Yimbytown 2018

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Opening Plenary

Ed Glaeser (Economics Professor & Researcher, Harvard University)

I arrived towards the end of the talk, but noted two points in the middle of a slide.

  • Zoning multi-family housing out of Cambridge has had the effect of pushing out poor and black residents.
  • High housing costs redistribute wealth to older generations, particularly those who bought properties when housing costs are low. Most of their family wealth comes from housing.

Next, Mr. Glaeser talked about using Yelp to measure gentrification. There turns out to be a strong correlation between gentrification and Yelp reviews, particularly Yelp reviews of laundromats. Apparently yuppies are more likely to write laundromat reviews. The number of Cafes, Starbucks, and college-educated individuals are also proxies for measuring gentrification.

A company named Streetscore ran a survey, where participants were shown a pair of pictures and asked "which makes you feel safer". People tended to pick gentrified areas. An MIT computer scientist used these photos and survey results to train a machine learning algorithm. This is potentially a way to measure gentrification on a much broader scale, using machine learning and images from (say) Google Street view.

City life has an impact on the environment. City residents tend to have smaller houses, and drive shorter distances. There's less environmental impact when you move people closer together. We have a lot to gain by building up rather than building out.

Temperate areas have a lower carbon footprint than non-temperate ones. Less energy is used for heating and cooling.

Most importantly, cities generate ideas. They allow people to meet and get together.

Question: Should municipalities modify local regulations to require environmental impact assessments?

Yes. And these environmental impact assessments should consider the site, local, and national environments.

Comment: Harvard has an educational program about cities. It's called Cities-X.

Comment: 97% of the cities in California don't meet state-mandated affordable housing requirements, but there are no penalties for failing to do so.

I'm big on penalties. But that means we have to litigate.

Question: How do you respond to the criticism that infill development increases prices?

Increasing the amount of a commodity never caused its price to go up. The goal isn't cheap land. The goal is allowing people to make a cheap landing.

Question: Should we say yes or no to Amazon?

Well, I'll just say that the community that gets Amazon's HQ2 probably deserves Amazon's HQ2.


Modern zoning for Modern Times

Andre Leroux (Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance), Brian Hanlon (California YIMBY), Dante Ramos (Boston Globe), Rachel Heller (Citizens Housing and Planning Association), Victoria Fierce (California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund)

The yimby movement arose from dissatisfaction with local laws. But if you can't get anywhere at the local level, where do you go next?

Is the climate in Sacramento getting better or worse? It's getting better. For decades, California had no interest in housing, but now they're starting to.

Why put the burden of proof on cities to reject housing? We can fine local governments that don't meet housing production requirements. The money from these fines would go into an affordable housing trust fund.

The MA legislature supports housing. Local governments can be less supportive. There's broad support for creating housing incentives in Massachusetts, but fewer people think of housing as a moral obligation. Incentives need both a bar and a floor.

The MA state senate is pro-housing. The governor proposed a housing bill to make housing production easier. The house was more conservative, because of the potential for challenges at the local level.

Where should housing policy be decided?

Cities are about land control; where housing goes and cannot go. We only have one planet and we need to sustain it. Moving up the legislative chain helps. Do whatever the nimbys do. If it worked for them, it can work for us.

Massachusetts needs to produce 17,000 units/year for housing stability.

We have to shift tactics on housing. Make arguments about building great neighborhoods (transit-oriented development, for example). We have to get more involved with local matters. That will make it easier to push initiatives at the state level.

How do you engage people in local decisions and the planning process? How do you create opportunities for people to weigh in?

Planners have spent decades been trying to figure out how to involve people in the planning process, and we've failed miserably. Maybe we should just stop having meetings.

We need a moral framework. Cities shouldn't have the opportunity not to provide a human right.

Our yimby organizations have a rule: show up.

SB 827 was a California bill that would have allowed upzoning near mass transit. What went wrong with SB 827?

