Navigator: How Do You Read a City?

Hi friends!

Today’s Navigator comes from Adam Sneed, an editor here at CityLab whose tasks include, among other things, whipping our daily newsletter in shape. He’s off on vacation soon, and had a few thoughts about how to acquaint yourself with a city before you’ve ever been there. Read on:

I’m traveling to Berlin next week, and I’ve struggled to find what I want to read about it. I have come across some compelling choices, but they appear to be dominated by a few subjects I know well already. So it’s proven harder to find the lens on the modern city that I’m looking for.

When planning a trip to a new city, there are a few things I do to make sure I’m getting the most out of my travels. I consult Atlas Obscura and the New York Times’ “36 Hours” series, and then I check to see if the city was ever featured on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. From those three sources, I usually get a good sense of what I want to do, and then I rattle my friends to surface other hidden gems.

But my favorite way to connect with a new place is through its stories: fiction and nonfiction, histories, and explorations of contemporary life—really anything that can let me go somewhere and say, “This is where that thing happened in that story I liked.”

I’ve had some great luck with this a few times recently: The Devil in the White City paints such a thorough picture of Chicago in the 1890s that it feels like you could stand anywhere in the city and marvel at all that was happening there at one point in time. Meet Me in the Bathroom worked the other way, showing a narrow sliver of New York’s music scene in the 2000s but giving more weight to neighborhoods, bars, and streets that hadn’t stood out to me before. But I’ve also found that it’s much harder to find these kinds of books when I’m seeking them out; usually I come across them first and they inform my travels later.

How do you peruse a list of books about London and find the one you’ll connect with? How do you know if a story set in Mexico City will really tell you what you want to know about it? I’m guessing the readers among you have dealt with this before, and as much as I’d love to hear your recommendations about Berlin, I’m even more curious about your thoughts on the bigger question: How do you read a city? Drop me a line.

What we’re writing:

These detained immigrant kids made models of their homes. ¤ Habitat for humanity, on the moon. ¤ The many lives of Notre Dame. ¤ The Trumpian urbanism of Atlantic City, in photos. ¤ The urban planning sci-fi novel of the season. ¤ What’s not to like about Mount Vernon? ¤

Also, CityLab’s senior editor Amanda Hurley released her book Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City. Check out an excerpt here:

Back in the early 1960s, Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called “Little Boxes,” inspired by a drive past rows of lookalike pastel-hued houses in a new suburban housing tract in the Bay Area. (Her friend Pete Seeger had a hit with the song in 1963.) Reynolds saw the cookie-cutter houses as both symbols and shapers of the conformist mindset of the people who lived in them—doctors and lawyers who aspired to nothing more than playing golf and raising children who would one day inhabit “ticky-tacky” boxes of their own. But Reynolds was wrong about who lived in this suburb, Daly City, just south of San Francisco…

A Currier & Ives lithograph of idealized upper-middle-class family life. (Library of Congress)

What we’re taking in:

Canadian museums are getting $$$ to preserve indigenous culture. (ArtForum) ¤ Flying while trans. (New York Times) ¤ This nonprofit is pushing for cell service for Mexico’s indigenous communities. (New York) ¤ “Leafy suburb children are anxious about being declassed.” (Popula) ¤ “Before the Guggenheim, before Fallingwater, the master architect was trying to tackle a more pervasive issue: affordable housing.” (South Side Weekly) ¤ A 32-acre queer playground in Middle America. (W Magazine) ¤ The death of Chicago’s saloons. (WBEZ) ¤ A new generation of downhill skateboarders has sprung up around these abandoned roads…” (Hmm Daily) ¤ The Indian café staffed by acid attack survivors. (Los Angeles Times) ¤

And finally, here’s an excerpt from new work by poet Kaveh Akbar, published in The New Yorker:

I have a kitchen device

that lets me spin lettuce.

There is no elegant way

        to say this—people

        with living hearts

        that could fit in my chest

want to melt the city where I was born.

At his elementary school in an American suburb,

a boy’s shirt says: “We Did It To Hiroshima, We Can Do It To Tehran!”

