Monthly Archives: July 2018

Who Can Telecommute?

Telecommuting has been held out as a solution for America’s transportation and land-use woes for my entire adult life and then some. Ever since the rise of the internet and the first tech bubble of the late 90s, it’s been proposed that eventually, the technology would be so good that you do your job from anywhere. That way it wouldn’t matter if Los Angeles were expensive, because you could just live in Spokane and do your job from there.

The experimental evidence we have from the last 20 years does not support this theory. An organization that promotes telecommuting found that between 2005 and 2017, the number of people working from home at least half time in the United States rose from 1.8 million to 3.9 million, or 2.9% of the  US workforce. While that number is not nothing, it effectively represents only a 1.5% reduction in the demand for transportation for work trips. Over that same period, total employment in the US rose by 12.5 million, or 8.5%. So despite the growth of telecommuting, overall employment grew much more quickly and consequently the demand for transportation continued to increase.

The continued success of large US metros relative to mid-size and small metros also suggests telecommuting is having little impact. A recent spate of “millennials are doing X” articles have tried to push the idea that growth is now shifting to mid-size cities, but it’s amazing how many articles there are citing Pittsburgh, when Allegheny County has lost population every year since 2013. In fact, given how high housing prices have had to rise in large metros to force growth elsewhere, I wonder if you could make a case that the internet has actually increased the agglomeration effects of living in a large city.

Finally, while there are clear benefits of telecommuting (lower housing and transportation costs for the employee, lower office and overhead costs for the employer), there are productivity costs as well. I’ve found in my personal experience that it’s much easier to supervise employees and coordinate a large project team when everyone is in the same office. Being in different offices in the same city is worse, and being in different time zones is even worse.

While I’m not a great manager by any stretch of the imagination, I would like to think I am at least marginally competent and that my experience in this regard is not unique. The single biggest benefit of being in the same office as other people is that it makes it impossible for them to avoid you. Emails can go unanswered, calls can go unreturned, but if I show up at your desk asking you about something, you have to respond. This is a pretty common thread in human relations – it’s much easier to keep up and keep in touch with people that you see than people you don’t.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that living in a bigger city give you more amenities. You might be able to do your job from an RV in rural Nevada, but you won’t be able to access the amenities of Las Vegas or LA.

Even throwing all of that aside, it’s worth asking who could theoretically telecommute. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog or City Observatory or Curbed or City Lab, you have a job that you could telecommute to do, or at least have a lot of friends who do. But that is not a very representative sample of American employment. The five biggest major industry sectors according to the BLS are professional and business services (20.1 million jobs), state/local government (19.4m), health care (19.1m), retail trade (15.8m), and leisure and hospitality (15.6m). My guess is that if you’re reading this, you work in professional and business services, easily the category that best lends itself to telecommuting, and is still subject to all the problems above. Some of these sectors, like health care and retail trade, have almost no potential for telecommuting, as do other major sectors like manufacturing, construction, and transportation/logistics.

Let’s do a quick analysis on the major industry sectors with low, medium, and high guesses for the percentage of people that could telecommute. All numbers are BLS 2016 data.

industries.png

At the low end, something like 10% of people will be able to consistently telecommute. That suggests we’ll see more growth in telecommuting, but it still won’t have much impact on transportation demand or housing prices. Even at the high end, if 25% of people were able to telecommute tomorrow, that would put the number of employees not telecommuting at about the same as total employment in 1993, and of course, the economy is still growing.

None of this is to say that telecommuting is per se bad, or that you shouldn’t do it if it works for your personal situation or your business. But if you’re counting on telecommuting to fix traffic and housing prices in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s not going to work. We should be planning cities for how people want to live, not hoping for technological solutions to bail us out of the problems created by a few selfish actors.

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South Bay Boulevards

Though I live in Glendale now and have written extensively about Palms, one of my favorite parts of LA County is the South Bay. Development and land use patterns in this collection of under the radar cities like Gardena, Torrance, and Lawndale are genius – though perhaps we should say accidental genius.

