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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The 2013 Rad-ish Council Candidate Forum

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.

Candidate Literature

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!

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Shared Links for Jun 25th

Shared Links for Feb 26th

  • Zombie Bank Monster Mash – An animated monster mash, starring our bailed out financial "industry" (or is it just a lobby now?). Sadly Mark Fiore seems unwilling to implicate the current administration in the continuing mess. (tagged: cartoon zombie finance bailout banks economics politics geithner )
  • No, Wait! You Got It Backwards! – Well, so much for any hint of "change" in the administration's policies toward the banking industry. The Treasury's plans to buy convertible preferred shares in the banks is completely backwards – giving a put option to the banks, instead of getting a call option in exchange for the risky investment. Taxpayers are guaranteed to be screwed. (tagged: treasury banks bailout geithner obama economics finance )
  • The Case Against Home Ownership – An infrequently made point in the US: owning is often more expensive, and less convenient, than renting… and that's even before you account for the massive government incentives that have been put in place since WWII to encourage people to buy their own place. People frequently look at me like I'm crazy when I suggest we should just live close to where we work as a way to avoid the expenses of driving, or the inconveniences of (bad) public transit. (tagged: subsidy transportation housing economics suburbia planning taxes )
  • Copenhagen to continue Copenhagenizing – Denmark's take on "economic stimulus": massive investments in public transit and bike infrastructure. In a nation of 5 million, they're committing $16 billion over the next 10 years, which is about $1/day per person (which is less than 1/5 what the average US family spends on their automobiles) Regional rail, intra-city light rail. Bike lanes and paths. Road pricing for drivers. Etc, etc. I'm glad someone is setting a good example. It will be interesting to see how the world responds to Copenhagen later this year, when the next round of climate talks takes place. I can't think of a better city to represent my hopes for the future. (tagged: transportation politics copenhagen bicycle rail denmark stimulus )
  • NYPD fires rookie cop caught on YouTube video bashing bicyclist – Last fall a cyclist was body checked off their bike by a cop in the midst of a Times Square Critical Mass ride. Said event was recorded via cameraphone. Cop perjured himself in official report, claiming cyclist ran into him intentionally. Video viewed on YouTube 2 million times. Cop now unemployed and facing 4 years in prison for assault, falsifying documents. Sometimes we win. Makes me want to record just about everything. (tagged: bicycle police transparency youtube )