small business, not homeownership

Many organizations and governments are again touting homeownership as the path to economic security and wealth creation. I have my doubts. The wealth generated for people who own homes is not wealth out of thin air, nor is it wealth out of moral superiority. It is wealth out of exclusion and externalized costs. Every day, the gap among homeowners, and renters, and unhoused people grows, and the structure of wealth accumulation depends upon this gap.

As we, as a society, come to realize that we cannot continue to subsidize single family homes and their development pattern that requires large amounts of infrastructure, huge amounts of driving, and an impoverishment of cities, the single family home will lose value. This is hard to believe, given the exponential increase in home prices, but it will happen. As has been said by many others, the suburbs will largely collapse of their own weight, of their permanent debt burden. See growth ponzi scheme. Some will survive by changing their form and becoming small towns within the bigger city, but most will not. Detroit is the fate of most suburbs.

So, when the reckoning comes, and the American dream of homeownership comes to an ignominious end, what then is the alternative?

I’d like to propose small business ownership as a better model. No, I have no illusions that small business ownership is easy, or that it is any quick path to wealth. The business owners I talk to would find this laughable. But the wealth that is gradually accumulated is real wealth for the owner and real wealth for the community. It does not need subsidized infrastructure. It does not need an expensive transportation system and associated harms. It may need a small boost from the government, at times, but largely it survives and thrives by being part of an ecosystem of a healthy (and wealthy) community.

Some people claim that homeownership is the way to erase the disparity in wealth between white people and people of color. I’ll let the people of color speak for themselves, but for me, nothing about the current system or the proposed system of widespread homeownership looks likely to erase the gap. In fact, though it may bring a few people from the renter category into the homeowner category, it will very likely cast the rest downward into struggling renters and unhoused. If the government spends money to increase homeownership, as seems the politically preferable action these days, what then of the unhoused? What then of renters? What then of people who live in substandard and deteriorating housing, whether they own it or rent it?

I believe that government should stop subsidizing, and stop promoting large developments and large businesses. Large developments and large businesses seek government support in order to make what they do more profitable, but it is at the expense of the rest of us. This is nowhere more clear than in our transportation system, which was designed, and continues to be designed, to support large corporations and large shopping areas (malls), to make possible long distance commuting which is necessary when we separate single homes from work, shopping and recreation, and which destroys both the general environment on which we depend and the local communities that suffer from this system.

All efforts should instead be focused on small businesses. What do they need to succeed? What small government actions would support them? In this, I am completely aligned with the Strong Towns message:

leaf blowers

In the City of Sacramento, there are two sections of city code that address leaf blowers, both in Title 8: Health & Safety.

8.68.180 Portable gasoline-powered blowers.

        A.     It is unlawful for any person to operate any portable gasoline-powered blower on residential property or within two hundred (200) feet of residential property, except between the hours of nine a.m. and six p.m. Monday through Saturday and between the hours of ten a.m. and four p.m. on Sunday.

        B.     It is unlawful for any person to operate any portable gasoline-powered blower on residential property or within two hundred (200) feet of residential property during the hours permitted by subsection A of this section if the blower creates noise exceeding the following specified levels measured at a distance of fifty (50) feet from the blower:

  1. Blowers purchased or otherwise acquired between May 15, 1992, and November 15, 1995, shall not exceed seventy (70) dba.
  2. Blowers purchased or otherwise acquired after November 15, 1995, shall not exceed sixty-five (65) dba.
  3. Blowers in use on or before the effective date of the ordinance codified in this chapter or purchased or otherwise acquired before May 15, 1992, shall not exceed seventy (70) dba after November 15, 1993. (Prior code § 66.02.213)

8.70.020 Use of portable blowers.

No person shall operate a portable blower when the air quality index is 101 and above. (Ord. 2020-0042 § 1)

Strong Towns approach to public investment

This is a follow-on to my post don’t forget the little things. Though my post doesn’t have the same message, it goes back to the idea presented by Strong Towns, that big projects are not the secret to improving communities, but small steps, refined and repeated. This applies just as much to transportation as anything else.

