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


Curbed San Francisco

March 2020

Canceled events, lost work, shuttered stores, empty public spaces, and panic shopping: Life during coronavirus has rapidly, and overwhelmingly, changed.

Now San Francisco, which was one of the first cities to declare an emergency over the spread of the disease, and the greater Bay Area have become the first to institute shelter-in-place restrictions. These orders now cover Napa and Sonoma counties as well as the six-county area that went under shelter-in-place orders on midnight Tuesday. On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all of California to “stay at home.” Other cities in the U.S. are considering similarly serious policies.

What does it mean to live under shelter-in-place restrictions? Officially, the order mandates that “all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a household or living unit are prohibited,” and that “essential businesses,” like pharmacies and grocery stores, will remain open, with restaurants and cafes on takeout-only status. But that hardly captures the upheaval, perspectives, and creative problem-solving that come with life under a form of lockdown.

Curbed spoke with Bay Area residents to get a sense of how their lives have and haven’t changed since these orders were announced earlier this week, and the advice they’d provide to other Americans who may soon by living under similar restrictions. If you’d like to share your own stories, please reach out to Curbed San Francisco at

A street with no cars on it, flanked on both sides by tall buildings.
California Street in the Financial District is seen nearly empty on March 17.

“It’s hard to shift your priorities so quickly and dramatically.” —Beth Spotswood, 42, Novato

A freelance writer for Alta Magazine and a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Spotswood, who lives with her husband and her 16-month-old son, Leo, says the shelter-in-place order has “dramatically changed her lifestyle,” with child care quickly becoming an immediate, pressing concern.

“My parents live 20 minutes away, they’re both in their 70s, and the plan was once day care closed, they would be primary babysitters for my son and nearby niece,” she says. But that plan has been upended by increasing restrictions on travel and movement.

“We need to get our work done,” she says. “We’re all concerned about our jobs and having income and making mortgage and car payments, and affording the overpriced toilet paper at the store, and keeping our fridge stocked, and we need to work. And it’s impossible with a 16-month-old pulling at your leg and wanting apples. Right now, I’m finding things to worry about. He’s at an important stage of his social development. If he can’t interact with kids for a number of months, will he be like a feral child who came out of the woods after being raised by wolves?”

She notes upfront that the family is healthy, that they have a roof over their heads and food in the fridge, and that she’s lucky to have a job, especially one with coworkers with kids who understand her struggles. But she still needs to get the work done. And it’s difficult to balance competing impulses, especially around health and safety.

“One of the things I’m considering is should our parents stay with us,” she says. “Will that protect them? It’s hard. They’re pretty stubborn… they want to see their grandkids, and I totally understand. And I’m selfishly thinking, I need child care, but we need to have a discussion moving forward. Staying healthy is the most important thing—if we’re bored, lonely, and not the best at our jobs for a couple of months, it’s going to be okay.”

When the order came, she says, the family was already doing their own version of shelter in place. She says that the idea of an emergency, as a general concept, wasn’t unfamiliar in a part of the country that prepares for wildfires and earthquakes. But what took a while to sink in was the projected length of time these social distancing orders will be in place. Neighbors are still going for walks in the wilderness near her home, and now keeping a safe distance, but there’s a new sense of loneliness.

“It’s hard to shift your priorities so quickly and dramatically,” she says. And the unknown is difficult to process right now. Two weeks ago, she was wondering if the family would still be able to take a planned cruise to Vancouver later this year on the Grand Princess. Concerns are much more immediate now. “I can’t plan right now. I just need to sit in the discomfort of it. I can’t shop it out, meet my girlfriends, do playdates … so much of our life is up-close social interaction. It’s a very uncertain time, and people have survived far worse and we will get through this. But I look forward to getting through to the other side.”

“The stress of that has started to prepare me for what’s coming.” —Emily Chapman, 42, Alameda

This isn’t Emily Chapman’s first experience with a shutdown. Her husband, who works as a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard, wasn’t paid during the most recent government shutdown.

“The stress of that has started to prepare me for what’s coming,” she says.

But now, with the shelter-in-place orders, she’s the one without a job. The orthodontic office where she works as a treatment coordinator closed indefinitely Monday, and with economic uncertainty ahead, her family is about to dip into savings. It’s challenging, and she’s filing for unemployment.

It’s also challenging for her entire family. She’s been watching and teaching her two children, a 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, and trying to stick to the curriculum her first-grader’s teacher emailed all parents. Her husband has also been incredibly busy, working with the cruise ships that recently docked in Oakland with passengers who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The family is taking all the necessary safety precautions.

She’s starting to see the effects of people hoarding food when she shops at nearby stores..

“I hope other people think about others, especially those who really need it,” she says. “All of my coworkers are putting on a brave front and we’re pretty stressed out, especially the single moms working in my office, who aren’t sure what they’re going to do. This could last into the summer, who knows?”

She says the challenge so far has been finding ways not to drive yourself crazy. Organizing around the house has helped, giving her something to do to pass the time. FaceTime conversations also help. The lack of social interaction has been hard, especially for someone who works with the public for a living.

The marquee and entrance to the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
A healthy reminder from the Castro Theater.

“We’re already all connected online.” —Robert Gatdula, 29, Sunnyvale

A hardware engineer working in Silicon Valley, Robert had already prepared for working from home before the shelter-in-place rules went into effect. He took a few spare monitors from the office and set up a cubicle-like workstation on a table in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment. But since Tuesday, he’s become much more aware of every inch of the unit’s 676 square feet.

“I tend to be on the more homebody side, when it comes to regaining my energy throughout the week, so in a sense, I haven’t been negatively impacted too much,” he says.

Like many, he’s found new ways to interact and socialize using technology. He’s been meeting with friends via video services like Zoom; they’ve even experimented with watching movies together via screen sharing, and may move to playing board games together remotely (though that means everyone needs to buy their own board). He says that while we should certainly abide by the spatial guidelines provided by health officials, in this time of physical isolation, we should retire the term social distancing, since “it implies we’re all going to be socially inept.”

“The thing we need to realize is that we’re already all connected online,” he says. “This is how we primarily interact ever since smartphones have become ubiquitous in our lives. People already know how to use these things—they maybe just need to do it more often.”

Gatdula has gotten into his hobbies, too, especially swing dancing. There’s a community of thousands of swing dancers in the Bay Area, and the two- or three-night-a-week events can’t happen anymore, a realization that “sunk” Gatdula. But that doesn’t mean the community has disappeared; it’s just moved online. Many of the musicians who play at larger dances have create virtual events where they stream music they play at home, and dancers have performed “together,” dancing on video with each other along to a streaming soundtrack.

While he’s found new ways to maintain social ties, he also says the shelter-in-place order has made him take the disease even more seriously. He’s shopping on off hours, trying to go during the week or very late at night to stay away from crowds. He’s also seen friends who even a few days ago weren’t taking the novel coronavirus seriously suddenly be much more diligent about keeping their distance. Still, when he’s at home looking off his balcony, enjoying the relative quiet of less traffic, he feels things will work out.

“This area is full of smart and creative people, so I think we’ll get through this,” he says.

“We smile more, and I hope that stays as a norm.” —Kate Aishton, 37, San Francisco

When Aishton first heard about the shelter-in-place order, it didn’t change how her family reacted to the new coronavirus. An attorney, she works remotely from their home near Balboa Park as her husband, a writer, watches their two boys, 2 and 5 years old. But it did change her mentality. She’s been stress-baking a lot, and the combination of the new order and the release of federal recommendations earlier this week caused her to think a lot about her parents, who live in Florida and Georgia.

“I moved from the south to this city that shares my values and views toward community and taking care on each other, and has enacted concrete policy steps, such as putting a moratorium on evictions,” she says. “I left behind all these people I love in a place that doesn’t value the social safety net as much.”

The pace of life has shifted, she says. It’s been nice to work from home, and her company has been supportive. This week has been “leveling” for people at the office. Day care is closed, nannies are on lockdown, public and private school are shuttered, and everybody has accepted that not having child care makes many things impossible, and not as much is getting done.

“This would be a lot more painful at a typical law firm,” she says. “I can’t imagine trying to bill hours for clients, or meeting for the sake of meeting right now.”

Norms have also shifted in the neighborhood and in the city. Aisles in grocery stores “look like the apocalypse,” while staff remain thoughtful despite customers being on edge. Over the weekend, the city turned into a ghost town. On family walks, they’d see maybe one other person walking a dog.

“People are extra friendly because it feels bad to physically avoid your neighbor,” Aishton says. “We smile more, and I hope that stays as a norm. ‘Don’t touch me, just make it clear with your face you’re a nice neighbor.’”

Fortunately, her kids haven’t run into any of their school friends on walks, an inevitability she feels will be difficult. How to explain the situation in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad, or isn’t scary?

Sheltering in place has been, if not easy, at least consistent, says Aishton. They have the luxury of being able to do this without a tremendous financial burden or immediate risk of losing their jobs. With her local government making explicit policy choices, it’s easy to communicate the social limitations to kids. Nobody is allowed to meet outside the house, and kids look out the window and see everybody is in the same boat.

Another norm she hopes changes? People stay home if they’re sick.

“It’s just so clearly this cultural more that’s helped lead us here,” she says. “I’m hoping that this will lead to things like better public health care.”

An aerial view of a curvy street with no cars on it.
The curves of Lombard Street are empty from above, as seen on March 17.

“We’re in a particularly difficult time period.” —Cary Gold, 63, San Francisco

As the director of litigation and policy for the Eviction Defense Collaborative, Cary Gold is used to helping those going through tough times. Right now, however, she’s facing her own challenge at home. Her older husband was recently diagnosed with Stage 3 esophageal cancer, and is scheduled to start treatment at a cancer hospital on March 30.

“We’re in a particularly difficult time period,” she says. “I think my husband’s deepest fear is that he’s not even going to make it to get his treatment for cancer. It’s hard enough to have hope when faced with this diagnosis, and we’re working hard to keep that hope, so our children feel hopeful. But when you overlay it with COVID-19, it’s very hard to keep that mindset.”

The family has been overly cautious at home, so the shelter-in-place order hasn’t significantly shifted their everyday. The dog still needs to be walked. Her son, who’s now living at home after in-person classes shut down at City College, wakes up and attends classes virtually in his pajamas. Her daughter, who had been working as a waitress, was terrified she’d get exposed and bring the virus home, putting her father at risk, but now that she’s not going in to work anymore, that’s not as much of an issue. Gold is also still busy at work. Despite the eviction moratorium, it’s still legal for evictions around health and safety issues to proceed, so her office remains open, working with a skeleton crew of three or four workers, rotating staff so people aren’t taking risks.

“The world didn’t shut down,” she says. As we spoke, she received three texts from clients inquiring about support services and what the new regulations meant. She’s now working from home, but last week, it was tough to decide to go into the office, due to the existing health concerns at home. “I felt like I was being torn between my commitment to my family and my commitment to my community.”

She has no idea how busy her office will be going forward; a third of eviction cases typically fall under the health and safety category.

“This is very hard,” she says. “I’m asking staff to go into the office and take these risks every day. But we do need to keep the clinic open.”

“We’re already on a crisis baseline.” —Anonymous nurse, 36, San Francisco

The anonymous medical staffer who spoke to Curbed works in an outpatient capacity as a nurse practitioner at an area hospital, meaning she doesn’t treat emergency cases. She lives alone in her apartment, and instead of seeing patients at work right now, she holds endless telemedicine appointments with those not directly affected by the pandemic, carrying on the regular work of the health care system as COVID-19 cases surge nationwide. She’s been slammed, working nonstop, and has been completely alone for the past five days.

But that doesn’t mean she’s not intimately aware of what her colleagues have experienced.

“I’d say 50 to 75 percent of us are working on coronavirus,” she says. “It’s literally survival mode every day. The rules keep changing as we go.”

Up until a few weeks ago, she was working with patients without any personal protective gear. When one of her patients showed symptoms and got tested for COVID-19, she began to worry she’d unknowingly passed it to friends (thankfully, the test came back negative).

Stockpiles of necessary supplies are running low at her hospital, she says, and staff has been told to reuse masks and plastic gowns. The CDC says to use bandanas in lieu of masks; she says it’s “crazy,” like they’re doing “cowboy medicine.”

“The U.S. health care system operates at max capacity as it is,” she says. “We don’t have tons of excess space, supplies, or human resources. We’re already on a crisis baseline. Our health care system was already under-supported.”

Her grandpa was a physician who voluntarily enlisted to serve in World War II, leaving his wife to take care of wounded soldiers overseas for two years. That example, which inspired her to get into medicine, is one she’s been channeling lately, trusting that if he could do it, she can do it.

“People are in a constant state of adrenaline rush right now,” she says. “They’re putting their heads down, taking it one step at a time, and know this is a huge sacrifice. If we don’t do it, nobody else will; there isn’t much of a choice. It just feels alone, like we’re not being supported, and it’s scary. I feel supported by my local government. San Francisco led the way in the shelter-in-place order. But not by the federal government.”

“Worry is a conversation you have with yourself.” —Carol Gordon, 75, San Francisco

An older adult living alone in a subsidized apartment near Union Square, Carol Gordon, like everyone, is coping with a new social reality. The street outside her home has grown quiet, and even in her building, which consists mostly of single-bedroom apartments for seniors, most of whom are Cantonese-speaking Chinese-Americans, options for interaction have shrunk. Management canceled the twice-weekly morning coffee hour.

“I appreciate the quiet, but it’s taking a terrible toll economically,” she says. “I’m on a small Social Security benefit, and I’ll be able to cover my rent. I worry about the coffee shop and the New Delhi Indian restaurant next door. The owner said he’s never been so scared in his life, now that everything he’s worked for in his life is in danger of being lost.” But she still finds ways to stay connected. She talks to family on the phone, and says she’s been practicing playing her penny whistle, or tin whistle (a common instrument in Irish music).

After her sister died unexpectedly seven years ago, she joined a choir—“I couldn’t afford therapy, so if you can’t scream, sing, it’s good for your cardiovascular system”—and while she hasn’t performed in years, she’s still in touch with friends from the ensemble. Since the coronavirus arrived and shelter-in-place was mandated, she’s started sending the group periodic emails, collecting things she’s seen in the paper that were interesting, including COVID-19 news as well as short videos, cartoons, memes, and GIFs. She read part of her March 19 letter: “I hope you’re doing well and using your indoor time for all the things you always wanted to do: read, relax, talk with friends, study other languages.”

She’s a bit of an insomniac, and says she’s found herself up at 3 a.m., laughing at stand-up videos posted by a comedy club in Utah.

“I’ve never watched so many comedies in one night, there are so many on,” she says. “It’s so important emotionally to find some humor now.”

She notes that there’s no use right now in panic, and “worry is a conversation you have with yourself.” Food is being delivered to the building, so she hasn’t gone out, and she really doesn’t want to, at least until people stop being crazy. She’s read stories about people running out to gun shops and buying guns and ammo and wonders what they’re going to do, rob someone for toilet paper?

“I’m 75, life expectancy isn’t very long anyway, and I’ve pretty much concluded that I’m going to die alone, which is very different from being lonely,” she says. “From the moment you’re born, you’re headed toward death, the only question is how and when. I’m sort of a fatalist in that respect. I’m not going to panic about this. Once we all get through this, we can look back and collapse, or maybe play our penny whistles. I do consider myself fortunate.”


March 2020

Shortly after Chicagoans Stephanie Arias and Miguel Aguila were married, their thoughts turned to getting a place of their own. Both 28-year-old, first-generation Mexican-Americans who tied the knot in July 2018, they had been living with their respective parents and saving money for a down payment. They decided to focus their search on Humboldt Park, a historically Puerto Rican—and now rapidly gentrifying—neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side where Arias’s family lives.

They weren’t prepared for the sticker shock. Centered on a vast green space that gives the neighborhood its name, Humboldt Park has changed significantly over the past decade as traditional three-flat apartment buildings and brick bungalows make way for condo projects and modern single-family homes. The recently opened 606 linear park has only accelerated the shift: Zillow projects that average home values will hit $316,000 by 2021, twice the average home price in 2012.

“We started looking, and it was impossible to find a home in our price range,” Arias says. “And many of the homes here were full-on, with five bedrooms and three bathrooms, and I don’t think we’d ever need something that big. They build these beautiful homes, but they’re not for us.”

The monthly fees and dues for condos and townhomes they found were prohibitively expensive too. They recently moved into a rental apartment in Humboldt Park and decided to save money and take another look at the market in a year, and, if necessary, look at less expensive neighborhoods, like Portage Park on the city’s northwest side. That magical home that’s the right size, the right price, and in the right neighborhood just didn’t exist.

The big problem with building smaller homes

Arias and Aguila aren’t alone in being shut out of the housing market because of oversized, expensive homes—and that’s making it harder for potential homeowners, especially first-time buyers, to purchase property.

American homes have ballooned, generation by generation. The average U.S. home is roughly 1,600 square feet, and the new homes being built today take up even more space, roughly 2,505 square feet. U.S. homes are roughly 600 to 800 feet larger than those of comparable highly industrialized countries, according to a study by Sonia A. Hirt, professor of landscape architecture and planning at the University of Georgia.

A road sign in a new residential suburb built in 1947.
A road sign in the first of seven planned suburbs that share the name Levittown in Long Island, New York, 1947.

To explain why Americans value larger homes in many cases, Hirt points all the way back to the earliest days of British colonialism in North America. The European settlers who came to the colonies in the late 1600s, leaving behind their more crowded European homes and taking land from those who already lived here, saw North America as a land of “spatial generosity,” she says.

“If you look at the writings from some of the Founding Fathers, you pick up this expectation that there is an American way, and part of that American dream is having your own space for a private household,” she says. As she cites in her book, Zoned in the U.S.A., John Adams wrote that as long as his countrymen lived in less dense arrangements “sprinkled over large tracts of land,” they would be free from “the contagions of madness and folly, which are seen in countries where large numbers live in small places.”

If the desire and expectation for vast personal space has always been there, the pattern of ever-larger homes really took off in the booming economy of the postwar era. U.S. federal housing policy underwrote mortgages (for white Americans), subsidizing the construction of suburbia and larger housing developments. The completion of the interstate highway system and urban renewal connected suburban houses to downtown offices, allowing buyers to live in large homes far from city centers while still having an easy commute.

Ever since this midcentury supersizing of American homes there’s been an “inflation of expectations,” Hirt says, among U.S. homeowners. Success has been defined upward, and every generation needed a slightly larger home—or more recently, McMansion—to show they’ve made it.

“In the ’30s, it was perfectly normal for even an upscale family to have just one bathroom,” says Hirt. “If you had that in a modern home today, you’d never be able to sell it.”

The problem is, that belief—that every homeowner should have a large home and spacious private yard—calcified during a period of rapid expansion, and relatively open, available land near urban centers. Jenny Schuetz, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program who writes about land-use policy and housing, says that the postwar boom was only possible because there were big chunks of cheap land available in places where it was easy to build. Materials too were less expensive than they are today, so builders focused on a highly standardized, lucrative product (think the Levittown suburbor Los Angeles’s one-story bungalows). These were single-family starter units, perfect for vets and their growing families to buy with their GI-Bill subsidized mortgages.

A home site with a foundation, appliances, and building materials laid out for workers to assemble.
Building materials and appliances sitting on unfinished foundation in Levittown. The average-sized home in the postwar area was much smaller than it is today. 

Now, after decades of building homes based loosely on this model, there isn’t land left for affordable single-family home construction anywhere near city centers. And the predominance of zoning rules that only allow the construction of detached single-family homes in vast swaths of urban America, as a New York Times analysis laid bare, creates scarcity in urban neighborhoods, helping to drive up the price of land and homes across the board.

“All of the inputs to the home construction process are more expensive than they were 50 years ago: the cost of land, road, sewer, labor, and infrastructure,” says Schuetz. Furthermore, a full 24 percent of the cost of a new home in the U.S. is eaten up by regulatory burdens, impact fees, taxes, and the cost of delays, according to data from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

“If you’re going to do brand-new construction, you don’t do the bare bones,” she adds. “You expect buyers with higher budgets who want nice finishes.” When a historic bungalow is torn down and replaced by a big, boxy, expensive modern home, as is the case in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, that’s a real-life illustration of these economics at play.

How policy, and risk-averse builders, keep us from building smaller homes

Many neighborhoods are in the midst of this type of transformation, with older, denser housing stock being transformed into larger single-family homes. And today’s builders aren’t creating the slightly denser, more affordable options that were once the hallmark of urban development. Dan Parolek, an architect and founding principal with the Berkeley, California-based firm Opticos, coined a term, “missing middle,” to describe this situation. It’s a reference to the older, vernacular housing styles, like brownstones in Brooklyn or three-flats in Chicago, that he says the building industry just isn’t delivering anymore, despite demand for this type of product.

“The development industry still thinks that people want big, and they’re in a state of denial and don’t want to change their business model,” he says. “We see a tremendous market untapped for high-quality small units, and very few builders see that.”

According to an Urban Land Institute report, builders today are building less and less of the smallest category of homes. Homes under 1,400 square feet have typically represented 16 percent of new construction in the U.S., but since 1999, they’ve only made up 8 percent of new construction. During the same time period, homes measuring 1,800 square feet or less made up just 22 percent of new construction, while they have traditionally been 40 percent of the market. During the last two decades, homes over 2,400 square feet, which in the past represented roughly a third of new homes, now comprise half of the market.

Robert Dietz, senior vice president and chief economist of the NAHB, sees many of these trends play out in his data. For instance, from 2010 to 2014, the size of the average home started going up again after the recession. He surmises that due to the tightening of the credit market and the difficulty in getting a mortgage approved during those years, most buyers were typically wealthier and wanted something larger and more substantial. This is when entry-level construction sharply declined.

“The real challenge is finding those builders who can build entry-level housing for the stereotypical millennial couple or family in their late 20s and early 30s,” says Dietz, something that’s more affordable and 2,000 square feet or less. Adam Ducker, senior managing director at RCLCO, a real estate consultancy, thinks it’s possible, but builders are generally scared of trying a risky new business model.

“The industry assumes the margins on a smaller home are worse. You need to pay the architect and still build a kitchen, and when you make less money on a smaller product, that’s a double economic disincentive,” says Ducker. “But that’s not a fact, that’s a perception. Is it really the same cost per square foot? Maybe if you go from selling a $600,000 house to a $300,000 house, there are things you don’t need to provide, and there’s a new market there at that price point.”

But amid the expansion of U.S. home size, there’s recently been a shift back. Parolek has seen the same slow change in consumer demand, and believes the forces at play will push the industry to embrace new solutions to help couples like Arias and Aguila achieve their ownership dreams.

“We’ve seen a tremendous shift back toward people wanting to live smaller, whether for environmental reasons, or [in hopes of] reducing their consumption and living more sustainably,” he says. “Many buyers are willing to exchange size for walkability and urban living.”

We can do it differently

Sadly, traditional building practices in the U.S. make it challenging to build in ways that help buyers make that trade-off. As Parolek sees it, the system isn’t allowing for small units and more efficient use of limited land. Existing planning regulations will often limit builders to, say, four units on a 50-by-100-foot lot. That means that builders will maximize size and profitability within that lot to make the economics of construction work, discouraging them from building more, smaller units they think might offer affordable housing to potential buyers. There are also fees, both in the form of impact fees and parking requirements, which conspire to keep architects and builders from using space in the most efficient manner, especially if the goal is providing more, smaller, and cheaper housing.

But increasingly, there are signs that buyers, and some builders, want something new. Or more accurately, something old: denser, more walkable, maybe even car-free living.

Peter Crowley, a partner at LandDesign, says that he’s seeing more demand for row houses and townhomes, which create more of a neighborhood feel in urban developments and master-planned communities. Recent LandDesign projects, such as the 300-acre Viridian development in North Arlington, Texas, or the Westford, a 92-acre, mixed-use community in Apex, North Carolina, focus on what he calls “right-sizing homes,” which means building attached homes in a way that combines amenities and green space and helps lower the cost of new homes in these developments. Even modest increases in density can lead to more people sharing nearby public space, increasing chances for social interaction.

“We like the idea of front-porch culture,” he says. “We think of it as camouflaging density. People are on the street, engaged, and we think it creates a safer community and more socialization opportunities.”

Overhead image of an under-development neighborhood in Tempe, featuring smaller homes and car-free streets.
A rendering of what the Opticos development in Tempe would look like, a series of courtyard buildings meant to encourage small-space living and neighborhood interaction.
A rendering of a car-free street within the Culdesac development.
“It’s car free, but the better way to position it is that it’s mobility rich,” says Dan Parolek, an architect and founding principal with Opticos.

In Tempe, Arizona, Parolek and Opticos are engaged in a grander experiment that challenges preconceived notions of the typical American home and lifestyle. Called Culdesac, the 1,000-unit planned development, positioned near a light-rail station, will prioritize car-free living, resulting in a denser collection of smaller homes. Units will be arranged around shared courtyards, great for fostering community and interaction, with on-site grocery stores; access to bike-share and micromobility options, such as electric scooters; as well as public amenity spaces for parties and special events. Parolek says the development, which recently got the green light to build from the city, exemplifies how many Americans are searching for a different type of lifestyle.

“It’s car free, but the better way to position it is that it’s mobility rich,” says Paroek.

He says that it’s always good in this case to define what “small” actually means. Here, the decision to build small—units range from 860 to 1,460 square feet, substantially smaller than what other builders in the market are delivering—means less hassle and better access to amenities and transit, and a more walkable lifestyle.

“This isn’t just small; it’s thoughtful and livable,” he says.

It’s also responding to the demands of a growing segment of the market. Developments that de-emphasize car ownership and increase density, especially by taking advantage of new zoning regulations, can make smaller, more affordable housing not just possible, but desirable.

“There’s a growing percentage of the market that wants small,” he says. “Every couple of years, it grows dramatically. Millennials are having a tremendous impact on this desire for small living, as are boomers, who are aging and looking for a lifestyle that isn’t car-dependent.”

Schuetz agrees, and hopes that as the zoning conversation evolves—with more cities following the lead of places like Minneapolis and prioritizing density—our social perceptions of what a starter home looks like will change as well.

“Considering how much people want to live in and near the city, a starter home should really be a condo—that’s the norm we should be moving toward,” she says. “And considering that our financial system is biased toward single-family homes, and we haven’t updated things since the ’50s, it’s probably time to do that as well.”

Hirt says that there’s increasing pressure to modify our expectations about homes and home size. As the experience of potential homebuyers Arias and Aguila in Chicago have shown, when builders aren’t willing and able to create the affordable units buyers want, it leads many to defer their dreams of homeownership.

“In the decade since the Great Recession, there’s been cultural pressure to modify this trend toward bigger and bigger homes,” she says. “But it’ll take 30 or 40 years to truly cause a cultural shift in this country.”


August 2019

Carla Yanni can’t decide if the most over-the-top student housing amenity she’s seen is the pet-washing station at a LaSalle University dorm or the lazy river winding through an apartment complex near Arizona State. A professor at Rutgers, Yanni did extensive research on the evolution of how and where students live for her new book, Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.

These eyebrow-raising features might spark “kids these days” headlines, but they aren’t representative of the average college experience. Instead, Yanni says, they’re best understood as symbols of the forces now shaping college housing. Strained university budgets and increased competition for enrollees have led schools to do everything they can to impress wealthy prospective students.

The race for students’ funds is one of the factors fueling a boom in private, university-focused housing developers over the last few decades—and one of the ways in which the college housing market now reflects the stratified real estate market at large.

“This market has gone from a mom-and-pop operation, widows running boarding houses, that kind of thing, to a handful of corporate real estate developers with an expertise in building and marketing these kind of facilities,” says Yanni.

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Axiometrics, a real estate data service, reported $9 billion in transactions in the college housing industry in 2016 alone. At the same time, housing has become a massive expense for students, many already facing heavy debt. As the oversized millennial generation and Gen Z has aged—the 18-to-24-year-old demographic expanded from 27 million in 2000 to roughly 31 million in 2016, per U.S. census data—enrollment has soared for colleges, which are competing for students and funding. Average student debt has climbed from about $11,000 in 1990 to around $35,000 in 2018, and a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report found that “housing costs [are] likely a significant portion” of individual student debt.

Housing prices for students have never been higher. Room and board costs have outpaced inflation, and according to the College Board, the cost of housing at public universities has nearly doubled since the 1980s. Axios recently reported that the cost to build new dorms and accommodations has also skyrocketed, to an average of $92,000 per bed.

It’s easy to point to the pools and fancy apartments as the causes of those rising costs, but experts say they are merely symptoms of bigger forces at play in the college housing market.

The birth of a business

Colleges can build and operate new dorms out of their own general funds, engage in revenue-bond-financed construction, and even pursue public-private partnerships that can cover financing, design, construction, and operations.

Enter private developers, and a network of builders and consultants who aim to provide new on- and off-campus options for colleges without requiring them to take on debt or tap too far into their capital reserves.

This industry, which started in the 1990s and took off after the Great Recession in 2008, came along at a perfect time, according to Jim Costello, an analyst at Real Capital Analytics. Investors saw the need for student housing and realized it could bring higher yields than more traditional sectors of the housing industry. While conventional wisdom suggests student housing has high turnover and operational costs, investors saw an ability to standardize operations and construction and take advantage of a kind of captive market in the predictable influx of students.

