The State of the City: De Blasio Focuses on Housing


Mayor Bill De Blasio used his 2015 State of the City address, delivered at Baruch College, to focus on the high stakes of New York City’s affordable housing crisis, and how his administration intends to address housing as a policy matter. I found it particularly hopeful that De Blasio identified the important roles of land use regulations and additional, market-rate units in solving the chronic shortage of affordable units in the city.

The Future is Lighted with LEDs

LED lighting at fountains in Trafalgar Square, London. Photo: David Iliff, License: CC-BY-SA 3.0.

LED lighting in Trafalgar Square, London. Image: David Iliff (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Fast Company has an article about the future of LED lighting, and its potential to alter the settings in which it’s used. The piece seems like a bit of a plug for Philips, and its Hue platform, but the substance is really on the cutting edge. One could easily imagine complex and creative lighting schemes becoming a major component of of the design and aesthetics end of urban planning. International Dark Sky Association already has a model lighting ordinance; the potential for outdoor mood lighting, productivity lighting, and safety lighting just adds to the scope of the artificial lighting questions that will inevitably be considered and mediated by land use laws. And it will dovetail quite nicely with other aesthetic components — what I would call mood-zoning (color palettes, scent design) — that can permit very creative distinctions between planned places. This piece is sure to get anyone’s imagination going.

Zoned Out: Update

11th-and-V-zoning-map

Are these killing the next generation’s chance to obtain an economic foothold?

Here are two new articles dealing with the relationship between excessive land use regulation and the lack of affordable housing in desirable metropolitan regions: the first, from Reihan Salam, is something of a polemic (in places), but his analysis strikes me as mostly substantively accurate, and he has embedded links to a bunch of other authors (across the philosophical spectrum) who are making similar points. The other is from Next City, and it deals, again, specifically with the housing costs in the San Francisco Bay area, and ties these costs to the low numbers of housing permits that are issued across the region, in spite of stratospheric demand. The attention coming out of the SF region about housing costs seems greater to me than that which is originating in the New York City region, the other very expensive American metropolis. I suspect that this disparity is due to the resigned cynicism of most New Yorkers about the cost of everything.

On Land Use Regulation and Housing Costs

Source: USGS.

Source: USGS.

Tech Crunch has a very thorough article by Kim-Mai Cutler, focusing on the culprits behind stratospheric housing costs in the San Francisco Bay area and elsewhere: outdated and excessive land use regulations. The sad part of this entire phenomenon, which LT has covered extensively, is that many of the regulations that have become problematic were enacted for well-intentioned reasons, but have evolved and aggregated into political roadblocks that are displacing middle-class residents, foreclosing on people’s opportunities, and entrenching the advantages of those who got there first — wherever there is — versus those who might have something new to offer. Cutler’s piece is good reading, and has nice visuals. So let’s keep belaboring this point until it becomes conventional wisdom: Bad zoning, and its myopic politics, are strangling us. We need to dismantle the antiquated frameworks, and replace them with flexible new approaches that are both more equitable and much more pro-development.

A New Look at American Migration Patterns

Restless America, by Chris Walker at Vizynary.

A snapshot of Restless America, by Chris Walker at Vizynary.

Chris Walker at Vizynary has a very interesting project, Restless America, that shows the migration pattens between American states. It looks like Florida and Texas are still the main destinations for domestic migration. It’s interesting that both states have a lot of buildable land around their economic centers; and the largest city in Texas — Houston — even lacks formal zoning laws. I’m fairly sure that the lower cost of living in those states has been a major factor in people’s relocation decisions. And, of course, better climates.

I’d like to see a version that also includes net immigration, by state. Immigration accounts for the lion’s share of population growth in the states that are losing US-born residents, but still growing, overall. My guess is that as people from certain countries settle in particular regions, those regions become magnets for new migrants from the same places, bringing new waves of residents who seek out familiar people, customs, and languages, in their new country. But this new concentration of people who live in, say, New Jersey by choice drives up the generic cost of living here beyond what the native-born locals think is fair. So, a lot of US-born residents respond to migration-driven growth by relocating to states that have a lower cost of living, as well as what they perceive (or hope) to be more familiar cultural surroundings.

I think the interplay between land use policy and migration is the major factor that determines a region’s housing costs: Land use policies largely determine a region’s real estate supply, and migration patterns (including the purchasing power of those who come or go) largely determine regional demand. I think it’s strange that planning discussions tend to spend very little time on the nexus (and contrast) between semi-permanent land use patterns and the very fluid migration patterns of places like North America and Western Europe. I can’t think of any part of the real estate equation that’s more central to questions about sustainability, affordable housing, and infrastructure than this dynamic. The more we can learn about who is going where, and why, the more intelligently we can address the whole host of land use planning topics. Restless America is a good start.

2008’s Abandoned Plats

Wired has an incredible set of aerial photos taken by photographer Michael Light. The images show luxury developments outside of Las Vegas that were abandoned, in various stages of construction, after the 2008 economic collapse. From Lyra Kilston’s accompanying article:

While the subject matter is bleak, Light’s depictions are quite the opposite. Unlike a deadpan, New Topographics-style view of altered landscapes, his work is exalted and hyper-sharp. His troubling images of dirty rivers, interlacing highways or denuded hills are portrayed with grandeur, creating an unsettling tension of repulsion and attraction.

“I don’t want to lecture or heckle. I suppose it’s a primal thing — I want to go out there and document moments of amazement,” says Light. Flying offers him the freedom of airspace from which to see the land. And like Earth-observing satellites, he can see things he’s not supposed to.

Nice work.

New Jersey Land Use Update

Scales and Lamp USSCThere was one published decision on land use in the New Jersey appellate courts this week. Motley v. Borough of Seaside Park Z.B.A. addressed the question of destruction, as used in N.J.S.A. 40:55D-68, and upon which the continued toleration of a nonconforming use turns. In this case, the plaintiff-respondent submitted a plan to the Seaside Park Z.B.A. for certain renovations to his property, which contained two residential structures — a nonconforming use in what has been a single-family zone since the 1970s. The Board approved his plan, but upon getting to work the plaintiff’s contractor apparently discovered significant structural issues that required taking the structure down to its foundation and footings. After a building inspector observed the extent of the demolition, a code-enforcement officer issued a stop-work order. Plaintiff lost an appeal to the Z.B.A. to lift the order. The lawsuit followed.

At issue was whether the plaintiff’s extensive dismantling and re-mantling had merely constituted a partial destruction of the non-conforming use, which would have required that use to continue to be tolerated under the borough’s zoning ordinance; or whether his actions had constituted a total destruction, after which any new construction on the parcel would have to conform to the present specifications of the ordinance. The trial court found, among other things, that the plaintiff’s actions had only constituted a partial destruction, and that policy reasons (viz., the importance of encouraging the proper maintenance of non-conforming structures) also supported allowing the plaintiff to rebuild. Accordingly, the Law Division vacated the stop-work order. But in an opinion published this week, an Appellate Division panel reached different conclusions and reversed the trial court’s order. The A.D. noted that New Jersey case law is generally opposed to extending the lives of non-conforming uses. Comparing the facts with those of the Lacey case, and others, the court concluded that a total destruction had taken place. Thus, a variance would have to be obtained in order to build something on the parcel that contravened the land use ordinance. In addition, the court found that the plaintiff had flouted the limits that the Board had initially set on his actions. Finally, the panel was unpersuaded by the policy reasons given by the trial court. Accordingly, it reversed the lower court’s decision vacating the stop-work order.

There was one unreported land use decision in the A.D. last week. I missed it at the time, because I was tied up with an event at one of the research centers, so here’s the belated squib: In Sharbell Building Company LLC v. Planning Board of the Twp. of Robbinsville, a three-judge panel affirmed a final judgment of the Law Division that had reversed the Board’s denial of an application to convert an approved, age-restricted housing complex into a development for residents of all ages. The court held that state legislation facilitating the approval of such conversions (in response to the changing housing marketplace) superseded the township’s zoning ordinance; and that prior to rejecting the proposal, the Board had focused on the wrong issues when it considered the impact of possible additional children on the local tax base, rather than considering the land use implications of the proposal. (You’ve gotta love it.) As always, the temporary New Jersey Courts link is alive for now, but the original opinion will be archived at the Rutgers Law Library next week.

New Jersey Land Use Update

Scales and Lamp USSCThere were no published opinions on land use or zoning in the New Jersey appeals courts this week. Among unpublished opinions, three touched on land use or zoning matters.

1. In RIYA Cranbury Hotel, LLC v. Z.B.A. of Twp. of Cranbury, et al., an Appellate Division panel affirmed a trial court’s holdings that a banquet facility constituted a restaurant under the town’s zoning ordinance; that an architectural feature did not constitute a sign, under the same ordinance; and that the granting of a D variance permitting a wine shop in a zone whose ordinances did not specifically allow such a use exceeded the limited powers of discretion that zoning boards enjoy to grant use variances.

2. In Kanter v. the Municipal Council of Wallington, et al., a pro se appellant challenged a decision by the local zoning board to grant a variance to a politically-connected company. The board’s decision had subsequently been upheld by the municipal council, and then by the Superior Court, on the challenged points. The case did not raise any substantive issues of New Jersey land use or zoning law, but instead raised procedural points, mainly stemming from alleged technical violations of the Open Public Meetings Act. Here, the Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court’s disposition of the case, allowing the board’s decision to stand.

3. Finally, in Ginsburg Development Companies., et al. v. Twp. of Harrison, an A.D. panel vacated a trial court’s holding that a developer would not have to pay its share of infrastructure improvements, pursuant to a developer’s agreement, until it commenced building. The A.D. distinguished the facts of this case from those of two precedents on which the lower court had relied. The panel found, inter alia, that because the developer had not disavowed its plans (which would necessitate the improvements), or sought to modify those plans in such a way that its presumptive pro rata share of the resulting costs would change, that the facts of this case were inconsistent with those of the precedents. The judges also noted that a contract had already been awarded for the work of those improvements, and that, in awarding that contract, the township had acted pursuant to its agreement with the developer.

The temporary New Jersey Courts links are alive for now, but the opinions will be archived at the Rutgers Law Library next week.