National Trends

Universal Rent Control is about more than tenant power, it’s about reestablishing democratic power over the market


As election day approaches, the stakes keep getting higher and the political environment keeps getting scarier. It was inevitable that the President would turn to imaginary fears and blatantly false claims to poison the climate, partly because he sees the grave risk in “losing” the midterms, but mainly because that’s who he is. It is disheartening that so many other Americans seem to share his darkest impulses. It might not be enough to prevent Democrats from retaking the House, but we’ve seen that song and dance before. 

The real question for me is: how much will change if the Democrats win? The battle in New York for Universal Rent Control is a good place to consider what needs to change, what could change, and what might not change within the Democratic Party.

(Honestly, this blog got away from me and is more about the political process around URC than specific policy proposals, but feel free to check out something I wrote about it here for more details. I will be following up this article with more about URC.)

Now, of course things will change considerably for the President if Democrats take back the House. There will be actual oversight of the administration. There will be meaningful roadblocks to the Republican agenda on the hill. There will be some reaffirmation of some democratic checks and balances. This is all great.

But, look, we’re still in a bad way. The faith in our democratic institutions has eroded because the institutions themselves have eroded. The faith we have in each other as a whole has eroded because our vision of each other as a whole has fractured. The faith we have in the American Dream has eroded because our economic reality is a world away from it. Most disturbingly, the faith we have in our climate security has eroded because our planet is clearly in grave trouble and we’re failing to face it.

None of this changes if the Democrats take back the House

It won’t change and it’s not for the obvious reasons that they might still lose the Senate, don’t control the White House, and don’t control the Court. It’s the same reason why even taking power back in New York might not result in real change.

It’s because the Democratic Party doesn’t have any real answers for these problems. They haven’t for decades. Just look at this recent interview with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (starting at 2:58.) Seriously, what the hell is she actually talking about? They are nowhere near the nihilism of the Republican Party, but that’s not hard or virtuous. 

As the party continues to make commendable strides in promoting diverse candidates that better reflect the 21st century American experience, it has been notably less successful at promoting ideological diversity. They have allowed candidates to run to the right, but have mostly isolated those that run to the left. 

It’s obvious why: Democrats have been corrupted by the same system that has corrupted the Republican Party, only in slightly different ways, by only slightly different actors. And that system isn’t working.

For decades, both parties fully embraced neoliberalism as the end of history ideology

Privatization, deregulation, and globalization have been the name of the game for 40 years in America and both parties have become beholden to the moneyed interests that wanted it, benefit from it, and jealously guard it.

To be clear there is nothing inherently wrong with a competitive private sector, a proactive regulatory regime, or a deeply connected international world. In balance these elements can make us all safer, richer — financially and culturally- and healthier. But neoliberalism hasn’t delivered that world. There is no balance. 

There is something inherently wrong with “trusting markets.” 

The obvious point is that neoliberalism by definition doesn’t trust or value democratic control of power. It’s central belief dictates that power will be competitively dispersed between rational economic actors and that that competition will inevitably produce better outcomes for society. 

Those are some major leaps of faith to build a global society on:

  • It assumes that economic actors are rational (which is far from true for individuals, firms, and even states) and discounts the consequences of when they aren’t rational, which is most of the time. 

  • It assumes that competition between these actors will be honored rather than crushed, which is what always happens (either by brute force or collusion) and is unprepared for the fallout. 

  • And it assumes that all of this will produce a better society, while it has clearly ignored the toll it takes on the planet and on vulnerable populations.

What neoliberalism has left us with is a vastly unequal and unparalleled concentration of wealth and power that we can barely see let alone hold accountable. It has left us with a wake of destructive exploitation of human populations and natural resources that we can’t prevent or replenish. It has left us with severely compromised democratic governments that can’t represent or protect us. And it has put the very-near-future of our planet in peril. 

This is because the hallmark of neoliberalism is illiberalism, a fake democracy. It’s a term that we’re starting to hear used more about countries like Turkey, Russia, and Poland, but we have been experiencing it here for a long time. The structural flaws within the Constitution, the shameful voting suppression efforts in many states, and the corruptive flow of money across all levels of politics and media have warped our government far from any definition of “self.” Neoliberalism requires this. It’s a really raw deal for most of us.

How Democrats went from the New Deal to Neoliberalism matters for how we get them out

The Democratic Party is complicit in this. The party abandoned its New Deal commitment to democratic control over the economy, to public investment and ownership, and to sharing the benefits of prosperity evenly across society with an ever wary eye towards the future.

The New Deal represented a clear, unifying theory of self-governance forged from the trauma of the Great Depression: a strong interventionist state to create and spread wealth. It became the bedrock for the greatest sustained civic growth and wealth creation in the history of the world and it kept Democrats in power for 50 years. It remained the de facto organizing principle for decades because not only was it a powerful narrative, but it did what it said it would do. People believed in it because it did make life in America better.

Mostly for white Americans. That commitment wasn’t perfect and its fatal flaw was its reliance on actively preventing other groups, domestically and internationally, from partaking in it, often violently. 

By the 1970s, the world was starting to catch up with the US economically or resist it’s influence militarily and at home the civil rights and gender equality movements, plus opposition to the Vietnam War, began to fracture the coalition. Tragically, it could not adjust to these new voices and realties. 

For the first time, many people felt that the American pie was as big as it was going to get and that it was necessary to fight over and protect your piece of it and prevent others from getting close to it. The right started exploiting these tensions to further crack the coalition with growing success. Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy” worked twice and has remained the Republican Party’s default playbook ever since. It has only been more naked with Trumpism.

When the New Deal seemingly ran out of answers to expand the American pie, it created a vacuum that neoliberalism filled.

Racial appeals and resentment were powerful subtext, but a movement needs actual text to rally around. Neoliberalism was a powerful narrative answer, especially in the hands of President Reagan. It was cloaked in Cold War rhetoric and spoke about expanding freedom throughout the US and the world. The way to expand the pie was to end communism and open up the world’s markets. It seemed very American.

But, unlike the New Deal, neoliberalism hasn’t done what it said it would do. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has done exactly what it was intended to do, but its supporters who said otherwise were either villains or fools. It has seized political power from popular representation and given it to a small amount of corporations and wealthy individuals. 

There is nothing “American” about enriching a tiny portion of stateless oligarchs and firms by turning people against each other, by robbing the public of our own social and economic capital, and by selling out future generations even as the current population’s slice of the pie is actually getting smaller. But that is what has happened under neoliberalism.

Although President Reagan was wildly popular and enacting neoliberalism created an air of revolutionary spirit, it never did kill the New Deal coalition. Democrats remained in control of Congress all during this period and voters remained wary of calls to totally deconstruct the welfare state (at least for white people.) 

But Democrats killed the New Deal Coalition. Bill Clinton killed the New Deal Coalition.

Though many old guards held out, a new generation of party leaders eagerly accepted the premise that the New Deal was failing, that America had turned right and that it was advantageous to go with them. Rather than try to challenge corporations’ and wealthy individual’s power, they wanted to channel it.

In the wake of several presidential losses (though, again, Dems held Congress each time) Clinton became Nixon essentially in 1992 and ushered in a Democratic machine that relied on big donor money and cosy relationships to corporations and Wall Street while distancing itself from “the era of Big Government” as though it hadn’t worked for the majority of Americans all along. Tough on crime, tough on welfare, tough on unions looked like “Serious People Making Serious Decisions” but was really slow moving betrayal of the New Deal coalition. 

The party has remained in the Clinton image ever since. President Obama included. It hasn’t been able to counter Republicans slow turn to the right because it has largely accepted their worldview and has been left arguing over degrees.

Ironically, Republicans realized the neoliberal game was up first

Despite pulling a Weekend At Bernies with the corpse of Ronald Reagan for years, it has been clear for a long time that Republicans have largely abandoned neoliberalism and replaced it with an ethno-nationalism that is really just zero-sum oligarchy with a bunch of racism and fanaticism to scrape out electoral victories.

The Democratic Party, at the national level, but also at local levels, has been left in the awkward and clearly untenable position of half-heartedly defending neoliberalism. Sure, compared to the nihilism of the Republican Party, protecting the status quo seems appealing and even noble, but it isn’t. 

Neoliberalism in the first place was a betrayal of the modern Democratic Party’s New Deal ethos and hasn’t worked for most Americans anyway. The American pie is getting bigger for the wealthy (many of which aren’t American) but fewer people are getting slices at all.

Forget #theresistance and resist the Democratic Party’s continued dereliction of duty

At all levels of the Democratic Party, the reliance on big donors and corporate coziness has killed its ability or desire to counter this and to address the issues facing our country in meaningful ways. Big, sweeping visions of societal change are anathema to these interests and thus the party has turned to bland incrementalism and technocratic insularity to keep muddling along. 

It is obvious that this has failed as a political strategy, particularly at the state level where Democrats have lost over almost a 1000 seats since 2008. But it has failed as a moral imperative. 

We need big thinking to turn things around. We need big actions to save the country and the planet. We need big ideas to overcome the cultural decadence and civic rot fueling all of this, which was encouraged by the individualist consumerism that neoliberalism requires.

That’s why the Senator Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign was so important, even if it fell short. It started much needed and much unwanted soul searching within the party because it was about big ideas. It was about what kind of country and what kind of world we can create if we control it. 

It offered a glimpse of a 21st century version of a New Deal coalition that has had a powerful impact on the party, despite every effort to resist it. It shows that there is a hunger for taking back democratic control over the economy and the environment from the market that neoliberalism trusts exclusively.

It has been slow and will continue to be, but the successes of leftist social-democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (full disclosure: I volunteer for her on housing policy), Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib at the national level means there will be more voices in Congress speaking for more people that have been voiceless there and within the Democrat Party for too long. This is an important development, regardless of who wins control of the House on November 6th.

Universal Rent Control is one of many local fronts in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party

Wrestling back democratic control of the Democratic Party at the national level will be a multi-cycle project. There are, however, a lot of opportunities to impact the party’s future where you live. The real fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is happening locally as we speak over issues like Universal Rent Control.

In New York City, Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory swept national attention and has made her an instant rockstar on the left, but she will be the first to say that she is part of a ground-up grassroots movement that is bigger than any one candidate or office.

That was on display in many New York Senate primary races on September 13th where 5 of the 6 NYC members of the infamous Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who voted with Republicans in Albany, all lost to left-leaning candidates. All of these candidates ran on an unapologetically social-democratic agenda that includes universal rent control. They and others need help to win in the general election.

There is a real chance that despite severe gerrymandering, and real estate lobby money, Democrats will win the Senate in Albany for the first time in decades (the Assembly has long been in Democratic control) on the strength of this social-democratic agenda.

Democratic control of Albany doesn’t mean social democratic control — or that Universal Rent Control happens

If that happens, we’ll see just how much of a battle taking back the Democratic Party will be and why neoliberalism has such deep roots in Democratic politcs. The IDC and Republicans are an easy target to blame for the lack of more progressive policy in New York state, but the truth is more complicated. 

Many New York Democrats, notably Governor Cuomo, who is the poster boy for cynical Third Way Clintonism (he was HUD Secretary in Clinton’s second term after all), are skeptical of progressive policies and have deep ties to the real estate industry that make up the base of the traditional big donor interests in Albany.

Will these traditional Democrats listen to their constituents and the grass-roots movement trying to save the Democratic Party? How many Democratic voters recognize how much of the problem lies within the Democratic Party itself? The primary results show that there is real momentum, but the activists fueling this rise need to rally more Democratic voters to the cause, and it means talking about big ideas again.

URC and every progressive fight must be framed as taking back democratic control over our economic and environmental destiny

Universal rent control is a big idea. At heart, it is a series of policy proposals that aim to protect all renters in New York state from harassment, displacement, and homelessness. It’s a completely justifiable policy proposal given the structural nature of the housing crisis that cries out for more tenant protections. Half of all renters in New York are rent-burdened and there are over 89,000 homeless New Yorkers in the state. On top of this, the city and state are not ready for climate change, which will effect many of these low-income communities first.

Universal Rent Control has been and will continue to be attacked by the real estate lobby, most economists, and many members of the media as a foolish, self-destructive fantasy. That’s horseshit.

“Highest best use” has been the religion defining neoliberalism’s economic and political policy for decades, even as it has enriched faceless corporate entities at the expense of local communities and popular representation. The principles of efficient allocation of resources appear to be agnostic and empirical, but they are still subjective assessments of fundamentally moral arguments about what a society should be and whom a government should serve.

That’s why URC must be understood as being the head of a larger political spear aimed at fighting the illiberalism at the heart of neoliberalism. It is about taking back power from the high priests of the market. The goal is to give power back to the people through democratically elected leaders and popularly supported laws. 

Illiberalism has been on displace within New York State for years: blatant gerrymandering, terrible voting laws, and endless amounts of anonymous money (much of it coming from the real estate lobby) make New York’s government a truly anti-democratic institution. Only popular movements like URC can finally end this system.

To be clear, the point isn’t to suggest that ‘the people’ will agree on every issue. The point is to reestablish democracy as a forum where all sides felt heard, all views are addressed, and as much consensus is reached as possible. Only then will our self-government live up to its definition. Only then will it have legitimacy and buy-in, even if the results are compromises. That’s the whole point.

This is all a moral failure. Let’s keep calling it that.

Democrats have long abandoned the sense of morality that was the foundation of the New Deal coalition’s success. I’m not suggesting that the Democratic Party is devoid of morality. They have adopted moral language rhetorically for certain vulnerable populations and on the environment. Some of this language has resulted in real, meaningful action. 

But most hasn’t. As a result it falls into the lose-lose situation of being lambasted for its overly “PC” rhetoric and focus on identity politics while not actually taking legislative stands for those issues, harming those constituencies.

Democrats don’t need to try to revive the New Deal coalition per se. 40 years of increased diversity and increased economic burden has greatly expanded what this coalition should and could look like. But to do so will require reviving the moral clarity and civic purpose that it represented. If the New Deal came out of the Great Depression, the next version should come out of the Great Recession. 

It is a message that already polls well with Americans from all political spectrums. There will be political victory if the Democrats do, but that will pale in comparison to saving the country and the planet. The only way to do that is to wrest control back from the markets.

Let’s start with calling out the immorality of our housing policy. 80,000 of our fellow New Yorkers should not be homeless. Half of all renters should not be burdened. So many seniors should not be so close to housing disaster. Communities shouldn’t be displaced for the sake of private equity profits. 

These are choices that have been made without our consent. Universal Rent Control is the first step in taking control of these choices and fixing them. That means greater public investment and ownership of housing. That means holding the private sector accountable as a partner, not as a master. It means redefining what our society should value and who should get to debate and ultimately define that.

For all of us as individuals, this means getting out there and supporting movements and candidates that want to take control of these choices. There is still time before November 6th to get involved, but the work won’t end there. It won’t end if Democrats win or lose in Albany or DC. We must keep shaping the fight for the soul of the party and keep making it clear that this is about saving our shared future.

berniesneoliberalism.JPG

Trump's Real Estate Taxes, the Supreme Court, and Climate Change Are All Related (That's a Good Thing)


It’s only been a week since the New York Times published an article about Trump’s prolific tax cheating with his father’s real estate fortune, but it’s fallen out of the news. That’s not surprising given the complexity of the story and the baked-in awareness that Donald Trump was/is not an honest businessman. It’s also nowhere near being the most important national story given the ugly Kavanaugh confirmation debacle and the dire UN climate change report. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. In fact, all three stories are deeply related.

To put it broadly, without radically changing our real estate laws, we can not save our country from climate change and to change our laws that radically, they will need to pass through the Supreme Court eventually. 

As of today, both seem like a daunting if not impossible tasks. The Supreme Court is set up to spend the next generation turning us back to the 19th century. The entire conservative movement over the last 40 years has worked to empower a judicial philosophy that is openly hostile to popular democratic governance and legislative oversight of the economy. And they just locked in power for next 40. 

On top of that, real estate has long been one of the most privileged industries and asset classes in America. That makes it deeply small-c conservative and has given it a powerful set of tools and incentives to prevent major reform, whether on its tax policy, its relationship to political contributions, or its environmental impact. 

