California may be a rich state by any standards, but it is also home to much of the nation’s homeless population. Such is the magnitude of the problem that it is baffling why governments are not doing more than they already are to provide affordable housing and social support for these unfortunate people. Filling in the gap left by government negligence and inaction, mischief makers are calling for a positive change while doing what they can to mitigate the situation. Leading the charge is Marc Norman, an internationally-recognized expert on affordable housing and community development and the founder of the consulting firm, Ideas and Action. Joining David Jensen and Cecily Chambers on the podcast, Marc tackles the difficult subject of homelessness and the structural inequalities behind it that require a radical and strategic intervention to solve.
Listen to the podcast here:
Ideas And Action: Urban Design, Affordable Housing And Social Support With Marc Norman
We’ve got Marc Norman who’s at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at University of Michigan. He is an expert on many fronts of finance, affordable housing and community development.
Thank you for having me.
We’re talking about mischief-makers. This topic alone of affordable housing has been seen by many historically as potential mischief-making. Can you either support that or debunk that myth and also talk a little bit about the mischief-making maybe that you’ve had as you create a great change in affordable housing?
I would love to be considered a mischief-maker. I have to say affordable housing is an industry like any other and has become more so. It’s nonprofit developers. It’s big for-profit developers. I would say there isn’t so much mischief. It’s getting harder and harder to find as it becomes an industry, but that’s probably a good thing because it’s not ad hoc. It’s something that can happen on a regular basis and we can scale it up. There are mischief-makers out there, but it’s also an industry for sure.
As an industry and as it has matured, what areas have you seen in your career where it could improve to better serve people’s needs as it becomes more of an industry? A lot of times we know that industries start to take away maybe the noise in the system, but we also lose something in the process.
We’re at a good point. I’ve been in the industry for many years and I haven’t solved the housing crisis for sure. I don’t know that anybody can claim that they have. Upon reflection, it has gotten worse since I’ve been in the business. There are things that we have to look at and things that people are questioning that they didn’t before. Before, it was like any affordable unit is a good thing. The more affordable units we have, the better. A lot of us in affordable housing didn’t think about the other things that have to surround a person’s wellbeing in order to solve the problems. I know we’ll be talking about things like homelessness. Even getting a unit, if you have low wages, you’re still precarious. If you have bad credit, you’re still precarious. If you don’t have access to healthcare or childcare or other services, that affordable housing isn’t going to magically solve your problems.
There needs to be a more holistic approach to it all, and more supportive services like mental health services and different things like that too.
That’s the thing that’s changed. Many years ago, people say, “Let’s get housing units built.” Now we realized that in the absence of rising wages, better opportunity or better transportation options, it doesn’t necessarily solve your problem.
You have socioeconomic and cultural challenges that affordable housing can’t address, it addresses part of it. I’d also love to put it in a larger context of post-World War II, the development of community housing and public housing specifically in New York. I know you’re from California and Los Angeles originally, but you’ve spent time on the East Coast and quite a bit of time in New York. Can you talk a little bit about the follies that some people would say these very large housing blocks created? Even in Brooklyn like Bed-Stuy and the challenges they have. What have we learned from that? How do new affordable housing projects benefit from that?
Maybe this is the mischief part. I’m not going to blame design for our problems. I’m never going to blame policy. In London, Tokyo, Singapore and New York, people live in towers and they do it well. People live in housing blocks and they do it well. The problem when we think about public housing is a lack of continued state and federal funding to maintain that housing. The housing is okay. I wouldn’t necessarily want a tower in the park scenario for myself, but people that live there in some cases see that as a beloved and multi-generational space. The problem became that the federal government stopped building public housing and stopped funding its operations and maintenance many years ago, and we’re living with the consequences.
In many ways, they were left to their own demise without proper support. That then eroded not only the physical edifices, the physical buildings and infrastructure, but also all of the support mechanisms around that, in some cases, created some bad living situations.
Maybe I’ll double back and reverse myself and say many of those public housing blocks and the barracks-style public housing that you see in smaller cities were also built where the land was available or cheapest. That also set up a series of problems we’re dealing with now. In terms of either environmental hazards or lack of opportunities in the immediate neighborhood. If you look at New York, most of those public housing blocks were along the river. That’s there because that was when manufacturing and shipping were waning. That was the cheap and available land.
I’d love to get your perspective moving further South on the East Coast to DC where Southeast and Southwest Washington, which were notorious. There were slums. In Southwest in particular, urban development came in after World War II where they wiped out blocks and blocks of poor housing stock to put in public housing. They also did some amazing middle-class and upper middle-class housing. I grew up in DC. My aunts were part of that urban renewal. They went and bought waterfront condos in Harbor Square with public housing across the street. They were DC natives and they wanted to support the growth of the city. How does that square? Some of those projects were highly successful like what’s called River’s Edge in Southwest by contrast, where you had the combination of both middle-class and upper middle-class housing included with affordable housing. Was that a more successful model?
Yes and no. The people displaced by that urban renewal weren’t able to move back. In most cases, this is before you had Uniform Relocation Act, before you had enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. Many of those places have racial covenants on them after the urban renewal. The projects were successful for the people that were able to live there but for the people that were displaced, it’s not so successful.
That’s a part of the historical view. I was going to bring up Jane Jacobs. The classic urbanist who didn’t allow major freeways to be built through lower Manhattan and disrupt communities. As we finish out the history part, is there anything else you’d want to include about people like Jane Jacobs or Citizen Jane who was there fighting on behalf of local communities in not disrupting neighborhoods, and inclusion of things like affordable housing in those environments to what would be look at as the comparison to today? Maybe comment a little bit on Jane Jacobs point of view around affordable housing and supportive communities.
People in the planning community sometimes are conflicted because Robert Moses wanted to change everything. He was like the rival or the foil to Jane Jacobs. He was the master builder.
Let our readers know who Robert Moses is.
He was the parks commissioner who ended up being able to finagle that to control different numbers of authorities throughout New York that had the responsibility for construction. He was highways, parks, pools and housing. He had free hand to do his bidding and transform the city. He used that hand in many cases to wipe out minority neighborhoods for highway construction or for large scale housing. In many cases, he insisted on those racial covenants we talked about being placed on some of those developments. For example, Stuyvesant Town, which is a huge development in New York, 11,000 units, displaced black and Hispanic families. The displaced land had a racial covenant on it so they could never live there.
Only white people could come to live there. Thank you for that background, but you were going to say something about Jane and Robert Moses, and the challenge.
I’m going to be super simplistic and say that Robert Moses wanted to change everything and Jane Jacobs didn’t want to change anything. She lived in a beautiful part of the West Village. She called it like the street ballet. You had the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. People had porches that they hung out on. Grandmothers looked out the window and watched after their kids. It’s an idyllic notion. For example, when I moved to New York, there had about 7.5 million people and now it’s approaching around 9 million. In some cases, things do have to change. You do have to build things. It’s the balance. She had some great notions of when you do change something, how you maintain that ballet, to use her metaphor, all of those different uses and people living together in harmony, and not just living there like working, traversing and transporting themselves through those spaces.
Is there an equivalent to Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses now?
I hope not. I hope we all have individual agency in our neighborhoods. We don’t do a top-down process for rebuilding cities and communities. If you think about a company like the related companies, big developer like what they did to Hudson Yards in New York, which is a very high-end luxury development. They’re doing Grand Street in LA. That’s pretty top-down and master plan. It gets things done. If you want to do towers and housing for 5,000 or 6,000 people, sometimes you have to do that. You can’t let individual small developers and homeowners decide the fate of a neighborhood if you want to accommodate many more people. The people that are looking at how you balance large-scale growth with also people having agency and the way their neighborhoods are developed, are the innovators and maybe the mischief-makers.The homeless crisis is an issue that goes beyond housing. Click To Tweet
The mischief-makers are those that are able to what Jane maybe would have talked about giving voice to local community, but not being constrained by trying to keep everything as is. It’s allowing and working with developers and investment to grow and broaden the diversity of a community from a whole range of perspectives both physically, meaning architecturally, and design-wise, but also from a cultural diversity perspective and economic perspective and giving voice to that. I know Ces wants to talk a little bit about the homelessness issue in LA more broadly. Ces, do you want to start off some questions with Marc?
I was telling DJ that I get a front view of what is happening with the homeless situation. I live in Venice Beach. We live on Venice Boulevard, a five-minute walk from the beach and right on the other side of us is the canals. We have about 15 to 20 tents outside of our house on our street. I know there was that Proposition HHH that was passed to increase taxes, a bond measure to go towards helping the homeless housing problem. It seems like it hasn’t helped and it almost feels like it’s been reversing. I was curious because you are in this world and you have insight into it. Do you feel there are a lot of political things that are happening that are holding us back from moving forward on that front?
That’s a tough issue. I would say that the homeless crisis is about more than housing. We have so many issues. When I met DJ years ago in LA, I was working for Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit housing developer downtown that builds housing for homeless individuals and provides supportive services. We built 1,000 units while I was there. You can go to downtown LA now and we didn’t solve that problem. I would say homelessness is probably worse. There were a number of reasons. We expect our housing to do everything. You could say about school. We expect our schools to do everything. The tenants that we were housing in many cases had other issues.
They weren’t able to maintain a job. They weren’t able to access mental health services. In some cases, they had untreated problems with drug addiction. Even when you create the housing and sometimes even when you create the services, which is what Prop H does, you don’t deal with the bigger issues like mental illness and access to opportunity. We’ve lost so many types of jobs. We’ve gained lots of different jobs, but a lot of those jobs are on the lower rung entry level or suitable for somebody without a high school degree. There aren’t a lot of opportunities there. We’ve seen more and more people fall into homelessness. At the same time, even in places like Venice that get richer, the question is, where are those people going to go?
What examples can you share where you feel like communities, cities, counties are able to help manage and have a better balance perspective? In LA and part of this is we’re living in a moment of COVID and hopefully, it will swing back. Even in Brentwood, out in front of the VA, it’s a tent city in essence, very much like from the 1920s and early ‘30s. What have you seen in other communities that are getting it right?
It’s hard to get it right. One is having a balance of housing. California, for its population growth, hasn’t built housing to keep up with the demand. Where does it build housing? It’s building housing as we’re seeing now in what we call the Wildland Interface in single-family subdivisions in the hinterlands. It’s building luxury housing in town. If you look at let’s say Venice or even Mid-Wilshire or places like that, and you look at housing pre-World War II, you’ll have a neighborhood that has a duplex, a mansion, a rooming house and a motel. All of those things are mixed together. Within one neighborhood, you might have 5 or 10 different kinds of housing types.
Years ago, I lived in Hollywood. Next door to me was what’s called a single room occupancy hotel. People live there. It was around $100 a month. You got a room and a bathroom down the hall. It meant that somebody at a very low income could afford that. It wasn’t luxury housing. It wasn’t even the housing probably most people would want, but it provided a roof. Many of our cities made that housing illegal. We codified single-family zoning. We codified minimum unit sizes. We said that every unit has to have certain things and some of that was for safety, but some of it was looking at behavior modification like, “People shouldn’t be living this way,” or “We don’t like the way people are living so we’re going to zone it out of existence.”
It’s to everyone’s detriment in a way.
Once again, the mischief-makers or the innovators are looking at filling back in that missing middle housing that we outlawed in many places and thinking about different housing types, different ownership types. Your question, David, was on where are people may be getting it right or doing it better. It’s tough. One example, New York City has a homeless problem, but if you go to New York City, you don’t see tents. You don’t see street homelessness. It’s a huge issue there, but advocates fought in the ‘80s to address the homeless issue. They’ve got a consent decree placed onto New York City that said everybody has a right to shelter. That doesn’t mean everybody gets an apartment.
That doesn’t mean everybody gets housed at the income they could afford, but it means that the city has to provide a shelter for anybody needing housing. What that also does, which you don’t see in California, is if you have a place for people to go, even if it’s for the night, even if it’s in a shelter, it means that you also can say, “You can’t sleep on that tent on the street because you’re impeding the sidewalk or creating unsanitary conditions.” You’re not getting the supportive services you need. I would encourage everybody to fight for a right to shelter because that’s going to help everybody. California doesn’t have that.
Thank you for stating that. That’s the issue in California. Maybe we’ll also ask you what’s preventing that to happen in California, but this idea of right to shelter is spot on. You provide those services in New York City. Maybe it’s only for a twelve-hour period, but it makes a huge difference when you keep people off the street at night from a safety perspective for them and for residents, but also more importantly from a health and hygiene perspective, and also gives them some sense of safety and accommodation. That’s the thing that’s exploded in California and specifically Los Angeles, which as I understand it, the law enforcement can’t in any way disrupt somebody being on a sidewalk, blocking that sidewalk in a tent unless the city or the county can provide them an alternative location to go. The challenge is there’s no place for them to go.
