Chuck Marohn, president and founder of Strong Towns, discusses the housing affordability crisis that affects Portland and similar cities with Emily Hamilton of MarketUrbanism.com blog. Lightly edited for clarity.
Strong Towns: A few weeks back I read an article from Emily Hamilton. She writes at MarketUrbanism.com and I’ve read her stuff before many of you probably have as well. This one was picked up by the Foundation for Economic Education. They’re holding a conference in June 2017. The article, The Hidden War on Affordable Housing was very provocative and had a lot of interesting thoughts and insights behind it. I just liked the thinking and I thought I would love to have a conversation with Emily and so we were able to arrange that.
Let’s talk a little bit about that piece in MarketUrbanism.com. It got picked up because it’s very good. Can you talk about the impetus behind it? What prompted you to write about this? What was the issue you were trying to bring to the fore?
Emily Hamilton: Absolutely. Watching the movie Brooklyn is what really brought this to top of mind for me, seeing the experience in that movie of recent immigrants from Ireland living in New York City and the struggles that they faced but also the opportunities for housing that they had, which was really portrayed well, I thought. The story is about a group of people who live mostly in boarding houses, and it’s just an opportunity for housing that is no longer legal in most American cities today. But it was the type of housing that was crucial in the lives of many immigrants when they first arrived in this country.
Strong Towns: I think there’s a sense today, looking back that this was somehow evil, somehow this was exploitative, that these buildings and structures were just unethical today, and that’s why we don’t do them. Is that why we don’t do them? And how would you react to that notion that this is essentially [an] immoral kind of housing?
Hamilton: I think it’s a mix of reasons why we no longer have that type of housing. It’s certainly fueled, on the one hand, by progressive desire to ensure a minimum living standard for all Americans. But I think there’s also a lot of self-interest, in terms of people within neighborhoods who want to make the minimum level of housing unaffordable to people who would previously have lived in this type of housing when it was legal. So it fits with peoples’ generous desires to make sure that everyone has a certain standard of housing. But at the same time it meets their self-interest to protect the standard of living that they want to see in their neighborhoods.
Strong Towns: My good friend Joe Minicozzi is with Urban 3. I know you’re familiar with Joe’s work. In this talk he gives, he talks about a building that he originally worked on with one of the developers in Asheville, and they wanted to build micro apartments; they wanted to build 250 400 ft2 apartments in this building. They went to the bank and the pushback they got was “Well, we need a market study.” This is not stuff that’s normally done. The city was concerned too are these are these seem really small. They pushed through the process and they got them built. He said they’re the highest least spaces that they ever constructed. There’s huge demand for them. They never go unfilled – when someone moves out, someone moves right in. When we look at a place like New York or San Francisco or one of these really, really hot housing markets, why aren’t we building more of these kind of things? It seems like there’s a massive demand for them.
Hamilton: Definitely, particularly because there aren’t a lot of housing options on the market right now for young single people who are starting out in their careers and may not be able to afford a larger housing unit. These seem like a clear match between demand and supply. That’s often very difficult to build today.
I would point out that one difference between micro apartments today and boarding houses or single room occupancy hotels from the past is that, in the past, this very affordable, minimal-standards housing was usually built by splitting up existing homes into much smaller units. And that’s the way that you can get a really affordable housing. Whereas, when you build brand new construction micro apartments, they still might be out of reach for a lot of people. Obviously, the construction of new micro apartments is the first step to what could become more affordable housing after it’s been around for many years or decades. But it’s not quite the same process as what landowners were able to provide in the past.
Strong Towns: I remember, when I was back in college, I lived in a massive house with 13 other guys and we also had our own rooms and what have you. I went around this house, and I looked at their fireplaces all over and really fancy bannisters. It was a really high quality place. At some point, the highest and best use became not as a one wealthy person living unit but as a bunch of different people, essentially renting their own space and sharing some common facilities. Why doesn’t that happen today? What’s the thing that prevents those kind of things? And maybe not necessarily [renting] to students but to families? Why is that not something we see, particularly in places where you have really hot housing markets?
Hamilton: Yeah, well, it does happen to some degree as you mentioned with students. And here in D.C., there are certainly still lots of group houses that are rented out by groups of roommates, typically young professionals. But land use regulations have made it, generally, illegal to create these slightly nontraditional affordable housing arrangements for families and single people. So when groups of roommates get together to be able to afford housing they’re living in perhaps not ideal situations where you have a lot of people sharing one kitchen and a couple of bathrooms. Whereas if developers were allowed to build for these situations more easily they could have better arrangements to meet their needs, in California in particular. Parking requirements have been a huge obstacle to this more-affordable housing because a certain amount of parking is required for each bedroom rather than for her project as a whole.
Strong Towns: How are we trying to solve this problem? You talk a little bit in your article about the disaster of public housing. Let’s talk a little bit about how the government has tried to solve these [issues] at the federal level, at the local level, and then maybe use that as a springboard into talking about ways we could, in 2017, do this maybe differently.
Hamilton: At the federal level, most of the efforts have been either in the form of building public housing, through urban renewal projects or, more recently, Section 8 housing, which provides vouchers to low income people that are often used in a specified Section 8 developments but can also be used in other types of housing.
And, at the local level, inclusionary zoning is currently the most, perhaps fastest-growing type of housing affordability. And inclusionary zoning requires developers of new, market-based projects to provide a certain percentage of units that will be set aside for low-income renters or homebuyers. I should say not necessarily low income but renters or homebuyers who meet certain income standard.
Strong Towns: The thing that I always struggle with is it seems like in our cities we provide one of two options for people who have lower incomes. One is either substandard and declining housing, housing that other people don’t want, that is of low value, that is going essentially in the wrong direction.
And we sometimes label these [owners as] slumlords and what have you, but it’s stuff that is . . . there’s no market incentive, in a sense, to improve it because you can cash-flow the low rents and you just watch it decline.
The other one is these crazy subsidized ones where I’m very suspect[ious] of the underlying forces that are being marshaled to make those kind of things happen. Do those seem like the two options we pursue, and aren’t they a little extreme?
Hamilton: Yeah, I certainly agree. On one hand, with the public housing or Section 8 housing, that tends to be very low quality. There’s well-documented problems with the issues of concentrating low income people in substandard housing and creating incentives for them to stay there rather than pursuing opportunities for better housing for their families and what might be a different location that doesn’t have access to the government subsidies.
And then, on the inclusionary zoning side, it just seems really impractical to provide the subsidized housing within new construction buildings where dollars are going to [provide] the least housing for people. And inclusionary zoning has provided just a drop in the bucket of the units that would be necessary to provide housing for all the people who would qualify for it. And one problem with both public housing and inclusionary zoning is that the units that are available typically have long waiting lists.
So if we think about immigrants coming to the US in the 19th or early 20th centuries, they could immediately find housing that they could afford rather than waiting months or years for publicly planned housing that would become available to them.
Strong Towns: I’m often baffled by this because I see those same numbers that you’re describing, where essentially we have this massive backlog of people who need housing and in need of certain price points and then I turn to I look at the market. And I say, “Why is this so crazy?” You live in Washington D.C.?
Hamilton: Arlington, actually.
Strong Towns: We’re bombarded all the time out here in Minnesota with the statistics from places like D.C. and New York, and I get the argument that “OK, if we don’t have to pay for a car and we don’t have to pay for certain other things, we can put more into housing.” But, still, the housing prices are crazy. I’ve seen statistics where people are paying 70-80 percent of their income for housing, not poor people by any stretch either. People of certain means that would have, in other parts of the country, options. The whole housing market to me seems a little bit crazy. Do you share that bewilderment? And I ask that because, to me, trying to solve one segment of it while the rest of it is crazy seems a little futile in itself.
Hamilton: Certainly. I agree, 100 percent. The trend towards building a few buildings worth of micro apartments in some of these expensive cities is great and exciting, but it’s definitely not going to go all the way. And I think that really reforming the institutions that are in place to slow down the development process — where each individual neighborhood gets to weigh in on whether or not a new project will be built near their homes is the root of the problem in D.C. and some of these other cities that just have crazy housing prices, where middle income people are struggling to find someplace that fits within their budget.
Strong Towns: I had someone earlier this week or last week chewed me out on social media; they were cranky with me because we had posted an article about migration and how people are moving, in some cases, from very expensive places to places that are more affordable. To me, I didn’t even think this was controversial. I didn’t realize that I had struck a nerve with people who felt “if you were born here you have like a right to stay here at a submarket price.”
And I had this ongoing conversation, and my Twitter feed just got flooded with people angry about it. And I thought, well, OK, I’ll just listen for a while. Is there anything objectionable to having – let’s say, in this case it was Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is bizarrely affluent and unaffordable – people depart Cambridge and say “I’m frustrated with it, I can’t afford to live here” and end up in a place like Cincinnati, which, in my opinion, is a really great city. It’s a city that is growing and has got a lot of things happening, and a lot of opportunity to get housing at affordable prices and see it appreciate, and see yourself build some wealth and equity even as a starter home at a low end. Is this somehow wrong in 2017, or am I just interacting with someone in a bubble?
Hamilton: Well, I definitely don’t think it’s wrong for people to move away from expensive housing markets to places where their dollars can go further, and definitely it might make sense for plenty of households and individuals to make that choice.
But I think the problem comes when some of the best economic opportunities and highest income growth and most innovative economies are also located in these really expensive cities so that people who don’t already have economic means might not be able to pursue the best job opportunities that are available to them if they can’t afford rent in Cambridge or San Francisco or New York City. So I think that’s the real macroeconomic consequence of gating off these both very expensive and very productive areas to people of a broader income range.
Strong Towns: Wouldn’t that be true though of the tech worker or the professional but not necessarily like the taxi driver or the barista or the person working a truly lower income type of job? Their opportunities aren’t necessarily going to be increased in that Richard Florida kind of way, by being in the big epicenter of technology and change that we’ve seen in some of the coastal cities. Am I saying something crazy? Or is that not true?
Hamilton: No, I agree that the disparities in income opportunities are greater for workers of higher skills. So it might make sense for a tech worker to pay those crazy San Francisco rents because they can make substantially more money there compared to a lower-productivity city.
But it’s also true that baristas and taxi drivers make more in San Francisco than they would in Cincinnati or Houston or wherever. But it often doesn’t make sense for them to pursue that additional income or job growth potential because their housing cost is greater than the income differential for those lower skilled workers.
Strong Towns: Right. Let me put it this way … There’s a certain part of my question of housing policy, and I will freely admit that I don’t consider myself a policy expert. In graduate school when I had to take the housing classes, they just baffled me, they made no sense to me at all, and it was largely because of this general skepticism I have.
It seems to me like if you’re a very wealthy person in New York City or San Francisco or Boston, you don’t want your neighborhood to change: I don’t want that single family home to be converted into a house for three families at lower price points. I don’t want the micro apartment building up the street because I just don’t want that, that’s not the character my neighborhood is in. The downside of that policy – that essentially you’re not going to have that strata of employee in your neighborhood – you’re going to have to pay extreme amounts for daily services, and a lot of people who don’t find opportunity in your community are going to leave.
The feedback you’re going to get from a market standpoint is your place is going to cease to function, right? Am I delusional, that thinking, or is there something missing?
Hamilton: No, I don’t think you’re missing anything, and that’s why we read stories of teachers or our firefighters going through just insane commutes to be able to work where they’re employed.
And inclusionary zoning seeks to have people of all different income levels living within one specific building. And we talked about the drawbacks to that policy. But, in a free market, I think it’s very likely that we would see buildings that are accessible to people of many different incomes within the same general area. So they might not live exactly at the same address, but it would be much more feasible for service workers or lower income professionals to live near their job, and it would make these neighborhoods function much better, as you say.
Strong Towns: Now I’m not questioning at all the people who work in affordable housing, which is that battle I got in. It was housing advocates who said “You should come out with me and actually work with people who are struggling.” So I get that there are really good people out there trying to do good work. It seems to me though, a lot of the support or the default – for some of these inclusionary housing and other housing vouchers and what have you is – in part and parcel – the affluent saying “I don’t want my neighborhood to change. And so I’m willing to, essentially, pay to accommodate people in someone else’s neighborhood as opposed to having the painful feedback of having my neighborhood not work.” Am I crazy on that as well” Is that something where am I taking that a step too far?
Hamilton: No, I don’t think so. And I think that the real problem here comes when people who are higher income people don’t want their neighborhood to change. They’re using the political process to keep their neighborhood as it is rather than bearing the cost themselves of keeping a neighborhood as it is without allowing for new growth. And when we see neighborhoods that just aren’t allowing new housing, the filtering process that leads new housing to become affordable for lower income people over years and decades is prevented from taking place. So it becomes an enclave, where only people of a certain income can afford a place to live.
Strong Towns: I’m from central Minnesota. We have tons of affordable housing here and lots of job opportunities. We have people trying to hire all the time here and they’re unable to fill up those jobs. Now there’s a lot of people that are unemployed, and there’s a little bit of a skills mismatch.
I have the good fortune of traveling all over the country. I was in Rockford, Illinois, last year. I was in Peoria, Illinois, last year. Both places that have seen layoffs and struggles but also have a lot of job opportunities and a ton of affordable housing. I mentioned Cincinnati earlier. I think “Here’s another place … What if our policy on housing switched from being — one of looking strictly at housing, where in a sense, we’re trying to subsidize and counterbalance what I think are crazy out-of-touch prices – and instead we focused on giving individuals more power and essentially more ability to, if they want to, stay and make it work fine. But if they want to move somewhere else – migrate, which I think is a great American tradition of moving on to better opportunities – what would be the downsides of a of a shift in that direction?
Hamilton: I think that that’s the policy that makes the most sense for ensuring that people have access to not just housing but the range of consumer goods that they need is to subsidize individuals with money that gives them the potential to make their own choices about how best to use it rather than subsidizing housing directly in only locations that are determined by policymakers.
Strong Towns: I feel like the downside would be that some of these wealthy, affluent neighborhoods would actually cease to function well. And, OK, then they would have to make a choice: Do we pay really high, high wages, to keep, essentially, people out that we don’t want, or do we have to start being more accommodating?
I struggle with that side effect of our housing policy. It feels like we are saving . . . . I mean, I can just look at the neighborhoods here. It feels like we are saving people who don’t want their neighborhood to change from any like painful feedback, [namely] that the neighborhood actually doesn’t work unless it does change.
Hamilton: Yeah, I think that’s right. And there may come a point at which these neighborhoods realize “Oh, we need to allow more housing construction or we’re not going to have any teachers for our kids or anyone to work in the restaurants that we want to go to.” But, unfortunately for income-mobility consequences, it seems to be that workers are willing to endure very, very long commutes in order to get to jobs that pay a little bit more than what they could make elsewhere. So these higher income people who are preventing new housing construction and their neighborhoods and cities are really causing bad consequences for the people who work in those neighborhoods.
Strong Towns: Right. I want to ask you a question that might seem unrelated and out of the blue. I want to ask you a question about a basic universal income, and I’m actually intrigued by the idea and think that it might be a way to change some of these crazy distortions that I see in our system. One of the things that I’ve seen put forth is that you would have a different universal income if you lived in, say, San Francisco or Washington D.C. or New York than you would if you lived in say Cincinnati, Ohio, or my little hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. And the reason would be because it costs more to live in New York than it does in Brainerd. You know, it costs more to live in D.C. than it does in Cincinnati. Not debating whether universal income is a good approach or not, but is that notion that, essentially, let’s just say it’s double if you live in New York, we’ll give you double the amount of money than if you live in Brainerd.
Doesn’t that freeze the inequities or the bad outcomes that we currently have in place and not allow them to be smoothed over? In other words, if you can live really well in a place like Brainerd or Cincinnati but live really poorly in New York on the same amount of money, why wouldn’t we allow people to make that decision? And I think more people would move to places and we’d have more opportunity in places like Cincinnati. Is that a concept that seems foreign, or is that something that maybe make some sense?
Hamilton: I haven’t really thought about universal basic income that would be adjusted for purchasing power before. I think it’s an interesting idea, but I think that you raise an important concern, that we wouldn’t want a case where people can live on universal basic income alone a low-productivity, low-cost part of the country and face an incentive to go somewhere like that, where they might want to live just on their basic income alone without working. Tyler Cowen here at the Mercatus Center has written quite a bit about how work is important, not just for economic growth and productivity but also it’s such an important part of human happiness and the ability to learn and grow in a career. And so I think that that’s one important side effect that should be heavily considered in any sort of UBI policy.
Strong Towns: I’m getting back to the migration thing. One of our writers, a guy named Johnny Sanphillippo. He writes the blog, GranolaShotgun, which is really out there. I was going to say it’s out in left field but it’s out in right field too, it’s all over the place. The guy has a certain level of brilliance to him that I’ve come to find endearing. He told me once a story about three young people who lived in San Francisco and they couldn’t find their own places what they wound up doing was getting the house together. And he told me how much they pay for rent. I can’t remember. All I know is that it was astounding, it was like each was paying double what I’m paying for my mortgage something along those lines. And they were paying that, they were each paying that for their own room. So they said they didn’t have a house like I have, they have single rooms in an apartment and they were working multiple jobs, very hardworking people, working multiple jobs to try to make ends meet because they like living in San Francisco. I totally get that. There might have been a point in my life when I was in my younger 20s when that that made a lot of sense to me.
But he talked to them and, essentially, counseled them, “Hey, at some point here, you may want something different. And why not move and actually go back to Cincinnati?” Because, I think it was Cincinnati where he had a neighborhood he was looking at, “Why don’t you move here” and they did. And at a much lower burn rate of income, they were able to essentially have a different style of living. It wasn’t a San Francisco-style living, but it was one with a lot less work in terms of labor to make ends meet. It was one with a lot more free time. And, net, a much higher standard of living. Much of our housing policy today, I think, robs people of those kind of choices, or doesn’t present those kind of choices, or presents them as essentially equivalent when maybe they’re not.
Hamilton: Yeah, there’s such a bias, among the people who write about urban policy, to focus on the expensive cities and the housing issues that they face rather than the Cincinnati, where housing is abundant and if there’s a problem with people being able to afford housing there, that’s probably an income problem rather than a housing problem.
But I think that the goal needs to remain to make the cities that are currently unaffordable but are in high demand affordable. Because the reason that they’re in such high demand is because of the economic and growth opportunities that they present. And it’s just, I think, difficult to impossible to replicate a Bay Area or New York City in another part of the country because those cities have such a history of organic economic growth and agglomeration benefits within and across industries that the same economic opportunities can’t be recreated in other parts of the country where housing is more abundant.
Strong Towns: OK, this is what I want to get at. Now you’re saying something that I think is a good counterargument. Let me restate it and you can tell me if I’m hearing you correctly.
You’re saying that a place like New York is just going to be unaffordable, it’s just going to have really high prices because so many people want to be there. So many people want to be there because of the economic opportunity and you really can’t transfer that economic opportunity to other places. Is that a fair summation of what you just said?
