Defining a social problem: “transit gaps” or “transit deserts”

One skeptic of the concept of transit gaps explains his concerns:

The Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology recently unveiled its AllTransit Gap Finder—an online mapping tool designed to point out areas with “inadequate” transit service. It’s a good effort, and it’s certainly good that we have more tools for understanding transit demand…

A transit gap is some kind of difference between transit service and transit need or demand. But need and demand are different things. A need means that there are people whose lives would be better if they had transit. A demand is an indication that transit service, if it were provided, would achieve high ridership.

These terms correspond to the two opposing goals of transit service. If the goal of service is ridership, then it should provide excellent service where there is demand. On the other hand, many people who need transit wouldn’t be served if transit agencies ran only high-ridership service. So transit agencies run a certain amount of service for the non-ridership goal of coverage, which responds to need. In other words, they spread service out so that everyone has a little bit, even though low ridership is the predictable outcome. This critical distinction is explained more fully here. It’s a difficult budgetary choice about dividing resources between competing goals, one that local governments need to think about…

Although AllTransit’s claims are framed in misleading terms, the idea of being able to accurately see exactly how well any given neighborhood is served by transit is a laudable one. Over the years I’ve written about other efforts to get this right. An especially important idea, buried deep in the overly complex methodology, is that a transit quality index should be about where you can get to in a given amount of time, rather than what transit is available. In my own work I routinely use this measure to describe the human benefits of transit service changes, because getting to destinations, and having a choice of more destinations, is what makes for a great life.

There seems to be two issues here: separating community values from possibilities as well as how to best measure transportation options. No city has an endless pot of money with which to fund mass transit. Yet, I imagine proponents of transit deserts would note that the general American orientation is toward driving and roads while mass transit has to regularly scrap for money. The measurement issue is hopefully an ongoing conversation as researchers with different decisions and aims work to find measures that both reflect the social realities as well as provide helpful information for residents and local governments.

But, I also suspect that this is critique is missing a key concern of some of those working in the food/transit/grocery stores/parks/medical care desert literature: the key is which groups are most affected by these deserts or have less access to these necessities. Many of the deserts – however defined and regardless of the goals of the community – seem to affect lower class and non-white residents. One could argue that a community might not have the resources or vision to extend mass transit to a particular area but this does not necessarily address the issue of residential segregation that is alive and well in the United States.

New mixed-income development strategy: connect them to libraries

Chicago is pursuing three small mixed-income developments that have a unique feature intended to bring the residents of different social classes together:

At the University Village/Little Italy development, a one-story public library will connect with two four-story mixed-income residential units, according to a news release from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, the design firm working on the project. It will also include retail and community spaces, and a rooftop will be accessible to residents and visitors of the library.

The housing portion of the development will have 37 Chicago Housing Authority units, 29 affordable housing units and seven market-rate apartments, according to a news release from the city.

Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of Chicago Public Library, said at the groundbreaking that the library will offer free tutoring to students, early childhood centers, and study and meeting rooms. The branch will also have digital resources available to residents like a 3-D printer and a recording studio. The entire development is expected to be completed within a year…

“My view is that what we are breaking ground on is community,” Emanuel said. “And a whole new different way of thinking about how do you create space. … We aren’t divided so much as we are disconnected. If we could create a place that people from different walks of lives can come together and share an experience together — we are actually going to create community.”

There are few public institutions that could serve as an anchor like this. The only other options I could imagine include a school or a child care facility or a medical clinic (all scaled to the appropriate size given the number of housing units present). Yet, each of those have a more focused use compared to a library that could be home to many different activities.

At the same time, I’m not sure a library will be a panacea to the difficulties facing mixed-income communities. Just placing residents of different social classes together does not guarantee interaction, even if they have a joint building to use. Perhaps the library will have programs and activities intended to bring the adjacent residents together. Yet, even libraries can provide plenty of spaces and opportunities to not interact.

