Arguing about housing

by jefftkjefftk2 min read14th Nov 201913 comments

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Somerville, like a lot of popular areas, has a problem that there are many more people who want houses than there are houses. In the scheme of things this is not a bad problem to have; mismatches in the other direction are probably worse. But it's still a major issue that is really hurting our community. I've been getting into a lot of discussions, and here are some ideas I find myself saying a lot:

  • With the level of housing crisis we have right now I'm going to be in favor of basically any proposal that builds more bedrooms. Affordable housing, market rate housing, public housing, tiny houses in people's backyards, all of it helps.

  • We do not have high levels of housing construction right now, we have historically low levels. We were building 7x more even in the 1980s and 30-80x more in the early 20th Century.

  • The housing markets for high-end and low-end housing are coupled, because low-end housing gets renovated into high-end housing. If we built enough new housing for the people that want fancy buildings the "gut old cheap housing and make fancy condos" market would dry up.

  • Even fully banning condo conversion would only slightly reduce the gutting of old cheap housing. They'll still renovate to make fancy units, but they'll rent them out instead.

  • The old cheap housing we have today was once new fancy housing. "Luxury" is just a marketing term that means "new" and granite countertops are a tiny fraction of the cost of building or the land.

  • If we don't build more housing renters will keep having to move away. Multifamily projects like these are what our area desperately needs, and "let's hold off on building and hope things get better" will just let things get worse. We can't maintain the status quo of a diverse and city that works for everyone unless we allow building.

  • When people say they would support construction if only it were affordable housing or targeted at homeless people, I'm skeptical. Look how controversial Cambridge's 100% Affordable Housing Overlay is, or how even projects like housing for formerly homeless people get large amounts of local opposition.

  • Somerville used to be much cheaper. Rents have about doubled in the last ten years, and they were already rising then. I'm lucky enough to have a well paying job and bought a house at a good time, but my friends are getting forced out. I don't want a Somerville that only rich people can afford. We need to build enough housing to bring the rent back down.

  • The alternative to density is sprawl, traffic, long commutes, people getting priced out, and an ever larger share of people's paychecks going to landlords.

  • From a climate change perspective, the best place for people to be is in cities, close to things. If we don't make housing available in cities, near people's jobs, people are forced to live farther out, commuting long distances, and polluting more.

  • If you try to keep things the same by opposing construction, the neighborhood is still going to change. The path we're on, the long term renters get evicted because they can't afford the rising rents and newcomers can. Building more housing lets people stay.

Comment via: facebook

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(Replying here even though it says "Comment via: facebook" because I prefer the LW platform and I don't know most of JK's Facebook friends. If that's frowned upon, please let me know.)

From this post, it's not clear who you are arguing against. (I checked your Facebook post and most people there seem to agree with you.) But my guess is that a lot of the reasons people give in public for their opposition to housing are not their actual reasons. Here's a paper that suggests what the real reasons may be for many: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~wfischel/Papers/00-04.PDF.

Abstract: An owner-occupied home is an unusual asset because it cannot be diversified among locations and because it is the only sizable asset that most owners possess. Among the uninsured risks of homeownership is devaluation by nearby changes in land use. Opponents of land-use change are called NIMBYs (“Not In My Back Yard”). This article submits that NIMBYism is a rational response to the uninsured risks of homeownership. It explores to the possibilities and drawbacks of providing an insurance market to cover such risks. It concludes that some progress is being made towards developing such markets.

I am pretty sure Jeff doesn't want people to only comment on FB, the last sentence appears to be an artifact of how crossposting with LW works. On his website the post actually says: 

Comment via: facebook, lesswrong

My guess is the current flow for Jeff is: 

  • Post to his blog
  • Go to LessWrong, grab the link from the crosspost
  • Edit the post on his blog to include a link to LW

Not really sure how to best fix this. I've been wanting to figure out how to properly propagate edits from RSS feeds, but I haven't gotten around to that. 

Yup, that's my flow!

I'd love it if edits in the RSS feed propagated to posts; when have typo fixes I need to do them in both places.

Don't want to clobber any changes made through the LW UI though. Maybe something like refreshing the post from RSS on changes, but only if there aren't local edits? Automatically merging when there's no conflict would be spiffy, but probably not worth it.

Though "pull in RSS updates" isn't the best fix for the problem that my posts here currently end with "Comment via: facebook". I could make a LW-specific RSS feed that didn't include that note. This would also let me filter out "Update" entries, which don't make sense here either.

Well, in that case at least it would say "Comment via facebook, LW", which is a bit less confusing.

Example threads: https://www.facebook.com/groups/DavisSquare/permalink/10158024607669396/ https://www.facebook.com/groups/DavisSquare/permalink/10157968820824396/ (but please no one go jump in on them because you saw them linked here; don't want to brigade)

It really doesn't seem to me like they're worried about decreasing property values?

This doesn't contradict Wei's point, since he does include:

my guess is that a lot of the reasons people give in public for their opposition to housing are not their actual reasons.

And in fact, those two facebook posts (and most NIMBYism) can be read in the "uninsured risk" light - even if they don't own land, they face risk of loss of life-quality if their now-comfortable spaces change very much.

Do you have a better approach to an ITT for those opposed to development?

Reading people's comments, it's very common for people opposing allowing market rate housing to object because they think it will make the area more expensive.

There's probably (at least) something to that idea. I imagine commercial construction is similarly constrained as residential. It's pretty common to hear that commercial rents are high in the places where residential rents are too.

