London’s Latest Bit of Rail Infrastructure Is a Very Old Street

This month, one of the world’s oldest surviving railway terminuses acquired an unusual new component: an entire Victorian street.

Stainer Street, a road that used to run beneath London Bridge Station, which has served the U.K. capital since 1836, is reopening this week along with the revamped station above it. It’s a surprisingly elegant pedestrian walkway that runs parallel to the station’s main concourse. This final finishing touch is emblematic of the way the terminus, which first started service in May, has been reconstructed. Thanks to the rebuild, London has a properly contemporary, easily navigable railway hub that manages to knit itself seamlessly into an urban fabric that is both historic and chaotic.

There’s no denying that London Bridge Station’s surroundings are full of interest. The terminus is squeezed into riverside streets where over 2,000 years of London history have washed up, leaving behind a tide of ill-tended, ill-preserved mementos. A Roman bathhouse was uncovered during the station’s reconstruction while, along with some very old houses, a coaching inn of the type in which the pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales gathered to begin their journey survives nearby.

Despite these survivals, the station surroundings’ overall impression is still one of Victorian and 20thcentury grime. Its packed and polluted streets are full of good restaurants and bad offices, all housed in buildings that, seen together, look both muscular and severe.

The Facade of the new London Bridge Station, bracketed by Victorian archways now being used as public areas//Network Rail.

If you haven’t heard much about the terminus that lies at the heart of all this interesting muddle, that’s probably because there wasn’t much to hear. First constructed in the mid 19th century—when stations were new and still rudimentary in layout—London Bridge Station was built and rebuilt, then bombed and rebuilt until years of poor provisional planning left it an utter mess. Before the current reconstruction it had two separate clumps of platforms accessed from different, distant points. This meant that it always seemed to be busy with people running for their train after realizing at the last minute they were in the wrong place. Visually, it matched grimness with aesthetic anticlimax, combining a rain-streaked and shelter-less forecourt, gimcrackery 1970s glass roofing, and a few sullen, windowless Victorian walls that looked like someone had been bricked up behind them.

Remarkably, it was possible to construct the new, Nicholas Grimshaw-designed space without ever closing more than two station platforms at a time. That’s because, rather than knocking down and rebuilding what was there, the main station concourse simply moved downstairs. All lines that come into the station are elevated, and as a result the old concourse was at a higher level than surrounding streets. Beneath the tracks, however, was a kind of catacomb, filled with railway vaults and threaded across with Victorian streets that had become submerged beneath arcades at the station grew above them. It’s into this area that the new station concourse, first opened in May, has shifted, providing access to the platforms above via escalator.

The result is altogether more spacious and easier to use. Visually, its layers also read like the different historical strata of the area around it. At the top, overlooked by the Shard, are steel and glass encased platforms. Escalators then take passengers down through a concourse ceiling clad with ribbons of wood. Below, a brick-walled hall blends easily into the Victorian tunnels and archways. The result suits the area well, an impressive feat given that the area is full of jarring contrasts of style and scale.

Meanwhile, Stainer Street itself has become a kind of focal point. It’s been decorated by what look like vast glass and metal umbrellas (created by artist Mark Titchner), as well as plaques charting the development of the station around it. At one end is the reminder of a tragedy that occurred on the site—a night in February 1941 when 68 people were killed trying to shelter in the tunnel from Nazi bombing. The decor is a stark improvement. Gone are the days of a dank, ill-ventilated space filled with car fumes so heady that pedestrians entered at their peril. The joints between the contemporary concourse, yellow brick arcade, and the street outside, meanwhile, now feel seamless.

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CityLab Daily: How Beverly Hills Fights a Metro Expansion

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What We’re Following

Beverly Hills stop: Last Friday, students at Beverly Hills High School staged a walkout. It wasn’t your typical act of youthful rebellion: It was a permission-slip-approved, school-bus-assisted rally against the Purple Line, a new Metro extension that’s set to travel under the school.

The school’s resistance isn’t exactly a secret: It’s been in a legal battle with the Los Angeles County Metro since 2012, claiming in three separate lawsuits that it has environmental and health concerns related to subway tunneling below its buildings. And it turns out, as reported by the Beverly Hills Weekly, that the district has been bankrolling the anti-subway efforts with bond money that’s meant for improving school facilities.

Los Angeles’s wealthy west side has been wrestling over the subway extension for decades, and as the construction phase finally kicks off, the school’s role in trying to stop it has become its own point of controversy. (Somehow, there’s even a Trump connection.)

CityLab’s Laura Bliss reports: Beverly Hills Has Financed Its Metro Fight With $13 Million In Local Taxes

Andrew Small

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‘To Get the Maddies of a City Home’

An obituary for Madelyn “Maddie” Linsenmeir, 30, of Burlington, Vermont, who died earlier this month from complications from opioid addiction, went viral. Penned by Maddie’s sister, the tribute describes a young mother who “was hilarious, and warm, and fearless, and resilient,” and who also struggled with an addiction to opiates since she was 16. The city’s police chief, Brandon del Pozo, says he has one problem with the tribute. “It’s a much better obituary than the rest of us deserve,” he wrote on Facebook.

Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew?

The police chief writes that law enforcement officials know that what happened to Maddie “happens all the time, to people no less loved and needed and human.” He then calls for urgent action—from overdose kits to drug treatment to stabilized housing. Police, he writes, have one clear job in the crisis: “To get the Maddies of a city home.” Read his full post here.

