Book Review: Unleash the Swarm

Published in October of 2021, Daniel Herriges’ book “Unleash the Swarm: Reviving Small-Scale Development in America’s Cities” is concise and fascinating, yet underdeveloped in some key ways. The following article will take a brief look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of the book and close with an invitation to further discuss the ideas presented therein.

Front Cover of Daniel Herriges’ book “Unleash the Swarm” published by Strong Towns

From the consumer’s point of view, one of the strengths of “Unleash the Swarm” is that it is available as a free downloadable e-book. In addition to that, Herriges manages to cover a lot of ground on the topics of housing, real estate, and urban development history, theory, and contemporary practice. Through a series of short chapters, the book offers meaningful insight into affordable housing, restrictive land use regulations, and local economic development policy.

Essentially, the book makes four claims. First, until fairly recently small-scale developers played a major role in constructing housing, stores, workshops, and other buildings in America’s cities. Second, the role of small-scale development in American cities has declined significantly due to the adoption of restrictive land use and building regulations by states and local governments and lack of financial instruments for incremental and accessory- and mixed-use development. Third, loosening the restrictions on land use and building regulations and real estate finance in order to encourage small-scale development will help unleash a swarm of small-scale developers. Fourth, unleashing this swarm will produce many benefits, including increased housing production and affordability, more small businesses, and local wealth creation.

Home Improvement Company advertisement for small-scale residential conversion services, 1944

On the author’s first claim, he is undoubtedly correct that small-scale developers were integral to constructing housing, stores, and other buildings in America’s cities. As one illustration of this, from the beginning of the Great Depression to the mid-1950s approximately four million housing units were created across the United States through small-scale residential conversion projects. Examples of these projects range from finishing an attic or building an addition in order to create an apartment to converting a four-story single-family row house into four rental flats. These four million new housing units accounted for one-fifth of all new housing units created in the US at the time. This is significant. It is also occurring during an era when many States and local governments are adopting land use and building regulations. Herriges would likely argue, with much merit, that these early zoning ordinances and building codes were not as restrictive and exclusionary as the regulations that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century.

To the book’s second claim about the impact of land use and building regulations and real estate financing on small-scale development, some clarification is warranted. The rise of land use and building regulations, such as zoning ordinances and public health and building codes, certainly corresponds with a rise in development costs in the early twentieth century. And, as a result, it became unprofitable for landlords and homebuilders to provide housing for the lower-income end of the market. Innovations in real estate finance, like the use of mortgage-backed loans, largely supported the development of middle and upper class residential subdivisions, which may have opened up some aging housing for lower-income households through filtering. The federal government’s entry into real estate finance during the Depression came in the form of insurance for housing loans. Federal Housing Administration-insured home improvement loans provided financing for many of those four million residential conversion projects undertaken by small-scale developers. While the rise of land use and building regulations had a stifling effect on development, certain kinds of real estate finance like the mortgage-backed residential loan and home improvement loans subsequently supported smaller-scale housing development.

Chart of FHA Home Improvement Loans (blue line) from inception to present, indicative of a rise and then decline in smaller-scale development over the course of the 20th century (source: Kevin Park)

The third claim made in “Unleash the Swarm”, along with the book’s title, is perhaps the source of my main criticism, which centers around the use of the term swarm to refer to small-scale developers. There are a variety of real estate developers, and while the lines between them may be blurry, I don’t think any activity involving the provision of occupiable space to another person for rent or sale, regardless of scale, can be characterized as analogous to bee swarming. Much of what Herriges refers to is more akin to beekeeping. Without doubt, there are important differences between the large-scale real estate developers of McMansion subdivisions, big box retail, and McMain Streets and small-scale developers building duplexes on vacant lots, adding ADUs to rental properties, and renovating small mixed-use walk-up buildings on Main Streets. Just as there are differences between industrial beekeeping and hobbyist beekeeping. While the hobbyist beekeeper may have a small operation that supports their livelihood, supplements other income, or just provides occasional jars of honey for family and friends, this activity is not to be confused with swarming.

Honey bees swarming

With this distinction between beekeeping and bee swarming in mind, the call to loosen restrictions, like land use and building regulations and real estate finance terms, in order to unleash small-scale developers can be seen in a different light. NIMBYs often perceive things like upzoning (no matter how incremental) as a means to unleash speculative real estate developers (no matter how small) in their neighborhood, which elicits a defensive reaction. Afterall, don’t beekeepers wear protective suits and use smoke because their actions elicit defensive reactions from bees that are protecting their honeycombs? Should we expect anything different from homeowners reacting to speculative and rentseeking real estate investors?

