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Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

On Being Priced Out of Downtown Detroit by Daniel Hertz

[ After my recent post on people saying they were priced out of downtown Detroit, Daniel Hertz followed up with some thoughts of his own over at this excellent City Notes blog on that and other topics. He graciously allowed me to share them here. Also, I'd like to clarify one thing which is that in my original post I was referring to people in Detroit wanting more construction in their preferred neighborhoods, not Daniel personally. I included that bit from Pete's post to help make Pete's point in context - Aaron. ]

Okay, on to the funner stuff. Attempting to keep this organized:

1. Jim’s post: I don’t actually really disagree with anything here. My objection to his previous post was mostly about this line:

What a superstar metro doesn’t mean is strong population growth and demand for housing outstripping supply.

Maybe I misunderstood, or maybe he changed his emphasis, but whatever the reason, the latest post makes clear that both supply restrictions and increasing demand are playing a role in exacerbating housing prices. I think that’s exactly right.

2. Aaron’s post: Responding to an article about rising home prices and displacement in downtown Detroit, Aaron basically picks out three dynamics that are important. The first is short-term:

Now, what about supply? Is the city of Detroit telling people they can’t build downtown?… What we would appear to have here instead is a lag issue. Real estate development isn’t like ramping production up or down in a factory. It takes time to do.

Right. Given that it can take a year or two for projects to be conceived, engineered, financed, and built, it’s pretty common for areas where demand increases very quickly to suffer a temporary shortage of supply as a result of this kind of lag. It makes sense that this would be the case in downtown Detroit.


Dan Gilbert imagines all the light-skinned people who will use his new toys.

The second problem is longer-term, but quite specific to places like downtown Detroit where there have been very few residential buildings at all, prior to the increase in demand:

Additionally, with higher income demand in the market, new units are going to be built to serve that market, not lower income people. If you own land and have a market that gives you the choice of either building a higher profit building or a lower profit building, which one will you choose?

I would actually make this even stronger. Given construction costs, very few new homes are built for low-income people without some sort of subsidy: it’s just not profitable to do. This is why even people like Ed Glaeser, a free market-oriented economist and champion of increasing housing supply to lower prices, say that housing subsidies will be needed no matter what we do: at the moment, the cost of building new housing requires sales prices that are too high for low-income people to afford.

In established low-income residential neighborhoods that experience gentrification, this can be less of an issue. If building new homes is difficult, then landlords of older buildings can make a lot of money by renovating their apartments and renting them at much higher prices to the wealthy newcomers, displacing the existing residents. But if building is easy, then lots of the newcomers will move to fancier, newly built homes, and the old landlords won’t face nearly the incentive to renovate and raise rents. In that case, the older, more affordable housing stock can be preserved.

But if there is no older, more affordable housing stock – as in places like downtown Detroit – then the only housing is the new, expensive stuff, and you’ll get a pretty economically homogeneous neighborhood no matter how much you build. (At least, that is, until that new housing stock becomes old enough to lose value.)

The last problem is the peculiar geography of demand.

Which brings us back to the juxtaposition of high demand in Downtown/Midtown Detroit vs. the low or no demand in most of the rest of the city. Why wouldn’t the people who can’t afford downtown rents just move into one of those areas?

The answer is obvious: they want to live downtown specifically.

This, I think, is the thorniest and most interesting issue: it’s obviously the case that in a place like Detroit – to a much greater extent even than Chicago – there is a “supply problem” only in very geographically limited areas. And that geography, as Aaron, Jim, and Pete Saunders have pointed out, is defined by where the people driving demand actually want to live: in this case, downtown, Midtown, and almost nowhere else.

Where I think Aaron and Pete are wrong, though, is in glossing over the reasons that demand is shaped this way. Their focus, as I understand it, is on status and yuppie comfort: where the hip neighborhoods, the hip bars, and so on, are. And, correctly, they argue that no one is entitled to live in the hippest part of a city.

But although status certainly plays a large role in determining where people want to live, you’re missing a lot if that’s all you’re thinking about. I would divide the reasons that people limit their housing searches to downtown and Midtown Detroit – or the North Side in Chicago, or (fill in the blank) in your city – into basically two categories:

1. Economic factors. This is economics broadly construed, and basically covers all of the concrete advantages or disadvantages to a particular place: not just access to jobs, but the quality of the local schools; access to amenities, from essentials like grocery stores to luxuries like cafes; the likelihood that you will be a victim of serious crime; and so on.

2. Social factors. This includes both conscious and semi-conscious concerns about status – I want to live in Lincoln Park, because the kind of person I want to be would live in Lincoln Park – but also the more invisible issues of social networks, or the extent to which you are aware of different neighborhoods. What my professors would call a “choice set” – what is the menu of options you’re consciously choosing from?

I guess my argument is that Aaron and Pete are focused on a subset of Category 2, but that in fact there’s a lot more going on.

More than that, I would suggest that, to a large extent, social factors are mostly secondary: that is, when you consider where to live, you first narrow down the options with economic factors – where can I get to my job, send my kid to okay schools, and not be afraid to walk home at night – and then you make your final choice using social factors.

In other words, you don’t need to use some status argument to explain why middle-class gentrifiers in Detroit refuse to move to most neighborhoods in that city: you just need to know that most of Detroit has terrible public transit (and therefore terrible access to jobs for people who don’t want to drive every day), high crime, and few essential amenities like grocery stores. Avoiding those sorts of disadvantages is a pretty obvious move.

Now, that said, I think Pete’s important insight is that sometimes, social factors are so powerful that they override economic factors, and neighborhoods that meet the basic economic qualifications are eliminated from consideration anyway. One of the main ways that happens is racist heuristics: black neighborhoods, no matter what their attractions, are just not in the “choice set” for white people (and, depending on the city, for Asian-American or Hispanic people, too). Thus Pete’s (and my) frustration that the middle-class black neighborhoods in Detroit, or places like Chatham or South Shore in Chicago, get no attention from the non-black middle class, while it flocks to working-class white or Latino neighborhoods.


Chatham: It’s pretty.

