Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Is deregulation really the answer for megacities?

Like a lot of people that like old cities and have an overly romantic ideal about Europe, whenever something pops up in my reading list that reinforces the idea i jump on it. But recently, I’ve read a collection of articles from slightly different views that point out how much work all of us (Europe, Asia and the USA) still have to do.

Karl Marx Hof, Vienna
Many months ago, I came across an old copy of Governing with a great article on public housing in Vienna, Austria. I was certainly jealous to read about how much of the market the Austrians had managed to corner and the great quality of housing that’s provided. Of course, this isn’t really a free market approach, and we’re talking about a city with more than 700 years of history. But all the same, it certainly helped feed my need to Euro-positive affordable housing appetite.

More recently, Next City has had a couple of articles about megacities and affordable housing. Janapese cities appear to be the most affordable of the megacities, included in the Demographia

The median price for a home in Tokyo and its surrounding three prefectures is 28 million yen, or around $270,000. With a price-to-income ratio (Median Multiple) of 4.4, it’s about as costly as Calgary, Nottingham or Sacramento. The greater Osaka area’s average home is just $180,000, giving it a Median Multiple of 3.5 and putting it in the same league as Chicago or Raleigh.

As a comparison, the three most expensive cities, according to Demographia, are Hong Kong (Median Multiple of 14.9, average home price of $4 million), Vancouver (10.3 and $670,000) and San Francisco-Oakland (9.2 and $705,000). The three most affordable are Pittsburgh (2.3, $116,00), Detroit (2.5, $130,000) and Grand Rapids (2.6, $136,000).

According to the report the driving factor for Japans affordability is continuing deregulation in the housing sector, which reduces development costs and provides the market more opportunities to meet the housing demands of ever growing megacities.

Now this goes against many of our common assumptions in the affordable housing field. For so many years we’ve talked about the need for governments and nonprofits to step into the market and meet the needs of low-income households that aren’t being met by purely market driven developers. In fact the concerns over affordable housing, at least in megacities, has even jumped onto the agendas of some Mayors for London and New York, among others.

But I’m not about to give up on all of my current opinions about how best to create affordable housing. I should note that the authors of the Demographia survey are not generally considered mainstream thinkers in affordable housing circles. In fact, Wendal Cox, runs a consultancy group that focuses on deregulating housing markets and pushes a car centric view of urban planning in general.

Regardless, the reports findings do point to some interesting facts that we should all consider in our planning and development work. Maybe the real question remains, what is the right balance between regulation and free market forces that will improve the affordability of housing for everyone?

Best aye,


Tiny Homes and Zoning

A few months ago I wrote a post about tiny homes and micro-units being considered by the City of Austin for addition to building codes. I’m still on the fence about whether or not allowing micro-units will help build more affordable or family inclusive neighborhoods, but a recent short documentary on Reason TV added a new dimension to my thinking about the tiny home movement.

I was drawn into watching the video through links on YouTube on other tiny home projects. The short titled Jay Austin's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House, was more of a political statement about zoning regulation than the exploration of the benefits of tiny homes but there are a couple of interesting questions that came out of my viewing.
As a person trained in urban planning the idea that zoning is necessary has been drilled into my head. I’ve argued for zoning, design standards and neighborhood plans on many occasions. However, the film makes an interesting case for the ability of the market place and individual agreements to guide smart development without needing a formal zoning protocol that can limit creativity.
This argument rang true to me, especially given my recent reading on alternative community development actions. I’ve been studying and working on a new post about what some call guerilla community design, and I think that the tiny home movement falls under this category in a very direct and interesting way. In many ways I feel that overly burdensome development code should be simplified to free up individual creativity.
That’s not to say that I’m going to give up on zoning altogether. While the makers of the film over at Reason TV made several good points I also believe they overlooked many of the downsides of the planning and building regulation system, particularly in their model example Houston, Texas
Shifting fortunes across Houston   Houston Chronicle.pngSpecifically, when a system is guided only by covenants and deed restrictions there is a risk that those with more power can have more influence than those that have less power. While Houston may be one of the most inexpensive cities in the U.S. to build new homes, there is plenty of evidence that income segregation is also very high on the list of problems for Houston.
Additionally, in my work I’ve seen lots of examples where working class housing is place next to industrial setting, or vice-versa. Houston is also near a coastal area with plenty of land at or below the flood plain. More often than not the areas with the highest risk to flooding are developed for lower income neighborhoods.
So, is zoing good or bad? Does regulation protect our communities and neighbors from being sold homes in high-risk areas, or does it limit creative thinking and problem solving? I certainly don’t know the answers to these or many other questions about zoning, tiny homes and alternative community development. I hope to spend some more time over the next few months reading and writing about them all, in an effort to understand more.
Best aye,

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Designing a Better World - subpost

I’ve had several, more detailed, posts in the works, but wanted to post some links to great programs and projects that I’ve been reading about lately. Below are links and summaries of the groups I’ve been investigating for other posts.