Having said that, incremental upzoning is likely a reasonable course of action for many places. However, even if every neighborhood were upzoned to the next increment of land use intensity, there are limits to the amount of development that can occur. This leads to my commentary on the book’s fourth point that unleashing small-scale developers will produce many benefits. When there is a confluence of demand for a real estate product (housing unit, retail storefront, office suite, etc.), an ability to pay for the cost of providing that space plus an acceptable return for the developer, and a willingness for a consumer to pay, developers often find a way to provide for that demand. This may involve negotiating the right terms with a lender, requesting a zoning change from a local governance board, or convincing investors that returns will be competitive. Unfortunately, when there is a demand for a spatial product, but an inability to afford to pay for it, developers can’t do much. For instance, a quarter of all renter households nationally are severely housing cost burdened, or are spending more than half of their income on housing, and an additional 25 percent are paying more than 30 percent of income on housing. As a result, high consumer expectations and low household incomes are larger obstacles to the provision of housing by developers than zoning or real estate finance.

Based on the central arguments made in “Unleash the Swarm”, a more accurate, albeit less catchy, title for the book may be “Unleash the Hobbyist Beekeepers”. Despite this post’s focus on some of the perceived shortcomings of the book, it is nevertheless an important contribution to contemporary debate and dialogue around real estate, housing, and community development. I suspect the author has already identified revisions he would like to make to the content of the book, just as there will likely be changes I’d like to make to this post after publishing. Herriges, through his work at Strong Towns and elsewhere, has continued to develop the ideas presented in his book. For that, he should be commended. There is much merit in efforts to encourage small-scale development.

“Humankeeping” by Barbara Daniels

My point, however, remains. Small-scale developers as not the swarm. If they aren’t, then who is? And should they be unleashed? Bees, not beekeepers, make up the real swarm. Of course bees ought to be unleashed from captivity. Bees are not meant to be kept – they are intended for a purpose higher than producing honey for beekeepers (Herriges knows this as evidenced by his references to pollinators). Fortunately for bees, while beekeepers need them, they do not need beekeepers. Once bees abscond and are liberated, then what? They must swarm and get to work erecting combs, lest they be susceptible to being kept again in a beekeeper’s hive.

For humankind, the real swarm, as distinct from Herriges’ swarm, was once integral to building America’s places. By some estimates, the swarm was responsible for building between one-third and two-fifths of new houses from the turn of the twentieth century to the onset of World War One. In part due to the rise of land use and building regulations, the swarm’s productivity went into decline between the First and Second World Wars. By mid-century, however, the swarm was again producing one out of every three new housing units and completing half of all home improvement work undertaken by homeowners. This is in addition to (not inclusive of) the units being produced by small-scale developers, or hobbyist beekeepers. Today, the swarm’s past contributions to the creation of strong towns is both remarkable and almost completely unknown by main stream academics, activists, and researchers.

It is my contention that bees ought to be unleashed from being kept, encouraged to swarm, and empowered to regulate the optimal intensity of land uses to allow the colony to thrive in their environment. In that order. This approach is counter to an approach that believes an ideal mix of uses, density of residences, and appearance of development can be prescribed for a place. And that land use regulations can be crafted to enable those prescriptions and doing so will produce a place that is conducive and attractive to swarming. Reforming land use regulations to unleash small-scale developers in the hopes that they will create a built environment ideal for human and environmental flourishing may be putting the cart before the horse. Human and environmental flourishing has to be the mover of the built environment. Small-scale developers are likely to face a level of resistance from neighborhood defenders that the real swarm would not encounter.

In summary, there are many strengths to Daniel Herriges’ “Unleash the Swarm” that contribute to contemporary discourse. In part, my criticism boils down to semantics as to whether small-scale developers can accurately be compared to a swarm of bees. However, I believe this semantic criticism reveals a more substantive one. And it is a criticism of which I believe Herriges and the Strong Towns movement is actively engaged in and working through. Therefore, this post is ultimately meant to be an invitation to open a discussion of the ideas explored in “Unleash the Swarm”.

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