Over the Top Again? We Need a Better Plan.

One of my favorite comedies ever is the Blackadder series, a BBC sit com that ran in the 1980s. The series is named after the lead character, a acerbic, sarcastic, set upon, but relentlessly funny bit player in English history who is surrounded by people who are either not that bright or not that bright and somewhat sadistic. I have always found myself in his character, especially the final episodes of the series which are set in the English trenches of World War I. Blackadder Goes Forth is set in the darkest period of the war, when everyone knew what a hopeless killing machine the war had become; but there was no way and nobody willing to stop it. It’s kind of the way I feel about land use and housing policy in Seattle. The Seattle City Council keeps making bad housing policy. There is some hope, however, if we start now to stop the supply killing machine we’ve unleashed through overregulation and resisting growth.

My favorite episode of the Blackadder Goes Forth set kind of sums up my feelings about where we are, it’s called Captain Cook and here’s a key scene.

In the clip, Blackadder cynically asks about the big plan to win the war:

Melchett:       Good man. Now, Field Marshal Haig has formulated a
                brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the
                field. [they gather around a model of the battlefield]

Blackadder:     Now, would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of
                our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy sir?

Darling:        How can you possibly know that Blackadder? It's classified
                information.

Blackadder:     It's the same plan that we used last time, and the
                seventeen times before that.

Often I feel as though we haven’t learned our lesson as advocates for more housing and we keep repeating the same mistakes.

Over at the Facebook page, City Builders, I’ve been getting kind of surly with folks over a number of issues, including a new found obsession among “Urbanists (I still don’t know what this term means)” with abolishing single-family zoning in Seattle in favor of a more flexible code that would allow more density in single-family. I have tried to explain that we’ve already pushed for that and in fact, this notion was the basis of the founding of Smart Growth Seattle (hence our “Fresh Code” language at the top of the web site). I wrote about this years ago, and we battled to make it easier to build single-family homes in single family zones on smaller lots. And that’s my point to the new comers: the Council killed our efforts to make it easier to build single-family homes in single-family zones! See my many posts on this topic starting with the one I wrote about Councilmember Tim Burgess’ comments on the legislation that he supported killing small-lot development.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t drastically reform our land use code to allow more density in single-family, but the Council has made it hard to build single-family in single-family. Why would they suddenly turn a corner and allow courtyard housing and other types of housing that fits the description of the Missing Middle. We’ve got to talk to the people who are the most worried about changes in our city brought by growth. Why do they dislike developers and landlord? Why do they think that greed is why housing prices are going up rather than the lack of housing supply in the face of rising demand? What messages and messengers would help people in Seattle get that people who build housing are part of the solution to rising prices, not the cause of them?

No, I’m not “bitter” and I am, at heart, an optimist. But what I also think is that if we’re going to avoid making the same mistakes over and over, we need to invest in a broader, more sustainable approach. Here’s my proposal. It’s a start.

Research and Apply Findings to Communication, Legal, and Regulatory Engagement

  • Why are basic economic concepts held by most people (e.g. that scarcity leads to higher prices) not applied to discussions about housing?
  • How would more information about the details of housing financing and production influence people to modify their views about why housing is expensive?
  • What language would be most persuasive in public discourse to shift people’s views about why housing is expensive (i.e. housing is expensive because it is scarce, not because of greed or gaming of the economy by large corporations, developers, or foreign speculators)?
  • What is the Total Development Cost (TDC) for building housing in Seattle for all types of housing, in all parts of the city? What are those costs by the square feet and by unit?
  • What Total Development Benefit (TBD) created by housing production in addition to housing itself (i.e. jobs, tax revenue, etc.)?
  • What are the Total Regulatory Costs (TRC) for housing (i.e. all costs that are directly related to rules, fees, and codes)?

Apply research in the following domains:

Communication: Design a sustained program of communication and engagement across multiple platforms to persuade the public that developers, builders, and operators of rental housing can be part of the solution to rising housing prices.

Legal: Initiate both broad and narrow legal challenges to areas of regulation and policy that are contributing to rising prices by adding costs to and limiting the production of housing.

Regulatory Engagement: Maintain effort to ameliorate and limit costly non-legislative intervention and action by local government that increases the costs and limits the production of housing.

Outcome

  • Improved legislation and policy in 2018 and 2019
  • Better footing for pro-growth and housing candidates in 2019 election
  • Recruit and elect at least one strong pro-growth and housing candidate to the Seattle City Council
  • Developers, builders, and operators of rental housing are included in making housing policy.
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