Hamilton: I certainly agree that the economic opportunity of a New York City can’t be transferred to somewhere else. But I don’t think it’s necessary that places with high demand like New York City have to have high housing [costs], or at least not anywhere the prices that they currently have. People have described that single-room occupancy hotels and boarding houses of the past as the lowest rung on the housing ladder. And what’s happened with urban policy is that the lowest rung has been eliminated so that there aren’t affordable opportunities that the least well-off people in a city can access.
Strong Towns: OK, let me let me say something then that might be a little controversial from an economics standpoint: I get the notion that the fire of New York’s economy is burning really hot right now, it’s really strong. Is the national policy, [or] should [it] be, “let’s try to get some more wood on that fire. Let’s try to get that fire going even bigger.” Or should it be “let’s try to get some of that fire transferred over to a place like, I don’t know, Philadelphia, Baltimore. I mean, here’s two cities within – not daily commute [distance] but certainly [close] enough to have a regional back-and-forth economically, where you have massive amounts of economic distress and whole neighborhoods that are in terminal decline. That would be very affordable if you could make some policy changes and have some of that fire burning in those places as well. Is this a situation where too much of a good thing in one place is not healthy?
Hamilton: I don’t think that national economic policy should be focused on either promoting more job growth within currently very productive, very expensive places or moving it necessarily to other places.
I think that the only way to allow for the highest possible economic growth is to allow firms and individuals to decide where it makes sense for them to locate. If we think about industries that are currently situated in one geographic area like, of course, the tech industry tends to locate in the Bay Area, or the entertainment industry tends to locate in Southern California. That’s an organic process that happens over time as certain factors make those areas attractive to certain industries. And I think that government policies that either try to perpetuate that in current areas or try to move economic activity to places that are currently less in demand are going to result in fewer opportunities for economic growth and income and job growth because these cluster economies are based on so many individual decisions that just can’t be replicated by public policy.
Strong Towns: I hear you, and I agree with you, but let me let me throw this out. What about the fact that we’re making these massive infrastructure investments?
What about the fact that we, at the federal level, subsidize certain types of housing? I get back to the earlier conversation about maybe sometimes these places will burn so hot that they will become unaffordable. And the feedback you get is that things stop working — they can’t get teachers, they can’t get police officers, they can’t get what have you. And that’s one of those natural market feedbacks that suggest “hey, this should be happening more in in Philadelphia and a little bit less in New York.” It seems a little bit like our policies go the opposite direction: In other words, we seem to be fighting this fire at the source? How do we deal with the affordable housing crisis here in D.C.? How do we deal with affordability crisis here in New York? As opposed to looking at it in a broader national framework. Do you have a reaction to that? Because I hear what you’re saying, and I agree with you that firms and individuals should make these decisions.
But we’re also really distorting the marketplace that they’re playing in, are we not?
Hamilton: Well, I would say that the move toward Section 8 housing, away from public housing provided by the federal government, is a slight move away from directing where affordable housing resources go geographically. And certainly inclusionary zoning efforts are usually run by local governments, so they are local policies addressing local affordability challenges rather than trying to get people to live in places that are already some of the most expensive places.
But to your point that cities face a constraint, after a certain point of becoming too expensive they will cease to function well. I think that that’s absolutely true, and that there is a price of unaffordability at which a Bay Area becomes less desirable than it was because services cease functioning, like schools and service industries and transportation because the people who work in those industries simply cannot afford it.
Strong Towns: If you look at the Bay Area, which I’m probably more familiar with the infrastructure in Northern California than in the Northeast. If we look at the Bay Area, we see the federal governments investing lots of money in what we call commuter rail, not rail connecting one place to another but rail that is designed to bring people from cheaper neighborhoods on the edge to the more affluent or more productive neighborhoods in the center. To me this is a federal policy that is essentially trying to circumvent the difficult feedback that these San Francisco neighborhoods should be experiencing when they become so unaffordable. Essentially I feel like you’re trying to bring in workers you can pay less instead of having to pay them more, and deal with the consequences or adapt a different housing approach? Is my take on that valid? Or am I seeing something that you’re not? Or am I seeing it wrong?
Hamilton: No, I think you’re right that that federal infrastructure investment distorts housing market policies. But I think that it’s true all across the country, whether we’re talking about investment in rural infrastructure that’s serving a declining and small population or infrastructure in urban areas that’s allowing problematic housing policies to go on. There are plenty of distortions in infrastructure policy to go around, and I’m not sure which effect is larger, if it’s the subsidizing people who live outside of these expensive cities or whether it’s allowing labor markets to grow geographically in these expensive regions.
Strong Towns: So it’s just that the idea, and I’m with you, I totally agree the notion that you take a place like Silicon Valley, you take a place the Bay Area, and you look at the massive growth that they’ve experienced, and it’s hard not to say great this is excellent for our economy. This is a source of innovation. This is driving all kinds of economic improvements around the country around the world. This is a great thing.
But I also step back and look at the conversation they’re having there on their housing. And it just seems to me to be this bizarre intertwining of distortion after distortion after distortion. In fact I was in. What was that little, that city, I was going to say little, it’s like 200,000 people, little for Northern California size. And they were telling me about how, basically, prices they’ve been going up for years, they’re going to continue to go up. And the mantra was “prices only go up.”
And I said, “Well, didn’t you have prices go down in 2008?”
“Oh, yeah, it was horrible. But by 2010, we were back going up again, and there’s no reason to suspect that prices will ever not go up.” I’m not even exaggerating what they were saying. They were adamant that prices only go in one direction and, therefore, we must be doing all these other things, whether it’s transit investments, or affordable housing subsidies, or inclusionary zoning, or what have you. Because prices only go in one direction.
It just felt to me like I was in a different kind of bubble world, where the actual market feedback would just ceased to work. Maybe I’m just lamenting to you because I don’t get it. I feel like we try to simplify it down to this family can’t afford the house. Therefore, let’s find them a house they can afford or give them money. I almost feel like in a Nassim Taleb “via negative” way, we need to pull out some of the distorting things and see where prices actually end up at the end of the day, because it seems to me like they’d have to be more rational than they are now.
Hamilton: Yeah, as you say, there are so many interconnected issues when we’re talking about housing policy, and an important one is the public policy goal of promoting homeownership as an investment that goes up in value over time. That’s been hugely problematic and created incentives for homeowners to treat their houses a scarce resource that they need to protect from competition and just really misdirected resources toward housing that could better be invested in other industries.
Strong Towns: I want to end up by talking about just the human aspect of this a little bit too. I was in Portland and I was chatting, we were out looking at some transit stops and one of them we had a bunch of neighborhood activists with us, and we were walking around and I was talking with one of the gentlemen in that group and he told me that he was paying $3,000 a month for his rental. I don’t know what he did for a living. He was not a professional. He was doing blue-collar, non-professional work. And maybe he was making a decent living. It didn’t seem like that from my conversation. It feels a lot like the distortions that we have, we can describe them as “people struggling to make ends meet.” But I actually look at it a lot more of this as we are just robbing people’s future from them. We are, in a sense, not allowing them to build their own wealth, their own security, their own safety cushion. Can you talk a little bit about the human side of this and what you see is some of the real human downfalls of our current approach?
Hamilton: Yes, I agree completely that it’s just a sad situation when people, all the way from middle income down to the least well-off person in a city, might be struggling to find housing that fits within their budget.
And that’s if they’re taking the opportunity to pursue a job or whatever else is drawing them to an expensive city, they are then forced to trade off good personal finance, where they could be saving for their futures. I think it’s just a human tragedy. When we think about that the urban policies that we’ve discussed are falling hardest on the least well-off people in a city, who are least able to bear these preferences of higher income people who just want to prevent housing below a certain standard from being built anywhere near their home.
Strong Towns: I see the stories that affordable housing advocates put forward and they’re very compelling. They’re there. They pull on your heartstrings, but I often feel like we’re not getting to the real crux of things. If we find people an affordable place to live, that solves whatever the immediate problem is, but it doesn’t necessarily put them on a path to independence, it doesn’t put them on a path to actually getting their own economic security. It feels a lot like even our best intentions trap people in a place where they’re not able to realize their full potential as humans. I don’t know if you have a thought in those regards.
Hamilton: I think you’re right. In The Power Broker, Robert Caro has a great section where he talks about a neighborhood and the process that was made up of largely recent Jewish immigrants who had moved from the Lower East Side tenements into this new neighborhood in the Bronx where they had higher housing standards and healthier, safer conditions than they had in the Lower East Side. And this happened within less than a generation, and that income mobility that we see from the market-provided low-income housing is not what we tend to see in government-provided low-income housing, where the problems of intergenerational poverty are well documented.
Strong Towns: I do this sometimes when I’m giving a talk. If we get on the topic of housing I will say to the audience “2001 to 2008 was a housing ____________” and then they’ll fill in “Bubble” and I’ll say, “OK, 2010 to 2017 is a housing ____________” and everybody looks at me like, “What?”
And then someone will sheepishly say “recovery” and I’ll show them the chart. Basically, here’s the bubble and then here’s the recovery, and it’s two different terms for essentially the same distortion, like we are back to where we were, and then some, in 2008. When we look back and say “Well, that was a bubble” and now we are recovered essentially to a bubble.
Do you have, like, existential concerns about housing in this country, and that we really have foundational problems, that maybe we’re dealing with around the edges but thwarting any ability to do good things at the local level?
Hamilton: The macroeconomic areas is out of my area of expertise for sure. But I would say that I find it mind boggling that the federal government has not only perpetuated the policies that facilitated the 2008 housing crisis but created new policies that allow people with minimal assets and minimal credit to purchase homes. And I think that’s all part of this idea that homeownership should be seen as a great investment. Whereas that’s not necessarily true for everyone and shouldn’t be encouraged by a public policy.
Strong Towns: I feel like we have done everything we can to prop up housing prices. I believe that you’re younger than me I’m 43. I’m going to say this, and I don’t say this as a way to bash Baby Boomers, although that’s fun from time to time. I can I can do that because everybody can bash their elders, right? It feels like we have done everything we can to prop up the housing market while the Baby Boomers find ways to, essentially, cash out and sell and get their nest egg out of their home equity.
But the cost of that has been Millennials and younger people have, and poorer people, people who are trying to get entry level type of home, have experienced much, much higher housing costs than they otherwise would.
I understand the macro policy, but the real effect is that we’re trapping younger people who have all the student loan debt, all the other drags on their upward mobility at the start of their professional careers. Are we hitting them in a double whammy here?
Hamilton: I think so. The mismatch between housing supply and demand in cities where housing supply stopped being so elastic really took off in the 70s and 80s in a lot of the cities. So people who got in before that time period or shortly after it have had opportunities for huge house price increases. But it has intergenerational consequences for the younger group coming along, who will really struggle to be able to come up with a down payment for a house as prices keep rising.
Chuck Marohn, StrongTowns.org
Years ago, I ran my own planning company. And one day, I was sitting at my desk and one of my colleagues came storming into the office. And he is a pretty mild mannered guy, not one to gratuitously go off half cocked. He comes in, and I could just see the storm cloud over him. He’s slamming stuff down and carrying on. And I came to find out that he had gotten a ticket. He had gotten pulled over and issued a citation for not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign. Now it was that the incident happened in the city north of Brainerd where I live. He had gone up there. We were working for the city actually.
They had had some turnover, and we were filling in part time until they brought in someone full time. He had gone up there to cover a couple of things and pulled into the main intersection in town. Now, there are other stop signs in town. But this is the main intersection. And just looking at it — I’ve been here many, many, many times. It’s one of those where you pull up and you can see half a mile in each direction. So he pulls up to this and, supposedly, he rolled through. He contends quite forcefully that he came to a complete stop. Nevertheless the police officer pulled him over. And I don’t know what his reaction was, he’s not a guy to pick a fight, but I’m sure he was a little shocked and actually got a ticket. And he was he was pretty ticked off.
It didn’t surprise me — and it didn’t surprise me not because Tim has this history of breaking the law. He doesn’t. Dare I say, he is a pretty standard, mild, easygoing guy. The problem was that I had worked in the city, and I knew how their police department operated. For a while, I had served as the city administrator. They were in the process of bringing on an administrator. I filled in part time. This is something that I did in many different jurisdictions across the state when they needed someone temporarily, they would call us and we would fill in.
So I had met, in that capacity, with their police chief. Let me just say, he’s a really nice guy. He’s not there anymore, he’s retired. He’s a really nice guy. His kids had my mom in school. My mom was a teacher for many years. His kids had my mom, they liked my mom, my mom liked them. I like them. They’re nice people. They’re really nice people.
But he explained to me how they did business, and he was not shy about this. He was very proud of it. He was very clear on the way they operated. He said that he had instructed his officers to be aggressive in pulling people over. They call this an investigatory stop. So someone pulls up to a stop sign. They don’t come to a complete stop. You pull them over and you use that incident as a way to — and I’m going to use my words, not his — as a way to fish for other things, right?
So you run their license, do they have a warrant? Do they have expired tabs? Do you smell alcohol, do you smell pot — is there something else?
And he told me about this approach and how they did this and said that, essentially, it was a really good way for them to interact into the mainstream happenings of the community and find nefarious activity. He told me they’ve found numerous people with warrants. They have discovered numerous people with drugs. This was one of the ways that they were able to do policing. And, according to him, they had a pretty high success rate of identifying what they would call really bad characters.
But my friend Tim got caught in the crossfire. Didn’t appreciate it. I have to say I got pulled over [there] too, a number of times, before this, before I was aware of this, [and] actually since I’ve been aware of this. If there are multiple routes I can take and one goes through [there] and one doesn’t, I just I don’t go through. I stay away from it. I stay far, far away, but I had, in years past, gotten pulled over a couple of times.
One time, I had a taillight out, one of my tail lights were out. I had a Toyota Echo. A little car that I had for a long time. We had mice in the garage that had gotten in the car and chewed some of the wires, and I got it all fixed, but we could not figure out why this taillight would go out.
And the frustrating thing is that it would be on. It would work just fine and would flicker out and literally all you had to do to get to work was go back and pound on it and it would it would click back in. And I brought this to the dealership. They went through it. We did all kinds of stuff and we just could not figure this weird thing out. So I got pulled over for that once, and the police officer came to the door. “Do you know why I’m pulling you over?” “No, I have no idea.” He goes “Well, you got a taillight out.”
I’m like “Oh.” And I explain to him what was going on. I said “Could I get out and fix it because I’ll show you I can I can fix it.” And he’s like, “Sure, pop your trunk, and we’ll go back there and take a look at it.” So I popped the trunk and we went back and he shined his light around the trunk and, I guess, made sure I didn’t have any dead bodies. And I tapped on the light and it turned back on and he said “All right, well, why don’t you get that fixed?” and I’m like “I’ve been down that road, dude.” But anyway, he let me go and I went on my way.
I’ve been pulled over many, many times — in fact, I’ve often thought if I became a public figure, the kind that was subjected to scrutiny the way that a political candidate would be, for example, that one of the things that would come up was this horrific driving record that I have.
I don’t know how many speeding tickets I have. I would say if you gave me an over/under, more or less than 15.
I would say less than 15. So, somewhere in that range 10 to 15 speeding tickets. I’m 43 so I’ve been driving decades now, but most of my tickets came in a very specific period of time. It was a period of time when I was running my own planning company. We were working all over the state. I would have night meetings fourteen or fifteen times a month, and they were always in some remote rural location ,and I would be driving back home in that magical period of time between 11:00 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Now why is that a magical period of time? It’s a magical period of time because the police are very aware that there’s a lot of people who are out driving intoxicated during those hours. People go to the bar, they’re heading home. They’ve had too much to drink and, particularly in a lot of these small towns, it becomes a very — and I want to say I want to say this in the right way – it’s a very easy and convenient way to do one of these investigatory stops and find out if someone’s been drinking or not, right out on the edge of all these towns.
Every single one of them, there’s this transition zone where the highway design is the same. Everything looks the same. You’re going legally 55 miles an hour and then all of a sudden it changes to 40 or changes to 30 and there’s this abrupt transition, even though the visual cues to the driver are no different. Everything’s the same, it’s just that there’s a sign there. People speed through these areas all the time. I mean it is — I to this day — I know where a lot of them are. I was driving home from Grand Rapids the other day, and I drove through this little town of Deer River and it seemed like a mile out of town it switches to 40 miles an hour for no discernible reason. And then when you get to town and it becomes more discernible, “OK, I should be driving a lot slower now.” You naturally start to slow down.
But you have this stretch, out on the edge, where, unless you catch the sign, unless you know — there’s no other cue is what I’m trying to say. There’s no other visual cue that tells you drive slower except for this road sign. So I would get pulled over all the time. I mean all the time. It just seemed like it was always 50, 40, 55, and 45, those kind of things. I got pulled over for going 45 in a 40. I mean I’ve gotten pulled over. It was just a pretext that you were breaking the law.
Clearly, I’m not arguing that I was not breaking the law. I was breaking the law. I was going fast. But these are places that during the day nobody bothers with, right? There’s no police officer that sits in most of these places. They go out during these high crime periods of time, and they try to pull people over because a percentage of them will be drinking. And, generally, when we get pulled over, police officers would come up and say “Do you know why I pulled you over?” And I say either “Yes, I was exceeding the speed limit” or “Gosh, really, I have no idea.” The latter usually ticked them off. The former, they appreciate that you would acknowledge it you were going too fast, but then we’d have a little bit of dialogue. And I think they would figure out that I was not drinking and generally I would be allowed to go on my way.
Every now and then I might get a ticket. But, generally, I was allowed to go on my way. I had this thing for a while where, if I was wearing a tie, I did not get a ticket and I would say I had a stretch of five or six times where I was wearing a tie and I did not get a ticket. And so I actually got a little clip-on tie. And I wore a tie to most of my meetings. So I was pretty much wearing a tie, but there were some times where I didn’t, and if I had a collared shirt, I would have this little clip-on tie. And as soon as I saw the lights, I would reach over, I had my tie hid there.
I put my clothes on and when they came up, I would I would have my tie on, and I never got a ticket. I think I got a ticket once. But it was years later during that period of time, when I was getting pulled over a lot, I did not get any tickets with a tie on. I just didn’t.
So this is the kind of interaction with police that I have experience, that I’ve seen from the perspective of an affluent professional person who has worked in city government with police officers and seen how all of this operates. I feel I get the system, and I actually don’t think that any of these people are evil. I would get frustrated with the officers because “I’m why are you doing it like this,” it just would make me so frustrated. But I never got to the point where I’m “OK these police officers are just evil. They’re terrible, they’re doing wrong.”
They were doing what we expected them to do, right? They were doing what we asked them to do, and when they would show up at the council meetings and say, “yes, we pulled over, we had this many tickets that we issued. We set up a little speed trap on the edge of town or we would we would park in a spot on the edge of town. And, boy, we get one or two drunk drivers a week or a night” or whatever the rate was. The council would applaud, and the public would applaud, and in general we applaud the perceived interdiction of crime, right? We’re good with this. I get it. I totally, totally get it.
