What City Observatory did this week

1. Great neighborhoods don’t have to be illegal—they’re not elsewhere. Daniel Kay Hertz follows up on our earlier piece about illegal neighborhoodsto point out that most other wealthy countries allow the kinds of mixes of density and uses that most American cities have outlawed. Based on Sonia Hirt’s great book, Zoned in the USA, Hertz shows that, for example, in places like Great Britain or Germany, even low-density residential zones allow small multifamily housing and everyday commercial uses.

2. The prisoner’s dilemma of local-only planning. While contemporary planning places a great deal of emphasis on the idea of the “local,” Daniel Kay Hertz argues that we may be underestimating the costs of focusing planning decisions at small levels of geography. In fact, much of the move to localism in the last half-century has been associated with exclusionary policies, both in “white flight” suburbs and urban neighborhoods. As a result, metropolitan areas with more “local” governance are both more segregated, and have greater health disparities between blacks and whites, than other places. Many of our challenges around housing and segregation may require action and planning at higher levels of government.

3. Is WMATA’s transit cost problem a national issue? Daniel Kay Hertz takes a look at a potential threat to sustaining and growing transit services in America’s metropolitan areas: rapidly rising operations costs. While reliable bus service is key to linking together compact, livable urban neighborhoods, the increasingly expensive “price” of an hour of service means that agencies must receive larger and larger subsidies just to tread water. Though it’s not entirely clear what’s going on, this is something that people who care about urban neighborhoods need to look into before it becomes an even bigger issue.

4. What does it mean to be a “smart city”? Joe Cortright writes that while the “smart city” movement has a lot to offer, looking at cities as “systems of systems” or “information flows” to be optimized runs the risk of overlooking what really matters: people. “Smart” cities create and attract talented people and create opportunities for their residents to meet and build things that add to their city’s economic and cultural life.

The week’s must reads

1. Jed Kolko goes through the new 2014 American Community Survey data at UC-Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation. Among the big findings: the homeownership rate fell nearly half a percentage point in a single year, to 63.1 percent from 63.5 percent; all growth in occupied housing has been in rentals; housing cost burdens are easing slightly (though measured by the 30 percent of income ratio method we’re not crazy about); and vacancy rates are falling for multifamily units, but rising slowly for single family.

2. In a throwback to earlier housing battles (like Mount Laurel or Arlington Heights), the housing advocacy group San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, or SFBARF, has announced a new campaign to battle against exclusionary zoning: “Sue the Suburbs.” San Francisco Magazine takes a look at SFBARF’s plan to sue the town of Lafayette for failing to live up to its responsibility under state law to build some amount of affordable, multifamily housing.

3. Probably no major American city is currently thinking in as comprehensive a way about affordability as Seattle. The Urbanist blog reviews the recommendations of that city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Advisory Committee (or HALA), released recently, and picks out some of the most exciting. From increasing low-cost housing supply with accessory dwelling units to using tax levies to support truly large numbers of subsidized units, there’s a lot here for other cities to take notes from.

New knowledge

1. Via the New York Times, researchers at the Center for American Progress released a study showing that growing up in a metropolitan area with higher union membership is associated with a small but statistically significant increase in economic mobility for the low-income. Using data and methodology from Raj Chetty’s groundbreaking work published earlier this year, CAP found that a 10 percent increase in a region’s union membership is associated with a 1.3 percentile point increase in income for low-income children, a relationship roughly as strong as a neighborhood’s high school dropout rate. They also found that children of non-college-educated fathers earned 28 percent more if their father was a union member.

2. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati and West Virginia University used a paper to argue against a “one size fits all” approach to affordable housing. Specifically, they evaluate the accusation that housing vouchers simply drive up market prices by increasing the total rent that low-income households can afford to pay. It turns out that in housing-supply-constrained metropolitan areas, where it’s difficult to add new housing, vouchers do raise prices for apartments just below the “fair market rent” (the highest amount that vouchers will pay). In places where it’s easier to add new housing, vouchers do not raise prices. We would add that this is another reason that allowing more housing in urban neighborhoods is an important policy for social equity.

3. Jie Huang of the University of Leeds and David Levinson of the University of Minnesota use a new paper to look at the effect of “circuity”—that is, the ratio of the actual distance between two points and the distance one actually has to travel over roads or transit services—on mode choice. They find that transit use is heavily correlated with low transit circuity, but that for most people, driving circuity is much less than transit circuity. The bottom line, without jargon: people like taking direct trips.

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. You can sign up to get it in your inbox by clicking “Subscribe” at the top of the page!

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.