Why I’m skeptical housing will become a national political issue

Even as affordable housing is a concern in a number of places in the United States, there is little national political discussion of the issue:

Franzini is joined in this quest by a curious cast of fellow travelers who are committed to raising the political profile of the American housing dilemma. As home prices creep up everywhere from established tech hubs to traditionally inexpensive cities like Boise and Nashville—and as homelessness reaches epidemic proportions on the West Coast—a number of organizations from a diverse array of sectors have recently formed to push for housing policy changes at the highest levels of government. They’re frustrated by the lack of engagement on housing that national political leaders are offering. And they’re finding that, at least for the moment, the first order of business is just educating people about the seriousness of the issue.

Here are four reasons why I believe it will be very tough to have a national political discussion, let alone pressure for the federal government to act, regarding housing:

  1. Housing is local. Americans would like local governments to handle the issue as they prefer, particularly those with more resources, to live in places that can limit others of lesser status from moving in. Residents and smaller governments argue that they should not be forced to build housing that current residents do not desire or give money to less deserving people for housing.
  2. Americans historically do not have much appetite for significant federal involvement in public or subsidized housing even as they like socialized mortgages for single-family homes.
  3. The housing industry has significant influence, from the National Association of Home Builders to the National Association of Realtors, due to the importance of the housing industry for the American economy and particular American ideals about what kinds of housing are preferred. Affordable or cheaper housing might generate fewer profits.
  4. Opponents to federal action will argue that Americans can have cheaper housing if they (a) are willing to move to metro areas that have cheaper housing (and plenty of them exist) and (b) truly take on the local power brokers that usually do not want the working and middle classes to access their wealthier neighborhoods. These arguments are plausible enough (though with issues) for a number of participants in the discussion.

A number of these reasons involve ideas about what should be part of the American Dream as well as perceptions about who can access it (so it involves race and social class).

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.)

How skate parks became normal in America

There are skate parks in many American neighborhoods and communities and this was not necessarily a sure thing decades ago:

The Tony Hawk Foundation, a leading partner in the construction of skate parks in the United States, estimates that there are roughly 3,500 skate parks in the country now — still about a third of what it says the country needs…

In a different time, hoping for city officials to get on board with building a skate park seemed like an impossible task. Mr. Whitley said a great deal of Nimby-ism once plagued developments.

But aging Gen X grew up alongside skateboarding’s ascent in popular culture, from Bart Simpson plonking down onto the roof of the family car in the opening sequence of “The Simpsons” to blockbuster video game franchises like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Skateboarding is no longer something people fear. The skate punk of the late 1980s is now a suburban dad. Across runways, and in music videos and film, subtle influences of skate culture are noticeable. Everyone wears Vans sneakers…

Iain Borden, a professor of architecture and urban culture at University College in London, wrote the book “Skateboarding, Space, and the City” in 2000. He also sees the growth of skate parks as a social phenomenon. “They’re places of social exchange,” he said. “You could argue that they’re not sports facilities, they’re social landscapes in which skateboarding and riding and scootering and blading are some of the activities that you might do.”

The recreational activities of one generation do not necessarily endure over decades so the spread of skateparks is an intriguing subject. I would be interested to see in what kinds of neighborhoods these parks exist: are they as prevalent in poorer neighborhoods or the wealthiest communities (who might opposed them on NIMBY grounds)?

I also wonder how much race plays a role in this in the United States. The examples of skateboarding cited above – Tony Hawk, Bart Simpson – are white and more middle-class. Come to think of it, many of the X Games competitors fall into this group. Since these are not exactly mainstream sports (compared to the big four of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) plus they require a few resources (at least a skateboard while other X Games sports require more), these may not be available to all. While skateboarding might the punk music of the sports world, is it still more palatable to the white middle-class compared to having basketball courts nearby?

When a car repair shop is not high-status enough in Naperville

Naperville has “high hopes” for the Naperville Crossings commercial and entertainment development on the southwest side of the large suburb. These plans do not include a “high-end” auto repair shop:

But nearby homeowners associations weren’t in favor of it, and city council members didn’t go for it, either. By a 6-3 tally, they voted down the shop’s request for a conditional use, saying the business isn’t what they envisioned for the area and they’re willing to wait for something that is…

Jonathan Wakefield, development director for Houston-based Christian Brothers, said the shop would play well with its neighbors because people need somewhere to go or something to do while waiting on car repairs. The shop would have run shuttles to work, school or Metra stations, but he predicted some customers would stay and shop or grab a bite to eat.

Council member Kevin Coyne still was hesitant, saying a car repair business doesn’t blend well next to a day care, a fire station and a frozen custard shop.

“What of any cachet will want to move in next door to an awkward mix of business uses,” Coyne said.

