Thursday, 18 April, 2019

What We’re Reading: Accelerated Growth

0
Downtown Seattle - HDR
Downtown Seattle, courtesy of Matthew Whitehead.

Accelerating growth: Seattle grew twice the rate of suburban King County in population from 2012 to 2013, and that rate has massively accelerated from the previous yearly period when it only grew 25% faster.

Breath easier: Sightline breaks down 17 things you should know about California’s cap-and-trade system. Maybe this can be a model for our state?

Elevate your maps: Google Maps adds a hand feature for cyclists, now you can visualize your next bike ride with route elevations!

Competing proposals: Council Members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant propose alternative funding measures to save King County Metro Transit in Seattle. There’s a lot to like about this.

Racism and inequality: It may not be the sexiest mapping, but City Lab shows us maps of racist housing policies and the inequality state-by-state over three decades.

Bus stop or transit station?: It probably goes without saying, but not all bus stops are created equal. Some are flag stops, some are sheltered stops, and some are full fledge stations. Greater Greater Washington gives a great primer on the diversity of the “bus stop”. Meanwhile, DC’s Metro explores the differences in high capacity transit service typologies.

Unequal social welfare: We don’t spend money on social welfare in the way that you probably think we do. The system is pretty broken because we broke it more even though we spend more. To top it off, we’re losing a lot of our social housing to neglect and demolition.

City sets strict rules: The City Council adopted much more stringent rules for microhousing (even beyond what DPD proposed) and small lot development.

20mph zones: Paris is looking to expand its 20mph zones all across the city.

In trouble: It looks like the tunnel project may be even further delayed and that the City Council is poised to tank the city’s $15/hr effort.

Third safest: Smart Growth America released some interesting statistics this week, especially in respect to Seattle. Ranking 51 cities, Seattle comes out at top as the third safest for pedestrians.

Tragic realities: You may wonder why and how bicyclist deaths occur. The statistics show that it’s almost always the fault of a driver and the cyclist being rearended, but there’s more to it.

First female police Chief: Mayor Ed Murray chose Boston’s Kathleen O’Toole as the city’s new Police Chief. O’Toole becomes the city’s first female in the position.

Uneven recovery: Since the end of the Great Recession, the recovery has been very different across the country. And not just in the rate of employment growth, but also in the quality and pay of jobs.

There’s a fire in the house: Bad design of space isn’t just the fault of traffic planners or developers, a lot of this blame belongs with our “life savers”. Ironically, fire departments across this country are making us less safe with our streets because of their fire trucks.

Map of the week: This series of maps in London explores the social differences of the city’s districts in a number of ways like race, accessibility to public transport, age cohorts, unemployment beneficiaries, and more.

Is Seattle The Fastest Growing Big City In The US?

1

Yesterday morning the Census Bureau published a press release titled, “South, West Have Fastest-Growing Cities, Census Bureau Reports; Three of Top 10 are in Texas Capital Area.” The article has links to the best estimates for growth between July 2012 to July 2013. Sure enough, three cities in central Texas top the list. These three municipalities (suburbs of Austin, TX) are growing rapidly, as much as 8%.  But which big city is the fastest growing in the country. Here’s a glimpse at the top 100 ranked by growth:

pop-growth

 

The estimates show Seattle growing 2.8% from July 2012 to July 2013. This is behind two other cities in the top 100 but it is the fastest growing of the top 50. Beyond this simplification the measurement becomes a little trickier.

How Do You Measure A City’s Geographic Area

Before measuring population, it’s necessary to define the boundaries of a city. The easiest measurement to use is simply drawing the boundaries at the legal edges of the city. This is simple enough and makes a lot of measurements easy but often times the legal boundaries of cities don’t match our perceptions. For example, is Shoreline part of Seattle? With this measurement the answer would be no. You see examples like this everywhere. If you asked someone living across the river in New Jersey where they were from it wouldn’t be unusual if they said New York City. Just like many people around New York identify as New Yorkers, people who live on Mercer Island likely identify as Seattlites but Mercer Island also isn’t within Seattle’s legal boundaries.

This is also true in Austin, TX. People who live in Round Rock, Georgetown or Cedar Park very likely identify as being from Austin. If you consider the growth in these municipalities, Austin’s growth rate jumps above 2.7%, still less than Seattle but significantly higher. If you include Seattle’s suburbs in the equation of growth, Seattle actually grew slower. For example, including Bellevue (1.37%), Redmond (1.67%), Renton (1.27%), Kent (1.18%) and Shoreline (.69%), would mean Seattle only grew 2.15%.

