Amazon’s New Homeless Shelter

This spring Seattle will be home to the world’s most advanced homeless shelter. Eight floors of Amazon’s new headquarters building will be devoted to Mary’s Place, a local community service center supporting homeless families. In addition to the traditional diversion center and extreme weather shelter, Mary’s Place will include longer-term transition housing for up to 275 people at a time. It will feature legal and employment counseling, outdoor play areas, sustainable energy, even a dog wash. They will also provide temporary housing for families with severely ill children seeking temporary support.

Good, bad, dystopian or hopeful, we can all agree that this is bizarre. Across the history of capitalism there have been some examples of firms taking very active roles in their communities, building model company towns like Hershey, PA and Steinway, NY, and some of these experiments were very successful. But all of these efforts were focused on the company’s workers, and almost all of them were created to stave off union organization.

Apart from a few notable examples of personal philanthropy from wealthy businessmen, companies have never taken on a sustained social welfare burden. This is not merely unprecedented. It points to the dawn of a new, perhaps troubling era, in which commerce eclipses politics as our main channel of political expression.

Why is Amazon building a homeless shelter in its offices? Why are they investing millions of dollars to support affordable housing in Alexandria, VA? For that matter, why did Salesforce join with dozens of other tech businesses in San Francisco to force the city to tax them to fund new homeless supports?

Why is Nike taking sides in the debate over police violence? Why would a building supply company take out a Super Bowl ad supporting immigrant families? The simple answer is that our democracy is failing to deliver the baseline public conditions necessary to support continued prosperity. Our public institutions are collapsing into such appalling dysfunction that corporations have to divert shareholder funds to prop up dying public infrastructure.

In 2018, Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon and JP Morgan joined forces to build a health care provider that would be “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” Their effort reflected Warren Buffet’s frustration over America’s failure to enact a universal health insurance program. He has referred to our broken system as “the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness,” and publicly supported single-payer. Haven, the new venture they created, began offering coverage to employees this year with a goal of broader availability down the road.

Over the past decade, businesses have taken on a larger role as a channel of democratic expression while our political system has ground to a halt. We find ourselves voting with our purchases, because voting only on Election Day doesn’t seem to deliver the practical outcomes we need to sustain our civilization. It’s nice to see this approach notch an occasional win, like when Chik-fil-A announced it was dropping support for bigoted religious groups, but it isn’t enough.

Amazon is building a homeless shelter in Seattle because the city’s local political infrastructure, dominated by Democrats, stumbled for too long. They failed to accomplish a goal as simple as allowing enough housing construction as the city’s prosperity boomed. Seattle’s challenge was complicated by the federal government’s complete abdication of responsibility for providing affordable housing, but other growing cities aren’t experiencing the problem at this depth. Locally, it’s homeowners, protecting a unit of infrastructure that we’ve converted into a wealth machine, along with wacky political fantasists, who are preventing the city from adapting to growth. By the time Seattle began to adopt some minor steps toward growth, their efforts were too little, too late. Housing prices have begun to decline, but they remain wildly out of synch with incomes, with a long way to go to reach affordability.

Tokyo doesn’t have this problem. Houston doesn’t have this problem. This isn’t an issue caused by Republicans or Trump supporters, but a disease primarily afflicting America’s most heavily Democratic areas. Our deepening political dysfunction is bigger than the insanity that has swept the GOP.

Amazon’s homeless shelter is, in a sense, welcome. An emerging “social capitalism,” in which a degree of political responsibility is incorporated into companies’ bottom lines, is a helpful development, but rising social activism among purely commercial entities will not save us from the collapse of our political system. A corporate homeless shelter is not a feel-good moment. It’s a warning.

17 Comments

  1. I find myself wholly on Chris’s side on this topic. Being in stark disagreement with tmerritt, Mary, and Stephen is an odd place to find myself in, but as they say, politics makes for strange bedfellows 

    Tmerritt-
    When you say things like “However, Seattle has suffered from significant governmental issues, that have aggravated the situation.” You’re shying away from identifying the real culprits, who happen to be rich Democrats. The problem of housing affordability is 90% a problem of housing availability (with maybe 10% being people too poor to afford housing of any type, and perhaps another 1% of chronic homeless with other issues like drug addiction and mental health). Chris is absolutely right here: the drive to restrict building more housing does not come from “dysfunctional government”, or greedy developers, or lack of land. It comes from pre-existing homeowners who wish to preserve their own house’s value to the detriment of any newcomer. This feeling is understandable: for most people, their house is their biggest investment. But being understandable doesn’t make it right. Housing is a classic tragedy of the commons. Everyone wants extra housing, but they want it placed somewhere else. Everyone wants cheaper housing, but they don’t want their own house to lose value. A functional government would balance those individual concerns with the greater good.

