Hot Dogs and Housing: Moving Beyond Affordability

More hot dogs please!

It’s hard to disagree with David Apert’s recent post titled “Affordable housing advocates should talk about land use… and land use advocates need to talk about affordability,” but I do. The problem isn’t that the two groups are talking past one another, but that they both make the same mistake, putting too much emphasis on housing price rather than pushing for fewer rules and less regulation of housing production. Obsession with price leads to price interventions that only make things worse. Consider the parable of the hot dog vendors.

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We Love Our Neighborhood So Much We Bought It!

Saving Bauhaus: How much is it worth to you?

After reading my post, the organizers of the City Builder Happy Hour asked me to present my idea for a Neighborhood Real Estate Investment Trust. The following is more or less what I presented on Tuesday night at the happy hour. This market-based approach to “saving” neighborhood buildings was delivered on May Day, not far from the riotous mob of anarchists trashing downtown.

We hear it all the time: “What? That great building with the cool coffee shop just got sold! Damn developers!”

But the truth is that when property changes hands the new owner is making an investment, and an investment is about creating a financial return. Developers aren’t necessarily setting out to destroy existing buildings, but in order to build more housing and make a profit, sometimes they do.

What if all of us pooled our resources to buy real estate and develop it ourselves? Imagine 1200 people in Seattle each contributing $1200 (about the same as buying 1 espresso drink a day for a year) to a Neighborhood Real Estate Investment Trust. That would generate more than a million dollars ($1,440,000) that could be applied to the purchase of that great building with the coffee shop. And if the property is managed well, the funds from operation and increases in equity over time would mean than initial $1000 investment would gradually produce a return, money that could be put back into buying more iconic properties.

In the United States, a Real Estate Investment Trust, or REIT, is a company that owns, and in most cases operates, income-producing real estate. To be a REIT, a company must distribute at least 90 percent of its taxable income to shareholders annually in the form of dividends.

What distinguishes REITs is that they have transferable shares. An investor can by a sliver of a project in the form of a share, get a return from dividends paid from increases in equity or profitable operations, and sell the share later at a profit to another investor.

The beauty of a Neighborhood REIT is that it is market-based preservation that would get neighborhoods into the development game. As property owners, average Seattle residents could decide not to build out the site, but keep the building just like it is. But they’d still have to manage it, collecting rents, making repairs, and taking care of overall maintenance. They could choose not to maximize profits, but focus on maintaining use and the existing structure.

There is an example of this in Great Britain called the Ethical Property Company; they buy properties, sell shares, and keep older buildings in use renting them to non-profits and community based groups.

A Neighborhood REIT could allow everyone to invest in dense, walkable, livable, transit oriented communities so we could get all those benefits plus some of the financial ones as well.

Will Beer and Big Ideas Lead to ‘Big Development’?

Tomorrow evening is the second installation of the City Builder Happy Hour. Like at the first event, the hosts want to hear about people’s “audacious ideas” to support more growth and sustainable development in Seattle. Last time it was the idea of a gondola from Capitol Hill to Seattle Center. This time you are invited to send your idea in on the back of cocktail napkin. I’m going to put my ideas here, in this post, instead.

When I last wrote about the happy hour, I talked about the “myth of Big Development,” and somebody has done a great job of running with that idea, creating a great visual image. I’m still withholding judgment about whether a happy hour is going to get us where we need to go. “What could it hurt?” you ask.

In my opinion, we’re rapidly approaching the time when doing nothing but talking about things is going to be harmful, even if we have a few beers while we’re doing it. I’ve about had it with meetings, however well intentioned, that don’t lead to creating the political momentum behind the ideas that will fundamentally change our approach to land use in Seattle. Having said all that, here are some “audacious ideas,” parts of which I’ve shared before.

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Land Use and Education: Adding Schools to the Mix is the Answer

Is there a school in there?

Regardless of income, there are fewer things are more important to young families than being close to good schools. The folk wisdom of the day is that urban schools aren’t as good or safe as suburban schools. I’ve suggested before that this is why urbanists of all persuasions need to make improving the quality of urban schools as no less important than land use and transit policy. But what role can land use policy play in improving educational outcomes? A recent Brookings Institute study offers an answer.

The study suggests that a major reason for the disparate academic performance between poor and wealthier students is linked to land use policies that, in effect, exclude affordable housing near good schools. If more “affordable” housing near high performing schools were allowed, that academic performance of poor students would improve. But it’s a conclusion that doesn’t seem to follow from the evidence in the study or from the practicalities of how land use policy gets made

The study anchors basis its conclusion on the theory that poor, underperforming, students of color do better when they go to school with wealthier, better performing, white students. Since, the argument in the conclusion of the study goes, zoning rules tend to exclude certain types of affordable housing from areas where there are high performing schools, relaxing those rules would allow more poor, students of color to attend better schools; disparity problem solved! Continue reading “Land Use and Education: Adding Schools to the Mix is the Answer”

Sound Transit Board Retreat: Who Will Lead on Parking and TOD?

Board Retreat

These days, with hot and heavy public meeting and disclosure requirements, when elected officials have retreats they have something of the quality of watching French royalty eat dinner in the Salon of the Grand Couvert at Versailles: an attempt to have private things happen in full public view. The Sound Transit Board’s retreat this week at Bell Harbor Conference Center was no different. Councilmembers, mayors, and other members of the board talked back and forth, but comments about parking and Transit Oriented Development were probably less candid when aimed at constituents than if they were spoken in private. But I got some good insights on where the board might go on parking and Transit Oriented Development.

First the parking discussion. Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin kicked off the discussion with a well rehearsed set of principles he felt should be used when considering the issue of parking around transit stations. Conlin said that the most important issues are “maximizing ridership, ensure the agency is solvent, and that we have happy customers.”

The “happy customers” point was also raised by King County Councilmember Larry Phillips who asked how people driving to transit who can’t find a place to park might adversely affect future funding measures, a point echoed by others who worried that not building parking might discourage ridership. Continue reading “Sound Transit Board Retreat: Who Will Lead on Parking and TOD?”

Density’s Golden Rule: Yield Unto Others

Fancy Ambulance: A mode nobody wants to use

The Seattle Department of Transportation posted a reminder on its blog about letting buses go first, a good idea but also mandated by law. Buses should go first—but who or what comes before buses, and whom should bus drivers be “letting go first?” The answer is pretty obvious, bikes and pedestrians. But in practice, sometimes, it feels like bus drivers could use a reminder of this. Fortunately, giving pedestrians the right of way is also written down in the Seattle Municipal Code and Washington Administrative code as well. The bottom line is that with more people in the city, everyone needs to be on the look out for everyone else if we’re going to make this density thing work.

Awhile back on Seattle’s Land Use Code, I wrote a response to Dan Bertolet’s posting of a video about riding bikes (or not riding bikes) called “Why People Don’t Ride Bikes.” Bike posts always generate a lot of hullabaloo for some reason from both cyclists and drivers irritated with cyclists. I felt a little left out being a pedestrian. I gave up my bike riding because I found that the distances I was commuting were too short for riding a bike. It took less time to get from point A to point B on foot than it took suiting up for the rain, unlocking and locking the bike, and, as Dan pointed out, it seemed like I was risking my life to get to work.

I wrote a response that included a video as well. I took some phone video of running through Capitol Hill in which I braved people blowing crosswalks, had to run around cars and trucks parking on the sidewalk, and a series of other horrors. My point was to argue for an explicit hierarchy for modes of transit. This isn’t anything really new, but our laws and codes tend to put a lot of weight on protecting cars from people rather than the other way around.

Continue reading “Density’s Golden Rule: Yield Unto Others”

Zeroing In On Beacon Hill

What might happen if we got rid of the code one mile around Beacon Hill, stopped worrying about heights, and, instead, focused on what’s happening on the ground there and wrote a code that reflected that potential? I’m not sure, but when the inevitable criticism came in for my Zero Based Zoning idea for the Beacon Hill station area, I started to wonder, “Maybe a mile is too big of an area around a station.” But after an extensive walking tour, I think a mile is just about right, and there is strong foundation there upon which to build the future.

