Nico Calavita’s Incremental Advance to Scholarly Activism

Activists for affordable housing
(Photo by Brooke Anderson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Nico Calavita
Nico Calavita

Nico Calavita is, by his own admission, a sort of accidental activist scholar. During a 30-year career at the San Diego State University’s Graduate Program in City Planning, Calavita was repeatedly asked by local officials to weigh in on various urban issues. Little by little, he was drawn into the fight to ensure affordable housing to city residents. Now, after a career in which he’s become a recognized expert on the tools and provision of affordable housing, Calavita has been honored with the Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award, sponsored by the Urban Affairs Association and SAGE Publishing.

The UAA-SAGE Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award is named for Marilyn Jacobs Gittell, an outstanding scholar and a community urban activist who wrote seminal works on citizen participation, was founding editor of Urban Affairs Quarterly (now known as Urban Affairs Review) and was an impassioned participant in one of the most controversial social experiments of her time, the decentralization of New York City’s schools. The award, given since 2011, honors a scholar whose work has influenced both the academic and public spheres through activism, scholarship, and engagement with communities.

Since earning his doctorate at the University of Florence, Calavita has been interested in affordable housing and community development, growth management, the politics of growth, comparative planning, site planning and urban design, all sheltering under his focus on the principles of “equity planning.” This has resulted in a body of work exploring – and his own ‘sweat equity’ in advancing – concepts and tools such as housing trust funds, housing linkage fees and inclusionary housing.

Calavita retired in 2010 and moved to San Francisco, but he’s remained a most active emeritus professor at SDSU and in his new home, where he’s working with the East Bay Housing Organizations to implement land value recapture to help produce more affordable housing.

In the interview below, Calavita discusses his own experiences amid the larger context of the fight for affordable housing in San Diego and beyond, and offers guidance for other aspiring – if sometimes accidental – activist scholars.

Could you talk about your work on and off-campus and what excites you about it? Do you feel you are making a difference?

I did not plan to become an “Activist Scholar.” It happened incrementally, and as a result of nibbles and requests from activists in the city. Quite often academics teaching in planning programs receive requests to study a particular problem, or to structure a studio class to prepare plans for particular neighborhoods or areas. In 1986 an activist in the City of San Diego, Jim Bleisner, decided to address the dumping of public housing in San Ysidro, a low-income, powerless, Latino community of the City of San Diego very close to the U.S.-Mexico border. He organized, with the help of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a “visit” of a team of national experts, called the Regional Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT), a program of the national AIA.  He asked if I could structure my graduate class in “Site Planning and Analysis” around the San Ysidro experts’ visit, with the students providing earlier analyses and later acting as “staff” to the R/UDAT team. I accepted with pleasure.

The students prepared analyses and studies and were actively involved in the three-day event, when the experts learned about the community problems, especially through residents’ testimonies. The San Diego City Council came to San Ysidro to hear the recommendations of the team. The most significant result was a shift of power from the small group of “Anglo” business owners to the majority Latino residents. A non-profit, Casa Familiar, was established and has built affordable housing and provided community services. The students, and I, learned a lot, most importantly how to use outside expertise, not only to provide planning recommendations, but most importantly to provide impetus for a shift in political power or legitimize controversial proposals.

This reminds me of an invitation to Bogota, Colombia, on the part of the mayor who was pushing inclusionary housing (IH) in the city against a conservative council. I will never forget that when I – the international expert on IH – was presenting on how IH is indeed something adopted in many countries, the auditorium became impregnated with tear gas the police was using against a huge demonstration of campesinos outside City Hall.

Through the San Ysidro experience I became interested in the relationship between political and economic power and social segregation and how zoning is often utilized by affluent communities to keep minorities out. I discovered how inclusionary housing (also called inclusionary zoning) could do the opposite, by requiring developers to build affordable housing as part of their market-rate development.  To help move in that direction, I organized  a “Balanced Communities: Expectations and Realities” conference on the SDSU Campus in 1988. With that conference my work on inclusionary housing begun and it is still continuing.

That conference did not lead to IH right away, but set in motion the process that led to the establishment in 1990 of a Housing Trust Fund (HTF) for the City of San Diego, a process in which I was directly involved. The HTF has been financed with commercial linkage fees. These are fees paid by commercial developers, on the basis of the need for affordable housing created by the building of a hotel or an office or a shopping center. Through an economic analysis, called a nexus study, it is possible to calculate the number of employees who will not be able to afford market-rate housing, and the fee is based on that need. In providing funding for housing, the HTF has fostered a very active nonprofit housing development sector in the City. I was appointed to the Housing Trust Fund Board of Trustees to administer those funds and became its chair in 1996.

