Category: Israel

Democratic Versus Elite Consensus

This is part 2 of my series on consensus, following Consensus and Cities.

Early-20th century America was a nation with remarkable consensus about cities. The progressive reformers, the populists, and the environmental movement all agreed that cities were bad, and the only solution to their problem was widespread destruction of slums. It’s this general agreement that gave autocrats like Robert Moses their power. Obviously, this consensus missed one key piece of the puzzle – namely, the consent of the urban dwellers who were being discussed as objects rather than as participants. Thus, a good consensus has to involve everyone, and not just the elites, or else it at best degenerates into elite vs. populist politics, and at worst leads to virtual colonialism.

The distinction between democratic or popular consensus and elite consensus is important, because in places that have only had the latter, including the US, people can form their views of consensus around features that are really special to elite consensus, as represented by insider publications such as the Washington Post, most of the New York Times, and a horde of Washington-area trade journals. For one, elite speech is very measured, and phrased in reasonable-sounding ways: concerned but understanding of limits, haughty-sounding and wonky but still reducible to soundbites for the lay reader, and always phrased in an understated way. Those are Krugman’s Very Serious People, and the National Review’s liberal elite. The US has come a long way since the 1950s and enough people see this elite as a distinct faction rather than as a real national consensus, but many of the elite’s values have percolated and taint the notion of consensus.

In contrast, democratic consensus is a messy affair. What’s happening right now in the Israeli J14 housing protests – or, even more so, what happened a month ago, before the protest became an institution by itself – is exactly the process of consensus-formation. Tents representing all social and ethnic groups in the country are present. The protest began with culturally liberal Tel Avivis, but has Haredi tents; it’s majority-Jewish, but has had Arab speakers in Jewish towns and spread to Arab towns. On the ground, the dialogue is the exact opposite of that of the Washington Post: people yell and argue until the small hours of the night, debating different views of how to improve the housing situation, and listening to one another. They tolerate trolls who maliciously propose settlement expansion as the solution but do not feed them; they have more important things to discuss. The consensus ideas they’ve formed for how to deal with the housing situation involve concerns of all groups – two of the protesters’ demands are specific to Arab and Bedouin minorities, and, unlike the mishmash of demands one sees in the US at ANSWER protests, those demands are relevant to the issue at hand.

In the US, any attempt to discuss things in the manner of J14 rather than in the manner of the Washington Post is immediately lumped together with unserious partisanship. Even people who know how rotten elite consensus is have gotten used to its discourse: thus, Michael Lind exalts the attitudes of what he calls post-consensus America in a hippie-punching piece against public transportation and environmentalism.

Ironically, calls for technocracy are sometimes a reaction against this elite domination, when the elites put themselves on the other side of expert consensus, as they do on climate issues (see Lind’s other piece on the matter, or anything on the subject by George Will), and prefer to talk in terms of platitudes about unpredictability and how scientists may be wrong. There are sizable and growing organizations and pundits criticizing consensus from this technocratic point of view – for one, anything involved in the new atheist movement.

The properties of consensus are orthogonal to those of elitism, and are different from the properties of the combination of both. The most important is listening to people with different points of view without sneering. How messy or orderly the discussions are is not relevant – it speaks only to how different the parties involved are from one another and how much they initially disagree. It’s the process of listening, of forming conversation, that makes for productive and consensus-building debate. How nice people are to one another is only tangentially important. I submit that if you compare a Room for Debate piece on transportation with a thread of the same length on a transportation blog – even a repetitive fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass on the California High-Speed Rail Blog, let alone the ideological arguments about financing on The Transport Politic – you’ll find that the blog is going to be more informative. Lay people talking to each other will beat thinktank fellows and professional pundits talking at each other any day.

The problem with extending this to urbanism is that cities’ power structure makes it very hard to give ordinary people the voice they deserve. People who are not part of the elite, by definition, are less powerful. And being elite by itself changes how one thinks, leading to factional interests different from those of ordinary people, independently of questions such as which social and ethnic groups the elites are drawn from. (Communist Party elites, high-income elites, and racial elites are equally unconcerned with the average person.)

Only in a city with a completely gated establishment can major media organizations refer to slum dwellers as “a city within a city” when they outnumber people living in formal neighborhoods, and quote researchers as saying crime is a big problem in the slums when it in fact isn’t. Unfortunately, as Robert Neuwirth‘s experience in Mumbai shows, such cities exist.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, democratic consensus is possible, by slowly persuading all stakeholders in a community that one’s solution is good and in line with community values. Usually, within a small enough community, the problem of democratic vs. elite consensus is less acute. Some groups are privileged over others – for example, long-term residents versus recent immigrants – but arguably no more so than in citywide politics. Where localism is oppressive is in treatments of minorities in situations with a defined majority group, but when it comes to participatory inclusion, it’s no worse than appealing to the power brokers and hoping for good. In a diverse neighborhood with multiple factions of which none can dominate, this problem is usually quite small. The local elites are not so powerful that one can’t approach them on more or less equal footing.

However, the only way to systematically unleash the power of democratic consensus is via populism, as the example of J14 shows us. It by itself is not purely consensus-based – it comes from a partisan fight between the people and those in power in which the people are acting as one bloc – but the result usually involves a fair amount of consensus, since anything else would lead to divide-and-rule politics. In the US – as well as Israel, and other developed countries I’m somewhat familiar with the discourse of – such populism can come off as polarizing and anti-consensual, because of the misidentification of what are really features of elitism with consensus.

