Wednesday, October 27

Developing a YIMBY mindset

Suppose you’re a homeowner in a nice, classic inner suburban neighborhood. There’s a little bit of vacant land down the street from you, and rumors are going around that some developers have their eyes on it for new homes. Your neighbors are looking into their legal options for stopping any construction from happening before it’s too late. They ask you to sign a petition they are bringing to city hall. You hadn’t thought much about this issue before, but now the question is sitting right in front of you with a pen and ink. Do you sign it?

You already like where you live – that’s why you chose it – but you wonder why it couldn’t become an even better neighborhood. You want to show solidarity with your neighbors, but there’s a selfish voice in the back of your head saying: maybe I want a few more homes or even a store on my street. It’s true that the residents of these new homes may be criminals, but that’s not very likely. Most people are decent. Maybe you’ll borrow a hedge-trimmer from them, or they might even host a block party in a few years. You could gain some new friends. You realize that it’s far more likely these new neighbors will call the police on someone breaking into your house than actually try to break into your house themselves.

You know the neighborhood coffee shop where you stop in the morning runs on a thin profit margin, and you would hate to see it close down during an economic down cycle. It occurs to you that a few more homes nearby means a few more daily customers. Maybe with more revenue coming in, your shop could justify serving bagels and cream cheese, giving you more breakfast options. Same goes for your friend’s dental practice on the other side of the street. Economically vibrant surroundings benefit you in a number of ways.

Then there's traffic. That’s the big one. The thought of more cars speeding by your home does give you pause, but this is where you have to consider the long-term effects. The residents of these new infill homes will probably drive less than they would if they were forced out the exurbs, meaning less overall congestion. And the more people who move in the more likely this is to be true. Maybe some will even eschew their car altogether. More people also means more political clout to get neighborhood amenities like better transit, traffic calming, a nice playground, whatever it is your neighborhood wants. And there may be a way to influence the design of this new development to reduce the chance that the new people will bring motor vehicles with them.

But what if you are just odd? Everyone else seems to resist more density, not embrace it. Remember, your property values are determined by what some anonymous future buyer wants in a neighborhood, not what you want in a neighborhood. Maybe you should just join the angry crowd at the public hearing, if only to protect your largest financial investment and keep your options open when it's time to move. But here’s the bewildering paradox: for all the resistance, there’s actually a huge latent demand for walkable urban neighborhoods not unlike what yours could become. New neighbors and services are more likely to help then hurt your nest egg.

Everything points to a yes-in-my-backyard response, and you haven't even gotten into the moral heroics of saving the region from sprawl or allowing more people an affordable and accessible place to live (or recognizing property rights, for that matter). These are just your own wishes for seeing your own neighborhood change for the better.

Monday, October 11

The Reluctant Suburbanites

Rod Dreher, a social commentator who writes under the self-titled banner “crunchy conservativism,” shared on his blog an interesting confession about the suburbs. Not interesting because it’s strange, but interesting because it’s so altogether normal. Despite his long-standing preference for, or at times even a philosophical commitment to walkable urban neighborhoods, he thinks he just might choose the opposite kind of house next time he moves. A conventional suburban home. Why?

Whenever we get ready to buy our next house, it's not going to be in the city -- here in Philly, there's a four percent tax added to your wages -- but in one of the suburbs. I'd be lying if I said schools weren't a big part of it. We can't afford private schools where we live now, and the urban public school in our neighborhood leaves much to be desired, for the usual reasons. … Besides, life with kids is just easier in the suburbs. I hate to admit it, but it's true. The older I get, and the older my kids get, the less tolerance I have for the kinds of things that I didn't much mind when I was younger and in love with city life.”
Looking through the lens of personal morality or rationality or whatever, who can begrudge Dreher this decision? Let me immediately distance myself from those who reflexively cast judgment on suburbia and all who inhabit it like hurling a ball of fire down onto Sodom and Gomorrah. Let the record show, suburbanites are not evil. Yet whatever honesty Dreher reveals in this personal question, there’s still a structural tension in his mind. He can go on to say in an update,
I think any place that makes you car-dependent is bad for your soul and the community's soul. The way we built suburbia in the 20th century was foolish and destructive in a number of ways. But we are where we are, and the flaws of suburbia don't obviate the flaws of urban life for middle-class families in the year 2010.”
Very obviously, his ideals are clashing with the reality of how things happen to have been built in America.

