Rent harmonization upzoning

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. 

IOW, there are good market reasons to develop in both high and low-cost areas, and very good political reasons to develop in lower cost areas.  Regular readers of the blog, the ones not yelling at me, understand that I hold two positions that make policy hard in California: 
1) We desperately need more housing units; 
2) Building on low-income communities and communities of color at this point is going to be hard on them, and potentially disastrous to renters there. 
It’s one thing to put lower-cost housing near high-cost housing (hard politically, see above, and hard market wise because of land costs), but that’s where you’d like to be able to do so because of amenity and service-sharing. So it bring downs local rents—goodie.  It’s another to put higher income people on top of lower-income people; that gives landlords an additional reason to get to thinking they are sitting on goldmines, etc. 
I’ve generally always maintained that regional average rents are pretty useless. It’s no consolation to know that overall regional rents went down overall if rents in your nabe went up (yes, both those things can happen at the same time.)
So what about if you do look at the various districts in cities (I have no idea how to divide this up, but let’s just play with the concepts for a bit before we firehose it)…..and you find a distribution of regional rents. You find a median. And when you hit locations that are 1 or 2 standard deviations above the mean, there is an automatic upzone, and places 1 deviation and lower get a pass for upzoning, and everybody in that middle interval takes development as it happens? 
Just mucking with ideas here, with jet lag and heat stroke. (Too much sun in Athens today).

One thought on “Rent harmonization upzoning

  1. So the goal is to make development more likely in high rent/ high value areas. This will increase the overall housing supply, which overall is a good thing. But, the brunt of new pressure from the upzone will be felt in higher rent areas, instead of in lower cost neighbourhoods, because too much development in lower cost neighbourhoods can put pressure on renters and lead to displacement. That sounds like your plan – hopefully I got the main bits right.

    To me it gets at the heart of the ‘why do we plan?’ question. Right now, I’m working for a mid-sized Canadian municipality, and we are moving away from used based zoning to zoning based more on urban form (not yet a full form-based code). To me this is a no-brainer improvement, since used based zoning is anti-urban and often silly (book stores yes, clothing stores no). With a form based approach we end up directing redevelopment to areas that make sense from a built form point of view: already have diverse housing types; have access to transit; have vacant or under-utilized land. Some of these areas are high-rent, many are in the middle, and a few are lower-rent areas. We are definitely hearing concerns from residents of some lower-rent areas. Some of these neighbourhoods are African Nova Scotian communities, who have faced a lot of poor treatment and borne the brunt of urban renewal over several decades. From a land use and design perspective, redevelopment makes a lot of sense. In some areas it is already happening. But from a social perspective, it’s a problem. Rents will likely rise, and people will likely be displaced. Politically, this doesn’t seem to be top of mind.

    Whether or not your idea is the right way to approach this problem is kind of beside the point. I mean you just threw it out there after too much sun in Athens (problems, got problems, got urbanist problems). But it does raise some huge questions about how we plan, and what we plan for. The ‘market’ may be some impersonal force, but when we throw zoning into the mix we’re making decisions about where development is likely. We’re making value calls about where it’s ‘right’ to develop, and how. Inclusionary zoning, density bonusing are tools that nibble at the edges of the affordability problems. But what you’re proposing really takes a very different approach, and starts to make the argument that redevelopment is preferable in high income areas, for equity reasons. I would agree that in general wealth areas are better at pushing back at upzones in their neighbourhood, which is pretty unfair.

    I guess I’m not sold that redevelopment in low income areas is the root problem. I would think it is the displacement that comes with redevelopment. Many low income areas are low income because they lack amenities, lack access and/ or are unsafe. Development that brought jobs, amenities, safety and better services could be wonderful for low income areas and their residents IF THE RESIDENTS weren’t pushed out by rising rents. Or at least that is the standard urbanist reply, but standard urbanists are usually decently educated and middle class. Perhaps preventing displacement is exceedingly difficult when areas redevelop. Perhaps rents rise despite strong policy. In which case, redevelopment could be the problem.

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