The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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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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The City That’s Best for Everyone

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I worry sometimes that urbanism, and specifically New Urbanism (if you are familiar with that movement) comes across as mostly thought-up by and crafted for wealthy young people. There are so many images of trendy warehouse lofts and pop-up jewelry stores floating around that you might get the idea that urban development is just another hipster scheme that we should file away as only applicable for those people. But let me tell you why that’s not the case.

The urbanist movement, which advocates for things like improving walkability, encouraging small business growth, and developing downtown residences aims to make life better for everyone in the city. Young, old, male, female, white, black, brown, able-bodied and disabled.

For instance, walkability is not just a buzzword tossed around by white twenty-somethings who want to be able to stroll home after a night at the craft-beer bar. No, walkability is an urban asset that benefits children, seniors, disabled people and low-income people by providing them with access to amenities around town that don’t require them to drive or pay for an automobile. The same goes for public transportation. When walking and taking the bus are more common forms of movement, that movement is no longer a commodity hoarded by the rich and the able-bodied. 

How about the urbanists advocating for new cafes and local food eateries in their neighborhood? Do these new restaurants merely provide the wealthy with one more food option to choose from on date night? I hope not. Rather, a variety of new local restaurants can meet the need for everything from quick food to celebratory meals at a wide range of price points. Better still, local restaurants provide jobs for neighborhood residents. That’s the ideal toward which urbanists are striving.

Another example of urbanist activism is parklets and sidewalk expansions (read this post for background on those). But these are not just trendy, summer hang-out spots for young people with time on their hands. Instead, they are traffic-calming mechanisms that reclaim the streets for pedestrians and decrease car accidents and deaths.

What about those repurposed warehouses that are converted into mixed-use residences and stores? In fact, many of them come with designated affordable living units in addition to market-rate apartments. A condo building with residences on the top floors and businesses on the bottom floors can also create opportunity to live and work in close proximity, and it makes room for new businesses to flourish.

I think the best city for everyone is a city where each resident accomplishes what he or she needs to accomplish—whether that’s getting groceries, going to work or attending school—and feels at home in that environment—whether it’s an apartment, public housing, a senior center or a single-family house. The best city for everyone is also a city where all who wish to can afford to live—not necessarily in the biggest, fanciest home, but at least in a comfortable, safe abode. Urbanist ideas are furthering all these goals. You only need to look past the hipster façade in order to recognize the powerful transformations that are happening for all residents in cities across the country.

Here’s another fantastic article by The Black Urbanist responding to similar criticisms of the new urbanist movement.


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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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I wrote this short book review for an internal blog at the Housing and Urban Development Agency last summer. It was only a matter of time before I posted it here because it discusses the most seminal text in twentieth century urban development. If you’re dipping your toes into this field, it’s time you encountered Jane Jacobs (and if you’re a seasoned urbanist and you have yet to read her work, get on it!).

Jane Jacobs – urbanist, New Yorker, and progressive activist – wrote her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, at the dawn of the 1960s. She was responding to a variety of current city planning tactics that advocated, among other things, for strict zoning codes, high-rise housing projects, massive parks, and suburban lifestyles in general. She was also responding to the problems she saw firsthand on the streets of American metropolises – crime, poverty, racism, fear and lack of community.  Jacobs’ theories are based on the idea that people thrive when they interact with each other, and that these interactions create a web of safety and prosperity which does not rely on police or fences or government money. Continue reading