Tag: sightline

Getting Smarter About Public Land: Lessons from Across the Northwest

The full version of this story is available at Sightline.

As cities across Cascadia look to technological solutions, such as modular construction, to help address the region-wide shortage of affordable housing, one of the biggest factors currently driving up costs is also one of the most resistant to intervention: Land prices, which can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of producing a single subsidized apartment.

Cities don’t have a lot of tools for lowering land costs, but they do own a lot of land—Seattle, for example, is sitting on more than 180 excess or underutilized parcels, many of which are well-suited for homebuilding.

To maximize taxpayer value, most cities usually auction off their excess land to the highest bidder, just like any private landowner would do. But in cities with hot real estate markets, affordable housing developers typically don’t have the financial resources to compete for land with market-rate developers. So publicly-owned land ends up in private hands, forever forfeiting its potential to help overcome one of the biggest barriers to the construction of subsidized homes: acquisition of land to build on. The backers of Seattle’s Rainier Valley Food Innovation Hub, for example, have been repeatedly outbid by private developers.

But what if local governments viewed surplus land not as a revenue generator but an opportunity to reduce displacement and stabilize communities? Several Northwest cities have begun asking that very question. The result is a growing string of affordable housing projects stretching through Cascadia—from the largest one-time investment in housing on city-owned land in Canada’s history, to an affordable housing and preschool development on the site of a former fire station in Seattle.

How much publicly owned land is there?

Enterprise Community Partners’ interactive mapping tool shows publicly owned properties.

Until recently, if you wanted to know what public land was available in the Seattle area, there was no central database—no way to easily find out, say, if a certain fenced-off plot of land that looked ripe for development was owned by the city or Sound Transit or King County, whether it had the right zoning, and whether it was up for sale. In 2015, newly elected King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson decided to do something about that; he directed his office to create a map of every piece of publicly owned land inside county limits.

The nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners expanded on Wilson’s effort, recently launching the beta version of an interactive tool that allows any interested party to use filters to narrow down a list of about 10,000 developable public properties according to specific characteristics, such as zoning, square footage, and eligibility for tax credits.

“In high-cost cities, it’s really becoming impossible for nonprofits to develop on privately owned land,” James Madden, the Seattle-based senior program director for Enterprise, says.  “The average land price, as a percentage of the total cost of development in Seattle, is about 10 to 15 percent, and if land continues to get more expensive, [nonprofits] will be priced out completely. Once you’re paying more than $30,000 a door [for land], it gets very hard for a public agency to justify spending beyond that level on acquisition.” Market-rate developers can charge higher rents to compensate for high land costs—an option not available to affordable housing providers.

Changing the rules that have prevented public land from supporting affordable housing

Wilson, the assessor, says the mapping tools might have been merely informational—a database of public land for sale at prices out of reach for most nonprofit housing builders—if the state hadn’t taken the next step, by giving local governments the authority to sell their land below market value or give it away for free. “We raised this issue with [state House speaker Frank Chopp] last year,” Wilson says. “After we pulled together the list of publicly owned land, we said, ‘Here’s the problem: A lot of this land is owned by agencies that have to sell it for fair market value,” putting even public land out of reach for many nonprofit agencies. In response, Chopp supported, and the legislature passed, a bill allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.

Local leaders quickly took notice. Seattle city council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, who campaigned on the need to build more dense, affordable housing, proposed and passed two pieces of legislation this year designed to encourage the city to give away its surplus property for free. The first, which passed in July, made it possible for Seattle’s electric utility, Seattle City Light, to dispose of its excess land at little or no cost—a major departure from its previous policy, which required the utility to sell property at fair market value.

The second, which the council passed unanimously earlier this month, requires the city to consider whether surplus land can be used for affordable housing and, if so, to make it available for that purpose. The legislation also allows the city to hold onto land while a nonprofit housing partner secures financing; directs the city’s Office of Housing to partner with “culturally relevant and historically rooted” nonprofits in areas where residents are at high risk of economic displacement; and mandates that 80 percent of the funds from any outright sale of city property go into one of the city’s affordable housing funds.

