The Cure for our Urban Housing Crisis
What would our country be like if we committed our collective will, brain power, passion and money to making towns and cities from coast to coast more desirable places to live? For every town to have the chance to be its own Austin or Portland or Savannah. I don’t have a PhD in urban studies, but it seems to me people move to new places for one of two reasons: 1. They are seeking a job or 2. they think it would be a nice place to live. #2 could mean a lot of things – a cheaper/more luxurious lifestyle, good schools, natural beauty, cultural institutions, walk-ability, pretty architecture, easy commute, diversity, community spirit, shopping, history, charm etc. The amazing thing is, cities have the power to shape many of these elements. If they are not, citizens should demand to know why they are not.
Millenials Are City-Bound
Whatever it is that makes a person fall in love with a place, the trend in this country is toward cities. More people want to live in our great cities than ever before and that trend will only grow as millenials, who have a strong preference for city life, look for homes. This is a generation that places greater emphasis on life’s experiences. They are more open to diversity, they want to live in a walk-able city, bike to work, sit in cafes with friends and buy organic Brussles Sprouts at their local farmers market. Cities can be wonderful for all these things.
Except one problem: more and more people are crowding into fewer areas with severe housing shortages, unaffordable rents, crowded schools, unbearable traffic, overburdened mass transit and many more issues.
I was reading an article in the New York Times this week that made me furious. The premise was that people in desirable places like NYC and San Francisco and Boulder have embraced an anti-growth sentiment that promotes inequality because people cannot afford to come to these cities which have greater employment opportunities.
The article praises a proposed California law that “speeds up housing development by making it harder for cities to saddle developers with open-ended design, permit and environmental reviews.” It goes on to say that the proposal has “inflamed local politicians, environmentalists and community groups… But it has drawn broad support from developers, not surprisingly, as well as a number of business leaders…” OK… so a law that inflames environmentalists and community groups, but is loved by developers, is “good.”
But very “bad” according to the Times over in Boulder is a citizen’s group called “Livable Boulder” that wanted to give neighborhood groups a vote on zoning changes. Boulder is a beautiful town that benefits from a “virtuous economic cycle in which the university churns out smart people, the smart people attract employers, and the amenities make everyone want to stay.” The story disapprovingly closes with a quote from a proponent of Livable Boulder saying “We don’t need one more job in Boulder. We don’t need to grow anymore. Go somewhere else where they need you.” I can almost hear the editor huffing “pshaw!”
But… this guy is right! What about other places that might be able to tap into a “virtuous economic cycle”? Rhode Island is a gorgeous place to live and it has done magnificent things to downtown Providence. Its universities are churning out smart and talented people. You know what else Rhode Island has, unlike Boulder? Cheeeeaaap housing. Not to mention an Amtrak stop on the Northeast Corridor. That IS where the growth is needed, where it could be sustained. Yet unemployment is intractable. The people of RI are not served well by their politicians, and so an opportunity that should be harnessed inexplicably is not. This is a big country and we are all about to be telecommuting – why should all the opportunities be focused in, like, four cities?
Focusing on housing costs in a few towns instead of the lack of opportunity and depressed communities all over the country is like talking about refugees without acknowledging the war in Syria. It’s the symptom, not the problem.
Instead of blaming people for not wanting to lose everything they love about their city which is bursting at the seams, imagine if our government promoted policies that would make more towns a better place to set down roots and actually improve people’s lives and livelihoods? The whole of the country simply can’t live in San Francisco. I live in NYC and am, indeed, opposed to the massive towers going up all over the place, blocking out the sun, ruining whatever historic character is left, and not mitigating housing costs in the slightest. I support housing for lower income people here – it is the real estate speculators and wealthy money launderers from abroad, hiding their ill-begotten gains in empty glass towers that I am opposed to. Where is the solution to that problem? Half-empty buildings in a town with a housing crises – WTF? It’s not my fault, NY Times!
I don’t know how you go about making Google open an office in Providence, but I do know what makes a city desirable, and lots of other people do to. Architecture on a human scale. Attractive architecture that pays respect to an area’s historic flavor. More parks and green spaces. Streets given over to pedestrians. Bike lanes. Mass transit. Opportunities for strong community involvement. Mom and pop shops on pretty Main Streets. A nod to aesthetics is not a frivolous demand if you are in the market for making your city attract money and energy and young people and jobs. We should be demanding better for our cities and citizens everywhere. NYC is not really awash in natural beauty – not any more at least. Its charms are mostly man made and can be replicated by effective and visionary city planners. It’s called investing in the future.
Architecture & Aesthetics Have Consequences
Consider this – almost all of NYC’s most painfully gentrified neighborhoods share one very obvious characteristic: *Beautiful Old Buildings*. Even in neighborhoods with crime, minimal amenities and no subway stop. Kind of an enlightening illustration of the intrinsic hold beauty has on the human spirit and how it is something worth taking seriously in a conversation about cities, development and economics. Buildings don’t get built to be pretty anymore, so every New Yorker with a pair of eyeballs is competing for something that we are not getting any more of. Why can’t we have more?
Instead of figuring out how we can squeeze more people into lovely little Boulder and ruin a beautiful place, let’s, as a society, demand more beautiful places. Demand our government, national and local, makes the investments and writes the laws that lead to the kind of quality of life amenities that are proven to be the foundation of great cities. Am I naive? – it seems so simple and obvious. Past generations accomplished far greater tasks. Jobs, people and an improved tax base will follow.