Housing the Rest of Us

The Puget Sound area entices many, given its natural amenities. But there are constraints, notably: Where will the people live? Michael Luis, writing for Crosscut, details the challenges, which are significant.

After 20 years of growth management we still don’t have a very good grip on this question. We know we do not want to sprawl forever, like the big, fast growing cities of the Sunbelt. But we have never come up with a plausible alternative.

Seattle is increasingly home to only the affluent, as housing prices outstrip median household incomes. Those further down the wage ladder must live farther out.

But there is a problem, a very big one. And that is transportation. Once removed from the city, suburbanites confront congestion horrors.

So, back to cities. How do we fit a growing population into urban centers confined by both geography and transportation? Luis suggests three immovable objects to doing so.

  1. Urban Growth Boundary, mandated by the Growth Management Act
  2. resistance to density
  3. lifestyles

Those who live in single-family homes strenuously object to multi-family units in their neighborhoods. Though inhabitants of other countries, as Luis points out, have lived in densely packed built environments for centuries, Americans, in the words of James Kunstler, desire their own “log cabins” in the cities. Luis:

The fact remains that preservation of existing low-density zoning is a primary expectation of local governments, and there is no constituency outside the housing industry pushing for higher densities. The political formula is simple: Most voters already own homes and have no stake in expanding the supply of them.

Young people may start their families in multi-family units, but then seek larger accommodations with yards and fences to raise their children. But unless they can afford to spend upwards of a million dollars or more, they’ll be forced into the cheaper suburbs, necessitating dreaded commutes along the always-congealed freeway corridors.

Luis does not seem optimistic about our collective ability to solve the problem. He concludes:

The problem of providing housing for the next wave of growth is not a planning or economic question, but a political one, and it is a question that the region’s leaders need to get a grip on. Growth management, as carried out at the local level, has had two big successes: preserving the Cascade foothills and creating vibrant urban centers. There is no technical barrier to city and county leaders doing the rest of the job, primarily finding creative ways to house families that don’t involve lengthy commutes.

But before they can do that effectively, the state, which created this political mess in the first place, needs to come back to the table. The GMA needs to be tweaked to acknowledge two important truths. First, planning for population growth and unit count is too abstract; we need a finer grain of planning that considers real people and households and their needs. Second, local governments are hardwired to respond to their current residents, not their future ones, and assuming they will take tough votes on density without strong guidance and incentives is unrealistic.

Ah, politics. Oh, and planning. We Americans are not very good at either.

Fools on foot

No U.S. city makes the list of the world’s most livable cities, which are generally found in Scandinavia, Canada, and Australia. In my humble opinion the absence has everything to do with transportation.

America was largely formed after the advent of the automobile. Cars are king. Pedestrians and bicyclists are second-class denizens, if not lower. The typical U.S. motorist treats the walkers and peddlers as annoyances, inconvenient obstacles. Fools on foot hope to merely survive steps on pavement, perhaps for the next day’s anxious adventure.

A couple of weeks ago an out-of-town visitor lost his contest with a couple of tons of metal. He was crossing an intersection in what is called “downtown Everett” (Wash.), whereupon he was struck by an SUV and killed instantly. It was a bright, sunny day just before noon.

Yesterday my wife and I nearly succumbed to the same outcome. A woman was making a left turn while talking on her cellphone (illegal in Washington state) and obviously didn’t notice the two of us as we were nearly halfway across the intersection with the walk sign. The driver saw us at the last moment, slamming on her brakes to just avoid the collision. She never missed a syllable of her conversation. As she resumed her turn, I slammed my open hand against her window, yelling, “Get off the damn phone!”

Over the years, transportation engineers and urban planners have fixed the built environment to accommodate the automobile, leaving pedestrians and bicyclists at the mercy of oblivious drivers. The motorist, so coddled, has a sense of righteous superiority in plying our nation’s streets. They drive as if in their living rooms while talking on their mobile phones as if in a coffee shop. Oh, there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk. I suppose I should stop.

