April 13, 2006

Mossback's Catch-22

Another week, another anti-city screed from the Seattle Weekly's Knute Berger. There's lots to pick apart in this week's column by "Mossback," but I'll restrain myself.

According to Berger, increasing density won't address sprawl on the urban fringe because:

Big growth in downtown Seattle won't be a sponge for regional growth. In fact, it will likely drive additional growth in the region—just look at the San Francisco Bay Area, which has sprawled endlessly despite San Francisco's higher densities and incomes. A Seattle boom will generate more sprawl and more density, in part because we don't have the strict growth controls in place to truly limit it.

Berger's argument is a lovely compliment to sprawl industry flaks whose mantra is: we can't have growth controls because there's nowhere to build in the cities. But Berger doesn't want density because the growth controls aren't strong enough. No density without growth controls; no growth controls with density. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle.

The obvious solution that Berger overlooks is that increasing density can indeed help corral sprawl. Can density solve the problem all by itself? Of course not. Does that mean density is worthless for controlling sprawl? Again, of course not. Growth boundaries on the urban fringe are important too; and so is smart planning. (That is, density is a necessary condition of growth management, but it's not a sufficient one.)

Definitive proof that density reduces sprawl is hard to come by, but I can get close.

Check out this report, using Census data to track growth in 14 US cities during the 1990s. The cities that do best at controlling sprawl are also the ones boosting their density. Take Portland, Oregon. If Portland had grown like a typical city in the study--that is, if newcomers to Portland had spread out in the typical low-density fashion--the Rose City would have swallowed an additional 150 square miles of rural land. How did Portland spare so many farms and forests? A paired combination of density and growth boundaries. Seattle--with weaker growth controls during the period and anti-density Bergers in the mix--did worse than Portland, but not nearly so badly as places like Charlotte or Nashville.

Berger's argument is, in any case, weirdly perverse. He implies that density will actually speed growth into the Seattle region because--why?--people find density appealing? If people like density enough to move here, I suppose one strategy to prevent growth would be to outlaw density. Or we could try a massive urban uglification campaign, perhaps driving away current residents to boot. Even easier, we could just get rid of cops and fire departments and see how the region grows then. That'll show 'em. 

Truth is, I actually agree with Berger sometimes. I just wish he would stick to making claims he can support instead of getting carried away (see here and here, for instance). He's right to caution against damaging Seattle's historic and architectural legacy. And he's right to remind us, in a general way, to preserve the best of the old while we build for the future. But ranting about paying for parking (in urban neighborhoods, fer gosh sakes!) or "privatizing" sunlight by permitting skyscrapers (no, I'm not making that up) sounds less like civic smarts and more like incoherent ranting.

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March 22, 2006

Seattle's Growing Up

Tower Solid article in the Seattle Times today on the rising building height limits in downtown Seattle.

The article even includes a brief historical note on the 1989 voter-approved height cap following the construction of the super-tall and hideous Columbia Center Columbia Seafirst Center Bank of America Tower BankAmerica Tower Columbia Tower. Seattle's thinking on downtown density has changed quite a bit since then. Instead of constricting development, most are enthusiastic about new development in the city's core--development that is revivifying once-dormant neighborhoods.

Seattleites have change their minds partly because of the dawning realization that downtown density is good environmental policy. It's a superbly efficient use of land (among many other environmental benefits). Over the last two decades, residents watched sprawl devour the Cascade foothills and lowland farms and realized that the salvation for natural spaces was partly in the city.

The article does include once curious bit:

There's scant evidence, however, that the changes would curb sprawl over the next 20 years by pulling more people downtown. Under current or proposed zoning, city studies project about 10,000 new households downtown and 29,000 new jobs in that period. [Emphasis mine.]

That's a non-trivial number of households and jobs, but it's odd--at the least--that city growth projections are the same with or without the height increase.

What's going on here? Are the projections mistaken? Or is the height zoning change just a matter of aesthetics, not a substantive policy to increase downtown density?

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February 07, 2006

The True Cost of Home Ownership

Milhwyfwysprawl_cnu City housing is unaffordable. It's cheaper to buy a house in the suburbs, where you can get more for your money. Right?

Not so much, according to a new study from the Brookings Institute, "The Affordability Index," which challenges the conventional wisdom by arguing that the best way to assess affordability is with reference to the costs of both the home and the transportation necessitated by the home's location.

In an analysis of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan region, it turns out that the suburbs aren't nearly as affordable as they first appear; nor are city neighborhoods nearly as pricey. That's largely because suburban residents must spend more on cars ownership and use--they have, on average, 2.1 cars per household--while in-city residents can rely on cheaper forms of transport--they own only 1.2 cars per household. Even when in-city transit is factored in, a city resident spends less than half as much on transportation as a resident of far-flung suburb. That's real money--roughly $500 per month--that can make a big difference when it comes to affording a house.

But in deciding where to buy (or rent, for that matter), few of us assess the transportation-related costs, a factor which surely contributes to buyers choosing far flung developments. If planners can devise ways to apprise buyers (and renters) of the true costs of their housing choices, it would likely encourage residential density and mixed-use zoning. Because living near good transit service and within a short walk of services isn't just eco-groovy--it's smart financial planning.

Below the fold, two maps of affordability in the Minneapolis area...

(Click for larger versions.)



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January 30, 2006

Food vs. Shelter: The Planning Debate

In the debate over growth management, it's easy for the parties to forget that it’s never us against them, it's us against us. For just one example, planners must strike a balance between our needs for food (in the form of nearby farmland) and shelter (in the form of decent housing for a growing population). And promoting density, while important in many respects, is not the whole answer to problems of growth.

Oregon's land-use task force is beginning to study what the state’s citizens want, and The Oregonian is running a good series on planning that addresses the balance between desirable housing and fertile farmland. The articles offer some goods insights and they got me thinking.

Density done wrong does no one any good. Urban village development (and their traditional counterparts) must attract buyers, not be foisted on them. A subdivision crammed with more houses is not a real solution. It’s still auto-dependent and segregates homes from shops and services. It adheres to the letter of planning for density, but ignores the spirit—density ought to empower residents with choices, not just wedge people together. Intelligent planning is required to build attractive homes that also offer privacy and a sense of space, as well as easy access to amenities. The point of smart planning should not to force people into the city, but to create more good places there for those who want it.

Even with good density alternatives, some people may still want a house with a big yard. I think that it’s important to offer a mix of housing types, but these larger more distant lots come with all sorts of hidden costs to society: higher costs to supply public services like water, sewer, and emergency response farther out—not to mention negative externalities like air pollution, road-building, and possible watershed deterioration from the added impervious surface. And it’s also important, as The Oregonian article notes, that we preserve farmland and other green places.

And space is not the only reason people may want to move into rural areas: they also may want to be closer to nature. I think it's important to ask how best to connect people to the natural world without sacrificing the very nature they crave. I worry about getting caught in a vicious cycle as people move farther and farther out until there's scant rural land left and our cities are so sprawling that most people must rely exclusively on cars for transportation.

I favor setting aside space within cities for neighborhood parks, community gardens, and large semi-wild areas like Forest Park in Portland, Discovery Park in Seattle, and Stanley Park in Vancouver. Unlike fenced-off backyards, these areas let people connect both to nature and to their community.

But really, I see growth planning and development disputes as a symptom of a larger issue: population growth. Our grandparents could reasonably expect to build a house on a half acre lot outside the city because land was plentiful, but people weren’t. Sprawl and population growth have reversed that equation to the point where we need to change our housing expectations if we want our grandchildren to have access to nearby farms and local produce.

Just a few thoughts sparked by the Oregonian series. Take a read and see what you think.

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December 30, 2005

Housing Affordability Confusion

From the NY Times yesterday, comes a surprisingly confused article arguing that home ownership has actually gotten less expensive over the last 20 years. Here's the article's upshot (and the part that contains the fishy reasoning):

Nationwide, a family earning the median income - the exact middle of all incomes - would have to spend 22 percent of its pretax pay this year on mortgage payments to buy the median-priced house, according to an analysis by Moody's Economy.com, a research company... it remains well below the levels of the early 1980's, when it topped 30 percent.

But median family incomes ain't what they used to be--and comparing family incomes over more than two decades is a case of comparing apples to oranges. To wit: family incomes today are much more likely to include two incomes (even two full-time incomes) than they were in the early '80s when many families were supported by a single primary breadwinner. So--to be overly simplistic with the data for a moment--22 percent of two incomes buys what 30 percent of just one income used to.

The good news here is that the share of women in the labor force has been steadily rising, as has the share of women working full time. Women are also steadily closing the pay gap with men. And because women earn more advanced degrees than men, there's reason to believe the gap may close or even eventually reverse. But the bad news is that families now commonly must employ both adults to make a grab for the brass ring of home ownership. Among other problems, that means substantially less wiggle room in family budgets because if one of the two wage earners falls on hard times, there's no one who can enter the workforce to help pick up the slack.

And there are at least two other glaring problems with the NY Times reasoning. 

