What City Observatory did this week

1. Ways forward to more equitable land use law. Following up on last week’s posts about William Fischel’s new book, Zoning Rules!, and its arguments about how America got into its current housing crisis, we look at what Fischel, one of the country’s foremost scholars on land use law, thinks can be done to smooth out some of the current system’s problems. His focus is on ending some of the policies that privilege housing as an investment over other financial vehicles—which is a worth goal. But we’re a little skeptical it’ll have the effect on zoning policy, and ultimately housing affordability, that he imagines.

2. It’s a good time for buyers to beware. Back in 2006, the National Association of Realtors launched an advertising campaign telling Americans: “It’s a great time to buy a home.” Nearly ten years later, most people who believed them has suffered as a result. According to MarketWatch, people who bought their homes between eight and ten years ago have, on average, earned practically zero equity in all that time. And many, as we know, are deep underwater on their mortgage, or fell victim to foreclosure. Given the experience of the last decade, it’s time to ask whether we really want to tell people that such a huge, high-risk investment as a home is their best path to middle class wealth and financial security.

3. Zoning and cities on the national economic stage. Cities are usually not on the radar of national macroeconomists. But last week, the Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers gave a speech focusing on the barriers to national economic growth and mobility posed by local zoning regulations. It’s extremely encouraging to see attention paid to this at the highest policy levels—but we’re less impressed by the proposed solutions.

4. Happy Thanksgiving! We’re thankful for a lot here at City Observatory, and hope you’re having a lovely holiday.

The week’s must reads

1. At The Century Foundation, Jacob Anbinder takes on the dysfunction of federal transportation policy. The problems are several, including the funding of dubious projects (the well-regarded TIGER grant program gave Rhode Island $9 million for a glorified gas station, in one particularly glaring example)—but the broader issue is that DC pays for capital expenditures, but not service. That means local agencies are building new lines and stocking up on new vehicles, even as the frequency of those lines falls below reasonable levels. Anbinder calculates that an increase of just 6.2 cents per gallon on the gas tax could on its own provide a major boost to local transit agencies.

2. At The Atlantic, Alana Semuels tells the story of Syracuse, New York—which has, according to the magazine, “the worst slum problem in America.” Semuels traces the story of urban renewal, highways that tore apart communities, segregation, and abandonment, especially by whites. It’s a story that’s familiar around the country, but grounding it in one city allows a level of detail and specificity that’s often lacking in conversations about urban poverty.

3. Today! Concerned urban residents around the country are using #blackfridayparking to share photos of underused parking lots—even on the day that should have some of the highest parking demand all year. The point is to demonstrate how parking minimum laws way overestimate the amount of parking people actually use, raising the cost of construction and forcing developers to create more sprawl. Read more at Strong Towns.

New knowledge

1. Music to our ears: Jason Furman, the Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, gave a speech explicitly connecting overly restrictive local zoning laws to economic issues of national importance—including inequality, mobility, and productivity. While Furman broke no new research ground in his speech, it represents a major political victory for these issues to be discussed at the highest level of policymakers—and the narrative he lays out is a clear, concise, and compelling argument on its own.

2. How affordable is affordable housing? While HUD-backed rental assistance programs cannot force renters to pay more than 40 percent of their income for housing, the location of subsidized units can have a major impact on transportation costs. Reid Ewing of the University of Utah looks into those costs using estimates from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and finds that location-based affordability—the total costs of housing and transportation—is highly correlated with location in the metropolitan area. Residents of centrally-located affordable housing pay relatively small amounts for transportation; those in more sprawling areas, or farther out in the suburbs, are much more likely to pay more than they can afford for transportation.

3. “Good drivers living in predominantly African American ZIP codes are charged significantly higher premiums than similar drivers in largely white communities, even after accounting for population density and income levels,” according to anew report on car insurance from the Consumer Federation of America. And the difference is huge: about 60 percent, or more than $600, in the densest neighborhoods, for example. In upper middle income ZIP codes, blacks are charged nearly three times whites’ rates: $2,113 versus $717.

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.

If you have ideas for making The Week Observed better, we’d love to hear them! Let us know at jcortright@cityobservatory.org, dkhertz@cityobservatory.org, or on Twitter at @cityobs.