Mount Pleasant Historic District

As supply-and-demand skeptics are fond of pointing out, real estate is not an undifferentiated commodity, but in fact is a variety of products tailored to a wide range of tastes and requirements. One of the more difficult customers to serve under current urban market conditions is large households, in the most conventional case families with multiple children. As Josh Feit argued a few years ago, failing to do so is not only a tragedy for those families, but also for the city as a whole.

The housing shortage cuts across all parts of the market, but it’s hardest to see a simple solution for large households. In multifamily zones, market-rate development scarcely builds any 2-bedroom units, and 3 bedrooms or more are rare indeed: only 2% of multifamily units in 2009. Some households will win the public housing lottery, but everyone else will bid up the existing single-family stock, a stock that is fixed by simple geometry and the urban growth boundary.

There are denser housing forms that can easily tolerate larger households, like townhomes, row homes, duplexes, and triplexes. All of these tend to larger unit sizes and often include a yard that many might consider important for children. The buildable land in multifamily zones, already inadequate to meet multifamily demand, is likely too precious for much of this construction. That’s why the HALA plan opening up single family zones was the best chance to prevent them from becoming (remaining?) economically exclusive communities.

Council Candidate Lisa Herbold argues that flexibility in single family zones will threaten displacement from affordable single family homes. But current law doesn’t prevent a landlord from renovating or rebuilding a single-family home to be more valuable and displacing the tenant. When this redevelopment occurs, the only difference between the law allowing a triplex and demanding a single home is that it forces two additional households out of Seattle. Whatever compassion we feel for displaced households should also extend to those who never get to live in our city in the first place, solely due to arbitrary regulations.

The HALA plan, if enacted, will do a lot to meet some (but not nearly all) of the demand for housing in Seattle. But the missing HALA upzone creates a hole that tomorrow’s large families will slip through.

90 Replies to “Leaving Out Duplexes Leaves Out Large Families”

  1. You hit the nail on the head. But… as I look at great cities in Europe (Munich, Barcelona, Paris), and older cities in the U.S. (NYC, SF) I see large chunks of land dedicated to 3 story buildings, often with private courtyards. The history of many of these areas indicates that they were built up quickly, not by many small developers, but by a few large developers. Why not zone some area in Seattle for this, and try to entice a few large developers to build this out? Is there land in Interbay or SODO that would work for this?

    1. @Clyde Actually Barcelona had a city plan with something akin to “templates” if you will, that were variations on a theme, for what could be built on a block – so over time, across many developers, they got a great balance of variations on a theme with underlying consistency. It’s looked to as one of the marquee examples of brilliant city planning.

  2. Nailed it. Great post.

    The SF protectionists focus on the fact that there are a few single family houses left in the city that, if you squint just right, are still kinda sort just barely affordable. But they promote policies that will ensure they become scarcer and scarcer, ensuring their relative affordability has a short shelf life indeed.

  3. As a resident of Herbold’s District 1, I am jealous that voters in other districts got a clear choice between candidates who support HALA and candidates who oppose it (or, as they say, support the Jon Grant “alternative” to lobby the state legislature to overturn the state ban on rent control, without offering a plan for how rent control wouldn’t make the housing supply/affordability crisis a whole lot worse).

    Will Shannon Braddock please stand up and say “I support the recommendations in HALA, including the recommendations to give single-family homeowners more choices on what they can build on their own property.”?

      1. “The 6” was eliminated years ago. Peace be upon it. Perhaps districting will become a back-door path to eliminating “the 1”, “the 2”, “the 3”, “the 4”, “the 5”, “the 7”, “the 8”, and “the 9”.

  4. Yet don’t the less expensive south county cities that larger families choose over Seattle have similar zoning rules as Seattle? I.E., No duplexes in SF-only neighborhoods.

    Also, when larger, lower-income families got pushed out of the Rainier Valley in the last part of the last decade, was that due to arbitrary regulations, or something else? I seem to recall several articles that blamed gentrification.

      1. You just made my point. That are many, more important factors that make families live outside of Seattle other than arbitrary regulations.

    1. “Gentrification” is just a label for a phenomenon, that gets abused to do things like fight new housing that would allow more low- and middle-income families to stay in Seattle. Gentrification is a result, not a cause.

      Housing under-supply is the primary cause of forcing people to move out of Seattle.

      Similarly, the term “displacement” gets abused to fight new housing, with the result of causing a lot more displacement.

    2. People got priced out of southeast Seattle because new buildings replaced existing buildings at a much higher price, existing buildings were renovated and started charging more, and existing buildings stayed exactly the same and started charging more… and they could get away with it because there was somebody willing to pay the higher price. I guess all of these can be called gentrification, although they’re not exactly the same.

  5. Well-stated post!

    Two contributions:

    1. There is a hidden racism/ethnicity issue with the only choices being single-fairly homes or tiny apartments and condos. In many foreign countries, residents expect and prefer to live in larger homes with more occupants than the typical Northwestern native does. Many persons of color thrive when living with distant relatives. This needs to be part of the discussion.

    2. There are plenty of small towns and smaller cities in older areas of the US that have always had two-family dwellings (almost anywhere east of the Mississippi). They do not depress property values in those places. They do not change neighborhood character. Those people that think that they do fear the zoning change for some other reason — like the one listed above.

    Will politically correct Seattleites be willing to face their own racist approach to zoning?

    1. 1. There is a hidden racism/ethnicity issue with the only choices being single-fairly homes or tiny apartments and condos. In many foreign countries, residents expect and prefer to live in larger homes with more occupants than the typical Northwestern native does. Many persons of color thrive when living with distant relatives. This needs to be part of the discussion.

      Absolutely correct. It’s a form of social engineering on behalf of a particular model of family life. Here’s a good example of the kind of discrimination it produces against people who wish to organize family life differently:

      http://harrisonarchitects.com/projects/new_homes/multigenerational_passivhaus

      “In January of 2014 just prior to submitting the permit application to DPD I met with Jess Harris, Director of the City’s Priority Green program, to see if the house could participate in the program. Jess passed along the floor plans to several compatriots in zoning review at DPD. A week later I recieved a carefully crafted letter from DPD saying that they had “discussed this most recent design with our in-house counsel who has advised us that it would be extremely difficult for us to defend permitting this structure as a single-family dwelling, as it is currently configured.”

      Everyone we talked to, including multiple zoning reviewers on up to DPD Director Diane Sugimura, Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee chair Councilmember Mike O’Brien, and Kathy Nyland and Robert Feldstein (Director of the Office of Policy and Innovation) in the Mayor’s Office as well as several members of the Seattle Design Commission, all agreed it was a great project and that Seattle ought to support this kind of housing, however no one wanted to stick their neck out to give the project the green light.”

      1. >> There is a hidden racism/ethnicity issue …

        >>>> That looks like a boarding house …

        Thanks Sam. Those that think that race/ethnic stereotypes don’t exist in this town need only read your comment. Or are you praising it because it looks like a boarding house (and thus reminds you of the good old days).

      2. RossB, I think you are reading too much in to my comment. I simply went to the link djw provided, looked at what they were describing as a passivhaus, and thought it looked similar to a boarding house.

      3. @Sam — Did you mean that as a compliment?

        If so, I apologize. Or, to put it a different way, would you like one of those “boarding houses” going up in your neighborhood?

      4. Would I want a development that’s going to decrease the value of my house, and bring more noise and traffic into the neighborhood? Come on.

      5. @Sam — That sounds rather presumptuous. You assume that more people equals less value for your house. Not at all what I’ve seen in general. The places that are cheapest seem to be the places that have the least people. I’m sure I can find you a great house in Detroit with no noise from the neighbors (since there aren’t any).

        As to my first question, it stands unanswered. Words like “boarding house” are often used as an insult. It is a short hand way of suggesting that “those kind of people” (i. e. poor people) will be moving in. You may not have meant it that way, which is why I still keep answering the question. Was it a compliment? If it is just the number of people moving in, do you cringe when a big family moves into a house nearby?

      6. “My clients… sold the site in Greenwood, and purchased a new site in Shoreline… City of Sh9oreline has been overwhelmingly helpful and supportive of the project.”

        Seattle pwned by Shoreline.

        “There are four suites — one for each couple. Each suite will have a bedroom, Japanese bath, laundry and a sitting room with a wet bar on the ground floor, and another bedroom and bath on the second floor.”

        Boarding houses don’t have “suites”, they have bedrooms. Usually a small bedroom for one person, without a separate washer/dryer or bath. Those are super-luxury features for a “boarding house”, and would cost much more than a boarding house tenant could afford.

        “that looks like a boarding house that they’re just calling something else.”

        That’s because you are a troll.

    2. I have to completely disagree with the last sentence of your first point : “This needs to be part of the discussion.”

      I think we saw what a fairly innocuous comment about the disparate racial outcomes of current policy did to the public dialogue about zoning, and changing SF zoning. The hard truth is that SF zones are largely white, and that 80% of white people stop listening to you the instant that you seem to imply that they are in any way racist. And those are the people we need to convince to back these changes which will have benefits to people of color, and families in general. We can’t afford to close anyone’s ears.

