Kriston Capps, writing for CityLab:

Even though suburban growth is catching up, the multifamily housing boom that has characterized explosive growth in center cities for the last several years is still driving the economy. With winter finally behind us, permits for new housing grew 8 percent in April; construction on new housing jumped a full 13 percent. Most of these new homes come in the form of apartment units. In April, there were 2,000 new permits for single-family homes versus 81,000 new permits for multifamily units. Housings starts showed the same wide divide: 5,000 new single-family homes versus 124,000 new multifamily units.

But few of those multifamily units are being built in McKinney, Texas—a Dallas exurb that is one of the fastest-growing places in the nation. What explains the mismatch between the kinds of new homes we’re building and the places where we’re moving?

The answer, technically, is that families are filling in vacant houses in the ‘burbs while newcomers move in to the new multifamily construction. But there’s a deeper point here, related to the misleading term “multifamily.” The majority of new “multifamily” construction in Seattle and elsewhere consists of studios and 1BR apartments. Not really family-sized.

Suburbanists argue that families are destined for the suburbs – that yards and kids are inextricably linked (one might note that the nuclear family predates the manicured lawn by several millennia at least). In fact, many families would like to stay in the city, but are priced out. The fixed supply of 3BR+ houses in Seattle’s desirable neighborhoods are currently commanding multiple offers and sometimes selling for 20% over the asking price. Woody Allen’s Yogi Berra’s line about the crowded restaurant seems apt.

For now, overbuilt suburban housing from the last boom is providing an escape valve for demand. At some point, though there will be a reckoning as household formation rises back to pre-recession levels. What then?

100 Replies to “Where the Growth is Happening”

  1. Suburbanists argue that families are destined for the suburbs – that yards and kids are inextricably linked

    Interesting thing here is that if you look at what is being built new even in the suburbs, it is single family houses with almost no useful yard at all.

    1. I noticed newer developments tend to have lots little bigger than the house on them with postage stamp yards. It isn’t just Seattle, you can see the same thing even in areas where the land is cheap.

      “Big yards” seem to only happen anymore when lot minimums force them. A few upscale developments seem to be the only exceptions.

    2. I agree Glenn. Developers often try to get as many units as they can, which translates to postage stamp lots. It’s actually easier for a developer to divide a raw property into tiny lots than it is to convert an area already divided and complete with utilities and streets into smaller lots.

    3. Yes, this is very common now, but at the same time many of these developments provide community areas like playgrounds.

      Also even when you own a home it is still more like a condo because in addition to the mortgage you are assessed various grounds keeping fees and you are subject to rules governing decor, use of your home and so on.

      1. Glad we’re finally on same page on this one, John. Know there’s been at least once instance of trouble over a US flag in one of these places. Flag of Planet Earth would probably provoke developers’ home planet to whack your house with a disintegrator.

        Only hope sooner or later residents will finally stage an uprising signaled by a massive universal display of the Stars and Stripes, followed by everybody simultaneously painting their front doors un-allowed colors while they sing the National Anthem.

        The Prime Zorkon will blow a reactor gasket.

        MD

      2. I despise HOAs. The stupidity of some of the rules and the idiocy of some of the people who enforce them (or who complain about every minor infraction their neighbors commit) has to be witnessed to be believed.

        My parents have been assessed fines for having their tires 2″ off of their driveway, for having a hanging basket with non-approved plants in it, and for having a bird feeder in their front yard.

      3. The Prime Zorkon will blow a reactor gasket.

        I must be making sense.

        They sent in a Disinformation Agent to harass me…

      4. My neighborhood is the opposite. Next door has two dead cars in the back yard, and the house behind has a roof made mostly of blue tarps.

  2. 1. The linked Redfin article talks about “markets”. I believe the “Seattle market” referenced in the article refers to both Seattle proper and suburbs. Thus while the article could loosely support your assertion about “Seattle’s desirable neighborhoods” there’s nothing in the article that supports your distinction between Seattle neighborhoods and undesirable Bellevue or Kirkland neighborhoods.

    2. I don’t know what Woody Allen line you’re referring to. The only one I remember is “The food in this place is really terrible and it’s all such small portions.” That was more about life than about restaurants, though as Glenn in Portland notes, it also applies to the yards in exurb McMansions. The quote that first came to mind when I read your article is “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” which is, of course, from Yogi Berra.

  3. In fact, many families would like to stay in the city, but are priced out.

    This describes us perfectly.

    We’ll be moving to a condo in Kirkland (just south of downtown) in a couple of months. The reason is that we couldn’t afford a place big enough for kids in any neighborhood in Seattle that 1) is as walkable; 2) has as much of an urban feel; 3) has as good transit access; and 4) has as good schools. Honestly, we couldn’t even come close in Seattle. It was an easy decision.

    (Transit content: We’ll be within three blocks of three separate 15-minute bus lines serving every major destination we could want. They will all remain 15 minutes after the cuts, at least on weekdays. This is far superior to the transit access from our current Seattle rental.)

    Not only that, but the Kirkland market, while hot, is manageable. Here in Seattle, fewer than 10 offers is the exception rather than the rule, and all-cash buyers are winning most of the battles. On our Kirkland place, we were one of two asking-price offers with normal mortgages, and we won based on a better-written offer.

    I’ll be writing a post about this, challenging Ed Murray and the City Council to help prevent people like us from leaving, as the date of the move gets closer.

    1. David, it sounds to me like you are describing a condo near Lake Wash. Blvd. in Kirkland Surely condos in the Rainier Beach or Franklin High School area cost much less than those on the Kirkland waterfront.

      1. Sam, read my comment again and you will figure out why Rainier Beach wasn’t among our options. As for Mt. Baker, there are pretty much zero condos there, and houses in the part of the neighborhood with reasonable transit access cost quite a lot more than the condo we bought (which is not where you think it is).

