To our new city council members, who take their seats with the new year: please govern with a relentlessly clear-eyed view toward costs and tradeoffs.
Impetus for this plea came last fall as I studied up on local candidates before the general election, having only recently returned to Alexandria after moving away some years ago. I came across a primary debate from May which I found useful overall though the discussion made me purse my lips a bit. Candidates addressed evidently hot button subjects like “road diets,” but mostly avoided revenues and spending. Some mentioned federal and state funding — i.e., how someone else might foot our bills — but none talked brass tacks about taxes they’d raise, services they’d cut, assets they’d sell or turn to revenue generation, etc.
The kicker was when Councilwoman-elect Sarah Bagley said she aims to eliminate “zero sum analysis.” Rather than characterizing decisions as “we either get this or we don’t,” we should seek win-win harmonies. Specifically, for example, she’d seek to marry affordable housing and environmental interests, rather than continue “seeing these as … tradeoffs.”
That’s a dubious governance philosophy. (I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Bagley, I’ve heard some version dozens of times.) At any given moment, much political analysis is zero sum. That’s the entire premise of a budget. Given finite resources and time, everything costs something — in dollars, political capital, administrative capacity, opportunity costs. There are always tradeoffs. Parsing them is government’s raison d'être, its very purpose.
While political officials should certainly seek innovative ways to kill more birds without more stones, eventually we reach true dichotomies. Tougher environmental rules might make for greener development; but they also increase risk and upfront costs, which must be recovered through sales or rents, or else mitigated by some kind of subsidy. Utilities savings might offset those costs over time, but that’s not guaranteed. A 2019 city study estimated greener standards for Alexandria’s public buildings could add $25-40 million to 10-year capital costs. That money could no longer go to housing, or whatever else, during that period.
I just moved from California, where development opponents routinely invoke that state’s (in)famous Environmental Quality Act to stymy construction. My point isn't to argue that housing trumps the environment, or vice versa, but to articulate a political choice. Greener development may very well “cost” the forgone alternative of more or deeper housing affordability; affordable housing may “cost” greener development; in tandem they'd probably “cost” more permissible zoning or public subsidy to make projects pencil out.