Urbanism and Standards of Respectability

Alex Baca wrote a thread on Twitter a week ago, talking about cities and normativity. The key tweet is,

The discourse about ~cities~ is, to me, a big fight against a normative, hegemonic, mostly white, mostly straight dominant culture, which has very clearly not made physical space for people who don’t fit that profile. It sucks, and we’re seeing the effects.

A few days later, I saw an unrelated meme, attacking Scott Wiener, the state senator representing San Francisco, who supports the YIMBY movement and introduced a zoning preemption bill that would permit mid-rise construction and abolish parking minimums near public transit. The meme consisted of two photoshops:

My first reaction to seeing the first picture was “I live in a building just like this.” I lived adjacent to buildings like the ones in the second picture in Singapore (where they’re actually taller) and the French Riviera. I’d already been thinking of different standards of middle-class respectability, in large part thanks to Alex’s thread, but the memes crystallized this so perfectly.

There’s a certain American standard of middle-class normality. A detached house for a nuclear family, with a backyard for the children to play in, and a garage that fits a car per adult. A school that has as few black students as possible without making the white middle class feel too guilty. Social engagements and hobbies that are so common, like a knitting circle, that a suburb of 10,000 can support a group. Everything else is deviant and embarrassing.

This is not the only middle-class respectability standard out there. There’s a competing standard, common in countries without a history of white flight. In cities with good transit, like Stockholm and Paris, generations can grow up and live in the city in apartment buildings and not own cars. Car ownership is still higher in richer areas – transit ridership is very far from universal in Paris, even intra muros – but it’s not mandatory. Detached housing is also less common even among the most comfortable segments of the middle class. The Singaporean dream is to own a car and live in a condo. The Israeli dream always includes a car but runs the gamut on density, from detached houses through mid-rises to high-rise condos in Tel Aviv.

Academia has lower car ownership than other professions of equivalent income, but still exhibits the same difference in mentality. My former postdoc advisor at KTH, a tenured professor, biked to work. At my last math conference, in Basel, one professor complained that when they tried biking to work when on sabbatical at the University of Michigan they got strange looks from the rest of the department. “Ann Arbor is a left-wing city and they still drive,” the professor said. In the United States, math postdocs usually don’t own cars but tenured professors do and often live in the suburbs, even at Columbia.

New York is supposed to have good transit and urban amenities, but for the most part the middle class treats it as part of a life cycle in which families live in the suburbs, rather than as a stable place. The city’s poverty rate is 20.3% per the 2012-6 American Community Survey, but among children age 5-17 it’s 29.3% (and among under-5 children it’s 27.7%). In my largely middle-class American social circle there are a number of New Yorkers, but also a number of people whose parents moved from New York to segregated suburbs when they were born or when they were about to start school. Even on the level of urban layout, there’s a stereotype that the city is not a good place to raise a family, e.g. because the apartments are too small (in fact they’re larger than Parisian ones).

It’s not just a matter of different tastes – some people think respectability means the Mad Men lifestyle, some think it means living in a walkable city. The walkable city is capable of containing more than one standard of respectability, because it arranges itself to let people access more potential friends, who could form different social networks. In theory it’s possible to drive an hour in some suburbs and meet many people, but in practice it’s uncommon, for two reasons. First, it requires one car per adult, which is expensive and produces class stratification even in social groups that could be cross-class. And second, in practice the social identity of suburbs in the Northern US is local more than regional – for example, they tend to have smaller, more local schools.

In theory, conservative lifestyles could also be more supported in cities. Haredi Jews are very urban: they need certain community amenities like a kosher supermarket and a mikveh and have to live within walking distance of synagogue; when they suburbanize, it’s en bloc, like the Satmar move to Kiryas Joel or master-planned Haredi cities in Israel, often in the settlements.

In practice, this doesn’t happen. Haredi Jews are notable in being an oppressed minority in Israel as well as around New York. But traditional groups that view themselves as part of the majority end up wanting everyone to live like they do. When the Progressive Movement created the idea of suburbia around 1900, it came out of an explicit desire to assimilate immigrants into what it viewed as proper American values. The Historic American Engineering Record gives background about the politics of the subway both before and after construction. The point of suburbia from the start was to make it impossible to form any culture except the dominant WASP culture.

Not for nothing, urbanism in the United States tends to disproportionately feature people who have other reasons to be dissatisfied with traditional culture. Foremost among these are queers, who led gentrification in the 1970s and 80s, when they weren’t safe in most suburbs and small cities; even this decade, a genderqueer Canadian acquaintance told me that there are parts of the US that they’re scared to be in. Without outing people, I believe that between one third and one half of the people who write online about public transportation or urbanism in the US are queer.

In order to reinforce the notion that only single-family suburbs are the respectable way to live, American society has to denigrate everything else as ridiculous. Parisian apartment buildings feature a hammer and sickle and defenestration; Mediterranean apartment buildings feature gay flamboyance. Were the US more willing to admit that there are educated professionals in some countries that do not need a car, it would need to find ways to accommodate professionals with the same preferences domestically, and that would lead to accidentally accommodating people who are not in the social or cultural mainstream.


  1. Michael James

    Hmm, I wonder if Scott Wiener has read something I wrote on the same subject? Or, yeah, it could just be bleedin’ obvious.
    I didn’t save the link but here is what I wrote (I think in CityLab on one of their many articles lamenting the housing crisis in SF & Bay area):

    [Another poster’s comment:] “sf is the 2nd most densely populated city in the u.s. (nyc is 1st)- there’s practically no place left to build. the current population of 865k is on the way to 1M+ or approximately 23k per sq. mi.”
    Correct. On its 120 sqkm of land there are 852,469 residents at a density of 7,022 people per km2 which is very high for the US. But Paris (intramuros) has 2.3 million on 98 sqkm for a density of about 21,000 per sqkm which is the highest in the developed world. The point is that Paris is almost exclusively low-rise (up to 8 but mostly 5 to 6 floors). IMO it does provide a model for how SF could help solve its problems: develop but in sympa with its current fabric. Problem is the developers want hi-rise to max their profits, and the politicians mostly are in their pockets (if not former developers themselves). At these densities it is probably economic (for the cities not necessarily the developers) to reclaim, say, 10 sq km of the bay, say around Mission Bay (this is about the size of SFX airport and a lot more than this amount of land has been reclaimed down the peninsula).
    The advantage of such a scheme is that the city could own it and over-ride the NIMBYs, avoid the runaway speculation by the developers and vested interests, control the development (so it really was Paris-by-the-Bay instead of hi-rise shit, which incidentally is much more expensive to build on reclaimed marais than the low-rise) and yet it would be self-funding if not profitable.
    But of course this would require an enlightened local government who could out-stare the vested monied interests, even though in the end this would benefit almost everyone.

    For comparison: Bois de Vincennes is about 10km2 (about 1.5km2 bigger than Bois de Boulogne) while Golden Gate Park is 4.1km2 and the Presidio is 6.08km2; NYC Central Park is 3.46km2.

    Though I agree in principle with senator Wiener, the problem is that Sunset is approx. total 10 km2 (and Richmond on the north side of the park is less than half the size), so to make a real impact you’d have to resume quite a lot of it, and it being mostly single-family homes it would be very expensive and generate max-nimby resistance (IIRC it is the real Chinatown and its residents are long-term San Franciscans and very prosperous with commensurate influence; I see from a map that technically I have lived in Sunset, on the north side of Parnassus Ave, when I was briefly a visiting scientist at UCSF). I suspect the economics would be dodgy even if it was the city of Paris (or SF) as developer, but it would be impossible if SF property developers were involved–hence their obsession with building very high hi-rise (even as some of them sink back slowly into the bay; Sunset is mostly sand and would have similar issues; the only hi-rise is at UCSF on the rock of Mt Sutro). If Dubai can create Palm Jumeirah (5.7km2) out of pumped sand, and build low housing on it then SF should be able to do something similar in the shallow SF Bay with some of the highest property values in the USA and perhaps 100x the number of households/residents.

    And of course the very high hi-rise condos being built by the developers are not solving the housing crisis, especially for anyone other than unicorn billionaires. Building low-rise (let’s call it Haussmannian, up to 8 floors) is both cheaper (especially on this kind of substratum) and quicker (adds to their cheap build; make them new timber tech and even quicker/cheaper and lighter on that reclaimed land). So, some of the housing can be made to be affordable to ordinary mortals.

    • Alon Levy

      SB 827 would upzone practically all of San Francisco, including all of the Sunset; you can see a map here. City NIMBYs are no longer relevant, since Wiener obviously supports his own bill – the question is what the rest of the state thinks.

