Argument: Westchester County and affordable housing better off without federal government involvement

The headline summarizes the argument: “Team Trump just called a halt to the Obama-era war on the American suburbs.”

But the big win came last month, when — based on Westchester’s experience and expertise from groups like Americans for Limited Government — the Trump administration replaced Team Obama’s AFFH regulation with its own.

Gone is the federal mandate dictating the modeling of communities based on statistical formulas. Restored to local officials is the power that gives them the flexibility to weigh real-world factors in making housing decisions. Restored, too, is the prosecution of bad actors by the courts — not bureaucrats — under the Fair Housing Act.

And builders are now more likely to build affordable housing, since the attached strings have been removed.

The Democratic candidates for president didn’t get the memo. They continue to support radical, divisive and failed housing policies aimed at abolishing single-family residential zoning. And they’d use billions of our tax dollars to local communities — and the threat of lawsuits — to get their way.

The United States needs affordable housing. By replacing social engineering with common sense, guarded by strong nondiscrimination laws, the country is now better positioned to meet that need — and that’s a victory for everyone.

See more on the exclusionary zoning and housing in Westchester County: more recently under the Obama administration, in the 1970s, and the affordable housing issue in the county.

Conservatives claimed the Obama administration wanted to push Americans away from suburbs and into cities. This claim of social engineering tends to ignore the social engineering of suburbs, with plenty of federal government help, toward whiter and single-family home communities.

More broadly, this gets at a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals will argue that government intervention is needed regarding housing. As noted above, this might start with more serious enforcement of housing laws already on the books. But, this would not necessarily tackle the harder issues of residential segregation or exclusionary zoning, These issues would require communities across metropolitan regions to provide cheaper housing so that certain communities do not carry the burden. The conservative argument is different: the government needs to get out of housing and should let local governments make the decisions that would best serve their residents. Builders and developers will be empowered to construct cheaper housing with fewer regulations. Or, perhaps neither party really wants single-family home suburbia.

I have argued before that free markets for housing will not work. When given the opportunity, wealthier communities will not build cheaper housing as they would prefer to remain more exclusive. Recent efforts in California suggest it will take a lot even at the state level to promote more affordable housing. Plus, major political party candidates do not seem too keen to tackle housing. Americans may not like the idea of the federal government weighing in on local development decision but in many metropolitan regions the preference for local control is not moving the logjam of needed affordable housing.

Millennials looking for “hipsturbia”?

An article about millennials settling in the suburbs of Colorado includes this summary of what millennials are looking for:

Essentially, millennials want the best of both worlds — the more affordable and spacious housing and better school districts found in the suburbs and the walkability and bustle of activity that older city neighborhoods offer.

The Urban Land Institute and accounting firm PwC, in their Emerging Trends in Real Estate report for 2020, have coined a term for the crossbreeding that is taking place — hipsturbia.

“Many of these ‘cool’ suburbs are associated with metro areas having vibrant downtowns, illustrating the falsity of a dichotomy that pits central cities against ring communities,” according to the report.

Sounds like the “surban” place described in the Chicago Tribune: single-family homes with more community amenities within walking distance. And you say the supposed battle between cities and suburbs is not necessary?

From the beginning in the United States, suburbs offered a middle ground between city and country. The early suburbs of the mid-1800s offered single-family homes surrounded by nature and some early suburbs were designed in ways to play up the connection to nature. Also from the beginning, some suburbs were closer to urban life than others and offered homes in denser settings. Some of these suburbs would later become known as inner-ring suburbs. More recently, pockets of suburbia have emphasized higher densities that might have grown around traditional downtowns or around new mixed-use developments. All that say, suburbs can be viewed as occupying a middle ground between different locations and hipsturbia continues that trend with offering features of both suburban and city life.

On a related note, it would be interesting to see if any suburbs come to have a mass of millennials. Just as urban neighborhoods can be ranked by the proportion of their millennial population, so might suburbs. If there is a critical mass, would this significantly change suburban social life?

Install a video doorbell to “join the neighborhood” in fear

A recent ad from Ring shows the kind acts neighbors can perform for each other and visitors. The moments range from dropping off misdelivered mail to warning about a fire to capturing footage of someone shoveling a front sidewalk to a resident leaving out snacks for delivery drivers. All of this looks good…And yet: do people install video doorbells because they want to capture good deeds? Or, are they more likely motivated by fear and safety concerns?

I have written about the new possibilities for suburban neighborhoods: homeowners with video doorbells can work as an ever watching surveillance force. And the footage can be shared with police! And no one has to answer the door! But, all of these share motivations: this is about fear, not about neighborliness. Even looking out for others in the neighborhood via the camera is about fighting against crime, disorder, and threats.

