Review of Strong Towns

Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity
by Charles L. Marohn, Jr

Review by Polly Cleveland

Along with the automobile, Detroit pioneered a new American way of living: the auto-dependent housing development consisting of single-family houses arrayed around cul-de-sac streets. After World War II, the Detroit model subdivision exploded into the suburbs around the country. A post-war return to normal life, federal subsidies for veterans and new highways leading out of town—all combined to create a huge boom in suburban housing demand. Aided by federal and local subsidies for utilities, developers could build complete huge new single-family housing subdivisions outside existing cities—such as the famous Levittowns. Middle class white families moved out into these shiny new developments, leaving behind poorer and often minority families in older inner-city neighborhoods.

Before that time, most houses were built one by one, adjoining or replacing existing housing. Neighborhoods therefore represented a mix of older and newer, smaller and larger buildings. Limited transportation kept housing relatively dense. The high density in turn made it inexpensive for city governments to maintain services—police, fire, garbage, schools—and infrastructure—roads, sidewalks, sewers, water supplies, and other utilities. Moreover, due to the mixed age of structures, there were not unexpected peaks in costs.

All that changed with the new subdivisions. At first, they generated substantial tax revenues, making cities eager to encourage and subsidize more of them by extending utilities. But this pattern of growth contained a fatal flaw: Because all the utilities and houses in a subdivision were built at the same time, they all aged at the same rate. After 25 years or so of fiscal surplus, costs began to rise steeply for repairing infrastructure. In wealthier subdivisions, the city could raise property taxes to cover costs. In ordinary middle-class subdivisions, when city maintenance lagged, those residents who could afford it moved to newer subdivisions further out, leaving shabby houses on crumbling streets inhabited by ever poorer and often minority residents. This happened first in Detroit, where huge areas now lie abandoned. It is now happening in inner suburbs around the nation. Yet as inner suburbs crumble, towns pursue the same old financial fix: subsidizing brand-new subdivisions on raw land.

Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis Missouri, makes a good example. In 1970 the population of some 29,000 was 99% white. By 2010, the population had fallen to 21,000, only 29% white. Ferguson came to national attention in 2014 when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, setting off widespread protests. Investigative reporters found that the financially-strapped local government, still largely run by white officials, funded itself in part by imposing fines on the poor residents for minor offenses like driving with a broken headlight, jailing them when they couldn’t pay. Ferguson turned out to typify many aging suburbs.

Today the tragedy comes full circle: the more affluent members of the younger generation are moving back into the run-down central city neighborhoods that their grandparents abandoned. In part, that’s because today’s families need both parents to work, making central locations more desirable. As these people return, they gentrify old neighborhoods, pricing out seniors as well as working-class or poorer residents. The local residents of course fight back, with rent control and severe restrictions on new construction or modifications of old buildings. New York City’s newly-fortified rent control laws essentially forbid landlords from raising rents to cover the cost of renovations. California has seen an explosion of homeless and “housing insecure” people, including people with steady jobs.

The author of Strong Towns, Charles Marohn, is a civil engineer and planner. He began his career advising towns on how to attract and support those so-desirable new subdivisions. Eventually the numbers caught his attention, particularly the staggering cost of maintaining the infrastructure in aging single-family subdivisions. He came to recognize that much of this infrastructure was simply long run unsustainable, and that towns were committing financial suicide in their pursuit of “growth.”

Marohn also found that in their pursuit of “shiny and new,” towns may destroy the most financially productive parts of their tax bases. These are often not the most valuable properties, but roughly those that yield the most revenues per acre. He gives an example from his home town of Brainerd, Minnesota. There were two identical adjoining blocks in an area the town had labeled “blighted.” Aided by municipal subsidies, one block was razed and replaced with a Taco John’s franchise with plenty of parking. But while the Old and Blighted block had a tax value of $1.1 million, this Shiny and New block had a value of only $620,000. Moreover, Old and Blighted housed 11 small businesses with local owners plus 6 extra full-time workers. On Shiny and New, Taco John’s provided 20 to 25 part-time jobs. Not even new jobs, because Taco John’s had merely relocated from three blocks away.

Marohn advises towns first of all to prioritize maintenance of the most financially productive areas, whether blighted or not. As he writes, “Mow the grass. Sweep the streets. Patch the sidewalks. Pick up the trash. Fill the potholes…See a streetlight out: replace it. See a weed: pull it. See a crosswalk faded: repaint it…The neighborhoods that are generating such wealth for the community need to be showered with love.”

