On the Second Presidential Debate of 2016 and Knowing Your Truth About Where You Live

I wanted to discuss a comment about cities that came up in the debate/ town hall last night. Note, this is not a post endorsing one or the other, although I’ll say that I’m with her. But the issue brought up is one that trips up a lot of people when it comes to talking about metropolitan policy and how black folks have been allowed to move about and take part in the environments that have been built and paved and provided for us.

First of all, the debate’s mention of urban policy and where black folks tend to live assumes a concentric city model, which looks like those diagrams of the earth where you cut it open and you have a ball in the center and rings around until you get to the crust, which is where we actually live.

This is the Burgess Concentric City Model. He applied it to Chicago first. However, maybe it should have been a rainbow instead…

The actual model goes into even more detail about human pathways, but I’m going to simplify it to three rings: the core, the suburban rings and the crust which is rural farm and natural areas. The core in this globe is the inner city. You have a business district, a city hall, maybe a county hall, the largest school, possibly the high school, a college or university and then you have either old money wealthy whites (or others of color who were able to maintain wealth since the city was first built). You also have the regional sports stadiums and other institutions marketed and intended for the entire region to use. If you have a major public transit system, all the routes lead to this area. When people come to visit your town, this is what they think of and this is where the things geared to them are located. Also, the name of this  inner core city, is often the name the entire region uses to define itself, when defining itself to people from the outside.

However, after World War II, when we had the second wave of suburban development, the department stores started to leave, along with others that catered directly to white folks, who were moving into the suburban areas. A few years later, black folks were allowed to  move out and onward, so essentially, all the people left in the “inner city” were the poor people of color, LGBTQA+ people and others deemed less American and undesirable.

This is where the bulk of the logic of that particular candidate comes from. Also, that candidate has participated in the development of cities for many years and from what I’ve been able to observe, subscribes to a inner core, then suburban rings that just have houses and a few services, and are restricted to certain types of people, then rural crust where all the farms and the things that sustain us (or the corporations that make all of our food, textiles and the like) are. This is probably the idea they have when they want to make the country great again. Basically make us all perfect round balls of metro areas. (Among other things…)

However, this was never quite the case anywhere. Why?

  1. Some cities are built along a riverfront. This automatically rules out having a round ring of neighborhoods in many cities. This is what you see in Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis. The irony is that the model I just mentioned in its original form was applied to Chicago. Maybe it should have been a rainbow instead of a full circle.
  2. Some cities grew in pairs or clusters. So there are multiple metro cores and farmland that became suburban rings and then all grew together to become one mega region. New York is really this, but with water separating the various cores and rings. Also, I grew up in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina. Not to be confused with the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina where I went to undergrad. Both started as triangles and are now adjacent amorphous blobs. Trying to make this a circle will only make your head hurt and you sound stupid.
  3. Economics and family structures have always determined where people choose to live. People need to be close to the things that help them survive, like jobs and food. Wealthier  people get to have more of what they like nearby. Some wealthy people wanted farmland, others wanted cultural institutions. Those others, who are at the mercy of working a job, go wherever the job is. And then those who have chosen to raise children often build and move where they feel their family will get the most of the values they want to institute into their children.
  4. Black families and sometimes Latinx and Asian families, basically anyone who was not considered white when it comes to schooling, real estate and access to public spaces and services, has always had to reckon with where slavery, then Jim (and Juan) Crow, then redlining, then urban renewal and now, mass incarceration and the aftermath of being incarcerated,  affordability or upward mobility allow them to go. For myself, my upward mobility and personal preferences dictate that I want to be near the cultural centers and also in areas where retail is clustered, which is becoming the inner cities again. But I’m a business owner just starting out, so I am on a budget. I’m also car-free, partly because of economics. Other friends, of all races and nationalities, are having children and want them to have their own safe yards, that they can manage and not have to worry about police or even neighbors shooting at their children. Because so many inner core areas closed schools or don’t provide similar public options, smaller towns in the metro regions, that are often written off as suburbs, are a more attractive option. Oh, and Target. It all really boils down to who’s good enough for Target. And who Walmart hasn’t left yet.

So what’s really going on and what should I make of this?

What I invite folks to do in the light of this particular comment and the work here, is to research the history of how your specific metro area was built, governed and developed since its inception. Each metro area, while it shares a few common elements, applies those elements differently. We need to know how our metros are made, because it’s going to take a ground-up effort to make things better. Also, you’ll sleep better knowing that living in the suburbs or inner city or on a farm or even in a shack (tiny house!) may not be a bad or shameful thing.

How Do You Start that Research?