      This is going to be a hard enough lift as it is.

      If you feel that social justice aspects should be included in the discussion, I would urge an exclusive focus on positive outcomes. Something like “this will help families of every size and color etc…)

      1. Oh please. Let’s be honest about how Seattle has moved towards increasing tacit racist behavior in public decision making. Old light rail plans got into the CD but Link doesn’t. The 2005 Transit Master Plan had lots of improvements in higher minority neighborhood and the 2013 plan priorities white, hipster corridors.

        This is in the context of rapid population growth and turnover. Some of those new residents bring biases with them too.

        Keep in mind that outsiders are not aware of Seattle’s public outreach culture.

      2. I have to agree with Jon. Most of the problems in this city are due to class, not race. Most of those problems are due to blind (or maybe willful) ignorance. Here is a quick question you could ask people:

        Q: Do you support taxing renters and those looking to buy a house so that we can build more parking in the city?

        I think most people would say no. But that is public policy, and has been for a long time. It simply isn’t viewed that way (just as bus fare isn’t viewed as a tax). But the end result is the same thing. I don’t pay for all the parking that is being added to the city — renters do.

        But getting back to the main issue, classism is much bigger problem with racism in this city and always has been. As to Al’s point, I should point out that our first (and at this point) only light rail line goes right down Rainier Valley. That is just as many black people as the Central Area, and has been for a long time (it is probably more so now). No, the failings of Sound Transit are not due to racism, or even classism; they are due to incompetence and cutting corners for fear of failure. The latter is excusable, the former isn’t.

        Besides, it probably won’t get you anything to worry too much about race as opposed to class. In this day and age, they are practically the same thing. Tell me about a policy that helps those in need and I will tell you about a policy that helps those of color.

      3. Al S.

        I really hope that I didn’t give you the impression that I dont think racial impacts exist, or that our civic policies have helped created problems. I do. I just also think that if we want to get something like this through, that saying anything that sounds even like “you’re a racist” is counter-productive. We cant alienate the people we have to convince to walk over to our position.

      4. The racial issue is actually more of an international one. One out of every 6 Seattle residents is foreign-born. While that does include Canada and Australia (places with communities with duplexes common in many cities there), many foreign-born people that live in more congregate housing with relatives — their cultural residential norm isn’t even being discussed! Most of Seattle SF areas are regulated to deny a significant sector of the population to create the housing pattern that they are familiar with — and would save them money and increase Seattle’s density and help address the housing shortage and future growth.

        As long as it goes undiscussed on this duplex (or is it “double”) topic, the topic will have a hidden racist component, “As long as we don’t talk about it, we’re not racists” is the typical Seattle attitude; they are happy to welcome the foreign people as long as they fitt to our household constructs of nuclear family housing and single adults in small apartments by themselves. Well guess what? That’s being racist!.

        I would add that many recent foreign immigrants to our city are not familiar with “”the Seattle way” — create an interest or neighborhood group, show up at meetings at City Hall, show up at badly-noticed neighborhood meetings or committee meetings (noting that STB notices important meetings on transit better than any agency does) and write letters. I’m mainly speaking up for their interests in this discussion.

      5. Here’s an analogy: Let’s say the codes required every religious facility to have baptismal font and a cross on the outside. Members could worship how they choose, but the building has to have these included in the codes — to “fit into the neighborhood” because that is what the vocal majority wants for religious facility buildings. The proponents could say, “It doesn’t restrict one from worshipping in another way and fits the character of the neighborhood. It’s just a building requirement to protect nearby property values.”

        I see the SF requirement just as discriminatory as this..

      6. Al, I don’t disagree with your points, I just don’t think that they make effective rhetoric to convince single family homeowners to upzone.

        Implying in any way that homeowners a racist is a sure way to keep them from listening to your other p9ints.

    3. Some of the apartments I stayed in (as a guest of a family) seemed a fine place to raise a family. 11th floor certainly, but four bedrooms, nice living room and kitchen, plus small built in kitchen and bedroom for housekeeper/babysitter to live. Ground floor had joint recreation and play area surrounded by a wall, so even less to worry about than playing in a USA style yard, and it comes with built in playing companions from the same building.

      I’ve not seem the equivalent in the northwest of the USA, but I think I saw similar in Victoria.

  6. Great post. Finding myself now in my mid 30s, almost everyone I know with kids has bought and moved outside the city. Those without kids stayed in Seattle.