Strong Towns has informed my thinking about transportation in ways that I’m not always aware of and acknowledging, so here is a start. If you care about the livability of your community, and the financial stability of your city/county/state, I cannot more highly recommend the organization.

The Strong Towns Approach to Public Investment

What about mass murder?

I will pause for a moment my mission to publicize and formulate ideas that make for a more livable place, more walkable, more bikeable, with effective transit, a diverse range of people, and jobs close to home.

The city, and the streets, are not safe for many people, not just because of traffic violence, but because of all types of violence. The last two years have seen a rising awareness that Blacks are not safe in public space, subject to oppression by law enforcement and violence in the places they live, and on the streets they use. What was once the problem of ‘driving while Black’ is now obviously the problem of ‘walking while Black’, ‘bicycling while Black’, and ‘existing while Black’. The same is true, to perhaps a slightly lesser degree, for Latinx. Hatred of trans people is growing, and they are unusually subject to violence. And now it is becoming clear that it is also not safe for Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

The incident in Georgia was probably a racial hate crime, but whether it was or not, it was a crime against those who died, and against society. Misogyny is also a hate crime. White supremacy is also a hate crime.

We have become a society where many people encourage the arming of everyone including mentally unstable individuals (usually white males, but not always), and they then try to absolve them when they act out. The former president encouraged hatred of ‘others’, meaning anyone not a white male, but focusing on people of color. The Republican party has long been the defender of the idea that the 2nd Amendment and the ‘right to bear arms’ is more important than all other amendments, and the rest of the constitution, and life itself. If people are not safe from gun violence, particularly white supremacy-fueled gun violence (by individuals and under the color of law), then all other freedoms are moot. The former president has blood on his hands on this one, and so do all his supporters, and so do all of the people who have opposed restrictions on gun ownership. Gun ownership in urban places is a pox on our humanity.

I will continue to be a voice for livable places. I appreciate every day the work of people to make those place safe and welcoming for everyone. I often think that I should join those voices in a more active way, but I also see that there are now many such voices, but still only a few voices for more livable places, and I feel like I need to continue to be one of those voices. We must adapt places and build places where the transportation network supports affordable housing for everyone, and affordable housing supports an effective and equitable transportation network. That is my mission. But I know that my work is for naught if people are not safe in those places.

I’m tired of the electric vehicle conversation

Warning: Grumpy old man mode.

I am really, really growing tired of the electric vehicle boosterism that pervades the environmental community. It is sucking all the air out of organizations and meetings, diverting attention away from solutions that would have a much greater impact on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The transportation sector is responsible for 41% of GHGs in California (2020), and that percentage will continue to climb as we work to reduce the other sectors. Except for this pandemic period, GHG emissions from vehicles have continued to climb every year, and they will probably go back to their rise when the pandemic is over, and that is already happening in some places.

Do electric vehicles have a lower emissions impact than fossil fuel vehicles? Yes, but the difference is not enough to justify the boosterism. Until our electricity supply is 100% renewable (with storage of course needed for peak periods), and we are not importing electricity from other states, the impact from electric vehicles will be unacceptably high.

And there is the other impact of vehicles. You’ve all seen the images, a take off on the old one showing the number of and space used by cars, buses, bicycles and walkers, showing congestion from electric vehicles being exactly the same as fossil fuel vehicles. But congestion is actually a friend to walkers and bicyclists, so mostly a concern to transit and drivers.

The biggest problem with cars is that they dominate our cities, and make compact, walkable development and neighborhoods impossible. I live in a place (downtown Sacramento) where nearly all of my needs are within walking distance, and the few that are not are within bicycling distance. I’m car free and have been for ten years (I had written care free instead of car free, but you know, it is much the same thing).

Yet car drivers through downtown, many but not all of them people who don’t live in downtown, challenge me for right-of-way every time a use a crosswalk. Crossing the street should not require either yielding my right of way to drivers, or trying to intimidate them into stopping (which most walkers are too afraid to do, rightly so). When I’m bicycling, drivers running red lights and not coming close to stopping at stop signs are a constant danger, meaning I have to be on high alert rather than enjoying my place and my ride. The nature of the majority of drivers is that they willingly intimidate walkers and bicyclists. People driving electric vehicles are not any better. Tesla drivers are giving BMW drivers a run for their money in competition for the worst drivers on the road.

Because of the space taken up by cars, the roadway, on-street parking, off-street parking, everything is further away. Downtown and midtown, things are still within a reasonable distance, but that is not true anywhere else in the region except downtown Davis, old town Folsom, and old town Roseville. The amount of land devoted to cars is truly amazing, and sad, and criminal. Six lane or more arterials, with parking lanes and turn lanes. Six lane or more freeways, with the ever present threat to widen them. Katy Freeway (26 lanes in Houston area), coming to your community, courtesy of Caltrans!

I suspect a lot of the energy behind electric cars is just people who really don’t want to give up their car, at all, ever. They are the same people who bought Prius cars because they were more environmental, and continued driving the same or more, and then bought Tesla cars because they are even more green, and continued driving the same or more.

Car drivers kill more than 40,000 people every year in the US, and it looks like 2020 is going to be 43,000 when the official data is in. Motor vehicle fatalities are usually a bit above gun-related deaths. Cars are the leading cause of death for children and young people. Many people tolerate this as just part of the way things are, but it is not the way things are. It is the result of our American car addiction, and the design of our roadways (engineers are morally and legally responsible for this), and the choices of drivers.

Here is my suggestion. We remove one-half of all cars from service, by whatever means necessary, with whatever funding it takes. There should be criteria that prioritizes: 1) the most polluting cars; and 2) cars owned by drivers who drive a lot, 3) cars that are not used but still take up space on the street. I realize that there are homeless people living in vehicles, and I’m not talking about those, but the ones just gathering dust and leaves and cobwebs. I am not suggesting that the government pay going prices for these vehicles, but something quite a bit less. If necessary to induce the change, we can simply refuse to renew registration on vehicles in these categories.

Then, and only then, we start subsidizing replacement of the remaining internal combustion cars with electric, starting with the lowest income people. If we devote X amount of dollars to this, and X amount only gets us up to 40% of the median income, that is just fine with me. As many studies have shown, it is high income people that are receiving almost all the benefits from electric vehicle incentives. That is classist and racist, and must stop. We might eventually get to higher income levels, but only after replacement in the lower income levels has been achieved. That means we need to immediately end the programs as they exist and revise them to be equitable. If you are an electric car booster and and not working to achieve equity, you are just being an entitled jerk.

Please, let me not hear anything about electric vehicles the next time I go to a meeting or jump on Twitter. Please.

corner retail, part two

My earlier post on corner retail was in preparation for talking about an idea that corner retail should be acknowledged, supported, and promoted in the upcoming Sacramento 2020 General Plan. The general plan tentatively promotes higher density by allowing a reasonable floor area ratio for properties throughout the city, while removing development constraints that add nothing to safety or livability. Assuming the plan and the resulting code to support it does significantly increase the number of homes and people able to live in the city, if the city remains as car-centric as it is, the result will just be less parking availability and more congestion (both of which I’m in favor of, but I recognize most people are not). It would go towards solving the housing issue, but do little for livability and climate change issues.

So what is the solution? A place where people can perform most of their daily activities without driving. In other words, corner retail. The jobs issue is a separate one, though corner retail would also increase the number of jobs within walking distance.

Karma Brew, my neighborhood bar, on the corner of P St & 16th St, 2-1/2 blocks from my house

I am not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but I’ll throw out an idea. I don’t think rezoning corner lots from residential to commercial is necessarily the answer, because that might encourage entirely new buildings replacing existing buildings. Obviously many existing buildings would need to be changed to serve as retail, but I don’t think wholesale replacement is good, and it is not respectful of that claim of ‘neighborhood character’ (which is often a cover for concerns not voiced, but is nevertheless a consideration).