    Nevermind drug addicts and the mentally ill that we usually think of when we talk about homeless people. San Francisco and Seattle have trouble housing people who make $50-$100k. If a city can’t figure out how to house people who make that much money, work hard, and lack debilitating, complex problems like mental illness, then a city has failed in its most basic function. I agree with Chris that I find it hypocritical that Democrats think Trump is racist, but fail to see that their drive to increase their houses’ values does far more to displace minorities and poor people than anything Trump does at the border.

    I can actually forgive Republicans more: managing rural areas, with their higher rates of poverty, job loss, and declining populations, is a much harder problem. San Francisco, Seattle, etc. have the “problem” of high-paying jobs, an influx of hard-working, educated newcomers, and exploding tax revenue. If Democrats can’t solve “problems” like that, what exactly *can* we solve?

    Stephen-
    IMHO, the answer to rising housing values isn’t to pay people more money just so they can afford to live in this more expensive housing. That’s really just a wealth transfer to housing owners. Think of it this way: if my town must pay teachers $100k to allow them to live in, let’s say a 4bd/3ba house, while the town next door only has to pay their teachers $50k to live in a similar house, then who is benefiting? Not the teacher: that higher paycheck is going entirely to increased rent or mortgage, not really to increase her standard of living. She’s not getting a nicer house for that money. And certainly not me, the taxpayer, who must now pay the teacher the extra $50k to avoid her going to the town next door. The sole beneficiary of that extra $50k is either the current homeowner (if she’s renting), or (if she bought) the previous homeowner who cashed out when he sold the property to her.

    The answer is to figure out how to more efficiently provide the same standard of living to that teacher, which would either allow us to pay her less, or pay her the same and let her keep more of her salary in her pocket. And that involves increasing the supply of housing. Not to keep feeding ever larger amounts of money to fuel the Ponzi scheme of “housing prices always go up!”.

    To the local examples of Seattle and Orlando that were brought up, let me add one I’m more familiar with: Chicago. Chris, are you aware that Lincoln Park has *lost* population in the past 30 years? I’m not sure if you’re shocked by this. I certainly was. For non-Chicagoans: Lincoln Park is one of the richest neighborhoods of Chicago, close to downtown jobs, right next to the lake, with excellent public transit (3 subway lines go through the neighborhood), with local commercial activity (e.g. grocery stores, restaurants, etc.) to provide everything the residents need. As Chicago has boomed (yes, the city is booming; the population is declining slightly because poor people are leaving while rich people are moving in), you would expect that Lincoln Park would be ripe to house an additional 100k people or even more. They certainly have all the infrastructure necessary to do it. And yet, the population *declined*, while house values soared. How did that happen? Because the rich, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly liberal Democrats that live there have the political power to do what they want, and what they did was push through downzoning of most of their neighborhood. And whatever small 2-flat and 3-flat apartment buildings there were were converted to large single family houses, since that’s the only thing that zoning would now allow. Residents now go even further: they buy 2, 3, or 4 standard city house plots, tear down the 2, 3, or 4 houses that were on there, and merge the properties to build one gigantic mansion, typically housing 1 family, and occasionally not even that (they make excellent weekend homes and pied-a-terre’s for the jetset).

    As a result, new tech and finance workers who would love to live in Lincoln Park can’t afford to, and so they move to Humboldt Park and Bronzeville, displacing poorer Hispanic and African American people further away from the city core. The cause of gentrification in poor, minority areas (of any city, not just Chicago), is the political power of rich, white areas (which are largely Democratic in most big cities these days) to avoid building housing in their desirable neighborhoods, leading to a domino effect that forces poor people to leave the city (and/or bear the brunt of densification).

    This is doubly compounded by their political power to force the city to focus infrastructure spending (roads, transit, good schools, etc.) on their neighborhoods, and neglect poorer areas. Thus you have the absurdity of ultra-low density mansions with lovely backyards, which are provided access to 3 staggeringly expensive heavy rail lines (I’m not even including the Metra suburban commuter rail lines), several trunk bus routes, and wide, well maintained roads, all to get them to jobs they could almost walk to, while poor people are housed in dense hi-rise ghettos with poor access to the transit they need to get to the faraway downtown where all the jobs are located.

