Category Archives: Blog

Has Homeownership Really Worked For the US?

Homeownership has been widely seen as a vehicle for Americans to build wealth since the mid-1900s. Because of that, the US government has devoted many of its policy measures to making it easier for everyone to have access to homeownership. But now, with skyrocketing rents and increased costs of living which have markedly outpaced income growth, it’s becoming harder and harder for Millennials to buy homes.

Recent policy measures related to homeownership have centered on increasing access to mortgages so that people with low income can still buy homes. Credit availability is a vital part of purchasing homes, so access to credit is a crucial topic in housing finance policy. Policymakers want to increase access to credit, but not put the economy at excessive risk.

Last week, the White House announced plans to reduce mortgage insurance premiums to make it easier for low income buyers to afford homes. The lower fees are estimated to save new FHA borrowers an average of  $900 each year and are expected to encourage 250,000 first-time buyers to enter the market. Whether or not it will actually result in an increase of home purchases will have to be seen.

However, has homeownership really panned out for us? Other Western countries without pro-ownership policies seem to have similar rates of homeownership, and the biggest impact of all of our housing subsidies and tax breaks is that people buy bigger, more expensive homes, not more homes. Investing the majority of our income in housing pays off when the economy is doing well, but is disastrous if the economy tanks, as we learned in 2008. Perhaps we should direct some of that attention to other urban issues, like displacement or developing mixed income neighborhoods. Germany, which has a fairly low homeownership rate, has let property rights take a backseat by prohibiting luxury upgrades to ensure that low income renters aren’t displaced. Something like that is unlikely to happen in the US, but it’s interesting to see how lower ownership rates can change how the government responds to urban issues.

How Did the US Become Suburban In the First Place?

January 14, 2015

The feds have finally–albeit quietly–admitted that America’s driving boom is over. The Federal Highway Administration’s most recent forecast of Vehicle Miles Travelled predicts that growth in driving per capita will be much flatter in the future. This a far more accurate prediction than their past claims that driving rates will once again grow rapidly in the US, since VMT has hardly increased over the last decade. 

It’s a huge sign that the era of cars is coming to an end. But how did we get here in the first place? In reality, automobiles in the 1920s struggled to gain popularity because of traffic and fatalities. One of the reasons for their eventual success was because of interference from special interests. The car industry and road builders lobbied the government to build roads that were more suitable for cars, and urged them to create a gas tax to fund highways. It resulted in decades of suburban growth, but at what cost? After generations of rapid suburbanization, we can no longer afford to maintain our streets and sidewalks, and our economic resilience and financial productivity are dismal.

 We’ve invested so much in urban highways, only to find out that they might actually destroy wealth rather than help build it. While conventional planning saw infrastructure investment as a way to stimulate the American economy, it turns out that building highways has turned out to be more expensive than investing in public transit and failed to create long lasting economic growth. In fact, older cities adjacent to highways might be worse off economically as a result of the traffic and pollution produced by them.

Dense, walkable urbanism is the new ideal in urban planning, and it’ll be exciting to see the wide-scale changes that’ll take place over the next few decades.

The Long Road To CA High Speed Rail

January 12, 2015

The California High Speed Rail’s groundbreaking ceremony took place last Tuesday, two years after it was originally scheduled to begin construction. It’s been a long and contentious journey to get this point, and the groundbreaking marks a huge step forward for the project.

Critics of the project argue that the high speed rail is a waste of time and money. The idea of high speed rail in California was first brought up in the 1970s and sporadically implemented for the next few decades, but it wasn’t until 2008, when voters approved the High Speed Rail Act, that the project caught real momentum. At the rate it’s progressing, the earliest it will be completed is 2028, and it’s much more likely to be behind schedule than on time. Add to that the fact that most of its funding has yet to be figured out, the numerous lawsuits it’s up against, and the uncertainty of its actual route, we’re looking at a very precarious situation, and it’s no wonder that some are vehemently opposed to it.

Still, there’s one thing for certain–this is a big deal. California high speed rail has faced budget problems, Republican opposition, and disputes over land, but it’s still moving forward. It hasn’t come out unscathed–the GOP has tried to impose funding blocks every step of the way, and frequent delays arose–but construction will finally begin. Taking on high speed rail was an ambitious task, and a huge show of the visionary politics that have been lacking in US government lately. There are still plenty of obstacles to overcome, but this is a big first step, as well as one that stirs the public’s interest and enthusiasm.