Additionally, Austin is much larger than Seattle if you compare their incorporated boundaries. Seattle only has about 84 square miles of land compared to over 320 square miles in Austin. A conservative estimate of Austin’s urban metro area is over 500 square miles. Is it a good comparison to juxtapose these two incorporated areas?

Incorporated Areas Do Matter

If you are attempting to determine government policy that is leading to good outcomes, measuring areas by the incorporated boundaries might be the best strategy. While there is a lot of influence on cities from county, regional and state politics, city policy has a big impact on the two factors that influence population growth, jobs and housing costs. Taking this into consideration paints an even brighter picture of Seattle’s growth. I cant help but speculate that policies put in place over the last few years are part of the reason why Seattle is growing faster than its suburbs. The opposite is true in Austin. Many of the people living in the suburbs likely identify as Austinites but, for whatever reason, choose not to live within the actual city limits.

When more people can choose to live in Seattle it has a real, measurable impact. City services cost less per person, diversity grows and our tax base broadens. Other, harder to measure factors also improve such as the resiliency of the city, dynamism and the lowered environmental impact. Overall, it’s a win for everyone when Seattle grows faster than its suburbs.

Seattle Is One Of The Fastest Growing Cities

Where the boundaries are drawn for a city greatly influences population estimates. Still, there’s no doubt that the city of Seattle is among the fastest growing in the country. It’s extremely difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison but it seems to be on par or greater than all the other fast growing cities in the county. The one take-away that I think is most important is that the city of Seattle grew faster than its suburbs, meaning the city is both a desirable place to live and we are actually making some room for new Seattlites.

If you’d like to look at more of the data, perhaps coming up with estimates for the metro area, I’ve put it all in a spreadsheet here.

Overcompensating Waving Bonanza

0
Picture 15
On the incredible 3/4

A young man on the other side of Jefferson makes a noise. It’s Jermain (from here and here, among other stories). He yells a quiet hey from across the street, and I’m happy to see him. Great. I get excited when young people show a buried promise, and you can wonder at what considerable accomplishments they have in them to achieve in the future.

Several hours later, as I pull into Third and Virginia southbound, mulling over how the zone feels like a landing strip because of how huge the sidewalk is, I start lightly tapping the horn- it’s Genevieve!!! In the living breathing flesh! She’s a nurse at several Swedish’s, and used to be something of a regular; I haven’t seen her in over a year. Here she is again, out of the blue. The multiple exclamation points really are necessary; her ebullient energy is infectious. I ask her about her twelve-hour night shifts, her multiple degrees, other interests, children, and her passion for burlesque… and how it is that she still has room to be happy. We get to talking, and both of us are very excited. We both suffer from the same problem of looking ten years younger than we really are, and are able to commiserate on such matters. At James and Third I see Jermain again at the zone, and I’m excited to say hey once more; but I focus on the individuals getting on in front of him, making eye contact with every person in the crowd, knowing I’ll get to talk to him in a minute. Each person needs that moment of contact, however brief. The difference between a short second of eye contact and a slightly longer moment is not so great; the difference between eye contact and no eye contact is vast.

The last guy steps on. It’s a young black American teen with basketball shoes and a T-shirt that’s too big, so far so good… but wait! Who’s this kid? That’s not Jermain! Just a lookalike!

Where on earth is the guy? Is he still at the zone? Maybe, as there’s still a few fellows loitering around. I want to get out of the seat, lean out the door and yell, “Jermain! As-salamu alaykum!”

I don’t do this. Instead I mutter darkly, “why isn’t Jermain on this bus?” as Genevieve and I resume our conversation. Later, I’m puzzled. Why didn’t I lean out the door and say hey? Why? What makes us hold back from ourselves, from the actions we know we could perform and share? Why do we avoid interactions which we have every confidence will go over well? It’s not like I would have made a fool of myself- okay, maybe I would have, but who cares? Not in this instance. What strange virus is this, that forces timidity where there is no reason for it? I feel lame afterwards. I resolve to be more open with myself.

I pull into Third and Pike, notice the wonderful tiny old Filipino woman, Rose, and pull way beyond her to the head of the zone to load passengers.

As soon as they’re all onboard I, in a moment of utter overcompensation, completely step off the coach, and yell down the zone, through all the people: “ROSE! ROSE! HAVE A GOOD DAY!” She’s confused, then thrilled, as she pieces this bizarre situation together. She returns the wave as energetically as her aging arm is able.

