In Seattle’s red-hot housing market, a group of millennial techies is using data skills to alter the look, and affordability, of their adopted city.
n a brisk Saturday morning in March, a 27-year-old programmer named Zach Lubarsky, bundled in a fatigue jacket and knit cap, took a ReachNow rental car to the north end of Seattle and spent an hour or so scouting one of city’s most desirable neighborhoods. Wallingford, as it’s known, offers house hunters some of the best specimens of the city’s famous century-old Craftsman bungalows.
But Lubarsky wasn’t hunting for a house. He wants the whole neighborhood.
To Lubarsky, a number cruncher-turned-housing activist, Wallingford’s architectural jewels, with their grand front porches and exquisite topiary, are emblematic of this city’s potentially fatal flaw: a housing market so expensive it’s throttling one of America’s biggest urban success stories. Decades ago, these tidy homes were cheap enough for schoolteachers and firefighters. Today, most cost at least a million dollars, and what was once a proudly middle-class neighborhood has morphed into a financially gated community.
Part of the problem, Lubarsky admits, is people like himself: Seattle’s red-hot tech economy, led by companies such as Amazon and Groupon (where Lubarsky works), has filled the city with an army of well-paid workers bidding up the price of housing. But that tech-fueled demand has tended to overshadow the other driver: insufficient supply. Since the end of the financial crisis, Lubarsky says, Seattle has added roughly 100,000 jobs, but barely 32,000 new homes and apartment units. “We’ve underbuilt every year since 2010,” he adds. And a big part of that deficit, Lubarsky says, is due to neighborhoods like Wallingford, where zoning laws make it almost impossible to build anything other than a single-family house.
That’s why Lubarsky wants to radically reconceive the way Seattle lives. For several years, he and fellow activists have waged a data-driven campaign to change the city’s zoning to allow more “density” in single-family neighborhoods, which account for more than half of the city’s land. If this pro-density campaign succeeds, neighborhoods like Wallingford could be transformed by a wave of new construction that would gradually replace single-family homes with duplexes, town homes, apartments and other multifamily housing types. And that would go some of the way toward solving a paradox that threatens many of America’s most successful cities: the younger workers needed to maintain that urban success can no longer afford to live there.
Predictably, the campaign has provoked a fierce backlash from homeowners, many of them baby boomers who arrived in the 1960s and ’70s. They’ve sued to block the proposed “up-zones” to their neighborhoods, which, they warn, will kill the very “character” that makes Seattle’s housing so charming to newcomers in the first place. But to Lubarsky, that cherished neighborhood character was always false advertising, given how few people can actually afford it. “My generation is never going to have that,” he says, gesturing to a tricked-out Craftsman with a tidy yard and paved driveway. “There are too many of us to live like that.”
EAST WENATCHEE, Washington—Hands on the wheel, eyes squinting against the winter sun, Lauren Miehe eases his Land Rover down the main drag and tells me how he used to spot promising sites to build a bitcoin mine, back in 2013, when he was a freshly arrived techie from Seattle and had just discovered this sleepy rural community.
The attraction then, as now, was the Columbia River, which we can glimpse a few blocks to our left. Bitcoin mining—the complex process in which computers solve a complicated math puzzle to win a stack of virtual currency—uses an inordinate amount of electricity, and thanks to five hydroelectric dams that straddle this stretch of the river, about three hours east of Seattle, miners could buy that power more cheaply here than anywhere else in the nation. Long before locals had even heard the words “cryptocurrency” or “blockchain,” Miehe and his peers realized that this semi-arid agricultural region known as the Mid-Columbia Basin was the best place to mine bitcoin in America—and maybe the world.
SEATTLE—Thursday is the deadline for cities bidding to host “HQ2,” as Amazon calls its planned second headquarters, and the competition has been intense. More than a hundred would-be hosts have assembled generous packages with everything from multibillion-dollar tax breaks to free utilities to an offer to build Amazon its own city (also named Amazon) in the hope of enticing the online retail giant and up to 50,000 of its handsomely paid employees.
But as these cities go all-out to win Amazon’s affections, they might take a lesson from the city where those same affections have dimmed: Seattle.
Read the article.
The off-again, on-again history of Wenatchee’s massive Alcoa aluminum plant has left the city and former workers unsure about its prospects, even as ingot prices climb to levels that previously sustained one of the Northwest’s last surviving smelters.
By Paul Roberts
To the outsider, these might look like hopeful times for Kelley Woodard, president of the Wenatchee Aluminum Trades Council.
Twenty months after aluminum maker Alcoa idled its giant smelter just south of town and laid off 428 of Woodard’s union members, the aluminum business is showing signs of life.