A livable city, it seems to me, would have a built environment in which cars were rare and benign. Pedestrians and bicyclists would be the rightful inhabitants and thus enabled to travel freely and safely amidst well-protected urban pathways.

Here’s a photo off the Internet of a Helsinki street. The city is judged one of the most livable.



A car would be out of place. I say Amen to that.

Bird kills

Years ago, when I was working as a policy analyst for the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD), the region confronted a question: Should owners of the Centralia Coal Plant, including the PUD, sell their shares? The answer depended on a host of issues, including economics, the environment, alternative strategies, etc. I researched and analyzed, eventually producing a report, which I have evidently misplaced. In the end, the several utility owners, including the PUD, decided in the affirmative. 

One of the issues I investigated for the report was bird kills. At the time, there were many groups opposing the construction and operation of windmills on the grounds that they killed birds. In my research I discovered that far more birds die from Centralia plant emissions than are killed each year by wind turbines. 

Recently, there were reports that concentrated solar arrays in California were frying birds that strayed near them. Estimates ran as high as 28,000 killings per year. U.S. News looked at data on various resources and their impacts on birds. Here is a chart that I produced based on that data:

bird kills


Yet another reason to leave coal in the ground.


The libertarian conceit

Here’s one definition of libertarianism:

n extreme laissez-faire political philosophy advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens

Some self-described libertarians would go further to suggest that the only good government is no government. All matters between and among people would be resolved through voluntary markets for everything.

As absurd as this may appear to many, we may be living in a de facto state of libertarianism. Governments, especially the federal one, aren’t working all that well. The obstructionists within their ranks have made certain of this.

But default ineffectiveness has not delivered the free-market solutions championed by the followers of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. Indeed, by all accounts we’re spending a lot of money for nothing in return. Whether it’s education or transportation or climate change or inequality, there are no self-interested parties showing up to fix them.

My favorite liberal these days, Paul Krugman, argues that libertarians “are living in a fantasy world.” He continues:

…if we should somehow end up with libertarian government, it would quickly find itself unable to fulfill any of its promises.

Nevertheless, in this land of governmental dysfunction, one may ask whether or not we citizens could address our common concerns outside of legislatures and executive branches. If Washington, D.C., won’t act, can we? And what would we do?

My dystopian nature finds little hope and even less evidence for possible solutions. We can’t even agree on the problems, let alone organize to solve them. The government we have, however feckless and cranky, is apparently what we deserve.

Amor fati

I came across the above phrase in reading a new book by philosopher David Blacker, The Falling Rate of Learning*. While education serves as a proxy to illustrate what ails us, Blacker presents a disquieting look at the folly of trying to fix an essentially dysfunctional system, the one in which we all live. In revealing the bad news, he suggests that we embrace, or love, fate, much like the ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed that shit happens, the result of some tangle between two or more gods. Thus, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Blacker argues that instead of wasting our time and energy working within the system to produce different outcomes, however laudable the effort and intended objectives, we should acknowledge the obvious—that those who benefit from the status quo have far too much power to allow for change that would benefit the Rest of Us. He writes:

…rather than wishing it [the capitalist system] away as we normally do via various psychological stratagems, we would do well truly to respect the overwhelming power of our situation and adopt a fatalism-inflected pedagogy of opportunism, one that watches, waits and seizes the moment when it arrives.

Can’t wait? Good luck with “the struggle.”


*The book’s title borrows from Mr. Marx, who argued that in the capitalist system there is a “tendency of the rate of profit to fall.” Indeed, Marx appears on nearly every page, though Blacker stops short of ideological purity. Marx offered prescient critiques of capitalism, but his prescriptions are either sparse or wrong.