      • Nathanael

        Which is an interesting question; I have no idea what the whip count is in the California legislature.

        There is HUGE pressure to have more housing in the Bay Area, however. Huge. Massive. Probably half the state population, including very rich people. Same is happening in LA.

  2. Benjamin Turon

    Multi-story, multi-unit domiciles I think are becoming more popular for middle class people in America, at least were I live. They are popping up like bamboo in the Capital District of NYS, more single family and town houses may be going up overall, along with genification of older urban centers, but the new construction of condo/apartments for middle-class tech workers and second homes for the wealth is very noticeable.

    Where I live in Upstate NY (Saratoga and Schenectady County) you see a lot of multi-story condo and apartment buildings going up, but unfortunately they are unaffordable for the working class and outside Saratoga Springs and Schenectady proper which both are very walkable small cities with some bus transit, you need a car to get around. Cars are expensive and when you add rent of $1500 a month, service industry workers are priced out. At the hotel where I work, many of the housekeepers shack up with boy or girlfriends, some others still live with their parents (like me and my sister) and many others including some managers commute 20 to 30 miles from the surrounding counties.

    The fact is, there is little interest in private developers in building affordable house where I live, or elsewhere. Why sell low when you can sell high, due to demand. Low-rent units are usually very old and run-down, and there is not many of them. They also have not built a new mobile home park in decades. There is a new project advertised as such in Saratoga Springs, they call it “work-force housing” for police officers and teachers, with some units reserved for military vets. So much for housekeepers, porters, waiters, cooks, sales clerks, and shelve stockers, you know, the folks who keep the entire tourist and service economy running.

    There is some public housing, but despite being oversee by a who’s who of respected citizens the authority’s manager allowed the complexes be overrun by bedbugs while he lavished money on trips to Las Vegas, on hiring his relatives, and on his own salary which was higher than his peers in Schenectady and Albany, who oversaw far more units. The scandal finally could not be ignored as angry residents flooded city council meetings, and the authority manager was fired.

    A lot of urban multi-story/multi-unit buildings have or are going up, the notion that middle or upper class people disdain such accommodations is wrong, at least when they don’t have children. For young singles, or childless couples city living is very attractive… if you can afford it. This is from my own experience, and from I read in the newspapers.

    The problem, is in places with a good economy working class gets priced out, and in places like New York City and the Bay Area that includes many people who are highly educated and employed in highly paid professional positions, oppose to us losers in the service industry who no one really cares about.

    There are many solutions including zoning for increase density, designing for transit and walkability, and allowing “micro-units” to be built, but I think the public sector needs to step forward to build affordable housing for those who work full time but still find rents unaffordable in private sector apartments. In my mind ideally a city would partner with a private company that both builds and manages property, to build new affordable housing in a design-build-operate relationship. The city provides free land and funding to build the new apartment building, while its private partner gets the contract to design, build, and manage it. Many cities have a lot of land they own, so that is a resource that can be put to work. Buildings that fall into the city’s hands from back taxes, could be repurpose as affordable housing.

    Rents would be set according to the size of the unit and cover the annual costs of utilities and maintenance, plus some amount to create a reserve fund for major repairs and renovations. Cross subsidies could be created by including retail space on the ground floor, and by having a percentage of units (25%?) be allowed to be rented at market rates, with the profits divided between the private management and the building’s internal fund. A side benefit of such arrangement is it creates the incentive for the private company to maintain the building to a high standard, and not take up a slum lord mentality.

    The important thing is beyond the land and initial capital cost, such affordable housing would to be a financial burden on the city’s annual budget, the projects would be self-supporting, and of mix-income and even use be it retail, or perhaps services like daycare, which were I live is a major issue for my fellow workers with children.

    What I propose would not solve the problem of affordable housing, but its better than doing nothing. It could be done along with taking measures to encourage the private sector to build on their own more rental units. Large private employers could do the same, when I look at the Facebook Campus in the Bay Area, I wonder why they could not on its perimeter thru up some six story apartment blocks, perhaps with one or two high rise towers.

    I don’t think that apartment or condo living is unacceptable “middle-class respectability” given the number of such units be built for such people where I live… I just wish somebody would think have the “lower middle/working class” folks who are not “poor” and don’t receive direct government assistance from food stamps to rent assistance, but still can afford to live were they work.

  3. lake9856

    Wierd article!!!!!!!!! Are Americans really that afraid of living in apartments and without one car per adult? I thought Americans would be more open, but I guess most of the Americans I know have grown up or spent significant portions of their life in Boston, New York, DC, and Chicago. The idea that life in an apartment without a car being abnormal feels so foreign to me.

    In China, the famous saying nowadays is that for a guy to find a girl willing to marry him, guy needs to own an apartment and a car. Of course, this reflects multiple things about Chinese culture, including that people are expected to marry in their 20’s, and that it is acceptable for wealth to be a deciding factor in the choice of the person you marry. But another thing that this reflects about urban Chinese culture is that the stereotypical settled down, upper-middle class family owns a single car and lives in their own private apartment. This is what is considered settled down, not single-family housing, which is practically non-existent.

    But of course, this is not really an appropriate comparison because of how much poorer, less developed, and more dense China is compared to the USA. Japan, I have noticed, has more single-family housing than China or Korea, but it’s single family housing is more compact. Residential streets in Japan are often alleyways, with no sidewalks or trees planted along them, and no on-street parking.

    Anyway, just some thoughts.

    • anonymouse

      Anecdotally, I think it’s considered perfectly acceptable to marry even while living in an apartment and maybe even with no car, though for many Americans not having a car is literally unthinkable. But once you have kids, and especially once those kids get closer to school age, the pressure to move to a single family house in a “good school district” in the suburbs increases. And so SF proper ends up having a proportion of children that is considerably lower than any of the areas around it.

  4. Ben Ross

    There are a bunch of published explanations for the American belief that single-family house has highest status. I have a short literature review in the long footnote at the end of Chapter 1 of Dead End. Segregation is not among them; this belief was firmly rooted before the era of white flight. (Read Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt if you doubt that.) This question has not, however, gotten as much attention as it deserves.

    • David Edmondson

      Something drilled home to me at my Cornell planning program was the American idea of rural as utopia, urban as dystopia. As my professor would put it, our culture strives for a return to the Garden of Eden – it’s seen in our art, our land-use patterns (pre-
      and post-independence), our mythology, and our politics. Even Philadelphia was laid out with that idea in mind.

        • David Edmondson

          Precisely. Anti-urbanism is deep, deep in American culture, and it goes back to the beginning. There are some arguments that this pervades even pre-Columbian urbanism in North America, at least east of the Rockies, but there’s so little left of those cities it’s tough to say.

          Regardless, I think it’s reductivist to pin it on racism; racism likely reinforces anti-urbanism, but it’s hardly the instigating factor.

      • johndmuller

        The idea that rural living is dead, which is the apparent opinion of most urbanists ignores many facts-on-the-ground. Take the US, for example; take away a strip or 100 or 200 miles along the coast and the N/S borders and along the Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio rivers and you’ve taken out nearly all the urbanity, leaving only Denver and Salt Lake City as dense areas.

        The people in this (deurbanized) country probably live in single family detached homes with yards, etc. to the tune of perhaps as much as 75%. That is totally a guess, but I can’t see it any less than 50% whereas I could maybe be convinced it might be even higher than that 75% figure.

        At least in the US, and probably in a lot of the rest of the world too, these people could live in an urban environment if the wanted to – in fact many of them do make that choice, but still many remain.

        Sometimes they even end up having political power. Isn’t that interesting?

        • Joshua Cranmer

          So… take out all of those people, and who is actually left? I mean, the usual dog-whistling is NEC + LA + Bay Area + Portland-to-Seattle, which already starts out as ~⅓ the US population. But you’re trying hard to include most of the romanticized “middle America”: everything from St. Louis to Albany, as well as Florida, not to mention Texas and the Sunbelt. I’m assuming you’re also trying to grab places like Dallas-Fort Worth, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Indianapolis in your list, even though they’re technically outside your bounds. Even on top of that, you’re also excluding the large cities of the plains states (St. Louis, Kansas City), and I think you intend to also exclude the large cities you didn’t know about (this is downtown Oklahoma City: https://www.google.com/maps/@35.4663621,-97.5162285,3a,60y,317.19h,116.27t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sAJBMRktSNT74I7uAoRee-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656). If that is what you intend, the population of what remains is only 30 million or so people.

  5. Nicolas Centa

    Saying you don’t need a car in France is the new standard for respectability among a growing part of the upper middle class.

    Cars are dirty and meant for poor people who don’t have the means to TGV their family away for the vacations.