I want to talk a little bit about Philando Castile, the gentleman who was killed by the St. Anthony police here in Minnesota a few weeks back during a routine traffic stop.
It came out in the newspaper in the following weeks that he had been pulled over by police forty-nine times. Forty-nine times. And I remember looking at that number going “Wow, that is a huge number of times.” You get pulled over now and then, I thought, “How many times have I been pulled over?” Forty-nine? Probably not forty-nine now.
Castile was eleven years younger than me. I am over 40 now, but maybe at [age] 30 — even [to be] pulled over thirty times – forty-nine is an amazingly high number for anyone. I think 30 is probably a high number. If I looked at someone like my wife, who doesn’t drive in these high pullover-rate times, and doesn’t drive in high pullover-rate neighborhoods. She’s probably been pulled over five times, six times, so my thirty times would seem huge. Forty-nine seems just outrageously high, right? And the local newspaper laid out what was going on, and I’m going to read a quote from them because it sounded eerily familiar to me, both from my experience as a driver and also as the administrator in the city where I had the opportunity to work with the police chief here. The Star Tribune, the state newspaper here in Minnesota said “Could still have been stopped before when officers spotted him not wearing a seatbelt or when an officer ran his plate number and found his license had been revoked for not paying an earlier fine. Numerous stops came after he didn’t use a turn signal. A few came after he was speeding. He was stopped for rolling through a right turn on a red light, having windows tints that were too dark, and at least twice for not having a rear license plate light. He was rarely ticketed for the reason he was stopped.”
Now we’re not going to talk at all about police shootings here, and we’re not going to talk at all about that whole controversy. I don’t want to get into it. I have some opinions. I don’t know if I have any Strong Towns type of opinions on it. It all makes me sad. I don’t want to get into it. And some of the people in the article that I wrote this week on the blog wanted to go there and I don’t. There are plenty of places talking about that. And I think they should go talk about that there. I don’t want to talk about that. If he had broken the law, if he had a taillight out. I guess I’m not suggesting that the cops were wrong in pulling him over, and I’m also not suggesting that the police were wrong in pulling me over any of the times that I got pulled over. I know they were legitimate traffic stops, right? What I do want to talk about today is a couple of things regarding this notion of the investigatory stop and how to view that in light of the environment that we have built.
I want to put forth the notion that everybody breaks traffic laws. And I know there are people listening right now [saying] “I never break traffic laws.” Yes, you do. Yes, you do.
You have you break traffic laws at times. You don’t know your headlight’s out, you don’t know your taillight’s out. You’re telling me that you always do a preventative maintenance check before you turn on your vehicle and make sure that all the lights are working? No, you don’t. You’ve broken traffic laws. You come to an absolute complete stop with an interval of zero forward motion at every single stop sign? No, you don’t, you do not do that, you’ve never gone through an accelerated through when a light turns yellow to try to make that turn? You’ve never driven a mile over the speed limit? Yes, you have, every single person listening to this breaks traffic laws all the time. All the time, right?
The people who have commented on the post I do this week said “You know, well, they could just follow the law.” And the other one I like is “Or they could just do what the officer says.”
And both of those I find just bizarre because, for the most part, there are a lot of people in this country who believe that if you just follow the law you could live a life like me and never get pulled over by the police.
And I’m telling you the reason you’re not getting pulled over by the police is not because you’re not breaking a law, it’s because you’re not in that target zone. Right? You’re not out driving in the transition zone on the edge of town in a rural community between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. You’re not there. If you were there you would get pulled over, but you’re not there, right? You’re not there so you’re not getting pulled over. If you leave your cul-de-sac in your very nice, modern, brand-new car with no rust, and the exhaust muffler not making noise, and you drive down the street to the school and then to your office park and back, you’re not in an area where police are targeting. You’re not in a crime area where we have an expectation that police will be out doing these type of investigatory stops in order to essentially stamp down crime or prevent crime from happening or be tough on the criminal element.
So I want to just get to a place where everyone acknowledges that we all break traffic laws all the time, all the time, every day, all the time. Routinely, people break traffic laws and are never held to account for this. And I’m not arguing that that’s bad. I’m saying that’s a good thing. Most traffic laws’ and this is really where I want to get to’ most traffic laws are — how do I put this? In a way, I’m going to say frivolous, because if you’re driving with a taillight out, you should get that fixed, right, but they’re not life threatening.
Right now, I’ve got two daughters. There’s a certain scream that they do sometimes, like they’re mad at each other, or they’re playing, or the one stubs their toe and they scream like someone’s going to die kind of scream. And I come running. My wife comes running. “Oh my gosh, what happened?”
And it’s “OK, no, that did not warrant that level of scream. That level of scream is for “Dad, I’m about to die, someone’s about to get hurt, come quickly.” So we’ve got to teach our kids, OK, you can go ahead and express your displeasure here but not in that way that’s out of proportion.
When we look at traffic stops, they’re not the scream come running because someone’s about to die kind of thing. They’re the nuisance kind of things. Your taillight’s out. You need to get that fixed.
And this is the case because, when you get pulled over for having a taillight out, what does the officer do, right? The first thing they generally tell you “Your taillight’s out” and I’ve gotten that one before. They’ll say you need to get that fixed, right? Sometimes they’ll write you up a warning, sometimes they’ll write you up a ticket, but they generally just say “Hey, I want you know, you got a taillight out. Go get that fixed.” But then they let you drive off, right? They don’t impound your car there. They don’t make you sit on the side of the road until AAA comes and fixes your taillight. They let you actually proceed on your way because driving with a taillight out is not creating chaos and mayhem on the roads. The correlation between that and people dying on our streets is incredibly, incredibly low. Let’s get you home let’s make you aware. Go take care of it be a responsible citizen. OK.
When we get to things like speeding — and this is really the one that that I’ve been the most passionate about for a long, long time — when we get to things like speeding we have a completely different kind of mindset, right? I am sitting here in the office in Brainerd today and outside my window, there’s a place where the police sit all the time. They’ll come here, and I say all the time, I mean once every couple of weeks, there’ll be a police officer that sits outside here. It’s the perfect speed trap place, right? Really, really wide lanes. I mean, 18-foot lanes, these are huge industrial, commercial-sized lanes, a sweeping curve so they can sit on the curve and people coming around the curve can’t see them, and they can sit here and just pull people over all day because everybody who drives through here is speeding. Everybody who drives through here is, when I see the police out there.
And I will leave, and come back, and I will be speeding, right? And I’m not trying to break the law. It”s just — the speed limit is 30 and the road is designed for 60 mile an hour speed, and it’s really, really hard — you have to consciously focus, think — really take yourself out of the second part of your brain and put yourself in the very first, the active part of your brain, in order to make yourself drive slow, because all the signals in the environment are “Drive fast, drive fast, drive fast.”
So police just pull people over all the time they just they just sit here and they pull people all the time. Here in Minnesota, we have some deal where some of the revenue goes locally but a lot of it goes to the state. And I’m not really sure where it goes. I know that they don’t get . . . it’s not like a Ferguson situation where we’re funding city hall with police fines, that doesn’t happen.
There’s the civil asset forfeiture laws, which are really screwed up, which does in ways. I think the optics are bad on. I’m not suggesting the police officers are abusing this here locally, but if they wanted to, there’s no accountability for that. It’s one of these laws that’s written with the assumption that all police are honest all the time. And for me I think anytime you write a law like that you’re just you begging for nefarious activity. As an aside, we used to have a thing we said in the Army, “There are no thieves in the Army.” There’s no thieves in the Army. And that was like, the thing. You said “Hoow do there’s not thieves in the Army?” – Because we all put locks on our wall lockers, right? Now no one was going to steal your stuff because it’s locked. It wasn’t that nobody was a thief, it’s that we always lock up right? So when you say “There are no thieves in the Army” it’s not that you just leave your wall locker unlocked then? There’s no thieves because we don’t allow people the opportunity to steal, right?
When we look at the police department say “There’s no bad cops, it’s . . .” right? That’s what our law. Says you can arbitrarily seize assets that are, ancillary or not, you suspect to be involved in a crime. You may have the vast overwhelming percentage of police officers that do not abuse that power but the optics of it is horrible and the inducement of nefarious activity, whether it’s happening or not is just not right. I mean to me, if I was a police officer, I want to get rid of that law. I want to change that because, if there is no way you can defend it, there’s no way you can defend it.
So I’ve got a little bit off track here but I want to get back to speeding because the idea that they can just sit out here and pull anyone over at any time creates the situation where police speeding stops become less about enforcing behavior that is socially acceptable than it is about what is being called these investigatory stops. And an opportunity to proactively create an interaction with the public as a way to – and, again, these are my words, fish for other things.
And I say that because — think about the street right outside the office here. If the concern was that driving at high speeds is unsafe, OK, I have that concern. I think that that is a concern. If the concern is that driving at high speeds is unsafe, well then, we have to step back and look, and we can see that the police officers got here all the time and just pull everybody over. I mean most people are speeding. A high, high percentage of people are going over the speed limit. I just made a broad brush statement, I’m sure there are some that are cringing at that.
Look, I’ve done speed studies. I’ve sat out, not here, outside the office, but other parts of the state. I did an internship for the DA back when I was an undergrad and what I did for a month was do speed studies. And there are places where every single person is speeding. You will have a place where eighty percent of the people are going over the speed limit. And that’s the situation out here. Obvious. Most people are speeding. So in that case, you have to ask yourself, if most people are speeding and going fast is not safe then, is this really an enforcement issue, right?
Is this really an issue where enforcement of the speed limit is going to change behavior and make things safe? Now maybe if the police officer just sat out there 24/7, right, and had a had a visual presence out on the street, it would have an impact, but that’s not what they do, right?
They hide on the corner to catch people speeding. If they really want to slow down what would they do? They would sit out there and say. “OK, I going to be here. If you speed I’m going to get you. But I’m going to be out here, visually present, so that you see and slow down.” And that’s not what they’re doing. They’re trying to catch people speeding? Right? They’re trying to have this interdiction. In essence, if we really cared about the people speeding, if speeding was the problem we were trying to solve, what would we do? If speeding was the problem we were actually trying to address and solve, what would we do in a situation like this?
Well, we would ask a different set of questions. We’s say “Why are people speeding? Why is the average person — and we can assume that the average person is a non deviant, right? If eighty percent of our population are deviants, where do you live, right? We’re not. Most people obey the law or try to obey the law. So if most people are not, in an instance, obeying a traffic law, then what’s going on here?
And I would suggest strongly that that law is not right. The law is incorrect. And one of two things needs to happen. Either, one, the speed limit needs to be changed, because it doesn’t reflect accurately the way the street is designed and the way it’s inducing people to drive. And that’s actually traffic engineering 101, right? I mean, people complain about speeding, and they’ll go and do the traffic study and then find “Yeah, there’s a lot of people speeding,” and they raise the speed limit. I get this complaint all the time. It’s called the eighty-fifth percentile. And that is actually the correct way to do it. If you won’t, do option number two. Option Two is to go and change the design if you’re getting the results that you don’t want, if you’re getting results that are not safe.
So we’re in an urban area here. The speed limit is 30. People are routinely driving 40, 45 miles an hour. That is considered not safe through this section. What is the proper response? Enforcement is not going to do it, because we do that and people still speed, right? And the majority of people are speeding. So it’s not like it’s a deviant behavior.
What is the proper response? The proper response is to go out and redesign that street and to get the optimum outcome. Things like narrowing down the lanes, creating some edge friction, bringing the trees, and bringing the curbs in and doing stuff to slow the section down, so that the average person, the typical driver, when they drive through, gets the visual cues that it’s not safe to drive fast, you must drive slower.
We don’t do that. We never do that. We never do that. And let me give you the very cynical reason why. And then maybe I’ll talk about less cynical reasons, but I think if you wanted to be very cynical — and I’m not sure I believe this but I certainly am sympathetic to it. I certainly think there’s an element of this; if you want to be very, very cynical it is quite convenient. From a law enforcement standpoint, to have a set of laws that nobody follows — that allow you to, at any point in time that you actually need to, to interact with anybody, right? If we were going to design . . . let’s say this is not the United States of America, this is like Stasi Germany right. East Germany in the Cold War. And we wanted — We’re going to have our movie, that’s going to set out the way that the Stasi police go around and harass people. What we would do is we would expect them to set up these arbitrary rules that go against human nature, that nobody really follows.
That would allow you to just at any point in time go out and say “Hey, you’re breaking a rule, I’m going to bring you in, we’re going to have this investigatory stop, and I’m going to check out your papers and everything about you and make sure that you’re not up to no good because I’m looking after the state, right?
I know that just made a lot of you uncomfortable, because you think I just called our police the Stasi. I did not. But I am drawing some parallels because the mindset is somewhat the same, right? We have these laws that nobody follows, that are literally designed so that human nature conflicts with what the law says for the vast majority of people all the time. Yet we allow this to continue because it’s convenient from an enforcement standpoint.
I want to play a real quick little clip here that I want you to listen to. This is from a video called “Speed Kills Your Pocketbook” and it’s I think it’s hilarious. It is. It is a breakdown of the engineering profession, the police profession, and government, and how this kind of unholy intersection of bad design with random enforcement is really in the interest of governments but not people. I want to I want to play this one clip for you because it’s a clip of an incident where a police officer’s out and is just doing, with a news crew, is taking speed limits and finding that nobody [doesn’t] exceed the speed limit. Everybody was speeding. We haven’t seen a single person that has been doing the speed limit.
And that’s what I’m saying. I’ve been in those situations, with a radar gun, where every single person is speeding. It’s not an enforcement problem, it’s a design problem. And when we don’t treat it as a design problem, it raises all these red flags. Why do we really want, is it so important that we be able to pull anybody over at any time for any reason, or have a reason to pull anybody over at any time? Is that important from a crime-fighting standpoint?
And for those of you that say yes, OK, I’m not going to argue with you. I’m not going to argue with you. I just don’t want you to get away with the idea that we’re pulling people over because they’re breaking the law. We’re not. Yes, they’re breaking the law. But everybody is breaking the law.
We’re still choosing where and when to pull people over, right? We’re still choosing that. So that was the cynical view. I want to give you the non-cynical too, because I think it’s worth thinking through, and I’m not sure I wholly buy this one either. I maybe buy a blend of the two. But I think it’s important to realize that this is not some grand conspiracy that was created to make the U.S. a police state. This is just something that we’ve fallen into. The whole idea of forgiving design, the whole idea that you make roads safer by widening our driving lanes, by adding recovery area, by adding clear zones, by removing obstacles from the edge. This is this is proven design for roads, right? Between places where we’re trying to get long distances at speed. We’ve become really good at designing environments that are really safe by applying these forgiving design principles, but when we get into urban areas, when we get into places where there’s complexity, where cars turn, where cars stop, or cars park, where people walk across the street, where people walk adjacent to the street, where bikers are, or where people are on roller skates and roller blades and skateboards.
When we have complex environments, forgiving design does the opposite, right? It signals to drivers that things are safe when they’re not. It signals to drivers that higher speeds are safe — are actually safe to them, right? And there’s an asymmetry there because the drive, for the driver, is safe. If the driver hits a pedestrian the driver will suffer emotional damage but [escape] physical damage.
This is Ben Hamilton Baille. He said, if we were going to have symmetry of risk, as opposed to an asymmetry of risk. If we were going to have the risk be equal between the person outside the car and inside the car, when the person inside the car got into an urban environment, the seatbelt would come off, and automatically a little knife would come out from the steering wheel and be pointed at the person’s heart. And then, if there were a collision where they ran into something, they would suffer the same level of damage in pain as the person outside. And his statement was [that] what this would force them to do is [that] people would drive like it mattered. They [would] drive really slow and really cautiously, because they would be experiencing as much risk as the people outside the vehicle.
That was hyperbole, right? That was to make a point about how asymmetrical this risk is. But, what we have done is we have taken an ethic of highway engineering and design and what is safe in a highway engineering and design type of ethic, and we have brought that into our neighborhoods and we’ve said it’s safe here. It’s now safe there. [But] the reality is these are very different environments and fast speeds — high speed, when you induce high speeds, you kill people. You kill people and you create mayhem.
So from a design side, and there’s a ton of reasons why this has happened. I would blame the way that we have funded this stuff and the way we have centralized it. We centralized federal highway policy so that we could build the interstates and then we funded all these local road building programs through those same kind of channels. And what you get is you get a conveyance of standards and information and know-how that now becomes the way we build every neighborhood. And it’s just it’s just wrong. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not like someone set out to do this but you’ve got the wrong values and the wrong ethics being applied in the wrong place.
And now that we’re here, what has morphed [from that] is that this is [a] very convenient law enforcement tool, where we can go out and, at any time of the day, find people that are breaking the law because they’re breaking law all the time, everywhere. And we can pull them over and we can do an investigatory stop and essentially find that nefarious activity.
I suspect, and I’m willing to admit that I do not know, I have not been with police officers when they’ve patrolled high-crime neighborhoods. I don’t have a lot of experience with high-crime neighborhoods. I don’t. I’m not going to pretend that I do. I live in a community that is predominantly middle-class white people. I do not have experiences beyond that that are worthy of . . . . I cannot stand here and say I speak as an authority on this, right?
I suspect — and here’s my theory: I suspect that when we go out and target as a policy, high-crime neighborhoods, be they racially diverse or not, they generally are, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar points out, the Ebola-like problem of being poor. Right? They generally are poor neighborhoods.
When we go out to poor neighborhoods, we label them high-crime and we use these kind of random traffic stops as a pretext to these, tougher policing, and are getting tough on crime or the investigatory stop as a way to initiate contact and randomly scoop up bad people doing things you’re not supposed to do. I can see how that creates resentment, right?
I can also see how that is a crime fighting technique, right? I can see how people who are in law enforcement say “this is a very effective technique for us, that we catch a lot of bad guys doing this. And if we didn’t have this technique we wouldn’t catch as many bad guys.” I might not believe that but I can see why they would say that. I can see how that would evolve and why they would make that argument. I can see why the tough on crime people would say “we need this. We need to be able to do this.”
The point I’m trying to make is I can see why people become resentful. Right? If I’m pulled over forty-nine times as Philando Castile was, if I’m pulled over forty-nine times just for the crime of driving a junker car in a poor neighborhood and, really, living my life in all other ways like a person in a affluent neighborhood driving a Lexus, but when their taillight is out they don’t get pulled over. But I do, because we have sting nets in my neighborhood, trying to be tough on crime. I’m going to feel oppressed. I’m going to be ticked off and I’m not going to like that. Right. Someone sent me this week a study showing a correlation between people who have been pulled over for traffic violations and people who commit more — it wasn’t violent crime, but it was more serious crimes.
