Wednesday, December 11, 2013

New Zoning Efforts Against Student Renters

I've written about new developments in anti-student zoning regulations before, but the ingenuity of towns and cities seeking to use their regulatory powers to restrict students from living in university-adjacent residential neighborhoods seems to know no bounds. Layered on top of existing exclusionary zoning regulations that limit entire areas to single-family detached dwellings, these rules generally go beyond addressing form and use to limiting tenancy and occupancy in such a way that students are greatly limited, if not altogether excluded, from inhabiting the primary residential option that is available to them.

Students have always been easy targets for such regulation. As temporary residents, they are politically weak and fragmented, and unlike racial minorities and certain other groups, they do not enjoy heightened legal protections against housing discrimination. However, the same regulations that impact students frequently have adverse impacts on poor and minority populations as well: animus against students may therefore serve as cover for less legally and socially acceptable forms of discrimination (as the ACLU's amicus brief in the rental caps case below discusses at length).

These regulations have been around for decades, but recent years have seen unprecedented attempts to limit the expansion of student populations into residential neighborhoods (generally a result of the failure of single-family zoning, by itself, to staunch the inflow). Among the approaches used, past and present, include:
  • Occupancy Limits. The most common restriction involves amending statutory definitions of "family" in housing or zoning codes to ensure that single family homes are unavailable for use by roommate groups. Alan Durning, in a recent Sightline article, eviscerated the basis for such regulations, but nonetheless they have the approval of the Supreme Court (1974's Belle Terre v. Boraas, in which an anti-student occupancy limit was upheld 7-2). 
  • Direct Prohibitions. The only place I'm aware of that has adopted this type of overt discrimination is Philadelphia's Yorktown neighborhood, immediately adjacent to Temple University, which sponsored the creation of a special Yorktown Overlay in which students would be entirely prohibited from renting in single-family zones (with an exception for owner-occupant landlords). This prohibition against a named class of persons, reminiscent of the racial covenants and zoning laws of the first half of the 20th century, was handily upheld by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
  • Rental Caps. Until recent years, it had apparently never occurred to Americans that they might invoke municipal law to simply outlaw tenancy on a widespread basis, but that is precisely what several Minnesota towns have recently done to varying degrees, building off of earlier laws restricting short-term vacation rentals. The town of Winona, in particular, home to Winona State University, adopted a law limiting rental licenses to 30% of the houses on each block. Several homeowners, finding that the law greatly devalued their properties to the extent of rendering them effectively unsaleable, filed suit against the town in a case that is on appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals (after a district court returned an unfavorable ruling to the homeowners).
Resident complaints about the behavior of groups of student renters undoubtedly have a real basis, though it is easy to stereotype and over-generalize, and there must be better means of regulating behavior than setting blanket restrictions and prohibitions on an entire class of persons. Moreover, the very demographic pressure of students on neighborhoods of single-family homes may be exacerbated by an absence of multifamily housing (Winona, despite being a small city, does have a narrow band zoned for multifamily housing, but it is not adjacent to the hemmed-in university, which appears to have little room for building new dormitories).

The resort to rental caps, however, is a rather striking step  perhaps the terminal step  in the century-long evolution of American zoning practice, making explicit what was always implicit in the idealized conception of the single-family suburb. Beyond the context of town-gown relations, the notion of using legal means to limit rentals seems to be proliferating in response to the purchase of foreclosed single-family homes by large real estate investors who intend to rent them, as a recent New York Times article documents. However, the Winona law's practical effect of trapping owners in their homes, and the arbitrary manner in which residential land values were transferred to owners with rental licenses, seems to have been a step too far even for the pursuit of the bourgeois utopia. That the state court upheld the law should not come as a surprise, but it will be interesting to keep an eye on the proceedings in the appeals court, which is scheduled to hear oral argument on the case tomorrow, December 12.

