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Developer Lays Out Vision for Sustainable Affordable Housing

Imagine a sprawling metropolitan system, connected by high-speed rail, that encompassed Boston, New York City, Toronto, Rochester, New Haven, Worcester, Portland, Springfield, and Montréal. That’s called an “interaction sphere,” which is becoming increasingly common in China, and would put the region’s major cities only an hour or two apart by train.

Not only would people be taking the train more, but driving would decrease because of more population density, decreasing carbon consumption by drivers. An interaction sphere is the kind of thing Jonathan Rose hopes could solve may of the country’s problems.

At a talk Thursday organized by the Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action, Rose, one of New York’s biggest developers, articulated his vision for the future of sustainable, affordable housing. The author of The Well-Tempered City, Rose’s family company runs over 31,000 housing units in NYC. He said he uses the company as a force for good, which he calls “social-venture work.”

Rose wrote the book because he was fascinated by the political results obtained by cities as opposed to states or the federal government. For leaders of municipalities, he said, it doesn’t matter what party they belong to—if the streets are dirty or other services are not being met, they are equally likely to be voted out of office. Cities therefore achieve more results than bigger entities.

The problem with cities, though, is a lack of vision to gamely meet the challenges of the times. By 2080, 80 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Inequality is growing, humans are over-consuming, and there is considerable volatility and destruction in the environment.

“We actually are afraid as a society to dream big enough to have a vision that matches the challenges we have ahead of us,” he said. “If you look at almost any city plan and you hold it up to some of these issues, there’s a mismatch.”

In California, a high-speed rail system in a vein similar to the one Rose dreams about is already in the planning stage, although the project could be halted by farmers concerned about how the rail would affect their land. To Rose, that’s a lack of courage.

One of the biggest problems is a lack of affordable housing, as over 20 million American families spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. Some spend 20 or 30 percent of their income on transportation, and in Los Angeles, Rose said, some spend 96 percent of their income on housing and transportation combined.

Cities also lack plans to deal with climate change. Miami, for example, is built on porous calcium, so when the sea level rises, water will come up into the city even if defenses are built against the ocean.

Rose calls this idea “dynamic planning,” a constant adjusting of ideas. It stems from his theory that humans are out of balance with nature. Chinese dynasties changed, he argued, when an earthquake or some natural disaster wreaked havoc and convinced people to remove the emperor.

Inequality in America has also become increasingly vast. In 1950, Americans in the bottom quartile of income had a 76-percent chance of earning more money than their parents did. Today, Rose said, it’s just 32 percent. Opportunity has flipped, becoming far less distributed.

In order to solve these problems, Rose wants people to think differently about debt, especially in light of a $3.4 trillion infrastructure deficit in which schools, roads, and bridges have increasingly fallen into disrepair. Most cities have a capital budget and an operating budget. The operating budget is the one that needs to be balanced—the day-to-day income and expenses. But on the other side, when it comes to infrastructure, he thinks people should borrow.

“You’re borrowing to create infrastructure that could easily pay for the debt,” he said. “The money is there, we have to have the courage to say, ‘There can be good debt.’”

April 23, 2017