Continuing in this vein, I embark on a waving bonanza. At 21st & Jefferson, I arbitrarily wave for no reason at a man waiting across the street. I guess I’m banking on the fact that he knows me, or that he’s into waving at strangers. He returns the wave.

I’m announcing an upcoming zone, and my hands are full with holding the mic and the wheel, but I see a man with a walker on Third looking up at me from the sidewalk. We’re nowhere near a zone, and he doesn’t want to get on; he just seems likes he wants to wave. His hands are full too, maneuvering his walker. In the midst of announcing, I give him the upward-head nod and smile, and he returns it with a nod to the skies and down again, a face of joyous mock surprise.

The energy is flowing. “JAGPAL,” I yell, upon seeing Jagpal across the street, driving the 358.

Sometimes this openness falls completely flat. I’m inbound at Seneca now. A young businessman in his thirties, dressed in a navy oxford and black slacks, steps forward, preparing to get off. He has earphones in.

I glance at him in the mirror and say, “How’s it goin’?”
“Whhuuu?” he intones, taking out an earpiece temporarily. He gives me the face I probably make when I’m in foreign countries and people are yelling at me.
“Just sayin’ hey, nothin’ major,” I answer.
After a pause: “Ooooohhh.”
“What are we listening to?”
Dead silence.
A lady nearby and I burst out laughing together- she says, “he can’t hear a damn thing!”
“Must be some pretty good tunes!”

The man’s earphones are back in, and he doesn’t hear a word of our cacophony. He’s the 21st century zombie: slick, fast, well-groomed, and completely and voluntarily deaf. He goes racing down the street, a man on a mission.

Another wave at a middle-aged Latino man walking on a street somewhere in the Judkins neighborhood. His stance seems to say, “it’s that crazy bus driving kid who waves at people.” It works again as I pass by the dealers and users at Parnell’s, the mini-mart at Dearborn. They’re notoriously unresponsive when it comes to interaction, but today one of those faces transforms into a beaming grin, bloodshot eyes relaxing around the corners. Another fellow in a wheelchair offers a lazy salute.

Continuing through the Judkins area, a petite young lady kneels down by her dog as I pass by, returning my friendly demeanor with a bright smile.

While I’m in the mood, not quite knowing what’s come over me, I wave yet again- an extended fist way too much like a black power salute- at a man and his friend hanging out in the parking lot adjacent to the Center Park project housing at MLK and Walker. I definitely don’t know these guys. It’s completely random. There’s no reason for it. It doesn’t make any sense. They return the wave, getting excited, new smiles where there were none before.

Seattle Transit Funding Shouldn’t Be Used To Cut Service

0
Metro Cuts
Routes slated to be axed, photo courtesy of Metro.

This fall Seattle voters could approve new taxes to pay for bus service — and still lose their bus route. It sounds crazy, but if some activists get their way, Seattle bus riders will still see a shrinking system no matter how much money they pour into the system.

As Seattle debates which revenue source is the most progressive, a parallel debate is unfolding that pits progressive solutions against regressive cuts. Those cuts, justified by the ideology of austerity and sold in the language of efficiency, would scale back bus service even further, leaving only a privileged few with the chance to leave their car at home and ride an affordable, sustainable bus to work or to school.

At the press conference announcing the proposed head tax and commercial parking tax, Nick Licata hinted at this debate–and suggested it be deferrred until after the revenues were approved:

In many cases, the routes on Metro’s cut list have the lowest ridership–but may be the only transit at a particular time or to a particular neighborhood. If Seattle approves more tax, council members may buy service for routes where buses overflow, or stave off Metro’s cuts to less-used routes, or a mix.

Licata said route choices should be debated later, after the city approves money to protect bus riders.

This is the wrong approach. Now is the time to make sure that whatever revenue plan is adopted ensures that its spending is progressive, not just its revenues. Otherwise voters may reject the proposed funding sources if they lack confidence that the revenues will be used to save their bus.

Sustainability Isn’t Always Efficient

Who would argue that there’s such a thing as good cuts to transit service? One such argument came from, of all places, Sightline Institute. Jennifer Langston wrote soon after Prop 1’s failure that there could be such things as good bus cuts:

Some proposed cuts may increase Metro’s operating efficiency by targeting poorly performing routes—the ones with high operating costs or low ridership or that duplicate nearby transit service. Some will be painful and leave people stranded. Some might do both at the same time.

So far, Metro and its supporters haven’t done a great job of distinguishing—at least in the public debate—between cuts to low-performing routes that arguably ought to be sacrificed or restructured for the greater good and cuts to well-functioning routes with high ridership that will be gutted or cut back solely for lack of money.

