The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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The Housing Segregation Conundrum

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I live in a city that is often called “the most racially segregated city in America.” I’ve heard a few different definitions of what that means but the best one explains that in no other city in America does black so thoroughly and consistenly mean “poor,” and white so thoroughly and consistently equate with “middle class or wealthy.” I think about segregation and it’s complicated cousin, gentrification, a fair amount, especially as they relate to housing and homelessness. I see the neighborhoods where my clients–who are almost all African American–end up living and they are filled with other poor African Americans living in run-down houses with few businesses nearby. Then I look at my own neighborhood which is mostly white, with a bit better housing stock and far more vibrant local businesses. The worst crime that happens in my neighborhood is theft and drunk driving. In my clients’ neighborhoods, it is assault, rape and murder. This is the general picture, not the exact details of every block, but the general picture is bleak and clearly segregated.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times rans this op-ed by Thomas Edsall entitled “Where Should a Poor Family Live?” In it, Edsall questions what he calls the “poverty housing industry” for its maintenance of the status quo–keeping poor people in poor neighborhoods instead of moving them into wealthier areas which theoretically offer greater opportunity. He asks, “Should federal dollars go toward affordable housing within high-poverty neighborhoods, or should subsidies be used to move residents of impoverished communities into more upscale–and more resistant–sections of cities and suburbs with better schools and job opportunities?”

Edsall mostly talks about federal subsidies that come through Low Income Housing Tax Credits (which widely enable most affordable housing corporations to build and maintain their developments), although his arguments could also be extended to public housing. In essence, Edsall is raising an immensely challenging, but highly relevant question for today’s cities and towns: Should public and private anti-poverty efforts (in this case, affordable housing) focus on uplifting the neighborhoods where poverty exists, or removing poor people from those neighborhoods altogether? Continue reading


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Why We Need to Slow the Cars

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It happens every day. An innocent person is crossing the street at a corner when suddenly, a car comes barrelling towards her and kills her in an instant. The driver wasn’t drunk or even texting, so we treat these scenarios as “accidents.” We shake our heads and say, “There was no way to prevent this tragedy.”

Well I call bullshit.

Cars are the most dangerous thing most Americans encounter on a daily basis, and our streets and cities are designed to let this happen. The best way to make our cities and towns safer is to get cars driving slower. I have no problem with people driving 70 mph on the highway–that’s a system intended to move vehicles quickly from one point to another, and pedestrians and bikes are not present in that system. What I do have a problem with is cars driving 40 mph through a neighborhood where children are playing, people are biking home from work or walking to the store. Although we’d be safest without them at all, cars can coexist with bike and pedestrians in an urban environment. But only if the cars are slowed considerably. Continue reading


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Respect the Renter

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Over the last decade, the percentage of renters in America has fluctuated between 33 and 36%. Yet, in spite of the fact that ⅓ of all Americans are renting their housing, there seems to be a notion in many neighborhoods and towns that owners are the main people who matter and the only ones who are going to be valuable members of their communities.

Indeed, I have encountered many community development organizations whose entire focus is increasing the amount of homeowners in a given neighborhoods and connecting them with grants, loans and classes to help them keep their houses looking nice and safe. This is an admirable mission and clearly has a positive impact on the people and communities that it serves. However, I have also encountered the opposite end of this owner-centered sentiment: an utter dismissal of renters as merely “transient” and “disengaged” in their communities, which sometimes becomes outright anger and prejudice towards them…

Read the rest on the Strong Towns blog.


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I Will Build This

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After four years working in the field of homelessness prevention, I’ve zeroed in on one big way to help end homelessness. It isn’t education and it isn’t a shelter. (I’ve written before about why shelters are not the solution.) It’s something more attainable and concrete.

I have many dreams (to create an Oscar-winning documentary, to become a bluegrass singer, for example) but the one I am focusing all my efforts towards and shaping my goals around is this: to build high-quality, truly affordable housing as a lasting solution to homelessness.