How postwar DuPage County used zoning to limit poorer and non-white residents

I was recently reading the 1976 political science book Poliscide and part of Chapter 8 on the postwar zoning practices of DuPage County caught my attention:

Although no county can place guards at the county line to inspect the socioeconomic and racial characteristics of newcomers, such powers as zoning and control over subdivision and building codes make the county a highly effective arbiter of the types of structures to be built and, hence, the final arbiter of the types of people who will live in its jurisdiction.

For example, DuPage County enacts a subdivision ordinance requiring a developer to retain a large portion of his prospective subdivision for public facilities such as parks and schools; the county combines this with a zoning ordinance requiring single-family dwellings and a large minimum lot size. This effectively prohibits a developer from profitably building anything but high-cost housing not accessible to lower-income persons.

Stringent county building code standards, requiring expensive building materials and high-quality plumbing, wiring, and heating systems, also serve to increase housing costs. The county’s industrial zoning policy restricting heavy industry serves to limit job opportunity for lower-income persons and to prevent a decline in residential property values surrounding an industrial development – which might create housing opportunities for lower-income groups. Moreover, the county’s relations with various financial institutions make it difficult for a developer to secure financing for a project not approved by the county. Indeed, because of the obstacles the county is capable of placing in the path of a developer, the county’s objection may be sufficient to convince a financial institution that investment in a project would be unwise.

The county’s relations with other units of government give it yet another means of influencing the course of residential and industrial development. It is not, for example, an uncommon practice in Illinois for the county forest preserve district to condemn, at the count government’s behest, land on which an unwelcome development is planned…. And courts have made it a point not to intervene. If the acquisition was for a “public purpose,” there is no inclination to examine the underlying motives. (179-180)

And, as the political scientists point out, these were all legal procedures. Local governments, whether at the municipality, township, or county level, often have the power to dictate what can be built on the land over which they have jurisdiction.

At the same time, there have been court cases seeking to reverse these zoning powers. In 1971, DuPage County residents and a local fair-housing group brought suit against the county for exclusionary zoning practices. The Mount Laurel cases in New Jersey led to famous decisions suggesting municipalities cannot completely restrict cheaper housing (even if implementation has been messy).

More broadly, Sonia Hirt argues zoning in the United States serves one primary purpose: single-family homes. When wealthier suburbanites or urban dwellers get the opportunity to live in the homes they want or ones that have plenty of desirable traits, they tend to resist efforts to include cheaper housing nearby. (For a more recent urban case, see Portland.)

To some degree, the plan worked for a while in DuPage County. The authors of Poliscide say the county was the 3rd wealthiest in the nation, businesses were growing, and much of the development was relatively high-end. Yet, things changed over time. In the 2010 Census, DuPage County was the 62nd wealthiest county in the United States. (It would be interesting to analyze what role zoning played in vaulting all those other counties above DuPage County.) In the same census, the white along population was just over 70%. Some of this might be due to how the authors of Poliscide suggest municipalities fought back against the county: they moved to incorporate themselves as well as annex land so that they took over jurisdiction of land and DuPage County had less control over new development.

Once the housing line has been crossed, time to fight over the schools

An interim school superintendent in a suburb north of Chicago recently summed up the battle over redistricting in the school district:

Rafferty broke into a school board discussion on school boundaries Tuesday to express shock at the “exclusionary” attitudes that he said have surfaced in recent weeks. Rafferty said many of the emails and comments from parents and community members regarding proposed boundary changes have been “shocking, embarrassing and ugly.”

“We have families telling us they do not want this population of kids with their population of kids,” said Rafferty, a retired Schaumburg superintendent who has shared superintendent duties in District 112 since February.

“We have other families telling us, ‘Don’t you dare move my students or my neighborhood, but I would love for you to move X, Y and Z to another school to achieve a balance,'” Rafferty said…

His remarks came during a school board discussion of the administration’s recommended boundary changes to accommodate students from Lincoln Elementary School and Elm Place Middle School, which are closing at the end of the school year. Board members set aside the proposed map for a variety of reasons, including the discontent voiced by some parents over the number of low-income pupils attending Northwood Junior High.

This reminds me very much of what I thought was the best chapter in anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s recent book Driving After Class (see my quick review here). That chapter described how a large suburban district in New Jersey decided to move students around based on capacity in schools as well as by race and class. In that case, as a number of the less wealthy and non-white residents of the districts had suspected might happen, the wealthiest community was able to keep its students nearby and severely limit how many outside students were able to attend.

Wealthier and whiter suburbs – Highland Park has a median household income of over $122,000 and is over 92% white – tend to first try to limit poorer residents by limiting the number of cheaper housing units. If that is not completely successful, the next battleground can be schools as residents of such communities tend to prefer that their children go to school with other wealthier children.

Eight (unlikely and unpopular) policy options for addressing housing issues

After a recent conversation with colleagues prompted by reading together the sociological work Evicted as well as my own thinking about residential segregation, I wanted to put together a blog post summarizing possible policy solutions to housing issues. I am not optimistic but here are the possible options I see at multiple levels:

  1. Provide incentives for developers and builders. This is a common strategy across different government levels: builders and developers are given access to choice properties or are able to build higher-end housing if they build cheaper housing or provide monies that could be used for cheaper housing. A number of major cities, including Chicago, have such incentives. However, it does not seem to have made a major dent in the amount of affordable housing that is needed. I have heard that argument that governments have simply not offered big enough incentives – there is a tipping point where this could really push builders and developers to construct cheaper housing. I don’t think I buy this argument. Even though there is clearly a market right now for cheaper housing, why would builders and developers not try to build the priciest stuff they can to bring in more profit?
  2. Other market-driven solutions beyond incentives. I’m on the record here as skeptical that free markets can address issues of residential segregation and housing. Vouchers have their supporters since they theoretically would allow poorer residents to access areas of the housing market they otherwise could not. At the same time, introducing vouchers leads to other issues such as inflated prices/rents and negative reactions to those with the vouchers.
  3. Local government action. Municipal officials have a good amount of control over what can be built within their boundaries. However, they are constrained by (1) local residents who want to protect their community (examples of NIMBY in action here and here) and (2) limited budgets and revenues so they are typically trying to maximize property and sales taxes while minimizing use of social services. The biggest tool municipalities have are local zoning guidelines that often constrict what can be built (see recent suburban non-housing examples here and here). One way that wealthier areas exclude those who are not so wealthy is to not allow multi-family housing or set guidelines requiring larger lot sizes.
  4. Metropolitan action. Housing is really an issue that spans municipalities as the majority of people live in one place and commute to another for work (plus drive elsewhere for other amenities). Yet, metropolitan governance does not exist on a large-scale in the United States. Outside of a few regions, this is not a viable option: people in different communities do not have ways to collaborate nor would they necessarily want to. This is particularly true of wealthier communities. Residents would argue that this is the purpose of local government: local residents should get to make decisions about their own communities rather than handing off money and/or control to an outside body that wishes to damage their quality of life. See examples of how this can play out regarding affordable housing in one region and another involving transportation across a whole region.
  5. State governments. States could decide to impose regulations and guidelines but then they would have to overrule municipalities. This is difficult. For example, Illinois in 2004 an affordable housing guideline where every community was supposed to have a certain percentage of their housing stock within affordable limits. The guidelines could have been useful but they had no teeth and what counted as affordable was loosely defined. As this 2015 Chicago Tribune article suggests, wealthier communities did not submit to the guidelines and “Lee acknowledged that the agency has no authority to enforce the mandate if municipalities do not submit affordable housing plans.” Nothing really changed – and I’m guessing this was intentional.
  6. Federal government. Even though the United States has public housing, it was difficult to get off the ground and is not viewed favorably by many. That whole single-family homes fights communism thing plus the American ideal is everyone owning a home. Even if public housing had some successes, on the whole federal efforts have promoted white suburbs mortgages for single-family homes are subsidized. Results for federal initiatives involving vouchers, such as Moving to Opportunity, are mixed as many of the residents end up in similar poor neighborhoods and it is not clear if certain long-term outcomes such as education and employment are positively affected. Federal efforts consistently draw negative responses from conservatives. Operators in the housing industry – the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Realtors, lenders, and others – mobilize to protect the mortgage interest deduction and single-family homes. American Apartheid suggested we lack the political will to enforce the 1968 Housing Act and thus we still have discrimination in housing (from mortgages to real estate agents to landlords and more).
  7. The court system. Given the relative lack of action by local and state officials, housing and zoning cases do occasionally make it to state and federal courts. I argued a few years back that I could envision the Supreme Court approving inclusionary zoning (I’m not sure I still think this given the current makeup of the court). They can indeed take action and compel other governmental bodies to address issues. Some famous cases include the Gatreaux case in Chicago where a court ordered scattered-site housing and the Mount Laurel cases in New Jersey combating exclusionary zoning. The problem with these is that they require taking legal action in the first place, they can take a long time to litigate, and while the results may be compelling, they are still often viewed unfavorably and putting the changes into action are not easy.
  8. Non-profits and religious groups. Either sets of groups have limited resources – housing is a very expensive proposition on a large scale – or are more interested in other concerns. Groups like Habitat for Humanity may do good things but they can only build so many houses and not all communities or neighborhoods are welcoming to their projects. Churches, particularly big ones, could access a good amount of resources but housing is more of a structural issue that many conservative Christians may not want to get into.

