Market Urbanism Urbanism for Capitalists | Capitalism for Urbanists Tue, 25 Aug 2015 15:15:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Laying Reagan’s Ghost to Rest Tue, 25 Aug 2015 15:11:38 +0000 In a recent 48 Hills post, housing activist Peter Cohen aimed a couple rounds of return fire at SPUR’s Gabriel Metcalf. The post comes in response to Mr. Metcalf’s own article critiquing progressive housing policy. Mr. Cohen bounces around a bit, but he does repeat some frequently used talking points worth addressing.

Trickle-down economics

Mr. Cohen calls the argument for market-rate construction ‘trickle down economics’.  Trickle down economics actually refers to certain macro theories popularized during the Reagan years. These models assumed a higher marginal propensity to save among wealthier individuals. And given this assumption, some economists concluded that reducing top marginal tax rates would result in higher savings. This would then mean higher levels of investment which would, in turn, have a positive effect on aggregate output. And from there we get the idea of a rising tide lifting all ships.

Note that none of that has anything to do with housing policy.

Labeling something ‘trickle down’ is a way to delegitimize certain policy proposals by associating them with Ronald Reagan. It’s somewhere between rhetorically dishonest and intellectually lazy. Though to be fair, it’s probably pretty effective in San Francisco.

The concept Mr. Cohen is trying to critique is actually called filtering.

In many instances, markets do not produce new housing at every income level. But they do produce housing across different income levels over time. Today’s luxury development is tomorrow’s middle income housing. The catch, however, is that supply has to continually expand. If not, prices for even dilapidated housing can go through the roof. For a more thorough explanation, see SFBARF’s agent based housing model.


San Francisco, where only Reganites want to build more housing

If you build it, they’ll just come

But even accurately defined, Mr. Cohen still objects to the concept of filtering. He cites an article by urban planning authority William Fulton to make his point. He quotes Fulton:

The folks taking the cool jobs may not be uber-rich, but they have tons more money than everybody else, and so they drive prices out of sight. Build more market-rate housing, and you’ll just accelerate the cycle – more smart kids will show up wanting to work for tech start-ups, and that means you’ll have more tech start-ups, and pretty soon demand will rise faster than supply – in large part because you increased the supply. To a local community activist, it feels like a no-win.

Mr. Cohen–via Mr. Fulton–is trying to argue that supply will create its own demand. This misunderstands the nature of the regional economy.

It’s not far fetched the think that there are plenty of people ready to move to San Francisco. And that if prices were lower and housing more available, they would. But that doesn’t explain why so many want to come here in the first place. That has to do with tech and the knowledge economy. New workers, entrepreneurs, and investors all come here because of all the workers, entrepreneurs, and investors that are already here. And thanks to the logic of industry clusters, it’s a self reinforcing cycle unlikely to change anytime soon. For tech worldwide, there’s the Bay Area and everywhere else. For tech already in the Bay, there’s the Peninsula/San Francisco and everywhere else. Even if you don’t build it, they’ll still have every reason to come. And despite some of the highest housing prices in the country, they continue to do so. 

Setting the record straight

Increasing supply will put downward pressure on prices. But it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

First, increasing supply may never actually lower prices. Prices will be lower than what they’d otherwise have been. That, however, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be lower in real terms.

Second, this process takes a long time. There’s lots of high end housing that didn’t get built over the last several decades. Consequently, the pipeline of aging high-quality housing isn’t there to provide supply at lower price points. This is a housing shortage decades in the making. Under the most supply friendly of conditions it’ll take decades more to bring prices back in line with national averages.

And third, there is no San Francisco housing shortage. San Francisco is only one part of the larger Bay Area housing market. The shortage is region wide. When increasing supply is talked about as a way to combat rising prices, that’s referring to the housing market in its–regional–entirety. Specific neighborhoods or even cities might still only get more expensive. Even in a world where massive development tempers prices across the entire Bay.

And here’s the real heart of the disagreement. Market-rate development won’t privilege incumbents. It won’t reserve specific neighborhoods for specific income levels. And it won’t guarantee that specific communities remain the majority residents in any specific areas. And for some, these are the challenges that we’re facing, not high housing prices per se. And that’s fine. But let’s stop talking past each other and taking potshots at straw men. And lets start being clear about what we think the actual problem is and what our policy goals should be.

