#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #13: Ella Howard

This week’s entry is definitely in the “urban” rather than in the “planning” component of my challenge, as Ella Howard is a historian at Armstrong Atlantic State University. I read and used her book in my class on the Urban Context this year:

Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

and I am thinking about using it in my class on urban social policy and planning in the spring. It’s framing in Chapter 1 helps illustrate the social welfare approach to housing: “The institutions that address poverty embody the values of their creators.” For my students thinking about how to state a strong argument you can spend the rest of the book supporting, here it is.

Dr. Howard’s book centers mostly on the Bowery, and I particularly like how the book uses that perspective–i.e., looking at the Bowery–as the place where federal, state, and city institutions attempted to reform and regulate homelessness. Her time period focuses predominately on the Depression onward, though she starts us at around the turn of the city in New York–1890s onward–in their attempts to figure out what to do with homeless men and women. The history deepens from the Depression era onward, and then goes decade by decade as there are important shifts in public policy that, nevertheless, always seem to be motivated by two internal tensions: 1) the desire to be humane to those in need, but not too humane, because, you know, dependency, and 2) the need to deliver services in place with the pressures to make sure the homeless move on, not be there, move somewhere else. Chapter 2 explores the treatment of the transient homeless during the Great Depression. The Depression was a game changer in multiple ways. First, economic hardship meant that more people than ever before struggled to maintain housing, and second, it saw the shift of policy response to homelessness to federal housing programs rather than, simply, local relief.

One major factor in serving those without homes concerned changing perspectives on alcoholism and mental illness, with religious and secular approaches to problem coming more into conflict as the century progressed. Organizations like the Salvation Army downplayed therapy or other, secular solutions, at the same time that homelessness became the object of social scientific study.

In the 1960s, the focus became increasingly spatial with urban renewal and ‘slum clearance.’ Most of my students can recite urban renewal history (more mindlessly than I care for) about how communities of color were destroyed to make way for highway projects, but few people ever think about the homeless men and women targeted by the program. Here is where the federal involvement in urban policy gets even more dicey, as local officials came to the conclusion that while homeless men and women may have to exist ‘somewhere’, skid rows were both unsightly and unhygienic. The feds put $5.4 billion into urban renewal programs from 1949 until 1966. As Howard points out, Eisenhower epitomized the federal problems: many people, like Eisenhower, favored urban renewal projects, believing them tickets to urban growth that would ‘lift all boats’ and yet viewed public housing with extreme suspicion. The result is a whipsaw we still live in: the desire for urban growth and population increase without the commitment to increased supply of affordable shelter, and by the 1980s, more affordable units were being destroyed than created in urban centers. Homelessness became viewed as something to be fixed:

Throughout the twentieth century, urban residents by and large did not want homeless people living in their neighborhood ,nor did they wish to fund residential programs to offer continued housing assistance. The homeless were to be returned to “normal” life rather than being placed in supported living conditions.

p. 122.

The Bowery escaped urban renewal due to widespread resistance to it in New York, including Jane Jacobs and others, who viewed urban renewal for what it was: a state-sponsored real estate development strategy that selected easy political targets for private commercial gain with specious public interest rationales. The plan for Cooper Square would have removed 4,000 beds; the plan failed, but eventually, efforts to redevelop the Bowery will win out. It will just take real estate markets a few more decades to make this happen.

Before we get there, however, Howard treats us to yet another means of dressing up old wine in new bottles in the neotraditional, punitive ways in which social science and media constructed narratives around men and women without homes and the neighborhoods that served homeless populations, like the Bowery. Here you get a strong flavor of American studies in Howard’s background as she connects older, more overly judging frames for impoverished people with the lurid, exoticed narratives constructed in particular media outlets. These are old ideas about danger and lack of hygiene dressed up for the spectator world of mediated imagery. Social science approaches were little better, framing individuals according to mainstream values of functionality and–a shocker–always finding their homeless subjects wanting. Nonetheless, good research conducted out of Columbia also began spending real time and energy with people living in the Bowery to understand how social life functions in homeless districts.