View from the ground:

@tomhklein strolled by the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. @birdonaledge highlighted the flowers in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. @nickefron saw many cherry blossoms on his Kyoto trip. @amyisaklein captured the picturesque San Remo building in Central Park.

Is spring blooming in your city?

Tag us with the hashtag #citylabontheground, and we’ll feature your photo on CityLab’s Instagram page or include it in the next edition of Navigator.

Cheers!

Tanvi

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CityLab Daily: HUD Wants to Restrict Assistance for Immigrants

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.

***

What We’re Following

HUD’s rule change: The Trump administration has a new front in its anti-immigration campaign: public housing. This week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed a new rule to restrict housing assistance for families with mixed-citizenship status. The administration claims the rule would eject some 32,000 families from federal housing and cut down on waitlists for public assistance. Housing advocates say it wouldn’t make a dent in the millions of people waiting for public housing collectively across the country.

Currently, HUD allows families to live together in subsidized housing even if one member is ineligible because of their immigration status; the agency pro-rates the subsidy to exclude those people from federal support. The proposed change would prevent an entire family from living in subsidized housing if even one undocumented family member lives with them. “So essentially, what HUD is saying is that, say, the mom is undocumented, but she’s got five kids who are citizens, then this is going to make those kids homeless,” says one tenant protection attorney. CityLab’s Tanvi Misra and Kriston Capps have the story: Why HUD wants to Restrict Housing Assistance for Immigrants

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

The Many Lives of Notre-Dame

Far from being a single author’s definitive text, the beloved cathedral’s history is a palimpsest.

Darran Anderson

Designing the First Full-Time Human Habitat on the Moon

“We’re right at the cusp, technologically speaking, to be able to do this for the first time.”

Nicole Javorsky

In a Border Detention Center, Art Helps Migrant Kids Remember Home

A new exhibit in El Paso showcases works of art created by children detained in a massive border encampment of migrants in Tornillo, Texas.

Tanvi Misra

Will Ottawa Ever Get Its Light Rail?

Sinkholes, winter-weary trains, and political upheaval have held the Confederation Line light-rail transit back from a seriously overdue opening.

Tracey Lindeman

New York City Passes Sweeping Climate Legislation

The Climate Mobilization Act lays the groundwork for New York City’s own Green New Deal.

Alexander C. Kaufman


Scoot alors!

(NACTO)

The number of trips taken on shared bikes and scooters in the United States more than doubled in 2018 from the year before, with 84 million trips total, according the graphic above from the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Electric scooters rolled into many cities last year and accounted for 38.5 million trips (shown in orange). In one year, they surpassed the number of trips taken by regular station-based bikeshare (36.5 million trips, shown in green). It’s a triumph for micromobility, but CityLab’s Laura Bliss writes that “a single year’s worth of trip data doesn’t amount to a full picture of the U.S. transportation landscape.” We still have to wait and see if scooters can make the overwhelming number of solo car commuters budge at all. Read Laura’s take: Electric Scooters Aren’t a Transportation Revolution Yet


What We’re Reading

America’s record high energy consumption, explained (Vox)

Could portable benefits help gig workers find stability? (Next City)

Living on the wrong side of a time zone can be hazardous to your health (Washington Post)

The bees living on Notre Dame’s roof survived the fire (CNN)

Quiz: Can you guess the city from the vintage travel poster? (The Guardian)


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 hello@citylab.com.

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Will Ottawa Ever Get Its Light Rail?

“Get ready for rail.”

At first the slogan for Ottawa’s new transit project felt like a command. Then it was a question mark, and now it’s a desperate plea—as if the city could will into existence a light-rail plan that has been talked about for the better part of 20 years. 

Ground broke in 2013 on Ottawa’s extension of its O-Train system—then, a five-station, diesel-powered light-rail line. The mission was to electrify the network and extend it to central, eastern, and southern parts of the city with two new add-ons, the brand-new Confederation Line and the train cars before it can release them into the wild. Just one issue with a car, though, and the 12 days restart. RTG has been testing the trains for months.

