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Not building enough housing is morally equivalent to tearing down people’s homes

According to the California housing champion who’s suing communities that don’t allow enough new development, not building needed density is morally equivalent to tearing down people’s houses.

Photo by .Martin. on Flickr.

Sonja Trauss, founder of the SF Bay Area Renters’ Federation sums up the housing problem affecting nearly every growing American city today:

“Most people would be very uncomfortable tearing down 315 houses. But they don’t have a similar objection to never building them in the first place, even though I feel they’re morally equivalent. Those people show up anyway. They get born anyway. They get a job in the area anyway. What do they do? They live in an overcrowded situation, they pay too much rent, they have a commute that’s too long. Or maybe they outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced.”

Trauss hits the key points: The population is growing, and people have to live somewhere. If we refuse to allow them a place to live, that’s just like tearing down someone’s home.

Someone else is displaced

Trauss’ last sentence is particularly important. It explains how the victims of inadequate housing often are not even part of the discussion. She says “Or maybe [home buyers] outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced.”

Here’s how that works: One common argument among anti-development activists is that new development only benefits the wealthy people who can afford new homes. That’s wrong. It’s never the wealthy who are squeezed out by a lack of housing. Affluent people have options; they simply spend their money on the next best thing. Whenever there’s not enough of anything to meet demand, it’s the bottom of the market that ultimately loses out.

Stopping or reducing the density of any individual development doesn’t stop displacement or gentrification. It merely moves it, forcing some other person to live with its consequences.

Every time anti-development activists in Dupont or Georgetown or Capitol Hill reduce the density of a construction project, they take away a less-affluent person’s home East of the River, or in Maryland, or somewhere else. The wealthy person who would have lived in Capitol Hill instead moves to Kingman Park, the middle class person who would have lived in that Kingman Park home instead moves to Carver Langston, and the long-time renter in Carver Langston gets screwed.

As long as the population is growing, the only ultimate region-wide solution is to enact laws that allow enough development to accommodate demand.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

January 5th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: development, economy, environment, law, preservation

Lack of good housing has pushed 338,000 DC residents to move away

DC’s population is rising overall. But amid that rise, hundreds of thousands of people have come or gone since the year 2000. Among those who have left, inadequate housing is by far the biggest single reason.

Image from the DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

According to survey data summarized in this report from the DC Office of Revenue Analysis, 937,115 people have moved out of DC since the year 2000. 36% of them, 338,000, cite a housing-related category as the reason why.

Some respondents say directly they needed cheaper housing. Others say they wanted newer housing, or better housing, or to own instead of rent. But the common denominator is that DC’s housing stock is inadequate, and that inadequacy is stifling the District’s population growth, as thousands who’d otherwise prefer to stay move away.

Every time some government agency restricts the housing market’s ability to meet DC’s tremendous demand, they make this problem worse. Every time the zoning commission downzones rowhouse neighborhoods, or every time a review board lowers a proposed building’s height, DC’s housing market becomes a little bit worse than necessary.

Over time as each restriction builds on the last, competition for the limited housing that’s available rises, prices shoot up, and the city’s less affluent populations are squeezed out.

It’s true that DC can never be all things to all people. For example, DC will never be able to supply as many large lot subdivisions as upper Montgomery County. But many types of housing that DC can absolutely supply are being unnaturally and unnecessarily restricted.

It’s a horrible situation.

What about schools?

DC’s inadequate schools are without a doubt also a major reason some people leave the District. According to Yesim Sayin Taylor of the Office of Revenue Analysis, we don’t know how many residents have left because of schools because the survey, which wasn’t designed specifically for DC, didn’t ask that question.

Presumably respondents who left because of schools cited something more general like “other family reason” or “wanted better neighborhood.”

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 12th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: demographics, development, economy, government, law, preservation

Friday funny: This town ain’t big enough

Image from Imgur user crunchtooth.

Can anyone definitively say the gunfight at the OK corral wasn’t to settle a zoning dispute over pop-up condos?

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 24th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: fun, law

Things I’d rather ban than bars

click to enlarge
T-Mobile store. Image from T-Mobile.

Someone has proposed a moratorium on liquor licenses in the U Street area. It seems unlikely to pass, but regardless, here’s a partial list of things I’d rather ban proliferation of in DC:

  1. Bank branches. In the age of ATMs, banks are offices, not retail. They have a deadening effect on sidewalk life and drive up the cost of retail space for everyone else.

  2. Cell phone stores. Proliferation of luxurious cell phone stores is proof that we’re all paying way too much for cell phone service.

  3. Pharmacies. Unlike cell phone stores, it is an important convenience for every neighborhood to have a CVS or Wallgreens. But after the 3rd one opens in your neighborhood, are you really excited about a 4th?

