The College and Resort-Town Housing Crisis: a YIMBY Laboratory?

Featured image: Looking over Hood River and towards Mt. Hood, just because. Source.

With media attention to urban issues often focused obsessively on the coasts and major cities, there’s a crying need for a little bit more varied texture in our discussions of planning and urbanism. People like Pete Saunders and Jason Segedy have done important work showing how needs and paradigms differ in a Midwestern/Rust Belt context. And indeed, it’s important to learn from the Rust Belt, since the geography of demand and capital in most American cities looks far more like its cities than those of the coasts. But there’s another, underappreciated set of towns whose experience of housing policy and planning may actually more closely parallel that of the coasts: those towns that are smaller, but are closely associated with a college or resort, and consequently experience a high level of demand and high prices–and as such need solutions similar to those of the much larger cities.

If you follow me on Twitter you know I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I was inspired to finally write about it by the appearance of two items in close proximity. The first was posted by my dad’s cousin Lisa Perry, who with her mom runs Cody Orchards in Oregon’s Hood River Valley (my dad’s family’s ancestral homeland, a gorgeous place to visit, and some of the most fertile fruit-growing land in the world). Titled “The Next Aspen” and posted by a local activist group, this flyer calls citizens to action over increasing housing prices driven in part by the increasing presence of second homes and AirBnB-style part-time rentals in the Hood River Valley. The flyer cites a median listed home price of $533,000, which–to my admittedly-not-a-realtor eye–seems shockingly high for a rural area.

hood river market

The track of Hood River’s housing market, from an article in The Oregonian

The other article is from the current Aspen, the high-end ski resort in Colorado. Written by Aspen Ski Co. VP of Sustainability Auden Schendler, it takes a fairly standard YIMBY approach to ameliorating Aspen’s notoriously severe housing crunch–a situation so bad that the local transit agency recently initiated a 43-mile BRT-lite service to move commuters around. It’s worth quoting at length:

This worldview is widespread. Mountain communities are often run by environmentalists from 40 years ago whose thinking has not kept abreast of the development in their hometowns. They champion stasis over change, open space over density, and consider development evil. They hate crowds—even though crowds are the foundation of the entire resort economy. “The only thing they hate more than sprawl,” an architect told me, “is density.”

Parts of Aspen look like they did decades ago, with Victorian houses and big, lovely parks. There are, however, no people in those houses (often second, third, or fourth homes), and a long line of traffic every morning and evening as people forced to live downvalley, where real estate is cheaper, end up commuting 20, 30, and even 50 miles to work.

There’s nothing environmental-friendly about any of this. The long commute creates pollution. It blocks guests from the ski hill. It wears out the road. It’s the exact antithesis of all the ideas Aspen was founded on—about renewal and escaping from the world.

Aspen is perhaps the single most extreme example, but we can see here the ways in which towns that are small in terms of population, but have high demand for housing, can mirror the problems of big cities in a way that most of the nation’s midsize cities don’t. Indeed, as Aspen shows the problems in small towns can often be, though on a smaller absolute scale, even more severe on a per-person basis, as poorer citizens are displaced to entirely different towns, which in rural areas may be miles away and entirely lack suitable housing or transit.

The same is often true in college towns. The blog Walkable Princeton and the (sadly silent right now) Twitter account Central NJ YIMBY by one of its authors have chronicled the dearth of affordable housing and walkability in that Ivy League town. I’ve spent a lot of time in Massachusetts’ college-heavy Pioneer Valley, and particularly Northampton and Amherst, both of which are fairly expensive by rural/small-town standards–and lack sufficient housing for their student and young-adult populations.

As with resort towns, college towns are often dominated politically by aging ex-hippies and Boomers who consider themselves environmentalists, but feel ambivalently at best about the popular demand that underlies their town’s economic success. David Roberts’ recent piece in Vox about the difference between environmentalists and climate hawks is perhaps one of the best–although not the only–lenses onto the political dynamic that drives (non)-development decisions in both resort and college towns. College towns suffer from the additional complication of much housing demand being driven by students, who are (with perhaps some justification) generally considered an undesirable class to live near and preemptively zoned out. It was, after all, conflict between “townies” and students that yielded Belle Terre v. Boraas, one of the Supreme Court cases that allows towns to most restrict housing flexibility. College-town homeowners have even been known to speak about student housing with language reminiscent of racial blockbusting:

Smaller towns do present YIMBYs with the challenge of accepting that certain things we (correctly, in my opinion) dismiss as distractions from the housing debate in larger cities do in fact have outsize impacts in some smaller towns. Part-time occupation and the outsize presence of second (and third, and fourth) homes in high-demand small towns and rural areas really do have a huge impact on the local market. I’d argue that you do have to be more careful with development than I’d argue for a big-city context. For some of these towns–particularly resort towns–it’s the existing built environment and character that form a large part of their appeal, and therefore their economic bottom line. There’s no shortage of potentially cute small towns out there in America; there’s always going to be stiff competition for success, and it’s reasonable for leaders to be wary of ceding their core competencies in the face of stiff competition.  

Those items aside, the high-demand small-town dynamic in some ways parallels–and can learn from, and inform–the big-city experience more than that of most of Middle America. As such, the solutions to the crisis confronting some of these towns probably parallel big-city solutions as well: a simple willingness to grow and include the people who want to be there as well as old-timers, an emphasis on walkability and a few select transit corridors so that growth can scale without corresponding increases in traffic, and selective application of regulation and mandates like incentive zoning and social housing. Indeed, given the very manageable scale of need in smaller towns, it’s probably not unfair to think of these towns as laboratories for proving the efficacy of YIMBY policies that can then be scaled to apply to larger areas.

The core principles of a growth-accepting worldview still apply. There are almost always corridors where growth can happen without impacting the touristy areas. For Northampton-Amherst, those would be the Route 9 corridor connecting the two towns, with its relatively robust transit and high-quality rail trail:

northampton amherst route 9

And the north-south Route 5 corridor in Northampton, much of which was previously railyards and has been developed not as the dense housing that’s needed but as pedestrian-hostile big-box retail.

route 5

Smaller towns also present the possibility of the strong alliance between farming/conservation interests and YIMBYs/Smart Growthers that should exist nationally. Dense development close to the core of town ought to absorb sufficient demand to slow or stop the farmland-eating process of sprawl–a process that, as in Hood River, not only threatens the environment but drives up costs for farmers, making a difficult business even harder. This alliance can’t function, though, if core development priorities continue to be set by people with a no-growth agenda; and the result is that farmland continues to be eaten up by sprawl (the same goes, to a lesser extent, for conservation of open land in non-farming areas). Technical tools like a regional Transfer of Development Rights program could help facilitate this alliance, but face several challenges: they are highly complex and unintuitive; are often only legally authorized to follow municipal boundaries, when a rural environment demands a regional strategy (this is true in New York State, where the Hudson Valley would really benefit from such a program); and above all require a willingness for somewhere in the core to accept actual growth.

Northampton isn’t Boston and Hood River isn’t Portland (duh). But if the goal is creating sustainable policy that can meet the needs of today while also nurturing future generations (a particular concern in college towns, I suppose), these smaller towns have in some ways failed nearly as badly as our big cities have. And it’s important not only to recognize those failures as an opportunity (which they are!) but to understand that they are the product of particular choices made by particular people at particular times. The core insight of YIMBYism–its simple power–is the insight that none of this was inevitable. Big-city activists can learn from smaller towns confronting similar issues–and the smaller towns from their big siblings.  



The Bootstrap Theory of Neighborhood Development

Readers of this blog and of my Twitter feed know that I am particularly confounded by one of the superficially odder phenomena of contemporary urban discussion—the wide prevalence of NIMBYism from people whose political views otherwise lean well to the left. Attention to this phenomenon has largely, and justifiably, focused on San Francisco and the Bay Area, where skyrocketing housing prices have been met with stiff resistance to the idea of actually trying to solve the problem in any realistic way. But having grown up in a college town with liberal politics—and living in a liberal state capital with a dominant Democratic bent—I suspect that middle-class lefty resistance to urban change is in fact more common than one might think, affecting smaller markets as well as the uber-hot coastal metropolises.

The prompt for thinking about this now and trying to put together a coherent theory of it was a truthfully extremely minor zoning issue originating in my childhood neighborhood of Westville in New Haven. I posted an article about it on Facebook and became embroiled in a discussion with a few people I grew up with—mostly folks my parents’ age with whom I was growing up and continue to be close—about whether opposition to this building modification was NIMBYism or reflected genuine concerns. I also contributed to and monitored the comments section on the New Haven Independent site. The discussion on Facebook, I think, broke down more or less along the lines one would expect, with me advocating for growth in New Haven’s tight rental market and others, homeowners in the area, expressing more or less typical homeowner concerns, although politely and reasonably (I grew up with good people). In some ways, it was a predictable discussion, one in which I may have overstated my anti-NIMBY position. But something else struck me about both the Facebook discussion and the comments section:  just how much my experience of the city as a Millennial differs from that of older middle class people.

Let’s look at some of what people who I would characterize as more sympathetic to “community concerns” (which I acknowledge is an extremely problematic term) had to say:

Two comments from TheMadcap on the Independent comment section:

Unlike some of the comments here, I bought my house in reliance on the protection of zoning laws.  I certainly wouldn’t want my next door neighbor to build a 40’ wall next to my house and look to mine the house like it’s gold.

it could easily end up with renters, not her family, at some point.  That will change the character of that corner for sure.  My sympathies lie on Burton St…

I have a right, when I buy my single family home, to know generally what’s allowed by zoning, by my neighbors.  Without that, there’s chaos.  If my next door neighbor converts his single family into a 4 family and moves out, I’ll be gone before the 1st renter moves in. It’s not what I bargained and paid for.

Westville is a good blend of families in single family homes and students, young prof, and retirees in multis. But it’s a delicate balance.  Start removing the single families and you will see less families with children there. And they are what helps makes Westville special.

I don’t know to what extent TheMadcap represents the sentiments of other people opposed to this renovation. But their comments reflect a belief in the essential fragility of the Westville neighborhood that—while it seems bizarre to me—I have come to understand is extremely common among middle-class residents of what we might call “middle cityscape” neighborhoods (we’ll get there in a moment). For TheMadcap, the only thing keeping the neighborhood from tipping into chaos is the protection of dip-it-in-amber zoning laws, without which, this commenter says with absolute confidence, the neighborhood WILL decline. Having too many renters in the neighborhood is to be feared, and interference from government—even to the extent of issuing one zoning variance—is a constant threat. I have a lot of confidence in the neighborhood I grew up in, and I doubt most people are quite that paranoid. But there’s no doubt that this kind of attitude is prevalent among urban middle class residents in many areas.

The Awl recently wrote about Washington Park in Troy, a kind of less notorious Upstate equivalent to Manhattan’s privately owned, closed-to-the-public Gramercy Park, and elicited some rather telling quotes from the homeowners who control access to the park. Troy isn’t Manhattan—right now, it’s not even Westville—and the Washington Park owners are not especially wealthy, coming mainly from Troy’s professional class (doctors, lawyers, and professors) rather than some landed gentry. Their attitude toward the possibility of opening their park, though, is telling:

“The city does such a shitty job [of maintaining] its own properties”…

A former W.P.A. official and her husband, park residents for thirteen years, told me they’d like to see the square opened to the public—in theory—but had no faith in the city to maintain it…

One park-property tenant cited the fate of Barker Park—a much smaller, plaza-like park downtown—as a kind of testament to why Washington Park could not be opened to the public. The Times Union reported in 2012 that the city “removed four benches” from the park “due to complaints about fights and lewd behavior by those who loiter[ed] in the area.” I asked if such a fate were unlikely to befall Washington Park, given all the eyes on it.

