When we start to consider this possibility, we come across a point of view which is so amazing that we will pause over it. According to it, our so-called civilization itself is to blame for a great part of our misery, and we should be much happier if we were to give it up and go back to primitive conditions. I call this amazing because—however one may define culture—it is undeniable that every means by which we try to guard ourselves against menaces from the several sources of human distress is a part of this same culture.
Civilization and its Discontents
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien visited with the Seattle Builder’s Council on at its March meeting last Thursday morning. O’Brien said that “tensions are high” in Seattle’s neighborhoods as the city grows. Something interesting and dangerous has been going on in Seattle’s neighborhoods; the coming together of neighbors worried about the effects of new people moving into the city and what’s left of the Occupy Seattle movement. Today fear of changes that come with economic growth, new people, and the construction of housing, has merged with a social equity and justice movement. But when these two things get put together—an demand for lower housing prices and calls for no more housing—the proposed solutions are unworkable and actually hurt poor people.
When I first got involved in Seattle neighborhood work it was a neighborhood activist and planner in Beacon Hill and South Park. Back then, in the 1990s, at least once or twice a week, you’d find me and dozens of other neighborhood people working with City staff or a consultant on ways to add to our neighborhood; traffic circles, sidewalks, road and traffic improvements, and yes, even changes in zoning to attract new development. In those days, we would sometimes bicker with the City over how long it was taking to get something fixed, but we had our eye on improvements not stopping development or growth.
We even had our challenges with developers. In 1998, Wright Runstad made a deal with the Pacific Medical Public Development Authority to move Amazon into the old Naval hospital, a prominent landmark on the north end of Beacon Hill. Here’s what I said then about the process:
My point here is not to argue the finer points of the deal. That is not the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue is trust and the role of government and the private sector in neighborhood planning and development.
As a resident of Beacon Hill involved in the neighborhood, I was disappointed in the way PacMed initially handled the deal. There was an air of secrecy, and many of us had a sense that the deal would go through with or without our support. This deal was done, and the ink was dry.
In another opinion piece in the Seattle Times called Neighborhood Voice Key in Planning, I said that the “process [of new development] should also rely on the existing network of neighborhood organizations that are active and strong all over this city.” I added that this principle of engagement “should be embraced by developers in both the public and private sector. It will save time and money.”
What a different world we live in today.
While Councilmember O’Brien was speaking with the Builders Council he made very much the same pitch I made back then. But I would never advise a builder to walk around the neighborhood and “knock on doors with cookies” as Councilmember O’Brien suggested at the breakfast meeting. The neighbors might just file a law suit or appeal! And based on stories I’ve heard from some of our smaller builders, a builder might even benefit from a body guard.
Today’s neighborhood groups are advocating things like a moratorium on growth, a shocking and unthinkable thing when I was an active neighbor. On Saturday morning I attended a panel discussion held by the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, a group that is advocating for shutting down permitting in dozens of Seattle neighborhoods.
And Councilmember O’Brien pointed out that all the various antidevelopment and no-growth groups are banding together, something I warned him about back in 2012 when he voted against allowing some retail use on the ground floor of new development in the Lowrise 3 zone. Here’s what I said in a Crosscut article about the growing power of the no growth crowd who use Saul Alinsky style organizing to protect the status quo:
This balance of power can’t shift without courage, by developers, unions, and environmentalists who must support a louder, stronger voice for dense, transit-oriented neighborhoods, not just intellectual dialogues and power point presentations. Those advocates for better land use will have to steel themselves for more conflict with the most powerful group in the city: single-family neighborhoods.
So here we are. Councilmember O’Brien told us that the petitions and lawsuits are only just beginning, and he said, as a politician he has to listen to the opponents of growth. But the problem is that what logical outcome of merging angry, worried neighbors that want to protect their own financial investments with social justice arguments about rents being too high, is, ironically, less housing and higher prices.
This is a big reason why Smart Growth Seattle was born; the development community needs a steady, determined, and consistent voice making the case for growth in this negative environment. Mandating wage increases and stopping housing development is a recipe for disaster; that tells workers, “we pay great wages, but please don’t try to live here.” Neighbors do have power and sway over politicians (see Representative Pollet’s response to entitled homeowners), a power I suggest they are abusing. Let’s hope Seattle’s elected leaders listen to the worry, but do the right thing and the best thing to help people of all incomes moving to the city: build more housing.
