Morning Ed: Housing {2017.08.22.Tu}

[Ho1] Another solution to this would be to bring back flop houses, of course. We can also use government to supplement wages rather than offloading that obligation to employers.

[Ho2] Maybe because they’re kind of awesome?

[Ho3] City living in the burbs, converting office parks.

[Ho4] In Galveston, Texas, sits the mysterious Kettle House.

[Ho5] Were Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac a good idea?

[Ho6] Incentives matter: Why Vancouver gets condos while Seattle gets apartments.

[Ho7] As much as anything, I suspect this would play out mostly as a tax on racial and ethnic diversity.

[Ho8] Stockholm: Build, baby, build.

[Ho9] The Kansas City Plan may have a cost of living problem, when it comes to places that are more coastal or mountainous than Kansas City.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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36 thoughts on “Morning Ed: Housing {2017.08.22.Tu}

  1. Ho1: Link has an extra and unwanted C. There are still flophouses. Not necessarily official ones though or SROs usually but in a lot of low-income areas you can find “single-family homes” with 12-14 occupants. Or you can find people sharing apartments by sleeping in shifts. Related to Ho9, the only way this ends is by getting property prices to go down significantly. This is a hard to impossible political sell because many (as in many Americans who vote regularly) own most of their equity/savings/retirement fund in their housing. I see a lot of articles saying that we need to end this but very few articles coming up with a plausible and politically viable means of how. The articles don’t even attempt to try. One of my biggest problems with punditry/wonkiness as a career path is that it allows for people to get paid money for saying “We need to do X” but letting them off the hook when it comes to how to do so.

    Ho2: I am one of those weirdos who likes modern architecture despite what the rest of the polling says. Something like Red Hook roadhouse appeals to me more than a fake Georgian mansion

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    • Also college student housing. I know of groups of people that rented apartments originally intended for two (small two-bedrooms) and put six or eight or more people in it. This was ostensibly to be able to afford an apartment in a complex with “nicer” amenities (like a pool) and I guess also have more beer money.

      I don’t know. I paid a premium for an efficiency apartment by myself as a student because I couldn’t bear having that many people around me all the time.

      With “formal” highly-shared accommodations, there’d have to be all kinds of vetting of the multiple potential roommates (if people weren’t self-selecting) because I can imagine the complaints of “He stole my stuff” or “she assaulted me” that would result in a group of 12-14 strangers sharing living accommodations.

      I don’t know. I hope I am never too broke to be able to have at least my own room with a door I use to shut everyone else out.

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      • I clearly place a premium on living alone but there are clearly many people who don’t and often enough this seems to be by choice. I know people who own apartments but still live in a rental unit (sometimes with roommates or Air Bn’B guests) because they use the unit they own for income.

        Or they own and live in a space but still have roommates because it gives more money for travel.

        I guess it is all about priorities but I seem to be in a priority of not wanting roommates and many are not.

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          • @densityduck

            1. No.

            2. These articles also don’t incorporate local minimum wages and overtime.

            3. The people I was discussing earn much more than the minimum wage. I think there is a mindset that divides people who see housing as an investment and those who see it as a place to live. I am in the place to live category.

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            • I work damn hard, I spent a lot of years getting an education, and I don’t spend money on other things (e.g., lavish vacations) so I can enjoy the privilege of living alone. And anyone who tells me I need to open my house to someone else because Equality or Lowering My Carbon Footprint or what the hell ever is going to get one of my patented hard stares.

              This is one of those things I am a total crank about. I recognize that it is, but I think once one has seen 45 in the rearview mirror one is allowed to be a crank about at least one thing.

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        • I am definitely in the group who prioritizes “my space is my space and I want quiet and peace.”

          Mainly, I don’t like people all up in my stuff (literally or figuratively). And I don’t like noise, and I don’t like stuff like having to listen to someone’s idiot phone convos with their boyfriend or girlfriend.

          The whole Air B n B thing mystifies me: I’d never sleep while I had someone staying in my house because I’d be afraid I’d be the one unlucky person hosting an axe murderer.

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      • I went to college at UC Santa Barbara. The off-campus housing district is an area about one mile long and half a mile wide. When I was there in the 1980s it was thoroughly built up, mostly with two-story apartment buildings. The population required far more than this, but there also was a decade-long building halt (technically a halt on new hookups) due to water shortage. This area was separated from the general community (to the general community’s relief) by a swamp with an airport on it, which is itself an interesting combination in certain weather conditions. The upshot was that yeah, we had roommates. I had a comparatively sweet situation, by benefit of being at the far end from campus, of a two-bedroom apartment with a landlord-imposed limitation to three residents. I paid a premium to have the bedroom to myself.

        Looking at Google Maps, there appears to have been only limited new building. I see a West Campus Apartment complex and West Campus Faculty Housing, the mere existence of which is telling.

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    • Lots of Chinese immigrants live in single family homes that have been converted into something kind of like what Jacob Riis documented in How the Other Half Lives but a bit nicer because of modern plumbing, electricity, and television. Basically, you take a single family home or small apartment and stuff them with bunk beds or rent out one room of an apartment to a family or a few friends and another room to another family or a few friends.

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    • Related to Ho9, the only way this ends is by getting property prices to go down significantly. This is a hard to impossible political sell because many (as in many Americans who vote regularly) own most of their equity/savings/retirement fund in their housing.

      Yeah, I’ve been saying this too. (Oddly, no one has offered to pay me for that.)

      Housing costs should be, and have been throughout history, somewhere around three years wages.

      Weirdly, this isn’t too far off in the median. The median wages are $51,000, the median house price is $188,900.

      But there are a lot of weird problems hidden there:
      1) People are actually paying a lot more than $188,900 for the median house, because the banks are taking a lot.

      2) We seem unable to build new cheap houses, so what’s happening is, absurdly, a lot of new housing stock is sitting empty and people are trading 40 year old houses. (Some of this is explained by #3, the rest of it is explained by really really stupid investors that don’t understand building a house for $100,000 you can sell for $150,000 might only make you $50,000, but making a house for $300,000 you want to sell for $600,000 but you _cannot_ sell costs you $300,000, you idiots.)

      3) And, most importantly, a lot of people’s _only_ investment is their house, which makes them act completely irrationally towards housing policy.

      4) A lot of denser areas have seen prices skyrocket due to, basically, #3.

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  2. Ho2: I like Gerogian architecture but I’m really hoping for an Art Nouveau revival sometime soon.

    Ho3: A few sprawling sun built cities seem to be developing urban type areas out of office parks or malls or even from scratch. The results always seem more than a little theme parky to me. They lack the organic appearance and feel of a reel city.

    Ho4: And one day the kettle house will sprout legs, a giant turtle head will emerge, and it will return to an even bigger turtle in the sea.

    Ho5: What Saul said. Its very easy to say we should do x policy because y reasons but you have to sell it to the voters. Lots of free market advocates don’t seem to realize that point. They believe their policies are so obviously correct that they can be imposed from on high.

    Ho7: Link doesn’t work.

    Ho8: Stockholm definitely needs a building boom.

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      • I got to Ho7. Worked for me.

        I remember the article that RTod talked about a million years ago discussing schools in the South regressing to the mean and becoming more segregated once the law became more hands-off in the region.

        And there being a paragraph there in the tail end of the article talking about how, yeah, most of the schools that are segregated are in the Northeast and Midwest. But the South is becoming more like the rest of the country!

        I’m guessing that whatever plan is cooked up, it’ll be easily gamable for the upper middle classes and not easily gamable for the lower middle classes.

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    • The thing I find most interesting about Ho3 and similar pieces I’ve seen is that almost all of the examples are drawn from the NE urban corridor: northern Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey. Ho3 throws in a mention of North Carolina; others have mentioned an example somewhere near Atlanta. But mostly BosWash. Truly old suburbs reinventing themselves.

      Where I live office parks are much too valuable for this type of conversion. Some older malls have been replaced here, although I wouldn’t describe those efforts as aiming for “urban”. Rather a different style of entertainment and shopping complex, that has some services and housing tossed into the mix. Other parts of the metro area are doing similar things with old light-industry areas: clean it up; install entertainment, eating, shopping; make it a “destination”. Add some apartments and townhouses, but not nearly enough to support the destination aspects on their own.

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      • The issue with NYC and Boston seem to be how many old corporate HQs and other businesses really left the city during the mid-20th century. My impression generally is that while there are examples of suburban corporate HQs in the Northeast (Pepsi and IBM most famously have HQs in Corporate Westchester and plenty of Hedge Funds operated in Connecticut), NYC was always able to save enough business even during the bad years.

        Law firms stayed in NYC because it was convenient central location for courts in the tri-state area/Northeast in general. Most of the time, they would be in court in NYC anyway.

        When I was in Seattle, I saw a new building that had a common area ground floor. The common area had a restaurant, small bougie convenience store and also places to hang out with a movie room you could rent out and game rooms. It looked like you could enter the common area from the street or from the apartments.

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  3. The problem with Vanishing New York

    Such are the interesting paradoxes that characterize New York City’s past two decades of growth and the general U.S. urban revival underway right now. But Vanishing New York is a polemic, not an epiphany. The closest Moss comes to a personal revelation may be during a nightmarish visit to an East Harlem Costco—one of the chain stores he has decried as representative of homogenous, white suburban life—only to find that the flood of patrons steering oversized shopping carts is mostly Latino. In another such instance, Moss extolls the aura of the city’s older masonry buildings but recognizes that historic preservation groups have little tolerance for the streetwalkers, vendors, and heavy industry that he defends. And this, ultimately, gets to the unanswered questions at the heart of the book. What does it mean to preserve a city? What is being saved, and for whom? Some of Moss’ most painful moments are not the demolition of his favorite dives, but their eerie re-animation as moneyed ghosts of their old selves. One of his most derided targets is the greatest New York preservation victory of this century: the High Line. Moss’ 2012 op-ed in the Times was one of the first forceful critiques of the space and its alchemical effect on the neighborhood.