Read the whole piece at Sightline.

Is It Time for Mixed Industrial-Housing Zones?

 

The Fair-Haired Dumbbell building, on Portland’s Central Eastside.

The full version of this story is available at Sightline

Seattle’s Interbay industrial district is a landscape dominated by warehouses, small manufacturing plants, and parking lots, with hardly a sidewalk to be found. Unlike other former manufacturing districts in Cascadia’s first city, like Amazon-occupied South Lake Union, Interbay has very few buildings that would qualify as “mixed-use,” and that’s by design; for decades, the district, like Seattle’s other industrial areas, has been “preserved” by zoning that prohibits most non-industrial uses, including office space, large retail stores, and housing.

In recent years, though, the city’s housing shortage has led developers to take a new look at the city’s previously sacrosanct industrial areas and ask: Why couldn’t people live here? Jeff Thompson, president of the Freehold Group, owns several properties in the area. A couple of years ago, he did some back-of-the-envelope math and discovered that by taking just five percent of the city’s vacant industrial land—about 28 acres—and rezoning it to allow six-story buildings, the city could accommodate 6,800 new apartments, without touching Seattle’s famously development-averse single-family neighborhoods. It’s a possibility relevant not only in Seattle but across Cascadia and beyond, everywhere housing shortages are escalating rents and pinching off opportunity for urbanites.

“Most of our industrial areas are derelict—full of potholes, with streets that were never meant to be places for people,” Thompson says.

Developers could improve those areas, adding sidewalks and paving crumbling streets themselves at a lower cost (and a lower lifespan) than expensive, heavy-duty reinforced concrete pavement typically found in industrial areas. In exchange, they would be allowed to build housing for some of the thousands of people who continue to pour in to Seattle every year—more than 100,000 of them between 2010 and 2017 alone.

Yes, those new residents might find themselves living next to warehouses where trucks go in and out day and night. Yes, they may have to get used to the sound of railroad traffic. But how is that different, Thompson asks, than living in the middle of any big city?

“You can go to Brooklyn or Chicago and find an apartment next to an elevated rail line,” Thompson says. “Is it inhumane of us to provide housing like that?”

Like Seattle’s evolution from sleepy outpost to big city, the definition of “industrial” has been quietly changing for at least the past several decades. Instead of factories spewing toxic fumes and “enormous vats of splashing and spluttering metal,” Thompson says, the term now encompasses firms that make software that enables customers to make their own robots at home, or labs where food production companies test new products. Or companies like Interbay’s Thermetrics, which makes mannequins that measure how fast an air conditioner cools down a car, or how effectively a sleeping bag retains a person’s body heat.

The idea that people might choose to live in an industrial area is no longer revolutionary. At the TAXI development in Denver’s River North industrial area, a company that manufactures boots for snowboards sits cheek to jowl with an outpost of the international advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi. The firm is just downstairs from 48 units of housing, which overlook a pool built from recycled shipping containers that offers a view of an active railroad line. Also on site: Business incubators, a pot shop, design and architecture studios, and several software firms. Several nearby developments follow a similar mixed industrial-housing model, and developers have proposed hundreds of units of affordable housing as part of a future project in the area.

The success of the TAXI project, Thompson says, proves that industrial areas are compatible with housing. “It’s an industrial area, and it is a popular, cool place to be,” Thompson says. “People may say, ‘No one will want to live [in an industrial area]—well, they do want to live there.”

Read the rest of the story at Sightline.org.

Morning Crank: I Don’t Want That Rumor to Be Perpetuated

1. Sitting at the year’s first meeting of the Progressive Revenue task force Thursday morning, it was hard not to flash back to a press conference the previous day, when Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would spend some of the $11 million it expects to receive from the sale of a city-owned property in South Lake Union (a different property than the “teardrop” site council members discussed as part of their budget deliberations last year). At that briefing, held in front of two “tiny houses” under construction at the Seattle Vocational Institute, Durkan said it would take time to build all the housing that will ultimately be funded by the $290 million 2016 housing levy, and that in the meantime, a $5.5 million investment in “bridge housing”—or, in the clunky title Durkan chose for the initiative, “building a bridge to housing for all”—would give people living on the street slightly better options. “In an ideal world, we would not need to be building tiny houses,” Durkan said. Then she acknowledged that state and federal support for affordable housing is about to fall off a cliff.