This week I was on KING 5 News pushing back on the idea that a moratorium on new housing would actually help prices in Seattle. I said what we’ve been saying over and over, slowing the construction of new housing is a recipe for scarcity, and scarcity means higher prices. People love our city and they want to work and live here now more than ever and that is a great thing.
But some people in Seattle want to shut the door to new jobs and new housing in the name of “saving” existing affordable housing. Here’s what Jon Fox said in a recent editorial in Real Change. He wants the City Council and Mayor to:
Establish a moratorium on issuing residential construction permits in all neighborhoods where rates of growth already exceed levels needed to meet their 2024 regional growth targets.
Require any developer tearing down low-income housing to replace those units one-for-one, and give low-income tenants the first right to purchase their apartments before they’re sold to developers.
Listening to Fox and his allies like Councilmember Kshama Sawant one would think that new growth going on in Seattle had wiped out a lot of existing housing. While it is true that new construction often demolishes existing housing, just how many homes were removed and replaced with new housing?
Here is a chart that shows a comparison of new housing units built compared to units removed from use or demolished (click on chart for larger image).
The story that moratorium advocates tout–that new housing construction comes largely at the expense of existing housing–simply isn’t true. The facts point to a different story; over a decade 40,000 housing units were built while less than 5,000 units were removed from use or demolished. Each one of those housing units has a story, functioning as a home for real people and families. But Seattle has been able to grow and create lots of housing without wiping out large swaths of existing homes.
And where was the growth and the demolition?
Less than half of the new homes were built in highrise and midrise zones (the places where Fox says all the supposed harm is being done) and the high and midrise zones had the fewest existing homes demolished. That’s because that construction often happened on existing parking lots or retail uses.
The lowrise zone saw the most existing housing units removed compared to new units, which shows that much of the growth there did not come at the expense of residual single-family homes in that zone. In single family zones it’s important to note that that growth was more single family homes taking the place of fewer single family homes, and not the result of up zones. It’s also hard to argue that the homes taken down were all “affordable” by the official definition since the removed homes weren’t uniform in their location or type.
And how did Seattle do in creating more affordable units during that same period? In 2012 the City reported
$13.8 million will support eight housing developments with 508 affordable apartments. An additional $3 million was awarded to three previously funded projects for building improvements and to address a financing gap. The eight new projects will result in over $137 million in total capital investment, creating jobs and generating state and local revenues. These projects bring total rental housing production to 1,371 units, well on the way to meeting the Levy’s seven year goal of 1,670 units.
The City’s levy effort alone, over seven years, created 1,371 units; that’s roughly 30 percent of the units removed during a nine year period. This doesn’t include rental assistance and other programs to help offset housing costs for poor people.
When housing prices rise the best thing to do is to build more housing of all kinds in every zone, including more housing for people with less to spend. A moratorium on new housing during the period shown would certainly have “saved” some portion of the 4,727 units removed, but it would have meant tens of thousands of new people would have had no where to live in Seattle. That would have been terrible then, and it doesn’t sound like a good plan for the future either.
Representatives of an ad hoc citywide group of community activists [were] on hand to ask for advice and support from the Federation and its member organizations for tough growth controls and developer impact fees and to join at a large planned press event the week prior to the Mayor’s planned neighborhood summit. The goal is to create a unified, simple position across neighborhoods we can all unify around, present it at a press conference and then carry the message to the Mayor’s April neighborhood summit.
The group is determined to crack down on new growth as if it was a crime wave. Here’s how I responded:
Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, says additional growth is needed to drive rent costs down.
“If you think housing is expensive now, wait until you put a moratorium on it,” he said. “If these folks close off the housing supply there is not going to be anywhere for them to live. They are going to have to live outside the city. We think that is unsustainable.”
As I pointed out in a recent blog post, Seattle is growing. That’s a really good thing. The challenge is to provide housing choices to people who want to work and live here. That’s what we’re advocating for. Fortunately, there is a voice now to speak in favor of growth in our city. We have a lot of work ahead to persuade people that more housing, not less, is what will help lower prices.