Of course, to many people, populism is not a dirty word. The Tea Party, and its right-wing populist equivalents around Europe, has had many successes precisely because there’s a segment of the US that wants neither consensus nor the current elite. The same can be said of any proto-populism on the left. But there are plenty of people who do want government to work, and do like dialogue, and they can be turned off by what they perceive as unserious attitudes.

The way to create a situation in which both the relatively secure middle class and more radical factions – both ideological and socioeconomic – are willing to cast aside elite values is then to wait until things get bad enough. But it’s easier to imagine such consensus happening today than in 1965, and not just because of reduced racial animosities. It’s as if Marx was right except that, instead of a violent revolution, the dispossessed fight for social reforms that make their economic situation more secure.

The time could already be right. And the process of replacing elite bipartisanship – or hyper-partisan fights between parties that are unconcerned with actually governing – can be pursued on the local level, in parallel, to allow for time to create bottom-up institutions to take a more prominent role in the future. It could be that the US is waiting for its own tents in New York and Washington to lead to nationwide demonstrations.

Where Did You Grow Up?

The last few weeks’ posts on Old Urbanist made me think about what urban forms people prefer, and how it’s affected by what they are familiar with. Rather than speculate on what people in my social circle prefer, I yield the stage to you. What type of urban environment did you grow up in, and/or influenced your thinking about cities the most? And what form of urban development do you find most desirable?

I’ll start: I grew up in the Old North of Tel Aviv, a dense (about 15,000/km^2) neighborhood whose residential stock is almost exclusively four-story Garden City apartment buildings. Buildings are not attached as rowhouses, but instead are set back a few meters from the edges of the lots; typical apartment size is 120 square meters. The neighborhood is upper middle class – indeed, North Tel Aviv is used as a metonym for latte liberalism – but is not uniformly so. Growing up, I knew plenty of people in the neighborhood who were middle middle class, a few who were working class, and a few who were outright rich. This somewhat distinguishes North Tel Aviv from some surrounding suburbs that are nominally equally rich but are more uniformly upper middle class. In the 1990s, it was also stable rather than gentrified; there were, and still are, people living in the same neighborhood, sometimes the same apartment, for multiple decades.

As a result, I never grew up with the association of detached houses with wealth. Hebrew even distinguishes words for houses in general (house/home) and words that denote wealth (villa, cottage) but has just one word normally for an apartment; English, which distinguishes an apartment or a tenement from a condo, is exactly the opposite. Having a car is important for social status in Israel, but the idea is to drive it a short distance to work, as my parents did. Driving 20 kilometers each way would be strange. At the same time, I took some measure of walkability for granted, making me uncomfortable with sections of the city that were built after the 1950s and were designed to automobile scale. I did not think of public transportation as a normal means of getting to work, unless one couldn’t afford a car, but it was nifty for getting to school.

The ideas about urbanism I’ve developed out of that experience, followed by Manhattan, are:

1. Street width should be close to building height; for the purposes of this discussion, street width is measured from building edge to building edge, and building height is the average height of the continuous street wall. A height:width ratio of about 1 or slightly higher is best. Below about 1/2, it’s too open; in Providence, where the ratio is about 0.6, measured from the top of buildings, I already walk in the middle of the roadway, as if the streets were naked. Above about 2, which exists on some streets in such pre-industrial cities as Florence, it feels like an alley. As a corollary, very narrow streets are suitable for low-traffic cities, whereas high-density places should look more like Manhattan.

2. Every normal neighborhood amenity should be reachable on foot, on streets that are designed to be used primarily by pedestrians. If you need to take mechanized transportation or cross a highway to get to the supermarket, there is something wrong with your neighborhood.

3. Bicycles are a form of private transportation.

4. Stoplight phasing is critical.

5. The street network should be porous. The closer to a regular grid, the better. The Old North has a grid of arterial streets, but the local streets terminate in T-shaped intersections, like this, and it’s not always possible to tell a local from an arterial street on sight; in addition, the grid is not really continued into other neighborhoods, making walking there confusing. I found Manhattan much more walkable than the Old North for this reason.

I will now exit the stage and make this an open mic.

Organized Labor and the Housing Protest

In both the US and Israel, the power of organized labor is in decline, and union membership is increasingly restricted to public sector and legacy manufacturing employees, who are usually well-compensated and have a middle- or even upper-middle class income, but are still under attack by right-wing politicians who hope to privatize public services. However, these two countries’ lefts react to those employees and their representatives in diametrically opposed manner. American leftists typically support the major unions, Israeli leftists disdain them as sellouts. Although in both cases the left supports insurgent unions over well-established ones in intra-union fights – for example, UNITE-HERE over SEIU’s leadership – the attitudes toward the established unions are very different.

The relevance of this is the role of Ofer Eini, the leader of the Histadrut, in the emerging housing protests. Although the protest is grassroots, he’s started to play a role as well, demanding that the government negotiate with the demonstrators. For a selection of English-language mainstream sources mentioning his role, see Globes, the Jerusalem Post, and Haaretz, as well as Daily Kos, which bases its reporting on mainstream Israeli media. The general tone is that the protest began as a grassroots effort, separate from any mainstream organization, but now has a powerful player by its side.

In contrast the reporting I see from Hebrew-language leftist sources is quite different. 972Mag contributors Rechavia Berman and Yossi Gurvitz react uniformly negatively toward Eini. Berman explicitly and Gurvitz implicitly complain about Eini’s representing an establishment union whose members are predominantly public-sector. Berman even wrote a post on the subject entitled “Don’t Let Ofer Eini Coopt the Struggle,” calling Eini the biggest danger to the protests.