“It would totally happen here,” the tenant replied, “because these people are too shy to come out and kick junkies out of here. They’re not gonna do that.” He spoke of a “population of people here who are in halfway homes, or rehabbing, or [who] just got out of the mental hospital. [Troy is] kind of a processing zone for people who are in transition, and [there are] a lot of people who have mental health issues and people who have substance-abuse issues.” Troy is the Rensselaer County seat, and there are a number of social-service agencies downtown. Two of the Washington Park residents I met in person expressed disdain for people who use such programs.

The concerns of the Washington Park homeowners reflect two major fears of the urban experience: of Troy’s Other residents, who cannot be trusted not to wreck the peace and quiet of Washington Park, and thereby ruin the stabilized middle-class enclave around it, and of meddling government that cannot even manage its own affairs, much less take on the task of competently coping with social integration of an exclusive space.

If Troy is the new Brooklyn, it’s worth turning to that borough for a little clarification. One of my other influences in thinking about gentrification and policy recently has been Suleiman Osman’s terrific The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, which I read partially in preparation for a trip to said borough a couple of months ago. To be totally honest, I expected a book about gentrification in the 1950s and ‘60s to be totally insufferable, but Osman’s work is quite readable and a terrific guide to the yuppie-gentrifier mindset and the ways it can flip quite readily into NIMBYism. Here’s Osman on Brownstone Brooklyn’s early gentrifiers:

What united this new middle class was a collective urban identity. Bounded by overdeveloped Manhattan to one side and the undeveloped slums to the other, all agreed that they had discovered a historically diverse “real neighborhood” on the cusp of extinction and in need of rescue. Brooklyn Heights was a fragile middle cityscape that reconciled two competing visions of urban verisimilitude. For some it was a historic neighborhood that rooted residents in aristocratic past. For others the neighborhood was a gritty, diverse frontier that exposed middle-class residents to the authentic folkways of the urban poor. (pp. 115-116)

And later:

In the history of the American city, the neighborhood has often coalesced when mobilizing against a perceived outside threat…for Brooklyn Heights—as well as the West Side of Manhattan, Greenwich Village, and other postwar middle landscapes throughout the city—the catalyst for neighborhood formation was the intrusion of the machine. The machine, although a metaphor, represented real political, architectural, and social forces. In fact, two machines threatened Brooklyn Heights in the eyes of new residents, each version encroaching from opposite sides. From the slum of South Brooklyn lurked the old machine: the industrial cityscape of polluted factories, corrupt ward politicians, violent youth gangs, and frightening crime syndicates. From Manhattan threatened a modern and more potent new machine—a matrix of centralized public authorities, city planning agencies, and private development groups spearheading a program of modernist redevelopment in Brooklyn. (pp. 119-120)

For Osman—and I think he’s right—it was this perceived defense of the “middle cityscape” that produced “a new type of anti-statist politics that was hostile to liberal centralized planning and bureaucracy, instead celebrating grassroots government, organic landscapes, existential liberation, creative expression, historicity and diversity, and do-it-yourself neighborhood liberation.” (p. 163) That style of politics—definitely on the left end of the spectrum in theory, but existing in abject terror of both other residents of the city and government that might try to pursue the broad public interest, either of which might cause a solid middle cityscape neighborhood to tip over into decline and chaos at any time—ought to sound awfully familiar from the quotes I’ve presented from Troy and New Haven.

I’ve presented examples from three states and three different, though somewhat similar, kinds of neighborhoods. There are some clear commonalities, so let’s try to tease them out.

  • First, it’s crystal-clear that the dominant factor in the middle class/gentrifier narrative of neighborhood development and preservation has been fear. Fear of other city residents, fear of overbearing government, fear of neighborhood decline—it’s all there. And frankly, a lot of it was, historically, justified.
  • Second, middle-class residents of stable or improving urban neighborhoods see themselves—again, historically with significant justification—as saviors. Without their investment, their energy, their civic leadership, and their sweat equity, these neighborhoods would tip over into decline or chaos.
  • Third, the status of a “good urban neighborhood”—often, but not always, the same as a “middle cityscape” between downtown and the ghetto with elements of pastoralism—is fragile and must be preserved. It’s fragile because of Point 1, and because of Point 2 that preservation must be done by the existing residents of the neighborhood, which brings us to Point 4…
  • Fourth, government cannot be trusted to meet the needs of a “good” urban neighborhood. Like the other points here, this one made a lot of sense from the 1950s up through probably the 1990s—and still does in many areas. This is perhaps the biggest challenge people seeking more equitable neighborhood outcomes have to overcome.

Taken together, these narratives form what I’m proposing to call the bootstrap theory of neighborhood development. It’s a narrative in which the primary or even only reason an urban neighborhood can be “good” is through the efforts and expenditures of a very particular urban middle class, working against interference from competitors and government. In its stress on individual (well, communal, but individual relative to the rest of the city) effort and stress on self-preservation, this narrative has obvious parallels to American conservatism’s narrative of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” My labeling of this theory owes a lot to Daniel Kay Hertz’s framing of the narrative of immaculate conception of neighborhood origins; one might say that they are two parts of the same overarching narrative, occupying different time spans.

So what’s the problem? I’ve said multiple times that I think much of the bootstrap theory is valid in historic context. Well…let’s look at outcomes. Middle-class protectionism has certainly preserved a few “good” urban neighborhoods in a time of need. But it has also resulted in some outcomes that would seem to betray the theoretically liberal values of most middle-class urban residents.

