Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

[Originally published by Pacific Standard Magazine]


MARTA, the regional transit service in Atlanta, Georgia, would not be anyone’s initial idea of a solvent government agency. Operating without state funding, it runs four rail lines and numerous buses across a sprawling, automobile-oriented region, carrying with it a reputation for tardiness and mismanagement. Just several years ago, it was running $25-30 million annual deficits but has turned around its finances under new leadership, and is expected to produce future surpluses. How? The new-found money will come partly because of changes like digitizing some services and lessening the use of outside consultants.… Read more

L.A. to Spend $213M on High-Tech Help for Homeless

[Originally published by Next City Magazine]


Perhaps no place in the U.S. has struggled more with homelessness than Los Angeles, where there’s a nightly unsheltered count of roughly 25,000. Despite laudable projects like Skid Row Housing Trust’s high-design housing for formerly homeless Angelenos, the brutal reality is that to get support, many living on the streets face navigating a maze of disconnected agencies. Now, L.A. County is hoping that expanding a new digital solution will ease that process.

Last month, a group of public and private interests, including the L.A.… Read more

The Redevelopment Racket

[Originally published by the American Magazine]


The justifications that governments give for subsidizing private developments are often dubious, but this was particularly so for a recent New Jersey deal. This summer, the state granted $82 million in tax credits to the Philadelphia 76ers to build a practice facility in Camden. Although it will create only 50 jobs and be closed to the public, officials believe that its waterfront presence will uplift the city. The credit was granted by a heavily indebted state to the team’s billionaire owner, for a city that suffers 16 percent unemployment and 42 percent poverty, and recently cut half of its police force.… Read more

FHA Policies Discourage Density

[Originally printed in Governing Magazine]


After decades of suburban flight, the city is king again. Economists view it as essential for sparking innovation and growth. Environmentalists consider it key to getting people out of their automobiles. And urbanites, many of whom suffered through decades of decline in their cities, view it as a symbol of long-anticipated revitalization.

But a key part of cities — their density — hasn’t always been encouraged by the government, particularly not at the federal level. In fact, many of today’s land use policies hail from the post-World War II era, when planners thought that decentralizing cities would generate middle-class prosperity.… Read more

Want to See More Millennials as Homeowners? Ease FHA Condo Restrictions

[Originally published by Next City Magazine]


To casual observers, it may seem evident by now that urban density is not only fashionable, but has economic and environmental benefits. This does not mean, however, that the government always responds accordingly. For decades, federal land use and transportation policies have been inspired by the 1950s belief that suburbs, rather than cities, were what boosted upward mobility — and the Federal Housing Administration persists in favoring single-family over multi-family units. In late August, these FHA policies were reviewed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but rather than evening the playing field, HUD extended the same tired incentives for sprawl.… Read more

Why Don’t More Cities Sell Air Rights?

[Originally printed in Governing Magazine]


Public works projects often come at heavy expense. Whether it’s building new schools, municipal halls or other facilities, such projects produce not only upfront costs, but depending on their magnitude, long-term debts. There is, however, a way to mitigate costs, or even make a project more profitable: Sell off the air rights.

This is an idea that, while holding vast economic potential, is used sparingly in America. Nowadays whenever cities build a central library, to name one example, they usually construct a single-use facility that is only a few stories tall, if that.Read more

4 Reasons Federal Money is Bad for U.S. Transportation

[Originally published by Next City Magazine]


The Congressional battle over shoring up the Highway Trust Fund has been painted as one between those willing to pay for transportation infrastructure and those willing to let it crumble. But really, the debate is over which level of government should control policy. Democrats would like to refurbish the fund, since it would keep road and transit construction largely under federal oversight. Some Republicans would like to extinguish it, so that localities could pay for, and thus dictate, their own policies. The Republican argument is partly inspired by the fact that federal bureaucracy adds expense to transportation projects.… Read more

How to Keep Construction from Killing Businesses

[Originally printed in Governing Magazine]


With all the new public works construction underway in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va., it can be tough avoiding traffic jams these days. The main thruway, the U.S. Route 250 bypass, can be a particular nightmare because of construction on an interchange. For a nearby retail center, though, the construction has been a downright business killer. An article in the local newspaper quoted a coffeehouse owner as saying he had lost customers and was cutting staff; other businesses’ sales have dipped by 40 percent.… Read more

Where Housing Policy Intersects with Homelessness in D.C.

[Originally published by Next City Magazine]


In a tale that mixes a city’s growing class divide and Dickensian conditions in a public facility, two Washington, D.C. news stories — the ongoing fiasco at General Hospital, where hundreds of homeless families are being warehoused, and the groundbreaking for The Wharf’s upscale housing and retail at the Southwest Waterfront — intersect to show how a city’s housing policy can exacerbate its homelessness problem by driving up building costs and limiting supply of new homes.

Since 2010, the same year that D.C.… Read more