Workarounds Tend to be Second Rate

The small town I live in has a blighted downtown area. The short version is that the historic downtown area is being strangled by parking minimums.

In the past few days, it has occured to me that there are at least two food trucks that I know of and there may be more than that. I don't go to these food trucks, so I don't pay attention to them and it doesn't stick in my memory because it's not relevant to my life.

But more than a year ago, before the pandemic when I was still attending public meetings, I heard someone talk about there being significant local demand for permits or places such trucks could park or something. I don't remember the details.

So I am thinking that local demand for food trucks is likely a workaround for the fact that parking minimums are a huge burden on the downtown. It suggests there is local market demand for eateries but business people see brick-and-mortar eateries as unviable or too hard.

The restaurant business is a tough business anyway. It has very thin margins, so it doesn't take much of an additional regulatory burden for business people to throw their hands up and say "Welp, that won't fly."

I suspect the trucks are a way to put more eateries in the downtown while skating around the issue of parking minimums for brick-and-mortar establishments. They aren't required to provide tables and so forth and they probably aren't required to prove they have adequate available parking.

This means we continue to have empty store fronts and some of the excess parking in the downtown area is taken up by these trucks needing to park somewhere in order to serve food. One of them takes up three or four parking spaces on Broadway some evenings and, if I recall correctly, Sunday morning.

This means that the demand for eateries is not creating new restaurants in brick-and-mortar establishments. Instead, it's bringing in food trucks.

Instead of having a thriving downtown area full of restaurants, it's become kind of a dive with run down buildings, empty store fronts and work arounds like food trucks. The food trucks provide a way to get a bite to eat but it's a poor solution if you want a bustling downtown with buildings full of active commercial establishments.

This is sort of similar to the fact that US housing policy in recent decades has led to more than a million SROs being torn down. Furthermore, we have essentially zoned out of existence the creation of new Missing Middle Housing -- small scale housing that worked well for folks who were not wealthy.

In the mean time, we have seen an increase in permanent homelessness. The concept of homelessness is new (dating to something like the 1980s, I think) and we used to see homelessness as temporary or the occasional traveling vagabond who, for whatever reason, to some degree chose to live that way.

But we just didn't historically see large numbers of people camped in place in tents and the like due to an inabilty to afford housing. That was just not a thing the way it is in recent decades.

We have also seen a rise in trailer courts as a form of affordable housing, people living in RVs rather than in permanent homes and the Tiny House movement. I think all of these are rooted in the fact that we have torn down so many SROs and made it nigh impossible in most places to create new Missing Middle Housing.

Although some folks are genuinely happy with such solutions and it's always nice to have more options, in the aggregate these are all worse solutions than SROs or Missing Middle Housing. They proliferate because it's what the rules allow us to do.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so these options fill a void you aren't allowed to fill the way we used to fill it even though these answers are mostly worse answers. It's the easy answer for people unable or unwilling to take on the city or the federal government or what have you and try to get the rules changed.

When the system is broken, lots of people find workarounds to try to make their own lives work to some degree in spite of the rules being broken and stupid.

This is part of why I am writing Project: SRO. What we really need to do is fix our broken housing policies.

That's the best way to mitigate the problems that are currently proliferating.

Those problems are rooted in broken rules and many people aren't going to bother to fight city hall. Instead, they are going to look for the loophole and try to muddle through as best they can and make their lives sort of work with what looks like the least painful adaptation they can come up with.

For most people, life is too short to spend it battling the rules and many of them don't even realize that this is the issue. Some are making a good faith assumption that the rules are mostly good rules that exist for a good reason and don't have the information necessary to know that this is not the case.

Even if they do know that, they may not have a better answer to suggest. Knowing "This doesn't work" isn't sufficient information to tell you what they should be doing.

So they work out their own personal issues as best they can within the rules because they are law-abiding citizens and so forth and the result is that US housing is increasingly splitting up between mansions and McMansions for The Haves versus homelessness, trailer courts, RVs and Tiny Houses for The Have Nots.

For whatever reason, no one seems to be putting these facts together and seeing that this larger pattern is all interconnected. Among other things, I have had people on the internet outright tell me that the high cost of rent has nothing to do with homelessness even though studies show that rent increases almost one-for-one correlate to higher rates of homelessness.

The good news: If you are in an unincorporated community, you won't have a lot of rules and regulations barring sensible development from happening. Local zoning is probably not a thing, so you can come up with a tentative plan for your community and just make sure it doesn't violate state and federal laws.

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