  • Osman documents that as early as 1973, only 14% of Brooklyn Heights Association parents were sending their children to public schools. (p. 155) The progressive value of integration vs. the sometimes depressing realities of urban school districts is something that many middle-class parents struggle with, generally in my experience in good faith.
  • Historical validity of a plan of political action is just that, historical; and the bootstrap theory has had a notably difficult time adjusting to the reality that in the 21st century many cities are again approaching or exceeding normalcy in the housing market after decades of disinvestment and suppression. Coupled with policies still intended to protect the “good” neighborhoods, this renewed demand has seen housing prices skyrocket, resulting in an exclusive city.
  • The bootstrap narrative frames homeownership in a “middle cityscape” as almost public-spirited, and homeowners as bulwarks against chaos. Again, that may have been true in many areas until recently—but the restoration of relative normalcy to urban housing markets has once again revealed what was true before suburbanization: that ownership of a single-family home in a close-in urban neighborhood is inherently a luxury good. Homeownership does lend more stability to a neighborhood—but it is also entrepreneurial and a profit-making enterprise. The bootstrap narrative tends to elide that dual reality.

I began this piece by saying that my own experience of the city is very, very different from the middle-aged, middle-class homeowners who seem to be the most common proponents of the bootstrap theory. Like many of these people, I hold more or less liberal social and economic views. But my experience and indeed terror of urban space is very, very different. I am terrified that I won’t be able to afford to live in many cities in the US—largely because of the same policies pushed by many neighborhood bootstrappers in light of their own terrors. Where many neighborhood bootstrappers look at the city and feel fear, I see confidence, growth, and opportunity.

I don’t know how to convince neighborhood bootstrappers that their conception of neighborhood development is outdated. I could point out that the bootstrap theory is much more closely related to suburban narratives of urbanization and really de-urbanization than to 21st-century urbanism and creates a self-congratulatory framework that substitutes for structural thinking. I could talk about how it adopts some of the less savory aspects of Jane Jacobs’ work—her “eyes on the street” stress on constant surveillance–but not others, such as her quasi-libertarian willingness to experiment with urban economies and land use (which, granted, Jacobs herself was inconsistent about). But those are attacks—and I’m not sure they’d work well with people who feel they’ve spent their entire adult lives defending a fragile neighborhood from attack by both other urban residents and government.

So will we just have to wait for people with new experiences to take over? The stereotype that people grow less flexible as they get older seems mostly born out on this measure. And the urban middle class exerts a disproportionate political pull in cities, so it’s unlikely that government could be the best change agent. If the bootstrap narrative validates self-preservation, perhaps we could leverage that; after all, the homeowning middle class is now freezing its own children out of cities, so perhaps they’d be persuaded by arguments about future affordability for their own offspring. Is there a way to induce the people who gave cities life during the anti-urban century, but are now unintentionally squeezing that same life out of them, to play a more constructive role in planning and policy? In many of our cities, that’s the challenge of the 21st century.




Social Stratification in American Transit

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten anything up here. Sorry!

The idea that public transit comes with class and racial connotations in the American imagination is hardly new or surprising. That the desire to avoid “those people” has long driven aspects of US transportation policy is hardly a new suggestion; many people who drive to work cite the desire to be alone or to avoid “crowded” or “smelly” transit vehicles as driving (pun intended) their decision-making. Fights over supporting transit with class and racial overtones are common. As Cap’n Transit points out, the driver/transit rider divide is the fundamental stratification of American transportation policy–and it’s clear who’s on top.

But there’s also stratification within our transit system. And we don’t talk about it enough.

It’s been that way for a long time. I recently found this 1975 article by Paul Barrett in the Business History Review, titled “Public Policy and Private Choice: Mass Transit and the Automobile in Chicago between the Wars.” It contains a particularly striking passage about the social stratification of transit in Chicago:

But here is another reason why the status connotations of mass transit per se should not be overemphasized. Chicago’s mass transit system had long provided ample opportunity for skittish riders to choose the character of their fellow travelers. As early as the 1880s one South Side woman, complaining of the lack of “heating” straw on the floors of streetcars, observed to the Tribune that “the rich have their [Illinois Central commuter] trains to ride.” And early streetcar routings took class into account, as Northwest Side community leader Tomaz Deuther discovered when he asked Chicago Railways president John Roach to send cars directly down State Street from Deuther’s working class neighborhood. “You can’t mix silk stockings with picks and shovels,” Roach replied. Deuther was satisfied and marked Roach down as an honest man. As late as 1947 patrons in many districts could choose among streetcar, elevated, interurban, boulevard bus, and commuter railroad service for a trip to the CBD. Each line had its own fare structure and routing and, we may assume, its distinctive clientele. In short, the argument that aversion to class mixing helped to kill mass transportation must be considered in the context of the unique transit system each city developed for itself by means of local policy decisions.

Barrett’s point is that analysts should not assume mass transit declined in the postwar years mainly because of social mixing, since it was frequently already stratified. I think he is, to some extent, wrong–the explosion of suburbanization and sprawl in the postwar era created (indeed, was premised on) new forms of exclusion–but the point that we shouldn’t idealize the egalitarian nature of some prewar transit systems stands.

And here’s the thing: it’s still like that in a lot of places. The Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union has long been vocal that LA Metro’s expansion of the rail network prioritizes a small cadre of white riders over the system’s much more numerous bus ridership, which is heavily composed of people of color. The point that capital spending on rail expansion ignores or even hurts the majority of a transit system’s riders has a lot of validity (arguably more in non-LA contexts, actually), but also lacks significant nuance–Metro’s last biannual onboard survey found that while twice as many white people ride trains as buses, the respective percentages are only 9% and 18%.

