November 2, 2007
Why isn't an apartment a "home"?
Today, let’s move up the economic ladder from the homeless and talk about the problem of affordable “homes” in Los Angeles. In the news this week was the heart-warming story of modest-income families moving into new houses built by Habitat for Humanity and its most famous hammer swinger, Jimmy Carter. This is good news for the handful of lucky new homeowners, but it won’t, of course, solve the broader phenomenon that the median price of a single-family house in Los Angeles is more than $500,000. And with the mortgage crunch, families with modest incomes and shaky credit history find it difficult to obtain mortgage loans.
What troubles me in particular, however, is the commonly expressed perception that ONLY a single-family house is a “home;” small apartments aren’t worthy of such a designation. Both the L.A. Times and NPR suggested this in their reporting on Los Angeles this week. Earth to the United States: In almost all nations of the world, nearly all families, from poor to rich, live in apartments, not in single-family houses. From Paris to Buenos Aires to Osaka, it is accepted that the advantages of living in a big city come with the drawback of having to live in an apartment. But not in the United States, and especially not in sprawling cities such as Los Angeles, where the American Dream is dying hard. But with nearly 18 million people (more than the entire state of Pennsylvania, and more arriving all the time) in the fixed space of the L.A. area, the old luxuries simply can’t be expected anymore.
Our land use laws need to be loosened to allow (and maybe even encourage) more construction of apartments (how about on land currently occupied by foreclosed single-family houses?) to house the millions of new urban Americans.
November 1, 2007
The never-ending debate over L.A.’s skid row …
The problem of homelessness continues to evolve both as a public debate and as a feature of nuts-and-bolts land use law. The nation has evolved both beyond the old days of viewing homeless people uniformly as unworthy “bums,” and beyond the days of the 1980s, when many suggested that homelessness was largely the result of heartless Republican policies. Nowhere is the new, nuanced view of homelessness a bigger issue of public debate than in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, where a mild climate allows thousands of homeless people to live on the streets—mostly notably in the city’s infamous downtown “skid row” (although the term apparently originated in Seattle).
In the city of angels, the government has struggled with the issue of whether to enforce laws against sleeping on the sidewalks. In a recent opinion column in the L.A. Times, Philip F. Mangano and Gary Blasi criticize the practice of criminalizing sidewalk-sleeping, by pointing out how expensive it is for taxpayers. One point that they fail to emphasize, however, is that one of the primary reasons for arresting people for anti-social conduct isn’t simply to stop the arrestees, but also to discourage others from engaging in the unwanted behavior.
The comentators point out that many homeless persons suffer from mental or other illnesses—a point that helps disprove both of the old stereotypes. This fact also makes it more difficult for some homeless people to accept changes that might be good for them. Moreover, the sheer number of homeless persons in Los Angeles makes the preferred solution—providing warm and protected housing for the homeless—tougher in L.A. than elsewhere.
I suggest that when the political support does not exist for the best solution, governments should consider a second-best solution, such as semi-permanent “shelving,” with a fixed communal restroom, that at least would be better than a cardboard box or a tent on the sidewalk.
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October 31, 2007
The lonely carpool lanes …
Once upon a time, carpooling was a common way for citizens to avoid the costs and drudgery of the daily auto commute. Back when more jobs were in central downtowns, when more people worked regular schedules, and when fewer families had multiple cars, it was quite common for co-workers to establish a carpool to bring them to and from their 9-5 jobs. But today, has our more fractured society left carpooling in the dust?
From Boston comes a story about the underutilized carpool lanes in the recently opened Big Dig tunnel system. In a city infamous for some of the worst traffic in the nation, studies have shown that some “high occupancy vehicle” lanes average only about two or three vehicles per hour, during rush hour! Faced with a similar lack of attention, other locales have changed HOV-3 restrictions to HOV-2 restrictions, with minimal effect (other than to facilitate the use of “dummy” passengers).
Does this criticism lead to a suggestion that Americans won’t leave their personal vehicles for more communitarian forms of transportation? I won’t say it. But I will suggest that encouraging carpooling probably isn’t the best way to get Americans to stop driving alone. I suggest that dollars spent on carpool lanes would be better spent on expanding bus-only lanes in congested routes, along with a heavy investment in big parking garages at residential bus hubs. Perhaps a better way to get Americans out of their individual cars is to allow them to drive a part of the way towards work …
October 30, 2007
Take a parking lot, and put up paradise …
The problem of abandoned houses didn’t just arise with the current foreclosure boom. In cities with depressed economies, such as Flint, Mich. (the subject of Michael Moore’s film "Roger and Me"), and New Orleans (which had thousands of empty houses even before Katrina), abandoned properties have long been local sore points, in that they attract crime and decrease the values of nearby occupied properties, pushing the communities into downward spirals. If local government is allowed to steer development through land use law, it certainly should be allowed to take steps to solve the social problem of abandoned property.
As NPR reported this morning, Genesee County, Mich., which includes Flint, is encouraging, through a county land bank, alternative uses for abandoned houses. A property that is foreclosed for non-payment of taxes can be re-sold for one dollar to neighbors and other organizations that pledge to tear down unused buildings and turn them into community-friendly places, such as gardens, parks, etc. This system often results in better uses for land than with properties sold at auction, at which houses are often bought by speculators who have no immediate plans to do anything with the property.
It is truly a remarkable society in which development in a former large city can turn into a plot of gardenias and sunflowers. But the globalized economy demands that Flint “downsize,” and it makes sense for government to control its downsizing in a least-painful manner.
October 29, 2007
From London 1666 to San Diego 2007 …
New ideas of land use law took formative steps after the great London fire of 1666, when the English government learned the value of urban construction that resisted fire. But fires continued to plague London until modern times. In southern California, the fires of October 2007 may generate another major step in the continual drive of laws toward requiring tougher construction. In particular, much attention is being given to a group of tony private developments in Rancho Santa Fe, outside San Diego, where fire resistance was a top priority. Noncombustible roofing materials, copious numbers of sprinklers, and fire-avoiding plants (no palms, pines, or eucalyptus) are among the rules. Nearly all of the homes in these communities emerged unscathed, with many residents still in their homes, even through they were in the path of one of the biggest fires.
Should the fire-tested lessons of construction and landscaping lead to mandatory laws? Or should they simply be a matter of private choice? On one hand, slowing a fire is a public good. On the other hand, homeowners don't want to be told what to do by their government. And some environmentalists may be uneasy with the idea that improvements in building might serve as an alternative to the calls for fewer houses in the desert hills.