Right, and their point was, “Well, look, when we pull people over for traffic stops where these people are out committing other crimes.” And yeah, that’s because you’re focusing on the high-crime neighborhoods, right? If traffic laws were equally enforced across all neighborhoods – in other words, everybody pulling out of their cul-de-sac or their alley who had a taillight out were equally likely to get pulled over, and equally likely to be ticketed, that correlation would go away — would go away, would completely go away. It’s only because we do these things in poor and high crime neighborhoods as a law enforcement tool that those correlations exist in the first place.
So my senses, my theory, is that the people who are complaining about being oppressed, the people are complaining that we are being targeted, we’re being profiled, this is not fair. They’re right. They’re right. This is not fair, because the random rule as it’s applied to you is not being randomly applied to other people who are breaking the law everyday, all the time, because they’re not poor, they’re not a poor neighborhood, they’re not in a high-crime neighborhood. On the other hand, the people who are saying “Well, just follow the law.” Right. Like, “just follow the law” are blind to the fact that they’re not following the law. They’re just not having it forced on them.
And I would say, the police officers who are saying this is a great way, this is a really good tool for us to interdict in criminal neighborhoods and find bad people, I suspect they’re right too, right? I suspect that they are also correct. I suspect that they are also identifying a technique and an approach that actually works for them.
Here’s where I want to go with this.
Because I’m not pretending that we’re going to solve the problems that we see in the Philando Castile case, which I said we’re not going to talk about police shootings. I can’t say that I understand what happened, it doesn’t make sense to me.
But I have to ask myself are we really building a strong America?
Are we really building a great nation?
Are we really a just people?
Are we really focused on the safety of our places with the current approach that we have, by ignoring speed in our design, essentially saying “Here’s our design” and then enforcement is what’s going to deal with the speed.
We’re really not dealing with speed, right? We are continuing to perpetuate a cycle of people speeding. And as a society we’re seemingly OK with that. We then are inducing a pattern a system an approach to enforcement that is rather random.
And as we’ve seen in recent years, and maybe has existed for a long time but is now being put in our faces, probably rightly, so is now something that thanks to smartphones and what have you, as not being swept under the rug, right? A “he-said, she-said” where one side is law enforcement, the other side is someone with a long record of getting pulled over by the police, right?
We’re seeing that this approach is having some negative effects.
Now I want to I want to quote someone from a law enforcement advocacy organization. This actually comes from an article in a law enforcement journal that I pulled out and I’m going to quote because it quotes this guy who is with the national tactical officers association. He says quote “traffic stops and domestic violence are the highest risk calls. You have no idea what you’re walking into,” said John Nagy executive director of the national tactical officers association. “If I had to rank them I’d rank traffic stops first. And domestic violence second, so traffic stops are the most dangerous things that police officers do.”
And this article goes on to point out that from 2000 to 2009, 118 officers were killed conducting traffic stops, 82 in domestic violence complaints, and 74 during disturbance calls. And there are other websites that looked and saw that these traffic stops are by far the most dangerous thing police have to do. More police officers are killed and injured during these traffic stops than anything else than anything else.
So I’m sitting here in my office in Brainerd, Minnesota, and I’m saying I want police to be safe. I do not want to put law enforcement in harm’s way. When we need law enforcement to show up and actually go into harm’s way, I want to do that purposefully. I don’t want to do that willy-nilly. I don’t want to do that on a whim. If we’re going to ask — and I’m former military — if we’re going to ask our military to go fight a war, we’re going to fight a war, we’re not going to go light, right? We’re going to do everything we can to win if we’re going to ask our police officers to go out and risk their lives. It better be for something that counts. It better be for something that matters.
I’ve also seen neighborhoods that are disadvantaged, and I’m hearing people in neighborhoods that are disadvantaged saying “Look, we’re being picked on, we’re being oppressed, treated unfairly, we’re living in an oppressive type of society.” And I am sympathetic to that. I get it. I see it. I think that that is a reality that this system has brought about. And I’m actually sitting here as a parent, as a husband, as someone who lives in a neighborhood in a community, and I’m watching people speed all over the place, and I’m watching our street designs be despotic to people who are outside of an automobile. And I look at my profession, the engineering profession, as largely not caring about this at all, or saying “Well, law enforcement will take care of that” and I’m putting these three things together. I want it to matter for police. I don’t want people to be oppressed. And I want our streets to be safe. And I’m saying I think we can fix this.
I think we can fix this.
So how would I go about fixing this?
The first thing I would do is I’d say, all right, speed. From now on, if I’m a mayor of a city, I’m saying I want to know where people are speeding. You show me, you map this out, give me a GIS map and show me where chronic speeding is. And then I want to deploy my engineers, my planners, my urban designers, and all the people who can add something to this conversation to those speeding spots. And I want them redesigned so people drive slower, and we’re going to keep iterating back and forth, and iterating, and iterate, and iterating, until the 85 percent, the vast majority of people, are driving at a speed that is safe. And if we’re not doing that we are not a moral people then. This is the approach I take. From now on, everywhere. This is the approach I got and I take everywhere in response to speeding.
Now, my police force. They can pull over speeders, right? Because the only thing they’re going to get now are the deviants, right? Are there people who are deviating from the law and you want to make a correlation there, go right ahead. But if the majority of people are speeding, they’re not deviants. I want to get it to where the design brings people to where they should be driving at safe speeds. And then we have law enforcement focus on deviants, which is what we want them to do, right? We want them to do things that matter.
Here’s the second thing I do, and this is a little bit more of a leap, because the first thing is right in my wheel house and I get and understand the second thing is a little bit outside of it. But I feel it’s technologically possible and also very easy to do. Let’s picture Philando Castile driving down the street and the police officer sees his car with a taillight out. OK, the taillight’s out. Here’s what I would like to see happen: this police car is, or should be, equipped with a camera, maybe multiple cameras. I know the officers have computers in their car. I would love to see a button, press that button, would then capture the last 30 seconds of whatever is on that camera along with whenever it continues until the button is pressed again. It will give audio for the officer the officer to describe what’s going on say “Hey, here’s a car. It is a whatever make and model, here’s the license plate,” it is automatically date and time stamped. They say “I have observed the taillight is out, you can clearly see this or this video.” Bam, the button is pressed, that gets downloaded, gets sent. It’s automated.
They send them that. Philando still gets home. A couple of days later, gets a ticket in the mail. The ticket is perhaps a warning on the first time saying “Hey, look, dude, we want to let you know — for your health and for everybody else’s safety — that you’ve got a rear light missing. You weren’t wearing your seat belt, you were doing some other non-life threatening thing, but something that is a problem, is a nuisance, you were doing this. You were observed by a public safety official in doing this. If you would like to view the documentation, here’s the web site, you can go enter your citation, you can view the documentation if you want to dispute this. Here’s where you can go to do it. But we saw you doing this and you need to have this fixed within seven days. Call us and acknowledge that you have fixed it, and if you get caught again you can get a ticket.
I’m not going to get into how the fines should be stepped up and what have you. But if the idea here is to actually enforce the law or actually have a safe environment, to me, that is a much safer way to run a city, right?
We’re not asking the cops to go out and do these really high-risk dangerous interdictions randomly, right? We’re not asking people to be subjected to, in certain neighborhoods, at certain times, in certain places, police-state type oppression, right? We’re not, and we’re actually then dealing with the real true public safety issues at play.
I’m not gonna pretend that that is the golden solution. I’m not going to pretend that I thought this all through and this is exactly how this will solve every problem we have. I’m not that naive. But I think that this kind of thinking — the kind of thinking that acknowledges that traffic laws are not the hill we, as a society, want to die on, right? It’s not the place where we want to make our stand between chaos and mayhem and order and decency, right? That’s not the place.
If we can agree on that. If we can agree that we want to actually, generally make things safer, we want to make this country safer. We want to make our streets safer. We want to make our places safer. We want to make things better for people. And if we also can say that we want to use law enforcement respectfully, respectful for the officers. I don’t want to put them randomly in danger for no good reason. I don’t want to ask them to do things that are going to put their lives at risk for very little benefit.
Let me deal with the very last thing here. And that is without investigatory stops are we just going to have rampant crime. I had someone send me that Timothy McVeigh was caught with a random stop. As if Timothy McVeigh would never have been caught in any other way. I don’t know. And you go ahead and cherry pick your example. Someone said Ted Bundy the serial killer was caught through a random traffic stop.
I am I’m always amused by these stories: OK we did this one thing and it worked this one time. So now let’s institutionalize it across the board with no other statistics. No other data, just cherry picking a few results. The pushback is that I’ve gotten from law enforcement people is “OK with all the investigators stopped, what do we do? How do we stop crime? How do we help these poor struggling neighborhoods who are — one person wrote they’re overrun with gang bangers — how do we deal with them?”
And I’m going to tell you I’m not exactly sure. I don’t know. I’m not gonna pretend that. I don’t know exactly. But if you’re telling me that the only way we can begin to control crime in high crime areas is the random — using traffic laws as a random pretext to essentially stop and get up in people’s business, and that is what law enforcement has become in this country, I’m sad. I’m really sad, because that’s not the kind of country I want to live in. And that’s not the kind of America I think any of us really wants, right?. That’s certainly not the Fourth Amendment. That’s certainly not the intention of the founding fathers when they wrote the Constitution. That’s certainly not the type of civil society that any of us aspire to live in.
I know there are really smart people out there working on this. I know they’re really smart people out there in law enforcement and law enforcement community who have ideas on how to solve this problem.
What I’m contending is that the laziness of the engineering profession should not be a pretext for those things.
And the more and more we make it, the more we’re going to have a divided society, the more we’re going to put cops at risk, and the more that we’re going to have designs and places and streets that are just simply not safe.
I want our laws to matter.
I want them to be enforced, and to have that we have to have a different mindset and a different approach to traffic violations.
It is time to end the routine traffic stop.
As America looks at paying for the devastation of Hurricane Harvey — and the many similar 1000 year storms to come in the next few years, thanks to our fossil fuel addiction — how we build our cities is the little-realized critical question.
This issue of OregonPEN presents a conversation between Chuck Marohn, founder of Strong Towns and proponent of allowing incremental growth throughout urban areas, by right, and Scott Byer, founder of Market Urbanism Report and a proponent of completely abolishing height limits in cities.
Chuck Marohn, Strong Towns (ST): Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been having some interesting conversations with some “Market Urbanists.” They have a web site Twitter feed and a Facebook group. I’m friends with a bunch of them and we’ve been having some rather interesting conversations. They nominated, for lack of a better term, a guy named Scott Byer to come on the podcast today and chat with me about some of the things which I’m very excited about.
For the benefit of everybody else out here you’re the owner of the Market Urbanism Report, which is a media company that advances the market urbanism ideas. You are a journalist currently traveling the country over a three-year period of time working for Forbes and governing and housing dot com reporting on housing and market urbanism type of issues. Scott welcome to the podcast. If I didn’t get something right there let me know.
Scott Byer, Market Urbanism (MU): I know it sounds about right. And thank you for having me on.
ST: It’s wonderful. Tell me a little bit about being a urban affairs journalist and traveling the country. This sounds kind of fun and exotic.
MU: OK so I’m currently on a cross-country trip and I’m about halfway through where for a three year period I’m living in 30 cities in America for roughly a month each to cover urban issues. So this trip started in the fall of 2015 and I drove from my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, down to Miami, and Miami was my first stop and then I’m going clockwise around the country. So I’ve already been through the south and the Southwest and went up the West Coast and now I’m on the second leg of my journey and moving back east. So I’m currently in Salt Lake City Provo to be exact and I’m moving back east through the Great Plains and the Midwest in the mid-South and the final quarter of the trip I’m going up the East Coast and into New York City in the fall of 2018.
ST: There are a whole bunch of people listening right now that just changed their entire career objectives. Yes but no kidding. Did you come up with this idea and pitch it to somebody or did somebody come to you with this?
MU: I came up with the idea and pitched it to Forbes and they were they were like Yeah we’d love to have street level coverage of different cities.
ST: Tell me one fascinating thing that you’ve learned that you didn’t know they had no clue about.
MU: I think that one thing with the big macro level picture of the trip so far would be the mass migration that’s going on between from the north part of the country to the southern part of the country which is backed by the demographic trends of many more millions moving into the southern area of the country particularly big metros like Atlanta Houston Dallas Phoenix places like that away from the northern part of the country and the Midwest. It gives you two different images of America. It’s like one part of America’s kind of declining and struggling to hold on. And then the other part of America is booming and getting mass population woes. And so it presents a very different image of two different kinds of Americas.
ST: A couple of just quick hit questions. I know you’re only half way through and you’ve got a lot of America to curry yet but so far what has been your favorite city.
MU: New York City is always going to be my favorite city.
ST: You haven’t been in New York yet as part of this trip though, right?
MU: Well, I’ve been to all of America’s cities. So I spent a lot of my time before this just kind of traveling around. This is the formal finalization of the trip. But I’ve actually been to all these cities, so yeah, I’ve been to New York and actually lived there for a short period. And I’m a huge urban density fanatic. I guess you could say I love what New York represents. So it will always be my favorite American city.
ST: One of the reasons that we wanted to do this podcast is because we had some disagreements. And by we, I don’t mean you and me in particular, but me and a large group of the market urbanists. You and I chatted a little bit and thought that it would be a very good way to start this conversation by just talking a little bit about each other, and I would gladly start because when I first heard of “market urbanism,” it was a little bit like hearing about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
I mean peanut butter and chocolate are two things that I love. You put them together that is beautiful, markets and urbanism are two things that I have a strong passion for. And if there’s a group of people out there who are embracing both at the same time the Venn diagram of that conversation and a conversation that I would like to see us having has a huge overlap. I have found over the intervening period of time that I’ve gotten to know some of you that I really like you guys a lot. We’ve had many Market Urbanists on our podcast, we’ve had a number of their works featured on our site. I hung out with a bunch of you, and am using you, the collective you, a bunch of people who identify as Market Urbanists, at the FEE CON [Foundation for Economic Education Convention] conference in Atlanta. And you know we can hardly like you know leave the leave the bar and go back to the hotel room at night because we were all having such a good time conversing. So I feel like our two conversations have a lot of overlap and I think maybe as a starting point I just like to express a level of admiration for the work you guys have done.
MU: Well, thank you. I’ll do the same with Strong Towns. I mean I think the interesting thing about the Strong Towns. I don’t want to call it a blog either. Do you consider yourself like an institute at this point?
ST: We kind of started as a blog, and it’s really grown into a full media site now. So, yeah, we don’t we don’t refer to as a blog anymore either. We would like to become a Forbes or Governing magazine, or HousingOnline.Com. There are online publications. I think that’s where we’re moving towards but with a little more advocacy maybe.
MU: And that in itself would probably be the top of my praise right there. Just the ability to have an idea that began very small and evolve it into something that’s more institutional and better known. I mean I look at you as a model what market urbanism should be — somebody who has grown a concept. And so I think that’s really admirable. And also, I mean, that this probably got lost in translation during the social media conversation, but I actually do like a lot of Strong Towns work. I think that you bring really important conversations into the issue and the thing that really woke me up when I was first reading Strong Towns is the way to look at streets.
You know I’ve always been somebody who, as an urbanist, is a complete streets person. But I thought it was really interesting to begin reading Strong Towns and hear directly from a professional engineer that these problems, the reason our roads look the way they do is because of something that’s systematic within the engineering profession, that there is this groupthink that causes every street in America, as I’ve seen, to more or less look the same way. And it was really interesting to have one engineer step outside of the box and say “look my entire profession is doing this completely wrong. The way we design our streets, the way we embrace infrastructure.” So it’s been a really interesting perspective to read.
ST: I appreciate that.
I wanted to start by and I think this is for us and also for the people who are listening and understanding of how we are perceiving each other because I think sometimes on social media you know there’s a lot of passions and people jump in at certain points. And I know one of the frustrations that I’ve had is that I’ll write six thousand words on a topic and someone will take one sentence, and then [distill it to] “He said this!” [ignoring that] “Yeah, I said that, but in the context of all this other stuff. “
What I wanted to do was have each of us explain our understanding of the other, and then give an opportunity for some discussion on that, just to get us on the same page and I can start with that.
When I read Market Urbanism and when I interact with people on market urbanism, my understanding of the concept is that, right now, today, our housing prices, our housing market, our urban form, does not reflect a true market, or true market prices, as we have many, many things that are impacting that. Primarily among them, from the Market Urbanists standpoint, would be arbitrary government regulations — many instituted because of NIMBYism and people not wanting to see growth and development — in a reactionary way, and that we could solve many of the problems that we face today whether it is housing affordability problems or whether it’s government spending problems. You know, parking problems, etc.
We could solve a lot of these problems if we just allowed market systems to work and allowed market systems to run their course. Our resistance to that and our inability to allow that market feedback to take place has created a lot of distortions that are harming people.
And so the market urbanism approach is to say “let’s remove those barriers, let’s allow prices to work, let’s allow things to be built and constructed in response to market demands” and that will solve a lot of these problems. That’s my take. Am I missing something? Am I off on that? Am I overlooking an important aspect?
MU:I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head in the broad sense. Yes, market urbanists think that land use should be deregulated and that that would give a more pure look at how our transportation grid would function under an open market. And I think, more pertinently, how our housing market would function under an open market. And, you know, it would make housing cheaper and more abundant.
Where different nuances come about are, are there certain types of regulations that are more important than others when it comes to making housing affordable?
And I think there’s also an academic question, within people who think of themselves as libertarian and urbanists is how exactly would cities develop under an open market. Would they become denser, would they become more sprawling, would they take on some of the forms that you write about on Strong Towns where they have a lot of missing middle housing and more mid-rise and incremental density? I think those are really fascinating conversations because they try to take a look at what is the consumer demand in America actually, and how cities develop these regulations were taken away? That’s a side conversation within the market urbanists as a movement but I think the broader macro point is one that you pretty much summarize which is that, yeah “Just get rid of these regulations and see what happens in cities.”
ST: Your turn. I’m going to be as generous as I can. We have a pretty expansive dialogue going on. So sometimes I have trouble explaining it, but I just you know give you an opportunity to talk about your viewpoint of what Strong Towns is.
MU: OK, well, the thing about Strong Towns that appeals to me personally the most is just the idea that cities in America, and particularly the smaller cities that are in less advantageous regions, need to find a way to achieve fiscal solvency.
They need to be really wise about their decisions and not just throw away money the way that they have been before, often after receiving federal money. And so they need to be more fiscally sound and more wise in the way that they spend on infrastructure and basic public services.
Now, the wrinkle within the Strong Towns message that first caused me to want to reach out to you is the idea of incrementalism. I won’t try to explain to you what incrementalism is too much, because I’m not sure exactly how you’ve defined it yet, but as I as I understand it, from having read your articles about incrementalism, it seems to me that you think that governments themselves – and this is probably the part of it that I would be with you on, but you can correct me at any point — you think that governments themselves should have a more incremental attitude in how they use their money and how they spend on public projects. So rather than making large dumb plans they shouldn’t make small incremental plans and then test them to see if they actually work. So, rather than putting shoving a major highway for example through a city, maybe you do the little things that will improve transportation mobility, and see if that works and then expand upon that rather than one big top down project. Am I correct on that?
