Wedgewood 2nd Story

As Mayor Murray pivots toward Seattle’s affordable housing problem with one of his famous mega-committees, a pair of op-eds in favor of more housing appear in the Seattle Times and the DJC.

First, the Times argues for more construction:

Job growth and Seattle’s desirability as a place to live keep pushing up demand, which leads to higher housing costs. Close to 44,000 people moved to Seattle in the past four years and another 120,000 are projected to arrive during the next 20.

Housing development also ballooned in recent years: Builders added 35,600 homes, including houses and apartments, from 2005 to 2013. Without those homes, housing costs would be even higher.

The city’s rapid growth demonstrates its capacity to accommodate new residents. Increasingly, they are single people living alone, and poor people and families are on their way out.

City officials say they want affordable housing for all and that housing should be fair and equitable — important ideals. But what’s clear is that Seattle needs more housing that is subsidized and market-rate.

Next, the head of the Master Builders in the DJC wants more construction, and don’t seem particularly concerned whether it’s infill or sprawl.

Running counter to Vision 2040 and the Growth Management Act, many jurisdictions in the Central Puget Sound area are resisting new growth and urban density, making it difficult to provide new housing. In some cases, local governments are acting in response to local activists opposed to growth.

In Seattle, infill development remains the primary option for accommodating growth. However, an ordinance adopted in 2012 made it much harder to build on smaller lots — one of several actions reducing the buildable land supply in the city without adding an adequate supply of new housing to the equation.

In King and Snohomish counties the current buildable land is expensive or significantly impacted by environmental constraints. Regulations such as critical areas ordinances, and stormwater and floodplain rules, create added layers of no-build areas inside UGAs.

This is worryingly plausible: if the Puget Sound’s cities can’t meet the housing demand, then the Cascade foothills are likely to take the brunt of it instead.

As far as the commission goes, it’s a mixed bag. As I’ve noted in the past, the Murray Doctrine is predictable (but effective!): gather as many people as possible onto a committee and find a way to give everyone something. Mark Schmitt, in a seminal 2007 article on Barack Obama’s “theory of change,” articulated the committee strategy thusly:

One way to deal with [conservatives’] bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that’s not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists — it’s a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It’s how you deal with people with intractable demands — put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee’s mission your way.

That’s all well and good, but I do worry that the committee strategy might hit the skids this time around. With taxis and the minimum wage, there were real, specific stakes (legalizing Uber, $15/hour) that could demonstrably be achieved or not. Those stakes acted as a forcing function, leading the committees to a resolution. The affordable housing committee, by contrast, could easily produce a report full of blue-ribbon bromides (“create partnerships with local institutions to blah blah blah”) that have little practical effect.  The Mayor seems fully aware of the challenge.

If I were on the committee (and I’m willing to serve if asked!), I’d want a real working definition of “affordable housing” and a specific legislation to achieve it. I’ve suggested such metrics in the past, but I’m more than happy to accept alternative definitions as well.

22 Replies to “Affordable Housing: More Cranes in the Air?”

  1. I remain cautiosly optomistic but agree with your comments Frank. Without parameters or defined starting points, this discussion could go nowhere fast.

    We need this committee to think big. Incremental change just isnt good enough.

    Major upzones at 130th/Rainer/145th are a starting point. If I had my way we would allow full horizontal coverage, stick built five story buildings on 5000 sq foot lots. Attractive, dense, cheap to build.

  2. Hopefully affordable housing wont be like these two brand new examples… spending $700k/unit as in SF or as oppressive and straight up bad design as in NYC

    It needs to be economical housing per unit so that more units can be built to serve many more people, this building luxury level affordable units then having a lottery for them only draws people out of market rate housing to compete for units.

    And give me a break about the able bodied lazy people clogging up SHA housing outraged that they might have to get a job within 5 years and start contributing to their housing costs.