The later chapters of the book, like the earlier ones, are excellent, but they felt like less of a revelation to me as I had lived through many of the policy changes and conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s. I remember the federal and state withdrawal from homeless programs, particularly the deinstutionalization of those with serious mental illnesses. That policy move prompted the very public conflict between New York Mayor Koch and New York Governor Hugh Carey, whereby Koch viewed his city’s increasing number of homeless people as a direct result of the state making homelessness into a city problem. As Howard notes:

The Koch and Reagen administrations and the advocates for the homeless agreed on a single point: each supported the expansion of the private, religious-affiliated homeless shelters. p. 208

And thus nearly a century later, theories about serving homelessness return back to its religious, voluntarist roots. By then, the Bowery had become, like many places where poverty exists, the spatial exemplar of ‘edginess’ that nightclubs, musicians, and other artists exploited as a means to commercial success. In the end, New York’s real estate boom will erase the Bowery, and Mayor Guiliani will capitalize on security narratives as a means to simply regulate homelessness out of New York so that, as in most contemporary cities, homeless people are simply expected to slide through the shadows of the city, in perpetual motion.

I highly recommend this book both for its subject matter and as an exemplar of just how good a dissertation book can be.


No, it’s NOT true that people did “nothing” about Donald Sterling’s prior racism

Well, there was the outrage about Donald Sterling’s comments, all of which is well-deserved. Some folks, including my eternal beloved Kareem Abdul Jabbar, attempted to turn the outrage into a learning moment by noting that there’s a lot of finger wagging at Sterling over his racist speech but “gave him a buy” or “never cared about” his prior racist actions, and how that emphasis on speech rather than actions makes us rather complicit and complacent when it comes to social injustice from racist actions, and a bit over-preachy when it comes to racist words.

Now, I am all for confronting people on structural racism and racist actions, I need it as much as anybody, but there is a lot of casual, assumed, default, anti-government stuff going on the “y’all did nothing to discipline Sterling when he did this and this” talk, and it needs to be confronted in the interests of fairness.

Sterling’s long, horrid-guy behavior appears here in the New York Times.

There’s a story there of a guy who does lousy mean stuff.

There is also a story there of a Justice Department who prosecuted the guy and made him cough up nearly $3 million in fines for his prior discriminatory behavior towards people of color because we–we–have rules about that sort of thing.

That is NOT nothing:

In 2009, Sterling paid a $2.725 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department accusing him of systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned.

It was an important LA story, so I knew it. And I’m a professor in a public policy school. But there are a lot of stories out there for people to be outraged over. The fact that people in, say, Dallas or Des Moines, weren’t up in arms over the housing discrimination is that they didn’t see that item in the paper, or it didn’t get covered in their news outlets. A shame, that. But understandable.

However, and this is a BIG however, people in Dallas and Des Moines and everywhere in the US live in a country where his housing discrimination practices are illegal. And those laws were enforced. Illegal. Enforced. At the federal level. People DID do something. Residents fought. Lawyers on behalf of the clients fought. And they won. And he couldn’t just send his private rich-guy army/mafia out to gun down those lawyers or those residents. For the residents, standing up to landlords like Sterling and his corporate henchpeople is both frightening and exhausting, and it takes courage to do it. And yet they did it.

Democratic institution passed civil rights laws and expanded them to include housing discimination; citizens–impoverished, marginalized citizens, but citizens nonetheless, appealed to those laws; and bureaucratic institutions enforced those laws.

That is most definitely not nothing. The fact that Joe Smith in Random Locale didn’t know the particulars about Donald Sterling’s attitudes and past conduct? Much less important than what the civil society Joe Smith belongs to can do when it crafts just laws and institutions and then uses them for what they are for.

I’m just saying. It may not be enough; I think it’s not. But it’s not *nothing*, and treating it as such is wrong. We should be scandalized by his words and his behavior towards tenants. But we did something about the latter.

I forgive you, Kareem, not for not acknowledging that fair housing rules do what they are supposed to (sometimes, at least, partially), and I still want to be your BFF. Call me.

Your house will be worth nothing, nothing!! and other urbanist revenge fantasies

Attention Conservation Notice: Housing is only one way in which land holds value; occupiers are only one option for asset ownership.

So among the narratives circulating around the world of urbanism is the “your house will be worth nothing in 20 years as Baby Boomers die and Millennial refuse to drive and want to live in cities.” Like much of what urbanists promulgate, this narrative is suffused with many values and assumptions. Urbanists love cities and hate suburbs, and scratch the surface on many an urbanist, and you find somebody who thinks that urban residents are thrifty, environmentally aware, fit, wise, and cosmopolitan and suburban residents are turgid, selfish, and racist.

Thus there is a lovely, Puritanical schaudenfruede that accompanies the idea that the latter a) will be or b) have been left penniless and destitute because of their sinful, unrepentant single-family-homebuying ways despite the Right Way of Smart Growth/Sustainable/New Urbanist living that they have urged towards. I see much of this in the commentary surrounding Emily Badger’s reporting on Chris Nelson’s recent research found in What Will Happen to Grandma’s House When Nobody Will Want to Buy It:

By Nelson’s calculation, 20.1 million senior households will be trying to sell their homes between 2015 and 2030. As many as 7.4 million of them won’t find a willing buyer – a number, as we outline in the magazine’s Chartist feature, that could send us towards the next housing crash.

