What I wrote when I hosted my group’s weekly affordable housing discussion email

Hello, hello, and welcome to an email you don’t have to respond to.

So here’s the deal: before the trip even starts, Bike and Build gives you SO MUCH WORK to get you prepared physically and affordable housingly. One of the components of this is a weekly email between little subgroups of the rider group.

Each week, one person picks two articles on (a) topic(s), writes a bit about them, and sends them off. Then everyone else responds with their thoughts/related experiences/reactions to the articles. This is meant to be a discussion, but since it’s a really homeworky structure– required responses and all that– it ended up being more like everyone just writes their thing, possibly responding to those who went before them.

In case it wasn’t clear, I don’t love this format because I don’t like forced responses. If you don’t have anything to say, or you don’t have that much to say, or you want to mull stuff over before saying something, I think that’s fine and making people blubber up some words on some topic isn’t necessarily going to get you quality thoughts, so why bother?

But now it’s over and I did get to learn about some of the people I’ll be going with’s experiences with un/affordable housing in the various cities and towns where they all live, so that’s a positive. I’m also curious to see what directions all the other subgroups’ talks went in.

Last week was my turn, so figured I’d share with y’all here what I sent out.

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Hello and welcome to the final week ever of AH email discussions! (You can still discuss AH over email after this week, but it won’t be mandatory.) 

This week, we’re gonna talk about ——————————ing.
(See what I did there?! The topic is REDLINING!)
I’m including lots of stuff, so please prioritize [2] and just read whatever interests you of the rest. Hopefully everyone will be drawn to different parts and you can glean whatever you don’t choose to read from everyone else’s responses.
[1] First, an initial definition of redlining from How We Built the Ghettos: A brief introduction to America’s long history of racist housing policy. This article goes into detail on the many components that went into redlining and its effects on geography and the racial distribution of wealth in America.  I want to pull out its definition of redlining:
 

Redlining is the practice of denying key services (like home loans and insurance) or increasing their costs for residents in a defined geographical area. In theory, this could be used against anyone. In reality, it was almost exclusively a tool to force blacks (and other minorities) into particular geographic areas. The practice began with the National Housing Act of 1934, which established the Federal Housing Administration, as well as the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. It was this agency which created “residential security maps” for several cities to determine the safety of real estate investments in selected areas.

[2] Armed with this definition, we’re going deep into the human side of redlining, reading Ta-nehisi Coates’ famous The Case for Reparations. To get at the heart of the redlining section of this suuuper loong essay, Command-F for “1961” and start reading there (“In 1961, Ross and his wife bought a house in North Lawndale…”). Read through, “The resulting conflagration has been devastating,” which is 7 paragraphs down from the interactive census map of Chicago.

[3] Now let’s look and see how, of course, somehow this shit is still happening.
[4] I also really appreciated this essay by a teacher in Portland on how she tried to answer her 6 year old’s question, “Why Is This the Only Place in Portland I See Black People?”We’re having these discussions at ages 18-26, but here’s a group of 6 year olds engaged in a super serious exploration on racism and housing discrimination. As we visit towns this summer, we’ll be meeting kids along the way, so it’s nice to get some pedagogy juices goin’ to start us thinking on how we’re gonna broach big topics with little people. You might want to skim this, but you also might get sucked into it idk.
[5] And, if you’d like, you can look for redlined maps of your city (or a random city you’re interested in), or maps of it during the Great Migration and its current levels of segregation. What’s happening now in those areas marked as “racially blighted?” I’ve found that the areas my friends (young, largely white, with not great paying jobs but usually better than minimum wage) live in are those that are comparably affordable now mostly because of their redlined histories. So that’s one way the legacy of redlining is shaping cities.
[6] I’ll leave you with this paragraph from Ta-nehisi Coates:

“If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.”

Affordable Housing vs. Affordable Parking

Over the last century, Americans who could afford to got out of the city and into the frying pan, fleeing the urban core for the sprawl of suburbs. But to live in a remote, density-deficient sprawl requires a means of transportation that’ll take you places without tiring you out like a bike might, with the flexibility to go off course in the way bus routes and trains never do. Namely, the car.

Cars took over, spurred by their usefulness, an overburdened rail system, and the rise of buses and freeways (which positive feedback looped people into driving their cars more, making the streetcars get stuck in traffic, making streetcars less appealing, making people drive their cars more…). If you’ve seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you’re aware of a conspiracy theory that says the auto industry paid to rip up LA’s transitopia. It’s unclear exactly what was causation and what correlation, but they were ordered by a court to pay a small fine for its monopolistic intent for transportation. Even so, many transit historians believe the industry acted more as a result of economic pressure than conspiracy.

