This isn’t the first time Matthew Yglesias, co-founder of Vox, has waded into Seattle issues from his national platform. And it’s not the first time he’s gotten things wrong, either. Consider when, in late 2015, Yglesias proclaimed that Seattle had reversed the trend of rising rents (it hadn’t) because of our top-down state planning (which we don’t have). Or, how about when an over-abundance of concern led him to caution us about the proposed multi-year phase in to a $15 minimum wage without mentioning Sea-Tac’s overnight wage hike from $9.32 to $15.00 already four months underway?

This time, to keep Amazon’s headquarter expansion in Seattle (which must be a dream only for people who don’t live here or expect to make lots of money off the expansion), Yglesias writes that “Amazon could keep growing with Seattle if Seattle grew faster, and Seattle could grow faster if it wanted to.”

I made the case a year ago that Seattle has, in fact, been responding to population growth with lots of building and the small (but painful) shortage we see in aggregate housing supply is due to the normal lag in construction and the lingering effects of constraints on global capital during the Great Recession. Additionally, I made the case that we appeared to be near the limit of the market’s ability to effectively respond to escalating demand considering the reported difficulty of finding available construction crews and Seattle’s hosting the most cranes in the country for 2016. (We repeated the cranes record for 2017, by the way.) The real shortage is in a segment of housing–affordable housing–and any serious affordable housing program needs to focus on fixing that, the real problem lest we miss the trees for the forest.

Nevertheless, Yglesias charges forward with some hasty comparisons to Seattle’s growth.

In 1980, Seattle had about 493,846 residents. By 2016 it had added about 210,00 people and reached an estimated population of 704,352. That’s a reasonably fast-growing city, but consider that back in 1980 there were only 385,164 people in Fort Worth and today there are 854,113. Back when Detroit was an up-and-coming high tech city it went from 465,766 residents to 993,678 in just 10 years and then added 750,000 more people in the next 20 years after that.

The article’s main argument, that Seattle’s recent growth is not so growy, rests on these two comparisons–Fort Worth’s growth from 1980 to 2016 and Detroit’s from 1910 to 1920–by implying that Texas-style government and I-don’t-know-what from Detroit could teach Seattle a thing or two. Maybe they can but you won’t find it in Yglesias’s piece.

Like I said, these are hasty comparisons.

Annexations to Detroit from 1910 to 1920 nearly doubled the size of the city, confounding “growth” with simply absorbing other built up areas. By comparison, Seattle’s land area grew by less than 1% from 1980 to 2016 (due to a small annexation in 1986). Additionally, the period 1910 to 1920 was a historic decade for urbanization across the country. This is the turning point in American history when more people, for the first time, lived in urban areas than in rural areas. More importantly, though, this decade saw the rapid deployment of transformative new building and transportation technologies (steel frame construction, alternating current, streetcars, elevators, and the automobile, for instance) that effectively expanded the building capacity of land in three dimensions. It was an exceptional period of urban growth that would not have been possible without those new technologies. In 21st Century Seattle we have telecommuting and IKEA, I guess.

Board of County Auditors, Detroit Michigan (1926). Manual: County of Wayne Michigan: 1926

Fort Worth’s story is a little different. The city has been undergoing a near constant population boom for more than 20 years but it, too, has annexed large areas of land that have artificially increased its population and provided plenty of exurban greenfield development. Seattle did not begin its own population boom until about 10 years ago and is not surrounded by vast unincorporated lands. (Editor’s note: Seattle is considering a few small annexations of White Center and Skyway.) Despite this head-start, when you compare population growth since the last Census, Seattle is growing faster than Fort Worth. Seattle has maintained that higher growth rate even with its 84 square miles already being much more densely populated than Fort Worth’s expansive 342 square miles. Maybe, instead, Seattle has something to teach Fort Worth.

Is the conclusion, then, that the people of Seattle should hurry up with self-driving cars and annex Bellevue? Or are the comparisons Yglesias makes of Seattle to Detroit and Fort Worth inappropriate and fail to give Seattle any lessons about growth and regulations?

The featured image is a video still from The Simpsons “Last Exit to Springfield,” 1993.

What To Expect When Expecting Amazon

32 COMMENTS

  1. Great piece, Michael! I wonder if there are any other cities that *have* experienced rapid growth under similar circumstances. I’m specifically thinking of coastal cities in Asia.

  2. I made the case a year ago that Seattle has, in fact, been responding to population growth with lots of building and the small (but painful) shortage we see in aggregate housing supply is due to the normal lag in construction and the lingering effects of constraints on global capital during the Great Recession.

    No, you didn’t. You attempted to do so, and a number of patient, wise commenters who understand the underlying issues much better than you do utterly demolished it. The comment thread–still there for all to see–reveals the depths of your confusion.

    You make a small but accurate point here: MY uses an inapt analogy for growth, and Seattle’s growth in recent decades under the circumstances is not insubstantial. This could be a piece of an argument that Yglesias is wrong in his argument, but all the other pieces are missing. You’re claiming you’ve shot him but you’ve barely winged him.

      • I could introduce you to a whole bunch of people currently living in Kent, Shoreline, Lynnwood, Bremerton, etc who would love to live in Seattle, if they could get their 2014 rents back. According to Michael Goldman they don’t exist.

        The idea that a extremely low vacancy rates and double digit annual rent increases isn’t an indication of a shortage is wildly implausible. I don’t know what’s more surprising, that the urbanist would publish such a clearly wrong article, or that they’d invite the author back to write for them again.

        • I didn’t see Goldman arguing that high rents weren’t a problem.

          I did see him pointing out that all the numbers anyone would use to indicate a shortage don’t indicate the massive shortage people think is happening. For example vacancy rates are at about 4.7%. See here:

          http://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/after-brief-slowdown-seattle-area-rents-surge-back-up-again-when-will-it-end/

          But like I said, I look forward to your alternate number and analysis.

          • Increasingly high rents *is* the argument for a housing shortage. I don’t see how you can dress it up any other way. There is a huge, unmet demand for housing, and the city has put road blocks in the way of meeting it. Apodments are now illegal. Density regulations stifle *most* of the city. One of the cheapest ways to increase density is to take a house, and convert it to an apartment. But that is against the law, in most cases. Even if a landlord wants to add a basement apartment, or convert an old garage to living space, they can’t do it.

            Meanwhile, when new lots become available, they are way to big for a city. In Pinehurst, it is very common to see new subdivisions, as some of the houses that used to be on small farms come up for sale. Typically the lot is split into two or three 7200 square feet lots. But that is still way too big. You could fit two stand alone houses on a lot that size. This is an extreme example — http://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/horse-farm-tucked-into-corner-of-seattle-may-be-destined-for-housing-development/ — but it is happening all the time in my neighborhood. Instead of row houses, or small apartments, they build enormous houses on enormous lots. Not because that is what the market demands (quite the opposite) but because that is the only thing the law allows.

          • These are all good examples. I agree entirely that we should be building a lot more housing, including a diversity of housing types.

            However a “housing shortage” is a very specific claim. High prices could be a symptom of shortage but it’s not proof. If the ratio of household to units is the same as 10 years ago, why are prices higher? Saying it’s a shortage ignores the impact of higher incomes. It also ignores many policy solutions that may prove necessary regardless of the city’s zoning and construction regulations.

          • ” If the ratio of household to units is the same as 10 years ago, why are prices higher?”

            The answer was pointed out numerous times in the thread on Goldman’s last post: the losers in the bidding war are priced out of Seattle, even as they don’t want to be. I know numerous people who used to live in Seattle, now live in cheaper, nearby cities, and would move back in a heartbeat if they could get there 2013 or 2014 or whatever rents back.

            I’ve lived next door to a duplex since 2010, and know the owner. It’s an older, non-updated home that should be a prime candidate for what some people like to call “naturally affordable housing.” When I first moved in she rented the basement 1 bedroom unit for 800 or 850, IIRC.

            It became available recently, and I thought of a friend, currently living in Lynnwood, who wanted to be in Seattle. She’d been here until a few years ago, when she could no longer afford her rent increases. I suggested it to her, but my neighbor was now charging $1550 for it! More than our mortgage on a whole three-bedroom house next door, and a good 300 more than my friend could afford. She hasn’t improved it at all–same old basement apartment.

            The heuristic you’re using to conclude there’s no housing shortage assumes priced out residents who want to come back and never wanted to leave either don’t exist, or no longer count as part of demand for some reason. I don’t understand why this is an assumption anyone would make, and when pressed on it Goldman never gave anything remotely approaching a coherent explanation. It also offers no explanation for why my neighbor’s basement apartment would suddenly cost so much more. (My neighbor is a profit-maximizer; the revenue from this home and another she owns on the block (which she owns outright) are her primary source of income. If she could have been charging higher rents seven years ago, she would have.)

          • First, your description of what I think makes it pretty clear you don’t understand and we’re talking past each other.

