Would Capping Office Space Ease San Francisco’s Housing Crunch?

Voters in San Francisco will soon weigh a Solomonic compromise on housing in the city: a zero-sum building moratorium that ties new office space to affordable housing.

Proposition E, a measure coming up on the primary ballot in March, would limit future office growth in San Francisco as a function of the city’s shortfall of new affordable housing. Under this new accounting, in any year that the city fails to live up to its state-mandated obligation to approve new affordable housing, the legal cap on new office space would be lowered by the same degree. A miss on housing would mean a proportionate dip in new office space.

If this proposal sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The amount of new office space that’s allowed in San Francisco is already capped, thanks to a 1986 ballot measure; given the city’s well-known failures on the affordable housing front, new office space production would almost certainly take a hit under this initiative. A one- or two-digit percent default on the goals set by California would result in a one- or two-digit percent reduction in office construction.

By design, Proposition E sets up a trade-off between office space and affordable housing, according to the initiative’s sponsor, John Elberling, the executive director of Todco, a nonprofit affordable housing management group based in the central South of Market (SoMa) district. “Either we’re going to significantly increase our affordable housing or reduce our office development,” Elberling says. “It’s going to be one or the other.”

The March measure is the latest in a long line of ballot initiatives that aim to cool San Francisco’s incandescent housing market by tamping down demand. Four years ago, voters narrowly defeated a ballot measure for a building moratorium on new construction in the Mission District of 18 to 30 months. Efforts to block new construction reflect a broad belief that high housing costs will eventually drive tech companies out of San Francisco. Proposition E makes the connection explicit: If the city can’t get new affordable housing, then it can’t have new industry.

Prop E will put new pressure on what Elberling describes as the Bay Area’s “growth industry.” Under the new dispensation, developers as well as other sectors that derive benefits from growth will have a strong incentive to make sure that affordable housing gets built. The idea is to turn developers into a lobby for affordable housing. “It would be in their self-interest,” he says. “They will push harder for more funding for more affordable housing.”

Further, the measure would expedite developments that include their fair share of affordable housing units (or pay for them to be built elsewhere). Should San Francisco fail to hit its housing targets, the Prop E regulation will instead slow new office projects—a win-win scenario, from Elberling’s perspective. “When you’re in a hole,” he says, “you stop digging.”

But addressing the city’s jobs-housing imbalance by driving jobs out of the area would be short-sighted, says Nick Josefowitz, policy director of the Bay Area urbanist nonprofit SPUR—especially because San Francisco is “one of the most transit-oriented places west of the Mississippi.” Already, offices are moving out in search of cheaper real estate; the payment-processing company Stripe fled for the more suburban city of South San Francisco this fall. Under Prop E, more offices looking to expand may have to look to the San Francisco Peninsula or to the East Bay—areas that are less connected by transit than San Francisco while similarly strapped for cheaper housing.

“When looking at the jobs-housing balance, it’s more appropriate to look at it at the regional level,” Josefowitz says. “People are commuting all over this region … many coming in from the Central Valley. What I think is important is that the entire region steps up to build … enough affordable housing to house our residents rather than trying to necessarily dice up the jobs-housing balance in small cities at that scale.”

Other opponents of Prop E have a different concern: The cap won’t do enough to slow office growth, especially in the short term. “I really think that Prop E is much ado about very little,“ says Randy Shaw, the author of a book on California’s housing supply crisis, Generation Priced Out. In his proposal, Elberling ensured that the measure will exempt 5.5 million square feet of office space across SoMa, where seven building permits have already been approved. Because of the “staggering” amount of office space not covered under the proposal, it could take 10 to 15 years for the intended targets to start brushing up against the limits, Shaw says.

In central SoMa, Elberling’s proposal not only grandfathers in the projects already underway, it would actually expedite their construction. Under Proposition M, the 1986 measure, the city set strict limits on office construction to prevent the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco; the new measure would allow these seven buildings to sidestep those restrictions. “If we stuck with Prop M as it is, it would take a long time for central SoMa plans to be built out,” says Sonja Trauss, co-executive director of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund* and a founding figure in California’s “Yes In My Backyard” movement. “This ballot measure is going to create a flood of new offices, without doing anything to guarantee that we’ll have more affordable housing.”

Plus, the housing demand created by those new office jobs will likely be for market-rate units, not affordable ones, Josefowitz says. “One of the things we’re seeing in the Bay Area and especially in San Francisco is that office rents are going up and up and up, and it’s really displacing small- and medium-sized businesses, nonprofits, and companies who employ low-wage workers. I think limiting the supply of office space is just going to exacerbate that problem,” Josefowitz says. “The last businesses left in San Francisco as rents rise are going to be the ones paying their employees the most.”

Eventually, the intended effect of Prop E could be more pronounced. Over the last three years, San Francisco has only hit 68 percent of the state’s affordable housing target. Had Prop E been in place already (and not facilitating rapid construction in SoMa), the city’s 875,000-square-feet annual cap on office construction would have been lowered by 280,000 square feet (reflecting the 32 percent affordable housing shortfall). Current property owners would stand to gain as new opportunities grow rarer—much as homeowners benefit under a moratorium on new housing.

Over the long run, the measure might dramatically slow new office growth in San Francisco. Pipeline projects accelerated by Prop E now will essentially borrow cap space from the future; millions of square feet of greenlit offices will be deducted under caps over the next decade. (So if the qualifying developments in SoMa introduce 1.7 million square feet of office space now, then 170,000 square feet will be subtracted from the city’s cap for each year over 10 years.) Beyond the handful of projects in the pipeline, the measure would altogether suspend new office development in SoMa unless and until the city builds 15,000 new market-rate and affordable units in the neighborhood—a significant lift.

Rent-strapped SF voters appear to be willing to buy the premise behind Prop E: An October poll of 600 likely primary voters in San Francisco found that a majority (56 percent) supported the proposal. San Francisco Mayor London Breed initially sponsored a countermeasure that would have negated the measure; when pollsters offered details about Prop E versus Breed’s alternative, support for the ballot measure ticked slightly up while support for her countermeasure fell. She has since withdrawn it. “She can, it seems, read a poll—and has ceded the field,” wrote Joe Eskanazi of the online news site Mission Local. The sort of funded opposition to construction constriction that might typically come from developers has been muted, too, thanks to Elberling’s generous exemptions.

Plenty of players in the Bay Area housing debate profess to share the same basic goal: San Francisco needs more places for workers to live and more affordable housing. But the best means for achieving that end vary widely, as other proposed measures attest. One seismic proposal slated for November’s ballot would exclude most commercial property from protections under Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that slashed and capped California property taxes. And in the legislature, State Senator Scott Wiener is once again advancing Senate Bill 50, a bill to increase the legal density of housing near transit. The $600 million affordable housing bond San Francisco voters passed last November is also part of this mix.

“God willing, we’ll be successful and we’ll have a building boom of affordable housing,” says Trauss. “If I’m optimistic … maybe [Prop E] won’t matter at all.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of the article misstated the location of the San Francisco Peninsula. In addition, Sonja Trauss was incorrectly identified.  

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As Trump Ditches a Fair Housing Rule, New York City Doubles Down

The Trump administration is walking back a rule on fair housing that requires communities to show how they’re working to undo long-established patterns of racial segregation. In its place, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is proposing an updated rule that bears little resemblance to the standard set by the Obama administration. Advocates for housing are crying out that the White House is operating in bad faith.

Known by its mantra-like moniker, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) is a mandate established by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. While this charge to desegregate is decades old, only within the last decade has the federal government sought to actively enforce the standard. In 2015, under then-Housing Secretary Julián Castro, HUD issued a “final rule” clarifying the federal government’s fair housing policies. This rule proved to be short lived: The Trump administration hit the brakes in 2018 by suspending a deadline for compliance with the rule, before anyone could fulfill its obligations. Then, on Tuesday, the department issued a new rule to replace the Obama standard altogether.

Officials in New York City, however, are standing by the original rule, which requires jurisdictions that receive federal housing dollars to produce a comprehensive fair housing assessment. While the city was no longer on the hook for the report after HUD paused the process two years ago, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio finished the assessment anyway—then built an entire policy platform around the results.

“If you don’t look hard at where you are and how you got there, you’re never going to do a good job of getting to a better place,” says Vicki Been, New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development. “We’re not going to stick our heads in the sand the way that this administration is doing.”

The “Where We Live NYC” report is a blueprint for addressing fair housing challenges in America’s largest city—an effort rooted in the work that federal housing officials are now abandoning. The draft document offers a detailed look at racial discrimination, segregation, and other obstacles to fair housing, plus a draft plan for policies to address these barriers. The report establishes a baseline for understanding the experiences that families face in different parts of the city. A lengthy portion is devoted to the history of New York City’s growth and patterns of racial segregation since 1900. At more than 200 pages, “Where We Live NYC” shows the very real challenges the city faces to address discrimination by landlords, lenders, and leaders.

“What we’ve tried to do here is really lay out what we’ve got to solve for,” Been says. “It’s the result of 400 years [of discrimination]. It’s going to take a number of administrations to solve this.” The report, she says, “makes it harder for New Yorkers to walk away from that.”

The draft report outlines six goals that the city hopes to implement over the next five years. Those goals—policy proposals described at length—include devoting resources to combating discrimination by landlords, preserving naturally occurring affordable housing, enabling households with rental assistance to find homes in wealthier neighborhoods, and other strategies to shore up fairer living circumstances for renters and homeowners alike.

For example, the New York City Commission on Human Rights conducts so-called paired-testing exercises to suss out discrimination in the housing market. In these experiments, the agency sends out pairs of trained actors with different characteristics to test whether a broker or landlord is discriminating against potential buyers or tenants. One pair of would-be renters might have a traditional income stream, whereas the other might be using a housing voucher; others might have different immigration statuses. The report recommends expanding the work by the office in order to prevent differential treatment based on source of income, race, sex, disability, and other characteristics.

The research that led to the Where We Live report is a product of the AFFH push from HUD in 2015. The federal law hasn’t changed over this time at all: Desegregation is still an explicit mandate under the landmark Civil Rights-era legislation that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But federal enforcement of this provision has been lax or confused at best over the 50 years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act.

“We know from past experience that without oversight, local governments often follow the path of least resistance, which time and time again has been shown to perpetuate structural barriers to equality and integration,” says Thomas Silverstein, counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

HUD’s solution under Castro was to require every jurisdiction to perform an assessment of fair housing—mandatory documentation designed to be both exhaustive and standardized. The new rule proposed under Housing Secretary Ben Carson doesn’t require an assessment of fair housing. Little of the 2015 rule survived the review process.

“If you look at the definition [of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing] that’s in the current rule, it includes concepts like ensuring access to opportunity, replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, and transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity,” says Sasha Samberg-Champion, who practices civil rights law as counsel with Relman Colfax. “That’s all been taken out.”

He adds, “HUD is taking the fair housing out of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.”

Instead, the new rule from HUD prioritizes access to affordable housing, with an emphasis on the supply and location of low-cost options for living. Many housing advocates argue that Carson aims to move the goal posts for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing from a mandate about race to one about class. The existing rule is not universally beloved, though, and some of its critics cheered the pivot by HUD.

Emily Hamilton and Salim Further, research fellows with George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, described the Obama-era rule as “bureaucratic symbolism.” While the rule requires state and local officials to draft lengthy reports, all that work comes to nothing if elected officials never act on (or read) their recommendations. The proposal to focus on easing restrictive zoning will serve all renters and buyers better, they say. “Instead, the new rule uses quantifiable statistics to identify jurisdictions that are succeeding–or failing–in allowing housing markets to serve residents (or prospective residents) of every color, class, and creed,” they write in a recent commentary.

Howard Husock, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, writes in City Journal that the move by HUD to lower regulatory barriers is a positive good in and of itself. Husock describes the 2015 rule as “social engineering”—much as Carson himself has done—and compares AFFH to busing. He welcomes the government’s proposal to decouple the provision of housing dollars from work on desegregation. “HUD itself will highlight—but not mandate—good approaches,” Husock writes.

By the same token, Carson’s critics argue that the new rule weakens the government’s options for enforcing the fair housing mandate. The rule may allow HUD to withhold federal funds from jurisdictions that maintain barriers to new housing—a boon for affordable housing, potentially, but a tangent to fair housing. The department is giving up a policy stick for attacking segregation and (maybe) taking up a different one.

“In the past, Carson has suggested he would use the [Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing] rule to loosen and lessen restrictive zoning that inhibits housing production, an important goal given the deep racial disparities created by some local zoning laws,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “But even here he fails, choosing to instead let localities off the hook by explicitly stating there will be no consequences if they keep their restrictive zoning laws.”    

As the new rule from HUD notes, assessments submitted under the prior AFFH rule averaged 204 pages. If the new draft rule is made final, jurisdictions will need to do far less to demonstrate their compliance under the law. HUD estimates that each jurisdiction will spend about 10 hours total complying with the new rule. “That’s one day’s work for one person and call it a day, each year,” Samberg-Champion says.

The new rule also establishes a rational basis review as the legal standard for challenges under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing standard, a legal term of art related to the level of scrutiny that courts must apply in judicial review of a law. In short, courts won’t need to spend too much time looking at complaints brought forward on fair housing grounds. “It’s extremely rare for any policy to be struck down on the basis of rational basis review,” Silverstein says. “With that standard, you’re sending a very strong signal that the bar is set as low as it possibly could be.”