There’s some evidence that that’s partly because of ignorance – white folks in Chicago literally are not aware that Chatham or South Shore exist as relatively pleasant, attractive neighborhoods. There’s also a good amount of evidence that white people, and other non-blacks, just aren’t very comfortable with the idea of living in a majority-black neighborhood. My suspicion is that the latter factor is pretty powerful, which makes me pretty pessimistic about the prospects for large-scale integration in the next decade or two. But I could be wrong.


Evanston, IL, used to allow apartment buildings like this, which allowed people of moderate incomes to live in an affluent suburb with great access to jobs, other amenities, and good schools. But since the 1970s, that hasn’t been the case, and Evanston’s population hasn’t grown since.

But I also think that this whole conversation, by focusing on the choices of financially comfortable people choosing whether to live in downtown Detroit or some other comfortable neighborhood, is missing what the housing supply argument is really about: people who are currently stuck in neighborhoods that would fail any middle-class household’s economic test, and who can’t afford to move to one that would pass. Those are the people who suffer the most under our current housing system, and who would stand to gain the most if supply restrictions were lifted.

There’s a lot more to say about this; it’ll come next week.

This post originally appeared in City Notes on May 31, 2014.

32 Comments
Topics: Demographic Analysis, Public Policy
Cities: Detroit

32 Responses to “On Being Priced Out of Downtown Detroit by Daniel Hertz”

  1. George Mattei says:

    “But if building is easy, then lots of the newcomers will move to fancier, newly built homes, and the old landlords won’t face nearly the incentive to renovate and raise rents. In that case, the older, more affordable housing stock can be preserved.”

    I completely disagree with this comment-at least the outcome I think the author desires. I am not an economist, and I haven’t studied more than Macro- and Micro-economics 101. But I have worked in the affordable housing field for over 15 years in both development and finance. From what I have seen in this time, I am formulating some hypotheses on real estate in general that I think would show that the intended result of this policy would not be favorable.

    Many people argue that the main issue with affordability in real estate is supply is limited. This is true in certain limited areas, like San Francisco.

    However, in many metros, including Detroit, I would argue that real estate is OVERsupplied and the real issue is a lack of demand. Why?

    Real Estate has three features in a combination that many other commodities do not have:

    1. It’s expensive to build-high barrier costs
    2. It’s immobile-that is you can’t build a house in Detroit and then move it to San Francisco if demand there is higher than in Detroit (this is why location is so important)
    3. Real Estate has a sort of “extrinsic value”. That is you don’t trade it on a daily basis, or eat it like bread. It is an enabler-it allows you safety and comfort for you and your things. It allows you to be a productive individual. It’s almost like your own little personal factory-allowing you to produce a tradable good to support yourself. If you had to worry about where you would sleep every day and where you would store your stuff, you would be very unproductive.

    Because of this-and this is very important-as an enabler real estate tends to take its value from the sum of the surrounding goods and services created in the community. Kind of like the value of a bread factory is in the profit it can produce from making loaves of bread-but in this case the “product” is the general wealth of the area. We know this because historically homes cost about 2.6 times the median annual income of wage earners in an area. When this number gets out of whack, the market reacts to bring it back in line. See 2008-2012.

    Now, given the three factors above, if the goal is to increase the supply of affordable housing by increasing the supply of housing in general, it will fail. Why? Let’s say you double the number of houses in Metro Detroit. Suddenly the value of housing would go from 2.6 x median annual income to 1.3x median annual income. There are two problems:

    1. Since real estate is expensive, you cannot maintain a home if its value falls below a certain level
    2. Since homes cannot be sold or consumed quickly, or moved to a higher demand area, the oversupply causes a “clustering effect”. That is, if a larger supply of homes are not economically viable at 1.3 X annual median income, then logically the BEST homes will retain their value at or near 2.6X (let’s say some additional stock can be supported at 2.3X) and the rest will lose all value.

    Real Estate is simply too expensive and too valuable to spread their value by increasing supply. There’s a certain amount of investment that is required to maintain a home. If that investment will be undermined by adding supply and reducing the value of that home to the point where the owner won’t get that value back out, the owner won’t invest anymore. Most people understand this intrinsically-they won’t waste good money on a bad product.

    Now there are all sorts of racial undertones that help determine what is a “good” vs “bad” product, and I believe that this is one of the lasting effects of “soft racism” and is very unfortunate. But I have to admit, I am only going to invest in a neighborhood I think is a good investment, even if I myself don’t have any problem at all investing in a minority neighborhood. If enough other people do have a problem with it, it’s a bad investment. Unfortunately all substantially increasing supply will do in a city like Detroit is to further isolate minorities and lead to further degradation of most neighborhoods, in my opinion. We should not be producing affordable housing by devaluing large portions of our real estate stock. Instead we should be weaving affordable housing into the fabric of the existing community through policies that will support real estate prices and reduce economic isolation.

    One final thought. I had an experience in 2008-09 that proved this theory out. The main program that produces affordable housing these days is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC). This is a very complex program, but the basics are this-the Federal Government gives developers a tax credit to build affordable housing. This credit can be sold to large institutional investors at a price, in return for capital to build that housing. For example, a $10 million development might qualify for $9 million in LIHTCs which can be sold for $0.90 cents per dollar. The developer gets $8.1 million in cash to build the building, and in return they agree to restrict rents to be affordable to certain income ranges. The investor gets at $9 million tax break.

    Well, in 2008-09 when the financial markets were in crisis, many investors, primarily large financial institutions, pulled back sharply on their purchase of LIHTCs. This made pricing drop precipitously. However, pricing bottomed out at around $0.60 per dollar of LIHTCs from over $0.90 cents. In reality, if every deal were funded with the amount of capital available at that time, each deal probably would have received around $0.30 to $0.40 in equity. That would have funded every deal, but made each one of them totally infeasible.

    So what happened? Pricing dropped to the bare minimum that it could and still have deals be built (with some other gov’t emergency assistance thrown in), and the less coveted deals-most rural in small markets-died. A similar thing occurs when real estate markets are oversupplied. Some folks get a good deal-a somewhat cheaper house in a good neighborhood, while others have an asset that loses all its value. Real estate is simply too expensive to support more than a certain amount of supply. Attempts to increase supply to reduce price will often end in failure.

