Environmental and Social Justice Lobbies—Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

As much as I love Sightline (especially their error landing page), I am very unimpressed by their short post entitled “More Cars, More Money.” The post concludes that higher household incomes correlate with more vehicles per household. While this is true, I think that this finding can largely be explained by the social phenomenon that is the modern dual-income family. The cost of living frequently requires that two members of a household or more must work in order to financially support their household, so it seems reasonable that many of the higher-income households surveyed in his study are also larger in size. Rather than plotting census tract household incomes against vehicle-to-household counts, it would have been much more convincing to substitute per capita incomes (or disposable income) in this analysis.

That aside, I am even more skeptical that the article’s opening line suggests that car fees might not be a regressive tax. Looking at the posts’ own data plots, it shows that the census tracts with over $120,000 in median income typically have about 2 cars per household, while households with $60,000 in median income typically have about 1.5 cars per household. Assuming that a flat car fee of $500 were applied to each of these household types, we could expect that the $60,000 income household would pay about $750 in tax, while the $120,000 income household would pay $1000 in tax. That alone seems regressive, but when household size trends are considered, the fee becomes even more regressive by taxing the lower-income household with more family members at a much higher rate of their income than the higher-income household.

This analysis seems to favor environmental interests over social justice interests, something that I don’t imagine Sightline would do often, but that might come up occasionally. While those two lobby groups are frequently members of the same political coalitions, in some instances they end up at odds with each other. A recent Seattle example of this seems to have occurred during the recent debate over increasing the fee-in-lieu rate for affordable housing provision under the city’s Incentive Zoning law.

A couple of weeks back the Seattle Times published an article documenting how the City Council is proposing to try to capture some of the value windfall that will be created by a South Lake Union upzone. This would be done by requiring developers to pay more for the provision of local affordable housing in exchange for the right to develop projects up to a certain maximum height, which theoretically can happen without eliminating all profit incentives for developers.

Some, including one enviro-urbanist, Roger Valdez, have opposed this proposal. Valdez’ opposition is circuitous at best and features an attack on one of the authors of the study that sparked the recent debate about fee increases. Beyond criticizing an op-ed piece that Hal Ferris wrote six years ago, Valdez suggests that increasing taxes on new development will reduce new housing supply by making it too costly for developers to create that supply. Of course, that assertion runs counter to the findings of the study that Hal Ferris actually wrote (the logic of which I have not tested—full disclosure), which suggests that developers are capable of bearing increased taxes due to all of the new value being created by that upzone. After all, why would the city create a new tax that would preclude the activity that triggers the tax?

In the resource-constrained period that we find ourselves in, it makes sense that two natural allies with significant common ground might occasionally turn against each other in the pursuit of the few resources that are available. This tactic should be avoided since it deteriorates relationships and may prevent future collaborations that could allow both parties to achieve much more than they otherwise could alone.

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