There were some very loud voices in opposition to SB 827, and they weren't necessarily representative of the population.

Intentionally design your groups to include people of color, women, and so fourth. It helps to have a diverse coalition.

What about media?

Media formats make it difficult to have meaningful empathetic conversations. But we need to use both social media and traditional media.

As a non-profit, we need our own media platform, so we have a traditional website. But we also use social media and face-to-face interactions.

Different forms of media come with their own audiences and demographics. We need to reach people where they're at. Different audiences might require different forms of dissemination.

Sometimes, getting people to tweet at their legislators helps.

The United States is 50 different labs of democracy, so it's helpful to look at what's happening in other states. Vancouver and Portland recently legalized duplexes, which was a step forward.

What about incentives? Incentives aren't sufficient by themselves; you need a mix of carrots and sticks. For example, in Massachusetts 40B is a stick and 40R is a carrot. However, if new development is coming, incentives can help move that along.

Strategies that tie housing production to local aid for schools and roads can be effective. Massachusetts has a law that does this, but the law hasn't been enforced in 30 years.

One of CaRLA's goals is public impact lawsuits. But these cases can take a long time to litigate, and can be very expensive. In CA we have a fair housing act, which we can use when housing laws create disparate impacts.


Before you say "Yes in My Backyard": How to Develop without Displacement

Dan Bartman (Senior Planner, Somerville), John DePriest (Director of Planning, Chelsea), Carlos Espinoza-Toro (Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation), Angie Liou (Asian Community Development Corporation), Karina Milchman (Metropolitan Area Planning Council), Dave Traggorth (Traggorth Companies), Scott Hayman (Somerville Community Corporation)

What protocols can improve diversity while expanding growth?

Angie Liou talks about gentrification in Chinatown. Major cities have experienced economic growth, but the benefits are not spread equally. Cities are generally not prepared to deal with income inequality and the displacement of low-income residents. Once the combat zone was cleaned up, developers saw opportunities in Chinatown. They built 3,000 units of luxury housing; rising rents and evictions priced out longtime residents and businesses. When Chinatown CDC formed, there wasn't enough housing to go around, period. Our first project was a 250-unit high rise, with 46% affordable units.

We did another project in 2015, with 40% affordable units. This project was criticized over building height, and the decision to include market-rate apartments. In Chinatown, trying to fight development is like trying to fight back a tide. It's better to leverage housing for affordable development.

How is gentrification an issue? Who benefits, and who gets hurt?

West Somerville used to be called Slummerville, but it's become popular during the last few years. The Green Line extension has made it an especially hot market, along with the close proximity to schools. The impacts are absurd. Lots of foreign money is coming in. The Somerville Community Corporation started buying houses to take them off the market. People often move out when their building is sold, because they expect the rents to go up. Housing affordability, gentrification, and displacement are big topics. Somerville's housing market is way out of balance. People offer $50-100k over asking price, and pay cash. Properties are getting sold via blind auctions, where they buyers don't get to see the bids.

In JP, we think it's important to keep small retail spaces affordable, not just housing. Developers buy commercial spaces and raise the rent, just like they do with apartments.

Chelsea redeveloped a former industrial complex near city hall. This was followed by the Silver Line extension. Chelsea is becoming a hot market, and people are feeling it. What happens in a hot market when it's not a hot market? That's the time to think about gentrification. We built 300 units, 50% of them affordable, before the market started to heat up. We couldn't do that kind of a project now.

What regional forces and factors contribute to housing cost increases?

People in Chelsea were receptive to the silver line, but things are different now. We have wealthy communities that want to keep people out, or ones that are afraid of any development at all. Some of this is driven by demographics - people move into the area for work, and there's not enough housing to go around. We built much more housing in the 1960s and 1980s. Today's households are smaller. We have empty nesters, and couples delaying having children. Even without a population increase, we need more units.

Who opposes new development? What are you seeing, and from whom? How do you achieve consensus on what's acceptable?

