Many people are studying the connections between housing, density and economic growth. At the heart of Ryan Avent’s short new book (Amazon Single, well worth the $2), The Gated City (alluded to here), is a very compelling argument that restrictive housing policies put a drag on economic growth and overall prosperity by limiting the supply of housing which in turn limits the number of people who are able to participate in the high-growth activities in high-growth locations. Reuters has a brief excerpt of that argument as it pertains to Silicon Valley. While the situation isn’t as acute here as it is in Silicon Valley, we are needlessly limiting housing and often we may not even be fully aware of the reasons or the consequences.
Details below the fold.
The so-called status quo bias is a well established theory in social psychology. In short, people prefer things stay the same rather than experience significant change. One result of this, is that people overvalue things that they know will be lost relative to what they might gain. This is especially troublesome when the gains are abstract or still unknown; an opportunity missed may sting less than something tangible lost because the latter has been experienced and the former hasn’t. These biases have fairly important consequences for major urban redevelopment projects, in particular the Roosevelt Station Area and Yesler Terrace, and ultimately have consequences for the long-term prosperity of our region.
The Yesler Terrace project is in fine shape and seems to be set to sail ahead full steam, so it may seem weird to have niggling concerns about it. Still, every time I read something about the loss of low-income garden homes in the center-city, I wonder if we’re even having the right conversation. In this Seattle Times piece magazine piece, I’m sure the wrong questions are being asked:
Do they really need to live closer to middle-class role models? Is that compassionate or condescending? Progressive or patronizing?
“Just because you grow up close to someone with privileges,” [Yesler Terrace resident Kristin] O’Donnell says, “it doesn’t mean it’s going to give you any.”
This is the wrong conversation entirely. I don’t want to dismiss concerns about way-of-life changes for current residents, or even discuss whether the $150 million the Seattle Housing Authority hopes to raise from the redevelopment will allow them to create better housing opportunities for low income residents. The real question ought to be whether a low-density garden community on the foot steps of downtown is the best use of public land, and whether the city is doing the right thing for all residents by building 5,000 new units of housing there and 900,000 square feet of office space. I know it’s a lot to expect from a human interest piece, but that sentiment seems to have dominated the coverage of the redevelopment.
The Roosevelt station-area development plan is another story altogether. In this case, there seem to be two main arguments against a larger upzone, one of which strikes me as completely unreasonable. The first argument, layed out clearly in this Seattle Times piece is again about loss of way-of-life, in particular loss of views and increase shadows. I still stand by the idea that it is possible to build sufficient density with shorter buildings, and you could get even more without parking requirements or excessive amounts of retail. Still, when we’re talking about shadows and mountain views, what are we weighing them against? Taking full advantage of the transportation infrastructure is certainly part of it, but that’s not all. It’s also the connections that won’t be made and the opportunities that will be missed. That part of the conversation is completely missing from most discourse.
The second argument about the Roosevelt upzone is the one that really gets me worried. While only hinted at in the piece (it’s more obvious from the comments), it seems there’s an under current of resentment for landlord Hugh Sisley – who owns a large part of the land in the potential upzone area – and a desire to ensure that he makes as little money as possible off the upzone. Nothing else explains the desire for the 40′ zone in front of Roosevelt High School (I went there, and never once saw Mt Rainier). The resentment and vendettas, no matter how worthy the target is of them, are not appropriate considerations for public discourse, much less public policy. Development is not a zero-sum game, and no one benefits from the continued existence of slums and warrens in that neighborhood. Certainly the city council and the Department of Planning and Development should not let themselves be extorted, but the best thing for the community isn’t whatever’s worst for Sisley.
We’re starting to get clearer pictures of some tools that will help grow the economy that will cost the tax payer very little: let more housing get built, especially in high-demand areas. Yesler Terrace and the Roosevelt station areas are perfect places to do this (Beacon Hill is, too, but that’s another story). But if we let emotional vendettas against slum lords and the loss of mountain views and garden homes dominate the conversations, we may risk losing opportunities we never knew we had.
 Though on the second score the answer seems obvious.
 In fact, more housing, more people and more jobs will likely only help tax revenues.