The status quo is a choice, too

As Wellington (and other Ao-NZ) towns start to realise the importance of living in better density, and changing how we use our streets, the forces of “No!” gather quickly. But as Strong Towns’ Daniel Herrige writes, we must beware the deliberate, often bad choice to prefer the status quo over any change.

[Note: minor typos fixed and pictures added by Talk Wellington]

The Wall Street Journal recently reported some truly depressing statistics about black homeownership in America, which has fallen to the lowest rate on record. Yes, in 2019.

While Hispanic homeownership rate is on the rise, the black homeownership rate has fallen 8.6 percentage points since its peak in 2004, hitting its lowest level on record in the first quarter of this year, according to census data…. Analysts say black communities have struggled to recover financially since the housing crisis, which has kept homeownership out of reach. 

The news gets worse, at least for anyone who thinks that the opportunity to save for retirement and build intergenerational wealth, as white Americans have largely been able to do (with homeownership as the most prominent mechanism), should be available in equal measure to other Americans, too: 

Homes in neighborhoods with a high concentration of white borrowers on average have seen their homes appreciate 3% from 2006 through 2017, according to the study. However, homes in neighborhoods with a concentration of black borrowers on average are worth 6% less than they were in 2006. High-income black borrowers have concentrated in neighborhoods where homes have lost 2% of their value, compared with white borrowers, who have concentrated in neighborhoods where homes have appreciated 5%.

I think about statistics like this when I think about a common critique of zoning reform to allow more homes in more places, which is that we don’t know how it will affect vulnerable communities: low-income people, people of color, and people in gentrifying areas susceptible to displacement. In California, this has been a flash point in the debate around the dead-for-now statewide upzoning bill, SB50, which would have required cities to allow a much greater density of homes near transit stations. In Austin, Texas, anti-displacement activists and wealthy homeowners alike helped kill a zoning code overhaul, CodeNEXT, in 2018. Many of them focused on the uncertainty about CodeNEXT’s future effects—even while pro-CodeNEXT advocates observed that the existing system in Austin “has been a major catalyst for gentrification and displacement.”

There are two similar-sounding arguments in this vein, one legitimate and one made, I believe, in bad faith. The legitimate one goes like this:

We should make sure that people who have historically been shut out of the political process get their voices heard, and their needs accounted for, in policy making. We should obtain solid evidence on how proposed reforms might affect these communities, and not enact policies that are likely to make existing disparities worse.

The bad-faith one goes more like this:

The effects of upending decades of housing policy are just too uncertain. It’s too dangerous an experiment; if we don’t have 100% certainty that changing our zoning codes will be good for these vulnerable communities, we shouldn’t make any changes.

The reason this is a bad-faith argument is made clear by the kind of statistics I quoted from the WSJ at top. We don’t know with certainty how the effects of housing reform are going to fall out. But we know how the effects of the housing status quo are falling out, and it’s not good for a large swath of Americans, who are excluded from opportunity already. 

The existing system directs colossal subsidies at propping up the suburban development pattern and reserves most of America’s residential land for single-family homes exclusively. We do this, ostensibly, based on arguments about the social value of homeownership and its importance as a wealth-building tool.  And yet in the existing system, homeownership is dramatically failing a huge cross-section of Americans as a wealth-building tool.

“I choose this”

A similar argument extends to other issues. How many people died in traffic last year in the United States? (Answer: 40,000.) How many were injured? (Answer: 4.5 million.) How many of those killed by drivers were on foot at the time? (Answer: 6,227, the highest in three decades.)

We should treat this as an ongoing emergency. It should be the number one focus of discussions about how we design our streets and get around our cities. And yet when changes to our streets are proposed—a road diet, a protected bike lane, a roundabout—public debate tends to center around any uncertainty about the effects of the change.

What if traffic becomes more congested as a result of this? Do we have accurate projections?

What about this study I’ve seen suggesting that protected bike lanes aren’t always safer?

There are a lot of elderly drivers in this area who might be confused by roundabouts. Sure, you have statistics about their safety benefits elsewhere, but have they been sufficiently studied here

We should probably hold off on any change until we’ve eliminated all uncertainty about what the effects will be, say, invariably, those who are most comfortable with the status quo and have the least to lose from blocking change.

The status quo is not neutral. The status quo is also a choice.

The places we’ve built are killing us. They’re also bankrupting us. A $21 billion infrastructure deficit in Illinois; $14 billion in Louisiana. Only 30% of Phoenix’s streets are in good condition. And the fallout of this widespread insolvency, or soft default, isn’t just going to look like tax hikes. It’s going to be uglier. It might look like unresponsive 911 services. It might look like Flint, Michigan’s lead-tainted water crisis, replicated in one community after another.

The status quo is a choice.

Why am I delivering this litany of bad news? Because we should wake up every day and be uncomfortable with the way things are. We should not view it as acceptable. We certainly should not treat it as the presumed default in discussions of urban policies or plans that will affect what the next half-century looks like.

Yet we do. We treat the way things are right now as the default, and we allow those who are most comfortable with the way things are now to put the onus on advocates of change to defend that change, and to convince the public that it’s non-threatening.

But the status quo, when it comes to zoning and what we allow to be built, is not inherently normal or divinely ordained or the result of universal revealed preferences made manifest. The status quo is the result of very deliberate policy choices. And the burden shouldn’t fall exclusively on critics of those choices to prove them wrong.

Iterating our way to Better

Abandoning status-quo bias doesn’t mean that we embrace a politics of Blow Everything Up, Ask Questions Later. On the contrary: this is one of the key reasons for Strong Towns’s advocacy of incrementalism, which is often misunderstood as “be hyper-cautious and change-averse; take only the smallest and most inconsequential actions.”

What we really mean is that policy change ought to look like Silicon Valley-style rapid prototyping: thousands of small, low-risk, localized experiments which are quick to implement and which we can quickly learn from and make adjustments. When we return decision-making and levers of power (and funding) to the local level, we start to make policy informed by on-the-ground struggles. We can iterate our way to a world that improves on the one we’ve got. And that process won’t look the same everywhere.

We’re going to need to learn to be comfortable with a bit of chaos, as the suburban experiment continues to fracture. It’s a bit scary. But so is the way things are now. Let’s stop allowing those most comfortable with the status quo, and those with the least skin in the game where its downsides are concerned, to claim the high ground of being cautious and (small-c) conservative. They haven’t earned it.

Stokes Croft, by Agnès Lapin

This post was originally published on Strong Towns. See the original here

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Image credits:

  • Banner image – various places on the internet.
  • NIMBY/YIMBY – Cole Burston – Toronto Star
  • Street art in Stokes Croft – Agnès Lapin / The Independent

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