Government Land Policy & YIMBY Together for Affordable Housing
This week, we chat with Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
We discuss how government land policies can artificially restrict land usage limiting density and therefore leading to artificial inflation of land values. Not only does it lead to skyrocketing housing costs, but a smaller tax base, underutilization of space, and greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.
We also talk a bit about the YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) movement, and how it takes concerned citizens to help shape government policy. Is there too much government interference? Mr. Flint has an interesting insight into that as well.
For more information about land policy, you can visit the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy.
Finally, feel free to learn more about Anthony Flint.
Mauricio Chacra: [00:00:00] Alright. Alright. Welcome back to another episode of the Doublewide Dudes. We’re still continuing the podcast over zoom and trying to continue the social distancing as much as possible. We’re continuing the conversation on land policy and affordable housing. In our previous episode, Professor Mandelker recommended that we talk to today’s guest, Anthony Flint.
Alberto Pina: [00:00:27]
We looked up some of your accolades, Mr. Flint, and it’s a very extensive resume. So, I’m just going to breeze through some of the highlights here, introduce you to our listeners.
You are the senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which is a think tank that specializes in urban planning, housing infrastructure and global urbanization. You’re also the editor and contributor to their magazine Landlines, been in journalism a little over 30 years, writing for the Boston Globe, Atlantic City Lab and many others, authored several books, and been a policy advisor on smart growth for the state of Massachusetts.
You’ve been a fellow at the Harvard design school, the Rockefeller foundation, American Library in Paris, and a curator and speaker at TEDx Beacon Street.
You guys also have your own podcast, Land Matters, where you just covered a topic we’re going to dive into a little bit today, which is how this pandemic we’re all living through is going to affect housing moving forward. There’s a million other things. But I think if we kept going, I don’t know if we’d have time for the podcast. So, thank you for joining us.
Anthony Flint: [00:01:35] Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Alberto Pina: [00:01:37] If you could, just educate us and our listeners a little bit more on what the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy is and how you serve the communities.
Anthony Flint: [00:01:49] Well, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy is a nonprofit private operating foundation. We’re a think tank, essentially, based in Cambridge, but we really have a global footprint worldwide, very active in Latin America and China and Europe, starting to do some work in Africa.
But we started as the vision of John C Lincoln, who was an inventor, became a very wealthy man and became interested in the ideas of Henry George, who wrote about land use and real estate and different ways of taxing land. John C Lincoln created the Lincoln foundation in 1946 and then in 1974, his son David Lincoln, created the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
So, we look at land use, at taxation, ultimately all the ways that land and land policy is sort of underneath the most pressing issues of our day. So, we do a lot of work in sustainable cities, affordable housing, regenerating legacy cities, older post-industrial cities, and of course looking at slums and informal settlement worldwide. And then the big issue, climate change, where, we are very active in the land dimensions of climate change. So, for example, resilience and reconfiguring the coastline, doing buyouts if necessary, and using natural systems like green infrastructure and also how to pay for it.
So, we’re pretty all-encompassing in terms of our concern and promotion about sustainable cities, and affordable housing and a better quality of life and getting through all of that.
Alberto Pina: [00:03:52] Definitely right up the alley of what we’re looking to cover here on the podcast. How did you yourself get involved with that, Anthony?
Anthony Flint: [00:04:00] Well, I’ve been a journalist most of my life and I started writing about real estate and development and urban planning and urban design and architecture. And I did a fellowship at Harvard called the LOEB fellowship. Got a little more background in all of these issues regarding the built environment and housing and transportation and how it all comes together.
So, I was writing about that for a long time. My first book was called This Land and it was all about sprawl and smart growth. And then I actually went into state government for a bit advising in what was essentially a smart growth office under governor Mitt Romney at the time in Massachusetts. And then went from there to the Lincoln Institute, where I’ve continued to, do writing and research. And, I wrote another book about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Then still another about the pioneer modernist architect Le Corbusier.
And throughout, I’ve just maintained this kind of fascination with human settlement and how we live and how we build cities and how they can be better for more people, and how people can be properly sheltered with services for a better urban future. So, I just got interested in all of that and I just stayed with it.
