Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Super Bowled 2018

Watching footage from the scenes of mayhem on the streets of Philadelphia last night over football results, four things were reconfirmed for me:

(1) We as a society have our priorities firmly in the wrong place.

(2) Sport remains one of the few genuine outlets our society allows people to vent their grief at their failed dreams, diminishing prospects and existential dread while simultaneously living vicariously through millionaire athletes pitched in modern semi-gladiatorial style battles.

(3) Sport-based mayhem seems to indicate how perilous most people's relationship with the tenets of late capitalism really are and how easy it is to ignite the powder-keg of resentment that lies deep within our social fabric and crumbling civic institutions.

(4) When do we get to move on from the 'killing capitalism with kindness' phase to the 'killing capitalism with pointy objects' phase?

I have nothing against sport in and of itself (though I doubt I'll ever be able to give a good goddamn about American football - no offense intended to everyone who loves it). I just think the centrality of watching sport in most people's lives seems to be a replacement for other things that are lacking. Sport, at its best can and should be a great shared experience of awe at genuine and sublime physical art some humans are capable of, but the coded jingoism and Riefenstahl-derived Nazi-chic aesthetic that attends so much of the pageantry and presentation around televised sport clearly operates as a substitution for certain more important parts of our culture/ politics/ society that are, at present, largely absent.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Gentrification and its Discontents in Portland

Did you see the controversy generated by Tyler Hurt’s obnoxious piece on the new Burnside26 development in Portland?

Upon reading a recent, somewhat inflammatory, piece published Hurst as a defense of his decision to move into the new Burnside26 development and much of the angry community response that it generated, there seems to be a lot of issues around housing, displacement and development that should be unpacked around gentrification.

To begin, I do not oppose the construction of Burnside26 or think poorly of Tyler for choosing to live there, though his choice in how he defended this let a great deal to be desired. That said, the city has done a poor job managing rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. This has been particularly galling in traditionally black neighborhoods like Mississippi, Albina and Alberta that have seen the displacement of thousands of black families to Gresham and elsewhere. The city should be working hand-in-hand with Community Development Banks/Organizations in order to retain and provide meaningful housing options and provide some combination of micro loans and workforce/vocational trainings to help secure livable economic futures for many of the individuals who were living in those areas. This would help make sure that people could stay in their communities and become local business owners and the like as those neighborhoods change. Instead, the City set-up a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district and let developers call the shots. This is a huge problem and people should be pushing the City to do a better (or any) job of mitigating gentrification outcomes. The City tries from a policy perspective: I was on a Policy Expert Group around "Infrastructure Equity" a few years back and the group came up with some good recommendations that the City is trying to implement as part of the ongoing (though nearly finished) Comp Plan Update. The push to allow inclusionary zoning again at a state level, which was banned for decades in Oregon, may also prove to be beneficial.

One of the more interesting critiques leveraged against this piece came from Chloe Eudaly (who owns and operates the venerable Portland business Reading Frenzy). Eudaly made some remarks that focus on the idea that a lot of this development is bad because they lose track of 'historic preservation' and 'proportionality of scale' To me this is problematic in that a lot of that is coded "I don't like in-fill development". However, in-fill is really the only way Portland is going to be able to meet future affordable housing needs if it continues to grow at the rate that it does. Portland, despite doing some very smart things with the urban growth boundary and comprehensive land-use management, is an extremely low-density city. Much of the inner East Side is zoned at 4-8 units per acre. This makes it, basically a suburb from a planning perspective. The ability of the City to meet future housing needs is going to necessitate building large buildings that those already in the area dismiss out of hand as eyesores, or worse. Neighborhoods constantly change and increasing housing stock through in-fill development is, to my mind, Portland’s best chance of staying relatively affordable. Under the status quo, Portland's rental vacancy rate is around 3%, which means rents are likely to continue to rise and displacements are extremely likely to continue. The solution is to increase housing stock and densities in areas that are desirable to live. Saying that all or most of the new development is bad because it "doesn't look to scale" seem to imply that the scale isn't ever going to change. We need to consider the scale of building in many communities in order to boost housing stock.

By contrast, where I currently live in Washington, DC, rents are completely crazy. A lot of high rents in DC is a product of a regulatory height limit on development that effectively limits urban densities. That said, DC is already significantly denser by several orders of magnitude than much of Portland, despite having only 40,000 people more living in the District itself. The rapid on-boarding of a number of new developments (some affordable, some market-rate) is the only thing that has really arrested and even slightly decreased rents over the last year.

Back to Portland, the areas that are predominantly residential with the highest urban densities in town is, curiously, NW and the Pearl. This does not necessarily make either of these a model for future development, but it is pretty telling that people are so quick to cry foul the minute new development goes in. I think there is a strong tendency for people to distrust neighborhood change and as a result to adopt a reactionary positon whereby they want neighborhoods to stay the same way forever (- something that in the history of cities has yet to happen - often at the expense of interventions that may be helpful. Burnside26 clearly is not the model that every development should follow, but having it accompanied by other similarly sized buildings that offer quality affordable housing, either through market rate affordable or subsidy (via LIHTC or some other federal or local program) seems entirely reasonable.

I also find it a bit curious that the controversy surrounds displacements from East Burnside (and the inner-East side), which has always been pretty Lilly-White with very little said these days about gentrification outcomes affecting more diverse areas like Lents or, historically, the Mississippi/ Albina area. This is not to say that lower-income white people don't also deserve good access to transit and nice neighborhoods, but it is curious that people always bring up issues with fairness to minorities around gentrification yet the loudest outcry always seems to be in displacement of white residents from historically white areas. The 28th Ave corridor has always been affluent (the main anchor businesses are high end restaurant/retail and a Whole Foods, with Hollman's serving as the outlier), and so resistance to this area spreading down a couple of blocks seems to be divorced from a lot of the more pressing issues. Portland-proper has grown dramatically whiter demographically between 2000 and 2014 at time where the metro area as a whole has grown significantly more diverse. Where activist pressures should be pushed is in ensuring that historic minority communities continue to receive ongoing housing support, quality urban services, and that new development of affordable units happens. A lot more needs to be done to beyond that to directly engage people and make sure that they are part of the planning/development process and to insure that their needs are met.

A lot of people will suggest that we should just let developers have freer reign to build new housing stock until supply exceeds demand and rents start to decrease. There a few issues with this argument that I will address. Housing is one of those things where markets don't automatically equilibrate given enough time, particularly as in a lot of cities, what developers built is often initially unaffordable and because a lot of new construction gets bought up by wealthy absentee owners who almost never set foot in the units. In, for example, a large number of new New York City and San Francisco developments, there is are extremely high absentee rates (often up to 70-80%). This is also true in New York, Vancouver, BC and numerous other “hot” housing markets, including, increasingly Portland.

So even if we could easily control the number of absentee owners and renters driving up the costs of housing, a market-based strategy of exclusively new development is still likely to cause a large numbers of displacements. New construction is expensive and developers want to make their money back and maximize profits. With a lot of neighborhood dynamics already being the product of downright racist historic housing restrictions, including redlining and restrictive covenants, fragile low-income and minority communities frequently bare the brunt of displacements. For the good of these individuals, low-income people shouldn't have to be forced out every time an area becomes hot and a market heats up. With policy interventions to build more affordable housing, impose limits on how often buildings can be flipped, and interventions by Community Development Corporations, people don't have to be displaced and can enjoy the benefits of improving neighborhoods while retaining their communities. There is, after all, case to be made that people should have an absolute right to housing. Unlike many other commodities that are subject to markets, housing is something that people inherently need. Real wages haven’t risen against inflation since the late 70s, while housing costs have skyrocketed across much of the country. The situation is increasingly one by which median housing costs are becoming absolutely unaffordable for a good number of, not just low-income people, but formerly Middle-class working people. In San Francisco, which seems to be the end product of where a lot of these trends lead, you need to be making around $140,000 a year to avoid spending significantly more than the HUD guidelines of 30% of income on rent and utilities. Cost burden is becoming increasingly the norm in Portland and it is only a matter of time before it starts affecting everyone, reasonably affluent or otherwise.

