TOD, gentrification, Treehugger and why environmental justice advocates get annoyed with so-called environmentalists

When I first started studying environmental justice, I dismissed one portion of the critique: that mainstream environmentalism only concerned itself with the needs and desires of white people and white environments. That seemed to be a problem we could easily fix in terms of advocacy coalitions, educating white environmentalists on how to broaden their agenda to really begin to take seriously the commitment to social justice required of sustainable development. These are all progressives, I thought, and in a few years’ time, environmentalism will assume justice as a precondition to progress.

That was close to 15 years ago, and I have to say, I now get the EJ folks’ frustration. It’s all about what environmentalists want, period. Here’s an illustration.

The Dukakis Center has published an important report on transit-oriented (TOD) gentrification. The report reflects careful research and reflection on the part of the report’s authors, Stephanie Pollack, Barry Bluestone, and Chase Billingham. The report is a major achievement, pointing to tons of policy conflicts between the envisioned goals and real-life implementation of TOD. We have one handwringing study after another about how transit is so much more affordable than cars, right? But not if you can’t afford to live next to the transit, and according to this study, the people we’re trying to keep transport costs low for get shoved out of neighborhoods where TOD is supplied.

IOW, rich people can have BOTH a car (instead of two) and a light rail available for their weekend pub crawls and jaunts to the museum, but poor people needing job access and affordable transit access get to eat cake. Policy problem. Then: if rich people are moving into transit-rich areas, ridership may be lower than it would be if more transit-dependents were able to retain their housing.

The response to the report–at least in part–helps illustrate the social justice problem in mainstream environmentalism. Of responses to the report among mainstream environmentalists, Treehuggers’s strikes me as the most depressing:

But ultimately the answer is to make the United States like almost every other civilized country: install good clean transit that is affordable and comfortable, and stop subsidizing the car, the roads and the parking. In most of the world there is no stigma to transit and the ethnicity of the riders pretty much mirrors the ethnic mix of the cities it runs through. Transit is for everyone.

Clueless. Clueless. Clueless.

Here’s the translation:

Yeah, I know the Dukakis Center just showed how housing prices and residential displacement near new investments are an issue with TODs, but we should really talk about what I want, and what I want is more transit, and since I can’t see anything except what I want, and I want transit, this report must be about transit, and the way to solve issues around transit should be with more transit. It’s not about social responsibility in any other form, just transit. Did I mention transit? And how I want more transit and how society is obligated to build more because that’s the moral and civilized thing to do because I want transit and what I want must be civilized and moral and good for everybody?

The Dukakis Center does not in any way suggest we shouldn’t have transit. Nobody as far as I know interpreted the report’s findings at all like that.

Yes, the rest of the world has a great deal of public transit and there is more income diversity among its users. You know what Europe–every transit fanboy’s dream vacayspace—also has? Really pretty ubiquitous public housing programs for people who are poor and elderly so that they don’t get priced out of their housing every time a new transit investment goes in. It’s not great housing, and it’s not beautiful housing, but it’s affordable (to them; taxpayers have a different view) and it’s relatively centrally located. Here’s a little tidbit: at one point, nearly 60 percent of the housing stock in Sheffield, England, was publicly owned. Sixty percent.

But in US transit-oriented development, we can’t even HAVE that conversation because people here just ignore the housing issues over and over again. It’s not relevant to their transit dreams. After all, THEY have housing but not as much transit as THEY want, so transit MUST be the issue. And then if somebody raises the land price and housing issue, as the Dukakis Center report does, places like Treehugger rush in to reframe the issue as being about how WONDERFUL WONDERFUL WONDERFUL transit is, when that isn’t the issue. The housing discussion effectively gets shouted down and snuffed, in favor of what they want to talk about: transit.