People seem to feel entitled to pretty much everything. Everyone wants something different, and nothing gets done. It's difficult and costly to get projects off the ground.

Somerville has few resources to build affordable housing. We proposed a transfer tax to raise funds, but that idea was rejected. One affordable housing project was sued by an abutter. The project height was reduced by one floor, and then the abutter moved away. Their objections cost the city an affordable unit. Special permits and lawsuits make it hard to build, and every project ends up being a negotiation. Sometimes due process and equal protections get thrown out during the special permit process. For example, people oppose projects simply because the developer isn't local. Luxury condos are becoming a vehicle for money laundering. I don't think people should be able to do this.

People in JP really try to engage. It's not always about stopping development. Every neighborhood has to renew itself. Development needs to be fair and equitable.

A lot of nimbys are long-term homeowners. They have long-term stability, and are more concerned about change.

Some affordable housing advocates oppose projects because they don't think they're affordable enough. In the end, this winds up killing the project.

We should focus on policy, so it's more affordable to build.

Why do cities have to solve these problems by themselves? In some places, a lot of planning decisions are made at the county or regional level.

For developers, figuring out who to partner with is key. What are the needs of the community? Sometimes these are different from your original idea, but that's okay.

Talk to your neighbors, and build projects that are more responsive to the community.

How does maintaining small businesses help maintain a neighborhood?

When you have a small business, money stays in the area and pays for things in the area. Small businesses often work together, which multiplies their economic development. They support local events, and often show healthy social aspects.

What kind of anti-displacement efforts has Somerville been thinking about?

We have tenant matching services, and some services for small businesses. Development doesn't always cause business displacement. For example, Davis Square has a higher rate of turnover than Union Square, even though Union Square has seen much more development.

What about tenant protections in Somerville?

We have a new department to deal with tenant/landlord disputes. This department has four case workers and a director. We're trying to institute a flippers tax; this would apply to property bought and sold within one year.

Fighting displacement isn't just a matter of building more affordable housing. You can buy buildings in order to keep them affordable. We also educate tenant's about their rights. We just passed a 20% inclusionary zoning provision. We try to get developers to build affordable housing in a project, so those units are available first.

Question: Could you talk about efforts and successes to provide affordable housing for the undocumented?

Somerville's Hundred Homes Project was motivated by the needs of vulnerable people. This sort of thing needs to be done at a larger scale.

Question: What happened with the zoning provision to end triple-deckers in Somerville?

When we started to rewrite Somerville's zoning laws, we went around the city to survey what was there. We wanted to write regulations that reflected the physical fabric of the city. Somerville has lots of triple-deckers, four-plexes, and six-plexes in our two-family zone. We tried to have the new zoning law reflect that, but people pushed back; they were concerned about people building triple deckers where there currently aren't any. As the housing crisis has worsened, people have become less concerned with aesthetics. The next iteration will include triple-deckers, and a range of other housing options. Zoning is a reflection of the political climate.

Question: Could you talk about business displacement? For example, warehouses being affected by a high cost per square foot.

Boston explicitly zoned for this, especially in the New Market area. Somerville zoned for arts and artisanal fabrication. The Mercardo Model is a way to protect small businesses. Get together, buy a building, and share it cooperatively.


Solving Housing Politics to Win: the UK Experience

John Myers (London YIMBY Alliance)

London YIMBY's web site is https://www.londonyimby.org.

London has 2% of the land in the UK, but 40% of the total housing value.

London has more renters than homeowners, but homeowners tend to be the ones who care about things like land use and zoning. Most zoning wins wind up creating more homeowners, and that makes the next steps harder.

There are two questions I like to ask

  1. What would winning permanently look like? And,
  2. How would we get there?

"A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans." (Quote from Elino Ostrom).

The challenge is to find solutions that address people's concerns.

Housing prices cause lots of damage to peoples wages.