    This is not a case of poor people suffering the effects of dysfunctional government. Government is finely atuned to, and works exceedingly well, for the likes of Lincoln Park residents. This is not the case of greedy developers, who would love nothing more than to put up a bunch of high rises in Lincoln Park. It’s not a case of there not being enough infrastructure to support the density. As I mentioned, Lincoln Park had more residents several decades ago. And it’s certainly not a case of partisan gridlock causing paralysis. You’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of Republicans in the entire neighborhood. This is purely a case of what Chris is talking about: a city government, completely dominated by Democrats, beholden to their own interests, unable to manage the most basic functions of a city.

    And believe it or not, Chicago is one of the “good” cities: they still build 4 times more housing per capita than NYC, and is far cheaper to live in than most big cities it competes with (e.g. NYC, SF, LA, Boston, etc). To address tmerritt’s objections about SF and Seattle being landlocked: SF the city proper may be landlocked but the Bay Area has no shortage of land. The Chicago metro region has about the same population as the Bay Area (SF/Oakland/San Jose combined), contained within about the same landmass, and manages to produce a slightly higher GDP, all while maintaining markedly lower costs of living. This is purely because Chicago manages its land use much better than the Bay Area.

    ———-

    To take this further, one could argue that the housing crisis Chris is pointing out is not necessarily a problem of Democrats per se, but an example of the problem of *too much* local power. We all have this hoary image of the ideal government being New England townhalls of yore (which, BTW, excluded women, blacks (both free and enslaved), and white men who didn’t own property). But the inability of city governments to regulate land use, I’d argue, is because city government is now *too* representative and subject to decentralized power.

    The old Mayor Richard J Daley aka “Boss” had no problem telling Lincoln Park residents to shove it, which is precisely what he did, when he realized Chicago was bursting at the seams, and allowed construction of a bunch of high rises right along the lakefront in Lincoln Park. That power came from controlling the Machine, and keeping every precinct captain dependent on the patronage that he could dole out. The current Mayor, controlling a much diminished Machine (actually she ran and won against the Machine candidate, something unthinkable in Chicago even 10 years ago), no longer has that type of centralized control, and is much more at the mercy of aldermen, who themselves are beholden to voters who can longer be bought by cush jobs driving city buses.

    So with all this newfound power to influence city government, what do voters do? They go about maximizing the value of their homes, keeping out “undesirables” from their neighborhoods (not just racial; lots of homeowners object to building rentals in their neighborhood, because, you know, renters are shady, morally degenerate young people who do nothing but drink and fornicate), and to hell with the greater good.

    Elon Musk made basically the same point (as wacky as his antics can be, he often hits on interesting points) when he started his tunneling company (cheekily named The Boring Company). He basically said that we need to face the fact that our country is no longer able to build surface infrastructure. Whether that’s roads, trains, airports, whatever. Anything we try to do inevitably gets tied up in decades of lawsuits by property owners, local communities, environmental groups, etc. before the first concrete is poured. We are so focused on considering every individual’s complaints and concerns and interests, that we can no longer build any big infrastructure projects. So instead of keep trying to do that, and face the massive costs and delays, let’s just own up to that fact, and focus on building our future infrastructure under the ground, where no one can complain about noise, or property values going down, or loss of habitat for the local species of dung beetle, or whatever. IOW, it’s literally easier and cheaper to deal with the technological challenges of digging massive tunnels underground, and raise private capital to do it, than it is for modern government to balance individual concerns against larger societal needs, and then fund what needs to be done.

    In some ways, that’s the same point Amazon is making when it builds a homeless shelter, is it not? Either way, for once, I fully agree with you both about Amazon and about the housing crisis in our cities

    (PS, for a great blog about urban land use and housing policy, check out Daniel Kay Hertz:
    https://danielkayhertz.com/home/blog/
    he uses examples from Chicago a lot because he lives in Chicago and trained at U.Chicago. His blog post about how the wealthy areas of Chicago’s North Side have actually lost population is here:
    https://danielkayhertz.com/2015/03/16/unnecessary-population-loss-on-the-north-side-is-a-problem-for-the-whole-city/
    In a rare sign of hope, he was hired by the Chicago Dept of Housing this summer. We’ll see what he can do…)

    1. WX, forgive me for getting a little irritated. But I invite you to come down from the 35,000 foot level and look at the situation as it exists on the ground in Seattle and to a lesser extent San Francisco. Both cities have similar geographical and topographical limitations, but in Seattle the effects have gotten a lot of media attention and is the subject of this post. Let me list some data which I have taken from Wikipedia.