  2. J. K. Riley says:

    There is so many ways to skin the cat however I’ll try and keep it simple. Detroit is a horrible city by design that is right before our eyes turning into a “dystopian Disneyland” while other areas decline as they should. Yes, most of present day Detroit should become blasted into the ground to never return because this is what majority of Americans want. Have you heard some of the rhetoric tossed around for solutions for Detroit? The majority of the US population want “Detroit” eliminated because remember “Black People ruin cities.” I’m Black and I know full well I can destroy a city just by signing a mortgage. I’m one of the few Blacks that know full well that urbanism is not meant for me as it never really was when the White Man discovered urban sprawl.

    Right under the noses of new urbanist stands the American Urban Negro and his built environment of urban renewal. Remember, there is no “Plan B” in Black America cupeled with the realities of urban renewal as urbanist we need to ask ourselves “how do we tell black people it is safe to live in cities again?” The suburbs are looking real good to Black America right now with scores of affordable housing and public school districts with humane solutions to public education versus the Negro Experience in urban centers is hostile by design.

    Why, you know full well what kind of development goes on in the inner cities set to basically cater to the lowest common denominator of demographic that middle class to the upper class don’t have to reside with in cities like Detroit versus you might not have a choice in a city like Brooklyn or Chicago. Southeast Michigan invented the auto sprawl that the sunbelt cities mastered the best thus that is where most African Americans relocate regardless of income because of quality of life issues trumps cool old buildings any day.

    The remaining Negros of the legacy cities of northeast-Midwest can stick around and watch whites and only white try desperately to recreate the cityscape of yesteryear to only discover the hard way that the Blacks of the 21st century relocated to “cooler cities” that was already doing the stuff that Detroit is decades away from experiencing. Life is too short to monkey around with Detroit when there are scores of elite cities through the United States that would give a better quality of life to just about anybody, even African Americans (as long as too many of them don’t show up).

    What about the poor black whom stay behind? Well the remaining whites will regard them as “poor” as the only investment these poor blacks are going to see are “crime” and “another dollar store” at best. Some African American church will get the funds to build a series of gawd awful townhouses or single family homes. The main reason why I say “gawd awful” is because society was hell bent on demolishing scores of irreplaceable architecture because for decades the banks practice the kind of disinvestment that has become a systematic redlining at pandemic proportions in inner cities… Who in there right mind wants to invest in that?

    Yes somebody buys those inner city new builds however it fly in the face of what is urbanism? Poor Black People don’t got the time to worry about an architectural legacy that even society isn’t caring about until society wants them gone. The only way to really ward off gentrification is by endless urban renewal aka inner city black neighborhoods must destroy everything in order to keep the gentrifiers away.

    Beyond that, downtown and midtown Detroit are the only two areas of Detroit worth worrying about as everywhere else is on there own until further notice.

  3. Chris Barnett says:

    George, as a professional in the same field, I struggled to get the same thoughts arranged coherently. IMO you’re right on: creating new “good” housing product creates “bad-cheap” housing that gets locked in a death spiral, not necessarily “affordable” product that will draw reinvestment.

    Incidentally, I live in a lower-middle-class majority-white neighborhood of obsolete (i.e. 2bd/1ba and 3bd/1.5ba, 1940s) housing. It was well maintained (and more expensive) in 2006 when I moved there. It is not increasing in value, despite the fact that this is where young folks “should” be buying starter homes: 4 miles from downtown, blocks from a park and urban trail. But the supply of well-used, 70s-80s suburban product 6-8 miles out, with 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, family rooms, and better public schools is winning. Anecdotal, but I think it underscores your point: building a whole lot more new stuff in concentric rings further out just causes whole areas closer in to go in the dumpster.

    LIHTC is so complicated that other factors play a part too.

    The interest rate environment and investors’ expected returns elsewhere is a part of it. Perversely, there weren’t a lot of people/companies with lots of taxable income and cash available to buy credits 2008-09, and so the low rates available in the marketplace didn’t drive investors to keep LIHTC prices up (which did happen in bonds). That money is locked up for a fair period, so 2008 illustrates a classic effect of a liquidity crisis.

    There is also the “at risk” issue raised by the IRS, and so the risk profile of federal tax credits (both LIHTC and historic) had a perceived change in the recent past as well.

  4. Harvey says:

    The South Side of Chicago is pretty irredeemable south of 63rd, at least in the short term. Remember there’s twice as much South Side as North Side, give or take, but the same number of L lines. The Green Line goes two miles further south than the Brown Line does north and barely makes a dent. The Dan Ryan Red Line has two miles on the North Side Red Line, which ends spitting distance from Evanston and has connecting suburban service, and it still stops dead five miles shy of south city limits (I realize they’re planning to extend it). The few remaining historic pedestrian districts were bulldozed or burned. Cars filled all these gaps. Pullman was supposed to be the seed of enlightened urbanism on the far South Side, but they just opened a Wal-Mart to thunderous applause.

    I already ran down why people aren’t moving to South Shore, now it’s Chatham’s turn. Chatham is a nice enough neighborhood, but there’s a couple things you have to know about it. #1 is Chicago’s residency requirement. Chicago’s civil servants have to live within city limits, and it takes massive balls for a black family, even a black police family, to move into a suburban-style white cop neighborhood like Norwood Park. They have to go somewhere in the city, and it’s usually Chatham. A lot of them would leave if they could because #2: Chatham so far this year is tied for most murders with perennially troubled Austin, which has three times the population. Hopefully this is a fluke but the fact remains that Chatham ain’t Mayberry even before you try to take a pleasant evening stroll across its high-speed, double-barreled stroads.

    Having said that, the failure of the West Side to develop (via gentrification or otherwise) really is mystifying if you don’t account for race, redlining and the gleeful arson certain landlords resort to when they aren’t making enough on rent. Three parallel L lines within 3 miles, Oak Park at the end, some big beautiful parks and a decent amount of old-school storefronts still standing. Someday soon people are going to start doing spit-takes at North Side rents, swallow hard and head west.

  5. Paul Lambie says:

    I gotta agree with George. It’s always worried me to see new “affordable” housing projects constructed in areas where there is no shortage of housing, which results in an even greater oversupply of housing. The result is that even more older housing, of below average desirability, then falls even farther in value virtually guaranteeing that it will not be maintained. Why would anyone invest in maintaining a property when almost none of that investment will be realized when reselling the property?

