Vacancy rates really don’t measure what either YIMBY or tenant advocate orgs want them to

We talked about SB50 in class a few days ago, my undergrad class, and I had a student come up to me later and say “How can you say that we need more housing when vacancy rates are so high?” I asked her where she got the impression that vacancy rates are high in Los Angeles, and she told me about a study from some well-intended people at Luskin who published a study that pretty much epitomized why vacancy rates are not a great measure of the many things that both YIMBY and tenant orgs cite them for.

I don’t link to the study because I don’t want the dunks to start again, and plenty of people criticized that exercise already, but I have since had (also well-intended) YIMBY folk quote vacancy rates at me, leaving me my normal, nonplussed self.

We can put vacancy rates in with average rents as being decidedly poor measures of where we are in terms of housing supply and demand information. Point-in-time rate measures are useful in engineering but descriptive in social sciences, and there are so many things about vacancy rates that are not likely to add up that it’s kinda hard to know where to begin.

First off, a 1 percent vacancy rate is low, but not if a week after the occupancy rates were reported, 100 new buildings with 11 million new units available come on the market. Just so, an 80 percent vacancy rate is high, but not if it describes the occupancy of the 50 available rental units and 11 million families are heading towards the city in Uhauls. These are silly, extreme examples, but you get the point: vacancy rates, like average rents, are only really illustrative when we have repeated measures over a relatively long period, and those measures stay relatively stable over that time. How long indicates a decent market-clearing supply rent profile? I don’t know. How stable? Don’t know that either.

A second problem is that we really don’t know for sure what the relationship, and the timing of that relationship, between rents and vacancy rates. WHOA NELLY. I know right at that point I have YIMBY advocates clearing their throats to yell at me that OF COURSE, WE KNOW THAT LOW VACANCY MEANS HIGH PRICES DUH ECON 101 LADY. Yes, but blunt theoretical knowledge of that relationship really doesn’t tell us when one moves the other or vice versa, and these very likely seems to be mutually reinforcing phenomena. At what vacancy rate, for how long, do landlords really get the message that they have to go lower/can’t go higher? And how much lower do they go when they do go lower? Ditto with renters: are they aware of vacancies such that they walk from bad deals? What about places with lots of recent migrants who are very unlikely to know the rental landscape and very likely take what they can get until they know the place well enough to shop around?

How good even are periodic vacancy reports? Data are scarce enough in housing, and much of it is proprietary, and call me old-fashioned, but I don’t trust business or business associations collecting and reporting data properly. The more information have about their competition, the better, and they all know that, so gaming data that you report to others strikes me as possible but likely, and it also seems to me that the bias here is likely in favor of over-reporting occupancy rather than under-reporting.

This is not me trying to do some “oh see your measure is wonky you can’t prove there is a housing shortage” nonsense. It’s very clear from the accumulated evidence that California cities are too expensive and supply lags are a major part of the problem. It’s just that vacancy rates do not give us much of a guidepost, and granted that they are one of the few data points available, it’s fairly easy for that one, wonky guidepost to be less helpful than we need it to be.

I love imperfect things

I love imperfect neighborhoods.

I love imperfectly clean rooms.

I love imperfect books.

I love imperfectly made clothing.

I love imperfect answers.

I love imperfect feelings.

I love imperfect students.

I love imperfect friends.

I try to love my own imperfect production the same way that I love all the imperfect things around me, and it’s so hard, because I have such a nattering mean voice in my head that points out every flaw in everything I do.

I got dear Captain Cookie out of the shelter 3 years ago today. He had one eye and three legs and he was the best dog ever.

Someday perhaps I shall love all my imperfects the way I love everybody else’s.

My wiggly daily word count

When I was coming up, I had two schools of thought with writing: outlining and free writing. Outlining is very difficult, and nobody really helps you with an outline. I found myself just filling in various levels, scrambling for a phrase or two, and not really relating the outline to the overall narrative structure of the writing.

So when the free writing school came along, I tried to embrace that. Freewriting, for those who do not know, is just writing down whatever is in your head as quickly as possible to get the ideas out an down. Then you go back later and carve the structure of the paper. This method, I thought, would be much, much better for me than rigid, un-fun old outlining.

Only it wasn’t. I just made a damn mess. Turns out, I am not the sort of writer who naturally relates topics and gets into a flow. I am the sort of writer who winds up writing about specious examples. And digressions that never actually get to the point. And, worse, all this clutter makes it very hard to see what there. I have written 30 pages of free writing and walked away with absolutely nothing usable.

I know many, many people who use freewriting successfully, but it turns out I just wasn’t one of them. My struggles with freewriting became even more frustrating and I wound up blocked every time I tried it.

