Annalee Newitz explains that gentrification isn’t about race or class, and she’s wrong

This piece over at IOS9 makes some good points, particularly about Istanbul, but it really would help me if we could stop acting like gentrification has nothing to do with money, race, or power.

At one point, she proclaims: “Politics can be more important than money.” Since when have politics and money been separate things, or exerted separate effects? Essentially, she reframes the word “immigrant” to mean “person who moves from one place to another.” And, golly, well, those people, rich and poor, need a place to live, and well, typical response: increase the housing supply, make those current residents suck it up. Gee, I wish I’d thought of that.

But:

1) There are no data that show immigrants drive gentrification in the article. She just decides this point is true and argues from there. One of our brilliant PhD students, Sarah Mawhorter, is studying the various mechanisms of neighborhood change, including just these questions, and she’s not doing that because it’s obvious how gentrification works. She’s doing it because there are a lot of possible levers of neighborhood change, including migrants, but not excluding…money, race, (and gender, and age, and nativity). There’s lots of stuff here, but let’s not act like all that stuff is unrelated to power. For an article that sits on a “popular science” website, there are no data to support Newitz’s argument that neighborhood sociodemographic change occurs because of immigration rather than natural increase or migration. There are actual data about differences in native-born versus foreign-born migrants to different urban enclaves and how different groups settle in metropolitan regions (Katrin Anaker, Dowell Myers). I’m sure that immigrants and migrants sort, and I am sure that relatively affluent immigrants do foster neighborhood change, but I doubt it’s the whole phenomenon as Newitz represents it.

2) Claiming that gentrification results from immigration does not defuse the issues at heart of gentrification, which come down to power–time and time again. There is an entire literature on the political economy of growth controls (Logan and Molotch has close to 4K cites for their book). It’s not an accident that supply lags demand in US housing markets, and it’s not an accident that the US is bad at public housing. The housing game is rigged, and while people with H-1 visas working for the tech giants might need a place to live, the fact that they can have it and others can’t is a function of power. Hell, the fact they can have visas and we’re sending refugee children back to death and enslavement on the southern border suggests privilege might be at work here. Sure, tech workers are useful and they help global capital do its thing, and we all get Angry Birds and Grindr and Yelp and whatnot, and no doubt many a tech worker has a lovely bootstrap story to tell us about how hard they have worked (well done, that), but it’s not like global capital flows have nothing to do with selectively offering and rescinding opportunities to select groups and not others. When those wealthy Congoese displace Malibu residents, we can say that everything has come full circle.

3) San Francisco is not really that speshul, even though its market is crazy now. But is it not really that anti-growth. It is exactly the fact that is has been anti-growth on the residential side (like just about every California city postProp 13), and quite pro-growth on the commercial side, that makes it so very very appealing to those with gobs of tech money. They aren’t going to let you throw the lid off zoning any more than prior generations would. But seriously: commercial real estate in SF…those folks get what they want pretty routinely. Growth regimes in cities have variety, too, and while San Francisco has succeeded in making itself in a great big gated community with all that tech money coming in, it’s hardly the only place in California where housing demand lags supply, even though it is the place where privileged immigrants might be very high profile in their housing consumption.

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Who Lost Cities? Everybody did.

Kevin Williamson writes fairly regularly for the National Review, and unlike other columnnists over there, his pieces usually have actual reporting in them, steered towards his audience, sure, but actual reporting, unlike the general conservative celebrity writers who can just puff on about whatever they want. Here, however, I think Williamson is just wrong. He asks Who Lost the Cities? His major argument is that Democrats have failed cities. US cities are mess because Democrats run them. Mostly, he’s reacting to Jesse Jackson’s claims that social injustice in American regions has contributed to the conditions in Ferguson.

I made a comment, which prompted Williams to backpeddle a bit, and then made some conservatives get all snarky, but…I have enough friends. My problem is simply, that Ferguson is not really much of an example of urban governance, either way, and neither is the careless way Williamson conflates riots with governance failures–it’s equally as irresponsible as Jesse Jackson’s. We have multiple periods of urban riots going back to the early stages of migration, including nativist movements and anti-union riots, pro-labor riots…and a bunch more. The mayor of Ferguson is currently a Republican. I don’t think that proves much of anything, and it’s certainly not a better explanation than the connection between the police and white supremacy. That means it doesn’t matter who sits in the mayor’s office, Republicans or Democrats, if everybody is neglecting urban institutions.

