City Elections 2023 - Housing and Land Use Policy Guide (Affordability)

posted on Mar 12th, 2023

It’s city election time in Bloomington, Indiana. The candidates have all filed and the race is underway. This is the first in a series of posts covering city policy.

There are four major policy areas that tend to come up in municipal policy discussions. They are:

  • housing and land use
  • transportation
  • public safety and policing
  • economic development

There are other things that the city has jurisdiction over that don’t fit neatly into those categories (parks, utilities, etc). And there are very important issues that represent cross cutting concerns - things like climate response and antiracism touch on most of those policy areas, and solutions to things like homelessness often touch on several. But those categories tend to be the most significant areas of city policy.

I’ll try to cover each of these things in turn. Today, lets start with housing and land use. There are two major questions we need to address: “How do we make housing affordable and available to everyone?” and “What kind of built environment should we live in?” I’ll address the first in this post and deal with the second in a future post.

Arial shot of house rooftops - Photo by Breno Assis on Unsplash

How do we make housing affordable and available to everyone?

We have a pretty good idea how to improve affordability. It’s just not easy to do. And in the case of Bloomington, a lot of the strategies that have been effective elsewhere have been banned by the state government in Indianapolis.

We Have to Build More

The first thing we need to do is build a lot more housing. There are 30,000 people who live in Monroe County and the surrounding counties and commute into the city every day. While some of those people wouldn’t choose to live in the city, a fair number of them were simply priced out.

The city released a housing study in 2020. The study referenced two vacancy rates, the American Communities Survey run by the Census Bureau reported a 9% vacancy rate for Bloomington. The city ran its own survey that found a less than 2% vacancy rate. The ACS doesn’t account for seasonal variation in vacancy that comes with being a college town, but the city’s study involved asking landlords to self report their vacancy rates. Make of that what you will. My guess is the true number is somewhere in between.

Even if the vacancy rate is 9%, that’s not enough vacant housing to house even a third of the commuters. And that’s definitely not a high enough vacancy rate to push landlords to lower rents.

When developers build a new project, they do the financial math with an assumed vacancy rate based on the market they’re building into - usually between 5% and 10%. To get rents to go down, we need the vacancy rate to be significantly higher than the one they assumed and built in.

So we need to build a lot of housing. This is necessary to achieve housing affordability, but not sufficient.

Building housing is slow. It may seem like we’re building a lot, but when you look at the numbers, we’re not building that much housing per year. The biggest of the megahousing projects we’ve built lately was around 1000 beds, and it’s taking several years to build. That is by far the exception. Most “big” apartment projects are a few hundred beds at most. Many are less than 100.

The reality is that we’re only adding a few thousand new housing units a year (at best). Many years we add less than a thousand. And we only started building at that rate a few years ago. So it’s going to take us a long time to catch up.

When we do catch up to where the vacancy rates rise, the rents will begin to fall. We’re already seeing this in other cities that are ahead of us on building.

But that’s not something we can hang our hats on for permanent affordability. When rents start to fall, the developers will eventually slow down or stop building. So we can’t count on vacancy pressure to create permanent affordability. It’s necessary, but not sufficient.

We’re Limited by State Government

It’s important to make note of what we can’t do here. We can’t do rent control, it’s banned at the state level. We can’t do inclusionary zoning, where we require developers include a certain percentage of permanently affordable housing in all projects, that’s also banned at the state level.

We can do density bonusing, where we allow developers extra density (another floor) in exchange for holding some percentage of units permanently affordable.

We also need to put other pressure on the landlords to lower rents. There are a lot of things we could explore to do this.

Renter’s Bill of Rights

A Renter’s Bill of Rights (like this example) with things like requiring cause for eviction, fee limitations, and right of first refusal would help.

Once again, the state government is standing in our way. We have a rental inspection program that allows us to do some of this. But it’s grandfathered in. New rental inspection programs are banned at the state level. Past city governments have been very afraid to try new things with the grandfathered program for fear the state would decide they invalidated the grandfathering and kill it.

It’s unclear what would happen if we attempted to implement a Renter’s Bill of Rights independent of the rental inspection program, or whether we even could under state code.

At the very least, we can properly fund HAND - right now they don’t have enough resources to keep up with inspections.

Vacant Rental Fee

We could also explore a vacant rental fee: where we only allow a landlord to hold a rental vacant for a certain time period (6 months or a year) before we start charging a monthly fee. The fee has to be high enough that it actually causes pain and incentivizes the landlord to lower rents to find a renter. Some cities in Europe have been exploring this. It’s likely it would be banned at the state level as soon as we try it, but it’s still worth trying.