To clarify matters, neither Berman nor Gurvitz is an economic rightist, or even centrist. Both bloggers’ views on economic matters would place them in the middle of a group of Daily Kos contributors. Berman also took a hardline stance against Scott Walker’s anti-union law. But their view toward the mainline Israeli unions is hostile: they view them as representing the status quo, not the change that’s needed.

Put another way, the Israeli left is viewing its predicament and demanding wholesale changes in the economy, backed by grassroots activism. The American left is instead trying to cling to what the unions still have left; it welcomes struggles to unionize more workers, but views the mainstream unions as a succor of the working class rather than as part of the establishment.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, general interest. Second, more precisely, it shows that political stances come from not just ideology, but also political alliances, with all the implications it has. Third, specifically about good transit, it connects to what I said in my post about politicals vs. technicals, that the politicals are usually mainstream or moderate left while the technicals are all over, from the center-right to the radical left. Transit advocates with views similar to those of US labor liberals are just glad that they have APTA and Brookings on board and often want to expand from there. It’s advocates with views similar to those of the Israeli left – usually technicals, but not just politicals – who view those organizations as industry sops, with interests different from those of riders. It of course does not mean the latter kind of advocates are themselves left-wing – just that they view transit agencies the same way the grassroots left in Israel views the Histadrut.

Even on pure politics, it’s the latter approach that wins over non-leftists. The current housing protests in Israel attract everyone, even political groups that traditionally vote right-wing. The ultra-Orthodox and the settlers are fielding protest tents alongside anarchists and other people who demonstrate in front of the West Bank security fence. They argue heatedly about politics all day, and in the process build a new political arena that excludes the present-day establishment, but are united in their opposition to the status quo. The establishment right is doing its best to smother the protests, but its divide-and-rule tactics are no longer working. This couldn’t have happened if the protests had been started by the usual center-left organizations, with all their cultural baggage. People who want better services but are culturally indisposed toward joining with petrified organizations respond much better to grassroots efforts, even more radical ones, than to the same old.

Affordable Housing

A new post on Old Urbanist linking to prior posts about housing affordability, both on his own blog and on New World Economics. The theme is that various design standards – the two sites’ main scourge is streets wider than about 5-10 meters and in general excessive room for parking and front lawns – force the cost of construction up, making housing less affordable.

In reality, the first thing to note about high housing prices is that they exist everywhere: not just in new urbanist towns in the US, the type of development under discussion on the above blogs, but also in New York, and Paris, and Tokyo, and Tel Aviv, and Hong Kong, and London. In my matrix of different types of city planning, every row contains cities whose housing prices stretch the middle class to its limits. Often there’s significant homelessness, but most people have just enough to scrape by. The cities where housing prices are low compensate by either having very poor populations (inner-city Detroit) or requiring people to spend large quantities of money on driving (the Sunbelt): note how across US metro area, the total percentage of household income spent on housing and transportation is essentially constant.

Thus, as a first filter, the cities whose housing prices are low relative to incomes are very spread out and auto-oriented, exactly the opposite of any kind of urbanism other than suburbanism. As a second filter, Ed Glaeser notes that the high cost of housing in coastal cities comes from supply restrictions in the form of zoning, writing about Boston and about Manhattan as case studies.

First, what is clear about situations with unaffordable housing (really, barely-affordable) is that it is not due to high construction costs. Glaeser himself notes that construction of luxury apartments in Manhattan costs about $300 per ft^2, while the sales price per ft^2 is on average $600. In particular, parking requirements and other restrictions that effectively raise construction costs are not the primary agent to blame for high housing costs in general. An extra $20,000 for a parking spot is not going to make housing unaffordable, though it may influence developers’ decisions of what and where to build to maximize profits, in particular by making them abandon urban construction in favor of the suburbs. Glaeser blames persistently high housing prices on a regulatory tax, which forces developers to spend extra money on lobbying and preparing paperwork for permits.

Second, the primary determinant of housing prices is not capital costs, but the cost of the land underneath. An older post on Old Urbanist asks why real housing prices have increased since 1920; the answer is that a house is not a manufactured good, but primarily land, as is especially clear when one considers expensive, desirable cities.

Third, the worth of land is dependent on demand. Land on which a developer can build three apartments is worth three times as much as land on which a developer can build one apartment. That’s why on the level of the individual building, building higher does not reduce rents. Land supply only forms the limiting factor when there’s a regionwide desire to be in an area with a fixed land constraint, such as the national borders of Singapore or Monaco, or the physical extent of the New York City Subway or the walkable radius of Central Tel Aviv. In such cases, it could reduce prices to expand the available space for housing within the fixed constraint, via either increasing density or expanding the desirable area through transportation infrastructure or landfill. But otherwise, there’s not much point.

When high housing prices are genuinely the result of high capital cost, the result is different from that of high demand or a shortage of land. Consider North Tel Aviv, which mandates expensive whitewash on its traditional garden city buildings. When those buildings were first constructed in the 1930s, they were priced too steeply for the working class, leading the rising middle class to move in instead. Since the whitewash is also high-maintenance, apartments deteriorated, and the only buildings that maintain an aesthetic exterior cost much more to maintain and are only affordable to the rich. In effect, the result of high capital cost is worse physical stock, the opposite of what normally happens in Tokyo, New York, and other expensive cities.

Anti-gentrification activists often fight policies that make their areas more desirable; the above three points help explain why. Affordable housing to them is a bargain to richer people, and if they want to move in, they’ll be priced out. The only way to depress housing prices is to depress demand. One activist, a Harlem preacher with extreme right sympathies, even calls for a general economic boycott of his own neighborhood in order to cause an economic collapse and lower rents.

The inevitable conclusion, namely that it’s impossible to make housing persistently cheap without raising other costs or impoverishing people, does not mean that affordable housing issues are moot. First, the equity issue remains; although on average housing is just marginally affordable, to many people it is not affordable, and as a result, expensive cities engage in government intervention to prevent mass homelessness, even ultra-capitalist Singapore.

In addition, although expanding housing supply makes land more valuable and normally prevents prices from falling, it also create better housing in the process. Auto-oriented sprawl in the US has caused dwelling size to increase; upzoning and the construction of better transportation infrastructure in expensive cities would enable people to move from the periphery to the core – or, more precisely, people could stay where they are, but public transit could redefine regions from periphery to core.

For a toy model, suppose there are two kinds of development: regular suburbia and new urbanism, where new urbanism is more expensive. Constructing more new urbanism is going to reduce the price for both kinds of housing (new urbanism has an increase in supply, regular suburbia suffers from a subsequent decline in demand), while also shifting people from regular suburbia to new urbanism. Overall the average price of housing shouldn’t change, but the quality will increase.

In other words, on a national or regional level, affordable housing is never a problem; it may be a problem for poor people, but not in general, on average. Supply restrictions should show in low-quality housing, measured in terms of size, local walkability, aesthetics, and other factors that on the local level determine price.

Tel Aviv Protesters’ Demands

The protesters on the ground in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities are often disorganized, and lack coherent goals; many have claimed that the very presence of bottom-up protest is good enough on its own (which Israeli blogger Idan Landau notes is evidence for how low the public’s expectations of politics are). However, many organizations for affordable housing have banded together to form a more normal political front, and are calling for concrete reforms. A website can be found here; it is in Hebrew, but has the occasional English article.

While the leftist bloggers are still demanding rent stabilization, it is only one of several demands (Landau proposes it together with public housing and an end to land privatization), and the new Coalition for Affordable Housing has released a nine-point plan that is considerably broader. Their main demands, amendments to a national housing law under discussion, are as follows (translated from a summary article on Ynet and a blog post on the coalition’s site):

1. Every high-rise national housing plan with at least 200 units must include at least 20% affordable rental units and at least 30% units with at most 75 square meters.

2. No plan will be approved if it includes only housing for welfare recipients, in order to avoid creating concentrated poverty.

3. Public housing will have priority, and the state will spend the 2 million shekels (about $580 million in exchange rate value, or $670 million in PPP) it has from previous sales of public housing on new construction.

4. Affordable units will be rented for at most 25% of the maximum income ceiling for eligibility, and the rent could only be increased at a fixed rate, whose value the coalition does not mention.

Separately, the student groups are issuing their own demands, which, in addition to small and affordable apartments, include removal of legal barriers to municipally approved development, taxation of apartment buying for investment rather than for renting, 400 million shekels for construction of student housing, and opening 5,000 500-square-meter lots in the Negev and Galilee for construction of subsidized units.

The government’s own proposals have not gotten popular support, as the protesters consider them to be mere bones or actively counterproductive. Two members of the Knesset – Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich (who is currently running for the top position in the party’s primary) and Likud’s Karmel Shama, have offered a rent stabilization law limiting increases in rent to 5% a year; the protesters rejected it. More cynically, PM Netanyahu tried to buy the students out with a 50% discount in public transportation fare; he was met with the same scorn he got in the 1990s, when he tried to deliver pizzas to students who were on hunger strike.

So far, ideas meant to increase central city housing supply have not been seriously raised by any group. Netanyahu’s plan to accelerate construction must be viewed as an attempt to reward developers rather than as a housing solution; owing to the high land prices, new construction tends toward luxury, just like in New York and other expensive cities. This led to general opposition to any supply-side solution, at least among the bloggers I read; for example, Shalom Boguslavsky, whose article about the Jerusalem light rail I ran six weeks ago, blamed the problem on inflated demand coming from speculation. Note, however, that the student proposals do include some supply increases, though not within central cities.

I still maintain the most effective solution should be to avoid rent controls at all costs, and instead pursue the following set of policies:

1. Subdividing apartments must be legal, as must new construction of small apartments.

2. Zoning should preference contextual housing over towers in a park, and allow 6-story buildings as of right, with 8-story zones on wider streets and in more desirable neighborhoods. Setbacks should be eliminated for future construction, and for front yards this should be retroactive, legalizing enclosed balconies as long as the materials are more permanent and aesthetic than plastic. These two points together should roughly double the allowable intensity of development, while also incentivizing small improvements by building owners over large-scale redevelopment.

3. Low-income people should receive subsidized or public housing. Even if the housing is owned outright by the government, it should be done voucher-style, and buildings should not clearly advertise that they are public. For example, a new public housing company could be empowered and given a budget to purchase small buildings anywhere it wishes, even in expensive neighborhood.

4. Speculation should be deterred by, as the students propose, a tax on buying housing as an investment. I do not have the details of the students’ proposal, but I would propose a capital gains tax. A tax on imputed rents for owner-occupied housing, as in Switzerland, should not be necessary here; the problem is at the upper end of the market, not in the middle.