But there are other examples. I was in Philadelphia over the weekend, and took the opportunity to ride one of the nation’s most interesting transit operations, the Norristown High Speed Line. The High Speed Line is interesting not just for its unique combination of technology, but because it parallels and complements other SEPTA routes, in particular the Regional Rail Paoli/Thorndale Line (the former Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, which has lent its name to the corridor of wealthy suburbs along it) and the ex-Reading Norristown/Manayunk Line. Norristown, a struggling collar city, is served both by the High Speed Line and the Regional Rail route–and the social stratification of the services is clear.  As I rode the NHSL, Stephen Smith educated me about the line’s social aspects:

Because of a suspicious object under the NHSL viaduct, we ended up taking Regional Rail rather than the NHSL back to Center City. Midday, Regional Rail runs at hourly headways, while the High Speed Line runs every twenty minutes. NHSL is a premium service relative to other SEPTA rapid transit services, with a base fare of $2.75–but a Regional Rail fare from Norristown, which is in Zone 3, is $5.75, and $7.00 if purchased on the train. And the Regional Rail ticket office is only open until 12:45 weekdays, and not at all on weekends, meaning you have to pay the higher fare at those times, period.


NHSL trains and a SEPTA bus at Norristown Transit Center. Regional Rail station to the left. 


A Regional Rail train approaches Norristown Transit Center

Indeed, though diverse, the (small) crowd that ended up on our Regional Rail train was clearly better-dressed and more professional-looking than the NHSL clientele.

Indeed, what Americans call commuter rail is, arguably, a fundamentally inequitable mode reliant on social exclusion.  It’s a high-cost service whose fares are frequently unintegrated with other forms of transit and that runs only frequently enough to be useful to those who have significant flexibility in their schedule, or the privilege to define their own time management. But it has a powerful constituency that keeps it going–and just functional enough to suit their needs.

For example, there’s been a ton of talk in the Boston area about cuts to the MBTA–but, while expansion may be slowed some, there’s been little talk of cuts to commuter rail, even though it’s by far the most highly subsidized of the agency’s modes on a per-ride basis:

In a nutshell, this is why my senior paper research focuses on making commuter rail more egalitarian. The fundamental inequity of American transportation policy is the privileging of automobile use and abuse over everything else, but too much of the inegalitarian stratification that defined transit before World War II still persists. Indeed, in some ways it may have gotten worse. And that’s something planners and transit advocates need to address.







The Danger of Revenge Fantasies

Last night, voters in San Francisco rejected Prop I, which sought to impose an 18-month moratorium on market-rate housing in the city’s historic Mission district. I’m thankful to be writing this post in light of the measure failing rather than passing; despite its support from numerous groups claiming to support affordable housing and the progressive agenda, the measure reflected not progressive tendencies but in many ways the worst illiberal indulgences of the contemporary Left, a phenomenon that I will seek to explore here.

But first, if you will indulge me, a foray into a much older text whose values cannot possibly be consistently identified as liberal.

7 Then the king Ahasuerus said unto Esther the queen and to Mordecai the Jew: ‘Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and him they have hanged upon the gallows, because he laid his hand upon the Jews. 8 Write ye also concerning the Jews, as it liketh you, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s ring; for the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse.’… 10 And they wrote in the name of king Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king’s ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback, riding on swift steeds that were used in the king’s service, bred of the stud; 11 that the king had granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey, 12 upon one day in all the provinces of king Ahasuerus, namely, upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar. 13 The copy of the writing, to be given out for a decree in every province, was to be published unto all the peoples, and that the Jews should be ready against that day to avenge themselves on their enemies.

5 And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did what they would unto them that hated them. 6 And in Shushan the castle the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men…15 And the Jews that were in Shushan gathered themselves together on the fourteenth day also of the month Adar, and slew three hundred men in Shushan; but on the spoil they laid not their hand. 16 And the other Jews that were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand–but on the spoil they laid not their hand–(Esther 8:7-9:15, OJPS translation, via Mechon Mamre)

As some readers know, my undergraduate education wasn’t actually in anything related to urbanism or planning; I have a B.A. in Hebrew Bible and another in archaeology, and it’s fun to retreat to my previous intellectual endeavors sometimes. In this case, though I hardly think tussles over housing in the Bay Area rise to the level of (failed) genocide, I actually think that the book of Esther illustrates well the dangerous temptations facing progressive activists in contemporary urban America.

The narrative of violence over Chapters 8 and 9 of Esther has long troubled Jewish commentators, both traditional and contemporary. At this point in the story our heroes, Mordechai and Esther, have triumphed over the evil Haman, who has already been strung up from the gallows he intended for Mordechai. As such, the primary human drama of the the story has already concluded; these chapters represent the narrative zooming out to a near-worldwide (from the perspective of the characters) level. If the major plot line is over, and the Jews empowered, why the orgy of violence and revenge?

To some extent, the answers people have proposed to that question go to a much more fundamental question about Esther:  what the purpose of the book–a late addition to the Jewish canon–is at all. Contemporary scholars have proposed that Esther is a satire; a farcical comedy; or, as proposed at a public event at my alma mater, an ancient Jewish revenge fantasy in the vein of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds(yes, that event occurred while I was there. No, I didn’t go, and I actually still haven’t seen the film) The book obviously mixes elements of all of these genres, but at its heart I think it–and especially the last two chapters–belong most in the revenge fantasy category, whether self-consciously or not.

And that’s the connection I see between Esther and, however unlikely, Prop I, with its provocative noises about keeping the Mission Latino, and its progressive-NIMBY ilk. I argued here recently that the most unfortunate characteristic of recent identity-based lefty urban activism is its determination to preserve and advantage existing communities at all costs, including the expense of newcomers of all levels of privilege. It’s a politics of exclusion that relies on inverting the use of traditional discriminatory tools and implicitly arguing that the tools themselves are OK to use if they’re just placed in the hands of “the right people”–people who have previously been oppressed. As the argument goes, it’s OK for communities of color to use the power of government to exclude others from “their territory,” even though–or rather because–they have (and still do!) suffer the same kind of discrimination. This line of logic also pops up among less-than-thoughtful college students from time to time, generally in the realm of censoring critical discussion on difficult topics, such as recently at Wesleyan  and Colorado College (ignore the snarky tone of the writer in the second link, who–shockingly for someone at Reason–has apparently never spent time with LGBTQ people or their lingo; the case is still rather striking). In other words, the politics of lefty exclusion represents the Estherian (Esther-esque?) revenge fantasy of the identity-politics Left.

