Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover


Bloomberg CityLab

October 2020

This summer, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti found himself generating international headlines for cracking down on a house party. On Aug. 19, city officials disconnected utilities at the Hollywood Hills home of Bryce Hall, Noah Beck and Blake Gray, young stars on the video platform TikTok who had turned their residence — a rented 8,500-square foot mansion known as the Sway House — into a “nightclub in the hills.” 

The Sway House stood accused of hosting parties “in flagrant violation of our public health orders” during a pandemic. Never mind that some of the footage that generated outrage — an Instagram video showing shoulder-to-shoulder crowds drinking and dancing on tables — was shot at a blowout party at a different home, in Encino, roughly 15 miles west of the Hollywood Hills. The Sway House had already established a reputation for bad behavior among its neighbors, creating a “party war zone.”

At a press conference announcing charges, city attorney Mike Feuer said, “We allege that in many cases these parties and the party houses associated with them have hijacked the quality of life for neighbors in the affected communities. If you have a combined 19 million followers on TikTok, in the middle of a public health crisis you should be modeling great behavior, best practices, for all of us, rather than brazenly violating the law and then posting videos about it, as we allege happened here.” 

Garcetti’s crackdown is indicative of how the contentious arrival of a relatively new kind of celebrity real estate has become tangled up in an older phenomenon: LA’s famously disruptive party house scene. During coronavirus lockdowns, rented mansions have been serving as ad-hoc nightclubs for illegal gatherings, creating tension, anxiety, and sometimes violence in affluent neighborhoods. At one early August party, a woman at a massive Hollywood Hills party was shot and killed, bringing on a pledge from city leaders to boost party house enforcement.

The mansion Palazzo Beverly Hills, where a large party held in defiance of coronavirus-related health orders ended in a fatal shooting in August. Photographer: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

That pledge is focusing attention on high-end homes — variously called TikTok mansions, content houses, or collab houses — that are rented by talent management groups and filled with young social media stars and creators. The homes are used as backdrops for the video content that social media influencers churn out, and, as the Sway House incident in August shows, as headquarters for their antics. 

Collab houses emerged in early 2020, growing with the continued rise of the video app TikTok. “Call it the boy-band model but for Gen Z,” Rebecca Jennings recently wrote in Vox, “where stars leverage each other’s burgeoning fame against the backdrop of multimillion-dollar homes.” As chronicled by technology and business journalists like Taylor Lorenz and Amanda Perrelli, early examples like Hype House have spawned a host of newcomers, including the Clubhouse and Cabin Six (focused on LGBT creators). 

It’s not new or exclusive to the TikTok platform; stars of YouTube and Vine established their own such setups, including 02L Mansion and 1600 Vine Street. Back in 2017, Vine and YouTube celebrity Jake Paul famously posted the location of the Team 10 House in Hollywood online, which was flooded with fans. The trend has also migrated beyond Los Angeles: A sextet of UK influencers has occupied a lavish English country home and dubbed it the Wave House, the Daily Mail recently reported. 

James McClain, editor-at-large for the celebrity home site Dirt, sees collab houses as just the latest example of the intermingling of entertainment and real estate in Southern California — from the star mansions of Hollywood’s Golden Age to MTV Cribs. While Dirt tracks housing sales for all manner of celebrities, it’s the influencers that are getting the most attention now. “Jeffree Star’s house was the biggest story for us in terms of traffic,” he says, referring to a popular YouTuber and makeup artist. “The concept of fame has changed for a new era.” 

Collab houses may be new, but the market for these types of homes in Los Angeles isn’t. According to real estate agents who have sold to these types of clients, or work with high-end rental homes, many of them are spec homes, built in expensive areas with beautiful properties with lots of land: Burbank (FaZe Clan), Beverly Hills (Clubhouse), Bel Air (the Sway House) and Hollywood. Investors had previously made money on these properties by renting them for one-off events or film, TV, or commercial shoots; more recently, Airbnb and short-term rental sites provided another revenue option. 

If you are in the market for a TikTok mansion, you’ll be shopping for a property with “awe factors” like an elevator, pool and a great view — features that lend themselves to the medium and can become video backdrops. “It should have all the amenities you’d want if you’re spending $30,000 to $50,000 a month, including plenty of space and parking, large kitchens and common areas, and lots of bedrooms,” says Josh Picker, an agent at Douglas Elliman. “You’re basically paying for a place you don’t need to leave.” 

Michael Senzer, vice-president and head of business development at TalentX, which represents the Sway House crew, says he wants properties that give the talent a beautiful place to live and “take all the thinking out of their daily lives so they can focus on what they do best — monetize and strategically grow themselves.”

Same goes with the interiors. The Sway House was outfitted with items picked out by the TikTokers or donated by brands hoping to be tagged in a video.

Sally Forster Jones, a Compass agent who has worked on rentals for location scouts and YouTubers, says it can be difficult to find properties open to the number of people, and parties, that come with these content houses. The right properties can be rented via short-term rental sites, or more formal, year-long leases. Stars often pay their rent, especially in homes sponsored by management companies or brands, by producing a set number of social videos every week “as a form of in-kind rent,” according to Lorenz of the New York Times. 

Young stars living together amid the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles may be a concept as old as the entertainment industry. But for residents of many of the wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods where this type of real estate exists, having a crew of selfie-shooting teen influencers move in next door can be a major headache. 

Kristen Stavola runs We Are Laurel Canyon, a community group for the affluent hillside neighborhood. She says that these management companies, who are “fronting for YouTubers, Instagrammers, and TikTokkers,” have caused numerous issues.

Laurel Canyon, often called party canyon, has drawn high-living celebrities since the 1960s.

“We love our heritage up here and celebrate it,” says Stavola. “We’re all about people having a good time.” But “social media has put it on steroids.” Residents are weary of late-night noise and traffic jams of Uber or Lyft vehicles on the narrow, winding streets. The blind curves and dirt roads near more remote locations don’t mix with inebriated drivers. “We’re anti-party house when the neighborhoods, hillside and wildlife are being threatened,” she says. “Anybody running a party house during Covid is incredibly reckless.”

Some collab homes went undetected for months, but when the coronavirus pandemic arrived and more people began working from home in March and April, it became hard not to notice the sound of live DJs playing in the middle of an afternoon. (Other influencer collectives do not lay low: Hype House, in Mount Olympus in the Hollywood Hills adjacent to Laurel Canyon, had a signature painted school bus parked in front of the entrance.) “Earlier this year, some genius at a management firm said, ‘Let’s put these kids together in a Big Brother-type setting and have them earn their rent with posts,’” Stavola says. “The problem with collab houses is that it’s encouraging the problems we’ve been trying to curb for years. It’s actually monetizing them. It’s turned homes into businesses, whether or not they’re having parties there every night. You’ve turned a nice house into a dorm or frat house.” 

Talent management groups Influences and FlipMgmt didn’t respond to CityLab, and TalentX didn’t want to talk about recent incidents involving the influencers at their collab house. “It’s a level of accountability they have to have on themselves,” Michael Gruen, a founder of TalentX, told the New York Times in response to questions about their talent hosting and participating in parties. 

relates to The TikTok Party House Next Door
The new Sway House is sponsored by Triller, a deep-pocketed rival to TikTok.Photo courtesy TalentX.

Dirt’s McClain argues that conflating the rise of collab houses with the broader party house issue misses some important distinctions. “These kids, and young adults, see what they’re doing as a legitimate business,” he says. “The whole reason they enter into these collaborations is because they have sponsors or investors behind them. They don’t want to do anything to mess up their future earnings, or get in the way of how they earn a living. It’s a new phenomenon and a lot of people don’t understand this.” 

Picker also doesn’t think his clients should be blamed for the problematic party houses; companies are fronting big money for content and the talent is on the line if something goes wrong. Many influencers have apologized for large parties, and even called out those organizing such events. “Just because they’re in their early twenties doesn’t necessarily mean they’re causing the problems,” he says.

Still, it’s not surprising that Angelenos would connect influencers with the party house scene. Several social media stars have indeed been liberal with social distancing practices and thrown Covid-noncompliant events this summer, with some even arguing that it’s part of their job to entertain (and facing few consequences from sponsors). And the Hype House was established in a Hollywood Hills home that already had a notorious pre-TikTok reputation for hosting such events. 

Numerous attempts have been made to crack down. Los Angeles signed a Party House ordinance in 2018, and on Aug. 4, issued a warning about large parties held during the pandemic. Airbnb issued a global party ban on Aug. 16, saying that “we do not want that type of business, and anyone engaged in or allowing that behavior does not belong on our platform.” In addition, the company launched a city portal to help track nuisance properties, and banned one-night stays over Halloween weekend

One of Stavola’s Laurel Canyon neighbors (who wishes to remain anonymous), says his family has been traumatized by a party house incident next door. Over the long 4th of July weekend this summer, a group of young men rented the home next door and threw a series of parties, including shooting mortar-type fireworks over a tinder-dry hillside. When the neighbor contacted Stavola, who reached out to Airbnb about the issue, the service canceled the booking and later banned the guest who reserved the home from making future bookings, but the guests remained (it’s up to the property owner to call law enforcement or evict the short-term tenant). Over the next few weeks, the three renters would occasionally taunt the neighbor and his wife and young child, spitting at them and calling them “Karens.”

“It was disheartening,” the neighbor said. “Ultimately, the sites can do what you request, and if the owner doesn’t kick them out, they may be here for another two weeks. My wife and I are both lawyers, and this was crazy to us.” 

Stavola says that despite more vigilance from Airbnb and local officials, she fears the issue isn’t going away. “As long as the clubs are closed in Hollywood, this won’t stop.”

The collab house trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down either. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, more houses opened, though some have shut down after the promised sponsorships, fame and payment never materialized, as Vox’s Jennings wrote. 

At TalentX, Senzer says they’re looking at opening another home, and are in talks about a potential reality series. They have a big financial incentive to keep the party going as long as possible. After the city unplugged the Sway House in August, the erstwhile TikTok stars recently found a new sponsorin the video platform Triller, a TikTok competitor, which pays the rent and other expenses for a new Sway House in Bel Air in return for talent postings on their platform. That arrangement has “generated a significant amount of revenue for these guys and our business,” he says. “It’s hard to say it wasn’t worth it.”


November 2020

Holiday hiring events for malls used to be a big deal, with lines rivaling those for jaw-dropping Black Friday electronic deals. Anchor retailers and specialty stores held huge in-person hiring events as early as September, heralding the start of the busiest, most exciting part of the retail year. This season, don’t expect big spikes in hiring for mall Santas (who may be socially distanced in plexiglass snow domes), gift wrappers, or additional staff to work the aisles on Black Friday.

As the pandemic continues and shoppers mostly stay home, the holiday season will be a gift for e-commerce as retailers scramble to adjust inventory and schedules to find some bright spots amid spending uncertainty. As the ongoing shift online accelerates this year, its impact will be magnified in the job market. According to Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist of the jobs site Glassdoor, the site has seen a sharp rise in interest for jobs in the warehouse sector, 210 percent more than last year, one of many indications that, in 2020, often-temporary seasonal hiring signifies something more permanent.

“Economies usually leave a recession looking different,” he says. “This is an example where a pandemic will lead to a massive shift in how we spend.”

Getting a part-time gig folding sweaters at the Gap or being an elf for a fake North Pole display has long been a tradition during the busy holiday season, an important way to make a few extra dollars during an expensive time of the year, especially for students and seniors. In 2018, retailers added roughly 625,600 temp jobs. Last year, the seasonal hiring spree slowed down a bit, with companies looking to fill only 590,000 positions. This year, recruiting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas says companies have announced just 378,200 positions as of mid-October. Glassdoor’s Chamberlain says that an analysis of the site’s roughly 6 million holiday and seasonal job postings shows listings are down 8 percent over last year, which is actually better than the overall 16 percent drop in postings across all industries. There’s a bump this winter, just not as big as in years past.

Analysts believe 2020 will radically upend that model, perhaps for good. In-person retail, already restricted due to health precautions and wary customers eyeing a coming third wave of the coronavirus, is a shadow of its usual self. A National Retail Federation survey of 54 retailers found that 96 percent expect more online sales this year, 61 percent plan to stock less in-store merchandise, and half likely won’t hire extra in-store staff. Sucharita Kodali, retail analyst at Forrester, says one of the only bright spots this year, when a record-breaking 1 in 5 retail dollars was spent online, has been essential retail, such as grocery and pharmacy. Even big holiday shopping draws like toys have migrated online. Retailers such as Walmart and Target will be spreading out Black Friday events to avoid drawing large crowds (some promotions have already started). 

“Black Friday is kind of over as an idea,” says Zachary Rogers, an assistant professor of supply chain management at Colorado State University who previously worked at an Amazon subsidiary. “Prime Day was October, Black Friday and Cyber Monday in November, holidays in December. It’s basically Black Fall.”

Holiday shopping as a whole won’t have the same meaning this year or for many years in the future, says Ashwani Monga, a marketing professor at Rutgers University who specializes in consumer psychology; with the retail industry in tatters, it’s unlikely to represent the break-even point for businesses (when ledgers go from red to black). And optimistic forecasts that families will want to maintain the holiday tradition of a visit to the mall may underestimate the desire to cut or consolidate trips, not to mention the specter of more restrictions or shutdowns. 

“Even if stores do open, people will be reluctant to go out and have fun or splurge as if the last few months didn’t happen,” he says. “Shopping is a way to connect and do something for yourself, and that habit has changed during this year’s disruption. Shopping is a part of our culture, and this year has changed culture itself.” 

The significant shift in the seasonal employment picture doesn’t show a temporary break with tradition; it’s more likely evidence of the continuing, radical restructuring of the economy away from in-person retail. The pandemic has pushed many shoppers who were e-commerce holdouts to adopt online shopping, Monga says, and consumer inertia is hard to reverse.

“If consumers aren’t spending, retailers don’t have cash on hand to hire people, which creates a vicious cycle where there’s less employment, fewer profits, and the economic engine of stores just doesn’t grow,” Monga says. “The whole ecosystem of retail is disrupted.” 

It’s also strained the warehouse and logistics industry currently struggling to meet surging holiday demand that will likely become a permanent expansion of e-commerce capacity. The industry hit a record 1.25 million employees this September, according to the Bureau of Labor. The Logistics Managers’ Index, an industry report compiled by Rogers looking at demand and capacity, predicts record-high levels of e-commerce activity this season; Q4 activity will be up 50 percent compared to last year, a huge leap from pre-pandemic predictions of a 13 percent jump. Karl Siebrecht, CEO of Flexe, a company that provides temporary warehouse space to retailers, says there’s a huge hiring problem in e-commerce in anticipation of fourth-quarter delivery spikes (Amazon announced plans to hire 100,000 more seasonal workers in September and is offering some $1,000 bonuses).

“We’re already running hot, How do we layer on the fourth-quarter peak?” Siebrecht says. “Competition for labor is the biggest issue.”

Filling jobs at sites typically located away from population centers is already a challenge. A recent report by Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett, sociologists who have been studying retail and service-sector workers, found that “Walmart, Amazon, and UPS lag in terms of cleaning, gloves, and masks” for employees, exacerbating worries that as warehouses get more crowded over the coming months, infection risks will rise. 

Valeria (who prefers not to use her real name), 59, works at a warehouse in Elizabeth, New Jersey, that packages and ships cosmetics and hand sanitizer. She says that as the holidays approach, management has added more and more workers; it’s the busiest she’s seen since she began working at the company four years ago. Workers are provided with hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves, but there’s no social distancing, they just cram the lines tighter and tighter.

“Right now, a few people are sick,” she said via a translator. “The company told them to get tests and not come back until they are negative. They’re operating like every product is essential, but only the hand sanitizer is. We all want to be beautiful and we’re in difficult times. I only work because I have to, if not I’d stay at home, I’m scared all the time of being sick.”

Beth Gutelius, an academic and researcher at Center for Urban Economic Development who studies the changing nature of work, says a simple calculus — more temporary workers being added to the same fixed warehouse space — raises the risk of safety issues, Covid-19 spread, and burnout (and Amazon has been less than transparent about these issues throughout the last six months). 

“In the end, you have to throw more workers at the problem of e-commerce fulfillment, and they’ve raised very serious issues about health and safety,” she says. “There’s lots of physical and mental strain on workers’ bodies when they’re handling work that quickly.”

According to a survey of industry operators conducted by Flexe, 65 percent said labor shortages were impacting their business and 47 percent have increased wages to be more competitive. Amazon’s and Walmart’s big announcements earlier this year that they would add hundreds of thousands of jobs and pay a few extra dollars an hour have rippled through an industry seeking more and more capacity. And it’s not just for the winter surge — typically the season when workers face weeks with additional overtime and higher-than-normal rates of on-the-job injuries and stress — but for next year. 

E-commerce is racing to adjust to unforeseen circumstances, with a predicted “shipageddon” this year leading analysts to suggest hot items will disappear early and companies will plead with consumers to order as early as possible. The sector is clearly dealing with the downsides of unexpected demand, not painful contraction, often turning to temporary employees and hiring agencies.

A shopper with a mask rolls her cart down the end of an aisle full of holiday decorations
Holiday shopping season begins in 2020.

“Honestly, I don’t know how Amazon is going to do it this year,” says Rogers. “That’s why they shifted Prime Day to October. The transportation part of this will be really tough. They’ll do whatever they can and everyone else will try to keep up.”

Shipping is not the only concern. There’s also the problem of returns, which Rogers says are “two to three times more for e-commerce purchases versus brick and mortar, depending on the product.” That adds up: “There will be like an additional billion dollars of returns this year, and they’re going to need to process this stuff. There’s a wave coming, and I’m very interested to see what happens between late November and early January.” 

It may seem counterintuitive that in the midst of severe economic shock, huge corporations such as Amazon and Walmart would struggle to find workers. But the labor supply situation is incredibly unorthodox, says Chamberlain. There’s a significant compositional shift away from traditional work — say, a job at the counter at Sephora — and toward warehouses and delivery gigs. And many workers are simply sitting this season out; whether they’re worried about getting sick, the added pressure of handling child care, or waiting out a furlough, many people are simply in limbo, Chamberlain has found.

Monga points to two indexes of consumer activity and attitudes as red lights for retail: the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index (down nearly 20 percent since last December) and the savings rate (currently double the typical 6-8 percent range). Americans are, overall, wary and worried, and even those who are employed are holding onto a portion of their potential disposable income. The few bright spots, such as outdoor retailer REI, can’t overcome sharp drops in clothing purchases. This dismal holiday hiring season will just lock in structural shifts decimating retail, especially as warehouse operators adopt robotics and other means of increasing efficiency.

“Automation and rising productivity are ways to do more with less,” says Chamberlain. “By far the largest cost in production is people. Wages are high. If sales double in traditional retail, you may need to double your number of workers. But for Amazon and Walmart, they may need just 10 percent more people to handle that rush.” 

Rogers points to a newly reopened Macy’s facility in Littleton, Colorado, as the future of retail employment. This new omni service center features packing, delivery, and pick-up services, but the so-called dark store isn’t open for the public to enter and shop. In effect, Macy’s is hiring and staffing for the holidays, but the jobs it’s offering are becoming indistinguishable from the gigs found in the general logistics and warehouse industry. Even many of the seasonal retail gigs that remain are starting to look more and more like those found in warehouses.

“They’re doing the same job as an Amazon picker, but in a store,” says Gutelius. “The lines are getting very blurry.”


November 2020

They died out of sight, underneath a scorching late-summer sun.

In Los Angeles, when midday temperatures reach 38°C (100°F), the asphalt cooks at a blistering 66°C (150°F). Over the Labour Day holiday weekend of 6 September, when temperatures in the city’s Woodland Hills neighbourhood hit a record 49°C (121°F), at least three homeless Angelenos perished due to heat-related causes (autopsies may reveal up to a dozen more cases in coming months). Holland Harmon, 60, was found dead on the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon.

It’s not uncommon to see low-income Californians, housed or unhoused, die of heat stress, even when solutions such as shade, shelter and air conditioning can literally be within arm’s reach. “Living on the margins and knowing how expensive it is to run that A/C, they try to push through,” says UC Berkeley professor Rachel Morello-Frosch, who studies climate change and inequality. “It could have detrimental consequences for pre-existing health conditions that make them vulnerable to these heatwaves.”

LA, already accustomed to droughts, heatwaves and wildfires, serves as a cautionary tale concerning the dire threat to human life posed by climate change. The city also holds up an equally unflattering mirror to another very US policy failure: rampant geographic inequality. A study of Los Angeles neighbourhoods found that those that were “redlined” – the term that describes how mortgages and financial services in the early 20th century were systematically denied to people of colour due to racial discrimination – are today, on average, 7.6 degrees hotter than non-redlined areas and still predominantly Black and brown.

Kate Gordon, senior climate change adviser to California Governor Gavin Newsom, acknowledges that extreme temperatures are an immediate, urgent equity and economic issue in her state. And LA’s technocratic Mayor, Eric Garcetti, has outlined an extensive Green New Deal touted as one of the US’s best examples of local climate leadership. Yet extreme gaps in heat readiness and resilience across a sprawling metropolis, one that is geographically defined by class and racial divides, make notions of climate equity in LA a far-off goal. During the deadly Labour Day heatwave, just six modest cooling centres were opened for the entire city; the fact that fewer than 300 Angelenos used them that weekend suggests a programme in need of significant expansion and improvement.

The circumstances of Los Angeles, much like dry brush on a hillside, make the issue of rising temperatures even more primed for deadly outcomes: a varied topography of coasts, mountains and valleys that has allowed the wealthy to settle in cooler areas; an economy weighted towards heat-exposed occupations such as construction, landscaping and manufacturing; a car-centric transportation system that produces heat-trapping exhaust; and a metastasising homelessness crisis.

“Due to the social factors like less access to healthcare, suboptimal work access, less optimal nutrition, indigenous, Latino and Black communities have higher rates of conditions such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which make them much more vulnerable to the adverse health effects of heat,” says Morello-Frosch.

Heatwaves, like other natural disasters, get the media attention. The 2006 heatwave in the state of California resulted in $5.3bn in healthcare costs, 16,000 emergency-room visits and 650 deaths. But it’s the slow, persistent rise in average temperatures, coupled with pollution and wildfires, that will push the limits of adaptability and add pressure to low-wage workers, says Juanita Constible, a senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Having people taking care of themselves isn’t the morally appropriate response to this moment,” says Constible.

The working poor in Los Angeles will feel the inexorable rise in heat in ways that many of their neighbours won’t. Rising temperatures lower labour productivity, a huge hit to the overall economy and the incomes that keep poor families clothed and fed. During wildfire season, when particulate-matter pollution spikes, lower-income workers will still have to work even as the air quality decreases; if they’re mandated to put on respirators for protection, the added effort required to breathe through protective equipment only increases the stress and strain of toiling in the heat.