The government’s new posture on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing is the latest signal that HUD, under Carson, is rethinking fair housing law. Last year, the department proposed a rule change on disparate impact, the legal theory that has guided housing law for more than half a century. That proposed rule would make it more burdensome for parties to bring forward fair housing complaints under the law. This latest rule change would curb the role of the federal government in steering jurisdictions away from discrimination in local policies.

New York City officials say that they’ll take the other road, and their Where We Live report—detailed briefs on policies and strategies for tackling citywide discrimination—follows the path paved by the Obama administration.

“It’s the first serious attempt to enforce the obligations of the Fair Housing Act since the Fair Housing Act was passed,” says Vicki Been, New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development. “That was a long time ago. We need to make progress.”

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Denser Housing Is Gaining Traction on America’s East Coast

For the past few years, cities and states on the West Coast have led the charge to build more dense housing and arrest fast-rising rents. Oregon passed the first-ever statewide law legalizing duplex homes in most cities, while California has debated one bill after another to increase the allowable housing near transit.

The East Coast has been slower to pick up on density as a solution to soaring costs for renters and home-buyers. But that may change in the new year. Late in December, Virginia became the first eastern state to see a proposal to prohibit bans on duplex housing across the state, among other housing fixes. Not to be outdone, Maryland will weigh a upzoning bill in 2020, plus a sweeping experiment to build European-style social housing across the state.

Next week, Maryland House Delegate Vaughn Stewart will introduce a suite of housing bills to expand rights for renters and options for buyers. This legislative “Homes for All” package would attack the affordability crisis on three fronts: by lifting zoning restrictions on new housing, generating a fund for public housing, and establishing new rights for tenants.

“What we’re really trying to convey is that the housing affordability crisis is so deep and so acute, that you can’t begin to solve it with just one solution,” Stewart says. “It’s time for the Maryland General Assembly’s response on housing to meet the scale of the problem.”

Stewart, who represents Montgomery County, a largely affluent suburban area outside Washington, D.C., was elected to office in 2019 in part on a pledge to address the high cost of housing and lack of so-called middle housing options. The subject is divisive locally: While Montgomery County council members voted unanimously to build 10,000 more housing units by 2030, the county’s executive, Marc Elrhich, opposed the resolution.

With the Homes for All bills, Stewart says he is focusing on justice and equity as an explicit goal of zoning reform.

“For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart says. “We’ve got to act boldly if we want to reverse decades of exclusionary policy.”

Maryland’s upzoning bill takes a different tack from the law recently introduced by Virginia House Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, which would legalize duplexes across the commonwealth. Instead of a blanket upzoning, Stewart has opted for a more tailored approach. His bill would increase the legally permissible density of housing only in areas with relatively high incomes, concentration of jobs, or access to public transit. It would also raise taxes to fund thousands of units of publicly owned and permanently affordable housing.

While both the Virginia and Maryland bills are the work of suburban D.C. representatives—officials separated by only about 30 miles—the two bills show how widely housing strategies may vary. Now lawmakers will weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each.

The D.C. area, including Montgomery County, faces an acute shortage of affordable and market-rate homes. A report from the Urban Institute finds that the region needs to build 374,000 housing units by 2030 in order to meet its pent-up housing need. Yet other parts of Maryland struggle with different housing crises, from sky-high vacancy rates and negative home values in Baltimore to exclusionary restrictions that freeze out new buyers on the Eastern Shore. Maryland is a microcosm for America.

“We’ve got Appalachia, the South, the water, a major Northeast city, affluence, poverty, immigrants,” Stewart says. “It’s tough to have a one-size-fits-all bill, especially with something as tough as housing policy.”

Bringing together a broad, durable pro-housing coalition is critical to pass any housing reforms, he adds. He designed his bill to appeal to tenants’ rights activist, market-oriented supply-siders, and socialist public housing champions (or PHIMBYs) alike.

The Modest Home Choices Act of 2020 would legalize a wide array of multifamily homes, including duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, cottage clusters, and townhouses. The bill would preempt local restrictive zoning codes in census tracts that meet certain criteria for jobs, transit access, and median household income. Stewart’s bill uses the Opportunity Atlas, a demographic mapping project by economists at Harvard University and Brown University with the U.S. Census Bureau, as a guide for setting parameters for neighborhood opportunity.

For census tracts in Maryland that meet the opportunity standards, local governments must permit at least one of each kind of middle-housing option in single family home–zoned areas, and they must legalize duplexes by right. The bill doesn’t prohibit the construction of single-family homes; instead, it repeals local bans on duplexes and other multifamily home options.

Further, the bill, whose precise legal language is still being drafted, would require local governments to ensure that new development does not lead to any net loss of naturally occurring affordable housing. The bill leaves it to local governments to regulate other land-use codes, including property sizes and setbacks. In wouldn’t affect rural areas or low-income places with less opportunity.

A second bill, the Social Housing Act of 2020, would broadly fund and encourage the construction of new social housing statewide. This ambitious proposal could have enormous ramifications for the Old Line State.The fundamentals of his new bill are simple: publicly owned, permanently affordable, accessible homes, built with unionized labor, near public transit, and made available to a variety of income levels.

This kind of social housing, based on the Vienna model, is rare in the U.S.—there are maybe 600,000 to 750,000 units, fewer even than the federally capped figure for public housing. As far as proposals for social housing go, possibly only the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act proposed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez comes close.

“It sounds almost utopian to an American’s ear,” Stewart says. “But it’s very mundane in Europe.”

The Social Housing Act ams to create thousands of these units in Maryland. In order to fund these homes, the bill would tweak the state’s real-estate transfer taxes to include a new 0.75 percent tax for properties that sell for $1 million or more. The bill would also authorize a new $75 fee for real-estate notices, including trusts, covenants, and other documents (but not sales). It’s unclear yet how many public-housing units this new purse would actually subsidize, and some details about the funding and financing of the units may change as the bill’s likely impact is audited.

Building affordable housing is a challenge in Maryland. Historically, the state has spent a “cartoonishly low amount out of its Housing Trust Fund,” according to Stewart. From 1992 through fiscal year 2018, Maryland’s fund has received $49 million; in D.C., a similar housing production trust fund received nearly $170 million in fiscal year 2018 alone, even though the District’s population is 10 times smaller than that of Maryland.

The final plank of the Homes for All package, the Tenant Protection Act of 2020, is a grab-bag of new rights for tenants. Some of the provisions would implement protections available to tenants in California and New York, while others would expand renters’ rights in Montgomery County to cover the entire state.

For example, the law would allow Maryland tenants to leave a lease early if the landlord can’t or won’t fix defects, pests, or mold. It expands the rights of victims of sexual assault or domestic violence to terminate a lease early to include victims of stalking and other vulnerable renters—and it makes it illegal for landlords to evict tenants for calling the police after suffering these crimes. Maryland landlords currently have 45 days to return a security deposit; if this law passes, they’ll have 30 days instead. Plus, landlords will have to submit itemized receipts for any deductions.

