What Makes a Resilient Community?

Harriet Tregoning

Harriet Tregoning

by James A. Bacon

During the depths of the Great Recession in 2008, hundreds of cars dropped off the Department of Motor Vehicle rolls in Washington, D.C. As then-director of planning Harriet Tregoning parsed the data, people were dialing back their expenses to make ends meet. Yes, that was a sign of economic hardship but it also was an indicator of Washington’s resilience. You see, people could sell their cars because the city had such a rich array of transportation options. The result: Washington had fewer foreclosures and experienced less economic distress than many other jurisdictions in the region.

Today, Tregoning is director of the Office of Economic Resilience at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s her job to think about how regions can prepare for economic uncertainty, globalization and restructuring, climate change and extreme weather. Speaking yesterday at the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo, N.Y., she enumerated several key traits of the resilient city. The availability of transportation options was at the top of the list.

Some may attribute the strength of Washington’s economy during the recession to a surge in stimulus spending. But the local economy has remained vibrant even after sequestration began throttling the federal budget, Tregoning said. The city is gaining population by an average of 1,100 residents per month. Led by entrepreneurial start-ups, private-sector jobs have more than offset the decline in federal jobs.

Here are some of the ways, in Tregoning’s view, in which Washington cultivates resilience:

Transportation choice. Residents have numerous transportation options. Washington is served by buses and one of the nation’s largest Metro systems. The city is building a bicycle network and fostering a bicycle culture through its bike-share program. The city has taxis and taxi-like services such as Uber. Car-sharing services are making inroads. And, of course, Washington streets are highly walkable. The ability to live a car-free or car-lite lifestyle saves households in the range of $4,000 to $16,000 yearly per car.

Willingness to experiment, willingness to fail. Washington’s first shared-bicycle service was “an abysmal failure,” said Tregoning, who was a champion of the shared-bicycle concept. Rather than abandon the idea, the city figured out what it had done wrong and then launched a second enterprise that fixed the problems of the first. Capital Bikeshare has been highly successful. “Innovative cities have to experiment,” Tregoning said. They aren’t paralyzed by fear of failure. Getting things right is an iterative process. The city re-striped the bicycle lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue seven times before people were satisfied.

Pop-up plazas. Resilient cities abhor a vacuum, Tregoning said. They find temporary uses for vacant spaces such as pop-up parks or open-air food courts served by restaurants on wheels. Engage people by mocking up a plaza or other public space using paint, portable furniture and mobile landscaping. Allow people to visualize how the space could be different. If it’s a hit, follow with hard investment. If not, move on to the next experiment.

In the same spirit, I would add a couple additional criteria.

Housing choices. Just as people need transportation choices, they should have housing choices. By that, I don’t mean “affordable” housing as traditionally defined. Homeowners should be free to rent basement apartments, garage apartments or even single rooms to individuals (or even families) not in their household. Property owners could bolster income by an amount equivalent to what they would save selling an automobile; renters would enjoy a greatly expanded supply of housing choices, typically in far nicer neighborhoods than they could find in subsidized housing. Zoning restrictions severely curtail what homeowners can do with their property but resilient cities would give homeowners more flexibility to adjust their living arrangements as economic conditions dictate.

Fiscal sustainability. Cities supply a valuable service to citizens when they maintain buses, trolleys and trains. But municipal transportation enterprises invariably lose money, creating a burden on taxpayers. Here’s the big question: Can municipalities continue to maintain those subsidies in the event of an economic shock? A resilient city, I would argue, develops transportation systems that are financially self-supporting, thus less vulnerable to disruption by adverse economic conditions.

In sum, Tregoning makes excellent points. I hope to elaborate upon some of them — especially the emphasis on experimentation and the willingness to take small risks — in future blog posts. But I would expand the scope of what constitutes a resilient community.

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22 responses to “What Makes a Resilient Community?

  1. Great article. It brings to the fore two important political points:

    1. DC is successful because the people who live here are entrepreneurial and well educated. The economy grows even when sequestration occurs. I guess the nimrods from RoVa who have claimed the city’s success is soley dependent on federal spending have been full of manure.

    2. Localities have to be free to experiment in order to succeed. I guess that’s yet another reason to abandon The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond’s love of Dillon’s Rule.

  2. Cars don’t fall off the rolls. Chances are those cars are still in DC, sporting someone else’s license tag.

  3. NOVA/DC/MD is the corporate HQ for the govt. When BRAC or sequestration or other cuts happen – they usually affect the field activities not the HQ so I guess some data showing Federal – and fed contractor employment in the region might be in order… I suspect the DC Area is still mucho Fed employment especially judging from the I-95 commuters I see down Fburg way.

