Stats on the Street Editorial Board: State of the City

So, um, economics. In the State of the Union address this week, the president gave an optimistic assessment of the American economy (and America in general). In the latest GOP debate tonight, the candidates universally offered an apocalyptic rebuttal: an alternate description in which the country is on the verge of collapse.  I can’t speak for most of America, but thought it might be worthwhile to share my assessment of the area in which I live, the Puget Sound region.

Seattle’s economy right now is booming. In fact, it is booming so much as to basically outpace the ability of infrastructure and local governance to respond. The huge influx of people and money to what has become an exceptionally productive labor market has resulted in surging real estate prices, and tremendous strain on the transportation network. Most of this region was built under the vision of single family houses and private automobiles, and it seems as though under this current wave of growth we have crossed some sort of tipping point where that arrangement fundamentally doesn’t work anymore.

Drive times between Seattle/Bellevue and Everett/Tacoma routinely creep toward or even exceed triple digits (both about 30 miles). Rent on a typical 1 bedroom apartment is probably pushing $1700 or $1800 (which is still affordable compared to places like San Francisco and New York, but shockingly unaffordable compared to Seattle five years ago). According to Redfin, some of the most competitive neighborhoods for home buying in the country are located in the Seattle area, with cartoonish stats like median sale price of $850k and 40% all-cash offers. A middle class person can no longer reasonably afford to live in the city, but also cannot easily access city jobs from more affordable suburban locations due to the struggling transportation network.

But again, this is mostly the consequence of too many employers offering too many highly paid jobs. I’m sure that many cities would love to swap their particular problems for this one. I guess the question in my mind with respect to politics and governance is how will the Seattle area adapt to these changing circumstances.

The obvious solution to housing prices is just to build enough housing for people who want to live and work here, but this is politically extremely difficult. The current strategy of “urban villages” is built on the language of minimizing impact through clusters of density, but could also be cynically interpreted as a strategy to grudgingly accommodate new residents and jobs while inducing the least amount of change on single family neighborhoods. I’m personally deeply skeptical that building clusters of luxury high rise studio apartments is the ideal solution, beyond relieving pressure at the upper end of the market for highly paid, unattached professionals. It’s not obvious to me where the families are supposed to live, if growth is channeled into 600 square foot apartments in neighborhoods that may not even have schools. I also suspect that this development pattern worsens the economic fault lines.

Urban village map from the Seattle 2035 plan. Growth will be funneled into dense, mixed-use, transit-served clusters, and the bulk of the city will remain unchanged.

The transportation issue is possibly even more difficult, as our infrastructure here is deeply unadaptable. I mean, at least it’s physically reasonable to build triplexes, even if politically impossible. The freeways, however, are a joke, and I don’t see a feasible way to fix them. I-5 through downtown is a joke, but what can you do? Even if you could somehow round up billions and billions of dollars to add lanes it would take many years to build, and chances are as soon as the new lanes opened they too would be over capacity. We’ve hit critical mass, or a tipping point, or whatever metaphor you prefer, where doubling down on the past doesn’t make sense, but that’s also what people are most comfortable doing.


WSDOT webcam of Bertha's repair pit, Dec. 10, 2014
WSDOT webcam of Bertha’s repair pit, Dec. 10, 2014. Taken from this KUOW story

For the past few years, Bertha, the world’s largest tunnel boring machine, has been stuck underground near the waterfront. Bertha recently started again, but last night a sinkhole opened up and the governor ordered a halt until they figure out how to proceed safely. This is all part of billions and billions of dollars to build a cars-only underground toll road that bypasses downtown. The tunnel is a bold bet on the past being the future. We’ll see.

If Seattle continues on this trajectory of prosperity, however, if 20,000 people keep showing up every year, it seems pretty obvious that people are going to have to accept a denser built environment and fewer automobile trips. There’s simply not enough space on this tiny isthmus for everyone to live on a 5,000 square foot lot and drive a private automobile everywhere. And that’s going to be really, really hard for a lot of people to accept. Many longer tenured residents view current projects for transit and pedestrian facility improvement as a government conspiracy to meddle with people’s lives (“social engineering” is a term that gets thrown around), and see new residential housing construction as an unwanted alteration to neighborhood character, benefiting primarily greedy developers.

The neighborhood preservation people are really caught in a Catch-22, though. If political pressure induces zoning changes to allow multifamily housing types, then the character of the neighborhood changes. Alternately, if the particular collection of craftsman bungalows is successfully maintained, then the limitation in housing supply — when matched with a booming economy — will price all but extremely wealthy people out of the neighborhood, and that changes the character. Basically, the neighborhood character is going to change, the question is how, and who will benefit, many people or few.

I think that the Bay Area is grappling with more extreme versions of these problems. How do you educate your children if schoolteachers can’t afford to live in your city? How do you cultivate the arts when the artists get evicted to make way for luxury condos? Who washes dishes and mops floors if rent is $2000? A collection of business executives and software engineers don’t constitute a society.

In light of this reality, in light of these problems, I’m not sure if or how the GOP plans on attracting voters in this area for the presidential election. The situation on the ground more closely matches Obama’s guarded optimism: the belief that things are fundamentally going well and improving, but also that more work is needed. At least in this neck of the woods, a walk down the street invalidates the premise of America in decline, on the verge of ruin. If anything we have the opposite problem: how to gracefully deal with so much success.

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