What's Tony Thinking

Why Are Blue Cities So Outrageously Unaffordable?


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, in Seattle. 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 our 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 it’s recent hype, “a star 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 expense 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 “Citizen 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 “Citizen 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, 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 those 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 solution is to create “housing options for people in the 0 to 30%” income level, the political process, the regulations, the emphasis on “citizen 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 “citizen 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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