Housing is among the key requirements for human survival. And it is arguably the single greatest defining factor for a community. The urban landscape, particularly in the US, has seen any number of experiments and approaches. Many have been abysmal failures.
Today, the “new urbanism” approach seeks to improve cities through a set of measures to increase density and decrease dependence on automobiles. To my mind, this all seems like a reversion to a 19th century approach, and that ain’t a bad thing. But it’s critical that future development not repeat the disastrous environmental impacts of a century ago.
This essay serves as the introduction to an ongoing discussion of housing policy in the greater Providence metropolitan area. It will layout some basic ideas in the form of polarities/conflicts/antitheses that future posts will build on.
I have some experience in this area, having reheated many a childhood dinner while my mother was at “the zoning board of peels.” (She later ran the Connecticut office of the Regional Plan Association.) I have occasionally been active in the local real estate market and have been a landlord for most of the past 17 years. And I have been a consultant around various urban planning and economic development projects. So perhaps I know a thing.
Markets versus policies
The single most challenging factor for housing policy advocates is that policies can only have a limited impact on the actual situation. Policies seek to shape the market, but the market generally finds a way to do what it wants. And when market-constraining policies are crafted as specific prohibitions or regulations, the real estate sector wields all the power it can muster to kill them before they become law. Which is not to say that the market should not be constrained or that housing policy should not be codified as law; it’s just a high mountain to climb.
The real estate market also brings an unflinching heartlessness to a life-critical area that, when it all goes wrong, can have devastating effects on individuals and communities. Homelessness in the US is largely driven by market forces that seek profit above all else. Those least able to absorb the shock of dislocation are the ones most vulnerable to it.
But we can also trace some of these dislocations to well-intentioned policies that have unintended consequences. Policies envisioned as helping a certain segment of the population—less advantaged, for example—usually end up helping the most advantaged and profit-hungry as well. It’s great to encourage owner occupation and neighborhood renewal; it’s bad when that becomes gentrification with its accompanying evictions.
So policy-makers and advocates would do well to act cautiously. The free market is a dangerous animal known for biting the hand that feeds it.
Houses versus communities
My biggest gripe with housing policy advocates is that they seem to lose sight of the fact that housing is the building block of communities. And the community, not the houses, should be the focus of the policy. Housing policy should not be about achieving some abstract aim like “density” or “walkability.” It should be about creating communities that work for the people that live there. High-functioning communities might have a high density or have services within walking distance of most housing, but these factors alone do not produce high-functioning communities.
Everything has trade-offs. Like in engineering, there is no perfect formula; there is only the best mix of compromises for a particular place at a particular time.
For example, in their zeal for density, urbanist can romanticize the effect that mass housing and corporate ownership will have on a community. Sure, that apartment complex looks great when it’s new; so did the ones that we now would classify as “blight.” Do corporate owners show the same care as owner-occupiers? As we’ve come to say in the House of Fry, “It’s not the machine; it’s the maintenance.”
Likewise, a dense, urban approach has environmental benefits in terms of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, but it also has negative impacts in water use, waste water treatment demands, green space and stormwater runoff. Not for nothin’, but there’s a giant tunnel under Providence to store everybody’s poops during rainstorms, and that thing wasn’t free or without environmental consequence.
The point here is that the best approaches, the best communities, carefully balance the complex and conflicting issues in a way creates an organic response to the real-world situation at hand.
Building versus the built
One last conflict (for this essay, anyway) is that most housing policy only affects new construction. In other places or other times, this could have a major impact, but in a place like Providence, it can’t. There’s just too much stuff already built.
Any new policies need to accept the fact that most of this city already has an established mode: closely set, detached one-, two- and three-family structures. Bringing in other modes will necessarily change the quality of any given community. Again, this is not necessarily “bad,” but it is a factor that planners, policy makers and advocates need to consider.
Another aspect of this conflict is in how we look at design, architecture and historic preservation. How does a modern design impact a community of 19th century structures? Conversely, how far should we go in forcing owners to maintain historic architecture?
Those advocating in-fill development will find precious little open land in most of the city. There is some, certainly, on the South Side or out Manton Ave, but the vast majority of this town is already occupied. Perhaps that is why anything new or different creates such a ruckus. (Not that I’m specifically referring to the corner of Blackstone Blvd and Rochambeau…)
What lies ahead
How weird is it that the RI Future author most closely associated with the phrase “polemic, left-wing screed” is the one arguing for balance and moderation in this discussion? The irony certainly is not lost on a person who routinely refers to himself in writing in the third person!
I might know a thing, but I don’t know everything. And neither do you. Amongst us all, though, we probably have most of this covered. What’s not mentioned above, but will rear its ugly head soon enough, is how income or the lack thereof affects both the market and the policies that we craft. Like…real soon.
Next installment: The mechanics of gentrification