Numerous studies show the dire impact warmer weather has on the livelihood and well-being of the US’s workers: higher rates of heat-related occupational deaths occur among Hispanic men working in construction and agriculture; construction workers make up 6% of the US workforce and 36% of heat-related deaths; nationally between 2000 and 2018, extreme temperatures led to a cumulative loss of nearly 1.1 billion work hours in the agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors; and in 2018, fewer than half of construction workers had paid sick leave.

And heat stress doesn’t stay at work. Kevin Riley, a UCLA researcher, analysed associated hospital visits in Los Angeles and found that for every percentage point increase in residents working in construction in a particular neighbourhood, there was an 8.1% increase in heat-related emergency room visits and a 7.9% increase in associated hospitalisations.

“Occupational health thinks about the workplace and regulations, and public health thinks about community, about cooling centres and housing stock, and they never put them together,” he says.

“We have a system of labour laws that aren’t ready for climate change,” adds Constible. “In the United States, the strong immigrant workforce, especially in construction, landscaping and farmwork, isn’t likely to be covered by existing labour laws.” Morello-Frosch says this “racialised division of labour” and its often piecemeal or pickup system of pay means workers are reluctant to take the breaks or protections afforded them due to the structural nature of how they’re paid. Immigrants, especially those without legal status, often have the least protections; fully 96% of heat-related deaths in the US between 2004 and 2015 happened to non-citizens.

The city’s efforts to reduce temperatures have been explicit about making equity a key requirement. First adopted in 2014, a successful Cool Roofs ordinance that requires reflective surfaces and provides rebates for lower-income neighbourhoods has, like many weatherisation programmes, been a wonky success story: reflective surfaces and lighter-colour paint on a rooftop can reduce the surface temperature of shingles by an incredible 50°F on a hot day. “It constantly delivers 20% energy savings without having to pay a monthly bill,” says Kurt Shickman, executive director of the Global Cool Cities Alliance. Collaborative projects in neighbourhoods such as Watts and Compton will invest millions in urban design initiatives focused on equity and heat resilience, and Garcetti’s Green New Deal promotes expanded park access. Los Angeles has also promised to invest in tree plantings and rectify the imbalance across neighbourhoods: the wealthier West Los Angeles and Los Feliz areas have 35% more tree canopy than South LA. The city recently hired an urban forestry manager and, according to chief sustainability officer Lauren Faber O’Connor, is on track to plant 90,000 trees between 2019 and 2021. LA aims to grow its tree canopy by 50% in the areas of greatest need by 2028.

Trees have been heralded as a solution to cooling and shade, but it’s not as simple as planting saplings, says Edith de Guzman, director of research for TreePeople* and a member of the LA Urban Cooling Collaborative. New trees take years to provide shade, and there are tangible barriers to city planting efforts, including maintenance and engaging residents in care. Many areas, especially those with little tree canopy, have minuscule parkways between streets and sidewalks, complicating the planting process. Studies have shown that much of the available land for planting trees is privately owned. The long-term nature of these efforts also raises a question: what species will survive and prosper in the new climate a decade or two in the future?

“How do you cool an entire neighbourhood?” says Guzman. “If we don’t engage private land to plant trees, we’ll fail.”

Is any of this enough? LA’s Green New Deal road map offers numerous plans and initiatives to cool the city by 2028, including creating 250 miles of cool pavement, piloting “cool neighbourhood” programmes with added shading and water features such as splash pads, as well as shading at every transit stop. A trip during rush hour, where it’s easy to spot workers baking under the sun at unshaded bus stops, shows how far the city needs to go. The program director of climate change and sustainability at the Los Angeles County public health department*, Elizabeth Rhoades, says LA has worked to establish a network of cooling centres, with particular focus on areas with the most need. But during the record-breaking heatwave that hit the city in early September, access was found lacking in many neighbourhoods. (Rhoades declined to comment about the performance of cooling centres during this year’s heatwave.)

“I would agree the city is addressing the heat inequality issue with the resources they have,” says Shickman. “It’s analytic, it’s research-oriented. They just need to find a way to scale it up five- or tenfold. They need to get the financial community to value the cost of rising heat.”

“People in the past have thought of extreme heat as an inconvenience,” says Rhoades. “But what people need to realise is that as extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, they’re going to affect the entire county, with power shutoffs, increased droughts and worse air quality. Privileged people who felt impervious will feel the impacts, and the cascading effects, in their daily lives.”


October 2020

Infrastructure often gets sold as a new solution to past mistakes. In Mumbai, India’s financial capital, an ongoing project to fill in part of the city’s coastline and build the initial 9.8km (6.1 miles) of an eight-lane Coastal Road can best be understood as an old mistake applied to a new problem. Building an expensive waterfront highway to “solve” traffic congestion highlights a consistent pattern in this tropical megalopolis of more than 20 million people: paving over green space and wetlands – even reclaiming part of the ocean – with new development. 

“At a time when we recognise the city is getting hotter, it seems a little perverse to pave over some of the city’s last open spaces to build a road that will produce heat-capturing emissions and make the city hotter,” says Nikhil Anand, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who writes about Indian infrastructure. “This is one of the few escapes for people to get fresh air and recreation, and it’s being repurposed for the interest of a wealthy few.” 

The Coastal Road represents how a nexus of class and caste concerns, capital, concrete and road construction conspire to keep the most vulnerable citizens of India’s largest city at an inequitable risk of rising heat. The rich and poor in India often live “cheek to jowl”, says Anand, so poverty isn’t just expressed in spatial separation. It’s about access to resources, with open or recreational spaces understood to be places of privilege. The availability of trees, parks, drinking water and protection from the heat will become even more of a meaningful dividing line in coming decades. 

“Baked-in climate change, in a broad sense, is the unequal global distribution of damage,” says Amir Jina, a professor of public policy who works with the Tata Center at the University of Chicago. “Mumbai is a lot closer to the frontiers of hot temperatures right now and only stands to face the negative effects of a hotter planet.” 

Originally an archipelago of seven islands, Mumbai has been developed, filled in and paved over for decades, especially during a recent spate of runaway growth. The topographic shift is visible from above, says Roxy Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. Mangrove trees, the lungs and kidneys of the city due to their power to filter the air and absorb floodwaters, have been decimated and replaced with massive developments. The Mithi River, infamous for being declared an “open sewer” due to rampant pollution, now takes a winding path to the sea due to overdevelopment on its banks, rendering it less and less useful as a way to quickly disperse floodwaters. 

The city’s rich have taken the high ground, leaving the poor – typically migrant workers from other parts of the country – to settle in low-lying, flood-prone informal settlements and shantytowns such as Dharavi. Nearly three million Mumbaikars live within a kilometre of the coastline, and many millions more live near rivers. All of these areas are vulnerable to extreme rainfall events, storm surges, rising sea levels and, most deadly, the combination of all three. According to Nandan Maluste, a banker and board member of Mumbai First, a public-private partnership, those who live in makeshift homes with tin roofs have to contend with flooding and rising temperatures: “Warmer weather means stronger storms and stronger humidity, especially in areas that can’t afford air conditioning,” he says. The British-era drainage system, built in the mid-19th century when mangroves and open green spaces were still plentiful, could handle roughly 25mm of water an hour, repeatedly exceeded during this summer’s record rainfall (a replacement system is still under construction). Koll estimates the city experienced a threefold increase in extreme rainfall events from 1950 to 2019, and a recent analysis by McKinsey projected that Mumbai will see a rise in the number of intense flash flood events of nearly 25% by 2050. 

“The government’s response is largely one of neglect,” says D Parthasarathy, who studies cities and climate change at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. “The people who live in these informal settlements are largely migrants, religious minorities or lower castes, and Mumbai has a history of discrimination against these groups. It’s also not a vote bank local leaders count on.”

The late former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi famously said, “The biggest polluter is poverty.” It’s also the biggest barrier to individual Indians’ building more resilient homes. Hotter days deliver a financial blow to Mumbai’s poor, who often have access to water for just a few hours a day. In industries such as construction and manufacturing, where workers face sweltering conditions and get paid by the piece or the project, not the hour, making money means more effort during hot, humid days. The International Labour Organization estimates that India will lose 5.8% of its working hours due to heat stress by 2030. That is equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs. 

“Let’s get the poverty problem solved first, and the environment is a luxury good we can get to later,” Anand says. “That’s the typical approach. But those on the front lines, the poor and dispossessed, face large, significant and structural environmental issues now.”

Jina helped conduct a yet-unpublished study with 600 low-income Indian households where they were given subsidies to install cool roofs or apply light-coloured paint to reflect heat, both effective passive-cooling interventions with track records of success. He found that respondents preferred to use the money to pay for other things and “got used to the heat being hot”. 

“It seemed that what people wanted, what they were demanding, was the few hundred dollars we spent painting their roofs,” he says. It wasn’t that they didn’t like the cooling effect of the roofs, but the savings were more important. “From their point of view, perhaps the temperature exposure wasn’t the worst thing they were facing,” Jina adds.

Complicating the hope that Mumbai’s poor could be induced or even paid to build more climate-resistant homes is the lack of landownership. Many of Mumbai’s millions of slum dwellers quickly find out housing is their biggest expense, even in informal settlements, and they don’t own their domiciles. Even if they had enough savings to build or repair a dwelling, they don’t have a title or long-term financial reasons to upgrade. 

While more immediate financial concerns mean India’s poor can’t afford to alleviate sweltering temperatures, the heat will undoubtedly get worse. Mumbai and other Indian cities will soon face days where the wet-bulb temperature – a measure of heat stress that includes humidity, wind speed and other factors – crosses 35°C (95°F), a point where healthy adults can’t survive outside for more than a couple of hours. Workers will toil all day in the heat, then return to makeshift housing with tin roofs that trap the heat, meaning less sleep and an inability to recover by the time the next workday begins. Melissa LoPalo at Montana State University studied workers in Bangladesh and Pakistan who conduct household surveys; when wet-bulb temperature crossed 29°C (85°F), their productivity dropped by 13% to 14%.

Despite its location and the urban heat island effect, Mumbai historically sees few temperature-related deaths, especially compared with inland and agricultural regions of Maharashtra, the state where it’s located (Nagpur, for instance, located more than 800km inland, saw five heat-related deaths last May, according to state records). Heat Action Plans across the nation have helped lower the mortality of recent heatwaves in India; a government report found just 25 deaths nationwide in 2018, compared with more than 2,000 in 2015, and as of late May, one of Mumbai’s hottest periods of the year, there were no heat-related deaths reported in Maharashtra.

Heat resiliency typically isn’t part of Mumbai’s environmental policy discussion because flooding is such an immediate threat. Raghu Murtugudde, an earth climate scientist at the University of Maryland, says long-term climate shifts will deluge Mumbai. Warming in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea will mean late-season cyclones with more moisture, which will roll over Mumbai’s heat islands (themselves dense with moisture), hit the surrounding Western Ghats mountains and “explode like a sponge”, he says. Murtugudde, who has overseen the creation of an early-warning SMS system for flooding in the Chesapeake Bay, says the new one run by the government in Mumbai, which reaches “several hundred thousand” residents, has helped make recent record deluges less deadly. Currently, officials are working on the “last-mile problem” and getting the alerts translated into the languages spoken by migrant workers. This effort sidesteps catastrophe while large-scale resilience efforts run into so many barriers: the poor don’t have resources, the government isn’t engaged, and there aren’t broad  studies of the benefits of investing in the expensive process of retrofitting older buildings. 

The rising heat and water, Maluste says, suggests a need to “radically reimagine Mumbai”; while Mumbai First has an action plan for flood prevention, he personally thinks about abandoning much of the topography that has sustained the city for centuries. And growth marches on: the city’s remaining mangroves, which cover 6,600ha, will not survive the city’s current growth trajectory, including projects like the Coastal Road. 

