Housing policy is climate policy (but it's bigger than just housing)
April 1, 2019 9:03 AM   Subscribe

In California, home prices are pushing people farther from their jobs, which means more traffic and more pollution, to the point that increased vehicle emissions will outweigh the gains in reducing emissions from electricity generation (Los Angeles Times), and Californians aren't alone. The U.S. Department of Transportation touted record-setting vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in 2018 as proof of a strong economy (FHWA), without mentioning the increase in emissions. And with past trends of more trucks and SUVs purchased over sedans and other cars (NPR, 2016) continuing into the latest year-end data (Car and Driver via Yahoo News), you start to see Why Housing Policy Is Climate Policy (New York Times Opinion).

The Op-Ed is by Senator Scott Wiener, chairman of the California Senate’s Housing Committee, and Dr. Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, who note:
In November, the California Air Resources Board released an update (PDF) on efforts to reduce pollution from transportation. The numbers were alarming. Despite headlines about California’s push for more electric vehicles, pollution from cars is still climbing. “With emissions from the transportation sector continuing to rise, California will not achieve the necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions to meet mandates for 2030,” the board warned.

The solution? “Significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded and built,” the board said.

Put more directly, in order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the housing crisis.

Numerous climate researchers have a similar conclusion. In an assessment of the carbon footprint of 700 California cities (Cogitatio Press, Open Access Journal article), experts with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, including one of us (Dr. Kammen), found that, for most coastal California cities, “infill” housing — that is, housing built in urban areas, near transit, jobs and services — can reduce greenhouse gas pollution more effectively than any other option.

Other research has confirmed this work (Brooksings blog post), and bolstered the case for using denser housing and public transportation as weapons against climate change.
To understand the transit side of this equation, it might be helpful to look at current figures and compare them to available data, as seen in The Great Divide in How Americans Commute to Work, a City Labs article by Richard Florida.

On the housing side, current wage and home price figures are also bleak: Average Americans can't afford a home in 70 percent of the country, as reported by Sarah Min for CBS News, with statistics from Attom Data.

More explicitly, this is an issue of income stagnation. Digging into the foundation of the housing cost crisis -- Affordability in Seattle and elsewhere is a complicated problem, but it has one major driver that has nothing to do with housing. (Jon Talton for the Seattle Times)
But a different kind of building is needed to address a root cause of unaffordability: low incomes. Decades of weak growth were punctuated by a Hamilton Project report [on Feb. 27, 2018]. It showed that men who entered the workforce between 1957 and 1967 were the last of their cohort to see increased lifetime earnings relative to their predecessors.

Women have seen an increase, but not substantial enough to overcome the larger stagnant trend. Middle-wage jobs have declined and rungs in the skill ladder have been pulled out. Inequality has grown sharply. No wonder so many struggle with housing affordability.
Taking a short-term view, in U.S., wage growth is being wiped out entirely by inflation, as reported on August 10, 2018 by Heather Long for the Washington Post.
Cost of living was up 2.9 percent from July 2017 to July 2018, the Labor Department reported Friday, an inflation rate that outstripped a 2.7 percent increase in wages over the same period. The average U.S. “real wage,” a federal measure of pay that takes inflation into account, fell to $10.76 an hour last month, 2 cents down from where it was a year ago.

The stagnation in pay defies U.S. growth, which has increased in the past year and topped 4 percent in the second quarter of 2018 — the highest rate since mid-2014.

The lack of wage growth has befuddled economists and policymakers, who hoped that after job openings hit record highs and the unemployment rate dipped to the lowest level in decades, employers would give beefy raises to attract and retain workers. But so far, gains have been slight, and small recent increases are being eclipsed by rising prices.

Inflation hit a six-year high this summer, in part because of a jump in energy costs. The price of a gallon of gas has increased 50 cents in the past year, up to a national average of $2.87, according to AAA. Some analysts expect the climb in energy prices to halt soon, which should bring the overall inflation rate down and possibly lift real wages slightly.
But we as a nation are still buying bigger vehicles to drive longer distances, bringing us full circle back to climate change impacts.
posted by filthy light thief (53 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
And when we're not driving bigger vehicles, we're coping with wage disparity and lack of locally affordable housing by making very long commutes by transit. A 2:15 Alarm, 2 Trains and a Bus Get Her to Work by 7 A.M. (NY Times article on a San Francisco commuter). SF has the worst commute in the U.S., and it may have cost the city $10.6 billion last year (Michelle Robertson for SFGATE, Feb. 7, 2018).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:05 AM on April 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

It's always hilarious how myopic the car side of this is. "We keep giving subsidies and mandating cleaner cars and~"

Yea poor people are still driving cars from like 1999-2005. Literally even most of the more upscale ~millenials~(which goes up beyond 30 now!) I know are still rolling old beaters.

I can't think of a way to fix this other than dump LOTS of money into public transit, and create some kind of incentive/voucher/rebate program for buying clean efficient USED cars. Like push the 15k~ and 10k stuff down as much as you're pushing down electric cars.

I'm about to buy a used electric car for cash, but that only works because of my short-ish(but not in any useful way served by transit) commute and lack of need for a longer than the 1/4 tank of gas on a normal car range 99% of the time. And even then a good portion of my friends, especially in the service industry or low level office jobs are like "wow, $6000? big spender"

You're not gonna get most working poor people out of their beat up corollas without throwing money at the problem unless you literally make the cars illegal via some kind of rules and ban emissions waivers the way california does everywhere. And all you'll do then is create more homeless people and 2am alarm stories.

You can visually see the like, obvious markers of this issue in most major cities right now. In seattle, driving around town you see basically no cars older than 2005 or so ANYWHERE unless you're in a poor(and rapidly gentrifying, of course) area or go out to the very edges of town. As soon as you get the burbs, it's nothing but beaters except in the rich bedroom enclaves. And the "fancy new car" circle keeps expanding.