5. The government should invest in public transportation, including a subway for the inner Tel Aviv region and an upgrade of the rail network to modern S-Bahn standards. Israel is already pouring concrete, i.e. building extra lines to unserved cities, but the organization is still substandard, with mediocre frequency and no ticket or schedule integration with local transit.

Rent Control

Tel Aviv’s housing protest grows, and Saturday night tens of thousands of protesters descended on HaBima Square, demanding rent control. Although I have yet to see media heavyweights on the left echo those demands – instead, they view it in abstract terms of people power versus the state – they are clearly too important to ignore right now. There is already a response from the right and from (classical) liberals saying that it’s government’s fault and that the correct solution is deregulation of new construction.

However, since government intervention is ubiquitous in expensive cities, including several famous ones I have lived in, I’d like to talk about case studies of world cities. In most of the last ten and a half years, I lived in Singapore and New York. Both have extensive government regulation, despite the capitalist orientation of Singapore. However, this government involvement takes different forms, though some of consequences are similar.

In New York, there’s rent control, precisely what the Tel Aviv protesters are demanding. More precisely, there are two forms of rent regulation: rent control, and rent stabilization. Rent control is far stronger, requires the tenant to have continuously occupied the apartment since 1971, and only applies to 2% of rental units, mostly in Manhattan. Rent stabilization allows higher rents and merely limits the increase in rent every year to a few percent, and is far more common, applying to about half of rental units. Both figures come from the most recent housing survey, in 2008. There are also public housing programs, some for the poor and some for the middle class. In addition, the Inclusionary Housing Program encourages developers to set aside 20% of the units as affordable housing, by offering them a bonus in floor area ratio.

In Singapore, the main form of government involvement takes the form of subsidized public housing, called HDB estates after the housing development board. These are rented and sold to Singaporean citizens at a discount, and are home to 85% of Singaporeans. The mandatory savings accounts, which function similarly to social security programs except that people only get back what they paid in, with no redistribution of wealth, encourages home ownership by allowing people to use their accounts to buy housing. Thus home ownership is high, in contrast to the situation in other expensive cities, such as New York.

The important feature in both cases is that not everyone is eligible for reduced rent. In New York, rent stabilization disappears in certain cases if the tenant leaves (vacancy decontrol); in Singapore, HDB is not available to non-resident immigrants, who form 25% of the country’s population. This is also seen in other expensive cities, including Monaco, where the minority of residents who are citizens have access to highly subsidized public housing, and Hong Kong, where half the population receives housing subsidies.

The result is parallel markets. There’s an affordable market, and an unregulated market, which is much more expensive than it would be without government involvement since there is a restricted supply of market-rate housing. Effectively, in order to prevent mass homelessness, the government increases rent for unfavored groups – expats in Singapore, relative newcomers in New York – in order to reduce that of favored groups. Rich members of the unfavored groups, for example executive expats, can easily pay the higher rent. Poor members, for example recent immigrants from developing countries, pay the rent by living in overcrowded housing.

A more pernicious result, common in New York, is landlords’ recurrent attempts to move rental units from the controlled or stabilized market to the unregulated one; although rent control is rare, it is concentrated in desirable neighborhoods that once hosted many working-class artists, such as SoHo and the West Village. Since the path of least resistance is vacancy decontrol, landlords harass such tenants in any way possible.

Immigrants who speak little English are a favored target of harassment, since they often don’t know their rights, and since many of their neighborhoods, for examples Washington Heights and Alphabet City, are desirable for college students. In contrast, students are often a standard replacement, since they have more money due to parental support, and are transient and therefore don’t complain as much about maintenance. However, everyone who is stabilized or controlled can be at risk; many of the stories I have heard come out of the Village rather than Washington Heights. Community board members know countless instances of landlords who defer maintenance, install noisy or inefficient heating and refuse tenants’ suggestions for better options, turn off the electricity or the water at inopportune times, and even engage in outright fraud. An anti-gentrification activist from West Harlem told a Columbia student group of landlords who pretend not to have received rent checks from their tenants, and then use this as an excuse to evict them.

I do not know whether the same results exist in other expensive cities with extensive rent control, for example Paris; I would appreciate help from any reader who knows the situation there. However, I posit that at least some degree of the two above issues are universal to a regime in which part of the market is regulated and part is not.

Based on admittedly partial information, I’d recommend against rent control in Tel Aviv, and for other forms of reform, including some government intervention when necessary. The differences with other land-constrained cities, in which intervention is universal, can be summed as follows:

1. Tel Aviv, while dense, is not as land-constrained as Singapore, which is limited by national borders, or New York, which is limited by the available subway infrastructure; therefore, there’s less inherent market pressure on land prices.

2. Tel Aviv’s zoning code allows much less development, and can be reformed accordingly. The 1920s-era Geddes Plan, good for its time but now in need of change, mandates setbacks of 4 meters front and back and 3 meters of each side, roughly halving the buildable area of the 20*25 lots typical of the city, and limits height to 4 stories. In addition, the city makes dividing apartments into smaller units so difficult landlords have taken to doing it illegally

3. A big portion of the problem is low purchasing power among specific groups, namely students, who do not have access to free tuition as in many progressive European countries or loans as in the US. Thus it’s not just a housing problem, as already noted by some protesters.

In general, there’s a distinction between socialism and bureaucracy. Social-democratic programs can be delivered with remarkably little bureaucracy. The Soviet Union was both socialist and bureaucratic, but Scandinavia’s quality of government is much better, as seen in its stellar rankings on corruption indices. In contrast, many developing countries impose many hurdles on starting a business without appreciable socialism, for example India’s license raj. The difficulty of building affordable market-rate housing in many cities can be traced to bureaucracy in the form of an onerous permit process, a zoning code that requires so many variations that developers are at the mercy of politicians, and similar questions that boil down to political power.

