My Seattle experience changed how I thought about prioritizing building density.

Anonymous SANE member blog post.

November 17, 2017

I have lived in Seattle off and on for most of my life, beginning in the late 70s. I've seen it change, I've voted for the mass transit fixes that never get done (until it became a crisis), and I've seen the older homes in single family neighborhoods be bought, torn down and committed to denser uses.

Admittedly, this is very jarring for someone who has nostalgia for the way things were. The last time I lived there, I wasn't sure how I felt about seeing the single-family homes taken down and replaced. At the same time, I was being pinched by rising rent and home prices, because there was an insufficient supply of housing to meet the demand.

Most of the dramatic changes in neighborhoods happened in the areas that were traditionally working class and communities of color. The most effective opposition to density came from the high income "decent people" who lived in the nicest neighborhoods. They were always the loudest to object to mass transit coming through their neighborhoods. They were always loudest to object to rezoning (upzoning). They always had some excuse. At the end of the day, they were the ones who ended up benefiting the most, because their property values skyrocketed, and they got to keep their views of the water and the mountains and downtown, etc. Meanwhile, the rest of the real estate is being sold to the highest bidder, whether or not it is really even a habitable home. The main problem with anti-gentrification advocacy is that it fails to address the problem of property owners selling the property at an inflated value. Once someone is willing to pay $300,000 for a shack, there is nothing that you can do to prevent the rest of the properties around it from being sold for that same price or more.

That is what really bothers me about what I see here. The City of San Antonio is trying its best to responsibly plan for population growth. The city planners can see what is coming 20 years down the line. Some homeowners want to keep things the way they are (for myriad reasons), even if it means preventing the recycling of land for better uses. Sometimes this means defending the continued existence of substandard housing, claiming that it is at least affordable housing. This is just crazy. They are actually creating gentrification by doing that, not preventing it. 

I feel that there are good intentioned people who believe that "saving their neighborhood" will actually preserve the area the way that they remember it. But this is a pipe dream. Once someone will pay $300,000 for a 3/2 that is falling apart in Beacon Hill, no one is going to accept less. If you have lived there for 40 years, nothing will prevent the city from raising your taxes. The only way to stabilize prices is to make many, many more units of housing available. Then there will be enough housing to satisfy demand.

On the other hand, there are people with other agendas - mainly their own greed. They bought in these neighborhoods when they were dirt-cheap. Some fixed up their homes, others just let them be. Both groups will see a huge increase in their property values without them having had to make any investment or effort to merit their profit. Do they want to have to compete at resale time with a new housing unit? No. They want to keep new housing out, so that they can sell high without having to lift a finger to actually improve their own property. 

I've seen this happen before, and it is sad. Should I really care? As a homeowner who bought relatively recently - no, it is against my economic interest to keep housing prices low - I should try and maximize my own profit. But this attitude negatively affects the rest of the community, especially the young families who are looking to buy homes closer to downtown.

The HBO miniseries "Show Me a Hero” exactly describes this attitude and the fear that it generates among the "decent folk" of a middle class community.