In November 2017, about 200 people attended the first Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The summit brought together activists, network administrators, researchers, and many more to consider the successes and challenges in improving Internet access in indigenous communities. The Internet Society has released the Indigenous Connectivity Summit Community Report outlining next steps on leaving the summit.… Read More
Orient yourself: The art and science of urban structures
Cities are the frequent subject of scientific research in biology, health, environment, and lots of other mainstream fields. But the science of cities themselves—as holistic systems and networks, as “organisms” that function in particular ways—has always been a little more fringe. Also, mind-bending.
Some researchers look for the patterns that make cities grow. For example, Geoffrey West, a senior fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a distinguished professor of physics at the Santa Fe Institute, has shown that a set of simple mathematical principles, very similar to those found in nature, govern the structure and growth of cities, as well as corporations and other human-based entities. “Whether you are insects, fish, mammals or birds, you get the same scaling laws,” he told catalogs cities by the shape of their street grids. “Good urban structure is necessary to create good urbanism,” he writes in the introduction to that book.
Geraldine Sarmiento, a cartographer formerly of the now-defunct firm Mapzen, is developing resources that contribute to this field. “Morphology,” her digital drawing and map-making tool, separates and reduces urban forms to highly abstract figures. Real-world airports, bridges, buildings, farms, parking lots, and many other places around the world are here as line-drawn shapes. Play with the layers and scale to see their shapes shift. “The forms reveal to me the endless pattern and variation at all scales, on living and non-living objects,” Sarmiento said via email, patterns that can be hard to see in regular maps that mush these shapes together, she added.
Sarmiento has started to print her “morphologies” into mini-field guides. Follow her here.
Send me your answers: The image above shows the morphology of 15 of the busiest airports in the world. Can you guess which ones?
CityLab’s Kriston Capps teamed up with the data journalist Kate Rabinowitz for an eye-opening look at how the Fair Housing Act failed black homeowners, 50 years after the federal government passed the historic law. Formerly redlined areas in and around downtown Jacksonville are still where most black residents live, Capps writes. “They are also places where the lowest number of the conventional mortgages are made in the city.”
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What We’re Following
Redlining persists: Today marks 50 years since Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in an effort to uproot redlining and other banking practices that fueled racial segregation. But those challenges still remain: African Americans and Latinos continue to be denied mortgages at far higher rates than whites in 61 metro areas.
Using the data from Reveal and other sources, CityLab has visualized how that discrimination manifests itself in two of those cities—Jacksonville, Florida, and St. Louis, Missouri—where maps of mortgage approvals and home values in black neighborhoods look the same as they did decades ago. CityLab’s Kriston Capps and Kate Rabinowitz report: How the Fair Housing Act Failed Black Homeowners.
Might as well Jump: Uber’s purchase of Jump, a dockless bikeshare company, could be one small step toward a giant leap. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is in Washington, D.C., today to launch the app integration, and the company isn’t stopping there: It also announced that users will soon be able to use the Uber app to find peer-to-peer shared cars, and to purchase passes for public transit. That all suggests that the ubiquitous ride-hailing app might prefer a broader definition: “mobility as a service.” CityLab’s Laura Bliss has the story.
In 2012, Little Village’s Hispanic residents helped shut down a coal plant. Now, a redevelopment company plans to build a distribution center—and a lot of truck traffic—into the neighborhood.
The Other Side of MLK Boulevard
Baltimore’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard follows a pattern seen in many cities: Streets named for the slain civil rights icon tend to be poor and segregated, signaling King’s unfulfilled dream for America. But the street is not just a symbol. It functions as a real, physical barrier between the mostly black residents in West Baltimore and the economic activity in the central spine of the city. In collaboration with NPR’s “Codeswitch” as part of our Cities on Fire 1968 series, CityLab’s Tanvi Misra digs into how the road that brought suburbanites downtown also made the Baltimore’s segregation harder to undo.
Extra: Don’t miss the CityLab crew on this week’s episode of “Codeswitch,” where Tanvi discusses her Baltimore story and Brentin Mock talks about his recent reporting on Atlanta’s cityhood movement. Listen here.
What We’re Reading
Why buying a house today is so much harder than in 1950 (Curbed)
Bringing solar power to affordable housing in Brooklyn (Next City)
This Sim City-style tool lets urban planners see the potential impact of their ideas (Fast Company)
Miami’s proposal to teacher’s money problems: let them live at school (Governing)
Facebook stores its data in this rural North Carolina town, where the privacy debate is just beginning to catch on (Washington Post)
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This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Houston is just seven months removed from the worst flooding disaster in U.S. history. With this year’s hurricane season just a few weeks away, it’s worth remembering that it’s only a matter of time before the next big flood.
So Houston needs a plan for what to do about its ever-wetter reality as soon as possible. The question is, which plan?
There are basically two paths to take: Embrace the floods, plan for the long term, and sketch out a different vision of life in a megacity built on a swamp. Or double down and start an arms race to battle the sky. So far, it looks like Houston is choosing option two.
The Harris County Flood Control District, the agency tasked with managing the area around Houston, is considering a gargantuan infrastructure plan to reduce the threat of future flooding. It would involve drilling massive stormwater tunnels 100 to 200 feet below the ground to funnel water directly to the Gulf of Mexico through a system of pumps. The idea isn’t winning over many urban planners, though.
