Wednesday, June 2, 2021

A Theory of Power for Salem: Business-controlled or Homevoter?

In his 1996 history of Salem Hospital, A Century of Service, former SJ editor John McMillan discussed the new board in 1947 for Deaconess Hospital and the subsequent debate about a merger with General Hospital:
Sociologists have theorized that cities like Salem are run by a business-controlled power structure whose members meet privately and make all important decisions. To the degree that Salem had a power structure, it clearly supported General, the hospital with "all the old school ties"....
McMillan's book gave greater weight to the "business-controlled power structure."

This belief is echoed in common sentiment about developers and the Chamber of Commerce.

The current expression might be most clear in the debate we had over Costco's proposal to relocate out south to Kuebler near I-5.

In a letter to the editor from 2018 a person argued the City works to favor the Developer and Chamber side of things:
My experience indicates that the city of Salem does not care or pay attention to local neighborhood concerns. All they care about is banking the new tax dollars that development brings.

A number of years ago my neighborhood protested a residential infill project. Sixty-five neighbors showed up at a public hearing. All were opposed to the project. We presented carefully thought out design and access alternatives.

Every suggestion we made was ignored.
Though it has not got much visibility in Salem on our local issues, there is a counter-argument.

Homevoter Hypothesis

Another theory is that homeowners seeking to maximize home value actually have more power. Two decades ago there was a book arguing this and called it the "homevoter hypothesis."* Over at City Observatory in 2015, they looked at its thesis and compared to the primary competitor, the Developer and Chamber thesis, that "urban elected officials and zoning boards are highly influenced by coalitions of business and civic leaders interested mainly in economic growth and maximizing the price of the land they own," and concluded "in every case where the evidence clearly points to one theory or the other, the winner is the homevoter hypothesis."

1911 ad for
Kingwood Park development
In the debate on the SRC, when decongestion pricing came up, some mentioned home value. On FB a person wrote that decongestion pricing
would destroy the housing industry in West Salem pretty quickly. Who would want to pay a $2,000 a year "tax" just to live here?
A little later, in her formal statement about decongestion pricing, former Candidate for City Council Micki Varney said
Tolling would negatively impact home values and businesses in West Salem. Who would want to live here or come here to shop and dine if they had to pay tolls to cross the river?
The concept recently surfaced again in a comment a while back here on the prospect of fourplex legalization:
there is a need to balance the property rights of home owners with the development needs. If you have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into your home, you want to protect that. This is not something to take lightly.

And again on yesterday's post:

The biggest question for me is will the public be comfortable with letting their property values being impacted by others and having no recourse? 

Contrary to or in tension with the stance on the Costco project in that LTE, these comments assert a link between policy debates here in Salem and home value and suggest it's the home value that's driving the final policy outcome, not business interests.

Kingwood Park ad, January 2nd, 1911

It also looks like evidence that while on particular neighborhood issues things might go against neighbors, in general the framework of zoning and process works to advantage home owners. Again, they sometimes lose on particular developments, but the zoning framework itself steers a lot of development in the first place, avoiding any need for battles with neighboring home owners.

You might remember the ways that early 20th century deed restrictions were "just high enough to guarantee the surroundings" and keep out undesirables. We saw the expectation for favoring incumbent home owners in the debate over the German Baptist Church conversion project.

Is it important we have a generally adequate theory of power in Salem? (Sure, there will always be exceptions in particular cases, but we are talking about the existence and usefulness of a general pattern here.)

Front page today

I think our debates would be better if we were clearer about things. Council has had an off-and-on debate a new vagrancy law, and downtown campsites continue to shadow the debate.

A perceived threat to property value and business is in the mix. (They might feel about tents the way some feel about four-plexes, in fact.)

There is also our fundamental incoherence on housing. You might remember a Strong Towns post from 2017:

Here are two ideas that, if you’re like most Americans, you probably agree with:
  1. Government policy should help keep housing broadly affordable, so as not to price out people of low or moderate incomes from entire neighborhoods, cities, or even metropolitan areas.
  2. Government policy should protect residential neighborhoods from things that might negatively impact housing values, because homes are an important investment and wealth-building tool.
Having read them together like that, you’ve probably already jumped ahead to the big reveal, which is that these two ideas are almost entirely mutually exclusive. The first essentially says, “Use housing policy to keep home prices down”; the second says, “Use housing policy to keep home prices up.”

They say "We need to acknowledge the tension here: that 'protecting' or 'promoting' property values is the same thing as 'making housing more expensive.'" 

There is no neat solution here; there are trade-offs everywhere in the debates. But it would be helpful if people were more explicit about their priors.

* While I have read Century of Service, I have not read Homevoter Hypothesis, so claims about it are only very tentative and based on second-hand reading, not a full first-hand reading. Maybe you will have read it, know more, and offer refinements here!


Walker said...

Absolutely. As has been noted, everyone is in favor of affordable housing as long as

No one builds anything near them that costs less than their home
And their taxes don't go up
And home values don't drop for any reason.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

And do you think there are still "secret" back room meetings by powerful people?
I do.
I think that because I know of a couple of these meetings. One happens every month in the Franklin Building.
Another takes place at a local country club.
Some say that the meetings a City department director has every couple of weeks with developers is one too.
It's been that way for decades. And I see no likelihood of it changing any time soon.

I was good friends with a person who's husband was a key player in Salem. He sat on no board or commission but he wielded great influence over many institutions in Salem. Both are gone now, but the system is still active.

Interestingly the Salem Health as one of the largest employers and largest industry in Salem, it is not surprising the power that their board of directors weild in our community.