posted by April 17 at 15:38 PMon
Shorter Mossback: Housing is expensive? Must be the condo owners’ fault!
Longer Mossback (from Skip Berger’s new column on Crosscut):
The folks at the Sightline Institute take great joy in Seattle’s skipping gaily over the edge into becoming a dense Pugetopolis. They and most of the environmental community have convinced themselves that growth is good, as long as it is stuffed into high-rise shoeboxes that someone has dubbed “green.” Look at Portland’s light rail! Admire Vancouver’s skinny towers! Envy San Francisco’s density!
Hmmm… Ad hominem much, Skip? First, I don’t think enviros like Sightline just take “someone“‘s word when they say their housing is “green.” In fact, they have some really specific standards you might want to check out when you’re done sneering. Second, growth is going to happen no matter what we do (and it ain’t gonna happen in North Dakota, as Goldy points out). Skip’s idea of “old Seattle” appears to be a Seattle with no growth whatsoever, but that’s never been the case. Mossbacks like Skip frequently forget that Seattle has been growing steadily for decades (except for a dip in population between 1960 and 1980, the trend has been steadily upward). If the alternative is sprawl on the Sammamish Plateau (and in Skip’s no-growth Seattle utopia, that would be the only alternative), you’re goddamn right I want to see some “skinny towers” in Seattle. And yeah, we fucked up on light rail, way back in the “good old days”—1969, when Seattle voters rejected Sound Move. We’ve been scrambling to catch up ever since. It’s hard to see what Skip has against light rail, since he mocks it without explaining why, but I’m guessing it’s because it makes people want to live here. And that, in the Mossback view of the world, is a bad thing.
The dense ones, however, believe they are on the winning side of history. Time for a “mission accomplished” lap, perhaps, along with the developers and big business interests that willingly greenwash their corporate goals to co-opt labor, enviros, and progressives into supporting urban development policies that roll over the little guy. This is the coalition that powers Greg Nickels’ machine, the mayor who can’t say no to “more.”
Well, Will at Horse’s Ass responds to this one best, so I’ll just quote him here:
What an unbelievable load of shit. Labor, enviros, and progressives all want more growth inside urban boundaries for different reasons. Union guys who swing hammers get construction work. Environmentalists like the fact that denser urban development is energy efficient and allows people to walk to work. Progressives like it because, well… it’s cool. And we don’t want to move to Auburn.
Exactly. And because, if you accept the fact that demand will continue to rise, increasing the supply of housing is a good thing. Supply doesn’t create demand—it responds to it (thanks, as Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry points out in his comprehensive response, to “demographic trends … that Seattle policymakers have essentially no control over”). If supply remains static while demand continues to rise, the price of the available housing stock goes up. If the market responds to demand (by increasing the supply of housing), housing won’t suddenly become cheap, but affordable housing will be much easier to come by than it would be in Skip’s no-growth paradise. (Hell, I’ve never had to pay more than $850 a month, and I have a pretty nice market-rate apartment. But I’m guessing Skip hasn’t actually looked for cheap housing in a decade or two.) I’m not saying we shouldn’t have incentives for the creation of affordable housing—we should, and we do. But, as de Place notes, opposing condos qua condos is idiotic:
[T]hink of what would happen if there were no new apartments, duplexes, townhouses or condos in Seattle — say, if the city council passed a law that downzoned all of the land that’s currently zoned for multi-family housing, or put some sort of moratorium on new construction. … Housing close to downtown would reach even more ridiculous levels. Young folks of moderate means would have no option but to move far away from the city center, to distant suburbs where — quite literally — all of the new housing would be located.
Back to Mossback:
We know that these green-backed policies are making the city more unaffordable. They are helping to drive the poor out of town. They are displacing long-standing communities. They are changing the scale of a once-egalitarian city that featured few poor people, few rich people, and a lot of folks in between. This old middle class Seattle is now seen as unsophisticated, not worthy of protection, backward even.
No, “we” don’t “know” that. What we do know is that the poor are being driven out of town by a lack of affordable housing. Building more dense, affordable housing will help remedy that—putting a moratorium on new development won’t. And whether the egalitarian Seattle Skip remembers from the ’70s was better or worse than today’s more stratified city is, ultimately, irrelevant. Cities aren’t like that anymore—anywhere (or at least anywhere people want to live. I hear Oklahoma City’s still pretty affordable). Nostalgia won’t make that model come back.
I loved San Francisco when I lived there in the mid-70s — the era of Patty Hearst, Rolling Stone, Harvey Milk, Tales of the City, Herb Caen, and Italian mayors. I love it still when I visit. But what made San Francisco is something you cannot copy. It has to do with when a city is built, by whom, and when it comes of age. It has a unique essence we couldn’t replicate if we built a thousand Victorian homes on our hills.
So… There is a city Skip doesn’t hate? Nope:
But while many of San Francisco’s charms are intact — it was a city built for pleasure, unlike our nanny town — the city of today is less than it once was. Even in the 1970s, natives, the few you could find, complained that it had gone downhill, had lost it neighborly, even small-town, charm. As [Gore] Vidal observed, the Seattle it always imagined itself to be. Since 1950, San Francisco has not only stolen hearts but robbed bank accounts: Real estate prices have increased at double the national average for the past half century. The New San Francisco is truly a Golden Gated community.
Today’s San Francisco is unbelievably expensive. A city for rich people. Its black population all but driven out. … Has San Francisco’s density and affluence, has its progressive politics, redeemed the Bay Area? Did it save it from becoming a megalopolis? If Seattle doubles its density to match San Francisco’s, if we take down the Alaskan Way Viaduct, if we cater to “knowledge workers,” can we be assured that central Puget Sound will remain less paved?
Obviously, San Francisco is a fantastically expensive place to buy a house. But even this “megalopolis” does have a substantial low-income population—thanks not to a ban on new condos, but to affordable-housing policies that allow poor people to live in the city. (Thirty thousand people live in subsidized or public housing in San Francisco proper, according to the city’s housing office). And while no one’s claiming that “catering to ‘knowledge workers’” will render central Puget Sound magically pristine, building freeways and protecting dying industries rather than tearing down the viaduct and nurturing growing industries like biotech will help destroy the environment and the economy, respectively.
But maybe, ultimately, that’s what Skip wants: An environment so ravaged by cars and an economy so pre-modern that people will just stop moving here. And then the urban density proponents’ vision—the “Ecotopia” at which Skip sneers—will be replaced by an ugly, polluted, underpopulated small town where only Mossbacks want to live.