    I prefer Ms. Tregoning’s approach of trying different things to see which work better, work through failures, than those who seem to tend toward top-down fiat-style approaches like Mr. Duany seemed to be advocating. You cannot use govt to force people to do something they don’t want to do.. without consequences.

    the idea is NOT that you as a planner know what is best for people – it’s what you as a planner are willing to try – to figure out what people want to do – instead.

    that’s a far more pragmatic approach in my view.

    At some point – Uber and Lyft are going to get through the regulation wickets and they are going to foster disruptive change on steroids that is going to affect far more than taxi-cabs.. conventional transit, perhaps METRO ..and who knows what other things that are envisioned for self driving cars.. ???

    Uber is valued at 35 billion by investors, second only to Facebook and is current valued at more than Hertz and Avis.

    Colorado just passed enabling regulations that are probably going to serve as initial model legislation for other states – basically requires background checks, car inspections and commercial insurance.

    I’d love to see the Washington Region do what Seattle has for mini-apartments and allowing basement and garage apartments… etc..

    the sons and daughters of those who grew up in the suburbs after WWII may well flock back to urban areas – even if they get married and have kids if there is “value” in the proposition and I think Ms. Tregoning thinks that way – to her credit.

    cars may well become financial albatrosses to the young and other demographics.. if Uber and Lyft grow as big as expected.

  4. re: ” DC is successful because the people who live here are entrepreneurial and well educated.”

    not going to disagree but will point out that normally a workforce that is predominately career Federal employees and contractors to Federal agencies are not always viewed as the equivalent of non-govt free market entrepreneurs.

    DC/NOVA/MD government employees – are often involved in nation or worldwide initiatives of the government. For instance, Lockheed will have a major presence so they can maintain relationships with the Govt folks who make funding decisions. Congress is also involved in making funding decisions for major weapon systems, etc.

    Other countries put people in NoVa to also communicate with the US govt and US govt contractors.. a new jet or drone may well be sold to other countries.

    I don’t see the area every really being directly affected unless some serious budget cuts are made that go so far up the ladder that they affect HQ folks.

    the DC area is not Silicon Valley nor the Research Triangle in terms private sector activities. A lot of it is arranged around what the Govt is wanting.

    A simple IT GSA contract for an obscure software can transform a 5-man shop in a 2 room rental – into a multi-million dollar company if they have the right stuff that the govt wants at the right time.

    Getting your product on the GSA schedule is hitting the jackpot and so if you are a company who thinks the govt might buy your product, you get your butt to Washington to make your case.

    • “the DC area is not Silicon Valley nor the Research Triangle in terms private sector activities. A lot of it is arranged around what the Govt is wanting.

      I couldn’t agree more. Fed money is stupid money where process counts far more than results. Interestingly, in my personal experience that is not necessarily the case with other federal governments in other countries. The US is uniquely corrupt.

      The big question is whether the takers of the fed’s stupid money can convert into entities that create products that get purchased with smart money. Given that sequestration reduces discretionary spending and given that DC is prospering the answer appears to be “yes”.

      • The District seems to have found some combination of factors that is enabling growth. Both Arlington and Loudoun Counties experienced growth in commercial assessments. Fairfax County did not. The commercial real estate sector remains tightly tied to federal spending. And its population growth is largely people with low-income service jobs, many of whom are living in illegal housing units that are putting their lives and safety at risk because some supervisors don’t want to be viewed as taking a hard line on illegal immigration. Fairfax County has some systematic problems it is not addressing.

        • re: “illegal”

          @TMT – do you think there are jobs here that these low income folks have come here to do?

          I’m always curious about NoVa on this aspect – because – we have a crap load of people who move down my way because the say they cannot find affordable housing in NoVa but the thing is a lot of them make 80-100K and more and so I wonder about the folks that provides services to the folks in NoVa – as most of them cannot afford to move to the suburbs and commute every day in an SUV.

          so my question to you is – how do are folks that do service jobs in NoVa accommodated for housing?

          do you not want them there?

          would you essentially run out any of them that are not living in strictly legal housing?

          it’s looks to be a quandary…

          how is it solved?

          • Larry, I’m just repeating what the County Executive has been saying about demographic changes and what I saw about code enforcement from Fairfax County. People are leasing half a living room or being padlocked in a basement from 10 pm to 7 am or sleeping in closets. I’ve seen photos taken by Fairfax County. Fairfax County’s winking at code violations just as the federal government (under both Rs and Ds) winking at our immigration laws is keeping wages down at the lower end of the economic spectrum. If people couldn’t rent half a living room or work for less than the minimum wage because they are here illegally, there would be wage growth. The hotel maids would make more per hour. Isn’t that what Obama wants?

          • well no TMT, I’m asking you.

            what do you think should be done with respect to affordable housing for service workers in NoVa regardless of their Obama wages or not.

            what is your solution?