All of these options are difficult to implement. On the whole, many wealthier suburbanites and urban residents do not want any kind of cheaper or subsidized housing in their neighborhoods or community.

If I had to pick two levels that provide the best opportunities, I might go with local government and the courts. Zoning guidelines are often developed by average citizens sitting on local committees. Get named to such committees and you can influence this process. The courts are a way to get around the unpopularity of introducing cheaper housing as such measure are unlikely to find broad support. At the same time, as noted above, the court route has its own challenges.

Perhaps the most daunting option in my mind is trying to influence the federal level. Does any political party talk seriously about housing? After all, one journalist captured this quote:

The former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told me this: “Most countries have socialized health care and a free market for mortgages. You in the United States do exactly the opposite.”

It will be hard to alter an entire system based on providing socialized mortgages for the middle-class and above.

A deep American social problem: residential segregation

This post is about a crucial American social problem. It is not about uncivil discourse, increased immigration, political polarization, a decline in social trust, consumerism, or other regularly-discussed options. Rather, underlying many other American issues is residential segregation which occurs by race and class. Here are just some of the social spheres it affects:

  1. Schools. While Americans tend to see more education as a silver bullet to all social problems, the fate of schools is closely tied to their neighborhoods and communities. This is not mainly about funding. It is more about mixing kids of different socioeconomic backgrounds together. Read about the Coleman Report from 1966.
  2. Social networks. Even in a digitally connected, who you live near affects who you and/or your kids see on a regular basis. Live near people like you and you will interact with people like that more.
  3. Quality of life in the community and availability of social services. Factors like crime, public parks, health care, local amenities (libraries, park districts, civic organizations), and local programs (through local governments as well as non-profits and other civic organizations) are connected to the wealth and resources of a community.
  4. Access to jobs. Spatial mismatch describes situations where jobs available to lower-skilled workers are far in distance from lower-skilled workers. Live in a wealthier community and you are likely closer to better jobs.
  5. Access to good housing. Affordable and quality housing is difficult to find in many places in the United States but those with more resources and whose race and ethnicity are viewed more favorably have more housing opportunities.
  6. Building wealth. Since wealth creation is tied to homeownership and good jobs, those who have harder times accessing these two things have a harder time developing and passing along wealth. The disparities between the wealth of whites and blacks as well as Latinos are huge.
  7. Concentrated poverty. As wealthier communities are able to keep poorer residents out through a variety of methods (even as poverty increases in the suburbs), poorer residents can be limited to certain neighborhoods and communities which can exacerbate problems.