This past winter, after a train got stuck in the snow during a trial run, CBC reporter Joanne Chianello obtained internal reports that said the trains may not be able to withstand Ottawa’s cold, snowy winters. “Vehicles are currently unreliable to the point that it has not been demonstrated that operations can be sustained during a winter weather event,” one report read.

But that’s next winter’s problem. The day after Chianello’s CBC story, the city’s transportation general manager John Manconi told city councilors at a public meeting that RTG was looking forward to the end of winter to finish testing: “Better weather will certainly help.”

And then there’s Stage 2, a CDN$4.7-billion project and the city’s biggest procurement ever. A $1.6-billion slice of that project was awarded to SNC-Lavalin, an engineering and construction management firm currently facing charges of corruption and fraud. SNC-Lavalin is also a key member of the RTG consortium building the thrice-delayed Stage 1.

So, what the hell is happening with the LRT? “[Constituents] are exactly right to ask that question, because we don’t know the answer,” says Ottawa city councilor Rick Chiarelli.

Contracts, bids kept secret

Chiarelli, who has been an Ottawa city councilor since 1988, says the people tasked with running the city have been largely kept in the dark on the LRT project. In March, he voted against approving the $4.7-billion budget on Stage 2, saying that proper oversight had not been done on the project.

Stage 2 would extend the LRT to the east, west, and south ends of Ottawa, adding 27 miles of track and 24 stations. It will have a staggered opening, with the last stations due in 2025. “What worries me the most about the LRT project is the contract on LRT Stage 2, and the award of that contract to a company that clearly didn’t meet the minimal technical requirements, and the fact that we couldn’t get information on it,” he tells CityLab.

Chiarelli says not only are the competitive bids on Stage 2 being kept secret, but so are the technical scores of the three pre-qualified companies. The only reason councilors learned SNC-Lavalin didn’t pass its technical score is because CBC reported it. Councilors still don’t know why SNC-Lavalin—an accomplished engineering firm currently at the heart of a national scandal—won at all. When councilors challenged this, they were told by a city lawyer that it was none of their business.

As well, councilors had to approve the $4.7-billion budget without knowing the details of what they were getting for that money. In addition to the bids and technical scores, contracts have also been kept secret—unless, Chiarelli says, councilors sign an agreement promising not to reveal the contents of the contracts. “It’s unethical, if we represent the public, to not tell the public once we’ve heard about it,” says the councilor. He has filed access to information requests to gain insight into various aspects of the LRT projects, and is considering filing more.

An Ottawa law professor told CBC that not revealing contracts to councilors may seem secretive, but it’s fairly common for capital works projects. Still, the cloak-and-dagger spirit of the LRT project appears strange in an era of open government initiatives in cities and countries around the world, including Canada. In fact, many Ottawa city contracts are not easily accessible to the media and general public, LRT or otherwise. Chiarelli believes the public deserves to know about these contracts as they’re happening, because they’re ultimately the ones who are going to be paying for it—now, and for decades to come. 

An unwelcome provincial surprise

On top of all this, past Ottawa may have written a check future Ottawa can’t cash.

When Ottawa city council voted to approve the $4.7-billion LRT Stage 2 budget, it did so assuming the Ontario provincial government would make good on an earlier promise to share carbon-tax funding with municipalities.

Canada recently introduced federal carbon taxes for provinces that refuse to create their own gas-tax policies. Under this scheme, Ottawa was due to receive $1 billion spread over 30 years.

However, provincial leadership has changed since then and new Ontario premier Doug Ford—who is staunchly opposed to federal carbon taxes and has worked to undermine them—backtracked, withdrawing the funding. The change was made in the provincial budget, just a few weeks after Ottawa passed its own budget authorizing the Stage 2 overage.

Now Ottawa has to find an additional $1 billion to cover that deficit, on top of coughing up its share of the $4.7-billion Stage 2 price tag. (The municipal, provincial, and federal governments are sharing the cost, with Ottawa on the hook for $2.4 billion.) That may affect plans to further extend the LRT to a third phase, which would include an interprovincial route connecting Ottawa to Quebec’s side of the capital region. “We have no money for Stage 3,” says Chiarelli.