These interests have lots of lobbying power at the national level, but their true power is on the state and local levels. They block candidates and policy initiatives that are perceived to “threaten” property values and are the main barrier to reforming land-use policy around economic and environmental justice. Overcoming that structure is extremely challenging.

But before you despair, let’s consider why the Trump tax cheat story is so important: it offers a hack into changing all of this. 

To defeat President Trump or the Republican Party, we must defeat Real Estate Developer Donald Trump.

To quickly recap, the Times story poured over thousands of court and tax documents and spoke with hundreds of people associated with the Trump Organization and family to reveal three fundamental facts: 

  • Donald Trump didn’t build his real estate empire like he claims, he illegally inherited it from his father. 

  • Fred Trump, the father, built most of that empire through gaming the federal government for millions in tax subsidies. 

  • Father and son committed systemic tax fraud over decades that directly harmed tenants

All of this happened by aggressively exploiting the already favorable tax code that allows real estate developers to self-assess lower property values for tax purposes, to arbitrarily split management structures to hide profits while overcharging vendors and tenants, and to shield ownership through obscure legal entities to further dwindle tax liabilities. 

The bad news is that, at this stage, it seems likely that the Trump family has already gotten away with it (although New York is looking into it). Most (but definitely not all) of these moves are perfectly legal given how the real estate lobby has helped write the tax code at the local and federal level for decades. That’s true in every state.

This is largely because a tiny fraction of the population, like the Trump family, has an immense amount of the wealth generated over the last few decades and as a result has captured almost all of the political power. Real estate money is the foundation of this power structure and always has been. Who owns the land is the very basis of power in America, which both Republicans and Democrats have protected. 

When then-candidate Trump bragged about giving money to both parties, this is basically what he was bragging about. Almost every big real estate interest is like that. 

The Trump tax cheating story then is incredibly useful as a rallying cry for real estate reform because it is a shorthand to explain how damaging real estate law is in the US and it is also a roadmap for how to change it. 

That’s where the good news comes in: we are already starting to dismantle this power structure. 

In New York, the Democratic primary on Sept 13th saw a slate of progressive pro-tenant candidates defeat real-estate backed candidates, potentially shifting the balance of power in Albany for the first time in generations. Their victories were backed by a growing bottom-up coalition for universal rent control that has a real shot of removing the type of legal loopholes that the Trumps used to jack up rents and avoid taxes for decades.

If Democrats take the senate in Albany next month, there is a real chance that a once-in-a-generation reform movement can take hold in Albany. Universal rent control should start with issues related to rents of course, but it should expand to address all of the background mechanics of real estate tax law and political contributions that have fed this unjust system for decades. 

This coalition is gaining power as a popular response to the affordable housing crisis and has a real plan to address it. But just as importantly it is also helping people begin to see that the affordable housing crisis is part of a larger inequality crisis across our late capitalist society. The environmental destruction ravaging our planet is a logical outcome.

There are few, if any, states that aren’t subject to the toxic mix of shadowy real estate law and shadowy political contributions from real estate. Without removing their hold on power, we will never be able to make the changes we need to protect the environment in the long-term and protect the must vulnerable populations in the short-term. 

Even if that happens, the real estate interests profiting from this power structure will inevitably look to the Supreme Court to protect it. 

Anti-union, pro-voter suppression, and generally skeptical of the administrative state, the current court, now with Kavanaugh confirmed, looks set up to bail out “Big Real Estate” (or maybe the more Georgist “Big Land”?) But on closer look, they shouldn’t be so sure.

The Supreme Court famously does not have the power of the purse or the sword. It is a deliberative body that interprets laws, which is inherently a subjective process (which so-called “originalists” prove in action). It’s credibility as a separate, legitimate third branch of government has always rested on its popular support regardless of any rhetoric suggesting otherwise. It can get away with being out of step with the majority of people for only so long.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t need to worry about that. Blocking Judge Merrick Garland and now jamming through Brett Kavanaugh has severely damaged the court’s image as a non-partisan institution, but Republicans will be rewarded by their donor class for it. (Their base may get some short-term victory on further restricting abortion access, but it will pale in comparison to the losses they suffer in the long-run from the conservative movement’s real priorities). 

Chief Justice Roberts does need to worry about the Court’s image. It’s one thing to strike down EPA restrictions on (flimsy) grounds of federal overreach, but it’s entirely another to strike down direct laws passed by state legislatures. There is at least some evidence that Chief Justice Roberts understands that blindly delivering partisan victories for conservatives is bad for the health of the court, and, perhaps generously, for the country. Overturning popularly supported state laws even if they are counter to prevailing a la carte conservative judicial theory seems unlikely. There is hope, at least.

But even getting in front of the Supreme Court starts with getting laws passed at the state level. That will take building broad coalitions across and within states that agree on a narrow set of legislative priorities that can get them passed. 

I believe that real estate reform is the perfect issue to kindle the formation of these coalitions. The power of developers and landowners over our politics has crippled our democracy, long before its crippled our ability to face climate change. There are immediate and well-defined legislative goals that can be achieved to break that structure. 

The progress made on electing candidates in the New York Senate that support universal rent control is a great start. There is much to be done from there. But if we can create a model for passing progressive laws on real estate reform, we can do so for climate change. 

It starts with telling a simple story to as many people as possible. We have one now. Showing how Real Estate Developer Trump has harmed New Yorkers both as a landlord and a political contributor is a powerful way to start dismantling the system that created President Trump, the plutocrat supporting, climate-change denier. 

 (market watch/ getty images)

(market watch/ getty images)

Ben Carson, The Redeemer

 (marketwatch)

(marketwatch)

It’s never good when HUD Secretary Ben Carson is in the news and sure enough his latest appearance carries on the tradition. The Washington Post reported this week that 1 out of 3 of his senior political appointees, who represent the highest levels of housing policy, don’t have any housing experience. I mean, they probably have lived in a house, but have not worked in housing. 

It’s easy to forget that before coming to HUD, Dr. Carson didn’t have any housing experience either (still doesn’t), but that wasn’t enough to stop his abundantly insulting nomination from going through. Not having experts in housing, or even experienced in housing, in the federal department in charge of housing has barely registered with the the public, even though it should be an enormous scandal. 

But that’s still not the biggest scandal about Secretary Carson’s run at HUD. As with many aspects of the Trump Era, the stupidity, pettiness, and corruption at the heart of the administration trends, but the insidious unraveling of policy aimed at protecting the vulnerable does not. In truth, Secretary Carson has been a highly effective agent of the president’s agenda: to unravel any attempts at racial desegregation of the American landscape undertaken by the Obama administration and others.

I’ll get back to this point in a second, but it bares repeating: Dr. Ben Carson is not qualified to run HUD. He has never worked in housing policy, never worked in development, and never worked in government. He has spent his career in medicine and then the self-help circuit. Both of those things are fine, even admirable, but they offer absolutely no rationale for his nomination, let alone confirmation. 

His is insulting to the work done at HUD, to the thousands of HUD employees across the country, and to the millions of Americans who rely on HUD’s services. It has a budget of $53 billion, oversees the regulation of the mortgage industry and public housing authorities, administers rental assistance programs like Section 8 and homelessness aid, and enforces fair housing laws (more on that later.) The work HUD does is not trivial and shouldn’t be treated that way.

HUD has been a backwater in other presidential administrations and having an inexperienced secretary in other circumstances might not be such an issue if HUD is allowed to go about it’s business. But that’s not what is happening with Dr. Carson or the administration. It would be one thing if he was simply ignorant of policy, but he’s ignorant and hostile to it. That can be summed up by the fact that he considers enforcing fair housing policies that encourage more integration in wealth majority-white communities “social engineering.”

Of course, it is social engineering, but then again the entire development of suburban America was social engineering. None of the 20th century’s sorting of white families into suburbs and black and brown families into inner cities was “organic.” The federal government crafted a policy regime for 80 years that pushed that racial agenda. Dr. Carson’s ignorance or dismal of this perfectly aligns with the Trump administration and the Republican agenda.

As with immigration, law enforcement, and just about anything else, the Trump administration has defined itself by a transparent retraunchment of white supremacy, which it and its allies perceive as being under threat politically and demographically. Any attempt, through federal policy, at challenging the traditional view that white men should be in charge, white people should be privileged, and equal rights should be a administered on a limited allowance has been purposefully halted or reversed wherever possible. 

Nothing has codified white supremacy more than housing policy. Most Americans are simply unaware of this. For a short period of time during the Obama administration, there was a surprisingly successful challenge to it. 

First, in 2015, HUD outlined rules drawn from the Fair Housing Act called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) that required local communities that receive federal block grants to submit plans that show how they are taking active steps to reverse years of racial segregation. It took a long time to get through the approval process, and the Obama administration could have taken bolder steps, but it was significant progress.

That same year, the Supreme Court made an even more significant decision on a case in Texas that expanded the definition of racial discrimination (which the Fair Housing Act made illegal) to include “disparate impact.” This means that even if a housing policy was not explicitly racist, if it still resulted in a disproportionately negative impact on a minority group, it would violate the Fair Housing Act.

Combined, both efforts opened a window to address deeply entrenched racial segregation in the US that has only accelerated over the last 50 years since the Fair Housing Act passed. It is no coincidence that this corresponds with skyrocketing wealth inequality. Fixing one fixes the other and both are required to make America fair and prosperous.

But since Dr. Carson has taken over at HUD, this agenda has quietly and effectively been halted, abandoned, or reversed. He hasn’t fought for HUD on the Hill. He has tried to raise rents for public housing residents. He has killed AFFH and tried to say it was in support of more development. He is there to stop attempts at addressing the legacy of racial discrimination in housing. You can see why he doesn’t want people with housing experience. 

I don’t know what is in Dr. Carson’s heart. He may sincerely believe, based no doubt on his remarkable personal story, that racism is at best a mild hinderance and self-determination can help a family overcome any obstacles. He may look at the American landscape and not see that actively racist policies sorted communities. He may not think its the federal government’s role to fix this even if it is a problem.

But even in this generous guess, he is still dangerously wrong and still guilty of supporting the goals of an administration that is blatantly racist and actively pursuing the protection of white supremacy. His personal policy ignorance and indifference to acquiring it or requiring it is not a bug, it is a feature. And a very effective one that is erasing a small window of progress against racial segregation.

2020 Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Shouldn't Focus on Lowering Rents - Here are 3 Other Things

 Frenemies at the gate (usnews)

Frenemies at the gate (usnews)

Along with every housing activist, I have been beating the drum for more attention to housing at a national level for several years now, so on one hand, the recent focus from Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker is a welcome development. Both senators have proposed similar housing bills that would aid renters nationally. On the other hand, neither of the bills, which are very similar, would solve the affordable housing crisis and would likely feed it in other ways. It goes without saying that both bills are largely rhetorical devices for shoring up progressive cred leading up to 2020 and won’t go anywhere, but let’s take them both at their face and see why they don’t excite me.

First, it’s important to point out that the affordable housing crisis is a crisis of late capitalism. In our current era, wealth and opportunity are concentrating in a narrowing pool of individuals, firms, industries, and geographies. Housing costs are skyrocketing in the select few environments where many of these factors overlap and housing costs (and values) are going down in the many more environments where few or none of these factors exist.

That is to say that there is no national housing policy that alone can address those forces AND there are no national economic or social policies that are currently up for debate that come close either. I believe we can absolutely craft smart housing policies at the national level that can help millions of Americans, but the larger crisis of late capitalism must be addressed to end the factors that fuel the housing crisis. That will take big change.

I don’t see Senator Booker or Senator Harris acknowledging the larger fatal flaws in our current iteration of capitalism (though they may have to if they want the nomination). Both have made their careers supporting this system and supporting those who benefit from it. No amount of social progressiveness can erase their explicit endorsement of this economic system even if they say otherwise. If either of them did, these bills wouldn’t look the way they look.

Instead, both senator’s plans aim to treat — or really, manage — the symptoms. That doesn’t mean that either plan lacks good ideas. There are some good ideas and good intentions, which should be acknowledged. Although there is virtually zero political courage behind either of these, so I don’t give either that much credit. The bigger issue is that they accept the basic economic and political premise that the market must drive the solution. That’s just not true or viable in the face of our present reality.

Senator Booker’s plan differs slightly from Senator Harris’s in that it proposes tying community development block grants to efforts to increase density in local jurisdictions. Basically, its a soft diplomacy effort to remove local land-use regulations (things like parking requirements, height limits) while encouraging more construction (density bonuses, as-of-right development). 

Both of these are admirable and necessary policy goals. But it’s a too-cute way to get around the vast limitations the federal government has on local land-use policy and that’s where it ultimately falls apart. The carrot isn’t that great and there is no stick. HUD currently ignores existing Fair Housing laws, so they aren’t going to care about this bill even if it did pass. 

It would take much more political courage to argue that the Fair Housing Act empowers the federal government to supersede restrictive local zoning and create an Eisenhower Interstate Highway System-esque system of federally-funded local development systems (or even just enforcing Further Affirming Fair Housing efforts at the late end of the Obama Administration) but the Senator from New Jersey (of Mount Laurel fame, no less) did not take that opportunity. 

Like Senator Booker’s plan, Senator Harris’s plan proposes a set of interventions that include discounting rents above 30% of income even for six-figure income households up to 150% of HUD’s Fair Market Rent calculations. By covering the difference as a tax credit, it would sort of work like the Mortgage Interest Deduction and would help some low-income families in high rent geographies and even middle-income families. 

That’s also an admirable policy goal. But the MID is a terrible waste of public money (that mostly gets to wealth households) while inflating the value of homes, so doing that for renting is arguably worse since we should know better. It would clearly create an inflated market as landlords would just raise rents even more. It also doesn’t help people outside of the usual suspects of coastal cities with high rents, so it’s impact would miss the vast majority of renters.

Both plans rely on the market with some subsidization. This isn’t a surprise since that’s how housing policy has (not) worked for 80 years. That this doesn’t work seems to have gone unacknowledged. But there are more creative ways to pursue a market-based solution and there are other non-market solutions that should also be included. (I have written about how any housing policy needs to fundamentally remove the advantage of homeownership, so I won’t touch on that for this particular article, though its obviously important.)

Here are three broad areas where the federal government can address the housing crisis right now. These are by no means the only areas or the most detailed analysis of them, but they are great starts:

Build the best public transportation systems in the world

It’s obvious that public transportation is an afterthought in the US. Post-war policy makers bet on homeownership and car ownership and socially engineered our modern landscape around them. That makes it particularly hard for people to get back and forth within most American cities commuter sheds 

Just as a small example of this, even for a transit rich city like NYC, it is a pain in the ass to get to Hoboken, NJ from where I live in the East Village (a 3-mile trip) because it involves two different transit systems (the MTA and the PATH). It would go from a roughly 30-min multiple-seat (and ticket-swipe) trip to a 10-min single-seat trip if they extended the L train into NJ (which has been proposed at various times, to no avail.) Christof Spieler in Houston writes a lot about this particular problem and I highly recommend you check out his stuff and upcoming book.

The more interconnected a commuter shed, the bigger the housing market. High rents are partially a product of land-use regulations and land scarcity in certain markets. But rents are high because people want to live close to things and there are huge cost increases the further out you go. 

If we developed deeper, more frequent rapid transit systems that cut down on time and cost of commuting, we would make surrounding areas more viable. It’s been done before in the US. Look at how the Bronx was developed in the 1920s and 1930s when the subways reached the area. Even if you can’t make the argument for more public intervention in housing in the Senate, you can get transportation networks built.

Fund public housing and expand what it can include

I write a lot about how we need more public housing. It works when the necessary tools and processes are put in place. There is no reason to subsidize private landlords when we can build and manage publicly owned homes directly. 

Most people think of towers-in-the park megablocks that fell into disrepair and became crime riddled. That did happen in many areas, but it also didn’t happen in many public housing complexes, particularly in NYC. Committed funding, competent management, and empowered tenants have been the winning formula for many years with NYCHA even as its funding gap has eroded that in more recent years to tragic results. The playbook exists, however.

There are also new ways to think about public housing. Instead of building new developments, we can preserve exiting communities by converting housing into municipal land trusts. This is already happening in Houston’s Third Ward. The city owns the land and removes it from the speculative market and a community board of elected officials and residents runs it. This would address many of the concerns of displacement and affordability. It would take federal funding to maintain, but would that be as much as subsidizing rent or a massive building program? Definitely not.

Stop wasting public money on dumb shit

The final point is much larger than a few paragraphs, but it warrants repeating. We give away too much public money to powerful, private interests — at all levels of government. We can absolutely afford to address the housing crisis if we stop subsidizing these interests.

We spend trillions of public dollars on our military and national security complexes - enriching contractors, arms manufacturers, and many other private actors. These things murder lots of people, erode our civil rights, and generally keep us permanently afraid. 

We spend billions of public dollars on local pet projects like stadiums, casinos, and privately-owned mixed-use developments — that in most cases turn around and charge us to use them.

There are laws on the books that are supposed to manage these costs or outright prevent them from happening and yet our money keeps getting hoovered up on policies that the majority of us don’t support. Until we hold our elected leaders accountable for spending our public resources on priorities we do support, this will never change. (I have no time for people who think we shouldn’t spend public money in general.)

That goes back to my earlier point. The housing crisis is a crisis of late capitalism. We can’t fix housing without fixing our economy and our politics. That means rejecting the premise that the market is the sacred end all be all that we all must slave away for. It means rejecting the idea that the accumulation of wealth is the best and highest use of our labor and our resources. 

It is encouraging that Senators Harris and Booker are moving in the right direction, even if these bills are dead on arrival and flawed on their face. They are creatures of this system and even the smallest acknowledgement from them that it is failing is reason to be optimistic that our political process can evolve to fix it.

CityViews: Why Quibble Over Who's 'Homeless'? We Can Afford Housing as a Right for All. (via CityLimits)

 (dod/citylimits)

(dod/citylimits)

(This article was originally published in CityLimits)

What does it mean to be homeless? Does it mean that you live on the street or can it mean you live on someone’s couch? Is the homelessness rate going up or going down? As with all public policy matters, the devil is in the definitions. There’s a bill moving along in Congress called the Homeless Child and Youth Act that’s trying to expand the definition of ‘homeless,’ which is causing an interesting, if distracting, debate within the housing community. (Rachel Cohen has a good recap at CityLab.)

This debate matters a great deal to a lot of homeless people that need help. Just exactly how many people are homeless depends on what you consider homeless. There is a finite amount of federal funding for homelessness services and where we send these funds impacts a lot of peoples’ lives. 

The bill is designed to expand the definition of homelessness to capture people, particularly children, that don’t live on the street or in shelters, but don’t have their own reliable or safe homes (maybe they are doubling up, maybe they live in an abusive home). Right now these people are not considered homeless by HUD standards (although other federal agencies do consider them homeless) and are therefore not eligible for assistance (more on this later.)

The debate comes down to who do you help with limited resources: the truly, chronically homeless that might take a longer-term intervention or the housing insecure that might just need a short-term intervention? It’s a Sophie’s Choice type trade off that all sides of the political spectrum with a dog in this fight can debate in good faith.

I’ve been a longtime volunteer for the HOPE count, which is the main federal effort to count unsheltered homeless, so I care a great deal about this debate too. But I’m more interested in where the sausage is made: the nature of politics that surrounds public policy . Often times in America, our politics frame public policy debates in strikingly narrow terms that shroud the values that should be expressed, leaving us with false choices masked as hard-fought compromises. 

Housing as an issue suffers a lot from this and the current debate over the definition of homelessness is a perfect example. Of course no one is “pro-homelessness” but the accepted scope of the debate has the practical effect of making everyone pro-homelessness. Why? Because the debate isn’t about ending homelessness. And it should be. Because we can.

Let’s start with a simple premise: we are the wealthiest nation on earth. We can afford our public policy goals. The federal budget is $4 trillion. That is plenty of money.

However, our political system has spent about $5.6 trillion on war over the last 18 years and another $2.3 trillion will be spent on a tax cut over the next 18 (give or take.) These are choices our political system has made. 

Similarly, millions of Americans still don’t have affordable healthcare and 38 million American households are considered “rent burdened” (which is another important and arguably flawed definition). Just as going to war in the Middle East and cutting taxes for corporations are choices, so too are these. Our political system has decided not to provide basic needs.

Not because we can’t afford them. Don’t ever believe that bullshit. Of course we can afford them. Holy Shit. Obviously. None of this is new.

This brings me back to the homelessness bill. It is politics framing, frankly distorting, a public policy issue that should be very simple — end homelessness. Anyone that needs housing assistance gets it. 

Make housing a right. It is that simple.

It’s scandalous that we would rather blow up homes (and you know, people) in foreign countries than supply them to anyone who needs them in ours. We could probably still afford to do both, but the scandal scandal of is our war-making. Of course this opinion is rarely taken seriously by “serious” people, which also shows how broken our political premises are. I digress.

It’s scandalous because we should feel the moral obligation to provide shelter, but don’t. It’s scandalous because we have the means to do so, but choice not to. It’s scandalous because there are countless sound economic arguments that providing guaranteed housing reduces long-term public spending in other things like healthcare, unemployment, and even criminal justice.

This bill accepts all three terrible premises. Sure, naming something after children makes it easier to build political support for the homeless, but it shows that our definition of the deserving poor continues to narrow and excludes adults suffering with disabilities, addiction, or just poverty. Even children aren’t doing it for a lot of people anymore.

Sure, expanding the definition of homelessness could mean reaching more people who need assistance, but it still accepts that only 1/4 Americans who are even eligible (under any definition) get any. Even if some programs have seen an increase in funding, others haven’t, and most people don’t get help.

And it doesn’t raise the most obvious and scandalous point: that we are already fine guaranteeing housing assistance, but for wealthy people. Every homeowner is eligible for the mortgage interest deduction and the American taxpayer pays around $70 billion a year providing it. We spend $134 billion overall on subsidizing homeownership. Remember that when politicians say we can’t afford to end homelessness.

It is clear that our politics are broken. Our public and civic health have continued to deteriorate as a result. Bills like this are important in their own right, but its low ambition betrays a lack of moral vision and energy that should shock any American. 

But there is hope. There are many candidates, notably NYC progressives Alex Ocasio-Cortez at the Congressional level and Julia Salazar at the State Senate level that are running on housing as a right. Even Senator Kamala Harris is belatedly getting in further on housing more than traditional Dems have (ironically based on similar work by Rep. Joseph Crowley). 

Politicians who support housing as a right get what many activists get: the only way to fix our politics is to reject the premises that they rest on. Activists have noticed, but more importantly, everyday people have noticed. It’s not enough to write bills yet, but, for the first time in a long time, it sure feels like that vision and energy might be on the way.

Late Capitalism is coming for the last pillar of the American Dream

 Bullseye (nationalrealestateinvestor)

Bullseye (nationalrealestateinvestor)

Today the Wall Street Journal and its dizzying “everything is fine” tone explored the booming sector of home-buying. We’ve built our entire economy and political cultural around homeownership in the US, so you can see why this could be a good thing. But it is not. It is a terrible thing.

That’s because the people buying these homes aren’t people at all. They are “sovereign-wealth funds, insurance companies, hedge funds, pensions, [and] asset managers” and they are buying bundles of single-family homes with the clear intention of renting them for the long-term. In fact, many of these groups are raising billions of dollars to expand their portfolios. 

I’ve written about how Wall Street is becoming a lot of peoples’ landlord, and how it exposes how fraudulent US housing policy is, but the trend is only getting bigger and scarier. The biggest players in this new market own thousands of single-family homes, mostly in markets like Atlanta, Phoenix, or Nashville where populations are growing. They are squeezing out many potential homeowners in the process.

The economics are clear and deeply cynical. Mega-financial institutions are taking advantage of the average American’s inability to buy a home because of high debts and low wages on the household-side and higher mortgage rates/prices and leaner inventories on the market-side. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, these institutions still reap all the government-subsidized benefits of homeownership that were designed to be passed along to families. I’ve written about the $134 billion the US government spends a year on subsidizing homeownership, most of which goes to wealthy home-owners already. It’s insanely wasteful and deeply unfair. But does anyone want a hedge fund to get tax breaks for owning a home and renting it out to a cash-strapped family?

Homeownership policy is broken. Housing policy is broken. Our economy is broken. Nothing screams this more than late capitalism’s calculated lunge towards single-family homes, the final pillar of the American Dream. Wall Street and the investor class get how broken our economy is and respond by exploiting it. And they aren’t even pretending to care about optics:

‘“The American dream no longer includes homeownership,” said Jordan Kavana, chief executive of Transcendent Investment Management LLC, a south Florida firm that has been a big acquirer of rental homes. “You will earn your equity in other ways, not your home.”’

I’m not sure where Mr. Kavana assumes this new source of equity will come from, but given that few Americans own stock and most draw their wealth from their homes, the options appear to be limited. But that’s your problem.

The new, frightening (and baffling) development is that many of these cash-rich entities are building new housing expressly for foreign owners — expressly as rental/investment properties. Mr. Kavana goes on to say that these investors “Get that this [homeownership] is the lynchpin of the American economy.”

The paradox of identifying (correctly) that homeownership is the lynchpin of the economy while actively subverting it goes unaddressed in this article, but it gets to the core of this market play. 

These institutions know that the game is up for most Americans. They know that many young Americans can’t (and won’t) afford to buy homes and many baby boomers will eventually be forced to sell. They know that special interests have frozen any ability to politically address the structural deficiencies in housing policy or for that matter the American economy. They know that at best politicians from both parties are going to pound their chests about homeownership, perhaps offer some empty new incentives around the margins, declare victory, and move on. They know that they can continue to reap the rewards of homeownership subsides while sitting on ever-increasing housing prices as the housing crisis grinds on.

They know that this is a cash cow for their shareholders and will be for a long time.

We should all be sounding the alarm at this outrage. It’s outrageous on the face of it as this new normal goes against everything that 80 years of bi-partisan domestic policy was created to foster (as flawed and racist as it was), but its even more outrageous given that we are only 10 years removed from the damage caused from the Great Recession — damage caused by many of these same actors under these same structural realities in housing. For many Americans, my generation included, we will never recover from it.

The Great Recession may have ultimately been triggered by the exotic and fraudulent nature of mortgage-backed securities, but it really happened because people couldn’t afford their homes.

That is even more true today: household debt is $13.2 trillion, which is half a trillion dollars higher than the previous record set in 2008. Real wages for the majority of Americans have barely moved in forty years. Wealth inequality has skyrocketed over that same period. Generational wealth passed though home equity is the only path for most first-time homebuyers, furthering racial and demographic wealth gaps.

What happens when the next downturn comes? Sure, it may actually benefit some families who don’t own their homes — these institutions can in theory weather it better than individual homeowners (or get bailed out before a homeowner would). They could lower rents to keep some cash coming in. In turn that could give families more flexibility and mobility. But somehow I don’t think the average American family will be that much better prepared than last time.

Housing policy rarely gets the attention it deserves, which is maddening and disheartening. There are certainly many fires and leaks spreading across the land, but it all starts with home. If our entire economy and political structure is built on the fundamental concept that you will own a home, then we are entering unchartered water if that stops being the case. There could be benefits for our economy moving away from homeownership, but simply turning it over to hedge funds and foreign investors could further destabilize our fragmented country while only benefiting a tiny sliver of the super-wealthy.

The investor class has taken nearly all of the wealth created over the last 30 years and gotten away with it. Now it’s coming for our homes and appears to be getting away with that too. If we lived in a healthier political climate with a clear moral north star, this would be met with bi-partisan condemnation. But if we’ve learned anything about late capitalism, it’s that no one is coming to save us. We must do it on our own.

We should all be worried that the housing market is so bad while the economy is so 'good'

 Amen. (s.h.a.r.p.)

Amen. (s.h.a.r.p.)

 

Last week, The Join Center for Housing Studies at Harvard released their 30th annual report on the state of housing in the US. With a few exceptions, the picture is bleak. At every corner there are major red flags about the present and future of housing in the US for owners and renters alike. What is clear, a full decade after the foreclosure crisis, is that the housing market is at best exacerbating wealth inequality and at worst sowing the seeds for an even more destructive economic downturn. This is all happening while the national economy is allegedly roaring along. And that should scare all of us.

Let’s start with the most important point: for a lot of Americans, there is simply no evidence that the economy is doing well. Sure, the stock market is up and unemployment continues to fall.

These data points have long been two popular shorthands for talking about our economy’s health, but it’s hard to believe that it is healthy when 40% of adults don’t have $400 on hand to cover an emergency. The ‘millennial’ generation is already 34% poorer than previous generations at the same age. Clearly, if we think this is a good economy, how we measure it and how we talk about it are deeply flawed.

Who cares about the stock market when half of Americans don’t own stock and the richest 10% of Americans own 84% of them? Who cares about a low unemployment rate when wages aren’t increasing and most job creation is in low-wage, high-insecurity positions? Who cares about how well the economy is doing if the richest 1% captured 82% of wealth created last year while the bottom 50% captured none?

The crooked nature of our housing market is making this all worse, perhaps for generations to come. The JCHS report reflects this widening wealth gap and its impact on housing in the US with some startling stats. It breaks down into troubling dichotomies between renters vs owners, wealthy vs everyone else, old vs young, white vs not-white. It’s worth picking out some quick ones and related stats:

  • 38 million American households (owners and renters) are cost burdened
  • Half of all renters are cost burdened (which has doubled over the last 50 years) and a quarter are severely burdened
  • Rents and home prices have risen 20% and 41% respectively over inflation in the last 30 years
  • Homeowners have on average 46 times the net wealth of renters
  • Overall, since 1960, wages have gone up 5% while rent payments have gone up 61%
  • Minority homeowners have half the net wealth as white homeowners and their homeownership rate is falling
  • Since 2000, the number of Americans living in poverty has increased by 28%t to 12.8 million
  • During the same period, the number of high-poverty census tracks grew by 53%
  • 51% of blacks and 44% of latinos live in areas of concentrated poverty, compared to just 17% of whites.
  • In 2016, 1.4 million people (including 175,000 families with children) were homeless at some point during the year
  • 56% of homeless live in the highest cost metros
  • 83% of homeless families experience it acutely as a product of eviction

This is during 9 years of continued growth that has little historic precedent.

The report highlights a couple of under-appreciated factors causing these stresses: the aging population of the country, the decrease in immigration, and the concentration of economic opportunity in fewer geographies, industries, and individuals. These all represent “new normals” that so far have failed to be acknowledged at the national policy level.

One factor that the report covers in great detail is obvious: we aren’t building enough homes, anywhere. Most urban centers, and virtually all of them in coastal regions, are not building enough housing to meet the economic growth (and concentration, relative to other regions) they are experiencing. That’s partly why mobility, an actual sign of economic and social health, has collapsed in the US.

Some of this is the problematic regulatory regimes of individual cities, but largely its the cost of land, labor, and materials, which has gone up across the country. The lack of productivity gains in the construction industry, whether for single-family or multi-family, is a major problem and doesn’t get nearly enough attention from the media, academics, or policy makers. While many industries are slowly starting to see gains from the IT revolution (while others are shrinking), construction hasn’t.

That’s not hard to understand. The industry was built on cheap labor and cheap land — those are not inputs that demand innovation. Add in 80 plus years of massive government subsidies either from financial guarantees or infrastructure spending, and what you get is a cartel of mostly local/small groups of very profitable players that have never needed a culture of innovation. Instead, they have formed a culture of protection that has largely manifested in spending millions to support their local political status quo.

Today cheap land and cheap labor are harder to come by, but, for the most part, public subsidies are still available. So we have in place a perverse system where an already-outdated industry has little ability or incentive to adapt that is matched with an equally outdated and inflexible policy regime. That’s a recipe for a disaster, which is what we are living through.

This is all to say that, of course our housing market isn’t providing enough housing (except at the top, where it is producing too much). But it is operating in a state that our policy makers can’t seem to recognize reflects a larger political failure. None of these problem are going away. They are, in fact, going to get worse.

