If the board game Monopoly didn't warn its players of the evils of capitalism enough (as it originally intended to do), then Nova Alea certainly tries harder. Developed by Pittsburg-based game designer and teacher Paolo Pedercini, Nova Alea is a simple yet informative game that strives to instruct its players about the effects of boom and bust culture in relation to the housing market.
In the game, users are required to buy property when prices are low and sell just before the "bubble bursts." Set on a rotating square grid, various forms rise as their value grows, only to to disappear when the market shifts. On the surface, the aim of the game is to accrue as much profit as possible through buying and selling at the right times. However, shortly after this brief introductory period of the game's basic principles, players are made aware of the consequences of their profiteering actions.
Once a resident of Brooklyn and now living in the up-and-coming Garfied area of Pittsburg, Pedercini is well versed in the effects of runaway housing markets. In fact, it was his experience that was the source of Nova Alea's inspiration. Pedercini also wanted to offer something different compared to the likes of SimCity, giving the chance for players to deal with the social implications of unrestricted development while also providing a lens to see how contemporary cities and districts are developing and urbanizing. It is cast in a similar vein to the likes of other recent games like Block'hood, where players are faced with the inconvenient negative effects of what they choose to build.
"Impossible prices drove old residents away and drained the ones who couldn't leave," a voice says, speaking over the background music as the game continues. "Neighborhoods that made Nova Alea unique were replaced with dull repositories of wealth." Now the theme of gentrification has been established, the voice goes on to implicitly introduce hipsters into the fray. "But in the craters left by the cyclical crisis, the Weird Folk settled." Denoted as green pulsating forms that attract "animal spirits," even the Weird Folk have to leave too, "displaced by the revitalization that they themselves started." Now, however, Nova Alea's habitats and habits have been reshaped, "making Nova Alea unrecognizable to its residents."
The game's narrator adds another dimension when it announces that a resident uprising has forced developers (i.e. you) to slow down. Later, price-controlled properties are introduced, meaning lower profit margins for property moguls such as yourself. As the games comes to a close the narrator proclaims that the Nova Alea has become a "city against its inhabitants. A place made and unmade by money where the delusion of wealth turned everyone into unwelcome strangers."
Nova Alea is available to download for free on Mac, PC and Linux through the developer's website here.
In a teaser for the new season of IFC's Portlandia, protagonist Fred Armisen comes to Austin, Texas whereKyle MacLachlan plays the mayor who navigates the pitfalls of our neighborhoods. Coffee shops, record stores, a couple of bars: “Alright, cool,” MacLachlan says. But then strollers and baby clothing stores start popping up, “Not cool!” he protests.The show’s hyperbole isn’t far off: It's hard to find a good, affordable place to live in this town. The Austin real estate bubble’s most difficult issues manifest themselves in the realm of single-family housing. Buoyed by soaring property costs, speculative redevelopment has been transformative in central neighborhoods, especially East Austin. Typically, developers buy properties and quickly erect a cheap new house that maximizes the allotted FAR (floor area ratio) of the site, thereby maximizing sales profit. This type of development is disruptive. As houses grow larger and boxier, they change a street’s definitive qualities of scale and grain. Last December, the Austin City Council updated the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) requirements, which set limitations on the size and placement of back houses. ADUs are now able to be 1,100 square feet (up from 850 square feet), closer to the main structures (10 feet, down from 15 feet) and a parking space is not required in some areas. The minimum lot size required for an ADU is now 5,740 square feet, down from 7,000 square feet. The legislation also placed restrictions on the use of ADUs for short-term rentals, a contentious issue that further affects housing prices. This is a step in the right direction. Currently, Austin’s minimum buildable lot size is 5,750 square feet, and a movement for small lot amnesty calls for that number’s reduction. The opposition is explicit in its reasoning: Such a change would allow developers to buy larger lots and subdivide them, encouraging further conversion of neighborhoods into engines of capital creation. Unfortunately, whatever is good for urban density is good for developers, as it increases the number of housing units to be sold. Small secondary houses do improve density, but they don’t adequately address affordability. Those residences are sold or rented at market cost-per-square-foot prices, rendering them only available to individuals or couples who can both afford them and only require so much space—youthful types who move here in large quantities. Hence, gentrification. This doesn’t help families or low-income individuals, populations that are in decline in central Austin. Minority residents of East Austin, for example, are priced out of their homes and are exiting the city in large numbers. African-Americans in particular are adversely affected, singled out as the only demographic that’s shrinking in our booming city. Such trends have created an Austin that is now the most economically segregated metro area in the country.