We’re just supposed to build transit into every nook and every cranny of every metro area, no matter how inefficient that investment strategy is—rather than requiring that rich people, if they want to live near transit, had damn well better allow room in their neighborhoods and schools for poor people. Exclusionary neighborhoods push impoverished people farther and farther away: at the outset of suburbanization, the wealthy used transit to isolate themselves from the poor. Now disenchanted with their cars, the wealthy use transit redevelopment to increase their access and push more and more impoverished people into low-accessibility suburbs at least a subset of the affluent no longer desire (We have as much poverty in the suburbs as we do in the center city now.)

Wake up, people.

In a world where mainstream environmentalists aren’t so blindly in love with their own ideas, advocates there would see the Dukakis report for what it is: a challenge to start working on solving the trenchant problem of land prices, affordable housing, and urbanization instead of how they actually used the report: a platform on which to don their Transit Hero Hats (again, still) and preach to their Transit Choir (again, still).

As this “My Transit” dialogue drones on, and we build and build without taking the affordability questions seriously, we lose critical opportunities for mixed income development–way more difficult than it sounds—in favor of the unattainable dream: metro regions with transit everywhere. (Yes, it’s unattainable. I hate to break it to you, but European regions are not regions with transit everywhere; they are regions with transit everywhere tourists want to go. Nice enough, but it’s not everywhere.)

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Davis and Kahn on the effects of used vehicle imports on emissions

Davis, Lucas and Matthew Kahn. 2010. International trade in used vehicles: The environmental consquences of NAFTA. Economic Policy. 58-82.

Davis and Kahn set up a nice little set of models to help us understand what has likely happened in the durable goods market for vehicles. In comparatively higher income countries, used durables like cars are likely to get traded out to lower income countries–here, the US and Mexico. And since older durables emit more than new cars, they find that this robust trade in used vehicles increases lifetime emissions as Mexico consumers substitute away from transit use to used car consumption and those cars stay in use longer. An excellent paper: I highly encourage you to go read (and to spring for membership in the American Economic Association: you get lots of good journals and a calendar with economist centerfolds! One of my happiest investments this year.)

A couple of weak points: they say at the beginning that they establish that trade makes emissions go up in both countries. No, they actually show that emissions go down in the US but up in Mexico, and the increases in Mexico outstrip the reductions in the US. I don’t love the way they calculate emissions: they have to make some assumptions about the distribution of vehicle miles of travel, and I suspect that it is possible, given their analysis, that trade make makes VMT go up in both countries. Moreover, they note that costs of repairs are low in Mexico, yet they really don’t calculate how repairs can significantly improve engine performance. A car isn’t as good as new, but that doesn’t mean it stays a clunker after it’s traded. This may be particularly true depending on where the used car ends up in Mexico: Mexico City has different incentives and regulations for fixing up a car than other parts of the country.

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Property Rights, Dirty Contracts, and Home Ownership: Richard Green on Marketplace

Richard Green has a nice post up about his recent appearance on Marketplace discussing the pros and cons of a foreclosure moratorium.

Richard brings up property rights, which does strike me as salient to the foreclosure process. In response to Richard’s post about property rights, a commenter goes off about “the property rights of ordinary Americans.”

So how do we interpret this?

Strictly Rights. Strictly, Richard is correct about the property right. This is especially the case given the prevalence of low downpayment and no downpayments. Legally, you don’t own your house until you hold the note, just like you don’t own your car until you have the title; you own your equity. If you borrowed a lot and put down a little, you have very little (or no) equity. Nobody argues that you’re entitled to stop paying on your car when it loses value. Why are homes different?

Vulnerable class arguments. So let’s think about the “ordinary citizen’s rights” argument. It’s hard to believe that a debtor “has a right” based on of his/her class position when such an entitlement has not been recognized or extended to everybody of a particular class or lower. But that’s not the case here. If a renter unwisely borrows a ton of money to use to fund his career as a professional gambler, doesn’t do as well as he thought, and then becomes unable to pay his rent, nobody seems willing to portray this sort of person as a victim, nor do many people really think he should be entitled to keep living in his apartment, letting his landlord eat cake and go without rental income. Yet, homeowners who borrowed loads and took what turned out to be a bad gamble are thought to be victims, and many feel they are entitled to have their losses forgiven.