That’s because, inevitably, the economy will sputter again. So what happens when it does? 10 years ago it meant the greatest economic crisis since the great depression. I’m not suggesting we are due for another foreclosure crisis, but at the same time, we haven’t fixed the underlying problems people have that caused it. Primarily, those problems include people not making enough money, having too much debt, and not having a lot of flexibility if the economy tightens suddenly. That has gotten worse since the great recession. Remember, 40% of Americans don’t have $400 on hand for an emergency.

People are barely getting by right now during a ‘good’ climate, but what about the government?

You can make a lot of complaints about how President Bush and President Obama handled the crisis ten years ago. (It is clear that both administrations focused on the financial system at the expense of the individual household. There were more options on the table than that and we’ve been suffering from what ended up being a blanket immunity for the financial industry ever since.) But they both worked together during the transition and both drew from a deep well of experts with steady hands and public trust. It could have gotten a lot worse, but it didn’t. As flawed as the process ultimately was, that’s what we expect of our government.

Nobody in their right mind can say that the current administration has steady hands or public trust. Obviously, the President clearly doesn’t understand economics and doesn’t know what he is doing other than exploiting racial animus. But look across the cabinet — HUD Secretary Carson thinks poor people should have a harder time and doesn’t know what he’s doing. Commerce Secretary Ross is spewing conspiracy theories about soybeans and doesn’t know what he is doing. Treasury Secretary Mnunchin either doesn’t understand the tax cut or is still lying about it and doesn’t know what he is doing.

Does anyone expect the Trump administration to handle a downturn well or honestly? Have they shown any ability to think strategically on policy? Or to even execute a policy well? The inevitable downturn will cause pressure on this administration that we have no reason to believe it can handle.

Even if we had a more predictable political landscape than we do today, we have fewer policy tools available to deal with a significant downturn. The government is starved for revenue and will get worse over the life of the tax cut. Republicans plan to come for the safety net next. Even the Fed, though in steady hands for the most part, has fewer policy tricks up its sleeves than last time even if it somehow remains insulated from political pressure or partisan erosion that has crippled other institutions in the Trump Era. Will it still be immune when a crisis hits?

It’s not hard to see what has to change. Fundamentally, the public needs to claw back a large portion of that 82% of wealth created in the last year (and over the previous decades) in order to raise our collective standard of living. We need to reject the money-fueled political status quo at the federal and local levels that have killed long-term planning and prevented big ideas from entering the public discussion. And we need to reboot our social and economic contract that currently makes education, healthcare, and childcare/elderly care prohibitively expensive.

Fixing the housing market can go along way to starting this process. Housing is a right and should be the baseline for any public or private policy goals. We need a robust private sector to support housing, but we need to incentivize innovation by shaking up the tired regulatory and subsidy process. Public goals for the private sector should move towards equitable access, community ownership, and sustainable affordability. Public ownership of housing (which was not even covered in the JCHS report) must be expanded with direct ownership of housing and direct ownership of land.

It’s not hard to see what has to change, but it is hard right now to see how or where that change begins. The last great opportunity to have this conversation occurred during the great recession and it was ultimately squandered. It is hard to see how we even weather the next downturn in whatever form it comes let alone how we begin a massive reboot in housing. That might be the best we can hope for, but it is not what we need.

What startups can teach community land trusts about narrative

 You just need to sell it to people (neweconomyproject)

You just need to sell it to people (neweconomyproject)

Recently, Grounded Solutions Network, which is the national umbrella organization for community land trusts, received $1 million from Citibank’s development arm to form an accelerator to launch more CLTs. As a housing advocate, a startup founder, and a tech educator who runs an accelerator, I’m excited. I’ll talk about the accelerator in a moment, but I’m particularly excited because it finally gives me a chance to talk about all three through the power of narrative. Forming a strong narrative is drilled into startups from the get-go, but the housing community, so far, has failed to appreciate its importance, or at least how to do it right. That might be changing.

A bit of background first. I got involved with the community land trust movement 6 years ago to help solve the foreclosure crisis in Brooklyn. As part of a grad school studio at Columbia, we were contracted by the New Economy Project (they were NEDAP at the time) to come up with a way to protect minority homeowners from losing their homes or to regain their lost homes from the particularly heinous predatory lending practices that laid waist to many majority-minority communities. (The foreclosure crisis has never endedin these communities, by the way.)

While working with visiting professor Jeffrey Lowe and the legendary Peter Marcuse, we were able to study the CLT model in great depth. I visited and researched the Lake Champlain CLT in Burlington, VT (the biggest CLT in the country) and Dudley Street Neighbors Initiative in Boston, MA (the first community group to be granted powers of eminent domain).

I was and remain enamored by the story of these organizations and the people that made them possible. The CLT model changed the destiny of these communities. It created permanent, community-controlled affordable housing in places largely abandoned by the public and private sectors. These people showed how working together against unbelievable odds could make something big happen.

Their stories made me believe that CLTs could happen in NYC. By the end of the studio, we began crafting a vision for how the model could work and how it could help these homeowners and communities who had been sacked by the financial industry. It was a very exciting time.

However, most people in city government had no idea what a CLT was or flat out laughed at a bunch of lefty grad school students and community groups for suggesting that it could work in the real estate capital of the world (that is slowly changing). This is despite the presence and decades-long success of Cooper Square, the first CLT formed in NYC. Even in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, when the city was taking over hundreds of properties, the model never found an audience. In retrospect, we put a lot of work into research and policy, but failed to appreciate how crafting a good narrative could get people’s attention.

At the same time, on an entirely unrelated note, I was launching my first startup company, Brightbox. (Going to grad school for urban planning and building a tech company confused a lot of people -including my parents- at the time) Brigthbox is a secure cellphone charger for bars, nightclubs, and restaurants that allows people to charge their phones when they need to. My good friend Adam Johnson came up with the idea while we were bartenders in NYC’s Meatpacking District dealing with this problem every night. Our experience as scene-y bartenders gave our product two key insights —highlight security and sexiness. Through some grit, dumb luck, and smart luck, we got funding and began the Quest to Scale into other markets and sectors with some notable ups and downs.

Along the way, there was one key lesson that we could always come back to for guidance — no matter who we worked with, whether it was a dive bar or Disney, as much as they liked seeing the product, they loved hearing the story about how we were bartenders. We saw an everyday problem first hand and did something to solve it. It is a great story.

To this day, it is clear to me that the power of that narrative — simple, plucky, aspirational — is what took Brightbox from a literal cocktail napkin idea to a business with hundreds of kiosks across the country and world. (One of my former coworkers just shared a Facebook memory from Internet Week 2012, where Brightbox shared a small booth in the back corner of an event with Uber. We obviously didn’t learn how to scale compared to them.)

Telling a good story is the foundation for growing a startup company (or a campaign or a religion). It’s what attracts users, talent, and investors that ultimately help build the product and the business. I have kept that lesson with me as I have started my second company, homeBody, and we drill it in to my students at CUNY Startups: Everything is built on the power of your unique narrative. There’s a big problem a lot of people have. But there’s an elegant solution. You’re the one who can make it. You’re the one who can get it to people. A lot of people. And it’s going to change everything.

This urgently needs to happen with the affordable housing crisis. The crisis is massive and painful, but housing advocates have not been able to craft a narrative to solve it that captures the nation’s attention. Coincidentally, as I worked on this blog this week, Citylab had an article about the nonprofit agency Public Interest who is trying to make an “Inconvenient Truth” type doc about the crisis to do just that. I hope they do it.

That’s why I’m so excited about Grounded Solutions CLT accelerator. It shows that a powerful narrative is forming about how to solve the housing crisis: communities taking control. First, the fact that Citibank is investing in it shows that at least some major financial institutions are coming around to the model. I have no love for the financial industry or its role in creating the housing crisis, but there is no way to solve it without them playing some role either. Second, creating a formal structure to grow more local CLTs spreads the model to more organizations and more communities. The more people hear about CLTs, the more they like them. The more they get started and succeed in one place, the more they will get started and succeed in other places.

The Ground Solutions accelerator isn’t like a traditional startup accelerator, but calling it that shows a willingness to adopt a startup vernacular, which is an important signal to the public (and press) that there is something cutting edge going on in the housing crisis. I hope that insight is embraced within the accelerator as well — Leveraging technology to form and manage CLTs; Adopting branding and growth hacking techniques to gain support; telling a compelling story to secure stakeholders in the community.

I’m excited to see the beginning of a convergence with my startup experience and my housing experience. Of course there are unique complexities in trying to scale a community-based model of housing that don’t compare to scaling a hardware startup, but there is at least one major similarity. It’s a heck of a story.

There is a massive, wide spread problem (phone batteries die, housing is too expensive) with a really simple, elegant solution (secure phone charger, community-owned housing.) As the accelerator gets off the ground, I hope that Grounded Solutions, their local partners, and other housing advocates continue to embrace the tools startups use to craft their narrative. The CLT model can be a game changer in the housing crisis if more people hear its story.

The Fight Over SB-827 Shows Why We Need a Massive National Plan for Housing — Again

 The Williamsburg Houses (1938) still provides 1,630 homes for 3,121 New Yorkers. (nycarchitecture)

The Williamsburg Houses (1938) still provides 1,630 homes for 3,121 New Yorkers. (nycarchitecture)

This week in California, public hearings have begun on SB-827, the bill (which is a series of bills actually) proposed by State Senator Scott Weiner from San Francisco which calls for a radical realignment of housing policy away from single-family car-centric development to multi-family transit oriented development. It didn’t take long for it to get ugly. The battle lines for and against the bill have skewed the typical partisanship we’ve come to expect in American politics, pitting NIMBYists (homeowners, many of whom would otherwise lean progressive) against YIMBYists (a wider range of pro-market and even anti-market interests). It will absolutely get uglier.

That’s because the stakes couldn’t be higher. Along with California, the entire nation has been locked in an unprecedented affordable housing crisis and to solve it someone has to lose — big. Until that reality is faced, this crisis has no end in sight. 

The housing crisis won’t end until we stop calling it a housing crisis and start calling it what it is — a crisis of capitalism in housing. 80 years of housing policy that viewed it as a form of wealth creation has severely damaged our communities and our economy. It has racially stratified our society and left millions behind. It has ecsaserbated our climate’s instability. 

If we want to “fix” the housing crisis we need to fix capitalism. In the long run that means changing how we view — and finance, build, and use — housing. That obviously won’t happen over night. But we can start by looking at how we solved previous housing crises in the US. 

When has the market solved a previous housing crisis? Never. 

The scale and length of the current housing crisis is unique in American history, but housing shortages are not. What is also unique today is the lack of national policy initiatives to fight it. 

Many people (including many supporters of SB-827) will argue that we don’t need national policy. We justt need to unleash the free market to match supply with demand. That’s a nice idea, but we’ve tried that before.

New York City is the perfect example of what happens when you rely on the market. From 1890 to 1920 the city’s population grew from 2.5m to 5.6m due to a massive wave of immigration. The unregulated housing stock at the time was already overwhelmed and hellish (the tenement-dominated Lower East Side was the one of the densest areas on earth) but it couldn’t keep up with such a huge population increase. Even as the city physically expanded and private development sprung up further from lower Manhattan, adequate, affordable housing was hard to find the majority of the population.

There was minimal government intervention in housing at the time — this was pure market. It was before land use, occupancy, or even fire safety regulations let alone government sponsored housing. The city did however finance rapid transit, thereby indirectly subsidizing the construction of new housing on vast tracks of cheap green development in the boroughs— yet at no point was the private market willing or able to create enough affordable housing for the growing city. Expensive slums still persisted.

It should be noted that the federal government did build public housing during the tale end of this period in other parts of the US. During World War I, a massive influx of labor around war time production put a severe burden on port and industrial cities’ housing supply, causing inflation and price spikes. (A large part of this influx was the beginning of The Great Migration, which saw over 6 million African-American families move from the rural south to the urban north and west.)

The federal government built thousands of housing units for workers — although many of them were purposefully constructed as temporary to avoid angering local real estate interests who lobbied against the effort even during wartime. The market was and never will be interested in meeting demand.

How were previous crises solved? The federal government.

The housing crisis in NYC continued even in the boom years of the 1920s and came to head during the Great Depression. Millions of Americans lost their homes (whether they owned or rented) and were forced into dangerous tenements or shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles.” The market ceased to exist in any conventional sense.

Famously, President Roosevelt was able to enact the New Deal, which was a set of legislation that radically changed the relationship between the federal government and the economy. The two housing bills of 1934 and 1937 were, ultimately, a mixed blessing.

On the positive side, the scale of the Depression obliterated the ideological arguments against intervening in the housing crisis and spawned the first wave of public housing construction across the country. In conjunction with local governments, the federal government sponsored thousands of modern, clean housing complexes — in cities and in more rural parts of the country. Millions of Americans — the majority of which were middle or working class — received access to affordable housing never seen before.

On the negative side, the New Deal legislation racially segregated public housing and in fact displaced many communities of color to build public housing for white residents.

Even more damaging in the long the run, this was the beginning of massive subsidies for single-family housing. Originally conceived as a construction industry bail-out, the Federal Housing Administration would set the precedent of backing mortgages (for whites) that evolved into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

These policy decisions have shaped the physical definition of America and the social and economic destiny of all Americans. It is no stretch to say that these polices set the country on a course that would inevitably lead to our current crisis. 

This time must be different. 

It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to think about what could have been different. Had the federal government intervened with public housing sooner, at the beginning of the 20th century, would it have demonstrated its value in different, smaller scale models that could have gained more political currency? Could the federal government have intervened by creating more mass transit and denser suburbs before the advent of the automobile? Could the it have avoided the racism that doomed a large segment of Americans and cities for generations?

Could we have avoided the tragedy of building our national and personal economic prosperity on homeownership? 

These questions are important to ask because we must learn from the past if we are to truly solve this housing crisis. The short answer for all of these are yes, if we valued the public good over private interests. If we valued democratic outcomes over market outcomes. If we valued shelter before wealth. If we stopped equating the market with virtue or even basic efficiency.

It starts by learning the lessons from the fight over SB-827. Homeowner interests can not come before the public interest. Local towns can not implicitly segregate themselves through down-zoning — at least near public transit (and extend that publicly-funded highways.) Special interests can not kill the democratic process.

Next, it means avoiding the failed lessons of relying on the market with minimal regulation from the early 20th century and avoiding the failed lessons of the New Deal focus on homeownership and slum clearance as national policy goals. We need more public housing in addition to more density. This is the only way to ensure that displacement doesn’t ruin another generation of low-income families chances of mobility. 

It means addressing the bigger problems inherent in our choice to make homeownership a priority because it drives wealth creation. There is nothing wrong with promoting homeownership, but doing so by warping the true cost of it is irresponsible. We learned that during the Great Recession and then quickly forgot it. We must finally address this at the national level. 

Finally, we must address the larger errors within capitalism that have warped what a home is. We can’t allow homes to be speculated on by private equity firms, international investors, or even flipping enthusiasts. Homes are for living in, not extracting profit from. 

We can’t allow homes to be the sole or majority source of a household’s wealth. It’s no wonder that homeowners freak out about potential risks to their home values — for too many Americans their perceived value is their only economic security. That is absurd and will likely trigger another major economic crisis in the years ahead. 

The only way to do all of this is for the federal government to intervene with the resolve of a national emergency. We must push for our elected officials to make the difficult decisions and political sacrifices to ensure that Americans can find affordable housing everywhere. The stakes are clear. The costs of inaction are clear. The way forward remains unclear.

Latest Trump Attack on Cities Shows We Need a Constitutional Amendment to Recognize Them

 (federalistpapers)

(federalistpapers)

Last week the Trump Administration announced that it will be adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census for the first time since 1950 (it has been part of the smaller, more targeted American Community Survey). By loudly adding this question, the administration is clearly hoping to suppress participation by immigrant communities, which is part of its broader effort to demonize, marginalize, and ultimately reduce immigrants in the US — legal or illegal.

If the plan works, the overall populations of cities across the country will be undercounted, leading to a loss of political power and financial resources. This is just one of many ways that this administration has purposefully (although sloppily) tried to undermine America’s cities since taking office.

The best way to stop this is to change the Constitution.

