Zachary Hyde, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, was the winner of the 2019 Graduate Student Paper Award. Zach’s innovative research agenda brings work in relational economic sociology to bear on longstanding questions in urban sociology. We reached out to ask him to discuss his research, and we’re including his responses below. Thanks to Zach for participating in our interview series!
What were the main findings of your paper?
My paper “Giving Back to Get Ahead” focuses on the popular urban policy of density bonusing, where private development companies provide affordable housing and other social services in exchange for extra density. The main finding of the paper is that density bonusing forms a paradox, whereby “giving back” social services simultaneously increases developer profits. Through contributing services developers enhance their symbolic capital via gift-giving, which can be traded in for economic advantages in future dealings with local governments.
What motivated you to study this particular research topic?
I originally became interested in studying developers through my research on gentrification. I had been looking at social enterprise businesses, which mix profit-making with social service objectives, in the context of low-income neighborhoods. I began to notice that developers were making similar arguments about “socially conscious” mixed-income development, and this was tied to their increasing involvement in affordable housing provision. I wanted to know how these policies of density-for-social benefits were being implemented and understood by different actors in the field of urban development.
I carried out a study focusing on one particular developer that was becoming well-known for negotiating rezoning for social benefits throughout Canada. I studied this developer operating in two cities, Toronto and Vancouver, both with a similar approach to densification, but with different political structures. Based on this approach, these findings can speak to other cases, like New York City, where density bonusing has become central to Mayor DeBlasio’s Housing New York plan since 2014. The Lincoln Institute for Land Policy recently launched a large-scale study of “land-value capture,” which included density bonusing, suggesting that more and more local governments are turning to this policy framework.
What theoretical debates interest you the most, and how do you see your research contributing to them?
My main interest is in the processes through which neoliberalism achieves legitimacy. In my dissertation I contribute to a number of debates related to this overarching topic, for example, by illustrating how non-market exchange, such as reciprocity, obfuscates the privatization of the welfare state. I also unpack the contradictions of progressive, yet growth-oriented, urban politics, or progressive growth machines.
More broadly, I am also interested in combining the concepts and ideas of economic sociology and urban sociology. While there has been some great work in this direction by scholars such as Frederick Wherry, Deborah Becher and Josh Pacewitz, there is still a lot of room for productive interface between the two fields. For example, in my paper I draw on Jens Beckert’s recent framework of imagined futures, which highlights the way capitalism relies on fictional expectations about the future, to explain how developers justify increases in density. Finally, I’ve been working on developing a new framework for economic sociology based on the work of Karl Polanyi.
What surprises occurred as you conducted your fieldwork?
A surprising finding during my research in Toronto was the developer’s reliance on community outreach workers, many of whom were young geography and urban planning graduate students from local universities. These part-time employees were often well-versed in critical urban theory and felt conflicted about their position working for a development firm. However, they also played an important role in providing developers with legitimacy, as they were able to effectively reframe community opposition to new developments as self-interested actions by homeowners. This led me to think about the pathways through which urban knowledge, generated in the academy, makes its way into on-the-ground tensions around development.
What are some future directions for this project?
My latest research project extends my interest in housing and the politics of density by focusing on the resurgence of private rental housing in North American cities, and how this contributes to urban inequality. My plan is to focus on four large cities across Canada and the US, which are sites of two intersecting patterns: state-led incentives for the development of rental housing in the face of housing crises, and the rising acquisition of existing and newly-built rentals by real estate holding corporations and pension funds. This will continue my interest in the symbolic systems of housing by exploring how long-standing associations between rentals and affordability are being used to justify profit-oriented development by the state and the private sector.