The world cooperates with the timing of my blog posts

No sooner do I write a taxonomy of gentrification than a Huff Post story piggybacking on a Tom Sugrue op-ed goes semi-viral in my corner of Twitter. (Sugrue, in case you didn’t know, is perhaps the world’s foremost historian of America’s Rust Belt cities, in particular Detroit, and is featured twice on my Bookroll to the right. If you haven’t read him and you live in America – or if you plan on spending any significant amount of time living here, or even talking about it – please do yourself the favor.)

As online missives about gentrification go, this is definitely better than average. It also, though, seems deeply confused – not because it makes any unreasonable points, but because it moves back and forth between many of the compelling but contradictory arguments I went over yesterday.

To begin with, the title – “Detroit Doesn’t Need Hipsters to Survive, It Needs Black People” – suggests that the author believes in the “intrusion” and “displacement” arguments: Detroit has become a community for black people, and so they should continue to “own” it, culturally and economically.

But then later the author reveals that, actually, she has integrationist sympathies:

Detroit’s population now hovers around 700,000 people. Thirty-eight percent of its residents live under the poverty line, and the city’s median income is less than $27,000. The city has a persistent legacy of residential segregation — metropolitan Detroit is the most segregated urban area in America — which plays a role in many residents’ anxiety about being physically displaced.

She notes with approval that integration is reversing capital’s 50-year racist boycott of Detroit:

Attracting wealthier residents and new businesses to the city is not without its benefits. It’s helping to stabilize the city’s tax base, for one thing, which means more money for essential services like garbage pickup, cops and firefighters.

She also quotes Sugrue on the city’s need to do “things like revamping the public school system,” which – having read his books – I feel relatively confident he thinks is predicated on at least some measure of desegregation.

But then she veers back to intrusion, quoting a U of M sociologist who describes the process much better than I did:

Meagan Elliott, an urban planner and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, is studying the ways in which newcomers’ efforts to revitalize Detroit neighborhoods can impact long-term residents. Her focus is on “cultural displacement,” a condition that she defines thusly: “By cultural displacement, I mean a sense of place and community and feeling like you have the right to creating the vision for that community’s future. Even if people are not forced from their homes due to rising rents, they may feel like their community is less their own than it used to be.”

But then Ms. Elliott says that actually Detroiters ought to embrace their new (mostly white) neighbors, who are actually doing some good things for the city. And the article ends by suggesting that maybe Detroit’s new white mayor is going to put things in the right direction.

Remember, the title of this article was “Detroit Needs Black People.”

My point, to the extent I have one, isn’t that this is so ridiculous, but that it would be nice if we were all a bit more self-conscious about where our sympathies and priorities lie. If they conflict – as mine do – that’s totally fine. But recognizing that they conflict is a necessary first step to coming up with any sort of coherent attitude and set of solutions. It’s also the first step to (pardon the editorializing) not talking about gentrification like an asshole, and (for example) using a public forum to call people who move to an interesting neighborhood they can afford “motherfuckers,” or writing an entire column in a national magazine about how racist some guy is for wishing his childhood neighborhood hadn’t changed so much.

Cleveland, the South Side, love, ownership

Angie Schmitt speaks the truth:

What are some of the stereotypes about Cleveland? Poor? Check. Segregated? Check. Blue collar? Check.

Anyway, I think what really defines Cleveland, Cleveland’s place in the scheme of things, lies just outside the art museum: very poor and segregated neighborhoods. So poor, so segregated, that they rise to being nationally exceptional. And while it’s ok to take pride in our art museum — great even — it doesn’t give us a pass on something like that. It’s odd to insist it does, IMO.

I think there might even be sort of a direct tension there. The art museum just raised $350 million for a really beautiful renovation. I think it’s easy for them to do that in part because of the prestige we imagine it affords on us personally, as Clevelanders. This is especially true for rich folks, I think, Cleveland’s titans, the ones who give money. Because being important in Cleveland is one thing, but if Cleveland isn’t a city that matters in the scheme of things, what does that say about our important people?

Anyway, sometimes I like to idly wonder how far than $350 million would have gone toward fixing what’s wrong with Glenville and East Cleveland, although I’m pretty confident the money would have been much more difficult to raise. Could it have helped solve some of the problems that have come to define us?

Relatedly: I was on the train earlier this week, and two white men got on and asked their neighbors, who were two black women, how to get to a hotel. The women told them. And then began a sort of stock conversation that Chicagoans have with tourists: How do you like the weather, ha ha? The men, who were from Atlanta, did not like it. Have you been on a subway before? Yes, but not often. Would you come back? Oh, yes. We love Chicago, the men said.

The men reached their station, and left.

One woman said to the other: I hate it when people say that – I love Chicago. No, you don’t. You love downtown and the North Side. The other woman said, Uh huh.

I thought, unhelpfully: I love the South Side.

I decided I would write a blog post about it. The South Side for North Siders: How to love your city.

I would write about the grand old highrises along the lake in South Shore, and their post-war cousins, in all their glazed-green-brick glory. And the manicured bungalows on the side streets around 79th in Chatham, and the park where I eat hot links from Lem’s BBQ in Park Manor. And the greystones that make my heart ache on King in Bronzeville, and the row of cottages on Berkeley in Kenwood. And the parents who kibbitz every morning on the 59th St. bus while they take their kids to school, while I take myself to school.

