Neighborhood regulations and some alternatives

Community activists in my in-town Atlanta neighborhood are lobbying to designate our neighborhood as an historic district and introduce extra scrutiny and prohibitions on the modification and demolition of homes built prior to 1967. Additionally, they seek to introduce significantly higher hurdles on the subdivision of lots in an effort to “keep density in check”.

I would, of course, like to see my community move in the opposite direction, and eliminate the prohibitions on the construction of multifamily and neighborhood commercial that were introduced here in the late 1970s via Atlanta’s first modern zoning ordinances.

Show me a wonderful neighborhood, and I’ll show you a place that is either new and required a highly politicized and expensive rezoning, was built without zoning, or was built before zoning. My neighborhood in Atlanta is such a place. So are peninsular Charleston, I’On, Serenbe, and Glenwood Park.

Nevertheless, at this point in time, getting people to connect exclusionary zoning with a degraded built environment and auto-dependency seems like a “bridge too far” for too many of my neighbors—my hope at the present moment is that we’ll simply stop digging in our already extremely deep hole.

What follows is the letter I shared with the community leaders who are reviewing the proposal and who will make a recommendation to the City of Atlanta.

P.S. Archive Atlanta, a podcast by Victoria Lemos, has an outstanding overview of how zoning came to cities. She and her interviewee Josh Humphries focus on Atlanta, but the story is the same all over America, and they do an exceptional job at exploring the dark history that prompted Americans to accept such a novel abridgment of their property rights. If you ever wonder why the newer parts of our cities aren’t as awesome as the older ones, this episode will help fill you in—and (hopefully) give you some pause the next time you want to speak out against urban infill, walkability, or a diversity of housing types.

Re: Ansley Park Forever draft Interim Controls

“If you want to move people, it has to be toward a vision that’s positive for them, that taps important values, that gets them something they desire and it has to be presented in a compelling way so that they feel inspired to follow.” – MLK, Jr.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18

Dear Neighbors,

Late this week, a printed copy of the 18 page, densely worded, draft Interim Controls arrived in my mailbox. Thank you to the brave soul who shouldered the responsibility of hand delivering these documents to all of our neighbors.

Given the timetable presented in the document, I pushed aside the obligations of my daily life to give it my full attention. I also reached out to a number of Ansley Park Forever board members (whom I am certain are already getting bombarded with questions). All of them got back to me immediately, and I’m grateful for their prompt replies. Jennifer [last name withheld] was gracious enough to speak with me at length late afternoon on Friday. Others generously committed to today or tomorrow. Though I have not yet had the opportunity to meet with them, given our timetable and my existing commitments, I am compelled to submit this in advance of those discussions.

After having deliberated on it for the brief amount of time available, here are my initial thoughts and questions.

  1. What is the vision for our neighborhood? What are our values?

Whatever path our community leaders advocate for the neighborhood should advance toward a positive vision for this place, for those who live here, and (most especially) for the great many more people who will live here in the future—and we should pursue that vision in accordance with mutually shared values.

I could not find any sort of written vision for the neighborhood on the Civic Association’s website. Does one exist? And have we articulated what values will guide us in pursuit of that vision? If we don’t have a vision or values—and it seems to me that we don’t—we need to develop them! If a vision and values do exist, kindly make them more prominent on the website and in the board’s communications.

A clear vision and core values should guide every decision or recommendation the Civic Association makes, including the manner in which it comments on or reacts to documents like the draft Interim Controls.

From this document and from all the messaging I have heard from APF, I can’t infer any vision, but I can definitely infer two core values:

Controlling. It’s right there in the document’s title!
Change-averse. This proposed ordinance clearly seeks to make change more difficult.

Personally, I don’t aspire to either of these values. I would rather see us advance values like welcoming, convivial, beautiful, walkable, and prudent.

  1. How much direct experience with urbanism, land planning, architecture, land use ordinances, etc do APF members have? How much direct experience do the members have with obtaining “Certificates of Appropriateness” from the City of Atlanta, or otherwise complying with the type of ordinance they seek?

Jennifer couldn’t speak on behalf of all the APF members, but from our discussion, it sounds like the answer is “not much”—and maybe “not any”. APF seeks to shoulder hundreds of property owners with perpetual encumbrances that they themselves do not have significant experience in navigating and which relate to fields and disciplines that they themselves have little to no experience in.

  1. How diligently did Ansley Park Forever explore alternative options?

Jennifer answered this question for me: There was very little effort invested in exploring alternative methods to address the concerns of APF, and almost no effort invested in exploring options that don’t require burdening property owners in perpetuity with additional regulatory restrictions. Aside from one brief and quickly abandoned conversation, it sounds as if they immediately began pursuing regulatory solutions.