“This strategy is like dumping water from an overflowing bathtub right back into the bathtub,” says Monica Rokicki-Guajardo, an urban design consultant who until recently was based at the University of Houston.
What’s needed is an expansion of official flood zones to reflect the best available current science, buying out private property in the expanding flood plains, and embracing a soggy future. That approach, too, is getting support from the county but not nearly enough. Most importantly, a good plan needs to make sure that limited funds are justly distributed to the communities of color and low-income families most burdened with a structural problem not of their own making.
This philosophical clash—build tunnels or plan a careful retreat—is perhaps the first major skirmish pitting climate adaptation against climate mitigation in a major U.S. city. The outcome could set the tone for decades to come. Knowing what we know about human nature and denial, a Texas-sized arms race against the sky feels all but inevitable.
But we don’t have a stable climate. Since the 1950s, the Houston area has seen a 167 percent increase in heavy downpours. In a little more than two years, Harvey was the fifth 100-year rainstorm—weather so severe that each storm was expected to occur just once in 100 years under “normal” conditions.
But there is no normal rainstorm anymore. The warming atmosphere, with its enhanced evaporation rates and greater capacity to hold moisture, made Harvey’s rains about six times more likely. And it’s likely to get worse. Climate change will continue to coax epic rains from the Texas skies with quickening frequency for at least the rest of this century.
The city is moving slowly, partly because the problem is so immense. A billion-dollar bond issue for flood preparedness will likely go up for a vote later this year, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must also decide how to spend $15 billion approved by Congress to help Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey.
Engineering responses to climate change almost always come with unintended consequences and exacerbate inequality. Instead of this massive project, Houston could implement basic regulation of development and expand green spaces to reduce flooding. In this vein, Rokicki-Guajardo suggests a whole list of things to try, such as reclaiming the region’s extensive wetlands, providing incentives for lower-income Houstonians to retrofit their homes or move out of flood zones while respecting place-based community ties, and aggressively rezoning the city to hold wealthier landowners accountable for the increased flooding they cause downstream through runoff.
It’s important to ask how a place like this might radically transform in 20 years to become a model, instead of a head-in-the-sand monument to business as usual. We need cities at the forefront of policy innovation to confront the urgency of climate change. As long as our response is “it’s not working, so let’s do it more of it,” we’re sunk.
Mel Chin’s work speaks to the ways in which communities—human and animal, ecological and urban, colonized and colonizer—are at each other’s mercy. In his new exhibit All Over the Place, which opened Sunday at the Queens Museum, Chin examines how the actions of one group can devastate another. But he also pays careful attention to the mirror images of destruction: the ability to hope, and to rebuild.
“There’s a lot of artists working in the social-political field, and it’s a little bit of a hammer to the head sometimes,” said Manon Sloane, a curator of the exhibit and the founder of No Longer Empty, a nonprofit that transforms New York City spaces into pop-up galleries. “What’s incredible about Mel is that he’s a consummate craftsman. His mind, his aesthetic, is really beautiful, so there’s a kind of seducing you into the artwork.”
Chin is clearly driven by social and ecological concerns, and his work is sharp, intricate, and layered. He pays a great deal of attention to ecological damage, and to how humans are both victims as well as agents of harm. For the exhibit section titled The Artifice of Facts and Belief, Chin crafted a shell out of Parisian lace structured to look like high-end lingerie: delicate and costly. The shell itself was modeled after a turtle which has become an endangered species; its home is in war-torn regions of the Middle East. Over the lace, Chin depicted ancient patterns once painted on the skin of women in Baghdad. The symbols serve as a reminder that there are humans, too, bound up in this place that has become inhabitable even for animals with shells.
Some of Chin’s works are explicitly tied to advocacy. In Flint Fit, he takes on the effects of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan by attempting to show how, through innovation and inter-community outreach, the scars of corruption and deprivation can be mitigated. Residents in Flint are still using bottled water for cooking, bathing, and drinking, after high lead levels were discovered in the city’s water supply four years ago (on Friday, the state announced it would no longer be giving free water bottles out to residents, leading to a backlash from those in the city who still do not believe their water is safe to drink).
In addition to placing an emotional burden on residents, this has generated waste in the form of countless plastic bottles. Through Chin’s efforts, over 90,000 used water bottles were collected by the Flint community. The bottles were then sent to Greensboro, North Carolina, where they were turned into recycled fiber, and then into fabric.
Tracy Reese, a New York fashion designer and Michigan native, then used the fabric to design a clothing collection for Flint Fit. For the actual sewing and manufacturing of the pieces, Reese worked with the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center, a nonprofit in Flint that employs residents in the local community.
Reese’s hats, skirts, dresses, and crop tops are all on display at the museum, and the mannequins stand around (or, in one case, are poised to dive into) a topographical map of New York City’s aqueduct system. Over the map hangs a metal cast of the Flint River the color of rust.
“We can’t create an industry with a museum,” Chin said, “but it’s a prototype. This is a collective project engineered to show it can be done.” He wanted to drive home the ways communities that are underserved by their governments are also underserved in their environments, which are slowly being poisoned or eroded.
“It’s not enough to point the finger,” Sloane said. “It’s what you can do about it, and letting the very people who are affected have a voice in what could happen to their communities. It’s a real symbol of the way his work takes you though beauty, complexity, and how you as an individual are complicit.”
