Friday, September 9, 2011
If you do a Google Images search for "sprawl", what you will see is lots of aerial views of large subdivisions filled with small and medium-sized houses. But these places are "sprawl with a human face"; often there are sidewalks, or at least lawns for humans to walk on.
Right now, I'm visiting my parents' house in Atlanta and seeing sprawl at its worst. For example, look at this photo (a couple of miles from where I am sitting), showing a residential street where the trees go right up to the street, so there is no lawn to walk on; if you walk you just have to share the street with 40 mph car traffic. This sort of thing even happens in apartment complexes.
Usually, I don’t think the casebooks I use are biased (at least not in a “Democrat vs. Republican” way) – but every so often I see something that gives me pause. In discussing zoning variances, my Property casebook (Dukeminier) writes that although issuance of zoning variances is reversed more often than denial, “This is not to say that variance administration is policed as closely as it should be.” The book then adds that “Illegal issuance [of variances] is a widespread phenomenon nationwide.”
Assuming for the sake of argument that cities are more lenient in granting variances than black-letter law might suggest, I am not sure that it is necessarily a bad thing. Maybe the zoning ordinance makes no sense, or allowing a minor deviation would be harmless in the situation at issue. But the casebook does not seem to share my point of view.
Why not? Perhaps a bias in favor of government regulation. But more likely, I think, a quite understandable “rule of law” bias in favor of cities following their own rules. The authors seem to think that the rules may be stupid, but as long as they are there they should be followed.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Some exciting news from NYU's Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy:
We are thrilled to announce the launch of our Subsidized Housing Information Project (SHIP), a new resource designed to provide housing agencies, community organizations, tenants and the affordable housing industry with the information they need to develop effective preservation strategies.
The SHIP database contains extensive information on nearly 235,000 units of privately-owned, subsidized affordable rental housing in New York City. Compiled from 50 different public and private data sources, the information is accessible through a user-friendly, interactive data search tool available on our website.
Our Institute for Affordable Housing Policy has simultaneously released the State of New York City’s Subsidized Housing report, which provides a comprehensive analysis of the properties in the SHIP database, and identifies opportunities to preserve affordable housing in the coming years. Another online tool, the Directory of New York City Affordable Housing Programs (Beta) summarizes nearly 200 programs that have been used in New York City to develop affordable housing since the 1930s.
The SHIP was made possible through a collaboration with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the New York City Housing Development Corporation, New York State Homes and Community Renewal, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the F.B. Heron Foundation and NYU Law alumnus Herbert Z. Gold (¢40). The New York City Council has also committed to support technical assistance and training for community-based organizations on how to use the database in their preservation efforts and advocacy. We have also received invaluable guidance and support from members of the SHIP Advisory Committee, the IAHP Advisory Board and dozens of affordable housing experts.
The South Bend Tribune reports that U.S. District Judge Robert Miller (NDIN) has granted a preliminary injunction sought by four local residents represented by the ACLU of Indiana. The plaintiffs object to the transfer of the former Family Dollar site, recently bought by the City for $1.2 M, to a local CDC that would turn it over to St. Joseph High School, a co-ed Catholic school which would use it for athletics and parking and had committed to accomodate requested public use for 10 years. (FD: my two older children recently began attending St. Joseph High School here in South Bend, shortly after I began my new post here at Notre Dame.) The local council had approved the acquisition and transfer on a 5-4 vote.
In the opinion, Judge Miller agrees with the plaintiffs that the transfer constitutes a direct subsidy to a religious institution in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The Court distinguished recent school voucher program precedent by emphasizing that the below-market transfer by the City is not part of a program with religion-neutral criteria. To me, this point about the ad hoc nature of public-to-private land transfers makes the opinion an interesting land use case. It raises the question: Are religious institutions quarrantined from economic development land transfers even though (as the Court agrees) they are not from public benefits generally?