I imagine, though, that had I said all of that to the women, they might have responded: That’s a bit too easy. You get to love all of that and then go back to your neighborhood, where the schools more or less work and the streets are more or less safe and your neighbors are people who are not slandered the world over as impoverished barbarians.

That would be fair.

Of the many crimes of segregation, surely one of the most pernicious is that an imaginary boundary between people, between places, becomes real. That it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Blackhood and whitehood and the ghetto are no more intellectually or philosophically serious than a grade school experiment, but also they are. The South Side is every bit as much my city as the North Side, to own me and be owned by me, but also it isn’t.

I acknowledge that.

But also I think it’s necessary to acknowledge that the emperor is naked. Those boundaries don’t exist, at least not in any moral or economic or human sense; and to the extent that they do, they don’t demarcate separate worlds but different faces of the same world. There was not one housing policy for the ghetto, and another for the Gold Coast; racism did not appear in the ghetto, and disappear in the Gold Coast; there was not one capitalism for the ghetto, and another for the Gold Coast. All of it was the same: our housing policy was to create in one place a ghetto and in another a Gold Coast; racism’s mandate was to create in one place a ghetto and in another a Gold Coast; capitalism’s outcome was to create in one place a ghetto and in another a Gold Coast.

I’ve written before that the young and economically mobile don’t get to opt out of being gentrifiers, but really the issue is much larger than that: no one gets to opt out of owning all the evils they have been breathing in – and out – their entire lives. If the very same forces created both the ghetto and the Gold Coast, then they created both me and the parents on the 59th St. bus; if they are still operating – and they are – then I and the parents on the 59th St. bus are in the process of recreating the ghetto and the Gold Coast every waking minute. And if the ghetto and the Gold Coast are both our parents and our children, then surely we’re entitled to love them.

Is this too much mumbo-jumbo? Maybe. There’s another way of saying all this, which involves recounting the names of Cabinet secretaries and budget appropriations and dates and times and graphs and spreadsheets. If you read this blog, you know I’m comfortable enough with all of that. If you look to the right, I’ve assembled a list of some of the people who have done it that way best.

Sometimes, though, I think it’s worth it saying it this way, which involves gesturing at love and sadness.

Why is urbanism so white?

The answer has to start, of course, with an acknowledgment that there are multiple things one might call “urbanism,” and that not all of them are notably white. Within recent memory here in Chicago, for example, majority-Latino and majority-black organizations have led marches supporting better bus service and El extensions, and housing activists tend to be a reasonably diverse bunch.

That said, the people who tend to use the term “urbanist” to describe themselves – and the ones whose ideas and political programs are represented in national media outlets and departments of transportation across the country – tend, overwhelmingly, to be white. I suspect anyone who spends much time following “urbanist” news knows this to be true; but, if we need more concrete proof, Planetizen’s list of the “Top 100 Urban Thinkers,” selected by the votes of its readers, contains approximately three people of Hispanic origin and not a single black person. Whether or not this reflects an actual absence of important nonwhite urbanist thinkers (I’m doubtful), it certainly reflects the kinds of people urbanists look to for intellectual leadership.

As Pete Saunders wrote in this 2012 post (which directed me to the Planetizen list), this is curious. In most of the older, walkable, transit-oriented American cities where urbanists tend to congregate – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, DC – whites are a minority. Even in Seattle and Minneapolis, which Aaron Renn once singled out for being urbanist causes celebres with notably pale inhabitants, nonwhites are about a third of the population. Moreover, up until very recently – and still, in certain circles – the very word “urban” was a euphemism for black people.

Saunders has a few ideas about this, and I think they mostly make sense. You should really read the post. But I would synthesize his points, and add a bit of my own ideas, like this:

1. Areas that were built up by the 1960s or so – the ones that are reasonably urbanist-friendly – were subject to public policies and social norms that basically ensured racial segregation, and also ensured that black areas would be starved of investment, and that most white areas would not. Then, of course,  we decided to tear down half of our inner-city black neighborhoods and replace them with highways, sports stadiums, or anything else that sounded better to the average midcentury city councilman than houses for black people. Thus, with some exceptions, when people think about urban black neighborhoods – the ones that still exist – the feelings they evoke are much more complicated, and less purely nostalgic and positive, than those felt by young white adults about the neighborhoods their parents and grandparents abandoned.

Moreover, it’s not totally clear how many trendy, vibrating* urban neighborhoods are unproblematic for large numbers of black or Latino people, given general preferences for places where your ethnic group makes up, at least, a large minority of the population (preferences obviously shared by white people, who however are not in the position of having to choose between vibrating urban spaces and being among their coethnics). This is a problem even in places where white people are generally surprised to hear it (for example, large parts of  Manhattan), and even the places that come immediately to mind as exceptions are also places where the white population is rapidly expanding.

