Atlantic Cities editor Garance Franke-Ruta misses the real myth about gentrification

Attention conservation notice: You don’t get to complain about how people don’t understand gentrification if you don’t understand housing policy.

Over at the Atlantic Cities, Franke-Ruta writes a reasonable, if overly long (the editor needs more editing), essay of how black elites (politicians and real estate developers) actively pursued gentrification via redevelopment plans in urban D.C. There is much to commend the essay, including highlights of how African Americans contributed to the city’s comeback, and how they continue to influence urban development. D.C. isn’t just wonks, she notes: it has a strong group of creatives as well. One thing I particularly like about the essay concerns the attention she pays to naming things in the city.

The essay suggests some reasonable, if perennial, questions for those who bemoan gentrification: why in heaven’s name does urban planning have people so focused on economic development if we don’t want those efforts to work and change what appears to be a run-down and impoverished place into what it could be: a thriving and well-to-do place? Why whinge about gentrification when you’ve actively pursued it?

Here’s why some of us who are interested in justice still get to criticize.

Americans are incompetent, purposely, at two policy instruments that, because of our incompetence, hamstring place-based economic development as a means to help the impoverished people actually living in places targeted for redevelopment. Our first incompetence: public housing everywhere but New York. The second incompetence: zoning and assorted restrictions on infill and unit size. The combination of the two means that low-cost housing is undersupplied, always. The problem isn’t gentrification or redevelopment, per se; the problem is a deficit of decent, affordable housing.

When place-based economic development efforts don’t work at all, you end up spending a lot of money on people movers that have few people to move. When place-based economic development efforts work, you have improved a place, but the chronic undersupply of affordable units will mean that the spoils of that development will go to developers and land owners, while residents, over time, have to either pay more or move, particularly renters. Residents can benefit from new amenities and services, but it’s a fair bet that those able to stay are likely to be, on the margin, the most well-heeled of the area’s residents. And the long-term trajectory of the community won’t be such that impoverished residents get to enjoy the new amenities, as places that gentrify become increasingly exclusive enclaves. Right now, Harlem residents may be enjoying new services. Two decades from now, Harlem residents will be more uniformly affluent.Read More »

Renia Ehrenfeucht and Maria Nelson on shrinking cities

Renia Ehrenfeucht at the University of New Orleans as a new manuscript in Planning, Population Loss, and Equity in New Orleans After Hurricane Katrina, Vol 26, Issue 2, pp 129-146.

From the abstract:
Shrinking, slow-growth and fast-growth cities have different opportunities and constraints. This paper uses New Orleans following the severe flood damage from the 2005 hurricanes as a case study to investigate the challenges to developing equitable and effective plans in a city with significant population loss. By addressing four elements that are necessary for effective planning in depopulated areas—strategies for targeted investment and consolidation; alternatives for underused areas; mechanisms to reintegrate abandoned parcels; and plans for infrastructure and service provision—we argue that the lack of effective tools was a pivotal impediment to effective planning.

I’ve enjoyed the burgeoning conversation on shrinking cities in planning, and this is a particularly nice contribution. There is a temptation with disaster areas to either a) rush to recreate what was there in order to try to restore normalcy, even if what was there before wasn’t particularly functional or pleasant or b) treat the place like a clean slate where the master-planner master builder Smart Growthers/New Urbanists can roam unimpeded by path dependence.

Often forgotten are the people who remain and who are looking for some level of both normalcy and improvement, but wonder why their neighborhoods have been designated for “shrinking” in favor of selected investment areas.

What I learned from Laura Westra at the Loyola Marymount Urban Sustainability Retreat

I have been following Laura Westra’s work for some time, and while I have always liked her work, I had never met her. Yesterday, I got the privilege, and she is both brilliant and delightful.

Let’s put it this way: she had a long and productive career as a philosopher, and then, at age 65, her Canadian University aged her out and she responded by turning around and getting another PhD in jurisprudence and the law. She is in her 70s, she looks fabulous (yesterday she was wearing a grey zipper suit, heels, bright turquoise glasses, and pearl hoop earrings.) She has a black belt in karate, but she doesn’t do karate any more: she does kickboxing.