Finally, we need to explore and support alternative housing development and ownership structures. Public housing is the obvious one and we need to build more of it. But there are other forms as well.

Housing Cooperatives

Cooperatively owned housing allows tenants to collectively govern their own rental housing. We have a housing cooperative already in Bloomington Cooperative Living. The cooperative owns three properties and leases two more. It’s structured as co-living, with members renting a room and sharing living areas, but housing cooperatives don’t have to be co-living. BCL manages to get rents down to $400 - $600 a month, which includes utilities and food.

BCL has been steadily growing and the city should invest in its continued growth. It’s also worth putting effort into forming additional cooperatives, because diversity is good. It’ll take a while, but if we can eventually reach a point where a significant chunk of the rental market is cooperatively owned, that would put real pressure on the landlords.

Community Land Trusts

Cooperatives work best on rental housing, but what about keeping owner occupied housing affordable? For that we need a Community Land Trust.

Community Land Trusts are non-profits that can be democratically run by their members, but don’t have to be. A community land trust works by owning the land owner-occupied housing is built on and giving the housing owner a 99 year ground lease. This allows the occupant to own the building, get a traditional mortgage, accrue equity, but it allows the land trust to dictate how much the value of the property can rise. It effectively removes housing from the normal housing market and gives it a set rate of appreciation.

Community Land Trusts are very effective at keeping gentrification at bay, as long as local governments recognize them and support them. Home owners who are worried about being priced out of their homes - which usually happens when their property taxes rise with the value of their property beyond what they can pay - can put their homes in the land trust and then that prevents the price from going up, and thus the taxes from going up.

Activists in Bloomington recently formed a land trust. The city should support it financially, and work with the county to ensure the land trust is accounted for when calculating property values and taxes.

This is just examining the affordability aspect of housing and land use policy. There are many other things to consider: the sustainability of the built environment, histories of racial exclusion and how we make amends, and what we do for those who struggle to stay in housing for reasons other than the cost alone.

I’ll try cover all those things in future posts.

But these give you a pretty good idea what to look for on the issue of housing affordability. Almost all of the candidates will give lip service the issue of housing affordability at some point. The good ones know what it takes the create it. The bad ones will talk the talk, but when it comes to following through, they’ll balk.

Peer Review Reaches Alpha

posted on Aug 5th, 2022

Peer Review now exists as an alpha.

Screenshot of Scientific Publishing Web Platform

I’m looking for a couple of things:

  • I need feedback on the concept. Is this a good idea? Am I heading in the right direction? I’ve explained it in detail in the post below.
  • I’m looking for academics who are interested in exploring the alpha and giving me feedback on all aspects of it.
  • I’m looking for people who are interested in signing up for the closed and open betas, early adopters who can form the core of the initial community.

And, if you do think I’m heading in the right direction with this, I’m asking for donations to support the development work financially and extend the runway.

I’ve made a ton of progress in the last month, but there’s still a lot of work left to do! I think I’m a few months out from being able to begin a closed beta. I’m really excited by the idea and the platform’s potential. I’m eager to hear the thoughts of everyone involved in academic publishing!

I wrote up a post on the Peer Review blog explaining what the platform is and how it works, as well as linking to a feedback and beta sign up form. Here’s the link: A Possible Fix for Scientific and Academic Publishing

Please share far and wide!

Goodbye Ceros, Hello Peer Review

posted on Jul 8th, 2022

Today is my last day at Ceros. I’ve been at Ceros since November of 2014. Minus a 10 month sabbatical in 2016, I’ve worked at Ceros for nearly a full 7 years of my life. That’s almost 10% of an average American lifespan.

Ceros is a great company with a great product team. I got to solve some really fun (and some less fun) problems, worked with incredible people, had some wild adventures, and learned a ton. I got to build a DevOps department from the ground up to now three teams totalling 13 people and growing. I got to help a startup grow from 37 people, when I joined, to now approaching 400. It’s been a hell of a ride.

Now I’m on to the next adventure, which I couldn’t be more excited about.

For the last 3 years, I’ve been dreaming about a web platform that I think has the potential to drastically improve scientific and academic publishing for everyone.

If you’re not in, or adjacent to, academia you may not realize just how broken academic publishing is.

Academic publishing has been privatized and monopolized. Five major publishing houses own the majority (close to 80%) of the academic journals. They charge absolutely enormous fees to sell the output of academia back to the universities.

While this has wildly negative impacts in a lot of areas, the worst of it is in science.