Badger goes to on to say that it’s hard to know how the market will respond and suggests that banks might step in and buy at a discount which seniors won’t like. It’s hard to say what the market will do when one has no conception of how housing or land markets work, and it’s pretty clear that most people don’t. I can’t imagine why banks would step in a buy anything that nobody else wants. They aren’t known for charitable behavior. She then suggests that McMansions might be subdivided or the places might be converted to transit-oriented developments.

Nobody wants to a buy a house because of its suburban location but a developer is going to come in and do TOD and subdividing? Those things happen in places where land values are *high* because people have to pool their money to afford location, not in places where land is, basically, free. How many TODs have sprung up on the urban fringe of Buffalo and Detroit so far?

If the last selloff should have taught us anything, it’s that there are cash buyers out there for distressed property in select regions, while not in others, and many of them have no interest in occupying the house at all. They want to rent to vacationers, students, etc. It’s important not to conflate housing and demographics–even though demographics are very important to housing demand (and overall demand.) Indigenous owner-occupiers are only ONE possibility.

In fairness, these like any markets are complex, and forecasting future conditions means you’d better be comfortable with being wrong because you are probably going to be. The goal is to derive forecasts that improve our chances of good decision-making even though the information is imperfect.

Personal story: the first house I remember as a child is gone now. It stood in the middle of what is now a corporate-owned field. My grandma’s house? Well, one grandma’s house suffered a similar fate. Did we sell that land for peanuts and eat gruel? Nobody wanted those houses. No; there was a higher-dollar use for the land than housing, and so it sold for farm land (at a decent price; contrary to what my beloved Richard Green thinks, land in Iowa is not free.)** Just as farmland on the urban fringe converts to housing as cities grow (as housing prices exceed values for other uses), the reverse can be true. So I could see 7 million houses in rural and small town areas in the US easily disappearing as that land becomes more of the “space in-between” major, urbanized population centers.

Richard Green counters in his wonderful talk that home ownership is not going to fall appreciably, nor do we have any reason to believe that prices are gong to be that volatile in either direction. It’s possible that both Nelson’s and Green’s predictions can happen: Green is discussing the aggregate, Nelson is discussing regional changes, and in the aggregate, if aggregate demands shifts to particular markets, gains in value there could easily offset value losses in other places.

It’s not like the US is the only country whose population growth is going to slow. Are they giving away houses in the Paris suburbs yet? (If so, let me know.)

** Just as we didn’t wind up just eating gruel, we also didn’t retire off the proceeds to our private island in Fiji. It would be really nice if people could understand returns to housing assets in something more moderate than destitution versus the lottery.

Ed Glaeser and why you shouldn’t worry if people do have preference for space

Why am I asking these questions other than my basic cussedness? By and large, my New Urbanism-y planners hate the deduction, and I get lectured about it all the time, and much of what they say doesn’t make sense to me. That said, I do not support continuing the deduction forever; consequentialist arguments for it, just like the consequentialist arguments against it, don’t make a huge amount of sense to me, either. However, there are some consequentialist arguments that my young planners miss, and we probably shouldn’t.

First, I’m concerned about fiddling with the mortgage interest deduction right now when such a large number of homeowners are in trouble already, even if I’m not crazy about it as policy. And given existing homeowners’ fragility, I really really don’t want to be fiddling with it now if it’s not an effective lever in land use policy. I want answers to the incidence questions I posed yesterday. It’s quite clear the benefit is more valuable to you the more interest you pay, but I don’t think that is the end of the story.

Second, dear planners, if you don’t question, you may miss a good opportunity for advocacy.

Glaeser doesn’t make this mistake. (I think he makes some others, which I’ll blog about next week). His major point here is that you can satisfy the preference for more space by building up instead of out, and that the problem of affordability in Manhattan has been due to height restrictions and overly aggressive preservation efforts than running out of land on Manhattan. His logic is good, as is his analogue: Chicago, where height restrictions have been less prevalent.

Jon Levine at the University of Michigan has argued extensively that zoning and restrictions of this ilk restrict housing choice: that there is a market for people who, under existing conditions, get forced into single-family homes who would normally go row house or big condo if there were diversity supplied in the housing market. A skylarking theory, for which I have no proof: Building multifamily is so politically unpopular that when you do get to do a project, cities I think often pursue as many units as they can because housing affordability is such an issue. There are probably economies of scale in conflict negotiation over multifamily structures. That means you aren’t necessarily developing a lot of luxury high rises anywhere except in the most expensive areas, and your troubles with neighbors there mean that your luxury high rises are *really* luxury—a small segment of your potential market.