Related to this point is the nature of the endorsement of (a?) religion. With the qualification that I am not a First Amendment scholar, I did note that the Court found that the transfer violated the second prong of the Lemon test (you know, whether the action's primary effect is to advance/inhibit religion) Even though neither the City nor the plaintiffs thought the issue determinative, the Court disagreed. The Court implied in its ruling that the proposed transfer sends a message to adherents and non-adherents that they are insiders and outsiders respectively. Was that part-and-parcel of the Court's distinction between programmatic and ad hoc public subsidies?
I would be glad to hear from you. I will be following the developments with not-just-an-academic interest.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Harvard economist Edward Glaeser--author of much fascinating work on land use and urban development, including his latest book, Triumph of the City-- has posted his latest article, Rethinking the Federal Bias Toward Homeownership, forthcoming in HUD's Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2011). The abstract:
The most fundamental fact about rental housing in the United States is that rental units are overwhelmingly in multifamily structures. This fact surely reflects the agency problems associated with renting single-family dwellings, and it should influence all discussions of rental housing policy. Policies that encourage homeowning are implicitly encouraging people to move away from higher density living; policies that discourage renting are implicitly discouraging multifamily buildings. Two major distortions shape the rental housing market, both of which are created by the public sector. Federal pro-homeownership policies, such as the home mortgage interest deduction, weaken the rental market and the cities where rental markets thrive. Local policies that discourage tall buildings likewise ensure that Americans have fewer rental options. The economic vitality of cities and the environmental consequences of large suburban homes with long commutes both support arguments for reducing these distortions.
A very important argument; I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
In public debate over suburban sprawl, one common argument is the “Inevitability Theory.” The Inevitability Theory is based on the following chain of logic:
1. Sprawl happens even in places where government policy doesn’t favor sprawl (such as Canada, Europe, etc.)
2. Therefore, sprawl is an inevitable result of the free market, rather than government policy.
The Inevitability Theory is designed to rebut the environmentalist argument that sprawl is the result of American public policies such as highway construction, minimum parking requirements, anti-density zoning, and anti-pedestrian street design.
My next article criticizes the Inevitability Theory by focusing on Canada. Part 1 of the Inevitability Theory discussed above can be broken down into two assumptions: (a) that Canada sprawls as much as the U.S.; and (b) Canadian public policy is antisprawl. But in my article, I challenge both assumptions, arguing that:
a. Canada is less suburbanized than the United States; even controlling for changes in city boundaries, Canadian central cities have been more likely to grow than their American counterparts. Even Canadian cities that have lost population are better off than many older American cities. For example, the fastest-declining major Canadian city, Montreal, lost 18 percent of its population between 1971 and 2001 (excluding areas annexed to the city in the intervening decades). By contrast, St. Louis lost 44 percent of its population, and other cities such as Cleveland and Detroit lost over 30 percent of their population.
b. If you treat sprawl as a matter of “how we develop” rather than “where we develop”,Canada again differs. 14 percent of Canadian commuters (as opposed to 6 percent of Americans) use public transit to get to work, and 5 percent walk (as opposed to 2 percent in the U.S.)
To be sure, Canada has some automobile-dependent cities and suburbs. But is this necessarily the result of the market at work? In my article, I show that Canadian cities and suburbs have the same kind of anti-density, pro-sprawl regulations as their American counterpart. For example, in both nations, municipal zoning regulations limit density, thus limiting the number of people who can live within walking distance of public transit and other destinations. And in both nations, zoning regulations require businesses to install large amounts of parking, thus reducing density, making driving more convenient, and also making businesses more inhospitable to pedestrians (who often have to walk through large parking lots). And in both nations, streets are often designed to be too wide to be comfortably crossed. However, Canadian regulations do tend to be more lenient (and thus less anti-pedestrian) than their U.S. counterparts.
The full article is at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn/65/ .
Monday, September 5, 2011
Happy Labor Day! This morning I was perusing the Athens paper and happened upon this article about local parkour enthusiasts. The folks at parkour.com define it as "‘Efficient movement from A to B’ (i.e. anything you would do if you were running for your life)," and it involves jumping on and over buildings, stairwells, trees, and anything that comes in your way. I'm always looking for ways to get my students out of the office and seeing how land use really happens out in the world. Maybe I should encourage them to get into parkour, for an up-close-and-personal perspective.
Jamie Baker Roskie