Please welcome Matt Yglesias, Slate Moneybox economics blogger, author of The Rent Is Too Damn High, and frequent commentator about how regulations limiting development affect cities.

 Live chat with Matt Yglesias(05/23/2012) 
11:51
David Alpert: 
Welcome to our live chat! We’re excited to have Matt Yglesias on today and Miles Grant moderating. We’ll get started in just a few minutes.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:51 David Alpert
11:54
Miles Grant: 
Thanks, David! Here’s my summary of Matt’s book setting up today’s chat.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:54 Miles Grant
11:55
David Alpert: 
Matt is now here. Welcome, Matt!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:55 David Alpert
11:55
Matthew Yglesias: 
So glad to be here. GGW is an amazing site and a great community.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:55 Matthew Yglesias
11:56
David Alpert: 
Thank you so much! Miles is our moderator today, so I’ll turn it over to him. Take it away, Miles!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:56 David Alpert
11:57
Miles Grant: 
Let’s start with a few questions that were submitted in advance in the pre-chat post ...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:57 Miles Grant
11:58
[Comment From RobRob: ] 
If we accept the premise that density is desirable, how does building more housing units actually lower rents in practice? Housing is prohibitively expensive in Manhattan and it’s also extremely densely populated, for example. Let’s say we build more housing in DC’s core by removing the height limit and the average rent in the metro area decreases; but rents in the core increase (due to higher demand for density) while the rents on the fringe decrease (due to greater overall supply of housing in the market). Has the policy succeeded because some housing in the overall market is now less expensive? Or has it failed because now the only affordable housing is the housing with the highest transportation cost?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:58 Rob
11:58
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think success and failure are relative concepts…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:58 Matthew Yglesias
11:59
Matthew Yglesias: 
In the scenario you’re spelling out, we’ve hardly solved all of society’s problems, but we have created a situation in which more people can afford to live in the region…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:59 Matthew Yglesias
11:59
Matthew Yglesias: 
And even if the cheapest housing continues to be in the places with the highest transportation costs, those costs would still be lower than the current cost of even-further commutes, even-more sprawl, or simply denying people access to the strong labor market and other amenities of greater DC.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:59 Matthew Yglesias
12:02
Miles Grant: 

There seems to be an all or nothing sense to some discussions of density - it’s either status quo or Manhattan skyscrapers, density solves everything or it solves nothing. How can we defuse some of that tension?

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:02 Miles Grant
12:02
Matthew Yglesias: 
Right. I try to avoid mentioning New York when talking about other cities, because it’s a unique case in so many ways…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:02 Matthew Yglesias
12:03
Matthew Yglesias: 
In terms of Washington, I think it’s important to note that the structures in our CBD are really really really short…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:03 Matthew Yglesias
12:03
Matthew Yglesias: 
Not just shorter than the structures in Manhattan, but shorter than the ones in Richmond and Baltimore and Hartford and all kinds of places…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:03 Matthew Yglesias
12:04
Matthew Yglesias: 
More broadly, there’s more to density and compactness than building height. I know people point to Paris and its lack of skyscrapers, which is very true, but Paris is a wildly denser city than DC. We’re closer to Fargo than Paris.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:04 Matthew Yglesias
12:05
[Comment From VikVik: ] 
Can you tell us why you think an area like the CBD is a better place to lift the height limit than an underdeveloped area, such as Anacostia or Brentwood?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:05 Vik
12:06
Matthew Yglesias: 
There are a few reasons. First is simply that there are no “neighbors” in the CBD to be annoyed by changes to their views or whatnot in the same way that there are in residential areas so it might be more feasible…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:06 Matthew Yglesias
12:07
Matthew Yglesias: 
Second, is that a CBD is a unique area — Metrorail, MARC, VRE, and the buses are already set up to serve the needs of people trying to commute there and it’s walkable from parts of the residential city….
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:07 Matthew Yglesias
12:08
Matthew Yglesias: 
Third is that some of our depressed and outlying areas really need some new investments in terms of infrastructure, which is going to cost money, and that money could be most easily raised by allowing more development where the demand is highest and that’s downtown.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:08 Matthew Yglesias
12:08
Miles Grant: 
Thanks for the questions & please keep submitting even if you don’t see them pop up right away, we’ll get to as many as we can! Here’s a big picture one ...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:08 Miles Grant
12:08
[Comment From CharlesCharles: ] 
Matt, I was wondering if you could discuss the importance of regional governance and the problems with fragmented local governments. I know you touch on it occasionally but I was hoping to get your thoughts on it.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:08 Charles
12:09
Matthew Yglesias: 
The basic issue is that state borders in the US were drawn a long time ago for reasons that have nothing to do with present-day realities…