The rest of the money would pay for rental assistance for people on SHA’s Section 8 voucher waiting list—”we’re going to focus on the people who need that assistance the most,” Durkan said— design of a new fire station, and city expenses related to the land sale. The developer buying the property would also provide $2 million of a total $7.7 million payment toward affordable housing projects elsewhere, required as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, to build actual affordable housing.

The reason I was thinking about Durkan’s announcement Thursday morning is that it was basically a rounding error—what government staffers sometimes call “budget dust”— in the funding needed to actually address the city’s homelessness problem, which has been growing every year since at least 2013. According to task force co-chair Kirsten Harris-Talley, if every unit of affordable housing requires $160,000 in capital expenditures from the city (more on how advocates for a higher employee hours tax arrived at that number in a minute), and the city will need around 20,000 new units for very low-income people in the next 10 years, that means the city will need to spend around $3.2 billion over that time. As you can probably imagine, the city isn’t spending anywhere close to that right now—according to the presentation, the city spent just under $95 million from all sources on capital housing investments last year. At that rate, it would take more than 33 years to come up with $3.2 billion (and that’s assuming housing costs stayed flat).

Obviously, none of this is an exact science. The $160,000 figure is an estimate provided by council member Kshama Sawant’s office, of what the city would need to contribute if it ramped up its affordable housing production and was unable to find a significant amount of new funding from other sources to help pay for all the new units. (Currently, each new unit costs the city about $93,000 in capital costs, but the programs that pay for the difference between the city’s contribution and the total cost to build a new unit, about $311,000, are only committed to a certain number of units, requiring the city—theoretically—to pay more for each additional unit out of its own pockets.)

If Harris-Talley and Sawant’s figures are correct, that provides a ready-made argument for the employee hours tax (effectively a flat annual tax for each full-time employee on every business over a certain revenue threshold) that they’ve wanted to pass all along. Today, the task force looked at potential revenues from the so-called head tax at different levels and with different sizes of business exempt from the tax, which I’ve copied below. (Last year’s proposed head tax would have exempted businesses with less than $10 million in gross revenues, up from $5 million in the initial proposal; some businesses argued that basing the tax on gross revenues was unfair because it didn’t take into account thin profit margins in certain industries, like restaurants.)

If the city goes through a recession, of course, the amount it can expect to collect will shrink. However, recessions tend to actually lower rents; Downtown Emergency Service Center director and task force member Daniel Malone pointed out that during the last recession, the county’s annual point in time count of people living outdoors tends to stagnate or even decrease, as it did between 2010 and 2011, and between 2011 and 2012. That’s one of the paradoxes of a weakening economy: Although revenues from taxes that are less stable, like direct taxes on businesses, tend to decline, so do rents, making it possible for some people forced onto the street by an impossible housing market to actually find a place to live.

2. In a King County Board of Health discussion about the possibility of a Hepatitis A outbreak in Seattle yesterday (a nationwide outbreak, ongoing now, began in California and was widely blamed on lack of access to handwashing facilities for the state’s homeless population), King County Health Department Director Patty Hayes expressed concern about the city’s decision last year to cut funding for three downtown hygiene centers that provide restrooms, showers, and handwashing and laundry facilities for homeless people living and moving through downtown.

City council and Board of Health member Sally Bagshaw—a vocal proponent for cutting funding to the facilities as part of the city’s new “performance-based” approach to homeless service contracts—objected to Hayes’ characterization of the problem.