My drawing skills are certainly not great, but while I was walking and looking at maps here’s what I sketched out. (click here for the big version).

In the center of the bull’s-eye, of course are the station and the commercial district. The circle is roughly a mile from the center out to the edges. As one commenter pointed out, the circle does include seemingly incongruous neighborhoods. But as I experienced the area on foot (I also live there for 10 years) it became easy to see that there are some important reasons to consider such a wide circle.

Zero Based Zoning is a concept like form based code except that it doesn’t start with a code at all, but a process. Can we consider a neighborhood without limits but only potential? Can we stop worrying about adjusting heights, bulk, and scale of buildings in a neighborhood, but consider instead what could happen there with more people? Here’s my view of Beacon Hill with no code, only experience an open mind about what could happen there with the station holding it together.

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Plan for Change: Kevin Lynch’s Morning with a Cab Dispatcher

Page from Image of the City, 1960

While reading through some of the response to my last post on Beacon Hill, I couldn’t help but go back to a big influence on my thinking, Kevin Lynch. Lynch, who lived from 1918 to 1984, was a professor, planner, writer and seminal thinker. Many of Lynch’s early writings and notes that influenced his most important work, Image of the City, are available at an online archive, called Perceptual Form of the City.

One of the most interesting documents is called “Morning with a cab dispatcher,” the notes Lynch took after spending a morning trying to understand Boston from the perspective of the guy who sends out and tracks cabs.

I have to credit Lynch for the process underneath Zero Based Zoning, the idea of starting land use planning and code writing with use rather than building form. Planning is not about pushing things around on a map, or bus routes, or zones, or even demographics; what matters is the people. Lynch thought planning started with listening to how people use their city first. Continue reading “Plan for Change: Kevin Lynch’s Morning with a Cab Dispatcher”

Beacon Hill: The Revolution Won’t Be Measured in Feet

Box of People

Progress toward sustainable land use in Seattle will be measured by whether our land use laws and policies spur innovation, not the height of buildings. Even though contentious discussions about density for Roosevelt centered on building height—with proponents of sustainable growth pushing for 65 feet on the Sisley properties and growth opponents wanting to cap the site at 40 feet—winning that argument only got us 25 feet of progress in what is a 10,000-mile journey toward sensible land use around light rail stations.

The answer isn’t about height at station areas like Beacon Hill; it’s completely getting rid zoning around light rail stations.

I’m guilty, as most of us are, of obsessing about height. Let’s not do it when it comes to Beacon Hill, where the City Council is again considering rezones. If the Council does what I expect, what Beacon Hill will get is some kind of mix of heights that respond to political and neighborhood concerns—including the concerns of people like me who think we need to put more growth in density (density is people!) around light rail stations. That wouldn’t be the best outcome. Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Mike O’Brien should team up to so something different on Beacon Hill.

The obsession with height is understandable, because people like a number to compare one option against another. We pro-growth people tend to push for the bigger number, the anti-growth set, push for the lower number. It’s the closest we’ve come to actually being party-like about growth in this town. It reminds me of the anti-British slogan from the 19th century, “54° 40′ or Fight!” Our version is “NC-65 or fight!” More after the jump.

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Us, Them, Right, and Wrong: How Do We Win?

Single Family Onslought

Does the way we organize our politics and government in Seattle and in our region have any effect on transit and land use? Does the structure of our political institutions result in bad outcomes for transit-oriented development, for example? Would changing that system result in better or worse outcomes? That’s the question we should talk about more actively at urbanist and transit advocacy events, like tomorrow night’s City Builders. Does getting better transit and land use require fundamentally changing the way we organize government and elections?

Since my post at Publicola last week a number of different perspectives and thoughts have appeared in my in-box and in the comments. Here’s a cross section of those perspectives.

Change would make things worse.

This view is best articulated by Frank at Orphan Road, who suggests that tinkering with the way we elect the Seattle City Council could make land use and transit worse. He drills into district elections, suggesting that doing things that way would ensure NIMBY dominance, by giving neighborhood ne’er do wells elected office.