The housing issue is at the root here, of course, and that's the REAL battle. But you don't get to go "omg pollution!" while throwing out fake actions to "make people buy more efficient new cars" when basically no one with a long ass commute is. The nice new cars go in garages of apartment buildings 10 minutes from the office.
posted by emptythought at 9:48 AM on April 1, 2019 [21 favorites]

Oh god, I knew people who worked in SF, but lived in Tracy. I went to school with a guy who commuted to Berkeley from Livermore every day. I knew someone else (actually, I think a couple people) who lived in effin' Santa Cruz, but drove up to Berkeley every week and stayed with friends for a few days while they went to their classes. I worked with someone in Berkeley who commuted from San Leandro by BART; she saved a couple hundred every month in rent, but paid so much for BART that it kind of made up the difference. Actually, I knew someone else who lived in Oakland, right at the edge by San Leandro, and she commuted into SF every day.

We're talking hour-plus commutes for all of these people, at a minimum. Tracy and Livermore are even further. San Leandro to my friend's job in SF by BART was an hour and a half. I was always talking about moving further out to save on rent, but then the commute times would have been extreme. As it is, my ex commutes an hour each way, and she lives close to BART.

Don't even get me started on how miserable Bay Area traffic has gotten. What would ordinarily be a 20 minute drive ends up taking more than an hour. Driving distances and driving times keep growing.

Minimum wage in Berkeley is $15 an hour, but that wasn't enough to cover rent, loan payments, and other expenses. Those wages stagnated, too: people who had previously gotten raises up to $15/hr didn't see any increase when the new minimum wage laws took effect. So my starting pay was the same as that of a manager with more responsibilities. But rents continue to rise. Everyone I know in the Bay Area is stuck in their apartments, because they can't afford the new going rates.

People in tech always say "look, I'm making six figures, but cost of living is really high here!" But cost of living is just as high for people who don't make six figures. Yet people still complained during the most recent BART strikes (which were years ago, at this point, when things weren't even quite as bad as they are now), because BART employees are paid more than transit workers in other parts of the country.

I left the Bay Area because of this bullshit, but now that I'm in the DC area, it's not much better. Relatively affordable housing is all outside the city, with long commutes (although not as bad as in SF). It's only going to get a million times worse when Amazon opens their new HQ2 in Northern Virginia.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:53 AM on April 1, 2019 [14 favorites]

This isn't just a Big City issue, it's an issue any place that the cost of housing in an employment hub is significantly higher than surrounding areas, and where median salaries can't get you into the median-priced home. My daily commute is about an hour each way, but we were able to afford a nice house, where my co-workers who are looking to live in Santa Fe (population 68k) are spending at least a third more, $300k and up, for a "starter home" that's anywhere near where we work.

It would be a bit shorter if I drove, but I take transit (a train, actually) because it's cheaper, and I don't have to pay attention to the road for two hours every day. And my wife now works ~10 minutes from home now, so we average around 35 minutes per direction for our commute, which isn't terrible.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:15 AM on April 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I went to a city council meeting in Seattle on MHA, our recent tiny little upzone to about 6% of the city that was held up by selfish assholes in court for years, and people had the nerve to be arguing that increasing density in the city is bad for the environment and instead we should encourage more density in the suburbs. Listing all kinds of fancy sounding shit like heat sinks and tree canopy coverage and not a fucking one who plausibly gives a real shit about the environment more than 20 yards beyond their own life. I think calling people “NIMBY” is too nice.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:17 AM on April 1, 2019 [16 favorites]

Housing and transportation are probably the two biggest single issues in most urban areas of the US. They effect everything else. I mean in some cities—SF would be at the top of the list—economic growth is basically capped by housing and transportation. (And to a lesser extent commercial real estate, but it's easier to find an office space in SF than it is for the people who you want to have work there find housing.)

Housing is an eternal hot-button issue because increasing the supply of housing tends to be controversial; if you increase the supply enough to meet demand, it necessarily decreases either the actual cost of, or at least depresses the first derivative of, existing housing, and for people who own housing it's likely their nest egg and single largest asset. So people tend to be pretty tetchy about anything that can affect its value. (I believe Thank You For Smoking called "but I have a mortgage!" the Yuppie Nuremberg Defense, and it's… well, it may be wrong, but it's sure not incorrect.) And since the people whose proverbial ox is getting gored already live in an area and have a say in the political process, while the people who would benefit from more housing generally do not, it's easy to see why this is a politically difficult problem to solve. I mean it's not a good situation, but it's at least understandable why it's hard.

But that doesn't explain why we can't have better transportation infrastructure. Compared to increasing housing density, there's a lot less obvious organic opposition to transportation projects. Sure, there's always somebody who doesn't want [whatever] in their backyard, but that ought to be relatively small compared to the people who would benefit—historically, there's a pretty good track record (ha) of overcoming that type of opposition. (I'd make an analogy to complexity, and suggest that high-density housing projects have opposition that tends to go up with the square of the size of the project, because they have an area effect, while transportation projects tend to have opposition that goes up linearly, because their negative effect tends to be along the proposed route. So we'd expect to see lots more successful transportation projects.)

And yet, we don't. We suck at transportation projects, and nobody seems able to give a clear answer as to why. The most expensive light-rail projects in France cost less per mile than the least expensive ones in the US. Subways are even worse. This isn't because of the underlying construction costs; if you want a rail line built, lots of private companies are happy to do it for about $1-2M/mile (less than 1% of the per-mile cost of the cheapest municipal light-rail projects). So something like 99% of the cost of these projects is going... elsewhere. This is indicative of a grave systemic problem, and one that if we solved, I suspect would lead to a lot of new development. (There was a Federal-level study that was supposed to be digging into why the costs were so high, but IIRC the Trump Adm. killed it. One can only speculate what they were afraid the study might find.)