Related reading: Home Sweet Home? The Efficacy of Rental Restrictions to Promote Neighborhood Stability.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thursday Old Urbanism

A family member back from a Japan adventure was kind enough to oblige my request for photos of street scenes during her travels. Although you can easily get your Japanese narrow streets fix at Nathan Lewis' site, or even on Google Streetview, which now covers most of Japan, I thought I might share of few of them:

Asakusa District, Tokyo
Although many streets are effectively pedestrianized like this one, with little auto traffic, few if any are actually physically closed off to cars. On-street parking is almost nonexistent. Almost all bikes seem to be of the cruiser type at left, with high handlebars, comfy seats and a basket almost invariably attached in the front (and often the back as well). Helmets? Very few if any are worn, apparently.

Arcade-style public shopping streets, running for block after block, are abundant. In Kyoto, it appears a person could walk across much of the downtown area without leaving the shelter of one of these covered streets. Despite the near-total lack of nearby parking, the visual evidence shows that these streets aren't suffering from a dire lack of customers. I expected to find a website devoted to them, but that seems to be a project still in search of a creator.

Shinsaibashi, Osaka
Another very pleasant shopping street, in Osaka.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

New Plans for Old Avenues in New York City

In its recent endorsement in the New York City mayoral race for sudden frontrunner Bill de Blasio, StreetsPAC cited de Blasio's street safety platform calling for "a city with zero fatalities or serious injuries caused by car crashes on the streets of New York." In addition to various law enforcement measures, including speed limit reductions, de Blasio's platform also calls for design-based changes, including "narrowing excessively wide streets that encourage reckless passing and speeding, widening sidewalks and medians to make streets easier and safer to cross, and adding dedicated bicycle infrastructure to create a safe space for New Yorkers on bikes."

Under Mayor Bloomberg, numerous design interventions of this sort have been carried out, and although some redesigns have brought significant transformations -- Times Square, for example, or the reworking of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn -- others have been little more than glorified patch jobs, taking common-sense but modest steps to address notoriously dangerous crossings and intersections without unduly interfering with the primacy of high-speed automobile circulation. While there has been abundant use of colorful paint to widen sidewalks and expand pedestrian plazas, and the wonderful addition of bike-sharing and new bike lanes, few streets have seen thorough overhauls that are consciously geared toward improving quality of life for those on foot rather than simply enhancing safety and mobility.

Incremental changes make sense as a general rule, but in a city like New York, surely there is room, and appetite, for at least one transformational street project?  However, certain major changes, such as wide-scale permanent pedestrianizations, have generally fallen out of favor since the 1970s, while the imaginations of some planners and architects can get carried away in impractical, overly-complex or even fantastical directions when presented with a large blank canvas to work on, as in the case of this fanciful example from last year's Greatest Grid exhibit, showing a Manhattan street repurposed for agriculture:

A more realistic plan is the "Yorkville Rambla," developed by John Massengale and Dover, Kohl & Partners, which would essentially pedestrianize the center lanes of Second Avenue. The plan is simple, elegant, and most importantly, draws on established design predecent shown to be successful in similar urban contexts. The design does not contemplate a complete pedestrianization, but on New York's avenues, due to the need for dedicated bus and bike lanes, this is not likely to be feasible:

Source: Massengale & Co. LLC, Dover, Kohl & Partners et al., via Urban Design Week 2011

The plan pays homage to Barcelona's renowned thoroughfare, but there are in fact successful examples from New York itself very similar to the proposed design. Here, for example, is Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a city park nearby the United Nations complex which was completely reconstructed in the late 1990s. Although it is classified as a park, and is administered by the city's parks department, rather than the transportation department, when viewed in context of the adjacent 47th Street, it is clear that the so-called plaza is actually a classic urban promenade:

The plaza looking west, with 47th Street at right. Source: Old Urbanist
Its design is brilliantly simple in my opinion, incorporating a few basic principles:
  • Pave, pave, pave. The surface of the promenade is largely covered with functional brick and stone pavers, minimizing maintenance while maximizing the area for human use (which includes weekly farmers' markets). There are few if any concessions to "green" or "landscape" urbanism: no berms, no bioswales, no stormwater filtration areas, and half the right of way is not given over to indigenous grasses or drought-resistant shrubs (there is, however, an adjacent garden, to the far left in the photo, although this is not integral to the design).
  • People-oriented seating. Bench seating is simple and faces toward the promenade, not away from it or in random orientations. If "what attracts people most ... is other people," in William Whyte's words, this straightforward design is a great success.
  • Green to the eye, not green on the ground. During summer, the promenade is luxuriantly green to due an abundance of trees (planted regularly and formally, not pseudo-naturalistically). However, these trees take up very little space at ground level, minimally interfering with use of the space. For me, this is the true mark of a successful green area ratio: maximizing visible greenery while minimizing the street-level square footage actually occupied by that greenery. Planted areas can enliven a very large space, but this should be done with care, and with thought given to what sort of use the space is likely to receive.
Another promising and perhaps even more feasible plan would restore Park Avenue approximately to its early 20th century configuration by widening its median, although the plan by SHoP shown here does put a lot of unusable green space on the ground:

Source: New York Observer.

This seemingly High Line-inspired use of plants to restrict the area available for human use (without adding much visual green -- note the ratio of visual tree area to plant area of about 5:1, though the plant area probably occupies 100x the ground area) seems to be characteristic of many contemporary plans, including one by SOM for the elevated roadways around Grand Central. If that is the cost of deriving political will and public support from the High Line's success, though, then it may be an acceptable trade-off after all.

Whatever the plans of the next mayoral administration, whether led by de Blasio or another candidate, one hopes that at least one street redesign such as these makes it onto the agenda. For a relatively modest cost, the benefits not only in safety but in quality of life would be substantial.

Related posts:
  • Recivilization also features the Yorkville Rambla at a post here, and outlines a set of very similar principles (which I didn't see until after writing this -- showing that there may possibly be something to them!).
  • At Strong Towns, Steve Stofka provides a thorough post on street design and the perception of street width, using the addictive new program Streetmix.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Forty-five Years Later, Can the FHA Help Overcome Zoning Barriers to Integration?

Last month, The Atlantic Cities ran an article covering the latest attempt by the federal government to implement the long-delayed requirement of the 45-year-old Fair Housing Act to "affirmatively further" fair housing. Although the article notes that overt discrimination has been in decline, the idea of proactively enabling fair housing, as the Act requires, has been stalled for over four decades:
"In part at least, the obstacles to integration are harder to detect than the culprits behind discrimination. They take the form not of malicious real estate agents or red-lining banks. Rather, integration is stalled or blocked today by exclusionary zoning that keeps lower-income people or new affordable housing out of many communities. This means that furthering the goals of the Fair Housing Act in 2013 is a complex problem of planning and land use that goes far beyond rebuking anyone who won't offer a black family a home."
In remarks last week on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Obama alluded to similar notions in the context of civil rights:
"In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination – the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice – not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can't afford the meal?"
To that it might be added, what use is it to have legally integrated communities if one can't afford to live in them? The connection between exclusionary zoning and integration, not only of races but of classes, generations and household types, has been extensively studied, from 1992's American Apartheid to 2003's Unfair Housing to 2012's Snob Zones. A recent article chronicles the inexplicable failures of successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat, to affirmatively promote integration. That so little has been achieved in rolling back exclusionary zoning shouldn't come as much surprise, however, given the focus of the Act itself and the precedents set by state and federal courts.

Notably, the Fair Housing Act did not, and still does not, contemplate housing cost as an element of housing fairness.* The word "affordability" or its synonyms do not appear once in the FHA's text. Implicit in the FHA's structure is that the primary obstacle to integration is directly discriminatory laws and practices, rather than high home prices or rents contributed to by land use restrictions. Consistent with this interpretation, courts have declined to hold that generally applicable regulations with no obvious purpose other than raising the cost of housing violate the FHA, absent clear and detailed evidence of racially discriminatory impact (see e.g. NAACP v. City of Kyle, W.D. Texas March 20, 2009**), and in those instances where they have struck down such broad regulations have relied on due process grounds, rather than on the FHA (see e.g. Builders Service Corporation v. Planning & Zoning Commission (N.J. 1979), and Home Builders League of So. Jersey, Inc. v. Twp. of Berlin (CT 1988).