      1. I can speak to my friends who have made that choice.

        In some cases, it’s “our jobs are on the Eastside, and it’s an easier commute, and we can live in a neighborhood with better-maintained parks and better schools.” In other cases, it’s “we can’t afford to buy a single-family home in Seattle, and there aren’t good multi-family options (eg, utter lack of 2 and 3 bedroom units).”

        For many people, particularly those who could afford to live in SE Seattle, the schools are a deciding factor. Link is great, but it doesn’t fix the schools.

      2. Looks to me like the utter lack of 2- and 3-bedroom apartments, and the utter lack of rowhouses, and the utter lack of duplexes and triplexes (all cheaper than “ranch home” construction), is the primary thing driving families with children out of Seattle.

        There is nothing wrong with your schools. People are totally crazy about school districts, picking districts based on unfounded reputations. There are places with truly bad schools, certainly, but there are none in Puget Sound.

  7. This article does not define HALA or provide a link to where I can get context about it. Please define acronyms the first time used.

  8. Multi-family housing can be built to serve large families too. It’s just that the market doesn’t favor such development. But that is not the fault of SFH owners, nor is changing SFH zoning the only, or even the most productive way to address such shortfalls.

    1. SFH owners aren’t to blame for not allowing themselves more options of what to build on their own property. Vocal, organized activists (some of whom don’t even live in SFHs) are responsible for that. As are cowardly politicians.

      I wish I could find that Tom Tomorrow cartoon with the senator cringing and stating “M’ah constituents have spoken”.

    2. It’s not a question of whose “fault” it is, it’s a question of how to most effectively address the gap.

      You don’t say what the most productive way, but my version requires no new public spending and no micromanaging regulation, with its likely unintended consequences.

      1. I’ve lived in Seattle for over 30 years spread across a 35 year timeframe (I did 5 years of “hard time” at a different employer in CA), and during those 35 years there has been one constant — people have been complaining about how young families can’t afford to live in Seattle. First it was the “Microsoft millionaires” and now it is “Amazon geeks” and SF zoning.

        Somewhere in that period little old single non-IT me managed to do it. I bought a SF house in one of Seattle’s more desirable neighborhoods at what was then a high price and a 7 7/8 interest rate. After multiple re-fi’s I now have $780’mortgage payment and the same house in the same neighborhood. The only thing that has changed is that somehow now I am supposedly priivlidged, exclusionary, and racist.

        My point? If you cower in the corner at the price point you will never get anywhere. Stop looking for instant gratification, adjust your expectations a bit, and get out there and make it happen.

        Last year Seattle had 9% of the state’s population, 17% of the state’s new residents, and 32% of the state’s new housing starts. Yet prices remain high. Why? It’s called economics.

        Contractors selling new construction will always be setting their price at the level required to recoup their investment, and 4 studio apartments will always generate more profit than one 3-bedroom row house. Deregulation won’t change that. Eliminating SFZ won’t change that.

      2. Lazarus: and yet if you wanted to split that house with your buddy, or rent out half of it, THAT’S ILLEGAL. Why?

        I think there’s soemthing seriously wrong with your zoning code: it’s social engineering of the worst, most prescriptive and invasive sort. And eliminating fascist, social-engineering, privacy-invading “single-family zones” WILL change that. Fact.

    3. It’s more lucrative to build two small units than one large unit, because there’s a certain amount of base return on each unit that you can’t get the tenants of the large unit to pay twice on. In the 90s and 00s this led to mostly 1 BRs and a few studios being built, and the only reason they didn’t build more studios was that many people won’t tolerate studios or are couples. Then the first apodment was built, and studios became popular again (or more likely, studios became the only thing many people could afford). But larger families cried out for choices, and some developers started building a more diverse mix: mostly 1 BR and studios, but with a few 2 BRs and maybe even a 3 BR. I assume the owners also perceive an intangible benefit and marketing benefit in having a wider diversity of household sizes.

      But 3 BR and larger is still uncommon because it takes the space of two studios, so it means suppressed profit. But that’s only because there’s a housing shortage. If there were plenty of studios around, then there wouldn’t be so much competition for these two studios, and the developer might not mind as much foregoing a profit he wasn’t going to get anyway. So again the solution is to build more housing, 100,000 units, if necessary by nonprofits and public housing. Then everybody would be able to find a unit at a reasonable size that they could afford.

      1. Exactly. The TLDR version: If there were enough more housing construction allowed, the market for studios and 1BRs would quickly be saturated, and then developers would finally start building 2BRs and 3BRs.

  9. Duplexes are great if you have only 1 child, but really tight for 2+. Most duplexes are 2bed/1bath units. Very few are 3 bedroom units, since many SFHs in Seattle are only 3 bedrooms in their entirety. Nice to have more options, but I think most duplexes are a bedroom short of being core family housing.

