Conceptual view of future suburbia

Debating Deed Restrictions and Zoning, Office vs. Remote Work and More

I’ve actually been accumulating items faster than I’ve been posting them, and it’s gotten out of control, so this will be a long post to do some catching up.

The featured item this week is I got in an active debate with the Market Urbanist Scott Beyer on the value of deed restrictions vs. zoning, which you can read in the comments at the bottom of his piece on deed restrictions here.

Moving on to the rest of this week’s items:

“New York City has withstood and emerged stronger from a number of catastrophes and setbacks — the 1918 Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, the 1970s financial crisis and the 2001 terrorist attacks. Each time, people proclaimed the city would forever change — after 9/11, who would want to work or live in Lower Manhattan? — but each time the prognostications fizzled.

But this moment feels substantially different, according to some corporate executives.

The economy is in a sustained nosedive, with unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression. Many companies are in financial trouble and may look to shrink their real estate as a way to cut expenses.

More fundamentally, if social distancing remains a key to public health, how can companies safely ask every worker to come back?

“If you got two and a half million people in Brooklyn, why is it rational or efficient for all those people to schlep into Manhattan and work every day?” said Jed Walentas, who runs the real estate company Two Trees Management. “That’s how we used to do it yesterday. It’s not rational now.”

“We have a lot of millennial buyers who are already used to working remotely. They don’t know how long this (pandemic) is going to last, and they’d rather be here (Tahoe),” Bednar told the Tribune, “The people I’m talking to are looking for a simpler life, a close community. They want the outdoors and don’t want to be stuck in places where there’s a health problem.” …

“People are starting to ask themselves, ‘Why do I have to live in such an expensive area and drive an hour to work every day, or rent out an expensive office space when everyone can work remotely?’ If you don’t need to live in the city, why would you?” Bednar said.

“in the shadow of the pandemic, a recent Harris poll found that almost two-in-five urban residents are considering a move to a less crowded area.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic forcing those who could work from home to do so has led to a surprising result — improved productivity. U.S. workers were 47% more productive in March and April than in the same two months a year ago through cloud-based business tools, chat applications and email, according to an analysis of 100 million data points from 30,000 Americans by workplace-monitoring company Prodoscore.”…

“Our salespeople meet five to eight customers a day now [via videoconferencing] versus the one it took them three days [to see in the past] because of travel,” he added.

  • This gets reinforced in the comments of a pro-office op-ed in the NYT, which are at least worth skimming. Even though the author makes a case for some of the benefits of the office, the overwhelming sentiment in the comments is “screw that, I love working from home and not commuting!” for all sorts of reasons, including less office drama/politics and fewer worthless meetings. It’s clear to me that both overwhelming sentiment, as well as simple economics/costs, work against offices. I think they will go into a significant decline. One other point the author misses is that you can separate the social aspect from the work aspect with the rise of co-working spaces, which are exploding everywhere: a shared space where there are others you can interact with, but everyone works for different companies. Still get the networking and socialization without the long commute to one central office with all of your company’s other employees.
  • The New York Times editorial board really goes after zoning. A very in-depth piece worth the long read.
  • And a follow-on NYT op-ed further attacking zoning and implicitly endorsing the Houston model. A couple of excerpts:

“An important step is simply to permit more housing in more locations. We should put an end to zoning policies that restrict building to single-family homes and stop mandating that lots meet large minimum-size requirements, leading to sprawling, sparsely populated neighborhoods. Ending such restrictive zoning doesn’t have to lead to the construction of towering apartment buildings. Rather, we should encourage cities to permit more homes on existing single-family lots, allow apartments in retail districts and near transit, and dedicate excess or underused public property like surface parking lots in downtowns to new housing. All of this can be done without materially changing the look, feel and experience of a place.

The second important step is to reduce the cost and uncertainty of getting a housing project built. It often takes years to get permission to build. Local government processes often allow multiple “bites at the apple” of public comment and hearings for a plan. Sometimes, even when there is a vote to approve a project, a neighbor or special interest can sue to stop the approval, resulting in further significant delay. These delays add cost and risk, driving up the price of new homes and sometimes stopping projects in their tracks entirely….

These types of actions, which can be taken now, will lay the groundwork for a broad and shared prosperity. When denser housing is allowed, workers can live closer to their jobs, help save the planet by driving less and pay less in rent or mortgage payments because a bigger housing supply will lead to lower costs. Research shows that children tend to be more successful in neighborhoods with access to high-quality schools. In restricting building, more-affluent Americans are shutting lower-income families off from economic opportunity.

Now is an especially good time to reduce restrictions and allow for denser housing. Construction is hit hard during recessions, and opening up more building opportunities would be a stimulus for the industry, and it doesn’t require any extra funding. This would get workers back to work, provide safe and affordable living for those hard hit by this pandemic and get property taxes and other revenue flowing back to local governments for the services communities need. It would be a win for everyone.”

“Without a significant expansion in the supply of housing, adding vouchers would be like adding players to a game of musical chairs without increasing the number of chairs.

Market-rate construction can help: More housing would slow the upward march of housing prices. New York and San Francisco are the nation’s most tightly regulated markets for housing construction, and it is not a coincidence that they also are the most expensive. Tokyo, often cited as an international model for its permissive development policies, has expanded its supply of homes by roughly 2 percent a year in recent years, while New York’s housing supply has expanded by roughly 0.5 percent a year. Over the last two decades, housing prices in Tokyo held steady as New York prices soared.”

Finally, I’d like to end with a radio show I did with Bill King along with Carrin Patman and Tom Lambert of METRO on what’s happening with the past, Covid present, and potential future of transit.  Apologies for my bad body language – I didn’t even realize I was being videoed until over halfway through, lol. I was just focused on my notes and getting the audio right.

This piece first appeared on Houston Strategies.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and co-authored the original study with noted urbanist Joel Kotkin and others, creating a city philosophy around upward social mobility for all citizens as an alternative to the popular smart growth, new urbanism, and creative class movements. He is also an editor of the Houston Strategies blog.

Photo credit: Dhanix via Wikimedia, under CC 3.0 License.