Richard Florida visits Ann Arbor, advocates for affordable housing, warns “When places get boring, even the rich leave”

Richard Florida, the man credited with popularizing the belief that the so-called “creative class” is the primary driver of urban redevelopment, was in Ann Arbor yesterday to address a regional economic forum hosted by Ann Arbor Spark. As I didn’t take very good notes, and don’t have the time this evening to provide anything even remotely approaching comprehensive coverage, I know I should probably just keep quiet on the subject, but, as I thought it might be of interest to a few of you, and since I haven’t seen anyone else post about it, I figured I’d pass along a few brief notes. Here, in no particular order, are my somewhat jumbled thoughts.

1. The Ann Arbor stop was just one of many for Florida, who is touring the country in support of his new book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It. Florida said he’d pretty much finished writing the book this past fall, but rewrote it in the wake of this past November’s election, when it became clear to him that Trump won because of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, which, according to Florida, is largely geographic in nature, as those with resources are gravitating toward cities, while those without resources are being driven out. Maybe it was just the table I was at, but my sense was that his anti-Trump sentiments weren’t shared by many in the audience. He did, however, get some applause when he told the crowd that his wife is from Birmingham, and that, every Thanksgiving, they come down from Toronto to watch the Lions play in Detroit. It wasn’t clear, but it sounded like Florida chose to move to Toronto, where he’s the head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, at least in part due to a desire on his part to pick up the mantle of urban research pioneer Jane Jacobs, the author of 1961’s groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who lived there until her death in 2006. Speaking of Jacobs, Florida said he asked her once what she thought her greatest contribution was to society. According to Florida, she said it was the idea that economic growth didn’t come from companies, but from people, who become something greater than themselves when they come together in cities. When you bring together large numbers of people with ambition and knowledge, Florida says, you create something powerful, an engine for change. But, he says, they also carve deep divides. And, it was at this point, he started talking about the poplulist backlash that gave us Trump and Brexit.

2. It’s probably worth noting that not everyone loves Florida’s work. He has his critics, many of whom, it would appear, see him as more of a self-promoter than a legitimate heir to Jacobs. But his influence over the urban planning field is undeniable, as a generation of city planners have made their careers echoing his mantra that our urban centers, if we’re to see them revitalized, need to be more tolerant of, and welcoming to, creative types. And, for what it’s worth, Florida now acknowledges at least some of the criticism that’s been directed his way. Recently, while in Houston, Florida said the following. “I got wrong that the creative class could magically restore our cities, become a new middle class like my father’s, and we were going to live happily forever after,” he said. “I could not have anticipated among all this urban growth and revival that there was a dark side to the urban creative revolution, a very deep dark side.” And that, it seems, is the narrative that drives the new book, which, by the way, I’ve yet to read. Here’s a clip from the Houston Chronicle.

…Through books and magazine cover stories, pricey speeches and consultations, the TED-talking University of Toronto professor popularized the early-aughts idea that faded cities could revitalize themselves by attracting the talented, intellectual types who made up what he called the “creative class.” Lure some hip coffeeshops, create an “arts district,” play up your gay friendliness, and watch the laptopping masses pour in.

Sixteen years after Florida published his first book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” that theory has proved half true. For many small, post-industrial cities without assets like big tech companies and universities, no amount of creative-class marketing would turn things around. Elmira, N.Y., for example, saw little return on its investment in the Florida program, as a 2009 story in the American Prospect detailed

But it wasn’t just that the creative class wasn’t the silver bullet for struggling cities that he said it would be. There was also the “dark side” Florida alluded to earlier… “The urban pessimists have a point,” Florida went on to tell the Houston Chronicle. “We neglected their point, which is that cities are gentrifying, people are being priced out, displaced from their homes. I think we need a new vision for cities that combines an optimistic viewpoint with an understanding of the challenges that re-urbanization brings.”

So, he preached to the masses that our salvation lay in luring artists and the like back to our cities, but, in doing so, he let the gentrification genie out of the bottle. And this new book, it seems, is his attempt to make amends (while, of course, selling even more books).

3. I was waiting for Florida to claim some of Michael Shuman’s territory, and start talking about the importance of small, locally owned businesses and cooperatives, but he never quite got there. He did, however, share a few ideas about how we might achieve what he called “inclusive urbanism.” We have to build affordable housing, especially affordable rental housing, in our cities, he said. We have to invest in mass transit, so that the people on the periphery, who have been forced out of our cities, are still able to participate. And, we have to “upgrade” service jobs, the same way we did with manufacturing jobs after the great depression. We need to make it possible for people working service jobs to actually make a living wage that allows them to exist within in our cities, he said.

4. If we do nothing to address these issues, he said, we risk losing our cities. And it was at this point that Florida made his most profound statement. “When places get boring,” he said, “even the rich leave.”

5. Regardless of what you think about Florida, I think you’ll probably agree that it’s a good message for the people of Ann Arbor to hear. With the prices of homes in the city rising 6.3% in the last year alone, and the median price of a single-family unit reaching $334,800, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that, according to Florida, ours is the 8th most economically segregated community in the United States, with fewer and fewer places for our non-wealthy citizens to live. And it certainly isn’t helped by the fact that no one seems to have the political will to follow through on the findings of the County’s Affordable Housing & Economic Equity Analysis report and build new affordable housing in Ann Arbor… I don’t know to what extent Florida’s speech might have sunk in, but I know I’ll be repeating the phrase, “When places get boring, even the rich leave,” in my head for a while. [Will someone remind me to create a Maynard Boring Index for American cities?]

6. Florida said that this rift we’re seeing in America, the one that resulted in Trump being elected, is the biggest one we’ve seen since the Civil War. Not only, he said, do we have to contend with the people who have been left behind, who are susceptible to the populist propaganda, but, he added, we have a “new urban luddism” on the left, with people fighting against growth and change. And he seems to think that things are going to get worse before they get better, especially for those of us at universities, who, in his opinion, are going to get the brunt of the anti-intellectualism, anti-creative class, anti-growth attack. “The Backlash to the universities,” he warned, “will be enormous.”

7. For what it’s worth, he added that he knew, when Rob Ford, the crack smoking mayor of Toronto, was elected, that bad things were likely going to start happening elsewhere.

8. We need to stop looking to the federal government for answers, Florida said in conclusion. Under Trump, he said, the federal government won’t fix anything. And they likely wouldn’t have come to our rescue under Clinton either, he added. He then ended his keynote by saying that he hopes two mayors, a Democrat and a Republican, run together on a ticket for the Oval Office in 2020 with a message of “inclusive prosperity,” promising to return control to local communities.

[If you were in the audience for Florida’s keynote, and I either missed something significant, or got something wrong, please leave a comment. I’d appreciate it.]

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  1. anonymous
    Posted April 25, 2017 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    His comment about becoming boring brought the Ann Arbor greeters on segways immediately to mind.

  2. Eel
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    I like his business plan. Create a problem. Solve a problem. And profit on both ends.

  3. Joe M.
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Well, Ann Arbor (and Michigan’s) standards when it comes to boring is quite different than those in a real urban area. I find the state quite boring compared to say Chicago, but countless townies and yuppies moving in just adore boring little downtown areas like Ann Arbor or Plymouth.

  4. Lynne
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    It is probably because in downtown Ann Arbor and Plymouth there are fewer pretentious assholes who go around crowing about the superiority of larger cities even though there really isn’t anything necessarily superior about the similar neighborhood “downtowns” in larger cities. j/k There are plenty of jerks in Plymouth and Ann Arbor doing their own version of a superiority dance. LOL

  5. Lynne
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I don’t think it is true that even the rich leave when things get boring, fwiw. I suspect that the rich kind of like boring, especially older rich people. Of course “boring” is a completely subjective word. Some people will find more to pique their interests in suburban landscapes than urban ones and vice versa. I mean, I hate Canton, Mi but obviously there are plenty of people who consider that kind of place desirable. I am sure that is the point Joe M was getting at up there.

    The real question is how can we make the most people happy in our age of growing income and wealth inequality. We are going to have a system where only the preferences of the rich will matter and that is something likely to lead to more boring (to me) places out there. Or not. I have a lot of books so don’t get bored too often.

  6. Lynne
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Oh, and I remember seeing a painting years ago of Marie Antoinette playing peasant in a beautiful garden. Rich people slumming is nothing new.

  7. Scott Trudeau
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    More than just affordable housing, we need more housing overall; and service sector wages need to go up; and a local income tax on high earners is worth considering.

    And if they threaten to flee to the townships, they’ve just freed up some housing in town…

  8. Jcp2
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    If we generally accept that increased density is desirable from an urban planning, housing cost, and environmental aspect, them why are we focused on using the price of a single family residence as a cost of living index for Ann Arbor? Shouldn’t we use another index related to multi-family units?

  9. M
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Jcp2, I imagine the sale price of a single-family home is a decent proxy in the absence of anything better. It’s easily available information, and it probably corresponds to some degree with rental housing, etc. It would be interesting, however, if there was a way to track the median rental rates across the region.

  10. Jean Henry
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I think the DDA will need to start offering rent support for small businesses soon.
    If you look at the towers, they are having a hard time finding tenants. They advertise high retail rental rates but have also offered deals to potential retail tenants. Their residential tenants want something cool. They could rent those spaces for offices but their zoning and tenant promises makes that hard. So I expect those spaces to become an opportunity for below market rate eventually. We just have to wait for critical mass and for the property managers to get smart.

  11. Steve P
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    You’d think all this competition would’ve created competitive prices, but the “Zingerman Effect” still holds in Ann Arbor: once one hyped up well known place gets away with a blatant price gouge, everyone can do it.

    A cool place that wanted to UNDERCUT the rip off prices of their competition in this town would actually make a killing.

  12. Vivienne Armentrout
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I’m glad that you covered that. I think his “solutions” are meaningless for Ann Arbor. How do we increase the wages for service jobs, exactly? And Ann Arbor has been talking about a city income tax for decades (I favor it) but it would not just be on “high earners” but a flat tax across the board (less for commuters than for residents) according to state law. And I’d say we did a good job already in extending transit, though I’d hardly call Ypsi a “suburb”.

    As for building more affordable housing: what do you picture when you say that? Our Housing Commission is indeed rebuilding some facilities and Avalon is still developing. But both of these target extremely low income people who also need supportive housing. Doesn’t make for affordability for working young families, for example.

    Something out-of-state experts never recognize is how constrained municipalities are under Michigan constitution and laws. We can’t impose most taxes and can’t dictate much to private property owners.

  13. Aaron Wilson
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Hey Mark, still in the middle of reading this post (at work) but I read Mlive’s article yesterday. It’s interesting that Florida espouses so much of Jacobs work. Although a world changing book, I see her vision as a very white upper-middle class utopia. Or perhaps, what we’ve done with her vision. Mixed use living, happening neighborhoods, busy sidewalks, ect. Basically the engine of gentrification. After living in, and unfortunately being a part of, centers of gentrification (Ypsi, Nashville, Columbus, and Detroit) I saw the rise of the “creative class” to the detriment of the working middle-class and especially the poor. My urban planning classes at Wayne-State were unfortunately behind on this.

    I absolutely agree with Florida in that the creative class growth is unsustainable. I believe it will lead to another real estate crash in these popular hipster hotspots but only after the recentralization of cities has displaced most of our urban working poor citizens.

  14. Jcp2
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    You could track the sales price of condos as a substitute for single family homes. The Ann Arbor Observer has a monthly breakdown of real estate transactions in the area, broken down between single family homes and apartments.

  15. Aaron Wilson
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    On a more personal note, it made living and learning in Detroit very difficult once I had this realization. Questioning all of the great music, arts, and coffee shops made living there a world of anxiety. The very things I love and enjoy were the things being quantified by urban planners and used to fuel “redevelopment” and not to actually help any real Detroiters.

  16. Al McWilliams
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Naw, NYC is super boring and it’s full of rich people.

  17. Sara
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Not a fan of the Florida, but this gives me a lot of laughs:

  18. site admin
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Keep it nice in the comments section, Florida just tweeted out a link.

  19. Brooke Ratliff
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    It was U of M who created the ‘biotech belt’…who created all these new millionaires out of their own PhD candidates…who built mansions…that caused property values to skyrocket…that made houses unaffordable. The university created unintended consequences and it needs to help fix the mess. It’s actually worse that people realize. The average age of a homeowner in Ann Arbor is over 50! Those houses are going to hit the market all at once…and nobody will buy them.

    …and lastly…what really bothers me…wages are basically the same across Michigan. HOWEVER, Ann Arbor’s cost of living is about 30% higher! Other cities facing this problem pay higher wages. Compare the averages wages in Oakland to San Fransico….San Fran pays more…compare wages in NYC to Queens or Great Neck. NYC pays more…same with Tokyo compared with Osaka. The people who runs those cities have enough brains to know that disparities in cost of living will displace even highly skilled workers. I myself may end up getting out of Washtenaw county. I have seriously considered it. I, like thousands of others, have discovered that quality of life is simply better and more affordable, in Wayne and Oakland county. It’s a shame my hometown where I grew up has turned into a super exclusive club that even a mid-level accountant can’t afford to join.

  20. Frosted Flakes
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    site admin
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink
    Keep it nice in the comments section, Florida just tweeted out a link.


  21. M
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I think that was a subtle invitation to call Florida out, FF.

  22. Heidi Neil
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    NYC has grit and A2 is turning into a sterotypical carbon copy of all the other “rich” places. Once Harry’s Army Surplus on Liberty turned into a high end cosmetics and hair salon, was my clue that Ann Arbor lost all individuality.

  23. Autumn
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I HIGHLY recommend reading How to Kill a City: Gentrification by Peter Moskowitz.

  24. Ted
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Our political system is uniquely designed to empower rural interests to exact a backlash against cities.

  25. stupid hick
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Lynne: “I mean, I hate Canton, Mi but obviously there are plenty of people who consider that kind of place desirable”

    Come to the 2017 Shadow Art Fair, which the new organizers hope will be held at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Canton. It promises to be the best Shadow Art Fair ever. I guarantee you will love Canton because of it.

  26. Jean Henry
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 12:50 am | Permalink

  27. Jeff Hayner
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Did you sneak in on a “Press Pass” or did you shell out the $100 to hear how expensive Ann Arbor is?

  28. Lynne
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    stupid hick, oh man. It would take a lot to change my opinion of that city but good for them for trying. LOL

  29. Iron Lung Larson
    Posted April 28, 2017 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    It is never boring here in Nairobi.

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