He says ideally, the province would bump up its share of LRT funding. In April, Ontario earmarked $28.5 billion for Toronto’s transit system. But without more provincial money, Ottawa may find itself struggling to pay for its ambitious light rail system. “They can come up with short-term solutions at the city for the first few years of LRT Stage 2, but then we can’t afford anything else. It’s just not tenable—we’ll have trouble fixing roads, and any future capital projects are questionable,” he says.

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Why HUD Wants to Restrict Assistance for Immigrants

The Trump administration is targeting immigrants with a new policy—this time, by seeking to restrict housing assistance for families with mixed-citizenship status.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed a new rule that seeks to vet all members of families applying for subsidized or public housing, even those who have declared themselves ineligible in the application. According to the administration, this rule, if promulgated, would help cut down the years-long waitlist for public assistance.

But housing advocates say that it would have little to no effect on the factors that prevent millions of eligible households from finding public housing or rental assistance.

“Thanks to [President Donald Trump’s] leadership, we are putting America’s most vulnerable first,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson tweeted in response to a story from the Daily Caller on the proposed rule. “Our nation faces affordable housing challenges and hundreds of thousands of citizens are waiting for many years on waitlists to get housing assistance.”

To achieve this, Carson has proposed a policy that the department claims would eject some 32,000 families from federal housing programs, including public housing, Project Based Rental Assistance, and the Housing Choice Vouchers program (traditionally known as Section 8).

But housing experts aren’t persuaded by the federal housing administration’s math. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the number of households that contain family members who are not eligible for aid is smaller: between 22,000 and 25,000 households, most of them located in New York, Texas, and California. This figure might comprise 32,000 affected individuals, many or most of whom might in fact be eligible for aid.

Housing advocates also question whether this policy would make any real dent in waiting lists that, across the U.S., are millions of names long, collectively. Instead, they say, it would simply impose another penalty on immigrants.

“HUD falsely claims the change is proposed out of concern for long waiting lists, when they know well that it would do nothing to free up new units,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “The true purpose may be part of this administration’s effort to instill fear in immigrants throughout the country.”

Currently, HUD allows families to live together in subsidized housing even if one member of the family is an ineligible immigrant. The agency prorates the subsidy for the household, so any family members who declare that they are not eligible are simply excluded from the benefits. Only certain types of non-citizens are permitted to receive housing assistance, per a 1980 law. And HUD vets the immigration status of eligible applicants, but the department does not track the ones who are not claiming benefits. A person can be ineligible for reasons other than immigration status.

The new policy would change that rule so that even one undocumented family member becomes a poison pill that prevents the whole family from living in subsidized housing, even if the ineligible individual is not claiming or receiving any benefits themselves.

“So essentially, what HUD is saying is that, say, the mom is undocumented, but she’s got five kids who are citizens, then this is going to make those kids homeless,” said Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit of The Legal Aid Society in New York. That mom would also be vetted if she applied for housing for her kids, meaning HUD would learn her immigration status.

According to HUD, 32,000 households it assists are headed by “not-legal U.S. residents.” Housing and immigration policy experts are not sure how the agency got this number. It is not clear, for example, if it includes non-citizens who are eligible for housing assistance, such as certain victims of domestic violence who are legally present in the country. (HUD did not respond to questions about how it calculated this estimate.)

Housing experts also don’t buy the claim that this proposal would drastically change the length of the waitlists for people around the country seeking housing assistance. HUD’s suggested point of reference—those 32,000 HUD-assisted households—is dwarfed by the total number of people currently on these waitlists. A study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition identified approximately 1.6 million families on waitlists for public housing and more than 2.8 million families on waitlists for the Housing Choice Voucher program (also known as Section 8).

