High Water Marks

26 thoughts on “High Water Marks”

  1. Do additional residents really cost a municipality that much money if those folks are living on redeveloped land, and no new roads are required? I would suspect that condos wouldn’t add too many kids, and given the compactness of the redevelopment, no additional spending on cops or firefighters would be necessary. What am I missing about the cost/benefit analysis?

      1. I guess I still don’t understand what’s special about California such that residential/commercial redevelopment is a net negative for the municipality financially. Where I live, municipalities are seeking developers to build that sort of retail/office/condo developments precisely because those sorts of developments do have a net positive contribution to the municipalities budget. They are also seeking out retirement and nursing homes as well (dense housing and jobs rolled into one). What is different about Northern California such that the financial implications are different than in the Research Triangle, NC? Is it schools or transit costs that are borne by municipalities, instead of at a county or metro wide level?

  2. On the topic of Malibu…the homeowners insurance claims in Southern California are heavily lopsided in favor of the toniest precincts: houses in the hills up against the greenbelt, or in landslide/flood/cliff zones by the beach. Most homeowners in SoCal never will file a claim. These neighborhoods are on a once a decade pace. Two subsidies: first ratepayer then taxpayer through disaster relief. Remarkably, no political pushback on this.

  3. Another interesting aspect of the city abandoning the Northeast Area Plan which would have rezoned The Barlow area to allow the mix of uses you describe was that part of the plan would have required the buildings to be built on podiums, above the flood level. The road running through the center of The Barlow would have been similarly raised so the sidewalk would be at the same level as the ‘ground floor’ retail. This would also have allowed a massive amount of parking below the podium (no more complaints about not being able to find a parking space). And cars are easy to move when Laguna waters rise. But as you state, the prospect of up to 300 more housing units in town, and 4-story buildings (god forbid!) was too much for vocal opponents and they scared the council into voting down the plan. So we got The Barlow that complied with the zoning code but left everything in the path of flood waters…

    1. Yep.

      Here’s what I see unfolding over the long term – and the long term might be sometime after you and I are both dead. The current crop of over built vacant strip malls and office parks could be repurposed as housing someday. That sounds weird to a lot of people, but run down miserable industrial warehouses gradually transformed into luxury lofts in many places.

      The rules and culture that we have now can and will change – eventually. The driver of that transformation will likely be generational in nature. The old folks will die off and young people with different goals gradually assume positions of authority. What drives generational change? Pain and loss combined with hope and aspirations.

  4. I’m wondering what kind of losses our midwestern banks are exposed to. When we hear about federal funds going there to “help”, I suppose they’ll be helping people keep up with their debt payments… helping the banks indirectly.

    At some point, we’ll have to accept the fact the our population can’t grow forever. We’re already crowding into marginally safe real-estate, because the good spots are taken, and/or developing good farmland into acres of grass and asphalt. Some day, that has to stop.

    1. You’re making the assumption that federal aid is designed to help farmers and the banks are just the vector. It’s the other way around. The banks are being saved and the farmers are the vector.

      Here’s a parallel example. I was in Pripyat in the Ukraine (Chernobyl) and a French guy I was traveling with was complaining bitterly about all the French money that was spent on the clean up operation at the nuclear plant. I let him vent for a while. Then I spoke up. The French money never left France. The French government presented the money to Ukraine on paper, but it was all spent in France on French workers and French equipment that just happened to be deployed in Ukraine. It was really a make-work program for the French. The Ukrainian employees were the cafeteria ladies and the people who cut the grass around the plant.

      Re: population

      The US has a fertility rate of 1.8 children per woman. The replacement rate is 2.1. Without immigration (I have no particular opinion on the subject) the US would not only be rapidly aging but also shrinking in population.

      Canada is at 1.6
      Mexico is at 2.18 and dropping fast.
      Brazil 2.08 and falling
      Thailand 1.48
      Vietnam 1.95
      Iran 1.6
      Japan 1.4
      Russia 1.7
      South Korea 0.96
      China 1.62

      In other words the population of every rich and moderate income country is falling and they will continue to contract for the rest of this century. Europe and parts of Asia are on schedule to drop by half over the coming decades.

      On the other hand there are the poorest countries.

      Nigeria 5.67
      Niger 7.31
      Congo 5.92
      Kenya 3.74
      Ghana 3.87
      Afghanistan 4.33
      Egypt 3.15
      Pakistan 3.48

      Overall Africa’s population will double from one billion to two billion by the end of the century. A few regions in the near east and south Asia will also grow.

      The most respected forecasts show the human population as a whole will peak around 2050 at 9 billion+/- and then enter a relentless decline.

