August 24, 2010
Rybczynski in Slate on Ordinary Places
Witold Rybczynski, Slate's architecture critic, UPenn prof, and author of many fascinating books, has an article--well, they call it a "slideshow"--called Ordinary Places: Rediscovering the parking lot, the big-box store, the farmer's market, the gas station. It's a nice presentation with photos and commentary and well worth taking a quick look.
Rybczynski has written scads about great public spaces, traditional neighborhood development, and so on, so he certainly isn't a defender of sprawling suburbia. So I think that his comments on the "ordinary places" in the slideshow are interesting, and make a good point about finding value in the spaces in which we live. Rybczynski cites landscape historian J.B. Jackson's concept of the "vernacular landscape." For example, here are some counterintuitive observations on that evil, un-green scourge of our soulless car-bound culture, the Parking Lot:
Whether you are going to a farmers market or a big-box store, chances are you will have to park. Parking lots, rather than squares and plazas, are the most common public outdoor open spaces in America. They are complicated social spaces, where travelling gives way to arriving, driving to walking, privacy to publicness—and vice versa. Although inevitably described as "seas of asphalt"—they look bleak in photographs—they are orderly, clean places; Jackson once referred to their "austere beauty." Parking lots are also surprisingly civic. People politely observe rules of behaviour for the sake of the common good, parking between the lines, staying out of the handicapped spaces, driving slowly. It is one place where cars and pedestrians happily coexist.Interesting stuff; definitely check out the link for the photos and commentary.
July 02, 2010
Merkel in NYT on When Less Was More in Housing
In the New York Times Opinionator Blog, architectural historian Jayne Merkel has published When Less Was More. She notes the overlooked fact that for most of the "golden age" of American suburban expansion in the postwar years, the average suburban home was well under 1,000 square feet.
We tend to think of the decades immediately following World War II as a time of exuberance and growth, with soldiers returning home by the millions, going off to college on the G.I. Bill and lining up at the marriage bureaus.
But when it came to their houses, it was a time of common sense and a belief that less truly could be more. During the Depression and the war, Americans had learned to live with less, and that restraint, in combination with the postwar confidence in the future, made small, efficient housing positively stylish.
As we find ourselves in an era of diminishing resources, could “less” become “more” again? If so, the mid-20th-century building boom might provide some inspiration.
The article goes on to discuss the movements in early and mid 20th century architecture; the influence of modernism (but not Le Corbusier!), and has great photos ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright buildings to Levittown.
But like much of American society, the middle-class home began to grow over time. The average size of an American house in 1950 was 983 square feet. Slowly, though, both more square footage and more amenities became part of the American dream, so that by 2004 the average home topped 2,300 square feet.
June 21, 2010
NYT on the Costs of Seizing Fannie & Freddie
Over the weekend this story by Binyamin Applebaum was featured on the front page of the New York Times: Cost of Seizing Fannie and Freddie Surges for Taxpayers.
CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac took over a foreclosed home roughly every 90 seconds during the first three months of the year. They owned 163,828 houses at the end of March, a virtual city with more houses than Seattle. The mortgage finance companies, created by Congress to help Americans buy homes, have become two of the nation’s largest landlords. . . .
For all the focus on the historic federal rescue of the banking industry, it is the government’s decision to seize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in September 2008 that is likely to cost taxpayers the most money. So far the tab stands at $145.9 billion, and it grows with every foreclosure of a three-bedroom home with a two-car garage one hour from Phoenix. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the final bill could reach $389 billion.
The article has some good vignettes of how the Fannie-Freddie "rescue" process is playing out in communities like the featured one in Arizona, where private contractors are paid to maintain, renovate, and try to resell the foreclosed homes. The article also gives a short but interesting background on Fannie and Freddie.
Fannie and Freddie increased American home ownership over the last half-century by persuading investors to provide money for mortgage loans. The sales pitch amounted to a money-back guarantee: If borrowers defaulted, the companies promised to repay the investors. . . .
“Our business is the American dream of home ownership,” Fannie Mae declared in its mission statement, and in 2001 the company set a target of helping to create six million new homeowners by 2014. Here in Arizona, during a housing boom fueled by cheap land, cheap money and population growth, Fannie Mae executives trumpeted that the company would invest $15 billion to help families buy homes.
As it turns out, Fannie and Freddie increasingly were channeling money into loans that borrowers could not afford. As defaults mounted, the companies quickly ran low on money to honor their guarantees. The federal government, fearing that investors would stop providing money for new loans, placed the companies in conservatorship and took a 79.9 percent ownership stake, adding its own guarantee that investors would be repaid.