          • Larry, I don’t think there is a real answer to the need of low-income workers for affordable housing. There are steps that can and are being taken, but it is impossible to solve the problem.

            Fairfax County requires developers to include workforce and/or affordable housing in projects that receive rezoning. The residential studio apartment (RSU) proposal that would permit studios to be constructed in multi-family zones can possibly provide some SRO housing. Nonprofit groups can and do provide affordable housing. There is also some flexibility in the existing zoning ordinance that allow up to 4 unrelated people to live in an house4.

            But this will not address everyone. Many people will simply have to live way, way out there. It will be harder to get service workers to come to the D.C. area, which, in turn, should put upward pressure on wages.

          • “Larry, I don’t think there is a real answer to the need of low-income workers for affordable housing. There are steps that can and are being taken, but it is impossible to solve the problem.”

            you tickle me guy.

            you have choices – none of them are particularly wonderful. You have two choices – pick one or let the economy do it for you.

            Do either one of us believe that a low-skill person who essentially works for minimum wages – is going to commute 100 miles a day to an “affordable” house in the suburbs?

            Aren’t they going to live in Fairfax by hook or crook? and it’s your choice or it gets made for you?

            you’re going to have de-facto boarding houses, right?

            do you acknowledge them and regulate them or do you pretend otherwise?

          • De Facto boarding houses – they are prohibited by county ordinance. Fairfax County could elect to remove the prohibition, but it won’t for many reasons, including both the unwillingness of supervisors to face the open wrath of their constituents and public safety considerations. A house that can safely accommodate 6 people cannot safely accommodate 16.

            If the law is on the books, enforce it. If the County doesn’t want to enforce the law, then it should also expect other county residents to pick and chose which laws they will obey. Frankly, I’d like to ignore the personal property tax ordinance.

            Also, I strongly suspect operators of illegal boarding houses are not reporting their income to the IRS and Virginia Department of Taxation. Is that OK too?

            If the service industry needs more workers, it also needs to address their housing needs. I don’t think taxpayers have an obligation to help these businesses avoid the market costs of obtaining workers. Even the old company towns provided housing. Or do we want to go back to the days of urban tenements?

          • re: ” If the service industry needs more workers, it also needs to address their housing needs. I don’t think taxpayers have an obligation to help these businesses avoid the market costs of obtaining workers. Even the old company towns provided housing. Or do we want to go back to the days of urban tenements?”

            jesus TMT – who do you think needs the service industry?

            are you advocating that many of the goods and services you buy skyrocket in price?

            are you advocating for a $20 an hour minimum wage?

            😉

          • re: ” Also, I strongly suspect operators of illegal boarding houses are not reporting their income to the IRS and Virginia Department of Taxation. Is that OK too?”

            probably and no – not okay.

            but then again.. we have companies who say their employees are independent contractors (thus they don’t have to deduct FICA taxes) – and the employee ends up having to pay the tax – at tax time so they usually don’t file taxes either…

            which .. transfers that tax burden to you.. right?

            is this a good solution or do you end up paying more?

          • I forgot to add, Fairfax County sets aside one penny’s revenues from the real estate tax to help fund affordable housing.

          • one penny down our way is worth about a 1.5 million.. what is it up there?

            probably several million easily… 10-20 million or so?

            what do they use it for – as vouchers or to subsidize rents, etc?

          • One penny is worth c. $21 M. Did a little checking & the penny was halved a few years ago due to the economic slowdown. So we are talking about $10 M plus annually. The proceeds, which also include proffer contributions in cash from time to time, go to preserve affordable units and to provide individual aid.

            There has been some strong criticism of the program as some of the subsidized families have six figure incomes.

  5. Back in the early 1980s, Tidewater Regional Transit CEO Jim Echols explained to me that you could get people out of cars if two of these three conditions were present: 1) intolerable commuting time, 2) limited access to parking at the work site or 3) high cost of parking at the work site. Cities like Washington, New York, Chicago and San Francisco have not only the conditions Ms. Tregoning cites, but also all three of the above conditions. They also had adequate density to justify extensive public transportation systems. Our challenge in much of Virginia has to do with lack of dedicated revenue streams for public transportation. We only build or provide what individual municipalities will underwrite. When I lived in Richmond, the city had outstanding public transit, but Henrico and Chesterfield almost none, or none that worked for any but the most absilutely transit-dependent.

    • re: dedicated funding streams

      re: transit subsidies

      re: http://www.dmv.virginia.gov/webdoc/pdf/tracking_mar14.pdf page 3

      2014 estimated revenues:

      Motor Fuel Taxes (b) $607,500
      State Sales and Use Tax (a) 837,800

      I would think strong arguments can be made that “transportation”
      money that comes from sales taxes – does not necessarily “belong” to
      roads and not transit.