For Anthony Alofsin, AIA, a practicing architect and professor in architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, the concerns of diversity outweigh the concerns of density. Alofsin has been in Austin for almost 30 years, long enough to recount previous boom and bust cycles in the real estate market. Some of his academic research studies builder homes, which remain the most common way Americans house themselves, a statistic largely ignored by the architectural profession. In Alofsin’s view, a diverse mix of individuals—different patterns, passions, occupations, incomes, and ethnicities—leads to an “urban experience,” and Austin is short on this type of urbanity. Alofsin also worries about larger repercussions of civic housing trends: Changes in national family trends combined with the exodus of families from the city center spells disaster for the future of Austin’s public schools. Form-making isn’t important at this scale: Whether a house has a flat roof or fake stone or a turret is irrelevant to the economics at work.
To see what’s on the market now, Creede Fitch, a real estate agent with Skout who focuses solely on modern and midcentury properties, took me on a tour of neighborhoods near 12th Street. Close to the railroad tracks, one luxury spec house near the railroad tracks set a high water mark, selling for around $600,000 last year (it was also featured on the 2015 AIA Austin Homes Tour). A few blocks away, Fitch points out a slim lot with an older structure on-site, clearly not worth salvaging. “$290,000!” he reports, not without disbelief.
Fitch, who himself is building a new home in East Austin, tries to educate clients on both Austin and modern architecture, though he admits that “modern” is not important to many buyers. Fitch is also aware of better ways to increase density; he described one solution where smaller existing homes are maintained and a larger “primary” new build house is placed behind, providing privacy and preserving the scale of the street. A pilot project in this style is a casita renovated by architect Alan Gonzalez, sited on the front half of its lot. The steep price tag—a listed $375,000 for 785 square feet—would make most wince, but it’s a baby step in the right direction.
The good news is that some architects are working to change market realities, or at least their aesthetic dimensions. Jared Haas, principal of Un.Box Studio, spoke with me about a house he recently completed with Newcastle Homes. Knowing the market and the ground rules of spec projects, he designed a clean shape with a restrained material palette inside and out. Instead of the ubiquitous Hardie board siding, he sourced a vertical wood board at a comparable price. The house was purchased before it was completed, and Haas is at work on two more with the same company.
Other models of practice—architect-as-developer, design-build, design-build-develop—offer exciting alternate avenues of investment and engagement, and there are a number of successful examples at work in East Austin. Speculative building is now seen as pejorative, but it can be incredibly progressive. Haas, for one, looks forward to the time where spec projects, rather than further isolating residents, can bring them together in hybrid social spaces. What if speculative housing led the way toward new formats of living?
Later, I drove around East Austin to check in on its progress. I lived in the Chestnut neighborhood for two-and-a-half years in a full-size back house with two housemates; the house’s builder-developer had created a condominium complex of two houses on a single lot, another way to circumvent typical density limitations. It is both smartly dense, lucrative, and ruinous to the property values of neighbors. Nearby blocks are majority new builds, with accompanying new residents.
Construction has started on The Chicon, a three-building complex of affordable and market-rate apartments, close to an intersection that was once singled out as the city’s most dangerous. In 1925, one could take a streetcar from that corner all the way downtown. Now there’s a skee-ball bar on the block. Neighborhoods roll over, sometimes with unfortunate consequences, but the tide keeps going—part of life in a city. I stopped in front of a particularly ugly spec home with walls that bulge and tilt, as if frozen in nauseous mid-collapse. I slow my car to photograph the offense, but instead smile, wave, and move along—there is a moving truck out front with a couple unloading bicycles, ready to make that house their home.
Larceny and deed fraud are on the rise, and those with a mind for leaving confusing trails of paperwork are profiting from illegitimate purchases of land. A classic case of this can be found on Maple Street in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn.
According to a report by The Nation, the area became a tranquil community space in the summer of 2013. Using a lot no bigger than one-eighth of an acre, local residents constructed vegetable patches and seating areas that successfully brought people together to make use of a shared space. The residents' retreat however, was short-lived.
The owners, Joseph (Joe) and Kamran (Mike) Makhani, apparently have a history of using illegitimate signatures to gain property and have even been to prison in the past for selling homes they did not own. Their company name, H.P.D., LLC, is quite similar to the government agency, NYC Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). When questioned in the video above, Joe Makhani said, "if the client is stupid, that's not my problem."
Cut to 2014 and theMakhanis show up and start destroying the lot that the residents had carefully made. Ignoring calls to stop, they only do so when the police turn up demanding a court order to prove ownership. The Makhanis promptly left after no document was produced.
So what of the significance of this debacle? The sad truth is that these ordeals are cropping up more and more with cases being becoming increasingly complex with name irregularities making documented selling and purchasing of land harder to find.
"No one is talking about it, but we're seeing this every day," said Sonia Alleyne told The Nation on behalf of the Department of Finance. "I don't think anyone realizes how big this story is."
