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.

Shaping the Urbanism of Victorian America


I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs featurehas published my article about the key factors that shaped Late Victorian urbanism in the United States. My piece focuses on this period before zoning, and explores the physical, legal, economic, and cultural phenomena that drove neighborhood development in the absence of comprehensive plans. I chose this period because it has intrigued me for a long time; and because so much of the New Urbanism of today seems to be imitating the forms of that era without necessarily asking the important questions about the larger context that created them. TAC deserves credit for taking a lead in discussing the important dynamic between urban form, society, and sustainable communities. Here’s a nice piece by executive editor Lewis McCrary about the walkability of New Jersey shore towns, many of which I have walked through, and many of which have an urban fabric that dates from the same period that my article describes.

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).

New York City: A Century of Zoning

The Equitable Building from Nassau Street. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

The last straw. The 1913 Equitable Building led to passage of the 1916 law.

Today is the 100th anniversary of New York City’s original zoning ordinance. In commemoration of a century of land use regulation (it was also America’s first zoning law), the local chapter of the AIA has published Zoning at 100, which includes a number of essays by top architects, planning officials, and scholars, looking back, and looking forward. (Thanks to H. for the link!) Authors include Robert A.M. Stern, Bill Rudin, Carl Weisbrod, and Gina Pollara. Looking forward to finding some time to read these.

Here are a few more pictures I’ve taken of the massive 1913 Equitable Building, located at 120 Broadway, which put the issue of development massing at the forefront of city politics, and led to the law.

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.

Venice, Urban Canals, and the Sea

GreatStreetsJacobsIn my free time, I’ve been reading Great Streets, the 1995 urban design art book, by Allan Jacobs — and a great birthday present from Honey :). Jacobs dedicates an entire chapter of Great Streets to Venice’s Grand Canal, making the case that certain cities’ urban canals are essentially liquid streets: as thoroughfares, places for public gathering, retail business, the showcasing of architecture, and cross-cutting neighborhood vistas.

Now, Google seems to have taken Jacobs’s position, offering extensive and striking StreetView images of the canals of Venice, treating them as the equivalent of city streets. Here’s a view of the Grand Canal, near the Rialto Bridge:

Here’s the Campanile di San Marco, seen from the water:

And here is a satellite view of the entire old city, surrounded by the Lagoon.

It’s fitting that the outline of Venice looks like a fish.

Now, in some ways, the canals of Venice are more than just technically streets. One could argue that in light of the role Venice played in the emergence of the modern commercial world the patterns of urbanization that developed there actually served as an early prototype for the growth of modern cities. The traffic flows in the city’s canals were not so different from those of land vehicles in modern or ancient cities. But the liquid nature of these streets presumably allowed for one less break of bulk between the arrival of goods in the city and their delivery to local end users — and this was good for the productive economy. In Roman Ostia, vast warehouses were used to store shipments of olive oil and wine amphorae that had been imported from Africa, Greece, and Spain. Each shipping company had its own branded warehouse, from which it sold goods to merchants one step down the supply chain, or stored them until its own distributors were ready to take them to market. Much smaller quantities were then transported, separately, up the Tiber to the city proper; or over land to other Italian cities and towns. This made for a supply chain with a lot of middle men, barriers to purchasing in bulk, and, presumably, high markups between the seaport and Roman workshops.

In Venice, the innovation would be that these points of delivery could be distributed throughout the city, rather than concentrated in a single seaport. In Venice, the urban fabric and the seaport became one, a development that predicted the more distributed pattern of industrial space in modern cities. Canals and their branches and slips would, of course, continue to be an important part of city-building for years to come, but only a few cities would have both the topography and trading frequency to justify the kind of extensive canal building that took place in Venice. Amsterdam comes to mind. More commonly, the post-Renaissance economy would interpret the lesson from Venice in another way: The most successful cities to be founded after the Renaissance would be those built on sites where natural waterways conveyed an almost Venetian advantage, and allowed for distributed delivery points. Think of New York City, with its miles and miles of natural waterfronts. Likewise, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Sydney. Finally, the pattern of distributed industry would really be broken open, in the 19th century, by the railroads, which would slice through the fabric of every European and American town and city as thoroughly as the canals sliced through Venice.

