Single-Family Homes: A Smart Growth Strategy

Peter Calthorpe's Highlands Garden Village: Smart Growth Based on Single Family Homes
Peter Calthorpe’s Highlands Garden Village: Smart Growth Based on Single Family Homes

Sunday’s New York Times features a story by Shaila Dewan asking, “Is Suburban Sprawl on the Way Back?”  Answer: not really, although highly compact urban development is hardly going to dominate, either.  The best quote from the whole piece comes from Smart Growth America President Geoff Anderson, who correctly observed,

The market isn’t all for smart growth, nor is it all for sprawl, The thing for the last 50, 60 years has been that we’ve done nothing but sprawl.

Very true.  And keep it in mind: despite the hysterics emanating from the fever swamps of the right, smart growth is a deregulatory, pro-market strategy.  Smart growth advocates believe that if consumers actually get what they want, we will have a much smarter growth pattern than we have seen since the Second World War.

But Dewan does play into the Dumb Growth advocates’ ideology by noting that although smart growth and compact development seems to be on the rise,

Single-family homes still define the American dream and prospective home buyers overwhelmingly prefer them.

Assuming that this is true, this hardly undermines a smart growth strategy and might in fact enhance it.  Going on 20 years now, urban planners and smart growth advocates have been busily building single-family homes.  They are simply a different single-family home footprint than we are used to.

Consider the massive front lawn characteristic of traditional suburban sprawl.  The front lawn is typically the most wasted space in a house — few families really use it — and in any event, reflects a demographic pattern more characteristic of the Eisenhower years than the present.  That pattern was the one-earner family: husband works, wife stays home with the kids, presumably supervising them on the front lawn.  Now, families look very different, and even if they are traditional two-parent families, both parents are working, with the kids in child care.

You can actually get pretty high density in a single-family neighborhood if you get rid of the front lawns.  And if you combine that with shared backyards, such as featured in the Backyardigans cartoon series for children, you can get even more density while losing very little usable space.  An example of this is Highlands Garden Village, as designed by new urbanist Peter Calthorpe: lots of single family houses, with lots of open space, but in a more compact pattern.  It’s smart growth and single family houses and there is no contradiction there.

Planners have known this for years.  In a celebrated 1996-7 debate between Reid Ewing and Peter Gordon in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Ewing pointed out that Gordon’s entire critique of smart growth, viz. that people like single-family homes, rests upon an assumption that is demonstrably false, viz. that smart growth rejects the single family home.  It doesn’t, Ewing pointed out: it simply advocates 1) for the market to guide choices (with appropriate pricing for environmental degradation and other damage caused by sprawl); and 2) for single-family homes to reflect the far more compact character that would come from accurate pricing.

This may be what eventually develops, as Dewan points out: a town centers concept where people can live close to their individual town center but in a single-family house.  This is a smart growth strategy, and also will reduce VMT: the majority of VMT are for in-town trips, not commutes, so bringing houses closer to town centers would have a positive climate impact.

Single family homes are a smart growth strategy as long they are planned and developed, well, smartly.  One can’t help but wonder if smart growth critics ignore this because they don’t understand it, or because they do.

On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership-specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.



New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice: A Structural Explanation

Tomorrow, Los Angeles voters go to the polls to elect a new Mayor.  (At least a few of them, anyway: current estimates predict onyl 25% turnout, about which more later).  In September, New Yorkers will do the same.  And depending upon the way things turn out, political and cultural reporters could have a field day.

If Christine Quinn and Wendy Greuel win in their respective cities, we will have female mayors of both cities for the first time.  And the press will have a lot of fun with it, because the two women seem to epitomize their cities’ personalities.  Quinn is famously nasty and vicious, character traits she is now trying to ameliorate at least publicly.  Much less famously, but just as truly, Greuel is quite nice: I’ve known her for nearly 20 years, and you can’t deny that she is personally a very nice person.

And if you think about it, that is true more broadly.  If Anthony Weiner runs for NYC mayor, we’ll get another jerk trying to get to Gracie Mansion.  Greuel’s rival, Eric Garcetti, whom I’ve also known for a long time, is likewise very friendly and nice.  Even the campaign by realistic standards has been pretty tame.