It’s not clear to me that as a general phenomenon (not in Ferguson’s case) 1) whether the blow-up of rioting results from of specific types of bad governance, or a flashpoint that occurs after a long legacy of anger, that then correlate with particular urban political structures, let alone particular administrations, and 2) When we are talking about bad government across cities in the US, we are actually talking about vastly different forms and structures even in Williamson’s original list: Los Angeles, for example, doesn’t belong in the same grouping as Philly or Detroit or Chicago; you could elect Republican mayors in Los Angeles for the next 100 years and all they would do is cut ribbons in front of bike lanes….because that’s pretty much all they got. There’s no mayor strutting around LA bragging about how he reformed the LAPD because he’d be greeted with a horselaugh. It’s a weak mayor set up. All the juice is in the County Supervisors. I’m actually not entirely unsympathetic to Williamson’s overall point: the idea that cities are badly governed, or that Jesse Jackson is a self-interested press seeker, or that the idea of governing a city is chimerical…I just don’t think the attempts to hook it into riots hold much water, and it represents a rather cheesy way to agenda-set around a hot-news item, Ferguson.

Finally, the attempt that Williams makes between cities and social policy also strikes me as not particularly believable. Education policy, I can’t speak to, but it’s only been comparatively recently in very large cities where any real attempts have been made to shore up social insurance programs–Blasio, for example, is one of a very small truly center-left politicos running a city. It remains to be seen how Garcetti turns out. Despite being obviously bright and well-intentioned, he’ll run up against my comment about bike lanes and LA above. This is a weak mayor town, as are a lot of cities in the western US; however, he’s trying to do some ambitious things around homeless veterans, for example. We’ll see.

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Going back to teaching has me reflecting on Ferguson and waking up

I have always considered it my job to a) learn and b) teach.

Teaching justice in the aftermath of Ferguson has me in tears this morning. That’s all I got.

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Italo Calvino on why we should read the classics

As regular readers know, I am dubious that we book snobs influence much of anybody, let alone oppressing the legions of people who read bestsellers, both exceptional and mediocre, with our book snobbery and elitism. There simply aren’t enough of us to make a dent in all that. That said, I’m rather fed to the teeth with the backlash directed at Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate: Against YA. Her point: yeah, sure it’s fine to read young adult books as an adult, but you should want more from reading, and expect more from yourself, than simple escapism every time you open a book. This thesis prompted entirely predictable outrage and stomping of the feet and meany-meany-meanpants elitist accusations, a lot of which I strongly suspect comes from people simply affronted at a woman daring to suggest that she was better at something than they are. I’m smart! They yell and scream. I’m totally smart and what I choose to read is none of your beeswax! Stop judging, you judgey person! I’m a zillionaire I-banker and that proves I’m smarter than you! I’m a brain surgeon who can play flight of the bumblebees one-footed on the zither! Totally proves my smartness. It does it does does does DOES!!!

Among the better criticisms of the idea that edification through the classics comes from Tim Parks here. There are many fine points to his argument including this:

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, yes, yes, fine, but 1) progressing through different difficulty levels of any type of education may not be linear; it may be a looping; you might go back and forth between books of varying quality, or sprints, or scales, or lots of other to-and-fro-ing even if your general trend is towards mastery; 2) announcing that class is the basis for advantage in any activity is a bit of no-brainer when you really think about it, and 3) there are elite practitioners of just about any activity, both pro-social and not, and status hierarchies within, both earned and unearned. I belong to vegan groups on Facebook because, for reasons of compassion and health, I am trying to eat less meat. The people who dominate in one group are among the most strident, boring, elitist people you’ll find anywhere. I am not equal to them. My foodling efforts and fatness are hardly praiseworthy compared to their dedicated and elite practice. They post in outrage about things, like Trader Joe’s vanilla-flavored coconut milk, with Puritanical zeal about how wrong and horrible and bad and calorie-laden and planet-killing the product is, and I all I can think is: I wants it, my preciousness. Sounds yum.

People who really put effort into something do have some entitlement to take pride in accomplishment–at least some, don’t you think? Education and reading are no different. If you choose to read to escape, sure, that’s your choice, but…am I really obligated to do backflips over your minimal efforts? Nobody running marathons is patting me on my head for going out for an amble. Some days, that amble is all I can bloody do. But let’s not fool ourselves. It ain’t much compared to running 190 miles to cave dive for kale smoothies.

Italo Calvino wrote a lovely essay on why we ought to read the classics. The takeaway? Reading the classics allows us to a break from the immediate pressures of the modern world without, simply staying in the shallows, the way pure escapism does. It’s a break from the quotidian, instrumental demands of everyday life, and a chance to explore big questions we may not encounter in our own experience. What is so very wrong with evangelism around that?