In London, we've had a lot of success with single block upzoning initiatives. These initiatives work in two ways: applying to an entire block, or applying to block face (both sides of a street). The idea is to give residents the option of upzoning themselves, by adding height or allowing multifamily residences. In terms of height, upzoned blocks often go from three stories to four or five stories.

Many Victorian homes were 4-5 stories tall, so these changes actually fit in well. London YIMBY has written a handbook. You can find it at https://www.londonyimby.org/handbook


Closing Plenary: Building Equity Through Home ownership Solutions

Chrystal Kornegay (MassHousing), Leslie Reid (Madison Park Development Corporation), Jarrid Green (Democracy Collective), Joe Kriesbert (MADCD)

Why is home ownership still a core part of the American Dream?

Home ownership is pivotal to building wealth, and it's what we've internalized as success. Communities of color have not had this privilege.

Rent stability is as important to urban areas as home ownership is to the suburbs. The FHA started as a massive transfer of equity from the government to private individuals. The mortgage interest deduction was one of the biggest transfers.

What tools are available to expand home ownership?

Some examples are community land trusts, resident-owned cooperatives, housing cooperatives, community benefits agreements, land banks. The cooperative economy has been around for over a hundred years, when black folks tried to own their own homes.

Massachusetts has a framework to deliver regulated (aka affordable) housing. There are resources at the state, federal, and local level for developers of affordable homes. The challenge is that equity is passed on to the next owner; the current owner can't take that equity with them.

Part of the challenge is determining the goal of home ownership. It's really about community, family, and stability. A program to narrow the wealth gap would look very different. We can create loans and products to help on the buyers side. It's hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you've got no straps, and no boots.

We need different notions of what a starter home is. We have a lot less land than we did in the middle of the twentieth century.

When trying to create more housing and more diverse housing, how are the politics different between rental and owned units?

The market decides. If people want rental units, you'll get rental units. Large households are a challenge, because many market units are 1-2 bedrooms.

Community control can involve rental or owned housing. It can be less about the market and more about local control. What power do you have? The top 10% of earners in the US have 90% of the wealth.

What about the suburbs?

That's one of our challenges. As a country, we have not been building enough housing. In the suburbs, most of the conversations are about views. The issue is figuring out how to build anything at all.

Suburban residents tend to dislike anything different from what they have at the current moment in time. The person who owns a piece of land thinks they have a say in everything within a four mile radius. We have to start thinking about `and' rather than `or'. We don't need rental housing or owned housing - we need both.

What are some tools for mitigating displacement?

Back in the day, you had generations of families living in triple deckers. That was stability. Even limited income housing allows building of equity.

What are some of the challenges with inclusionary zoning?

I haven't seen inclusionary zoning as an obstacle. Multi-family buildings have shared systems that can be expensive to replace and maintain. The challenge is balancing cost between market rate and affordable units.

Any closing remarks?

I question whether home ownership can prevent displacement. Displacement has been baked into our public policies for centuries. Exclusion and discrimination are built into the system.

In 2008, black and brown families lost 50% of their wealth, and they're still struggling to get it back. White folks came back much more quickly. We can't have policies that favor specific groups.

Housing and zoning have become contact sports. Showing up is half the battle.

Housing is a basic human need, but we keep treating it as an asset. It's commodified, and commodification is what makes it expensive. Some our our pains started with the end of rent control. A wealth transfer via a tax on wall street would be a good start.

Question: How do we fight the money?

First, you have to define who is "we" and who is "the money". Then, you have to be in for the long game. Stick together and stick to your strategy. The challenge is changing capitalism.

To fight money, look at history. We need to fight our short-term memory. Twitter is good for talking, but not for showing up to hearings, or commenting on public policy.


Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018

Equity and Winning

Angela Park

You can't win without embedding equity and justice in everything you do. Equity plays out at multiple levels:

  • individual
  • group identity
  • institutional groups and organizations
  • social structures. These are things that enable us to function as a society.

Equity has to happen at all of these levels. What happens at the higher level affects people at the lower levels.