Started by the amaxing minds behind the global design and innovation firm IDEO, IDEO.ORG is a nonprofit that utilizes the great talents within the for profit company to work on critical needs and failures of community design and program delivery for nonprofits focused on poverly elevation.  While there are plenty of think tank like groups out there, I have been following IDEO as a design group for many years and it excites me that they’ve decided to use some of the massive brain power over there to better the world.

Taking the concept of human centered design to scale has always been a struggle for large NGOs and governments. The folks over at HCD Connect seem to have figured out a way to disseminate best practices and raise critical funding for smaller groups wanting to tackle poverty and community development needs in more open and participatory ways.  I was really excited to see the breadth of their program and will continue to dive into their resource pages. Check it out for yourself and see if there’s something for your organization to use.

Is among the most well known DIY community development projects in the world. Started in 2005 by the guys and gals at Rebar who transformed a few parking spots in San Francisco to a temporary park. The project has evolved into a global movement with more than 1,000 parks in over 200 cities planned for this years event.  See if there’s a Park(ing) Day event near you, or start your own.

Best aye,


Friday, April 11, 2014

Do tiny homes build family neighborhoods?

Over the past year there has been an increasing amount of interest on the interweb about tiny homes. Whether its weekly videos from Fair Companies, blogs postings about cramped conditions in Hong Kong, or even the City of Austin’s attempt to consider building small to build affordable.  Each of these perspectives have something of value to share and I’ll admit that even I think about downsizing from my 1,700 sqft home from time to time.

But one of the issues at hand in the local debate here in Austin, at least from my perspective is;  

Does tiny mean family friendly?

On our neighborhood listserv there was a recent post about a new apartment community being built on Burnet Rd.  While I’m generally in support of increasing density in our urban core by building up (i.e. density), I was not happy to hear that the mix of units for this development would only include efficiency, 1 br and 2 br units.

Now many of the city planners and neighborhood advocates agree that keeping neighborhoods family friendly is one of their goals. Our neighborhood plan (that was approved over ten years ago) specifically states that we want to keep the neighborhood affordable, allow for more density, make it walkable and family friendly.  But I see a disconnect on the last point when our planners and building codes are permitting un-family friendly developments.

I’m not saying that some families won’t benefit from 2 bedroom units. Our 750 sqft house only had two bedrooms when we bought it and I think that fact that it only had two bedrooms made it affordable enough for us to get our foot into our great neighborhood.

But, higher density condos and multifamily rentals don’t provide the same opportunity to grow by adding on that our small home provided. Some might argue that if designed correctly that you can knock out walls and create bigger more family friendly units in these new multifamily projects. That might be true, but at what cost and will it be affordable to do so?

Other might argue, like the folks who are part of the tiny home movement, that families don’t need all the extra space that traditional homes have. I’m not going to argue against that either, but I do want to point out that market forces are at play here, and while the tiny home movement is growing I have not found a study or report that shows it is a statistically significant portion of our housing market.

I also feel that with majority of new units being added as 1 & 2 bedroom units a shift in household demographics towards singles and couples that don’t have kids will occur. That could be an assumption, but if true it will also drive businesses to adjust and may create less family targeted businesses.

I’m descending into a rant. So, let me just say this from an advocacy point.  I support the City of Austin’s efforts to development more dense and affordable housing. I want that housing to include enough variety so that families can live on RBT lines, so that singles can put a foot hold in neighborhoods that were once not affordable to them, and so that we can build the multi-use, multi-purpose and multi-generational communities that every bleeding heart liberal, like myself, desires. And, I really hope that our planners, leaders and neighborhood advocates take this kind of holistic view when creating new policies about how Austin grows and thrives.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mini golf and Brownfields


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Container Homes for All?

Shipping containers are one of of the most ubiquitous objects in the world. We see them everyday on the backs of tractor trailers on the highway, on trains cruising through town, at commercial construction sites and now in your neighborhood. I've been interested in the use of shipping containers for housing over the past several years. There’s plenty of news about them each month, with hotels and coffee shops popping up around the world, and using them for affordable housing is the new re-use that’s getting lots of news.

Last year, Brighton Housing Trust has been worked with developer QED to raise funding for an ambitious program that would recycle containers into transitional housing for persons who are homeless in the UK cities of Brighton and Hove. The key to the programs likely success is that the containers were already retrofitted by Tempo Housing, an Amsterdam housing program, that failed to convert the entire project into a viable housing project.