“I think that [problem with the closure of the hygiene centers] is more apparent than real,” Bagshaw said. “We’re putting huge investments into new 24/7 shelters …  I’m working with those 24-hours shelters to say, ‘Can you open these up for people who aren’t [staying] here tonight” to take showers, she said. “We opened up community centers [for people to shower]. There are more facilities open now than before. It’s just that the money’s being shifted. I don’t want that rumor to be perpetuated. There were some organizations that didn’t get funded” because the city went to a competitive process, Bagshaw said.

I covered the cuts to funding for hygiene centers, and the reason some advocates believe community centers and shelters are not an adequate substitute for public restrooms and dedicated hygiene facilities, here.

3. The Sightline Institute, a progressive think tank that researches and covers of housing, transportation, and environmental policy from a green, pro-transit, pro-housing perspective, just brought on a new (unpaid) fellow to cover “issues of infrastructure, technology and energy with a view towards sustainability.” His name: Daniel Malarkey.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. (If it doesn’t, you weren’t following Seattle politics in the early 2000s.) He was the finance director for the Seattle Monorail Project, the transportation agency that was going to build a monorail line from Ballard to downtown to West Seattle. That project was doomed to failure after Malarkey’s revenue projections overshot the mark by about 50 percent, and after the agency compounded the problem by trying to paper over the error. (The error Malarkey made was counting revenues from taxes on every single car in Seattle, when in reality, thanks to heavy lobbying from the auto industry, all new cars and cars brought to the city by people moving here from out of state were exempt from the monorail tax. The result was that Malarkey overestimated the monorail’s tax base by a third) When he resigned at the end of 2003, I wrote this. Interestingly, it looks like his three years consulting or working directly for the monorail agency aren’t on his official Sightline bio.

Anyway, it looks like he’ll be writing about autonomous cars.

Full disclosure: I have written several pieces for Sightline and often use their research in my reporting.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “Debt Is Still Debt.”

Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan at last night’s League of Women Voters forum, which I livetweeted at twitter.com/ericacbarnett.

Editor’s note/correction: I’ve been informed that the Mike O’Brien who commented on Sightline’s website about impact fees is not city council member Mike O’Brien but a different Mike O’Brien. I regret the error and have removed the item referring to the comment, which made an analogy between development and guns.

1. The conventional narrative in the mayor’s race is that former US Attorney Jenny Durkan is the “big money candidate,” backed by big corporate contributions, and that urban planner Cary Moon is running a people-powered, grassroots campaign backed primarily by small contributions from individual donors.

It’s undeniable that Durkan has the support of business (the Chamber) and much of labor (SEIU 775, the King County Labor Council). However, a look at contributions to the two candidates calls the rest of the conventional narrative into question.

According to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Durkan has received $727,689 in contributions from 3,120 contributors, for an average donation of $234.50. (Contributions are capped at $500). Moon, in contrast, has received just 599 contributions—2,503 fewer than Durkan—for a total of $119,810. Her average contribution is only slightly smaller than Durkan’s, at $200.02. What this means is that not only has Durkan raised about six times as much as Moon, it has been largely in modest (non-maxed-out) contributions, although Moon does have a slightly higher percentage of small (under $99) contributions (about 6.8 percent of donor contributions, compared to Durkan’s 4.5 percent).

Yesterday, Moon’s campaign sent out a fundraising email with the subject line “3 to 1,” indicating that that’s how much Durkan has outspent the underdog candidate by. terms of supporter contributions, though, it’s more like 6 to 1, because Moon has self-financed with $111,521 of her own money. So far, Durkan has contributed $400 to her own campaign.

Durkan’s contributions.
And Moon’s.

2. Moon has proposed speeding up delivery of Sound Transit light rail to Ballard and West Seattle—approved by voters last year as part of the Sound Transit 3 tax package—by using the city’s excess bonding capacity to “help fund Sound Transit 3 (ST3) construction sooner (in other words we will loan Sound Transit the money to move this forward and Sound Transit will pay us back).” That commitment, along with a commitment to find  the money to bury light rail in a tunnel under the Ship Canal and add a (King County Metro) bus rapid transit line linking Ballard and the University of Washington, helped win Moon the support of folks like the Stranger and Seattle Subway, which gushed, “she had us at ‘Speed up design and planning of ST3 to maximize available construction funding,’ accelerate ‘delivery of Seattle projects with City money’ and/or combine that funding with bonding measures” in their endorsement statement.