The ordeal features all the tell-tale signs of larceny and deed fraud. The initial purchase of land from the nephews of the deceased owners for $5,000 (an incredible and questionably low price); Social Security numbers failing to match up; spelling "mistakes" (McKany rather than Makhani); illegible notary names and the fact that the license number isn't even present; traits that, in the City of New York Sheriff Joseph Fucito's eyes, scream fraud. Anyone attempting to investigate ownership/sale history of the land, it seems, is lead down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.
Sheriff Fucito stated that 15 deed-fraud arrests were made in in the last year, and that (as of August 2015) his office was on the trail of over 1,000 cases. Gardens in Bushwick and Crown Heights have likewise found themselves embroiled in similar conflicts. Fucido believes that many fraudulent cases go undetected and that the real number of cases is much higher.
Why the sudden rise in deed fraud? Gentrification may be partly to blame. Brooklyn residential prices are increasing at an alarming rate, and land with debatable ownership is the perfect target for fraudsters.
Experts such as Christie Peale, executive director of the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, say that paperwork is deemed legitimate all too easily.
"The problem is this open process that allows people to just walk in and file false instruments," said Peale.
For many homeowners and landlords, big ticket repairs can leave gaping holes in the budget. For many low income homeowners, mending a leaky roof or weatherizing an older home can be prohibitively expensive. Vital repairs go unmade, damaging the structure and exposing residents to mold and weather extremes. Responding to this challenge, the Design Advocacy Group, a coalition of planners, architects, and activists, founded the Healthy Rowhouse Project (HRP) in 2014.
HRP is a nonprofit organization that helps Philadelphia's low income homeowners and renters maintain their properties. The project's goal is to spend up to $5o million each year to weatherize and de-mold 5,000 homes, at a cost of $10,ooo per home. The project will be supported and funded through grants from the Oak Foundation, an anti-homelessness organization based in Geneva.
In Philadelphia, 38 percent of homeowners have an annual income of less than $35,000. Often, residents choose between living in a deteriorating structure, or abandoning the property and moving elsewhere. Experts estimate that a vacant home can bring down the value of adjacent properties by as much as $8,000. Philadelphia has an astonishing 40,000 vacant houses. The Design Advocacy Group initially approached homeowners in Mantua, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, about how they could benefit from the area's gentrification.
Overwhelmingly, residents requested financial and technical assistance to maintain their homes. Philadelphia spends between $9 million and $13 million per year on community development block grants that go to low-income homeowners. Demand outstrips supply: applicants face a four year long wait list.
What about building new housing? Traditionally, that is the role of the Community Development Corporation (CDC). HRP leader and fair housing advocate Karen Black noted in the Philadelphia Citizen that a typical CDC can only build around 30 units per year.
The HRP, Black emphasized, is not building new housing, it is helping residents stay in their current homes. To realize this goal, HRP is creating an a la carte menu of repair options—deferred home equity loans, block grants, or, for renters, landlord assistance—that help residents access money to pay local contractors for repairs. The plan could work without buy-in from the city, but the project would really fly with the Mayor's and City Council's support.
Researchers at UCLA and the UC-Berkeley are mapping neighborhood change in the Bay Area. The Urban Displacement Project uses government housing, land use, transportation, and Census data from 1990–2013 to find markers that represent turnover in housing, demographic shifts, and new investment.
Led by UC-Berkeley's Karen Chapple and Miriam Zuk, researchers divided the nine-county Bay Area’s 1,569 Census tracts into low- and high-income tracts. Low-income tracts were defined as areas where 39 percent of households earn 80 percent less than each county’s median income, and high income tracts where less than 39 percent of households are considered low income. Low- and high-income tracts were categorized by residential displacement “risk factors.”
Significantly, the report defines “gentrification” and “displacement” differently. Displacement is defined as a net loss of low income residents, while “gentrification” is tangible evidence of neighborhood investment and/or an influx of more affluent residents. This is important because, as the researchers found, gentrification in some areas happened before displacement, while in others, displacement comes first or occurs at the same time as gentrification.
Lower income tracts were assessed for risk of gentrification and displacement, while higher income tracts were assessed for displacement risk only. Overall, 51 percent of tracts did not experience significant displacement, while 48 percent are losing low-income residents. Researchers found that 422 tracts are “at risk” of displacing poor residents, while 165 are “currently experiencing displacement.”
The map is intended as a resource for community groups taking action to prevent displacement. The data is retrospective, shedding light on regional population trends. Planners, however, cannot use the data to make sure predictions about where gentrification and displacement is likely to occur in the future. The data doesn’t reveal where displaced residents move to, or account for other qualitative factors that may prompt a move.
Transportation planning and development can benefit a lower-income area, if officials take into account the economic and social needs of the existing population. Some areas, including East Palo Alto, and Marin City, have actively forestalled displacement with housing subsidies and community organizing.
