Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Anchorage, Alaska's Revised Title 21 Land Use Code Revisited

While the formal public comment period for the proposed Title 21 rewrite expired in March, the Title 21 Committee continues to meet regularly and their meetings are open to the public. You can review minutes of these meetings here. For the uninformed, Title 21 will become the "land-use Bible" of the Municipality of Anchorage, and will ensure continued orderly and judicious land use now that 90% of the developable land in the Anchorage Bowl has been put to use. Indeed, there have been controversies over proposed dense-pack housing development in the Sand Lake area, generating concern over the impact on the local water supply for existing residents. Another controversy about "site condos" peaked during Anchorage's 2005 municipal election.

Many are concerned that Title 21 may be over-restrictive. KFQD's conservative shock jock Dan Fagan has previously reported about people holding rummage sales on their property who've been cited for selling "unapproved" hot dogs. Espresso hut operators have been cited for putting up tents to shelter customers from the elements. One donut shop in South Anchorage was forced to remove seats from the interior (which of course hindered access for disabled customers). While these are abuses that hopefully can be filtered out of the final product, our growing population and limited housing stock necessitate a more comprehensive approach that what most Alaskans are accustomed to. A recent story from the Orange County Register, published on May 30th, 2006 illustrates what can happen when a city allows its building code to lag behind its changing demographics. I post the most pertinent parts here.

ORANGE – The Hills left East Vine Avenue two weeks ago. The Wigginses plan to leave in a month or so. And just last week, the Hansons put up a for-sale sign. In a few months, most of Carol Fulton's longtime neighbors will be gone. And in a flash, summer barbecues, Fourth of July parades and baseball games at the East Vine cul-de-sac will become distant memories.

Fulton sits on her front porch, pensive and surveying the neighborhood. It has changed drastically, she says. The familiar smells and sounds of backyard barbecues are replaced by mariachi music and the honking horn of a shaved-ice cart. Fulton sees unfamiliar cars and people streaming onto the street.

Overcrowding caused by boarding homes - more than two leases on the same property - is an issue that city officials and residents have grappled with for years. "This used to be a fun neighborhood," says Fulton, 56. "Kids stayed outside until 10 or 11 p.m. I figured we'd live here until we died. We never in 100,000 years thought it would change." On most days, Fulton caps off the night at 10 with a cigarette in her garage. But these nights, she does it with the door closed. "We were always outside. In the summertime, I was a free spirit," she says. "Not anymore. We don't go outside anymore."

Fulton has to decide if she, like her friends, is going to go.


The neighborhood transformation was subtle at first. Some families moved away and a more transient community began to develop. Unfamiliar faces filtered in and out of several houses. By the late '80s and early '90s, longtime residents complained about a parking crunch caused by dozens of people crammed into the neighborhood's first boarding house - the big house they called "the Fortress." The city eventually

required parking permits, and the problems subsided.

Note the ethnic map of Orange, CA to the left. To orient you, Orange is bounded by Hwy 22 to the south, Hwy 57 to the west, Hwy 91 to the north, and almost to 261 to the east. Hwy 55 runs right down the middle. Ethnic data based on the 2000 census.

In the late '90s, Fulton caught people peering into her rooms, urinating in her yard and making catcalls at her.

It was common knowledge that there were multiple families and dozens of men, mainly day laborers, living in the homes, she says. Drywall was delivered to the homes and quickly disappeared. People built additional rooms without permits. Blinds were closed and no children played outside.

The houses stayed tidy and well maintained on the outside. The street, by day, looked like any other in Orange. But Fulton and some neighbors said that in the evening, droves of cars came into the neighborhood. The idea of not knowing who lived on their street began to rile the residents. One by one, Fulton's friends talked of moving. East Vine Avenue had become intolerable, and they didn't want to wait for things to improve. "We've been here for years, and now everyone is bailing," Fulton says.

In February, city officials tried to crack down on overcrowded houses, tightening the definition of a boarding house and creating a task force to look at the problem on streets like East Vine. The city tried to discourage illegal garage conversions and room partitions that allowed multiple families to live in one house. The city code does not allow more than two lease agreements in one home.


"These are houses but this street is becoming an apartment complex. They are not touching each other but they might as well be," Fulton says.

Language and cultural barriers also make it difficult for some neighbors to connect. When Fulton's son accidentally hit a baseball into someone's window, she promptly went over to apologize. Her neighbors nodded and smiled and did not understand English, she says.

But race is not the issue, Fulton says. She would be incensed at any neighbor who disrespected her privacy and property. "What burns me is that we're middle-class working people who didn't have extra money to buy anything. We all worked hard to get here," she says.
During her free time, Fulton helps a neighbor pack for her move out of the county.

"Get out when you can," says her friend. "I'm moving to an American neighborhood."

The failure of the Orange city government to react to these changes in a timely fashion has triggered the discord and the subsequent flight of the original population. Neighborhoods are zoned according to their carrying capacity. If a neighborhood zoned and designed for single-family housing is suddenly allowed to become multi-family housing, it becomes disruptive and overwhelms the carrying capacity. Longtime residents begin to look upon their neighborhoods as prisons as they sequester themselves indoors to avoid the changes.

We cannot ignore the cultural impact, either. Note the last sentence from the story about "moving to an American neighborhood". People obviously began to feel like they had been transported to a foreign country without actually leaving their homes. This provoked feelings of displacement and hostility. Because so many of the day laborers were Mexican immigrants, over a period of time, some began to associate Mexican immigrants with undesirable behavior, even though Mexican immigrants a block or two away might behave indistinguishably from other Americans. Unabated, the primeval fight-or-flight instinct began to surface, and because many Americans prefer to avoid conflict, they started exercising the flight option. Works great, until you run out of places to flee to. But while the city of Orange bears some responsibility for getting caught short on their building code, the Federal government is responsible for failing to control immigration, and corporations also bear responsibility for hiring workers without checking their residency status. If Mexicans know they can not only get away with breaching our border, but will get rewarded for it economically, they will continue to do so. That's also human nature. The government has the responsibility and the power to remove the incentive.

The Title 21 rewrite will not silence mariachi music, nor will it impact the racial or ethnic evolution of your neighborhood. But by exercising closer control over infrastructural evolution, you will be less likely to find people urinating in your yard or peering in your windows. You won't have to sequester yourself inside your home. People in some parts of Fairview have been plagued by that sort of conduct from street people for years. Just yesterday, KTUU reported on efforts to close a tunnel adjoining Denali Elementary School because it has become a hangout for street people. Title 21 is designed to make neighborhoods more liveable.

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