Does Historic Preservation Limit Affordable Housing?

By Stefan Kühn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9413214

I answer that it can in CQ Researcher’s Historic Preservation:  Can The Past Escape The Wrecking Ball?

Many people fail to realize that land use policies like historic preservation involve big trade-offs. The most important one is that if you want to protect existing structures from demolition and modification, you can’t replace them with bigger ones that could house more people. Consider:

  • Historic preservation equals height and density restrictions. New building technologies (think steel girders and elevators) allow buildings to be built higher as time goes by. If a city landmarks a large percentage of its inner core, it restricts the ability of that core to go higher. This can lead to sprawl, as a growing population is pushed farther and farther from the city center.
  • Historic preservation favors the wealthy. Limited supply drives up housing prices and apartment rents, benefiting owners. And low-income and younger households are likely to suffer, as they are least able to bear the cost of the increases compared to other households. Future residents — think Midwesterners, Southerners and immigrants seeking to relocate to a city like New York for job opportunities — will also suffer.
  • It isn’t easy for historic preservation to be green. It feels environmentally responsible to protect older, low-density buildings in city centers because you have no dusty demolition, no noisy construction. But it actually comes at a big environmental cost. Denser construction reduces reliance on cars and thereby lowers carbon emissions. People living in a dense city have a much smaller carbon footprint than those in a car-oriented suburb.

Just because preservation comes at a cost does not mean it is bad. Much of our past is worth protecting. Some places benefit from maintaining their identities — think of the European cities that draw the most tourists year in and year out. But it is bad to deploy historic preservation indiscriminately, without evaluating the costs it imposes on current residents and potential future ones.

Cities that want to encourage entrepreneurship and affordable housing should deploy historic preservation and other restrictive land use tools thoughtfully. Otherwise, those cities will be inhabited by comparatively rich folks who complain about the sterility of their current lives and who are nostalgic for “the good old days” when cities were diverse and hotbeds of creativity.

If they fail to understand the trade-offs inherent in historic preservation, they won’t even understand that a part of the problem is the very policy they support to “protect” their vision of their community.

Amazonian Rage in NYC

photo by Theeditor93

Vice quoted me in Amazon Is Bringing in Elite Lobbyists Amid Seething Rage Over HQ2. It opens,

Amazon might be too big to tax, but it’s not too big to freak out.

As the company tries to erect a massive headquarters in America’s largest city, it has come up against staunch opposition from residents, politicians and unions—all concerned the powerful monopoly will serve to inflate rent and strain local infrastructure, especially the housing supply and subway system. And while it might seem like a trillion-dollar company could easily quash protesting naysayers, turns out CEO Jeff Bezos might actually have good reason to try and win the haters over.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported Amazon hired high-powered Democratic consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker, and a lobbying shop called Greenberg Traurig, to help smooth the way forward for its new HQ. While Amazon remained relatively tight-lipped, the company has sought to make inroads into affected communities—planning meetings with public-housing residents and reaching out to members of the city council. But some elected officials, including Senator Mike Gianaris and NYC Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose districts include the HQ’s proposed turf in Long Island City, have refused to serve on its advisory board, indicating instead a desire to kill the project entirely. Meanwhile, a Quinnipiac poll that dropped this week showed the majority of NYC residents backed the HQ2 plan, but activists groups and community board members have continued to organize, spurred on by Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—or at least her Twitter account.

In fact, the new Amazon influence operation, which emerged a few weeks after HQ2 plan was made official, suggested there were still concrete ways locals could thwart or at least put a dent in the company’s expansion scheme. If nothing else, an extremely-powerful company that has experience in the DC lobbying game is finding out it won’t get a new home in NYC without a fight that cuts at the core of the Democratic Party’s identity.

According to Richard Brodsky, a lawyer and veteran Democratic politician who served in the state assembly, if city officials or other activists took Amazon or the politicians who supported the plan to court, they could employ legislative subpoenas to demand more documentation of the project, and investigate compliance issues. Brodsky argued Amazon’s bid might provide the jobs promised, but that the company still had a long way to go in informing the public about how it would impact communities.

“Because the governor and the mayor have given this project to a set of soviet-style bureaucracies, there’s no one to ask the questions and no one to answer,” he told me, referring to the special fast-track process Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, have tapped to push through the Amazon deal. “Who the hell do you ask?”

Litigation is a fairly common way of handling disputes over projects like this in the city, according to David Reiss, a law professor and expert on community development at Brooklyn Law School. “Not being a shy bunch, New Yorkers often file lawsuits that try to set up procedural roadblocks to the project,” he told me via email. “These suits can slow down or even stop projects—and can give community members leverage with the City, State and project developers.” Even if it isn’t stopped altogether, legal action could help modify the project and fund parks, schools or transit.

Under the current approach from on high, however, the Amazon HQ also had to be approved by the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), comprised of gubernatorial appointees mostly made in consultation with the state legislature. This may prove to be among the only serious points of leverage Amazon opponents have to stall, or, in an extreme case, block the whole project. Even then, Brodsky said, the PACB was only technically supposed to oversee financial concerns, and not necessarily gauge a project’s social impact.

The city, for its part, appeared to largely be standing behind its original plan as it geared up for public hearings beginning next week. A spokesperson from the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the nonprofit development agency contracted by the city that helped broker the deal, told me Amazon was working to broker partnerships with affordable-housing developments and other community organizations, as well as provide concrete details about the 25,000 jobs promised in the company’s initial memo about the project.

The spokesperson also dismissed the idea that the new HQ would strain the city’s mess of a public transportation system. They argued the current flow of traffic on the subway routes amounted to Queens residents commuting to Manhattan for work, and that the “reverse commute” of Amazon employees coming to Long Island City would balance things in the other direction, not jam up trains in some new way. (It’s worth noting that Amazon employees were already reportedly looking for rental properties in Long Island City proper.)

Those resisting the headquarters, however, were unlikely to be swayed by more details, logistical help, or civic engagement on part of a brand many despised for what it represented in the annals of modern capitalism. Ocasio-Cortez, who has become a national spokesperson for anti-Bezos sentiment and a leading light of a left-wing insurgency in the Democratic Party, took to Twitter again on Tuesday: “Now what I DON’T want is for our public funds to be funding freebie helipads for Amazon + robber baron billionaires, all while NYCHA and public schools go underfunded & mom+pops get nowhere near that kind of a break,” she said, capturing criticism of some of the most comical parts of the Amazon deal as brokered by de Blasio and Cuomo.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic Socialist bent may still be a nascent one, and her job in DC means local activist groups will have to lead the fight on the ground. (Some unions actually supported the deal, further exposing the internal Democratic Party divide at issue here.) At the same time, it’s important to look back to previous massive corporate deals for context on what’s going on. While Amazon, as a company, doesn’t have many contemporaries in the city trying to launch a new home at this scale, the way stadiums, universities and other hubs have been constructed in NYC in the past will help inform what does—and doesn’t—happen in Long Island City.

The EDC spokesperson, for example, pointed out that other big projects—such as Columbia University’s expansion and Atlantic Yards—were also achieved via a General Project Plan pushed through by the state instead of undergoing to the more public land review process at the city level. Using that fast-track in Amazon’s case has been a key flashpoint in the dispute over its origin, garnering frustration from Van Bramer and his colleagues. (Announcing a project before knowing the specific details, the EDC spokesperson insisted, was par for the course in cases like this one.)

This fast-tracking does happen often with larger projects, Reiss agreed, noting that land procedures can be bypassed when the state government is involved, leaving some feeling like their voices were ignored. “This can cut deeply because they are often the ones who are most affected by the negatives of the construction process and the changes that the project bring about in their communities,” he told me.

The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition

photo by SounderBruce

The New York Law Journal published commentary of mine, The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition. It opens,

Last week Amazon finally announced that New York and Northern Virginia would be the sites of its planned major expansion. While many are caught up in the excitement of Amazon bringing 25,000 high-paid jobs to both metropolitan areas, it is worth thinking through the costs that beauty contests like this one impose on state and local governments. Amazon extracted billions of dollars in concessions from the winners and could have extracted even more from some of the other cities courting them.

It is economically rational for companies to create such Hunger Games-type competitions among communities. These competitions reduce their costs and improve their bottom lines. But is it economically rational for the cities? As long as governments are acting independently, yes, it is rational for them to race to the bottom to secure a win. So long as they are a bit better off by snagging the prize than they would have been otherwise, they come out ahead. But the metrics that politicians use are unlikely to be limited to a hard-nosed accounting of costs and increased tax revenues. Positive buzz may be enough to satisfy them.

Consider Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s deal with Foxconn. Just over a year ago, he was touting the $3 billion state subsidy for FoxConn’s manufacturing plant. This was the year leading up to his hard fought election fight, a fight he ultimately lost. His public statements focused on Foxconn’s promise to create 13,000 jobs. While that was a lot of jobs, it was a hell of a lot of subsidy—more than $230,000 per job, more than six times the largest amount Wisconsin had ever paid to subsidize a promised job. Walker got his campaign issue, FoxConn got its $3 billion and Wisconsin residents got … had. The $3 billion dollar subsidy has grown to over $4 billion at the same time that Foxconn is slowing down its investment in Wisconsin. So now taxpayers are subsidizing each job by well over $300,000 each. Nonpartisan analysts have determined that it will take decades, at the earliest, for Wisconsin to recoup its “investment.”

Likewise, hundreds of millions of dollars are thrown at stadiums and arenas even though economists have clearly demonstrated that those investments do not generate a positive financial return for the governments that provide these subsidies. Fancy consultants set forth all of the supposed benefits: job creation, direct spending by all of the people drawn to the facility, indirect spending by those who service the direct spenders. This last metric is meant to capture the increase in restaurant staff, Uber drivers and others who will cater to the new employees, residents and visitors to the facility. But as has been shown time and time again, these metrics are vastly overstated and willingly accepted at face value by politicians eager to generate some good headlines. They also ignore the opportunity cost of the direct subsidies—monies spent on attracting a company is money that can’t be spent on anything else. While we don’t know what it would have been spent on, it is likely to have been public schools, mass transit, roads or affordable housing in many communities.

 

Promoting Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

graphic by USGAO

Enteprise has released a report, Promoting Opportunity through Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD): Navigating Federal Transportation Policy. It opens,

Transportation, housing and land use decisions that form the foundation of our development patterns are made at every level of government. While the local regulatory environment significantly impacts the amount and type of development that occurs, the federal government plays a major role in local development in both overt and hidden ways. Federal funding is the most obvious source of influence. However, this funding comes with a catch, as the incentives and regulations that govern funding programs can have a significant impact – both positive and negative – on the type of housing and transportation infrastructure that is built and how it is maintained over time.

The federal ability to influence development patterns gives it both direct and indirect influence on a community’s strength and composition. Individual families, the local economy, municipal governments and the environment all benefit when well-located housing, jobs and other necessary resources are connected by efficient transportation and infrastructure networks. Equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD, see sidebar for definition) is an important approach to facilitating these connections. eTOD supports the achievement of multiple cross-sector goals, including regional economic growth, enhanced mobility and access, efficient municipal and transportation network operations, improved public health and decreased cost of living. For a full discussion of the benefits of eTOD, read Promoting Opportunity through eTOD: Making the Case.

In recent years, the federal government has taken several actions that are more conducive to fostering eTOD. Notable examples include the adoption of incentives for creating and preserving affordable housing near transit, the provision of planning and technical assistance resources to support eTOD, and the reduction of barriers to producing affordable housing on federally-funded property. However, a wide range of policies and incentives that do not explicitly address eTOD can also support or detract from the conditions that make such development possible.

Navigating Federal Transportation Policy is the third report in our Promoting Opportunity through eTOD research series. This report seeks to assist stakeholders involved in achieving eTOD, such as public entities, developers and practitioners, as they work to navigate the federal policy landscape, with a focus onFederal Transit Administration (FTA) policies and programs. These policies and programs generally offer several funding and technical assistance opportunities that can address eTOD (among a range of other uses), but housing practitioners may be less familiar with these resources and how to access them. (2, footnote omitted)

While the report explicitly acknowledges the changed environment since President Trump’s election, it does not seem to fully integrate those changes into its recommendations. While there are a lot of good ideas in the report, I am afraid that it will take a few years, or longer, for them to find a sympathetic ear in the Executive Branch.

Big Eviction Data

photo by Tim Patterson

The Eviction Lab, run by Princeton University Professor Matthew Desmond (of Evicted fame) has recently released its Methodology Report and related resources. The introduction to the report opens,

In recent years, renters’ housing costs have far outpaced their incomes, driving a nationwide affordability crisis. Current data from the American Housing Survey show that most poor renting families spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing costs. Under these conditions, 1 millions of Americans today are at risk of losing their homes through eviction.

An eviction occurs when a landlord forcibly expels a tenant from a residence. While the majority of evictions are attributed to nonpayment of rent, landlords may evict tenants for a variety of other reasons, including property damage, nuisance complaints, or lease violations. A formal eviction occurs when a landlord carries out an eviction through the court system. Conversely, an informal eviction occurs when a landlord executes an eviction without initiating a legal process. For example, a landlord may offer a buyout or perform an illegal lock-out. Until recently, little was known about the prevalence, causes, and consequences of eviction.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University has collected, cleaned, geocoded, aggregated, and publicized all recorded court-ordered evictions that occurred between 2000 and 2016 in the United States. This data set consists of 82,935,981 million court records related to eviction cases in the United States between 2000 and 2016, gleaned from multiple sources. It is the most comprehensive data set of evictions in America to date.

These data allow us to estimate the national prevalence of court-ordered eviction, and to compare eviction rates among states, counties, cities, and neighborhoods. We can observe eviction trends over time and across geography, and researchers can link these data to other sources of information. (2)

In sum, the Eviction Lab has created “the most comprehensive data set of evictions in America.” (41) This data set is obviously of great importance and will lead to important research about what it means to be poor in the United States. The Eviction Lab website has a user-friendly mapping function among other resources for researchers and policymakers.

Cities With the Worst Rent

photo by Alex Lozupone

Realtor.com quoted me in Cities With the Worst Rent: Is This How Much You’re Coughing Up? It opens,

Sure, rents are too dang high just about everywhere, but people living in Los Angeles really have a right to complain: New analysis by Forbes has found that this city tops its list of the Worst Cities for Renters in 2018.

To arrive at these depressing results, researchers delved into rental data and found that people in L.A. pay an average of $2,172 per month.

Granted, other cities have higher rents—like second and third on this list, San Francisco (at $3,288) and New York ($3,493)—but Los Angeles was still deemed the worst when you consider how this number fits into the bigger picture.

For one, Los Angeles households generally earn less compared with these other cities, pulling in a median $63,600 per year. So residents here end up funneling a full 41% of their income toward rent (versus San Franciscans’ 35%).

Manhattanites, meanwhile, fork over 52% of their income toward rent, but the saving grace here is that rents haven’t risen much—just 0.4% since last year. In Los Angeles, in that same time period, rent has shot up 5.7%.

So is this just a case of landlords greedily squeezing tenants just because they can? On the contrary, most experts say that these cities just aren’t building enough new housing to keep up with population growth.

“It is fundamentally a problem of supply and demand,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “Certain urban centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are magnets for people and businesses. At the same time, restrictive local land use regulations keep new housing construction at very low levels. Unless those constraints are loosened, hot cities will face housing shortages and high rents no matter what affordable housing programs and rent regulation regimes are implemented to help ameliorate the situation.”

The Missing Piece in The Affordable Housing Puzzle

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. The report opens,

One of the biggest barriers to economic stability for families in the United States struggling to make ends meet is the severe shortage of affordable rental homes. The housing crisis is most severe for extremely low income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty level or 30% of their area median income (see Box 1). Facing a shortage of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes, extremely low income households account for nearly 73% of the nation’s severely cost-burdened renters, who spend more than half of their income on housing.

Even with these housing challenges, three out of four low income households in need of housing assistance are denied federal help with their housing due to chronic underfunding. Over half a million people were homeless on a single night in 2017 and many more millions of families without assistance face difficult choices between spending their limited incomes on rent or taking care of other necessities like food and medical care. Despite the serious lack of affordable housing, President Trump proposes further reducing federal housing assistance for the lowest income households through budget cuts, increased rents and work requirements.

Based on the American Community Survey (ACS), this report presents data on the affordable housing supply, housing cost burdens, and the demographics of severely impacted renters. The data clearly illustrate a chronic and severe shortage of affordable homes for the lowest income renters who would be harmed even more by budget cuts  and other restrictions in federal housing programs. (2, citations omitted)

The report’s key findings include,

  • The nation’s 11.2 million extremely low income renter households account for 25.7% of all renter households and 9.5% of all households in the United States.
  • The U.S. has a shortage of more than 7.2 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low income renter households. Only 35 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low income renter households.
  • Seventy-one percent of extremely low income renter households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on rent and utilities. They account for 72.7% of all severely cost-burdened renter households in the United States.
  • Thirty-two percent of very low income, 8% of low income, and 2.3% of middle income renter households are severely cost-burdened.
  • Of the eight million severely cost-burdened extremely low income renter households, 84% are seniors, persons with disabilities, or are in the labor force. Many others are enrolled in school or are single adults caring for a young child or a person with a disability. (2, citations omitted)

While the report does show how wrongheaded the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to housing subsidies are, I was surprised that it did not address at all the impact of local zoning policies on housing affordability. There is no way that we are going to address the chronic shortage in affordable housing by subsidies alone.

The federal government will need to disincentivize local governments from implementing land use policies that keep affordable housing from being built in communities that have too little housing. These rules make single family homes too expensive by requiring large lots and make it too difficult to build multifamily housing. We cannot seriously tackle the affordability problem without addressing restrictive local land use policies.