CityLab context: Six charts that explain the opioid crisis

What We’re Reading

The research on Seattle’s minimum wage hike looks a little more foggy (New York Times)

Will the real Atlanta please stand up? (The Guardian)

A class-action lawsuit is coming for e-scooters in California (Washington Post)

Search for Amazon’s HQ2 sparks real estate speculation (Wall Street Journal)

In the age of Instagram museums, what happens to haunted houses? (Vox)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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Beverly Hills Has Financed Its Metro Fight With $13 Million In Local Taxes

Earlier this month, students, parents, and friends of Beverly Hills High School staged a walkout to protest the Purple Line, a new Metro extension that’s set to travel under the school.

The protest was more like a field trip: The students got permission slips signed by their parents and were ferried on district school buses to the nearby park, where they chanted and displayed pre-printed signs with slogans like Save Our School, Health And Safety First, Trump the Metro. According to one letter to the editor in a local weekly, the PTA served snacks.

This “made-for-TV” rally, to borrow the words of the L.A. Times, was not the school’s first act of resistance against the Purple Line. Since 2012, with four separate lawsuits, Beverly Hills Unified School District has been fighting to stop the $9 billion plan by L.A. County Metro to extend a subway line that runs from downtown to Koreatown nine more miles to Westwood via Beverly Hills. The approved alignment would route the train beneath the high school, which serves the residents of one the most affluent communities in the L.A. region.

The school’s legal battle has largely hinged on claims that air pollution from the construction could endanger the health of students, and that drilling could spark a methane explosion from the oil and gas pockets that sit underground. (Much of mid-city and West L.A. sits on top of an old oil field.)

So far, these arguments have failed to derail the project: Funded by voter-backed sales tax funds and two federal grants, the Metro’s voluminous environmental, engineering, and safety reviews held up in court multiple times. After decades of talk and planning, the construction phase that will eventually reach Beverly began a few miles from campus last Monday.

The back-and-forth between Metro and Beverly Hills in county and federal courts has been well-documented in the local media. Less scrutinized has been how the district, guided by the Board of Education, has been bankrolling its anti-subway legal campaign. At least $13 million in school bond proceeds, fed by a voter-backed ballot measure to reconstruct aging school facilities, have financed the ongoing battle.

That’s according to seven years’ worth of performance audits of Measure E, which authorized the district to issue $334 million in general obligation bonds after Beverly Hills county voters approved it in 2008. Its original purpose was described as such:

Funds received from the sale of the bonds shall be used for the specific purposes set forth in this Measure including modernizing school facilities; making structural seismic repairs; upgrading, repairing and reconstructing classrooms, infrastructure, multi-use, gyms, libraries, science and technology labs, roofing, plumbing, heating, ventilation and electrical systems.

The district badly needed upgrades back in 2008; all of its five Spanish-style campuses date back to the 1920s. To give a sense of what’s still needed, an additional $385 million bond measure to finance capital improvements to school was passed by voters in June 2018, in order to “improve aging Beverly Hills schools, upgrade and replace inefficient heating, cooling, and electrical systems, classrooms, libraries and science labs, deteriorating restrooms and leaky roofs, and provide modern classroom technology and science equipment,” according to the Los Angeles County Registrar.

Some new construction, though not much, has been completed on district campuses since Measure E was passed. One middle-school auditorium has been renovated; some classroom work has been done. Meanwhile, the scope of the projects have widened. The use of bond proceeds for the district’s subway legal battle has equalled, and sometimes exceeded, its spending on these types of projects, according to audits conducted over the years by various firms.

For the financial year that ended in June 2012, for example, “when measured by individual school sites and projects, the largest Measure E expenditure … was approximately $1.7 million for legal and other professional services for matters related to the MTA’s proposal to construct a subway tunnel underneath BHUSD property,” stated the performance audit for that year.

In the financial year ending in June 2014, the district spent $2.3 million on MTA legal fees, which totaled about 15 percent of its overall Measure E spending that year. The following year, the district upped its legal ante to $3.2 million, which totaled 29 percent of the school bond proceeds spent.  

The figures below come from several years of audits available on the school district’s website. Note that the 2010-2011 figure includes fees for a separate lawsuit involving the district.

FY 2010-2011: $2.7 million
FY 2011-2012: $1.7 million
FY 2012-2013: $1.5 million
FY 2013-2014: $2.4 million
FY 2014-2015: $3.2 million
FY 2015-2016: $.5 million
FY 2016-2017: $1.1 million
Estimated total: $13 million

According to multiple bond counsel and public finance experts, it is uncommon for school districts to spend bond proceeds on litigation that may not be related to the scope of the bond’s original purpose. “The further you get from the actual project, the harder it is to make that connection,” said Scott Ferguson, a public finance lawyer at the San Francisco-based firm Jones Hall.

Spending such significant amounts, in particular, “raises red flags, without a question,” said one high-ranking state finance official who asked not to be named.

Leaders of Beverly Hills Unified first sued Metro in county court in 2012, arguing that Metro’s original, $13.8 million impact review had violated various state environmental and procedural laws. Apart from fears of an explosion, the district’s main concern was that tunneling under the school could damage property and impinge on the school’s future construction plans. (As of recently, that includes an underground parking lot.)

But there have been other subway fears aired—and stoked—by local politicos and libertarian-leaning publications, including threats of terrorist attacks and the theory that the project serves Democratic electeds in the pocket of real estate developers. After a judge upheld Metro’s extensive review, the school filed similar claims against the Federal Transit Administration in 2013. Three years later, a district judge ruled that aspects of the review had to be supplemented, but that subway construction could otherwise move forward. Metro complied.

In January 2018, the district filed another lawsuit against the FTA and Metro, seeking an injunction in order to require the agencies to “conduct a proper environmental analysis, evaluate the serious health effects the Project and associated construction next to campus will have on the students, and prohibit the FTA from obligating federal funds to the Project until the agencies have fully complied with federal law,” according to a press release.

Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero has asserted that the project’s reviews are fully sound, legally compliant, and most importantly, indicate that the chosen route is the safest overall. “We will not build an unsafe project that jeopardizes the health and welfare of the public,” he told the Beverly Press last month.

The type of bond used by Beverly Hills was designed “to ensure that the proceeds from the sale of school facilities bonds are used for specified school facilities projects only,” according to the California Constitution and Education Code. This does not necessarily discount the use of proceeds for litigation. But, normally, such expenses would be for lawsuits or legal work that pertain directly to the capital improvements outlined by the project’s purpose and which voters approved, such as settling an environmental dispute or an issue raised by a construction contractor.

“If there are issues that require the services of lawyers to straighten out something that the district is told by the voter to do, then that makes sense,” said Dale Scott, a California financial advisor with expertise in school bonds who said he has never worked with Beverly Hills Unified. “But if it’s not related somehow, it’s hard to see how you get there.”

The district asserts that Metro’s tunneling underground could disrupt its future plans and overall autonomy. “The existence of tunnels and tunnel easements under the campus effect [sic] both short term current construction efforts and the ability to modernize, restructure and construct new buildings at the High School,” Romi Azevedo, the director of communications for the district, told CityLab via email. “Legal expenses for litigation to protect the campus from both the short term and long term effects are proper bond expenditures.”

But Metro has stated that the district’s remodeling plans could be fully accommodated throughout the subway’s construction. Furthermore, multiple performance audits of its use of Measure E funds have raised concerns about the relationship between the two. Different auditing firms have made repeated recommendations to the district to clarify the connection between the subway fight and the rehabilitation and renovation of its campuses.

The Metro Red Line’s Hollywood/Western station in Los Angeles. Disputes over the route of the Purple Line have persisted for several years. (Reed Saxon/AP)

The audit for the 2009-2010 financial year states, “we would caution the District that the amount of legal fees paid be closely monitored so that Measure E funds can be maximized in their direct application toward facilities modernization and construction purposes.”

The audit for the 2011‐12 financial year directs the school board to “include MTA‐related litigation and any other legal and related matters in a District list of authorized projects authorized for Measure E use, including the rationale for the relationship between the legal matter and the construction and modernization projects to be funded by Measure E.”

The most recent audit for the 2016-2017 financial year states, “We also identified legal fees charged to the Bond program where it is unclear whether the scope of work performed was allowable per ballot language.”

Based on a review of public project documents, no list or rationale seems to have been ever publicly produced, according to Beverly Hills Weekly editor Josh Gross. His paper has been publishing quarterly public records requests of the districts’ substantial legal expenses since 2013 (past issues are available online). “I never saw a list like that,” he said. The district did not supply any such document upon requested.

The district did solicit and obtain at least two legal opinions from outside counsel authorizing the use of these millions of dollars in bond proceeds for its legal crusade against Metro. These are referenced, though not republished, in the public audits. “According to two legal opinions provided to the District, such expenditures are legitimate Measure E bond expenditures because the construction that is impacted by the subway project is eligible to be funded by Measure E bond funds,” stated the 2012-2013 financial year audit.

The district has relied on a variety of specialty law firms over the years to advise on the issuance of their bonds, including Jones Hall. However, David Kasnocha, a partner at San Francisco-based Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth, the law firm most recently brought on as bond counsel to the district, said that while prior legal counsel may have OK-ed the use of bond dollars for battling Metro, his firm’s position was that the school should stop.

“It’s not appropriate, because that battle was not a bond-financed project,” he said. “A transportation dispute is not a bond-funded, school district project.”

The school has not discontinued financing its legal battle with bond-backed dollars. According to the latest spending records published by the Weekly, in the first quarter of 2018 alone, the district paid out $363,497.40 to Kasowitz, Benson, Torres LLP, the firm representing the district on their latest MTA lawsuit. That firm may sound familiar, thanks to Marc Kasowitz’s former role as personal lawyer to President Donald Trump. (Kasnocha pointed out that the district may be using funds from a past issuance of bond proceeds for litigation, rather than the most recent round, which would mean that it has not necessarily flouted his firm’s advice.)

The Citizens’ Oversight Committee that is meant to oversee and report on the district’s use of the bond money, appointed in accordance with California state law, has also raised several concerns over the money, especially in regards to the subway melée. According to the last annual report regarding financial year 2016-2017, published over the summer, the committee counted $14,227,000, or nearly 9 percent of total bond expenditures, spent on the MTA fight from the start of the bond measure.