The only way to test this issue is by easing zoning regulations and see what develops in the US. You can try comparative studies but I think it’s hard to generalize to the US at this point.

Again, I don’t see the mortgage interest deduction as a barrier to this type of development–the opposite, in fact, because even with building diversity and building up, there’s only so much land available in cities. Urban land is more expensive than land the on the fringe, for a variety of reasons, and that relationship is stable, always conveying a relative advantage for fringe development for those whose tastes go for more space. That price difference exists regardless of the deduction. By cheapening credit, you increase the possibility that, with less restrictive zoning, people can use the cheaper credit to substitute amenities for space if that is their preference.

Thus the issue is less the fact that space is a normal good that the deduction amplifies–that is probably true, but it is probably heightened by the relative lack of supply for other things in the market that one might select, given greater purchasing power. If, as my young planners and Richard Florida hope, urban condo development is the way of the future in housing in the US, making all housing more expensive by eliminating the deduction (a statement we can only make if we believe certain things about incidence) strikes me as a bit counterproductive, even if you do think rentals will be more important in future housing markets.

In which I am confused by conclusions about the mortgage interest deduction

My students currently are reading Triumph of the City by Ed Glaeser. In it, he echoes thoughts that many, many people seem to have: that the home mortgage interest deduction encourages sprawl and McMansions.

Now, I’m not a big fan of fiddling with the tax code, and I’m really not a fan of handing out tax breaks to people who have means, but I am confused by the way people have started discussing this particular policy–the consequentialist arguments in particular. For me, my first two reasons are enough to make the policy prima facie not a great idea. But the consequentialist arguments strike me as shakier than their very smart proponents, like Professor Glaeser, like to believe.

First off, it seems to me that unlike with any other tax policy, people (including economists, who should know better) assume that the incidence of the mortgage interest deduction falls entirely on the first group of beneficiaries–the home buyer. Really? With taxes, we know that they can be shifted: the example everybody loves to use is a tax on yachts. Yes, you’d like to soak the yacht-buyers by taxing yachts. But if the rich people look at the tax and suddenly decide to start buying handbags or trips to Wimbledon or botox injections or fur coats instead of yachts, the people bearing the cost of the tax are not wealthy people, but people who build yachts, including some low-wage labor. That’s shifting.

Maybe there is an empirical literature out there that Glaeser knows and I don’t–I hope Richard Green will pipe up and direct me to it–that estimates the incidence of the home mortgage interest deduction. Now, these incidence studies are difficult and subjective, but economists do them. And if these studies are out there for the mortgage interest deduction, I would like to see them. Because theoretically, I could see the incidence of the benefit moving far past the borrower to landowners (capitalizing the benefit in the price of land), mortgage lenders, and both labor and capital in the construction industry, not to mention those in the fancy-housewares and gardening industry (you get a break on your home costs, you use that buy fancy housewares). Then there’s the lifetime incidence questions that always change the calculation of incidence by a lot. Is it bad that we help young people buy homes when homes are seniors’ primary assets?

Second, it seems to me that while, yes, the mortgage interest deduction would cause you to overconsume credit, it’s not clear that, in the absences of consumer preference towards space, that cheaper credit would a priori cause you to overconsume space. So with the deduction, your mortgage credit is cheaper. Fine. But the mortgage interest deduction on $500,000 worth of mortgage is $500,000 of mortgage whether you spend that $500K on a lot of land/McMansiony house in the burbs or you use that to buy a fabulous loft in downtown. There’s nothing about the credit side of the equation that necessarily pushes you to that McMansion; it may be a supply issue (far too few high end lofts and far too many suburban homes), or, as I note, it may be a simple preference. In the the absence of that preference for space being strong and the political economy restrictions on multifamily development, wouldn’t subsidized credit just as likely yield more condos with jacuzzis and souped-up kitchens and bathrooms as it would McMansions?

Now, before you get all up my grill about being pro-sprawl and the other labels people like to throw around, I’m willing to concede that making this particular preference cheaper to indulge via the deduction is collectively bad for us. And I’m willing to believe that, given this preference, overconsumption of credit for housing leads to the marginal increase of home sizes across the board (from condos to McMansions) and that cumulatively sizes up housing in ways that are collectively not good. But…still. It doesn’t resolve the preference issue, which is relevant because a consumer preference can also be a democratic preference, which means we may have liked consuming space and thus made it easier for ourselves to do so via political economy. Which means we are looking at perhaps symptom rather than cause, albeit a symptom that becomes self-reinforcing and potentially causal over time?