    And transit is good in Paris but not so much when you come from the suburbs ; most RER and Transilien are a combination of dirty, dangerous, slow, unreliable and/or infrequent, so they are not acceptable according to upper middle class standards.

    Most suburbs except the rich ghetto around Neuilly and the Versailles countryside which is a car paradise also have bad schools, and are often considered as somewhat dangerous.

    Therefore, the rich are obligated to live in the city center. The French way of dealing with the poor and ethnic minorities is to expell them from the city center to the suburbs, meaning the opposite of the US.

    If you had really good transit, and good schools I guess, then young professionals from the upper middle class would leave more and more to the suburbs to have a bigger home and space for their kids to play outside, but now they can’t because it would be difficult to get to work.

    In Japan where you have really good transit, but also good schools in prefectures that are peripheral to Tokyo such as Saitama, Chiba and Ibaraki, you have both rich and poor all over the place, regardless of city center or suburbs.

    And many people still want to have a car to take their kids to camp in the nature instead of going to the same crowded beaches in the same crowded trains as everyone else.

    • Michael James

      Nicolas Centa 2018/03/04 – 09:32

      Almost every single detail you spew is utter b.s., and has its origins in some evidence-free Anglosphere fantasy of what France or Paris is. It reveals nothing more than a deep psychological insecurity.
      So much so that I am not going to bless it with a reply, or point-by-point refutation.

      • Nicolas Centa

        The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Which could explain that you can hear me, being French, criticize my country and praise Japan while you criticize the Anglosphere your name suggests you might be from and seem to love my country.

        You mention gentrification below, and I say it is related to the process of excluding the poor always farther away from the city, which Allon also seems to acknowledge.

        There are nice suburbs because the rich city is growing along the good transit, and I think the poor are always moved right outside of it.

        As Allon mentions there are a lot of immigrants both inside and outside of the city so I hope it is only socially discriminatory and not racially motivated, but sometimes I’m not so sure…

    • Alon Levy

      There are some comfortable suburbs not directly west or southwest of the city, like Bourg-la-Reine or Saint-Mande. The only suburbs that are really poor are in Seine-Saint-Denis and sometimes in Val-d’Oise.

      Tokyo has a big center-suburb income gradient, too. I’ll hunt down references if you’re interested, but Chiyoda, Minato, Chuo, and Shibuya are way richer than the rest of the city, esp. the wards to the north and east, and generally the city is richer than Saitama and Chiba.

      • Michael James

        Almost all of suburban Paris is “comfortable”. Heck, even a lot of Seine-Saint-Denis (if the media folk weren’t too timid to actually visit instead of relying upon old horror stock photos). What you (and NC) are doing here is setting up absurdly high standards. In fact there is a lot of that kind of rather ritzy suburb–such as Sceaux next to Bourg-la-Reine; or Nogent-sur-Marne, or Meudon (where Johnny Depp lived) next to St Cloud, next to Boulogne-Billancourt (the richest commune in France; and part of the “stockbroker belt” starting here, an arc from SSW to W to NW–Meudon-StCloud-BB-Suresnes-Puteaux-LaDefense-Neuilly). While most of the rest may not look as salubrious it is really quite good; such as Villejuif which is a lower-middle-class unspectacular area with good links to Paris (well, it is only 4-5km from the Peripherique and has multiple metro and RER stations–only 3 stops before Bourg-la-Reine; but then this is true for a lot of the Petite-Couronne, the inner ring that houses about 5m (with Paris it holds about 7m). To imagine it is poverty-stricken, crime-ridden and has nothing but terrible schools etc is just risible.

        It seems most get their outlandishly absurd impressions of extramuros Paris from the relentless caricature by the lazy western media that brands it all as “banlieus” while focussing on a few quite small bits of it, mostly in the poorest part–which themselves are small sectors of Seine-Saint-Denis. Even parts of this are “gentrifying” (not exactly the correct term), and is getting a considerable boost by the Olympics. (For those disbelievers and who would never visit such places–I mean I agree there is nothing I could recommend a visit to Villejuif for unless it is where I worked–the biggest cancer hospital & research centre in Europe–try remembering the movie Amelie and when she took the RER–a mere 3 or 4 stops–to visit her father in his neat suburban house with garden & gnomes; well that was Seine-Saint-Denis, though the north-western edge, and somewhat atypical. It looks the same in Villejuif.)

        In fact just this weekend I was browsing property-for-sale in–of all places–Saint Ouen which is a commune within Seine-Saint-Denis. It is a gritty former industrial area squeezed between one arm of the Seine (outside Paris), the Canal St Denis (that joins to Canal St Martin inside Paris-19th) and the Peripherique (with the world’s largest flea-market, Clignancourt: le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen; millions of tourists visit this each year probably without realizing that by walking across the Peripherique from the Porte-de-Clignancourt station of Metro line 4, they have trespassed into the nightmare horror of the banlieus!) Like many such industrial areas (with its own dockyards–even officially called “les Docks” and destined to be similar to all those redeveloped docklands in cities like London, NYC, Barcelona, Sydney etc, ie. filled with new upmarket condos or converted warehouses) it is “gentrifying”. Luc Besson’s Cité du Cinéma movie studio complex is in the northern corner, forming the nucleus of a new creative-arts industry on the bones of the old smokestacks (quite literally, it is in one of those vast old power stations of EDF); where part of Lucy and Valerian were shot. The allure is proximity as it has one RER station (line C1, C3) and 3 Metro stations (line 13) not to mention several more just a walk across the peripherique; plus the M14 is being extended to its centre (Mairie-de-St-Ouen; due to open next year) and M4 has long promised an extension to Les Docks (via Mairie-de-St-Ouen). So living here, in some vital respects, is little different to living, say, where Alon lives in the 12th arrondissement in “central” Paris. Property prices are about half to one third of Paris, though that won’t last. Here is a nice looking place (link below); ok still about $1m but good size at 104m2:

        • Alon Levy

          I mean, Seine-Saint-Denis is one of the poorest departments in the country, even as the other seven in the region are near the top. The whole no-go zone bit is a stupid myth (I know, I lived near one of these supposed no-go zones intra muros), but it’s a local myth, not just an Anglophone myth. The Metro drivers who skip some of the northern stops on M12 aren’t some Anglo foreigners trying to make France look bad.

          • Michael James

            Seine-Saint-Denis is one of the poorest departments in the country, even as the other seven in the region are near the top.

            I see this statement all the time yet I cannot find concrete data on it (the official French site for this stuff always defeats me). Again it is most media commentators repeating what they have read other media repeating … Of course it is the poorest section of Ile de France but given that this is the fifth or sixth largest economic entity on the planet, that doesn’t necessarily relegate it to hell. I simply don’t accept it can be so bad. It is not equivalent to bombed-out Detroit (excluding Grosse Point etc) or West Virginia (which in addition to joblessness is also the epicentre of the opiod crisis; apparently all the dealers have moved there!). After all, the reason it has all those immigrants is because Paris provides so many job opportunities (notwithstanding high youth unemployment etc).

            BTW, M12 has only one station outside (just) the peripherique, and the main issue is Marx-Dormoy which is mostly used by drug dealers; it is in the 18th, not the horror banlieus.

          • Alon Levy

            Per https://www.salairemoyen.com/classement.php the six departments omitting Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-d’Oise are in the top seven, Val-d’Oise is #16, and Seine-Saint-Denis is dead last. Per http://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/2017/10/17/01016-20171017ARTFIG00003-visualisez-le-niveau-de-vie-de-votre-commune.php most of the department is in the lowest-colored category, while all of Paris except the 18th, 19th, and 20th is in the highest category (and this includes not-chic places like the 13th). Per https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/1280669 the median income per person (I think just from work, not from all categories) is 8% lower than the national median and ranks #84 out of 95 departments; the seven other Francilien departments are in the top eight.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy 2018/03/05 – 03:07

            the median income per person (I think just from work, not from all categories) [in Seine-Saint-Denis] is 8% lower than the national median and ranks #84 out of 95 departments; the seven other Francilien departments are in the top eight.

            OK (though I still cannot see a table with all 95 departments –it’s not in that INSEE page and I’m guessing it is simply cited; it is this that I have tried to obtain from the same INSEE site and repeatedly failed). No surprise that SSD is poorer than the other Ile de France zones. But medium income per person only 8% lower than national median doesn’t sound like a disaster (in fact I wonder if it doesn’t mean per “working person”? or maybe per household; ie. I would think the median per person would have to be lower–bigger families skewed young, and mostly immigrants not equipped for the available jobs; 8% seems too low?).