She has written and edited 24 books. This is her method, loosely transcribed:

“I write it all down with a pen and a paper. Then I go through and type it all. I have a Smith Corona–such a wonderful machine. There is only one man–a wonderful little man–who fixed all these typewriters for his business for many years. Now he is long retired, but he still fixes my Smith Corona for me. I don’t use the technology. It’s too distracting.”

Laura is a rights theorist, and here are three books with which to start:

Environmental Justice and & the Rights of Ecological Refugees

Environmental Justice and the Rights of Future Generations:Law, Environmental Harm, and the Right to Health

Environmental Justice and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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Evan Ringquist, hotspots, and environmental justice in the New York Times

Via one of our brilliant PhD students, Noah Dormady.

Evan Ringquist is an environmental economist who does really interesting work in environmental justice. First, he took on one of the major claims in the early environmental justice research: that the EPA did not as rigorously enforce environmental violations in low-income and minority communities as in more affluent and white communities:

Ringquist, E., 1998, A question of justice: equity in environmental litigation, The Journal of Politics, 60(4), pp. 1,148-65.

Recently, the New York Times highlighted some new work from Ringquist that looks at one of the most pervasive beliefs in environmental justice: that cap and trade systems cause hotspots. Places near low-income people of color are probably older industries who will simply trade to pollute more or as much as they always have, thereby cleaning up areas far away from the communities that need it most. It’s been one of the most pervasive critiques of Southern California’s RECLAIM, and it’s one of the reasons that some environmental justice folks in California are litigating against a cap and trade instrument for energy producers in climate action in California.

I’ve always been a bit dubious of these ej claims, as at times my economist self overrides my sympathetic-to-communities self. The bottom line is that we can get more overall reduction with cap and trade, and while it’s too bad that the reductions are not even-steven, properly designed cap-and-trade system reduce emissions everywhere simultaneously. The problem is that neighbors want zero emissions or simple regulatory control–understandable enough. The uncertainty created with trades bothers people. However, there are tons of things you can do to make sure you get the local improvements you want:

a) simply disallow trades once local emissions targets are hit; or
b) severely penalize trades with polluters near ej communities; or
c) severely penalize trades with polluters in hotspots.

So functionally, if a local target says you get to trade only to level X, it’s no different than a regulation that says you get to emit to level X.

Cap and trade may change hotspots, but there are already hotspots: polluters cluster for a variety of reasons already, from zoning to industrial agglomeration. So cap and trade can intervene to lessen hotspots as much as they can reinforce spatial patterns, depending on their design.

Moreover, if you are are concerned about equity and the surrounding communities, you can give them a great deal of self-determination and endow them with the permits or credits, and then allow trades with local polluters ONLY with the surrounding communities. That injects some inefficiency–in general, these markets work best when there are enough sellers to produce opportunities for gains to trade, but not so many that information problems become an issue. But it puts communities in the drivers’ seat, and if they want to enforce the maximum, they can, based on their read of their potential risks rather than some scientists at EPA or CARB who don’t necessarily have a stake in the decisions the way the community members do.

The problem is, I think, that all of it sounds less controlled than regulation. Some big-money corporations buying the “right to pollute” is intuitively wrong, as Michael Sandel became rather famous pointing out. And markets. Lord, capitalism brought us all these polluters, now it’s going to fix it? I don’t think so! However, a regulation implicitly bestows polluters with the right to pollute up to a certain amount. There’s no real difference, unless you buy Sandel’s argument. And I don’t–I believe that outcomes matter more (for the environment) than process (a controversial position, I understand, and a conclusion I draw reluctantly).

More tangibly, it’s hard to take the idea that you might have gotten more local reductions with regulation: hey, under the trading system, we only get X reduction, and they got X+Y! (for a total of 2X + Y). If those guys over there abated to X+Y, why didn’t WE get X+Y, but only X? (The fact that X is actually the target means less now that one might have had more.)

I suspect that at least some players would prefer overall we get 2X in the name of equity than 2X+Y. Why should they get Y when we don’t? And under regulation, we are likely to to 2X-E (with E being the an error in negotiation) rather than 2X, but at least then I know we got 1/2*(2X-E) and nobody got more than us. (Not irrational if the argument is made as a reflect of entitlement or respect; why, exactly, should the other place get X+Y simply because they live next to the lower cost abater?)