Another interesting point is that Venice is also arguably more of a direct continuation of the Roman tradition than Byzantium was. That is to say, while the Eastern Empire may have carried on the apparatus of the Roman state from Constantinople until 1453, is was essentially a Greek cultural entity for its entire history; but Venice was founded in the fifth century by Italian Romans who had taken refuge from the fall of the Western Empire in an inaccessible Italian swamp, and who went on to preserve a slice of distinctly Latin culture — eventually building a city that carried on many parts of the Italian Roman tradition, and served as a unique cultural bridge between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and, ultimately, the Early Modern age. This is a simplification of Venetian history, but it illustrates the important thread. Because the plan of Venice — and especially its canals — more literally captures the tradition of Western commercial cities growing out of the sea, than almost any other example of European urbanism. From Ostia to Venice, and from Amsterdam to New Orleans, the mercantile tradition in the West has a long tradition of shaping a maritime urbanism in which the riches brought by sea trade have driven extensive urban growth on the land around the ports. And this growth has always been premised on the trading patterns of the merchants within the seaports.

The sea has always been a saturating element in trading cultures. Look at the Odyssey. Look at its haunting omnipresence in this Roman wall painting of Perseus and Andromeda, on view at the Metropolitan Museum, found in Boscotrecase, near Pompeii:


Perseus and Andromeda, from the Villa at Boscotrecase. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amidst its clear references to religion and fantasy, it is the sea, and not Vesuvius, which might consume all. I thought of this painting recently at work, where I’m writing decision letters for a post-Sandy recovery project here in New York City. Three years after that storm, the conflict between the city and the ocean is still being sorted out, block by block, house by house. Some people are selling their land back to the state; some are elevating their homes, with or without public subsidies; many are keeping their fingers crossed and going on as if nothing had happened in 2012.

The same forces of commerce, greed, politics, and ambition that built the world’s port cities are now driving the global climate change that threatens them. New Orleans was nearly wiped out in 2005; Venice now deals with flooding on a regular basis; in New York, Manhattan seems mostly oblivious, but the sprawling coastal neighborhoods of the outer boroughs are not looking very healthy. The paradox of mercantile cities, the wealth that they draw from maritime trade, and the ever-present danger of the sea, will not go away. It is only getting stronger.

Anti-Urbanism and Edward Hopper?

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

I recently read Tom Slater’s 2002 article, “Fear of the City: 1882-1967: Edward Hopper and the Discourse of Anti-Urbanism.” It’s really a fascinating piece. Slater argues that much of the imagery in Hopper’s art is part of a deep and old tradition of suspicion of cities in the American worldview. Slater claims that a “negative discourse of the city … began with the pastoral musings of Thomas Jefferson and was furthered significantly by the transcendental contemplations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, [and] grew stronger and became embedded in social life through powerful representations of urban malaise in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, art, and social theory.” He then closely analyzes four pieces by Hopper — Night Shadows, Nighthawks, Approaching a City, and Sunday — to illustrate his thesis. I strongly recommend reading the piece.

Slater cites Hopper’s childhood in then-rural Nyack, N.Y. as the source of the artist’s skepticism about city life, and he describes the contrast between the ideals of small-town America and the exploding urbanism of large, east coast cities that occurred in the late 19th century. Of Hopper’s relocation to New York City — where he would spend most of his life — Slater writes:

Hopper lived through a time of continuous changes to the cityscape, and changes in the neighbourhood where he lived, Greenwich Village, were as profound as in any area of the city. Hopper was dismayed by the ‘crushing of Washington Square’ by the erection of tall buildings around the park which he saw as ‘huge coarse and swollen mounds—blunt, clumsy and bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale yellow sides’ (citation omitted). Such signs of unruliness and dislocation were serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from anything which would disrupt this most Victorian, even puritan, way of existence.

