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.  

 

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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.”

Robert: 

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!

Sandy:

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….
 

Co-Housing, Millenials, Retirees, and the Importance of Flexible Housing

I spend one week a year hanging out with Jewish hippies on a hilltop in New Hampshire at the National Havurah Committee‘s Summer Institute. It’s a really lovely space that largely exists outside the bounds of institutionalized Jewish community, a space that is truly cross-generational and empowers people of all ages and background (I run the kitchen, monitoring kosher and food need concerns) to lead, teach, and learn.

Part of what makes Institute tick is the series of workshops given by attendees on a wide variety of topics in which they have personal interest or expertise (in that order). On Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on the topic of Jewish co-housing, a topic that seems totally stereotypical for a hippie retreat but is also of interest to me as a planner. Interestingly, attendance at the workshop was split just about 50/50 between people my age (twentysomethings) and people at or approaching retirement age, with virtually no one in between. And it was the older folks who tended to be more vocal, perhaps because the need for them is more urgent–many of us younger people like the idea of sharing housing with friends to some extent, but for those approaching an age where physical concerns and safety become paramount, having others around to help out becomes almost a necessity.

Several of the older folks in attendance did, in fact, express that they had planned to be dragged out of their own homes or apartments feet first when the time came, but had more recently come around to having more flexibility on the topic of housing as they aged. And while the older folks are Havurah are certainly a group that exhibits selection bias–these are aging hippies, after all, and they have, as a group, willingly handed over leadership to my generation, which is EXTRAORDINARILY rare in Jewish communal contexts–I found it a powerful demonstration of the ways people can come together across generations to work for better housing options.

And the key word there is indeed options. This was a crew for whom, for a variety of reasons, the “traditional” single-family home, and to a large extent the nuclear family model that underpins it, does not work. That the nuclear family is declining in America is conventional wisdom to the point of cliche, but most of the discussion about the future of American housing has focused on Millenials and our alleged desire for multifamily urban housing. But we’re not the only ones looking for options beyond the single-family home. Surely, many older Americans are stubborn and set in their ways (I have a grandmother who is very set on staying in her house despite a total inability to care for it, and, increasingly, herself); but perhaps there’s significant room to articulate a positive vision of flexible, semi-shared housing that is neither an increasingly unsafe residence nor a nursing home or care facility.

The discussion of Jewish co-housing was particularly poetic given an article I read later that night laying out the sale of Newton, MA’s historic Mishkan Tefillah synagogue to Boston College. The person who lead the session is actually from Newton; a widow, she had tried to attract various people to share her large, expensive house in that wealthy town, but had come to the conclusion that co-housing simply wasn’t going to happen in Newton. And here comes the news that a 300-family synagogue–significantly larger than the perfectly functional communities I grew up in–is selling their property because they can’t financially sustain it anymore. Why? Because the shul (Yiddish for synagogue) is shrinking and because the property they built on back in the day is 24 freaking acres. 

Map of the Mishkan Tefila property from the Boston Globe article.

Map of the Mishkan Tefila property from the Boston Globe article.

24 acres! Even the largest synagogue, with parking lots built to accommodate thousands of worshipers on the three peak days of the High Holidays, could only ever use a fraction of that space. The Globe article notes that the site came with significant legal restrictions on use, so using some of it for desperately needed housing might have been tricky, but I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different if places of worship–Jewish and otherwise, though the need for walkability is greater in an observant Jewish context–had thought more creatively about the future housing needs of their communities.

As I observed on Facebook in relation to the news a couple of weeks ago that Kehillath Israel–another Conservative congregation located in fairly urban, but still expensive, Brookline–is revamping their facility to accommodate senior housing, there’s a crying need for congregations to think about the housing needs of their membership. Suburban congregations whine constantly about how no young families move to the neighborhood–but the entire system of suburban homeownership is designed to benefit existing homeowners while pricing out newcomers. In towns like Newton (or Sharon, where my partner grew up), single-family zoning and the emphasis on homeownership make it virtually impossible to replicate religious–or any–community across generations. And it’s not all about some Millenial preference for cities or urban living; it’s about inflexible housing stock that can only accommodate one vision of familial, economic, and social being.

So yes, congregations like Mishkan Tefilah have doomed themselves. But those choices were made decades ago, in many cases right as the congregations moved out from the areas of first and second settlement. And that’s where we come back to the promise that I think our little hippie workshop on co-housing showed. There is a possibility of cross-generational cooperation on housing issues. There are common threads between what young people need (or want) and what older people need. There is a possibility of rebuilding aging and dying communities by thinking creatively about the founding assumptions that shaped them. All of this would require significant creativity and a willingness to take on conventional wisdom and fundamental assumptions about housing and family structure that I’m not sure everyone’s ready for. And surely, some people, and some communities, will prefer dying on the hill of the suburban model to living on a different model. But let’s not give up hope for reconciliation just yet.

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.