An iconic image of the 21st century recession is a boarded up house with a foreclosure notice pinned to its front door. The nationwide mortgage crisis, which began in 2008, has left behind thousands of evicted families and empty homes across the United States. If a foreclosed property was the image of the recession, now theoretically over, what is the post-recession’s photograph?
In reality, while the economy is growing again and home prices are rebounding, many foreclosed properties remain unoccupied, and vacancy and blight continue to plague communities across the country. Beyond the impact of foreclosure on the families themselves, the neighborhood effects of vacant and foreclosed homes are numerous. Blight poses a threat to a neighborhood’s social fabric, public safety, and aesthetics, and large numbers of vacant properties can lead to a reduction in city service delivery and infrastructure maintenance. Research also shows that concentrated foreclosures can reduce the property values of surrounding homes, leading to a loss of community wealth as well as stability.
Earlier this year, I edited a volume of the Community Development Investment Review, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, which seeks to provide guidance to communities and non-profit organizations eager to tackle this nationwide challenge in their neighborhoods. The volume explores innovative solutions and strategies for neighborhood stabilization and shares lessons learned from the Housing Partnership Network’s (HPN) 2011-2013 Innovations in Neighborhood Stabilization and Foreclosure Prevention Initiative.
With limited dedicated funds for neighborhood stabilization and a volatile housing market, taking foreclosed properties and putting them back to use is a complex challenge requiring nimble response and creative solutions. The articles in the Review offer important findings for policy and practice, including the critical role that housing counselors play in foreclosure prevention and the value of integrating counseling directly into servicing practices; the need to establish distressed asset disposition approaches that are sensitive to residents and the surrounding communities; and the need to pay more attention to single-family rental housing as a vital part of the nation’s affordable housing inventory. The issue also highlights the role of nonprofit organizations in bridging the public and private sectors and ensuring that investments serve the interests of the communities and residents
As communities and organizations continue to work to address the impacts of the foreclosure crisis on low-income and minority communities, the articles in this volume provide a wealth of insight and information derived from the actual practice of neighborhood stabilization. What will it take to produce an image of post-recession America that shines brighter than that of a boarded up home? One key is learning from nonprofit practitioners who are on the frontlines helping neighborhoods to restore occupancy and use of foreclosed properties.
On the heels of this recent election season, it is a good time to reflect deeply on how we are running public participation processes. How do legislative requirements like those for the SB 375 regional planning process in California help or hinder meaningful public engagement? What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for public engagement going forward? My research on the issue sheds some light on these questions.
Public process design is critical when participants are ideologically divided and do not trust each other or the public agencies in charge. It can be important to seek out areas of common ground. For example, all of us in a process may not able to agree on whether climate change exists, but we might be able to agree that hybrid vehicles should pay their fair share for road costs. We may not be able to agree on whether high density housing is beneficial in most circumstances, but we could do joint fact-finding to assess impacts on property rights, property values and public services like schools, police and fire departments.
My research on contested regional planning issues in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Atlanta, Georgia reveals surprising areas of convergence.
In the Bay Area, Tea Party and property rights activists came in force to block regional planning meetings run by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments to develop the region’s first Sustainable Communities Plan, known as Plan Bay Area. Importantly, these activists were not alone in opposition, as plaintiffs from across the political spectrum filed four lawsuits against the plan: two with some connections to property rights activists, one brought by the Building Industry Association Bay Area, and one by environmental organizations. And in the progressive left stronghold of Marin County, citizens not affiliated with Tea Party or property rights groups have voiced objections to the regional plan and to city plans that include higher density development areas in order to access regional funds available through the plan.
In Atlanta, Tea Party and property rights activists led the opposition to a regional sales tax proposal before the voters in 2012. The measure would have dedicated half of the estimated funds generated to public transit projects. An unlikely coalition of strange bedfellows emerged: Sierra Club and NAACP leaders joined the opposition, in part because they felt the proposed transit projects were not the ones the area needed. Although it is hard to say what impact the coalition had on the measure, the tax failed badly with 63% of the votes in opposition.
When examining the two contentious regions, I found four points of convergence between conservative activists I interviewed and planners, largely over transport policy and process matters, that warrant planners’ attention. These align generally with progressive activists’ positions even though the divergent sides come to planning from different vantage points. The four points of convergence were:
- Some support for vehicle miles traveled fee (Atlanta)
- Nuanced considerations about transit (Atlanta + Bay Area)
- Skepticism of authenticity of planning process (both regions)
- Opposition to sales taxes (Atlanta + Bay Area)
For more context on these areas of convergence, click here.
A way forward for planning efforts when the citizenry are divided along ideological lines could begin with participants seeking to find areas of common ground like the ones outlined above.