If you think about New York mayors, they are hardly aiming for Mr. Congeniality: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and even Michael Bloomberg aren’t necessarily the sort of person you’d want to hang out with.  But on the left coast, Tom Bradley almost epitomized mellow moderation; Antonio Villaraigosa is probably too personally charming for his own good; Jim Hahn might not have been the sharpest pencil in the cup but is a genuiunely nice guy; even Richard Riordan is pretty friendly and cordial.  David Dinkins, of course, was notably polite and courtly — and seemed out of his element because of it.

Why is this?  Is it just New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice?  Maybe, but perhaps this is something bigger going on here.

New York mayors wield vast power.  They control huge departments, manage an enormous budget, and dominate the city politically.  New York City comprises five different county governments and thus contains the counties’ power.  The New York mayor’s problem is keeping control over the whole thing, not to mention corralling a notoriously-fractious urban political party (and sometimes more than that if they have the Liberal or Conservative endorsement).  The Mayor also plays a major role in appointing the Board of Education.  Hizzoner has to knock heads to get anything done.

In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the Mayor is relatively weak.  Los Angeles city government is dominated by civil service personnel, whom the Mayor can’t just order around.  Before 1992, this was even the case with the Police Department: I distinctly remember my east coast friends saying to me, “If Tom Bradley hates Daryl Gates so much, why doesn’t he just fire him?”  Answer: he couldn’t.  And he still can’t: the police chief has a five-year term.  Even with other departments, the Mayor can’t appoint dozens and dozens of officials: instead, he appoints usually five-member volunteer commissioners, who, because they are volunteers, are usually dominated by professional civil service staff.  That is not a recipe for strong executive leadership.

The Los Angeles mayor has no control over the school district or the Board of Education.  The Los Angeles City Council only has 15 members, making each councilmember the monarch of his or her district; in New York, there are so many councilmembers that they comparatively little power, although not negligible.  The City of Los Angeles has no control over the vastly bigger County of Los Angeles.  The Mayor of New York can call up the Brooklyn borough President to berate and threaten him: in Los Angeles, the only way the City get the County to what it wants is through a lawsuit.

Or persuasion.  The Mayor of Los Angeles has to persuade all these other constituencies to do what he or she wants: they can’t bully or force them.  Los Angeles elections are nonpartisan, and so the Mayor doesn’t even have a political organization to use.  The only way a Los Angeles Mayor will be effective will be through the patient and often-maddening business of assembling political coalitions, community groups, public sector unions, developers, etc.  A screamer in Los Angeles City Hall is someone who literally has no chance of success.

No wonder, then, that voters seem so uninterested: it’s not abundantly clear what precisely the Mayor is supposed to do, a condition that the early 20th century Progressives who framed the Los Angeles charter wanted.

The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who died last week at the age of 88, made a similar point about the personalities of Presidents and Prime Ministers.  A President has to try to use the power of the bully pulpit and his dominance over the executive branch to get things done.  A Prime Minister, on the other hand, has to use persuasion to maintain his party coalition — if he doesn’t, he’ll get kicked out by his own caucus.  I think that that works here.

Whether Garcetti or Greuel wins tomorrow, the next Los Angeles mayor will be a pretty nice person.  Whether Quinn or Weiner or someone else wins in New York, the next New York mayor will probably be something of a jerk.  But the political structure will have as much to do with this as any tired cultural stereotypes.


A city is the creature of its state; the states made the national government, but they were not made by their counties and cities. There is no constitutional right to elect a mayor or a city council: you get to do that if your state government thinks you should.   Michigan’s  shiny 2010 Republican state government is playing out several interesting experiments of which one is direct administration of black-majority cities by prefects. These worthies are appointed by the governor with complete powers to tax, hire, fire, collect the garbage…or not collect it, and the latest of these prefectures is in Detroit, where the 700,000 people who haven’t yet figured out how to leave are knocking around in 143 square miles (San Francisco, with about as many people, is a third this size) of abandoned buildings - including some heartbreaking decaying vacant treasures like the railroad station - empty lots, and misery: 16% unemployment and the worst violent crime incidence in any big US city. Meanwhile, the folks who made it into (or started out in) the surrounding nice leafy-green suburbs cluck about mismanagement and expect the city to keep up a symphony orchestra, two pro sports teams, an art museum, a school system, and all the other stuff you expect in a prosperous industrial city with three times as many people.