    I certainly don’t everything about LIHTC, but what has always befuddled me is why the federal government would give some rich investor $10 million in tax breaks so that $8 or $9 million can go into low-income housing construction, when they could simply give the full $10 million to the developer, or give the developer the $8 or 9 mill and simply save the 10-20% cut the “investor” gets.

  6. George Mattei says:

    Paul:

    Short answer on LIHTC-it’s the government’s cost to have ht private market manage the program instead of them. Honestly, it’s a good investment in my opinion. the private market is much more efficient at managing the risks of the program than the government is-that’s why the LIHTC program has the lowest foreclosure rate of ANY real estate asset class.

    And to be clear, I was not advocating not building affordable housing, even in weak-market areas. I was saying that if you want to build it, it should be subsidized. Providing a subsidy makes a unit economically feasible and keeps it well-maintained. Providing affordable housing by oversupplying real estate creates slums that are economically feasible to rent, but have vastly substandard housing stock, and concentrate poverty.

    The oversupply of housing is really a different issue, which unfortunately has become an affordable housing issue because of the way we’ve dealt with it as a society for decades.

  7. Kendall A says:

    “But I also think that this whole conversation, by focusing on the choices of financially comfortable people choosing whether to live in downtown Detroit or some other comfortable neighborhood, is missing what the housing supply argument is really about: people who are currently stuck in neighborhoods that would fail any middle-class household’s economic test, and who can’t afford to move to one that would pass. Those are the people who suffer the most under our current housing system, and who would stand to gain the most if supply restrictions were lifted.”

    I think George Mattei covered a lot of why this is untrue, but there’s also the factor that when people with the means and mobility to move relocate into areas where the current residents don’t have those means, the health and welfare outcomes for everybody in that neighborhood start to improve. Crime calming is more effectively done by gentrification and segregation than by adding to the number of police on the street. The problem is that you can’t force this process, but the market sometimes can in cases like this.

  8. Kendall A says:

    err… I meant to write that crime calming occurs through “integration” or “de-segregation” in that last comment. Sorry.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thanks again, Aaron. Thanks, all.

    George:

    “Real Estate is simply too expensive and too valuable to spread their value by increasing supply. There’s a certain amount of investment that is required to maintain a home. If that investment will be undermined by adding supply and reducing the value of that home to the point where the owner won’t get that value back out, the owner won’t invest anymore.”

    I guess I’d have two things to say about this –

    1. I think you’re absolutely right that housing prices can’t get below a certain level, simply because it costs that much to maintain what is inherently a very expensive thing. That’s something that the smarter people who write about supply acknowledge – that even if all supply constraints were eliminated today, you would still need subsidized affordable housing for the really significant number of people who can’t afford the absolute lowest housing costs that the market could bear.

    2. That said, I would like to get past the point where we speculate about whether or not there’s *any* connection between supply constraints and housing prices. People who doubt it are always able to come up with an example or two of a place that supposedly has loose supply and still-high prices, but the thing is that this exercise has been carried out literally dozens of times on a much larger scale – looking at not one or two, but ten, fifteen, a hundred cities at once – and every single one that I’ve seen has found a really clear and strong relationship between the two. At this point, if you’re going to challenge that, I think you need to be bringing some pretty amazing evidence, not an anecdote.

    “I gotta agree with George. It’s always worried me to see new “affordable” housing projects constructed in areas where there is no shortage of housing, which results in an even greater oversupply of housing. The result is that even more older housing, of below average desirability, then falls even farther in value virtually guaranteeing that it will not be maintained. Why would anyone invest in maintaining a property when almost none of that investment will be realized when reselling the property?”

    This I think misconstrues what I was saying, unless I’m mistaken and you’re responding to someone else. The idea isn’t to subsidize new construction, it’s to allow new construction where there’s enough demand for it to be profitable to do so. And then, per George’s point above, either create some sort of inclusionary zoning regime, or – I think, preferably – some huge voucher system that allows people to move wherever they want.

    “I think George Mattei covered a lot of why this is untrue, but there’s also the factor that when people with the means and mobility to move relocate into areas where the current residents don’t have those means, the health and welfare outcomes for everybody in that neighborhood start to improve. Crime calming is more effectively done by gentrification and segregation than by adding to the number of police on the street.”

    I mean, that is only the case if you believe that the government has no obligation to the people who are left behind by that whole process. Studies have shown, in fact, that total crime *increases* with economic segregation, meaning to justify this you would have to believe that the comfort of the affluent is so much more important than the safety of everyone else that you would *increase* the number of victims among the middle and lower classes in order to reduce it among the wealthy. I don’t really think that’s defensible.

  10. Thanks again, Aaron. Thanks, all.

    George:

    “Real Estate is simply too expensive and too valuable to spread their value by increasing supply. There’s a certain amount of investment that is required to maintain a home. If that investment will be undermined by adding supply and reducing the value of that home to the point where the owner won’t get that value back out, the owner won’t invest anymore.”

    I guess I’d have two things to say about this –

    1. I think you’re absolutely right that housing prices can’t get below a certain level, simply because it costs that much to maintain what is inherently a very expensive thing. That’s something that the smarter people who write about supply acknowledge – that even if all supply constraints were eliminated today, you would still need subsidized affordable housing for the really significant number of people who can’t afford the absolute lowest housing costs that the market could bear.

    2. That said, I would like to get past the point where we speculate about whether or not there’s *any* connection between supply constraints and housing prices. People who doubt it are always able to come up with an example or two of a place that supposedly has loose supply and still-high prices, but the thing is that this exercise has been carried out literally dozens of times on a much larger scale – looking at not one or two, but ten, fifteen, a hundred cities at once – and every single one that I’ve seen has found a really clear and strong relationship between the two. At this point, if you’re going to challenge that, I think you need to be bringing some pretty amazing evidence, not an anecdote.

    “I gotta agree with George. It’s always worried me to see new “affordable” housing projects constructed in areas where there is no shortage of housing, which results in an even greater oversupply of housing. The result is that even more older housing, of below average desirability, then falls even farther in value virtually guaranteeing that it will not be maintained. Why would anyone invest in maintaining a property when almost none of that investment will be realized when reselling the property?”

    This I think misconstrues what I was saying, unless I’m mistaken and you’re responding to someone else. The idea isn’t to subsidize new construction, it’s to allow new construction where there’s enough demand for it to be profitable to do so. And then, per George’s point above, either create some sort of inclusionary zoning regime, or – I think, preferably – some huge voucher system that allows people to move wherever they want.

    “I think George Mattei covered a lot of why this is untrue, but there’s also the factor that when people with the means and mobility to move relocate into areas where the current residents don’t have those means, the health and welfare outcomes for everybody in that neighborhood start to improve. Crime calming is more effectively done by gentrification and segregation than by adding to the number of police on the street.”

    I mean, that is only the case if you believe that the government has no obligation to the people who are left behind by that whole process. Studies have shown, in fact, that total crime *increases* with economic segregation, meaning to justify this you would have to believe that the comfort of the affluent is so much more important than the safety of everyone else that you would *increase* the number of victims among the middle and lower classes in order to reduce it among the wealthy. I don’t really think that’s defensible.

  11. Jimmy says:

    “you just need to know that most of Detroit has terrible public transit (and therefore terrible access to jobs for people who don’t want to drive every day), high crime, and few essential amenities like grocery stores.”

    I’m a middle class Detroit gentrifier. The downtown/Midtown neighborhoods have an entirely different class of policing and transit service than the rest of the city. It’s still pretty terrible in absolute terms, but when I lived in Southwest Detroit for about half a year, the bus route to my job was so unreliable as to defy explanation; I pretty much had to move to a pricier place along a more reliable route, even though I don’t like the neighborhood as much.

  12. Chris Barnett says:

    Daniel, I think one of George’s points is that in almost every metro not named San Francisco, there is a global oversupply of available dwellings and more continue to be built on the outer edges.

    It is this “big bang” continuous expansion outward that produces the rings of blight closer to the core by the process George detailed…not an anecdote at all but easily observable in most cities. Asserting that this somehow produces “affordable” housing is just not correct.

    Market-produced housing that was once desirable and has become “affordable” (i.e. very low cost) is housing well down the value ladder toward “blighted”. It may be “affordable” in the sense of low cost, but it is typically very costly to rehab to current codes and thus often not particularly safe and decent. The low rent doesn’t justify the return. When/if the area gentrifies, there is no incentive to maintain affordability. If the area doesn’t have a spark of gentrification it continues to fall down the value ladder (and eventually falls in on itself)…the failing areas of Detroit (and other cities) are stark evidence of this.

    And that is where LIHTC comes in.

    The Reagan-era LIHTC program was “off budget”. It didn’t give away government funds through the existing funding bureaucracies. Most folks recognized at the time that public housing and its funding was just a disaster from top to bottom; in particular, the living conditions were not any better than in the slums the housing projects purported to replace.

    So LIHTC reduced investors’ tax payments in exchange for their equity-capital investment in generally smaller subsidized housing developments than had been the norm…including the preservation of affordability in neighborhoods that were gentrifying.

    The tax credit concept was partly a result of the popular perception that the IRS is a far more efficient means to handle government fund distributions than the other government agencies and bureaucracies (which require a far higher percentage of the expenditure merely to feed the machine that delivers the aid).

  13. Kendall A says:

    @ Daniel

    “I mean, that is only the case if you believe that the government has no obligation to the people who are left behind by that whole process. Studies have shown, in fact, that total crime *increases* with economic segregation, meaning to justify this you would have to believe that the comfort of the affluent is so much more important than the safety of everyone else that you would *increase* the number of victims among the middle and lower classes in order to reduce it among the wealthy. I don’t really think that’s defensible.”

    Yes, you apparently missed my correction. I meant to say integration rather than segregation, it was a slip of the keyboard I couldn’t correct in time. What I’m also saying is that there aren’t very many people on the bottom rung being left behind in this case (the prior gentrification pushed them out) and those few that may be, will not be getting negatively impacted by the affluent people that remain. Instead, the poor people that are currently being impacted by segregation are the very people that you want to keep segregated by housing manipulation in the CBD. Rather than letting the market push the recovery out from the central core a bit, increasing housing stock downtown keeps all the wealth concentrated, and the other sections of Detroit do not get to see the same beneficial and crime calming effect of integrated neighborhoods.

  14. George Mattei says:

    I totally agree you can lift the supply constraints and significantly lower housing prices. But outside of places that have a significant supply deficit, increasing supply over the amount needed to house new household formations lowers prices by undermining the value of housing in certain neighborhoods over others. You get cheaper housing, but crappy slums, too.

    Take Columbus. In the housing bust, all housing prices dropped. But now neighborhoods of higher demand, such as Bexley, Dublin, Upper Arlington and New Albany, housing prices have reached pre-boom levels. Low-value neighborhoods such as parts of the Near East Side, Linden and the Hilltop, prices are still well below their pre-boom levels.

    So what was the result? Well, yes the average cost of housing in Columbus is lower than before. But mostly upper income, white communities were only marginally affected by the housing bust. Lower-income, mostly minority neighborhoods have lost substantial value, essentially sucking any equity out of the homes that people in these neighborhoods own. Vacant buildings have bloomed as they are abandoned because of economic obsolescence.

    At the end of the day, the market can only support so many homes, and the excess will be left to rot, hurting the lower-income communities for which the affordable housing was supposed to be a benefit.

  15. Paul Lambie says:

    Lots of good points here. I think the main takeaway should be that there are so many neighborhoods in Detroit and other cities like Indianapolis that have a considerable oversupply versus demand, which needs to be better balanced somehow to stem the ongoing downward trend of deterioration and neglect. I’d say the most popular tool has been to decrease supply by demolishing the most poorly maintained homes, but does that really ever solve the issue absent other considerable actions?

    It would seem to me that restricting supply in the higher value neighborhoods, along with stimulating demand in the oversupplied neighborhoods through subsidizing new housing (following demolition) or renovated housing for middle income households might be the most affordable way to transform more struggling neighborhoods back to desirability and sustainability. I’m not sure if that would be politically palatable, but it would seem much more effective at improving property values and livability in more parts of the city than allowing for unfettered supply in the already desirable neighborhoods of Downtown and Midtown, which will only create positive spillover to other neighborhoods if supply is too tight and prices too high.

  16. Daniel Hertz says:

    “Rather than letting the market push the recovery out from the central core a bit, increasing housing stock downtown keeps all the wealth concentrated, and the other sections of Detroit do not get to see the same beneficial and crime calming effect of integrated neighborhoods.”