The “Solutions” That Don’t Work

Why is affordable housing an important solution to homelessness? In short, because welfare is unsustainable and inadequate, and because the minimum wage will take too long to go up. These “solutions” to homelessness don’t work. Let me explain. When I encounter a homeless family that has been referred to the rapid rehousing program at my organization, one of the first things I look at is their income. I will use that to figure out what sort of payments they can make towards rent now, and what sort of apartment they might be able to afford after our subsidy ends. Most clients are either getting by on welfare checks, Social Security Income (because of a serious mental or physical disability that prevents them from working), child support (with payments ranging from $2-$50 a month, i.e. negligible) or wages from a job. Everyone is also receiving SNAP benefits (i.e. food stamps).

So, let’s discuss these potential income streams for accessing housing. Continue reading


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A Day in the Life of a Bus Rider

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Want to get healthier, save money, and lower your stress? I have a simple answer for you: Ride the bus. I use the bus in Milwaukee almost every day and it has made me more active and fit, saved me thousands of dollars, and kept me out of hundreds of stressful traffic jams and endless hunts for parking. It also familiarizes me with my city and my fellow residents.

If you haven’t used public transportation much, it can seem really daunting to figure out how to make it work with your life. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say: “The bus system in my city is horrible,” only to later find out that that person has never even ridden the bus! It’s absurd but far too common for Americans to dismiss bussing altogether as a viable transit option. There is a major stigma surrounding bus ridership–that it is only for poor minorities–and that needs to end now.

I’ll be up front here: Public transportation in most cities is woefully inadequate. It serves far too few people and takes far too long to get them where they need to go. However, without riding it, we’ll never figure out ways to fix it and convince our leaders to make that happen. Systems don’t change unless they have buy-in. So today I’m going to walk you through how I use the bus on a given day to get everywhere I need to go. It isn’t perfect, but it is so much better than driving a car.

Here is what a day in my life as a public transit user looks like:

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7:30am  My alarm goes off and I shower, dress, eat cereal and make coffee. Continue reading


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Rock Your Assets

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This post is about cherishing and celebrating whatever is good in your city. In activist lingo, that goes by the name of “asset-based community development.” Put simply, it’s the idea that when you’re trying to improve your neighborhood, you don’t start out by listing all of its problems–trash in the streets, few local businesses, speeding cars, etc.–but instead, you begin from a place of plenty. You consider what your neighborhood does have going for it right now and build from that. For example, you might have trash in some of your streets, but you might also have a great park that kids love to play in down the block. You might have an active faith community, or families that have been in the neighborhood for decades, or a great art museum… When you start by highlighting your community’s assets, you can build your plan to make it better from those good things. You can rally the faith community to help clean up the streets. You can advertise that museum and get more bike or foot traffic from the surrounding neighborhoods. You can encourage food trucks to hang out at the park.

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One thing I have loved about my new community in Milwaukee is the way we really utilize one of our biggest assets: water. The city sits against miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and it also has a network of rivers running through it. Summer time means thousands of people are creatively enjoying the water in a myriad of ways. Continue reading


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Old is New: Inside a Brewery Turned Office Park

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Few urban features make my heart beat faster than a really well-done repurposement project. It’s not so much because I like old-style buildings (although I do), but because I value the positive environmental, cultural and social impact that repurposement has on cities. By transforming a former factory, church, or even gas station* into a new space you cut down on the amount of materials that you would normally need to create a completely new building and you often also undergo the important process of getting an old, potentially dangerous or toxic building up to health and safety codes. Renovation can also preserve iconic spaces and the designs of generations past. This is particularly valuable since historic methods of building often create more lasting, resilient structures which can still benefit us today. Finally, renovation is an important method for creating value and vibrance in an area that might previously have been empty or abandoned.

Thankfully, warehouses transformed into condos or offices are practically a normal feature in most American cities nowadays. Drive through any historic downtown and you’ll find trendy lofts built inside old printing presses or granaries. But there’s so much more you can do with an old building no longer being used for its original purpose. I shared some ideas in this post regarding an empty community center/church down the block from my apartment. The sky (or ceiling) is really the limit when it comes to transforming historic spaces. I’ve seen homes inside old churches, accordion shops inside old White Castles, and elementary schools inside old strip malls.

I want to share a particularly beautiful and well executed repurposement project today. Milwaukee has been the “Brew City” for more than 150 years. Many famous, global beers like Miller, Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon got their start here, paving the way for many more craft breweries to dominate the scene today (including Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing Company and more). While a few of the large beer producers still have their headquarters here, most have moved on to bigger facilities or transferred ownership, leaving large factories behind. In other cities, perhaps these factories would be knocked down or left to become gigantic racoon palaces, but not here.