On the whole, I would guess video cameras will not increase the number of good needs and neighborliness. American communities need more face-to-face interaction, not monitoring via cameras or online discussions through platforms like NextDoor or messages through yard signs. The commercial is a worthy attempt by Ring to bring a positive message regarding the doorbell camera but hides more of what is really going on.

 

Aiming for resilient suburbs with long-term thinking about development

Fate, Texas, almost thirty miles northeast of Dallas, has grown rapidly in recent decades. But, the community is aiming for a different kind of suburban growth:

This financial distress is the inevitable endgame of a development pattern that doesn’t generate enough private wealth to sustain the public investment that supports it. So Fate planning staff began asking developers to document the ratio of public to private investment for every proposed project. This process lends itself to difficult, adult conversations about the long-term fiscal impacts of near-term growth. And elected officials in Fate have proved willing to have those conversations. The next challenge: bringing the public along with an affirmative vision of a financially resilient future for the small city…

What’s difficult is fostering such a conversation while the continued booming growth of North Texas drives developers to seek permission to build in Fate now, not a decade from now. One approach the city has taken is to work with the developers of in-progress or phased projects to alter their M.O. moving forward…

The city finds developers amenable to such voluntary amendments, because there is usually some overlap in interests. A more compact development pattern that integrates single-family homes with townhomes, apartments, or mixed-use development, for example, can simultaneously shore up the city’s revenues and render development more profitable in the long run. Still, residents are struggling with getting more and more neighbors, and with the high taxes they have to pay to special districts that facilitated the first waves of growth…

This path forward, if the city can manage it, entails actively pursuing high-quality, compact downtown development that pays its bills—now and in the long run—as a proof of concept, a way to demonstrate to residents that this path can lead to a desirable, prosperous community. It would be a gamble on the proposition that most people, in North Texas or elsewhere, aren’t unshakably anti-walkability or anti-urbanism. It would be a bet that the right kind of strong neighborhood will change some hearts and minds. Fate’s plan to attract new residents to the city—people looking for something different than what Richardson or other nearby towns have to offer—might just work in the long run.

In the United States, municipal growth is good but that does not necessarily mean it is sustainable in the long run. At the least, suburban communities can only grow so long in generating more and more subdivisions until they run out of land. As this article notes, the infrastructure of suburbia can be expensive to maintain as growth slows.

There are multiple solutions communities can pursue:

1. Like in Fate, consider the long-term early on to hopefully avoid other problems down the road.

2. Slow growth/limited development. This helps avoid the big boom suburbs can face for a short stretch that occurs and disappears quickly.

3. Just keep growing; if the open land runs out, start building up. Population growth can come through multiple paths.

If the bigger picture is correct (titled “the Growth Ponzi Scheme”), then many suburbs will have much to reckon with in the coming decades.

 

Imagine the American suburbs shrunk by a factor of five

A comparison of suburbs in Germany and the United States hints at places built on two different scales:

The fact is, my wife’s parents didn’t drive her anywhere because they didn’t need to. Her German suburb looks like an American suburb – shrunk by a factor of about five. The houses are smaller, the lots are smaller, the gardens are smaller, and around most corners are buildings with multiple housing units. It’s denser. That means friends and volleyball practices and first jobs at pizza shops are all closer, and parents can tell their kids to walk or take a bicycle.

For the younger generations in America, that is an increasingly pleasing prospect. Car buying is dropping and a growing share of millennials and Gen Zers is putting off getting a driver’s license or eschewing it entirely. They want to take the bicycle. Add in concerns about climate change among many young Americans (and wanting to limit car emissions), and you get a scenario where density becomes desirable.

Yet most American neighborhoods have been designed with the exact opposite in mind. The expression “your home is your castle” gives some indication of the prevailing mindset since the 1920s, when modern single-family zoning first took hold. Who wants the smallest castle on the block?

So what is happening now, from the D.C. suburbs to California, is a recalibration of what American homeownership should look like. There are other important factors, too. The single-family mentality and its lower density mean fewer places to live – and therefore more upward pressure on home prices. That has meant many people of color have been locked out of the most common way for individuals and families to build wealth. Many young Americans say equity demands greater density.

The argument for denser suburbs is a common one in recent years. Packing in more buildings and housing units in the same amount of land has the potential to allow suburbanites to keep single-family homes (just with smaller yards and multi-family housing would not look as out of place). New suburban development would shift from new homes on the the edges of metropolitan regions and focus instead on filling in existing communities.

I could see this happening in at least three kinds of suburbs:

1. Mature suburbs with little greenfield land for development but there is still demand/interest in more housing. The only way is go denser or up and denser at least preserves the vertical scale.

2. Communities built around significant mass transit options. Transit-oriented development promotes density and less car use.