(Thoughts translated from private message)

As I've said before, if political solutions were viable then this would have been solved 5+ years ago.

Addressing the problem will require an approach that doesn't assume you can build more housing in the expensive metro areas with good jobs. While that doesn't leave many options, I can think of at least 3 that are somewhat practical:

1. Find ways to increase the quality of the average grouphouse so more people want to live in them.

2. Coordinate groups of people to move from NIMBY cities with 10/10 jobs and 10/10 house prices to YIMBY cities with 8/10 jobs but 3/10 house prices.

3. Find ways to reduce the overall cost of living that don't require someone to expend much effort per $ saved, reduce their quality of life or shift negative externalities onto someone else's balance sheet.

The project I've been running (Kernel) has been doing some research on this, and we've found potential solutions in all 3 areas. To give one example, if you found a way to increase the efficiency of a grouphouse bedroom so everything that would usually take 150ft2 can be done in 75ft2 without throwing important considerations under the bus, someone would only need to rent half as much room to maintain the same quality of life.

Your solution is... a bunk bed with cabinets built in?

Squeezing everyone into college-dorm-style housing would certainly reduce living costs, but people who want that can already do it. Most don't.

Squeezing everyone into college-dorm-style housing would certainly reduce living costs, but people who want that can already do it. Most don't.

You're right that dorm-style housing is an existing option, and most people don't want to in them for obvious reasons. However:

  • There isn't going to be a one-size-fits all solution to high housing costs, but that's okay. Housing isn't an all or nothing problem, progress can be made on the margin. If you come up with something that gets on the front page of Hacker News and receives 500 comments saying it's the worst idea ever, but just 50 people find it works for their unique circumstances and save $200/month over the next 3 years because of it, you'll have made the problem $360,000 smaller.
  • While I would never want to live in a PodShare, hundreds of Californians seem to think paying $1200/month to sleep in an open-plan room with 20 strangers is better than their current alternatives. The fact that this is true should indicate some *very* low hanging fruit here.
Your solution is... a bunk bed with cabinets built in?

You could call it a loft bed for adults, but that doesn't tell you why anyone would want one.

It's not so much a loft bed as a system designed from first principles around the specific constraints of a freelancer aged 20-30 renting a small room (or half of a large one) inside a grouphouse. Considerations such as:

  • Privacy
  • Having somewhere for your clothes and suitcase
  • Having a secure place to store valuables and sensitive documents
  • Having somewhere to dry your towel
  • Having a romantic partner be able to stay the night
  • Being able to have sex without waking up the whole house
  • Low ceilings
  • Being able to have sex without one of you hitting their head on the ceiling
  • Not having to crouch when walking under the bed if you're 6ft2
  • Having a work-space that helps you to be productive
  • Having no control over the location of sockets or lights
  • Not being able to change the landlord's curtains
  • Not being able to put any holes in the wall
  • Being able to bring the system with you when you move and having it fit in your new room
  • Being able to build the system yourself
    • Without knowing the exact dimensions of the room beforehand
    • With cheap and commonly available materials
    • With only handyman-level skills and a few basic power tools
    • Being able to cut the wood and do most of the assembly outside/in a garage
    • Being able to get the components through a bedroom doorway
    • Being able to assemble them like an IKEA flatpack and have everything fit together correctly
    • Having it look neat and precise enough that people don't assume you made it yourself

Thanks for being up for having this conversation in comments! Sorry for the slow response; I just got back to proper internet after several days on an island.

As I've said before, if political solutions were viable then this would have been solved 5+ years ago.

I still think dramatic improvement is possible via the political process for two main reasons:

  • The higher rents get, the more pressure there is to fix this. While it wasn't great five years ago, it's much worse now. As terrible housing policy continues expanding the number of people it affects, it's easier to build support for measures to fix it.

  • Housing coalitions are shifting, YIMBY is growing, and the idea that we can make things better by building more is spreading.

I think we should continue trying to build this support.

Find ways to increase the quality of the average grouphouse so more people want to live in them. ... if you found a way to increase the efficiency of a grouphouse bedroom so everything that would usually take 150ft2 can be done in 75ft2 without throwing important considerations under the bus, someone would only need to rent half as much room to maintain the same quality of life

I think this could be a decent solution for many young relatively well off single people without kids, who live primarily digital lives. While this is a demographic we know many people in, it's only a very small slice of the people affected by the housing crisis. Separately, since different people have different preferences and constraints I suspect most people who would have the time, energy, and inclination to build something like this would actually want to customize it more for their situation. Which is fine! Your design can still be useful even if most builders use it as a jumping-off point; you don't need interchangeable parts.

If people really did have generally similar preferences here you could build this in your apartment, and then when you moved you could sell it to the incoming tenant and leave it there. But if you actually tried this, even in a city like SF with tons of people in the target demographic, I expect pretty much everyone would ask you to bring it with you, even if you offered it for free. Similarly, if this were a large improvement over the kinds of loft systems you can already buy from IKEA I would expect you to be able to sell these to the general public, but again I don't think it would be very popular.

Coordinate groups of people to move from NIMBY cities with 10/10 jobs and 10/10 house prices to YIMBY cities with 8/10 jobs but 3/10 house prices.

I think this is likely to lose too much of what people value about being in those cities.

I'm also not sure where you're getting "8/10 jobs"; I think the benefits of being in the top city for your field are usually much higher than 25%, more like 50% to 300%.