The consequence is that the process of reform must target regulations that empower kvetching community board and city leaders to make landlords’ lives miserable. Good deregulation would make it easier to build and easier to build densely, and streamline the permit process. It would not try to inflict maximum damage on tenants. The reason I’d mistrust any deregulation coming out of the present government is that its recent record – for example, cutting funding to fire services in the years leading up to the Mount Carmel fire – is not one of trying to make government better, but of trying to make government so small and inefficient it can be drowned in a bathtub. It’s exactly this attempt to destroy public services and give handouts to politically connected entrepreneurs that people in Tel Aviv are really protesting.

Housing Protest Ongoing in Tel Aviv

Over the last week or so, protesters have been occupying HaBima Square in central Tel Aviv with tents, demanding cheaper housing. Prices in Israel have been rising sharply over the last ten years, especially urban housing prices, and new urban construction is predominantly luxury. Populist politicians are already visiting the tents, talking up their own record on marginally related issues.

Some right-wingers, who identify everything coming out of Tel Aviv as left-wing, which locally means a dovish elite, are instead yelling at the protesters to “move to the periphery,” where housing is cheap. Israel has the opposite city/suburb dynamic as the US: the city center is generally richer and more expensive than the suburbs, and the richer suburbs of Tel Aviv – typically those in its favored quarter to the north – are not called periphery any more than the Upper East Side is called an inner city.

The problem with such a dynamic is that the periphery has no access to jobs. The roads are congested (and the extra driving costs would eat up the entire difference in rent); public transportation doesn’t run on weekends for religious reasons and consists of buses, which are very slow, and commuter trains, which aren’t very frequent and do not get people to most city destinations.

The housing problem, as one may expect, is predominantly political. While Tel Aviv’s wealth and access to jobs make it unusually desirable, there has not been any concerned attempt to create livable secondary urban centers. This post explains in more detail the issues; while it’s in Hebrew, you can still look at the pictures – in short, despite reforms, zoning still encourages construction like that in the first photo (a “development town,” i.e. a housing project, with about the same connotations as in the US) and discourages that in the second photo (Sheinkin Street, a once-bohemian, now-gentrified commercial artery).

Although Tel Aviv’s car ownership is not very high – about 60% of households own a car – parking is mandated in most new developments. Existing parking facilities are overstretched; pricing parking is a political non-starter. And despite the high demand for non-luxury housing, city regulations make it difficult to build smaller apartments: according to the blog linked above, it is difficult to get approval for apartments under 120 square meters, or to subdivide large apartments.

As in New York and other cities with a housing shortage, the resulting land shortage is leading developers to concentrate on the luxury market. In the last decade, developers have built huge skyscrapers surrounded by empty land along and near Namir Road, a wide arterial throughfare that the government is trying to turn into the new CBD and that the first line of the Tel Aviv subway is planned to pass under. Due to the building height, the density of such developments is fairly high, but in reality not much higher than the surrounding neighborhoods. Akirov Towers have a density of about 125 apartments per hectare, counting to the midlines of the streets adjacent to the development; the residential parts of the Old North, built almost uniformly to the fourth floor, average about 250 residents per hectare, and my own calculations suggest about 100 apartments per hectare.

A cohort of reformers, from both left and right, propose better public transit as a solution. People would be able to live in the periphery and commute to city jobs. The main efforts in the region are new commuter lines and the subway. The subway has been proposed and canceled so many times that nobody I have talked to seems to believe it will ever open. The commuter lines are not electrified and run against a capacity constraint in central Tel Aviv, where there is room only for three tracks; in addition, the service level is far short of an S-Bahn or RER, and is on a par with the higher-grade lines in North America, for example the LIRR. Typically the people advocating for such issues, even in government, are secular and would favor operating public transportation on the Sabbath, but no action or serious legislation has emerged yet, despite a fair amount of grassroots activism.

Less commonly proposed is development in the gaps in urbanization. As is readily seen on Google Earth, there is empty space directly adjacent to the urban area both to the north and south of Tel Aviv, interposing between adjacent municipalities. I am told that there was a plan to develop the empty space to the north, but it was torpedoed by a local desire to keep the municipalities strictly separate. (For clarification, those are both wealthy favored quarter suburbs – I believe Herzliya and Ra’anana, but I no longer remember.)

Also not commonly mentioned is the issue of political will. The protesters do not view their cause as one strictly about housing. A commenter on another blog quotes the following text from one of the tents:

I’m not here because of housing prices. I see them as a symptom of a systemic problem – a country that loses its democratic character in favor of a corrupt system of government based on connections, lobbyists, and property owners….

After a few days here, I’m discovering amazing things. People are completely forgetting about the elements that usually divide them, share their opinions, and listen to each other. Housing prices look like a drop in a sea of inequities. The problem is systemic. The apartments are a symptom.

We are still in the initial phase, where everyone talks to his heart’s content – but this is how you build cross-sectional solidarity.

If we continue to deal only with housing, at best we’ll solve just one point, important as it is, and in a year we won’t be able to afford food or studies. I worry we’ll miss the Israeli Spring and settle for a few flowers in our vase.