Beyond this, cities need their artists and musicians and teachers and a whole lot of other creative types of people that are never going to be able to pull in substantial salaries, to be vibrant places that we might all want to live. When housing rates are painfully unaffordable for these people, then your city becomes less interesting, less dynamic and less livable. Being a good neighbor largely means fostering a sense of community. Communities usually have people with different backgrounds, skills and gifts that contribute in different ways. Obviously, as I mentioned above, cities cannot stay the same forever, they always change, but local governments can have a lot of say in how those places change.

There is also a thesaurus of both Federal and local housing programs and initiatives that directly deal with rising property values. I suspect, when we start seeing direct funding for the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) which is scheduled to start in 2016, we will start seeing a lot more permanent assistive and market rate affordable units. Right now, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) is responsible for roughly 90% of existing affordable housing stock in this country. LIHTC can be problematic because it means relatively generous handouts to developers to build some affordable units, but with 15-year expirations on affordability (the units then revert to market rate, unless they are remodeled/redeveloped, which can further extend the LIHTC). NHTF, on the other hand would build permanent, low-cost housing. Additionally, there are a huge number of permanent housing assistance programs, many of which are simply underfunded federally, or lack local push by municipalities to see implemented. There are also strategies that tie housing, economic development and community development together, including a number of Community Development Banks (CDBs) and Community Development Corporations (CDCs) have done a huge amount to mitigate gentrification outcomes.

In his development of the Ramona on NW 14th and Quimby, Ed McNamara, who owns and runs Turtle Island Development has done some great things with permanent workforce housing for lower-income working families in the Pearl. He has also managed to do so without subsidy. This project was designed and developed by McNamara as something of a labor of love and has been hugely successful. Housing advocates tend to overlook the development, largely because it is located in the Pearl, but it is an attractive new building that is energy and water efficient, includes quality facilities for children, built in internet and is designed to remain permanently affordable. It is located near transit and caters to working minority families. This is precisely the type of development that Portland needs more of.

The issues around housing and displacement are complicated. Like many people who grew up in Portland, I get frustrated seeing institutions and communities I care about get pushed out of business or forced to move. I think Portlanders need to put a lot more pressure on the City to not give developers carte blanche and to insist on community development along with redevelopment. Now that the state ban on inclusionary zoning has been lifted, it is time for people to get serious with the city and start demanding that affordable units be tied to new development. I also think it is incumbent on people to find a way to reframe the way we talk about neighborhood change. To the uninitiated, the conversation can often sound like, "We hate all changes and outsiders aren’t welcome here. Hands off my neighborhood!" As a result, a lot of valid concerns are swept under the rug. Instead, Portlanders fearing displacement need to be saying something more along the lines of: "We understand change is inevitable, we want to be part of that change in a way that mutually reinforces the existing community as well as allowing the city to grow."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dancing About Architecture

Sorry for the lack of frequent updates on this site.  I will continue to occasionally update it with longer-form essays/ my thoughts about current events.

That said, I have started a new blog of, what I hope to be, daily record reviews.  I'm a big music collector and these seemed a great way to talk a little bit about my collection, what I like about music and the rest.

The goal of this blog is to take a slightly sardonic touch to record reviewing.  The reviews are largely a bit self-consciously jokey and otherwise not entirely serious.

The blog is called "Dancing About Architecture" and takes its name from a Frank Zappa quote about music writing.

I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Whose Redevelopment?

This post is culled from some loosely edited material from an e-mail exchange with a friend. Please excuse it being slightly informal. I just feel this is an important issue that warrants a post.

A recent article on the site Books and Ideas article on displacements/evictions of inner city poor referenced an important article by a University of Wisconsin-Madison sociology professor on the same subject. The article, On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto by Alice Goffman should be required reading for anyone interested in the plight of American inner-cities and the urban (and increasingly suburban) poor.

While I think the article speaks for itself, what I want to talk about is I think one of the most interesting aspects of urban displacement is how preventable it is the policy milieu in which the situation described within the article operates. Through housing subsidy, inclusionary zoning and a host of other policy levers, we have the ability to provide dramatically increased affordable housing. Obviously, this does not solve problems of underemployment and unemployment in many of the communities at risk, but it is at least an important start. I think we should societally be looking at things like a basic income (which I plan to write more about in a future post).

So why don't we see more affordable housing? The answer is that, when municipalities do site redevelopments, predominantly what they are interested in is maximizing tax revenues in the long term. That is why they are willing to use tools like Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or tax abatements as a means of making redevelopment more attractive. As Harvey Molotch observed years ago, cities are growth machines. This means that, it costs more money every year to provide the same level of services, which means that municipal taxes need to gradually go up to pay for serves or cities need to expand to increase their tax base. As a result, rather than subsidize the poor, most municipalities see it as more in their long term interest to push people into a neighboring (now often suburban) municipality so that they don't have to pay for it.

I recently saw an example of this passing of the buck during an event I attended on "sustainable cities" including a panel discussion featuring the director of planning for DC. While much of the discussion centered around transportation systems and transit-oriented development (TOD - a planning buzz term that really just means building stuff around transportation hubs) someone eventually broached the question of displacements and gentrification stemming from site redevelopment featuring heavy tax subsidy to encourage development and then market driven pricing for redeveloped parcels. The director said something about how "pleased" she was that the bulk of DCs development was done around transit corridors then said something to the effect that "our partner municipalities really need to do their part to provide affordable housing".

Now, anyone in the least bit familiar with the economic straights that Prince George County (for example) is in, knows that they are not in the position to build more affordable housing, they can barely keep the lights on in the schools. Well-to-do Montgomery County maybe (they do have inclusionary zoning on the books) but what would compel it, or many of the conservative well-to-do counties in Virginia (Arlington, etc) to actually provide affordable housing. They also are happy to pass the buck, especially knowing that they are largely unaffordable for many of the poor displaced. What this largely means is ghettoization in extremely poor suburbs for displaced minority people who previously at least had access to urban services (by virtue of living in the inner-city) but now literally have nothing. Effectively what this policy does is manages to further lower the socio-economic plight of those already near the bottom and places them in a situation of absolute isolation. We are burying the urban poor in suburbs and leaving them to die.

People from these communities are fully aware of this. This awareness is why we are seeing targeted violence from at-risk minority communities against the tech industry in the Bay Area. This has included attacks on the Google and Apple employee commuter buses and assorted hostility towards tech sector workers. It is also something that I expect we will see much more of across the United States if current trends in inequality and urban displacements persist.

As I noted, their are ways around this. Working in partnership with Community Development Banks (rather than with large retail establishments) as part of site redevelopment so that those at-risk in a community can become business-owners and gain the skill-sets needed to be business owners and the like over the course of a redevelopment project is an example that I am trying to learn more about. Shore Bank in Chicago and some similar organizations have really done some great things that cut against the tendency outlined above. That said, all of this costs money and reduces overall profitability of site redevelopments and as long as we are unwilling to pay taxes and force municipalities to scrap for every dollar and make annual decisions about what city staff they are going to have to lay off next to balance the books, we are not going to see any change.

Certainly a lot of the feel good, City revitalization talk that has become the stock and trade of my profession (City Planning) is a way of ignoring a lot of this. This is not to say I don't think urban redevelopment is not a good or important. Place-making is something that planning can really excel at - I just think that it is obvious that we need to be doing a hell of a lot more for our urban indigent to make sure that they are indeed part of the future being planned. (Token "minority outreach" which is part of any redevelopment project. This is because planners now see themselves as facilitators who bring people together - not that we do a great job of actually soliciting opinion from minorities, but as long as you held the meeting, you can say you did it. 

 Most of the meetings I've attended that were designed to garner minority inputs were held at times that would not suit working parents (often with two jobs). They also viewed things like child care (which is a necessity) as being too expensive. Planning staff, to their credit, do spring for the translator, who, inevitably sits in the back with nothing to do - further exemplifying the difficulty planners seem to have in engaging minority communities, but I digress. It is obvious that many more of the conversations around planning processes should occur in partnership with churches, community groups and other organizations that have direct access to at-risk and minority populations at risk of displacement such that the input of those at risk can be thoroughly considered. Unless we can actually include at-risk people in a meaningful way, we are working to put the final nails in the coffin in the creation of a permanent underclass of people for whom eviction, displacement and just about any other inner-city social ill you can think of are the norm.