  1. Wikipedia. Seriously, the entries on your metro area will help you find basic information and also help you find primary sources and places to go to learn why your city has its shape and how people have made it have that shape over the years.
  2. Historians and librarians in your metro area, as well as urban planners and others working in community design and governance— Basically anyone working to make sure everyone who lives in an area is accounted for and is part of the story of your city. They will help you make sure what you read is right and give you even more books to read and places to go to find information. They will also be able to point you to other people like…
  3. Long-time community residents, suggested by the professionals above. This is where you get the real stories and the more nuanced stories of why people do what they do. Or, even better, you can talk to your older family members. Record those chats, as they are history. I love what the new podcast Historically Black is doing around black oral histories. StoryCorps, and even shows like This American Life and Stuff Your Mom Never Told You are also doing a great job of uncovering local and social histories as well. (I’m going to shamelessly plug my podcast with Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman here, Third Wave Urbanism as well, where we also talk about how metro areas are really made and average people).

Above all, let those of us who are professionals stress about where people actually live. No matter where you live and what your story is, you have value. Developers and builders and city leaders, remember that the next time you decide what needs to be built or torn down in your city.

Also, please make a wise decision about voting on November 8, 2016  and during other times when elections are called in your city. Especially when other elections are called in your metro area. These folks have the direct keys to your success as a city.

I’m Kristen! Six years ago, I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com

The Quest for a Forever Home in an Era of Mass Gentrification

The Quest for a Forever Home in the Era of Mass Gentrification

I’m on the quest to purchase my dream house, my forever home.

Right now, that house is in Washington, DC and it’s one of the many row houses. It’s on a bus line or a flat street on which I can bike easily. Metro proximity is a bonus, but I’m ok with it taking me 30-45 minutes to get to outer suburbs or closer to the monument core. Uber and Lyft and my own two feet and the bus and my bike will be my friends. Or, it will be one of those far north or eastern or western houses with room for a car.

But for now, we are talking about the house.

There will be three bedrooms and two bathrooms. There will be a bathroom and bedroom on one level, so that my mom can visit and not have to go up or downstairs. There will be a porch or a turret or both. There will be a drugstore or a farmers market or a quirky neighborhood café or all three. I will play soul music mixed with gospel, mixed with the blues, with a shot of go-go out of its windows. There will be parties there, and political strategy and resting and relaxation. It will be a shelter. It will be blue in part or whole. It will be home.

I’m well aware that this kind of home is a dream for a lot of people, especially sadly the people who’ve lived near or even in one of these homes as a child or even an adult. Somebody might not like my music or they might not like the food smells or the political signs out front or even the sound of laughter through the screen door.

But if it’s my home base, then it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be. The recent numbers on the black creative class are a nod to that. And this recent study of redlined homes in DC peel back a layer of vanilla underpinning even the Chocolate City. Well, that is if you weren’t aware of Georgetown’s history.

In short, our place in this country may shift around, but I still believe there’s a place somewhere for me.

And of course, we know homes these days take thousands of dollars to obtain and maintain, thousands that I don’t quite have yet. But however long it takes, I want to get those thousands and stake my claim into a space on the world.

Since birth, I’ve known the benefits of being in a black body and having a solid, maybe detached, maybe attached, but 100% yours, home to come to. I’ve been a renter and I’ve been a dorm mate and I’ve been a child in their bedroom, plotting the revolution or at the very least recovering from hurt feelings and a bruised ego.

I miss my dad’s old house, my first home from 0-9,  but even he was ready to move on from that particular space. And partly because that’s the space in which he left this world in, I’m ok with it, like him, having returned to ashes and dust. I do hope that one day, the land it sits on can be a home for a happy person. Doesn’t have to be a family, but a person, who uses that space to be the human garden the world means for them to be.

And I’m grateful as I’ve said in my book to my mom’s house, the one she saved and worked hard for and purchased at a great rate with equity in 2000. In my early years of this blog, I railed against the concept of that 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom house, in a low-density development, that had once been farmland, then un-annexed suburbia, and now a clear part of a growing city, reflecting the diversity of thought and race. It’s all on one level. It has a kitchen window above the sink. It has a fireplace and a garage. And there’s room for her garden, her bed and a couple of others so she can have myself and others home to visit. And when we bought it, so I could have enough room to continue my teenage blossoming.

But, its closest bus stop is a half mile away now, having been taken away from an 1/8 of a mile because of budget cuts. Other houses around us have been foreclosed on and have had hard times being filled with renters. But, there are plenty of others that are fine, family homes.

Most of my other family members, and a handful of friends now that I’m 30, are homeowners. Some are detached. Some are in friendly long-term leases. Some are supplemented. Either way, there’s a place they call home and they’ll call that place home or have called that place home for at least the next year or two.

I’d like to go ahead and grab what the realtors call the “forever home”. I might keep changing my city and address some, but one day, there’s going to be a Victorian, Federal or Wardman row house with my name on it. Or, it may be another home style or address, but it’s going to be my permanent address and it’s going to be my home base.

A postscript: I wrote the bulk of this draft before the news broke on Ta-Nahesi Coates home purchase. I’m going to let him tell us about his house buying decision. A decision that may or may not have a happy ending. It may take me getting super famous before I am able to get my forever home. Please don’t tell anybody exactly where it is before I can!

Periodically, I’m going to share how I’m eliminating debt, saving money, making more money, learning more things and tie that back into how we approach city life and life decisions that have to do with proximity to a city, such as home buying and renting. This is the first of this kind of post.