If one can achieve a goal through persuasion and voluntary participation, even if one is supremely confident that the goal is righteous, is the voluntary path not preferably to coercive regulation? Isn’t it therefore necessary that advocates diligently explore non-coercive options to address their concerns before entertaining regulation?

Jennifer and I discussed some initial voluntary ideas during our call, and I gather she felt they were both worthy of exploration. If I am correct about that, instead of committing to a regulatory path, shouldn’t APF begin by exploring ideas like these?

Below, please find a summary of the two alternative paths we discussed in our call:

A. Self-imposed deed restrictions

APF could easily and affordably engage an attorney to develop a template deed restriction that any property owner could voluntarily adopt at nominal expense.

[Two neighbors] have adopted an extremely restrictive version of this sort of thing by voluntarily subjecting their own property to the standards set forth by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. That difficult and costly path is, of course, open to anyone who wants to pursue it, and I’m suggesting something much, much easier:

Any property owner can voluntarily encumber their own property with the general controls set forth in APF’s document.

Though I understood Jennifer to be open to this idea, she did raise an objection: What if the significant majority of people were unwilling to encumber their properties in the manner that APF desires? First, do the members of APF know that they would not; have they tried? And second—and more importantly—if some significant number of property owners would not voluntarily encumber themselves thusly, is it morally right to legislate that everyone must?

At the very least, let those who advocate for these restrictions adopt them themselves before we begin the conversation of mandating that others shoulder them without their consent!

B. A fund for the purchase, encumbrance, improvement, operation, and sale of homes APF deems are worth preserving

APF could launch a fund (I suspect there are some wealthy people in this neighborhood who share APF’s preservation goal!) to acquire significant properties, perpetually encumber them as they see fit, renovate them, rent them out for several years, then sell them.

Given the desirability of the neighborhood, this seems like a sustainable venture. It would work like this:

i. Propose to property owners to purchase a first-right-of-refusal option for a nominal fee;
ii. Acquire the properties when they come up for sale. The APF fund will be buying them at a market rate, financing their purchase and renovation with a combination of debt and equity (the former coming from conventional bank financing and the latter provided by interested neighbors);
iii. Operate the renovated properties as rentals for three or more years;
iv. Encumber the properties pursuant to the general rules established in their Controls. It is worth noting that, rather than being compelled to rely on a blunt force standardized restriction for all properties, they could easily modify their encumbrances to reflect each individual property’s particularly preservation-worthy characteristics.
v. Sell the properties (and make some money!) three to five years after acquisition.
vi. Repay the investors and bank, and use the proceeds to fund additional acquisitions.

Imagine each of these properties with an Ansley Park Forever seal marking its front.

Something like this would require zero coercion and create zero antagonism in the neighborhood. It would inspire people and bring them together. It would spotlight exceptional design, meaningful history, and the great designers, craftspeople, and contractors who help build and care for our homes. It would advance a culture of positivity and conviviality in the neighborhood. If done well, these homes would sell at a premium and inspire their neighbors—both those who build new and those who renovate. It would be a win-win-win-win-win for the current and (most importantly) future residents of Ansley Park.

These are but two of what I imagine are dozens of viable alternatives to additional regulation—I came up with these two in a single day of thinking about it. Surely neither of these options are perfect or flawless, just as surely as there are better options not yet explored.

Before we contemplate encumbering people’s property in perpetuity and without their consent to satisfy the fears of a subset of property owners, APF should aggressively evaluate and pursue alternatives—and they should invest their energy most in the sorts of strategies that would bring our community together. They (and you, and all of the neighborhood) should view with suspicion any path that is inherently divisive, such as the one in front of you today.

The Interim Controls are clearly not the best path forward for our community, they are terribly divisive and unquestionably unpersuasive to a great many residents, and there are obviously better alternatives to APF to truly achieve their preservation goal.

I have a great many more thoughts about this—as I am sure do a great many other residents of Ansley Park—and I regret the lack of time available to me for deliberate reflection and patient discussion. I would be delighted to discuss this further, and will gladly make myself available to you and/or members of APF should anyone be interested in that discussion.

Thanks for your consideration,

Geoff Graham

Our Fantasy “Intellectual” Team dark horses

My dad and I have one of the ten teams competing in Arnold Kling’s “Fantasy Intellectual* Team” challenge.

Arnold has published a list of the drafted “players” and two picks (from among 150) seem to have raised the most eyebrows, both of which “belong” to our team, Clan Graham:

Joe Rogan (our 1st pick)
Donald Trump (our 3rd pick)

What were we thinking? Well, I’ll answer that with a quote from Nassim Taleb**:

“There are two types of people: those who try to win and those who try to win arguments. They are never the same.”

