Respecting other people’s preferences

Scott Morris has put out a report [PDF] about “high occupancy houses” near the University.   The report managed to get my goat on twitter, mostly because I don’t believe it respects the preferences of the renters under question.  In the report, kitchens and living rooms aren’t common areas where roommates hang out together and share food and company the way a family might, they “are leveraged across multiple tenants to the economic advantage of the owner.”  Students don’t choose to move to try out new places and live with different friend groups, they are the victims of “unregulated business practices such as pre-leasing.” Leasing by the bed (rather than apartment), is not something that renters appreciate to protect themselves against liability for flaky roommates’ rent, but rather “a burden for the tenants, and a windfall for the landlord.”

As somebody who throughout my 20s moved often, actively sought out large houses filled with unrelated people so that I could share common areas like living rooms and kitchens with a surrogate family of friends, and would’ve loved to have a lease by the bed, the report doesn’t just disagree with me on policy preferences, it actively denies that people like me exist or else argues that we were duped or coerced by landlords.  This is, to put it politely, uncomfortable to read.

I’m picking on Scott here, but it’s not something that’s limited to him.  During the debate on the “Taco PUD” development on South Lamar, opponents such as Save Town Lake frequently characterized the debate as happening only between neighbors who wanted to save views of the Lake and “developers” (or alternatively “California developers”) who want to ruin it with condos.  The honest preferences of many of us who find the building beautiful and useful (it will be home to many people!) were ignored as if we didn’t exist.  Again, this is uncomfortable to read.

But ignoring or disrespecting other’s preferences is not something limited to those on the anti-density axis of city politics.  Believing that developers should have the right to build the Taco PUD doesn’t mean that you have to like the design of the building, and through the conversation, those who don’t like large buildings were frequently mocked interchangeably with those who opposed it being built.  There’s no quicker way to get people to disagree with your policy preferences than to tell them their aesthetic preferences are invalid.

This isn’t the only time.  Some people prefer to live in stable single-family neighborhoods.  As somebody who grew up in one, I can say there are pretty good reasons for wanting  that.  It’s pretty hard to create a neighborhood like that without some sort of zoning.  For those of us who believe in allowing density, our task should not merely be to win the argument; we would both be more effective and more useful if we came up with ideas that respect the fact that other people’s preferences differ–and even try to satisfy those preferences where we can–even if we disagree on policy.

I would have much rathered Scott had started from the point of simply announcing his preference for living in a neighborhood with low turnover, rather than concocting a fictional world where young adults want turnover as low as settled families do.  I think the policies Scott has decided on (greater restrictions on unrelated people living together, regulating when leases are signed and leasing by the bed) reflect his preferences, but not those of the people he claims to be protecting.  Yet, Scott’s preferences for a low-turnover neighborhood are not invalid or idiosyncratic.  For those of us, like myself, who find Scott’s policy proposals aimed at achieving that goal abhorrent, we would do well to think of alternative policies that might accommodate these real and valid preferences.

My first attempt will come in a blog post in the near-future.

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