Instead, the most prosperous black neighborhoods tend to be in the suburbs, or in relatively newer city neighborhoods – places like suburban DC or Calumet Heights in Chicago. It’s not an accident that Saunders writes of his own feelings in a more recent post:

I did not grow up in the suburbs.  I grew up in Detroit, albeit in a solidly stable, black middle class environment.  As a child, I never saw the suburbs as a place of stultifying soullessness or oppressive homogeneity.  I guess you have to grow up in them to view them that way.  I always viewed the suburbs as the other side of the new Wall, an escape from the messiness of the city.  I grew up a half mile from Eight Mile Road, Detroit’s northern boundary, and in the ’70s the differences between my side and the other side were pretty stark.  They still are.

In that context, a movement whose premise – whose ticket to membership – is the embrace of all things “urban,” and a corresponding disdain for suburbia, doesn’t make a ton of sense.

2. Urbanism, broadly speaking, is an optimistic, technocratic movement among people who believe – at their most cynical – that city governments can do the right thing, if only they are harangued enough. Suffice it to say that this worldview is somewhat harder to maintain while standing in a black neighborhood. Since most of the projects of urbanism are about using levers of public policy to reshape neighborhoods (even if, in very important ways, those policies would be liberalizing), there’s a sort of assumed trust in government, and if you don’t have that trust, the movement will be much less attractive to you. Given the sorts of interventions governments have taken in nonwhite neighborhoods, it’s reasonable to think that white people would be more likely to have that trust. (It’s probably worth taking this one more step and saying that, broadly, middle-class and especially educated upper-middle-class white people will be even more likely to have that kind of trust, and, indeed, I think urbanism is a pretty thoroughly upper-middle-class movement.)

Generally, it’s not ideal when a political movement in a democratic society is made up of a group of people who are wildly unrepresentative of the general population. Urbanists clearly have this problem. And it’s not just a matter of optics, or tokenism. Urbanism is still a relatively new, evolving movement, which is being shaped in front of our very eyes by the academics, writers, and activists we’ve just established are overwhelmingly white. If those shapers are missing important perspectives – the priorities, of, say, the majority of the people who live major American cities – they’re going to be missing a lot.

Partly, that suggests that urbanism is going to lean towards the yuppie variety, rather than the egalitarian. I’ve written about that issue before.

But it also suggests that even when you get people who are trying to construct an egalitarian urbanism, they’re going to have a skewed vision of what needs to be addressed. For example, they might spend an awful lot of time thinking and writing about gentrification, since educated upper-middle-class white people are much more likely to live in gentrifying neighborhoods than other people. They might spend less time thinking about, say, the problems associated with blue-collar inner-ring suburbs, where very few of them live, go to, or come from. Despite the fact that the latter is just as much – if not more – of a problem than the former, and that really they’re both part of the same problem, namely the way current policy encourages income segregation and damaging waves of investment and disinvestment.

Or you might also get people who are more invested in improving bicycling infrastructure – which is, to be fair, worthy in its own right – than bus networks, which carry orders of magnitude more people.

Anyway, I’m not sure what one does about all of this, except that if you’re part of an urbanist organization, you probably ought to make an active effort to reach out and recruit people from various neighborhoods and communities. And you ought to do it not by convincing them of things they don’t already believe, but by appealing to things they consider in their own self-interest. And if they don’t think anything you’re working on is in their self-interest, then you should probably re-evaluate what you’re working on.

* This is my announcement that I will hereafter never again use the word “vibrant,” which I hate, and when I am tempted I will instead use the word “vibrating.”

My first Atlantic Cities piece…

…is up. I’m not in love with the title, which I didn’t choose, but c’est la vie. But you should read it. Excerpt:

As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, the ghetto is public policy. So, to an amazing extent, is gentrification, which is really only another face of the ghetto. If the market is amoral, casting aside Darwinian losers without regard for human dignity, then the legacy of urban governance in postwar America is deeply immoral, a targeted annihilation and segregation of any and all people — blacks, Appalachians, immigrants, the poor of any color or language — who happened to be of the wrong crowd. Gentrification on the scale we see it today would be nearly impossible without help from exclusionary zoning laws; nor is it clear what would have happened to the major American downtowns around which gentrification now orbits without the government removing hundreds of thousands of undesirables during urban renewal.

Urbanist Books of 2013

Been meaning to do this for a while – a brief rundown of city-related books I read in 2013. Highly recommended books are bolded.

1. The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabella Wilkerson

A history of the Great Migration told through the stories of three individuals who made the move from South to North at various points in the middle of the 20th century. Absolutely deserves the attention it’s got. Not only provides a different angle on the issue of mid-century northern urban racial dynamics, but serves as a kind of bridge in the story of American caste structure between the “feudal” Jim Crow South and “modern” urban renewal in the North. That’s a link that gets buried way too much, and Wilkerson does a great job in illuminating it.

2. Making the Second Ghetto, Arnold Hirsch

The classic history of how Chicago got to be one of the most segregated cities in the developed world. The state power side of things is fairly well-known, but the connections with “polite” civic society groups and organized terrorist organizations – and the sometimes blurry lines between them – aren’t.