“While there’s so much in the show that seems overwhelming about what the negative elements of human society has wrought, I also think that there is incredible hope in some of the intellectual passages [Chin] makes,” said Laura Raicovich, one of the exhibit’s curators. “That out of the crisis in Flint we could create a new economy there. There is a lot that is quite daunting about Mel’s show, but it also provides these moments of hope.”
For years, West Virginia public employees watched their wages stagnate and insurance premiums rise. So, in February, they staged a walkout to fight for—and win—a 5 percent pay increase. Those efforts inspired teachers in other states to follow suit: Kentucky teachers are threatening a walk-out this month if their pensions are cut; in Arizona, teachers are rallying for a 20 percent wage increase. And in Oklahoma, teachers are now entering their second week of closed schools. On Monday, some walked 15 miles to the state capitol building to demand $150 million more in funding and a 10 percent wage increase.
But it’s not just that these teachers are underpaid—it’s that they make much less than college-educated peers working in other professions across the country. And that gap persists nationwide. “There is no state where teacher wages are equal to or better than those of other college graduates,” a report by economist Sylvia Allegretto from the Center for Economic Policy reveals.
But teachers in some states are burdened with far wider gaps than those in others.
The average weekly pay for college-educated workers in the U.S. is $1,428; the average teacher makes only 77 percent of that, or 77 cents to every dollar. In West Virginia, salaries are slightly lower than average: Teachers are paid 75 cents to every dollar earned by other college graduates. Among the other states where unions are actively rallying, Arizona’s gap is widest, at 63 cents; Oklahoma’s trails close behind, at 67; and Kentucky’s is barely above the national average, at 79.
The places with the widest pay gaps also pay some of the lowest raw salaries. Teachers in those four states are making between $40,000 and $50,000 each year; compare that to teachers in New York, California, and Massachusetts, who make an average of above $70,000, according to EPI figures and a study released by the National Education Association.
The interactive map below, created by ESRI and CityLab using EPI’s data, shows the relative size of the gaps nationwide—and might provide some clues as to which states might be next to follow West Virginia’s lead.
As the map indicates, while West Virginia teachers were the first to walk out, there’s a spray of other states that are even worse off, many in the South. Colorado and North Carolina’s gap of .65 rivals Arizona’s. There, teachers are paid an average of $49,244 and $43,472 a year, respectively. (Indeed, Denver teachers threatened to strike in March over the city’s “pay-for-performance” system, but the union agreed to wait to renegotiate in January 2019.) Virginia, New Mexico, and Missouri’s wages are close behind.
This all matters, says Allegretto, because it means the opportunity cost of becoming a teacher is reaching a critical tipping point. “We have to think about students that are in college now that are trying to determine what profession they’re going to go into,” she said. “They have to question whether it’s going to be teaching—are the best and the brightest going to continue to go into teaching with this scenario?”
Indeed, teacher shortages are growing in many states, as college-educated graduates are saddled with more student loans and debt; the cost of education rises; and teacher salaries are decreasing. Many teachers in high-cost cities like San Francisco and New York City are struggling to afford housing close to the schools where they work: In Miami, as Governing’s Natalie Delgadillo reports, Miami lawmakers have proposed building on-campus housing for the faculty (a solution that teachers are less than enthused about).
But even as teachers lobby their states for better wages—West Virginia for a 5 percent raise and hoping for more; Oklahoma for 10; Arizona for 20—it will be hard to make up so much lost income, says Allegretto. As this interactive chart from EPI shows, the gap is growing everywhere, up from a .1 percent discrepancy in 1994 to 11 percent in 2015. Accounting for inflation, that means teacher pay actually fell $30 per week over the last two decades, while professionals in other jobs make $124 more than they once did.
“In West Virginia the increases they got weren’t really increases—they were to make up for lost ground,” said Allegretto. “If you don’t get a pay increase in 10 years and inflation is running even at a modest two percent per year, that’s a 20 percent pay cut.”
In many of the states where frustration turned to action, salary stagnation was coupled with pension cuts and raised insurance premiums. To West Virginia organizers, for example, the wage increase was secondary to a desire for reforming the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency. “[PEIA is] money that has to be put in the state budget every year, and they’ve just not been putting any extra money in,” said Jay O’Neil, a middle school teacher from Kanawha County and a leader of the West Virginia movement. “So on top of our salaries not increasing, really, that was a pay cut we were taking.”
In Kentucky, where the pay gap is far less acute, teachers are just fighting to hold on to what they now have, organizer Nema Brewer told CityLab last month: They’ve already stalled a state Senate bill that would have shrunk their pensions, but teachers and public employees say they will walk out if it rears its head again. And in Oklahoma, along with a wage increase, they’re fighting for increased funding for dilapidated buildings and school resources.
“The discrepancies in the underfunding and the defunding have gone on too long, and it’s showing up,” said Allegretto. That’s why now, teachers are starting to show up, too.
The Fair Housing Act—which Congress passed 50 years ago today, on April 11, 1968—had an impact on sellers and renters that was quickly felt. Progress was slow, but progress was visible. It has taken much longer, however, to uproot redlining and other practices by which banks routinized racial discrimination.
