Rent control (gah I am a masochist), zoning, and oligopolies in location markets (Henry George, oh my!)

This should be much better proofed than it is, but I wanted to get something posted and OMG school is starting and I have other real work to do!! BOOOOOOOOO. Mea culpa.

My brilliant colleague Richard Green asked Twitter this morning:

Richard K Green on Twitter Has there ever been a time when a price ceiling has led to greater output of a good

It’s a very good question and the answers have been insightful, leading to a thought-provoking thread:

Richard K Green on Twitter Has there ever been a time when a price ceiling has led to greater output of a good

Now, none of these are what I would call price ceilings, but they are worthy answers because they bring up all sorts of nice things we should understand about land markets. Rent control really is a price ceiling–it’s externally set by a regulating body. However, these instances are insightful because they show that suppliers will also control prices as a market capturing and dominating strategy–and that can be really profitable. In particular, Nic Duquette’s (another one of my brilliant colleagues) example of miles driven is a very, very good one. Gasoline markets are oligarchic with abundant evidence of collusive behavior and resource-based, and that makes them rather similar to land markets in growing cities. Americans have gotten cheap gas largely because they were price-setters for decades in a global market with a few suppliers who profitably expanded the demand side of their revenue calculus rather than price increases (among other things, like tech changes.)

Rent control and zoning get a beating in YIMBY and market urbanist policy advocacy as market distortions. Richard is right; we have every reason to believe, both theoretically and empirically, that rent control act as disincentives in the production of rental units, prompting shortages and higher rents than we would have otherwise. Ditto with zoning, which is not a price control, but which has the same effect of limiting supply and prompting shortages as an explicit control over supply.

The reason I am not as hard on zoning and rent control as others in discussion are, however, is that I see them as politically derived compromises–in Econ terms, second-, third-best policy options–in attempts to correct the problems related to externalities (and make sure white people can hoard resources, but I’m getting there) and imperfect competition among land owners.

First of all, let’s be very honest in the way that I like being honest about scholarship: land economics is not a very well understood field; neither are housing markets, but they have much more research, particularly recently, than land markets. Henry George’s key insight many years ago was that urban land is a *special* kind of good where individual ownership creates a harmful monopoly–a monopoly over location.

So let’s think about things in those terms. Zoning then doesn’t just represent an intervention into markets from bad-old government; it’s instead a tool that small monopolists (parcel owners) can use for collusive behavior. So zoning is bad, right? Ok, but is it the root of the problem? We have evidence from urban land markets all over the world where US style Euclidean zoning is not in place that land owners can find other ways to collude through mafias, landownership agreements, etc. (Don’t get me wrong; they often make much nicer physical arrangements than what results in US cities, but they are still looking out for numero uno and keeping their assets increasing in value. Their conduct is way more like that of natural resource miners than competitive suppliers.)

Rent control enters this equation not, then, strictly as a price ceiling in a competitive market, but as a regulatory tool enacted in response to oligarchical control over location among landlords. Rent control may not be welfare-enhancing in the long-term, but it certainly could be in the short-term within noncompetitive markets for location.

I guess what I am getting at here is that root problem is private ownership of land, not zoning or rent control. Market urbanists love property rights, but to really get the holy grail–efficiency in housing markets–we have to have competition and that just doesn’t occur sufficiently among land owners in growing cities. (Developers are a different question). One thing that armchair econ people get wrong about property rights is the idea that they are an end in themselves, and everything falls correctly from there. No. If we want efficiency, we want to make sure that property rights are assigned optimally from the get-go. Zoning and rent control may compound the problems in various ways, but land markets themselves are noncompetitive before we even start.

So this makes this a lot harder. Sorry.

Permit Pattys and “eyes on the street”

In my undergraduate class, we have a section where we talk about public space and its uses, as well as the important extant criticisms of public space within structures of male, white, cisgender, etc supremacy. My goal is to help students understand the tension at play: public spaces are important, but it’s also important not to romanticize them. We can’t ignore the policing of black, female, trans, gay, lesbian, disabled, etc bodies and lives at the hands of dominate groups in those spaces.

I have spent quite some time thinking about this in the parallel trends of securitization, privacy, camera, drones, etc. When I was in my master’s and my PhD program, I would bring up security issues in public space only to be condescended to. Smartest Boy Urbanists you know, and at UCLA there were quite a few that were more emancipatory than thou, if you know what I mean. I was told that Jane Jacobs had the answer, and the answer was eyes on the street.

At the time, I had my doubts. Jacobs noted that the natural eyes are the street are small business owners. Cough. Another romanticized group. Are you really trying to tell us that small business owners have the general good in their hearts when they call the police? They are capital; they likely will behave as capital does with regard to police. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has pointed this out in the many years following Jacobs.

I do think it’s entirely possible that people in public spaces can look out for each other, demonstrate care and decency, and protect each other in public space. I read a wonderful story to that effect here:

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To the point: Eyes are necessary but not sufficient. Eyes on the street and the practice of looking out for people–especially those most vulnerable to harassment and violence–has to be an active social virtue. It doesn’t happen “naturally.” Instead, it a conscious, active ethic of taking collective action for a stranger’s welfare. And when it happens, it’s powerful, beautiful, and potentially life-saving. It’s not libertarian; it’s communitarian. Or perhaps it’s uniquely urban.

As awful as the Permit Patty stories are, they do provide me with contemporary exemplars for the class in trying to understand what security in cities means: security for whom, exactly, and how? Many of my students come from real estate development with ideas about how regulation is strangling–strangling!–developers. But Permit Pattys illustrate just who is subject to regulation and just who uses the police to control “public” space in cities.

Edited to add: BTW, the point has been made, in spades, about white people calling the police on black people for no good reason. So maybe we white people could get it together and knock off endangering people. Ok?

My bad Little Free Library behavior

Ok, if these were the worst things I’ve ever done in my life, I’d say that I’ve lived a life of singular virtue. But alas, there are many more sins which we shan’t discuss here because the past is the past and all that happened before the internet so ahem.

ANYHOO. As some of you know, I have been doing some empirical research on Little Free Libraries. One of the things I’m doing is dropping in to photograph them to compare what we see on all the instagram sites with how the libraries just look when we encounter them in the built environment. (The idea being, hypothesis-wise, that stewards primp up their LFLs before taking pictures and posting on social media).

So the idea is that I go out with my bunny-boo (Andy) and I take pictures, leave a postcard in the library asking for an interview, and then I am supposed to take a book (which I often do: apparently, 1970s paperbacks with square-jawed dudes on the cover are my Kryptonite)….and leave a book. This last part I am not so good at.

I do have a box of books in the car with books I’ve told myself I am going to discard. One of the reasons why my bunny-boo agreed to do this project, and to help me build my own at home, was that it was going to help me let go of books and have fewer piles of books all over the place.

The theory was that I would feel better passing along a book that I loved knowing that it was going out to other readers.

Instead of that, when I read a book I love, I go out and purchase a new copy of the book to put in the LFLs I visit.

Hangs head in shame. And thus the book piles remain undiminished.

Like so:

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And so:

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And so

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And that’s just the start.

Marie Kondo would so not be impressed.

Mixed in all these are library books that USC Libraries bloody well wants back. I’m afraid to go over there, lest a pit trap open up under my feet so they can capture the worst offender in their history.

I THEN got the brilliant idea that if I was going to be buying books to hand out to the LFLs I was documenting, I would hand out copies of my colleagues’ books in a bit o’ shameless USC Price promotion. So I’ve been handing out this one, from my colleague Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: The Sum of Small Things.

The Sum of Small Things A Theory of the Aspirational Class Elizabeth Currid Halkett 9780691162737 Amazon com Books

And this one, Is the Cemetery Dead, from my colleague David Sloane.

Amazon com Is the Cemetery Dead 9780226539447 David Charles Sloane Books

I regret nothing.

Lets talk about the emotional abuse of planners

I broached topic a bit ago and got accused of self-mythologizing, but I am going to bring it up again because I frankly think it’s an understudied and under-discussed phenomena.

Despite the (valid) critiques about planning’s dark side and how it has served as consultant to power, planning itself is not a powerful profession except by virtue of its partnerships and visions. Planners and planning influence the world in their collaborations with the state, developers, or social groups. You work for a side in the spatial politics of the future and you work with various sources of political power.*

But nobody does a thing, whether a bike lane or a freeway expansion, just because Planner Jim or Imogene says we ought.

That means planners and planning make good scapegoats for the other professions and for people angry at state/capital/community action. Planners put up with this all the time, from engineers who pull out the science status card to developers who pull out the economics education card to architects who pull out the design education card. Oh, credentialing.

For everybody who has gotten mad at a planner who acted like an expert, splained on them, you can rest assured that these planners get talked down to at least once a day by professionals that enjoy more status and prestige not because any of them are really smarter but because they are more valuable to power than planners tend to be. Why? Because planners’ expertise tends to be less about knowledge claims or specific deliverables but instead in bridging, fostering, and creating platforms for many types of knowledge claims, ranging from individual preferences about how people want the future to unfold to how likely various aspects of the future might unfold. Done well, it is an expertise, but it’s not one that necessarily translates to prestige. It’s not because such deliberation isn’t objectively valuable but because much that is valuable tends to get de-valued. Think about caregiving.

In addition to what amounts to workplace bullying of individual planners by those in other professions, there is the individual abuse that planners take during public meetings from both elected officials and the public. The number of times I’ve had electeds use public meetings to score points off planners…I can’t even count. From dismissing whatever the planner has presented as “socialism” to suggesting in public and in front of the press (with no consequences) that a planner is on the take, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Then the public, blaming planners for everything in sight because they are less intimidating targets than the electeds, who, chances are, are the driving force behind whatever project or idea it is that is pissing off members of the public. But, hey, show a powerpoint or circulate a memo showing the rendering for the project and it’s all your idea.

I myself had a death threat stuck to my car one night. Planners who work for cities doing public engagement often work late into the night, and there’s no jolly like finding out somebody took the time to write a note to threaten you when you are alone in a dead empty–what was that noise?–city parking garage at 1 am.

So yeah I got myself a teeny weeny tiny violin for Huck-Sanders because while I have never been booted from a restaurant, nobody ever comped me a cheese plate, and my colleagues and I have tolerated tons of abuse we earned way less that she has.

People care a lot about where they live, and thus lashing out at professionals who work in systems that enable things they deplore is utterly natural. Criticizing those you oppose politically is only right. I’m not saying it should never happen, and I am not a person who necessarily thinks that civility should be prized in situations where the state is causing harm.

But I do think the emotional toll that politics, both the politics of expertise and the politics of development, takes on planners as individuals should be recognized far more than it is. I train planners that fight from within community organizations. I also have trained planners that are fighting to change the city from within its institutions. I’m not wise enough to know where they should be as individual professionals. That’s their lookout.

I am wise enough to know that each will get a lot of shit, some deserved and a lot not, for trying to help cities become better, nicer, more resourced, more just….and just more.

We do many things wrong, planners do, and yet I am often proud of us anyway for believing enough to hang in there.

Edited to add: One of my brilliant FBoo friends pointed out that all the things that I discuss here are worse for planner of color, indigenous planners, planners with difference. We should do everything to stand by and support them.

My mother’s brilliant policy standard

I was chatting with my mother yesterday–actually, checking to make sure the flowers I sent her made it in good shape because the delivery address is 000 Boon Docks–and we got to talking about politics. She said something self-deprecating about not having an education, etc. Then she said something that seems very wise:

I think about all these things like a mother. I just ask myself ‘is this something that would want for my own kids?’ Like a good school? Or for all that border stuff–would I want my own child taken from me? Kids need their parents. If something would hurt my kid, I don’t want it for any kid. If a school isn’t good enough for my kid, then it’s not good enough for anybody’s kid.”

People are smart, and my mom especially so.

Academic career tip: A faculty member’s crap inbox and sending happy emails

Every single productivity guide tells you not to open your email in the morning. Every single one. And yet for some reason, I still do it. DO NOT BE LIKE LISA.

I got in the habit when I was a consultant, and it was important that I do so then, usually because I was working somewhere far from my husband or from my project colleagues. Get up, get checking for whatever messages came. Yes, there were times when the news was bad or difficult, but it was a necessary part of my day.

I’ve had trouble shaking it, even as I know full well that my best writing comes in the morning. It is undoubtedly a bad habit. You get engaged with smaller items of trivia and then follow up on them or get lost down a rabbit hole.

In fairness to myself, I’ve been scheduling research interviews via email, and so I’ve been checking early and often to make sure I catch those.

But really, as I was reminded this morning, academic email is full of crap news and mean emails from colleagues. I stayed up late reading last night, and let myself sleep in. Had a lovely 8 hours anyway, woke up refreshed, thinking about doing my time on the treadmill, and fresh coffee, and I opened up my email, and it contained a slap in the face. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it was very hurtful nonetheless. One of my colleagues, treating me like the help.

And now I am in tears. Thanks, bad email habits.


What but crap news shows up in an academic’s inbox? On very rare occasions, it’s a delightful invitation, news that one has won an award, a happy check-in with good news from a friend or student.

I’d say my emails run about 60 percent garbage nobody ever needs to see, 3 percent nice things–a generous account, as it’s likely less–and 37 percent crap news:

  • “We need to put you through a 4th round of revision because one of our reviewers is on a power trip I, as the editor, am too spineless to curtail.”, and
  • “We at the university are doubling what you all pay for health care….BECAUSE WE CAN!”
  • “Our new policy on-campus is to disallow drop-offs at buildings because our provost finds the sight of your poor-people cars on campus to be unseemly.”
  • “Dear Miss Schweitzer, I need a better grade because I need a better grade and I tried really hard.”

BTW, for you those of you who want to @ me on the last one, it’s way more common for undergrads to assume I don’t have a PhD than for them to get it right. I wonder what it could be?


This is reason enough to never ever check your email, but to check it first thing in the morning?


I don’t remember which book it was, but Carolyn See gave some advice to young writers that I have tried to follow over the years: randomly write a sincere, short, pleasant fan letter to a person you don’t know every day.

It is remarkable what happens when you do this, sincerely and well. If nothing else, you will have forced yourself to be positive about something. But most likely, you will have sent somebody a reason to smile during a dark job (checking their stupid emails) and will, in turn, get a nice thank-you in return.

Even if they never write you back and never read it, this practice forces you to think about somebody else (trust me, this is a good thing in the academy) and be positive about something.

Sucking is usually pretty obvious, and I’m pretty sure Noam Chomsky doesn’t need any more emails. I tend to pick people who will fully realize I have nothing to gain from reaching out to them.

Last week I wrote to an artist on faculty at UCD because I saw a piece of hers that I absolutely loved. Before that I wrote to a historian, before that a philosopher, before that a classicist.

I make a special effort to write to assistant professors to let them know when I enjoyed an article or book they wrote. Assistant profs get so little validation it’s awful. Having a random full prof show up in their inbox, even if she isn’t an expert in the field, to say they enjoyed a piece, is something happy they can file away amid the constant reviews and critiques and hourly implied threats about losing their livelihoods.

Maybe the rest of you don’t feel this way; I suspect most departmental golden children don’t: their deans and department chairs slobber over their little favorites and it’s validating enough perhaps. Even then I still doubt a happy note from a stranger wouldn’t be appreciated.

It’s not much. But it’s a good thing.

Book Recommendation: Justin Hollander’s An Ordinary City

The full title is An Ordinary City: Planning for Growth and Decline in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Justin is an acquaintance, but I don’t know him well (but if first impressions are any indicator, he’s very nice…). This is just by way of saying I’m not just pimping a book for a buddy of mine. I think this book is genuinely important, and I also think it’s quite well done.

Perhaps the biggest win comes from the concept itself. Hollander has also written very well about shrinking cities in a book of the same name. But as he notes here in this book, cities like New Bedford seldom get much study. Ordinary almost feels like a slap in the face in 21st century late capitalism, where everything is about branding, standing out, finding your audience, etc. It’s not; it seems mean that the city itself is pretty normal. It’s not growing, but shrinking, and doing so slowly. It’s not a world city or a global city or any of the things that tend to preoccupy urbanists. Don’t get me wrong: there are good reasons to write about big regions–a lot of people live there, and the challenge of providing urban services at such a scale is real enough.

Yet the same reason exists for studying the New Bedfords of this world. When you add them up, a lot of people live in the New Bedfords you find throughout the United States. New Bedford, as it happens, is a post-industrial port city. Hollander traces the efforts the city to made to de-densify (reverse transect) and to recover for de-industrialization. He interviews residents who in general like the city but expressed the all-too-common concern that middle-class neighborhoods around them have become increasing impoverished over their lifetimes. It is unfortunately an everyday story.

Managing the changes in New Bedford occurs through a mix of leaders and organization trying to manage slow decline and find new opportunities. In line with his early thinking, Hollander describes the approach as “smart shrinkage”–cities trying to cope with their social and demographic changes to keep things nice for those who remain.

I am greatly irritated by Palgrave for this price on this book, as it’s expensive; I do hope they plan a paperback version but I don’t have high hopes for the pricing there because the ebook version is pricey, too. Dang them–this is a book that really does deserve to be in the hands of more people than will likely happen with this price tag. It’s a worth taking out from the library. Honestly, why do book proposal guides all go on and on about you describing the “popular appeal” of your book if they are just going to put a high price tag on it for libraries purchase?

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