      Seattle:
      Area: 142.07 sq mi; land 83.94 sq mi.
      Population
      1980 – 493,846; -7.0% change from 1970
      1990 – 516,259; 4.5% change from 1980
      2000 – 563,374; 9.1% change from 1990
      2010 – 608,660; 8.0% change from 2000
      2018 – 744,953; 22.4% change from 2010
      Density – 7,251/sq mi

      San Francisco
      Area: 231.89 sq mi; land 46.89 sq mi
      Population
      1980 – 678,974; -5.1% change from 1970
      1990 – 722,749; 6.6% change from 1980
      2000 – 777,340; 7.3% change from 1990
      2010 – 805,235; 3.7% change from 2000
      2018 – 883,305; 9.7% change from 2010
      Density – 18,838/sq mi

      As you can see from these figures Seattle has had a population growth of close to 30% in 18 years and 22.4% in the last 8 years alone. Most of these have been high income tech workers. All this, in a middle class city which is constrained geographically, has very challenging topography which is difficult on which to build, constrained and limited transportation options and two decades of declining population from 1960 – 1980. I’ll wager that any medium sized city anywhere in the US would have difficulty accommodating growth that rapid.

      The answer does not lie in jamming a 4-6 story apartment building with very limited parking, in a single family residential area on narrow streets platted for horse and buggies in the late part of the 19th century . Many Seattle residences are lower middle class houses built in the immediate postwar years of the late 1940s and 1950s. Many of those streets have had little maintenance since the original bricks and cobblestones were overlaid with a thin layer of asphalt. Simultaneously the existing residents have been told to stuff-it and walk, or use bicycles and buses for transportation. That is precisely what the urbanists have been telling the people in Seattle. Those urbanists have basically controlled government for many years.

      It is easy to criticize the “rich Democrats” who are supposedly maximizing their wealth. That gives a very inaccurate picture. No, they are just protecting their normal ordinary middle class life. My partner’s and my living situation is typical. She owns the building. It is an early 20th century building built originally as a single family residence. It was converted to a duplex with two small apartments in the early 1950s. It has been in her family for decades. She purchased it from her parents for a reasonable price during the late 1980s. We live in a 650 sq ft lower apartment and she rents out the upper apartment to two young women who are just getting started. The rent is kept significantly below market rate, so she can attract and keep good tenants. We do live in a stable neighborhood with mainly single-family residences – some young families and some older people. The area has good bus service to downtown and to the University of Washington. When she passes on, it is willed to her daughter. Yet the building and property is currently valued at nearly a million dollars, maybe a little less, maybe a bit more. The next time it is on the open market, the building will likely be significantly remodeled and reconverted to a single family residence. This is hardly the picture of “wealthy Democrats” protecting their investment. Rather it is the picture of a middle class family that has been careful and prudent (though it is Democratic).

      Prior to criticizing others and forming an opinion from macro data, it is wise to look at the actual situation on the ground. I have tried to do that except for briefly mentioning Houston and that in a very limited way. The problem is not “rich Democrats”, the problem at least in Seattle (and I suspect some of the other rapidly growing cities on the left coast) lies with extraordinarily rapid growth in a city that has experienced a stable or slightly declining population since the immediate post WWII years, combined with some difficult governmental issues that also would have challenged most cities. There is also the factor of ‘urbanists’ trying to dictate a solution to others, without considering their needs or desires. I will be the first to admit to governmental dysfunction and to so called “rich Democrats”, “maximizing the value of their homes”, but though there are exceptions that is not the case in Seattle.

      As the old saying goes, it is best to walk in someone else’s shoes before being critical of them. That is the reason, I am sympathetic to Stephen’s situation and dispute the entire thesis of this post.

      1. There’s a real opportunity here for insight so I think it’s worth continuing this thread.

        “I’ll wager that any medium sized city anywhere in the US would have difficulty accommodating growth that rapid.”

        Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore did it, and their home prices are lower and more stable than in our big cities. Each of them faced miserable land constraints and Tokyo in particular must reckon with costly mitigation requirements for natural disasters.

        Houston, Dallas and Atlanta have absorbed much faster growth than Seattle without breaking a sweat. Though it might come as a surprise, each of them are doing it more by intensifying their density than with sprawl, though this shift is very recent. For Dallas, an expansion of their rail system played a vital role.

        “they are just protecting their normal ordinary middle class life.”

        Well, I would agree that they are engaging in protective behavior, but they aren’t middle class, and they don’t seem even dimly concerned about the people who are absorbing the costs of their wealth-protection strategy.