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Sweet cracker sandwich, people!!

From a story over at The Wire, in a recent poll 46 percent of respondents agreed with the latter sentiment: “Which of these two statements comes closest to your own point of view about Watergate — it was a very serious matter because it revealed corruption in the Nixon administration or it was just politics — the kind of thing that both parties engage in?”

Sweet bloody cracker sandwich people. It wasn’t ‘just politics’. For one, just about everything involves some form of politics (read Aristotle) and…um….ELECTION RIGGING. No, both parties do not engage in what Nixon did, and it was unprecedented amongst the GOP. Goldwater was appalled if you remember, and he should have been. It wasn’t a problem with conservatives or the Republican Party. It was a problem with a guy who could never stop himself from going a bridge too far to get what he wanted, and his loyal circle of friends who helped him.

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ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 #16 Katrin Anacker

Today I am going to write about Katrin Anacker at George Mason, whose home page can be found here. I first met Katrin when she was a post-doc at Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, and it was clear even then that she is, simply, one of the brightest folks working in planning right now. It’s hard to chose to something to highlight, as she has a long cv already, and she contributes interesting things to both queer urbanism and housing, but I always think her contributions regarding spatial change and suburbia are the most useful to a general urban audience.

Thus:

Anacker, K. B. (2013). Immigrating, assimilating, cashing in? Analyzing property values in suburbs of immigrant gateways. Housing Studies, 28(5), 720-745. doi:10.1080/02673037.2013.75824

This paper looks at whether suburban home values are holding for immigrant owners in American suburbs. Home-ownership, as I have noted many, many times here, is a means of wealth-building, particularly in the United States, and one of the big questions, following the housing bust, is whether that will continue to be true. Plenty of suburban homeowners got soaked, and Anacker here examines where immigrant with language barriers are locating. This an in-depth analysis that poses three questions using commonly used typology in the literature that breaks immigrant gateways into different types, ranging by whether the gateway was historically important, continues to be, or seems to be becoming a gateway ((1) former gateways, (2) continuous gateways, (3) Post-World War II gateways, (4) emerging gateways, (5) re-emerging gateways, and (6) pre-emerging gateways). Anacker uses American Community Housing data to ask:

  1. Are there differences in the median values of owner-occupied housing units?
  2. Are there differences in the changes in the median values of owner-occupied housing units (2000 to 2005/2009)?
  3. Are there differences in the factors that influence the median values of owner-occupied housing units?

So first, it seems as though there are pretty different groups of immigrants flocking to gateways within the typology, and that falls along inner-city and suburban gateway locations. In general, though, values were higher in suburban gateways, and those gateways did retain their value from 2000 to 2009, despite the downturn. Part of this reflects the comparative success of gateways on the coasts and coastal markets.

For the second-order question regarding changes in value, Anacker finds that pre-emerging gateways tend to have lower values, which she attributes to their location in regional south and southwest rather than coastal markets. It also seems to me that emerging gateways are likely to serve people who may not be entering into housing markets via family connections of established immigrants, as would likely happen less in places that were already established gateways. The lower prices would also be helpful to new arrivals.

The last question finds that median values really depend on the type of gateway, with:

Re-emerging, emerging, continuous, and Post-World War II immigrant gateways had a positive coefficient, indicating their locations in metropolitan areas that are characterized by overall economic success (e.g., Washington, DC, Portland, Seattle, Boston, and Los Angeles). Former immigrant gateways had a negative coefficient, confirming their location in the Rust Belt, with its falling incomes, high unemployment, and the decreasing importance of manufacturing (e.g., Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit).

p. 732 in the original.

There is some nice modeling work here in the analysis, and takeaway is that whether immigrants are building wealth via suburban homeownership really depends on what you mean by suburb–which suburbs, which immigrants.

According to her cv, she is also working on edited volume due out here in 2015: Anacker, Katrin B., ed. (2015). The New American Suburb: Poverty, Race, and the Economic Crisis. Farnham: Ashgate, so that’s to be looked forward to.

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If you have time to worry about this crap, you ain’t got enough to do

Ok, I hope–I really hope–this bit from Hillary Kelly in the New Republic is satire because if it is not, it really signals a new, Slate-esque future of trivial crap to come from The New Republic. The piece is not very long, but it’s an utter waste of time, so it’s hard for me to suggest you read it, but its tone is so  pretentious, you really should read it, just so that if you ever catch yourself writing something like this, let alone put it out on a high-profile platform like TNR, you stop and don’t do it. If you have written an essay and “I” appears in it as often as it does here, particularly in claims about what you value, you think is awesome (yourself), your this, your that, just don’t.