Participants could draw from the political theory of agonism to reframe their approach to civic engagement. In agonistic contexts, actors come to consider their opposition as legitimate adversaries rather than as enemies unworthy of engagement. In such moments, actors retain their core values and identities but may also find limited common ground with others, or agree to disagree. Group consensus is not a goal, but compromise through bargaining and negotiations may occur.
While challenging, it may be worthwhile to incorporate processes that facilitate transitioning from highly antagonistic, counterproductive encounters to interactions of agonistic debate. Current law and practice push regions to adopt plans that can be vulnerable to lawsuits if they are supported only by weak consensus. Such plans may be barely able to hold together over time. We wouldn't ship a package long-distance in crumpled wrapping and fraying tape. Likewise, we need solid community negotiations to keep plans from coming apart.
For more on the research discussed above, see Dr. Karen Trapenberg Frick's papers in the Journal of the American Planning Association at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01944363.2013.885312 and in Urban Studies athttp://usj.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/04/07/0042098014528397.
This article first appeared in longer form in California Planning & Development Report at here.
Around the globe, many cities are experiencing a housing affordability crisis. There are few places this crisis is more pronounced than San Francisco and Los Angeles. California’s strict land use regulations hinder us from producing enough housing, particularly infill development, or new buildings on vacant or underutilized land in the urban core.
What if the solution is actually in our own backyards? My study with University of Texas-Austin Professor Jake Wegmann, published recently in the Journal of Urbanism, shows that based on the availability of underutilized or vacant land, about half of our infill development in built-up areas like San Francisco’s East Bay should occur in the form of accessory dwelling units, or self-contained, smaller living units, attached or detached from the main home. With relatively low costs (as low as $100,000) and short build time (less than six months), backyard cottages can increase density more efficiently than multifamily projects. They rent for much less, often providing affordable units within affluent neighborhoods and diversifying the housing stock. We calculate that a backyard cottage strategy could yield as many as six times as many affordable units as conventional infill.
The question then becomes, what is hindering homeowners from building more cottages? Even in Berkeley, a city that welcomes accessory units, the number of permit applications for home additions still dwarves that for cottages. We argue that the market is blocked largely because of restrictive zoning regulations, particularly parking requirements. One solution has appeared in the form of intermediaries that help homeowners navigate city regulations and manage construction. But the market for these intermediaries is mostly a niche of wealthy elderly homeowners seeking to age in place alongside younger generations.
To address the affordable housing crisis while making our regions more sustainable, a mass market for small-scale infill must emerge. But to create such a market requires a fundamental shift in the conversation. Just as in the debate over climate change, we can argue endlessly on the merits and the means, but in the end, the game-changer will be the costs of inaction – a deepening of the already devastating housing crisis.
Banks currently don’t allow current or prospective homeowners to use income from accessory units to qualify for mortgages. That means that only the homeowners with substantial equity in their homes who can finance the construction of accessory units. Developing a mass market means helping low- and moderate-income homeowners to build – and purchase – homes with accessory units as well. As Wegmann has written, state and national housing finance agencies could adapt their existing programs to provide new mortgage products for new permitted spaces. Eligibility for the loans could be predicated on the home city easing zoning regulations for accessory units.
It took a revolution in mortgage finance to spur the suburbanization of America. It will take a new revolution to make affordable infill possible.
For more information, see “Yes in My Backyard: Mobilizing the Market for Secondary Units,” "Hidden Density in Single-Family Neighborhoods: Backyard Cottages as an Equitable Smart Growth Strategy," “We Just Built It:” Code Enforcement, Local Politics and the Extralegal Housing Market in Southeast Los Angeles County, Chapter 3 in Planning Sustainable Cities and Regions: Towards More Equitable Development, and five related IURD working papers.
In the history of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development, which celebrates its 52nd birthday this year, the issues with which we are most deeply engaged have never been in such national and international focus. The conversation around the planning, design and development of cities and regions advances daily, and new ideas about resiliency, equity, and innovation are emerging from every corner of the globe.
Here at the IURD, we have a team of world class faculty researchers immersed in these issues. We are producing first-rate research, adding to this national and international dialogue on issues from wealth inequality to data analytics, transportation to youth engagement, health disparities to local policy, all through the stimulating, and ever critical, lens of urban and regional development.
We’ve turned to the blogosphere to join the virtual conversations already happening around these issues, and provide a portal into our own contributions. As one of the oldest urban think tanks in academia in the country, our library of research and resources is extensive and rich. This blog will be a gateway into what we’ve already learned, and an opportunity to learn about the newest research and ideas as they emerge. As a platform for engagement, this space is above all a conversation starter. We encourage you to get involved, share your thoughts, and connect with us.
To start, we invite you to check out our centers webpages, follow us on twitter (@IURDBerkeley) or send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you!