Where the YIMBYs Can Win

Last week, the most ambitious upzoning in American history died in committee. Designed to address California’s housing crisis, SB 827 would have permitted new four- and five-story multifamily housing within a half-mile of transit without having to undergo reviews, clearing away parking requirements and other local regulations used by homeowners to block new development.

But before its untimely death, the ambitious bill managed to garner a lot of media attention, and across the country, a number of campaigns are underway to facilitate new transit-oriented housing that should give advocates of the pro-development “Yes In My Backyard” movement hope. In California, SB 827 might have even provided valuable cover for a slate of other smaller housing reforms.

There’s SB 831, for example, which is currently being considered in the California legislature. It would close loopholes to the state’s recent preemption of “granny flats” or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which have flowered since the state preempted local ADU ordinances in 2016. SB 828 and AB 1771 would also build on previous affordable housing efforts, giving teeth to the state’s current “fair share” requirements for housing construction. Under today’s weak rules, many cities can play elaborate shell games to get out of these requirements, but SB 828 would tighten up on the process at the comprehensive planning phase and ensure that more needed housing is built.

Other bills aim to ease the development hurdles facing new housing for farmworkers in agricultural regions and new housing near transit in the Bay Area. These legislative initiatives are more focused and technical than SB 827, but taken together, they would legalize a lot of new housing in the Golden State.

Beyond California, YIMBY fever is catching in Massachusetts, where state legislators are taking a serious look at zoning reform as a way to alleviate the commonwealth’s mounting housing affordability crisis. As Renée Loth notes in the Boston Globe, the current patchwork of local land-use rules and prohibitions serves to limit the supply of new housing and preserve historical patterns of racial segregation.

Back in 2016, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill that would have set statewide standards for new ADUs and multifamily housing among other things, but the bill ultimately failed to become law. With Governor Charlie Baker taking a stand on the need to address the housing demand-housing supply mismatch, it’s likely that some form of this zoning reform will re-emerge later this year as a supplement to new state initiatives to build affordable housing. One proposal that the governor has already advanced calls for easing barriers to rezonings, which currently require an onerously high level (75 percent, or a supermajority) of support from voters to pass. While critics decry the reform as a threat to local government, it would ultimately take a major tool out of the NIMBY toolbox.

Smaller local battles to legalize housing are also underway as YIMBY groups form and mobilize in cities across the country. In Minneapolis, the YIMBY activist group Neighbors for More Neighbors is advocating for allowing small, four-unit apartment buildings called fourplexes in any area of the city zoned for residential, with support from members on city council and the mayor. This would allow many single-family homes in expensive urban neighborhoods to be converted into small apartment buildings, adding new housing close to downtown.

In Boulder, Colorado—host of the inaugural YIMBYtown conference in 2016—activists worked to legalize and ease the process of forming housing co-ops, which provide greater housing choice and affordable options for residents.

And in Austin—a city that seems to be turning into San Francisco in more ways than one—a burgeoning YIMBY movement is having an impact on the city’s ongoing zoning overhaul. When an early draft of the new code—dubbed “CodeNEXT”—was revealed, the group put the plan’s drafters on blast; subsequent drafts eased restrictions on ADUs and residential development in commercial areas. Their work, they assure us, isn’t done.

The setback of SB 827 may have been a disappointment for YIMBYs. But the bill helped start a bold new national conversation about what can be done to address the nation’s worsening housing affordability crisis. The Overton Window, or the range of viable policy fixes for this crisis, has been slammed open, and more and more policymakers in cities and states across the country are taking the issue seriously. The defeat of SB 827 isn’t the end of the YIMBY movement. If this flurry of new state and local land-use reform initiatives indicates anything, it may only be the beginning.

Mid-Sized City Mayors Aren’t Waiting Around for Trump

When the Trump administration released its long-awaited infrastructure plan in February, one of the loudest voices of dissent came from mayors. That was no surprise: The legislation called upon cities to prove that they can cough up 80 percent of the costs for federally funded infrastructure projects, before the feds picked up the remaining 20 percent. In effect, only $200 billion of the $1.5 trillion total would actually come from Washington, and only after a round of cuts to existing infrastructure programs. With so little support from Uncle Sam, it seemed barely defensible as a federal “plan.”

“At a minimum, we’re asking for an equal partnership of 50 percent funding from the federal level to local governments,” said Karen Freeman-Wilson, the mayor of Gary, Indiana, and vice president of the National League of Cities (NLC), after the bill was announced.

But when it comes to building and maintaining infrastructure, many urban areas have grown increasingly familiar with workarounds to self-fund projects. And not just large cities like Los Angeles, which passed a $121 billion transit sales tax measure in 2016. In New York, Virginia, and New Jersey, public-private partnerships have brought in banks and private firms to help pay for bridge and road repairs.

Mid-sized cities are playing ball, too.