Fifty years after the Fair Housing Act, the full historical weight of banks’ discriminatory practices is still evident in the persistent racial segregation of communities. While discrimination in lending is illegal, disparities in lending are enormous. According to an that the government could not enforce racial zoning, a proto-civil rights victory. About 50 years later, the Fair Housing Act fulfilled the promise of that now-obscure decision by outlawing racial discrimination. It took another 50 years for the Supreme Court to decide (in 2015) that policies that implicitly affected minorities were also unconstitutional. And yet: a defining problem of the 20th century poses the same stubborn challenge for the next one.
As Kahlenberg writes, “[E]conomic segregation in housing is damaging, and perhaps even as insidious as outright racial segregation, because while in effect it still excludes substantial numbers of people of color from good places to live, it does so with the open consent of the law.”
Like Google, FedEx, and Xerox, Uber has become a verb. Its name is synonymous with an action—in its case, summoning a car via app. But a string of news from the company this week suggests it might prefer a broader definition.
On Monday, Uber announced its acquisition of Jump, the New York City-based dockless bikesharing company. On Wednesday, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi revealed that Washington, D.C., users will be able to book a Jump bike right from the Uber app. The bikes were already available to app users in San Francisco, stemming from Uber’s pilot with Jump in February.
At the same event, Khosrowshahi announced that Uber will also test another partnership for the San Francisco market, this time with the peer-to-peer car-sharing company Getaround. Within the Uber app, Bay Area users will be able to book and drive “Uber Rent” vehicles by the hour or day, at prices set by the individuals who own and list them on the Getaround platform.
Lastly, Uber unveiled that it has inked a deal with Masabi, a company that facilitates mobile transit ticketing in 30 cities worldwide, and is working to provide its services, too, among the Uber app’s menu of options wherever Masabi is available. That means users in New York, L.A., Boston, and beyond should be able to book regular commuter rail tickets with the same app they might use to order a regular Uber pick-up when they’ve reached their destination.
“This is about scaling up alternatives that reduce personal vehicle use in cities,” Andrew Salzberg, the head of transportation policy and research for Uber, said in an interview on Tuesday. “This is in alignment with what cities are trying to do.”
It is also about Uber aiming to be an “everything company” for transportation. With its rumored $100 million acquisition of Jump, Uber has leaped into the Wild West of dockless bikesharing, an industry that has exploded since the technology was introduced in China in 2014. Last year, a surge of venture capital brought the colorful, sensor-enabled bikes onto U.S. soil from both Chinese and American players; startups like Ofo, Mobike, Limebike, and Jump have been vying for dominance in dozens of American cities ever since.
Dockless bikes are cheap to use, averaging just $1 per 30-minute ride. Thanks to built-in sensors, they can be parked anywhere, unlike their docked predecessors. The business model for dockless bikesharing is not proven yet—just as Uber’s blast to ride-hailing domination has required a king’s ransom in investor backing, so do the startup leaders of the shared cycling world. But the new mode has been largely welcomed by cities as an answer to mobility woes. To reduce unnecessary car trips, cheap, zero-emissions, easy-to-access bikes could be a simple choice for many travelers, compared to the high costs of gas, parking, and traffic (and, often, a lack of high-quality transit).
In the Wall Street Journal, Khosrowshahi acknowledged that offering dockless bikes could cannibalize some riders from Uber’s comparatively more lucrative car-based services, but said the company’s goal is to meet demands for all kinds of trips. Similarly, Getaround rentals could replace some of the more exceptional types of Uber trips, such as running errands or out-of-town treks. But that’s OK, Jahan Khanna, head of vehicle products, said on Tuesday. “If we’re serious about replacing every use case that a personal car fulfills, we need to be able to provide them,” he said.
Peer-to-peer carsharing has taken off recently. According to a policy brief by UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, membership increased 111 percentage points across the six North American peer-to-peer operators (most of which are local; Turo and Getaround are the major national companies) between 2016 and 2017. Sam Zaid, the CEO of Getaround, said in an interview with CityLab that the mutual aspiration between his company and Uber was to take the partnership to “many more markets.”
The enlightened stage that Uber is aspiring to reach is “mobility as a service,” which transit-tech thought leaders frequently bleat as “MaaS.” Coined in Finland, MaaS refers to the concept of a single platform where travelers can source and pay for rides across multiple transportation modes. Rather than juggling Google Maps, train schedules, Uber apps, bikeshare kiosks, and whatever else separately, riders can compare all shared options converged in one MaaS app and purchase tickets via subscription or one-off buys. Such convenience could reduce temptations to drive, the logic goes.
MaaS is a concept (and a real-world product in a few European cities) that rhymes well with the ride-hailing industry’s on-demand, app-based business paradigm. According to an estimate by ABI Research, the market for MaaS could be worth $1 trillion by 2030, assuming the introduction of cheap, shared, driverless vehicles builds up consumer desire for on-demand mobility services. “Autonomous is part of the solution, and I think longterm is going to be a very important part of the solution of getting rid of car ownership,” Khosrowshahi said at a press event in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
That’s a big assumption, though, especially in the wake of the self-driving Uber that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, last month. With the investigation into that incident ongoing, it’s not yet clear how far Uber or the driverless vehicle industry as a whole has been set back by the crash. Already, the dream of a single MaaS app is a huge challenge to realize, given the number of transportation agencies, services, and payment and mapping entities that must harmonize for it to function.