Victories against zoning laws using an FHA rationale have been modest, often involving the rezoning of a single parcel in a sea of large-lot single-family homes (see Huntington Branch, NAACP v. Town of Huntington (2d Cir. 1988)) in a manner that hardly redresses ingrained segregation, and underlines the rather discouraging point that it is only disparate impact against certain protected classes that is the concern of the FHA, rather than disparate impact against low-income persons in general. This view of fairness can be traced back nearly a century, long before the FHA, when the Supreme Court followed its ruling striking down racial zoning in 1917's Buchanan v. Warley with  approval of snob zoning in 1926's Euclid v. Ambler.

The few judicial and legislative attempts at remedying the effects of exclusionary zoning have similarly addressed symptoms rather than challenging the underlying malady. Among these are Connecticut's Section 8-30G, which has achieved the construction of a modest number of units in certain towns, Massachusetts' Chapter 40b, and New Jersey's Mount Laurel doctrine. New Hampshire's Britton decision, hailed as that state's own Mount Laurel doctrine, has, according to Snob Zones, been an ineffective weapon against exclusionary zoning codes in that state. Worse still, the use of further government intervention to override restrictions placed by town governments has inflamed local resentment and corrupted the very term "affordable housing," such that it now generally refers to a specialized product of legislation rather than market rate housing that happens to be low cost. The implication is that low cost housing itself is a government product, and perhaps can only be a government product, a notion which contributes to a neglect of market-based approaches to increasing housing affordability. The latest achievement for the court campaigners comes out of Westchester County, New York:
"A 2009 settlement between the county and the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York … mandated that Westchester build and acquire 750 units of affordable housing in its wealthiest, and least diverse, communities over the course of seven years. The case came about as a result of the anti-discrimination center’s claims that the county had zoning that was exclusionary based on race."
Such inadequate remedies involving the construction of insufficient quantities of housing without challenging the exclusionary codes themselves seem aimed more at "sticking it" to wealthy communities rather than actually providing reasonably priced homes for a majority of those in the county, regardless of their race. And although there is at least a dawning awareness that segregation and affordability are linked, the focus on the former – the symptom – detracts from real achievement on the latter.  

The evidence is fairly abundant, however, that low housing costs are a major weapon against segregation. Researchers with the Urban Institute, using a measure of residential segregation known as the Dissimilarity Index, have shown that low-cost Sunbelt cities, including non-zoned Houston, have been and continue to be among the most integrated metros. Hyper-expensive New York, on the other hand, is one of the few places to experience increasing segregation over the past 40 years, to the point that it now ranks as the second most segregated large American metro area:

Source: Urban Institute
(The data actually underestimate these patterns, since as the researchers note, "larger metros tend to be more segregated than smaller metros," which makes the numbers for rapidly-growing Houston, Dallas and Atlanta all the more remarkable.)

The explicitly racial zoning laws of the 1910s were arguably passed as a result of the failure of individual acts of discrimination to halt integration in the context of an otherwise non-zoned and affordable city. Although some, or even many, of the residents may harbor discriminatory attitudes, when deprived of the power of law to carry out their ends, a mixing of not only races, but of ages, household types and incomes will occur to greater or lesser extents. From that perspective, the affirmative provisions of the FHA look toothless. Where housing costs are low, the provisions may not be needed. Where costs are high, they are ineffective, since the FHA does not encompass affordability and is therefore legally powerless against well-crafted exclusionary zoning no matter what new regulations are adopted by HUD. If the administration truly wishes to make progress against this sort of zoning practice, it is possible that a new approach, and possibly new legislation, may be needed, one which takes a broader view of discrimination both with respect to its means and its objects.

