I heard an interesting ad on the radio yesterday. It started off with a generic John and Jane Q. Public talking about how bad traffic is, and how terrible it is that they have to live so far from work, etc... Then Mr. Announcer Guy came on and blabbed something about quality of life, the Washington Realtors® (WR), and It's a Priority (dot com). Here's the introduction to their website (emphasis theirs):
Welcome to the online headquarters of It's a Priority!Let me stop there for a moment before the rhetoric gets too thick. So, on the surface, this campaign appears to be some kind of good will initiative by the WR, who are gravely concerned about a declining quality of life in our state. I find that I agree with the assertion that the local economy, transportation, and housing affordability are important issues that people should be talking about, but I'm not so sure that running to Daddy Lawmaker is the right solution. Furthermore, I can't help but wonder whether the WR might just have some kind of ulterior motive here.
There's a housing crisis in Washington State.
The Washington REALTORS® are working to improve our quality of life and ensure there are a variety of home choices available for all Washington residents. That's why quality of life issues like economic vitality, transportation, good schools, growth management planning and home affordability must be top priorities with Washington's state and local lawmakers.
Lawmakers must address this crisis and work for solutions. It's time we make this issue a priority!
Our population is growing but the supply of homes isn't keeping up.Whoops! Only three paragraphs in, and they've already started with the false assertions. As I pointed out here in October, population growth and shrinking household size was outpacing homebuilding, but since 2000, the pressure has eased considerably. I studied King County specifically, but one would assume that the situation would only be better in most other parts of the state.
Homebuyers have to drive too far to find an affordable home. That's caused long commutes, traffic jams and sprawl.Actually, no one is being forced to do anything. Homebuyers drive "too far" because that's where they find homes that are big enough for their tastes that they can afford. Plus, nobody says you "have to" buy a home in the first place. If you want to trade off a short commute and affordable rent for crawling through traffic from your McMansion with a maxed-out mortgage, that's your choice.
And home prices have increased by 160 percent in some parts of Washington.And all the while Realtors® and their ilk were giddily cheering the "vibrant" housing market and the "strong price gains."
Home ownership is the American Dream. Having a choice of quality, affordable homes is a big part of that Dream, but the ability to choose is slipping away.So suddenly now the WR are concerned that home prices have gone up too much—that middle-income families can't afford to buy a home? Forgive my cynicism, but I'm having a hard time buying the "we're so altruistic" story. So what's really going on here? What is the true motivation for a commercial group whose #1 priority is to sell houses to undertake this public campaign?
You know we've got a problem when even middle-income citizens, the backbone of our communities — the firefighters, teachers, police officers and nurses — can't afford to live in the communities they serve. You shouldn't have to be rich to buy a home.
Unfortunately, poor government planning has limited the supply of homes near where people work. Too many people are frustrated by the lack of home choices, sky-rocketing home costs, and traffic tie-ups.
The Take Action page encourages readers to contact their friends, legislators, and local newspapers and demand that everyone "make our quality of life a priority." How delightfully ambiguous! Of course, the real meat is buried in a bunch of boring "policy brief" pdfs that most people are unlikely to ever bother downloading. Well, I read through a few of the policy briefs to try to get a better idea of what the WR are after. Most of the documents are padded with a lot of the same fluff talk about "quality of life" and so forth, but there are some bits that appear to get to the heart of the matter. Here's a telling quote from the Local Actions pdf:
The idea of performance zoning is to anticipate the actual outcomes of a project instead of just measuring units or lot sizes. For example, a parcel that is zoned for four single family homes, but is in an area that attracts single professionals, could be developed as a cluster of ten cottages. The impact of the cottage residents – primarily singles and couples – will be no more than the impact of the larger homes, which would likely have children.So at least one of their goals appears to be a loosening of zoning standards, to allow greater density of smaller (i.e., "more affordable") housing units. I can see why the Realtors® would want that, because they are rapidly running out of suckers eager to buy overpriced McMansions and thirty-plus year-old flipped suburban ramblers.
If builders are given tools to propose uses of property that differ from current zoning, they can maximize the value of land and provide more choices in the marketplace. Performance measures that can be employed to evaluate a proposed alternative use include floor-area-ratios, target markets or trip generation.
The overarching theme of the policy briefs seems to be "we need more cheap housing, closer to city centers." While I agree with that general sentiment, I don't believe that the root cause of housing unaffordability is "not enough supply," and I definitely don't think that the solution is "build a bunch of tiny cheap houses all crammed together." The whole effort comes across to me as a desperate attempt to keep a steady flow of
But maybe that's just me.
(Washington Realtors®, It's A Priority, 2006)
(Washington Realtors®, Quality of Life Research Briefs, 03.2006)