City Builder: Arts and Culture Always Part of a Great City

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I had a chance today to talk with a local artist about space for art and culture. His project would bring a new gallery and work space for artists to a great downtown space. We agreed on one thing: Seattle needs to figure out how to grow, create more jobs, and build more housing while also making the city a place where art and culture can thrive. His point was that new development should pay for preserving space for art and culture, mine was that in many ways it already does. What’s obvious is that we need to do more. 

Years ago I was an arts funder, and what I learned then was that the success of a city’s arts and cultural economy is deeply tied to real estate. I wrote an opinion piece for the Seattle Times back in 2007. Here’s what I said then:

The story follows a familiar path. A local arts organization without much money finds space in an older building where the rent is reasonable. The owner is willing to allow the group to knock out a couple of walls, make as much noise as it wants, and start doing what it does: art.

The owner isn’t interested at that time in selling the underutilized property for high rise-condos or other development, and the arts organizations, taking heart, sign or extend leases.

But, the day comes when the economic lure becomes too great, or family dynamics change, and the owner decides to sell. Faced with a changing use of the property, the arts tenants put out a call for help, but it’s too late.

Does it have to be this way?

The answer, of course, is no. I proposed some ideas back then I think are still good ones.

  • Use the bonding capacity of the 4Culture public-development authority to acquire and redevelop key properties for cultural uses, which can generate enough revenue to pay back the bonds over time.
  • Create incentive zoning that allows more building height in return for on-site cultural use or payment for it elsewhere. We can provide more housing, while sharing some of the profit for arts and culture.
  • Expand the transfer of development rights for cultural use; the city could buy development rights from owners who have culturally significant properties and then resell that capacity for more housing somewhere else.

I’m not so sure about the “incentive” piece anymore after what I’ve seen the City do with that concept. Chances are it would end up just adding more costs. But an incentive program that offered reduced property tax for including long term use for non-profit arts organizations or individual artists might make sense.

In the end, a great city thrives because of innovation and collaboration, not fiats from City Hall or complicated schemes to hold up growth with taxes and fees. 

The artist I spoke to today reminded me a lot of small builders contending with a myriad of rules and regulations from the City intended to solve lots of unrelated problems and adding costs. Someday, in his new space, I hope we can have a dialogue between builders and artists because I think we have a common interest in building a better city, and a common enemy: costly rules that make creating good things like art and housing more challenging.

Rasmussen Proposal More Protectionism than Conservation

Outgoing Councilmember Tom Rasmussen unveiled his concept called Neighborhood Conservation Districts, borrowed from other cities around the country and designed to preserve the difficult define concept of “neighborhood character.” Rasmussen justified doing this on his own (Rasmussen is chair of the transportation committee) by saying Councilmembers should be concerned about all issues affecting the city, even if it isn’t their area of responsibility on Council. Rasmussen did the same thing with microhousing two years ago, end-running land use chair at the time Richard Conlin, and more recently with Councilmember O’Brien on single family infill.

Oddly, though, Rasmussen told the 20 or so people as he introduced former Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, “don’t blame me, this is Peter’s idea.” One wonders how much influence the former Councilmember has had over the proposal and Lund Consulting, a firm hired and paid for out of the Council’s discretionary consultant budget to staff the effort.

The problems with the idea of Neighborhood Conservation Districts are obvious to anyone who is familiar with the existing political environment in Seattle and how difficult and costly it already is to get a building permit. Seattle already has an expensive design review process that adds cost to housing. And design review is a process frequently devoted to explaining to neighbors that they can’t change underlying zoning. Who pays for all the process? Builders, who in turn have to pass that cost on to buyers and renters, which increases housing prices.

The consultant explained that a Neighborhood Conservation District would be defined by neighborhoods themselves, in particular the majority of property owners. An example? A neighborhood of post war bungalows would be protected from infill development that was too “modern in design and materials.” The approval process in a designated district would be governed by a board of neighbors that would preside over “changes to buildings.” Yes, that’s right, not just new construction but things like changes to doors, windows, rooflines, and even landscaping.

Councilmember Rasmussen actually has set aside money in this year’s budget to provide City staff for the boards should he get the proposal passed by the full Council, something he says he wants done and implemented by September this year.

What the proposal smacks of is government sanctioned Home Owner Associations (HOA), the bane of many a home or condominium owner because of HOA’s fussy and fastidious rules about everything from fixtures inside houses to how many Christmas lights are allowed. All this is sure to add to the costs not just of building new housing but to maintaining existing housing costs which, again, will get passed on to renters.

The consultant pointed out that the proposal was a way of protecting neighborhoods that are not historic or landmarked, but have “such a continuity that there is a story to tell here” and have buildings that are in “excellent condition, without any architectural changes.” Clearly the idea of the Neighborhood Conservation Districts is to do what you do when you “conserve” something by putting in a jar of formaldehyde: keeping it the same way forever.

And neighborhood comments and concerns from attendees made it pretty clear that they didn’t think the proposal went far enough. How to does this help deal with the fact that “single-family is disappearing and being replaced by high rises?” And more than one neighbor wondered, including former Councilmember Steinbrueck, what happens to single-family homes that are of “significance” that are in low-rise zones? How does the proposal preserve large houses in multifamily areas?

Not only that, a couple neighbors asked what about the “intangible elements” of character that are not captured by architectural standards. How, the neighbors wondered, can we preserve and control those? In the end the Rasmussen proposal is exactly pointing the wrong direction, attempting to stoke neighborhood desires to keep things the same when change is what Seattle needs to accommodate coming growth sustainably and affordably. Hopefully the proposal goes nowhere and disappears with Councilmember Rasmussen when finishes his term at the end of this year.