When the Schlitz factory closed its doors in 1982 after being sold to the Stroh Brewing Company, a decision had to be made. Wanting to preserve this historic structure but undoubtedly struggling with how to convert such a massive space (40 acres) into something functional, developers eventually settled on an office park to fill the campus anew. Continue reading


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Why Sameness Scares Me

This is a video of a sub-division in an exurb of a major metropolitan city. I won’t name the location because it doesn’t really matter. You could film this video in almost every state in the nation: Row after row of identical houses, up against a tree-lined strip along a busy road. The occasional car. Not a soul in sight.

This is suburbia, or the ghost-town that many suburbs have become as a result of the great suburban experiment and the too-quick expansion that created sprawl as we know it, a pre-fab pattern that developers glommed onto and reproduced at far too rapid a rate for any appropriate feedback mechanism or checks and balances.

It was a way to get quick money using cheap land and cheap materials. It gave the people what they wanted. Or so we thought.

Sameness scares me. Sameness is only one of many reasons why the suburbs are bankrupting America (literally and spiritually) but it’s one of the central issues from which stem all the other issues that caused this suburban disaster. Continue reading


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How to Live Small and Still be Happy

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Suppose you’ve been reading all these ideas on this blog about mixed use developments and public transportation and inner city living, and you finally feel like giving it a shot. I bet the first thing that stops you is the cost. You think you couldn’t possibly afford to live in one of those fancy downtown condos, and that’s the only way to live in the city. Plus, you couldn’t fit your whole life—kids, dog, etc.—in one of those anyway, even if you could afford the cost. Well I think you’re wrong. In fact, I know you’re wrong.

What follows are a series of questions to ask yourself before you say that city living is not for you. They’re also a great set of questions to ask yourself if you’re just trying to save some money, no matter where you live. This is about downsizing without losing your sanity or your happiness. I know it’s possible because I’m living it right now.

I currently live in a small (I would guess between 400-600 sq ft) apartment near downtown Milwaukee with my partner. It’s a 1 bedroom with a tiny bathroom, a tiny kitchen, a tiny dining room, and a tiny living room. Inside that apartment, we fit two peoples’ stuff, a cat, and plenty of fun gatherings with friends and family. We love it. And it is 100% within the price range of two young people not making very much money.

Here are some questions we asked ourselves to help us find our current downtown apartment in an affordable way (and the photos to prove it). I hope that considering them helps you recognize that you can live small and still be happy. Continue reading


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A Life Update

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It’s been too many weeks since I published something on this blog and I miss it. My life has been caught up in work, side projects, planning for the future, and a new kitty. (See above.) Plus I’ve been feeling a tad uninspired, and I’ve been spending more time reading other peoples’ work than writing my own, which is an okay space to fall in sometimes. But since a lot of what I do is relevant to cities, here’s a brief overview of my life right now.

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I am extremely fortunate to be working in a field that is basically exactly what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time—helping to end homelessness. I get some direct service interaction with clients, which I truly value, but I also get to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, which is where I really thrive. I am helping to run a rapid rehousing program (read all about that type of homelessness intervention here, in one of my first ever posts on the blog) in Milwaukee, WI. That means that every day, I help homeless families find apartments, and connect them with funding from the federal and local governments to help them afford to live in those apartments. The goal is that by the end of 12 months in the program, with the help of our case managers,  they will have increased their income enough to afford the apartment on their own. Thus far, we have put more than 40 families in housing, just in the span of 3 months. So naturally, that’s been keeping me pretty busy, especially since the program started from scratch on January 1 of this year. It’s been incredible to see the transformations that a family experiences when they go from living in a homeless shelter to living in their own home. The stability that a home brings is an essential foundation for helping parents to create a better life for their children, not to mention addressing mental health issues, financial struggles and more. In the short span of time that I’ve been working with this program, I’ve had many reflections and new ideas about how to combat homelessness in the future. One of the realizations that has definitely risen to the top is the need for more affordable housing, which I wrote about in a Strong Towns post on Wednesday. More on this topic soon.   Continue reading

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