Friday, January 20, 2006

So, Mary, What Do You Want?

Some great comments on the Middle Class Squeeze (see below).
First, kudos to “chilton” for coining a great term: “Pulturbia: cheap, on-slab housing with faux ‘community.’ ”
An anonymous commenter tossed out a challenge:
Mary, pick a side of the fence, please. When talking about the problem of sprawl, you note, “That’s not the way cities evolve naturally when left to their own devices.” Then you criticize “arriviste mansions,” which, of course, are the result of intown neighborhoods evolving naturally when left to their own devices.So, which is it? Should we let market forces prevail, or should we have the government tell us what to do? And if the latter, just curious: are you prepared to put historic preservation status on your own intown home, which would prevent a McMansion but severely limit your resale value?
And then “chef” commented:
I’m not sure what you’re asking for. Do you want mandated housing – force people to live certain places so they are integrated? Do you want to force developers to build $800k subdivisions next to $150k subdivisions? It seems like you want to force some sort of “solution” but fall short of saying what it is. If people can afford $800k houses, why not let them build and live where they want?
A few comments: This is a topic that could justify a research-paper length discourse, but I’m trying to keep the blog entries shorter, so I apologize for giving short shrift to some complicated situations. And bear in mind there are no easy solutions, because whatever you do, some negative consequence will emerge. Cities are complex organisms.
But it’s a misconception to think those “arriviste mansions” are a pure result of natural economic evolution. They’re not. They depend on government regulation, specifically on zoning laws that keep development at lower intensities. Without single-family-only zoning, some of those mansions would be apartment or condo buildings. Or stores, offices, or factories. Without that government meddling (a.k.a. zoning), when we’re forced to vacate our intown home in 15 years because we’ve retired and our tiny journalist pensions won’t cover the property taxes, we’d sell out to a high-rise condo developer for a lot more than even Simonini and brethren would pay us. (I’m pretty sure our humble ranch isn’t eligible for historic landmark status, especially since we replaced some of the drafty-but-vintage 1950 metal casement windows in front. We’re less authentic, but warmer.)
In a city evolving “naturally,” that is, without the government constraints of zoning, etc. etc., we’d see much more intense development in the desirable areas. That condo project at Carmel and Colony that the Giverny neighbors fought so intensely would be dwarfed by the nearby high-rises and office towers.
All that said, I don’t think we’re going to have that mythical-but-pure, dog-eat-dog free marketplace, where you can build anything anywhere and I can put a Starbucks in my front yard next to your McMansion. We don’t have it now. And on balance that’s a good thing. A totally free market would pollute the water and air and we’d all pay a lot more for street paving, among other things.
So I have to opt for a government regulatory system, but with different regulations, in some instances, from what we have now. Not more regulations, necessarily, just different ones. For example, current regulations require certain lot sizes and setbacks and limit the placement of your carport and won’t let your aunt bake pies to sell at the farmer’s market if she lives in a neighborhood zoned for residential only. I’d ease up on the single-family-only rules (and let people bake those pies!). BUT I’d force developments to have a small percentage of housing affordable by people who aren’t rich. Every development, even ones with $800,000 houses, would have to comply. You’d be free to buy an $800K house and move in. But on the corner might be a duplex where your widowed grandmother might live, or your niece who’s a kindergarten teacher.
That’s because it’s in the larger community’s best interest to have housing for people who aren’t rich, and it’s been proved over and over that a small percentage of less-affluent families don’t hurt property values, when they’re dispersed through higher income neighborhoods. But large collections of very poor families clustered in one neighborhood do hurt property values there. So it’s in the larger community’s best interest to encourage economic integration in ways that don’t negatively affect other areas.
Several Virginia and Maryland counties have adopted those “inclusionary zoning” ordinances, as has Davidson, and they seem to be working fine.
Interestingly, Myers Park – designed 100 years ago before Charlotte zoning laws – had deed restrictions that dictated that on certain streets the houses couldn’t be too expensive. John Nolen, who planned the neighborhood, thought it was important to mix housing sizes and prices. So Myers Park (and to a lesser extent Eastover) has huge houses, smaller houses and even garage apartments (a form of “affordable housing” that’s been all but lost due to overly restrictive zoning rules).
What about all those starter home neighborhoods? That’s trickier. I’m not sure what the best solution would be, even though I worry that they'll be our slums of 2036.
Allowing more affordable housing in higher-income areas would ease some of the market pressure for starter homes, but probably not enough. Stronger design rules – like the ones Cabarrus County recently instituted – would be appropriate. And if the high-interest-rate mortgage business were forced to clean up its act, I bet a notable percentage of the starter home market would evaporate.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mary - I couldn't agree more with you that part of the solution is to return to the sound planning principles from Myers Park or Dilworth where there is a mixture of housing types within the same neighborhood. Not only does this create neighborhoods of more socio-economic diversity, but I would argue it results in neighborhoods that will better stand the test of time. Charlotte could change its subdivision regulations to require that each subdivision have varying lot sizes and a certain percent of duplex/quadroplex development per subdivision. Another modification would be to allow detached garage apartments to be rental units only if the primary residence is owner-occupied. Maybe if we were creating better neighborhoods, Charlotte wouldn't rank 252 out of 265 in housing appreciation over the last five years...it is amazing to me that 3/4 of Charlotte's residents have not benefitted from the nation-wide housing boom. If 3/4 of Charlotte's homes are not appreciating at 3-4% per year, that is not a good sign for those homeowners or for all residents who must now cover the costs of trying to provide those homeowners with City services.