Change would make things better.

There is an odd assortment of bedfellows here. Councilmember Mike O’Brien has been exploring the idea of publicly financed elections, and John Fox has been suggesting district elections. Some commenters in other posts have offered ideas about ways to rig the voting system using proportional voting systems to get better outcomes. The problem is that the outcome of these changes is uncertain.

More after the jump. Continue reading “Us, Them, Right, and Wrong: How Do We Win?”

Wanted: A Party of the Future

I love this  Slate article so much I wish I’d written it myself, but the fact that it was written by Matthew Yglesias makes it even better. Even better than that, I have written posts just like it here, here, and, especially here in my “Density is People” series. The article makes a point I’ve made over and over again, we need a party of growth and development:

If U.S. cities had regularized party systems each city would probably have something like a “growth and development party” that pushed systematically for greater density. Its members and elected officials would, of course, have idiosyncratic interests and concerns that would sometimes cut across the main ideology. But the party leaders would be able to exercise discipline, the party activists and donors would push for consistency and ideological rigor, and it’d be off to the races. Instead, most big cities feature what really amounts to no-party government in which each elected official stands on his or her own and overwhelmingly caters to idiosyncratic local concerns rather than any kind of over-arching agenda. But different institutional processes could change this, and create a dynamic where growth, development, and density are more viable.

That sums up Seattle, a city with “no-party government,” catering to “idiosyncratic local concerns rather than any kind of over-arching agenda.” Some of tried to buck this at the end of 2009 by organizing something called “The Party of the Future,” even raising funds for a poll that grabbed headlines for a while.

I threw together a sort of an open memo to the development community called “Toward an Ideology of Growth.”  I used it as the basis for Density is People. Organizing a sustained pro-growth and pro-density political movement is what we need.

If successful the outcome of this effort wouldn’t simply be a few taller buildings here and there, but a true transformation of local culture. Remember, this is a part of the world that still hasn’t gotten over being screwed by the railroads in the 19th century; memories are long, necks are stiff, and the politics are passive.

But it’s worth the effort. Otherwise we will truly become the Mossback City, locked post World War II land use patterns favoring an entitled single-family class of land owners with no financial interest in change.

Occasionally as a writer I feel like I am one of those people we see from time to time on our busy streets talking to themselves. “Are they using a blue tooth headset,” we wonder, “or are they crazy?” The same, I guess, applies to bloggers. We can often measure ourselves by whether anyone is listening—or in our case reading—to what we spew into the interwebs. I am not crazy. We need a Party of the Future and we need it yesterday.

Density is People: Creating Political Accountability for Sustainable Growth

Men went there ‘to make a figure,’ and no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of birthday cake that others may eat it.

From The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III

By Sir Lewis Namier

Lewis Namier’s assessment of 18th century politicians is consistent with my own views about today’s politicians. Lest you think this view overly cynical, Namier adds something I also agree with at the end of this paragraph I quote above: “Which is perfectly normal and in no way reprehensible.” Elected politicians say they want to make the world a better place, but each one of them will tell you that doing that won’t be possible unless they get re-elected. And it’s how the system has worked for hundreds of years.

Cake or Death: Making sure we get the right decisions requires political money

Whether we like it or not, those of us who wish to set our cities in the region on a course toward transit friendly and sustainable density depend on politicians to do the right thing; if we connect their political ambitions—their birthday cake if you will—to achieving our agenda in the region, we’ll have a better chance of getting what we want. I’ve talked about an idea for the big message—Density is People—and the list of things we need to get done. Both will require political muscle.

Getting into office and staying there takes money, and without a strategy to put lots of money into the political system we’re taking our chances on what that system produces. Whatever the accolades, pats on the back, and cool plaques we give politicians for doing the right thing, nothing beats cash in their campaign accounts. And today, there is no significant entity raising and spending political money to push for density.

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Bruce Ramsey: The Best Way From Point A to Point B is Density

20120131-233403.jpgAs people move to the Puget Sound region, less people die, and more are born we are going to have more people here. The best way to handle that challenge—more people in the same size space—is to embrace it, welcoming more people living closer together in our cities. Bruce Ramsey’s recent article in the Times bashes Sound Transit rail service from Seattle to Everett for being inefficient and expensive, but ends up making argument in support of density: more people in the same place means more efficient transit.