For readers outside of LA, the South Bay is roughly the area south of the 105 and west of the 110 – though Carson extends east of the 110 and is South Bay in my mind, and the portions of the “beach cities” (El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach) west of PCH may or may not be “South Bay” depending on how you conceptualize things.

This area was one of the first prime areas of post-war suburbanization in LA, and has the features you’d expect of such a place: great climate (what people usually think of as SoCal’s climate), and centrally located with great access to both employment and amenities like the beach. In fact, the South Bay is the Boomer-era mythos of SoCal, created and popularized and immortalized by the Beach Boys out of Hawthorne.

So what do I love about the South Bay? Its anonymous and eponymous boulevards, and the surprising amount of low-rise density like dingbats and two-story podiums, that create wonderful diversity and make it possible for many, many different people to live life and pursue their dreams. One theme of this blog has been a celebration of Palms, but much of the South Bay is Palms on a grander scale. And as Palms is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in LA (and especially on the Westside), the South Bay is one of the most diverse parts of LA.

South Bay Boulevards

Start at the beach and cruise east on any of the South Bay’s boulevards and just take it all in. The diversity of these cities is reflected in the diversity of business establishments you’ll see as you go. And you can go for miles and miles. I recently got the opportunity to do this on Rosecrans Ave and on Manhattan Beach Blvd, and earlier this year I did it a few times on Artesia Blvd and Western Ave. In the past when I lived in Palms and my partner lived in Torrance, I spent a lot of time on Hawthorne Blvd and Torrance Blvd. But you can picky any of them and have the same wonderful experience. I love how far you can go and go and just keep going, looking at each small business and each apartment building, each one representing a person getting to try to make their own way in Los Angeles.

Naturally, the South Bay is poorly understood, its density overlooked by aesthetic and urbanist observers who focus on its auto-orientation and single-family neighborhoods. To them, I would say, I implore you – look at how many people the South Bay is working for, and ask yourself, what can we do to make more places like the South Bay? And what can we do to make the South Bay work better for more people, and make sure lower income people don’t get priced out?

So why did I call the South Bay accidental genius?

Well, if you go back to the history of housing and development in Los Angeles between 1945 and 1965, it’s pretty clear that they were not trying to create medium-density integrated suburbs. Pretty much the opposite, in fact. They created land use patterns that enabled the South Bay’s diversity by accident, despite their efforts to the contrary, and you could probably interpret some of LA/OC’s suburban fringe development between 1965 and 1990 as an attempt to “fix” what didn’t work about those efforts.

Looking at the South Bay’s land use patterns, what the planning was, what the intent was, and what actually happened can provide good lessons on what we should do with current land use planning. It would not be good to say we want to “go back” to the planning regime that created these land use patterns, because that regime was discriminatory against people of color. But in the post-war era, many schemes were tried to make and keep neighborhoods white, and some of them “worked” much better than others. Very low density schemes produced neighborhoods that today, 70 years later, are much whiter than the high density schemes.

No one should be under the delusion that exclusionary zoning is what caused racism; the causation, of course, runs in the opposite direction.

However, you also should not be under the delusion that undoing the exclusionary zoning policies that most successfully perpetuated racism and segregation would not help, or that it would not be worthwhile on the merits. We have enough history to know which policies keep neighborhoods segregated, and we ought to make those policies nothing but history. The South Bay may not have evolved in a way originally envisioned by post-war suburban planning, but it offers many ideas on land use policies that could be incorporated into a vision for a denser, more progressive, more inclusive Los Angeles.

In Praise of Remodeling

Just a short note that I was reminded of recently when I came across a project in LA that proposes to convert a manager’s office into a one-bedroom apartment in an existing building: subdividing old housing is very good, but it has been curtailed by zoning.

Reconfiguring buildings that already exist is one of the cheapest ways to create new housing units. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the primary ways that affordable housing was created in the past. Single-family housing was converted into boarding houses. Once-fashionable homes on Bunker Hill in downtown LA became cheap apartments, providing many affordable housing units until they were demolished for urban renewal. Row houses that were single family became one apartment per floor, or several apartments per floor, or even single-room occupancy units.