        Let’s start with something I’ve marveled at since my college days – every American’s assumption that they are “middle class.” The median household net worth in the US is about $90,000. If you have a piece of property worth $1m, you are in the top 10% of American households by wealth.

        This is important, because it has a bearing on people’s mindsets. Those mindsets make it tough for many voters to recognize what they are doing to their neighbors.

        My guess is that you probably don’t feel wealthy, you probably worked to earn a living, and perhaps not at some obviously elite profession (not a hedge fund manager, CEO, brain surgeon, tech baron etc), and likely weathered times of financial strain or worry, and maybe continue to do so. Hence, no sense of being wealthy or privileged, and in reality perhaps still working very hard to maintain basic financial security. America’s “affluent class,” people who emerged from the old middle class into a new kind of small-scale wealth over the past few decades are wreaking havoc on our political system, and few of them know it.

        Richard Reeves described this situation far better than I ever could in a book he wrote a few years ago called ‘Dream Hoarders.’

        https://www.brookings.edu/book/dream-hoarders/

        Frankly, it stung me, but it helped to explain a lot of the strange behaviors I saw playing out around me among the affluent “progressives” in our neighborhood. Everybody wants a fairer, more just society, until the burden of that progress touches their street, their home, or their kid’s school.

        We have built in this country a very aggressive, highly individualized culture with a nasty predatory streak. We seem incapable of forming the kind of communal bonds that have allowed some European and Asian nations to engineer collaborative structures that enable universal health care, mass housing programs and other engines of social wealth and security. These kinds of structures are the difference between Third World hellholes and functioning representative democracies. They aren’t free. Shared infrastructure costs money. It also cuts into individual decision-making. People are willing to engage in their shared structures when they feel a sense of belonging and trust. We don’t have that.

        The fact that a large chunk of San Francisco’s land-mass is devoted to pretty little antique single-family homes is not merely odd or absurd, it’s a crime-scene. It’s evidence of a sick, dysfunctional, predatory culture that rewards wealth and feasts on those who suffer any weakness or vulnerability. And I bet you’d struggle to find one Trump voter per block in those neighborhoods, if you could find one at all.

        We have a bigger problem than the GOP.

  2. This post really strikes home, as I live in Central Seattle and live in Kshama Sawant’s council district. I’m not sure what Chris is driving at here except as indicated in his closing paragraph regarding “Social Capitalism” and the political dysfunction that has afflicted our politics at the national, state and municipal governmental levels. It is not limited to the nations most heavily Democratic areas, which happen to be largely urban. Houston has its own problem; it has avoided a housing crisis by allowing essentially unregulated development. Fortunately there is a lot of land available, but there are severe ecological impacts that are being ignored. Many of the rural areas in the nation are slowly dying, meanwhile urban areas are suffering from homelessness and too rapid growth.

    Meanwhile,our governmental systems at the national, state and local areas are largely dysfunctional. Much of the dysfunction, I believe arises from the unique nature of our governmental systems at all levels. They are are largely based on large scale geographical units, and not people. With this structure the wealthy and large commercial interests have come to dominate government at all levels. For the most part the people have a very limited role in the government of the US at all levels. There are numerous conflicting interests in all our governmental units. This creates a built-in dysfunction to government in the U.S. Many of the posts in this Blog address the various areas of governmental dysfunction.

    Many of the problems have severe impacts at the local level, but the local governments do not have the authority, power and monetary resources to address these issues, and many of the states governments and the federal government refuse to address the issues. All of this has created a very dysfunctional governmental system.

    Seattle is not unique in having a dysfunctional government. The problems of homelessness and inadequate housing have severely impacted the urban areas. In Seattle much of this is due to unprecedented growth in the last decade. We have had a 40-50% increase in population in that period. Our infrastructure including housing and transportation systems were simply inadequate for that large an increase. However, Seattle has suffered from significant governmental issues, that have aggravated the situation. Nevertheless, Seattle’s difficulties are not atypical of other urban high-tech urban areas, with rapid growth. Many California cities are suffering similar issues and these are not limited to the Democratic Cities. The areas that are under the control of the GOP and Trump supporters have their own problems, many of which are caused by declining populations, which want things to be static. The dysfunction is much larger and needs to be tackled on a national level. The GOP however, is basically reactionary and wants to go back to another era.

    The dysfunction cannot be addressed as long as excessive partisanship dominates our politics. I see a few signs that the “fever may be breaking”, as discussed in the series of articles in Medium authored by Peter Leyden and Ruy Tuxeria linked to below.

    https://medium.com/s/state-of-the-future

    I started a long reply, specifically oriented to the local situation, but have elected to postpone it, until I have an opportunity for further revision.