ST:Yeah, I wouldn’t disagree with any of that. Yeah, I think that’s certainly part of our conversation.
MU: OK. And then the other angle of incrementalism, that I’m not really sure what you think about and I’ll just have you explain is incrementalism as it pertains to private land use decisions and private development. Should the use of land by private developers and private citizens be incremental in the sense that zoning is only loosened incrementally and is not responsive to market processes but has to abide by a certain, more bottom-up approach to growth?
ST: Right. It seems a little bit like the place where we had the most vigorous conversation is the idea that there should be some constraints on land use for the private sector, that I’ve detailed as incremental. What I have suggested is that we should be allowed by right to incrementally build to the next level of intensity everywhere. I think have stated that would make, in 99 percent of America, upzoning. But, and I think that this is also true, it would make a certain percentage of America where you do have demand and there’s clear evidence of demand, it would artificially constrain what people want to build in those places. It would be beyond what the next increment would be. That’s the thing that’s gotten the ire of people over at Market Urbanism. Is that is that a fair statement?
MU: Yeah, I mean, well, I think the incrementalism regarding the public sector makes perfect sense, to me anyway. Especially considering it’s not just highway boondoggles, it’s boondoggles for everything. It’s metro area Dallas deciding that it wants to build a huge light rail system even though Dallas is not really oriented around public transit and light rail. It’s like this big top down mentality that you just got to shove big projects through and throw a lot of money at them just because that’s the right way to do it.
ST: It feels like a giant to me, lurching from one thing to the next. Right. Yeah.
MU: So, yeah, the public incrementalism idea certainly makes sense and would be a refreshing breath of fresh air from the current status quo.
But I don’t I don’t see the justification for having incrementalism — seeing what I see is imposing incrementalism on the private development market, because even if it causes upzoning in most of America, I think it would in fact restrict a lot of land in very key areas. And we’re already dealing with that problem, and it’s already creating a housing shortage. So I think that’s where me and a lot of the market urbanists, I think we just wanted some clarity, “Is that what you’re advocating for?”
ST: Yeah, it is, yes. But I’d like to have a deeper conversation of it. Because there’s a part of me that feels from the dialogue we’ve had on line that, if we had the core problem we’re trying to solve — it felt to me like the Market Urbanists are trying to solve the housing affordability problem. We’re [Strong Towns] trying to solve is essentially the government’s solvency problem. I think acknowledging that those are two different — and very interrelated problems — but they’re two very different problems is maybe the place to start to, at least, understand the rationale for the other. I don’t want to speak for you but you know it seems like the thing that is driving the conversation there is the housing affordability issue.
MU: I would take it a step further than that, actually. I think if you look at the YIMBY [Yes, In My Back Yard] movement, they’re an example of a group that really is just about the house affordability problem. They just want more housing. And I’m for and I’m fine with that. I mean I’d more or less totally agree with the YIMBY movement. I think for market urbanism there is there are certain goals beyond just adding more housing. We’re as interested in the means as much as in the ends. In the sense that we want a market oriented process to be applied to cities because that reflects the will of the people and of specific individuals. It’s like consumer demand is a reflection of what people want in a given area. That’s kind of the idea behind market urbanism as much as the actual final goal of having more affordable housing is. Are people able to mobilize within a city the way that they want to with the transportation networks that they choose to pay for? And are they able to buy the type of housing in the locations they want, in the architectural styles that they want because the market has been liberalized and those housing options have been provided. So it’s like when we hear something like incremental density, we hear something saying this is a this is somebody else’s idea of what the correct answer is. I mean there could be a number of problems with it, but I think, above all else, if it’s limiting certain types of development styles that the private consumer wants, then we look at that as a negative thing.
ST: Right. I used to. I don’t say this in a condescending way at all. I used to completely agree with that, and I think if I went back a decade or more, you could have called me a financial libertarian and I would have been in complete agreement. I would not have disputed that at all. Today, I certainly, at a macro level, at the nationwide level, embrace economically libertarian ideals. I mean, I would love to see the simplest form of government applied and the most liberalized markets on a macro level.
When we get to the local level, I struggle. And I struggle because I have developed — right or wrong—an understanding of cities and their pending solvency problems, and just how that impacts our neighborhoods. I’m not going to associate you with Randall O’Toole. But I do want to reflect on a debate that I had with him because it was it was frustrating to me. It also opened my eyes a little bit to the fact that I look at local government — not necessarily state government and federal government – they’re often too disconnected from people, but I definitely look at local government as being the closest reflection we have to the Massachusetts town hall meeting, where people are getting together and shouting at each other and deciding what we’re going to do here.
You know, for all its imperfections, I look at local government as a collection of us. And a lot of the things that we have decided to do at the local level, we’ve in a sense, decided through a process together. When I step back and look at local government today, what I see is a system that has been, in a sense, dominated and, in many ways, perverted by state and federal policies and state and federal incentives. But I see that going in the other direction now.
I see the federal government essentially going broke and walking away from a lot of these things. I see the state governments doing the same things, mandating that cities provide certain services but not giving them money to do it. Mandating that cities operate in a certain way but basically being against the local interests.
As I become more of a of a localist, more of the idea that, OK we’ve lived in this thing where we’ve been able to have huge federal government investments, we’ve been able to have huge transportation projects, we’ve been able to have the federal government come in and subsidize our housing, subsidize Wall Street so that we can finance certain projects, if that stuff is going away — which it feels like it is — and we’re untethered from that, we’re on our own where are we?
And I feel like we are in, financially, we’re in a horrible state. You know, we don’t have any money to maintain any of these streets or pipes or sidewalks. We can go to the outliers of San Francisco in New York, and I think, talk about them separately in that regard. But when we look at our cities, we are essentially in a place that we’ve never been before. We’ve never taken — and you can take the city of Detroit is like the early example of this –taking a city that was very dense, very compact, very mature, and essentially denuded it and spread it out over a wide, wide area, with all kinds of costs for the city, the system, and all the people within it. We’ve never been here before. And how do we figure that out?
In the early days, because I come from the planning profession and the engineering profession, my early responses were very technical: You know, do we need to look at Complete Streets? Do we need to think about form-based codes? What can we do from a technical standpoint?
And I very quickly got beyond that and said, this is a complex system that we don’t really understand. Cities are complex, adaptable places that we don’t really get. And the way we go about trying to figure out what to do is by moving incrementally. And so I have kind of become — and I think it’s a fair criticism to say – “[Chuck,] you [have] become stuck on this notion of incrementalism, and it doesn’t always work.”
I’m sure that that is very true. But I have also come to the conclusion that the downsides of it not working are not going to be that great but the downsides of us going in the other direction and just keeping lurching back and forth are much, much worse.
So that’s maybe kind of a nuanced attempt to explain how I got to this point and I’d welcome any critique or thought you have, any reaction to that.
MU: Well I think it depends on, of course, what cities you’re talking about. And I know that you focus more on smaller towns and mid-sized cities at least that seems to be the case. And I’m not going to argue with you on those points. I’m not extremely familiar with what’s going on in small towns in the Midwest. I think the reason that people probably wanted me to be on this podcast was to ask you “What about, say, in the 10 or 15 cities that are really booming in the United States, and that have massive demand for living there, and that make up a vastly disproportionate share of our GDP, and our energy and our innovation and our population, how is incrementalism supposed to work in those places? And what type of incrementalism specifically do you want to see?
Let’s take a case study city like Seattle, which strikes me as the ultimate example in the United States of a city that grew around the automobile, like many other cities did, but is now ready to massively diversify and become the next New York or Boston or just a really dense city.
What would your incrementalism be for a place like Seattle? Because I think that, if you look at the downtown neighborhoods and the neighborhoods around downtown, many of which are zoned for single family. If you let the market work them in those places you would get 30-40-50 story buildings. Now, admittedly, that’s not incrementalism. But what I would want to know is why would incrementalism then be appropriate and what exactly what type of incrementalism would you want to see in a place like Seattle?
ST: Right. I think Seattle is a very interesting case because, as you know, the know the further west you go, the more autocentric the core development pattern is. The solvency issues that I get uptight about just increase in magnitude many many fold the further west you go. It’s pretty easy to go to Boston, let’s say, and look out at the neighborhood surrounding the core of Boston, and say “OK, you know, if Boston goes completely bankrupt and this doesn’t work, these places are going to be OK. It is going to work itself out. It’s built on a grid. It will, over time, evolve and change. It’s been here a long time. It’s going to work.”
When you go to Seattle and you look at, not only the city and the immediately surrounding neighborhoods, but you look at this vast expanse that is Seattle and you see the amount of infrastructure in the ground per the amount of tax base, you see the intense amount of effort it takes to keep that all running. It drives me nuts it sets me off, this doesn’t work. The only reason it works is because we’ve done it over this long time horizon and, basically, the due date for this bill is coming and Seattle’s not ready for that.
So when I look at Seattle it baffles me to no end how you can have all of these single family home neighborhoods within close-in walking distance of high-rise towers where clearly there’s demand for this. Yet I look at those single family home neighborhoods, and the only thing making them near financially viable is that the underlying land is priced so high. The buildings on them are not priced high. The buildings on them are not worth all that much. They’re single family homes. They’re might have nice appointments on the inside, and they might have a whirlpool tub or a theater or whatever, nice wood floors. But you’re not getting $10 million valuations out of a home because of the house. You get [it] because of the land, the underlying land. And so to me, I look at that and I say you don’t have a problem in this block, you have a problem square miles of space. And the fundamental problem is that the land is demanding way more intense use. I step back and I say well, OK what would happen if we solved this in that way?
I would take out of Seattle and go to Austin, where I’ve spent a lot more time looking at this in a detailed way.
And you can see, over and over and over again, where Austin has tried to solve this problem in two ways. Way number one is to build lots more out on the edge, which is a huge subsidized Ponzi scheme, it’s a disaster for the city’s budget. But it does build some level of affordable housing. But it’s way, way out on the edge.
The other way they’ve tried to deal with it is to allow for market liberalization, as intensive buildings as you can. And when I look at that and I talk to the developers there, we always get back to the fact that the land is priced really, really high. The land is like obscenely high. And so, they’ll say, when I buy this little house and I’m going to build something on here, I have to build 20 stories because that’s what the land prices justify.
And you get in this, I think, a Catch 22 kind of cycle, where it’s “OK, I have to build this intense because that’s what the land is priced at.” And then you go and look at the land being priced that high because that’s what people can do with it.
And I just sat down and ran the numbers. I said “OK if we took every piece of land that is priced this high and we actually ran flat out and said we’re going to build at the intensity that would be demanded by that price, [what happens?]” In other words let’s assume the market is accurate, is accurately reflecting prices. Let’s go out and let’s build intensely at that price. What you would find is that a city like Austin [would need] 20 million people. [It] would be so intense a number. That will never ever happen in Austin.
And so I step back, and I say that the land is mispriced, there’s something stuck in this market. There’s something that’s not working here in the underlying land values if it actually has this huge supply in relationship to what the potential demand could be. There’s something stuck and broken. I can’t tell you what it is. I can’t figure it out. I’ve kind of theoretically gone through and said I don’t think it’s solely this, I don’t think it’s solely that. I find this aspect that people throw out as being the answer to be lacking, and not a complete explanation. I don’t know what it is.
The group that got so upset with me on the Market Urbanism site will say, “Well, Chuck, it doesn’t matter.” It’s just demand. And, you know, at the end of the day, for me it does matter. Because, as the city, if you’re sitting here facing literally, in Seattle, square miles of land that’s financially not viable. And that’s like an overhang that you have to deal with someday. To me what needs to happen in all those neighborhoods is that they need to become more intense they need to actually grow and see investment and become more viable.And that can’t happen when the land prices are stuck and distorted and it can’t happen when the regulations make it stuck and distorted. So my solution has been, or my approach has been let’s try to figure this out by clearing away those regulations: Allowing people to build, by right, to the next increment. Let’s get that going. And my sense is that what that would do is it would – a little bit of development everywhere – would drop the underlying land values down significantly. That in essence is the way I would deal with Seattle.
MU: My response to that will be broken up into different things. I don’t necessarily agree that the land values in hot places like Seattle and Austin are inflated in any way or are somehow unsustainable based on what the population growth will be. I think the population growth, in a place like Austin especially, one of the fastest growing metro areas by population in the United States. I think that the land values are a reflection of that. I don’t think they’re a distortion. I don’t think it’s inflation. I think it is. This is a city that is ready to grow up and grow vertically and become the next New Yorker L.A.
ST: To me, when I think of a supply demand curve, and I look at the supply of land in the core of Austin, or in the core of Seattle, and I look at the demand for building, even if you poured it on, [you] could not possibly, if you were building towers, suck up all that demand. Am I off on that?
MU: I think the nuanced look that a market urbanist would take to a situation like this is, “no, you won’t address all the demand just by building up. You probably will need some missing middle. You might even need some sprawl in those land plots specifically that you were talking about, like let’s talk about the land around University of Texas. I mean University of Texas is a huge school. It employs a lot of people. It has I think it’s one of the biggest public universities in the country. So it has there is a lot of demands for living around the UT campus in Austin. And so for those land plots specifically, it’s really not hard to see why the land would be so valuable and why development would be so vertical if it were allowed to actually grow. That doesn’t mean it’s going to it’s going to deal with all of Austin’s demand issues. I mean there’s probably some demand for living on the north side, there’s probably some demand for living in different areas of the metro area, and not all the development would be high rise. I’m not saying that.
ST: If you look at UT, and I think that’s a really good example, and agree with the market urbanism that we could drive down prices by building more. If we provide more supply to meet the demand, prices will go down. And that’s like a fundamental tenet of economics I think that we agree on. But I think if you take that though, and you look at the land values, that the thing that is actually driving [prices] — When you talk to developers they’ll say “I have to build at this level of intensity because that’s what the land values demand, if I’m gonna pay this much for this land, here’s what I gotta do.” If you do that just around UT and say here’s how many new units we need every year, let’s build double that, at some point you will reach a saturation point and then what is the land worth?
MU: Well the land is probably worth more. Like right now, the land values around the central Austin area are probably being constrained because the zoning doesn’t allow a lot of development on them. So I’m in agreement with you that if you if you deregulate those areas the land values will go up.
ST: Actually I’m saying the opposite though. Not completely the opposite. But I’m saying that, right now you look at Austin and the land values are really, really high. They’re really high. The buildings on them are not worth all that much in comparison. I mean the value is in the land. They’re pretty deregulated now. I mean, in a lot of places, you can build a lot of intensity. It’s a long drawn out process, and you’ve got to have Wall Street backing, and you’ve got to have a lot of money, and you’ve got to hire a team of people to get you through the bureaucracy. But you can get stuff built there, right?
MU: It depends on what parts Austin. I mean there are literally parts of Austin around campus that are zoned for single family residential.
ST: That’s true. True.
MU: So yeah, I think those land values are certainly being constrained. But I guess I don’t really see the point in obsessing over land values, or I don’t really see why it’s what larger point about development you’re trying to make.
ST: To me, the land values, they signal to me that there is something beyond supply and demand that is distorting this. There’s something beyond simple supply and demand because the underlying relationship between the land and what’s built on it is way out of whack.
What I am, at the end of the day, I’m most concerned with is less the affordability issue and more the government’s solvency issue. Because, right now, if you’re local government, you benefit from this distortion. You benefit from having the land prices artificially high, because that’s your tax base. You’re getting money from that.
But you’re also going to get creamed when the opposite happens. When we reach that saturation point and the land values drop. That’s the antithesis that is going to destroy your tax base and the wealth on which you’re drawing from to actually make good on all those promises you’ve made to fix all those roads and sidewalks, maintain all that pipe. All that comes from the wealth that’s generated there. If that wealth isn’t real, if it’s a distortion, you’re going to make really bad decisions in the interim, and everybody is going to suffer at the end of the day.
And so my obsession on the land values is because . . . if you went to Austin and the land values were a tenth of what they were, and the market was more liberalized in terms of what you could build, I think you would see a lot of people going in and converting single family homes duplexes and building smaller apartments and four units and six units and eight units. I think what you have [now instead] is you have this huge upward distortion in land values. And so what you see is you see people, in a sense, building the only thing they can justify with those land values and then turning around and saying you know I have to do it because of this. And here look at the demand. It’s this reinforcing mental echo chamber in my mind.
MU: I think a lot of where we are not seeing eye to eye — and it’s not necessarily that I’m looking at all of this through the prism of land values — but I am looking at through the prism of fiscal solvency though.
So if you were to deregulate a place like Austin and to have rapid high rise development around the Austin campus and around the downtown area, it sounds like you are saying that ultimately that’s going to be fiscally unsustainable because eventually the land values will drop.
MU: But I don’t understand. How would how would a allowing high rise development in an area and allowing a massive agglomeration economy in a place like central Austin, why would land values and why would economic productivity drop?
I usually associate it quite the opposite. It’s like the second that you will allow a lot of people in a lot of development to go into a set area, that’s when wages go up. That’s when the land values go up. That’s when tax revenue goes up. That’s when job growth goes up. That’s when income goes up, innovation. It’s like that is the recipe allowing all that density in an area is precisely the recipe that enables governments to grow totally flush and enables economic prosperity.
ST: I agree with you. But when we look at Austin, or we look at Seattle, which I think are two prime examples of this, I think that that is true in a relatively small area.
And when you look at Austin, the overhang of Austin right now, the death-knell fatal problem that they have, is that they have a small, measured-in-square-blocks area, that is really financially productive and successful. And then there is surrounded by this massive, massive, dead weight of land that is essentially being propped up and subsidized in the short term and is going to sink the whole ship in the long term. So the challenge that Austin has is not to take the fire that is burning [well] and pour a bunch of gasoline on that, and make that into an inferno right here. The challenge that a city like Austin has is to say “How do we get that [same productivity] out into these other places that are ultimately going to be the drag on what is working?”
MU: I think what we agree on is that a downtown area, quote unquote, that’s vertical is massively economically productive. And actually you showed this in Lafayette. So it does apply to to small cities as well, but it really applies to big cities, which is, the downtown area is massively economically productive and it subsidizes, basically, the rest of the region.
ST: That is an absolute fact of American development patterns that we have recognized every single place we put numbers down. I mean we can prove that mathematically. Yes.
MU: OK but so what you’re saying is that if you allow incremental density in the areas around that the wealth that is produced by density will spread more to the less productive areas because it’s not all being concentrated in one place. Is that what you’re saying?
ST: In a way, yes. I think there’s a double side of it I think. One, you’re in a sense, you’re flaming out the one, while ignoring and allowing the other to kind of decompose.
And I think that, from a city strategy [perspective], and a city being a collection of us that live in a place, a better strategy — to try to not have a huge [price] distortion in one and not have the other one go dark — is to actually build incrementally in a way that would “thicken up that rug” is the way that I’ve kind of put it.