    There’s just a lot of bad policies in affordable housing that at least don’t help the problem and at worst make the affordability problem a lot worse. We need good problem solving solutions to this important problem.

  3. I’ve always found it sad and ironic that we’re not permitted to build contemporary clones of the same buildings we venerate as historic ‘classic’ apartments. Full lot coverage, reinforced masonry, no underground parking, and definitely no yuppie space-gobbling amenities such as shuffleboard and dart rooms or dog washes. Ground-floor retail only in commercial areas, and even then only narrow/deep storefronts. Simple, cheap, aesthetically pleasing, and dense despite remaining at a human scale.

    I want really tall buildings downtown, in SLU, and to some extent in First Hill and Capitol Hill, but IMO the key to affordability in Seattle is getting moderate density (thoughtfully built, resilient, cheap 4-6 story buildings) in *every* urban center, ‘hub urban village’, and ‘residential urban village’. Not like the Ballard boxes, but more like Summit Slope writ large.

    1. Exactly – why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? If we are going to upzone, upzone: pull the band aid off and zone for attractive urban use.

    2. Yes. This, combined with allowing subdivision and more ADU-friendly policies in the SF zones, would go a long way.

    3. Thank you Zach for doing a better job of articulating the same viewpoint I tried to express yesterday.

    4. Agree totally. Seattle newcomers would do well to familiarize themselves with Fred Anhalt and his wonderful contributions to urban life in Seattle. Would that his work could be replicated many times over —, but as you note, “modern” codes don’t allow such designs any more.

    5. That makes much sense. I somehow get the impression that builders of mini-pod housing and such are more motivated by greed than by concern for people and the environment. Sort of reminds me of how many people you can stuff into an airplane, or in former times, stuff into steerage.

    6. Great point, Zach. Those buildings have largely stood the test of time and are an important component of the middle-income housing stock today.

      The challenge is that where such a building can be built, a developer still has the incentive to make it a higher-end market rate building. High-end constuction raises margins because the “upgrades” and “amenities” are a small fraction of the overall cost of construction but can drive substantial rent premiums. The key issue is parking. I have to think garage parking significantly reduces overall project ROIs because apartment rents are so much higher than parking space rents and garage construction is really expensive. But profit-maximizing developers still build ROI-crushing garages (in some cases larger than required) because they see renters demanding them.

    7. Remember that every developer of a new building is going to want to target the high end of the market. The high end won’t buy without (at least some) underground parking and likes those space-wasting amenities. The buildings you describe are now, depending on condition, occupying the lower or middle tiers of the market. Even if you removed regulatory barriers to building more of them, you wouldn’t see them being built because they wouldn’t be as profitable as what’s going up now.

      I don’t know how you would possibly force a developer to target a lower part of the market, which is what it would be doing if it built the type of building you describe, without imposing really punitive regulation. I think the only approach that really works in the end is to allow developers of new buildings to target the high end and allow housing stock to come down in relative price as it ages.

      1. 610 Lexington Avenue is to become a 61-story apartment building. The developer, Aby Rosen, is hoping to draw buyers by eschewing mansion-size apartments for smaller, more modestly priced units in the $8 million to $10 million range.

        I think that quote knocked the wind out of me. $8-$10 million per unit is their version of “smaller, more modestly priced”!? Oy.

      2. The only problem with that being of course that only overparked, overdesigned buildings will be the next generation’s ‘middle-income’ housing.

        When I rented my current apartment there was a line out the door to apply, and I came fully prepared with my documents and got a little lucky too. But it’s perfect. 1926 masonry, 800 sq ft, one block off Broadway, huge windows, hardwood, no ‘amenities’, and only 4 car parking spaces and 10 bike parking spaces for 12 units. It commands rents that, unsubsidized, are roughly 60% of new construction. There should be more of places like mine. Go after the high end, fine, but build stuff we all won’t regret later. I think any residential building within 1/4 mile of Capitol Hill Station could be totally unparked, command huge rents, and actually be a decent place to live for middle-income folks 30 years from now.