            Second, I’m really looking forward to your definition of what a shortage is. All I’ve seen so far is, “prices are higher.”

            Lastly, the policy solutions to address higher prices because there is a shortage are completely different than the policy solutions that address higher prices due to higher incomes or inequality. So no, it’s not the same.

          • First, your description of what I think makes it pretty clear you don’t understand and we’re talking past each other.

            I suppose I don’t. You usually sound a lot more sensible than when you’re defending Michael Goldman’s columns. So I’m describing what he’s arguing, which you seem to be agreeing with. If you’re not agreeing with him, I’m not sure what you’re doing.

            Second, I’m really looking forward to your definition of what a shortage is. All I’ve seen so far is, “prices are higher.”

            My definition of a shortage is that there are more people* willing to pay up to around 40% of their gross income to live in Seattle than there are available units in Seattle. The method you and Michael seem to think is sufficient makes people who are priced out of the city and forced to move somewhere in the region less attractive but cheaper as no longer part of the demand for housing in Seattle. Over time, this may become true for some of them, as they discover the charms of Lynnwood or put down roots and join the PTA in Bremerton, but in the short term, this assumption is manifestly false, and if you don’t believe me there’s lots of people I can introduce you to.

            * people who aren’t very low income, such that a market could never support their ability to pay. These people face a specific affordable housing shortage. But increasingly, people at around 80-100% AMI are being priced out; that’s not a dedicated, non-market affordable housing shortage but a regular one.

            the policy solutions to address higher prices because there is a shortage are completely different than the policy solutions that address higher prices due to higher incomes or inequality.

            Perhaps not precisely the same, but they overlap a lot more than they don’t. Adding sufficient new housing so as to take the pressure of new people and people with lots of money off of older, less fashionable units and less desirable neighborhoods is a central remedy for both.

  3. We could perhaps just adopt zoning regulations compatible with this steel frame construction and elevator technology you mention in more than a tiny fraction of the city..

    • The point is when you take away all the tricks of annexation and incomparable time periods, we’re still growing faster than supposedly pro-development Fort Worth.

      • Sure, but he’s not wrong we could be growing substantially faster if SF5000 zoning didn’t choke off the sorts of duplexes, triplexes and small apartment buildings that used to dot our residential areas.

        And if we didn’t essentially mandate crappy 5 over 2 particle board apartments in the urban villages instead of allowing 20-30 story development.

        It’s depressing to look at, say, Beacon Hill and its one substantial 1960s SHA apartment building that would be illegal to build now. We spent billions bringing a subway to the neighborhood for what? We’re building 6 stories on top of the Cap Hill station? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

        So in short I agree some of his comparisons are misleading and we’re organically growing fast, but he’s not wrong it could be much better.

          • The author used Detroit. That was clearly a bad example due to extensive annexations. Boston from 1880 to 1930 the height of the triple decker boom referred to in the article you linked to still grew slower than Seattle since the last Census.

            It seems people have some big misperceptions about infill growth rates.

          • Again, population growth rate is irrelevant. What matters is not how
            many people were there before, but how many people you are adding.
            Otherwise areas that don’t have that many people (like a small town)
            will appear to growing way faster than a large city.

            At the same
            time, you need to consider the land mass of the respective cities. To do an apples to apples comparison, you need to compare absolute growth per square mile.

            I don’t see why you think Boston grew slower. From 1890 to 1900, they added 110,000 people. So basically, about 11,000 a year. In the last six years, Seattle has added around 15,000 per year.

            But Boston is quite a bit smaller in terms of land mass. We are about twice as big. Adjusted for area, Boston grew at a higher rate for the years that Mr. Kirschner mentioned.

          • Some more examples. San Fransisco grew by about 130,000 from 1930 to 1940. Washington D. C. added over 170,000 people from 1930 to 1940. Both of these cities are much smaller in terms of land area than Seattle.

            But perhaps the best example is Brooklyn. Brooklyn has 71 square miles of land, while Seattle has 83. So Brooklyn is just a bit smaller than Seattle. Yet in this same “pre-zoning” era, growth in Brooklyn eclipsed what Seattle is going through. From 1900 to 1920, they added almost a million people! From 1900 to 1930, they averaged over 45,000 new residents a year. Average! Again, this is a city (actually a Burrough, but whatever) that is actually smaller in size than Seattle, had way more residents to begin with, yet added a lot more new people than Seattle is adding now.

