Austin Debates Density

One of the most interesting urban planning debates going on in the country right now is happening in Austin, Texas. In 2012, the Austin City Council adopted the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, a three-year effort that established priorities for the city’s growth and development for the next 30 years. Among the priority actions the plan identified were to invest in a compact and connected Austin, to grow and invest in the creative economy, and to develop and maintain household affordability. The next step in implementing the plan is to revise and modernize its zoning regulations. The city is now in the midst of that process, which it has dubbed CodeNEXT.

Austin, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.  From 2000 to 2017 the city’s population increased from 657,000 to 950,000, an annual rate of growth of 2.2%. It’s also gained a reputation as a fun place to live and has become a migration magnet for millennials; a Brookings Institution study found that Austin has the second-highest proportion of millennials in its population (27.2%) of the top 100 metro areas. With about 48% of its adult population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, it also ranks among the nation’s most educated cities, comparable to Boston and Minneapolis.

Not surprisingly, Austin’s economic prosperity has entailed some costs. In particular, during this century it has had one of the fastest rates of housing price increase in the country. According to the Freddie Mac House Price Index, home prices in Austin have increased at about a 5.0% average annual rate since 2000, which is on a par with the Fresno, Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. metro areas. Since much of the city and the surrounding areas are zoned for single-family homes, growth has mostly taken the form of low-density sprawl. The developed land area of the metro area increased from just 53 square miles in 1970 to 372 square miles in 2016.

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The Perils of Private Infrastructure

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Trump Administration is incapable of pursuing any coherent, sustained legislative strategy. The Administration was unable to play any useful role in fashioning a viable “repeal and replace” health care bill, and it seems equally clueless on the other big agenda item, tax reform. Seeing the Republican legislative machine stall out on those two priority items does not auger well for a third Trump initiative that was once thought to hold some bipartisan appeal: infrastructure spending. That is probably just as well, since any wide-ranging infrastructure bill coming from this Administration and Republican congress would likely be an ideological monstrosity that would entice little Democratic support.

An infrastructure program is, however, more suitable to a piecemeal approach than is health care or tax reform, so it is likely that some sort of  new infrastructure policy emerges over the next eighteen months. Trump’s first budget programmed $200 billion over ten years to implement his infrastructure program (while cutting the Department of Transportation’s budget for the coming year by 13 percent). A fact sheet outlined some of the principles that will guide infrastructure policy.

The Trump infrastructure program will invariably seek to maximize the private-sector role, although the Administration’s fact sheet only hints at that direction with proposals such as removing the cap on private activity bonds. Administration officials are also touting the concept of “asset recycling,” whereby government agencies sell existing public infrastructure to private operators and use the proceeds to invest in new infrastructure projects.

The notion of private firms providing public infrastructure is polarizing, with conservatives portraying public agencies as inherently corrupt and inefficient and the left portraying private operators as inevitably predatory. In reality, the economic infrastructure of the United States has always been a patchwork of private and public operations and whatever prevails in a particular region tends to be taken by its residents as the natural state of affairs. Most passenger rail transportation, for example, was originally developed by private firms but virtually all of it was eventually taken over by government entities. Similarly for water supply systems, although about one-quarter of the U.S. population is still served by private water. Conversely, about 70 percent of American households buy their electricity from private, investor-owned firms. Roads and highways, and commercial airports, have always been developed and operated primarily by governments.

In recent years governments have explored privatizing, or re-privatizing, some infrastructure or contracting with private firms to operate it. Encouraging privatization appears to be a key part of the Republican infrastructure agenda, and that will be controversial enough. Even more problematic, though, will be efforts to incentivize the private creation of new economic infrastructure. In that regard the development of Florida’s long-distance passenger rail network is instructive, highlighting both the opportunities and perils of relying on private firms to develop new infrastructure.