Turns out, I am one of those people free writing advocates tell you not to be: a person who edits as I go. I can not move forward in the writing unless the structure of what is there is *right* to me. If it is not, this little writer monkey refuses to go to work.

It means that my writing is slow going, and it’s two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes three steps back. In addition to working the structure, I am always working on sentence quality. Edit, edit, edit.

One of my dearest mentors, Andrew Sabl, taught me to use a sentence outline. It was wonderful. Now my writing begins with a concept map that I work into a storyboard. The storyboard has each paragraph’s topic sentence in it. I work from the storyboard when I draft. I often have to rework the storyboard as I go.

I decided to track the word count throughout the course of some writing days. Some of these are sad days where I cut more than I created. I post it here in the hopes that other writers who might share my inability to just let the words flow take some solace from it.

The Planning Commissioner’s Guide: One thing to read for somebody who has no background in planning

Continuing my series of questions answered, I got this question from one of my students: what is a good thing to read for somebody who has no background in planning at all?

I very much like Dale, Herman and McBride from the Planner’s Press, The Planning Commissioners Guide. Now I have always wondered about whether that title should have an apostrophe, but smart people publish these things and mine is not to wonder why.

Planning theory questions answered: some indigenous planning readings?

I had some questions from my planning theory class last fall that I just didn’t get answered in class, so I thought I would answer them here in the interests of trying to be useful. One question was:

Recommendations for indigenous justice in planning and policy?

Some great work is happening here among current grad students who haven’t published as much yet, but: 

Planning Theory & Practice published a really nice symposium: 

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14649357.2017.1380961

I love Ryan Walker’s work and they have what looks like a great collected volume I haven’t gotten to reading just yet (but will):

https://www.cip-icu.ca/Files/Awards/Planning-Excellence/Reclaining-Indigenous-Planning.aspx

Various planning (theory) questions answered–where to begin with Marx in urban and planning theory?

I spent the last day of planning theory answering questions. Some I didn’t get to, and they were good questions, so I thought I would answer them here.

How to break into the Marxist literature? 

You could do waaaaay worse than start with David Harvey’s readalong on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBazR59SZXkv

My favorite of David Harvey’s books: The Condition of Postmodernity and the History of Neoliberalism 

You really want to read Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation 

Stuart Eldon’s presentation of Lefebvre is good: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/marxist-thought-and-the-city

Everybody should read Franz Fannon just to be an educated person. 

Gen Z and mental health awesomeness (Millennials, too, maybe?)

Like culture war stuff, I generally find these generational divides to be artificial. I have a wonderful demographer colleague, don’t get me wrong, but I think so much of the intergenerational stuff of “Ok, Boomer” and whatnot tends to be about exploiting ageism to get clicks more than anything. There are selfish, awful people in every generation just like there are cool, giving, and wonderful people in each one. I cut my teeth protest with a 92 year-old Grandmother who hated nukes. (and who understood how to ally very well in that she knew one way to make the police calm the hell down was to make them arrest a 92 year-old white lady.) Yeah, there are lotsa Boomer NIMBYs but I am also seeing a LOT of twenty-something dudes at these white supremacist rallies.

So there’s the disclaimer. Like the culture war stuff, there are differences, and some of those differences are meaningful. And there is one difference that I love soooooooooooooooooooo much: my Gen Z students talk about going to see their therapists like my generation talks about going to see the dentist. I really don’t have words to describe how healthy and awesome that is.

Mental health was so stigmatized when I grew up and as we all know, that shit kills people. Now, my students are really privileged, and I don’t want to downplay the many, many barriers that many still have in being able to get treatment, let alone mention it in conversation with the assumption that they will still be respected and cared for. But the fact that anybody can do it is a breath of fresh air. I’ve been told many many times about how brave I am for being as real as I am about my own depression, anxiety, and addiction struggles and the reason I did that was so that people could feel less alone in theirs.

I’m sitting here at my desk smiling as I think about it because it makes me incredibly happy to see how many younger generations can just get what they need without having to deal with a lot of stigma and other crap.

Students are always inspiring, but this particular point is really special to me. They are a great example. Get what you need; there is nothing wrong with taking care of yourself.

Award committees can go fuck right off

Ok, I am going to admit: I am not a good loser. I could care less about 90 percent of the things, but I rather routinely put together award nominations for young scholars because getting these can actually move the needle on their promotion. Guess what? Young people never win them. It makes me furious.

This past fall, I had an experience with something that has happened to me all-too-often. I put together a nomination for call that, at the time I read the damn thing, read as “It seems pretty clear that they have written this *specifically* so that they can award it to this particular senior scholar.”

My colleagues wanted to nominate me, but then they turned around and dumped all the work on nominating me on me and I was like, screw that. If I’m going to do all this work, I’m going to nominate somebody I think is deserving and who could use the boost for tenure time. I have more than enough money and more than enough status, including awards I’m pretty sure I don’t deserve. I’m good.

I was still dubious that this one was hard-wired, but like all award nominations, this one was a fuck-ton of work, and I thought to myself “Nah, they wouldn’t put people to a fuck-ton of work if they just wanted to give so-and-so an award.”

Guess what? They handed that person the award, after making all the monkeys dance.

Of course they did. Because causing other people to do pointless god-damn work is the funnest part of the power trip, and having something to award is a power trip.

Now, I have no problem with who got it. This is a very deserving, very accomplished person whom I happen to adore personally.

Here’s how this should go, though: JUST GIVE THEM THE GOD-DAMN AWARD YOU WANT TO GIVE THEM AND SPARE THE REST OF US THE GIANT TIME SINK, MMMMMKAY?

All these damn things are the same. You write and write and write, beg people for support letters, write up the damn “brief” so that nobody on the award committee has to write that whoooooooooooooole paragraph themselves, and then the award committee gives the award to the senior scholar they wanted to give it to from the get-go.

Award committees are the same damn way. I sit on award committees because I am too weak to just say no. I am going to start saying no. This is how every single award committee goes:

  1. We are given packets and/or papers to read.

2. Guy on the committee gives us a spreadsheet we are all supposed to fill out because spreadsheets are very scientifical.

3. despite the magic of the spreadsheet, we all wind up with different, subjective assessments of the best paper/packet/whatever.

4. I usually try to push some younger scholars into the final mix for the big committee to choose from.

5. Various arguments ensue, and committee gravitates to giving the cookies to the senior scholars on the list who already have all the cookies and for whom the cookies will be a little boost to already well-fed ego.

6. I step up and make one last argument for trying to get the award to an equally good package/paper from a more junior scholar.

THEN THE EXCITEMENT HAPPENS:

7. Old dudes whine/swing their dicks around until one of the following happens (ooooooo are you on the edge of your seats? Are you?):

a) Senior scholar gets the award because I am tired of fighting with windmills. OR (DRUMROLL PLEASE)

b) Junior male scholar who DOES EXACTLY THE SAME WORK in virtually EXACTLY THE SAME WAY as obnoxious, dick-swinging dude on the committee gets the award. This will be a quantitive paper with an utterly forgettable set of regression models because the women I likely suggested probably did some LAME case study that did things like talking to other unimportant women or the poors instead of running a regression model about the poors like this heroic young dude scholar did.

IOW, you are on notice planning world: I’m done with your award committees.

Oh, and when you write your perfunctory “I’m so sorry, we didn’t even read the fuck-ton of work you put together for the scholar we didn’t give the award to” email, PROOFREAD IT so it feels less slapdash than it really is.

When you are too depressed to write your sabbatical proposal

Even my very supportive spouse tends to think that I am merely taking days off when I am struggling with depression. It is hard to communicate that what looks like a great, relaxed day for other people is, for me, the result of being unable to focus at all, on anything, and mostly just sleeping and feeling miserable for inexplicable reasons. Yes, Netflix is on, but I am not watching it, let alone enjoying it. I am looking for the sounds of words outside those inside my head. The ones on Netflix are having adventures. The ones inside my head are telling me I’m worthless and everything is futile, and no I can’t just cheer up.

When people response to your depression with “go out, get some exercise” and “eat better, you’ll feel better” and suggestions you are merely taking time off and being lazy, your depressed brain internalizes all those words as further evidence that you are terrible. At everything. After all, if you just ate that salad, you’d be fine!

Which is why I think I may have given myself the ultimate evidence this week that no, depression is not a just matter of not eating the salads, taking the walks, perking oneself up by one’s will: I was too depressed to write a tiny little sabbatical proposal. The same one they gave us is a page and a half long. Who can’t manage that? Most of my blog posts are longer than that.

Who couldn’t manage it? Me that’s who. So yeah, if this were all about lazing about, NOTHING would be a bigger prize than the sabbatical. Nonetheless, two years in a row, I’ve been too depressed to pull that big-bad page and a half together. The page-and-a-half golden ticket to hours and hours of endless slacking and slobbing. Ironic, eh? Yeah, my inactivity has nothing to do with slack and slobbing and everything to do with a brain hard-wired to hate myself.

Sabbatical proposals are due today. Wish me luck. I am going to try to slop something together and hope like hell nobody reads it, as it will be incoherent and horrible. It will be a testimony to the fact that I am, in all likelihood, utterly washed up as a researcher. But I can’t stand failing to turn anything in TWO YEARS IN A ROW.