What City Observatory this week

What ultimately destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood:  Highways.  This past week marked the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre.  In 1921, a racist mob attacked and destroyed the Black Greenwood neighborhood, killing hundreds. The Greenwood’s residents were resilient, rebuilding a neighborhood that thrived for almost 50 years.

According to a new book on the neighborhood’s history, the death of “Black Wall Street” ultimately came by the construction of the Interstate freeway system, slicing through the traditionally Black neighborhood.

Must read

1. Can “Opt-out” zoning reform break the political log-jam?  As we’ve argued at City Observatory, allowing more affordable housing is caught in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: no local government wants to be the first to liberalize because they fear that no one else will follow.  It takes state legislation to produce change, but state legislature’s are usually deferential to local control, at least when it comes to land use. Writing at the Sightline Institute, Michael Andersen reviews newly passed legislation in Connecticut that would legalize accessory dwelling units throughout the state.  The new law comes with a catch:  if a two-thirds majority of both a city’s zoning board and city council votes to opt out of the law, they can do so.  There’s an element of “try-before-you-buy” to the law as well. The legalization of ADUs takes effect some months before cities are allowed to opt-out, so there will likely be some experience of what ADU legalization looks like before they have to make the decision.  While there’s a risk that truly exclusionary cities will easily get the two-thirds votes needed to opt-out, this approach seems like a worthwhile experiment to prod more cities into allowing this form of affordable housing.

2. The limits of the Fair Housing Act.  Residential segregation and its negative effects continue to persist more than a half century after the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act.  What will it take to achieve fair access to housing for all?  Richard Kahlenberg reviews a new book for the Washington Monthly looking at the past and future of the Fair Housing Act, with an eye to making policy changes.  While the federal law has limited some forms of overt discrimination, the more subtle and pervasive forms of exclusion, like restrictive local zoning, are producing many of the same effects.  The challenge is to craft measures that “affirmatively further” fair housing.  The big challenge is that segregation by class is accomplishing what used to be done by racial discrimination:

While racial segregation is slowly declining, income segregation has doubled since 1970. The Fair Housing Act outlaws discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability”—but it remains perfectly legal for municipalities to discriminate based on income, per se, by banning the construction of more affordable types of housing, such as duplexes, triplexes and apartments.

Since people of color have disproportionately lower incomes –a product of past discrimination–income segregation perpetuates these fundamentally unfair patterns, which is today’s biggest challenge to equitable housing.

New Knowledge

The Donut effect of Covid. How has the Coronavirus Pandemic affected urban economies?  A new study from Arjun Ramani and Nicolas Bloom looks at the changes in home values and population levels within and across the nation’s metropolitan areas.

It finds that there’s been relatively little population re-distribution (or value shift) across metropolitan areas.  People aren’t relocating wholesale from some metropolitan areas to others, nor are the contours of real estate values shifting.

The study does find that in the past year there has been a city-to-suburb shift in population movement and home price appreciation, chiefly in the dozen or so largest metro areas.  US Postal Service change of address forms display a relative surge of core-to-periphery moves since the start of the pandemic, while Zillow data show home prices and rents have performed relatively better in suburbs than central cities.  Strikingly, these effects only seem to hold for larger cities like New York, San Francisco, Seattle and others.  This may be explained by the very high proportion of workers in tech and professional service occupations who are more able to work from home in these cities.

Central business districts in very large metro areas showed an absolute decline in home values (with the CBD defined very narrowly as areas within 2 kilometers, or about 1.2 miles, of the center of a city). These trends are far more muted outside of these large metro areas, with modestly weaker performance in CBD’s in the 13th through 50th largest metros; and essentially no difference in smaller metros (those with populations of less than 1 million).

It should be little surprise that in the midst of a pandemic, when large scale gatherings of people for business, cultural, social or recreational activities are mostly banned, that the impact should be most felt in central cities.  Providing opportunities for lots of people to get together in close proximity is the raison d’etre and competitive advantage of large urban centers.  The really interesting question going forward is whether the pattern seen in the pandemic persists, or reverses as we are once again able to be in close proximity to one another.  One early sign:  rents in urban centers have ticked upward in the past few months.  These trends bear watching.

Arjun Ramani & Nicholas Bloom, “The donut effect of Covid-19 on cities,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 28876, DOI 10.3386/w28876,