This is a very regressive line of thinking, rooted in right-wing frames that emphasize “efficiency” over universality. Langston, writing for a sustainability think tank, is embracing concepts that exist to undermine sustainability itself.

If we are going to build a carbon zero city, we need to reduce the single biggest source of CO₂ emissions in Seattle: from transportation. That means we need to get as many people as possible to ride transit.

To do that, there have be routes operating for people to hop on board. Some of those routes will be packed. Some won’t be. But we must have a system with the capacity and coverage to pick up as many people as possible when high gas prices, traffic, or guilt about burning up our planet cause even more people to ride.

The concept of “efficiency” — that the only bus routes worth funding are those with the highest ridership levels — means that transit service can never expand to meet potential or growing demand. It means the suburbs will never get better service, since there won’t be bus service available to generate the levels of ridership that those calling for “efficiency” insist on seeing before supporting such service.

This approach is especially damaging when considering the huge cuts to Metro service that will happen without new funding. Metro has estimated these cuts would leave 10 million riders a year stranded. That’s almost a 10% reduction in ridership — even with a series of restructures designed to mitigate the impact of the cuts in the name of efficiency.

Many of the routes Metro identifies as “low performing” are not actually low performing. It’s an accounting trick designed to determine which parts of the system lose limbs and which merely lose fingers. One of the routes deemed “low performing,” the 28, is a workhorse that routinely carries full buses from Crown Hill through central Fremont, and down the growing Dexter corridor to SLU and Downtown. But because some other routes have even higher ridership, the 28 was seen as expendable. That doesn’t mean it’s an inherently bad route. It just means the proposed cuts will significantly undermine our transit system at a time when we need it to grow.

But there’s a bigger point here. Sustainability advocates must utterly reject the idea that our bus system should be focused on efficiency. It’s a metric imposed on us by right-wingers who dislike transit and don’t want to pay for it. Conservatives seek “efficiency” in transit because they hope that it will lead to an elimination of public funding for transit. Conservative voters won’t ever support transit taxes because they believe it’s an inherently wasteful use of money that doesn’t benefit them. If transit systems operate with less costs, that savings doesn’t get plowed back into transit — it gets used by conservatives to justify cutting transit budgets or cutting taxes.

Sustainability advocates have to reject the “efficiency” game because it is played with dice that are loaded against us. We must instead emphasize a robust bus and rail network that gives everyone a chance to get out of their cars and save the planet by riding a bus. Losing bus routes and thus losing riders is a huge step backward not only for transit in Seattle, but for any hope that we can lead the way to a carbon zero region.

Rejecting False Choices In Maintaining a Bus Network

There’s a similar argument at work from some transit advocates who argue, following Jarrett Walker, that we have to sacrifice broad geographic coverage in order to improve the frequency of a few popular routes.

This robbing of Peter to give more service to Paul doesn’t make sense from the perspective of getting as many people as possible to ride the buses. Usually those who lose bus service are of lower income and live in neighborhoods without many other travel options. Those who gain bus service tend to be higher income and live in dense neighborhoods that do have other options.

Those who advocate for this strategy usually justify it by citing smaller operating budgets that force hard choices. The way out of that, of course, is to expand the available funding for transit. That’s the entire point behind Seattle going it alone to approve new funds for Metro buses, ensuring that the “frequency versus coverage” argument is a false choice. Seattle can and should have both, especially if the goal is to build a sustainable city by getting as many people as possible to ride transit.

Why Shrink the Voter Base?

Not only is maintaining a broad network the right thing to do from an environmental, social justice, and transit perspective — it’s also a political necessity. Prop 1 failed in those parts of King County that didn’t have good bus service. Even within Seattle, voters were less likely to vote yes on Prop 1 if their neighborhood had no or infrequent bus service. It doesn’t make sense to shrink the number of pro-transit voters by shrinking transit service. It’s hard to imagine Seattle voters supporting funding for a few high frequency bus routes that serve a few dense corridors.

We can look to Pierce County for an example of what happens when huge swaths of voters are cut off from bus service. Voters there had rejected a countywide funding plan to maintain the existing system. Pierce Transit then made huge cuts, emphasizing service in a few core urban routes. Yet voters within Tacoma still rejected a proposal to fund a smaller network. There is just no political support for the kind of restructures that some transit advocates like.

This is part of a broader problem of political economy. Whether it’s cuts to Social Security benefits, transit, or other public programs, you can usually find some technocrat who believes voters will be happy to give up services or benefits in order to make things more “efficient.” Yet Social Security cuts remain hugely unpopular with voters. And as we’ve seen, so do transit cuts.