The committee members raised concerns over this growing sum, as well as over transparency issues. They noted in their report that its requests for the same legal opinions authorizing the use of Measure E funds for litigation have not been met by the Board of Education. They made the impact of these legal fees plain in the concluding statement of their report:

The District’s MTA litigation was unsuccessful on appeal. As a result, the District filed a Federal law suit in January 29, 2018 asserting that adjustments to the proposed subway tunnel should be made. The District does not have a budget for this litigation. Legal expenditures reduce bond funds available for construction.

The outgoing president of Beverly Hills Unified’s Board of Education, Lisa Korbatov, has often been at the center of publicity around these years of lawsuits. At a community meeting on October 4, Korbatov described appealing in person to President Trump to halt the subway construction. Her last name has come up in connection to the president before: Her husband helped broker the hazy transference of a Beverly Hills mansion to Trump. At the same meeting, Korbatov helped drum up support for the student rally on Friday, and took partial credit for the previously anonymous “Stop the Purple Threat” website, devoted to opposing Purple Line construction. It features a petition, contacts for writing local representatives, and promotional videos that feature such lines as, “Beverly is a family. Metro is a plague.”

Korbatov directed requests for an interview to the school district.

The idea of a subway extension serving the wealthy West Side of L.A. has been around for decades, and has faced resistance at every turn. At this point, many of the Purple Line’s detractors in Beverly Hills insist that they do not oppose the subway itself: They just prefer an alignment along busy Santa Monica Boulevard that avoids the sensitive area of the high school.

“We think expansion is great and it’s good for everyone,” said Sean Toobi, a senior at Beverly Hills High who serves as a student liaison to the Board of Education. However, even though there are subways that travel below schools all over the world (including in L.A.), the risks posed by the Purple Line route to Beverly Hills’ future student body are too great, he believes. “Nothing should come above the students and their health and safety.”

Asked about whether he saw the litigation as a waste of school resources, Toobi said that the lawsuits have produced some good outcomes, despite the losses. But he added that he sees more potential in a class action lawsuit from students and families themselves, rather than more appeals from the district. There’s talk brewing now of such a collective legal effort.

So it seems Beverly Hills is not giving up its subway fight yet. And though the use of bond dollars for it has been reported on by media outlets here and there—and quite consistently by one of the community’s local weeklies—no one has brought a lawsuit against the Board of Education or the District to stop it. That would be the legal remedy, according to Kasnocha.   

“The remedy is not newspaper articles or wringing your hands,” he said. “It’s a legal action asserting that these actions were unlawful and seeking an injunction until a court can decide yes or no.”

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Can Milwaukee Really Create 10,000 Affordable Homes?

Barbara Smith, President of Milwaukee’s Amani United Neighborhood Association, stands in front of her north side house and points to a neglected two-family across the street, one of three abandoned properties adjacent to her house. The shingles of its upper floors are missing and ribbons of yellow siding curl away from the sides, exposing the boards underneath. Small holes line the outside wall, used by animals to get in and out. “I call that the critter house,” Smith says.

The critter house has been like this for a while: The record of complaints about this property goes back 20 years.

In the 53206 area code where Smith lives, boarded-up houses, stripped of siding and overrun with weeds, are common. Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services says they monitor an estimated 2,500 vacant and neglected homes, but the total number of vacant houses in the city is much higher. Alan Mallach, senior fellow for the Center for Community Progress and the author of a recent report on vacant homes from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, says that hard numbers for abandoned homes are hard to produce, but estimating from the U.S. Census housing data on “other vacant” properties, Milwaukee’s total number of abandoned homes is probably closer to 16,000.

The city is also dealing with a foreclosure and eviction problem that, thanks in part to its starring role in Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-winning book Evicted, has helped make Milwaukee a poster child for broken housing programs.

But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who took office in 2004, has been making an effort to reverse this legacy. In February of this year, Barrett announced his “Ten Thousand Homes in Ten Years” affordable housing initiative. It’s an effort to extend the reach and impact of the city’s recent downtown building boom: Recently, the city opened a $524 million arena for the NBA’s Bucks, built a $450-million glass skyscraper for Northwestern Mutual, and added almost 12,000 new residential units. This surge of development may have reshaped the city’s skyline, but it has done little to alleviate the lack of housing for lower-income residents. Just 760 of those new units, says Department of City Development commissioner Rocky Marcoux, are affordable.

Building boom: Construction cranes dominate the Milwaukee skyline in 2015. But affordable housing hasn’t been a focus for downtown development. (Carrie Antlfinger/AP)

It’s a similar story in many other cities, where a boom in luxury housing hasn’t translated into progress in alleviating a stubborn gap in more-affordable units. From Boston to Las Vegas, cities are facing severe shortages of rental housing for low-income residents; indeed, no state boasts a sufficient supply of affordable housing. And Wisconsin is among the worst, with only 28 units available for every 100 extremely low-income renters. In Milwaukee itself, the figure is even lower than the state average, at 25 units.

But details on how the city’s new plan would close this gap have been slow to come. At a June 27 meeting of the Common Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee, Marcoux revised the mayor’s claim somewhat, saying it would be more accurate to say that the goal was to create 10,000 housing “opportunities.” To accomplish that, the city’s plan is less than novel. Mostly, it will continue with what it’s already doing: using tools such as tax-increment financing (TIF) and low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC) and “stacking” those resources with about 24 different city programs that offer incentives like cheap land, tax rebates, and repair grants. This—the city hopes—should either create new housing, keep people in the houses where they already live, or ease the sale of city-owned property to developers who can fix them and put them back on the tax rolls.  

Martha Brown, DCD deputy commissioner, says that in 2007, the city took possession of 79 homes in tax foreclosure. In 2016, they seized 855. At the June 27 meeting, Maria Prioletta, DCD’s redevelopment manager, told city aldermen that at the height of the housing bust, there were 6,000 bank foreclosure filings per year in the city, and “probably 70 percent of the time” the foreclosed property was sold to an investor. The bulk of that activity was “very concentrated,” says Brown, in three aldermanic districts of the north side, where University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers say that the poverty rate is close to 50 percent.

Marcoux describes the 10,000-homes plan as both “ambitious” and “attainable.” But many community organizers in Milwaukee are more skeptical.

Sister Patricia Rogers, executive director of Amani’s Dominican Center for Women, argues that the city favors big commercial developers over smaller ones in the community, and the rent these developers charge ($800 for a 2-bedroom) is well out of reach for many people in the community.

Danell Cross, executive director of Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, wants the city to help developers lower their rents by giving them “the money they need to help them drive down the price.” The mayor’s new plan, she says, “is so imperfect, that it’s not even a plan.”

If the city wants to succeed, says Rogers, they have to involve the community and make addressing racial justice and economic equality their priority. “It has to be the intent for the city to do this,” she says. “And it never has been.”

While the 2008 housing crisis exacerbated the foreclosure problem on Milwaukee’s north side, problems in the neighborhoods go further back. The first complaint about Barbara Smith’s critter house was recorded by the Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) 20 years ago; the second of the three nuisance houses was owner-occupied until 1988, when it was sold and resold as part of a business trust. The third house entered a spin cycle of foreclosures and resales during the 2008 financial crisis.

One of the problems facing cities like Milwaukee—former manufacturing cities that have suffered severe population drops after de-industrialization—are the pockets of concentrated poverty that fail to improve even as other areas recover. As the desirable neighborhoods rebuild after the recession, impoverished ones slip further behind, and deep income disparities result. These areas are also dogged by higher rates of vacancy, according to Mallach’s Lincoln Institute report. Overall, Milwaukee’s vacancy rate is currently at a relatively healthy 5 percent. But it’s far higher in the neighborhoods of the north side; there, one in 10 census tracts is closer to the 20 percent non-rental-unit vacancy rate that defines what Mallach calls hypervacancy.  

The situation is even worse in Michigan cities like Detroit and Flint, and Gary, Indiana, where about 50 percent of census tracts struggle with hypervacancy. It’s the end result of a process of deterioration that begins when market demand for housing drops, and the normal turnover of vacant homes slows down, allowing investors to “beat” the homeowners to the properties. Those investors are “looking to make a buck,” says Mallach—and for a while, they do, but they also advance a process of neighborhood deterioration as more properties fall into disrepair. Those who have choices move; the neighborhood soon ends up with just a few trapped homeowners. In these areas, Mallach says, “housing markets have largely ceased to work.”

This cycle, Mallach explains, could be broken at any time if the market value of the houses goes up and homebuyers become interested in the neighborhood. To help stave off hypervacancy, says Mallach, cities should concentrate on making the neighborhoods appealing to an owner-occupant. Low-income housing tax credits for developers, he says, is not necessarily a solution. “There’s a lot of money in the LIHTC industry,” says Mallach. “The problem is that it doesn’t really make the neighborhoods better.

And it doesn’t take much to tip a block into a hypervacancy: Research from Philadelphia and Cleveland has shown that even one boarded-up home can reduce the value of nearby properties by 20 percent, kicking off a fatal cycle of plunging values.

For Cross and other community organizers, what this neighborhood needs is a more holistic approach, one that looks at jobs and education and health—not just housing finances. Neighborhood residents are interested in developing cooperative housing and land grants that would give the community some authority over board-ups and vacant lots.

She points to a city program that allows homeowners to buy vacant lots adjacent to their houses for a dollar. On the surface, that seems like a good idea, but it doesn’t address one core concern, she explains. “We’re losing our density,” she says. That’s what transit systems look at when they decide whether to add a stop, and what businesses look at when they choose locations. A holistic approach would help them identify “how one thing will fix the other.” If the city would just work with them more closely, “those things would come out.”  

“We are the experts on our community” Cross says. “If the city had any faith in the community and community organizers, they would support our efforts.”

Even when the city does fix up and rent homes in the community, says Smith, they still present a problem to the community. She points to a pocket of scattered-site projects that have been refurbished: In the rehabbed homes, the developers tore the front porches off the homes and moved the main entrance to the back. Residents now park in the alley and enter through the backyard, without ever seeing their neighbors. That eliminates a key feature of the community’s homes—the places where residents could drink their coffee, chat with their neighbors, and keep an eye on the comings and goings.   

“They’re backwards,” Smith says.

That turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for how things tend to get done in this zip code. “It’s been so long since 53206 has been neglected,” says Smith. The city will need to do more if it wants to help restore this neighborhood as a place that people want to live. “I don’t know if ‘presentable’ is the right word. But the city needs to do better.”

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On Long Island, Failure to Absorb Sandy’s Lessons

Six years ago Monday, Hurricane Sandy began gathering in the Caribbean Sea. Although it was classified as a post-tropical cyclone by the time it hit New York on October 29, it killed 43 people in the state, wiping out homes, and causing billions of dollars in damage. Despite repeated warnings from scientists and planners that “the next big one” is coming, the appeal of waterfront living still continues to lure buyers, investors, and builders across the New York metro region.

One of the parts of New York that was hardest hit, Long Island, is a patchwork of municipalities that control the region’s land usage with little regard given to the adoption of a collective and cohesive approach to growth. Between the filling-in of the marshes and wetlands that absorbed surge and wave action, to the construction of multi-million-dollar projects on unsteady sands, Long Islanders have long witnessed the economics of the real estate industry trump the warnings by urban planners and scientists.

Following the sobering reality of Sandy’s aftermath, developers and homeowners who build on New York’s coasts have adapted their efforts to the challenges of waterfront living, yet they have not slowed their pace. The questions are: Can they build to meet buyer demand while simultaneously anticipating the storm surges and shifting sands of the future? And can local jurisdictions balance the economic pull of housing development and local preventative storm-damage mitigation with the greater good? As with all land-use issues, the answer is murky, and in the past six years, local policymakers and builders have taken a variety of different approaches:  

  • In Island Park, a small village tucked away on a densely-populated islet on the south shore Nassau County (one of the two counties that comprise Long Island) Sandy hit particularly hard, leading to the damage of 95 percent of the community’s housing stock. Despite the known vulnerabilities of the area, Virginia-based AvalonBay Communities purchased an 11.6–acre waterfront parcel that was formerly used as a fuel oil terminal in 2017, and is looking to build 172 rental units right on the water. On Nassau’s north shore, along the famed gold coast in Great Neck, AvalonBay built 191 apartments on the waterfront of Manhasset Bay. As reported by Newsday, the developer raised both the structure and the utilities, in anticipation of future storms.
  • On the former site of a marina that was destroyed by Sandy,  developer Beechwood Homes, is elevating a new condo project in East Rockaway, a waterfront village located just north of Island Park. They are mitigating against future events by adding enlarged drainage systems that will better absorb drenching rains and flooding, and newly constructed bulkheads that will harden the coast against increased erosion. Similar to AvalonBay’s measures, the builder is placing all mechanical equipment as high as possible. A Beechwood representative said that the firm has spent roughly $5 million to protect their project from storm impacts.

Many of these measures will only be truly tested when the next powerful storm strikes the northeast. The continued push to develop the waterfront isn’t surprising, especially with ample fiscal resources available post-Sandy. Developers often receive state funds to support storm prevention measures and thus must in theory, adhere to certain standards that consider the effect on the larger region. But in some municipalities, storm mitigation and coastal zone policies are not addressed in ways that transcend political jurisdictions.

In the small village of Nissequogue on the northern shores of Long Island’s other county, Suffolk, officials are allowing property owners to fortify their shorelines against erosion, possibly at the expense of other homeowners outside of the village. “There are hardening measures such as sea walls that if done on a property-by-property basis, will have major downstream consequences that make the problem even worse,” Lawrence Swanson, an interim dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, told Long Island Pulse in July 2018. “If we want to maintain the Island, we can’t make one part of that complex system static,” he said.

We were warned before Sandy: In October 1984, the Long Island Regional Planning Board, a collective group of planners, economists, scientists, and the like, stated bluntly that “Long Island is highly vulnerable to the occurrence of a hurricane disaster of immense proportions,” adding that the Board had ample data in its “Hurricane Damage Mitigation Plan for the South Shore,” to substantiate such an ominous forecast. “Coastal areas on Long Island have experienced dramatic residential and commercial development and change in recent years,” the report explained. “As a result, the Island’s South Shore is far more vulnerable to storm-related damage and potential loss of life today.” And these areas are becoming increasingly more vulnerable with accelerated climate change.

Some homeowners have opted not to rebuild after Sandy, and, thanks to New York Rising, a New York State-backed program that purchases storm-damaged properties among other planning activities, other areas will not be developed. The state spent upwards of $240 million to buy flood- and surge-prone parcels in an attempt to prevent future catastrophes by allowing them to return to their natural state, with the belief that the vacant lots will collectively act as a natural buffer in vulnerable areas.

So far, the majority of property acquisitions through this program have been in the areas of Staten Island hardest hit by Sandy where entire neighborhoods were wiped out by storm surge, and the program has had limited adoption in the eastern suburbs. But in Nassau County, officials have chosen not to participate in the buy-outs over fears of lost tax revenues, Rachel Wieder, who was then-director of the buyout and acquisition programs for New York Rising, said in October 2016. The choice serves as a reflection of their larger fiscal picture.

With municipalities in open competition for scarce tax revenues and a bad habit of ignoring the pleas of their neighbors under typical conditions, the x-factors that future Sandy-like storms pose add a dark ingredient to an already twisted cocktail of local governance and its politics, and things are likely to get worse.

This isn’t an issue that is exclusive to the New York area, but is currently playing out in Houston, which saw its poor land use policies face the wrath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and in the Carolinas, where they were battered by the slow-moving soak of Florence.

All these years later, we are being provided with increasingly vivid examples of how our land-use policies on the waterfront are failing, and yet these areas continue to see development, and protective policies continue to be implemented piecemeal, rather than as part of a cohesive strategy.

While memories after storm events are relatively short, the critical question still remains: Why?

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Off-Hours Consumer Delivery Systems May Unlock Sustainability at Scale

There are several parts of the web where change needs to happen, and enlightened policy has the potential to facilitate change across that web. Shifting delivery times seems straightforward and simple, but moving an entire community and its supply chains to greater sustainability requires multiple interventions happening in parallel—with consumer behavior, with infrastructure, and with use of technology.

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Reconstructing Hurricane Harvery to Find Its Overlooked Victims

A little over a year after Hurricane Harvey barreled through Texas, cities are still rebuilding. Recovery efforts have lagged in many poorer communities, in part because of the uneven allocation of federal recovery funds favoring smaller, often wealthier neighborhoods. But Houston is now trying to break from that pattern with a data-driven effort to send federal aid to the vulnerable populations that need it most.

The first step is to reconstruct Hurricane Harvey.

To get a better picture of which communities were hardest hit by the storm and subsequent flooding, the city has enlisted the help of Civis Analytics, founded by the chief analytics officer for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Using various data about Harvey itself and the city’s environment, the firm is running through predictive models of the storm to figure out what flooding looked like across the city during the hurricane, and how much damage it amounted to.

It’s a new way of gauging the storm, one that, according to the city, is more accurate and telling than the traditional method used to assess damages. “People aren’t fully recovering, and there isn’t enough money, especially when those disasters are happening one right after another,”said Sarah Labowitz, the communications and policy director at Houston’s housing department. Just in the last three years, Texas had five federally declared disasters. “It made us think we need a better way to count the damage.”  

Traditionally, assessing the impact of a storm (and the amount of funding a city needs) is based on applications for FEMA assistance. The agency’s record of “verified loss” includes damages worth at least $8,000 for homeowners and at least $2,000 for renters. But that only includes those who applied for assistance right after the hurricane hit and who were then approved. By that measure, Houston calculated its unmet housing needs to be around $3 billion, which the city’s housing department says is a severe undercount. It leaves out storm-damaged households that didn’t or couldn’t apply for FEMA assistance, and the more than 182,000 applications that were rejected, according to the Houston Chronicle.

That means, by even conservative estimates, the $1.15 billion Houston received as part of a $5 billion aid package to Texas from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development isn’t nearly enough to cover what residents lost in the storm. And that’s why the city is now trying to ensure the limited funds will actually go to the most vulnerable.

Fair housing advocates have long criticized FEMA’s process of assessing needs as being unfair, even discriminatory, toward communities of color and low-income groups. “The higher the amount of property someone has, and the higher value of their property, then the more likely FEMA will consider them as having an unmet need,” said Christina Rosales, communications director at the nonprofit Texas Housers. “So it’s very much skewed toward higher income households.” It’s also skewed toward homeowners, even though nearly half of the city’s residents are renters, according to Texas Housers co-director John Henneberger.

This map shows the precent of remaining unmet need in racial and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty. (Civis Analytics; Dewberry; and the City of Houston)

What Civis Analytics did instead, on a $1.3 million contract from the city, was combine various information: rainfall data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, land-use data to find the impervious surfaces, and data from Harris County Assessors’ database to find all the city’s residential buildings and record the construction material for each one (wood or brick, for example). They then reconstructed the hurricane using predictive modeling to figure out how much flooding each building received.

“It really helps you understand that if there is a foot of water in a building built out of one thing, that’s going to cause more damage than if it was built out of a different material,” said Chris Dick, the data scientist at Civis Analytics who led the project. To understand how the damages affected the population, they then overlaid the model with Census data, creating a profile of each building’s residents. “We can know that this person who had a foot of water in their house was likely to be under 50 percent of the median income, for example,” Dick said.

According to the resulting report, more than 208,000 households were affected by the hurricane, resulting in a total loss of nearly $16 billion. Nearly half of the households are of low- or moderate- income, incurring about $5.2 billion in damages. The most socially vulnerable victims lie in 12 neighborhoods where building damages account for more than half of the residents’ estimated income. That includes the Greater Fifth Ward, where—at $30,535—the median income is less than 70 percent of the citywide median and whose unmet needs totals $54 million. According to the data, less than 5 percent of that has been met.

This map shows impacted households by income category, and reveals clusters of low- and moderate-income households. (Civis Analytics; Dewberry; and the City of Houston)

The report also shows that the proportion of homeowners and renters are split just about in half (54 percent versus 46 percent). “But we are able to see that owners have gotten more assistance,” said Labowitz. In fact, the city acknowledges that renters have so far only received 37 percent of recovery funds.

“It also tells us where we have extreme flooding—more than 6 feet of water in areas like Memorial, Kingwood, and Magnolia Park—all made worse by the controlled release of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs by the Army Corps of Engineers and whose unmet needs have yet to be addressed,” said Labowitz. “Yet recovery funding is generally given to areas with high housing values.”

The report will help shape the programs described in its local recovery plan, unveiled earlier this June. It allots nearly $600 million to home repair and construction programs, and some $400 million toward fixing rental properties and building affordable housing to help turn renters into homeowners. The rest will fund things like buyout programs, economic revitalization, and various public services. The challenge is to make sure those programs target the right households.

In the long run, Houston hopes the new data will also improve the city’s flood mitigation strategies. “It’s not just rivers and bayous spilling their banks, but it’s long heavy rains sitting over the city and overwhelming the street-level infrastructure,” said Labowitz. “For us that means having a mitigation strategy so the investments we’re making are protected.” The report found that 59 percent of damage in Houston occurred outside the 500-year floodplain, with those losses totaling around $7.5 billion.

“At this point, our key challenge is how to get started,” said Labowitz.

Yet Henneberger isn’t convinced the report will actually be of much help. “Instead of going from the general to the specific, [the city] went from the specific to the general,” he said. Essentially, he says, the city used a rain model to redraw, and widely expand, the potential population of people who need help. That may help with garnering funds, but Henneberger says it’s the wrong approach to the equitable distribution of that money.

He also has a problem with the fact that some of the neighborhoods the report identifies as having the most remaining unmet needs are also some of the wealthiest. (Among the top are Greater Uptown, with median household income of $84,000, and University Place with $111,000, which has 96.8 and 98.5 percent, respectively, of needs remaining.)

“In disaster recovery, you want to begin to get a handle on the nature of the specific disaster needs of the affected populations and figure out how you are going to address those,” Henneberger said. He argues the city should have surveyed those who initially called FEMA for help. “What was really needed was an effort to go back, contact a sampling of those people who did initial outreach for assistance, and ask them, ‘Did you get the help you needed? Have you recovered yet, and whats not working for you?’” he said.

He acknowledges that it’s labor intensive, and that it may be limited in reaching out to undocumented individuals who may have been hesitant to ask for help. But he maintains the key is for the city to ask the right questions. “This doesn’t get me really closer to solving the immediate needs what sort of homeowner’s assistance we are getting, how many homes are we going to tear down or repair,” he saids. “And how are we going to identify the renters who have now been displaced?”

Henneberger does give some credit to the city, saying that it’s better to have some analysis than none at all. “I just question if we are going to spend a million dollars doing this study,” he said, “why didn’t we spend the money doing a sample survey of people who applied for assistance.”

Chrishelle Parlay, who directs Texas Housers’ Houston office, calls the report a good first step in the right direction. “I do want give a nod to the city for even acknowledging that we really need to better understand exactly the real need of people who have fallen through the cracks,” she said. “But we can’t look a this as, ‘This is the answer, and now it stops.’”

The next step is to use the data and work with grassroots organizations on the ground and, in essence, do what Henneberger is suggesting: knocking on doors.

Labowitz says the housing department is currently looking over the details of the report with local nonprofits like Texas Housers who will help them develop an outreach plan to the people they advocate for. “[Like] people who have been living in mold for a year, those will be the first people in mind once the programs start, probably in early 2019,” she said, adding: “Having a data-driven strategy is going to help us have the most target and efficient strategy we’ll ever have.”

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Navigator: Reality (TV) Bites

Hello and happy fall!

TV—and particularly, reality TV—can be an escape. Or, it can be an astute reflection of the social realities in a particular place. This week, CityLab staff writer Sarah Holder ruminates on the significance of the HGTV experience for her, and how it has changed over time:

My best childhood memories were also some of the most mundane: nights spent snuggled with my mom, watching HGTV over trays of cheese and crackers. We called the special occasions “cold-plate nights,” and they were filled with formulaic home-makeover show after home-makeover show, like Curb Appeal, House Hunters, and Design on a Dime.

Years later, Netflix has attempted to reinvent the HGTV wheel. I got back to binging, and this time I wrote for CityLab about what I saw. The show is called Stay Here, and it’s about re-doing people’s extra houses or bedrooms so they can rent them out for higher sums on temporary rental platforms like Airbnb.

But watching any kind of HGTV show feels different to me now, because I write about the intersections between housing and inequality. As an affordable housing crisis affects cities across the country, it was especially hard to watch a show that so clearly lacked self-awareness. The missing context: Airbnb appears to favor those people who already have extra rooms in their homes, or more than one home; and gobbles up vacant units that could have gone to people in need of somewhere to live, not to vacation.

It’s not just me. Natalie Y. Moore has written for CityLab about how she hate-watches House Hunters because it helps her understand segregation in Chicago. Watching TV—especially mindless TV—is supposed to be an escape. But nowadays, it seems like a master class in understanding the landscape of urban inequality.

What we’re writing:

Combating loneliness starts

What we’re taking in:

The Sears catalogue was radical during the Jim Crow era. (On the Media) ¤ How “voguing” emerged in New York. (Huffington Post) ¤ “Juarez’s story is best heard and understood at the cantinas in what is now a small stretch of the city.” (TASTE) ¤ These homeless newspaper vendors write beautiful poetry. (Poetry Foundation) ¤ China is planning to launch “artificial moons” to light up its city streets. (Al Jazeera) ¤ The “architecture populists” documenting endangered buildings. (The Baffler)  ¤ “Why die on Mars when you can live in South Dakota?” (The Week) ¤

View from the ground:

@sarah__hellman gave an inside look at Stockholm’s train stations. On the subject, @kyleander2 reminded us that during rush hour, cars are no match for mass transit. @julio.a.c highlighted the beauty at the intersection of industry and environment. @vickophoto captured a vibrant and creative use of old and ugly fire escapes.  

Tag us with the hashtag #citylabontheground so our fellow Karim Doumar can shout out your #views on CityLab’s Instagram page or pull them together for the next edition of Navigator.

Until next time,


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