I recently went to visit my friends who just moved to Seattle. I stayed in their rented row house in an upscale neighborhood called Queen Anne. And it was there that I saw a vision of the future of housing in America.
Queen Anne is a wealthy area of the city. A 1-bedroom apartment there will cost you somewhere between $1500 and $2400. But that’s a lot cheaper than, say, the Inner Sunset in San Francisco, where a 1br will start at the upper limit of that range. Queen Anne is beautiful, too, with wooded leafy streets, beautiful front gardens, and panoramic views:
There are lots of single-family homes in Queen Anne. On some streets, you’d think you were in a sleepy remote suburb instead of in the middle of a city. But the neighborhood is changing. As tech companies and workers move into the city, Seattle and many of its neighborhoods have responded by allowing more construction. For example, in the adjacent neighborhood of Lower Queen Anne, height limits were raised to allow more apartment buildings, helping to spark a building boom. This has helped Seattle become one of America’s fastest-growing large cities, despite not being in the Sun Belt.
Opponents of the “just build more housing” approach often fret that density will turn their neighborhoods into Manhattan — or even worse, into the Soviet Union. Personally, I think it would be cool to have more American cities sport ultra-dense downtowns like NYC or Tokyo. But that just isn’t what’s in the cards here. The number of regulatory, political, social and legislative changes required to transform Seattle into Manhattan are far beyond America’s reach.
More importantly, Manhattanization just wouldn’t matter — most people in the NYC metro areas don’t live in Manhattan. They live in boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens, suburbs like White Plains or Hempstead, or far-removed exurbs in New Jersey or Long Island. That pattern is even more true of other cities. Turning downtowns into neon-and-concrete jungles would be cool for bar-hopping and artsy photography, but it won’t solve America’s housing crisis. Instead, the way to densify America is to build more housing in the suburbs.
And that means places like Queen Anne. It’s not technically a suburb, but it looks like one, and there’s no reason neighborhoods just like it all across America can’t effect a similar transformation. The new multifamily housing in Queen Anne consists of neither soaring glass towers nor Soviet-style blocs. Instead, it is a smattering of duplexes, rowhouses, and low-rise apartment buildings, scattered amongst the single-family homes.
Here, courtesy of my friends, are a few more pictures of what it looks like:
In other words, the future of American housing densification probably looks less like San Fransokyo, and more like the village-like half-city half-suburb areas that the New Urbanist movement always wanted. This sort of modest densification will probably be politically feasible across much of the country, because it leaves “neighborhood character” intact. In other words, it won’t cause poor people to move into rich neighborhoods. The new housing in rich neighborhoods will usually not be “affordable,” meaning that it won’t be subsidized. Thus, the classist and often racist exclusion that Americans generally demand from their local housing policies will be preserved largely intact. And modest densification of this sort won’t fundamentally change the way people get around these parts of town — there’s still plenty of parking, and not really enough density for trains.
And that sucks. I’m sorry. I wish better things were possible, and I hope that someday they will be. And we need to keep fighting for those better things.
BUT. That doesn’t mean the type of densification I saw in Queen Anne is worthless, or counterproductive. It can help make cities better for lower-income residents in a number of ways.
First, building denser housing in rich areas is a way of accommodating inflows of population. When companies and their workers move into a city, those workers need some place to live. If cities don’t build “yuppie fishtanks” in neighborhoods like Queen Anne, the yuppies will go and bid working-class people out of their homes. Research shows that building more market-rate housing (sometimes labeled “luxury housing”, because American cities are so dysfunctional that merely having a place to live is now a luxury) reduces rents in nearby areas, especially in neighborhoods that are in the process of gentrifying. So row houses in Queen Anne will mean fewer Seattle yuppies driving up rents in lower-income neighborhoods.
Second, in many cities, fitting more high-income people into the same area will raise property tax revenue (especially in places that don’t have California’s ridiculous Prop 13). More property tax equals more money for public schools. More property tax equals more money for transit, especially in neighborhoods where residents are less likely to own cars. More property tax means more money to subsidize affordable housing.
The modest, incrementalist densification of America’s tony suburbs is far less than YIMBYs hope for, and it’s nowhere near enough to restore a semblance of fairness to America’s housing regime. But it’s better than what existed before, and it’ll furnish cities with the money they need to provide better public services and transit to those who need them most. For now, I’ll take it.
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