The punch line to Ramsey’s rather one-sided article slamming Sound Transit commuter rail to Everett is “buses, vans and other rubber-tired vehicles are better than trains.” Ramsey makes that point by repeating a local engineer’s analysis finding that the service from Seattle to Everett is more expensive than buses. But the sweetest spot in the article, the one I’ll quote over and over again is right before the punch line:

Railroads, says engineer MacIsaac, are good at moving thousands of people from point A to point B — if that is what thousands of people want to do, all at once. But in our low-rise urban area here, he says, the real task is moving people “from thousands of points A to thousands of points B” when they decide to be moved.

Thank you Bruce Ramsey and Mr. MacIsaac. That’s exactly why we can’t allow people to sprawl. MacIsaac is correct; when you have low-density development you get less efficient transit. It’s not like it was my idea to make that point first, but a while ago I made a similar argument in a post about how lack of density—thousands of people going from thousands of points A to thousands of points B—makes for very expensive transit. This way of doing transit means two thirds of its cost has to be funded with tax payer dollars.

As people look for housing in our region they run up against limited supply in the places we most want people to live, the city. If it’s easier to build new single-family housing or sell that housing out in the ‘burbs, the supply out there will be greater. Seattle’s hesitant attitude toward up zones to create Transit Oriented Development not only keeps housing prices high, but also means that costs for maintaining transit service to far-flung reaches of King County will go up too.

Geoff Patrick, Sound Transit Spokesman, has it exactly right, rail is an investment (maybe even a hopeful one)in a future when politicians start getting land use right. When they do, we’ll have a rail system in place to take those thousands of people in one place, point A, at the same time to one point B. When we do that, transit will be efficient and affordable.

Density is People: Getting Started on Big Changes in Land Use

I said, in an earlier post, that there are three problems facing advocates of smart, sustainable growth in Seattle and around the Puget Sound. The first was a lack of a simple message around which to build the case for putting future growth in our cities. I proposed “Density is People” or “Growth is People” as a way of shifting attention away from fighting over buildings and their height, and toward what the discussion is really about, welcoming more people to our cities.

The second thing missing is an agreed action agenda, the items that everyone in the development community and those that support sustainable growth should push for at the state and local level to help us more readily attain the broader outcome of growing in our cities rather than in sprawling outer ring communities. There are lots of good candidates for this list. I’ve broken them down into long, and intermediate and short-term objectives.

Continue reading “Density is People: Getting Started on Big Changes in Land Use”

Density is People: A New Story for Up Zone Activists

Still basking in the glow of the Roosevelt land use feud

There are three things missing from efforts to grow sustainably in the Puget Sound region, a story about why supporting more growth is a good thing, a punch list of policy changes to help get there, and political accountability. I’m going to focus on the getting our story straight first.

We have reams of data and studies that support why density is better than sprawl. But how do advocates of new development that supports smart, sustainable density counter the simple story NIMBYs tell: this is our neighborhood and we were here first!

During the long and often contentious debate over rezoning Roosevelt I divided my frustration, sometimes equally, between opponents of the rezone and the developers asking for additional height. For the former my irritation should be no surprise.

But what annoyed me about the developers, and developers in general, is that they lack of a coherent story and vision to explain why their project is important. For understandable reasons, developers are project-focused, worried mainly about getting their building up and running. Often the big thinking about how their project might fit into a regional agenda is left in the dust of getting it done. More after the jump.

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Take it To the Bank: Amending Article VIII Would Help TOD in Washington

How does the discussion about a "state bank" help TOD?

The recent economic downturn has inspired a lot of anger at banks, especially around the problem of credit (loans) given by banks for the purchase of homes. There has been enough anger out there to fuel calls for a “state bank” in order to offer a local, publicly motivated financial institution to avert such a crisis in the future. Unfortunately the current proposal, HB 1320, doesn’t offer much in the way of how such an institution would function in the face of Washington State’s constitutional prohibition on the lending of public credit. The discussions of HB 1320 do have implications for Transit Oriented Development.

