August 12th, 2011

a Possible but Improbable Future

Once upon a time, after we'd collectively exhausted ourselves killing each other, we rebuilt. Because the United States had not been itself the site of (much of) the action, our factories were intact and ready to be redirected from building bombs to building cars and appliances and a whole bunch of other stuff. The Levitts got really famous for mass-producing housing and they were imitated around the country, thus supplying material for generations of complaints about suburbia and its woes.

What the Levitts did was accept a government contract to provide housing, at first rental and then for sale (the sale stuff backed by the FHA). They got some agricultural land (the famous potato fields) about a half hour from a locus of economic activity (NYC), they reduced housing to a sort of bare minimum (2 bedrooms, 1 bath, a combined living area, and an attic tall enough to expand into additional bedrooms, all sitting on a concrete slab which included radiant heating, in one of two shapes), and then they had their non-union workforce specialize in particular steps of construction. Previously, the Levitts had been doing what everyone else did as housing builders: make housing for rich(er) people.

The Levitts had previously specialized in housing for rich(er) people for the same reason that condos and apartment buildings seem always to be built as "luxury" housing. The financing for large multifamily is cobbled together from multiple sources (and the builders often as well), and must navigate complex zoning and development processes. There is no certainty in this process, and worse, the business cycle must be managed as well, to buy the land during a bust, work through the regulatory maze and hopefully get the building sold (or rented out) before the next crash. Oh, and hope whatever it is in the area that means there's a market for these units doesn't entirely disappear and that you aren't out-competed by single family choices.

FHA loans, cookie-cutter (ticky tacky) (monotonous conformity) (choose your derogatory adjectival phrase here) plans, mass quantities (ultimately, 17K+ houses built by the Levitts), non-union labor and deskilling of construction were all crucial in creating mass suburbanization.

But our world of about a half hour from a locus of economic activity has been mostly filled in (and then some). If I remember SimCity correctly, at some point we're supposed to start seeing those single family homes, that low density development, be replaced with multifamily, multistory, etc. You can't make more land (except you can, by going up and down).

Even though unemployment is a huge problem, rents continue to rise. We haven't been building and a lot of that spare capacity from the boom years is in the Wrong Place (rules 1-n of real estate are location). With financing is persistently available at very low interest rates (and the Fed promising to keep it that way), I believe we might have a near future involving cookie-cutter, mass quantity, non-union labor, etc. producing vast seas of multi-family where once there were oceans of single-family homes and low density development. And if the world of the Levitts involved a whole lot of jobs, at least some of those jobs came from building those homes and then making the crap to go in them.

Sure, a couple wars a long ways away are no WW2, but maybe we could sort of pretend they were and, skipping over the horrors of making the women stay home with the kiddies and treating black people badly, maybe we could go straight to the part where we rebuild our world to better suit our needs. Maddow and everyone else goes on about infrastructure and they seem to always mean roads and electricity and clean water and so forth. But housing matters. If we could get some regional or even national leadership on creating a more predictable path towards multifamily development (because that maze of zoning is a nightmare, and not just for developers), I think it would be good for a lot of people. Maybe not the people who want to keep their in-town septic system, but everyone else.

Oh, and while we're at it, when are the developers going to notice that the three bedrooms _always_ sell or rent first, regardless of the price point? This _should_ be interpreted as meaning more of them ought to be included, but that just does not seem to happen (or at least not quickly).

Tyson's Corner

_Cities and Suburbs_ is a highly problematic book. At least the kindle version is surprisingly poorly edited; it has grammar problems that I ordinarily associate with an early draft (the kind where you can tell they thought about writing a sentence one way, changed it, but the result was sort of a mishmash). I don't disagree with the thesis (this is a historic overview of metropolitan areas and a description of polycentric urban forms) or theses, but I'm sort of wishing for more depth. Also, there's some histrionic bits that while I don't disagree with them feel did their political points a disservice.

Part of the problem is I _really_ want to love this book, and I'm having a lot of reservations. If the book weren't basically saying a whole bunch of stuff I'd tentatively been thinking of already, I'd probably be much harsher.

In the section that summarizes Garreau's Edge Cities, the authors describe Tyson's Corner in Virginia. The book was published in 2009 and presumably was written at some point prior to that. After describing the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors' 40 year plan to urbanize Tysons Corner and the projected 2013 arrival of the Silver Line, this confusing bit happens:

"William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, claimed that, "Tysons Corner is the world's most successful office park. What we want is a downtown." In contrast, Stewart Schwartz, executive direction of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, asserted that, "we support more density in Tysons Corner and more homes in Tysons Corner, because that is the only way we can create a walkable, transit-friendly community." Without a doubt, these are two views that Fairfax County's politicians, planners, developers, and residents need to weigh as the jurisdiction moves forward in its quest to reengineer Tysons Corner."

_WHAT_ contrast? _WHAT_ two views? All the indications in the text (and, it turns out, in reality) are that Tysons Corner has a degree of consensus about what it needs and what it is about to get that is stunning in its totality. _EVERYONE_ wants residential near the malls and office parks and that's about the only development that can be financed currently anyway. The only real debate in play is whether any of the developers can put together the financing for high rise residential towers, or whether the landowners are going to have to cope with the more moderate fortune associated with putting up midrises. Given that existing development in the area is pulling down at most a couple thousand a month for a two bedroom (you can even find 3 bedroom units within 3 miles, and for not that much more), I'm thinking it's going to be a bunch of midrise, but you never know once the Silver Line comes in -- I guess we'll all find out how many people like living next door to a mall.

Tyson's Corner also looks like a really good example of how easy it is to get along when there's money awash in a community.