“[The bill] takes some of our existing laws and brings them to the next level, giving the tenant the ability to be their own best advocate,” says Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland.

Housing reforms face long odds, thanks in part to the diverse groups that tend to step up to face them down. The opposition brings together NIMBY homeowners who don’t want to share the wealth, socialist-types who don’t support market-rate developers, and racists who want to preserve exclusive white communities.

While zoning reformers can claim a few victories now, the YIMBY movement is still fractious, a challenge for housing affordability on both coasts. Stewart says that he hopes to overcome the “balkanization on the left on housing” by aiming wide.

“I’ve gotten frustrated by the in-fighting between those who think we should most principally focus on zoning laws and those who want to focus on renters’ rights,” Stewart says. “We can do all those things together.”

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CityLab Daily: Inside the Virginia Bill to Allow Denser Housing

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***

What We’re Following

Up on the housetop: All they want for Christmas is zoning reform. With a new majority in the statehouse, Virginia Democrats are eyeing a wish list of housing bills. The proposed new measures would legalize duplexes and accessory dwelling units, and give local governments more leeway to build affordable housing, ahead of the arrival of Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington. But rents are also rising in cities such as Richmond and Charlottesville. See how Virginia’s ideas compare to recent upzoning legislation in Minneapolis, Austin, and Seattle. Kriston Capps has the story: With New Democratic Majority, Virginia Sees a Push for Denser Housing

Programming note: The newsletter will be taking a holiday hiatus on Tuesday and Wednesday. See you Thursday.

Andrew Small


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With New Democratic Majority, Virginia Sees a Push for Denser Housing

Virginia will soon weigh a proposal to increase the legal density of housing across the commonwealth, making it one of a handful of states to explore a statewide zoning mandate in response to the affordable housing crisis. The bill comes as Democrats in the legislature seek to put a progressive stamp on policy in Virginia, although this bill may upend partisan expectations.

House Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in suburban Washington, D.C., introduced the new bill and four other housing measures on Thursday, including a proposal to legalize smaller flats, known as accessory dwelling units, throughout Virginia.

“Northern Virginia is no different from other metropolitan areas in this country,” Samirah says. “It has a huge housing shortage.”

The bill would legalize duplex homes—townhouses, cottages, duplexes, and so on—in any place currently zoned for single-family homes. The bill doesn’t ban single-family housing outright, and it leaves questions about siting, design, setback, and other considerations to local governments to decide.

H.B. 152 arrives at a time when residents of Northern Virginia are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Amazon, which has promised to bring thousands of jobs to the suburb that the company helped to rebrand as National Landing. Cities across the state are struggling with a lack of affordable homes, yet they face pressure from homeowners and other constituents to support the status quo.   

“This is obviously a good problem to have. We’ve attracted a lot of people to this area that people find to be desirable,” Samirah says.

Oregon became the first state in the nation to ban restrictive single-family zoning codes across the state back in July. The Virginia bill would similarly enable more dense housing on lots that are currently reserved exclusively for detached homes. Samirah’s proposal is a blanket upzoning measure, with no carve-outs for special areas, a common feature of other state-level zoning bills.

“The idea is to require every jurisdiction in the state to allow a little bit more density, which has some big advantages politically, in terms of not requiring any one place to undergo big changes,” says Emily Hamilton, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “It’s a fairer way to allow more housing to be built.”

Such a bill would be a leap forward for the state on an issue that has divided residents elsewhere. Minneapolis became the first city to eliminate single family zoning last December, and leaders in Austin and Seattle have since followed suit—but only after fraught political battles that have stymied other efforts at reform. Upzoning at the state level is still an elusive target. California, for example, has looked at narrower bills, most recently S.B. 50, but the bills stalled in the legislature. Proposals in Washington state met mixed results.

H.B. 152 is almost certain to face pushback in Virginia, a state where Democrats now control the legislature for the first time since the 1990s. Housing and zoning don’t line up neatly with traditional partisan divides on other issues, though. Conservatives may wind up backing the measure as a market deregulation, while liberals might balk at a measure that could bring density to their doorstep.

Advocates for the upzoning bill say that changing local zoning policies is a necessary step to address the housing affordability crisis. Housing costs are extreme in the Northern Virginia suburbs near D.C., yet rents are rising in Richmond, Charlottesville, and other cities, too. By preempting the ability of local governments to set their own restrictive zoning policies, the state policy would circumnavigate the complaints of local NIMBY homeowners who want to block denser housing.

“If you want to make affordable housing easier to build, you have to change zoning,” says Alex Baca, the housing program organizer for Greater Greater Washington, an urbanism site for the D.C. area. “I don’t think it’s going to bring rents down overnight. Everyone’s not going to be able to buy a starter home. That’s not necessarily the point, although you can’t do any of that stuff without changing the laws.”

Conversations about zoning reform typically center on affordability or sustainability (since sprawl encourages driving), she says. But zoning has always served as a tool for wealthy white communities to maintain segregated neighborhoods. Baca says that getting single-family housing off the books is a necessary first step toward making a more equitable law.

“It’s a really good practice to not have those words in your law,” Baca says. “That alone is enormously powerful.”

When cities alone tackle zoning, the results can be spiky. Spot zoning changes often lead to market-rate apartment buildings going up fast in low-income areas, while wealthier communities are able to keep construction at bay. While residents might reasonably desire to keep the neighborhoods they love the way they are, the only way to build more housing fairly is to permit that possibility everywhere evenly.

“It takes politics out of the equation,” Hamilton says. “It’s not going to be a politically weak jurisdiction or neighborhood that takes the brunt of a bunch of new housing development.”

Other bills introduced by Samirah on Thursday would expand the powers of the director of Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development and give the state’s Housing Development Authority more tools for research. The state’s new budget proposal also gives a big boost to the Virginia Housing Trust Fund and introduces a new eviction prevention program. None of these efforts alone will make housing more affordable in Virginia, but taken together, Samirah says, they have a chance.

Whether the upzoning bill can pass the legislature is an open question. The delegate will have an uphill battle convincing more rural parts of the state to support a bill that primarily affects solidly blue Northern Virginia. Voters in his own area may not go for it, especially the home-voters living in single family home–zoned areas. On the other hand, the bill will be a boon to developers and home-builders, and maybe a free-market bill that thumps precious urban homeowners is something that Old Dominion voters can get behind. It won’t cost voters a dime.

“There’s people on the right side of the aisle who view it differently but still want to support it,” Samirah says. “We consider them indirect partners in the process, based on recognizing the political landscape.”

He adds, “So many different areas in Virginia have definitely surprised me with their level of interest.”