    This is an incredibly common theory, and it makes a good amount of intuitive sense. The problem is that the research just doesn’t back it up. Instead, the overwhelming majority of people who have studied the issue – economists, but also sociologists of segregation – conclude that restrictive zoning is bad for the low-income and minorities because it increases segregation and thus reduces the amenities that the disadvantaged have access to.

    Now, it may be true in a geographic sense that restricting zoning has the short- to medium-term effect of increasing the total square mileage of “rejuvenated” neighborhoods. But because those areas don’t see their populations grow, or not by much – and because they quickly resegregate to become almost exclusively upper-income – the benefits of that rejuvenation aren’t seen by the people who actually need it: the relatively low-income and segregated minorities.

  17. Daniel Hertz says:

    ^ I should add that if your goal is simply to maximize the square mileage of “vibrant” neighborhoods, then maybe restrictive zoning makes sense. If you’re an elected official, that might in fact be your goal: you want your jurisdiction to be as economically elite as possible. An unstated part of my argument, I guess, is that this is the wrong goal, though: that what we should be aiming for is maximizing the welfare of the most number of *people*. If that’s the goal, then I think loosening zoning restrictions (along with many, many other policies, like subsidized housing and economic development initiatives in struggling areas) is the clear way to go.

  18. Chris Barnett says:

    One totally unaddressed point in all this discussion: since US household size has been on a steady decline for decades, density of a built area will decrease without any change in the housing supply. So allowing some densification (increase in unit count in a particular geography) might make sense from a 30,000 foot perspective.

    It also remains true that we are veering from 30,000 feet to ground truth in these discussions. There can be, as Aaron pointed out in his original piece, a shortage of housing in desirable close-in built-out neighborhoods that causes price and rent increases while there is simultaneously a “blight belt” of substandard, obsolete, and underutilized housing in the same metro.

    Without citations, it’s hard to argue against Daniel’s assertion that “many studies” show that loosening zoning/building restrictions makes a global difference in a metro or that it actually creates decent unsubsidized market-rate housing affordable to low and moderate income people. I suspect those studies are not of the flat, non-geographically bounded Midwest metros some of us are familiar with, but rather places more interesting to academics like NYC, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

    I think the point of many of us remains that the evolution of market-driven, core-neighborhood, elite redevelopment enclaves (the next step above gentrification) does create income and racial segregation between neighborhoods, even while there is a market-based oversupply of housing globally in the metro as seen in the simultaneous “blight belts” and continuing suburban/exurban development further out from the core. Increasing the supply of core housing won’t fix this unless some of it is specifically set aside as affordable via subsidy or fiat.

    Chicago is pretty good evidence of this, Detroit is an extreme case, and even cities like Columbus and Indianapolis exhibit characteristics of it.

  19. Kendall A says:

    It’s definitely a tricky subject, since Detroit’s topsy-turvy from the typical East/Midwest city in demographics. The segregation studies you refer to (like this one: http://www.thecyberhood.net/documents/papers/uar09.pdf) usually involve white majority cities using low density restrictions to keep minorities out. In this case, building rent controlled units in downtown is to allow middle class white residents to stay in so they don’t have to segregate. It’s completely opposite of what these studies have focused on. This in turn, as George Mattei mentions, will have the pernicious side effect of further eroding what African American wealth there is other parts of the city by further devaluation of their already lost housing value. I will grant you, however, that it’s not likely that integration will occur with restrictive housing downtown. Instead those with means will likely move back to the suburbs, once again decamp north of 8 Mile.

    At the same time, by encouraging and subsidizing low cost rentals downtown, what we’re essentially saying to minorities is, we can’t build amenities in your neighborhoods, all we can do is use subsidies to make it a bit easier for you to abandon them and your homes for our new cheaply built, high density apartments. Oh and by the way, we’re also going to cut the value of the property you currently live on and may own. This sounds an awful lot like the public housing fiascos of the 50’s and 60’s. That in part led to Detroit being what it is today.

    If you listen to the complaints from residents, the demand issue in this case isn’t really for housing, it’s for neighborhoods nearby with low crime and amenities. It’s commercial/social demand that’s disguised as housing demand. I’d rather see the city prioritize developing nearby commercial nodes by engaging and subsidizing neighborhood development organizations which in turn will open up more low cost housing that’s already in stock. Focusing solely on the housing end simply creates more problems than it solves in the long run.

  20. Kendall A says:

    And I made the same mistake again:

    “In this case, building rent controlled units in downtown is to allow middle class white residents to stay in so they don’t have to segregate”

    That’s supposed to say, so they don’t have to integrate. You’d think I’d learn to edit my comments better.

  21. Chris Barnett says:

    If you listen to the complaints from residents, the demand issue in this case isn’t really for housing, it’s for neighborhoods nearby with low crime and amenities. It’s commercial/social demand that’s disguised as housing demand. I’d rather see the city prioritize developing nearby commercial nodes by engaging and subsidizing neighborhood development organizations which in turn will open up more low cost housing that’s already in stock. Focusing solely on the housing end simply creates more problems than it solves in the long run.

    I do this for a living, and I think George does too. I have heard the complaints while helping to manage a community Quality of Life Planning process.

    Many community development organizations focus on both affordable housing and commercial redevelopment but small ones (neighborhood scale) typically aren’t social service organizations on the theory that we can either be developers or social workers or community organizers or Main Street organizations, and they are very different skill sets.

    Selective densification…putting transit and multistory buildings and a mix of uses (note that I specifically did NOT say “mixed use buildings”)…along the commercial spines of neighborhoods is well-understood as the solution for the already more-dense pre-WW2 neighborhoods where there are some bones left (i.e. apartment-over-storefront streetcar nodes).

    The issue with the less-dense blight belts is that they simply can’t support walkable nodes and neighborhood commercial because there aren’t enough people with enough income living nearby.

    It is in that first ring of larger-lot (quarter acre and up) suburban, some of which is in “old city” limits, and some of which isn’t, where the arterial corners sprouted four gas stations back in the 50s, and the boulevards sprouted strip malls, that “we” (urban redevelopment types) don’t know what to do yet. This is where poor minority (and in Columbus and Indianapolis, poor white) people are typically pushed when the closer-neighborhoods become gentrified.