The huge and continually rising cost of that decision has spurred national debate about federal subsidies for mortgage lending. . . .
I think the interesting question for the future is whether we are willing or able to reassess the idea of homeownership as the American Dream, and the extent to which we (over)promote homeownership as a public policy.
May 26, 2010
Land Use Panel at Law & Society Association
This weekend is the always-excellent annual meeting of the Law & Society Association in Chicago. I haven't scoured the program, but there is sure to be a plethora of interesting panels and events. I do have firsthand knowledge, however, of one particular land-use panel that is guaranteed to present fascinating projects from interesting up-and-coming scholars.
Panel: Fri., May 28, 12:30-2:15
Chair: James J. Kelly, Jr. (University of Baltimore)
The Effects of SmartGrowth on the Preservation of Historic Resources, William J. Cook (Charleston School of Law)
Debtors' Environmental Impact: Structured Finance and the Suburbanization of Open Space, Heather Hughes (American University)
Sustainability and the Practice of Community Development, James J. Kelly, Jr. (University of Baltimore)
The Artifice of Local Growth Politics: At-Large Elections, Ballot Box Zoning, and Judicial Review of Land Use Initiatives, Kenneth Stahl (Chapman University)
May 26, 2010 in Charleston, Chicago, Community Economic Development, Conferences, Environmental Law, Finance, Financial Crisis, Historic Preservation, Local Government, Politics, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Suburbs, Sustainability | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
May 14, 2010
In a funny confluence of events my colleague, Pratt Cassity, sent me a blog by writer Brad Aaron (formerly of Athens, now of NYC) on Streetsblog. The blog is about an episode of the American Makeover webseries on Atlanta. The film includes notable Atlantans like Robert Bullard, known as the father of the environmental justice movement and the head of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, Howard Frumpkin of the CDC, and Charles Brewer, developer of one of Atlanta's rare truly New Urbanist developments, Glenwood Park. Although the film is ostensibly about Atlanta, it's really about Atlanta's status as the poster child of urban sprawl. It's funny, short, and pithy, and would be a great introductory piece for students about sprawl and its effects, for good and for ill.
Jamie Baker Roskie
April 06, 2010
Local Growth Politics and The Real Estate Meltdown
In my previous posts, here and here, I discussed the nature of local growth politics in southern California and elsewhere. The central dynamic of local growth politics nationwide is the conflict between developers and homeowners about whether, where, and what form new development should take. This dynamic presupposes that growth is something perpetual and that the critical issue is how to "manage" growth in the same way we would use dams and levees to manage a raging river. The history of Los Angeles and other sunbelt cities certainly gives us much reason to believe that growth is indeed inexorable unless some force of nature (such as extremely arid or mountainous terrain), some accident of history (such as the huge landholdings of the Irvine company), or some political movement (such as the environmental and slow-growth movements of the 1970s and 80s), applies the brakes. And according to the "growth machine" school, even these latter forces can only re-direct or temporarily slow growth.
The events of the last few years, however, have cast doubt on whether growth is in fact perpetual and inexorable, as we are now seeing ghost-town residential subdivisions appearing on the fringes of many once booming cities and established neighborhoods becoming gap-tooted with boarded up, foreclosed homes. It was no force of nature, political movement, or accident of history that caused this downturn, however, but rather the very idea that growth was going to continue perpetually. As property values were increasing up to 30% a year, interest rates were low and mortgages were easy to get even for the worst credit risks, real estate began to be seen as a fool-proof and inflation-proof investment, with no thought that there would eventually be a market correction. Unbounded optimism about growth drove real estate values higher until the now-infamous "bubble" burst. Today we look back on this bygone era as some sort of extended Ponzi scheme, and those who peddled the benefits of growth as glorified scam-artists. Many are calling for more stringent regulation of the mortgage-backed securities market, prosecution of predatory lenders, or the deconstruction of the long-cherished ideal of homeownership.
As part of the postmortem on the real estate crisis, we should question what the future of growth politics holds. Will NIMBY homeowners become more favorably disposed to development as growth-driven revenue slows to a trickle? With property values collapsing, will homeowners begin to challenge the suite of public policies (highway subsidies, mortgage interest deductions, Euclidean zoning, etc.) that have long reified the idea of homeownership? Will developers see the need to build high-density transit-oriented development rather than undertaking speculative homebuilding in the exurbs? Will they work with community groups to avoid costly delays as their profit margins get thinner?
