Moratorium: No More New-Builds
by Geoff Kelly - posted 10:21 am, April 7, 2009
Yesterday I was talking to a couple friends from City Hall about the Stevens family, who want to purchase a slew of city-owned lots on Wilson Street for an urban farm. The city’s economic development chief, Brian Reilly, has said he won’t approve the purchase of those lots because he hopes that someone might want to develop them—specifically, to build new houses there. (Reilly suggested that Habitat for Humanity already had their eyes on the lot, although Chris Byrd at In Da Buff learned yesterday from Stevens that Habitat would he happy to change their plans to accommodate an urban farm.) Though there are thousands of city-owned vacant lots, Reilly said it’s difficult to string together so many adjacent parcels as exist on Wilson.
That seems like nonsense to me, and my two friends from City Hall—both of whom live nearby the proposed farm—agreed.”It’s really an alley street,” one guy said. “It’s not really not the best place for a new housing development.”
“Why would anyone want to build houses there?” said the other guy. “Why are we building houses at all when we have 20,000 vacant housing units in this city? Can we just stop and figure out what it is we’re doing?”
I considered that: a moratorium on new-builds in the city until such time as we have a comprehensive housing plan. Who are we building new houses for? I don’t believe that anyone chooses the suburbs over the city because they like the houses out there better. Everyone I know who makes that move does it for better schools, and despite the housing. For low-income families stuck in substandard housing, a better answer than subsidized new-builds might be to improve the housing stock we have; there’s rehab money going unspent by our neighborhood housing agencies, and there’s more money than ever coming down the pike for weatherization and rehab grants and loans thanks to the federal stimulus package.
New in-fill housing is a part of any housing strategy, though I would argue that throwing up new-builds on a street like Wilson would be wasteful, another example of the scattershot, developer-driven approach that yields suburban-style houses that often are vacant and near worthless just 15 years after their construction. (I would also argue that we should not subsidize market-rate or above housing at all; those who can afford a $200,000 house don’t need any help.) Our city planners need to pick neighborhoods for new housing carefully, building on strengths, and ask developers to adhere to design standards consistent with existing houses, lots sizes, and uses. In neighborhoods that aren’t marked for in-fill—and I don’t see why that barren stretch of Wilson Street should be—we ought to be open to creative uses for vacant lots.
In the meantime, maybe we ought to stop building new houses in the city until we’ve figured out what we’re doing. Because if our city government is considering blocking the sale of city-owned lots to a family of farmers because maybe someday someone will build some houses—likely with public subsidy, many of which will likely be vacant and crumbling in 15 years, possibly in need of demolition, if past housing projects are any measure—then our city government is nuts. Make them do some soil studies, to be sure there’s nothing toxic buried there. Then give them the land for a dollar per lot plus closing fees.