(Slater, 141.)

It seems to me that by the late Victorian period, some of the contrarian hallmarks of early 19th-century Romanticism — especially, the idea that humans should make an effort to live in harmony with nature — had calcified into a set of bourgeois notions of propriety, in somewhat the same way as the countercultural values of the 1960s have been repackaged into the predictable platitudes of Whole Foods advertising, today.

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Slater sees Hopper’s haunting imagery of dark, foreboding, and lonely urban scenes as part of a long (and presumably unwarranted) tradition of city-hatred in American thought, rooted in this culturally idealized view of nature. He cites this larger narrative as a key source of the American political establishment’s long hostility toward urban interests. In that, Slater identifies something real: There certainly is a tradition in America of ignorant hostility toward big cities. (Is it not the inevitable reciprocal for a country with a frontier mentality to also have some degree of contempt for those who choose to live in more thickly settled locations, rather than strike out for the West — or the suburbs?) But I would hesitate to assign Hopper’s work to that thread. His city scenes are layered: Though often dark and alienating, his settings are also mysterious, enchanting, and beautiful. Inhabitants frequently seem conflicted, or unfulfilled, or stoic, but not necessarily miserable. These internal contradictions remain true of large cities and their inhabitants today. To acknowledge them, and their inherent sadness, is not to malign the city. It is simply to observe it honestly.

Furthermore, one must concede the reasonableness of Hopper’s skepticism — if that’s what it is — about many of the circumstances that he depicted in New York and elsewhere. The early urban planning movement was made up of people whose biases were quite the opposite of anti-urban, and who were driven by precisely the same visceral and moral reactions that Hopper seems to have experienced in response to the excesses of industrial urban life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is something undeniably harsh about a society whose excesses are not tempered by humane concerns. This is something that radical, reformist, and conservative thinkers all observed in Hopper’s time (and continue to observe, today). Its expression is hardly the hallmark of a puritanical, anti-urban mind. More to the point, as I interpret his images, the object of Hopper’s disapprobation is not urbanism, per se, but the heavy industry that pervaded cities in his lifetime, and the rapid change that it imposed on those in its path, including its disruptive impact on the individuals and traditions that required stability and patience to flourish. Though not mentioned in Slater’s piece, House by the Railroad has long struck me as one of the most haunting and tragic of all Hopper’s works. Notably, it is set not in a large city, at all, but in the small Hudson Valley town of Haverstraw, N.Y.:

Edward Hopper. House by the Railroad (1925).

House by the Railroad. Edward Hopper (1925).

Slater’s article is fascinating on many levels, and I strongly recommend reading the entire piece.

Urbanism Through the Ages

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This week, a lot of media outlets covered anthropologist Scott Ortman’s recently published paper, Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society, which analyzes the growth of cities in ancient Mexico to argue that the efficiency incentives that are driving urbanization today were also intrinsic to the growth of cities in ancient times.

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ basic assumption that the scale of monument construction can be used as a reliable metric for the incentives of urbanism. (This strikes me as a classic social scientist’s attempt to quantify something that should have been analyzed more liberally.) But, apart from that, the paper highlights something urbanists intuitively understand: cities become more productive, and dynamic, with growth. And Ortman’s work adds to the evidence that urbanists crave, namely, that people have long been drawn to urban settings by their opportunities, as well as by their mystique.

The urbanism of the Classical world offered lots of (non-numerical) ancient examples of large cities as better engines for economic and cultural output. Athens, in the fifth century B.C., was the largest city in the Greek world — and also the center of learning, artisanship, and trade, within that universe. Likewise, Alexandria was the economic and cultural capital of the Near East, during Hellenistic times; and Rome, for the entire Mediterranean basin in the first and second centuries, A.D. Modern examples might include London in the 19th century, and New York in the first half of the 20th.

Commodifying Residential Real Estate


432 Park Av., NYC.

New York magazine has a good, long-form article about the trend toward using New York City residential real estate as a place to park — and sometimes clean — capital. I can’t help but think this is a bubble, in which the investment trend, itself, is beginning to drive the market more than the actual parameters of real estate supply and demand. But the trend is strong, and shows few signs of burning out in the near future. This statistic blew me away:

And so New Yorkers … compete for scarce inventory with investors who may seldom even turn on a light switch. 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.

Incredible. Overall, it was a very interesting piece, and well worth the time it takes to read.

Sustainability After Sandy

Sustainability principles have become such a fallback in discussions about developing new neighborhoods, and redeveloping old ones, that they’ve almost become cliches. Still, I think it’s important to ask the questions that get raised by basic sustainability analysis — and I think there remains a lot of room for planners and developers to go beyond stale platitudes and explore new ways to build fairer and stronger communities. Hurricane Sandy tested each of the three big elements of the sustainability triad: environment, economy, and social equity. Now that it’s been almost a year since the storm hit, it’s an interesting time to take stock and ask: How has Greater New York responded to the post-Sandy crisis?

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

The current issue of BOMA magazine has a brief article on this question, as it relates to commercial landlords. (Flip through to page 26, where it begins.) Many of the points discussed have to do with creating workable action plans for before environmental disasters — a simple but apparently crucial adaptation measure. A lack of communications was apparently a major stumbling block in the post-Sandy period, even at the top of the city’s economic pyramid.

In a twist of irony, poorer communities sometimes benefit from the inherent sustainability of their older urban infrastructures in ways that suburban communities do not. The different proportions of residents who lost power in East Orange (a streetcar suburb whose neighborhoods mostly date from around 1900) and West Orange (more of a Gatsby-era suburb, with a lot of post-war development), in the weeks after Sandy, was a great example. There still hasn’t been much talk about finding the money to bury utility lines, though.

A Newly Published Novel: Fire Work

product_thumbnail.phpA good friend of mine (and possible blood relation), T. D. MacNamara, has finally published Fire Work — a novel that he wrote during high school and college. After a detour through law school, T. D. dusted off the old electronic manuscript and has now made it available for all to enjoy. The price is right — just $2.99. And it’s a great read. According the blurb:

Fire Work is the story of Jack O’Donnell, a teenage punk rock fan and pyromaniac, living in the mid-1990s, in the last moments of low-tech American youth.

(Gentle readers, take note: If you are offended by the colorful vocabulary used by teenagers in 1990s New York City, reader discretion is advised.)

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:


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.

Warrior Cops … and Democracy?

The Wall Street Journal has a disturbing piece by Radley Balko about the rise of military tactics in domestic US policing. While one can clearly see the need for certain police officers to be trained in these approaches to handle the occasional life-threatening crisis — say, an unfolding attack or a deteriorating hostage situation — there’s something sick about a legal culture that just sort of decadently slouches toward the use of military tactics for serving warrants or securing evidence against civilians, as a matter of expedience, or to reinforce its own psychology of power. What’s worse is the intimidation factor that these practices imply toward the general public. If the legal system needs to increasingly engage in this sort of violence as a matter of course, that seems like prima facie evidence that the system is no longer governing by the kind of consent and consensus that Holmes identified as the prerequisite of a legitimate body of law. Scary.

Civil War Lectures

I’ve been watching this Open Yale course about the U.S. Civil War, taught by David Blight, when I have a few minutes here and there. In the first few lectures, he goes into the regional differences that surrounded slavery, as well as what was at stake, legally and politically, in the fight over its westward expansion. Some of the narrative is a review of the basics, but then Blight builds a deep context for the dual sovereignty of federalism — and how much more of a cultural controversy it really was in the 19th century. So far, the course is really good.