We can only speculate as to the answer to these questions, but my research leads to the preliminary conclusion that no, the dynamics of growth politics have not substantially changed. To the contrary, anecdotal evidence suggests that the real estate slowdown may deepen the existing animosity between developers and homeowners. On one hand, the real estate downturn has resulted in increased cynicism about the traditionally pro-growth policies of local governments. In Florida, a grassroots movement called “Hometown Democracy” is pushing a ballot measure for November 2010 that would require voter referenda on all amendments to a general plan. In its campaign literature, Hometown Democracy argues that land use control needs to be taken out of the hands of local officials, whose habit of “rubberstamping speculative plan changes” caused Florida’s “destructive boom-bust cycle.” On the other hand, influential students of urban development like the New Urbanist scholar Andres Duany have pinned the blame for the real estate crisis squarely on NIMBY homeowners, who supposedly perpetuated sprawl to safeguard their own lifestyle. In short, the anecdotal evidence indicates that the polarized discourse of growth politics is unlikely to subside any time soon.
I invite you to share your own thoughts about how, if at all, the real estate crisis may alter the dynamics of local growth politics or other aspects of land use law or policy.
March 26, 2010
"Boomburbs" and Local Growth Politics
In my previous post, I briefly sketched the thesis of my recent paper on local growth politics. Here, I want to provide some important background for the project. Those of us who study land use and local government tend to believe that local politics are dominated by homeowners, who disproportionately participate in local politics, either by vote or otherwise (such as appearing at a hearing to oppose a rezoning request), and whose participation is motivated solely by their own self-interest as homeowners. That is, homeowners will advocate whatever local policies will boost property values, lower property taxation, ensure quality schools for their children, and protect neighborhood quality of life. Usually, this means that homeowners support growth controls, exclusionary zoning policies that enable communities to screen for wealth, and opposition to almost any new development. The thesis that "homevoters" control local government was most recently articulated in William Fischel's influential book, The Homevoter Hypothesis, but it is also amply supported by other important scholarship and caselaw.
As Fischel points out in his book, the homevoter hypothesis really only works in relatively small suburban communities where homeowners can be assured of dominance. It works less well in large, more diverse cities. But Fischel assures us that this fact does not diminish the importance of his thesis because, after all, only 25% of the nation's population live in cities larger than 100,000 residents. We are, in other words, a suburban nation full of homevoters. Again, land use caselaw seems to support Fischel here, as so many of the important land use cases deal with small suburban communities attempting to use their zoning powers to maintain their suburban character. Scholarship on land use and local government, likewise, frequently bemoans the exclusionary practices of small suburbs and the increasing fragmentation of metropolitan regions brought on by the proliferation of such small suburbs.
Having been steeped in this literature, I could not have been more surprised when I started reading a book by Robert Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy entitled Boomburbs: The Rise of America's Accidental Cities (2007). According to the authors, Fischel's depiction of small suburban communities dominated by homevoters completely ignores what was (at the time) the fastest-growing, highly populated, and most politically influential region of the country, the Sunbelt. Most communities in this region are neither small suburbs nor conventional big cities but "boomburbs," large, incorporated cities of over 100,000 that are "suburban" in density and attitude but "urban" in size and diversity (ethnic, architectural, and otherwise). The authors argue that these boomburbs are far too large and diverse for homevoters to dominate; instead, boomburb politics are driven by the "growth machine," a matrix of interests that profits from development, including politicians, developers, construction companies, unions and the media. It is not only size and diversity that weaken the influence of the homevoter; boomburbs virtually all use at-large voting systems that tend to dilute the influence of neighborhood homeowners' groups and maximize the influence of deep-pocketed developers.
Lang and LeFurgy's book was a revelation, but something about their argument struck me as far too simplistic. A significant plurality of the boomburbs the author identify are right here in southern California. Indeed, southern California has often been considered an archetype of the "growth machine" thesis. However, southern California has also been labeled the birthplace of the NIMBYs ("Not in My Backyard,") a somewhat more pejorative name for Fischel's homevoters, and writers like Mike Davis have chronicled the bitter growth wars southern California has endured over the past several decades as developers have done battle with affluent homeowners. It occurred to me that Lang and LeFurgy were ignoring something crucial: In the sunbelt, and in southern California specifically, "homevoters" who are dissatisfied with the "growth machine" and the at-large system can use the initiative process to put the brakes on growth. In fact, homeowners in southern California have passed scores of slow-growth initiatives after the passage of the epochal (or apocalyptic) Proposition 13, which itself was partially the result of strong anti-growth sentiment. So there seems to be an uneasy equilibrium between development interests and homevoters in places like southern California, brought about, at least in part, by the co-existence of at-large voting and the initiative process. Making matters even more interesting, I discovered that both at-large voting and the initiative process were enacted as part of the Progressive movement's effort to reform local politics. This signaled that despite the opposition between pro-growth and anti-growth interests built into the political structures of boomburbs, there might be some underlying continuity as well. Indeed, that continuity became my thesis, as you can see from my previous post. You can also download the paper here.
