The Post-Pandemic Future of Cities

Published at 08:39 on 30 April 2022

I basically predicted something like this would happen back in April, 2020, although as part of a post that exaggerated the total amount of coming economic disruption. I bet the same trend is happening in Canada, too, which is yet another reason (as if one is needed) to play it slow on any decision to purchase real estate anyplace in greater Vancouver.

One wrinkle I hadn’t completely foreseen (but probably should have) is the disconnect between commercial and residential real estate costs. It will be interesting to see how that one plays out. Hopefully, it will prove not too difficult to repurpose office buildings into residential ones, though the possibility of both regulations and architectural constraints largely preventing that cannot be discounted.

In the latter department, ultimately it wouldn’t stop the conversion any more than de-industrialization and just-in-time manufacturing stopped the conversion of vacant warehouse spaces to lofts, and the end result would, like lofts, be quirky spaces that initially appealed to artists and other creatives. Ultimately, however, can take a long time, so there may well be a prolonged period of high office vacancy rates coming.

There Will Be No Fast Recovery

Published at 09:00 on 22 April 2020

There is much debate among pundits as to whether we are now in a “V-shaped recession” or a “U-shaped recession.” The answer is neither, but particularly not the wished-for (short duration, quick recovery) V-shaped recession.

The reason is that this is not a typical recession. It was instigated by a pandemic, not by the more typical operations of the business cycle. There is no cure for the coronavirus, nor will there be for twelve to eighteen months at least.

The initial lockdowns will end, but that will not prompt a return to the old normal. The disease will still be out there, and it will keep flaring up from time to time, in various places. Each time that happens there will be a cycle of negative, confidence-sapping news stories followed by spate of necessary but costly social-distancing measures. Those measures won’t be so widespread as the present ones, but they will still be disruptive. There will be some recovery in the next six months (so, not U-shaped), but it will be only partial; the economic downturn will be far from over (not V-shaped, either).

There are whole categories of businesses whose models depend on large numbers of people congregating in one place that are not by any stretch of the imagination essential: sports stadiums, movie theatres, music venues, and so on. These are the last businesses that will be allowed to reopen; odds are that many of them won’t be allowed to do so until a vaccine is available.

By that time, the damage will have been done. Most of those businesses in the previous paragraph won’t be able to survive their prolonged shutdowns. They will fail, and after they fail, most will not come back. Cinemas, for instance, may become as unusual as coffeehouses once were in the USA: a cultural attraction that larger cities may have a few of, but which are absent from the vast majority of the country.

This is not a normal crisis that we are living through; this is a major crisis, on the scale of the two world wars. When you have a crisis this big, you don’t get the old normal back, ever. You get a new, different, post-crisis normal.

It’s not all gloom-and-doom, either. Two more likely victims of the coming permanent changes are urban gentrification and the decline of many small towns. Many of the professional class whose demand is responsible for skyrocketing urban real estate values don’t particularly even like the big cities their careers compel them to reside in. Widespread telework has been possible for well over a decade; the only thing stopping it was management inertia, and that inertia has now been dislodged. We’re unlikely to get the old normal of mandatory in-person office work back.

This will likely both take the pressure off urban real estate prices and act as an economic shot in the arm to many struggling rural areas, as formerly urban professionals relocate to them. (But not all of them, and not equally. Rural areas with abundant scenic and recreational opportunities will disproportionately benefit; Wyoming will fare better than Kansas. West Virginia, a scenic state not far from the Boston/Washington megalopolis, may be the biggest winner of all.)

Not just local economies will change in these states: politics likely will, as well. Those newcomers will take their politics with them, and will help their new home states become less right-wing over time. It’s already happened in Nevada, which used to be a reliably conservative state, and which now leans Democrat, thanks to millions of Californians moving to Las Vegas. (And if you think it far-fetched it might happen in Wyoming, check out how the county there most affected by people moving in for scenic and recreational opportunities, Teton, votes right now.)

The big cities, by contrast, will probably become affordable to many of those who have long been in danger of being priced out of them. This will happen at the expense of many real-estate speculators, who will find out that speculating in real estate is not a sure thing. Many of today’s upscale apartment buildings will become tomorrow’s downscale and affordable ones. It may become as much of a cultural trope for urban artists to reside in battered apartments that were once luxurious (possibly large funky ones created by knocking down walls from adjoining units) as it once was for them to reside in lofts converted from industrial spaces.