Sound familiar? Discomfort with using the tools of the oppressor to “empower” the oppressed is exactly what drives the lingering Jewish unhappiness with the conclusion of Esther. Esther is a revenge fantasy because its Jews use the exact same tools on their opponents that were intended to be used on them: Haman is hung on the gallows intended for Mordechai (who also takes his seat at the king’s right hand), and the king’s seal becomes a writ for pro-Jewish instead of anti-Jewish violence. No one would confuse the still-vulnerable Jewish community in post-Esther Persia for a dominant group, but they have–for now–adopted the symbols and mechanisms of power and used it not just to defend themselves but to slaughter.

In much the same way, some urban “progressives” are seeking not to fully dismantle discriminatory, exclusionary regimes of zoning, planning, and building, but to turn and adopt those mechanisms in ways that advantage their own communities. And that’s a problem not just because it’s inherently hypocritical, but because it will worsen the affordability crisis in places like San Francisco, and because it legitimates the use of those tools by completely unenlightened and very privileged groups, such as the racist, classist suburban NIMBYs whose voice still dominates planning in this country. Despite the words I’ve devoted here, the urban left is only a small (though very vocal) part of this country’s overall problem.

Needless to say, I don’t think this is progressive, and I don’t think it’s any way forward. I’ve devoted significant time recently to critiquing my fellow travelers on the political Left, and I still think we share more than we don’t–a vision that sees the world through the lens of structural social forces, a determination to bring down inequality, a commitment to social justice. But I think significant elements of the Left have lost their way on urban issues, and it threatens the viability of the progressive political project. Progressivism is about keeping alive the dream of altruistic policymaking, about tearing down barriers rather than using them for revenge. That many so-called progressives don’t act that way in real life perhaps speaks to the extent to which the movement has been infiltrated (corrupted?) by hardcore, dead-ender Marxist, anti-capitalist hardliners who really do envision a class revolution in which oppressed groups will rise and return the moral sin of their oppressors on their heads.

I’m grateful that San Francisco voters reject Prop I; though I’m not especially hopeful, perhaps it represents an opportunity for a turning point. As I’ve said before and will say again, it’s time for a new progressive politics of urbanism–one that is inclusive, and dedicated to fundamental reform, if not quite revolution. Let’s forget fantasies of revenge and go about the mundane work of making life better for everyone. After all, in the end of Esther, with Mordechai by his side, ditzy King Ahasuerus still had to raise taxes.

Itinerance is Not a Sin

It’s the beginning of the school year, so I’ve been sadly neglecting my little blog in favor of, well, schoolwork and a new internship.That being said, I missed an opportunity a few weeks ago to write on an issue that’s near and dear to my heart (and indeed, core to the mission of this blog), so hopefully this post will get me back on track a little.

It’s easy to make fun of the anti-gentrification politics of the progressive Left. They tend to come out in nearly incomprehensible social-activist jargon that contradicts the movement’s claim to populism. They tend to come out of ivory-tower academic circles that many Americans can’t relate to. But–as someone who identifies with progressivism, although not with this breed of of the Left–I think these politics, these ideas, matter. And some of them are really, really terrible.

Lisa Gray-Garcia’s August 11th piece in Truthout titled “Decolonization and Gentrification: Confronting the Gentrifier in All of Us” is one of those terrible ideas. Amidst a stream of anti-displacement rhetoric, some of it vaguely reasonable and some of it absurdly over the top, Gray-Garcia gives us this gem of anti-gentrification logic:

If we want to stop the high-speed gentrification, maybe we should do it ourselves. Maybe we should do what I teach students at PeopleSkool at POOR Magazine: to de-gentrify you must go back home. To decriminalize, you must set up systems of accountability and community care-giving. To stop displacement, you must stop seeking out places that are “fun,” “trendy,” exciting or convenient, but rather stay in your cities and towns of origin, embracing the comfortable rooms that your parents have or had for you. Stop ghettoizing your elders and hiring people to take care of your children and grandparents – do it yourselves.

That’s right: for one Lisa Gray-Garcia, the solution to gentrification is to do what many non-gentrifying Millenials find themselves forced to do these days: stay home indefinitely.

I’m not going to take down Gray-Garcia’s article point-for-point, because that would be silly. It also wouldn’t really be in keeping with what I want to say here. Gray-Garcia’s piece is remarkable not because it represents not a mainstream piece of leftist anti-gentrification politics, but the logic of those politics taken to its logical extreme. It’s an argument with three core tenets:

  1. Mobility of populations in a capitalist society must inevitably result in large-scale displacement
  2. The solution is to restrict, rather than accommodate, that movement
  3. Public policy and individual ethics should support restrictions on movement rather than system- or institutional- level integration of existing and new populations.

As such, lefty “solutions” to the gentrification and affordability crisis–which, in a limited number of cities in this country, is a very real, very serious thing!–tend to focus on protecting existing populations rather than trying to find a way to accommodate growth and population mobility. Policies like rent control, building moratoriums, and even inclusive zoning primarily or exclusively benefit people who already live in the area, and thereby leave newcomers of all social classes out in the cold, sometimes literally.

Classically-leaning economists will gleefully point out that these policies typically result in depression of new housing supply, and therefore rising housing prices as the rich inevitably and invariably buy their way into places they want to be, despite the best intentions of policymakers. I think that’s more or less correct. But my concern is more philosophical. Exceptionally high mobility has long been a defining characteristic of the American workforce. And even though it’s been falling recently, our workforce mobility is much higher than in most other Western countries. Why, exactly, is the anti-gentrification Left engaged in a war on worker mobility? Are not the most vulnerable populations the ones most likely to be forced into migration for economic reasons? And if mobility is the cause of gentrification and displacement, why do we think restricting it will work even as gentrification has accelerated at the same time as mobility has declined?