Let me explain why these two controversial picks are going to earn us serious points and lead to the decimation of our competition. Per Arnold’s rules, players earn points for Steel-manning, having the Memes they created be cited by others, and making public Bets.

Rogan, which is obvious to anyone who has listened to him more than a handful of times, is a generous “Steel-manner.” We think we can count on one point for every three episodes—that’s at least a point a week for thirteen weeks.

And I am genuinely curious to know what other living person has created more memes than DJT. He is the originator of dozens, from Covfefe to Fake News. I expect he’ll earn us at least ten points during the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to get over 15.

The best competitor we could think of for the third category (Bets) was Bryan Caplan, but even he is not all that prolific with his betting, so he was much lower on our pick list. Another team snagged him in the fourth round.

* Given the rules for awarding points, I will be putting “intellectual” in quotations when referring to the competition; this will be more of contest over citation frequency than a ranking of intellect.
** We wanted NNT, also for his meme-strength, but someone else got him first.

More absolution, more grace

How many of today’s desperate adults were permanently ensnared by their youthful mistakes? Criminal records, credit scores, transcripts, email or social media gaffes—these never disappear.

Fifty years ago, how much easier was it to escape the indiscretions of one’s younger self by simply moving to a new town? Today, can anyone really make amends and leave the past behind? How much have the systems we’ve created to facilitate trust among strangers ended up raising the stakes of professional and social failure to the point where people can almost never escape their pasts? Lately, I’ve been wondering if the systems that make it impossible for us to forget also make it more difficult for us to forgive.

How many more doors are closed by an arrest—whether justified or not—today versus fifty years ago? There has always been a vortex pulling at desperate people. How much stronger is it today?

Failures of all kinds now follow us so closely. A young man’s teenage indiscretion makes him ineligible for a job when, five years later, he is a young father trying to support a family. A young woman’s financial mistake makes her ineligible for credit five years later as she is trying to pay for daycare so she can go to work.

What happens to people’s hopes and aspirations when their prospects for institutional absolution are so meaningfully abridged? Bitterness, anger, resignation? And for those who have thus far avoided blemishes on their indelible record, do they become less inclined to take professional or entrepreneurial risks?

On a trivial scale, I think about all the extra hoops a self-employed person must jump through to qualify for a mortgage. Lending institutions, increasingly governed by federal lending requirements, love W-2 income but loathe lumpy K-1 income. While this little annoyance can be bothersome to entrepreneurs, I can’t imagine how much more difficult are the institutionally governed lives of people who carry with them tainted records.

When gatekeepers are people, they can use their judgment. An empowered underwriter can see the merits in individuals that transcend their indelible record and make them worthy of an open door. They might even go with their gut and take a chance on someone. And from time to time, they might even offer grace in the form of second (or third or fourth) chances.

But institutional checklists don’t do that. It’s a binary yea or nay: Arrest record? The rules say no. Credit score below 600? The rules say no. No diploma? The rules say no. All three? The rules definitely say no!

What happens to a people who’s institutions effectively brand individuals for the mistakes they made as teenagers or young adults? Over time, I suppose successful conformists will gain more and more influence. Would-be pioneers will find the risks of non-conformity getting more and more intimidating and many will react by taking fewer and fewer professional risks. A smaller number will embrace those risks—sometimes they’ll achieve outstanding rewards but more often they’ll suffer cataclysmic defeat. What does this do to our engines of prosperity?

And worst of all, in a world where people’s records follow them everywhere, those born into at-risk communities—where it is far easier to stumble into a transgression—will find it more and more difficult to make better lives for themselves. The percentage who are born into intergenerational poverty will grow and the percentage who escape it will shrink. And if actuarial tables predict darker and darker futures for them, will the institutionalized bias against them grow? Will there be less grace extended to them?

We instinctively recoil at how the CCP records every behavior of every Chinese citizen and grants or withholds opportunity based on a person’s history of conformity. Gratefully, that’s not what we have here in the United States—but what we do have isn’t entirely not that.

For the last few days, I’ve been reading Isaac Bailey’s 2018 memoir, My Brother Moochie. The book is about a lot of things: a young man escaping poverty and violence, a brother being engulfed by it, prejudice and discrimination, family and loyalty.

Near the end, Bailey writes, “[We live in a] world that punishes people for having been punished.” That is so painfully true. Do we want that world?

Here’s hoping for less institutionalized door-shutting and a move back toward letting good people leave their difficult pasts behind them. And here’s hoping for systems that grant more people the agency to extend opportunity to the non-conformers, to extend absolution to those who deserve it, and to extend grace to those who might not.