Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Urban Living, Affordable Housing, Millennials, the Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. the Socialist

The Urban Revival

Millennials are supposed to be the urban generation.  They (we) are hardwired into each other's brains through twitter and facebook and snapchat, more single, more social, want to be in the middle of it all, moving back to the cities, value location and walkability, would rather rent a microapartment than buy a McMansion, having kids later in life, value experiences over commodities, and so on.  For the first time in 100 years, the cities are growing faster than the suburbs.  Companies like Amazon are relocating (and reinvesting in) places like downtown Seattle because they have to - to compete for the most talented employees, employees who don't want to commute out to a sterile office park campus in the exurbs.  These hip young city folk want to get their coffee on the way out of their apartment building, walk or bike or take transit to work, go out for a drink after work, take Uber home.  Maybe they don't own a car.  They don't seem overly interested in buying a house.  Their apartment is their bedroom and the city is their living room.  (They don't have kids yet, so maybe that will change things, but still.)  This resurgence of American urbanity is a big deal.  After 50 years of fighting against the soulless Baby Boomer sprawl that has given us America as we know and love it, Jane Jacobs and the urbanists are finally winning.  And they have the youth on their side!  Those snapchatting millennial consumer-citizens whom everyone looks hungrily towards with dollar signs in their eyes.

I have been trying to learn as much as I can about housing lately.  I make my living designing exactly the sort of mixed-use urban housing that is economically enabled by and in turn enables this urban revival.  This boom is why I was offered three jobs straight out of school when three years before the profession was shedding jobs by the tens of thousands.  Seattle is expected to grow by 120,000 people over the next 20 years.  The city's population is currently around 650,000, so this represents almost a 20% increase.  The Mayor's office estimates that we need to build an additional 50,000 units of housing over 10 years to accommodate this influx of (let's face it) Midwestern refugees.  Not so long ago (1971), two real estate agents placed an infamous billboard along SR-99 "Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights."  Like many American cities, Seattle appeared to be in its death throes.  And this without even the high levels of conflict and rioting seen elsewhere in the country.  All of that has changed.  You can't walk down a city block in Seattle without tripping over a bag of money, and you can't take a picture of the skyline without catching 5 or 10 high rise construction cranes in the frame.

If this great urban renaissance is the mythology of the Millennial generation, then affordability is the shadowy monster lurking in the woods outside the city gates.  According to a 10 Priciest Cities article on CBS News I found, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Seattle is $1,525; in New York, $2,950; and, in San Francisco, $2,898.  (Yikes.)

While we trumpet the values of density and urban living (and they are many: walkability, lower environmental footprint, higher levels of social connection and civic engagement...), we are strangely quiet about affordability.  It seems to me that affordability is where the entire thing unravels.  To put it another way, affordability is the greatest challenge to this new, more urban American Dream.  When a Millennial chooses to make their life in the city, they gain all the entertainment, social, and cultural benefits of the city, but there are also things they give up: space, privacy, a connection to the natural world, and (most likely) the stability of ownership.  Intuitively, it has always seemed to me that it should cost less to live in the city.  Your physical and environmental footprint are infinitely smaller, you reach the density levels where regional transit becomes viable - displacing costly personal automotive ownership and use - and all of the conveniences of modern life, from plumbing to the electric grid to maintaining roads, become more efficient, compact, and affordable because of the critical mass of people (and taxes) supporting them.  But we all know that this just isn't the case.  Living in a big city is overwhelmingly more expensive than just about any other option in the country.  For the equivalent value of my parent's 2250 square foot sprawling ranch house on 3/4 of an acre in a great neighborhood in the suburbs with a little patch of woods in the back yard that deer occasionally walk through and a public school system that rivals most private schools, you can hardly find a studio condo in Seattle.  If you are lucky, the apartment building might have a roof deck.  I have been living in Seattle for 10 years, and I believe in the value of urban living, but I don't think that we, as a generation of young people inundated with the myth of the urban Renaissance, have yet come to the point where we are willing to talk frankly about the shadowy monster out beyond the city gates.

As a brief statistical aside, I wanted to reference this Planet Money interactive graph relating absolute income, relative value, and place.  One of the chief motivations for living in cities is of course that that is where jobs are, and that (according to the myth) those jobs should pay better proportionally to the higher cost of living.  This graph explores how that plays out - it's intriguing, surprising, and really just all over the map as far as drawing conclusions.  (I guess my tentative conclusion would be, if you can find a good job in a smaller place, you're going to get more value for your money.)

