Alyssa Katz

Alyssa Katz is the author of Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us and a senior fellow with the Pratt Center for Community Development.

Recent Articles

The Reverse Commute

The Obama administration is trying to rein in suburban sprawl. But is it any match for 70 years of unsustainable development?

Opening morning for the Phoenix light-rail system. (Flickr/funwithfred)
Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia may be in charge of a beautiful city, but he doesn't have much to take to the bank. Last year Philly's creditors put the city on a negative-ratings watch, following a borrowing spree that resulted in a couple of stadiums and a heap of bribes for a city treasurer who was hauled off in handcuffs. Last year, Philadelphia hiked taxes and squeezed pension funds to fill a quarter-billion-dollar budget gap. But Philly does have a major asset: five forms of public transportation, from street cars to commuter rail, that knit the region together. During a recent convergence of real-estate developers, local government, and nonprofit leaders in the Center City district, Nutter bragged about the transportation system. "We have an infrastructure," he noted, "that other cities are spending billions to replicate." But first he bounded off the podium to shake the hand of "the lady here from HUD." The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funnels roughly...

Gentrification Hangover

Can a new era of affordable housing be created from the wreckage
of failed luxury real estate?

(Flickr/Ken Stein)
Commuters arriving in Brooklyn via the Manhattan Bridge are greeted with a shiny vision of New York City's future that never came to be: condo buildings with names like the Oro, the Toren, and Forté, towering monuments to real-estate developers' credit-bubble hubris. Two-bedroom apartments in the Oro were priced at nearly $1 million apiece; today, just 90 of 303 units have been sold. The Forté would have gone into foreclosure had its developer not voluntarily relinquished the building to the bank, losing investor Goldman Sachs its $13 million stake. Property records declare 37 of its 108 units purchased, and the high-rise itself feels even lonelier -- as night falls, just a few windows in its upper reaches are illuminated. On the opposite sidewalk of Flatbush Avenue one drizzly fall evening, more than a hundred demonstrators, members of the Right to the City Coalition, drew attention to another possibility: A city starved for affordable housing could find it in the glassy confines of...

There Goes the Neighborhood

Housing speculators are back, and they're hindering efforts at block-by-block revitalization.

Locks and spider webs are seen on the entrance door of a foreclosed Atlanta home. (AP Photo/Gregory Smith)
To get to Pittsburgh, a historically black neighborhood south of downtown Atlanta, I drive past several boarded-up and burned-out homes. Turning onto McDaniel Street, I steer around a pile of clothes and toys spilling out into the road. "Lord, behold, a family's house foreclosed and their possessions just thrown out there," says LaShawn Hoffman, CEO of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, from his storefront office down the block. This is one of the vastest foreclosure zones in the nation. On maps of bank sales, Hoffman observes, "you almost can't see the community because of all the red dots." His organization has counted them: It found six out of 10 homes in Pittsburgh are now vacant, casualties of foreclosure with wood planks and metal shields guarding their windows. Hoffman's group mows rangy lawns and bolts houses shut before squatters, prostitutes, or drug dealers settle in. Hoffman would like his organization to step in and buy every vacant property it can. It has...

Housing is Local, and Lending Should Be, Too

We're just now learning how dangerous it is that the sources of finance for homeowners and their neighborhoods have no real connection to those people and places.

From Five Ways of Looking at Risk . History will recall 2005 as the year the credit bubble grew fattest--when in much of Florida and California, real-estate prices doubled in a matter of months. But in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, it was the year that nearly 12,000 homes were abandoned to foreclosure, leaving streets littered with boarded-up houses. Many of the home sales turned out to have been between speculators selling property to one another at rigged prices, using phony paperwork. Other borrowers fell prey to sub-prime refinancing that put cash in their hands but lost them their home. At the time, Cleveland's calamity was a nonevent outside of Ohio, because the projected losses fit within the margins of investment bankers' risk models. Securities analysts wrote off the Ohio foreclosure wave as the byproduct of a declining Rust Belt economy, notwithstanding that the unemployment rate in Cleveland had been twice as high in the early 1980s. Nationwide, the foreclosure rate still stood at...

Masters of Eminent Domain

It's not often that residents of the devotedly liberal precinct of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, agree with Antonin Scalia and Tom DeLay. But the Supreme Court's decision last month in Kelo v. City of New London struck a nerve in this neighborhood and in others across the country where governments are coming in, forcing property owners to sell, and handing over that real estate to private companies. Neighbors here are outraged that the Sesame Street tranquility of this historic neighborhood will be disturbed by a new basketball arena and a cluster of mutant Frank Gehry high-rise apartment and office buildings -- built, in part, on land New York state is wresting from private owners. Community groups filed a brief supporting the New London homeowners fighting the seizure of their houses in hopes of stopping the arena project and others like it. They're out to defend humble neighborhoods against deep-pocketed developers and governments eager to share in the plunder. Yet in seeking to...

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