While there are always going to be people who hate public transportation just on principle, or because it might let the poors move about unmolested or whatever, I suspect a significant amount of the opposition is proportional directly to its cost. I don't think most people want to live in traffic-laden urban hellscapes with multi-hour commutes and choking smog. I think a lot of people would actually prefer a train-based commute if they thought it was an option (and housing prices near rail-transit corridors in cities where it's a viable option reflect this). But getting people to sign on to a light rail project at $170+ million per mile is tough. There's a lot of other things that a moderate voter might think are higher priorities when you're talking about that much money.

If we could figure out how to get the cost of infrastructure projects down to even what other high-labor-cost countries like Sweden and France pay, I think we'd be a long ways towards solving some of the biggest problems in the country. That it would be a win-win for basically everyone involved—residents, businesses, the climate, health / lifespan; pick an issue and I'll show you how it might benefit—makes it all the more galling that we can't seem to crack it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:21 AM on April 1, 2019 [24 favorites]

Honestly, every policy is climate policy at this point, and if it isn't (and of course it isn't), it damn well should be.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:37 AM on April 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

I don't have time right now to dig into the links, but I wonder how much study (outside of say NYC) has been done of how multiple homes and AirBnB are contributing to unaffordable housing. There are areas of the country where buying/rents should be affordable because the local wages are low (e.g. the NY Catskills region) but they're not because there are so many homes that have been turned into AirBnB properties that take stock out of the rental market and houses are being rented as income generators priced out of scale with what would seem affordable given the region's wages.

Also, hedge fund money has been buying up properties and renting them as remotely managed income generators rather than something the helps people be in affordable homes. Instead of housing being a one-to-one transaction, it's a power imbalance weighted towards a wealthy faceless corp - how is that affecting the market?

Once again capitalism seems to be creating a funnel that moves money to the wealthy while preventing folks without money from improving their situation.
posted by kokaku at 10:40 AM on April 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

Location will determine feasibility of autonomous, electric, hybrid vehicle solutions.

All new technologies will benefit metro areas but likely result in fragmentation of the automotive industry where people own/rent multiple vehicles for different purposes.

These more environmentally friendly vehicles will make their way to rural areas but at a much slower adoption rate.

Agree with you that the location of new residences and migration trends will impact how much driving is required in the future (in terms of VMT).
posted by driverbase at 11:12 AM on April 1, 2019

The solution? “Significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded and built,” the board said.
Put more directly, in order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the housing crisis.

Or the transportation crisis. The problem isn't just "people can't afford to live near work;" there's a whole lot of "two million cars on the road every morning with 1 driver and no passengers, driving those 45+ miles to work." BART connects the east bay to SF, but not to San Jose; CalTrans is peninsula and SF only, and if your job isn't within a few blocks of a train station, you're dealing with buses, possibly multiple buses. Between the hassle of sorting out schedules and the costs (often, entirely separate costs; there is no one "SF Bay Area Travel Ticket"), public transit often doesn't come out to cheaper or more convenient than driving.

I'm often surprised that there's no direct train from SF or SJ to Los Angeles that's usable for regular travel. The only one that exists is the Amtrak Coast Starlight, which takes 11 hours from San Jose to LAX. (It's 5½ driving, 7½ on Greyhound.) A train that could do the trip in 4 hours would wipe out substantial portions of Southwest's plane travel. (Not likely; it'd need stops along the way.) A train that could do it in 6 would still cut down on airline use, and support a lot more weekend visits and some business commuting.

We do need to lower housing costs and get rid of the "all the market will bear" rentier approach. But we also need to get rid of the idea that every adult needs a car of their own, and that it's perfectly reasonable for the freeways to be packed for hours every morning and afternoon with tens of thousands of people all taking the same route.

I wonder how much study (outside of say NYC) has been done of how multiple homes and AirBnB are contributing to unaffordable housing.

Some, but not too much - the bay area housing crunch predates AirBnB. Forcing people to sell or rent their current AirBnB properties would be drop in the bucket of what's actually needed, because those homes would just be priced out of range of the long-distance commuters. With recent legal changes, AirBnB lost about 5,000 listings in SF: 1/5 the number of daily commuters on BART during rush hour.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:59 AM on April 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

It would also make a big damn difference if the overall mentality around corporate work would embrace remote working. For the multitude of people whose job is done mainly on a computer and an Internet connection, who do not have customer-facing jobs at all, or who have regular days where they aren't meeting with customers, it's absurd to have to make tens of millions of people drive to an office to sit at a desk.
posted by Autumnheart at 12:01 PM on April 1, 2019 [27 favorites]

But if they're not sitting at a desk, how can their coworkers tell that they're working and not goofing off? I mean, you might have to install chat apps and develop a culture off communication! You'd have to encourage people to talk with each other, to have some sense of teamwork even when they're not getting coffee from the same carafe!

No, far easier to just make them each pay a few dollars and an hour or two every day to be in an environment where managers can tell they're focused on work by looking over their shoulders. Better to pay to rent a large office in a prime urban location than deal with the hassles of having a small presence to deal with customers, and renting a conference hall when you need everyone together for a company-wide meeting.

I mean, it's not like having more money and being less exhausted would make workers more productive, right?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:09 PM on April 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Similarly, there are a significant number of jobs that don't require the offices to be located in major cities, including government jobs. There's a lot to be said for "nothing draws a crowd like a crowd," and the benefit in increased "collisions" (for industries that strive for innovations and new ideas from people randomly crossing paths and having conversations) that are missing from small towns.