Anonymous said...

Mary,
Interesting thoughts from some of your readers. I have a concerete slab foundation...and a polished, colored concrete floor. The house is a passive solar Wright design and has been photographhed for the Charlotte Observer and several other publications. So a simple efficient concrete slab is a poor indicator of home value.

And as for TND and New Urbanism, I've worked closely with some of these practioners and there are problems, serious ones. There are seldom any places to work in these Charlotte market TNDs for example. They also often lack even a small grocery or c-store where you could buy a carton of milk. Virtually no one works in Vermillion, or in the Boone community in Davidson. And you can't get you "daily needs' there either. They are simply high density builder gold mines. They flood the roads with cars making trips to buy a gallon of milk and the schools with children. Furthermore the neighborhoods, try as they might, don't look like Dilworth. Why? One reason is scale...the charming Dilowrth home is 1,500 square feet. The monster sitting on the same size lot in the Boone community in Davidson is 2,500. I looks like nothing more than an elephant sitting on a hat pin. It's badly out of scale only because the plannres, builders and developers would only create tiny lots and over-large houses.

Is this better than the "bermed" sprawl neighborhood? Not really. In the current form many of the NU TNDs are only high-density fakes that crowd the roads, schools and other infrastructure greatly impacting the quality of life.

It would be an interesting discussion around what hapens to good design (architectural, environmental, or community/urban) when it's watered down, weakend or cheapend....the results are often very bad.

I like the blog...you're right though, complex issues can take up space!

Chilton said...

Good points all around. I think scale is, indeed, the key. While the average family size (# residing in the home) continues to fall, the average square footage has risen. It makes little sense. I especially like the "duplex/quadroplex" suggestion as a viable option for non-owners.

As for the lack of housing appreciation in Charlotte, it's simple economics. The supply of housing suppresses appreciation. Over 18,00 new homes in 2003, 21,551 in 2004 and 20,682 (as of November 2005) were built. The only housing that appreciates tends to be that with something unique, not easily replicated by a cookie-cutter template. Perhaps this gives credence to the concept of building interesting neighborhoods that have value above and beyond the housing structure.

While we're on the subject of government involvement, let's not forget the mortgage tax write-off. This is a give-away to the most affluent that artificially stimulates the housing market.

JAT said...