Micros and Housing: Smart Growth Seattle on the Dave Ross Show

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Yesterday morning I had the chance to be on the Dave Ross Show on KIRO Radio. I think the interview was a great chance to get our message across about microhousing but also about the importance of housing affordability and choice in general. Give the segment a listen in the embed below.

California Report: Density Can Mean Affordability

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Another gem from the recently released report on expensive housing in California: density means lower prices. Again, this isn’t a shock to many of us, but growth resisters have made density and supply dirty words. They aren’t, and in fact the report from California’s independent and non-partisian Legislative Analyst’s Office building more housing and dense housing is part of the answer to lowering prices. Here’s why:

High Land Costs Can Be Offset Through Dense Development. Although high land costs can translate into higher home prices and rents, it is possible to offset the effects of high land costs through more dense development. (The density of housing refers to the number of housing units per unit of land—typically measured in units per acre. Higher- density housing, such as an apartment building, has more housing units per acre.) Building more units on the same plot of land allows a developer to spread land costs across more units, lessening the impact of land costs on the cost of each unit. This is because land costs are fixed and do not increase if a developer builds additional units. For example, if a developer builds five homes on a plot of land that costs $100,000, the land cost per unit is $20,000. Alternatively, if the developer builds ten homes on the same plot of land, the land cost per unit is only $10,000. Builders faced with high land costs, therefore, generally will build more dense housing. When this occurs, the effect of high land costs on home prices and rents is reduced.

This is why microhousing worked so well; more, smaller units mean cost sharing between renters and lower prices for the same land, construction, and financing costs. It’s like 20 people going to dinner and splitting the bill for the same amount of food instead of 10 people paying for the same dinner; more people means smaller portions but spending less money. It’s that simple. But what makes doing this impossible? Neighborhood opposition, of course.

Community Decisions Can Exacerbate Land Scarcity. City and county land use policies can alleviate pressures created by limited vacant land by encouraging redevelopment and allowing developers to build more housing on each parcel. In many California communities, however, for reasons discussed earlier the opposite is true. Zoning laws often require developers to build housing at densities that are common elsewhere in the community, preventing developers from building at higher densities to counter high land costs. In addition, local communities sometimes pressure developers to reduce a project’s planned density during approval processes. Cities and counties also can magnify the effect of scarce land on housing costs by choosing to allocate a large share of available land to nonhousing uses, such as retail and hotel development.

How long will it take for local officials to get the message from California, a state struggling with the highest housing costs in the nation? I don’t know, but the LAO report is a clear call to allow more housing. Will we heed the warning before we catch up with California?

California Report: Why We Won’t Quit Housing Fight

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An extensive report on the high price of housing in California was released last week by that State’s Legislative Analysts office. It’s conclusions will not be surprising to those of us advocating for more housing at all levels of income. California housing prices are the highest in the nation. Why are California prices so high?

Building Less Housing Than People Demand Drives High Housing Costs. California is a desirable place to live. Yet not enough housing exists in the state’s major coastal communities to accommodate all of the households that want to live there.

That’s right, an independent state agency just said that, yes, it’s true, when there isn’t enough housing, prices go up. And why is there not enough housing?

In these areas, community resistance to housing, environmental policies, lack of fiscal incentives for local governments to approve housing, and limited land constrains new housing construction.

So as one writer points out, it is NIMBYs that create the problem. I get sick and tired of hearing NIMBYs say that they aren’t NIMBYs. People who are adding more process, hoops, rules, fees, and other barriers to creating housing realize what they’re doing but desperately want to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of making it harder to build. “We’re not NIMBYs,” they say,” we just want good growth.” But the report is pretty clear that whatever you call it, making it harder to build doesn’t make housing less expensive. It makes things worse.

And who bears the greatest burden of the housing shortage? Where is the pain felt most in California?

A shortage of housing along California’s coast means households wishing to live there compete for limited housing. This competition bids up home prices and rents. Some people who find California’s coast unaffordable turn instead to California’s inland communities, causing prices there to rise as well.

So the shortage causes bidding up of prices. This is what we have been saying over and over again to sometimes very little effect. When we clamp down on supply in a geographic area, or on the supply of certain types of housing, or lengthen the entitlement process the ensuing shortage means prices go up. But it also means more competition between households for housing, a contest wealthy people always win.

Some people think that I am harsh in my criticism of people pushing for more regulation of housing. What I think some people believe is that we ought to bargain with opponents of new housing; this is something I’m not willing to do. First, as the report makes clear, escalating prices indicate a shortage, and that means we need more. Housing is not a bad thing and too much of it, even if that was possible, favors the renter and the family trying to find housing. Do we really want to sacrifice much needed units to pacify a change resistant faction of the community? I don’t see any benefit to doing that, especially to poor families.

Second, I won’t relent in my efforts to stop people who claim that they are acting for justice or for “good design” or for “good density” from writhing out of the consequences of what they are doing. It’s wrong, and they know it. Is that harsh? I suppose it is.

What’s really harsh is trying to find a place to live that is reasonably priced and not being able to find it because somebody already here as erected a barrier to entering into the market. If I make the comfortable opponent of housing uncomfortable or an elected official feel bad by calling them out for that, I’m not sorry. In fact, it’s my job. If that makes us controversial I don’t care. Someone has to push back so that Seattle doesn’t become more like California, the state with the most expensive housing in the country. We won’t stop doing that.

Art from San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF)

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