3. Black Chicago, Allan Spear

Basically a prequel to Hirsch’s book that covers the original formation of the ghetto between 1890-1920. (Hirsch’s book focuses on the middle of the 20th century.) More state coercion, concerned middle-class white citizens and violence. The history of the ideological and political development of the black community in Chicago is pretty fascinating.

4. The Power Broker, Robert Caro

What even to say? Only that Robert Moses puts Old Man Daley to shame, almost.

5. Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh

Entertaining enough, but I’m not sure it’s actually more educational than The Wire.

6. The Declining Significance of Race, William Julius Wilson

7. Blueprint for Disaster, D. Bradford Hunt

A history of Chicago’s public housing program. Good to read with Radler’s Modern Housing below. Basic thesis is that extreme targeting to the poorest of the poor – driven both by liberals who wanted to help the most needy and conservatives and moderates who wanted to be sure they weren’t crowding out the private market – drove the system into a death spiral. Also spends a lot of time on the unusual but somewhat convincing idea that focusing on serving large families created an untenably large proportion of children in high-rise towers. Spends some time, though I wish it were more, contrasting with NYC’s comparatively successful program.

8. Family Properties, Beryl Satter

Story of Chicago’s movement against housing contract sales, the incredibly risky and exploitative financial tool blacks used to buy homes when they were redlined out of mortgages. If you’ve never heard of contract sales, you owe it to yourself to read this book. As crucial a part of the story of “how Chicago got to be that way” as Second Ghetto.

9. Modern Housing for America, Gail Radford

Fascinating story of the battle between – as Radler puts it – the reformers and the modernists in the fight for a public housing program, beginning in the Victorian era of Riis and going through the Settlement House movement and cresting in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The victory of the reformers, in some ways, drew the “blueprint for disaster” of Hayes’ book.

10. Origins of the Urban Crisis, Thomas Sugrue

The main lesson here is that Detroit is even more fucked than Chicago, and that it’s been that way for a long time. Still, the main reason to read this is if you don’t have time to read Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty.

11. Block by Block, Amanda Seligman

Covers a lot of the same ground as Satter and Hirsch. Good, but I think the others are better.

12. Housing Policy in the United States, Alex Schwartz

Actually very readable as a survey of…you know.

13. A  Better Way to Zone, Donald Elliott

A very fast read. If you’ve got a passing familiarity with zoning issues, it’s worth a look.

14. Contemporary Urban Planning, John Levy

A good introduction.

15. The Great Inversion, Alan Ehrenhalt

Marshals a lot of evidence for a phenomenon that is already conventional wisdom in most urbanist circles.

16. Sweet Land of Liberty, Thomas Sugrue

If it’s criminal that every Chicagoan – even people passing through O’Hare – hasn’t read Second Ghetto, it’s criminal that every American hasn’t read this book. A history of the civil rights movement in the North, the book’s first task is to prove that its subject exists.

17. Rethinking Federal Housing Policy, Ed Glaeser and Gyourko

Whatever your already-existing feelings about housing policy, if you’re going to be part of the debate, you owe it to yourself and everyone around you to read this book. The opening diagnosis of America’s dual housing crises – one for the middle class in elite cities caused by supply restrictions, the other for the poor everywhere caused simply by a lack of resources – is worth getting the book by itself. Most of the rest of the book is a systematic presentation of the overwhelming case against severe development restrictions, along with evidence that the true purpose of restrictions is actually exclusionary, instead of promoting some sort of common-sense urban form. Finally, a proposal for a federal program to encourage housing production and create affordable housing. Read it.

18. Human Transit, Jarrett Walker

Walker, in my opinion, has the best flavor of urbanism’s transit conventional wisdom (he sets a lot of it). This is his blog in book form. Worth it for reference.

19. The City That Became Safe, Franklin Zimring

A frustrating book (not entirely Zimring’s fault) that boils down to: We don’t know why American crime rates fell 40% between 1990 and the late 2000s. We also don’t know why NYC’s crime rates fell an extra 40% on top of that. But it probably didn’t have anything to do with putting people in jail.

20. Sprawl: A Compact History, Robert Bruegmann

See here, here, and here. If you consider yourself an “urbanist,” this is a good book for checking your priors.

21. Sprawl Repair Manual

Pretty pictures. Things to dream about while you look out the window of your bus/car.

22. The New Urban Frontier, Neil Smith

A Marxist take on gentrification, which dispenses with the usual demand-side explanations (change in culture, Millennial desire for vibrancy, whatever), and sticks to a pure supply-side theory that basically posits that there is an inherent cycle to capital investments in real estate, and that after a long period of disinvestment in older areas, we have now reached the stage of reinvestment. Worth reading, although I think a fair amount is left out: why some older areas maintain their investment while others fade, and so on.

23. There Goes the ‘Hood, Lance Freeman

Sociological study of gentrification in Harlem and Brooklyn; comes to much more nuanced conclusions about its effects – and the opinions of existing residents – than the typical conversation on the subject. Quick read.

24. Mayor 1%, Kari Lyderson

Basically a short biography of Rahm Emanuel, followed by a greatest hits of everything the Chicago left hates him for. If you’ve been paying close attention, there isn’t a lot new here, but it does put it all in one place. And there are a couple great anecdotes from Rahm’s past.

