Thoughts on The Color of Law

Richard Rothstein's recent book The Color of Law looks at the history of racism in US housing policy. It focuses especially on African Americans, and the constitutionality of these policies in light of the reconstruction era amendments that ended slavery.

Throughout the book, Rothstein makes a big point of the difference between de jure (in law) segregation and de facto (in fact) segregation. The purpose of the book (belied in its subtitle: "A forgotten history of how our government segregated America.") is to remind us that residential segregation did not just happen because private citizens expressed discriminatory preferences. Instead, he lays out the gory details of how government at all levels — through laws, official policies, financing terms, and officially sanctioned lack of enforcement — has enacted de jure segregation for more than a century. This has often included creating and enforcing segregation where it did not previously exist, in the West, and in the northern industrial centers as successive waves of migration from the South took place in the first half of the 20th century. He argues that because this segregation was perpetrated by the government, with the full force of law, we have a constitutional obligation to ameliorate the harm it has done to generations of African Americans.

The book felt kind of like a hybrid between Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (about successive & evolving systems of black subjugation after the end of slavery, especially drug-war mediated mass incarceration) and Kenneth T. Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier (a history of suburbanization in the US). One of the main themes in The New Jim Crow is the remarkable adaptability of our systems of race-based social control. We outlawed slavery, but just a few decades later, Jim Crow was in full force, disenfranchising blacks throughout the south. The Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s outlawed many Jim Crow practices, but it wasn't long before the War on Drugs and mass incarceration had filled the gap.

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Density or Exclusion: the Perils of Local Zoning

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.

Continue reading Density or Exclusion: the Perils of Local Zoning

What is Housing in the US?

Housing as an Investment

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!

Continue reading What is Housing in the US?

Overpopulation isn’t the Problem

Some folks in Boulder like to make analogies to exponential global population growth in discussions about our local land use decisions (see for example Frosty WoolridgeFrosty Woolridge again, Robert Baker, David Brandt, or the venerable Al Bartlett himself). These analogies are inappropriate in multiple ways.

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.

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Decoupling & Demand Side Management in Colorado

Utility revenue decoupling is often seen as an enabling policy supporting “demand side management” (DSM) programs.  DSM is a catch-all term for the things you can do behind the meter that reduce the amount of energy (kWh) a utility needs to produce or the amount of capacity (kW) it needs to have available.  DSM includes investments improving the energy efficiency of buildings and their heating and cooling systems, lighting, and appliances.  It can also include “demand response” (DR) which is a dispatchable decline in energy consumption — like the ability of a utility to ask every Walmart in New England to turn down their lights or air conditioning at the same time on a moment’s notice — in order to avoid needing to build seldom used peaking power plants.

For reasons that will be obvious if you’ve read our previous posts on revenue decoupling, getting utilities to invest in these kinds of measures can be challenging, so long as their revenues are directly tied to the amount of electricity they sell.  Revenue decoupling can fix that problem.  However, reducing customer demand for energy on a larger scale, especially during times of peak demand, can seriously detract from the utility’s ability to deploy capital (on which they earn a return) for the construction of additional generating capacity.  That conflict of interests is harder to address.

But it’s worth working on, because as we’ll see below, DSM is cheap and very low risk — it’s great for rate payers, and it’s great for the economy as a whole.  It can reduce our economic sensitivity to volatile fuel prices, and often shifts investment away from low-value environmentally damaging commodities like natural gas and coal, toward skilled labor and high performance building systems and industrial components.

The rest of this post is based on the testimony that Clean Energy Action prepared for Xcel Energy’s 14AL-0660E rate case proceeding, before revenue decoupling was split off.  Much of it applies specifically to Xcel in Colorado.  However, the overall issues addressed are applicable in many traditional regulated, vertically integrated monopoly utility settings.

Why can’t we scale up DSM?

There are several barriers to Xcel profitably and cost-effectively scaling up their current DSM programs.  Removing these impediments is necessary if DSM is to realize its full potential for reducing GHG emissions from Colorado’s electricity sector.  Revenue decoupling can address some, but not all of them.

  1. There are the lost revenues from energy saved, which impacts the utility’s fixed cost recovery.  If the incentive payment that they earn by meeting DSM targets is too small to compensate for those lost revenues, then the net financial impact of investing in DSM is still negative — i.e. the utility will see investing in DSM as a losing proposition.  Xcel currently gets a “disincentive offset” to make up for lost revenues, but they say that this doesn’t entirely offset their lost revenues.
  2. Even if the performance incentive is big enough to make DSM an attractive investment, the PUC currently caps the incentive at $30M per year (including the $5M “disincentive offset”), meaning that even if there’s a larger pool of cost-effective energy efficiency measures to invest in, the utility has no reason to go above and beyond and save more energy once they’ve maxed out the incentive.
  3. If this cap were removed, the utility would still have a finite approved DSM budget.  With an unlimited performance incentive and a finite DSM budget, the utility would have an incentive to buy as much efficiency as possible, within their approved budget, which would encourage cost-effectiveness, but wouldn’t necessarily mean all the available cost-effective DSM was being acquired.
  4. Given that the utility has an annual obligation under the current DSM legislation to save a particular amount of energy (400 GWh), they have an incentive to “bank” some opportunities, and save them for later, lest they make it more difficult for themselves to satisfy their regulatory mandate in later years by buying all the easy stuff up front.
  5. It is of course the possible that beyond a certain point there simply aren’t any more scalable, cost-effective efficiency investments to be made.
  6. Finally and most seriously, declining electricity demand would pose a threat to the “used and useful” status of existing generation assets and to the utility’s future capital investment program, which is how they make basically all of their money right now.

