taunting urban idiocy; inconveniencing multinational monarchs
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
A little while back I was at a free lunch distribution, milling between conversations. I stepped into one about Main Streets, and the small towns that surround them.
As a big city kid, my first assumption about Main Streets was that they were small—only one option for meeting a need, if that. But while New York City taught me a lot about a lot, it didn’t really teach me anything about other kinds of geographic forms.
In the conversation I’d joined, someone was saying that the best thing about small towns with one main street is that you never had to drive, since you could get everything you needed there. Of course - one of everything (grocery store, medical facility, community gathering place, cultural institution, etc) could be enough.
Then I remembered hearing about East New York, pre-broken windows and the overpolicing and disinvestment that came with it. Someone I worked with had grown up there, and remembered going to the movies, getting groceries, finding a nice place to sit with friends, and buying new school shoes all within a few blocks of home. Now, East New York is missing most of those things, and not by accident; access to Main Street is not available to all.
Many structures in the natural world are fractals: structures that repeat at small and large scales. Think of a fern’s frond, and the little leaves on each frond; they’re the same, just different sizes. Now, think of a neighborhood.
Is your neighborhood a fractal? In New York, many are, although often with varying degrees of resourced-ness. I’d hesitate to identify a single ‘downtown,’ since the city is so patterned with interwoven residential and commercial spaces. You generally don’t have to go far—and could do so on foot—to get a thing you needed.
Once Main Street becomes a fractal, a whole, self-contained unit, it starts to make sense that Main Street is the thing that lets you leave your car behind, perhaps even more so than being in a Big City.
In Burlington, where I live, there is a massive housing shortage. Construction is curtailed by state policy that keeps all development slow, and demand far outpaces supply. Act 250, the reason why Vermont has no billboards and doesn’t look like New Hampshire (sorry), also drags down the pace of any effort to build. The largest of many colleges here is about to admit its largest ever freshman class, which soon will yield the largest ever group of young people with rent paid by parents looking for housing here.
The scale of this city is sweet; most buildings are 2-3 stories, with a few taller structures around. Many houses have yards. More affordable apartments sometimes do as well, and don’t follow the towers in the park guidance of affordable housing in many larger cities.
But there’s just not enough housing, especially affordable; meanwhile, there’s a parking lot next to my building that is easily the size of two buildable plots. Recently, building additional structures on properties (think, a little house in the backyard of another house) was legalized, but that remains in the hands of individual homeowners.
Meanwhile, the most valuable real estate in the city is a massive pit in the ground, big enough to contain a fractal of its own. It interrupts the tiny grid, and is infamous enough that a local funny guy made merch to taunt its idiocy.
But the idiot mayor, speaking of idiocy, wants Big Development, and so would never move forward with plans to make the Burlington Mall Pit what it desperately needs to be: community space with lots and lots of affordable housing.
So here, we have a handful of fractals that make up the greater Burlington area, where more than half of the state’s population lives. (The first time I came to Burlington I realized that the population of this city is about the same as the 10 block radius around where I grew up in Brooklyn). This is an incredibly nice place to live, if you can find yourself housed in a fractal.
The tension is this, I think: it is rare to see a robust urban fabric that meets everyone’s needs, a la Main Street, that also is accessible to the people who have needs to meet. Some of the most incredible organizing happening now is motivated by the need to address this tension. I’ll leave you with a few I’ve encountered:
Downtown Crenshaw Rising, in California
Champlain Housing Trust, in Vermont
Drinking Gourd, multiple locations
Zapatista Caracoles, in southern Mexico
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
When I first moved to Dublin almost two years ago I was hopeful about housing. Sure, I had to take out a student loan to afford living abroad while I got my masters degree, but I was certain that Dublin rent would be a little more affordable than New York. I was wrong. Though on-campus housing is available from €700/mo, the college only has around 1,800 beds available to accommodate its 15,000+ undergraduate and postgraduate students. To make up the difference, the college contracts with private companies that operate “purpose built, luxury student accommodation” like Kavanagh Court where I spent my first year paying €1,080/mo for a tiny en-suite and a shared kitchen. It honestly makes me miss Brooklyn real estate.
As I quickly learned, Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis. If I had attempted to find housing myself I might have paid even more, fallen for a scam, or gotten packed into a bunk filled bar without as much as a hot plate for €600/mo. I feel incredibly lucky this year to have found a nice four-bedroom house with other international folks for €900/mo. Lucky.
The Irish housing crisis has its roots in the 2008 crash which hit the island and its property market harder than almost anywhere else. According to Rob Curley’s very helpful Twitter thread, the crash led a bunch of property speculators to go bankrupt, and their land was absorbed by the government. Ireland’s center-left neoliberal government then sold most of this land back to property speculators for peanuts. The speculators were then poised and ready to take advantage of a lucrative new loophole called “built-to-rent housing.”
Things can be broken down several ways in a normal apartment building. Maybe a landlord owns the whole building and rents out the units, maybe they’re owned cooperatively, or maybe things are uneven with some apartments owned by their occupants and others rented out. “Built-to-rent,” which started in London and subsequently spread across the sea, incorporates various shared amenities into the building like a gym, rooftop terrace, or coworking space, meaning a single management company rents out the rooms and runs all its communal spaces. The profitable loophole within Irish housing codes is that these extra amenities can be traded for lower design standards like bedroom area or unit density. This gives rise to dystopian concepts like “twodios” where, according to property developer Savills, “compact personal space is compensated for by extensive communal space.” And despite the less-than-ideal room size, built-to-rent accommodation is considered luxury, with a standard “twodio” priced generally around €2,500.
The reason these corner-cutting-luxury-digs haven’t been thrown out in favor of normal affordable housing is that Dublin provides a built-in market for built-to-rent: the “young and increasingly international mobile workers” brought to Ireland by multinational tech corporations.
If you weren’t previously aware, essentially every multinational company—Facebook, Microsoft, Accenture, Medtronic, Salesforce, Google, TikTok, etc—is headquartered in Dublin. Ireland is a tax haven, charging very little to foreign corporations who operate here, so it is advantageous for them to locate their offices and their workforce in the country. My roommate is a great example: they work for Microsoft and conduct business exclusively in the Netherlands, but they live and work in Ireland because it saves Microsoft tax money. Multinationals are eager to get their employees on the island and will offer huge relocation packages, set up housing in advance, and even cover months of their employees’ rent. Essentially, built-to-rent housing isn’t meant to be paid for by Dubliners or even human beings, but by employers. Built-to-rent is real estate speculation re-tooled to soak up some of the extra cash multinationals throw around as a result of their excessive tax breaks, the “investments” these companies supposedly make in the island.
Built-to-rent isn’t the only driver of Ireland’s housing crisis but it is indicative of the problems that come from a loosely regulated housing market where most major decisions are made by or in cooperation with private finance. Every direction you turn you find multinational profiteering: my current apartment used to be a “Salesforce house” before Covid, where the company would house its employees when they first came to Dublin. Uninest, the Dubai-based owner of my former student accommodation, recently merged with three other foreign student housing companies to form the US-based Yugo. At this point, housing in Dublin is so detached from reality that accommodation of the human beings who live here is simply too much of an inconvenience for Ireland’s multinational monarchs.