The Seattle Times reports this morning that for the first time in a century the growth trend in our region has changed: more people are moving to Seattle than surrounding towns and cities.
The housing market reflects this trend; more people are seeking jobs in Seattle and also a place to call home.
Signs of Seattle’s success are not difficult to spot. Everywhere you look there seems to be a new apartment building under construction. As reported in The Seattle Times, more apartments were opened in 2013 than in any of the previous 20 years.
And the people needed to fill all those new units are showing up. Seattle gained more than 23,000 residents between 2010 and 2012. Census data show that among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities, Seattle has had the eighth-fastest rate of growth.
This growth is a good thing for the city; it means our economy is getting better. It also means increasing demand for housing. If we don’t build more housing it will become scarce, and scarce housing means higher priced housing. If we allow more housing of all kinds in all neighborhoods, we’ll get stable or even falling prices for housing. If we hesitate and add more fees and process, prices will get higher and the voices demanding more regulation and price controls will get louder.
Ironically it’s that discomfort and those voices the City Council hears from the most as we grow, and those voices often advocate for policies that would make things worse: more limits, process, and fees on new housing.
That’s why as we grow, we should be thinking ahead; we can make things get better or fall behind like San Francisco that is now 100,000 units behind in meeting housing demand. Now that’s uncomfortable and expensive for everyone.
This past week the Seattle Times published a guest editorial by Diane Douglas the Executive Director of the Seattle CityClub, headlined, “Seattleites Stop Ignoring Your Neighbors.” The CityClub says it goal is to provide “a space to talk about the issues that impact our lives. Dialogue that is passionately nonpartisan. Connections to leaders and local government. Tools and inspiration to make a difference.” In order to “bridge politics, professions and generations” the organization sponsored a survey to measure Seattle’s Civic Health.
According to Douglas, the report found that Seattle lacks social cohesion. Page 10 of the report quantifies what some have called the “Seattle Freeze” this way:
We rank 48th of 51 comparable communities in the frequency of neighbors talking with neighbors and 37th in neighbors exchanging favors with one another frequently. How can we strengthen greater Seattle’s vibrant civic infrastructure so that everyone is included and the community reaps the benefits of their civic agency?
Douglas suggests that the “Freeze” effect is a real thing, not in your imagination. People really are odd here when it comes to social interaction and engagement. But her editorial and the report go on to say that it actually is a serious problem, making it harder in Seattle to solve some of our serious civic problems. I agree. And that’s true when it comes to housing too, when it becomes acceptable not just to avoid neighbors but call them and where they live names.
Here’s what Douglas suggests as a solution:
Imagine if we could keep the 12th Man spirit going and deepen it to extend to everyone, to other issues, all year round. Imagine if we could hold on to this civic spirit as if it were the force that would catapult us to the next championship. What we’re playing for is not just the Super Bowl championship, but the high stakes championship of our regional prosperity.
True. I think the 12th Man connection is a pretty powerful one, but how about one that is even deeper. Many Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches had a series of relevant readings this past Sunday including from Leviticus stating what is often called the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Regardless of religious bent or no bent at all, the Golden Rule is one of those inherently sensible normative statements that almost everyone can embrace. If we all treated each other the way we prefer to be treated, the argument goes, most of the world’s great problems would solve themselves.
Whether it’s the 12th Man Spirit or the Golden Rule, Seattle would benefit from a more welcoming atmosphere toward new people and different housing types. So often the discourse gets riddled with references like the one made by Representative Gerry Pollet calling some people’s homes “monstrosities” or Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant saying that living in microhousing is “not humane.” Some people have even blocked buses full of people trying to get to work because they are “yuppies” who are driving up housing prices.
Our elected officials should lead the way by talking about including all the options for Seattle’s housing future. And, in the end, these are neighbors we’re talking about. Buildings matter, but aren’t the people inside them what counts? Calling people’s homes names really isn’t going to get us very far toward finding the 12th Man Spirit or the following the Golden Rule.
And if cohesion helps solve our big problems like creating more housing choices, shouldn’t we love our neighbor’s home as much as our own? What would happen to our housing debate if we talked about making room for new people and jobs rather than fretting over “height, bulk, and scale?” What if we celebrated and welcomed all the new people moving to our region with crazed enthusiasm like we welcomed back the Seahawks?