Andrew M. Smith started the blog in April 2007, after he moved back to Seattle and discovered there was a campaign for light rail that year. Andrew grew up in Scotland, Capitol Hill and Wallingford, and has lived in Tokyo, where he discovered his love for transit and walkability, and San Francisco. Andrew stepped down from the blog in May 2009 but returned in February 2011.
As I mentioned, Kshama Sawant has come out for rent control, which is a bad idea (I am, however, very appreciative of Sawant for bringing low-income and poverty issues to the front of the debate). I would now like to turn my attention to Sawant’s arguments for rent control, talk about why they are weak, and show why her method of defending her position is a cause for concern. STB asked the Sawant campaign to clarify her position on rent control after the debate last week, and I’ve quoted a few parts of that response.
According to Federal standards, housing qualifies as affordable if its total cost does not exceed 30% of the household’s gross income. By this standard, a single parent working full-time, year-round at Washington’s minimum wage of $9.19/hr can afford no more than $477.88/month in rent. At $15/hour, the minimum wage we are demanding in our campaign, this threshold of affordability jumps to $780/month. Even this is a far cry from $2100/month, the figure that represents the median rent of a two-bedroom apartment in Capitol Hill.
A single-parent who works full time at minimum wage qualifies as “extremely low-income” and would move to the top of the waiting list for low-income housing in the city. They would also receive a housing voucher worth a non-trivial amount, some cases as much as rent. So hopefully this person would not try to find an apartment on Capitol Hill on their own without subsidy. Hopefully this person can also improve their finances by getting EBT. I don’t believe this system is perfect or that we have enough low-income housing or resources for all involved, but I believe this is the way to attack the problem of low-incomes using existing programmes and has nothing to do with rent control. A great way to get more money for these programmes is to increase the property tax base by allowing more construction, as the local funds for these programmes largely come from property-tax levies.
Update: this post originally linked to the wrong state law that showed rent control as illegal. Thanks to Stephen F for the pointer.
Kshama Sawant has come out for rent control, as you can see in the debate against Richard Conlin above. The pro-rent-control debate is rather confused in my mind: in the video Sawant mentions San Francisco as a place where rent control as worked, which I think the facts don’t bear out, and I’m not sure it matters anyway because rent control is illegal at the state level and Sawant is running for city council. Still, rent control has been proven as such a terrible idea that I feel like it’s worth calling out that idea specifically, and rather than write one 2,000 word behemoth, I’ll spread it over a few posts. In this post, I’ll go over the basic theory with some data to show why it’s a bad idea.
It’s true rents have gone up quite a bit in Seattle over the last decade or two, from a little more than $700 in 1997 to about $1438 today. In response to that, a tremendous number of units have been built, and more units are going to be built. So far, these units have not been enough to bring supply in-line with demand, which is one reason rents have increased so much. One idea to combat rising prices is to put price controls on rent of some or all of the housing, limiting either the total price, or the rate prices increase. Both of these policies are usually referred to as “rent control”, though limiting the rate of increases is sometimes specifically referred to as “rent stabilisation”. At first glance these seem like an okay way to stop price increases, however, over time, they actually worsen the situation by reducing new housing construction and the create a perverse system of preferential treatment and descrimination.
Rent control reduces the incentives to build new apartments by reducing the amount of money that can be collected from current and apartments. This is rather obvious, for someone who wants to build an apartment, if that unit will be rent controlled, that means less money in the future. Furthermore, rent control on some units creates a possibility that at some future date the non-rent controlled units will switch to be come rent-controlled. This happened several times in New York, where housing units that were exempt from earlier rent controls were brought under the previsions later. Both of these aggravate the affordability situation long-term by decreasing the incentive to create new units. Investors will find other places to put their money (maybe apartments in Portland or Vancouver where there’s no rent control), maybe cheap weekly hotels for those who can’t find apartments.
At the Atlantic Cities, Gabriel Metcalf has a thought-provoking article about affordable housing in the Bay Area. The whole thing is really interesting and highly recommended reading, but I want to highlight one particular section of the article, particularly how affordability interplays with walkability.
Whether the gentrification process is good or bad for neighborhoods, and for the lower-income people who live there, is something that can be debated endlessly. But what is strikingly different about the Bay Area in contrast to a place like New York is the fact that New York has so many more walkable, pre-war neighborhoods located on rail transit, within easy commuting distance of Manhattan. When New York neighborhoods like Soho and the Village got too expensive, for example, the Lower East Side became a major center for artists and other members of the cultural avant-garde. When the Lower East Side got too expensive, people went across the East River to Williamsburg. Next came Fort Green, Dumbo, Red Hook and other neighborhoods in Brooklyn that were still cheap. But as every spot in Brooklyn with a good rail connection to the city gets more expensive, there still is Queens, the Bronx, Newark, the towns up the Hudson — walkable neighborhoods in every direction.
As expensive as Manhattan is, and as far along into the gentrification process as the many surrounding communities are, there are still many places to go within the New York orbit to have an affordable, urban way of life.
We can’t solve affordable housing or transit access within the limits of any one city.
In the Bay Area, there are far fewer options that fit the criteria of walkable, transit-proximate and affordable. For many of my friends, there is just one: Oakland. This is what people mean when they say Oakland is the Brooklyn of the Bay Area. It’s the next stop on the train, it’s cool, it’s where young people go now.
The affordability issue isn’t as acute in Seattle as it is in San Francisco or Manhattan, but the lack of a “safety valve” like Brooklyn or Oakland is even worse. Really, outside of a few neighborhoods in Seattle and possibly some small parts of other cities, there are no walkable neighborhoods. As people who want an urban lifestyle get priced out of those neighborhoods, there’s really no where else to go.
A more dystopian [vision of the future] involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew that the truck barrelling towards you would automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking – and jaycycling. With cars able to speed through junctions, electronically interacting with each other, and with no need for traffic lights, it would be harder for humans outside of driverless cars to use the roads.
This is fun stuff, read the whole thing.
So while we’re on the subject, what will driver-less cars do for buses? To start, I believe that once robocars become truly viable, part of the sales pitch of the robo-system’s makers will be that they will share in some (all?) of the liability for accidents caused using their systems. This will make car insurance extremely expensive for someone who wants to drive themselves. Eventually, it’ll get to the point where no cars but high-performance vehicles such as Maseratis, Porsches and Aston Martins will be sold for manual driving.
This will put a lot of pressure on bus systems operators (Metro, Sound Transit, etc.) to replace bus fleets with robo-buses. Even though it would probably save a huge amount of money to the bus systems, I suspect that buses will be some of the last vehicles robotised because of the power of transit operators unions. Transit operators would insist that robobuses will ignore you while you’re waiting at your stop, and that you’ll miss the human touch. Robotised-bus proponents would insist that costs savings and the promise of on-time buses 99.9% of the time make the trade-off worth it. An argument about public safety will occur; who would want to get on a nearly empty Rapid Ride E late at night by themselves with no operator? Over time, too many human-operated LRT and buses would cause accidents – statistics would show some huge percentage of remaining traffic accidents were caused by buses, and eventually bus drivers will be morphed into neutered security guards, who will cost the same as the old drivers did and the cost savings will never materialise.
For cyclists, at least in Seattle, the move to robocars will be mostly very positive. Car-sharing would become nearly ubiquitous as your car would be able to drive other people around when you are out of it, so shoulder-parking spots would give way to bike lanes throughout the city. Cycling would become more popular as it becomes safer and nearly every traffic signal will be retrofitted with a cyclist period as they have in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Maybe entire streets, mainly side streets, would become cyclist-only or nearly so; robocars would only be allowed on if they were stopping there and even then, they would only be allowed to go 10 mph. Bike sharing would thrive as well, as people would use robocars and robobuses to get close to their destination and ride bikes the last mile.
Pedestrians would have a rougher go of it. Crossing major streets would be difficult with the exquisitely timed signals, and the new driver-cum-passenger majority/plurality would become even extremely anti-pedestrian. Pedestrians will go from people you see looking out the window to faceless obstacles that are never seen as you look at your smartphone or tablet from the self-driving car. Eventually, as a small consolation to pedestrians, we’ll see a few elevated crossings installed in major corridors, the sort that are common in big cities in East Asia, and lots of people taking robocars for what had previously been short walks because of the real or perceived anti-pedestrian bias.
Ok, that’s enough of futurist imaginings from me. What do you think driver-less cars will do to the transportation experiences of those who don’t drive for every trip?
Something I’ve been following with great interest for a long time is the decline of vehicle miles travelled and the increase in demand for in-city living. There has been a sea change in America’s relationship with low-density, auto-centric “sprawl”, where fewer and fewer Americans are opting for that lifestyle. In Leigh Gallagher’s new book, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, Leigh Gallagher tries to explain the causes behind the trends and extrapolate the future of the same.
