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Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, by Charles Marohn Jr.

Along with the automobile, Detroit pioneered a new American way of living: the auto-dependent housing development consisting of single-family houses arrayed around cul-de-sac streets. After World War II, the Detroit model subdivision exploded into the suburbs around the country. A post-war return to normal life, federal subsidies for veterans and new highways leading out of town—all combined to create a huge boom in suburban housing demand. Aided by federal and local subsidies for utilities, developers could build complete huge new single-family housing subdivisions outside existing cities—such as the famous Levittowns. Middle class white families moved out into these shiny new developments, leaving behind poorer and often minority families in older inner-city neighborhoods.

Before that time, most houses were built one by one, adjoining or replacing existing housing. Neighborhoods therefore represented a mix of older and newer, smaller and larger buildings. Limited transportation kept housing relatively dense. The high density in turn made it inexpensive for city governments to maintain services—police, fire, garbage, schools—and infrastructure—roads, sidewalks, sewers, water supplies, and other utilities. Moreover, due to the mixed age of structures, there were not unexpected peaks in costs.

All that changed with the new subdivisions. At first, they generated substantial tax revenues, making cities eager to encourage and subsidize more of them by extending utilities. But this pattern of growth contained a fatal flaw: Because all the utilities and houses in a subdivision were built at the same time, they all aged at the same rate. After 25 years or so of fiscal surplus, costs began to rise steeply for repairing infrastructure. In wealthier subdivisions, the city could raise property taxes to cover costs. In ordinary middle-class subdivisions, when city maintenance lagged, those residents who could afford it moved to newer subdivisions further out, leaving shabby houses on crumbling streets inhabited by ever poorer and often minority residents. This happened first in Detroit, where huge areas now lie abandoned. It is now happening in inner suburbs around the nation. Yet as inner suburbs crumble, towns pursue the same old financial fix: subsidizing brand-new subdivisions on raw land.

Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis Missouri, makes a good example. In 1970 the population of some 29,000 was 99% white. By 2010, the population had fallen to 21,000, only 29% white. Ferguson came to national attention in 2014 when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, setting off widespread protests. Investigative reporters found that the financially-strapped local government, still largely run by white officials, funded itself in part by imposing fines on the poor residents for minor offenses like driving with a broken headlight, jailing them when they couldn’t pay. Ferguson turned out to typify many aging suburbs.

Today the tragedy comes full circle: the more affluent members of the younger generation are moving back into the run-down central city neighborhoods that their grandparents abandoned. In part, that’s because today’s families need both parents to work, making central locations more desirable. As these people return, they gentrify old neighborhoods, pricing out seniors as well as working-class or poorer residents. The local residents of course fight back, with rent control and severe restrictions on new construction or modifications of old buildings. New York City’s newly-fortified rent control laws essentially forbid landlords from raising rents to cover the cost of renovations. California has seen an explosion of homeless and “housing insecure” people, including people with steady jobs.

The author of Strong Towns (2019), Charles Marohn, is a civil engineer and planner. He began his career advising towns on how to attract and support those so-desirable new subdivisions. Eventually the numbers caught his attention, particularly the staggering cost of maintaining the infrastructure in aging single-family subdivisions. He came to recognize that much of this infrastructure was simply long run unsustainable, and that towns were committing financial suicide in their pursuit of “growth.”

Marohn also found that in their pursuit of “shiny and new,” towns may destroy the most financially productive parts of their tax bases. These are often not the most valuable properties, but roughly those that yield the most revenues per acre. He gives an example from his home town of Brainerd, Minnesota. There were two identical adjoining blocks in an area the town had labeled “blighted.” Aided by municipal subsidies, one block was razed and replaced with a Taco John’s franchise with plenty of parking. But while the Old and Blighted block had a tax value of $1.1 million, this Shiny and New block had a value of only $620,000. Moreover, Old and Blighted housed 11 small businesses with local owners plus 6 extra full-time workers. On Shiny and New, Taco John’s provided 20 to 25 part-time jobs. Not even new jobs, because Taco John’s had merely relocated from three blocks away.

Marohn advises towns first of all to prioritize maintenance of the most financially productive areas, whether blighted or not. As he writes, “Mow the grass. Sweep the streets. Patch the sidewalks. Pick up the trash. Fill the potholes…See a streetlight out: replace it. See a weed: pull it. See a crosswalk faded: repaint it…The neighborhoods that are generating such wealth for the community need to be showered with love.”

But then Marohn makes a recommendation that will shock most communities: reconsider the policies that restrict change and discourage denser development. Oversized new buildings pop up in the wrong places, he says, because it’s so difficult, time-consuming and expensive for developers to battle all the restrictions that when they do finally get a permit, they build as high as they can. Property owners, he says, should have the right to develop their properties to the next level without their neighbors’ permission. That is, an owner in a single-family neighborhood should have a right to install a mother-in-law unit, or even build two or three units. In a neighborhood of three units, owners should have a right to build low-rise apartment buildings. And so forth. Meantime, towns should scrap those off-street parking requirements, which waste land, raise housing costs and encourage reliance on cars.

In all his compelling case for allowing higher density, I wish Marohn had addressed the role of property taxes. As I wrote in How a Progressive Tax System Made Detroit a Powerhouse (and Could Again), a tax system that relies heavily on taxing land is both highly progressive and pro-density. Detroit collapsed not just due to unsustainable low density subdivisions, but also due to the loss of such a system. But the book is essential reading for local officials and all of us who love cities.

Marohn now spends his time on his Strong Towns non-profit media organization, setting up events and webinars to discuss growth, development and the future of cities.

This review appeared on Dollars and Sense on January 22, 2020.

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