S2 E15: Roger Valdez: Sharp-Tongued Philosopher and Provocateur for Urban Density

What You’ll Learn… 

  • When Roger Valdez, director of Seattle for Growth, came to Seattle, what he’s noticed about the city’s businesses over the years, and what Seattle for Growth hopes to do to improve Seattle as it stands today.
  • Valdez’s “slice the pie thinner” vs. “bake more pies” analogy and how Seattle’s citizens must learn how to balance their morals with their own self-interests.
  • Why Valdez believes that the new Mandatory Housing Affordability program will be disastrous for Seattle’s future.
  • Valdez’s advice for Seattle citizens who want to get involved and his biggest hope and fear for Seattle moving forward.

Since moving to Seattle permanently in 1992, Roger Valdez has witnessed many changes. Some of his favorites restaurants and bars have shut down and evolved into an almost revolving door of new businesses. He notes how fascinating it is that you can find a place that’s bustling in Seattle, turn the corner and see another place that is virtually empty. It’s true what they say: the one constant in Seattle is change. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in Seattle’s housing market.

It’s no secret that the cost of living is consistently on the rise in the United States and Seattle is certainly no exception. As housing becomes increasingly unaffordable to those hoping to move to the city and those who live in the city today, it is important to know a thing or two about growth, specifically what kind and where. This is where Seattle for Growth comes in. Seattle for Growth is a program that works to engage people intellectually about the real estate world, communicate, and advocate for more housing that everyone can afford. The more housing that can be built in the city, the quicker conditions will improve for all. Now, this may sound counterintuitive; if housing is already unaffordable, why build more? For the answer to this, Valdez turns to economist Friedrich Hayek.

Valdez refers to himself as a self-proclaimed “Hayekian.” Hayek’s point (as it pertains to this issue) is that price is a signal of scarcity and demand; when an item is low in supply and high in demand, the price goes up; when it’s high in supply and low in demand, the price goes down. This is at the center of Valdez and Seattle for Growth’s main argument: housing is so unaffordable in Seattle because there is simply not enough of it.

As to why there is not enough, Valdez thinks back to when he managed the county’s anti-tobacco program. Research showed that tobacco was unhealthy, so Valdez and his team decided that regulations needed to be placed on the product to make it harder to get. Unfortunately, Valdez has noticed this same practice being implemented on housing; there are too many restrictions and regulations, making it harder to obtain new housing opportunities. As the city chokes off the supply under the guise of helping poorer people, it creates scarcity. This scarcity leaves the winners as those who already live in the city and lead wealthy lifestyles; the poor and those who wish to live in Seattle in the future are being barred from advancing. Anti-growth activists will say that this displacement is due to growth; however, Valdez believes otherwise.

According to Valdez, there are two camps of people: those who believe in slicing the pie thinner and those who believe in baking more pies. Those who believe in slicing the pie thinner see those who have bigger slices and believe it is unfair. So, they decide to take chunks of pie from those who have more in order to even out the slices. However, as more people arrive and begin taking pieces of pie, those pieces become smaller, until everyone has a piece that is equal but almost nonexistent. However, those who believe in baking more pies understand that if they create more product, everyone can have a shot at a piece that is large and plentiful. Those who slice the pie thinner feel that power is always corrupt and out to get you, that you must take from the rich and give to the poor. They feel anger at prosperity and Valdez notes that we must get over this anger and accept change is we want to seeing lasting differences. Yes, we may see the things and places we love disappear, but if we can learn to accept that and try not to disincentivise new things that come along, the transition will be a lot more seamless in the long run.

The biggest thing that Valdez believes people need to learn how to do is balance their morals and self-interest. He has noticed a lot of people struggle with this, as they think about the value of their homes and wonder if that value will decrease if, say, a halfway house is built across the street. While their morals say this building is good for those in need, their self-interest worries about their future payout. Valdez doesn’t think people should give up on the idea of building new housing so quickly; just because a unit may be too expensive for certain citizens in Seattle, that doesn’t mean no one can afford it. Building those homes guarantees more opportunities for a family or individual to upgrade and absorbs some of the demand that would have otherwise chased a different product. It’s time to consider baking more pies instead of continuing to cut the same slice thinner until there’s nothing left.

One of the programs Seattle hopes to implement soon to increase housing affordability is known as “Mandatory Housing Affordability.” Essentially, developers of new properties will be required to either set aside a piece of their property for affordable housing or pay a fee that goes toward nonprofits that hope to build affordable housing down the road. Valdez notes one major flaw in this program: No developer is going to set aside property.

Valdez foresees that, if this program were to come to fruition, every developer would simply pay the fee, offset that fee by raising rents, and that money would go into $500,000 apartments that won’t be built for another five years. It’s a broken system that will never accomplish what it says it will. Valdez believes that city officials know he is correct and his belief seems confirmed in the unwillingness of these officials to discuss the matter. As far as the media is concerned, everyone is for this program 100%. The only group that seems to be speaking out against it is the neighbors who are against density. This creates an interesting situation for Valdez, as he now sides directly with the very people he has been accused of being against. He sums it up perfectly by noting that politics makes for interesting bedfellows.

Valdez believes that now is the perfect time to get engaged in Seattle’s government. He asks listeners to determine if they are “slice the pie thinner” or “bake more pies” people, read and research on the issues he has discussed, and tell their local council members how they feel. It is not too late to save Seattle’s future, but the end is not too far off. Overall, Valdez envisions a Seattle where a poor family can arrive into the city, settle down, start a successful life, break the generational cycle of poverty, and thrive just as much as the millionaire living down the street. If the city can join together, oppose harmful regulations, and consider those who do not already live affluent lives in Seattle, this future may be closer than we think.

About the Interviewee

Roger Valdez is the director of Seattle for Growth. The Seattle Times describes him as a “sharp-tongued philosopher and provocateur for urban density.” He was the former manager of the county’s anti-tobacco program and is currently a lobbyist for developers and an evangelist for growth and free-market economics. He hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently resides in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. You can find out more about Seattle for Growth at www.seattleforgrowth.org and you can read some insightful articles by Valdez on Forbes. 


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