A Right to Housing

Mayor Murray's HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) committee came out with a series of recommendations back in July for making the city more affordable moving forward.  These include everything from developer linkage fees to expanding urban village multifamily zones to preserving existing stock with tax exemptions for restricted rents to stronger tenant rights to a real estate excise tax to using undeveloped city-owned property for housing to increasing the housing levy to providing protection for renters with criminal histories to rezoning single family zones for DADUs and other low density additions to simply building more housing of any kind.  It's very thorough.  In a crazy rental market like Seattle is right now, any housing at all is affordable housing because it helps brings supply and demand a little closer into balance, providing options and reducing the amount that landlords can ask.  But maybe this is the root of the issue (which the report doesn't touch): that we rely on the private market to provide affordability, when it simply has no interest or incentive to do this, and the only way we can get it to do so is by a lot of regulatory and incentive-based arm twisting.  Increasingly it seems strange to me that in order to maintain this myth of a free market economy, we go to extraordinary, complex, and inefficient legislative lengths to try to wrestle and shape private development in the necessary directions to provide a necessary public good, which is adequate housing.  What we end up with is neither a free market system, nor one that is able to provide the necessary good.  This compromise is the bargain we have struck in America, and it shows both government inefficiency and corporate sleaze as opposite sides of the same coin.

Politically, you could call the direction that this blog post is headed a "right to housing."  As in, a basic fundamental right that it is the purpose of government to ensure, as with "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  It comes down to this very simple and very complicated question that we are having an ongoing (and somewhat one-sided) debate about in this country right now: Why do we have government?  I think we all know the Tea Party answer to this question; our government is currently overrun with elected officials who want to "starve the beast" (while still - of course - collecting a fat paycheck for the job.)  What seems obvious to me is that government should just do more essential things itself.  We already deem services like maintaining a police force, firefighters, a parks department, the postal system, and K-12 public education (things that could be and have in past times been provided privately) as necessary enough public goods to merit actual, direct, dedicated government jobs.  Why don't we extend this concept of necessary public good to include things people actually need to survive (like housing and healthcare)?

Ah, The Sixties... Those Heady Times

Let's go back to 1963.  The March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, led by Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Ruskin (among others), was an enormous success and one of the high points of the Civil Rights Movement.  The march brought together radical communist and socialist organizers (King was essentially a democratic socialist, Randolph and Ruskin were out-and-out communists - and Ruskin was gay to boot), with respectable Christian types, radical organizations like SNCC with moderate ones like the NAACP, and white people (real, actual, middle class white people) with black.  It was an enormous success that put enough pressure on the federal government to eventually pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  The Freedom Budget for All Americans was an idea for legislation that came out of the March on Washington.

The Freedom Budget, put together by Ruskin and Randolph (among others), and adamantly endorsed by King, was a proposal that attempted to move beyond the Civil Rights Movement, to attack the economic basis of inequality itself.  The idea was simple: Yes, you can win the right to sit at the lunch counter, but if you can't afford what they're selling, then what good is that right?  As the civil rights movement progressed, King became more and more outspoken about this connection between racism and economic exploitation.  When he was assassinated, King was in the middle of planning the Poor People's Campaign, aimed at uniting poor blacks and poor whites over the common ground of economic justice.  I would encourage anyone and everyone to actually read his speeches and sermons, because he was so much more than a powerful speaker, and while we've made him a national hero, we have also whitewashed the radical politics out of his image.  For King, the struggle was not limited to the racial equality sought by the Civil Rights Movement; that was merely the most immediate piece of a much broader, strongly socialist ideology underpinning his perspective.

The Freedom Budget proposed the following goals to be achieved within 10 years of its enactment (by 1974):
-Full employment for all who are able to work.
-An adequate living wage.
-Guaranteed income for those who cannot work.
-A right to adequate housing.
-A right to affordable medical coverage.

In order to accomplish all of this, the budget proposed that the government create jobs building and maintaining infrastructure and housing to ensure full employment for all able-bodied workers.  Which, just think about it for a minute, this country has never achieved.  We have never had 0% unemployment among those able and willing to work.  This job creation program would achieve a multiplier effect by ensuring employment, creating needed housing, spurring growth in the economy, and raising tax revenue.  The budget's authors essentially proposed to fund these programs through the surplus tax revenue generated by the government-sponsored economic activities (which they called the "economic growth dividend").  This is what Martin Luther King Jr. had to say about it: "It is essential if we are to maintain social peace.  It is a political necessity.  It is a moral commitment to the fundamental principles on which this nation was founded."