A number of sizable companies began to offer investment options for academia. Capstone, based in Birmingham, Alabama, has worked on roughly $4 billion worth of projects over the last three decades, says principal Jeff Jones, partnering with more than 70 institutions across the country. While it’s difficult to generalize about the financial situation of so many different colleges and universities, he says many have competing priorities for their money and debt capacity. Working with Capstone or a similar firm decreases the amount of capital a school has to devote to housing, allowing that institution to “keep their powder dry” for other needs.

Capstone, which recently subdivided into different firms focused on different aspects of student housing, has even moved into master planning, including adding new on- and off-campus housing in and around campuses and helping school retire or reuse dorms from the ’50s and ’60s that are past their prime.

Scion, a Chicago-based owner, operator, and advisor for schools and student housing, has played a role in over $5 billion of projects since its founding in 1999, and currently operates 54,000 beds at 81 mostly off-campus communities (more than two-thirds of college students nationwide live off campus, since school housing capacity can’t come close to covering all enrollees).

Brothers and Scion founders Robert and Eric Bronstein saw how the demographic winds were blowing and realized that colleges would look for help upgrading aging housing stock, a task outside their traditional core educational focus.

Investors, consultants, and institutional builders believe the sector will still see high demand, even as the peak of the millennial demographic has passed their college-age years. A potential recession could harm willingness to choose high-cost housing options, but enrollments also often rise during recessions.

Vintage photograph of a of college student in sweater and skirt, sitting at a built-in desk, working at a typewriter in her color-coordinated green dorm room, 1950s.
Early-20th-century college administrators saw residence halls, the concrete-block structures that have become part of college lore, as great levelers.

The stratification of student housing

Changing attitudes about what and who college is for have helped to fuel demand for student housing, even as college becomes increasingly unaffordable for many students.

Early-20th-century college administrators saw residence halls, the concrete-block structures that have become part of college lore, as great levelers, according to Yanni. The University of Wisconsin, for example, sold its dorms as places where “the son of the banker and the farmer’s boy will find fraternity near the crackling fire.” The purpose was to mix members of different economic classes.

The college experience is still in large part about friends, networking, and broadening horizons, but according to Yanni, that’s not as core to college housing as it once was. Instead, student housing is now a reflection of class stratification, rather than an antidote. At Rutgers, where Yanni teaches, the range of housing options spans from roughly $8,000-per-year traditional on-campus dorms to $13,500-per-year off-campus apartments. Add in a significant number of international students attending U.S. colleges—more than a million last year, per the Migration Policy Institute, who often come from wealthy families, pay full-price tuition, pursue advanced degrees in high-earning fields like engineering, information technology, math, and management, and frequently prefer higher-end, apartment-style living—and it’s clear why there’s a growing market for higher-end student housing.

“It’s not as if we couldn’t always tell who the rich kids were,” Yanni says. “But now, there’s not even an attempt to bring everyone together. The idea of creating a classless utopia is completely absent. It would seem like a ludicrous thing to suggest, in the present moment.”

At the other end of the wealth spectrum, an increasing number of students who enroll in college have significant financial need, according to Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple who studies education, especially socioeconomic and racial inequalities in the higher ed system, and founded the Hope Center for College Community and Justice. Recent Pew research found the number of poor students—defined as students whose family income was at or below the poverty line—increased 8 percent between 1996 and 2016. “This was a deliberate choice in public policy,” she says. “We opened the doors, because the return on investment in getting people to college is high. But now, debt is just growing too fast.”

Goldrick-Rab says that “the student housing industry is missing a bit about the client.”

Is this the housing we need? And is it helping?

While the boom in new student housing isn’t letting up, there are questions about whether or not this is the housing today’s students need—a new study suggest students in off-campus apartments don’t perform as well as those in on-campus dorms—and if large-scale, institutional apartments adjacent to campus are driving up nearby rents.

A recent Bloomberg article, “If the Tuition Doesn’t Get You, the Cost of Student Housing Will,” argues that this wave of private off-campus apartment development, targeting areas where students live and, as the author argues, drive out more affordable options, is raising tuition costs in cities such as Austin and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

A spokesperson from Scion says that premise is flawed. New off-campus housing is typically new-built, not resulting from the demolition of older buildings, and the new competition these units bring is healthy for the market, providing more options at more price points.

But this wave of new housing doesn’t address the lack of affordable living options for low-income students. It’s a challenge analogous to providing low-income housing in general; it’s a difficult market to make the numbers work. And many traditional tools for helping provide low-income housing don’t apply to students. For instance, full-time students aren’t eligible for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, and housing authorities by law are allowed to de-prioritize full-time students.

“Many of the levers that you pull to create affordable housing and food deliberately write out college students,” says Goldrick-Rab. “For many students who are low income, they would have an easier time finding housing if they dropped out of college.”

The challenge is particularly stark for community colleges, which traditionally have been built to serve commuters and lack on-campus housing options. Currently, about 30 percent of two-year institutions now offer some form of housing, according to data from Scion, and that number is growing.

Recent studies of community colleges in California, where rents are especially high, have driven home the affordability challenges these institutions face. Many students pay out-of-pocket fees—the price for school, including housing and rent, after grants and aid—that rival four-year schools. They also don’t receive nearly as much student aid: The average low-income, full-time community college student received $5,800 in state and federal grant aid in the 2017-’18 school year, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, while the average low-income, full-time student at a UC school received $27,500. UC Davis, near Sacramento, costs about $8,000 annually, while community college costs about $19,600. That’s one reason Sacramento reports some of the highest rates of student homelessness in the nation; nearly a quarter of college students in the city reported that they lacked permanent shelter in the past year.

“If you want people to go to community college, they need to help more than this,“ Goldrick-Rab says.

Increasingly, community colleges have sought to address these issues, offering parking lots as spaces for students to sleep overnight, and even embarking on their own housing construction (often with institutional players involved—Scion has worked with approximately 20 community colleges nationwide, providing advisory services regarding the feasibility and implementation of campus housing).

While their intentions may be good, Goldrick-Rab warns community college administrators to be careful before entering any deals. Without institutional experience with managing student housing, they often get in over their heads, and may not fully consider the ancillary costs of having students living on campus, such as the need for more dining options and late-night hours for libraries and other facilities.

“You need cash flow for all sorts of expenses when you own anything,” she says. “Community colleges don’t have much of that If something goes wrong, whereas a larger school with a decent endowment can always cover costs. They also often get money to build, but not to maintain.”

Goldrick-Rab says that it’s difficult to find good, large-scale examples of housing, especially for community colleges, that truly meet the goal of providing affordable options to students in need. She points to Family Scholar Houses, supportive housing in Kentucky and Ohio built for students with families, as one example. But not enough of this type of housing exists to serve all the students who need it.

That’s why Goldrick-Rab believes this election, and subsequent federal policy, is so important. That policy could make college, which is a ladder to opportunity and advancement, more affordable.

“If you have kids in college or going to college, this is the single most important election in your life,” she says. “There’s no bootstrapping here. There’s no way around the fact that unless you have more effort at the federal level, it’s going to be hard. If you want people to go to community college, they need to help more than this.”


December 2018

A year ago, a warehouse filled with rows of electric scooters might have seemed a little dorky, maybe home to a company trying to show fanny pack-wearing tourists local landmarks. But today, in Santa Monica, California, an old industrial space filled with hundreds of electric scooters with purple and pink stripes represents one of the hottest innovations in urban transportation.

Lyft set up this operations center as part of its bet that the future of the company involves replacing lots of car trips with rides on electric scooters and electric bikes. Eventually, a Lyft spokesperson told me, the idea is to create a “Netflix of transportation,” offering scooter, e-bike, and car rides with a single subscription, as well as guidance to link trips to public transit.

A late entrant into the dockless scooter craze, Lyft is doing its best to catch up. This facility is the first of what the company, valued at $15 billion, expects will be a string of scooter depots, repair and recovery operations for the company’s foray into micromobility. As a participant in Santa Monica’s electric scooter pilot, the company is allowed to place 250 scooters on the street at any one time. Everything else happens under this roof. (The company provided an exclusive tour on the condition the warehouse location wasn’t revealed.)

Inside empty offices on the second floor, piles of scooters sit in different states of disarray or disrepair, ready to be refurbished by a team of mechanics. On the main floor, nearly a dozen operations managers monitor the fleet 24 hours a day, staring at two large monitors that track the location of every vehicle in service.

A data team crunches usage and trip data to find the best locations to place scooters throughout the day, and contract workers fan out multiple times a day to keep everything humming along. Rows and rows of hundreds of extra scooters, lined up across the warehouse floor, quietly power up, chargers blinking.

Why Santa Monica is scooter city

While San Francisco, thrust into the media spotlight early during “scooter-geddon,” has become more of a sidenote, no other city has been more central to the rise of the dockless electric scooter craze than Santa Monica.

It’s the birthplace of Bird, a startup that hit a billion-dollar valuation in a little over a year, three times faster than Airbnb. It’s also currently operating a scooter pilot program, pitting the four biggest players in the game—Bird, Lime, Lyft, and Uber, under the Jump brand—against each other in a battle for the right to operate within city limits.

Users scan QR codes to rent Bird scooters along the strand in Santa Monica, California.

“Santa Monica is important because it’s popular, congested, and has all the problems our scooters attack,” says Thomas Lord, the general manager of Lime’s Los Angeles-area operations. “It also had a progressive view of scooters. A couple operations managers have told me that if the first scooter didn’t go out in Santa Monica, the industry maybe would have died last year.”

The luck of being Bird’s home, paired with receptive local leaders, means the rise and regulation of dockless electric scooters in this wealthy, seaside Southern California city of 93,000 helped set the tone for a potential transportation revolution. That may seem overwrought, since these are electric scooters we’re talking about. But this is an industry that, in the space of a year, has sponged up hundreds of millions in venture-capital funding and spread to hundreds of cities across the globe. Lime and Bird are valued at more than a billion dollars.

When you talk to transit experts, planners, and transit companies—Curbed spoke to representatives of all four operators in Santa Monica, as well as city officials—they see nothing less than a chance to break the country of its car addiction, reduce carbon emissions, reshape our streets, and change how people get around cities. Turns out those small scooters make a hell of a soapbox.

“Are cities going to choose to help solve the climate crisis and get people out of cars?” says David Estrada, Bird’s chief legal officer and head of public policy. “If you look at the IPCC report, there’s some serious language about cutting out the use of fossil fuels. Are cities currently treating the climate as a crisis?”

Estrada’s response is typical of the industry’s communications strategy. Focus on solutions. Bird, for example, tries to highlight the fact that cities need to invest more in bike lanes, not that a private company is crowding public streets with vehicles earning the company money.

Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s city manager, says the City Council has taken the long view, looking to be a seedbed for experimentation. “We don’t want to be the city that squelched a promising mobility innovation, we want to be the city that found a way to domesticate it,” he says. But that has come with significant growing pains, and what Cole calls “white-hot political opposition.”

Santa Monica’s experience with scooters offers insight into the key conflicts driving the popularity and continued growth of these companies: cars versus pedestrians, regulations versus technological revolution, and hype versus helping people better navigate the places they live and work. Do scooter companies—and the micromobility revolution their success could usher in—represent a real chance to create a human-scale transit network?

The appeal of electric scooters

According to the rules outlined in Santa Monica’s Shared Mobility Pilot Program2,500 scooters and e-bikes, split between the four operators, can be found on city streets at any one time. A quick trip through Santa Monica today shows scooters have taken root. Take a walk down Main Street, a strip of shops and restaurants that runs parallel to the Pacific; stroll through downtown near the city’s Promenade; or stop by Metro light-rail stops on the Expo Line during rush hour, and you’ll see clusters of scooters and electric bikes on sidewalks, or streaming down the street.

Wake up early enough, before the sun rises, and you’ll see teams of contract workers setting up scooters at busy intersections, unloading them out of vans or pickup trucks and lining them up in perfect rows, all tilted in the same direction, like actors taking a bow at curtain call.

Scooters became popular in Santa Monica due to a combination of factors: downtown density, the fun of riding on beachfront paths, a great climate, a growing network of protected bike lanes, as well as the presence of Bird founder Travis VanderZanden—a former executive at both Uber and Lyft who, disillusioned with the ride-hailing industry, left Uber and moved to Southern California in 2016.

A Jump scooter

But, in many ways, the rise of scooters boils down to two facts about U.S. transportation: Car-dependent Americans really, truly hate traffic, and 40 percent of car trips in the United States are under two miles. Commute times and congestion are increasing, and ride-hailing, initially promoted as a solution, is consistently proven, in studyafter study, to be making the problem worse. Or, as Lyft’s head of bike, scooter, and pedestrian policy Caroline Samponaro says, “There’s far more demand for mobility in a city than there’s mobility in a city.”

Deploying drivers for these short trips and navigating congested streets for little return is making less and less financial sense for Uber and Lyft. Dockless electric scooters offer an energy-efficient way to tackle these short trips without getting into a car.

Of course, there’s already a widely available vehicle that excels at short, car-free trips: the bicycle. But bikes aren’t nearly as seamless as a portable scooter. They take effort, can leave riders sweaty and tired upon arrival, and offer challenges to older riders or those with physical disabilities. There’s no special gear or effort, no lycra shorts, and no virtue signaling with electric scooters; nobody calls themselves a Scooterist.

“Based on our data, dockless bikes were not seeing utilization rates that were as high as dockless scooters, once scooters were introduced in late 2017 and early 2018,” says Regina Clewlow, co-founder of Populus, a mobility data platform for cities. “Utilization rates for scooters range from four trips to as high as 12 trips per day, depending on how many competitors are in a city. The average appears to fall closer to five trips a day in most major markets.”

That ease of use had made electric scooters, as well as electric pedal-assist bikes, take off. A Populous study found that scooters have “unprecedented” and “remarkably high adoption rates given their recent arrival.” Bird and Lime hit 10 million rides in less than a year; Uber took three years to hit that milestone. And, while they’ve been tagged as dangerous vehicles irresponsibly ridden—a class-action lawsuit accuses scooter operators of gross negligence, and two riders in the U.S. have died in accidentsa study conducted in Austin found scooter riders there were injured at half the rate of bike riders.

Evidence also suggests scooters can help increase ridership of other forms of shared mobility. Data from Portland, Oregon, which has dockless scooters as well as the docked Biketown bike-share service, found that between late July and late November, a period during which 700,000 scooter rides were taken, bike-share usage actually increased 6 percent year over year.

Ideally, scooters can serve as a low-cost, last-mile solution and connect riders to public transit; in Santa Monica, usage is already clustered around light-rail stops.

“It’s changing people’s perspectives on how they can get around,” says Cynthia Rose, the leader of Santa Monica Spoke, the city’s bike advocacy group. “It’s moving people to look beyond getting around by car.”

Even if scooter usage cannibalizes some existing transit trips, it’s a numbers game, argues Carter Rubin, a mobility and climate advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a Santa Monica resident.