How Likely Is A Federal Gas Tax Increase?

January 9, 2015

Gas prices have dropped rapidly in the past several months as the price of crude oil went down by 40%. For the first time since 2009, gas prices are below $2 in some areas, and prices around the country have plummeted overall. Consumers have been rejoicing over the cheaper gas, but what other effects will these low prices have?

Considering how cheap gas has gotten, and the country’s critical need for transportation funding, the idea of increasing federal gas taxes has been tossed around with a bit more intent lately. Federal gas taxes have not been raised since the early 90s, and any initiative to raise them have been a complete bust in Congress. GOP Senator Jim Thune isn’t ruling it out for this year as a means for funding the Highway Trust Fund when it runs out and Rep Nancy Pelosi is calling for it since gas prices are low. At the same time, a federal gas tax increase hasn’t happened for over a decade, and would be somewhat surprising.

The price of gas in the US was low relative to the rest of the world even before the price decrease, and one of the reasons is because Americans aren’t paying the full costs of driving. Current gas taxes don’t even cover the cost of maintaining the roads and bridges people drive on. Not only that, driving comes with many negative externalities, such as health risks, traffic congestion, and injuries/death due to accidents. Accounting for these, the current cost of driving is nowhere near its true cost.

Some, including Professor David Levinson argue that we don’t need to increase the gas tax to pay for infrastructure as we don’t use the money we have very wisely.

While an increase in gas taxes seems unlikely, it’s nice to consider the hoped for effects it would have–decreased congestion, fewer traffic fatalities, and maybe a small reprieve to the disaster that is federal transportation funding.  We aren’t holding our breath.

A Long-Term Solution to Transportation Funding?

Federal transportation funding has been a dominant topic in transportation policy, and with the dramatic near-bankruptcy of the Highway Trust Fund last year, many are looking at Congress to come up with a long-term transportation funding solution soon. President Obama is hopeful that a bipartisan agreement can be reached in the next year, after 6 years in office, and reiterates his belief that better infrastructure is crucial to America’s competitiveness.

At the same time, its impossible to ignore the very long to-do list that transportation legislators have for 2015. With the problems of funding and partisan disagreement, it’s questionable whether or not the next year will be as productive as we hope. Funding remains the biggest issue to tackle–the Highway Trust Fund extension will run out in May, and Congress will have to deal with finding money for it again very soon.

Aging infrastructure is an urgent problem, especially in states like Minnesota. Many of its roads are far past their life expectancy, and a third of its bridges are structurally deficient. The state is considering gas and transit taxes to help fund its roads and highways. However, another issue with Minnesota’s transportation budget is that they spend far more money on new construction than they do on maintenance, which they direly need. Considering the fact that some of their old infrastructure is much more heavily used than their new infrastructure is projected to be, it seems unreasonable to continue funneling so much money for new projects while older infrastructure is falling apart.

Despite the uncertainty of transportation funding’s future, investment in transit continues to grow. There are dozens of new projects scheduled to begin next year, and municipalities are becoming increasingly adept at generating funds for transit projects by themselves.

Streetcars are in the News and Questioned

January 6, 2015

Transit funding is one of the most widely debated topics in urban politics today, especially across party lines. While liberals tend to espouse public transit and its many economic and social benefits, conservatives often question the viability of having the federal government fund mass transit.

The Obama administration has spent half a billion dollars trying to revive the American streetcar, but the results have been mixed.  Some projects, like Arlington County’s streetcar, were cancelled after years of planning. Not only that, some ardent transit supporters even question whether streetcars without dedicated lanes are any better than buses.

For cities that are revitalizing, upgrading and extending their streetcars is a major consideration. HART has done a preliminary study on extending Tampa’s Streetcar, which may cost up to $60 Million, but the source of the funding has yet to be determined. While Tampa’s downtown revitalization has mostly been privately funded after a heavy investment in Channelside, infrastructure projects such as its streetcar would require even more taxpayer money.