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On the plus side, imagine biking this! So fun and safe!!! You would get absolutely nowhere, but you could probably go real fast.

Over the next century, the American landscape would adapt to make itself more hospitable to this strange new species. Huge, heavy, and hungry for imported food, cars require special care and keeping. Their human caretakers rushed to keep them happy, fighting wars to keep them fed, creating a massive free range zoo for them to roam, and setting up so many homes for them that their space ate into our own. All of this makes up the “car habitat,” as parking expert and (recently retired) UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup (who made his site’s URL shoupdogg as a paean to his Snoop Dogg fandom, one can only assume) calls it. And parking– what you’re left with after you pave over paradise– is built into many city’s zoning codes so that planners and developers are in a vice grip, forced to provide space for cars to just sit and wait for us to take them for a walk.

As Shoup Dogg loves to point out, if you’re a person, housing is crazy expensive, but if you’re a car, your housing is free! To you and your person, at least. Not to the city or developers, who have to build and maintain it, and not to the externality costs of health, environment, and mobility that all this incentivizing private car ownership encourages.

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Here is a beautiful photo of Chicago, with all the parking spaces blued out. Imagine if they really were the cool blue fountains you would be excused for mistaking them for! That would be so cool (and frozen)! Or I guess it could be housing, which could increase supply and therefore lower the price if Adam Smith is to be at all believed. Photo and blue shapes from this report I’m gonna reference again later.

As people return to the urban core, attracted to the excitement and convenience of dense, urban life, we lose the freedom of space yesterday’s builders had to throw up parking wherever, space be damned. And affordable housing often has to battle it out against affordable– that is, subsidized– parking.

Austin is in the midst of redoing its zoning codes, which have stayed their same, modern, relevant selves since 1981. The city’s planners are looking for community participation in reshaping the codes, taking a special look at parking. A recent affordable housing complex helped spur the discussion, as developers were bound by zoning code to build 57 parking spaces for the building’s 45 affordable units. And only 12 of the residents even own a car. Without the requirement to build so many parking spaces, the developer said they could have built more sorely needed affordable units.

spacegivenup

The slivers of land we’ve left for ourselves to live on after sacrificing the rest to cars (source: I’m not sure who made this! I would love to know! A former professor shared it on Facebook)

This is true as a general rule, as well: the opportunity cost of a parking space is every other thing that could have been in that space, including plants, businesses, sidewalk, and yes, affordable homes. And so, as developers build more parking spots, housing affordability decreases.

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From the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s report, Stalled Out. AND THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING BUT I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE SCREENSHOTTING MULTIPLE PAGES OR INTEGRATING THIS INTO MY OWN WRITING SO WE ARE JUST GONNA HAVE TO STOP HERE AND YOU CAN READ THE REST ON YOUR OWN 🙂

But the link between affordable housing and transportation goes beyond parking lots. First of all, many of those freeways that made cars so enticing were forced onto poor, minority neighborhoods, bulldozing through communities and mucking up public health. Today, it’s expensive to own a car, even before you take into account its true cost, which includes everything from service fees to fuel to parking tickets. And unlike almost any other investment you could make, your car is guaranteed to only sink in value. While housing is most Americans’ top annual cost, transportation is second. Access to public transit can determine whether it’s a distant second or lapping at the heels of your rent.

More Americans are going car-free, out of choice or an inability to afford one, but they still need to get around… which leads us to public transit. Unfortunately, however, affordable housing is often built on land no one else wants, in far off corners away from bus and rail routes.

To succeed in fully helping its residents, who face limited access to jobs, shopping, schools, and other necessary destinations, affordable housing needs to be built with access to transportation alternatives (bike lanes included). Perhaps this is why two Bike and Build alumni I know are in urban planning grad school right now, studying transportation.

You can check out what percent of their income people in your neighborhoods tend to spend on housing and transportation with this interactive map created by the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

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So here we can see that in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, the average resident spends 26% of their income on housing and 16% on transportation, which means they spend almost half of what they take home on having a home to take it to and having a way to get it there.

 

 

Ever Been Arrested? HUD Says the Discrimination You Face in Finding a Home Might Be Illegal

Landlords often refuse to rent homes to people with arrest records— even though an arrest says nothing about guilt (that only comes with a trial) and almost everything to do with discrimination. Since Black and Hispanic Americans are much more likely to be arrested than members of other groups, this trend doubly penalizes them. First, they’re arrested, then have difficulty securing housing forever after. Because of the disproportionate populations of Black and Hispanic Americans with arrest records, The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is looking into the legality of this practice, warning that it may violate the Fair Housing Act.

