Escaping the Housing Trap

The Post-War Approach to City Planning and an Introduction to Gardening

While I was preparing for this year’s garden, I had the pleasure to read the manuscript Chuck Marohn’s Escaping the Housing Trap: The Strong Towns Response to the Housing Crisis.  The similarities between the manufactured environment built through the suburban experiment and the manufactured homogeneous lawns of suburbia struck me. The organic development of a neighborhood never guarantees growth and success; however, attempts to create a development built to completion are prohibitively expensive:

Businesses also needed to have confidence in the stability of this new approach. It’s one thing to start a small business and grow it incrementally over time, expanding as success and capital allowed…It needed to be built, to a finished state, before the patrons had fully materialized. The shops must include recognizable brands to provide the latest in lifestyle accessories. And those tenants needed to sign the kind of lengthy leases necessary to finance such an undertaking. None of that was possible without the promise of stability.  

Most importantly, families needed to take on extended mortgages. They needed to buy homes built to a finished state in neighborhoods delivered as a completed package. They needed to believe that committing to a long-term debt instrument was a good investment. Large numbers of families needed to buy into a new model of stasis. They needed to believe in the possibility of permanent prosperity. 

(Escaping the Housing Trap: The Strong Towns Response to the Housing Crisis, p. 33)

These developments are in a perpetually stunted position. They’re too expensive for most people to start up, but they also don’t have room to grow and expand because they have been built to their final state. If any major changes needed to be made, the entire development would need to be destroyed and rebuilt. These developments are like carefully curated bonsais that need consistent maintenance to remain beautiful.  

But maintenance never happened, or happened too late when repair costs became prohibitively expensive. “What unfolded after that is not a narrative of perpetual bliss but a tale of how time, entropy, and the unyielding commitment to an unchanging ideal can lead to an unanticipated battle against decline” (p. 39). “The suburban experiment was designed to skip over the messy process of incrementally assembling a neighborhood… Neighborhoods built all at once go bad all at once. At the end of the first generation of this experiment, the housing led growth machine began to break down” (p. 42). 

Why have we allowed ourselves to become lulled by the comfort of a pristine environment when we know this is not possible without it being prohibitively expensive? Why did we think perfection was ever a viable option? And what happens when we allow ourselves to continue believing this dream is the way we should live?

As the rainy season is ending in Sacramento, I take advantage of any breaks from the overcast weather to spend some time out in the garden. Gardening has been one of my greatest joys for several years, but it became a labor of true love when I made the switch from your typical vegetable or flower and started planting California native plants. At first, I was skeptical. Wildflowers and grasses are messy, after all, and they might affect the aesthetic of the yard. I planted one or two to start with, but as the years have gone on, more and more of the yard has been dedicated to these beautiful plants, and my role has changed from caretaker to more of a moderator as the plants find equilibrium with each other.

Poverty Is Not an Option

I grew up in and still live in South Sacramento, an area of town that the city has consistently divested from. Overgrown or dead lawns, streets with deep cracks running through them, and abandoned lots litter our neighborhoods.

The city has tried to revitalize different areas of South Sac over the years through new developments, rather than supporting our neighborhood through incremental community-led changes. If it goes poorly, we bear the weight of abandoned buildings and littered lots. If the development succeeds, we’re rewarded by skyrocketing housing prices and rent, displacing the people who didn’t want the development in the first place. In this sense, growth is always a betrayal.

This was the case with the gentrification of Oak Park, and many families were priced out of the neighborhoods they belonged to in the hopes of “revitalizing” the corridor. Planners hadn’t considered that the people who were already there were an integral part of the community fabric.

A major driver of homelessness is driven not by poverty, drug addiction, or mental health. These can be factors, but the main driver of homelessness is deeply correlated with regional housing costs (p. 136).

As in the case of Oak Park, people do not move to or stay in an area because they are excited about revitalizing this or that corridor.  We connect to our homes on a human level; we want a place where we can live, play, work, socialize with neighbors, and afford all our needs. We need people who want to be with us, day-in, day-out, no matter the cost of their property. We want community. But if large scale development isn’t helping house the people who need it most, how can we ever hope to alleviate this crisis?

The Strong Towns Approach to City Planning

A careful gardener doesn’t change the entire landscape at one time, and they companion plant whenever possible, allowing each plant to have its season. In the same way, cities need to approach city development to encourage communities to share their various skills with each other.

We need support, not intervention from the city.

In a strong city, a connected city, each new house enhances the community. Compare this to suburban experiment, where privacy has become the ultimate selling point, and each new neighbor, each change, threatens this (pp. 104-105).

Support from the city or new houses is a solution toward addressing this problem, but it’s not the ultimate solution because there is no right answer. Like a garden, there’s no unequivocally true way to design it. You start with a concept and work within the framework to build up the whole of the project. Radically changing the whole thing may result in a huge success, but there’s a chance the plants won’t take root, center pieces will die off, and the whole landscape will be different, possibly empty, after those changes.  And then there’s the large, upfront cost of landscaping the entire yard at once.

But if we “try things, to respond to stress or opportunity as it presents… Those responses need to be incremental, discipline that expresses humility, allowing us to be wrong in a way that helps, not hurts,” and we need to be allowed the flexibility to make adaptable choices that respond to the ever-changing ecosystem of our communities (p. 153).

Humbly Observe and Listen

The City of Sacramento has gotten better at collecting the opinions of residents, but it doesn’t always hear what we’re saying. When there’s pests in your garden, it’s easy to fixate that they are the problem and need to be eradicated. But if you take a moment to look at the whole picture, you can save yourself a lot of suffering, time, and harm to the ecosystem by taking steps to implement integrated pest management rather than spraying everything with pesticides. In a well-balanced garden, critters normally seen as pests may play a constructive role, like wasps, who act as beneficial pest managers, but when their food source is removed, by excessive pest management practices, they become the pests themselves. 

In a similar way, when we hear people call for safer neighborhoods, that doesn’t just mean stopping crime. Crime can be caused by poverty, boredom, anger, malicious intent, lack of community, and a whole host of other reasons. Listening means identifying the root of those problems and addressing that. 

If we only provide top-down interventions, we disrupt a complex ecosystem and the community loses balance, like in Oak Park. We cannot expect businesses or housing to appear and make the corridor better. The neighborhood that’s being built up needs to be given the tools and freedom to create the community they want, with all the shops, amenities, housing, parks, etc. that fit their needs.  

Chuck ends the book with a quote from the Pirkeit Avot that I haven’t been able to stop thinking of, and I hope it has the same impact on you. 

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

p. 206

Sacramento: Let’s make our gardens burst with flowers. 

Posted in: