Villages, Florida shows the community is almost 97% white and the poverty rate is 4.6%. Since wealth in the United States is related to race and ethnicity, how racially segregated are 55+ communities?

This commentary also hints at a broader issue in the United States: why is aging treated as it is? Why aren’t older adults seen as resources rather than liabilities? Why aren’t intergenerational relationships and communities celebrated more? These communities might be considered the physical embodiment of particular cultural values in the United States.

“Creativity of the young” and the digital divide in working student play with technology into learning

I recently saw a Letter to the Editor in the Chicago Tribune that highlighted the savvy use of technology by a seven year old:

Kids can access their parents multiple ways today and vice versa. This letter suggests the observer was “captivated” by this technology use, hinting at the resourcefulness of the boy.

This response is interesting to compare to the findings of a sociology book I recently browsed. In Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era, Matthew Rafalow found that schools differed less on their access to or use of technology in learning but in how they treated the student’s creative use of that technology. From the conclusion:

The students that I profiled in the previous chapter suggest that kids’ potential as budding technologists gets bifurcated as they pass through middle school. Despite the fact that digital play with peers led to the development of digital skills with online communication, media editing and production, and even the basics of programming logic, these eighth-graders reported different conceptions of whether online play was acceptable or even welcome in schools. While students at a school for mostly White and wealthy youth came to see digital play, including social media and video games, as fun and even necessary for achievement, students at schools serving less privileged and mostly students of color were taught that play at school was either irrelevant or threatening to schooling. Schools differently disciplined digital play, and in doing so, they different shaped how young people came to evaluate their own digital self-worth in these settings. (135)

Restating the argument a few pages later:

My takeaway from this project is that cultural resources are not like a currency you can hand to anyone in exchange for rewards. The students in this study varied by race-ethnticity and social class, and each developed a set of digital skills in online communication, collaboration, and digital production from play with friends online. Despite each student’s access to this knowledge, only students at the school serving wealthy and predominantly White children were given the right to treat their digital knowledge as currency to be exchanged for achievement. The school organizational context determines not only what ideal cultural resources are but also who the buyer can be to facilitate the exchange. Working- and middle-class Latinx and Asian American youth at Chávez and Sheldon had the same resources but were not permitted to exchange them for a reward. (154)

As Rafalow notes, this is what class reproduction – intersecting with race and ethnicity – looks like in today’s world. Just as Bourdieu suggested with art and music, digital technology is widely available but who it is for and how it is supposed to be used differs by group. Is digital creativity lauded and celebrated for a kid who people think might be headed for success and a creative class career or is it discouraged or punished because it is distracting from acquiring necessary skills?