Five forces behind the American affordable housing problem

Affordable housing is not an easy issue to address and one overview provides five factors at play:

Baby boomers—those aged 55 or older—are living longer and more independently than previous generations. They’re also more likely than previous generations to be divorced and living alone. This means less housing stock has been freed up by elderly people dying or moving into assisted-living facilities. In some cases, boomer homeowners are looking to trade down and compete for entry-level homes with other generations, putting upward pressure on prices on homes in the lowest price tier…

While subsequent administrations have swung the agency’s priorities between promoting homeownership programs and assisting poor renters by offering housing subsidies, the federal government consistently subsidizes middle- and upper-middle-class homeowners rather than low-income renters, seniors, and the disabled…

Restrictive zoning codes are often an effective tool in the fight against new construction and, frequently, densification, helping to suppress housing supply even as demand rises. Whether by limiting the height of new buildings or deciding that large apartment buildings need a minimum number of parking spots, these restrictions make construction more difficult and more expensive. California cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are known for impeding new construction through these methods, which has led to the state’s severe housing shortage

The “affordability” of housing isn’t all about the housing itself: As rising rents and home prices push low- and middle-income households farther from major urban centers—where the greatest number of jobs and the most robust public transit systems tend to be—lower housing costs in suburbs and exurbs get offset by increased spending on transportation.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. As an academic, I am sympathetic with arguments such as this that try to explain a social problem with more complexity and nuance. Short answer for a typical academic answer to a social issue: it’s complicated. As a person who wants affordable housing to be addressed, I want solutions sooner rather than later.
  2. One advantage of the complexity/nuanced argument is to highlight that whole systems are at play. Making serious headway with one or two factor may not move the needle. All the issues need to be addressed and everyone needs to keep in mind their connected nature. To put it differently, this requires large-scale societal change, not just piece-meal approaches. There are a variety of social levels and actors involved and they should aim to work toward common goals. It is often hard to think in this structural or system way but necessary when tackling large problems.
  3. I wonder how helpful it would be to cite successful models or places, even if they are relatively small communities. Even if systems need to be addressed, it can be hard to tackle everything at once without some hope that the goal can be reached. Are there cities/municipalities/states/regions that have some answers that can be adopted elsewhere

The case for a social problem: over 49,000 pedestrian deaths in the US 2008-2017

A new report addresses pedestrian deaths in the United States:

Harrowing data showed that between 2008 and 2017 the number of annual pedestrian deaths in the U.S. increased by 35.7 percent. A total of 49,340 died in that 10-year period. That’s more than 13 people killed per day or one person every hour and 46 minutes…

“Why is this happening?” authors of the report asked. “We’re not walking more and we’re only driving slightly more than we were back in 2008. What is happening is that our streets, which we designed for the movement of vehicles, haven’t changed. In fact, we are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people.”

Federal and state transportation policies, blueprints and funding are stuck in the age of the automobile, when sprawling growth patterns — especially in the Sun Belt — led to wider roads, longer blocks and street engineering that prioritized high speeds for cars over safety for people on foot, on bikes or using mass transit, the report says.

Among the victims, death rates are disproportionately high for the elderly, minorities and people walking in poor communities, data showed. Older adults are more often struck at an intersection or in a crosswalk than younger victims. In San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, residents organized marches, flash mobs and 20-second performances in crosswalks to campaign for longer signal times for elderly and disabled people.

The numbers are likely shocking for many readers: that many people died over a 10 year stretch from walking? The cause for many a social problem is advanced by such figures which reveal to the average person the scope of an issue they rarely consider.

But, put those figures next to those that died in car accidents and they pale in comparison. Are the two numbers combined – both primarily the result of an automobile dependent culture – more valuable? Or, are they simply what Americans are willing to do for the sake of driving?

To me, the next step is to ask what it would take to reach a critical mass of Americans to push against a car dominated society and press for better options for pedestrians and other non-vehicles on streets and roads. This is not an easy task; diverting resources and attention away from roads and highways is difficult.

Deciding at which social level to counter a social problem

Once groups of Americans agree that an issue in society needs to be addressed, they encounter an important question: at what social level should we target our efforts? There are numerous options for many important issues. For example, see an earlier post about how efforts to fight smog in Los Angeles did not seriously address driving but rather pushed Detroit to create more efficient vehicles.

Two social institutions regularly come to mind when I think about how many Americans want to address social problems: schools and the federal government. Even as different sides might not agree which problems they think schools or the federal government should, the country has regular debates about how these institutions should be doing something different.

Start with schools. Because attendance is compulsory, children spend so much time there, learning may be the universally recognized need in a knowledge economy, and what is learned as a child can carry through a full lifetime, they seem like they are great places to address issues.

For similar reasons, it may appear prudent to operate at the level of the federal government Because it has broad oversight over the United States, it has the potential to shape numerous lives. Certain issues are so big and/or affect so many people that the federal government may seem to be the only way to adequately address a concern.

