Saturday, December 9, 2017

A California Rent Control Compromise

Recently, discussion of rent control has picked up in California, due to the statewide housing cri-tastrophe-pocalype-ageddon (i.e. the rent is too damn high).  According to the American Community Survey (one-year estimates), in 2016 the statewide median rent was $1,375 and 55.3% of renters spent over 30% of their income on rent (the federal affordability standard).  In 2011, the figures were $1,174 and 57.6%.  The decline in the percentage of cost-burdened renters may look positive, but it could actually be a reflection of people leaving the state as rents become more and more unbearable, leaving behind wealthier residents who can hang on, for now.  Of course, this problem is even more severe in California's large metros like Greater Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

So is rent control the answer?  First some context.  A state law passed in 1995 called the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act (California Civil Code Sections 1954.50-1954.535) sets the guidelines for local rent control ordinances.  Under Costa-Hawkins, if a local government already had rent control in effect when Costa-Hawkins went into effect, that local government can't apply rent control to any newer dwellings than were already covered.  If a local government did not already have rent control in effect, rent control cannot be applied to any buildings that got a certificate of occupancy after February 1, 1995.  If tenants with rent control terminate their tenancy or they are legally evicted, new tenants can be charged rent at market rate and the rate of increase in rent thereafter can be subject to local rent control.  Single-family homes and condo units are exempt from rent control.

Now for pros and cons.  The big pro of rent control is that it reduces the rate at which rents can increase, which saves tenants money.  Tenants know that their rent will rise at a relatively slow and predictable rate and are less likely to be priced out.  Homeowners in California enjoy a similar benefit in that Proposition 13 caps the rate of increase in property taxes ("property tax control"?), so wouldn't it be fair for renters to enjoy similar stability in their housing costs?

Unfortunately, rent control also has some cons.  Firstly, it is a disincentive to rent homes, since landlords can't make as much money from their tenants.  Landlords may decide they would rather convert their rental units to condos, for example, and sell them at market rate.  Under rent control, landlords have an incentive to evict their tenants because when new tenants come in they can charge market rate.  Rent control disincentivizes repairs and maintenance of buildings, since the costs of these measures can't be fully recaptured in higher rents.  Rent control doesn't help tenants who need to move, and can incentivize them to stay in a rental home longer than they normally would, even if they need to move to chase a job opportunity or care for a family member.  Rent control doesn't necessarily benefit low-income tenants, since even wealthy tenants can benefit from it.  Rent control may act as political cover for cities that have failed to create a regulatory environment where enough housing can be built to meet demand.  It can also disincentivize that housing construction itself.  By making an investment in rental housing less profitable, investors can be tempted by other, more profitable investments, and capital flows to build housing can be reduced.

So here's my compromise.  I would amend Costa-Hawkins so that all housing developments in California would be exempt from rent control for a fixed period of time, probably 30 years from the date of final inspection on the construction, regardless of whether a local government already has rent control or not.  This gives buildings some time to pay off their construction debt and give a good return to their investors.  This also means post-1995 housing could eventually be subject to rent control.  I would allow local governments to apply rent control to single-family homes and condo units, which are a major source of rental housing.  I would limit how much local governments can limit the increase in rents to some level that is greater than inflation (e.g. CPI +1% so if inflation is 2% per year, the local rent control ordinance would have to allow rents to rise at least 3% per year).  This way rent increases are capped, but the rent can rise enough to cover inflation and reflect market forces a bit, which should help with the disincentive for maintenance.  I would continue to allow new tenants to be charged market rate as long as the previous tenants were not evicted illegally.  This allows price signals to continue to play a role in the rental housing market (i.e. if there is a shortage, rental prices can still communicate that information to an extent).

At the end of the day, I understand why tenant activists want to repeal Costa-Hawkins.  The rent is too damn high.  However, there need to be reasonable limits on rent control.  Rent control isn't really the solution to our housing crisis and should be a last resort.  The real solution is to build enough housing to meet demand and invest more in subsidized affordable rental homes for people with low incomes.  Unfortunately, that requires acts of political will that can be even harder than reforming California's residential rent control law.

Long Beach, Salpica tus Suburbios con un Poco de Urbanismo

Oye suburbios del este de Long Beach.  Necesitamos tener una conversación.  Como sabes, nos crecimos juntos, pues voy a decirte directamente.  Tienes unos problemas serios.  Estás adicto a los coches, que cocinan el clima y ensucian el aire.  Tus alternativas a manejar son débiles.  Los autobuses no corren frequentemente, las distancias entre hogares y tiendas son largas, y cuando intentamos construir carriles de bici protegidos, es una crisis.  El costo de vivir en tu territorio está fuera de control.  Practicamente tiene que ser un abogado casado con un gerente de acciones virir en tú estes días.  No eres muy inclusivo de gente no rica y no blanca.  Pues, mi padre logró entrar, pero si somos honestos, el es la excepción, no la regla.