    Housing is not even the biggest cost for most families. Childcare is very expensive, and as an incremental cost it far exceeds the incremental cost of another bedroom. To offset high childcare costs, one option is to move to less-expensive house. Even with a vast amount of new housing to moderate rent increases, Seattle is still likely going to be more expensive than many of the surrounding suburbs, which makes the move to the suburbs still relatively affordable.

    I just don’t see many people with 2+ kids staying in the city – you can buy homes in many suburbs for the same monthly payment as your rent in Seattle. And a lot of the city amenities (nightlife, entertainment) are less important to families than to singles or childless couples.

    1. A lot depends on the size of the duplex. I lived with my two kids in a one bedroom apartment. I slept in the living room (as anyone who rents a studio does) and the two kids slept in their bedroom. Two bedrooms would have been luxurious. I would have my own bedroom, and the kids would have shared the other bedroom. This is the way most kids grew up (sharing a bedroom). I think it is a very modern idea to think that kids should have their own bedroom (as the size of houses has grown and the size of families have shrunk). For a city the size of Seattle, with as much demand as there is for housing, I think expecting the average family to have a bedroom for each kid (if they have more than one) is unrealistic.

      The bathroom is a different story (I would have preferred even a half bath over another bedroom). I think a 2 bedroom/1.5 bath duplex would be quite popular in this city for most families.

      I agree with your other statement — housing isn’t as expensive as child care (usually — sometimes a relative can help). As Seattle starts adding more and more affordable child care, it should be interesting to see how that changes the dynamic (cheap child care in the city versus cheap housing in the suburbs).

      1. Very few houses can become 3/2 duplexes. They have to be huge, but Seattle doesn’t have many of those, actually. Then, whoever is developing the house must choose to make it a duplex, not a triplex or 4-plex (the same incentives that encourage 1-bed apartments would also encourage greater subdividing of houses). That’s assuming the owner doesn’t want to keep it as a large SFH.

        “For a city the size of Seattle, with as much demand as there is for housing, I think expecting the average family to have a bedroom for each kid (if they have more than one) is unrealistic.”

        Then why even care about “family housing” in the first place? Developers don’t want to build it because it is less profitable. The stock of 1-2 bed apartments will satisfy most families, right? All of the 1-kid families will be fine in 1-2 bed apartments, most of the 2-kid families can make do with a 2-bed as well, and the bigger families will either move away or go for one of the remaining SFHs.

      2. I think the basis of this article is that there aren’t many two bedroom places and that the HALA changes would enable more of those (as it would more units in general) which would benefit more families.

        If you add more two bedroom places, then of course it makes the remaining three bedroom places more affordable (all other things being equal). A family of four might bid for the three bedroom place, but if it costs a lot more than the two bedroom place, they’ll just save the money. Those who really want a three bedroom place (those with three kids or more) will pay extra — just not as much extra.

    2. I think it is a very modern idea to think that kids should have their own bedroom (as the size of houses has grown and the size of families have shrunk).

      Indeed, the “one child per bedroom is non-negotiable” view is largely a product of the social engineering on behalf of a particular concept of space and family life, of which ubiquitous single family zoning across much of cities and even more of suburbs is a large part.

    3. Most 2 bed / 1 bath duplexes are OLD. If you look at what is currently getting built in single family zones in Seattle, you will see that there’s a lot of 4,5, and 6 bedroom houses being built. New houses in SF5000 zones usually push 4000 sqft. Cut one of those in half for a duplex, and you have a pair of very spacious 2 to 3 bedroom units.

      If you look at what’s getting built as townhouses in low-rise zones, you see that 3 bedroom 1500-2000sqft units are the overwhelming choice for builders. In poorer neighborhoods, builders are occasionally even dicing the same interior space into 4 bedroom units.

      It leads me to believe that, given the same lots and the same construction techniques, new-construction duplexes would emerge as mostly 3 bedroom units at a minimum,

    4. Two or more kids per bedroom used to be the norm. My Three Sons had two, as did Death of a Salesman. The Brady Bunch had three. And houses were 600-800 square feet. The ballooning of houses was a 1970s and beyond phenomenon, and it’s essentially conspicuous consumption.

      1. Exacttly. Grew up in a 3 flat, family of 4, about 1K SF. If my parents had another kid, then 3 of us kids would have shared a room instead of 2. Lots and lots of families out of choice (e.g. location near work or better schools) or financial necessity double up or more on BRs.

      2. In working poor families, *even in small towns with lots of empty space*, you’ll see two parents and THREE kids in a 1 BR. It’s what they can afford. I’ve seen it, while living in a 1 BR.