Both institutions are important in our society yet enacting change at these larger levels can be very difficult. Change brings a lot of attention. Politicians on all sides get involved. Those opposed to large-scale government action can be energized. Crafting one-size-fits-all policies is difficult.

What, then, are alternatives? Here are three common ways Americans go if they do not want to go large-scale:

Work through local or national voluntary associations. This can range from the local Rotary to religious congregations and a group of neighbors who get together to do something. With de Toqueville’s oft-repeated quote about the zeal with which Americans joined such groups, this option could offer hope (even as Americans are not participating in these like they did before – see Bowling Alone).

Voluntary associations benefit from the eagerness of their members to participate but Americans can also work through local governments which are always present. Americans tend to like smaller-scale government activity and oversight. Why get the federal government or the state involved when a city or community, township, or county could try to address the matter? For some issues, this social level may be too local – larger issues are hard to deal with one community at a time. At the same time, these smaller governments could try a variety of options and this can provide information on what might work at larger levels.

Finally, Americans can work through individual action. There is a reason that we celebrate certain notable individuals who worked tirelessly and successfully to fight for their convictions: it is rare to see such individual level success (and often, these famous figures benefited from organizations and support behind them). The actions of one person may typically not accomplish much but the aggregate actions of thousands or millions of people can add up or passionate individuals can help start movements.

All together, it is not easy to figure out which option might be the most effective in order to address important social problems. For many issues, it is likely that people are trying to find solutions at all of these levels: schools, the federal government, voluntary associations, local governments, and individual action. Actions at these various levels can occasionally intersect and enrich each other, helping provide energy for a broader movement or consensus. Indeed, truly finding solutions to social concerns likely requires broad action, even if the efforts began at just one of these social levels.

The best ASA talk I heard: Hampton and Wellman on moral panics and “persistent-pervasive” community

Internet and community scholars presented a paper on Sunday at the ASA meetings that addressed the widespread social concerns – or moral panic – over the loss of community and relationships due to smartphones, social media, and the Internet. They argue this particular argument is nothing new. For at least a century, Westerners and sociologists have argued various technological and social changes have harmed traditional notions of community. I’ll do my best to summarize the argument and they explained it should be in a published piece soon.

At the beginning of the discipline of sociology, leading figures lamented the loss of close-knit communities. Often based in villages or small cities, these societies were marked by close ties, shared cultural values, and limited interaction with the outside world. Tönnies called this gemeinscahft and Durkheim labeled it mechanical solidarity. The development of capitalism, industrialization, and megacities upended these traditional ways of life with increased mobility, moving away from relatives, and the fragmentation of collective values. Tönnies called this gesellschaft and Durkheim termed this organic solidarity. Marx also responded to these major social changes by arguing workers experienced alienation as they were now cogs in a capitalistic machine rather than free individuals. Writing specifically about cities, Simmel worried that dense population centers would lead to overstimulated minds and cause mental distress.

But, the changes kept coming. Urbanization took off – and is still happening at amazing rates in many parts of the world – and was later supplanted by suburbanization in the United States (and a few other countries). Critics also claimed suburbanization ruined community. Whereas urban residents interacted with numerous neighbors and often lived in ethnic enclaves, suburbs moved people to private single-family homes, encouraged individual interests, and produced conformity. Numerous critics inside and outside sociology argued suburbs limits civil society.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media then disrupted suburban communities with a move away from the limits of proximity and geography. Now, users could interact with other users unconstrained by time and space. Close ties could be abandoned in favor of ties based on common interests. Users had little reason to contribute to civil society based on geography. As Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic, the introduction of the iPhone marks a turning point toward a host of negative individual and collective outcomes.

Hampton and Wellman make this point: all of these technological and social changes and their effects on communities afforded both new opportunities and limitations. In a shift from close-knit communities to post-industrial community to what they now call “persistent-pervasive community,” people gained things and lost others. The new form of community offers two primary strengths: the ability to engage in long-term relationships that in the past would have disappeared as people moved geographically and socially as well as a new awareness of information, people, and the world around them. Going back to earlier stages of community, a world of closer face-to-face bonds or geographically-bounded relationships, might lead to negative outcomes like repression, conformity, hierarchy, constraints, and a lack of awareness of important causes like social justice and equality.

In the end, should a moral panic push Americans back toward an earlier form of community or should we recognize that the persistent-pervasive community of today contains both opportunities and threats?

(Three reasons why I resonated with this talk. First, it combines two areas of research in which I engage: suburban communities and social network site use. Both are communities and institutions yet they are typically treated as separate spheres. Additionally, both are relatively ignored by mainstream sociology even as more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and the vast majority of Americans are affected by the Internet and social media. Second, a balanced approach where social change is recognized as having both positive and negative consequences fits my personality as well as my research findings. Sometimes, the negative consequences of social change are easy to identify but often the change happens because groups and institutions believe there is something to be gained by changes. Third, while there is always a danger in simplified explanations of large-scale social change, I think sociologists can contribute much by explaining broad changes over time.)

