Sunday, June 17, 2018

One Infinite Loop - America's NIMBY Nonsense

An article about growth in Seattle gained a lot of interesting top comments from people who may be described as NIMBYs:
VR101 (58 likes): It is never clear to me why one would need to accommodate growth. Many of us bought a SF house in a SF neighborhood. Just because people want to come live here, why do I care or my life needs to be changed? This seems a beyond idiotic argument. The city should care about the already in it living citizens and not the people who want to move here. I pay taxes and it seems at this point the city of Seattle does very little for me with my taxes but caters to pretty much any other group that generally is out to make my life worse. At some point this has to stop. Many of us live here because we do not want to live in NYC or Boston or similar cities with density. Just because people have decided to come here there is no right to live here or the city needed to provide housing. I would much prefer to live on Maui. Seems nobody at Maui is interested in providing me affordable housing on a beach. So why do we need to provide this? Life is about choices. A key issue I am seeing is that "not everybody can be everything" and "not everybody can live where they want". It seems these are very basic truth of life. Somehow we have forgotten about this. 
the ravennaboy (57 likes): Now that a new Roosevelt rail station is coming, the areas within walking distance (even a mile or two awayu) are getting more and more development.
For existing residents, this is NOT a good thing.    It deteriorates quality of life for those who already live in the neighborhood.    For example:* Large apartment buildings that are newly constructed along two lane streets often have, by design, insufficient parking for residents.     This results in all of the side streets, which are single family residential, and very narrow, to be filled with cars of these apartment residents....up to 2-3 blocks away.   These streets are so narrow that if cars are parked on both sides, cars cannot travel in both directions at the same time, creating unpleasant traffic patterns.* Bars, "microbreweries", and new restaurants are built on these two lane streets, attracting large numbers of out of neighborhood patrons, who often park in the neighborhoods, since these businesses do not provide sufficient off street parking.      Patrons of these bars leave drunk when the bars close late at night and noisily stagger to their cars while drunk.   The urinate (and sometimes defecate)  and litter on neighborhood lawns, then wake the neighbors when they start up their cars and motorcycles in the middle of the night to leave.
* Population increases attract more crime, as strangers walk through the neighborhood, looking for mail and bikes to steal, and homes to break into.
* Pockets of homeless camps appear (Ravenna park), and soon the parks are filled with litter, garbage, used needles and condoms, abandon camps, stolen and stripped bicycles, and creepy people who stare at our children in the parks while they play.
So, NO, we don't want the neighborhoods "upzoned" for more and more density and the problems that come with it.
zyzw (51 likes) : OK - I get it.  Why don't you just line up the bulldozers, and knock down every house in my neighborhood.  Just pour a bunch of cement and go from there.  Am I supposed to feel guilty for living there?  Am I supposed to unlock my yard gate and have the homeless set up tents in my yard.  Seriously????  What total mismanagement, city "leaders" have not a clue what they are doing.  I've lived here for almost 40 years and sorry to see what this place has become.  One day soon I will make a decision to leave this horrible place, and take my middle class income to a place that appreciates quality of life.
Indeterminate (45 likes): Let me rewrite your last sentence for you, Gene.
New realities raise the question: In the face of unprecedented population growth and a housing affordability crisis, is it right for the city to dramatically change the character of existing neighborhoods, favoring new residents over long-time residents?
micropotamus (45 likes): But they’re even more remarkable when you consider that most of the city has barely changed at all.That’s NOT remarkable.Those civilized single-family districts have not been demolished by politicized zoning changes.Yet.
City politicians think that ‘the people’ yearn for Manhattanization, and are doing their ugly best at converting a once liveable city to solid blocks of multistory crowded dog-eat-dog living without mobility nor parking.But unlike Manhattan, Seattle was laid out for family-friendly housing with yards, and you can bet that ‘the people’ who live in those situations will hang on until taxed out of them.
Seattle’s oh-so-exciting vertical urban sprawl was designed for ‘families’ consisting of two humans and a cat.It won’t be so exciting for the next generation, when the cats refuse to go to work and pay into Social Security for their declining human clients.
sewardpark47 (29 likes): I live on a street that has remained untouched with the exception of a big, not so attractive, new home that was built in an empty lot. The reason why the street is untouched is that every single home is owned by the people who live in them, all families of mixed income and means, have been there for decades and do not seem to have any plans to leave. The homes are all very modest by today's definition. Lots of vitriol from the HALA people about neighborhoods like mine. 
Domesticus (27 likes): Is it right for the housing options in so much of the city to remain almost frozen in time?Well, would you rather the whole city turn into downtown or South Lake Union? Would you want to raise a family in an environment like that? If not, leave the zoning alone.

There are lots and lots more comments like these, and the arguments follow a theme:


  1. Why does my city need to grow when that city (the example provided: some city in Hawaii) isn't giving me cheap land? 'This is about choices'.
  2. Single family homes are the most comfortable way to raise a family, so why would we change single family zoning?
  3. Why would a city prioritize new residents over old residents? People are being displaced and harassed into leaving and the 'character' of the neighborhood is gone.
  4. Why does every city need to follow a 'Manhattanization' growth model? Not every person wishes to live like this, and my city has historically followed a different model.

The answers to all of these concerns is simple, and can be answered in a simple picture.

If one does not wish for the typical urban growth model, simply do not build one of these: 


This is Apple Park in Cupertino. It holds or will soon hold 12,000 employees, with the rest of Apple's 25,000 employees stationed in the original campus space or other offices around the city. How the Apple Park was approved to be built was contentious - the land acquisition and approvals processes usually are. But it remains that a corporation managed to build additional office space for 12,000 highly paid employees. 

While Apple Park seems suburban enough - it is essentially the office park equivalent of a single family home - what investments like this are destined to do is create a parody of the single family home. 

As it turns out, Apple Park is right across the street from some single family housing. Let's assume that the zoning on this housing never changes - it will always be 'single family' structures. Right now, if Redfin can be trusted these structures are worth about $2 million each. 

Here's what happens when a 'single family home' is worth about $2 million, or 33 times the median household income and 11 times average Apple salary (if one generously assumes average salary is $180k a year). 

Expected results of this price:
  1. Any families that have had these properties 'for decades' will absolutely sell if they do not work for Apple - either they sell now or their the collectors of inheritance will liquidate the property. This class of people are the 'empty nesters'.
  2. Upper range salary level Apple employees will buy these properties irrespective of their desire to start a family, as they are in an incredibly convenient location.
  3. Young employees will buy/rent/sublet properties in this area and turn single family homes into single fraternity homes.
  4. Development of single family homes within the price range of most Americans will happen even further away from the city - or prices will also rise in outlying areas.

The neighborhood, while zoned 'single family', is nothing but a joke - a bunch of immortal retirees that are being gifted hundreds of thousands in home equity each year living beside careerist millennials trying to build an even thinner smartphone. At no point is someone making a middle tier salary interested in spending money on daycare also interested in competing for single family homes with people at a stage of life or with priorities completely disconnected with raising a family.

The formula is simple: if one's city just built a sardine can to shove 12,000 tech employees in, the housing in one's city is about to look the same. The deployment of housing cannot be disconnected from the growth of employment.

The question to ask: What would New York look like if Manhattan wasn't Manhattan? Either the entire northeast would be an expensive sprawl, or Manhattan would simply happen elsewhere. 

The way to maintain affordable single family housing:
  1. Ensure one is at least a 30 minute drive from a world class university
  2. Ensure one is at least a 30 minute drive from a headquarters of the nation's largest companies
  3. Ensure one is at least a 30 minute drive from a large international airport
  4. Ensure one is at least a 30 minute drive from a medical facility that is great at treating cancer, heart disease or dealing with chronic conditions
If all of these four conditions remain true, then one's neighborhood of single family homes will have a perfect shield against "Manhattanization". All of the cities successfully avoiding growth and remaining quaint single family villages are failing at one of these measures - employment is sparse or low on the salary scale, corporations may inhabit the city but their HQs are far away, and the nearby universities do not do research at scale, and medical services are not convenient. 

Cities that continue to invest in education, employment and infrastructure can expect more residents. More residents are accommodated by building more housing units. The land closest to the most services and employment will be always valued at a price that outside the realistic range of young families hoping for a backyard. Either cities plan to allow nice multi-family structures to exist on this land, or cities choose to follow a Beverly Hills model of development that builds a satirical version of the middle class lifestyle within high economic walls. 

The lesson for city dwellers is simple: One need not bother complaining about the prospect of apartment blocks if one did not also complain about the new office park, the new school, and the new hospital. If you build it, they will come.

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