Voters don’t support austerity-based restructures. There’s no evidence to suggest they care about “efficiency.” Voters routinely have shown they prefer progressive solutions that expand public services, rather than regressive service cuts that privilege some at the expense of others. If Seattle and Metro followed this path, public support for transit would erode. It’s not a pretty future.

So what does a solution to this look like?

Initiative 118, developed by Friends of Transit, offered a sensible solution to this issue with the following language. First, it defined what “Metro Service Cuts” were:

“Metro Service Cuts” refers to proposed reductions in service announced by Metro in November 2013 and April 2014, and any subsequent service reductions proposed to address Metro’s current projected funding shortfall;

And then it mandated that the funds were to be used to reverse those cuts:

100 percent to purchase service for Seattle Routes until Seattle Metro Service Cuts are restored

Initiative 118 also created a Public Oversight Committee to oversee the spending of these revenues. The initiative did not prevent Metro from finding sensible ways to improve bus service. But it was deliberately crafted to provide assurance to voters that their money would be use to save their bus routes.

We haven’t yet seen the language for Mayor Murray’s proposal, nor for the plan announced by Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant. But both ought to incorporate similarly strong language ensuring that Seattle’s existing bus routes will be restored. Seattle voters deserve to know that their money will be used to stop these cuts.

Those routes don’t have to last forever. Initiative 118 lasted only six years, a deliberate choice. 2021 is when North Link light rail opens to Northgate. That rail service will allow Metro to make big and positive changes to the bus route map in north Seattle. It’s also hoped that a lasting regional transit funding plan will be approved by that time.

Until then, it doesn’t make sense to slash any existing bus routes. With rising gas prices and rising sea levels, Seattle needs to make sure as many people as possible, no matter where in the city they live, have access to good transit. Doing so is essential to building a sustainable city.

The job of transit advocates is to work to expand the transit system and to aggressively seek the funding to pay for it. It’s time to abandon the flirtation with cuts and instead work to bring Seattle the robust and expansive transit system it deserves.

Westlake Cycle Track Open House

3

westlake

On Wednesday, May 5th, there was another open house event for the Westlake Ave cycle track. This was the latest in a series of events for getting public input on the proposed dedicated cycle lanes to link the Fremont Bridge to SLU and Downtown.

Last night’s event was the first one open to the public since mayor Murray created a panel of stakeholders (including business owners opposed to the cycle track) to inform the design process. This time the event was held at Fremont Studios, just off the Burke Gillman trail in Fremont. The large space was needed to accommodate the large crowd of attendees, coming both from the bicycle community as well as residents and businesses along Westlake Ave.

bikeparking

At the entrance to the event, cycle advocates were handing out green stickers to note support of the cycle track. To the left of the entrance, “Westlake Stakeholders” (a group who has formed in opposition to the cycle track) were selling blue T-shirts to attendees to mark support for the local businesses.

IMG_20140521_182026

The crowd inside was quite large and seemed divided evenly between bicyclists and folks wearing those blue shirts being sold at the entrance. Several display boards were present, showing relevant information to the cycle track and staff were present to answer questions related to the display boards. There were also several tables with detailed segments of the Westlake ave parking corridor with paper provided for comment for each segment.

In the speech held around 6.15pm, an overview of the need for the project and some background on the previous studies was given. During the speech both the safety concerns and a desire towork with local businesses to minimize impact were strongly emphasized.

For the Q&A period, a majority of the questions appeared to come from the opposition, which generally consisted of:

  1. Why can’t this cycle track be on Dexter instead?
  2. Is the city aware how much this will hurt local businesses?
  3. How much parking are we going to lose?

The Dexter question was mostly addressed by noting that Dexter is a steep hill and that the existing structures are not adequate for many users. The other two questions were mainly addressed by asking the folks present at the meeting to provide ideas to help the designers work around the problems the people who live and work along Westlake are facing.

A number of the questions were asked again and again in a different form, especially the Dexter and impact on businesses questions.

The questions from supporters mostly dealt with the use of the parking lot by people not in the area, the suggestion of charging “market rates” for parking and referencing the speed limit of the cycle track. The first two questions were addressed as “interesting questions that could be looked into”. It was made pretty clear though that the design speed was going to be 10 mph and would likely not be reconsidered.

After the Q&A there was additional time allowed for folks to ask direct questions to staff members individually, but most of the crowd cleared the building and headed home.

