"when theory withdraws from consideration of the basic interests, concerns, the actively moving aims, of a human culture on the ground that 'values' are involved and that inquiry as 'scientific' has nothing to do with values, the inevitable consequence is that inquiry in the human area is confined to what is superficial and comparatively trivial, no matter what its parade of technical skills"
John Dewey, 1920/2004: xvi
I am an Assistant Professor in the Urban and Regional Studies and Planning program, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. I study the changing relationship between finance and cities and how communities make sense of this change and exert control over it.
My research explores the increasing role of financial actors, institutions and logics--sometimes referred to as "financialization"--as a leading edge of urban change and how it affects urban development and governance. I focus on the effects of privileging financial knowledge and imperatives in formatting political agency, and in particular, how these transformations position communities for developing political capacity and autonomy.
Learning about cities requires multiple perspectives, both from inside and outside the academy, and the recognition that expertise is distributed and embedded within communities. My research draws across human geography, urban planning and policy, and transcends often-practiced boundaries of quantitative/qualitative methods and participatory action/policy analysis. Furthermore, I understand research and teaching as fundamentally linked activities, rooted in democratic inquiry.
Since I examine urban change from the perspective of financialization as an urban process, my work spans several different research topics, including housing and real estate development, urban education, economic development, and artistic and cultural space. For updates on my current research projects, please click on projects above or scroll to read below.
The Reemergence of Land Contracts in Chicago:
The Role of Institutional Investors in the Intensification of Racial Exclusion in Real Estate Markets
With support from the VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund I am excited to launch my newest research project on the return of land contracts into post-2008 crisis housing markets. Prior to fair housing legislation in 1968, de jure racial discrimination excluded black households from mainstream mortgage markets, effectively cutting off black Americans from home financing available to whites. Opportunistic local property owners used a form of seller financing called land contracts, also known as contract for deed and installment contracts, to sell homes to black purchasers. These local investors sold homes well above their market price to buyers who paid monthly installments but who built no equity in the home because they did not hold the deed to the property and thus had little tenure security. The land contract instrument had all of the responsibilities of homeownership with none of the benefits. Contract selling dominated minority urban housing markets during the 1950s and 60s, extracting black households’ wealth while causing widespread housing deterioration, insecurity, and eviction, detailed in Beryl Satter's Family Properties. Given the exploitative nature of land contracts, local organizing efforts like the Contract Buyers League of Chicago helped spur eventual Federal fair housing legislation that opened mainstream mortgage markets to minority borrowers. The practice appeared relegated to the pre-civil rights era of urban segregation. Since the 2008 financial crisis, however, land contracts have reemerged in predominantly minority communities in the United States, including Chicago. This time, the local contract seller has been eclipsed by larger-scale, institutional investment firms who have purchased thousands of bank- and tax-foreclosed homes, sold the homes on contract, and resold the contracts in financial markets.
This study examines how contract selling, once thought relegated to an era of de jure racial discrimination, has made a resurgence and focuses on the role of large-scale institutional investors in this market since the 2008 crisis. The study explores what consequences contract selling has for buyers and their communities and the political and policy responses to these effects. To this end, the study employs a diverse and novel set of methods to forensically reconstruct histories of property ownership and financing. The project will contribute to understanding how racially segmented housing and mortgage markets persist in an era of fair housing law and liberalized financial flows into real estate. Local housing organizers have asked for data tools to help them understand the problem and to engage policy-makers on this issue. One outcome of the project will be a replicable model for a property database that will assist political organizing and policy-makers in identifying properties at risk of physical deterioration, the actors involved in contract selling and their financiers.
From Capital of the Confederacy to Eviction Capital:
The Geographies of Eviction in Richmond, Virginia
Based on data collected by the Eviction Lab and Princeton University, Richmond has the second highest eviction rate in the country. The story map below lays out how eviction plays different roles in different parts of the city.
Locating Artists in the Creative Economy
Artists and creativity are on the urban agenda, as city governments and urban scholarship have embraced the idea of the creative economy and the role of artists as key drivers of economic growth and urban vitality. These accounts and the policies they inspire conceive creativity as an economic development strategy and group artists into a “creative class” defined by their perceived role within urban economies rather than through collective interest. This approach reduces the arts and creativity to an instrument for economic growth and erases important class and racial differences across arts communities. The result is a restriction of knowledge about who artists are, what their contribution is, and what support they need to make those contributions. Furthermore, urban policy informed by this thinking reduces art to a practice of consumption, divorced from communities’ cultural needs. This project will account for how artists create and maintain space for working and living, through focus groups, participatory mapping exercises, and expert interviews in the Philadelphia PA, Richmond VA, and Baltimore MD arts communities.