“I don’t like to talk about it as apocalyptic,” says Jina, “but climate change will make society less fair and affect how we think about ourselves as a society on this planet.” 

Bloomberg CityLab

November 2020

As a nail-biter U.S. election creeps to its resolution — and tallies in urban areas decide key battleground states — a few things are clear. While the ideological cleavage between urban and rural parts of the country continues to grow, progressive candidates at the local level had a strong showing on Tuesday. There’s a “dramatic progressive turn” taking place on the local level, says Richard Schragger, a University of Virginia professor and author of City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age.

The 2020 results, so far, shows that trend will continue, even if it doesn’t trickle up into control of state legislatures or executive leadership. Schragger sees the range of policy that prevailed at the polls, from housing and transit to new ideas for land use and economic development, broadening significantly in cities of all sizes. 

Moving forward, many political observers and leaders tell CityLab that action will continue on tenant and worker rights, criminal justice reform and transportation. And with evolving vote tallies in battleground states pointing (as of Nov. 5) towards a Democratic White House, and Senate control decided by runoffs in Georgia, they feel it’s imperative that cities continue to advance progressive policies that reshape the local economy.

Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win, a progressive political coalition and PAC, points to the passage of Proposition A in Austin, a $7.1 billion transit improvement initiative, after the city council passed a Green New Deal last year as an example of progressives pushing big reforms when they have the votes and the power. 

 Wins like that stand out in a more muddled national picture, as predictions that voters would deliver a resounding repudiation of the Trump-era GOP have given way to a mixed assortment of results — and an ever-deeper gulf between urban and rural America. Still, Gavito sees the results so far as a step in the right direction for the progressive agenda. “The first thing to note is that Democrats are winning the popular vote, and their numbers are only increasing in urban and suburban areas, with demographic change in the south and southwest,” she says. “Arizona flipping, Georgia in a dead heat, Texas moving left, and wins down ballot are a sign this country is shifting.” 

Ross Morales Rocketto, co-founder of Run for Something, which backs state and local progressive Gen Z and Millennial candidates, emphasizes the generational shift in local politics. Overall, Run for Something endorsed 525 candidates this cycle, with 202 victories, 77 races left to call and three runoffs as of Nov. 5. Among the winners: Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, an Indigenous candidate who declared victory in her race to be the new Pima County Recorder, which oversees elections in the Tucson area; she ran in response to other Native Americans being disenfranchised. And Nikil Saval, an Asian-American architecture critic and first-time candidate just elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate, ran in part on a “housing for all” agenda. 

Candidate For Missouri's 1st District Cori Bush Holds Election Night Party
Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush speaks during her election-night watch party in St. Louis, Missouri. Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images North America

Rocketto also pointed out a pair of congressional winners who come with progressive credentials: former nurse and Ferguson activist Cori Bush, the first African-American woman to represent Missouri in the House of Representatives, and former middle-school principal Jamaal Bowman from New York City, who has promoted restorative justice and increased community investment.

These political newcomers, Rocketto says, reflect a generation that grew up watching Democratic leaders from Bill Clinton’s “big government is over” school of politics try to solve massive social problems with small fixes and slight shifts; now, they are loudly asking why government can’t do more. Rocketto doesn’t see it as an ideological fight as much as a demand that things get done. “Democrats have been in control of most major American cities for decades and Black people are still being killed on the streets by police,” he says. This summer’s racial justice protests fueled a surge in interest from younger people interested in public office, he says. “It was already too late to get on the ballot, but we had literally thousands of people contact us about running. We haven’t come close to seeing all the young candidates running for office in cities, counties and school boards. There will be a wave of new people in 2021.” 

Some victories could beget future wins. Rocketto points to Lina Hidalgo, judge for Harris County, Texas, which included Houston. Her election in 2018 and subsequent work to encourage and support increased voting access fueled early (albeit overly optimistic) Democratic hopes of a blue wave in Texas, and shows the power of putting progressives in local office. “In 2018, Harris County spent $6 million on their election,” says Rocketto. “This year they’re spending $36 million. It may feel small — $30 million isn’t a ton of money — but that small change impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, who saw an example of the government impacting their daily lives.” 

Local progressives have already succeeded in shifting the national conversation on issues such as affordable housing, says Maurice Jones, president and CEO of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national community development financial institution. “Local government is chomping at the bit for a federal partner, and if they saw one that wanted to be more aggressive, they would get more aggressive themselves,” Jones says. 

Tara Raghuveer, co-founder of KC Tenants and director of the national Homes Guarantee campaign, says that this election has already shifted the terrain of ideas in terms of raising awareness of the affordability crisis. “On the state and local level, we’ve seen a proportional shift,” Raghuveer says. She points to candidates like Nithya Raman, a 39-year-old urban planner who’s holding a strong lead in her bid for a city council seat in Los Angeles. “She’s running front-and-center and saying that incrementalism is dead, and L.A. can solve homelessness tomorrow.”

Raghuveer sees the election of representatives Bush and Bowman, and the reelection of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of “the Squad,” as a “deepening of the bench,” with more representatives headed to D.C. with lived experience to understand the impact of housing policy on urban America. It gives voice and platform to the tenant’s rights movement, and could push a potential Biden administration to feel pressure to address the issue and “force a reckoning.”

Early 2020 results also suggest more ambitious local transportation policies, again filling the gap left by federal inaction during the previous four years of the Trump administration. Romic Aevaz, a policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation, says that regardless of exact ballot initiative results, there is movement towards significant local investments in new rail and mass transit, such as Austin’s Prop A, as well as more measures to fund Vision Zero and bike lane safety improvement. “There’s more optimism, more enthusiasm for big-ticket proposals in Austin and the Bay Area,” he says. “If local governments put the funds up and we get a Biden administration, we’ll have a better chance to get federal matching funds, too.”

But cities in red or battleground states may soon face bigger challenges. As of yet, there haven’t been any Democratic takeovers of state legislatures in places like Texas, meaning preemption of local powers will continue to be a problem. Schragger points to Virginia, which saw its House of Delegates flip to blue last year, as an example of how such a change can create a state much more responsive to urban constituencies. “The anti-urbanism of the Republican party will be magnified if Trump is re-elected,” Schragger says. “No support at a minimum, as well as outright hostility in the form of ‘anarchist jurisdiction’ declarations.”

Gregorio Casar, a city councilmember in Austin, Texas, laments the lost opportunity to turn the state legislature blue this year, as it would provide a better chance to make sure the work progressive cities do holds — a paid sick leave law he championed was later struck down — and hold other more moderate politicians to account, who can’t blame preemption fears for their refusal to take bold action.

“Every time we have a good idea in our cities, we have to ask, will this be stopped by the legislature, will the governor have a press conference to bash it?” he says. A less-hostile state government could also increase voter participation and turnout. “Texas has been a non-voting state, not a red or blue state, and I can understand that, since it’s been so gerrymandered.” 

Even with a more helpful executive branch, local progressives may still be forced to do much of the heavy lifting of enacting change themselves. That often starts with budgets, which have been under the microscope of activists since the summer’s reckoning with police violence. 

Eunisses Hernandez is a longtime criminal justice advocate with Re-Imagine L.A. and a supporter of Measure J, an approved Los Angeles County initiative that calls for redirecting more than $360 million to community investment and alternatives to incarceration. She’s seen increased activity around budgets and funding for years as a progressive coalition has formed around longtime community frustrations. Hernandez says that the diverse campaign around Measure J grew out of decades of activism and community demands for jobs, housing and health services, including East L.A. protestsof the 1960s and the work behind Prop 47, a statewide ballot measure that reduced sentencing for nonviolent crimes.

“Now, with younger people, you see that demands are shifting,” she says. “I’ll say radical for lack of a better term. Instead of asking for a piece of the pie, it’s about asking for the entire pie. There’s a demand for deep reform, and not leaving people behind. Black Lives Matter really set the stage for us to be able to make these demands of the bureaucracy. What’s happening here is a blueprint to show what your tax dollars can do, and how they can represent your values.” 

Elise Buik, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, says that the younger generation leading the charge is “bringing focus and scrutiny to public budgets in a way I’ve never seen,” she says. The group is part of a coalition supporting Measure J, which she says could be “a really important model for California and the country. L.A. county is bigger than 41 states in terms of population.”

Campaigns like the one for Measure J may represent Rocketto’s vision of how to expand the progressive coalition beyond its urban strongholds. “The real opportunity at the local level across the country, is to fundamentally talk about local problems,” he says. “It’s not about running on ideology. Connect with voters over shared values. That’s how you get a Republican, who only sees a Democrat on Fox News, to trust and vote for a Democrat.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid of contrast in a time of polarization,” Gavito says. “The more you can tell a story of how progressive policies are helping a multiracial coalition succeed, the more you can pull people into the coalition who are natural allies.” 

Raghuveer observes that it’s become something of a radical notion, in a divided nation, that the government should be the source of power that can fix serious societal issues — especially after seeing how ineffective it has been in protecting jobs and lives during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The clarity provided by the last several months,” she says, “is that almost nothing about the way we’re set up allows cities to care for people in the way we need them to care.” 

Bloomberg CityLab

August 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has revived interest in the role design has played fighting infectious diseases. Most famously, the trailblazing modern architecture of the early 20th century — open to nature and filled with light and air, as practiced by designers such as Alvar Aalto and Richard Neutra — reflected au courant ideas about health and wellness, especially in combating the scourge of tuberculosis (which also influenced bathroom design). 

The battle against pathogens reshaped the inner working of buildings, too. Take that familiar annoyance for New Yorkers: the clanky radiator that overheats apartments even on the coldest days of the year. It turns out that the prodigious output of steam-heated buildings is the direct result of theories of infection control that were enlisted in the battle against the great global pandemic of 1918 and 1919. 

The Spanish Influenza, which caused just over 20,000 deaths in New York City alone, “changed heating once and for all.” That’s according to Dan Holohan, a retired writer, consultant, and researcher with extensive knowledge of heating systems and steam heating. (Among his many tomes on the topicThe Lost Art of Steam Heating, from 1992.) Most radiator systems appeared in major American cities like New York City in the first third of the 20th century. This golden age of steam heat didn’t merely coincide with that pandemic: Beliefs about how to fight airborne illness influenced the design of heating systems, and created a persistent pain point for those who’ve cohabitated with a cranky old radiator. More fromIs New York’s New Subway Map a ‘Geographical Mess’?Here Are the Local Ballot Measures That Passed and FailedThe High Cost of Locking Down D.C. for Election WeekAt the City Level, Progressives Flex New Power

Health officials thought (correctly) that fresh air would ward off airborne diseases; then as now, cities rushed to move activities outdoors, from schools to courtrooms. When winter came, the need for fresh air didn’t abate. According to Holohan’s research, the Board of Health in New York City ordered that windows should remain open to provide ventilation, even in cold weather. In response, engineers began devising heating systems with this extreme use case in mind. Steam heating and radiators were designed to heat buildings on the coldest day of the year with all the windows open. Anybody who’s thrown their windows open in January, when their apartment is stifling, is, in an odd way, replicating what engineers hoped would happen a century ago. 

The memories of the flu pandemic lingered. Engineering books from the 1920s often mentioned this need to design heating systems, notably the boilers and radiators, to operate with all windows open, a requirement of the “fresh air movement,” Holohan says. This health crusade, which has its roots in the post-Civil War era, saw fresh air as a necessity for good health; adherents believed that rooms with closed windows and tight airflow meant that others would breathe in your vapors and catch disease. The theory originated before modern germ theory, at a time when tuberculosis was a significant health threat. “They called unventilated air the ‘national poison,’” Holohan says. 

