I dunno if any place has ever done this, but I was toddling around Athens today thinking about land use (as one does) and the idea that with a general upzone, wealthy areas will develop first. I’ve seen this claimed along with the “learn how the market works, stupid” riders, and in response, my heart says “learn how politics works, pumpkin. In nearly 30 years as an urban planner and policy analyst, I’ve never—not once—seen a wealthy neighborhood have to suck up anything they didn’t like, with the possible exception of Beverly Hills and the Purple Line, and even then those people did an unbelievable amount of harm to the rest of the region’s transit investment fighting.
I am on vacation, but something is bugging me, and the way I deal with what’s in my head is to write about it, so I thought I’d write about it here instead of cluttering up my travel journal with it.
One of the sad things about the SB827 debate is that while YIMBY folks tried to keep the emphasis on housing, by the end I heard more general policy people describe the bill in terms of “Local control.” That became a problem. As I pointed out in a prior post, lots of people seem to equate local control with land use, and it is an important local government power. But I tried to point out there are other things that localities can still control, from public finance to amenity and service offerings, that don’t involve zoning.
I’m not sure how well I did it, as lots of people seemed to think I was lamenting loss of local control with SB827. No. I don’t think local control should mean “the ability to exclude other people from a city.” Cities are not yours. But I do think people should have the capability to have some control over their local environments, and I also think that oppressed peoples should have civil protections, spatial ones, from socially dominant majorities who oppress them.
Anyhoodily, regular readers of the blog know that value capture is one of my hobbyhorses. I get it, Prop 13 is a big deal, I shouldn’t even talk about things that aren’t feasible (Crimony would you people go read Thucydides, Nietzsche, and Walzer on political realism and power-rationality relations before you scream about what is feasible and what’s not? I don’t have time to educate y’all on errrrthing.)
But I think the key to passing something SB827-esque is to shift the cities and their financial incentives with regard to new residents. Some of the criticism of the “growth machine” hypothesis and regime theory in development is simply that it doesn’t explain California very well. Regimes supposedly don’t form. I think they do; for one, Molotch and Logan do talk about the possibility of anti-growth homeowners becoming a political force. It’s just they didn’t consider the possibility that one of the elite players might join anti-growth coalitions, and that’s what I think Prop 13 did. It fiscalized land use in such a way that cities didn’t want new residents any more than existing residents did. Growth without people to have to serve would be ideal.
Thus cities in California have had much less reticence about things like stadia or even going after the Olympics or having big box stores that get us sales tax revenue than they have in dealing with housing proposals. We would like to tax foreigners living abroad, but colonialism is now frowned upon and thus we settle for seeking shoppers living in a neighboring jurisdiction. (So much of Black LA’s money has flowed to places like Culver City, and thus plenty of LA County cities could care less about whether any development goes south of the 10).
Mixed use is a somewhat of a compromise: there’s sales tax money getting generated on the bottom floors, and lots of people still assume that the condos or apartments or lofts will go to affluent singletons rather than families with those children who need investing in.
I have long argued that the feds and the states should tie their transit funding to specific joint development proposals that require upzoning with development approvals in place. So one possibility, even though the cities wouldn’t like it, is for the the next SB827-esque bill to require upzoning around new transit projects if they want state money for them. It’s not a huge pot of money, but most big projects have federal/state support.
This isn’t ideal. Places like Beverly Hills, which are divided with regard to transit, are just as likely to say “keep your transit money and your up zone” as they are to comply because they don’t see transit as an amenity but rather, a mechanism for rampaging poor people to come steal their TV sets.
Value capture distributed between cities, transit agencies, landowners, and renter protection programs give a straight financial benefit. I know, that’s a lot of splits. But I suspect there is quite a lot of money waiting to be split.
Because I am confused by them.
I’ve been thinking about housing again and the critique about homeowner wealth hoarding. Since so much of the value of urban land is collectively created, there is strong case for taxing part of that increment at the very least, if you don’t go full on Henry George and take it all.
This morning we had a nice entry from Richard Florida in Citylab on the global housing crisis, and in particular, he does a really nice job of explaining the “financialization” of housing. I’m not sure he’s right about the luxury housing claim he makes at the end (I’m not sure he’s wrong, either; it’s an empirical question and I haven’t seen data). But otherwise, he does a good job explaining how how big financial institutions have had a stake in keeping urban land paying out. As much as we love to traduce greedy, self-interested, wealth-hoardy homeowners, they’ve got company here.
As to all that…I’ve been observing the graphic that is going around about how much urban California homeowners make per hour in home appreciation.
This is from a nice policy brief from Zillow Research. I’ve looked for the original story and I can’t find it. I’ll keep looking and add the link when I find it.