“If, within a group of 50 scooter trips, just a few of those eliminate a car trips, based on the energy used for both, it’s a net positive in terms of emissions,” he says.

How the scooter craze started in Santa Monica

When the idea for a dockless scooter system arrived at City Hall in the summer of 2017, the request to start the company was unorthodox. VanderZanden launched his startup by ordering 10 scooters off the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, having a skeleton crew of coders put together an app, and leaving the scooters around Santa Monica with tags attached, explaining how they worked.

Early communications with the city were slightly improvisational. At one point, VanderZanden sent the city’s Mayor Ted Winterer a message via Linkedin as a way to communicate his intentions. When he first applied for licenses for the scooter, VanderZanden was told the only city permits that even remotely fit his needs were permits for vending machines.

Francie Stefan, the city’s acting chief mobility officer, wasn’t surprised by the technology. Santa Monica has its own Breeze bike-share network, and had been tracking changes in transit tech, watching the rise and fall of dockless bike-share systems, such as Ofo and Mobike. Stefan also felt a scooter network was worth trying because she already had the data that showed it might work.

Santa Monica had started conducting its own resident travel survey the previous year, a relatively expensive process for a city of its size. The city found the same data point that so intrigued scooter companies and their investors: More than 40 percent of the city’s trips were two miles or less, most of which were solo drivers in a car.

Stefan saw scooters as a way to turn these short car trips into something less energy-intensive, freeing up road space and helping the city meet its climate goals. The transit network is an ecosystem, Stefan often says, and, like any ecosystem, when a single species dominates, it isn’t healthy.

“We’ve spent decades widening roads and accommodating cars, and now is the moment where we’re reflecting and thinking, ‘Is that really working for everyone?’” she says.

Bird’s scooters arrived in Santa Monica to little fanfare last fall, but over time, especially after Lime arrived last April, they became ubiquitous, for better or worse. Residents complained about scooters blocking sidewalks—which is still the most common complaint—users joyriding down city streets and on the beach path, and riders leaving stray scooters in front of building entrances. Lime’s manager, Thomas Lord, remembers the team finding a scooter hanging over a bluff in Palisades Park, which required a grappling hook to recover. (“We Batman-ed that scooter,” he says.)

Stefan says the past summer’s rush,“having thousands of people from LA County trying scooters for the first time on our streets every week,” was a learning experience for the city and scooter companies.

Cole, the city manager, called it a “punishing experiment,” as a wave of first-time riders, and their behaviors, created a response unlike anything he’s seen working in government.

He jokes that during that period he spent a third of his time running the city, a third of his time answering emails from those who thought scooters represented the end of Western civilization, and a third of his time responding to Twitter posts that he was clamping down on the best invention since the iPhone—and one that would save the planet.

The staff members in charge of regulations were often left scratching their heads trying to figure out fining and enforcement structures around driver’s license verification, helmet usage, parking scooters safely, and restrictions around riding on sidewalks. These issues also became tech and education challenges for the startups.

The public backlash—and the reaction of other city leaders to the arrival of scooters—has shown the “beg for forgiveness instead of asking for permission” policy won’t work in the long run. Scooter companies tried to rebrand, seeking to be better partners with governments (including hiring away many transit advocates and public policy experts, and creating tech tools to help cities manage scooters). Stefan said operators worked fast to find technical fixes when the city decided to ban scooter usage on the beachfront path.

Spoke’s Rose, the bike advocate, feels the initial rollout was a wasted opportunity. The scooter companies could have capitalized on better planning and safety, working with the bike and pedestrian advocates who have been at it for years. Instead, the operators have continually worked to gain public trust around safety issues. In February, Bird paid more than $300,000 to settle safety complaints and permitting issues with the city, and other operators have continually invested in safety-education programs, notably Lime’s recent $3 million Respect the Ride campaign.

“I understand this mentality: Ask for forgiveness, not permission,” she says. “Disrupting is not new. When the car came, it was a disruption, it was hated and vilified. But it seems like nobody thought about what’s going to happen after they disrupt.”

An attempt to regulate in the age of disruption

In June, as summer tourist traffic—and scooter rides—peaked, the city decided to take more formal control of scooter operations by introducing rules for a flexible scooter pilot program. Over a 16-month period beginning in September, companies would compete for the right to operate vehicles within city limits, judged on criteria including maintenance, education, safety, customer service, and data sharing. Stefan says the program was set up to be flexible and adjustable as the city sees fit, using a similar administrative framework previously utilized to test out medical marijuana.

After the city released preliminary rankings of the dozen startups that had applied for a spot, ranking Uber and Lyft above long-time scooter operators, Bird and Lime felt slighted, and would later stage a “day without scooters,” when the two companies removed their fleet from operation and persuaded dozens of supporters to protest at City Hall.

“No one has operated scooter and bike sharing on the scale Lime and Bird have,” said Sam Dreiman, Lime’s director of strategic development, recalling the frustration over the low ranking. “The city didn’t fully understand what it took to run a scooter-sharing operation. This isn’t something you can throw money and a team of engineers at. This takes real people to implement and fix problems, to make it an effective and reliable transit service, as opposed to some joyride thing.”

Officials at the announcement of the Santa Monica Shared Mobility Pilot Program.

Eventually, Santa Monica announced all four companies would be part of the trial. Bird and Lime would have 750 scooters each, and Uber and Lyft would each be given 250 scooters and 500 e-bikes (Lyft has yet to roll out its e-bikes). Each startup would pay $20,000 for the right to operate, $130 per device, and $1 per device per day for the privilege of parking on the public sidewalk, money that the city would invest in infrastructure and safety improvements. Over time, as the companies proved their vehicles were being utilized at a high enough rate, they’d be given permission to operate more vehicles.

The template of this deal—companies play by the rules and help fund the infrastructure they benefit from, while the city lets new technology prove itself—has been influential for other cities looking to introduce their own pilots. It’s also an attempt to establish regulations for an age of disruption, or as Cole says, not merely an attempt to regulate micromobility, but an effort to figure out how to protect public safety and make rules in an era of rapid change.

“Our goal is to create a level playing field and see what the different operator responses are,” says Stefan. “It’s not a trial period, it’s a learning period.”

Since the program officially started in September, city staff and the four operators have kept in close contact, with regular emails and check-in meetings, including a Shared Mobility Pilot Community Advisory Meeting that held its first meeting late last month. The city’s bike-share coordinator is monitoring the program full time.

Stefan says the program has started to find its rhythm. Last month, when the American Film Market, a big industry event that annually generates more than $1 billion in deals, came to town, the scooter operators, in concert with event organizers, set up scooter-free zones along the event’s shuttle bus route.

The scooter caps have emerged as the most contested part of the program. As Santa Monica has acted proactively to try to establish better riding and parking conditions for scooter riders—adding scooter signage and even removing parking spaces to provide on-street scooter parking—the unwillingness to allow more scooters has frustrated operators. Before the trial, Bird had 3,000 vehicles in the city. Now, capped at 750, it’s had to pull back, losing some of the network effect.

“When you’re in Starbucks and see a scooter, and can rely on its availability, people begin to use scooters regularly,” says Estrada. “We had reached closer to a level of ubiquity where people were relying on them. Due to market dynamics, we’ve had to shrink the service area to focus on a roughly two-mile rectangle around downtown. We’re not servicing the outer areas as much, which would help us convert more car trips to scooter trips.”

Those caps may soon be changing. Recently, Santa Monica adopted the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a micromobility data standard created by Los Angeles’s Department of Transportation, and will begin monitoring usage and utilization. As of mid-November, Stefan says most scooter companies average three to four rides per device per day, with a cyclical pattern of usage, rising from Monday throughout the week and dropping on Sunday. More than 500 individuals have ridden more than 30 times.

Santa Monica’s pilot program welcomed disruption, albeit a slow, steady, and well-monitored kind.

Racing climate change, at 15 miles per hour

Two months into the pilot, Cole says that he’s seen a real difference on the streets, as more first-time riders become regular scooter users. Amid the shock of the new, there are more users with helmets, more obeying stop signs, more acting as responsibly as any everyday driver, biker, or pedestrian.

As the operators begin designing their own vehicles, they’re counting on technology to help fix the problems of profitability and operations. Lime just introduced a Gen 3 scooter, with GPS capabilities that’ll eventually be used to more accurately park vehicles (an LED display will light up when the vehicle is in the right place to park).

“It’s important that we design the scooters, because the manufacturer doesn’t know what you’re doing,” says Lime’s Lord. “We understand the full picture of what’s being used.”

Bird, which is also designing its own scooters, is developing beacon technology to keep scooters off sidewalks (it’s currently looking for a test market). Small Bluetooth beacons, the size of poker chips, which can be embedded in the road, will detect when a scooter is close to the curb, warning it to stay away, and to set up beacon parking spots. In addition to its new Community Mode, which basically allows users to rat out scooters left outside of approved parking spaces, it’s a high-tech solution to the long-term problem of parking.

But even as it provides a model for how cities can balance innovation while supporting their own self-interest, has Santa Monica truly shown what scooters can do? More scooters, companies argue, mean more opportunities to replace car trips. Bird has even introduced a commuter program, which delivers a scooter to a rider’s front door. “The very first vehicle you need to see in the morning should be a scooter, not your car,” says Estrada.

Over and over, advocates and scooter companies point out that the real value here is deploying at a scale that the city isn’t yet comfortable with. Scooters, some argue, are being asked to navigate a lot more red tape compared to vehicles that have a much higher social cost. In their hometown, are scooters still being held back?

“There’s a lot of things Santa Monica is leading on,” says Bird’s Estrada. “But it’s a program that’s very much taking its time.”

To reshape transportation, and cut down on emissions from cars, rapid and radical change—even if it comes on two small wheels—is required.

“We don’t have a year to wait,” says Estrada.


March 2020

On a small farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, perched on the edge of the sugarcane fields that run through the state’s midsection, married couple Carmen Franz and Tripp Eldridge look perfectly cast as hip millennial farmers. They’re tan, trim, and gregarious, ready to talk composting or crop rotation at a moment’s notice. They could be American Gothic 2020. The pair even occasionally posts video on their YouTube channel, Farmers on Bikes.

They represent a modern spin on farming in large part due to where they operate. They don’t work the land in a rural hamlet surrounded by empty fields. They grow fruits and vegetables within a 1,209-acre real estate development, Arden, a subdivision in western Palm Beach County. Arden is an agrihood: Instead of being built around a golf course, the heart of Arden is an organic farm where residents are allowed to till the soil and reap some of the bounty grown on-site. At Arden, a moderate-sized development which will eventually boast 2,000 single-family homes, the five-acre farm and big red barn sit a few hundred feet from the development’s clubhouse, which boasts terraced pools and waterfalls straight out of a resort.

The ironies of the concept become immediately apparent. At the grand opening celebration in November—where I visited model homes on streets with names like Wheelbarrow Bend, Tree Stand Terrace, and Heirloom Drive—I learned the farm, new homes, and manicured lakes stand on what was once entirely farmland. Arden was keeping alive the tradition of American suburbs being named after that which they bulldozed.

But talking with residents, the attractions of Arden and the lifestyle it claims to promote also become apparent. Amid the carnivalesque atmosphere of the grand opening, a mini street fair featuring tents, live music, games for kids, and food trucks, guests could tour the grounds of the farm, where Franz and Eldridge prepare a farmshare every four weeks for every family in the development. They grow an incredible assortment of food, 30 varieties of fruit and 100 varieties of vegetables, including mangoes, mamay, papaya, bananas, coconuts, and avocados. Inside the barn, a small market features products such as honey, hot sauce, and eggs from local farmers and makers (alcoholic fruit popsicles, I was told, were far and away the best-sellers). Baskets of fresh produce set out on wooden tables glistened in the humidity. In front of the barn, community herb gardens lining the main drive were open to all comers; many residents said they stop by on their way home from work to pick herbs for their evening meals.

“I don’t think anybody is making a claim that…agrihood farming is going to provide an alternative means of feeding large populations,” said Eldridge. “We’re not trying to feed 2,000 homes and replace their grocery bill. We’re providing a meaningful connection with nature that resonates with all the other amenities. Natural, healthy living, that’s what we’re trying to celebrate.”

Three homebuilders are building and selling models on-site, which range from roughly $300,000 to $900,000 and have sold faster than expected.

That Truman Show-esque feeling of entering a staged environment hit me as I drove into the development. I was told the sculpted, curved road on which I entered, lined in native purple grasses swaying in the wind and pointing straight toward the development’s large central lake, was planned by landscape architects to help me decompress. Like so many suburbs past, Arden is a simulacrum: in this case, an artificial version of a healthy, farm-fresh lifestyle that, due to housing patterns and commercialized agriculture, is far from the norm in modern America. Arden doesn’t challenge that. Farming isn’t communal or even expected (though volunteers are invited to lend a hand); it’s merely another item in an amenities checklist that includes bike trails and tennis courts.

Many large-scale property developers see this combination of residential design, farming, and healthy living as a selling point. According to the Urban Land Institute, as of this past October, there were 90 agrihoods finished or in development across the United States, including Aberlin Springs near Cincinnati; Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois; Agritopia in Gilbert, Arizona; South Village in South Burlington, Vermont; and Hidden Springs in Boise, Idaho. These kinds of developments work for multiple reasons, said Kevin Carson, northern California president for the New Home Company, developer of the Cannery, a “farm-to-table”-themed development in Davis, California. Agrihoods offer residents an organizing principle and community gathering places.

Franz and Eldridge think the appeal is in a return to basics, even if that shift is happening somewhere that’s as much a theme park as it is a working farm.

“You need to unplug for a small moment and have meaningful connections, and get your hand in the dirt,” said Eldridge.

The more I spoke with residents at Arden and guests who attended the opening celebration with an eye toward moving in, the clearer it became that there was something significant behind the sales pitch. Many homeowners spoke of adopting healthier living habits. Nearby farmers felt the educational component was a great way to promote locally grown agriculture and help out struggling community farms. Arden is still a suburban housing development, and the rows of single-family homes built new, and farther and farther from job centers, are the opposite of a truly sustainable lifestyle. But it’s also true that Arden suggests that if suburban housing developments are going to continue to be built, there are ways to make them better.

Dan Rawn, a senior project manager with Freehold Communities, the national builder behind the project, said he’s never seen a reaction from buyers like the one he’s witnessed at Arden.

“I’ve been doing golf communities all my life, and they’re like mausoleums,” he said. “This place is alive.”

Three homebuilders are building and selling models on-site, which range from roughly $300,000 to $900,000 and have sold faster than expected.

During my visit, the main highway leading to the development was lined with “Welcome to the Agrihood” signs. But when executives and planners at Freehold began envisioning Arden, which broke ground in 2017, farming wasn’t as central to the sales pitch as it is today.