But that incidence question throws in a wildcard for the above logic.

Perhaps without the deduction, wealth gains explain space consumption and we’d still have the spatial patterns we see here, only with different ownership structures. We see urban decentralization in places without the mortgage interest dedication, although not to the same degree. Sububanization has occurred worldwide even without the deduction. And we have different urban forms in the US, even though the policy is federal and it applies to all borrowers, from Portland to Atlanta. Why aren’t those places more similar in terms of housing delivery if the mortgage interest dedication is all that powerful a factor.

So leaving aside the desire to rip my throat out for daring to ask these questions, what’s the right way for me to reason my way through to the causal link between mortgage interest deducation and sprawl? Help me.

Chris Leinberger on Sprawl in the NYT

I got a number of emails about this Op-Ed from Chris Leinberger, and it prompted some discussion as it was passed around on PLANET. I was hoping to ignore it, but it’s been sent to me so many times that it’s probably time to write about it.

There are a whole bunch of problems here, as Joel Kotkin notes in this response in Forbes. There’s a yucky ad you have to sit through, but it’s worth it.

Leinberger’s camp say he’s right; his research shows that real estate in central cities has retained its value better, and of course, there’s always the argument that auto-oriented suburbs increase family’s costs of living, and thus, add too much strain to family’s finances, thereby making it hard for them to be able to stay in their houses.

Chicago’s Census numbers nicely illustrate a bunch of internal tensions with Leinberger’s arguments. There is a chance that Census data haven’t captured a lag in people moving back to central cities, but the city of Chicago lost 200,000 people from 2000 to 2010. Chicago is a New Urbanist dreamland, with a downtown full of walkability and design frills, with copious rail transit, and a robust commercial life downtown. How could it possibly have lost population?

Some other hypotheses/ideas:

1. We had overvaluation in the market, and there was far too much risky borrowing gone on. All apparently true. But keep in mind what exposed the house-of-cards in the tranches in the first place: a surge of unemployment led to a concomitant surge in distressed sales of real estate started the house-of-cards falling. So, yes, the housing bubble contributed, but we also have that surge in unemployment to deal with. Unemployment is a major reason why people may not move at all, let alone to real estate that is relatively more expensive, as Leinberger now says urban land is.

2. If auto-oriented suburbs were the problem, with the strain of car and house, how do we explain the number of countries where a) there is a ton of transit and relatively low levels of car ownership and b) household debt to income ratios are much, much worse now than ever, bubble or no bubble, in the US: Spain, Sweden, Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands (another New Urbanist poster child).

What I learned from Richard Green recently about California and Texas

Recently I attended an undergraduate class to speak in tandem with Richard Green, who is the director of USC’s Lusk Center and one of my favorite bloggers.

So California has a lot of underwater mortgages while Texas does not. The question becomes why? Is it because one was bad and sprawling while another was wonderful and smart growth-y? That doesn’t seem likely, though California has a lot of big houses in places that make no sense for big houses, where overcapitalized consumers with incomes who could not support the loans bought (Fresno, Riverside.)

Both had a lot of built during the boom.

California makes it hard to build housing; the environmental and building regulations are very hard to get through. Texas makes it easy. As Richard says, if you’ve got a pickup and a shovel, you can build a house in Texas.

So why does California have so many foreclosures while Texas has so few? Upright moral fiber of its denizens? Free markets?

Turns out not. Most of the mortgage interest innovations that opened up subprime lending for larger numbers of borrowers in California were illegal in Texas. Market regulation at a different point.

Very interesting.

Richard Green’s testimony on how to work through foreclosures

My wonderful colleague, Richard Green, testified in front of the Senate Banking Committee. He’s convinced me, and I’ve been a bit dubious about bailing out homeowners (still: why didn’t we make the banks refinance when we were handing the banks money with TARP? I don’t get it). Here’s my favorite part of the testimony

There are those who argue that it was the attempt to advance
mortgage credit to minorities that led to our current condition—
I do not accept that argument. The loans that have performed
most poorly were originated by institutions that were not
covered by the Community Reinvestment Act or the Affordable
Housing Goals. Moreover, as Mr. Wallison himself once noted,
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did not do a good job of advancing
credit to minorities or low-income neighborhoods. While this is
to their discredit, it undermines the argument that their
troubles arose because they made too many loans to underserved