Gallagher details the public policies that made suburbia and exurbia what they are today. Road polices have long supported highway construction rather than fixing urban streets, while municipal governments have let builders pay the up-front cost of building sewage, electricity and the like out to remote suburbs, but then foot the bill for maintenance. Gallagher also points out how unsustainable those policies are: the low-density construction results in a small tax base trying to pay for a lot of physical infrastructure spread over large distances, and large highways and large distances result in a long commutes that have become very expensive with higher fuel prices.
Gallagher also documents the shifting taste that “millennials” have vis-a-vis their parents. Millennials seem to value cars, space, and privacy less than their parents, while instead putting a premium on human connections and activities. Some of this I attribute to the “end of stuff“, and some of it I attribute to this generation never really experiencing the problems cities had in the 1960s and 1970s. What remains to be seen is whether this trend will hold when millennials children start to attend schools, especially when cities have fallen behind on keeping schools around and up to high standards.
One interesting trend is the “urban-lite” suburbs that have become more popular. While, Downtown Bellevue, downtown Kirkland and Renton Landing don’t look a lot like Sammamish, they also don’t look a lot like the U District, Capitol Hill or Belltown*. This realisation was a bit of a wake-up to me. When the King Farm residents in Maryland fought to route light rail around their walkable development, rather than through it, I really couldn’t understand what was happening. But now it makes a bit more sense: not everyone’s idea of what a good urban area constitutes is the same. A lot of people want to drive to work but walk when they get home.
I mostly enjoyed The End of the Suburbs, but I think a few important topics are missing or given scant attention. First, restrictive zoning rules – usually instituted and administered by the generations before the millenials – have been blocking more housing from being created. The problem has become acute now that at demand is rising. As Seattle has been experiencing, this is turning real city living into an option for only the privileged. Second, while cities and “city-lite” suburbs have been growing, we lack much of the physical infrastructure to make these lifestyle choices scalable to larger populations. The combined effect is one of a dramatic increase in the immiseration of the poor as they are displaced to the less desirable suburbs without the personal capital or the public infrastructure to easily leave for where ever they wish.
We’ll have to wait and see the trends play out. Still, I worry that if we don’t make the choices that allow cities and inner suburbs to scale up, we might end up missing the trends entirely, with low urban population grow due to restrictive zoning used as ammunition to justify more restrictions. It’s up to us to make sure the sea change doesn’t drown the poor along with it.
* Whether or not they look like South Lake Union, is a question I’ll leave for the comments.
At Seattle Transit Blog, we often play host to arguments for density and affordable housing played against neighbourhood and community groups who fight to keep things in “character” and “scale”. In her book, Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate, Lisa Provost has taken a look at how zoning rules in small towns across New England have often been used to block any housing that is new, moderately priced or moderately sized. Straight away, the book shows the arguments and techniques used to fight housing are nearly identical to what is attempted here, even though the towns in the book are often orders of magnitude smaller than Seattle and thousands of miles away.
Snob Zones is a collection of in-depth case studies of project and zoning clashes in small towns in Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts – the book takes its name from Massachusetts law 40B, the so-called “anti–snob zoning act”. In each case, when developers arrive with plans to build housing, be it $300,000 condos or a moderately-size retirement home, local residents fight the proposals by turning up to review meetings and arguing, organising communication drives to local politicians, and passing strict “character” rules that are nearly impossible to pass.
Elon Musk* of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX fame has finally published details of his Hyperloop (large PDF) idea, a couple of months after Musk described the idea as a “cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table”. The idea is somewhere between amazing and ridiculous, which means it may or may not be genius. The basic premise is you build an elevated tube with lower pressure inside and shot pods that levitate on an air cushion for friction-less travel. With this technology, top speeds are supposed to reach 760 mph and shortening travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to 35 minutes at supposedly a fraction of the cost of high speed rail: $6 billion for Hyper Loop between the cities v $53 billion for HSR. Robert Cruickshank at California High Speed Rail Blog has cautious optimism.