According to Suzanne Maddalon, the company’s vice president for marketing, the other healthy-living features, including the clubhouse and pool and extensive trail network, were the initial focus. The farm was an add-on, something that played up the surrounding agricultural stronghold of west Palm Beach. As it has been for other developers experimenting with the agrihood concept, it was also a matter of the bottom line. Residents would pay just $20 per month, which is already included in HOA dues, to fund the farm’s operations, which include a box of fresh produce every four weeks. Farms use less land and require less maintenance than golf courses or swimming pools, and offer a point of differentiation in a crowded market (nearby megadevelopments will add thousands of new homes to West Palm Beach county over the next few years).

But Freehold quickly discovered that all potential buyers could talk about was the farm.

“It’s so unexpected to realize you can have this farm be a part of everyday life,” said Maddalon. “You see people get really engaged, and the word of mouth drives traffic.”

The other part of the equation, Maddalon said, was Carmen and Tripp, whom Freehold hired in early 2018 after coming across their YouTube videos. The couple took the farm concept and ran with it, building out the general store and adding events and cooking demos.

“They were incredibly gregarious and very engaging,” said Maddalon. “When I met them in person, it’s like they could have an HGTV show, 100 percent. They are very good at this.”

Freehold reps said it’s a little too early to call the development a success. Phase I has just finished; roughly a quarter of the site, and the main amenities, are complete. Three homebuilders, Lennar, Kenco Communities, and Ryan Homes, are building and selling models on-site, which range from roughly $300,000 to $900,000 and have sold faster than expected, according to Freehold and agents for the homebuilders. The rest of what will become Arden is currently covered in white gravel, construction equipment, and piles of shingles and supplies sitting at dead-end roads waiting to be turned into more homes.

Franz and Eldridge call the farm “the fishbowl.” “You have to have the right personality type to do this,” says Eldridge.

During the grand opening party, Franz and Eldridge were in top form, giving farm tours despite the punishing midday sun. They led groups through a horseshoe-shaped collection of raised beds behind the barn. Smaller 60-foot beds held chard, kale, lettuce, and radishes, with larger beds set aside for slower-growing crops like okra, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Eldridge cut me bits of roselle hibiscus and picked berries from a strawberry tree (a plant native to the West Indies, also known as a Jamaica cherry), which tasted like cotton candy. They explained that the operation works off a complex master spreadsheet; to provide food for the entire development, they need to plant new seedlings in the greenhouse on a precise schedule.

The tours were second nature for the couple because at Arden, the education and public-facing part of the job is just as demanding as growing. That’s why they call their farm “the fishbowl.”

“You have to have the right personality type to do this,” said Eldridge. “We feed off the support and love of that relationship with the residents.”

During the grand opening weekend, I met a number of Arden residents, all of whom sang the praises of the farm and farmers. Helen Bouek, 61, who sold her horse farm and moved in in early 2018, volunteers to help plant vegetables. She enjoys riding her bike to the farm to pick up exotic veggies such as star squash, and uses the recipes provided with the farm share.

“I’m learning how to cook healthier,” she said. “Now I start looking at the supermarkets or the specialty stores for the things they grow here.”

Her friend Brenda Helman, who runs the community’s Facebook page, said she’s lost 25 pounds since moving here, which she attributes to healthier cooking and eating.

“They’re making the dream come true here,” she said. “They hyped it up as the farm-to-table, and it truly is.”

Arden’s developers expected most of the residents to be like Bouek and Helman, older adults and retirees looking for healthy, active living. But to their surprise, many younger families with kids have also moved in. Bobby Humphrey, a sergeant in the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office, 36, and his wife, Christine, 35, who have a young son, Ethan, 5, said they came because the schools are fantastic. Just about every home on their block has kids Ethan’s age.

“Everyone gets together, usually on the weekend, and all the kids are playing out front,” said Bobby. “There are a lot of block parties. The whole family lifestyle is fantastic.”

“You can have a direct relationship with the people who grow some of your food, something you just can’t get in Whole Foods.”

Arden underscores the rapid growth of the exurbs, areas once on the rural/suburban border that have now been fully developed. Look outside the manicured entryway, and you can see how what developer brochures and hand-outs call “the natural choice” seems somewhat unnatural in its surroundings. The main roadway to reach Arden, Southern Boulevard, is lined with huge pits and earthmoving equipment, part of a widening project bringing even more development to the region. Just northwest of the development sits the massive West County Energy Center, a 240-acre natural gas plant run by Florida Power & Light.

But the development also suggests, if not a rejection of sprawl, at least better-intentioned sprawl. The entire site contains 85 percent native landscaping, and Franz and Eldridge have said that since they arrived in 2018, they’ve seen the landscape come to life. What was once a stretch of gravel and fire ants now contains rolling hills and lakes boasting rabbits, amphibians, reptiles, and possums.

“Other places feel like a fake tropical escape,” said Franz. “Here, it feels like the real Florida.”

At the grand opening celebration, a number of local farms and farming groups, many of which sell goods at the Arden store, set up displays. All of them agree that the agrihood concept—which they saw as a distribution center and educational asset for quality food—was a benefit to the local agriculture community.

Allison Linn, a farm manager with CoLab Farms, located 40 miles northeast in Indiantown, said she supports Arden and the “responsible growing” Eldridge and Franz promote.

“We want people to understand the struggles of farmers,” she said. “Trying to change how people eat food is important, and they’ll pay more when they know.”

Chris Miller, an extension agent at the University of Florida-Palm Beach County who provides assistance to local growers, said that Arden offers a new market and messaging tool for famers who already have their hands full.

“It’s tough to be a farmer, especially since you need to grow and sell to consumers, and nobody can do it on their own,” he said. “And in most stores, farmers get a little less than 15 cents on the dollar of every retail food dollar.”

Franz and Eldridge believe the Arden job is perfect for them. Farming has always been a passion—they started a teaching farm in North Florida, worked for the Peace Corp, and worked at a nonprofit encouraging people to spend food stamps at farmers markets—and a difficult way to make a living. The cost of land, equipment, and student debt leaves many aspiring farmers of their generation in debt.

“Tripp and I always call ourselves landless farmers,” said Franz. “We’ve done a good job finding ways to grow without having to make the capital investment.”

Their current job provides stable salaries and health care, as well as the ability to advocate for healthy eating and other local farmers. Eldridge believes the agrihood concept represents the next iteration of local food movements, a logical leap from community-supported agriculture and the mainstreaming of health food stores. Healthy, organic food has been getting closer and closer to your home; why can’t it be part of your neighborhood?

“This agrihood is accessible right outside your door,” he said. “You can have a direct relationship with the people who grow some of your food, something you just can’t get in Whole Foods. I would love to see this concept evolve so everybody has a farm in their community; it’s like a hyperlocal professional you trust, like your dentist.”

Other developers see hyperlocal farming becoming a significant real estate opportunity over the next decade. Matthew Redmond runs a company called Agriburbia that has been experimenting with developments incorporating high-tech, small-scale farming projects for more than a decade. Recently, Agriburbia helped install an open farm on the top floor of a new residential development in Denver called Lakehouse. Tenants can wash, prepare, and grill veggies raised on-site, or use the industrial-grade juicing station to enjoy the produce on the go.

But Redmond’s ultimate vision would be to bring agrihood-like concepts—which he calls “agriculturally augmented business enterprises”—everywhere. By using different technologies, including computer-aided growing systems, specially made trellises, drip irrigation, and geothermal heating, Agriburbia wants to make real estate and agriculture inseparable. Dentists’ offices could grow mint to make fresh toothpaste. Day care centers could have demonstration farms for kids and send them home with fresh veggies at the end of the day.

“The surest path to sustainability is using some of the land in larger developments, both commercial and residential,” he said. “It’s impossible to make a farm at a place like Arden that completely feeds a neighborhood and competes with existing commercial farms and supply chains. But you could get to a point where 40 or 50 percent of all food eaten is grown in the community itself, which would lower carbon emissions from shipping and truck traffic, and get rid of packaging. Almost all single-use plastic is related to food in some way.”

The five-acre farm and big red barn sit a few hundred feet from the development’s clubhouse, which boasts terraced pools and waterfalls straight out of a resort.

As the Arden celebration was winding to close, I took a walk past the clubhouse and pool, down to a dock that stretched into a man-made lake. I sat at a bench overlooking the water, staring at huge clouds moving across the horizon, listening to the sound of kids running up and down the docks. A group of moms were helping them put baitfish on fishing poles, snapping photos of each cast with their phones.

All of the developers I’d spoken to said they felt the agrihood concept would grow. Freehold’s Maddalon said they were already trying out different concepts in different areas: Orchard Ridge in North Austin has community gardens, and Miralon in Palm Springs features olive groves instead of a golf course. Carson, who works for the firm behind the Cannery, said they hope to do another farm community. But he said it’s also important to think beyond the farm itself.

“Not everyone living at the Cannery is getting their hands dirty, getting in the dirt, and farming,” he said. “They are living there, and the farm is something that’s nice to have nearby. It’s about the site plan. The ability to ride your bike right by the farm and go past the barn or meet at the ranch house and at your outdoor fireplaces, sit, talk, connect that way, makes the farm portion of it even more attractive.”

Everyone just wants a nice story to tell about home. While the American suburb has continually changed, what hasn’t shifted is that search for narrative. The kids and parents on the dock, and many of those I met over the weeknd, certainly found some of that at Arden. I looked out across the water to an island where cranes landed and stretched on perfectly placed palm trees. It was a fantastic view, helped by the visible number of straps landscapers had used to position each tree just so


January 2020

APJR5D Crosswalk and Pedestrian Crossing Street sign Clearwater Beach Orlando Florida United States of America. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown.

For Roni Wood, it happened just two blocks from her house. While walking with her 13-year-old son, J.T., to a local Citibank branch in Orlando, Florida, in February 2018, the mother of five was hit by a driver in a Jeep Laredo taking a right on red. Even though Wood had the signal and was walking her bike in the crosswalk on a sunny afternoon, the driver claimed he didn’t see her. He smashed his car into her left side, rolling her face up the windshield—then braked, tossing her six feet in the air and leaving her “mangled to her bicycle,” as she put it, in the middle of an oncoming lane of traffic. Luckily, J.T., who was behind his mom and out of the car’s path, quickly called 911 and stepped out in front of his mother to protect her.

Wood’s smiling demeanor as she describes the scene belies the seriousness of her injuries, which she says resulted in the “most pain she’d ever had in her life.” She ended up with four broken leg bones, which had to be held together by a plate and 10 screws; spent three months in a wheelchair; and ended up with $120,000 worth of medical bills, which were covered by insurance. She lives with the injuries every day: She can’t bend down to clean the filter of her backyard pool, and she can’t wear certain shoes because her feet will swell. The driver, whom Wood says she forgives, because everybody makes mistakes, didn’t receive a ticket; it was up to the discretion of the officer on the scene to write one, and even though Wood complained to his superior, no ticket was issued. The driver’s insurance premiums likely didn’t even go up.

The week before Christmas 2011, Wendy Goodrich received a call from a nearby hospital. They said they were looking for the daughter of Rex Ammerman, her father, but no need to rush. The last part, about taking her time, made her think the worst, an assessment confirmed when she arrived and found her dad had already died. A recently retired engineer, he had been taking his daily 30-mile bike ride on the Cross Seminole Trail when, as he crossed the eight-lane State Road 436 with the light, he was hit by a driver who didn’t notice the signals and later told officers at the scene that “I simply did not see him.” He was killed on impact. A monument now sits at the crosswalk he used, a single bicycle wheel topped with a white circular sign reading “drive safely.”

“Nobody wants to be in a situation when they need to receive that phone call because someone made a stupid mistake or was a distracted driver,” Goodrich says.

Orlando’s deadly reputation for unsafe streets

These horrific crashes only hint at the toll that traffic takes on pedestrians and cyclists in and around Orlando, which Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design reports have ranked most dangerous for pedestrians in all but one edition since 2009. There are roughly 25 to 30 collisions involving pedestrians every day in the greater Orlando region, according to Florida Highway Patrol Corporal Brian Gensler, who works for a unit that specializes in traffic homicides.

Like other American cities, Orlando has distracted drivers, drunk drivers, traffic congestion, suburbanization, SUVs, and sprawl. But it also suffers from a design problem that’s worse here than elsewhere: Its streets are meant for cars and for speed.

“Florida was built with the idea of minimizing congestion and maximizing vehicular speed,” says Louis Merlin, who teaches urban and regional planning at Florida Atlantic University. “Most streets are designed for fast speeds and no pedestrian or biker access. Those two functions just don’t go together well.”

Orlando may be the worst example of what’s become a national crisis in pedestrian safety. In 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 6,283 walkers were killed on American roadways, a 28-year high. U.S. children are twice as likely to die in traffic fatalities as those in other wealthy nations, according to a 2018 study in Health Affairs.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer admits his city is facing a crisis, though he notes that the vast majority of local pedestrian crashes aren’t in Orlando proper, but in the wider region, where the city doesn’t have jurisdiction. He also notes that the total number of pedestrian fatalities in Orlando is relatively low; the Dangerous By Design rankings place the metropolitan area higher because so few people in the Orlando region walk to work, meaning even a small number of crashes will involve a relatively high percentage of pedestrians. And the city is growing at an incredible rate, roughly 1,500 residents per week, while also coping with the tourist influx of Disney World and nearby theme parks, where 75 million annual visitorstraverse the region utilizing the world’s largest fleet of rental cars; he argues the additional traffic isn’t factored into budget requests for state and federal money to upgrade roads.

In 2016, Dyer appointed Billy Hattaway, an urbanist reformer who had helped reshape the state department of transportation, as the city’s transportation director. Dyer is also supporting a penny sales tax initiative, proposed by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, that would raise $600 million annually for transportation, and Orlando has joined the ranks of U.S. cities adopting Vision Zero, a campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities.

“If we have even one pedestrian accident, that’s one too many,” Dyer tells Curbed.

But pledging something and doing something are very different, especially when it comes to the multifaceted challenge of making our streets safer.

“Any other epidemic, we’d be putting money into vaccines and treatments,” says Kate Kraft, executive director of America Walks, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting safety and walkability. “For some reason, this isn’t getting the same attention.” And, Kraft says, we already have enough information to take action. “We can tell where people are going to get killed.”

How the roads in Orlando—and Florida—became so unsafe

When Orlando first topped the Dangerous by Design rankings in 2011, the media took it as a given that Florida wasn’t a great place to walk or bike. The New York Times wrote, “As any pedestrian in Florida knows, walking in this car-obsessed state can be as tranquil as golfing in a lightning storm. Sidewalks are viewed as perks, not necessities. Crosswalks are disliked and dishonored. And many drivers maniacally speed up when they see someone crossing the street.”