The Israeli government is no stranger to rapid growth. The settlements’ population went up 50% between 1999 and 2006. In terms of urban-rural politics, Israel has still not gotten to the stage that cities are an object of romanticism, and keeps pouring money into contested regions in order to create facts on the ground. The era of Mapai, the predecessor of today’s Labor Party, saw disinvestment in cities in favor of kibbutzim and development towns in peripheral regions; today, there’s some investment in luxury towers in the newly-built CBDs, but the political system is still anti-urban, just with a different focus.

Tel Aviv’s housing prices are putting it between a rock and a hard place. The status quo is intolerable; so is massive urban renewal, raising density marginally and pricing out the middle class, which unlike in American cities has remained mostly intact. The political consensus, to the degree it exists, is not to do anything. Good urban design and laxer zoning rules could mitigate some of those problems, but they’re too politically unpalatable right now. So, unless they indeed settle for a symbolic reform, the protesters will stay.

Written in Concrete

This post was originally written in Hebrew by Shalom Boguslavsky, a social and political activist living in Jerusalem who blogs about Israeli politics at Put Down the Scissors and Let’s Talk About It. The views expressed here are those of the author rather than my own; I translated it because it’s important to showcase the politics of transit and there’s a dearth of good English-language analysis of Israeli transportation. -Alon.

As you’ve probably heard, the light rail (blight rail in Jerusalemite) is doing its final test runs before starting to operate. Here, as everyone knows, the only law that’s properly enforced is Murphy’s Law, so the train has managed to cause damage even before the first passenger has boarded when it was used as an asinine excuse to move religious Zionism’s annual hate march away from its normal route and toward Sheikh Jarrah.

Trains – like anything else, some would say – are a text, and a political text at that. Every text is like this at the place under discussion, and the series of design choices that have been taken tells us something about the people who selected them. Like every truly effective political text, it masquerades as a professional text, so that we the lay public won’t bother, but instead leave the decision makers to do what they please.

But if the considerations behind the line were professional, most likely it would have looked completely different. Today, it begins at Mount Herzl/Yad Vashem, across from the Haredi neighborhood Bayit VeGan; passes through the Central Bus Station and Jaffa Road; cuts across to Route 1, which was once the no man’s land between West and East Jerusalem; and continues from there to Pisgat Ze’ev. In short, the IDF-Holocaust-Haredis-settlers line.

Did the planners conceive of this symbolism that I see? I doubt it, but they made their choices: only about a kilometer and a half separate Mount Herzl from the Golem at Kiryat HaYovel. This is a gigantic urban neighborhood with a very diverse population whose socioeconomic status is medium or lower, for the most part. It also attracts a lot of cultural and educational activity of all sectors and the center of the city’s social activism. The people there desperately need good public transit and it’s only a kilometer and a half. But it’s been postponed to the next phase, which given the 11 years of destruction of the first one who knows when it will come. Pisgat Ze’ev, a settlement that’s closer to Ramallah than to central Jerusalem, got priority and is in the first phase even though there the need is less urgent, and at any rate the inner parts of the city need to get solutions before the bedroom communities that are already served by fast highways anyway.

The insistence on directing the train to Pisgat Ze’ev comes at the expense of the choice to build the first line as a ring line. After Jaffa Street, the train could have passed by the bonanza of rich tourists of King David Hotel, the culture and entertainment sector of the German Colony, the Talpiot industrial zone (which includes the cheap commercial center that serves most of the residents of the nation’s poorest city, among other things) and the neighborhoods nearby it, Beit Safafa, and Malha, which is home to Teddy Stadium, the under construction Arena, the train station, and the Biblical Zoo, which attracts a lot of visitors and is really not lush with public transportation. After that it would have served the neighborhoods of Malha, Ramat Sharett and Ramat Denya, the eastern end of Kiryat HaYovel and back to the Golem. It would have helped solve some difficult transportation problems of southwest Jerusalem. The axes in Jerusalem are mostly north-south, and to get by bus from Kiryat HaYovel to the German Colony or Talpiot, despite the short distance, takes longer than to get to Tel Aviv, and not much shorter than to walk. It would have been possible at the next phase to connect Gilo to the blight rail. Gilo is a settlement as well, in fact the largest of them, and it would have also served a large stream of settlers from Gush Etzion and Mount Hebron who enter the city through it. Of course unlike the popular view, the Israeli government has no interest in serving the settlers, only in serving the settlements. The settlers are like the rest of the people here – a means and not an end – only with a different spot in the hierarchy of privileges.

On its way to Pisgat Ze’ev, the train passes within a spit’s distance of the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. It would have been easy to route the train near the university so that it would have served thousands of students who need much more public transit than they are getting. Instead of doing so, city hall went for a step that was supposed to be “modern” and built “bike paths” from the train to campus. Why the scare quotes, you ask? Well, one must see the “bike paths” to believe it, and I implore everyone who is not named Evel Knievel not to put his front wheel on one of these paths if he ever wants to see his loved ones again. Oh, and the trains have no room to store bicycles on board.

And this is before we start talking about the obvious thing. There’s no need for a train at all, and in its stead it would have been better to invest in BRT, a method with which third-world cities with less money and more mess have already solved their transportation problems. There’s BRT in Jerusalem too, but it’s mainly buses and not lanes, and those giant buses have been directed straight to the thriving Mahane Yehuda Market, choking what has become a (pedestrianized) national attraction in the last few years.

