Saturday, March 17, 2012

The rent is too damn high

I've finally gotten around to reading The Rent is Too Damn High by Matthew Yglesias and I think it is a fine long form article/e-book. It isn't going to be terribly novel to anyone who has been following these issues for a while, but it does put them together in a pretty coherent and easy form in his characteristic style. For those who don't know his writing, I will say that Yglesias has a knack for putting non-obvious ideas into terms that make you wonder why you didn't think of it that way before. He is not afraid to challenge orthodoxy on both sides of the political spectrum when it comes to cities and urban planning, and that alone makes it worthwhile to pick up and read, even if you do end up disagreeing with some of the specifics.

Since in the continuing series on Death and Life of Great American Cities we just covered the chapter on 'Self-destruction of diversity' I think it is relevant to talk about Yglesias' chapter on 'The Mirage of Gentrification' which is also the part of the e-book that I think is weakest.

He is correct to point out that higher land prices attract developers, and that it is perverse to try and keep prices low through neglect. He is also right to point out that the only way to bring down rents is to build more dwelling units. But I think he dismisses too quickly the problem of disrupting community ties and seems to presume that foes of gentrification are only interested in preserving 'neighborhood character.' It is true that some people do think that way, but there is a more subtle reason to be concerned about rapid changes and it is one that Jane Jacobs dwells upon extensively.

Now, regarding 'character' I'm going to go out on a limb and say "does it really matter?" It's a nice thing, and I certainly have my own preference for more traditional styles while despising Brutalism. But it doesn't ultimately matter (except that Brutalism is soul destroying). What does matter is people, and the relationships between people in the city that Jacobs so eloquently described. As an example: the infamous housing projects of mid-century have many problems. Everyone grimaces when I describe the characteristic Garden City-style towers and super-blocks. And those design choices were certainly bad and deadly to urban well-being. But the worst and most pernicious effect of the housing projects was the way they tore apart neighborhoods and displaced the diversity of people who lived in the old neighborhood, replacing them with a homogeneous economic strata, where people are merely measured by their wages and treated as so many interchangeable pieces.

Cities are about people, first and foremost. The smart opponents of gentrification shouldn't be aiming only to preserve 'character' or the profits of a specific set of business owners, though doing so in moderation is one possible strategy. They really should be trying to preserve the social networks between people that maintain the good workings of the neighborhood. These networks will slowly change over time as people come and go, and the neighborhood will change over time as people build or renovate their properties. But humans can adapt to that naturally. They cannot adapt to having their entire neighborhood be bulldozed and replaced by a centrally planned project. Nor can they adapt well when a developer bulldozes an entire block to build condos, or whatever happens to be the most profitable type of building at that moment in time. Or if rents rise so broadly that some critical number of people are displaced which causes a catastrophic breakdown of the relationships between the former residents.

Of course, as Yglesias points out, having developers build more housing units is the only way to ultimately lower rents. But how do you permit them to build more, and varied units to accommodate diverse lifestyles, while not displacing too many people too quickly? You face the threats of rising rents vs the threat of redevelopment, and the solution to one can exacerbate the other. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that Yglesias considers the second problem in his analysis, nor does he mention the issue of promoting diversity of use.

In Jacobs' chapter on 'The self-destruction of diversity' she makes some very specific proposals to try and prevent districts from hollowing themselves out: zoning for diversity, staunchness of public buildings, and ultimately increasing the supply of vital city streets to meet demand. By 'zoning for diversity' she means some form of rules which permit change, but not overwhelmingly of one kind, not too quickly. This is fundamentally different from zoning as it is usually practiced, and perhaps makes it a misnomer. The 'staunchness of public buildings' is another form of this same principle, one where the city can simply choose to keep its working properties different from their surroundings by not selling them off. For example, the Massachusetts State House could have been sold for the development of more condos, but its presence keeps an additional kind of primary use around the Boston Common area, to the benefit of all. Admittedly, I find the notion of 'zoning for diversity' to be a tricky one to put into practice. The intention is clearly to help preserve the four properties of successful districts, and the social networks of people who are present there. But it seems liable to be abused in practice, or to be subject to problems of corruption, where a developer could claim they were "preserving diversity" when in effect they were doing the opposite. Yglesias and Jacobs do come together in agreement on the notion that the supply of good, vital city neighborhoods must be increased, somehow.

The main difference between the work of Yglesias and Jacobs can be summarized as thus: Yglesias is interested in increasing intensity of use, but doesn't dwell on the other three characteristics of successful districts. Actually, it is curious that he doesn't mention them at all, since he is clearly aware of her work. However, his basic argument is sound: that land use regulations must be relaxed to permit more free market use of land. This is something that needs to be more widely understood by just about everyone.

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