Nonetheless, enthusiasm for streetcars is not unfounded. Streetcar advocates argue that streetcars can boost urban redevelopment, create livable neighborhoods, and encourage community building. The worth of a streetcar shouldn’t be based purely on its ability to transport commuters, but also on its effects for the community its located in. Atlanta, which opened its new streetcar just last week, has high hopes for the streetcar reshaping the city’s urban image and alleviating traffic congestion.  We shall see what the future holds as more streetcars come online in 2015.

How Does Transport Funding Look In the Cromnibus?

December 18, 2014

On Tuesday, President Obama signed the massive $1.1 Trillion Omnibus Spending Bill that Congress passed last week. This spending bill will fund government agencies through the end of fiscal year 2015. Many of us were concerned about what the Republican Congress would mean for transportation funding, and now we have a more concrete idea of what changes will be taking place.

It turns out that the federal spending bill will, for the most part, keep funding levels steady for important programs, with modest cuts to a few. One of the programs that many people were most concerned about was TIGER, which provides grants for multimodal transportation on a competitive basis. In May, the GOP threatened to cut TIGER by as much $500 Million. Ultimately, the spending bill has cut $100 million from TIGER, leaving $500 million for the next fiscal year. This isn’t ideal, but it could have been far worse. Unfortunately, the cuts did include money that was intended for planning grants.

The spending bill has also raised some questions about funding for the Southwest LRT project. Originally the Met Council was counting on federal funding to pay for half of the $1.65 Billion extension, but a change in the language for the New Starts program could leave them with a $165 Million deficit. This hasn’t been confirmed yet, as the Met Council will be requesting funding in 2016, after the current omnibus spending bill expires. Still, there’s a chance that the current provisions will stay in place for the next spending bill, and it’s definitely something to consider.

Overall, I think that most of us can breathe a sigh of relief. While there are certainly provisions that can be criticized, the government won’t be shutting down, and any major cuts to key spending programs were avoided.

The Growing Prevalence of Bike Culture In the US

December 17, 2014

The prevalence of bike culture has grown tremendously in the past few decades, and many cities are taking initiatives to promote biking. The health consequences of living in places that aren’t walkable or bikeable have long been established, but there are economic incentives for promoting biking as well. For instance, it costs about $500 a year to transport a child to school by bus in sprawled areas–a large sum that could be greatly reduced if children lived in neighborhoods where they could walk or bike. Not only that, building infrastructure like protected bike lanes has also been shown to reduce pedestrian injuries along the streets that they are built on. The reasons for this are varying: bike lanes shorten the distance of crosswalks, clarify right of way conflicts, and create traffic-calming barriers that slow cars down.

To promote biking, municipalities build infrastructure such as protected bike lanes. Some cities, like New York, have also invested in robust bike share programs. Bike share is still very much in its infancy, but a growing number of cities have taken initiatives to fund bike share networks. The process of creating a bike share network, as well as its implications for a city’s economy, have been hashed out by planning professionals and discussed at length.

Regardless of whether or not you believe in bike culture, it’s impossible to deny its place in modern urban discourse. We debate over the suitability of terms like “protected bike lane” and “cycleway.” Even Lego has published a book that includes protected bike lanes. If US cities continue to promote biking, perhaps there will come a day where we’ll have a thriving bike culture like that of many successful European cities.

How Should We Urbanize?

December 16, 2014

Yesterday we talked about the numerous benefits of developing dense, walkable urbanism. In addition to the walkability of urban design, another topic that is widely debated is the very character of urban design.

Some feel that successful urbanism is actually created with experimentation and adjustment, and that having a single developer designing a neighborhood is “mock urbanism” that is both unattractive and inappropriate. Instead, allowing urban areas to develop organically would result in the rehabilitation and regeneration that is necessary for successful urbanism. Even if a developer attempts to design a space that is pedestrian friendly, it’s not actually possible to do so without allowing a neighborhood to develop organically according to its real-life needs.

Not only do advocates debate about the organic vs. inorganic nature of urban design and which is better, they also debate about whether or not the “cutesification” of urban design is suitable. While “fun” architects like Bjarke Ingels have become widely lauded, it seems like the issue of fun design is actually highly divisive. Some feel that playful and whimsical solutions to urban issues, such as garbage cans with sound effects and dancing traffic lights, fail to address urban problems in a way that is meaningful and effective. Not only that, it infantilizes the people who actually experience the design–it’s residents.