  4. Roger Valdez took a look back at McGinn’s almost identical committee, and it looks like the results were exactly as you describe.

    Quoting above: “The affordable housing committee, by contrast, could easily produce a report full of blue-ribbon bromides (“create partnerships with local institutions to blah blah blah”) that have little practical effect.” that sounds exactly like what came from the last one.

    1. And yet, Murray is our only hope at this point, so we better hope the committee works. The NIMBYs are so deep in the Council’s ear, they’re about to pop out the other side. And DPD is too busy happily writing down-zone legislation for Sally Clark.

      Where are the voices, besides Roger, who will stand up and fight for pro-growth policies in this city? Frankly, we all do a lot of talking, but I don’t see many backing that talk up. It’s the anti-growthers who show up in hordes. We are about to find out if Murray has the stones to be a voice for our side. It will come down to whether or not he believes the goal of his committee should be directed toward policies that encourage new growth AND whether or not he has the courage to pursue those policies in the face of what would be major NIMBY upheaval. Like I said, he better…right now he’s our only hope.

      1. In a way this is all the result of the form of democracy we’ve chosen: representative democracy heavily influenced by community meetings. Those who show up count much more than typical voters.

        This sounds great, until you see how this skews decisions. In this case, homeowning neighbors are generally in the demographic that can make time for daytime meetings, and have a strong interest in stopping this (may change neighborhood, impact parking, affect resale value). aPodment renters, on the other hand, are busy with day jobs, and are not strongly tied to a particular location. But we’re not just talking about renters – we’re talking about potential future renters. Nobody speaks for them. I’d argue the Council should speak for them, but they’re now fighting for district elections and obviously favor the homeowners in their district (who happen to be in voting demographics, and are specifically tied to their district), so I doubt they agree with me.

        So yes, we should all show up to help fight the NIMBYs (I’ve been to two meetings, but it’s really hard for me). But the game is stacked against these potential future renters. We need to change the system. We’re currently following San Francisco’s path step by step, and will end up with their solution of pushing everyone out to the far suburbs.

      2. I’d like to show up to these meetings, but how do you even know when/where they are? I can’t spend my days trolling neighborhood blogs to figure out the meetings.

        Is there a centralized database of relevant meetings?

      3. The way our democracy works seems to be a legacy of the 18th century, when everyone lived in small, relatively self-contained towns. It is woefully out of date for today’s hyperconnected world.

      4. It’s annoying that I can call into work meetings but not a council meeting.

        Surely conferencing technologies can have a Town Meeting mode: when joining a meeting, state whether you plan to comment; during comment period, your mic is active for the set time, and when that time is up, your silence can be encouraged by speech jamming. During the meeting, you can smile or frown, and sentiment is displayed.

      5. Thanks Matt the Engineer.

        The problem of course is that the vast majority of city council meetings are during the working day. I see no public hearings for the rest of the year that would interest me, so I guess that didn’t work out.

  5. I can’t fault homebuilders for wanting to build and sell more homes. It is like Boeing wanting to sell more airplanes. That’s what they do. While there is a relative social good from it, ultimately it is their business and they want it to grow.

    I do think that we need to look carefully about the proportionate mix of households will be in the future, and make decisions on housing allocations based on that. A single-family house may end up with just as many residents on the same size of land as three townhouses, for example. We also need to be aware that not all single people want to live by themselves, and immigrants from many other countries expect to live with relatives or close friends until they marry so they don’t look for studios.

    That being said, we do need official city-by-city regional targets when it comes to housing more people. Each city should have policies in place that meet a regional new housing allocation — not only Seattle but also — “gasp” — Medina, Newcastle and Mercer Island. Not meeting those targets should have consequences. If we don’t have targets with disincentives, it becomes one of those things that feels good politically — but doesn’t have much motivation to actually happen.

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