Regarding gentrification and the response of planning and public policy to it I cannot recommend highly enough Sharon Zukin's fabulous book, Naked City: The Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places. It is clear that planners can be doing a lot more about planning and gentrification and we should be having a much more active and informed public debate on the subject. Attempts, like this piece by NPR to put a positive spin on gentrification for minority populations are active mechanisms for disinformation. They exist to make gentrifiers (many of whom likely make-up much of NPR's listenership) feel better about themselves. The article is actively ignorant of the long, rich and international literature linking gentrification with displacement. It also avoids more complicated questions on the nature of gentrification and the (rather complicated) instances when it may in-fact prove beneficial. The argument that we should be pursuing is not how to avoid making dilapidated urban areas better places to live (I think development is a necessary and good thing), but how to insure that those changes and improvements benefit everyone, particularly those that are most at-risk of displacement.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Africa in DC shares some thoughts on South Sudan + Update

I have a new post that I'm working on coming down the pipeline in the next day or so - sorry for the lack of updates here.  Part of the problem is that I largely post essay length stuff which takes some doing.  I will try to incorporate more short posts as well.

In the meantime, my friend Brooks Marmon, who runs the Africa in DC blog has a great post on Beltway insider Hank Cohen and his frankly mindless read on the South Sudanese state. You can read the piece here.

I would only add that it is very rare that former colonial holdings benefit from the infrastructure handed to them by their former colonial masters.  With the exception of the oft-cited railroads and democratic institutions in India (which we will soon see, is a questionable example), rarely has colonial investment in infrastructure given anyone a leg up - often this infrastructure is damages or destroyed upon the exist of said colonial power.  Even in India (as was well documented by Stanley Wolpert in his excellent "Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British In India" among others), British disengagement had horrible outcomes: leaving behind mountains of dead, political instability (likely setting in motion the eventual fracturing of Pakistan and Bagladesh from India), heavily damaged infrastructure, regional instability stretching all the way to Singapore and the active undermining of the new Indian state before it even came to fruition - dramatically undermining Nehru and the Congress Party's ability to govern.

In the end, it reminds me of the words of my undergraduate Southeast Asian History Professor (in a survey course on the Philippines), who pointed out that with colonialism, even when one can cherry-pick a few good outcomes of that colonialism, the base relationship remains one that is abusive and thus the underlying legacy can only be assessed as such.

It is amazing (though not at all surprising) to see the type of discussions about Africa as critiqued by Marmon in the above post persist on the Beltway.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Shameless Self Promotion

Dissident Voice picked up a piece I wrote last year on Bob Dylan and plagiarism.  It was something that was interesting to investigate.  Dylan, love him or hate him, is certainly a cultural phenomena.  The issue is a difficult one and speaks to some of the other recent plagiarism controversies (including that of Jonah Lehrer, which coincidentally also involved Dylan).

Whether what he has been doing the last couple of years is completely above board is certainly a subject of some debate. In my piece, I make the case that, based on his own behavior in cases where he felt his "intellectual property" was being misappropriated, he used every legal weapon at his disposal.

You can read the piece here.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

John Gray on The Nature of Beliefs

Philosopher John Gray, who is a favorite of this blog, has an interesting brief interview that was conducted by the Nexus Instituut.  He asks questions about the inability of humanity to advance ideological goals or systems due to the lack of uniformity of humanity as a whole and the innate simplifying nature of those goals.  Gray is always provocative.  Note here that he speaks of certain need for universal agreement around particular facts in law, medicine, etc (with the knowledge that these may need to be changed in light of new evidence).  Gray has also previously spoken about a sense of semi-universal ethics and I was disappointed that he didn't pursue this line further in his most recent book The Silence of Animals, which is especially notable given the world views Gray expresses in the video below and in his writings.

Gray's arguments are similar to those made by the likes of Daniel Dennett (in Breaking the Spell) regarding the nature of belief and the problems humans present for themselves by attempting to impose colonizing ideological systems.  Further, due to the confirmation bias, people are particularly bad at using feedback mechanisms and thus responding to data.  (I have written at length on this tendency here and here).  Science, the scientific method and Popperian "falsification" are ways of getting around these limitations, but they only function within particular narrowly defined constraints.