      2. I read your post twice and don’t understand why Rainier Beach isn’t among your options. But I’m not that familiar with the offerings (how many large condos there are). It may be that it is too expensive. Just to go down your list:

        1) Is as walkable — I’ve walked around Rainier Beach quite a bit and really like it, but I guess it depends on what type of walking you want.
        2) Has as much of an urban feel — Feels urban to me, but I guess it depends on what you are after.
        3) Has as good transit access — Seems pretty good to me.
        4) Has as good a school — Excellent schools.

        Really, I’m confused. A lot of your suggestions are obviously subjective, so I’m curious as to what I’m missing.

      3. I am baffled by any description of Rainier Beach as “walkable.” The transit hub, Henderson Street, is simply unsafe at night (and I’ve spent plenty of time there, both as a Metro driver and as a former south-end resident). There is very little commercial activity anywhere other than that; south of Safeway you might as well be in a suburb, while north of RBHS there is a long way to go in terms of security. The street grid is heavily interrupted in lots of places, some sidewalks are obscured by vegetation, and a few streets are missing sidewalks. South of Safeway there are also steep hills to deal with.

        It’s also not “urban”; land use is overwhelmingly SFH, there’s very little neighborhood commercial activity south of Columbia City, and the few multi-family buildings tend to be in very poor condition.

        Transit access relies on the exceedingly slow and occasionally sketchy 7, or the also slow and infrequent 106, unless you are close to Link — which, for the moment, almost nothing actually is.

        I’m taking a lot of heat for describing the schools in the area as subpar, and I should clarify that I don’t think they have poor management or that a good education can’t be had. But, like it or not, there is a whole lot more opportunity for failure and lowered expectations for success — even in the best-managed schools, and even with the most involved parents — when a large portion of the student population has parents or family who are unable to maintain a high level of involvement. Outcomes for all students become a bit more of a crapshoot. I understand if people think I’m taking the easy way out by buying in a place where the student population isn’t in that situation, but I think it’s the right decision for my kid.

      4. Sam, you’re wrong.

        The only affordable condos in the Rainier Beach area are a small cluster of buildings around Rainier and Seward. The rest is all SFH and competitive-application apartments.

    2. Again why we need to extend fast/frequent transit to Broadview, Lake City, Delridge, and 35th SW sooner rather than later. (The 522 is not frequent, the 5 and 120 are not fast, and none of them serve crosstown trips.) It’s ridiculous that Kirkland has better transit access than entire swathes of the city, especially when those swathes are the more affordable parts, and have a more promising street grid to make walkable than most of the suburbs.

      1. Job 1: reform KCMetro in-city routes and frequencies.
        Job 2: Seattle Public Schools.
        Supercedeing these: in-city 2&3 bedroom homes of all styles in all parts of the city.

      2. Job 3: This could take care of Job 2 and better finance public transportation in the Puget Sound: State, City or County income tax.

      3. There is very little wrong with Seattle Public Schools, from what I can tell. They had that mess with the math textbooks, but that was a minor problem. Every urban city school system gets criticized by politicians with an axe to grind. But when push comes to shove, kids get a really good education if they want one. Are kids suffering at Roosevelt and Garfield (two of the highest performing schools in the state)? The latter sits right in the middle of the former “red line district’ of Seattle. The cheerleaders even had a cheer that included the line “soul in the ghetto”. I wonder if they still do that cheer (my guess is they don’t, as the demographics have changed, but the spirit of excellence hasn’t).

        Anyway, parental involvement plays a much bigger role in determining a student’s success than anything else. Garfield was one of the highest achieving schools in the state (kicking everyone’s ass at debate and chess, along with basketball) back when most of the student body was black. Part of the reason was because most of the white kids came from Montlake, which is right next to the UW (sons and daughters of faculty tend to do well). A high percentage of the black kids had pride, coming from well educated parents that hadn’t bothered to move from the neighborhood, even though they now could. Put that all together and it wasn’t surprising that student performance was strong.

        Generally speaking, kids from poorly performing schools simply have more parents with more problems (chief among them, poverty). In other words, take the kids from Roosevelt and put them in Rainier Beach and suddenly Rainier Beach has very good marks. As someone who has kids who have gone through the public schools (and nieces and nephews) I can say they are excellent (including schools like Rainier Beach and Chief Sealth). Every one of them (about a half dozen if you count the relatives) has graduated from a good college and half of them have masters degrees. If the parents are doing well, then the students will do well (at least in Seattle).

        As to your point, ECC, I think an income tax would be nice, but Seattle does just fine with the current system (there is a lot of very valuable property in the city, and not that many kids). It is areas like Federal Way (which has lots of students and is fairly poor from a property standpoint) that suffer. We haven’t had a school levy fail in Seattle in a very long time.

      4. There’s little wrong with Seattle Public Schools in general. Our north-end schools are some of the best in the state. However the performance of certain schools in the SPS district is extremely troubling. There are hardly any decent public schools south of Capitol Hill, a parent really has to scrutinize the district to find an acceptable school.. Literacy rates of grads from Rainier Beach High School are especially troubling.

      5. owever the performance of certain schools in the SPS district is extremely troubling. There are hardly any decent public schools south of Capitol Hill, a parent really has to scrutinize the district to find an acceptable school.. Literacy rates of grads from Rainier Beach High School are especially troubling.

        Ok, but: the habits of both real-estate seeking parents and governments of evaluating schools by these kinds of outcomes is methodologically flawed, as it fails to seriously consider the question of selection effect vs. treatment effect. School/teacher quality is a relatively small part of determining student outcomes. In many cases the upper-middle class kids from stable families do just fine coming from “failing” schools because the school quality isn’t what’s causing these kids to fail, it’s larger social dynamics and forces.