There are some zoning issues that the the statewide proposal doesn’t address. Local governments may still set restrictive setbacks, height limits, and parking requirements for properties. That’s a problem in Minneapolis: While the city allows triplexes to be built anywhere, by right, the city’s new law doesn’t touch codes on the size of homes, which means that the allowable building footprint might not easily accommodate triplexes. Preempting local jurisdictions from setting these rules would certainly make it easier to build housing, but it might cost the bill the support that it will need to pass.

A gentle statewide upzoning is a first step.

“There’s no silver bullet. There needs to be a combination of solutions,” Samirah says. “We think that, right off the bat, adding up to 100,000 units potentially into the market would be a really good starting point to control the problem of the lack of affordable housing out there in Virginia.”

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Fix California’s Housing Crisis, Activists Say. But Which One?

The week before Thanksgiving, housing Twitter exploded. The focus of the debate: the significance of vacancy rates.

In a tweet promoting the March for Housing Now rally in Oakland, comedian Kamau Bell wrote, “We’ve been led to believe that there’s a housing crisis in Oakland. But there are 4 VACANT units for every homeless person. This isn’t a housing crisis. It’s a crisis of greed.” One of the organizations hosting that rally, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), also contributed to a report released that week called “Who’s Buying Los Angeles?” The report highlighted extremely high vacancy rates in newly constructed luxury apartments in Los Angeles.

In reponse, California’s YIMBY cohort—that’s “Yes, In My Backyard,” or housing activists focused on easing regulations on housing construction—shot back that vacancy rates are actually quite low in Oakland and across California, and that the key problem facing the state is a shortage of homes. They also highlighted methodological issues with the Los Angeles report, causing its authors to remove it from the internet pending new data.

Such spats are a semi-regular occurrence on Twitter when the topic of housing-hungry California cities comes up. Of course, off social media, the “sides” of an issue as large and complex as housing are much more amorphous, requiring a great deal of teasing out. But the fact that this particular debate erupted from the promotion of a real-life event offered a unique opportunity for at least one camp to make their case in more than 240 characters, in the actual places that are so often being argued over online.

“There’s been a lot of pushback that we’ve received about saying there’s not a housing crisis, there’s a greed crisis,” Caroll Fife, Oakland director of ACCE, told the crowd in her opening speech at the March For Housing Now on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. “We’re going to explain that a little more today.”

And explain it they did, albeit not in a way that would satisfy all of their critics. The debate about vacancy is really a debate about what kind of new housing cities are building, and what neighborhoods those homes are getting built in. It’s a dispute that illuminates the rifts in the broader housing movement in places like Oakland and Los Angeles, where an extreme affordability crisis has also spawned a complex ecosystem of activism.

The differences in perspective are not only between tenant activists, who fight to keep existing residents stably housed, and YIMBYs, who demand more housing of all kinds. It’s also between those focused on the local and the regional, the short and the long term. It’s the difference between low-income residents who’ve never been adequately served by the housing market and the young professionals who have only recently become frustrated by their inability to find homes they can afford. The movement’s success could depend on its ability to transcend these divides and build a broader coalition.

“We’ve got to break down the silos so that when we organize we can strike with one blow,” Fife said. “YIMBYs, they’re a part of our family, too, because this is a big umbrella.”

***

The starting point of the March for Housing Now was strategically selected: Oakland’s Mosswood Park sits halfway between the two rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, Uptown and Temescal. An encampment of tents lines the east side of the park, serving as a reminder of the city’s 47 percent surge in homelessness since 2017.

The rally drew a mix of members of local labor, faith, environmental, and tenant organizations, all gathering to share stories from the front lines of the Bay Area’s housing and homelessness crisis, as well as their plans to fix it. Many had come to learn more about Moms For Housing, a group of homeless mothers who, the same week as all of the Twitter drama, began to occupy a vacant, speculator-owned house in West Oakland.

This remarkably literal, personal example of a vacant home finding a more beneficial use contrasts with the ways vacant housing is usually discussed, be it as a rhetorical cudgel wielded by activists or an abstract economic term cooly explained by policy wonks. What the policy types see is a problem that is marginal in the overall housing picture in expensive cities, albeit one that is difficult to measure. Vacancy rates are a snapshot in time, and can describe a number of very distinct phenomena: There’s a big difference between a tax-delinquent, long-abandoned home in Toledo and a downtown Austin apartment that’s briefly languishing between tenants. Generally speaking, expensive coastal cities have lower vacancy rates, and struggling Rust Belt ones have higher rates, since strong demand causes empty homes and apartments to quickly find new occupants.

In the 2019 national housing inventory report from real estate analytics company CoStar, the New York City metro topped the list with the lowest vacancy rate for market rate rental housing; Los Angeles ranked 7th, and Orange County, San Francisco (which includes Oakland), San Diego, and Sacramento all ranked in the top 20 out of 80 metros measured, with rates below 5 percent.

Luxury high-rise apartment buildings under construction in downtown Los Angeles in October. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

The contested report, “Who’s Buying Los Angeles?” identified apartment vacancies as a more urgent issue, finding an average vacancy rate of 70 percent in 10 new apartment buildings in downtown Los Angeles. The authors noted that, despite these high vacancy rates, the apartments are not lowering their prices: “This is what speculation looks like in practice: empty luxury towers while thousands live in desperate poverty on the streets below.”

What the report failed to account for was the dynamic nature of vacancy rates. The authors used CoStar data from spring 2019, a time when downtown L.A. vacancies were at the highest level the firm had ever recorded: 3,500 new units had opened in the neighborhood over the previous 6 to 9 months, according to CoStar analyst Stephen Basham. But these rates have quickly stabilized. CoStar’s most recent data shows these 10 buildings with an average vacancy rate of only 30 percent. (Terra Graziani of the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action, a co-author of the report, said that it’s being updated with new data and analysis and will be re-released this month.)

“The larger picture,” Basham said, “is that for the most part this cycle, downtown L.A. has been one of the most heavily built parts of the country, and the demand has generally been there to keep up with that building.”

While there is little economic incentive to leave a rental apartment empty for long—since every month it sits vacant it loses money—there could be for condos and other for-sale properties. These units might be held as second homes, rented as Airbnbs, or retained as investment properties until the price is sufficiently high. But such properties likely represent a small proportion of a city’s total housing units. A 2014 report from the Bay Area think tank SPUR found that “non-primary residences” represented just 2.4 percent of San Francisco’s housing stock, and about one half a percent in Los Angeles and Oakland.

In a select few prime locations around the world, non-primary residences are more common: In Miami, 7.7 percent of homes fall into this category, and in Manhattan the rate is 4.4 percent (compared to 1.8 percent for New York City overall), according to the SPUR report. “Who’s Buying Los Angeles?” found an “effective vacancy rate” of 74 percent in 25 of L.A.’s most exclusive condo buildings, where the unit is not the primary residence of the owner. However, these statistics do not account for units sub-leased to occupants other than the primary owner.  

