I have been writing this blog on and off for 5 years or so. Coincidentally, that’s about the same amount of time I have shared a home with my feline life partner, Mikey. He is now a mature, sophisticated cat.
But he wasn’t always this way. He was once young and carefree, testing his limits at any chance.
He believed that any food in the apartment was, by rights, his.
When I prepared food on my kitchen counter, he would jump up on the counter to investigate. I would promptly pick him up and place him back down on the floor, then return to preparing my food for five seconds before repeating the process. Eventually, though, he got to contemplating:
He realized the problem: he was taking the wrong route! So he tried a new route to the counter:
Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work. He had misidentified the issue. The problem wasn’t that he had taken the wrong route to the food. The problem was that I didn’t want him to eat the food and I had more power than he did.
If Mikey really wanted to get more food, he needed to find a way to either beat my defenses or appeal to my heart:
Why am I telling you this story? Is this just an excuse to show pictures of my cat? Well, yes, of course it is. But it’s also a metaphor.
If you pay attention to housing media for very long at all, you will be bombarded by news stories about how a new technology will save the world from high housing costs. Sometimes it’s a construction material, sometimes it’s a fabrication technique, sometimes it’s something totally different. As many point out, this thinking is both common and wrong:
# of companies who believe that building faster will solve the problem, while doing nothing abt zoning, public process, etc. – is staggering https://t.co/XDgydjopSS
— Allison Arieff (@aarieff) August 2, 2017
The error is very similar to Mikey’s: failing to see the deeper, underlying issue that there are people who disagree with your goals and have the power to obstruct you. There are already construction technologies that could greatly reduce the costs of housing in cities with overheated housing markets if deployed at scale (e.g. townhouses, missing middle, or mid-rise construction techniques). These technologies are greatly restricted in their deployment not because of unresolved technological issues, but because of political disputes that have made their deployment illegal in most parts of most cities. New construction techniques will find new paths to inevitable obstruction.
This isn’t to say that pursuing improved construction technologies is useless. There are exciting construction technologies on the horizon, from higher quality modular structures manufactured in factories and pieced together on-site to cross-laminated timber offering the possibility of more environmentally-friendly, cheaper towers. I’m glad that smart people are trying to make these technologies work! But in many major cities, the cost of land alone in central locations is more than most people can afford before construction costs even play a role. The way to fix that is to change politics, not technology. When we talk about new technology as having the potential to drastically lower prices without recognizing that there needs to be the political will to make use of that technology, we’re deliberately closing our eyes from the real problems we face.