It is difficult to truly address a number of American social problems if this problem of residential segregation is not addressed. Read more about how this residential segregation came to be in an earlier post about the development of American suburbs.

Of course, residential segregation cannot be said to be the deepest American problem since beneath residential segregation is the uglier issue of the “American dilemma” or “America’s original sin“: racism.


“[P]eople with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams”

The title of this post is part of a larger quote – “On Tiny House Hunters it is painfully transparent that people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams” – as a writer reflects on HGTV’s portrayal of tiny houses:

They too yearn for an open floorplan. They want storage. They want privacy. They want sleek kitchen amenities. They want room to entertain. That desire, to entertain, is the most delusional. In a home built for one, that may, with some dieting and sucking in of the gut, accommodate two, there is no entertaining. When you buy a tiny home, you are also making a commitment to socialize with your friends elsewhere if you hope to keep those friends.

As the reality of tiny living sets in, the hunters often lament how tiny a tiny home actually is. Or they are in complete denial and exclaim that there is just so much space. In one episode of Tiny House Hunters a man sat in the “bathtub” in the tiny bathroom. He looked ridiculous, his knees practically in his mouth as he contorted himself into the improbable space. He, the realtor, and his friend, who were all viewing the property, were nonplussed, as if the goings on were perfectly normal. And there I was, shouting at the television, “What is wrong with you people?”…

Shows like House Hunters and Tiny House Hunters flourish, in part, because even now, after the mortgage crisis and financial collapse, home ownership and the American dream are synonymous. Home ownership represents success and the putting down of roots. Home ensures the stability of the American family. When you own a home, there is always a place where you belong, and where you are the master or mistress of your own domain…

A cheerful television show about homebuying isn’t going to sully itself with a frank examination of economic realities or the fallout from predatory lending practices that made so many people believe they could afford to live beyond their means. Instead, Tiny House Hunters allows people the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, regardless of their actual economic circumstances. The homes the hunters look at are often stylish, modern reinterpretations of the cookie-cutter prefabricated homes that inspire so much cultural derision. They may not have much space but what space they have is well appointed and chic or quirky. Tiny house hunters can soothe their class anxiety and stay just within reach of what they so very much want but cannot afford to have.

This leads me to two thoughts:

  1. As the piece notes, there is an important connection here to social class. People on this show want to have a middle-class (or higher) lifestyle in a small package. They are often unwilling to give up on certain items just because they are pursuing a smaller house. Additionally, I would argue that this quest to downsize is a largely middle- to upper-class phenomenon. The people on the show are not ones driven to tiny houses solely because of economic necessity. The cost savings may be nice but they also talk about reinforcing familial bonds, being able to move a home around more easily, consuming less, and helping save the environment. As the writer notes, they are not seeking after mobile homes and the class implications associated with them. Instead, they often want customized tiny houses that continue to display their higher than lower-class lifestyle.
  2. Some might applaud these people for realizing they don’t need such a large house. Instead of purchasing a McMansion or even the average size new home (around 2,500 square feet), these people are consuming fewer resources and resisting the strong pull of consumerism. At the same time, they still find something valuable in owning their own home. Why does this interest in home ownership continue? if people truly wanted a more environmentally friendly option, shouldn’t they go move into a small apartment in a dense urban area where they don’t need to drive much? (Many of the tiny houses on HGTV are frequently in more rural settings and still require a lot of driving.) In other words, even having a tiny house still allows these homeowners to participate in the middle-class American Dream which largely revolves around owning your own detached home.

And just as a reminder, there is little evidence that many Americans desire a tiny house. As of now, they largely appeal to a small subset of the population that does not necessarily need them.