Now, this wasn’t the only way affordable housing was built in the past. Many buildings were purposely built as market-rate affordable housing, from LA’s dingbats to New York’s tenements. But remodeling an existing building is likely going to be cheaper, for structural reasons you can’t really change. This includes:

  • The building already exists, so its capital construction cost has probably already been recovered, and the amount of construction needed is smaller.
  • Because you don’t have to demolish an entire building and start from the ground up, the units can be delivered more quickly, and the carrying cost is lower.
  • Because fewer resources and skills are needed to do this type of construction, more people can do it. This lets more people participate in development and makes it easier to finance.

All of this means that new units in existing buildings can be delivered at lower cost than new units in new buildings. That lets housing supply be more responsive to prices, making new units viable at lower rents.

Of course, all of this is intuitively obvious to a lot of people in crowded but disinvested neighborhoods. People don’t have to work out the theory to see that there are other people who need housing, and that they can provide it by remodeling space in a building they already have. That’s why there are so many unpermitted units all over Los Angeles, from garage apartments to unpermitted additions to illegal subdivisions of commercial structures.

And of course, rather than seeing this human ingenuity as a way to solve the housing shortage, we send out code enforcement to demolish these units when we have nowhere to tell the people who live there to go. It’s like making pushcart vending illegal and then telling people to go stand in an unemployment office line instead.

The City of LA’s Unpermitted Dwelling Unit (UDU) ordinance was a huge step forward in this regard, because it acknowledges that “these units add much-needed affordable housing to the City of Los Angeles.” The UDU ordinance allows a unit to be legalized, provided that they pass plan check and correct any building code deficiencies, and that one unit on the property is dedicated as an affordable unit for 55 years.

However, for political reasons, the UDU ordinance only allows this for units occupied prior to December 10, 2015. If you could build a new illegal unit and then legalize it through the UDU ordinance, this would create an incentive for people to start building more illegal units. But of course logically, if the units are providing “much-needed affordable housing” – housing that is so badly needed we are willing to legalize the ones that exist – the problem is not that people would build illegal units, it’s that the units people build would be illegal!

UDU ordinance aside, subdividing old housing into multiple apartments generally doesn’t fit into the modern conception of planning. Neighborhoods are planned to be built once and then never change, regardless of what social and economic conditions change around them. If you happen to own a single-family home in a multi-family zone, a very rare situation in LA these days, you could do this. But most places in coastal California are already built out to their maximum permitted density (or in many places, more than their permitted density due to downzoning).

It’s a shame, because upzoning would probably lead to not only an increase in new building construction, but to remodeling of existing buildings. By not allowing it, California is leaving some of the most affordable potential housing units on the table.

Missing Middle Musing

I recently had the opportunity to travel to both Philadelphia, a city I don’t know very well, and Boston, a city I lived in for 12 years before moving to LA in 2012. In Philadelphia, I was fortunate enough to have @riccoja show me around Northern Liberties and Fishtown; in Boston, I spent a lot of time walking around the city looking at how things had changed (or not changed) since I left. (I also visited DC, but really just the tourist thing and didn’t get to see much new development.)

I came away from my trip with two main thoughts on housing in Los Angeles:

  • We have systematically made it harder and harder to build missing middle (link) housing in LA. This is unfortunate, because I don’t think we can solve the housing crisis without building a lot more of it.
  • The homelessness crisis is the most visible and critical facet of the housing crisis. Even being away for just 10 days, it was shocking how bad things are in LA when I came back.

Row Houses and Ridiculously Narrow Streets

For historical reasons I don’t have the time to research or go into here, Philadelphia seems to have a strong development cultural emphasis on single-family housing, regardless of how small the lots or buildings are. Philadelphia is also cool with really narrow streets. This leads to a pattern of narrow streets with narrow two to four story row houses fronting right on the property line.