      So we’re rapidly heading toward a world of old semi-prosperous people and young desperate people. In theory these two groups need each other and could solve each other’s problems. But that’s not looking like the most likely trajectory.

      1. Much of the prosperity of older people is based in land holdings. Much of the desperation in young people you reference is rooted in landlessness. Nature provides an easy quid pro quo for this. It’s happened before, in the populating of the Frontier.

      2. Don’t we also have to consider infant mortality, deaths in childbirth, and average lifespan in those high-birth countries?

        1. Yes we do. But these high birth countries are in the “demographic transition.” There’s just enough food and medicine to keep most of the children alive to maturity, but not enough of an economy to allow them to thrive.

          Poor people have large families first because women have less access to birth control, education, and fewer opportunities to earn their own money. Second, children are an insurance policy for old age since the social safety net doesn’t really exist. Rural children are also a source of free labor, whereas middle class city kids are expensive to maintain.

          1. Yes. Several generations before social security, my 19th-century immigrant farmer ancestors had 13 children. My great-grandparents on the other side, also subsistence farmers, had 12. But today, on either side, only one of my first cousins has as many as three, and the rest of us with kids have two or fewer. At least four of the 13 females in my generation don’t have any children. No one is a farmer, though one cousin owns the last remnant of the family farmstead and rents it out.

            It is a bit heartless and cynical to say, but wars have always been one way of controlling population growth in less-wealthy countries and regions. It is not surprising that today’s insurgencies and hot conflicts are in some of those places you noted with high birth rates.

            1. My Great-grandparents were Sicilian peasants who came to America from Agrigento a century ago. They had ten children – and those were the live births. There were miscarriages in between. My great-grandmother was pregnant from the time she was married as a teenager until she died at age 39.

  5. “…high insurance rates send a signal to would-be buyers that the property is in a high risk location.”
    Got news for ya; the whole planet is a high risk location – seems we’ve elected to ignore that – especially flood plain areas, which should be verboten to development.
    I’ve driven through Guerneville a number of times over the years and have always thought, ‘what a cute and beautifully stupid place to build anything’.
    Just sayin’…

    1. You’ve hit on the nature of the problem. Since everyplace has some kind of risk – some potentially catastrophic – how should these risks be managed? Forbidding development in flood plains, earthquake zones, areas afflicted by hurricanes and tornados, places near forest fires… is tricky.

      Partly we have huge cities that have already been built in bad spots. San Francisco really shouldn’t be here. Miami is ultimately doomed. Houston is a slow motion train wreck. New Orleans? Ouch. But I don’t see anyone abandoning these places anytime soon.

      And partly the new places we need can’t all be constructed in the handful of locations where the risks are considered minimal. We need new buildings where we need them, not where they “should” go.

      Rational urban planning is a political can of worms. “You can’t rebuild in Malibu because the entire place is a massive fire and erosion zone that can’t be defended and should revert to nature.” Run that by the voting public and see how it goes.

      Strict building codes that result in structures that resist fire, flood, earthquakes, tornados, etc will drive up the price of construction. People value fancy kitchens and baths and raw square footage far more than structural engineering. There’s always pushback against the Nanny State.

      So in the end it’s the insurance industry that will do all the heavy lifting using price signals. “Over here insurance is reasonable. Over there we’ve redlined the entire community. This building is affordable to insure and that one is prohibitively expensive.”

      1. For awhile back in the ’60’s I was in charge of subdivision intake review at the Portland (OR) so-called Bureau of Planning. One day a guy submitted a development plan for a steep slope area just south of downtown that had never been built on because it was prone to landslides. Even though we had no real subdivision ordinance at the time, we operated with ‘guidelines’ from the city engineer which,among other things, required his review of development on slopes of more than 8% (allegedly because that was the steepest grade a firetruck could negotiate). I told the guy that he’d have to get the CE’s stamp on his application before I could take it in. He exploded with the usual litany that it was his property and neither I (me) nor the CE could tell him what to do with it. Being a young smart-ass at the time, I said something to the effect that the area was full of evidence of historic landslides and that all I was trying to do was prevent him from being sued by the people below his property after his structures ended up in their living rooms. He left in a huff and never submitted the application as far as I know – but I’d wager the parcel has been developed since.

  6. Live in Maine and you are entirely right about heating in cold places. It can’t be overlooked. Our area gets cold enough for someone to freeze to death even inside their house if they don’t have heat. That period can last a long time up to 4 months. We have propane heating/hot water system but it needs, as you say, electricity and has lots of complexities. We are off grid solar so regular heat works about 95% of the time, not enough for comfort. A nearly fail safe back up heat source like wood is absolutely essential. We also have a road association that unless we all go down together, isn’t likely to let anyone actually die in an emergency. That said we are all on a wet meadow that floods every 500 or so years. A 500 year flood would put lots of houses underwater and bring the water right up to my doorstep, but probably not inside.