Social welfare and utilitarian claims. Konczal suggests that preventing more foreclosures is a social welfare question: since foreclosure is bad for banks, bad for communities, and bad for owners, we should just stop the process now. But as usual, utilitarian and social welfare arguments like this ignore the fact that somebody is going to pay, too. These same investors, home owners, and bankers are going to foot the bill, as taxpayers, for bailing out mortgages just as they will for dealing with the foreclosures, and spreading their costs to those with more prudential judgment. If it were a simple matter of paper loss, we’d be sorted by now.

Foreclosure relief at this point hasn’t passed a cost-benefit nexus–maybe it has, but I just haven’t seen those numbers. There’s a lot of speculation about how “we’d all be better off” saving individual homeowners, but I’m told on a daily basis “we’d all be better off” with high speed rail, streetcars down every street, a lower capital gains tax, a flat tax, smaller government, etc.

There are people who are still priced out of home ownership: wouldn’t they be better off with houses liquidated at lower prices? Aren’t there businesses that are growing up around foreclosures (it looks that way to me)? Wouldn’t those businesses flourish if they had lots of business? Wouldn’t underwater homeowners be better off moving to less costly digs sooner instead of holding out and waiting for Obama to wave a magic money wand to forgive their debts or the market “to come back”?

Thus I have trouble believing that this is a clean social welfare argument rather than what social welfare arguments usually are: a distributive argument about who gets to win, who winds up losing, sugarcoated as an overall welfare gain, when the benefits are concentrated and the costs dispersed.

Dirty contract. This is the only justice-based argument I really buy for saving defaulting homeowners. Not all contracts are enforceable, for good reason. To use Michael Sandel’s arguments: if somebody with dementia gives a plumber a $40,000 check for plunging her toilet, most courts can and would allow the person’s son to stop payment on the check. It’s not a fair contract; she’s not capable of judging even if she voluntarily entered the contract.

So in the case of mortgages during the bubble, Richard Green has argued to me (though not in terms of contracts) that there were a lot of these types of dirty contracts, where innocent buyers just didn’t understand their mortgages or their conditions well enough for the contract to be valid.

However, there were also borrowers who were the real estate equivalent of swaggering I-bankers, who were simply reckless and made bets they shouldn’t have with other people’s money. It’s hard to distinguish the dirty contract victims from these types of buyers. We’re all adults here; there was a time in California where I swear the only thing people discussed at dinner parties was their last clever house deal. In these cases, the the dirty contractor is the debtor whose (unstated) caveat upon entering the agreement was: “I will pay back my debt but only so long as my speculation pays off.” That wasn’t the deal that banks entered into: they were perhaps in a better position to see the walls of the bubble getting thin, but if you try to legitimize taking large profits on your good market bets, you’d best be ready to suck up the losses with your bad market bet. This is the reason everybody hated the banker bonuses: bonuses seemed fair play in labor markets when the banks were performing well, but why do you get a bonus when you’ve driven your company into the toilet? (Again, to use a Sandel example.)

Community arguments. Konczal also argues that foreclosures are bad for communities. And yet, nobody objected when, during the bubble, they found that comparables in their neighborhood were selling for ridiculously high prices. Instead, home owners put their feet up and their arms behind their heads and enjoyed the fact that their house prices were connected to their neighbors’. So we are around for benefits of neighborhood effects, but not for the downside. Convenient.

So much of this debate turns on whether you think home owners were victims of bad contracts. The other arguments don’t make much sense unless you think home owners should continue to be privileged in public policy (more than they already are.)

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Suing LEED over its monopoly–and potentially misleading–standards

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its founders have been named as defendants in a class action lawsuit filed in federal court. Filed on behalf of mechanical systems designer Henry Gifford, owner of Gifford Fuel Saving, the lawsuit was stamped on October 8, 2010 at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Among other allegations, the suit argues that USGBC is fraudulently misleading consumers and fraudulently misrepresenting energy performance of buildings certified under its LEED rating systems, and that LEED is harming the environment by leading consumers away from using proven energy-saving strategies.

link: USGBC, LEED Targeted by Class-Action Suit –

Ho boy. This is a can of worms, indeed.