Rather, I think a by-right conditional use permit (is that an oxymoron?) is the better solution. That way the building remains similar to what is there now, but becomes functional as a retail location.

Where? I’m partly of mind to say everywhere, every corner. Much of the existing corner retail predates zoning (grandfathered in) or is already under a conditional use permit. But I’m also of mind to limit it to fewer locations, which would be any corner fronted on at least one side by a collector or arterial street. In the lower density parts of Sacramento, I don’t think much corner retail would show up, because it takes a certain density to make retail viable, but there would certainly be more than there is today. Wouldn’t you like to be able to walk to a coffee shop in your neighborhood. Or walk to the market for a few items?

Note that I’m not clearly defining what corner retail is. Does it mean there is only one business present, or allowed, or could it be a few small footprint businesses clustered together? Some of the locations I’ve identified are not on actual corners, but they have the feeling of corner retail. The general plan and the supporting code would have to define corner retail.

Below are two maps of Oak Park, on the left, arterials and collectors, and on the right, GoogleMaps with markets selected. The scales are similar but not identical. As you can see, some corners on arterials or collectors already have corner markets, and there are other corners with retail that is not a market, but there are a number of locations that could have corner retail under my proposal, but do not. I picked Oak Park just because I’d spent time there recently looking for markets and other corner retail (photos below).

The slideshow below shows some of the corner retail, mostly markets, in Oak Park. Note that in general these locations are much more car-oriented than the ones I showed in the central city, because the area is much more car dominated. I will say more about that in the future. It does not include the many, many businesses that are part of commercial zones along Broadway and Martin Luther King. If you zoom in on Google Maps, a commercial area overlay shows up as pale yellow. I am gradually collecting photos of retail in other areas of Sacramento and will eventually post them.

corner retail

I have been thinking about the value of corner retail for a while, and gradually collecting photographs of corner retail in Sacramento. A Twitter reference also brought me to an article from last year by the Congress for New Urbanism, Public Square “Corner stores can anchor a neighborhood“. What moved me to post now, though, is the recent death of Calvin Yang, owner of the Sacramento midtown market, DJ Market. See Sacramento celebrates life of beloved midtown store owner Calvin Yang with vigil, memories. It really brought home to me how important these neighborhood, locally owned, small businesses can be to the community. They are a key part of livability.

DJ Market, midtown Sacramento, memorial offerings

Using the term corner retail, I’m not just referring to corner markets, but to any public-facing business on a corner. In the Sacramento central city, these include frame shops, child care, laundromats, barbers, coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants, bars, record stores, and many more. Though grocery stores or markets are probably the most important, it is the variety of small businesses that make it work. And I am going to claim that much of the livability of the central city comes from these having these businesses close to hand. It is part of the 15-minute city that I will post on soon. The main point of 15-minute cities is that everything you need on a day-to-day basis is within a walking or bicycling distance of where you live.

One of the things I will never understand is people driving to get coffee, and even worse, drive-through coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker, but I do go out often for tea. My favorite location is The Mill on I Street, not because it is the closest to where I live, but it is walkable and easily bikeable, and I really like the owners. I have said for years, long before coffee places became more commonplace, that the single greatest determinant of livability is the density of coffee shops. It doesn’t matter whether you go out for coffee, or make it at home, or don’t drink coffee at all, having one or more coffee shops in your neighborhood means you are in a livable, walkable place. Coffee places are not just places to get coffee, but what are called third places, where people can socialize and get to know their neighbors.

It is also relevant to me that these corner lots and small, often quite old, buildings cannot host a chain business, except in some cases what I’d call local chains, of which coffee places are probably the most common. A national or regional chain simply cannot compete in this local environment.

I’m not referring here to modern mixed use buildings that contain ground-floor retail, nor am I referring to commercial/retail blocks or clusters where there are a number of businesses. These are businesses on the corner, adjacent to largely residential. Though I certainly support those as well, they are not what I’m calling corner retail.

My apologies for the central city focus in the post and the gallery of photos. I live downtown, so it has been easy to get to these locations for photos. When I have the chance to get to the other important parts of the city, I will post again. I have probably missed a number businesses that should be in this central city gallery.

What is your favorite corner retail? How often do you go there? How important is it to you that these places exist? What other businesses would you like to see within walking distance of your home?

East Sac Hardware closing

I read with sadness in a Sacramento Business Journal article (https://www.bizjournals.com/sacramento/news/2021/01/29/east-sac-hardware-closing-permanently.html; paywalled, but there is a not-paywalled article at https://insidesacramento.com/farewell-neighbor/) that East Sac Hardware on Folsom Blvd is closing soon.

East Sac Hardware

I don’t question the business and property owners right to do what they want with the business and property, but the closure is nevertheless a big loss to the community. Locally owned businesses are almost always better in my opinion than national chains. Local stores and staff know their customers, and their customers often know them. Yes, I will admit that big box stores often have lower prices, but despite their huge floor area almost never have a better selection. I’d rather get exactly what I need from a local hardware store than something that sort-of-might-do from a big store.

The biggest losses here are the staff expertise, quantities, and location:

  • Expertise: In a local hardware store, the staff almost always knows what you need, or don’t need, and how to install it or use it. Home Depot and Lowe’s, not so. Though I rarely go into these big box national chain stores, when I do, I can’t get good help. Every once in a while I do find someone, but it always turns out they are retired from a real hardware store and just picking up some income and wanting to still serve the public.
  • Quantities: Another issue with the big stores is that you can’t buy just what you need. Need a screw or a bolt? They have them in packs of 25 or 50 or 100. In a real hardware store, you can buy just that one screw or bolt.
  • Location: Another big issue with the loss of hardware stores is that a person has to drive further and further to the big box store. Fortunately there are still two real hardware stores that I can access, Capitol Hardware on I Street in midtown Sacramento, and Emigh’s Hardware in Arden-Arcade. Emigh’s has expanded and diversified, so will probably survive, but I am concerned for Capitol.

And when was the last time you saw a mural on a big box store?

I believe that local businesses both create and support livability in a community. Big box stores do not. Though their employees may be local, their owners are not, and decisions are made by a corporate headquarters that knows little, and probably cares less, about the local community. Home Depot is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia and Lowe’s is headquartered in Mooresville, North Carolina, though you’d be hard pressed to find that information on either of their websites.

Sac general plan and housing

The City of Sacramento is updating its general plan, and as part of that process considering modification of zoning and development restrictions, with the intent of allowing the creation of more housing. A recent SacBee article, Sacramento has a plan to address its housing crisis. Some neighborhoods are fighting it, covered some of the changes being proposed by city staff, and some opposition to those ideas. The opposition is coming from neighborhood associations in East Sacramento, Elmhurst, and Land Park, at least so far. Though neighborhood associations usually represent only some of the richer and more powerful residents, they are nonetheless very politically powerful, particularly East Sacramento and Land Park, so the views of these will hold some sway with city council. I will address some of the misconceptions represented in the neighborhood association viewpoints.

These neighborhoods, along with Oak Park, were originally streetcar suburbs, developed by and for the profit of the streetcar companies and their associated development interests (greedy developers, no doubt). I recommend Bill Burg’s Sacramento’s Streetcars book (and any writing by Bill), and you can view part of the content at http://sacramentohistory.blogspot.com/2007/08/sacramentos-streetcar-suburbs.html. As such, the development pattern is a relic of times past, which met the needs of that time but do not necessarily meet the needs of this time. East Sacramento and Elmhurst had more businesses than they do now, so they are less livable neighborhoods than once they were. Not sure about Land Park. Yes, most of the housing was single family and duplexes, but there were multi-family homes as well.

The neighborhood associations want to fix their neighborhoods in time, so that they never change. That is not possible. Neighborhoods either change or decline over time. Midtown is a continual example of that, as buildings that no longer serve are either converted or replaced. The reason these three neighborhoods have only experienced some decline is that rich people live in these neighborhoods and have been able to forestall decline by an infusion of money that they’ve made in other parts of the city and region.

Fixing a neighborhood in time, if it is in good condition, will inevitably lead to inflation of home values, which I consider unearned income. Maintaining and updating houses is not what I mean, I mean that the value just goes up and up regardless of any action on the part of the owner. Many of these homes are now unaffordable for middle class people, even though that is primarily who they were built for (with the fabulous 40s and homes right on Land Park park being exceptions). Intentional scarcity makes anything more expensive, and the neighborhood associations like intentional scarcity.

So what do middle class people do? They move out to the sprawling suburbs in an attempt to find affordable housing. Of course this is partly an illusion because the cost of car ownership and the time lost to commuting subtract most or all of that cheaper housing benefit. I attribute the explosion of the sprawling suburbs in large part to the fact that the inner ring suburbs refused to allow intensification of housing to accommodate more people. Many of the people in these old neighborhoods consider themselves to be progressive, yet their resistance to change produced vast sprawl, high speed arterials and the pollution, climate change, death, and un-livability that goes with these outer suburbs, and exurbs. A phrase that has been used by many to highlight this is pretty accurate, “I’ve got mine, screw you”.

Another impact is that in an effort to prevent all change, they actually induce undesirable change. From the article: “Their fear is that investors will tear down single-family homes and replace them with poorly-maintained rental properties, charging high rents to Bay Area transplants to turn a big profit.” What instead happens is that even richer people buy small houses, tear them down, and build large McMansions on the same lot. In many cases these McMansions violate current zoning, but that is no problem is you have enough money or political power. Yes, I know that the neighborhood associations hate that too, but it is in part a result of their resistance to change. Apparently a McMansion is better than multi-family? Not in my worldview.

Bill Burg (@oldcityguardian) recently posted a photo of midtown variety of housing types, below, and a diagram of various floor area ratio scenarios, indicating the FAR of 1.0 for much of Sacramento is probably too low, and the FAR of 2.0 for the central city is too low.

variety of housing forms, midtown Sac (Bill Burg photo)
Floor Area Ratio (FAR) diagram (source unknown, via Bill Burg)

Lastly, I find the frequent assumption by homeowners that renters are somehow less community involved as ridiculous. I have been a renter every day since I left my parent’s house (I’m 68, so that is a lot of years), and I know only a very few homeowners (also friends) that have been more involved in their community.

Restaurant space update

There are now several more allocations of sidewalk and roadway space in Sacramento for restaurant outside dining, since my May 28 post (https://gettingaroundsac.blog/2020/05/28/restaurant-space/).

I have created an album on Flickr of my photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/albums/72157715113286843. I am not claiming that I have an exhaustive archive, there may well be other locations that I have not run across. Let me know if you know of others.

Most of the installations have been done reasonably well. I feel that it is better to place dining space in the parking lane, or even travel lane, rather than the sidewalk, however, if done well, using sidewalk is OK. Yesterday I did run across a completely illegal diversion on R Street. It is not legal to simply put up sidewalk closed signs without providing an ADA accessible pathway.

R Street illegal closure

I reported it, and the city had removed it in less than 24 hours. Already underway though, were plans to close this section of street and allocate it to restaurant dining and pedestrians. Some bollard bases had already been installed, and more were being placed this morning. These bollards will allow the closure (to cars) of R Street between 15th and 14th, R Street between 14th St and 13th, 14th Street between R Street and Rice Alley (to the south). It may be that additional bollards bases will be placed to allow a more refined closure.

I assume that since bollard bases and bollards are being installed, rather than just construction/detour signs, it appears likely that the intent is that temporary closures will continue to be available past the pandemic.

There were contractor crews working this morning to set up tents for outdoor dining, in the section of R Street between 15th and 14th. It isn’t clear to me yet whether other sections of street are going to be closed (to cars) at this time, or if the bollard bases are just in preparation for future use.

R Street at 15th Street, bollards, tents in background

This work is apparently a cooperative project between the city and R Street Partnership, but I do not know the role of each.