Why Are Black Folks Moving?

Why Are Black Folks Moving?

Movement and migration is constantly on my mind. And whenever I hear someone claim to know where black people are moving to and why, my ears really perk up. Especially when they do what USA Today did recently and crunch some U.S. Census numbers and make the kind of maps they did in their recent story on what’s been called the reverse migration.

Some background. The Great Migration is the term given to the movement of 6 million African-Americans from southeastern cities to northeastern, midwestern and far western U.S.  cities from 1910 to 1970. The Wiki on is comprehensive and legit, especially for our purposes today of getting into why this movement is actually going into reverse.

More background. This panel I served on back in 2012 and this amazing book by Isabel Wilkerson called The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson’s book, which we discuss in the panel, talks to people who actually did the moving and asks them why they moved and what they learned. For three unique people, each who left different corners of the Southeast and each went to the Northeast (Harlem, Manhattan); Midwest (South Side of Chicago); and California (Los Angeles), it gets into their backstories of several years of their lives in the South.

That included: educations and running in high society in the Atlanta black community, then a solo car trip that was much longer than it should have been due to racism; an abusive marriage and fleeing a sharecropping Mississippi experience via the train; and organizing fellow orange grove workers, then needing to flee from the fear of lynching via train. It also gets into their regrets, as their new spouses and children, as well as working conditions and homes often did not meet their dreams and expectations.

Wilkerson recently posted on her very informative Facebook page , that her subjects learned that you unfortunately can’t escape discrimination, outright racism and even bad family trauma, by moving to a different region of the U.S. She encouraged all her followers and their families to find the warmth of the sun in their backyard and combat those issues wherever they are.

Back to our panel. I,myself,  warned panelists that moving South doesn’t mean you escape the racism and discrimination that we as black folks often experience. It doesn’t guarantee a home, a good education and that police and other public service officials and fellow neighbors of other backgrounds will see you as human. And I also, having not made my move to Kansas City, was intrigued about why people would want to move back to a place that still had so many issues with how people are seen and treated.

Having now made that move, I now understand better. It really comes down to property, affordability and proximity to services, even if political and social power is not as realized.

Places Journal’s recent article on Memphis and how its black community was developed and treated is a really telling story of how cities can do right and wrong by its black community, such that certain communities develop better reputations for black success and leadership than others. It contrasts Memphis with Atlanta, where black people were encouraged to buy property and to become leaders.

Atlanta still has had issues with housing its poor black populations and there’s still the MARTA issue, but compared to Memphis, it looks like a global city. Whole swaths of Memphis were destroyed and white families continued to move further and further out of the city and the city continued to follow them with annexations.

Yet, at a certain point, much like here in Kansas City, communities annexed themselves and became autonomous suburbs. Recently some of those Memphis suburbs broke their school systems out of the very recently merged county-city system, claiming that they were being asked to fund schools they didn’t want to fund, which sadly is often coded language for racism. Some Charlotte parents are threatening to do the same in the Mecklenburg County system. Kansas City has an extremely high number of municipal school districts, religious schools, traditional independent schools and charter schools. Of course, Kansas City proper also covers three counties, which is another bit of inefficiency, that goes beyond this conversation of migration patterns.

Meanwhile, back in my home county of Guilford, in North Carolina,  all public school students, save the ones at the handful of charters and independent schools, go to school in the same municipal district. While there are calls for Title 1 schools, as schools with high percentages of disadvantaged schools are termed throughout the U.S., there aren’t whole, very small, municipal school districts of Title 1 schools. That wasn’t always the case in Guilford County, but since 1993, my second grade year, our district has been merged, and we are now boasting an 85% graduation rate and we now have Say Yes to Education, which will fill in funding gaps for all forms of public or private post-secondary education in the county.

Couple that consistency in school funding and curriculum county-wide with the ability to purchase 3 bedroom/2 bathroom basic starter homes in good condition for less than $200,000 and 4 bed/2.5 bathroom homes for less than $300,000, even in the good school “zones.” In addition, because our county and metro doesn’t sprawl out of control, no services or major national chain stores or restaurants are more than 20 minutes away from any home in the county. Actually, if you live in the Greensboro city limits or any city limits in the metro, you are no more than 15 minutes away from at least a Walmart. We also have seven colleges and universities, including two historically black ones and a very robust community college system.

In my youth, we still had the textile, tobacco and other mill jobs that paid more than average across the South. Office jobs were stable and before all metros began to have stagnant wages and high rents, anyone who had a regular job, even at a department store or as a restaurant manager or regular shift worker could afford a home of the sort I just listed above. Our housing projects were built for both races. Neighborhoods were mostly victims of white flight and not of extreme redlining and complete denial. And the neighborhoods left were still high quality housing stock, and builders cared about making sure that places were up to code. We have slumlords, but they still have a minimum housing standard that has to be met or the home will be seized by the city and torn down, with the bill as the responsibility of the property owner.

Similar situations exist in the Research Triangle region counties and in the North Carolina counties around Charlotte. Politically we’re considered a purple state. All three downtowns are vibrant, so there’s a dense option and a more suburban/rural option in all three cities. Those downtowns have at least a green/organic grocer, a slew or bars and restaurants, and an open space to gather.

All three are connected by 3, soon  5, daily roundtrips on Amtrak, which take just about 3.5 hours now and will take 2.5 when recent track work and expansion along the route is done. The drive between the three is about 3.5 hours now, so soon, there will be a time savings. Already, professors and such who live in Cary, just west of Raleigh ( one of the fastest and wealthiest areas of growth in the state period, not just with Black Americans looking to return to the south) and Carolina Panthers fans who live both there and Greensboro, take the train to their classes and games in Greensboro and Charlotte and points in between. In the meantime I-40 and I-85 are clean, well-lit and well-marked guideways to a trip that if you start in the middle at Greensboro only take you an hour and half tops each way. All three cities have airports and the Charlotte one is a major international and domestic hub, Raleigh can take you to Toronto, Paris and London, plus Atlanta and Washington, without headache. Greensboro has these nice seasonal flights direct to and from Denver and Detroit, which outside of me in KC, house the outer reaches of my black family who have done some form of the classic migration.

Granted, on the USA Today maps, the census shows a net loss of people to Greensboro. To Charlotte and Raleigh though, it’s as if they’ve become the New York and Chicago of today. Atlanta is the poster child for the return migration, and DC, which has always been a source of black migration and wealth generation, even when it’s center city was in decline, is still a magnet for black migration. And then there are the Texas cities, which also offer cheap property, high salaries and in some areas, strong school districts.

I’m often asked this post’s title as a question. It’s been four years since I sat on that panel. I got on that panel because I wanted to challenge cities and also families to consider the benefits of light density on their lives. I want people to have the choice of apartment vs. house with yard. I don’t want them in their cars for 20 minutes just to go to the grocery store or the bank. I don’t want them in their cars at all really, save to go on long road trips or to pick up things that can’t be delivered or to ride with their friend as a groups to fun activities.

And above all, I want them to live in a place that sees them as 100% human and capable of contributing to civic society. I want us to have our own things and have the freedom to come and go as we please. This is why we move. We move for freedom and peace.

NOTE: This piece is very focused on the migration of African-Americans who were slaves or are slave descendant. We also need to discuss and include African immigrants of recent times, a handful who are doing their own return migration to countries that are much more stable and even competitive with some cities in the U.S. as far as housing, jobs and civic power. Also, I don’t see the data properly covering millennial movement, except of those who moved back South to attend colleges, namely historically black serving colleges. Also, the maps U.S. Today created don’t use Census data from the last five years. Oh and KC does have high outmigration. But you can call me an outlier. Sometimes, even “bad” cities can be beacons of opportunity.

To Create a Perfect City

All it took in many cities for development in the old days was one man who bought up bunches of land and started building houses on it, which he turned around and put up for sale.

One man. Probably white and already wealthy. 

Several plots of farmland. Land which used to be fields and served that purpose, is now a whole neighborhood. In the early years, these neighborhoods were connected throughout with sidewalks, with access to streetcars, with plots designated for community retail, such as a market. Many of these older style neighborhoods were still bedroom communities, but they were connected. In the case of J.C. Nichols here in KC and others, there was emphasis placed on who could and couldn’t purchase those homes, which unfortunately was codified in the federal mortgage-making code. Oh and the official history of his Country Club Plaza flat out states that he was just one man that changed the city

So to say that other developers and even you milling around and buying (and being sold) properties can’t change the city (or, at least a chunk of it) with your money, ideas and landownings is crazy. It really comes down to money and respect of who holds said money. Eventually, you can change your city with ideas and small investments. Eventually.

This still keeps me up at night, because unfortunately, I feel the only way to enact wholesale change on cities overnight, is to purchase wide swaths of empty land or existing properties and create my own fiefdom. Let’s chat about that fiefdom shall we?

Let’s first assume that I’m in KC and I bought up a chunk of abandoned or less-loved area East of Troost, but still in KCMO.

Restricitve covenants are illegal these days, but often rent and asking prices are such that certain people are excluded. I’d put up a for-sale sign on the residential properties and tell people the amenities and then invite them to propose a price for it. I would take millions from some and I’d hand out some for free. I’d do it lottery style, so the goal would be to get a diverse amount of people, but let Providence handle who was picked and wasn’t picked. No credit checks. Some people would get jobs handling transportation, doing landscaping, teaching at the educational campus or working at the marketplace and they would get homes that I’ll set aside for workers and families. The lottery will be for folks who don’t live in the neighborhood. 