On being a gentrifier

About two months ago, I convened a meeting of an urban book club at my apartment in Logan Square. The book in question was a scathing indictment of gentrification as a colonial project whose thesis we took turns more or less affirming. Every person in the room was white. Every person had graduated from a relatively prestigious four-year college. And every person was currently living in a neighborhood at some stage of gentrification.

What to call the tension between our conversation and our lives? Hypocrisy? Delusion? Something much worse?

Mine is a cohort – the youngish, college-educated, left-leaning set – that places a great deal of moral significance on geography. (Probably everyone does; I can only speak to our particular code.) Most of us believe in a moral imperative to reject the suburbs: to disavow environmentally-destructive sprawl, ethnic homogeneity, cultural sterility. In the city, well-to-do neighborhoods aren’t much better: you become a hoarder of privilege, sharing a home with the oppressive classes. And if you move to a poor or working-class neighborhood with your college degree, earning potential, and cultural power, the rents that rise in a ripple outward from you and your friends are just as damning.

As a result, we tend to carry a lot of guilt about our living arrangements. We have a lot of conversations about whether or not it’s acceptable to live in our current neighborhood, or the one we’d like to live in. Sometimes we reassure ourselves by discussing the obviously graver transgressions of the people who live in some other neighborhood. Sometimes we find solace in some part of the continuum of gentrification that we’re comfortable with: the very beginning, when you can kid yourself that your presence isn’t changing anything; or when the tipping point has tipped, and the damage has already been done.

And sometimes we pass around articles like this one, entitled “20 Ways Not To Be a Gentrifier in Oakland.” To be clear, I think most of the suggestions in the article are good ones, and without that title, I would endorse it wholeheartedly. But then they would be “20 Ways To Be a Considerate Neighbor,” or “20 Ways To Be a Decent Person.” It’s the title’s promise – learn how NOT to be a gentrifier! – that I think is misguided and dangerous.

That’s because – as the moral geography two paragraphs up indicates – there’s no way out of being a gentrifier, if you happen to have the social or economic capital that causes gentrification. Regardless of whether you say hi to people on the street or forge cross-cultural social ties, your presence in a non-white, non-affluent community will, in fact, make it easier for other liberal arts graduates to move in; to open businesses that cater to you, and not the previously existing residents; to induce landlords to renovate or redevelop their properties to attract other new, wealthier residents who want access to those businesses; and, if your city restricts housing supply (it does) and doesn’t have rent control (it probably doesn’t), to ultimately create an economically segregated neighborhood of the privileged.

Similarly, living in a neighborhood where market and regulatory forces have already pushed out the low-income means you are helping sustain the high cost of living there, and therefore helping to keep the area exclusive. You can’t escape the role you play in displacement any more than a white person can escape white privilege, because those are both systemic processes that have created your relevant status and assigned its consequences. Among the relevant classes, there is no division between “gentrifiers” and “non-gentrifiers.” You don’t get to opt out.

It’s still worth it, of course, to follow all the advice about respecting the people around you and all that. My point, though, is that you can’t stop there. Being considerate in your day-to-day interactions is a good start, but if you spend a lot of time fretting about your contributions to gentrification, I’d like to suggest that you have another kind of responsibility: to be aware of the underlying systemic processes and use what social and political power you have to change them.

In the case of gentrification, I think that means moving beyond the narrow issue of displacement – which I suspect dominates the conversation partly because it fits the narratives of personal guilt we find so fascinating – and to the more fundamental problem of economic segregation. That is, the fact that people get priced out of homes they already live in is only half the problem: the other half, which affects an order of magnitude more people, is that folks can’t move to neighborhoods they’d like to move to, and are stuck in neighborhoods with worse schools, more crime, and less access to jobs and amenities. That problem is easier to ignore for a variety of reasons, but it’s no less of a disaster.

What to do about all this, obviously, is up for debate, although I can’t imagine a solution that doesn’t involve 1) some kind of protections for people about to be evicted because of rising rents, 2) subsidies for the very low-income, and 3) an end to exclusionary caps on housing construction that keep prices artificially high. But I think it’s necessary to shift the debate away from how to achieve personal salvation for the sin of being a gentrifier – both on the part of ourselves or our peers, and on the part of developers and landlords who act according to the rules and incentives of the current system – to how we ought to change those rules and incentives. In other words, Mark Fishman is not why Logan Square is gentrifying. Neither are you, at least not in the ways you might think. But you can do something about it.

Is housing about community or commodities?

This is definitely not an original thought, but it is under-acknowledged: We have a conceptual problem with housing. We have a conceptual problem, which is this:

1. Sometimes we think and talk about housing as if it were a communal good – not even a communal good; good is too transactional. We think and talk about housing in terms of communities: communal rights, communal values, communal history, community preservation and protection. We talk about preserving the character of our neighborhoods, about not allowing businesses we consider undesirable, or people we consider undesirable, or types of buildings we consider undesirable. People feel very strongly about this, and the assumption that there ought to be community control of housing and housing development runs so deep that usually no one even thinks to argue in its favor.

