In my last post, I suggested that while we like to think of housing as an investment, it’s really more like a crappy savings plan, potentially redeemed by the fact that you can live inside the piggy bank. Land can be a profitable speculative investment, but allowing land to appreciate and drag the cost of housing upward in real terms is fundamentally incompatible with housing being affordable.
Economists (including Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Paine, Henry George, Thomas Friedman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Matt Yglesias) have highlighted the negative impacts of allowing land owners to collect monopolistic “ground rents” but nobody seems to care. So now tens of trillions of dollars worth of real estate in the US is predicated on the idea that landowners get to retain these speculative gains. Barring a glorious Georgist Revolution, this is probably the arrangement we have to work within.
Build, Baby Build!
Luckily, in a city with increasing land values, where property owners get to keep all of those unearned financial gains, there’s an All American Capitalist Solution™ of sorts, which can potentially keep housing affordable, even when land is expensive: build more housing on less land. By building densely, high land costs can be shared across more households, reducing the overall impacts of expensive land, and allowing home buyers & renters to pay primarily for housing instead of land.
There’s a powerful cultural narrative in the US that says when you buy a home, you’re not only securing a place to live, you’re making an investment.
When I say “investment” I mean a thing that you can put some money into, and get more money out of later, in real inflation adjusted terms, net of the expenses associated with having the thing in the first place. Houses — as in, physical structures that shelter human beings — are clearly not this kind of thing. Anyone who has had to maintain an older home knows this. Roofs collapse. Pipes corrode. Walls need to be painted. Like bicycles, laptops, and virtually all other durable goods, left to their own devices, houses are depreciating assets: they lose utilitarian value over time. However, we’ve done an incredibly good job of ignoring this as a society. How do we fool ourselves?
We tend to ignore inflation. If you bought a house for $100,000 in the year 2000, and sold it in 2016 for $140,000, even if you didn’t put a single penny into maintenance, taxes, or insurance, you just barely broke even in terms of real purchasing power, if we’re talking about the house purely as an investment.
We tend to ignore the ongoing expenses of homeownership. In practice, you can’t avoid spending money on maintenance, taxes and insurance, but few homeowners record every property expense, and calculate whether they’ve come out ahead upon selling a home. Especially if the building is older “naturally occurring affordable housing”, maintenance costs can easily end up being a few percent of the building’s value each year. Property taxes and home insurance are also substantial expenses, typically less salient to homeowners than the purchase and sale prices of the home.
We can think of inflation and property expenses as cancelling out a fair chunk of any increase in the nominal value of a home. With 2% inflation, and spending 3% of the home’s value every year on maintenance, property taxes, and insurance, a home’s value needs to increase about 5% every year in nominal terms just to cover its own costs. In other words, if you bought a house for $100,000 in the year 2000, and sold it for $200,000 in 2016, you didn’t quite break even — again, if we’re looking at the house purely as an investment.
We tend to notice the accrual of home equity. Ideally, as you pay off a mortgage, the fraction of its value that is covered by your equity rather than the bank’s debt increases! Even if you just break even after accounting for inflation and ongoing expenses, you’ll hopefully have a larger chunk of change on hand to put into buying your next home. Continuing with the example purchase above (grabbing a mortgage calculator off the internet) if we assume a 20% ($20,000) down payment and an $80,000, 4%, 30 year fixed rate loan, after 16 years of payments, the remaining loan amount is about $49,000. So assuming you sell the home at the “break even” price, including expenses, of $200,000, you end up with $151,000 after paying off the loan. This is $131,000 more than you started with, which feels totally awesome! You “invested” $20,000 and “earned” $131,000, more than a 650% increase!
First, steep declines in fertility worldwide have largely defused the population bomb. Second, even if the bomb were still ticking, the population changes we see in Boulder, and more generally the Front Range of Colorado, the US and the booming megacities of Asia aren’t about population growth per se, they’re about migration. In the developing world, it’s migration from rural areas to cities. In the already rich countries, it’s mostly migration between cities, often from low-wage regions to areas with better jobs and higher quality of life. Or it would be anyway, if we actually let people build housing in those places.
How we choose to build and rebuild cities to accommodate these migrations and humanity’s peak population later this century will largely determine our ultimate impact on the Earth’s climate and biosphere, and the quality of life that humanity has access to. Contrary to many “population bomb” narratives, the main problem here as it relates to climate isn’t the impact of large numbers of poor people, because small numbers of rich people are responsible for the overwhelming majority of current greenhouse gas emissions. How we accommodate those wealthy, high emissions populations makes a big difference, both directly, and through the example it sets for the rapidly expanding global middle class.