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Travel Update: I’m Going To Puerto Rico Sat, 08 Aug 2015 05:59:37 +0000 Miami, FL

1. My three Forbes articles this week are about a proposed 1,200-foot skyscraper for Brooklyn; about the murder spike that has inflicted post-riot Baltimore; and about a new Houston-based think tank founded by Joel Kotkin called the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

2. But the real fun begins next week, when I conclude my Miami stay with a 4-day trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s ironic that while in Miami, there were two Caribbean territories just a short flight away that were in the center of the news, and that I will get to see during their major national transition periods.

One of them, of course, was Cuba, which recently normalized its relations with the United States, highlighted by the reopening of the U.S. embassy. This doesn’t mean that Cuba’s government should now be viewed as reasonable—far from it— but the normalization, if conducted properly, should benefit the people themselves. Opening up trade and travel between nations has always been a path to economic liberalization, which, in hand, enriches citizens and diminishes dictators’ power. Hopefully this will happen in Cuba, with the extreme poverty that I witnessed (documented here and here) reaching its peak before globalization kicks in–although many in South Florida remain skeptical…

The story in Puerto Rico, meanwhile, isn’t so positive. Ever since President Alejandro Garcia Padilla announced in June that the island’s $72 billion debt was unpayable, bond prices tumbled and there were talks of default. On Monday this finally happened, when it could pay only $628,000 of a $58 million bill. The default resulted from decades of poor management both internally, and from Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth, which ties it to certain backwards federal policies. First for the internal struggles:

  • The Wall Street Journal blamed it on “excessive borrowing, anti-growth policies…and the refusal of local politicians to address the failure of entitlement state politics,” highlighted by three pension funds that account for nearly half of the debt.
  • Another factor is the culture of corruption—which trails only New Jersey—including by the police.
  • Puerto Rico’s tax policies, while sometimes more lenient, still charge similar rates as the U.S. mainland, without creating equal service value. This is partly the federal government’s fault—in 2006, it ended the island’s special tax breaks, which caused many corporations to leave. Puerto Rico has been in recession ever since.
  • This decline, marked by 13.7% unemployment, has caused people to rapidly leave, furthering the economic troubles.

Among the problems imposed upon Puerto Rico by our federal government include:

  • The federal minimum wage law, which is impractical, says the Washington Post, given the island’s far lower labor productivity and economic development levels.
  • The Jones Act, which “mandates that ships must be built, owned, registered, and crewed by American citizens or permanent residents in order to ship goods between U.S. ports.” According to the Manhattan Institute, this raises prices throughout America, but especially Puerto Rico, given its reliance on shipping.
  • Federal entitlements have provided a disincentive to work, offering $600 more monthly than a minimum-wage job for a household of three.

What none of these articles provide, though, is the human face behind the government failures—which is why I’m visiting. I want to see how Puerto Ricans themselves have been effected by a decade of recession and ultimate default. What is their standard of living? What are the streets like during the daytime when only 40% of the labor force works? And what do the people themselves think of it all? Thus my San Juan trip, like the Havana one, will be a study of the working-class barrios. Stay tuned!


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White House Issues Report On Occupational Licensing Barriers Sat, 01 Aug 2015 00:10:49 +0000 1. My two Forbes articles this week covered Chicago, including how the Illinois courts are hindering the city from pension reform; and how a new Taco Bell in Wicker Park will cater to young urban barhoppers.

2. This week, the White House Council of Economic Advisors published a report about the rise of occupational licensing in the U.S. It was a refreshing look by those in power at a lightly-covered issue that harms millions of people. The 77-page paper takes a cursory state-by-state view at the measures required to enter various professions. It found that nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce now requires a license to do their jobs, a five-fold increase since 1950, and “about two-thirds of this change stems from an increase in the number of professions that require a license.” Meanwhile, the requirements for obtaining licenses have increased in time and costs, with many states requiring years of experience to enter rudimentary professions like landscaping and hair-styling.

This is thought to ensure quality and safety. But the report found that it is often excessive, harming both entrepreneurs and consumers. Occupational licenses harm entrepreneurs by creating large upfront costs to start even modest businesses, which discourages many from doing so (or pushes their operations under the table, a phenomenon I documented last year for the Wall Street Journal). Along with disproportionately impacting the poor, licensing requirements in some states exclude those who have been convicted of any crime, or those who have defaulted on student loans. Occupational licensing also harms immigrants, who are generally more entrepreneurial than natives.