It seems the media is pretty credulous and not great at judging the technical merits of the proposal. I’m not qualified to do so, either, so I’ve outsourced my analysis to those who may know more. The Washington Posts’s Wonkblog argues the Hyperloop is likely more expensive than Elon Musk has assumed:
What’s more, California’s high-speed rail project has had to grapple with the high costs of acquiring more than 1,100 parcels of land, often from farmers resistant to sell. The Hyperloop would try to minimize this problem by propping the whole system up on pylons, shrinking its footprint, but it can’t escape the land problem entirely. As Alexis Madrigal points out, Musk’s proposal seems to assume it’s possible to buy up tens of thousands of acres in California for a mere $1 billion. That’s awfully optimistic.
Note that the California HSR project has paid out nearly $700 million just in legal challenges.
The [Hyperloop] that is as expensive as California HSR and takes as long door-to-door is also very low-capacity. The capsules are inexplicably very short, with 28 passengers per capsule. The proposed headway is 30 seconds, for 3,360 passengers per direction per hour. A freeway lane can do better: about 2,000 vehicles, with an average intercity car occupancy of 2. HSR can do 12,000 passengers per direction per hour: 12 trains per hour is possible, and each train can easily fit 1,000 people (the Tokaido Shinkansen tops at 14 tph and 1,323 passengers per train).
“When the California ‘high speed’ rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too,” Musk wrote in his overview of Hyperloop plans. “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) — doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars — would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”
I’m skeptical about the price tag, and a bit worried that it would not be as comfortable as it first appears. But you never know. Musk as innovated in private space travel and electric cars, both areas I would have never guess he would have been successful. Maybe he’s the right person to disrupt intercity travel?
What are your thoughts on the hyperloop?
* Full disclosure: I worked for Musk at PayPal in the early 2000s.
Last week SDOT posted some nice construction photos of King Street Station’s progress, and thought the progress was coming along nicely. But yesterday SDOT put these photos on the KSS project’s facebook page, and well, all I can say is a lot can change in a single week.
YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO ATTEND
the Grand Reopening of
King Street Station’s Main Waiting Room Wednesday, April 24, 11:00 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
Main Waiting Room, King Street Station, South King Street and Third Avenue South
Remarks by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and other distinguished guests
The parking utilization data was correlated with the 100 factors. Independent variable relationships were assessed for their predictive powers using linear regression methods. The results showed a clearly evident and statistically relevant variation in land use to multifamily residential parking utilization. A similar relationship existed between multifamily residential parking utilization and transit access. The relationship between the price of parking and parking utilization showed utilization declining as the percentage of parking cost to rent increased. The overall findings indicate that walk and transit access to trip destinations, block size, population and job density influence parking utilization, in some cases by as much as 50 percent. Most important, the research demonstrates that higher supply of parking appears to consistently correlate with greater parking demand. By verifying intuitive perceptions with data and fact, this research provides a new tool for use in considering the proper provision of parking.
Emphasis added. As I’ve said before, simply the existence of parking is the single most important factor in determining whether people will drive or not. So newer, bigger buildings with more parking are less green that smaller, older ones with no parking.
In this paper Michael L Anderson uses econometric models and real life data to show that transit reduces congestion by a much larger amount than previous estimates have shown:
Public transit accounts for only 1% of U.S. passenger miles traveled but nevertheless attracts strong public support. Using a simple choice model, we predict that transit riders are likely to be individuals who commute along routes with the most severe roadway delays. These individuals’ choices thus have very high marginal impacts on congestion. We test this prediction with data from a sudden strike in 2003 by Los Angeles transit workers. Estimating a regression discontinuity design, we find that average highway delay increases 47% when transit service ceases. This effect is consistent with our model’s predictions and many times larger than earlier estimates, which have generally concluded that public transit provides minimal congestion relief. We find that the net benefits of transit systems appear to be much larger than previously believed.
This has always made sense to me, because transit tends to be most highly used to go to and from places that are the most congested.
That’s more federal money than any transit project in the history of the state has received, including U-Link and Central Link. I understand that the FTA New Starts money is needed to help complete the automobile part of the bridge, but still it’s confusing to me that the state leadership in the Olympia has put so much energy into transit projects with so little support and so much opposition, but have done so little in our area where help isn’t just wanted but needed.
*Forward Thrust failed at the polls because it required a 60% super majority to pass, but had majority support at 50.8%.
“One hundred and sixty feet gives additional density and makes a wonderful place for all, not just those who can afford to live in the towers,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.
Class warfare is a really nasty business. So before Sally Bagshaw congratulates herself overmuch, it’s worth noting that this isn’t some sort of victory against solely “those who can afford to live in towers”, but also a rout against those struggle to afford housing at all. Vulcan was going to provide $10~$12 million dollars worth to provide for affordable housing in this plan, and the council is putting an end to that.
