The Sinister History of America’s Urban Geography

A 1939 “residential security” map of Essex County, New Jersey. The eastern half largely comprises of Newark and the Oranges.

Mapping Inequality provides a darkly fascinating time-sink: a zoomable map of the United States overlaid with New-Deal era local maps of most major cities, depicting what we today would call redlining. Typically, this term brings to mind the American banking practice of dicing up American neighborhoods and excluding African-American areas from mortgage eligibility. The heyday of this practice coincided with the heyday of post-war, first-time home ownership in the United States — a history that has been identified as a key source of persisting family wealth disparities between Black and White Americans. (The achievements of the Civil Rights era, and further legislation aimed at dismantling redlining, did not come about until the tail-end of the post-war boom — starting in the mid-1960’s — by which point many of the regional ethno-geographic patterns had already been established, and property values had begun to increase significantly.)

The map above depicts Essex County, New Jersey, where I live, and which has the same boundaries today as in 1939. Newark is roughly on the right; many of its inner-ring/streetcar suburbs are roughly in the center; low-density townships (then still partly rural outside Millburn and Caldwell — now mainly affluent suburbs) are on the left. As you might guess, there is a hierarchy of colors: areas mapped in green were considered prime investments, followed by blue (still desirable); yellow (declining); and red (dangerous). Zooming in on the neighborhoods of Essex County reveals that many of the patterns of neighborhood gradation that were adjudged by appraisers for the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1939 overlap with the characteristics of the same neighborhoods today. That is to say, if the green-red palette were to be roughly translated as neighborhoods that are predominantly wealthy, middle-class, working-class, or poor, its assessments would still align with many districts.

Many of these maps contain explanatory notes for each color-coded district, and many of these notes bear out a pervasive practice of correlating African-American neighborhoods with red districts. Several neighborhoods that today have high concentrations of African-American residents had already been established as Black communities by 1939. The matter-of-fact prejudice reported in these otherwise mundane business notes is evidence that Americans have made progress in the norms of acceptable discussion, if nothing else. I won’t quote examples, but it should suffice to say that the recurring tone leaves no doubt that mortgage lending — at least during the late Depression — was based on an overtly discriminatory calculus.

Perhaps more remarkable, given the conventional understanding among lawyers and urban planners about what redlining was, is the evidence that in addition to rationalizing discrimination against African-Americans these maps also justified discriminating against other populations, as well — including many people of European origin. Italian and Jewish enclaves are singled out for negative treatment because of the mere presence of … Italian or Jewish people. In both Newark and New York City (maps are posted for each of the five boroughs) many of the red districts are described as “slums”, encompassing residents of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. Poor and working-class predominantly White neighborhoods are often classified exactly as Black neighborhoods are (though described as having “laboring class” populations, “tenements”, or something similar; or highlighted for their “infiltration” by other marginalized groups); and those that avoid being fatally redlined are typically shaded yellow — marking their properties as the second least desirable class of securities.

The precise impact of these maps is unclear. The federal HOLC of 1939 was not a formal precursor to the private banks that — with government backing and subsidies — financed the massive suburban development wave that took place after World War II. A study of early HOLC lending in the Philadelphia region found that interest rates, but not lending decisions per se, were influenced by the maps’ color-coding; and that private lenders had other sources of comparable information about granular urban economic and demographic trends. Sources like fire insurance maps, meanwhile, would have made analysis of the building stock in a particular slice of any city readily doable.

Another study found that the HOLC had hired private-sector appraisers to complete the evaluations and explanatory notes for the residential security maps, suggesting the conclusions they contain represent prevailing assumptions in the real estate industry of that time. Regardless of their direct impacts, the patterns in these maps bear an uncanny resemblance to the enduring patterns of racially and economically segregated housing that solidified in post-war metropolitan America.

How these maps and the lending policies that they shaped align with early land-use zoning maps developed around the same time is a topic for exploration in another post (or perhaps a book!). As an aside, it is worth noting that private covenants were still quite common for controlling land use in the early days of zoning, as they represented one of the few traditional legal devices for doing so prior to the rise of public land use law; and many of these were discriminatory, as well. The human capacity for excluding others never ceases to amaze; nor does its deviousness.

Apartments Are Hot — In the Suburbs

The Times has another article jumping on the bandwagon about the supposed ongoing urban exodus — with a twist. This one reports anecdotal evidence that apartments in suburban towns are seeing a surge in popularity among fleeing urbanites. (Sorry for the paywall. If you’re not a NYT subscriber, you can usually still read a few articles for free if you log in with a Google account.)

I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach to this trend. I have long believed that the New York City region, and similar metropolitan regions with high housing costs, ultimately need to expand their geographic footprint of multifamily housing beyond its current locations to accommodate long-term population growth. I still believe that. But what we are seeing in 2020 is a separate and discrete trend, driven by people’s more immediate desire to get out of the city, and to have more room, as work and home suddenly compete for the same space.