For the transportation, Transportation to and from my fiefdom would be free and would include all types, appropriate to the context.  I’d give the money to get the Linwood streetcar built, and restore older ones. Troost and Prospect would get streetcars too. Remaining bus lines and the streetcars would have every-15-minutes bus service. There would be free car-share vehicles for trips to stores and other neighborhoods (fiefdoms). There would be bikes. And the sidewalks would be clear. If you still insist on bringing a car after I told you all this, you would have a place to park. But only if you make a compelling case to need one (you use it for your business, you are disabled and use it to cover long distances, you’re an Uber driver, you drive to a far-flung place that doesn’t have rail or bus or air service enough for you to go there as often as you need). While not directly in my KC fiefdom, I’d also donate money to get a streetcar or true light-rail (our existing vehicles can actualy do both!) to the airport. You’d start at the River Market stop, then wind your way through the Northland (possibly tunneled, possibly in the highway median), such that it’s only a 30 minute trip each way. Yes, it would go that fast too. Our  existing vehicles can safely run at 35 miles an hour.

There will be one central marketplace, which the community owns and staffs. There will be all kinds of healthy food options, with an eye to conscious omnivores on down to complete vegans. Subtracting staff salaries and real food costs, care will be made to make sure that people eat. You’d be able to get other things there too, either shipped directly to the store, to your home or inside the building. Yes, this is sounding like Walmart, but my Walmart would look like Target and pay like Costco. Actually, it would look like the City Market, because there would be room for both basic needs stores and also some fun stores. Just like homes, there will be different sizes for all. Also, services like doctors, yoga studios, and credit unions will be in this space too. 

There will be many open parks, with playgrounds and racket courts and basketball courts and even a fountain. This is KC. It seems that I must have a fountain to be a legit fiefdom.

There will also be one school, a campus if need be, that provides all that a kid would need as they grow. That includes any kid with a special need. If we can’t provide it, we will make arrangements free-of-charge for the kid to get the education they need, right by their own home. Or, if the kid was game, we’d bus them across town to another campus, which has mastered something we don’t quite have yet and gives them an opportunity to meet people who don’t live and work in their neighborhood.

But there’s a problem here. It should not take people buying up land and creating fiefdoms to provide education, food, education for all ages and all other needed and wanted services. Also, this could turn into separate-but-equal really quick, especially here in KC and in other places that still have very defined lines of where people of certain races and cultures live, exclusive of their actual income. My economics are probably way off, but I wanted to err on the side of providing homes and jobs and basic needs. I’m assuimg that I’m crazy rich already and can make up the difference.

But that’s what we have, fiefdoms, in an alliance under one city. Or in most cases, we have multiple cities, of multiple fiefdoms, doing whatever they feel like doing to provide basic services. Essentially, separate, but unequal, with a wee bit of separate-but-equal.

So what can we do?

I believe that as an alliance of cities and fiefdoms, we can set a goal to provide co-op grocery and markets, centralized and fulfilling K-12 and secondary education, and free and prompt transportation options. We can continue to provide places to gather, for various schools of thought, pending no one emerges from these meetings with the attempt to do real harm.

I think we could do this today, because these are our things that we can drop money on right now and shift the conversation and how we live.

I believe we can start looking at each other as human beings worthy of mutual respect and sympathy. I think we could switch to a system of true rehabilitation and re-training, to help those who truly have criminal minds (and not just those we THINK) do.

And housing. If we are going to spend money to build something, let us ensure our water and sewer systems are clean. Always. That there’s always a place to go when we are sick and going there doesn’t automatically bankrupt us and won’t bankrupt us down the line. We provide basic shelter, maybe communal at first, then small dwellings to people on a sliding scale. Then, because we’ve stopped servicing some of our other social welfare issues as hard or as inadequately as we were doing, we can zero in on the problems with costs and making sure people have adequate roofs, at the privacy level they so desire.

No city is perfect. Yet, we cannot keep going with the inadequate ones we are fielding today. And we cannot end with separate but equal.

Each week, I send out an email with these kinds of posts, things that I’m working on and other articles you should read. Leave me your information below and you’ll start to see it on Tuesdays.

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A Few of My Favorite Online Calculators

So in a previous post, I mentioned this concept of a sliding scale for home purchases. Today, I’m going to bring you the root of that concept, at least for me, the calculators that tickle my fancy.

This is Potatoes and it’s the Wednesday series on The Black Urbanist. It’s when I take Tuesday’s current event and add a stat or a deeper commentary through images. It’s also the holiday season and I’m sure you are either hosting all your family or you are getting ready to be one of those poor souls invading the airports and train stations and roads that the news always talks about on holidays. Take some stress out of your trip by using Expedia to book a good deal on your flight, rental car, hotel or all three. Click here  for more information and know that your purchase will support The Black Urbanist and help me keep writing these posts! 

I think we should get things started with a couple of basic cost of living calculators. I like these because they give me a realistic picture of what different salaries mean in different places. I however, believe it’s not the end all be all. Depending on who you know and how you are able to arrange your housing, eating habits and transportation habits, some of these changes aren’t so drastic.

The CNN Money Cost of Living Calculator keeps it simple. Put your current salary and city in (Winston-Salem’s close enough) and  put your desired city in. As you all know DC tickles my fancy a lot and is a city I can easily drive to, that has the most drastic change in income (Atlanta is the same distance, and the housing only a smidgen more expensive than here).

