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New Urbanism's Holy Grail

Diversity and affordability are conspicuously absent in many New Urbanist developments.
By Emily Talen

Within neighborhoods, a broad range of housing types and price levels can bring people of diverse ages, races and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community. – CNU Charter principle XIII

A recent survey of the affordability of a sample of 152 New Urbanist developments or Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs) from around the country revealed that 90 percent of them would not be affordable to someone making the average teacher's salary for a given locality. This is unsurprising, as two decades of New Urbanist developments have demonstrated that providing a quality public realm, a mix of unit types, good walkability and community facilities can quickly result in housing priced out of reach of the very mix of society it was intended to foster. This situation forces all of us to confront a basic malfunction in American city design: good urban places often fail to be inclusive.

This lack of social integration in New Urbanist developments is a major problem. After all, New Urbanism was the movement that vowed to do something about concentrated poverty by creating mixed-income neighborhoods. It was this group that was pushing the idea that diversity is essential for good urbanism, and that the concentration of poverty in the inner city and the spread of affluent, homogenous suburbs at the periphery are two sides of the same coin. It was – and still is – an admirable, socially progressive idea, but now the time has come to take stock of where this idea is going and to consider whether the present situation of building walkable places that exclude low- and even middle-income groups can be turned around.

Empirical conditions make this imperative, because affordable housing is in a state of crisis in the U.S. This is based on the twin facts that the number of families with critical housing needs has increased and the number of available affordable units has decreased. The 2005 report on housing affordability released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition states that "the vast majority of American renter families (81 percent) live in counties in which a two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent is unaffordable to a family with two full-time minimum-wage earners." Statistics about the problem of affordable-housing options for the "work force," let alone poor people, are stated every day by hundreds of organizations analyzing similar sets of numbers. The conclusions are always the same: it is becoming extremely difficult for people to find decent housing at affordable prices. Unfortunately, and ironically, New Urbanism is seen by many in the housing field as being part of the problem, not the solution.

Whose Problem?
Since there are no easy solutions, the simple idea of maintaining a neighborhood for "a broad range of housing types and price levels" quickly devolves into a fight over who is supposed to pay for affordable housing. New Urbanist developers are unhappy about being the ones to bear the cost via inclusionary zoning policies. Inclusionary zoning advocates counter this by stating that the increases in densities that New Urbanist developers enjoy should only be given with a commensurate promise of affordability. Some say the problem is too much regulation, while others say the problem is not enough regulation. Some dream of a design response, whereby affordability is "designed in" and policy requirements become unnecessary. Some care only about keeping costs down, regardless of design or neighborhood context. Some argue that residents of New Urbanist communities should never be prevented from realizing the profits their investment in New Urbanism is likely to yield. Others say that that is an indication that designing for diversity can never hold.

Everyone involved in this debate needs to make sure that they understand one simple reality: Affordable housing in highly desirable locations (like New Urbanist TNDs) goes against the basic principles of land economics in the U.S. As a result, affordability and TNDs are at odds in a free market. And if the neighborhood is walkable, beautiful and well serviced by stores, schools and transit, demand for such places will quickly escalate housing costs and turn the neighborhood white and affluent. Affordable housing in desirable locations requires skimming off the top and redistributing wealth in some form. In Europe that may be the most normal thing in the world, but in the U.S., it's un-American.

The Elusive Solution
To avoid the messy debates over wealth redistribution, many New Urbanist architects and developers take the minimalist response, dreaming of a design solution to the problem – "let the market address affordability," they say. Their view is that it is enough for New Urbanism to construct the proper physical parameters of urbanism. It is, after all, a design movement. The main objective should be to prepare the "inaugural condition" (a term used often by Andrés Duany), a condition that will eventually, it is hoped, evolve into diversity by virtue of its having laid down the proper forms and patterns believed to be most conducive to it.

The Katrina Cottage is one design solution. Accessory units over garages are another. Manufactured housing, use of innovative materials, alley apartments, granny flats, carpet housing and various other ways of fitting units into all sorts of tight or forgotten spaces are proposed. These are all good ideas, but if the context and location of these dwellings is not considered or provided for, the logic of New Urbanism is violated. In New Urbanism, the value of place is not the individual home, it is its context: the beautiful public realm, the access to stores, the civic infrastructure and the safe eyes-on-the-street neighborhood. These conditions ride with the land, not the individual unit. The source of increasing housing cost is therefore land cost, not unit cost. It is demand driven, not supply driven. Putting a manufactured house on a lot in Santa Barbara will never make it affordable.