The establishment of inclusionary housing in San Diego took a while longer. After a few unsuccessful attempts, in 2002 an ordinance was passed that required developers to build 10 percent of their projects have affordable housing or pay a fee, called in-lieu-fee. As part of that effort, I organized an Affordable Housing Coalition that helped push IH through the City Council.

The HTF has generated $58 million, the IH in-lieu fee $81 million, for a total of approximately $140 million. Those local funds dedicated to affordable housing can be leveraged about five times with federal, state and other sources, for a total of about $700 million. Those funds have generated more than 7,000 units (a large majority built by nonprofit housing developers) and the market-rate developers who chose to build the units directly and not pay the in-lieu-fee have built almost 1,500 affordable housing units. I should mention that IH has an additional goal, besides generating affordable housing units: to foster “balanced communities” by building units in desirable areas, the major reason why I became interested in IH in the first place.

Would you describe the interplay between academia and activism/advocacy in your work? It’s the focus of the Gittell Award, but not every scholar is comfortable bridging the two.

Let me start by saying that I adhere to the principles of Equity Planning. In short, Equity Planning maintains that “planners should strive to provide more choices to those who have few, if any.” Equity Planning recognizes that there are huge power differences in society – that is why the San Ysidro community mentioned above had become the place to dump public housing in San Diego – and that planners should strive to bridge that divide, not increase it, as often happens with official plans.

Part of being an equity planner in academia is to use our expertise, knowledge and skills – especially writing skills – to urge the enactment of policies, plans and programs that meet the needs of disadvantaged people.

One way to do that is to write op-eds. They are extremely effective in reaching and educating the general public on local and regional issues that affect their quality of life, and in challenging official plans when they benefit only a small minority of businesses and landowners. I have written about two dozen op-eds, mostly in the San Diego Union Tribune, but also in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and  one in El Pais in Barcelona after my sabbatical there in 1997. In 2003 I wrote an article with Norman Krumholz – the planner who founded equity planning –in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, “Capturing the Public Interest: Using Newspaper Op-Eds to promote Planning in Conservative Times.” [Click on the link to read the article!] In the article we gave examples of our op-eds and challenged planning professor to write them as well: “Planners, particularly in academia, have a valuable perspective to offer, and newspaper editors usually recognize them as nonpartisan experts. It is a combination too favorable to overlook.”

Another way is to write academic articles or book chapters that link theory to practice. Two publications were related to how the HTF was passed. The HTF is a redistributive program, and it is quite amazing that it was passed in a conservative city such as San Diego. How that happened was described in the article, “The Establishment of the San Diego Housing Trust Fund:  Lessons for Theory and Practice” in Journal of Planning Education and Research. That was coauthored with Ken Grimes, the planner – and a former student – at the Housing Commission of the City of San Diego who was the force behind the adoption of the HTF. I am especially proud of “Inclusionary Housing in California: The Experience of Two Decades” in the Journal of the American Planning Association. That was also coauthored with Ken Grimes, who was pushing for IH in the city at the time. This article was cited in a 2015 California Supreme Court decision that unanimously upheld the constitutionality of IH.

I have also made a point of writing for professional journals and magazines, at the international national, state and local levels providing examples of policies and plans that planners can consider adopting in their locales.

Finally, it is important to challenge publications that attack equity planning programs, when based of faulty data and analysis. The most egregious example was that of a report written by two economics professors at San José State University on behalf of the Reason Institute (a libertarian think-tank) that maintained that IH discourages market-rate housing in jurisdictions with IH. The report was skillfully disseminated to the media at the national level and I remember frenetic coast-to-coast telephone calls on how to respond to that report. I enlisted the help of a planning professor at UC Irvine, Victoria Basolo, and wrote “Policy Claims with Weak Evidence: A Critique of the Reason Foundation Study on Inclusionary Housing Policy in the Bay Area.” Not only that: we debated the economics professors a few times, the last time in front of the director and staff of the California Department of Housing and Community Development, where they were forced to admit that their study was faulty.

What is the state of affordable housing in North America? Are ‘affordable’ and ‘inclusionary’ the same thing?

In the U.S. almost half of renters pay more then 30 percent of their income on rent and over 25 percent pay more than 50 percent, making life extremely difficult for those renters. They are so burdened by housing costs that many end up homeless. While housing costs have skyrocketed, especially in cities such as San Francisco and Ney York, salaries have stagnated. In many metropolitan areas housing costs are now affecting moderate-income households as well.

IH and linkage fees are a local response to this crisis, but as such, abysmally inadequate. We need more states’ involvement, but especially a greater intervention of the part of the federal government, such as increasing low income tax credit allocations and Section 8 vouchers, substantially.

Your studies began in Europe, and your work has spanned North America and Europe. Could you sketch out the differences in attitudes toward housing between those two continents, and how that has impacted your scholarship? Are those differences greater or lesser than, say, between San Diego and Vancouver?