The Chronic Meltdown of Law

The New Republic has a withering piece by Noam Scheiber about the meltdown of the American law firm model. I saw a little bit of this first hand when I worked as a paralegal at a couple of the big firms in Midtown before law school — in particular, the incivility toward those of lower (usually chronological, but sometimes credentials-based) status, and the indifference of many of those who seemed to have any clout within the firms. It’s hardly news; these places have been hell for a long time. It’s just that the business model is now failing, and so it’s an economics story. And because (at least for now) there are fewer alternatives for lawyers who are not insane enough to go along for the ride, long term, the protests are louder. I get the competition in law, but the rest of this is just nuts. I mean, how does a profession that is so rooted in the humanities and that has a basic threshold requirement of critical thinking skills ever get to such a point?

Le Corbusier at MoMA

This exhibition looks like it might be really interesting. It runs through September 23rd at the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve never actually seen a museum-curated show about Le Corbusier’s work, but he deserves one. In addition to his architecture, the show focuses on Corbusier and landscape. This is an aspect of his work that I haven’t given much thought, and it’s definitely got me intrigued about the exhibition. To me, Corbusier has always been a sympathetic character, albeit an often hopeless product of his crazy, driven time. And I think it’s no accident that the more mundane aspects of Corbusier’s vision came to influence the soul-numbing housing projects and office buildings of the mid-20th century, because Corbusier himself seemed to have a blind spot about others’ individuality, and the settings whose builders superficially imitated Corbusier’s forms were usually those in which individuals were reduced to mere cogs in a wheel, or numerical problems to be solved. Corbusier’s work is so perfectly emblematic of that modern Western insanity that tries to standardize and quantify everything, without doing the required qualitative analysis first, to see whether doing so even makes sense.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. “A machine for living in.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Even though I’ve never seen a museum exhibit on his work, I did read a great book called Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century, by Robert Fishman. The author gives a fascinating account of Corbusier’s life and works, beginning with the architect’s childhood in the Swiss watchmaking town of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, on the western edge of the Alps, in the late 19th century, when the tradition of home-based artisans’ and craftsmen’s workshops was collapsing under insurmountable competition from heavy industry. Fishman then narrates Corbusier’s long career, in which he designed a world that increasingly seemed like a mechanized dystopia — where the most inherently human subjects of design, like homes and political buildings, were built in an industrial, impersonal, even brutal style. Of course, some of Corbusier’s designs were quite beautiful. But they were often pleasing in ways that allowed little room for the individual or the small community that used them to shape its own space; and they were attractive in ways that showed little concern for the human instinct for familiar forms. The ironies and psychological implications of Corbusier’s career are rich. Fishman’s is a great book — it also covers Ebenezer Howard and Frank Lloyd Wright — and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in the human imagination, and some of its blind spots, in the early 20th century.

Using Eminent Domain for Underwater Mortgages

The New York Fed has an interesting white paper out by Robert Hockett, in which the author proposes the use of eminent domain to purchase large numbers of underwater mortgages — as in, the actual financial instruments. The idea targets mortgages whose debt holders are the holders of mortgage-backed securities– so called privately securitized mortgages. The strategy is based on the fact that PSM shareholders are such large and geographically dispersed classes that it is not reasonable to expect them to write-down the values of their claims in the same way that — say — a large bank could do. And, since there’s no cram-down power regarding home mortgages in bankruptcy court, the same write-downs couldn’t even be imposed through equity in cases where distressed homeowners wind up in bankruptcy. I thought the details of the proposal were fairly interesting to read through.

One aspect of the paper that’s really shocking is the following map, showing how many outstanding mortgages remain underwater, by county:

Underwater Mortgages as a Share of All Mortgages, by County, 4Q 2012. Source: CoreLogic Negative Equity Report, via Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Underwater Mortgages as a Share of All Mortgages, by County, 4Q 2012. Source: CoreLogic Negative Equity Report, via Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

At the end of 2012, blue counties had the lowest rates of underwater mortgages, with increasing rates of negative equity correlating with increasing greenness, yellowness, and then redness. Note that (with the tiny geographic exceptions around wealthy New York City and San Francisco), the places with lowest levels of underwater mortgages are almost all rural areas that didn’t experience much of a run-up in residential property values in the decade before 2008. That’s a lot of pain.