Uber might conceivably be able to leapfrog more easily into the position of multi-modal ride broker than others; with its deep existing user base, it holds potential to scale up the MaaS model. However, the company has not made itself known as a particularly accommodating civic partner. Initially, Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand vehicle services were welcomed by public officials as a break from the single-occupancy vehicle mold. The companies advertised that their services would complement transit and reduce personal vehicle travel—a powerful message for cities grappling with traffic congestion and vehicle emissions. But a spate of recent research suggests that these promises aren’t all coming true; in fact, vehicle-miles traveled and congestion are increasing in many cities and transit ridership is declining. Ride-hailing appears to be part of the explanation for both trends. And the industry’s unwillingness to part with ridership and trip data has proven a sticking point for many cities now struggling to manage its effects.
On that front, Uber is making two more small steps towards reconciliation. On top of the three partnerships it announced today, it also launched an expanded version of Uber Movement, a platform that houses maps and datasets for historic average travel times across various city zones. Previously available for a handful of places, it is now expanding to include 12 world cities. In addition, Uber is partnering officially with SharedStreets, an open-source, third-party platform that aggregates anonymized mobility data that cities and private companies can use to learn and plan. “As we build up, we want to give back to the public agencies we work with,” said Salzberg.
The company’s acquisition of Jump and partnerships with Getaround and Masabi could also buy Uber some goodwill with the local entities those companies have already forged relationships with, as well as buy some friendly PR in the wake of the fatal Tempe crash. The company’s narrative this week is that it is looking to help, not (quite literally) hurt. To err is Uber, to pivot is divine.
Bringing a large public transit system into its operational fold could be the next critical piece of Uber’s transportation-service puzzle. Speaking of which, at a conference in February, Khosrowshahi made a comment about wanting to run a city’s bus system, perhaps suggesting a scaled-up version of the Uber subsidy programs that a number of suburban communities have picked up in lieu of bus or paratransit service. “We want to help people connect to transit,” Salzberg said in response. “It’s not about replacing [transit].”
Hanging further over the company’s promises to cities is the question of Uber’s financial sustainability. It’s widely believed that Uber and Lyft rides are heavily subsidized by reserves of venture capital. “What happens when the VC money runs out is anybody’s guess,” said Adam Cohen, a research associate at UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. “Do we end up in a scenario where these services are automated and cost less, or do we all end up with increased trip prices?”
Imagine if that day of reckoning happens after the company has pivoted into an all-encompassing MaaS-dispenser, absorbing more public transit systems into its operations, too. That could hurt communities for whom a dependency on shared modes is not chosen but forced by financial constraints. Any meaningful shift away from private car ownership will require alternative services to be affordable on a virtually unlimited basis, Cohen said. Which happens to describe the original concept of mobility as a service: public transportation.
From reading the press, you’d think the housing crisis is mainly relevant to superstar cities like New York, London, and San Francisco. But housing is becoming increasingly expensive in a wide range of cities, including Philadelphia and Detroit. And the worst of the housing crisis by far is not in the wealthy cities of the advanced world, but in the rapidly urbanizing cities of the developing world, where hundreds of millions of people live in substandard housing, lacking electricity, running water, or basic sanitation.
The global housing crisis reflects a fundamental paradox of contemporary capitalism. Cities around the world are more economically powerful and essential than ever. This creates tremendous demand for their land, leading to escalating housing costs and competition.
Meanwhile, housing has been financialized and turned into an investment vehicle, which has caused an oversupply of luxury housing and a lack of affordable housing in many cities across the world. The global housing crisis is defined by a chronic shortage of housing for the least advantaged, and in many cases, for the working and middle classes as well.
Although increasing the housing supply and strengthening renter protections are necessary and important steps, cities alone cannot address the deep structural problem of housing affordability. Where possible, higher levels of government and international development organizations will need to step in to rein in financialization and provide the affordable housing that is so badly needed. But if past is precedent, cities will remain stuck with many of these burdens, and will have to come up with creative solutions to this crisis.
The housing crisis in the developed world
Let’s start with the best-known aspect of the crisis: the affordability crunch in the world’s most expensive cities. The chart below shows the world’s most unaffordable cities, based on 2017 data from Demographia. Their unaffordability is calculated based on a clever metric called the “median multiple,” which is a ratio of median housing costs to median incomes. This metric allows for straightforward comparisons of the multiple of income devoted to housing in cities around the world.
The world’s most unaffordable housing markets are not New York, London, and Los Angeles, or even San Francisco, but Hong Kong, Sydney, Vancouver, and Melbourne. London, Toronto, and Brisbane are also high up the list. Housing is also terribly unaffordable in Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, Moscow, Paris, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Geneva, Rome, Milan, and Barcelona, according to otherstudies.
Several factors appear to be driving the housing affordability crisis of the advanced world. Expensive cities have simply not built enough homes to keep up with growth in employment or population. There are many well-known reasons for this, including NIMBYism, restrictive land-use polices, and the constraints of geography. And, of course, we have seen a sweeping urban revival and the rise of winner-take-all urbanism, in which talent, technology, and other economic assets are densely packed into a small number of neighborhoods.
