Single-Family Houses and the Affordability Crisis

A zoning map from East Rockaway, New York, shows the abiding prevalence of single-family housing zones (Residence A) in a highly competitive land market.

This Times article, I think, really takes aim at the largest zoning-related cause of the housing crisis. Single-family neighborhoods will have to give way to multifamily development, one way or another, if we are ever going to build enough housing units to absorb demand in the places where economic opportunity exists. The California law facilitating “granny flats” is one step in the right direction. New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine is based on a prescient, 1970s recognition of the exclusionary role of zoning. (Unfortunately, it has not done nearly enough to counter the zoning-driven shortage of affordable housing, especially in Northern New Jersey.

What other measures will come, based on the principle (which we have often recited) that restrictive zoning is creating artificial housing shortages? Innovation in this realm cannot happen soon enough. At some point, the dam is going to break. There will either be more housing; or there will be a dampening of the regional economies in places that cannot provide a housing equilibrium. What worries me, next, is that the artificial shortage of housing may have become such a chronic, long-term situation in our most affluent regions that we may have reached a point where the economy is dependent upon an artificial shortage being preserved.

Zoned for single-family.

That is to say, so many mortgages have been written on the assumption that astronomically high prices are stable; so much private wealth is now sunk into ultra-high-cost real estate. If the regulatory barriers came down, and builders were able to begin to catch up with market demand in places like New York City and California, then how much wealth would gradually begin to evaporate as prices trended toward a healthier equilibrium? The saving grace is that — absent a watershed court decision — the gears of this change will probably be quite slow to turn.

 

Limited Equity: Stable Communities, Affordable Housing

The Amalgamated Dwellings in New York City. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

I have a new article published at TAC’s New Urbs blog, about the history and legal structure of New York City’s limited-equity housing cooperatives, which continue to provide surprisingly affordable, high-quality housing units in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. The piece tells the story about how limited-equity co-ops got started; their philosophical roots; their early successes; why the model declined in popularity; and how an approach that recovers its best qualities might be be compatible with various subsets of the polarized political landscape of contemporary America.

I think there’s little question that the shortage of affordable housing in the regions with the best economies is a major driving force in the structural inequality that characterizes our current moment; and that the biggest beneficiaries of this status quo are rent seekers, rather than actors who contribute anything dynamic or innovative to the economy. Taking the role of speculation out of the equation can do a lot to keep prices in line with what residents can actually afford. For the reasons described in my article, I think this is an important idea that deserves to be recovered and applied in today’s metropolitan real estate economies.

California’s Radical Experiment: Granny Flats

Most would not be as fancy as Alexandre Dumas’.

Driving home from the train station on a recent night, I heard this piece on NPR’s Marketplace: a story about a recent California statute that makes it significantly easier for homeowners in that state to develop additional units on their property. Here’s a link to a memo from the Department of Housing and Community Development, describing the changes. Among other things, the new statute overrides certain off-street parking requirements, which can preclude new units that would otherwise be permitted under zoning rules. These requirements are particularly onerous in large cities where public transportation is a viable option — and this law takes aim, specifically, at requirements within walking distance of transit. Of course, this development is just a small step toward achieving a land marketplace that is actually allowed to be responsive to market demands, rather than legal ones; but I think it is a very important one.

As early as the mid-1970s, the primary cases in New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine began to lay out all of the major land use regulatory devices that have stifled the development of resourceful housing options since the early 20th century. Getting rid of unnecessary off-street parking requirements, and taking a publicly favorable stand toward in increase in the number of units in heavily-regulated suburban neighborhoods, are both major steps toward dismantling the regulatory morass that has been strangling housing development as the amount of raw, zoned land has dwindled throughout our major metropolitan areas. This is an important step in the right direction. Would be interested in hearing from people who would like to see a similar bill in New Jersey.

One of the most important takeaways from the NPR story was its hard evidence of pent-up demand for smaller, less-expensive housing units in pricey California. Local builders and contractors who specialize in the construction of small homes cannot keep up with demand. Their schedules are full for months into the future.

Safety Codes, Politics, and the Crowding of Old Manhattan

‘Old law’ tenements on New York’s Lower East Side. Theo Mackey Pollack.