It’s not clear yet how these trends are going to intersect with the housing markets in the suburbs. If working from home (WFH) turns into a permanent phenomenon that outlasts the pandemic, then some of the built-up pressure may come off of competitive regions, including their inner-ring suburbs, as people are free to go further afield and seek permanently larger spaces. In such a scenario, there may be additional suburban growth at the metropolitan fringe, but less demand for new apartments nearer to the core. On the other hand, if most people return to their daily commute (or something close to it), then the suburbs may find themselves needing to absorb more commuters — as trends indicated before 2020 — and doing so in the form of more apartments.

It’s an interesting question — and one, I think, that is still very open. If I had to bet, I would predict a little bit of both, especially in places like Northern and Central New Jersey: a continued need for growth in demand for (1) compact, commutable units and (2) larger, WFH-friendly properties at the fringe, and beyond. In both scenarios, good planning will be a necessity to ensure that new growth takes the form of attractive and sustainable neighborhoods.

New apartments take advantage of commuter rail service in suburban South Orange, N.J.

Zoning Reform: a Return to Traditional Norms

My latest article at TAC‘s New Urbs is a response to the recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Contrary to the president’s rhetoric, allowing people to build neighborhoods that evolve in response to land markets is an old common-law tradition — and one that has been increasingly distorted by local governments over the last century, under an ever-more-restrictive morass of zoning requirements.

I argue that measures that would restore even some space for neighborhoods to grow organically, in response to demand, ought to be embraced by Americans across the political spectrum. New laws in California, Oregon, and Minneapolis are good first steps. And proposals to condition certain streams of federal infrastructure funding on having non-exclusionary local land-use laws in the communities that benefit from such taxpayer investments should not be dismissed out of hand.

Building the West Bronx

I have a new piece in City Journal about how the West Bronx evolved from a series of suburban neighborhoods of Victorian houses (built in the late 19th century when the City of New York first incorporated the wards north of Manhattan), into an urban environment of (often beautiful) apartment buildings. The transition mainly took place between the turn of the 20th century, when subway service began, and the onset of the Great Depression, when construction and migration both came to a near standstill. It remains a model of how cities can grow incrementally, by allowing the construction of apartment buildings when demand for housing rises.

This piece is something of a spinoff from the original research that I did several years back, and reported on this blog, about the last few Queen Anne-style Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue in the neighborhood known as High Bridge. Sadly, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declined a proposal to preserve these last few detached gingerbread houses on the NYC street grid (that is, the one begins in Manhattan and continues north to the Westchester County line), and many have now fallen to the wrecking ball.

Several people have expressed interest in this topic. In addition to the ones on Woodycrest Avenue, I tried to document the handful of other remaining houses like these that are on the Commissioner’s Plan-Risse Plan streets of the West Bronx. I documented the research several years back, and most of it can be found here:

Piano Tuner Defeats Casino Agency — But Why?

Here’s some good news: in New Jersey, the government can’t take your land for a public purpose unless it has, actually, um, specified a public purpose. That’s good. But here’s the bad news: in Atlantic City, a state agency called the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has spent the past five years trying to do precisely that, to a local couple. Specifically, the agency tried to leverage the state’s power of eminent domain to take away Charles and Linda Birnbaum’s three-story building and “bank” it for an unspecified future use.

Here’s some human context about the decision, from Amy Rosenberg at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Birnbaum retained the right to keep the home his parents, who were Holocaust survivors, bought in 1969, because the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority could not provide assurance that its plans for the property and surrounding area “would proceed in the reasonably foreseeable future,” the court ruled…. Birnbaum’s mother, Dora, lived in the house on Oriental Avenue until 1998, when she was killed during a home invasion. Birnbaum, who lives in Hammonton with his wife, rents out the upper floors and uses the first floor for his piano-tuning business.

Your tax dollars at work, New Jersey. It’s good that the court said no. But maybe this case is a signal that it’s time for the state to stop acting as a legal henchman for casino developers. Casino gambling has failed to bring back Atlantic City, after more than four decades. It has, however, destroyed much of what once remained of the traditional seaside urbanism of America’s prime Victorian-era beach resort. And it has resulted in perverse scenarios like the one at the center of this lawsuit.

Minneapolis 2040: Have the YIMBYs Already Won?

Two historic houses in Minneapolis. Photo: McGhiever via Wikimedia Commons

Time to note a major victory: the City of Minneapolis is on board with YIMBYism in a serious, substantial way. Minneapolis has become the first major U.S. city to adopt a comprehensive plan that eliminates single-family-only zoning districts. And, although its amended zoning still caps out development of many parcels at just three units, it will still (in broad theoretical terms) allow builders to triple the number of housing units within those neighborhoods. That’s impressive. And since housing markets are more regional than municipal, and Minneapolis is the largest city in its region, I predict this legislation (presuming it passes the remaining hurdles) will have a salutary effect on housing affordability throughout the Twin Cities, for years to come. This really is great news.