Mike Reilly, president of the nearby White Eagle homeowners association, predicted “the start of a downward trend for Naperville Crossings” if council members were to abandon the original goal and allow the repair shop.

This is a common issue in many suburbs: a retail development has long-standing vacancies. See earlier posts involving grocery stores (here and here) and shopping malls (here and here). But, how many of these suburbs turn down possible occupants in order to wait for better ones? I would guess Naperville is in a minority of suburbs that can afford to do this.

Additionally, I would be interested to dig more into what is so bad about a higher-end car repair place. More noise? Most of the activity would take place during business hours. A lower-class clientele? Maybe; everyone needs a car in Naperville and there are plenty of wealthy residents nearby who need their cars serviced? The lower status activity of car repair? Perhaps this is similar to homeowner’s associations restricting car repairs in driveways and limiting the parking of RVs and work trucks and vans. This seems like an issue of social class and Naperville as a wealthier suburb with a certain reputation will wait for a more appealing use.

Polarization: California housing bill does not make it out of committee

It is unclear how California intends to move forward in providing cheaper housing to residents after a YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) housing bill did not make it out of committee earlier this week:

On Tuesday night, legislators killed SB 827, which would have allowed the construction of apartment buildings up to five stories tall near every high-frequency mass transit stop in the state.

SB 827 sparked a spirited debate about how the state should address its housing crisis. Its lead sponsor, State Senator Scott Wiener, argued that wresting zoning decisions away from local municipalities and forcing communities to build more densely near transit was the best way to both ease housing affordability in cities like San Francisco and help the state hit its ambitious environmental goals. Supporters of the bill—dubbed YIMBYs, for “Yes In My Backyard”—took on residents from wealthier, single-family home neighborhoods, who deployed the traditional NIMBY argument that the bill imperiled neighborhood character and would lead to traffic and parking woes.

The NIMBY side had some surprising allies, among them the Sierra Club and advocates for “Public Housing in My Backyard,” or PHIMBYs, who argued that the law would enrich developers and exacerbate gentrification in low-income minority neighborhoods…

Wiener also acknowledged how ambitious the bill was, and said he was “heartened by the conversation it has started.” Indeed, the bill was much-discussed nationwide. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called SB 827 “one of the most important ideas in American politics today,” and the Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos said the bill could be “the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

There are plenty of polarizing issues in America today but few would divide people so deeply than the issue of housing. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It is closely connected to race in the United States. While legally discriminating based on race or ethnicity in housing has been illegal for 50 years, residential segregation by race and ethnicity is alive and well.
  2. It is closely connected to social class in the United States. Those with resources do not want to live near those without resources. This can disrupt groups that commonly stick together, such as Democrats who might generally be more in favor of affordable housing but not necessarily when it means providing more housing in wealthier areas.
  3. Some of these polarizing issues are more abstract for many people but housing is an everyday issue that affects who you interact with, school districts, what kids see as normal, communities, parks, safety, and property values. Those who have choices about where they can move typically want those places to stay “nice.”

If California cannot figure this out at a state level, are there other states that can step up and provide affordable housing?

(Of course, the state level may not be the best level at which to address this. However, if it is left to municipalities, the wealthier ones will simply opt out and leave the issue for other communities to address.)

McMansion as a symbol of wealth in America

A Washington Post review of a new book on social class suggests McMansions help illustrate class differences:

Its influence begins before birth and holds sway beyond the grave. It can determine who goes to prison and who goes to the Ivy League, who drinks bottled prestige water and who swigs from a foul tap, who rents rooms and who rattles around in a McMansion…

Fraser uses iconic events, documents and images from American history as his raw material for six essays on why class matters. The reality of class — not just patterns of consumption and markers of wealth and privilege, but raw power — had largely been expunged from our national vocabulary by political elites pushing the American Dream, he argues. But the dirty secret of class emerged a decade or so ago in the unequal wreckage of the global financial meltdown, he contends.

Throughout the use of the word McMansion from the late 1990s to today, it has often been used in this way: to symbolize the wealthy in America who can purchase and live in large new homes. At the same time, it is a little less clear what strata of Americans can live in McMansions. Is this the top 20%? The 1%? The “Dream Hoarders“? This depends somewhat on the metropolitan region as McMansions can differ significantly in size and price but I would guess McMansions are for those in the top 10-30% of American earners. Those who earn less cannot live in such a home while those above that level would not not want to be associated with McMansions and/or have enough resources to access even better housing.

At a broader level, where one can live is an excellent marker of social class: it hints at the wealth the homeowner has (it takes a certain level of wealth to purchase any home), the neighborhood or community in which the home is in hints at relative status, and the size and features of the housing is often taken to say much about the resident. A McMansion owner has a certain lifestyle and status.

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.