Mauricio Chacra: [00:05:34]
It’s interesting to think about the combination between the land and affordable housing, and as well as the climate change, right? But we focus on affordable housing ourselves and that’s our expertise and our background.
So, combining all three and knowing that it’s a three part where land is probably the primary factor of what you have to figure out first before the affordable housing. But we keep hearing affordable housing is a crisis. Who would you say gets hurt by this insufficient affordable housing? Is it just the poor, is it the general public? How would you say it affects the overall population?
Anthony Flint: [00:06:18] Well, there’s no question that low income families and minorities are on the front lines in the day to day of this housing crisis. It’s only been made more intense recently, but it’s also what a lot of urbanists talk about, this idea of the missing middle. And so, it’s also sort of working and middle class families. They’re finding it impossible to get decent, affordable housing in many of our cities, particularly the hot market cities like Seattle or San Francisco or New York, I would include Boston, Washington, D. C.
So, it’s a range of people that are being affected by this. And the wealthy among us, are doing just fine. And of course, many are looking at real estate as more of an investment. So, some of these luxury apartments and towers in Boston and New York, and a lot of other places are actually unoccupied because it’s an investment based on real estate speculation.
And it’s a pretty good deal, if you have the wealth to make those kinds of investments. And there are wealthy people who are flocking to cities, or say, retiring, aging baby boomers and others who had been flocking to cities for all the amenities.
It just keeps driving the price up, so that these cities are just very expensive places. And some would say in some ways they’re playgrounds for the rich. Everyone else, but the very wealthy, I would say in answer to your question.
Mauricio Chacra: [00:08:10] We’re seeing a lot of that in Austin. The people from California moving to Austin and taking over. The standards in Texas, or at least what we’re used to here in the San Antonio and Austin area, within the past five or ten years, the pricing almost doubled in that area. I think there’s a big, big situation in affordable housing there. I think some of that’s going to pour into our area here.
Alberto Pina: [00:08:35] Aside from individuals being affected, how does a lack of affordable housing impact communities as a whole?
Anthony Flint: [00:08:44] Well, just recently with the coronavirus, we’ve seen how so many jobs, mostly in the service economy, but others as well, like driving a bus or operating the subway, police and firefighters, teachers… All those folks need decent, affordable housing within some reasonable proximity to their work in the urban core. So, folks have had to go further and further out. It raises all kinds of transportation issues with how they get to work. So really, we’re talking about the basic functioning of a city and whether that can be sustainable when the only affordable housing is far outside of the city.
It’s all about a kind of balance or diversity, a socioeconomic diversity. It makes for a more balanced community. And of course, not just the rich or the poor someplace, you want to have a range of housing options, so that people can participate in the urban economy, wherever they’re at. Lower down on the ladder or further up.
Alberto Pina: [00:10:10] And you mentioned the missing middle. What we saw in West Texas right before the collapse of oil, was jobs like teachers or first responders. When people think of affordable housing, those are usually not occupations that they think of in light of that conversation. But out there because of oil workers and their ability to pay more for a place to live than maybe a teacher could, they got to a point where teachers were having to live in hotels. And we’ve seen in other places, Austin, San Antonio, where it’s almost this drive till you qualify, right?
Keep going until you find a place inexpensive enough that you can live. But then when you factor in time and the cost of gas, throwing that on top of your mortgage, that’s not really an affordable solution either.
You’ve written about easing the problem of affordable housing by increasing the supply, mentioning tiny homes, ADU’s, can you tell our audience more about that and how you see that being the solution to this problem?
Anthony Flint: [00:11:19] I think, with some humility, I would say that it is low hanging fruit. There are different aspects to this increased supply argument, and I’m sure we’ll talk about that, but if you just look at accessory dwelling units, that is affordable housing, hiding in plain sight.
And the only reason that it’s not more available is that over time, different neighborhoods have become very guarded and worried about congestion and parking and density. So, all these rules and regulations have kind of ossified over the years, and they’re not permitted. They’re illegal in Boston and many other places.
There’s a really severe regulatory regime against these accessory dwelling units. Now that can be like a carriage house, a basement, an apartment over a garage, a granny flat, in-law apartment or a new tiny house built in a backyard with enough space. And, I think recently it’s been really eye opening to see how, if you loosen these regulations or repeal them, in many cases you’re changing the rules of the game. It’s really boring and has to do with zoning and building codes.
But once you do that, that teacher can move into that carriage house for a little bit less money, and it’s just a textbook example of instantly providing more supply and more varying options, because a lot of people don’t need a lot of space. And if there’s one more family that can get decent shelter, I think that’s a success.
Mauricio Chacra: [00:13:24] Could some of the structures, like container homes, be an example of an ADU as well?
Anthony Flint: [00:13:31] Yes, absolutely. And, manufactured homes, modular homes, it’s a different sort of categorization, but I put it together with accessory dwelling units because I think we need to be more imaginative when we think about housing and making sure that there’s this ample supply of different kinds of housing.
And we’ve seen how people don’t need a lot of space. The demographics are changing. It’s no longer two parents, two kids and a dog. Singles are going to be a much bigger part of the demographic in the future. Professionals without kids don’t need as much space.
Retiring baby boomers are certainly finding this out. And so, let’s think about the market differently. Let’s think about these different kinds of housing options in a fresh way, and kind of put the past behind us in terms of how some of these housing options have been viewed in the past, with disdain or people not being comfortable with this or that. Container housing- bring it on is what I say! In appropriate locations and urban locations. Let’s get more imaginative and creative.
Mauricio Chacra: [00:15:00] Traditionally, stick built houses. This is how construction was done for many years. And now with the advances in technology and manufacturing and industry, these builders can do so much more with the tools that they have now. It’s hard to break that timeline of what a house should be, right?
And then people in positions of policy, all that just kind of ties into stigma of that NIMBY solution of “not in my backyard”. They’ll go, “yeah, we can have that, but not here”. In our experience. Alberto and I, it’s mainly manufactured housing. And you’re doing the land policy and tiny houses and ADU’s. Are they suffering from the same stigma?
Anthony Flint: [00:15:55] I think manufactured homes have that stigma, unfortunately. I think that’s changing somewhat as the construction, and the design and the efficiency and including environmental and energy efficiency gets better and better. I think there’ll be more acceptance, but there’s such a terrible lag because the local land use and building codes are geared to that perception in the past, of “well, nobody wants that kind of housing anywhere near them”. And so that’s what local governments stick with.
I know here in Massachusetts, that’s been a big problem. Governor Baker has had a housing bill, can’t ever quite get it passed, but it’s essentially breaking down the different forms that housing can take and setting the regulatory agenda accordingly to allow more variety, while still leaving all of it in the hands of local government.
Because, I don’t know about in Texas, but local control on land use and building is very important. So, there’s gotta be a way to maintain that and yet still have people kind of get with the times. Times have changed and there’s different kinds of housing that can be built and can be very attractive.
Alberto Pina: [00:17:45] I know one thing we see, down here in Texas through our work with families, occasionally we’ll run across a deed that hasn’t been updated in eighty to a hundred years. Just recently a customer bought a piece of land where in that land deed, it’s specifically mandated that any buyer of a home in that subdivision had to be a Caucasian male. And of course, times have dramatically changed since those deeds were written. Do you think this “not in my backyard” kind of mindset that we run into just as much in Texas as I’m sure in Massachusetts, is that more about the people that local residents think come with that house or is it about the house itself?
Anthony Flint: [00:18:34] I think a lot of what’s behind the “not in my backyard” trend or phenomenon is a concern about property values and quality of life. And in that regard, sort of mundane things like parking or traffic congestion, or too many families or too many kids. So, the kids go attend the schools and then taxes might go up. So, it’s really quite provincial, or ground level, concerns.
But ultimately, and you see this particularly in the Bay area, what you’ve got is the existing homeowners are sitting on incredibly valuable real estate and by blocking any further development they are keeping their own home values quite high- I would argue artificially high in many cases.
And they’re preserving their neighborhoods like it was in amber, or under glass. So, it’s really an amazing dynamic. And because a lot of these people, they’re highly educated, upper middle class, and they’re fighting this fight now.
