What City Observatory did this week

1. Will upzoning help housing affordability?  Housing supply denialism–claims that the laws of supply and demand don’t apply to housing markets–have a ready audience in the NIMBY community.  The latest study to make the rounds comes from Andres Rodriguez-Pose and Michael Storper, with an added boost from CityLab’s Richard Florida. This study claims that building more market rate housing in high cost cities will somehow only make inequality worse, citing, among other things, a Washington Post article from last year, which we de-bunked at City Observatory.  What this, and other similar critiques leave out, is any explanation of how failing to build housing in markets where there’s obviously overwhelming demand for it is going to alleviate any of the social, economic or environmental problems we see in cities today.

2. Inclusionary zoning’s Wile E. Coyote moment.  It’s been two years since Portland’s inclusionary zoning requirements took effect, and to date, there have been few apparent negative effects. In fact, what happened was that the law triggered a land rush of development applications, and that surge of new construction has actually cause rent inflation to drop precipitously. But now that developers have worked through the backlog of grandfathered projects that were exempt from the inclusionary rules, there’s growing evidence that the development pipeline in Portland is drying up. While the city’s housing bureau denies anything is amiss, they’ve already backed off from a scheduled increase in the inclusionary requirements that was to take place last year. The problem now is that if the city signals it may have doubts about the program’s success, that will prompt developers to postpone investment, hoping for some relaxation of requirements, which would actually worsen the housing problem.  Like Wile E. Coyote, the inclusionary zoning program may really start falling when it looks down and sees it’s no longer standing on firm ground. The problem with investment markets with long lags is that problems can become quite serious, and go largely unrecognized until its too late to do anything about them.

3. The Young and Restless in Black and White.  City Observatory has long tracked the residential location of the nation’s college-educated 25- to 34-year olds, who’ve increasingly moved to large metropolitan areas, and within those metro areas, to close-in urban neighborhoods. But how do those location patterns diverge for different racial/ethnic groups?  We took a quick look at data from the American Community Survey to compare the historical pattern of urban location of well-educated black and white young adults. Historically, college educated young white adults are disproportionately concentrated in suburbs, while their black counterparts are disproportionately concentrated in cities.  Since 1980, the locations of these two groups have trended in opposite directions:  young white adults with four-year degrees are now much more likely to live in central cities, while young black adults with four year degrees are more likely to live in suburbs. While suburbanization is no longer aspirational for many well-educated white young adults, it seems like it continues to be alluring for well-educated black young adults.

Must read

1. Why the price tag is the least important part of any infrastructure package. Washington is all abuzz with talk of a bi-partisan deal on infrastructure which could amount to as much as $2 trillion.  While we’re not holding our breath that anything will happen, we think Beth Osborne of Smart Growth America has some very sage advice.  In an op-ed at the Washington Post, Osborne argues that its bad policies and misplaced priorities, rather than a lack of funds that is the biggest problem with American infrastructure.  We’ve got a system that is still obsessed with building more capacity, even though it routinely fails to maintain what its built, and makes us steadily more dependent on driving, killing an increasing number of Americans and endangering the plant.

So what would a reimagining of federal transportation policy look like? We could set enforceable goals to prioritize improving the safety and condition of our roads and bridges first. Then we should talk about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and providing better access to jobs and services. Congress should guarantee measurable benefits and hold states accountable for fulfilling those promises before giving them any more money.

2. The elusive definition of “gentrification.”  Slate’s Henry Grabar is on a roll.  He has a trenchant article pointing out that no one can seem to agree on what constitutes gentrification, and that conspicuously includes, not just journalists, but also the academics who’ve studied the subject. While the data show that gentrification, by almost any definition, is rare that doesn’t stop virtually every community from deploying concern about gentrification as the basis for opposing new development.  As Grabar explains, the widespread colloquial and academic ambiguity of the term is helping to fuel an increasingly incoherent and destructive debate:

Being more precise is important, because the specter of gentrification is invoked by communities on all ends of the income spectrum to forestall new housing as the country is building fewer homes per capita than at any time since World War II. When the Beverly Hills City Council is arguing that permitting small apartment buildings within city limits would “directly contribute to gentrification,” it might be time to finally come up with a clear-cut definition of the term. . . . There’s a well-documented false consciousness in the United States in which everyone thinks they are middle class. It has a neighborhood corollary: Everyone thinks their neighborhood can gentrify. If they’re right, the word is useless.

3.  Why we need full data from ride-hailing firms. The newly publicly-traded Uber is making some of the vast trove of its data on travel system performance available through an application called “Movement.” For example, current versions of Movement provide data on variations in travel speeds on city streets by time of day.   It’s indicative of the kind of richly detailed information that is generated from the smartphone backbone that monitors, routes, and bills ride-hailed trips.  But as the Transit Center notes, city’s shouldn’t settle for just a subset of the data provided by Uber and Lyft, but instead should insist on data that will show how the ride hailing firms patterns of activity impact traffic congestion at different times and locations.

New Knowledge

New research on gentrification and displacement. One of the biggest challenges in researching neighborhood change is constructing what economists call a “longitudinal” data set–one that tracks individuals, rather than one that just compares  snapshots of the overall demographics of a neighborhood at different times. New York University’s  has a new study using administrative data from the Medicaid program to track the residential location of kids born in New York City over a period of years.  Because this data captures each child’s location a birth, and their residence in subsequent years, it provides exactly the kind of longitudinal data that’s often missing from other research. Dragan, Ellen and Glied use the Medicaid records to compute how likely kids from poor families were to move to other neighobrhoods over time, and compares the difference in migration rates between families living in neighborhoods that gentrified and those that didn’t.

The report has two key findings:

First, consistent with other research, they find that poor children living in gentrifying neighborhoods are no more likely move than children living in non-gentrifying neighobrhoods, although when they move, this study finds they move slightly longer distances.

Second, the study finds that those who move out of gentrifying neighborhoods do not end up moving to neighborhoods that are any worse than the destination neighborhoods of poor children moving out of non-gentrifying neighborhoods

 . . . among children who moved during the 7-year period, we see no difference in poverty rate changes between those who start in neighborhoods that gentrify and those who start off in neighborhoods that remain persistently low-SES. Indeed, children who move from gentrifying neighborhoods move to somewhat safer neighborhoods. .

As the authors point out, moving is common among low income households, especially in expensive housing markets like New York City.  There’s little or no evidence that neighborhood gentrification plays a substantial role in escalating the rate at which poor families move out of gentrifying neighborhoods.

Kacie Dragan, Ingrid Ellen, Sherry A. Glied, “Does Gentrification Displace Poor Children? New Evidence from New York City Medicaid Data,”
NBER Working Paper No. 25809, Issued in May 2019

In the News

The Portland Tribune featured City Observatory’s analysis of Portland’s inclusionary zoning law in its article, “Group blasts Portland’s inclusionary policy.”

Correction:  Last week’s Week Observed incorrectly identified Rachel Bogardus Drew, author of what we called “a Rosetta Stone for gentrification studies“–the excellent tool for comparing the practical, on-the-ground meaning of competing definitions of gentrification.  City Observatory apologizes  for this error.

This post has been updated to correct a typographical error in our summary of the commentary “The Young and Restless in Black and White.”