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Density, development, displacement

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Preventing additional housing units from being constructed in growing cities, particularly in the neighborhoods in those cities relatively close to a CBD that already attracts many long-distance commuters and is rapidly adding jobs, is obviously not a progressive policy. Not allowing people to live close to work promotes more miserable commutes, greater sprawl, and has significant negative consequences for the environment, public health, the cost of living for renters and newcomers, and quality of life in general. The primary beneficiaries of restricting housing supply in these areas are people who bought at the right time–it makes their investment/home and artificially scarce commodity, driving up its value. Many of these people have an aesthetic preference for living in a single family only neighborhood, while also enjoying the benefits of people close to various urban amenities. Given that there’s considerably more demand for dense urban walkability than there is supply, and what we’ve got is a clearly reactionary policy.

In cities with a fairly left/liberal political environment, many of these people are unlikely to be comfortable with the fact that they advocate a policy at odds with so many of their avowed values–they have a self-image of themselves as good liberals, and wish to understand their preferences and preferred policies as being consistent with that image. There are a number of ways to go about doing this–pretending that preventing housing from being built in cities is a strategy consistent with environmentalism generally or even is a tactic to combat global warming is a popular one, but it obviously can’t hold up under scrutiny at all. Another strategy is simply demonizing developers, which can be effective, but ultimately just excuses the anti-new housing faction from explaining why less housing is better than more. What possible reason could there be for making anti-housing policy the preferred strategy for progressives? The one answer that has some potential is a concern about displacement. Insofar as development displaces those with long tenure in a neighborhood who can no longer afford to live there, this is an identifiable harm worthy of mitigation. This is particularly the case when the financial hardship will be particularly great.

While this is a valid concern, it’s also a tool for those who wish to restrict housing for other reasons. In Seattle, the Mayor’s commission on affordable housing recommended a number of changes to increase the overall housing stock and the affordable housing stock. One of those changes would legalize a greater diversity of housing types to be built in single family zones, including duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats. Many of these neighborhoods this would apply to have these housing types already, built prior to the highly restrictive single family zoning era. It’s worth noting this proposal didn’t include a physical upzone—no changes to height limits, setback rules, and the like were proposed. As it currently stands, it’s perfectly legal to tear down a serviceable craftsman and build a 3500 square foot behemoth on a standard lot, but building an otherwise similar building with three 11oo square foot units is not allowed.

This entirely sensible and needed reform produced a backlash the political class found quite threatening, and the mayor and key council members walked back their support for this particular recommendation, lest it taint the other, less controversial proposals in the report in the minds of voters. Lisa Herbold, a city council candidate for an open seat in the West Seattle district (probably the district whose voters are most strongly in favor freezing SF zones in amber), tried to make the case that this is actually a progressive position, because it might protect against displacement in some cases, as Seattle’s “naturally affordable” older housing stock might be torn down to make way for expensive new development duplexes and triplexes. Herbold, in response to the point that displacement already occurs when houses are torn down and replaced with more expensive ones:

It’s true that current law doesn’t prevent rebuilding or renovating a single­-family structure that displaces the tenant when a new single family structure is built. But it is not a good comparison because it ignores how upzones create incentives for redevelopment. Hopefully it is understood that the frequency of tenants being displaced after a renovation or rebuilding of a single-family home in single-family zones is less than the frequency of displacement from redevelopment that occurs when the value of property is increased after an upzone. It is that frequency of displacement that makes this a pressing issue when contemplating the upzone of approximately 138,000 single family homes, about 36,000 of them home to renter households.

This is somewhat convoluted, but the point is narrowly correct: there exist some number of houses that a teardown to build one new unit wouldn’t pencil out, but a teardown to build 2-3 units might, and those new units may be unaffordable to the current tenant. Still, while correct on that narrow point, that’s an insufficient reason to reject the policy on two grounds. First, because as Martin Duke notes, there’s more to progressive values than just opposing displacement, and we need to consider the tradeoffs:

I absolutely agree that exchanging one cheap unit for one expensive unit is in most cases a net loss for society, for the reasons she describes. But as the ratio of new households to displaced households increases, the benefits start to overwhelm these concerns. The environmental impact of three middle-class families in the suburbs and a low-income one in Seattle greatly outweighs the reverse. Seattle is much more likely to convert some of those families’ wealth into social services, transit, and subsidized housing, thanks to the generosity of its voters. And an ever-increasing population increases Seattle’s weight in Olympia, which helps in the arena that blocks most transformative policy change.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the upper bound of how much progressive policy Seattle can enact is not primarily set by what its voters are willing to tax themselves, but by the level of self-taxation the state government will allow Seattle to engage in. (This is the same state government all too use Seattle as an ATM to fund initiatives in poorer districts.) In addition to the fact that it’s easier to increase revenue for such goals by adding taxpayers than it is by raising taxes, allowing Seattle’s population to increase could yield a post-2020 state district map that could significantly diminish the capacity of Republicans (and a few rural Democrats) to exercise an anti-urban veto point in the state legislature.

If this were the only argument, though, it’d be dependent on how you weight displacement against other important progressive goals. Seattle is currently adding about half the housing it needs to keep up with the growing population, and the displacement rate for new development is better than 10-1, so I’m inclined to agree with Duke on what our more urgent priority should be. But even if you care far more about displacement than anything else Herbold’s argument fails. Duke again:

…outlawing duplexes and triplexes doesn’t ultimately prevent displacement. Herbold is right that an upzone increases the incentives to redevelop, but this only accelerates an inevitable process where the affordable house gives way to one new home (under current zoning) or up to three (under the proposed change). Meanwhile, our three hypothetical families may not end up in the suburbs; they may very well outbid three other families elsewhere in the city who are less equipped to deal with the inconveniences of displacement.

This is key. Not allowing duplex/triplex development in Seattle’s single family zones has not prevent massive losses to the ‘naturally affordable’ housing stock. Not long ago Seattle had a significant amount of such housing, and (depending on your threshold for affordability) it’s virtually all gone. I helped a friend on a house search in 09-10. Her parameters were, roughly: 3 BR, <300K, North Seattle. That took the nicer homes and the better locations off the market, but there were still many serviceable homes in North Seattle meeting that criteria. If she'd extended her search to the cheaper South side of the city, there would have been many hundreds more. Now, a search for standalone homes with those parameters on zillow finds around 30 listings, but most of them are either auctions that’ll go for much more or obvious teardowns. The portion of the housing stock at that threshold of affordability destroyed through redevelopment is utterly trivial compared to the portion of it destroyed through scarcity-induced rising prices. The remaining “naturally affordable” single family homes have a few years left, tops. There’s nothing magical about unremarkable, older housing stock that prevents it from being bid up given sufficient scarcity. I have no idea whether she’s using the displacement issue cynically, to make an anti-development agenda fit with per progressive self-image or not. But the most likely practical consequences of her preferred path forward are more likely to serve her constituents anti-new housing agenda than the anti-displacement she says she supports.

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