Debates about how we ought to design our communities often get lost in the weeds fairly quickly: “build this! don’t build that! more density! less density! streetcars! none of the above! all of the above!” When we’re deep not in the weeds, we’re up at 50,000 feet, using vague adjectives like “livable,” “walkable,” or “sustainable.” If we got the thing we’re all clamoring for, how would we even know? More importantly, what tradeoffs are we willing to make to get there?
As I watch friends start families and head for the suburbs in search of what they perceive to be cheaper housing, I wonder what it would take to make in-city living an option for more families. While there are many reasons why a family might choose to live somewhere or another, surely it’s a major civic policy failure if the only housing units available near frequent transit lines are 1BR apartments and half-million-dollar single-family houses.
The Center for Neighborhood Technology has done great work showing how suburban families end up spending on transportation most of what they’re saving on housing, but many times those costs aren’t transparent. Suppose for a moment that we’d like housing in Seattle that’s transit-friendly, family-friendly, and affordable. What would that mean?
Here’s what I think it could mean: having a healthy supply of housing for sale or rent that meets the following criteria:
- 3 bedrooms
- A monthly payment of $1,500 or less (in either mortgage or rent)
- Served by transit on at least 15-minute headways daily
Call it 3-15-15.
Why these numbers? Well, 3 bedrooms make a nice-sized family-friendly house or apartment. Given that the local median household income is $60,000, and housing & transportation costs make up 50% of income, it seems reasonable that a family making the median income could afford $1,500/month in housing costs*, especially if said family was well-served by frequent transit and didn’t need two cars (hence the frequent transit).
Finding a house or apartment today that meets all three criteria is difficult. $1,500/month equates to roughly a $320,000 house, assuming 20% down at today’s mortgage rates. However, according to Zillow, the median 3BR Seattle currently costs $429,000 (rental costs for 3BRs are harder to come by, but at a citywide average of $1.33 per sq. ft., a 1,500 sq. ft. house would probably rent for around $2,000). So the median house is about 30% too expensive, even before we consider transit access.
But not everyone needs to live in the expensive neighborhoods! A quick scan of Redfin at the time of this writing shows about half a dozen 3BR homes for sale in the price range, and at a glance it seems a couple of them are on or near frequent transit corridors (Aurora Ave., 35th Ave SW, Delridge Way). So it’s not impossible, but it is slim pickings, and the transit access available at this price point is barely sufficient to enable a truly car-free or car-reduced lifestyle**.
With some tweaks to the housing code, we could do much better in terms of quality and quantity. For example, we could permit more 3BR units without off-street parking or on smaller lots. Or we could address the incentives of new multifamily construction by, say, allowing a height bonus for developers who create a certain percentage of 3BR units if said units are also served by frequent transit. Basically anything that increased the supply of 3BR units inside Seattle’s urban villages would be a win. I’d prefer market-based incentives to quotas or direct subsidies, but I’m open to a range of options. We may find out that reducing restrictions on residential zoning is the best approach. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve more government.
Alternatively, we could expand the number of neighborhoods that have frequent transit service. For example, a quick scan of Craig’s List shows a few 3BR townhouses for rent near downtown Bothell for $1,500. Increasing service levels on the 522 or 372 buses might be another way to achieve our goal. There’s no reason why we can’t have 3-15-15 housing in Bellevue or Redmond, either. This needn’t be a Seattle-only thing.
I’m sure there are dozens of other ways to get there as well. That’s the point. We need a vision for what we’re trying to achieve with housing and transportation policy, so that the various organs of municipal government can work towards a shared goal, and we can hold them accountable for achieving it. We also need to know what we’re willing to compromise. That’s what 3-15-15 – or something like it – can provide. The fact that family-sized, transit-friendly, affordable housing is so rare in this city counts as a major policy failure. We can do better.
* The median household income doesn’t account for varying household size. The median income of a family of four may not equal the median income of the population as a whole. Still, it works as a first-order approximation.
** It’s notable that a few of the houses I see only qualify as 3-15-15 thanks to recently upgraded service on corridors like 35th Ave SW. Perhaps the real estate market has not yet priced in the transit improvements. It might be a good opportunity to take advantage of some information arbitrage if you’re in the market for a new place. As always, Seattle Transit Blog is not authorized to give financial or investment advice.