2. Sometimes we think and talk about housing as if it were a commodity. Housing units are things to be bought and sold on the open market, like cars or furniture, and like cars or furniture the quality of housing is stratified into many different price points for people of different financial means. And just like no one thinks you’re owed a nice car, no one thinks you’re owed a nice housing unit, so if you can’t afford to live in a place with decent schools or low crime and you complain, it sounds about as silly as complaining that you can’t afford a new Infiniti instead of a beat-up Kia. You’re on your own. But once you do buy your housing unit, it’s yours, and the incursion of other people onto your private property is as much an offense as if someone thought they could repaint your car without asking permission.

I should point out that although Perspective Two is largely the province of conservatives and market-oriented liberals (who, together, make up the vast majority of Americans), Perspective One is promoted by pretty much everyone when it suits them. Leftists and even market liberals appeal to it when they talk about social responsibility with regards to homelessness and fair housing and gentrification; otherwise market-y urbanists talk up building community and placemaking and locally-driven planning; and laypeople (and non-laypeople!) across the political spectrum lean on it to argue for or against any given piece of development in their area.

The problem here isn’t that the cognitive dissonance annoys me, or even that there’s no way to rationalize some combination of these ways of thinking. The problem is that a) the way in which we have chosen to apply these clashing ideas to policy tends to maximize benefits to the already privileged, and b) the existence of two competing definitions of what housing is leaves people who would like to change problem a) on shifting and unstable argumentative grounds.

As far as a) goes, I marshal these pieces of evidence: We apply communal housing standards to planning and zoning, so that municipalities can ban apartment buildings or even small houses or dense construction or otherwise outlaw the type of housing that moderate- to low-income people might be able to live in, or limit overall supply to preserve the exclusivity of a neighborhood or entire city, thereby raising property values to unaffordable (and, more importantly, non-market-rate!) levels. All these laws rest on the premise that what happens down the block, or on the other side of town, should be at least partially under community control, even if that means putting major restrictions on private property rights. On the other hand, we apply commodity standards when it comes to housing access: even during the triumphant heyday of public housing, those who argued for a broad social housing commitment were defeated by those who believed government ought only to step in with public or subsidized housing as a patch on the most egregious market failures. And, over the past fifty years, even that obligation has been rolled back to ever-shrinking protections for people in a metropolitan scene that is radically more segregated by income – both within metro areas and across them – than it was a few generations ago.

So people who believe that the government should, at the very least, not make things worse for society’s disadvantaged are getting it from both sides. In response, though, fair housing advocates (with some exceptions) overwhelmingly focus their rhetoric and policy prescriptions on communal arguments. This makes sense in some respects, since the vision of housing access as a right is, at bottom, almost impossible to reconcile with the idea of housing as a commodity. But if I have nothing to say about the commodity perspective except that it’s wrong, my arguments are going to fall on an awful lot of deaf ears, attached to people who are primed (when it suits them) to think that talking about the right to live in a decent neighborhood is as ridiculous as talking about the right to drive a nice car. At the same time, focusing all my energy on promoting a communal vision of housing makes it much more difficult for me to attack local community control when it’s used for radically anti-progressive goals – ones that are pretty hard to square with any reasonable conception of legitimate state interests.

What to do about this? It seems to me like there’s quite a bit of hay to be made by turning the usual fair housing script on its head and talking about justice in terms of commodities. To begin with, it allows us to much more effectively attack zoning provisions whose regressive effects on not just the poor, but the middle- and working-class, are massively underappreciated. And, unlike communal arguments, the commodities perspective has the additional benefit of making many (powerful, at least compared to fair housing activists) developers the natural allies of fair housing policy, since they stand to gain if restrictive zoning is lifted. Moreover, it highlights the truly perverse circumstance of the privileged using government activism to protect their interests, rather than focusing on ways in which we would like government activism to support a relatively small but disadvantaged proportion of the electorate. Especially in places where the privileged beneficiaries of exclusionary development law can be made out to be a small elite – San Francisco, very wealthy suburbs, etc. – the former suggests a more natural majority coalition in favor of progressive legal changes.

It’s absolutely true, of course, that government activism is necessary to support those who will never be able to afford market-rate housing; but a) switching between commodity and communal housing arguments is obviously a workable solution – I’m arguing that we ought to be using the commodity perspective more, not necessarily exclusively – and b) there are examples of commodities for which we recognize the imperative of government support: food, for example.

In any case, I was heartened this last week to see the seeds of this sort of thinking among fair housers: in this Nation essay, for example, which argues for more market-based development to drive down prices; and in a recent San Francisco referendum on a large waterfront housing project, lower-income districts were some of the only ones to vote in favor of increased housing supply. I’d love to see more.

Housing affordability: distribution and quality matters.

It’s true that choosing a place to live not only determines your housing costs, but also your transportation costs, and so talking about “housing affordability” ought to include both. It’s also true, I guess, that amenities in a given city might lead people to be willing to spend more of their income on housing and transportation than they would in another city, and so having a given percentage of income – 30%, whatever – pegged as the national “affordability” line is not ideal.

