Tyranny Won’t Get Us More Housing

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What if Queen Latifah Developed Affordable Housing?

What if the Throgg’s Neck affordable housing proposal had been brought by a developer who lived in the neighborhood? Would it have landed differently? Instead of being viewed as a “tyrannical” invasion by developers from New Jersey, maybe it would have received a better hearing? Perhaps it might have been modified, pre-proposal, by local knowledge to be more acceptable to the neighborhood. 

Hip hop star Queen Latifah went back to her hometown of Newark in late April to break ground on a new, affordable housing development she is building with partners. It’s been in the works for more than a decade, according to a post on the NorthJersey.com website. The mixed-use development, Rise Living, sits just outside downtown Newark and will have 76 units including 20 three-family townhouses for rent starting at $1,800 per month, the post says.

Born and raised in the neighborhood as Dana Elaine Owens, Latifah started looking to invest in the properties in 2006, according to the post. “I’m proud to be from here,” Latifah told the crowd—according to NorthJersey.com. “I grew up around here playing in West Side Park, a block away. My grandfather’s hardware store was blocks from here. I drove past this block. I saw what was needed on this block, houses that weren’t lived in. Some were really dilapidated, and so I thought, ‘Why not here?’”

Seventy-six units in a mostly low-status neighborhood, built by a local hero, is a lot easier to sell than the Throgg’s Neck proposal. What if a Bronx local hero, like Jennifer Lopez or Majora Carter, had proposed the 339 units of multifamily, mostly market rate housing to Community Board 10? Would it have changed the reaction? 

Home Values: All the Eggs in One Basket 

In the end, perceived threats to a home’s value—often the biggest asset a middle-class family possesses—will stop these discussions quickly whether or not they are based in fact. It’s not a foregone conclusion that any $700,000 homes in Throgg’s Neck would lose half their value if eight-story apartment buildings were built nearby. But fear of losing a basket containing most of their eggs motivates people. 

Kevin Klinkenberg, a friend of Strong Towns, writes about the new importance of home values compared with employment income and how it has shifted in the past few generations in his latest post on his Messy City blog:

As we altered our systems to legally and administratively favor single-family houses on purpose, we changed the entire dynamic of how people build wealth. Prior to this era, wealth in real estate was largely created through income. Subsequent to it, wealth is “created” by the value of a house going up, and capturing that value through buying and selling or sometimes with creative financing. When wealth is created primarily by income, it encourages a fairly entrepreneurial approach to the asset, and all sorts of positive side effects: more people are better (more customers), more variety is welcome (diversity of product), and wealth is created more typically at the local level through lots of small actions.

When wealth is created as we’ve done the last 100 years, you tend to see the opposite. Restricting supply becomes important, so your asset becomes rarer and thus more valuable. People become more exclusionary, and start to force exclusion through regulations. Variety isn’t a good thing, because you’re likely to sell and move on at some point, and more regularized assets are easier to buy and sell. They’re also easier to package for Wall Street into commodity-like funds, no different than buying or selling live cattle. Eventually, the asset becomes so easy to standardize, package and sell to large investors as we’re now seeing all over the country, and wealth gets shifted upwards to larger corporations.

As my colleague Daniel Herriges has often written, it’s not easy to ask other people to let you gamble with their home’s value, no matter the odds. Even something as small as asking for a slightly denser infill of middle housing, like two- to four-unit developments, can inspire a lot of fear and loathing in a tight market. 

In his article, “The Duplex Next Door is Normal, the One Net Yet Built is a Threat,” Herriges notes that most people when they speak of a “historic pattern of varied (middle) housing, with which they had firsthand experience, (they do so) in terms of opportunity. But they spoke of the prospect of re-legalizing this same pattern in terms of risk.”

Resilient, interesting and walkable neighborhoods can’t be one dimensional. They have to change and evolve into being—or become stagnant. But they don’t become dynamic and resilient by some miracle. They incrementally and consistently morph, in sometimes unpredictable and imperfect ways, toward becoming resilient and highly-valued places to live. 

Strong Towns has created an action guide and a short action lab course from the 2022 Local Motive webinar series. This course speaks to ways community members can work together to bring new increments of housing options in neighborhoods like mine, which are a corner grocery store away from being much more walkable. “Four Zoning Reforms for a Strong Town” has practical and tested ideas for getting there. 

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