But Sound Transit has rejected the kind of Seattle-backed bonding proposal Moon is proposing, noting that even if Sound Transit were to borrow money from the city, they would still have to pay that money back, and the revenue package voters just approved does not include the funds to finance the kind of additional debt the agency would need to speed up service in Seattle. In a statement, Sound Transit director Peter Rogoff said that “while Sound Transit can accept funding from third parties, debt that we have to repay is still debt and would count against our agency debt limits.”

“If there is to be any possibility of speeding up light rail to Ballard, two things must happen.  The city must work with Sound Transit and effected communities to identify a preferred alternative alignment no later than early 2019, and the city must eliminate the multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape that slows the delivery of new transit services to Seattle citizens. Sound Transit wrote to the Seattle City Council back in May of 2016  detailing 27 concrete steps the City could take to eliminate unnecessary and duplicative processes to save taxpayer money and deliver projects more quickly. Adopting these reforms is how we can create the potential to expedite the project.”

Most of the steps Sound Transit has proposed involve expedited permitting processes—using the existing environmental impact statement instead of requiring additional environmental reviews, fast-tracking master use permits, and exempting light rail stations from design review during the permitting process, for example.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please considerbecoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

#YIMBY2016 and Beyond

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It was exciting to be present at the first of what I hope will be many YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) gatherings in Boulder earlier this month. More than 100 people flew in to the college town from both coasts (and some places in between) to talk about how to build better cities and combat naysayers who want to turn back the clock on growth.

This movement, or group of thinkers, writers, builders, and planners, is inchoate, largely coastal, and overwhelmingly white and male, which could condemn it to be another clique of tech bros who think all political problems can be solved by technocratic advances and “systems thinking.” But it’s also politically diverse (the attendees included long-haired libertarians, free-marketeers who supported deregulation, and social justice advocates who believed in rent control) and filled not just with technophiles but street-level activists, single-family homeowners, people from small towns where NIMBYism is quite literal, and at least one current candidate for local office.

So what is YIMBYism? In brief, it’s the idea that a good housing policy is one that supports growth and welcomes newcomers, promoting affordability through a combination of reasonable regulation (opinions on the definition of “reasonable” differ) and new development to address the housing shortages in cities across the US. YIMBYs seek to increase participation by groups that are underrepresented in debates about housing (young people, renters) to combat the disproportionate power that single-family homeowners and their allied activist groups (think: the Wallingford Community Council and the Seattle Displacement Coalition) enjoy.

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The ideological differences among the YIMBYs I met in Boulder were more significant. Members of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF), for example, considered rent control sacrosanct, which wouldn’t fly with the guys from Brooklyn-based Market Urbanism, whose tagline is “Urbanism for capitalists.” Nor did an excellent presentation on winning people over to your point of view, by the Sightline Institute’s Anna Fahey, win over some in the room, who argued that trying to talk to opponents with totally divergent worldviews was a waste of time.

But after watching and participating in workshops and presentations from YIMBYs from Austin to Iowa City, I ended the weekend feeling like this was the start of something. Maybe not a political revolution or a takeover of the traditional neighborhood movement, but far more than a group hug inside a bubble of consensus.

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One thing that struck me right away was how in awe urbanists from other cities were of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), the plan crafted by a group of urbanists, developers, environmentalists, social-justice advocates, and neighbors to help keep Seattle affordable while preserving the city’s quality of life for the next 20 years. In particular, the Grand Bargain—an agreement in which developers agreed to set aside between 2 and 8 percent of new units for people making 60 percent or less of the area median income, or pay into an affordable-housing fund, in exchange for greater density—seemed to blow people away as an inspiring example of a city working with developers to capture affordability while giving them something of value.

