Why Blue Cities are so Outrageously Unaffordable

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Image by Ally Laws from Pixabay

As most readers of this column know, we spend much of the summer at an old family cabin in the Wallowa Mountains of Northeastern Oregon.

But we keep an eye on our hometown, Seattle, where we have lived for over three decades. We get the Seattle Times on line. We hear from friends and neighbors. And we get “Next Door” for our part of Seattle, Ballard where people post, well, most anything and everything.

In the Wallowas we are close to the Eagle Cap Wilderness area. But getting the reports from Seattle I’m beginning to wonder if it’s becoming a wilderness of another sort. Last weekend there were a bunch of shootings, and fatalities. Earlier in the summer, there was a shooting on the street where we live, prompted by a road rage incident. And the City has cut the hours at nearby Golden Gardens Park because of violent incidents there.

On “Next Door” there’s a steady stream of reports of break-ins, of homes being cased by suspicious characters, assaults on the street and in the parks, car thefts, thefts of parts of cars (catalytic converters are a favorite). And of course the complaints about encampments in formerly public space, like the Ballard Commons. Of late the frequent neighborhood coyote sighting has been supplanted by news of a wandering “pack” of coyotes.

From a distance, Seattle sounds at best, uneasy; at worst, scary. It doesn’t sound like its recent hype, “a superstar city.” It doesn’t even sound like a city that is working, let alone working well.

While pondering all this I happened to listen to a recent “Ezra Klein Show” podcast. Klein, a founder of Vox and a contributor to the New York Times, hosted Vox journalist Jerusalem Demsas to talk about “Why Blue Cities Are So Outrageously Unaffordable.” Klein, a self-described “progressive” isn’t afraid of interrogating his own team. Here’s an excerpt from the write-up for that pod:

Joe Biden’s economic agenda is centered on a basic premise: The United States needs to build. To build roads and bridges. To build child care facilities and car-charging stations. To build public transit and affordable housing. And in doing so, to build a better future for everyone.

“But there’s a twist of irony in that vision. Because right now, even in places where Democrats hold control over government, they are consistently failing to build cheaply, quickly and equitably. In recent decades, blue states and cities from Los Angeles to Boston to New York have become known for their outrageously expensive housing, massive homeless populations and infrastructure projects marred by major delays and cost overruns — all stemming from this fundamental inability to actually build.”

Seattle is one of these “Blue Cities,” a one party town for a long time now. A famously liberal place, where Klein’s negative characterization of “Blue Cities” seems to fit: “outrageously expensive housing, massive homeless populations and infrastructure projects marred by major delays and cost overruns.”

Do liberals talk a better game than they play? Demsas and Klein mention liberal enclaves and upscale neighborhoods peppered with “Black Lives Matter” signs or placards that proclaim, “In Our America Everyone Is Welcome,” but where citizens successfully block the development of low cost and higher density housing.

Another way to describe the problem that seems to especially vex Blue Cities is what Demsas terms “Citizens’ Voice.” All kinds of procedures and regulations have been put in place so that citizens can protest and challenge any proposed change or program. Often these procedures were created for environmental reasons. In other cases such procedural hurdles are meant to give voice to marginal people or communities.

But, according to Demsas, it is higher-income, white people with power who have made use of these procedural obstacles — but not to protect the environment so much as to protect their property values and keep their neighborhoods unchanged. Blue cities, in particular, have prized “Citizens’ Voice” and made it easy for citizens to assert their will. We call it “Seattle process.” Twenty years ago environmental impact statements (EIS) averaged 40 pages, now they average 1000+ pages and take 4 and 1/2 years to prepare.

Originally, all this may have been coming from a good place, but the result is to make building affordable housing or increasing density or accomplishing needed infrastructure projects all but impossible to pull off.

So there’s a tension in Blue, “liberal” cities. We’re for equality, inclusion, diversity, but sort of not.

The new regional director of the King County Homelessness Authority, Marc Dones, recently told Publicola that the main driver of homelessness is economic. In saying this, Dones is challenging an alternate explanation or narrative, one that argues the homelessness is largely due to substance abuse and mental illness. Here’s Dones:

“There’s still a lot of discourse around substance use and behavioral health that is not statistically correct. The driver of homelessness is economic, and when you do population segmentation, only between 15 and 20 percent of people experiencing homelessness have severe behavioral health or substance use issues. The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing. We have a segment that does have health concerns, but from my perspective, we need to be centered on the economics first and foremost, and thinking about how do we essentially create housing options for folks in the zero to 30 percent space.”

Whether or not the percentages are completely accurate, overall Dones is right. It’s economic. There are not enough low-end housing options. The supply of starter homes is non-existent. There are too few incentives to build affordable housing.

If Dones’s solution is to create “housing options for people in the 0 to 30%” income level, the political process, the regulations, the emphasis on “citizens’ voice” may make it difficult to pull that off. There’s a contradiction, or at least a tension, in liberal enclaves like Seattle. We want to empower “citizens’ voice,” and we want solutions to big issues like homelessness. The former makes the latter tough, which may be part of why “Blue Cities Are So Outrageously Unaffordable.”

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

10 COMMENTS

  1. If you think we don’t need to fix the drug part of homelessness and provide off the street mental health facilities first, you should consider reversing your current housing plan.

    The necessary housing need, currently in the news, provides all necessities of life and requires no payment from recipients. This type of citizen responsibility cannot survive. So lets look to the past for ideas. Biden’s “Build Back Better” could provide nonunion low paying jobs with living facilities, it could create job corps for our youth to help learn a trade.
    Where is it written that it is inhumane to live in a shelter so tiny homes must be provided etc..

  2. I checked the Publicola link you supplied. Marc Dones does not support his claim that the driver of homelessness is economic. I suspect he’s right (I suspect the number is more like 30, but all he says is “when you do population segmentation, only between 15 and 20 percent of people experiencing homelessness have severe behavioral health or substance use issues. The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing.”

    Can you please do follow up research and publish links to studies and study summaries which support Mark Dones’ claim?

    • I have been unable to find any substantiation for Dones’ various statistics (which are repeated in many places without verification as justification for the focus on affordable housing as the “cause” of homelessness and the need for upzoning and density. The city of Seattle itself has contradicted these statitics in its lawsuit against the opioid manufacturers. Pete Holmes has been quoted as saying that 80% of the encamped people on the streets have substance abuse or mental health problems. Below is another quote from Holmes:(Seattle Times, from 2017 https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/washington-state-ag-bob-ferguson-seattle-sue-oxycontin-maker-over-opioid-deaths/) :

      “Holmes said Seattle’s lawsuit would seek to “recover what’s been lost” because of the opioid epidemic. The suit refers to defendants as the makers of brand names like OxyContin and Percocet as well as generics such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.

      He said the city spends millions each year for first responders who deal with overdoses, social workers who help treat people with addiction, and park employees who pick up needles instead of doing other work.

      Holmes also linked the epidemic to the city’s homelessness crisis. He referenced a 2016 city assessment that concluded a main cause of someone losing their home, second only to job loss, was drug addiction.”

      Relying on point in time / self-reported data is specious. Dones should be able to do better than this given that the city itself has the data.

  3. Could you publish links to any studies you are aware of which answers the questions:

    1) What percentage of people experiencing homelessness in our region are mentally ill?
    2) Of those, what percentage are NOT substance abusers?

    Alternatively, could you ask Mark Dones to provide links to the studies which informed his assertions regarding our homeless population? (https://publicola.com/2021/07/26/regional-homelessness-director-marc-dones-the-driver-of-homelessness-is-economic/)

  4. If the goal is to create housing for the less wll off, it seems folly to expect the real estate market to provide enough incentives to build such housing, particularly given the affluent neighborhoods’ ability to delay and drive up costs. America, like most European countries, used to build “social housing” where the costs are kept low for means-tested buyers and renters. My view is that we need to get back to this model, largely financed by the federal government. The Reagan administration, citing the crime problems and the soulless architecture of these projects, pulled the feds out of this market. The other problem with “projects” is the concentration of poverty they often produced, but that too can be overcome with mixed-income blends and some profit-making, market-rate buildings in the mix. Cities such as Seattle cannot afford to build enough such housing (any more than transit systems), so it has to be a smart federal partnership.

    • Agreed. It’s important to remember that 30% AMI housing requires permanent, ongoing subsidies. Federal support is essential.

  5. Government funding, government regulations, and routine audits probably ARE needed to build decent “social housing” for people who have mental health problems, substance abuse problems, age-related disabilities, criminal records, and other problems which make it difficult to find a safe, responsible roommate or an affordable, all on one floor housing rental with an elevator and van-based transportation to grocery stores and medical appointments.

    By the way, when I use the term “social housing projects” I mean projects like inpatient mental hospitals, inpatient drug treatment centers, ADA-compliant apartments, and nursing homes. We’ll be VERY lucky if a sufficient number of beds are ready for occupancy 5-8 years from now.

    NOTE If we’re serious about doing this, the land we need should be purchased as it becomes available, ideally by a land trust which rents and maintains the existing structures until a large-enough contiguous block of land is available to construct one of these facilities.

    In the meantime, would you agree that a substantial amount of federal COVID relief funding should be spent on:

    1) The drop off and routine maintenance of free porta-potties at the makeshift camps located in our parks and along the freeways? Shouldn’t garbage pickup be provided, gratis, as well?

    2) Policing at the makeshift camps located in our parks and along the freeways?

    3) The creation of subsidized campgrounds in and near cities: campgrounds which offer electrical and water hookups, bathrooms, laundry facilities, and a repair barn for disabled RVs – and are served by transit?

    4) A tax deductible RV repair and replacement program for RV’s which can’t move and have failing waste containment systems?

    5) Subsidies and free legal services for private landlords who rent a standard housing structure to low income people, people with mental health or substance abuse problems, people who lack substantial savings, people who don’t have much of a social safety net, and people who lack a dependable income?

    6) Zoning changes, subsidies, and free legal services for private landlords who create a safe “mini RV park” in their backyard?

    During the last year, the city, county, and State of Washington GREATLY increased the risk of offering affordable rental housing by “taking” away a landlord’s right to enforce their rental contract, i.e., their right to evict tenants for non-payment or underpayment of rent. As far as I can tell, private landlords were not justly compensated for government “taking” of their right to evict.

    What legislation can we pass (and fund) so that most private landlords are convinced that uncompensated government “taking” of their right to evict will never happen again? If we fail in this task, I suspect that the supply of private rentals which a minimum wage worker can afford will decline – LONG BEFORE an equivalent number of government subsidized housing projects are funded and built.

    Regarding your excellent point about the downside of large low income housing projects…. should we be lobbying Congress for new federal law which obligates cities and counties to invest in subsidized housing in proportion to the number of adults who live in a relatively small area (for example, a 20 block area) – with the objective that affordable housing (and special needs housing) is available in EVERY community and EVERY neighborhood?

    Shouldn’t we be talking about the taxation strategy we should use to fund investments in affordable housing? For example, should our taxation strategy focus partly on profitable US businesses: businesses which limit their contribution to our nation’s social safety net by outsourcing and offshoring work, and hiring many part-time, minimum wage workers instead of a smaller number of full-time workers? Alternatively, should our taxation strategy focus solely on personal income – or real estate taxes?

  6. Dones, as of the most recent reports, not only does not plan to move to Seattle for his $240k per year job, but has not been sighted here even to visit. He should stop by in person sometime and do a meet and greet in one of the Woodland Park shelters recently set on fire. If nobody shows up he could pick up some of the thousands of needles littering the grass. He has not researched far if he is using these figures for the number of homeless people who are struggling with addiction. The city of Seattle itself is in a mega lawsuit against the opioid manufacturers—why? Because Seattle CITY GOVERNMENT claims they are the primary driver of people unable to keep jobs, function, and maintain a home.

    This is from Pete Holmes, a politician not known for being anti-drug:
    “ He said the city spends millions each year for first responders who deal with overdoses, social workers who help treat people with addiction, and park employees who pick up needles instead of doing other work.

    Holmes also linked the epidemic to the city’s homelessness crisis. He referenced a 2016 city assessment that concluded a main cause of someone losing their home, second only to job loss, was drug addiction.” Source, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/washington-state-ag-bob-ferguson-seattle-sue-oxycontin-maker-over-opioid-deaths/

  7. In response to these two elements of Robinson’s piece:

    “Do liberals talk a better game than they play? Demsas and Klein mention liberal enclaves and upscale neighborhoods peppered with “Black Lives Matter” signs or placards that proclaim, “In Our America Everyone Is Welcome,” but where citizens successfully block the development of low cost and higher density housing.”
    “But, according to Demsas, it is higher-income, white people with power who have made use of these procedural obstacles — but not to protect the environment so much as to protect their property values and keep their neighborhoods unchanged.”

    This relates directly to Victoria’s point about “taking” of private property — which is not a racial issue, but one of property rights. The massive upzones proposed recently for many of these “blue” cities would erase all single family neighborhoods. Those who live in SF areas in Seattle have already seen the effects of upzoning in places like Ballard, where block-deep apartment complexes tower over sunless streets now devoid of green space, trees or any sign of nature. At the same time they have become canyons that block sun they have become the hottest parts of the city during heatwaves, with the wall-to-wall hard surfaces offering no mitigation for temperature extremes.

    If someone buys a house in a certain kind of neighborhood because they want a yard, low-rise housing and quiet low density streets with a sense of community it is a logical response after they have paid taxes for decades and invested in their property to want to preserve what they have. Many of the people fighting to preserve their neighborhood zoning are not “rich” except on paper — they bought their modest homes decades ago. I have several friends in the recently upzoned neighborhoods who have seen their neighbors sell out and suddenly found their homes surrounded by towering Hardie plank structures built to the maximum square footage, blocking light and erasing privacy. The qualities of life they originally purchased for are not there any more. Add a few micro-unit apartments with no included parking and there is no longer any ability to park easily at your own home unless you have a garage (and many Seattle houses do not have them.) Suddenly the sense of “neighborhood” is gone and what was “home” is unrecognizable.

    It is strange to me in these conversations that no one ever brings up appreciation for architectural harmony, style and the famous “sense of place” that urbanists are so keen on. What makes Seattle “Seattle” if you strip the neighborhoods of architectural consistency, yards, trees, history and charm? When I walk through the new Ballard I might as well be in Bellevue, or any suburb or corporate plaza community in America. The only way I know it is “Seattle” is the rare glimpse through buildings of water or mountains. I lived on Capitol Hill for three decades, two of them as a renter and one as the owner of a co-op apartment. I never once thought the neighborhoods owed it to me to tear themselves down for low-income housing I could afford. Instead, I appreciated the ability to walk through the beautiful neighborhoods and to enjoy looking at the homes and gardens. The apartments I lived in were harmonious in style to the historic houses, and modest in scale. They were all located on corner lots with little impact on the rest of the blocks’ single family homes. There would be far less objection to added density in Seattle’s single family neighborhoods if the proposals included an understanding of appropriate scale, style and historical integrity.

  8. To understand the role of economics in creating homelessness, I would suggest taking a look a Vancouver, BC. It’s Canada, so they have a much more robust social safety net. They have treatment on demand, harm reduction approaches like safe injection sites, more subsidized housing.

    And yet Vancouver has a large homeless population too. What’s the common denominator between Vancouver, Seattle, and other large West Coast cities? High rents and high housing prices. Housing in these places is very expensive, and the increases in housing costs are far outstripping many people’s ability to pay. A recent national study found that in urban areas of the US for every $100 increase in average rents in urban areas, homelessness increased by 15 percent.

    It used to be that there were more housing opportunities for people living on the margins. Seattle’s downtown used to be filled with cheap SROs. The used to be more sketchy motels on Aurora. When I was a college student in Portland in the ’80s, I paid $80 a month in rent for a room in a big, run down old Victorian house. Those days are long gone in cities like Seattle.

    Rising rents and double digit appreciation in home values are a huge engine driving the increases in homelessness. Then add addiction and the woefully inadequate social safety net for the mentally ill and impaired on top of that and it’s almost impossible to get to net zero in terms of exiting as many people from homelessness as are falling into it.

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