Their solutions to national issues was the topic of a policy forum last week at New York University that brought together four mayors from mid-size cities across the U.S.: Peter Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio; John Giles of Mesa, Arizona; and Toni Harp of New Haven, Connecticut. Their cities represent a mix of economic challenges and political proclivities (Giles is a Republican; the rest are Democrats), but they all share at least one thing: a growing list of infrastructure needs, which have become a ballooning financial burden for cities in recent years.

Like many cities in America, Dayton had a longstanding pothole problem, but not enough funds to fix them. So, 2016, the first income tax increase in 32 years—from 2.25 to 2.5 percent—was presented to voters as a way to fund road repavement, among other things. A resident who earned $35,000 would have to pay $1.60 more a week under the eight-year levy, which would ultimately generate $11 million a year in additional revenue. The measure was approved by a margin of 12 points. And, in addition to fixing potholes, the tax has gone to funding universal pre-K, the hiring of more police officers, and the mowing of lawns on vacant lots.

“Folks trust when local communities say they’re going to do something, and they know where to find you when you don’t. Secondly, [residents] know how to get it done, and we know it has to get done,” Whaley told the audience in downtown Manhattan.

According to John Giles, the mayor of Mesa, “local governments don’t sit still, because we can’t.” The smaller cities of the greater Phoenix area faced a serious congestion issue in the 1990s on their vast network of freeways, he said. In 1985, the Arizona Legislature allowed cities and counties to create their own regional public transit authorities, but it wasn’t until a series of half-cent taxes were passed in Maricopa County in the late 1990s that construction on a light rail system began, to help alleviate traffic. “It was a horrible situation,” Giles recalled. “Out of frustration, our voters passed a regional sales tax that will sunset here in over 4 or 5 years, and we’re already talking about what’s next.”

No wonder. Opening in 2008, the 26-mile line, a part of Valley Metro, is now the 13th busiest light-rail system in America, serving nearly 50,000 daily riders (and counting). It connects Mesa to downtown Phoenix, ASU, and Tempe—all of which have seen rapid growth in recent years—and a two-mile extension into Mesa’s downtown is expected to be completed by spring 2019. A 2015 report said the light rail alone has led to $8.2 billion in development in the area.

“There’s been a requirement in our community for the last couple of years that, in order to qualify for tax breaks, you need to be within a half-mile of transit,” Giles said. “That has allowed these [housing development] projects to come in. Now we have a pretty good foothold, so every mile or so along the light rail corridor, we have affordable housing projects.”

It’s not just taxes that cities are employing to improve their infrastructure. In South Bend, Indiana, Peter Buttigieg has gained national recognition (and presidential buzz) in part because the 36-year-old has launched data initiatives to modernize road repairs, and water utilities. One such pilot, Buttigieg said, will install smartphone-like cameras in the windshields of road repair crews that can monitor hot spots for potholes—rampant in South Bend—and feed the data back to the city for repair. Another partnership with a local startup gathered data on where and when water systems fail most, in order to predict them before they happen, he said. In 2012, South Bend became the first city in America to effectively bring the sewer system onto the cloud. “We need to do things like this to wring every bit of efficiency out of the systems,” he said at the forum. “Because Washington is just not going to be there.”

But cities can only achieve so much on their own. There are bigger projects that, experts say, cannot be achieved without federal assistance.

“From bridges to broadband, cities are doing everything possible to rebuild and reimagine America’s infrastructure. But this is simply not enough to close the nation’s $2 trillion investment gap—cities cannot shoulder this burden on our own,” said Mark Stodola, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and president of the NLC, in a statement to CityLab. “We need a strong federal partnership that invests in our cities and America’s workforce, so that we are building for 2050 not just repairing 1950.”

The national organization offers a few examples of projects that beg for federal help. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, has water infrastructure needs that are estimated to cost up to $500 million, of which the small city can only cover a mere fraction. In fast-growing San Antonio, Texas, streets, sidewalks, and drainage utilities need to be expanded and updated, at a price tag well into the billions. And officials from Gilcrest, a small city in Colorado where 16 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level, said in a press release provided by the NLC that “the ability to fund multi-million-dollar projects”—like sewer lines, storm infrastructure, and an aging town hall—“is simply not here.”

Federal assistance of any scale does not appear to be on the immediate horizon. During one of his administration’s periodic “infrastructure weeks” in March, President Trump told reporters that the plan will have to wait until after the midterm elections in November, which will likely decide which party controls “the power of the purse” in Washington.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Nan Whaley, of Dayton, Ohio, at the forum. “[Infrastructure] could be much better served if the state and federal government stepped in, and created a partnership like we used to have. We call for that all the time.”

But in the meantime, they’re not waiting around.

Autonomous Vehicles and Roads: An Emerging Relationship

Is it out of the realm of possibility that the privatization that happened with other critical infrastructure in prior years in the US could also happen with the nation’s road network? It is a controversial and seemingly impossible thing to consider. Yet it is a question that only something as large and transformative as the autonomous vehicle can answer.