But then Marohn makes a recommendation that will shock most communities: reconsider the policies that restrict change and discourage denser development. Oversized new buildings pop up in the wrong places, he says, because it’s so difficult, time-consuming and expensive for developers to battle all the restrictions that when they do finally get a permit, they build as high as they can. Property owners, he says, should have the right to develop their properties to the next level without their neighbors’ permission. That is, an owner in a single-family neighborhood should have a right to install a mother-in-law unit, or even build two or three units. In a neighborhood of three units, owners should have a right to build low-rise apartment buildings. And so forth. Meantime, towns should scrap those off-street parking requirements, which waste land, raise housing costs and encourage reliance on cars.

In all his compelling case for allowing higher density, I wish Marohn had addressed the role of property taxes. As I wrote in How a Progressive Tax System Made Detroit a Powerhouse (and Could Again), a tax system that relies heavily on taxing land is both highly progressive and pro-density. Detroit collapsed not just due to unsustainable low density subdivisions, but also due to the loss of such a system. But the book is essential reading for local officials and all of us who love cities.

Marohn now spends his time on his Strong Towns non-profit media organization, setting up events and webinars to discuss growth, development and the future of cities.

The Big Bean Bubble

By Polly Cleveland

In my last post, I wrote how, in A Brief History of Doom, Richard Vague shows how the boom-and-bust cycle originates in episodes of reckless and outright fraudulent private-sector lending. By the time a central bank tries to put on the brakes by raising interest rates, much of the damage is already done. The extent of further damage after the crash depends on how well the central bank maintains the banking system and helps the victims.

Let me now give a simple example to illustrate just how the boom-and-bust cycle does its damage and how the central bank’s response can worsen or mitigate that damage.

Imagine a country whose citizens primarily produce and eat beans. Here are the economic players: a number of bean farmers and their workers, a bean warehouse, a few banks, and a central bank. Every fall after harvest, the banks lend money to the farmers to cover their expenses over the next year. At the next harvest, the farmers sell their beans to the warehouse, pay off their loans to the banks with interest, and take out new loans. As in any but the most primitive economy, the farmers live in permanent debt, as do other small businesses.

Consider a typical bank, the First National Bean Bank, or FNBB. FNBB’s assets consist of a little bit of cash (created by the central bank), plus loans to bean farmers. Its liabilities are checking accounts belonging to bean farmers and to the bean warehouse. FNBB’s assets minus liabilities equals owners’ equity, that is, the owners’ stake in the bank. Liabilities are typically several times the amount of owners’ equity. In making loans, FNBB actually creates money—the money in the checking accounts. When it gives Farmer Brown a loan for $100,000, it simultaneously puts $100,000 in Brown’s checking account. FNBB requires collateral for the loan: Farmer Brown’s land, which must be worth more than the loan, say $120,000. If Brown defaults, FNBB can seize and sell his land.

Like all banks, FNBB faces two existential constraints. First, it must keep enough cash on hand to meet ordinary day-to-day withdrawals from checking accounts. Running out of cash means instant bankruptcy. If FNBB faces unexpected demands for cash, it may “call” some of its loans, that is, demand that the farmers pay early, or get an emergency loan from the central bank. Second, the FNBB must limit the ratio of liabilities—checking account money—to the owners’ equity. If some of the farmers default and their collateral doesn’t cover the loss, then owners’ equity can become zero or negative, making the bank insolvent or “under water.” If heavy defaults threaten to put FNBB under water, it will hide that fact as long as possible, lest panicky customers—the farmers and the warehouse—start demanding immediate cash, causing a “run” on the bank.

As for the warehouse, to play it safe it keeps a stock of beans greater than a normal year’s consumption. Before harvest, it still has half a year’s supply. After harvest, it has a year and a half’s supply.

In ordinary times, the money supply—cash plus checking accounts—remains stable. Over the course of the year, the farmers and their workers buy beans from the warehouse for consumption. The bank simply transfers money from their checking accounts to the warehouse’s checking account, but the total remains the same. The price of beans remains stable too. It’s just the monthly amount of money transferred divided by the number of beans purchased. At harvest time, the warehouse empties its checking account to buy the new beans, the farmers turn the money over to the bank to repay their loans with interest, the bank reissues their loans, and the cycle repeats, year in and out. (Note that the bank owners spend their interest income buying beans, keeping the money supply constant.)

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Then something exciting happens. A scientist announces he’s developed a new GMO bean that will double the yield of beans. The more progressive half of the farmers rush to plant the new beans. Not only that, but they start buying land from other kinds of farmers, such as corn farmers, to plant the new beans. How can they do that? They get additional loans from the banks, simultaneously increasing the money supply. Land values start to rise as the bean farmers bid for additional land. That increases the value of the collateral they provide to the banks. The bank owners get excited about all the interest they expect to earn and offer even more loans. Some banks become careless about checking the quality of land offered as collateral, which may be too rocky or swampy for beans. Both farmers and bank owners, already anticipating how much richer they will soon become, also buy and eat more beans than usual, raising not only the price of land, but the price of beans, and reducing the bean inventory below normal.

You can guess what happens. Come harvest time, the GMO beans have done poorly even on high-quality bean land, and failed altogether on the additional land some farmers purchased. The bean warehouse is almost empty. The progressive farmers can’t repay their loans. The land they provided as collateral now isn’t worth nearly as much as the loans made against it. Obviously, the banks cannot make new loans to these farmers. The large volume of failed loans puts many banks under water. Their liabilities, that is, their checking accounts, now exceed their assets, that is, good loans plus cash. (The banks will of course try to hide this reality as long as possible.)

Meanwhile, the conservative farmers sell their crops as usual to the warehouse, and as usual repay their loans to the banks. But then what? Because many of the banks are under water, they can’t issue new loans to the conservative farmers either. This is key. Because many of the banks engaged in reckless lending to progressive farmers and outright speculators, they now must cut off lending to the conservative farmers, the ones who didn’t take part in the GMO bean frenzy. The farmers lay off their workers, creating massive unemployment. All of a sudden, hardly anybody has money to buy beans. Even though the bean warehouse is only half full, the price of beans plummets. To naïve observers it looks like there’s a surplus of beans. In reality, there’s a deficit in demand for beans.

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Enter the Beanland Central Bank, or BCB. BCB has some limited control over the banks, because it can lend them money at an interest rate it sets. It also can regulate the banks’ lending standards. During the GMO excitement, the BCB kept its interest rate low and mostly ignored the growing level of fraudulent lending. Come the crisis, what can and should the BCB do?

Option A. In an effort to stop the madness, the BCB can suddenly hike interest rates and cut its lending to the banks. That’s slamming the barn door after the horse has escaped. It’s the very worst thing to do. Option A guarantees that the weakest banks will shut down, wiping out the remaining checking accounts of the warehouse and surviving bean farmers, and further shrinking the money supply. It will set off a long deep depression as the farmers struggle to survive and recover with much reduced banking services.

Option B. The BCB can bail out the failing banks, that is, the worst offenders during the boom, by buying their bad loans at face value, and lending them new money at zero interest rate, in the hope that they will relend it to the bean farmers. This is a better solution than Option A. There will only be a long recession. However, the BCB has essentially rewarded worst offenders’ reckless behavior and left many farmers hopelessly in debt and still dependent for money on the very banks that screwed them. Remember that bean prices have collapsed due to the drop in demand. The miscreant banks might just sit tight for a while without bothering to lend, or they might use their new free money on something unproductive, like speculating in gold futures.

Option C. The BCB can bail out the bad banks, fire or jail the crooked management, and install new managers. The BCB will require these managers first to renew the loans to the conservative farmers, to keep them in business as usual. The new managers will also renegotiate or forgive the overpriced loans to the failed progressive farmers, to get them back into business. However, things won’t return to normal for some time. Bean inventory is still dangerously low. As the reconstituted failed banks resume lending to farmers, and their starving workers begin to consume beans again, bean prices may actually rise well above pre-bubble normal. Meanwhile, as taxpayers, the farmers and workers will foot most of the bill. There will still be a recession until the bean inventory recovers, but that recovery will happen faster than under Option B.

There you have it. During the boom phase of a bubble, damage accumulates invisibly in the form of dubious investments, undertaken at the expense of vital ones. Beanland farmers planted dicey GMO beans not only on good bean land, but on land normally planted to other crops, as well as on rocky or swampy soil. Speculators even borrowed money just to live lavishly, helping drive down bean inventory. Land, labor, and capital all went to waste. Come the inevitable bust phase of a bubble, the BCB can either make things worse by allowing the bad banks to fail (Option A), mitigate the damage by bailing out the bad banks (Option B), or actively promote recovery by bailing out the farmers (Option C). In real life, of course, central banks typically muddle through with some combination of all three options.

I didn’t mention inequality, but it also plays a role. First, the more unequal the economy, the higher on average the debt load of individuals and small businesses, and therefore the more they suffer from a cut off of credit. Second, the more unequal the economy, the greater the political power of the biggest banks. These can induce the central bank to ignore their misconduct during a boom, and then to preferentially bail them out come the inevitable bust. That’s clearly what happened in the boom before the 2008 crash, causing the Great Recession, from which we haven’t yet recovered.