MU: Let me present another case study for you because I actually I actually published an article on the Market Urbanism Report today about. It. And that is, and this is the ultimate market urbanist case study in my opinion. And that is the Miami neighborhood of Brickel, where that is an overnight skyscraper neighborhood that was, essentially, some combination of a low-rise district in single-family residential neighborhood as recently as the mid 90s. Within a 20-year period, it became a mini Manhattan because there was a lot of there was a lot of immigration coming into Miami. There’s a lot of very wealthy immigrants who are escaping various countries in Latin America. And they embrace urban living. And they moved into Miami and Miami allowed at least one place where they were going to allow all these new these new found immigrants to go. And it was called Brickel. So they took away the parking regulations. They deregulated parking. They deregulated building heights and basically just let just let developers build up the sky.The analysis that I provide in the article is that Brickel is overwhelmingly subsidizing the greater part of Miami. When you look at overall tax revenue, when you look at job growth, the types of jobs that are being created, you know Brickel has become basically like a Latin-American banking capital. I would begin by saying this is not only a good thing. This is an extremely good thing for Miami, and it demonstrates why other cities that have pent-up demand should be building neighborhoods like Brickel. Do you think there’s anything wrong with this neighborhood model?
ST: The way you describe it. No, no not at all. I’ve not been there so I can’t speak firsthand. But I think it’s important to point out that an incremental development pattern would not preclude towers and big buildings, and there’s large parts of Austin and Miami and Seattle that should have towers and should have huge buildings. That is a natural outcome, and it is a natural kind of ending point for urban development.
MU: Ok, then can I, can I ask you a follow-up. The question that I wanted to ask you all along was — I read your articles about incrementalism, and I saw you — not to take one line out of the article, but I did see one line about you thinking that 1.5 times [existing] density is the appropriate metric in many places. But I think, overall, when I’m reading your articles about incrementalism, I’m not getting a clear message from you about what you think of these major cities – How do you think incrementalism should work in these major cities?
And I think that’s where a lot of the uncertainty and un-clarity between you and the market urbanists are taking place. Because if you do have a place like Miami that basically became high rise overnight in this one neighborhood, and if you do have places like downtown Seattle that could do the exact same thing if they were allowed to be deregulated, I don’t see what the point of an increment of incrementalism would be in those contexts. Like I was just tempted to say “Well, build to the sky.” What exactly is going to be bad about it? Because that high rise building this sky mentality has proven to be a very economically productive way to build a city. So — is your definition of incrementalism — that should be allowed to happen in major cities or that it should not?
ST: I will say I don’t know. I don’t know. I know that that’s frustrating sometimes. People get frustrated with me because I will say often that I don’t know. Part of my embrace of the incremental concept is that I don’t know I really don’t. And I think the you know the case study that you’re pointing out is great. You’ve also said it’s 20 years old. I think the you know the measure of a city is certainly not the first generation. It’s always the second, third, fourth generation. How do these places renew themselves. How do they continue on over time. How do they hold their productivity and become better places.
I was last we spent the whole week in Washington D.C. which is a place where there’s huge artificial constraints on height limits, and I get that. But I also find it to be, many times, very confusing. I find a lot of our major cities very confusing as well, because I will get to a place — and there are a couple of times when I got off the Metro in Washington D.C., and I’m surrounded by parking lots or single, one and two story buildings. And I’m looking at this going [on], this is a city where, people are telling me, [people pay] five thousand six thousand dollars a month for an apartment. Yet I’m sitting here looking at a parking lot. How can this possibly be?
And I would then take it to the next step and say, so you’re telling me that the solution to this problem is to go way over there and build a tower? That seems to me like, to use the old adage, putting all your eggs in one basket. I’m reflexively reluctant to go for simple solutions like that. And I see places like that. Austin is a very good example of where they’ve tried to beat their affordability problem down by just, you know, building tall. I think that that has taken, in a sense, the entire rest of the community off the hook in dealing with this problem. I think it’s going to have long range implications that we really don’t understand today.
MU: OK, well let’s talk about Washington D.C. because that would be another. So if Washington D.C. went Miami on itself, I think we have the exact same thing would happen. And I’m not saying wipe out the historic neighborhoods. I’m not saying that, but there are parts of the city where it would be totally appropriate to have high rises and it would start to resemble the type of high rise growth that you’re seeing in Miami. And so you’re defining that as putting all your eggs in one basket because it means that most of the financial wealth is going into one spot?
ST: I’m less concerned about that than I am about the long-term viability of those buildings. I’ve heard once and I thought this is very compelling and I’ve certainly experienced this in older high rise buildings that I’ve been in. Some are built magnificently, and you may be in them 60 years later and you’re just you know in awe, this is incredible. Some you know neighborhoods of sprawl, if we want to use that term, you can go in when they’re 60 years old and they look great.
But the predominant way that things develop is that they have a certain — they’re built, they have a certain period of time where they’re new and shiny, and then they start to show their age. If it’s in a horizontal subdivision, where you’ve got the garages attached to the houses and what you can see as you can see a very clear lifecycle where things look shiny and new and then they start to go bad. And then you know people start to move out to the next shiny and new place. And over time there’s a there’s a downward trend in the quality of the building and the quality in the neighborhood and, really, in the productivity of the place. Without a way to renew that, in a sense. Without a mechanism to go in and buy those and make them something new, they just stagnate. When you build a tower especially if it’s in isolation, like, not in a Manhattan, where you’re like literally surrounded by them. In Manhattan, the towers were the next logical increment for what was around it. If you go to a place like Austin or Seattle and put a tower in next to a residential neighborhood, to me, you just built the same thing that people are building horizontally. You built it vertically. You built a one-lifecycle thing. And the question I have is “How does that thing renew itself. What happens when it starts to show it’s where 30 years from now and there isn’t a next increment of intensity that makes any sense?”
MU: I was getting the sense that that was your criticism of high-rise neighborhoods when I was reading your articles. I was getting a sense that you were saying “Are they sustainable? Is it not just all a bubble, you know, that is eventually going to implode?”
ST: So it feels very much like that to me. Yes. And this relates to that land value thing. I feel like we are we are responding to a false signal by hyperaggressively building something that is even distorting things more.
MU: Well, here would be my response to that, because that’s what I was getting: the sense that that was your position. And my response to that would be it probably is the case. Well I know it’s that it is the case in various foreign areas but I have not found a high-rise neighborhood to be a bubble in any part of America. In Miami again will be the big test, because it grew relatively overnight, and it is the newer version of this type of model.
But if you look at the old models of high rise neighborhoods I don’t know any of them that have really seen decline. I don’t know any that have become a bubble. They seem to only become more and more financially productive with time.
I think that the only example of a city that has a really high that has really high rise density that is still struggling and declining might be a place like Chicago. But I would argue that Chicago, the fact that it allowed, that it had this mentality of allowing so much high rise development has given it an economic advantage over other cities in that region. But overall, if you look at the areas of extremely high density in the United States, I don’t know any of them that have become a bubble. You can’t say that about New York. You can’t say that about Boston, you can’t say that about San Francisco, or L.A.. Their economic productivity, which was first created in the first place because they didn’t provide is only feeding and perpetuating upon itself.
ST: I think, from a historical standpoint, here’s where I kind of struggle because I’m not a very old guy. I’m also realizing that I’m not that young anymore either. I’m in my mid-40s.
I remember when there were large parts of our major cities that that were in decline. I loved Buffalo. I’ve spent a lot of time in Buffalo, and I’ve been in some of the old buildings in Buffalo that were, in a sense, the apex of their development pattern back 100 years ago. And you go in there and they’re gorgeous. Even though their in decline and even though they’ve been neglected. And even though a lot of them were walked away from, they made sense at the time they were built and they still kind of retain their value in a way. And my hope would be that over time, Buffalo would grow up around it, and those buildings become viable again.
I’ve gotten to see some of these in Dallas, more than any other city. When I go in some of the new high rise buildings that are built in Dallas they look really nice. Right. They’re brand new. They look great. They’ve got nice like laminate hardwood floor and laminate elevators, and you go to like the common rooms and there’s a swimming pool and all this. I know what that stuff takes to maintain. I know what 20 years from now it’s going to look like. It’s going to need a lot of work. These places have really high burn rates, much in the same way that if you buy a house built in 1910, it’s a more resilient kind of building than a single family home built in 2015. They’re just different, and they wear differently, and they have different long-term maintenance needs.
My concern about the — I was just going to use the word mindless — it’s not mindless but the kind of rush to embrace “let’s build a bunch of towers” is that we’re going down a course that it has a binary outcome. It either works perfectly, it works really well, or it’s a catastrophe at some point in the future.
I reflexively recoil from that type of approach. I reflexively say, as a city, as a collection of us working in a place, I am more inclined to want to hedge my bets in as many ways possible than I am to want to embrace that.
Now take me to Manhattan, you’re not going to find me arguing that we shouldn’t be building 20 stories, right? Take me to the core of Seattle and I’m not going to argue with you. But let’s go four blocks out of the core to all these single-family-home neighborhoods. Those places need to grow. They need to change, and they need to evolve. I just wouldn’t do it with towers. I think you’ve got to do it in an incremental, a more incremental way.
MU: I will look at the act of building vertically as — you know, you talk about this binary outcome, cities are either going to do really well or they’re going to decline. I agree.
But I mean, to me, the way to be on the right side about binary outcome is to build vertically because building vertically has been shown to be an extremely efficient use of land patterns. It’s the type of thing that attracts people to a city and that makes that. I mean it has all kinds of economic benefits as far as being able to attract certain companies, being able to attract certain people. So it’s like, to me, allowing the market to allow vertical construction is precisely the way that a city is going to be able to maintain its economy, and get good use out of its land, and have high tax revenues. As opposed to the sprawling light density cities that are really going to struggle in the future because they’re not going places that people want to be at, and they’re not building a long-term vision.
ST: By the way, I agree with everything you just said. I just don’t think there’s a shortcut to doing it.
I think that by having the very light constraint — and I know you don’t think it’s a light constraint — with a very light constraint of saying . . . . And so you know, I’m not enamored with 1.5. I threw that out as a way to think about it. I think that that is something that would need to be tried in different places and tweaked and worked with.
But the idea is that you take what’s there, and you renew it to the next level of intensity. It’s everything that you said. You know cities that grow dense should be more vibrant, they’re more successful. Yes, yes, yes. I agree with you. I just think that doesn’t mean density is the answer if you just do it at scale. I think there’s more nuance to it than that. I think there’s more to the graph than just two axes.
MU: OK, what I mean this is the this is the final point I’ll make, I guess, about this so I don’t look at incremental. I don’t look at the height limits and the impositions of incremental density that are already going on in cities.
I don’t view that as a light constraint Height limits are not a light constraint. To me height limits are the worst like a regulation.
ST: Right. Yeah I respect that. Yeah.
MU: So (A) there’s two different types of cities. There are already dense cities like New York and San Francisco that could become a lot denser, and height limits are the things that are stopping them from doing that.
And then [B] there are another, there are a second tier of cities that grew around the automobile and grew around sprawl. And I’m talking about places like San Diego in Seattle in Miami and Denver, and in places like that, and height limits are stopping them too. So we have we have 10 or 15 cities that that could, if regulations allow it, they could emerge into these great metropolises that are extremely economically productive, far more productive than what they are now. And I look at height limits as the uniform regulation that is stopping all of it.
ST: I’ll say just in closing, Scott might be right. I’m certainly not pretending that he’s not, or that he doesn’t have a lot of really smart things to say about this. And I am thankful for him taking the time and being generous with his thoughts and certainly generous with allowing me to express mine.
So check out Market Urbanism Report. We’ll post all the links on the site for that. Check out and follow Scott as he travels around the country on what is one of the most exciting projects that I’ve ever heard of. It’s like “Travels with Charley” in reverse. I love it.
OregonPEN has often published the writings and podcast musings of Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns (StrongTowns.org). Marohn is that rare original thinker who is willing to grapple with new ideas and to revise his prior thoughts in the face of evidence. Strong Towns is such an important group on the national scene because it is shaped in Marohn’s image – willing to insist that bad things should be seen and recognized as bad things, even if the right approach to those bad things — the “solution” to them — may not be known or may not even exist. Like any good recovery program, Strong Towns insists that you have to admit you have a problem before you can begin to think about addressing it or learning to manage it.
This issue of Strong Towns presents an “asynchronous interview” with Marohn, a transcript of one of his recent podcast talks, with questions edited in because this important talk – a one-hour monologue – would be much less accessible for an audience less familiar with Marohn and the Strong Towns ideas. So even though OregonPEN’s questions weren’t really asked, and were added to the transcript after the fact, we hope they help orient the reader.
“Hey, I’m here showing you that the way you’re building is bankrupting yourself. The first thing you should do is stop doing that.”
OregonPEN: What’s on your mind, Chuck?
Chuck Marohn: I’ve been thinking about [a] question a lot. And part of it is the dialogue we had with Johnny Sanphillipo on the Strong Towns site a month or so ago, and part of it is this dialog I’ve been having with a group called The Market Urbanists in a private Facebook chat that we’ve been having.
You guys have heard Johnny before on the podcast a couple times. I adore Johnny, I think he’s an incredible person and I’ve just learned so much from him. I just like him a lot and I like spending time with him and I like hearing from him and I like reading his stuff. And it’s almost like my … I was going to curse there but I don’t do that on this podcast. He’s a bit like my BS meter. Like, “Hey Chuck, no. No you’re going too far out there. Come back, stay grounded in reality.”
Johnny has struck out and tried to do a couple things in Cincinnati from a housing development standpoint. Became very frustrated with that, I don’t blame him, I don’t blame him. But he and I have very different backgrounds. My background, since 1995 when I got out of undergraduate school, has been working in the private sector for government. I have not been a government employee but have always … essentially I have gotten paid up until I made this leap of faith over to Strong Towns full time. My career, my salary has always come from companies. Either companies that I worked for or companies that I owned and ran [on government funds or], that derive their revenue almost exclusively from governments.
In a sense, I have been very near like the inner workings of government. So for better or for worse, part of the lens of my thought process and the prism that our conversation goes through has a lot to do with governments, and the working of government. So one of Johnny’s critiques of me was, “Hey, you’re kind of trying to change the system that doesn’t want to change, and isn’t going to change. I think you would be better off doing perhaps something else.” And my gosh, I think that that is a fair critique. There are days when I just bang my head against the wall and say, “What am I doing?”
But I will say, I get the opportunity now to travel around the country to meet with cities, to meet with public officials, to meet with staff members, and I am more and more running into people that I think are great leaders [who] I think are transformational people, I think are great people that are trying to do great things in very difficult circumstances.
I was in the city of Barberton a couple weeks ago, just outside of Akron in Ohio. I got to meet the mayor there. Now I’m going to say something and I’m going to say this and I don’t mean this in like a derogatory way, here’s a guy that was not (pause) he’s not going to blow anybody away. This wasn’t like someone who was overflowing with enthusiasm or you know deeply intellectual, just a good solid small town mid-size town kind of mayor who clearly cared about the place, clearly was thoughtful and had thought about the different options in front of him and in front of the city that he was leading, and felt a real civic responsibility to not just continue to do the stuff that everybody else had done that had gotten him into the messes that he is dealing with. I hope the guy, if he’s listening, doesn’t feel put down by that. Because what I’m really trying to say is that we’re getting to the point where Strong Towns thinking and a different attitude on cities is not something that you have to be an extreme outlier to have.
It’s starting to become something that is seeping into the mainstream conversation about how we run cities. How we manage places, how we make decisions. Now it still is a minority opinion and it still is being overwhelmed by the kind of centralized devices that have all the money, all the regulation, all the standing. We have a long ways to go. But I can go to a place like Barberton –which is off the beaten path so to speak — and you’ve got people that are talking Strong Towns and they’re talking better block, and they’re talking tactical urbanism, and they’re talking how do we make small changes in neighborhoods so that we can get incremental development patterns going again.
We can start to move things in the right direction, and I’m inspired by it. Maybe I’m a little naïve; maybe I’m a little trusting. Maybe I’m a little too optimistic at times, but I’m seeing real progress happen. I really am. And, yes, the problem is overwhelming, but remember Strong Times we’ve not said we’re here to solve this problem. We’re not going to be able to solve these problems. What we’re going to be able to do is come up with ways that we can start to deal with them, and when the time comes, when we’re needed, when things get difficult, we will have a reasonable thoughtful alternative approach. Really so that the country doesn’t go crazy.
OregonPEN: What problem are you talking about?
Marohn: If you’ve been with us a while, you’ve heard me talk about this and it sometimes gets a little dark and scary. But I think — maybe, now there’s a little bit more credibility, after the last twelve months of electioneering and governing — that this country stands a decent chance of going nuts. You start to pile on to the confusion and consternation that we have now. Cities that are failing, pensions that aren’t being paid, firefighters and police officers being laid off. Roads and streets that aren’t being maintained, just a basic general overall acceleration of the decline that we have seen now for really 15-20 years at the local government level. It’s not hard to imagine a certain level of panic and borderline hysteria creeping into our national psyche.
It’s not hard to imagine a certain level of panic and borderline hysteria creeping into our national psyche
We as Strong Towns advocates, we as people who are trying to advocate for a different way of doing things, need to be there. We need to be the level head, the ones who say, “You know what? This may seem bad but here’s how we start to work our way out of this.” This brings me to the thing I really want to discuss.
So the question that I’ve been struggling with for a long time and I’m kind of comfortable with where I’ve arrived, but let me give you the question. The question is what do you do if you don’t know the answer? If you can clearly explain or understand the problem, or at least understand the factors that have driven us to the problem or the dilemma that we face, what do you do if you don’t know the answer?
I’ll go back to the early days of Strong Towns. I mean this was the critique that I faced back in 2011, 2012, 2013 just harsh, almost cruel around here in my hometown. “Okay, Chuck, you’ve identified this problem, we agree with you, we see it. Like right we’re not going to argue that, this isn’t a deal, but what would you do you?”
Basically the kind of line of discussion was you don’t have a right to stand up and say that this is a problem, that essentially we’re doing something wrong, if you can’t tell us what you would do differently.
Then you’re just a naysayer, then you’re just a bomb thrower. Then you’re just a cheap critic, and I don’t think that’s fair and I spent some time kind of arguing that that’s not fair. I don’t think … if the plane is about to crash, you don’t have to know how to fly the plane to stand up and say, “Hey, we need to do something different.” I don’t think having a 10-point plan to turn things around is a prerequisite for being able to stand up and say like, “This isn’t going in the right direction.” So I thought that was completely unjustified, that didn’t stop it from happening.
Really in many ways it became like an intellectual sticking point for me because I knew and I understood that I could — I’m going to say this, and I’m not trying to say this to make myself look good by comparison, but I am going to give you some insight on the way I think about things that is going to make other organizations look inferior, at least in my mind.
