Thursday, July 31, 2008

Good results from the “housing first” approach to homelessness …

Homeless_2      Surprisingly news from HUD this week is that the number of chronically homeless people fell dramatically from 2005 to 2007, according to the agency.  Analysts attribute the success largely to a policy of “housing first,” which focuses on getting homeless people into permanent and stable housing before trying to tackle problems such as mental counseling, drug addiction, etc. 
    If accurate, the success undermines some preconceptions about the problems of street homelessness.  One preconception has been that most homeless people are too socially alienated to be helped for the long run.  If homelessness is largely the result of bad personal choices, such as alcoholism, domestic abuse, or other problems, the argument goes, government and social aid wouldn’t work.  An opposing preconception is that homelessness is less an issue of housing than of “empowerment.”
   It is very difficult, I imagine, to get an accurate count of the number of homeless persons.  One problem starts with the definition.  Some advocates desire to include within the definition people who are living in very precarious housing conditions, such as in short-term flophouses or in temporary arrangements with relatives.  But this kind of near-homelessness is always going to be with us, and certainly is not as big a social concern as chronic homelessness –- that is, people who truly live on the street for long periods of time.  Counting these people is obviously problematic.  But if the HUD numbers are truly accurate, then the “housing first” policy should be applauded loudly.  And we should still appreciate them when the repercussions from the housing debacle pushes the rate back up again …

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July 31, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Socks and the city ... and groceries in the Tenderloin …

    I often suggest to my students that the success of re-urbanization depends on the “white sock” test.  How far does a central city dweller have to travel to buy a pair of plain white socks?  (And no, one sock doesn’t count.)  Yes, the question is about socks and the city.  If the answer is that the urban dweller has to take some form of transportation to buy a pair of plain socks, then re-urbanization has still not met its potential. 
San_francisco     Even more essential than clean socks is food –- grocery food, not restaurant food, which almost every city has in abundance.  In Sam Francisco, one of the city’s poorest districts –- the Tenderloin –- is trying to bring a full-service grocery store to the neighborhood.  Although it lies just beneath tony Nob Hill and just to the west of the affluent shopping mecca of Union Square, the Tenderloin is more famous for its cheap residential hotels and large homeless population.  Although it holds dozens of liquor stores, it has no real groceries for sale, other than at a few understocked corner convenience stores.  Despite the efforts of a local citizens groups and personal appeals of Mayor Gavin Newsom, no grocery firm seeks willing.  High start-up costs, taxes, and the threat of crime perhaps are dissuading factors.  But also at play is the sad fact than many poor residents simply aren’t in the habit of (or are physically incapable of) preparing a square meal for themselves, which further dissuades groceries from locating in very poor neighborhoods.            
   The absence of grocery stores is –- like the absence of white socks for sale –- another reason why life in the central city remains different, and not in a good way, from life in other sectors of America.

July 29, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, July 25, 2008

If we still drive to lunch, will we accept land use changes?

    The mainstream news is filled with stories and anecdotes about how Americans, to pay for gas, are doing things such as giving up steak and trying to trade in their SUVs for Priuses.  But the big land use policy question remains unclear:  Are Americans willing to change their driving habits?  If not, the much-Gaspump ballyhooed arguments about the end of sprawl and revival of density are likely to be unfulfilled.  Here are two anecdotes that I discovered while driving through moderate income neighborhoods in the all-American auto-loving city of St Petersburg, Fla, over the past couple of days:  (1) people left their engine running while eating burritos in a drugstore parking lot, and (2) there was an extraordinary gridlock of vehicles (SUVs and pickups mostly) at the local gas station at 12:15 p.m.  It appears that Americans in cities such as St. Pete (of which there are a lot more than cities such as New York or San Francisco) still often drive to lunch.

   Here’s a real test of whether the new gasoline paradigm really will lead to changes in land use patterns:  Will Americans give up driving to lunch?

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July 25, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Birds of a feather … buy houses together? …

   In the 1950s, economist Charles Tiebout argued that people can choose where to live based on government.  Citizens can choose, for example, whether to live a town that is noted for good schools, on one hand, or low taxes, on the other hand.  Evidence of a vigorous marketplace for communities is evident in how Americans are segregating themselves politically, according to a new book by Bill Bishop, called “The Big Sort.” Statistics show that, among other things, far more American counties today than in the past tend to vote overwhelming for one candidate or the other. 

