Denouncing developers and density is no way to solve a housing crisis

Editor’s Note:  Today we’re publishing a guest commentary from Ethan Seltzer responding to New York Times columnist Tim Egan’s recent column on housing and density in Seattle. In it, Egan condemned what he called an “unholy alliance” of developers and socialists who were going to ruin the city by planning for greater density.

Ethan Seltzer is an Emeritus Professor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He previously served as the President of the City of Portland Planning Commission and as the Land Use Supervisor for Metro, the regional government. He has lived and worked in Oregon and the Portland region since 1980.

The NIMBY’s have a new champ, none other than Timothy Egan of The New York Times. Mr. Egan, in a column published on July 6, 2018 (“Down and Out in San Francisco, on $117,000 a Year), goes to bat for the defenders of “neighborhood character” by slamming Seattle’s “unholy alliance of socialists and developers” who have apparently forced the city to upzone.

Upzoning, according to Mr. Egan and most owner-occupants of single family homes in the most exclusive neighborhoods in our cities, is at the top of the slippery slope leading to living like overcrowded rats in Blade Runner cities we used to love and call home. He goes on to declare upzoning a failure in addressing affordability, since home prices continue to increase in Seattle, by his own admission America’s fastest growing city, despite more housing production in the last five years than in the previous 50. He calls for a “new urbanism” to solve the problems of homelessness and housing affordability, though doesn’t venture a hint as to what it would be, other than incredible.

What’s wrong here? Several things. Egan declares upzoning a failure because after 5 years, it hasn’t reversed the effects of over 100 years of building and over 50 years of zoning. Never mind that a majority of Seattle is still zoned exclusively for single family homes; only a tiny fraction of the city’s land is available for building new apartments. And in the apartment sector, where there’s been a burst of new construction, there’s evidence that rents have leveled off and are starting to decline. Plus: there is inertia in markets and urban form, and it takes time to make the kind of change you expect. Second, Seattle has been growing, a lot. Demand is up, and though production is, too, it has to catch up with a lot of unmet demand before even addressing the needs of the folks showing up every day. As any elementary statistics student knows, correlation does not imply causation. Had Mr. Egan conducted any analysis to support his reporting, he’d probably realize this quickly.

Third, according to Egan, and most defenders of neighborhood character, it’s an unholy alliance of greedy developers and “socialists” (really, Tim?) who are driving all this. I’ve got news for you: the house you live in was built by a greedy developer. In fact, probably a greedy, racist developer. Paraphrasing Paul Simon, one person’s character is another person’s entrenched, codified, and institutionally supported pattern of exclusion. That particular memory may have faded (and been intentionally obscured), but time does not and cannot rinse away the injustices of the past that created the quaint and classy neighborhoods we know today. Mindlessly preserving the architecture of these neighborhoods in the name of “character” is probably the least socially useful thing we can do.

Finally, a drive around Seattle, and it won’t be quick, will reveal that an unholy alliance of capitalists and developers have already tried the alternative to denser, urban living, in the form of suburban sprawl, and it didn’t work. Metro Seattle spreads like chocolate on a hot dashboard. Without massive Federal transfers for roads, sewers, water systems, power grids, and even parks, long since ended (thank you, Ronald Reagan), none of that would have been possible. And if all of that gets revived, it still won’t work. Turns out that addressing homelessness is more complicated than manipulating markets by getting the public to pay for asphalt (wait, isn’t that Socialism?), and even Egan should agree that a new generation of sprawl is way more than our planet can tolerate.

Egan has written eloquently and well in the past. What happened here? My only guess is that his neighborhood might change and/or it’s summer in the Pacific Northwest, and understandably he wanted to be quickly unchained from his keyboard to enjoy the fleeting Seattle sunshine. Whatever the cause, it’s sad to see a formerly careful and informative journalist contribute to the demise of the news media, particularly in these times when we critically need his talent. Tim: we’re fans. Please do better next time.