A 2018 report on European real estate trends by PwC and the Urban Land Institute calls urbanization “perhaps the most significant influencer of real estate strategies in recent years.” In the United States, not just tech startups but established companies have been moving their headquarters to downtown areas. Coca-Cola recently moved 2,000 of its suburban employees to a downtown Atlanta skyscraper; General Electric moved its headquarters from suburban Connecticut to downtown Boston; and McDonald’s is moving its headquarters from the suburbs to downtown Chicago.
While the advantaged members of the knowledge, professional, and creative class have enough money left over even after paying the cost of housing in these cities, it’s the less-well-paid members of the service and working classes who get the short of end of the stick, with not nearly enough left over to afford the basic necessities of life. They are either pushed to the periphery of these places or pushed out all together.
Many of the less advantaged are renters, not owners. Owners were essentially able to lock in their housing costs at the time of purchase, and thereby benefit from significant appreciation. And rents have increased even faster than housing prices in many metropolitan areas. Indeed, rents in the U.S. increased by 22 percent on average between 2006 and 2014, while average incomes decreased by 6 percent. This has meant escalating rent burdens, which, again, fall heaviest on the least advantaged. Nearly half of all renters across America are “cost burdened,” spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. And nearly three-quarters of households earning less than $15,000 per year devote more than half of their income to housing.
Little wonder that homelessness is growing across the U.S. The homeless encampments springing up in prosperous places like Orange County, California, and Seattle are reminiscent of the all-too-common informal settlements of the developing world.
The housing crisis in the developing world
The most severe aspect of the global housing crisis by far is the housing situation faced by some 850 million people—more than the populations of the U.S. and the European Union combined—who live in informal settlements. The map below from the Bloomberg Global City Housing Affordability Index shows that as bad as the housing affordability crisis is in expensive cities, it is even worse in the rapidly urbanizing cities of the Global South, where rents as a share of income average 100 percent, 150 percent, 200 percent, or even higher. The most expensive and desirable cities in North America and Europe are far more affordable by comparison.
According to this metric, the most unaffordable cities in the world are all in the Global South—cities like Hanoi, Mumbai, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro, where housing costs exceed 200 or 300 percent of incomes. The most unaffordable city of all is Caracas, whose economy is in a tailspin. There, average housing costs exceed incomes by more than 3,000 percent.
With as many as 200,000 people pouring into the cities of the Global South every day, it is projected that the number of people who live in informal housing will exceed 1 billion by 2020. The housing crisis of the Global South is compounded by the troubling rise of “urbanization without growth.” In the past, urbanization supported the development of local industries needed to support growth, like manufacturing, brick-making, and food processing, which in turn supported the growth of a middle class. In today’s globalized economy, these local connections have been sundered, and those activities can and do take place virtually anywhere, leaving cities split between affluent knowledge workers and the truly disadvantaged.
The global financialization of housing
It’s not just industry and services that have become global, but housing as well. In the past, housing was built and paid for locally. Even in advanced economies like the U.S., local savings and loan institutions, like the community bank Jimmy Stewart worked for in It’s a Wonderful Life, provided the bulk of financing for housing up until the massive financial deregulation that began in the 1980s.
But with the creation of new financial instruments related to housing, this local connection was broken. Housing, and especially its financing, became a national and then a global industry.
A 2017 report by the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing defines the financialization of housing as “structural changes in housing and financial markets and global investment whereby housing is treated as a commodity, a means of accumulating wealth and often as security for financial instruments that are traded and sold on global markets.” In other words, housing is increasingly intertwined with flows of global capital; housing markets are now more responsive to these flows than to local conditions.
The UN report estimates the total value of global real estate to account for 60 percent of global assets, with a value of $217 trillion, three-quarters of which is housing. That’s nearly three times the world’s total economic output. Since the Great Recession (which, ironically, was caused by real estate speculation), real estate markets have grown at a faster rate than many other financial markets.
As Saskia Sassen has documented, the main players in this market are giant corporations and private equity firms—in 2015, corporations purchased $1 trillion in real estate in the world’s top 100 global cities. Sovereign banks from countries like China, which recently relaxed its foreign investment rules, as well as oil-rich countries looking to diversify their portfolios, like Norway and Qatar, are also notable players in the global real estate market. Laurence Fink, CEO of the private equity giant BlackRock, said apartments in cities like New York, London, and Vancouver have begun to replace gold as the primary store of wealth for the super-rich.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect about the financialization of housing is the fact that all of the money being poured into housing markets has not contributed to a significant increase in supply, but rather to an increase in ultra-high-end units that are extremely expensive to produce. If even a portion of this global housing investment was “directed towards affordable housing and access to credit for people in need of it,” the UN report notes, the UN’s sustainable development goal “to ensure adequate housing for all by 2030, would be well within reach.”
In cities around the world, urbanization without growth has brought along a disturbing corollary: urbanization without housing. In the past, booming cities were able to accommodate massive influxes of new residents, but no longer. Today, the places with the most economic opportunity are too unaffordable for the people who would benefit from it the most.
When it comes to housing, even the most forward-thinking and aggressive cities have at best tinkered at the margins. Berlin created a universal rent cap for its low-income residents. Inclusionary zoning has picked up steam in may U.S. cities. The province of British Columbia, where Vancouver is located, instituted a special tax on foreign real estate investments. Tokyo has kept housing relatively affordable through extremely high rates of residential construction. In the much harder-hit cities of the Global South, some call for more expansion at the urban periphery; others call for better infrastructure; and still others call for empowering neighborhoods and communities to build more housing for themselves.