Revenue decoupling can play an important role in overcoming some, but not all, of these limitations.  With decoupling in place, we’d expect that the utility would be willing and able to earn the entire $30M performance incentive (which they have yet to do in any year) so long as it didn’t make regulatory compliance in future years more challenging by prematurely exhausting some of the easy DSM opportunities.

Continue reading Decoupling & Demand Side Management in Colorado

A Decoupling Update

So, it’s been quite a while since our last long policy post, focusing on utility revenue decoupling in connection with Xcel’s current rate case (14AL-0660E) before the Colorado PUC.  That’s because we’ve been busy actually intervening in the case!

A Climate Intervention

We filed our motion to intervene in early August.  As you might already know, in order to be granted leave to intervene, you have to demonstrate that your interests aren’t already adequately represented by the other parties in the case.  Incredibly, CEA’s main interest — ensuring that Colorado’s electricity system is consistent with stabilizing the Earth’s climate — was not explicitly mentioned by any of the other parties!

In our petition we highlighted our mission:

…to educate the public and support a shift in public policy toward a zero carbon economy.  CEA brings a unique perspective on the economics of utility regulation and business models related to mitigating the large and growing risks associated with anthropogenic climate change.  In addition, CEA has an interest in transitioning away from fuel-based electric generation in order to mitigate the purely economic risk associated with inherently unpredictable future fuel costs.

…and we were granted intervention.  So far as we know, this is the first time that concern over climate change has been used as the primary interest justifying intervention at the PUC in Colorado.  In and of itself, this is a win.

A Long and Winding Road

Throughout the late summer, we spent many hours poring over the thousands of pages of direct testimony.  Especially Xcel’s decoupling proposal, but also (with the help of some awesome interns), the details of the company’s as-of-yet undepreciated generation facilities — trying to figure out how much the system might be worth, and so how much it might cost to just buy it out and shut it down (were we, as a society, so inclined).

Early on in the process, the PUC asked all the parties to submit briefs explaining why we thought it was appropriate to consider decoupling in the rate case, whether it represented a collateral attack on decisions that had already been made in the DSM strategic issues docket, and how it would interact with the existing DSM programs.  We pulled together a response, as did the other intervening parties, and kept working on our answer testimony — a much longer response to Xcel’s overall proposal.  The general consensus among the parties that filed briefs, including CEA, SWEEP, WRA, and The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC, a solar industry group representing big installers like Solar City) was that decoupling was not an attempt to roll back previous PUC decisions related to DSM — and that addressing it in a rate case was appropriate.  Only the Colorado Healthcare Electric Coordinating Council (CHECC, a coalition of large healthcare facilities and energy consumers) told the PUC that decoupling ought to be considered an attack on previous DSM policies.

The PUC staff unfortunately came back with a reply brief that disagreed and suggested, among other things, that maybe it would be better if we just went with a straight fixed/variable rate design to address utility fixed cost recovery.  Never mind the fact that this kind of rate would destroy most of the incentives customers have to use energy efficiently.

And then we waited.

With baited breath each Wednesday morning we tuned in to the Commissioners’ Weekly Meeting, streaming live over the interwebs from the Windowless Room in Denver.  We watched regardless of whether anything related to our dear little 14AL-0660E was on their agenda.  Just in case they tried to sneak it by.  Weeks passed.  And then a month.  The deadline for submitting our answer testimony approached.

Finally on October 29th, six weeks after submitting our brief, the commissioners finally brought up the issue of decoupling at their weekly meeting and in a couple of minutes, indicated that they’d be severing it from the proceeding, with little explanation as to why.  However, because there were no details, and the order isn’t official until it’s issued in writing… we continued working on our answer testimony.  The final order came out on November 5th, and prohibited submission of testimony related to decoupling.  Answer testimony was due on November 7th.

Where to From Here?

Xcel might come back to the PUC with another decoupling proposal before the next Electric Resource Plan (in fall of 2015) .  Or they might not.  This means that a good chunk of the work that we’ve been doing since this summer will have to come to light in a different way.  So for the next few posts, we’re going to explore some of the issues that came up in the preparation of our answer testimony, including:

  • Decoupling and Distributed Energy:
    How would decoupling interact with distributed energy resources like rooftop solar?  What are the implications for utilities as the costs of those resources continue their precipitous decline?
  • Decoupling and Demand Side Management:
    How would revenue decoupling interact with demand side management programs in general — both utility and privately or locally funded — and what particular issues with Xcel’s DSM programs could decoupling address?  What issues can’t it help address?
  • Can Revenue Decoupling Scale?
    Why doesn’t revenue decoupling as a policy really scale up to the point of  taking existing generation facilities offline, or preventing new facilities from being built?
  • Decoupling as a First Step:
    Even if it can’t scale, why might decoupling still serve as a useful starting point for the decarbonization process? Can it give us a little bit of breathing room while we start the real negotiation? Or is it just another layer of financial protection for utilities who want to delay change as long as possible?
  • Realism and Equity in Carbon Budgets for Colorado:
    What is the true scope of the decarbonization challenge, in the context of the carbon budgets recently published by the IPCC in their Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), but localized to Colorado so we can actually wrap our heads around it.  Why is this conversation so hard?

Learn more about utility revenue decoupling on our resource page…

Featured image of binders (full of PUC filings…) courtesy of  Christian Schnettelker on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Is profit driven affordable housing possible?


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).

Continue reading Is profit driven affordable housing possible?