America’s Justice System Has the Wrong Goals

The image of a hard-charging prosecutor imploring a jury to throw the book at a defendant is a familiar scene that has played out in the country’s courtrooms—not to mention on its television screens—for decades. But today, that picture is changing as prosecutors and the public are increasingly recognizing the role these lawyers can play in bringing about a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system. Here we examine legislation and policies that have been introduced, and in some cases passed and implemented, at the federal, state, local, and office levels to facilitate this change, as well as presenting further solutions for rethinking what a successful justice system looks like.

Prosecutors are powerful actors who enter a defendant’s life at a critical juncture. They decide what charges to bring, if a case will be deflected from the justice system entirely, and whether to seek pretrial detention or cash bail—decisions that are the difference between incarceration and freedom. They hold the upper hand in plea bargaining (the pathway by which 94 percent of cases are resolved), determine whether someone will be judged by a jury of peers, or whether the case will be determined through a disposition offered by the prosecutor in exchange for a guilty plea. And their recommendation at sentencing is a powerful one: They can feed the epidemic of mass incarceration as many of them have for many years, or they can, instead, take steps to reverse it.

With 94 U.S. Attorneys and more than 2,400 elected local prosecutors (including state, county and district attorneys) prosecutors’ immense discretion touches every town, city, and state. So how can they exercise their clout to move toward more equitable and sensible approaches that reflect decades of lessons learned?

A newly released report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law provides a blueprint. It outlines solutions for prosecutors to drive down incarceration rates, which have increased five-fold since the mid-1970s, while maintaining public safety. And it articulates the urgent need for change, noting that while the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we have nearly one-quarter of its prisoners.

Voters have shown that they want reform. Crime is no longer a wedge issue. Recent polls show that 71 percent of Americans support reducing the prison population—including 50 percent of Trump voters.

This desire is playing out in elections. Over the last few years, reform-minded prosecutors were elected in cities around the nation including Chicago, Houston, Denver, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Tampa, Jacksonville, and St. Louis.

These new leaders, like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, are quickly making a push for change. Krasner issued a recent directive to his office’s prosecutors requiring them to state on the record how much a recommended sentence would cost taxpayers, and to justify the cost as necessary to public safety. Last year, district attorneys Kim Ogg and Mark Gonzalez in Texas adopted policies to avoid the criminalization of low-level marijuana cases. Kim Foxx, the State’s Attorney in Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), increased her office’s transparency by releasing a groundbreaking report revealing demographics of defendants prosecuted, and data on sentencing and dispositions. And in Florida, new state attorneys have dramatically reduced the number of juveniles prosecuted or brought into the adult system. Krasner, Ogg, Gonzalez and Foxx are all part of the Fair and Just Prosecution network, which brings together a new generation of leaders committed to advancing justice reform.

To be sure, prosecutorial reform alone will not end mass incarceration. Our laws have vested prosecutors with vast discretion to bring high (or low) charges and to trigger mandatory minimum or other extreme penalties. Real change cannot happen at the scale it needs to unless our criminal laws and sentencing laws are changed. That, too, is possible at both the state and federal level.

It requires passing legislation that flips the current metrics for evaluating prosecutors, who are too often rewarded for, and judged by indicting and prosecuting more cases, winning more convictions, and garnering longer sentences. Instead, Congress can provide bonus dollars to prosecutors’ offices that reduce crime and incarceration in their districts. This will encourage prosecutors to use prison only when necessary, and to shift practices to a more enlightened and equitable model.

Members of Congress have already introduced a bill that would achieve some of these goals. The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act removes the incentives in the 1994 Crime Bill that drove punitive cultures, and instead would pay states to decrease the number of people behind bars. The legislation authorizes $20 billion in funds over 10 years to states that reduce their prison populations by 7 percent every three years and keep crime stable or have it decrease.

States can similarly take charge of incentivizing local prosecutors to change their practices. Some, like Illinois, have established programs with local jurisdictions, where counties receive funding by reducing the number of people they send back to prison. In Illinois, the program saved $47 million over four years and diverted more than 2,000 nonviolent individuals while cutting recidivism by as much as 20 percent. Local lawmakers can also pass legislation that would charge counties for their share of the prison population—a tactic being employed in Ohio.

Other solutions for lawmakers include passing legislation that would change sentencing laws to eliminate prison outright for lower-level offenses. Policymakers could also slash prison sentences for other crimes. A growing volume of research shows that there is little or no relationship between length of incarceration and recidivism. Recalibrating prison sentences to meet goals of public safety and rehabilitation would net a 40 percent reduction in incarceration, as explained in a 2016 Brennan Center report.

States can also end cash bail, and instead make detention decisions based in-part on an objective analysis of whether a defendant poses a flight risk or a threat to public safety. That assessment, which best practices dictate should be gender and race neutral, can be influenced by an individual’s family ties, circumstances around the offense allegedly committed, and more.

Reform is on its way, as Philadelphia, Texas, Florida, Chicago, and elsewhere show. But there is much more work to be done at both the federal and state level to encourage other prosecutors to follow suit. It’s time to embrace practices that respond to today’s problems, and promote effective, efficient, and just policies.

