City Hall

Anti-Growth Activists Get It Wrong on Job Density

By Erica C. Barnett July 8, 2010

The Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox and Carolee Colter have written an angry response to an op/ed written for PubliCola by Downtown Seattle Association VP Jon Scholes. The views Scholes expressed were his own, and I don't agree with all of them, but I have to respond to Fox and Colter's editorial, because it both misrepresents Scholes' point and completely misunderstands the relationship between housing density, office density, and driving.

First, to summarize Scholes' piece: Scholes wrote that Seattle is losing jobs to the suburbs, "a trend that could undermine efforts to combat climate change, reduce vehicle miles traveled, and increase transit service where it is needed most." To increase jobs downtown, Scholes argued against tax increases on employers (including the "head tax," which is one area where Scholes and I differ) and in favor of upzones that increase market-rate housing near downtown.
On to Fox's and Colter's editorial:

Mr. Scholes argues that Seattle policy makers must “reduce the trend of decentralization of employment in the region” and do what they can to “nurture” more job growth in Seattle, especially the downtown core.  By “nurture,” of course, he means more government handouts.

You know, I think the head tax is a good idea—at $25 per employee per year, it was relatively small, it exempted small businesses and employees who don't drive to work, and it paid for bike and pedestrian infrastructure—but man, does it bug me when people refer to tax breaks as "government handouts."

The government (in this case, the city) adopts policy to create incentives for or to discourage all kinds of things, from taxes on sugary sodas (to reduce people's consumption of junk) to B&O tax exemptions on small businesses (to encourage small-business success) to tolls on roads (to encourage people to find alternatives to driving). What you're saying when you say "businesses shouldn't get handouts" is basically, "business is de facto bad." Sorry, but there's no way for an economy to thrive without businesses, and no way for a city to thrive without the tax revenues they produce.

Next, Fox and Colter argue that Seattle is actually doing well, job-wise.
Seattle's job situation remains relatively healthy.  Job levels at the beginning of the decade were artificially inflated by the boom but fell back to late 90’s levels when that bubble burst. From 2003 to 2008 we saw a steady recovery and increase of 30,000 jobs citywide from 467,000 to 497,000.

Since the bust of 2008 Seattle again lost jobs – about 24,000 – but we’re still some 6000 jobs above 2003 citywide, with the same pattern holding for downtown.  Long-term forecasts indicate good prospects for a slow but steady recovery.

I Googled around for the numbers Fox and Colter are referring to, and couldn't find them anywhere. Meanwhile, the number Scholes cites—30,000 jobs lost since 2000—is everywhere, e.g. here. And in any case, Fox and Colter's prediction of a "slow but steady recovery" is a straw man: The real question is, do we have the optimum level of jobs in downtown Seattle?

Fox and Colter say no—there are actually too many downtown Seattle jobs:
Planners say the optimum ratio of jobs to housing must be less than 1.4 jobs to 1 unit of housing or less.  Otherwise you’ve got too many workers looking for too few units inside the city – meaning more of them move to the suburbs with long costly commutes and sprawl.  Seattle’s ratio of jobs to housing is above that optimum, about 1.7 to 1, arguing for fewer of the region’s jobs, not more, inside city limits.

Let's unpack that. "Planners"—again, I couldn't find a cite for their number, but I'll take them at their word—say the optimal ratio of jobs to housing is 1.4 to 1. Seattle's is higher than that. (So, by the way, is all of King County's, but let's assume that's Seattle's fault). That number, to me, would argue for more housing in Seattle, not fewer jobs here, more jobs in far-flung Eastside suburbs. In fact, it's about as good a description you can find of a housing shortfall.

And, in fact, Scholes acknowledged that explicitly in his piece. "The City Council is currently reviewing a proposal to rezone the neighborhoods that make up South Downtown. The council should be bold and adopt a proposal that will promote a large increase in market-rate housing, which these neighborhoods desperately need to support existing small businesses and attract new ones." (Emphasis mine).

Of course, Colter and Fox are also against adding market-rate housing in Seattle—something they tacitly acknowledge by saying it's "a pipedream to think this gross imbalance can be cured simply by raising residential densities yet again." That's both misleading—about three-quarters of Seattle's residential land is zoned single-family—and wrong: Raising residential densities creates more housing, which sways the ratio in the other direction.

They go on to resuscitate a favorite anti-density trope: While urban planning is social engineering, suburban development is organic and foreordained.
Three decades ago demographers anticipated the shift of employment from a concentrated single regional core out to multiple suburban office and business parks. That's especially true for the lower-wage office jobs. It's a long-term structural trend occurring irrespective of local planning efforts to discourage it.

Yawn. Counterexamples: Massive investments in roads to serve suburban office parks and houses, development policies that allow sprawling residential communities far away from cities, county and city investments in infrastructure (sewers, utilities, local roads, etc.) to support those developments, etc., etc. Those policies and investments are no more natural than the ones that say you can build skyscrapers in downtown Seattle, but not in John Fox's single-family neighborhood.

Finally, one thing Colter/Fox and I agree on:
A growth model for the region premised off a giant central hub with radiating spokes is an anachronism.

The trouble  is, their solution—move jobs and housing out to the suburbs, while draining Seattle of jobs and tax revenues from business investment here—is radically different from the one I would propose: Increase density across Seattle, expand light rail throughout the city, place new restrictions on highway development, reinvest in Seattle's local streets, and increase bus service, even if it means new taxes. That, not a retreat to the suburbs, is the sustainable solution.
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