But, whether the changes are for the better or for the worse, they are coming. What is not coming back is the old, pre-COVID normal (and it is certainly not coming back quickly).

Frustrated With the Left (Particularly Liberals)

Published at 10:14 on 19 December 2016

The frustration is the general lack of activity in regards to the threat Trump poses. Attitudes tend to range from fatalism to denial (the latter typically accompanied by attempts at normalization of the situation). I am not alone; those I have met who agree the situation is urgent are also frustrated at this same thing.

Part of it, particularly amongst liberals, may be the desire to avoid facing painful and unpleasant realizations about one’s own worldview. Realizations such as:

  • Liberals have been wrong about the right to keep and bear arms. Arming oneself is wise in the present situation, and it is dangerous that those on the Left have generally eschewed doing so, resulting in a situation where those who most need to be able to defend themselves now tend to have the least ability to do so.
  • “Urban liberal elitism” is not just a meaningless buzz-phrase lobbed by conservatives. It is very much a real thing which has caused very real problems. There is a lot of despair outside of liberal urban bubbles which privileged urban liberals haven’t been good at all at acknowledging. This has motivated the despairing to back a fascist demagogue.
  • Liberal politics has been insufficiently class conscious, because identity politics has substituted for class politics. (Note that identity politics is a good thing, but it’s no substitute for class politics. Both are needed.) This problem is most acute at the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, but many Democrats in the base have accepted it in the name or realpolitik, setting aside their own personal beliefs. Again, this has created despair which Trump has exploited.

The first two in particular tend to be painful and inconvenient for many liberals to face. But facing them must be done.

Facing ones’ own faults may be hard, but in that difficulty lies a silver lining: because the faults are one’s own, one doesn’t need to get any other side’s buy in to fix them, therefore they are relatively easy and simple to correct. If, that is, one is honest and faces them.

A Group Dedicated to Housing Sanity in San Francisco?

Published at 08:57 on 16 February 2015

While this group does actually get it that restrictions on adding supply (in the face of a robust local economy that is adding jobs lie crazy) is at the root of the problem, and that’s  refreshing change, they are also quite ideologically biased in ways I disagree with.

Just look a the first link on their site, and how their “forum” was basically a discussion between different sides of the development industry. At least one of their speakers was pretty open about wanting to get rid of zoning entirely.

I’ll agree that present-day zoning codes have a lot of problems and do make housing needlessly more expensive as well as mandating ecological irresponsibility.

But zoning exists for a reason; there really are such a thing as incompatible land uses. One of my memories of living in Oakland was running into a mostly residential neighborhood where there was an elementary school and a factory on the same block. The factory was served by a rail spur that ran down the middle of the (otherwise residential) street right in front of the school. If I had children, I would not want them walking to school or playing in a neighborhood where multi-ton trains regularly come trundling down the street. I wouldn’t want to live right in the shadow of a noisy, polluting industrial facility, either.

I believe there is a valid public purpose in stopping more such things from happening. I also believe it’s possible to do so without going to the extremes that most zoning codes go to. One doesn’t need to put that factory many miles away from housing; on the other side of a wide arterial with a buffer a couple blocks of commercial and light industrial uses would suffice very nicely. The residential area could have a mix of single-family homes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings (with corner markets here and there) instead of being mandated by law to be nothing but single-family detached homes.

Said arterial could have bus or light rail service which would serve all of the residential, commercial, and industrial uses nearby. The factory workers who wouldn’t be walking to work could take transit there.

There is a place for zoning, and it is promoting general health and safety. Where zoning goes wrong is when it is used to promote elitism (“I am superior and do not want to live anywhere near those blue-collar renters”) and micromanagement of others’ lives (“How dare Emma build a cottage in her back yard, move into it, and have her adult daughter, his husband, and child move into the main house; I like my large home and backyard and Emma should be forced to live as I prefer.”)

And there’s also a great deal of property rights and capitalism fetishism going on in that group. It’s founder is largely pissed that she is missing out on the ability to speculate in real estate and profit from unearned income. The whole problem how it is precisely home ownership coupled with this desire which creates perverse incentives for existing residents to support overly-restrictive zoning codes (because it increases the value of their home) is ignored.

So, no, it’s not sanity, not overall. But it may still play a part in more sane policies being adopted by helping to undermine some of the supply restrictions.