Before you eye roll your way off of this blog post, hear me out on two points. First, I know this is unlikely to ever be a serious political conversation. Second, this argument has little to do with President Trump and more to do with states.

Cities don’t exist in the US Constitution. Any governing power not explicitly allocated to the federal government, the people, or the states rests with the states as outlined in the 10th Amendment. This structure is a product of the country’s origins as separate (competing) colonies and the Founding Father’s fears of centralized government.

Those fears are wildly misunderstoodth to be a product of the Revolutionary War’s struggle against a despotic monarch, but the story is more complicated than that. There were many factions within British and American political life that get flattened by that narrative. I don’t want to go off on a historical tangent (actually, I’d love to), but the point is the war and the aftermath that led to the Constitutional Convention can really be seen as a conflict over local control.

All of this is to say that the Founding Fathers designed our system to prevent the concentration of power in any single person or people (that’s why we are a republic and not a democracy). It was also obviously designed to prevent the majority of the population from participating in government or to even be counted as people, so we can take a lot of this rhetoric with a grain of salt and adjust accordingly (RIP Anthony Scalia). Regardless of these failures in practice, the overarching theories embedded within the Constitution are based on principles of personal liberty, self-government, and checks and balances — at the federal level.

State governments were viewed as a check against an overly aggressive federal government. However, the opposite was not true. The US Constitution did not protect citizens from their state governments.

The Guarantee Clause in Article 4 Section 4 outlines that the federal government will guarantee a republican form of government in each state but fails to elaborate on what that means and what agency the government has to enforce it. The Constitution doesn’t even require state’s to have their own constitution.

This seems like a pretty big oversight if the point of the Constitution is to maintain personal liberty, self-government, and a system of checks and balances. But the Founders were primarily concerned with limiting the power of the federal government to act harshly and the people to act rashly. As strange as it seems to us that the founders would be skeptical of federal government, but not state government, it makes more sense contextually.

States had their own forms of charters or constitutions that predate the Revolutionary War (shout out to my home state of Connecticut for being the first). The Founding Fathers were already used to the role of state governments and saw their state as their default identifier. It was clear that a states-first arrangement failed with the Articles of Confederation, but it still served as the primary organizing principle for the Constitution.

This is why they are silent about the role of state government and their obligations to individuals within states. It was largely an afterthought that simple proximity would make state governments more responsive to its citizens. As far as these men were concerned, state governments were more responsive (virtually all of them were highly powerful in their respective states). This assumption seems laughable given how domestic US history has played out for most other people.

This issue of ignoring the responsibility of states to their citizens wouldn’t be addressed in law until the the first civil rights era (resulting in the Reconstruction Amendments) and the 20th century Civil Rights era, (the last great achievement, the Fair Housing Act, is celebrating its 50th anniversarythis week). Outside of these radical (and ultimately short-lived) moments in US history, the idea that the federal government is the protector of individual liberty, including from state repression, has had a drastically smaller following than those who think the federal government impedes personal liberty.

I don’t have much time for people who argued that the federal government became despotic under President Obama or who argue for states’ rights in general. Historically and, alarmingly, contemporarily, that term has been a racial dog whistle or partisan war cry more than a concrete philosophical argument. The inherent distrust of federal government and unjustified trust in state government has been embedded in our political DNA with disastrous results.

That brings us to cities. Yes, President Trump is nakedly hostile to the political power of cities and their residents. He wants to punish sanctuary cities; he wants to drastically cut affordable housing funding; he wants to cut transportation funding; That he has failed so far shouldn’t make us less vigilant. The weaponization of the Census is certainly a way to harm cities for a generation to come.

But the real problem for cities is at the state level. Many conservative state lawmakers who protest federal overreach into local control have no such qualms about superseding cities’ governing power within their states. Bathrooms in North Carolina and gun laws in Florida have made national headlines, but many state governments have blocked cities from attempting to address local issues that reflect their population’s preferences.

This is true even in seemingly liberal states. Globally powerful cities like NYC or Chicago are handcuffed by state governments who control spending on major policy decisions and are often dominated by rural political interests or well-funded and coordinated special interests. NYC has a particularly challenging environment dealing with Albany, but also must work with New Jersey and Connecticut with limited success, particularly on transportation policy.

The US Constitution has always favored smaller, rural populations by vesting so much power in the Senate and granting each state two senators regardless of population. This divide has consistently undercut the political power of cities (and of minorities, immigrants, and the working class who historically concentrated in cities) but much of the economic power of the country was still split evenly between agricultural and industrial interests, giving some cover of justification. That is no longer true.

As the economy increasingly moves into technology-based services, cities have become the undeniable economic and cultural engines of the US. The 20 largest metro areas produce over 50% of the national GDP.

The 2016 Presidential Election exposed this deepening split dramatically. Secretary Clinton won less than 500 counties (to President Trump’s 2,600), but won the popular vote by over 3 million votes. That’s because most of her support was concentrated around major metropolitan areas. These counties represent 64% of US GDP, but have much less political power than that.

I’m not claiming that economic output should dictate political power (although that has been the de facto reality in our late capitalist age as witnessed by the disproportionate power of wealthy individuals and corporations) but clearly our political system is dangerously unresponsive to the reality of how we are organizing our society in the 21st century.

Without recognizing the unique role that cities play in our evolving society, the US will continue to be flat-footed on issues of environmental degradation, economic inequality, and ethno-nationalism that represent existential threats to our republic.

But what would a constitutional amendment that recognizes cities look like? How much would we need to define a “city”? How would we prevent the erosion of state power? These are complicated questions and deserve a more detailed follow up and debate. However, I think any amendment should tackle two specific topics.

First, it should acknowledge the unique importance of cities to the nation’s health and future by preventing state governments from unfairly superseding the republican outcomes desired by city residents. States may have once been the great laboratories of democracy but today money and the nationalization of politics have ended that. Cities are leading the way on environmental policy, immigration, public safety, and other policies because federal and state politics have failed to lead. They must be allowed to experiment more freely based on the will of their citizens.

An amendment doing so might be something as simple as an add-on to the Guarantee Clause preventing states from superseding cities of a certain size or definition or on certain local matters. In practice, we could use the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (before it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013) as a template for how the federal government could review and intervene on such matters as a right.

Second, it would recognize that many cities span beyond their historic city and state lines and must be allowed to coordinate public policy as a cohesive entity accordingly. Cities should have political oversight into areas that reflect their natural domain, perhaps defined by their commuter-shed or their metropolitan statistical area. Whether this means greater annexation powersor more formal regional organization or both would need to be hashed out, but Congress has created similar entities before like the Appalachian Regional Commission.

You can see from these relatively moderate suggestions that I’m not suggesting ripping up the Constitution or devaluing the state as a political entity. And unlike others who champion modern localism, I don’t believe in giving up on the federal government. Quite the opposite — we need what I have called a national reboot along the lines of the New Deal to create a federal government much more responsive to the challenges and opportunities that will define America in the 21st century.

The Constitution has structural flaws but I believe it is philosophically admirable and has grown when it needs to. Now is such a time. Recognizing cities is an important start but any lasting change must come from removing the power of money in politics. We are fooling ourselves if we think anything else will have the necessary impact to make our republic more representative and more innovative.

Finally, President Trump, his approach to cities, and the larger backlash to cities within the conservative movement are symptoms of a deeper malady facing America. At some point in the next century, we will stop being a majority-white country. For many Americans that fact is met with fear, but it shouldn’t be. If we are as committed to the principles outlined in the Constitution, as we have claimed to be, then we have nothing to fear from more diversity and everything to gain.

Indeed, what is happening demographically in the US could perhaps be considered the Last Great Experiment in self-government. Is America committed to its republican principles that span color and creed or are some of us more committed to a majority-white identity? Cities are already the front line in this battle. The Constitution must be on the right side of it.

Debunking “Tech Will Save Cities”

 Peter Thiel's Dream City - no government, no poor people (smartcityhub)

Peter Thiel's Dream City - no government, no poor people (smartcityhub)

This weekend Emily Badger posted a great story in the New York Times on the supremely stupid concept that pops up across the media and tech landscape about how Tech Saviors (be it individuals or companies) are going to save cities. No, they will not.

Beyond that first point, I’ve gathered a list of things for everybody to keep in mind when reading these stories. Hopefully this will also reach people writing them. I have no illusions that it will reach any of these tech people or companies or that it will change their minds. But if it helps others ignore or stop these clowns, that’s fine.

1. Cities Don’t Need Saving

Cities in America have a variety of problems for sure (and they vary a lot based on size and region.) But it’s important to reject the basic premise that they need to be saved.

This kind of thinking justified disastrous top-down urban renewal projects that devastated cities in the 20th century and betrayed their residents (especially the poor and people of color). Many of our cities’ current problems come from past efforts to ‘save’ them.

“Saving” in this context always seems to exclude or dismiss the agency of the people living in these cities and the institutions that serve them. It’s akin to imperialist European language of “discovering” or “civilizing” North America. No, they didn’t.

Starting with this premise erases the people, institutions, and ideas that are already working to improve cities and will almost by definition lead to solutions that ignore them and their needs.

2. Tech People Aren’t Saviors

The savior complex is rampant in tech culture. Sure, some of this is earnest entrepreneurism and marketing moxie that attracts investors, press, and consumers. Some of it is based on sincerely transformative technology that creates transformative products and services. Some is based on techtopia futurism that believes in positive humanist progress.

But a lot of it is simply bullshit. Bullshit based on a toxic combination of ahistorical libertarianism and insular class privilege. My descriptors here are largely redundant. It’s painfully obvious that anyone holding libertarian beliefs (basically the keystone of Silicon Valley) is ignorant of history and misreading present reality. It’s equally obvious that the upper class (mostly white, mostly male) that dominates tech is insular and profoundly unaware of the consequences of its privilege (although that is slowly starting to dawn on them.)

These same people with these same ideas and pronouncements are the ones that have created the products, services, and behaviors that are currently helping to rip apart the civic fabric of our country and drive up extreme inequality. What’s worse, the initial intellectual small/closed mindedness that created these products has given way to a vast commercial oligopoly that has little incentive or ability to fundamentally fix these problems.

After all this, surely we know better than to trust tech to save us. It will be us that needs to save tech from itself.

3. Technology Won’t Save Cities

It’s bad enough that urban planners speak in technocratic language devoid of values, but it flat out scares me when tech people speak about cities like they are engineering problems.

The core problem of this language is the implicit assumption that there is a right way to engineer cities or that there is an optimal state for how cities should function. It also implies that the existing systems and people running them are doing things wrong.

But these existing systems and people are products of a democratic process (however flawed) that is the only basis for governing legitimacy in our society.

To tech saviors, at best that doesn’t seem to compute or at worst it is part of the problem. This is techno-fascism. Democratic legitimacy is an afterthought in this mindset because it is assumed that of course there is a right way to run things and of course they know better than everyone else what that is.

That’s not how cities work. They are supposed to be contested spaces. The “right way” to run a city is to build a solution that has as much input and consensus as possible, with everybody knowing that it will never be perfect and then getting on with it. It’s messy, but that’s the only legitimate way to maintain a society. If you think technology can replace that, then you don’t respect people and democracy, let alone cities.

There are certainly better ways to organize existing systems and processes within cities — to help them reach more people, perform their tasks cheaper or faster, or to create more of them. Technology can obviously help. No one riding the MTA right now would disagree that it needs upgraded technology and a new leadership structure.

But technology is a means to an end. When we overemphasize the technology part, we fail to define what the end result will be. Who controls this technology? Who runs this technology? Who is served by this technology? Who profits from it? Too often, new technology leads to a smaller, exclusive power center calling the shots for all of us, which leads us to the next point.

4. Tech Doesn’t Want “Better” Cities

For all it’s rhetoric of individual freedom, greater connection, and meritocracy, tech culture actually translates into a rejection of the public sphere and a worship of the Ayn Randian hero-dictator instead.

Big tech in practice fetishizes the private consumer and fears the public citizen.

We may all be on Facebook, have Amazon Prime, and use gmail, but we have individual relationships with those companies. We have very little control as individuals or as a group over what Facebook, Amazon, or Google does or doesn’t do (as is the case with most technology platforms). We are consumers first and only. Their business models rely on that to a disturbing degree.

These companies don’t really want us to act as citizens because a citizen would be skeptical of or outright hostile to the power of these platforms over our public and private life. It would be healthier for society, not so much for the bottomline.

This is especially true in cities, where, if we bother to look, we can easily see how dominant these companies are and how problematic it is. Whether it’s horrible labor practices, creepy privacy issues, or monopolistic bullying, their business models have negative consequences for our society.

Addressing those consequences takes public action. And it could mean a potentially painful loss of economic clout for these companies. There is no way they would willingly help cities at the expense of their shareholders and we shouldn’t expect them to.

All of this is to say that if tech saviors really cared about cities, they would speak in terms of supporting the public life that sustains urban life — both through improving the public institutions that provide services and by helping citizens engage with government and each other. Tech culture isn’t doing that because its business ethos can’t allow it to.

5. Building “New Cities” Isn’t a Thing

Most tech saviors recognize this problem on some level. They don’t want to engage with these existing messy systems in cities and don’t actually have answers for how to ‘save’ them.

For Amazon and Google, this means asking cities instead to hand over large chunks of land, public money, and governing power. Google is doing this in Toronto. Amazon will be doing this somewhere near DC (sorry other finalists, not gonna happen.)

For others, it means trying to build entirely new cities or by influencing developing cities outside of America. The former is an act of folly that ignores geographical legacies that foster development (cities pretty much already exist where they should) and even an elementary school-level awareness of environmental concerns. The later is an act of racist imperialism that shouldn’t be entertained and instead should be punished for believing.

In either case, the fact that most tech saviors don’t imagine engaging with existing cities and residents reveals the fundamental arrogance of this exercise: they aren’t designing these cities for real people living in real cities (definitely not the poor most of all). They might as well keep focusing on Mars.

We have hopefully learned from the mistakes of past policy makers and planners to dismiss the idea of saving cities. We have learned from the mistakes of current tech companies to believe that they are any better.

But at the heart of it, we shouldn’t entertain the grand savior mythology because it allows us to ignore the many small public and private actors that are on the ground helping their cities right now. We need to help these people and these institutions because they actually want to help us.

Counting the Homeless and the Ways We All Fail Them

 (Lawrence'sLense via CityLimits)

(Lawrence'sLense via CityLimits)

(This piece originally appeared in CityLimits) 

Last Monday, a record 4,200 volunteers fanned out across the five boroughs to count how many homeless New Yorkers live outside of the city’s shelter system. The effort was part of the national Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) and has been conducted annually through the Department of Homeless Services since 2005. I don’t know if the numbers are available yet, but last year, 3,900 individuals were counted.

Many of these victims are probably known to DHS, but getting an accurate count of the unsheltered homeless helps identity people that might not know what services are available to them. In addition to the survey, we arrange for anyone who is interested to get picked up and driven to a shelter and we distribute information about comfort centers around the city. On a practical level, the count also sets the amount of additional federal funding the city gets for homeless services — and the city needs all the help it can get.

This is my second year volunteering and, as someone who writes about housing issues a lot, I have been following the shocking rise in homelessness in New York since the Great Recession with increasing alarm. There are 61,000 people in the city’s homeless shelters, the vast majority of them women and children. That is a staggering amount of suffering.

HOPE has put this broader crisis into very concrete and intimate terms for me, as I’m sure it has for all of the volunteers. It has made me stop thinking about homelessness as one big crisis and forced me instead to see what it really is: 61,000 individual crises. It’s all too easy for us not see it that way.

We dehumanize, demonize, and demoralize the homeless in New York City. We dehumanize by referring to them as “the homeless,” a thought-terminating phrase that hides more relevant descriptors like “PTSD-suffering veteran,” “abuse victim,” “addict,” or “mentally/physically-disabled.” And of course, all of these should be further qualified by adding “poor.”

We demonize every time we object to homeless shelters in our neighborhoods. Some argue about a flawed “process” of community engagement, some about the unfair distribution of shelters in poorer neighborhoods. Whatever validity these arguments have doesn’t erase the fact that most of us don’t want homeless people, especially men, around because we are afraid of them and disgusted by them — ignoring the fact that they are the ones who are more likely to be victims of crime and abuse. Our property values will be fine.