The comedy geniuses at digital network Above Average have released a glorious sendup of gentrification in New York City's outer boroughs. "Settlers of Brooklyn" (pronounced Brook-LAWN) promises hours of good old-fashioned board-game fun for the next generation of power brokers: millennials.
A fictional update of "Settlers of Catan," "Settlers of Brooklyn" similarly encourages players to civilize Williamsburg and its surrounds by collecting resources and converting them into development—where "development," in the new context, equals upscale, hipster-oriented growth. "In the early 2000s, the land of Brooklyn was virtually uninhabited by young adults with wealthy parents," begins the voiceover. "Your goal is to be the first player to create a fully gentrified colony filled with used record stores, food trucks, and Urban Outfitters."
Every aspect of "Settlers of Brooklyn" is tongue-in-cheek, from the lineup of resources—coffee, bicycles, vinyl, skinny jeans, and kale—to the prizes rewarding players on their way up—condo conversions and intangibles like "longest brunch." Development cards include "loan from Daddy" and "grad school," and a player who rolls the number seven can use the "realtor" piece to displace existing residents "to make room for more colonization." ("I hope they open a gym there," said the player demonstrating the move in the faux-mercial.) The corresponding piece in the original "Catan" is, of course, "the robber."
The winner of "Settlers of Brooklyn"—the first player to 10 points—is "crowned Lena Dunham." Worried the fun stops there? Have no fear; the video promises expansion packs for Harlem and Astoria.
Though I already gave Mike the Poet pride of place, he was far from the only show in town Thursday night at Postopolis! LA. When I walked into the conference room--things had moved inside because the roof bar had been buffeted by a freezing wind all day--I saw a cluttered screenshot from World of Warcraft, something that had my inner-geek (aren't we all?) terribly excited.
Indeed, Ben Cerveny of Stamen Design was talking about, among other things, deriving real life planning and tracking systems derived from more mediated sources, like MMOs. The talk was rather technical, and combined with my tardiness, I was kind of lost. Still, the potential is intriguing, especially after poking around Stamen's website.
One of the examples Cerveny gave was the potential of cellphone apps. He proposed a program that would project one's preferences onto a wall, usually calibrated to some set of sounds and colors. When one person comes into proximity with another, it would create a cacophony or a melody between the two, depending on their settings. Another was a replacement for the personal library. As books decline in the digital age, Cerveny proposed a projection, ironically or not, the projection of one's digital self. "We're losing out real digital culture," he said. "Book-lined walls are being replaced with blank white ones, maybe a few modernist baubles."
Whereas Cerveny and Stamen's work is about as technical as it gets, Steve Roden's is almost ambivalent to its very existence. A trained painter, Roden is seemingly obsessed with transforming one mode of experience, one sense, into another. His first, and probably best, example is how he found a piece of sheet music in his grandmother's attic. "I've never been able to let go of it," Roden said.
But Roden does not play the music. Instead, he meticulously broke it down into its component scale--E-G-B-D-F, etc.--and then came up with a numbering scheme. That then gets plugged into a paint-by-numbers system that developed dozens of paintings. "I don't know how to read or play music," Roden emphasized.
And yet, another major project was his installation for Alvaro Siza's Serpentine Pavilion in 2005. Roden, with the help of lay assistants working at the pavilion, mapped the structure in a rainbow of five colors, then transformed it into a painting, which, when he looked at it, resembled the scheme on a Tyco xylophone.
He decided to turn the painting into a "player piano strip" that led to a recording played over an hour in the space. He played a minute of the composition. It had a haunting beauty for someone who seemed as though he could care less about what he was doing. Perhaps that was the genius of his art.
Someone who cared very much, perhaps too much, was Gary Dauphin. An LA resident, Dauphin apologized for giving a presentation largely about New York, namely his home-hood of Fort Greene. As a gentrifier myself, Gary's talk about the cultural vampirism of gentrification really hit home.
Dauphin argued that gentrifiers, specifically in Fort Greene but also beyond, are not always (white) outsiders, but generally ethnic (black/Latino) educated returners who make way for their new friends and thus feel guilty for it. The same goes for vampires, at least in the popular culture of Buffy/True Blood/Twilight/Blacula. More often than not, the story is about the "good vampire," the vampire who is trying to get beyond his vampirism, drinking synthetic blood or animal blood and not that of humans. When I asked if there was a solution to either problem, the answer was no.
Finally, Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio. I shared a beer with Ben afterwards--more on that later--but his talk was mostly on what he's done and everyone knows--Maximillian's Schell, P.S. 1, Venice--and what's yet to come--a teepee in Woodstock, a bird installation at Johns Hopkins Children's Hospital.