March 17, 2010
County Struggles to Pay for Unused Infrastructure Capacity
In our relatively short time as co-editors of this blog, we've written several times about the impact of the implosion of the housing market. (Just check out our housing and mortgage crisis categories for many of these posts.) Recently, the local paper here in Athens - the Athens Banner Herald - carried a story about how nearby Jackson County is struggling to pay for the expanded water and sewer service they built to meet the expected demand for new home building. Jackson County is an exurb of Atlanta and before the economy crashed it was experiencing massive growth. Now, as in so many places in the country, subdivided land is little more than "PVC farms" (so called because they are empty except for PVC pipes sticking from the ground where homes are to be built). The Jackson County commission's solution to this is to begin charging a $10 a month maintenance fee on the pipes. However, with many of the builders gone bust, they will have to wait to collect this fee from future developers. Let's hope that works out for them.
Jamie Baker Roskie
March 09, 2010
Anderson on Race, Poverty, and Exclusion at the Urban Fringe
Michelle Wilde Anderson (Berkeley) has posted Cities Inside Out: Race, Poverty, and Exclusion at the Urban Fringe. The abstract:
Across the country, from Aberdeen, North Carolina to Modesto, California, city growth has bypassed hundreds of low-income neighborhoods founded under conditions of racial segregation in the early to mid-twentieth century. Denied annexation to neighboring municipalities, these urban pockets remain unincorporated, covered only by county governance and, in some cases, rural service standards. This article represents the first comprehensive academic treatment of such communities, which I call unincorporated urban areas. Challenging popular assumptions regarding an inner-city of racialized poverty in contrast to a white, suburban privatopia, unincorporated urban areas turn our attention to suburbs where the gravitational pull of the urban economy, affordability constraints, and the desire for homeownership have led to the settlement of low-income communities of color at the unregulated fringe, just beyond city limits.
The article analyzes the adequacy of local government structures serving unincorporated urban areas and the flexibility for reform within those structures. It asks, for the first time, whether two tiers of general purpose local government - a city and a county - offer urbanized areas greater participatory voice, stronger protection from undesirable land uses, improved collective services, and greater household mobility than county rule alone. In so doing, it raises the question of what adequacy in the context of local government might mean, revealing unquestioned assumptions about the allocation of power among cities, counties, and states. New legal issues concerning municipal services, extraterritorial eminent domain, and the risk of land loss come into focus in this investigation of cities inside out - urban life placed outside the reach of municipal government.
February 22, 2010
Developer Doubles Up on New Buyer Tax Credit
From today's Gainesville (Ga.) Times, a story about a developer who is offering to double the first time homebuyer and "move up" homebuyer tax credits as an incentive to buy in his subdivision in South Hall County (less than an hour north of Atlanta). I've heard of lots of incentives, but that's a new one on me.
Jamie Baker Roskie
December 19, 2009
Are HOV lanes a good idea? They are controversial, to be sure. Some think that they are essential to disincentivizing traffic and rewarding carpooling. Others think that they are inefficient or infringe too much on liberty. But for those commuters who live in areas with HOV lanes, the practical question is how to adapt. KHOU.com reports on the emergence of one response to HOV lanes: Slugging.
HOUSTON – Would you jump into the car of a stranger? Hundreds of Houstonians do it every morning on the way to work to save time and money.
The phenomenon called "slugging" developed in the northeast and has caught on in Houston over the last few years.
The "sluggers" park at a Metro Park and Ride lot and form a line to get into cars with drivers who are looking for a passenger so they can legally take the HOV.
Slugging seems to have originated, or has been most successful in, the DC area. I think it would be creepy to rely on a commute in a stranger's car (plus, the story doesn't say how they get home). But on the other hand, I kind of like the free market ordering response to regulatory restrictions--when the government creates an HOV lane, the commuters establish a new informal but effective institution, the slugging line.
November 11, 2009
Veterans Day & Land Use
A very happy Veterans Day to all, with thanks to those who have served. In honor of the day, here are a few desultory land use issues involving military veterans.
The idea of rewarding veterans for their service with grants of land is an ancient one. I suspect it goes back at least to ancient Rome, and probably before. Cincinnatus and all that. It makes a lot of sense, historically, where cash-poor governments asking for or requiring military service have traditionally had one major asset to distribute: sovereign domain over land. Part of this historical generosity is certainly due to gratitude for service, and part of it must also be the social concern over standing armies in peacetime.
After the Revolutionary War, the thirteen states and the Continental Congress had two major issues: (1) crippling debt from financing the war; and (2) a whole lot of land that was largely unsettled (by Anglo-Americans, that is) and unregulated--the territory from the Appalachian Proclamation of 1763 line to the Mississippi. The solution? First, get the states to cede their western claims to the national government. After the Virginia Cession in 1784, Congress set about making a plan for the western lands. The 1785 Land Ordinance and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance did not mention veterans specifically, but they were part of the larger federal program designed to distribute and regulate the western territories with the notion of state land grants to Revolutionary War veterans in mind. [I have a work in progress on the Northwest Ordinance and property rights]. For you property law fans, the ensuing government survey of the lands was part of what originated the political/geographic establishment of counties and townships across the western states.
So government policy has long favored helping veterans obtain land. Harold Hyman wrote a really interesting book tracing the effects of this policy preference in the wake of major wars in American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a home loan guaranty program that allows qualified veterans to secure mortgage loans at favorable rates. This has been around for a while. Along with FHA loans, the VA loan program was instrumental in moving millions of veterans into single-family houses.
The entire story of post-WWII suburban development is in large part a story about how to give veterans--who survived both the War and the Depression--a piece of the American Dream (and also about what to do with and where to put the 8+ million men and women suddenly out of uniform and getting to work on the Baby Boom). The designers of Levittown(s) were mass-producing single-family suburban homes in large part because of the market imperative of housing returning veterans.
At the state level, many states have additional programs that supplement the VA's federal benefits to veterans with respect to land- or home-ownership. Texas, for example, has the Veterans Land Board, which is under the Texas General Land Office. The Veterans Land Board has a number of loan programs with favorable terms for qualified veterans. On November 3, 2009, Texas voters approved Proposition 6, a state constitutional amendment to allow the Veterans Land Board to issue general obligation bonds to finance these programs.
It's a credit to state and federal governments that we have these policies to reward those who have served. The legitimate critical questions we should ask are whether these are the right policies to express that gratitude to veterans. Like other government land use policies--such as Euclidean zoning, highway construction, tax breaks on mortgages--land programs for veterans have favored the single-family suburban lifestyle and have subsidized sprawl. As Chad Emerson has blogged here, these policies seem to be continued in the federal government's responses to the economic crisis. Can policy that favors veterans for their service be modified to mitigate today's land use problems?
Thanks again to all who have served.
October 27, 2009
The Bailout of Sprawl
When the financial history of this era is told, it is possible that it will be seen as the bailout of not just the banks, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, it will also to some extent be seen as the bailout of sprawl.
Leinberger's argument is that the highest rates of foreclosure are in the low-density, single family houses on the suburban/exurban fringe; therefore the federal efforts to reduce foreclosures will disproportionately flow to these homeowners. Leinberger says that we have structurally overbuilt housing in the exurbs compared to market demand, and that despite efforts to bail out overleveraged mortgages, sprawl housing may continue to decline in value. Meanwhile, he notes, property values for walkable urban housing have remained flat and may even include a price premium. Leinberger is concerned that if the value of sprawl housing continues to decline even after the recovery, it is "the recipe for the creation of a slum."
There are a number of other interesting items on metropolitan governance, planning, and land use on The Avenue.
October 16, 2009
NYT on Environmentalism in the Suburbs
The New York Times published several articles on environmentalism in the suburbs, seemingly on the same day last week but on different pages of different sections in different editions (NY, NJ, CT, LI) of the paper. (I don't get the dead-tree version so correct me if I'm wrong about this.) An interesting batch:
Each article discusses a different issue in a different locality, but a common theme that I picked up is just how deeply environmental consciousness has affected the suburbs. Several of these local governments have gone as far as to change their zoning codes or offer incentives to promote green building, conservation, and carbon output reduction. The suburbs get the blame for causing sprawl but the people in the suburbs may be reaching a threshold point of incorporating environmentalism into local policy.
UPDATE: Mireya Navarro, the New York Times environmental writer who authored three of the six articles linked above, emails to confirm that the stories all ran in the Sunday, Oct. 11 metro section, which (as Ms. Navarro put it) is "zoned"(!) for the different suburban areas (NJ, LI, CT, Westchester, etc.). So if you only got one of these stories in your Sunday NY Times, you can read them all here on the Land Use Prof Blog!