And there’s one thing about mobility that, I think, the Left’s solutions just don’t take into account. Despite the decline, it’s not going away–and it’s not always voluntary. Last year Cap’n Transit had a thoughtful post identifying “Five migrations in gentrification,” and it’s worth looking at the Cap’n’s categories as a way of thinking about how to cope with gentrification. Several of them do indeed represent optional flows, people using their economic privilege to insert themselves back into the city life that they or their parents or grandparents had abandoned decades ago. But I’m most intrigued by the Cap’n’s last category:

There’s a fifth migration that I think doesn’t get enough attention: the small city exiles. These are people who are not the best or the brightest, or complete misfits, but they’re pretty bright, mildly kinky or noticeably nonconformist. Or maybe they can’t drive because they’re blind or epileptic (I learned about this last one from Sally Flocks), or they just don’t want to. Eighty years ago they’d have been pretty happy in Rochester or Knoxville or Omaha or San Luis Obispo: reasonably normal, functioning members of society, with enough peers to have a stimulating intellectual and artistic fellowship.

Today, those towns have hardly any jobs at all, especially within walking distance of downtown, shopping and services are sprawled out across the area, and transit between them is inconvenient. With this fragmentation, they can barely sustain a monthly open mike or an Indian restaurant, let alone a poetry slam or a regional Thai place. Our heroes – somewhat large fish in not-so-large ponds – see the grim desperation in the faces of their older neighbors and head to the bigger cities, where there are more opportunities, not just for jobs but for dinner after 8PM.

Certainly, there is an element of choice and privilege in the migration from small cities to large, especially as the Cap’n has framed it; after all, it is largely the best and brightest of those smaller areas who move away. But it’s not all about privilege, and there are, of course, messy areas where choice and need blend together.

And the question of movement from smaller cities to larger ones is a very personal one for me. I grew up largely in New Haven (population about 130,000 in 2010), and I now live in Albany (just under 100,000). I’m in Albany because my partner got exceptionally lucky, and got a wonderful, challenging, well-paying job here with New York State right out of college. But I’m eight months away from graduating from grad school, and after that what happens? Albany is small, there aren’t a lot of jobs in planning, and unless I get stunningly lucky we’ll be looking to move on because of the area’s limited economic opportunities. There are upsides to that, of course; Albany doesn’t fit many of our needs socially or culturally, and as wonderful as it is, it can feel constricting at times. It’s likely that we wouldn’t be here for a hugely long time even if I do find a job.

Certainly, I’ll be leaning on my education and relative economic privilege as I look for a job, here or elsewhere. But how much of that is actually my choice? And what of the people who live here, but have fewer educational credentials or marketable skills? Though I don’t know of any research on it, I’d bet that the rise of the two-career household is no small part of the migration from smaller cities to larger ones. As limited as economic opportunities are for one in Albany, imagine how hard it is to fill two careers, especially in specialized fields, as the new economy increasingly demands. And if the situation is frustrating in Albany, it’s worse in Utica and Rochester and Syracuse and Binghamton and Buffalo and Dayton and Rockford and Des Moines and Milwaukee.

And that’s (the largest part of) why I support system-level, not protectionist, solutions to the gentrification and affordability crisis. Because there are no other options. In his classic of thoughtful Millenial urbanism, “There’s Basically No Way Not to Be a Gentrifier,” Daniel Kay Hertz wrote that systemic forces, and primarily our country’s dysfunctional approach to housing policy, are largely responsible for what we call gentrification,

And [that is] why none of your personal decisions about where or how to live will have any effect on gentrification. Being considerate to your neighbors might make you a good person, but I’d like to suggest that you have another kind of responsibility: to be aware of these underlying systemic processes and use what social and political power you have to change them.

It is (or should be) rare to accuse the contemporary Left of ignoring social, structural, and institutional forces in favor of personalized jeremiads, but that seems to be sadly where we are in terms of urban, housing, and neighborhood policy. Lisa Gray-Garcia may not be representative of the broader Left conversation on these issues, but her extremism does point to the failures of the Left’s conventional wisdom on the topic. Her solution–and the solutions of the current urban Left–is, in the end, no solution at all, as the ongoing escalation of urban housing prices so obviously demonstrates. The Left is often accused of not having ideas about how to solve the urban housing crisis, but that’s not exactly accurate. There are ideas. Those ideas just don’t quite make it all the way to the status of solutions. We need better ideas, and we need to make sure their first principle is inclusion of all who need.

Progressivism and Housing: Looking at the Roots

Recently, Gabriel Metcalf’s essay in Citylab about Progressivism and San Francisco’s housing crisis threw kindling onto the flame of a long-running discussion about the role of progressive politics in contemporary housing and urban policy. It’s a broad, interdisciplinary discussion that has (typically) devolved at times into name-calling. In my humble opinion, the whole debate has lacked significant historical context and nuance that might help us urbanists understand how progressives come to hold positions that don’t make much sense in the broader scheme of planning. To help get me thinking, and to shed light on some of this, I called on an expert on historical Progressivism–my father, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in the Progressive Era. He’s written a book about the middle class in the (then and now) Progressive mecca of Portland, and is working on another on a topic that I believe has some parallels to the question of progressivism and housing: opposition to mandatory vaccination. This post is likely the first of several from a long email chain. Messages have been edited and condensed. Enjoy!

Sandy: Sends link to Metcalf piece, writes “I think he probably doesn’t give enough credit to SF’s white working class reactionary streak (see White, Dan). But it’s interesting.”


This is a very thoughtful, challenging, insightful, and powerful essay. I really appreciate you passing it on.

I agree that the Dan White strain of working-class (alas, lower-middle-class too?) exclusionary politics doesn’t get any play here.  I think, though, that the power of capitalism also fails to get enough attention.  For all the progressivism in the city, and for all its social democratic practices and institutions, SF was always controlled ultimately by the forces of capital.  I don’t mean to say this in a deterministic way, because it was definitely a loose and contested control, as it always is.  But THEY ran the show.

