Friday, September 12, 2014

Did you bring enough housing for everybody?

When I was a kid, one of the things the teachers told us was that if you bring snacks or candy, you have to bring enough for everyone. If you don't, it winds up going mostly to your friends and excluding a lot of kids, which isn't fair.

I realized recently that this also applies to people who want to keep rents down through rent controls, not increasing the supply, like Tom Angotti:

At bottom, developers typically argue, the housing problem is all about supply and demand. Let us increase the supply, they say, and there will be more housing to go around for all. This, not rent regulation, will keep rents from rising. That’s good old trickle-down economics, which never works. Indeed, we’ve just come through a couple of decades in which the total housing supply has grown dramatically, and so have rents, but there was also a huge loss of low-rent housing. Over the last 20 years almost 250,000 units of rental housing were deregulated.

I want to give Angotti props for two things: unlike many rent control advocates, Angotti actually listens to people who advocate increasing the supply, and he takes the time to write an articulate response. So even though I'm criticizing his arguments, the same criticism is even more true of other people's arguments.

First of all, one sorta-valid question that Angotti raises: if total housing supply has increased (I don’t have the figures, but I’ll assume that it’s true), and rents have also increased, doesn’t that falsify the supply-side argument?

Well, no, because Angotti’s representation of "what developers typically argue" is inaccurate. I honestly don’t know what developers typically argue, because I’m not one and I don’t spend much time listening to them. But if the problem is all about supply and demand, then Angotti left out the demand side. A fairer statement of the argument would be "Let us increase the supply to match the demand, and there will be enough housing to go around for all."

If we phrase the proposal this way, we have to look at demand, and all signs point to a huge increase in the demand for New York’s walkable urban spaces and its well-paying jobs. But Angotti does not want to look at demand. Instead, he shrugs it off as a “speculative real estate fever.” He acknowledges that “the plan claims the city’s population is bound to increase in the next decade,” but argues, bizarrely, that the projected increase is not based on evidence of real demand but of demand induced by “the development of smaller housing units.” That is all he says about the demand side.

To people who currently rent in the city, Angotti’s blustering about "gentrification" and displacement may be comforting, but for me it rings hollow. I’m a fourth-generation New Yorker, but after college (two decades ago, which is as far back as Angotti goes in his piece), I couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhood I knew best, the Upper West Side. Even now, with a solidly middle-class family income, four of the neighborhoods that my family has called home are now out of my range.

Things might have been different if my parents had not done the back-to-the-land thing in the seventies. They might have been different if, when I spent a few years to go to school in another state, I had played the illegal sublet game instead of giving up my rent-stabilized apartment. They might have been different if one of my family members had gotten a bigger apartment for me to illegally inherit when he died. But as it is, my family has given up several rent-regulated apartments, and I am displaced, one of the victims that Angotti and his fellow rent-regulation advocates cry for, and the Upper West Side community is poorer because the studio I inherited there was too small for my family.

Except that I’m not one of the victims that Angotti cries for. My family didn’t live in any of these places for "decades and generations," but instead migrated around the metropolitan area, chasing dreams of suburban comfort, rustic peace and creative success across the generations. Because we left our rent-regulated apartments semi-voluntarily, I don’t count as one of Angotti's displaced. I have no right of return.

You know who else doesn’t matter in the world of the rent-regulation advocates? Immigrants from other countries, looking for cheap places to settle in the U.S. The talented and ambitious from other parts of the country, looking to make it in New York. The queer and the weird and the non-conforming, chased out of their tight-knit communities in small towns and suburbs. Anyone who wants to live without a car and not be part of a small, oppressed minority.

There is no housing for us, because the rent-regulation advocates didn’t bring enough for everybody. They only brought enough for their friends, those fortunate enough to be currently benefiting from rent regulation and subsidized housing. If I were their kindergarten teacher I would have a quiet talk with their parents after school.

Honestly, I’m fine: I have a nice co-op in Queens. But it’s the thought that counts, and the thought that we don’t count is pretty damn offensive. It leaves this old lefty fuming at the cozy club mentality that Angotti tries to dress up as justice.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The light is better on the poor door

I was listening to Tanya Snyder and Jeff Wood treating the latest “poor door” outrage with some well-deserved skepticism. Jeff mentioned the (entirely hypothetical at this point) “luxury” residents of the new development at 40 Riverside Boulevard not wanting to “mix with the mudbloods” and asked, “if you don’t like it, move to Westchester or whatever.”

Jeff’s mention of Westchester brought to mind an important point: that places like Westchester are much more segregated. I grew up on the Upper West Side, and we would walk out the front door and see people of all income levels. Now I can’t afford to live there, but still when I go back I see people who are less well off than I am. If we don’t live in the neighborhood (in the projects, or in rent controlled or rent stabilized apartments), we can come to shop or visit the parks; some come to panhandle. It’s easy to reach by subway and bus.

Westchester County, on the other hand, is a lot more difficult. Yes, you can get to Rye or Scarsdale on the train, but it costs a lot more. The buses to Yorktown Heights and Armonk are a lot less frequent and convenient. And there is no poor door, because no poor people are allowed in the building, unless they’re there to mop the floors. In Westchester they have whole cities for the poor, like Port Chester and Yonkers.

My wife and I once looked at an apartment in Westchester, and on our way in with our real estate agent we saw another couple coming out with a different agent. Once we were inside the agent showing us the apartment grumbled loudly to us at the gall of the other agent. She wasn’t specific, but it was clear that she was angry he was showing the apartment to a black couple. Needless to say, we didn’t go back to that agent, but she was carrying on a long tradition of segregation in the county, a tradition defended by “moderate” gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino.

There's a famous parable of a man who loses his keys in the dark. A friend sees him searching under a streetlight and asks, "is this where you dropped them?" "Actually, no," replies the man, "but the light is better here."

I am reminded of this story when I think of people protesting the network of private employee buses shuttling employees of Google and Apple from San Francisco townhouses to Siicon Valley office parks. Much easier to lead showoff blockades against big white buses than to confront NIMBYs who oppose building more housing in San Francisco or creating dense walkable places in Silicon Valley itself. The light is better on the Google buses.

It's also much easier to fight a thirty-cent increase in the subway fare than to confront wealthy suburbanites who demand low bridge tolls. It's easier to be outraged by rich people stepping over homeless people on the streets of Manhattan than by rich people strolling the streets of Pleasantville protected from the poor by miles and rivers and highways. And that's the reason the “poor door” got so much more press than Westchester’s segregation. It's dramatic, it’s in your face, and the symbolism is inescapable. The light is better on the poor door.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The challenge of our generation

Rents are rising in cities across the country, and people who can’t afford the new rents have to go somewhere. At CNU 22 in June, Mike Lydon observed (48:15) that “We’re completely unprepared to put people who have the least resources out on the edge … thirty miles from downtown.” Chuck Marohn declared that “the challenge of our generation is to make sure that we don’t leave those people behind.” You can see their conversation with Jason Roberts and Joe Minicozzi, recorded by Gracen Johnson for Strong Towns, or listen to it on the latest Strong Towns podcast.

You got the call, people. Let’s rise to that challenge! I think the best way to deal with it is to bring prices down by building a diversity of relatively dense housing where there already is good transit, but many people will move to the suburbs, and some already have. WNYC made an incredibly useful map showing median income by census tract, based on the 2007-2012 American Community Survey. Here’s the New York area:


Interestingly, on this map the real concentrated poverty that we see in Fort Greene or West Farms – census tracts with median household incomes below fifteen thousand dollars – is only found in three places outside of New York city: Bridgeport, New Haven and the Seth Boyden and Otto Kretchmer projects in Newark (now closed). Instead, there are a lot of census tracts with median incomes between $15,000 and $25,000 a year. But outside of New York, Bridgeport and New Haven those are found in only a handful of other cities. In the rest of the metro area, median income is over $25,000.

The towns that have census tracts with median incomes between $15,000 and 25,000 are as follows: In New York State, Yonkers, Mount Vernon (one project), Spring Valley and Kiryas Joel. In New Jersey it’s Jersey City, North Bergen, Newark, Elizabeth, Asbury Park, Passaic and Paterson.

The primary challenge with the "suburbanization of poverty" is that the farther out people move, the harder it is for them to access good-paying jobs. Someone who is displaced from Fort Greene in Brooklyn to the West Ward of Newark trades a 45-minute subway ride for a trip on a bus to a commuter train to a subway that can take over an hour. Interestingly, it's not so much the cost of transportation that's the problem, as we can see by looking at the Center for Neighborhood Technology's Housing+Transportation index. In all these areas, housing and transportation costs combined were less than 45% of household income (indicated by yellow), which was often not the case for "wealthier" areas nearby (indicated by blue).