    Such neighborhoods never had “commercial streets” as they existed in the pre-automotive era. Instead they have “miracle miles” and stretches of parking lots in front of aging strip centers, separated by a fair distance from where most of the potential shoppers actually live.

    How to create desirable walkable urban-style neighborhoods out of former car-oriented suburbs is not well understood. (Designers and planners can conceptualize and draw them just fine. The issue is organizing and financing the redevelopment so that it is economically viable and sustainable.) It has happened in suburban DC, largely because of Metro expansion. See: Bethesda and Silver Spring, MD; Rosslyn, McLean, and Tysons Corners, VA. But we have only one National Capital Region in the US, and adding fixed-guideway transit is extremely expensive.

  22. Daniel Hertz says:

    I think one thing that’s going wrong here is – and correct me if I’m wrong – a sense that people who argue in favor of loosening zoning regulations are not *also* in favor of subsidized housing. That’s just not true: not only are some of the most progressive, pro-subsidized housing advocates also advocates of looser zoning – people like William Julius Wilson, Doug Massey, or Patrick Sharkey – but even the free-market economists, like Ed Glaeser, acknowledge that increasing supply by itself can’t meet everyone’s housing needs, or come close to it. But they all agree that it *is* necessary to lower the sort of baseline housing prices in desirable neighborhoods, which are at the moment in many cases ludicrously higher than they have to be.

    I think a second misunderstanding is the idea that we’re just talking about gentrifying neighborhoods. Those are a part of the issue, but just as important – in fact, probably more important – are the low- or moderate-density suburbs that have been the targets of anti-exclusionary zoning advocates since the Civil Rights era.

    “At the same time, by encouraging and subsidizing low cost rentals downtown, what we’re essentially saying to minorities is, we can’t build amenities in your neighborhoods, all we can do is use subsidies to make it a bit easier for you to abandon them and your homes for our new cheaply built, high density apartments.”

    I don’t think we’re saying that at all – none of this precludes community development efforts. I think we all know that in most cases, the “ring of blight” in cities like Chicago has little to do with economics, and everything to do with social dynamics and racism. I’m skeptical that adding supply elsewhere is likely to affect them in the short run one way or another, except to make it less likely that those who live directly adjacent to wealthy districts will be priced out when people move from, say, Lincoln Park to Wicker Park.

    But even when that happens – in the small proportion of total “blighted” neighborhoods that see an influx of people priced out of the “best” areas – what have you accomplished? You’ve increased the square mileage of “vibrant” neighborhoods, but the people who lived in Wicker Park in the 1980s who needed community development are long gone by now: they can’t afford to live there anymore. It’s simply resegregation.

    Finally, I think there’s another way to think of that last quote: Instead of admitting that both the technical ability and political will to rehabilitate any significant proportion of America’s “blighted” neighborhoods is uncertain, what we’re saying is that in the meanwhile, while we get that sorted out over the next generation or two, we’re not going to do anything to rectify the fact that our housing system has been set up for the last forty years to prevent you from leaving and moving somewhere with decent schools and less crime. You’re going to have to stay in your segregated neighborhood until we figure it out. Tough.

    I don’t think that’s the right way forward. I think we need to both community development *and* tear down the walls around elite neighborhoods that keep them segregated.

  23. Daniel Hertz says:

    ^ Let me amend that really quick: The *depressed real estate values* in the “ring of blight” have to do with social dynamics and racism. Obviously economics, in the sense of deindustrialization, etc., is also playing a role, but the fact that, say, Austin is so much less expensive than neighborhoods a few miles north has little to do with access to jobs, supply, etc.

  24. Chris Barnett says:

    Daniel, in places like Indy and Columbus there are blighted Appalachian-American (i.e. white) neighborhoods also. The same processes are at work regardless of the skin color of the poor right down to the urban interstate running through their front yards (wink and a nod to Hoosier poet Mr. Mellencamp). How can we call that racism and ignore economics?

  25. Kendall A says:

    @ Chris Barnett

    I would say that these are often the same results, the same symptoms, but different processes that are at work on the macro level. The treatments could be in part the same too when it comes to redevelopment and assistance, but if we ignore racism as a large part of the problem that’s creating urban blight, we won’t be able to cure urban blight.

    @ Daniel

    I think in ways we are on the same page in that we want to see both elite neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods integrated, but it’s clear we have different ideas of how that will happen. If we force integration into wealthy areas, the wealthy will quickly leave, because they have the means to do so, and many of them are moving into these areas for the exclusivity. This is also resegregation. I think in both directions integration has to be a voluntary decision on the part of the wealthy white population, which is why I don’t think subsidizing the transplantation of the poor into these neighborhoods will work, but I would be in agreement in using rent controls or subsidies to aid the poor that are already there.

    I think the early stages of what’s called gentrification are the most beneficial to everybody (crime is calmed for the poor, neighborhoods are revitalizing but still have relatively cheap rents so most of the original residents are able to stay) and it’s in these early stages that the policies have to be put in place to preserve the social mix, but it’s often in these stages when politicians are most hesitant to do so because they don’t want to throw a wrench in the commercial renaissance. By the time you get to a fully gentrified neighborhood, it’s already too late and you can’t go back without creating more problems than you solve (the drain of wealth in both transplant neighborhoods as the wealthy move to a third neighborhood that isn’t socially engineered.)

    So yes, Lincoln Park, and Wicker Park are already lost, but now’s when you have to be putting rent controls in Bucktown, Palmer Park, etc.., and then eventually when the wealthy see how a multi-social mix of residents creates a vibrancy they lack in their sterile Starbucks lined streets, they’ll choose to open more low cost housing themselves.

  26. Daniel Hertz says:

    Chris, there’s definitely something to that – the historically Appalachian neighborhood in Chicago, Uptown, is probably the most “blighted” on the North Side, although it’s not actually really blighted at all any more. But that’s unusual: the vast majority of underclass urban neighborhoods are black. The ones that aren’t have frequently been the targets of similar issues, it’s true: redlining, urban renewal displacement and concentration, etc.