3. Suburbs with larger populations. More density is likely to be resisted in smaller communities because they can still claim to be a small town. In contrast, large suburbs are already past that point so more density already fits the size of the community.

Then, we might see in a decade or two an altered suburban landscape where certain communities are quite dense and nearby suburbs are in the older mode of single-family homes and bigger yards. Imagine “surban” pockets with sprawling neighborhoods next door. This will provide options for homebuyers but also means mass transportation options in the suburbs will remain uneven.

Racialized McMansions

When I examined the complexity of the term McMansion in New York City and Dallas newspapers, I did not run into this dimension from the San Gabriel Valley as detailed by Wendy Cheng in The Changs Next Door to the Díazes:

In early twenty-first-century multiethnic suburbs with a significant immigrant Chinese presence such as the West SGV, struggles over the landscape are still racially coded in terms of values and territory. For instance (as mentioned in Chapter 2), public discourse around McMansions or “monster homes” – a practice associated with wealthy ethnic Chinese immigrants of tearing down a newly purchased house in order to build a larger house, usually resulting in significant reduction of yard space – is one way in which Asian immigrants are depicted as being unable to conform to American values and ideals. Such practices render them unfit as neighbors and, by extension, as members of American civil society. In short, places coded as Chinese or Asian, like the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinatowns before them, continue to be seen either as threats encroaching on implicitly white, American suburban space or as autonomous foreign spaces that serve particular functions but are not to exceed their prescribed bounds. The prescription and negotiation of these bounds is a conflictual process, with both symbolic and material consequences. (133-134)

Here, the term McMansion is fulfilling two dimensions of the term McMansion I discussed: it is meant as a pejorative term and it applies to a situation where a property owner tears down a home and constructs a larger home. Both are common uses for the term.

Typically, McMansion concerns involve wealthier and white residents. The term can have classist connotations: the nouveau riche may purchase a McMansion to show off their wealth while those with more taste would purchase a modernist home or go a custom architect-designed home. In this particular context, McMansion is applied to a particular group of owners as well as their position in the community and the country. This is not just about a newcomer coming in with resources and disrupting a particular neighborhood character. This usage links McMansions to a broader history of race and ethnicity plus ongoing conflicts in many American communities, suburbs included, about who is welcome. Single-family homes are not the only feature of the suburban American Dream; this ideal also includes exclusion by race and ethnicity. And to welcome a new resident with the term McMansion is not intended to be a kind beginning.

I will look for further connections of McMansions to race and ethnicity. Are there other communities in the Los Angeles area where McMansion is used in similar ways? Is the term applied to other racial or ethnic groups in other places?

Looking deeper at Wheaton, Illinois in Walmart’s “United Towns” ad

During the Super Bowl, Walmart ran an ad titled “United Towns.” From roughly 0:10-0:12, there is a a shot of Wheaton, Illinois looking south on Main Street. Here is the view:

WheatonWalmart2020

Four things of note from this short appearance of Wheaton in a national ad:

  1. As a number of Wheaton residents noted online, there is no Walmart in Wheaton. This is true but it obscures the larger story. One, how many Wheaton residents shop at Walmart (there are two within several miles of the town’s borders) as opposed to other big box stores (such as the Target in Wheaton or the several within a few miles)? Or, how many Walmart employees live in Wheaton? Two, there may be reasons Wheaton has no Walmart: it might not have wanted one. The busy stretch along Roosevelt Road is carefully controlled by the city – no big box stores. The largest shopping area, Danada, does not have any big box stores (though it now has three sizable grocery stores). Wheaton had one of the first Target stores in the area but it is located right on the edge of town and a proposed Home Depot across the street did not get approval and is now just past Wheaton’s northern border.
  2. The image captures a feature of Wheaton life: the passing of trains through the downtown and the community. Without the train line, there is no Wheaton (at least the one officially founded in the 1850s). The train may be a fact of life in Wheaton and numerous other American communities but it is not necessarily a welcome one since these trains can delay traffic.
  3. The ad on the whole promotes the ideas of small towns and community life. There are lots of shots of houses and older downtown buildings. But, is Walmart both a rural/small town as well as a suburban phenomenon? Without suburban stores – meaning Walmart locations along main roads, within sprawl, and dependent on driving – Walmart is not the company it is today. Like many Americans, Walmart might promote the ideal of small towns but not really live in that world.
  4. Connected to #3, the shot of a cute or quaint suburban downtown is an interesting contrast to the effect of Walmart in the American economy plus the larger changes in which they participated. Wheaton’s downtown is in okay shape but imagine what it could be without big box stores. More broadly, downtowns across the country pursued different options to counter the changes in retail and shopping in the postwar era (starting with shopping malls and strip malls and later extending to big box stores).