How a city can shrink while prospering and what it says about all our cities
While I think that Matt is right that part of the problem is that handling housing rules on a local rather than state basis tempts each municipality into a game of beggar-thy-neighbor, I think it’s also insane that these “cities” _exist_. Somerville, Cambridge, Medford, Arlington and quite a few others basically exist as regulatory and school district arbitrage plays against the city of Boston proper which they are in every other practical way part of, and in a sane world would have been amalgamated into the city decades ago.
Am I the only one who wants more posts about Matt's spotty youth, including smoking cigarettes and using a fake ID?
What I take away from all of this is that there are lots of people, left and right, that want the benefits of a gated community - feeling of exclusivity, ability to control who moves in, everything short of actual, literal gates.
When you can't have that de-jure, you create it de-facto with an economic fence instead of a real one. Then... once you have that, if you are a lefty like Robert Reich in Berkeley, you can then hide behind preservationist NIMBY logic or even, ironically, gentrification rhetoric to enforce your economic fence.
Let's be clear, everyone who does this in bad faith is an asshole. Including Robert Reich himself, who now can't post on twitter without his Berkeley NIMBY screed being reposted for all the world to see.
I used to live in Somerville, but the city kicked me out for living with too many roommates! We had 7 people in a 7 bedroom. The city told us that only 4 unrelated people could live together, and also the 7 bedroom apartment was illegal. We were forced out, and the landlord was forced to de-densify the apartment.
In order for Boston's housing prices to not be bananas, pretty much every style of development needs to shift outward; the cities like Somerville need to have tall development, the inner suburbs need to be more like cities, the outer suburbs need to be dense and commercialized, the bedroom communities need to be all the way out at 495, and people who want a really rural experience need to be way out there.
But....approximately no one who already lives somewhere wants that because it's annoying to (1) find out that the residential experience you signed up for is going to be elsewhere and (2) your commute is going to be worse.
So in the abstract if I say "hey Lincoln, you need to be more like Newton", no one's going to go "Newton's a hellhole, we can't live like that?" but they're still all gonna say "hell no" - if the people in Lincoln wanted restaurants and sidewalks and a green line stop, they'd live in Newton.
Out here in the suburbs, development is opposed based on this logic: "X is going to change the character of (insert your favorite NIMBY Boston suburb here)".
But doing nothing is changing the character anyway - see Somerville as an example. When we were looking at houses (in Natick) long time townies who did not have white collar knowledge-economy jobs (cuz you don't -need- that to live in Natick, right?) would remark that they couldn't believe the housing prices.
With high prices and the housing stock turning over, all of these communities will experience a _class_ transformation if they don't experience a land use transformation.
“state of Massachusetts” obligatory it’s a Commonwealth, that my fellow Bay Staters will understand
Up here in Salem (a 30 minute commuter train ride north of Boston), the latest argument from the NIMBYs is just like in this piece: “why should SALEM host all the new construction? Why won’t the surrounding communities do their part?”
But Salem is the place with the walkable neighborhood core, the thriving restaurant & tourist scene, the commuter train to Boston, the former industrial sites within walking distance of the train station and downtown getting transformed into residential… it’s the place to put new construction apartments, and the YIMBY mayor is all for it. The zoning and design review process makes it challenging, but it’s still happening.
As a family values guy, why cant more families live together in one dwelling.
How much of a problem is the American refusal to allow suburbs to be swallowed up by cities, or put some of these question to higher-level entities? My impression is that when suburbs get too big cities either grow (e.g. the Toronto 'Megacity' amalgamation) or establish some sort of supra-municipal entity (e.g. Greater London) to make things work. In the US this seems to combine with the abandonment of city centres to create some truly horrendous policy.
"The perceived link between building and gentrification tends to generate very counterproductive local backlash politics when what’s really needed is a bigger and more regional approach."
Exactly. I remember having some fun clashes with some student musicians/activists at Georgia Tech on this issue in 2016. They strongly believed (at the time) that new housing in Midtown Atlanta was at the root of all working class problems in the area, and that I was a "corporate clown", their words, for suggesting otherwise.
(I think they all voted for Jill Stein, or Mickey Mouse, or Ed Asner's Ass Pimple, in both of Trump's elections. Good times. :/ )
But it's worth noting: As this issue gets regionalized, it will get nationalized--and as that happens, it will polarize along partisan lines. Trump states will become NIMBY states, and non-Trump states will become YIMBY states.
Right-wing identity in America is already centered on "keeping the wrong people out". It will extend to "keeping the wrong people out" on a neighborhood level. And it will soon treat expensive, unaffordable housing as an unalloyed *good*, for culture war reasons, as sure as we're all standing here. Mark my words.
I live right at the edge of Somerville, technically in Charlestown. The density of small homes and nearly complete absence of towers/buildings is really noticeable. Of course, I love walking around and enjoying the small yards and eclectic mix of houses, but it's clearly a huge loss that there isn't more housing stock.
There's also, at least by me, a noticeable absence of stores and restaurants. Apart from the major cross-cutting streets (like Broadway and Washington), there is hardly anything commercial inside the residential areas.
I actually see a fair number of empty or for sale homes that look ripe for renovation and condo-ificiation. I don't think that solution scales -- it's not a 15 story tower -- but it helps with the 'people per house' problem a bit.
I'd love to see so much construction around here. It's a great place and would be even better with more people and a few more places to shop and eat. But, unfortunately, the mayoral run off is down to two progressive candidates. Good luck getting them to support anything that would be good for the long-term future of the Latino community being priced out of east Somerville by insufficient development.
Saying the benefits of more housing are extremely diffuse undersells the problem. The benefits of not-more-housing are extremely concentrated for everyone who owns property.
If a home-owner owns their home and is leveraged via a mortgage, then from a strictly financial standpoint "more housing to help combat soaring housing prices" is not a feature. The bug is profitable.
I think analyses like these are really helpful for people who are change-resistant but haven't gone full head in sand. I was at a community meeting this weekend in Atlanta and once I described our Somerville (just a neighborhood) that had seen significant displacement of Black households, significantly increased home prices, and a decreased total population something clicked for people. I think it made it clear that once the conditions are such that the would be "gentrifiers" are on the way, the question is how to accommodate them, not whether to accommodate them, short of some level of intervention in buying/selling homes that everyone loses interest in once they understand they wouldn't be exempt.
Thank you Matt. I live in Somerville, and this nails a debate I've had with other readers on previous YIMBY-related comment threads (eg here https://www.slowboring.com/p/houses-not-zoning/comments#comment-2540106 ). I think it's additionally hard because when housing prices are high, any new development you allow that doesn't require affordable housing will be "luxury" apartments -- it will seem like more of the problem, rather than where the solution. (E.g., city counselors I generally like opposed a Davis Square dorm-style apartment building proposal, saying "the last thing we need is additional luxury housing.") You need an immense amount of regional development to start making a perceptible dent in rent/housing costs.
I'm curious if there are ways to hack this from a policy perspective on the local level. The most obvious and commonly used tool is requiring that a percentage of apartments be affordable, but I imagine economists have demonstrated that that just shifts costs elsewhere. One thing you might do is require that apartments be small and have small bedrooms; that would necessarily pack more people into a given building, though it might also just make some of the apartments be empty investments or second apartment pied a terres. You could also require that the developer operate the building on a rental basis only and not sell units as condos, since rent is relatively lower than has in costs on a historical basis. But I suspect in the scheme of things, any such rules depress the desirability of building more housing in the first place, and so any benefits would be canceled out by decreased development.
I suggest all those on Matt's site whining about the ills of America move to France, where my wife is from and still owns a country house. The housing outside central Paris and the Cote d-Azur is incredibly cheap. You can own a chateau with your own vineyards for the price of a 2BR in Brooklyn, the country has an amazing number of beautiful cities with cheap housing, and good restaurants and shops walkable from your front door. I'd recommend LeMans, where my wife is from, a 55-minute fast rail ride to Paris, Nantes, St Malo, Caen, Rennes, Deauville, Bordeaux, Lyons, Nimes, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Albi, La Rochelle, Toulouse and Montpelier. These are just those I've visited in recent years; I'm sure there are many others, Dijon and Dole which I visited 50 years ago come to mind. Of course you'll have to learn French, a bug to most Americans, but a feature to me. The upside is you'll get cheap housing, a great rail network, the best medical care in the world, a longer life, much better food and wine, free child care, all the things Matt pontificates about. Move now. You won't regret it. Of course, when we've all moved to a better life, it won't promote Matt's goal of a billion Americans. But, hey, there are costs and benefits to millions of people making decisions about what's best for them.
FYI Recently a development was proposed for additional housing right next to the Supreme Liquors where you got busted, but it looks like the local planning board will shoot it down because the proposal doesn't include parking. This is despite the fact that the building is literally next to the t-stop (subway).