A few decades ago many American planners and housing advocates looked wistfully at Europe as a continent where public planning was respected and affordable housing amply provided. But things have changed. In our 2010 book, Inclusionary Housing in International Perspective: Affordable Housing, Social Inclusion, and Land Value Capture (made possible through research support provided by the Lincoln Land Institute), Alan Mallach and I pointed out that, while IH started in the US in the 1970s, it begun to be utilized in Europe only about a quarter of a century ago. That seemed counterintuitive given the expectation of more government intervention in Europe. But since the 1970s there has been a retrenching of the public sector in Europe, leading to deregulation, reductions in public expenditures, devolution of responsibilities – including housing – from the central to lower levels of government, and cutbacks in social housing programs. Similarly to the U.S., out of necessity, local governments turned to IH, a form of public-private partnership, to generate low-income housing. Also, with staggering increases in social segregation in Europe, IH has been embraced as a tool to create more inclusive communities as well.

But there is a major difference. In Europe, IH is generally viewed as a mechanism for the recapture of “unearned increments” in land value, but not in the U.S. Let me explain:

When the public sector builds a freeway interchange or a mass-transit station, the value of the land around those public facilities will increase. Similarly, when localities change plans to increase heights and densities or upzone a property, land values will increase as well. Those public actions generate windfall for landowners.

It is important to make a distinction between developers and landowners. Housing developers take considerable risks and produce what is probably the most important good in society. In contrast, landowners play a more passive role. They realize their windfall profits by waiting for the economy to grow around them.

It’s only fair for society to recapture some of the increases in land values that result from public infrastructure investments, private entrepreneurship, land use changes and the general growth of the economy. Classical economist John Stuart Mill was the first to make this distinction, proposing that “unearned increments” in land value should be recaptured by society. Planners and economists in Europe – and Canada and South America – have believed that for quite some time. It is interesting that you mentioned Vancouver. The city has a program that recaptures about 80 percent of what they call the “lift,” i.e., the windfall gain in land values resulting from the granting of additional development rights allotted to a site by having developers provide “Community Amenity Contributions,” including affordable housing.

Planning culture in the United States has not been open to these concepts. But things are changing. Alan Mallach and I wrote an article in Land Lines, “Inclusionary Housing, Incentives, and Land Value Recapture,“ in which we proposed a dual IH system, one based on existing zoning and the other, with much higher requirements, associated with upzonings or plan changes. Many localities, while not adopting a dual system, are now tying IH to either rezonings or discretionary approvals, most prominently New York City.

But in all those cases they do not explicitly use the term ‘land value recapture,’ but it’s clearly based on tits principles. For some reason, it is considered too radical an idea to state clearly. In deciding the title of a report that I co-wrote with Marian Wolfe on how land value recapture could be used in the Bay Area, it was decided that the term was somewhat strident and was changed to “Public Benefit Zoning.” It was another case of American Exceptionalism, or let’s not use terms that smack of socialism. (That paper, “White Paper on the Theory, Economics and Practice of Public Benefit Zoning,” was sponsored by the East Bay Housing Organizations under a HUD-funded Sustainable Communities Grant provided to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.)

Marilyn Gittell
Marilyn Gittell

What advice do you have for a young scholar-activist who wants to follow in your steps, or those of Marilyn Gittell?

First, cultivate the good students, the smart ones who have a passion for changing the world and feel strongly about challenging social injustices in the city and the region. They will work with you later on as they enter planning departments and housing authorities and community development corporations.

Find the good and experienced activists in your city and work with them; and by so doing you will learn a lot – and make good friends. I moved to Berkeley five years ago to be near children and grandchildren, but I go back to San Diego quite a lot and my returns are an excuse for the “Poker Guys”- community and academic activists who have worked together in the past – to get together. But we haven’t played poker in a while – there’s so much to talk about and learn from each other!

As a scholar activist, it is your role to write about your advocacy efforts and distill what lessons can be gained about what works and doesn’t. To write more effectively, make sure that you keep track of, and reflect on, what’s going on as things unfold. Don’t wait until it’s over.

Finally, I cannot stress enough how important op-eds and other non-academic publications are. I know that they helped winning a few battles and they give you visibility and stature.

Of course, as am academic you need first to emphasize peer-review journals to get tenure, but after that “academic freedom” should become a reality and you can engage freely in your advocacy. But to be effective and respected by both sides you have to walk a thin and hazardous line: on one side is stridency and dismissal, and on the other futility. I have enjoyed my work and I am grateful to San Diego State University, the Dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts, Joyce Gattas, and Lou Rea, the chair of the School of Public Affairs of many years, for giving me the opportunity and the freedom to be an activist scholar.

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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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