            I would say 84 out of 95 departments is not so horrible either. It’s because of the principle feature of Seine-Saint-Denis: via (poor) planning and historical legacy this single department has a concentration of immigrants, almost certainly more than any other department (most departments being fairly big geographically, outside Ile de France). I am sure there are communes in other departments with similar concentration will be similarly poor, or in fact worse, because those in SSD have more opportunities than any other in France. As those northern regions (Nord) show, it doesn’t need high immigrants for that (though there is a tendency for very recent immigrants to be in them because housing & living is cheaper!). And of course most people are comparing–as you did–the poorer SSD with the richest departments in France and Europe. This makes it seem even worse than it really is. As the INSEE says:

            “In Paris, low incomes are close to what they are in other departments, but the standard of living of the richest is more than 5 times higher than that of the most modest, or 1.8 times the average national ratio. … There is little connection between median standard of living and inequality of standard of living within a department or region (chart) . In Île-de-France, high incomes higher than elsewhere explain a stronger indicator of inequality.
            The presence of complex households [in Seine-Saint-Denis], poorer on average, however, contributes to raising this rate. Paris is a special case. Poverty is average, but slightly higher for younger workers.

            So, the “Map 3 – Poverty rate by department”, shows SSD is in the bottom (worst) group along with 18 other departments. But again I would argue they are better off than most, if not all, those other departments. As the “Chart-Median standard of living and inter-decile ratio by region” shows, Ile de France (including SSD stats) is way out by itself. (Of course many countries have this phenomenon; in the UK it is London versus almost everywhere else, especially the north–and the north is generally defined as north of Watford. You have pointed out the Stockholm versus Malmö thing.)

            While one can lament the outcome of this kind of ghettoisation (and many use this as a battering ram against the French) one wonders how it could be otherwise. There is a very strong natural tendency for this kind of assortment, ie. segregation by country-of-origin, ethnicity etc. It happens everywhere including USA, UK, Canada and Australia, with their Chinatowns, Koreatowns etc. What I am saying is that if a lot of these people dispersed to outside the Ile de France would they or their new departments be somehow magically better off? No, in all likelihood they would be worse off–like those in West Viriginia, East St Louis or Detroit etc. (versus living the Bronx, say; WV is poor whites and the closest equivalent to the French Nord region and for the same reason: demise of coal and steel). I understand that the argument is that the government should have ensured more even dispersion throughout the rest of (rich) Ile de France, but it is hard to see how to achieve that–especially as many of these immigrants or their parents arrived to work in the industrial plants that clustered in these regions (for the same reason: cheap land, less impact on more intensely populated areas). And those urging it would be among the first to complain at the extra costs of trying, and they are still complaining that the state spends too much on special programs in Seine-Saint-Denis. With the closure of the Citroen factory in Aulnay-sur-Bois, in Seine-Saint-Denis, it makes things worse because with the shift from such old industries to more advanced industry and services, the residents of SSD are not the best equipped to thrive. (Maybe the French should bring back the Nissan factory from UK after Brexit, and Opel from Germany, as both are French-owned! Very Trumpian.)

            FWIW, I reckon the French are not doing too badly. I think they are making reasonable efforts in SSD to improve the lives and opportunities of the population. The Macron government has doubled the budget for urban renewal which mostly ends up in such places, though there are 1300 such “priority neighbourhoods” for all of France. The Olympics are a useful “excuse” to disproportionately spend large amounts in this department (remember the French constitution disallows special consideration on ethnic or religious criteria), and perhaps even set up a permanent higher visitor trade for the future. Even in the face of a rapidly changing world with the west having fewer and fewer jobs for the lower-SES.

          • Alon Levy

            Urban renewal has been a disaster for the working-class communities affected, which the state tends to forcibly evict to build monuments. This goes back to Haussmann – the end result is pretty, but the process involved forcing the working class from Paris into the suburbs, creating the income gaps between the city and the suburbs of today. More recently, Corbusian projects have had uniformly poor results in France, Sweden, the US, and the UK, especially when they replaced older neighborhoods. Within Aulnay, one of the real estate media stories I saw about the recent housing development quotes a resident complaining that Grand Paris Express is just going to induce gentrification.

            Seine-Saint-Denis has the highest concentration of immigrants in France, but Paris intra muros has the second highest. And the immigrants here aren’t just in the 18th, 19th, and 20th – they (we!) are all over.

            Instead of trying to solve immigrants’ cultural problems, the state should crack down on job discrimination, which is common here, to about the same extent as in the US and UK if you believe non-comparable equal resume studies. Germany does better on this. Trying to reform the police so that they’re not a bunch of F-Haine sympathizers who rape black people would also be nice (I saw a poll before the election saying 50% of cops and soldiers were voting Le Pen in the first round).

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy 2018/03/05 – 07:21

            That was a bit extreme.
            On Haussmann you couldn’t be more wrong. He built a modern city (you know, clean water, sewers, sealed roads).

            More recently, Corbusian projects have had uniformly poor results in France, Sweden, the US, and the UK, especially when they replaced older neighborhoods.

            I agree but all the world went thru that sorry phase. (You can criticize Corbu as much as you like as I am not a fan. Oh and he was Swiss … and Corbusian ≠ Haussmannian; in case the symbol doesn’t work, that is “not equal”). The vast bulk of them were built on greenfield sites, so no “older neighbourhoods” were replaced. Those hi-rise social housing apartments were a huge misstep everywhere they were built as they didn’t create any kind of good social environment, usually the opposite. In some ways it is lucky they weren’t built to the highest standards. In the next quarter century most of them will be demolished and replaced with low-rise, (dare I say, Haussmannian) housing which, funny enough, will be both higher density than the 15-20 floor hi-rise quarters (“towers in a park”), and much better urban environments. Alas, the new stuff, while a big improvement, still won’t be as good as the Haussmannian social housing (eg. the HLMs & HBMs such as built on the old Thiers wall).

            Grand Paris Express is just going to induce gentrification

            That argument runs up a cul-de-sac. Obama nailed it down just last week in a discussion about his Obama Presidential Center in southside Chicago:

            During a community gathering Tuesday night at McCormick Place, the 44th president said fears that his library will uproot local businesses and residents are valid, but need to be balanced against the need for “more economic activity in the community.”
            “I know that I heard a couple people saying, ‘Well, we’re concerned about maybe rents might go up,’” Mr. Obama said. “Well here’s the thing. If you go into some neighborhoods in Chicago where there are no jobs, no businesses and nothing’s going on, in some cases the rent’s pretty cheap. But our kids are also getting shot on that block.”

            You can’t make an omelet with breaking a few eggs…
            In any case, as I wrote in my earlier post about St Ouen, it’s not exactly gentrification. And seriously, I don’t think a lot of Dionysiens will agree. Resources put into the department will be welcome, including some monuments that you deride. They actually help make a community and a place, and most of those immigrants still understand and appreciate France and their urbanism. And their cost won’t compare to
            the many billions in “meat & potatoes” transport infrastructure, and rebuilding that failed social housing.

            Seine-Saint-Denis has the highest concentration of immigrants in France, but Paris intra muros has the second highest. And the immigrants here aren’t just in the 18th, 19th, and 20th – they (we!) are all over.

            Bien sur, and one day I hope to rejoin you rabble of foreign trash (well maybe not in the … sniff … 12th :-). Did you notice in that INSEE map shows Paris’ highest levels of social housing are in the 19th, 20th and 13th & 14th. Hidalgo is trying to infiltrate more into the others, including making provocative suggestions about all that spare greenfield space on avenue Foch! But I don’t think it is likely to shift the colourings on that map unless some crazed Ed Glaeser, Matthew Yglesias (or Levy?) type overwhelms all commonsense, demolishes the existing hi-density (Haussmannian) fabric to build hi-rise. Hey, isn’t that Corbusian, like the Voisin Plan on the Right Bank? It left the Louvre intact but everything north of it up to Place de la Republique was razed, including the Palais Royal, Place Vendome, Opera Garnier, avenue de la Opera, etc.

  6. Mike

    Very interesting article. I’m fortunate to live in a well off household in inner suburban London. Zone 3 for the transit aficionados. With two adults and one small child we don’t own a car and dont miss it at all. Walking and transit are fine for our mobility needs. Having said that I’m therefore amazed that we seem to be in a minority of one in our peer group. I think if we can manage perfectly well without why can’t they. I can only conclude that status / fear of the other on public transport are indeed factors in ownership of cars. Having said that a number do use transit as well as cars. But for some reason they don’t want to be without despite the easy availability of taxis or car shares.
    On housing the big problem in the U.K. is that apartments for families are just never built. I have stayed in two amazing mansion flats, one in Paris and one in Vienna where I would happily live with my family. They were both big and beautiful. There are some similar old blocks in South Kensington and some similar parts of London but very few compared to other European cities. Here you are driven to the standard terrace house whether you want it or not. Again I think status and fear of living in apparent close contact with others have a cultural role to play.