Zoning    Suburbanization certainly exacerbates this trend:  As the boss no longer lives in the same jurisdiction as the employee, each is less likely to encounter persons of differing political viewpoints in the community.  Some argue that this political segregation is socially corrosive.  How could land use law fight this trend?  By allowing or encouraging more low-cost housing nearby high-cost residences, of course.
  And I promise that this will be one of my last references to political campaigns as 2008 wears on …

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July 22, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Transit and satire …

Public_transportation    Satire is notoriously difficult, and attempts at it often leave me cold.  But I picked up an “environmental” issue of the satirical newspaper the Onion recently and laughed out loud at a “news” story about public transportation, which neatly and subtly packages many insightful thoughts about the public policy dilemmas of bus and rail transit.  Enjoy here.

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July 18, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A toilet tale .. and its meaning …

   Here’s a story that crystallizes the challenges of American urban public land use policy:  Seattle is junking its public toilet system.  Four years ago, the high-tech-savvy city ballyhooed the introduction of the sleek and expensive potties that gave aural instructions (in a choice of languages) and promised to be self-cleaning.  But Seattle has now given up on the project.  The reasons: excessive cost (Seattle wouldn’t allow extensive advertising on the toilets), so much garbage and filth dumped around the toilets that the self-cleaning system didn’t work, and extensive use of the facilities for drug use and prostitution.
Restroom_2    What’s most depressing is the comparison of the American failure to the success of street toilets in many European cities.  (We can add public potties to the list of things, such as dense housing and health care, that Europe can do and we can’t).  Why can’t Americans work well with public toilets?  Here are some possible ideas:  (1) Americans simply do not respect private spaces, obsessed as we are with our private spaces.  (2) Our society of rugged (and narcissistic) individualism leads to a scorn of communitarian ideas.  (3) Our socially diverse society results in alienation and a disdain for public-minded solutions.  (4) Our naïve idealism leads us to over-emphasize technology and de-emphasize the necessity of simple ruggedness for public architecture.  (5) Our overly solicitous public ethos (through which anybody could get a $500k mortgage four years ago) does not demand sufficient efficiency of our citizenry (the Seattle toilet doors can stay closed for 15 minutes:  Forgive my ignorance, but who needs this long?).
   The tawdry toilet tale may not seem, in itself, such a great disaster.  But if our cities cannot succeed with such a simple project, how can they succeed with much tougher jobs such as providing affordable housing, overcoming NIMBY, and keeping citizens safe from crime? 

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July 17, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Too many TDRs?

Farm     High agricultural prices have encouraged many farmers to plant on land that has been left unplowed in recent years, often because of government subsidies or incentives to leave wetlands and other lands undisturbed.  What should government do to keep land for conservation purposes?  Increasingly, governments are turning to transferable development rights –- a technique that is often used to preserve historic buildings and other socially desirable (but privately held) land uses.  Government regulates the land to be preserved, but quells private objections by giving the landowner a TDR to use or sell; the TDR allows a more intensive land use in other, receiving locations, than would otherwise be permitted under zoning and land use laws.
   TDRs make sense as a matter of moderate land use regulatory theory.  But when I teach about them, I inevitably run into this colloquy from a sharp student:
   Student:  “So, if the TDR allows for doing more on the receiving end than would otherwise be permissible, there must have been some reason for the previous land use restriction on the receiving end, yes?”
   Me:  “Well sure, but not a reason that now seems as important as the preservation of the land use on the sending end.”
   Student:  “Okay, maybe this makes sense for some especially urgent ad hoc preservation project, like a plan to demolish Grand Central Terminal.  But if it becomes a permanent part of land use policy, doesn’t this encourage government to impose artificially restrictive laws over wide areas, in the expectation that some of these restrictions might be lifted with the receipt of TDRs, with the result that widespread zoning restrictions are imposed beyond what is needed to serve the public interest?
   Me:  “Well …”

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July 16, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 14, 2008

The battles of booze and land use law …

  Since at least 1856, in which a New York court held in Wynehamer v. People that liquor restrictions can violate the right to property, public efforts to suppress alcohol consumption have often clashed with assertions of land use rights.  And so the debate continues over whether land use law is an appropriate venue to try to curb the social harms of excessive drinking.
  From Pennsylvania come two stories about efforts to dissuade alcohol usage through land use law.  First, in Philadelphia, many are complaining about cartoonish, graffiti-like murals for Colt 45 malt liquor, which conclude with the phrase, “Works every time.”   The complaints have been especially loud because some of the murals for the extra-powerful beverage are placed in neighborhoods that are gentrifying.
   Not far away in Scranton, Pa., a bar and pizzeria owner complains that the University of Scranton, which happens to be next door, is trying to stop him from extending his establishment to include a dance club and expanded bar in the basement.  While a liquor establishment must of course take steps to try to ensure that it does not sell booze to minors, industrious college students often find a way around these efforts, of course …