Let's see -- mandate that housing be more expensive, then fret when housing becomes more expensive. Repeat. Three decades in the DC burbs. No thanks.

Anonymous said...

Chilton - thank you for your support of my ideas regarding varying lot sizes and requirement that a percent of all subdivisions be setaside to include duplex/quadraplex mixed in with single-family (kind of like we have in Myers Park and Dilworth). I saw your note that appreciation is not occurring due to the number of new units that have been built. I am not sure that is true because Orlando, Tampa, Las Vegas, Phoenix to name a few have had more housing built than us and have seen property values increase dramatically. We don't need that type of appreciation, but I do hope that all of our residents at least experience appreciation that keeps pace with inflation. Thanks for your good post.

Anonymous said...

So now zoning regulation newly urban Mary wants no zoning except zoning to mandate price. If zoning (excessive givernment regulation at the current levels) don't work it don't work (on a socio-enonomic level).

Myers Park and Dilworth were not so much enlightened planning as enlightened marketing in recognizing the many housing economic situations, wants, needs and desires and working to provide product across a broad a spectrum as possible.

And for anyone planning outside the newspaper office, university campus or where ever you stay out of touch. Try mandating multi-family with single family and see if you can stand the heat in the Planning Commission Hearing.

Anonymous said...

To the poster of the last item, so is your suggestion to continue to allow the same old schlok that is being built to continue in Charlotte? It seems the lack of government standards here in Charlotte is part of the reason why 3/4 of Charlotte's neighborhoods are not appreciating. Most of these vinyl clad subdivisons go into immediate decline. Why do the outlying communities have stricter regulations and higher appreciation? Maybe there is a correlation between higher standards and higher appreciations. Seems to be working in Davidson, Belmont, Huntersville, Cornelius. If we don't improve the single-family subdivision standards, Charlotte will continue to spiral on a downward trend while the outlying areas reap the benefits.

Disgusted in Union Co said...

Thank you to anonymous #2...IMO the problem with most of the entry-level housing is not home size, or slab-on-grade design, or even siding material. Rather, it's isolated location (often difficult-to-sell raw land that a speculator offloaded onto a low-end national builder), overall poor construction quality, horrible subdivision design with poor-quality sreetscapes, unasthetic design of the individual units, and excessive uniformity. Small houses are scorned by some, but high-quality small houses marked by excellent architectural design and sited in well-designed neighborhoods are highly desirable.

It's a difficult solution, as Mary points out, for a lot of different reasons. But I don't see fence-sitting here. It's more a case, I think, of there being no "one size fits all" solution. Unfortunately, part of the problem is the underlying design of the city's service infrastructure. While neighborhoods with a mix of housing sizes, prices, and styles are time-tested and proven again and again to maintain their value, they are hard to create in Charlotte - for both practical and political reasons. Since mixed uses should be part of a successful model, it would be nice if suburban Charlotte had not evolved into a commercial wasteland of huge strip shopping centers with retail behemoths. The placement and size of these services makes neighborhoods that are anchored by their own retail and work opportunities difficult to provide.

But a great starting point would, as Mary suggests, be to mandate mixed housing sizes and prices in the same general neighborhood. Eliminating the massive "single entrance" subdivisions and requiring extensive connectivity, both vehicular and pedestrian, would also go a long way toward solving the problems.

bryan said...

Lets not fool ourselves about Myers Park and Eastover’s dead restrictions. They may have allowed for a diversity of housing but lets be reminded that they also restricted “people of color”. Randolph Road was there to separate the thems from us’es.

Those corner duplexes may be ok for your widowed grandmother and the kindergarten teacher. But I bet the Hispanic mother of 4 who washes your floors and the 3 College kids who attend Johnson C Smith wouldn’t feel as welcome in those duplexes. Those neighborhoods maybe more pedestrian and vehicle friendly but I guarantee you that the starter home communities are much more "social economic" friendly.

Anonymous said...

Schlok is in the eyes of the beholder whose perception is typically based on affluence. Higher "Standards"= Higher Costs= Exclusionary. A statement neither racial nor bigoted but economic fact. Myers Park Home Values far exceed 'starter" or "affordable" home values. And it shows in "Standards". Is a "starter" or "affordable" home better than the mobile home parks we had in 70's and 80's? You bet!

There is no free ride. Raising "standards" raises costs which raise prices which typically means harm to those trying to get on the first rung of the ladder of home ownership. Those reaching for that rung are our sons and daughters starting life and/or those trying to improve their life. Mt. Holly City Officals judge zoning applications based on a home value exceeding $225K. What Mt. Holly, Davidson, Belmont and others are saying, whether intentional or not is your not starting here or living here unless you can afford our "standards".

Anonymous said...

sounds a little snobbish to me?

Chilton said...

"'What Mt. Holly, Davidson, Belmont and others are saying, whether intentional or not is your not starting here or living here unless you can afford our "standards'". I disagree. Attempts to be less exclusionary include mandated x% affordable units. To my knowledge, there is no universal law that states all homes in a neighborhood need to be in the same price category. Charlotte has largely followed the market-based approach. One result is the neighborhood highlighted in the Observer where foreclosure rates are higher than 65%. Granted, other factors are involved, but congregating lower-income residents together in a government forced urban renewal program (50s-60s) or in today's market-based manner yields similar results. Concerns about those wanting to own are great, but ownership alone is no panacea.

Snobbishnes is a concern. Inclusion needs to be for all. If some communities can opt out because of affluence or NIMBYism, the concept lacks legitimacy.

Anonymous said...

" mandated affordable units" as a term speaks for itself. Central Planning will mandate the housing mix and then mandatorily assign us all to our housing based on our centrally assigned jobs which evolve from our centrally directed assigned educational path based on our standardized testing scores.

Without exaggeration, each benefit or protection derived from government has a cost in the erosion of freedoms and rights. Frankly Chilton's level of desired governmental control far exceeds my comfort level of conceeding my freedoms and rights.

Chilton said...

It's not as "centrally planned" as you make it out to sound. If, as a builder, you don't like the rules, then simply build elsewhere. The design, location, and style of the afforadable housing is not dictated. It's a recognition that "affordable" housing is an important component of healthy communities--where teachers, police officers and those who pour out lattes can live together with professionals and others.

Anonymous said...

Inclusion needs to be for all. If some communities can opt out because of affluence or NIMBYism, the concept lacks legitimacy.

or

It's not as "centrally planned" as you make it out to sound. If, as a builder, you don't like the rules, then simply build elsewhere.

My point - it is very hard to know where to start to draw the line, where to end the line, who even draws the line and under what "standards". Why I am unwilling to sacrifice my rights and freedoms for the supposed "protections" or "benefits" offered on this issue by governmental planning mandates.

Andy said...

Mary: I think this piece is a stunning revelation of the liberal mind at work. Behind the glossy, feel good, caring for people cover is a gun -- forcing people where to live and how to build. Look at your words:

"BUT I’d force developments to have a small percentage of housing affordable..."

"And if the high-interest-rate mortgage business were forced to clean up its act..."

Force should never be initiated by one human being against another. The only proper use of force is by the government to stop those who have or threaten to start using force against others (murderers, rapers, terrorists).

But you are advocating force as your primary means of human interaction. This is immoral.

Chilton said...

No one is forcing anything. You would still have to choice to live where you want, to own or rent, to buy an expensive or less expensive house. No one is stopping development. Development creates economic externalities that need to be managed, plain and simple. This has nothing to do with "liberalism" or and other "ism."

Charlotte is forecast to grow by another 300,000 or so in the next 30 years. What does that mean? Given a finite amount of land, not everyone can have 1-acre lots. It's impossible. Indiscriminate residential development that is not coordinated with schools, roads, environmental impactcs, etc. leads to many of the burgeoning problems in Charlotte. Is this market-based approach working?

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