It certainly makes theoretical sense that eminent domain can be used to take personal property — such as contract rights — and not just real estate. But it’s not something that you run across all that often. I liked this paragraph, summarizing the phenomenon:

Forms of intangible property that have been purchased in eminent domain include bond tax exemption covenants, insurance policies, corporate equities, other contract rights, businesses as going concerns, and even sports franchises (Hockett 2012a). Because the law draws no distinctions between kinds of property that can be purchased in eminent domain, it is unsurprising that loans and liens in particular, as one form of contractual obligation among many, are themselves regularly purchased. Among these are mortgage loans and liens, as the Supreme Court and state courts have long recognized.

Books: Cities of Ancient Greece and Italy

I recently read J.B. Ward-Perkins’ 1974 Cities of Ancient Greece and Italy. The author starts with the premise that because the classical world was an essentially urban civilization, planning was a fundamental part of its identity. He surveys the towns of the archaic Aegean shores, then delves into the record of Hippodamus of Miletus — the fifth century (BC) planner of Piræus and the Magna Græcia colonies. (A contemporary of Plato, he is also the oldest planner to be remembered by name.) After a brief look at urbanism in the east during the Hellenistic period, Ward-Perkins devotes the rest of the text to describing the development of cities in the Roman west. It’s a great quick read: The entire book is just 128 pages, and more than half of these are maps, photos, or endnotes. The maps cover all of the greatest hits of Greco-Roman urbanism, including Athens and Ostia, and a couple of my personal favorites: Lepcis Magna and Pergamon (seen below). I suspect that this book was one inspiration for Diana Kleiner’s amazing Roman Architecture class at Yale; she uses another of Ward-Perkins’ books for a lot of her assigned readings.


Grand Central at 100

Leonard Lopate interviewed Sam Roberts, author of Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, for the Terminal‘s 100th anniversary. In addition to the station’s architectural significance, its role as catalyst for the covering over of Park Avenue (between East 45th and 97th Streets) created some of the city’s best residential blocks, and it is no coincidence that the boundary between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem has long been 97th Street. The placement of the terminal itself also helped turn Midtown into the commercial center of the city, and in the 1970s the property would play a pretty important role in the development of U.S. historic preservation and land use law.

In some ways, the city changes so often it’s like a kaleidoscope. But that smell of oil and brake dust that permeates the tunnels of the lower concourse, along with the sounds of hissing air brakes and countless ventilation fans, is almost timeless.

Fire and the Skyscraper

Triangle FireI found this chilling contemporary account of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, from a 1911 issue of McClure’s magazine. In addition to providing a minute-by-minute description of the tragedy (which killed 146 garment workers — mostly young Jewish and Italian girls from the Lower East Side — and spurred the rise of the labor movement in New York City), the article offers an incredibly detailed description of the use and misuse of industrial buildings in Manhattan, and the building codes that existed, at the beginning of the twentieth century. As heartbreaking and infuriating as the story is, I couldn’t stop reading it.

Remsen on Wills

It’s not land use, but I recently started reading an excellently written 1907 primer on the law of estate planning and trusts, The Preparation and Contest of Wills, by Daniel S. Remsen. It often strikes me how well the authors of a century ago were able to tackle complex subjects with both precision and clarity, in contrast to the blather that characterizes a lot of today’s law books. It’s also interesting to see how much the essential doctrines of common law property have stayed the same, and have continued to dominate their field (land use, of course, being a major exception), in contrast to the statutization that’s taken place in areas like commercial or criminal law. That is to say, other than the always-idiosyncratic specifics of taxes and local procedures, Remsen’s book tracks the same issues that any current hornbook on estate planning would cover, and most of the rules he describes still remain in effect. To illustrate his exposition of the law, Remsen includes an appendix containing 78 wills and trust settlements made by 19th century luminaries, including Jay Gould, August Belmont, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Leland Stanford. You can’t make this stuff up.