Cities have tools to discourage these kinds of uses, like the vacancy taxes recently implemented in Oakland and Vancouver, as well as “flipping” taxes and real estate transfer taxes. These policies tend to have broad support from housing advocates of all stripes, including Shane Philips, a housing researcher at UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, who was critical of “Who’s Buying Los Angeles?” on Twitter. “I just don’t want the conversation to be, ‘If we enact vacancy taxes, suddenly housing will be affordable,’” he said, pointing to Oakland as a case in point.

New apartment buildings in Oakland overlook protesters at the March for Housing Now rally. (Ben Schneider/CityLab)

When vacant homes were brought up at the march, it was clear they were emblematic of a larger critique. Vacant units are an affront, the most vivid symbol of a housing market that doesn’t work for most people. The fact that there are four vacant units for every homeless person in Oakland—a claim borne out by the latest American Community Survey and HUD point-in-time homeless count data—is indicative of a fundamentally skewed distribution of power and resources. One speaker, a representative from ACCE’s anti-displacement committee who gave his name only as Nick, decried new “housing meant for the rich, and to attract new wealthy residents, all while Oakland politicians tell the poor people, the working-class people, the people of color of Oakland to wait our turn, despite there being four vacant units for every houseless person in Oakland right now.”

Even if the new apartments in Oakland are not vacant—as in Los Angeles, there remains tremendous pent-up demand even for expensive apartments—they may as well be to the homeless and housing insecure people who live next door. In the urban core of Oakland and downtown Los Angeles, construction is rampant—Oakland has 9,300 homes under construction while downtown Los Angeles has seen 35,000 units built since 1999.

If you’re just looking at all those cranes, it hardly looks like there’s a housing shortage. And if no one you know can afford these apartments, then for all intents and purposes, there is an over-supply. Since newcomers will inevitably be richer—and probably whiter—than existing residents, the new housing being built in these neighborhoods can look like “a new phase of redlining” or “neocolonialism.”

These were some of the phrases overheard as marchers proceeded up MacArthur Boulevard, stopping in front of three gracious, graffiti-covered early 20th century houses pasted with bright yellow construction notices. The owner of the houses plans to “remove or relocate” these houses to make room for a 57-unit condo building, according to documents from the Oakland Planning Department. Cat Brooks, a local activist and former mayoral candidate, addressed the crowd. “That’s three houses being removed for an apartment complex that I bet none of us will be able to afford. Shame on Oakland.”

Brooks is right: Few current neighborhood residents will be able to afford these condos, which will likely cost more than half a million dollars each to build, let alone buy. But then, it’s not like they could afford one of the three existing houses, either. Not when a nearby 1,700-square-foot house is on sale for $775,000.

The housing crisis is so extreme in the Bay Area that brand-new glassy condos and dilapidated old houses both sell—or rent—for luxury prices. The same process that is physically transforming some Oakland neighborhoods is happening more invisibly in others. “I’m walking around my old neighborhood in Central Berkeley, Poet’s Corner, and it’s never not bizarre how despite all the houses looking the same as they did 40 years ago, the entire Black neighborhood is gone,” the housing activist Darrell Owens recently tweeted. Berkeley’s black population declined 30 percent between 2000 and 2018, while Oakland’s black population declined by 25 percent, or 33,000 residents, between 2000 and 2010, a period that saw virtually no new development in the city.  

***

MacArthur Commons, a 24-story behemoth looming over low-rise North Oakland, sits at the opposite end of this spectrum of noticeable neighborhood change. The partially completed development on a former BART parking lot, where studios rent for $2,535 dollars per month and two bedrooms rent for $4,425, marked the last stop of the march. Brooks emphasized that only 45 of its 402 units (or 11 percent) will be offered at below-market rates. And those affordable units could be out of reach for many, as applicants earning up to 80 percent of the area median income—about $90,000 for a family of four—are eligible. (The developers will also pay $1.3 million in upgrades for Mosswood Park.)

“They didn’t build these for you. They didn’t build these for us. They didn’t build these for Oaklanders,” Brooks said, as a handful of newly moved-in residents looked down from their balconies. Several speakers noted that MacArthur Commons is the opposite of a true commons—instead, it’s an example of public land being given away to private interests.

But to many others, MacArthur Commons represents something else: As high-density housing near high-frequency mass transit, the complex embodies “an approach that is long overdue,” San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King wrote. In its form, if not in its demographic makeup, such transit-oriented development points to the direction California and the rest of the country need to go to combat climate change and reduce reliance on cars—an irony that was difficult to overlook as speakers highlighted the intersectionality between the parking-lot-replacing development and the evils of big oil.

Skyline-shaping projects like MacArthur Commons are a major reason Oakland is slated to produce more homes than its larger, red-tape-covered neighbor across the Bay in 2020. A prominent Bay Area economist recently predicted that landlords of new apartments in Oakland might be forced to offer lower rents than they had planned, thanks to all of the new supply coming online. Last year, crane-filled downtown Los Angeles was the only L.A. submarket of the 36 tracked by CoStar to see a decrease in median rents, Basham said. Of course, the one percent markdown comes nowhere near the level the working poor, or even the middle class, could afford.

This is the crisis within the housing crisis. The new housing that Oakland and downtown L.A. are beneficently contributing to their regions is likely helping to stabilize rents and prevent the regional housing crunch from getting even worse. But in the immediate term, that new housing provides few tangible benefits to the longtime residents of these historically poor, marginalized neighborhoods; indeed, their glossy presence only seems to exacerbate the glaring divides between the haves and have-nots.

These underprivileged neighborhoods are essentially doing their hyper-privileged regions a really big favor: taking on the burden of building new housing while virtually every other neighborhood, especially the wealthy, suburban ones, remain totally free of construction. While MacArthur Commons serves as a symbol of this unfairness, the grossest injustice is out of sight, in places like Piedmont and Orinda—super-rich, conscientiously segregated towns bordering Oakland whose invisible gates have foisted change and disruption on the communities that, throughout American history, have always been forced to bear it.

And as they bear it, many Oaklanders have justifiably trained their focus inward, on their neighborhood, their home, their next month’s rent. In a crisis as deep as this one, the mood of the day is crisis management: finding shelter and dignity and stability by any means necessary. For someone in desperate need of housing, a single vacant home can make a world of difference.

“It doesn’t end with one house,” said Dominique Walker, one of the Moms For Housing, with her baby in her arms. “We want to take Oakland back from all speculators. We’re not going to stop organizing until we all have shelter.”

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The National Public Housing Museum Eyes a 2021 Opening

When you’re working to establish a museum with such contested subject matter as the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), it pays to have a few shorthand expressions within easy reach, lest anyone get confused about creating a curatorial platform for an institution many associate with failure.