July 14, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Rockies and the never-ending federal-private squabbles …

    The sweltering days of July send the mind toward the cool altitudes of the Rocky Mountains.  With this mind, I recently picked up at second-hand store a copy of Frank Clifford’s “Backbone of the World,” in which the author travels to rural locations along the Continental Divide.  A common theme?  Property owners’ complaints about too much federal control and distrust of public access in an area that is increasingly popular for recreation.  So much for a pleasant read without thinking about land use law!
Rockies     In the news is the controversial decision of the Forest Service to allow the Plum Creek Timber Co., the nation’s largest private landowner, to have wider easement rights over roads through federal land in Montana, which often is set in a maddening checkerboard pattern.  The result may be a boom in residential development in western Montana, with concomitant threats to natural resources and local economics.
    It is established federal policy to retain the federal lands that make up much of the area between the front ranges of the Rockies and the high ranges of the Pacific states.  But one has to think that it was a mistake to have the federal government hold on to so much of arid West, and at the same time allow a wide range of private interest on such land –- through grazing and timber access, as well as through easements across the checkerboard.  How much more sense it would have been to sell to private owners much land that is not Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon (and force them to internalize harms to the land), and then bar private interests in the remaining federal lands in remote places.  We might have avoided bizarre quandaries such as the federal subsidization of below-cost timber sales and hedge fund managers driving their Range Rovers across federal easements.

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July 10, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The foreclosure crisis: local government to the rescue?

Suburb2    Okay, here’s your challenge, local government:  You’ve got an explosion in home foreclosures, which pushes thousands out of their homes, pulls down neighborhood values even further, encourages crime, and shrinks government tax coffers.  And for years, you’ve fretted about the problem of “affordable housing” for modest-income families, because of high prices and high demand.  Is there a potential solution worth trying?    
   In Fairfax County, Va., which is very large (population: 1.1 million), very affluent, and increasingly diverse, the county government is beginning a plan to buy up some houses at foreclosure.  These purchases would take advantage of fire sale prices (sometimes, close to literally), keep the houses occupied and away from vandals (if government handles its purchases well), and helps the county make more housing units more affordable.  Is it a win-win idea?  Perhaps.  How many houses will the county buy?  The program will spend about $10 million, which will enable it buy … 10 houses outright, and help up 200 other buyers through government loans.  These numbers compare to the total of more than 1,700 homes that went into foreclosure in Fairfax during the past 12 months.  These staggering numbers show how difficult it is, or would be, for local government to “bail out” homeowners by itself ...

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July 2, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A depressing story about social integration … and crime …

   In this space and elsewhere, I have written about the success and promise of better-low cost housing and better social understanding offered by the federal “section 8” voucher program and other efforts to integrate recipients of housing assistance within a mixed community.  In fact, almost every optimistic thinker has had good thoughts about the policy of moving away from crime-ridden urban housing projects in favor of integration, such as the once-famously successful results of the Gautreaux litigation in the 1970s and 80s.  Remove poor families from the toxic atmosphere of the projects, the argument went, and you encourage them to be better citizens, and at the same time you foster better understanding between poorer and wealthier Americans.
Memphis    So it was truly depressing to read a story by Hanna Rosin in this month's Atlantic Monthly that relates the dispersion of low-income households with the spread of crime in cities such as Memphis, Louisville, and elsewhere.  Rosin argues that spikes in crime in many moderately sized cites correlate with policies that subsidize housing for poor urban families in new neighborhoods.  She cites a study by Wayne State’s George C. Galster that shows, while the concentration of poverty has fallen in recent decades, the number of neighborhoods with a moderately high number of poor households has increased, and that crime rates often rise significantly in these communities with moderately high poverty rates.   
   A reason for the disappointment, Rosin suggests, is that the early reports of success from the Gautreaux litigation and similar efforts were based on small numbers of unusually motivated poor families who moved away from the projects and found success.  With the rapid growth of the voucher programs, however, poor families have not spread out widely, but have largely re-concentrated in moderately priced neighborhoods (with housing prices so high, they had no choice).  If a critical mass of unmotivated poor youths develops in a neighborhood, the argument appears to run, this mass often re-generates the gang and crime culture of the projects. 
   These depressing reports certainly will reinforce opposition in suburban neighborhoods to greater integration with housing assistance recipients.  And so the thinkers and policy-makers head back, once again, to the drawing boards …

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July 1, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)