MapLab: The Cartography of Chaos

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Compass points: order and disorder

Once upon a time, in many a glove compartment around Los Angeles County, you’d find a Thomas Guide: 600-plus pages of street maps of the Southern California metropolis. Issued in annual editions from the late 1940s through the 2000s, the quintessential street atlases made L.A. sprawl navigable for fresh arrivals and lifers alike. Locals would memorize the Thomas Guide page numbers and coordinates of their homes and gave directions that way. Though he rarely needed to open it, my own dad kept a curled-edge copy tucked behind his passenger’s seat, like a talisman against wayward turns.

A detail of a 1938 road atlas of Los Angeles and its vicinity, published by the Thomas Brothers. Their street maps were later simply called “The Thomas Guide.” (Thomas Brothers/Rand McNally/Courtesy of David Rumsey and the David Rumsey Map Collection)

Now, these backseat bibles are rarely spotted outside of libraries. Satellite imagery and digital navigation systems have pushed the Thomas Guide (and its draftsmen) out of relevance. If one map has replaced it as an institution, it’s Waze, the turn-by-turn directions app with a billion-dollar algorithm that updates constantly to highlight the quickest and least trafficky routes. It, too, has opened up L.A. streets for new and experienced drivers. But while Thomas Guides gave drivers a feeling of mastery over confounding urban grids, Waze has toppled a sense of order about which streets are for what, and whom. No one likes to be lost, but not everyone wants to be found.

This month, one L.A. city councilmember threatened to sue Google, Waze’s owner, for failing to address the new heavy commuter traffic in his affluent residential district near the gridlocked I-405, citing “dangerous conditions.” Communities across the U.S. and Israel have tried to throw off the app’s congestion-conjuring chaos, too, including Leonia, New Jersey. The small town adjacent to a Manhattan commuter bridge has taken perhaps the most radical approach: banning non-resident drivers during rush hour. Now, as John Surico reported for CityLab last week, the Waze backlash is having a backlash—this time from small business owners, who argue that the economy needs through-traffic. Undoubtedly, there’s more Waze-crazing to come.

A detail of a 1960 Thomas Guide map of East L.A. You can see why you’d need a map. (Thomas Brothers/Rand McNally/Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)

More on trusting the map: Nine accidents caused by following GPS too closely. Waze keeps getting blamed for directing bike couriers through the Lincoln Tunnel. The rise and fall of the Thomas Guide.

Write me: Send me a snapshot of a trusty paper guide, past or present, with a few lines about why you love it.  


Startographers of the month

So, I was unable to name any of the 15 airports from the last MapLab. But readers Tom Woolorton, Fabian Blache IV, Bryon Thurber, and Justin Guan delivered 100 percent correct identifications of Geraldine Sarmiento’s skeletal outlines of the world’s busiest landing pads. Perhaps there was some collusion between the last two guessers: both are aviation planners at the global engineering firm Arup. “We have worked with several of these airports as clients so my familiarity with half of them was through work,” Guan wrote in an email. As for Woolorton, he guessed several from memory and turned to Google Maps to confirm the rest. “I don’t know if we win anything but I spent far too long figuring these out to not send them in,” he wrote. Sorry, Tom, no prize but admiration.


Mappy links

The mango mousse under dispute. (Reuters/Handout)

Dissent will be served: Diplomats at the historic Inter Korean summit on Friday will dine on mango mousse featuring an edible map of an island territory disputed between South Korea and Japan. Japan is displeased. ♦ Attention Wilco fans: an atlas of Chicago’s brutalist gems. ♦ Strong ties to poverty: the geography of health in the United States. ♦ All over the place: where the teacher pay gap is getting wider. ♦ From the department of bathymetry: scientists are on track to map the entire ocean floor by 2030. ♦ Head above water: U.S. Congress is seriously considering modernizing how federal flood maps are created. ♦ Watch this space: The Supreme Court is sharply divided over a partisan gerrymandering case regarding Texas district maps, one of two such cases this term.

Mark your calendars: Brazil will celebrate Dia do Cartógrafo, “a tribute to the professionals responsible for studying and producing geographical maps” on May 6.


I know you’ve got a friend with a vicious Waze complaint. Forward her this email, and sign up for MapLab here.

See you in May!

—Laura

After Van Attack, Toronto Balances Grief and Resolve

Over a few terrifying minutes on Monday afternoon, a man in a rented cargo van committed one of the worst mass murders in Toronto’s history. Aiming the vehicle down crowded sidewalks for more than a mile, 25-year-old Alek Minassian struck and killed 10 people, many of them women, in Canada’s largest city; 13 more were seriously injured.

Minutes later, an extraordinarily composed Toronto police officer named Ken Lam managed to successfully apprehend an agitated Minassian on a side street without using his weapon—a feat of policing that has earned Lam considerable praise.

It was the first day of bright sunshine and warm temperatures after a longer, harsher than normal winter and the street was busy with people taking lunch along Yonge Street, Toronto’s central spine. The street serves as the dividing line between its east and west ends, and the strip where the attack took place—part of a former suburb called North York that amalgamated with the city of Toronto in 1998—is lined with high-rise apartments and offices, shops, and restaurants.

Downtown North York is also an area that—like much of Toronto—is notably ethnically diverse, home to people from all over the world but in particular those of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, South Asian, and Middle Eastern descent. It’s a place where the city’s official motto, “Diversity Our Strength,” rings particularly true. The sidewalks there are wide and inviting to strollers, lined with little green spaces and seating areas. Minassian killed at least two people on the edge of Mel Lastman Square, the large public space at the center of North York.

Vehicle attacks have become an increasingly common weapon of terror in urban spaces, but in Toronto and Canada in general, residents and authorities are largely unaccustomed to violence on this scale. As the attack unfolded there was a sense of confusion and disbelief, especially on social media, where many turned for updates. Some initial reports suggested the incident may have been unintentional: The growing number pedestrians and cyclists struck by vehicles in Toronto has been a focus of concern lately. But soon images of orange blankets covering the victims revealed the attack’s true dimensions.

On Twitter in particular, there was immediate speculation, much of it overtly racist, about the ethnicity of the attacker. A tweet from a CBC News reporter, quoting a witness, that described the attacker as “wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern” was immediately shared widely and picked up by right-leaning sites like Breitbart and Infowars, fueling more racist comments online.

Less attention was paid to the corrected information. As soon became clear, Minassian wasn’t racially motivated and did not belong to any established terror organization: Instead, he appeared to be driven by a hatred of women. In a Facebook post shortly before the attack, he praised the 2014 Isla Vista killer Elliot Rodger and identified himself as an “incel” or involuntary celibate, a term that’s been adopted by a hateful fringe community of violent misogynists. In a statement, Canada’s Department of National Defence confirmed that Minassian had joined the military in August 2017, but had been asked to leave before completing his 13-week basic training.

While Canada grieves for the victims of the deadliest mass murder in decades, it’s also reckoning with the fact that radicalization can happen here, too. Sometimes in plain sight.

Despite the horror of the afternoon, the immediate impact on the functioning of the city was surprisingly light. The main subway line, which runs directly under the route of the attack, was only partially closed; nearby streets remained open to traffic, and most buses, streetcars, and commuter trains operated as normal during the evening rush hour. But signs of possible longer-term change are already beginning to appear on the city’s streetscape: Before a Toronto Maple Leafs game at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night, large concrete barriers had been installed around the arena and in places where crowds had formed. City garbage trucks and other large vehicles were parked nose-to-tail across the street as makeshift protection. The next morning, more concrete blocks appeared outside Toronto’s main train station.

This fortification of the urban outdoors is an increasingly familiar ritual, one that many other cities undergo in the wake of similar vehicle attacks. Like Barcelona, New York City, Berlin, and London, Toronto will now be forced to re-examine the dangers that its cherished public gathering spaces might pose to pedestrians. Barriers, protective bollards, and security checks will likely become a more familiar sight, at least for a while. For a city that prizes its multiculturalism and tolerance—and its sidewalks, patios, and parks during the brief warmer months—these are ominous signs that this summer might be different.

Near Yonge and Finch streets, the intersection where the attack began, a makeshift memorial has been steadily growing since Monday afternoon. People have brought flowers, candles, and written tributes in multiple languages, encouraging the city to remain strong and not give in to hate.

Knowing Toronto, it won’t.

To Fix Housing Aid, HUD Wants Work Requirements and Rent Hikes

A new bill backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development aims to raise rents for families who receive housing aid and set the foundation for work requirements. The proposed rent reforms will affect millions of families, setting new boundaries on aid and limits for the families who need help to pay their rent.

The Making Affordable Housing Work Act of 2018, a standalone bill that HUD introduced on Wednesday, would amend the Housing Act of 1937 to introduce new rent reforms and standards. Among other provisions, the bill raises the rent for families who receive assistance from 30 percent to 35 percent.

But the biggest sting will be felt among extremely vulnerable families living on frozen budgets far below the poverty line. Changes in the bill could mean enormous new burdens or evictions for the very poorest people in America.

In a call with reporters on Wednesday, HUD Secretary Ben Carson spoke about the long waiting lists for housing aid that greet applicants in every state. He mentioned the fact that just one in four households eligible for assistance actually get help, and noted that the budget barely covers rising costs for existing families.

“The current system isn’t working very well,” Carson said. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

His complaints echo those from housing advocates who have called on the Trump administration to increase spending on rental aid. Yet the solutions proffered by the administration—namely new eligibility standards and higher costs for families—have drawn sharp criticism from low-income housing advocates.

“Despite claims that these harmful proposals will increase ‘self-sufficiency,’ rent hikes, de facto time limits, and arbitrary work requirements will only leave more people without stable housing, making it harder for them to climb the economic ladder,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in an email.

