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Bad anti-housing arguments

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In the San Francisco housing thread below, Steven Attewell points to this post by Robert Cruickshank that complicates the most simplistic version of the claim that some portions of ‘the left’ in San Francisco oppose housing. Cruickshank, accurately, points out that a number of recent leftist politicians and mayoral candidates ran on platforms with thoughtful, progressive plans to increase supply, with a strong focus on affordable housing. I don’t doubt this is true, but I don’t think that entirely rebuts the central claim of Metcalf’s central argument; namely, that ‘the left’ has unwittingly contributed to the current housing shortage and attendant affordability crisis. I don’t doubt the sincerity or wisdom of Matt Gonzalez and others’ housing plans, but the rubber meets the road when that faction is forced to choose their second best option amongst the following:

1) New housing built, with significant units set aside for affordable housing

2) New housing built, with relatively few units set aside as affordable housing

3) New housing not built.

The problem isn’t that the left favors (1), it’s that they have repeatedly agitated for (3) over (2). The case that adding more housing to our cities positively contributes to a significant array of progressive goals seems pretty much unimpeachable to me. Martin Duke lists the benefits, in the context of Seattle; most apply just as well to San Francisco:

  • Fewer vehicle miles traveled, resulting in less energy usage, air pollution, and run off into the Sound.
  • Less farmland and virgin forest destroyed for new housing.
  • More legislative representation and better treatment of urban issues in Olympia.
  • More time in congested central cities, where vehicle speeds make fatalities rare.
  • Less competition for existing affordable units.
  • More economic activity both in construction and in the businesses spawned by new units
  • A larger tax base for large capital projects (like light rail) that benefit everybody, as well as social programs

And this is true even when the new housing is expensive, because it takes the pressure off older housing stock by taking rich people out of the bidding for it. But significant portions of the left in San Francisco have worked very hard to convince themselves that (3) makes a greater contribution to progressive policy outcomes than (2). This leads them to make some pretty strange and embarrassing arguments. Since it was linked in the thread below and I saw some anti-housing NIMBYs in Seattle circulating it on facebook a few weeks ago, let’s take a look at Tim Redmond’s effort on that front:

The people with high disposable incomes who fill those condos or luxury rentals will spend money in town, creating a demand for jobs – restaurant workers, grocery clerks, cops and firefighters, bank tellers … and those people will also need a place to live.

(Sup. Scott Wiener notes that the city’s police force hasn’t kept up with the population growth. Perfect example – bring in 5,000 new wealthy residents, and the city faces pressure to hire more cops to protect them. Those cops cost tax money – but they also need places to live. And that puts pressure on the housing market).

So according to the study, by Keyser Marston Associates, every time the city allows 100 new high-end housing units, it needs to build between 20 and 43 new affordable units – just to keep the housing balance the way it is now. Put the affordable units in the main complex and the impact is lower (because fewer millionaires move in). Built them, as is common, somewhere else and the impact is greater.

In summary, for every 100 market rate condominium units there are 25.0 lower income households generated through the direct impact of the consumption of the condominium buyers and a total of 43.31 households if total direct, indirect, and induced impacts are counted in the analysis.

If the city demands 15 percent affordable set-asides, then every market-rate building adds more demand for affordable housing than it supplies. That means every new building makes the housing crisis worse.

This analysis has a rather obvious empirical flaw, so obvious one would think it hardly needs to be stated: refusing to build a luxury unit will not dissuade its would-be wealthy resident from moving to the city. It’s not like they’re moving to the city because they really liked that one particular condo. They’re almost certainly going to come anyway, and bid on some less-nice unit, denying some less-rich person, quite possibly a long-term San Francisco resident, for those worried about displacement, from living in a city.

But the obvious empirical flaw in this argument is trumped by an even more terrible normative flaw: namely, that it’s a good and progressive policy to prevent jobs, including some good middle class jobs, from being created. In the context of 2015, less than a decade after a massive job destroying recession, followed by many years of anemic job growth, which has pushed many thousands out of the job market and harmed the economic well-being and security of the middle class, this is particularly grotesque, simply because the city doesn’t want to go to the trouble of allowing for enough housing for them, should be seen as appalling immediately.

Another thing–there’s plenty of potential for new housing with minimal displacement in the city, simply be liberalizing some of the rules that strangle development in single family zones. One example, which had some success in Vancouver and Portland, and is now being proposed in Seattle, is to change the incentive structure and rules regarding the construction of backyard cottages:

Adding tiny, freestanding structures behind single-family homes across the city would increase density while preserving neighborhood character, proponents say. This would go a long way toward satisfying the city’s official policy of “infill development,” putting more housing on existing underutilized land. But first, the city would have to tweak existing building regulations tailored to mid-20th century lifestyles.

The trend is catching on, with small apartments popping up in urban backyards across North America. Like attached “granny flats” within existing buildings, backyard cottages are smaller dwellings, tucked away off the street — typically 200 to 800 square feet — with little aesthetic impact.

But remarkably, San Francisco seems stuck in a 1950s zoning mentality, mandating single-family dwellings with large backyards across nearly two-thirds of the city’s residential land. Backyard cottages are nearly impossible to construct within city limits, due to a combination of zoning laws, labyrinthine building codes and a lugubrious review process that grinds development to a halt when just about anyone protests.

This isn’t a silver bullet–nothing is–but it’s an obvious no-brainer. Each unit contributes to affordability twice, once for the renter and again for the homeowner, making it easier to make the mortgage. While the linked article overstates the potential here, it’s a good idea that costs the city nothing, is more likely to produce relatively affordable units than luxury construction, and has the potential to help out strapped homeowners, all while distributing density in a low-key way.

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