  4. Froyo stores. I like froyo, but it’s obviously a bubble that’s about to burst. No way can so many survive long term.

  5. Empty storefronts. Griping above notwithstanding, we shouldn’t ban anything as long as we have empty storefronts. Even that bank branch is better for sidewalk life than nothing.

February 11th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: economy, law

Protect the internet

Today BeyondDC steps outside its usual urbanist role to help raise awareness of a big problem: Congress is considering breaking the internet with a set of radical new laws that would give private corporations nearly unlimited power to accuse anyone of copyright infringement, and to then effectively shut down that person’s website. The effect of such far-reaching and broad regulations would be catastrophic to the free exchange of ideas on the internet as it exists today.

Several of the internet’s largest sites are participating in a “blackout” today, shutting down their main content in protest of a law that could shut them down for real if passed. BeyondDC may not be Wikipedia or Reddit, but everyone needs to know about these proposed bills. We cannot let them pass without a fight.

Here is more information if you are interested. Below are some screencaps of major webpages taking part in today’s blackout.




January 18th, 2012 | Permalink
Tags: in general, law, site

Why sign regulations matter

One of the most basic rules of urban design is that pedestrians need things to look at. Good walking cities are by definition visually messy cities. For this reason, many urbanists are hesitant to support strong sign control regulations. Signs provide things to look at, after all.

When Greater Greater Washington discussed illegal signs at the Uline Area earlier this month, many of the comments suggested that the signs should be allowed, or that the city shouldn’t waste time enforcing sign rules.

I do think there is something to be said for a colorful streetscape, but it’s easy to say that from the vantage point of an already heavily-regulated environment. A handful of illegal signs might very well improve the visual diversity of a street, but if we eliminated sign regulations entirely is a “handful” what we would get?

In a previous job I worked in the zoning division of a local planning office. Part of my job was to process certain types of sign applications. Whenever I started to feel like I was wasting my time, I looked over to this image, which I kept tacked to my wall. It was, and is, a healthy reminder that seemingly mundane regulations do make a positive difference to our built environment.

Route 66, Albuquerque, mid 20th century. Photo by Ernst Haas.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

August 26th, 2011 | Permalink
Tags: law, urbandesign

Traffic? What traffic? continued

The comments from my last post are interesting. They seem to fall into a couple of categories: 1) People who think it was smug for me to point out that I don’t have to sit through the same hell they do, and 2) people who feel it’s important to point out that not everyone has the choice available to them, because the city is expensive and/or a lot of jobs are located in the suburbs.

I don’t put much stock in the first comment. I will not apologize for opting out of a miserable experience, nor for suggesting that opting out is possible. The second comment on the other hand is much more fair, and I think it merits some further discussion.

It’s true that not everyone who would like to live a traffic-free urban lifestyle can freely choose to do so. This is because we don’t have nearly enough urban supply to meet the demand, and because our transportation system is skewed heavily to an auto-oriented extreme that makes driving easier the only practical option in all but 6 or 7 cities around the country.

The real lesson, therefore, isn’t so much that some people are capable of opting out of the system (and though it isn’t available to everyone, the choice is certainly available to many people who don’t take it). Rather, the lesson is that we need to stop dictating that most people live in suburbia via bogus land use regulations and transportation subsidies that force most development in that direction.

One commenter opened his comment by asking “Why is it that affluent city dwellers demand that everyone adopt their chosen lifestyle?” He later backed off the statement, but I think it’s a particularly ironic question, because the fact that so many people want to live in the city but can’t is a very strong indication that reality is the other way around. If the market weren’t so restricted, urban developers would be able to meet the demand for urban living. If the supply weren’t so much smaller than the demand, more people would be able to choose to opt out traffic, which would benefit everyone (including those remaining on the highways).

Not to put all the blame on nefarious suburbanites. The city needs to improve itself too, especially the schools.

Ultimately the best comment in the thread came from someone named Steve, who summed things up thus: “The response to this annual story from the Post about the UMR should be that more people should be given the opportunity to opt out of traffic.”


January 21st, 2011 | Permalink
Tags: government, land use, law, roads/cars, transportation

Height limit academics versus policy

We’re coming to the end. Ryan says:

“Dan changes the subject and suggests that scrapping the height limit is entirely unworkable for political reasons. That’s obviously true; I have no illusions about the likelihood of this happening. And undoubtedly, if some allowance were made for taller buildings, it would involve all kinds of compromises and decidedly non-economic negotiations.”

So when it comes down to discussing actual policy prescriptions, we come to the same conclusion. Ryan thinks practical considerations are “changing the subject” and I think they’re “holistic thinking”, but that’s just semantics. True, our biases for what we perceive as most important influence how many and what sort of trade-offs we’re willing to make in an ideal situation, but after cutting through both our bullshit, we find that we’re largely on the same side regarding what the city should actually be trying to do.

So how do we get there?

October 21st, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: law, urbandesign

Height limit trade-offs and practicality

parking lots
Parking lots on the fringes of downtown San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.

Ryan Avent says he has a hard time taking my views on the height limit seriously until I honestly grapple with the trade-offs the limit involves.

Ironic, as I might say the same about him. His response to my suggestion that the height limit may have value that his strictly numbers-based approach doesn’t take into account was to repeat the same economic argument over again, as if the non-economic trade-offs don’t matter.

When I say we should raise the height limit in some places but not others, I’m balancing economic, urbanist and political needs. When Ryan says we should raise it wholesale, he’s thinking in one dimension.

Further, there are real holes in his theories about urban development. In response to my claim that the height limit induces development in areas that would otherwise be underdeveloped such as NoMa, Ryan claims that eliminating the height limit would actually lead to increased development there because it would free up marginal areas for less expensive building types.

On paper that theory might make sense, but in reality it never happens that way.

What actually happens in cities with unlimited vertical development potential is that they end up with a lot of tall towers surrounded by surface parking lots. Eliminating the height limit raises the potential land value of every parcel in a given area, so that developers can’t justify building short buildings. Instead of filling in underdeveloped parcels with whatever development fits or whatever the market calls for, builders “bank” land by leaving it undeveloped until they can justify a skyscraper. The result is that every large city in America except New York and Washington is scattered with parking lots.

If we raise the height limit, on the ground experience from every other city in the country tells us that NoMa won’t develop at all until land owners think it’s ready for skyscrapers.

This may not fit academic models of how urban economics should work, and perhaps it is illogical, but it is absolutely how things do work, like it or not.

But the biggest problem with Avent’s position is practical: Getting Washingtonians to agree to something as radical as changing the defining regulation of our city will take a more holistic approach than he seems willing to accept.

There are real trade-offs to raising the height limit that a strictly economic model doesn’t address. Trade-offs like the quality of the pedestrian experience, like how we develop the city’s neighborhoods, or like the emotional value many perceive in having a capital city where economic speculation is specifically checked in order to maintain a distinct monumental civic core. These issues matter to a great number of Washingtonians, though it may be hard to attach monetary values to them.

Ryan talks very intelligently about economics, but at its root this is not an economic question. It’s a political one, and it is not likely that Ryan’s proposals will be taken seriously by decision makers unless he grapples with the non-economic trade-offs that raising the limit involves.

I think that’s too bad, because we could be moving this discussion forward based on the common ground we do have, and figuring out how to make strategic changes to the limit actually happen. Instead we’re stuck in ivory towers on the ideological fringe, arguing in circles and hoping for a Hail Mary.

October 20th, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: law, urbandesign

Is Cato turning around?

The Cato Institute is one of the leading Libertarian think tanks in the country, but they have long had a big problem. Their foremost writer on transportation and urbanism, Randal O’Toole, doesn’t actually believe in Libertarianism. Although he never uses these exact words, his basic position on all things urban is that ‘a large portion of the market prefers auto-oriented suburbia, therefore the state should mandate and heavily subsidize auto-oriented suburbia‘ (here’s a recent example). It’s a profoundly anti-Libertarian position, and it has tarnished Cato’s reputation in the field for years. How can they be taken seriously in discussions about cities when their senior fellow on the subject is such an obvious hypocrite?

It is gratifying, then, to find other Cato writers speaking more reasonably about the subject. On Tuesday, Cato published a blog post by writer Timothy Lee titled Free Parking and the Geography of Cities, in which Lee makes the well-founded point that government regulations requiring large amounts of parking in every development inherently make walking impractical, which discourages people from walking, which encourages car use, and that therefore such regulations manipulate the free market. Progressive blogger Matt Yglesias agrees, and notes that such manipulations instigate a “feedback loop” in which every car-oriented development increases the impracticality of walking, which in turn begets more car-oriented development.

These ideas are a key part of contemporary urban planning. It has long been a mystery to planners why, at least on this issue, Libertarian groups like Cato should be opponents rather than allies. Lee’s piece is just one blog post, but hopefully it is representative of a shift at Cato away from O’Toole-style reactionism against change, and towards a more intellectually honest assessment of what a genuine free market would actually mean for our built environment.

Hat tip to Ryan Avent for succinctly summing up O’Toole’s position.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

August 19th, 2010 | Permalink
Tags: law, transportation, urbandesign



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