The Florida High Speed Rail Project

Efforts to reestablish intercity passenger rail links in Florida have a  checkered history reaching back decades. In 2000, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment mandating the establishment of a high-speed intercity rail system. In order to implement that mandate, the Florida legislature established the Florida High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) in 2001. However, Florida Governor Jeb Bush was opposed to the idea of a constitutional mandate for transportation infrastructure and was skeptical of the endeavor’s cost. He managed to get the rail mandate repealed in 2004, although the HRSA remained in existence and oversaw the completion in 2005 of an EIS for the Tampa-Orlando segment of a proposed system that was envisioned to eventually run from Tampa to Miami.

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More Than Detroit

I recently read Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. I’m a bit embarrassed that it took so long for me to get around to this outstanding book, but I guess my timing was right as I finished it on election eve.

Sugrue tells what should be a familiar story, but probably isn’t to enough people, with a great deal of nuance and impressive historical research. African Americans from the south migrated to northern industrial cities in great numbers beginning around 1920. In Detroit, as in other cities, they enjoyed some prosperity and upward mobility in the 1920s and 1940s, although that progress was harshly interrupted by the Great Depression.  The war years and the immediate postwar period were times of hope and progress, but that came to an unfortunate end as Detroit and other cities deindustrialized and decayed in the 1960s and 1970s. The deindustrialization of center cities was not a conspiracy against the black migrants, but rather it was a historical coincidence with effects so cruel as to seem designed in malice. The ensuing impoverishment of inner-city blacks conttributed to the social unrest of the 1960s and the social disorder of the 1970s.

Sugrue’s research adds to the familiar story by showing that the roots of the urban crisis were sown much earlier than is typically portrayed; no sooner had WWII ended than the auto industry begin dispersing, both to the exurbs and to other non-urban areas of the country.  Backed with research that is concrete and detailed, Sugure shows that throughout the 1950s the UAW and other labor groups were resisting industrial deconcentration and automation, but ultimately could do little to influence the corporate decisions that threatened their jobs and disrupted their communities. Of course, many white workers were able to follow their employers to the suburbs and beyond, extending their hold on working class prosperity for a few more decades.  The black workers were not even that fortunate, as discrimination in jobs and housing left them stranded in the abandoned city.

Which brings us to the second major theme of Sugure’s book–the unrelenting discrimination and segregation African Americans experienced even in the northern promised lands. I grew up in a predominately white, working class neighborhood of Queens; it eventually transitioned into an exclusively African American and Caribbean neighborhood. The original white residents were on the whole decent people, there was little organized resistance to racial change, and racial transition was by and large accepted passively as a natural and inevitable progression. “White flight” there took place in slow motion over several decades, and when the white residents left they typically “fled” to grandchildren, nursing homes and graveyards. So I’m inclined to see residential segregation as an impersonal force driven by demographic flows and maintained by individual choices.  However, the virulent racism and violent hostility to neighborhood integration in 1950s and 1960s Detroit that Sugrue painstakingly documents is revolting and dispiriting, and underscores that much energetic activism was required to maintain the color line. Although he makes an effort to understand the threats white residents perceived to their communities, his heart doesn’t seem in it and truthfully, by the time I reached those passages, this reader’s wasn’t either.

So as I put the book down on election eve and watched the results roll in from Michigan, I had conflicting emotions. I was saddened by the futility of white Michiganers voting against all logic in the desperate hope that Donald Trump and the GOP would save their jobs and communities or care enough about them even to try. But it was also hard to put out of my mind Sugure’s horrifying narrative of racial animosity and to convince myself that the echoes of it didn’t play an important role as well.

The Los Angeles Homeless Housing Bond

In few cities has homelessness been as contentious an issue as in Los Angeles. The residents of the city have long displayed a live-and-let-live attitude toward the homeless, and in one recent survey of Los Angeles County residents homelessness was cited as the second-most important problem facing the county. Yet, the city has often resorted to a strong-arm law enforcement approach to the street homeless; in 2009 two national advocacy groups anointed it the “meanest” city in the country for its criminalization of homelessness.

In November, Angelenos will have an opportunitunity to express which side of the street they are on, as a referendum authorizing the city to issue $1.2 billion in general obligation bonds to provide supported housing for the homeless will be on the ballot.

