Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government

From

In Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government, Robert H. Nelson effectively frames the discussion of what minimal government might look like in terms of personal choices based on local knowledge. He looks at the issue from the ground up rather than the top down.

Nelson argues that while all levels of American government have been expanding since World War II, people have responded with a spontaneous and massive movement toward local governance. This has taken two main forms.

The first is what he calls the “privatization of municipal zoning,” in which city zoning boards grant changes or exemptions to developers in exchange for cash payments or infrastructure improvements. “Zoning has steadily evolved in practice toward a collective private property right. Many municipalities now make zoning a saleable item by imposing large fees for approving zoning changes,” Nelson writes.

In one sense, of course, this is simply developers openly buying back property rights that government had previously taken from the free market, and “privatization” may be the wrong word for it. For Nelson, however, it is superior to rigid land-use controls that would prevent investors from using property in the most productive way. Following Ronald Coase, Nelson evidently believes it is more important that a tradable property right exists than who owns it initially.

The second spontaneous force toward local governance has been the expansion of private neighborhood associations and the like. According to the author, “By 2004, 18 percent—about 52 million Americans—lived in housing within a homeowner’s association, a condominium, or a cooperative, and very often these private communities were of neighborhood size.”

Nelson views both as positive developments on the whole. They are, he argues, a manifestation of a growing disenchantment with the “scientific management” of the Progressive Era. He thinks the devolution of governance below the municipal level to the neighborhood should be supported through statutory and state constitutional changes.

Although about one-third of all new housing since 1970 has been built within some form of neighborhood association, the majority of older neighborhoods fall outside this trend. Establishing neighborhood associations in these areas is difficult because the requirement for a homeowner to join is typically written into the deed, and this would be extremely costly to do for every home in an older neighborhood.

Nelson proposes a six-step solution that involves (1) a petition by property owners in a neighborhood to form an association, (2) state review of the proposal, (3) negotiations between the city and the neighborhood, (4) a neighborhood vote on the proposal, (5) a required supermajority, perhaps 70 percent, for passage, and (6) a transfer from the municipality of legal responsibility for regulating land use in the neighborhood to the unit owners of the association.

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The thorny matter of gentrification

From Kaid Benfield’s Blog another stab at  this eternally problematic area of development – its underbelly as it were – my guess is that it was a problem for pre CE Roman administrators too, and in some distant future age t on the old colonised Planet Z there will still be this discussion – that does not mean we don’t need to address it, but the question is how…? Kaid revues some of the issues here..

a sign in Chicago (by: Eric Allix Rogers, creative commons)

A few days ago, I made a presentation to a group of thoughtful and accomplished philanthropists on sustainable land development.  I made a strong pitch for urban revitalization and was countered with a question about gentrification, the messy phenomenon that occurs if longtime residents of older neighborhoods find themselves priced out of their own communities as those neighborhoods become more sought-after and valuable.  To be honest, I don’t think I handled the question particularly well.

I never do, really, even though it comes up a lot.  The issue is just too thorny on all sides and, in most cases, racially charged, because minority populations are the ones who feel squeezed when more affluent, generally white, residents rediscover cities and move in.  I have a lot of sympathy for long-timers who fear losing control of their neighborhoods and, in too many cases, their very homes as rents and property taxes go up with increased value brought on by increased demand.  But, on the other hand, the environmental, fiscal and, yes, social benefits of revitalization and repopulation of our older, frequently distressed neighborhoods are so substantial that I believe strongly that they must continue.

Surely we haven’t reached the point where making inner-city neighborhoods more attractive to more residents is a bad thing.  And does anyone really have a right in the US to keep newcomers out?  Didn’t we have a civil rights movement largely over that very issue?

I get it that we want the rebirth of America’s long-forgotten neighborhoods to lift all boats, not just provide a haven for affluent new residents.  But I find myself stymied when trying to find a balanced solution, since the argument of anti-gentrification forces can all too easily amount to, “I don’t want the neighborhood to improve so much that properties in it become worth much more.”  No one would say it in those words, of course.  Is there a way to provide some protection to longstanding residents without providing so much that it inhibits the very improvement that so many of our neighborhoods badly need?

The paralysis of imperfect choices

The good news is that a number of thoughtful people have been thinking and writing about these things.  Writing last year in Rooflines, the excellent blog of the National Housing Institute, Rick Jacobus eloquently described how gentrification can too easily feel like a problem with no solution at all:

“The way most people talk and think about [gentrification] seems to create a black hole of self-doubt from which no realistic strategy for neighborhood improvement can escape. 

“The paralyzing thinking goes like this: We want to improve lower-income neighborhoods to make them better places for the people who live there now but anything we do to make them better a poster in LA (by: Keith Hamm, creative commons)places will inevitably make people with more money want to live there and this will inevitably drive up rents and prices and displace the current residents, harming the people we set out to help (or, in many cases, harming the very people responsible for making the neighborhood better through years of hard work) and rewarding people who drop in at the last minute to displace them.

“Once you recognize this dynamic, it is very hard to talk yourself into wholeheartedly backing any kind of action. It seems wrong to leave distressed communities to rot but it also seems wrong to turn them around. Sadly, the most common response is to try to find strategies that improve things, but not too much.”

One of my favorite recent articles on the subject was written last month by Scott Doyon for his planning firm’s blog, PlaceShakers.  Scott, who has become a friend through an online community of urbanists who check in with each other almost daily, might be described by some as an early-generation gentrifier:  he and his wife bought into a working-class, African American neighborhood some twenty years ago because it was affordable.  At the time, they had good education but almost no money.  Since then, he’s seen the neighborhood attract more and more white, increasingly affluent residents.

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