Saturday, May 13, 2006
[“Global Saturday” -- I’m beginning a practice of talking about an international issue of land use and community development each Saturday.]
PBS’s “Nature” broadcast last week a program about land use tensions in Africa between lions and cattle ranchers. Although the attitudes of most of the Kenyans they interviewed were fairly tolerant toward the big cats, this tolerance snaps when lions acquire a taste for their cattle. It’s the same kind of tension that exists in the U.S. West over protection of the wolf and bison, and in cities over LULUs such as homeless shelters. The program highlighted how human population pressures –- Africa has more than tripled its population over the past 50 years –- have caused losses in habitat and a critical decline in the lion population.
Putting on one’s skeptical glasses, it may be that megafauna such as lions, who need large expanses of land in which to hunt, may be doomed in the wild in Africa, outside of highly protected and monitored preserves. The world’s booming population simply needs the land for agriculture.
But here’s a fascinating potential solution. Scientists report that it is possible to “grow” meat in a lab. Although using cells to grow tissue is currently very expensive, the idea holds tremendous potential. Imagine, 20 years from now, big factories in which most of the world’s meat –- chicken, beef, and salmon –- is created. What extraordinary environmental and land use benefits! No more destruction of the rainforest for cattle ranches. Turning farmland back into forests to serve as carbon sinks and slow global warming. No more killing of animals for food. And the possible end of world hunger. The mind boggles. Let’s get to work!
Friday, May 12, 2006
Los Angeles helps its downtown poor in the short-run -- but how about an "impact fee" for the long run?
The city of Los Angeles adopted this week a moratorium on closing low-cost residential hotels -– what others might call flop houses -– and converting them into “luxury lofts.” The move is designed to protect the very poor in the hotels from being tossed out onto the street and into one of the world’s most expensive housing markets.
The L.A. Times quoted a homeless activist as saying, “We need a home, and right now the hotels are our homes.” The problem is, of course, that the hotels are not their property. With downtown L.A. and dilapidated-but-close-in Hollywood appearing more attractive all the time in the freeway-clogged region, the old flop houses are now more valuable for “upscale” housing.
Considering my drum-beating over the need to provide affordable housing, I won’t step up on a soap box and lecture about how the moratorium won’t affect market pressures and won’t address the underlying dilemma of affordable housing. But a moratorium is a very short-term solution, if that.
In the long-run, of course, it will be very difficult to stop what critics call “gentrification.” Indeed, the fact that affluent Angelenos are heeding the new urbanist calls to move back into the city and avoid their crazy commutes would seem to be a good thing. And as a matter of efficient land use, it probably makes sense to have downtown areas occupied by workers, not by those who are unemployed.
The moratorium may reflect the city’s hope that the housing market will collapse and that plans for conversions won’t appear as attractive a year from now. Or the year may give the city time to figure out something else for those who would be displaced.
Here’s a more-long-term idea that was in part suggested by my Stetson colleague James Fox, who studies poverty issues. Considering that the conversion of a flop house leads to a social “cost” –- the homelessness of some of the most vulnerable in the city, with the likely result that the city would have to help pay for their housing some place –- and considering that a solution short of a ban should be preferable to developers, why not impose an “impact fee” on the conversion developers? If you’re going to close a flop house, you would have to help pay to house the residents elsewhere. Or set up a homeless mitigation bank and a trading scheme. It’s the economic idea of law's requiring a complete internalization of an action's total social costs.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Quick: Which states have the highest rates of poverty? For decades (centuries?), almost all indicators of wealth and achievement, such as poverty, education, income, etc., have mostly southern states at the bottom. Sadly, the low ends of the lists have tended to be filled with states with the highest percentages of African Americans. But the federal government’s assessment of what constitutes a family in “poverty” was not designed for an era of extraordinarily high housing costs. The price of food, not housing, has been the chief cost factor in determining poverty. Uncle Sam’s measurements have not taken into account the varying costs of living –- a flaw that grows as housing costs take up a larger and larger percentage of everyone’s income. (Why? Unlike almost anything else, no one -- not even the Dutch these days -- is making land, while our nation’s population is now almost double what it was in 1950).
A hot-off-the-presses report of the Pubic Policy Institute of California has revised the poverty figures to take into account housing costs. As a result, the report concludes that D.C. (21.0%), New York (16.3%), and California (15.7%) -- all highly urbanized, high-housing-costs jurisdictions -- have the highest poverty rates. This assessment contrasts sharply with the Census Bureau’s poverty list, which places Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Louisiana at the top.
The report uses HUD’s “fair market rents,” which are calculated largely on the basis of the 40th percentile of rents in a given market. The explosion in housing costs on the east and west coasts since the late ‘90s has generated a rise in the number of metropolitan families who live in money-stressed poverty, according to the new assessment.
(The angels are in the details, of course. Even in California the national economy has appeared to play a larger role than housing costs in poverty totals; the poverty rate for the Golden State in 1995 was nearly 20%, in conjunction with a national early-‘90s rise in poverty. And the online report stated that the fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit in San Francisco was $1775 – a number that I discovered did not take into account the 13% decline from 2004 to a still daunting $1539 in 2005.)
A policy lesson is that, unlike the 1960s’ traditional thinking, it is housing, not food, that is the money matter of the greatest concern to poor persons. The dilemma of the rising cost of housing should be a domestic policy issue of the highest priority.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
What kind of urban development projects destroyed the central city neighborhoods? Urban historians often point to interstates and other highways, which were dumped down in the middle of cities --- often the poor and black sectors, of course --- with the loss of thousands of homes and the destruction of entire neighborhood fabrics. After all, the most pressing policy issue for local governments in the '50 seemed to be helping the commutes of new and influential suburbanites. Robert Moses even planned the pulling down of a large chunk of Manhattan’s now-super-hip SoHo for a freeway.
A new exhibit here in Tampa, however, shows a more modern story of urban demolition. In a pair of striking photos, the Ybor City State Museum shows how Tampa’s famous Ybor City, once home to thousands of Latino and Italian cigar rollers, actually survived the running of Interstate 4 along its edge in the ‘50s. By 1966, Ybor was still home to hundreds of wooden shotgun houses (prevalent in many cities of pre-air-conditioned South) around the bustling cigar-shop and retail 7th Avenue.
But this wasn’t enough for the urban “renewers.” In a plan not completed until the ‘70s, nearly all of the shotgun houses were bulldozed, in large part through eminent domain. Unsafe, they said. Slums, they said. By the second photo, in 1976, Ybor City was nearly completely a wasteland of empty lots. Carpet bombers could not have done a better job. (Today, a few remaining shotguns in Ybor can go for as much as half a million.)
There may have been a lot of reasons for the ‘70s urban destruction –-- a sincere but misguided belief that older housing “caused” poverty, the racist fear that Ybor was attracting too many African Americans as the Latinos moved out, and the desire of government and other institutions for some inchoate projects (a junior college, lots of parking lots, and a new condo complex were eventually built on the land).
The sad lesson of Ybor City is that cockeyed urban policies lived on until quite recently. There was hardly a blink between “tear down the slums” and “revitalize the old neighborhoods.”
Tuesday, May 9, 2006
Environmentalism and traditionally liberal land use policies remain at odds in some policy arenas. For an example from the popular culture, Sunday's penultimate “West Wing” television episode had the outgoing chief of staff for the liberal president being asked by an eccentric billionaire for one way to use his gold to save the world. “Highways,” the liberal character quickly responded, explaining that aid for many of the poor in the Third World can’t reach its destination quickly enough because of bad roads. Imagine the horror in the family rooms of environmentalism (which heard applause years ago when another "West Wing" character responded to a similar question with "Save the Everglades"), at the thought of the African savanna and rainforest mowed down for asphalt, with loggers, ranchers, miners, and hunters following swiftly behind!
Meanwhile, in the same episode, another flawed heroic character tells our chief of staff that he’s “found a typo in the Constitution” –- the National Archives can’t tell him whether it’s a comma or a smudge in the original –- that could “change the meaning of the takings clause.” He then relates that he’s put in “a call to Tom Merrill.”
Hmmm, let’s see … “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Take out the comma and it’s “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Sounds the same to me. How about “nor shall private property be taken, for public use, without just compensation.” Well, this might just be construed to mean that New London didn’t even have to pay Susette Kelo a cent! I knew those writers were still liberals after all …
Monday, May 8, 2006
Here are two contrasting footnotes in the nation’s affordable housing crunch. Today, the Washington Post writes that land in Manhattan is now so valuable for housing that gas stations have all but disappeared from the island. By contrast, NPR reported yesterday on the troubles of Newark, New Jersey, just ten miles west of Manhattan. Once one of America’s largest cities, Newark’s population has fallen from over 430,000 in 1950 to only about 280,000 today. The median home price is, according one source, only about $222,000, less than half that of the entire metro area.
The contrast is striking: On one hand, there is a dearth of land for housing; ten miles away, a city has lost 150,000 people over the past 50 years. Why isn’t the latter a partial solution to the former? The reason is not that Newark is inconvenient. A quick train ride away and close to the Hudson River tunnels, New Jersey’s largest city makes for a gloriously rapid commute by New York standards. The reason for its unpopularity is, of course, Newark’s social problems. Despite the nationwide fall in crime and the revitalization of cities, Newark remains one of America’s most dangerous cities (the NPR story quoted a high school student who said he is afraid of murder and crime each day). Newark, a great majority of whose residents are either black or Latino, has a median family income of only about $29,000 – less than half of the state average.
There IS affordable housing and buildable land for such housing in America’s expensive metro areas. But because most citizens refuse to move to areas occupied by poor people and with crime (and I'll leave unanswered the question whether an area would become more popular if the crime were to fall but the demographics remained unchanged), the vacant lots remain.