Love, Money, or Desperation

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Who Will Be Desperate?

We don’t need imagination to ask who will be desperate in the future. Just look at who already is.

You can’t build a triplex in most American suburbs, but you can find “stealth triplexes” in hundreds of them, where large collections of people—often multigenerational immigrant families—crowd together in a single-family home not designed for it, as the only way to afford rent. It’s no surprise that California, the state with the most out-of-control housing costs, has the third-highest average household size. People adapt the ways they can.

I’ve spoken positively of the Near Northwest neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana, earlier in this series, but the good things happening there are born of desperation. The area has the state’s highest levels of childhood lead exposure. Lead paint, mold, poor plumbing: Millions of Americans live in unhealthy homes for lack of a better option. Desperation.

When people do become desperate, they can have better or worse options in front of them. A lot of the point of mainstreaming incremental development is to put “better” on the table, by creating options where the prevailing system won’t. An accessory unit to create more housing in a prohibitively expensive place; a decent renovation with some room for a neighborhood-serving business in a place where the big money won’t go.

The best thing we can do for the desperate is decriminalize better options. Including better versions of the ones people are already doing—the stealth triplex, the illegal basement unit, the unlicensed home-based business. Change zoning codes, financing rules, even building codes, so that people can hack their way to the built environment that works for their needs instead of the one that has been handed down to them.

“Decriminalize” here is a less ambitious goal than “institutionalize,” if a less satisfying one to those who believe that the right public policy can sculpt a better future. It is exceedingly unlikely that our status quo systems of development will execute a wholesale shift away from the suburban monoculture and toward incremental infill. There just aren’t enough people with power invested in that change, and the change is a hell of a Gordian knot of vested interests and interlocking rules.

Instead, what we can do is work to make incremental development more and more viable in places that are under the radar of institutional capital. Where capital-D developers don’t or won’t work. Places where the most meddlesome rules cannot practically be enforced anymore, because there are simply bigger problems.

Who Will Do It For Love?

Much of the advice I’ve catalogued in this series is aimed at those doing small-scale development for love of a place, community, or even building. That’s who dominates the incremental development world right now—but it’s maybe the group with the least potential to scale exponentially, inasmuch as it requires a rare combination of personal traits to be that person.

Incremental development is full of people with a do-gooder zeal who see it as one (patchy) way that less desperate people, motivated by love of a community, can serve the desperate. Monte Anderson explains with a hypothetical. “If I’ve got two apartments in the back of my business, I can rent them out. I’m not trying to report to a board of directors, so I can rent to the bus boy down the street, who I like because he mows my yard. The lady’s daughter, my friend down the street, who’s come back to her hometown and is a single mom. I can rent it to the kid down the street with schizophrenia who drinks too much but he’s not dangerous. The adult with Down syndrome.”

What the “love” crowd can do, in addition to directly providing space by building it, is be catalysts and leaders. They can seek to bring others along with them and grow a community. That community may not reach the point where it accounts for more than a small fraction of the buildings going up in a city. But they can have a transformative impact in specific neighborhoods. And they can create a body of know-how and wisdom that ports to other places—the “DNA” Mike Keen in South Bend talks about. The incremental development model translates from one community to another: it’s the individual developer’s reasons that don’t. You can’t give someone their “why.”

But the “love” crowd can be ready to lead the much larger “desperation” crowd to solutions, as those solutions become more broadly available because the existing systems that prevented them have simply cracked under their own weight.

That need not be as depressing a conclusion as it may sound. Desperation is, historically, how great places have usually started. A row of pioneer shacks; a business run out of somebody’s garage. Desperation is the grasses colonizing the lava field after a volcanic eruption. Desperation has forever been the thing in the air and the water that gives birth to innovation in art and music: the blues came from sharecroppers, hip-hop from young men on street corners in the Bronx. Comfortable success comes later, complacency after that.

Desperation is motivation. Marty Mechtenberg at the City of South Bend told me, “I have to be in neighborhoods full of people of color who don’t think the city has done anything for them in decades. Generations. And I always tell people they’re here for me, for the city. I’m not here for them. I flip it around, ‘We’re desperate for you. We need you, so badly, to be successful.’”

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