An interesting story, Marc, is that the neighbors here on my street have started to take it into their own hands. They feel like the city is not taking action. Apparently, there’s one homeless guy that’s like the homeless fixer. He moves homeless people for you if you pay him a certain amount of money, but he is homeless himself. At night, and this has happened a couple of nights now, they moved to the tents that were there. In the morning, we’ve seen it, they had an excavator. Tons of workers are in the middle of the street. They’ve closed down a lane of the main street. They’re construction workers building these mounds and then planting plants on the top of it to prevent the tents from being there. They did it without a permit. The city has no idea. It feels like the city is asleep at the wheel, which is interesting.
They moved the problem down the road. What you’re describing is a homeless guy who’s getting money in his pocket to move his fellow homeless folks to another location in Venice because some homeowners now are going to put some plants to prevent re-encampment.
It’s not solving the problem or helping the problem. It’s moving it. People in their homes feel unsafe living next to a homeless camp too, which I understand because I’m in that situation. It’s a very complicated issue. I get frustrated because I feel like there’s so much money in Los Angeles and so much money that goes into taxes. Why is there this gap of how the money is being used properly and making a difference?
You make such a good point and I empathize with you because I lived in San Francisco near the mission. We had a homeless encampment at the end of our block. One, I’m like, “Shouldn’t the city be doing something about this?” Two, this overwhelming sense of sadness for the people that are living in those circumstances and not being able to do anything about it. One of the specific things that you bring up is that the people in those tents are vulnerable. They’re vulnerable to crime. They’re vulnerable to violence. That makes the whole neighborhood vulnerable to those things. I don’t think anybody should live in the tents.
I can’t imagine not being able to get a decent night’s sleep and feeling vulnerable to everything that’s around you. This is like a little bit of a diversion, but it’s interesting. I was listening to Joe Rogan and he was interviewing this sleep scientist named Matthew Walker. He was saying that we need REM sleep so badly. Our body will drop into it when we’re awake if we haven’t gotten proper REM sleep. He was saying, and this is just his idea, but he feels like a lot of the homeless people on the street that are talking to themselves is because they’re dropping into REM sleep when they’re awake.
We spend a lot of years saying that decent housing has to have these elements and we’re not going to let anybody live in things that don’t meet those elements. At the same time, we let people live on tents on the street.
Are you saying you’re rethinking that as a leader and as an expert in this area, going back to the single occupancy model that got in essence from a legal perspective removed that? Are you revisiting those kinds of alternatives? When you were saying in California, we don’t have a similar policy like New York City, is that what you’re advocating for? What would you be advocating for?
I’d be advocating for eradicating homelessness altogether.
It’s the big picture, but it has to be small steps and small policy changes. That can’t happen overall. We have homeless czars, but they’re not getting the problem done or fixed because it’s so massive.
To Cecily’s point, the Proposition H was a final solution, which I don’t mean it in that way. It’s a way of solving it like, “This is how we solve the problem. We build housing and we have services.” Our immediate problem is we have tens of thousands of people on the street with no services living in tents. Until we can build that housing, in general, affordable housing takes in California between 4 and 8 years from conception to the building opening. That’s permitting, subsidy, bureaucracy. That all sorts of things. You’re not going to see the results of Proposition H for many years. You have to find the sites. Proposition H doesn’t provide 100% of the funding so where does the other funding come from, etc.
I’m an outsider so I don’t have all the answers. To me, something that would be helpful is treating this like a national emergency. When there’s a fire or hurricane or something that is an emergency, the government or the cities are quick to put together a zone where people can come that’s safe. What should be happening is it should be treated like an emergency. The homeless people should have beds that they can sleep in, even if it’s just a cot somewhere in a lot where it’s safe, and then tons of supportive services like mental health services, services to help people figure out how they can get back into the economy and into society after they’ve fallen out of it. The services to me feel like that needs to be laid on heavy to achieve something.
Regardless of the administration in Washington, why hasn’t FEMA historically taken on a response for a national crisis like homelessness?
We’re not good at slow motion disasters. There’s that. The way our agencies are set up. They’re set up for rapid response, not for long-term solutions and that’s a problem. They should be. One thing that I think you mentioned was give people a cot and some supportive services. That’s not an ideal solution, but it’s better than a tent.The homeless situation should be treated like a national emergency. Click To Tweet
It’s something different. We’re like hitting our head against the wall doing the same stuff. It’s taking a different approach. It’s creating a little bit of mischief.
In New York, some shelters are in old armories that aren’t used anymore. In Oakland, they’re testing out tiny houses, which they went and bought off the shelf garden sheds from Home Depot. It’s a roof with a door and a window. It costs around $700. It’s not a permanent solution, but you’re off the street. They’ll use like a municipal parking lot. They’ll have security. They’ll have bathrooms. They’ll have drinking water, for example. That’s an interim solution while we wait for permanent supportive housing.
Between the federal government, state governments and local governments, there’s a dance going on, but where do you see the most success happening, local, state or federal?
In general, cities are where innovation happens these days. It’s the mayors, the city council and the grassroots organizations. Sadly, the federal government, especially in this particular time, has abdicated its responsibility. States aren’t always nimble enough and state legislatures can be roadblocks. For years, there’s been legislation proposed every single year to allow flexibility for housing in California cities. It’s failed every single time. The state isn’t going to be a player. At least at the moment, the state legislature in California isn’t going to be part of the solution. Cities are the ones that are innovating. Sometimes cities are breaking the rules or getting ahead of state or federal policy in order to solve the problem because they’re the ones that have to deal with them on a daily basis.
We’ll move forward on other topics now, but to summarize this, what I’m hearing you say is to our readers, if you want to help the homeless problem, get involved locally. Do something locally with your local government, your local homeless czar and your local planning board. If there isn’t a homeless czar to affect change, it’s going to happen on the local level.
The other thing is don’t be a NIMBy like “Not In My Backyard” is a term. People will say they want to solve the housing crisis. They’ll say they want to solve homelessness. When it comes time to put a shelter or a higher density housing then exists, people say, “You should do that, just not anywhere near where I live.” That has thwarted a lot of development and progress. That’s also thwarted some of the funds that were allocated in that Proposition H. They have the money. They have the will. They have the legislation and then communities say, “No, you can’t build anything other than single-family in our neighborhood. No, we won’t take a shelter. No, we won’t allow a supportive service provider to locate here.” That’s been a problem too.
I know they were talking about building something here in Venice, in the parking lot. If it would help the situation and it would get people off the streets, I’m fine with that. I’m all in for it. I do think that a lot of the time they’ll put shops and different things there too. The homeless housing is on top and you might not even know that it’s there. What would be reassuring is to know that they do have proper supportive services that are there to help the people so that they can get out of this situation that they’re in. It’s not going to feel like an area that’s unsafe.
To the earlier part of our conversation, the housing will be part of it. To your point, Cecily, the services are important. Universal healthcare could solve a lot of those problems. If you’re in crisis, but you’re not going to go to a clinic or the doctor for fear of going bankrupt, not being able to pay, being turned away, you’re making your situation on the street worse. Those larger issues around mental health services, healthcare, job counseling and other things, we also need those too.
I wanted to take us in a little bit of a different direction. As we are doing this show and working on articles and a book associated with it, we have a concept to effect change. This might tie into the conversation we’ve been having about the local homeless challenges and how we can address them. Structured Mischief believes or is hypothesizing at this point that to create good in the world, you need a minimum viable collective. It’s borrowing from the internet startup world or the startup world in general of a minimum viable product. You need a minimum viable collective of persona types in order to affect change. Those persona types are a hacker, a hipster and a hustler. You’re not having one of each, but you have a mixture of those persona types. We want to get your thoughts on that issue, and we want to see if you were one of those types.
Hipster, I might be too old for that now. I like the notion of a hacker like hacking for good. I would hope I maybe put myself in the hacker category.
What do you think of this concept of in order to effect change, you need those persona types? You need that hacker, that inside person who’s either breaking things or unlocking, breaking down the barriers. You need a hipster who’s in touch with culture and the cultural vibe. You need a hustler who isn’t always a front person, but who doesn’t take no for an answer.
They all have to start with an H.
They do because it works better that way.
I wouldn’t disagree with those three.
Do we need to add a persona type? Would you add a persona type?
I do. Can you give me a minute to think of something that starts with an H? Who is the visionary of those three?
It’s a good question. It depends upon the opportunity and the situation. Any one of those three could be the visionary. Depending upon what problem you’re trying to solve or what you’re trying to coalesce as a group. I think any one of those three could.
They could be the impetus to the change, but then maybe they all work together to bring it about.
One I might add would be a critic and maybe there’s an H word for that like a heretic or the devil’s advocate. Somebody to test the assumptions and to bring maybe an outside perspective to something that might be a great idea. In planning, which is my field, there are people like that now. When we think about things like The High Line in New York or big affordable housing developments, those are all great things. In planning, the critic role has come up because it’s like, “Yes, but did those spur gentrifications?” If we think through hard enough when we were proposing these great urban interventions, what would be the effect on the existing populations?
You sometimes need somebody like that. The catch-all in my field now is equitable development. It’s not just development but, how does this affect all the people that might be touched by this? If I create an amazing linear park through a relatively low-income neighborhood that’s mostly manufacturing, and that neighborhood then becomes a front yard for high-end residential, what have I done to that neighborhood? If I know that upfront, then maybe I will put in place mechanisms to make sure that everybody that lives in there now can benefit from the coming intervention.
I’m going to take it slightly in a different direction, but respond in what I’m hearing now as a term that’s being used, JEDI, that is Justice, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, where diversity and inclusion has been very specific about racial diversity, sexual diversity and inclusion. Some people are saying lost cause that the Civil Rights Movement and specifically Martin Luther King was leading around economic justice and economic equality. It is not that it went away, but it doesn’t have the attention that some of the social unrest that’s happened in the last few months, but more broadly that’s happened in the last few years identifying that we need poverty abatement.
We need to fix poverty and that helps to unlock both social and economic equality, but also great deep systematic change. That’s what you’re also alluding to a little bit when you talk about a park marching through a neighborhood that’s going to disrupt it. All of a sudden, the benefits are only accrued to certain people, meaning people who already have wealth. How do you ensure that that disruption helps those people in a low-income neighborhood to benefit as well? Is that what I’m hearing?
You said it better than I would have. Yes, that’s what you’re hearing.We can build all the housing in the world, but if we don’t address the wealth gap, it’s always going to make people’s lives precarious. Click To Tweet
This idea of revisiting many years ago of the Civil Rights Movement and what was lost with specifically Martin Luther King’s death, but in general, the momentum around economic justice is being brought back into the center. We look at projects like Grand Street or what was done on the west side of New York with Hudson Yards, as you need to take into account who you’re disrupting, who you’re displacing and how you ensure that they’re part of the equation as you come in and develop.
I’m also curious what your thoughts are on Hudson Yards because I’ve heard some mixed opinions about it. I have clients that work there at HBO and they complain about working there because they say there’s no affordable food around there. They have to take a million trains to get there. The mall is catering to almost the clientele you would have in Dubai or something very high-end.
It’s not working based on what we were talking about applying JEDI principles.
I wonder if it’s not the best utilization of space in terms of what they’ve put in there, and the demographic there, and helping the community have an easier life in a way.
As a former architect, wasn’t it also a simple thing of the floor plates in Midtown Manhattan don’t necessarily accommodate our 21st century world in terms of data runs, etc.? We need office space that models Midtown, but in a 21st century model. Wasn’t that also part of the impetus for Hudson Yards?
Hudson Yards is a complicated conundrum. I’ll sum it up in one word, which is soulless. That’s what happens when one developer gets to develop a whole portion of the city. It’s a huge site. It’s as big as Greenwich Village. It’s seven or so skyscraper surrounding a plaza that fronts on a mall. I don’t know if the developers would say this out loud, but New York is competing with Dubai, Tokyo, Shanghai and Singapore. When you go to those cities, you have lots of Hudson Yards. You have lots of either physically or psychologically gated enclaves for high-end retail, Class A office space and high-end shopping. One of the notions was this can be the place in New York where that happens too. London has a number of places like this now. Canary Wharf was an early version of that. We’re in the city, but we’re not of the city.
That’s the frustration at least with my friends that work there. They feel like they’re in the city, but they’re leaving it to go into this place that turns its back on the city. It has its own street network. It’s a shopping mall ringed by office buildings. David, to your point about Jane Jacobs, you don’t get that ballet of the city. You get car services. You get people that work for LVMH and HBO, and you get tourists that want to go to high-end food court or Neiman Marcus.
In London specifically, I have some familiarity with it. You’re now getting that in different parts of the city at different scales of Canary Wharf, even on the south bank. There’s development around south bank, specifically around Blackfriars and then further by the new American Embassy in Vauxhall, which is this new Canary Wharf on the west side of London. It’s unbelievable growth and development. I would also use that term a bit soulless. Let’s talk about you as a mischief-maker. Do you see yourself as a mischief-maker?
I do. That’s something other people consider you, probably not something that you consider yourself. In many cases, that’s maybe something that people say behind your back.
It’s not intentional or something, but it’s trying to be authentic or responding to something that feels inauthentic and fighting against it.
Your series here might be reframing that word. I always think of it as like the kid that gets in trouble and blames the other kid. That’s the mischief-maker in my mind, but I would say yes because my degree is in urban planning. When I do something, I have a client or I do a work and people say, “That’s not planning.” I grimace a little bit and I hold my tongue, but it also makes me a little bit proud because what they’re saying is like, “You’re not in the silo I want you to be.” I would say I’m mischief making him that way. I started in planning. I went to development. I did finance. I ran a design center and I don’t see any of those things as not planning, but other people might.
You are a mischief-maker and you’ve reaffirmed that by what you said. Give us a few examples of where maybe you or the team you were leading or the client you were engaging, where you had to bend and break the rules a little. I’ll go back to the homeless conversation. You talked about city planners or city homeless advocates that are ignoring a state rule or regulation in order to get something done. That’s a little bit about what we’re exploring here. Not that we’re trying to be unlawful. What we’re trying to say is take roadblocks and address them in a way that gets past the roadblock and creates change that’s motivated for good. Can you talk a little bit about some examples in that amazing career path that you’ve had, where you’ve had to bend the rules or look beyond them in order to see where the good change was going to happen?
I don’t want to get anybody in trouble. I ran this design center in Syracuse, Rust Belt City but also university towns. There’s this real split. At that time, it’s relatively downtrodden downtown and the expensive university at the hill, and they’re half a mile away from each other. They’re an easy walk between the two, but not many people did it. One of the reasons was interstate highway ran through in the ‘60s classic like destroy the African-American communities, put downtown from its neighborhoods. We did a project to show people how close these two things are and how they could benefit each other. I’m trying to do a project under an interstate highway. You can imagine the number of agencies that want to say no to you even before you get to their door.
We held a competition and we got some impetus for doing an urban rest stop. Rest stop is usually off the highway. They have a bathroom and a vending machine. We wanted to do an urban version. People get off the highway and don’t just drive through town, but also a rest stop that benefited the people on both sides of the highway. One of the proposals was to create a massive inflatable bubble that was an illuminated jelly bean that could act as like a bounce house and a passage through so that you’re walking through this dreary under the freeway environment. There was no way anybody was going to approve that. We did do the urban rest stop. It ran for one day and we got a couple of hundred people. We got a quartet, bands, films, kids and artists so that was great.
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’re experiencing right now?
Do you mean like teaching for three hours on Zoom in a mask?
In general, with your vision and wanting to take all of your great experiences and apply either to a certain area or a certain problem in affordable housing or urban development. What would be that biggest challenge other than three hours of teaching in a mask?
This moment in particular, but beforehand as well is addressing the wealth gap. We can build all the housing in the world, but if people don’t have wealth, can’t pass it down, can’t inherit it, can’t gain it, we’re always going to have this gap. It’s going to make people’s lives precarious. I’m trying to figure out how to tackle that. I’ve moved a little bit away from the housing. We have systems for that. As we said earlier, affordable housing as an industry, but figuring out how you within housing and economic development also build wealth is an important thing. I’ve shifted much more to ownership models, alternative ways of living to think about how you do not just provide somebody with something, but give them access to all kinds of opportunity.
We don’t have time to go into it now, but I’d love to have you back and talk more about that. We’re working with a group of folks that are looking at continuing that work. As I was saying, from the ‘60s about economic equality and specifically poverty abatement in places like South Carolina and Alabama, and truly going in and making a difference. You probably are even familiar with some of that work, but that would be a wonderful conversation on its own. Cecily, do you have some final questions for Marc from your end.
Marc, this is one of my favorite questions and I love asking it to almost everyone because we have such a wide variety of people that come on the show. If you had one piece of advice for your younger self, what would that be? If you could look forward into the future ten years from now and as that future self give your current self one piece of advice, what would that be?