We need to think about "equity for whom". You can't talk about equity without talking about identity.

Diversity is an ambiguous term. It could refer to gender, age, race, or income level. Don't try to hide behind the ambiguity, and don't use the word unless you say what you're referring to.

Diversity is a measure of similarity or difference in a system. You must be clear about the system and the thing you are measuring. Diversity applies at the system level; it's not an individual attribute. Diversity only matters if it's crucial to your mission, and if it's something you're missing.

Some attributes are visible at first sight, like age and gender and class. There are many invisible attributes that cannot be detected from a person's appearance.

Any single person can have many group identities. What are the most important group identities that shape the issues facing yimbys? Class, family size, renter vs owner, income level, long-term vs new residents, and race.

Housing policy is deeply steeped in race. You can't talk about housing policy without talking about race.

Group identity comes with power dynamics. You can be one-up advantaged, or onedown disadvantaged. Power dynamics will put you into a dominant or a subordinated group. Members of the dominant group get the benefit of the doubt, simply by being part of the dominant group. Members of the dominant group tend to see things through an individual lens, while members of the subordinated group tend to see things through a group lens. For example, at a conference, a woman is more likely than a man to notice a lack of female speakers.

Society gives us a lot of different messages about groups. People in dominant groups normalize that dominance. Members of subordinated groups tend to rely on society's messages about their group. Both groups collude with the status quo. We tend not to interrupt messed up stuff. People tend to be conflict averse. We're a societal species that depends on collaboration for survival. Members of subordinated groups tend to collude for survival (i.e., don't rock the boat, and don't make trouble).

It's important to pay attention to intent and impact. Members of dominant groups tend to fall back on intent ("I didn't mean it like that"), rather than acknowledging the impact to a subordinated group. To members of a subordinated group, the impact of thoughtless comments is cumulative.

The way an individual is perceived often depends on power dynamics and group identities. By definition, societal change can't happen without support from the dominant group. Subordinated groups don't have the power to do it themselves. Members of a dominant group have an obligation to give space and voice to subordinated groups. For example, ensuring that people who are working three part-time jobs have a way to give feedback.

At a high level, what are your values and what are you trying to accomplish? Is your job to create housing for wealthy white people, or is your job to create housing for everyone who needs it?

You can't sustain diversity and inclusiveness without attention to power dynamics. Inclusion means that people have a voice and input into decisions. It means being valued, encouraged, and supported to do your best work.

Belonging means more than having access. It means having a voice, the opportunity to participate, being respected at a basic level, and the right to contribute and make demands.

Equity and justice are about incomes and disproportionate impacts. Equality and equal are not the same things. Power dynamics prevent equality. The only way to achieve a universal good is to focus on people who are furthest away from it.

Requirements for justice and equity:

  • Procedural fairness. Do people have a say in things that affect them?
  • Distributional. How are benefits and burdens distributed?
  • Structural
  • Transgenerational

Structuralisms are biased across institutions and societies. They are cumulatively compounded effects that systemically privilege dominant groups, and disadvantage subordinated groups. For example, education is funded by property taxes. Therefore, where you live has a big effect on the education that you receive.

If you're not actively thinking about building equity in your community, then you're probably undermining it. To the degree that you have power, think about clear framing and goals. Revamp policies with a lens toward equity. Recruiting and hiring policies should have clear priorities. Assess your workplace culture. Ask yourself why you care; you have to have a business case. Look at how you function, your policies, and when you have meetings. What do you build in as qualifications for the hiring process?

Be clear about what equity means for your success. This needs to be part of everything you do.

Question: What's the importance of being perceived?

Be aware that people don't see you just as an individual. Perceived group identity is always a factor. This applies to you, to your coalition, and to your work.

Question: What if your organization isn't paying attention to equity?

Figure out who the influential people are, and build relationships with them. Ask about effectiveness. Make the business case. You have to be able to name dynamics, and what's getting in the way of being successful.