Here's the tricky part: these are based on the reports of people who had work, so they could by definition afford their commutes. It may be that the reason they can't access better-paying jobs is that they couldn't afford the commute, but we don't know that. Giving the H+T data the benefit of the doubt, we should focus on making the commute to better-paying jobs quicker, not just cheaper. That means increasing the capacity of the routes to job centers - primarily New Jersey Transit and Metro-North trains - and bringing rapid service to places, like Newark's West Ward and Yonkers's Schlobohm Houses, that are currently only accessible by relatively slow buses.

In future posts I'll talk about some potential investments that could improve job access from these areas.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri is not a Strong Town

A lot of people have had a lot of insights about the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. I want to highlight a few that I think are particularly important, and add a few thoughts that I hope will help focus them on our goals.

Last week, Doug Henwood had a great interview with political scientist and former Missouri state senator Jeff Smith, who expanded on his op-ed about how economically bankrupt the entire Saint Louis area, and in particular suburbs like Ferguson, have become. Combine that with municipal fragmentation and the mismatch between the city’s majority black population and its mostly white government, and you get a heavy dose of "for-profit policing," where the town relies on traffic stops for a large chunk of its revenue. It’s not hard to see how that in turn leads to the kind of anger that erupted after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, a black resident.

First a word about "revenue generation" through traffic enforcement and other police actions. It’s gotta stop, period. Giving government officials a financial incentive to ticket and arrest people is a recipe for disaster – the kind of disaster we’ve been hearing about for days. Obviously, even if Michael Brown stole a few cigarillos (and it’s not at all clear he did), the police response was nuts and completely out of control.

That said, many politicians go too far in reacting to this abuse of the system. Many of our city council members here in New York act as though no tickets are ever warranted, even if the driver is putting lives at risk by blocking a hydrant, speeding or running a red light. The response to overzealous policing is not to make our streets a free-for-all for reckless drivers. People who want to stop "revenue generation" need an alternative way to keep us safe, whether it’s a cap on fines or replacing them with jail time.

Second, I have to point out how this shows up the "Chocolate City" triumphalism of the 1970s. Much as I love George Clinton, much as I support true local control and self-determination and Black Power, and much as I have sympathy for any separatist movement that just wants to get away from the oppressors, at this point it’s clear that when black people gained control of the governments of major cities it was at best a short-lived victory.

Cities are not self-contained little systems. They are porous regions of much larger systems, connected and interdependent with other cities, with their hinterlands and with their suburbs. When we integrated the buses, white people shifted to private cars. When we integrated the schools, white people moved their kids to "Christian Academies" and suburban districts. When black people took control of the cities, white people moved their wealth to the suburbs. Now black people are finding themselves pushed out of the Chocolate City into suburbs controlled by white people. It’s likely that one day Ferguson and other majority-black suburbs will elect black mayors, but what is really important is for everyone to have a fair say in the government of the entire region.


Chuck Marohn took this screen capture of the Google Street View of the Ferguson Market and Liquor Store.

Listening to Smith I couldn’t help thinking, as I had several times in the past week, "Ferguson isn’t a Strong Town." No, it is not. Chuck Marohn has the numbers, and you have to wonder: if the town had retained its walkable and transit infrastructure and built on it over the past sixty years instead of sprawling, how much less desperate would it be? What if the entire Saint Louis region had bucked the trend and stayed dense, walkable and transit-oriented? What would it take to make it strong again?

Finally, as Megan McArdle noted, this is part of the "Great Inversion" or the "suburbanization of poverty," the final step in the growth ponzi scheme where those of us who are aware and affluent enough move to walkable urban neighborhoods. Because we refuse to build more walkable urban neighborhoods, that displaces the poor and powerless to the inefficient, isolated, dangerous, rotting suburbs. What can those of us who care about our fellow humans do about this?

I’m guessing that as more and more people come to grips with the idea that poor black and Hispanic people are living in the suburbs now, some short-sighted person will propose an aid program where we dump massive amounts of money into the suburbs with the goal of bringing their standard of living up to the level of the wealthy inner cities, but with no attempt to make them more efficient. At that point some wiser person should point out that that’s exactly what we did for the past sixty years, and that that’s why the white people left the suburbs in the first place.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The defeat of the power broker

Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is one of the all-time classics of urbanism, assigned in many courses and read even by casual students of history. Caro intended his biography of Robert Moses to be an examination of the nature of political power, and how powerful people rise and fall, as evidenced by the title and by his follow-up multi-volume study of Lyndon Johnson.

What is surprising to me is how often people pair Moses with Jane Jacobs and talk about their conflicts over Washington Square Park and the Lower Manhattan Expressway. You could even get the impression, from the way that some people tell it, that it was Jacobs who brought Moses down. It’s true that Moses and Jacobs showed a striking clash of ideologies and worldviews, but Caro spends very little time on Jacobs, focusing instead on the conflicts that Moses had with the mayors (LaGuardia, Wagner) and governors (Smith, Roosevelt) that he nominally served.


I am also surprised by how few people got through The Power Broker with any understanding of how Moses was eventually overthrown. I found that to be one of the most captivating parts of the book, like the way the Ring of Power met its fate in Mount Doom. I was in awe once when I got to visit the Chase Bondholder Services Office (not in the same location, but still). And yet I have not heard anyone else mention that part of the story.

I think the main reason nobody talks about how Moses fell from power is that nobody wants to think about it, and that’s because it’s not fair. Moses was not brought down by Jane Jacobs – although she may have helped to finish him off. He was not destroyed by a hobbit, or even a Gollum.

The people who were finally able to take away Moses’s source of power – his Ring, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority – were two of the most powerful people in the country. Heirs to a multi-million dollar oil fortune, David and Nelson Rockefeller controlled, respectively, one of the largest banks in the country and one of the wealthiest states. Nelson would go on to be Vice President a few years later. And yet, neither brother could have defeated Moses by himself: it was only by combining their powers and working together that they were able to create the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and swallow Moses’s TBTA.

On the face of it, this is not a very inspiring story. Want to defeat a despotic, unelected, arrogant man who is destroying your cities? Sorry, you can’t do it yourself. You have to trust in two plutocrats, one elected, one not, each responsible for his own Corbusian excesses (Chase Manhattan Plaza and Empire State Plaza, respectively). You have to trust them to be strong enough to make it really work (instead of, say, leaving a bunch of free alternatives to the bridges and tunnels funding the subway system), and not to fuck it up (by, say, leaving its funding at the mercy of the notoriously corrupt and undemocratic New York State Legislature). It’s less like Frodo and Gollum, and more like Eärendil calling in the Valar, if the Valar were a bunch of Republican bankers.

But as I think about it, it's not like there was even an Eärendil. From what I can tell, the Rockefellers never talked to a single subway rider, or anyone whose home or business was displaced by their projects or those of Moses. As Bob Fitch explains it in The Assassination of New York (which everyone should read; you can get a taste from this Doug Henwood tribute), the Rockefellers were mainly motivated by their failing real estate investments in the West Side (particularly Rockefeller Center). Getting the Chrystie Street Connection and the Sixth Avenue express tunnels built was a priority, at least for David, so he needed to see the subway capital plan funded for a few years minimum.

I think that’s the true lesson of The Power Broker: sometimes the thing that gets rid of one tyrant is just another tyrant. Sometimes the interests of the new tyrant align with your own enough that you can get something decent going. Sometimes the new power is not a single tyrant but a junta, and its power is diluted by that fact, making it slightly less dangerous. This leaves an opening for smaller powers to come in and get a piece of the action, further diluting the power. It ain't democracy and it ain't fair, but it's better than having Bob Moses screwing everything up.

Any way you slice it, it's not very inspiring for those of us who aren't Rockefellers. And that's why people prefer to talk about Jane Jacobs's minor victory over Moses.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The O Train to Avenue H

One subway expansion proposal that always gets mentioned by people, but has never gotten any official funding or planning, is the "TriboroRx" line, using the Port Morris Branch, the New York Connecting Railroad and the LIRR Bay Ridge Branch to bring riders from Yankee Stadium to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, passing near the commercial centers of Astoria, Jackson Heights, East New York, Flatbush and Midwood.


In 2007, Michael Frumin modeled the potential demand for the line, and found promising results. When he was hired by the MTA I hoped it was a sign that there would be some planning, but it looks like they just wanted his modeling skills.

Some segments of the line only have room for two tracks: the New York Connecting Railroad from the Hell Gate Bridge to Fresh Pond Yard, and the Bay Ridge Branch from the Brighton Line to the Culver Line. The tracks are still used for freight, and will see more use if the Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel is built.