More politics of dirt

Two trends bother me. On the one hand, scientists have increased their confirmation that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have raised and will continue to raise global temperatures. On the other hand, public opinion about climate change has entered the realm of “so what?” Were it up to the scientists, bold steps would be taken. Leaving matters to the political process virtually guarantees inaction.

Stymied by Congress, President Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to devise strategies to reduce carbon emissions. So the EPA will implement a cap-and-trade program that promises to cut emissions by 20 percent, according to the New York Times.

The expected announcement follows the release of a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report whose headline intended to scare but whose substance minimized projected costs of combatting climate change. The Chamber, strongly tethered to the Republican Party, will do its part to resist the Administration. Surely coal states will fight to the death, quite literally.

The Times includes an interactive chart of the United States, depicting coal-dependency. We in the Pacific Northwest consume relatively small amounts of electricity generated from fossil fuels. The Midwest, especially, relies on coal for most of its energy.

Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 9.50.32 AM

I occasionally ask myself a counterfactual: Would my views be different if I lived in Kentucky?

Kentucky, of course, is a coal state. Would I defend the use of coal to the point that I would deny climate change and re-elect conservative politicians beholden to coal companies?

I’ll never know, certainly. But I, a citizen of the Northwest, may be rightly accused of self-righteousness in condemning Kentuckians, or any resident of the dark brown states in the above chart.

Yet, since I have no reason or ability to dispute the climate scientists, whose warnings become increasingly apocalyptic, I believe that something should be done to reduce greenhouse gases. Since coal-burning is the most carbon-intensive form of electrical generation, the logical place to start would be states like Kentucky.

The soon-to-be released cap-and-trade plan expands on the existing program in the Northeast, which had then-Governor Mitt Romney’s fingerprints all over it. (He’s since renounced his own creation, as he did his Massachusetts health care plan.) The Times:

People familiar with the drafting of the rule said that after it is unveiled they expect many states to comply by joining the northeastern program, in part because the system has already been designed and tested.

“It’s a plug and play,” said Kelly Speakes-Backman, a commissioner of the regional program. “We’re finding that’s attractive to people. We’ve had states from all over the country calling up and asking, ‘How does this work, and how can it work for us?’ ” The regional program has proved fairly effective: Between 2005-12, according to program officials, power-plant pollution in the northeastern states it covered dropped 40 percent, even as the states raised $1.6 billion in new revenue.

So, a successful program, right? Not so fast say the diehard Republicans, including New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who withdrew from the northeast plan. Politics.

But an expanded program should have broader appeal. Here’s an Illinois public official:

…joining a larger, multistate program, we’ll be able to spread out the risk, to mitigate the economic impact.

Sounds reasonable. Ah, reason.

Downtown living

The years take their toll on the body. In my case, it’s arthritis everywhere, though I feel it most acutely in the knees and spine. Navigating stairs has become a painful challenge rather than a trivial means to get up and down. So, my wife and I live in an apartment these days, abandoning the big two-story house on the hill.

We are not alone in our preference for horizontal living space. After all, the population is aging, with more and more of us old farts whining about this or that. Above all, we desire to live in close proximity to amenities and, of course, medical facilities.

Ironically, we baby boomers share some likes and dislikes with the younger crowd, many of whom disdain car-dependent suburban living. They, too, wish to be close to the action, though they are far more active than we codgers.

Such thoughts, while omnipresent in my brain, came to the fore upon reading this piece in the New York Times about a downtown Minneapolis project, which includes a new football stadium for the Vikings. The paper calls it “a blueprint for a bustling downtown.”

The five-block project, called Downtown East, includes plans for two 18-story office towers for Wells Fargo, a six-level parking ramp, about 24,000 square feet of retail space, 193 apartments and a four-acre urban park near the stadium’s northwest corner.