For urbanists, I suppose stuff like this is good news: it means that urbanity is, at least in this writer’s mind, superior to those bad, bad, low-class burbs, and that people are sufficiently unreflective about this superiority that they think writing in this manner is somehow, socially obvious.

For all the rest of us: Jesus Christ, would you get a real problem? I often say I am from Iowa. Why? Because there is a chance–albeit not a good one–that people may know where the state is because they sure as hell are not going to know where the town is, even though (gasp!) it’s a LIE! Because no, I am not from the entire state of Iowa. Her husband’s ‘little’ town of 2100 people is roughly 4x the population of the town I come from. I say “Iowa” because it’s a faster and easier, and nobody really gives a rat’s fanny. In dealing with snots like this writer, saying “Iowa”  gets us to the conclusion where she can decide I am from “flyover country” and thus, not worth knowing more quickly. Isn’t efficiency worth having?

The politics of place are real, but 1) nobody is entitled to the information about where you are from to begin with and 2) don’t mistake conversational shorthand for “aspiring” to be urban. Yuck all around.

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Goodbye to Sir Peter Hall

So back in 1997, I asked my planning theory instructor for book recommendations on planning history. I had taken his class on planning history and theory, and he is an exceptional theorist, so the class was heavy on theory. He suggested Leonie Sandercock’s Towards Cosmopolis and Peter Hall’s Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the 21st Century. My dear instructor hinted strongly that Sandercock’s work was great and Hall’s was not. I felt, and still feel, differently. Both were wonderful, and his suggesting them together was brilliant. It made for a marvelous few weeks’ reading. Sandercock’s work centered on the social and political uses of history, of showing how dominant narratives about history reinforce oppression. Cities of Tomorrow, however, was a book I wish had written, and while every urban historian I have ever met says they “have problems with the book”, I’ve never lost my affection for the long days reading that long book. Of course historians have a problem with it: I’ve never encountered a historian yet who has ever really accepted “a history of ideas” as set in stone.

Peter Hall died this week. Here is his obituary in the Gaurdian. It’s been nearly 20 years since I read Cities of Tomorrow.

H/T to Gerardo Gambirazzio for the Gaurdian link.

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Why I think the “funds aren’t fungible” argument is wrong

So the argument goes something like this:

Starry-eyed person who loves train project X: “Why can’t have this wonderful thing?”

Grumpy economist: “Because wonderful thing costs money, and the money is better spent elsewhere.”

Clever transit advocate: “But transport/transit/capital funds are not fungible, so opportunity cost logic doesn’t work here. So, teh Train!”

This has been the cycle for a few years, and I have to admit, I was impressed by the fanboys who finally thought of the “fungible” argument and actually used the word “fungible,” but I still don’t buy it.

Fungible means “interchangeable”. So the basic problem with economists is that they understand that things cost money. (I am kidding; the fact that they understand that things cost money actually make them really useful to public policy because far too many people do not think about costs.) When you gobble up resources for large-budget capital projects, you can’t use the money for something else. That’s the ‘opportunity cost’ argument. Both the opportunity cost argument, and its “not fungible” rejoinder have their limits.

For one, opportunity costs are entirely real; they are one of the few places where personal budgets do rather mirror public ones. So if you spend all your money on ice cream, you will not be able to buy any video games. Public budgets do not have the same constraints as personal budgets do: your salary is your salary, and while you can try to take on extra work or get higher wages, public budgets might be increased through higher tax rates, new taxes, making the base larger, etc. People who say opportunity costs are BS tend to argue that the public tax base can be altered to accommodate their programs and projects. But as recent decades have taught us in the US, it’s not a simple matter to levy new taxes or raid various funds, so that public budget and tax base constraints, while subject to politics, can also be real and binding.

One way the discussion typically goes is: “I personally would rather see the billions they want to put into HSR go to education.” The HSR advocate says “No, the money isn’t fungible, and opportunity cost arguments can always be made, and it’s not HSR’s fault if there isn’t enough money for education.” Well, some is, and some isn’t. Let’s break down both sides.

To some degree, the HSR advocate is correct on both counts. First, you can construct an opportunity cost argument for anything. “I know you’d rather pay your mortgage, but children in Farifistan need that money to eat.” There are worthy priorities around us, everywhere, all the time, and there is every possibility that there is something out there more worthy than the thing (in this case, education) that you thought more worthy than the original proposal. So the fact that there might be more worthy things out there does not necessarily win any arguments. It DOES, however, suggest a democratic preference, and expressing that preference via comparisons of things you would rather put the money towards strikes me as a perfectly reasonable way to express the fact that you think HSR would be fine to have, but it’s just not a priority to you.

Second is the fungibility question, and let’s get this specific to California. In one sense, some of the project funds are not interchangeable. Those are the funds awarded through the federal government–the ARRA funds, for the recovery act. California suddenly can’t say “well, let’s move those monies to education now.”

And now that Prop 1a did pass, the California money set aside for HSR via that bill is not fungible, either.

But it sure the hell was before Prop 1a. Prop 1a used general obligation bonds for the project. That’s money that, prior to getting the public to vote on it, could have gone anywhere. And to the extent that project encumbers state general revenues, it’s entirely possible that it will wind up displacing other projects out of the general fund. Prop 1a was *born* and made possible out of fungibility of general revenues.

So yeah, now we are committed, but it is not as though fungibility just locks money in. Yes, you can only use gas tax money for transportation, but you can stop collecting the funds tomorrow, let people keep their money to optimize as they like, or allow states to pass an increase in their gas tax money to slosh straight into their general funds to use for college funds for foster kids, dental care for seniors, or….their own bike lanes.

Just as ‘obligation cost’ logic both works and can undermine just about any investment, the ‘not fungible’ argument both works and is a bit of canard. One comes down to “I think this rail project too costly” and the other comes down “Now that I’ve won my pot of money, it can never be moved, no matter how worthy, and thus let’s just keep spending on my favorite things!” Both are useful enough concepts, but both can have an element of bullshitting to them, and I now officially call bullshit on the “not fungible” claim as so many have called bullshit on the opportunity cost claim.

Why? I’ve been watching politics and budgeting for 40 years. Arts funding was never “not fungible.” We’ve seen EPA’s budget get hacked to bits. These are political choices, not hard-and-fast-rules.

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #15: Alice O’Connor

This week’s entry was inspired by the lunch discussion at the Bedrosian Center on this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates on reparations, and its follow up bibliography. The group of scholars at the discussion noted that Coates’ highlighted some work on Federal Housing policy that was essentially unknown. I objected and noted that while mainstream understanding of these issue may be new, housing policy folks have known for a very long time that HOLC and the US Housing Act of 1949 had extremely serious consequences for racial discrimination. The work that Coates cites in the article, Ian Shapiro, was published in 1995; he quotes objections to the policies from contemporary housing experts in 1955, like Charles Abrams. The research on zoning’s contribution to redlining goes back to the 1970s and 1980s as far as I know (and I’m not a specialist; I could be wrong; it could be sooner.) Zoning and redlining go hand-in-glove, and policy and planning can not beg ignorance on these issues. We’ve known this, or had it pointed out, for at least 60 years. Just like both white and black abolitionists with slavery, plenty of people knew that official public policies were wrong, and they hardly kept quiet about it. The choice to ignore or drown out those voices was a choice, not a mere reflection of a culture or a people that didn’t know better.

Nonetheless, it looks like Beryl Satter’s 2009 book on Chicago, Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America is truly a must-read. Going on my wish-list.

I personally learned the material in my MPL program from the brilliant Heather MacDonald, who had us read Alice O’Connor, a historian of US public policy. The piece that had a big influence on me was:

O’Connor, Alice. 1999. “Swimming Against the Tide: A Brief History of Federal Policy in Poor Communities.” In Urban Problems and Community Development, Ronald F. Ferguson and William T. Dickens (eds). pp. 77-109. Washintong, DC: The Brookings Institution.

This wonderful piece outlines federal policy involvement in impoverished communities throughout the United States from the New Deal onward, and it has a wonderful insight: that place-based initiatives tend to be lavish, efficient, and hidden for affluent Americans, but stingy, convoluted and high-profile when it comes to poverty:

“A [fifth] pattern is that in its treatment of poor communities, federal policy has operated within a two-tiered system of provision that marks U.S. social policy. In this system poor communities, like poor individuals, are assisted through an elaborate concatenation of means-tested programs, while their wealthier counterparts are subsidized throughout through essentially invisible, federalized, non-means-tested subsidies such as highway funds, state universities, home mortgage assistance, and tax preferences. Poor communities are targeted as places for public assistance–public housing, public works, public income provision–while the middle class is serviced by nominally private but heavily subsidized means.”

She goes on to write about how racial discrimination became encoded in community development policy–a nice overview for people looking to understand the differences in how the US provides social policy.

Brettany Shannon has written about this piece as it was anthologized in the Community Development Reader. Her review appears here, and you should go read.

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