Thanks to a pointer from Claudia Thiem I found this short exploration of the origins and form of Red Vienna — a few decades between the world wars when the city of Vienna had a robust social democratic government, and almost city-state like autonomy. They decided to implement constructive socialist policies at the scale of the city. But it apparently wasn’t just socialism happening in the city, rather it was a more comprehensive leftist urbanism. I’ve heard a lot about this period, but haven’t found a good English language text to read yet. If you have one to suggest, please let me know!
Red Vienna seems especially interesting in its contrast to other socialist development schemes. Austrian socialism was explicitly pro-city, rather than romanticizing and idealizing the rural peasant (or yeoman farmer… if you prefer Thomas Jefferson). What happens when leftists wholeheartedly embrace the city as their platform for change instead of heading back to the land? There’s so much more opportunity for connection and communication and interaction with each other and the other facets of society in cities — and much more in the way of economic opportunity to work with.
More than social housing: a leftist urbanism
Obviously plenty of other socialist governments built housing in cities — but typically in the deeply anti-urban form of isolated repetitive towers or apartment blocks. In Vienna the socialist project didn’t just happen to take place in the city, it was about re-imagining the city as a platform for equitable living.
After working on issues of urban development and cooperative housing for close to a decade in Boulder, I’ve gotten the sense that the organizational tools and public polices we are familiar with in the US are not up to the task of creating equitable, accessible, evolving, sustainable cities. We don’t seem to have any model for what urban success is supposed to look like. Either that, or our model of success is horribly inequitable and exclusive, and we’re okay with that. By default, the financing, land use, transportation, and property rights policy regimes in the US turn any successful city into a socioeconomic sorting machine — poorer residents are expelled, as land prices are bid up and the city is socially and potentially physically transformed.
There have to be other, better ways for cities to succeed — for change to happen, and new residents to be accommodated without this kind of exclusion and erasure. But much of the urban development and housing discussion in the US seems to center on giving less wealthy residents the same powers of exclusion enjoyed by richer property owners. This might be more equitable, but it’s still a bad model of urban success. Cities are powerful economic engines, and also perhaps the best available platform and scale we have for creating an ecologically sustainable civilization. We need to allow more people into our thriving cities, and somehow use this demand to facilitate their transformation into places where a high quality of life can be had — by anyone — with very low energy and material resource requirements, without destroying the social and community structures that already exist.
I’ve started to lose track of all the things I’ve been reading about housing cooperatives (mostly) in the German speaking world, so I thought I would make a little catalog of resources. Note that many of the articles and organizational websites are in German, but Google Translate is good enough!
Boulder has a housing problem. If you own your home, and everyone you’re close to here owns their homes, it can seem like Someone Else’s Problem. Or maybe an abstract problem to be solved in your spare time. Or maybe it’s not even a problem — just an unfortunate reality. When you rent, and are surrounded by other renters, it can feel like everyone is just waiting and wondering if they’re about to be sent into economic exile by the next rent increase or employment gap.
A couple of years ago I was at dinner with a group of younger professional types. The topic of housing came up. Those who’d bought condos were giddy — their “investment” was growing by double digits each year! Those renting were despondent. They felt like they’d missed their chance to stay here and be part of the community. It was an uncomfortable microcosm of Boulder’s housing wealth divide, playing out over years instead of decades. We quickly moved on to less divisive topics, but the divisions remained.
There are tens of thousands members of our community who don’t live here. Many would like to, but instead they drive into the city every day. We should invite them to spend the night. People working here should have the option of living here. We can do it without building on Open Space, and without building anything more than 55 — or even 38 — feet tall. If we want to, we can make most of the new housing owner occupied and permanently affordable to middle income folks, and we can do it without a mountain of public money.
However, we can’t do it without changing the city.
We can’t create affordability on a grand scale by moving money from one group of people to another. As He Who Shall Not Be Named has often informed Council: $100,000 per home to make 10,000 affordable homes is a billion dollars, or $10,000 per resident of the city! No linkage fee or tax or city bond can raise that kind of cash. It’s taken Open Space 50 years to spend its first billion.
