The Solution to “Gentrification?” Less Guilt, More Housing!

Rainier Vista

I’ve always understood the sentiments behind concerns about what people call gentrification, but I have never had those feelings myself. Even worse, I’m not sure I even understand what other people mean by what they call gentrification. When I ask for a definition or look for one, there are many and they are almost never quantitative. Usually, the word is a code word: a term that we’re all supposed to intuitively understand. Daniel Hertz worries about being a gentrifier himself, and he writes in the Atlantic Cities Place Matters that

We tend to carry a lot of guilt about our living arrangements. We have a lot of conversations about whether or not it’s acceptable to live in our current neighborhood, or the one we’d like to live in. Sometimes, we reassure ourselves by discussing the obviously graver transgressions of the people who live in some other neighborhood, which has accumulated slightly more bougie coffee shops and restaurants. Sometimes we find solace in some part of the continuum of gentrification that we’re comfortable with: the very beginning, when you can kid yourself that your presence isn’t changing anything; or when the tipping point has tipped, and the damage has already been done.

Exactly. Worries over gentrification tend to be all about race, geography, and guilt. And there is almost no way around the idea that trying to stop racial and economic change in a neighborhood ends up being reverse red lining like the ridiculous assertion in a Puget Sound Sage report from a while back that said the Rainier Valley should remain “majority minority.” I responded to that idea in a Crosscut article that got me in a lot of trouble with some people.

Racism exists in our society and we should seek to end it and reverse its impacts. Poverty exists and we need to figure out how to better create economic opportunity for everyone. But locking a neighborhood into a permanent ethnic mix? That’s an extreme idea, and one that I suspect the authors of the Sage study might want to attenuate, rethink, or rephrase.

They refused to step back from that language. The truth is that neighborhoods change, they get wealthier, then poorer, then wealthier again. Buildings rise and fall, old timers fade away, and new old timers take their place. That ugly sign everyone hates, or that restaurant that everyone says is a dive, may end up being the neighborhood “character” everyone tried to save when new housing arrives.

Hertz realizes this, and in his post resolves the issue like this.

We need to recognize what’s really going on: that what we call “gentrification” these days is only one facet of the much larger issue of economic segregation. That people get priced out of the places they already live in is only half of the problem. The other half, which affects an order of magnitude more people, is that people can’t move to the neighborhoods to which they’d like to move, and are stuck in places with worse schools, more crime, and inferior access to jobs and amenities like grocery stores. That problem is easier to ignore for a variety of reasons, but it’s no less of a disaster.

And all this, in turn, is the result of a curiously dysfunctional housing system – one that’s set up to allow market forces to push up prices without regard for people who might be excluded, and to prevent market forces from building more homes and mitigating that exclusion [emphasis mine].

The answer (to the extent that there needs to be one) to gentrification is more economic opportunity for everyone and more housing choices for everyone. Hertz almost certainly wouldn’t entirely agree with me, but the guilt associated with success or with buying a new house in a “bad” neighborhood shouldn’t influence public policy. That’s an issue that should be handled by a therapist.

However, the notion that the best response to that guilt should be tightening regulations around new housing  only makes the problem worse. And advocates like Puget Sound Sage get themselves throughly confused, advocating on the one hand for racial segregation in the Rainier Valley, but then crying racism a the suggestion of putting affordable housing there. People should be able to live wherever they want, and when they can’t because of price, it’s usually because we’ve over-regulated the market to try, ironically, to lower prices. This ends up excluding people, especially poor people. Hertz is right, we should be, as a city, putting our energy into “building more homes and mitigating that exclusion.”

Labor Takes a Vacation


Street and alley vacations can be a fraught affair these days. A vacation is when a private developer purchases public right of way to build on, under, or over. A parking lot under an alley way, for example, is a subterranean vacation. But it’s not just a sale because there has to be “public benefit.” The problem is that various groups, especially labor unions, are starting to hold up projects claiming that their interests are the same as the public interests. The problem is not that labor is trying to make this argument, but that the City, once again, is responding to the loudest voices right in front of their faces without thinking about the broader implications for land use and housing policy in the city.

Here’s the process from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) website:

Street vacation decisions are City Council actions as provided by State statute. There is no right under the zoning code or elsewhere to vacate or to develop public right-of-way. In order to do so, a discretionary legislative approval must be obtained from the City Council and, under law, the Council may not vacate right-of-way unless it determines that to do so is in the public interest. Part of that determination is to insure that potential development and use of the vacated right-of-way would be in the public interest. This determination may be guided by established land use policies and standards as called for by the street vacation policies, but the Council is not bound by land use policies and codes in making street vacation decisions and may condition or deny vacations as necessary to protect the public interest.