I understood way back in 2008 when I started writing this stuff, I understood when I ran my own consulting company doing planning around the state of Minnesota, that if I just came up with a three-point plan that I could make tons of money. If I just went into cities and said, “Look, I know the answer, you just need to do A B C. And if I can make A B C palatable, easy, something that they would be willing to pay for, something that they could do, something that was happy, something that people could embrace, that people would do it and I could make a lot of money. I could get paid to do that.
My problem was, and I’ve said many times, I’m not a very good consultant. I’m not a very good fundraiser and part of what keeps me from being a good consultant and a good fundraiser is that I have this intellectual problem with doing that.
OregonPEN: So you’re saying that, with complex problems, consultants selling one-size-fits-all formula solutions can make a killing, even though they don’t actually help with the problems?
I will specifically pick on the complete streets movement today, [but] not because I don’t like them. I like them and I find that we intellectually see the same on many, many, many things, but I’ve never been a fan of complete streets.
I’ve thought that it was an overly simplistic approach to an incredibly complex problem, and that if the world embraced complete streets, in the way that the complete streets advocates were going to or wanted them to, that we wouldn’t have better outcomes. [And not only that] we wouldn’t have noticeably better outcomes, but we would have more calcified bureaucracy.
We would have engineers building ridiculous things and blowing up budgets. We would have all these other things that I saw as related problems, but not core problems. My struggle has always been that the simple solution to A doesn’t address B C D E F G, and [also] then all the other things that I’m not smart enough or savvy enough to actually have identified as problems. That would show up later when we started to do A.
And understanding this I just struggled. I sometimes was on a hamster wheel and running and not going anywhere, intellectually. When people started to beat me over the head with this, and I had a few local critics that were just mean people, just mean people.
When they started to beat me over the head with this, “What would you do Chuck, [if] you’re so smart?” I struggled because I did not have like a five-point plan. I didn’t have things that I could say. Like, “Here do this.”
It even got to the point where in 2013 I did a tour of Idaho. John Reuter, who is on our board today, at that point was the Executive Director of a group called The League of Conservation Voters of Idaho. He really liked our message, wanted to get it in front of a bunch of the communities that he was working with, and his organization sponsored us to come out and travel around the state. Incidentally it was Andrew Burleson, who is our board chair now. John Reuter, who is on our board, and myself, driving around Idaho for a week.
The kind of recurring critique – [which] came out of giving that presentation 15 times to audiences big and small and everything in between — the ongoing critique that I got from these two gentlemen who saw this presentation over and over and over, and understood it, is “Hey, you got to give people some direction here.” It was a friendlier version of the mean critique I was getting back home here.
I tried, I really tried. If you go back, it almost makes me laugh now when I go back and look at those early days of the Curbside Chat because it was me trying to do something that I knew would make our message [palatable] … having a three-point plan or a four- or a five-point plan, or whatever it was, like here’s what we should do differently. “Here’s five things.”
That would give our movement a lot of legs, a lot of momentum. It would make it easier to do an elevator speech, it would make it easier to present the foundations, it would make it easier to talk to donors and whatever. It would have got a lot easier if I just had something like that.
It’s the analogue to complete streets. I could go and say, “Look, every street should be complete so that people can walk along side of it and bike alongside of it and people can drive and if we just thought of everybody, it would work fine” and I can give that speech in an elevator and I find it completely vacant because it doesn’t deal with the myriad of things that come out of it.
I can give that speech in an elevator and I find it completely vacant because it doesn’t deal with the myriad of things that come out of it.
So if you go back and look at the Curbside Chat presentations — and there’s a couple of them online from 2013 or whatever. I can go back and look at the slides because I saved every one separately, so I can go see what I did four years ago, five years ago. I used to have this set of recommendations.
The first one was stop doing what you’re doing. Which for me was an honest legitimate recommendation. Like, “Hey, I’m here showing you that the way you’re building is bankrupting yourself. The first thing you should do is stop doing that.” And the funny thing is we very rarely got beyond that one. I mean I had other ones, like take an inventory of where you’re at, so you actually understand how deep the problem is. I know that it ended with triage.
And I had this whole speech about how … here’s me, like, tearing up in front of people, [saying] “Hey, out on the battlefields, the Red Cross come across and here’s these soldiers and they’ve sacrificed everything, they’re dying and bleeding to death, and you don’t have enough resources to take care of them all. So what do you do? You triage, and look, when we look at our cities and we have so much we have to do and not enough money to do it, we have to do triage and you know what? It’s actually going to be easier than dealing with soldiers on a battlefield, so let’s go do this.”
For me it was intellectually honest, but it didn’t have any legs. It was really hard and people couldn’t be inspired by it, they couldn’t grasp it. “Yeah, okay Chuck great, stop everything that we’re doing, go and be a bunch of accountants and figure out like how screwed we are and then spend the next few years going around telling everybody like we’re not going to fix your road. We’re not going to fix your road and we’re going to fix your road. And sorry that’s just the way it is. Yeah I know we have money now, I know we have a budget, I know things are bad but we’re looking in the future and this guy told us things are going to get bad, so this is what you’re going to have to do. Suck it up. Sorry your roads aren’t going to be fixed.” That was intellectually honest for me but not going to happen, not a workable way to approach the problem.
OregonPEN: So you’re telling me people prefer hucksters selling quick fixes to real prophets, and that a prophet is without honor in his own land? Who knew?
Marohn: So, the question that I struggled with was what do you do? And you know, I’m going to stand here and tell you tonight that I don’t know what the future is going to bring. I mean I laugh at these people who paint these very vivid pictures of what the autonomous car is going to mean to life in the future, and then other people who get this huge fetish over the Hyperloop or whatever Elon Musk’s latest thing is.
Sure, fine, maybe those realities will come to pass but maybe they won’t. I’m kind of in the Nassim Taleb School in many ways. One of the ways is this notion that, if something has existed for a long time, it is more likely to be in existence a long time from now than something that is brand new. I like to think of this in terms of books. The Harry Potter series my daughters have gone through, and I think those are fantastic books. They’re amazing books. If you’ve never read the Harry Potter books, you don’t really have to be a fantasy person to really enjoy them. They’re very good books. That being said, which has a greater chance of being around and being widely read and widely distributed a hundred years from now? The Harry Potter series or The Lord Of The Rings series? Which one has a greater chance of being around a hundred years from now?
Think of like a book like the Grapes of Wrath or a book like … well let me just go really old school, the Old Testament. Which one has the greater likelihood of being around? You can say the Grapes of Wrath are probably going to outlive or out survive Harry Potter. If you had a bet today, even though Harry Potter is this fantastic book and it’s caught on and it’s wonderful. The Grapes of Wrath will probably outdo it.
Why? Because there’s this long track record. You can look back and see like it’s been around a long time. That’s a pretty good indication of its ability to endure. The Old Testament is … someone’s probably going to be able to get a copy of the Old Testament 500 years from now. And we can say that with some confidence because it’s been around a heck of a long time. It’s not going to go away. You’re going to be able to find it.
OregonPEN: Ok, things that have lasted are the most likely to keep lasting. So?
When we look out into the future and [ask] how different is it going to be from today.
I’m not going to argue that it’s not going to be different. But the idea that we wouldn’t be living in houses on blocks, driving cars, parking on the street, walking on sidewalks to shops and [such] . . . . This has been around thousands and thousands and thousands of years. There’s a possibility that it will be different, but I wouldn’t put big money on that.
But what do you do if you don’t know? What do you do if you don’t know? Nassim Taleb has talked about this, and I think he has it right. This is really in many ways the basis for my obsession with building incrementally. It actually is the reason that I started to understand how people used to build. I would sit and look at development patterns, old places, places that I had gone to. Different levels of maturity before we hit this suburban experiment.
OregonPEN: So development patterns that have lasted are most likely to last further in the future? So?
After reading Nassim Taleb, it started to occur to me how this was done incrementally. Nassim Taleb says the way you probe uncertainty is incrementally. The way you probe an uncertain future is to proceed incrementally, and this is particularly true in systems that what he calls forth quadrant systems. Sometimes, in complexity theory, they’re called complex adaptive systems. Systems that have different parts that each, themselves, are able to receive feedback and act independently on that feedback, and then interact with each other.
Cities, economies, climate, all these things are complex adaptive systems, and Nassim Taleb’s notion is that when you don’t know what the future holds, the way you try to figure that out, the way you try to figure out what the best path is, you proceed incrementally. If you think about that and let me use climate as an analogy, and then I’ll use the economy as an analogy because I actually think that in a way that will appeal to those of you that are left of center, and those of you that are right of center, will both grasp, then, these different analogies.
The big argument with climate change — when you get down to the central core of it and get rid of the certainty that kind of tends to come out when you get into the political realm — if you actually get to the scientific realm, there’s a lot less certainty, but that certainty can’t be expressed politically because of the political positions people have taken. But if you actually get into the science, what you’ll see is that we have dramatically changed the inputs into the climate. We have, through the burning of fossil fuels, released enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Something that is in a sense unprecedented. There is no precedent for this in the history of the earth.
You can’t go back and really point to times in the record, as best we can reconstitute it, where literally millions and millions of years [worth] of organic material have been brought to the surface, burned and turned into carbon. I’m sorry, turned from carbon into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon released from the ground into the atmosphere.
When we look at this, we have to say we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know what this massive impact will be. We can guess, we can model, we can have certain levels of probability with different outcomes, but we don’t really know and the interesting thing about climate science and I’ll probably tick a whole bunch of people off right now, but you can go back not too far and scientists were looking at similar data predicting ice ages.
There’s a lot of variability. The thing about the climate when it comes to putting large amounts of carbon in, is that what you’ve got is a system that is a complex adaptive system at a certain level of equilibrium and you have just jarred that. You’ve just put a massive, massive change into it. You don’t know what’s going to happen; you don’t know what the outcome will be. Now Nassim Taleb would say, the way you explore that uncertainty, the way that we should have proceeded, is more slowly and incrementally.
And, had we done that, essentially, the feedback from the negative impacts would have been felt a lot more quickly.
We can say the same thing about the economy. We had this golden age of economic theory where we said we can counteract recession, we can smooth out the business cycle, we can, through different fiscal and monetary tinkering with the system, we can get rid of those downturns and have the upturns be more prosperous for everyone.
And what we have seen is that, over time, we had this long period of moderation. And then these wild fluctuations, really, since the early 1980s. We’ve seen these wild corrections and wild fluctuations and each one demands and even more robust and more kind of violent and wild response. Someone with Taleb’s mindset, someone with an anti-fragile mindset would say, “We should not have, in a sense, intervened at that level in decades past, because what we did is we created essentially a fragile situation; we built up, we put off volatility. We put off volatility; we robbed ourselves of small volatilities and exchanged that for large unpredictable levels of volatility.
We should have not tinkered with them, we should have left well enough alone. If we had a brand new theory for how things work, [we should] try to test it and tinker with it and do it in small ways to see what worked.
I think both of those examples, the climate and the burning of millions of years of carbon and the economy coming out of the depression of World War II, both of those kind of also point to human weakness, right? We can burn fossil fuel, so we do. We can intervene with the economy, so we do. Burning of fossil fuels has brought about unparalleled levels of prosperity in many places. I mean, the fact that we’re able to talk today like this. If we hadn’t had the industrial economy, if we hadn’t had the burning of fossil fuels, would we be having this conversation today? I think it’s very likely that we wouldn’t, right?
If we hadn’t intervened in the economy in the years after World War II and smoothed out the business cycle, would we have had this period of robust growth? Would we have had this period of prosperity that has done more worldwide to bring people out of poverty than really anything else that’s ever been done? I think you can make a strong case that it has. And so, as humans, we’re kind of predisposed to do great things when we see challenges in front of us, when we have the means at our disposal to go out and do something, it’s hard for us to not do it, right?
OregonPEN: Isn’t this Dunning-Kruger stuff? People who aren’t good at humility about their own ignorance don’t know that they aren’t good at humility about their ignorance?
This is the Lord Of The Rings side. There’s that scene in the first, the Fellowship of the Ring where they realize that Gollum is following them there in the Mines of Moria and Frodo says, “I wish Bilbo had had killed him.” And Gandalf says, “Who are you to decide? Who are you to decide who should live and die? Do you have that power?” I think as humans, as frail people, it’s very hard for us to resist that temptation, that power, right? Like we can mine fossil fuels and change the world. We can intervene the economy and make things better. We can, and I’m going to get to cities now, we can go out and solve the problems that we see in front of us.
We can, for example, build high speed rail all over California to connect all these cities in a way that is going to be . . . . We can make all the excuses: it’s going to be good for the environment, it’s going to reduce congestion, it’s going to connect our cities, make them stronger and healthier and get all this investment. We can go out and build highways through the middle of the neighborhoods and the same exact mindset that thinks billions of dollars of high speed rail today would be great, is the same exact mindset that 60, 70 years ago said running highways through the middle of the cities is a great thing. Look what it’s going to do, it’s going to get rid of all this and environmental problems we have in our cities, it’s going to spread people out, it’s going to reduce all that congestion, all that nasty density, we’re going to have people who are healthier. They’re going to have more green space, more air, more lights. They’re going to be closer in touch with nature. Those are all these things that we told ourselves would make things better. And by the way, this was not a left or right thing, I don’t even think like high speed rail is necessarily a left or right thing today when you get to a state like California.
You have essentially a problem or a series of problems and you have this big kind of silver bullet solution or a set of one or two things that you can do to attack this complex problems you’re going to do it, and then you wind up with all the side effects.
What do you do if you want to attack the problem and you don’t want the side effects, you do it and it seem, let’s suggest you probe uncertainty incrementally.
Here’s the fascinating thing about this, this is what our ancestors did. And when I say ancestors, I mean ancestors in like the largest possible sense of the word. You can go back to the earliest civilizations that we’ve been able to excavate in Fertile Crescent and what you can see is a development pattern that, in layout and design looks eerily like ours, but was developed incrementally, was discovered in a sense incrementally.
OregonPEN: So early societies were natural incrementalists?
You can picture these people, thousands and thousands of years ago trying things and tinkering with this and tinkering with that and, over successive generations, figuring out that if we set things up like this, it worked a little bit better, and if we lay things out in this way, it moved the air a little bit better, or it allowed light in better, or it allowed us to accomplish defense better, or allowed us to interact with each other better. It allowed us the ability to actually work together as a community a little bit better. You start to look at these things and you realize that all of that complexity that is the human experience. Not just what the engineers look at, you know, the pipe, and the street, and the sidewalk; and not what the planners look at, the setbacks and, you know, where the Boulevard is, what your floor area ratio is; the actual complexity of humanity, the lives we live, how we interact with each other, how we decide where to spend our money, our time, our energy. You realize that all these things, people thousands of years ago, figured out slowly over time by iteration, by trial and error, by probing uncertainty incrementally.
Now, they did not have [another] option. This is the thing — they didn’t have an option, they didn’t know that they could dig up a bunch of fossil fuels and burn them. They didn’t have combustion engines, they didn’t know that they could get cranes and build 20-story towers. They didn’t have that capacity. And so, in a sense, they were forced to learn incrementally, because they didn’t have another alternative.
But today, we have the alternative; we can discipline ourselves to work incrementally, or we can kind of lurch from massive silver bullet to massive silver bullet, trying these things in generation after successive generation and then dealing with the really harmful and devastating side effects.
I think to a degree that our cities are in the process of being starved of resources. There’s too much commitments, there’s too many promises. The money’s going other places, the states and the federal government are taking way more of their share than they ever have. Our toleration for taxes, our expectations of local government have never been lower, our tolerance for paying for it has never been lower, our expectations in many ways have never been higher.
We have this mismatch today at the local government level, and I hear in our dialogue a whole lot of people who I think, very naturally for human beings, want to embrace some type of grand solution, [some] grand way of doing things.
And what I’m suggesting is that we have to get back to doing things incrementally, we have to get back to probing uncertainty incrementally. I think our lack of resources will help make that case. But even if, even in the interim, and even if we don’t, I think we can benefit a lot from starting to think this way, starting to move this way, starting to act this way.
OregonPEN: Ok, we need to go back to a more incremental mindset even if the resource constraints haven’t forced it upon us yet. What else?
The debate that I got in with the Market Urbanists this week. And boy, what a bizarre conversation. I won’t go into it too much, because it was in a private group, and I gave it a lot of time, and I gave it a lot of time because it started out very confusing to me and then it became combative and even more confusing actually. And then [it] ended up in a place where I just kind of had to accept that we weren’t going to agree on some things. It was a group that I thought that we agreed on. I thought like the Venn diagram overlap between Strong Towns and Market Urbanism was actually pretty high. [It was actually] not so high, but the thing that was really the dividing line was this notion that we should build incrementally.
And I wrote about California’s housing crisis this week. If you listen to the podcast, The Week Ahead podcast, Rachel asked me about it and I kind of chatted a little bit about it, but I had all these other kind of thoughts coming at me on the screen at the same time and I was rather frustrated with the whole thing at that point. I think I have figured out a little bit more now, what they’re getting at. But the Market Urbanism people tend to, they call themselves more libertarian, which in their case is, truly, like no rules, no limitations when it comes to building.
Their idea is that, if we are forced to build incrementally — which is essentially one of our central suggestions, that every neighborhood by right be allowed to build to the next increment of intensity, but no more — if we’re limited to that, we’re not only stepping on people’s liberty, but we’re actually missing out on the opportunity to build housing that people want. We’re going to make housing artificially more expensive, we’re going to impoverished people, we’re going to lead to gentrification. It’s going to have all these negative impacts, just let us build towers.
I’ve written extensively on why I think this is a bad approach and it really gets back to the idea that I am not certain on what the problem is today, I’m not completely certain that I understand what’s going on.
A lot of people look at the crazy housing prices right now — in places like San Francisco, in LA and San Diego, New York, Vancouver, Seattle, Austin — they look at these crazy housing prices and they’re extremely confident on what the problem is.
And, largely, they’re extremely confident, if you are right-of-center, if you’re one of these Market Urbanist people, you can pin the blame on the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) type people, government regulation that artificially limits the amount of housing, and all the bureaucracy you have to go to in order to build. If we could just get rid of those things, force the NIMBY’s to allow building in the neighborhood, take away their power to resist it, remove zoning regulations and streamline approval processes, we could build our way out of this problem and the housing prices would come down and we’d have this great flourishing and prosperity.
OregonPEN: So, unleash the market solves all ills?
If you go to the left-of-center — and you know, I think the Market Urbanists actually after having a dialogue with them now for a week, are quite a bit right-of-center — I think the counter reaction to that — the NIMBY groups are quite a bit left-of-center — but the idea that the more housing we build just makes it worse for everybody. We take poor housing and we replace it with luxury housing, and all that does is just kick poor people out and let wealthy people move in. And the idea that the way we solve this is by somehow forcing developers to do things that are at a net loss in the marketplace, that’s somehow charging other people more for housing, is going to make housing cheaper for other people at a scale, that is actually going to matter.
OregonPEN: So it’s “Unleash the Market” vs. “Rent Control”?
