Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Public-private partnerships and low-cost housing …

   While the market for private housing loans for low-income people is pinched, the federal government, having started its financial support for banks, is pushed to help other types of firms.  With this shakiness in the private markets, therefore, the times seem propitious for viewing in a favorable light a variety of public-private partnerships to create and maintain low-cost housing.
   Tim Iglesias, Professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, has written a book chapter entitled “Our Pluralist Housing Ethics & Public-Private Partnerships for Affordable Housing,” in which he discusses a variety of “housing ethics” and how developments in such partnerships may change attitudes towards affordable housing.  The link to an abstract is   

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.]

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mastering New Orleans? …

New_orleans_city_seal    Many American legal systems require that zoning regulations and decisions be “in accord with a comprehensive plan,” as stated in the Standard Zoning Enabling Act.  This principle is often given merely lip service in practice, however.  When it comes to site-specific zoning decisions, immediate desires often take prominence.  But in New Orleans, the citizens will vote next week on whether to give a Master Plan “the force of law,” in an effort to slow down ad hoc zoning decisions.  One problem: the applicable master plan has yet to be written.  Given the city’s history of public distrust of government, this may be a hurdle for the amendment.  The proposal also would require a system for effective “neighborhood participation” in government.  Effective and government haven’t always co-existed easily in New Orleans … 

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to be appear online.]

October 28, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Should governments worry about a return of redlining? …

Foreclosure     Should law refocus its attention on the practice of “redlining” –- the practice of avoiding mortgage lending and other services because of race or location? 
   Some conservative chatter asserts that the housing and financial mess was generated in large part by the federal government’s encouraging lenders to make risky loans to poor families, including minority families. Certainly, it was recognized years ago that a large number of “subprime” loans were made to minority borrowers.  Today, many fear a backlash: that certain neighborhoods –- and certain categories of persons –- are becoming “off limits” for skittish and overly conservative lenders. 
   If there was ever an area that called for the application of the ideal of being colorblind and treating each person as an individual, not simply the member of a stereotypical “group,” this is it …

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.]

October 24, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A few cattle and a tax break …

   The recent fiancial disasters have made dubious many arguments about “trusting” the free market to made good choices for the nation.  But when government makes these choices, there is no guarantee that it will do better.  Government too may be susceptible to abuse.  Indeed, when government tries to shape behavior to the public good by land use law, it may often allow clever property owners to use the laws to their advantage.
Cow    Here’s a story from central Florida about a local government official and property owner, and a tax break designed to encourage “greenbelt” uses of land.  According to the story in the St. Petersburg Times, the property owner allowed 11 head of cattle (picture of generic cow at left) to graze on some land he had recently purchased, which entitled him a significant tax exemption on the land.  Within a few months after the exemption was granted this year, the property owner put one-third of the land up for sale as private residential construction.  According to the story, which speaks for itself, even a quick sale would not affect the tax exemption for any of this year.   
   Now this probably isn’t what the drafters of the agricultural land use tax exemption had in mind, was it?      
[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.]

October 21, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

If we don’t help them park … will they not come with their cars? …

Parkinglot    If you want to discourage something, making it more difficult will have some effect.  But what if the effort to discourage results more in exasperation than in affecting long-term behavior?  The dilemma that faces any parent trying to figure out punishment to a child is also faced by governments that are considering using land use laws to discourage driving and parking.  For decades, local governments have imposed “parking minimums” on various forms of new construction, especially commercial construction.  The thought was that people inevitably will drive to new construction, so new parking is needed.  But what if we want to encourage people to walk, bicycle, or take public transportation?
    Across the nation, local governments are debating whether to curb or even revoke the parking minimums.  According to one advocate of trashing such laws, the question is:  Do we want our city to look like San Francisco (dense, tough to park, but a pleasant place to walk and take public transportation, and, perhaps, “full of character”) or Los Angeles (diffuse, full of parking, but not especially walkable, and, perhaps, “without character”)?  But is our choice really so stark and so simple?  For some land uses, especially in suburban areas, we know that people will drive, and that only the most stringent restrictions on parking will stop them.  If on-site parking isn’t created, they’ll park nearby, perhaps to the great annoyance of other residents.  Consider the old Getty Villa Museum near Malibu.  The wealthy neighbors knew that people would drive and try to park by their homes.  To stop this horrible occurrence, laws were passed to prohibit parking and the Museum did not allow walk-ups; only those with a reserved, on-site parking space could visit.  In other suburban locations, and absent such extreme regulations, discouraging nearby parking will just result in people parking further away. 
   So I’m all for junking parking minimums, but let’s not do so with the great expectation that this will have a great effect of discouraging driving.  Just as harshly punishing a two-year-old for breaking a glass probably won’t stop the child from doing it again (but may the child feel very bad for a while), we should realize the limitations of land use laws’ effect on human behavior …

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online.] 

October 16, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The revival of an old Main Street … with a new mission …

Stephenscity     I got away from bad news this weekend with a trip to the sunny Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I discovered this fascinating and informative local land use story (well, I do tend to look for these) about Stephens City, which is celebrating its 250th birthday.  Stephens City was a typically dense town until the arrival of the Interstate (81, in this case) in the 1960s, right on the eastern edge of town.  In addition to puling business away from Main Steet to the freeway ramps, the Interstate created a divided town, with the declining old walkable grid to the west, and new, auto-dominated, curving developments to the east (including a “Fredericktowne” – that extra “e” was sure to get an premium in home values).  But the charm of the old buildings on Main Street is being revived (as it has been in force in nearby Winchester, the county seat), as the city government (which eventually annexed much of the eastern developments) has high hopes for attracting tourists to craft shops, restaurants, inns, and the like on old Main Street.  (Winchester already has a downtown pedestrian mall (not always a great idea), which serves as a fairly successful tourist magnet.  Indeed, one can still even buy a pair of cheap socks in downtown Winchester, although I suspect that this is a relic of the pre-tourism downtown, rather than a symbol of a revival.)  Stephens City is planning bike routes and other features to encourage downtown living.  While tourism is not a full substitute for the pre-auto town, it’s far better than the image of the abandoned downtown that places like Stephens City faced in the 1970s.  I wish the town good luck …

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

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Which history? Location or building? ... in Gettysburg …

    Here’s a fascinating story that, blissfully, has nothing to do with housing.  Which is more important: preservation of an historic location, or preservation of an historic building?  According to the National Park Service, in Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, the history of the battleground must take precedence.  This is why it wants to demolish the 1962 building that once held the magnificent 19th century cyclorama painting of the climactic battle (which in effect served as a visual documentary before the video age).  The building is a mid-century modernist structure, which seems somewhat jarring to today’s more conservative sensibilities, and it stands incongruously on Cemetery Ridge, on a location where many died on both sides as the Union Army definitively pushed backed the final rebel charge.  Buildings shouldn’t be on such ground, the Park Service reasons.  Indeed, the government used eminent domain to buy and then demolish in 2000 an enormous private-attraction tower that once loomed over the battlefield (see a cool 8-second video here).
Gettysburg     But the story (like the Civil War, itself, some say) can be painted from a different perspective.  The now-unoccupied building is not just any old structure, but one of the most notable by Richard Neutra, a notable 20th century modernist, most of whose buildings are in the West.  The Park Service commissioned the building as part of a famous plan to attract more visitors to national parks (in an age in which buildings and parking lots were seen as the way to attract tourists).  Moreover, it appears that one reason that it isn’t listed on the National Register of Historic Places is that the today’s Park Service argued against inclusion.  For a contention that every generation desires to tear down the previous generation’s architecture, and that every next generation then regrets it, see hereA lawsuit is pending, of course.
  A win-win solution would be to move the building to another location.  But such an operation would be difficult and would cost a lot of money, something that the government is a little short of right now.  Hey, did the $700-billion bailout bill include any pork for the Gettysburg Park?

[Comments must be approved and thus take some time to appear online]

October 9, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Are we bailing out foreclosures? …

Foreclosure      Local governments and American citizens hope expectantly that the financial bailout plan may do something to stem the tide of foreclosures that runs like toxic waste through many American localities, especially in low-income areas.  (And by the way, did anyone really think that passage of the bailout plan would suddenly make lenders, who moved in herds through the housing bubble, to suddenly change course and start being much looser with credit?)   Bad news continues to flow in:  A report suggests that incomplete data from rural areas greatly underestimates the number of housing foreclosures across the nation.
     Although I haven’t read the bailout legislation (allergies to pork, don’t you know), reports are that it will do little to force refinancing of mortgage loans to avoid foreclosures.  One obvious obstacle is that the federal government is purchasing merely shares of mortgage-backed securities, not the full mortgages themselves, which makes it more difficult for government singlehandedly to “bail out” borrowers who are in over their heads.
     But it seems safe to say that Democratic leaders are bound to push for legislation that would somehow re-write mortgage loans to try to avoid foreclosures.  While this would be an unwanted precedent as a matter of “moral hazard,” and it might result in a decrease in cash flow to creditors in a time when cash flow is desperately needed, it might help local governments in their land use plans and management.  Stay tuned …

October 7, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)