On the other hand, what's the benefit from state and national capitals to be the hubs of so many bureaucrats? Distribute those government offices throughout regions and bring benefits to smaller towns. The problem is, how and where to start? Which office wants to be the first to move to a small town with limited shopping and restaurant options? It could work to "hop" away from major metro areas, moving into small towns that "orbit" a major center, so people could still drive to The Big City for certain items or events, but still have enough locally to support the shifted economies, and agency-focused consulting companies would likely be the first to follow.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:10 PM on April 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

One of the reasons infrastructure is more expensive on a per mile basis in the US is simply differences in accounting. Most politicians, either due to ideology or the need for campaign contributions from road-oriented construction companies, have an interest in making transit expansion seem as expensive as possible. So they lie.

Miami spent over a billion dollars building a mile and a bit of Metrorail track to connect the airport, according to the published numbers. Wow, that's amazing, $750 million a mile is completely unreasonable, right?! Well..maybe not when you consider that, while the money was indeed all for the Orange Line "project," that project also involved building a giant rental car parking garage, a people mover to shuttle people from the airport terminal to said parking garage, and an intermodal transit center where 80% of the space is allocated to commuter rail, Amtrak, transit buses, and an intercity bus station. Yet the entire cost of all of those things and more is included in the quoted per mile cost of the Metrorail expansion.
posted by wierdo at 12:20 PM on April 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

The odd thing, of course, is that nobody bats an eye at spending $800 million on a mile and a bit of viaduct as a "signature bridge," adding a couple of extra traffic lanes that will serve no useful purpose since they are not the bottleneck that slows traffic in the area. Even though we've spent billions of dollars in the past several years building HOT lanes, reconstructing intersections, and other road projects that are supposed to, but never actually do, reduce congestion on people's commute.

And this is in an area where there is significant public support for transit expansion. People rightly feel that the tax money they voted for is being mismanaged. They're wrong about how it's being mismanaged. It isn't actually corruptly lining anyone's pocket, but it is intentionally being spent in a way that makes it ineffective for the most part in an effort to shift public opinion away from favoring public transit.
posted by wierdo at 12:32 PM on April 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

On the other hand, what's the benefit from state and national capitals to be the hubs of so many bureaucrats?

Same network effects as any other set of connected industries/firms. Makes it a lot easier for someone in the state environmental regulation agency to get a quick meeting in meatspace with their analog in the state agriculture agency about a regulation they're thinking about, or to get a quick meeting with the appropriate person in the state education agency about whether an environmental education thing the ed dept is cooking up is still good science, etc. Most likely with people they're able to have established long-term working relationships with.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:05 PM on April 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

I can't think of a way to fix this other than dump LOTS of money into public transit

That is, in fact, the way to fix it. That and disincentivizing private property ownership.

The money spent on tax breaks etc. for electric vehicles would probably be better spent on improving public transit. Better that both those pots of money get spent, of course, and the money come from somewhere else. But automobile-based infrastructure is inherently inefficient. In half of the US the energy offset of EVs vs. internal combustion is debatable at best because of how power is generated and transmitted (there are other big advantages to not having internal combustion engines all over your city, but the efficiency/environmental friendliness is probably a little overrated).

As an aside, for every person who moves out to the 'burbs because they insist on having a bigger house than they need (and they definitely exist and fuck that noise), there are several more who get priced out of the area where the jobs are and suddenly have an hour-long commute.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:17 PM on April 1, 2019 [10 favorites]

Kadin2048 I'd argue that the problem with transportation projects is really the same as the problem with building more housing. If it's done successfully it will inevitably deflate the value of people's homes.

A properly set up transportation project will, necessarily, mean basically building a bunch of housing near transport hubs outside the central city area and thus effectively increasing the amount of housing even if the total number of rooms doesn't actually increase.

We're up against the power of mostly older, mostly fairly well off, people who have lots of disposable income and lots of disposable time, which makes them a formidable voting bloc. Piss them off, which means doing anything at all that lowers home values, and they'll vote you out.

Which is a huge problem because it's quite clear that America is desperately in need of affordable housing. High density apartment complexes near downtown areas and other areas where people work would be ideal, especially if you tie that into transportation infrastructure upgrades so the high density apartments are near a transit hub.

But if you do any of that housing prices will drop, and you've incurred the wrath of Mr. and Mrs. pre-existing homeowner and their "nest egg" in the form of a house.

So just as any housing increase must fail, so too must any transportation project fail. Success on either front will reduce housing prices, and ultimately we're looking at people who are deeply opposed to housing prices decreasing.
posted by sotonohito at 1:27 PM on April 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Clearly we just need a rebrand, right? It's not "devaluing home prices", it's "lowering property tax payments"!
posted by tobascodagama at 1:37 PM on April 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

>> I can't think of a way to fix this other than dump LOTS of money into public transit

> That is, in fact, the way to fix it. That and disincentivizing private property ownership.

i can think of some lovely ways to disincentivize private property ownership.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 1:52 PM on April 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

I'm always a little confused about the concept of nest eggs. It seems to assume that the demand right now is going to be the same as the demand in 20 years. But in 20 years there's a big, anomalous, currently home owning population group that will "age out" of the economy, to put it nicely. So, are all those investments actually going to be worth anything in 20 years? Or even in 10 years as they start to transition in larger numbers to assisted living, or downsizing, or what have you.

On the transportation front, has anywhere tried a hybrid of tolls and slugs? Like, a Lyft app for actual not-a-taxi ridesharing that lets you dodge a $15 toll for, say, using I66 to get into DC. But with "the passenger is here, you are the closest and have been assigned based on your mostly shared destination location of blah" instead of expecting the drivers to be totally-not-taxis.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:52 PM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Won't work in California, where thanks to a particularly awful bit of legislation passed by the voter initiative system, property taxes **for existing property owners** are capped at almost no growth.