    • Alon Levy

      In the US they try to mandate more family-size housing in cities, but all of it gets snatched by housemates. I don’t know if London has the small apartments that Paris has – over here there are so many studios of 20-25 m^2, and even some studettes in the 9-15 m^2 range.

      • Michael James

        True, there are a lot of very small studios in Paris. Partly a legacy of the 19th and earlier centuries (those studettes are “chambre de bonne”, ie. maids rooms, for staff who worked in family apartments on lower floors. Partly still fufiling a need by students: Paris is perhaps the largest student city in the world (hard to compare with the likes of Boston which has the most tertiary students since it is not a apples-with-apples comparison). Partly the lack of flat-sharing that you see in the Anglosphere. Partly the legacy of provincials who retain a pied-à-terre in the city (sometimes a legacy from some time they spent living their earlier in their lives).

        My own experience ticked almost all these boxes, for years in my 18m2 studio on Ile St Louis. I wasn’t a student but was doing my first post-doc fellowship. Ile St Louis was mostly built in the 17th century when it was reclaimed from cow pasture and agglomerated into one island. The owner I rented from, had himself been a student (engineer) in Paris who then lived in Bordeaux. When I left he sold it (though with Bordeaux only 2h on the new TGV he might have some regrets …). It was not a chambre-de-bonne but a studio with its own bathroom and kitchen. Certainly too small for long term but still I pine for it to this day. Over the years, I have visited student-share flats in London and they are nothing like in those rose-coloured movies (Notting Hill etc) but are seriously awful grotty places, usually with privacy issues (too many flatmates in pseudo-rooms), with that dank damp moldy feel you get in the UK (and, for whatever reasons, not in Paris or France) and still eye-wateringly expensive.

        Once again the Anglosphere has got it wrong. Somehow Paris and most of Europe gets it right; far from perfect but works reasonably well. Those tiny studios and studettes are presumably what inspired Bloomberg and his “micro-apartments”. The odd thing is that I don’t believe today any tiny apartments are built (possibly against code, Alon?) in new developments in Paris (or France); so they have the luck of a large legacy stock of such things (that obviously are grandfathered) that clearly serve a function; and btw none of them are like you find in Hong Kong with its illegally subdivided cardboard-walled spaces. London is now building so-called “co-housing” which sounds like it should be for retirees but is for the working young who have been priced out of even renting (let alone purchase) but IMO that is a shocking non-solution. It is forced barracks living–for people in their 20s and 30s (soon … 40s & 50s)–and seems very redolent of USSR communal apartments with shared kitchens etc. The common thing within the Anglosphere (and places that mimick it, like HK) is the abandonment of public housing for at least the last 35 years (since 1997 for HK), along with tax policies that promote unproductive property speculation.

        • RVA_Exile

          “Co-Housing”: Coming soon to a San Francisco near you.. or maybe it’s already here. (Curious how the respectability issue plays out when the concept expands – in number or geography – so much so that they have to start accepting more than token numbers of people of color.)


          • Michael James

            I just caught up with that story via the Alex Baca story in yesterday’s Slate. (Talk about a hall-of-mirrors; Alon Levy opens this story on an Alex Baca quote, and Baca cites this Levy article yesterday and here I am citing Baca’s article citing Levy’s article …).
            The problem with that trend in SF of “$1,400–$2,400 for a fully furnished 130 to 220 square-foot room, with utilities and internet included” is many-fold, not least the cost but also that the rooms don’t have their own bathrooms. And that really reflects the basic problem of it being a corporate solution–this is a deep penetration into personal space. I can just imagine the intrusive agreement you have to sign to rent these spaces. I wonder if privacy is the same as dorms (are these lockable rooms?), are you paying for a cleaning service (probably the only way to keep communal space clean) etc etc. How many others are sharing the communal facilities? When everything is corporatised the emphasis becomes on how to maximise (corporate) savings (on building and on that precious space), hence the lack of bathrooms which to me is completely unacceptable. The other thing that I could guarantee (without having seen any plans of these SROs) is that there will be a dire shortage of storage in them, for the very simple reason that storage takes precious space; but storage is even more important in a small living space and it essentially, fundamentally needs to be built-in, designed-in. Otherwise you end living in a mess.

            I’d much rather have my Parisian 18m2 studio (with bathroom & tiny kitchen) with its excellent privacy and security of tenure (under Paris rental laws, not some corporates’ accountant’s concepts). This is a seriously bad trend, almost like a 1984 scenario–yet housing is so desperate in SF that it will be claimed to be very “popular”. Which is more or less what Baca is saying: “Denigrating the new construction of SROs (even for their aesthetics), performing incredulity at a person’s choice to live in one, and denouncing them as somehow lesser dangerously reinforces it.” Here we go, repeating the same mantra of “choice” as was given in the post-war suburban explosion (when getting a mortgage for anything else was impossible, and still impossible if you were off-white, and to this day most American’s claim it is “free choice” to adopt that style of housing and its lifestyle straitjacket and car-dependency etc).

            In Defense of Dorms for Grown-Ups We need more kinds of housing for every kind of lifestyle—especially in pricy places like San Francisco.
            Alex Baca, 07 March 2018.

          • Alon Levy

            You shouldn’t blame corporations for houseshare in San Francisco. San Francisco has a city law mandating a minimum of 400 ft^2 per apartment, to prevent exactly the kind of microapartments that single people live in in Paris, Zurich, Stockholm, and other expensive Continental cities.

          • Michael James

            Here is a comment I like from that Alex Baca story in Slate:

            JustAnotherEngineer 12 hours ago
            Let us not be delusional. These are not dorms, they are not micro-apartments, they are not hotels or hostels or bed-and-breakfast bedrooms.
            They are tenements. New York City had them, and made them illegal about a hundred years ago…. about the time the city embarked on a massive public housing program to build affordable properly sized living spaces.
            Wake up San Francisco. Just because the rent is high doesn’t change a tenement magically into a luxury dorm.

          • Alon Levy

            Wait, what did New York ban a hundred years ago? The New Law permitted tenements, it just requires courtyards for garbage removal. The city did ban SROs (defined by whether there’s an external lock on the bedrooms), but that was in 1955. The zoning code is from 1916 but said nothing about building tenure, just about use and (loosely) height.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy 2018/03/09 – 00:10

            You shouldn’t blame corporations for houseshare in San Francisco. San Francisco has a city law mandating a minimum of 400 ft^2 per apartment, to prevent exactly the kind of microapartments that single people live in in Paris, Zurich, Stockholm …

            Right, but I suspect Paris today has similar building code for new construction. 400 ft^2 is about 37m2 which is generally a 2-piece in Paris–definitely not “micro”–so maybe they allow smaller for studios (but probably not under 20m2?). These dorm rooms are 130 to 220 ft2, about 12 to 20m2.
            In an earlier comment I asked whether you knew what the current code allows as a minimum.

          • Michael James

            I meant what the Paris building code is today.
            And my point in comparing those areas is that if you added a bathroom and micro-kitchen (I hate “coin cuisine” ie. in the main room; my Ile St Louis studio had a tiny, maybe 3m2, kitchen with its own window, sink, stove, space for refrigerator and washing machine! and a normal door you could close) to the 12-20m2 dorm room, it would be within hailing distance of the 400ft2–kinda.
            I think we’ve had this discussion before, and I came up with about 25m2 as my minimum as a viable studio. The “extra” would be one whole wall of floor-to-ceiling (deep ≈650mm) storage along the longest wall; probably at least 5m2. But good ergonomic design is critical and the Parisians are very good at it. (Curiously the Loi Carrez doesn’t allow built-in storage space to be counted in the legal description of available “habitable” floor space, but I would guess the building code has appropriate allowances.)

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t know what the current code allows, but there’s a big supply of old microapartments, which there isn’t in American cities.

          • Michael James

            No luck in finding the French (or EU) standards but did find a consultants report (link below) commissioned by the city of London. It’s recommendations were (in Table 2), 37m2 for one person; 44m2 for 2 people; 57m2 for 3 people etc. However it is not clear if this became law, and the authors note that historically the UK’s standards are lower than in Europe. It also notes that all housing, whether public-provided (ie. social) or private, is deficient in storage at 0.5m2 per person (that is a broom cupboard, in fact a quite small broom cupboard)!
            You’ll notice the concordance of the 37m2 minimum with the Californian 400ft2. Either copy-and-pasting by consultants or convergence based on whatever rationale is used today. I suspect this is v. similar to any EU recommendation.

