Category Archives: Cities

Seattle and the Future of Retail

I saw this provocative post appear on my Twitter feed the day Starbucks announced a partnership with Square:

Seattle does seem to have an uncanny knack for producing best-in-class retailers, doesn’t it? Amazon, Costco, REI, Starbucks, Nordstrom.  All of these are dominant in their respective niches in one way or another.

Is it something in the water?  Is it just that we treat other people nicely, and this leads to successful retailing? Or, more likely, is it just our relative isolation from the rest of America that produces a DIY sensibility?

The Rise of the Suburban Mega-Landlord

Note: a version of this post was originally published on Seattle Transit Blog.

Foreclosure by AKZO on Flickr

In The Rent is too Damn High, Matt Yglesias argues that single-family homes are typically owned, not rented, because the costs of managing the property make it inefficient to do so. And indeed, it’s cheaper to be a landlord for a multi-family building, since much of the infrastructure and common space is shared by multiple tenants.

Nonetheless, the wave of foreclosures in America over the last few years has led to a wave of investment companies scooping up distressed homes and turning them into rental properties:

With home prices down more than a third from their peak and the market swamped with foreclosures, large investors are salivating at the opportunity to buy perhaps thousands of homes at deep discounts and fill them with tenants. Nobody has ever tried this on such a large scale, and critics worry these new investors could face big challenges managing large portfolios of dispersed rental houses. Typically, landlords tend to be individuals or small firms that own just a handful of homes.

It’s possible that single-family housing has gotten so cheap – and other investment opportunities have gotten so scarce – that this new wave of investors will actually make a profit. It’s also possible that advances in technology, like the ability to remotely monitor houses or dispatch plumbers, have fundamentally changed the economics of landlording.

More interesting, though, is the question of how this new industry will make its mark on suburbia. Defenders of the home mortgage tax deduction often claim that homeowners are better stewards of their property and more invested in their community than renters. But surely large-scale landlords managing an investment portfolio have interests as well, and unlike single-family homeowners, they’ll be able to dedicate significant resources to lobbying.

Unlike suburban developers, who close the sale and are gone, suburban landlords will need to make money from their neighborhoods over time. They’ll also need to attract a different clientele than the typical urban renter, probably a family (multi-generational?) that can fill a 2600 sq ft house. Will they advocate for more density in the ‘burbs, so as to lower maintenance costs? Or perhaps less density, so as to keep rents high? More parks? Better schools? More highways?  If this new business model proves successful (and that’s a big if) it could fundamentally change the landscape (both political and actual) of suburban America.

Agency Information

One of Jarrett Walker’s readers asks for examples of cross-agency integration:

Do you have some good examples where services and customer information is more regional ie all the options in the region whether public or private?

I can actually speak with a bit more than just a blogger’s opinion on this, because this was sort of the subject of my capstone project in grad school.  You can read more about the project here, but the basic gist is this: we were looking for a way to integrate traffic incident reports from different agencies so that a user could view a single map and see which roads were closed throughout King County, whether they were city roads, county roads, or state roads.

This turns out to be a trickier problem than you’d think.  Technologically, it’s pretty straightforward.  The tricky part is that agencies store their data in very different formats.  Some agency might define an open road as any road that isn’t closed, while another agency might have specific fields for open and closed.  One agency might use mile markers to identify a stretch of road, while another uses GIS coordinates.

There are standards for this data, and a large part of our project was figuring out how to use the standard to translate among the different agency sites.  The result is that you can now visit King County’s traffic map and see not just incidents on county roads, but WSDOT roads as well.  The incidents are populated dynamically, using the same data that drives WSDOT’s own incident map.

On a related note, Walker goes on to speculate that, in the long term, transit agencies will cease to provide trip planning services, and instead simply provide data that private companies (like Google) can then aggregate and present to users.  This is a compelling idea, popular among “Gov 2.0” evangelists including, to a certain extent, myself.  But it will take some time to get there.