As a parting shot, I'll offer the forgotten words of Courtney Westenhaver, the district court judge in the Euclid case, who in striking down the city of Euclid's zoning ordinance – one of the the last or perhaps the last time a general zoning law would ever be struck down in its entirety by an American court was under no illusions as to the purpose of the law: 
"The plain truth is that the true object of the ordinance in question is to place all the property in an undeveloped area of 16 square miles in a strait-jacket. The purpose to be accomplished is really to regulate the mode of living of persons who may hereafter inhabit it. In the last analysis, the result to be accomplished is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life."

*Of course, even if the FHA did not address low cost housing, other government programs did. However, for a time even after the FHA's adoption, federal affordable housing policy was directly at odds with integrationist public policy, tending to warehouse the poor in physically segregated public housing facilities, and typically locating these facilities in low-income neighborhoods. Their construction often involved the obliteration of large swathes of the most affordable private housing options, thereby increasing demand, and thus prices, for the remaining private housing stock. The Section 8 program, which at least in theory (though not, as it turned out, in practice) had integration potential, did not arrive until 1974.

**I'm not able to provide a link to the case, but in City of Kyle (a rapidly growing city of 28,000 some 20 miles south of Austin, TX) the city amended its zoning regulations to increase the minimum square footage for single family homes by 20 percent, and required that all such homes be accompanied by a garage of at least 480 square feet. The revised regulations also increased the minimum lot size and required masonry exteriors. I'm not sure how a law requiring a two-car garage (a mandated studio apartment for cars!) could survive even rational basis review, but a due process argument was not presented to the district court in the case. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Common Garage Parking in Practice, Part III: On-street Problems

Norwalk, Connecticut was facing parking problems. Although it had recently built a 775-car parking garage to serve its popular South Norwalk (SoNo) district, a formerly derelict collection of 19th century warehouse, commercial and factory buildings now revived as a bar, restaurant and shopping district, complaints continued to pour in from visitors and proprietors that the area lacked sufficient parking.

To a disinterested observer, these complaints might have seemed odd: the modest row of shopfronts along Washington and Wall Streets were surrounded by off-street parking and had ample on-street parking as well, and the blog Livable Norwalk confirmed that the SoNo area in fact did have an ample supply of parking in the vicinity:
From Livable Norwalk: public parking in blue, private in orange.

In spite of the purported lack of parking, the new garage (located a five minute walk from the heart of the area) was a target of particular ire from local restaurant owners, who complained that it was too far away for customers. Several attempts have been made to explain the lack of use of the new multi-million dollar garage in spite of persistent griping about insufficient parking, including:
  • A pricing structure that would give Donald Shoup nightmares. Norwalk charges dramatically more for its garage spaces than for on-street spaces, even though the on-street spaces are scarcer and more convenient. Moreover, the city makes on-street parking free during high demand hours (after 6 p.m. for most streets), while only discounting garage parking. In response to this situation, the city recently hiked prices at its garages while leaving metered spaces unchanged.
  • A poor pedestrian experience. One blogger posted videos to show the allegedly poor quality of the short walk from the garage to the center of the restaurant area, despite the fact that the garage incorporates a retail and office liner around most of its perimeter.
  • An excessively long walk. This is the claim of SoNo merchants and visitors alike regarding the five-minute walk from the garage to Washington Street, although for certain attractions (such as the Maritime museum and a few restaurants) the garage does represent the closest parking option. On-street parking is very limited in the immediate vicinity of the garage.
All of these explanations must play some role here, but one that is unmentioned is, I think, perhaps the most important of all: the presence of on-street parking itself.  Consider the nearby Stamford Town Center, a typical enclosed mall which is reached solely by paid garage parking. A typical visitor will need to walk about three to five minutes to reach a randomly-chosen store from the garage, and possibly as many as seven minutes to reach certain parts of the anchor stores. Yet there's rarely if ever been any complaint raised, so far as I'm aware, that parking is too far from the mall's stores, that that there isn't enough of it, or that the walk through the dim garage is too unpleasant.  