To my younger self, I would say taking a year to do something fun or different or in a different geography is not a lot of time. There were many times when I was younger, in my early twenties, where I lived in France. I was going to stay another year, but I’m like, “No, I have to get back. I have to graduate. I have to figure out a job situation.” That 10 to 12 months would have made no difference whatsoever except if I had stayed in France and had this amazing carefree itinerant life. That’s what I would tell my younger self.
If you could go into the future ten years from now and then your future self could give your current self one piece of advice, what would that be?
Maybe in ten years, you have a farm on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. What would you be telling yourself right now?
What would my older self tell myself now is to probably stop multitasking so much.
We’re going to be tracking that. We want to make sure you don’t multitask. All of those students that are sitting in their pajamas, they don’t get to come to class. They’ve got to show up in person. You can’t multitask between the physical students and the virtual students.
I’m sure this is the case for almost everybody. I used to watch a movie or a TV show. Now I watch it but I have my phone with me.
You’re in your computer and you’re doing email.
It’s one thing at a time.
This is a constant theme that we talk about. We interviewed a girl, Isharna. She has a tech company, an app and it’s about sexual wellness. We were saying that our society is separated from each other and distracted because we’re constantly on our devices. We’re not having as many intimate connections and conversations. That’s a theme that we all need to drill down and be present about and change.
When I was a kid and there were eight TV channels, my parents only allowed us two hours of TV a day. We have to start imposing what 1980s parents were doing to us on ourselves.
Marc, thank you so much. We won’t take any more of your time. We appreciate it. This has been fantastic. Keep the mask on and get those students back in the classroom.
Hopefully, we can take some knowledge from this conversation and try and implement it in some way. Thank you so much, Marc.
About Marc Norman
Marc Norman is the founder of the consulting firm “Ideas and Action” and an Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Michigan, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Marc Norman is an internationally recognized expert on policy and finance for affordable housing and community development. Trained as an urban planner, he has worked in the field of community development and finance for over 20 years. With degrees in political economics (University of California Berkeley, Bachelors of Art, 1989) and urban planning (University of California Los Angeles, Master of Art, 1992) and experience with for-profit and non-profit organizations, consulting firms and investment banks, Norman has worked collaboratively to develop or finance over 2,000 units totaling more than $400 million in total development costs.
Norman began his professional work as an intern with the Planning Department of Los Angeles County, moving to a project management role at Skid Row Housing Trust, a non-profit development corporation providing supportive housing in Los Angeles. He moved into leadership positions with several financial institutions, including Lehman Brothers (Senior Associate), Duvernay + Brooks (Managing Director), and Deutsche Bank (Vice President), specializing in complex financing for affordable housing and economic development projects. Through those endeavors he has conducted or participated in a wide array of projects related to strategic planning, affordable housing development, lending, and investment. He has notable experience in the use of tax credits for affordable housing development.
Norman is the president of his own consulting firm “Ideas and Action,” working nationally and internationally on projects promoting affordable housing and community development.
In addition to his professional achievements, Norman was previously a professor of practice at Syracuse University, where he engaged with both students and communities by teaching courses on real estate and housing policy in the Syracuse School of Architecture. He also implemented initiatives as Director of UPSTATE: A Center for Design Research and Real Estate, in collaboration with city, state, and university partners.
A 2014-2015 Harvard Loeb Fellow at the Graduate School of Design, Norman complements his professional practice and teaching experience with scholarly writings and curation of exhibitions. Norman’s most recent exhibition is “Designing Affordability,” an exhibition of best practices in policy, finance and architecture encompassing projects from around the world. The exhibition has run in the U.S., Australia and is currently running in the 2017 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in Shenzhen, China. His most recent article, “Demapping Automotive Landscapes,” appears in the publication “Housing as Intervention: Architecture Toward Social Equity.” Earlier publications include, “Projecting Rust Belt Futures: Underwriting Icicles and Leveraging Sidewalks” which outlined strategies for bringing investment in neighborhoods where values do not support traditional lending methods.
Norman engages in numerous public service and academic service activities. Since 1994, he has served as a board member for numerous non-profit and community organizations addressing issues of affordable housing and design, currently serving on the boards of MASS Design Group, Design Futures Forum, CAMBA Housing Ventures, and Chairs the Federal Reserve’s Community Advisory Council.