But even so, I feel like this Atlantic Cities piece about an Urban Institute “adjustment” to standard calculations of affordability is missing an awful lot. The problem is basically that most housing is not sold at median prices, and most people do not earn median incomes, and so any index that involves just comparing the median home price with median income isn’t super helpful. The whole point, really, is how both of those numbers are distributed, both in a high-low sense and in a geographic sense.

This is where I think Ed Glaeser’s argument that there are actually two affordability crises in the U.S. becomes really important. Glaeser (in Rethinking Federal Housing Policy) says that the two crises are: A) the crisis of supply restriction in elite cities and suburbs that artificially inflates prices above the point where middle-income people can afford them, a crisis which, absent those restrictions, would not exist; and B) the crisis of income among the poor, who can’t afford market-rate housing no matter what. These median-v.-median comparisons might be helpful for illuminating crisis A, but they clearly have nothing to say about crisis B.

But even so, I don’t know that I would use median housing prices, even on crisis A. Why? Think about a city like Chicago. The median housing price sits below a bunch of supply-restricted, highly-desirable neighborhoods, and also above some neighborhoods with rock-bottom prices plus terrible local schools, no quality retail options, poor access to jobs, and high crime. I don’t find it very instructive, from the Having a Decent Place To Live Is a Human Right, Or At Least A High-Priority Issue For Any Decent Government-perspective, to have a bunch of really unacceptable housing – housing that is not just inconvenient somehow, but which, were you to live in it, would actually drastically worsen the life paths of you and your children – dragging down the median housing price. This applies also to analyses that try to compare the number of housing units affordable to low-income workers to the number of low-income workers. What does that housing look like?

I guess what I’m saying is that housing quality matters. Housing textbooks, as far as I’ve seen, make a big deal of the fact that “housing quality” supposedly isn’t an issue any more, because the number of housing units without plumbing or whatever is very, very low now. But it seems that in an urban landscape where ghettoization and economic segregation have skyrocketed at the same time as “housing quality” has vanished as an issue, neighborhood quality has basically taken its place. And is no less problematic; maybe more so. So when the Atlantic Cities declares that they have a new metric that shows that coastal cities are “less unaffordable” than we thought, my response would be that no, they’re almost certainly much more unaffordable than conventional statistics show.

Of course, there is also some value in having an easily-understood  number that allows laypeople – or legislators, or regulators – to quickly gauge housing affordability. I don’t want to demean this work; it’s obviously important. But people who care about this ought to be working towards some way of better conveying affordability metrics that take into account distribution and quality.

Why do we care about mode share?

The New York Times ran an op-ed the other day that helpfully demonstrated the pitfalls of lifestyle arguments in favor of urbanism, namely that they are annoying to everyone but the people making the argument.

The boys, like their father, are lean, strong and healthy. Their parents chose to live in New York, where their legs and public transit enable them to go from place to place efficiently, at low cost and with little stress (usually). They own a car but use it almost exclusively for vacations.


“Green” commuting is a priority in my family. I use a bicycle for most shopping and errands in the neighborhood, and I just bought my grandsons new bicycles for their trips to and from soccer games, accompanied by their cycling father.

These arguments – whether they’re about physical health, or “diverse” or “vibrant” or “creative” communities, or whatever else – are, at bottom, about telling people that they are lacking, and that in order to improve themselves they should become more like the author. In the 1970s, when city dwellers felt superior mainly because of their supposed cultural capital and were telling middle-class suburbanites to loosen up a little, that might have been obnoxious but harmless. In our current situation – when the city dwellers making these arguments are the economic elite (the author of this particular piece, Jane Brody, lives in gentrified brownstone Brooklyn, I believe) – it’s a lot more sinister. Brody talks about commutes as if their length and form were something that most people could freely choose, rather than something imposed upon them by their wages and the price of housing and form of development of their metropolitan area. She makes this a story about personal morality, rather than the constraints we choose to put on people through public policy.

This is related, I think, to the study about mode share in U.S. cities that got passed around the urbanist blogosphere recently. In virtually every instance, the study was presented like a sports power ranking, with the winning cities being those with the least travel by car (“city of Chicago ranks sixth among large U.S. cities for percentage of people either biking, walking, or riding transit,” is a typical formulation of the lede).

But why, exactly, do we care about mode share? The pettiest possible answer is that we do conceive of cars v. transit/biking as a sort of culture war, just like many committed drivers have alleged, and what percentage of people choose to drive or do something else is how we measure whether or not we are winning. This, clearly, is not a particularly edifying possibility. A better answer might be that we really do want everyone else to be more like us – to reap the benefits of non-car commuting, from being healthier (although, contra Brody, I spent my subway commute today scarfing down a pound of spaghetti) to polluting less – and this tells us how many people are enjoying those perks.

That’s much more reasonable, but still problematic in that, like the Times piece, it strongly implies that the issue is individual choice, rather than the circumstances that constrain that choice. The people who write for places like Streetsblog know that circumstances matter, but for the casual reader, articles about mode share makes those issues a sort of specialists’ background.