Glance again at the map above, showing the commercial thoroughfare of Washington Street running east to west at the center of the frame. Occupying the entire southern half of the southern block, outlined in blue, is the 265-space Haviland Street parking deck. To the north is the 775-car Maritime Garage. Washington Street itself offers only 22 spaces, in comparison to the over 1,000 public garage spaces in close proximity, plus many hundreds more in public and private surface lots. Although these spaces only supply a tiny fraction of the total, by their conspicuousness they play an outsized role, inducing many motorists to circle the block several times in hopes of winning the parking lottery, rather than simply proceeding to one of the garages.

From a performance parking perspective, one could suggest charging for these spaces at the market-clearing rate, but taking a contextual view of Norwalk's parking policies, that may almost be beside the point. The very existence of the parking spaces, regardless of their cost, exacts a psychological toll on would-be garage parkers by making their walk seem long relative to where, in theory, they might have parked. As long as the spaces exist, garage parking will always be seen as a second-best option. At the mall, by contrast, where the option of parking in front of one's desired destination is completely unavailable, shoppers are indifferent to longer walks and seem to endure them without much complaint.

From the perspective of the merchants, often the biggest boosters of underpriced on-street parking, this apparent drawback of on-street parking is in fact seen as its very benefit. Since shoppers are believed to be tempted by abundant free parking in other shopping areas, the retention of very cheap or free and convenient parking may be seen as essential to create the illusion, for motorists, of the same commodity found in suburban shopping centers (this sentiment is captured well in this article).

That this commodity is not available to 95% of peak-hour visitors regardless of how it is priced is irrelevant, given the same factors at play (that is, the theoretical possibility of a cheap, convenient spot is presumed to carry disproportionate weight in the mind of the potential shopper: the goal is luring them in, rather than actually providing them with the commodity sought).

How to reconcile all of these competing views, which have produced a parking policy that is at war with itself, pitting alluring on-street parking against the city's own garage parking, and cheap, scarce spaces against abundant, expensive spaces – a situation hardly unique to Norwalk? Well, there are several potential options apart from adjusting the pricing structure:
  • Convert the parking lane to sidewalk space. Although New Urbanists generally oppose the elimination of on-street parking, this is generally in the context of effective street widenings, in which the lane is turned over to through traffic rather than pedestrian use. Repurposing street parking for non-automobile uses (a favorite intervention of tactical urbanists, those deconstructivists of the autocentric paradigm), on the other hand, ought to be seen as a positive intervention.  Spanish cities frequently incorporate shared-space streets with through-traffic lanes, and with parking prohibited through use of trees and bollards (see at right, from Barcelona).  There is no reason such an approach could not be used on a much wider street, leaving ample room for sidewalk dining.
  • Total pedestrianization. Another option frequently derided on the basis of several conspicuous failures in the 1970s, pedestrian malls have actually enjoyed tremendous success in dozens of American cities (non-American examples are too numerous to mention). Limited vehicular access for deliveries during certain hours would preserve functionality without unduly detracting from quality of life.
  • Unconventional approaches to parking re-use. In a recent post, Matt Yglesias suggested that one way to deal with residents' fears of spillover parking generated by new development might be to eliminate residential parking permits and deed on-street parking spaces over the adjacent homeowners. Given that merchants would more likely than not be strongly opposed to either of the previous suggestions (but not always -- see an example of Minneapolis restaurants supporting a sidewalk expansion into street parking here), the same approach could be used in a commercial context. Establishments would be free to use the on-street space for their own parking, for some other use, or could simply sell the rights to the space to another merchant. 
In a new development, at least, one would hope that these knotty, politically divisive issues could be dealt with in a comprehensive, consistent and economically rational manner, yet at the planned Waypointe mixed-use development north of SoNo, renderings and promotional videos appear to show on-street parking despite the presence of a 1025-space parking garage (incorporated Texas doughnut-style).  Even if no such parking is actually part of the formal plan, the ample width of the carriageways implies, and will likely result, in their eventual presence.