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 7.32.03 PM


I will admit that these percentages are a bit simplistic. How about we find a calculator with a little more meat. The Calculator.net Take Home Pay Calculator gives you a better idea, based on federal tax allowances, your state and city tax rates (if applicable) and a handful of other factors, what you will actually see each month. I like this one even better, because I can see how I need to budget on a month to month basis and how much I personally feel comfortable with paying with a certain salary rate. (The site defaults to  $50,000 a year, I could also be happy with that with the right budget and habits).

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 7.53.48 PM

The above assumes that I’m making this salary in North Carolina and that this is a salary and not self-employment income. However, I can play with any state scenario, frequency of payout and a few other areas.

Finally, the calculator that prompted my sliding-scale housing post, the New York Times Buy or Rent Calculator. This calculator takes something that’s normally presented as one of the calculators above and takes it to a different level. In fact, this calculator is so huge and so awesome, you’ll have to click on this


(I tried to make the link huge and awesome too).

So there you go, my favorite calculators when it comes to determining cost of living, budgets and of course, the rent/buy question. What are some other calendars that a placemaker could geek out over? I’m sure there’s some good transportation ones that I didn’t think of. Let me know in the comments or on social media.

This post is part of my participation in #NaBloPoMo, the time of the year when bloggers come together to pump out daily content and connect. Find out more about that project and how I’m participating, here and here.

Could Sliding Scale Home Purchases Work?

There are a litany of calculators out there for people to use when they are ready to calculate how much home they can afford. Put in the magic number and you get exactly what level of house you can afford, at precisely the perfect time. What if that magic number was the only number you needed to get a house or an apartment? That whatever number you put in was enough. Introducing the sliding scale housing market.


This is Meat and it’s the Tuesday series on The Black Urbanist. It’s when I take a current news event that’s moderately related to what I talk about here and add a bit of my own commentary. It’s  also the holiday season and I’m sure you are either hosting all your family or you are getting ready to be one of those poor souls invading the airports and train stations and roads that the news always talks about on holidays. Take some stress out of your trip by using Expedia to book a good deal on your flight, rental car, hotel or all three. Click here for more information and know that your purchase will support The Black Urbanist and help me keep writing these meaty posts!

Could this really work? I understand that we are in a marketplace and a market that privileges the highest bidder when it comes to homes. However, there’s also a glut of foreclosed homes. Several cities are offering homes for a $1. What if we developed a system that married the parts the system that were beneficial to homebuyers, sellers and cities.

The first pillar of this plan would be establishing a standard rate for realtors, one that makes sure they get a fair rate. Essentially, there would be low-cost realtors, much like there are low-cost versions of other service providers. This forum on Zillow brings up the need for such a provision. This low-cost realtor role could be taken over by existing housing nonprofits and housing authorities, which already serve in this role for many people. What would happen is that this strategy would be given the advertising dollars and prestige currently afforded to the regular mortgage process.

The main difference would come with the mortgage market. This method would essentially be getting rid of mortgages. It would have to be grandfathered in, but the idea would be that buyers pay 30% of their current income and that’s it. The down payment is the final payment. And yes, since we are going on income, some houses would be free.

Would this be sustainable? It depends. A lot of the current housing market is speculation. A new amenity comes to a neighborhood and real estate speculators jump in and raise the prices of their homes, condos and their rents. This in turn creates the high prices one comes to expect in a gentrifying or already gentrified area.

I could foresee going to a sliding scale to deal with the factors presented in this article, which noted that middle-income earners can afford homes in many areas in the country, especially those with higher than average salaries.Yet, they gave grades to particular cities and no city received an A, which assumes perfect affordability (lower taxes, homeowners insurance rates and prices out of the gate). What does it really benefit to have such inflated home prices? Our number one priority should be making sure people get into homes, not that some faceless developer gets more money.

However, some developers and landlords are actually good. Some people need to rent, because they are mobile. Yet, I think a good start would be to reign in the mortgage market using a method such as this.


Wait, That’s Really a House?

Via Wikimedia

My dad and I used to talk about how he was going to make himself an office in his backyard shed. He’d made a good amount of money putting electricity in other people’s dutch barns and other iterations of storage sheds/backyard workshops. It was only a matter of time that he would slow down enough and put wires in his. Meanwhile, I’d use the shed as my play kitchen, with the nice wooden kindergarten furniture that we’d picked up at the local public school surplus auction.

Unfortunately, the shed never made it past my mud pie emporium to being dad’s full office. In fact, I’m sure he’d be tickled to see just how many people have decided to not only wire and keep some sort of office in backyard sheds, but actually live in the things and call them so nicely, tiny homes.

While the movement has origins as far back as 1960’s counterculture, the movement picked up steam during the recent major economic recession, as well as in the aftermath of several major devastating storms, namely Hurricane Katrina and the Katrina cottage. They’ve been touted as a solution to chronic homelessness. Many others are propelled by the ability to live life somewhat off the grid, somewhat simply and in some cases tax and mortgage free. It’s also a slightly more stable alternative than just living in a sedan or a van, but many van dwellers consider themselves members of the tiny home movement too.

