The problem is inequality, not speculation

Need homes? Build homes (even the Communist youth thought so in 1946)

In 1946, even the Communist Party USA agreed that the obvious solution to a housing shortage was to build housing. Why is that controversial now?

In a recent fit of contrarian cutesiness (which I partly responded to earlier, here), Chuck Marohn wrote about out-of-control housing prices: “The simple answer is downzoning.”

That’s as dishonest an answer to the question as Tommy Lasorda, in those vintage Ultra Slim Fast commercials, saying that the secret to out-of-control weight is spaghetti-and-meatball dinners — the daily treat, rather than the three calorie-restricted, high-fiber shakes that you choke down the rest of the day.

Marohn balances his call for downzoning with a casual mention of his previous “floating height limit” idea — allowing, across all zones, somewhat bigger buildings than the norm. This would, in essence, upzone the vast majority of metropolitan American land that’s currently zoned solely for low-rise single-family residential, while lowering allowable heights in the much smaller proportion that’s subject to more-lenient commercial zoning. (Of course, in his contrarian telling, a call for raising allowable building heights for 90% of America is titled “the case for height restrictions.”)

He pins the blame for metro Portland’s housing affordability crisis — and, by extension, the broader housing-affordability crisis afflicting bicoastal Blue America — on property speculation, saying that developers are bidding up residential land prices around transit in hopes of winning rezoning to build multifamily TOD. Thus, his call for downzoning, to frighten off those vile speculators. There certainly exist a few situations where transit-oriented speculation distorts markets — I’ve written about these pretty extensively in GGWash, pointing to why “parking craters” surround Metro stations instead of 8-story high-rises.

But these are fringe situations, affecting only a few square miles across the entire country. Even when I lived in the highly desirable, transit-accessible neighborhood of Bucktown, where zoning was infamously corrupt, the upzones that the local alderman brazenly sold did not result in the dumpy single family houses being replaced with parking-light apartments, as Chuck’s hypothesis holds. In fact, the exact opposite occurred: dumpy, parking-light apartments were replaced with swanky single-family houses! In countless other areas which have been downzoned, housing prices have increased regardless of speculation.

Why? Because the price increases in Bucktown, and on Portland’s east side or Los Angeles’ west side, have little to do with transportation (Chuck’s bailiwick) — and much more to do with rising income and wealth inequality, both within and between regions, combined with a largely static land-regulation regime that hasn’t adapted. The gains accruing to the wealthiest means that the wealthy can bid up housing prices, substantially raising housing prices in high-income regions where both demand and barriers to entry are high. As I wrote earlier, this imbalance has held on for decades in some cities, particularly in coastal California, and the political dynamic that sustains it appears to be utterly implacable.

As I also wrote earlier, the economies in different regions have diverged in a way that has fed this dynamic. Economists Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh and Pierre-Olivier Weill found that “house price dispersion” between regions increased much faster than income inequality between regions (which has also been increasing): their statistical measure of the variation in house prices increased by 38 percentage points, vs. 8.6 points for wages, from 1975-2007. As their paper explains,

The increase in productivity dispersion creates flows of workers towards high-productivity metropolitan areas, driving local house prices up because of limited housing supply. Conversely, households flow out of low-productivity areas, driving local house prices down. This increases house price dispersion.

The situation has gotten even worse since the 2007 crisis, with housing prices in wealthy Census tracts increasing almost twice as fast as those in more modest areas.

Just to be sure, the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies examined metro-level data about the uneven recovery in house prices more closely and observed:

a strong case for the gap between recent changes in supply and demand exerting a strong upward pressure on house prices… the overriding importance of the imbalance between population growth and housing stock growth in explaining trends in prices…

Sure, pointing the finger at transit, multifamily, and TOD burnishes Chuck’s prickly-independent bona fides, a long tradition in Upper Midwest politics. But he’s searching only within his narrow sphere of expertise (transportation) to find the cause of problems that have much larger global causes — and which don’t lend themselves to his hyper-local bootstraps approach.

What to memorize before you’re in a crash

Crash report

I was injured in a hit-and-run crash last year, and unlike so many others, the driver is being brought to justice. (I recently talked to a prosecutor about the case.) Here’s what I’ve learned to do: shout out the license plate number. Then repeat it, even louder. Get in the habit of doing this whenever you see bad driving, and certainly do this instead of cussing. You will need to make this so habitual that it becomes instinct — at the moment it happens, you will not be able to think clearly.

What happened to me: I was on a short summer vacation to Toronto. On a whim, I decided to take the bus to the nearby city of Hamilton, just to see something different. (Oh, it’s different, all right.) As I was crossing Main at James, with the light, I noticed a left-turning car proceeding through the intersection — clear of traffic, but not yet clear of me. I had a stomach-dropping realization of “uh, that car is going to intersect with my leg” a moment before the car’s bumper grazed my ankle.

I pivoted and began shouting out the license number repeatedly. This (a) helped me remember it when I had a chance to get to the corner and write it down, for recitation to 911, (b) alerted the driver that yes, someone had noticed, and most importantly (c) caught the attention of a witness, who was thinking clearly.

A witness who was a block away ran back towards me just afterwards, told me that the motorist had turned right, offered a description of the car complete with a correct license plate number [I was off by one], and offered to look in that direction for the car. He found the car two blocks away, parked in a parking lot, confronted the driver, and told him that he needed to return to the scene — which he did. (Like a good Canadian, this witness apologized profusely on behalf of Hamilton, and while we were waiting for the police talked about his hockey league.)

Everything else about the sequence of events was relatively easy to recall when on the phone with 911, and later when filing the police report. But without the license plate number, there’s no way that I could have even begun the process.

All of the above is also good advice, but only after you’ve correctly remembered the license plate number.

Q&A about DC’s gas tax

Nature's fuel

Who wouldn’t be happy about Mother Nature’s Fuel?

How is DC’s current gas tax computed?

It’s 8% on the wholesale price per gallon… with a floor of $2.94, so that the revenue doesn’t drop below the prior rate of $0.235 per gallon. Since 2015, the gas tax rate has been at that floor.

It’s levied at the same rate on a variety of fuels, including ” including gasoline, diesel fuel, benzol, benzene, naphtha, kerosene, heating oils, [and] all liquified petroleum gases.”

Why did DC change how its gas tax is computed?

Here’s some background from DCFPI about why that changed. Maryland and Virginia also shifted to a percentage basis around the same time.

When did the gas tax computation change?

It was Phil Mendelson’s idea, and it was implemented rather quickly:
– May 21, 2013 headline in the Post: “D.C. council chairman seeks shift in collecting fuel taxes.”
– May 22, 2013 headline: “D.C. Council agrees to scrap per-gallon gas tax in favor of levy on wholesale fuel.”

How else could the gas tax be computed?

Here’s one goofy idea: Burning a gallon of gas produces 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide. One could thus levy “a motor fuels tax of $0.0133 per pound of carbon dioxide emissions that result from the fuel’s combustion,” which would result in a tax of:
– $0.235/gallon for gasoline with 10% ethanol (the usual mix around here)
– $0.261/gallon for pure gasoline (usually only sold as marine fuel around here)
– $0.298/gallon for pure diesel
– $0.276/gallon for pure biodiesel
Doing so would technically put a “carbon tax” on the books without appreciably raising existing tax rates, and providing a very small incentive for biofuels.

Of course, a recalculation is also an opportunity to harmonize rates with a neighboring jurisdiction… see below.

(Interesting fact: British Columbia applies its carbon tax to fuels on a per-liter basis.)

How does DC’s gas tax rate compare to its neighbors’?

Maryland’s current rate is equivalent to $0.335 per gallon. (Yes, that’s $0.10 higher than DC’s.) Virginia’s current rate is $0.162.

How might DC gas station owners react to an increased gas tax?

You’ll have to ask them, but I was struck by this passage in a 2011 CityPaper profile (by Christine McDonald) of Joe Mamo, who owns nearly half of DC’s gas stations:

“We are really a real estate company,” he says. “We’re in it for the real estate.” Mamo considers the coming transition inevitable, given the high cost of D.C. real estate and predictions about “peak oil,” alternative fuels, and electric cars that might eventually make gas stations obsolete. “Long term, the real estate is where the value is,” he says.

Smart growth and your Sierra Club local

Taking refuge

In California, trees hug you

I was recently updating the DC Sierra Club chapter’s web page on smart growth, on which I’ve added a few links to resources about the Club and Chapter’s heritage of smart growth advocacy. Even I was surprised at how thoroughly the Club’s key policies embrace smart growth.

The overarching “Sierra Club Strategic Plan Overarching Visionary Goals” document lists as two of its 21 strategies:

Maximize energy efficiency across all sectors, including transportation, urban design, and land use. […]

Protect our air, water, land, and communities from pollution. Promote environmentally sensitive land use and urban design to minimize sprawl, provide a healthy environment for all, and minimize resource use.

Interestingly, the strategy that calls to “Protect and restore wildlands and waterways” continues that those wildlands serve a specific, objective, quantifiable purpose: “to provide large and connected habitats.” Not to protect the favorite views of favored humans, or to protect property values for landowners, but to rescue non-human species from the threat of habitat fragmentation.

The Policy on Urban Environment, adopted by the board in 1986, states (emphasis added):

…the Sierra Club urges planning and policies which stimulate…
Infill” residential and commercial development on unused or under-used land within city boundaries…
Preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with residents protected from unreasonable economic and physical disruption…
Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes…
These development patterns and transit improvements would conserve energy, water, land and building materials while enhancing the pleasure and safety of urban life and reducing travel distances.

The Transportation Policy, adopted in 1994, supports policy and systems that “encourage land uses that minimize travel requirements; strengthen local communities, towns and urban centers.”

The broad Energy Resources Policy (PDF) directly refers to smart growth and transit. In section VII.A.3:

Reduce the need to drive passenger vehicles by shortening the distance between workplace, home, shopping and school, using “smart growth” planning and improved transportation options. Provide safe and appealing options for walking, bicycling and mass transit, including light rail passenger trains, which will reduce vehicle trips, emissions, fuel consumption, and the demand for new roads and pavement. Well-designed mixed-use communities create long-term reductions in energy usage. Appropriately designed public transportation systems are an essential component of a sustainable energy society… Congestion pricing should be applied, when feasible. Parking costs should be efficiently and conveniently unbundled to give consumers and employees more control over how they choose to spend their money.

If your local Sierra Club entity is proving unnecessarily obtuse in not living up to these policies, I’d suggest engaging by appealing to the Club’s strong sense of tradition, deference to higher authorities (encoded in the “One Club” policy), broader principles, and yes, policies. One specific idea: ask them to review the “Guidelines Governing Decisions on Schools, Hospitals or Other Projects Serving Economically Disadvantaged Communities.” (Tell them “it’s on Club House, under Public Facilities.”) Those require specific steps before Club entities decide to oppose or endorse a public facility, with a specific mention of “low-income housing project” (and thus many large-scale infill developments subject to inclusionary requirements). Those steps require the Club to have a face-to-face listening session with those who will benefit, and a written assessment of the proposal and “any feasible environmentally superior alternatives” — which cannot include displacing housing to sprawling locations. Even where opposition by the Club may very well be warranted, the policy requires that it be thoughtful and considered, rather than knee-jerk.

Education and location confound attempts to compare Asian economic status

Jeff Guo at the Post has written recently questioning one “model minority” story — that the gap in income and wealth between Asian Americans and whites appears to be closing. This apparent progress would seem to contradict the power of centuries of white privilege — but only if one neglects several confounding factors.

The largest confounding factor that Guo points out is education vs. income: “But Asian Americans have to work harder just to keep up with whites. If you compare whites and Asian Americans with the same amount of schooling, Asian Americans actually make less money.” Asian Americans have, on average, more education than other Americans, and the correlation between education and income turns out to be stronger than that between race and income.

Another confounding factor is location (and urbanization) vs. wealth. For historical reasons, Asian Americans are much more likely than other Americans to live in “gateway cities,” i.e., expensive coastal metro areas. This means that Asian American homeowners are on the prosperous side of the wide-and-growing gap between gateway-city property values and property values in the rest of America. But since not all Asian American households are homeowners (especially among more recent arrivals, for whom forbiddingly high housing prices have inhibited wealth building), these benign-looking averages hide tremendous wealth inequality among Asian Americans.

urban-1

Income by ethnicity and origin in metropolitan Washington; data from the Urban Institute

urban-2

Wealth by ethnicity and origin in metropolitan Washington; data from the Urban Institute.

Location matters even on a sub-national level. The Urban Institute’s recent report on the racial wealth gap in metro DC, “The Color of Wealth in the Nation’s Capital,” finds that the homeowning Latino and Asian households surveyed have houses that are worth more than the White and Black households surveyed, but lower total net worth. (Note that due to small sample sizes, many correlations lack statistical significance.) The higher housing values may be related to residential segregation; much of the region’s Latino and Asian American households live in the favored western half of the region, where property values are substantially higher. This effect may even be a factor nationwide, since in most metro areas Asian Americans have settled primarily in favored quarters — indeed, Asian Americans are more likely to live in areas with high property values and high-quality local public schools.

Deck chairs on a sinking beach

I was pondering the testimony I delivered last May to the HPRB:

Where it all began

The original boundary stone at Jones Point.

Global warming poses a grave and imminent threat to not only humanity’s future, but to our shared past as well. In a recent issue of Preservation magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation president Stephanie Meeks wrote that “as preservationists, it is incumbent on us to reckon with climate change bravely.” If left unchecked, the higher sea levels caused by global warming threaten the very existence of countless historic structures within the District of Columbia, including a great many of the surviving structures from its earliest days. For example, the original cornerstone of the District of Columbia (at Jones Point in Alexandria) was originally constructed on dry ground — but now sits below today’s sea level, hidden by an obtrusive concrete seawall and visible only through a protective cover. From the Jefferson Memorial to Randall School, Mayfair Mansions to Tingey House, global warming could very well obliterate scores of DC landmarks.

(The HPRB approved the application that day, and the building is moving towards construction this year.)

The sad thing about my statement today? Global warming will go pretty much unchecked under the present policy regime. Points-of-no-return are rapidly approaching for the terrestrial ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica; even with the boom in clean energy technology, there’s no stopping sea level from rising several meters or even many meters. Ten feet, twenty feet seem matter of course now; hundreds of feet is within the realm of possibility.

Is everything that we’re fight about within our low-lying cities about to go for naught — are we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

As Ian Urbina noted in the Times in November, property sales in flood-prone coastal areas are already slowing suspiciously. It’s impossible to know exactly why, but the rising incidence and cost of even “nuisance” flooding (as extensively reported by Ryan McNeill, Deborah J. Nelson and Duff Wilson from Reuters last year might well be causing people to think twice about purchasing in flood-prone areas.

What happens when the defenses start to run out? Will land suddenly, or gradually, become worthless? One fascinating “natural” experiment to watch is in Palm Springs, where the Desert Sun’s Rosalie Murphy wrote about the consequences of the expiring land leases that underlie half of that city. Condos are going begging for buyers, since expiring land leases can’t be encumbered with fresh mortgages — but commercial development often continues apace, since the mortgage terms are shorter.

I appreciate that the Trust is thinking more intersectionally, to the point of reframing its work as “reurbanism.” But given the forecasts, it’s tough for me not to see a lot of local skirmishes over waterfront sites as pretty pointless.

Globalization and the truthiness sweatshops

A few years ago, American authors like Winnie Wong and Peter Hessler stumbled across a curious phenomenon: Chinese towns that applied the mindless logic of mass production, backed by China’s unparalleled ability to conjure up entire industrial-scale supply chains from thin air, to an improbable export — schlocky oil paintings, often stroke-for-stroke knock-offs of museum treasures. These towns aren’t the colorful and carefree artists’ colonies of our imaginations (such places have largely been gentrified or touristed into oblivion); instead, they’re still dreary factory towns, complete with migrant peasants being worked to the hilt. Wong profiled the village of Dafen, one of the chengzhongcun (urban villages) embedded within the sprawl of metro Shenzhen. There are certainly fascinating original artists working within China, and zero-talent hacks passing off “art” in the West, but frankly I’m not sure what to make of mass-produced creativity.

It’s a through-the-looking-glass version of the idea that cities can structure their growth around cool “creative class” agglomeration economies that turn out stylish, disruptive innovations. Of course, that assumes that customers want tasteful products — a point Barnum disproved.

Now comes word that painting isn’t the only labor-intensive “creative” industry that’s ripe for export, provided the aesthetic qualities get dumbed down along the way. It turns out that the clickbait that passes for social-media “news” has also been dumbed down to the point where it can also thrive inside a sweatshop, rather than a fancy newsroom. For instance, Macedonian child-labor sweatshops churn out truthy clickbait, according to a report from Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander in Buzzfeed. A few countries to the east in Russia, a cottage industry of basement-dwelling trolls (backed by an army of bot brethren) intentionally lobs multilingual insults around the globe to sow discord and upset democratic consensus.

Globalization didn’t just flood the world’s markets with cheap (and poorly made) toys, clothes, and electronics. Now it’s flooding the world’s markets with cheap (and poorly made) content, as well.