1907 Triplex, Jeannette, PA (wikimedia)

Seattle District 1 Candidate Lisa Herbold made some good points in the clarification of her position on HALA. I especially welcome her support for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Most interesting, however, is what she said about displacement, as that’s where the tension is strongest between the stated social justice goal of displacing no one, and the environmental (and public safety, urban-agenda, economic) goal of welcoming as many people to Seattle as possible.

First, I agree with Ms. Herbold that a workable strategy to replace affordable units destroyed by development is desirable, especially if it doesn’t deter said development. At the same time I’m not willing to delay a badly needed upzone process indefinitely in search of such a strategy.

But her most powerful argument is a forceful challenge to my just-maximize-the-units ideology, taking the example of a cheap single-family home replaced with a new triplex:

I have more compassion for a displaced low income family renting one of our scarce affordable family-­sized rentals who has to move their family out of the city, pull their children out of school, and suffer a long, emissions-­producing commute like this family who Janet Tu profiled in her excellent piece in the Times, than I do for the three higher-­income families who otherwise would likely be buying the new homes that are built in the place of that one low­-income rental. Do you know why? That low income family has far fewer options, and the hardship they will experience will be much, much greater than the 3 higher-­income families will experience not being able to buy one of those 3 pricey new homes.

I absolutely agree that exchanging one cheap unit for one expensive unit is in most cases a net loss for society, for the reasons she describes. But as the ratio of new households to displaced households increases, the benefits start to overwhelm these concerns. The environmental impact of three middle-class families in the suburbs and a low-income one in Seattle greatly outweighs the reverse. Seattle is much more likely to convert some of those families’ wealth into social services, transit, and subsidized housing, thanks to the generosity of its voters. And an ever-increasing population increases Seattle’s weight in Olympia, which helps in the arena that blocks most transformative policy change.

Unfortunately there is no formula that “proves” the minimum ratio where the benefits of growth exceed the pain of displacement. For me, that figure is low — probably less than 2. And that’s because outlawing duplexes and triplexes doesn’t ultimately prevent displacement. Herbold is right that an upzone increases the incentives to redevelop, but this only accelerates an inevitable process where the affordable house gives way to one new home (under current zoning) or up to three (under the proposed change). Meanwhile, our three hypothetical families may not end up in the suburbs; they may very well outbid three other families elsewhere in the city who are less equipped to deal with the inconveniences of displacement.

Once again, it would be ideal if Seattle can craft a policy to replace demolished affordable housing without impairing new construction, rather than achieve its goals on the backs of the displaced. But delay in achieving those goals, or failure altogether, is much worse for thousands of households like the one a preservation policy strives to save.

94 Replies to “How Many Rich Households?”

  1. The problem still comes down to Property Tax.

    With an artificially low Property Tax, the wealthy will never pay fair value from the lifestyle and services that the city they desire to live in provides.

    Instead, the opposite, bad result happens…you end up with poor and middle class people paying what is effectively a flat income tax via a high sales tax, B&O taxes that get passed down in cost of goods and now, a high minimum wage which also gets passed along and burdens mainly the middle class who use the retail services now paying the higher wage.

    With a fair — or even high or progressive – property tax, who are directly benefiting from a high valued city like Seattle also paying for its upkeep. As far as low income people, if they are productive, some of that Property Tax might be used for providing reasonably sized but moderate low-income housing especially if they are doing the jobs and services that make the city work.

    Alternatively they can move to lower cost suburbs instead of being trapped in a city as we build a Rapid Regional Transportation system.

    1. Thanks, so what do we do until the state allows the property tax to be raised as you suggest? What if that doesn’t happen for ten years or twenty years or ever? Do we just do nothing because “property tax is the solution”?

      The “Rapid Regional Transportation system” will not help then get from their house to the station, or to the store or their children’s school other daily non-commute needs. Theoretically they could build their neighborhoods in streetcar-suburb style around the stations, but they’re not doing that.

      1. Raising the Property Tax is the only real solution.

        All effort should be focused on that.

        Until then these “workarounds” only make the situation worse.

        Most suburbs now have some degree of transit circulators, and also there could be greater use of the web, smartphones and in-home visits for those needing service. Uber-Social Care!

    2. Higher property taxes do not help lower income renters. Landlords are forced to pass on the expense. Also, middle to low income people who inherited a home do not have the means to pay higher property taxes.

      1. (1) Higher property taxes do not help lower income renters

        I know, that’s why I classified them as people who serve the city and hence may be able to get a higher city salary from the taxes collected. If they still cannot afford to live in an expensive city, then move to a lower cost less expensive part of the world.

        (2) middle to low income people who inherited a home….

        Get me a Kleenex box. When I had to downshift and move to a lower cost neighborhood because my wage declined during the Tech Bust, no one was bailing me out. If a person can’t afford to live somewhere because they don’t make the income to pay for all the amenities then sell out and move. This by the way is right way to find more space for people, not zoning!

      2. I am likely to eventually inherit a mini-mansion which has $30K/year running costs, something which I can in no way pay for, ever. I am selling it as soon as possible if I inherit it.

        That’s what you do if you inherit land where you can’t afford to pay maintenance. Property taxes are part of maintenance.

        I’m a bit unsympathetic to property tax complaints, since where I live (upstate NY) property taxes add up to about 3% of property value, which is among the highest rates in the country. I really wouldn’t advise going higher than that, but you’re way lower than that right now, with your rates running less than 1% of property value. You can triple property taxes safely.


  2. Recent studies indicate that a high percentage of the demand for housing in Seattle is created by incoming individuals and families searching for market rate housing. The increasing demand for market rate housing is placing pressure on the existing stock of affordable housing, leading to the displacement. An equitable inclusionary zoning program would necessarily focus on creating affordable housing where the displacement occurs, within the higher density development that caused the displacement. This leads to a more integrated and equitable neighborhood. I don’t believe a program of in lieu payments further this goal of inclusionary housing. It may be good for developers, but for housing it will actually lead to balkanization and segregated enclaves unless the affordable housing must be built within or in proximity to the new market rate developments.

    1. There’s a large gap between “affordable” housing (for families making less than around $50K) and market-rate housing (for people making at least $65K and rising). Inclusionary zoning and “affortable housing” is not enough, we also need to vastly increase the amount of housing, by around 100,000 units, or 200,000 for good measure. This 15,000 per year or as an upzone total won’t cut it.

      1. There are less than 300,000 occupied homes in Seattle right now. You are suggesting we should near double the size of the city. What time frame to you propose for this?

      2. It should happen as quickly as we can possibly make it happen, otherwise we will keep sprawling the suburbs further out, making all of our transportation problems worse, and the steadily increasing competition for urban homes will keep pushing out the less-than-rich.

      3. Do you think Seattle has the infrastructure capacity to jump from 600K to a million +? When? Tomorrow?

        Just start churning out permits, or even for-go permitting all together, and let developers have at it?

        I think we have to think seriously about water, sewer, electrical, sidewalks, upgrading roads, transit, and be funded and well on our way towards building out infrastructure before doubling the size of the city. Otherwise it will implode inward on itself like a black hole, eating urbanists at light speed, burping out bent bicycle frames and shredded skinny jeans smelling of charred $10 toast and $5 cupcake wrappers.

      4. Plus, the central conceit that another half a million people actually want to live in Seattle is absurd on it’s face. Looking at the growth trends, both in-city and regionally, there is no justification for that sort of expectation.

      5. The City is already undertaking aggressive electric and water utility upgrades to prepare for the future. We are trying to get a subway system built. A half million might be high, but it is certainly not crazy. Seattle could double in size and still be only half as big as Brooklyn.

      6. That’s why I asked for a timeline. I could see a million in 2050, but that suggests demanding 200,000 new households “as soon as possible” is, yes, crazy.

        I know Seattle likes to think of itself as exploding, but it really isn’t. You should not look at very short-term trends for long term planning.

        We can’t currently keep all the crap out of our lakes for the current population. You need to do more than build a multi-billion dollar boondoggle up at brightwater to say our sewer system is all good.

        The “subway” is built for sprawl. The spine is idiotic. Our planners either don’t understand the needs or can’t manage the politics, but either way, in-city transit is vastly under-served by the subway, and politics and funding don’t lead me to believe it will be ready “as soon as possible”, unless both the politics and funding change drastically.

        Roads are crumbling and chronically under-maintained, even with band-aid levies. Sidewalks to get transit are non-existent in a third of the city, gas-lines are blowing up, houses are sliding down hills.

        And you want to double the chaos.

      7. “There are less than 300,000 occupied homes in Seattle right now. You are suggesting we should near double the size of the city. What time frame to you propose for this?”

        Hmm, let’s see. Suppose we permitted all single-family homes to be converted (not torn down, converted) to triplexes. If only half of them were converted, I think that would do the trick, wouldn’t it?

        That’s merely a hypothetical. The point is that allowing duplexes, triplexes, and rowhouses could accomodate ALL the necessary expansion without building a single high-rise.

      8. I’m going to make a further point about duplex/triplex conversions, billruben:

        They can be converted back into single-family houses if the population drops. They’re much more flexible than apartment buildings in that regard.

        Again, if the population drops, rowhouses can be “paired up” — people can buy two adjacent rowhouses. Again, more flexible than the average apartment building.

        My final point: duplex/triplex conversions are UNOBTRUSIVE. The house looks exactly the same on the outside.

      9. In short, I’m advocating the sort of “upzoning” which will cause the least disruption and which is the most reversible if Seattle’s population drops. Unfortunately, it seems to be a type of “upzoning” which is very poorly understood by planners and politicians. Despite the fact that this sort of “not all single-family” neighborhood — with a mix of detached houses (with 1..4 families), attached houses (with 1..4 familes each), and corner stores — is extremely popular.

      10. I have no idea why you are telling me about triplexes, Nathaniel. It matters very little if your convert all of Ballard to communes or you built a 200 story, 5 square block tribute to 2001, A Space Odyssey on Denny Park. Either way, we don’t have the infrastructure right now to support an extra half million people.

        I’m not against density, upzoning, triplexing, suplexing or whatever. Build build build. Fine with me.

        What I don’t like is not having any plan, or vastly inadequate one, for funding the massive infrastructure upgrades that all that building, conversion or whatever entails.

        You don’t invite 500,000 people to a drippy-assed party, then start passing around the cup so you can run get some kegs, cocktail wienies and umbrellas.

  3. This will sound harsh, but so be it. A family which can live in Seattle only in “affordable housing” is one which very probably has jobs which are not firmly anchored to one place only. Moderately skilled jobs are much more widely dispersed than are those in the high-paying professions which cluster in the central city. But by definition a family with a member who is an incumbent in a highly-paid profession is very probably not limited to “affordable housing”. Like any other, it might very much like to have a bigger, more impressive house in a “more desirable” neighborhood, but it probably can afford one of the hundreds of thousands of housing units in Seattle.

    If a family with no such incumbent is forced away from Seattle that doesn’t mean that its breadwinners will necessarily “suffer a long, emissions-­producing commute” [presumably into the city]. Much more likely they’ll find a job somewhere nearer their new home.

    There are few enough instances in which such a family has employment which is only available within the central city that such incumbents can be expected to take transit to access them. It’s not the end of the world, Ms. Herbold, and there is good peak hour service from throughout South King County to Seattle, most of which passes through the industrial district south of downtown, the only place which might reasonably be a place where such unique employment would exist.

    And if indeed there is only one or two employers providing employment using a specific skill, eventually those employers will have to raise their compensation to attract people to work for them or move to the Green River Valley or Tacoma. But there are few enough of them that it wouldn’t be deleterious to Seattle’s future.

    What is happening in America now is much like what happened in India at partition: likes are seeking likes. The divisions in society are deepening every day, and it is harder and harder for progressive people to stomach the Confederate-based culture of Republican America and vice versa. So every well-to-do “blue” person in the country wants to crowd into the cities of the “Left Coast” and New England; it’s not just the “availability of tech jobs” as so many people here on the blog assert. It’s much more fundamental and compelling. It has to do with basic self-identification and life-long aspirations.

    So the City of Seattle — which has the finest setting of any in Puget Sound — will continue differentially to attract people who can afford its prices. “Affordable housing” will be torn down and replaced with something nicer, Ms. Herbold, and the family profiled (whoever they are; the link doesn’t work, Martin) will be forced out anyway. At least, though, if three townhomes replace the derelict building instead of a McMansion, two other new families will be able to move into Seattle.

    1. “A family which can live in Seattle only in “affordable housing” is one which very probably has jobs which are not firmly anchored to one place only. Moderately skilled jobs are much more widely dispersed than are those in the high-paying professions which cluster in the central city.”

      That’s partly true, and all the more so because they probably have to change jobs more often (thus changing their commute) and have multiple jobs simultaneously (often commuting to two different places). If you have a far-flung job, or multiple jobs, or short-term jobs, then they best place to commute from is Seattle. That’s where all the regional transit is centered, so you can get to Kent or Everett or Eastgate in an hour or less each. But if you live in Kent or Auburn or Edmonds, suddenly one of those takes two hours and you have to turn down that job. And even getting to a job in your own subarea, say from east Kent to north Kent or Federal Way, can take longer than coming from Seattle, with less frequent buses. Not to mention the difficulty of getting to a supermarket or Target or anywhere else. Forcing the lower-income to the suburbs seriously harms their quality of life and leads to 2-4 hour total commutes. (Bailo will point to the larger apartments with parking, and apartments near shopping centers and frequent buses, but most of the housing in the suburbs is not next to shopping centers and doesn’t have frequent buses.)

      1. Mike,

        I’m sorry, Mike, but Seattle simply can’t hold all the people who want to live in it. IT’S. TOO. NICE.

        I’d like to live in it too, but when we returned to the Northwest from Houston we evaluated where my wife and I were most likely to be able to pay off a house in the fifteen years of work I had left (it turned out to be 20, thank goodness). I was an Oracle contract database programmer making between 45 and 60 dollar per hour and it was obvious then in 1995 that we could never afford to own a home in Seattle. So we chose Vancouver even though we had both live in Seattle previously and loved it.

        So, absent turning Seattle in to Shanghai with square kilometers of thirty-story towers you will never be able to accommodate all the less-than-wealthy people who would like to live there. The only way to provide them with decent transit service is to provide it where they live.

        But the people of non-Seattle King County — especially those of South King County — don’t want to pay for that service. People who want and can afford to live in Seattle, especially those who actually have jobs there, shouldn’t be barred from doing so because transit is better for those who don’t have jobs in the city. If the banks of Seattle want to staff their positions they’ll need to start paying people enough to live close, or put up with folks who can’t make it some days because of traffic, transit breakdowns or other mishaps. It’s that simple.

      2. Mike, the reality is for working people with “far flung jobs,” the very first thing they do is buy a cheap old used car, if they don’t have one already. Many of those jobs in retail and other service industries have variable work hours. Workers can’t limit their shifts to when the bus connections can get them there. So no, Seattle may not be the best place to live, not if you have to use a congested road to get to and from your job, or from one job to another.

      3. We’ve got to do better than telling people to find something they can afford in the suburbs and get a car. That’s essentially saying urbanism has failed and can’t be fixed and we should just close up shop. I don’t believe it’s so dire, and that it’s possible to reverse at least some of the whopping mistakes in the built environment over the past half century. The suburbs were designed for well-off people who want to be there; it’s cruel to just dump people there who don’t have any other choice. It’s contradictory to tell people to drive less and then make it extremely difficult to do so.

      4. Anandakos, Seattle isn’t THAT nice.

        Manhattan? Manhattan is too nice. There’s a reason it’s turned into solid thirty-story towers. It’s too nice. Everyone wants to live there. There’s no way to accomodate everyone.

        Seattle is not NEARLY that nice. Double the amount of housing and you’ll probably saturate the market.

      5. Anandakos, I suspect that like other people you have grossly underestimated how many people fit in acres and acres of four-story rowhouses. (e.g. Queens, Bronx, part of Brooklyn). You have probably also understimated how many people fit in acres of very-small-lot “single-family” houses and duplexes (e.g. most of Los Angeles).

        Seattle isn’t that hot. Allowing LA levels of density would probably be sufficient to let everyone who wants to live in Seattle live there; allowing Bronx levels of density would *definitely* be sufficient.

    2. The story makes the claim that when Nakhale worked only at Key Bank he was spending four hours per day commuting. In all honesty, I find that hard to believe. The 102 is a peak hours semi-express to downtown Seattle which runs from about 5:00 AM to 7:30 AM. The article says that Nakhale freshens up after his stint at FedEx (that commute absolutely cannot be done by transit, for sure) and then heads into Seattle about 7:30. It takes him 55 minutes. The last 102 leaves 140th SE and Petrovisky at 7:24, arriving at Westlake Station (it’s a tunnel bus) at 8:26. That is an hour and two minutes, barely longer than the driving time.

      The article doesn’t say where he works in West Seattle, and it’s doubtless harder to get over there, and might even require a walk from Fifth South to First South to make a two bus ride out of the trip.

      But I do not see how he got “four hours per day” out of the bus trip. Maybe he didn’t know about the 102 and took the 148 local and transferred? I don’t know, but it isn’t as bad as the article makes out.

      Perhaps Metro needs to evaluate the need for a slightly later run on this route?

  4. Preventing single-family houses from densifying because they’re more affordable to a lower-income families ultimately means that no single-family houses will be densified ever, which is exactly what the single-family maximizers want. Many of the houses were built when the city’s population was much lower and the county population was miniscule, and in that environment single-family neighborhoods in the city are more justifiable, but it’s not workable for a fast-growing city of 620,000 in a county of 2 million. Some older houses may indeed be low rent and house a lower-middle-class or working-class family, but not all of them do. If we don’t upzone including in single-family areas, housing will continue getting scarcer as the population increases, and eventually some of those rents will rise in excess of the houses’ quality, even to the point of equaling newer fancier houses, because no other houses will be available and higher-income people will pay anything for a house. Seattle needs to increase the housing supply at least to match the rising population, and something beyond it to reverse the past 20 years’ displacement numbers (even if it can’t bring it down to their price point, at least accommodate that many people). I don’t know exactly how much single-family housing needs to be converted to reach that but I’d guess 25% or 33% would go a long way toward it.

    Meanwhile in the suburbs, they’re not building houses like they used to. Partly because of the urban growth boundary, and partly because of their own growth quotas, which they’re trying to accommodate in multifamily neighborhoods to preserve their existing SFHs. Which means their SFHs don’t have a lot of vacancies. The areas with new single-family houses are way out in the exurbs, in Lake Stevens and Maple Valley and Bonney Lake and Auburn, where it’s an ultra-long commute to the main Seattle/Bellevue/Redmond job market. We can’t expect the suburbs to stop giving their existing SFHs extraordinary privileges, but it’s absolutely not appropriate for Seattle which is the largest city and has the best infrastructure to accommodate a lot of people.

    1. Sometimes reality is hard to accept or recognize for some on this blog. New developments are creating housing at market rates which are above the affordable housing threshold. Current and future new developments will only increase the # of market rate housing units and thus decrease the % of affordable housing units. The gap widens each day. There is no way you will get 25%-30% of SF homeowners to convert to affordable housing units. People do not sell their houses below market rates to then create “affordable housing”. Seattle is a capitalist-based city, this is the USA. People sell and buy based on market rates. Houses sell at or above market rates to owners/developers who can afford them or can develop the lot and make a profit based on current and predicted market rates. No one can afford to buy/develop “affordable units” without massive subsidies. Seattle has lots of neighborhoods with varying rents and housing costs, no one person has a “right” to live where ever they want. Need to live where you can afford and then as you can afford more, move to another location. This is basically what everyone does. Save your money, make some sacrifices, have some patience.
      SF homeowners do not want increased density in the neighborhoods, the people who what this are people are not homeowners in SF neighborhoods. Seattle does not want what happened to Ballard repeated all over the city. Seattle cannot handle this density.
      SF homeowners have paid up their noses with increased property taxes and car tab taxes to fund road, bridge, tunnel, stadium, city of Seattle boondoggles for many years. Time for renters, transit riders, and Metro to pay their fair share. Can’t expect the homeowners and car drivers to pay for all of your dreams.

      1. > Current and future new developments will only increase the # of market rate housing units and thus decrease the % of affordable housing units.

        So let’s add bonus floors to development in exchange for affordable housing units. SFHs are never affordable. Join me in advocating for HALA.

        >Seattle cannot handle this density.

        Yeah it can.

      2. Martin explains exactly what’s wrong with that line of reasoning in his last paragraph.

        In 09/10, I helped a friend in her housing search. Her parameters were SF, 3 br, 300K, North Seattle. That ruled out houses with views, high-end finishes, significant amounts of charm and beauty, and the more desirable locations, but there were still many dozens of perfectly serviceable options. If she’d been willing to look South, there would have been hundreds more. 5+ years later, they’re all gone–a zillow search on these parameters for the entire city pulls up about a couple dozen listings, but most are auctions that’ll go for much more or obvious teardowns.

        To state the obvious, the naturally affordable housing at this pricepoint that was destroyed by redevelopment is miniscule–the real culprit is scarcity, which you and Lisa Herbold are proposing doubling down on. Scarcity has a strong track record of destroying natural affordability far more efficiently and ruthlessly than redevelopment ever could.

      3. We are homeowners in a single family neighborhood who want more density in our neighborhood.

        (In point of fact, we bought in our neighborhood rather than others because most of the build out predates the big SF 5,000 downzone, so it is already more dense and more mixed than what could be built today.)

      4. Who cares about percentages? No one ever rented a percentage of a building… they rent a unit. The numbers that matter are the numbers of units on the market, and who wants them. If a luxury tower goes up and brings 300 units online, that lowers the % of affordable housing in the city, but it also keeps 300 high income families from bidding on more affordable units. I wouldn’t care that the city had “X% affordable housing yay!” if it meant I was more likely to lose my place.

    2. “eventually some of those rents will rise in excess of the houses’ quality, even to the point of equaling newer fancier houses,”

      Ding ding ding. Correct! This is what happened in “no downtown construction allowed since roughly 1950” Ithaca NY. Ancient ramshackle houses downtown, and even basement apartments well outside of town, command stupendous rents. And we *did* allow old houses to be subdivided into duplexes, which helped some.

      The new mayor is finally allowing some new, taller construction (frankly, mostly restoring 19th century levels of height which were torn down) and it may eventually alleviate the rent crunch.

  5. Just a quick note about language, Martin: “affordable housing” (ought to?) mean housing that’s subsidized by the government for those with <80% AMI. A SFH is never affordable housing.

    The SFH may be affordable, in which case we should call it an affordable house.

  6. Part of the incredible demand for and upward price pressure on SFH has to partially be the result of a lack of two and three bedroom apartments/condos in the core and other more urban areas of the city. Once a family has a second or third kid, it’s virtually impossible (or really undesirable) to live a truly urban and carless lifestyle. Add this to the lack of schools downtown, and families are effectively forced to seek housing in the neighborhoods.

    1. Yes – I’d offer a few more reasons along with the ones you mention as to why larger units are rare.

      1) Condos (which traditionally have more 2/3 bed units) are very difficult to finance currently. New construction supply dried up for several years, and even now the few new buildings are mostly 1 or 2 bedroom units.

      2) Construction costs for concrete/steel (generally required above ~7 stories) are very high. This forces high-rise construction to be positioned for the luxury market to recoup the cost of actual building. I see 2/2 condos downtown selling for as much or more than 3/2 SFH in areas with great schools, because the SFH is not “luxury” spec. That drives people into the neighborhoods or suburbs.

      3) Multi-bedroom apartments, especially 3/2s, have lower rents/square foot compared to smaller units. Vacancies are also harder to fill because there aren’t as many potential renters who can afford higher rent payments along with other costs like childcare.

      4) Tax policy. Mortgage interest and property taxes are deductible. You can exclude capital gains on sales of primary residences. Imputed rent is untaxed (not that I think it should be, but it is a real benefit only homeowners get).

      1. The 19th century cities featured huge expanses of 4-story attached buildings (built right up to the lot line). You can get a lot of people into those, and they can even be single-family.

        For some reason Seattle has banned these. They should be legal. They can be constructed more cheaply than 7+ buildings.

      2. You’re right, Nathanael, two centuries ago, cities did have 4-story (or more) attached buildings built to the lot line. They were called tenements. And life in them was grim indeed. Next time you’re in Manhattan, visit the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.

  7. It still amazes me to no end that time after time articles as well as comments fail to recognize the elephant in the room: so long as the city continues to push for increasing property taxes by way of levies, and the county continues to increase assessed home values based on prior sales in single family zoned neighborhoods with very limited supply, the city of Seattle will continue to become a landlord’s paradise: let someone or others pay for the tab while absent property holders reap the rewards of equity. Yes, the voters/citizens of Seattle have been generous, but keep in mind that at least 1/3rd of homeowners rent out their homes. To a degree, they don’t care if property taxes and levies are passed, simply they will pass it on to someone else.

    I as well as family members have property that we rent out in the city to renters (both long and short term) because we do not wish to pay for what seems like never ending levies that keep getting passed to support out of control union contracts (for example: Move Seattle has a portion of funds designated to keep 25% of salaried employees on the payroll at SDOT; without Move Seattle, potentially up to 25% of SDOT employees will be made redundant). You have to be a blind mole sniffing your way through a wet hole to think the city will become more affordable for anyone at any income level. The ones that have the means will simply rent out their residential properties and have someone else pay the levies, sell when the property is paid for, or wait for zoning changes to increase development potential. Many readers reading this may be thinking “this guy is anti-affordable housing”, but in fact, I’m in favor of a number of changes HALA has proposed. What I am not in favor of is retaining single-family zoning over such a large piece of Seattle. With a growing city, what kind of idiot local government says “sorry, the only thing that can be replaced with said vintage house in nostalgic-for-the-40’s neighborhood is ANOTHER single family house, but much larger so the developer makes a profit, and therefore will subsequently be priced between $800K-1.5M with a small percentage of potential buyers being qualified to purchase the new house. THAT is what this and recent Seattle city governments are doing to all of us, whether you are a property holder or not: making all of us pay for a local government that is overwhelmed and making poor choices.

    1. That property tax is funding essential services. We have a huge backlog of transit needs, and we need good schools and adequate libraries and parks and 911 service. Washington doesn’t have an income tax so there’s only two places to get revenue from, property tax and sales tax. Your taxes are still low compared to most states because of the public’s unwillingness to raise property taxes to completely compensate for the lack of income tax, and Eyman initiatives that prohibit it.

      1. Mike,

        I’m not questioning whether the taxes are low or high, and I have a very lucid understanding of how property taxes are allocated and why they are a major source of funding. All you did was address an assumption of my knowledge as to why those taxes exist; therefore, I’ll assume you didn’t read what I wrote.

    2. To state the obvious, it’s scarcity, not property taxes, that drive the increase in rents. The occasional eccentric who knowingly charges less than the market will bear aside, rents in a scarce environment are determined by what tenants are willing to pay, which has only an indirect relationship to changes in property tax burdens.

      1. I agree. “what the market will bear” drives rents not direct costs to landlords. If there is a shortage of rental housing a landlord can easily raise rents to cover increased costs. On the other hand if a landlord is struggling to find tenants they have little ability to raise rents even to cover increased costs.

    3. To anyone who thinks property taxes in Seattle are ‘high’ I challenge you to compare what you pay per $1000 of assessed value compared to other major cities across the U.S. To be fair the total bill may be lower in a city with lower housing costs, but then generally so are incomes. Similarly Seattle has to pay higher salaries to its workers and for services it buys due to the higher cost of living than say Houston does.

      For that matter due to the large amount of high value property in Seattle homeowners actually can end up paying less per $1000 of assessed value than homeowners who live in tax districts where the tax base is made up primarily of single family homes.

      As to basing assessed value on current fair market value, I’m not aware of any jurisdiction that doesn’t do this unless they have some sort of Prop 13 like provision in place. The harm such measures cause is well documented. Furthermore under the state constitution any similar law would likely be unconstitutional. Counties here are required to base assessments on fair market value and to tax all property on an equal basis.

      1. You can get more information from that map too. You notice that in Seattle property taxes in dollars per unit are on the high side, although the property tax rates are actaully low?

        That means property VALUES in Seattle are going sky-high. Along with the New York City suburbs, and San Francisco. Note that Manhattan has lower taxes paid in dollar per unit than its suburbs.

        This means you in Seattle haven’t allowed small enough lots, and haven’t allowed tall enough buildings. You have the suburban zoning disease.

    4. ” What I am not in favor of is retaining single-family zoning over such a large piece of Seattle. With a growing city, what kind of idiot local government says “sorry, the only thing that can be replaced with said vintage house in nostalgic-for-the-40’s neighborhood is ANOTHER single family house, but much larger so the developer makes a profit, and therefore will subsequently be priced between $800K-1.5M with a small percentage of potential buyers being qualified to purchase the new house.”

      Well said. Very well said.

      If the rules were relaxed:
      (1) Some people would subdivide the vintage house into a duplex, triplex, or small apartment building
      (2) Other people would tear it down and replace it with small apartment buildings or rowhouses.
      (3) Each individual unit would be a lot cheaper than the McMansions.

      1. And it’s worth nothing that “relaxed rules” means reverting to the rules that prevailed when many of Seattle’s vaunted “single family” neighborhoods were built. We are currently SF detached only, but there is a grandfathered duplex at the end of our block and on the next.–and half block of old row houses two streets away. Walking back from lunch in the adjacent currently SF detached-only hood last week there are grandfathered triplexes on the end of SF blocks, a stacked flat on a corner, etc. Not too mention that most of the prized bungalows are on +/- 3,000 SF lots not the currently prevailing 5,000 in SFZs.

        Case in point: double lot w/one old house on our street just turned over. My guess is we see 2 $1M plus homes. Could absolutely do two triplexes (or more with smart design) on the same plot – if zoning permitted. Irony about “preserving n’hood character trope:” the plot’s next door to the grandfathered duplex and bungalow on 3,000 SF lot with a grandfathered ADU.

  8. Just a quick note about language, Martin: “affordable housing” (ought to?) mean housing that’s subsidized by the government for those with <80% AMI. A SFH is never affordable housing. The SFH may be affordable, in which case we should call it an affordable house.

    To Ms. Herbold and her supporters: new stuff always costs more than old stuff. Pointing to a $400k house and three $600k town homes doesn't show that development causes unaffordability any more than a 2016 Honda Civic shows that car ownership is unaffordable. Look at the long term trend.

  9. “Meanwhile, our three hypothetical families may not end up in the suburbs; they may very well outbid three other families elsewhere in the city who are less equipped to deal with the inconveniences of displacement.”

    This. We’re demolishing around 1/10th of the number of units we’re adding, yet we’re adding housing at half the rate that we’re adding jobs. These new workers tend to want to live in the city – and if they have more money than existing residents then they will find a place, whether it’s a new unit we build for them or an old unit that represents someone being displaced. It amazes me that the city hasn’t opened up the tap on allowing new units to meet this demand.

    1. Yes: “we’re adding housing at half the rate that we’re adding jobs.”

      Exactly what San Francisco has been doing.

      With even more single family zoning than San Francisco, Seattle will become even less affordable than San Francisco has become.

    2. Matt, can you provide a source for those numbers. That sounds like a great talking point I’d love to back up with a link!

  10. I’m all for free-market’s unimpeded recycling and redistribution of housing but a social redistribution component has its place. Seattle demands a highly skilled workforce and socialist have to accept Seattle for that; a bedroom community for Calcutta it’s not. But at the same time it’s not going to kill us to extend ourselves. “In 2005, Utah was home to 1,932 chronically homeless people. Today there are 178—a remarkable 91 percent drop statewide.” I think the same principals of this article (see below) apply to low income as well as homeless (one being inclusive of the other of course).
    We have to have room for both.


    1. Indeed a ‘housing first’ approach to homelessness proves to be cheaper than what we are currently doing. At least this is the data we have from 1811 Eastlake and from Utah.

      Furthermore a ‘housing first’ approach lowers the social cost of homelessness. Many of the activities and behaviors that cause people to want to close parks and other public spaces or ask law enforcement to ‘crack down’ on the homeless go away with a ‘housing first’ approach.

      1. Absolutely.

        And it would be a lot cheaper to provide apartments for the homeless if it were legal to build lots of apartments. Right?

  11. Lisa Herbold states it very well, the problems that result from demolishing “affordable” SF homes and replacing them with 3 pricier townhomes. It’s a point I’ve been making on various comment threads.

    Further issues. If we upzone all the SF land in Seattle, what shifts can we expect in development patterns? Today, townhouse developers are building in LR zones, but if we upzone SF neighborhoods, those cheap old SF houses become attractive targets. They can be bought and redeveloped at less cost than in LR zones, so developer profits increase. I expect the net result would be less density in LR zones, where the City has planned for density, and more in the formerly SF zones where density has not been planned.

    1. Once again, the real culprit to naturally affordable housing in Seattle isn’t redevelopment, it’s scarcity. Your approach has already destroyed well over 90% of “those cheap old SF houses” and the rest will be gone soon enough on anything like our current trajectory. There’s nothing magical about them that keeps them from being bid up by people with money.

      I understand you don’t want this to be true, and I have some sympathy for that desire. But that desire on your part doesn’t make the point made in Martin’s penultimate paragraph any less accurate.

      1. Re your “There’s nothing magical about them that keeps them from being bid up by people with money.” True that. But for families seeking to buy a SF home to live in, that bidding up gets worse when they are also competing against developers who want to tear down the home they want to live in. Developers will always have deeper pockets, and they will win most of those bidding wars. Result is fewer SF homes for families to raise their kids in. More of them will be going to the ‘burbs.

      2. Pick your poison. Either SF homes are bid up to be replaced with townhomes and duplex/triplexes or SF homes are bid up to be replaced with new mega-houses and high-end down to the studs remodels.

        While opening SF zones to duplex/triplex development and even townhomes may increase development pressure (and prices) for current SF lots it would also lower prices for lots currently zoned MF or commercial as the supply of lots that can be redeveloped would be increased.

      3. RDPence,
        The developer outbidding you is only a problem if you aren’t willing to look at anything other than a detached SF home. Why not buy one of those new townhouses?
        “Result is fewer SF homes for families to raise their kids in.” YEP. And instead there will be more townhouses and rowhouses for families to raise their kids in. In fact, more families will be able to raise kids in this great city. Which reduces scarcity, relieving pressure on prices, and helping those families start a college fund.

      4. Traditionally, people raising kids in the city aimed for a rowhouse. Which, done correctly, is a single-family house, by the way. It’s just built right up to the lot line on both sides, and the lot is narrow.

    2. New stuff costs more than old stuff, dude. Replacing an old building with a new building will of course, necessarily increase the price. Because again, new stuff costs more than old stuff. When that old, “affordable” house eventually needs to be replaced, it too will be replaced with an expensive house because – you guessed it! – new stuff costs more than old stuff.

      So, therefore, we have to look at the long-term impact of lower levels of land use. What happens to the price of the housing, the traffic, the environment? Well, these are empirical questions with empirical answers. We know that restricting supply of housing must necessarily increase the price of housing. We know that from many sources, and you can check for yourself in peer-reviewed papers. If you’d like, I can fetch some for you. We also know that locating housing near jobs decreases traffic, and the opposite increases traffic. We further know that locating housing near jobs and other stuff helps the environment by reducing transportation-related emissions – easily the largest slice of carbon production in Seattle.

      So, if you say you care about housing affordability, stop protecting single family homes and reducing heights elsewhere. Join me in trying to decrease housing prices!

      1. I’m waiting to see that list of residential housing developers who are idle in Seattle because of lack of suitably zoned real estate. Perhaps you can provide that list for us, Zach.

      2. I don’t think I claimed there were any. I like how you specifically avoided all points and performed an epic nonsequitur.

      3. No non sequitur at all, Zach. If rezoning SF to MF is going to increase housing construction in Seattle, then there must be some developers who aren’t developing because of zoning. But reality is, they are finding appropriately zoned and available land, and we’re building housing at an unprecedented rate in Seattle.

        The facts don’t seem to support your notion that upzoning SF is the magic pill that will result in more new housing than is already being built. The more likely outcome is that some townhouse developers move their work from MF zoned land to the formerly SF neighborhoods where real estate is marginally cheaper. More profit for them to be building there, but little or no net gain in housing units built.

      4. Not when Mt Baker has 80′ zoning for one block, 40′ zoning for two blocks, and single-family beyond that. That’s a lot of lost housing in the station’s 10-block walk circle.

        “we’re building housing at an unprecedented rate in Seattle.”

        But it’s still not enough because the vacancy rate is extremely low and hasn’t gone up even with all the construction; in fact it’s continued to drop to historically-low, San Francisco levels. We need to get the vacancy rate up to 5-10% to reach an equilibrium on housing prices.

      5. You’re making a very similar argument to what the mayor makes. Personally, I don’t buy it. Especially the following statement: “The more likely outcome is that some townhouse developers move their work from MF zoned land to the formerly SF neighborhoods where real estate is marginally cheaper” because, as you’ve said, townhomes and duplexes are in high demand for families et. al., so both would gain the new housing form.

      6. If one developer considers a multifamily lot for townhouses and switches to a single-family lot, then another developer will put townhouses on the first lot. Or more likely apartments. Since we need both to saturate the housing demand, and some people don’t want to live in apartments, it’s a win-win.

      7. Demand for housing far outpaces supply in greater Seattle, causing current housing prices and rental rates to remain strong. Any new supply will be gobbled up at market rates. Seattle will need a major, major increase in supply to make housing and rental rates go flat or decrease. Any major decrease in demand will lower housing prices and rental rates. Massive increase in supply of units does not guarantee lower prices, demand may continue to outpace supply. Massive decrease in demand means a major economic downturn. As we are seeing now in Seattle, the crush of people living in Seattle is crushing our traffic, more people in Seattle will put more pressure on traffic, transit, and parking.

      8. rezoning SF to MF is going to increase housing construction in Seattle, then there must be some developers who aren’t developing because of zoning.

        You don’ think developers can access the capital necessary to scale up their operations and build more? I do.

        Imagine if there were only 10 restaurants allowed to operate in Seattle, by law. They’d be overpriced, always packed, etc. Because this seems insane, we’re discussing legalizing more restaurants. Do you think anyone would say “I don’t see any current restaurants with unsold food, so therefore our existing 10 restaurants must be sufficient.”

      9. If rezoning SF to MF is going to increase housing construction in Seattle, then there must be some developers who aren’t developing because of zoning. But reality is, they are finding appropriately zoned and available land, and we’re building housing at an unprecedented rate in Seattle.

        I don’t understand this objection at all. If construction is already maxed out, then upzoning will have no effect on population and NIMBY concern-trolling about duplexes is all for nothing. As a population growth advocate, I’m happy to take my chances, but RDPence is arguing that the legislation he adamantly opposes will have no effect.

    3. If you don’t upzone any SF housing in Seattle, you have what is happing in inner SE Portland, where those “affordable” single bathroom two bedroom houses are now going for $317,000. If you actually want to get a place up to current expectations, such as 2 bathrooms and three bedrooms, you might be able fo find something for $480,000 if you are lucky. Pretty much everything in that size range west of SE 50th Avenue is going for $600,000 + these days.

      If someone does buy one of those “affordable” homes, there is no guarantee that it will stay that way. Most of the time they get knocked down and turned into much larger and much more expensive homes for those that can afford them.

      If, on the other hand, more of the single level industrial storefronts in inner southeast Portland had been upzoned to allow condos or apartments above them, some of the people living in houses in inner southeast would likely have chosen those instead. However, since the area is zoned for almost entirely single family houses, that is what is available.

      Conditions would be even worse in terms of affordability here if there hadn’t been an effort by the Portland Development Commission to rebuild Inner Industrial Northwest into what is now called The Pearl District and what was North Macadam Industrial into South Waterfront. Those high density housing areas absorbed quite a lot of people looking for close to downtown housing that would have otherwise plopped down considerable sums to live in close in SF housing in inner southeast.

      1. Interesting; thanks for sharing. What happens in Portland for middle-income families, working in the central city, who want to raise their children in a SF home? Sounds like they will be consigned, over time, to the suburbs. Or abandon their housing goals and raise their kids in an in-city apartment.

      2. Why should we cater to people who turn down a multifamily unit because they insist on a house have priority over people who can barely afford the multifamily unit and absolutely can’t afford the house?

      3. Sigh. Mike. I believe in a city where people have options, where social policy does not force solutions onto people, including those benighted souls who still want to raise their children in a SF home somewhere within transport distance to their work. The rich will always have that option (think Washington Park and Magnolia Bluff), but let’s try to leave space for middle-income folks too — don’t assume they will all go to suburbia.

      4. In other words, I’m more concerned about somebody who wants to live in a walkable neighborhood with frequent transit and is flexible about what type of housing, than about somebody who insists on a single-family house.

      5. Mike Orr – SF homeowners have been footing the bill via property taxes for all things transit, may want to find a way to work with them, not against them

      6. where social policy does not force solutions onto people,

        How on earth is “you’re not allowed to turn your house into apartments, even though you don’t need a big house anymore and you need the money” not “social policy forcing solutions onto people?”

        Whether we follow your preferred zoning strategy or mine, we’re using policy to shape people’s options, in ways that will predictably create winners and losers. You don’t get to carve out any moral high ground here; what you’re accusing urbanists of here is what everyone who sets incentives and restrictions via public policy is doing.

      7. @RDPence:

        They get consigned to the suburbs regardless.

        Current vacancy rates for apartments in Portland have been in the 1% range for a while. I’ve heard it said it is the tightest apartment market in the country due to the lack of construction. Do a Google search for the Willamette Week article entitled “Renter’s Hell” for a good starting point.

        These days, around here even the homeless camps under the bridges probably have waiting lists.

        A quick trip through inner southeast will show you a number of older homes converted to duplex, triplex or quadplex when that was allowed. Today, strict SFH zoning means single family houses only, no conversions, no neighborhood convenience store rebuilt with apartments above them, no nothing.

        So, with a fixed housing stock, naturally the price of everything rises.

      8. You know there are several stages of middle ground between “SF home with a yard” and ‘apartment in a multistory building’. You have conversions and new build duplexes and triplexes which retain access to a yard. In some cases individual private yards are part of the design. You have row houses which often have yards. You have cottage developments. You have separate townhouses. You have garden apartments. All of these can offer more space than a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment along with access to a yard.

        The sad fact is in cities like Seattle and Portland even if you create land use regulations preserving every single existing SF house as SF zoning forever the middle class is still going to get bid out of that housing. Probably more rapidly than if you allowed other higher density housing types in those same neighborhoods. Why? Because anyone wanting to live in the city is faced with a stark choice between a studio/1/2 br apartment above street level surrounded by other similarly sized buildings or a SF home surrounded by other SF homes. No middle ground of a row house, duplex, or garden apartment exists.

        bTW contrary to the belief of some who have watched too many “Leave it to Beaver” or “Brady Bunch” re-runs it is possible for people to raise children without a yard. While more common in places like New York you see people doing it in even Seattle and Portland.

      9. Look, if you legalize rowhouses, *you are legalizing cheaper single-family houses*. Has this fact been lost to commentators like RDPence?

        A rowhouse *is* a single-family house. It’s a single-family house without setbacks, without a lawn, without a “FAR maximum”. It’s one which makes maximum use of the available land.

      10. I guess Chris Stefan expressed my viewpoint here. The “middle ground” needs to be legalized.

        Duplexes, triplexes, up-to-the-lot-line rowhouses, garden apartments — meddling social-control activists have *banned* them all. They’ve even banned the most innocuous conversions, the ones which keep the house exterior exactly the same but convert an old mansion into an apartment building.

    4. Further issues. If we upzone all the SF land in Seattle, what shifts can we expect in development patterns? Today, townhouse developers are building in LR zones, but if we upzone SF neighborhoods, those cheap old SF houses become attractive targets. They can be bought and redeveloped at less cost than in LR zones, so developer profits increase.

      God forbid someone make a profit! We can’t have that!

      The choice you’re setting up here is to demolish inexpensive dense units, or let developers move into SF zones to demolish many fewer inexpensive, not-dense units. I vote for the former! Moreover, if SF zones meet townhouse demand that makes it all the easier to place multifamily buildings close to transit.

  12. It’s interesting that this would be posed today, because just this past Friday there was a public discussion about all this here in Portland, with San Francisco reporter Kim-Mai Cutler. A bit about all that is found here:

    The key, I suppose, is summed up in one of the comments:

    Cutler’s argument begins from acknowledging one basic fact: if 20,000 people are moving to SF per year, those people need places to live. If year after year we fail to build enough housing, housing will only be available to richer and richer people. If you’re denying that there is a shortage of housing supply in the Bay Area, you must live on a different planet.

    I didn’t go as the company I work for sent me out on the road for a couple of days. However, for those with a desire to dig deeper into all this, the article above might be a good starting point. There’s a fair number of hyperlinks to other resources scattered through it.

    1. Kim is great; thanks for the link. Her answer to the last question deserves to be highlighted:

      Q: Is there any way to keep the character of a place while at the same time not pricing everyone out of it?

      A: I don’t know what “character” means. Does it matter that all the buildings look the same, but now they’re filled with super-ultra-rich people? What precisely are we trying to protect? Is there a specific socioeconomic diversity that we want to protect? Is it a certain architectural look and feel that we want to protect? I think we need to be very specific when we talk about character, because character can be, frankly, quite exclusionary. We protect buildings over people.

      This is absolutely spot-on. A lot of individual preferences and interests get smuggled into “character” in a way that makes what’s actually being argued for seem far more selfless and reasonable.

      1. Yeah. “Character” is a code word which could mean a lot of things.

        If what you really care about is the historic buildings, pass a historic preservation ordinance… and if people convert that “historic” house to a duplex or an office building or a B&B, let them do it.

        If what you really care about is keeping renters out of your neighborhood, at the very least admit to it.

  13. You are very kind, Martin. Ms. Herbold’s argument was gibberish. It was sliced and diced a dozen times over in the comments. A good philosophy professor or high school debate teacher would have done the same. Housing issues can be complicated, but that doesn’t excuse arguments that don’t make sense.

    I’m typing from a crappy laptop, so I won’t repeat the obvious counter arguments. Suffice it to say that while zoning policy is full of tradeoffs, this isn’t one of them. The folks who are worried about displacement are better off with more liberal zoning rules.

    1. I think Lisa Herbold’s argument against duplexes and triplexes is a hell of a lot more coherent than Tim Burgess, Mike O’Brien, or Ed Murray.

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