Although a single 40 foot long shipping container would only provide about 320 square feet of space, this is comparable to many SRO and converted hotel/motel projects. Now this might sound cramped by most US standards of living, but it’s also the size of several of the IKEA mini rooms that I see in their catalogs. The point is, that for temporary housing this might be a great fix, and the UK is not the only place looking into these types of solutions.

Container Home by Container Home Solutions India
On a recent work trip through the Eagle Ford Shale area of Texas, where the oil and gas business is booming, I found examples of recycled shipping containers being used as housing. These are not just ideas that are permeating the first world.

A recent post on Inhabitat revealed the use of containers for housing in India. The home not only used recycled containers, but beer cans to construct a 900 sq/ft home. Not only did the designers/builders  Kameshwar Rao and Neeraj Kumar build a home for themselves, but spawned a company, Container Solutions India, that is focused on building more affordable creative housing using containers. And, the idea of recycling containers is not limited to just housing.

In Brooklyn, NY, Mexico City and elsewhere recycling shipping containers into commercial space that can be creative and impactful on the urban environment. The Dekalb Market in Brooklyn was one the earliest temporary uses for commercial space that provided an relatively low-cost path for a vacant lot to be transformed, and to test the viability of commercial space in one corner of the city. Mexico’s Container City is another example of not only testing commercial spaces, but designing habitats that might not otherwise be funded through traditional commercial banking or finance channels.

The flexibility and speed with which these Lego blocks of the building world can be formed into new private and public spaces bodes well for their future. I’ll just have to keep my eye out for the latest from around the web.

Best aye,


Here are some other great stories and links.

Monday, August 26, 2013

How do we improve community engagement in affordable housing?

The process of community engagement as I have experienced it since the beginning of my career has always seemed to have more promise than follow through.  Yes we hold public hearings on every federally and state funded project so that neighbors, stakeholders and advocates can come out to speak their minds. We accept emails and phone calls with complaints, save them and respond in the most “even and fair” manner that we think we’re allowed to. We even hold stakeholders meetings and create commissions and advisory committees so that “representatives” of different populations and groups can tell anecdotal stories about their needs and wants.

But do we really ever listen? Do we create an atmosphere where the public, advocates and developers can talk about their ideas and differences in an open manner? Do we even care?

I’ll start by saying that many of us in community development really do care. We are in this business not because of lush salaries or the hope of obtaining public adoration (at least I don’t think we are). I think that most of us really do want to change the way things are done. To create opportunities for the public, neighborhors, stakeholders and advocates to share their ideas and effect change. Unfortunately, I think that many of the systems for generating discussion and engagement are fatally flawed.

The two largest public finance programs for affordable housing are driven by federal regulations that ensure a public hearing is held for every housing tax credit and tax exempt bond project proposed. The agencies that manage these programs schedule hearings (at least the really good ones) near their development site and on days and times that neighbors can come by and share their ideas. The public can air any grievances they have over the proposed projects and impacts to their community, ask questions or just state that they don’t really know what’s going on and need some type of information.

In nearly every public hearing that I have been involved in the staff person in attendance reads into the public record a set speech that they may not waiver from. They ask anyone who wants to speak to come forward, provide their comments and then sit down. There is no dialogue. The staff person has been informed that they may not provide a response to any questions or comments on anything said. And so they sit calmly (smile or not) and “listen” to the public air their ideas.

But is this really all that the public gets or deserves? It often feels to me that we are short changing the public’s role in the process and providing only a placative avenue for them to speak, without much opportunity to really effect change. Does this really have to be the case? I don’t think so.

A recent article at Next American City by Neeraj Mehta touches on many of these same concerns and issues I’ve pointed out above. Mr. Mehta also goes on to provide some meaningful responses to the “how can we make things better” question. Specifically, he notes three steps or considerations that would at least begin to move us in the right direction.

  • Acknowledge our interdependence and need for increased diversity.
  • Be honest with the complexity.
  • Be comfortable with uncertainty and controversy.

Within his analysis he notes that every project is different and that each will possibly need a unique process or approach to gain meaningful input from stakeholders and decision makers. I recommend that you read the article in full, if you care at all about this topic, and look into Mr. Mehta’s other works.

The better news is that public engagement is something that a lot of people have been thinking, writing and teaching about for decades. It may not all be focused on housing or community development, but there is one really great resource out there with a vast collection of resources. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) not only produces ongoing research about better avenues for community engagement, but has several easy to use tools for people like me, to help improve procedures and use new strategies that might be better suited to the kinds of inputs and feedback that I need and our communities deserve.

I’ll be starting a process over the next few months to research better strategies and I’ll provide updates on anything I try out in my programs. I hope some of you will share your thoughts and ideas, too.