A story on NPR’s Weekend Edition on May 28th illustrates why “Build, Baby Build” — the strategy to force existing neighborhoods to accept tear-downs for new housing under Oregon’s proposed HB 2007 — is an inept approach to deal with the challenges of affordability and urban diversity. Indeed, it is likely to feed the opposite outcome.
The interviewee is Svenja Gudell, Chief Economist for Zillow. Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Gudell what was causing the sharp spike in unaffordability in many cities around the country (not just Portland):
GUDELL: You know, it’s a little bit of everything, and it’s hard to kind of narrow down the exact reason. But a lot of builders that we’ve talked to say that due to the cost of regulation, land and even labor and supply costs, they don’t believe they can build a house on the periphery that would be considered, perhaps, more an entry-level home at a price point that they think they can sell it for.
They need to be able, of course, make some profits if they’re willing to build that home. And they think they have to price it as such a level that no one that would be able to pay that price would be willing to commute for an hour and a half to their job into the city. And so that means they simply don’t build those types of homes. So most builders have been concentrating on what’s called Class-A locations. That means usually fill in…
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Luxury properties.
GUDELL: Luxury properties – really nice locations within the city that oftentimes come at a really high price point.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We’re also seeing another effect for lower-income homeowners, at least in the cities. We’re seeing gentrification. People are moving in to places where working-class people lived, and their properties are being developed and marketed to people with more money. What is behind that push?
GUDELL: You know, it’s really a drive, oftentimes, to make cities more dense. You know, as many cities are experiencing population increases right now, you have these developers coming into neighborhoods that used to be a little bit more rundown or a bit cheaper, and they buy up single-family homes that were built in the ’50s or even older. And they try to put townhomes in or condos – any sort of higher-density living. And that, of course, displaces a whole bunch of residents that used to live there because most of time, they aren’t able to afford to still live in the neighborhood at these new places because they often run at a much higher rate than they’re used to paying for their old place.
Or, as we see in Portland, they simply tear down more affordable single-family houses and build much more expensive… single-family houses. Or maybe duplexes or triplexes if we’re lucky — but far short of a meaningful response to the metro-wide scale of new demand for housing.
So why throw existing neighborhoods under the bus, for such a dubious gain? Have we really run out of suitable empty sites in the metro region — parking lots, wasted space, “SLOAP” (Space Left Over After Planning), greyfield malls, etc? Hardly.
Have we really run out of good compatible infill types that would likely be accepted by residents, instead of the current polarized and counter-productive attacks on “NIMBYs”, shoving ugly, incompatible “space invaders” down their throats? Hardly.
What we’ve run out of is the vision and the expertise to develop the tools and strategies needed for actually effective results.
But it feels good to do something — anything! And to make it symbolic of social justice, demonizing advocates of livability and historic preservation as the problem. Even if the actual evidence should tell us that we’re… dead wrong.
Read the full interview: