Community Affordability in Context: It’s not just about the house

Next month, May 15-19, when the Congress for the Urbanism holds its conference in Savannah, one day’s focus will be on “Affordability: The Intersection of Everything.” Between now and the beginning of the conference, we’ll present a series of Q&As with participants in that day’s discussion. Leading off is Scott Bernstein, a founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology and a four-decade leader in analyses of the interdependent components of communities’ health. We’ll present the conversation in two parts, beginning with this context setter. 

Q: Okay, let’s start with the big picture. New urbanists argue that designing and planning for affordability are baked into the Charter for the New Urbanism and into new urbanists’ best practices. The implication: potential solutions to an affordability crisis are already there for those who take the trouble to understand the tools and apply them. Is that a fair assessment? Or are we missing something when it comes to addressing the gap between household wealth and what it costs to live in places we hold out as worthy of replication?

Scott Bernstein, Center for Neighborhood Technology

Scott Bernstein, Center for Neighborhood Technology

A: Well, “the places we hold out as worthy of replication” are those that offer a range of housing choices and options for accomplishing most daily tasks without getting into a private automobile for every trip. Evidence is strong and mounting that those kinds of places can do a significantly better job of delivering affordability in the broadest sense than isolated, income-segregated places. So the concept of planning and designing for affordability is baked into new urbanist theory and practice, certainly. The question is, are we just committed to planning and design, or are we committed also to what’s necessary to take the concept to implementation at the speed and at the scale the current crisis demands?

Doing that is going to require improving our toolkits and practices, which are challenges new urbanists have been pretty good at addressing. And it will require partnering with others, which is a strategy we have to get better at.

Q: I think most planners and designers who consider themselves new urbanists would say they’re disappointed when planning doesn’t lead to implementation. That’s sort of the point of planning, right?

A: The fact that we’re having this conversation and that there’s a three-hour forum in Savannah exploring these questions suggests there’s plenty of disappointment to go around. Two things to understand here:

One is that frustration over the gap between household wealth and cost of living, particularly in places with attributes new urbanists admire, is superheating the affordability discussion. It’s more apparent now than 25 years ago that poverty isn’t going away anytime soon. And this goes for the working poor too, not just those who officially fall below the poverty line. For roughly half of U.S. households over the last decade the cost of living rose faster than incomes. The widening gap reflects both the stagnation of middle class incomes and the costs of infrastructure – transportation, water, energy – that are as high or higher than the costs of housing.

The second point is related. It’s about dealing with the challenges, as well as the opportunities, of location advantage.

Credit new urbanists Chuck Marohn and Joe Minicozzi for identifying, quantifying and democratizing location’s impacts on municipal revenues and costs. Walk Score has had a similar impact when it comes to highlighting walkability. The work of CNT regarding the combined costs of housing + transportation and the climate protection benefits of effective urbanism is increasingly embedded in affordability analyses that get beyond focusing only on the cost of buying and renting housing units.

It’s generally accepted now, at least in theory, that redeveloping infill neighborhoods close to jobs and shops and viable for transit, if not already served by transit, makes sense for both private sector developers responding to the increasing demand for urban amenities and for municipalities desperate for cost effectiveness. Absent regulatory restraints, market demand alone can drive redevelopment in infill locations that might have been languishing without investment for decades—but absent policies for inclusion, this will happen at a cost that doesn’t work for everyone.

Q: So now we’re talking gentrification.

A: We’re talking about it, just not with the rigor that allows us to frame the challenge in ways that help us address it. Which gets us to the struggle new urbanists are having with aligning their commitment to designing and planning for affordability with a commitment to achieving their ambitions.

Assumed in most conversations about “gentrification” is the inevitability of development that displaces vulnerable families. So there’s no wonder fear of gentrification drives passionate opposition to development, particularly in neighborhoods scarred from decades of neglect and discrimination. Add to that resistance movement the parallel one to fight density and preserve the “community character” of income-segregated single-family housing, and you have a political landscape fraught with danger for policy-makers. It’s a political environment in which it’s easy to paint advocates of affordable infill, like new urbanists, as tools of greedy developers and of the elected officials whom developers have bought off.

If we can’t demonstrate there are ways to get new, inclusive investment into existing neighborhoods with minimal displacement, we’re going to have a hard time moving this discussion forward.

Q: And the way out of that bind?

A: Well, what new urbanist practitioners are good at is designing models that, once they’re in place, demonstrate the appeal of compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. The problem is the one new urbanists always have, getting the models in place. Where costs and regulatory barriers can be overcome, demand so exceeds supply home prices are bid out of reach of many potential customers. Which makes the concept of affordability via design and planning seem unrealizable to those who are the best candidates for benefitting from it.

We know where to redevelop can be as important as what to develop. But since land is generally cheaper the farther it is from a city center, temptations to default to “drive till you qualify” sprawl persist. The problem is the savings on less expensive, but more distant, housing can be wiped out by the costs of transportation to overcome the isolation. Back to the core problem of overemphasizing the cost of housing in what should be the broader context of community affordability.

The logical answer to the question about where to focus design and planning for affordability is closer to where jobs, services and existing infrastructure are. Yet in infill locations where fears of gentrification are aroused, it’s even tougher to get a demonstration project going, because it requires sensitive navigation of the politics. That often requires partnering up with those who might not share new urbanists’ enthusiasm for design solutions but whose goals for community affordability overlap with new urbanists’ and whose credibility adds political and organizational support.

That’s an area where a movement determined to connect planning and implementation but driven mainly by designers, planners and engineers fond of debating ideological purity needs all the help it can get. We need to get better at playing well with others, both to lower barriers to common sense practices in central cities and to inspire collaboration in suburbs and rural towns on their own ways to achieve benefits from location efficiency.

In Part II of the Q&A, we’ll dive more deeply into specific strategies for getting better at implementing affordability solutions, and we’ll discuss potential takeaways from the drama in Chicago, where Scott lives and works, when community groups raised objections to the process and plans for President Barack Obama’s Presidential Library.

Ben Brown

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