But we can create massive amounts of durable affordability by allowing people to live modestly and share. Instead of a 5000 square foot monster home, we could allow five 1000 square foot apartments. Instead of a 3 people in a million dollar house on a $500,000 lot, we could have 12 people in five $200,000 flats, with each household paying another $100,000 for land. These numbers are rough, but some version of this strategy can make as much middle income housing as we care to have. And unlike an ADU, this density bonus is big enough that permanent affordability can be required, and still have building more housing be the most profitable option. If we did this on 10,000 single family lots, we could house 50,000 commuting households and put half of the city’s housing outside of the speculative market forever. Low income housing would still need financial support, but this strategy drastically reduces the funding required per home. It also preserves scarce public funds for helping those who actually need it.
We could do this, and we’d be much better stewards of the environment. Instead of long commutes to big houses, many folks might not drive at all, and would live in small homes built to Boulder’s stringent energy efficiency standards. City tax revenues would increase. Mass transit could be convenient and affordable. People who are already part of our community could be part of our civic life. Immigrants might actually feel welcome here. Most people wouldn’t have to worry about being priced out. A Boulder of 250,000 would still be an exclusive enclave — as any desirable place with a population cap must be — but we could choose something other than wealth as the criteria for inclusion.
This wouldn’t be a concrete jungle — it’s the same big houses we’re getting now, on the same big lots, on the same tree-lined streets. But instead of sheltering isolated millionaires, they’d be filled with people who want to share the city. Who would you prefer scraped your house?
We could do this, but we probably won’t. As the capital creeps in and sterilizes this place completely, remember that it was a choice. Remember that we chose to preserve our zoning rather than our community.
Zane Selvans wanders the Earth by bicycle with a laptop, liberating climate and energy data.
Richard Rothstein's recent book The Color of Law looks at the history of racism in US housing policy. It focuses especially on African Americans, and the constitutionality of these policies in light of the reconstruction era amendments that ended slavery.
Throughout the book, Rothstein makes a big point of the difference between de jure (in law) segregation and de facto (in fact) segregation. The purpose of the book (belied in its subtitle: "A forgotten history of how our government segregated America.") is to remind us that residential segregation did not just happen because private citizens expressed discriminatory preferences. Instead, he lays out the gory details of how government at all levels — through laws, official policies, financing terms, and officially sanctioned lack of enforcement — has enacted de jure segregation for more than a century. This has often included creatingand enforcing segregation where it did not previously exist, in the West, and in the northern industrial centers as successive waves of migration from the South took place in the first half of the 20th century. He argues that because this segregation was perpetrated by the government, with the full force of law, we have a constitutional obligation to ameliorate the harm it has done to generations of African Americans.
The book felt kind of like a hybrid between Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (about successive & evolving systems of black subjugation after the end of slavery, especially drug-war mediated mass incarceration) and Kenneth T. Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier (a history of suburbanization in the US). One of the main themes in The New Jim Crow is the remarkable adaptability of our systems of race-based social control. We outlawed slavery, but just a few decades later, Jim Crow was in full force, disenfranchising blacks throughout the south. The Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s outlawed many Jim Crow practices, but it wasn't long before the War on Drugs and mass incarceration had filled the gap.
In my last post, I suggested that while we like to think of housing as an investment, it’s really more like a crappy savings plan, potentially redeemed by the fact that you can live inside the piggy bank. Land can be a profitable speculative investment, but allowing land to appreciate and drag the cost of housing upward in real terms is fundamentally incompatible with housing being affordable.
Economists (including Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Paine, Henry George, Thomas Friedman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Matt Yglesias) have highlighted the negative impacts of allowing land owners to collect monopolistic “ground rents” but nobody seems to care. So now tens of trillions of dollars worth of real estate in the US is predicated on the idea that landowners get to retain these speculative gains. Barring a glorious Georgist Revolution, this is probably the arrangement we have to work within.
Build, Baby Build!