Family income is a lousy metric to begin with. Because more and more Americans are delaying marriage (the percentage of unmarried 30 to 34-year-olds has quadrupled since 1970), a smaller and smaller share of us are counted in the family income statistics. This means that the growing ranks of single Americans are facing homeownership with just one income at a time when two are needed.

The Times article also includes a nifty map depicting places where home ownership has gotten more affordable. The curious thing about the map though is that it doesn't appear to say what the writer thinks it does. According to the map, pretty much the entire states of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Hawaii, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland have gotten more expensive. So have the Chicago and Boston areas, along with much of Virginia. So even by the Times' rather lousy definition of affordability, a huge swath of the most populated parts of the country have actually gotten less affordable. 

To cap it off, the article smirks that the hoi polloi don't really understand their own economic conditions:

In a nationwide New York Times/CBS News poll conducted this month, 75 percent of respondents said they thought most families in their community spent a larger share of their income on housing now than in the 1980's. Only 5 percent said the share was smaller.

The lesson for me is that--at least in this case--it's the people who are right and it's the data analysts who don't seem to understand the economy--or even what their data actually means.

UPDATE 1/3/06: Cleaned up some of the typos and atrocious grammar plaguing the first draft.

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December 01, 2005

Baby Boomer Housing Boom?

Image002_8By virtue of its size, the baby boom generation influenced consumer trends at each stage of its life cycle. When boomers were younger, suburbs expanded to house all the new (and larger) families. But now that boomers are reaching their senior years, developers should recognize their new housing needs: smaller homes with better access to services.

Census projections suggest that in the next twenty five years Cascadia will gain nearly 2.2 million seniors, an increase of over 115 percent. In contrast, the youth population (below age 15) will increase by only 806 thousand, or around 28 percent (see chart).

These aging baby boomers will need a different type of housing from when they were younger.

Without kids to raise, boomers won't need as much space. And as they age, they may neither want nor be able to take care of a large house and yard, let alone a McMansion. Aging also reduces mobility so seniors often need alternative transportation, such as buses or dial-a-ride. It also helps to have nearby shops and services.

Dense, mixed-use developments inside cities and towns (instead of on the suburban fringe) can meet these needs. An apartment that's easy to clean and has a building manager to maintain, a nearby bus stop with frequent service, and neighborhood shops all serve the booming senior generation and can help keep them independent longer.

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November 22, 2005

Proposal to Legalize Granny Flats in SE Seattle

Good news on the smart-growth front: Seattle's mayor is working on a pilot program to legalize granny flats in southeast Seattle.

Currently residents of single-family neighborhoods can't rent out extra space they may have in "detached accessory dwelling units", such as an apartment above their garage, although basement apartments are legal.

Granny flats provide a variety of benefits. They increase density, supporting better transit and more services for the neighborhood. They increase the housing supply and create affordable housing in the city. They can give homeowners a source of income to help with the mortgage. And, with kids returning to the nest post-college and aging parents needing more care, they provide extra space with a degree of privacy.

The program would limit the impact on neighbors by requiring one off-street parking space per unit and restricting the size of the new units. Reactions to a demonstration project in Magnolia, in which a wheelchair-bound resident added an apartment for a future live-in nurse, were very positive: 65 percent of surveyed neighbors rated the project "good". While some are worried that allowing rental granny flats will turn neighborhoods into "ghettos," (huh!?) that doesn't seem to be the case in cities that already allow them, such as Mercer Island, Kirkland, and Redmond.

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October 13, 2005

Is Seattle the New Singapore?

That's what mossback Knute Berger argues in his latest Seattle Weekly column.

As near as I can decipher his rantings, Berger thinks that density and gentrification in Seattle are tantamount to becoming a police state in the model of Singapore. Also, houses in the city are unaffordable. And, oh yeah, the University Village is--gasp--basically just a tony shopping mall.

Really, it's hard to know where to begin.

According to Berger, increasing Seattle's density is functionally equivalent to gentrification, which in turn implies Singapore-style law and order:

Proponents argue that the [neo-Victorian] laws work, the streets are safe, and that such rules are necessary for dealing with high urban density. As Seattle floats atop a real-estate bubble that increasingly makes the city affordable mostly to the affluent, we can probably look forward to more laws intended to make the whole town more like Singapore (recycle or else!). That is part of the price of urban gentrification, the signs of which are everywhere.

It's precisely these sorts of hysterics that make it hard for me to take anti-density arguments seriously.

Leaving aside the notion that gentrification may actually be a good thing for a city, it's not at all clear why increasing density would imply gentrification or Singapore-style law and order. It doesn't in, say, Vancouver or San Francisco.

Affordable housing is, I think, a legitimate concern. (Incidentally, that's why Berger's repeated lionization of the suburban Eastside in this column is so puzzling. Housing prices there are higher than in the city, so Berger's affordable housing spleen should presumably be vented there.)

I'll hazard one guess why Seattle's prices are a little lower: density. It's easy to bemoan the high prices in once anemic neighborhoods like Madrona and Mount Baker, but it seems to me that the best remedy for high demand and high prices is, well, more supply. The only (slim) hope of keeping Seattle's single-family neighborhoods even moderately affordable is to create an array of other housing choices.

I could go on and on about this week's column. Speaking as a mossback myself (though younger than Berger), I too often miss the "old Seattle," a quiet and unpretentious place with a character all its own. But time does not stop and cities are by nature dynamic. I wish Berger would quit gnashing his teeth and start using his column more constructively--perhaps finding ways to preserve the best features of the old place while we're trying to build something even better.

(Okay, okay, one last jab: Berger's flippant Singapore-bashing is awfully ill-informed. While Singapore is not a good model for liberal Western democracies, it's impossible to understand the place without reference to its geopolitical context and history. That is to say, it's a damn sight better than anything else in southeast Asia. Oppression comes in many guises and Singapore has managed to avoid the oppressive evils of poverty, race-riots, and Islamic fundamentalism that are even now wracking its nearest neighbors. The price of Singapore's freedom is government by a rather benign one-party psuedo-democracy that has built a prosperous and peaceful nation on the foundations of education, multiculturalism, and free trade. That and Singaporeans are denied their inalienable rights to litter and vandalize. The horror.)

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October 05, 2005

The Not-So-Big Way-Too-Big House

A good news update to my previous post on the up-sizing of houses: Americans may have reached their limit. The New York Times reports that the size of new houses may be leveling off. While the average size of new homes grew by around 50% from 1970 to 2001, the past few years have seen very little increase.

What could be causing the trend? According to the New York Times, people are trading quality for quantity. Not only do builders have anecdotal evidence, but a nationwide survey in 2004 found that, for the same price, 63 percent of respondents would prefer a smaller house with more amenities than a larger house with fewer amenities. That's up from 49 percent in 2000. The article also suggests that houses have finally become as large as people say they want them to be -- reality finally matches the American Dream.

I wonder if the housing boom plus the recession curtailed house sizes: people frenzied to buy a house, who don't have the money for the big house they really want, settle for smaller. But optimistically, I'll hope that people's preferences for McMansions have actually changed (not just as a fad) and that they've realized how much more giant houses cost to furnish and maintain. With rising energy prices, size can make a big difference.

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September 15, 2005

Charming 3-bedroom, 2 bath with only 5 pounds of weight gain a year

Obesity has many causes, but current research indicates that sprawl may play a part. So far, researchers have concluded that people who live in sprawling, car-dependent neighborhoods are more likely to be obese, while people who live in walkable neighborhoods are apt to do more walking. But researchers still trying to tease out cause and effect: do walkable neighborhoods encourage people to walk? Or do people who like to walk move to walkable neighborhoods? I suspect it is both.

However, one recently study claims that sprawl doesn't, in fact, cause obesity. The authors, who base their findings on a complex theoretical model, don't dispute that sprawl and obesity are linked. But they claim that people who move to sprawling neighborhoods are simply making a more-or-less conscious choice to put on more weight:

"[R]esidents are willing to accept locations that result in weight gain because they face lower housing prices and can purchase more housing."

In other words, people buying a house don't mind putting on a few extra pounds in order to get the house they want.

But here's the catch: the link between sprawl and obesity just isn't that widely known. Researchers have just been started exploring these connections over the last few years; the literature is growing, but it's still in its infancy. So it's hard to imagine that most home-buyers, over the last several decades, were weighing the concrete effects of neighborhood design on their health. How could they, when the information just didn't exist?

While I haven't worked through the entire model line-by-line, I also have some quibbles with the methods. As with any theoretical model, it's based on a host of assumptions.  And one of them -- that calorie consumption increases as income increases -- clearly poses problems. As Clark blogged about a while ago, food is really cheap, and cheapest foods are the most calorie dense (think greasy fast food). So there's ample reason to believe that calorie consumption could actually increase as income goes down. 

Theory can be very useful; and there may well be some truth to the notion that people who don't like exercise don't mind living in places that discourage walking. But in this case, only studies that track actual people over time as they move among actual neighborhoods will yield reliable answers.

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