            All these cities have the same thing in common: They all grew in a low rise manner. They built row houses, and then didn’t care if lots of families moved into them. But as repressive zoning laws spread from sea to shining sea, growth stalled in all those areas. Oh, those cities have rebounded, and are growing (Brooklyn added more people in the last six years than Seattle). But they aren’t growing like they used to, because the law makes it difficult to do so. More to the point, Seattle isn’t growing the way that these cities grew, because it is illegal.

            Here is a great example: http://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/horse-farm-tucked-into-corner-of-seattle-may-be-destined-for-housing-development/. This is an old horse farm, that is up for sale. So what will the build to replace it? Single family homes, on 7200 foot lots. So 20 houses, instead of 50 row houses, or a dozen small apartment buildings. The new buildings will be just as high as an apartment or row house, they just won’t contain as many people.

            It’s not about the cranes — it is about the regulations.

          • “All these cities have the same thing in common: They all grew in a low rise manner. They built row houses, and then didn’t care if lots of families moved into them….But they aren’t growing like they used to, because the law makes it difficult to do so. ”

            Well said – and the low-rise form reduced labor supply & capital constraints. Most three flats were built by small builders – the more opportunity, the more folks got into the game as “developers” and the more (mostly immigrants) as carpenters, plumbers, etc – no cranes or global capital required.

          • …and it’s not just over those whole 50 years when the triple decker was king. Seattle grew at a faster rate since the Census than Boston did for each individual decade from 1880 to 1930.

          • What growth rate are you using? Wikipedia pegs Seattle’s growth rate as only 15.7% 2010-2016; I don’t know if Boston had any annexations, but Hartford didn’t, and its growth rates back in the day were way higher than this (also via Wikipedia).

          • You got cite some actual evidence man. None of this me checking your own claims for you. So, we’ve dropped the Boston case now?

          • The “only” 15.7% Seattle figure annualized, compared to every annualized growth rate in the decades cited in the Boston article you linked to.

            Are you dropping the Boston triple-decker heyday case and changing your example to Hartford? Which decades?

          • Wait if Seattle grew 16% in 6 years then the growth rates in both Boston and Hartford dwarfed our current trajectory lots of times. (I am using Hartford rather than Boston because I know for sure there were no annexations in Hartford, and I can’t say that about Boston without doing some research).

  4. When I read Yglesias’ piece yesterday, I couldn’t believe he’d posted something he so clearly had no real connection to. Weirder still, he could’ve run it by one of his colleagues who actually lives here. I’m really starting to see why leftists bag on Yglesias so much.

    • IMO He used to be great but he’s just gotten sloppy over the past few years. Maybe he was never rigorous but he at least was able to write inspiring pieces.

  5. You are missing the big picture. Even at our CURRENT rate of growth, I think we could accommodate the kind of expansion Amazon is talking about.

    The are saying they will hire 50,000 more people. That sounds impressive, until you dig into the details. They are only planning to have that many people sometime “beyond 2027.” In other words over a 10 year period at minimum.

    Now, Seattle is currently growing at a rate of 20,000 people a year. So we will move that many people in within 2.5 years, not 10.

    We are also building upwards of 10,000 housing units a year. This is more than sufficient for our population growth, since on average there are more than 2 people per housing unit.

    Really, the only difficult part of the ask is 8 million square feet of office space. However, that’s actually LESS than Amazon’s existing space, which I think is around 10 million. Keep in mind that we built out virtually all of Amazon’s existing office space in less than 10 years.

    So, by some quick calculations YES, we absolutely can accommodate the amount of growth Amazon wants for a second headquarters.

    People are kind of freaking out right now because rents have gone up a lot since the recession. However, no matter how you slice it, it is VERY BAD if the city’s primary employer starts exploring a new headquarter elsewhere. The potential consequences of that are much worse than displacement.

    Seattle’s current prosperity shouldn’t blind anyone to the fact that the city’s economy is vulnerable. If tech businesses start moving elsewhere, there will be a crash. It is the height of hubris that so many commenters have said “good” seeing Amazon wants to set up shop elsewhere.

    • Also, keep in mind that by 2027 Seattle will have a population around 930,000 assuming 2.9% growth.

      So today they employ 40,000 in Seattle or 5.7% of the population.

      In 2027 if they grow as fast as they are hoping and hit no hiccups (unlikely) they will have 90,000 employees. That would be 9.7% of the population.

      So an increase, but it won’t exactly overwhelm Seattle…

      Now if you consider the greater Seattle area, which has a population of 3.8 million today, the whole idea that 50,000 Amazon employees is going to be too much growth is ridiculous.

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