        This is a separate issue to some extent. The US is really crap about taking care of people. There are a lot more really poor people here than there are anywhere in Western Europe. The Soviet Union actually did better at preventing extreme poverty than the US does.

    5. If you have ever seen a Boston triple (common all over that city), you would see how spacious they are!

      I would also add that double/duplex unites are great for working parents who have grandparents that live in the other unit and can watch the kids that come home from school.

    6. I live in a four bedroom duplex in Bellingham amongst single family homes. It works great and doesn’t even appear big from outside. Why do you assume duplexes are small?

    7. There are lots of 3 bedroom and 4 bedroom duplexes — I’ve even seen 5 bedroom duplexes. It’s just Seattle where they don’t exist, thanks to your whacked-out zoning code.

  10. “Whatever compassion we feel for displaced households should also extend to those who never get to live in our city in the first place”

    Seriously??? That seems like a strange or mingy sense of compassion, and/or a big false equivalency.

    1. Fair enough, but how can you stay in your place if rent is jacked up. Raise the rent a thousand bucks a month and it sure feels like displacement. The HALA changes would reduce jumps in rent like that. So even if it meant that some folks were displaced (while construction occurred) at least they would be able to better afford a new place.

      1. What I’m really suggesting is that equating the two is disingenuous crap. One is an actual living person or family, living at a specific location who is forced, often with little to no notice, to leave, along with all the stress uncertainty and expense involved, to probably end up in a worse housing situation. One is a real person and a member of our community. The other is a statistical abstraction.

        I’ve gotten somewhat desensitized to this blog not caring the slightest about the displacement of existing members of our community. (And @Rossb, I agree that definitely includes people getting their rent jacked up.) To take this a step further by framing it as “compassion,” like a politician who “feels your pain” goes a step further, is more than I can stomach without commenting on.

      2. (And @Rossb, I agree that definitely includes people getting their rent jacked up.)

        If that’s the case, you should support as much new development in the city as possible, as the displacement rate due to new construction will be a lot lower than the displacement rate from skyrocketing rents due to artificial, politically induced scarcity.

      3. Left to it’s own devices, the market will create exactly 0 new units of affordable housing. That leaves two options:

        1) Rely on the magic of supply and demand. There’s a lot to this, and more supply is definitely needed. But for the last 15 years I’ve been watching this one play out, waiting for supply to catch up with demand, and it’s just not happening. There are an awful lot of people who want to live here. So rather than waiting patiently for a trickle-down bonanza that may or may not arrive, while all the while real people are getting displaced and housing becomes increasingly unaffordable, I would choose instead:

        2) Laws and taxes that protect existing tenants, and require and finance the production of new affordable housing. These are fairly standard tools of public policy, even if they send large portions of this blog readership into convulsions.

        To be clear, I think we need more housing and more density. I am a city boy through and through. But what kind of housing mix we have, and by extension who lives here and what kind of community we build, is also important to me. (And it should be important to everybody.) These are issues that our community is morally and legally entitled to weigh in on, the doomsday predictions of free-marketeers not withstanding.

        So let’s build more housing and get denser, AND let’s provide some rights and protections for renters, AND let’s make sure that some of our new housing is priced at an affordable level. Now that’s some urbanism that I could get behind!

      4. @Ken — Good comments, Ken. I think we are on the same page, except for this part:

        >> Rely on the magic of supply and demand. But for the last 15 years I’ve been watching this one play out …

        Except that what you have seen is huge demand and a constrained supply. Seattle is one of (if not the) hottest cities in the U. S. right now, which puts ridiculous upward pressure on rents (and houses). There is a huge amount of new construction, and lots of new units, but not as many as if we had an unrestricted market. I’m not suggesting that we should. Buenos Aires has its charms (does it ever) but I don’t think we would allow that sort of construction here. But what I’m saying is a more balanced approach — such as that suggested by HALA — would do a lot to produce a lot more affordable housing. Much of that housing would be very cheap to build (which leads to cheaper rents if applied to enough areas — and HALA does exactly that).

        Just to be clear, I don’t think that in this economy in this city we can ever expect to have housing that is affordable for everyone. The U. S. is just too stratified. There will be people on the lower ends of the economic spectrum who will need help from the government. But if more affordable market rate housing is built, then it makes the job of government in this regard easier, and the role it needs to play smaller, helping everyone.

      5. But for the last 15 years I’ve been watching this one play out, waiting for supply to catch up with demand, and it’s just not happening.

        Did you take a nap from 2008-2010, when demand decreased and rents went down? Because that’s exactly what happened. Demand adjusted downward, the supply/demand ratio favored renters, rents went down. Just a few years ago!

        Look, we massively, severely restrict supply. That’s what this post is about. So of course costs go up when the economy is booming. It’s not because “supply and demand doesn’t work” it’s first and foremost because we don’t let it, and we’re not going to.

        I’m not in favor of ending all zoning and letting the market do whatever it likes, mind you–just allowing it to safely keep up with demand. And for a variety of reasons there will still be interventions in the market necessary for affordable housing across the board. But let’s be clear: neither your option 1 or option 2 are politically viable; we’re never going to set the market free, and we’re never going to be allowed to use rent control or have the taxing authority to go on a public housing binge to replace new market housing.

        I live part of the year in a place where supply is allowed to meet demand. It’s incredibly cheap here. There’s nothing magical about this.

      6. “I’m not in favor of ending all zoning and letting the market do whatever it likes, mind you–just allowing it to safely keep up with demand.”

        But that’s just the point–you’re in favor of regulation towards the things you care about. We could get rid of fire and safety standards and squeeze out some more new housing, but I bet you wouldn’t support that. Because safety is something you value, while affordability apparently is not.

        And political viability is a malleable, ever-contested concept. Two years ago I could and would have agreed that a $15 minimum wage was not politically viable, and now we have it. Changing the boundaries of viability happens all the time. And the more there is a push for stronger, more radical solutions, the more viable the “softer” alternatives become. Scared of rent control? Maybe those linkage fees won’t cause armaggedon after all. And BTW, those HALA recommendations absolutely do include new affordability requirements as well as substantially increased public investment in affordable housing.

      7. What happened to options 3) Build public housing; and 4) Use tax incentives. Both have been a mainstay of the city’s housing strategy. Do you believe they haven’t helped?

      8. Bullshit, Ken. The people who never got to live in the city, but want to, are REAL PEOPLE, who are stuck commuting from Issaquah or beyond, burning gasoline and wasting money and cursing. How dare you call them “statistical abstractions”?

    2. What an odd view. You’re suggesting someone who can’t find a housing they can afford anywhere near the job they’ve managed to get, and is forced into a long and commute with the negative consequences for physical and mental health that come with it, for the privilege of living in a location not of their choosing, all to accommodate the incumbent current residents’ disdain for growth and/or living near people of a different socio-economic status than their own, is an unworthy candidate for sympathy? Why?

      1. Exactly.

        The person forced to move due to construction faces challenges finding and moving. Having moved many times, I don’t lack sympathy for people having to do that.

        The person who can’t find a place they can afford within an hours’ commute of their job faces long-term challenges, including possibly having to find a different job.

        Do any of us here not know several friends who work in Seattle and had to find places to live a long way from their jobs, way outside Seattle?

        Moreover, the public housing sector actively forces people to move out of Seattle. I personally know several real people who have been pushed through that institutionalized displacement.

    3. It seems like people are arguing on the same side. We should have sympathy both for those who have to move out of the city and those who want to live in it but don’t even try. Yes, we should give more sympathy to those who have to move out, often under duress and short notice. But we we end it thare and build just enough housing for them, then we’re forcing people to live in low-density suburbia when they don’t want to. I’ve looked around in south King County and it’s impossible to notice that most housing is not a few blocks from Pacific Highway, Southcenter Blvd, Benson Road, etc. Many inexpensive apartments have no frequent bus nearby, and even getting to the supermarket is an ordeal, and it can take an hour or two for a 2-seat or 3-seat ride to get somewhere. We need to densify suburban downtowns so that people have more choices in the area, but we also need to build more units in Seattle so that those who want to live in he city can.

    4. Ken, 50 years ago in Seattle in 1965, did the market, left to its own devices, create affordable housing? I’m sure you’ll agree it did. So what’s the difference between back then and today? The zoning laws were probably stricter back then. There were probably even less laws and taxes and protections on the books to help renters and to build affordable housing. And the city was less dense.

      1. Demand increase in Seattle? Ok, I’ll buy that. I don’t have the figures right in front of me. Could you please look them up for me? What was Seattle’s population 50 years ago, and what is it today?

      2. Thank you. So in the last 50 years, Seattle’s population has increased by 20% But from 1940 to 1950, Seattle’s population also increase by 20%. But in 1950, even though demand had greatly increased, housing was still affordable.

      3. In 1950, there were still plenty of undeveloped lots to drop new cookie-cutter ranch houses on (Which neighbors & NIMBY’s hated just as much as they hate breadbox townhouses today.) The city had just annexed large undeveloped swaths of land that would become North Seattle… growth by annexation of undeveloped land is basically impossible for Seattle today.

        And back in the 50’s the city had special zones dedicated specifically to duplexes… something that no longer exists today. Most 1950’s era duplexes I see in the CD, are on lots that were rezoned to SF5000 when the duplex zoning was axed.

      4. Some Seattleites had families, to take over their mansionettes, and take over other mansionettes as the children went their separate ways, and thus we have the Great Houses of Seattle: the Blethens, the Nordstrom’s, the Denny’s, and so on.

        Families elsewhere also had children. Seattle was (and still is, more than ever) an attractive place to come live. So, as people have pointed out, there is no way everyone who wants to live here possibly could. (Sorry, Martin.)

        But the root of all displacement is the fact that people have children, and population worldwide continues to grow. Some think the solution is just to build a wall, and keep out the outsiders. But then the insiders keep having children, too. On top of all the people wanting to move here, large groups of refugees are welcomed here, as they are in most US cities, so we have lots of first- and second-generation Somalians here, who one could argue are displacing the Vietnamese refugees, who displaced the Phillipino refugees, who displaced the freed African Americans who populated Rainier Valley long ago, who in turn displaced the Duwamish, who got kicked out of the City, by edict, back in 1865. And yet, the population of each ethnic group, including European Americans, continues to grow, even as people get pushed around. So, really, no particular community is getting displaced. PEOPLE are getting displaced.

        You can’t stop displacement, any more than you can stop death or taxes. You can only prepare for it. How do you prepare to help those displaced? You build more housing.

  11. Fascinating. I said something about zoning on another post and was criticized for talking about an issue that was “outside the wheelhouse” of STB. Maybe it was because I thought the SF upzoning, as proposed, was short-sighted.

    I guess I’m a racist.

    1. You definitely could be, depending on your views and motivations. But if you oppose “upzoning” (it’s not even really upzoning), you’re definitely, for sure, without a doubt, propping up a historically racist institution for your own personal benefit. It’s the worst kind of white privilege possible.

      1. I think your reply says a lot more about you than it does about me.

        Really, What do you know about me? My history. Where I come from. What has shaped my opinions over time.

        I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t care about transit as a social and economic equalizing factor.

        Think before you speak. Your reputation matters, and I don’t want to see good transit go down in flames because its advocates can’t figure out how to build a coalition.

  12. “Whatever compassion we feel for displaced households should also extend to those who never get to live in our city in the first place, solely due to arbitrary regulations.”

    I’m not sure many NIMBYs care about displaced people, and they definitely don’t care about not allowing people from elsewhere to come live in Seattle.

    A powerful re-framing I heard recently that I think address this is “Seattle is becoming so unaffordable that not even your children are going to be able to stay here, let be able to afford a place where they could raise a family.”

  13. HALA proposed to upzone existing MF zones and expand their footprint into areas surrounding urban villages. I’ve not seen the analysis or data that establish that says those increases are inadequate, that we also need to allow MF development in most current SF neighborhoods. If someone has run the numbers and proves this case, then perhaps a wiser strategy would be to increase MF density even further, or widen the MF footprint even further.

    I think Mayor Murray was correct when he told Erica B. “[Single-family] isn’t where the numbers are for creating affordable housing and low-income housing. It helps, but the numbers aren’t there.”

    1. You are the first I’ve heard claim the housing affordability crisis can be solved just within the non-single-family-zoned areas.

      Nor is anyone claiming that opening up the single-family zones to allow homeowners more latitude to build more on their own property will solve the crisis, But your argument reminds me of the argument that we shouldn’t tax tobacco because it won’t provide sufficient money to pay for cancer care for everyone who smokes. Of course it won’t. But it helps.

      Allowing homeowners more choice is the low-hanging fruit of the affordability crisis. The new multi-story housing built in urban villages tend to start out in the unaffordable range, and work itself down with age.

      The public housing gets built wherever there is a path of least NIMBYism, which is why so much of it gets built along the city limits. Thank you for volunteering the urban villages to accept ALL the new public housing.

    2. Mayor Murray is wrong. The numbers are in the single-family zones, because nearly all of Seattle is single-family zones. That’s where the numbers are. You just can’t accomodate many more people in the tiny fraction of the city which is zoned multifamily, because there isn’t much space there.

      Thought experiment: suppose you legalized duplexes and duplex conversions on ALL single-family home lots. Suppose 50% of the homeowners took you up on the offer. How many housing units would you add to Seattle? Now consider what you would have to do to accomodate that with multifamily housing in the existing zones — monstrous skyscrapers, probably.

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