Unlike other American cities, it’s still possible to do development like this in Philadelphia, and there’s a ton of infill row house development in Northern Liberties and Fishtown. The only other place that allows townhouses like this is Houston, I think, and it’s certainly not on streets this narrow!

My biggest impression from Philadelphia is that LA needs to unleash this type of development. The virtues of small scale development like this are many:

  • It doesn’t require lot assembly, so there’s no delay for that and never any need for redevelopment agency shenanigans.
  • It’s cheaper per unit to build, because there is less common area and amenity space than a large building.
  • It’s cheaper per development to build, which means a larger number of people can build them. This both increases housing supply and increases community input into how development occurs. It also makes it more likely that small local developers, who know the community well, can participate.
  • It’s less complicated to build than a large building, which means a larger number of contractors and construction workers can be employed in its construction. This increases employment opportunity and lowers costs.
  • It’s faster to build than a large building, which means it can respond to housing needs faster than large developments. This also lowers costs because carrying costs are directly proportional to the time between when the developer buys the lot and when the building opens.
  • It creates small retail spaces, which increase the diversity of local business and creates opportunity for a wider range of small entrepreneurs.

All of this means a faster, larger, and cheaper response to the need for new housing. This is both good on the merits and good politics, because slow and expensive responses to the need for housing lead to more widespread disillusionment and agitation for radical action.

New Districts and Static Neighborhoods

In contrast, development in Boston seems to be focused in a handful of new districts: the Seaport, North Point, Harvard’s campus in North Allston, Station Landing, the area near North Station vacated by demolishing the Central Artery, Assembly Square, and Kendall Square. There was a little infill development (a couple buildings in the North End, a house in Brighton Center whose architecture my friends complained about) but it seemed to be the exception.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with replacing parking lots and abandoned rail yards with new neighborhoods. In fact, it’s pretty great. But it almost necessarily involves a lot more central planning from the city, big institutional developers, and big institutional finance. That means projects that move much more slowly, have a higher cost per unit, and are less likely to happen before the next market downturn. North Point is great… but it was one of the first projects I worked on when I lived in Boston after graduating, and it’s just getting built over a decade later. The same could be said for Assembly Square, Station Landing, Harvard’s campus, and the Seaport. These projects will happen when demand is high enough but they take a long, long time.

My friends in Boston are white collar professionals and public employees. They’re not housing insecure by any means. But they didn’t hold new development in Boston in high regard, and it’s somewhat understandable. It’s not really for them; it’s for people just a little higher up the income ladder. Comparing to Philadelphia, I can’t help but think that Boston would be better off if it were also building a crap load of small scale development like townhouses and small apartment buildings in places not quite as central as the new districts but still T-accessible.

Golden State Squalor

Returning to LA, I was more convinced than before that we need to allow more missing middle development here. If it were up to me, I would rezone every RD, R2, and R1 zone in the city to something like an “RD1.2” or “RD1” townhouse zone, with townhouses allowed by right with a minimum lot area of 1,200 SF or 1,000 SF. (I’d also eliminate parking requirements and reduce the impact fees.)

But more immediate, and more appalling, was returning to LA and walking around downtown, bearing renewed witness to the tide of human misery that floods downtown every night, retreating east of the double yellow line on Los Angeles St and south of 3rd St during the day, a thousand sidewalk washers in its wake.

I didn’t notice the absence of homeless on the east coast, but I noticed the presence when I got back, and it’s a complete embarrassment to LA and California that a state so rich should have so many people living on the streets. The numbers are overwhelming, the state of public health on the streets is atrocious, and yet still, proposals to relieve the situation face NIMBY opposition.

It’s hard to put into words how bad things are in California compared to other US cities, so let me not mince words in my final thoughts. We need to be out there trying to do something every day to fix this problem. And if you oppose new housing, especially permanent supportive housing or temporary shelters for the homeless, you are a bad person, and I hope you feel bad about yourself, because you should. I’m not a religious person but if this crisis doesn’t move you, by god, what would?