Any economist will tell you that the only way to achieve affordable housing through market mechanisms is if there is an oversupply. Housing developers, on the other hand, are not keen on pursuing oversupply. They want tight supply precisely because they want to keep demand high. Therefore, the solution of enticing developers to saturate the market to the point that housing in walkable neighborhoods can be kept affordable is not likely to succeed anytime soon.

New Urbanists are thus forced to confront the paradoxical nature of their goals: amenity-rich places command a high price. The laws of supply and demand, together with weak affordable-housing subsidies, have ensured a lack of real diversity despite the inclusion of mixed housing types.

So what's the solution? Can we ever accomplish the goal of building walkable, compact, diverse and affordable neighborhoods? Can we insist on civic quality and keep it within reach of all classes? I think there are at least two things the New Urbanists can and should be doing. In many cases, they already are.

Advocacy
First, New Urbanists need to "turn up the volume" on the issue generally, especially among developers. Let developers know that simply building the right container, if it is only for wealthy people, does not produce New Urbanism. It produces a nicely designed enclave for wealthy people and nothing more. The job of New Urbanism is to make sure that social diversity stays front and center as a goal in American city-building of all kinds, from new greenfield projects to infill developments.

This does not mean that the New Urbanists need to be the ones creating new types of affordable-housing proposals or programs. The special role of the New Urbanists is that they are the ones working on the issue of affordable housing within the context of walkable neighborhoods. There are no other groups as dedicated to the connection between neighborhood, design and social objectives. The importance of context is what the New Urbanists were born to promulgate. Organizations like Policy Link and the Institute for Community Economics are developing the program particulars, figuring out the most cost-effective ways for developers to build affordably and figuring out how to involve the non-profit sector. The Urban Land Institute just developed a Toolkit for developing workforce housing that reviews a wide variety of planning and regulatory approaches. And local planners and housing advocates are by now well-schooled in the political battles that need to be fought – getting the "sticks" and the "carrots" passed in their local communities and trying to make these programs and policies palatable. The special role for the New Urbanists should be to support all of these efforts by sensitizing the development community to the need for affordability and the need to partner with the various policies, programs and strategies that it requires.

Policy makers also need sensitizing. In much the same way that the New Urbanists have infiltrated and worked to redress the regulatory requirements in the transportation field, they can connect with affordable-housing advocates to institute better design standards. It has been noted, for example, that tax-credit financing in some states mandates designs that run counter to walkable urbanism. And as policy makers envision new strategies for increasing the supply of affordable housing, New Urbanism can help them factor in the essential role of neighborhood context. For example, Cook County in Illinois is promoting an Affordable Housing Action Plan that involves preserving 75,000 affordable rental units by 2020. Its basic strategy is to ensure that properties that are currently affordable (they may be HUD-regulated or tax-credit properties) don't become prohibitively expensive when their assistance runs out. This is the kind of program that New Urbanism could assist: What is the neighborhood context of these units? What could be done to ensure the units also have walkable access to what is needed for daily living? How is new, adjacent development kept compatible? What kinds of code revisions are needed to help these units stay well integrated from a design point of view?

Here are some other specific ideas about how New Urbanists can "turn up the volume":

  • Institute a certification process for New Urbanist projects, whereby projects are denied certification if they fail to be inclusive.
  • Sponsor regular conferences that put social-policy advocates and urban designers in the same room and focus on ways each group can help the other.
  • Invite housing advocates to Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) conferences and make sure they are fully engaged with New Urbanist leadership.
  • Ask CNU's membership to fund a demonstration project that could be used to work through the ins and outs of creating a truly socially diverse New Urbanist community.
  • Award any New Urbanist development that meets its social diversity objectives.
  • Keep track of New Urbanist progress in meeting social diversity goals by setting quantifiable measures: How is the market behaving in terms of providing affordability and housing for a range of incomes in New Urbanist developments? Can we find evidence that as the market provision of New Urbanism grows in some regions so does its ability to retain affordability for a range of people? Within what specific contexts – regions, financial schemes, amenity packages – is the mix most likely to sustain?

Then there are the success stories to herald and emulate. Of the 450-plus neighborhood-scale New Urbanist projects in the U.S. in various phases of development, possibly 15 to 20 percent of them make use of some sort of government or quasi-government program in order to incorporate affordable housing. This includes, most notably, Housing and Urban Development's HOPE VI projects. New Urbanists should investigate what projects have been most successful in combining programs to produce stable, mixed-income developments. A lot can be learned by interviewing successful mixed-income developers and consolidating the lessons learned. There still isn't good information on current mixed-income New Urbanist projects, how they are structured financially, what subsidies they have made most use of, what groups they have partnered with (CDCs, land trusts, etc.) and how, and whether, things might have been done differently.

The Complexity of Diversity
New Urbanists also have a critical role to play in insisting that affordability not be viewed simplistically. Charter principle XIII is no simple matter. Maintaining a mix of income, ages and races and ethnicities is not just about figuring out which housing assistance program to push for. Fitting a diverse group of people into one neighborhood requires thinking about what each group needs and how those diverse needs can be sustained in a walkable environment, not to mention a consideration of how the diverse groups are supposed to get along, how its residents are supposed to work together to make the neighborhood collectively effective and how the neighborhood is supposed to maintain itself in the long term.

Diversity in the context of New Urbanism is therefore not just about government subsidies for poor people (although that is one important aspect) – it is much more fundamental. At the neighborhood scale, a range of people need to live in proximity to each other to create the kind of social complexity, varied patterns of land use, varied activity patterns and localized economic interdependencies that urbanism, to be successful, requires. This is the lesson New Urbanists learned and absorbed from Jane Jacobs.

When it comes to housing affordability, New Urbanists have a unique perspective to offer that goes well beyond the simple provision of housing as a discrete commodity. Most importantly, affordable housing in New Urbanism is seen within the context of neighborhood design, where pedestrian quality, the provision of public space and walkable access to services become an essential part of the affordability equation. HOPE VI amply demonstrated the potential of New Urbanism to foster livable, mixed-income neighborhoods. There, the emphasis was on mix rather than any one form of housing by itself.

This focus on context provides a way of making socially mixed places desirable. One of the tragedies of affordable housing in this country has been the inability of people to accept such housing in their neighborhoods. Neighborhood preservation efforts are often little more than attempts to keep poor people out. New Urbanism can provide models that show that inclusive neighborhoods are desirable neighborhoods – that providing for low-income households in affluent places can indeed work. If low-income people need to engage in income-generating activities in their homes – small businesses like appliance repair or tailoring – New Urbanism can help show how design can be leveraged to make those kinds of activities perfectly acceptable in a neighborhood context. New Urbanists can demonstrate how a neighborhood that is open to a range of groups translates to improvements in neighborhood services for all groups; how a mix of uses that is good for the economic vitality of a neighborhood adds interest and opportunity for every resident; how diversity can help stimulate an expanded set of locally-based social networks, which may be viewed positively by many residents. And they can show the practical benefits: Diverse people are more likely to have diverse schedules, thereby increasing the ability of the neighborhood to informally patrol its streets at all times of the day. And they can argue that if a community wants to retain affordability for its children, the workforce and the elderly, and not have them segregated in low-income sections of town, they are going to have to help support neighborhood-level diversity.

The New Urbanists have had some success pushing the idea that affordability is not only about a rent or a mortgage – it is also about access to resources, especially public transportation. They have argued that if people are able to live close to where they work, shop and go to school, they will save money. This does not increase affordability of housing per se, but it does provide a different kind of metric for determining how families ought to be calculating what they can afford. It elevates the importance of living close to services – in other words, living more sustainably. It draws attention to the fact that innovations like location-efficient mortgages and the elimination of parking requirements for downtown housing can help people move to more walkable, centrally located neighborhoods.

Keeping Ideals Alive
It is essential for everyone involved in the arduous task of making places both walkable and inclusive that they not lose hope. They should realize that we have not been at this for very long. It's not like we have been struggling for centuries to build the socially inclusive neighborhood or community – a physical infrastructure that could actively support the highly pluralized society we are. As of yet, there is no justification for throwing in the towel. It is a relatively new kind of challenge. Cities of old allowed rich and poor to live side by side, but social distance was maintained through a myriad of social protocols. For a century, we have been breaking those controls down, through civil rights, worker's rights, women's rights and gay rights. We are essentially looking for the physical city that sustains the gains in social equalization. Unfortunately, social mobility has been increasingly equated with spatial distancing, and the form of contemporary cities has only made it that much easier to separate rather than integrate. At its finest, New Urbanism is our best hope for trying to thwart that insipid spatial logic.

New Urbanists can not afford to be ambiguous about achieving their affordability goals. They can not continue to measure their success on the basis of form only. Every time there is a project bearing the name "New Urbanism," there should be an assessment of its inclusiveness. Getting the project to be inclusive will involve implementing a whole range of strategies, from the involvement of non-profit developers and community trusts to the need to cut through red tape and eliminate regulatory barriers. If New Urbanists want to adhere to their charter and its eloquent goals, they will have to break with their design-centric past and delve into the messy business of building – and getting – places that are truly inclusive. New Urbanists must come to see real diversity as essential to giving weight and substance to the beauty of their designs.  

 

 

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