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:09 Matthew Yglesias
12:10
Matthew Yglesias: 
Alexandria, DC, and Bethesda are all clearly part of a fairly intergrated metropolitan social and economic landscape that has relative little to do with events on the Eastern Shore and basically nothing to do with Norfolk or southwestern virginia…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:10 Matthew Yglesias
12:11
Matthew Yglesias: 
Unfortunately, it’s not obvious to me what can be done about this except that local leaders need to actively try to collaborate, and Virginia politicians in particular need to think more seriously about the fact that Northern Virginia is the growth hub of the state….
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:11 Matthew Yglesias
12:11
Matthew Yglesias: 
We could also try things like extending VRE to Richmond and Charlottseville and getting Amtrak service down to the Norfolk area that might produce better real-world integration….
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:11 Matthew Yglesias
12:12
Matthew Yglesias: 
But the fact is that US federalism is just very poorly designed for the northeast’s metropolises and I think we’re stuck with it.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:12 Matthew Yglesias
12:13
Miles Grant: 
What are the chances of, say, DC, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church & Fairfax ever deciding to throw out those old boundaries & form their own state? Could discontent ever go that far?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:13 Miles Grant
12:15
Matthew Yglesias: 
It’d be interesting to see them try. It’s unconstitutional to split a state up without the consent of the state government so the odds aren’t good. But I favor pie-in-the-sky schemes because you never really know. Maybe some unrelated constitutional crisis will emerge that allows for the redrawing of state boundaries, in which case whoever has the maps drawn up will win.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:15 Matthew Yglesias
12:15
[Comment From DavidDavid: ] 
Isn’t the clearest answer for why it makes sense to lift the height limit in the CBD be that there is demand for higher buildings there, as expressed through really really high land prices?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:15 David
12:16
Matthew Yglesias: 
Yes, that’s the simple reason! But some people feel that stifling CBD development is a good way to “force” development in under-built areas & I’m trying to lay out why I think that’s an unnecessarily costly approach.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:16 Matthew Yglesias
12:16
[Comment From HankHank: ] 
You have mentioned before that you thought the streetcar was a bad investment. For someone that usually favors transit, that surprised me - why do you think it’s a bad idea?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:16 Hank
12:17
Matthew Yglesias: 
It’s not a “bad idea” per se, but H Street is already served by a pretty good bus, the X-2, that has high ridership and one of the highest farebox recovery rates in the whole system…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:17 Matthew Yglesias
12:18
Matthew Yglesias: 
So if you ask, “what could we do to improve transit on that corridor” the clear answer seems to be to take a lane away from cars or parking so the bus can move faster…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:18 Matthew Yglesias
12:18
Matthew Yglesias: 
If you want to go beyond that an upgrade the bus line to light rail, then so much the better…