  7. Here in Louisville some businesses preemptively flood their establishments with clean water so the pressure keeps out sediment-filled river water making cleanup easier.

  8. Many people have fled the Bay Area to Sacramentofor cheaper housing. Large parts of the city, such as the newer area of Natomas, are natural flood plain below even the normal river level. Hope those levees hold because that’s the last redoubt of California’s middle class.

    Long term, we might do well to adopt a European model. For the Dutch, levee building is part of their culture. Other cities like London, Paris and Florence simply have massive stone walls, built up over centuries, to contain flood events on the Thames, Seine and Arno respectively. That has worked up until now, but climate change is testing previous assumptions.

  9. I know of a guy who invests in mobile home parks in the Midwest. Smaller ones – say, 50 spaces. Affordable worker housing. Says he does not worry about tornadoes (the chances are low, and besides, even if the trailers get blown off the map (which has happened once) FEMA just comes in and makes it rain. They give each one of the 50 residents $30,000 to buy a new one. That’s not even a rounding error – or, expressed another way, equivalent to ONE single family home in Livermore.

    He deliberately avoids hurricane surge/flood zones however. Destruction is too widespread. Takes forever for FEMA to adequately respond to such massive damage, and all the while his cash flow has dropped to zero.

    Meanwhile, the lands to the WEST of the San Andreas fault creep northward, at a rate – get this – about the same as your fingernails grow. (@ 3 inches a year). Though if you add that up over 10 or 15 decades…..

    It will be interesting to see where the next “when” (not “if”) hits. Someplace like Salinas would be bad if you lived in Salinas, but not overwhelmingly devastating to the state’s economy. Consider that a dodged bullet. Closer to SF, SJ or down near LA, on the other hand, and it could shatter the insurance and financial markets and lay a massive body blow to tech.

    1. We’re on the same page. I had a conversation with a friend who just bought a multi-million dollar house here in San Francisco. She has the money and enjoys the lifestyle. It’s a great house.

      When I mentioned that we might be in another bubble she shrugged it off. For the last forty years – even with ups and downs – the market just keeps going up. I suggested that’s exactly what the top of a massive bubble looks like. She rolled her eyes. (Subtext: lighten the fuck up.)

      Then I mention the earthquake thing. It’s not merely the risk that your home will be damaged. (No one I know has earthquake insurance because it’s insanely expensive and doesn’t actually cover the cost of rebuilding when you read the fine print.) Instead the primary risk is that the industries that undergird the region’s economy are easily relocated since every tech company I know has branch offices in other states and countries. Sliding work around is already a huge part of what they do. The analog is Detroit and the auto industry. Little by little – then all at once – production migrated elsewhere until Detroit was a husk. It’s unthinkable at the peak, but completely obvious after it has happened.

  10. First time commenter, long time reader (came here via Strong Towns).

    Great post.

    My Canadian municipality (used to be a county with towns and rural areas each having their own administration, now an amalgamated muni – combine services to cut costs, uh huh) is undergoing a surge in new home building in the largest city. Almost all of the new homes are being built in what I understand is a flood plain. The muni is OK with this as long as the homes must be built above what I understand is the level of the highest flood on record. The record goes back a trifling ~150 years. So the homes are built on mounds around 1/2 meter above grade. So the houses might be OK against the next big one.

    The utilities – roads, water/wastewater, gas, and I believe hydro (excuse me, electric) – are all at or below grade. So the infrastructure serving the houses might not. The muni would depend on the province and/or the feds for a bail-out. Which would probably be possible for a few decades. After that, who knows?

    My spouse and I live in a small town within the muni. Our house sits on the high bank (about 12 feet above normal water) of the river flowing through town. There’s no record of flooding on our bank . . . not to say that’s never happened. We do have several days of water, what’s in the water heater, and a backpacking grade filter if the filtration plant was flooded. Also have a plan to deal with our pee and poop. And we have a plan for how, when to leave if necessary.

    1. Canadians have the extra problem of keeping warm if the public infrastructure fails. A few days without heat in January in Saskatoon or Ottawa is enough to kill frail people. -20C is no joke for the elderly and small children. Gas heaters are fine, but many require electricity to run fans. And now that computers run everything there’s an additional layer of complexity to deal with. Of course Canada has a more cohesive culture than the US. That goes a long way in a crisis.

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