Abundant Housing Massachusetts Meets Strong Towns in Cincinnati

“YES” is deeply encoded in Strong Towns. I’d love to see more dialogue between the two movements. I love the idea that a Strong Towns advocate can plug into a network and a support system like Abundant Housing in Massachusetts to help guide some of those energies.”

-Daniel Herriges

By Joyce Mandell

In May, Kassie Infante, AHMA’s Associate Director of Operations,  Molly Goodman, AHMA’s Board President and I headed for a Cincinnati, Ohio adventure.  Kassie and Molly attended a training of the Incremental Development Alliance to learn the nuts and bolts of becoming  developers of missing middle housing.  We need to change zoning in Massachusetts.  At the same time, we need to “unleash the swarm” of local, small scale developers who have the knowledge, network and skills to actually BUILD housing! 

I went to Cincinnati to attend the Strong Towns annual gathering taking place prior to the Congress for A New Urbanism (CNU) conference. Since I and so many AHMA advocates are regular Strong Towns readers and our paradigmatic approach to city building is shaped by a Strong Towns lens, I had the underlying intent to explore how we can build bridges between our abundant housing network in Massachusetts and the larger Strong Towns movement.  I had invited Daniel Herriges, co-author of the newly published book, Escaping The Housing Trip:The Strong Towns Response to the Housing Crisis, to sit down for an in-depth conversation about the origins of our current housing crisis and ways to spark a housing revolution.  I hope this highly excerpted interview below will entice you to buy and read this book!  I wanted to interview Daniel specifically because Daniel, like me, is trying to bridge YIMBY with Strong Towns and had attended Yimbytown in Austin last February.  

Rumor has it that next year’s CNU conference will be held in Providence, Rhode Island,  Consider this an invitation to Chuck, Daniel and the whole Strong Towns crew to cross the border, visit us in Massachusetts and have nuanced, complex conversations about housing with our AHMA statewide network of over 400 members and 17 local affiliate groups!

Here are some excerpts from my extensive interview with Daniel Herriges:

Joyce Mandell: I’m so excited to talk about your new book, Escaping The Housing Trap: The Strong Towns Response to the Housing Crisis.  Can you tell me the greatest takeaways from the book?

Daniel Herriges: The book explains a paradigm shift in how we plan, build and finance housing in North America. We had an unprecedented revolution in the planning and the financing in city building about a century ago. Now we’re in a crisis point where we have “ the housing trap” – Everyone needs housing prices to go down, but also we can’t afford for housing prices to go down. We have built a system in which a whole lot of people’s individual wealth and household savings but also the foundations of a financial system are dependent on the housing market growing and growing and growing and home prices going up and up and up without fail. We’ve built this system where housing, the most fundamental product other than food that any of us consume, is driven by the imperatives of the financial system and not by demand on the ground from people who need a roof over their heads.

JM:  Can we go back in history?  How did we get in this messy housing trap?

DH: In terms of the financial system, the moment where the switch flipped was in 1933 when the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) as part of the New Deal. The Great Depression had completely tanked the whole national economy, certainly the mortgage market, which at the time finance was not readily available. (Prior to the Depression)if you were able to borrow to buy a house ,you had to put down an enormous down payment, often 50% of the value of the house for a mortgage that was going to be interest only and short term AND you were going to refinance it after five years.  As a result, people were affording housing by incrementally building your capacity and wealth over time. Maybe you started with renting a room in somebody’s house. If you were a young man working in a major city,  often you were a lodger in someone’s home or you lived in a rooming house. There was  a huge  public health backlash to the idea of tenements. Some of the innovations were really ad hoc (such as) triple deckers that exploded in popularity as a housing type in the 1890s.  Immigrants would build one of these, live in one unit. They would have relatives in one unit and then have a tenant in one unit. It was a stepping stone into the middle class. You could build a little bit of wealth. When you read the backlash against triple deckers from early reformers and the pro zoning contingent, there is a public health angle there, but there’s also a lot of prejudice – “we’re upset about the idea of unmarried young people living under a roof, maybe with a family with kids. We’re upset about the idea of these extended immigrant families living … It feels like an invasion.” You have the elite of New England really using that language. There was a movement for zoning and for urban land use controls that was partially driven by good faith, concerns about public health and well being and partially driven by prejudice and elitism and a desire for control. 