As we look at these, it would be a good idea to think about the other labor and social welfare changes. Wages have, for the most part, stayed pretty stagnant even as urban economic productivity has spiraled upwards. Pension and retirement plans–as well as social security–have become much less generous (though this change is more recent).
It seems to me that homeownership in cities is more like Walmart employment than we may realize. Walmart (and other employers) abuse public assistance by paying poverty wages and shifting the cost of their labor onto the public sector. For relatively high-wage workers in cities, the fortunate ones supplement stagnant wages and eroding retirement support with a share in the land speculation.
I’m not saying this is right or good. I’m just noticing. What would you have to pay a neurologist in a city if they didn’t have returns to owner-occupied housing?
Sorry this post isn’t great but I have to go teach and I’m distracted.
I was interacting with a Wealthy Donor Type(TM) the other day. One of those captains of industry, square jawed, golf-and-gym lean, high and tight haircut, trophy spouse (nice lady, tho) and oozing confidence.
I’m not sure how the conversation turned in this direction, but as I was about to comment, WDT pronounced “Well, there’s no real point to studying history before World War II anyway.”
I think the British expression “gobsmacked” might describe my reaction, but before I was really able to say anything or think of anything to say, the conversation had turned to sports and I was blessedly free to drink my bubbly and focus on hors d’oevres (which were tasty. I approved.)
The problem is that the idea stuck. I have always rather uncritically accepted history and histories as important. I am married to an avid military historian, one of my besties is a political historian, and I madly, madly admire the work of many urban historians.
This acceptance is a combo of my spouse and the influence of two of my favorite professors: Erling B. Holtsmark in Classics at the University of Iowa, and David Schoenbaum in History, also at the UI–and a specialist in WWII history, Israel (nation-state history), and one of those take-no-prisoners professors who demanded that undergraduates read a whole book every single week.
I loved them. The past is a foreign country. It was, for years, the closest I was able to come to traveling. And I very much believe that critical race scholars are right in that narratives matter, and that our histories are very, political, and representation and visibility matters a great deal. I read historians of color because they have the goods that other people are not going to get in the same way.
So my enjoyment notwithstanding, I alway assumed that even my rather undisciplined approach to reading history was edifying. It was, after all, humanism, just like all my reading in theology. But only after WWII?
What have I been doing, reading all this history over all these years? I’ve been trying to understand the world, the west, what humanity came from, what we’ve done, and why we’ve done it.
At the same time, I was also watching “Hitler’s Circle of Evil” about the men (and women) who ingratiated themselves into Hitler’s circle, and every single one of them was, in fact, evil. I really can’t count how many histories of Nazi Germany I have read over the years, seeking answers, and after watching this documentary of these selfish, bigoted, self-important people and all the harm they caused, I realized: I’m never really going to understand in a way that lets me feel like I know how we might stop it happening again. If we can’t understand, what’s the point?
After multiple days of feeling grief over what seemed to be a permanent nihilism, I told my dear husband about where my head was at. When I quoted the “There’s no point to studying history before WWII” part, he snorted. “That’s just lazy.” We tried to think of places where one might break history in a similar way. As in, there’s no point to learning anything before X date. And we wound up arguing about Alexander. (We don’t argue about normal couple things.)
Dear husband said that if I wanted more of a sense of mastery, I should specialize and focus more than I do. But I don’t want to specialize. I already have a specialty in urban and planning theory. I don’t want to do that with other things.
I finished reading off some very interesting fiction (The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley–go read so we can talk about it.)
And I decided that I shall continue the endeavor, even though I shall never understand it all, even though humankind and the world will remain mysteries to me. I picked up the excellent (so far) Armageddon and Paranoia by Rodric Braithwaite, timely and well-written. But not reassuring.
Why am I doing this again?
Edited to add: Twitter Smarties Emily Hamilton and Market Urbanism correct me in saying that height maximums are not “it.” Here’s the language:
I never really think about the parking reqs because parking is devil’s land use, and nobody should mourn them. The density and FAR additions in my mind went with the height changes, in that it clearly wasn’t the intent of the law to foster taller buildings with the same numbers of units, only with REALLY HIGH CEILINGS, but one does have to spell these things out.
I’ve never really thought political, urban, or planning theory had a coherent, fully developed vision of local control–even the communitarians. That problem I think spills out a little in the popular discussion of it.
If I recall right, just about all the gubernatorial primary candidates said in their recent debate they did not support SB827 because they support “local control.” So for them–and a lot of interested YIMBYs, I think–local control comes down to land use decisions. Certainly, land use is a big part. But I am not sure I buy that as a definition of local even if the control part of the concept makes sense.
Planning theory has had incompatible theories here for some time–that’s to be expected. Most fields do. The first has been the by and large discipline- and profession-wide acceptance of sustainability theories centered on controlling urban form and promoting infill. The second incompatibility (potentially) has been planning theory’s emphasis on community control as a part of justice and democratic planning. These two things, specific urban form remedies and local control, never actually had to come together except in the minds of nice people who seldom think that democratic preferences may not align with social goals in any way, shape or form.