Prices for the smelter’s 1,500-pound aluminum “ingots” are recovering. Aluminum companies are reporting modest profits and restoring some idled facilities. Last month, Alcoa announced plans to restart a smelter in Indiana, and, says a spokesman, it continues to “regularly evaluate all of the curtailed sites, including Wenatchee.”
And if market conditions don’t yet warrant restarting the Wenatchee smelter, industry analysts say that could soon change, thanks to President Donald Trump.
In recent months, the Trump administration has taken steps to curb exports of ultracheap, government-subsidized Chinese aluminum that have flooded markets and depressed prices.
Though no fan of Trump, Woodard, 58, readily acknowledges the president’s tough stance on Chinese aluminum “could be a huge plus for us.”
And yet, standing in front of the nearly empty smelter, where Woodard leads a skeleton maintenance crew, this veteran “Alcoan” is surprisingly ambivalent about a restart. That’s a fairly common attitude around Wenatchee.
Visas for sale, skyrocketing housing prices, miles of condos: Is the flood of foreign cash pouring into Vancouver’s housing market the model for any successful urban center?
Mother Jones Magazine, MAY/JUNE 2017 ISSUE
“See the little pair of shoes?” Kerry Starchuk brings her minivan to a halt before a sprawling manse with antebellum columns and a cast-iron fence and points to the front door. Sure enough, next to the welcome mat sits a solitary pair of clogs. Realtors do that, Starchuk tells me, “to make it look like someone is living there.” But a quick survey of the property spoils the ruse. The blinds are drawn. The lawn is overgrown and the capacious circular driveway is empty. Still, Starchuk credits the effort. “Some of the houses, you drive by and they haven’t even picked up their mail.”
It’s midmorning on a Saturday in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, and this is maybe the 20th example we’ve seen of what locals call the “empty-house syndrome“—homes purchased by foreign nationals, many of them wealthy Chinese, and left to sit vacant. Some will eventually have occupants; Vancouver is a top destination for well-heeled emigrants. But often, the new owners treat the houses as little more than vehicles for spiriting capital out of China. By one recent estimate, 67,000 homes, condos, and apartments in the Vancouver metro area, or about 6.5 percent of the total, are either empty or “underused”—an appalling statistic, given a housing market so tight that rental vacancy rates are below 1 percent. Hence the shoes: To shield absentee owners from public opprobrium, niche firms specializing in “vacant-property maintenance” will arrange elaborate camouflages—everything from timed light switches and “garden staging” to artful props, like pumpkins at Halloween and wreaths at Christmas.
It’s been established that Chris Christie is washed up. Getting in bed with someone like Trump is something you don’t ever walk back—although from the look on Christie’s face these days, he would give his left testicle to wake up and discover this has all been a very bad dream.
Which raises an important question for those of us who don’t plan to vote for The Bad Idea: What happens the “morning after” for the country as a whole?
Consider: Now that Trump has revealed more of his inner Marge Schott — with the non-disavowals and the open incitement of violence at his rallies — to be a Trump supporter is to publicly declare your OK-ness with spectacularly incorrect bucket list. You’re no longer a closet hater, tucked safely behind dog whistles and coded rhetoric: you’re basically marching down Main Street wearing both a sheet AND knee-high black boots.
You’re also betting the farm, reputationally. While Trump certainly could win in November, that’s still a stretch; polls show Clinton beating him now by 5-7 points, and if anything, his new racist red shoes will widen that margin faster than GOP anti-Clinton oppo attacks will narrow it.
Which means that, as a Trump supporter, you won’t only have backed the wrong horse; you’ll still be out of the closet in a big, hard-to-take-back way, with your neighbors, your family, your employers, your kids. Some non-Trumpians may relish the prospect of so many outed haters, elections having consequences and all; at the very least, we’ll no longer be able to ignore the fact that America has a serious personality disorder.
But I have to admit I’m actually a little afraid of the shape this new knowledge might take. We won’t merely be faced with the reality of America’s nastiness; we’ll also be faced with the everyday, on-the-street fact of maybe 45 million of our fellow citizens who supported a guy who casually flirts with fascism and thuggery – people who, if they remained Trump supporters till Election Day, with all that he is likely to have said, aren’t likely to have the grace to be embarrassed. No, they’ll be pissed; worse, they’ll feel entitled to express that anger, having just spent the preceding year or so being encouraged to give life to their worst impulses, without shame.
The genius of the American political system is that it has the near-miraculous capacity heal itself after each, once-every-four-years rupture. And while that power was already running low these last few decades, Trump could crush it entirely.
So thanks, Christ Christie. You’ve made your bed – and we’re all sleeping in it.
