Urbanists and Elrich. They despise each other. Here’s why we need them both.

In my latest attempt to flesh out, and hopefully dispel, the intense NIMBY vs YIMBY dichotomy in land use politics, I want to articulate how my personal opinions have evolved on the issue. Ultimately, I have come to the conclusions that neither the urbanist community (Coalition for Smarter Growth, Greater Greater Washington, etc) nor County Executive Elrich have all the right answers, but that doesn’t make all of their respective views wrong. Rather, they need to learn from each other and synthesize their views. Despite all the vitriol (which I myself have contributed to. What can I say, tribalism is addictive.) I don’t think this is impossible.

Either side of the land use debate can cite studies and articles to back up their point, so in lieu of going back and finding all the links that everyone has tossed back and forth, I will cite the data that persuaded me to think more critically about this issue:

DC Urban Turf published an interactive map from UC Berkeley’s Cool Climate Network that displayed energy consumption at a micro level. Here is a snapshot at the DC metro area:

The map tracks housing- and data-related carbon emissions, and the results are pretty damning for affluent suburbia.

While the data can be further broken down into itemized uses of energy, plus factors such as neighborhoods’ respective commitments to renewables, I would hypothesize that correlation will equal causation in this case. Which is to say, affluence and low density of neighborhoods are direct indicators of high carbon use (the latter being a stronger indicator).

The “greenest” neighborhoods are in DC proper, especially downtown, central northwest, and southeast. These are dense, urban neighborhoods where people are more likely to live in apartments and less likely to drive cars. The “reddest” DC neighborhood is upper northwest, near Chevy Chase, where there are more large, single family homes and vehicles parked in driveways. Far and away the most emission-producing areas are western Montgomery, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties. What do these areas have in common? Sprawling, single family, car-dependent neighborhoods, and affluence (meaning larger homes and more car use).

Inside-the-Beltway Prince George’s County, while a relatively affluent (by national standards), a suburb, and with many single family homes, is more “green” than other suburbs. I would guess that, being comparatively less affluent than the other suburban counties, its lower carbon emissions would be a result of more public transit use and smaller homes. By stating this, I am less trying to say that “public transit is for poor people,” but more pointing my finger at the wealthy with their large homes and cars as exacerbating the environmental problems with suburban sprawl.

So, I agree that sprawl is bad, and density is better (usually). Does this mean I “side” with the urbanists?

No, not necessarily. But I do agree with them on this major point, which is the ultimate point of those who make good faith arguments for their paths toward sustainable growth. I do, however, think that some are too naively trusting private developers and those with professional or financial ties to the real estate development industry to always have the whole community’s best interests at stake.

The following points are my OPINION only.

A. Where urbanists are right.

I agree with the fundamental vision of the progressive wing of the “smart growth,” pro-urbanism movement: That dense, walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible and mixed income neighborhoods are more equitable and environmentally sustainable. I agree that single-family exclusive neighborhoods do have some roots in redlining, a racist practice that deliberately segregated lower income people of color and affluent white people. I also agree that we need to build more homes.* (Asterisk intended). I fundamentally agree that measures should be taken to limit suburban sprawl, especially the type of 1950s-style cul-de-sac, car-dependent neighborhoods with McMansions. The so-called American Dream has become an environmental nightmare.

B. Where Marc Elrich is right.

The County Executive is a policy wonk, detail-oriented to a fault. He often brings up logistical, nuts-and-bolts criticisms of adding density to single family neighborhoods. He sheds light on unintended consequences of possibly well-intended density-increasing proposals: that when a neighborhood is engineered and structured to be single family, it doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to support more density and residents. All residents, new and current, need things. They need space in school for children (unless you are going to try and prevent families with children from moving in), they need a bolstered stormwater management system if there will be more asphalt, they should maintain a tree canopy to prevent urban heat islands, and, unless there is a way to *force* new residents to take transit and not bring cars, available parking needs to be considered. These are all rather unsexy arguments that can be kind of a buzzkill to make when presented with a hip, new-and-improved urban design plan. Having developers pay more in impact fees to help build this needed infrastructure seems like a reasonable and logical solution.

I also agree with the County Executive’s concerns about displacement and reliance on the private market to solve the affordable housing crisis. While the Planning Board might make the argument that new developments have only displaced existing residents in naturally occurring affordable housing six times, this does not take into consideration when a landlord takes a unit off the market after the existing tenant’s lease is up, and sells the place to a developer to make more money.

The real estate development industry, like any private industry, exists functionally to maximize profit. It isn’t even the fault of developer executives. The system in place is built so that they must profit at a certain margin in order to receive capital from investors. At a certain point, it remains mathematically impossible for the private market to meet demands of lower income home seekers. Elrich stated that there are, in fact, enough developments in the pipeline to meet projected growth, but that the developers were not building them because they couldn’t get high enough rents. This would merit a place for public housing and social housing and nonprofit developers, with whom Elrich said he was holding talks. I agree with this approach.

Lastly, Elrich is also right about the need for multi bedroom units. Shareable apartments for families and roommates are absolutely compatible with density; people living together are density in its purest form, and building appropriately-sized homes with accompanying infrastructure is more sustainable than cramming more people into a single unit under the radar.

C. Where urbanists are wrong.

First, it’s worth noting that the majority of my disagreements are with market urbanists. Urbanism, like socialism or liberalism or libertarianism or what have you, is a big-tent movement. There are market urbanists and libertarian-leaning YIMBYs as well as socialist urbanists and YIMBYs.

My main criticism is with the concept of “filtering,” which, roughly speaking, means that when you build newer, high-end units, they will be more attractive to wealthier residents and the older units will free up for lower-income residents. The problem is that this process doesn’t happen overnight, and it may take as long as 30 years for the older units to become within reach of someone making 50-80% AMI.  We can’t rely on the filtering process to justify the over-building of luxury apartments in the long term aim of increasing net affordable housing.

I also disagree with deregulating development in the form of tax breaks for developers. While some urbanists argue that impact fees make it too expensive to build, especially housing that’s affordable, it makes the most sense to have the entity that profits off of private development to play the main role in funding the infrastructure that new residents will require. I will admit that it is complicated – and that there is indeed a progressive case for raising property taxes to cover this cost instead. As much as I would love to just soak the owners of the battleship-sized mansions in Potomac, property tax increases might actually be crippling for a long-time owner of a modest bungalow in ward 6 of Takoma Park, for example. Also, property tax increases are immensely politically unpopular, and we do need to win elections. Big Development and their executives don’t appear to be too financially strained. A careful calculation could be made to optimize the amount of infrastructure funding from developer impact fees and property taxes so that neither reaches a tipping point. The bottom line is that we need funding for infrastructure, and if there is no way to get the math to add up, perhaps this means that we are building too much too fast.

As for my asterisk* in the above section, I am referring to the type of homes we need to build. We need more workforce, “missing middle,” and millennial/GenZ (by which I mean NOT glitzy yuppie homes, but shareable units for roommates, young families, and singles making under 50% AMI) housing. The demand for this kind of housing exceeds MPDU set-asides.  If the market can’t produce it, this is where we need more of a role of nonprofit or public sector development.

D. Where Marc Elrich is wrong.

Unlike most urbanists or YIMBYs, I do not doubt the County Executive’s intentions. I would not describe Elrich as “secretly a country-club Republican” or “representing the interests of exclusionary white homeowners” (both direct quotes tweeted at me from self-described urbanists). His nuts-and-bolts arguments about infrastructure and commitments to leftist ideas like rent control, union housing, and nonprofit housing demonstrates that he does indeed have a vision for equitable and sustainable growth. I do, however, disagree with where he sees costs outweighing the benefits.

For example, Elrich opposed the Zoning Text Amendment making it easier to build accessory dwelling units. Having read the bill, I don’t think it was perfect, and if it did result in a dramatic increase in ADUs (which many say it won’t, because of costs still being prohibitive for most people), it might have some of the unintended consequences Elrich often refers to in his critiques of density. That being said, I think ADUs are a case where the benefits probably outweigh the costs. Making them somewhat easier to build will probably encourage people to build them (or renovate, in the case of basements, etc), but these people will probably be the same people who intended to build them anyway. Having them legal will result in better code enforcement and adhering to the rules that are still in place.

I would say something similar about “missing middle” housing. Elrich was recently slammed for a quote, taken slightly out of context, that he “doesn’t believe in the missing middle.” It is unclear what Elrich or his detractors were referring to – whether it was housing for people making the area’s median income, which is over $100K, or for the type of housing defined as “missing middle,” which would be duplexes, triplexes, small apartments and townhomes. I do think there are merits to missing middle housing, though I see both sides of the issue. I don’t see all that much of a benefit to, say, tearing down a $1 million single family home to build two new $700,000 townhouses. It doesn’t do anything for middle income renters, but it does make a developer a huge profit. I do see a benefit for building modest multiplexes like the ones we have in Takoma Park.

As a side note, Takoma Park is often the pariah for urbanists who like to cast Elrich and his supporters as hypocrites. The image they like to portray is a gray-haired, white millionaire who lives in one of the big old Victorians in Ward 1, who calls himself progressive but opposes new housing. In fact, pretty much every other Takoma Park ward has multifamily housing mixed in with single family homes.

My ward, for example, has small apartment complexes, duplexes, triplexes, single family homes, and single family homes with basement ADUs. We have both adequate parking and access to bus lines, and a lovely tree canopy. Anyways, I think my Takoma Park ward shows the merits of missing middle housing.

Although I trust Marc’s intentions, I do think his, once again, nuts-and-bolts arguments are being taken advantage of by actual NIMBYs. By “actual NIMBYs,” I don’t mean honest treehuggers (I’m a tree-hugger myself) who worry about more urban runoff polluting the creek, but of people who are truly resistant to change and don’t want to see low income, young people, or people of color in their neighborhoods. It may be too easy for less-benevolent neighborhood voices to present their NIMBY arguments as nuts-and-bolts arguments, essentially creating a game of whack-a-mole with “problems” associated with a housing proposal. The County Executive’s detail-oriented nature and unwillingness to cut corners leads him to be characterized as letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, which can be problematic if “perfect” is not possible. A way to prevent this is to have a data-driven approach to find out, mathematically, when costs out weigh benefits when adding density – and when they don’t.

My newly informed, but non-expert recommendations:

1. Elrich should be careful not to miss the forest for the trees, literally.

I agree with many left-leaning urbanists and I do think we ultimately all want the same thing. Unlike some, however, I want the County Executive to succeed, and to deliver on other progressive promises like affordable childcare, community policing, racial equity training in government, and (eventually, no thanks to the previous administration) closing the Dickerson incinerator. I’d like the Elrich administration to be able to move forward on the issues that drove many of us to sway last year’s election rather than fight an overzealous, prematurely-campaigning primary challenger on the decades-old arguments over land use. This means consulting new data rather than old arguments that miss the literal forest for the trees when opposing specific developments in cases where concentrating density is holistically beneficial (and no, this won’t be every case).

2. Urbanists should build (homes and) bridges, not strawmen. 

I think urbanists – in general, not every single person who shares these views – should be more engaging with those who disagree with them on certain developments. While I understand their passion and sense of urgency for advocating for more housing, they should avoid making broad generalizations and labeling all development critics NIMBYs. They should continue to use data and make good faith arguments while avoiding sarcasm, misleading claims, and distortions and be more open to compromise. They should also get to know their opponents more – they might find that opponents to development proposals are not always old, white, and wealthy, and they have other concerns beyond homeowner property values and what’s in their backyards.

3. Housing advocates calling for zoning reform, rent control, and public investment. Why not all of the above? 

The Millennial Politics podcast interviewed Henry Kraemer, housing fellow at Data for Progress in a segment titled, “Housing as a Human Right.” Kraemer called for a multi-pronged approach to the housing crisis: zoning reform that gets rid of apartment bans in “exclusive” neighborhoods, implement rent stabilization, and pursue non-market based alternatives such as social housing, cooperatives, and nonprofit development. I would support this approach, provided that enough of the infrastructure kinks could be worked out to equip neighborhoods for future density. I think if we were to up zone single family neighborhoods – especially neighborhoods with naturally occurring affordable housing – then the policy must go hand-in-hand with rent stabilization and non-market alternatives. In short, I think all three prongs of this approach should be implemented together. This way, upzoning and density would not be a red carpet for private developers and to profit off  unchecked and unsustainable growth.

I don’t think many of us on the left oppose walkable communities, access to transit, or manageable rents. We may disagree about the validity of neighborhood infrastructure concerns or about whether or not private developers operate in our interests. But we need to listen to each other and consider each other’s points in good faith, and we haven’t been doing that. Until we do, the left will splinter even further, and land use issues will become a rift that renders us all but incapable of maintaining local electoral power.


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