With the Great Depression, the federal government bails out the mortgage system by creating the FHA which will backstop local banks and insure 30 year amortized mortgages. Now (to buy a house), you have a small down payment compared to before. You have a regular much more manageable monthly payment on this very long term highly leveraged loan. This is not something that banks would do left to their own devices. It’s actually an extremely risky financial product because one is trapped into whatever the interest rates are at the time that you made a loan.  Banks want some assurance that long term loans are not going to go bad and that the whole neighborhood isn’t going to transform in 30 years. The (federal) government gives banks those assurances (of the success) of the standardized mortgage product by restricting who and what is available. The growing movement of zoning (was) driven by upper middle class preferences. “We want to tame the chaos of cities,” “We want promises of permanence and stability. I want to know that that noisy immigrant family that I’m a little bit nervous about with the triple decker that they’re not going to build next door to me”, I want to know that (I’m going to live near) people I’m comfortable with. The promise of the new suburbs is (to) build for permanence. We’re gonna build a neighborhood and it’s going to be finished on day one.  It’s going to be all single family homes of a certain size at a certain price point. You’re going to have your school, your park, all the amenities you want. It’s going to be finished and it’s not going to change. The banking industry is looking at this and saying we can make long term mortgages and we can give people a way to keep permanent middle class prosperity in neighborhoods that are built in this sort of modern, scientific orderly way and won’t change . We can comfortably make long term loans because we have this assurance of permanent prosperity. The FHA puts their thumb on the scale to lend (insure mortgages) for single family detached homes. Racial redlining also occurs in that time.  The government (will only) insure mortgages in neighborhoods that are rated good investments and not hazardous. “Hazardous” often means there are a lot of non white people. 

JM:  After World War II, there was an economic incentive to build new suburbs because of the fear of sliding back into a depression economy.  I got that message from your book. You are also highlighting an underlying racism that helped, in part, to drive single family zoning and the growth of the “suburban experiment”. 

Abundant Housing Massachusetts advocates for incremental missing middle housing including the legalization of ADUs statewide by right. Zoning and building this type of housing and addressing the barriers to it, whether its financial or legislative is key.  I’ve heard that your answer is “unleashing the swarm” and building that missing middle housing but we are already fairly dense in Massachusetts.  This is not the Midwest.  I’m thinking of places like Cambridge, Somerville and Boston that are already dense and the next step may be the higher rise building.  How does the solution of infill housing you are posing fit in a housing environment like ours that is already built up? 

DH: I think some people get frustrated with Strong Towns because they perceive incrementalism as dogma. Incrementalism (is not) a means to an end. You want a community that is going to be in a virtuous cycle. You want evolution and reinvestment where people with some skin in the game with some local ties to the community are able to do that reinvestment. You don’t want to be at the whims of Wall Street. I did live in San Francisco for a number of years. The real pushback from San Francisco (similar to) Cambridge, is small scale development doesn’t pencil out. It makes no financial sense as a developer. The thing that does is much denser and much bigger transformation and scale. One thing I would say is, let’s (take) regulatory and financial barriers out of the way to doing scale vertically rather than horizontally. One really disruptive thing that happens right now is you have a neighborhood where the only thing that developers can seem to finance and very often that city planners think is progress is this: Somebody’s going to buy up a whole block worth of buildings, and they’re going to do a large scale redevelopment that occupies the footprint of that whole city block (creating) this really pernicious cycle that the neighborhood almost has to be in decline.  (There is the) classic image of the Whole Foods going out on the block that was burned out 20 years ago because that’s where you can do land assembly and get over this tipping point. I’ve seen this happen to neighborhoods where the highest and best use of your house now is not as a house. It’s not gradual reinvestment. The highest (worth) of your house is as a teardown so someone can assemble that to build a “5 over 1”.  I don’t think you’ll see much of that somewhere like Cambridge, Massachusetts because the land values are too high. The way out of stasis that I wouldn’t consider incremental is you need to be able to go significantly taller, but we want to keep the small lot sizes, the fine grain footprint of the community (and have) a diversity of developers and owners so that you don’t have these big monolithic projects that require the assembly and teardown (that) fill blocks limited to the only large redevelopment sites.

JM:  Let’s shift a bit.  I saw you at YIMBYTOWN in Austin in February and of course, you are here in Cincinnati for Strong Towns. How do you identify with both movements and how can we go beyond dogmas into more collaboration between these two overlapping movements? Many of our advocates are also readers of StrongTowns. 

DH:  “YES” is deeply encoded in Strong Towns. I’d love to see more dialogue between the two movements. I love the idea that a Strong Towns advocate can plug into a network and a support system like Abundant Housing in Massachusetts to help guide some of those energies. What are you going to advocate for and how are you going to do? That synergy is really great. 

JM:  I actually disagreed with Chuck (Marohn) on his podcast discussing the difference between YIMBYs and StrongTowns.  He doesn’t identify himself as a “Yes” person because he sees YIMBYs as “Build, build, build! Build anywhere at all! Build at any cost!”.  Most people I know have more nuanced approaches and see the lack of housing as a very complex problem requiring multifaceted solutions. 

DH:  He listened to too many armchair YIMBYS as opposed to the people out there actually doing the organizing.  I also listened to his podcast on YIMBY vs. StrongTowns and thought his assessment was skewed towards some people who are loud online but aren’t the people actually doing the work. Having attended both conferences, my biggest takeaway from Yimbytown was that there was a ton of sophistication there in terms of policy, legislation and how you advocate for that. That makes sense because a lot of YIMBY groups do lobbying.  There was a lot of knowledge of that realm.  The developer and builder perspective was almost entirely absent. I was in a session on “How do we support small developers in the community” and it was clueless (with a focus on) advocacy and showing up to speak in favor of a project.  When you talk with small developers, that’s not what they’re asking.  They are asking about financing that’s actually available or permitting so they don’t get dragged to a public meeting. Supporting incremental developers is about planting seeds.