Certifying buildings according to energy practices and design is one thing: making the connection between those practices and design and actual efficiency is a bigger deal.

For me, LEED and USGBC’s willingness to begin certifying neighborhood design in the same way they have certifying buildings–and we are nowhere near understanding how urban design really affects energy use, and the same problem with the building standards (imprecise estimates, compounded) can be much worse estimated across the neighborhood–or across a whole inventory of emissions sources.

At the same time, having one set of standards can be very important to developers so that they know what to aim for.

This will be interesting to see as it unfolds.

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What I learned at the UCI/UCLA/USC Research Day

It was a wonderful day of research. USC’s Jenny Schuetz presented a very well-done paper on commercial real estate; of particular interest to me are her findings about how wealthier neighborhoods chase off retail and how location markets for food stores have both push and pull factors away from low-income neighborhoods.

Richard Green presented an extremely interesting paper on whether “strategic disclosure” of school district information affected the sale prices of homes–and it seems not to.

I discussed a working paper by Marlon Boarnet, Douglas Houston, and Gavin Ferguson at UCI. They looked at the possibility for variation in the relationship between land use and mode choice at the neighborhood level. We have a lot of general information out there among those claiming to have measured how much VMT will go down vis-a-vis changing the arrangement of origins and destinations and transit supply. But, Boarnet argues, regional measures may mask what is going on from one neighborhood to another.

And they find that yes, you do get much bigger elasticities when you break the transit markets into different segments–in their case, employment accessibility segments. However–and this is a big however–they also show that the sociodemographic composition of people within high employment accessibility zones (or transit market segments) vary systematically from those who are not within those zones. That brings us back to the residential self-selection problem: people who want transit pay to live near it, and those folks are certain portion of the market. What they chose to do may not reflect what other people do when presented with transit supply.

It may be, however, that this is only true in Los Angeles, and in places where transit is more ubiquitous, we would see less sorting.

Marlon and I got into a bit a dustup (as bad as two pleasant people* can) over the relative importance of land use as a climate change strategy. I simply can’t imagine land use changing in the next five years quickly enough to make any difference to climate action. We may want to change land use for many reasons–urban life, etc–but I actually think that those who proffer Smart Growth/New Urbanism as a climate strategy are almost as irresponsible as those who still rally behind hydrogen. Yeah, they’re great strategies, but they are 30 to 50 year strategies, particularly now that the real estate market is in the toilet and infill is going to way more slowly than it has over the past 10 years. The over-emphasis on voluntary supply strategies, like land use/transit supply, has displaced discussion of nearer-term demand-dampening strategies like gas price floors that would push fleet conversion or higher CAFE standards we should have had YEARS ago.

Ultimately, Marlon and I agree that the portfolio of strategies for near-term and long-term strategies makes the most sense. Nonetheless, for somebody who appears to be an advocate for land use strategies, the paper he presented had “land use” variables that primarily reflected transit supply–not land use variables, per se.

*I had a screaming headache after fighting the crowds for Obamafest yesterday, so I wasn’t as pleasant as I normally try to be.

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Why Obama is worth it

So as anybody associated with USC knows, Barack Obama came to stump for Boxer and Brown today, and I REALLY CAN NOT TELL YOU how massively inconvenient this was. The major mistake USC made—which it always makes, frankly—was not simply telling everybody to cancel their on-campus activities and stay home.

So today we had a Lusk Center event where I agreed to discuss a very nice paper by Marlon Boarnet. And I had to go to VKC at 10 am for a student’s PhD defense. Now, keep in mind, I can throw a softball from my building and hit VKC. With the security measures for the president, it took me an hour to get from my building to VKC. During that time I was bullied by security guards, screamed at by angry people who felt like I was jumping the line (“Hey BITCH GET BACK IN LINE” “HEY! HEY! You don’t have a ticket!”) (Um, I’m going to discuss a 275-page dissertation on ground-level ozone; if you want to switch places with me, be my guest…).

So having been shoved around by security (not kidding: one security guard told me to go forward and, apparently, her partner, Barney Fife, didn’t hear her, and so he gave me a hard shove backward. It hurt. And it was unnecessary and inappropriate)…I made my through to the building which was not closed, not open partially open, not open at all (depending on which security guard was screaming at you).

So after I finished the defense, I walked out to even more security shouting and bullying about routes that are off-limits rather than directing you to routes that ARE where they want you to go (really helpful; good work, there, folks).

However, as I did manage to find my way through the crowd of people who were still waiting, I got stuck beside a cluster of elementary school age African American boys. One looked up at me, I smiled at him, and he said, eyes shining, “We’re going to see the President.”

100 percent worth it.

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Upcoming event: Elizabeth Currid-Halkett on the Geography of Stardom

The Geography of Stardom: An Empirical Network Analysis of Elite Cultural Labor Pool Mobility

With Elizabeth Currid-Halkett Assistant Professor School of Policy, Planning, & Development

On Thursday, October 28, 2010 the Spatial Sciences Institute welcomes Elizabeth Currid-Halkett to speak about the Geography of Stardom.

The presentation will be held at 12:00 noon in the Spatial Sciences Conference Room, Kaprielian Hall 446 (Lunch provided).

Professor Currid-Halkett’s research is in economic development with a focus on art and cultural industries. She explores the role of nightlife and informal social environments in generating economic growth for cities. Her most recent work has been the study of Getty Images media photographs to track where cultural and entertainment events occur. She is currently writing a book on the economics of celebrity. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and a master’s degree in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University. She received her Ph.D. in urban planning from Columbia University in 2006.

Contact Christine Dennis at 213.740.5910 OR

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Nisha Botchwey’s Online Curriculum on the Built Environment and Health

One of the great things I’ve recently received:

Online curriculum on the built environment and health from University of Virginia faculty member Nisha Botchwey. What’s really great here is that we have a lot of thoughtful reflection–not just planning rah-rah blather–about the importance of neighborhoods in community health, including the effect that neighborhoods can have on reinforcing and reproducing disparities in health.

Quinceanera dresses on Broadway and Bringing Back Broadway

Broadway is already one of the busiest retail corridors in Los Angeles. One of the ways in which streetcar promoters annoy me somewhat is with the slogans they use. The Los Angeles streetcar people have chosen the slogan “Bringing Back Broadway”.

I get it, I really do, and while I don’t love streetcars the way everybody else does, I don’t hate the idea (this is different from me saying “I’m a downtown resident who thinks this needs to happen right now right now right now so David Byrne will approve of my block now that he’s a celebrity expert on urbanism” btw). There is a lot of potential in getting the theaters opened and renovated again, and there is a lot of underused capacity on the top floors. It’s a nice enough plan as far as expensive amenities go.


There is also a lot already here in my neighborhood, and it bugs me the way that people frame what is already there.

For example, when I was discussing how there are a lot of shops with affordable retail in them already on Broadway, one of the streetcar advocates rolled his eyes and said “But some of those tchotchke shops have GOT to go.”

Oh, I see. Little make-up, sunglasses, and costume jewelry stores patronized by Mexican women sell mere trinkets, whereas shops that sell white women more costly crap they don’t need are “valuable, job-creating retail opportunities.” Good to know.

Then when he was telling me about how LA needs a downtown streetcar as circulator because all of the people in financial district need it so they can go to lunch in different parts of downtown. I said “We have a nice shuttle bus system in the DASH already. It’s not a streetcar, but they do a good job of getting people around….”

When I mentioned the DASH, he started shaking his head “Oh, that’s too complicated. People just can’t understand it the way they do a streetcar.”

Ok, so what you are telling me is that people who work in the finance industry can’t figure out a bus route?

If true, that would actually explain a lot.

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