This study analyzes how artists live and make their work through identifying the activities, spaces, and networks through which artists thrive in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Baltimore. By engaging directly with artists in the communities in which they live and practice, this study surfaces critical shortcomings in the concepts of the “creative economy” and “creative class” and will produce new community-based knowledge about how artists live and work and what resources they need to support their activities.
Scholars and policy-makers have long recognized the role of artists in processes of urban change such as urban revitalization and gentrification (Zukin, 1989). More recent scholarship on the “creative economy” and “creative class”, however, has focused on how policy can support creative workers and provide a boost to local economic development (Florida, 2005, 2014). Yet, policies informed by this scholarship aim to foster artistic and cultural spaces that valorize culture as a consumer good, and thereby only support highly-educated and high-earning workers. This policy paradigm encourages a cycle of development that displaces low-income people, including those who are creative and artists (Cole, 1987; Martin, 2014; Seifert & Stern, 2008). This study engages with arts communities in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Baltimore to understand how artists shape community space and contribute to the social and cultural life of their communities. These findings will contribute to understanding how artists act as political economic agents and therefore provide a stronger basis from which to define policy that would foster artists and art as community-engaged practitioners.
Artists as a workforce play an instrumental role in neighborhood and business attraction, as well as state and national-level economic growth. We argue that as long as artists are being implicated in economic development schemes, they ought to be consulted about what supports they need to be more resilient in the face of significant barriers to economic and career success. The work is based on an innovative participatory methodology that uses narrative and spatial analysis to add to the field's prevailing emphasis on descriptive statistics to measure the arts workforce. Finally, we believe the work to be opportune as it comes at a time of urban economic change and declining support for the work done by artists to enhance urban environments.
Rent Regulated Housing and the Financialization of Urban Change in New York City
1507 St. John's Place, Crown Heights, Brooklyn
The dissertation shows first, how financialization--understood broadly as the increasing role of financial actors, institutions and imperatives--as an urban process reorganizes the investment frontier, and second, that financialization poses direct and new challenges for community development, planning and policy. Beyond the already-acknowledged abstraction of income from local sources for circulation in global financial markets, financialization is also part of urban political-economic restructuring. Private equity investment in rent regulated housing alters the dynamics of real estate investment in New York City through profit expectations that are based on increasing rent rather than from redevelopment of disinvested property; increasing the temporal pace of investment; and driving investment deeper into low-income neighborhoods. Rather than disembedding from the urban scale, financialization drives urban change through the introduction of professional business and financial management strategies which recast low-rent and regulated housing as an “underperforming asset” ripe for repositioning as higher income producing properties. Regulated buildings that are located in gentrifying neighborhoods in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens are targeted for deregulation to capitalize on increasing rents. In buildings in poorer outer borough neighborhoods where the capacity for increasing rents is more modest, investment strategies hinge on building management techniques that reduce costs and increase revenues where previous owners did not, such as through maximizing allowable rent increases from capital improvements and strict enforcement of delinquency and illegal tenancy.
"Large, savvy private equity players and foreign institutions have been attracted to the New York City market post 9-11-2001, and many have been particularly beguiled by the excellent long-term fundamentals of the Multi-Family rental segment, which yields a rent regulation induced profits opportunity"
Real Estate Consultant, 2009
The financialization of housing—the reinterpretation of regulated, low-rent housing as “underperforming assets”—thwarts established market-driven community development practice and affordable housing policy. Financial investors validate financially and physically deteriorated housing as a new “distressed” asset class. By competing for such distressed assets and increasing their price, investors thwart long-established community development practice of purchasing disinvested buildings for rehabilitation as affordable housing. Moreover, these investment practices also render less effective housing policy that has long been focused on subsidizing housing finance to stimulate affordable housing production. Financialization reorients political activism and policy to engage financial and legal mechanisms to contest these investment practices.
"He praised the state’s rent-regulation laws that allow investors to buy an entirely rent-regulated apartment building for about $500 per foot and then within five or six years 'with a good lawyer' remove about half of those tenants, then sell the building for up to $1,400 per square foot as a condo.
'That you can do only in America,' he said. 'The more rent-stabilized, the more we like it.'"
755 Jackson Avenue, Bronx
In a stunning historical reversal, professional investors have been purchasing thousands of units of rent regulated housing in New York City, properties previously the purview of local, independent landlords who earned modest returns over decades of ownership. These new investors have entered the regulated housing sector with increased expectations for financial return, which intensify displacement pressure on longer-term and low-income tenants through rent increases, harassment, and when financial targets are not met, deteriorating housing conditions.
