What City Observatory did this week

1. My illegal neighborhood. Guest Commentary writer Robert Liberty describes all the things he loves about his neighborhood in Northwest Portland—and then explains why all of them would be illegal to build in a new development today. The mix of apartments and single-family homes doesn’t fit modern ideas about proper zoning; the streets are too narrow for today’s traffic engineers; legally-mandated separation of uses would disallow the local businesses where people congregate, banishing them to far-off designated commercial strips; and everything would need more parking. Of course, despite these many “flaws,” home prices in Northwest Portland have been growing faster than the rest of the region—suggesting that maybe we need more of these illegal neighborhoods.

2. What do we know about neighborhood change, gentrification, and displacement? Daniel Kay Hertz summarizes a review of the academic research on neighborhood change by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. He picks out four big findings: 1. Income segregation is increasing, driven by the “secession of the rich,” but cities with wealthier cores (as opposed to suburban peripheries) have relatively lower levels of this kind of segregation. 2. Transit accessibility is a valuable asset, but housing price increases near stations depend on the local transportation network and the tightness of the housing market, and can be outweighed by transportation cost savings. 3. Thanks to wildly different definitions of key terms and approaches to measurement, we’re nowhere close to an academic consensus on the scope of the problem of displacement. 4. Changing in-migration can be a powerful force for neighborhood change without changes in out-migration.

3. The top ten reasons to ignore the TTI’s Urban Mobility Report. One last look at the widely-read traffic congestion study, looking at a sort of “greatest hits” of the report’s flaws and misrepresentations. Highlights: counting a failure to speed as “congestion,” penalizing cities that actually manage to shorten work trips, and a refusal to submit findings to peer review.

The week’s must reads

1. German Lopez at Vox and Daniel Denvir at CityLab take on a spate of stories about a “murder spike” in American cities. Criminologists interviewed by both reporters point out that while some places, like Baltimore or Milwaukee, have seen surprisingly large increases in their homicide counts this year, that’s not a pattern seen across the country—of the 20 largest cities, just three had statistically significant increases. And even where this year’s increases appear not to be random noise, it’s far from clear that it’s part of a long-term trend.

2. Seattle-based KUOW looks at what has quietly become one of the most successful affordable housing programs in the country: a property tax levy, approved by voters in the 1980s, dedicated to the construction of subsidized housing units. In the last 10 years, this levy has helped pay for nearly 550 affordable homes per year. (By contrast, the higher-profile inclusionary zoning approach, in which new developments must set aside a certain percentage of units for low-income households, has produced about 25 apartments per year in Chicago and about 400 per year in New York City, which is more than ten times larger than Seattle, through 2013.)

3. At the Washington Post, Emily Badger reports on a new Surgeon General report that prescribes…walking. After decades of designing communities where it’s impossible or unsafe to walk—because of long distances between sprawly houses and sprawly jobs, or because there just aren’t any sidewalks—that lack of regular exercise is taking a toll. But as Badger points out, these features didn’t just crop up: they were actively encouraged and enabled by federal policy. Now that they’ve been officially labeled hazardous to your health, maybe we should change them?

New knowledge

1. The popular but empirically questionable “broken windows” theory of crimewas the focus of a study by Daniel O’Brien of Northeastern, Robert Sampson of Harvard, and Christopher Winship of the Boston Area Research Initiative. Using 311 and 911 call data, the study concluded that public signs of physical and social disorder—which “broken windows” says should lead to more serious violent crime as potential criminals take cues about the likelihood of punishment from their surroundings—were poor predictors of public violence. Rather, private conflicts appeared to escalate towards public violence.

2. The Urban Institute put together a great visualization tool looking at where we send our housing subsidy dollars. Those who think that we spend too much on housing for the poor might want to look further up the income chain: while low-income housing subsidies add roughly $800 to the annual income of a typical household at the 10th percentile of income, mortgage interest and real estate tax deductions add nearly $2,000 to the income of a typical household at the 95th percentile of income.

3. The No Child Left Behind school reform law may have had some odd effects on housing. A paper by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the University of Connecticut find that provisions that allow children within the attendance zones of failing schools to transfer to other schools have incentivized parents with strong school preferences to move close to those failing schools, and then apply to transfer to a higher-performing one. As a result, housing prices within the attendance zones of failing schools actually rise in comparison to surrounding neighborhoods.

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. You can sign up to get it in your inbox by clicking “Subscribe” at the top of the page!

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