Related posts:
Common Garage Parking, In Practice
Common Garage Parking, In Practice: Part II

Monday, June 10, 2013

Common Garage Parking, In Practice: Part II

An article in a recent issue of the New York Times, spotlighting Charlotte in covering the trend toward less driving among younger Americans, opened with the following paragraph:
"Dan Mauney keeps misplacing his car. Mr. Mauney, 42, lives in an apartment tower in this city’s Uptown neighborhood, a pedestrian-friendly quarter with new office buildings, sparkling museums and ambitious restaurants. He so seldom needs to drive that when he does go to retrieve his car in his building’s garage, he said, 'I always forget where I parked it.'"
Although Mauney may have little "need" to drive his car, need does not always align with behavior when it comes to transportation choice. When one's car is steps away from the front door, its use, relative to need, is likely to be high, even where other options are available. By contrast, where the car is kept in a remote storage facility, out of sight and immediate access, it is likely that use of the car more closely coincides with genuine need. In Mauney's case, that need turns out to be surprisingly low.

Mauney's building may be a high-rise, but a similar common garage parking approach has effectively been adopted among new apartment buildings of the type seen here, in an example from Dallas:

This is of course the notorious "Texas Doughnut," a mid-rise residential liner wrapped around interior structured parking.  The product of on-site parking requirements and building codes which permit cheaper wood framing for lower-rise buildings, these structures have proliferated throughout the Sunbelt, though they can be found, with less frequency, outside that geographic range. To the extent these cities are experiencing urbanization near their centers (hello, Dallas), this is the form that urbanism frequently takes, for better or worse.

Despite the prominence of the parking facilities and the transportation mode choices that suggests, note that many residents are required to walk non-trivial distances to reach their vehicles. In some cases, as in the example from Houston below, the walk may actually exceed three minutes for some residents (Google maps shows no parking of any kind, underground or otherwise, associated with the apartments to the NE, NW or SW):

In debates about parking in urban areas, pricing and availability tend to garner the majority of the attention, with proximity only a secondary concern (although many complaints about these first two issues implicitly involve proximity). Similarly, attempts to reduce reliance on the car through parking reform have tended to focus on eliminating or reducing parking maximums or establishing a market pricing mechanism for parking spaces, rather than considering the location of the vehicle itself.

It should be common sense, though, that in an otherwise reasonably walkable area with some transit options, the further the car is from one's residence, the less use that car is likely to receive, since transportation is above all a matter of immediate convenience. Given that the "five minute walk" is generally accepted as a key walkability measure, having the car three minutes away inevitably helps shift the advantage toward walking. Other ways in which this modest time advantage could be magnified to privilege non-car modes could include:
  • Keeping cars in a centralized and fairly distant garage, as in the case of Vauban, but allowing bikes to be stored on-street or in another convenient location. 
  • Exploiting the limited access to parking garages by closing off certain streets to through traffic, but allowing permeability for cyclists and pedestrians. 
  • Prohibiting or greatly limiting on-street parking on surrounding streets, thereby reducing the perception of convenient parking while making the streets more hospitable to other modes of travel.
  • Reducing speed limits by law and through design features, including lane narrowing, textured paving, shared space, etc. 
Although these design elements are all consistent with the seemingly car-oriented Texas doughnut, they have rarely been put into practice. Rather, even where transit is present, the whole is often less than the sum of its parts: buildings are set back and present blank faces to the sidewalk, streets are engineered for vehicles, and the overall impression can be one of isolated and gated enclaves rather than a neighborhood (Dallas again, from Streetview):

For a city to make a system like this work, an entirely new approach toward both parking policy and thoroughfare design would be necessary. Rather than managing on-street parking, as with parking benefit districts, cities would need to arrange for coordinating off-street parking, something which many cities have neglected (for instance, Norman Garrick and Chris McCahill have found that a city like New Haven, CT, does not even have a count of its available parking supply, even though off-street requirements for individual buildings are typically micromanaged to an absurd degree -- truly a case of failing to see the forest for the trees), and which is not necessarily resolved simply by abolishing parking minimums. The "fee in-lieu of parking" model is one promising approach, although it is often undermined by the continuing presence of on-street parking, which encourages endless cruising for temptingly convenient spaces rather than use of public garages built with the collected fees.