The mortgages at the heart of the crisis were often given to people with no money down, insufficient income to make payments, and then repackaged and sold off as securities for a profit by banks. When people started losing their jobs, those loans went bad, creating a crisis for financial institutions that had purchased large numbers of these mortgages. The decision was to “bail out” those banks.

It’s easy to to forget how banks work. Banks take deposits from people with cash and then loan out that money. Banks serve the critical function of aggregating capital, lending it out with some risk, and then paying depositors some interest. There is a great video by Sal Kahn on how fractional reserve banking works, a good refresher on the banking system.

So why not open a “state bank,” run by the state government for the benefit of the people of Washington? It’s a great idea, but it’s not clear it could really work or solve the problems the Occupiers have with banks. There are two gigantic problems, one is surmountable and the other is not.  Continue reading “Take it To the Bank: Amending Article VIII Would Help TOD in Washington”

Transit and Land Use: It’s All About Demand

I’ve written here before about how density can aggregate demand for transit and that this is one of main reasons why density is so important.  In an ideal world would be a very dense one where demand for transit is so high that a business case could be made to charge people what it actually costs to run transit and even make a profit doing it.

Here’s a story from Indonesia where transit authorities are going to extreme lengths to stop something called roof riding, the practice of riding on top of commuter trains.

The railway said it resorted to using the concrete balls after previous anti-roof-rider efforts  including greasing the roofs, spraying roof riders with colored water, and detentions and fines didn’t stop the practice.

You might think that these roof riders are just free loaders, catching a ride for free on the train to evade the fare. Nope.

Adi [a transit official] told the Globe the real problem isn’t freeloading riders, but that there aren’t enough trains to accommodate demand.

Part of this story is about how different we look at things compared to the rest of the world. For some of us, a little bit of crowding or an extra minute wait makes transit inconvenient. For much of the rest of the world transit is the primary mode of transportation; cars are just too expensive and governments have built infrastructure to accommodate the car.

I’m not saying Indonesia is the ideal world. I’m sure it’s far from perfect. But I love the idea that there is a place where demand for transit is so big that officials are trying to keep people from getting on the trains with concrete balls. I don’t think anyone around here has any concrete balls, especially when it comes to serious up zones around transit. Until then we can dream and strive for a time when we run out of trains and someone has a profit motive to open another competing mass transit agency, either using rail or something else.

Richard Conlin on TOD: Two Resolutions for the New Year

Conlin on Land Use: Will he focus less on building height, and more on density?

There is plenty one can find wrong with Richard Conlin’s latest blog post about the zoning battle in Roosevelt. But there are some good things to be said for Conlin’s post: he’s recognizing that land use decisions shouldn’t rest only in the hands of neighborhood planners and he’s ready to dispense with height as the measure of good land use policy. That’s good news for the New Year. But first let’s cover some ground opened by Conlin’s post.

Conlin decries the overheated rhetoric of the debate, flashing his credentials as a Solomon in the Northwest style. Conversations ought to be polite and fact based, Conlin implies, and it’s up to politicians to discern the facts and the law and make good decisions. Rhetoric, overheated and bloated, from bloggers isn’t helpful. Conlin suggests that the Council’s job is to find the middle ground between two extremes, dividing the baby between NIMBYs and density advocates.

However, while compromise is beneficial in policy discussions there can be no compromise between fact and fantasy. The facts are in on density: it’s better than other patterns of development and growth, specifically sprawl. Furthermore the facts point to the importance and benefit of density to many things people care about, like jobs, water quality, air pollution, public safety, jobs, and economic development to name a few.

The fantasy subscribed to by opponents of the up zone is that “taking” more density than the Mayor’s proposal makes them pro-density, and thus immune from the charge that they are intent on scuttling Sisely’s project because they can’t stomach the idea of him making a profit. The supposed supporters of density were willing to amputate their noses to stop an up zone, even though the properties are doomed to stay blighted without one, a truth that Conlin’s colleague Nick Licata admitted when he proposed his amendment which would have limited the construction of more housing in Roosevelt.