A key proponent of the idea was Lewis Leeds, a health inspector for Union Army field hospitals who came to the conclusion that “vitiated,” or spoiled, air was the cause of the many diseases. The “spent breath” of the occupants of poorly ventilated homes contributed to 40% of the deaths in the country, he claimed, and often said “man’s own breath is his greatest enemy.” He would spend decades promoting the cause, designing ventilation schemes for buildings, penning a 1869 book, Leeds on Ventilation, and lecturing across the country. He explained his ideas with the aid of a “magic lantern” projector — think old-timey Powerpoint presentations. He’d show slides of a family in their drawing room, then add a slide showing red air coming out of the father’s mouth. The child crawling on the floor would eventually fall over. It “scared people to death,” Holohan says. 

Leeds was joined in his fervent ventilation campaign by author Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame. With her sister, Catherine, Stowe would coauthor a 1869 book, The American Woman’s Home, that claimed “tight sleeping-rooms, and close, air-tight stoves, are now starving and poisoning more than one half of this nation.” It also introduced terrifying scenarios to shock American readers into action, such as this passage about the impact of vitiated air on a child: 

Little Jim, who, fresh from his afternoon’s ramble in the fields, last evening said his prayers dutifully, and lay down to sleep in a most Christian frame, this morning sits up in bed with his hair bristling with crossness, strikes at his nurse, and declares he won’t say his prayers—that he don’t want to be good. The simple difference is, that the child, having slept in a close box of a room, his brain all night fed by poison, is in a mild state of moral insanity. 

These ideas would become more formally accepted by architects and engineers during the beginning years of the 20th century. The 1901 New York State Tenement House Act mandated that every room have an outdoor facing window. New York City Health Commissioner Royal Copeland, who, as a U.S. senator in the 1920s proposed redesigning the Senate Chamber to deal with deadly, stale air, would praise the tenement laws as having a significant impact during the flu pandemic. 

By the time the Spanish Flu hit, the maxims of the fresh air movement had become popular enough to impact building designs. The toll of the pandemic solidified this thinking, says Holohan. Having robust steam boilers that could keep apartments and dwellings comfortable with open windows became standard in New York City, as well as other northern cities in cold climates, such as Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Boston and Philadelphia.

relates to Your Old Radiator Is a Pandemic-Fighting Weapon
In the early 20th century, steam heat represented a big step up from coal stoves and fireplaces.Image: New York Public Library Digital Collections

The pandemic abated in 1920 but these standards had become locked into place. The architecture firm KPF found that nearly 75% of Manhattan’s existing square footage was built between 1900 and 1930. And since steam heat systems are incredibly durable, they’ve lasted for generations.  

In the ensuing decades, shifts in building practice and fuel usage made the problem of over-indexed steam heat worse. The type of fuel used to heat the steam boilers changed, from coal to heating oil to natural gas, and during the changeover, Holohan says, they didn’t properly resize boilers or systematically change design standards to account for the changing power source; replacement boilers were kept big to err on the side of caution. Better windows, especially double-pane varieties, would provide the benefit of better insulation and less heat loss, but only served to lock in the impact of overly aggressive radiators. (If you own an old radiator-equipped house, you might have noticed how overpoweringly effective they can be after you replace leaky older windows with more well-insulated modern replacements.) 

By the 1930s, Holohan says, a few common remedies to mitigate excessive radiator heat came into practice that last to this day. Researchers at the National Bureau of Standards found that if radiators were painted with a special kind of bronzing paint — specifically, the silver tone found in many radiators today — it would reduce some of the heat transfer. Same goes with “radiator cozies,” knitted covers sometimes placed over the ribs of radiator pipes. They have the added benefit of protecting kids from getting burned, but one reason they became commonplace was as a way to blunt excess heat. 

Roughly 80%  of residential buildings in NYC are still heated by steam, and surveys with tenants found that 70 % are chronically overheated in winter, according to Demystifying Steama 2019 report by the Urban Green Council. The durability of steam “has locked into place technical limitations of a century ago, ” the report noted; their role as disease-fighters forgotten, radiators are now seen as energy-sucking dinosaurs. “Many tenants open windows for relief, even on the coldest days,” the report found, “but steam systems are so unbalanced that other residents in these same buildings don’t receive enough heat.”

Steam’s grip on the city’s building stock has made the challenge of meeting environmental goals much harder, in effect overheating more than merely the buildings in which they operate. According to John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, 70% of the climate emissions in New York City are generated by buildings, with the biggest share from the fossil fuels used for heat and hot water in large, multifamily buildings.

Steam might get a bad rap now, but Holohan notes that its inefficiencies can be traced to poor maintenance and long out-of-date building codes. (It’s not supposed to clank either.) “The banging and clanging wasn’t normal,” he says. “Steam heat was fast and silent when it was first installed. When it’s properly tended, it can be an efficient way to heat. Most people just don’t know how to do it right.” 

As a Covid-haunted winter looms, residents of steam-heated buildings may get another opportunity to crank their radiators up and put them to their intended use. Holohan says he’s bemused to see his field of expertise reemerge in connection with the current pandemic, as ventilation is being again promoted as a key strategy to cut infection. 

“I’ve been talking about this for like 30 years or more,” he says. “And suddenly I’m living it.” 


September 2020

Modern cities suffer from a parking problem that’s hidden in plain sight: There’s simply too much of it.

When we think of the issues cars present, we tend to look at automobiles in motion. But an often overlooked issue is how cities handle cars at rest. Since the invention of the automobile, parking – or, sometimes, progressive, forward-thinking restrictions on parking – has powerfully shaped the design, environment and economies of urban areas.

An empty parking lot at a mall.
In many places, mandatory parking minimums require real estate developers to include a certain number of parking spaces in anything they build. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The sheer amount of asphalt should make it clear how cars at rest consume our cities: some analysts say Western Europe contains 300 million spots, while estimates suggest the United States boasts 2 billion. Often, that real estate is centrally located and very valuable. Just a single standard parking space, which measures a little more than six by three metres, takes up about as much space as a small Parisian studio apartment, a low-income-housing unit in India or three office cubicles.

These spaces line the streets of urban neighbourhoods, stack floor upon floor in parking garages and sprawl out in seas of asphalt around offices and shopping centers. The largest parking lot in the world, at the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, boasts 20,000 parking spaces, covering enough space for a neighbourhood of 500 homes.

Even more troubling, though, is that parking spaces aren’t actually used that much. A study by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a sustainable-development nonprofit in Chicago, found that a quarter to a third of parking spaces around apartment buildings in many US cities sat empty. Considering that the average car moves just 5% of the time, there’s a strong case for cities to rightsize the space they allocate for vehicles at rest.

And while parking is often seen mainly as a problem for the car-centric United States, it’s important to understand that it truly is a global issue. As global living standards rise and urbanisation accelerates, especially in India and China, cities around the world are seeing huge spikes in motor vehicle ownership accompanied by demand for parking. In India, the number of private automobiles grew nearly 400% between 2001 and 2015, going from 55 million to 210 million. In China, as of 2017, there was a shortage of 50 million parking spaces, according to the central government.

Cities face immense challenges from climate change and rising heat, increased urbanisation and housing affordability. All of those are made worse by our addiction to asphalt.

A person plays SimCity at the Museum of Modern Art.
SimCity‘s lead designer once said he wanted to model the game on real cities but “quickly realised there were way too many parking lots in the real world”. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

The parking problem is a land use problem

Few aspects of zoning, the building code or development exert such a strong influence on the built environment. The deeper you dig into parking policy, the clearer it becomes that parking isn’t something offered to motorists as much as it is mandated by the government – and the more it can seem like a key that unlocks a greater understanding of urban land use.

Many localities have mandatory parking minimums, which require real estate developers to include a certain number of parking spaces in anything they build. The required number of spaces depends on a building’s use and size; in the US, commercial properties like grocery stores typically need to have four to six spots per 1,000 square feet. The rules can get ridiculous: St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, mandated four spaces for every hole on a golf course and one space for every three nuns in a convent. In countries such as Australia, China, India and the Philippines, every project requires new parking.

Mandatory parking minimums have ripple effects that extend well beyond individual developments. That’s in no small part because parking incentivises driving. A Norwegian study found that parking availability triples the likelihood of owning a car. It also creates congestion and reduces the real estate available for more important purposes, such as housing, transit, parks and public space. Parking also contributes to urban sprawl by increasing the distance between each building. At scale, this makes neighbourhoods and cities less walkable, increasing the need to use cars to move around, which, of course, spurs the need for more parking.

Traditionally, when people mention the problem with parking, they’re referring to a lack of space for cars in a particular place. In reality, the parking problem is an issue of overall transport policy. Failures in parking management lead to a greater dependence on the private automobile and more competition for available parking space.

An illustrative anecdote comes from Stone Librande, the lead designer of the hit video game SimCity. “We were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realised there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots,” he told the Atlantic in 2013.

Parking isn’t as expensive as it should be

Anyone who pays for it is sure to have the same thought at some point: why is parking so expensive? But consider what that six-by-three-metre space costs in some of the priciest urban areas of the world. In London, some neighbourhoods have what’s called residents’ parking zones, where locals pay between £90 and £242 a year for the right to park in areas that typically charge substantial hourly rates up to £5.20. In wealthy neighbourhoods such as Kensington and Chelsea, it’s ostensibly a giveaway to the upper crust.

This amounts to a subsidy for motorists that’s paid for by non-drivers. The European Parking Association found that the subsidies for on-street parking across Europe added up to roughly €300 per taxpayer per year. In countries like India, where most people walk or take transit, parking requires public expenditure benefitting a very well-off sliver of the total population.

And even where parking is abundant and free, it comes at a cost.

Parking makes rent and shopping more expensive

The perceived need for parking adds many expenses to homes and businesses. A small part of the price of every item in a store reflects the cost of providing parking, and business owners often fastidiously defend parking and street space for cars as necessities for business (often at the expense of adding or improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure).

This affects every business, but it’s particularly hard on smaller ones; the added cost of carving out space for cars means larger, well-financed chains have an advantage. It can even shape what kinds of businesses take hold. When bars are required to have a minimum number of parking spaces (yes, this happens) it’s more challenging to have a small, walkable neighbourhood pub.

And just like parking at apartment buildings, these spaces often remain unused due to overzealous requirements – a US social media campaign even highlights the empty spaces near retail on Black Friday, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. Donald Shoup, a professor and patron saint of the anti-parking crusade, studied the cost of parking spaces built on the campus of the school where he teaches, UCLA. He determined that they accounted for 39% of the total cost of constructing a new office building.

In many ways, it’s worse for residential projects. Research on parking minimums in the United States shows they add significant cost to projects. Adding one parking space per unit increases the cost of affordable-housing development by 12.5%, and UCLA researchers found that garage parking typically adds $142 a month to a household’s rent. The inverse occurs when parking minimums get cut. In 2015, Minneapolis slashed parking minimums for housing. Developers responded by dropping rent costs for new apartments, with $1,200 units becoming $1,000 units.

This requirement becomes more striking with taller building projects, which might be forced to include pricey subterranean car storage or dedicate several lower floors to parking that could otherwise be used for street-level retail, offices or homes. Enough new towers in a recent wave of development in downtown Los Angeles featured parking podiums that a magazine had the material to do a best- and worst-designed list.

How to fix the parking problem

The insatiable hunger for more parking comes from the belief that parking is a right, not a land use that’s subject to market forces. So it’s no shock that reformers who want better ways to manage the parking problem – and to eliminate the glut of spaces – look to the power of the market.

The researcher Paul Barter identifies three ways for cities to manage parking. There’s the supply-focused approach, on display in the US, which relies on parking minimums. There’s parking management, which contains a mix of restrictions and rules to balance competing land use goals. And there are market-based strategies that blend supply deregulation and efficient pricing: Tokyo, for instance, requires car buyers to prove they own a spot before buying a car. (This, along with having no explicit parking requirements for builders, has kept Tokyo’s parking supply bounded and small).

Parking management is by far the most common way to rein in parking chaos. In Mexico City, a study of the city’s parking inventory, “Less Parking, More City,” found that parking spaces accounted for 40% of everything being built in the city. That meant parking covered even more area than housing. Between 2009 and 2013, 250,000 parking spaces were built, researchers found, costing about $10,000 per space.

That money could have funded 18 lines of bus rapid transit, a system capable of moving 3 million people a day. The city responded by turning parking minimums into parking maximums, making sure new projects didn’t add to the excess supply. São Paulo, Brazil, has adopted similar ideas, and a campaign to do the same in Auckland, New Zealand, (“Bin the Parking Mins”) also repealed the old standard.

Some cities have turned to technology to tame parking problems. In 2011, San Francisco set up a pilot to test dynamic pricing for parking spaces, meaning the cost of parking changes based on demand. Market forces work: research demonstrated that the trial increased parking availability, lowered the time spent searching for a spot and even sped up transit routes. Increasing the price of parking by 10% cut demand between 3% and 10%. Some researchers are also pushing an idea called walkable parking, which reorients development around shared park-and-walk areas between scores of big developments, concentrating parking in certain areas, eliminating excess capacity and, ultimately, creating denser (and more walkable) neighbourhoods.

All this change has added up to predictions of much less parking in the future. The commercial-real-estate advisory firm Green Street Advisors analysed the current transportation revolution, consisting of ride-hailing, driverless cars and a move toward less private ownership and more walkability, and found that parking needs may decline by 50% or more in the next 30 years. If this dovetails with other recent trends – youth getting driver’s licenses later, increased urbanisation and the emergence of micromobility and other transit options – more and more parking space may be converted to better, higher uses beyond simply waiting for the next driver.


September 2020

To understand the 15-minute city, consider two very different scenes from Paris.

In 1976, the film director Claude Lelouch strapped a gyro-stabilised camera to the front of his car and set off on a joyride across Paris. While running through 18 red lights and topping out at 142 miles per hour – Lelouch called the filming “an immoral act” – the filmmaker captured bumper-level views of the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées. Released as a nine-minute short, C’était un Rendez-vous, the stunt was a gearhead’s dream: a vision of a city that was made for cars.

Today, on the other hand, Parisian cyclists release videos showing crowds of teens stunting on bikes across the city’s grand boulevards in summertime, popping their front wheels while executing intricate dance moves. It’s an electric display of community, creativity and city life – one that’s in direct conflict with Lelouch’s reckless thrills.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo cycles to promote her 15-minute city plan.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (centre) rides her bicycle in Paris to promote her vision of the 15-minute city during the city’s 2020 mayoral election. (Photo by Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s also an effective advertisement for the potential of a concept known as “the 15-minute city”, an approach to urban design that aims to improve quality of life by creating cities where everything a resident needs can be reached within 15 minutes by foot or bike. This puts an emphasis on careful planning at the neighbourhood level, giving each district the features it needs to support a full life – including jobs, food, recreation, green space, housing, medical offices, small businesses and more. And importantly, it’s a full life that doesn’t require a car.

A brief history of the 15-minute city

The overall idea isn’t new: it builds on principles of New Urbanism and transit-oriented development, and it finds its roots in the idea of the “neighbourhood unit” advanced by the American planner Clarence Perry in the early 1900s. Similar visions of 30- and 20-minute cities or neighbourhoods have also emerged in the past decade, notably in Australia.

But the 15-minute-city concept (la ville du quart d’heure) found new popularity in 2019 from Carlos Moreno, a French-Colombian professor who developed the idea in pursuit of amour des lieux, or attachment to place.

The quest to improve quality of life doesn’t require a city to “wage a war against cars” or “build a Louvre every 15 minutes,” Moreno says. Rather, it needs to decentralise by adding more options for walking, cycling and public transit, and focusing on economic development in every corner of the city. Moreno says the work of Jane Jacobs, the urbanist saint, figured into his plans.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo quickly became one of the most prominent champions of the 15-minute city. The idea was a centrepiece of her successful 2020 reelection campaign, and it served as a useful, colloquial packaging for work her administration has done since 2014 to pedestrianise, promote cycling, restrict cars and bring parks and people-first infrastructure to the City of Light.

It now stands as her central policy framework to improve quality of life and help the city live up to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. As cities around the world strive to make similar transformations, Paris’s experience with the 15-minute philosophy will be closely watched for ideas that can be emulated elsewhere.

Can a 15-minute city work?

There’s already compelling evidence that the 15-minute city can work. Replacing long commutes and car-first transit with bikes and walking would slash vehicle emissions, increase resident health and free up roads and parking spaces for other uses.

Most trips taken in cities are pretty short. Research on U.S. households’ driving habits found that nearly 60% of their one-way trips are less than six miles (9.6km), and 75% of all trips are ten miles or less. It’s worth acknowledging that the 15-minute city seems so bold and transformative precisely because the way we design cities now is antithetical to its goals.

Replacing parking spots and roads for cars might seem like a counterintuitive way to improve traffic, but in fact the other approach – adding more roads and other accommodations for cars – is what doesn’t work. It’s a central tenet of induced demand: more asphalt leads to more congestion, which leads to demand for more roads.

What’s more, there’s a market for building neighbourhoods that don’t require cars. A research report called “Foot Traffic Ahead”, compiled by a team of academics, advocates and commercial developers, found that so-called “walkable urban places” in the United States demanded 75% higher rent over the metro average in the nation’s 30 largest cities, all while increasing equity and investment opportunities.

In many ways, Paris is an ideal proving ground for the 15-minute city: it’s a dense city that’s just six miles across, with a celebrated history as a place for beautiful strolls and street-front cafés.

Hidalgo’s embrace of the idea, and rollout of concrete changes, has been swift, though not without controversy. Car owners have fought her at every turn, and extensive construction of bike lanes made parts of the city seem like a giant construction site. But by the spring 2020 election, her mobility overhaul was generally accepted by her competitors for the mayor’s office, having become an accepted term of the debate, not a radical idea to dismiss and demean.

The changes are palpable. Hidalgo has banned cars along a stretch of the River Seine – formerly a congested thoroughfare for car commuters – creating a new pedestrianised gathering spot where “cyclists mix with boozy sunbathers, tourists on electric scooters and giggling children.” She unleashed wave after wave of cycling infrastructure as part of an evolving Plan Velo and pledges the city will have 1,000km (621 miles) of finished cycle paths by 2020. The city also has subsidised certain businesses in targeted neighbourhoods, turned school playgrounds into parks, encouraged urban agriculture and even talked of creating urban forests.

The push has paid off. Some roads see triple the number of cyclists, and the Champs Elysées, where Lelouch zipped across, is now lined with segregated cycling lanes. Hidalgo has further promised to eliminate 60,000 parking spots for private cars by 2024 and to utilise smart-city technology to make the remaining cars and trucks on the road more efficient, speeding up package delivery and making it easier to find parking. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she fast-tracked the transformation of streets into emergency corona pistescycle lanes. And while Paris wasn’t the first to adopt the concept, it has unquestionably done the most to put it into practice.

Other places pursuing the 15- or 20-minute-city concept include:

  • Melbourne, which adopted a long-term strategic plan for 20-minute neighbourhoods
  • Detroit, which organised a 20-minute-city concept around its defunct streetcar grid
  • Portland, whose Complete Neighborhood concept plans for 90% of the city to have “safe and convenient access to the goods and services needed in daily life”
  • Ottawa, which launched a 15-minute-neighbourhood plan to have residents take half their trips by foot, bicycle, public transit or by carpooling.
  • C40 Cities, a city-led coalition focused on fighting climate change, elevated the 15-minute city idea as a blueprint for post-Covid economic recovery.

How to make the vision a reality

Moreno says achieving the 15-minute city requires “deconstructing the city,” or, more specifically, mixing as many different uses as possible. Better understood as anti-zoning, this would undo decades of urban-planning orthodoxy and industrial-era economic development that focused on siloing different activities in distinct parts of a city. Moreno also champions the use of hybrid spaces: schoolyards as parks, civic facilities that have multiple uses and provide a range of services, and multi-use buildings and cultural spaces (such a school that serves a different purpose on weekends).

Strong Towns, a US-based planning and advocacy group, made a list of actions American cities could take to achieve these goals, which serve as good advice for any metro. To build a 15-minute city, Strong Towns recommends:

  • more neighbourhood schools
  • better food access
  • more “third places”
  • better housing access and more housing
  • improved walkability
  • seeing density as more than just adding high-rises
  • loosening regulations that stand in the way of more-creative, community-centric urban design.

Turning planning and development inside out, as those steps would require, isn’t the only issue. How do cities with extensive tourism traffic maintain tight neighbourhoods with huge influxes of guests? Every metro region, including Paris, sees a daily tide of workers come downtown and leave, so it’s a significant challenge to decentralise corporate life by moving jobs to remote neighbourhoods.

While the transportation and mobility shifts Hidalgo has ushered in have been significant, they also may be the easy part of making the 15-minute city a reality. Truly dispersing employment and civic services in a useful way would be a real accomplishment. Doing so in an equitable manner – addressing the specific needs of disadvantaged areas as well as the rich ones – would be a marked and much-needed departure from historical patterns.

But in the Covid era, where lockdowns and transit shifts have made urban dwellers reorient their lives and rediscover their immediate neighbourhoods, the 15-minute city may have caught its stride at the perfect time. For years, consumer megatrends have championed local shopping and food, supporting neighbourhood businesses as well as urbanisation and car-free lifestyles. Viewed in that light, the vision Hidalgo and others champion isn’t a radical departure as much as it’s creating a blueprint for a lifestyle many already aspire to have.

GEN Magazine

August 2020

It’s a Thursday morning in July at the Jackson County Circuit Court in Kansas City, Missouri and Judge Mary Weir is running one of four landlord-tenant dockets processing housing cases — usually landlords seeking to evict their tenants. These state courtrooms, which typically try cases involving payday lenders and financial companies, move fast. Advocates defending renters describe them as assembly lines, and Judge Weir isn’t in the mood to wait.

“It is now 9:30 a.m., this is a landlord-tenant docket,” she says. “Folks, if you’re on the phone as a defendant, you should know you do have the right to defend yourself, but you also have the right to hire a lawyer. And you should know if you do represent yourself, the rules of evidence, and the rules of procedure still apply. You do not get a break because you’re not a lawyer, that is the law.”

Eviction courts have adjusted to Covid: Defendants can show up in person after a temperature check and pass through a metal detector; they mill about wearing masks until they’re called and are told to stand on blue dots taped on the floor as their cases are decided.

“For those who appear, the tension is palpable,” says Gina Chiala, a staff attorney and executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, which provides free legal assistance to tenants. “They’re watching other tenants go down in flames, leaving confused and in tears, and they know they’re next. Judges don’t like evicting people, and they have a lot of cases, so they end up processing them quickly and glossing over what’s going to happen next. I know what’s happening; in 14 days, someone is going to come to that tenant’s door and kick them out.”

