Wealth and Buildings

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It took about four decades to complete the Star Wars series. I remember watching the original in the theater in 1977, and don’t think I ever imagined Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker wouldn’t drop until I was deep into middle age. During that time period, no one really bothered to ask: Can we still call this a series?

I say this because it’s taking me forever to take a variety of thoughts on cities and planning and turn them into a series. It appears I’m on a good pace to beat Star Wars, but we’ll see.

This thought stream has been all about what I called the Urban Experiment. It’s a slight twist on what Chuck Marohn has aptly written about for years at Strong Towns. This piece is going to dive into one more aspect of this topic that we don’t talk about nearly enough in planning and design circles: wealth-building. I’d like to say this is the “final” topic in this series, but it probably won’t be.

We have mountains of articles and research on housing affordability. It’s been a hotly debated topic in planning for going on three decades, and picking up a lot of steam in the last decade. (Hat tip: Most of the best writing on the subject has been done at City Observatory.) And yet, there’s precious little discussed on what we do that can impact household wealth building. I’d suggest we have this completely backwards.

It might seem out of our league to tackle the topic of personal or household wealth. After all, who among the urban planning tribe are financial wizards or financial planners? Affordability seems somewhat measurable, but how do you adequately measure and discuss wealth? Isn’t that very personal?

I’ll start this piece by going back again to the pre-zoning era that I discussed in the post on my Klinkenberg family ancestors.

Here’s something I wrote:

“Back to my ancestors for a moment. They could effectively buy a piece of property, and do as they wished with it immediately. This was true on the farm, and If they had lived in the city itself, this was also true. There was no central authority to appeal to if someone wanted to build an apartment building next to a single family house. Some neighborhoods could deed-restrict themselves through private agreement to only single-family houses if they so desired (and some did).”

The Big Divide

I’ve been giving more and more thought lately to how divided we are as a society, especially by economic class and educational attainment. I’m far more aware than I’ve ever been at how the professional class tends to live in its own tiny bubble, often very much out of touch with the rest of the population. This has seemed to only grow in recent decades, as that same group of people now also clusters geographically into the same small group of cities, and the same parts of those cities. It strikes me as troublesome, to say the least.

Wealth building hasn’t been in the lexicon of the professional class and the college educated because we mostly came from families already comfortable financially. Instead, we talk about affordability because people generally are charitable and want everyone to have a basic level of comfort and decency in their lives. We forget that the majority of people really value making money, primarily. Yes, they want an affordable place to live, but they what they really want is to have more income, more stuff, a bigger house, a nicer car, etc.

Household wealth in the U.S. is mostly a function of real estate ownership. You’ve heard time and time again that a house is the largest financial asset for the vast majority of households. That’s true. The numbers are inarguable. Real estate ownership is also the primary source of the racial difference in wealth. There’s an obvious legacy of racist practices that contributed to this disparity, as has been well documented by others. And, that legacy has persisted into the current era.

But, as always, there’s more to the story. I wrote in other pieces about how we went through a massive change in our systems for how cities and buildings are built in the 20th century. We professionalized everything involved in the construction of a building, set up complex approval systems and instituted a series of regulatory apparatuses that our ancestors would find completely bewildering. I suppose we could say that’s the inevitable growth of a modern, hyper-specialized society. Maybe, maybe not. We’ll examine that more later. But, have we ever truly examined how those changes impacted wealth disparity or wealth building?

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