Someone who's owned a house for 40 years might have a home that's valued at a couple million, but will only be paying taxes as if it was $100,000 or so. The idea of property taxes basically acting as a buffer against excessive home prices and the politics leading to excessive home prices doesn't apply to California.

Oh, but that very very low tax value for a home? It only applies to the people currently owning it. If some working person somehow managed to scrape together the funds to buy a home for $2 million, or inherit it from grandma, or whatever, they will be smacked with taxes for the full list price of the home. Now, in theory if they can pay those taxes they won't go up much more, they still benefit from protection against future increases in home value. But the very low tax rates paid by the older California homeowners are a privilege reserved for people who have owned homes for decades. Young whipper snappers hoping to buy a house will pay much higher taxes.

I'd also agree with aspersioncast, we need to reverse decades of US public policy and discourage homeownership. It's turned out to be a very bad idea that is hurting us. Living in dense, multi-unit, apartments is better all around. And there's no reason not to have bigger apartments. We used to have four and five bedroom apartments, with formal dining rooms no less!

But we can't fix our housing policy as long as people are depending on super high housing prices for their own financial wellbeing and retirement.
posted by sotonohito at 1:55 PM on April 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Here are some good things that I read recently pertinent to these issues:

Why American [transportation infrastructure] Costs Are So High - tl;dr: a whole lot of reasons all seem to contribute to making them high.

Why Voters Haven’t Been Buying the Case for Building - talks about strategies for convincing people to support development who are skeptical about market-rate development.*

*I don't really believe almost any of the conclusions in this article, but I enjoyed reading what it thought.
posted by value of information at 1:59 PM on April 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'd also agree with aspersioncast, we need to reverse decades of US public policy and discourage homeownership. It's turned out to be a very bad idea that is hurting us. Living in dense, multi-unit, apartments is better all around. And there's no reason not to have bigger apartments. We used to have four and five bedroom apartments, with formal dining rooms no less!

I agree that it's much better to have housing more dense than a stereotypical "big house with big yard and white picket fence". But does that have to be connected to ownership? I don't see a reason why it's bad to encourage people to own, rather than rent, the apartments they live in.
posted by value of information at 2:02 PM on April 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

I wonder how much study (outside of say NYC) has been done of how multiple homes and AirBnB are contributing to unaffordable housing.

AirBNB is more an indicator that your city hasn't built enough hotels or housing than it is a direct indictment of housing. Plenty of middle class people used to own two houses.

I don't see a reason why it's bad to encourage people to own, rather than rent, their apartments.
It's really irrelevant, as the major cities in the US are already majority renter. That gives you another taste of the huge power differential between buyers and renters. Home owners are possibly the most powerful minority.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:05 PM on April 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

old buildings house far fewer people than they did 50 years ago. What happened?

1) The "nuclear family" concept of 2 parents and 2-3 kids, which exploded when birth control became widely available, and has tapered down to 1-2 kids;
2) Declining population growth, domestic migration;
3) Wealth consolidation - fewer people can afford houses, and they want larger ones;
4) Weaker community connections - people don't know their neighbors, and are much less comfortable being close to anyone who's not immediate family.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:16 PM on April 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

there are several more who get priced out of the area where the jobs are and suddenly have an hour-long commute.

And, until it's impossible, a lot of people who accept absolutely horseshit living conditions in busted ass apartments, and quasi-legal living situations to avoid that commute and stay in the community/city.

I honestly can't believe how much rent a lot of my friends are paying for their places. Some of them have, or recently had literally windowless basement "bedrooms" in houses or garages or whatever

The solution here is more low income housing, etc, but god is it depressing to watch. It went from "you can be a bartender and have your own apartment in a semi ok building" to "people working professional jobs still have roommates and someones room is a partially finished basement"
posted by emptythought at 3:17 PM on April 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

I agree that it's much better to have housing more dense than a stereotypical "big house with big yard and white picket fence". But does that have to be connected to ownership? I don't see a reason why it's bad to encourage people to own, rather than rent, the apartments they live in.

Because, by definition, people who own housing profit when housing becomes less affordable.

Also, the form of encouraging people to own, in the US, includes stupid shit like the mortgage deduction, which is a massive wealth transfer to upper middle income and wealthy households.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:21 PM on April 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

But someone has to own the apartment buildings, unless we're going full-on public housing. Which could be great, yes. Me, I hope to never rent again after a traumatic experience with an erratic landlady, but I guess I would if I knew I had real protection from that sort of thing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:36 PM on April 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

It’s also no longer acceptable to let kids run around outside without intensive adult supervision, and increased mobility means many people live far from extended family. Meaning that a guest room and indoor play space are a lot more important than they were even 30 years ago.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 3:41 PM on April 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sotonohito I don't think NIMBYists are "big picture" enough to oppose mass transit on the basis you describe. It's generally more an assumption that mass transit hubs will bring crime as poor people can more easily get to their neighborhood. They're usually happy to support mass transit hubs in other nearby neighborhoods provided their own is safely fenced off.
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 3:49 PM on April 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Me, I hope to never rent again after a traumatic experience with an erratic landlady, but I guess I would if I knew I had real protection from that sort of thing.

This is a hugely underrated answer to the whole "why not rent?" thing. A lot of landlords are just shit, and the ones who rent out the most affordable places tend to be the worst of the bunch. (Shoutout to Anwar Faisal, one of whose buildings I spent a summer in as a subletter.)
posted by tobascodagama at 4:39 PM on April 1, 2019 [12 favorites]

The three main options for housing are: Tenant owns the place they live; tenant rents from some other citizen; tenant lives in a government-owned place. (This could be free paid-by-taxes, or rented; the key aspect is "who's making the decisions about the property," not whether money is changing hands.)

Neither the government nor random-citizen-landlords have shown themselves to be conscious of individual tenant needs, much less willing to make adjustments to properties because of those needs.

