Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Think different.

"Stringer Bell's worse than a drug dealer. He's a developer."

Last night, the CEO of my organization, Bart Harvey, stood in front of the nation's biggest developers and delivered what one might reasonably call the "inconvenient truth" about housing: of the more than $150 billion spent each year on housing by the federal government, the vast majority of it goes to the nation's wealthiest households by way of the home mortgage interest deduction and other housing exemptions. See, for instance, this graph from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Harvey used this depiction of inequality and questionable priorities to suggest a different approach to how we think about housing policy, one that would better meet the needs of all Americans by redirecting housing subsidies to where they are needed most – namely, the 15 million households earning median income or lower that are currently paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing. In order to leave the lecture in one piece, he emphasized the need to harness the power of our housing development system (public, private and non-profit) to accomplish this goal.

Still, despite his emphasis on using the market for good and profit (and not just profit), the crowd was, predictably, skeptical. Developers make a lot of money off the mortgage interest deduction's artificial inflation of home prices.

Of course, our organization is not going to make repealing the "indefensible" deduction (in the words of former Senator Connie Mack) a major initiative. That wasn't the purpose of the speech. The purpose was to, hopefully, set in motion the glacial shifts needed to bring about a paradigm shift for a system that has, over time, become distorted and increasingly unworkable, yet it's existence is seldom reexamined and almost never questioned. Which is a roundabout way of getting to the point of this post.

Like the home mortgage deduction (which evolved from a general interest deduction, intended for business interest, in the first income tax legislation to an American "birthright") our growth policy – indeed that of almost every locality in the country – is based on a system started almost 100 years ago in New York City. And though it has adapted over time to address changing circumstances, the foundation of the system remains basically the same.

We have a system of zoning that excludes certain uses for the benefit of the people, and also their detriment. Within this system of limited possibilities, we have landowners and developers who, naturally, want more and neighbors and others who, naturally, want less.

We have a system where competition, reactivity, hostility and divisiveness thrive, where developers are forced to be underhanded and citizens are forced to be constantly vigilant. We have a system that lacks true accountability, that is easily corruptible, that offers no room for nuance and that is weighted against citizens, who often lack the time, expertise and financial resources to compete with developers, who also are relegated solely to the role of "opposition."

Rather than allowing us to envision what's possible for the future of our community, our zoning system forces us to start with someone else's vision and work, usually back, from there. It's a tug-of-war where our side of the rope is almost across the line and where we struggle to pull it back to a reasonable point. But, while we're always tugging, we never win. Usually, nobody does. Instead, everyone gets tired and settles.

Of course, you can echo the words of Churchill and say our zoning system is the worst way to manage development, except everything else. But is it?

I look at proposals to adjust our system, to make it more "better" for existing residents and to make it incumbent upon developers to pay their "fair share," and I see deck chairs being rearranged. The philosophical foundation -- namely, us versus them in a zero sum situation -- is still there and it's still going to cause endless strife (and meetings) and higher and higher housing costs, which don't particularly matter to existing residents, unless they're children wishing to stay in the community where they were raised.

But then I look at what's happening in Oakland Mills and I can't help think that there is a better way and it's not as hard to achieve as it may seem. Rather than waiting for developers and landowners to envision our future, residents of Oakland Mills have taken it upon themselves to create their own picture of what the community should look like. And now that the vision has been laid out, the work of creating a coalition involving property owners, residents, public officials and developers is underway. With a coalition of equals, a compromise (not settlement or victory) that benefits all is certainly possible, if not probable.

Ah, I'm rambling at this point. I have more thoughts than time. (And more thoughts than coherent sentences, apparently.)

I guess the main point I'm trying to make is that it's possible to work together toward a new paradigm. We talk about this all the time at Howard County Tomorrow meetings, and maybe I'm just an unrepentant idealist, but I actually think a new, better development system, one without as much acrimony, is possible. Of course, I don't have the answer -- no single person does and campaign season probably isn't the best time to come up with it -- but I'm sure it's out there.


hocoblog said...

In a complex society when people have property rights and others have a vision of how that property should be used we are going to have a problem.

Curious. If the more that $150b Mr. Harvey spoke of went to the neediest people (those who spend more than 50% of their income on housing) what would the effect on the economy be? Good, bad, N/A? Also, any information on those who spend more than 50% of their income on housing. Are they renters or home owners?

I am not kidding. I want to know. They are key to his presentation. Is it available on line?

Anonymous said...

You may want to review the Tragedy of the Commons. See the Wiki.