My recently published piece highlights how architects and builders used resourceful massing devices to save scarce urban land when developing many of the Late Victorian apartment buildings in New York City. So I was intrigued by a journal article I recently found that examines the city’s massing in the same period from a different angle: the restrictive height regulations that governed buildings and even, in the pre-zoning era, placed artificial restrictions on builders that may have exceeded the requirements of safety. In Keeping the Tenants Down: Height Restrictions and Manhattan’s Tenement House System, 1885-1930, Professor Michael Montgomery highlights the history of tenement laws and other safety codes in New York City during that time, shining a spotlight on how they limited the ability of the market to respond to the demand for more and better inexpensive housing units.

A bunch of examples of pre-law, old-law (dumbbell/airshaft), and new-law (courtyard) tenements can be found in my photo galleries of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

Spotlight: 2013 Mount Laurel Exhibit at Rutgers

mtlaurel
Click on the above photo to see the full album.

Here are some pictures I took of a special exhibit at the Rutgers Law Library in 2013, focused on the Mount Laurel doctrine, its history, and its legacy. I just discovered them while I was going through old photos, and thought they might be of interest to some readers. Incidentally, I was in John Payne’s Con Law class during his last semester of teaching at Rutgers. His untimely death was jarring for those of us who were in his class. Interesting fact: he and his wife lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in Glen Ridge.

The Jewish Roots of Planned Green Space

Howard's concept of the Garden City, visualized.

Howard’s concept of the Garden City, visualized.

A recent piece in The New York Jewish Week looks at the Torah concept of migrash. Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s description reads like an early outline of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. I also find it interesting that the financing structure Howard proposed is much like the one described by Herzl in Old New Land, and the one used to fund the original limited-equity coops in New York City (which grew out of Jewish labor unions on the Lower East Side).

Paul Krugman Hits the Nail on the Head

NYC Zoning mapIn a Times piece called “Inequality and the City” about the competitive real estate markets in America’s affluent cities, Paul Krugman identifies the role that restrictive land use regulations continue to play in the chronic shortage of affordable housing:

But what about all the people, surely a large majority, who are being priced out of America’s urban revival? Does it have to be that way?

The answer, surely, is no, at least not to the extent we’re seeing now. Rising demand for urban living by the elite could be met largely by increasing supply. There’s still room to build, even in New York, especially upward. Yet while there is something of a building boom in the city, it’s far smaller than the soaring prices warrant, mainly because land use restrictions are in the way.

Exactly. Thank you. In the last five years, we seem to have gone from a time when no one was even cognizant of the role that zoning laws played in the chronic shortage of urban affordable housing, to the beginnings of a left-right consensus about the inequitable and anti-competitive impacts of those laws — and the ways in which they are distorting the market. This is really a cause for celebration, and I think we should take a moment to recognize how far the conversation has come.

But we almost certainly have not come to the end of the line. This issue has been so far beneath the radar that even those who have benefited from distortions of the real estate market by restrictive zoning laws have made little political effort to defend the status quo. They have just assumed that it would go on forever. Now, as those with vested interests in the artificial limits to development — primarily, urban land owners — begin to realize that their gravy train could be in peril, the attacks on reform proposals will begin in earnest. Here’s a great example of what’s likely to be on the way, peddling the usual pseudo-leftist bullshit that appeals to the urban bourgeoisie:

We, the undersigned residents of New York City, call for an end to the violence that real estate developers have inflicted on our skyline, parks, public areas, and cityscape with the proliferation of dramatically over-scaled buildings that ignore the historic context of our city.

Translation: we paid a lot for the exclusive right to live in our neighborhood. We have just realized how precarious our investment could become if the regulations were changed, and people actually had housing choices in the same (or comparable) locations.

Keep an eye out for more of this nonsense in the near future. Of course there’s a role for design and aesthetics in development policy, and massing considerations may sometimes be a part of that role. But for now, I’m sticking with those who recognize the need to permit much more residential construction in places like New York City. Let’s keep the conversation going.

A Right to Counsel for Tenants

Mark Levine, a New York City Council member, has a bill in the hopper that would retain an attorney, at public expense, for low-income tenants facing eviction. In a Times op-ed authored by Levine and Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless, they cite some stark statistics:

▪ Only ten percent of tenants facing eviction in New York City have lawyers, while nearly 100 percent of evicting landlords are represented by counsel.

▪ Tenants represented by counsel are 80 percent less likely to be evicted than those acting pro se.

▪ Nearly 29,000 New York City households were evicted last year.

▪ Providing an attorney for a tenant would cost taxpayers about $2,500, but sheltering a homeless family in New York City costs, on average, more than $45,000.

New Jersey Real Estate Law Update

Scales and Lamp USSC

One New Jersey Supreme Court case, Cashin v. Bello, focused on a real estate matter this week. It was an unusually interesting case. The Star-Ledger explains:

The legal issue involves the grounds upon which a landlord can evict a tenant in order to occupy a home. Under New Jersey law, a landlord may evict a tenant from a building with three units or less if he or she intends to occupy the unit.

However, Cashin was prevented from evicting Bello for many years because she also owns an adjacent apartment building at 627 Washington Street with five rental units and both the apartment and the converted garage are listed in tax records as being part of the same property.

Bello has been living in the carriage house since 1973, and is paying just $345 per month under the Hoboken rent control law. Cashin — whose name seems apt in this case — has been trying to evict Bello since the 1980s. Now she can. The Supreme Court held that the lower courts had erred by treating the entire land parcel as a single building, containing more than three units, rather than treating the carriage house, alone, as a single, one-unit building. The temporary New Jersey Courts link is alive for now, but the original opinion will be archived next week at the Rutgers Law Library in Newark.

For your curiosity’s sake, here’s a look at the house:

Should America’s Condo Laws be Reformed?

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

Matthew Gordon Lasner, who teaches at Hunter College, believes they should. (He also provides a nice, succinct history of residential shared-ownership arrangements in the United States.) There has been an uptick recently in the amount of ink spilled about luxury condominiums as cash-stashes, rather than residences. The Times has been running a series called ‘Towers of Secrecy’, and New York magazine had a long-form article last June about the same phenomenon. The statistic that struck me most from the New York article:

The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.

So, in a city with no affordable market housing, much the best residential real estate sits almost completely vacant. Wonderful. If the laws can be tweaked to discourage this, they should be. Lasner suggests limits on the numbers of absentee or anonymous buyers — I think those kinds of measures could help.

Still, the results of this development trend are a mixed bag for New York City, even in the realm of social equity. When I worked on Mount Laurel analysis at Rutgers (for New Jersey’s constitutionally-mandated affordable housing programs), one of the factors that we analyzed was filtering — or, the tendency of new, market-rate units to take some of the price pressure off of the existing housing stock. In theory, at least, a larger number of units in a particular region will bring down the degree of competition for housing units, across the board. So, even the development of incredibly expensive luxury units ought to have some knock-on effect for housing affordability in the local market, by taking wealthy buyers out of competition for (and gentrification of) existing units in the same city.

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

Finally, on a purely aesthetic level, I do like the architecture of many of the city’s new sliver skyscrapers. Vishaan Chakrabarti, in particular (who led the design of 111 West 57th Street, above), has an incredible eye, and a vision of urbanism that goes far beyond luxury investment units. Technology allows for the development of slender, elegant towers that were physically impossible in the past. They represent the forefront of engineering and design, and some of them are truly striking. Beautiful architecture — even if it contains private spaces — can still bring value to everyone who spends time in the city.

The State of the City: De Blasio Focuses on Housing


Mayor Bill De Blasio used his 2015 State of the City address, delivered at Baruch College, to focus on the high stakes of New York City’s affordable housing crisis, and how his administration intends to address housing as a policy matter. I found it particularly hopeful that De Blasio identified the important roles of land use regulations and additional, market-rate units in solving the chronic shortage of affordable units in the city.

The Affordable Housing Plan

HousingNYThumbHere’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. It’s interesting, and in in some ways ambitious, but let’s keep in mind that 80,000 new units is a very modest goal for a city of more than eight million people. Ultimately, the only phenomena that will make a difference in New York City’s housing equilibrium will be, either, the liberalization of development policies to allow for construction that meets demand; or a collapse in the desirability of the city.

I also have strong philosophical objections to the paternalistic caste system of bureaucratized affordable housing, within which a certain number of below-market units are bestowed on the metropolitan economy’s deserving worker bees — with all of the bureaucracy and micromanagement that the bestowers desire. If local government would simply get out of the way (within reason), and allow developers to build to the market’s demand, then I suspect that a much broader base of people with low to moderate incomes would be able to obtain and negotiate housing arrangements, on their own terms. Ultimately, the tranches are less important than the total: if de Blasio’s land use policies result in a significant expansion in the number of city housing units, it should help. If not, then 80,000 new “affordable” units will be a drop in the bucket.

Liberalization of land use policy is where the real promise of a more equitable city lies. And to bring about the required sea change, first, the policymakers have to get past the NIMBYs.

Does NYC Need Middle-Income Housing?

Seth Pinsky, who headed the NYCEDC under Mayor Bloomberg, says no, according to an article in this week’s Real Estate Weekly; and he hopes that Mayor de Blasio’s delayed affordable housing plan will focus mainly on creating units for low-income residents, who really have no market options remaining.

Pinsky’s is an interesting analysis. Basically, he seems to be saying that if the city builds a lot of middle-income housing, it may deflate the housing market pressures that are causing middle-class relocation — a phenomenon that should be sustained, because it improves the city’s marginal neighborhoods. In so doing, the city may also take some pressure off the poor, but only by leaving them in their current, decrepit units. If, on the other hand, the city builds a lot of low-income housing, then the very poor will get fresh new apartments, which will represent an improvement in their living standards; and the city’s middle-class will continue to respond to the increasing expense of prime locations by relocating in patterns that improve the city’s marginal neighborhoods. At first glance, the first approach sounds self-defeating, while the second approach sounds like a win-win.

The problem is that, historically, we’ve tried the second approach. We’ve had the experience of building large numbers of fresh, clean units for low-income residents, and this did not work out very well. The housing projects of the 1950s-70s enjoyed very short honeymoons before they turned into urban dystopias. Sociologists had a number of theories about what went wrong (e.g., the scale of the developments, their concentrations of poverty, elevation from the street, lack of ownership). We don’t really know what combination of factors went wrong in public housing, which is all the more reason to be cautious about making the same mistakes, again. As a counterpoint, middle-income housing in New York City (and elsewhere) has worked — whether in the form of Mitchell-Lama rental apartments, limited-equity cooperatives, or simply market-built modest housing units in suburban-zoned neighborhoods. In addition, middle-income New Yorkers are not without options. Accordingly, they have some leverage, and the city’s housing policies ought to acknowledge it.

I’m sympathetic to Pinsky’s analysis, and I do think middle-class housing pressures have had a beneficial effect on many of the city’s formerly marginal neighborhoods. And obviously — as challenging as it can be to live on a moderate income in greater New York — the situation is much more desperate for those who are genuinely poor. But Pinsky’s approach strikes me as too simple, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no way that even the most ambitious middle-class housing proposal from City Hall would result in enough new units, in a short enough time, to deflate the market pressures that are reviving the neighborhoods on the frontiers of gentrification — or to move those frontiers deeper into the city’s fabric. Second, there’s scant evidence, in the history of urban planning, that public efforts to develop large numbers of new housing units, exclusively for the poor, can result in the kinds of neat-and-tidy improvements to urban poverty that proponents of such efforts would like to see. In fact, these efforts almost always backfire.

Ideally, the regulation of land use would be liberal enough for development to keep up with demand, across the various tranches of the city’s real estate market. But it’s not, and this means that additional efforts have to be made to advocate for the development types that are most needed. Today’s city needs more housing for everyone.

Zoned Out: Update

11th-and-V-zoning-map

Are these killing the next generation’s chance to obtain an economic foothold?

Here are two new articles dealing with the relationship between excessive land use regulation and the lack of affordable housing in desirable metropolitan regions: the first, from Reihan Salam, is something of a polemic (in places), but his analysis strikes me as mostly substantively accurate, and he has embedded links to a bunch of other authors (across the philosophical spectrum) who are making similar points. The other is from Next City, and it deals, again, specifically with the housing costs in the San Francisco Bay area, and ties these costs to the low numbers of housing permits that are issued across the region, in spite of stratospheric demand. The attention coming out of the SF region about housing costs seems greater to me than that which is originating in the New York City region, the other very expensive American metropolis. I suspect that this disparity is due to the resigned cynicism of most New Yorkers about the cost of everything.

How Cities Attract

A Phoenix NPR station, KJZZ, has an interesting conversation with Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute’s Department of Planning and Urban Form. The questions revolve around how American cities are attracting – or repelling – the next generation. It includes some interesting discussion about how housing costs and cultural perceptions may be affecting migration trends; why Austin and Portland are unique among non-major cities; and how the expense and commercialization of New York City and San Francisco are apparently driving young people to more affordable regions.

On Land Use Regulation and Housing Costs

Source: USGS.

Source: USGS.

Tech Crunch has a very thorough article by Kim-Mai Cutler, focusing on the culprits behind stratospheric housing costs in the San Francisco Bay area and elsewhere: outdated and excessive land use regulations. The sad part of this entire phenomenon, which LT has covered extensively, is that many of the regulations that have become problematic were enacted for well-intentioned reasons, but have evolved and aggregated into political roadblocks that are displacing middle-class residents, foreclosing on people’s opportunities, and entrenching the advantages of those who got there first — wherever there is — versus those who might have something new to offer. Cutler’s piece is good reading, and has nice visuals. So let’s keep belaboring this point until it becomes conventional wisdom: Bad zoning, and its myopic politics, are strangling us. We need to dismantle the antiquated frameworks, and replace them with flexible new approaches that are both more equitable and much more pro-development.

The Bronx is Next, Ctd.

ShakespeareAndersonAvesNYC

Shakespeare / Anderson avenues, New York 52, N.Y. Image: Google.

Crain’s New York Business has some recent rent data showing that the West Bronx continues to heat up — albeit slowly and maybe inequitably. What’s really interesting about this report is that it doesn’t seem to find outright gentrification so much as the solidifying of a moderate-income housing market, which is beginning to displace the neighborhood’s poor.

Much of the West Bronx was developed in the early 20th century for market-rate, middle-class urban housing; now, the housing stock seems to be aligning with that market sector, again. Here’s an old image of the early phase of Bronx and upper Manhattan development at the end of the 19th century, as the large lots of detached houses were being replaced by mid-scale apartment buildings:

South Bronx

Notably, the patterns of the West Bronx (between Manhattan and the Bronx River), including street layout, lot sizes, and early architecture, were built, simply, as a natural extension of New York City, which could no longer be contained in Manhattan. Unlike the other boroughs, which were developed independently of New York City, there was no distinction between Manhattan and the Bronx (other than the Harlem River) until the five boroughs were established in 1898.

This is why street numbering and house numbering in the Bronx are continuations of the same in Manhattan; and why you will never find the same two digits at the end of a Manhattan ZIP code as you will at the end of a Bronx one. The latter fact is because, in the days of postal codes, the post office treated both boroughs as, simply, “New York,” due to their shared history. Thus, a building in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan would have had the address, “New York 10, N.Y.,” while a house in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx would have been, “New York 63, N.Y.”

A New Look at American Migration Patterns

Restless America, by Chris Walker at Vizynary.

A snapshot of Restless America, by Chris Walker at Vizynary.

Chris Walker at Vizynary has a very interesting project, Restless America, that shows the migration pattens between American states. It looks like Florida and Texas are still the main destinations for domestic migration. It’s interesting that both states have a lot of buildable land around their economic centers; and the largest city in Texas — Houston — even lacks formal zoning laws. I’m fairly sure that the lower cost of living in those states has been a major factor in people’s relocation decisions. And, of course, better climates.

I’d like to see a version that also includes net immigration, by state. Immigration accounts for the lion’s share of population growth in the states that are losing US-born residents, but still growing, overall. My guess is that as people from certain countries settle in particular regions, those regions become magnets for new migrants from the same places, bringing new waves of residents who seek out familiar people, customs, and languages, in their new country. But this new concentration of people who live in, say, New Jersey by choice drives up the generic cost of living here beyond what the native-born locals think is fair. So, a lot of US-born residents respond to migration-driven growth by relocating to states that have a lower cost of living, as well as what they perceive (or hope) to be more familiar cultural surroundings.

I think the interplay between land use policy and migration is the major factor that determines a region’s housing costs: Land use policies largely determine a region’s real estate supply, and migration patterns (including the purchasing power of those who come or go) largely determine regional demand. I think it’s strange that planning discussions tend to spend very little time on the nexus (and contrast) between semi-permanent land use patterns and the very fluid migration patterns of places like North America and Western Europe. I can’t think of any part of the real estate equation that’s more central to questions about sustainability, affordable housing, and infrastructure than this dynamic. The more we can learn about who is going where, and why, the more intelligently we can address the whole host of land use planning topics. Restless America is a good start.

In Defense of Illegal Apartments

The Times has a piece by Mireya Navarro about the Sarkars, a couple in Queens who created an affordable new housing unit in the basement of their home; and how the City of New York responded by forcing them to evict their tenant, dismantle their improvements, and pay penalties in excess of $1,200. In a metropolitan region where the imbalance between wages and housing costs is as extreme and inequitable as it is in New York City, surely local government could find better ways to direct its energy. The article highlights the increasingly mainstream political support for such a case:

Largely written to prevent slum conditions and firetraps, New York’s housing regulations have not kept up with changing cultural norms and increasing financial pressures, some housing experts said. It is, for example, illegal for more than three unrelated adults to live together in New York City. That law is widely broken and infrequently enforced.

For many students and new immigrants, sharing space has long been the most affordable housing option in the city. New economic challenges, the experts said, have spurred even more demand for such arrangements.

