Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Renters are nice people and other thoughts on the demagoguery of the Missing Middle

Missing Middle from AIA Austin
Right now the Olympia planning commission is considering a list of recommendations about the so-called Missing Middle. These recommendations would hopefully increase density in Olympia's least dense neighborhoods by allowing duplexes, townhomes, courtyard apartments and ADUs in the mostly the upper elevation swaths of single-family homes neighborhoods.

As you would expect, there are a bunch of people who are not fans of this idea. And as you might expect, they belong to existing neighborhood organizations in well established (but I would argue not traditional) residential neighborhoods. As Whitney Bowerman argued in this excellent email she sent to the planning commission, these organizations represent mostly older homeowners who want to preserve the low-density character of their neighborhoods.

This testimony to the planning commission I think almost perfectly encompasses this attitude.

First off, she makes a point that we shouldn't follow the example of Seattle. Implying that by increasing density you don't do much to decrease housing costs. The fact is that rents and housing costs have started to decline in Seattle, mostly because of all those cranes on the skyline are starting to make a dent in demand.

Renters are not bad, I'm a renter

About two minutes into her testimony, she starts to get into a caricature of homeownership. "For generations, working people have dreamed of owning a house," she said. Specifically a house, and in her mind, a detached single family home. Which is also a specific type of home that hasn't been historically accessible to many people or even now.

"It is not just a financial investment, it is an emotional investment and a social investment as well," she said. Apparently, when you own a home, your emotions should matter more and your memories are deeper and richer.

"Outside those walls and over the fences, they (homeowners) create social networks," she said. "Perhaps not in the days of old when someone was home and could build social capital in the neighborhood, but people do participate in Nextdoor, attend annual meetings... they are literally invested in their neighborhoods."

This is all a slam on the nature of renting a home. Personally, I've done both. I've rented in almost every quadrant of Olympia and owned two homes in East Olympia. Currently, I rent an apartment in Southeast Olympia and hope one day to own again, but not a single family detached home. My goal is a townhouse with as little yard as possible.

But this belies the philosophy behind this anti-density testimony. The neighbor I had that called me a piece of shit while I was outside with my toddler owned his home. He still owned it when the police arrested him for waving a gun at his wife. I'm sure he had memories in my neighborhood, but they weren't more meaningful because he paid a mortgage.

I've also had a series of neighbors that have quickly moved in from out of state, bought a home and relatively quickly moved out without making a dent in my community. They were not literally invested in anything and their presence, while pleasant, did not have a deeper impact on the neighborhood.

It isn't about renters vs. homeowners, it's about density and affordability

I agree the research indicates that homeownership by-in-large means better things for a community.

The testimony is also moving the ball from a debate on increasing density in Olympia's low-density neighborhoods to a debate over the value of homeowners vs. renters. At least in the examples of townhomes and possibly courtyard apartments, the Missing Middle will be the only actual path to homeownership that some people can ever use. And, the option of duplexes and ADUs will possibly allow some folks, who would like to set down permanent roots in a neighborhood, stay in a neighborhood.

Imagine for a moment a single mother who got a late start on retirement. She has an addition in her small home that she can easily transition into an ADU if it was allowed by the city. That would keep her in her home past retirement.

Currently, a lot of neighborhoods in Olympia fail the test of liveability in two major ways. They are too low density to really be considered walkable. Even if a small neighborhood center like Wildwood did want to located inside some of these neighborhoods, it wouldn't survive because single-family neighborhoods simply aren't dense enough.

Also, we fail in terms of variety of housing types, especially in the car-dependent SE neighborhoods. A good neighborhood ensures that multiple generations of the same family can live in the area, that people from a variety of backgrounds can come together. Large swaths of single-family homes, while protecting the nature of a neighborhood, does not promote diversity.


Helen Wheatley said...

Let's consider a based-on-evidence approach and look for examples of Missing Middle planning already enacted, as well as actual rather than projected Olympia needs, to get a picture of who is actually having the housing crisis in our community. Does Opticos Design have any examples of cities with old neighborhoods where it has built and rezoned successfully -- that is, lowered rents by building its units, or the units it promotes? Can it point to anyplace where the community has tried their rezoning recipe and said that was a great solution? Does their housing serve low income people (other than, perhaps, newly built retirement communities)? Can they explain why they won't use the term "multi-unit housing," which might let communities figure out what that might mean for them without putting Berkeley's Opticos in the middle of it by using their term, which they went out on the road to sell to planners (according to their own website materials)? To read an interesting string about how Portlanders feel about the Missing Middle, check out this editorial plus its comments. I agree with the King editorial: instead of borrowing a concept off the shelf, why not look at what the city actually needs, what its zoning already actually allows and whether that is being fully utilized, and by all means do not believe that in the complicated world of real estate, high volume equals low rent. In Olympia, like many places, new developments are high rent even when dense, and old stock (where, say, elderly homeowners worried about rising property taxes live) is low rent. If you look at the study done for the Downtown Strategy, it actually makes this point, and it also makes the point that the expectation for the 25% population growth targeted for downtown (no accounting for SLR) is that they will be moving into high rent units. And no, I'm not a NIMBY, I grew up in Portland and have lived in downtown St Paul, Minneapolis, the poor part of town in Pomona CA, downtown San Francisco (on the J-Line), inner Oakland, a row house in Baltimore, downtown Parramatta Australia, an apartment in a neighorhood designed by Walter Burley Griffen in Canberra Australia (think City Beautiful), and of course beautiful downtown Ballard. There is a need for a good conversation in this community, there is a need for all kinds of higher density (to support transit, which can be moved to the logical places for density, rather than moving the density to where the transit is currently routed) and multi unit housing, but there is not a need for suggesting that home owners are demagogues. And yes, Olympia has a lot to answer for its past of redlining and racial covenants. After World War II, city residents rejected FHA apartments proposed for Ft Lewis residents partly because they felt they couldn't control who moved in (federal rules applies). There are probably still people like that around. But that isn't really the issue now. Anyhow, check out Portland, and there are probably other cities that might already have experience to explore. See: http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2017/12/infill_and_the_missing_middle.html

Emmett said...

I think Portland is a good place to look, if only because it is a bad example. The infill that is happening there is not by-in-large replacing single-family homes with townhomes or duplexes, but with larger single family homes: http://www.sightline.org/2018/01/18/every-month-portlands-infill-rules-arent-changed-the-city-looks-more-like-this/

Harry Branch said...

This is looking like a conspiracy to me. Many of these stratagems are based on the idea that by increasing supply the price will come down. Data correlations appear to support this. But cause and effect isn't really established and it seems to me that demand is just as likely dictated by money laundering. On a side note... attempts to fund education with property taxes may result in an increase of $1000 per year for an average house in some areas. This cost will be passed on to renters. If we add on increased sales taxes for things used in maintenance etc we're easily up to a $100 per month increase in rents. If we're giving a particular developer tax exceptions and other cost saving incentives, offsetting costs will be passed on to others in the community. Nobody gets something for nothing unless somebody else get nothing for something. If the costs of low income housing are falling disproportionately on the poor, how is that going to solve the problem? People who are currently barely hanging on will fall off. And the developers will walk away with money falling out of every pocket.