What City Observatory did this week

1. Don’t demonize driving—just stop subsidizing it. City Observatory likes to make data-driven arguments—but the rhetorical frameworks we use to explain the data matter, too. Here, we take a minute to try to reframe the urbanist argument about the role of cars in a “good” city. While advocates’ rhetoric sometimes makes it sound like cars are inherently bad, we think the issue is really that an over-reliance on cars is bad. Refocusing the problem in that way doesn’t just make for a much more politically palatable argument, given that most people will be keeping at least one car for the foreseeable future—it also makes the policy issue clearer, by focusing on how we subsidize car ownership in ways that encourage overuse and dangerous use.

2. Who’s afraid of affordable housing? The acrimonious debate over housing policy in San Francisco breaks down into two main groups: one that wants to ease regulations on new housing construction, and another that wants to encourage only below-market housing construction. So it’s odd that a proposed ordinance to ease regulations on 100 percent below-market housing ran into major opposition. But that opposition highlights, yet again, the ways that giving a development veto to local groups can serve to make housing less affordable—even when those same local groups are publicly committed to improving affordability.

3. Bursting Portland’s urban growth boundary won’t make housing more affordable. The Oregon Legislature is considering a package of bills that would trade a repeal of the state’s ban on inclusionary zoning for opening up the city’s urban growth boundary to new suburban development. But that’s a deal that affordable housing advocates should turn down: based on the experiences of other American cities, inclusionary zoning is likely to produce only token numbers of affordable units, compared to tax-backed programs Portland already runs—or other measures it could take (see the post below). Meanwhile, opening up the urban growth boundary would be unlikely to relieve much pressure on the market of housing in the central city, where the major affordability issues exist.

4. More support for a real estate capital gains tax. A British think tank makes the case for taxing windfall gains to residential property values—one that dovetails very nicely with the argument we made previously that Bay Area governments, and other local governments seeing rapid housing price growth, ought to tax the growth in residential property values and use the money for affordable housing. Just a one percent tax could have raised $1.6 billion in the Bay Area in 2013, orders of magnitude above the value captured by San Francisco’s inclusionary zoning ordinance.

The week’s must reads

1. In recent years, policy gridlock at the federal level has led to talk of new leadership from mayors and other local urban leaders. But in City Limits, Judi Kende of Enterprise Community Partners makes the case that cities simply can’t solve the challenges they face without federal help. Many of her points echo arguments we’ve made as well—including that a lack of funding means only 23 percent of low-income households eligible for housing subsidies actually receive help—though while we’ve focused on demand-side solutions like vouchers, Kende suggests expanding affordable housing supply through programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Either would involve massively more resources than are currently marshalled by marquee local initiatives like inclusionary zoning—resources that only the federal government has access to.

2. Last week, we linked to an LA Times article about that city’s struggles with public transit ridership. This week, a number of writers pushed back on the idea that LA transit is seeing any such sustained decline. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker points out that while ridership is down since 2006, it’s up since 2005—and way up since 2004. In other words, ridership data is noisy, and the overall trendline is unclear. Transit Center says that if there is a post-Recession ridership drop, declining bus service—not a lack of demand—is to blame.

3. Though we often talk about the consequences of transit infrastructure on urban equity and quality of life, the ongoing lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a reminder that other parts of the built environment are just as crucial. And in case you thought this story doesn’t affect people who live outside Michigan, Vox dug through numbers from Pennsylvania and found that 18 of 20 cities in that state have lead exposure rates greater than Flint’s. While Flint’s issues are about lead water pipes, Pennsylvania’s are largely about lead-based paint in older buildings. But in both cases, these are stories about significant health effects of the urban built environment—something that ought to concern urbanists.

New knowledge

1. It’s another story for the “Dow of cities” file: Consumer Affairs reports on a new Zillow study showing that the value of urban housing continues to grow faster than that of suburban housing. (They also cite some of our work as background.) In fact, in some metropolitan areas—including Boston, Washington, DC, and San Francisco—the average urban home is now worth more than the average suburban home, reversing a decades-long pattern. The change is even more dramatic when adjusted for home size. That’s just another piece of evidence of the long-term shift of demand towards urban centers.

2. We talk about income inequality and wealth inequality, but what about housing price inequality? A new paper from David Albouy of the University of Illinois and Mike Zabek of the University of Michigan tracks this kind of inequality from 1930 to 2010. They find that home price inequality declined through the middle of the 20th century, before beginning to climb again in the 1970s and 80s, reaching roughly 1930s levels by 2010. The changes are explained not by the quality of housing itself, but by the value of land—that is, the value of the location of housing. They write that their findings suggest that “regulatory and geographic constraints on housing supply,” like zoning, “may play a role” in housing inequality within cities.

3. A new report from New York’s Regional Plan Association takes aim at “the unintended consequences of housing finance.” The RPA argues that federal loan programs make financing mixed-use, multi-family urban infill projects more difficult than suburban-type single-use single-family homes, exacerbating the shortage of housing in the sorts of walkable urban neighborhoods that are increasingly in demand. They suggest easing regulations on, for example, the proportion of buildings’ square footage that is allowed to be used for commercial or other non-residential purposes, as the current cap rules out most multifamily buildings with ground floor retail under five stories.

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.

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