Strong Towns – Breaking out of the Housing Trap

On 2 April 2019, I went to a talk sponsored by New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority in Claremont, NH. The announcement stated:

What does it mean to be a “Strong Town”? In April, nationally known planner and engineer Chuck Marohn will speak at community events in Rochester, Concord, Claremont and Portsmouth to discuss the STRONG TOWNS perspective of community economic resilience, citizen involvement, and land use.

Marohn will focus on how housing affordability fits with the STRONG TOWNS philosophy during the April 1-2 events presented by New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.

Here are my notes from the talk. (Does this seem too long? Don’t want to read the whole thing? See the summary…)

The speaker was Charles Marohn from Brainerd MN. He’s the founder of StrongTowns.org, and has been working since 2008 to create models for towns to become financially strong and resilient.

High Price of Housing

He observed that cities and towns are gentrifying – housing prices are going up – and that stagnating incomes everywhere mean that people have trouble affording to live there. He is seeking improvements that will stick, and leave the municipality in a good place.

He talked about the “Agriculture Trap”. Once a civilization gets a surplus in resources (because of agriculture), people had the ability to specialize and spend time on other pursuits – to become shamans, soldiers, artists. The increased resources also meant that the population could increase.

The “trap” is that the increase in population forces the need for more food, which increases the reliance on agriculture, which allows further population growth. That civilization is “trapped by agriculture” – it can never go back to its pre-agricultural state.

The Housing Trap

Marohn traced the history of the current “housing trap” to the way  governmental and financial systems make it hard to change the way homes are funded. The Great Depression created massive deflationary pressure, and led to the Homeowners Act of 1933. Fannie Mae was created in 1938, to securitize  home mortgages. The GI Bill was a good program, but caused home prices to rise. Freddie Mac quasi-privatized all this in the 70’s.

Which means that to have a middle-income home today, almost every family must have two breadwinners.

It also means we cannot (easily) go back to lower-price housing because of the structural problems. Who benefits from high housing prices?

– Local, state, and federal government (property and other taxes)

– Baby Boomers – who rely on the high cost (value) of their homes as a significant portion of their retirement

Complex vs. Complicated

Marohn talked about the difference between “complex” and “complicated” systems.

  • Complex systems are adaptive, and adaptable. They emerge from good attributes because changes to the environment can be absorbed and adjusted to.
  • Complicated systems are predictable, but fragile. If things go badly for a complicated system, they break. He gave the example that a farm is complicated. If it’s a bad year for corn, the farmer cannot simply plant beets.

Cities/towns are the quintessential human habitat. They are also complex: they emerge from a collection of interacting objectives, they experience feedback, and adapt to those pressures. This is good – it leads to resiliency to challenges and stress.

Summary

How can a town improve and thrive? Marohn offered these strategies:

1) Allow the next increment of building style by right. If the town currently allows single family homes, allow accessory dwelling units. If your town allows duplexes/accessory dwellings, allow quads. This must be *by right* – no special permissions should be necessary. However:
– No neighborhood should experience radical change, and
– No neighborhood should be exempt from change

Towns should look toward dynamic rezoning. As the town changes over the years/decades, so too should the zoning rules adapt to what people are requesting.

2) Lower the bar to entry. To encourage people and businesses to move to town, find a way for people to “start with nothing, and end with something.”

For housing, most people can’t imagine living in a 500sf home. Yet there are countless homes in our communities that obviously started out very small, but expanded as their owners had more resources. Zoning should allow people to start with very small residences affordably.

For business, don’t require an entrepreneur to meet every strict requirement. (If a building needs $300K of improvements to open, it will never happen.) Instead, correct the imminent health threats, and then give a provisional occupancy permit. (Maybe even put a sticker on the front window stating the provisions of the code that aren’t currently met.) Then after six months of operation, rank things. Require the owner to put 3% of their revenue annually into an account for property upgrades. When all the conditions are cleared, everyone can have a celebration. In the meantime, the property is providing services, on the tax rolls, and getting better.

3) Respond to how people use and live the city/town. Marohn advocated this public investment process for a strong town:

  • Humbly observe where people are struggling
  • Ask “What is the smallest thing we can do to address that struggle?”
  • Do it. Right now.
  • Repeat

Marohn closed by noting there is a lot more information on the Strong Towns (https://strongtowns.org) website.

Any opinions expressed here are solely my own, and not those of any public bodies, such as the Lyme Community Development Committee or the Lyme Planning Board, to which I may belong. By Town policy, I am not permitted to send messages on these subjects through the Listserv. However, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts – you can reach me at richb.lyme@gmail.com. Or click an icon below to share this post on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or email.

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