In With the Old

One reason why the affordable housing problem seems so insurmountable is that we usually try to build our way out of it. There's never enough money to finance new homes for all the low-income people who could use them. And if you want to wake up the NIMBYs, just propose building a large subsidized housing complex.
by | June 2007

One reason why the affordable housing problem seems so insurmountable is that we usually try to build our way out of it. There's never enough money to finance new homes for all the low-income people who could use them. And if you want to wake up the NIMBYs, just propose building a large subsidized housing complex.

So it's worth remembering that affordable housing doesn't have to be built from scratch. In fact, the readiest units already exist, usually in a city's oldest buildings. Right now, New York City's housing department is seeking broad new powers to force slumlords to bring their buildings up to code. It's not glamorous work, and there are no ribbon-cutting opportunities. But the strategy might keep thousands of low-rent units in habitable shape.

Up to now, inspectors have only been able to push landlords to make emergency repairs on individual units--for a water leak, say. The new idea is to compel landlords to replace the plumbing for a whole floor of apartments, or perhaps the whole building. If the city council gives its approval, inspectors plan to target about 1,000 buildings with dubious histories of code violation.

Jane Jacobs called old buildings one of the four indispensable elements of great American cities--although most people forget that part of her argument. "Time," Jacobs wrote, "makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation."

NEW TAKE ON TAKINGS

The Supreme Court's controversial Kelo v. New London decision is two years old this month. That ruling said existing law permitted cities to use eminent domain for economic development purposes. But it also invited state governments to forbid the practice if they wanted to. As Rob Gurwitt recounts on page 18, a backlash against the ruling led legislatures and voters in numerous states to take exactly that step.

Could there be a third way on this touchy issue? A new book from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy suggests there is. Lots of people think it's unfair to condemn a person's home only to hand it over to a developer. But what if the homeowner were an equity investor in the deal? He'd get more than compensation for clearing out. He'd get upside potential.

As co-editors Yu-Hung Hong and Barrie Needham note in Analyzing Land Readjustment, this approach is common overseas. Maybe it's worth trying here.

SPANDEX SPOTS

What does it take to persuade Southern Californians to trade their cars for bicycles? Valet parking, of course. Santa Monica has begun a free bike-check service at its Sunday Farmer's Market. According to the city's web site, parked bikes are "overseen by professional bicycle watchers."

The valet is just a temporary set-up on the street. But Santa Monica, like a growing number of cities, wants to build a permanent bike garage downtown. Similar facilities in Long Beach, the Bay Area and Chicago include attended parking, repair shops, even showers for bicycle commuters. The days of leashing bikes to parking meters may be numbered.

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