How a 9-year-old estimated that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day

Statistics are often vital to public campaigns to fight social problems. The problem of plastic straws is no exception. Here is how 9-year-old Milo Cress developed the oft-cited statistic:

But as Cress began to dig into research on plastics and the environment, he noticed there wasn’t much data: “I couldn’t find anything on our use of straws in the United States,” he said.

So he called straw manufacturers himself, asking what they estimated to be the straw market in the United States per day. Some gave him a yearly estimate, which he divided by 365.

“Others gave an estimate of around 500 million straws,” Cress said. “That was the number that I stuck to, because it seemed to be around the middle of what they were saying.”…

“Why I use this statistic is because it illustrates that we use too many straws,” he said. “I think if it were another number, it still illustrates the fact that there is room for reduction. That’s really my message.”

Sociologist Joel Best, who has written about the social construction of statistics, could have a field day with this.

With all of the debate regarding this figure, couldn’t someone with expertise in this field offer a number that has some more rigor? Even if the number changes a bit, say it goes down to 200 million straws day, it would not matter much as either figure is huge. And this is the whole point (and this is often the case for advocates against a particular social problem): the big number is intended to shock and spur action.

Evangelicals and sociology: problems

Yesterday, I discussed five patterns I’ve observed in how evangelicals interact with sociology. Here are some problems with these patterns:

  1. The patterns ignore significant areas of research that affect the lives of evangelicals and their organizations on a daily basis. This ranges from research on organizations (why do so many churches and organizations try to reinvent the wheel?) to social problems that evangelicals hope to address (such as development, poverty, health issues, etc.).
  2. Sociology could help evangelicals address certain blind spots. For example, numerous academics as well as evangelicals have written about the group’s problem with race and how an individualistic approach fails to appropriately grapple with structural realities. Sociology written by Christians and non-Christians could help evangelicals move forward in this area.
  3. Sociologists are also interested in the improvement of society. Thus, casting them as enemies may create unnecessary with people who could be helpful to evangelical causes. Evangelicals, more so than fundamentalists, want to engage society. In recent decades in the United States, this has involved taking more public roles and pushing for certain policies and behaviors (at a variety of levels from the federal government to non-profit organizations). Sociologists may have some different end goals than evangelicals but both want to engage society and not succumb to societal apathy and withdrawal. Are there areas in which sociologists and evangelicals could partner (outside of the typical culture war or conservative issues to which evangelicals devote much attention)?
  4. The suspicion of sociology tells evangelicals that is an area unworthy of study. This is odd given the group’s claims that God can work through everything (including non-Christians), there are concepts like common grace, and all truth is God’s truth.
  5. Conservative Protestants sometimes have a limited interest in seeing society as complex and difficult to understand. They can often be reductionistic about social ills, attributing the issues to sin (even as the various forms of sin as well as the consequences can be multifaceted) or bad individuals.

Tomorrow: possible solutions to these problems.

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

260,000 trees a year for mortgage documents

Mortgages are important documents given how much money they involve yet they also consume a lot of trees according to one estimate:

According to the report, those seeking a mortgage encounter scores of paperwork — in some cases, more than 50 loan documents — including everything from an appraisal report to the loan application, topping out at an estimated 252 pages. Add in another 28 pages, approximately, for documents borrowers must provide such as pay stubs and bank statements…

Multiply 280 pages per mortgage by an average of 7.8 million mortgages a year — a figure from a recent Federal Reserve Bulletin — and what have you got?

That’s right: almost 2.2 billion sheets of paper annually from mortgages alone. That equals more than 41,000 tons of wood and over 260,000 trees…

A FreeandClear survey conducted in February polled homeowners ages 22 to 49 who have a mortgage. In one question, on the most taxing part of the mortgage process, 56 percent of respondents pointed to excessive paperwork.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. Remember all those predictions that we would move away from the world of paper? Even with the disadvantages it may have, it is pretty useful to have paper documents in a number of situations.
  2. I assume “excessive paperwork” is relative to “typical” amounts of paperwork people have to fill out. Is it a bit unrealistic to expect that a mortgage – a significant contract for the average borrower – shouldn’t have little paperwork?
  3. The 260,000 trees figure is supposed to be shocking and help us think more about the social problem of tree removal. All those trees just for mortgages?!? But, how many trees are cut down each year for paper? One source from a few years suggests it is over 4 billion trees each year. Time says 15 billion trees – for all uses – are cut down each year but this is out of a base of roughly 4 trillion trees overall. How about a look at how many trees are used for newspapers each year in the United States? Is this a more acceptable use of paper?