“Unfortunately, 32,000 is a lot of people to become homeless, but not a lot of people to be taken off waitlists,” Goldinger said. Just in New York City, 209,180 people were in line to get a spot in public housing and 148,000 were waiting for Section 8 vouchers, she adds. “What’s really needed is housing for people, and not shifting deck chairs.”

But Trump’s policy agenda is otherwise tailored to limit housing assistance—not expand it. The Trump administration has sought to slash spending on welfare and impose restrictive work requirements for those who receive assistance for food, healthcare, and housing. Congress has not passed the austerity budget envisioned by the White House. The White House has nevertheless put its stamp on housing policy in other ways. Carson rolled back a fair housing rule years in the making. He also announced last June that the department will revisit its rule on the legal doctrine known as “disparate impact,” the prohibition on policies that discriminate on the basis of race without doing so explicitly.

Immigrant advocates and other organizers also see HUD’s move as the latest in a suite of policies to cut down the number of working-class immigrants trying to immigrate to the country, even through legal pipelines—and to make life a little bit harder for the mixed-status families who are already here.

“This is really a broader story about how the long-term cost of President Trump’s whimsical immigration policies—here masked under a proposed HUD regulation—will be borne largely by the nearly six million U.S. citizen children that live in a mixed-status household,” said Carlos Guevara, a senior policy advisor at Unidos, an organization that works with 300 local organizations in Hispanic communities.

In 2018, DHS proposed a rule limiting individuals from advancing on the path to citizenship if they are deemed likely to become “public charges.” That is, if the agency decides that an applicant will likely use an array of public benefits, including Section 8 vouchers and other housing subsidies, it can deny them a green card. The non-partisan Migration Policy Institute estimated in November that 6.8 million people may stop seeking benefits they need and are eligible for out of confusion and fear. DHS itself noted that the public charge rule could have several “downstream and upstream impacts on state and local economies, large and small businesses, and individuals.” (The State Department and DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have also toughened vetting and are already seeing the effect.)

The tone of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda may also be indirectly affecting housing. Shortly after his inauguration, housing advocates and attorneys in California reported an uptick in complaints about landlords threatening to report or evict tenants to immigration authorities.

The HUD rule is currently being reviewed by Congress. Notice will appear in the Federal Register in 15 days, and the rule will still have to go through the obligatory 60-day notice-and-comment period during which it will receive public feedback. Even before all that though, it could start having a “chilling effect” like these other rules.

“All of these policies work in tandem with each other. There is an agenda to go after immigrant families,” says Karlo Ng, supervising attorney for the National Housing Law Project. “Naturalized immigrants are already asking advocates, is this going to affect me? And of course it does not affect naturalized citizens. There’s a lot of confusion.”

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Electric Scooters Aren’t a Transportation Revolution Yet

From one standpoint, American cities are experiencing a transportation revolution with the rise of shared electric scooters and bikes. From another, the same old hierarchy hasn’t budged, with private automobiles dominating the road.

A new report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) sheds light on the first perspective, enumerating the phenomenal year in “micromobility” that was. In 2018, the number of rides Americans took via dockless scooters, bikes, and traditional bikeshare systems more than doubled from 2017, to 84 million trips.

That’s a lot—year over year, growth in shared bikes had been much steadier in the previous five years. That changed in 2018. Responsible for virtually all of last year’s growth were dockless electric scooters, 85,000 of which were available to rent in about 100 U.S. cities as of December from the likes of Bird, Lime, Spin, and Skip. It really was the Year of the Scooter.

This e-scooter boom has been fueled by much of the same venture capital that buoys the ride-hailing industry. Amid the “little vehicle” frenzy, Uber acquired Jump Bikes, a dockless e-bike startup, while Lyft acquired Motivate, the country’s largest operator of traditional bikesharing systems. Both companies also rolled out e-scooters in dozens of U.S. markets, competing with Lime and Spin, which swiftly pivoted from dockless bikes in 2017 toward spreading the zippier plank-and-wheel devices in 2018. America’s pedal-only dockless bike fleet, briefly the belle of the micromobility ball, all but evaporated over the course of 2018, NACTO says, with just 3 million trips in a few cities in 2018.

