How growing income inequality affects places, part 2: The favored quarter gets richer, the wrong side of the tracks still suffers

The same divergence in fortunes appears to be accentuating price differentials between metropolitan sectors (essentially, “sides of town”). In an economy where the rich are getting richer than everyone else, the rich side of town is also increasing its comparative advantage over everywhere else.

LA office rents

This split was apparent during a recent trip to Southern California. The region might still be “polycentric,” but where one side of town — the Westside favored quarter — now completely dominates local wealth creation. What were merely lopsided prices before have now become absurdly imbalanced, with mediocre buildings on the Westside commanding top rents while perfectly nice areas, like Long Beach and Pasadena, are lagging badly.

In cities where houses or offices on the “right” side of town are scarce, such real estate becomes a privilege only available to the wealthiest people — who, as we’ve noted, are getting wealthier. Even though real estate prices generally track local incomes, the favored quarter of Los Angeles now has prices that track only the exploding incomes of the ultra-rich.

This Redlands ISEA animation of LA-area housing prices from 1988 to 2011, over the course of several cycles, illustrates the “flight to quality” that has occurred during the three busts (mid-90s, early-00s, 2010). At the start, high-value areas are relatively well dispersed across the basin, with only the inner city (particularly the near south and east) suffering from low prices. But, over time, the cumulative advantage of being near the beach increases over time — especially because prices don’t fall as much during the busts, but grow by just as much during the booms.

The trend is perhaps in sharpest relief in high-Gini areas like LA, but is broadly occurring across the country. Joe Light reports in the Wall Street Journal that lower-priced houses are lagging even as prices nationally rebound:

Between January 2006 and May of 2015, the median value of homes in the bottom third of the market has dropped 13% to $101,900, according to Zillow. The median in the middle third is down 6% to $172,600, while in the top third it is off 4.5% to $325,800… The [disinvestment] cycle has been hard to break in large part because low-wage workers have seen little, if any, income growth during the recovery—putting them in weak position to qualify for mortgages.

Recently, Rolf Pendall at the Urban Institute identified the most and least privileged neighborhoods in metro areas nationwide in the 1990, 2000, and 2010 censuses. Over those two decades, the most privileged neighborhoods saw home values rise by an extra $80,000, and their residents actually benefitted from that gain — their homeownership rate is twice as high as in the least privileged neighborhoods. (Since fewer than half of households in the least privileged areas are homeowners, their property value gains accrued to someone else.) Privileged neighborhoods also stockpiled human capital: the growth in their college attainment rate was four times higher than in the least-privileged areas.

This has tremendous implications for intergenerational social mobility, which is closely tied to income, human capital, and wealth. Not only do wealthier families have more private resources for their children, but in a country where schools are largely funded with local property taxes, wealthy communities have more public resources for their children. Thus, the “segregation tax” that penalizes property values in majority-minority communities creates a vicious cycle, and one that is only getting more pernicious — sadly illustrated recently by the events in Ferguson, Missouri.

Locally, stagnant housing prices in Prince George’s County have contributed to an ongoing foreclosure crisis. Stagnant housing demand from the “underwater limbo” is compounded by its relative isolation from the favored quarter’s jobs engine, and the area’s ongoing “segregation tax” discount. For example, in 1965-1975, the Levitt firm built two large “Levittowns” in suburban DC — Belair in north Prince George’s and Greenbriar in south Fairfax. Even though these are the favored and less-favored sides of their particular counties, near-identical ranches recently sold for an average of $300K in Bowie and $440K in Fairfax.

Meanwhile, formerly moribund downtowns adjacent to job-creating Favored Quarters are finding some success reinventing themselves as the easiest place to add new residential, away from the fierce FQ NIMBYs. The boom in downtown LA’s residential and retail market diverges sharply from its flatlining office market — which still suffers from 20%+ vacancy even though dozens of office towers have been converted to other uses. Downtown Atlanta and Dallas are similarly benefitting from escalating prices to their north.

Friday photo: Greedy developers built your city

Two rental houses on Capitol Hill

I recently came across these plans by a fantastically wealthy land speculator, seeking to profit by ruining DC’s pristine Capitol Hill neighborhood with a towering building crammed full of tiny rental “microunit” apartments for immoral singles — rather than wholesome nuclear families! This kingpin practices his avarice from posh Fairfax County, within a “resplendent” mansion overlooking the Potomac.

This paragon of greedy, out-of-town developers is, of course, George Washington, the very namesake of Washington city. Cities don’t arise via immaculate conception; they’re built by developers.

John DeFerrari’s book Lost Washington has a much more detailed account of the houses, showing that the NIMBY nightmare of “out of scale” “overdevelopment” was indeed what this city, and all other cities, was built on. (Otherwise, we’d all still be in caves!) Washington wrote to his architect, “Although my house, or houses… are I believe, upon a larger scale than any in the vicinity… capable of accommodating between twenty and thirty boarders.” A later, even greedier, developer popped up (and popped-under) the ruined buildings in the aftermath of 1814’s fire, and the buildings grew to six stories tall. Anti-pop-up NIMBYs might take heart from its fate: it then descended into criminal infamy and was bulldozed for a park.

[The plans in the photo above are from GW’s Albert Small Collection.]

Friday photo: The first sprouts in a freshly plowed field will be weeds

Country road again

An ecological analogy for retail:

Many of the plants we call weeds originally evolved in tough conditions, where there is annual glaciation, periodic flooding, or severe fires – extreme events that leave exposed, bare earth. It’s in these devastated conditions that our weeds are at home. They germinate first and grow the fastest. And through these characteristics they have found important roles in re-establishing healthy ecosystems… Once the weeds are established, longer-lived plants, less adapted to disturbance, germinate and the process of succession begins. The process may end in a grasslands, woodlands or forest, depending on the soil and climate. Indeed, the weeds create the conditions of their own inevitable demise – inevitable unless of course the disturbance recurs.

The “weedy species” that so many bemoan, the token dry-cleaners and fast-food joints that sprout in brand-new buildings, are one key to building a retail market. Over time, better adapted shops will take root — and given enough stability, species will evolve into very specific ecological niches. These new species will both adapt to their environment, and also change the environment around them. The key is to give the habitat time to evolve by avoiding excessive disturbance — a condition ecologists call “disclimax.”

Cultivating biodiversity requires striking the right balance between stability and renewal. The goal should be less to conserve individuals than to maintain the health of overall communities, to not seek out stasis forever but to manage change for the long term.

Gradual change within human communities also helps to sustain and build linkages, according to a paper by sociologist Katherine King: “A gradual pace of redevelopment resulting in historical diversity of housing significantly predicts social relations.”

CNU conversations: Striking before the neighborhood’s hot

DeKalb Market, Long Island University

Yet more thoughts from our (apparently quite long) lunchtime conversation about community-building.

We talked extensively about how, but where would these strategies have the greatest impact? It’s important to jump off the price escalator — to opt out of the gentrification process — early on, before outside capital floods into the neighborhood.

The “tipping point” in neighborhoods is always tied to outside money. First, an urban neighborhood is “discovered” by suburbanites looking to spend their extra $20s in cute restaurants, then by institutional investors looking for $2 million investments, and pretty soon the whole place jumps the shark. But if the small dollars are ever going to have a chance to win the game, they’re going to have to start early on — or else console themselves to small, subsidized slices of the neighborhood, post shark-jump.

“Favored quarter” locations in gateway cities are probably too far gone (more on this in a future post). Even the immediately adjacent areas have probably been bid up too far to be affordable without turning to outside capital. A Place Corp takes a substantial investment of time, rather than money, so the key is not to overpay.

One approach that can work where explosive change appears inevitable is what I’d call a “waterfall TIF.” This uses redevelopment revenue from a “sacrificial” area — for instance, an underutilized industrial corridor separating a gentrifying area from a stable area — to shore up the affordable housing stock in adjacent areas. Two examples:

  • The Hill District in Pittsburgh is a historically poor, African-American neighborhood overlooking downtown. The Lower Hill was demolished for urban renewal, displacing 8,000, but it was never fully developed, except for one arena. A recently adopted TIF to develop the site will direct property tax revenue “into two separate accounts: one for infrastructure needs in the Lower Hill and one for reinvestment in the Middle and Upper hill.”
  • In Houston, the Midtown TIRZ spent $15 million to purchase 34 acres of the adjacent Third Ward, including hundreds of vacant lots, which was then handed to nonprofits and thus taken off the market.

By the time the usual affordable-housing resources, like TIF funds and inclusionary units start to flow, it’s already too late — prices will already be on an upswing. For maximum effect, resources need to start flowing before new construction and new investment create new amenities, which raise property values. Of course, this requires neighborhood organization (and probably capacity-building) beforehand, to identify areas about to undergo change, and to plan for the process.

Think of it as an approach comparable to Transferable Development Rights, which have preserved many rural communities, just applied to urban communities instead. To use the photo as an example, imagine if some of the value created by the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning (affecting the sites in front of Flatbush) could also have steered capital funds towards rehabilitating and expanding NYCHA’s Ingersoll Houses (at back right).

Friday photo: Vanquished twin cities

Pittsburgh various

Vanishing twin syndrome” is an eerie phenomenon wherein one fetal twin seems to absorb another. Its counterpart, in the annals of American cities, might be called “vanquished twin syndrome”: where one city annexes another, then proceeds to obliterate any trace of its core through concerted redevelopment.

Three of the more notable examples are cities settled at confluences, which naturally offer a choice of multiple townsites on various riverbanks.

Denver faced Auraria across Cherry Creek, the Allegheny River separated its eponymous town (pictured above) from Pittsburgh, and the fork of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers fostered three towns — Juneau (east), Kilbourn (west), and Walker’s Point (south).

Yet as these towns were absorbed into larger cities across the way, the old downtowns of Auraria, Allegheny, and Kilbourn all declined into Skid Rows, offering a uniquely cheap combination of deteriorated, frontier-era buildings within a short walk of the principal downtown. Shunned and looked down upon by the ascendant city’s downtown elite and starved for resources (namely the intra-city transportation links that funneled commuters to the principal downtown), they became prime targets for urban renewal.

Kilbourn was wiped out early on, by a City Beautiful government complex. Allegheny’s center was leveled by Alcoa in the 1960s. Auraria was demolished for a university campus in the 1970s.

In a weird twist on the theme, Minneapolis absorbed its rival St. Anthony — but proceeded to tear down its own birthplace, while neglecting its rival for so long that it remained standing until the adaptive-reuse age could rescue it.

“Missing Middle Housing”: missing in action for 30 years

Housing completions by # of units in building

Missing Middle Housing” refers to a broad spectrum of smaller-scale multifamily building types that occupy the middle ground between single-family detached and large apartment buildings. At its edges, the term can cover rowhouses and 5+ unit apartments, but in my mind, the core of the “missing middle” are “plexes” — two, three, or four flats on a single city lot. Small apartment buildings like these line the side streets of most of America’s walkable urban neighborhoods: two- and three-flats in Chicago, Polish flats in Milwaukee, three-deckers in Boston, or brownstones in New York.

Census data show that 2-4 unit buildings have almost evaporated over the past generation. As recently as the early 1970s, over 1/4 of multifamily units built were in small buildings. Now, it’s only about 4%.

Despite the steep mid-1970s recession, over 10X as many units were built in small multifamily buildings as today. In boom years, 14X as many were built. It was during the Reagan era that these buildings broadly fell out of favor.

2-4 unit buildings have been a relatively small share of all multifamily construction in the postwar era. Since the 2008 recession, they’ve practically disappeared — with only a few thousand units built nationwide every year:

Housing completions by # of units in building

Next up: Wait, you mean today’s apartment boom isn’t actually that big?

CNU conversations: Introducing the Place Corp

west block

Findlay Market in Cincinnati, where a nonprofit market manager and CDC are working alongside private developers to create a mixed-use destination based around small, local shops.

Our earlier lunchtime conversation in Dallas quickly morphed into some constructive criticism of the community development field. We’re doers, so we delved into some of the mechanics of how a community could control its destiny, and ensure affordability over longer time scales.

In theory, Community Development Corporations have tremendous capacity to manage community change, but even where good CDCs exist — as in Boston and Chicago — their efforts are often quickly overwhelmed by the monstrous quantities of capital involved in gentrification. CDFIs were started to help leverage greater sums of capital, but never quite seemed to move beyond a little niche.

The work that community development organizations do is so labor-intensive that it doesn’t end up being very scalable. Some of that is good — community organizing and small-scale development in disinvested neighborhoods is tough. Some of that is bad — there’s so much bureaucracy involved in securing grants or tax-credit financing (or securing property for a Community Land Trust), and in complying with restrictions on spending that money, that staff capacity gets stretched thin.

(As a side note, why don’t we at CNU talk more often with the community development sphere? Sure, there’s some buy-in when individuals from CDCs get invited to present, but otherwise there’s scarcely any overlap. Perhaps siloization is to blame: CDCs/CDFIs have their own conferences, their own language, their own processes.)

Yet surely there are other vehicles that can provide a middle ground of financing for community development. In a gardening analogy, LIHTC-funded, CDC-built subsidized housing is like a trickle of water from a hand-carried watering can, and Wall Street money is like turning a fire hose onto your flowerbeds. Surely there’s some happy medium: a way to use local capital within a neighborhood, to fund incremental, community-positive projects that make a solid but uneventful return, over the long run.

There’s recently been a lot of renewed buzz about low-profit corporations and B-corps. Richard Plunz’s magisterial history of New York City housing shows us that many of the most innovative efforts at community-building there stemmed from just such endeavors, many underwritten by philanthropists or unions who sought investments with steady returns.

