Saturday, February 28, 2009

Legal Structure & Sprawl

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

Now that the bottom seems to have fallen out of the debt markets (for the moment) it seems like you can't get away from obfuscating financial commentary in every newpaper and network news station, but perhaps the best summary of what happened in the past year was done by Jonathan Jarvis above. All of this talk has lead me to start thinking about where our pro-ownership policies have and will be taking us.

Obviously, there's been a lot of discussion about government intervention in the housing market contributing to the real estate bubble. When most people talk about this, they're referring to the last five to ten years at most. As a result, I've started to re-address some old thoughts on how policy affects real estate development.

We all know transportation policy has a lot to do with it. The transition from land-grant, semi-private railroad companies to government funded, federal highways in the 1940's helped to spur a huge shift in the way people move around the country and of course caused massive changes in land value. Farmland that was once remote suddenly became accessible to the masses. Sub-urban land that would have taken years for a traditional urban grid to grow to, now seemed close by comparison. But I've also begun to consider the ownership structure supporting all of this growth.

Before condominium laws existed nationally (circa 1969), it was virtually impossible to purchase individual units in a multi-family apartment building. The notable exception to this is the housing cooperative format popular on the east coast, where the buyer actually owns shares or a percentage of the building (usually as a limited stock company). This is a cumbersome financial vehicle that frequently makes real estate transactions too time consuming or difficult for the middle class. So for fourty years or more, from the creation of Fannie Mae in 1938 to the rise in popularity of the condo format in the 1980's, urban property was considerably more difficult to own for working families. In other words, we went from 45% to 65% homeownership in the same period of time that urban dwellings were nearly impossible to finance in a conventional way.

It's no wonder cities suffered from an exodus of residents in the 60's and 70's, the opportunity for ownership was literally 10 newly paved miles away. Now that the condo format is well known to the banking industry, you can have ownership in any type of building you like. Urban dwellings can be built and sold just like suburban sprawl. Is this what's driving re-investment in our cities?

Most new urbanists will assert that people are simply expressing a latent preference for urban living - I think it's more complicated than that and I'm betting the incentives placed on homeownership and transportation combined with our innate preference for social living contain a more accurate description of what's going on. Andres Duany once argued that the goal for New Urbanists is not to bring urban form to suburbs, but suburban policy to cities. Now I think I understand what he meant by that.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Car-less in California

What an interesting two weeks it's been. I returned from my trip to Dubai to land in Los Angeles. Considering my love for urbanism, it's definitely not the first place I would have expected to end up. But I landed here and I'm out of money, I have family and friends here, the weather is lovely and there are more employment options in this region than most others in the country. So I might as well stay put until I come up with a plan. What I didn't count on is the new appreciation I have for Los Angeles as a polycentric city. That is, a city with many beautiful and individually vibrant urban cores. Some of the towns here have fantastic centers!

Yes, I studied LA at the 2006 CNU, but I've never had the opportunity to experience it as a resident. And certainly never as a car-less resident! That's right folks... LA, no car. Give it a shot sometime, it's not what you'd expect. In a strange way it reminds me of living in Bogen, Germany (Bavaria) [which I did for nearly a month at the tender young age of 15]. At the moment, I'm splitting time between the two respectably urban neighborhoods of Pasadena and West Hollywood. My daily needs can be met by foot or bicycle but what's remarkable is that the transit system here (while slow) actually can get you to most places you'd want to go. The problem is that it stops running long before the bars close, making it completely impractical to leave your neighborhood to work late or socialize unless you plan on driving. In Bogen, I had a similar experience. Despite my age and inability to drive at the time, I was able to take day trips by train to Straubing or Munich, but at night was limited to the social scene exclusively within walking or bicycling distance.

As a corollary concept, and I may be wrong about this, my impression is that people here are more isolated than they are in NYC, or on the east coast in general. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I say that, but there seem to be several imperceptible social differences that scream "I'M ISOLATED!" My theory for at least one cause is this; people are trapped inside a relatively small neighborhood social scene, and their only means of escape, aside from becoming friends with the locals, is to sit alone in a car for 30-45 minutes each direction. It's sort of like living in Lincoln, NE but instead of being surrounded by cornfields you're surrounded by similarly sized cities. Each one has everything necessary for life, but individually they lack the depth of larger cities.

But the symptoms are what I can't quite figure out. Is the built environment affecting people's behavior? If so how? My buddy Demetre suggested that the Hollywood culture has something to do with it too. I can feel a certain distance in interactions here compared with the Northeast, but I haven't figured out how to identify or name the elements yet. Any helpful comments or suggestions?