Questions on Escaping the Housing Trap

Colin McMahon

Hi-, I'm not sure if this is the right forum, but I just read (and re-read) Escaping the Housing Trap. What a fascinating read! While I understand and agree with most of the book, I still had a few questions, which I've listed out below. I'd appreciate any help to reconcile these, as I'm passionate about working to fix our housing crisis in California, but I want to make sure I understand the message first. 


  1. If traditional petri-dish development is good (see p 17)  but requires growth in land value for re-development, are we at the mercy of a system that needs constant growth in order to thrive? In many ways this seems to mimic the housing "trap" 
  2. There is a chapter called "No Neighborhood Should Experience Radical Change" (p 158) - in which the book argues that distorting leaps in development hurt a neighborhood. However, in the Yes! In my Backyard chapter, the book also shows that even if it's a luxury apartment, the effect of adding new housing (adding new chairs to the game of musical chairs), ultimately cycles through and makes all housing more affordable. It also seems a bit Top-Down to stipulate which form of development is "radical", and which is incremental. How do you reconcile these seemingly conflicting views? Put more simply, why is a 5/1 bad, but a triplex good? I understand the argument that leaps in development increases land values, and disincentives landlords to invest in keeping houses maintained as they are going to be torn down anyway. Wouldn't the same be true for traditional "petri dish" development that the book argues is good? Land values increase, so someone is incentivized to come in and tear down the shanty structure that existed prior, or to at least make necessary repairs because the value is going up. 
  3. On page 169 it talks about how Keen and his partners bought up 20 vacant lots, and worked to cultivate them. Where did they get the capital to get started? 
  4. On page 173, the book states that the development industry is housing monoculture - a handful of ubiquitous products that are replicated in city after city. I actually don't think replicability like this is a bad thing. In "How Big Things get Done", a book that studies how to build a project on time and on budget, the author  Bent Flyvbjerg makes a compelling case that modular scaling like this is the most effective way to complete projects reliably. I think the issue is that the "missing middle" is not as replicable due to zoning restrictions, and the fact that it costs more to finance a small project (same fees over less units). I understand the principal that resiliency is more important than efficiency of execution, but if you want to tackle a big problem like the housing shortage, you need a solution that can scale. So my question is, how can we enable companies to finance these smaller transactions more cheaply, and enable the same kind of replicability for this "missing middle"? I'm not convinced the answer is for everyone in the neighborhood to do 1-2 developments, unless we equip them with really good tools. Once again, in "How Big Things Get Done", the authors show that experience is crucial to development. You don't want each development to be every person's first development, or they will not be on time and on budget. So what tools can we create to make this process of missing middle development as simple as securing a 30 year mortgage? Apologies for the very long question
  5. The book argues for more restrictions on 5/1s than other forms of incremental development (p 177). It also praises South Bend for introducing pre-approved building templates. However, on the page prior (p. 176), and even on the same page (p. 177) the book shows that regulatory barriers interact in complex and unforeseen ways, and that you need to unlock all of them (all of the bolts) to allow for missing middle growth. How do we trust cities and local governments to choose the "right" kind of incremental development (i.e. yes duplexes, no 5/1s), without creating the kind of regulatory mess that prevented development of the missing middle in the first place? Said another way, how can we trust that pre-approved building templates in South Bend won't create their own kind of monoculture? Do we really trust the government to design the best buildings? 
  6. The book says that large multistory apartment/condo buildings already receive massive subsidies through the financial system (p. 191), and don't need further subsidies. But what about in San Francisco right now where construction costs make it prohibitive to build large buildings, and the city is already full of duplexes and triplexes. Wouldn't large buildings be the next step for most if not all of San Francisco? Perhaps the answer in San Francisco is just that we need easier permitting, not subsidies.  




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