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Were Are Our Kids Going to Live?

I just returned from a visit to Asia—Vietnam, China and Japan—and was impressed with the array of urban housing approaches I saw. Upon my return, I also was faced with the ongoing debates about trying to achieve affordable housing in my home state of California. I wondered if any of the things I saw in Asia could apply to the U.S.. Besides my tourist-level observations, I did a little research on Vietnam, China and Japan to try to find out an answer.

Despite a population whose average income is just over $2000 per year, house prices in Vietnam are almost comparable to those in the U.S.. Although I love the frenetic atmosphere of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, the housing needs of the population are being addressed on the southern periphery of the city in former wetlands, not downtown. New City is a masterplanned  area where multi-storied high rises, alongside single and multi-family conventional neighborhoods, house thousands of families, where many international businesses have located, where the area has been designed to be pedestrian-friendly, where major highways separate automobiles from motorcyles. The aim is to make living and working less hectic, to include green spaces and pedestrian walkways between work and home, and to attract international business. 

The problem with New City is that most Vietnamese haven’t joined the country’s middle class yet and such housing as is being developed is financially out of their reach. In fact, the disparity in quality of housing between the average poor Vietnamese and his or her upper middle class counterpart is increasing. 

What is going on in Ho Chi Minh City resembles what is going on in China. In Beijing, the highest density neighborhoods are not in the city’s core, but around the periphery where the skyline is filled with multistoried high-rise apartments, often 30 stories high, and where many businesses have chosen to locate near workers. Nearly all the expansion in Beijing’s population has occurred in these suburban neighborhoods – which bear almost no resemblance to the typical American suburb of sprawling neighborhoods of single family homes. China has encouraged migration to cities, and in most people’s estimation, has built too much, too fast, giving its high-rise apartment communities the nickname, “the great housing wall of China.” To Western eyes, they are ugly, reminding one of failed public housing projects in the U.S., but they partially serve the purpose of diffusing growth from the central core of the city and easing congestion, especially when businesses occupy the same area as the housing centers. China’s middle class includes a substantial upper income group and many of the poorer workers who migrated to Beijing have been unable to afford housing in these new buildings or have been excluded from it. In recent years, the number of such migrants has decreased as they are priced out of the housing market or deliberately excluded (Beijing residents have priority for housing and other services), much as is happening in California cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In Vietnam and China, so far, high density, high-rise housing has further separated the well-to-do from the poor and left the latter group out of its benefits.  

Any Western visitor to Tokyo is impressed by the politeness of its citizens, the lack of traffic congestion, the cleanliness of the streets and sidewalks (despite a dearth of wastebins – people apparently bring their trash home to dispose of it), the orderliness and extensiveness of its subway and train system, and most of all it’s restroom facilities where, even in public toilets, “washlets” are provided, which offer hot or cold streams of cleansing water, sometimes heated seats, and are always immaculate. But what about their housing? Unlike Beijing or Shanghai or New City in Vietnam, I could discern no overall pattern to housing in Tokyo. High rises are juxtaposed with one or two story buildings, wooden structures are alongside concrete glass and steel buildings. 

In contrast to California and many European and Asian big cities, housing prices in Tokyo have not skyrocketed, nor have rents. This isn’t because the population is shrinking. Although low birth rates are lowering the Japanese population, that is not true of the Tokyo-Yokahama megacity, which is still growing and is the most populous city in the world. From what I have learned, the key to meeting housing needs appears to be the fact that the national government overrules local control of housing regulations, and property owners can do whatever they want with their properties, including demolishing them and building higher apartment buildings—which many have. New housing starts in Tokyo exceed those in Britain or California. Construction regulations are strict because of the danger of earthquakes, but if someone wants to build a tall, ugly building next to their neighbor’s traditional house, they can. And they do. There are parts of Tokyo that are not pretty and, as I said earlier, one is impressed with the obvious contrast between a well-planned transportation system and a haphazard looking skyline. But Tokyoites are apparently happy. They remain in the city, migrate to the city and have created a lifestyle that is user friendly.  

Does any of this transfer to the U.S., or even should it? Most people believe that the future will include higher density urban areas. We have a housing shortage in the U.S. and it is not just in California, although California dominates in lists of cities with such shortages. But Cleveland and Columbus Ohio and Indianapolis, Denver and Atlanta also have shortages, as well as New York, Boston and Seattle. Some of these cities have space to expand outward, while others, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston don’t (Riverside, California, a city that has absorbed those leaving Los Angeles for cheaper housing now has a shortage of its own). In Seattle, “upzoning” has allowed increasing the heights of buildings within the city in selected neighborhoods, and requires developers to devote some of their properties to affordable housing. But neighborhoods have complained of losing their ethnic flavor (Chinatown and Little Saigon) or becoming unsightly (University District).  Single-family home neighborhoods have largely been exempted from upzoning in Seattle. In California a proposed state law would allow higher buildings near transportation hubs, with similar requirements for affordable housing. In both Seattle and California, the fear is that the vast majority of the new housing will be too expensive for the people who it displaces.