Those who don’t want to show up — and most won’t — can use the conference line and WebEx video conference option, approved by the Missouri Supreme Court. Listening to a recording of one of these calls in Weir’s court, it has all the irritations of dialing in to a meeting — odd scratches and refrains of “can you hear me now.” The reality is when the call is over, some participants will have lost their homes.

On this morning, one elderly lady asks for and is granted a delay; she’s about to restart her job at Walmart, suggesting she’ll soon have money for back rent. Another man gets a delay so he can have a translator; it takes a few questions before it’s established he’s deaf. But mostly, it’s default judgments. After Judge Weir reads the name of a case — typically a real estate firm versus some tenant — and nobody answers, she’ll wait a few moments, then announce a default. Eviction granted. Showing up in person at least offers the chance to get advice from Heartland or another legal aid group, which can make a difference.

“It’s bonkers to think justice is being served over a conference call,” says Wilson Vance, campaign manager for KC Tenants, a grassroots organization that fights for local renters. “They can’t even mute individual participants; there are babies crying, sirens going past the window. The judge doesn’t even have to look you in the eye to displace you. It makes me sick to my stomach thinking how many people have been wrongfully evicted.”

Ever since Missouri’s statewide Covid-19 eviction moratorium expired on May 31, the court has gradually resumed operation. In July, the court heard 245 rent and possession cases; there have been 270 more through August 25. Court records show that’s a third of last year’s volume, but much of June and July was spent going through the backlog. Chiala suspects that’s because attorneys for landlords were waiting for the CARES Act moratorium to expire, and rent was often covered by stimulus cash. Advocates and tenant activists fear with Covid lingering, hopes for more federal stimulus dwindling, and temporary renter protections expiring, tenants in Kansas City, and the nation, will soon experience more video conference calls like the ones in Judge Weir’s courtroom.

Chiala calls remote court a “mockery of due process,” and a St. Louis legal advocacy group, ArchCity Defenders, is challenging the practice in state supreme court. She says that oftentimes tenants can’t hear the landlord’s attorney during trial, strain to show evidence over a weak video connection, and worst of all, might blurt something out during trial without consulting with their lawyer. (A spokesperson for the Jackson County Court said “we have found that hearings via video and telephone conference have worked well for the litigants, the attorneys, and the judges.”)

All the flaws exposed by Covid are on display during these proceedings. Heartland, which is one of several legal aid groups providing assistance, only has the budget to provide a single attorney in court during a time when up to 200 cases are being heard a day. Black and Brown populations — more likely to have low incomes, or be employed in the service industries, or have pre-existing health conditions — have to choose between rolling the dice on potentially unreliable remote options, or showing up in person and risking infection for a chance at due process. In pre-pandemic days, roughly 70% of defendants didn’t show up, daunted by the courtroom process and unable to secure counsel; Chiala only has anecdotal data, but believes a majority of tenants aren’t showing up now, either.

“A lot of tenants have faith in the system,” Chiala says. “They have hard lives, they want to believe the court process is fair, that there will be sympathy because they lost their job to a pandemic. They don’t know how bad the system is rigged against them.”

Covid-19 didn’t create an eviction crisis in the United States — it already existed. Rising housing costs, precarious, low-wage jobs, and a thin-to-the-point-of-transparent safety net meant that many renters were an illness or a cut in weekly hours away from eviction. (Most renters are taken to eviction court over $600 or less.) Every year, an estimated 2.3 million evictions are filed, four evictions every minute, with evictions filed against Black renters at nearly twice the rate as white renters, per the ACLU data analytics team. Nationwide, a quarter of all renters and 71% of extremely low-income renters (defined as an income at or below the poverty level or 30% of the area median income, whichever is higher) spent half their incomes on housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. When Covid came, the CARES Act, which included a 120-day federal eviction moratorium and expanded unemployment benefits, as well as a patchwork of state laws and moratoriums, prevented evictions.

That ad-hoc system seems to have worked; data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University show that the pace of evictions in 17 cities has actually been slower this year than on average, a drop or stall some attributed to increased unemployment and stimulus benefits. But now, advocates and activists say, with no additional stimulus forthcoming and remaining moratoriums quickly ending, courts are likely to see cases pick up. On July 24th, the federal moratorium expired — due to its 30-day notice period, evictions could therefore start up again August 24. As of August 26, there are 17 state moratoriums still in place.

The brittle network of pandemic-era protections is about to break. While courtrooms have been closed for months, protecting at-risk tenants, pressure has accumulated in the system. According to Noelle Porter, director of Government Affairs for the National Housing Law Project, in many jurisdictions landlords have been filing evictions at a faster clip, and a backlog has slowly grown. During the pandemic, other landlords have engaged in harassment and illegal tactics like lockouts that have led to tenant self-evictions, especially for undocumented renters fearing immigration issues.

The fissures will soon become obvious; Global advisory firm Stout, Risius and Ross found that roughly $21.5 billion in back rent is already owed, and a joint study by the National Low Income Housing Institute, Aspen Institute, and Eviction Lab predicts up to 40 million Americans are at risk of evictions by year’s end. With expanded unemployment now gone, a significant number of Americans will begin falling behind on rent. Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together, a pro-renter group in California, says the shame of eviction has been compounded with a heightened anxiety of health risks, a “level of fear higher than anything I’ve seen.”

President Trump’s August executive order on the federal eviction moratorium was a perfect encapsulation of the larger failure to protect renters. Even though a legal analysis by the National Housing Law Project found he had the power to do something, all his toothless order did was ask the federal government to consider solutions. By providing false hope, it’s “worse than doing nothing at all,” says Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center.

Asterrible as the eviction machine may seem during a pandemic, it’s only a slightly worse version of an already broken system, one that’s biased toward landlords and property owners. Famously documented by Matthew Desmond, the sociologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted, this facet of our judicial system is biased against BIPOC, and leads to a spiral of consequences for families who lose their homes, including medical issues, lost income, and the derailment of children’s education.

While many might assume evictions are worse in New York City, Los Angeles, or other pricy coastal metros, mid-size metros like Kansas City exemplify the issue. Smaller cities, especially where state laws preempt renter-friendly municipal laws, give tenants even fewer protections.

Anthony Edmonds, a Black 29-year-old, lives in Raytown, a suburb of Kansas City, and works part-time as a flooring contractor. He’s been in three car crashes in the last two years, which put him on disability and restricted his ability to work regular hours. On April 29, he was served an eviction notice at the townhome he lived in with two of his kids. He’s never missed his $700-a-month rent payment or utilities bill, but his landlord issued what’s called a no-fault eviction; whether it’s done to raise the rent, or because a friend’s kid needs a place to stay, it’s arbitrary and at the owner’s discretion. A landlord just needs to give a tenant 30 days notice, no justification necessary.

Confused, Edmonds asked for a few more months so he could find a new place. The landlord didn’t sympathize. When Edmonds showed up in Jackson County Circuit Court to defend himself, he met a representative from Heartland. After a few phone calls, staff attorney Zainab Abdullah helped him negotiate a settlement; he’d leave and waive a security deposit and wouldn’t get an official eviction on his record, the only way a deal that cost you a steady place to live could be any worse. A past eviction, which stays on a tenant’s rental history for seven years, gives a landlord the right to refuse to rent a room, no questions asked.

Since then, Edmonds has put everything he owns in storage and has bounced between friend’s houses. His three-year-old son started asking him when they’d go back to his house.

“For people like me, the ultimate outcome of not having an eviction on my record is the best thing you can get,” Edmonds says. “It’s that much harder being an African American in this society right now. It kind of makes you feel hopeless at times, but I need to keep going.”

It’s difficult figuring out when Edmond will have a new job, or even a new place; shared custody becomes very tricky in a pandemic without permanent housing (“I don’t want to stress out another family,” he says). This year has been relentless, Edmonds says, with absolutely no breaks; he’s so stressed he can’t think straight. The family he’s currently staying with just bought a new place and will be moving in two weeks, so he needs to find a new temporary home.

Black and Brown renters tend to be hit the worst by eviction laws, says Eric Tars, in part due to network impoverishment. If a white family is evicted, chances are they can turn to friends and family who can provide housing and support and help them get back on their feet. For Black and Brown families, often one emergency away from financial strain, they’re both individually and collectively less likely to be able to provide help. That’s why Black Americans, who make up 13% of the population, also comprise 27% of the population in poverty, and Black males make up nearly half of the homeless population.

The sense of loss and anxiety in tenants has been heightened for those who have been through other disasters that have cost them their housing. Jeff Quattrone, a 60-year-old graphic designer from Woodstown, New Jersey, lives by himself in an apartment after he lost his last contracting gig July 3. He also lost his home during the foreclosure crisis in 2008 and feels like there are echoes of that right now. “Watching all this is like watching a train coming at me full-speed ahead,” he says.

Quattrone has filed for unemployment, which should take him through September, but he doesn’t have any substantial savings. He has decided to tap his pension plan, since he may not have another choice other than having the bank repossess his car and becoming homeless.

“It’s interesting to see how folks who weren’t affected during the last recession are being affected this time,” he says. “It’s the first time they’ve been imposed upon and see what marginalized people live with on a daily basis.”

Nationwide, there’s enough shelter beds for 63% of the homeless population, says Nan Roman, president & CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness. But that estimate is based on the most recent homeless population counts from 2019, with shelters operating at normal capacity; Covid social distancing has drastically cut that number. “If the pandemic continues, one of the greatest ways for it to transmit is through family groups, so having people together right now isn’t great,” Ronan says.

Homeless advocates have asked for billions of dollars to support shelter and outreach, and second the call for $100 billion in rental assistance included in the HEROES Act, which House Democrats passed in May. But they need to act soon; homelessness is a lagging indicator, says Roman, and it’s going to be hard to get accurate counts during the pandemic.

“It’s a game of musical chairs, and homeless people are the ones that have lost,” Roman says. Nothing going on right now has changed the 7.5 million affordable units we’re short as a nation. The demand for those units will go up, and there are workers without jobs who don’t have money to pay back rent.”

Tiana Caldwell, 44, an organizer with the renter’s rights group KC Tenants, was evicted in 2018 after getting diagnosed with cancer for the second time. This summer, she successfully defended herself against a charge she owed back rent. She says it feels good to be able to help people navigate the anxiety and terror and guilt of this moment. She’s heard heart-wrenching stories, heard fears of being tossed out into the elements, and sees her family doing everything they can to protect her and put on a brave face; her 13-year-old son decided to take school remotely this year to avoid putting his cancer survivor mother at risk.

“If we win, we organize. If we lose, we organize,” she says. “I think about all the people who don’t know how to reach us. That’s who I worry about.”

Iflosing a home was all that happened to those who were evicted, that would be enough. But the consequences last for years, if not a lifetime. Every aspect of someone’s health — mental, physical, financial, interpersonal — takes a hit.

Having an eviction on your rental history gives landlords, who can legally deny you an apartment due to past evictions, a reason to reject you. Effectively blacklisted by most landlords, it makes the challenge of finding decent, affordable housing, already in short supply, nearly impossible. That scarlet E may even last longer; the tenant screening industry, which scrapes online records to create databases used by landlords to verify tenants, may keep your records for an indeterminate amount of time, according to the National Housing Law Project, even if the record is eventually reversed or expunged.

Landlords typically refer missed rent payment to debt collectors, who in turn inform credit agencies, damaging a tenant’s ability to get loans. Evictions also become a red flag during many employment searches. Potential hires are seen as an “unreliable person,” says Arreola, and may not be allowed to handle money. The National Housing Law Project has argued that a new congressional relief package for Covid should include a section that bans landlords from using Covid-related evictions as a reason to deny housing, or any wave of mass eviction may lock millions out of decent housing.

The eviction crisis is merely a symptom of the diseased American housing system: filled with sprawl, an active history of discrimination, and lacking in affordable and available options. But failure to deal with the consequences of eviction due to the pandemic will ripple throughout the nation’s housing supply.

The human drama playing out in one Kansas City courtroom is just a hint of what may come later this year; even as evictions remain lower than they did last year, advocates believe the worst is yet to come. California and New York, states with arguably the largest and most at-risk renter populations in the country, still have active moratoriums for now; in California, many cities and counties have passed moratoriums, and the state’s Judicial Council has passed an emergency ruling preventing eviction orders from moving forward, while New York’s has been reliably extended every month. But California’s state Judicial Council voted earlier this month to rescind that protection by September 1 (a last-minute stopgap bill to extend protections through January 31 was signed into law Monday), and in New York, landlords have recently been allowed to sue tenants again; currently it’s only filing by mail, and the courts still won’t hear cases. To Susanna Blankley, of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, this is how the machine slowly lurches back into action, putting tenants on notice and slowly building up a backlog of cases; 40% of New Yorkers can’t pay rent, and 1.5 million households, in theory, are at risk of eviction in the city and owe more than $2.2 billion in back rent, according to a study recently released by her group.

Porter at the National Housing Law Project says if 30 million people lose their housing, there won’t be 30 million people ready to take those apartments; that may mean scores of landlords face mortgage default and sell, perhaps to speculators or large management companies that raise rent.

“This is a major economic crisis that nobody benefits from,” Porter says.

Sarah Saadian of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, still hopes there’s a future for the HEROES Act, which would have extended the national eviction moratorium to March 2021, provided $100 billion in emergency rental assistance.

“It’s really outrageous the Republicans waited for months to negotiate thinking they’d have more leverage,” she says. “It’s too late to help people pay September rent, which is all the more reason moratoriums need to be extended, to protect people until they can get some form of income.”

Housing and tenants’ rights were already becoming a larger political issue before the Covid crisis, including President Trump attacks against multi-family zoning in the suburbs. The affordable housing shortage is becoming more dire, cities like Minneapolis have rallied around and passed progressive new city planning rules to build more dense housing, and protest from groups like Moms 4 Housing in Oakland and the Reclaimers in Los Angeles, who took over empty homes to protest speculation at a time when so many are struggling, set the stage for the nationwide response to the eviction crisis. Vance in Kansas City is only sure that a lot of renters will struggle during this time. But she also sees potential in the depths of the disaster.

“If you asked me in February if it would be possible for any level of government to put a pause on evictions, I would tell you you’re crazy,” she says. “Even now, what’s possible is constantly shifting. I think people won’t forget. We’re seeing pain, but we’re seeing so many more people radicalized than we’ve ever seen before.”

AIA Oculus

Summer 2020

As our understanding of the machinations and mysteries of coronavirus evolve, one of the pathogen’s striking features is how it targets the weakest among us. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a recovery that doesn’t focus, in large part, on helping these vulnerable populations.

The toll of the virus on cities, and the corresponding response from local leaders, may follow a similar logic. As it becomes clear that COVID-19 is hitting low-income, marginalized populations more—highlighting weak spots in social safety nets and the transportation systems that support essential workers—it becomes imperative that cities like New York plan to bounce back in ways that confront these issues head-on. “Leading cities are doing what’s needed now to create a safe and equitable environment,” says David Miller, director of international diplomacy for C40, a coalition of global cities fighting climate change. “Cities that are focused on using this opportunity to become more resilient and lower carbon will have far better health and economic outcomes.” The clarifying nature of a major crisis offers blueprints for cities to not just survive, but improve. Different places will come out of coronavirus shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders at different points, and with vastly different resources.

“The essence of New York City is that it’s the one city in North America that has a truly robust public transit system,” says Rob Goodwin, architectural design director for the New York office of Perkins and Will. “Now that we can’t use it in the same way, what does that mean for New York as an urban space?” After contending with the worst outbreak in the United States, New York City still finds itself with familiar challenges: inequalities concerning transit access, an underfunded public transit system, and a pedestrian safety crisis. But like cities across the globe, it also must contend with new hurdles: recreating a vibrant public square, restarting a moribund economy, and reimagining public transit at a time when riders fear enclosed, crowded spaces. “The worst-case scenario for post-COVID responses is that everyone is afraid of transit and jumps back in their personal cars, and congestion explodes,” says Allison Arieff, a New York Times columnist and the editorial director of SPUR, a Bay Area urbanism think tank.“

Many of the early and effective reactions—including speedy policy shifts and low-lift tweaks to infrastructure—exemplify tactical urbanism, a movement that emerged a decade ago that promoted low-cost, temporary changes to cities. But they all look beyond the pandemic to try and reframe what city life and transportation can be.

Few cities have revolutionized their transit system as quickly and concretely as Paris under the leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The socialist mayor, elected in 2014, has turned the City of Lights into a worldwide cycling capital with her extensive Plan Vélo, building miles of bike lanes, encouraging the use of electric bikes, pedestrianizing streets, and upgrading existing transit, all packaged as a program to improve quality of life and economic access. Now, with coronavirus creating a need for even more space for walking and cycling, Hidalgo has accelerated her plans to establish more car-free space in Paris, introducing just over 400 miles of TempoRER vélo, or “corona cycleways.”

“Public transit ridership is down, and cities such as Paris, by their nature, can’t function without rapid transit,” Miller says. “Right now, you need to build a walking and cycling network because people need to be mobile without being forced to drive. Without transit and these other options, everyone will just jump back in a car when coronavirus is more contained, and it’ll shut down the city.”

This template of turning space for cars over to pedestrians and cyclists and expanding green infrastructure has been adopted, in lesser form, by other cities, such as London. While Paris’s coronavirus response is, in many ways, the acceleration of a detailed, multiyear investment, it only requires political will and a few coats of paint to quickly alter city transit, says C40’s Miller. New York City’s 14th Street Busway, which quickly turned a main road into a bus-first street, has shown how quickly changes can be made to benefit buses. Why not do the same for bikes on a larger scale?

In Milan, Italy, a previous epicenter of the virus, city leadership has also focused on preventing pollution and car traffic from returning to post-pandemic streets, creating an integrated transportation network to cut down pollution (which dropped 75% at the apex of the pandemic) and keep cars away from the city center. A cornerstone of this strategy, the Strade Aperte plan, is bolstering business by expanding sidewalks for commercial activity. While New York doesn’t lack walkable commercial corridors, cramped small businesses and restaurants need more room to be able to operate amid the need for social distancing. Milan Deputy Mayor Marco Granelli explicitly says the investment in making more room for shops on busy streets such as Corso Buenos Aires is about creating an economic advantage for his city. “Milan’s thinking is focused on neighborhoods, and while the health and climate benefits of such a plan need to be emphasized, the economic arguments are very powerful,” says Miller. “Repurposing streets to enable active transportation, on a neighborhood basis, is a powerful tool for small business.”

Melbourne, Australia, is also expanding a similar program, creating what planners there have called a “20-minute city.” The concept, which was introduced in 2017 but has gotten renewed attention due to the pandemic, is to alter planning, land use, and transit to be super-localized so that every need of a resident can be met within a 20-minute walk or bike trip. For many New Yorkers, this lifestyle is already a reality and one of the main reasons they picked their particular neighborhood. However, equal access, particularly when it comes to jobs and greenspace, should be something all New Yorkers enjoy. (In 2015, New York University researchers found neighborhoods with limited access to transit have a 50% higher unemployment rate.)

Hand in hand with the neighborhood-first focus of plans like those unfolding in Melbourne and Milan is the comprehensive nature of the transit vision; ideally, every part of the city is accessible, both within itself and to other parts of the city. SPUR’s Arieff says these kinds of large-scale car-free infrastructure pushes, similar to the bike booms in cities such as Copenhagen, Denmark, offer riders the safety, peace of mind, and ease that changes culture. “A lot of people underestimate the importance of safety,” she says. “The network needs to be big enough to make it feel like you’re not the one fighting for your place on the road.”

Other cities are experimenting with pilot programs that provide even more space for local businesses. In Lithuania, the capital city of Vilnius plans to turn over a wide swath of street space, including public squares, to restaurants to create massive, open-air cafés for the era of social distancing. This plan stands in sharp contrast to the approach currently being taken in U.S. cities, says Alissa Walker, urbanism editor at Curbed, which tends to focus on recreation as the reason to open streets. “The most critical thing right now is people want to go to work,” she says. “Vilnius’s example shows we can close streets and pump money back into the economy. That’s going to help a lot more than closing a residential street so someone can exercise. If you really want to make systemic changes in transportation, we need to find better ways to talk about the changes.”

Arieff sees Vilnius as a textbook example of tactical urbanism. The open-air bazaar approach isn’t perfect, especially when the weather doesn’t cooperate, and won’t single-handedly save the local restaurant industry. But it will immediately provide something nearly everyone craves—a sense of community—and help pay for itself by helping restaurateurs. It also reinforces public space as a public good. In similar fashion, Goodwin and his Perkins and Will colleagues have designed a system to turn school buses into coronavirus test- ing and tracing centers, utilizing clever modular design and a surfeit of street space to provide much-needed healthcare infrastructure. “It’s a way to reintroduce public life that so many other places can copy, and I think it could really be transformational and stick around,” Arieff says.

A cyclist making use of the capital city's first contraflow cycle lane in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Tactical Auckland.

A cyclist making use of the capital city’s first contraflow cycle lane in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Tactical Auckland.

In similar fashion, New Zealand launched Innovating Streets for People, a $7 million fund, to create safer streets and more livable places as part of the nation’s overall COVID-19 response. Cities can apply for grants to finish placemaking projects, such as widening curbs or painting new bike lanes, making tactical urbanism a de facto government policy. “There are plenty of examples—from the way Curabita, Brazil, transformed its bus system, to New York City, where they turned Times Square from a traffic jam into a place for people—that show cities taking advantage of quick, affordable opportunities,” says C40’s Miller. “I’m very optimistic about the success of these measures to quickly and inexpensively change public spaces.”

By dedicating more street space to pedestrians, cyclists, and businesses, cities will eventually have to reckon with larger transit questions, notably public transit’s crisis of trust and ridership. According to Regina Clewlow, an analyst and founder of Populus, a transit data consultancy, numerous surveys have shown that since the spread of coronavirus, many riders aren’t comfortable using buses and trains. In New York City, where so many workers traditionally depend on transit, this will become a crisis: ridership on subways and buses has been down 90% since mid-March, according to the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Clewlow believes that micromobility—specifically bicycle sharing, electric scooters, and electric bikes—can offer car-free options to former transit riders, especially for the great proportion of trips that are less than three miles, which make up 45% of total trips taken in the U.S.

Leaders in Berlin, Germany, feel the same way and have responded by making the first 30 minutes of any ride on their bike-share system free to encourage more cycling. The German capital’s bike-share support shows another long-term benefit to these ad-hoc responses: new ways to improve equity and access to jobs. That’s ultimately what can make all these changes work politically and become permanent.

“The status quo left folks behind,” says Benito Perez, a transit official and member of Smart Growth America. “The temporary changes and solutions you’re now seeing in city streets highlight the need to rethink public space design to create a more equitable, multimodal, and complete system.”

These policy solutions may be improvisations, but the best can be viewed as investments towards a better transit network for all, one that improves transportation access and, in effect, boosts economic opportunities and mobility. After all, while most people just want to go back to normal, they probably wouldn’t mind if that return didn’t include traffic jams, congestion, and air pollution.