What City Observatory this week

1. The inequity built into Metro’s proposed homeless strategy. Portland’s Metro is rushing forward with a plan asking voters to approve $250 million per year in income taxes to fight homelessness and promote affordability in Metro Portland. It’s pitched as redressing the inequities of the past: homelessness disproportionately affects communities of color.  But the political deal that’s been crafted allocates the money to counties not based on need, but on population. The result is one suburban county gets five to six times as much funding per homeless person as does Multnomah County (which includes the central city, Portland).

2. Gentrification:  The case of the missing counterfactual. How do we know whether gentrification makes a neighborhood’s residents worse off or better off? The answer that comes from sociologists tends to be based on ethnography:  interviewing long-time neighborhood residents to get their opinions about change. That’s a good starting point, but as a rule, these ethnographic studies don’t look at a control group of otherwise similar neighborhoods that don’t gentrify. So, while residents of gentrifying neighborhoods may remember that things were better in the past, and resent change, that doesn’t necessarily mean that residents of otherwise similar low income neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify would feel better about their situation. What’s missing from these studies is the “counter-factual”–i.e. a look at the opinions of people in low income neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify.  The assumption is, that in the absence of gentrification, everything stays the same. But we know that’s not true: low income neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify tended to lose about 40 percent of their population over four decades. This “displacement by decline” is far more common, and likely even more devastating to long-time residents than gentrification. But you’d be hard pressed to know this by reading the typical sociological study of neighborhood change.

3. Why Atlanta’s building moratorium won’t stop gentrification, but will definitely accelerate “flipping.” Atlanta is investing $25 million to turn an abandoned quarry into the city’s largest park, and even before its done, the new park is generating huge interest in surrounding neighborhoods. So much so, that, fearing gentrification, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has announced a six-month moratorium on new building permits in the area. While the Mayor is hoping to forestall gentrification, in our view, the moratorium is likely to backfire. Demand for housing in the area won’t go away, instead, it will simply be focused on the existing housing stock. If anything, the moratorium makes the attraction for house flippers even more irresistable, because when they put their revamped houses on the market, prospective buyers and renters won’t have as many choices.

Must read

1. What do to about gentrification?  Writing in Governing, guest commentator Jabari Simama reflects on his experiences with neighborhood change in Atlanta. Change creates friction and discomfort, but if we’re starting from a place that’s highly segregated by race and income, we’ve got to figure out how to make change productive, rather than simply blocking it. As Simama points out:

Gentrification is neither good nor bad, but we must manage it better. Clearly we want to encourage residents to live wherever they please. Mixed-income and multiracial neighborhoods are good for our cities. The question is what needs to be done to make them inclusive — racially and economically — and balanced with legacy and new residents.

It’s a useful message: too often in the face of rapid change and palpable pressure to do something, political leaders find themselves confronted with limited and fruitless choices.

2. Jenny Schuetz:  Corporations make a convenient scapegoat for housing, but that’s not the problem. Brookings Institution scholar Jenny Schuetz takes on one of the most popular myths in housing debates:  that the increasing–but still very small–corporate ownership of houses and apartments is responsible for housing unaffordability. At best, they’re a symptom, and it turns out that corporations are actually finely tuned to taking advantage of supply constraints to make shrewd investments.  If local regulations block the construction of new homes and apartments, then demand shifts to the existing housing stock. Instead of older homes and apartments filtering “down” as they age and depreciate, they get rehabbed and “filter up” rising in price.  As Schuetz explains:

Local regulations also play a role in the buy-and-rehab strategy employed by private-equity firms. In places where regulation limits new apartment construction, acquiring existing buildings is less risky than trying to build new rental housing. There are stronger financial incentives to maintain and upgrade old apartments in tightly regulated markets, because they face less competition from new, high-amenity buildings. This process of upward “filtering” among existing apartments is particularly harmful to housing affordability because it results in higher rents without expanding the number of homes available.

3. More road-widening madness, Los Angeles edition.  Magnolia Boulevard is a major thoroughfare in North Hollywood, and with recent investments in improved transit and new apartment construction, its become an increasingly walkable area. It’s baffling then that the LA Department of Transportation is proposing to widen the roadway, in apparent contravention of the city’s adopted 2015 Mobility Plan, and also contrary to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recent proclamation that the city will work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by lowering the number of vehicle miles traveled.  LA Streetsblog explains that when it comes to the manifest destiny of road-widening, highway engineers aren’t going to let newly adopted policies or contributing to planetary destruction get in their way.  Widening the roadway threatens to undo much of the improved livability and walkability of the area:

Since 1999, there’s been a subway, Bus Rapid Transit, dense housing, great walkability, thriving sidewalk cafes, bike lanes, bike paths, bike-share, theaters, galleries, and much more. In two decades NoHo has emerged as the most walkable, most transit-oriented place in the San Fernando Valley, and indeed one of the more walkable neighborhoods in the entire city. Ignoring the current neighborhood opposition and holding steadfastly to outdated plans threatens to cram more cars into the area disrupting what makes it work for the people that live there.

New Knowledge

How density and distance from downtown shape political affiliations. We’ve long known that the red/blue divide cleaves along the urban/rural axis.  Almost everywhere big cities and dense urban neighborhoods are more reliably blue, and non-metropolitan areas and small towns are predictably red. At least some of this has to do with the sorting that’s going on along demographic lines, with younger, better educated (and more generally blue) people moving to metro areas and city centers, while the population of rural areas remains older and less educated.

A new study from University of Maryland political scientists James Gimpel and co-authors published at the Daily Yonder looks to dis-entangle the relative effects of neighborhood urbanity and local demographics in explaining this red/blue divide.  It finds that even after controlling for the partisan differences imparted by different levels of age, income, education and the like, that denser urban areas, and neighborhoods closer to the urban center tend to have a higher fraction of Democrats.  The following chart shows their findings for distance from a large city and partisan affiliation.

The median Democrat lives within about 12 miles of the center of a city of 100,000, while the median Republican lives about 20 miles away.  Democratic affiliation peaks at about 5 miles from the center and declines the further one goes outward; Republican affiliation peaks at about 60 miles from the city.

Demography, still matters, of course, but geography plays a significant part even after controlling for the effects of income, age, education and so on. As the authors explain:

The effects of place are significant. For example, two voters with otherwise similar backgrounds, one living in a city, the other living 165 miles outside the city, will differ in the probability of expressing Republican loyalty by about 9 points. Density, similarly will alter the propensity to identify with the major parties, with those in the densest settlements 15 points more likely to be Democrats than those living in the least dense settlements.

Hat tip to our friend Bill Bishop, publisher of the Yonder.

In the News

The Milwaukee Business Times quoted our ranking of the share of independent restaurants in the the nation’s largest metro areas in its story: “Milwaukee among U.S. metros with most independent restaurants.”

The Portland Tribune highlighted our analysis of the mismatch between the allocation of funds and the incidence of homelessness in Metro’s proposed $250 million per year housing measure.