So what makes a home “tiny” versus “small”? The common nomenclature (as listed by Wikipedia in their article on the movement), states that a tiny home is any house or non-self-propelled vehicular structure that is less than 1,000 square feet. As stated above, some van and RV dwellers count themselves in too, as well as those in traditional trailers. Yet, what makes these tiny homes different, at least in my opinion, is their resemblance to a normal, stick-built, bungalow or ranch home. If one took the wheels off of some of these homes, they could be confused for our friend above, the storage shed. They could also be right at home on Apartment Therapy.

Another question one may ask is that is this really new? No, not at all. What has happened is that much of the stigma of living in such a small quarter has dulled, seeing that many of these homes have many modern accouterments, and are remarkably space efficient, for far less money than some rental apartments.

Lastly, this has major implications for sprawl repair and even traditional new urbanism. Traditional new urbanism has always been a proponent of the accessory dwelling unit (ADU or more colloquially, the granny flat). Yet, with more and more people moving into already dense and raptly gentrifying metro areas, as well as fleeing to cheaper suburban areas, allowing for more units per acre and in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and financially prudent is vital. Plus, these have become showcases for homes in the 1,000-2,000 square foot range of how these homes can appear to be mansion-like, thanks to efficient uses of space. Especially in the case of the Katrina cottage, people can rebuild something that looks and may even be the same size as what they lost, in a short period and without incurring newer, higher expenses.

I can’t lie, the idea of a tiny house is very appealing for me for my next move. However, I have yet to see a community of them anchor what’s already in denser housing communities, at least in my area. I’m better to stick to a traditional sized ranch, bungalow or a townhome.

What about you? Would a “tiny” house be too tiny? Could you get over the feeling that you really live in a  glorified shack?

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Could You Really Survive In Your Car By Choice?

An iconic image of van living. Could this be sustainable over the long-term? Image credit.

When one thinks of living in a car, it’s usually because they have gone broke or they are trying to build up something and housing is not a reasonable expense. Think of the laid off corporate worker, the family who has lost their home to foreclosure or the  wannabe Holywood actor or music artist who is making do wherever they can.

However, this post is about something different. This is taking the ethos built by those who are creating tiny houses or even living in tents to be more minimalist and applying it to cars. In a previous post, I highlighted an organization that I serve on the board of, that allows people who are homeless at any level ( homes but no other income; income, but no house to receive mail at, etc.), to have basic services such as showers, mailboxes, phone service and haircuts. Our facility is geared towards the “traditionally” homeless, i.e. those that don’t have other choices or have major issues that made them homeless. What if though, a Sheetz or Wawa functioned like a combination between those travel plazas on I-95 in Maryland and a traditional truck stop. People could rent parking spaces similar to the way they rent hotel rooms or campground plots. In making rest areas or “vehicle-dweller” service areas more prominent and clean, could we offer a viable option to those who want to simplify their lives, starting with using their vehicle as both transportation and shelter?

In researching this post, I also wanted to make sure that there weren’t any major safety hazards living in a car long-term. According to this site, from someone who started out living in a smaller car and now lives in a van, the main concerns are disposing of human waste, proper ventilation and heating (with and without using the gas or keeping the car cranked) and proper storage and preparation of food. While the site is somewhat geared to those who are in their cars on a temporary basis, there are a lot of good tips that could come in handy on a coast-to-coast road trip or if people were forced to deal with something like the sudden snowstorms that hit several southern states randomly and at in opportune times. This site, written in March, is geared to someone who chose to live in their sedan and the things they did to survive to continue to do more outdoorsy stuff. Even they eventually moved into someone’s garage, because of both the expense and practicality of having enough room for stuff and a place to go in weird weather.

If I had a choice, I’d prefer to not live in my car. But this is only because of creäture comforts. If I did live in my car, this is what I would do:

Invest in a gym membership: for exercise, showering and socialization

Set all of my bills to auto-pay and find a friend who has an address I can use for other items: Making sure bills get paid and that I can still get Christmas and birthday cards. And yes, tax notices and any other legal notices that may come through.

Budget funds for eating out, printing documents and campground fees: Knowing how I eat already, I would not actually cook in my car. With having a web business, plus also working a normal job, I’d occasionally need to sign documents, so I’d budget for that. In addition, I’d want to know I had a legal place to park, so I’d use a campground.

However, all three of these tips above include expenses that can add up to far more than the cost of a basic studio apartment in my area. Yet, in another big area, I’d strongly consider living in my vehicle, since I already own it and all I would need to do is to continue paying its taxes and fees. Yet, not being able to park safely, finding a decent gym and finding a place for mail would all be deal breakers.

So what about you, could you casually or purposefully live in a car?