These are all worthwhile ideas with proven benefits, but ultimately, they may not be enough to alter the structural forces in play.
We must confront the fact that the global housing crisis is not something that is affecting one part of the world or another. It is baked into the very structure of our fast-urbanizing world. While factors like NIMBYism and land-use restrictions certainly exacerbate the housing supply and affordability problems of superstar cities, nearly all global cities are falling short on building enough housing, and enough functional, affordable housing, for those who need it most.
In order to correct this, we must no longer see housing primarily as a financial instrument or investment vehicle, but as a basic human right.
It was May 2, 2015—two weeks after Freddie Gray had died of the spinal injury he received while in
There, he saw a row of armored Humvees with National Guardsmen peeking out from the roof—a jarring site on that bright blue cloud-speckled day. To get to the city’s northwest neighborhoods, where the unrest had been, the soldiers had driven up Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and then turned the corner on McCulloh Street. It seemed sadly ironic to Comer that they’d taken a route named after the civil rights icon. It was almost as if they were trying to send a signal.
“A lot of residents said they hadn’t seen anything like that since MLK’s assassination,” he told me of the unrest that spring, as we stood on the corner of MLK and Franklin Street.
It was an octopus of an intersection, with MLK being the fattest tentacle, curling north-to-south through West Baltimore: Three lanes for southbound traffic, a vast median in the middle, and three for northbound traffic. On a Sunday afternoon, intermittent spurts of traffic pumped along the broad boulevard. Two high-school-age “squeegee boys” patrolled the stretch, working the three-wide line of cars at the red light to make a few dollars cleaning windshields. In shifts, panhandlers emerged from behind the supports holding up the U.S. 40 bridge, which carries motorists over MLK. We were about a 5 minute drive from where Freddie Gray used to live, and another 5 minutes from Baltimore’s heavily touristed Inner Harbor area.
The west side of MLK once held the Murphy Homes housing project, where Comer’s friend William Miller Jr., aka “Cornbread,” grew up. He’d been a squeegee boy himself, before he’d been arrested in 1996 on a violent charge, and spent 17 years in prison. The high-rise housing towers were demolished in 1999; in their place now stands a manicured cul-de-sac with a mixed-income development. But just a street or two behind it were blocks upon blocks of mostly vacant homes, burnt facades, and splintered doorways.
To the east of MLK, at a distance, we saw the backside of the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, converted loft-style apartments, and downtown office towers. In the foreground was the Orchard Gardens apartments, a complex of a low-rise garden-style units—not a fancy building at all, but to Miller, it still seemed miles away from where he grew up.
“It’s just the other side of the wall, you know,” Miller said. “Their parents had jobs; let’s just put it that way.”
At the University of Tennessee, geographer Derek Alderman has been keeping a running list of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. since the late 1990s. In December 2017, he and his colleague Janna Caspersen counted 955 such roads in 41 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Not surprisingly, around 80 percent were in the South. Back in 2015, Alderman told me that based on a limited review of census data, a majority of these streets tended to be poor and segregated.
Baltimore’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is no outlier. It, too, signals the distance that still remains between King’s dream and the reality facing the communities that it runs through. But this street is not just a symbol: An approximately 1.5-mile long six-lane thoroughfare that curves around downtown Baltimore, it connects to Interstate 95 to the south and then re-joins the city’s older street grid just north of the city’s midpoint. It functions as a real, physical barrier between the mostly black residents in West Baltimore—households that are dealing with entrenched poverty, harsh policing, the effects of lead poisoning, and a spiking opioid addiction crisis—and the economic activity in the central spine of the city, located on the other side of the street. It’s a classic “border vacuum.”
“[Its name] belies the way in which the actual street itself is a primary marker of racial segregation in the city,” said Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University who studies the effects of displacement and disinvestment in black communities. “MLK Boulevard in Baltimore basically creates a boundary between the midtown/downtown area and then black West Baltimore.”
Below are two maps made for CityLab by location intelligence company ESRI. The first map shows the predominant racial group in census tracts alongside MLK Boulevard. The green areas are predominantly African American and pink ones are predominantly white; the darker the color, the higher the share. The second shows household income, with darker blue marking higher levels of affluence. The bright yellow line is Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
As in so many U.S. cities, the street design of modern Baltimore reflects the racially charged decision-making that marked mid-20th century American life. Beginning in the 1930s, planners in Baltimore—a city skilled in pioneering “redlined” housing practices—started to devise a network of urban highways. The high-speed car routes would serve two purposes: One, get the growing ranks of white suburbanites to and from their downtown jobs as quickly as possible, and two, “slum clearance”—which often had more to do with the race of the people living in those areas than the quality of housing.
“They’re like, ‘Hurray, free money! We’re going to build this highway—it’s going to be great,’” said Emily Lieb, a historian (and CityLab contributor) at the University of Seattle who’s writing a book about segregation in West Baltimore. “But the ‘we’ in this equation is always powerful, white people whose interests are downtown. [The city] tended to think a lot less about the other ‘we’ in the equation: ‘What is it going to cost us—the people who live here in the city of Baltimore.’”
