Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, December 09, 2013

A new progressive urban politics and social housing

There has been a fair amount of writing about a renewed progressivism in municipal politics as a result of the election of Bill de Blasio in New York City ("More liberal, populist movement emerging in Democratic Party ahead of 2016 elections," cf. "ALEC stands its ground," Washington Post) and the rise of local minimum wage initiatives, such as the $15 per hour minimum wage in SeaTac, Washington, which is where the local airport is located and where unionized operations have been outsourced by airlines as a way to lower labor costs ("$15 minimum wage measure headed for recount" and "Push for minimum wage hike led by localities, Democrats," Washington Post).

Michael Gecan of the Industrial Areas Foundation has a piece, "How De Blasio's Real Estate Choices Can Save NYC," in the Boston Review blog, where suggests that Bill de Blasio, the incoming Mayor of New York City, needs to follow through on his election victory speech, and develop a focused agenda for "real estate development for working- and middle-class people," pointing out that private sector development and housing for people with means is the primary focus of local housing policy.

In terms of the housing market, he writes that there are three cities within the city: the city of the well off and institutions (like universities), the first city; the second city is made up of public housing; and the third city is in the middle, that of working-class and middle-class communities.

While the article focuses on New York City, the recommendations are extendable to most major cities.  From the article:
Even in our global, virtual age, local property is critical. National and international shifts—toward intellectual, cultural, and educational work, primarily—have their effects, but thanks in large part to real estate, cities aren’t passive victims, or at least don’t have to be. Cities are still physical places, and their available space—abandoned sites, brownfields, public lands, buildings of all kinds—is tremendously valuable. Real estate owned and regulated by cities remains central to the fortunes being amassed in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., lakefront Chicago, and elsewhere.
As de Blasio kept hammering on during his campaign, NYC's policies under Mayor Bloomberg were focused on enabling more development of and within the first city, although the Mayor did use the revenues from the first city to support some improvements that trickled down, although even this past week, NYC announced that it would be closing two of the city's three immunization clinics, forcing most low income residents on very long treks for service ("Bloomberg Administration Renews Plan to Close Two City-Run Immunization Clinics, Leaving Just One Open," Independent Budget Office blog).

Gecan suggests that with regard to "the first city," cities should extract more concessions that support housing in return for zoning relief and the utilization of city-controlled property.  For the second city, cities need to commit to high quality appointees for housing agencies and providing funding for housing programs, both for maintenance of existing stock and new production.  For the third city, he recommends robust policies and programs that support the "preservation" (preservation in the context of affordable housing has a very specific meaning, keeping housing affordable) of middle class and working class housing as well as its maintenance.

I think this are very good organizing points to frame what should be driving housing policies for each of these segments of the housing market.

Gecan believes very much in the opportunities that cities have to do better, and the article closes with this:
... Cities can make decisions. Cities can set their own priorities. Cities can resist the self-interested categories of those with extraordinary wealth and an unlimited sense of entitlement. Cities can be living actions, maintaining the crucial middle of people and institutions and neighborhoods that serves as a bridge for those struggling to rise from poverty and as a brake on the adolescent appetites of the militant rich.

And the new batch of American mayors can lead that action.
but the reality is that Mayors and Councils are very much beholden to the real estate industry and aren't likely to be visionary without a significant push.

Therefore I think the article needs to be followed up with a more detailed policy and practice framework for each of the "sub-cities" housing segments.  

This is crucial because a housing policy that is better balanced and not almost exclusively focused on housing for the most profitable segments is not likely to find favor with the real estate industry (which is comprised not just of developers, but construction firms, banks and other financial firms, and legal practices specializing in land use law, contracts, and financial transactions), which is the source of the majority of political donations (such donations vie with those from municipal workers unions as the #1 or #2 source in most every local election across the country)

Which is the point by Molotch in "City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place),"  and expanded into the book Urban Fortunes, local land use development unites political and economic elites on a common, pro-market agenda--witness DC's recent and present experiences with Walmart (see "The Selling of Walmart: How the world's biggest retailer won over D.C. without a fight" from the Washington City Paper)

My biggest retrospective lesson as a budding community activist starting around the period when Anthony Williams became mayor is that not having plans in place means that when the velocity of change becomes voracious, you're almost completely unprepared and unable to take advantage of favorable opportunities that might be presented.

Also see past blog entries "How will Obama relate to the District," ""Chance" continues to favor the prepared road builders," and "Chance favors the prepared advocacy group"), which elucidate my point that "chance" favors the prepared city, that a prepared city plans ahead and has plans to begin with.

That's what developers do, they plan and work to achieve their goals over very long time frames (which is also the point Professor Clarence Stone makes in "urban regime" theory, that elites work on long time frames and stick to their agenda, see "If you don't know urban political theory, it's likely that you don't understand local land use").

Gecan admires developers for preparation and perseverance.  From the article:
Every major developer, construction company, global investor, financial institution, and building-materials supplier understands this. They understood it decades ago, when I was starting out as an organizer in the housing field. Thirty years ago, I sat down for coffee with a Chicago developer visiting New York and asked what he’d been doing. “Walking,” he said. He’d spent the previous two weeks walking every block in Manhattan looking for potential sites. I admired that relentless drive and attention to detail, which developers maintain today.
Advocates need to be equally well prepared.  Typically we are not.  But as Michael Gecan points out, there is an opening now for more progressive municipal and county housing policy, and we need to avail ourselves of the opportunity.

Some past blog entries related to housing policy include:

-- Community benefits agreements
-- Look ma, no comprehensive housing policy
-- The public housing: building communities vs. providing a place to live
-- Learning from Vienna and from Vienna's Social Housing Model
-- Deeper thinking/programming on weak residential housing markets is required: DC example, Anacostia
-- Tower Renewal
-- Something I forgot to mention about the Watergate and "Tower Renewal"
-- One element typically ignored in housing policy: helping low income families stay in their homes
-- Affordable housing policy: it's not just one element, it's many elements
-- Cool graphics showing transit lines and median income by census tracts in NYC and Chicago
(this entry references two reports, the Puget Sound Regional Equity Network: Principles of Equitable Development and from the Dukakis Institute at Northeastern University, Maintaining Diversity In America’s Transit-Rich Neighborhoods: Tools for Equitable Neighborhood Change)

I can't say that I am familiar with what might be an example of a best practice municipal housing plan.  Recommendations are welcome...

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At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If this new guy can pull off the accessory dwelling unit idea it will be good news for all US cities as the old people who usually fight against cool ideas like this will have less ammunition and their arguements will appear less convincing. I sure hope he does not let crime and mayhem reappear in NYC as it did under the last Democratic mayor of NYC. They seem to have a piss poor record of running cities like NYC

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't know about the opportunity for ADUs in NYC.

cf. London,


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