Two alley vacations have attracted some attention over the last year. In West Seattle Mayor McGinn played election year politics with a vacation for a development with a Whole Foods in it. The Mayor said that,

We have a strong commitment to social and economic justice at the City of Seattle. One of our core economic development goals is to provide fair and livable wages and benefits for our residents.

Earlier this week the Seattle City Council approved, fortunately, the West Seattle alley vacation anyway. Here’s the coverage from the West Seattle Blog:

Rollcall vote: 6 yes, 3 no. The alley vacation petition is approved. Rasmussen offers closing words that the development will upgrade what is currently a “bleak” site. He also thanks everyone for public involvement in the extensive process. The “no” votes are Mike O’Brien, Nick Licata, and Kshama Sawant; the “yes” votes are Tom Rasmussen, Sally Bagshaw, Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, Sally Clark, Jean Godden.

The “no” votes said it was about various reasons like truck access and the negative impact on pedestrians. But it’s hard to take that seriously when the union was out in force talking about wages and the United Food and Commercial Workers gave McGinn $50,000 in campaign contributions. In my view, the neighborhood concerns were of the standard red herring variety. But the union was clearly out to either unionize the Whole Foods or keep competition out of the neighborhood.

Across town, labor has also been flexing it’s muscles in another dispute over an alley vacation. This time they seem to have stymied the developer. Because of pressure from labor over the vacation over the same wage and organizing issues, the developer is skipping the vacation. Without it, the project will be smaller and have no affordable housing.

Under the new proposal, the hotel would have 1,280 rooms and take up only three-quarters of the block between Howell andStewart streets and Eighth and Ninth avenues. Hedreen would prefer to build a 1,685-room project on the entire block. The smaller project lacks many of the amenities of the larger development. It would not have 156 units of onsite affordable housing, and there’s no public park along the length of Ninth Avenue.

The labor advocates said this about the project and the jobs it would create:

The project will employ over 1,000 workers (over 700 will work in the hotel). However, the jobs will likely be low-wage, no benefit jobs with unsafe working conditions.

Clearly when labor talks about benefits they mean wages and benefits for their workers. With the long drawn out process created by controversy over public benefits the safest thing to do for the developer was to make the project smaller. So there will be fewer amenities and no affordable housing. A project that would have actually created affordable units on site now will have none. How’s that for public benefit.

I have no problem with unions trying to use the public benefit process to make the case for increases in wages or even the number of members in their union. That’s what unions do. But because of the amount of money they spend on political campaigns and worry over reelection, politicians have a tendency to do exactly what the vacation process intends to avoid: holding projects hostage to every single claim made by specific interest groups claiming public benefit. Why doesn’t the City show leadership and facilitate a discussion between labor and proponents of proposed projects to find mutually beneficial solutions rather than hiding the real issues, wages and benefits, behind design committees and NIMBY red herrings?

The two parties that need to negotiate over wages and union membership are employers and unions, not developers and the City, especially when there is additional housing supply at stake. Turning the street and alley vacation process into a labor negotiation doesn’t make any sense, especially when builders don’t have control over the wages paid by tenants of the their buildings. And even if they did, the City should not be holding up vacations while that gets worked out, especially when it adds additional costs to housing or worse still, reduces the number of units that get created. But the City could discuss wages and benefits in a more appropriate forum.

Don’t we have enough efforts underway to tax, regulated, and limit housing? Unions perform an important function, especially when they represent lower wage workers. But allowing unions to start using the vacation process to try to get higher wages will result in developers avoiding the process which will take away any leverage the City has to create public benefits (which should be for the widest possible number of people) in exchange for the right of way it’s giving up. This is a bad precedent that the Council should not set. They did the right thing in West Seattle but their lack of movement on the Hedreen has cost the city affordable housing.

On Urban Density: We’re Not All Goldilocks

Photo adapted from "Urban Canyon" by Diego Torres Silvestre

This post originally appeared on Better Institutions on April 20, 2014.

Goldilocks is the story of a selfish young girl who breaks into another family’s home, eats their food, and destroys their property. She has a very self-centered perception of what’s “just right,” and she’s perfectly willing to trample on the rights of others in her quest to acquire it. It’s fitting, then, that some authors have made reference to Goldilocks when writing about how cities “should” be built. But in their view it’s not the little girl who’s the monster, it’s the Three Bears and their divergent, inharmonious tastes. There’s a proper urban density just as surely as there’s a proper porridge temperature, and if you don’t like it, well, you can go live with the bears.