On the other hand, some urbanists actually appreciate cuteness and whimsy in urban design. After all, the cost of painting a crosswalk in a funky color is both cheap and makes walking a far more enjoyable experience. In addition, creating a fun urban experience may encourage tourism that brings in money and stimulates economic growth. And some architects seem to agree–affordable housing design doesn’t have to be drab and practical, it can be exciting and innovative.

The Benefits of Dense, Walkable Urbanism

December 15, 2014

Today we’re going to talk about the benefits of walkable urbanism. Dense, walkable urbanism is one of the mantras of modern urban planning, but is there actually evidence that it’s any better than other forms of urbanism? After all, the suburbs that most planners now decry were once considered the pinnacle of American neighborhood development. As it turns out, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that walkable urbanism does come with many perks.

Unlike the traditional car-oriented suburb, new research shows that walkable, mixed use neighborhoods are safer, healthier, and more creative. A number of studies also seem to suggest that housing values in walkable neighborhoods are more resilient during economic crises and homes are far less likely to be foreclosed. Walkability is also linked to lower rates of property crime and violence, possibly because there are often more “eyes on the street”. Another surprising benefit is that walkability seems to promote social interactions which encourage creativity as well as greater civic involvement. Finally, a recent study from the University of Kansas shows that walkability is good not only for physical health, but mental health as well. Residents living in walkable neighborhoods not only tend to have lower BMIs, but also a slower decline in cognitive ability as they age.

With all the benefits that seem to come with walkable urbanism, it’s no wonder that it is often seen as the ideal form for modern urbanism. Another factor pushing us toward walkability is the growing awareness of the environmental costs of car dependency. Air pollution is a major current issue, and many municipalities are trying to reduce emissions by reducing car usage and encouraging walking, biking, and mass transit. Paris’ mayor, for instance, recently outlined a radical plan to drastically reduce air pollution by banning diesel cars, growing their network of bike lanes, and encouraging shared mobility. Municipalities all over the world are taking similar initiatives to reduce auto emissions, and it’s happening none too soon.

Fears of Gentrification Shouldn’t Limit Affordable Housing Development

December 12, 2014

Over the past couple of days we’ve talked a lot about how persistent poverty might be just as big a problem as gentrification. Today I’d like to touch upon the topic of affordable housing, which is one of the biggest concerns that people have when they discuss gentrification.

One of the major issues that people have with gentrification is that the influx of wealthier residents can drive up the cost of living–in particular, the cost of housing. Urban revitalization and population growth often come with the price of higher rents and increased property values. To counteract these effects, cities have employed different strategies, from awarding tax credits to developers who invest in affordable housing, to subsidizing housing for low income families, and rent control. These strategies vary in success. Rent control in Washington D.C., for example, includes exceptions which may benefit existing tenants, but will ultimately result in less affordable housing.

What these strategies like rent control and subsidized housing don’t address is the issue that in many cities, the housing supply just hasn’t grown enough to keep up with the growth in population. Recently, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee launched an affordable housing program with the goal of building 4,000 new units by 2020, half of which will be allotted for poor to upper middle class residents. New York’s Department of City Planning is considering developing several parking lots in the Bronx into high-rises. These new developments would increase the housing stock in their cities, but many oppose the development, citing their fears of gentrification. However, developing over a parking lot or a Burger King won’t nearly displace as many people as it will benefit.

We can fear the changing character of our neighborhoods, and the possibility of gentrification. But we shouldn’t do so at the cost of developing some badly needed housing that will benefit everyone, including the poor.

More On Concentrated Poverty: How To Address It

December 11, 2014

Building on yesterday’s discussion of how persistent poverty may be an even bigger problem than the gentrification that dominates the discourse on modern urban issues, let’s get into the details of why poverty needs to be addressed more while discussing urban issues in the US.