Look: Illegal units and other informal living arrangements are part of the natural process of urbanism; they are how towns and cities absorb incremental growth as the population level begins to exceed the existing number of units, and as rents and property values rise accordingly; but before the market pressures become significant enough to support new, denser construction projects. In New York City, neighborhoods of Queen Anne houses in what would become the West Bronx were gradually replaced by large, courtyard-centered apartment buildings that occupied similar footprints but housed far more people. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to presume that, before the apartments, many of the ostensibly single-family mansions were renting out rooms.

106MountHopePlaceNYC

106 Mount Hope Place in the West Bronx, New York City. Source: Google.

Universal Euclidean zoning since World War II, and the stringent building codes that have gone with it, have thwarted the natural process of urban growth, driving it underground. This has caused urban housing supplies to be constrained not only until the market pressure is sufficient to support new development, but until the market pressure is sufficient to create the political pressure that is needed to revise local land use codes. This is particularly challenging because the most established residents in any community — those who own property — will benefit, up to a point, from a shortage, through higher rents and property values. Accordingly, universal zoning has created a much higher bar for initiating the kind of densification process that would actually accommodate demand, and, I believe, it largely explains why housing costs in major US and European metropolitan areas have become astronomical since the 1970s. In addition to the natural price rises resulting from shortages, the chronic constraint of land markets has also turned very small slices of prime urban real estate into exchangeable commodities, adding even more capital to the competition for urban land. This is not all bad, of course, but it is inherently unstable because too much value rests on a stubborn but artificial shortage; and at the same time, it is crushing the supply of affordable housing in several key regions.

The 1970s were a key turning point: In the wake of the post-war suburban exodus, zoning had no tangible effect on urban housing costs, because there was a glut of urban housing units, and the suburbs were being built on cheap rural land. But then, college-educated Baby Boomers began to recolonize urban neighborhoods; the 1968 US immigration law brought the first new global immigrants to American shores; and at approximately the same time, the commutable portions of the heavily-zoned suburbs began to get built out. This is why Mount Laurel was an issue in the 1970s: In a key state, the availability of affordable housing was becoming a problem, and that situation was eroding the balance of economic opportunity that had characterized much of the post-war period for middle-class Americans. The beginning phase of a situation that was viewed as untenable by the New Jersey Court in 1974 has now become the norm in many metropolitan regions. Beginning to accept the growth of neighborhoods that is driven by market demands, and to provide legal normalization for such phenomena, is an important first step toward deflating the artificial housing shortages that are driving inequality and distorting the dynamics of American places whose regional economic strength ought to be the basis for broad-based opportunity, rather than exclusion.

2008’s Abandoned Plats

Wired has an incredible set of aerial photos taken by photographer Michael Light. The images show luxury developments outside of Las Vegas that were abandoned, in various stages of construction, after the 2008 economic collapse. From Lyra Kilston’s accompanying article:

While the subject matter is bleak, Light’s depictions are quite the opposite. Unlike a deadpan, New Topographics-style view of altered landscapes, his work is exalted and hyper-sharp. His troubling images of dirty rivers, interlacing highways or denuded hills are portrayed with grandeur, creating an unsettling tension of repulsion and attraction.

“I don’t want to lecture or heckle. I suppose it’s a primal thing — I want to go out there and document moments of amazement,” says Light. Flying offers him the freedom of airspace from which to see the land. And like Earth-observing satellites, he can see things he’s not supposed to.

Nice work.

New Apartments Lead Housing Starts; Thoughts on Infill

Multifamily development was up sharply in July. The National Association of Home Builders has the report. Multifamily is a construction sector that is often volatile from month to month — it had been down sharply in June. Still, it’s kind of remarkable that new apartment and condo construction turned an otherwise down month for housing starts into an up month. On a related point, the Times has a really detailed multimedia presentation today that models the massing and zoning changes in New York City during the Bloomberg years.

Williamsburg

New multifamily development along the East River in Williamsburg.
Photo: Beyond My Ken, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s fulfilling to see all of the new urbanism (literally) that’s happening now, especially in Williamsburg and Long Island City. More units equals a better response to market conditions — a good thing in a city where zoning laws and a scarcity of vacant land led to a chronic housing crisis for the working and middle classes. In addition to the potential relief (over time) to upward pressure on housing costs, the new development is also just really inspiring because of the scale of the transformations that are happening. There’s something satisfying about seeing the imprints of our own time being made on the fabric of the city.

Speaking of which, I had my first grand tour of the new Williamsburg about a month ago, from an old friend who now lives in a condo overlooking the East River on Kent Avenue. We went out to Radegast Hall and Brooklyn Bowl, and walked around the blocks near the waterfront. I’d been to Bedford Avenue a few times over the last decade, but I’d never really explored far beyond the subway station. There’s still some grittiness left in the area, but it’s amazing how thorough the changes to that neighborhood have been since the early 2000s. There has been a ton of new infill development in that part of Brooklyn since it was rezoned in 2005. At night, the streets are full of young people, heading out for drinks or dinner or a live show, or heading home with boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s really very alive, in a way that’s less corporate and managed than much of Manhattan now is. One important point about infrastructure, though: I don’t know how long that part of Brooklyn can keep mimicking the city proper without serious improvements to its sub-par subway service. The whole central part of the neighborhood seems to rely on the Bedford Avenue stop to get into the city. We ended the night around 11:45, and I wound up waiting for more than half an hour, in the Lorimer Street station, for an L train back to Manhattan.

In the short term, it seems like a given that changes like those underway in Williamsburg will have a net inequitable impact on certain residents at the neighborhood level — that is, luxury developments bring wealthier people into a previously undiscovered section, and drive up housing costs for the non-luxury surrounding units. Even with NYC rent regulations, this trend displaces less affluent residents over time — people whose deep reliance on local social bonds makes their displacement that much more painful. In the long term, though, it seems to me, housing costs are determined more regionally than they are at a granular level, and a larger housing stock across a region should temper the upward climb of prices in all but a few places within that region. Historically, since construction of the worst kind of tenements was outlawed, the US urban land market hasn’t produced much new housing for the poor; and it has only produced housing for the middle class sporadically, and with a lot of subsidies. But there are plenty of examples of housing whose occupants became less affluent as neighborhood footprints shifted and regional demand ebbed (e.g., in New York, the Upper West Side for much of the 20th century; and Harlem until even more recently); this is one way, historically, that very solid urban housing stocks have come into the possession of less affluent residents.

But as it becomes more popular, Williamsburg represents a trend in the opposite direction. That is to say, it’s a neighborhood whose fabric was largely shaped by the housing patterns of poor people, in the first place, in the era before comprehensive land use regulation took hold. Betty Smith described a scene from the 1912 neighborhood in the first chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:

The [tree] grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.

Basically, a lot of the 19th-century building stock in Williamsburg goes back to the general period that Smith described, when the neighborhood was a classic Victorian city slum. And yet, like the Lower East Side, the East End in London, and the nearer blocks of South Philadelphia, this dense, haphazardly built neighborhood is becoming increasingly affluent, and its gravity is now spawning the development of much more well-appointed new buildings, as well as widespread upgrades to the existing building stock, within its modest and crowded historical fabric.

Irish Vernacular

Irish Vernacular

Dominic Stevens, an Irish architect, built a house for just €25,000.  He’s a proponent of what he calls the Irish Vernacular, a DIY, back-to-the-basics take on architecture in which decent housing is recovered as a product that resourceful individuals can create through self help and cooperation. Stevens’ is a small house, but it looks like a good deal for the price. (Although, I think I’d go for a more traditional visual effect.) The cost doesn’t include the land, but the footprint is modest. From his web page:

The model that we have become used [to] now places the house as a way of driving the economy – we build houses as a method of making money not in order to house people well. The vernacular tradition produces houses in another fashion, here people build their own house, not with help from the bank, rather with the help of their neighbours. The by-product of house production is an interdependent community, instead of lifelong debt to the bank.

The web page also includes instructions about how to build such a house. My favorite:

instruction

It’s interesting how much this concept overlaps with those that drove both the limited-equity (LE) co-op model from New York City in the mid-20th century, and also the prototypical Garden City model that (as noted before) the NYC LE framework so closely resembled. The difference here is that the cooperation proposed here is more organic, and personal, and therefore lacks the formalizing legal framework of the more ambitious co-ops of the past. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be made to work between less-intimate acquaintances with the introduction of certain contractual and property-rights assurances. The BBC also interviewed Stevens as part of a video report on alternative housing frameworks throughout Europe, including land-free boat housing that people have set up in the waterways around Amsterdam, and co-housing-type arrangements in both the youth punk scene and among upper-middle-class professionals in Berlin.