Here’s one take, from the Guardian’s recent piece, “Cities need Goldilocks housing density – not too high or low, but just right“:

There is no question that high urban densities are important, but the question is how high, and in what form. There is what I have called the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

Other authors have written similarly prescriptive articles, with titles like “Mid-Rise: Density at a Human Scale,” which makes the case that density is important, but that too much density can be harmful. Or “Why I Miss the Suburbs,” which consists of a woman who lives in New York City complaining about all the things she misses about the suburbs. Or here’s a local Seattle man offering his feelings on micro-housing: ”I don’t think most people want to live next to a boarding house with itinerant people living in it.”

Putting aside the loaded language of that last quote, what each of these share is the belief that there’s a “right” way to build cities. In their view there’s a balanced amount of development — somewhere between two-story dingbats and 80-story skyscrapers — that will make everyone happy. This mindset is no less destructive than Goldilocks herself, but on a scale far beyond at of a single household’s personal property.

Most people probably don’t want to live in a city full of skyscrapers, but some surely do. Manhattan is a real place, after all. Not everyone wants to live in a sprawling, suburban neighborhood either. Some people enjoy the anonymity of the big city, others hate it. To state the very obvious, different people are different. They like different foods and different cars, or they don’t like cars at all; they have different political ideologies and appreciate different art; and they enjoy different urban environments to different degrees.

No one is forcing these people to be here! Photo by Bon Adrien.

Imposing my values to ensure that only a specific type of urban environment exists robs others of the opportunity to find their own Happy City. Unlike Goldilocks, who breaks some dishware and a chair or two, successful NIMBYs are taking away entire homes from people who would like to live in their city — they remove those potential homes from the market, and they drive up the cost of living for everyone else in the process. There’s something to be said for incrementalism, but arbitrary limits to density, excessive parking minimums, and other rigid regulations that define which forms are acceptable (and, more to the point, which are not) cost us dearly: lost productivity, overpriced housing, air pollution, sprawl, poor health and obesity; the list goes on and on.

In cities — places known for accepting and celebrating diversity — it’s amazing that we have to fight over what kinds of housing are appropriate and not. If it’s safe and clean, and someone wants to live in it, that should resolve 90 percent of the issue. They should have the right to live as they please. Community input should play a role, including on aesthetic matters, but arguments that “I wouldn’t want to live there” have no place in the discussion,especially when those homes are maintaining vacancy rates of approximately zero. If no one wants to live there, no one will, and you’ll be unlikely to see that type of housing again any time soon.



About Shane Phillips
I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, got my driver’s license the day I turned 16, and rarely visited the city because driving in it was so unpleasant. Seven years later I moved to Seattle and realized the problem wasn’t the city, but how I chose to get around in it. I’m currently pursuing my Masters in Public Administration and Urban Planning at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and working on behalf of more sustainable, safe, healthy, economically productive cities. You can read more by Shane Phillips at his blog Better Institutions.

DPD on Sinks: Social Plumbing, Too

Shapiro 4

Scott Shapiro of Eagle Rock Ventures sent the following letter to Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and City Council staff on proposals from DPD to regulate sinks in microhouisng. I’ve written about the strange obsession that some people on Council and others have about sinks (I called it social plumbing). This is a good technical break down of why the idea of micromanaging sinks makes no sense. 

The Director’s Report and Recommendation for Micro-housing Units and Congregate Residences, Proposed Action #5 intends to limit kitchen components in individual micros and sleeping rooms to differentiate from dwelling units. This proposal would disallow plumbed sinks from being placed within the bedroom portion of the micro – requiring that the plumbed sink be placed in the bathroom enclosure.

Plumbed sinks outside of the bathroom enclosure are not particular to solely micro-housing projects. We have found numerous case studies in which plumbed sinks are placed outside of the bathroom enclosure for the intent of a better functioning space and/or a better designed space. Our research proves that numerous building types, including single-family, multi-family, dormitory, and hospitality projects, place sinks outside of building enclosures. Liberty University places their sink outside of the bathroom enclosure of their 2 bedroom units (photo attached on following page). The sink is placed outside of the bedroom doors and is separate from the toilet/bath enclosure. Numerous hotel room prototypes, as seen in the Yotel, Staybridge Suites and the Great Wolf Lodge, place the sink outside of the bathroom enclosure to deal better with the functionality of the compactness of the room.

Lincoln University Dormitory Floor Plan

Lincoln University Dormitory Floor Plan

Great Wolf Lodge Floor Plan: Grand Mound, WA

Great Wolf Lodge Floor Plan: Grand Mound, WA

Great Wolf Lodge Interior Photo (Sink on left): Grand Mound, WA

Great Wolf Lodge Interior Photo (Sink on left): Grand Mound, WA

As a building owner, we care about the quality of space we provide our tenants. For a tenant who is an artist or a painter, the benefit of having a sink within their living space is compelling. It is placed nearby so that they’ll be able to quickly clean their paint brush as they continue to work on their piece. This small example shows the functional benefit of our current floor plans in our units.