A tenant-owner using a wheelchair can decide between a short ramp and a long one, can decide if the extra expense of a lift is worth it, can decide they don't need a ramp because they can walk a few steps and they have someone to set up the chair for them. A landlord or the government has no reason to acknowledge the tenant's preferences in making those decisions; they're likely to stick with "the least expensive version the law requires."

A tenant-owner with three children can decide whether they need multiple bedrooms, and whether that's worth the expense of doing construction in the house. Again, an outside owner is likely to note what the law requires and stick to that, with the solution of "go find somewhere else" if the current number of rooms isn't sufficient.

A tenant-owner can decide what level of pet damage they'll accept. Can decide whether to remove the carpet and enjoy a bare wood floor. Can repaint the living room in their favorite colors. Can add a new window in the den. If someone else owns the place, none of those may be true.

The solution to the housing crisis is not "more renters." It's more home ownership, less tolerance of owning more than one home. No tax discounts for any real property other than one family residence - and rents aren't allowed to be higher than a mortgage payment*; no handing off that increased property tax onto tenants.

*Calculate mortgage payments based on the property tax assessment of the property, and whatever a common mortgage loan arrangement is. This means longtime property owners in California would be required to set rents based on the cost of the $100,000 home that's used for their tax rates, not based on the $2.2 million it's currently appraised for.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:06 PM on April 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

I've never lived in one, but the co-op model of ownership for apartments seems like a good one. And honestly, if you're Big Shot Company and you insist on Hot City offices, you should have to subsidize, above and beyond the actual salary you pay your employees, their housing costs so that they can live in the equivalent of a decent one-bedroom apartment a half hour or less actual travel time to work.
posted by maxwelton at 5:36 PM on April 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Promoting homeownership was a deliberate policy choice, and while it ended up having a lot of unanticipated side effects, some of the reasons for it were not unreasonable, and still have some merit. There was a general belief that a society of people who owned their homes would be a more 'rooted' one with more sense of community, and that owning a house would give people a material stake in the success of that community. I think there's probably some truth to that, although it might only be because if you own a home you live there longer and move around less, and thus know your neighbors more, etc.; my guess is if you lived in a rental for the same length of time you'd do just as well.

Also, another typically underrated benefit of personally-owned housing is in the bankruptcy code: if we imagine two people with approximately equal assets, one who rents and thus has their nest egg in financial investments, and one who owns a house and thus has their nest egg in real estate, and then they run into each other at a stop sign and both go to the hospital, accrue crushing levels of medical debt, and are driven into bankruptcy (as one does), the person with their wealth in the house is going to end up in a much better place at the end of it, because a primary residence is a lot harder for a creditor to seize than assets in a bank or brokerage.

But as others have pointed out it's not like ownership and the detached single-family home are intrinsically linked. We solved the problem of letting people own apartments when condominium associations were invented. (An invention we owe to Puerto Rico, incidentally, in 1958. Though NYC co-ops predate that by almost a century.)

So there's no reason we couldn't retain the benefits of personally-owned housing—which includes stuff like benefiting from, rather than being driven out by, improvements to the local economy, crime rates, etc.—but have higher density.

> I'd argue that the problem with transportation projects is really the same as the problem with building more housing. If it's done successfully it will inevitably deflate the value of people's homes.

I guess maybe this is true in places. But I've watched a few iterations of public transportation projects try to get off the ground and fail, and none of them seemed subject to the sort of intense, broad-based opposition that high-density housing projects have been subject to. I mean, if you're a local politician in my area and you try to promote non-luxury high-density housing, especially low income high density housing, you might as well just put a gun in your mouth and save everyone the wear-and-tear on their torches and pitchforks.

But with transit, you can make a fairly good case that property values will go up along the transit corridor. In the DC area, there's a significant premium for housing that's within walking distance of a Metro stop. I'm having trouble finding good empirical studies, but in part that's because the few new stations that have recently opened produced such a real-estate boom that the neighborhoods were entirely changed by the time the stations opened. (Interestingly, it produced some of the only significant new-start construction of true, 10+ story highrises. Non-Metro-adjacent areas seem to only get the 3-4 story wood-framed buildings at most. This indicates to me that the underlying land value has increased very significantly.)

Still though, the cost of the Metro expansion was astronomical, and it's not well-connected with regional heavy rail or anything, and largely useless if you're not moving radially in and out of the city on a traditional commute. At a more reasonable cost, I really do think you could sell further expansions or even a Beltway line politically, but not at the cost-per-mile that it's typically ended up at.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:47 PM on April 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

People buy apartments in places like NYC but out here in flyover country, the apartments people I know have owned, have tended to be a pretty bad deal, financially. The association fees are outside of your control and can balloon like crazy. Increases in association fees drive the value of the equity down, which traps people in condos that they are over-extended on.
posted by elizilla at 5:54 PM on April 1, 2019

But with transit, you can make a fairly good case that property values will go up along the transit corridor.

Thank you for saying this! I thought I was going crazy, seeing all the comments about how being near transit reduces property values. Meanwhile I'm watching neighborhood after neighborhood moving up the Blue Line in Chicago become "hot" as property values increase, and gentrifying-type business move in, and residents get priced out.

I am closing on a house in Chicago next week. There was NO WAY we could afford a house within walking distance of a Blue Line station. If you look at Redfin and set a reasonable price max for single family houses, you'll see a dead zone within a 15-minute walk of the train except for the sketchiest of "as-is" and "bring your ideas" fixer-uppers, going all the way up to nearly Jefferson Park. So we headed west to a less transit-accessible neighborhood, and we'll both be taking a bus to the train to get to work (there's still no way you could make me DRIVE downtown to work). Our commutes will be about an hour each way by transit or bike.

Why buy? The closer-to-transit neighborhoods are getting difficult even for renters; my previous apartment rent went up $400 per month after ownership changed hands, and our current building was on the market for several months without selling (with all the annoyance of having to accommodate showings that entails, and a lease with a 60-day termination clause so we could get kicked out when/if it sold). I'm tired of being forced into moving every couple years due to insane rent increases or losing patience with shitty buildings or bad neighbors who share walls/ceilings/floors. A coworker asked what I'm most looking forward to about the new house and my answer was "not having to wear earplugs to sleep every night." There are lots of reasons to want to own a house that don't amount to wanting some exorbitant McMansion-size home with a huge lot. Condos, with their HOAs and surprise assessments and more variable property values, to say nothing of the fact that you still share walls/ceilings/floors with people, seem like too many minuses and not enough pluses.
posted by misskaz at 6:07 PM on April 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

Being a home owner comes with so much risk I sometimes wonder if it is truly a rational decision to own vs rent. In Melbourne recently the flammable apartment cladding became an issue after several high profile building fires here and the Grenfell fire in the UK... 360 buildings were identified as needing remediation, but the specific identity of those buildings were classified "secret" to prevent arsonists... it was estimated in some cases each unit owner would have to fork out $50,000 for repairs otherwise their building would not be compliant with fire regulations, and the courts also held that the original builder (which could have completed work 10 years ago, and using material which was deemed to have been compliant at the time) was no longer liable. It caused a total collapse in apartment sales due to fear and uncertainty. If you were renting though, it wasn't a problem.

There's virtually an unlimited litany of risks that I don't have to worry about as a renter - waterproof membranes not being installed correctly in various locations during the building stage that can cause widespread rot and mold in the drywall. Structural cracking and warping due to poor foundation practices and climate change. Walls falling out of trim and doors being inoperable due to root encroachment of native species of trees altering the soil moisture levels which should never have been planted by the city council so close to the house, yet by law you can't destroy the tree because it belongs to the city. Change of life circumstance, you maybe got fired and had to take a new job which is a 1.5 hour commute away, it's a lot easier just renting a new place rather than figuring out how to dispose of a house.

On the other hand, yes ownership accrues benefits to the community - one building I was in was frequently touted as one with a far above average number of owner-occupiers, and the building was fastidiously maintained and cleaned. Compared to having a neighbour who changes every year (student community etc) having people stay long term, have children, grow up, it's all beneficial. But it's not exactly something you can control: it's the qualities / features of the building which led to it having some features that didn't translate into value for renters, it was highly priced but had low rental yield, so it only really made sense for owner occupiers.
posted by xdvesper at 6:08 PM on April 1, 2019

my guess is if you lived in a rental for the same length of time you'd do just as well.

I have lived in this apartment for over 20 years. I think one of my neighbors is named Michelle.

I recognize a handful more whose names I don't know - people I see when walking the dog or picking up mail. But my place, like most multi-family units in cities, is designed to discourage contact between residents; there's no place where we regularly see each other, and in some ways, we're competing for the landlord's attention and resources - if my plumbing gets fixed this month, someone else's roof probably doesn't.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 7:24 PM on April 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

What I don't see (sorry if I missed it in one of the links) is that this is not a string you can push. Ie, you can't just increase density and build transit (for most places).

You need to better represent the real cost of automobile travel and sprawl development.
(God help the politician that steps out onto this ledge)
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 5:01 AM on April 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

The thing is that if not now, very soon it will be perfectly possible to house people in the manner of their preference in cities that aren't geographically constrained without dumping a bunch of carbon until the atmosphere. Commuter rail works fine and could easily be made much faster than it is at present and could have frequency and service hours that don't leave people worried about being unable to get home in a reasonable time/using transit at all if they need to leave early some days or work late or don't work a 9-5.

Electric cars are happening. Solar is only getting cheaper, and so are batteries. While there is much other waste in the typical suburban lifestyle that also must be addressed, technology is moving very quickly on that front. By the time any dramatic change in national attitudes toward climate change happens, laws get passed, and rules get phased in, we will be at the point where carbon neutrality at least isn't an issue for all but the most ridiculous examples of exurbs. There is a lot of subsidization of that particular lifestyle that needs to go away, or at least be changed to not actively favor suburban development, but the present emergency that justifies actively disfavoring it will pass by the time we can do anything about it. Economic incentives will ensure that electric cars and delivery vehicles become dominant much sooner than you think if we simply stop making oil artificially cheap.

That's why I harp on transit so much. It is absolutely inevitable that our cities will become completely dysfunctional due to gridlock if we don't get people off the damn road, whether people choose or are forced to live in the sticks or not. Regardless of how they came to be there, they, like all of us, deserve and we all collectively require drastic increases in transit availability and usage if we are to continue to have an advanced society. Congestion alone already costs us billions each year, like interest on a credit card that we ran up buying nothing but smokes and booze. Wouldn't it be better to pay off the damn thing so we can free up so much lost time and save money, too?
posted by wierdo at 5:39 AM on April 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

It would also make a big damn difference if the overall mentality around corporate work would embrace remote working. For the multitude of people whose job is done mainly on a computer and an Internet connection, who do not have customer-facing jobs at all, or who have regular days where they aren't meeting with customers, it's absurd to have to make tens of millions of people drive to an office to sit at a desk.


Every time this discussion comes up and people start shouting back and forth about housing and cars and buses and transit and and and


I live 10 miles from my office. Most days my commute is about 20 minutes by car. My home and my workplace are both in the burbs so there's no transit between them. But I could work from home the vast majority of the time and only come to the office for occasional meetings. We already have Skype on our computers because our corporate HQ is in Germany.

I am 100% capable of doing this job remotely.

But they won't let me.

posted by Fleebnork at 6:29 AM on April 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

Unfortunately, the trend seems to be going away from telecommuting. I know multiple people whose management has said that it's no longer going to be "tolerated" except for emergencies.
posted by octothorpe at 6:54 AM on April 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you for saying this! I thought I was going crazy, seeing all the comments about how being near transit reduces property values.

The actual facts are that being near a *useful* transit system increases property values, but that in general living near transit is completely neutral towards property value. (about half the transit systems in the US are mostly useless) So if your property values near transit are increasing, your city should take that as a sign that they have built a decent transit system and build more housing nearby.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:48 AM on April 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I live near transit and drive to work 95% of the time because taking the bus is twice as long and is more expensive. I like having the bus as a backup but I'd lose an hour a day if I took it regularly.
posted by octothorpe at 8:07 AM on April 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Of course the downside of property values near transit increasing (where it does happen) is that it increases the financial viability/desirability for rich people to buy 2- and 3-flats and deconvert them to single family.

More cities should follow the lead of Minneapolis and get rid of all single family zoning. Require rehabs/new construction within a certain distance of transit to be or remain multi-family and get rid of parking minimums for new developments, too.

I like having the bus as a backup but I'd lose an hour a day if I took it regularly.

It can't work everywhere, but I wish more cities would invest in bus rapid transit and other methods to make bus transit more efficient. Pre-pay boarding and letting people board at the front AND back doors, dedicated bus lanes, priority signals at intersections, etc., could go a long way to making bus commuting less infuriatingly slow while being less expensive than building new rail.
posted by misskaz at 8:17 AM on April 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

There's nothing requiring transit to be slow, inconvenient, or uncomfortable. We've just funneled all the money we might spend on making it good into highway expansions and parking lots, among many other car-culture boondoggles.

There's also no particular reason multifamily housing has to have any of the problems most of us who've lived in it have experienced. Better building code requirements for things like soundproofing, zoning that makes it easier to build multifamily residential developments that aren't just five-story whole-city-block monoliths, protections for renters, higher standards for landlords to meet: they'd all make living in just a little closer proximity to each other a lot more comfortable.

Denver’s latest big idea for affordable housing is tiny apartments (some the size of your master bedroom) I asked the writer, "Whose master bedroom?" and got a response about far-off suburban subdivisions. Leaving out the assumption that people living in places like that are the default target audience, it'd be nice if stories about living in small spaces acknowledged how much more time people spend crammed into much smaller spaces (their cars) in order to have those large master bedrooms.

There are always going to be tradeoffs, but our housing, land use, and transportation policies all tilt the scales in ways that make inefficient sprawl less expensive than it should be, given the resources required to produce, maintain, and clean up after it.
posted by asperity at 9:02 AM on April 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

LA has been making very slow progress in public transit, but I wish we were doing at least 10x more.

We are more dense than Tokyo, yet our transit system is dramatically worse. It's a question of money and political will (and time --- even if we suddenly got very serious about it it would still take decades to catch up with a city like that, but that would be better than not trying).

My commute is 45 min by car, 1.5-2 hours by bus [each way]. That would be an extra couple hours a day, which is not something I'm willing to sacrifice.
posted by thefoxgod at 6:05 PM on April 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ack, small calculation error. We're about half the density of Tokyo. But thats still quite within reach. (NYC is much more dense and still nowhere as good...)
posted by thefoxgod at 6:06 PM on April 2, 2019

Dedicated bus lanes, even in the absence of any other improvements to a transit system, can boost bus speeds and reliability. Even when it's just paint and maybe a bit of enforcement.

Houston "reimagined" its bus network a few years ago, streamlining routes to provide a high-frequency grid. It was successful in increasing ridership, in spite of low gasoline prices and venture capital-subsidized taxi apps.

We can do it, y'all. We don't even need anyone above the municipal level to be involved (well, except for that whole thing where state highway departments often control local surface streets and refuse to let us redesign them for fewer deaths.) Calling your congresspeople is great and all, but save some time to call your local public works department and city council, too.
posted by asperity at 7:43 PM on April 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

The EU is looking not a the land use and transportation system side of this multi-element equation, but the fuel efficiency side by reducing CO2 emissions from passenger cars. As summarized (and figures converted) by Jonathan M. Gitlin for Ars Technica in an article on Tesla's agreement with and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA)
new European Commission rules begin to phase in that require a car maker's fleet-wide emissions to average no higher than 95g/CO2/km—a figure that works out at roughly 57mpg for gasoline vehicles, or 76mpg for diesel-powered vehicles.

From 2020, 95 percent of an automaker's new cars sold in the EU have to meet this target, with the remaining 5 percent falling under the law in 2021.
This is pushing companies hard into EV territory, and some companies are scrambling to make the transition. Meanwhile, it seems like most personal vehicle commercials in the (southwest of the) U.S. are trucks and SUVs. Fuck nature, drive faster!
posted by filthy light thief at 8:14 AM on April 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am 100% capable of doing this job remotely.

But they won't let me.


At my last full time IT gig before this one, they spent thousands buying me a(really nice! REALLY nice!) laptop, docks, VPN tokens/license, and assorted bits to theoretically work remotely but didn't allow me to because someone way higher up never fully signed off on it. I could like, check up on things or use it if the office network was down(or for offsite work during business hours) but i wasn't allowed to work from home. It automatically ate into my sick/vacation time.

I still laugh at the absurdity of this. And this was a job where like, all but MAYBE one person in the department(and then, just to like, unplug and replug things or replace dead mice and printers) could have worked remote probably 26 days a month.

And, of course, this was a butts in seats 8-5 "if you aren't at your desk five minutes before you're supposed to be here looking perfectly professional you're not working" stuck midway through the last century sort of place

I've had multiple jobs like this
posted by emptythought at 10:27 AM on April 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

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