For those just resurfacing from the Oscars, here’s a rough timeline of Trump’s non/reluctant disavowal of an endorsement by ex-Klan Leader David Duke, who earlier praised the Donald as someone who would shut the border and dismantle the“Jewish controlled” finance industry :
Sunday morning: Trump tweets “As I stated at the press conference on Friday regarding David Duke- I disavow.”
Earlier Sunday: “Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”
Feb 2000: Trump withdraws as presidential candidate for Reform Party after claiming: “The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. Fulani. This is not company I wish to keep.”
And just to drive home how little he cares about the company he now keeps, prior to his Sunday comments, Trump took a moment to re-tweet a quote from Mussolini. [“It’s better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”]. He later told NBC’s Meet the Press, “”Mussolini was Mussolini… What difference does it make? It got your attention, didn’t it?”)
One is tempted to call the top of the Trump Market — there’s no way he can maintain this — what shall we call it, casual fascism? — and still get the nomination, right? Except that blithe fascism seems not only likely to further arouse a key part of his base, but may now also be attracting mainstream political opportunists — Christie and now Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. Who else might we expect to jump on the Trump Train (which, naturally, will always run on time?)
Pundits, too, despite months of insisting that Trump is un-nominatable — are now starting to whisper about the “inevitability” of his nomination. Certainly, the media love a disaster story, and if they can’t find one, they will make one: and most GOP voters, we’re told, do not support Trump. But according to one recent poll, 80 percent of GOP voters think Trump will win the nomination.
There is still plenty of time for the Donald to fall on his own sword. Surely, all but the actual racists and fascists and inbred hillbillies must take Il Duke’s latest salvo as proof of fatal recklessness.
But we’ve been saying that for a year now — just like we’ve been saying that, even if he does win the nomination, there is NO WAY HE COULD WIN THE GENERAL ELECTION.
I still think Trump is unelectable. But I also think a lot of us — especially in the media (right and left) — have no fucking idea what the rest of America is really thinking.
So, once again: where, exactly, is this firewall?
Charles P. Pierce and others have been making solid points about our inability to talk seriously about what happened in Charleston last night. Or, more specifically, about the unwillingness of mainstream politicians to confront the central story here. Hillary Clinton did broach the subject in a speech Thursday, but mainly in the context of guns and collective action. (“This time we have to find answers together.”) Still, one could see how this story and its aftermath might help define her campaign in a constructive way.
Charleston may also define the GOP race, but for very different reasons. What is clear, in the Right’s confused, unseemly response to the shooting, is how the refusal to meaningfully discuss racism — or to address the party’s well-honed use thereof – has been largely institutionalized in the GOP. One result is that the Republican party has no meaningful or honest way to discuss tragedies like this, and so is left to explain it as a purely random act of evil or as an attack on Christianity (which, apparently, is the best Fox can do); or as an occasion for yet another proactive defense of the Second Amendment — responses that, one suspects, will haunt Republicans for the next 16 months.
But the GOP is paying another price for its refusal to refute or even acknowledge the legacy of its Southern strategy. More and more, the GOP is the party of the dark family secret — an institution whose denial of a huge moral error is slowly robbing the party not only of its legitimacy as an American party, but also of its basic ideological functioning: this is no longer a party capable of saying what it is really about, or, importantly, of fielding candidates who reflect, and can argue for, the functional conservatism that was once at the party’s core, and which this country desperately needs. Rather, the GOP is a party so denatured by its own lack of courage and moral center that it now wanders the political streets muttering like a homeless person. One needn’t look too hard to see a direct line between the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse and a GOP “presidential” field made up in large part by narcissists, incompetents, and ass clowns.
Ok, admit it — you’re a little queasy about the recent “Paddle in Seattle” protests against Shell. It’s not that you questioned their cause: the Arctic is highly sensitive, the risks of an accident are high and Shell’s record in the Arctic is hardly inspiring. Nor did you doubt the effectiveness of a flotilla of tiny Davids standing up — okay, sitting down — against an oily Goliath: Shell’s operational window in the Chukchi Sea is so narrow that any delay in the port permitting process could cause Shell to rethink the whole project.
Rather, what bothered you was the small-picture feel to the campaign. Even if Greenpeace and others involved do stop Shell from wintering its Arctic fleet in Seattle, the victory will be short-lived. As soon as oil prices rise, Shell or a rival will be back for the billions of barrels under the Chukchi. Why? Because, what is actually driving this drama isn’t oil-industry greed, or even the wimpiness of the Obama administration. It is our own insatiable appetite for crude.
Put another way, unless the zeal we saw on Elliott Bay can somehow be channeled toward the more complicated, and less glamorous, task of curbing that demand, the “Paddle for Seattle” will ultimately be less political action than performance art.