It appears that there is still quite a lot of support and opposition for this cycle track, but there may be some room for compromises to try and appease both sides. Many of the stakeholders group oppose the loss of any parking at all, but perhaps if some new management schemes of the existing lot are brought up it could address some of the space issues in the existing parking supply. It was also suggested that the sidewalks that were widened previously to allow for bikes and pedestrians to share some room be narrowed, and that space be used toward the cycle track. This concept was new to the panel members and may be looked into in the future.

Braid

0

Picture 14

I think her name was Katherine, on her way to a haircut. She was up front, just boarded, watching bright-eyed as I greeted the masses on the 10. We were talking about positive energy. I was telling her what I often say, about how when you put a lot of yourself out there, you get a lot back (this is one of my reasons for picking the routes I do; why is the heavy work so much more conducive?).

“Yeah,” she said, listening. “It gets magnified by the universe and then it comes back to you.”
“Yeah, and– wow,” I said abruptly, more carefully registering her thought. “That’s a great way of putting it, magnified by the universe. I’d never thought of it in those words.”

I repeated it, to make sure I’d gotten it right. The notion that the energy we put out there didn’t just simply come back, but that it underwent a process by simple virtue of existing in our world. Of course, I thought. Our efforts and perception return to us colored and seasoned by the pulsing universe, coming back around as something fresh, de novo, unexpected… and yet also, yes, vaguely familiar, that distant echo of ourselves we’d feel lost without. We are the world we see.

She shrugged a natural smile, youthful and easy, tossing her braid back like it wasn’t any big thing.

Baugruppen: To Form a More Affordable Urbanism

0

Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a series on Baugruppen, private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects. Read Part 1 or check out the series.

The collective economic might of baugruppen offers owner-builders an opportunity for significant savings over traditional developer-driven models, as well as single family houses. As mentioned in part 2 of this series, Tuebingen BGs have resulted in ~15% savings, Berlin BGs roughly 15-25%, with similar savings for Vauban and Hamburg BGs. As a comparison, average cost/sf price in Seattle is roughly $340/sf. Savings of 15% on an 800 sf unit would reduce the cost to ownership by $40k. These savings could allow for the working or creative classes to afford homeownership in urban centers, instead of being driven out by rising costs. For less cost than typical development, owners get a higher-quality product designed to meet their needs; and in Germany, this product is usually more energy efficient, thus ensuring operational cost savings as well. Winning!

There are a couple of ways a BG reduces costs over traditional models. First and foremost, bypassing a developer pulls out the profit they would take on a project, which is not insubstantial. Second, there is little to no marketing of the project – which means no staging/pursuit. Realtors are also generally not in the equation. In Germany, land transfer taxes are also assessed lower than through traditional developments. As previously posted, there are many sources that advertise existing BGs looking for owners, but a lot of groups form amongst existing networks. There are a few Berliner baugruppen in planning, run by the same project management firm, that utilize a web template, mostly just to get the relevant info out there in case they are seeking additional members.

Financing BGs in Germany is, of course, considerably easier. These types of projects have been on the map for nearly two decades now, and there are banks willing to finance them. Cities also assist with legal/financial aspects, and there are additional perks such as eligibility for affordable, city-owned lots. BG owners also have access to low-interest energy efficiency loans and mortgage rates commercial developers don’t.

However, baugruppen are not generally an upper class phenomenon. Homeownership rates in Germany are a third lower than the US, and BGs are seen more as a way for the middle class to afford a residence in the city. The cost to ownership in Germany has generally been much harder than here in the US, requiring down payments of 20% or more. The down payment for a BG can be in the realm of 30%, so upfront costs are higher. In the long run, the total costs are lower, and the monthly payment ends up being pretty affordable as well. The savings rates in Germany, France and Switzerland are roughly triple what they are in the US, so this also changes the equation.

For me, the big point on cost-effectiveness is that, generally, a member gets a unit tailored to their specific needs as well as desired communal spaces if space and budget allows. Developers don’t normally fine-tune projects like this, as it would add cost and time. Additionally, development projects tend to be directed towards the least common denominator user. There are, however, some notable exceptions to this, especially here in Seattle.

Before a BG even brings on an architect (assuming there isn’t one already in the group), they’ll have discussed the type of lifestyle they would like to live, the type of building they would like to dwell in, the type of community they want to be a part of. A bunch of musically-oriented families founding a BG? They might plan a rehearsal space as part of the common area. Older couples might want a co-owned guest unit they could let their friends or children stay in, thus keeping their unit smaller and more affordable. Want a say in what color your facade is? How about typical finishes in common areas? BGs can offer that level of communal authorship.

This affordability does come at a cost: time. It can take several years to form a group, make decisions, find land and then finalize construction. Though developer-driven models can be delayed, that process has little effect on future tenants/owners. This also means there is substantially more personal risk in a BG, as the owners are responsible for delays, cost overruns that they wouldn’t have to deal with in more traditional models. Additionally, if an owner leaves the group or dies mid-construction, the group would have to take up the balance, or as normally happens, find a new member. There have been some failures in the BG community (no system is perfect/risk-free) but with solid project management and a budget-conscience design, this is very rare.

Photo: Andea Kroth

Considering spatial quality, finishes and shared accoutrement, one of the most cost-effective projects I’m aware of is roedig.schop architekten’s 10-unit beauty dubbed A52, initiated in 2003. The project was built for around $200/sf, and here’s the kicker: this pricepoint isn’t for low-end finishes or fixtures. Along with a communal garden, the project incorporates a communal roof terrace, with a small guest apartment shared by all residents, rotated in weekly installments. In order to get buy-in from their other neighbors, the architects offered to accept the last unit (which ended up being the ground floor). This stunning building was featured in the New York Times back in 2011, and features some great quotes from the owners. The 2008:9 konzept: gemeinsam wohnen issue of detail also has a good deal of background, and drawings worth checking out. I’ll be highlighting a few more of their really incredible, urban constructs soon.

Another budget-friendly project that really enthralled me was baugruppe baufreunde in Koeln by office03 // waldmann & jungblut. The project features two ‘bars’ set at either end of a through lot. Between these bars is a common green space. Each of the 18 units has access to ample garden space (ground floor maisonettes) or semi-private roof terrace (upper units). Project costs came in around $155/sf (EUR 4M/3200m2). The site is near shops and cafes, and has access to a multitude of transit options. Check out plans/renderings/model, and fotos.

I could definitely see either of these models working in a place like Seattle, where land or existing units aren’t exactly affordable–and where traditional developer models leave a lot to be desired in terms of cost and how they work with the way one might desire to live. Or at least, how my family would like to live, and at a price point we could afford. Pretty… Pretty… Pretty… Awesome.

 

Mike Eliason is a certified passivhaus designer, energy geek, and design nerd with an almost fetishistic interest in prefab wood buildings, low-energy architecture, social housing, and all things German. He has lived in Fremont for nearly a decade, and wants Seattle to become a greater version of Freiburg so his wife doesn’t force him to return to live in Vauban. He’s also begun the process of forming a baugruppe.

More Evidence To Build More Housing

0

If you are concerned about housing costs, you should know that building a lot more housing will be critical to control or reduce costs. We previously discussed a graphic that showed how the cost of homes seemed to correlate with the number of permits for new housing. You can see the article here and the graph here:

TruliaPriceMonitor_Scatterplot_Jan20141
Compliments of Trulia

This graph is by no means unassailable proof that housing costs are causally related to the number of permits issued. To really prove a causal relationship, we need a lot more research. We are lucky because Trulia recently produced another, even better graph, regarding housing costs. Specifically, the research shows that cities with a lot of growth and very little new housing have higher housing costs. On the flip side, cities with a lot of growth that build more housing have lower costs.

Trulia_MiddleClassReport_Scatterplot2
Trulia discusses middle class access to homeownership.

Cities that are closer to the top of the graph are more expensive while those on the bottom are less expensive. Cities on the right built a lot more housing relative to their size, while those on the left built a lot less. There are three immediate observations to note from this group:

  • All the cities that built the most housing have the lowest cost of housing.
  • All the cities with the highest cost built very little housing over the 13-year period.
  • There are no cities that built a lot of housing and have high costs.

What the graph does best

The scatter plot is really remarkable for its empty space. While it is common to get push back that building more housing doesn’t reduce housing costs, people often imply or state explicitly that more housing actually drives up costs. The Trulia graph shows in stark constrast that there aren’t any places that build a lot of housing and have high cost. There is a giant white space above $150 per square feet and to the right of 20 units built annually.

What’s lacking

This graph isn’t proof that building more housing is a cure-all for housing costs. There are a lot of intricacies to note, including:

  • Only the cost of homes for sale are shown, not rental prices.
  • No single graph can prove causality. For example, the areas that built a lot more housing (Raleigh and Las Vegas) have other commonalities that may be the underlying cause of their low housing costs (i.e. they are sprawling cities).
  • There are a lot of cities on the graph that built more housing than other cities but have higher costs. This is because the graph doesn’t illustrate the connection between population growth and housing cost.