      1. Locations of 1) and 2) are pretty good in most respects, but schools in south Seattle are still far from ideal. That is likely to improve in the near future but we aren’t willing to bet on it with a real estate purchase. Also, we need way more space than 1) has, with a kid and a few bulky musical instruments.

        3) isn’t really close to much of anything. It’s a 10+ minute walk to the Columbia City commercial area. The only nearby transit is the 7 and the infrequent 50. Link is a 15+ minute walk — even longer than my current long walk to the 522, although at least there are sidewalks.

      2. I hear you on the space and schools but I’m stunned that ten and fifteen minute walks (to rail!) are hurdles. Even in Manhattan those would be considered great access times.

      3. Those 10- and 15-minute walks are competing with “across the street” where we ultimately bought.

        Commercial center: across the street. Buses to downtown Seattle, downtown Kirkland (7-minute frequency!), and Crossroads: across the street. Buses to Bellevue: less than 5 minutes’ walk away. Downtown Kirkland itself — a commercial center of far greater usefulness than Columbia City — is less than 15 minutes’ walk.

      4. Those Mt. Baker properties are just a couple of minutes from Mt. Baker TC via the 7 or 9. Try transferring at MBTC for a couple of months and let us know how you feel about that experience. But neither of those houses is in a particularly appealing location; I can’t blame you for looking elsewhere.

        If you’re using Zillow/GreatSchools ratings for Seattle schools, all they are basing the rating on is standardized achievement test scores. Students who have strong family support do quite well in south end schools, but there are a lot of students that don’t have that home support system and that impacts the school ratings. Aki Kurose and Mercer Middle Schools are actually 2 very good schools.

      5. Well said, Guy. If I’m not mistaken, Mercer does really well in state chess competitions (usually top five). They also have an incredible jazz department (probably best in the state). So, for music and math they are top notch in actual competition, as opposed to meaningless (and misleading) test scores.

        It is really funny, actually. This post is all about how people, especially young people, are now moving to the city and avoiding the suburbs. A big reason for this is because people have overcome their previous stereotypes. To quote a headline from a 1980s article “Cities Don’t Suck”. There are plenty of people who bought houses in the Central Area in the 1980s, including a handful of white people, for around a hundred grand. When the area became more gentrified, and wealthier people moved in, a lot of them probably leaned back and said “Well, it took you long enough to figure it out — this really is a nice neighborhood, it has been for a very long time”.

        I’m sure part of the reason that young people have moved to the cities is because of the T. V. shows Friends and Seinfeld. Both of these showed the city as a fun, interesting place. I think Friends had the most influence. I can’t think of any show that relied so much on eye candy for its success. Not only the cast, but the sets were extremely easy to watch, even while you waited patiently for a good joke. I think a lot of kids watched that show and thought “That’s what I want to do when I get older — hang out with pretty people in a coffee shop in a fun and happening city”. All of this played a big part in destroying the myths of urban decay that had settled into the minds of so many suburban Americans.

        But just as one urban myth dies, other myths persist. The inevitable failure of urban schools is one. As I said above (and Guy mentioned as well) if a student wants to get a good education in Seattle, then it is easy. I have several kids, and several nieces and nephews to prove it. No politician wants to say it, but the reason kids in America don’t do quite as well as some kids in other countries is simple: they have smarter or better prepared kids. In some countries, this is as simple as weeding out the poorer performing students (to make your numbers look good). For the advanced countries (like those in Scandinavia) it is a matter of a better support system. If the parents are a mess, then this will likely rub off on the kid. In those other countries, the parents aren’t suffering so much and the kids do just fine. Swap schools with those countries and those students still do better. To put it bluntly — it’s the parents, not the teachers.

        If there is a difference, then it will be district wide. Would it surprise me if Mercer Island spent more per student than Federal Way? Not in the least. Our system is based on property values, and Federal Way has less valuable property to draw from. But Seattle is Seattle. There is no reason why Roosevelt is a better school than Chief Sealth. They have the same books and pay their teachers and principals the same. The difference is the student body. But even a school that doesn’t do as well in the test scores still has some very bright students. A few state championships in Chess prove that.

      6. Students who have strong family support do quite well in south end schools, but there are a lot of students that don’t have that home support system and that impacts the school ratings.

        Right. I made this point above, but the fundamental social science error in school assessment that parents (and, even more unfortunately, governments) commit has significantly deleterious consequences for patterns of urban development and for race and class segregation.

      7. You can see this in the school reports. While race is pretty poor substitute for family economic/marital/economic status, just controlling for it you can see that whites in southend schools don’t perform significantly worse than whites in other Seattle public schools.

        Studies have shown that within districts once you control for those factors the differences in performance are statistically insignificant.

      8. “schools in south Seattle are still far from ideal. ”

        The quiet subtle racism of white Urbanists.

  4. Are there some good resources out there analyzing why 3+BR units aren’t being built in the city? Is it more economics, or is it the regulatory structure? A mix of both? Other factors? Links appreciated.

    1. I think it is economic. There is tremendous demand for housing right now. As a result, apartment builders want to add as many units as possible. So, for example, it makes more sense to charge a grand a month for a one bedroom apartment, rather than 1500 for a two bedroom unit, just because you can build twice as many one bedroom apartments. If supply (for one bedroom units) ever catches up with demand, then this could level itself out. Unfortunately, two and three bedroom apartments would be pretty expensive by then.

  5. Something to keep in mind: “From 2000 to 2012, Seattle saw dramatic growth in its number of children under 15, outpacing the rest of the state and the country.” (Sightline, 5 days ago)

    Seattle has a vast supply of single family homes (making up 65% of its land area, compared to just 11% for multi-family), but they’re often filled with couples, retirees, and even single people (despite 1/2 of our population living in multi-family, our average household size is 2.06 people). There’s such a high demand for condos and apartments that it’s not a large increase in cost to just buy or rent a house compared to a high-end condo. This pushes non-families into what is traditionally family housing, driving up the price and pushing families into the suburbs.