This is exactly why you should immediately distrust anyone (ahem … Joel Kotkin)  who insists that because people are “choosing” to live in the suburbs, in fact, the suburbs are their market choice - that the silent majority has spoken with their actions. As the logic goes: if everyone seems to be buying cookie dough ice cream then it means they must really like it, so somebody should go ahead and make more cookie dough ice cream. It's only the pistachio-craving elites who urge otherwise. Ok, but buying a home is different:

First, every home is a bundled good. You’re not just buying the roof that keeps rain from hitting your head and a patch of grass. You’re buying the educational options for your children, the transportation access to your job, the character of the neighborhood and the status it confers, membership into a jurisdiction (or HOA, for that matter) and the services it provides, a perception of safety, and on and on. You can’t always just disaggregate these parts, like ordering a Soy Mocha Half-Caf latte at Starbucks, at least not if you need to fit it into a middle-class budget. This is why people like Dreher may have to compromise on neighborhood form for, say, good schools.

Which gets to the second point. Real estate supply is always constrained in some way, whether by geography or land use controls (yes, Houston too).  Even in metro areas with plenty of vacant land, there’s only one piece of land with that house on it. That’s just the nature of space. No two places are alike. Because the market price responds to these inevitable supply constraints, consumer demand does not always win the day. Middle-class families like the Drehers can be priced out of even preference bundles that seem logically reasonable - like a modest home on a small lot with ok schools near some neighborhood amenities.

Thirdly, transitions in the housing stock move painfully slowly - as they should, because these are really durable goods. But there are other reasons the supply does not hasten to meet new demand. Infrastructure built to support an old model is hard to readapt, vested financial interests try to maintain property values through land use controls, and well-worn development business models seem less risky. As a result of these forces of inertia, a lot of us are living in houses built for the preferences exerted a generation or two ago, maybe even if it was just built five years ago.

Fourthly, homes have traditionally been investments as well as consumer goods. You’re not supposed to just buy what you want, but you also have to buy what you perceive others to want. This can lead to a self-perpetuating bias for the status quo and an over-emphasis on quantitative measures like square footage. But maybe as the investment side fades these days, we can feel more free to exercise our own desires.

Finally, there’s a long-standing mismatch in most metro areas between the resources for social services and those who need them most. Over many years, the demographic categories have sorted themselves out geographically and circumscribed themselves with political boundaries. This is part of the reason for the extra tax burden Dreher is referring to. Many suburban areas have absolved themselves of having to pay this by ensuring that the region’s share of the poor are not within their borders. Making a personal decision to buck the trend usually does carry a cost.

The point, maybe hidden in here somewhere, is that there has to be many Rod Drehers out there, albeit most of them without the time or ability to wrack their brains over the urban planning implications of their choices. For every household choosing the suburbs as suburbs, in all their backyard-grilling, kid-shuttling, lawn-mowing glory, there’s another household who grit their teeth and accept this spatial arrangement because it happens to be the only option available at their price point. This is hardly an argument for building more of them.

Thanks to Architecture and Morality for launching a discussion on Dreher’s housing thought process.

Wednesday, October 6

A housing director who understands the full cost of housing

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan was interviewed on the financial costs imposed on individual families by lower density housing patterns. Ever since the Costs of Sprawl report was published in 1974, the talking points have mostly hovered around the increased fiscal costs to taxpayers of sprawl - you know, the pipes and roads, public services, environmental clean up, and so forth. Lately this story has been filled out with a more precise understanding of what individual Americans pay for this arrangement not just in taxes but in the everyday effort to balance the household budget.