Luckily, in a city with increasing land values, where property owners get to keep all of those unearned financial gains, there’s an All American Capitalist Solution™ of sorts, which can potentially keep housing affordable, even when land is expensive: build more housing on less land. By building densely, high land costs can be shared across more households, reducing the overall impacts of expensive land, and allowing home buyers & renters to pay primarily for housing instead of land.
There’s a powerful cultural narrative in the US that says when you buy a home, you’re not only securing a place to live, you’re making an investment.
When I say “investment” I mean a thing that you can put some money into, and get more money out of later, in real inflation adjusted terms, net of the expenses associated with having the thing in the first place. Houses — as in, physical structures that shelter human beings — are clearly not this kind of thing. Anyone who has had to maintain an older home knows this. Roofs collapse. Pipes corrode. Walls need to be painted. Like bicycles, laptops, and virtually all other durable goods, left to their own devices, houses are depreciating assets: they lose utilitarian value over time. However, we’ve done an incredibly good job of ignoring this as a society. How do we fool ourselves?
We tend to ignore inflation. If you bought a house for $100,000 in the year 2000, and sold it in 2016 for $140,000, even if you didn’t put a single penny into maintenance, taxes, or insurance, you just barely broke even in terms of real purchasing power, if we’re talking about the house purely as an investment.
We tend to ignore the ongoing expenses of homeownership. In practice, you can’t avoid spending money on maintenance, taxes and insurance, but few homeowners record every property expense, and calculate whether they’ve come out ahead upon selling a home. Especially if the building is older “naturally occurring affordable housing”, maintenance costs can easily end up being a few percent of the building’s value each year. Property taxes and home insurance are also substantial expenses, typically less salient to homeowners than the purchase and sale prices of the home.
We can think of inflation and property expenses as cancelling out a fair chunk of any increase in the nominal value of a home. With 2% inflation, and spending 3% of the home’s value every year on maintenance, property taxes, and insurance, a home’s value needs to increase about 5% every year in nominal terms just to cover its own costs. In other words, if you bought a house for $100,000 in the year 2000, and sold it for $200,000 in 2016, you didn’t quite break even — again, if we’re looking at the house purely as an investment.
We tend to notice the accrual of home equity. Ideally, as you pay off a mortgage, the fraction of its value that is covered by your equity rather than the bank’s debt increases! Even if you just break even after accounting for inflation and ongoing expenses, you’ll hopefully have a larger chunk of change on hand to put into buying your next home. Continuing with the example purchase above (grabbing a mortgage calculator off the internet) if we assume a 20% ($20,000) down payment and an $80,000, 4%, 30 year fixed rate loan, after 16 years of payments, the remaining loan amount is about $49,000. So assuming you sell the home at the “break even” price, including expenses, of $200,000, you end up with $151,000 after paying off the loan. This is $131,000 more than you started with, which feels totally awesome! You “invested” $20,000 and “earned” $131,000, more than a 650% increase!
First, steep declines in fertility worldwide have largely defused the population bomb. Second, even if the bomb were still ticking, the population changes we see in Boulder, and more generally the Front Range of Colorado, the US and the booming megacities of Asia aren’t about population growth per se, they’re about migration. In the developing world, it’s migration from rural areas to cities. In the already rich countries, it’s mostly migration between cities, often from low-wage regions to areas with better jobs and higher quality of life. Or it would be anyway, if we actually let people build housing in those places.
How we choose to build and rebuild cities to accommodate these migrations and humanity’s peak population later this century will largely determine our ultimate impact on the Earth’s climate and biosphere, and the quality of life that humanity has access to. Contrary to many “population bomb” narratives, the main problem here as it relates to climate isn’t the impact of large numbers of poor people, because small numbers of rich people are responsible for the overwhelming majority of current greenhouse gas emissions. How we accommodate those wealthy, high emissions populations makes a big difference, both directly, and through the example it sets for the rapidly expanding global middle class.
Boulder faces an interesting decision in the wake of an Ignite Boulder talk by Code for America’s Becky Boone, exhorting a relatively young, tech-savvy audience to engage in the city’s civic sphere. Some have objected to her use of profanity, but given the positive response of the 21 and over crowd and the content of past Ignite talks, these concerns are overblown. Daily Camera columnist Steve Pomerance and neighborhood blogger Kay MacDonald have tried to level a more substantive criticism: they feel that Boone’s presentation was pro-growth, and that such advocacy would be inappropriate for even an off-duty city consultant.
I’ve watched the talk repeatedly, and transcribed it word-for-word. Boone clearly takes no such stance.
She highlights the accessibility and value of participating in our local democracy, and gives a couple of positive examples: the Fairview High Net Zero Club’s campaign to implement a grocery bag fee, and an unidentified citizen group gathering signatures for a fall ballot measure whose content is unmentioned. She also asks her audience their thoughts on whether Boulder’s housing issues result from too many jobs, or insufficient housing — a question that’s been raised by Boulder Housing Partners commissioner Dick Harris, among others.
None of these statements is political advocacy.
Rather, the political content of Ms. Boone’s presentation resides with her choice of audience. The Ignite crowd and Boulder’s startup community are younger and newer to Boulder than those traditionally engaged in city governance. They’re also probably more likely to be renters. Despite the city’s laudable efforts to recruit representative citizen working groups, these demographics have been woefully underrepresented in our housing policy process. We know this because we’ve collected demographic data at the city’s housing events. Engaging the Ignite Boulder audience makes our discussion more representative of our citizenry. This is good for our democracy. It also has political implications.
By definition, rallying a disinterested population to participate dilutes the power of those who are already engaged. To their credit, and despite this difficult set of political incentives, the city has prioritized “developing new approaches and tools that support more inclusive, transparent, collaborative, and interactive community engagement” in the development of our Comprehensive Housing Strategy. This is exactly the job that Becky Boone was hired to do, and which she has apparently done a bit too well for the comfort of some incumbent interests.
We now have a choice, and it’s an unavoidably political choice. Do we want to cultivate a representative democracy in Boulder that proactively seeks input from as broad a population as possible, or would we prefer a narrowly targeted discourse that is intended, through its choice of media and venues, to preserve the status quo?
Boulder should be better than that, and so I favor proactive engagement, as I believe much of City Council does. They need our support to make the right choice: to stand behind Ms. Boone and build upon her valuable work in Boulder going forward. We should live stream and archive any city meeting taking place in Council chambers on a well used platform like YouTube. We should subtitle the archived versions in Spanish. We should expect our elected and appointed policymakers and city staff to participate competently in social media, and use it as the incredibly cost-effective and democratically empowering platform that it has become worldwide. It’s been a long time since the Internet was the exclusive domain of a technological elite — today it is the people’s platform, much more so than Wayne’s World style public access cable TV, or even our beloved Daily Camera. Newer digital platforms that are accessible to parents with young children and full time jobs need to be weighed heavily in our policy discussions, right alongside inconvenient, time-consuming public meetings.
Given last week’s firestorm of activity in support of Boone on Twitter I suspect that going forward, Boulder politicians and policymakers will ignore the digital realm at their peril. Just because you do not take an interest in social media, does not mean that social media will not take an interest in you.
Predictably, such a blunt and impassioned call to action, presented to a currently mostly unengaged Boulder constituency (about 850 of them…) has pissed some people off, and some of them want Becky’s head to roll, because she had the gall to try and get some folks to give a fuck about local governance.
That, quite frankly, is bullshit.
The whole point of getting someone from Code for America involved in outreach related to the city’s housing strategy was to engage currently underrepresented constituencies in the city (as reported in the Daily Camera), yes, with a focus on using technology, but talking to our local technologists and getting them engaged seems like a good way to make sure this important work continues after the 6 month fellowship ends this summer. We’ve got the demographics on who participates today, and the crowd at the Boulder Theater that night isn’t showing up to tell the city what they think. Given that, this talk might even have made sense as part of Becky’s work for the city — but she didn’t do it as someone working with the city, a fact she points out right at the start of the talk. She did this on her own time, to try and get a community she’s part of to participate in the governance of their own city.
Some members of City Council and the Old Guard politicos might not find the tone of the talk “appropriate,” but she wasn’t speaking to them. The tone was calibrated to the audience, which by all (Twitter) accounts received it quite well. The talk, like all Ignite talks, was extensively vetted by the event organizers, who have little interest in offending their attendees.
So far as I can tell, the only overtly partisan statement in the talk was when she noted that no particular expertise is actually required to participate in local governance… while a photo of Sarah Palin was displayed. The talk was almost entirely factual in nature, with a few jokes (mostly poking fun at the audience itself) and a few questions. It included:
Demographic information about who currently participates in city meetings and processes. She noted that renters are woefully underrepresented, being about a quarter of all housing meeting attendees but making up about half of the city population. She also pointed out that while 65% of Boulder’s population is under the age of 40… only 17% of housing meeting attendees are in that age range.
A brief explanation of the structure of Boulder’s city government — that we have a City Council who appoints a City Manager, rather than a directly elected “strong mayor” acting as the city’s executive authority.
The fact that only about 1/3 of registered voters participated in the last odd year election (which she shamed the audience over).
Information about how much City Council gets paid for what is essentially a full time job… a whopping $11,000 a year. Good luck living on that in Boulder! (at least… without illegally sharing housing and eating dumpstered food… now if only we had someone on Council who did that!)
The factual statement that 5 of the 9 City Council members are up for re-election this fall.
A call to the audience to get involved and get their friends involved, to tell Council and the rest of city government what they think about that position, and generically, other governance issues.
Statements highlighting the relative ease and high value of engaging in local governance, compared to larger jurisdictions.
A call to the audience to bring their skills and ideas to the table in support of local governance.
Stripped of the F-bombs, this is some pretty reasonable, wholesome stuff. The audience didn’t seem bothered by the language, and truthfully, it was meant to rile them up. This wasn’t an official (or even an unofficial!) city communication. The calls Council are receiving calling for Becky to be fired are couched in terms of “appropriate” language and professionalism, but those norms vary widely between different populations in the city. It’s also worth noting that New Era Colorado has in the past made extensive use of the slogan “Vote F*ucker” in their attempts to get young voters to turn out… e.g. in support of Boulder’s bid to create a municipal electric utility.
Response to the Ignite talk online, amongst the constituency it was designed to reach, has so far as I can tell, been overwhelmingly positive, if you go look through the mentions of @igniteboulder and #igniteboulder @boonrs on Twitter. In fact, it might just end up getting some more young folks engaged in city governance. That’s the real reason people are calling for Becky’s head. They know that broader engagement by young people, renters, and the tech community will result in the erosion of their political power.
Becky Boone is doing a way the fuck better than average job of getting young people engaged with the city. Certainly a better job than a communications department that won’t let staff use social media as the spontaneous, interactive tool it’s got to be if you want it to be effective (all while forcing employees to wear ties. In Boulder. As if that adds credibility. Personally I get suspicious whenever I see a tie…).
If City Council and the City Manager’s office give in to the totally inappropriate, unreasonable demand to fire someone who is actually doing a good job of getting unengaged people to participate, it would be a brazenly partisan act, an act in favor of Boulder’s incredibly conservative status quo, and in direct opposition to the goal of creating a more broadly representative civic sphere in the city. It would also be in direct conflict with the stated goals of getting a Code for America fellow involved in the first place.
Additionally, this type of speech — by a citizen, on their own time, related to a matter of obvious public concern — is the most strongly protected speech in the US. Any disciplinary action related to this talk would raise grave issues related to freedom of speech, and might warrant involvement by the ACLU or other organizations interested in protecting the rights of citizens to freely express views related to issues of governance.
I trust that City Council and the City Manager will stand by this citizen, who has been working hard to make Boulder’s democracy less worthy of the curses I’m sure I and many others will end up hurling at it between now and November.
Okay, actually just kidding. I don’t trust them. Which is why you need to support this kind of outreach, and call bullshit on the people who want to shut it down: