We gonna leave here, mama. I don’t want you staying here. I don’t need no iceman, I’m gonna get me a Frigidaire That’s what I’m gonna do when we get on the outskirts of town.
The promise of the modern American suburb was a measure of independence. Given how annoying the constant interaction of urban life can be, the suburbs seemed to offer a wholesome alternative. And when the suburbs were being built as physical towns, they offered urbanism on a more human scale than big, industrial cities. But what happened when the suburbs, because of evolving land use policies, essentially became the permanent outskirts of town? When the development of urban nodes — with their opportunities for social and commercial interactions — was banned within walking distance of people’s new homes?
In some cases, suburban developments offered a space to create artificial fiefdoms; a separation of households from entire categories of interactions. Many blue-collar American men faced the first green shoots of female economic and political parity in the period preceding the suburban boom. (American women in the 1940s had proven their economic power by essentially running the domestic industrial system while the men who were their peers were in Europe and the Pacific, fighting World War II.) A certain type of American man would likely have recognized that his tenuous status was in flux. Having the iceman hanging around was not a pleasant thought!
It is well documented that mid-20th century suburban development patterns helped prolong the racial disparities that characterized American life. My question is, to what extent did the post-war land-use policies also slow the progress of feminism? And to what extent did the men who participated in these developments recognize and value that aspect of the physical forms of these communities? Having listened to American women who lived through the mid-20th century, it is hard not to recognize how stifling of an arrangement that iteration of suburbia could be.
Here’s a three-dimensional, color map of Los Angeles, in 1909. It’s interesting. You can see the urban core that was beginning to take shape: the concentration of zero-lot line buildings, the canyons of concrete, the traditional green squares, the grid of warehouse blocks near the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the interruption by history — motor vehicles, modern zoning — a more traditional big city might have evolved there.
Here are a couple of surviving examples that I found of urban fabric in the core of Los Angeles, from which you could kind of envision an alternate pattern of how Southern California might have developed:
Broadway / 7th Street, Los Angeles.
Spring / West 4th Streets.
Just north of the urban core is Bunker Hill. You can see it in the bird’s-eye view, above, where the land rises behind the dense grid of streets, and the structures transition from commercial to residential. Most of what was once there is gone today. Here’s an old photograph, looking across Pershing Square:
Raymond Chandler described the late stages of the neighborhood’s decline in his 1942 novel, The High Window, as only he could do:
Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.
In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.
Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.
The urban fabric of Bunker Hill was almost completely demolished in the 1960s under a massive redevelopment plan. For a sense of what was lost: George Mann, a Los Angeles photographer, took this picture in 1959:
Grand Avenue / 2nd Street. Photo by George Mann, courtesy of Dianne Woods and the George Mann Archives. (Fair use.)
In a Times piece called “Inequality and the City” about the competitive real estate markets in America’s affluent cities, Paul Krugman identifies the role that restrictive land use regulations continue to play in the chronic shortage of affordable housing:
But what about all the people, surely a large majority, who are being priced out of America’s urban revival? Does it have to be that way?
The answer, surely, is no, at least not to the extent we’re seeing now. Rising demand for urban living by the elite could be met largely by increasing supply. There’s still room to build, even in New York, especially upward. Yet while there is something of a building boom in the city, it’s far smaller than the soaring prices warrant, mainly because land use restrictions are in the way.
Exactly. Thank you. In the last five years, we seem to have gone from a time when no one was even cognizant of the role that zoning laws played in the chronic shortage of urban affordable housing, to the beginnings of a left-right consensus about the inequitable and anti-competitive impacts of those laws — and the ways in which they are distorting the market. This is really a cause for celebration, and I think we should take a moment to recognize how far the conversation has come.
But we almost certainly have not come to the end of the line. This issue has been so far beneath the radar that even those who have benefited from distortions of the real estate market by restrictive zoning laws have made little political effort to defend the status quo. They have just assumed that it would go on forever. Now, as those with vested interests in the artificial limits to development — primarily, urban land owners — begin to realize that their gravy train could be in peril, the attacks on reform proposals will begin in earnest. Here’s a great example of what’s likely to be on the way, peddling the usual pseudo-leftist bullshit that appeals to the urban bourgeoisie:
We, the undersigned residents of New York City, call for an end to the violence that real estate developers have inflicted on our skyline, parks, public areas, and cityscape with the proliferation of dramatically over-scaled buildings that ignore the historic context of our city.
Translation: we paid a lot for the exclusive right to live in our neighborhood. We have just realized how precarious our investment could become if the regulations were changed, and people actually had housing choices in the same (or comparable) locations.
Keep an eye out for more of this nonsense in the near future. Of course there’s a role for design and aesthetics in development policy, and massing considerations may sometimes be a part of that role. But for now, I’m sticking with those who recognize the need to permit much more residential construction in places like New York City. Let’s keep the conversation going.
Mark Levine, a New York City Council member, has a bill in the hopper that would retain an attorney, at public expense, for low-income tenants facing eviction. In a Times op-ed authored by Levine and Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless, they cite some stark statistics:
▪ Only ten percent of tenants facing eviction in New York City have lawyers, while nearly 100 percent of evicting landlords are represented by counsel.
▪ Tenants represented by counsel are 80 percent less likely to be evicted than those acting pro se.
▪ Nearly 29,000 New York City households were evicted last year.
▪ Providing an attorney for a tenant would cost taxpayers about $2,500, but sheltering a homeless family in New York City costs, on average, more than $45,000.
The top of One World Trade Center, seen from Liberty Street and South End Avenue, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015). Some nice symbolism for all the fanatics in the world.
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.
Here’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. It’s interesting, and in in some ways ambitious, but let’s keep in mind that 80,000 new units is a very modest goal for a city of more than eight million people. Ultimately, the only phenomena that will make a difference in New York City’s housing equilibrium will be, either, the liberalization of development policies to allow for construction that meets demand; or a collapse in the desirability of the city.
I also have strong philosophical objections to the paternalistic caste system of bureaucratized affordable housing, within which a certain number of below-market units are bestowed on the metropolitan economy’s deserving worker bees — with all of the bureaucracy and micromanagement that the bestowers desire. If local government would simply get out of the way (within reason), and allow developers to build to the market’s demand, then I suspect that a much broader base of people with low to moderate incomes would be able to obtain and negotiate housing arrangements, on their own terms. Ultimately, the tranches are less important than the total: if de Blasio’s land use policies result in a significant expansion in the number of city housing units, it should help. If not, then 80,000 new “affordable” units will be a drop in the bucket.
Liberalization of land use policy is where the real promise of a more equitable city lies. And to bring about the required sea change, first, the policymakers have to get past the NIMBYs.
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.
In New York City, Mayor de Blasio’s awaited affordable housing plan was delayed: Crain’s has the update. Negotiations with the teachers’ union took precedence. In New Jersey, the Council on Affordable Housing released its latest proposed version of the Mount Laurel rules: the Star-Ledgertakes it away.
The Times has a piece by Mireya Navarro about the Sarkars, a couple in Queens who created an affordable new housing unit in the basement of their home; and how the City of New York responded by forcing them to evict their tenant, dismantle their improvements, and pay penalties in excess of $1,200. In a metropolitan region where the imbalance between wages and housing costs is as extreme and inequitable as it is in New York City, surely local government could find better ways to direct its energy. The article highlights the increasingly mainstream political support for such a case:
Largely written to prevent slum conditions and firetraps, New York’s housing regulations have not kept up with changing cultural norms and increasing financial pressures, some housing experts said. It is, for example, illegal for more than three unrelated adults to live together in New York City. That law is widely broken and infrequently enforced.
For many students and new immigrants, sharing space has long been the most affordable housing option in the city. New economic challenges, the experts said, have spurred even more demand for such arrangements.
Look: Illegal units and other informal living arrangements are part of the natural process of urbanism; they are how towns and cities absorb incremental growth as the population level begins to exceed the existing number of units, and as rents and property values rise accordingly; but before the market pressures become significant enough to support new, denser construction projects. In New York City, neighborhoods of Queen Anne houses in what would become the West Bronx were gradually replaced by large, courtyard-centered apartment buildings that occupied similar footprints but housed far more people. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to presume that, before the apartments, many of the ostensibly single-family mansions were renting out rooms.
106 Mount Hope Place in the West Bronx, New York City. Source: Google.
Universal Euclidean zoning since World War II, and the stringent building codes that have gone with it, have thwarted the natural process of urban growth, driving it underground. This has caused urban housing supplies to be constrained not only until the market pressure is sufficient to support new development, but until the market pressure is sufficient to create the political pressure that is needed to revise local land use codes. This is particularly challenging because the most established residents in any community — those who own property — will benefit, up to a point, from a shortage, through higher rents and property values. Accordingly, universal zoning has created a much higher bar for initiating the kind of densification process that would actually accommodate demand, and, I believe, it largely explains why housing costs in major US and European metropolitan areas have become astronomical since the 1970s. In addition to the natural price rises resulting from shortages, the chronic constraint of land markets has also turned very small slices of prime urban real estate into exchangeable commodities, adding even more capital to the competition for urban land. This is not all bad, of course, but it is inherently unstable because too much value rests on a stubborn but artificial shortage; and at the same time, it is crushing the supply of affordable housing in several key regions.
The 1970s were a key turning point: In the wake of the post-war suburban exodus, zoning had no tangible effect on urban housing costs, because there was a glut of urban housing units, and the suburbs were being built on cheap rural land. But then, college-educated Baby Boomers began to recolonize urban neighborhoods; the 1968 US immigration law brought the first new global immigrants to American shores; and at approximately the same time, the commutable portions of the heavily-zoned suburbs began to get built out. This is why Mount Laurel was an issue in the 1970s: In a key state, the availability of affordable housing was becoming a problem, and that situation was eroding the balance of economic opportunity that had characterized much of the post-war period for middle-class Americans. The beginning phase of a situation that was viewed as untenable by the New Jersey Court in 1974 has now become the norm in many metropolitan regions. Beginning to accept the growth of neighborhoods that is driven by market demands, and to provide legal normalization for such phenomena, is an important first step toward deflating the artificial housing shortages that are driving inequality and distorting the dynamics of American places whose regional economic strength ought to be the basis for broad-based opportunity, rather than exclusion.