The racial dimension kind of looms over all of this. So yes, when you see the opposition to the idea of more heightened density being allowed at transit stations, some of that is a concern. I mean, it seems so dated and, and terrible to so many of us, but there are these odd perceptions about different kinds of people that would be moving into the neighborhood. So unfortunately, there is a little bit of that. Well, there is a lot of that.
Alberto Pina: [00:20:46] And it seems like if you’re worried about taxes going up or not enough teachers, if there’s more people sharing the pie, then there’s more people paying their share of those taxes, which means more money coming into the cities.
One thing we’ve talked about on previous episodes, are all of these infill lots that have remained vacant for decades, which, is a lost opportunity for tax revenue to help improve schools, help hire more teachers, to solve some of these problems that it seems like from talking with you are what are preventing the existing folk from wanting more people to come into their neighborhoods. So, it seems like they’re blocking a potential solution through that train of thought.
Anthony Flint: [00:21:35] If you think about just the vacant land that is actually government owned, that is owned by the transit system in a given city, it’s really amazing. You know, you’ve got a parking lot next to a transit station, a Bart station or a T station.
It would require some zoning changes in some cases, but it would be pretty easy to build some good multifamily housing. It could be market rate, all kinds of different ways you could do it. The government owning the land is a big plus. In so many instances, there’s just this fierce opposition to any change.
I guess what’s frustrating about it is that it’s almost like people would prefer the parking lot. These transit nodes are just the perfect place to build more housing and increase supply.
Mauricio Chacra: [00:22:38] I know one of the solutions to create affordable housing is mandatory inclusionary housing. Can you tell our listeners what that is and how it works?
Anthony Flint: [00:22:50] Yeah. We have reports available on our website about inclusionary housing. It’s a survey of this policy, across the country. We also have some papers on how it’s worked all around the world. And the basic idea is you build new residential development, you gotta have a certain percentage, say 15%, that is “affordable”. And that usually means for families making 80% of area median income. So, it is a market-based solution. Developers generally chafe at it, but there has been some acceptance as long as the policy can be consistent. There are different markets that you’ve got to consider.
It’s going to be different in San Francisco than it is in Atlanta in terms of the percentage of affordable homes that can be included. But there’s one kind of philosophical foundation for inclusionary housing or inclusionary zoning, as it’s sometimes referred to, and that is anytime there’s been any up-zoning or a zoning change that allows for more multifamily, for a bigger building envelope- sometimes this is referred to as a density bonus- if government allows developers to build more housing, they can make more money. And that’s where we see the obligation to provide some portion of that development as affordable housing. Otherwise they’re enjoying a kind of a windfall that’s created for them by a zoning change. They get the zoning change that allows them to, you know, make more profits. And this way with inclusionary housing, it’s kind of a return to the public, where that increase in value really originated, if you think about it.
The government action, public investment in infrastructure, for example, all those things are public actions and investments that increase value for private landowners and developers. And so inclusionary housing is one way to harness or to retrieve some of that increased value that many would argue was the public’s all along.
Alberto Pina: [00:25:33] So basically, a way to allow developers to still profit but kinda have to be in a position to where they need to return something back to the community that gave up this public land to allow them to develop whatever it was.
Anthony Flint: [00:25:47] Or whatever it was. I mean, it was a zoning change in Minneapolis. They paved the way for a lot more multifamily housing. Multifamily housing on a smaller lot can be more profitable.
So that government action is unlocking this ability to make more money. And so, an inclusionary housing requirement, for just a little bit more affordability, in these projects over time. The projection is that it will marble in some more socioeconomic balance in our cities.
Now, I should say the criticism of inclusionary housing is that because the affordability requirements are 15% or something like that, that we’ll never get to a good place. So, it will be like the red queen, you know, we’ll never catch up. Because only that fraction of the new development is in fact, affordable, and sustainably affordable.
So, we’ve got to do other things. But inclusionary housing is a decent tool in the toolbox, and it has this grounding in terms of value capture and the ways that government creates value for developers, as its foundation.
Alberto Pina: [00:27:24] One thing we’ve learned in the startup world, the enemy of innovation is waiting for perfection. So even though this may not be the perfect solution, getting started in that direction is, is definitely critical.
Down here in Texas, one thing we’ve seen, you know, even from folks that are pro affordable housing, is just kind of a backlash to having the government get involved with any of this, more seeing it as an intrusion.
Do you think the free market can do this on its own, or is it necessary to have the government get involved, to start building more of these inclusionary housing developments?
Anthony Flint: [00:28:07] Well, I think there’s a real misapprehension about the extent to which government is involved currently.
So, the government builds a road that enables you to get to your subdivision. They build water and sewer. The government’s already involved, and they’ve been giving these things away, more or less, to the private sector for a long time. In more urban settings when you have this vacant land, you do a zoning change. Here in Massachusetts, we’re extending our subway system with the green line through Somerville; [it’s] gonna go right through Somerville, a very dense place, but most of the stations are going to be at former factory sites. They’re like abandoned factories. It is pure city building where you build a new subway line and have transit-oriented development all around the stations.
Government’s already involved by creating all of that. So, what we’re talking about with things like inclusionary housing is just too have more of a say in what kind of development that is and the different kinds of people like that can afford it ultimately. So, I guess my main point is that government’s already involved by providing all this infrastructure and doing all the zoning.
Alberto Pina: [00:29:45] And one thing, just to go off script a little bit, back to your earlier point of global warming, if we are building housing in general, whether it’s inclusionary multifamily, just housing in general around these transit hubs, then we are able to help city residents cut down on their time spent in a vehicle, which is, I’m assuming cutting down on exhaust, which in theory should cut down on global warming. Is that a double win there, when we are building housing around these transit hubs?
Anthony Flint: [00:30:23] Absolutely. They’re smart growth locations. They just make all kinds of sense. Again, if there’s vacant land, especially by a subway station, transit-oriented development, it doesn’t always work perfectly but that is a tried and true smart growth approach to city building and creating more housing. And also, commercial and retail, just incredible success all around the country, all around the world based on the simple notion of transit-oriented development. And yes, it is good for the climate. Cities generally are good for the climate crisis in that they are very energy efficient places to live, and the transit systems that are enabled by greater density, are a very green way to live in the end.
Mauricio Chacra: [00:31:16] That affects the most important part of our community, the driving forces. Everyone that helps the transport industry, the medical care, education, all that, you know, that have these set salaries or that have a better lifestyle with more affordability. It all ties into it. So, I think it’s a great idea. I guess with times now with the whole COVID thing going on, what changes do you see in the affordable housing discussion and how do you think we move forward from here?
Anthony Flint: [00:31:49] Well, building on the environmental concerns, the solution for affordable housing for so many people, working class, middle class, lower income folks, in Texas this has definitely been true, has been sprawl. That’s where the affordable housing is. And if you can afford a car or lease a car and you can afford the gas, yes, it’s a hit on the family budget, but living 30, 40, 50 miles or more outside of the urban core in a single-family subdivision… That’s the affordable housing solution.
And as we’ve seen, the transit-oriented development or more urban living can just be prohibitively expensive. Now with COVID-19, you got a whole slew of other considerations, and I think it’s going to make the discussion about housing and urbanism that much more complicated.
I think that cities are resilient places. There could be some transformations to come out of this. One of the ways I think that’s helpful to look at it is through the framework of mega regions, or just thinking about different regions in countries. So, think about the Northeast from Washington to Boston. Or the Pacific Northwest or say all around Chicago.
Interestingly, many of the governors of the States have actually banded together to deal with COVID-19 and coordinate recovery. But if we thought more on that kind of reasonable basis, maybe it’ll open up the housing and labor markets in new ways. And, if somebody can live in a more affordable place in Hartford, Connecticut, and do business in Boston and New York, and be able to get to those bigger cities with decent high-speed rail, for example, you know, that could really change the landscape.
So, I think it’s a moment where these kinds of transformations hopefully will happen in the near term. I think we’ve seen this narrative that density is dangerous or that, you know, who wants city living anymore? The restaurants aren’t open, and you have to be in an elevator with somebody.
It’s a real problem, near term. But I think what the COVID-19 crisis also does is reveal in so many ways, all of the inequities and deep-seated problems, that we have in our society, and that would include housing. So, it might force a fresh look at all of those issues.
Alberto Pina: [00:34:59] One thing we’ve seen down here in San Antonio, with kids having to do school from home, one thing I think a lot of us just kind of take for granted is access to internet and the fact that we can even be having this conversation over zoom with high speed internet, is actually a luxury that this whole COVID-19 crisis exposed here in our city.
The local school districts are really just scrambling, just like a lot of parts are to come up with solutions. But they are actively working to get high speed internet, at least in the parking lots of these communities that don’t have access to internet for now. So, I do think you’re right.
This whole pandemic situation is going to expose a lot of problems. And I think America as a whole is really good at finding solutions once we know what the problems are. And you guys just did a podcast five days ago, and we will put the link to that in our show notes, The Future of Cities in this Pandemic, because I think we could do a whole other podcast on that. But you guys already did. So, we will link to that for our listeners.
For the average citizen that is wanting to help their community implement sustainable solutions for the affordable housing crisis, where can they go to learn more and, and how do they get involved to be part of the solution?
Anthony Flint: [00:36:26] Well, I think one good thing about the so-called YIMBY movement, you can have all kinds of criticisms about the YIMBY movement which is, “yes, in my backyard”, but one positive has been the way that more people, younger professionals or millennials even, have actually gotten involved and gotten more in touch with their neighborhoods and communities. It’s been a truism that a lot of projects get shot down because it’s the people against it that show up for the boring public hearings, or whatever at four o’clock on a Wednesday. Right? And, I think that using technology more as this current crisis has, has really revealed, and using apps and getting organized with Facebook groups and all these other kinds of ways is that you can really get involved a lot easier in some ways these days. And so, I think that that’s what it takes.
It can start with a Google search, and then before you know it, there’s a Facebook group that is trying to promote more affordable housing in your town. And they’ll get together virtually, and maybe, that way you can get behind legislation or a local ordinance, so, for example, to legalize accessory dwelling units. We saw this in the nearby community of Newton, Massachusetts. All the residents learned more about this, and they got behind the local government’s efforts to loosen the absurd restrictions on accessory dwelling units.
So that’s just one small example where you can get involved. It’s really about democracy and local government, and you can get involved. And, together, I think people are a more powerful force to call for changes, even if it’s just incremental change, because they’re concerned about the diversity or lack thereof in their own communities.
Alberto Pina: [00:38:46] Yeah, that’s great feedback. And I think that is going to be one of these other positives that comes as a result of this lockdown that the whole country is going through now. Even the Supreme court is streaming their arguments, which is something society’s never been able to peek under the hood of. So that is definitely some great feedback on how we can all get involved if we choose to help solve this problem.
Thank you for joining us. You know, I think we’ve had some of the best guests ever as a result of this pandemic because it’s forced us to have to do zoom calls. So definitely thank you for joining us.
If our audience is interested in learning more about the Lincoln Institute and reading the research and things that you all continue to come out with, where can they find that?
Anthony Flint: [00:39:35] Well, the website is https://www.lincolninst.edu/.
We’re on Twitter. The handle is @landpolicy, so that’s pretty easy to remember. and then of course on Facebook. We are constantly communicating about the new reports and findings that we’re coming out with. We’re adjusting all of our work to confront the current crisis.
And then of course, the looming climate crisis as well. So, we’ve been trying to stay very active and really have impact, on the ground. Help practitioners like urban planners with technical assistance and looking at best practices. So, one way or the other, you’ll find that a resource like this, and we’re one of several, is really instrumental. The role that a nonprofit profit can play is really instrumental and, and we’re really proud to do that.
Mauricio Chacra: [00:40:44] Awesome. You can also catch the conversations on Anthony’s podcast. Land Matters. That’s over on iTunes and all the platforms there.
Anthony Flint: [00:40:54] Yes. And, we have our quarterly magazine Landlines and that has got a bunch of digital articles and every time I drop a show we do a Landlines article on the digital platform that kind of sums it up and teases it, and also allows you to click through to however you listen to podcasts.
Mauricio Chacra: [00:41:21] Awesome. Well, thank you for your time, Anthony. We really appreciate the knowledge and information you shared with us today. That does it for today’s episode, guys. As always, thanks for listening and we’ll catch you on the next one.