At Lincoln House October 2014

Towards Habitat III

The number of people living in cities is expected to top 6 billion by 2050 - two-thirds of the projected global population of 9 billion. Yet approximately 1 billion people already live in slums, and rural migrants are moving directly into these areas of informal settlement every day, particularly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated three billion people will need housing, basic infrastructure, and services by 2030.

Last week about 100 thought leaders and practitioners from around the world gathered for the Urban Thinkers Campus, hosted by UN-HABITAT, to establish a framework for making these global cities more inclusive, resilient, and vibrant. The three-day forum was part of the run-up to Habitat III, the United Nations Housing and Sustainable Urban Development summit, to be held in 2016.

A Lincoln Institute delegation led a conversation about using value capture to finance infrastructure and urban development generally, underscoring the importance of land policy in the provision of affordable, serviced land. We summarized our assessment of efforts to improve slum conditions to date, such as awarding title in Peru or making targeted upgrading improvements in the favelas of Brazil, outlined in the report Regularization of Informal Settlements in Latin America. But the emphasis was on policies to redirect informality in the first place, through inclusionary housing, a form of which has been used in Chile, Community Land Trusts, betterment levies, and Brazil's zones of special social interest or ZEIS. We also shared the Atlas of Urban Expansion, a tool for tracking the growth of global cities that is set to be updated in 2015, to assist decision-makers in preparing for the massive influx of population in the years ahead.

The engagement at the Urban Thinkers Conference followed participation in CityLab 2014, hosted by The Atlantic, The Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, in Los Angeles at the end of last month. Richard Florida led a panel on the tough issues of gentrification and skyrocketing housing costs, noting that America's most successful metropolitan areas have inequality similar to many struggling third world cities. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke of deploying "urban acupuncture," and using technology to bring about a new sense of civic togetherness in the famously disparate metropolis. Other topics included the sharing economy, new forms of local manufacturing, promoting physical activity, innovation "SWAT teams" for city governments, big data, and aging in place.

And in between was the Meeting of the Minds in Detroit, an annual convening of practitioners, civic leaders, and technology innovators with which the Lincoln Institute has been longstanding partners. A highlight was a conversation with Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto and Rob van Gizjel, mayor of the Dutch city of Eindhoven, on the challenges of incremental change and big plans in Legacy Cities.

China's underground populace

The unsettling story of China's underground urban dwellers is told in the October issue of Land Lines. An estimated one million people are living in subterranean apartments in Beijing, where affordable housing near employment is scarce for the greater city's 23 million inhabitants, writes Annette M. Kim, associate professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, in Hidden City: Beijing's Subterranean Housing Market.

The underground homes are often windowless subdivisions in basements and air raid shelters, and the median size is 9.75 square meters. Some complexes contain as many as 600 units below street level, deep underground. In some areas of the city, particularly in the outer districts, conspicuous signs on the street advertise subterranean rentals, and advertisements proliferate on the Internet. Like most Chinese cities, Beijing suffers an acute shortage of affordable rental housing, driven by the massive migration to urban centers. Underground space is common, thanks in part from a policy dating to 1950 that requires all new buildings to have common basements and air defense shelters that include basic infrastructure such as electricity, water, and sewer. Desperate to address the housing deficit, Chinese officials actually encouraged the utilization of underground space, but then stopped sanctioning the practice in 2010.

There have been extraordinary accounts of people living on roofs and in sewer wells, trying to find a way to live in central Beijing, close to subway stops and within the 5th Ring Road, for shorter and money-saving commutes. Reliance on underground housing is another desperate measure by the urban poor who lack the means to acquire housing through "hukou," the official housing registration permit, Kim writes. The challenge of housing will intensify as Asian megacities continue to boom.

In pursuit of tax delinquents

It's a common phenomenon in many cities: unpaid tax bills pile up on deteriorating properties, but the enforcement process seldom results in prompt redevelopment. Emory law school professor Frank S. Alexander, co-founder of the Center for Community Progress, led a conversation about a more efficient, effective, and equitable system of delinquent tax enforcement in the kickoff earlier this month of the fall lecture series.

Delinquency rates of 2 or 10 percent impose disproportionate negative consequences on neighborhoods, communities, and local government fiscal solvency, Alexander said. Vacant and abandoned properties sit for too long, prompting a contagion effect. Speculators can move in to buy such properties, but play a waiting game in anticipation of a neighborhood rebound, so the sites remain fallow. Little is understood about the financial calculations of delayed enforcement, lack of enforcement, and the transfer of enforcement rights to private third parties. The recent economic recession and mortgage foreclosure crisis have renewed interest in the effects of broken property tax enforcement systems. "Our current system exacerbates the harm," he said.

Redevelopment, TIFs on tap

Alexander von Hoffman, senior fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, has been named a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, charged with developing a foundation for future work on redevelopment. He joins several other new visiting fellows studying such topics as value capture, TIFs, and global urbanization.

The author of House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods (Oxford University Press, 2003), von Hoffman will be researching a paper on lessons from redevelopment in the U.S., with a particular focus on the troubled cities of the 1970s, such as Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco. The factors leading to the recent trajectory of economic resurgence may inform how redevelopment is linked to recovery, for cities here and abroad.

In the current issue of the quarterly journal Land Lines, Lincoln Institute president George W. McCarthy explores the theme of redevelopment - improving land that is already developed or occupied - as the major planning and development challenge of the 21st century. The Lincoln Institute also announced these appointments:

  • David Vetter, a former vice president of Dexia Credit in Latin America, is a visiting fellow in the Latin America program, conducting research on value capture as a way to help finance Brazil's considerable urban infrastructure needs, seeking to define the dimensions of Brazil's urban infrastructure needs.
  • David Merriman, from the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at University of Illinois Chicago, is a visiting fellow in the Department of Valuation and Taxation, researching local and state-imposed business property taxes, economic efficiency, and the political economy of state business taxation. He will also research on tax increment financing and contribute to the Lincoln Institute database Significant Features of the Property Tax.
  • Enrique Silva, an assistant professor and program coordinator at the City Planning and Urban Affairs program at Boston University, has joined the Lincoln Institute as senior research associate in the Latin America program. An expert in comparative urbanization, metropolitan governance, and the institutionalization of planning practices in North and South America, he will supervise and evaluate research, and organize research seminars. He will present on new strategies to mitigate informal settlement at the Urban Thinkers Campus next week organized by UN-HABITAT.
  • Scott Campbell, executive director of the Palmer Land Trust in southern Colorado, is this year's Lincoln-Loeb Fellow, studying how conservation and natural resource allocations intersect.

Odds & Ends

Fellow Jim Levitt will open the National Workshop on Large Landscape Conservation beginning Thursday in Washington D.C., when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is a keynote ... Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form, received the prestigious Award of Fellowship at the Academy of Social Sciences ... The Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence is now accepting applications ... We were glad to be a partner in the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute's Annual Carver Colloquium at the University of Denver Law School earlier this month, on the topic of fracking and property rights ... An interesting municipal innovation: cities are deploying goats to keep green spaces tidy ... Next week in New Brunswick: Next steps for resilience, hosted by New Jersey Future October 30 ... This month's highlighted Working Paper is Urban Risk and Climate Change Adaptation in the Reconquista River Basin of Argentina, by Flavio Janches, Hayley Henderson, and Leslie MacColman.

— ANTHONY FLINT, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

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