What City Observatory this week

Institutionalized housing discrimination. A recent study of housing discrimination in Detroit came to a seemingly surprising conclusion:  Fair housing complaints were less likely to be filed in higher income, higher priced predominantly white neighborhoods than in lower income neighborhoods that were predominantly Black.  The study’s authors were puzzled by the finding, but we think there’s a pretty clear explanation. In expensive mostly white suburbs, there’s no need to practice the overt discrimination of turning down applicants of color, or telling them the house is rented (or under offer):  The high price of housing, dictated by restrictive local zoning codes, automatically performs that chore.  Large lot single family zoning and apartment bans reshape the housing market to make it simply unaffordable for low income people to move into some communities, and given the correlation between poverty and race, this has much the same effect as in-your-face discrimination.

In 2021, it’s the case that the most widespread and pernicious forms of housing discrimination are the subtle institutionalized racism embedded in systems like zoning.

Must read

1. Four reasons why public housing isn’t going to solve our affordability problems. Some housing advocates are hoping that the new Biden Administration will embrace the construction of more public housing as one cornerstone of its ruban policy.  The Brookings Institution’s Jenny Schuetz makes the case that public housing is unlikely to be an effective solution.  A central problem is that the same land use restrictions that block market rate housing (apartment bans, parking requirements, arbitrary review processes) apply with equal or greater force to public housing. Moreover, the institutional capacity of public housing authorities to actually plan and build new housing has atrophied dramatically; and most authorities are overwhelmed with managing the maintenance burden of the legacy public housing stock.  Finally, for any given amount of resources, other types of subsidies—like expanding housing vouchers, or acquiring and redeveloping existing housing—may provide more benefits more quickly to more people.

2. Why the linear city is a straight line leading nowhere.  With great fanfare, and fancy animation, developers have announced plans to build a futuristic 100-mile long linear city in Saudi Arabia.

While it’s billed as a startling new idea, it isn’t.  The linear city was proposed, tried, and failed in the 19th Century, as Vice’s Aaron Gordon points out.

This new iteration is wrapped in all the buzzwords of contemporary urbanism:  there won’t be any cars; all transport will be underground, and people will walk everywhere.If techno-futurism has perfected anything, it is the art of unwittingly re-inventing old ideas, inflating them to a scale so epic that it accentuates all of the idea’s flaws, and presenting it in a slick hype video as the Only Way Forward.

Grandiose plans advanced by high priced consultants are common in this part of the world.  Plan’s for Masdar, a smart green new city in Abu Dhabi, are largely stillborn after a decade.  While only a few very wealthy places can really indulge these futurist follies, it’s all too common for urban leaders to hope for a simple technical fix, rather than tackling the more fundamental problems close at hand.  As Gordon explains:

. . . one of the many problems city governments have is they all too often dig deep into the well of techno-futurist ideas like “smart cities” and “artificial intelligence” when much more realistic solutions like zoning reform and elimination of parking minimums and making certain streets car-free are right there for the taking. They may be hard to do and will piss some people off in the process, but at least they will ultimately solve problems and make people’s lives better.

3. Why are US transit construction costs so damn high?  A recent report from the Eno Foundation argues that its a misperception that transit construction costs are higher in the US than the rest of the world.  But Alon Levy, writing at Pedestrian Observations, begs to differ.  Levy, who maintains an extensive global database on construction costs argues that the Eno study is biased for several reasons:  it looks mostly at light rail, not full rapid transit, it leaves out cost estimates for high income Asian countries, and it also leaves out lesser known (and lower cost) light rail and tram systems in smaller European countries and cities.  The point-counterpoint between Levy and Eno provides a useful framework for answering this complex question.

New Knowledge

Can policy reduce inequality?  For a long time, we’ve known that housing segregation and school segregation have been instrumental in creating and perpetuating racial disparities in opportunity and economic prosperity.  Due to our heavily localized systems of school finance and administration, the quality of a child’s education depends in large part on how nice a neighborhood his or her parents can afford. Since at least Brown v. Board of Education more than 65 years ago, public policy has aimed at trying to reduce disparities by decreasing segregation in schools, and equalizing resources.
In a thoughtful essay that draws on some of the best of recent research, Harvard economist Richard Murnane makes a strong case that we have to do more than desegregate schools and raise test scores if we are to redress persistent racial disparities in economic outcomes. While schools are central to life chances, it’s not just the school that influences outcomes. Schools are embedded in the communities in which they operate and it’s a combination of the richer resources, fewer obstacles, stronger peers and more abundant social capital in mixed income neighborhoods that gives rise to big improvements in economic opportunity.
Murnane highlights the findings from the Moving to Opportunity studies, summarized by Lawrence Katz and others, Eric Chyn’s analysis of the movement of families out of Chicago public housing, and data on the effects of Charlotte’s school lottery program.  In every case, these studies showed that while moving kids from low income families to desegregated schools in middle and upper income neighborhoods had modest effects on their test scores, they were associated with big improvements in life outcomes, measured by higher earnings and lower probability of incarceration. The Chicago housing study found that former public housing tenants who were relocated to middle income neighborhoods had a higher probability of employment and higher earnings than otherwise similar students who stayed in the neighborhood. The Charlotte study found that low income students who won the lottery to attend high-demand schools had lower rates of incarceration for boys and higher rates of college attendance for girls.
Murnane argues that the combination of better soft skills, different experiences and expectations, and different peer groups plays a key role in enabling kids from low income households to succeed in these places.
 . . . it is not choice per se that matters. It is growing up in neighborhoods with lower crime rates and more economically advantaged neighbors and attending better schools with children from more economically advantaged families.
Our focus on schools and education needs to move beyond raising test scores to a more comprehensive understanding of the role of social skills (like reliability; persistence in the face of challenges; listening, negotiating, and communicating effectively; and the ability to work productively in groups with people of different backgrounds) as well as the role of context. Segregated schools, particularly in high poverty neighborhoods present students with more challenges, fewer social resources, and thinner networks, all of which make it harder to succeed in life.  As Murnane concludes:
Given the history of housing segregation in America and the funding structure of American schooling, a great many Black children grow up in high-poverty, unsafe neighborhoods and attend underfunded schools that do not prepare them for success in post-secondary education and the labor market. But the studies described above make a strong case that reducing the social isolation in which a great many low-income Black families live and their children attend school are powerful strategies for reducing race-based intergenerational inequalities.
Richard Murnane, “Can Policy Interventions Reduce Inequality? Looking Beyond Test Scores for Evidence” The Digest (William T. Grant Foundation), No. 6, January 2021.

In the News

StreetsblogUSA republished our analysis of Hartford’s proposed parking fees under the title, “How to stop giving parking developers a free ride.”

The Hartford Courant also wrote about our analysis of the proposed increase in parking fees.