And in this instance, democratic preferences of existing homeowners often do not support infill, even with all the various environmental, sustainability, and justice rationales given. There are, of course, people like Chester Hart who have been entirely consistent: communities should be in control over what happens to them, and development and the rest of the city can lump it on their desire for growth.
Local and community control strike me as overlapping but distinct concepts. From environmental justice advocacy, we had very good evidence that *city* control over land use decisions often enough failed to represent the democratic preferences of local communities. That is, for neighborhoods occupied with people of color or impoverished residents, the city itself was too far removed from their community to represent them properly. Environmental justice advocate Robert Bullard once argued for a “shift the burden of proof” to companies so that for all practical purposes, communities had a veto vote over city decisions. Potential polluters would have to establish to the community that they were an asset in addition to going through city and EPA approval processes.
Note that Bullard wasn’t talking housing, and that’s a rich point for discussion about local control. For so many contemporary urbanists, local control is a villain, and I think that’s a mistake. You get people talking about localism and pretty soon you get them frothing about NIMBYism and “too much democracy.” But it’s probably wrong to associate local control exclusively with its exclusionary abuses and tendency toward homogenizing. I doubt the average YIMBY would like a world with absolutely no localists or local control.
I think cities absolutely need localists–people who invest their time, joy, and energy in places, and it is probably hard to do that when you tell people their spaces will be governed strictly from above, and far above, at the state and regional level at that. Look, dearie, you are allowed to have block parties and ice cream socials, but we’ll plant this fracking center next to you and there’s nada you can do about it. That’s already happened, and it’s not good for those places even if it is very good for an already wealthy industry and people who want cheap fuel.
The fourth chapter of the book I’ve been toiling on digs into this problem: we want to think about what local control is good for and what it isn’t. If you look at SB827, the only aspect of local control that gets changed are height limits–that’s it. My argument in Chapter 4 comes down to the fact that cities are special environments for association, and within them, local control can extend over many aspects of the built environment, but not over spatial association through tools like zoning or gated communities. You should be able to control, somewhat, the way your streets look and how they are policed, but you can’t (legitimately) say no bike lanes at all. If you don’t like bikes, then you move–don’t expect the city to stop being a city just because you’d like to cherrypick what it is in it to your tastes.
The general argument from the chapter is housing can’t be treated as a nuisance and neither, really, can congestion. Most everything else I think can and should be up for local deliberation and yes, control, as tiresome as that is. Otherwise, we are going to move into a managerial model of local governance–bigger bureaucratic institutions whose strengths lay in standardization rather than context customization.
The LA Times stepped in it a bit with YIMBY folks in a recent op-ed about local control. It’s a confused op-ed, and again, that confusion is all over the place in this discussion and in urban theory. The Times consistently shares the pro-development agenda of the YIMBY universe, but they are sharp enough to see how state actions in South LA have been a disaster for the place–think Caltrans. South LA has never had the sort of empowered community political control that places like Brentwood or Marin have had. South LA is a collection of neighborhoods who have much reason to fight city hall and Sacramento because lots of prior generations of “Hey, this is going to be for the public good” has not, in fact, been for South LA’s good at all.
So the effort to reform exclusionary land use policies occurs in media res of this history–and it’s a problem. It’s easier to dismiss the policy history that got us here, as in the state ‘has bigger problems than what happens in South LA’ (paraphrased from a white dude in San Francisco, no less. Dude. Sit down. Worrying that the state will suddenly prioritize the needs of black people over white Californians is a little worrying the sun is going to rise in the south tomorrow.)
The state does need to be able to solve its exclusionary zoning problems. But if you do care about justice for new residents having access to the city –one of the reasons we should want more housing and inclusion–you should also care about the people who have been experiencing exclusion from opportunities in the city for literally decades already.
How to empower the neighborhoods in South LA, relative to other places, while changing the ability of neighborhoods to forestall new housing is a really big question. Perhaps, as some argue, all the development from SB827 will go to the high-cost locations first, so there is no worry. But not having potential side effects of a policy in a place is not the same as really boosting the ability of South LA neighborhoods to have more self-determination and control vis-a-vis governments that have never represented them or their interests particularly well.
For all of you that are going to jump on me and yell and scream that this is “problem-raising” rather than “solutions-advocating”–tough cookies..This problem is hard, and there is a reason why it’s not been particularly well-addressed in any domain of political or urban theory or in day-to-day governance. It’s good ground for new thinking, which is one reason I’ve been chewing on it for so long. But it takes a long time for consensus to form in normative theory let alone practice, and the field is pretty open for new researchers.