Defending the indefensible: anti-development

We used to write that this blog has a tradition of defending the indefensible, where we quibbled with attacks on Paul Ryan, Satoshi Kanazawa, and other people we found unsavoury.

Now I wanted to try something slightly different. I wanted to write some defences of viewpoints I strongly disagree with. More in the spirit of an “Intellectual Turing Test” than as devil’s advocacy. Of course it’s not a real “ITT” because I’m telling you I don’t agree with the overall viewpoint. However, I am still trying to be honest as possible, and basically this is what is most persuasive to me. What I don’t want this to be is an exercise in being offensive or shitty with plausible deniability. That would be edgelordery, and I dislike edgelordery a lot. Instead, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry. Anyway, here’s the best case against development I can write:

We are often told that Vancouver, Seattle, SF, etc. (pick your city), is growing, and so gentrification is inevitable as new housing needs to be built to accommodate new arrivals. However, I don’t know whether non-availability of housing stock is actually the limiting factor. I kind of suspect it isn’t. There are more dwellings sitting empty in Vancouver than there are homeless people, for example. And that is scratching the surface of housing that is, in effect, misallocated to under-used luxury developments, including the newest things being built right now. Developers say development is necessary to resolve the housing crisis, and then use that argument to get rich off selling multi-million dollar investment-dwellings that sit empty, doing very little to resolve this crisis, which thus persists and needs to be solved with further development. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it sure sounds like a convenient crisis to keep around.

The pro-development viewpoint for how to solve this comes down to “Let developers develop,” to quote Dan Savage’s piece. The claim is that, of course, with development being limited, the developers go for the richest slice of the market first, but opening up development further will help the less well-off as well. This prescription is amazingly broad, and I have less than zero trust that developers will have the interests of the community or of the poor in mind. At this point, a pro-development person will usually say that of course regulations of new development are necessary to ensure that the community as a whole can reap the benefits. And that’s well and good. In principle, with a well-thought-through set of regulations, I’m not against development. But here’s the problem: these regulations have a habit of not actually appearing and all you get is another super fancy condo that stands empty. What this conversation amounts to is that pro-development people are using an “Economics 101” argument that isn’t as applicable to real life as they think. As it is, between two options that don’t address the housing crisis, then, is it really that surprising that I prefer the one that doesn’t destroy the existing community in the process?

The pro-development side often points to places like the Mission and Washington, DC to show the evils of restricting development. And it’s true that the Mission is in an untenable situation. Yet the alternative is something like Yaletown in Vancouver or SLU in Seattle. It’s not the case that new development allowed the community to survive in a different guise. Instead it’s that these places have no sense of community at all. At least in the Mission, the displacement is not total. A person who has been living in the Mission for years may not feel happy about the changes in their neighbourhood. But having to move somewhere else would have been even more annoying. A place like Yaletown resembles a gated development more than anything else. And this gating has terrible effects on what happens in the city more broadly. If you can isolate the poor somewhere away from you, you can pretend they don’t exist and don’t need help.

Savage suggests that instead of worrying about gentrification as such, activists focus on transit politics. First of all, this is a false choice. Activism on one front doesn’t actually do anything to take away from activism from another front. Instead, you often get — ugh, don’t make me say it — “synergy”. I am in general distrustful of “pay attention to this thing not this other thing in your activism” arguments, because they are very likely to be concern trolling (e.g., “why are you feminists concerned with restrictions on abortion in the US when in Saudi Arabia women have no rights at all?”). This also sidesteps the issue that transit politics is itself quite complicated and not decoupled from development politics at all. What do we spend limited transit money on? If we spend it on linking outlying parts of the agglomeration to the centre, we risk not actually doing much to reduce sprawl or commute times or reliance on cars as the suburbs move further out to take advantage of the park and rides. However, spending it inside the urban core while also filling that urban core with luxury developments risks pushing out the poor into underserved banlieues.

Still, you might say, what does protesting development actually get you? Developments or no, the rich are going to be able to afford to outbid the non-rich for the existing housing as well, and gentrification will proceed apace. My view is that it creates a natural coalition to fight for the interests of the community. And this coalition-building is likely to be useful in the future.

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