Immigrants must often complete duplicative and costly requirements in order to acquire a U.S. license in their chosen career. In many cases, the training or experience that these immigrants acquired overseas does not count toward fulfilling the relevant licensing requirements. For example, in Illinois, if an engineer earns a degree from most universities abroad, she must submit proof that she worked under a U.S. engineer for four years; other work experience abroad will not suffice.

And this hurts consumers by decreasing competition and raising prices.

The report was part of President Obama’s initiative to review and weed-out counterproductive federal regulations. But because occupational licensing is a state and local thing, the feds can only address it through education efforts, and by offering grant money to reform-minded states. On Monday, when Obama unveils his budget, one anticipated item will be $15 million to study occupational licensing in the 50 states.

I first heard about the CEA report via Matt Yglesias, who called occupational licensing one of the nation’s “most underrated economic problems.” But the real credit for bringing attention to the issue goes to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian think tank that for years has covered occupational licensing’s growth. Here is their 2012 study that is even more comprehensive than the CEA’s (and that probably didn’t cost $15 million to produce), and a summarizing WSJ editorial by the authors.

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Who Are America’s Progressive Developers? Sat, 25 Jul 2015 00:57:47 +0000 Miami, FL

1. I delved into finance this week for Forbes, writing articles about how Chicago’s junk-bond rating is already causing higher borrowing costs; and about how Dodd-Frank, 5 years after passage, is killing community banks.

2. Starting in a few weeks, and continuing for as long as I’m on the road, I will occasionally add to a new Market Urbanism series called “America’s Progressive Developers.” This will profile different developers who have either built, or are planning to build, interesting projects that enliven their city. The articles will include interviews, renderings, photos and perhaps video tours of each project, so that MU readers can get an inside look at the urban construction process.

One purpose of this series is to help change the negative perception towards developers. As readers know, anti-development sentiment within U.S. cities has for decades created numerous problems, including high housing prices, poor job growth, and environmental harm. These are problems that even liberal urban activists, who have driven the sentiment, are starting to recognize. For example, Gabriel Metcalf—president of the San Francisco-based planning think tank SPUR—wrote a CityLab essay yesterday about how NIMBYism has pushed out the city’s poor. But this does not mean that attitudes towards developers themselves have changed. Many are still seen as greedy and imposing, and their buildings as monuments to crass consumerism, by the very residents who benefit from proximity to such buildings.

It was not always this way; many large-scale developers were once seen as visionary city builders. For example, Coral Gables, the Miami suburb where I’ve stayed, is a master-planned community that was built in the 1920s by real estate mogul George Merrick. Its downtown became a tasteful mixed-use neighborhood that turned him into a local celebrity, and now one outside area has been named after him. Other developers during this period in America were lauded for building advanced skyscrapers, mansions, shopping centers and civic spaces. Many developers still build such things, but are nonetheless vilified because of the altered public sentiment, which is often rooted in class and racial conflict. This is something that I would like to change, by documenting how America’s developers have helped cities.

So what do I mean by developers who are “progressive”? This is a word that has become loaded, but I will use it to describe those who are forward-thinking, innovative, and whose work demonstrates an appreciation for cities. In this respect, almost anyone who develops in a city is somewhat progressive, by creating jobs and improving lots. But my column aims to profile those who are taking the extra step. This could include developers whose structures are architecturally interesting, integrate well with public space, emphasize historic preservation, present a new consumer option, or have advanced environmental technology. I could also cover projects that have had an outsized impact in revitalizing neighborhoods, even including large corporate ones. And I am not above profiling suburban developers, if they are doing something interesting. All of these development types can play important roles in any metro area.

Along with hopefully changing the perception about developers, I am also doing this series simply because I like meeting city builders. There have been countless times when, like other urbanists, I have walked through a city, seen an interesting project, and wondered—“how did this get here?” I aim to answer this by having the developers behind such projects explain how they did market research, attained financing, overcame political hurdles, and ultimately got something built.

This series will be interconnected with my cross-country trip, so I’ll seek out these progressive developers in every place I visit. If you are following my travels, and know of someone I should meet, drop me a line!

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Philadelphia Has A Poor Land Use Record–Why Expand It? Sun, 19 Jul 2015 19:45:50 +0000 1. My Forbes article this week is about Mamey, a delicious tropical fruit that is popular in Miami but unknown around the U.S.