    Kendall, I agree we’re on the same page in terms of goals, which is refreshing enough. I guess I don’t believe that the wealthy will ever “see how a multi-social mix of residents creates a vibrancy they lack in their sterile Starbucks lined streets.” I don’t think they will ever be in favor of integration: when have they? What makes killing zoning over-regulation so key for me is that it takes away a huge amount of their power to keep their neighborhoods exclusive – it means *they can’t keep running away*. Wherever they go, apartments shall follow. Ditto housing vouchers.

  27. Daniel, think of it in terms of something you’re probably already inclined to dislike: sprawl based construction. Overbuilding in new suburbs has really put huge pressure on housing prices in many inner ring areas. The South Side of Indianapolis, which is only about 10% black (and not Appalachian for the most part) is not a ghetto but has seen massive deterioration in values thanks to this process. This is a big reason urban advocates tend to support UGB’s, the help to retain demand and housing prices inside the boundary, at the price of raising them, obviously. But remove that and many neighborhoods inside the ring will experience blight.

    I had an economist make a similar argument against an idea I touted in Rhode Island. There’s an industrial park there called Quonset that’s everything Rhode Island is not: first class infrastructure, single zoning classification, pre-permitted sites, single point of approval, guaranteed 90 days to start construction, etc. I suggested this was a future model for the state. This economist suggested the Quonset story was over played because its success simply sucked in all the investment that otherwise would have gone elsewhere in the state thanks to its superior “amenity” value. I’m not convinced that’s entirely true. But certainly that had to have happened in at least a few cases.

  28. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, I assume you hadn’t had enough coffee and meant “only about 10% black” in referring to the south side of Indy. We don’t call a majority-white poor neighborhood a “ghetto”, but there are some places that look, walk, and talk like ghettos, only with white residents.

    I was specifically thinking about Fountain Square/Garfield Park, the straight-south neighborhoods (Concord), around UIndy, the near southwest, south of Washington, as well as the near-southeast (Twin Aire and Christian Park and what’s between there and Beech Grove). Essentially, all the near-south neighborhoods of Indy south of Washington. Early city plans (50s-60s) talked about the Appalachian population in those areas of Indy.

    Even the near east side is not exclusively an African-American ghetto. Many census tracts there are majority white or no-majority (Latino-white-African American).

    I do think something like what Aaron describes is the mechanism by which blight belts develop. I do agree with Daniel that the well-to-do will continue to flee those unlike them economically, gating them out when all else fails. These are not mutually exclusive processes and are not necessarily racism expressed.

  29. Chris, yes. Thanks for the catch. Fountain Square and Bates-Hendricks could be considered white ghettos. Those are predominantly while areas with extreme poverty. But much of the rest of the old central South Side into Perry Township is working class and has seen significant property value erosion. I’m just trying to show that you don’t have to have a segregated minority areas to see this effect.

  30. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, we definitely agree there…it cannot be embedded racism if the same process is happening the same way in virtually all-white places just the same as minority neighborhoods.

    A first-ring suburban blight belt is a suburban blight belt because of economic obsolescence brought on by uncontrolled suburban expansion, the exact opposite of the “urban restrictions” argument made by Hertz and others. African American people live in some of these belts, and Latinos and Caucasians in others. And in all of them, it’s typically cheaper for a municipality to leave them to rot while those who can move to a newer nicer place. Those who can’t, get stuck with what eventually becomes a live-in liability.

  31. victoria wilson~ MN says:

    I think many of the commentors missed George Mattei’s self-proclaimed, most important observation: “because of this- and this is very important- as an enabler real estate tends to take its value from the sum of the surrounding goods and services created in the community.” Real estate is inextricably tied to the production of public goods in its community; by public goods I mean the schools, street safety, parks and trails, transportation and so on. And when he says the sum of the goods created in the community, I interpret him to say the sum of the goods created by the community, as public goods are participatory in nature. It is the parents that help build the local schools, it is the activists that get the stop sign installed at a busy intersection, it is the friends for the parks group that raise the money for the playground equipment and the local commuters that voice the need for better transit.

    Most commentors talk about housing as if there are plastic house pieces that can be shuffled from locale to locale in the same way that one plays monopoly. The assumption is that if you pluck up an apartment building occupied by a group of people and plop them down in a trendy area that, first off, they will find this desirable and second of all, they will become participants and beneficiaries of the surrounding goods and services. These thoughts sound like ones spawned by idealistic central planner types in an office somewhere.

    I think at every class-level people cluster close together because it is comfortable. Your neighbor has similar goals, aspirations and expectations as you; and in general I don’t feel there is anything wrong with that. That is until a cluster of neighbors are so deplete of personal resources, time available to devote to community affairs and know-how to navigate the volunteer experience that the production of services created in the community falls woefully short. So short indeed that the neighborhood is no longer able to retain residents that have the ability to relocate, but do attract the schemers and the scammers that prey on the vulnerable.

    I am completely opposed to new construction as means of housing the poor. It is the most expensive form of housing and supplies those at the lowest end of the pay scale a dwelling that is not attainable for several steps up the market rate social ladder; hence fettering these folks into an economic dependence on a subsidized life. The only areas where the numbers make sense for new construction are those replete with residents whose lives are too full to contribute to the community’s goods and services. There two functions to the construction a new subsidized building: it is a line item accomplishment on a politician’s brag sheet and a tax deduction for an investor.

  32. Chris Barnett says:

    Victoria, my attitude toward housing is generally is pro-free market. But the free market does a ridiculously awful job of providing decent low-cost housing, as most of it is just disinvested old (and often substandard/functionally obsolete) houses in neighborhoods that are generally glum. I don’t think working poor people should have to live in dangerous housing just because they are working poor.

    Clearly rent subsidies attaching to a household in the form of vouchers do build a culture of dependence. But rent subsidies that attach to a building (via LIHTC) don’t tie residents to dependence unless they choose it, and with varying income limits within LIHTC properties, one can earn more and keep one’s place; at some point, a resident earns out so I understand that the mere existence of income limits might be a disincentive to get one’s income up. But that’s a problem with every anti-poverty program…SNAP and TANF also.

    Further, it’s just not true that housing similar to LIHTC units can’t be purchased by those on low incomes. People with low incomes and generally stable lives can buy houses under a variety of government housing programs for homeownership (usually HOME assisted units), and the biggest low-income builder of all is Habitat for Humanity, which sells houses to low-income people who demonstrate the initiative and gumption to move forward.

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