Los Angeles has by far the largest population of street homeless in the country.  According to the city’s estimates complying with HUD’s Point in Time enumeration, there were 17,687 unsheltered homeless people residing on the city’s streets in 2015. That compares to 3,200 in New York, 2,000 in Chicago and 500 in Washington DC.  Even allowing for errors in the count, the scale of the problem is severe.  With about 4.5 street homeless per 1,000 housed residents, Los Angeles is second only to San Francisco in terms of the intensity of the problem.

In 2002, under the direction of Police Chief William Bratton, the city began enforcing, especially in the “Skid Row” district near downtown, a 1968 ordinance that prohibited sleeping in or upon a street, sidewalk or public way.  The ACLU of Southern California filed suit on behalf of six homeless individuals, but a district court upheld the city’s sleeping ban. However, in Jones v. The City of Los Angeles the following year, a panel of Ninth Circuit judges reversed the district court’s ruling, finding that the plaintiff’s may have become homeless involuntarily and their choice to sleep on the street was “involuntary and inseparable from their status.”

In 2014, a federal appeals court also struck down a Los Angeles law prohibiting people from living in vehicles, and in 2016 the city was ordered to stop seizing and destroying the property of homeless people left unattended on the street.

In the Jones decision the appeals court ruled that the city could not enforce the prohibition on sleeping on public sidewalks as long as the number of homeless persons exceeded the number of available shelter beds.  At that time, and still, the city has nowhere near the number of shelter beds necessary to accommodate its homeless population, although the shelters that it does provide are rarely used to capacity.

In 2007, the City and the ACLU reached a settlement agreement stemming from the Jones suit, whereby the city pledged not to enforce the sleeping ban until at least 1,250 units of additional permanent supported housing are constructed for current or formerly chronic homeless persons. Although the city has supported construction of some excellent facilities, nearly 10 years later the City has not completed building all of the promised units and the exact count is a matter of dispute.

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Luxury Housing and the Rest of Us

Does the construction of ultra-luxury apartments raise the cost of housing for everyone else? Simple logic would suggest it doesn’t, insofar as an increase in housing supply should operate to satisfy some housing demand, even if it’s for a thin upper-crust of buyers, thereby relieving price pressure on the rest of the housing stock.

But before jumping to that simple conclusion, less expensive housing that might be demolished to make way for the ultra-luxury building needs to be considered. In the case of 15 Central Park West, one of New York’s most expensive addresses, the 365-room Mayflower Hotel was demolished and replaced by only 202 ultra-luxury units, thereby eliminating affordable housing and reducing overall housing supply. In other cases, however, sites were previously occupied by commercial uses, so there was no offsetting loss of existing housing. Moreover, in New York at least, luxury developers’ purchases of air rights from adjoining properties can lead to the preservation or improvement of existing housing. Overall, it seems that ultra-luxury housing development generally expands the housing supply.

But how does the emergence of an ultra-luxury housing market affect the price of land, and hence the type of housing that can be built in desirable parts of the city?  In theory it doesn’t, because the market values land according to the most profitable use it can be put to, and precisely orders sites according to the marketability of the housing that can be built on each. Each site would be developed accordingly. That is a very static view of the land market, however. In the real world, it can be rational for a land owner to keep her property underutilized if she thinks that at some point it will become a viable site for ultra-luxury housing.

Suppose, for example, that the residual value of land for ultra-luxury housing development is three times as much as for normal, upper-middle income housing. Also imagine that there are ten vacant sites available for development, but that the ultra-luxury market can absorb only one of those sites per year. In a static world, the most desirable of those sites will be purchased to develop ultra-luxury housing and the other nine will be sold to developers of more modest housing. In the real world, however, it may pay for the other nine owners to absorb the carrying costs of their underutilized properties until their turn to sell to an ultra-luxury developer arrives.

Something like this may be playing out in Manhattan now. According to a recent New York Times article: The major impediment to more  of these projects (apartments modestly priced at $1 million to $3 million) coming to market is the price of land, which has not fallen along with the demand for ultraluxurious properties.

So it seems land owners would rather just hold onto their developable sites, hoping that eventually the ultra-luxury market will revive and their turn to sell to that market will come. In the meantime, development of professional-class housing is impeded.