Since discrimination based on race is illegal, while discrimination based on arrest record is not (yet), landlords can use the coded language of criminal records to legitimize racially biased housing practices. HUD described one method to determine whether a landlord’s stated rejection of people with records is a mask for a deeper bias:

“Intentional discrimination may be proven [if,] when responding to inquiries from prospective applicants, a property manager told a African-American individual that her criminal record would disqualify her from renting an apartment, but did not similarly discourage a White individual with a comparable criminal record from applying.”

HUD’s investigation into this practice is part of growing awareness and activism around the enormous and discriminatory American prison complex. Americans make up 5% of the global population, yet our prisoners are a quarter of the world’s incarcerated. Accordingly, approximately 100 million US adults have criminal records– nearly one third of the country. Nationwide, groups are working in concert to minimize the brutality of the carceral state. A sampling of these include:

  • The “Ban the Box” campaign, which aims to stop employers from discriminating against formerly incarcerated people in their hiring practices
  • Reclassifying drug use from a crime to an illness or legal activity
  • Advocating for alternative forms of justice based on focusing on victims’ needs rather than punishment through Restorative Justice
  • Reforming prisons so they no longer commit human rights abuses as defined by the UN
  • Advocacy for eventual and complete prison abolition. Prisons are since prisons largely serve to create profit rather than “reform”or “rehabilitate” those locked inside. Anyway, there’s pretty damning evidence they’re just an evolved form of slavery
  • And of course, a continued legacy of activism among prisoners themselves against brutality and mistreatment

Housing is hard enough to find and afford. If you insist on adding discrimination to the mix, you just set people up for homelessness, all but guaranteeing they’ll get in trouble with the law again. What sort of reform and rehabilitation is that?

A brief history of making sure you don’t have to live anywhere near anyone you don’t want to in Los Angeles

Imagine that you are in charge of creating an entirely new urban plan to develop the world. You could put parks everywhere, build freeways straight to your door, declare your birthplace a national monument. There’s just one catch: you have no idea, or control over, where you’ll be born or live. How would you design the world then?

Unfortunately, urban planning and public zoning does not take place behind a veil of ignorance.

If it did, perhaps NIMBYism wouldn’t be the driving political force it is today.

Southern California is a strong contender in the auditions for poster region for NIMBYism. The story of Los Angeles’s growth is the story of real estate developers selling a dream of white homeownership to dentists in Topeka and accountants in Peoria. They pushed the Southern California lifestyle as a product in and of itself, so that moving to Los Angeles became a tautological journey to somewhere where the main economic activity was convincing more people like you to move in too.

For those who had purchased the sunny, detached unit, West Coast lifestyle, protecting this investment became of utmost importance. What this meant, starting in the ’20s, but with no end in sight, was keeping out people with the wrong skin colors, religions, credit scores, lifestyles, or affinities.

Early Angeleno homeowners did this by banding into Homeowner’s Associations. These mandated, in addition to lot sizes and the minimum construction costs, the races and ethnicities of who was allowed to purchase homes. Many included provisions excluding non-whites, and sometimes, non-Christians, from living in their communities, except as domestic servants, of course. Through the 1920s, these “protective associations” rendered 95% of LA’s housing stock de facto inaccessible to Black and Asian would-be homeowners. In case this was too subtle, there was always the Klan, which overlapped in motive and membership, if not method.

The United States Supreme Court ruled against these restrictive covenants in 1948 (the California Supreme Court had upheld them in 1919), and California struck down its own law prohibiting non-citizens (but targeted at the Japanese) from owning or making long leases on agricultural land two years later. Where there’s a will, however, there’s usually a way to keep out people you don’t want to live among, and so neighborhoods started organizing exclusivity through the channels of geography, policy, and accessibility.

Geography

Geographically, many white homeowners simply left, creating new suburbs in the San Fernando Valley where developers could ignore legal mandates and continue to redline out whomever they didn’t want. It’s like the old saying, “if you don’t like somebody, move away from them into a gated community miles away.”

Policy

Politically, neighborhoods began incorporating as their own “minimal cities,” contracting out social services like firefighting and mail, and levying their own taxes as they saw fit. Deciding you are your own city is like playing a Libertarian expansion pack in SimCity. If renters or low-income residents are dragging you down, you can just zone them out. If unions crop up among your social services, you can simply terminate that company’s contract. And best of all, the larger, capital G government can never touch your property as a resource for redistribution. These Cities By Contract, like the charter schools that offer a micro model of their logic, are still gaining favor among residents of wealthy enclaves who would prefer to not be pushed into paying for services they themselves might not be in immediate need of.