    1. “ Houston has its own problem; it has avoided a housing crisis by allowing essentially unregulated development. Fortunately there is a lot of land available, but there are severe ecological impacts that are being ignored.”

      All true, except for the ignoring part, because repeated severe flooding has a way of forcing your attention. But paying attention is not to be confused with actual action, which we haven’t had anywhere near enough of yet. There are places that ought not to have been developed, but who ever wanted to say no to developers around here? A few FEMA buyouts aren’t going to reverse that. We could use some form of zoning, but I don’t see the political will for that. My suburb is zoned, but what Houston does or does not do is going to impact the whole region.

      Also lots of that cheap housing built in the boom years is crumbling.

      Now Austin is closer to those West Coast housing/income problems. We have a saying that the trends (for good or ill) come from California to Austin first, then from Austin to the other big cities in TX.

      1. Houston’s housing situation is certainly not something to emulate, but it does at least provide a laboratory for the question of whether construction deregulation lowers home prices and reduces homelessness. On that count, it’s absolutely clear that you can make housing more affordable by removing constraints. That’s not to say, though, that full deregulation is a good idea.

        To a certain extent, with Houston you’re getting what you paid for. Persistent flooding. Third-world traffic with no hope of any relief, ever. Construction quality that would be comic if it didn’t have such negative impacts on people’s lives and pocket-books. There has to a happy medium somewhere.

      2. In Seattle and the California coastal areas the availability of land is a big factor in the costs of housing. In both areas the easily constructible land has been long since used. Accordingly the land and developmental costs have risen to exorbitant levels.

        Seattle proper is a small city geographically. On two sides it is bounded by large bodies of water. Elliot Bay and Puget Sound lays to the West and Lake Washington to the East. The only feasible means of crossing to the available land to the West is by ferry and to the east is by floating bridges. It is a hourglass shaped city and has numerous hills. Many of the slopes on the hills are not suitable for construction due to unstable soils, which are subject to sliding during heavy rains. It is also subject to major earthquakes. All these conditions can be overcome with suitable construction techniques but that adds considerable cost.

        The metropolitan area has expanded to the North, South and East. More recently it has been expanding to the West as well. In all directions there are geographical and topographical barriers limiting the ability to expand. To the North and South there are other cities, to the East there is the Cascade Mountain range and to the West there is the Olympic Peninsula. Due to the topography and geography construction of modern transportation systems is extremely costly. Seattle is only now constructing a light rail system, partly due to costs and a perception by much of the population that the only acceptable mode of transportation is the private automobile. So rail system proposals were voted down numerous times.

        This is all part of the political situation in Seattle, to which I have alluded. The best way to sum it is to state that there is a tendency for Seattleites to believe it is small city and that they want to stay that way. There was an organization during the later portions of the 20th Century named Lesser Seattle and its motos were “Keep the Bastards Out” and “Don’t Californicate Seattle”.

        Geographically and topographically, coastal California where the vast portion of the population resides is in a similar situation to Seattle. San Francisco is built on a small peninsula and has large bodies of water on three sides. South lies rugged terrain and the coastal ranges. Central California has some very rugged topography and has the coastal ranges to the east. There is more land available in Southern California, but there are difficult geographical and topographical challenges there as well.

        The Portland Metropolitan area has significant challenges as well. However, the natural constraints are less severe there. Further north the Vancouver, BC area also has significant constraints.

        All these factors have combined to drive up construction costs significantly. This is in contrast to Phoenix, AZ, which has been free to spread in all directions. Houston has had some difficult constraints as well, but as Chris and Fly have mentioned, there has been little regulation and developers are inclined to ignore natural constraints unless there is regulation.

      3. Um. No. If land availability were the problem then Tokyo would have this problem, and they don’t. Once you get past the federal government’s abdication of its role in providing affordable housing, the difference between Seattle and Houston is local building rules. And the political force blocking moves to build more, and more affordable, housing in places like LA, SF and Seattle is wealthy homeowners, almost exclusively voting Democratic, with cute little “Hate Has No Home Here” signs in their yard, who fight tooth and nail to “preserve their neighborhood character” against “evil developers.” Their power blocks efforts to increase density, thereby protecting their wealth interest in their home while screwing everyone else.

        There is no “natural” explanation for the housing costs in big coastal cities. Seattle doesn’t have a ceiling.

      4. I think everyone is overlooking a major problem that contributes mightily to housing – multi modal transportation. As America continues to urbanize, work centers will centralize. Look at Europe and the far East, in fact, anywhere else in the world, and you will find a very well developed, broad array of government subsidized transportation services who connect people with homes and work. Lots of lessons there if anyone cares.