This is not a dispute over whether or not gentrification occurs, or whether gentrification has consequences. Gentrification has definitely happened to cities all over the world. Even more frightening than the idea of cities gentrifying and growing economically, however, is the fact that far more cities have fallen deeper into poverty than cities that have gentrified. Over the last 40 years, only 105 out of 1,100 high-poverty areas have gentrified. During that time, the number of high-poverty tracts from 1970 to 2010 increased from 1,100 to over 3,100. That’s right, the number of high-poverty areas has tripled since the 1970s. Exacerbating the issue is that areas that gentrify often develop alongside areas that fall deeper into poverty, because the low-income housing used to address the problem of displacement is often placed in poorer areas, further concentrating the amount of poverty in those neighborhoods.

How do we begin to address the problem of poverty? First, it’s important to acknowledge that place matters. Neighborhoods have long-term effects on their residents, and inter-generational poverty exists and is in part perpetuated by the relative lack of opportunities for residents of low-income neighborhoods. Strategies tackling the issue of poverty should recognize that for low-income residents to gain opportunities, the limitations of their neighborhoods need to be addressed.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that race plays a large role in perpetuating poverty. While diversity has grown, many areas throughout the US, particularly in the South, continue to be largely black and white in racial composition. Discriminatory practices continue to segregate poor blacks and Latinos far more than poor whites and Asians.  If we start by recognizing these issues, we’re more likely to create more opportunities for more communities to thrive.

Is Gentrification or Concentrated Poverty the Bigger Issue?

December 10, 2014

Many of the articles we’ve posted lately have dealt with the super heated topic of Gentrification.

With gentrification being one of the most pervasive topics in urban planning discussions, getting a comprehensive understanding of the many different sides to the arguments can be quite a task.  City Commentary has done a great job rounding up a list of many different analyses of the issues surrounding gentrification, its history, effects, and possibilities for remedying the problems surrounding gentrification.  One of the biggest issues that people have with gentrification is how the influx of a more affluent population raises housing prices in the area and displaces the existing population. This has happened all over the US, in big cities like DC, San Francisco, and even Raleigh, North Carolina.

However, while gentrification seems to dominate the current discourse in urban issues, persistent concentrated poverty may be an even bigger problem than gentrification.  The majority of high-poverty neighborhoods in 1970 remain in high poverty today, the number of high poverty neighborhoods has increased since 1970, and the number of people living in high poverty neighborhoods has grown.  Suburbs across the US have been undergoing rapid transformation, but suburban poverty has been growing alongside the changes.  Underlying the issue of concentrated poverty is the issue of how cities and suburbs continue to be segregated based on class and race.  New studies show that despite the growing diversity in American suburbs, segregation and inequality have remained a persistent trend.  With all the racial tension in current events, it’s clear that something has to be done, and soon.

For more recent pieces collected by The Overhead Wire on the issue of gentrification, click here.

Thinking Federally: What’s Been Going on in DC?

December 9, 2014

The Overhead Wire Blog:  In an attempt to take some of the articles we post and create a narrative, we want to share some of the connections that we come across as we read.  I’m hoping we can pull out some of the important parts of the articles we cover and connect them in a way that’s interesting and informative.  Enjoy!


Over the last few days there have been lots of articles on trying to put together funding to cover the Highway Trust Fund shortfall and push on with a new transportation bill. Some such as the Eno foundation have suggested that we try to replenish the fund, but without a gas tax. It seems unlikely at the moment but perhaps they have a point.

After the GOP gained control over the Senate and retained control over the House after the November elections, many wondered about what the implications were for transportation in the US, particularly concerning the transportation bill, MAP-21, which will need to be renegotiated next spring. A GOP Representative has stated that the transportation bill is a “priority” for GOP leaders.

However, the GOP has also made it abundantly clear that they will not be supporting high speed rail in California, and in fact, will be doing everything they can to block any kind of federal funding for it, calling it both a “pipe dream” and a “boondoggle.” The reasoning is that without any realistic plan for funding the $55 billion gap that the California High Speed Rail Authority faces, backing the project would have no result. On Friday, thirteen California Republicans sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee specifically requesting that the new spending bill include provisions to prohibit funds for high speed rail in the state.

Other long term effects of having the GOP in charge of both branches of Congress have yet to be seen. Polls show that support for funding of active transportation is high across all party lines, and with the deadline for the Transportation Funding Act approaching, many are curious to see how much funding will actually be going toward initiatives for biking and walking.

Regardless of which way the GOP will lean, several metro areas around the US have made it clear: bike infrastructure and pedestrian safety are a top priority.

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