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    • From a period roughly between 1945 and 1992, America’s pre-Sun Belt cities provided a relative cheap refuge for groups on the margins of American. Basically anybody that couldn’t fit in suburbia or the Sun Belt; racial and sexual minorities and Bohemians. What Moss seems to miss is this. He wants the grit of pre-gentrification New York back for its refuge status.

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  4. Ho2: Wait. You’re saying McMansions are awesome? That position is, um…, daring. Georgian architecture is awesome, but McMansons are ticky-tacky imitation Georgian architecture, and not in the least bit awesome.

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  5. 2- As someone who owns a 100yo house (craftsman bungalow, thank you very much) renovating is a big project that most people cannot undertake. I have a strong background in being very handy, having spent my high school and college summers as a handyman in a university town and went to trade school later in life. Not only does it take a lot of love for older houses and neighborhoods, but one constantly has to deal with the half-assed work down by prior owners.

    And, frankly, many people do not want to deal with an older house. If they don’t have the money, a leaky roof is not an adventure. If they do not have the money, older power levels aren’t much fun, indeed they can be very scary to those not fully versed in Ohms law.

    Modern architecture leaves many non architects feeling unimpressed, wanting a more traditional home for more traditional lives. There is a reason the home developed the ways it did. And as it is generally the single largest purchase of peoples lives, many feel that they should get the most out of it possible. Move to nicer areas, a little more room to stretch out, a place for the kids to park their cars, etc.

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    • This is one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of sweeping efforts to mark homes or neighborhoods as historic, or to discourage tear downs. Owning & living in an older home is a challenge, even if the place has been well maintained and is fully up to code. It can be a downright nightmare if it hasn’t/isn’t. Usually, a tear down and rebuild is more cost efficient than trying to bring a house up to snuff.

      When we sold our 1926 house in Everett, I was so very happy that they guy who bought it had grown up in older homes and knew exactly what he was getting himself into.

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          • I could see an HOA deciding that only certain styles are a fit for the neighborhood, but local government shouldn’t be writing building codes that govern style, only structural and services soundness. So you should be able to find a place where building a craftsman style is doable, unless you are infested with crappy HOAs.

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            • Minimum square footage zoning. Some time back I was looking at house plans. There are lots of plans for “craftsman style” houses with 2500 square feet and up. Some of them even looked like a craftsman from the street — but you’d need a really deep lot to accommodate all the rest of those square feet.

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                • Or even just small houses. Developers wanted guarantees — subject to sufficient turnover on the city council, who gets the final say, of course — that if they build a batch of 3,000 square foot $500,000+ houses, the ones built next decade are going to be 3,500 and $600,000+, not 1,500 and $250,000. So they can tell all those people moving in from out-of-state who are plunking the money down that there’s at least that much protection against having the riff-raff move in.

                  Parts of Denver are the opposite way. Neighborhoods full of old Craftsman and California Bungalow styles want assurances that no one is going to scrape off the fixer-upper full of old pipes and wiring and wedge some 3,000 foot monster onto the lot.

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                  • I can understand preventing a monster house on a postage stamp lot, but the inverse just seems silly.

                    ETA: Value considerations strike me as something HOAs should be concerned with, not local government. Putting a big house on a small lot can involve other considerations besides resale value of a given unit (a monster house can disrupt views etc that were part of the purchase appeal of others in the neighborhood, can overtax infrastructure, etc.)

                    A small house on a big lot disrupts very little.

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                  • Minimum square footage requirements are not common in zoning though. This is a link to the relevant Internal Residential Code requirements that indirectly create size minimums. Looks like those requirements are going to require at least 88 sq. feet. The IRC is the model most jurisdictions follow, but of course, they can fine tune it. If you live in a place that has added minimum square footage requirements, you live in a high planning community that ironically probably attracts the same kind of people that identify with the small house movement. (Also, live in a state that has relatively relaxed Constitutional requirements for zoning ordinances)

                    (OTOH, I think a lot of new residential developments have restrictive covenants that require minimum size and architectural requirements)

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                    • In fact in Houston and other parts of Texas with no zoning the size restrictions are in the deed restrictions. (Outside Houston, it is typically in unincorporated areas in Tx). The deed restrictions also function as zoning as the use of the land is also restricted, and in some cases color choices for paint and roofing need to be approved. It has been this way in Houston for over 40 years.

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    • It’s also the case that there are things homebuilders can do now that simply weren’t possible in earlier times, due to better basic materials and better knowledge of how to employ them. Engineered beams and roof trusses allow for wider interior spaces that would never have been attempted in the past.

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  6. Ho7: This seems to be a good example of economics being used to solve a problem from 20,000 feet without a feel for all of the issues. (I could have my own bubble in this respect, of course) In particular, I don’t doubt zoning contributed to income segregation, I doubt that focusing on zoning today is at all useful to mitigate it because housing patterns have already developed.

    I also think that policies directed to zip codes are not very effective in creating neighborhood incentives. I wonder if he is really talking about zoning, but homeowner’s associations empowered through restrictive covenants. To argue that household income tracks with zip codes doesn’t show how zip-code based policies would change high-income neighborhoods. I’m not sure why he didn’t use census tracts/blocks.

    Edit: Just noticed the last sentence throws out the possibility of census blocks.

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