We demoralize them because there is no end to this and they know it better than anyone. Imagine the catastrophic events that led someone to being homeless and how that would weigh on that person. Imagine enduring the cycle of shame, confusion, and despair that comes with navigating the limited resources of our shelters and social services. Then imagine that there is no end in sight.

Many of the sheltered homeless are women with children fleeing an abusive home. Many cycle through to supportive homes and on to permanent ones. No doubt there is hope. Tangible, obtainable hope. We should be hearing more about these stories because they are important to champion.

But for too many, especially the people that I have met canvassing for HOPE, where is the actual hope? Are they going to get the medical and mental care they need? Are they going to get the support from the community they deserve? Are they ever going to get a safe, reliable home?

I would be lying if I told any of these men — and I know for sure that I recognized some of them from last year — that I thought so. Maybe they will, but I don’t know. They know better than I do. Many of them were appreciative of our efforts, but in a knowing way that at times made it feel like they were trying to comfort us.

So I’d like to say that participating in HOPE makes me feel good and to an extent it does. I am helping and it does matter. I don’t know how the people of DHS, the NYPD, and other outreach groups manage this on a day-to-day basis. Maybe, at least for one night, I’m helping them carry the weight just a little. I hope that helps too.

But mostly, when I get home at 4 a.m., I feel exhausted, angry, and full of shame. I am not doing enough. We are not doing enough.

I said earlier that I now feel like there are 61,000 crises instead of one big one. But there is one big crisis. Our economic system is obviously failing most of us. Until we fix capitalism — or whatever bizarro form of it we are fooled into accepting — too many New Yorkers will suffer. We are all partaking in a system that demands the dehumanization, demonization, and demoralization of all the poor and vulnerable. Right now, we accept that.

It’s easy to blame the homeless and keep on walking down Broadway. It’s easy to blame the feds for not sending enough funding or the mayor for botching the shelter system and volunteer one night of the year. But these are our sins. I hope that more of us see that because if we do, I know we can change it.

Why Tenants Everywhere Should be Excited About the California Housing Proposal

 The status quo must change, and maybe it is (mercurynews)

The status quo must change, and maybe it is (mercurynews)

Recently, Scott Weiner, a California state senator from San Francisco, proposed several truly radical housing bills. One would remove local land-use controls and establish density minimums around transit, one would create more worker-specific housing, and another would reshape how local data gets used to determine housing allocations. All three would basically do the opposite of what California has done over the last half century and represents a truly exciting reboot for housing policy with implications beyond the state.

Of course, radical change brings lots of resistance, especially from homeowners. Without being familiar with California politics, I can’t speak to the chances of these bills passing, but in a very important way, it doesn’t matter. At this stage in the affordable housing crisis, the fact that such a radical bill has entered the discussion in California should have tenants everywhere excited.

That’s because the most important part about these bill proposals is how radical they are. Housing advocates need to reject the housing policy status quo. Namely, we must evolve away from deferring to the market worship that frames every discussion (which needlessly creates economic and political winners and losers that harm the public interest) and instead embrace larger principles like housing as a right, which creates a shared vision that strengthens the public interest.

You do this by actually proposing huge, far-reaching visions for housing and outlining simple, clear goals that can achieve them. Senator Weiner has made an important contribution to this effort and, perhaps, has shown the way for more state leaders to follow. Here are three key ideas:

  1. Rolling back the power of homeowners

The first bill, SB-827, would supersede any local development restrictions about height and density close to public transportation centers. I’ll talk about the transit next, but the most important aspect of this bill is creating the precedent to override the power of local homeowners to block development in their cities or towns in the interest of creating more affordable housing.

I’ve written a ton about how policies favoring homeownership have been adisaster for the US. They were demonstrably based on racism; they created shocking economic and social inequalities; and they have caused lasting environmental damage that has also paralyzed our built environment.

All of these problems have manifested into the repressive, anti-democratic power that homeowners have to prevent development near them, which hurts all non-homeowners (and some less connected homeowners). Nowhere has this been worse than in California, where low-density single-family housing still dominates most of the state, especially in economically productive places like Silicon Valley.

Because we treat housing more like an asset than a consumable good, homeowners are incentivized to protect/promote the value of their property. This almost always means restricting what gets built around them out of fear that it would lower property values. And this almost always means passing highly-restrictive land-use policies that go far beyond their original intent of protecting people from pollution, noise, or other nuisances.

These policies typically favor ownership over renting, low-density over high-density, and restricted development rights over as-of-right development. Often they are presented as benign intentions towards preserving the character of the neighborhood, controlling traffic and road safety, or maintaining neighborhood control. But, at its core, they are about protecting or enhancing the wealth of a few incumbent property owners.

The end result is homeowners, through pliable or aligned local governments, are allowed to veto development (public or private) and to block other people from living in their communities. Especially in places like Silicon Valley, thiskills the economic and social mobility that has defined American opportunity in previous generations.

SB-829 will be the biggest political fight of the three bills because it attacks the largely-accepted concept that homeowners have the divine right to dictate development in their towns or cities. But overcoming this misguided and abused view is the first dragon that must be slain to change the housing debate in the US.

2. Combining housing policy with transportation policy

In addition to overriding local land-use control, SB-827 creates a proper incentive (indeed, a mandate) to build close to public transportation. Under the proposal, developers can build tall buildings, denser streetscapes, and fewer parking options as-of-right within 1/2 mile of transit stations or 1/3 mile of frequent bus routes. In fact, the proposal has mandatory minimums for heights and density in these zones.

This has an obvious virtuous cycle. Public transportation is designed to support high-density populations. The more you can build around it, the more people will use it, and the more an area will prosper (see NYC). This creates a more diverse housing stock which allows a more diverse group of people and businesses to cluster in more parts of the state. It’s estimated that the proposal could create an additional 3 million units in these zones across the state. That would almost single-handedly solve the affordable housing crisis in California.

As much as California is portrayed as a car-crazy, traffic-inundated dystopia, this bill rightfully recognizes that many major urban centers already have extensive transit systems or at least the foundation for them. However, ridership on the Metro, BART, and Caltrain, are all declining. This is because the lack of density near lines and stations severely limits these systems’ viability for many residents. If you have to drive to a transit station, you might as well just keep driving to your destination.

With this bill, more people could live closer to these already-functioning stations. Increased ridership and development would create more incentive to invest in and expand these systems across the state. The environmental and social benefits of reduced car dependency would have its own virtuous cycle.

The importance of thinking about housing policy and transportation policy together is the larger principle articulated in this bill and it should be central to all housing advocates’ arguments. Whether you are making a moral argument or an economic argument for housing, transportation should be central to it.

3. Helping every type of tenant and holding every type of town accountable

SB-827 is getting a lot of attention, but the other two bills both have far reaching implications for building more housing for more types of tenants. SB-829 allows farmers to use parts of their land to develop worker housing as-a-right. SB-828, changes the standards for how each city/town collects data required for affordable housing allotment. In both cases, this shows that a comprehensive housing vision can help all constituencies, especially under-represented tenants.

Agriculture makes up a huge part of the California economy. (It shouldn’t, but this isn’t the time/place for that argument, see Cadillac Desert). This requires a considerable amount of low-income, seasonal labor that falls on immigrant (and in some cases, illegal) working populations that deserve, safe, affordable housing too. Many rural communities resist worker-housing for the same NIBMYist reasons (and in some cases, racist reasons) that bigger cities resist density. Senator Weiner is showing a crucial, broad commitment to higher principles of affordable housing that aims to reach all tenants.

SB-828 goes a step even further by changing how housing goals are determined for each city and town through the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). Currently, this system is easily gamed by many wealthier towns that get lower allotments while poorer, less connected cities or towns get a higher allotment. This allows some towns to escape development, while raising displacement pressure on others.

The bill would create a streamlined, consistent data collection and analysis process that would create more equity in development across the state. Development can’t just happen near transit centers and can’t just happen near easily-displaced populations. It must be spread across all communities, especially in wealthier ones.

I hope that these bills get serious consideration in Sacramento. There are many reasons to support them and many allies in the state to help do so. Even if they fall short right now (which is no sure thing) they have begun the bigger process of reframing the housing debate in the state that might be suffering the worst from the affordable housing crisis. The rest of us should take noticeand start forming similar plans in our own backyards.

NY Times (as usual) Misses Real "Bomb" in Story on NYCHA Heat Failure

 Shola Olatoye visiting an emergency command center at Patterson Houses in Mott Haven (facebook/nycha)

Shola Olatoye visiting an emergency command center at Patterson Houses in Mott Haven (facebook/nycha)

As the Bomb Cyclone continues to squat on much of the Northeast, bone-chilling temperatures have made being outside highly dangerous. Unfortunately, for too many NYCHA residents, it has also been dangerous inside. According to the New York Times, the heating systems in at least 35 buildings (out of 2,462) have failed leaving as many as 15,000 residents without heat at some point during the week leading up to and during the storm.

Though NYCHA has set up Warming Centers for residents and appears to be restoring heat in a methodical manner, the Times (as usual) ignores the larger story: The funding bomb dropped by the federal government on NYCHA.

I don’t want to excuse NYCHA management. It is unacceptable not to provide heat for residents. It’s fair to suspect human and system error (and even negligence) somewhere on the tactical level be it in inspecting, reporting, or communication.

NYCHA has had a history of mismanagement (though it doesn’t get enough credit for a vastly improved operation in recent years) and, most recently, it lied about federal lead inspections. This scandal does not get Chair Shola Olatoye or NYCHA leadership much sympathy this time around.

That being said, the article demonstrates a larger problem with how the media covers public housing by ignoring the larger landscape NYCHA exists in and by consciously or subconsciously projecting ideological bias against it.

The Dickensian narrative of public housing

First of all, the media rarely covers public housing. For every dubious or class-blind trend piece the Times publishes on real estate, it only focuses on NYCHA when something goes really wrong.

I include “really” because a lot goes wrong with NYCHA on a daily basis. But because these are generally chronic problems facing poor people, the media ignores them. (Crime-related stories of course get plenty of coverage.)

NYCHA is the largest and oldest public housing authority in the country and serves over 400,000 residents in 178,000 units across 2,462 buildings. Of course being that big and old means having a lot of problems. Perhaps the biggest problem is the estimated $17 billion capital shortfall that leaves much of its infrastructure in dire condition (and susceptible to private appropriation, but more on that later.)

While the media ignores the chronic problems facing public housing, it feasts on acute events like the heat failure. As a result, the only time public housing is on the public radar, it is presented as a Dickensian hellhole run by at best helpless or at worst negligent public employees populated by equally helpless poor people.

The heat failure is an important story and I don’t want to appear to downplay the suffering of residents during a historically cold storm, but is an issue in basically 1% of NYCHA buildings a sign of massive systemic collapse?

Not only does this narrative rob NYHCA employees and residents of their agency, it also completely obscures the source of these problems: the federal government, which has abandoned public housing and its residents.

The federal government has cut off over $1 billion dollars of operating support for NYCHA over the last decade as well as $300 million in capital support. The Trump Administration is also attempting to cut another $300 million this year. NYCHA gets 2/3s of its $3.2 billion annual operating budget from the federal government. It is a testament to the agency that it has survived this assault at all.

I don’t understand how any reporter could write about the problems facing NYCHA and not frame it through this information, which explains many of them. The article only vaguely references this funding collapse through a single quote from Public Advocate Letitia James. That’s an unacceptable oversight.

And the ideological contempt underneath it

Part of the explanation, no doubt, lies in an ideological bias against public housing that much of the media landscape is guilty of consciously or subconsciously. This bias comes at least in part from the basic economics of the media industry.

There is a fascinating history of real estate developers creating, owning, or buying local news outlets to further their interests. The playbook has been to concern troll about homelessness, crime, and radical activism to provide public cover for the state (the police, mostly, but also zoning) to pacify neighborhoods in order to take control and redevelop. For a contemporary example, Jared Kushner bought the New York Observer in 2006 and the paper subsequently started bashing homelessness in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village where his family owns 40% of the housing stock.

A more benign but no less compromising factor is the reliance that many media outlets have on real estate advertising. Historically, real estate listingsand classified ads were a major source of revenue for local newspapers. The latter has collapsed, but the former has increased in importance. Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal have put greater emphasis on digital real estate ads and digital real estate products.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting there’s a conspiracy or underhandedness against public housing by the media or the Times specifically. But the media’s basic business model gives it no incentive to support public housing practically or philosophically.

Whether it’s trying to sell ads about real estate or luxury cars, the Times in particular is seeking an affluent audience that high-dollar advertisers crave. That affluent audience either doesn’t care about public housing or actively opposes it. It’s impossible to ignore that this basic logic informs the operation of the paper, from what writers get hired, to what stories get pursued and published.

This ideological bias also informs how NYCHA’s funding shortfalls are presented when they are written about. I mentioned earlier that NYCHA faces a $17 billion capital funding gap. Making the case for increased federal funding is never seriously considered in the media. Instead, the only viable solution presented is public private partnerships, which many advocates fear is just a dress rehearsal for future privatization (it is.)

Framing this issue so narrowly limits the ability for the public to consider alternative options or to even know that they exist (they do.) It also handicaps progressive elected officials, empowers conservative ones, and lets most of them off the hook entirely.

What we as the public are left with is a woefully incomplete view of the problems facing public housing and a suspiciously uncritical view of why those problems exist. This allows a deeply flawed narrative about public housing to dominate public perception and to frame policy discussions.

Just as critically, we are never shown why public housing exists, why it is a public good worthy of our support, and how successful it has been. There are just as many stories about the amazing things NYCHA does as an organization (especially given its funding restraints) and just as many amazing stories about NYCHA residents that tell a more complete story of public housing in the US.

Right now, too many NYCHA residents are cold. We must hold NYCHA accountable to fix this as soon as possible. But we must hold ourselves accountable too. We can’t allow the media to ignore the larger ‘silent bombs’ of poverty, sickness, and economic isolation that plague many NYCHA residents — any many other New Yorkers– everyday.

Hey, America: Big Tech Isn't Your Friend

 Which way is Amazon taking us? (homebodynetwork)

Which way is Amazon taking us? (homebodynetwork)

In the hysteria surrounding Amazon’s RFP for a second headquarters, a lot of people have had fun mocking cities or states that have submitted bids with no realistic shot (I’m looking at you Danbury, CT.) Aside from the surprising comfort Americans seem to have with treating cities like American Idol contestants and the unsurprising willingness of many elected officials to submit to such indignity, this hasn’t raised many serious questions as a country.

But it should. How did a company get this powerful? How healthy is it that one company is retroactively creating a company town in the 21st century? What precedent is this setting for other big tech companies?

That could change with the revelation that Chicago is effectively endorsing massive wage theft as part of their proposal. That the 3rd biggest American city — which, along with the state it is in, isn’t doing so well financially — felt compelled to offer up billions in public money to Amazon should terrify all of us. But I’m skeptical that it will.

That’s because we, along with our civic institutions, have already surrendered to Big Tech. Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple dominate our economy and society like no other companies in the history of the US. Not even during the height of the Gilded Age did Standard Oil or US Steel come close to dominating so many aspects of daily life.

Those companies were eventually broken up because they were seen as too powerful and too dominating. Rightfully so. They were killing the country. Capitalism is supposed to work for democracy, not the other way around.

In the Gilded Age, millions of Americans suffered because our country forgot that. Eventually, the sustained efforts of muckraking journalists, progressive politicians, and radicalized citizens ultimately led to the realignment — however imperfect — of American society that reached its high water mark during the New Deal.

However, today, we have forgotten the lesson of the Gilded Age entirely and those three groups are failing to make the same efforts to fight back. Our country’s peace and prosperity can’t last if they/we continue to acquiesce.

Tech journalism is for stenographers

We’ve seen a steady erosion of trust in media and certainly big tech has played a role consciously and subconsciously. That’s a well-travelled story. How terrible tech-related press has always been is not.

Part of this history stems from the tech industry coming of age outside of the media capitals of LA and NYC. There just weren’t that many people writing about tech in the early years, so few people understood it at a structural level (or at a technical level). The culture has simply never had a skeptical media auditing its evolution, which allowed it to develop some toxic habits.

When the media did start to question tech, albeit in a flawed manner like Valley Wag, the industry stood by as Peter Thiel crushed it — stomping on the very rhetoric of transparency and competition that supposedly defined tech culture.

What we are left with is a fawning tech press that chases each new trend, product, or founder with minimal skepticism and maximal deference. Rarely does tech press report on the racism, sexism, classism, and outright fraud that define much of the culture.

When journalists in tech are seen as “influencers” and “trend-forecasters” rather than truth-sayers and bullshit filters, we all suffer for the lack of transparency and accountability. Brave individuals like Susan Fowler have no one to turn to. Someone outside of the valley exposed Theranos. It took way too long for Juicero to look as stupid as it clearly was.

Terrible tech press is a big problem for all of us. Tech companies have a lot to answer for, but outside a small circle of investors and board members, they rarely have to.

Elected officials are clueless or too clued-in

Who elected Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg? We live in a democracy. That means we elect people to represent the will of the people. The fact that you’re rolling your eyes right now shows how far from that we’ve strayed. Yes, it’s flawed, but someone has to decide how to organize our society, and we have wisely tried to create a system where legitimacy rests with the people through our elected leaders.

It’s sad that so many mayors and governors have embarrassed themselves both on camera and on paper for Amazon, but the only outlier with Amazon is the sheer scale of its 2nd headquarters. This subjugation of the public good to private interest is the norm and has been for decades in one form or another.

Our elected leaders, particularly in the federal government have internalized private interest over the public good in breathtaking fashion. The tax bill and the repeal of net neutrality are just the logical conclusions of this trend. Most Americans are opposed to both, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The donor class gets what it wants.

If elected officials aren’t cynical or opportunistic, they are clueless about how the tech economy works and how tech companies think. They try to incorporate ride-sharing apps into transit planning instead of charging them for using our roads. They team up with Google to install fiber networks without treating them like public utilities. They hand out massive subsidies for company relocations instead of investing in long-term infrastructure to entirely create new ecosystems.

These companies want more customers, market share, and protection from competition.  They don't want to help cities in any meaningful or lasting way with their services. Relying on them as strategic partners is a colossal mistake. Too many officials seem oblivious to that.

There is little incentive for an elected official to worry about the future beyond immediate media and election cycles. There is little belief in the power of good governance and strong government in general at most levels. That leaves us with a vacuum in leadership and vision that tech companies are all too happy to fill to serve their own ends.

We are lazy shitheads

Before you think I’m casting stones, I’m part of the problem too: I have Apple products, I have Amazon Prime, I have Facebook, and I use Google all the time. Why wouldn’t I? They do things we want, really well. No one is at fault for using products that are useful. The power of social networks coupled with convenience has made these companies wildly successful for good reason.

However useful these products are to us as consumers, we are guilty of letting convenience and low cost cloud our judgment as citizens. We are just as indifferent about the labor practices of Apple with workers in China as we are to the last mile Amazon delivery people in America. We are as indifferent about the lack of privacy we have on Facebook as we are with the amount of information we freely give to Google.

I sincerely believe that we do this to some degree because many people assume there are safeguards on these companies. Somebody somewhere is watching to make sure they do the right thing, right? We have agencies that do that. We have courts that do that. We have competitors that keep companies honest. But that isn’t true.

So much of our political discourse talks about how government is inefficient and that we should trust the market to solve our problems. We have let this mindset seep into all corners of our society and undermine all of our public institutions, including our role as active citizens. As a result, the market has seeped into all corners of our government, blurring the distinction between corporate will and government will.

We’ve consistently undermined labor laws that people died for not 100 years ago. We’ve consistently sold off public assets to short term private gains at the expense of long-term investment. We’ve consistently surrendered our agency to stand up to corporations in court. Big tech came around after these trends started certainly, but it has been the biggest beneficiary.

For what it’s worth, I have been guessing that Amazon picks Washington, DC (or close by) just for that reason. Particularly in light of the 2016 election, people are starting to notice and to question the power of Big Tech. These companies are increasingly concerned that their unparalleled power could be in danger and are responding with spending millions in political lobbying. Given this emerging paradigm, it’s logical for Amazon to set up camp closer to the center of government to influence policy at a deeper level.

Alternatively, I can envision Big Tech actually splitting up elements of their operations to dispense across more regions in the country. Just as military contractors spread their operations across as many Congressional districts as possible, it’s easy to see the advantage of Big Tech following suite for the same reason. The military-industrial complex serves as a useful model to the technology-industrial complex. Both are too powerful and too destructive to our civic health.

In either case, unless we collectively stand up to Big Tech, we can expect a lot more embarrassing and shameful pitches from mayors and governors. And we will have many cool, convenient ways to watch them do so.

Demand Housing as a Right, then Fight the Tax Plan

 
 Mitchel Houses in The Bronx and the rest of NYCHA should be celebrated (homeBodynetwork)

Mitchel Houses in The Bronx and the rest of NYCHA should be celebrated (homeBodynetwork)

 

As the details emerge from the Congressional Republican tax cut plan, housing is one area where there appears to be considerable bi-partisan anger.  The home construction industry and affordable housing advocates both adamantly oppose to the plan, but for wildly different reasons. However, the former is vastly more powerful than the later and has much more of a chance to extract compromises from the final tax plan, which it surly will.

This is because the affordable housing community continues to accept the broken premise that the market is the best way to supply affordable housing.  It isn’t.  Until housing advocates rally around housing as a right as an organizing principle, tax plan after tax plan will chip away at even the limited market-based programs mildly supporting ‘affordable housing’ - and Democrats will keep allowing it.  Only by changing the debate can we change the underlying fundamentals causing the affordable housing ever-crisis.

 

Housers are stuck defending an already failed market-based policy

I don’t make a lot of friends shitting on the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. The truth is, it’s just not a great policy and allows Congress to gaslight Americans on the affordable housing crisis.  Formed after the last big tax policy change in 1986, the LIHTC works by giving tax credits to developers who build a certain percentage of affordable housing units  (which is a dubious term to begin with) who then pass them on to investors (mainly banks) who fund the projects.

The program has maintained popularity with both parties because Republicans see it as a market-based solution (it isn’t) and Democrats see it as an affordable housing solution (it isn’t).  Defenders of the program on either side of the aisle will point to the 3 million units created under the program (which represent 90% of all affordable housing units built in the US over the last 30 years) as a point of success.  Some will cite the number of jobs supported in the construction industry or the estimated $100 billion injected into the economy through the program.  On the face of it, these are entirely fair points to make.

But none of these arguments hold up to the other glaring numbers to consider:

  • In 99.9% of US counties, someone making minimum wage can’t afford the cost of a 1-bedroom house. 
  • 75% of American households who qualify for housing assistance don’t get any
  • 11.2 million Americans are severely rent burdened
  • We are missing 7.4 million needed affordable housing units

Many thoughtful housers with good intentions will argue that LIHTC and associated private activity bonds are good programs and shouldn’t be blamed for these complex issues. They are all working very hard at protecting LIHTC, which is under threat if corporate tax rates go down (offsetting the incentives for the program.) The feeling is, “this is the best we’ve got, we must protect it.”  I get it.

But when you only have one program designated to create affordable housing and the country is mired in a devastating affordable housing crisis, how can you not question LIHTC? How can you not question the underlying premise that allows LIHTC to retain bi-partisan support in the first place? Who actually cares about actual affordable housing in Congress? What the hell did $100 billion over 30 years actually get us?

 

Even the one potentially cool, progressive change in this tax plan suuuuux

Many housing advocates and conservatives agree that the mortgage interest deduction (MID) is a terrible policy that unfairly favors wealthy homeowners.  They are right. 

  • Through MID, the American people spend $134 billion a year (remember, LIHTC did less than that in 30 years) on subsidizing middle class and upper middle class homes
  •  60% of all federal dollars spent on housing policies goes to homeowners making over $100,000.
  • 7 million American households that make over $200,000 receive more federal funding for housing than the 50 million who make less than $50,000

Getting rid of the MID would undoubtedly correct a lot of injustice in the tax system (and in our disastrous support of a homeownership society).  But that’s not why Republicans are limiting the deduction from $1m to $500k.  They are doing it to offset lower corporate and estate taxes.

That’s right. This plan takes money from wealthy homeowners and gives it to even wealthier corporations and rich heirs. The only way something as egregious as the MID was even on the table was because Republicans want to give tax cuts to wealthier, more powerful donors.  When confronted with this giveaway, few Americans seem to support this plan, but Democrats are fighting it because its Trump - not because they have ever supported transferring MID revenue to affordable housing.

 

Reject the premise, change the debate, and make housing a right

I would also argue that few Americans would support the MID in the first place, since it effects so few of us (which is one of the defenses given by Republicans for the plan.) This goes to show how warped the conversation on housing is in this country.  We have been fine subsidizing wealthy housing for generations, but refuse to assist the poor and working class secure affordable housing.

Much of that blame lies with housers letting the Democratic Party off the hook. By accepting the premise that market-based programs are the only viable solutions at the federal level (this in the face of a massive effort to subsidize the top end anyway), they have surrendered the intellectual and moral weight that would otherwise frame the debate on housing as a basic human right.

It must also be said that the Democratic Party implicitly fake-fights the far-reaching racism that has underpinned this “market approach” for 80 years.  When public housing and vouchers became synonymous with urban poor brown and black people, the party abandoned the solid and still-relevant arguments for public housing and housing assistance that defined the New Deal and Great Society eras. 

Rather than fight for these ideas because they are right, because they work, and because they breakdown racial injustice, the party focused on homeownership.  The fear of alienating white homeowners was too strong to fight for principles that would still ultimately benefit them too. Housers have nowhere to go, but haven’t kept Dems honest.

It’s not radical to question the virtue of giving away $135 billion a year on wealthy homes when so many Americans are suffering to afford one (whether they own or rent).  It’s not radical to question the virtue of LIHTC when nearly all of the country is mired in a never-ending affordability crisis.  It’s not radical to question why 75% of Americans who need help affording basic shelter aren’t getting anything.

There is enough wealth and there are enough good ideas to guarantee affordable shelter for every American in this country if we want it.  There are enough Americans from every age, race, and region who are suffering and will continue to suffer to change the political landscape if we want to do it.  And there are enough good people in housing who have the knowledge and passion to lead the way if they want to. Frankly, we need them to.

 

homeBody is the free communication tool for landlords, tenants, and neighbors.

We believe housing is a right and so should you. 

Equifax Got Hacked, But the Whole Credit System Should Be Too

 Where credit scores lead many (inequalities)

Where credit scores lead many (inequalities)

Credit scores in America are a farce.  Though much of our financial system relies on them –we as individuals need them to get an apartment, a mortgage, or a job – three private companies with little oversight run them.  This is called a cartel. 

Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion have shielded themselves in the language of a quasi-governmental agency, entrenched themselves in law through aggressive lobbying, and expanded their power by selling more and more of our data.  The consequence for our economy and society is starting to come into focus.

Equifax has made national news for the unprecedented hack that has exposed some 143 million Americans personal data.  The damage this leak has done won’t be truly felt for years, but it is surly massive. 

Not only did Equifax know about the hack months before it was addressed (and months before it was made public), but senior officials sold stock as a result.  Millions of Americans were potentially at risk, but the company protected itself and its officers profited from it.

Once it was made public, the company responded with a toxic blend of incompetence and arrogance.  They attempted to force individuals to wave rights to sue in order to see if they were victims.  Even when they did, the site offered limited feedback on their information. 

It remains to be seen what will happen to those executives or the company, but there is, incredibly, little the government can do at the moment to punish the company for such flagrant neglect. (Update: the CEO announced that he was stepping down just today.)

Nothing is surprising about a major corporation in a powerful industry being shielded from regulatory oversight or even basic public awareness.  But if we only address Equifax’s specific mistakes and crimes, we risk missing the opportunity to address the systemic injustice that it and the other credit companies profit from.

Credit scores are racist.  I’ve written extensively about how racial exclusion and discrimination was not just a by-product of 80 year of American policy, but a central tennent.  This involved banks redlining entire black neighborhoods, financially and legally backed racial covenants in suburban towns, and general housing discrimination (pre and post) Fair Housing Act.  Even today Airbnb is belatedly dealing with racism in housing. It has been ubiquitous in housing.

At any given time, defenders of these policies claimed that they weren’t racist.  These models were based on formulas or larger inclusive legal policies, etc. etc.  Hiding behind wonkiness or unintentional results was as bullshit then as it is now.

It’s not hard to see how this system would inform the credit score process. As overt discrimination became illegal, subtler forms – intentional or otherwise- emerged that were harder to stamp out.

About 90% of lenders rely on Fair Isaac Corporation “FICO” scores (there are several different types).  The fact that all of these credit scores are based on supposedly universal metrics (just calling balls and strikes) ignores this longer history of the financial system’s inherent racism. They simply continue it in a different form.

It is well documented that black Americans (and poorer groups in general) were specifically targeted during the lead up to the 2008 crisis. The same major financial institutions and policies that blocked black homeownership for generations unleashed predator after predator through sub-prime mortgages, reverse mortgages, 80/20 interest plans, just to name a few.  Black homeownership was disseminated as a result.  Little has been done to right this wrong.

On the other hand, many minorities were still blocked from traditional debt markets and turned to payday lenders and other pernicious services.  Over 19 million American households rely on them - 1 in 6 families. These types of lenders help individuals rack up incredible debt that blows up their traditional scores. 

Many white Americans are simply not subject to those types of services and don’t suffer similar credit score damage.  These scores do not account for these larger societal pressures. They harm people without credit cards. They harm people without steady income. They harm people who are poor, basically.

And they continue to harm renters.  Although a more recent FICO score has started to incorporate rent payments, most do not (nor do many of these companies have the ability to gather that information from landlords.) This oversight – 35% of Americans are renters – is outrageous.

Somehow, landlords ask for credit scores while not supplying the source of data that is most pertinent to them – does this person pay rent on time? This doesn’t make any sense on the face of it, but landlords have limited options even if they want to be part of a new system.

There are alternatives (and admittedly, homeBody is trying to be a major alternative. Self plug!). Shelterforce published an article last year about local groups forming community funds that take a longer, more nuanced view of a person’s financial history.  This is how our financial system used to work.  A local banker lived in the same town with the farmer who needed a loan.  Rather than automating this process (and then securitizing it) we should bring back a more human element.

Before we can even hope that the federal government or state governments can get around to addressing these systemic issues, let’s hope that Equifax is held accountable for their negligence. A company that holds such power over the future of millions of Americans can’t be allowed to disregard our security and privacy.  It will be telling to see what, if anything, happens next.  It will take a lot to destroy the credit score system, but maybe we’ll get lucky and it will begin to destroy itself.

A Bad Week for Urban Tech Reveals a Feature Not a Bug

 We're own our own (Flickr)

We're own our own (Flickr)

Despite being in a tech start-up, I generally don’t write about the tech scene. We believe housing is a right at homeBody and are building a company that helps landlords and tenants work together to improve rental housing. That leaves plenty to talk about. However, the specter of the tech scene undeniably hangs over housing and cities in general.

Tech — which at this point is a rather meaningless word, but I’ll use it for a shorthand — could be a major ally of urbanism. But it isn’t. This week we have seen several examples of urban tech running amok. We see how it is growing too powerful politically, co-opting our public spaces for private profit, and isolating us as consumers in the process. More importantly, this week shows how tech is designed to do these things, how hard it will be for us to combat them, but how necessary it will be to do so.

Amazon’s Second Headquarters Shows Big Tech Is Too Powerful

It is simply unprecedented that one of the most powerful private firms in the world would announce an RFP to house a second domestic headquarters. Amazon, based in Seattle, is floating a $5 billion 50,000-job balloon into the inbox’s of mayor’s around the country. The company has a wish list with all the urban catch phrases of public transit, anchor universities, degreed-workforce, urban amenities, and so on.

Despite the posturing of an open competition, I agree with those that think DC will ultimately “win”. (I put it in quotes because there are plenty of people in Seattle who don't think they are winning with Amazon there.) Aside from the fact that the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently bought a $23 million house there and owns the Washington Post, the move makes more sense when you consider the increasingly obvious political power major tech firms have — and need to protect.

Amazon dominates many aspects of our economic lives in a way that few companies has ever done before. Nearly half of all American households have an Amazon Prime account. Up until now it has largely avoided concerns about monopoly power, tax issues, and other regulatory concerns faced by more traditional economic powerhouses. The climate in the country is changing against this, albeit slowly.

Amazon and other tech companies are no longer the outsider-upstarts mythologized in Silicon Valley. They are the main actors in our economy and increasingly in our politics. Moving to DC would be an acknowledgement of this and a signal that we can expect more political consolidation of big tech firms to correspond to their economic power.

We should be very wary of its interest in shaping our politics, but moving to DC would at least put more Americans on notice. If you believe DC is inevitable, then the RFP to other cities seems more like a cynical PR stunt or perhaps a shot in the dark at getting an absurd public subsidy from some desperate city. Either way, Amazon’s second headquarters won’t just dominate the “winning” city. It will help dominate a larger portion of our country.

Apple Stores as “Town Squares” Shows Tech is Killing Civic Space

The iPhone X debuted last week, 10 years after Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone. It’s hard to think of an innovation that has had a larger impact on our society over that span. What was telling about this demonstration outside of the phone itself was how Tim Cook described Apple stores as “town squares”.

This isn’t new. Henry Grabar has written about Apple’s project to restore DC’s Carnegie Library as an “Apple plaza.” As Mr. Graybar points out, the difference between Carnegie building the library 100 years ago and Apple repurposing is stark. Carnegie used ungodly private profit to enhance public spaces and public intelligence. Apple is using ungodly private profit to…create more private profit.

Adopting the language of public spaces and civic engagement to further the interests of private retail is so ubiquitous that we hardly notice the sleight-of-hand anymore. But it is a plague. A truly public space is supported by an elected government and public funds and is open to all citizens to congregate and to contest. That isn’t what an Apple store’s “Genius Grove” provides.

There is nothing wrong with Apple building retail stores that double as semi-public spaces. But whether it’s repurposing an old public library or taking up space in one of our great public spaces, Grand Central, we are allowing a massive, wealthy private tech company to erode not only our access to public spaces, but also our philosophical support of openly democratic spaces.

As we have seen with Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, even at Charlottesville, we have fewer and fewer public spaces where people can safely protest. Cities have historically been centers of political change and protest. Killing public spaces in them is deeply unhealthy for our society.

Bodega Startup Shows How Tech Isolates Us

On the other end of the tech spectrum, startup culture can be just as pernicious to cities. This week we were given a perfect example in the form of Bodega, a startup that is trying to replace the local corner store. Started by two-ex Googlers (which, along with Facebook, is guilty of many of the same sins as Amazon and Apple and shouldn't be left out) it has raised $2.5 million for what all of us quickly recognize as a vending machine. Dressing it up with smart technology and predictive-algorithms can’t really change the fact that it’s a couple of shelves housing toothpaste and tampons.

It’s a staple of startup culture to try to turn something like a vending machine into a revolutionary product. It’s also a staple to cater to lazy upwardly mobile people by solving a problem that really isn’t a problem– going to a bodega around the corner. It is also a staple to be incredibly tone-deaf about privilege and displacement.

The co-founders and one of their investors Hunter Walk were shocked, shocked that there was such a media backlash. They tried to explain that the name “tested well in Latin American communities” and that they weren’t trying to disrupt the local corner store. Both statements are bullshit.

Eater has a great article about why it’s a bad business idea outside of the politics (Bodega doesn’t “disrupt” managing inventory, restocking, and maintenance, which are issues that always plague the vending business, trust me.) But it’s also not really about that. It is really about the fabled “last mile” in the supply chain of delivering goods.

Whether its localized vending machines, drone deliveries, or an on-demand delivery person, a lot of tech money is pouring into being the final service between Amazon and consumers. Which is why some of the backlash against Bodega is pretty bullshit. How many of those folks have Amazon Prime already? Are you upset that our online delivery preferences are destroying local businesses or are you upset that some tech bros are more overt about it?

It might be a smart play to show some traction in a vending business to get bought up by an Amazon or maybe Walmart-owned Jet. But this mindset also reveals the larger issues inherent in the expansion of tech to every aspect of our lives. It is making us interact less with each other and making us less tied to neighborhood institutions, be it public or private. 

The increased isolation of our consumerism and the concentration of wealth it generates is a destructive combination for our society. These forces are driving the inequality undermining our cities across the country. We currently don’t seem to have any good answers for this. And don’t hold your breather for a killer app to fix it. 

Changing Land-Use Policy Isn't Enough - Change Capitalism

 The Day After...Yesterday...wait? (abc)

The Day After...Yesterday...wait? (abc)

The past two weeks have witnessed truly horrifying climate events across the US. From the wild fires in Oregon and California, the devastation brought by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, to the in-progress Hurricane Irma in Florida and Georgia, our country is enduring unprecedented climate damage and millions of Americans are suffering and in some cases dying.

The work now is to save and evacuate people, to provide shelter and comfort, and to endure. But the more important work, work that we should have been doing already, must begin as soon as possible. It includes a radical change to how we value land use and how the real estate industry operates, but that even that won’t be enough. We must rethink capitalism in the 21st century.

It is difficult to discuss these storms while looking out of my window at a beautiful fall day in NYC. I look at a playground that is full of laughing kids running around and parents chatting with each other. I can see the crowded tents of the farmers’ market where I’ll probably go by some apple cider after finishing this post. It is serene. It is difficult knowing that so many people across the Caribbean, the Gulf (including the victims of the earthquake in Mexico) and Florida are either trying to make sense of a society in ruins or to make sure their homes are still intact.

But even what I’m looking at now experienced some of those same fears and feelings only five years ago during Superstorm Sandy. The storm surge came frightfully close to that same playground, even though it’s a good 8-minute walk to the East River. We lost power for 9 days. The National Guard came to help us go door-to-door through thousands of apartments, checking on older residents who were trapped. By Day 9 it was getting cold out and I still sometimes wonder how bad it could have gotten if we didn’t get power back that day.

Where I live was swamp and coastline 200 years ago; it was filled in like many parts of Manhattan. The water during Sandy came up to that former coastline with remarkable consistency across the island. It’s almost as if nature had figured out where Manhattan should stop. But we ignored it and pushed further.

That we even have to endure “debate” that climate change is “real” is tragically self-destructive. Of course it is real and of course we are causing it. And of course it is complicated to measure and difficult to draw direct links between these storms and carbon emissions. But the obvious point is: our weather is changing in increasing dangerous, unpredictable, and likely permanent ways.

That we have been failing to craft public policy that even remotely protects us against climate change is irresponsible and depressing. The current administration is telling us not to discuss it while cutting research funding for it, but the previous administration didn’t do enough when it had the chance. One party is villainous, the other is cowardly. Both are guilty of failing our present and our future.

In addition, much has been written about poor land use regulations in Houston and no doubt much will be written about hyper development policies in Florida. Between the two storms, over 10 million people will have been impacted. A fraction of those numbers lived in these areas just two generations ago. Their growth happened quickly and without any respect for the environment they exist in.

Could some of the havoc been avoided if there were stricter flood zone controls, density measures, and better building codes? Absolutely. Florida and particularly Texas have prided themselves on their lower cost of living and lower government oversight. Taxes are low, but that has consequences.

Could some of the suffering have been avoided if it wasn’t so cheap for people to live in these areas? Sure. Water control, air-conditioning, and cheap travel (by car or plane) made these areas attractive and profitable. Growth is constant, but that has consequences too.

These storms were more dangerous and destructive because of climate change, which is being caused by the very things that made those areas expand in the first place. And those same decisions made it harder for the natural environment to absorb the rains and the storm surges of Harvey and Irma. It is an increasingly untenable cycle.

But the problem is even bigger. Climate change and our inability to comprehend it is the hubris of our modern capitalist system manifested. The readily accepted idea that our society should value economic growth above all else has all but eliminated our ability to think critically about how we interact with our environment. It has blinded us to the limitations that all human civilizations have faced over where they can live. It has made us think we are the sole, dominant actor on our planet. And it has put us all in danger.

A system that relies on the exploitation of the natural world (and, lest we forget, of the human body) can’t simply separate itself from that world. That system relies on the premise that certain inputs are priced according to their scarcity, while others have no price (or a low price) because they are abundant. The idea that we could run out of drinkable water, arable land, or breathable air doesn’t factor into our foundational beliefs. But those resources aren’t endless and they aren’t immune to our actions.

This isn’t about Texas or Florida, or even NYC or any place on the west coast. This is about a system that has been lying to us and this is about us letting it get away with it. It has been allowed to shield itself behind a false layer of rationality, claiming that the power of the market to price our goods and activities is the best way — the only way, in fact — to organize our society.

But capitalism has never accurately priced how we have chosen to build our world. The cost of fossil fuels isn’t captured at the pump. The cost of housing isn’t captured at the closing. The cost of disposable goods isn’t captured at the checkout counter. The true cost comes in polluted air, dead oceans, and, yes, powerful storms.

What is so disheartening, in addition to the human suffering happening as we speak, is how little will change. Our elected leaders have already promised the great recovery. Congress might haggle over funding and a few politicians might be embarrassed by past or current votes, but federal funds and private funds will surge in to these areas just as fiercely as the storms. Our political system accepts this like its a business cycle and not an existential threat.

As a result, some people will be able to rebuild, some won’t. Some will lose money, others will make it. Maybe, for a time, some cities and towns will discuss how to be ready for the next storm.

But as we learned in the five years after Sandy, even in an area that accepts climate change and has the resources to make dramatic changes, our system simply isn’t built to price the cost of future storms and future suffering.

Until we ask why and until we say no more, all we’re doing is buying time. And that’s a deal where we’re increasingly paying more for less.

Children Show That The Urban Revival Never Happened

 Little help here? (footballfoodandmotherhood)

Little help here? (footballfoodandmotherhood)

 

Richard Florida wrote an article on Friday in the New York Times declaring that the Urban Revival was over. He points to data showing that the suburbs around cities are actually growing faster and that most young people polled still prefer to live in single-family homes with yards. The larger truth is much simpler: an urban revival never really happened in America. You only need to look at children to see why.

Much of the narrative about the urban revival over the last 20 years focused on the “Creative Classes” that Mr. Florida coined in 2002. The term described the type of jobs (mostly tech-forward, service-based) and workers (mostly young and highly educated) fueling growth in (mostly major) cities. This lens, as Mr. Florida himself has pointed out, was less a complete picture of modern urbanism and more of a snapshot of emerging economic trends. However, media coverage tended to miss this nuance. As a result, “urban revival” has become a mostly bullshit catchall.

This was never a story about a revival of urbanism. As much as city planners praised this rediscovered appreciation for cities and helped promote trendy concepts like bike lanes, as much as developers internalized this fetish and marketed it, and as much as some people sincerely enjoy living in dense neighborhoods, nothing about our country has embraced urbanism as a way of life.

Our country remains anti-urban. It remains pathologically geared towards car ownership and single-family homeownership. These two pillars are deeply embedded in our cultural DNA, our built environment, our tax code, and our politics. Nothing about the “urban revival” has challenged this in a meaningful way. And it was never intended to.

This brings me back to children. If the urban revival was anything more than a development fad, fueled by short-term profit more than long-term planning, we would have embraced policy changes that increased the many natural advantages that urbanism has for raising children. We, or I should say market-driven public policy, have not done that.

1. Did it build more housing for families?

It is obvious and well documented that most new construction in city centers has been on the high end of the market targeted for wealthy residents (or foreign investors who don’t live there). That type of housing doesn’t benefit the majority of renters and is certainly not intended for most families. It was mostly intended for speculators.

Last year, NYC built 16,000 new housing units, the vast majority of which are luxury studios, 1-bedrooms, or 2-bedrooms. This is true every year. Affordable units, let alone three and four bedroom apartments are rare at any price-point in the current market (to rent or to buy), which means families either have to double-up or cycle out of the city. When number of kids you have has become a status symbol in the city, something is wrong.

2. Did it provide more family-related services?

Many of these new developments are in parts of cities that were not traditionally residential neighborhoods. This has meant that there are limited services and amenities for families close by. Most new buildings have doormen, fancy gyms, and skydecks — how many have playrooms or daycare centers? Amenities are titled away from families.

Older residential neighborhoods also don’t have enough family-related services, public or private. It is estimated that as many as 61% of New Yorkers live in what is called a “childcare desert” with limited or no access to childcare services. An entire generation of economic development, has precluded families, which disproportionately impacts lower-income and single-parent households.

3. Did it create jobs that work for parents?

For every creative-classy job that pays well, there are more service jobs that don’t, which are brutal on parents. Just this week, Richard Florida writes that 45% of the American work force — 65 million people — are in service jobs. In addition to the low pay, no benefits, and limited growth potential, these jobs also generally lack predictable scheduling and paid time off — which makes it that much harder to secure childcare or to be there for a sick child (or to get sick yourself). Without improving the lives of service workers on a grand scale, many of these people simply can’t afford to have kids or their kids suffer from their absence.

It is also important to understand that our modern economic “hustle culture” has caused women’s participation in the labor market to decline since the 1990s, which is very bad. At most levels of the labor ladder, we are working more for less, with less protections and accommodations. Lyft proudly touted a pregnant driver picking up a passenger while on the way to give labor — like it was a good thing. This is batshit crazy, terrible for our society, and — as a far second — terrible for our economy. We have designed an economy that priorities the shareholder over the family and it is damaging our social and civil health.

4. Did it commit to public education?

The public education system in the US is one of our greatest achievements. Despite the apocalyptic language in many circles, it still is. However, the very concept of public education and local commitment to it has been under constant threat during this age of development. Whether its disaster capitalism in New Orleans post-Katrina, or education Secretary Besty DeVos in DC, the idea of “school choice” has ravaged the larger civic ideals taught in and expressed through our public schools that are the bedrock of our democracy.

Many urban school systems are struggling; in NYC 1 in 7 public school students will be homeless at some point in the next year. Blaming schools and teachers for that is insane. But when systems are dealing with these types of issues, it makes it unlikely that young creatives will stick around a neighborhood when they want to have kids. Those that can will move to the suburbs, enroll kids in charters or private schools, or fight desperately for the few spaces in “good” public schools. Those that can’t leave will find fewer resources and allies left to help teachers and parents support their schools. Addressing the larger systemic issues hurting public schools becomes impossible.

5. Did it invest in public transportation?

Schlepping kids around is hard enough with a mini-van and ample parking. It is nearly impossible even on the top public transportation systems. As the Summer of Hell ends (Winter is Coming, though), we have no illusions that NYC is near the top. Part of this is the age of the system, but lots of it is the lack of commitment to long-term maintenance. Making our subways and buses more efficient helps everyone, but when even getting back to a baseline of reliability is a challenge, how can we plan system-wide upgrades to be friendlier for families with young children?

Public transportation should be one of the biggest assets to a family, sparing them prohibitive transportation costs and making it easier and quicker to get to places. It should also make it easier for school-aged children to be able to travel alone. But most cities have done little to invest in their systems (don’t get me started on streetcars.) 

At least in NYC we have an extensive network, as flawed as it is. But we (until recently) missed the opportunity to have highly lucrative development pay in to improve our public transportation.

Urbanism is a set of values, not wonky prescriptions. It is about creating an inclusive, shared identity as much as it is about dense development. It is about guaranteeing access to ideas and resources as much as parks and transportation. It is a commitment to public life first and private gain second. I firmly believe urbanism is a better way to organize our society and economy — at any age, in any type of household.

But we have not actually embraced those values over the last 20 years. As much as glossy design, food halls, and bike lanes might give cities a veneer of urbanism, the underlying reality of development is still mired in an isolating, individualistic, and profit-seeking ideology that favors the suburbs. That’s where we’re supposed to raise kids, unaccountably. 

Perhaps we should welcome Mr. Florida’s pronouncement that this urban revival is over. The missed opportunity of this period is staggering and the consequences are alarming. We must fight for a true urbanism to come next.