What Does Progressive Urban Planning Look Like? Why Radicals Should Steer Clear of Homeowner Politics
By Matson Boyd
I’m a big supporter of Kshama Sawant, as these pieces will attest, so it is with concern that I read her position on urban planning in Seattle. Sawant voted to lower the height limit on new houses on small lots, and that might be fine within the context of a radical vision for urban policy, but her comments make it clear that she is taking a fairly orthodox position in support of homeowners. Sawant said that “Big developers have been pushing working-class Seattle residents around for years,” as if owners of half-million dollar homes were downtrodden workers. (The median home price in Seattle is $452,000). Homeowners are actually a very powerful group, and they own the greatest stock of capital in most big American cities. And homeowners block the actual working class from moving into their neighborhoods, not to mention fighting to keep homeless shelters from being built nearby. A truly progressive vision of a city — a place that houses the low-income and the homeless, and that provides core amenities to all regardless of income — will never become a reality unless progressives learn to challenge developers and homeowners alike.
Its not hard to see why homeowners put so much effort into excluding others from their neighborhoods. For many of them, the bulk of their net worth is in the value of their homes, and protecting that value is fundamental. Added density in a neighborhood? Bad for the value of a house. Low-income neighbors? Very bad for the value of a house. A nearby transition home for the homeless? Incredibly bad for the value of a house. Often, though not always, preservation and the environment are mere pretexts to use in the fight to preserve the value of their homes. And alarmingly, these pretexts are often enough to lure progressive folks into homeowners’ exclusionary politics.
To start envisioning what radical urban planning should look like, we should take another look at what life is like now in booming American cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York. Millions of people are currently at risk of being displaced to the suburbs. Some low-income twenty-somethings can temporarily escape this by living in cramped, informal arrangements, but for the vast majority of low-income people city rents are simply unaffordable. Instead they must live in the distant suburbs and commute daily— sometimes hours per day— so that they can serve the wealthier inhabitants of the city. These people are typically given no rights in city politics, but it must be a central mission of progressive urban planning to provide them with the option of living at a reasonable distance from where they work, and near all the other amenities of city life.
We know a few other things that can structure our vision: (1) a flexible housing supply enables people to live where they want, find jobs, and live better lives, (2) density is fabulous for the environment, jobs, and low-income people, and (3) being poor doesn’t hold people back nearly as much as being from a poor neighborhood. This suggests that dense mixed-income neighborhoods could substantially reduce the devastating multi-generational effects of poverty.
But its not as simple as just letting the market add supply. Left to their own devices, developers only build for the top of the market. So some combination of public housing and requirements for developers is necessary. Currently Seattle has some policies meekly pushing towards denser, mixed-income neighborhoods. A housing levy has financed a modest 3700 units over the last 12 years, and “incentive zoning” has created a mere 616. Seattle’s incentive zoning requires developers to either 1) build under a height limit, 2) add affordable units, or 3) pay into a city fund that will build those units elsewhere. Most choose to build under the height limit, and thus add fewer units. And those that build taller buildings usually choose to pay into the fund and the units are added on the poor southern edge of the city. So of the 3 options, only one leads to mixed-income communities, and it is by far the least chosen.
To get this policy right, developers need to be pushed so that every new development includes affordable units. But even if this is corrected, a tougher problem awaits: homeowners fight against attempts to build denser, mixed-income neighborhoods. No radical vision for a progressive city can become a success until those homeowners are challenged.