In an article published in Environment and Planning A, I describe how the failure of investment expectations provides new opportunities for communities to contest these practices and stabilize housing as affordable. I am in the process of preparing a manuscript that uses the transformation of rent regulated housing in New York CIty to show how financial investment in the built environment is altering the traditional mechanisms of development and thereby reshaping the geography of the urban frontier.
The study positions investors’ heightened expectations for financial performance as part of urban restructuring within the post-2001 New York City context of loosening housing regulations, increasing global investment in real estate, and the perception that expanding gentrification delivers ever-increasing property value and rents. I used quantitative and qualitative, extensive and in-depth case study methods to understand why investors purchased regulated housing, how they executed their investment strategy, and what the political and policy response was. Forensically-recreated financial histories for 9 cases of private equity investment in over 100 buildings and more than 10,000 apartments show how investors use debt to anticipate above-average profits, and how debt-financed pressure for increased financial performance heightens the vulnerability of tenants’ security, housing quality and neighborhood stability. Observation of professional real estate finance conferences and in-depth interviews with industry experts helped to evaluate the financial models and to place them within industry practice. In-depth interviews of local government officials, non-profit housing developers and tenant organizers identified the implications of these investments for tenants and communities and the political and policy responses.
"We have to understand these investment practices and their effects for tenants and communities... as just as much of a threat as earlier housing crises of housing shortage and abandonment"
Tenant Organizer, 2014
equity firms are constructing a single family rental market through purchasing foreclosed and bank-owned homes. Land contracts, once a common practice of selling homes in the segregated housing markets of the mid-20th century, are reappearing as new financial investments. Just as subprime lending in the early 2000s altered the classic dynamics of inner-city tenant-landlord relations through global financial networks, investment in rental housing in New York City and the construction of the family rental market extends and reorganizes the institutional and geographical features of class-monopoly rent, producing a “new tenement landlord”. This research can help describe how tenement landlording is more than a historical type of landlord managing a particular rental housing stock, but an institutionalized, temporally- and geographically-specific set of financial and property management strategies for extracting class-monopoly rent.
The changing dynamics of rent relations are connected to the changing state of the urban froniter of capital investment. Both investment in inner-city rent regulated housing and post-crisis geographies of single family home rentals are part of continued uneven geographical and political-economic development, which are the basis for and product of financial investment in urban space. Politics and policy must engage with this froniter to confront the leading edge of urban change.
The New Tenement Landlord?
From New York City to Post-crisis Geographies of Poor People's Housing
The financialization of rental housing through changing ownership and management suggests future study beyond rent regulated housing in New York City. In post-crisis geographies of the U.S. southeast and southwest, private
Speculation in Charter School Growth
This project explores how financial-led expansion of charter schools undermine the motivating theory that parent and student choice drive charter growth. Through analysis of the financing of the UNO Charter School Network in Chicago, my colleague Ryan M. Good and I explore the implications of speculative borrowing and spiraling debt burdens on charter schools and on the functioning of the charter sector more broadly. The analysis reveals that (1) new debt was increasingly used to retire existing debt, (2) the structure of new financing assumed continued growth, and (3) schools within the network were yoked together as revenue from existing—and anticipated—schools was pledged to repay new debt. We published this work in Urban Affairs Review, and a shorter blog post is available here at the Urban Affairs Forum.
Tax Increment Financing in Chicago
Finance is not only a technical field but also a political one, and this project focuses on placing the planner within contemporary planning practice in entrepreneurial cities and states, exploring how planners interact with financial actors. Planning, policy and planners hold a frought position within financialization, often designing and implementing policy through financial knowledge, techniques and rationality, while simultaneously working against dominant financial imperatives that can subordinate the non-financial, social values that part of planning has always been oriented toward as a social practice.
This project derives from 18 months of ethnographic study of planners working in the City of Chicago, where I was both a practicing planner and a researcher-observer. The financialization of local property tax revenue by economic development tools like tax increment financing (TIF) constrained planners’ agency in evaluating the use of TIF for subsidizing corporate headquarters relocation in Chicago. However, as I argue in the article "Rationalizing Tax Increment Financing in Chicago" in Urban Geography, planners nonetheless inserted planning values into an otherwise instrumentally-driven process that challenged the entrepreneurial planning state that assumed every economic development project was valuable. Planning scholars and practioners must have a firm grasp on urban change and the technical mechanisms of financial tools that are the staple of contemporary planning practice; but they also must be able to place tools into value-driven process that considers the moral content of planning.
"Every project has a gap and TIF fills that gap"
Acting Commissioner of the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, Christine Raguso, 2007