Get Serious: Is There a John Fox of Density?

20120331-112226.jpgOne thing I have found fascinating over the last year of writing in this space and elsewhere is how serious some people take this land use stuff. I quickly wrote a post drawing an analogy between cars and buildings when we look at design and affordability for Publicola. Whatever one might think of the analogy or the post, it was intended to question the idea that buildings have to have great design to win over the anti-density crowd, and how design and affordability play into land use debates. It was also supposed to be a lighthearted thing, not a Master’s Thesis.

Here’s a sample of some of the comments:

Roger is well on his way to being as irrelevant a voice as the John Fox and Chris Lehman’s of the world. No nuance, no balance, no tact

“Density is a simple concept: more people in a smaller space.”This, Roger, is why people think you are an effin’ idiot.

I am not going to refute this ridiculous argument any longer. Instead I am going to respectfully request that one of these density=affordability writers please generate some shred of data, however small, that this is actually what happens in practice. Please, pretty please?

Sometimes these little greeting cards can be downright poetic or examples of comic genius. Sometimes they’d be really funny, if they weren’t so serious. And these kinds of sentiments and comments come from all sides, not just the anti-growth crowd.

As for the association with John Fox, thank you, I accept the connection. John Fox is a consistent champion of no growth. He supports a moratorium on growth. That’s a crazy idea in my opinion, but if it worked, it would certainly solve our problems. If we woke up tomorrow with decreases in population it would be, in the words of Martha Stewart, a “good thing.”Fewer people would mean less pressure on the environment and our natural resources, but I doubt it’s going to happen.

The thing is that Fox has embraced the implications of his views: if we continue to grow we will have to wipe out old, rickety, crappy housing that is cheap to make way for new people. John’s syllogism is correct, since if we stop growth we could “protect” that housing. Socrates and Plato would sign off on John’s logic.

What about the “smart growth” crowd. These are the folks who say we need to grow smart, but the way we do that is to worry more about how we address the “problem” of affordability as defined by a late 19th century Prussian formula of a weeks pay for a month’s housing cost. Somehow, by putting more restrictions on the development of new housing we are going to decrease it’s price. When I offer the idea that by creating more housing to decrease price I am called at best a naif and at worst, like in the comment above, “ridiculous.”

I can’t figure out why the smart growth folks in town keep hanging on to the idea that defining affordability as 30 percent of a persons income discounted by some percentage of Area Median Income should be our normative standard for affordability. “That’s not true!” some of them would say, “we’ve embraced including transportation costs.” But that isn’t far enough, we need to take a serious look at redefining “affordability.”

The evidence (which I have been meaning to write about) is that increasing housing supply is a necessary if not sufficient condition for decreasing housing price. It is true that there are some places where supply increased and so did price. But those were places like Phoenix, where demand kept up with the increases in supply. Those places were also free and easy with permits, unlike places like Seattle. Additionally, most of the housing created was the single-family home, an option we don’t have here.

We want demand for housing to increase in Seattle. If that happens, and supply for it is created, it won’t be in the form of single-family, it will be dense housing.

Something some smart growth folks can’t seem to get around is that they have to set aside their knee jerk anti-business politics and start thinking like a Republican for a minute. Anyone who has tried to develop anything (even a deck for their single family home) would agree that if there were no regulations, it would be a lot easier and a lot cheaper. The more regulation we add, the more time gets eaten up, and the more money gets spent. All of that drives up the cost of housing.

I know it hurts our liberal heads, but our problems in Seattle with figuring out how to accommodate growth will not be solved by a bright idea like incentive zoning, or another batch of regulations, or even regulatory reform. What is needed is a narrow, targeted repeal of all land use restrictions in some areas (like station areas) to allow the market to do its thing. Not height limits, no design guidelines, no net, no kidding!

If this point of view makes me the “John Fox of Density,” (or the Thomas Friedman of density) then so be it. I humbly accept the title.

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