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:18 Matthew Yglesias
12:19
Matthew Yglesias: 
But spending a lot of money to run a train that’ll be stuck in the same traffic snarls as the already-popular bus seems a little perverse to me, especially because we didn’t get much upzoning of H Street in the bargain.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:19 Matthew Yglesias
12:20
[Comment From SeanSean: ] 
What do you think are the best practices for urban planning and community input and cooperation? So often, great plans are defeated or watered down bc of a very vocal minority.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:20 Sean
12:20
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think it’s important for people to think harder about what the point of community input is…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:20 Matthew Yglesias
12:21
Matthew Yglesias: 
Presumably the idea is that you don’t want outsiders who may not understand the situation to run roughshod over existing residents like in some of these urban renewal nightmare stories…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:21 Matthew Yglesias
12:21
Matthew Yglesias: 
But that means you actually want to get a valid sample of the population, not just whichever subset of the population happens to have the time and inclination to come to meetings…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:21 Matthew Yglesias
12:22
Matthew Yglesias: 
And you also have to listen to what people are specifically saying — are they bringing new information to light, or are they simply advancing very narrow interests…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:22 Matthew Yglesias
12:22
Matthew Yglesias: 
It’s understandable that people who live near McMillan prefer more parks and less new housing at the margin, but that’s a tradeoff between a local community benefit and some broader city-wide objectives. It’s good to listen to everyone, but that doesn’t mean you have to do what they want.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:22 Matthew Yglesias
12:24
Miles Grant: 
There’s an assumption that people that are Democratic/progressive must be more open to urban planning solutions, yet DC’s as blue as it gets & has extensive restrictions on development & new housing. What’s the disconnect?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:24 Miles Grant
12:25
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think you see these restrictions all over the place, because partisan politics is organized around federal issues rather than local ones…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:25 Matthew Yglesias
12:26
Matthew Yglesias: 
But I find it frustrating in particular when progressives don’t see the connection between very localized decisions about building permits and broad concerns about climate change and sustainability…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:26 Matthew Yglesias
12:26
Matthew Yglesias: 
I’m also fairly optimistic, however, that a lot of people simply don’t understand the issues correctly and that as we debate them information will improve and things will get better…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:26 Matthew Yglesias
12:27
Matthew Yglesias: 
DC in particular also has what’s obviously a big social and economic divide around race that’s a little bit masked by the fact that almost all its residents are Democrats regardless of income or ethnic background.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:27 Matthew Yglesias
12:27
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
How do you factor geography in your thinking about rent and transportation infrastructure.  I live in a large mid-west metro with no geographical barriers to sprawl.  How, given the higher unit construction costs of transit in the short term, do you balance the tendency to sprawl with the higher long term costs of that sprawl?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:27 Guest
12:29
Matthew Yglesias: 
Things are different in the midwest, where land is plentiful and sprawl isn’t really economically costly…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:29 Matthew Yglesias
12:29
Matthew Yglesias: 
We’re talking instead much more about environmental costs that ultimately require national and even global solutions…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:29 Matthew Yglesias
12:30
Matthew Yglesias: 
If we had a reasonable gasoline or carbon tax or cap-and-trade plan or what have you, there’d be much more incentive for midwestern cities to think more seriously about the merits of a more compact urban form.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:30 Matthew Yglesias
12:30
[Comment From Michael PMichael P: ] 
One of the significant criticisms of increasing density is that the increase in population will result in parking or congestion issues. What’s a good way to address these concerns?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:30 Michael P
12:32
Matthew Yglesias: 
Well ultimately you need to use pricing to control congestion and parking scarcity issues…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:32 Matthew Yglesias
12:32
Matthew Yglesias: 
But on parking in particular, I think there’s a lot of opportunities to just buy off incumbents…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:32 Matthew Yglesias
12:33
Matthew Yglesias: 
We could lock all existing residents in to current parking permit prices, for example, and just mandate a large increase for *future* residents…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:33 Matthew Yglesias
12:33
Miles Grant: 
Buried in today’s Post story about improving DC area traffic is that higher gas prices helped cut congestion. What would it take for an increase in the gas tax to overcome political obstacles?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:33 Miles Grant
12:34
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think it would take a change in national fiscal and economic conditions; right now a tax increase could have a really negative short-term impact on employment over and above all the other problems…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:34 Matthew Yglesias
12:34
Matthew Yglesias: 
But at some point we’ll either need higher taxes, or big cuts to the kind of Medicare and educational programs that Americans have come to expect and I think the politics of a push for higher gas taxes will improve somewhat.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:34 Matthew Yglesias
12:35
[Comment From Eric H.Eric H.: ] 
Matt, your answers to Michael’s questions about parking and traffic misses a point.  I NOVA.  My neighbors don’t want density increases near our neighborhood because they don’t want more people speeding through their neighborhoods.  How can you buy those people off?  It isn’t just parking, it is the increase in traffic.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:35 Eric H.
12:36
Matthew Yglesias: 
Right right — traffic on local streets… I think I dodged that one because I don’t have a very good answer…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:36 Matthew Yglesias
12:36
Matthew Yglesias: 
It’s fundamentally true that denser-build areas have more noise and people and vehicles around and those with strong contrary preferences are going to be annoyed by it….
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:36 Matthew Yglesias
12:36
Matthew Yglesias: 
ultimately as a society we need to balance that against other goals and advantages, but you can’t please everyone.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:36 Matthew Yglesias
12:39
[Comment From EricEric: ] 
I really enjoyed the book, Matt. One point I found especially interesting was the idea that typically “liberal” and “conservative” arguments in some ways lead people astray when it comes to urban development issus. To push on this a bit, what kind of strategic advice would you give to advocates of positions aligned with those of GGW? What “sacred cows” of ours should we reconsider?  Who are some maybe unlikely allies we might identify and what kinds of arguments are likel to be convincing to them?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:39 Eric
12:39
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think progressives are going to need to learn to love rich greedy real estate developers…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:39 Matthew Yglesias
12:40
Matthew Yglesias: 
Not because rich greedy real estate developers are the greatest people on the planet, but because the fact of the matter is that things get built by businessmen looking to earn a profit…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:40 Matthew Yglesias
12:41
Matthew Yglesias: 
When we want to see more schools built, progressives don’t say “well that’s just a way for contractors to make more money” but we also recognize that the work is in fact done by contractors who are just looking to make more money…
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:41 Matthew Yglesias
12:41
Miles Grant: 

We’ll just go for a few more minutes, so submit your final questions now ...

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:41 Miles Grant
12:41
Matthew Yglesias: 
By the same token, moving to a more efficient, economically sound and environmentally sustainable use of our scarce urban land requires structures to be built by profit-seeking businessmen. 
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:41 Matthew Yglesias
12:42
Miles Grant: 
I hope our readers say thanks for your time by reading your book and bookmarking your blog. What’s the next topic you think deserves a big exploration - what aren’t people talking about that they should be?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:42 Miles Grant
12:43
Matthew Yglesias: 
Thanks! My other passion is monetary policy ... a very different subject, but also one that goes to the core of people’s lives in a way that they often don’t recognize. 
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:43 Matthew Yglesias
12:44
Matthew Yglesias: 
Anyways, this has been fun and I hope if people are interested they’ll check out the blog and — of course — buy the book!

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:44 Matthew Yglesias
12:45
Miles Grant: 

Thanks for joining us, Matt - and thanks for all the great questions!

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:45 Miles Grant
12:46
David Alpert: 
Thanks Matt for joining and Miles for moderating! The archive of the discussion will remain available and please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:46 David Alpert
12:47