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Front Porch Sittin’ Time



I think it is safe to say, that at least in North Carolina, spring has arrived in earnest. It will shock me, but not by much, if we have one more hard freeze before May arrives. Yet, cold was nowhere  this weekend, on the patio at Nattys where I had lunch with a few fellow media professionals on Saturday, or my balcony (pictured above) where I chipped away at Andrew Ross’s The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney’s New Town. More grittier than Celebration USA, I’ve enjoyed getting another angle of what it was like at the beginning of one of the first, most scrutinized, popular new urbanist developments. (H/T to Placemakers Scott Doyon for the recommendation)What better to read about while sitting on a porch-like structure than a community built around the powers of front porches. Unfortunately, at the time of the writing, the porches were painful reminders of the Florida heat and vermin. I had a wasp or hornet come inside with me Saturday night. It spun around until it finally died in the middle of the night.

Yet, that was just a minor pain in the ability to watch the sunset on my balcony and see what neighbors drove what, as well as a few new ones I hadn’t seen, since I’d not had “balcony time” since way before last winter. I noticed plenty of your photos on all the social sites of patios, balconies, porches and even a couple of hammocks and blankets on the ground. Whatever we did this weekend, it was clearly an ode to the front porches of our lives and the springs that make them awesome.

I’m also drawn, as many who are advocates of the return of the front porch are, to a quote from another book, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

“No front porches. My uncle says there used to be front porches. And people sat there sometimes at night, talking when they wanted to talk, rocking, and not talking when they didn’t want to talk. Sometimes they just sat there and thought about things, turned things over. My uncle says the architects got rid of the front porches because they didn’t look well. But my uncle says that was merely rationalizing it; the real reason, hidden underneath, might be they didn’t want people sitting like that, doing nothing, rocking, talking; that was the wrong KIND of social life. People talked too much. And they had time to think. So they ran off with the porches.”

I’ve lately been more conscious of the fact that we are in the “future”. Yet, as a neo-traditionalist, a Southerner, a person who likes socialization, who will attend at least 5 cookouts this summer, sit on that Natty’s patio (and the one at the Mellow Mushroom) at least 3-5 more times and probably grab a blanket at the NewBridge Bank park a couple more times, I believe that it will be a longer time, if never, before we will see the conditions described above. Yes, privacy and surveillance has become an issue, but the rebirth of downtown, sidewalk and patio bar/grill economies I believe will eventually trump all concerns of people congregating.

Do you have a front porch or a front porch-like space? Urbanists swear on its power, but does it have that magic for all my non-planner/non-builder types?

Placebook: War Zones and Playgrounds

Arial View of Playground. Image via The Transom.

Arial View of Playground. Image via The Transom.

What do we make of what I think is the real challenge presented by gentrification? That is, if people see the areas they are moving into or have lived in as war zones or playgrounds or both? For context, I define a war zone as an area where either residents are punished or sometimes killed while going about their daily business. Examples would be areas that are violent gang zones, areas where people live near toxic chemicals and areas where a neighbor is some form of nuisance. I define a playground in this sense as an area where people go to have fun, whether they are adults or children. Also, the area may have started as a war zone, but thanks to the desire of others to make it a playground, that’s precisely what it has become. I am not bemoaning areas of pleasure here, I just want us to think about those juxtapositions.

In the cover story of this month’s The Atlantic, the bulk of the story refers to The Land, a playground for children in the UK that is full of things that we would see in a toxic dump or a war zone. The premise of building this park came from ideas originally sprouted after  World War II times, to help children where bombs and other tools of war made regular neighborhoods look like this area. The modern version of the idea was to also create a space for children to learn how to be resilient and appreciate areas of danger, not run away or say they can’t conquer them. This article on The Transom goes even deeper and has more imagery, sound and observes as one is being built. There’s also a documentary and it’s mentioned in both stories. (Image above is from The Transom)

This very interesting use of public space has me asking even more questions. Are my definitions of war zones and playgrounds off base? Could they be one in the same and be productive? Of course we want more areas that are more like playgrounds, but life does challenge us, especially our practice of placemaking. What can we learn from putting two opposite ideas together, in more adult areas of our communities. Think on that with me, as you read today’s news and other views:

The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) has a new leader, from Ohio.

Winston-Salem City Council has put its support behind an east-west streetcar route connecting points through and near downtown.

Changes are coming to the state’s driver’s education program.

Forsyth County has approved an architect for the Winston-Salem central library and an amphitheater at Triad Park in Kernersville.

There are questions to the legality of Guilford County Schools June 16 makeup day.

The City of Greensboro is holding a food drive for those who lost food when power was lost during the last major winter storm.

Farmers around the Dan River ash spill met to discuss its impacts on them and their crops Monday night.

The Charlotte City Council has approved a new uptown office and residential tower development.

Apartment rents in Asheville and Wilmington have been deemed unaffordable by this years Out of Reach report, the annual national report released by the National Low Income Housing Center. Here is the full North Carolina report on housing affordability.

If you didn’t know it already (or have met one or two with your car) expect a lot of potholes until they are patched in the spring.

Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane pushes transit and design issues in her State of the City speech.

Pittsboro’s Board of Commissioners is still seeking answers on what the impact of Chatham Park, a development that will significantly increase the size of the town, will be.