The left arm of the highway’s inner loop in that 1957 plan tracks roughly with today’s MLK Boulevard: It runs through residential neighborhoods in West Baltimore, connecting a crossed pair of east-west and north-south Interstate highways. By then, thanks to public school construction and discriminatory housing policies, the mostly modest blocks of working-class rowhouses in West Baltimore were already intensely segregated, with the area’s Pennsylvania Avenue strip serving as the heart of the city’s black community.
That 1957 plan underwent many rounds of changes. In 1960, the city’s planning department released a new scheme that proposed running highways through some of the city’s most densely developed residential areas. Black and white Baltimoreans alike resisted these routes, but it was white—and politically connected—communities whose voices were heeded. The effect of this highway debate on the communities involved was destructive in itself. By the time the plan was finalized in 1969, many black neighborhoods—even the ones that didn’t ultimately have highways running through them—had got the message: They didn’t matter. Their homes could be condemned one day, and that condemnation could be revoked the next.
“So this [plan] was just another way of generating and perpetuating, number one, civic indifference, and number two, disinvestment in black neighborhoods.” Lieb said.
What eventually got built was quite different than that 1957 plan, and even many of the iterations that followed. A modified version of Interstate 83 was built, but the highway stopped when it reached downtown, as community groups successfully resisted plans to extend it further, and the partially elevated expressways set to run along the city’s waterfront neighborhoods never materialized. The crosstown expressway dreamed of in 1957 also remained unfinished, though West Baltimore was ultimately carved up with the weirdly disconnected offshoot of I-70 known locally as the “Highway to Nowhere.”
Today’s MLK Boulevard represented the last piece of this somewhat haphazard puzzle, designed to help connect the threads of these unfinished urban expressways; it opened in 1982, as an at-grade high-speed thoroughfare named Harbor City Boulevard. Planning documents from 1978 called it “something more than a city street, but something less than an expressway.” Newspaper articles gushed that the street promised to be a much-needed addition to the web of highways bringing motorists in and out of downtown, and that it would help alleviate traffic in the “now-revitalized” areas of South and Southwest Baltimore. One Baltimore Sun piece from December, 1982 was particularly poetic:
A walk along the boulevard should convince Baltimoreans that the city is upgrading itself in sections other than the Inner Harbor. The walk isn’t just a study, though, for it progresses into a pleasant stroll that shows the present blending with the past, and offers a sense of rural tranquility at the edge of noisy bustle.
Later that year, black state legislators pushed through a resolution to rename the road after the civil rights icon whose death has set the city on fire a little more than a decade earlier. The city’s mayor, William Donald Schaefer, grumbled that the street signs with the original name had already been put up.
Collectively, the package of highways that MLK Boulevard joined made it easier for suburban motorists to zip to downtown and back without interacting with black Baltimoreans. By the time it opened, the city’s population was in mid-freefall, and the city had staked its economic hopes on downtown amenities like Harborplace, the pioneering festival marketplace that developer James Rouse opened in the Inner Harbor in 1980. The road’s construction also displaced black residents, worsening housing conditions in those areas. MLK Boulevard did not segregate the city by itself, but it did help make that segregation harder to undo,Lieb said.
When I relayed some of this history of the street to Comer, he wasn’t surprised. “For some, it can be a symbol of black pride,” he said. “But for others, depending on who’s granting access or granting opportunity for the name change, it’s just saying, ‘Here, take this. Be quiet. Be happy. Go away.’”
But, he added: “We are not the problems, we are only demonstrating symptoms of a problem, which have been policy, government, racism.”
MLK did do a good job moving cars in and out to city, and it still does. On an average rush hour—or before and after baseball and football games, as the road ends near the city’s two downtown stadiums—MLK swells with drivers using it to bypass downtown traffic or make for the northern suburbs. But it’s been far less successful in bringing investment to the communities trapped on its western side, for whom the road has functioned as a hard-to-penetrate border. Despite predictions that MLK would bring new life to these neighborhoods, it appears to have accomplished the opposite.
To bridge the divide it created, the city has lately tried a few things. One is to enlist the help of powerful institutions in its path, like the University of Maryland. In the past, the university had a pretty contentious relationship with the West Baltimore communities on its doorstep. But over the last few decades, it has undertaken several initiatives to help change that. Its most recent effort is the UM BioPark, a complex of research facilities, offices, and green space designed to bring jobs and related investments to the communities west of MLK.
This project is not without its critics. Local transit planner Gerald Neily, for example, has suggested that the university should have focused its place-making efforts on shrinking the massive footprint of MLK Boulevard. On the local news site Baltimore Brew in 2014, he recommended cutting down the street’s wide median and turning the road into a “series of active linear parks”—an amenity that could help stitch the troubled West Side back to the city.
Residents have their own distinct concerns. They’ve already seen the city demolish former public housing and enlist private developers to reshape the space, and feel that former residents don’t always get the opportunity to come back. The University of Maryland project evokes a familiar concern: that, like MLK Boulevard itself, the changes coming may not be for them; that the city and other powerful entities are still in charge of their fate; that if their neighborhoods do improve, it’s only because whiter, richer people or entities moved in.
“My concern about mixed-income communities is that I’ve seen them start off that way, but they don’t end up with low-income people still being able to stay,” Comer told me. “They don’t stay that way.”
It’s a familiar trap—and one that Martin Luther King Jr. would surely recognize.
This story is a collaboration between CityLab and NPR’s Code Switch podcast. To hear episode, click here: