Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Surveying Themes in Criticism of Missing Middle Housing

Next week Council will consider the first round of changes on the missing middle code reforms. (See notes for January 13th meeting on the preview. When the Staff Report comes out, there might be more to say.)

Aside from feelings and fears about change, there are some arguments that circulate, and it would be helpful perhaps to name them more explicitly. This will be very partial and fragmentary, and I do not expect to "prove" anything. My hope is that more of the debate could be empirically grounded and less emotional, and that there could be more text and less subtext. So here are some more-or-less substantive themes in criticism of missing middle housing. Maybe you will be able to extend the analysis or, if you remain a critic of missing middle housing, maybe you can sharpen your criticism. Housing is complicated, there are bits we don't understand, and it's probably not very wise to be too dogmatic about it.

Models of Change

One of the biggest themes is there seems to be two models of neighborhood change floating around:
  • Abrupt and disruptive change linked to Big Developer
  • Gradual change and filtering linked to smaller developers
If supporters for housing reform have an idea of markets and of neighborhoods with a more "natural" rate of replacement and transition, critics see more disruption with an "accelerated" rate of demolition, replacement, and transition. Crucially, they see Big Developers as primary agents of the disruption. They draw a line connecting missing middle housing and Big Business. By contrast, Strong Towns and other reformers have a kind of successor to the Jeffersonian "yeoman farmer," and see small scale developers as the agents of more gradual change.

Eugene criticism of HB 2001

A Salem FB discussion

A Portland twitter thread on HB 2001
On the gradual theory, an old house might occasionally get demolished, but if a fourplex is built to replace it, that means there are now three new households not trying to bid up the price on three other old homes nearby. This is a selective thinning that creates a more healthy total neighborhood ecosystem.

On the disruptive theory, Big Developer comes in and just clearcuts old homes.

If clear-cutting is really a significant threat, then policies could be adopted to incent more gradual change or to make clear-cutting more expensive. Legalizing missing middle housing isn't itself the problem; any problem would be the sudden, catastrophic change from clear-cutting. Policy could address that. (But see at bottom for some evidence from right here that the threat of clear-cutting is overstated.)

Price-Setting and Markets

Related to the viability of Big Developer clear-cutting, there seems to be two models of price-setting:
  • A kind of last in/first out pricing, in which the costs and then selling price of the most recent housing constructed in a market set the price for all other housing
  • A more dynamic market in which buyers and sellers negotiate, and in which adding expensive housing does filter and help with affordable housing
Andersen researches housing policy at Sightline

The Eugene criticism of HB 2001

from an economist, via Twitter

City Observatory weighs in via Twitter
Zuk & Chapple study, UC Berkeley here
There is evidence that more market rate housing does in fact moderate prices and reduce displacement in less expensive housing.


I'm not sure I have seen a lot of it here, but in Eugene there is a weird current for the revival of "Projects." In form, they aren't the "tower in the park" Pruitt Igoe configuration that has been essentially repudiated now, but in function they operate similarly, to insulate established neighborhoods from poor people. It is a modern warehousing approach. The greenwash is that clustering large complexes of affordable housing on large arterials with frequent service transit is most efficient.

Again, the Eugene cricisim
But this ignores the way distributed missing middle housing can create demand for more frequent service on existing routes with only hourly or half-hourly service, or create demand for new transit routes that reach farther into previously unserved areas. It treats transit as second class transport of last resort rather than preferred transport of first resport.

It also ignores ways that more distributed subsidized housing is more just, is better on crime, is better for social mobility.

A Theory of Flight and Longer Commutes

Is this really just, "I'm going to pick up my toys and abandon the sandbox"?

From Eugene - note fear of flight to "outlying commuter town"
The autoism is also clear here. It's just not conceivable that new residents will be car-free or live more car-lite.

More than that, it's the "quality of life" they think will deteriorate. A Salemite does invoke "white flight."

A Salem FB discussion
But while some people may indeed move out, more will find attractive the improved amenities that cluster with a little higher densities, will find attractive the opportunity to ditch a car and have a new "n-1" number of cars in their household.

I think this theory of flight is overstated.

An Example here in Salem

Almost the whole of Sleepy Hollow is zoned RM2
(City of Salem Zoning map)
One neighborhood that we just haven't talked about is Sleepy Hollow, between Gaiety Hill and Fairmount. Even if some of the apartments are not lovely, there has not been widespread clear-cutting for institutions like the Hospital or the State, or for Big Developer, and it has had a more gradual redevelopment. It's all zoned RM2 and yet lots of single family homes remain. It should be more of a case study, and we should talk about what works there and what doesn't work. Above all, it is local evidence that the worst fears for fourplex legalization are unwarranted.

via Twitter and the Sightline piece
Strong Towns tweeted out a piece about Portland's effort on fourplexes, and that might be a good note on which to close.


Evan said...

Related is the Monkeonen and Manville study in LA showing much opposition to development is dislike of developers.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Interesting! Thanks.

From the piece:

'Specifically, Monkeonen and Manville report that “opposition to new development increases by 20 percentage points when respondents see the argument that a developer is likely to earn a large profit from the building.” The research is experimental and deserves more study, but this magnitude, they report, is double the increase in opposition associated with other more commonly stated concerns like traffic.

...the most powerful opposition frame is about the developer. “When we told survey respondents that a developer may have received special permission to build, and that he would make a large profit, they became far more hostile to new housing—more than with any other frame.”

What’s surprising here is not that people dislike developers, but the distinct departure from risk aversion as a driver. Instead of acting in their own interest, people appear motivated to enforce community norms of fairness.To punish developers feels like one way to disrupt a pattern of winners and losers.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

One of the things that bothers me about this whole discussion of allowing higher density in single family residential zones is that it probably won't actually work. Right now it is legal to put a manufactured house on a 4000 sq foot lot in Salem. But it doesn't happen. Recently the City allowed ADUs to be built on single family lots. Very few are being built. Yes, quite a few legal and illegal garage conversions, but few ADUs.

And we might see a few multifamily projects replacing single family houses but my guess not all that many in the end. We might see someone try once again to do a 'tiny lot' subdivision, but the attempt to do that at the old Pictsweet property failed. It failed not just because neighborhood opposition, but because in the end it just did not pencil out for some reason. I think it might have been due to fire department rules about spacing of houses

What bothers me about some of the changes being proposed is that there has been no actual market analysis of what will work. You have to do a reality check on what the market will support if you want real change, because in the end it is not the city that builds things, it is the private property owners. Nowhere did I see any real analysis of what it takes to build affordable housing or what it takes to build to a higher density and still be able to sell it.

I have some misgivings based on my 30 yers of experience working on land use issues, but also seeing so many attempts to 'fix' problems that end up being failures because the planners did not actually do the work necessary to ensure success.

The one thing I ver most is that we will create mistakes that we have to live with for the next 75 to 100 years.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

I will come back and address some of your other points in a more detailed and serious way, but I want to address your very last point just now.

The current scheme is an extraordinary mistake we've endured for "75 to 100 years" already. Short of deliberately building on every superfund site, how is trying something different going to be worse?

Once we get outside of the auto age, the history of all cities show patterns that endure and are successful, far beyond the horizon of a century.

What you see as apparently deviation from something that works might instead be desperately needed course-correction from something that is harmful.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

You say "Right now it is legal to put a manufactured house on a 4000 sq foot lot in Salem. But it doesn't happen. Recently the City allowed ADUs to be built on single family lots. Very few are being built."

So are you suggesting that just because a new feature isn't fully utilized now, we should not have legalized/enabled that feature to begin with?

I think you underestimate the value of iteration.

We enable some new feature, we find that there remain barriers, and in a subsequent round of action, we address and/or mitigate those barriers.

Rinse, Repeat.

You say "What bothers me about some of the changes being proposed is that there has been no actual market analysis of what will work. You have to do a reality check on what the market will support if you want real change..."

But again, just because something now doesn't work very well, doesn't also mean that in the future it won't work well, or that we can't iterate policy and law to make it work well. If we think something is desirable, we should work to achieve it, not assume it is impossible.

As I read you here, you don't seem to have a vision of working towards a future. You seem bound by current conditions and are willing to be bound by them.

Walker said...

I have moved around enough (lived in five state capitals now) to have a sense of what things are systemic factors and which ones are not (when they are facing the same problems).

And the most important thing that I keep coming back to is that Chuck Marohn hit the nail on the head squarely when he said that people cry out for “solutions” but are so change resistant that he finally was forced to realize that “solutions” generally means “How can other people change what they’re doing so that I don’t have to change anything that I’m doing.” Man, there’s just no place that’s more true than with housing — EVERYBODY agrees that there should be plenty of affordable housing available for everyone ... but the hidden caveat is “So long as the value of my house keeps going up, I don’t have to pay more taxes, and nobody builds anything near me that costs less to live in than mine does”

The other thing that we have to engage with is that our property tax system that rewards land speculation and sprawl is like gravity — an invisible force that absolutely affects everything but is so prevalent and present that it’s never even thought about ... it’s just a given, and all the decisions are made without considering that, unlike gravity, we could change our property tax system so that it stopped producing the housing shortages and sprawl that are bankrupting cities like Salem while simultaneously causing a shortage of housing.

I had an insight recently that just keeps cropping up on difficult issue after issue — we often talk about things like homelessness and the housing shortages or skyrocketing health care costs occurring alongside people with no access to health care — as “market failures.” But, really, when you think about, “markets” don’t fail. That is, when people say markets are failing because of (bad things observed) what they’re really saying is that the markets are optimizing for something other than what I think the markets should be optimizing for.

In this country, markets optimize for total efficiency (profitability), period. Not public health, not housing, not education, not environmental quality, but the total amount of profits that can be pulled from them. Unless we’re going to invest public resources in the direct provision of housing, then if we want there to be more housing, we have to adjust constraints so that providing more housing is more profitable than the land speculation that housing competes with. Until we do that — until we stop ignoring the gravitational force that our tax code provides that pushes cities all over America to have both unused and underused land AND lots of homeless people — we’re just wasting time imagining that Chuck’s definition of “solutions” can be found.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I don't think you are interpreting my concerns correctly. Just because I was involved in the previous attempt to design multifamily housing, does not mean I liked the outcome. And just because I participated in this go-round does not mean I think this attempt is good either.

My point above is that we are expecting builders to do certain things by creating design standards and then we create 'outs' for them not to build to those standards. If you want change it works better to find out what is best practice, write your standards so you will get the desired outcome, and then do not allow people to easily avoid doing what is prescribed. Until the City is realistic about such things, I doubt much will change. And I am interested, like you, in real change.

When we wrote the standards back in the 1990s we decided that the best way to get builders to use the design standards was to look at what was possible in terms of the economics of the time. We did 'reality checks' to see what was being built and what was possible to build. If something was going to cost too much, then putting it a design standard did not mean it would happen.

That theory worked pretty well, as it stayed unchanged for 25 years except to add rules for building on slopes...which was not part of the assumptions because apartments at the time were only allowed on flat land of 5 acres or larger. As things changed, the City had to add more rules.

But now we are talking about affordable and higher density, as well as putting apartments on smaller lots. So of course the discussion is different. I did not say, but will add that with such new factors, I am not pleased that the whole process has been lumped together and very truncated.

I think the issue of parking spaces alone should have had a much more thorough discussion than it has had...or is likely to get. That is a shame IMHO.

How to get people to move away from dependence on cars is a huge topic and while design standards for apartments has some part in that discussion or visa versa, these design standards are being rushed and thus I worry that they will not address the change that we seek.

Affordable housing is a whole other issue that people want to discuss, but it is not really being discussed either. To me the whole effort is poorly planned and poorly executed.

But back to my point....I said to the City Council when they started Our Salem started...if you do not change the process, you will not get the desired outcome because the way things work is that we leave what gets built to the builders. We have to fix that part of the equation. I made the same point to staff when they started the multifamily design process too. Unless you make rules that have no exceptions, you won't get what you want out of them.

Imagine you were building a bike. You set standards for the design. Then you tell people, go build this bike, but the first thing they say is, I want to change this and change that....Do you think you are going to get the same bike in the end?

I think this whole exercise is a lost opportunity for real change in how we develop our City.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Strong Towns recently posted a note on Evan Mast's research (one of the twitter slides here), "Who's Afraid of New Apartments?")