The spine of the region’s highway system, Interstate 4, was sliced north-south through the middle of Orlando in 1956 at a cost of $1.3 million per mile ($12.29 million per mile in today’s dollars), creating an eight-mile gash through the center of town that divided the city along racial and class lines. At a massive town hall where 2,000 citizens voiced concern about being bulldozed out of their homes, officials told residents the highway was needed in case the population had to evacuate to escape a Soviet missile attack.

Interstate 4 and its associated highways and ring roads were the crowning achievement of a group of pro-growth politicians and business leaders, including Martin Andersen, then publisher of the Orlando Sentinel. Walt Disney decided to build Disney World in Bay Lake, roughly 20 miles southeast of Orlando, in large part because of the road system Andersen and his allies had established.

Orlando exploded outward in the 1970s and ’80s: the city’s population remains just 280,000, but the region’s is 2.1 million. As in other Sun Belt cities, development grew up where land was cheap, namely large plots adjacent to state and federal roadways. That left suburban residents with only the equivalent of rural highways to connect them to nearby homes and shopping centers. In 1998, the Orange County Commission rejected federal money for a light-rail system, which urbanist and professor Bruce Stephenson wrote would ensure “the spread of a fragmented mass of paved mediocrity designed to SUV dimensions.” Lynx, a regional bus system that covers a three-county area, barely has enough vehicles to adequately provide service (nearly half the routes run just once an hour).

With no truly reliable public mass transit to speak of, it’s no surprise that those without a car find it challenging at best to get around. Smart Growth’s report has consistently found that people of color, older adults, and residents of low-income neighborhoods suffer the highest fatality rates amid Florida’s already poor pedestrian safety record (an interim 2020 Dangerous by Design report found the state the worst for pedestrian safety from 2009 to 2018).

Craig Ustler, a local developer who is working on the $1 billion walkable downtown Creative Village project, notes that even he can’t get around parking minimums and the need to devote significant land to parked cars. Existing infrastructure makes it hard to see walkability as something that can be done on anything more than a project or neighborhood level.

“We’re making I-4 wider to the tune of $7 billion, and building a loop around the city,” he says. “It’s an investment in sprawl. The urbanists see it as refortifying the Great Wall of China.”

Local safety activists point to the road systems, not the users, as the main causes of crashes and casualties. Wide streets with multiple lanes, narrow or nonexistent sidewalks, and high speed limits all contribute to the problem.

“Excessive speeding and running red lights are often more a result of design,” says Merlin. “Many times, designers and engineers have dodged responsibility and say it’s the driver’s responsibility to drive safer. We can design streets that take into account that people make mistakes.”

A busy highway with trucks flying by, and a car on the side of the road with a flat tire.
Busy Interstate 4 right by the exit for Disney World in Kissimmee, Florida, outside of Orlando. 

Billy Hattaway’s crusade

When Billy Hattaway and his college girlfriend escaped a head-on collision in New Hampshire without injury, he chalked it up as just one of those things. But later in life, while working as a road design engineer in Florida, he was presented with the death toll on U.S. roadways in the ’70s. It was roughly 45,000 people a year, an unbelievable figure; in the entirety of the Vietnam War, the country lost just under 60,000 soldiers.

“It’s a public health crisis,” he tells Curbed. “Forty thousand deaths every year and yet nobody, not the media or elected officials, seems to care. It seems to be an accepted cost of the freedom to drive.”

To Hattaway, the answer was to prioritize safety over ease of commuting, and to put himself in a position to lead on the issue. Over decades working multiple stints with FDOT, he amassed a record of pushing for safer road design, more roundabouts, and new policies, even implementing one of the state’s first complete-streets projects in 2004 and establishing a statewide pedestrian and bicycle strategic safety plan. Jeff Speck, an urban planner and city design consultant, calls him a “hero” for his work.

Hattaway also left FDOT multiple times, feeling that at certain points, safety wasn’t being taken seriously enough, or that engineers weren’t following his orders. Two years ago, when he was working as FDOT’s secretary for District One, he saw that Mayor Buddy Dyer was looking to re-establish the role of city transportation chief, reached out to City Hall, and got the job.

“It’s remarkable how Florida DOT has slowly but surely reformed itself, in recognition of its murderous past,” says Speck, referencing the department’s moves to shrink the width of lanes and adopt a complete-streets design manual. “I’m aware of no state in the U.S. that has made more changes in its policy in recent years than Florida DOT, and they are to be congratulated and thanked for that.“

Hattaway’s multifaceted solution for solving the city’s traffic safety crisis starts with the sales tax increase, which would increase his current budget of roughly $3 million for safety projects. He wants to spend that on enforcement and road redesign for high-crash corridors across the city, implementing road diets (reducing the number of lanes to limit speeds, improve pedestrian safety, and provide access to non-car alternatives) and speed reductions from the 40 mph speed limit many roads were designed for to as low as 25 mph.

Hattaway has already used funding from red-light cameras to add more raised crosswalks and flashing lights to increase pedestrian safety. He also tested a road diet this past spring on a half-mile section of Curry Ford Road, a few blocks from where Roni Wood was hit, that has seen 16 bicyclists and eight pedestrians struck by cars in the last five years. Despite some complaints by neighbors—61 percent of emails received during the first two weeks of the demonstration were opposed to the project—he says it was a successful learning experience for future projects.

“Everything he says is what local residents hate,” says Amanda Day, a pedestrian safety advocate for Bike/Walk Central Florida, one of the region’s most active groups around traffic safety, which counts Wood and Goodrich as members. “It’ll add five minutes onto the commute, but they’ll love it when it comes to it.”

Next year, Hattaway will start an even bigger process with potential for greater impact, rewriting development guidelines for the city. Hattaway showed me an infamous photo of a series of homes on cul-de-sacs designed for cars and not walkability, resulting in two adjacent homes requiring seven miles of roads to get from one to the other.

“All the activists and politicians have blamed transportation as being a source of the problem,” says Hattaway. “This is equally a land development problem. It’ll actually save us money, but it requires political will to stand up to the development community.”

An aerial view of a large convention center and hotels with a large, many lane highway right next to it.
A wide highway in Orlando, next to Orange County Convention Center and surrounding hotels.

The problem with Pine Hills

When Amanda Day took me to see the intersection of Pine Hills and Silver Star roads, a confluence of six-lane streets and strip malls on the near-northwest side of Orlando, it was to show an example of how poor street design and car dependency hurt less affluent neighborhoods. “It’s one hot mess, everything you can do wrong with a corridor,” she said.

Day pointed out where mall workers and students at the nearby high school cross in the middle of the next block, ignoring crosswalks at the intersection because they felt unsafe there thanks to cars making turns. She showed me the crosswalk where Bike/Walk Central Florida works with local cops to do sting operations for safety. The roads tell a story, she says, and it’s not that it’s safe to ditch your car and walk to work.

Within an hour, we’d seen a man with a cane nearly get hit while shuffling across the road. Then Day herself, crossing with the signal, was almost struck by a car taking a right on red.

“This is why people don’t even cross at the main crosswalk,” she told me after recovering from the shock. “People simply gun it when they drive here. It’s safer to wait and cross in the middle of the block—at least they can see when cars are coming.”

Day pointed out numerous design flaws and safety issues amid the constant din of cars speeding by. The wide lanes and large median give cars and trucks more room, and more of a reason to speed, plus make it more arduous for walkers to get to the other side. Then there was the midblock location of the bus stop, a mere sign without real benches or shade structure; its distance from the intersection leads riders to sprint across traffic to catch a ride.

There are solutions, Day says: Reduce the width of the lanes, make one a bus-only lane, move the bus stops, then prioritize signals for bus riders and pedestrians. But where does the will and the funding come from? It’s also an engineering challenge, and none of Hattaway’s road diets or traffic-calming efforts thus far have tackled a road as large as this. (Hattaway says there are engineering solutions to these roads, but that behavior and culture are harder to change.)

“There’s no dedicated funding for our transit system here,” she says. “They have to figure out a way to move about, like, a couple hundred thousands of people a day without knowing where their funding will come from next year.”

Dyer agrees about the need for dedicated funding, and believes the sales tax proposal can begin to solve the problem.

“While we are still in the early stages of determining how the funding would be allocated in the city, we know the needs are great,” he says.

Bike/Walk Central Florida’s Best Foot Forward Campaign for pedestrian safety, founded in 2012, now includes roughly 43 cities and counties in the Greater Orlando region, as well as law enforcement agencies. While the growth of the coalition is heartening, a campaign for crosswalk safety seems like a small-scale project, considering the scope of the problem.

But Day says the project has the potential to change the larger conversation. “It’s huge when people, like FDOT, work in the same jobs all their lives and suddenly have different conversations,” she says. “Now they have bike and pedestrian safety champions.” This can help get transportation planners out of the driving mindset: “How can you ask people to change if they don’t also view themselves as pedestrians?”

Day points to shifting public perception as another sign of success. Candidates discussed the issue during the recent mayoral election. It’s a legislative policy priority. Traffic reporters are now talking about crosswalk enforcement. The state and federal governments have also shown slow signs of awareness, despite the overwhelming directive to build and expand highway infrastructure. Recently passed Map-21 legislation mandates that new transportation plans measure safety, and that transportation agencies do a better job of tracking safety statistics. But changing infrastructure is a slow, grinding process.

“It’s going to take about 30 years to normalize biking and walking, so those people aren’t looked at as being crazy,” she says. “That’s how long it took for people to adopt seat belt usage. We’re being sold on autonomous vehicle and tech, but they aren’t going to solve the problem. It’s about changing human behavior.”


February 2018

Are economic development megadeals worth the price—and the risk? With cities trying to outbid each other for Amazon’s new headquarters, it’s worth examining potential cautionary tales.

Analysts say the recent Foxconn deal in Wisconsin, a blockbuster, multibillion-dollar investment in bringing more manufacturing to the state, is indicative of the sad state of big-ticket economic development deals, and even more tragic in light of the cheaper, more effective options available.

“Cities feel like there’s no alternative,” says Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C., policy center that promotes accountability in economic development. “They’ve grown up in a corporate dominated site-selection system, where public officials are playing poker with a weak hand. Their role is to wait for companies to come and knock on the door, and put as much money on the table as possible. We think HQ2 is a teachable moment to crawl inside the beast and show people how it works.”

Part of farmland planned to be replaced with Foxconn Technology Group’s $10 billion facility is shown in the village of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, Wednesday, October 4, 2017.

Wisconsin bets big on Foxconn

Gordon Hintz grew up around manufacturing. The six-term Democratic state representative for Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is a native of the city, and has spent his career advocating on behalf of an area with one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing jobs in the country (paper mills and factories form the backbone of the regional economy). So when Hintz questions a deal to bring thousands of manufacturing jobs to Wisconsin, it’s notable.

The state and local incentive Wisconsin politicians put together for Foxconn was billed by Gov. Scott Walker as a $3 billion investment in the future. The third-largest such deal in U.S. history, the package enticed the Taiwanese multinational to break ground on a $10 billion plant that will eventually employ 13,000 to assemble liquid crystal displays.

It turns out those figures are a little off, in Foxconn’s favor. Last month, Hintz helped publicize a memo compiled by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that found the real cost to state and local governments was $4.5 billion. As Hintz told Curbed last week, the new numbers underline the big risk of shelling out public funds for jobs, the opportunity costs. The growing tab the state faces will use money that could be going to education and public schools, infrastructure, and other benefits.

“People want to see more manufacturing jobs,” Hintz says, “but they’ve also had enough of giving taxpayer money to billionaires. Why are we giving billions to a foreign company instead of investing in our own paper mills?”

Promoted vigorously by Walker, as well as area Congressman Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump, the Foxconn deal, its backers argue, will provide a jolt to the state and southeast Wisconsin region. During a meeting with Trump earlier this month, Walker said the factory, expected to open its doors in 2020, would result in 13,000 direct jobs, 22,000 indirect jobs, and 10,000 construction jobs.

The resulting infrastructure investments needed to support the massive manufacturing facility—expected to cover 20 million square feet of office space over 1.56 square miles—will update roads, electrical systems, fiber-optic networks, and water distribution across the region. An upgrade of Interstate 94, connecting Milwaukee to Chicago, was fast-tracked due to Foxconn’s expected arrival.

Officials representing municipalities near the factory expect additional dividends. Madison, the state capital, may be the site of a Foxconn-funded “hospital of the future.” A spokesperson for the local project team says the deal is a safe, conservative investment for the city and county, structured in a way that’ll guarantee investment in local infrastructure doesn’t come from existing city funds. Over time, the build-out will attract an ecosystem of more than a hundred new businesses to the area.

“We will have to develop an entirely new supply chain,” Mount Pleasant Village President Dave DeGroot told the Wisconsin State Journal. “The impact on this community is unprecedented.”

Early infrastructure work near the future site of the Foxconn campus in Mount Pleasent

How local government helps pay for multinational companies

It’s a potentially transformative investment. But Hintz, LeRoy, and other analysts caution that local government is the one footing the bill in the long run.

Putting state resources into a single place to benefit a single employer is a risky deal, says LeRoy. In a state like Wisconsin, where austerity measures imposed by the governor and the legislature have already short-changed education and infrastructure spending, diverting resources to one employer means diverting money from already-thin budgets.

The infrastructure improvements for the Foxconn plant will come out of local budgets, specifically Mount Pleasant and Racine County. Foxconn will be part of what’s called a Tax-Increment Finance District, known as a TIF. This tax structure is meant to capture the additional value the company’s presence creates, then funnel that value to subsidize the promised infrastructure investments that attracted Foxconn in the first place.

The costs are substantial, including $160 million for water and wastewater and $116 million in public safety spending. This TIF has much more favorable terms than similar financing deals, and guarantees the city will be fully reimbursed for all infrastructure spending.

This is where opponents and supporters diverge. One one hand, it’s a better, safer bet; the city is guaranteed not to lose out on infrastructure spending. But it’s still a bet that this is the opportunity worth pursuing, and it still creates additional costs down the line.

“In terms of structuring a deal where the local community has some pretty solid protection that the investment will be repaid, this deal goes a long way,” says Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan research group. “Where you could never hope to have appropriate protection is what happens after that.”

But Foxconn’s presence means property tax in the region will go up, and add more to the city’s coffers, correct? Not immediately: The estimated $31 million in additional annual tax revenue generated by Foxconn’s presence will be used to pay for $764 million in infrastructure investments needed to support the plant and surrounding campus.

“It’s like the company taking money out of its front pocket and putting it in its back pocket,” says LeRoy. “All or most of the money will be spent on public infrastructure, but most of it will benefit Foxconn.”

What about all those jobs? According to Tim Bartik, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research who specializes in the impact of subsidies, most of the employment figures thrown around for these types of deals don’t take into account the people migrating to town for work. Not only do new arrivals, attracted to the opportunities, often take most of the jobs, says Bartik, but their presence means more expenses for local governments.

New residents mean more education costs, health care spending, and infrastructure improvements, all potentially coming from the same budget line items that have been diverted for Foxconn-related expenses. The Foxconn TIF covers police and fire costs, but that’s just a part of expected increases in city spending. Bartik found that for many of these incentive deals, 20 percent of the jobs go to unemployed locals, and the other 80 percent go to people who lived elsewhere.

“I don’t think the state of Wisconsin will ever make money on this deal,” he says. “Once you account for public spending needs due to an increased population, [the state will] never break even.”

How TIF funds from the Foxconn development will be distributed.

Even if you discount local expense, the state is grossly overpaying for jobs, according to Bartik’s research. He’s created a subsidy database, and found that Wisconsin is paying $230,000 per job, 10 times more per job than the national average. LeRoy says at that rate, the deal can only be described as “a transfer of wealth from Wisconsin taxpayers to Foxconn shareholders.”

It also means the state will be playing a weaker hand when bidding for future economic development opportunities.

“If some company comes and says they want to create a factory and hire people in Milwaukee, and asks for the same per-job subsidy Foxconn received,” says Bartik, “how does the state say no to that?”

Development deals favor big companies, not local startups

Local economic development subsidies have come a long way since they were pioneered in Mississippi in the 1930s, according to LeRoy. Then, the Balance Agriculture With Industry program would guarantee factory construction fees for northern firms willing to relocate. It was a modest affair. At the program’s outset, the small town of Columbia, Mississippi, held a public meeting where locals signed promissory notes to pay for the cost of relocation. These were then used to guarantee a larger bank loan.

Even in the ’50s and ’60s, when a roaring economy meant new corporate headquarters and expanded manufacturing across the country, subsidies weren’t anything like the state versus state race to the bottom they’ve become today. LeRoy’s research has shown that this “great game” to land new headquarters and shiny manufacturing plants costs states and cities $70 billion a year.

What may seem extra puzzling, considering the huge investment and undersized return, is that many signs point to the most cost-effective solutions to catalyze Wisconsin’s economy. Slow, incremental small-business growth doesn’t capture public attention the way a big corporate opening does—Bartik joked that he’s talked about Amazon and Foxconn to numerous reporters, but no journalists ever ask him about manufacturing extension programs or small-business development centers—but it works. In addition to funding infrastructure and education to create a region of highly skilled, mobile employees, simply giving existing entrepreneurs more support can make a crucial difference.

“Investing in a 4-year-old’s preschool is the best you can do for future job development, but I don’t know if it resonates with the public as much as seeing a factory,” says Hintz.

Hintz emphasizes the importance of supporting small businesses, especially since the state is lagging behind in many measures of new business formation. There’s no reason this can’t include manufacturing, which has seen an upswing in the U.S. in recent years. It’s just an issue of giving smaller, more nimble companies some of the attention lavished on the big conglomerates.

“If a fraction of what was made available to Foxconn went to nurturing small-business opportunities, especially with the capabilities of our research university, you’d have much better outcomes,” Hintz says. “Foxconn amounts to trying to buy economic development, and that’s not how it works.”

It’s one of the tricky narrative needles to thread in American politics, Hintz says. Politicians chase things people can identify with, such as old-school manufacturing jobs, even though a return to robust small-business formation would be just as much in line with the U.S. economy of yesteryear.

“So much of what drives political rhetoric is identifying job development that people can identify with and understand,” says Hintz. “The future always loses to the past, especially if you’re someone who’s been negatively impacted by the transforming economy.”

Business formation has been a problem across the country, but cities like Pittsburgh, which have invested in education to spur innovative research and entrepreneurship, have seen big returns. In Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, a burgeoning tech scene has become a huge economic catalyst; funding incubators and educational initiatives could pay great dividends across a range of industries.

According to LeRoy’s research, in an analysis of economic development incentives, 70 percent of the deals and 90 percent of the funding went to large businesses.

“There’s been a long-term academic consensus that entrepreneurship is in trouble in the United States,” LeRoy says. “The numbers of startups that thrive is down. The two trends [rise in economic-development megadeals and declining startup survival rates] are parallel.”

Wisconsin’s Foxconn deal ends up looking more like a poker player going all in. Instead of placing many small, nimble bets on local companies, it’s backing one big deal. In today’s economy, that makes even less sense, says Hintz.

“In 2005, would we have been excited by a Blackberry factory?” Hintz asks. “And more importantly, would we have gotten our money back in 25 years?”


March 2018

Despite recessions and demographic shifts, few building types have boomed like self-storage lockers. In fact, they’ve proven to be one of the surest bets in real estate over the last half century, while mallsstarter homes, and even luxury commercial space in big cities, once safe and steady investments, have struggled. Behind the combination locks and roll-up doors lies a $38 billion industry.

One in 11 Americans pays an average of $91.14 per month to use self-storage, finding a place for the material overflow of the American dream. According to SpareFoot, a company that tracks the self-storage industry, the United States boasts more than 50,000 facilities and roughly 2.311 billion square feet of rentable space. In other words, the volume of self-storage units in the country could fill the Hoover Dam with old clothing, skis, and keepsakes more than 26 times.

Though the adage “sex sells” is hard to dispute, the decidedly unsexy self-storage industry made $32.7 billion in 2016, according to Bloomberg, nearly three times Hollywood’s box office gross. Self-storage has seen 7.7 percent annual growth since 2012, according to analysts at IBISWorld, and now employs 144,000 nationwide.

The industry’s boom over the last few decades mirrors larger demographic and real estate trends: Americans relocating from the Midwest and Northeast to Sunbelt cities store old gear in self-storage units. Millennials moving into increasingly crowded, high-demand downtowns require extra space. A wave of downsizing baby boomers needs a place to put a lifetime of accumulated memories. Small businesses want room to store excess inventory.

The confluence of these trends has created a building spree. The last few years have seen record-setting investment in self-storage expansion, including $4 billion alone in 2017. This year alone, planned or existing warehouse expansion will add 40 million square feet, or about 800 facilities, to the market, according to Investing Daily.

Investors see abandoned malls as a candidate for conversion into self-storage consumer cubby holes, a true full circle of consumerism. Venture capital firms are even betting on high-tech storage startups, such as Clutter, an on-demand service which does all the packing, storing, and moving for consumers, and can even retrieve specific items and deliver them to your door.

The current boom has led some market analysts to predict the previously unthinkable: We may just be inching close to peak storage. Many see a slowdown coming, due to a glut of space in cities like Phoenix and New York City, and in Orange County, California. Sky-high stock valuations for many of the big players, like Public Storage and Extra Space Storage, have tapered off. What happens when Americans, who see expansion and relocation as a birthright, get close to having enough room?

The unstoppable expansion of self-storage

The history of the storage industry has been one of steady growth and remarkable resilience.

Self-storage isn’t new. Many trace the concept back to Bekins, an Omaha, Nebraska, moving company founded in 1891 by brothers Martin and Josh Bekins. The company, which played a significant role in moving Americans to Los Angeles in the early 20th century, established a network of concrete-and-steel warehouses for new arrivals beginning in 1906.

The first business that looked more like contemporary storage units, complete with roll-up doors, was A-1 U-Store-It-U-Lock-It-U-Carry-the-Key, which opened in Odessa, Texas, in 1964. It was marketed to oilmen as a place to store their equipment (the company’s name was an attempt to get listed first in the phone book). Owners Russ Williams and Bob Munn, his stepson, erected a simple structure of cinder blocks and corrugated steel with wooden doors on each unit. Due to oil’s ups and downs in Odessa, the facility fell into disrepair and was closed. But, in what is perhaps a sign of the industry’s recent growth, the facility was purchased, renovated, and reopened as a new self-storage site in 2013.

During the Great Recession, the business thrived as millions downsized, moved, or faced foreclosure. In the ’90s and early aughts, when cities started seeing residential growth, self-storage found a new generation of space-starved consumers moving into neighborhoods filled with warehouse space ripe for repurposing.

A marriage of consumer behavior and rising rents explains the self-storage industry’s rapid recent growth in urban areas. High-end self-storage sites can command two or three times the rent per square foot than commercial or residential uses, and in many major metros, these warehouses are 90 percent occupied.

Once they sign up, renters become captive audiences, according to the Wall Street Journal. Paying for storage space is like a gym membership; consumers join and forget about it. Even better for owners, they’re often willing to accept slight increases in cost, rather than deal with the hassle of moving their possessions across town to a competitor’s warehouse.

While national firms have proliferated, with six of the largest—some of which are billion-dollar firms—cornering 18 percent of the market, 74 percent of the industry is still mom-and-pop shops, according to data from SpareFoot.

Can self-storage outrun our need for more stuff and more space?

Has self-storage hit a saturation point? With growth potentially becoming a glut, some analysts believe builders may have finally caught up with demand. It’s also led to backlash and restrictions in major markets. Critics argue that self-storage spaces are taking valuable buildings off the market; the oversized profits possible in storage mean that warehouses which could have been used for commercial, industrial, and even residential purposes are being transformed into profit-generating piles of boxes.

In New York City, which has roughly 50 million square feet of self-storage spread over 920 locations, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill late last year that restricted new facilities in the city’s Industrial Business Zones, where much of New York’s remaining manufacturing takes place. Both Miami and San Francisco have also passed restrictions that limit where self-storage units can be built.

Demographics may also finally dampen enthusiasm for the storage sector, according to the Wall Street Journal. Baby boomers, set to downsize and shrink their housing footprint, will be a big boost for years to come. But younger adults are, compared to older generations, delaying marriage, parenthood, and homeownership, which means less suburban living and less stuff. In addition, Americans are less mobile, meaning fewer moves and less of a need for temporary storage during resettlement and relocation.

There’s even a technological threat on the horizon: autonomous cars. A recent report by the Urban Land Institute and research firm Green Street Advisors predicts that as mobility-on-demand services decrease car ownership, fewer vehicles will equal more space in garages for storage.

Industry boosters, of course, see these issues as simply speed bumps on the road toward greater growth. New Yorkers who feel like self-storage warehouses have sprung up everywhere haven’t seen anything yet. A report from CBRE says New York City, with 3.5 square feet of self-storage per resident, is actually the “most underserved market” in the U.S. (the national average is 7.2 square feet per person).

But consumers in the United States are far from the only ones navigating small space and conspicuous consumption. Unsurprisingly, China, along with much of Southeast Asia, has emerged as a massive growth market.

With larger trends pointing toward less space, less ownership, and more urban living, self-storage seems primed to find more room for, and profit from, your possessions. As Jason Lopez, chief marketing officer of U.S. Storage Centers, says about the industry’s prospects, “density trumps demographics.”


April 2018

To understand just how unaffordable owning a home can be in American cities today, look at the case of a teacher in San Francisco seeking his or her first house.

Educators in the City by the Bay earn a median salary of $72,340. But, according to a new Trulia report, they can afford less than one percent of the homes currently on the market.

Despite making roughly $18,000 more than their peers in other states, many California teachers—like legions of other public servants, middle-class workers, and medical staff—need to resign themselves to finding roommates or enduring lengthy commutes. Some school districts, facing a brain drain due to rising real estate prices, are even developing affordable teacher housing so they can retain talent.

This housing math is brutal. With the average cost of a home in San Francisco hovering at $1.61 million, a typical 30-year mortgage—with a 20 percent down payment at today’s 4.55 percent interest rate—would require a monthly payment of $7,900 (more than double the $3,333 median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment last year).

Over the course of a year, that’s $94,800 in mortgage payments alone, clearly impossible on the aforementioned single teacher’s salary, even if you somehow put away enough for a down payment (that would be $322,000, if you’re aiming for 20 percent).

The figures become more frustrating when you compare them with the housing situation a previous generation faced in the late ’50s. The path an average Bay Area teacher might have taken to buy a home in the middle of the 20th century was, per data points and rough approximations, much smoother.

According to a rough calculation using federal data, the average teacher’s salary in 1959 in the Pacific region was more than $5,200 annually (just shy of the national average of $5,306). At that time, the average home in California cost $12,788. At the then-standard 5.7 percent interest rate, the mortgage would cost $59 a month, with a $2,557 down payment. If your monthly pay was $433 before taxes, $59 a month wasn’t just doable, it was also within the widely accepted definition of sustainable, defined as paying a third of your monthly income for housing. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s a $109,419 home paid for with a salary of $44,493.

And that’s on just a single salary.

A dream of homeownership placed out of reach

That midcentury scenario seems like a financial fantasia to young adults hoping to buy homes today. Finding enough money for a down payment in the face of rising rents and stagnant wagesqualifying for loans in a difficult regulatory environment, then finding an affordable home in expensive metro markets can seem like impossible tasks.

In 2016, millennials made up 32 percent of the homebuying market, the lowest percentage of young adults to achieve that milestone since 1987. Nearly two-thirds of renters say they can’t afford a home.

Even worse, the market is only getting more challenging: The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index rose 6.3 percent last year, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. This is almost twice the rate of income growth and three times the rate of inflation. found that the supply of starter homes shrinks 17 percent every year.

It’s not news that the homebuying market, and the economy, were very different 60 years ago. But it’s important to emphasize how the factors that created the homeownership boom in the ’50s—widespread government intervention that tipped the scales for single-family homes, more open land for development and starter-home construction, and racist housing laws and discriminatory practices that damaged neighborhoods and perpetuated poverty—have led to many of our current housing issues.

From the front lines to the home front

The postwar boom wasn’t just the result of a demographic shift, or simply the flowering of an economy primed by new consumer spending. It was deliberately, and successfully, engineered by government policies that helped multiply homeownership rates from roughly 40 percent at the end of the war to 60 percent during the second half of the 20th century.

The pent-up demand before the suburban boom was immense: Years of government-mandated material shortages due to the war effort, and the mass mobilization of millions of Americans during wartime, meant homebuilding had become stagnant. In 1947, six million families were doubling up with relatives, and half a million were in mobile homes, barns, or garages according to Leigh Gallagher’s book The End of the Suburbs.

The government responded with intervention on a massive scale. According to Harvard professor and urban planning historian Alexander von Hoffman, a combination of two government initiatives—the establishment of the Federal Housing Authority and the Veterans Administration (VA) home loans programs—served as runways for first-time homebuyers.

Initially created during the ’30s, the Federal Housing Authority guaranteed loans as long as new homes met a series of standards, and, according to von Hoffman, created the modern mortgage market.

“When the Roosevelt administration put the FHA in place in the ’30s, it allowed lenders who hadn’t been in the housing market, such as insurance companies and banks, to start lending money,” he says.

The VA programs did the same thing, but focused on the millions of returning soldiers and sailors. The popular GI Bill, which provided tuition-free college education for returning servicemen and -women, was an engine of upward mobility: debt-free educational advancement paired with easy access to finance and capital for a new home.

It’s hard to comprehend just how large an impact the GI Bill had on the Greatest Generation, not just in the immediate aftermath of the war, but also in the financial future of former servicemen. In 1948, spending as part of the GI Bill consumed 15 percent of the federal budget.

The program helped nearly 70 percent of men who turned 21 between 1940 and 1955 access a free college education. In the years immediately after WWII, veterans’ mortgages accounted for more than 40 percent of home loans.

An analysis of housing and mortgage data from 1960 by Leo Grebler, a renowned professor of urban land economics at UCLA, demonstrates the pronounced impact of these programs. In 1950, FHA and VA loans accounted for 51 percent of the 1.35 million home starts across the nation. These federal programs would account for anywhere between 30 and 51 percent of housing starts between 1951 and 1957, according to Grebler’s analysis.

Between 1953 and 1957, 2.4 million units were started under these programs, using $3.6 billion in loans. This investment dwarfs the amount of money spent on public infrastructure during that period.

The house at 12100 Tulip Grove Drive in Prince George, Maryland, is a representative example of the perennially popular Rancher model after its 1962 redesign. By lining up the roofline of the two wings and reorganizing the facing materials on the elevations visible from the street, Levitt and Sons created a more unified, more horizontal composition that better reflected the popular aesthetic appeal of the postwar, suburban ranch house. 

The birth of the modern mortgage

Before these federal programs, some home mortgages were so-called “balloon loans,” which demanded that buyers make a significant down payment (somewhere between 20 to 50 percent) and pay back the loan over a relatively short time frame, usually five to seven years. This was one of many reasons homebuying was previously the domain of a more wealthy portion of American society.

This new era of cheap and easy financing radically changed the formula, and the face of the average homeowner. Buyers could access loans with low down payments and pay back the bank over a 25 or 30 year window. With the U.S. Treasury backing home loans and protecting lenders from defaults, the risk of a bad loan plummeted. Floodgates of capital opened, reshaping land on the periphery of cities.

Mortgage rates have been lower in the last decade than they were during the ’50s and ’60s. But they were still incredibly low during the suburban boom of the ’50s and ’60s. In 1960, the average mortgage rate was 5.1 percent, which dropped to 4.6 and 4.5, respectively, for FHA- and VA-backed mortgages.

A 1958 map of the Interstate highway system. The expansion of new roads and highways helped make suburban development possible.

An incredible investment

The creation of a new mortgage market, and a pent-up demand for housing, sent clear signals to developers. There was a lucrative market in meeting the housing demands of the burgeoning middle class and breaking ground to build in suburbia, rather than in cities.

Cheap land near cities offered a quick-and-easy profit for big developers, further subsidized by the federal government’s colossal investment in highways and interstates, which quite literally paved the way for longer commutes and a greater separation between work and home.

With rising incomes and homeownership rates, the mortgage-interest tax deduction, once a more obscure part of the tax code that only impacted certain Americans, began growing into a massive entitlement program that redirected money toward homeowners.

In 1950 alone, suburban growth was 10 times that of central cities, and the nation’s builders registered 2 million housing starts. By the end of the decade, 15 million homes were under construction across the country. And during that decade, as the economy expanded rapidly and interstate roads took shape, residential development in the suburbs accounted for 75 percent of total U.S. construction.

Many of these new homes, large-scale, tract-style construction, were built with the backing of various government financing programs, and became available to a much broader cross section of society.

In Crabgrass Frontier, a history of suburban development, author Kenneth Jackson recounts the story of renters in Queens departing for the suburbs because their $50-a-month rent in the city seemed silly when a free-standing home was available in nearby New Jersey for just $29 a month— taxes, principal, insurance, and interest included.

“A much larger percentage of homes on the market in the ’50s were new homes, and they are much more expensive in relation to income now than they were then,” says Michael Carliner, a housing economist and research affiliate at Harvard. “We’re not really building starter homes now.”

While FHA loans could go toward new urban apartment buildings, the program had an anti-urban bias. Minimum requirements for lot sizes in FHA guidelines, and suggestions about setbacks and distances from adjacent structures often excluded many types of multifamily and apartment buildings. During the ’50s, the program was used on seven times more single-family home starts than downtown apartments. That anti-urban bias in building has shaped our markets to this day, and explains why so many urban areas suffer from a dearth of affordable units.

Housing starts are on the rise today. Last year, 1.2 million homes were started across the country. But adjusted for both an increased population as well as the large drop seen during the recent Great Recession, these numbers appear anemic, the lowest number per capita in 60 years. And unlike the postwar building spree, fewer new homes can be considered affordable starter homes. Builders say the combination of land, labor, and material costsmakes affordable homes impossible, and only more expensive models offer enough of a profit margin.

The Queens, New York map created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) showing how redlining worked.

Redlining, racial exclusions, and a persistent wealth gap

The advantages created during the postwar boom were not equally shared among all Americans: Both the FHA and VA loan programs excluded African Americans and other people of color, through unconstitutional redlining, an outright denial of access.

Redlining was a system of appraising and rating neighborhoods, a practice that was especially detrimental because it accelerated existing prejudices, against both people of color and older neighborhoods. It originated with another government-created entity, the HOLC (Home Owners’ Loan Corporation), which rated every neighborhood in every city using a four-point scale, with red being the worst.

The system deducted points for older, more dilapidated areas, as well as areas where people of color were living (which, thanks to discriminatory practices, often ended up being the same thing). The manual literally noted that “if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.”

As Jane Jacobs wrote, “Credit blacklisting maps are accurate prophecies because they’re self-fulfilling prophecies.”

When this rating system became a guiding force for the postwar explosion in development, it hypercharged inequality, and further isolated already-marginalized groups. This created a cycle of shrinking returns on homes and properties.

The anti-urban, anti-black bias was at the heart of HOLC and FHA evaluations, writes Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier. Neighborhoods that received poor grades in St. Louis in the ’40s, for example, retain that stigma today. And in Newark, New Jersey, no urban neighborhood received an A grade during the initial evaluation, accelerating the process of money and investment fleeing to the suburbs.

According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, not one of the 100 cities with the largest black populations has anywhere close to an equal homeownership rate between black and white people. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the gap is a staggering 50 percent.

It’s true that in the ’50s, both white and black rates of homeownership increased in the United States. But the gap widened; the black/white homeownership gap was 14 percent in 1940, but 29 percent in 1960.

Being locked out of this suburban development created a persistent wealth gap that exists to this day. Being denied access to the mortgage market and homeownership meant paying rent instead of owning and gaining value. Today, the average homeowner has a net worth of $195,400, 36 times that of the average renter’s net worth of $5,400.

And missing out on homeownership in the ’50s meant missing out on a goldmine. During the 1950s, land values in some top-tier suburbs increased rapidly—in rare cases, as much as 3,000 percent.

Consider an African-American urban professional locked out of the new, government-subsidized path to suburban homeownership, instead settling for renting, or for urban homes that would, over the decades, decrease in value.

Then compare this with a white professional who would be able to buy an appreciating asset with government-assisted loans, write off the value of that investment thanks to the mortgage-interest tax deduction, and still be able to work at a great job downtown, due to government-funded roadways and interstates (via the Interstate Highway Act of 1956). The rising tide did not lift all boats equally.

Skewed perspectives

Many of the pressing urban planning issues we face today—sprawl and excessive traffic, sustainability, housing affordability, racial discrimination, and the persistence of poverty—can be traced back to this boom. There’s nothing wrong with the government promoting homeownership, as long as the opportunities it presents are open and accessible to all.

As President Franklin Roosevelt said, “A nation of homeowners, of people who won a real share in their own land, is unconquerable.”

That vision, however, has become distorted, due to many of the market incentives encouraged by the ’50s housing boom. In wealthy states, especially California, where Prop 13 locked in property tax payments despite rising property values, the incumbent advantage to owning homes is immense.

In Seattle, the amount of equity a homeowner made just holding on to their investment, $119,000, was more than an average Amazon engineer made last year ($104,000).

In many regions, we may have “reached the limits of suburbanization,” since buyers and commuters can’t stomach supercommutes. NIMBYism and local zoning battles have become the norm when any developers try to add much-needed housing density to expensive urban areas.

In many ways, to paraphrase Roosevelt, we’re seeing a “class” of homeowners become unconquerable. The cost of construction; a shortage of cheap, developable land near urban centers (gobbled up by earlier waves of suburbanization); and other factors have made homes increasingly expensive.

In other words, it’s a great time to own a home—and a terrible time to aspire to buy one.


April 2018

In 2006, neighbors in Philadelphia’s Eastern North section got a vision of the future—and it was a troubling sight.

The area, near Temple University and largely lower income and Latino, was beginning to feel the influence of nearby developments, loft-to-condo conversions that had been a harbinger of rising rents and displacement in similar neighborhoods. Eastern North residents felt they were next.

Motivated by a desire to fill the vacant lots in their neighborhood—and fears of getting priced out of their homes—residents turned to an old solution to address the new reality of rising rents: a community land trust. The trust was established under the banner of the Eastern North Philadelphia Coalition, which joined community groups, nonprofits, and community members.

In an era of both rising land values and speculation, the Community Justice Land Trust’s formation gave residents in Eastern North a way to take some control over nearby development. The basic idea behind community land trusts is bifurcated ownership: The community owns the land in perpetuity via a nonprofit, while homeowners or building owners take out extended ground leases.

“When you look at how homes appreciate over time and what markets do over time, we started to ask ourselves, ‘How do you take out the cost of land?’” says Christi Clark, the organizing director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, one of the groups involved in the trust.

The site of the 36-unit Grace Homes before construction, with Nora Lichtash, the Women’s Community Revitalization Project’s executive director, and Pastor Harris of Firm Hope Baptist Church, two partners in this project.

The model allows for both collective control of development and individual ownership. Homeowners get a deed for their home and an extended lease for the land, and can purchase a house at a relative discount, since the speculative value of the land is removed from the equation.

Owners can sell anytime, but the trust retains the right to purchase the home for its original selling price, plus a portion of the appreciation on the land value. This model, which some have called a “dollar that lasts” approach, discourages speculative reselling and preserves affordability for the next family.

Currently, the Community Justice Land Trust has built 36 affordable rent-to-own units on property under the auspices of this program, and there are 75 more in the pipeline, with plans to develop both homes and commercial properties.

“With the community having control of the land, and preserving affordability, that helps future generations stay in an area they call home,” Clark says.

Keeping pace with soaring rent

Clark’s group and others have begun to see community land trusts (CLTs) as vital solutions in the wake of seismic shifts in the U.S. housing market.

The country currently faces one of its worst housing affordability crises. Statistics in the annual report on rental housing from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies paint a particularly grim picture: The national median asking price for a new apartment rose 27 percent between 2011 and 2016, to $1,480 a month. More than 20 million Americans renters are cost-burdened, due in large part to skyrocketing rents and relatively stagnant incomes, and while the number fell slightly last year, it’s still at uncomfortably high levels.

Over the last six years, tenants across the country have seen increases in the median rent exceed inflation for non-housing expenses by 1 percent each year. And in hot markets like Austin, Denver, and Seattle, median rents are rising twice as fast.

Homeownership has become even more of a struggle. Between 2000 and 2010, when median home costs nearly doubled, from $119,600 to $221,800, median incomes actually decreased.

In the face of these trends, many neighborhood advocates and developers have started turning to community land trusts to help entrench affordability. Nearly 250 such groupsoperate across the country today.


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The huge run-up of prices in the 21st century, which can lead to gentrification, speculation, and predatory practices, has shrunk the affordable housing stock, says Andrew Reicher, executive director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, one of the community groups collaborating on the Interboro Community Land Trust in New York City.

“People are looking around for a tool that creates affordable housing from the start, and prevents this type of change from happening again,” he says. “I’m not sure people realize how fragile our housing economy can be.”

Civil rights and the movement for collective economic empowerment

Activist Robert Swann, along with Slater King, a cousin of Martin Luther King, helped establish the community land grant concept, and launched it in 1969 with New Communities, a 5,700-acre farm and land trust in southwest Georgia collectively owned by roughly a dozen African-American families. Swann and King were inspired by previous collectivist actions, including the Garden City movement in the United Kingdom, Israeli collectives, and land-reform activists in India.

The idea of collective ownership and community control has taken root across the country: Some CLTs focus on building homes, while others, such as the Community Justice Land Trust, zero in on rentals. Groups often set up varying resale restrictions to control the flow of property sales and encourage long-term stays instead of a revolving door of residents. Most include significant community representation on their governing boards.

In San Diego, a local group has used the CLT model to encourage homeownership. The San Diego Land Trust recently bought a series of unused lots from the city, which offered them at the steeply discounted rate of $1 apiece. The San Diego Land Trust plans to construct 25 homes.

According to Jean Diaz, executive director of the trust, this new project shows the flexibility of the model. His organization is focused on providing homes for those making between 80 and 120 percent of the area’s median income. It’s a tool for middle-income housing, with a board that will be composed of one-third homeowners.

“We’re doing what we can to make a dent in the problem,” he says. “In San Diego, a lot has been done to provide low-income rental housing. There really aren’t subsidies for moderate-income ownership housing.”

Urban advocates point to the longevity of CLTs as a huge advantage. Most subsidies used for affordable housing target low-income renters, yet don’t help this population—and others with more moderate income—move up the rungs of the property ladder and achieve homeownership. In addition, many subsidies aren’t permanent. Affordable housing often reverts back to market-rate pricing after 30 to 40 years.

CLTs can be especially useful tools to help people of color and low-income workers achieve homeownership. According to data from the Grounded Solutions Network, a nationwide inclusionary housing and CLT advocacy group, since the mid ’70s, only one of every two low-income homeowners of color in the U.S. has been able to keep a home they purchase for more than five years. As it normally takes roughly 10 years of ownership to truly realize the value of buying instead of renting, many lose value instead of creating wealth. For homeowners in a CLT, however, 93 percent maintain ownership for more than five years.

Can land trusts work in expensive cities?

One of the more intriguing new CLTs, the nascent Interboro Community Land Trust, aims to apply this model to one of the nation’s most expensive real estate markets, New York City.

According to Reicher, Interboro will partner with developers and nonprofits across the city. New affordable homes, apartment developments, and co-ops will be added to the trust, which will help maintain affordability longer than standard subsidized housing developments.

While Interboro has already attracted seed funding from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, as well as a $1 million contribution from Citi Community Development, the organization will need to partner with existing projects to truly grow; even a few million won’t be enough to acquire significant land in New York. Still, despite the high costs of acquisition, Interboro believes it can grow to 250 units over the next few years.

This represents a long-term investment in stability and affordability. As Reicher says, the community land trust model can’t magically create affordability; it can really only maintain it. But at a time when rising urban land prices can seem as regular as the weather, advocates see the advantages of a long-term vision.

“This will keep housing stable and affordable in good times and bad,” he says. “People will be able to benefit from their own hard work.”