Our partners and supporters at the Knight Foundation have announced a new round of the Knight Cities Challenge, which gives grants to people and organizations around the country for projects that make their cities more livable. The deadline to apply is October 27—check it out!

What City Observatory did this week

1. Why America can’t make up its mind about housing. American housing policy is simultaneously trying to accomplish two things: keep housing broadly affordable, and keep property values strong. In other words: keep home prices down, and keep home prices up. Not surprisingly, it has struggled to achieve both of these goals. The belief that homeownership is—or should be—a surefire means of wealth accumulation leads to public policies that in many respects undermine efforts to make housing of all kinds more affordable. The tilt of tax policies to subsidies for single family homeownership, and local land use policies that constrict the expansion of housing supply in the name of “protecting property values” help inflate house prices—but at the cost of affordability. We won’t be able to successfully address the nation’s housing problems until we grapple with this inherent conflict.

2. A modest proposal: treat affordable housing more like food stamps. Imagine if, rather than allowing anyone whose income qualified them to sign up for government aid to buy food, we imposed an “inclusionary food” requirement on boutique grocery stores. Ten percent of all their sales would have to be donated to food pantries, and thousands of people would line up to apply for just a handful of grocery baskets every week. That would be insane! And yet it’s how many cities are approaching affordable housing. Without denying the many differences between housing and food, we think there are some things to learn from contrasting affordable housing and food stamps—and that as long as our housing policies remain fragmented, ad hoc, and subject to the whims of potentially hostile local governments, we’re not going to come close to solving the problem of unaffordable housing.

3. Happy birthday to us! This week, we officially made it to our first birthday! It’s been quite a year: we’ve published four major reports covering concentrated poverty, the growth of jobs in city centers, and the declining civic commons; written well over a hundred commentaries on housing, transportation, the interplay of urban policy and economic opportunity, and much more; and taken on myths about American cities, from the idea that more highways will solve traffic congestion to fear about a (false) resurgence in urban crime. We’re excited about the next year, and thrilled to have you along with us!

4. Two of our commentaries this week were republished in The Atlantic, helping us spread the word about smart urban policy to a much broader audience. On Monday, it was Joe Cortright’s piece on the “least unequal” city in the country, and whether it offers any lessons for the rest of us. And on Wednesday, the magazine published “Why America can’t make up its mind about housing.” Look for more of these collaborations in the future.



The week’s must reads

1. While the face of early 21st urban public transportation might be light rail and streetcars, David Alpert, founder of the excellent urbanist blog Greater Greater Washington, argues in the Washington Post that buses are actually the key to a workable transit system. In the vast majority of American cities, trains don’t serve most trips that most people have to take—either because there are no stations nearby, or because the rail line only goes in one direction, usually towards downtown. But better bus service has the potential to create reliable, affordable mobility. Dedicated lanes, all-door boarding, and other measures are relatively low-cost ways to improve these services. Unfortunately, as we’ve shown, the trend line appears to be heading in the wrong direction.

2. Also at the Washington Post, Emily Badger writes a convincing takedown of the idea that cities, neighborhoods, or even countries can be “too full” to take on new residents. Rather than a legitimate argument against allowing the construction of new homes, or accepting international refugees, the idea that a place is “full” is used to shut down discussion while eliding the often unsavory reasons that existing residents oppose sharing their neighborhood or country with more people.


3. At CityLab, Eric Jaffe covers the demise of Leap, a startup that wanted to offer a private alternative to public transportation. Leap charged $6 for a “premium” bus ride, and led to early speculation that they might “disrupt” public transit the way Uber has hit the taxi business. But it never really got off the ground, and Jaffe has a great explanation of why that is: not just that people were turned off by its “tech bro” feel, but that public transit is simply not the kind of service that can be served by the private market in American cities. Just as roads need major government subsidies for car travel to work, very few transit lines can be sustained with fares alone, and having access to a large network of lines is what makes transit valuable.

New knowledge

1. While homeownership has helped many millions of American families build middle-class wealth, we’ve known for a long time that black homeowners are much less likely to see their property values appreciate. Now a new study from Johns Hopkins University paints an even bleaker picture: even during the boom years of 2005-2007, black first-time homebuyers lost 47 percent of their net worth—while white first-time home buyers increased theirs by 50 percent. These new numbers underscore that no discussion of the importance of homeownership as a wealth-building tool is complete without acknowledging these massive racial gaps, and that this strategy doesn’t just work less well for African Americans—it’s often actively a wealth destroyer.

2. A new study from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve confirms earlier findings on displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods, while adding new details. The paper finds that residents of low-income gentrifying neighborhoods are just 0.4 percentage points more likely to move than residents of low-income neighborhoods that don’t gentrify—and those people who do leave are not especially likely to move to lower-income neighborhoods. However, out-migration rates are higher for people in the most rapidly gentrifying communities, and for renters. On the whole, however, the authors find that gentrification is driven overwhelmingly by changes in the demographics of in-movers, rather than elevated rates of out-moving. Moreover, while the median gentrifying neighborhood in Philadelphia saw its average income increase by 42 percent between 2000 and 2013, low-income neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify saw their average income fall by more than 18 percent—confirming the “reinvestment or decline” pattern we found in Lost in Place.


3. In a small glimmer of happy news, researchers from the US and Sweden dive into the decline of racial segregation in Los Angeles. While 40 percent of Angelenos lived in “strongly segregated” neighborhoods in 2000, just 33 percent did in 2010. This included significant declines among all major ethnic groups except for Hispanics, and in particular significant declines in homogenous white neighborhoods. Another finding: huge levels of racial change in most parts of the city. Of course, while racial segregation is at least slowly declining in most American cities, economic segregation—with a strong racial component—is growing quickly.

The Week Observed is City Observatory’s weekly newsletter. Every Friday, we give you a quick review of the most important articles, blog posts, and scholarly research on American cities.

Our goal is to help you keep up with—and participate in—the ongoing debate about how to create prosperous, equitable, and livable cities, without having to wade through the hundreds of thousands of words produced on the subject every week by yourself.

If you have ideas for making The Week Observed better, we’d love to hear them! Let us know at jcortright@cityobservatory.org, dkhertz@cityobservatory.org, or on Twitter at @cityobs.