Monthly Archives: May 2018

Never Tweet

It’s not an exaggeration to say Twitter changed my life. I’ve met people that I probably never would have otherwise. My knowledge and world view has been greatly expanded by connecting with people in transportation, urban planning, architecture, and many other fields. I’ve been able to listen and understand where people are coming from on issues I have no experience with and from communities I have no direct connection to. I probably wouldn’t be involved in housing advocacy if not for Twitter.

That said, it has felt very exhausting lately, and I’ve had a few conversations with some of my earliest Twitter connections who feel the same way. Twitter made it possible to quickly connect with experts and people doing new research, and even to seek out and follow people you disagree with to try to hear their perspective and broaden your horizon. But it also made it possible to quickly find people you disagree with and spend a lot of time disagreeing, and not learning anything.

It’s probably been happening for a while, but the SB 827 debate is what threw this fact into the open for me. On both sides, we spent a lot of time arguing the same points back and forth, RT’ing and faving what we thought were our side’s sick burns, and pushing things into nasty attacks. At its best Twitter offers the prospect of instant dialogue with people you’d never know otherwise; at its worst, it’s the comments section on an unmoderated news site but without the benefit of news preceding it.

Part of this is because the fight over housing became political. That’s not a complaint – the fight had to get political! But politics is done by finding like-minded people and convincing them to do stuff in real life, not flaming people you disagree with on the internet. I know the SB 827 debate was just making me mad, and that I wasn’t learning anything. And I bet you know that too.

This is not a “why I’m leaving Twitter” post. But it is me realizing that I’m not getting what I want out of it, and I need to do something about that. The goal is to spend less time on it but make that time more valuable. So, the first thing I’m going to try is to make myself do less Twitter and do more reading and blogs. I know it’s 2018 and no one reads blogs anymore but an important part of the exercise is to make myself think through things more clearly.

I’m going to try to read things that are a little outside the urbanist mainstream, to help expand my thinking and also hopefully increase the value of the time you spend engaging with me. To that end, here’s what I’m planning on reading this year, in no particular order:

  • Black Los Angeles (Darnell Hunt & Ana-Christina Ramón)
  • Learning from Hangzhou (Mathieu Borysevicz)
  • The Architecture of Red Vienna (Eve Blau)
  • The City in History (Lewis Mumford)
  • Glitter, Stucco, & Dumpster Diving (John Chase)
  • City of Darkness Revisited (Greg Girard & Ian Lambot)
  • Urban Planning and the African American Community (June Manning Thomas & Marsha Ritzdorf)
  • Learning from Las Vegas (Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi)
  • Infinite Suburbia (Kotkin et all)
  • Code and Clay… Data and Dirt (Shannon Mattern)
  • China Road (Rob Gifford)

Suggestions are welcome too! I also might break out the hiking, water, geology, and meteorology stuff into its own thing. We’ll see!

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Demand is Not Limitless

Over at Strong Towns, there’s a post offering a few thoughts on housing, including applying “induced demand” to housing. Induced demand has become something of a scriptural truth in urbanist thinking, making the leap from its origin as an explanation of what happens when you widen freeways to a more widely applied principle.

Way back in the days when I had time to blog more regularly, I suggested latent demand would be a better term for what happens when traffic lanes on a newly widened freeway get jammed up. To briefly recap, “induced demand” suggests that the very act of building a freeway lane (or house) creates the people that use it (or live in it), like applying an electric current to a coil induces a magnetic field. This is not really what happens with transportation or housing; the people and their desire to travel (or live somewhere) already exists.

Since building freeway lanes and houses does not create people, demand is not limitless. Even in the case of heavily congested freeways like the 405, widening the freeway unleashes some latent demand but it also diverts demand from competing facilities. This is in a case where we literally give away capacity for free.

For housing, which you have to pay for, we should expect demand to be more limited than freeway capacity. While there’s clearly a lot of latent demand to live in Los Angeles, both in terms of people who want to move here from other regions and existing households that would split up into multiple households, it’s also clearly not limitless. There are only so many people in the United States, and about 1 in 32 of them already live in Los Angeles County; my guess is it’s unlikely that even 1 in 25 want to live here. There is some level of housing supply that would satisfy the demand to live here at a reasonable price, just like there are cities in America that don’t have terrible traffic congestion.

Meanwhile, calling demand “induced” leads you to some strange conclusions. For example, the Strong Towns post says that the more housing is added, the greater the city becomes, and so demand for housing continues to rise. Logically, that would mean that to make Los Angeles more affordable, we should go out and start demolishing existing housing – but I doubt anyone really thinks that would work. People that are currently housed don’t disappear if you demolish their housing, just like building housing doesn’t create new people.

This also ignores that, like America’s many lightly used rural freeways, the United States has cities that have high vacancy rates and low housing costs. These places have a lot of housing, but having a lot of housing is not a guarantee that you will have people who want to live in it.

Now, none of this is to deny that amenity effects are real. New development in one neighborhood can increase that neighborhood’s level of amenities relative to other places in the region, making it more attractive to prospective residents. That can lead to displacement. But the solution to that is new development all across the region, so that new amenities are not all concentrated in one place.

How Downzoning Kills Affordability & Drives Gentrification: Sunset Junction Edition

We often talk about zoning in the abstract, making it hard to understand just how restrictive zoning destroys affordability. We looked once at how downzoning in Venice is resulting in multi-family buildings being converted into single-family homes, causing a decrease in the housing supply and evictions of current residents. Here’s another example, this time near Sunset Junction.

The project in question is a small lot subdivision. While these projects can be a good way to increase the housing supply, this is an example of the policy going wrong. The project would replace 10 existing units (one single-family home, one fourplex, one duplex, and one triplex) with 14 small lot houses. This is a net increase in housing supply, but all of the existing buildings were constructed before 1978, so 9 of the existing units are rent-stabilized. Though it is much less common than people think, this is a pretty clear case where new development is destroying rent-stabilized units and replacing it with new housing that the current residents won’t be able to afford.

So where does zoning come in to this? The property is currently zoned RD2-1VL, having been downzoned from R4-2 in the first wave of NIMBY downzonings that swept LA in the late 60s and early 70s. This is an 80% downzoning in dwelling units (DU) allowed. The property totals just over 30,000 square feet (SF); here’s what could have been built under each zoning designation, along with what would be possible under R4-2 with a density bonus.

sjz1

Here’s the result of downzoning in Sunset Junction: the only project that can be built is a project that might displace low-income residents. Under the previous R4 zoning, with a density bonus, a project could have been built that would result in no net loss of rent-stabilized housing – perhaps an agreement could have been negotiated to allow the residents of the 9 existing rent-stabilized units to remain in the new dedicated affordable units at their current rents. The loss of rent-stabilized units and displacement are not an accident, they are exactly what we have stated we want to happen with our current zoning policies. Note also that the project that will be constructed is much more auto-oriented than what would have been built under R4 zoning.

To see how upzoning can help, consider that this property is also in the Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) Tier 1 area. Here’s a comparison of what’s possible under the current zoning and the previous zoning using a TOC bonus.

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Using a TOC bonus, even in the lowest tier, would result in enough affordable units to more than replace the existing rent-stabilized units, resulting in an increase in the affordable housing supply.

The people who downzoned LA in the past, and are trying to downzone it again, got what they wanted. They got a city that is more auto-oriented with fewer apartment buildings. They didn’t care about affordability 40 years ago and despite any claims otherwise, they don’t care about it today. No matter who is going to build the housing, overturning the zoning restrictions that the opponents of new housing put in place is a critical first step.