            Click to access hatc_housing_space_standards_report_for_gla_2006.pdf

            Housing Space Standards
            A report by HATC Limited for the Greater London Authority
            August 2006
            I found this (below) on another pet hatred of mine (low ceilings). If the Brits are doing it, ipso facto, you can bet it will be awful. Low ceilings are another very good reason to avoid any modern apartments in Paris too. I’d rather a smaller apartment with high-ceilings than a bigger (modern) one with those miserable low ceilings.

            Click to access CIB1753.pdf

            A comparison of technical requirements for housing in Europe
            H.J. Visscher, L. Sheridan, F.M. Meijer.

            5.6 Dimensions of habitable space and habitable rooms
            Floor area is a key determinant of amenity and accessibility, but space standards are no longer a central consideration of most European building regulations. The Netherlands has more extensive space standards and dimensional requirements for rooms than the other countries studied, but requirements for ceiling heights have been retained in each country except England and Wales. The Building Decree asserts that its requirements are necessary to ensure a functional design and it would be interesting to discover whether the working of the market achieves this in other countries. The removal of controls in England and Wales resulted in reduced space standards, but it is difficult to evaluate whether or not the designs are functional. It is also difficult to demonstrate whether the flexibility afforded by higher space standards makes a significant contribution to the sustainability of housing development, but it seems sensible to protect the space standards of the housing stock by building regulations, rather than market forces.

  7. adirondacker12800

    When the Progressive Movement created the idea of suburbia around 1900

    Borrowed wholesale from other 19th Century Utopians, most Arts and Crafts.

    • JJJ

      Every female dating profile in Fresno says the same thing: Don’t swipe on me if you don’t have a job and a truck.

  8. adirondacker12800

    The point of suburbia from the start was to make it impossible to form any culture except the dominant WASP culture.

    ….well… if the deed has a restriction in it that the property can only be sold to White Protestants, chances are real good that the neighborhood will be white and Protestant. And less formally that you wouldn’t be able to get a mortgage unless you selected a house in the “right” neighborhood. If the bank was willing to deal with someone with too many vowels or too many consonants in their name. It’s one of the reason there used to be ethnic banks. Union credit unions. Fraternal credit unions. Company credit unions….

    • Alon Levy

      The Progressive Era reformers who designed the subway to induce suburbanization wanted the ethnic whites to own homes, just in a way that would spread and mix them until they all behaved like the WASPs. I don’t think there were ever any restrictions on selling to Catholics, just to blacks. Maybe there were restrictions on Jews? I’m not sure.

      • adirondacker12800

        Written into the deed, in more than a few places, that it could only be sold to white Protestants. Even if it wasn’t written into the deed if it wasn’t the right neighborhood you would get turned down for a mortgage. Which started with the real estate agents who would direct people to “right” neighborhood. Not out of animus but they live on commissions and wanted to make a sale. No point sending you off to someplace you couldn’t get a mortgage on.

  9. JJJ

    To add to your examples, in Brazil, many (most?) among the very rich live in apartments. Very large apartments, which take up an entire floor (or two) and feature maid quarters and private pools, but high-rise apartments. Car ownership is key, but driving is not. It has always puzzled me to see stories in the US about very rich celebrities getting a DUI – in Brazil, the rich have drivers.

    Aside from racism, I think one reason apartments are seen poorly in the US is because they are built to such shit quality. Even the so-called luxury stuff going up.

    AKA: The standard american apartment experience:

    In contrast, in Latin America, the apartments are built of brick and concrete. You simply don’t hear your neighbors. Ever. Additionally, the Latin American building is much smaller. 1,2,4,6 or maybe 8 apartments per floor, max. I’ve seen apartment buildings in the US with 50 units per floor. They take up the entire block.

    The single detached home is about privacy. Hearing your neighbor cough, flush the toilet, argue, and have sex, is anything but private. And aside from the $40 million multi-floor apartments in Manhattan, you don’t get that privacy in American apartments, even at $3,500 a month. And those apartments only get privacy because 3/4 of them are empty and owned by Russian or Chinese money launderers.

    You want people to see apartments as desirable, then they need to be built that way. Instead, we get paper walls, but hey, there’s a dog spa on the amenity floor next to business lounge (why?) and the demonstration kitchen (why?)

    • Alon Levy

      The older apartment buildings in New York don’t have 50 units per floor. The mid-block New Law tenements in Harlem have 2, one front and one back, and the corner lot tenements have 6-10.

      I have wondered about noise. I can vaguely hear when my next-door neighbor has a party, but it’s always faint and never makes it hard to talk or sleep. In New York I have heard a lot of noise from adjacent apartments, even though on the outside the buildings look the same as in Paris.

      • JJJ

        Right, Im speaking about modern construction, for example this thing in LA:

        These are everywhere.

        Pre-war stuff is great. My dorm in Boston was silent, because it was from the 1920s.

        American developers don’t spend a penny on noise insulation, because by the time you lie down in your bed and hear the coughing next door, it’s too late, you’ve signed a 12-month lease, or worse, bought the damn place.

        Until it’s regulated, it won’t happen. And American will continue to hate apartments after living in them.

        • Alon Levy

          Okay, the prewar buildings I’ve lived or crashed in in New York are definitely not that quiet.

          In France, one regulation that probably improves things is that every tenant has the right to leave an apartment with 30-day notice.

          • Michael James

            Alon, I think it is a mixture of earlier construction materials and norms, and the relaxation of some building codes in the modern era–and more so in the Anglosphere–on the pretext of “modern” engineering or materials etc. This latter is almost entirely false, in that while they can make floors in buildings much stronger today while being thinner with less concrete, it doesn’t make them better in noise or vibration reduction. On the contrary these things have clearly got worse in the modern era. Older buildings use masonry dividing walls (ie. between apartments) while today they are allowed to be triple-layered plasterboard which is seriously inadequate. A separate ceiling layer with void should be mandatory but that is rare in modern buildings–one apartment’s “ceiling” is the same (thin) concrete slab that is the above apartment’s floor. But that would mean losing building height and today they aim for the absolute minimum storey height.
            Thermal performance has actually declined–almost certainly at the behest of the building industry and property developers on the basis that we can control climate easily with air-con etc. And the argument that in the various mass housing crises post-war, that it was more important to build cheaply en mass than maintain high standards. In France, surprisingly, they actually did this deliberately in league with the development of their nuclear industry, ie. on the basis that electric power would be so cheap. (For the past decade or two they have been catching up to northern Europe on these building codes–on the realisation that the greenest electricity is the kind you don’t use for unnecessary heating or cooling.)

            The paradox is that even though the science of construction and engineering is a quantum ahead of just 50 years ago, the quality of most residential building gets worse. As it gets ever more expensive. And also not destined to last as long. (That’s without the likes of that inflammable alu-cladding, and some say a lot of below-spec Chinese rebar used around the world to keep costs down. Since all the certification seems to be outsourced to private companies, how do we even know? Except of course when it burns down and kills 70 people.) It turns out most modern structures with steel reinforced concrete is destined to crumble, not at all like the ancient unreinforced concrete Parthenon in Rome that has lasted two thousand years. Or that apartment I lived in on Ile St Louis which had to be of the order of 300 years old–timber and stone–and looks like will last another few centuries. Curious how we’re coming full circle with timber being used for modern medium-rise (and some proposals for hi-rise too), though it is engineered-timber so one wonders if that will last as long.

          • Alon Levy

            For what it’s worth, Singaporean condos are quiet. And they’re built in a context where a 20-year-old building is considered too old and rents at a discount.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy 2018/03/06 – 16:58

            For what it’s worth, Singaporean condos are quiet. And they’re built in a context where a 20-year-old building is considered too old and rents at a discount.

            Ah yes, the (unpredictable) advantages of an authoritarian state! Some 80+% of the population live in government built and/or controlled public housing (and actually one of the big complaints in Singapore is how Kafkaesque is the lack of freedom in the housing you are allowed to buy; however this is the inevitable outcome from increasing prosperity). Interestingly their HDB has things in common with France’s HLM & HBM, and their special savings account (to eventually qualify for a mortgage using your own savings).