Given the inherit complexities of designing successful and functional living spaces with a small footprint, we recommend that DPD review reassess its Proposed Action #5. This recommendation regulates a design and functionality issue that has possess no threat to public health or fire and life safety. The ability to provide our tenants with a sink outside of the bathroom enclosure allows them more flexibility to meet their unique needs within their living quarters.

NIMBYs: The Koch Brothers of Land Use


When I first met with Mike O’Brien and his lead staff person on land use, Esther Handy, she told me, “I’m here to look out for the little guy when the market can’t.” I think Councilmember O’Brien and Handy are sincere in their desire to accomplish advances toward the goals of social equity and justice. We probably disagree on the paths on how to make things better for poor people, but that’s not unusual among intelligent and dedicated people.

But I truly hope that Councilmember O’Brien will take a close look with fairness at two critical decisions coming before him and the Council on housing and land use. The first is how the Council responds to small-lot proposals offered by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). The second is proposals that impact microhousing, also submitted by DPD. In both cases people who are current residents, mostly residents of single family houses, are demanding actions from Council that will make it more difficult to build housing for new people moving to our region.

There is a very important article authored by John McNellis called Tyrannies in America published in a Bay Area real estate blog called The Registry. McNellis calls out the connection between the recent Supreme Court decision in the McCutcheon case allowing unlimited political money in campaigns and the movement of angry neighbors who fight growth and new housing. McNellis rightly points out that opponents of change represent a tiny minority–probably less that 1 percent–of the city’s people. They also know nothing about about the economics of development. McNellis says the angry neighbors are the Koch Brothers of land use, spending lots of resources to influence the lives of other people by distorting the democratic system.

How can less than a tenth of one per cent of a town’s population wield so much power? Easy. One need only combine the majority’s apathy, the opponents’ zealotry and the city officials’ fear of losing their jobs with two facts, the first curious, the second mercantile.

The curious fact is this:  every neighbor who has ever spoken at a public hearing anywhere in America is convinced that he knows not only as much but more about development than the project’s design professionals. Just as half the fans at a game are certain their coach is a dope and that they should be calling the plays, even someone dropping by city hall to pay a parking ticket knows more than the dim-witted developer. Not to mention the city’s under-appreciated planning staff.  Would such a neighbor speak with the same authoritative hubris about a city’s financial investments or its aging infrastructure or even its trash service? No. Curiously, only sports and real estate require no training to become expert commentators.

And these angry neighbors concerned about their views and parking and the “winter light” are given the same weight in decisions about the future of the city as hundreds of thousands of new people who will need housing in the years ahead. Does that make sense? Is that fair? Is that just?

And the mercantile point?

If a self-appointed expert brays and no one listens, is he still as obnoxious? This philosophical question brings us to our obvious mercantile point: newspapers exist to make money. The headline, “Project Clears Next Hurdle” will have a reader flipping open the recycling bin. But “Embattled Developer Faces Rabid Opposition” gets readers to the ads on page 42.

If a paper were to report that a project’s only opponents were the village idlers who, for want of a more productive hobby, oppose every single project brought forth in a city, the paper would not only lose money, but the poor city officials might feel so emboldened as to approve projects in a timely manner.

Money being money, this is never the case. Rather than ignore the loudly ignorant, the newspapers accord them—at a minimum—equal status with that of the experts. Thus, in the article reporting a hearing, a parent’s instinctual fear of traffic will neatly offset a highly-researched traffic study.

Very true. And what happens when the village idlers are wealthy enough to maintain a law suit all the way to Federal Court against a house that is already built. The law suit filed against the “alley skyscraper” in Green Lake was pursued even though the house was done, permitted for occupancy, and sold. That takes time and money. Even people accused of a crime in Seattle usually can’t maintain that kind of fight.

And as McNellis points out, local politicians take note sometimes not just to keep their jobs, but to score political points. Take State Representative Gerry Pollett for example, who has been grandstanding his way through the small-lot issue since earlier this session. polletThis is a great issue for Pollett who calls his neighbors houses monstrosities, but when he actually looked at the houses in question on a tour, he admitted that it looked “fine.” But Pollett scores points and maybe even campaign contributions when he bashes his neighbors houses and the builders and workers who build them.

All this points to the simple fact that we are a growing city and it simply isn’t fair to plan around people who are more worried about what they see out their kitchen window than the needs of a growing city. Councilmember O’Brien believes in fairness and opportunity. A great place to show how that works is to dial down the voices of the minority and dial up consideration for the people who are on their way here and have dreams and hopes for a future in our city. The fair thing to do is make room in our city for new people who want to join in our prosperity.