And what is even more obvious: you may have noticed this post, like the train’s route, is concerned only with West Jerusalem and the big Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The idea that the blight rail is supposed to serve the forever and ever united city’s Palestinian residents, except those who live right on Route 1 and those who are rich enough (or collaborators the Shin Bet helps) to live in Pisgat Ze’ev, is still science fiction in Israel of 2011. Palestinian East Jerusalem is simply left on purpose (come on, say “the Arabs can build up”) in a third world state of urban design, in the hope that the Arabs will leave it. There’s probably no clearer example to the regime of separation in the city than the two separate public transit systems, for Jews and Arabs. True, an Arab can get on a Jewish bus and vice versa, but the transportation doesn’t even flow on the same grid. But this is worth a separate post, and simply reflects on the city level what is happening on the national level.

Because if you’re sighing in relief at this stage thinking that you live in a city with saner urban policy, let me spoil your party. If this is so, it’s only because you have an urban policy. In Jerusalem, there’s only national policy, managed by the same government that runs the rest of the country. The city is run directly by the government, and is governed for symbolic and geopolitical needs and not for the welfare of its residents. Jerusalem’s city government is the weakest in the country and the role of the mayor, in addition to “taking out the garbage” (as Prime Minister Golda Meir clarified to Mayor Teddy Kollek back in the day), is to foment riots, do public relations, and finagle money from American Jews. Other than the part about removing the garbage, Mayor Nir Barkat is indeed great at his job. And we, the locals, simply feel the wrath of the government’s arm directly.

Quick Note: Safe Streets, Safe Cities

Everyone should go read Jan Gehl’s post on Streetsblog about good urban design, excerpted from his book Cities for People. I have nothing to add, except to underline one part that’s often underrated among urbanists: the role of parked cars as buffer between moving cars and pedestrians or cyclists. Compare this photo with this photo, and ask yourself where the cyclist is better protected.

I generally tend to be very supportive of Manhattan’s design. The streets may be wider than elsewhere, but that translated mostly to increased pedestrian space. Manhattan’s 18-meter side streets have 1-2 driving lanes and a parking lane on each side; so do the 12-meter side streets in Tel Aviv, the difference being that in Tel Aviv cars park with two wheels on the sidewalk. As long as there’s an adequate street wall and the buildings are not set back from the street, it isn’t a real problem. As Gehl notes, there are many ways to make cities livable short of the ideal of Venice, in which cars begin where the city ends.

City Schools

In Tel Aviv, people may move to the suburbs for a variety of reasons – the impossibility of finding parking in the city and the high housing prices are two popular complaints – but not school quality. There are great public schools right in the city, including some non- or barely selective schools; the metro area-wide magnet classes for gifted children are located in the city and in some of its inner suburbs.

As one might expect, Tel Aviv is a high-income city: on a list of municipalities in Israel ranked by income, Tel Aviv is rated 8 out of 10 (higher is richer), where the only places rating 9 and 10 are a few exclusive gated communities and a single major suburb, Ramat HaSharon. Tel Aviv’s richer suburbs, to its north, are rated 8 as well; there is nothing to gain income-wise from moving, except perhaps that Tel Aviv is more diverse and has both super-rich areas and poorer areas while the suburbs are uniformly upper middle-class. As far as I can tell, it has always been the case – like France, Israel has a long history of housing the poor in the outskirts rather than in the inner city; this is not a recent case of gentrification.

Against this light, what Aaron Renn is writing about city schools is unsurprising. As American cities are getting relatively richer due to gentrification, their quality of public services, including schools, is improving, due to both more money and middle-class civic tradition. This process is incomplete and slow: because American cities’ recent history is of ghettoized squalor rather than gated opulence, many city schools are substandard and suffer from neglect, underfunding, and corruption, and this itself is a turnoff for prospective urban residents.

In effect, the areas that are already rich attract the rich and middle class; this should not surprise anyone. Corruption can be bought away with enough money, and underfunding is not an issue. New York’s suburbs lead the nation in school funding, which requires property taxes, and as a result, the six counties with the highest property taxes in the US are New York City suburbs; ironically, one of the reasons people move back to New York, which according to the ACS data is outgrowing the rest of its metro area, is that its property taxes are lower.

Urban activist Jonathan Kozol even wrote a book blaming discrepancies in school funding on inner-city school underperformance. His statistics, as of the early 2000s, showed about $11,000 per student in funding in New York, and $22,000 in its richest suburbs. Since then, Bloomberg has hiked school funding to nearly $18,000 per student, while the suburbs have not increased much, going up to $24,000 in Great Neck and $26,000 in Manhasset, two districts cited by Kozol for high spending.

Services are always good for the rich. In homogeneous high-income communities, there is no need for private security, private schools, and other excesses typical of the wealthy in poor areas. Instead, high housing prices act as a replacement for gates – and, incidentally restrictive zoning forcing housing prices up is a major component. Thus, public services are of high quality, even in areas that love nothing more than to yell at urban liberals for wasting money on schools.

Although the upper and middle classes are often still afraid to stay in the city with children past age six, this is declining. While the Israeli middle class can skip on the low-income suburbs and instead move to high-income ones, the American middle class can’t move into a city without dealing with poor people. When they do, it creates friction, as always happens when people suddenly have to deal with those who are different – for example, in New York, it involves separate schools, some good and some not, located in the same building.

The defining question for urban consensus governance is how to make sure the friction ends up resolving itself well, with good public services extending to regions that are not rich. Merely requiring integration of services does not solve much; the problem is more systemic. In Hawaii, the state’s status as a single school district led to school underperformance, and, as such conservative writers on urban issues as Michael Lewyn point out, school integration in American cities led the white middle class to escape to segregated suburbs and private schools, which offered a gated education experience. Clearly, changing governance boundaries without social change does not solve social problems much.