Boulder faces an interesting decision in the wake of an Ignite Boulder talk by Code for America’s Becky Boone, exhorting a relatively young, tech-savvy audience to engage in the city’s civic sphere. Some have objected to her use of profanity, but given the positive response of the 21 and over crowd and the content of past Ignite talks, these concerns are overblown. Daily Camera columnist Steve Pomerance and neighborhood blogger Kay MacDonald have tried to level a more substantive criticism: they feel that Boone’s presentation was pro-growth, and that such advocacy would be inappropriate for even an off-duty city consultant.
I’ve watched the talk repeatedly, and transcribed it word-for-word. Boone clearly takes no such stance.
She highlights the accessibility and value of participating in our local democracy, and gives a couple of positive examples: the Fairview High Net Zero Club’s campaign to implement a grocery bag fee, and an unidentified citizen group gathering signatures for a fall ballot measure whose content is unmentioned. She also asks her audience their thoughts on whether Boulder’s housing issues result from too many jobs, or insufficient housing — a question that’s been raised by Boulder Housing Partners commissioner Dick Harris, among others.
None of these statements is political advocacy.
Rather, the political content of Ms. Boone’s presentation resides with her choice of audience. The Ignite crowd and Boulder’s startup community are younger and newer to Boulder than those traditionally engaged in city governance. They’re also probably more likely to be renters. Despite the city’s laudable efforts to recruit representative citizen working groups, these demographics have been woefully underrepresented in our housing policy process. We know this because we’ve collected demographic data at the city’s housing events. Engaging the Ignite Boulder audience makes our discussion more representative of our citizenry. This is good for our democracy. It also has political implications.
By definition, rallying a disinterested population to participate dilutes the power of those who are already engaged. To their credit, and despite this difficult set of political incentives, the city has prioritized “developing new approaches and tools that support more inclusive, transparent, collaborative, and interactive community engagement” in the development of our Comprehensive Housing Strategy. This is exactly the job that Becky Boone was hired to do, and which she has apparently done a bit too well for the comfort of some incumbent interests.
We now have a choice, and it’s an unavoidably political choice. Do we want to cultivate a representative democracy in Boulder that proactively seeks input from as broad a population as possible, or would we prefer a narrowly targeted discourse that is intended, through its choice of media and venues, to preserve the status quo?
Boulder should be better than that, and so I favor proactive engagement, as I believe much of City Council does. They need our support to make the right choice: to stand behind Ms. Boone and build upon her valuable work in Boulder going forward. We should live stream and archive any city meeting taking place in Council chambers on a well used platform like YouTube. We should subtitle the archived versions in Spanish. We should expect our elected and appointed policymakers and city staff to participate competently in social media, and use it as the incredibly cost-effective and democratically empowering platform that it has become worldwide. It’s been a long time since the Internet was the exclusive domain of a technological elite — today it is the people’s platform, much more so than Wayne’s World style public access cable TV, or even our beloved Daily Camera. Newer digital platforms that are accessible to parents with young children and full time jobs need to be weighed heavily in our policy discussions, right alongside inconvenient, time-consuming public meetings.
Given last week’s firestorm of activity in support of Boone on Twitter I suspect that going forward, Boulder politicians and policymakers will ignore the digital realm at their peril. Just because you do not take an interest in social media, does not mean that social media will not take an interest in you.
Predictably, such a blunt and impassioned call to action, presented to a currently mostly unengaged Boulder constituency (about 850 of them…) has pissed some people off, and some of them want Becky’s head to roll, because she had the gall to try and get some folks to give a fuck about local governance.
That, quite frankly, is bullshit.
The whole point of getting someone from Code for America involved in outreach related to the city’s housing strategy was to engage currently underrepresented constituencies in the city (as reported in the Daily Camera), yes, with a focus on using technology, but talking to our local technologists and getting them engaged seems like a good way to make sure this important work continues after the 6 month fellowship ends this summer. We’ve got the demographics on who participates today, and the crowd at the Boulder Theater that night isn’t showing up to tell the city what they think. Given that, this talk might even have made sense as part of Becky’s work for the city — but she didn’t do it as someone working with the city, a fact she points out right at the start of the talk. She did this on her own time, to try and get a community she’s part of to participate in the governance of their own city.
Some members of City Council and the Old Guard politicos might not find the tone of the talk “appropriate,” but she wasn’t speaking to them. The tone was calibrated to the audience, which by all (Twitter) accounts received it quite well. The talk, like all Ignite talks, was extensively vetted by the event organizers, who have little interest in offending their attendees.