    What this means is that developers aren’t building dense family homes because Seattle has a large supply already. It also means that allowing more condo and apartment building (by upzoning, or even converting some of our SF zones to MF) would allow more families to be able to afford to live here.

    1. Oops, I think that we’re at 50% of households in multifamily, not population.

      Here’s an interesting number to add to the mix. Only 25% of our population lives in a 3-person or more household. That means even if you put all of our families in our single family homes, they’d still only half be filled with families. (section P28)

    2. I will also add that Seattle prevents the building of small single family housing because of zoning. There are plenty of places where a small additional house could be built (on a big lot) but every time we start doing that sort of thing, there is push back. In most areas of the city, it is simply prohibited (your lot might be big enough to squeeze in another house, but unless it is a separate lot, forget about it).

  6. Lot of this going around, Dave. Six months ago, new and night-and-day worse management took over the complex in Ballard where my wife and I had lived for years.

    Along with many other people in their fifties and sixties with incomes as modest as they are personally. And a lot less able and mobile than me.
    I was lucky to find a really nice place a mile west of the capitol dome at a third less rent.

    But for me, this relocation was about more than rent. It was about the sense that Seattle is now permanently stuck on a trajectory that will render it every day more discouraging and unlivable for me- in addition to the exponentially increasing expense.

    I was lucky to quickly find a beautiful apartment in a comfortable old complex a block from Thurston County Courthouse, across the inlet from the capitol dome. Between the buildings runs a waterway of ponds and spillways- giving me mallard ducks and herons among other nice neighbors who are mostly young working people.

    At a third less rent, but that really isn’t the main thing. For a suburb, Dave, Kirkland’s good, including transit service.But though surrounded by shopping malls, Olympia is still a city, and very mindful of Ballard 29 years ago when I went full-time with Metro. A working port- and two colleges.

    Because, understand, I don’t really consider this a move out of Seattle. The activities and contacts I still maintain there are still necessities of life, and I have a client in Lynnwood.

    Reason I say “regional” so much is my conviction that right now this is my best base of operations to make both cities part of a region that will be more like Olympia is now- which is so much like Seattle was then. With the transit system that’s the most necessary thing to make this possible.

    BTW: terrific bakery cafe cross the street from the Kirkland library and half block south of the transit center. Wonderful pastry, terrific coffee.

    Mark

    1. The older part of Kirkland is one of the few suburban locations I could see myself living in.

      I’m feeling a lot of housing cost pressure at the moment. A recent job change to a location in Tukwilla has me casting my gaze southward for housing. 3+ br craftsman’s in more or less walkable neighborhoods for less than $150k has a certain appeal. The downside is even in the best spots transit in Tacoma is spotty. I’d most likely need to buy a car and drive to work if I moved there.

      1. I agree. Kirkland is one of the few suburbs that feels a lot like most of Seattle (fewer cul-de-sacs and smaller lots than most of suburbia).

        Tacoma is even nicer, but as you mentioned, transit from there to just about anywhere is challenging. I think there is hope for Tacoma, though. When the state finishes adding HOV lanes for all of I-5 (from Tacoma to Seattle) it could really speed up the commute for anyone taking a bus. Adding other amenities (such as bus only ramps) could make for pretty fast travel.

      2. The issue I find in Tacoma isn’t so much long-haul commuter routes but accessing those routes from the neighborhoods I’d be interested in living in. Furthermore the transit options aren’t great for non-commute trips or if one is working late.

  7. I have an honest question. Let’s say a family is moving from another state to the Seattle area. The father is a full time postal carrier who makes $65k/year, which is $15k over the median income, and his new route will be in downtown Seattle, so he wants to buy a single family home as close to downtown as possible. His wife is a stay at home mom, and they only have $40,000 for a down payment on a mortgage. What’s the closest to downtown Seattle he can buy a house?

    1. Using 1/3 of his income, that’s around a $320k home. He’s competing with the modern standard of a 2-worker family, so he’ll either have to rent, buy a townhouse or condo, or be pushed out to the suburbs. Seattle has room for around 250,000 of the richest households that want to live in the city. If we built more homes there would be room for more people.

      1. Ok, thanks. I just wanted to get an idea of how close someone who is making just over the median income can get to downtown Seattle when buying a house he can afford. It sounds like the closest he can get is possibly Tukwila. I wonder if that was also true in, let’s say, 1960. Would someone making the median income have to look for houses out in Tukwila, or could they have found an affordable house in Ballard or West Seattle.

      2. In 1960, we were in a unique, never-to-be-replicated-again era of cheap living costs. Any comparison to 1960 is going to come out poorly for the era being compared.

        And that’s before you consider that the population of the Seattle MSA was 1.4 million in 1960, and 3.4 million today, while the supply of housing in the city proper has barely grown at all (thanks to policies designed to ensure that neighborhoods never change).

      3. It’s almost as if we used to allow developers to build based on demand, not by NIMBY-driven rules.

      4. Of course, if he’s not absolutely devoted to a SFH (as, indeed, most families throughout history have not been!), many recent and upcoming townhomes near Central Link stations tangibly improve his options.

        The mid-20th century may have been a unique era of cheap housing; it certainly was a unique era of free-flowing highways, which never could have possibly withstood the growth that was planned (and sometimes not-planned) around them, and much of the 20th century was a unique era of cheap energy, making longer and less efficient commutes and more energy-intensive lifestyles available to the masses… or at least the portion of the masses not excluded by racial covenants and such (if we ask, “I wonder if that was true in, let’s say, 1960,” the answer becomes a question of race).

        The freeways inevitably filled, oil exploration became more challenging, the danger of climate change became known; housing and employment discrimination grew less overt. The challenges and costs are different. The opportunities are different, too.

      5. Unless you happen to have a vast amount of money, there has to be compromises of some sort. Too far, too small, too much crime, too close to a papermill, schools not good enough. Neighborhoods that are affordable are still affordable for a reason.

        There are houses in Magnolia that face the railroad yard that might be affordable. Only a very select few, however. An added bonus there would be being able to bike to downtown Seattle on the trail through the Port of Seattle land, and combined with the bus being able to get by with one car.

      6. Tukwila? No way. It took me about thirty seconds to find this: http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/4614-S-Brighton-St-Seattle-WA-98118/48705444_zpid/
        250 grand for a three bedroom house close to Othello station. Really close to an elementary school and not far at all to a middle school. I wonder why it is so cheap? Oh, I get it — MLK elementary school. Name that school “Kennedy elementary” and you could probably bump the house price up a bit. Sad as it is to say, ignorant people, especially those from other cites, just assume that an area that is historically black is scary. Yeah, that just looks terrifying (http://goo.gl/maps/bBYzm). OK, to be fair to home buyers, there probably is a bit of jet noise, but nothing close to what Tukwila puts up with.

        These are by far the best values in the city. Matthew found another one. It’s not hard, really (there are a bunch in that neck of the woods). My guess is that twenty years from now these could easily be twice as much. If I was in the market, this is the area I would buy.

        Closer to the city, this is tiny, but looks like a bargain. It could be a fixer-upper though: http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/2347-21st-Ave-S-Seattle-WA-98144/49114367_zpid/
        Seems to me you could inspect it, buy it, fix up what’s broken, add an addition and still be well ahead of the game.

      7. The trouble with buying tract houses in fixer-upper condition and then renovating as an owner-occupant, rather than a developer, is that you have to either 1) have a whole bunch of cash on hand to pay for the renovation (in which case you can probably afford something nicer than a tract house would be even after extensive renovation) or 2) be able to be able to qualify for a renovation loan, which is far harder than qualifying for a mortgage. I expect both of those houses will be bought by developers, renovated as cheaply as possible or replaced altogether, and flipped, not bought and occupied.

      8. That’s not true. There houses in Seattle the family could afford. I just posted a link to one of them………the Delridge area in W. Seattle.

      1. That might have worked a couple years ago. Today, after the sudden 25% jump of the past two years, any house you buy there for $320,000 is going to either be in falling-down condition or too small for a family. If he has just $40,000 available for a down payment that doesn’t sound like he has a bunch more to immediately pour into renovation to make the house habitable.

        The only house listed for sale in that area today which is under (or near) $320,000 has 900 square feet of living space.

      2. That’s pretty close to where I live. Property prices in my neighborhood are escalating to the point where I’m considering selling and moving somewhere else. The house is paid for and it has a great view of Mt. Rainier. Because my profession is portable, I don’t have to live within a 30 minute bus ride of Redmond or South Lake Union to keep my sanity.

      3. @Guy — You could sell your house and buy a house to the south every five years or so and probably die a very wealthy man. I’m not sure if it is worth it, though (you would still be dead). OK, if you managed to get enough money to retire early, maybe it would be.

    2. You didn’t say how many kids he has, so I’m just going to assume 1, thus a 2 bedroom home is needed.

      Based off of the magic $320k number, he could get a relatively modern 2 bedroom townhouse in the Central District for that price, somewhere around 800-1000 sqft. That’s as close as he could get, and that’s still within reach of a few decent public schools.

      If he wants a freestanding Single Family House, he might be able to get a somewhat run down but livable house in the Columbia City / Beacon Hill area, no closer to downtown than Alaska, and out of reach of most of the good SPS schools. If he doesn’t like the Rainier Valley, then the Delridge corridor is his next best bet. The houses in his budget out there will be in better shape, but the schools aren’t much better.

      If he crosses over into the Highline school district, there’s an improvement in school quality over the south-end SPS schools, and he can easily find something in his budget in Burien or Tukwila, but not much in the way of a single family house with any kind of decent transit access for that price.

      Switching up to a 3 bedroom results in basically the same basic range of locations, but everything shifted a mile or so further from the core.

  8. Frank, do you consider growth that happens in, let’s say, Tukwila or Auburn, where people are chasing lower housing prices, a negative thing? If growth is occurring in areas that are on major public transit lines, is that any less ideal than if they were buy a condo on a Link line within the Seattle city limits?

    1. That’s not the issue. The issue is that Tukwila and Auburn need to become more walkable by breaking up superblocks and single-use zoning. Tukwila has taken a step forward with its redevelopment plan east of Southcenter. They should have done it twenty years ago so they could have taken advantage of the 00’s real-estate boom to get more of it built. The same for Burien, Renton, Kent, Des Moines, and Federal Way. Some of them have built a couple token TOD buildings downtown, but not large neighborhoods of walkable, transit-oriented housing, which is what’s needed.

      1. The issue of this post is where growth is happening, not which cities are most walkable. And I wanted to know if growth happening 10 or 15 miles away from downtown, on a major transit line, is any less desirable than growth in Seattle. I just wanted to see what Frank thoughts were on that.

    2. Not negative, but I think “on a major transit line” is setting the bar too low. “In a walkable neighborhood amply served by transit” would be a better way to phrase it. And yes, I’m all for that wherever it happens. I don’t care whether people live in the Seattle city limits; its just that’s where the bulk of the walkable neighborhoods are.

    3. Your question was whether growth in Tukwila or Auburn is a good thing. The answer is, it depends on whether it’s walkable. (The part about major transit lines I’ll get to in a second.) If it is walkable, those who want to walk to the store and library can cheerfully do so, and those who don’t will find a level of convenience they may only unconsciously recognize but will improve their quality of life. If it’s not walkable, those who want to walk will be frustrated and miserable that they can’t find an affordable walkable place, and those who don’t will be unconsciously stressed at being dependent on technology to leave the house.

      Back to the major transit line, which in this context I suppose means the F/150/180/181/578/Sounder and theoretical future BRT or Link lines. That helps significantly of course. Better one building near a major transit stop than none. But look at the apartments on south MLK where the 101 runs. There’s a mini-mart there but nothing else. The nearest commercial districts are long hilly walks away, in Renton and Rainier Beach. The only way to get to anything is the 101 or driving, and the 101 is half-hourly daytime, hourly after 8:30pm. Would you like to live in that environment without driving? If not, then there’s something wrong with that kind of growth. But if you add more destinations to walk to, more frequent transit, and transit in more directions (although there are no more directions on MLK), then it becomes good growth.

      1. I agree.

        I’m not sure exactly what area you are talking about, but in general I think that area has a lot more potential than a lot of suburban areas. I spent sometime walking around Bellevue the other day, close to Crossroads. Going through the neighborhoods was a pleasant experience, but rather frustrating. If you wanted to go from point A to point B, you were often forced to walk along a busy street. The mess of cul-de-sacs and dead end streets were designed so that no one could drive through the neighborhood to get to the other side. Unfortunately, this meant no could walk through, either. So it wasn’t just the lack of amenities or in Bellevue’s case, the malls you encountered when you tried to get to a restaurant, but also the street layout. For an area like that, which has grown considerably, it would take a major undertaking to turn into an area that is convenient for walking. For the southeast end of the city, all it needs is growth, which is likely to happen in the future. Adding more density could spur more retail, which could easily lead to an area that is OK for walking.

  9. It’s interesting to consider what happens if many singles and couples never opt to create a family.

    Given the current economic conditions, there are many reasons why this would happen.

    Then you are left with people who would prefer to stay in an apartment, while surrounded by ever less functional large homes in the surrounding region.

    And as technology progresses (solar, wastewater retrieval, clean building materials), owning these 20th century built homes becomes a net loss.

    1. I consider my husband and I to be a family, without kids.

      We ARE going to see a decrease in the number of couples having kids. This is going to be a long, slow decline, but it will impact housing decisions as it happens. Another important, and more immediate trend, is that people have kids later in life. “Age at first reproduction” also slows down population growth, and it will mean that people will be living in smaller apartments for longer in their young years.

      This trend would accelerate a lot more quickly if there weren’t so many unplanned pregnancies as well. Interesting to think about how better access to contraceptives would change land use and transit…

      1. We ARE going to see a decrease in the number of couples having kids.

        This is likely, but not certain. We can be most confident about this conclusion for 3rd generation+ Americans. However, such trends are not always in one direction only. And I, for one, hope for a future with greater immigration, including immigration from countries where larger families are valued.

      2. I can confirm from personal experience that housing supply and prices affect the decision whether to have kids.

        When my wife and I lived in Washington, DC, I was ambivalent at best about kids, because even wealthy people I knew were having trouble either 1) paying the astronomical private school tuitions or 2) affording a home in a district with good public schools. When we moved here, I immediately got more enthusiastic because giving a kid a good education suddenly seemed possible. There are still a few places where public schools are good and housing is not completely out of reach. Of course, if we decide that newcomers are unwelcome because every neighborhood needs to look exactly like it did in 1960, that won’t last long.

      3. It isn’t just housing costs, but costs of education and food and a number of other things. As for “Countries where larger families are valued”, you mean places like Brazil? Which is predominantly Roman Catholic? Which has no legalized abortion?

        And where one of the most common questions I got asked during my last visit was “Why do Americans insist on having such large families? Don’t people there know this drops the quality of education?”

        Even there, the birth rate is quite a bit lower than here.

    2. I think it is possible that we will have “ever less functional large homes in the surrounding region” even if people continue to have kids. One of the myths about housing is that people with kids “need” a big house. It was common, back in the day, for kids to share a bedroom. So that means that a family of four (two kids) can get by quite nicely with a two bedroom house. A three bedroom house becomes luxurious.

      Plenty of people want that luxury. The bigger question is whether they will sacrifice location to get it. For some, this is no sacrifice. For others it is. The trend over the last few years has been to build ever bigger houses, even when the average size of families has decreased. Many of these houses simply take up a bigger part of the same lot. As someone who hates yard work, I can see why would want to make that trade (give me a man cave over another chunk of yard any day). But for many people, all they want is a small house on a small lot. Unfortunately, these are hard to find, and tend to be right in the city, which make them extremely expensive. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we see some of the older, big lot houses being replaced by smaller, small lot houses in the suburbs (as an attempt to mimic the city’s success). That might not be enough, as people also like easy to reach retail locations, streets that allow for easy walking access, and interesting architecture. Those aren’t easy to build, but if you at least deliver the first two, I could see the suburbs becoming a lot more popular.

  10. I always bristle a bit at the term “family” when it comes to housing. With so many single person households and roommate situations and seniors who need to have assistance and people from other cultures who define family as extended families, it strikes so many loaded meanings that I think we should just walk away from the term. It even smacks of social engineering and restrictions on who lives in the housing around you – and conjures up the ugly past of deed restrictions on things like race, ethnicity and number of people related and/or non-related living in the unit. Consider that we never talk about non-residential property in terms of the family units: Do we have “100 family restaurants” or “500 family warehouse stores”?

    I prefer just dropping the term “family” and having “single dwelling units”. and “multiple dwelling units” instead. I know it’s hard to change vocabulary so I don’t think it will change overnight, but I think it merits some attempt.

  11. I’d really like to see more row houses and well-designed town homes (as opposed to those god awful “4 packs” developers are so fond of here) in Seattle.

    What my brother has just across the tracks from Centennial station in Olympia would be perfect if it was in a walkable neighborhood with good transit access to Downtown Seattle.

    1. I’ve never understood why the west coast in general hasn’t allowed for row houses. seems to work great in the east (boston, Baltimore, etc).

      allow individual owners to build to zero-lot lines on the side. develop adequate codes for safety (firewalls, etc.) and it would work great. non-built-on property gets concentrated to the front and back (bigger backyards!); sharing common walls with neighbors increases energy efficiency; and since they would be built individually or in small groups you wouldn’t have the aesthetic down-side of large cookie-cutter-looking blocks of generic townhouse/condos which are such a turn-off for so many.

      it wouldn’t work in all neighborhoods (it helps to have alleys) but allowing it here and there could allow for increased density, individuality, and amenities.

      [ of course parking would (unfortunately) be an issue (in some people’s minds)…. ]

      1. I completely agree: Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian neighborhoods across Britain followed this pattern, and if the homes are well-designed it can create a wonderful atmosphere. The city of Bath is a great example, with streets and streets of row houses, maybe 25 ft wide and often 4 floors high + basement. Taking this approach you could double the density of a typical Seattle SFH street, while still having large homes, with a usable back yard. And those streets could have real character.

    2. The problem, as usual, is parking. Seattle finally allowed rowhouses starting a few years ago. However, they’re only allowed in lowrise residential zones (10% of Seattle’s land area). But parking is required for them unless you build them in an 1. in an urban village less than 1/4 mile from frequent transit service, 2. in an urban center, or 3. in a station area. I don’t know how much land area fits that requirement, but it can’t be much – often that’s where we put our midrise and our commercial zoning.

      There’s still the possibility of building San Francisco style rowhouses with underground parking (ironically eating up one street parking spot per driveway) on LR zones outside of the areas listed above, but apparently there hasn’t been a strong enough demand to make that happen yet.

      1. Thinking about this further, theoretical Seattle rowhouses don’t really fix the affordability problem very much. A common dimension for properties on a block with an alley in Seattle is 120′ deep. Assuming a width of 20′ you’re at a 2,400sf property. Assuming we want 3-story rowhouses, and using the maximum allowed floor area ratio of 1.2 (though you can get more by jumping through hoops), that’s 960sf per floor. That’s a floorplate of 20×48, leaving a 20×67 back yard (assuming you build at the minimum 5′ setback in front). That’s quite a large yard for a little house – 140% as large as your home’s footprint.

        This isn’t even the city code’s fault, just the way our blocks were platted over 100 years ago. Maybe the right solution is to allow for back-to-back rowhouses, converting alleys to little streets. Then we’d end up with 60′ deep properties, which would give us 480sf floors which would be 20×24, leaving 20×31 yards. This is much more reasonable, and will give you two homes for the land price of one.

      2. On a street with an alley you don’t have to have curb cuts for front-side driveways, you put off-street parking access in the alley!

      3. not to get too deep into what, philosophy? sociology?? — but any discussions of affordability should at least contain some notion of livability, stability, community…. because at the end of it, that’s the goal, right?

        the clusters of “four-pack” house projects are certainly “houses”– but they all too often fall short as “homes” and don’t add much to creating cohesive neighborhoods. typically they serve as a “first house” –often because that’s all that can be afforded– but most people just see it as stepping-stone place-holder until they can get something ‘real’. They really don’t function much differently than apartments/condos — minimal in size and scope and never expected to serve as your long-term primary home. its hard to imagine someone buying one of those with the excitement / enthusiasm / intention that it will serve as their (cherished) home for years / decades / a lifetime.

        Somehow a row house (to me anyway) seems much more possible as a HOME — a bit bigger; a bit more unique & individual; a front and back with a yard….. not just two stories of condo-like house perched on a garage and surrounded by a tiny maze of driveways….

        like I said, a bit “in the weeds” and philosophical,

        but if we want livable / lovable / vibrant / stable urban neighborhoods and communities we should not simple worry about the presence of cheap HOUSEs, but should concentrate on the affordability of HOMEs.

      4. Just allowing the lots in a typical Seattle SF zone to get chopped down to 25′ or even 20′ width would allow a lot more people to live in the neighborhood. Further modifications such as eliminating parking requirements, raising the allowed FAR, and reducing the required front set backs help as well.

        The plating of old would still be an issue, but you could say buy a corner lot and maybe the next one in and build 6 row houses where there were once 2 standard SF homes. In some parts of Seattle the lots are far less than 120′ deep too.

        Another thought would be to allow clusters of cottages with modest yards/gardens.

        Then again I’m a crazy person who if I was dictator for the day would eliminate parking minimums city-wide, convert all single family zones to at least LR1 if not LR2, make all arterials at least NC65, eliminate FAR maximums, and do away with most setback and lot size minimums.

      5. Chopping up lots is in the long term anti density and pro gridlock. Tiny lots create a large residential zone of houses that are generally going to be a household of one or two. No more people per square mile than a home designed for a family of six or roommates. What it locks out are large enough tracts that can be acquired to build multi story multi family and street level retail. So you end up with maybe a few more people with a lot more cars and nothing there but vaults where people can eat, sleep and access the internet. The three D’s; Density Done Dumb.

      6. Maybe the right solution is to allow for back-to-back rowhouses, converting alleys to little streets. Then we’d end up with 60′ deep properties

        A friend lives in Magnolia, and that has sort of already happened there. The house they live in faces the alley, and is in the back yard of the main house that faces 22nd.

      7. @Chris That’s one of the least crazy plans I’ve heard.

        @Bernie Although it would be interesting to go from all SF homes to all highrises, it’s more likely we will need a middle step for the next century of building. It’s true that our 4-packs are often “starter homes”, rowhouses on the east coast and SF are frequently exactly what you describe – real homes for full families (or more). I stayed with friends in a rowhouse in Brooklyn, and their family of 4 was living on the first floor, renting out the 2nd and 3rd floors, and had shared storage and laundry in the basement. They had a back yard for their kids to play in, and rental income from the couple and the single guy that lived in the units above, and we still managed to fit our (then) 3-person family on their couches and the floor of their living room for a few nights.. All in a footprint much smaller than our SF homes.

      8. We don’t need highrises everywhere. We just need larger two-dimensional areas with lowrises, midrises, and/or row houses, with fewer setbacks. Single streets of apartments isn’t enough. Single-family houses are fine as long as they aren’t the majority of buildings. What’s frustrating about the Rainier Valley Link stations is the percentage of single-family houses in their walk circles, which prevents people from living there and prevents it from growing into the urban neighborhood it is.

        North side Chicago is the clearest ideal I’ve seen: most buildings are 3-10 stories, and there are single-family houses scattered around but they aren’t the majority and don’t overwhelm the area. That gives a wide enough range to please many people. And for those who are offended by 10-story buildings, the area is large enough to saturate that market so lowrise buildings are also built.

      9. @Bernie, while I wouldn’t prevent sub-dividing lots in areas likely to see large developments, I don’t really think it would be a huge problem if allowed. Besides the areas I’m talking about are non arterial streets in the middle of Seattle’s vast tracts of single family housing. There isn’t a need to turn all of that into “bread loaves” right away, nor do I think it would happen in any sort of reasonable time frame even if allowed.

        What I’m talking about is a half step between the single family house and the multi-family development other than the “x-pack” townhouses favored by developers in Seattle. As Andy said people tend to view most townhomes here as temporary and something you buy while waiting until you can afford better. Generally people view row houses or cottages as something to live in long-term.

        Imagine taking a 6000 sqft lot, tearing down the single family home on it, subdividing the lot into 6 1000 sqft lots and building 6 800 sqft cottages in its place. You’ve just increased the density by 6x while giving everyone their own space and a modest yard. The new development is less likely to anger the neighbors than if you’d built a 6 unit apartment building with 800 sqft apartments. The resulting residences are perfect for singles, empty nesters and retirees.

      10. @Chris, a 1000 sqft lot is 32×32. Add in any type of set back and it’s basically unbuildable. Plus divide up a 6000 sqft lot and you loose a substantial portion to easements so that all are accessible. Best case you get six 25×40′ lots with ally access to 3 of them; not enough space for detached housing or a yard or any parking. This urban paradise isn’t dense enough to support a car free lifestyle so now you’ve got six cars trying to park in 75′ of street frontage. Mailbox, fire hydrant, bus stop? Oh, and BTW that 40′ doesn’t allow anything for sidewalks and assumes the ally wasn’t already an easement on that 6000 sqft lot.

      11. @Matt

        What it locks out are large enough tracts that can be acquired to build multi story multi family and street level retail.

        This is what I said; nothing about highrises. Dividing up lots means more owners to buy out and relocate. It’s D cubed. You’re absolutely spot on with the observations on how “large” row homes evolve into dense cities. Boston, Philly, et al would be crap if the old large homes had been divided into lots where everyone could have a “cottage”. A few lots that can be bought out and redeveloped along major arterials is infinitely preferable to converting Single Family into single occupancy.

  12. This post mischaracterizes a statistic in the linked Redfin article. The 20.3% figure does not reference the selling-over-listing premium for the Seattle-area market but the number of listed houses that ultimately sold for *any* premium over the listing amount. (I am sure that some houses in Seattle do sell for 20.3% over list, but that’s not what the Redfin article describes.)

    (PS to Al S. above — agree 100% about “family”; there’s something so smug about this term yet impossible to argue against without seeming like a monster when it is used with respect to housing.)

    1. Oops, you said exactly the same thing I said below – missed this comment before I posted :)

  13. Millennials consider leaving Washington as the city becomes more costly

    For years, renting a one-bedroom near bars and bus routes was a suitable trade-off for the wonders of the new Washington. But Van Zandt is 35 now; Fuensalida is 31. And kitchen space seemed a little tighter each day Fuensalida’s baby bump grew.

    Maneuvering past the fridge, Fuensalida repeated a tired refrain: “We’re going to need a bigger place.” But where?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/millennials-consider-leaving-washington-as-the-city-becomes-more-costly/2014/06/16/825e4308-eb67-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html?tid=sm_fb

    1. D. C. is ridiculously expensive. There are a combination of reasons. The zoning is really restrictive (to preserve the views of the historical architecture). The city is very stratified, which means the areas that are scary tend to be really scary (or at least they were until recently). Seattle doesn’t have that problem (although some assume we do). But even with that there are bargains on the edge of areas that are about to gentrify. A lot of people have moved out to the nearby suburbs (which would be like moving to Northgate) but many of those aren’t that cheap either. There is a big disconnect right now between cities that are doing well and those that aren’t. D. C. is one of the ones that is doing well.

    2. This is exactly the thing the original post is talking about

      High demand for city apartments drives up costs
      Higher costs push less-affluent city dwellers into suburbs

  14. Just to clarify the statistics you link to – homes are “sometimes selling for 20% over the asking price” – the linked piece actually shows that 20.3% of homes are selling above list price in the Seattle market, and nowhere does it say that homes are selling at a price that is 20% above the list price. While I’m sure that there are some homes that are selling this much above asking price, the Redfin report doesn’t say that.

    If you look at Redfin statistics for a neighborhood, you can see the median sold/asking ratio – for example, in Ballard, it is currently 103.7% http://www.redfin.com/neighborhood/121/WA/Seattle/Ballard

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