This protectionist tradition in local politics is alive and well and living by the beach. Right before Thanksgiving, residents of Newport Shores, an enclave of wealthy Newport Beach, crowded a City Council meeting in an attempt to block a twelve-unit affordable housing project for seniors and veterans. One man (whose eponymous personal injury firm assures that “when life gets difficult, we are here for you”), said he objected to building what he referred to as “the projects of Newport Shores,” since the town already has enough affordable housing. “Newport Shores has effectively become the dumping ground for Newport Beach,” he continued, and his former neighbors in wherever he used to live before Newport Shores clucked in agreement (conjecture; stricken from the record).

It’s also seen in measures to block development of more homes near you because they might be ugly or bring in unsavory types. Now, I am of a split mind on development. There’s a reason the West Village in NYC is soooo charming and fun to walk around in (old, small buildings and Amanda Burden made everyone stop building up), but is it the same one (old, small buildings and Amanda Burden made everyone stop building up) that makes it the most expensive place in the universe? Further, how dense can you get before it starts taking a toll on residents? People get spooked when they feel crowded, whether it’s from around or above them. I moved to the other side of the country in part to escape feeling this way.

But to get affordable housing you have to do one of two things: 1. regulate existing units’ costs and/or 2. build more units and charge less or hope flooding the market knocks down prices. My hunch is that it’s gonna take a combination of the two. The question remains, then, where are these affordable units, whether built or regulated into existence, going to be? If you’re anything like the residents of Los Angeles, you’re not sure, but you would prefer not within eyesight, or perhaps your lifetime. A new ballot measure would stop any construction requiring zoning changes from proceeding without specific oversight. Its key backers, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, are headquartered next door to the two proposed apartment buildings they hope to block. I lived in between the ever-rising Barclays Center condos and the controversial Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project for over 2 years, so I get how annoying it is to be near construction, but that’s a bit suspect, especially for an organization focusing on a cause that traditionally includes housing as part of its mission. And if we’re going to develop anywhere, it should probably be in a dense, public-transit-adjacent part of the city. By blocking construction there, you really just push it outward, which increases commute times and with them, pollution.

Accessibility

But you don’t have to bother to legislate people away from your community if they have no way to get there. Wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods like Santa Monica and Beverley Hills, located on the western coastline of the city, simply pushed to prevent freeways from linking them to the more plebeian East Side. The freeways got built instead in poorer areas, where transportation developers came across less protest. Now, these same wealthy neighborhoods are trying to block construction of the Purple Line subway that would allow you to reach the beach with a single method of public transportation (currently, you have to drive or take a bus). According to Portland State University urban planning professor Sy Adler, “by keeping transit projects out, wealthy neighborhoods around the country have created de facto gated communities.” Laws are only as good as their enforcement, and your area is only as accessible as it is reachable.

The proposed Purple Line would bring the subway to the wealthy West Side. It is also the West Coast’s answer to New York’s Second Avenue Line. In talks since the 1980s, it finally broke ground just this year. “I’m determined we will have the last bit of this open before I die,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said at the ceremony, showing the drama and geologic timescale one doesn’t always expect from transportation projects. Current plans for this “Subway to the Sea” have it stopping 3 miles short of that goal.

White people in LA famously don’t take the bus, so when you block public transit from an area, we know who you’re blocking. But white people aren’t just avoiding the 10-mile-per-hour bus speeds, they simply live in sparser neighborhood where bus service doesn’t run or would drop them too far from their homes (“sparser,” of course, means, “nicer”– single family homes, lawns, long driveways.) It’s a Mobius strip of anti-transit development feeding anti-transit attitudes feeding anti-transit habits feeding anti-transit development.

Maybe this would all be okay if people you didn’t want to live near would just go live somewhere else, or magically disappear. But if you redline, out-price, and out-zone people, you don’t actually solve anything. You merely create a situation in which people build slums, crowd as many people as possible into homes, or simply leave entirely. As Woody Guthrie almost sang, this land is your backyard, this land is my backyard. Just because you got there first doesn’t mean you get to keep out people who don’t look like you, then expect them to travel far distances, without public transportation, to come clean your low density, single family, detached, sunny Californian house.

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Note: Basically everything I know about Los Angeles is from City of Quartz by Mike Davis, which should help explain my dual fascination/horror at the place. While looking for sources to corroborate its facts and ideas, I mostly found more people citing it. So any fact you don’t see linked to a source, you can assume is credited to Mike Davis.

Another note: The Wikipedia article on NIMBY is really fun because it includes all sorts of acronym alternatives to NIMBY, like BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything/Anyone), SOBBY (Some Other Bugger’s Back Yard), NIABY (Not In Anyone’s Backyard [a kinder, more Kantian NIMBY]), and the satire of the environmental justice movement-coined PIBBY (Place In Blacks’ Back Yard).