The author spends most of his time simply supporting “development,” before recognizing that, of course, a very special set of development policies would have been necessary to keep SF “freak, immigrant, and radical” friendly.  But given the tight hold that corporate real estate interests and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have on the city (and, as he notes, the region), what chance would such truly populist policies have had?  I don’t like to be a naysayer, but I’m not sure that the chances would have been good.

So, ultimately, in a combination of self-congratulatory and naïve thinking, Metcalf seems to greatly overestimate the power of progressives.

That said—and you have always been very persuasive on this front—progressives desperately need to have the kind of discussions that he is pushing.  The big question is, then, how do you persuade progressives to move beyond either overt or unconscious NIMBYism?  That, of course, is another core issue in our Larger Discussion.

A couple other things:

–the cities in the graph that he doesn’t talk about, about places that do not have affordability crises, hardly strike me as bastions of progressivism (or, perhaps with the exception of Pittsburgh), middle-class (not necessarily coded white) people.  I would have liked to have seen more discussion of this.

–as he indicates, we know a lot about why white folks fled the cities in the first place.  But why *did* they move back?  Did, indeed, no one anticipate that?  I’m sure you know a lot about this, but I don’t!


Very thoughtful questions! Thanks. I agree that urbanists tend to underrate the structural power of capital in shaping a city. I think there are a couple of aspects to this. First, a lot of urbanists and planners are kind of still under the thrall of Jane Jacobs. And for all her brilliance, structural analysis (of any kind) was not really her thing. Second (and related) I think if there’s a kind of “urbanist nostalgia” it’s for the days when small builders would build new, denser housing on small lots in low-rise neighborhoods. SF urbanists support big towers downtown and on the waterfront–but they also support the kind of small-scale densification of residential neighborhoods that can really lead to affordability (think knocking down a bungalow for a three-flat, in Chicago terms), and which doesn’t require the same kind of concentration of capital. This is also precisely the kind of development that SF’s super-tight housing restrictions (EVERYTHING needs individual approval) is designed to suppress (arguably, suppressing this kind of development actually serves the interests of organized capital by reducing small-time competition).

To be continued….

The Uneven Experience of Affordability and Gentrification

Jonathan Geeting has a piece up at Next City that I think is one of the best takes I’ve ever read on the problem of housing affordability. The title of the piece is “Philly has an Income Problem, not a Housing Affordability Problem,” and that’s essentially the core of his argument–most of the article is taken up by data proving his point. As Geeting notes, Philly’s housing costs, whether renting or buying, are on the citywide level among if not THE lowest in the Northeast–and yet, the city has erupted in debates over gentrification as the city center has grown in recent years. It’s a paradox–it seems that affordable housing advocates fear for the viability of the city’s low-income population regardless of how cheap housing is on an objective scale. Geeting’s point is that driving down housing costs, by whatever method one may employ, isn’t going to solve a problem that entrenched. In other words, once housing is super cheap already–and in Philly, citywide rents haven’t gone up despite the recent influx of relatively wealthy, mainly white, newcomers–making it even cheaper isn’t going to help entrenched poverty; in fact, doing so can have all kinds of negative impacts on the city’s finances. In fact, there’s a definite floor to housing prices, below which absolutely nothing will ever get built. Philly doesn’t have a supply problem for affordable housing–if it did, prices would be higher. The problem is one of income, or really lack thereof, not one of affordability. Poverty advocates have taken up the banner of “affordable housing” because that’s a traditional way for government to help out the urban poor, but Geeting’s claim is that in the case of Philly that’s not the best tack they could be taking.

Geeting’s case resonated strongly with me. Aside from being emotionally wrought, the national discussion of gentrification tends to be colored by the experiences of certain cities–places like New York City, San Francisco, Boston, LA, and Washington, DC, where hordes of wealthy young and mostly white people have “reclaimed the city,” bringing new financial resources and excitement but also driving up housing costs and forcing lower-income residents out of their neighborhoods. In New York and San Francisco in particular (and increasingly in DC),  complaints about gentrification have been driven by a very real–and entirely fair–fear that people of lower income are not just being driven from their neighborhoods, but from the city entirely. Where the demand for housing of all kinds is for all intents and purposes infinite, it’s hard to imagine that competition for housing isn’t a zero-sum game. But Geeting’s piece is a useful reminder that even as it appears that the Millennial return to the city is a nationwide trend, the experience of every city is not going to be the same. The discussion about gentrification in Baltimore doesn’t have to be the same as in DC. Philly’s doesn’t have to be the same as New York’s.

Moreover, there are, in fact, very few cities where the zero-sum logic of gentrification as derived from NYC and San Francisco actually applies. In most of the country, urban housing prices are still very, very low–artificially so, the product of mistaken public policy that has and continues to subsidize suburban sprawl–and even as urban population numbers have stopped declining and in most areas begun to grow again since the turn of the Millennium, prices haven’t exactly skyrocketed. There’s no lack of affordable housing in Philly. There’s no lack of affordable housing in Baltimore. There’s definitely no lack of affordable housing in Detroit. There’s not even a true lack of affordable housing in Chicago, which (the conglomeration of sprawl that is Houston aside) may be the cheapest major city in the country. And there’s certainly no lack of affordable housing in many smaller cities, including Albany. What those cities lack isn’t housing–it’s wealth, income, stable neighborhoods, and local businesses at which to spend money. Certainly some neighborhoods have changed, but on a citywide level very few cities are experiencing the kind of crazy competition and upward-spiraling prices that characterize gentrifying New York and San Francisco. Very few cities will ever experience that kind of demand. And it’s worth remembering that while there are all sorts of banners for urban activists, particularly those on the Left, to be carrying forward, affordable housing isn’t, despite its emotional power, in most cases one of them.