So far as I can tell, the only overtly partisan statement in the talk was when she noted that no particular expertise is actually required to participate in local governance… while a photo of Sarah Palin was displayed. The talk was almost entirely factual in nature, with a few jokes (mostly poking fun at the audience itself) and a few questions. It included:
Demographic information about who currently participates in city meetings and processes. She noted that renters are woefully underrepresented, being about a quarter of all housing meeting attendees but making up about half of the city population. She also pointed out that while 65% of Boulder’s population is under the age of 40… only 17% of housing meeting attendees are in that age range.
A brief explanation of the structure of Boulder’s city government — that we have a City Council who appoints a City Manager, rather than a directly elected “strong mayor” acting as the city’s executive authority.
The fact that only about 1/3 of registered voters participated in the last odd year election (which she shamed the audience over).
Information about how much City Council gets paid for what is essentially a full time job… a whopping $11,000 a year. Good luck living on that in Boulder! (at least… without illegally sharing housing and eating dumpstered food… now if only we had someone on Council who did that!)
The factual statement that 5 of the 9 City Council members are up for re-election this fall.
A call to the audience to get involved and get their friends involved, to tell Council and the rest of city government what they think about that position, and generically, other governance issues.
Statements highlighting the relative ease and high value of engaging in local governance, compared to larger jurisdictions.
A call to the audience to bring their skills and ideas to the table in support of local governance.
Stripped of the F-bombs, this is some pretty reasonable, wholesome stuff. The audience didn’t seem bothered by the language, and truthfully, it was meant to rile them up. This wasn’t an official (or even an unofficial!) city communication. The calls Council are receiving calling for Becky to be fired are couched in terms of “appropriate” language and professionalism, but those norms vary widely between different populations in the city. It’s also worth noting that New Era Colorado has in the past made extensive use of the slogan “Vote F*ucker” in their attempts to get young voters to turn out… e.g. in support of Boulder’s bid to create a municipal electric utility.
Response to the Ignite talk online, amongst the constituency it was designed to reach, has so far as I can tell, been overwhelmingly positive, if you go look through the mentions of @igniteboulder and #igniteboulder @boonrs on Twitter. In fact, it might just end up getting some more young folks engaged in city governance. That’s the real reason people are calling for Becky’s head. They know that broader engagement by young people, renters, and the tech community will result in the erosion of their political power.
Becky Boone is doing a way the fuck better than average job of getting young people engaged with the city. Certainly a better job than a communications department that won’t let staff use social media as the spontaneous, interactive tool it’s got to be if you want it to be effective (all while forcing employees to wear ties. In Boulder. As if that adds credibility. Personally I get suspicious whenever I see a tie…).
If City Council and the City Manager’s office give in to the totally inappropriate, unreasonable demand to fire someone who is actually doing a good job of getting unengaged people to participate, it would be a brazenly partisan act, an act in favor of Boulder’s incredibly conservative status quo, and in direct opposition to the goal of creating a more broadly representative civic sphere in the city. It would also be in direct conflict with the stated goals of getting a Code for America fellow involved in the first place.
Additionally, this type of speech — by a citizen, on their own time, related to a matter of obvious public concern — is the most strongly protected speech in the US. Any disciplinary action related to this talk would raise grave issues related to freedom of speech, and might warrant involvement by the ACLU or other organizations interested in protecting the rights of citizens to freely express views related to issues of governance.
I trust that City Council and the City Manager will stand by this citizen, who has been working hard to make Boulder’s democracy less worthy of the curses I’m sure I and many others will end up hurling at it between now and November.
Okay, actually just kidding. I don’t trust them. Which is why you need to support this kind of outreach, and call bullshit on the people who want to shut it down:
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:
Hard development costs — the cost of actually building the housing.
Soft development costs — e.g. the financing and permitting costs, carrying costs associated with regulatory delay, organizational overhead, etc.
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).
Last night seven Boulder city council candidates visited the Rad-ish Collective, an activist co-op that does a lot of volunteering behind the scenes of Boulder Food Rescue.
The candidates had some motley seating, including one stool made out of the back half of an old bike frame (Andrew Shoemaker) and a chair upholstered in what appeared to be a faux Yeti pelt (Sam Weaver). Half the walls were covered with murals, and the other half with event flyers, political literature, and all the daily household bookkeeping that goes into making a co-op run smoothly.
The crowd’s median age was probably under 25, and most of us sat on the floor. As the event progressed, more and more people filtered in, and those sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front slowly scooted forward until we were within reach of the candidates’ feet. Sam Weaver remarked at some point that it was probably the largest or second largest audience of any forum they’d attended, even though it was being held in a living room!