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.”