Interestingly, a recognized effective way to stem population growth which could decrease demand for housing and decrease housing costs is to provide more education to women.

Anonymous said...

Everyone has rights. All property owners have rights. Owners who want to develop under the existing law have a right to do so... owners who want to develop by changing the law must consider the property rights of their neighbors. Will the development of propert A- impact the property rights of property B... either due to a direct cause/effect (reducing property setbacks, blocking out the sun, adding traffic to the street)or by an indirect cause by negatively impacting the community?

Tom Berkhouse said...

Anonymous makes a good point. There is a BIG difference between someone developing within the established regulations, and someone trying to develop via a rezoning that would allow something different than the current regulations. Many times, neighbors fight a development because they don't want ANYTHING built. In those cases, why should the developer reduce the number of units or make other concessions just to appease the neighbors? If the developer is complying with current regulations, then he/she has every right to develop. If the regulations are viewed to be insufficient, then they should be changed through the legislative process so that future developments will have to comply with the new (stricter, I presume)regulations. To try to change the regulations in the middle of a development is not right (it's called a "taking" since it would have the effect of diminishing the property's inherent value.

To try to have a zoning system whereby everyone gets to chime in and decide is tantamount to anarchy (or communism if you prefer that adjective). It's somewhat ironic, that the people who want to control development of all of the land probably don't own any of it themselves, otherwise they would feel differently about property rights and "takings".

It is not acceptable to protest development simply on the grounds of "Nothing in my backyard (NIMBY's)" or "Nothing after my house is built (NAMHIB's)".

It is essential that the citizens elect officials, who make the regulations, that are competent enough, and wise enough, to anaylize zoning issues and anticipate problems in order to tweak the regulations or processes BEFORE the problems actually arise. You CAN NOT wait for problems to arise and then try to change the rules. You CAN NOT change the rules in the 7th inning of the ballgame (to coin a phrase).

Anonymous said...

If only it were a ballgame. But far more is at stake. Quality of life, the environment, safety.

What does one do when it's not just the regulations that are insufficient, but the enforcement of the regulations is insufficient, even when insufficient enforcement is brought to the attention of those responsible for such enforcement?

You'd be amazed at what actually gets through the system.

Anonymous said...

I support wholeheartedly your comment about tweaking the regulations or processes before the problem arises... We tend to REact... not PROact. Nearly all- if not all- legislative changes to zoning are triggered by a special interest. Whether that interest is a developer or a housing authority or an economic development authority... they initiate change. (It is not often the treehuggers who initiate zoning change).

The good news is that there is a system in place called Comprehensive Zoning that takes place every ten years.. that when done correctly and in conjunction with the General Plan- can be a proactive approach to planning and preservation.

The bad news is, of course, we keep doing end runs around the system we have in place- usually at the request of special interests.

We don't need a special zoning authority- separate from the Council (Heck- we can't even find enough qualified Planning Board Members)... we just need to follow the rules and the processes that are set up already.

Two recent cases in point:

#1: Setbacks reduced from 30' to 0' from Planned Office commercial zoning to adjacent Open Space. Proposed by a developer because under the existing system he would not be able to get a variance to build his envisioned project. Supported by the County in an effort to better protect a historic structure. Amended by the Council to be 10' not 0' as a compromise. We all lost on that one. Less protection for open space... lack of faith in our existing Hearing Examiner process... a new law that applies to ALL Planned Office- and not just one property. Good intentions. Bad outcome.

#2: Allowing commercial property to be developed as intense residential use for affordable housing. Proposed by the Housing Commission as a means to gain more affordable housing... supported by the development community as a means to create intense residential development they couldn't otherwise develop- and perhaps as a way to ease the numbers of moderate priced homes they'd have to build in their own residential communities. Intended effect: more affordable housing for our police officers and teachers (or for the newcomers coming as a result of BRAC). Real effect: commercial land rezoned outside of the comprehensive zoning and planning process producing 59 units of residential housing on 2.5 acres of land in an area without the infrastructure to support it and in a way that makes it stand out and apart from the surrounding community. (Not what we want from our affordable housing).

We have to stop introducing legislation from any special interest that comes forward. We have to hold the line on our General Plan until its time to draft a new one. We have to be more thoughtful and considered in our approach to growth and preservation. And.. we have to consider EVERYONE'S property rights as well as the rights of our citizens who don't own property. (Yes.. people who don't own property get a voice, too, in how their community develops).

Mary Catherine

Anonymous said...

Good note, M.C.