Now I want you to go back and imagine Bernie Sanders, today, proposing this set of demands as his campaign platform: Full employment for all who are able to work, an adequate living wage (let's say $15/hour), guaranteed income for those who cannot work, a right to adequate housing, and a right to affordable medical coverage.  The first thing I notice is that all of these issues are just as pressing today as they were 55 years ago.  While we have made progress on the social justice side of Civil Rights, we have actually lost ground on the economic side.  But, second, can you imagine the shitstorm of Fox News, mom-and-apple-pie American protest that this proposal would create?  It suggests a radically new answer to that question, Why do we have government?

Yes. Sure. But.

I know, I know.  The first and easiest objection to something like this is simply to say that we cannot afford it.  I don't claim to be an economist and even I can see that the it-will-fund-itself logic of the Freedom Budget sounds as make believe as the invisible-hand-of-the-market logic of the conservatives.  I think that our conversation about government spending on social causes in this country has been so thoroughly framed by conservatives that we de facto assume that we could never afford an ambitious program of anything but war (which of course it's unAmerican to even begin to suggest questioning the financing of).  Here's the way I think about it, though.  We have been at war with some vaguely menacing Arabic entity for essentially my entire adult life.  The combined cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is estimated at something like four to six trillion dollars ($4,000,000,000,000!), considering all related factors such as upfront costs, ongoing foreign aid, continued medical care for wounded vets, etc.  I, along with many others, would argue that these wars were fought under disingenuous motivations and have accomplished little to nothing except to destabilize a region of the world that seems now to basically just be permanently and deeply fucked.  But regardless of whether you thought the wars were necessary and right or not, at no point anywhere in the entire process of going to war and continuing to fund these endless conflicts did we ever have a serious conversation about (or even ask the question) what these wars would cost.  When it comes to trying to help poor people and solve domestic issues, we are stingy and suspicious; when it comes to going off half-cocked to kill people, we just simply cannot wait.  This is what King, as a preacher, was talking about when he called this a moral imperative, as well as a political and economic one.

It is my position (and I challenge anyone to dispute it) that America has the resources to accomplish anything it wants to accomplish.  The question of implementing something like the Freedom Budget is one of political will and not lack of resources.  Let's just be honest with ourselves and admit that if we're not going to help poor people it's because we don't want to and not because we can't afford it.  I find it mind-blowing how the real actual salt-of-the-earth American people get excited for a war like it's Monday Night Football, but have no patience for or interest in trying to use our collective might to help each other by providing such basic essentials as healthcare and housing.  I would love - love! - nothing so much as to see this country seriously resolve to deal with its domestic issues and commit the full weight of its resources to the task the way we do with war.  I think it would make us stronger, stabler, wealthier, and better positioned moving forward into a future rife with challenges.

(If a presidential candidate seriously proposed this sort of thing, I would fall all over myself rushing out to vote for them, and, in fact, I think Bernie Sanders is really really close in a way that Barack Obama never even pretended to be.  But that's a different issue for a different time.)

Affordability and Urbanity

I'm sorry to muddy up a nice, feel-good issue like increasing housing stock and promoting urban living with my anti-American socialist agenda, but it's impossible for me to see the micro without also seeing the macro, and vise versa.  Or, to put it another way, I just find it hard to accept symptoms as ends, and not dig down to root causes.  Housing affordability is a zeitgeist issue that we as a people (and Millennials as a generation) need to figure out.  Housing costs are just about every household's primary expense, and they put a strain on everything from happy marriages to the decision to purchase healthy foods, seek costly medical care, and even just provide the stability to improve one's lot with further education and better employment.  If it's any indicator of the need for affordable housing, Seattle has just declared a state of emergency over homelessness (as in the thing you do when a hurricane happens and you ask for federal aid to deal with it).

I agree with Martin Luther King Jr. that this is a moral issue.  I think it's also an important issue for America's economic and political health (a strong middle class leading to stability, consumers for the goods being produced, feeding money back in to the economy, etc.), but what I really care about is the moral component of this issue.  In a nation that time and again makes it clear how very Christian we are, why are basic Christian values so completely absent in the collective actions we take as a nation?  Why do we associate "Christian values" with hating gays and abortion, and not trying to promote economic justice, and, simultaneously, fulfill the Founding Father's pledge to ensure "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  It's all there!  The Bible.  The Constitution.  Jesus.  What more can you ask for?  I think the morality of these things is unambiguously clear, whatever your faith or moral framework, I think these are issues that we, as a generation, need to set down our iPhones for five goddamn seconds to take a stand on.

I believe that the most effective and direct way to address the issue of affordable housing is to publicly finance its construction at a vastly increased level, but I don't think that this alone is enough.  I would go further and suggest a New Deal-type government job creation program to build that housing while simultaneously creating needed employment - both commodities that the private market has proven inadequate in providing.  Let's invest the money we are pissing away on war in building a better and more stable foundation for our society.