The blueprint for a bustling downtown stands in stark contrast to the status quo: crumbling asphalt parking lots, tired buildings and limited housing…

Well, you might say, nothing novel here. Lots of cities launch such plans, some more successful than others. For me, it was the accompanying comments that precipitated this post. Take this one, for example:

For Governor [Mark] Dayton, reviving the downtown means making good on a childhood lesson. “My father and his brothers were retailers, and they preached the downtown,” he said. “If left to its own, development goes to greenfield sites on the outlying areas and you end up with a doughnut hole. Once you get behind the eight ball with a downtown in decay, it’s very, very difficult to turn that around.”

Consider that last sentence. My wife and I happen to live in downtown Everett, once designated by late 19th century U.S. plutocrats as the future commercial and political center of Washington state. The only legacy of their blink-of-an-eye romance are street names, which include Rockefeller, Hoyt, Rucker, Wetmore, and Colby. Yep, that Rockefeller. After leaving town and taking their money with them, Everett reverted to a marine-based industrial hub, dominated by wood, water, and rails. For good reason the place was dubbed ‘Mill Town.’

During the first few decades of the 20th century, Everett was bustling, with a vibrant downtown of stores and shops, replete with electric trolleys. Photographs of the period depict lots of people buzzing about.

But over time Everett became the doughnut hole. Boeing expanded its operations west of the city, and its tens of thousands of employees chose to live in rapidly growing suburbs like Marysville and Lake Stevens. Eventually, Everett officials declared that downtown would be the region’s financial district—with low employment numbers. Simultaneously, they established a retail zone miles from the city center, inducing stores to move operations into the new mall-cum-parking-lagoon. Bye-bye, downtown pedestrians.

Now that the last waterfront mill has closed, what does the future hold? Is it too late for the city to turn around? Can public officials and business leaders overcome the chicken-and-egg conundrum of amenities and people? If dwelling units are built, will consumers follow?

Several years ago Everett’s leaders determined that a sports facility would be built downtown. It would attract people and restaurants. It might even serve to revitalize a doughnut hole. The Times:

Many cities have tried to generate urban renewal around a big project like a new stadium with mixed success over the years. It is often hard to persuade those who left for the suburbs to return.

Comcast Arena, the name of the Everett complex, has failed “to persuade.” Now what?

A couple of developers are responsible for adding hundreds of apartment units to the downtown housing stock. However, one building remains virtually empty. Yet, the developer of that property is constructing a massive new project a block away. It will host a hotel, a several-stories-high apartment complex, and a promised year-round farmers’ market. Can you say “huge”? A half-block to the east, another local developer is busy pouring concrete for yet another apartment building.

The latter developer seems concerned about re-creating a vibrant downtown, judging by his quotes in the Herald. He’s recently offered a “downtown card” to his renters. The holder will enjoy discounts at local establishments. In the promotional literature, he writes:

Living in Downtown Everett means it’s all right there. Whether you’re running errands or looking for experiences with the arts, dining or shopping, in downtown Everett you’re in the center of Everett’s urban experience.

At the moment, that may be just wishful thinking. As a downtown resident, I hope it becomes more. But what will it take?

One problem confronting the city is lack of money. Aside from the current municipal budget woes and a bow wave of unmet obligations, those who now live here don’t have nearly as much income as their suburban counterparts. The image below is taken from a slide presentation (pdf) by Everett’s planning head.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 10.41.38 AM

Seattle, just 30 miles to the south, truly is bustling, with a dozen or so cranes helping build new apartments and office towers galore. It is now the fastest growing city in the country. And its residents have much higher incomes than Everett’s. After paying for their housing needs, Seattleites have money left over to support a myriad of restaurants. (They do seem to avoid Safeco Field, however.)

Unfortunately, rents in Seattle are about double what they are in Everett. Being the aforementioned old farts, my wife and I live on fixed incomes, as they say. We could pay the Seattle rents, but would then be forced to eat beans and bread at every meal. The Emerald City has essentially told us to stay away.

And so we remain in the doughnut hole, hoping with the developers that something will eventually click to recapture the hustle and bustle of yesteryear.