            The same is true for the old buildings in the former-USSR. Those low-rise serried ranks of Stalinist apartment blocks are actually rather comfortable inside, built very solidly and for their brutal winters (I’ve stayed in them in Moscow and Irkutsk in near-winter). Likewise the Khrushchyovkas (the smaller blocks, generally 4,000 housing almost 2m of Moscow’s residents. But their latest incarnation of authoritarianism (gangster/crony capitalism) is demolishing them all (compulsorily), to replace with soulless hi-rise too expensive for the original occupants. Sure they will initially seem appealing because of newness and “modernity” but one seriously doubts they are as good in privacy, noise and thermal insulation. I’d bet the state is making the same error France made those 4 decades ago: thinking that efficient energy use doesn’t matter with all their energy resources.
            I wouldn’t rent, let alone, buy any of these modern apartments in any of these cities (Paris, Singapore, … Moscow). And contrary to your comment about prices, the old stuff will not only hold its value but increase, much more than any of this new stuff (take a look at Paris and see what the €/m2 is for those hi-rise horrors in the 13th compared to a Haussmannian next door).

            OTOH, Singapore does have a housing affordability problem–that Anglosphere disease again, exacerbated by the worst inequality in the developed world. Your comment refers to the 60s & 70s buildings when Singapore started creating public housing on a large scale, and this coincided with one of the worst eras in history for building (style & quality), so this is not at all comparable with what I am talking about in Paris–where I would shun the exact same epoch (ie. 50s thru 80s; I think things improved somewhat in the 90s when the shoddiness of that fad of Meisian “modernity” became apparent) and I would generally stick to pre-WW2 buildings (or 17th century like most of Ile St Louis!).

          • Alon Levy

            Condo in Singapore specifically means privately-built apartment building, so no, it’s not HDB. Why would I have lived in an HDB block? Those are restricted to citizens and permanent residents.

            And yes, Singapore has very high housing prices in the private market. Singapore’s citizen population doesn’t reproduce itself, and population growth comes entirely from immigration. Getting permanent residency as an immigrant is increasingly hard, because the citizens complain about immigrants taking their jobs, and the government can’t just deport the immigrants because businesses need them, so instead it makes it harder for immigrants to get PR status. (In similar vein, in the Cameron cabinet, Home Secretary Theresa May raised the length of time the spouse of a UK citizen needs to wait before getting indefinite leave to remain from 2 years to 5 – the Tories can’t really reduce migration levels because London needs the labor, so all they can do is be assholes to immigrants.)

            So because Singapore has a rapidly rising population of nonresidents and weak construction numbers (generally tracking Ile-de-France, i.e. 2.5/1,000 people last decade with recent acceleration to 5.5), there is a demand/supply mismatch in the private market, blowing up rents for immigrants.

            What I’m saying about housing prices going down over time is specific to Singaporean condos, and from what I’ve heard also to Japanese housing. Recently there has been growth in prices throughout Singapore, but newer buildings still cost more to live in than older buildings.

          • Eric

            It should be *relatively* easy to fix the noise insulation issue. Just take two adjacent apartments, make a noise in one, see how much you hear from the next one. Measure this number and publish it.

          • James Sinclair

            Being able to break a lease with 30 days notice would absolutely help address this issue.

            I can’t imagine the horror of moving into a great new apartment, and at 2am discovering a neighbor has a baby. Fortunately, babies are rare in cities..(aka, the point of this original post). You can file a noise complaint over music or a TV, but nobody is going to do anything about baby

          • adirondacker12800

            There are PreWar building and there are PreWar buildings. If the apartment has been carved out of what used to be a single family rowhouse it’s not going to be very quiet. Or the apartment was carved out of what was a much larger apartment. A lot depends on your tolerance too. My front door is 30 feet from the curb of the state highway. It’s noisy. I don’t hear it, in the house. I do if I sit on the front porch. I don’t sit on the front porch. I sit on the back porch. And only vaguely hear the next door neighbor’s beagle being a beagle. Beagles love to bark. The woman at the other end of the next block, the beagle drives her nuts. The cats slinking along her hedge line drives her nuts. The kids playing basketball three houses away. The neighbor across the street who brings his work truck home a few times a month…. She really should move someplace with ten acre zoning.

          • Michael James

            adirondacker12800 2018/03/06 – 14:44

            There are PreWar building and there are PreWar buildings. If the apartment has been carved out of what used to be a single family rowhouse it’s not going to be very quiet. Or the apartment was carved out of what was a much larger apartment.

            True. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It all comes down to government regulation but in the Anglosphere we have surrendered all this to the property developers. It doesn’t even need to be expensive, though of course always a bit more expensive than what they do if they are allowed. My own apartment building is a 110 year-old converted warehouse (a Woolstore) with massive brick outer walls but originally huge floor plates without divides. Amazingly the developer who converted it into apartments put in excellent party walls (some are 5m high) that have plasterboard on both outer surfaces, separated by an airgap from an inner 6cm AAC ( Autoclaved aerated concrete); one of the airgaps is filled with rockwool. The result is superb. This AAC is remarkable stuff (main tradename is Hebel) and was invented by the Swedes, perfected by the Germans. While a bit expensive (compared to plasterboard), it can be cut like plasterboard and installed just as easily, yet performs better than concrete block without the weight loading (or the cost of a bricklayer or pouring concrete).
            This kind of thing should be mandatory for all party walls (when not an actual concrete structural wall) but instead they allow the triple-plasterboard arrangement which may meet firewall standards but definitely doesn’t perform as well on noise or thermal insulation.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy 2018/03/06 – 22:17

            Condo in Singapore specifically means privately-built apartment building, so no, it’s not HDB. Why would I have lived in an HDB block? Those are restricted to citizens and permanent residents.

            Right. The info I have says that >80% of the “resident population” lives in HDB. But perhaps that excludes millions of non-PR foreigners? However it also says that often HDB build more expensive upmarket apartments to compete with the private sector. My main focus is on the Singaporean residents. And I am guessing that there won’t be huge differences between public and private in Singapore, ie. unlike the Anglosphere where “public” housing means inferior crap in a slum area. In fact HBMs in France are “private” too–mostly built by insurance companies–but heavily regulated so the differences with public are not so great. Housing is yet another instance of where a totally “free market” ultimately fails as we are seeing around the Anglosphere.
            The Singapore monetary authority has been clamping down on lending etc to tamp down their housing market. These housing issues are also driving the Chinese building new islands in the Straits of Johor next to Tanjung Pelepas (part of Malaysia but intended to tap into the Singaporean market; close to the landbridge). They are creating sand islands about 10% of the size of Singapore itself! (I have no idea if this will survive the new capital controls in China. This kind of thing is very dependent on Chinese investors desperate to get some of their wealth out of China and “banked” into something solid.)

          • Alon Levy

            No, there is a big difference in both layout and quality. The older HDBs don’t have elevators stopping at every floor but every other floor, for example.

            A big non-quality-related difference is that HDBs keep the bottom floor clear to use as communal space. If you have a birthday party, you hold it on the ground floor of your HDB, which is open to the elements. Condos instead use the ground floor for lobby space and maybe some amenities like a gym or a pool.

          • adirondacker12800

            Anglosphere we have surrendered all this to the property developers.

            In the U.K. brought to you by free market/private enterprise zealots. I wanna to do something more complex than changing a switch or an outlet, replace a washer, I have to get a permit and have it inspected. By a terrible gubbermint employee who gets a living wage and decent benefits. There was a seeming unending stream of experts, from Canada, Australia, U.S., France that were on the TeeVee, after the Grenfell fire saying “the manufacturer says it shouldn’t be used above the second floor, it never would have passed inspections” and “people don’t die in buildings with sprinklers”

        • Michael James

          Hah, look at this (below). Amazon is snooping on my computer and has its algorithms finely tuned. I just received this email about this particular book!

          A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture (MIT Press) Reprint Edition
          by Reyner Banham (Author)
          In a book that suggests how good Modern was before it went wrong, Reyner Banham details the European discovery of this concrete Atlantis and examines a number of striking architectural instances where aspects of the International Style are anticipated by US industrial buildings.

          “Let us listen to the counsels of American engineers. But let us beware of American architects!” declared Le Corbusier, who like other European architects of his time believed that he saw in the work of American industrial builders a model of the way architecture should develop. It was a vision of an ideal world, a “concrete Atlantis” made up of daylight factories and grain elevators.In a book that suggests how good Modern was before it went wrong, Reyner Banham details the European discovery of this concrete Atlantis and examines a number of striking architectural instances where aspects of the International Style are anticipated by US industrial buildings.

          Re your comment on HDBs and their ground floors: yes, I know. Asia is one of the places where buildings perched on pilotis (as obsessed by Corbu and the international modernists) actually work, mostly because they don’t allow any spare space to remain unused. And the weather … Compare it to the Jussieu campus where the entire ground floor is a dead zone, swept by cold winds …

          • Alon Levy

            Right, this doesn’t work at Jussieu because it’s an office complex; the various departments within the campus have their own common spaces, and have no need for the ground floor of campus. But HDBs are residential and have small apartments, so birthdays and other parties have to go in common spaces, which might as well be on the ground floor of the building.

          • Michael James

            Jussieu, an office complex? Well, yes but it has ten thousand students (or whatever) so I can see what the original planners might have imagined: lots of student activities and generally milling about. But it remained wind-swept dead-zone. After all these decades I am surprised that they have left it as it is, because not only is it a vast amount of space (in Paris!) that is dead, but it spreads its deadness to the entire site. Maybe it is too late and the damned thing is UNESCO listed? Grey rotting concrete and everything … (Talking about UNESCO, their hideous International style building a few kilometres away, also is partly on pilotis. Which shows it is entirely an empty stylistic thing/fad because assuredly it could hardly ever serve a purpose there. Though I think most of it is glassed in, so protected from the weather. Probably could shelter half the homeless in Paris there … )

          • Michael James

            Alon, presumably you know about this Charenton-Bercy development as it is literally in your backyard?

            Paris garden skyscraper by SOM will be “one of the most sustainable buildings in Europe”
            India Block | 14 March 2018.

            I’m not sure I approve, mostly because they are going with the current propensity to go v. high (and bringing in the world champions, SOM). They say it will house 1,000 apartments but that doesn’t sound all that many and I strongly suspect the same area would house even more if built to Haussmannian code. Though the industry has learned how to build these things much better than in the past, I can’t help but wonder if it won’t be another Tour Pleyel de nos jours. It also is another plank in the retrograde concept of encircling the Peripherique (ie. just outside central Paris) with high-rise, which would be kind of reconstructing the Thiers wall.
            They claim 30% will be social housing, and also: “42,000-square metres will be given over to co-living units for students and seniors.” So, at both ends of our lives we are to be herded into dorm living!

            But otherwise, the garden bridge across the Seine all the way to Bois de Vincennes is a good thing–in fact, while I wouldn’t want to see it inside the Peripherique, I have thought that a garden bridge with some low buildings for cafes, restaurants etc might work quite well; a kind of nouvo Ponte Vecchio. Yes, this is a lot like London’s failed Garden Bridge but the difference is–this being Paris–this will definitely be a public affair.
            I also note that this zone is really quite a transit desert, only the Baron-LeRoy T3 stop is within considerable walking distance. Maybe they will reroute it across the bridge and thru this development? Then there is RER-D whose tracks are directly below …

          • Eric

            “co-living units for students and seniors” sounds like the seniors pay the rent, while the students get free rent but have to look after the seniors a bit and maybe do more errands. It’s a successful model in individual cases, but I wonder if it can be successfully mass-produced.

          • Alon Levy

            Before Social Security, the US model was the opposite: seniors would take young boarders to supplement whatever pension they might have.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy 2018/03/16 – 07:05

            Before Social Security, the US model was the opposite: seniors would take young boarders to supplement whatever pension they might have.

            Now they use AirBnB to rent out their spare rooms. So same thing really.

  10. rational plan

    In recent years sound insulation standards in the UK have been greatly increased, but as with all these things, this only applies to new construction or newly converted buildings.

  11. Adam

    For the current generation of millenials in USA big cities, one of the big standards of respectability is “good schools”

    What does that mean for millenials? It means that the opaque school score on redfin, trulia, zillow etc is an 8 or above.

    What is that school score? It’s a “great schools” score, based on who knows what, but the algorithm probably includes test scores, teacher retention, racial demographics, graduation rates etc.

    But the important thing about the score is that the score is not assigned on merit, it is assigned on a curve. but actually the reverse of what most people think of, when they think of the phrase “grading on a curve.”

    What does that mean?

    It means that 10% of schools in the state will always be assigned a 1, 10% of schools in the state will always be assigned a 2, etc, and 10% of schools in the state will be assigned a 10.

    So what does that mean?

    Well it means that if every school in the state has great test scores, prospective home buyers (or people changing apartments) have no idea if their school is actually good, because thousands of schools will be given a failing grade regardless.

    And no matter what, schools in suburbs always have high scores and schools in urban areas always have low scores.

    And it means that even if your school raises it’s achievement significantly, it may never actually result in increasing commensurately in school score, a high school might double it’s graduation rate, and triple its test scores, and it’d still get rated a 3 because it’s not enough to crack into the rarefied higher airs.

    Or because certains schools with certain people aren’t allowed good scores (like I said, it’s an opaque system).

    and by and large, every millenial accepts the scores as a gospel truth about the quality of the schools without ever actually contacting or physically visiting the schools. School scores shall never have the provenance of their authority questioned, because people believe them to be granitic facts (but all it’s really doing is reinforcing their suspicions or flattering stereotypes they already want to believe).

    School scores are a crucial element of modern social engineering ensuring an enforcement and perpetuation of the continual suburban norms as much as the subway construction was 100 years ago.

  12. Bjorn

    People deviate from the norm enough that most cultural arguments, even contradictory ones, have enough backing to be logically supported. Some thoughts that don’t appear covered above:

    1. Americans are richer on average than the large core European countries (GB, FR, DE) and Japan. France and Japan have a per-capita income on par with West Virginia. As cars and housing are normal goods, Americans should be expected to own more cars and larger homes even if all else is equal.
    2. The “temporarily embarrassed millionaire” view: People aren’t all that willing to limit their ability to achieve a higher “status,” (wealth, home size, car quality, etc) in the future, even if the policy tradeoff would boost their “status” now. (To be fair, I’m less certain on the soundness of this argument.)

    • Alon Levy

      Here is per capita income net of rent and interest payments per NUTS-2 region. It is equivalent to the statistic called “net earnings” in the BEA data (look under “economic profile”). The Eurostat numbers are PPP-adjusted and appear to adjust at a rate of €1 = $1.27, judging by a GDP per capita table. In 2014, the last year for which Eurostat deigns to give data, West Virginia was at $20,682/capita, and the poorest region in Metropolitan France, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, was at €17,300. Overall France is poorer than the US, though this is more than fully explained by shorter working hours here, and Ile-de-France is richer than California and not much poorer than Massachusetts and Connecticut. Germany is about on a par with US wages and salaries per capita, even with shorter working hours, and Oberbayern, a.k.a. Munich, is almost as rich as Connecticut or the San Francisco Bay Area.

      And far from meccas of automobility, Paris and Munich are among the two top transit cities in Europe, alongside Zurich (also very rich), Berlin (poor but rapidly gentrifying), Vienna (not great), Prague (not great but the richest ex-communist city), and Stockholm (pretty rich and rapidly growing because of the local tech industry). The European capital of automobility is Italy, which has had a weak economy for 25 years and is slipping from high- to upper-middle-income status. Within France, the highest car ownership and highest car use is in very poor departments like Corsica, which have no money to invest in public transportation.

      Re “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”: it’s a useful claim about how the second quartile of the American income distribution tends to identify as lower middle class rather than as working class and to have petit-bourgeois mannerisms. The problems are that a) the US is not unique in that regard (Germany has an ethos of the Mittelstand, much more so than Britain), and b) the petite bourgeoisie isn’t the biggest obstacle to either public transit or zoning reform.

      Within San Francisco, one of the flashpoints in the Mission involves a laundromat owner who wants to sell the property to a developer who’d build condos; the opposition isn’t coming from other small business owners, but from community groups that are complaining that the redevelopment would destroy a mural of Cesar Chavez. In both the US and Europe, the social class that most trenchantly defends class differentiation is not the petite bourgeoisie but the actual bourgeoisie, especially the salaryman class, which led early suburbanization in the US. When you do see petit-bourgeois attacks on livable streets, they tend to come from people who need to drive as part of their job, like plumbers, and for those, actual material interest is a lot more important than abstract class allegiance.

      • Toryhere

        it is interesting that those who talk about how rich a country is always concentrate on income and not capital. People who live in Sydney are richer than most Americans, because housing in Sydney is more expensive. This means that Sydneysiders are sitting on far greater amounts of equity in their houses than Americans.
        Also per capital income is also a useless measurement of wealth, because it gives no indication of costs. If you earn $45K but only have $10K expenses, you may be richer than the person who earns $90K but has 66K in expenses. It all depends on who has More capital and who can thus raise more funds to enlarge his capital.

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  14. Nathanael

    FWIW, we’re winning the mindshare in some places. Condo living is super attractive among the new upper middle class in upstate NY, anyway — owning your own house comes second. But the condos are way more expensive, because the zoning history means there are a lot fewer of them.

    The same dynamic seems to be going on in bigger cities on the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, ane the East Coast.

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