2017 Planning Board Application

If you’re the type of person who finds these things entertaining, here’s my 2017 application to the City of Boulder’s Planning Board…


What technical/professional qualifications, skill sets and relevant experiences do you have for this position (such as educational degrees, specialized training, service on governing or decision-making boards, etc.)?

For the past five years I have served on Boulder’s Transportation Advisory Board (TAB). As a member of TAB, I have participated as a member of the city’s Form Based Code working group, the Greenways Advisory Commission, and the Transportation Maintenance Fee task force. As a private individual I also served on the Decision Analysis Working Group in support of the City of Boulder’s bid to create a municipal electric utility. Since 2012 I have been a member of the board of the Boulder Housing Coalition, a small local non-profit affordable housing provider. For the last 3 years I have served on the Executive Committee of Better Boulder, a local sustainable transportation and land-use policy advocacy organization. I’ve also served on several successful local ballot campaign committees, helping to secure funding for Open Space and transportation maintenance in the fall of 2013 with the passage of measures 2B, 2C, & 2D, and helping to defeat measures 300 & 301 in the fall of 2015. I have also spent many years living in housing cooperatives, participating in and facilitating consensus based governance at weekly meetings.

In the above roles I have performed staff oversight, organizational budgeting and strategic planning, public engagement and outreach, and facilitated countless meetings. My professional background is in the geosciences and energy policy. When appropriate I have used my data analysis skills to help inform the decisions made by the organizations I’ve been part of (e.g. this analysis of Boulder County property records in association with the cooperative housing ordinance). My policy analysis work has often involved communicating the implications of complex regulations to a broader public audience.

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Is profit driven affordable housing possible?

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Last week at the Better Boulder Happy Hour (B2H2) we tried to talk about affordable housing.  The little nook at the Walnut Brewery was so packed that it was hard to even have a face-to-face conversation with folks, let alone do any kind of presentation that didn’t sound like an attempt at crowd control.  Which is good I guess… but not exactly what we’d planned.  I think a good chunk of the attendance was due to all the buzz generated by last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and the talk of a citywide development moratorium.  Anyway, it was a learning experience.  We want these events to be informative, but also to get people talking to each other, and have it be more fun and social and network-building than a brown bag seminar or lecture that’s mostly going to appeal to the Usual Suspects, who are already engaged.  We need to get more “normal” people to show up and engage on these issues.

In any case, Betsey Martens, director of Boulder Housing Partners (the city’s housing authority) got up and said a few words to the assembled crowd.  She made a point which is in retrospect obvious, but that got me thinking anyway.  The costs of creating additional housing in Boulder (or anywhere, really) can be divided up into three categories:

  1. Hard development costs — the cost of actually building the housing.
  2. Soft development costs — e.g. the financing and permitting costs, carrying costs associated with regulatory delay, organizational overhead, etc.
  3. The cost of land.

She pointed out that you can do all the work you want to reduce hard and soft development costs — using standardized designs, prefabricated buildings, streamlined permitting for affordable housing — but ultimately those optimizations just nibble around the edges of affordability.  The real driver of housing costs in a desirable place is the cost of the land, which is pretty irreducible.  If you’ve got a funding stream (as we do here from our inclusionary housing policy), then you can buy up a bunch of land and create housing on it, but there’s still an opportunity cost to be had for using the land inefficiently — the same money might have created more affordable housing.

The obvious way to attack this problem is to spread the fixed land cost across more dwelling units.  You may not be able to reduce the price of the land, but you can share it with more people, decreasing per unit costs, and increasing density.  Naysayers are quick to point out that all the density in Manhattan and Tokyo has not made them cheap.  A common response is that they’re cheaper than they would have been if they hadn’t been more densely developed, but I’m not sure this is really the right answer (even if it’s true).

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Location Efficiency More Important than Home Energy Efficiency

How important is Location Efficiency?  Median US home price: $175k.  With a traditional 20% down 30 year mortgage, total loan payments amount to about $350k.  Utilities over the same timeframe are around $75k.  And the cost of commuting from suburbia?  Roughly $300k!  This is in general agreement with the energy (as opposed to financial) analysis recently published by the EPA.

Location Efficiency and Housing Type

According to this EPA study, regardless of the type of housing, living in an area with good transit access saves more energy than building a “green home”. Of course, living in a mixed use, transit accessible apartment that’s also energy efficient uses the least energy, but it’s important to realize how limited the potential for cost-effective energy efficiency is in a sprawling suburban context.

Population Growth vs. Migration in Boulder and the World

The Boulder Blue Line has a short post entitled This Law Cannot Be Repealed by Albert Bartlett, who is an emeritus professor of Physics at CU, and who is most well known for speaking about the absurdity of “sustainable” growth and what exponential growth really means.  He’s also one of the original architects of Boulder’s “Blue Line”, which has limited growth beyond certain boundaries within the city and county.

I agree with Bartlett on a lot.  Unconstrained population growth is undoubtedly, in a global context, an epic disaster.  In his collection of essays Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley noted of overpopulation that “Unsolved, that problem will render insoluble all our other problems.”  Similarly, the unconstrained geographic growth of towns and cities is a catastrophe, resulting in very low-density, car-dependent development which exacerbates the consequences of population growth by increasing the amount of resources that each individual consumes, in terms of land and energy and material goods.

Parks are for People

Urban density and good public space make scenes like this possible.

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When do fuel costs actually matter?

Kim Stanley Robinson gave a fun talk at Google a couple of years ago in which he brought up the possibility of large, slow, wind powered live-aboard bulk freighters, among other ideas.  I was reminded of it by this post from Alex Steffen.  Especially for commodities like coal, grains and ore — non-perishable goods that get carried in bulk carriers — what matters is the net flux of materials and the predictability of supply.  More (or larger) slow ships can deliver the same flux as fewer high speed ones.  International contracts for these goods can span decades.  If fuel prices became a significant portion of their overall cost, it would be worthwhile to make this kind of ships-for-fuel substitution.  However, it turns out that fuel is a vanishingly small proportion of the overall cost of most internationally traded goods.

Containers

Our neighbors in Pasadena moved back to Thailand, and packed their entire household into a single half-sized shipping container.  The cost to get it from their home in SoCal to their home outside Bangkok was $2000.  Their combined airfare was probably a larger fraction of the cost of moving across the Pacific.  You can get a full-sized shipping container moved from point A to point B, anywhere within the global shipping network, for several thousand dollars.  If your cargo is worth significantly more than that, then you don’t have to worry about Peak Oil destroying your business.  For a typical container carrying $500,000 worth of goods, the shipping costs (not all of which are related to fuel!) represent about 1% of the final costs of the goods.  If fuel prices were to go up by a factor of ten, the shipping costs would still only represent 10% of the overall cost.  This would have an effect on business, to be sure, but it would not cause global trade to collapse.

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