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“unholy alliance of socialists and developers”

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By Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9532680

The lack of any kind of standards or quality control for op-ed writers at major newspapers, and The New York Times in particular, has been noted here a fair amount recently, but I couldn’t let this Timothy Egan catastrophe go by without notice. The ostensible topic is the high cost of housing (and living) in major urban areas on the West Coast. If you’re not a subscriber, I strongly encourage you to not use one of your ten monthly clicks on it. Here’s a summary:

1. Notes and laments the high cost of living in West Coast cities (so far so good)
2. Notes, and dismissively sneers at a range of policies currently being pursued in said cities, while not actually bothering to make a case against any of them.
3. Calls for a turn to a “new urbanism,” calls for creative geniuses to stop thinking so much about grilled cheese sandwiches* and get to work on that.
4. Abruptly ends column without providing readers anything that might plausibly be construed as a clue about the content of said “new urbanism.”

* No, seriously. Grilled cheese sandwiches.

It’s actually worse than that; he veers back and forth between treating the high cost of housing as a crisis worthy of a solution and a brute fact of live we ultimately need to accommodate ourselves to. The whole column is an incoherent mess; a litany of at best loosely connected complaints. When Egan was the Times’ Pacific Northwest correspondent, he was generally, on my recollection, quite good.

But my point in this post is comment a bit more on some of his specific comments regarding Seattle:

In Seattle, the nation’s fastest-growing city for this decade, the social contract is nearly broken. The city used to be run by creative problem solvers. Now, an ideologically driven City Council dreams up new things to anger residents while seeming to let the homeless have the run of the place.

The latest backward move was a tax on jobs — quickly repealed after a citizens’ revolt. While the council was trying to target Amazon, the city’s biggest private employer, the tax would have also hurt grocery stores and family-run businesses, as if they had caused the homeless crisis and spike in real estate.

An unholy alliance of socialists and developers threatens to destroy the city’s single-family neighborhoods with a major upzoning — further disrupting trust between residents and politicians. If the intent is to make Seattle more affordable, this approach has failed. The city has built more new units of housing over the last five years than in the prior half-century. And yet Seattle continues to lead the nation in home price increases.

“Let the homeless have the run of the place,” in Seattle politics, seems to roughly mean “be allowed to exist in public places.” The story of the unanimously passed and then quickly repealed by a 7-2 vote head tax (his “tax on jobs”) in the second paragraph is a fascinating one, that probably deserves a post of its own (At least two council-members, Herbold and O’Brien, who voted for the repeal were absolutely true believers in this approach, which suggests the internal polling on the initiative to repeal the tax and the general public sentiment really shook them; this tells us something about the contours and perhaps limits of leftward shift in Seattle politics.) But I want to focus on the third paragraph here, where Egan is bullshitting his readers:

An unholy alliance of socialists and developers threatens to destroy the city’s single-family neighborhoods with a major upzoning — further disrupting trust between residents and politicians.

The “unholy alliance” line has quickly become a bit of a meme in some of my circles on twitter, and rightfully so. It’s a nice illustration of a peculiar feature of a certain kind of performatively “middle class” NIMBY politics; which often adopts a kind of class-based politics that’s aimed in both directions at once—the denunciations of the mustache-twirling evil developers have a kind of Marxist air about them, but as soon as the prospect of an affordable housing project in their neighborhood comes up (or, in this case, a zoning change that would relax the “you must be able to afford 5000 square feet of land to be allowed to live in this neighborhood,” more on that in a minute), their class politics does an abrupt 180; the working class heroes fighting the greedy capitalist developers become the landed gentry fighting to retain their aristocratic privilege. Egan’s innovation here is to make this pose more coherent by purporting to unite in some kind of imagined alliance.