      5. I acknowledge the political factors and I did mention that. I disagree that there is not a ceiling, given American preferences. Americans for the most part do not want to live in extraordinarily crowded metropolises like Tokyo. Americans also do not want to rent; they want to own their own homes. Given these preferences there are ceilings in the major metropolitan areas and they are more severe in the major west coast urban environments due to land and development costs. Even coop housing and condominiums are not popular for that reason. That is one reason they do not escalate in price as rapidly as detached single family housing. Perhaps that is changing some with the younger generations?

        The American preference for detached single family housing is a very inefficient and costly approach, but it is reality. If the taxation system was changed, so home ownership was not subsidized, maybe there would be a change over time, but I am dubious. I believe the preference for detached single family housing is baked into the American ethos.

      6. That’s not my preference. Not sure you can say with confidence that it’s an “American preference” when no one’s being given a choice. The preferences that are deciding the matter are the preferences of existing homeowners to preserve their investment. That preference is likely to be overwhelmed soon by the force of politics. We’ll what happens then.

      7. Mr. Ladd you hit on one of my worries. Orlando growth is moving out east. Most of us live on acreage in that part of Orange County Florida. Developers are trying to build tract housing in my part of town. Political forces are at work. The good people of East Orange County have formed an organization to resist the urbanization of the area. It was powerful enough to throw out a County Commissioner developers supported out of office and install one more sympathetic to us.

        Ultimately we are going to lose. Now it is possible because of the conservative wing of the Supreme Court for government to condemn land for redevelopment. In an urban county people are going to ask why I and others live on acreages while they need homes and there are other ways to satisfy that with less land. Apartments are going up like crazy right now, mainly because land is getting scarce. Long winded way of saying I see it the same way.

        The county has moved from rural to urban in my life time. From red to blue. From a homogenous population to a very diverse one. The northern part of the state is still largely unchanged. They are the area that narrowly swung Florida to Trump in 2016. If I am force out that is where I most likely will move to. I still have family in that area. Eventually beyond my remaining life span that area also is going to go through the same process as Orange County.

      8. I have lived with exactly the change that Stephen is describing. I moved to Seattle in 1967. At that time Seattle proper had a population slightly in excess of 500,000. The metropolitan area had a population of approximately 1.8 million. Today Seattle proper has a population of approximately 750,000 and the metropolitan area’s population is approaching 4 million. During that period the developed area has expanded significantly to the point that most of the area is now developed and urbanized. One important characteristic is that almost all the growth in Seattle has occurred in the last 10-15 years. During that period the metropolitan area has not grown as rapidly. However, it has averaged 15-20% per decade. The large increase in the population of Seattle in the last decade has been forced into a geographic area that has not changed and a housing stock that has not changed significantly since 1960.
        There is little undeveloped land inside Seattle. So yes housing and land costs have increased exponentially. Finally with large scale development of apartments, some condominiums and cooperative housing, housing costs have began to stabilize. But for the most part this is not family style housing; it is rather high end luxury housing for young single professionals. Currently, family style housing is beginning to be developed, but a great deal of that is happening in the suburbs.

        Meanwhile the apartments are being filled with newcomers to Seattle filling new jobs that continue to be created. The developers are of course building the luxury units because that is where the market is. Many working class people are being forced out of older housing units and are frequently becoming homeless. This is where the problem lies. The government has not been capable of encouraging or creating new moderate income housing. Part of the reason for that is general government dysfunction at all levels from local to national. For Seattle proper the dysfunction has been extremely great because of conflicts between urbanists and the long established middle class residents. Also we had a governmental structure that resulted in total control by downtown business interests. Plus we have had a series of failed mayoral administrations due to conflicts with a police department that was abusive of minorities and tended towards excessive use of violence and also various personal scandals of one type or another.

        I believe this is where the housing conflicts to which Chris has referred originate. Yes, Seattle needs higher density development and we need housing suitable for moderate income people. But jamming high rise apartment buildings into single family neighborhoods with narrow streets and limited parking is not going to meet with the approval of the existing residents. There has to be an acceptable compromise. Meanwhile, as the younger people age, marry and form families they are seeking housing suitable for families and they are looking for single family residences. In some cases there is infilling with townhomes, condominiums, new construction or remodeling of single family residences and other cases families are going to the suburbs.