That’s too bad, because mode share does convey some important information about constraints. If we assume that, allowing for some cultural margin of error, most people will choose to get to work via whatever method they find most efficient and comfortable, then we can determine roughly what percentage of people in any given city have decent access to transit – access that’s at least in the same ballpark of convenience as driving – just by looking at what percentage of people actually use it. Obviously there are complications to this: since one major inconvenience of driving is cost, cities with high poverty rates may have mode shares that exaggerate their transit’s effectiveness, for example. And since transportation choice is basically zero-sum on an individual basis – that is, all that matters is the relative efficiency of each mode – you could get a lot of people on transit by making driving truly hellish, without providing decent service. (Although in the American context, I think there are vanishingly few places where that would be an issue.)

Moreover, if we care about mode share as a proxy for service effectiveness, then beyond a certain point – say, a quarter, a third, whatever, of commuters – you’re kind of done. It doesn’t really matter. If New York City, with one of the most comprehensive transit systems in the world, can only get 50% of its commuters on buses and trains, then surely most of the distinction between it and, say, Asian cities with much higher transit mode shares isn’t the quality of their systems (although they may be of higher quality), but the increased misery of driving in ever-denser places. The issue stops being whether we can get from 40% to 45%, but whether subregions of the metropolitan area have strongly varying mode shares, suggesting that you can only get decent access to transit if you live in the right place. And, of course, that is in fact the case.

But if what really matters is service levels and access – if what we’re trying to accomplish is giving everyone a level of service where transit is a viable option, for reasons outlined here – then why not just measure that directly? Why not have widely-disseminated statistics about the percentage of people in every metropolitan region who can walk to a transit stop? Or make a bigger deal about the number of people who can reach some given percentage of metro area jobs via transit in a reasonable time frame? I almost never see those numbers in urbanist conversations, and to the extent that I do, they’re sort of ghettoized into the “social justice” urbanist subculture.

But these seem like relevant numbers for “mainstream” urbanists, too. In fact, they seem a lot better than mode share. Generalized public arguments in favor of transit projects are more likely to benefit from language that suggests they’ll provide options, rather than language that suggests the ultimate goal of the policy is to force people out of their cars. Because, in fact, that’s what public policy should be about: making transportation easier for more people, rather than moralizing about the perfectly legitimate choices that people make, given their circumstances.

What are we trying to accomplish with transit? Or: Another reason BRT is great. has an important post questioning Minneapolis’ plan for a new light rail line through the southwest of the city, pointing out that its current alignment would serve very few people in the dense inner-city areas where the need and potential value of enhanced transit service are greatest:

Do we champion any transit expansion even if its benefits are questionable and opportunity costs very high? Why support a major project that benefits a relatively small group of people while doing nothing for anyone else?

The Twin Cities have had a mixed record on this – their first light rail project (first Hiawatha, now the Blue Line) traveled largely along an industrial/highway corridor where, as I learned when I visited my brother in St. Paul three weeks ago, it is not very pleasant or easy to walk to residential or commercial neighborhoods.* But the Green Line, scheduled to open in 2014, is almost perfect: it gets its own right-of-way down a major commercial street that passes through both regional downtowns, a major college campus, and a good number of fairly dense neighborhoods.

Blue Line: Don’t want to walk here.

You will be able to walk to delicious Vietnamese restaurants from the Green Line.

Nationally, the trend for most rail projects over the last 10-15 years has been similarly mixed. There are at least two major ways that these things get perverted: One, cost considerations push cities to run their trains in places where tracks already exist, or where buying land will be cheap, which tends to be industrial corridors where no one lives or shops. (This is why you can’t walk anywhere from the Orange Line in Chicago.)

You have to walk through a quarter mile of industry before you get to the first house or pedestrian-friendly shopping district from the Kedzie Orange Line.

Two, because rail is often explicitly marketed as a way to attract the middle class to cities**, proposals often fall into one of two categories: downtown or entertainment district “streetcars” that are actually less efficient at transporting people than buses, and which are so short – often between one and three miles – and come so infrequently that it’s often faster to just walk from one end of the line to the other; and light rail lines with widely-spaced stops that stretch waaaaay out into the suburbs and are endowed with massive park-and-rides so white-collar workers can commute into downtown. These are actually the least useful projects possible. Better, of course, would be the creation or reinforcement of a grid of service downtown and in the outlying walkable-ish neighborhoods where transit service might actually be useful as a way of getting around. But those tend not to be the neighborhoods where the middle class lives, and so they usually languish. As, for example, with the Southwest Corridor in Minneapolis.

This is another reason BRT is great: no one thinks it’s cool enough that tech workers will move to your city just to gawk at it, so you don’t get useless downtown “economic development” routes***; and since it runs,  by definition, on major streets, you’re almost guaranteed to have stations in the middle of major activity centers.  Or, at least, that’s much more likely than with trains.

* Although I will say that Minneapolis has allowed some fairly impressive development around some of the stations, which partly makes up for that. More on this in a later post.

** It’s incredible, actually, how frequently people will openly admit that a given rail project is less about transportation than about economic development and making downtown friendly to “creatives,” as if trains were rolling Banksy pieces.

*** Chicago has a downtown BRT project right now, but it actually fulfills a need: transporting the hundreds of thousands of people who arrive in the Loop on commuter trains to their jobs in other parts of downtown a mile or two away.