I’ll do my best to address the latter two points.

Proving causality

How could someone prove that building more housing helps reduce costs?

First, it makes sense to see if this assertion fits a general understanding of how prices are set. In this case, we would point towards Econ 101, showing that prices are connected to supply and demand. When there is more demand than supply, prices go up. As an example, the most recent lime shortage. The price of limes increased tremendously because there weren’t enough for all our margaritas and now we are stuck with lousy lemons.

A general understanding of Econ 101 isn’t good enough though. There are many quirks in economics that are easily missed if we ideologically adhere to the most elementary talking points. Proof requires evidence. That’s why the two graphs above are so important. Both graphs indicate that building more housing is correlated with lower costs. When a correlation is found over and over again, it is very likely a causal relationship. Especially if there is no evidence indicating there isn’t a correlation (and good luck finding evidence that refutes this argument).

The evidence presented here isn’t comprehensive (and isn’t meant to be). We only mean to show two graphs that illustrate the correlation between the amount of housing and the cost of housing. If you are sincerely interested but skeptical of this argument, there is a lot more research out there for you to read*.

Population growth and the dots on the bottom left

The graph clearly doesn’t show a singular and direct connection between building housing and increased costs. In fact, the graph shows San Francisco at the very top and Detroit at the very bottom, even though it appears that San Francisco built more housing than Detroit. This would suggest there is another factor and that factor is almost definitely population growth.

To better understand the last point, I want to show how different areas have grown. I was able to find the population in 1990 and 2012** for most of the incorporated areas of the cities with labeled points*** (Honolulu is different****). I then took my best guess at the number of new units per 1,000 and square foot costs that the points on the graph represent. Here’s a view of what I found:

Trulia Data with Population Growth   Google Sheets

Looking at this data it seems pretty clear that cities can avoid higher prices even when growing rapidly by adding a lot more housing. The two cities with the most growth also added the most housing and kept their home prices low. This also helps explain why housing is so much more expensive in San Francisco than Detroit. While San Francisco grew, Detroit saw an incredible decline in population.

Looking at this closer also provides a less obvious but important insight. The growth of a city and the amount of housing the city adds doesn’t appear to entirely explain the costs of housing. These factors clearly account for a lot of the explanation, but it seems there are other factors at work as well. To demonstrate this point:

  • Orange County and San Jose had very similar rates of growth and added nearly the same amount of housing. In fact, Orange County grew 3% more than San Jose. Even those factors are so similar, housing prices are 20% lower per square foot in Orange County.
  • New York and San Francisco grew the same percent and added nearly the same amount of housing, but New York’s housing prices are significantly lower.

The most obvious objections to these last points is that my numbers are estimates. It would be necessary to get the precise area that Trulia is measuring to know the precise population changes. Still, this information can lead us to ask an important question, what other factors might affect the cost of housing.

Admitting we don’t have enough housing

Even if we admit supply and demand might not explain costs entirely, it is still clear that we must build more housing. The correlation between the amount of housing built and the cost is extremely strong. If housing prices increase we’ll cause a great deal of pain and suffering. Not enough housing increases everyone’s costs, causes massive displacement, creates sprawl, furthers environmental degradation, and increases segregation.

From the understanding that we will need a lot more housing, we can begin discussing the more complicated question of how to  build that housing. It is typical for conversations to conflate these two points. Many people (including myself sometimes) confuse the question of whether or not to build more with how to build more. Some common arguments used to fight more housing include; complaints about design, vigorous pointing to vacant lots as proof there isn’t demand for housing, exclamations about the immense ‘capacity’ of our current zoning, examples of gentrification ruining our city, and stories about displacement. None of these arguments suggest we shouldn’t build more housing. Instead they are complaints about how we build more housing. Once we explicitly acknowledge we need development, we can begin figuring how to build enough.

*I don’t want to imply I’ve read all these research papers. I just know they are out there and would enjoy feedback from someone that has had the time to look at them closely.

**2012 was chosen because that’s the most recent updated data provided by the Census Bureau. This doesn’t match the time frame perfectly for the Trulia data, but it matches pretty closely.

***Census data is for incorporated areas only (Orange County being the only exception). Data is for the city of New York City exclusively rather than the entire New York metropolitan area, although the graph is likely representing more than just the incorporated city. To give the best data, it would be important to know the area Trulia is measuring and match that to population growth; unfortunately, that’s not possible.

****Honolulu doesn’t have updated 2012 statistics from the Census Bureau’s website.