      9. I concur with Mary that government subsidized multi-modal transportation is absolutely essential. But as with everything else, in the US no one is willing to pay for it. The R’s figure that the individual should be totally independent and the legitimate government expenses are defense, and tax expenditures benefiting the wealthy. Transportation is certainly not included. That is true at all levels of government. A good example is rail in Seattle. In the late 1960’s our Senators had federal subsidies lined up for most of the cost of a rail system, but the people voted down the local share. Finally after several tries we have a light rail system largely under construction, paid for the most part with local funds. The funding depends partly on car-tab taxes levied only in the local transportation district. But via a statewide initiative on the recent state ballot, those types of taxes were banned. Fortunately, the initiative has numerous problems and it will most likely be declared unconstitutional.

    2. tmerritt,

      In Houston, where there is no zoning, lack of regulation is thought to be the problem.

      Actually, though, through HOAs, homeowners lay a lot of regulation on themselves. My neighborhood was developed in the 1950s with a 1 and1/2 lane road running through it and no sidewalks.

      When the HOA charter was updated about 30 years ago, it expressly forbade the addition of any kind of granny quarters or live-in aide apartment, although the lots are large. Makes no sense to me. If you like your neighbors and want them to stay in the neighborhood as long as possible, an apartment for live-in help seems very desirable.

      The city also offers a mechanism to restrict the breaking up of large lots so that six skinny condos can be constructed on what was once a lot for a single family swelling. All you have to do is get everybody on the street or in the block or in the HOA — it’s very flexible — to sign a particular document and that kind of development is prohibited in that particular locale.

      Obviously, both of these devices hinder the development of lower-cost housing. In a neighborhood called the Heights, garage apartment are rampant. For decades low-income renters could find space there. Now, when a big new home is built in the Heights, it includes a big new garage apartment to help pay the mortgage. But they’re not cheap to rent.

      So once again, no help for lower income folks in need of shelter.

      Of course, developers are lightly regulated. Would you believe that since Harvey hundreds of permits have been granted to build in flood zones? It makes one weep.

      https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Even-after-Harvey-Houston-keeps-adding-new-homes-13285865.php

  3. Florida’s Orange County’s Mayor and the City of Orlando’s Mayor are looking for solutions to solve the Area’s housing problem. One thing being looked at is changing zoning regulations. Allowing things like mother inlaw apartments. To increase the housing stock. But the central problem is most jobs do not pay enough to live on. A bare bones studio apartment will cost over a thousand dollars a month while many jobs do not even net three hundred dollars a week. The median household income is less than a thousand a week before taxes and other deductions in Orange County Florida.

    One of the things being pushed is to increase the minimum wage. Local governments started to do that and the GOP dominated state legislators made that illegal. Pretty much disfuncional state government when it concerns regular citizens. So much for local rule. I think the voters will have to do this by State Constitutional Amendment again. If on the ballot I think it will easily pass muster. Right now the wording has to pass the State Supreme Court. It already has garnered more than enough signatures.

    The Medicare expansion of the ACA was not done in Florida. This was supposed to cover the working poor. Blocked by Republican politicians. So much for the GOP myth of wanting people to work and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There are people working on getting that on the ballot as a Constitutional Amendment too. I am retired but actually pay more Federal Income tax now than when I was working. So I subsidize other states citizens while many of my fellow Floridians too often die for lack of Medical attention. Angry I am.

    Of course the Republican party is trying to eliminate that pesky provision of having the citizens sponsor and then vote on Constitutional Amendments. Obviously the politicians are not doing what the citizens want. Or there would not be so many passed citizen sponsored amendments.

    Many of those provisions have been fought in the courts after passed to force the State Government to honor them. Right now the amendment we passed to restore felon voting rights is being fought in the courts as the Legislators and Governor have passed a law to get around the people’s will. Requiring a poll tax to pay back court cost and other punitive judgements before they can vote. The burden of proof is on the former felon and the state does not have records of what is owe. Pretty insidious.

    This kind of thing is why I am no longer registered Republican. I do think people can rescue our political system. But they have to take an interest , learn, support causes and people and then vote. Citizen amendment initiatives are living proof of that.

    1. You comment on Florida’s Orange County is appreciated. As mentioned in my reply, similar problems exist elsewhere. Seattle has similar difficulties as mentioned in Chris’ post. These problems are far larger than the capabilities of any local government. They are actually too large for most state governments and need to be tackled at the national level. But the federal government is hamstrung by partisanship. I believe much of the issue originates because in the U.S. government is largely based on geographical units and not people. This was semi-functional earlier in our history when the population disparity was not as great and our communication and transportation systems were much slower and the economic systems were far more regional.

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