About that “major upzone” in exclusionary, “you must be able to afford 5000 square feet of land to live here” zoning: it’s not major at all. Part of the city’s housing and affordability plan called for a series of reforms on the construction of ADU and DADU units (accessory dwelling units–think basement flats, and “detached accessory dwelling units”, aka backyard cottages). Both of these are already technically legal, although the various restrictions and costs are such that virtually none get built. The changes are simple enough–allow both rather than one of the other, remove the off-street parking requirements, owner-occupancy requirements, streamline approval process and costs, lighten some restrictions on size, rear lot coverage limits, and so on. The city tried to move forward with this plan two years ago, but NIMBY activists managed to leverage Washington state’s environmental laws to force a full EIS. Two years later, the EIS demolishes all their spurious claims regarding the alleged impacts of this policy change. Erica Barnett did a nice writeup on the EIS document’s findings here.

I haven’t seen any direct polling on the ADU/DADU change, but a *more significant* upzone, to allow more different kinds of housing development (rowhouses, stacked flats, etc) in SF-only districts, was polled last year, and the idea was moderately popular: 48% for the reforms to 29% against. (Interestingly, it was more strongly supported by self-identified Republicans and Democrats; the most skeptical were independents and right-leaning independents.) This shouldn’t be too surprising, as the recent population growth in Seattle has been almost entirely renters. Furthermore, politicians who support this kind of change have defeated those who don’t in citywide city council races races in 2015 and 2017. So when Egan says this plan “erodes the trust between residents and politicians” he’s transformed “residents” into “single family homeowners who don’t want their neighborhoods sullied by the presence of renters who couldn’t otherwise afford to live there.”

The imagined alliance of “socialists” and “developers” here is almost entirely fictitious. Both exist, and both have some non-trivial political power, in Seattle politics, but they’re hardly the key players here. The kind of developers with serious political clout don’t really care much about penny-ante stuff like a 750 square foot backyard cottage or renovating a basement into a studio apartment. Insofar as socialists are a force in Seattle politics, they seem to be fine with this plan; the Venn diagram of people fighting for this and people who identify as socialists surely has some overlap, but it’s hardly a central priority of socialist housing policy. (I expect Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s avowed socialist council-member, will vote for these reforms, but she’s never given any indication it’s a priority for her.) No one thinks this is some kind of magic bullet to solve the housing crisis, of course; most homeowners won’t do this. But (and there is some evidence from other West Coast cities to support this) there is no reason to think this won’t produce a few thousand units over the coming decades at a variety of price-points, spreading out the density and taking some pressure off the small sliver of city land where multifamily development is actually allowed. Indeed, as the city’s EIS shows, many single-family zones in Seattle have been losing population density in recent decades, as the overall population and density have grown. Because single family zones are mostly built out, little housing has been added, but the average household size has declined, leading to density reduction. There’s a lot of unused housing in homes built for 4+ people currently housing 1-3. This change also provides an option for elderly homeowners to be able to use their primary asset to allow them to age in place, which, for those with strong attachment to neighborhood and community, can significantly improve health outcomes and quality of life for the elderly. Unless you’re a deranged NIMBY who believes they have an affirmative right to prevent people at different income levels and stages of life from residing in their neighborhood, it’s obviously a good idea. Moving on…

If the intent is to make Seattle more affordable, this approach has failed. The city has built more new units of housing over the last five years than in the prior half-century. And yet Seattle continues to lead the nation in home price increases.

To state the obvious, ADU reform hasn’t failed in Seattle because it hasn’t happened yet. It appears to make a modest contribution to housing affordable to the middle class in other cities where similar reforms have been enacted. The second and third sentences are clear cases of an author bullshitting his readers. One way this is obvious is that in his earlier discussion, he notes, correctly, that it’s a serious problem that the Bay Area is adding 8 new jobs for every new housing unit. That important ratio isn’t mentioned here. In Seattle’s case the ratio is not so lop-sided, but jobs have outstripped new housing here as well. If the ratio was important for San Francisco, why not Seattle. But the larger howler here is that virtually all the new housing units built are rentals, and the available stock of housing for sale has grown at a much lower rate. (The state’s condo liability laws are a mess, which means it makes more financial sense for all new multifamily construction to be for the rental market.) The barrage of new rentals has finally come close to catching up with job and population growth, and as one might expect rents seem to, finally, be stabilizing. Egan surely knows this, but nonetheless finds a way to present the fact of additional housing units as irrelevant for affordability.

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