I find these arguments to be incoherent and simplistic, because — let me just throw in one thing, and I don’t want to go all Ron Paul on you, but, you know, tell me what the effect of the Federal Reserve is on all these housing prices? That has nothing to do with the local approval process, [and it] has nothing to do with luxury housing being built, [and] it has nothing to do with what your neighbor does across the street. Tell me what the Federal Reserve buying up every mortgage that was originated for eight years, keeping interest rates at near zero for almost a decade now, tell me the effect that all this liquidity has had on housing prices.
I can tell you the policy goal of those things: the policy goal was to re-inflate the housing bubble, because the piercing of the housing bubble was catastrophic and we had to get prices back up. What effect does that have? Is that long term sustainable, is that viable, is that something that will endure?
If it is discovered today that housing prices are artificially too high — and I have to tell you, I don’t understand. And I know people have just brushed this off and said, “Whatever, Chuck, you just don’t get it.” I don’t understand how you can have a city where half the population cannot afford the houses. How does that even work? How does that work? It doesn’t make any sense. Like on paper, it doesn’t make any sense. If people can’t afford it, then how are they paying for it? There’s a lot of people rolling their eyes right now, “Chuck like you don’t get it.” I do. I mean, I get, people live two, three, in an apartment, they’re splitting rent with other people, they make [do].
Okay, [but] you can’t have a long-term stable situation where the median family can afford the median family home. It is not a stable situation; it won’t work. Something is going to have to change; either the family size is going to change, more people are going to live together, they’re going to change the economics of that that housing relationship. Either that or people are getting money from somewhere else. And for a long time in the run up to the housing bubble in the 2000s, people couldn’t afford the homes but it didn’t matter because they were cashing out the equity all the time and using that to make things work. They were using that to cash flow their life. So you look and you just say these anomalies can’t persist, they’re not viable over the long term. They may be a short term anomaly, but they’re not [going to last].
So what happens when those things work themselves out? What happens when those things work themselves out? I don’t know, right? I don’t know, but I’m not confident going in with some one-size-fits-all big massive solution [such as] “we’re going to force developers to do this on a big scale;” “we’re going to remove all these building regulations and just build towers all over the place.”
To me, what we’re doing, is we’re just setting the stage for the next thing that’s going to be really screwed up. The way we probe uncertainty is by building incrementally, by moving forward incrementally.
OregonPEN: So, if you’re so smart . . .
And so our solution, the Strong Towns approach when it comes to housing affordability has been that we need to build everywhere. We need to build incrementally over a broad area over a long period of time. Every neighborhood should be allowed to build to the next increment of intensity by right. There should be no way a NIMBY can stop that, you shouldn’t have a long approval process. In my ideal world, you should be able to walk in the city hall at 9:00 AM with a request to build the next increment and by noon you should walk out with your permit and be able to start building.
To me, that is what the system should look like. But I wouldn’t then go to the next increment beyond that. I wouldn’t jump over two or three or four increments. I wouldn’t go from single-family home to six-story condo units. I think that is a distortion. And I think that is not probing uncertainty incrementally, that’s rushing all in.
Let me just give one narrative here to kind of crystallize what I’m suggesting. When you build a tower or when you go out and build a 400-unit subdivision, take your pick, whichever one you desire the most, take your pick. You go out and build 400 single-family homes all at once, [or] you go out and build the big tower all at once. What do you have? Well you have something that in its initial condition is, in a sense, maximized, the value of the building to the value of the land. You have something that is, essentially, in its peak state.
Over time, it will start to age and you can see this in single-family housing subdivisions, where you have 20 homes, 50 homes, 400 homes, all built at the same time. What happens is you come back 25 years later and what do you see? Everybody’s sidewalk’s gone bad at the same time; everybody’s roof has gone bad at the same time; everybody’s windows start to lose that little bit around the edge and start to look weathered, and the seals start to go bad, and you see things start to get mold and look out of place, look bad. All the stuff goes bad but it goes bad at the same time.
We didn’t build it incrementally, we didn’t build a little bit here and a little bit there and then continue to progress over time. We just built it all at once to a finished state and it all goes bad at the same time.
If you have a tower, the whole thing goes bad all at once. All those gaskets go bad at the same time, they all have the same life span, they all go bad at the same time. All of the 1970s wallpaper that you put on, just a brutal mess to get off. All of that looked bad at the same time. So what you’ve done is, in a sense, I’ll use the old phrase, you put all your eggs in one basket. You essentially attached yourself to one life cycle: one beginning and end, one outcome.
And what you’re relying on is that either you’ll do it so well that it will be maintained and taken care of and loved and endure, or you just are not thinking about it, you just don’t care: It just doesn’t matter to you what happens in the future; those are for people in the future to figure out.
This is where my prism of looking at things from a city standpoint comes in, because, for me, what I see is [this]: on one side you have this Market Urbanism argument. Let’s just go and build towers, and it’s people want to be in the downtown, so let’s put a thousand units down there, and let’s beat down prices by just increasing supply. Let’s meet demand with supply and that will create this market equilibrium.
And I see, on the other side, this idea that “don’t change my neighborhood, I don’t want incremental growth, I’m not willing to accept a granny flat next door, I’m not willing to accept an ADU [accessory dwelling unit], don’t you dare put two families under one household, that is offensive to me. No, no, no I won’t do that.”
What I see are two extreme views, neither of which are really viable over the long term for the city. And, understand, I’m not talking about the city as in the bureaucrats that work at city hall or the mayor or the city council running for reelection. I’m talking about the city as in the municipal corporation of which we are all a member.
If you are the NIMBY who insists that my neighborhood is under glass, it is not allowed to change, what you are doing as you are handcuffing your city and guaranteeing that it will fail.
OregonPEN: You mean we’re all in this together?
In other words, I own a piece of land in a corporation known as the City of Brainerd, [Minnesota]. And in order for my piece of land to do well — and to function and to create wealth for me and to create prosperity for me, something that will endure, that I can hand on to my descendants at some point in the future, if that is my dream for this piece of land that I have purchased, that I have a home on that I live in — what I need is for this corporation known as the City of Brainerd to also prosper and do well. And if you just look at the Strong Towns narrative, to any degree what you see is that our cities are massively fragile. They are falling apart, they are financially bankrupt, they have more promises than they have the ability to keep.
And so if you’re a Market Urbanist wanting to build towers all over the place, and you don’t care if the bottom falls out of that market, you don’t care what happens. You think maybe even like bankruptcy of those places is good because it would just make housing cheaper and more affordable. You’re completely overlooking the fact that the tax revenue and the wealth for building that and for sustaining all that stuff comes from this tax base that you’re just like flippantly disregarding.
But on the other side, if you are the NIMBY, if you are the one who insists that “my neighborhood is under glass, it is not allowed to change. I pay my taxes; this is what I bought in for.” What you are doing as you are handcuffing your city and guaranteeing that it will fail.
I look at our cities and I see them heading into times of deep stress. And even if you’re a city like San Francisco, where, boy, it just seems like despite whatever you might do to screw things up, you just can’t screw things up. There’s so much tech money being thrown at you, there’s so much demand for being there, there’s so much growth, you could be the most incompetent city in the world, you could run, as a Local Government, just the worst place, and it’s [still] going to work out really well. It seems like that today, right? It seems like that today.
But when we look back in time we can see that [in] the lifetime of people that have been around today, it has not always been that way. We can also see many, many examples of cities that were at this [same] generational high only to have, essentially, overbuilt, overpromised, overextended, particularly when they [did] it in one dimension.
Just look at Detroit, one of the greatest cities in the world, 50, 60 years ago. Literally, one of the top cities, one of the top handful of cities in the world. Ornate opera houses, massive public investment, just a gorgeous, gorgeous city. And made all these investments at the top believing that this is what great cities do. And they were the wrong investments. They were the wrong investments.
How do you know? You don’t, and I think, at the end of the day, we have to acknowledge that we don’t [know] and that acknowledgement will get us to a place where we can start to act in a prudent, disciplined way to probe uncertainty incrementally, to take small incremental steps, to intentionally limit our reach. Not because we don’t dream big, but because we are in absolute awe and humbled by the wisdom and the knowledge that was built by our ancestors over thousands of years of them building incrementally.
And if we can just be adequately humbled by that, I think that we can stop this flailing around this almost charlatan approach to ourselves, where we lurch from one massive solution to another massive solution, from one set of charlatans to another set of charlatans, and actually get back to, in our neighborhoods in our communities, building incrementally in a way that we know will build wealth, in a way that we know will lead to prosperity, in a way that we know will make our cities healthy and stable. And do that for a broad area, for a lot of people.
I urge you to stand with humility and be comfortable with that, be comfortable with not knowing, be comfortable with not having the exact answer and be comfortable with and confident really, well saying, “I don’t know. So let’s try some things and see what we can figure out.”
The people of Oregon have a problem. As is evident, sometimes the Executive must be impeached
But, in Oregon, the government we empower to serve us has two serious, structural problems, which are related:
First, our state constitution affords us no way to remove a chief executive (Governor) for maladministration or malfeasance.
Second, we have no deputy chief executive — such as a lieutenant governor — who can fill the position when the governor resigns or dies in office. So, in that case, we make do by moving the secretary of state into the governor’s office. This makes the secretary of state, the office responsible for overseeing elections, a partisan stepping-stone on the way to the governor’s office for ambitious politicians.
As the evidence from the national capital so clearly shows, it is critically important that there be a way for the people in a democratic state to remove, without a coup, or force the resignation of the head of the executive branch of government when that chief executive has demonstrated unfitness or unwillingness to conform to the requirements of the office he or she holds.
This deficit — our inability to remove a governor — is even more serious because of our secession problem, where we could easily have a Secretary of State rise to replace a governor of a different political party, a serious problem in our system where we have fixed terms of office instead of fluid terms such as used in parliamentary systems. In those countries, when the head of the government falls, an election is held, promptly, and the government in power either wins a new majority and resumes its administration with a new head, or a new party assumes power and has a new first or prime minister. If the populace is disgusted only with the individual who had been the head of government, the party remains in power with new leadership; if the people have turned against the party in power, they lose power along with their leader.
But in our system, we can easily imagine that a chance event – a car crash or a crackpot assassin — produces a change in the administration that gives control of the governor’s office to a member of the a different party for a substantial length of time.
This is to say nothing of the problem of having the state elections machinery headed by a strongly partisan politician. To the greatest extent possible, elections should be administered in a strictly nonpartisan way, not by a partisan official whose eye is on higher office.
It is time for Oregon to follow the vast majority of states and provide both for removal of the chief executive in the state and for their assured replacement by a compatible official, at least one compatible enough to belong to the same political party and who was considered by the voters of the whole state.
With luck, impeachment would be used rarely, if ever. But as the nightmare in Washington shows, and the experience of other states presently (the state with the “other” Portland, Maine, being a singularly good example) demonstrates, the strengths of the political parties has plummeted sharply in the last 50 years, for a variety of complex reasons. As a result, the quality of officeholders has plummeted even further.
As a result, we are now seeing the election of people who espouse ideas and take positions that would have caused them to be laughed out of any prospective candidates recruiting meeting not all that long ago. Not that the “smoke filled rooms” never failed – but, on the whole, it is clear that candidate based politics, in the age of weaponized media that can be individually tailored to create a unique, unverifiable reality for each possible voter, and the atrocious Citizens United decision, make the election of totally unfit characters or even outright con artists a much more likely outcome.
We must have the ability to remove the Oregon governor from office constitutionally without elevating a candidate from a different political party. Or, more precisely, we must be able to ensure that we don’t fail to remove a governor because it would result in giving control of the executive to the opposite party.
Like the “National Popular Vote” bill aimed at reforming the slavery-based Electoral College, the Oregon Senate again this year inexplicably killed another necessary reform measure that the House passed, this one a joint resolution that had overwhelming support in the lower chamber (51 – 6, with 3 absent).
The measure proposed (HJR 10) was not perfect, but expecting perfection in a procedure that few expect will be used much, if at all, is expecting the Legislature to spend a lot of time on a fool’s errand. Thus, the Oregon Progressive Party’s criticism is fair, but should have been used to improve the bill, not to justify the Senate’s stealth strangulation of it:
The Oregon Progressive Party (OPP) opposes this resolution, which would send to voters an amendment to the Oregon Constitution to authorize the Legislature to impeach and remove any statewide elected official.
While lodging an impeachment and removal authority in the Oregon Legislature would have value, HJR 10 is written to allow impeachment and removal for merely “neglect of duty” or “malfeasance in office.” Those are very vague offenses. Note that the U.S. Constitution allows impeachment only for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The California Constitution requires “misconduct in office,” which is somewhat less vague than the HJR 10 proposal.
So the OPP opposes HJR 10 as written and suggests that the crimes authorizing impeachment and removal be more specifically defined.
The Independent Party of Oregon, for now Oregon’s “third major party,” offered similar faint praise coupled with a call for greater specificity in the House hearing:
I offer this testimony on behalf of the Independent Party of Oregon and its 119,000 member statewide. IPO favors the underlying concept of House Joint Resolution 10, which would amend the Oregon Constitution to allow the Oregon legislature to impeach any statewide elected official.
Our party sees this type of reform as necessary to ensuring greater accountability of statewide officeholders.
Although Oregon was among the first states to adopt provisions allowing for public recall of officeholders in 1908, that process has never been used to recall a statewide official. We believe the recall is essentially unusable today without a massive amount of funding due to the sheer number of signatures needed and the many restrictions that have been placed on the Initiative Referendum and Recall by the legislature in recent years.
However, although the party supports granting the legislature additional authority to hold statewide officeholders accountable, we also note that such powers are often abused by state and federal legislatures. We therefore recommend that any impeachment authority granted to the legislature come with a clear legal framework for what constitutes an impeachable offence that is narrower than what is provided in this bill. Perhaps by enumerating specific categories of offense similar to what we see in other states. For example, we note that Georgia has a relatively high bar to trigger recall that might be worth considering.
‘Act of malfeasance or misconduct while in office; violation of oath of office; failure to perform duties prescribed by law; willfully misused, converted, or misappropriated, without authority, public property or public funds entrusted to or associated with the elective office to which the official has been elected or appointed. Discretionary performance of a lawful act or a prescribed duty shall not constitute a ground for recall of an elected public official. (Ga. Code §21-4-3(7) and 21-4-4(c)) (http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/recall-of-state-officials.aspx)
We encourage the carrier to amend the legislation and the committee consider moving the bill to the floor once the scope of the bill is narrowed to minimize the risk of partisan abuse.
The proper course of action would have been for the Senate to pass its own version of the bill, improved to address these criticisms, and send it back to the House and then on to the voters.
79th OREGON LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY– 2017 Regular Session
House Joint Resolution 10
The following summary is not prepared by the sponsors of the measure and is not a part of the body thereof subject to consideration by the Legislative Assembly. It is an editor’s brief statement of the essential features of the measure as introduced.
Proposes amendment to Oregon Constitution to vest power of impeachment of statewide elected Executive Branch officials in House of Representatives and power to try impeachments in Senate. Requires three-fifths majority vote of House of Representatives to deliver impeachment resolution to Senate and two-thirds majority vote of Senate for conviction. Limits judgment to removal from office and disqualification from holding other public office.
Refers proposed amendment to people for approval or rejection at next regular general election held throughout this state.
Be It Resolved by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Oregon:
PARAGRAPH 1. The Constitution of the State of Oregon is amended by creating a new section 34 to be added to and made a part of Article IV, such section to read:
SECTION 34. (1) The House of Representatives shall have the power of impeachment of statewide elected officials of the Executive Branch for malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty or other high crime or misdemeanor. The House of Representatives may deliver a resolution of impeachment to the Senate only upon the concurrence of at least three-fifths of all Representatives.
(2) The Senate shall have the power to try any impeachment received from the House of Representatives. When sitting for the purpose of trying an impeachment, Senators shall swear or affirm to do justice according to law and evidence. A person may not be convicted under this section without the concurrence of at least two-thirds of all Senators.
(3) Judgment shall extend only to removal from office and disqualification from holding any other public office in this state. Any person convicted or acquitted under this section remains subject to any criminal prosecution or civil liability according to law.
PARAGRAPH 2. The amendment proposed by this resolution shall be submitted to the people for their approval or rejection at the next regular general election held throughout this state.
The legislative analysis of this measure shows that it is as clear as can be, without any hidden issues:
79th Oregon Legislative Assembly – 2017 Regular Session
HJR 10 STAFF MEASURE SUMMARY Carrier: Rep. Hack
House Committee On Rules
Action Date: 05/18/17
Action: Be Adopted.
Yeas: 8 – Barreto, Hack, Holvey, Kennemer, McLane, Nosse, Rayfield, Williamson
Nays: 1 – Smith Warner
Fiscal: Fiscal impact issued
Revenue: No revenue impact
WHAT THE MEASURE DOES:
Proposes amendment to Oregon Constitution to vest power of impeachment of statewide elected Executive Branch officials in House of Representatives and power to try impeachment in Senate. Requires three-fifths majority vote of House of Representatives to deliver impeachment resolution to Senate and two-thirds majority vote of Senate to convict. Limits judgment to removal from office and disqualification from holding other public office. Refers proposed amendment to people for approval or rejection at next regular general election.
- Reasons Oregon lacks impeachment provisions
- Examples of impeachable conduct
- Infrequency of utilization
- Requirement for Senate to conduct trial on articles of impeachment
- Potential for political exploitation of impeachment process
- Modernization of language including “high crimes” and “malfeasance”
EFFECT OF AMENDMENT:
Impeachment is a process that provides legislatures with oversight of official government conduct and the means to remove executive or judicial public officers. The impeachment process has two stages, and the responsibility for each stage is usually separate. The first stage is the development of a formal accusation or statement of charges, typically by the house chamber of a legislature. During this stage, accusations are heard and investigated, and if the body believes misconduct has occurred, the charges—or articles of impeachment—are developed and voted on. If the requisite number of affirmative votes is reached, the articles are forwarded to the other chamber, usually a senate body, responsible for the second stage: formal consideration of the charges. This stage often resembles a trial: both sides may call witnesses and present evidence, and when arguments are complete, the body must vote whether or not the charged individual is guilty. A supermajority is typically required to convict. Impeachment is relatively rare and usually reserved for extreme cases.
Impeachment and removal of governors has happened occasionally throughout the history of the United States, usually for corruption. A total of at least eleven state governors have faced an impeachment trial, but in many cases individuals will resign before the proceedings begin or conclude. Currently, the Oregon Constitution does not provide for impeachment but does provide for recall in Article II, section 18.
House Joint Resolution 10 proposes amendment of the Oregon Constitution to provide a process for impeachment and refers it to the voters for consideration at the next regular general election. It would authorize the Oregon House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against statewide elected officials in the executive department and authorize the Oregon Senate to try such persons. A two-thirds majority vote in Senate chamber would be required to conclude the process with conviction. In the event of conviction, judgment would be limited to removal from current office and disqualification from holding other public office.