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….

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.

Albany’s Machine: Last of the Old Breed or First of the New?

One of the really fascinating things about moving to Albany has been educating myself about the city’s complex and often messy political history. The last century of that history has been dominated by the extraordinarily long-lived O’Connell-Corning machine and its legacy, but that legacy is often misunderstood. Though often portrayed as the last of the great ethnic machines (Erastus Corning’s death in office 1983, his 42nd year as mayor, is generally understood to be the end of the machine), the Albany machine in fact evolved into something more complex that can perhaps be understood as a precedent of sorts to some of today’s entrepreneurial, neoliberal city governments.

In a (that I know of) otherwise unpublished paper presented at the 1987 Chicago meetings of the American Political Science Association, “Albany’s O’Connell Organization: The Survival of an Entrenched Machine,” Todd Swanstrom and Sharon Ward make a convincing argument that in its later years the Albany machine morphed from a classical ethnic machine to what they describe as an “entrenched conservative machine”:

The Albany machine evolved from a classical political machine consistent with the industrial growth period of the 1920s to an entrenched conservative machine more compatible with its position in a declining service sector city. The basis of its appeal shifted from poor ethnics in unstable neighborhoods to lower middle class, largely Irish Catholic, homeowners in stable neighborhoods. Its characteristic method of co-optation changed from high levels of service and patronage to low levels of taxation and special tax breaks for homeowners. Conservative businessmen, who did not require active intervention by city government in order to invest, supported the machine for the low taxes and stable environment it provided. (Swanstrom and Ward 1987, 10-11) 

The late O’Connell-Corning machine (Swanstrom and Ward argue that the transition in paradigm was complete by the 1950s) was beholden not primarily to a particular ethnic class, but to an economic class (which did have significant convergence with its Irish ethnic base): homeowners. And it’s that drawing of primary support from the homeowning class that perhaps provides the best link from the anomalous late Albany machine to another paradigm of urban government—the entrepreneurial, “neoliberal” model of mayors such as Michael Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, Albany in 1983 was a very different place than New York or Chicago in 2010 or 2014. Development and gentrification are currently hot-button issues in NYC and Chicago in ways that they certainly were not in Albany then, and really aren’t today either. The concept of City Hall being beholden to homeowners as its primary constituency, though, links the governments of those cities together across time. The image of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty in New York is fixed in the public mind: a new skyline, giveaways to developers, and a tidal wave of gentrification. But for those who follow housing and construction trends, the Bloomberg paradigm is a little different. The Bloomberg administration did indeed upzone several areas in Manhattan and the core of Brooklyn, but a truer accounting reveals that downzonings across the outer boroughs pretty much kept pace with core upzonings, with the result that housing production stayed low. The outer-borough upzonings and their constraint on housing supply were, naturally, not random; they were a sop to the homeowning middle class that formed the core of Bloomberg’s support (and that of Rudi Giuliani before him). Homeowners tend to like downzonings for several reasons: 1) They are perceived as keeping prices high by limiting supply 2) bias against renters 3) They protect “neighborhood character.” Of course, in a more progressive planning and policy scheme, the citywide effects of downzoning on housing prices would be considered alongside the wants of local homeowners, but with the Bloomberg administration having identified homeowners as one of its core constituencies, the chances of such logic being taken into consideration were low. 

Nor is the paradigm of entrepreneurial government being beholden to homeowners limited to New York City. Daniel Kay Hertz has exhaustively documented how the Daley and Emanuel administrations in Chicago adopted a similar zoning paradigm to that of Bloomberg’s New York. By “protecting” already-gentrified or homeowning neighborhoods through preventing growth in the number of units, the city inflated housing costs–and appeased homeowner paranoia about the “negative social effects” of density and renters. 

Whether in 1983 Albany, or New York in the past decade, or Chicago in this, the exact mechanisms are different, but the principle remains the same: politicians identify homeowners as their core constituency (or at least one of several), and serve their wants and needs at the expense of the generalized interest of the city, and of communities with less financial and political clout. We associate entrepreneurial, neoliberal government with giveaways to wealthy developers and businesses, and that is absolutely part of the typical model. But we should not miss the ways in which some city governments have chosen to use planning and policy tools to effect another kind of upward transfer of wealth (even if that is an unintended consequence, rather than a driving motivator for policy decisions).

The Albany machine and both the Bloomberg and Emanuel administration cloth(ed) their appeasement of homeowners in language of stability and neighborhood character. And it’s worth remembering that in a vacuum, those are desirable qualities, which is why NIMBYs tend to use them in their rhetoric. But city life and policymaking does not exist in a vacuum. Favoring one group of city residents or stakeholders inevitably has negative effects on everyone else. In Albany, black neighborhoods are still suffering the consequences of the absolute neglect they faced under the machine (to be fair, not a unique story). In contemporary New York and Chicago, the costs of appeasing homeowners are perhaps less immediately apparent, but they are no less real. Refusing to allow growth causes housing prices to shoot through the roof (in New York, across most of the city; in Chicago, in certain neighborhoods). In any case, the effect is to make the city harder to live in for the non-homeowner class. To the political establishment, that’s the cost of doing business. To the city, it can be incredibly damaging.

Albany’s machine may have been perceived as anomalous and backwards at the end of its run, but there were some aspects of its model that looked forwards in sadly unfortunate ways. In many ways, the attachment of the Albany machine to homeowners was a product of midcentury housing policy and ideology, so it is somewhat depressing to see it turning up in political paradigms another 30 years on. The world of urban policy, though, is a very different—and much more hopeful—place in 2014 than it was in 1983. As we move into the future, one where homeownership seems to be on the decline and renting on the rise, it is wise to remember the consequences that selling out to a privileged class can have for cities, and the desperate, self-interested ways in which that paradigm of urban government arose.