Of course, the reality is that the Grand Bargain remains tentative, threatened by neighborhood opposition to even modest (typically one-story) height increases. Still, it was fascinating to see Seattle held up as a model of any urbanist idea; when you live here, it’s easy to feel that the de-suburbanization of Seattle will never happen because single-family homeowners have all the power. From the outside, at least, things look more promising than they can in the trenches.

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“The housing crisis is rarely referred to as a shortage.” This was a concept Sightline’s Fahey introduced on Day 1, and it’s one I returned to again and again over the weekend. It’s absolutely true: When people talk about the “housing crisis,” what they often mean is rising rents, but rising rents happen when there isn’t enough housing, and the solution to the problem is: Build more housing. When you frame Seattle’s increasingly unaffordable rents as a shortage, not the result of nefarious actions by greedy developers, you arrive at different policy solutions: Construction, not height caps. Mandatory affordable housing, not rent control.

The YIMBY movement has its blind spots. The folks who showed up, although surprisingly diverse in ages, skewed strongly male and white, like many discussions that involve stereotypically “male” topics like housing, planning, and development. I proposed, and Seattle YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein co-moderated, a discussion called “Men, Shut Up!” after watching conversation after conversation dominated by dudes who seemed in love with the sound of their own booming voices. Only problem was, our panel got combined with another discussion called “#YIMBYSoWhite”—a marginalization of exactly the sort that both conversations were hoping to address.

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There were other oversights beyond the gender and complexion of the folks at the conference—oversights that, I confess, didn’t occur to me until others pointed them out. Where was the geographic diversity? While the middle of the country was nominally represented by folks from Cleveland, Iowa City, Denver, and Austin, the gathering was predictably dominated by urban dwellers from the coasts, especially California. Also, the very location—a college town where average housing prices are higher than Seattle’s, with an 89 percent-white population—served as kind of a coastal stand-in, totally unrepresentative of the many diverse cities across the US that are facing the same questions about housing costs, density, and gentrification as coastal cities like San Francisco and Portland but with key differences that arise from their locations and demographics.

YIMBYs are acutely aware that power is determined by who gets a seat at the table, but when they’re the ones making that decision, they’re as vulnerable to human nature—inviting the people you’re comfortable with, going to a place that looks like the place you’re from—as anyone. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the specific conference organizers; I’m not claiming I’m above familiarity bias myself. What matters is that when someone points biases like this out to you, you’re willing to listen and change, and my hope (and expectation) is that the next YIMBY conference will be someplace like Atlanta or Miami.

Finally, it’s important to remember that people all arrive at their perspective for reasons, and that people can change their minds. The primary motivation for people who want the police to arrest people for being homeless, or for the city to halt all construction until all of North Seattle has sidewalks, isn’t hatred, it’s fear. People don’t want their cars broken into, so they think the solution is throwing addicts in jail or giving them one-way tickets out of town. People think the people moving here are technodrones with no interest in becoming part of the community or putting down roots, so they fight increases in density that might allow “those people” into “their” neighborhood. The trick is to find community and neighborhood leaders who are willing to listen to evidence and give it to them, along with reassurances. (It helps to have messengers who fit the profile of the people you’re hoping to convince, which is why Ballard homeowner and single mom Sara Maxana—@yimbymom on Twitter ,and pictured below—is such a great emissary for the cause).

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In an example I used in another session on finding consensus, people don’t like heroin addicts shooting up in their local parks, so they think the cops should arrest them for possession. The problem is, there aren’t enough jails or enough financial resources in the entire city budget to keep every minor offender in jail indefinitely, and treatment beds are far more expensive than those who say “just force them into treatment” imagine. If we can agree that some number of people will always use drugs, maybe we can also agree that people can’t get well if they’re dead. And if we can agree on that, maybe we can start to talk about safe consumption spaces where people can use under medical supervision, with access to treatment and other services, instead of on the sidewalk or in the bushes at a public park. And once a few people change their minds on that, a community dialogue can happen. Some people will always oppose safe injection sites or three-story buildings or the removal of even a single tree, but the vast majority are willing to listen, if we are willing to listen back.

I’m looking forward to next year. In the meantime, it’s time for YIMBYs to get to work.