With the common garage parking model emerging in these Sunbelt developments, however, something similar is taking place though the independent actions of developers, and residents seeking to live a life somewhat less tied to the car are apparently finding it there.

Related posts:
Common Garage Parking, In Practice

Friday, May 17, 2013

Homeownership, Unemployment and Economic Growth: Looking at the Trends

A new study* that has been receiving attention in the media claims that rises in the homeownership rate in U.S. states are correlated with subsequent sharp rises in unemployment in those states, and advances some provocative explanations to account for the correlation, including the conjecture that homeowners are more prone to support restrictive zoning that impedes business formation. The authors also find evidence that high homeownership is associated with lower labor mobility and long commutes (a point which contrasts with Randal O'Toole's argument, which I have mentioned before, that high homeownership is a product of high labor mobility).

As sympathetic as I am to arguments about the economic downsides of homeownership, I was a bit surprised by these findings, knowing that the largest increases in the homeownership rate during the period the authors examined, 1950-2010, occurred in the southern states, and that these states, I believed, also experienced the most rapid economic growth during that same period.  The study does not examine or even mention state income, so I decided to chart income growth in 49 states (excluding Alaska) and Washington D.C.

I have posted the full results here, but below is shown the top and bottom ten performing states over the 1950-2010 period, using household median income (figures are in 2010 dollars):

This is about what one might expect -- the Southern states, starting from a very low baseline, did very well during these six decades, while the rust belt states stagnated. Since we are talking about housing, though, what happens if we take into account the change in housing values, using these values to estimate the cost of housing in each state?

Discounting incomes by the cost of housing (based on the annualized expense of a 30-year mortgage at 6% interest, with 20% down**) gives the following results:

The Southern states again dominate the best performing list, with Maryland dropping out (note that Mississippi was the only state of all 50 examined where housing grew more affordable during the period examined relative to income).  Due to tremendous increases in housing prices, however, several states have moved far down the list, including New York and California.  Oregon and Montana are unusual in that housing prices increased substantially despite poor wage growth.

Finally, I correlated all the information I compiled plus the change in homeownership rates over 1950-2010 (showing correlation coefficients):

The chart shows that increases in income are strongly associated with increases in homeownership.  This compares to the weaker correlation found in the study between unemployment and homeownership over the same period (an R squared value of .108 as compared to .280: see Figure 2 on page 17). More surprising is the relatively low correlation between change in income and change in housing value: of the top ten states for housing cost growth, only two (Maryland and Virginia) were also on the list for top income growth.  For comparison, although North Dakota, Utah and California each experienced income growth of 88%, home prices rose 189%, 294% and 483% respectively. 

I didn't plot unemployment change over this period, as I'm not sure that such a volatile statistic is all that useful when measured at only two points in time. In any event, even a casual glance at unemployment rates during the recession shows that states that had the lowest levels of homeownership experienced some of the highest unemployment levels (notably California, Oregon, Nevada and New York), and have also had some of the highest levels of domestic outmigration, perhaps due to the very high housing costs that have suppressed homeownership rates in the first place.

Although none of this alters the patterns carefully discerned by the authors, I think it does at least point to the complexity of the homeownership phenomenon, which is affected by numerous economic, demographic and political factors, and which benefits from being studied in the broadest possible context so as to avoid placing too much importance on any particular correlation.

*David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, Does High Home-Ownership Impair the Labor Market?
*Rates were of course lower than this in 2010, but 6% is a rough long-term average for the past two decades, and in any event mortgage rates were comparable in 1950 (4.5%) and 2010 (4.7%).