Meanwhile, the world of traditional docked bikeshare also grew, with investments and expansions of docked fleets resulting in big jumps in use. In the Bay Area, for example, ridership on Ford GoBikes increased by 260 percent after the company expanded its fleet tenfold, NACTO found. And in Honolulu, Biki’s fleet grew by 30 percent and trips tripled. Battery-boosted pedal bikes, introduced to several docked bikeshare systems in 2018, proved especially popular. In New York City, the electric options attracted as many as three times as many rides per day as traditional pedal bikes.

These numbers indicate that there’s a lot of demand for alternatives to the personal vehicle. Early survey results also suggest that e-scooters do replace car trips in many cases. In all of this, cycling enthusiasts, environmental advocates, and pro-density boosters have real cause for celebration.

But a single year’s worth of trip data doesn’t amount to a full picture of the U.S. transportation landscape. That’s where the American Community Survey is useful, if limited. Every year, the ACS measures how Americans commute to work by mode, including driving, carpooling, taking a taxi, cycling, and walking. Arguably, the most relevant statistic for people who care about urban transportation is the rate of commuters who drive alone, since private cars carry more negative externalities than any other mode—pollution, congestion, precious parking, and so on. And from 2010 to 2017, the share of Americans driving solo to work alone barely budged: It’s still three-quarters of all U.S. commuters, a stunning figure.

On many counts, ACS data is an imperfect measure. First, it doesn’t capture the wide array of mobility options now available to people in cities and suburbs. It’s not clear, for example, whether a ride-hailing trip shared with another passenger would be tallied under the taxi or carpooling columns. Nor is it obvious how scooter trips would be categorized, or trips that comprise multiple modes. And hardly all the traveling that Americans do is to and from work. ACS numbers don’t account for shopping or recreational trips, which are equally popular reasons to use scooters, according to the NACTO report.

But for now, it’s still the best indicator of how most Americans really move, said Meg Merritt, a principal at the urban planning consultancy NelsonNygaard in charge of emerging mobility projects. And it will be hard to say whether the micromobility revolution is an actual regime-changing kind of revolution until these larger mode shares register it.

So just because e-scooters are weaving around the sidewalks in so many U.S. cities doesn’t mean that the days of automotive dominance are truly ending. Safer and more expansive infrastructure for non-car modes, putting the proper price on driving, and heavy improvements to public transit systems are all likely required admission for that future. So far, the new technologies alone “are not moving the needle,” Merritt said. “The behavioral change that we all want to see is definitely starting. But we can’t declare victory yet.”

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In a Border Detention Center, Art Helps Migrant Kids Remember Home

Last year, the U.S. government built a a massive detention facility to hold migrant children in a remote area around Tornillo, Texas, a town near the U.S.-Mexico border. Over its seven-month lifespan, the tent city at Tornillo housed about 6,000 undocumented teenagers, largely from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. At the the beginning, Tornillo detainees even included children the Trump administration had separated from their parents. As I wrote earlier this year, this temporary encampment served as a kind of physical expression of President Donald Trump’s policies towards migrants—particularly migrant children.

But the public backlash to this tent city led the government to walk back policies that were keeping these 13- to 17-year-old kids in detention longer than usual. And in January, the facility was disassembled and trucked away.

Now, the best physical evidence of it can be found in a museum: An art exhibit at the University of Texas El Paso’s El Paso Centennial Museum features work created by children who lived at Tornillo. “In the midst of that secrecy, and all of us wondering about the kids, this artwork gave us a little glimpse into the lives of the kids,” said Yolanda Leyva, the director of UTEP’s Institute of Oral History, who acquired the art.

Leyva was one of the many protesters who camped outside the camp to “witness” what transpired. In many ways, the Tornillo facility was designed to conceal—it was located in a remote area and operated by a private company whose employees were forbidden to talk about what went on inside. For several months, activists like Leyva stationed themselves in the desert outside the tent city’s fences, to make sure that the children held inside were not forgotten.