2. This week I requested interviews with the executives of Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority and its Housing Authority—Brian Abernathy and Kelvin Jeremiah. I said that I was writing an article about both agencies’ recent eminent domain zeal. In case you’re unfamiliar, I’m referencing the PHA’s mass overhaul of the Sharswood neighborhood, and the PRA’s multiple recent attempted takings, all plans that have been documented on this site (here and here). Neither agency has responded—which means I’ll try again Monday. But in preparation, I’ve been reading literature about the land management history of Philadelphia’s government. Here are links:

a. It would be hard to understand Philly’s history without knowing of Edmund Bacon, the city’s chief planner for two decades. He was described by architectural critic Paul Goldberger as a more tasteful Robert Moses, mixing “the bulldoze-and-rebuild philosophy of urban renewal with the tentative beginnings of the historic preservation movement.” But in these articles, you’ll notice that he followed many of the past and present follies of the planning profession–by advocating for height limits; out-of-date transportation modes; and large, ugly, white elephant projects. Most telling were his attempts to lure the World’s Fair, a decade after it had proven disastrous in New York City.

b. The paper “Urban Politics and the Vision of a Modern City: Philadelphia and Lancaster after World War II,” gives a more detailed look at Bacon’s vision. He had grown disturbed by the white middle-class exodus from Philly, and wanted pet projects that would draw them back, in defiance of the city’s fiscally-conservative Republican establishment. This vision included saving historic Center City neighborhoods, while severely altering the surrounding black ones:

Rehousing the thousands of families uprooted by renewal—many of them poor African Americans—posed a problem for Philadelphia’s redevelopment authority, as did the white, often violent opposition to any effort by the city to relocate uprooted black families into small public-housing complexes secreted amid white neighborhoods…But, in the glow of the 1950s modernist vision, Philadelphia’s progrowth business, civic, and planning coalition hoped that…high- and low-rise public housing, ideally scattered amid rehabilitating white neighborhoods, would soften the social impact of downtown rebuilding. Alas, as the North Philadelphia riots of August 1964 attested, this did not happen.

Both the PRA and the PHA, founded before Bacon, were instrumental in executing his plans.

c. Here’s a telling of that same history on the PRA website–without, of course, the tales of displacement.

d. Several decades later, the PHA housing where many were steered was found by HUD to be substandard.

e. Such findings–along with extreme corruption and mismanagement–have inspired HUD on two occasions to temporarily take over the PHA: in 1992 and 2011.

f. Before Jeremiah became the PHA executive, the two previous ones had been forced to leave because of improper sexual relations with staffers (Carl Greene and Michael Kelly).

g. The PHA has a habit of building affordable units for well over $300k per head, suggesting that an enormous level of waste is entering the construction process.

h. In 2006, an official with the Penn’s Landing Corporation—working in partnership with the PRA—was sentenced to 30 months in prison for receiving kickbacks during the bidding process for a proposed waterfront project.

i. Another PRA/PHA policy has been to seize abandoned, tax delinquent properties and then auction them off. But because they are slow bureaucracies, they have failed to quickly transfer these properties back onto the private market, while leaving them under-maintained.

j. Perhaps one of the stronger ideas to emerge from this dysfunction was the Philadelphia Land Bank. This was approved in 2014 to consolidate Philly’s 30,000 vacant lots–8,000 of which are government-owned (including by the PRA and PHA)–into a single database. This will mean that developers looking to buy several lots on the same block won’t have to negotiate with multiple agencies, like they do now. Will the Land Bank streamline things, or just become another archaic Philadelphia system? Here’s an article that suggests the latter.


If there is a common thread behind Philadelphia’s land use approach–from Bacon to today–it is that when faced with capital flight, the answer has been for government agencies to control property instead. This has encouraged policies like mass eminent domain, subsidization of large public-private projects, widespread public housing construction, and seizure of tax delinquent lots. Yet this has hardly produced better outcomes, as the agencies have been mired in waste, bureaucracy, corruption, abuse and mismanagement. It should be noted that in the half-century since Philly expanded its land use footprint, the city has further declined, enjoying a slight population increase only last decade, for the first time since 1950.

These are points that I will bring up to Abernathy and Jeremiah when discussing their agencies’ recent takings. Of my two main questions, the first will be logistical—given that Philadelphia owns 8,000 abandoned lots, why does it need to seize already-functioning private ones? My second will be more general—if Philadelphia has such a porous land use record, what justifies the expanded role now? I’ll look forward to hearing the officials’ answers…assuming they agree to speak.


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The history of progressive housing policy Tue, 14 Jul 2015 16:03:43 +0000 Chicago's Cabrini Green via

Chicago’s Cabrini Green via

Maya Dukmasova recently published at Slate an interesting piece about the potential for current trends in affordable housing policy to tear apart the social capital of low-income people. She makes the Ostromian point that policymakers’ lack of understanding of the informal institutions that govern communities makes it likely that government housing policies are likely to have unintended consequences.

While Dukmasova aptly characterizes some of the problems with American anti-poverty programs to date, she gets some key history wrong. In particular, she writes:

Part of the liberal establishment’s failure to address this problem stems from its inability to embrace truly progressive understandings of poverty. Those advocating for solutions to poverty rarely speak about the way our economy and social infrastructures entrench it. Rather, much of liberals’ efforts have been crippled by unexamined and unchallenged beliefs that the spaces where poor people of color live are morally compromised, beliefs summed up by one well-intentioned but ultimately damaging term: concentrated poverty.

In fact, the programs that she criticizes directly grew out of progressive scholarship and politics. Nineteenth century progressives set their sights on demolishing tenements occupied by low-income, immigrant populations with the goal of relocating residents to suburban homes deemed healthier and better for the morals of their inhabitants. Jacob Riis’ influential work in How the Other Half Lives fueled a progressive movement to eradicate tenement housing, with activists motivated both by altruism toward the poor and by a fear of disease and cultural changes that immigrant-dominated neighborhoods brought. Riis became one of the first reformers demanding that “light and air” be a key consideration in new construction. While he used this phrase to campaign against unventilated tenements that actually did create unhealthy indoor conditions indoors, it ultimately provided the policy rationale for the the New York 1916 Zoning Resolution that would limit building height and massing to protect outdoor light and air, as if shade is a health concern. This ultimately has made the city unnecessarily expensive for the poor.

Eventually, the progressive vision of eliminating any housing deemed substandard by intellectual elites provided the ideological support for infamous slum clearance efforts in cities like New York, Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago. Slum clearance, funded with President Truman’s federal Title 1 dollars, displaced hundreds of thousands of low-income, largely minority Americans. While Truman’s rhetoric surrounding the Housing Act of 1949 framed it as a policy tool to increase the housing supply to serve low-income people, its funds were used to destroy more housing than they built. Title 1 became a slush fund that allowed local policymakers to eliminate the housing that offended them without concern for the consequences for the low-income people who were the stated beneficiaries of the program.

Some of the most notorious high-rise public housing projects, such as St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe and Los Angeles’ Nickerson Gardens, were constructed to house people of modest means, but who could afford higher rents than the residents of the tenements they replaced. This urban renewal resulted in displacing black residents to make way for the white residents who policymakers hoped would occupy central real estate. Only after the original tenants fled public housing due to the social problems caused by its poor design did it become inhabited by extremely-low-income, largely black residents.

As Robert Caro details in The Power Brokerone devastating consequence of the old-style progressive slum clearance in New York was the destruction of tight-knit communities in neighborhoods including the Bronx’s East TremontManhattanville, and Sunset Park. Land grabs that forced residents of these neighborhoods out of their homes meant that they not only to find new housing as the city was bulldozing a large portion of its market-rate affordable units, but also scattered the community, removing residents from their social network.

While damaging the social ties of low-income communities was perhaps an unintended consequence of past housing policies, it’s become an explicit goal of today’s preferred policies that seek to achieve the “correct” mix of income diversification. The most recent trends in affordable housing are focused on inclusionary zoning, mixed-income developments, and housing vouchers that come with the requirement that low-income people move into higher-income neighborhoods. While these policies are no doubt crafted with the best of intentions, Dukmasova points out that despite the good intentions of a century’s worth of progressive reformers, American housing policy has failed to help the country’s least-advantaged citizens:

And yet, despite this federally funded bounty, the black ghetto persisted. In fact, life there got worse as the 20th century drew to a close. In 1987, sociologist William Julius Wilson published The Truly Disadvantaged, a seminal study in which he coined the term concentrated poverty to describe poor urban neighborhoods.

“Concentrated poverty”—which Wilson described as wreaking havoc among black Americans in the same ways as Moynihan’s “tangles of pathology”—quickly caught on with the liberal establishment, becoming the focus of poverty studies and policy initiatives in recent years.