In a related story, the Oregon Legislature may soon consider a Democratic bill to eliminate single-family-only zoning districts in cities with a population of 10,000 or more. The fact that the lead sponsor is the House Speaker indicates the degree of acceptance that our kind of zoning analysis has attained, politically, in a very short time. Of course, there is pushback, as there always is in politics. But once it comes into focus, the picture is pretty clear, and economy, equity, and the environment all call for one basic solution: expanding the latitude of property owners to build more housing in response to the need for … more housing. People see the need to stop protecting a calcified status quo that is working for fewer and fewer people.

When I first started writing here about exclusionary zoning laws and their distortion of housing prices (way back in 2010, when I was a law student at Rutgers) it remained a very arcane issue. The basic nexus between restrictive land use policies and declining affordability had been well documented in New Jersey case law through the Mount Laurel decisions of the 1970s and 80s. But outside the local community of housing activists, the slow crisis of an artificial, regulatory shortage of housing units in growing metropolitan regions was hardly on anyone’s radar. Today, housing activists on both right and left accept this common-sense analysis: zoning laws that limit development of new units play a major part in the lack of housing affordability in growing cities.

I got into this issue because I saw people being displaced from their long-term neighborhoods across the New York & New Jersey region in the late 1990s and early 2000s — and nobody with a voice seemed to be noticing. Since then, the soaring cost of housing options in metropolitan America has become, perhaps, the most glossed-over factor among the myriad economic challenges facing Millennials. Now, finally, we are making some real progress, and although we’re not there yet, I am more optimistic than ever.

Cheers to everyone who is out there working on the front lines.

More SROs, Shared Housing in Urban America

The Marlton Hotel in New York City.

The Times has a story about how cities are taking a new look at shared housing situations in light of the increasing cost of individual units in many places. Single-room occupancies and variations on the SRO model get some positive attention.

I lived in an SRO in New York (above) when I was a freshman at the New School. Apart from the fact that the rooms were incredibly small, it was a good living arrangement. In our case, the building was almost entirely occupied by private college students, which may or may not have been a good thing. (However, there was one old man whose long-term tenancy could not be terminated and who was reputed to have been, um, a procurer, in his productive years.)

Today, the same building has been converted to a luxury hotel, trading on its history as place where famous people lived while they were still striving. (I apparently missed being neighbors with Lillian Gish by a mere 85 years.) The renovation is beautiful, and the building is much better appointed today than it ever was when it housed workers, or artists, or students. But where could those kinds of people, on their own dime, sleep in Manhattan tonight?

All this is to say that such arrangements can be fine, and can even have salutary effects for civilization when they create spaces in our great cities for those who arrive with more dreams and talent than riches. There are bad rooming houses, too, of course. So it’s case by case. But as a matter of equity, the need for efficiency accommodations that are genuinely affordable for working people and young people is not being met. SROs and other sharing arrangements can work in that space, and permitting a lot more of them could be part of the solution.

Missing the Point?

This is what affordable housing once looked like.

Incredibly, Bryce Covert, in a long article at The Nation about the supposed roots of America’s affordable-housing crisis, manages to go on for nearly 5,000 words about the history of American affordability programs and initiatives — while offering only one, almost offhand mention of zoning. And while the focus of the piece is the situation in Los Angeles, migration patterns to Southern California — a huge part of the story there, from post-war internal migration to more recent immigration –don’t even get a passing nod.

The ebb and flow of public monies for housing construction certainly makes for an interesting angle about the changing political philosophies of the United States over the past century. And, to be sure, large-scale federal housing initiatives backed by the power of eminent domain created a lot of new, often spacious units during the post-war period. But that the story of such initiatives, and their decline or disappearance, provides a satisfactory explanation for the current housing crisis is not accurate.

The private housing market has always provided the overwhelming majority of housing units in the United States. (For decades, it has also been heavily subsidized by taxpayers through the mortgage-interest deduction, as well as other elements of federal, state, and local tax policy — but that’s a separate issue.) And until fairly recently, the private housing market has produced sufficient housing to meet demand. What has changed is that, as population has grown, and the remaining land within commuting distance of major cities has dwindled, markets have collided with local zoning policies that prevent new construction. This has chronically limited the number of units, placing a premium on each and every one. Without new units, subsidies to individual households will only push rents even higher.

The argument that poor people cannot afford the carrying costs of new construction is also missing the point. When land prices are not artificially inflated by a policy-imposed scarcity, middle-class and wealthy households, by and large, can afford the carrying charges for new units. Cheaper units then “filter” into the market in older buildings, whose construction costs have been paid off; a knock on effect is that these cheaper units in older buildings, when they exist, can provide a counterweight to forces that might encourage an upward spiral toward exorbitant prices for newer units.

This entire dynamic, which works relatively well in a mixed market, has been distorted by a chronic, artificial shortage of housing units because of restrictive zoning laws. As an aside, some of the public monies now being used to support marginally effective (drop in the bucket) programs could potentially support infrastructure projects, instead, if private development were freed to meet a more meaningful proportion of the current pent-up housing demand.