      Transit totally conflicts me. I can find strong arguments against it and for it.

      and it seems in some places, transit is wildly successful – a vital service – and in other places – a joke and the difference why is not some recipe that predicts success necessarily.

      it’s treated in many places as a fundamental “lifeline” type service to provide mobility to those who have no other options to get to their jobs.

      and I DO WONDER about what it said by some that we could give vouchers to those in need cheaper than providing transit service to them… but I also discount that a bit because the next step after that transition , the same folks would then argue to take the vouchers!

  6. Private car services sound great but there are obvious regulatory issues, free market or no. In some cities, taxi drivers must go through training and pay lots of money, hundreds of thousands in New York, to get medallions. There are commissions that oversee them, insurance and so forth. SO I can imagine traditional cabbies being upset at the Ubers and newcomers who jump in with the market. Colorado may be doing something to handle this new crop but just to promote them in some kind of free market, smart growth for conservatism starry-eyed way is incredibly naive.

    • don’t call me Jim Bacon – but these medallions and commissions are largely bogus.

      this is no reason why the competing services can’t meet the same requirements for background checks, car inspections and insurance.

      while it’s true – that the advent of uber/lyft will likely drive down the salaries, it’s inevitable and holding it back won’t stop it.

      the best that the traditional taxi guys can do – is to set up their own smartphone business platform – and compete – on price and quality.

      I think uber/lyft/others are going to find out – though – that not any old guy willing to rent his car if going to be able to find commercial grade insurance for a reasonable price.. if they lack qualifications and/or have spotty driving records.

      I used to be a skeptic of uber/lyft but if they can meet the same standards and compete – I’m a believer.

  7. re: affordable housing and six figure incomes…

    ouch!

    I’d be curious to know what the average income is – of the segment of the population that is said to not be able to afford the average apartment rent or something along those lines.

    It seems to me that urbanized areas – economies – are based heavily on the service industry – and that lower pay contributes to convenient and affordable services for those with high incomes.

    but if the workers in the service occupations do not make enough money to afford a place to live – near to where they work – and/or those folks need entitlements and subsidies to continue to be available as service workers, are we accomplishing very much?

    one of the oft-repeated mantras of Smart Growth is that the “right kind” of Smart Growth – allows people to live, WORK, play and shop without having to use an auto or travel longer distances… between work and live.

    it’s not necessarily a meaningless “motto” because most urban areas have substantiative policies that specifically address affordable housing and it’s also relevant that people who earn minimum wage – usually also receive govt entitlements – i.e. subsidies from other taxpayers AKA wealth transfer.

    so, in effect, the better off in urban areas are paying supplemental salaries to the lowest paid service workers.. via their taxes to support affordable housing and entitlements.

    just as with the health care issue and ER use – is this – status quo – acceptable as is without changes? that people work and others supplement their salaries via higher taxes on the well off?

    if we were to do what many in the GOP say, cut the entitlements and get rid of the affordable housing programs (which penalize free market housing) – what would happen?

    Would US cities then start to look like non-OECD cities where the poor congregate in slums that ring the cities with people living in wood and paper shacks without running water and the kids do not get a public education – so the cycle continues?

    I don’t know the answer and all of the options seems to be not wonderful but I would posit that when talking about “Resilient Cities” that his issue is a central core issue.

    ” Tregoning is director of the Office of Economic Resilience at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s her job to think about how regions can prepare for economic uncertainty, globalization and restructuring, climate change and extreme weather. Speaking yesterday at the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo, N.Y., she enumerated several key traits of the resilient city. The availability of transportation options was at the top of the list.”

    I would think all the things she works on – if that job was in a city where there was no entitlement assistance for affordable housing and man lived
    in slums.. that “resilient” would have a tortured meaning…

    so I assume that folks like Ms. Tregoning and others at the conference are basing the focus of their work – on a presumption that there are govt subsidies and taxpayer-subsidies to help low-skill workers afford a place to live OR that Government should have policies that allow the renting of rooms, attics, basements and garage apartments, etc.

    I actually would consider such policies to actually be fundamental to the idea of a “resilient community” – and, in fact, the basis for a benchmark ranking system for Smart Growth cities.

    In other words, I don’t see how a city can be “Smart” if it either 1. – has no real policies that deal with housing for the low-skill service workers or 2. restricts low-cost housing options and instead letting the free market work – tax those who are better off to provide subsidies to those who cannot find
    affordable housing.

    Its THAT KIND of thing I would expect at a Smart Growth conference for Conservatives.. i.e. policies that let the free market meet demand for affordable housing rather than govt taxation and wealth transfer.

    I could actually sign on to something like that…but I admit – that there are many cities in the world – with no American-style zoning restrictions to start with – and they still have slums.

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