The big gain you get from cap-and-trade is when you observe the market, you see who trades and you begin to see the real costs of abatement because not abating suddenly as a market cost–what you could sell your permit for. Negotiated levels under regulation often occur in a context of severe information asymmetries between government and industry. Without the market, you have to rely more than you want to on industry claims of regulatory costs, which they may a priori not know or strategically inflate. When we watch the trading, we can figure out how many permits to remove from the trades to reach the cap when we wish to lower the target, and we can figure out fast to remove those permits to get as much emissions reductions as we want–with less of the threats of plant closures and layoffs that inevitably come with regulation.

Ringquists’ new study basically shows that the SO2 trading system did not create hotspots: it had overall benefits, and it benefited low-income communities most. That’s how a well-designed trading system can and should work.

Camden, NJ, Chris Hedge’s “indictment” of academia, and poverty reporting

I recently became rather annoyed at Chris Hedges pointing his finger at academics as liberals who have abandoned working people and progressive causes. This NPR story was circulated via the delightful Frank Popper via Facebook, which started up the usual whine that “professors have all this power and they don’t use it, or one proffie was mean to me once, so clearly academics have abandoned The Cause.”

Sure, yeah–universities are corporate–heaven knows I work at one. And there are plenty of academics that are only out for themselves. But what annoys me about Hedges–and the response–is that it’s so knee-jerk, one-dimensional and stereotyped. Can professors be abusive? Sure. Why would they as a group be any different than any other people when they hold the position of “boss”? People are people, with human failings, in every context. If we weren’t all working at essentially the same place with essentially the same people, Dilbert wouldn’t be as funny as it is.

But when you want to rage against the machine, you might want to ask: is the person/institution you are raging against capable of

  • putting hundreds out of work to give themselves supra-normal profits with one decision?
  • stealing people’s pensions and impoverishing elders?
  • torturing and killing your family and neighbors?
  • writing $163 million dollar checks like it’s nothing to get yourself elected into a highly influential public office?

My colleagues and I certainly make a comfortable living, but we had to save to buy our small houses and condos–we are, simply, not in that league, except for those who came in with family money.

I’m not saying big-money universities are good thing or that they have clean hands. I’m also willing to believe that higher education should take their lumps at budget times with everybody else: I’m unprepared to put higher education before foster kids in the state’s budgets, at least not without more study.

I AM saying that Yale and Kansas State are worlds apart in the influence they hold, and treating them like they are the same–or that they are in the same power universe as a Goldman Sachs or the Meg Whitmans of this world strikes me as being both inaccurate and a bit self-serving of Hedges. After all, if everybody BUT you has abandoned the poor, then suddenly you are very very important as the Voice of The Poor. There’s a little too much “don’t blame you, don’t blame me, blame the guy the behind the tree–those other people, the media, academics, Rush Limbaugh” about Hedges, who lined his nest quite comfortably I suspect when he was part of the mainstream media, whom he says is Part of the Problem, at the New York Times.

And that’s the irritating thing. Hedges, Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Klein make a pretty comfortable living being “the voice of the poor.” Now, I think Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, is excellent. But if I’m in moral hazard territory because I make my living researching poverty rather than solving poverty, I kind of have to wonder whether what they are up to is really all that better than what I do or don’t do.

Here’s an example of how Hedge’s arguments are rather self-serving and contradictory:

In this issue of the Nation, Hedges has an article about Camden, NJ: City of Ruins. Nice enough piece, only there is little of substance that hasn’t already been said by an academic, Howard Gillette, Jr., in his book published five years ago: Camden After Fall. (If you haven’t read it, drop what you are doing and read it right now, along with American Project by Sudhir Venkatesh)

So the question: are academics really the craven sell-outs who don’t grapple with hard issues and poverty, or does Mr. Hedges need to read more?

At some point, all of us who write about poverty and inequality run the same danger: leering instead of doing. I’m all for people writing about Camden–the more attention it gets, the better, unless the attention is on the leering side, which Hedges’ piece comes pretty close to doing in the way he trades on the images of strong, spiritual black women.

Every year or so, some senator decides he’s going to live on food stamps–and finds out that living on food stamps sucks. Quelle surprise. Or some some supermodel puts on a fat suit and discovers! OMG! That being pretty has given her unearned perk after unearned perk. Or somebody decides to live among the homeless, and discovers that homeless people are human beings (wow!) and have souls but live hard. Why can’t we believe it when the single mom on food stamps tells us that it’s not enough to sustain a family? Surely, single moms do say such things. It’s pretty simple to me: it’s not that we don’t believe her, it’s that we don’t care to intervene either publicly or privately, and after the senator’s “discovery”, we go back to business as usual. Ditto with all those other examples: we go back to stepping over homeless people, etc.