Como sabes, cambios son propuestos que enfrentarían unos de estos problemas.  Podemos tomar unos de sus centros comerciales y permitir departamentos sobre tiendas, que reduciría la necesidad de manejar, reduciría el costo de vivir y abriría el vecindario a gente nueva.  Y honestamente, aun si hacemos eso, no cambiará la situación mucho.  La gran mayoría de su tierra sería lo mismo: un mar grande de casas separadas con centros comercials ocacionales y su pirámide azul icónico.

Mis fuentes en el vecindario (gracias mamá) me dicen que cuando estos cambios fueron propuestos en una variedad de reuniones públicas te pusiste en un pánico, hablando como si fuera el fin del mundo.  Tu columnista local aun se enfrento contigo sobre el tópico, y tuvo que burlarse de ti un poco.

Mira, todos sabemos que el cambio puede ser perturbador, pero honestamente, estoy perdiendo paciencia con un sistema que excluye a gente de un vecindario por el alto costo y después la excluye en un sentido político.  Tienes una obligación moral, una obligación a los de más seres humanos y al futuro ser más inclusivo y sostenible.  Pues deja con las excusas y házlo.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Long Beach, Sprinkle Some Urbanism into Your Suburbs

Hey Long Beach east side suburbs, listen up.  We need to have a talk.  As you know, we grew up together, so I'm just going to give it to you straight.  You've got some serious problems.  You're addicted to cars, which are cooking the climate and fouling up the air.  Your alternatives to driving aren't great.  The buses don't run very often, the walking distances between homes and shops are long, and when we try to give you protected bike lanes, you freak out.  The cost of living in you is out of control.  You practically have to be a lawyer married to a hedge fund manager to get into you these days.  You are not very inclusive of people who aren't rich and of people who aren't white.  I mean, my dad made it in, but let's be honest, he's the exception rather than the rule.

As you know, changes are proposed that would address some of these issues.  We could take a few of your shopping centers and allow apartments over shops, which would cut down on driving, address the cost of living, and open the neighborhood up to different people.  And let's be honest, even if we did that, it wouldn't change things that much.  The overwhelming majority of your land would stay the same: a vast sea of single-family homes punctuated by the occasional strip mall cluster and your iconic blue pyramid.

My sources in the neighborhood (thanks Mom) tell me that when these changes were proposed at a variety of recent public meetings you freaked out, acted like the world was going to end.  Your local newspaper columnist even called you out on it, and has had to make fun of you a bit.

Look, we all know change can be uncomfortable, but honestly, I'm losing patience with a system that prices people out of a neighborhood and then excludes them from making decisions about that neighborhood.  You have a moral obligation, an obligation to your fellow human beings and to the future, to be more inclusive and more sustainable.  So stop making excuses and do it already.

Jane Jacobs, Reina de Los NEMYDAs

Acabo de disfrutar Ciudadana Jane, Battalla por La Ciudad, que es una película sobre la autora pionera del urbanismo y activista de vecindario que escribió el libro clásico La Muerte y Vida de Grandes Ciudades Estadounidenses (1961).  Para mí, y para muchos otros planificadores, Muerte y Vida fue una introducción temprana a este campo de estudios y una inspiración.

Lo que me impresionó en particular sobre la película fue como mostró los cuentos de las batallas entre Jacobs y el gran corredor de poder de la Ciudad de Nueva York, Robert Moses, particularmente mientras intentó imponer la renovación urbana y projectos de calles en el vecindario de Jacobs, Grennwich Village.  En un tiempo en que encontrar resistencia eficaz en tales proyectos fue raro, particularmente desde las mujeres, Jacobs luchó y ganó batallas en contra de las fuerzas poderosas del statu quo.

En otras palabras fue una gran NEMYDA (no en mi yarda de atrás).

Pero también fue una gran NEMYDA pensativa.  Fue una observadora cortante que identificó aspectos de ciudades que las hacen más vivas, diversas y buenas.  Cuatro de los más importantes son la densidad, una mezcla de usos de tierra, cuadras cortas, y una mezcla de edades de edificios.  Ese último, una mezcla de edades de edificios, es muy importante en parte porque implica que las intervenciones mejoras en ciudades no intentan cambiar todo y hacer una utopía (que frequentemente se veulve una pesadilla).  Sino, hacen pequeños cambios a lo que está allí, construyendo sobre las fortalezas de un lugar y haciendo un cambio paulatino, en diáolgo con la gente en la tierra que tiene que vivir con los resultados.

A Jacobs no le gustó suburbia, pero no puedo no pensar en las unidades de alojamiento auxiliares (UAAs) aquí.  Las UAAs son un cambio muy gradual que involucra pequeños propietarios construyendo casitas en sus yardas de atrás.  Van en contra de la ortodoxia prevaleciente de reglas de zona R-1, una casa en cada propiedad.  Sin embargo, no destruyen lo que ya está allí y se hacen a la iniciativa de los pequeños dueños de propiedad.  Poco a poco se suman a algo: más oportunidades de alojamiento, mejor apoyo al transporte público, un sabor más urbano de los suburbios.  No sé si a ella le gustaría las UAAs, pero me dan felicidad en todo caso, y pienso que siguen su espíritu en una manera.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Jane Jacobs, Queen of the NIMBYs

I just had a chance to enjoy Citizen Jane, Battle for the City which is a film about the pioneering urbanist author and neighborhood activist who wrote the classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).  For me, and for a lot of other planners, Death and Life was an early introduction to the field and an inspiration.

What stuck me in particular about the film was how it told the story of Jacobs' clashes with the great power broker of New York City, Robert Moses, particularly as he tried to impose urban renewal and road projects in Jacobs' own neighborhood of Greenwich Village.  At a time when getting effective resistance on projects was rare, particularly from women, Jacobs fought and won battles against the powerful forces of the status quo.

In other words, she was one hell of a NIMBY.

But she was also one hell of a thoughtful NIMBY.  She was a keen observer who identified features of cities that made them more vibrant, diverse and worthwhile.  Four of the most important are density, a mixture of land uses, short blocks and a mixture of building ages.  That last one, a mixture of building ages, is really important in part because it implies that the best interventions in cities don't try to sweep everything away and create a utopia (which frequently turns into a dystopia).  Instead they tweak what's there, build on the strengths of a place and move the needle gradually over time, in consultation with the people on the ground who have to live with the results.

Jacobs wasn't a huge fan of suburbia, but I can't help but thinking here about accessory dwelling units (ADUs).  ADUs are a super-incremental form of change that involves homeowners building little cottages in their back yards.  They go against the reigning orthodoxy of R-1 zoning, one house per lot.  However, they don't wipe out what's already there and they are done at the initiative of individual people.  Bit by bit, they add up to something: more housing opportunities, better support for transit service, a more urban flavor of suburbia.  I don't know if they would get her stamp of approval or not, but I take heart in them nonetheless, and I think they follow her spirit in a way.

Tres sentidos del carácter del vecindario

"Carácter del vecindario" es una frase que se usa mucho en debates de planificación y urbanización.  Típicamente se usa así:

"Este proyecto amenaza el carácter de nuestro vecindario."

Esta retórica es muy eficaz.  La palabra "carácter" tiene muchas connotaciones positivas.  Investigámonos.  Hay tres maneras en que podemos considerar el carácter del vecindario:

  1. Carácter físico - El tipo de edificios y la relación entre esos edificios y los espacios públicos.
  2. Carácter moral - Si nos comportamos en una manera ético o no.
  3. Personajes del veindario (que es un sentdio de la palabra character en inglés)
La retótica en contra de la urbanización en su nivel más literal intenta proteger al carácter físico.  Pero en una región como Los Ángeles, si se congela el carácter físico de un vecindario, haremos daño al nuestro carácter moral y causa la desaprición de los personajes del vecindario.

Nuestra ciudad es principalmente un suburbio al estilo estadounidense, con un predominio de casas separadas y galerias comerciales orientadas al coche, pero los empleos y los residentes siguen viniendo.  La gente debe tener la oportunidad de vivir cerca de su lugar de empleo, que en muchos lugares insinua que se necesita un nivel más alta de densidad de urbanización.  Las casas tienen que ser reemplazadas por casas en hilera y edificios de departamentos, paulatinamente, cuando propietarios individuales quieren hacerlo.  Por congelar el carácter físco de un vecindario, evitamos que eso pase.  La gente tiene que vivir en las afueras de la ciudad donde el alojamiento es más barato, y sufrir viajes largos a trabajar que son malos para su salud, us felicidad, el medio ambiente y el tráfico regional.  Si prefieres, la gente se encuentra en condiciones atestadas en alojamiento más cerca del centro que existe, reduciendo su calidad de vida.  Ironicamente, este es un aumento en la densidad de población, solo sin el alojamiento para hacerlo bien.

Parte de tener buen carácter moral significa apoyar la integración racial.  Actualmente en la área metropolitana Los Ángeles-Long Beach-Anaheim 51.5% de la población blanca vive en casas separadas, mientras que solo 37.2% de la población negra vive en casas separadas (2016 Encuesta de Comunidades Estadounidenses, estimaciones de un año, Cuadras 25032A & 25032B).  Si prohibimos el alojamiento multifamiliar, no exactamente estamos prohibiendo gente de color, pero hacemos menos probablemente que estarán en un vecindario, que es perturbador, dado la historia larga y afligida de injusticia racial de E.U.

Por fin, peinsa en los personajes del vecindario.  Los niños que crecen en un vecindario quizás encontrarán cuando se vuelven adultos que su vecindario ya no es asequible.  Eso es el caso con el vecindario en que crecí, y eso es a pesar del hecho de que my esposa y yo tenemos títulos universitarios avanzados y ingresos buenos.  La única manera sería heredar propiedad y eso se trata de la suerte, que unos tienen más que otros.  Si yo querría vivir allá no es el punto.  El punto es que hemos hecho un sistema en que nuestros propios niños no pueden estar en sus vecinarios de nacimiento, que es muy asombroso si pausas pensarlo.  Eso dificulta el cuidado familiar a través de las generaciones, mientras la gente de edad media hace juegos malabares con las demandas de cuidar a sus niños y sus padres.  También, un vecindario no es hecho realmente de edificios, sino personas.  Los edificios solamente son una manera de logar un fin.

Pues la próxima vez que alguien te echa "caracter de vecindario", desafiarlo pensar profundamente en que significaría congelar el cáracter físico para el carácter moral y los personajes del vecindario que no tienen la buena fortuna de tener el alojaimento asequible donde lo necesitan.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Three Senses of Neighborhood Character

"Neighborhood character" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in planning and development debates.  Usually it is used like this:

"This development threatens the character of our neighborhood."

This is really effective rhetoric.  The word "character" has lots of positive connotations, after all.  Let's dig a bit deeper.  I think there are three ways we can think about neighborhood character:
  1. Physical Character - The type of buildings and the relationship of those buildings to public spaces.
  2. Moral Character - The degree to which a community acts in ways that are ethical.
  3. Neighborhood Characters - The people who inhabit a neighborhood.
Anti-development rhetoric at its most literal is trying to protect physical character.  But in a city like Greater Los Angeles, if we freeze a neighborhood's physical character, we will often harm our own moral character and displace neighborhood characters.

Our city is largely a suburban place, with a predominance of detached houses and strip malls, yet jobs and people keep moving in.  People should have a chance to live close to their jobs, which in many places implies that there has to be a higher density of development.  Houses have to give way to townhomes and apartments, gradually, when individual property owners are willing to do so.  By freezing the neighborhood's physical character, we prevent this from happening.  People are forced to live on the outskirts of the city, where housing is cheaper, and endure long commutes that are bad for their health, their happiness, the environment and regional traffic congestion.  Alternatively, people are forced to overcrowd into the close-in housing that does exist, reducing their quality of life.  Ironically, this is an increase in population density, just without the housing to accommodate it properly.

Part of having good moral character means supporting racial integration.  Currently in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim Metropolitan Statistical Area 51.5% of the white population lives in detached houses whereas only 37.2% of the black population lives in detached houses (2016 American Community Survey, 1-Year Estimates, Tables 25032A & 25032B).  If we ban multifamily housing, we aren't exactly banning people of color, but we are making it less likely that they will be in a neighborhood, which is disturbing given America's long and troubled history of racial injustice.

Finally, think about neighborhood characters.  The children who grow up in a neighborhood may find out when they become adults that their neighborhood is not affordable to them.  This is the case with the neighborhood I grew up in, and that is despite the fact that my wife and I both have master's degrees and solid incomes.  Our only way in would be inheriting property and that's about luck, which some people are more likely to have than others.  Whether I would want to live there is not the point.  The point is we're gentrifying our own children out of our own neighborhoods, which is pretty shocking if you stop to think about it.  This disrupts the ability of families to take care of each other across generations, as middle-aged people juggle the demands of caring for their own children and their aging parents.  Access to opportunity should not be about inherited wealth.  It should be about hard work.  Also, a neighborhood isn't really made up of buildings; it's made up of people.  The buildings are just a means to an end.

So next time somebody throws "neighborhood character" at you, challenge them to think deeply about what freezing physical character could mean for our moral character and the neighborhood characters not fortunate enough to have affordable housing where they need it.