I’m not sure what the answers are for meeting our housing shortage, particularly a shortage of affordable housing for people with low and lower middle class incomes. I saw some approaches in Asia that offer alternatives, but they have achieved mixed results. I think we need to look at a myriad of ideas and to combine the goal of more affordable housing with ecological considerations, such as better public transportation, more walkable city environments, use of “smart glass,” net-zero emissions buildings, district (instead of individual building) heating, so we don’t try to solve a housing nightmare without taking advantage of all of the advances in producing limitations on carbon emissions and fostering carbon return to our environment.

It will take both thinking outside of the box and giving up some of our cherished ideas about what our cities and suburbs should look like to solve our housing problem.





Reader Comments (4)

This is a problem that Barbara Ehrenreich brought up in her "Nickel and Dimed in America," where she pointed out that people making below a middle-class wage with benefits could not afford even studio apartments in the very areas where the jobs are. I live on a sandbar, Cape Cod, where the housing is increasingly expensive, and where most businesses rely on low-wage (and often seasonal) workers since there's virtually no industry apart from fishing. Yet there are abandoned motels, and whenever a township drafts a plan for affordable housing on those sites, the residents are up in arms about the "lowering" of property values and the presumed crime that comes with people who are not wealthy enough to buy a home or rent at extravagant rates. A room in someone's house, with no access to kitchen facilities, runs about $700, if one is lucky enough to find one. Workers in the restaurant industries are paid less than $3 an hour because they supposedly make up their salaries in tips. Without our addressing the housing problem, we will only see a greater and greater income-inequality gap, and this condition does not lead to a more solid democracy.

May 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Some years ago the Nobel Prize was awarded to a man that had made the seminal research that historically famines were not created by crop shortages but by economics, specically income and wealth distribution. The rich ate well during famines, the poor starved.

We are looking at the same situation in the housing markets here in the US. The rich are well housed while the vast majority of the nation pays an increasingly higher portion of income for housing and many go unhoused. The problem gas grown over the last 40 years but has hit crisis and world shocking levels since the 2008 collapse "recovery" that moved over 30% of the nation's wealth to effectively one half of one percent of the populace. Much of that wealth was in the form of real estate the ownership concentration of which is allowing the creation of control of regional rental markets' Exacerbating this wealth concentration trend is the miniscule rate of income growth for the people.

Curing the nations deadly inequality would resolve the percieved shortage of housing

May 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

If you’re advocating for equal outcomes in any arena, you’re as radical a leftist as any horrid person on the right who believes in racial superiority. It’s hard to determine which extremist ideology killed more people in the 20th Century, but each position can easily claim one hundred million deaths at a minimum. Please stop promoting genocide. It’s generally considered an undesirable outcome.

May 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

When I was a little girl, I grew up in an apartment building. I was the only child in the building. I remember coming home from school, walking up the back cement stairway, the odors of cooking from every culture of the world wafting through the hallways. People were making goulash, garlic spaghetti sauce, old-world onion-laden beef roasts, vegetable soups with kohlrabi and rutabaga, fried fish - all mixed together with cigarette and cigar smells seeping out of renters' doors converging as one consummately offensive olfactory daily nightmare.
When I was old enough to see a picture of a prison, I determined that I lived in one. When I went on weekends to my cousin's brick house with apple and plum trees and a garden, and a garage where we played "Annie, Annie Over," I started to analyze why we didn't have what my Aunt Marion and Uncle Bob had. Among the reasons they succeeded, I eventually figured out, was because they owned property. My uncle was a school teacher, but he owned property - his parents had owned property - his grandparents owned property. He paid each month for his lovely brick house that he could eventually own and sell. He and my Aunt Marion knew how to buy more property because they owned THIS property, and they learned how to make wealth from property.
To this day, I will live in a 450 sq ft. RV where I can walk out a door, rather than in a building that feels like a prison to me. My heart absolutely breaks when I see high-rises. I understand that urban planning can alleviate some of those features that I had found imprisoning when I was young, but when money is in the hands of property owners, and people cannot own their own means of housing, something is wrong with that societal structure.
In his book, "Billions and Billions," written "back in the day" by Carl Sagan, he speaks about exponentiality and that is frightening to me. The exponentiality of wealth is perpetuated by the exponentiality of population growth. While population is declining in some areas of the world, there is resistance to that decline for the economic benefit of profit-making by those who control wealth. It's a vicious cycle.
The United States is about freedom of choice and it breaks my heart a little bit to think that we have become ACCUSTOMED to the fact that choice is becoming outside of our grasp in terms of housing. Maybe that's just an "old-timey" way of thinking, as the kids say. We have to march on (I guess).

May 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

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