The MAHWA bill mirrors the draft reforms from HUD first reported by CityLab in February. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April mandating work requirements for benefits across the administration, paving the way for welfare reforms affecting housing, food, and healthcare.

The bill establishes a new formula for calculating rent: Families must pay 35 percent of their gross monthly income or 35 percent of what an individual would earn working 15 hours a week for four weeks at minimum wage (whichever is higher). That minimum works out to $150, three times more than what families pay under the current dispensation.

The bill also establishes a new minimum rent for households who are exempt from paying 30 percent now, namely the elderly and disabled. If the bill passes, these recipients will need to pay at least a minimum of $50—a new floor that will introduce a cost burden for the most vulnerable aid recipients. For some households, especially those who earn less than $2,000 per year, it will mean a powerful shock.

As was widely anticipated, the new HUD legislation enables public-housing authorities and landlords who accept vouchers to set work requirements for people who receive aid. This bill does not specify the minimum or maximum hours that a housing authority could set, or address the nature of work involved with work requirements, but gives the secretary the power to set those terms through regulation.

New reforms under MAHWA include “alternative” rent structures, such as tiered rents, stepped rents, and timed escrows that public housing authorities can choose to adopt. These standards, to be established through future regulations, would serve as time limits for households receiving housing aid. Carson said the goal for these new reforms was to relieve lengthy waitlists.

“Oftentimes these waiting lists mean families must wait for years,” he said. “It’s clear for a budget perspective, and from a human point of view, [they are] unsustainable.”

Carson’s consistent theme in discussions about aid has been self-sufficiency, and the goal of these reforms, according to the secretary, is to boost incentives that put people into more financially stable situations. But as the country faces a broad dearth of affordable housing, limiting options—especially for families at or below the poverty level—has alarmed many housing experts.

And while training programs or other forms of work requirements may help some aid recipients find jobs, most of the people who receive housing aid and can work already do. Work requirements also present a burden to employed people with irregular schedules—a long-running refrain of liberal critics of conservative welfare reforms. This is especially true in certain regions, where unemployment is at record lows.

The bill has not yet been introduced by a member of Congress. If and when it is, it is likely to receive some of the same criticism that has met the farm bill, which imposes new work requirements for people who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“It isn’t clear that there’s any policy rationale behind this,” said Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, referring to the reforms when HUD first floated them in February. “If you work, they raise your rent. If you don’t work, they raise your rent. If you’re elderly, they raise your rent.”

The Slow Decay of Japan’s Modernist Dreams

What happens to modern architecture when it ceases to stand for progress—when it ceases, effectively, to be modern?

Australian photographer Cody Ellingham started to wonder this when he encountered Japan’s government housing complexes, or “danchi” (the term means “group land” in Japanese). Danchi construction started in the late ‘50s, as part of Japan’s postwar boom. They were intended to represent a new era in Japan: they were created in a Western style, foregoing traditional, multi-generational Japanese homes made of wood for concrete towers built for nuclear families. With their refrigerators, televisions, and washing machines, danchi were seen as a way for Japanese families to become part of the nation’s upward trajectory towards modernity.

Cody Ellingham

But times changed. Families wanted homes instead of apartments, the economy stagnated, and Japan’s birth rate declined. As a result, the communities within these Modernist complexes shrank as the buildings themselves stood still. Ellingham’s photos look like something out of the latest Blade Runner movie; they depict an ultra-modern landscape both technicolor and eerie. The density, platte, and concrete all look futuristic, but an element of decay is pervasive throughout. Ellingham photographed each danchi at night in part because it was the time the buildings would be most inhabited, yet they still appear to be deserted.

Though danchi may look hulking and monolithic, they are intricately designed. Windows in each housing tower are set opposite each other to provide natural light, buildings are arranged carefully to ensure that even ground floor apartments can receive sunlight, and each danchi has communal gardens and parks.

Cody Ellingham

“I would not describe them as particularly beautiful buildings,” Ellingham wrote in an email to CityLab, “however the concept they embody—the slow decay of the Japanese dream of modernity—embodies a kind of transience, impermanence, that I think is one aspect of what we call beauty. More than that, there is a sense of awe and sentimentalism looking at row upon row of these buildings lit up on a cold winter’s night.”

Cody Ellingham

In recent years, danchi have had a limited resurgence. In 2015, Quartz reported that the Japanese retail company Muji was turning old danchi into studio apartments by tearing down walls and updating the kitchens and bathrooms. Ellingham recalls a similar project that developed co-working spaces and and cafes inside a danchi complex.

Cody Ellingham

But he believes these are exceptions. “The fate of most danchi is sealed,” Ellingham wrote. “Earthquake regulations and development costs mean whole sections are being torn down. I do not think danchi will disappear immediately, but just like the wooden structures that they replaced, the gradual decline of these buildings will happen slowly at first, and then before long there will be none left. Japan, and particularly Tokyo, has been destroyed and rebuilt several times and I think the only thing left for danchi is to let them be lived in and well used while they still stand.”

