Apropos of Clark’s density posts. I thought I’d try a new tack. It’s a risky one, because I’m disagreeing with my boss. Sort of.

First, I agree with Clark, that supply-side housing policy (increasing density) keeps city housing more affordable than it otherwise would be. But I also believe (with Sheldon Cooper) that market-based mechanisms cannot meet the housing needs of lower- and middle-income people because the market is structurally incapable of meeting these challenges. (And as a matter of practice the market is already failing a sizeable segment of the region’s population.)

So I say: forget about the market. Apart from the environmental concerns, the biggest reason to favor in-city density is that the alternative to density—sprawl—is much worse for poor people. It’s much worse for the middle-class too, as well as the public’s coffers and a whole array of other things that we should care about. Density isn’t a magic fix, but it’s certainly better than sprawl.

Myron Orfield, at the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation (MARC), has argued convincingly (to me, anyway) that sprawl exacerbates the worst forms of economic inequality. At first blush, this is nothing new: everyone is familiar with the post-WWII suburban housing boom and highway building that abetted white flight from central cities, leaving behind ossified pockets of poverty.

But Orfield argues further that sprawl is still ratcheting up the harm.

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  • Central cities effectively subsidize wealthy and insular "outer-ring" suburbs. Worse, central city gentrification is displacing lower-income people to "inner-ring" suburbs, which lack even the modest services and infrastructure (reliable transit service, for instance) that the central city once did. I won’t go into all the details now, except to point out that, according to Orfield, sprawl increases economic and racial segregation, creates perverse tax structures and incentives, and overburdens infrastructure.

    (Aside: MARC has conducted Portland- and Seattle-specific studies. You can find the research here, in the context of a larger volume called American Metropolitics (a bit outdated now, unfortunately); and as separate studies, Portland Metropolitics, and a Seattle report.)

    The upshot is that, according to MARC’s detailed city-by-city analysis, sprawl is bad news even when viewed strictly from a social/economic justice standpoint. And that leads me back to density.

    Obviously, increasingly density is not the only remedy to sprawl. We must also mandate careful and rigorous planning regimes that prevent excessive urban-area expansion. But since, as Roy Rogers aptly characterized land, "they ain’t makin’ any more of it;" and since population will continue to increase, we must increase urban and suburban densities if we are to contain sprawl. Stopping sprawl means increasing density, and there’s no way around that problem as long as population keeps rising.

    Now, here’s the bad news: I think it’s entirely possible that increasing density is sometimes bad for low-income people and displaces affordable housing. A few cities have seen anecdotal evidence of this (though, on a national level, the alarm is probably greatly overblown.)  But that’s not the real issue. The real issue is whether density is better for low-income and middle-class people than other available alternatives—namely, sprawl. I’d argue, with Orfield and the researchers at MARC, that it is definitely better.

    Housing is becoming less affordable and that is rightly cause for much concern. Not only does it create long-lasting and severe burdens for low- and middle-income families, but it erodes the cultural heritage that the Northwest has prized for so long. (As Joel Connelly describes an older Seattle: "a town of funky taverns and down-to-earth places.. largely free from ostentatious displays of wealth and class." Or as Knute Berger put it, a place where, "livability and scale made sense.")

    I’m old enough to remember a Seattle that was pretty different than the Seattle we have today (in many ways better, in some ways worse). Today the median sale price of a house is $405,000 (If you include condos, the median home sale price drops to $368,000). At today’s interest rates, buying a median-priced house means shelling out roughly $2,500/month, including taxes and insurance, provided you can come up with $40,000 for a down payment. Unfortunately, today’s median-income earners in Seattle bring home less than $3,400 after taxes.

    There are probably some limited ways to address affordable housing at the margins: housing vouchers or community land trusts, for instance. But addressing the other problems—making home-buying affordable for regular folks—is a tough nut to crack. The only plausible solution—and even this is probably insufficient—is to increase supply. Increasing the supply through sprawl turns out to be terrible public policy (cf. Orfield). Increasing the supply through density, if we’re careful, just might create new and vibrant places in the Northwest’s cities.