It’s also interesting how much this concept overlaps with the traditional American housing patterns of the 19th century. One thing I’ve learned from watching the Civil War lectures lately is just how much the Free Soil-Free Labor ethos in the Northern states was driven by the idea that — in the absence of slavery and its devaluing effect on labor — the vast expanse of the American continent provided an almost endless set of opportunities for anyone who was willing to work. In that concept, one can see the roots of various interpretations of the American Dream. But to appreciate the original democracy of its promise, in a time long before the New Deal or Levittown, one must also acknowledge that this dream would not be financed by banks or limited by zoning boards or designed by architects and planners with elite credentials. Instead, the small towns and urban neighborhoods along the westward-moving frontier grew because they offered a chance to combine free (or very cheap) building land with abundant, life-sustaining resources (farmland, timber, stone, etc.) and sweat equity — and enough individuals had the building skills to make it work.

A certain amount of this is not so long gone. My mother once told me that when she was growing up in upstate New York, in the 1950s, the men who lived on her block — all World War II veterans — worked together on building projects, taking turns to finish attics into livable spaces, and paving all of the driveways on the block. By the time I was growing up, the only house-skill that most boys seemed expected to learn was lawn mowing. Still, you figure things out. There’s a pretty interesting book called Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture that covers some of these concepts through a diverse collection of writings on folk architecture. I looked at it in the Rutgers bookstore last year, and I’ve been meaning to read it more thoroughly because it seemed to shed some light on the context that allowed for the variety and individuality of structures that characterized American building patterns pretty much down to the Great Depression. When one considers how banks and lawyers have managed to turn simple housing into both a major expense, and a key component of an increasingly calcified economic landscape, one can’t help but recognize the inherent power that exists in frameworks that would allow individuals to recover their housing options on more autonomous terms. And imagine the benefit to the economy as a whole if all of the rent-dollars and interest-dollars were redirected to more productive ends. There are a lot of interesting ideas beginning to bubble up. Stevens definitely has one of them.

New Jersey Land Use Update

Scales and Lamp USSCThere was one published decision on land use in the New Jersey appellate courts this week. Motley v. Borough of Seaside Park Z.B.A. addressed the question of destruction, as used in N.J.S.A. 40:55D-68, and upon which the continued toleration of a nonconforming use turns. In this case, the plaintiff-respondent submitted a plan to the Seaside Park Z.B.A. for certain renovations to his property, which contained two residential structures — a nonconforming use in what has been a single-family zone since the 1970s. The Board approved his plan, but upon getting to work the plaintiff’s contractor apparently discovered significant structural issues that required taking the structure down to its foundation and footings. After a building inspector observed the extent of the demolition, a code-enforcement officer issued a stop-work order. Plaintiff lost an appeal to the Z.B.A. to lift the order. The lawsuit followed.

At issue was whether the plaintiff’s extensive dismantling and re-mantling had merely constituted a partial destruction of the non-conforming use, which would have required that use to continue to be tolerated under the borough’s zoning ordinance; or whether his actions had constituted a total destruction, after which any new construction on the parcel would have to conform to the present specifications of the ordinance. The trial court found, among other things, that the plaintiff’s actions had only constituted a partial destruction, and that policy reasons (viz., the importance of encouraging the proper maintenance of non-conforming structures) also supported allowing the plaintiff to rebuild. Accordingly, the Law Division vacated the stop-work order. But in an opinion published this week, an Appellate Division panel reached different conclusions and reversed the trial court’s order. The A.D. noted that New Jersey case law is generally opposed to extending the lives of non-conforming uses. Comparing the facts with those of the Lacey case, and others, the court concluded that a total destruction had taken place. Thus, a variance would have to be obtained in order to build something on the parcel that contravened the land use ordinance. In addition, the court found that the plaintiff had flouted the limits that the Board had initially set on his actions. Finally, the panel was unpersuaded by the policy reasons given by the trial court. Accordingly, it reversed the lower court’s decision vacating the stop-work order.

There was one unreported land use decision in the A.D. last week. I missed it at the time, because I was tied up with an event at one of the research centers, so here’s the belated squib: In Sharbell Building Company LLC v. Planning Board of the Twp. of Robbinsville, a three-judge panel affirmed a final judgment of the Law Division that had reversed the Board’s denial of an application to convert an approved, age-restricted housing complex into a development for residents of all ages. The court held that state legislation facilitating the approval of such conversions (in response to the changing housing marketplace) superseded the township’s zoning ordinance; and that prior to rejecting the proposal, the Board had focused on the wrong issues when it considered the impact of possible additional children on the local tax base, rather than considering the land use implications of the proposal. (You’ve gotta love it.) As always, the temporary New Jersey Courts link is alive for now, but the original opinion will be archived at the Rutgers Law Library next week.