In January, as the tent city was being dismantled, Leyva got a call from an old friend: Father Rafael Garcia, a local priest who, unbeknownst to her, had been visiting the children held at Tornillo. Garcia asked if she wanted the artwork the kids had made, which would have otherwise been thrown away.

“I said, of course, I want it [even though] I didn’t even know what kind of art work it would be,” Leyva, a public historian and the co-director of a Muséo Urbano, told me. “They brought me a van full of art—it was incredible.”

The bulk of it, Leyva learned, had been created as a social science project; teachers at Tornillo told the teenagers to depict something that reminded them of home. Leyva obtained 29 pieces, including dioramas, paintings, pencil drawings, and handmade dresses. The models are particularly intricate, and infused with nostalgia: They show soccer fields with tiny figures in motion, sky blue churches surrounded with trees, and town plazas with picnic benches. In the paintings, Leyva noticed lots and lots of birds. The kids may have been escaping poverty and violence, but the art they made at Tornillo was reflected the good memories they had of home, in Leyva’s opinion. “They put a lot of detail into what they remember about being free,” she said.

On April 13, the exhibition opened to the public. The guest of honor was a 17-year-old boy from Honduras, who had spent a little more than two months at Tornillo. He was identified only as Freddy. His real name has been withheld to protect his privacy as he is underage and still in the midst of his asylum process.

At the event, Freddy described the risks he took to get to the U.S. border—“sleeping in the street, enduring storms, enduring darkness, enduring the sun, and enduring hunger,” he told local reporters in Spanish. In detention at Tornillo, Freddy describes an experience that echoes that of many other children released from that facilities: He felt despair and uncertainty, he recalled, but could not talk about it with his parents. “If I told them that I was devastated, that I could not stand it anymore, that I wanted to give up, they were going to feel very sad,” he said. “So I was left with all that load on my conscience.”

Daniel Perez/University of Texas El Paso
Frontera Studio

Seeing the art he and his friends made at Tornillo stirred bittersweet feelings for Freddy. On one hand, he is thankful that he’s no longer in detention. But some of his friends, and many other kids who have traveled the same path, still are. The art is a reminder of that: “Even though they look nice, behind each piece of art is a desperate child, wanting to get out—go outdoors and breathe,” he said at the opening.   

Meanwhile, the detention of record numbers of migrant children continues. In March alone, Customs and Border Protection took 40,000 children into custody at the border. And this April, the government announced that it would be expanding the capacity of a temporary youth shelter in Homestead, Florida, to 3,200. The administration is also reportedly planning to set up more tent cities near the southern border to house families seeking asylum.

To put the psychological effect of that in context: The American Association of Pediatrics finds that detention is “generally neither appropriate nor necessary for families.” For kids, “even short periods of detention can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks.”

Daniel Perez/University of Texas El Paso

What Leyva wants people to focus on is not just the trauma these kids may have experienced, but the glimmers of child-like hope they retained. One of her favorite pieces is a model of a church, built on what appears to be a sign reading “Female UAC bathroom.” UAC stands for “unaccompanied alien minor”—government-ese for children who have crossed the border by themselves. (For a while, the Trump administration was also labeling children it had separated from their parents at the border this way.)

“They took, what is to me, a very dehumanizing sign, and on top, they built this beautiful memory of a church,” Leyva said.

Frontera Studio
Frontera Studio

Whether the exhibit’s viewers know the story of Tornillo or not, Leyva hopes people see this art as a memorial to the experience of detained migrant children—and a testament to their promise.

“I also think it brings to us in the U.S. some kind of view into what the children can bring to our country—that hope, that beauty,” she said. “They encountered a lot of depression, a lot of trauma, and yet they still had the energy and the hope to create these beautiful things.”

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How Single-Family Garages Can Ease California’s Housing Crisis

Due to severe shortages of affordable housing, more Americans than ever are bedding down inside their vehicles: In Los Angeles County, home to the country’s greatest number of unsheltered homeless people, more than 15,000 individuals live in cars, vans, and mobile homes.

Meanwhile, across the U.S., there are more homes with three-car garages being constructed than there are one-bedroom apartments.