Crystal Palmer, a former public housing resident and vice chair of the museum’s board, says the museum will tell “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of public housing. Lisa Lee, the museum’s executive director, says (quoting another board member) that it will “tell the stories of our in-laws and our outlaws.”

Lee is attempting to encapsulate this complicated legacy on the Near West Side of Chicago, inside the only remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes, a public housing complex built in the 1930s. It took 10 years of administrative wrangling to get the building from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and the museum hopes to open in 2021. Since 2010, however, it has been mounting exhibitions at a variety of other venues.

An aerial view of the future museum on Chicago’s Near West Side. (Landon Bone Baker)

It’s unabashedly an “activist museum,” says Lee, and will be full of revisionist histories. The museum’s stance is that housing is a human right—75 years after FDR asserted the right “of every family to a decent home” in his Second Bill of Rights. To make its case, the NPHM will look to everyday resident histories and apply them to today’s housing crisis.

“This methodology believes that in order to preserve history, you have to make it relevant to contemporary social justice struggles, and in order to solve social justice struggles of today, you have to look back in time,” says Lee. “Housing insecurity is one of the most critical issues today, and I don’t think you can solve it without becoming a student of history.”

The museum will tell this intimate and domestic story with intimate, domestic-scaled architecture. “When people close their eyes and imagine public housing, they imagine a scary high-rise,” says Lee. But the building on Taylor Street, commissioned by the Works Progress Administration and designed by Holabird & Root, is positively neighborly at three-and-a-half stories, and scaled to the commercial strip that surrounds it.

It will undergo a light-touch adaptive reuse by one of Chicago’s most talented architects of subsidized housing, the firm Landon Bone Baker Architects. Even before construction, the ceiling heights, corridor widths, and basic proportions of the Jane Addams Homes are reminders that this was where people once lived. “It’s a much more intimate space than a typical museum might be,” says architect Peter Landon, and “amazingly well built.” It had to be strong to survive: It’s been vacant since 2002. Workers have done lead-paint and asbestos abatement on the site. The museum has saved artifacts from the building’s former life, and some original walls will be incorporated in the new design.

Landon’s design begins with a new glass-pavilion entry lobby. In addition to standard gallery space, the 47,000-square-foot museum will contain three model apartments, furnished and decorated to represent different communities that lived in the Addams Homes and in American public housing (including Jewish, Puerto Rican, Polish, and African-American families).

There will be spaces for public programming, performances, and oral history. An entrepreneurship hub will work with nonprofits to develop cooperative models of what Lee calls a “solidarity economy.” There, a focus on the informal economies that thrived in public housing will include ad hoc barbershops and nail salons, but also the drug trade and prostitution. The museum is considering an interdisciplinary center where former and current residents of public housing come together with artists, scholars, designers, planners, and advocates to envision the future of housing.

The rear of the building will have a courtyard featuring several 1930s animal sculptures by Chicago artist Edgar Miller, which will be reinstalled after the restoration. This courtyard recently hosted a 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial installation that focused on oral histories and storytelling, and the museum site has already been the venue for a series of exhibitions. The near-constant stream of activity, for a museum so far without a permanent home, has helped along a capital campaign that has garnered about $6 million toward a $15.7 million goal.

Children playing in the courtyard of the Jane Addams Homes in the 1940s. (Photograph by Peter Sekaer, courtesy of the National Public Housing Museum)

This remnant of the Jane Addams Homes is one of only a handful original CHA properties still intact. Widespread dereliction, violence, and concentrations of extreme poverty plagued many high-rises. Palmer, who lived for decades in the West Side’s Henry Horner Homes, recalls how she couldn’t get basic services like garbage, fire, police, and mail. “It’s like you’re a refugee in the city you were born in,” she says. And yet, “I could stick my hand out from where I lived and touch downtown.”

Early on, the CHA was run by progressive social reformers like Elizabeth Wood, who fought relentlessly to racially integrate developments. But Wood’s successors gave way to policies that created a death spiral of social segregation and infrastructural breakdown. In 1999, the CHA launched the Plan for Transformation, which would tear down 18,500 subsidized homes and build 25,000 new units, many of which would be in mixed-income developments. CHA became a facilitator, guiding investments from affordable housing developers; funding for a given project might come from a dozen different sources, many of them private.

This year, 10 years behind schedule, CHA is set to reach its goal of replacing 25,000 units. But given the level of housing need and the delay, communities were dispersed.

The building today. (Zach Mortice)

The NPHM is both a product of this dispersal and a corrective to it, and the Plan for Transformation will be a curatorial focus at the museum. Deverra Beverly, who lived in the complex that contained the Addams Homes, is credited with originating the idea of the museum in the midst of demolitions. Beverly (who died in 2013) used the Local Advisory Council structure to build up a power base and advocate for the museum. Even amid dysfunction, Chicago public housing residents formed grassroots leadership and governance structures “that all movements can and should be looking to,” says Lee.

That history is one reason why Chicago is an ideal place for the National Public Housing Museum. Lee has another: “There’s nowhere in the country where the aspirations for public housing were as big, and also the failures and dreams deferred were as major.”

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CityLab Daily: Housing Makes the Debate Stage

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***

What We’re Following

Soundbites: For the first time in a long time, the Democratic presidential candidates have been talking about housing on the trail. But last night in Atlanta was the first time they were asked about it on the debate stage. First up was Tom Steyer, a candidate whose housing ideas have not yet been covered by CityLab. The California billionaire jumped right in on why where you live matters.

Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.

Steyer has yet to release a detailed housing plan, but he promised to “build literally millions of new units” and he connected housing to climate change. “How we build units, where people live, has a dramatic impact on climate and on sustainability.”

Next up was Senator Elizabeth Warren. “Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side,” said the senator, pointing to how the feds “stopped building … affordable housing” while private developers built “McMansions.” True to her brand, Warren has a plan: To build 3.2 million housing units (see CityLab coverage here). But it’s not just about building for Warren. “Housing is how we build wealth in America,“ she said, noting the need to reverse the effects of redlining that cut African Americans out of housing subsidies.

Finally, Senator Cory Booker, who started his career as a tenants’ rights lawyer and served as Newark’s mayor during the housing crisis, turned to gentrification:

We’re not talking about something that is going on all over America, which is gentrification and low-income families being moved further and further out, often compounding racial segregation.

Not so fast, Senator. Evidence suggests the scope of gentrification is bit narrower than “all over America.” On the broader problem of affordability, Booker offered his plan to give a refundable tax credit to renters (CityLab coverage here).

Off stage but on Twitter, former Obama HUD secretary Juliàn Castro had a few ideas he would have liked to add to the mix. Maybe next time!

Watch the video clip from MSNBC here, and for more context, check out CityLab housing writer Kriston Capps’ Twitter feed from the evening.

