Monday, July 30, 2007
Support in Congress appears to be growing for a National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, to be financed in part through forced contributions from the federal mortgage companies.
Under the current version of a House bill (introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D.-Mass.) and others as H.R. 2895), the Trust Fund would issue grants to both local and state governments, which then must spend the money by passing it on to organizations for the construction of low-cost housing. All the money would have to be spent on housing for low-income families (defined as below 80% of the state or local median income) and 75 % would have to be spent on extremely low-income families (below 30% of the median income or the national poverty level). The goal is to build 1.5 million new housing units for low-income persons.
The Trust Fund plan shows how far American politics and the affordable housing issue have evolved. Gone are the days in which "public housing," built and maintained by public entities, seemed the best solutions for very low-income persons; we simply don't trust such a system any more. Also gone are the days when state and local governments successfully pushed for huge block grants, with few strings attached, from the federal treasury. We don't trust state and local governments to spend such grant money on the poor, instead of on the voting middle-class.
And also gone are the days when a major new program for low-income people would be funded by general federal tax revenue. Instead, most of the money would come from the federal mortgage institutions, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with required matching contributions from the states. It seems difficult to argue that this is excessive government interference with the market; after all, the purpose of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is to channel the market towards the financing of home mortgages. These institutions have done a fine job of increasing home ownership, but not nearly as well with another of their other mandates -- to help housing affordability.
Housing advocates argue that this type of proposed grant system has proven to be successful at the state and local level. As a federal program, it remains to be seen whether local governments and the market will want to and succeed in getting built the right type of low-cost housing in the right places. The great barriers of zoning and local opposition to low-cost housing will stand in the way, as they always do. But the House bill seems, to me, to follow a sensible approach …
Friday, July 27, 2007
[Land Use Prof Blog, returning after some technical problems ...]
How do you "shrink" a city? For much of the United States, and the world, the issues of land use control concern controlling "growth." But in some places, especially the former industrial towns of the Midwest U.S., cities are struggling with what to do as they lose population. Perhaps the most famous example is Youngstown, Ohio, a former steel center, which has lost more than half of its population, along with most of its industry, in the past 50 years.
Unlike other cities, which desperately try to lure new migrants and businesses (remember the unintentionally hilarious and largely unsuccessful efforts of Flint, Mich., chronicled in Michael Moore's "Roger and Me"?), Youngstown is planning to be a smaller city in the 21st century. The city government is tearing down abandoned houses, turning once-residential areas into parks, and studying which parts of the city might eventually be "shut down."
One contentious issue is whether the city should plan to cut off services - roads, utilities, etc. - in certain areas in which only a few residents remain. This idea is complicated by class and race (many of the most depleted areas are largely poor and black). For now, the city says that it will not force anyone to leave and won't "condemn" any occupied and safe housing.
But depopulation raises some broader questions concerning government's duties (see here a story from the Wall Street Journal discussing studies done in Europe, where some cities are shrinking). On one hand, a homeowner holds a valid expectation that if government provides street maintenance, electricity, and telephone service today, it will do so tomorrow. But the opposing viewpoint also has some merit. In a culture in which rugged "property rights" are asserted so vigorously - people do not happily give up property rights for the public good - perhaps government holds the right to withdraw its benefits to citizens when there is a compelling public benefit to do so.
Monday, July 16, 2007
A proposal to foster better land use and less greenhouse gas emissions … by "progressive" electricity pricing …
What major effects on land use will be generated by efforts to ameliorate global climate change? There will be many, through steps such as underground carbon sequestration, vegetation/carbon-sink forests, and fields planted for biofuel material. One of the most straightforward suggestions for fighting global warming -- the upgrading of carbon-emitting electrical power plants -- would cause some indirect, but significant, effects on land use. I propose here a way that this could done effectively and fairly, though changes in electricity pricing.
There is little doubt that requiring big burners of coal, oil, and gas to install hi-tech and expensive emissions controls would be a major step in limiting the United States' contribution to the greenhouse gas problem. It is also true that the costs of this step, unlike some of the others, would be spread widely across our society; everyone's electrical rates (and Americans enjoy some of the cheapest electricity in the world) would rise somewhat. But some policymakers are concerned that higher rates would be "regressive" on poorer people. After all, rich families spend a far smaller percentage of their income on electricity than do poor families.
How to ameliorate this perceived unfairness? I suggest a pricing system patterned after "progressive" income taxation. Each household would be granted a very low rate up to a fixed amount of electricity per month, based on the expected typical usage of a small residence (maybe 800 square feet with basic appliances). For usage above this level, the rates would be increased dramtically. Thus, poorer families in smaller households would be likely to pay much, much less for their electricity than would rich families in huge houses.
How would this affect land use? It would encourage smaller houses and discourage the trend toward McMansions. (Size of residence, after all, correlates closely with electricity usage.) How would this affect greenhouse gases. It would discourage "luxury" electrical usage. This sounds fair, doesn't it?
Thursday, July 12, 2007
[Hometown Week, continued]
What are the truly essential duties of government? Most people would probably think of national security, police, schooling, and fire at the top of the list. Beside fire protection, what land-use-related task must government do first? In my view, trash collection in public areas needs to be at the top of the list, ahead of zoning, economic development, and social integration. But then, I admit, I use the public parks a lot …
A few years ago, the local county government of my old hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, came up with a new idea -- it removed most of the garbage cans from the public parks. The "carry in, carry out" policy was designed to save money and, supposedly, to encourage better habits of park users. If you know anything about human behavior, it was a disastrous decision, as people simply left their garbage behind. Especially poignant were piles of garbage in spots where the cans used to be. (A somewhat similar phenomenon occurred on the Washington Metrorail when the platform trash cans were removed for security reasons; happily, enormous, bomb-resistant cans have returned.) Quickly, however, public opposition restored the park garbage cans. Walking through Sligo Creek Park in Silver Spring, which is a popular barbecue and picnic spot -- especially among immigrant groups -- I was pleased to find on July 5 that there was very little garbage left in the picnic spots.
Security, education, and public garbage cans. The essential duties of government, yes?
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
[Hometown Week, continued …]
How much (and when) should the public pay for parking? In my old hometown, Silver Spring, Maryland, the local county government has just decided to back down from a plan to raise and extend parking fees at government lots in the newly "revitalized" suburban downtown. Both drivers and local residents, many of whom have received direct or indirect government subsides in recent years, opposed the increases. Some government officials advocated higher parking charges in order to raise revenue and discourage long-term parking in valuable spots.
What's the right answer? The free market would set fees based on supply and demand - and evidence of private parking fees, even in suburban areas such as Silver Spring, is that it does not come cheap. Environmental economists might applaud high parking rates as an appropriate way to force drivers to "internalize" the many public costs of driving and parking (including pollution and taking up public land). But when government controls the rates, different issues come into play, including the natural public desire for a "freebie" and the government's desire to shift around economic development. In Silver Spring, business owners argued vocally that it made little sense for the government to at the same time subsidize the economic redevelopment of the once "declining" old suburb downtown, but then to discourage patronization of the new development with high parking rates. As it now stands, the county government imposes a variety of parking charges in different spots among the inner suburbs. If I were a small business owner in a neighboring suburb, I might complain about a further subsidy to my competitors in Silver Spring through free parking.
It seems to me that government should start with the notion of a uniform fee structure across its jurisdiction, with uniform higher fees at high-demand times. To try to foster development through changing parking fees strikes me as an odd and likely ineffective form of economic policy …
Friday, July 6, 2007
[Hometown Week, continued …]
It is accepted wisdom that Americans place a premium on private spaces, at the expense of public space. Europeans are known to scorn Americans' lack of spaces, such as the Italian piazza, or public square, in which residents stroll at lunch or in the evening, and see and be seen, in the heart of the city or town. Such spaces don't exist much in America, both because of our 20th-century subservience to the automobile, and the lack of both social and governmental respect for such public spaces. To paraphrase humorist P.J. O'Rourke, anything that is "public" becomes dirty and unpleasant.
So is it quite a surprise, therefore, that my old hometown, Silver Spring, Maryland, has come up with, almost accidentally, a fairly successful public "piazza." Just adjacent to the highly regulated outdoor downtown mall (see my July 5 entry) is a plot, about half the size of a city block, that has been covered by artificial grass for a couple of years. (See CKIvey's photo at left.) One can toss a ball, one can sit down with a sandwich from a nearby shop, or one can simply walk along the grass and look at the neon lights of the stores nearby. The plan was to keep the spot vacant simply while the government decided what to do with it. (Current plans include a skating rink.) This highly unregulated spot -- across the street from a popular movie theatre complex -- surely caused some concern among local authorities. This might especially be true because Silver Spring is ethnically very diverse (some Americans suggest that European public realms are more successful because of the homogeneity of European culture). With large numbers of Silver Spring's whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians mixing together on weekend nights -- heavily skewed toward teenagers and young people -- surely this space would mean trouble, yes?
But it appears to be working. Especially in evenings, when the green space is packed with people, there appears to be little trouble, and a lot of life. In fact, the artificial grass -- which surely would cause noses to turn up among educated planners -- appears to be a fine choice. It is both more pleasant to look at than concrete, is safer to fall down on as a playing kid, withstands rain and drought, is a fairly easy to clean up. The little green space is so successful that many residents are lamenting the plan to eventually get rid of it. A big blank space in the middle of a city -- Who would have thought that it would be such a successful amenity? Well, centuries of European city designers, that's who ….
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Independence Day gives one thoughts of history and family, and with this notion I present the 2007 version of "Hometown Week." I'm spending much of the summer near my old hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, which, coincidentally, is experiencing many of the important land use law debates that swirl around our nation. Silver Spring is a large unincorporated blob (typical under Maryland law) that includes high-density urban areas, low-density exurban tracts, some very wealthy areas, some quite poor neighborhoods, and a true diversity of cultures -- "America in miniature," as Maryland once used to label itself.
In the past few weeks, Silver Spring has been at the center of a controversy concerning the privatization of public space. A couple of years ago, the county government used millions of taxpayer dollars to "revitalize" the old urban retail downtown with a new development project of chain stores and restaurants -- a move of which I was critical, even though it has been successful in bringing many more people back to the old downtown. The outdoor development area -- unimaginatively called "downtown Silver Spring" -- stretches for about two blocks, mainly along Ellsworth Drive, a venerable old street just a block off of what used to be Silver Spring's main drag.
But is Ellsworth Drive now public or private? The controversy sprung into the news when a local man began to take photos, only to be stopped by a security guard of the development company that runs the new retail area. The company interprets its contract with the county government as allowing it to control nearly all activity in the area, even in spots that would appear to the average uninformed citizen to be public property. Here are articles from the Washington Post, first on the photo incident, then on the development company's revision of its policy, and a July 4 update.
This controversy opens the large can of worms concerning the privatization of public property, both by government and private initiative. Courts have been inconsistent in their decisions as to whether public rights vis-à-vis government (such as the right to protest and hand out leaflets) apply in the new private-owned public spaces, such as shopping malls, that have largely replaced public streets and squares. Then there is the issue of the "public trust" doctrine, through which courts sometimes limit the ability of government to privatize public areas, such as navigable waters. The most infamous case was when the Illinois legislature in effect transferred much of the Chicago waterfront to a railroad in the 19th century. Some public advocates contend that government should not be able to "privatize" public places such as Ellsworth Drive.
My suggestion here is less "rights" oriented than practically oriented. I do not necessary look with horror at the leasing or selling to private developers of once-public spaces. But when government does so, it should place in the contracts, leases, and deeds certain conditions to reserve public rights. One such right could be the right of persons to engage in certain (maybe not all) first amendment activities on the property. Other retained rights would try to make the privatized spaces more public-spirited, by retaining with the government the overseeing and regulating of activities, such as the cost and selection of food and other services in places such as airports and sports venues. This is the great thing about contracts -- government can grant to the private sector the duties of operation, while retaining to the public some of its traditional rights. It may not be mandated by the federal or state constitutions, but it is land use good policy nonetheless.