We discussed some of the innovation going on with cooperatives — the most established of low-profit, broadly-owned corporations. I talked up some experiments in the Upper Midwest, like the River West Investment Cooperative in Milwaukee, the considerable excitement around the Northeast Investment Cooperative in Minneapolis, and efforts to minimize business displacement along the Central Corridor light rail. In both cities, local capital is fostering communities of cooperative businesses in “emerging” neighborhoods. And unlike the Mondragon cooperatives, these coops are focusing on serving neighborhood needs, rather than exporting. Nationwide, a few credit unions (like Self-Help in North Carolina) have built substantial commercial-lending businesses, even in real estate.

But as much as we liked the idea of cooperatives, not everywhere has the fertile legal or cultural setting of Minnesota or Wisconsin. While cooperatives are great for certain kinds of businesses, they’re not for everyone: They can raise modest sums of capital, but struggle with large sums; their structures aren’t always flexible enough to accommodate multiple capital classes; their plodding, consensus-based nature makes them resistant to entrepreneurs’ bold ideas.


The history of Minneapolis’ West Bank neighborhood is an instructive example of co-ops’ promise and limitations. Uniquely among the ’60s hippie havens, federal urban renewal was leveraged to place most of the neighborhood’s housing stock within limited equity co-ops or Section 8. Alas, idealism and local control proved unable to adapt to either obsolescence or succession [PDF]. Photo: Michael Hicks, via Flickr.

Co-ops are a proven success within steady markets that provide community necessities, like workforce housing or groceries or child care or bike repair or bakeries — but perhaps aren’t the best vehicle for more colorful businesses. In many ways, commercial real estate development is just such a business.

Which brought us to the big small-business finance innovation of recent years: crowdfunding. Numerous “community investing” vehicles have been floated, like direct/P2P lending, lending through community financial institutions, conventional Kickstarter-style rewards (perhaps with interest paid in-kind), equity investments, etc. Crowdfunding has become almost de rigeur in certain popular, high-growth businesses. It first swept thin markets for trinkets that would typically be distributed online — e.g., board games. As the dollar amounts have grown, and as regulators have gradually warmed to the idea, platforms specializing in more capital-intensive bricks and mortar projects have sprouted for sectors like breweries and restaurants. Business models that defy categorization, like the McMenamin’s brand of alcohol theme parks, might be particularly well-suited to crowdfunded equity.

Several new platforms have emerged within this space. I’m most familiar with Fundrise. It’s evolved its primary offering away from common equity investments and towards what it calls “project payment dependent notes,” a hybrid of mezzanine debt (it’s debt, with a promissory note) and preferred equity (even though there’s a pre-determined target return, dividends are only paid when there’s adequate cash flow). For small developers, crowdfunding — even in the currently half-baked, accredited-investors-only form — holds significant advantages, namely cheaper, slower money, plus broader community buy-in.

Interestingly for our purposes, at least one nonprofit community development institution has begun to use Fundrise as part of its capital stack, and in particular in an attempt to save a for-profit community institution. The San Francisco Community Land Trust used Fundrise to raise its 38% equity stake (a local nonprofit offered the other 62% as equity) in an attempt to buy a mixed-use building housing the nation’s oldest African American bookstore, in a neighborhood otherwise ravaged by urban renewal. (Alas, the attempt foundered when the landlord changed the offering price.) All that the city could do was to landmark the building, perhaps in an attempt to reduce its market value, and to offer the business inclusion on a “legacy business” roster.

Mezzanine debt seems to also be the sweet spot for small business-oriented lenders like ZipCap. Their business model mirrors the built-in customer base of a cooperative, “recruiting an ‘Inner Circle’ of customers who pledge to spend a set amount of money in a fixed period of time.” Instead of relying upon just that circle for funds [as a co-op would do with equity memberships, or Member Loans], ZipCap uses those pledges as collateral for outside loans.

Combining all of the above vehicles — not-for-profits, low-profit cooperatives, and crowd funded for-profits — into interrelated entities might solve the scalability problem by allowing each entity to contribute its own strengths to a capital stack:

investment co-op waterfall

We called this entity a Place Corp, which has the ability to construct a capital stack from various tranches of capital, while keeping control within the community. (Outside investors and developers can help to build pieces, with the Place Corp hopefully maintaining some control via equity, but are treated merely as means towards an end.) Investors can choose from a wide variety of risk/return combinations, and can invest either time or money, choosing negative returns (gifts, grants), zero return (co-op equity), or modest returns. The Place Corp is diversified across property types, but not in location — like the family firms or community banks of yore. The durable, long-term returns of placemaking will create financial rewards for some investors — but for most, the place itself will be the return.

Next in the series: Where? And what sort of services might a Place Corp provide beyond just financing?

Thanks to some of those who contributed to this series of conversations: Karja Hansen, Matt Lambert, Russell Preston, George Proakis, Padriac Steinschneider, Seth Zeren