There are significant bureaucratic obstacles to running reasonably priced passenger service on the same track with freight trains, and overcoming those obstacles would require an amount of political will that no leader has shown recently. The alternative to sharing tracks would be lots of digging, concrete and steel to double-deck the line in those parts, either above or below grade. The Port Morris Branch, currently abandoned and neglected, would also require significant upgrades before it can be used by passenger trains.

Because of this, I suggested that we start the ball rolling by extending the G train south past 18th Avenue and west to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. I also suggested that we run trains along the section between the Brighton Line and Broadway Junction.

The map above shows one such possibility, proposed by the MTA as part of the "New Routes" plan in 1969. Under this proposal, the L train would be split into two routes. At Broadway Junction (or maybe Halsey Street) they would diverge, with one continuing to the L current terminus in Canarsie.

The other branch, which I'll call the O train, would travel parallel to the L within the right-of-way of the Bay Ridge Branch, skipping a few stops but connecting to the 3 train at Junius Street. It would then follow the Bay Ridge Branch west through past Brooklyn College (with a transfer to the 2 train), terminating at the Brighton Line with a transfer to the Avenue H station.

This is only one possibility. Another way to handle it would be to run the B trains 24/7, turning them east on the Bay Ridge Branch to Broadway Junction - although riders in Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay would probably complain about losing express service. A third would be to have the O and B trains overlap, providing more frequent service.

That seems to be all that can reasonably be done with the existing trackage without sharing tracks with freight trains or pouring lots of concrete. There is a four-track section between Broadway Junction and Fresh Pond Yard, but there's not much reason to send L (or J or C) trains up there. If you've ever taken the M to the end of the line you'll understand why - it's not much of a destination.

Running trains on this section would bring train service to a large section of Brooklyn that currently has none, and provide access to potential sites for new housing in these areas. There is no need to wait for a full build of the "TriboroRx" line - that was just somebody's idea. It should be explored now.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The transportation hypocrisy of civil libertarians

It was in the news yesterday that the Drug Enforcement Administration paid an Amtrak employee over $800,000 over twenty years for confidential passenger information that it could have gotten for free. The Albuquerque Journal reported in April 2001 that they were getting it through "a computer with access to Amtrak's ticketing information." People like Senator Grassley are spinning it as government waste, but to me there's a bigger story: why should Amtrak have given this information to the DEA in the first place?

That was the response of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico back in 2001, and they were then "pondering whether to take legal action." A few months later they clearly had bigger fish to fry, so it's understandable why this issue went on the back burner.


What's not understandable is why transit freedom has gone on the back burner, and pretty much stayed there, since 2001. Some of you may actually be too young to know that before then, you could board an intercity bus or train without giving your name or showing identification. You just walked up to the ticket counter and handed over your cash.

I've been taking Trailways buses since I was a kid, and I remember when it all changed, sometime shortly after September 11, 2001. I walked up to the ticket window at the Port Authority and asked for a ticket, and the person asked for my name. "Why?" "Security." "I don't want my name on some list!" "Nobody's going to put your name on a list." I sounded like a goddamn schizophrenic. After some back-and-forth he said, "Just give me a name!" Okay, I gave him a name that could plausibly have been a nickname for me, but wasn't, and he put it in the computer - and on some list, of course. Soon after that, they began requiring photo ID or a credit card to buy the tickets. I think they even tried to get the drivers to check the photo ID before they let people on the bus, but that one at least didn't fly.

What has amazed me to this day is that there was absolutely no mention of any of this by anyone but me. People complain (with good reason) about taking off their shoes at airports and about no-fly lists, and even about draconian treatment on buses near the Mexican border, but I don't remember seeing a single mention of buses or trains requiring a name for intercity tickets. Hell, I still don't know what counts as intercity. I don't have to give my name for a ticket to Nyack or Poughkeepsie, but I do for a ticket to New Paltz.

But what really burns me up is when civil libertarians complain about license plate scans or toll surveillance. Driving is not a right, it's a privilege, especially in a place like New York where transit is plentiful. And these civil libertarians don't even acknowledge that the MTA has a record of the movements of everyone who buys a Metrocard with a credit card.

And yes, it's true that potential criminals or even terrorists can use buses and trains to move around. But we live in a free country, where it's not a crime to be a potential criminal or terrorist, or just someone who doesn't want to drive. Or at least we used to.