Developer advocate Roger Valdez responds to yesterday's PubliCola editorial about the apparent emergence of a new Seattle Process: Getting Shit Done. Valdez's point is that while, yes, the city is getting stuff done, it's actually bad stuff. Valdez's opening examples of a what he considers bad housing policy, however, are actually two older policies we've editorialized against (as recently as last week), and they resulted from the very micromanaging that comes with the traditional Seattle process we hope is on the way out. Having said that, here's some vintage Valdez.
Josh Feit's editorial, In Defense of Getting Shit Done, got it right, Seattle is getting shit done. Unfortunately Seattle is getting the wrong shit done if it wants to avoid being an overpriced lefty enclave. While the intention of recent policy moves on wages, scheduling, and housing is to address issues of equality, these proposals are going to make things worse for people with fewer dollars to spend on necessities, job creation, and creation of new housing.
Let’s look at what the City has done to housing. Over the last few years the City Council has eliminated hundreds of potential new, smaller, single-family homes on small-lots, created limits on microhousing and small affordable apartments that have made them extinct, and downzoned the low-rise zones to please neighbors averse to density and larger buildings. Each of these had a constituency that was vocal and argued that developers and builders were making profit at the expense of the little guy.
To avoid a tax on all new development in the city, big developers agreed to an onerous mandate to restrict rents or charge fees on a percentage of new housing built all over the city in exchange for tiny increases in density. This proposal, called Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ) will create a small number of rent-restricted units paid for by higher prices on everything else and will slow housing production. Seattle already faces high demand and lagging supply resulting in higher prices. California Governor Jerry Brown said MIZ “can exacerbate these challenges, even while not meaningfully increasing the amount of affordable housing in a given community." But Seattle is busily getting that shit done, promulgating a policy sure to raise prices on housing in the name of housing affordability.
Similarly, tenant protection measures aimed at protecting people who rent from landlords have been headline grabbing but largely superfluous and redundant measures. One proposal amped up expensive process, paperwork and inspections based on anecdotes about one landlord’s property, a property that had actually passed the City’s existing inspection regimen. Was the answer to improve the existing program? No. Make more rules! Now the Council passed legislation to ban discrimination against renters based on their source of income. The City already busted a small number of landlords doing just that using existing rules—and none of those landlords was looking to rent white guys from Amazon. More rules, more costs, higher prices. Got that done!
I won’t even get into the argument about the minimum wage except to suggest that, like much of what is coming out of City Hall these days and as Feit pointed out, the number 15 was preordained. Had any thought been given to a number for the minimum wage, it’s likely it would have been set much higher. Seattle is expensive, and economists have pointed out that if wages were appropriately adjusted for inflation and productivity the minimum wage would be more like $21.72. But it was more important to do something than get to a number that reflected the best research available. Less thinking, more doing.
Now the Council is marching ahead, again largely based on anecdotal information, to get involved in managing how employees are scheduled. It’s likely we’ll see the same drive to get the headlines touting how the City Council and Mayor have done something historic. But what is likely to happen with scheduling is what always happens when government tries to micromanage private exchanges between workers and employers; some people get helped but the rules but a barrier between employers and employees trying to make a deal on wages and schedules that are mutually beneficial.
Taken together, these and other feel good policies (e.g. regulating ride share and short term rentals, etc) are going to have a cumulative impact on jobs and housing in Seattle. If we had a shortage of bread that was causing its price to “skyrocket” we’d tell the baker to make more. In Seattle, everyone is suspicious of the baker and the answer is to limit how many loaves she can bake, how long her assistants can work, impose taxes and fees on the bread, and keep slicing the bread thinner and thinner in the name of equity.
I worry about the future of our city. As we pat ourselves harder and harder on the back for being even more progressive and socialist than we were the day before, we're imposing a regime of scarce and expensive housing, a meddling hand in the operation of private businesses, and doctrinaire political correctness that is more words than action. In the simplest terms we are becoming San Francisco, a city that might want to call itself a workers paradise, but is unaffordable to ordinary people.
Most people will paint me as a Reaganite or libertarian. I’m not. What I wish we’d do is take at look at data and consider the reality that if we want to create prosperity and opportunity in our city we need to make more of it, not slice up what we have into smaller portions. The market will never solve all the problems, but people can and they’ll do it when they have fewer rules and limitations to try new things. We already have laws in place to protect people. And we can tax ourselves broadly to generate subsidies—even direct cash payments and a guaranteed income—f or those that need them most.
Roger Valdez is the director of Smart Growth Seattle, a developer advocacy group. He has written several opinion pieces for PubliCola over the years.