Photo: Flickr user David Swinney.

This week, a legacy of contamination from air bases across the country, the housing finance issues experts will be watching in 2019, why trees are more than just pretty and more.

Title Page

Wielding Rocks and Knives, Arizonans Attack Self-Driving Cars. New York Times.

Introduction

Contaminated Groundwater, A Toxic Legacy of Georgia's Air Bases. Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

For decades, the United States Air Force used a toxic firefighting foam that contaminated water near bases and exposed communities to chemicals linked to cancer and a variety of other health problems....In more than a dozen other states, the Air Force has acknowledged contaminating drinking water in communities close to its bases.

Executive Summary

Experts from the Urban Institute's Housing Finance Policy Center weighed in on the housing finance issues they're keeping an eye on this year, from a crisis in senior housing to changing attitudes around zoning across the country.

Here are a few of the areas they'll be watching in 2019:

Vice President Laurie Goodman: I am most worried about whether we’ll figure out how to increase the housing supply quickly enough to address the acute shortage that is causing affordability problems in too many places. Two of the more obvious solutions are increased use of manufactured housing and new building technologies, such as modular and panelized housing, both of which I will be watching closely.

And I agree that the change in direction at the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) could be the most important thing to happen to housing finance in 2019. I’ll be watching to see if whatever changes are made will bring more private capital into the market.

Nonresident Fellow Ellen Seidman: I'm interested in when and whether the upcoming disaster in senior housing is going to hit the public radar and what the reaction will be, especially given the narrative that the upcoming seniors (i.e., boomers) have ruined the planet for everyone else. Not only are we about to have more senior renters (many on fixed incomes), but also fewer senior homeowners with any significant home equity (and some with large mortgages, especially compared with their incomes), more in need of structural modifications to be safe in their homes and more isolated in suburban and other locations that require cars that they can no longer drive.

Add to this our inability to get a real handle on reducing health care costs and the inevitable end-of-life issues that longer lives entail. Maybe some of this will be mitigated by those seniors who actually live longer while being healthier and the greater tendency of nonwhite families to live in multigenerational households. But it's not a pretty picture.

Research Assistant Sarah Strochak: I’m excited about changes in zoning laws across the county. The country as a whole faces an acute supply shortage, which is partially driven by local zoning regulations.

Minneapolis just passed Minneapolis 2040, the city’s comprehensive plan that eliminates single-family zoning across the city and allows for denser development near transit corridors. In a city that faces growing demand and large racial gaps in homeownership, it will be interesting to see how this plan affects affordability and homeownership.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, California lawmakers have revived a bill to upzone areas in transit- and job-rich areas. I’ll be tracking these initiatives as we look at solutions that can make a dent in the supply gap.

Hear from the whole team here.

Conclusion

There's an increasing awareness of the role trees play in cities, not just in creating inviting spaces but also for combatting climate change, enhancing stormwater management and mitigating heat. "But," writes the Los Angeles Times editorial board, in the case of Los Angeles' urban canopy—valued at roughly $12 billion, "for all the benefits that trees provide Los Angeles, city officials still do not hold the urban forest in the same regard as other public infrastructure, like streets and storm drains."

There are a few reasons for this, the editorial continues, including a mix of jurisdictions responsible for the city's trees and a lack of quantified data on the benefits associated with the foliage. As a result, the city is significantly underinvesting in its trees, at least according to a report from an environmental consulting group, Dudek, which suggests that the city should be spending somewhere around $80 million compared to its current $25 million on trees. 

As costs to support urban forests rise due to more extreme weather and even sidewalk repairs that sometimes take out mature trees, the editorial argues, "to survive and flourish, Los Angeles needs to treat its urban forest like a true piece of public infrastructure."

Endnotes