Cody Ellingham’s “DANCHI Dreams” will be exhibited on May 12 in Tokyo at the Takiguchi Atelier in Koto-ku.

Can Detroit’s Suburbs Survive a Downtown Revival?

Throughout the 20th century, as American metro areas sprawled ever outward, Detroit—the city that arguably made the modern suburbs possible—led the way. It began with developments in the auto industry; while early plants were multi-story, like 19th-century mills, the continuous assembly line required cavernous single-story buildings on larger plots of land than were available in the city. Between World War II and 1960, automakers built some 20 new facilities in Southeast Michigan, but not one in Detroit city limits.

“That drove the employment structure, and as the economy shifted all types of employment went to the suburbs,” says Avis C. Vidal, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Detroit’s Wayne State University. “Since the postwar period, there’s been a great deal of suburban housing built on the fringes—in excess of the number of households in the region.”

White flight, overly rosy demographic projections, and car-based planning continued to encourage patchy, rambling growth. And even as Detroit itself became a symbol for everything that was going wrong in America’s inner cities in the late 20th century, the sprawl prospered. Seven Fortune 500 companies now call the Detroit suburbs home, compared to three inside the city. By 2000, Oakland County, which borders Detroit to the north, was one of the richest in the nation. Meanwhile, Detroit was headed toward the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.

In recent years, however, buzz around Detroit—or, at least, the 7.2-square-mile area known as Greater Downtown, if not the city’s predominantly black residential neighborhoods—has been growing. The new Detroit has been earning a reputation as a hipster haven, but urban farms and bike shops aren’t what’s fueling its growth. In 2011, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert consolidated the mortgage giant’s entire Michigan workforce—today, some 15,000 employees—in downtown Detroit, abandoning office space in the suburbs. Gilbert’s real estate company, Bedrock, is now Detroit’s largest landlord, and it just broke ground on a new 800-foot skyscraper, the centerpiece of a $2.1 billion investment that comes with the promise of 24,000 new jobs. According to real estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield, office vacancy rates in Detroit’s central business district and Midtown neighborhood are now just 10.9 percent and 8.8 percent, respectively, compared to 13.5 percent in the region as a whole—and down nearly two-thirds since to 2010.

Meanwhile, Ford, which pulled out of the city completely in 1996, will move its electric and autonomous vehicle divisions from neighboring Dearborn into Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood later this year. It’s a deliberate effort, executive chairman Bill Ford Jr. has said, to appeal to young workers who want to live and work in urban neighborhoods. And although a spokeswoman said the company was not ready to make any announcements, Ford’s plans for a Corktown campus are rumored to include Michigan Central Station, the abandoned Beaux Arts train station that has long been a dramatic symbol of Detroit’s decline.

It’s all exciting news for Detroit. Some in the suburbs, however, are watching these developments warily. As Detroit belatedly joins the nationwide urban resurgence, will its suburbs ride the city’s coattails, or will they struggle to compete? If Ford’s sought-after millennial tech workers want to be downtown, can the outlying, auto-centric communities that were so long synonymous with the region’s prosperity reinvent themselves in time to stay relevant?

Built in 1975 as the new home for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, the Pontiac Silverdome, with its state-of-the-art inflatable roof, would go on to host Superbowl XVI and appearances by Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Pope John Paul II. But the Lions moved back to Detroit in 2002, and after years of neglect the Silverdome was imploded in December. Crews are continuing to deconstruct the remains, and city officials say they are exploring options to redevelop the site, which should be cleared by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the vast parking lot has found a less illustrious second life, as a graveyard for Volkswagen’s recalled “cheating diesels.”

The Silverdome, about 30 miles from downtown Detroit, is not the region’s only ill-fated suburban landmark. Long-abandoned Summit Place Mall, in nearby Waterford Township, is under a demolition order, after a scheme to turn it into a “sports and entertainment complex” never came to fruition. The NBA’s Pistons’ former home, the Palace of Auburn Hills, was renovated in 2015 but doomed to obsolescence when Little Caesar’s Arena opened in Detroit last September. While the now-shuttered Palace is surrounded by parking, Little Caesar’s sits at the center of a new, 50-block mixed-use development called “The District Detroit,” a so-far successful effort to tap into the modern mania for walkability.

The failure of a few landmarks does not mean Detroit’s suburbs are doomed, but some local leaders see writing on the wall. Oakland County’s famously abrasive county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, has long taken a vocal pro-sprawl position, but even his government is making an effort to invest in the county’s handful of historic downtowns, via what’s touted as the “nation’s first and only county-wide Main Street program.” Archetypal suburbs like Troy are also getting in on the act. While it may be hard now to imagine walking along Troy’s main drag, a busy six-lane thoroughfare called Big Beaver Road, the city recently installed wider sidewalks, revised zoning to encourage taller buildings and multifamily housing, and took a stab at transit with a trolley-style shuttle bus.

“Everybody’s trying to create places in Southeast Michigan, which didn’t really have places before,” says Barry Murray, director of economic and community development for Dearborn, which borders Detroit to the southwest. “And there’s a lot of interest in diversified housing options, from young people who want to be in the hearts of downtowns.”

Dearborn, with a bustling commercial center of its own less than seven miles from Detroit’s, is in a better position to adapt to the changing times than most of its suburban peers. The city has been Ford’s hometown for the past century, and while a few thousand Ford workers might be moving down Michigan Avenue, the automaker is also spending more than $1 billion to reimagine its Dearborn headquarters along the lines of a Silicon Valley Tech Campus, and to create a new mixed-use development around Dearborn’s historic Wagner Hotel. Murray expects at least 1,000 new apartments to come online over the next few years—at present, he estimates, 90 percent of the city’s 38,000 housing units are detached single-family homes. Meanwhile, a declining mall where 1,800 Ford employees are temporarily occupying an old Lord & Taylor is “an active planning area,” Murray says. “We know these retailers are not going to be there forever.”

Southfield, just across Eight Mile Road from Detroit, could tell Dearborn a thing or two about disappearing retail—last year, it began tearing down Northland Center, the first shopping mall in America. Since Amazon turned down the city’s offer of the site for its second headquarters, Southfield is moving forward with a plan to crisscross the property with through streets and make way for offices, restaurants, apartments and a park—an effort to create a downtown in a city built without one. Says Mayor Kenson Siver, “We have a lot of plans here.”

Southfield is also home to the region’s largest office complex outside Detroit, but Southfield Town Center—as the cluster of five golden glass towers is known—has recently been forced to compete with Detroit for tenants. This year, it will lose Microsoft’s Michigan Technology Center, which is following Fifth Third Bancorp’s regional headquarters to Detroit. Still, Siver remains sanguine, noting that other large employers have recently moved in, and Southfield saw more than $200 million in investment over the past year.

A Southfield resident of more than 50 years, Siver argues that the suburban idea—single-family homes, big yards, good schools, and highway access—will always appeal to a certain segment of the population. So while the community is working to add density where it can, he believes Southfield’s future lies not in imitating Detroit, but in emphasizing its differences.  

“You would never hear me bash Detroit—I think we’re all in this together, and I’m glad to see Detroit thriving,” Siver says. “But clearly, not everybody wants to be downtown. The workforce is still in the suburbs. They have their kids in school here. And I’ve heard from employers who have considered Detroit but decide on Southfield because of parking.”

“Southfield has tons of free parking—convenient parking,” Siver adds. “And if people want to go to Detroit, they can get in their cars and drive 15 minutes.”

CityLab Daily: Opportunity Knocks

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What We’re Following

Opportunity knocking? A little-known item in the recent tax overhaul features a new incentive designed to lure investment to the nation’s poorest urban, suburban, and rural communities. These so-called opportunity zones would target systemic problems in distressed areas for the greater social good. Could they actually undo America’s geographic inequality? As CityLab’s Kriston Capps writes, that depends on how well cities and states pick the right places for investment. Read the full story here.

Return of DACA: A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, terminated by the Trump administration, must continue and accept new applications. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio called the ruling “a victory for justice” and urged DACA recipients or potentially eligible city residents to apply for assistance under the program. Also: The Supreme Court heard arguments today about the administration’s immigration ban for eight countries, six of which are majority-Muslim countries.

Andrew Small


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Richard Florida

Taxing Uber and Lyft to Fund Transit Isn’t Fair to Transit

Roads improvements are part of the regular budgeting process. Why not transit?

Eric Goldwyn

How Much Are You ‘Smoking’ by Breathing Urban Air?

A new app can tell you (and it’s not pretty).  

Martín Echenique

New ‘Mutant Enzymes’ Could Solve Earth’s Plastics Problem

Scientists accidentally created an enzyme that can break down plastic. But is it any better than recycling?

Linda Poon


Just a (Transpo) Bill

(JoAnne Savio/Blue Note via bobdorough.com)

With the news of jazz pianist songwriter Bob Dorough’s passing yesterday at age of 94, we remember that his work at “Schoolhouse Rock” could sometimes be, dare we say, transit-oriented. The iconic “I’m Just A Bill” is technically about a transportation bill, regulating school buses stopping at railroads, and “Conjunction Junction” is all train track work once you get beyond “hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” (For the ultimate “Schoolhouse Rock” transit song, listen to “Too Long in L.A.” by Dorough’s longtime collaborator Dave Frishberg about Los Angeles’s evergreen congestion problems.)

We also got a chuckle from this description of the New York jazz musician’s cheery disposition: “Lou Reed’s idea of hell would be to sit in heaven with Bob Dorough.”


What We’re Reading

A new national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery confronts America’s past (Curbed)

Should New York reserve parking for residents only? (The New York Times)

San Francisco will get over the “scooterpocalypse” (Bloomberg)

Op-ed: Cars are ruining our cities (The New York Times)

Why all companies fear “death by Amazon” (The Guardian)


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