Imagine if this logic were flipped.

Residential garages of all sizes can be well suited for housing unit conversions, as these renderings show. (Shoup/Brown/Mukhija)

Many cities have a huge, untapped source of affordable housing: garages. By our estimate, about 400,000 single-family homes in Los Angeles have a two-car garage that could be converted into an apartment. Until recently, Los Angeles prohibited most such conversions, but in 2017, California enacted a law that overrides local prohibitions and allows almost any homeowner to convert their garage into an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). In 2016, before the new state law took effect, Los Angeles issued only 117 permits for second units. In 2018, it issued 4,171 permits, or 36 for every one issued in 2016.

Many single-family neighborhoods have garages that can provide a new supply of small, well-located, and high-quality apartments within walking distance of stores and public transit. Converted garages can house boomerang children, grandparents, caretakers, guests, or friends. Or they can generate rental income to make home ownership more affordable. In San Francisco, one affordable housing developer is planning four garage conversions in the Mission District to make way for low-income residents. Speaking to the Mission Local, Mission Housing executive director Sam Moss conservatively estimated that hundreds of units like these could be created throughout the city. “There’s not a lack of garages,” he said. “There’s a lack of landlords saying, ‘I’m done with car storage.’”

Garage apartments are an example of what has been called “naturally occurring affordable housing,” or housing that is affordable without public subsidies. The residents of NOAH garage apartments will not compete for the existing supply of affordable housing, so the benefits will trickle sideways to everyone in the market for affordable housing.

As we have previously written, several companies in California now offer homeowners a complete service to convert a garage into a rental apartment. These firms secure the necessary permits, pay the full cost of the conversion, and then split the rental income with the homeowner for an agreed length of time. In the same way, government agencies could subsidize garage conversions as an alternative to building new affordable housing units, which cost an average of $372,000 per unit in California.

For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs could offer to pay for converting a garage into an apartment if the homeowner allows a veteran to occupy the new apartment at a low rent for five years, after which the homeowner has unrestricted use of the property. This offer seems especially appropriate if the homeowner appreciates a veteran’s service to the country and if the neighbors approve of (or at least hesitate to publicly oppose) allowing an otherwise homeless military veteran to live nearby.

Many homeowners put up fierce resistance to affordable housing projects nearby, but those same neighbors may not even notice a garage conversion that swaps cars for people and leaves the home’s exterior unchanged. Critics can’t say that a converted garage will be out of scale, cast shadows, or otherwise threaten the neighborhood’s character, because it’s already there. Garage apartments create horizontal, distributed, and almost invisible density, instead of vertical, concentrated, and obvious density.

When they were illegal, most garage conversions were hidden away in homeowners’ backyards. But now that they are legal, street-facing garages may be the most suitable for new residential uses, for several reasons. The garage apartments will not reduce privacy in the homeowner’s or the neighbors’ backyards, and the apartment-dweller can have more privacy with a separate entrance to the street. Converting a street-facing garage that is part of the house should be cheaper than converting a freestanding backyard garage, because it can connect with the main home’s utilities, and a door into the house can be useful if the apartment is occupied by a family member or caregiver.

Other homeowners might not realize it, but they can benefit from more garage conversions, too: Those apartment residents will provide more eyes on the street, enhancing security for the whole neighborhood, and homeowners can feel safer while they are away if someone is living in the former garage.

But wait, you might say: What about the cars?

Don’t worry: They can still park in the driveway, and cities can use residential parking permit districts to limit the number of on-street parking permits allowed at any address with a converted garage. A limit on permits would guarantee that converting a garage into housing will not overcrowd parking on the street. The city can also issue block-your-own-driveway permits to provide residents a guaranteed on-street parking space in front of the house. Design review requirements can ensure that a garage conversion is consistent with the design of both the house and the neighborhood.

Simply by legalizing garage apartments, cities can take advantage of a housing opportunity that has been hiding in plain sight. America can reduce the homelessness problem with a simple acknowledgment: Garages would be much more valuable for people than for cars.

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