Most scientific research is funded by the public in one way or another. The way scientists share the results of their research is by publishing papers in academic journals. The quality control process is performed by other scientists for free - meaning their (often public) university salaries are funding that work. The private journals then take the results of this work and sell it back to the universities for billions of dollars.

The vast majority of the public can’t even begin to afford to access the scientific and academic literature. The public who, in a democracy, ultimately decide which government policies get implemented and which ones do not.

Science is supposed to be an open process, and that’s why we should trust it. But with the results of scientific research being privatized and hidden behind paywalls, that stopped being true for the vast majority of people in the world. And this is a major contributor to the growing crisis of disbelief in scientific fact. A crisis that contributed to our struggle to manage the pandemic world wide.

The Open Access movement has tried any number of approaches to fixing the access side of it. But they’re mostly still sticking to the same journal model that was developed in the 1680s, when the papers were being bundled into booklets and sent through the mail. This means they have really high overhead, and most open access journals have had to fund themselves by charging a fee to publish. This creates a whole new host of problems, and has lead to the rise of pay to play journals with little or no refereeing.

What this means, practically, is that the peer review process has broken down. A dishonest researcher who gets rejected from a reputable journal can take their paper to a disreputable one and simply pay to have it published. There are over 10,000 journals. It’s impossible for the general public to track which ones are reputable and which ones are not. So as far as the public is concerned, once it’s published, it’s published.

For three years, I’ve been dreaming of a web platform that I believe could fix all of this. For the past three months, I’ve been building it on nights and weekends.

Screenshot of Scientific Publishing Web Platform

It would allow academics to self-organize the publishing process, without needing the journals or the publishing houses. It uses a reputation system to determine who can peer review and referee papers. It splits pre-publish editorial peer review from post publish refereeing to make sure the quality signal is preserved for the public. And it puts full control of the publishing process back in the hands of academic authors, while allowing their peers to offer helpful pre-publish feedback and to exercise post publish, public quality control.

This web platform would cut the overhead of scientific publishing by several orders of magnitude. I believe it could easily be funded by donations from the academics who use it, and eventually by the institutions (the universities) paying a tiny fraction of what they are now paying. That would allow it to be diamond open access - free to publish, free to access. If successful, it could open up the scientific and academic literature completely.

My hope is to build a non-profit to develop, operate, and maintain the web platform and have it governed by the scholars who use the platform and the workers who build it.

I’m very close to an alpha prototype of the platform. I hope to have one running on cloud infrastructure in the next week or two.

I’m seeking academics and scholars to serve as alpha testers and give me early feedback on the prototype. Could this work the way I think it could? Will this solve the problems of access in academic publishing, while preserving what’s good about the journal system? What am I missing? What else needs to be included in an open, public beta? If you or anyone you know might be interested in helping, reach out to me here and I’ll let you or them know when the alpha is ready!

Warren, Sanders, and Oligarchy

posted on Feb 23rd, 2020

I’m going to take a moment to talk about Elizabeth Warren. This post has been bouncing around my head since the Nevada debate - particularly since Warren started taking real shots at Bernie.

I want to preface this, I’m a huge fan of Warren. I’ve said from the beginning that I would enthusiastically support Warren in the general, if she were to beat Bernie. My dream outcome is Warren as Senate Majority Leader in a Sanders presidency. I want to see Warren in a position of real power in the movement.

But I don’t think Warren is the right person to lead the movement. And the more Warren goes on the attack against Bernie, the more firmly I believe that.

Elizabeth Warren - Attribution: Gabe Skidmore (

American Oligarchy

In my last post, I talked about Page and Gilens - the study that showed that America is an oligarchy controlled by the wealthy. Most nationally elected Democrats are wealthy. Most nationally elected Republicans are wealthy. Most national media pundits are wealthy. Most national scale businesses are owned and run by the wealthy.

For the past several decades, these wealthy oligarchs have completely controlled policy in this country - to their own benefit. This is how we’ve wound up with massive income and wealth inequality, with wage stagnation, poor healthcare, student loan crises, mass incarceration, and decaying infrastructure. So many policies that benefit or don’t harm the wealthy oligarchs, while badly harming the rest of us.

When people refer to the “establishment” they’re talking about the oligarchy.

The progressive movement is, and always has been, about overturning the oligarchy and taking power back. It’s about a return to democracy (small “d”), equity, and justice.

In a battle between an oligarchy that has seized power in a democracy, and the people of that democracy who want to take that power back, there is no unity lane. Being willing to work with the oligarchs is not a positive trait, because the oligarchs will not give up power willingly. It has to be taken, by electoral and political force.

Progressive protest - Attribution: Alex Radelich (

This is what Elizabeth Warren has never seemed to understand, and what Bernie has understood from the beginning. When people say that Bernie doesn’t play well with others, the “others” are the oligarchs.

Carrying the Banner

In 2016, the progressive movement begged Warren to carry the banner. There was a powerful Draft Warren campaign trying to get her to challenge Clinton. I was among those who desperately wanted her to run. Bernie himself begged her to run and offered his full support.

Had Warren chosen to run against Clinton, I believe she would have won. If Bernie came as close as he did, Warren would have clobbered Clinton. The lanes of attack open to Clinton against Bernie were not available to her with Warren. It would have been Warren against Trump and she would have cleaned his clock. (Don’t think so? Did you see her eviscerate Bloomberg?)

It would have been Warren who built the progressive movement instead of Bernie.

But she declined. Instead, she lead her senate colleagues in whipping endorsements for Clinton. In that moment, she showed that she doesn’t understand the battle currently unfolding between oligarchy and democracy.

And so, it was Bernie who challenged Clinton. The progressive movement found its champion for democracy in Bernie.

Bernie rally - Attribution: Gabe Skidmore (

That campaign was a tipping point for the movement. A moment when those who recognize the oligarchy for what it is saw that we were not alone. A moment when Occupy went electoral. A moment when the battle for the soul of the democratic party began.

And Warren sat on the sidelines.

In the four years after that campaign, Bernie worked tirelessly to fuel the flames of the movement that had ignited during his presidential campaign. He built Our Revolution to recruit and support pro-democracy, anti-oligarchy candidates. He personally inspired the next generation of progressive candidates to run for office, many under the Democratic Socialist label. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar both credit Bernie with inspiring them.

He endorsed. He spoke. He raised money. He carried the banner.

Warren didn’t.

Defeating Trump and Fascism

Now in 2020, she’s been trying to make the case that she should be leading the movement that Bernie’s efforts helped ignite, empower, and coalesce. But in making the case, she’s arguing that the movement should unify with the oligarchy to defeat Trump and fascism.

Don’t get me wrong, defeating Trump and fascism is of vital import, but if we do not also overturn the oligarchy and reinstate democracy, then we will have failed. And it will only be a matter of time before a new Trump emerges.

When Warren tries to run in that unity lane, she shows she still doesn’t understand this. We cannot unite with the oligarchs, we have to defeat them. It was the desire to overturn them that empowered Trump in the first place. He did the classic thing that oligarchs do when they are trying to undermine nascent movements against them - he redirected the anger and frustration at the oligarchy towards immigrants and people of color. He displaced class anger with racism.

We cannot defeat him with out giving that justified anger at the seizure of our democracy by wealthy oligarchs a true voice. And we can’t do that if we’re trying to unify and work with the oligarchs.

Which is why Warren’s attacks on Bernie for not being willing to work with the oligarchs are frustrating and reinforce my belief that she is not the right person to lead the movement.

It could have been her. It should have been her. But she missed the moment. Now we need the person who did build the movement, who understands what it takes to over turn oligarchy, and has never wavered from that goal. And that’s Bernie.

American Oligarchy

posted on Feb 22nd, 2020

In 2014, Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens reported the results of a multi-year study of American politics, trying to figure out who’s really pulling the levers of power in America.

They tested 4 hypothesis - that it was the broad majority of American voters, that it was issue focused special interest groups, that it was business interests, or that it was the wealthy (defined as the top 10% of the income spectrum).

I voted - Attibution: Element5 Digital (

They looked at polling data from 1981 to 2002 to see which groups wanted what policies, and then looked at which policies actually passed to determine who was calling the shots.

They found that the wealthy were ruling the country.

They found no correlation between the desires of the vast majority of Americans and the policies that got passed. They found no correlation between the desires of special interest groups and what got passed. They found some correlation between the desires of business interests and what policies passed. (As it happens, the wealthy own the businesses.)

They found strong correlation between the desires of the wealthy and the policies that actually became law. The wealthy rule this country.

Most people in political power (in both parties) are well up in the top 10%. Most media commentators are in the top 10%. Most media outlets are owned by stockholders - and 80% of stock is owned by the top 20% of the income spectrum.

When you understand this reality, what is happening with Bernie Sanders’ campaign snaps into clear focus.

The 90% want their power back. They want a true democracy. And the wealthy oligarchy who currently control both political parties and most of the media really don’t want to give that power back.