Her policy prescription to improve living standards through a “truly progressive understanding of poverty” that respects the institutions that underlie social order in low-income communities fails to acknowledge that housing policy to date has been led by progressives under the ideas that government can improve social organization over what voluntary civil society achieves. Hopefully today’s progressive housing policies of encouraging lower-income people to purchase homes, housing vouchers that can only be used in middle-income neighborhoods, and inclusionary zoning will be less detrimental than slum clearance. However, as Dukmasova points out herself, these latest policies all seek to break up current low-income neighborhoods, thereby reducing the strength of residents’ support systems and potentially making life more difficult for beneficiaries.

The long, failed history of housing policies designed to engineer the lives of low-income provide ample reason to be skeptical of new policies designed to break up concentrated poverty, as Dukmasova demonstrates. Unconditional cash transfers provide an alternative. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget is nearly $50 billion per year. Devoting some portion of these resources to cash transfers that low-income households could spend either on improving their housing or on any other goods that would improve their lives provides an opportunity to break with the failed, paternalistic policies of the past. Unlike slum clearance, public housing, or housing vouchers that require recipients to move to a new neighborhood, cash transfers do not disrespect the autonomy and ability of people of all income levels to make decisions that benefit their own interest.

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Philadelphia’s Eminent Domain Addiction Sat, 11 Jul 2015 03:40:51 +0000 1. My Forbes article this week draws parallels between the world’s three most notable recent cases of economic collapse–Detroit, Greece, and Puerto Rico.

2. The subject of eminent domain in Philly has been hot recently on this blog, with both Emily and I discussing plans by the city’s housing authority to seize 1,330 properties for a redevelopment plan in the blighted Sharswood neighborhood. We both–along with reader Adam Lang–noted the irony of a government authority wanting to expand its footprint in a neighborhood that it had already destroyed with public housing and property neglect. Yet during research, I found out that the Sharswood plan was just the start of Philadelphia’s eminent domain policies. There have, in fact, been several other recent takings by the city, and it’s possible that I don’t even know of them all. If any of you who are familiar with local politics can add to this below list, please inform me in the comments section:

a. in December of 2012–just four days before the Pennsylvania state legislatures’ legal protections against eminent domain abuse would go into effect–the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority tried to seize an artist’s studio in the struggling Mantua neighborhood. The city ultimately lost, but not before dragging owner James Dupree through two years of litigation. The rationale was to build a grocery store.

b. in the gentrifying Kensington neighborhood, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority seized 35 properties–including several from one owner–to build affordable housing. The project has broken ground, and was overseen by the Arab-American Community Development Corporation, a bureaucracy whose overt racial pandering appears remarkable even for a left-wing U.S. city.

c. in Point Breeze, a developing neighborhood just south of Center City, 17 private lots were condemned to build affordable housing, some of which were already slated for private development.

d. and then there’s the Sharswood plan, which far exceeds any of these in scope

One shared trait of these neighborhoods, as noted in the above links, was that they each had a litany of abandoned, government-owned property. This, in fact, is common throughout all of Philadelphia (as anyone who has visited knows). According to Grounded in Philly, a group that turns some of these lots into gardens, the city has over 40,000 abandoned lots, and owns over a quarter of these.

This means that there is plenty of room for new construction, without having to take private property. So why do Philadelphia’s agencies for housing and redevelopment continue doing this? Perhaps I’ll give the staffers for both a call this week, because I really am growing curious.

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It’s Time To Reform Jaywalking Laws Sat, 04 Jul 2015 03:38:53 +0000 1. I wrote three Forbes articles this week: about how black churches were burning across the South, perhaps in response to the Charleston shooting and Confederate flag takedown; about how new presidential candidate Chris Christie has handled his 5-year control of Atlantic City; and about a new app that aims to help people find bathrooms in New York City.

2. There are two layers in the ongoing debate about whether cities should cater to cars or pedestrians. The first concerns the design of roads themselves—should they be one-way, as to ease traffic flow, or two-way, as to slow it? Should they dedicate space for alternative, presumably less dangerous modes like bikes and transit, or be used mainly for private autos? Should they be entirely asphalt, to maximize road capacity, or have “calmers” like medians and parklets?

The other layer of the debate concerns the conduct of pedestrians–and central to this is jaywalking.