Continue reading “Richard Conlin on TOD: Two Resolutions for the New Year”

Why a Constitutional Amendment for Tax Increment Financing?

The Washington State Legislature’s special session will barely be over when their next regular legislative session starts next month. Among the many issues facing the legislature will be whether both chambers will muster the necessary a two-thirds vote to amend the Constitution to allow for Tax Increment Financing (TIF). As the opening of session approaches it’s worth reminding ourselves why TIF is such an important financial tool to support sustainable growth and effective transit.

Tax Increment Financing is a value capture tool that allows local government to borrow money to make infrastructure improvements and make payments on that debt from property taxes assessed on the increase in property value from new development. It’s a tool available to local governments in 48 other states (Arizona also doesn’t have TIF). Local governments can use TIF to invest money today in infrastructure that will pay for itself in the future. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Why a Constitutional Amendment for Tax Increment Financing?”

Failed Logic Leads to Blight, Not TOD

Obstructed view: A vote for Licata's amendment is a vote for blight.

Nick Licata sent an e-mail today explaining why he’s trying to stop a rezone to 65 feet on the blocks next to the new light rail station in the Roosevelt neighborhood. Licata’s thinking is framed by a question he’s asked himself; “can the Council support Transit Oriented Development in Roosevelt without increasing building heights to 65 feet across from the Roosevelt High School building?” Licata concludes that it can, so he “will move an amendment in tomorrow’s COBE committee meeting to keep the heights at 40 feet.”

Licata acknowledges that “what is best for the city as well as the Roosevelt neighborhood are inexorably linked,” but his starting point leads him to the wrong answer, that somehow preserving views of Roosevelt High School and denying the developer additional capacity will create TOD in Roosevelt. Nothing could be further from the truth. His own e-mail acknowledges that denying the rezone could leave the neighborhood with a blighted hole, not new housing.

Licata rehearses many of the same arguments that have been offered again and again to oppose increased heights on these key blocks. The neighborhood’s plan is the product of lots of process so it should take precedent, and their plan “takes” more density than other proposals.

Licata’s e-mail goes on to cite the complaints local neighbors have had about the property owner Hugh Sisley. Sisley, Licata says, is a bad actor, having code compliance issues. But strangely he says this:

If the developer cannot build to 65 feet, he believes that his project is not viable and will probably walk away from developing these parcels, perhaps leaving the community these troubled properties until the land ownership changes or another developer presents a different package.

But let’s return to the original question, “How does the Council support TOD without upzones on these properties?” Licata’s answer is that it does that by preserving the “prominence” of the High School, and locking in blight on key properties in the neighborhood. Neither of these creates new housing, and keeping blighted properties blighted won’t help TOD. His amendment fails to meet his own standards.

Licata, if he listened to his own reasoning, wouldn’t be proposing his amendment. If he believes that these properties will stay blighted because the developer will walk away from 40 feet, how does he think that keeping those properties that way helps the goals of Transit Oriented Development?

It seems more likely that Licata starts with ideology rather than TOD in mind. He culminates the e-mail by quoting a resident opposed to 65 feet:

Another resident amplifying a national theme wrote: “It feels as though we are being strong-armed here and that democracy has been spurned. This smacks of the national problem of the one percent exerting its will over the 99 percent.”

So for Licata, it all comes down to the 99 percent. Somehow the entitled single family homeowners are the downtrodden 99 percent, while the people that would move into apartments in the redeveloped properties don’t matter.

Licata’s reasoning is deeply flawed and seems to be linked to the contention that upzones are just giveaways to the 1 percent, rather than opportunity to create more affordable housing and accommodate growth around regional investments in light rail. Licata’s amendment would leave the blocks in question a blighted mess without accommodating any new housing. Is that really what is best for the neighborhood? Or has Licata aligned himself with single family homeowners who can’t get over their anger at Hugh Sisley and who feel entitled to keeping the value of their own investments at a premium at the expense of more housing?

Let’s hope Licata’s amendment, like his logic, fails.