So what is this prefect expected to do, and what good will it do the Republicans who put him there?  The problem in Detroit isn’t that the city government is going broke: that’s just a symptom. The problem is that the remaining population is broke and can’t afford a functioning government.  There’s nothing to tax, neither wealth nor property, if the prefect can’t reach across Eight Mile or into Grosse Pointe (and you bet he isn’t going to be allowed to do that). I bet there isn’t even anything left worth looting; if you can’t divert tax money into your pocket because there isn’t any, what’s the angle? The city is trying some desperation tactics like casino hotels and tourism, which might gin up some jobs, but those are mostly low-pay jobs making beds and serving food. Detroit is 80% black; one might speculate that white people in Michigan are just trying to do something nice for all those black folks who only need Republican sound business management principles in their government to prosper; right.  Maybe Detroit will have some sort of renaissance after all, but I cannot imagine what economic engine will drive it. Its new prefect will have a few years applying austerity and service cuts and will discover that the medicine doesn’t go anywhere, as Frank Loesser said, near where the trouble is.  Why Republicans want to hang Detroit’s continued decline around their own necks in this way is a mystery.

The big question raised by this episode of decline and misery is bigger than Detroit and bigger than the rust belt:  what is the right policy for regions that have lost their economic reason to be populated? An endless flow of welfare in one form or another can keep people in them, but that can’t be the right answer: people deserve the chance to create value. One or another such place can reinvent itself as a museum or a high-tech center of some sort, or luck out with an oil boom, but not all of them, or even most: former governor Granholm is proud of the wind power plant she saved one town with, but that’s not going to generalize.  The Northern Great Plains, where we have learned to grow food without people, are depopulating somewhat gracefully, but of course the bus ticket policy loses the whole social capital of the community it drains, and in the case of a city, the infrastructure and physical capital (Detroit is the empty-house-demolition capital of the US).  We sort of know how to manage growth; we can cope adequately with stasis; but shrinkage and the source end of migration are deeply refractory problems.

Voluntary, as in “You’ve Been Volunteered”

Here’s a new wrinkle in the ever-popular saga “Taxation of the Tax Exempt”:  members of the Scranton City Council threaten to withhold zoning changes from owners of tax-exempt property unless they make “voluntary” PILOTS (Payments In Lieu Of Taxation).   I’m certainly open to the notion that non-charitable tax-exempt organizations should have to pay property taxes, even as I acknowledge that the definition of  “charitable” remains contested.

But let’s settle these issues in open political debate, with nonprofits able to make their case that they are truly charitable, and/or that their contribution to the public good entitles them to property tax exemption whether or not they’re charitable in some strict definition of the word.  Just for the sake of being reality-based, let’s not torture the concept of “voluntary” by suggesting that a payment extorted in return for rezoning is somehow a free-will contribution to the public fisc.

Cross-posted to

Accommodating Wheelchair Users as Rational Self-Interest

As I put ice on my swollen left elbow and swabbed the blood from my right leg, it occurred to me that “accommodations for the disabled” are often better thought of as accommodations for everyone.

After the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, my hospital lowered all the kerbs at crosswalks for people who use wheelchairs. Yes, it cost money and yes, it was a mess while they broke up the old kerbs and put in the little concrete ramps. But as someone who had often wheeled a cart with an overhead projector from my office to a classroom, I immediately loved it. So too did the workmen who rolled their chests full of lightbulbs, toilet paper and other supplies around the medical center. Parents pushing newborns in strollers also became big fans.

Unfortunately, some wheelchair-unfriendly public spaces remain with us, including many of the tube stations in the London Underground. Some have added lifts for people in wheelchairs, but many are essentially no go zones for the physically disabled. The lack of lifts doesn’t just affect wheelchair users. Every year thousands of people fall and are injured on the long metal escalators that carry them from deep underground to street level.

Lots of people who don’t use wheelchairs are at heightened risk on escalators. These include people who have vertigo, people who need a cane to walk, people toting heavy luggage, people who are intoxicated and young children. Fortunately for the little boy who toppled off the escalator step in front of me last week, I was able to dive and catch him, taking the impact on my elbow and knee as we crashed down the moving stairs together. Unfortunately for me, I was limping so badly when I staggered to the next level of the station that I could barely walk, and there was no lift in sight. Neither could the uninjured but shaken little boy switch to a lift, which would have been safer for him.

That it makes life easier for wheelchair users ought to be a sufficient rationale for making public spaces more accessible. But the benefits for the rest of population are non-negligible, making the case even stronger than what a purely altruistic analysis would suggest.

The rent is too damn high—unlike the price of Matt Yglesias’s new book

A nice little book leads us to ponder some large questions about improving American cities.

Like much of life, the academic job market is a Keynesian beauty contest—one in which the judges try to guess the contestant that other judges will find most attractive. When we academics receive a promotion, we often receive headhunter calls from rival universities. I received several such calls when I received my current professorship. One was from a school in DC. Another was a school in New York. The third was located in San Francisco. In all three cases, I took a quick glance at the various local real estate sections, pondered my current $1,000 monthly mortgage payment, and gasped at the high financial hurdles I would need to surmount in making such a move. Continue reading “The rent is too damn high—unlike the price of Matt Yglesias’s new book”

Bloggingheads on Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Chicago’s challenges

Glenn Loury and I cover Newt Gingrich’s janitorial views, Mitt Romney’s misconceptions on social insurance. We also had some serious talk about the challenges facing young people in Chicago. I feel genuinely blessed to have such conversations with an old friend and mentor.

Why the public should fund the arts, after all

(cross-post with

Had a fascinating conversation recently with Margy Waller, a special advisor to Cincinnati’s ArtsWave, which leads the nation in evidence-based approaches to advocating for arts funding.  Ms. Waller had reached out to correct my misunderstanding (and therefore misreporting) of ArtsWave’s efforts, noting that the argument is not that the public should fund the arts to promote economic recovery but that it should fund the arts to promote neighborhood vibrancy.  This nuance turns out to make all the difference.

Here’s the ArtsWave insight: people are ready enough to agree with the notion that the arts are good for the economy.  But if you probe deeper, and ask what top three things we should do to improve the economy, no one answers “subsidize the arts.”  So apparently the argument that the arts are an economic engine (true or false) is unpersuasive, which is what really matters.

But the ArtsWave research also uncovered the fact that if you ask people what would improve their neighborhood the most, the arts come up time and time again.  Why?  Because artists’ residences are known to herald an improvement in real-estate values; because arts audiences mean feet on the street and therefore greater public safety; because arts venues are known to spawn coffee shops and restaurants and other places of urban liveliness.

Therefore, the argument for public funding needs to be focused not on the art but on the public benefits of art-making.  This simultaneously ends the unwinnable argument about whether x or y is valid art or a useful expenditure of public funds and reminds people of what they believe anyway, that investment in arts-related infrastructure benefits everyone—not in some airy-fairy, soul-stirring, life-improving sense but in the grossest day-to-day experience of quality of life.

Thus an appeal to provide tax breaks to bring artists to a particular area would be framed not as a subsidy to these all-important art-making beings (read: overprivileged white people who ought to get jobs) but as a way to offset (maybe even reverse) the damage to property values wrought by foreclosures.  The subsidy is to the value of private property (something that can be monetized) rather than to the value of art (something that cannot).

As instrumental and cold-blooded as this approach may seem, Ms. Waller makes the powerful point that vibrancy is what people love about the arts—and that weaving the arts into the fabric of other social needs and activities enables people to appreciate the arts “not as consumers but as citizens.”

That last point is particularly powerful.  Asked what citizens should do to respond to 9/11, then-President Bush had nothing more to offer than, “Go shopping.”  Anything that enables us to respond to public concerns in a public spirit; anything that combats the notion that government is the problem and privatization the solution; anything that reminds us that we’re a republic if we can keep it; anything that illustrates we don’t have to buy something to value it—any of these is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

As a wise person once noted, the important thing is not to have BEEN right, but to BE right.  I’ve been wrong in my blanket condemnation of public funding for the arts, because I thought of it exclusively in the frame established by its opponents: as subsidies to artists to create what might or might not actually be valuable.  Once the framing shifts to “vibrancy,”* and to concrete benefits to the broader society, public arts support suddenly makes sense.  No one else may care, but what a relief to me!  I get to stop being the only left-wing theater critic in the country opposed to public funding for the arts.

I continue to think that the NEA itself is a lost cause and that energy spent defending it would be better spent squeezing support for the arts out of HUD, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and local housing authorities.  But that’s a matter of strategy.  As a matter of principle, I’m grateful to have discovered a valid way to defend taxpayer support to something that matters so much to me.


*Yes, “vibrancy” can be a euphemism for “gentrification,” or at least its prodroma.  But if we plan for vibrancy (instead of simply hoping that lightening strikes in this ‘hood or that), we can also plan to prevent displacement.  And without displacement, “gentrification” is just another word for “safe streets, amenities and public services”—for everyone, rich or poor.

Illinois and the amazing disappearing property tax exemption

When Harold Pollack wrote about the recent Illinois Department of Revenue decision to withdraw property tax exemptions from three hospitals, he naturally focused on the impact of the decision on health care.  But those of us who work in other areas of the nonprofit sector are worried by the decision as well-or, if we aren’t, we ought to be.

Though the Revenue Department’s ruling and the Supreme Court decision on which it was based both concern hospitals, there are now working their way through the Illinois court system a pair of cases challenging the property tax exemptions of luxury retirement communities.  The plaintiffs are taxing districts which would otherwise be collecting big bucks from the communities, one of which is located on prime Chicago Gold Coast real estate-just around the corner, as it happens, from Northwestern’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which will now (barring court intervention) have to pay property taxes on its equally valuable swath of land.  Lower courts have already ruled both retirement facilities unworthy of property tax exemption, and lawyers involved in both cases expect victory in the face of appeal based on the precedent of the hospital cases.

So what’s really going on here?  Certainly withdrawing tax exemptions from wealthy organizations sitting on expensive land makes sense from the standpoint of municipal budgets, which here as elsewhere are stretched beyond breaking.  So the Illinois Department of Revenue is following Willie Sutton’s [apocryphal] advice to go where the money is.

But what the Illinois Supreme Court has now said is that there are only three categories of tax-exempt real property under the Illinois Constitution: schools, churches and “charities.”  Further, the Court said, a “charity” is not simply any nonprofit organization, or even any nonprofit organization entitled to 501(c)(3) status and tax-deductible donations under the Internal Revenue Code.  A “charity” for Illinois property tax purposes is an agency that gives things away.  How many things?  Worth how much?  This remains unclear: perhaps a “charity,” like “pornography,” is simply something a court knows when it sees it.

And if the question is, “Are you a charity?” will the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago be able to pass muster?  Will the Museum of Contemporary Art?  Will the Lookingglass Theater?  All three are located within spitting distance of the now-taxable hospital and retirement home.  So they’re likely targets for the next round of investigations.  What do they give away?  Worth how much?

(Just to confuse things even further: the Illinois constitutional standard is that only church property used for religious purposes is exempt; supplementary holdings are not.  I’m not aware of a parallel ruling about schools, but would expect the same standard to apply.  So if a charity owns property not used for charitable purposes-like, oh, vacant property the YMCA may someday use as a camp-will that be taxable?  If so, then it’s not even enough to be a charity-you have to be doing charity.)

As a consultant to charities, I’m supposed to be jumping up and down and screaming about this terrible precedent; but actually I’m not.  It’s long past time for us to ask the question whether arts organizations are genuinely charities.  (I’d ask the same question about well-endowed educational institutions and churches, but the Illinois Constitution prevents me from getting any reward for doing so.)  My only concern is how unaware nonprofit executives and Board members seem to be of the implications of these decisions.  Asked about her agency’s risk of having its property taxed, one executive dismissed the issue: “We’re a nonprofit-everything we do is charitable.”

Well, no.

This argument is playing out around the country.  What’s unique about Illinois is that the discussion is taking place in the courts rather than the legislature or the city council.  This interferes with any effort by nonprofits to rouse public opinion-or even themselves-in defense of their privileges.  Instead, the property tax exemption is going the way of the Cheshire Cat, bit by bit until there’s nothing left but the smile.

Let the Illinois nonprofit beware.