For decades, U.S. cities have taken a uniform approach to jaywalking. Most policies are rigid, allowing pedestrians to cross solely in designated crosswalks when given the walk sign. But because these laws contradict the way pedestrians actually move, they are routinely broken, with most people sneaking across when cars aren’t coming, and some taking this liberty anywhere along the street. In the worst cases, this has created tension between pedestrians and police, but mostly just ambiguity.

Some sustainability advocates have thus called for “legalizing jaywalking.” Here are the different arguments they’ve made.

a.   One is the historical argument. In January, Vox published an extensive history of jaywalking laws in the U.S. Author Joseph Stromberg explained that as recently as the 1920s, the notion of jaywalking scarcely existed, as urban streets were meant for pedestrians. But attitudes changed with the rise of the automobile, and so too eventually did the laws, urged on by the car industry. As attitudes have shifted back to favor pedestrians, however, it is worth reevaluating these laws.

b.   Jaywalking is an organic form of traffic calming that doesn’t require the government expenditures used for other calming measures.

c.   The social justice argument, which posits that jaywalking fines are disproportionately expensive—and enforced more—against poor blacks, often as an excuse to search them. This seems plausible, since jaywalking fines have been one part of the broken windows policing strategy.

d.   And there is the argument, made recently by Michel Lewyn in a 2-part series for Planetizen (here and here), that confining pedestrians to crosswalks isn’t even safer:

The basic assumption behind these policies is that pedestrians are safe if they don’t jaywalk, and unsafe if they do. But this claim is not necessarily correct.

Why not? Because traffic lights are not very accurate guides to safety. Suppose you are at an intersection, and the light across the street from you says “Walk.” That usually means that there is a red light above you, and that the traffic heading towards you cannot move…But that fact alone does not make me safe from cars, because a motorist turning left or right into Ninth Avenue might be governed by a green light which allows him or her to turn. So if I cross when the light says “Walk”, I can easily be crushed by a driver making a turn. In fact, turning motorists may be even more risky for pedestrians than a head-on attack, since they are harder to notice.

Lewyn continues that “crossing midblock may actually be safer when traffic is light, because a pedestrian need only look in two directions (or only one, where each side of the street is separated by a median) at a time to be sure that there are no cars coming.” It’s also possible that pedestrians, in hand, are more visible to drivers when crossing mid-block, than when in a driver’s turn radius at intersections.

e.   But there’s one argument that I haven’t yet heard: legalizing jaywalking on behalf of economic development. Nowadays, the stated goal of every city is to increase downtown livability. Improving the pedestrian experience has been one part of such revitalization efforts, and wouldn’t reforming jaywalking laws advance this goal? Specifically, it would decrease the wait times required to get from place to place, thus increasing productivity. After all, many of the highly-skilled professionals who locate in downtown areas do so because they desire proximity to other industry professionals, a concept advanced by Richard Florida. For many, walking from function to function is imperative to daily business, and being able to do so quickly is key to mobility, just like good roads and transit. Growing the residential population is also vital to downtown development, and the same concept applies–people who walk to get morning coffee, nightly dinners, or any array of errands must be able to do so quickly, if living downtown is to become worthwhile.

It is thus bizarre to read about the ongoing efforts to ticket jaywalkers, for example, in downtown Los Angeles, where minor violators are being charged $197. Here is a city that is spending billions to repurpose its downtown into a 24/7 urban destination filled with bars, pro sports, entertainment, artists, and rich young professionals. Do officials not understand that targeting jaywalkers contradicts these goals, by making it difficult to walk quickly in the very areas that are being sold as “walkable”?

In places like Los Angeles, these laws either shouldn’t be enforced, or, more to activists’ point, should be diminished. How might this happen? I’m not in favor, like others, of abolishing jaywalking laws altogether, as this might create yet more ambiguity in a nation so accustomed to automobile use. But I do favor using common sense–by allowing pedestrians to cross the street as long as they are not endangering themselves nor obstructing automobiles. This would mean crossing at any part of the road when cars aren’t coming, and walking in-between cars when they are backed up at lights. Many people already do this, and legalizing it would erase the grey area, while opening up streets to people who were previously intimidated by law enforcement. Cities might even install more crosswalks halfway down certain blocks, as to create the safer and more visible experience described by Lewyn. I’ve already seen such crosswalks—often equipped with flashing lights–installed in many cities, and building more would further help legalization.

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