A wonderful place for all, just not those who can’t afford it.
Rasmussen—who visited one such development on Capitol Hill and compares its units to “small dorm rooms”—tells PubliCola he understands the “market for smaller units like that,” but says that Capitol Hill residents, in particular, have expressed concern about the new developments, and are “feeling like too many are being proposed or developed” and want the council to take a look at “whether they fit in to neighborhoods, and whether or not there should be design review. Some of them look pretty good, some of them not so much.”
Amy, an international student from Korea, lives on Capitol Hill and rents a two bedroom apartment for $1,300 a month. The contract says only two people may reside there, but skirting the rules Amy now lives with three other roommates. “It doesn’t make sense. I can’t pay this much. As a result, I have three roommates, which means I live in violation of the contract.” The contract violation has left Amy perpetually anxious of eviction saying her manager checks every unit randomly and is “scared every day…I have to sleep with another girl in the same bed. I can’t have my private room.”
It doesn’t sound like Amy’s a citizen, so she can’t vote, but she is a resident of our city and her rights and welfare are just as important as anyone else (same applies to these guys). So I would like to ask Rasmussen to think about Amy and her three roommates living in a two-bedroom apartment, sharing beds and fearing eviction because they can’t afford anything else, before he considers a moratorium on any new housing. We need as many new, affordable housing units as we can get.
*Thankfully, Richard Conlin and Mike McGinn both have more reasonable things to say in that piece.
Vulcan would transfer to the city 37,600 square feet of land on a block bounded by Broad and Republican streets and Dexter and Aurora avenues. The city could add that chunk to a smaller piece it owns to create almost a full block available for an array of social services and housing.
The Vulcan land, with an estimated value of $10 million to $12 million, would count as a credit toward fees Vulcan would pay to erect condo or apartment towers up to 240 feet on three lakefront blocks it owns and elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Zoning now allows 65-foot buildings on the three so-called Mercer blocks. Vulcan would pay bonus fees to go from current zoning to 160-feet, or 16 stories. Then it would need to provide extraordinary additional public benefits to reach 24 stories.
Often, we make the abstract argument that requiring shorter or smaller buildings reduces affordability, but rarely do we get something so concrete. It costs the city (and thus the tax payers) nothing to allow Vulcan to build taller buildings. In exchange for that, the city would have received something valuable, free land near Downtown Seattle for use in low-income housing. The literal choice was between 1) taller buildings and free land for low-income housing (along with higher property tax income) and 2) shorter buildings and no land for low-income housing, though possibly some cash down the line.
If as a city, we think we can get a better deal, fine, say that. But please no one say this:
Mayoral candidate Peter Steinbrueck had blasted the Block 59 proposal for “privatizing the city’s land-use code.”
Yes, we certainly wouldn’t want to set the dangerous precedent of the tax payers getting millions of dollars of land in exchange for something that costs them nothing. The article said the deal may be revived at some later date. I hope so. As a taxpayer, if the city can get materiel for important social functions for free, I think that’s a deal the city should take. And I’m going to make sure the city council knows that when I vote.
Eric Becker, the filmmaker behind the Stone 34 video mentioned last year, released a video of architects, developers and others talking about South Lake Union and its potential futures. The video is called “Placemaking & Seattle”. It’s curious to me when people spend so much time debating heights, parking and floor-area-ratios, so little time is spent on form, function and character. It’s a video worth watching.
South Lake Union is looking up. Rezoning proposals represent an opportunity that would turn other cities emerald green with envy.
Council land-use chair Richard Conlin is looking for a council vote by mid-February At this point, he sees a general consensus building around the mayor’s plans.
If the instinct is to worry about views, then keep the outlook for Seattle’s economic well-being unobstructed as well.
This is a good observation for two reasons. First, the swap is views for 1) jobs, 2) housing, and 3) social benefits like low-income housing and workforce-training facilities. Second, we should be encouraging the investment here and not elsewhere.
The other surprising bit is the mention of further transit investments:
More offices, apartments and condos provide a critical mass for further investments in public transit. All the talk could indeed turn into a people-moving reality.
This is from a group that famously advocated voters reject ST2 just four years ago. Maybe attitudes are truely changing in on Fairview and John, or maybe it’s the fact that their properties are part of the rezone, either way, it’s welcome.