One of the most valuable online resources is the seemingly endless selection of old law books that have gone into the public domain, and are now available in PDF through Google Books. Everything from Story on Equity to Wigmore on Evidence can be found there. And it’s all free.

Land Use is Dead: Long Live Land Use

I had a chance to read The Gated City.  Ryan Avent offers a compelling case about of the misuse of land use powers by local government.  Sadly, his argument echoes the findings of the New Jersey Supreme Court in its 1975 Mount Laurel decision.  There, the justices found that municipalities were abusing their state-delegated discretion over land use matters to avoid housing their respective fair shares of New Jersey’s poor residents, in violation of the state’s constitution.  Today, 36 years later, the issue is not simply that post-war Euclidean suburbs are zoning out viable housing options for poor people, but that entire metropolitan regions are failing to provide housing options for the middle class.  When it comes to metropolitan housing, the effects of NIMBY-ism have become a tragedy of the commons.

Avent depicts how inflated housing costs in some of America’s most dynamic regions are driven by legal restrictions on the expansion of housing supplies.  He argues that these costs now frequently outweigh the economic benefits of working in the same regions.  As a result, large numbers of Americans have migrated out of the economically vibrant regions around places like New York City, Boston, Washington, and San Francisco, where money, expertise, and strong networks are concentrated.  Instead, he argues, they have relocated to more affordable regions like Phoenix, Houston, and Las Vegas, which inherently offer fewer economic opportunities.  But I’m not persuaded that these groupings of cities necessarily occupy two sides of a static dichotomy.

Avent’s analysis is compelling, but his approach is essentially libertarian, and I don’t agree with the embedded assumption of his argument: namely, that the housing markets of America’s great metropolises ought to be left to find their natural equilibria.  In the last chapter, he writes:

[A] good first step would be to strengthen urban property rights. A very straightforward way to accomplish this would be to declare that a neighborhood can limit development on land to whatever extent it wants, so long as it’s willing to either buy the land in question or pay the land’s owner to comply. Among the key problems associated with NIMBYism are the wedges driven between societal costs and private costs, and between private costs and private benefits.

Are these killing the American Dream?

Penn Central tried a limited version of this same argument at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978, and lost.  I’m actually sympathetic to Penn Central’s contention that individual properties should be purchased if they are to be singled out from adjacent properties as landmarks; otherwise, we create a disincentive for the private construction of beautiful buildings.  But Avent takes his argument a big step further, essentially saying that the fundamentals of Euclidean zoning, and even the sensibly modest Victorian building codes, should (ideally) be done away with in favor of urban private property rights.  This is too much.  A healthy city is not a culture in a Petri dish: The slum tenements and social depravity of urban life in the Victorian period showed the dangers of unbridled land use.  The legal and political systems have roles to play in mediating the use of urban land.

But Avent’s piece is also a wake-up call: The system of land use regulation in this country is broken, and it is failing too many of our people.  What’s more, its failure is discrediting the moral arguments on which it rests.  In too many places, land use regulation has ceased to make life better, and has instead become a tool of exclusion and social inequality, a barrier that prevents people from finding decent homes and work spaces, and a way to game the legal system for the benefit of local political insiders.  Bad land policy has also resulted in the scarring of our landscape by ugly, politics-driven development.  These costs are no longer reserved for poor people, but now also harm many who are educated and rich.  Without serious reform, calls for scrapping the entire Euclidean régime will become increasingly difficult to resist.

Independent of concerns about the legitimacy of zoning, magnet cities like New York and San Francisco, for their own economies and equities, need to develop much, much larger and more  durable stocks of affordable housing.  This could be accomplished through limited-equity legal arrangements, with a measure of planning guidance; and also through targeted, substantial increases in regional densities.  At the end of the day, however, there needs to be a balance between market forces and human considerations.