That strikes me as a much bigger, more authentic source of trouble than whether proffies are doing right by the poor. No, proffies aren’t. Most of the rest of the world isn’t, either. So what is academia? Is academia represented by celebrity scholars like Joe Stiglitz, or people, like my colleague David Sloane, who has worked for years with poor neighborhoods to virtually no celebrity–but to fairly substantial efficacy?

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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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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.

Oscar Grant, BART, and Oakland

I have been struggling with trying to say something useful about Oscar Grant since the verdict, but I can’t. To maintain my liberal credentials, I am meant to be outraged by the jury’s manslaughter verdict. It would be easier to feel that way than the way I do. I was outraged by the Rodney King verdict. Unfortunately, the cases don’t strike me as parallel past a certain point. Rodney King’s case was a screaming, obvious example of police brutality. Oscar Grant was a victim, but of what, I am not sure, even watching the videos time and again. The victim of a man who was criminally negligent–so criminally negligent because in his mind, apprehending a black man didn’t require him to take care? I can understand that interpretation.

But I am also old. And being old means you that you have experienced how one mistake, one lapse of attention, can have tragic results. Yes, the officer was in one of those positions where anything less than 100 percent competence is unforgivable. But we all know, at least we do by my age, that 100 percent doesn’t happen. Even good people make terrible, unintentional, and deadly mistakes, looking right when you should have looked left, letting go when you should have held on, holding on when you should have let go, etc. Life doesn’t run according to neat rules of karma and intent. It is ruled, instead, by accidents and missteps, some happy and some horrendous, and most so unbelievably stupid and random that they defy explanation. I can understand how a jury would decide as it did here.

If there is a generalizable lesson here, it has to do less, unfortunately, with Mr. Grant and his family’s terrible tragedy and more to do with the history of overpolicing the black community in Oakland. Had Mr. Grant shot Mr Mehserle by accident, the tumble of events would have been entirely different, with no grace given. In cases like this, the anger directed at Mr. Mehserle and the police doesn’t just contain a community’s grief for an individual incident, but is instead pushed forward by the weight of anger for every time people have been harassed and bullied. I do not know how to heal those types of wounds, but I am pretty sure that nothing here would have: making Mehserle the whipping boy for the police wouldn’t have, and neither does the lighter verdict. The past of systematic injustices skews the landscape of the present, making case-by-case justice impossible.

How I wish this hadn’t happened at all, let alone on BART.

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Climate change losers as bad betters or dumb buyers?

A number of people have brought up Paul Krugman’s discussion last week about economic growth and climate change emissions: Growth and Greenhouse Gases – Paul Krugman Blog – His comments to me seem rather prosaic for somebody of his gifts, but maybe I am just not seeing the “wow” there.

However, I did see a “wow” discussion on climate change, carbon pricing, and social equity last week for the Keston center event I organized on pricing and social equity. Cap and trade with auctioned permits is essentially a pretty efficient carbon tax. UCLA’s Matt Kahn, always a treat, said something that got me thinking. He asked about whether those who are in carbon-intensive industries should be treated as bad betters or dumb buyers rather than victims of public policy, which strikes me as a very reasonable question at this point in the debate.

We’ve all heard the line that carbon regulation will cost job and create jobs, which has its distributive consequences, but Matt’s question is one I haven’t hear before: carbon-intensive industries as bad betting or dumb buying. Economists often argue that bad betters or dumb buyers shouldn’t be rewarded in markets, for good reasons: they either have bad information or they aren’t very smart about how they use information and they make bad market decisions. I have argued before that homeowners who have bought foolishly shouldn’t necessarily be saved from the consequences of those decisions. Is carbon intensity the same thing?

In general, those who are concerned about people who lose out from government regulation believe that these folks are victims; with sweeping new policies, programs and investments, the state can create windfalls on the one hand (the jobs and industries created) and wipeouts on the other (the industries and jobs lost). You can see how this is different from a bad better or in a market.

In our case, with climate regulations, which have been floating around for over 10 years, you have to ask: is a carbon loser at this stage–a decade into the debate–a victim or a bad better?