Andrew Small


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The Future of the Streetlight Might Be in the Past

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Death Be Not Dull

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Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Jesse Meliefste/Nacht van de Nacht

The country that produced Van Gogh’s Starry Night is now covered in a thick layer of light pollution. Even on the clearest nights, only 10 percent of the stars visible from Earth can be seen from Dutch cities. But during Nacht van de Nacht (Night of the Night), an annual event in the Netherlands, cities turn off their lights for one night to encourage people to embrace a “dark where possible, light where necessary” philosophy year-round.

The lights-out evening is meant to raise environmental awareness and bring attention to how light pollution makes urban dwellers feel. “Light pollution forms a kind of roof, … severing our last connection with the outdoors and that which lies beyond us,” says one designer who runs workshops for darker skies. On CityLab: Holland Aims to Bring Back Its Starry Nights


What We’re Reading

The plight of the urban planner (New Yorker)

How Seattle can slow gentrification—and why it must (Crosscut)

Would a universal basic income pay your rent? (Curbed)

Black student enrollment in Chicago’s schools has fallen 30 percent over the last decade (Chalkbeat)

Denver’s B-Cycle, the city’s bike-sharing system, is shutting down (Denver Post)


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

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What a Trillion-Dollar Housing Pledge Looks Like

Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar introduced a bold act on Thursday that would commit $1 trillion to the cause of affordable housing. That’s trillion with a T, which makes Omar’s bill a new milemarker in the progressive left’s efforts to stake out a national housing agenda.

Housing has emerged as a pressing issue on the campaign trail, and it surfaced as a concern during the Democratic Party forum on Wednesday night. Several candidates discussed their plans on topics such as zoning, rent relief, and racial segregation. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to the history of redlining, while New Jersey Senator Cory Booker mentioned his plan for a tax credit for renters. Yet a separate idea is brewing on the left. Housing is a litmus for liberals, as as a younger generation of progressives embraces a solution abandoned by elected officials after decades of systemic failures: public housing.

Omar’s Homes for All Act plants a flag for an unapologetic public housing agenda. Her bill would authorize funding for 12 million new homes over 10 years, most of which would take the form of public housing. It would mark the first commitment to public housing since the Clinton era, when Congress shredded this part of the social safety net. It speaks to the growing dissatisfaction among tenants and advocates with neighborhood change. In many cities, proven approaches to rental affordability—namely building more homes everywhere—have fallen short.

The figures spelled out by the Homes for All Act are staggering: $80 billion for public housing agencies every year through 2031 (for a total of $800 billion) to fund the construction of 9.5 million new public housing units. Another $20 billion each year ($200 billion over 10 years) would go toward the federal Housing Trust Fund, an Obama-era program to provide affordable housing for the very poorest families in the nation.

In another signal of a generational sea change on social programs, Omar isn’t just looking to build more public housing. She wants to transform it into something like an entitlement. The bill would make it mandatory for government to actually pay all the costs associated with the maintenance and operation of public housing. That’s a provision to guarantee future spending and a significant shift from the status quo: Costs for deferred maintenance for public housing will reach at least $90 billion by 2030.

The Homes for All Act sets out a variety of requirements for these newly provisioned affordable homes, including access to public transit, childcare, and other services. And by putting public housing on a similar footing with safety-net pillars like Social Security and unemployment insurance, Omar’s bill would ensure that new public housing never again falls in the awful state of disrepair seen in many projects today.

On top of a trillion dollars for housing, Omar’s bill establishes a new Community Control and Anti-Displacement Fund—a $200 billion appropriation under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The purpose of the fund, which might be the first federal housing proposal to specifically call out gentrification as a crisis, is to “provide grants to local governments for the purposes of combating gentrification and neighborhood destabilization.” The section outlining the fund runs fewer than 100 words, so there’s room for the congresswoman to explain what she means by gentrification.

The Homes for All Act comes just days after the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act was introduced by Omar’s fellow freshman congresswoman and Squad member New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That bill, which AOC launched with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders amid cheering tenants’ rights advocates in a rally outside the U.S. Capitol last week, proposes rebuilding the nation’s public housing stock through billions of dollars in energy retrofits. It would also commit billions to meet the government’s deferred maintenance bills and decarbonize public housing.

Like the Sanders-AOC bill, Omar’s housing push features a critical but easy-to-overlook detail: It repeals the Faircloth Amendment. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill with a GOP rider attached that capped public housing at 1999 levels, making any new construction over this number illegal. Repealing this amendment is technically necessary to build even one more federal public housing unit beyond the limit set 20 years ago. Calls for the repeal of the Faircloth Amendment are evidence that progressives are undeterred by the failures of the past and determined to start a new social project.  

Don’t look for a pay-for mechanism for Omar’s trillion-dollar housing plan: There isn’t one. Even $1 trillion couldn’t subsidize millions of new housing units. The math in Omar’s bill works out to a per-unit cost of $83,000, far too little to actually build all those homes in the places where they’re needed, especially given that the bill that requires these homes to be located in neighborhoods with equitable access to transit and amenities.  

Instead, the Homes for All Act functions primarily as a statement of progressive values. It flows from three plain truths: Every state, county, and metro area faces a shortage of affordable housing. A sizable fraction of households pay more than half their income on their rent. And based on its recent progress, the private market is so far incapable of addressing this affordable housing shortfall. Socialists are stepping up with their own solutions.

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CityLab Daily: Inside the Green New Deal for Public Housing

What We’re Following

Here’s the deal: On Thursday, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would dedicate billions of dollars to energy retrofits for America’s public housing. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would commit up to $180 billion over 10 years to upgrading 1.2 million federally owned homes.

That might sound like a lot of green, but it’s actually a two-in-one deal: The bill would address the federal government’s dilapidated buildings that already have very costly deferred maintenance backlogs, while also reducing those buildings’ energy consumption. Another easy-to-overlook feature: It would repeal a law that currently caps the number of public housing units at the level it was at in 1999. CityLab’s Kriston Capps has the story: Inside the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act

Andrew Small


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Everywhere a Sign

Toru Hanai/Reuters

Whether you like it or not, advertising signage has always been part of urban life. Fly-by shots of cities may present the “blank facades of skyscrapers,” but at the street level, “cities are a riot of lettering and symbols,” Darran Anderson writes. These images and symbols—the hanging signs of London, the neon lights of Las Vegas and Hong Kong, and even ads projected on the side of the Eiffel Tower—have aroused both curiosity and irritation. Even if we try to shut it out, advertising can become part of a city’s identity, as brands fade into our urban past. On CityLab: The Irresistible Visual Power of Urban Advertising


What We’re Reading

New Jersey fined Uber $649 million for saying drivers aren’t employees (New York Times)

Will Kansas City become the first major U.S. city with free bus service? (Kansas City Star)

Cities and states take up the battle for the open internet (Next City)

Venice got hit by a massive flood, again (Reuters)

Why street vendors make cities feel safer (Curbed)


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