Alki-marinaFor quite some time now, the debate over density has immersed itself in the language of affordability. Density advocates, quite reasonably, cite supply and demand, while unsophisticated detractors correlate development with rising rents. More sophisticated detractors instead cite displacement as a downside, as development indeed sometimes displaces existing tenants on a given property.

While there are technical definitions for various bands of affordability, to ordinary people “affordable” means “affordable to my peer group.” An apodment isn’t affordable if your peer group is families with children; it’s not part of your housing universe and doesn’t address your difficulty in finding housing. Likewise, there is inexpensive market-rate housing in Rainier Beach. It stinks to have to move there if you’re on Capitol Hill, but “I’m not rich enough to avoid a poor neighborhood” might not be a humanitarian crisis worthy of a policy response.

Although it’s obvious that increasing rents have forced some people out of their homes, their neighborhoods, or even their cities, the problem with the affordability formulation is that is suggests bad solutions. A higher minimum wage has many merits, but more affordable housing is not one of them.

At root, Seattle has not an “affordability” crisis, but a housing shortage. Rents increase not because ownership and construction have become much more expensive, but because demand outstrips supply. Any “solution” that doesn’t dramatically lift supply is simply rearranging whose desire to live in Seattle is denied. In a pure market system, the high bidder wins. A rent-control system favors the longtime resident and the well-connected. And socialization of all housing (to take an extreme no one is proposing) will benefit whomever the politically favored groups are at the time. In any case, someone is left out, and that’s a damn shame from an environmental, economic, and compassionate standpoint.

The only way out is to maximize unit construction. That means neither single-minded focus on market-rate construction nor on public housing. A policy response that doesn’t address supply for the whole range of the market — housing for all income levels; students, retirees, large families; newcomers and longtime residents  —  is an incomplete one.

207 Replies to “Better Vocabulary for the Housing Debate”

  1. Agreed. You said a lot of things that a lot of people don’t want to say or acknowledge.

    Added: “Rents increase not because ownership and construction have become much more expensive, but because demand outstrips supply. ” This also applies to real estate sales prices, potentially to a greater extent.

    1. I’d add one hard numbers to this:
      The vacancy rate. If it’s below 5%, the landlords can virtually hold tenants for ransom. I believe that if it’s above 10% the landlords might start going bankrupt. You want it to stay between 5% and 10%.

      In Seattle it is below 4%.

      This tells you that you have a housing shortage.

      This also lets you know when it’s fixed. When the vacancy rate in each class of apartments/houses rises high enough, then you’ve fixed the shortage in that class.

  2. I think most people here are in total agreement. The question, IMHO, is how to convince the city government of this. You would think something so simple wouldn’t be difficult to explain, but somehow people have gone off the deep end on this issue. What has gone wrong in communication?

    1. It’s not a communication problem, it’s a self-interest problem. People who already possess a scarce good want to keep it scarce, for a variety of reasons, including ease of access to government-provided free car storage, a better return on their primary investment, and aesthetic preferences regarding their immediate environs. Their political power is, blessedly, not monolithic and probably waning, but nowhere near fast enough to prevent a horrible housing crisis for the rest of us.

      1. It’s both. If you read comments about housing in this city, you will know exactly what Martin is talking about. Go to Crosscut, the Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Urbanist, Seattle Met or any other local blog and look for an article about zoning. In there you are sure to find examples that match Martin’s description.

        There is a trade-off with zoning. Occasionally someone will write something expressing the feelings you describe. They will basically say “tough luck”, you can’t live everywhere (e. g. “I can’t afford to live in Aspen, Colorado — should we do something about that”). Occasionally someone will acknowledge the problem, but suggest a balance (between affordable housing and the interests of home owners). But both of those are rare. What is most common is exactly what Martin describes — a refusal to acknowledge that we have a housing supply crisis in this city. Even those running for city council — including one that wrote a guest piece here — have done that ( Find an article about Apodments, and you are sure to find someone saying they are terrible because they aren’t cheap. In other words, they do nothing to make housing more affordable, so banning them is no great loss.

        If we change the nature of the conversation — away from the idea of an affordability crisis to a housing supply crisis, then we should see fewer arguments like those. Or, at the very least, it makes is a lot easier to simply counter those arguments.

      2. I am very impressed with the level and sophistication of conversation here, even such people as RD Pence who are almost always dead-wrong yet manage to (usually) present their errors with coherence and civility.

    2. Stephen, “city government” is full of very intelligent and well-educated people. “City government” knows exactly what Martin says and, off the record, probably agrees with his policy suggestions. Unfortunately “city government” also knows that it will be summarily ejected from office if it does what he’s advocating. djw is exactly correct. It is in SFH owners’ clear collective interest to pull up the ladder, so they will punish anyone who messes with exclusionary zoning.

      I expect that most people who live in those SFH think that Link will make it easier for them to get to work by hauling in the suburbanites who currently clog the freeway. They’ll be severely disappointed, but at least it will keep the economic engine that is downtown Seattle viable.

      1. I would bet that very few SFH owners feel this way. Or at least, very few are simply interested in preserving their investment. Quite the contrary. We have a very left leaning electorate. But the more the argument is muddled — the more we have articles like this:, the more folks can simply throw up their hands and oppose change. They will simple argue the following: Apodments aren’t cheap. All this construction and rent is still really expensive. Building more won’t help, it will simply displace the folks that live here already. Rent control is the answer. Or maybe there is no answer, because it is all the fault of rich people — rich techies — moving into the area. So since there is no obvious solution and building more won’t help, I sure as hell don’t want a duplex being built next to my house.

        I think folks who feel that way greatly outnumber those that are simply interested in preserving the value of their single home. Just look at the writing in The Stranger, our most progressive newspaper. Look how many articles have been written about rent control, and how many have been written about increasing the supply of housing. Is this because The Stranger is only interested in preserving the value of single family houses? Or is it because The Stranger writers are just as confused as Ms. Herbold, who will likely be a city council member soon.

        We have a housing supply crisis in this city. The more we keep mentioning this, the more we say this in this manner, the better. There will be those, of course, who want to balance the need to address that problem with other interests (preserving the nice aesthetics of SFH neighborhoods or all neighborhoods being their primary one). But the more we push for more housing, the simpler the debate becomes and the easier it is to balance those competing interests.

  3. Well said. I would add that while a policy that only addresses one facet of the market may be incomplete, that doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t do it. A plan to make more market-rate housing is an improvement even if it doesn’t add much to the public housing picture, and vice versa. The HALA group did good work by recommending a lot of things that would be improvements in all these areas. It would be great if they could all be enacted. However if some of them can’t move forward for political reasons, that should not be used as an excuse to scuttle the rest of them.

    1. I agree. I would say that the biggest potential for positive change is to create more market rate housing. The public housing market is being hammered by the high cost of market rate housing (as this article in the front page of The Seattle Times mentions: We should do both, but spending more on public assistance gets us very little as long as market rate housing is so expensive.

    1. Character – A weasel word used to pre-empt any and all changes in a neighborhood. It may possibly mean no façade changes, no ADUs, no apartments or condos, no retail, no buildings with less than 1:1 parking, no people making less than the neighborhood’s average income, and/or no renters. It generally freezes the neighborhood façade as if it were a historical district, while ignoring other social changes such as the rising population which makes the previously-affordable neighborhood a bastion of wealth and extraordinary privilege, forcing those who can’t buy in into ever-worse housing or exile from the city.

      1. Yes, that old weasel word Character. It’s what the NIMBYs trotted out 45 years ago when they fought to save the Pike Place Market. Same in Pioneer Square, which that generation’s urbanists wanted to tear down and replace with parking garages. Yes, let’s ignore Character; it’s just a tool to forestall urbanist utopia!

      2. RDPence: What is character then? Define it for me. Show me how I can determine the character of a neighborhood, and how I can use that determination to decide if a new building is or is not in character.

        And just because people used the “character argument” [if they even did, which I do not concede until substantiated], that doesn’t mean that the “character argument” is even valid. There are goods gained by Pike Place Market preservation that have nothing to do with character, and ones that doesn’t intentionally cause housing shortages which cause affordability crises.

        Indeed, the “character argument” today is literally allowing residents in an adjacent condo building from disallowing a new apartment building in the place of an historic parking garage in PSQ.

      3. Preserving a few square blocks of downtown is completely different from preserving all the single-family blocks in the city.

      4. Zach, if someone has to define Character for you, in the urban context, then this discussion won’t get off the ground. And yes, the Character of the public market was very much part of the discussion back when we were saving it. I know because I was part of it (a very minor part, admittedly)

      5. Thanks for proving my point, RDP!

        And again, it doesn’t matter that they used the “character” argument, which again I do not accept that they did especially based only on your personal testimony, because wrong-headed arguments get used in good outcomes all the time. The character argument is a fig leaf in all cases.

      6. RDPence,
        Well, please condescend to give a definition for it anyway. It seems to mean whatever people want it to mean at the time. What is it to you?

        And the Pike Place Market is actually interesting and USEFUL. It has a function in the city that parking and condos could not perform. Random House X houses people, and a rowhouse could do it just as well. Not the same ballpark at all.

      7. Preserve the character of Puget Sound neighborhoods! Rebuild the ASARCO smelter now! We need to preserve the natural character of the region by filling the air with smelly toxic cancerous smoke!

        Please, there are many places I would love to see preserved, but at the same time I also recognize that these places must change with the huge population growth and things change naturally over time. Allowing a few multi-unit conversions of existing homes hardly qualifies as a complete change in the character of a neighborhood.

        If preserving the character of a neighborhood is high on your list, understand that preserving the zoning doesn’t necessarily accomplish this. Places like Beacon Hill that have dozens of smaller homes will likely see massive conversions to three floor narrow infill houses, which meet the SFH zoning but certainly will vastly change the character of the neighborhood. Neighborhood character just isn’t something that zoning alone is going to preserve.

  4. Allow rents to increase by a small margin, tied to inflation and minimum wage increases. If you want to jack up rent beyond that amount, go for it, but it’ll get taxed at an extremely high rate.

    Building like there’s no tomorrow will only do so much, the housing market is not a perfect economic machine that some people on here fantasize that it is. We also have to find a reasonable way to counter the greed that is unfortunately inherent in the human condition.

    1. We know what happens when you do that: you become San Francisco. Apartments magically become condos and landlords defer necessary repairs.

      OTOH, we know, for sure with no doubt, that building does cause rent disinflation if not outright deflation. We know from the preponderance of land use studies as well as overwhelming (maybe unanimous) support of land use economists. Heck even the Pope agrees.

      You can even appeal to a basic understanding of supply and demand: restrict supply while demand goes up, then price goes up. Allow supply to equal demand, price goes down.

      1. There are ways of discouraging outrageous and usurious rent increases without going down the same path at SF or other rent controlled cities. As I said above you can trigger relocation assistance above a certain percent rent increase. Assuming state law is changed you can even ban increases over a certain percentage. If the threshold is high enough it doesn’t discourage rental ownership or investment the same way classic rent control does. Allowing say 25% annual rent increases means the opportunity for ROI is there it just doesn’t let you buy an apartment building and triple the rents overnight.

      2. @mdnative: That article was written like 30 days after the policy went into place. There’s no mechanism in the law that would ever, ever decrease rents, so it’s clearly a measurement error. One can’t find good english-language sources for that claim, unfortunately. But there’s no proposed mechanism where that scheme could possibly cause rent deflation.

      3. “There are ways of discouraging outrageous and usurious rent increases without going down the same path at SF or other rent controlled cities.”

        No, there aren’t. Return to the beginning and read again.

    2. Rents follow the vacancy rate. 5-10% vacancy leads to an equilibrium between rent inflation and rent deflation. In the 2008 crash people moved away and rents fell, and only recovered in 2011. Rent deflation usually starts with sales (“First month free”, “Free microwave”) before the nominal rate goes down. My rent was supposedly “$100 discount” when I moved in 2010. We should build enough housing to match the rising population every year and where people want to live; then rent fluctuations will be minor.

      A complicating factor is that there are multiple rental markets at different price points. The luxury units might as well not exist to a lower-income person, while a higher-income person may not be interested in an apodment. So it’s possible for one rental market to be squeezed while another is simultaneously wide open. For a variety of economic reasons, the low-income and workforce levels are the most squeezed and will remain so for several years after HALA is enacted, because higher-income people have the option of taking a less-desirable unit and many do so (to save money, for moral reasons, for locational convenience, etc). So we need to give this area special attention, through subsidized housing or whatever.

      1. Correct. Keep track of the vacancy rates (in each class of housing — there may be different rates for apodments and for McMansions). Manage your policy to keep vacancy rates between 5% and 10%. If the vacancy rate drops below 5%, you have a housing shortage. (In practice very few cities ever exceed an 8% vacancy rate — the developers stop building at that point, and may even demolish older buildings, so you have to have Detroit-like depopulation to get higher vacancy rates.)

        The vacancy rate in King County and Snohomish County *put together* is down to 4.05% now. The vacancy rate in Seattle proper is even lower; it was 3.32% back in mid-2014, and seems to have dropped since then (I can’t find a hard number). This is a housing shortage.

    3. One step not likely to trigger the state ban on rent control is to trigger the city’s relocation law if the rent increases by more than a certain percentage in any 12 month period. Set the threshold at say 30% and it will stop the overnight doubling some renters have seen. it will also prevent landlords from avoiding the relocation laws by using outrageous rent increases as proxy evictions.

      1. Doubling situations are really rare, though. In those cases, the old rent was likely far below market, actually a good thing for those tenants. If the rents gradually increased, we wouldn’t hear these stories, but the tenants would have been paying more rent all along.

        Much more common are scenarios where rent goes up x% and wages go up quite a bit less than x%, or not at all. Instead of hemorrhaging money, you bleed it out more slowly, but you’re still bleeding money.

  5. We have a housing shortage, but even this morning I heard an analyst who was concerned that Seattle is getting “overbuilt.” I almost choked on my breakfast.

    Here’s where I struggle to understand the situation: how would developers not make profits even if rents plateaued?

    Do new construction buildings need perpetual 7-20% rent increases to remain attractive investments? I am skeptical. Income growth doesn’t even remotely catch up, and those kinds of increases could never be sustainable in the medium term. Are developers worrying that further property tax increases will wipe out their profits? It seems unlikely, given the tight supply market, that they couldn’t pass on most of that expense to tenants.

    I’m a free market guy as much as anyone, but if developers are worrying about overbuilding at the same time we’re seeing substantial rent increases, something seems wrong. If Seattle is not amazingly profitable for developers right now, I’m not sure it will ever be.

    1. Income growth does not need to “keep up”. Seattle has become a global “destination city” like Vancouver BC. The Republicans’ solution to immigration will be to chuck the current family-relationship system and replace it with the “bring your own money” version used in Commonwealth countries. Expect lots of Hong Kong and Shanghai expats to flood the city in the next decades.

    2. Rents have been rising faster than inflation since 2000, with the exception of 2008-2011. So landlords are making much more profit than they did then, and that should make investors happy even if rents plateau. Rents can’t continue rising 7-20% forever any more than the housing bubble could, because eventually you run out of rich people willing to rent those units.

      There’s a partial exception for world-class cities like London and Vancouver, where international tycoons park money into housing because their own country’s investments are unstable, and to prepare a second home in case they want it full time someday, and to get their children into local schools and universities. New York has some of that too, but oddly enough, not enough to keep its rents rising as consistently as Vancouver. Seattle has some Chinese families moving to the Eastside to get their kids into the renowned public schools, but the overall rent increases so far are not predominantly due to tycoons but due to the rising population and jobs.

      1. Mike, I think you’re right that the bulk of the recent history of rapid increases is, in fact, the tech boom coupled with exclusionary zoning. That said, the people who are going to be moving into the new luxury towers that are beginning to sprout aren’t people working today, at least, not “working” in the sense of being an employee or even a contractor/consultant. Those sorts of housing are for people who have already accumulated large wealth and are living from it.

      2. Vancouver? Rents are fairly low (though Vancouver is not a high-wage city) There have been mutterings about them rising in the near future, but that’s to come .

        It’s almost entirely houses that drive property appreciation in Vancouver. The condo market hasn’t really had rapidly rising prices since 2008, and the attached units market is somewhere in between

      3. True, at least in my experience. My wife and I had no problem getting a 1BR for $1100 in Point Grey, and we moved in during the Olympics.

      4. Yeah, exactly. Seattle really isn’t a “destination city” like Vancouver, BC. There are a handful of wealthy people who will buy a place here (or visit in the summer) but that is true everywhere. Vancouver is Canada’s San Fransisco. It is arguably the nicest place in the Commonwealth. Since it shares the same ocean as Hong Kong, it should have been no surprise that so much wealth flowed there when the handover occurred. Nor should it be surprising that so many people still flow there from other places of Canada or the world (as Canadian immigrants). For Canada, you basically have Vancouver and Victoria on the west coast, and that is it.

        Seattle is different. Seattle is nothing special compared to San Fransisco or L. A. The climate isn’t as nice (to most people), the cultural opportunities are bush league in comparison and we don’t have the history or charm of San Francisco. Seattle competes with Portland as well. If a rich person wants a city with a laid back, Northwest feel, why wouldn’t they just move to Portland? I would say hiking is better here, but if you are really into hiking, then move to Bellingham, Aspen. Bend (or dozens of other mountain towns). I suppose you could argue that we are right in that sweet spot. Enough outdoor activities and enough urban activities to appeal to a certain wealthy demographic. Personally, I think that is just arrogance — locals patting themselves on the back and wondering why everyone else doesn’t want to live here. Sorry, I don’t buy it (and I grew up here). I just don’t think there are that many people who are wealthy, can live anywhere, and choose to buy a condo here.

        Just look at the type of development that is occurring here. So far as i know, I can’t think of a single case of a new development actually decreasing density. Meanwhile, this happens all the time in New York City (and a lot of other cities). People buy up a couple apartments next to each other and knock down the walls. Or a new building goes up and rich Russians buy out an entire floor. This just isn’t happening in this city, despite a building code that encourages it. Developers are begging the city to allow for more population density, but the city basically has said no. If demand was really based on new wealthy people, the developers wouldn’t care. They would put up six story buildings with an apartment on each floor, and gain every advantage of the old rules governing Apodments. Despite the regulatory change, that type of development is still allowed (no review process, and you only need to add six parking spots). But no one is building that, because there just isn’t the demand.

        As Mike said, the demand is coming from increased employment. A lot of those people are wealthier than average, but they aren’t that wealthy. Their relative wealth has little to do with the affordability crisis, because as Martin has so aptly put it in this article, the affordability crisis is simply a supply crisis. We can’t ignore the obvious role that regulations are playing in this. If it really was a case of wealthy individuals driving out the lower and middle class (which could happen) then changing the regulations would have little effect. You would allow triplexes to be built in single family neighborhoods, but no one would build those. No wealthy person wants that — he wants a huge mega-house (which is legal today).;That obviously isn’t the case, which is why the wealth of those wanting to live in the city is playing a very small part in the increased cost of rent. Changing the regulations to allow more density would result in more new units being built because that is where the demand is coming from.

  6. While we’re talking about vocabulary, let’s also remember that unsophisticated density advocates frequently correlate increased construction with affordability, when what they should be saying is more housing will only marginally slow the rate of price increase.

      1. I just showed you that prices did not rise. I literally just showed you the opposite of that. Prices fell, dude.

      2. A lot of the new urban construction (and suburban housing) is empty.

        It is held by wealthy individuals, or trusts, or banks and used as an ETF…a global investment currency.

        If you look at (especially urban dwellings) as currency, rather than as a utility in which to live, some of the absurd pricing and policy starts to make sense.

        If houses were dollars, and you had a lot of dollars, would you want Government to print more of them? Hell no…not unless you could scoop them all up (this too happens).

    1. Sam, are you really claiming that housing supply has nothing to do with the cost of housing? Wow.

      I know it is hard to remember history, but holy smoke, we are talking about events that are quite recent. You are telling me that you have forgotten about the recession? Seriously? Don’t you remember that it was caused, in large part, to over building? A housing bubble occurred because folks built too many houses. Suddenly those that expected their property to increase in value saw the opposite. So they decided to dump their mortgage. The banks were left picking up the bill. They had insurance on the loan, and cashed in those policies. Other banks had essentially bid up the value of those insurance policies and next thing you know, the Great Recession.

      Of course the good news for some folks is that they could buy cheap condos in some places (e. g. I remember looking at condos in SeaTac for around 20 grand). I’m sure a lot of property in Las Vegas was really cheap, too.

      It is just supply and demand. No one knows how much demand there will be in Seattle the next few years. We could easily have an apartment bubble, and see prices plummet (imagine if Amazon decided to move).

      We also can’t ignore the fact that some types of development is cheaper than others. At this point, it doesn’t matter which goes in, but should prices lower — should supply finally catch up with demand — then it will matter. Building a new building might not make sense if rent is low (construction costs being what they are). But building a new ADU could. It is simply a lot cheaper to build (since you retain the value of the existing house). So if subdivisions, apartment conversions and backyard cottages are allowed, those would be developed even if prices plummeted — thus giving more renters a chance to live in the city.

  7. I absolutely agree…the problem is lack of housing supply.

    How can we increase housing supply, of the type people would want?

    Some of the answers I think are:

    (1) Remove the cap on Property Tax rises. This will generate incentives for Land Hogging, and release more property into the mix for residential growth.

    (2) Expand the GMA boundary. More land. More housing. Lower costs.

    (3) Focus on Regional Rapid Transportation rather than intra-Seattle transit (which is already quite good as it). Allow people to travel quickly from remote residences to centralized resources like offices and stadiums.

    (4) Expand our thinking from cities and metro areas to State-wide transportation. Today’s high speed trains can make travel between Yakima and Tacoma possible on a weekly basis, so someone doing business or telecommuting can have low cost housing and a high paying job, something we all want.

    (5) Expand the growth of highway routes. We’ve doubled our population but added no major highway routes. Build more limited access highways (Portland, by the way, is saturated with highways and it makes getting around town very easy).

    (6) In fill existing suburbs, but make more developments of small plot housing. Here in Kent, there’s a ridiculous disparity of having cramped expensive apartments and only a few blocks away, people are sitting on acres of open land. While I like “the country” it seems like being able to move families with children, running around in a parking lot, into a regular house with a backyard is a more pressing need.

    1. Erp…make that

      “REMOVE the incentives for Land Hogging…”

      (Note to STB…where’s the edit button?)

      1. In many cases, Sam, no. Witness the “road diets” that have significantly improved safety with marginal or zero impact on travel times.

      2. Zach, when two lanes were subtracted from highway 405 yesterday and the day before yesterday, do you believe travel times increased, decreased, or stayed the same?

      3. As time goes on, the world will come to equilibrium again. Therefore, travel times will stay the same. We know this for sure.

      4. Sure, as population growth levels and declines, eventually I will be able to walk across I-5 at noon, just like they say they did in 1980.

    2. Zach, you talk about an equilibrium, but you conveniently forget about it when talk about housing. You say cars will eventually fill the void of added lanes, causing travel times to remain the same or get worse, but you don’t mention that when more housing is built, people will fill that void, but, you say, prices in this case will lower. What happened to your equilibrium theory? Build more apts = lower rents. Build more lanes = no lower travel times?

      1. Most people want only one apartment, they same way they want one bed and one tube of toothpaste. A greater supply of apartments, beds, or toothpaste does not make them acquire more. But if a highway lane is added or suddenly loses half its congestion, then people in aggregate make more trips until the lane is full again, and switch from transit to driving. Theoretically we could saturate the demand by tripling or quadrupling the highway lanes — we’d have to find the point where people are unwilling to drive around all day any further — but that would take up gobs of land and increase pollution. The 1950s utopia is not scalable.

      2. More housing does not cause more people to house more. More roads does cause people to travel more. We know this for sure from the literature.

      3. Zach: up to a certain point, more housing does cause people to house more: people upgrade from apodments and boarding houses to full apartments; people give each kid their own room; people spread out a bit. But in the US we’ve mostly reached the point where people have enough housing that they’re sated.

        Further, in Seattle you’ve basically outlawed all the “less housing” options, so everyone who has housing is totally saturated on the amount of housing they can consume.

        So a housing shortage in a city with more relaxed policies might come out as multiple families sharing a house or people doubling up bedrooms. Instead the housing shortage comes out as people priced out of the city.

    3. Might want to use the “edit” key on Number 5, John. Should read “Highways around Portland increase rail transit speed and ridership by the number of automobiles they keep stored out of the way of light rail and streetcars. In addition to adding comic relief for gondola passengers to laugh at and take videos of that clearly show cars by the thousands stuck and everything under wire on rail moving. ”

      But having lived enough years to have ridden the interurban- George Benson streetcars with baggage cars- north of Chicago, including the Electroliner, which every transit advocate should google , you’ve got a point about spatial relationships. The better both local and regional transit get, the wider the choice of desirable places to live that are close to other neat places.

      Remember also, how recently places like Ballard really were different cities than Seattle. And space across Southcenter parking lots contained miles of forests and fields with tallest structures being silos. Which takes us to “character.” Capital C, usually meaning “no cheaper than what we own. Except also with more old bricks.”

      But recalling why I left Ballard, character is not what a place costs, but what people there do. What drew me to Ballard was that it earned its living by light industry, creating activity I loved living in the middle of. Now that Ballard lives by heavy real estate speculation….

      The Chicago and North Shore interurban went around the downtown Chicago “Loop” elevated, and a half hour later was going past Twilight Zone style drugstores on Main Street an hour later. Not that modern transit equivalents can rescue Ballard, but they could save other places from becoming it.

      Mark Dublin

    4. > Focus on Regional Rapid Transportation rather than intra-Seattle transit (which is already quite good as it [is]).


    5. John,

      I can quibble with a lot of what you’re saying, but I’ll focus on your point #3. I wonder if you’ve been in Seattle recently. My wife works in Redmond, and we live in north Fremont. It takes her 20 minutes on the 44 to go the 3.5 miles to Montlake & 520. It then takes her another 40 minutes to go the 12.5 miles from Montlake to work. In what world is the Seattle transit better than the Redmond transit?

      1. The advantage of upper Fremont is not the buses’ speed but the number of frequent routes, the number of destinations available, and the span of frequent service. 46th & Fremont is within a 10-minute flat walk to the 44, E, 5, and 16; and a 10-minute hilly walk to the 26, 28, 31, and 32. That’s four frequent routes and two frequent route-pairs. That puts you within a 30-minute bus ride of Ballard, the U-District, Greenwood, Northgate, SLU, and downtown. That’s tons of jobs, shopping, recreational activities, and friends’ houses.

        There’s no place in Redmond like that. The closest equivalents are right in downtown Redmond and Overlake Village. In downtown Redmond you have about one frequent route (to Overlake and Bellevue), two weekday-frequent routes (to Kirkland and Eastgage), a weekday-frequent express (to downtown), a couple infrequent routes (to Duvall and Avondale), a couple infrequent expresses (to Bellevue and the U-District), and maybe a couple others I don’t know about. In Overlake Village your choices go way down to Redmond, Bellevue, and Eastgate. A 30-minute bus ride from either of these points will take you to more or less downtown Bellevue, Kirkland, Eastgate, and maybe the Montlake freeway station. The total amount of jobs, stores, recreational activities, and friends’ houses in that 30-minute circle is less. Although in compensation, big-box stores are more accessible in Redmond. In the evenings almost all the routes become infrequent or disappear, so it’s hard to get around. So it’s harder to live in Redmond without a car, even if weekday-express routes are more available. Also, Redmond needs those expresses more because there’s no way a local bus could get to downtown or the U-District in 30 minutes.

        However, John is wrong about Seattle getting undue investments. The number of frequent routes and destinations is a direct reflection of Seattle’s higher population, density, and ridership. If the suburbs had that much density, they could expect that much transit.

    6. Some good ideas, but the idea that intra-Seattle transit is good is ridiculous, and the source of much of our problems. I have a friend who lives around Northgate and just took a job in Georgetown. Taking a bus would take over an hour, so he drives. This is despite the first leg of his trip (Northgate to downtown) being quite good. What is true of Georgetown (arguably an obscure place to work) is true of places like Fremont and Ballard (which have plenty of employers). Even transportation to First Hill and South Lake Union isn’t very good, despite being very close to downtown and being major employment centers.

      This is the problem. What you are suggesting, for the most part, could work, but only if intra-Seattle transportation was much better. Consider someone taking the bus from Federal Way to downtown Seattle. Despite the distance, and the fact that thousands of acres of relatively affordable land is passed along the way, the trip is fairly quick. So if your job is in downtown, then living in cheaper suburbs makes some sense. But if your job isn’t (and increasingly it isn’t). Then you are stuck driving. You then want to get closer — want to move closer — so that the trip isn’t so horrific. Driving from Ballard to South Lake Union is a lot better than driving from Federal way to South Lake Union.

      This is where we are really screwing up. Those in the suburbs, like those in the city, are not simply trying to get downtown. If they were, the buses, with all of their flaws, would be pretty good. But once you wait for a transfer, then take a slow bus to your ultimate destination, the time you saved on the bus (traveling in the HOV lanes) is minimal. Light rail, with all of its stops, won’t solve that problem. If the ride from Everett to downtown is five minutes faster than a transfer at Lynnwood (and you are lucky if it is) it won’t make much difference to the person trying to get to Fremont, Ballard, SPU, Pill Hill, or dozens of other destinations scattered around the city. On the other hand, if we build a decent public transportation system in the city (which involves both fast and frequent buses and trains) then it could change everything. Suddenly that trip to South Lake Union (or even Georgetown) is significantly faster than driving, even if the ride from the suburbs is on a bus.

      1. What condituons (social-political-economic) would be necessary to build a first class public transit system?

        I don’t think we are anywhere close to spending the kind of money which we need to in order to build a great system of any type and with any spending the kind of money which we need to in order to build a great system of any type and with any tick and all t homologous.

        In fact we are more likely than not to go to further with private vehicles with the self-driving car.

  8. What’s interesting to me is how much large multifamily housing is built on the fringes of the city where land is affordable. Very often this land is on high speed corridors (Lake City Way, Aurora Ave, etc) which often also represent district boundaries. So often I feel like the voices of these MFH-dwellers are drowned out by the desires and political clout of the neighboring SFH folks unfairly. These corridors may be lined on both sides by multi family housing and form a rather dense, if linear, neighborhood, but are divided by political boundaries and their voice as a neighborhood, and not just some buildings the SFH dwellers were nice enough to allow, is quieted.

  9. I’m still not grasping the urbanist fixation with upzoning all of Seattle’s SF neighborhoods, even those that are non-walkable (as in no sidewalks!) and with no decent transit access. The data indicate there is plenty of already-zoned land ready for re-development for MF housing, and that supply will only increase when the HALA-recommended upzones go into effect for MF-zoned land. And when urban village boundaries are expanded. I’ve not seen any analysis showing that SF upzones need to be included. We need something more than recitations of urbanist orthodoxy.

    1. Are housing prices increasing much faster than inflation? Yes. This data point alone is enough to show that the current zoning is insufficient to meet demand, regardless of how much housing could theoretically be built if every single property owner in multi-family zones decided to level their properties and build the largest thing allowed under current zoning.

      This “we have enough zoned capacity already” argument becomes even weaker when the HALA upzones happen. Would you really recommend that we tear down all of the large buildings erected in the past decade to replace them with something one or two stories taller before we even think of replacing a few single-family homes with duplexes?

      1. Way too much hyperbole there, Eric. The City’s own Development Capacity Report from last September shows Seattle has room for 224,000 units of new housing on already-zoned land. Even at current growth rates, it would take many years to fill that capacity. And that capacity will increase substantially with the non-controversial HALA upzones and the City’s proposed urban village expansions. Upzoning all SF neighborhoods will increase that by some further percentage, but that increment is non-essential.

        If urbanists wanted to get serious about SF neighborhoods, they would be narrowing their proposals to walkable neighborhoods with good transit access. But they’re not. They want everything everywhere. They’d rather do battle with those they call NIMBYs, rather than sit down and be rational about it.

      2. Much of the existing zoning capacity is not realizable: it costs more to add just one or two stories than you’d get in income. That’s why many lowrise-zoned lots have remained SFHs or one-story strip malls. When Broadway was zoned four stories, two supermarket lots remained vacant for years, but when it was rezoned to six stories suddenly new buildings went up. HALA would correct the zoning near urban villages and add flexibility in single-family areas, but it’s unclear at this point whether any of it will pass. You say “the non-controversial upzones” but I’m sure we’ll hear opposition to them in time. Unless the current council passes HALA in a couple months, we’ll have to see what the new unknown council does.

        For all those people who have low-density living and like it, there are other people who’d like it too who currently don’t have it. The SF changes would allow more people to have a slightly-smaller yard and a slightly less-detached house, which is reasonable to expect when the population has risen from 200,000 in 1930 to 620,000 and growing. We’re not a small city any longer, so it’s unfair for existing SF homeowners to keep all their space and everyone else has to squeeze even more to give them that extraordinary privilege.

      3. Mike – good point. When you walk around Belltown or Pike-Pine, just to pick some of the more built-up neighborhoods that I’m more familiar with, you still see a lot of parking lots and one-story buildings.

        People see those and say, why not build on that area first? They see “plenty” of land, which is in fact accurate, but the zoning is really restrictive.

        Belltown (for reasons I cannot understand – does anyone know?) is still zoned 85′ on many blocks and 125′ on many more. Only a few blocks are zoned for 240′ towers and not surprisingly, those blocks have been getting more built up recently (e.g. around 3rd/Cedar). If those lower-rise blocks were upzoned, we’d see much more housing in a super-walkable area close to downtown and SLU.

    2. It sometimes seems like you’re managing to post from some alternative universe where rents and purchase prices aren’t rising at several times the rate of inflation, Seattle isn’t facing an affordability crisis, and where the excessive development pressure on LR zones caused a resident rebellion that led to a downzone and reduction in housing capacity less than one year ago. If you’re so confident there’s no problem with capacity because ” there is plenty of already-zoned land ready for re-development for MF housing,” why do you think we’re only adding about half as many units as we’d need to to keep up with inflation?

      1. “…why do you think we’re only adding about half as many units as we’d need to to keep up with inflation?” Well it sure isn’t due to the unavailability of properly zoned real estate! Zoning is not a magic pill. Upzoning SF neighborhoods doesn’t transform them into your urbanist utopia and cause rents to decline.

        Again I ask, someone please explain why all that available and future MF zoning is inadequate. Adding MF into SF neighborhoods will push us across what threshold, thereby solving our housing problems? Seems like just more faith-based planning.

      2. @RDP As has been explained to you many times, tearing down existing buildings is very expensive. The zoned capacity reports assume a huge amount of tearing down existing buildings to meet this theoretical capacity. This isn’t a real number, it’s just used for planning. Rents come directly from how expensive it is to build the next unit.

      3. As Martin points out below, your argumentative strategy is entirely self-contradictory. On the one hand, there’s already plenty of capacity and demand is going unmet for some mysterious reason that you can’t identify but definitely has nothing to do with exclusionary zoning. I’ve seen you go so far as to argue that the universe of possible Seattle developers are operating at 100% capacity right now. On the other hand, you argue that the legal right to build a duplex will immediately cause developers to outbid would-be single family homeowners, turning SF homes into a scarce commodity overnight. I have no idea how you’d square these two convictions, and I don’t believe I’ve even ever seen you try.

      4. Matt, you can’t seriously believe the SF up zone wouldn’t lead to SF demolition. As I’ve said before, the SF rezones would lead to removal of SF homes and their replacement with townhomes, triplexes, and stacked flats (if the HALA recommendations went through). Each replacement unit 40-100% more expensive than the demolished home.

      5. Are you saying all of them will be replaced? That’s pretty surprising. There must be quite a demand for housing (oh wait, you’re saying there isn’t any according to that report).

        Wait, is your prediction of 40-100% more expensive for each duplex unit, or the entire duplex? Maybe you can cite a source? Either way, I think you’re thinking about housing wrong. If there’s an egg shortage and eggs are $1 apiece you can’t just say we shouldn’t raise more chickens because their eggs would be too expensive. The only reason they’re $1 apiece is because there aren’t enough of them!

      6. “…why do you think we’re only adding about half as many units as we’d need to to keep up with inflation?”
        “Well it sure isn’t due to the unavailability of properly zoned real estate! ”

        Yes, it is due to the unavailability of propertly zoned real estate. Please go away and come back when you are living in the real world. People have explained this to you in detail — only 11% of the land in Seattle even allows anything other than “single family housing”, and much of that is taken up with parking requirements, and much more is taken up with existing 2-4 story buildings which are uneconomical to teardown. Stop living in a fantasy world.

      7. Also, what Glenn in Portland said. Duplex / Triplex conversions allow the existing housing to stay right where it is. They’re awesome. What do you have against them?

      8. Duplex / Triplex conversions allow the existing housing to stay right where it is. They’re awesome. What do you have against them?

        Yeah, if someone opposes new development on “character” and affordability grounds but then turns around and opposes allowing conversions, you know they’re full of crap. Conversions allow people to stay in their neighborhood when they can’t afford or handle as much house as they once needed, and preserve older ‘character’ homes. Opposing them is either classism or nonsensical.

    3. Eric and djw are correct. SF zones are 65% of the city’s land area, compared to around 11% for MF. Sure, we should upzone the MF and reduce setbacks to allow more housing. But there’s only so much you can do with 11% of the city. At some point we’ll need to expand them.

      I’m a fan of the compromise of expanding all of the urban villages by a few blocks. Think of the “main street” of your neighborhood. Bump up the height there and expand the tall(ish) buildings by a block or two in each direction. That would add a lot of capacity and keep all of those SF lovers happy. I’d also like rowhouses outside of those blocks. We still end up with a vast majority SF homes in this city, but this alone would add a significant amount of supply.

      Now if you’re specifically calling out the HALA proposed duplexes in SF the “upzoning all of Seattle’s neighborhoods”, I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. I have plenty of duplexes and triplexes in my SF neighborhood and they fit right in.

    4. Actually modest upzones of SF areas would help people like me. I’ve been priced out of owning or renting a SF home in the city. However I want a place with some sort of ground floor patio or yard. By allowing duplexes, ADUs, and rowhouses and townhomes in SF zones it produces more of the type of housing I wish to rent/buy.

      Sure I could rent a 1br apartment but that is not the type of housing i wish to be in long-term.

      In any case rentals are incredibly scarce. In many cases the ads I call on are already rented by the time I contact the landlord/manager. The few I’ve looked at that weren’t already rented were completely unacceptable due to condition. It seems some landlords feel with the tight rental market they can foist any cleaning or painting onto the tenant while ignoring basic maintenance.

    5. I still don’t understand RDPence’s argument. If we have “plenty of zoned capacity” then that implies that it will meet market demand. If this is true, then upzones will have little effect. If there’s no effect, his hostility makes little sense.

    6. Conflating urbanists with those targeted Pike Place Market is Orwellian misdirection. The City has always grown and changed; that progress started slowing down when zoning restrictions came into being; zoning restrictions that are, in effect, locking in the status quo to the pro-car, anti-pedestrian, anti-transit consensus that the would-be Pike Place destroyers represented.

      If you support the zoning status quo you oppose Pike Place Market, because in most of the city stuff like that is absolutely illegal to build.

      If dense, walkable areas that don’t place a premium on car access are so great, why do you want to ban them in almost all of the city?

    7. Current single-family Code allows up 8 non-related people and as many cars as they like in ONE structure.

      And yet people freak about a triplex.


    8. The data indicate quite clearly that there is NOWHERE NEAR enough multifamily zoned areas. Please stop lying about it.

      1. RD Pence.
        Are you aware of selling price for MF land per unit is in Seattle?
        Compared to suburban locations?

    9. “even those that are non-walkable (as in no sidewalks!) ”

      Require sidewalk installation as a condition of building permits in those areas (including duplex conversions) and watch the sidewalks get built.

    10. >> I’m still not grasping the urbanist fixation with upzoning all of Seattle’s SF neighborhoods, even those that are non-walkable (as in no sidewalks!) and with no decent transit access.

      Because it would lead to an increase in the supply of housing. That is the key argument here, and I’m having trouble understanding why you feel otherwise. Are you suggesting that we would build the exact same number of units, despite the change in SFH zoning rules? Development would simply shift, away from the urban villages and into the SFH areas? If so, then why would “supply only increase when the HALA-recommended upzones go into effect for MF-zoned land”? What difference would that make, if there is “already-zoned land ready for re-development for MF housing”? Wouldn’t any change in the rules simply shift the development from one area to the other? Capitol Hill might grow twice as large, while Lake City doesn’t grow, but the same number of units would be built for the same price, if your theory is correct.

      Your premise, if there is one, contradicts your own statements. Increasing the amount of land available for development will indeed lead to an increase in units (as you state) which will lead (as you infer) to lower housing prices. What is true of urban villages is true of single family housing.

      There are trade-offs to zoning changes, but to imply that increasing the available land for development will have no effect on housing prices is preposterous, and your own statements show that.

      1. That is the key argument here, and I’m having trouble understanding why you feel otherwise.

        Roger simultaneously holds the views that a) we’ve got plenty of capacity to add all the housing we need under current zoning, and b) allowing duplexes and triplexes in SF zones would lead to a massive increase in development in those such that their character would change dramatically and traditional, non-duplex/triplex housing would quickly go the way of the dodo. Don’t expect him to explain how he squares these two beliefs, though–he always avoids that question.

  10. Let’s get real about one point: The largest impediment to doing better than one-to-one affordable unit replacement is the call to make any and all SFH zones sacrosanct. Doing that means all we have in the toolbox is tearing down density, and replacing it with stuff slightly more dense, and mostly tearing down the existing affordable housing to do it.

    And please don’t use 911 call stats to characterize neighborhoods, as 911 calls will naturally be proportional to population density. (I’m referencing the article Sam misrepresented.)

  11. I agree with you that Seattle suffers from a shortage of housing and that is the primary reason for rising housing costs.

    Towers will never be the solution to the affordability problem that is facing the city. A tower demands high rents, they are very expensive to build and as buildings get taller the engineering costs increase and the vertical transportation ie stairs and elevators take up very large portions of each floor. The towers that are being built now serve only a small segment of the population I want to start a family and I’m not rich, paying 2,000$ a month for a one bedroom isn’t going to work for me. I’m not saying that they are not part of the solution but they are not the entire solution, which is a sentiment that I hear a lot.

    I think a little talked element of the affordability crisis is that there is not just a shortage of housing but a shortage of housing in neighborhoods that are walkable, well connected to transit etc. So rather than just increasing the supply of housing in these desirable neighborhoods why can’t we increase the supply of desirable neighborhoods. Decades of underinvestment in transit and focus on transporting cars instead of people has left precious few places in Seattle, or the surrounding areas that meet the criteria that many people including a large portions of mellienials and a good number of retiring baby boomers want to live. (unfortunately this is not an problem unique to Seattle in this country).

    This underinvestment in transit intensifies gentrification; South Seattle for example has become extremely desirable due in no small part to it access to link, raising the cost of housing and land and displacing current residences. If more neighborhoods had access to transit it wouldn’t put all of the pressure on so few neighborhoods.

    Why can’t we invest more in transit? At the rate we are going we are not even keeping up with demand yet alone gaining on all the lost ground. A huge part of the problem is that there is not enough reliable funding, every single dollar is hard fought. Until we can secure funding for transit we are going to keep falling behind. Income tax anyone??

  12. Really sick of this tired supply/demand “It’s simple Econ 101” BS that were constantly being fed. The only thing that new construction has done for this city is drive up rent on older units. Many of these new buildings are less than 50% full because the rent is too high. These new buildings are for a very specific class of people and much of the time even they think it’s unreasonable to pay that amount. What your left with is increased competition for older units which allows landlords to jack the rent up. The rents these new units fetch has set a new ceiling and everyone below that ceiling has readjusted their pricing.

    1. You have it exactly backwards. Higher rents in older buildings aren’t caused by new construction, higher rents in older buildings are the cause of new construction.

      New construction is happening precisely because rents are high enough to make land owners think they can make a profit by building more housing. Without an opportunity for profit, redevelopment wouldn’t happen. It is in no way the cause of rent increases in existing buildings.

      1. @Phil Perspective: new stuff costs more than old stuff. so it’s no wonder that new apts cost more than old apts.

    2. No doubt. Supply & demand exists, but it is waaay more complex than Martin makes it out to be.

      What if I told you that airplanes with more passengers fly lower than airplanes with fewer passengers? And then I said, “That’s Physics 101, stupid! F = MA, and you just increased M. All other things being equal, the force of gravity will pull stronger against the force of lift, therefore the plane will be lower”. Yeah, except all other things *aren’t* equal. And even though it’s true that F=MA, it turns out that determining the plane’s altitude is not so simple.

      Building ritzy condos in a certain neighborhood can create induced demand, for example. Welcome to the reality of feedback loops. I’m not at all denying the reality of supply and demand (just like I would never dispute F=MA), but pushing this Freshman-level understanding of the world is really getting old. It’s like you know just enough about economics to be stupendously. yet confidently, wrong.

      1. Except that the ritz people aren’t moving from one Seattle hood to another Seattle hood. They are moving from out of state for a new ritzy job. They are going to live in whatever neighborhood they want anyway. The new ritzy job was worth moving for, they have money, and will outbid you if you are competing for the same unit. Build em the tower, it keeps them out of your hall, making your rent go up.

      2. If you really lock down the city and prohibit housing construction, the ritzy people moving in from out of state will end up living in decrepit one-room apartments and pricing everyone else out of them. *This actually happens in San Francisco*.

      3. Do you really think the feedback loop is stronger than the demand driven by increased employment in the area? Do you really think opening up most of the city’s land for development will lead to the city being so desirable that demand increases faster than the new supply? Where the hell has that every happened? Even cities that are far more charming, for more inherently valuable than ours never had a feedback loop of the type you describe. San Fransisco didn’t suddenly become desirable. It always was a nice city (remember, they wrote songs about it) but the boom in real estate prices occurred when the available jobs increased there. Same with New York, Chicago, and many other cities. Meanwhile, cities with “good bones”, like Detroit, have falling property prices because they have falling employment. If Amazon, Microsoft and a few dozen other big employers moved to downtown Detroit you can bet your ass their would be revival of that city, and folks would start complaining about gentrification.

        In general, what you are talking about only occurs in neighborhoods, not entire cities, and certainly not in primary cities. It could happen in Tacoma, for example, as it has happened in Oakland. Tacoma is a city with a rich history, beautiful neighborhoods with old houses and wonderful brick buildings. Despite having the same climate, rent in Tacoma is nowhere near that of Seattle, because employment in Tacoma is nowhere near that of Seattle. The feedback mechanism you mention is common in neighborhoods, especially inner city ones, but rare in entire cities. The exception is places like Oakland, which could be thought of as a large suburb of San Fransisco, and has certainly benefited from the increased employment in the primary city as well as the surrounding suburbs.

        There are additional complications to be sure, but Martin isn’t arguing that this is the only thing that we need to do. What he is arguing is that by increasing the supply of units the cost of the units will be lower, all other things being equal. This is a very reasonable thing to argue, and so far, no one has come up with an argument for why it isn’t true.

      4. I’m not offering up the ritzy-condo-induced-demand-feedback-loop as a general theory that explains the entire housing market. I mentioned it as *one* example of the inadequacy of the Econ 101 understanding of supply and demand.

        I actually agree with Martin’s prescription of building more housing stock *at all levels*. I’m not a supply/demand denier, which I believe I made very clear. However, there are those who have used a simplistic version of the supply/demand model to argue that, for example, purely building luxury units lowers rents for everyone. This is as stupid as arguing that airplanes with more passengers fly at lower altidues than airplanes with fewer pasengers, all things being equal, and people who don’t accept this are “unsophisticated detractors”, in Martin’s words.

      5. @Bob — Fair enough, but from a policy standpoint, right now, it makes no difference. If we don’t address the “Econ 101” problems, then we can’t address the “Econ 102” problems. There are plenty of cities or areas around the world where the latter is the big problem. They will have to deal with it in creative ways, and many have.

        For example, just today there was an editorial in the paper about how Berlin is dealing with their housing problem ( If you look at the first two bullet items, you might assume that passing those here would help immensely. I don’t think it would. That type of development is so rare that passing laws banning it would be like allowing people to raise elephants in their back yard — meaningless. Again, I point to the fact that no one has cited a single example of someone actually *decreasing* density. Yet that obviously was a problem in Berlin, hence the desire to ban it (you can’t convert two flats into one now).

        Pressure to build is coming from the opposite end. Again, I cite Apodments. As detractors rightly pointed out, these took advantage of a loophole in order to build the highest density apartments possible at the lowest regulatory cost. Enough of them were built that the city closed the loophole. Meanwhile, building luxury apartments — one unit per floor — is still perfectly legal and still has the regulatory advantages that Apodments used to have (no review and smaller parking requirement). This is just one example, that happens to be obvious only because there is a loophole.

        The effect of other regulations is less obvious. No one knows how much demand there is for backyard cottages or apartment conversions because they are illegal in most of the city.* No one knows how many duplexes and triplexes would be built if they were allowed in most of the land of the city. But it stands to reason that a lot more would be built. Given the popularity of Apodments (despite the hurdles necessary to fit through the old loophole) it is reasonable to assume that other apartments — arguably nicer to live in and cheaper to build — would be quite popular. That is really the fear from housing conservatives. They don’t like the monster houses — old houses being torn down and replaced by newer big ones — but they figure it doesn’t happen that often. But allow density to increase — allow more people to live in smaller places — then you would see a lot more change. The obvious conclusion one can make is that we primarily have a housing supply problem. There are other problems — other problems that will become a lot more apparent once we address that problem — but they are minor in comparison. Once we address the primary problem, we can then deal with the other ones.

        * To be clear, apartment conversions are allowed in MFH zones, but that is a small percentage of the city (hence the problem). Converting this house ( to an apartment was possible, but demand is so high that it didn’t make sense (the parking requirement probably also played a part). This is worth pondering for a second. Three things could happen with that house. First, it could be left as a house — a very nice house — for someone quite wealthy, who has now fallen in love with this charming neighborhood in this charming city. Second, the house could be converted to an apartment. I’m guessing you could build four apartments. These would be considered luxury apartments, of course (I would love to live in an apartment like that). The third is what happened — the house was destroyed and replaced with a 31 one unit apartment building. The fact that the market chose the option that was most expensive (by a huge margin) but would deliver the most units, just shows that demand for basic housing is what is driving development in that neighborhood (arguably our ritziest one).

        Second, while backyard cottages and mother in law units are legal just about everywhere, the regulations are so restrictive that they are rare. My guess is that the biggest problem is the ownership rule.

      1. It is indeed more complicated. But the key stat to watch is the vacancy rate. If it drops below 5%, you have a housing shortage. If it drops below 4%, you have a housing shortage emergency.

        Guess what you have in Seattle.

      2. Glenn,

        Thanks for the link about Portland. The truth is that the Northwest has changed. It’s no longer the dreary rain soaked nightmare six months a year that it was — or at least, was characterized in Sometimes A Great Notion. The winters have gotten shorter and the summers warmer and longer. More people want to live here than at any time in the past. But the truth is that Oregon has done the right thing by protecting the Willamette Valley for future food production — it’s going to be needed with the coming collapse of San Joaquin Valley irrigation. So Portland can’t turn into Los Angeles in order to accommodate the in-rush. Development in Clark County is limited by the unwillingness of the existing population to pay tolls for the transportation facilities it needs to be linked to the Oregon side of the region.

        The cities which almost solidly rim the east coast of Puget Sound all the way from Olympia to Marysville have already run out of the ultimate Northwest amenity, Puget Sound or Lake Washington water views. As pointed out elsewhere in this thread, 60-some percent of the City of Seattle is reserved for single-family homes, another five or so percent is offices and institutions and ten to fifteen is industrial/port activities. There’s not much available for multi-family housing. And the politics of upzoning is so toxic that nobody is willing to take the leap. Look how quickly the City withdrew the HALA recommendations.

        So the truth is that low- and middle-income immigrants to the region are going to be severely disappointed by their prospects for a long time to come. The only possible amelioration is for “conservatives” who feel so angry about the changes the region is undergoing to up sticks and move to places more amenable to their viewpoint. After all, they have local political control of roughly 90% of the physical area of the United States.

        Such an “India-Pakistan” solution would result in a “Bluer” northwest and a “Redder” everywhere else but most everyone would be happier with the results. After all, were “conservative” ideas of no growth limits to reign in the Northwest, the beauty and livability which is so strong an attraction here would be paved over and made into sterile Dallas crap. They can have sterile Dallas crap already simply by moving there.

        Yes, the summers are brutal but there’s air conditioning.

      3. Not so fast about withdrawing HALA recommendations!

        Yes, the Mayor backed-off on ONE recommendation, albeit an important one.

        But that proposal is coming back (somewhat defanged) under the aegis of Councilmember O’Brien.

        I wish opponents of the “triplex” proposal would actually read something about the current code since the City already allows the very same neighborhood impact though current SF provisions.

        It’s quite bizarre that fellows like Pemce get upset about a proposal which already, to some large degree, exists.

        That said, CM O’Brien’s proposal is terrific (as a starting point for discussion) and should be supported.

      4. @ Anandakos — It is still the dreary rain soaked nightmare six months a year — it is just the dreary rain soaked nightmare six months a year with jobs. We’ve had a couple warm years, but four years ago (if memory served) we had one of the darkest, wettest years on record. It was great for folks like me (that love the snow) but those in the city whined about it. Even hikers complained about the fact that hiking spots didn’t melt out until late August (or never melted out). That was the year that the road to Artist Point was never plowed, since it never got very warm and we had snow up there until June.

        That being said, the common perception of Seattle and Portland being rainy all the time may have changed to a more accurate perception of the area being cloudy and cold all the time. That still doesn’t mean that people will flock here. I know people who were raised here and they won’t take a job here because of the weather. They prefer the humid summers of the Northeast over the seemingly endless dreariness of the Northwest. Go figure — no accounting for taste.

        Overall, it is simply the luck of the draw that is drawing people here. Back in the day it was Boeing, and now it is the tech industry. Having a major university right in the city plays a major part (of course) but if Amazon was a Silicon Valley company then I don’t think people would be fretting over housing prices right now.

      5. I should have said that it snowed at Artist Point in June, not that they had snow up there in June. Obviously they had snow up there (on the ground) in June. They usually do. But what was unusual was that they had snow on the road there in July, August, September and on into the winter. So much snow that they decided not to bother plowing it (too big of a job). It was a great year for back country skiers and those that love the rain — not so good for everyone else.

  13. Well said Martin. This sums up nicely what I’ve been seeing on my TL over the last couple months. I think urbanists are unfairly called out for “being in the pocket of developers” and for being 100% free marketers when really all we’re saying is “increasing supply will be the *main* part of solving the housing shortage.” I don’t know of people that are saying that this is to the exclusion of other policy fixes such as increasing the housing levy to build more housing sooner for persons at <80% AMI in Seattle.

    1. Re your “…really all we’re saying is ‘increasing supply will be the *main* part of solving the housing shortage.'” Except that’s not what I’m hearing. What I’m hearing is specifically targeted at SF zoning, the demise of which will suddenly solve all our housing problems. Urbanists are only interested in density in SF zones and are silent everywhere else.

      1. Except that’s not what I’m hearing. What I’m hearing is specifically targeted at SF zoning, the demise of which will suddenly solve all our housing problems.

        Absolutely, unequivocally false, of course. I doubt anyone arguing for modest changes like allowing duplexes and triplexes in single family zones is against raising height limits and lessening FAR restrictions. Can you point to anyone arguing against those HALA recommendations here, or in any ‘urbanist’ forum?

        The reason it doesn’t get discussed as much is that it doesn’t appear to be as controversial, and insofar as there are critics of these policies, they haven’t raised a stink and cowed politicians into walking back support for the changes. Obviously, urbanists think we need a broad-based approach, allowing the city to grow organically in a variety of different ways, including densifying MF and SF. Martin Duke, the author of this post, has been quite clear in this post and others, about his “count the units” uber alles philosophy, which absolutely speaks to the importance of MF upzones. We talk a lot more about the importance of SF upzones because that’s where the resistance is.

        I’m quite confident you know this, and I can’t fathom why you think you can say something as obviously, brazenly false as this and get away with it.

      2. We’re talking about single-family zones because it’s the most controversial part with the largest opposition. That doesn’t mean urbanists expect current single-family zones to absorb the majority of new units. They just need to be a healthy minority, because multifamily zones aren’t enough either numerically or to give a full range of hosing choices. I and many other urbanists are refraining from advocating more than HALA in the spirit of compromise.

        If you want to know what I’d really like, it’s something like Chicago’s north side: mostly 3-10 stories with scattered SFHs, within the polygon of frequent transit (roughly between route 40 and 15th Ave NE, Lake City, Uptown to Madison Valley, Beacon to Raiiner, and the major West Seattle avenues). But I’m settling for SFH’s in places like Latona, 8th NW, and lower Wallingford in the interests of compromise.

      3. Absolute nonsense. The problem is that 65% of Seattle’s land is zoned single-family. If 5% of Seattle’s land were zoned single-family, urbanists wouldn’t worry about it. But you can’t solve a housing crisis if over 65% of the land is off limits. (More is off limits because roads, parks, water, etc.)

      4. “Urbanists are only interested in density in SF zones and are silent everywhere else.”

        Oh that’s absurd. “Urbanists”, whoever such straw-men (and women) might be, are interested in walkability, local amenities, and good transit to support a low- or no-car lifestyle. They are perfectly happy to cluster reasonable development in the neighborhood centers of those parts of the SFH city have them, like Roosevelt from 86th to 95th, the “Junctions” in West Seattle, Greenwood from 80th to 90th and so on. What is so wrong with allowing duplexes and triplexes to replace houses which are already rentals farther from the neighborhood centers? No single-family homeowner will be required to sell because of such an upzone. Some might be required to sell because of increased taxes, but the truth is that will happen anyway regardless of the replacement of rentals with more rentals. As owner-occupied homes increase in value simply from scarcity the taxes levied on them will also rise.

        If anything, allowing small multi-unit housing in the various neighborhoods might actually alleviate the tax rises on SFH since the multi-unit buildings would carry more of the tax burden of the neighborhood. Remember that overall taxes in the city cannot rise more than 1% above inflation and population gain, so a triplex valued at $1 million which replaces a $600K cottage will carry more of the property tax assessment on that neighborhood.

        Most people living in solidly single-family areas have long-since given up on walking to the store or local Starbucks. They drive because they can and they think it makes their lives “better”, mostly because they’ve ridiculously over-scheduled and over-committed themselves. I personally think that’s a big mistake; a walk through a Seattle single-family neighborhood with the beautiful landscaping that’s everywhere to a store even 3/4 of a mile away is a refreshment for the soul.

      5. Again: CM O’Brien’s proposal ALREADY allows similar density/impacts in SF zones.

        Pence, do you want to change SF Code to increase parking requirements and decrease number of roommates? To be intellectually consistent, you should.

    1. Everyone is greedy. Developers wan profit, homeowners want their artificial scarcity preserved for a variety of selfish reasons, renters want to keep more money every month. It’s the human condition.

      Some people approach housing and land use policy as a morality play, identifying the bad, greedy people (usually developers, rather than homeowners for some reason) and make thwarting them a policy end in itself. For reasons that should be obvious, this is a profoundly childish approach to public policy.

      1. From the article. 91% of Vancouver’s apartments are 2BR or smaller. I agree, a 3BR apartment would be liveable. But the average couple can afford an apartment of 400 sq ft.

      2. Woops. sorry, that was for another comment. But while I’m here, it’s not all greed, Traffic, crime, school crowding are all functions of overdevelopment. It makes the neighborhood worse, no matter how much your house appreciates.

      3. Wanting lots of elbow room and privileged access to public resources like roads and schools, and achieving that through preventing people from living close to their jobs simply because you got their first is just obviously and straightforwardly an example of greed.

      4. Dude, I don’t have lots of elbow room or privileged access to anything. When your kids are in class with 30 students, they are being hurt by greed. Greedy developers who build on every scrap of dirt and [ad hom] who don’t want to pay taxes. Why do you hate families and love big developers?

      5. When your kids are in class with 30 students, they are being hurt by greed.

        This is absurd. You’re saying wanting extra-small class sizes (the actual research on class size and educational quality is ambiguous at best, but whatever) the best schools to be even better for your children by keeping other children out, while forcing their parents into long commutes isn’t greedy at all, for some unspecified reason.

        Of course, the theory you’re promoting is silly anyway. Education is funded by…local property taxes. More people move in, more tax receipts, more money for education, more teachers. Indeed, Olympia has placed some tight restrictions on how much we can raise tax rates, making the most likely path to more tax revenue to fund Seattle’s progressive priorities more tax payers.

        This is exactly what I mean by the foolishness of land use policy as a morality play. By fixating on the designated bad guy, you ignore the obvious selfish greed of the exclusionists, the real harm done to the people you’re forcing out of the city, the environment, etc etc. It’s not a serious way to evaluate public policy.

      6. So many falsehoods in one post.

        Density isn’t bringing more taxes and more schools. We are cramming 1,000 more kids into the same SPS schools each year. Maybe by the time you have kids you will solve this problem.

        Extra-small? Be serious. The difference in managing 30 kids vs 23 is enormous and directly impacts learning. School crowding also impacts unexpected things like lunch breaks, so kids actually don’t have enough time to eat.

        We volunteer and donate to our schools and have built a strong community–that’s why so many people want to live here. And I make no apologies for advocating for the additional services we need BEFORE we absorb the thousands of new residents that are coming.

        But honestly, I think you’re just trolling anyway. I’m sure you’d be happier if middle class families just fled for Shoreline or Bellevue or Bothell.

      7. Density isn’t bringing more taxes

        How do you think that works, exactly? do you believe new residents are exempt from property taxes?

      8. Not all residents pay property taxes. Only those that actually own property. See how it works? Ask your boss at Amazon to explain it to you.

      9. That’s a nice theory. When my kids are in classes with fewer than 30 kids, I will believe it.

      10. Well, if you want to stick your head in the sand and ignore reality, feel free. Most probably the school system is spending its money on something other than reducing class sizes — that’s what usually happens.

        Any time you want to join us here in the real world, rather than just ignoring all the citations you were given, you’re welcome to.

      11. Ace,

        I never was in a class in school with fewer than thirty kids from first grade on except for two “AP” classes I took as a Senior and ended up a Merit Finalist. Now grant, that’s largely the result of lucky genetics, not character or any other measure of personal worth, but quality teaching — even to a packed room — sure made a big difference. I state it because “class size” is not the primary determinant of educational success.

        It’s mostly class deportment and the quality of teaching which matters, certainly after second grade by which time kids have learned how to “do school”. But deportment has largely gone out the window for the past thirty or forty years, mostly because narcissistic parents who think their Special Snowflake should be able to act out because the brat has “special needs” threaten lawsuits if a teacher raises her or his voice in the face of outrageous selfishness. And because the “gangsta” lifestyle is tolerated in both minority and white middle class neighborhoods by distracted parents with their noses in an iPhone.

        Teaching is no longer one of three ghettos to which talented and ambitious women were relegated in an earlier time (nursing — not every woman likes blood — and “secretary” which usually also meant “sexretary” as well were the other options). So the person at the head of the class until the 1950’s was very often in the top 5% of intelligence of half the population. Because of the pitiful compensation paid and level of administrative harassment for such an important task these days, that’s a rarity.

        Now Ace, I realize that fixing deportment and the quality of teaching is lot harder than building more classrooms and adding more to the of teachers. But the NAEP tests show clearly that as long as teaching remains unvalued — indeed under constant attack by stalkers like Scott Walker — the results of its efforts will be disappointing.

        [P.S. It seems very strange to me that David Koch, who spends millions every year sponsoring Nova which produces some of the best “public” science broadcasting in the world, would make war on the teachers who prepare people to understand what Nova shows. It’s weird.]

    2. It’s not really relevant to any part of the discussion IMHO. Greed is built into the very DNA humans, who will always look to maximize it. The question for me isn’t “how can we make people be less greedy?” but rather “how can we leverage human greed to increase the common good for the most amount of people?” Well, since the vast majority of us agree that 1) increasing supply puts positive downward pressure on rents (home sale prices too), and 2) this can be considered a positive outcome, then the solution would appear to be to maximize opportunities to develop. There is no getting around that this means the end of exclusionary, low density SFZ’s in 65% of the city. That’s too much land put to far too inefficient a use.

      In short: are developers and land lords greedy? Of course! They are trying to maximize profits, like everyone else does. Are homeowners also greedy? Of course! They want their property values as high as possible so when they cash out, they get the biggest sale price possible. The difference is letting “greedy” developers do their thing, and provide us with housing, creates very positive outcomes for lots of people. Homeowner greed is the opposite: keeping housing scarce only serves the homeowner, and hurts everyone else.

      1. The way to leverage developer greed is to say “you can build lots and lots of apartments and houses… if you comply with our building code which requires them to be energy-efficient, durable, high-quality, etc.” That way you’ve tricked them into making *good*, durable buildings which you will want around for a long time.
        The way to leverage homeowner greed… harder, I haven’t figured it out.

      2. Not everyone is motivated by greed. If they were, then a city with as much wealth as this city wouldn’t vote for representatives that favor taxes on the wealthy. In the case of the home owners, many of them think the way that Martin described. As I said above ( there is a great confusion about the issue among many, and not just the home owners. This leads to those simply arguing for as little change as possible. After all, if allowing apartments in my neighborhood won’t reduce the cost of rent, why bother? Why allow for the loss of charm — the loss of character — if it won’t even make things better.

        My guess is that a lot of people feel this way, as opposed to those who are worried about the value of their house. This is especially true because it isn’t clear whether the value would increase or decrease if density is allowed (I could easily see the value of the property increase because you can do more with it — thus being the best of both worlds from an economic standpoint — those that own houses have increased value while those that pay rent have decreased cost).

        Of course, the desire for the neighborhood to retain its old look can be thought of as greed, but again, only if there is a known trade-off. If your desire to retain the look and housing density of old means that others can’t afford to live in the neighborhood, then you are indeed being greedy. Personally, i think the greed can be easily balanced. I see no reason why development in the city can’t be attractive. After all, the areas that are most attractive actually have a mix of old (very attractive) apartments along with old houses. Allowing subdivisions, apartment conversions, backyard cottages and the like can lead to more attractive areas, not less attractive. It would certainly lead to a more attractive city overall. There would be fewer nice big houses torn down (and replaced by apartment buildings because they fit inside the arbitrary urban village boundaries). Those would be converted to apartments throughout the city, while empty lots and old dumps get replaced by apartments. This is what the market has historically done, and this is what actually lead to the attractive parts of the city. We have the worst combination occurring right now. Parts of the city are rapidly losing their charm, while other parts of the city stay the same, despite obvious opportunities for growth. The end result is high rent and the loss of character.

    3. Replying to “Ace Redgate”‘s comments. Full disclosure: I work for Seattle Public Schools as the K-12 Planning Coordinator, Also this is my real name.

      Regarding class size: Class size is a function mainly of the level of funding for K-12 education. It has nothing to do with a school’s gross enrollment, or how (or if) the core facilities are stressed. A K class at McGilvra (260 kids) is 26 students; at Bryant – 600 students.

    1. I’m sure it’s made it more affordable than it would be otherwise. Note that the family profiled the article is specifically excluding apartments, which the article acknowledges as “the most affordable” option, because they’re allegedly “not suitable for families.” I don’t agree they’re so unsuitable.

      1. No; where are you hearing that all apartments are that small? When I was growing up, I spent a couple years in a three-bedroom apartment that was a very adequate size for a family of four (or even five).

      2. Re your “When I was growing up, I spent a couple years in a three-bedroom apartment that was a very adequate size for a family of four (or even five).” And where in Seattle can you find such apartments? Please, inquiring minds want to know. The “free market” won’t provide them because they are low-profit, compared to small bachelor units. Where can we get 3-bedroom apartments in Seattle? How can we get them? And no, “the free market will provide them” is NOT an answer.

      3. Please, inquiring minds want to know. The “free market” won’t provide them because they are low-profit, compared to small bachelor units. Where can we get 3-bedroom apartments in Seattle? How can we get them?

        You are indeed correct to be concerned about this. HALA has a proposal for some tax incentives to get more 3 BR units in MF development, and while that is better than nothing, I expect it’ll be quite inadequate to meet the needs for Seattle families. There are indeed strong economic incentives to go with smaller units in most MF development.

        Of course, the market, if allowed to, is entirely capable of providing new 3BR housing. They’re quite profitable if built as…duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats. Since you think that kind of development should be almost entirely illegal, it’s kind of difficult to take you seriously here.

      4. “Of course, the market, if allowed to, is entirely capable of providing new 3BR housing. They’re quite profitable if built as…duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats. ”

        These are three of the four formats in which I’ve seen the vast majority of 3BR and 4BR housing, worldwide. The fourth is rowhouses. (Which RDPence also wants to make illegal, I think?)

    2. If you were to remove a bunch of apartment buildings in Vancouver and replace them with single family houses, do you think the city would become more or less affordable for families?

      1. Perhaps not. But that’s not the discussion we are having. I’m saying increased density isn’t making the city any cheaper. It is, however, making it harder to raise a family.

      2. No it’s not. In what possible way is it making it “harder to raise a family”? You’re just confused.

      3. Ah… I see you’re complaining about a HOUSING SHORTAGE of 3 bedroom houses. Think about it, and refer to what djw wrote about duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats.

    3. Rents in Vancouver are certainly lower than other West Coast cities. Condo prices have been fairly flat since 2008, thanks to sufficient construction to restrain prices. Most of the shouting about rising prices refers back to SF or originally SF houses, which are in Metro Vancouver an increasingly scarce commodity.

      But you can’t just compare two cities rents like that. They have different economies, different regional and Federal policies, different currencies, different industries, different local regulatory policies. Vancouver is not simply Seattle with more condos and apartments. It’s also a place where more people can substitute rent for gas money because of an effective, frequent transit system.

      And it’s still cheaper

    4. Like William said, I’m sure it’s made it more affordable than it would be otherwise. Let me repeat that: I’m sure it’s made it more affordable than it would be otherwise. One more time: I’m sure it’s made it more affordable than it would be otherwise.

      Seriously, you should read this post again, because you are ignoring this essential argument. You are basically arguing as many have, that supply and demand suddenly disappear, for no apparent reason, when it comes to housing. Your theory is ludicrous. You have simply forgotten half of the equation. It is supply and demand. Demand is very high in Vancouver BC, thus the prices increase. Same with Seattle. Demand is high, supply is not increasing fast enough, thus the high rents. By increasing supply, we reduce the cost of rent, all other things being equal. Focus on that last phrase. There is Latin phrase for it, Ceteris paribus. The phrase is well known in philosophical circles, because it a common, obvious, logical construct.

      Please study it, learn it, figure out what it means (along with figuring out what “supply and demand” means) before wasting our time with ludicrous arguments. Jeesh. The supply of Kale has increased, yet Kale is very expensive. Obviously, the rules of supply and demand don’t apply to Kale. Right.

  14. From the article. 91% of Vancouver’s apartments are 2BR or smaller. I agree, a 3BR apartment would be liveable. But the average couple can afford an apartment of 400 sq ft.

  15. Martin, you make some good points. Over at we’ve been focused on pushing the boundaries on what can be done with publicly financed housing. We’re working with several council members on this. We’ll have more to announce in the near future!

  16. It’s disappointing to see such a dense concentration of bullshit and straw men in a single article, and no less from an author and blog whose transit coverage I greatly admire and respect. A couple of thoughts you might want to include in your mix. 1) A purely market solution is not the only possible way to effect housing prices. You free marketeers might not like it, but requirements to build affordable units and even rent regulation are another way to go. 2) There is a concept called “values,” which many people in Seattle actually subscribe to. What kind of city we build is just as important as how many people we pack into it. Truth be told, I’d even accept incrementally lower growth if it was necessary to ensure that Seattle remains a place where people of many income levels can still afford to live. Both because of the social and racial justice aspects, and because it will result in a more diverse and intersting place to live. 3) Saying “eventually this problem will sort itself out” is not an adequate answer.

    At the bottom of your article you do give a throwaway nod to “housing for all income levels.” But left to its own devices, the market is creating exactly 0 new units for lower income levels. And any mention of imposing fees and requirements to capture some of the development boom for affordability brings howls of dismay that we would be bringing development to a screeching halt.//

    Most of the housing advocates I know do want to see a lot more housing, but they also want to make sure that some of that is available across the income spectrum, and not just for the most affluent, and maybe even address the fact that there are thousands of people homeless on any given night. But reading STB leads me to think you want to increase density no matter what the side effects. So the density can support your precious transit? Seems like an inverted and backwards chain of priorities and values to me?

    Personally, I think there’s a lot of room to find common ground between transit and housing advocates. I’d like to see those bridges being built, but the more you dismiss us as just stupid and ignorant, the more it seems like a waste of time.

    1. A purely market solution is not the only possible way to effect housing prices. You free marketeers might not like it, but requirements to build affordable units and even rent regulation are another way to go.

      It’s worth pointing out once again that this is a gross mischaracterization of the post. Martin’s point is that any solution to the current crisis that doesn’t involve adding lots of new housing is inadequate, as it prevents some group of people from living in the city. The post is agnostic about the precise mechanism for adding lots of housing. It simply insists that whatever cocktail of market and government-based approach we take, the most important measure of success is the quantity of housing added, and the precise character of the housing is of secondary concern.

      If a strategy is developed that allows for the addition of sufficient housing units to meet growing population and more, AND includes affordable unit set-asides and rent regulations, I expect the author of this post would happily take the deal.

      1. Given that the title refers to the “housing debate,” and that the article loosely switches from density to affordability (which IMHO is also a straw man on the adocacy side), and what I’ve been reading in STB for the last couple of years, I think I’ve reasonably fairly characterizing things, though perhaps with a splash more heat than I would ordinarily have chosen. You can say that a strategy for a mix of affordability would be happily accepted, but anything other than a pure market solution is consistently met with derision and dismissal on these pages. And the market solution will not get us there.

        You say (on Martin’s behalf) that “whatever cocktail of market and government-based approach we take, the most important measure of success is the quantity of housing added, and the precise character of the housing is of secondary concern.” That is precisely one of the points I am disputing and arguing aginst. The “precise character of the housing” (translation, what kind of city we develop) is in fact a top line concern for me and many others. We actually care who is riding those trains and buses, not just how long you have to wait for them.

      2. ” We actually care who is riding those trains and buses, not just how long you have to wait for them.”

        You… have a whitelist for the types of people who can and can’t ride your trains? That’s sickening, not to mention potentially (probably) racist.

      3. I hesitate to dignify this with a reply, but it is sad to see that your concept of racism is so shallow. If paying attention to the effects that gentrification and “economic development” have on both poor people and people of color, or not wanting Seattle to become a less diverse community exclusively composed of affluent Caucasian people, meets your definition of racism, then go ahead and paint a big, fat, proud R on my forehead. When you’re done with that, you can go back to some smug self-satisfaction about the color blind society we’ve achieved, how Obama’s election meant the end of racism, or some other such nonsense.

      4. Who’s on your whitelist of approved passengers on buses and trains, Ken? Who’s on the blacklist?Be as specific as possible.

      5. Let’s back that up a step Zach. I’ll answer your question if you can show me where I ever mentioned a blacklist…

      6. “” We actually care who is riding those trains and buses, not just how long you have to wait for them.” – You, 20 minutes ago.

        You have people who are approved to ride on those trains, and you have people who are not approved. So, who’s on each list?

      7. Why not allow housing to be built for all who want to live here, rather than picking “the right people”?

      8. I mean, I’m not sure how to read your comment as anything other than directly implying that there are some people we should intentionally use housing policy to exclude. Who, and why?

      9. Ken,
        I just dont think you can curate a city. I think the only way to maintain vibrant, multi-class communities is an “all-of-the-above” development strategy. In a constrained market, the people with the most money get in. The more constrained, the more that is true. We should try to build abundant housing for everyone, for every class, and thats how we stay vibrant.

        If any part of a solution is “well, I want THESE people to live here and not THOSE people…” its not going to work.

      10. Y’all, don’t be dense.

        Seattle has both a housing affordability crisis and a housing shortage. The shortage causes the affordability crisis. It’s not possible to fix the shortage fast enough to prevent the affordability crisis from forcing people out. The city (its private and public sectors together) doesn’t have the capacity to build fast enough.

        To build down the current housing shortage and reach a point of stability requires building a lot of housing, and having a framework that allows us to respond to demand in the future. Markets can be good at this and we should harness them! But what happens in the meantime matters a lot, and the meantime will be some years yet. The more efficiently rents rise in desirable neighborhoods to the level of the highest bidder the more efficiently these neighborhoods sort out the lower bidders. Caring about who rides the buses means caring that neighborhoods stay diverse and inclusive. That’s an urbanist concern because it’s about the meaning in a place. If Capitol Hill, for instance, with all its history, becomes sorted by income and wealth, and this severs deep roots people and communities have there, this is a loss. If people start to feel out of place on the streets of neighborhoods they used to belong in because they’re suddenly surrounded by commercial messages that they’re not rich enough, coded and sometimes subconscious social messages that they’re not the “right sort of people”, this is a real loss, the loss of meaning in a place, a loss for urbanism. If we ride the bus and we never rub shoulders with people going different places to do different things, this is a loss for urbanism — we might as well work in company towns. Caring about who rides the buses means caring that it still is the full 99% riding the bus (as Nathan Vass says), and not just the highest bidders, with the rest sorted out.

        Using rent control to paper-over a housing shortage doesn’t solve the shortage, and leaves the constant long-term affordability crisis we rightly fear. But when a shortage has already led to an affordability crisis it can’t be waved away as something that will work itself out in a decade.

      11. Al Dimond,

        I humbly submit that building our way out of the shortage has less inexorable and insurmountable political and practical hurdles than those to getting rent control legalized in WA state in the short or medium term. You can’t treat rent control as a practical medium term strategy while we work on the long term real solution in an environment where there’s absolutely no plausible path whatsoever to legalizing rent control in the relevant time frame. Even in the unlikely but not impossible event that the D’s retake the senate next year, you can’t seriously think a few suburban legislators wouldn’t vote against it, in the highly unlikely even leadership would even let a bill advance in the first place.

      12. It’s a whole lot easier to build out of a housing crisis if nothing/not much needs to be built in the first place. See above under duplex conversions.

      13. Every time I’ve seen someone run the numbers the conclusion is that duplex conversions can’t ramp up quickly enough to make a difference on overall housing prices. That doesn’t make them a bad idea in the long run; they’re part of the long-term solution of course! It does mean they don’t address the short-term problem.

        A rent-controlled future where general, non-means-tested rents for incumbents are held way below market rates for newcomers permanently is a negative future. It’s one where people’s opportunity is limited, and the city’s potential is capped. At the same time, just as the immediate economic potential of a city is based on an accumulation of its economic past, its culture accumulates and builds on itself. I’m not endorsing a particular path to rent control (obviously it’s hard), but I just don’t get why so many people react so hard against the idea that we should pay attention to who’s riding the bus. That’s the urbanism of Jane Jacobs, for instance, who generally opposed excessive government intervention but recognized the tendency toward “self-destruction of diversity” with gentrification.

      14. @djw — Well said.;

        @Al —

        >> Seattle has both a housing affordability crisis and a housing shortage. The shortage causes the affordability crisis.

        Also well said. As I said a couple times now, the lack of market rate housing is making things worse for those who will never be able to afford market rate housing (as the feature article in The Seattle Times today made clear).

        The market has never been able to provide housing for the lowest income folks. But when the price of housing for those in the middle increases, it makes it much tougher for those on the lower end. The dollars which the city provides simply don’t go as far.

        As far as worries about some neighborhoods being “out of reach” while others struggle, I think that worry if overblown. There is an unusual dynamic at work in Seattle, one that seems more likely than not to lead to a mix of people riding the bus, as it were. If you consider “Capitol Hill” to be the area where the rich people live, where exactly does that end? The lines have always been fuzzy. When I grew up, Minor and Meany were almost all black, and the neighborhoods around them were as well. Like most cities, this means that the areas around there were poor, although black people in Seattle were much better off than most of the country (owing to a number of factors I won’t get into right now). My point being that a school like Garfield, for example, had a huge diversity of wealth. Folks on welfare living in the projects on Yesler were rubbing shoulders with rich folks who grew up in Broadmoor. It worked, of course. Years later someone told me about high schools where the black kids sat at one table and the Asian kids sat at another. I was shocked. I figured by the late 70s everyone just sat together, like they did at Garfield (at the time).

        If wealth increases to the point that Garfield lacks diversity (and so far it hasn’t) then Franklin will, or at the very least Rainier Beach and Chief Sealth. Roosevelt, meanwhile, is probably about to be more diverse than it has been in years, owing to the recent increase in apartments there.

        Which is really the key point. We need housing. lots and lots of housing. Even if it doesn’t keep up with demand, every unit added, anywhere, will help things. Talk of rent control is, in my opinion, a waste of time and counter productive. Politically, it makes for an easy out. Socialist city council members can keep fighting for it, while simultaneously appealing to those who don’t want to see their neighborhood change. Very convenient. The Stranger can continue to ignore the issue, blaming rich people (of course) all the while ignoring that more housing in say, Magnolia, actually has a bigger impact on prices in Capitol Hill than most people realize. As was said, rent control is years and years away from a policy standpoint, but wasting time makes politicians seem like they are doing something, all the while they fight against (or the very least put up no fight for) the changes in HALA that could make a big difference very quickly. From an economic standpoint, if rent control ever gets close to becoming a reality, it will have a downward effect on development, as you would expect.

        As far as duplexes and apartment conversions (and ADUs and the like) are concerned, keep in mind that these are the cheapest form or housing. Let’s face it, the one thing rent advocates hope for most, and the one thing landlords fear is a bubble. If rent prices suddenly drop because supply has caught up with demand, then I’m happy. But no one knows if and when a bubble will occur. No one knows what demand will be five years from now. A couple of years ago, there were articles suggesting a bubble in Ballard. Those articles seem silly now (as rent continues to go up). But what if we actually get a bubble? What if the bubble pops because of all the new, big apartment buildings we built — what happens then? If the only thing we can build is similar six story buildings, then prices will rebound very quickly. No new places will be built until they do. But if small housing — literally in everyone’s backyard — is allowed, then this will put further downward pressure on rent. I can add a backyard bungalow for very cheap, which means that even if rent is very low, it behooves me to do so. Likewise for similar development (conversions, etc.).

        We don’t know if this will solve the problem — it is possible that employment growth, relative to the rest of the country — will continue to rise so high that rent is never affordable anymore. But by increasing the amount of units (whether built by the market or built by the city) we have a much better chance of getting it back to affordable levels.

    2. The rather simple point on race that I can’t believe you all are really oblivious to is that applying a “race-blind” mechanism where you have large and pre-existing disparities in wealth and income between different races will inevitably yield a racially disparate outcome. (As background, in case god forbid it’s necessary, is that wealth and income are not distributed equally or in a race-neutral way across different groups.) In a nutshell, richer = whiter. It seems inarguable that if you displace poor people and replace them with more affluent people, you will get a population with a whiter mix as a result. To be clear, the concerns I am articulating are about class as much as race. I don’t want to see poorer Caucasian folks displaced either–in this country though, the two inevitably go hand in hand.


      “” We actually care who is riding those trains and buses, not just how long you have to wait for them.” – You, 20 minutes ago.

      You have people who are approved to ride on those trains, and you have people who are not approved. So, who’s on each list?

      Read those two statements again, and then try explaining to me how they are the same thing.

      1. No one can explain it any more simply to you. If you truest don’t understand how problematic your desire for the right people riding your trains is, go show your statement to a coworker or friend and watch horrified look come over their face.

    3. How bizarre that you complain about supposed straw men and then build one of your own.

      Nowhere in this article does Martin imply or even suggest that increasing our supply will suddenly solve all our problems. But he does say we have a supply problem — a point you refuse to argue. Can we agree that increasing the available market level housing would put negative pressure on all housing, or is that something you are arguing against?

      if we can agree on that first point, then other points fall quickly. For example public housing subsides become a lot more affordable and a lot more useful if the cost of market rate housing goes down (a point that should be obvious, but one featured just today on the front page of the Seattle Times).

      As to your other arguments:

      1) A purely market solution is not the only possible way to effect housing prices. You free marketeers might not like it, but requirements to build affordable units and even rent regulation are another way to go.

      Again, the “purely market” solution is a bullshit straw man argument. But what exactly are you proposing? How can you require developers to build enough housing to meet demand, yet at the same time suggest that they not be allowed to build enough housing to meet demand (as Martin has suggesting)? Are we supposed to put a gun to the head of developers and force them to build enough housing in this city to meet the demands of the poor, but ignore the middle class? How exactly is that supposed to work? If we force the developers to build a thousand units for the poor, what if there are two thousand poor people waiting to move there? What if there are ten thousand middle class workers willing to move there? Are you suggesting that we force developers to build Apodments? If so, I should remind you that they are illegal.

      Really, your argument is total nonsense. Let’s assume, for arguments sake, that if built 10,000 units, then we would have a vacancy rate of 10%. This would, in turn, but great downward pressure on rents. So, what you are suggesting is that we force developers to build 10,000 units, but only for the poor. Fine. Let’s do it. Wait, according to current zoning, you can’t do it. You can’t build those units, because they aren’t allowed. You can’t build them in most of the city. So even if we taxed the shit out of people to build more units, they wouldn’t be allowed.

      The same is true for rent control. So we control the rent. So what? Really, so what? How the hell does that solve the supply problem? The answer is that it doesn’t. All that does is create a shadow economy, where people work within the system to get cheap rents, while those who aren’t so lucky get left paying sky high rents. Unless there are more units, the problem still remains.

      2) There is a concept called “values,” which many people in Seattle actually subscribe to. What kind of city we build is just as important as how many people we pack into it. Truth be told, I’d even accept incrementally lower growth if it was necessary to ensure that Seattle remains a place where people of many income levels can still afford to live. Both because of the social and racial justice aspects, and because it will result in a more diverse and intersting place to live.

      What the fuck does that mean? Seriously, that is just mumbo-jumbo bullshit. Are you suggesting that we limit the number of new units being built so that “Seattle remains a place where people of many income levels can still afford to live”? Absolutely ridiculous. I suggest you read up on “supply and demand” and then tell me with a straight face about how limiting the growth of units is supposed to make Seattle more affordable (for anyone). Holy shit, that is insane.

      Unless, of course, by “growth” you are talking about economic growth. My apologies. That is a reasonable suggestion. Tell Amazon and the other companies pushing up employment in the area so high that we are envy of the rest of the country to just fuck off. We want affordable housing and we want it now. Kill demand and we can get affordable housing in a hurry. We want to be like Detroit. Yeah, good luck with that plan, too.

      3) Saying “eventually this problem will sort itself out” is not an adequate answer.

      Such straw man bullshit. You quoted something that wasn’t even said. Are you trolling? If so, congrats. This blog has a tendency to respect the arguments of others (to do otherwise is to risk being banned). So well done. You have found a forum where your illogical blathering is treated with respect. Kudos for your accusation of a straw man by the author of this post followed by numerous straw men. I’m sure you are in troll heaven, having your jollies while others try and solve real problems faced by real people.

      If you aren’t a troll, then for God’s sake, man, get it together. Try and come up with reasonable arguments to further your cause, whatever the hell it is.

  17. All these (presumably white guys) arguing that _the other guy’s_ position is racist! :)

    I tune out to arguments on either side.

    Poor people of any race will, over time, move out of neighborhoods which have come into favor.
    It’s unfortunate and we should do something about truly vulnerable populations — the 80 year old on disability etc etc — but I can’t see what anyone can do to changing cultural taste except build a lot lot more housing of all types to meliorate the shortages.

    1. The way you prevent displacement of vulnerable populations is something called “secured tenancy” — basically making it impossible for a landlord to kick someone out or raise their rent faster than inflation. If they build a new building, they have to accomodate the existing tenant. You have to apply it to ALL rental housing. It’s been done in previous centuries in other countries,

      This doesn’t prevent a housing shortage. In fact, it makes the housing shortage *worse*. So you still have to build a lot more housing of all types.

      1. Which means that when a 30 year old and a 65 year old both apply for same apartment, who do you think gets the place?
        It’s not gonna be the older person who gets the place since they are more likely to get a secured tenancy.

        No, if we want to protect vulnerable populations we have to subsidize directly.

      2. You have enough apartments so that the other person can get a comparable apartment. The problem now is that the other person has to move to Burien or Kent or Lynnwood, where it’s a lot harder to get around and fewer jobs are available.

  18. Pssst – Here’s a how to afford housing: Live where you can afford, make more money to afford more. That’s basically how it’s done, it’s a pattern which has been and will be repeated again and again.

  19. Why don’t developers pay to increase the supply of affordable housing? Because they pay politicians so they won’t have to. That’s the dirty secret. The politicians represent the moneyed interest, because they can’t get elected without them. Ultimately, nothing will happen. If not for a saving grace (a Boeing, Microsoft, and/or Amazon “Bust”), Seattle will become just like San Francisco, a town in which only the rich or the poor can afford to live, but nobody in between.

    1. What an odd question!
      Why should developers pay?
      Do restaurateurs subsidize serving hamburgers?

      If we want to subsidize certain people (which I think we should) then the whole public should share the burden.

      1. I don’t necessarily oppose the strategy–I’d rather raise the taxes to pay for affordable housing some other way, but you take what you can get sometimes (as long as it doesn’t end up diminishing supply of course). But it is a weird mentality. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that restaurants/grocery stores are allowed to open without also including soup kitchens/food banks as evidence of the malign influence of those industries. Because food and housing are both human rights, I’ll take soup kitchens/food banks/affordable housing however I can get them, but the presumption it’s just obviously the duty of one particular subset of society, rather than society as a whole to provide is just an odd presumption that I’ve never heard coherently defended.

      2. The alternative to developer fees is public housing. Some people call that “Socialist” and “Fast track to a slum.” But the other alternative is a large increase in the homeless population. Or people moving to smaller cities where housing is cheap but there aren’t any jobs beyond McDonald’s and Walmart. So would you rather have public housing or developer fees? That’s a trick question because developer fees can’t possibly be high enough to solve our housing shortage; at most they could solve only part of it. So public housing (and creative alternatives like nonprofit grants) need to be part of the solution.

        But the other issue is how much of this scarcity is artificial. If you just raise the zoning, the market will build more units on its own and alleviate the pressure. You’d still need subsidized housing for the low income and workforce housing, but middle-income people could find a place without squeezing into the older units or moving to Burien.

    2. San Francisco has the problems it does because the people of San Francisco kept their heads in the sand and hoped that all the new jobs and residents would just “go back home”. They didnt. They are staying here too.

      Seattle is on the map now. Its not coming off, and we need to change our zoning to reflect our big city growth. If we dont, we will stay mid-size… and become the exclusive domain of the rich. Thats what happened to SF.

      Turns out, the “Field of Dreams” plot doesn’t work backwards. If you don’t build it, they come anyway.

      1. “If you don’t build it, they come anyway.”

        LOL!, and “Exactly!” Seattle is “on the map”, big time. The rain lie has been debunked by Sleepless In Seattle and other big movies filmed in the City. It’s basically one of the most beautifully sited cities in the world. And somebody actually thinks that the millions of millionaires throughout the world have not noticed?

        It is sad that economically marginal folks who’ve lived along Puget Sound their whole lives are going to be forced out, but it is inexorable. Perhaps some will move to the west shore; there’s still lots of land back from the shoreline in Kitsap County to which retirees can move, and there are the hinterlands behind Kent, Auburn and Puyallup. But the forces which are propelling Seattle into the first rank of global cities cannot be stopped or even much delayed. Seattle, BelRedIssaLand and Southwest Snohomish County will become a metropolis of millionaires and those who serve them will have to take long commutes in from outlying places, mostly in South King and northeast Snohomish Counties. It’s too nice a place.

      2. Look, Yes Seattle is nice but there are many many beautiful places in the world.
        Let’s not get so smug, because it sunset justified.

        The built environment of the Puget Sound region is totally ratty. Shabby.

      3. I wouldn’t, and didn’t, say that service industry people will inevitably be priced out of Seattle. But I think that in order to avoid that, the city needs to see a lot more housing construction. Cause people are coming for great jobs, and if we are all going to live here, we will all need places to live.

      4. Well I will say it.
        Service peopl will absolutely get priced out UNLESS we provide huge subsidies.

        And if you want to provide subsidies to both truly vulnerable populations (old/poor on disabilities, children, handicapped etc) AND to healthy young and middle-aged people who are working, I think that we have different political priorities.

      5. “San Francisco has the problems it does because the people of San Francisco kept their heads in the sand”

        Not just the city of San Francisco but the suburbs and San Jose too.

        “and hoped that all the new jobs and residents would just “go back home”.”

        It’s not so much that as denial or illogic. The belief that there was plenty of room for everybody to get the same-sized yard they have in adjacent cities, so what’s the fuss? But you can’t fit six million people with everybody having a quarter-arcre lot and 2+ cars per household without taking up gobs of land, such that Hercules and Vacaville are now suburbs, and you have to go out to Hayward to get an affordable closet. The de facto behavior of the existing residents is “I’ve got mine so screw everyone else”, but in their own mind it’s more like “The alleged problem other people have doesn’t really exist.”

      6. “Service peopl will absolutely get priced out UNLESS we provide huge subsidies.”

        In our situation yes, but that’s not universal. Dallas and Houston have increased population without pricing out people because they allowed the housing supply to keep up with the population. They did it in a sprawly manner that we don’t like, but that’s not the essential issue. The essential issue is the number of units, which must at minimum equal the number of households, at the various household sizes.

      7. Long term solunion for affordable housing STARTS with massive investment in public transportation.

        Since that is NOT going to happen, let’s hope that self-driving vehicle gets here soon.

      8. It’s a transportation AND a land use issue. If it’s a shorter distance between home and work and other places, you don’t need as much transit because more people can walk. All neighborhoods before 1940 were built within a 10-15 minute walk of the neighborhood transit station, with housing and retail all mixed together. The only people who had isolated houses beyond were the 1% who had their own transportation, or lived on farms and such (so they worked at home), or preferred a hermit-like existence. We should follow that model and build primarily for walking, secondarily for transit, and thirdly for driving. The problem is everything build since 1940 is the opposite, except for some minor redensification since the 1990s which has not been enough to keep up with demand.

      9. @ Anandakos — You made the same argument above and it was just as silly. Sorry, it isn’t millionaires driving the rise in rents, it is employment. If this really was becoming a playground for the rich, then there would be nothing we could do, and folks like RDPence wouldn’t worry about the zoning changes. After all, current zoning allows — sorry, encourages — the development of luxury housing. It is fine to build a monster house. It is fine to build an apartment with one condo per floor.

        But have a dozen people per floor? You have to go through a review and add a dozen parking units. Convert that monster house to an apartment? Illegal in most of the city.

        As I said above, most of what is being built, most of what developers are begging to build is exactly the opposite of rich people’s housing. They want to build Apdoments; they want to build lots and lots of units. When is the last time someone tore down an apartment building, and *decreased* density? I’ve never seen it, and you still haven’t come up with a single example.

        The cost of some houses in some neighborhoods may be going up in value because someone prefers Seattle over San Fransisco (although I have trouble understanding why) but that sure as hell isn’t driving up the cost of rent. What is driving up the cost of rent is simply lots of people all wanting to live here, mainly because there are so many jobs here, relative to the rest of the country. If all the tech companies moved to Detroit, the motor city would see a sudden resurgence, and Seattle would see the same downturn that occurred when one company — just one — cut back (they didn’t even move until years later).

    3. >> Why don’t developers pay to increase the supply of affordable housing?

      Because they aren’t allowed to. Holy shit, have you even been paying attention. Quick, ask a dozen developers if they are willing to build tiny apartments with shared bathrooms, no parking and no review in say, Magnolia. Guess what, all twelve of them will say “Hell Yes, when can I start?”. But guess what? They aren’t allowed to! That is the point. You aren’t allowed to build Apodments anywhere in the city anymore. In only a handful of places can you skip the parking requirement. In most of the city, you can’t even add a duplex.

      Hell, want to know what is affordable? A house being converted to an apartment. Buy a cheap house, add a bathroom, a few walls, an extra door and now you have a nice apartment. But again, this isn’t legal in most of the city. I could add an apartment onto my house for probably a few grand. But I don’t want to be a landlord. So maybe, when I sell the house, some landlord will buy the house, add the apartment, and rent out both places. But guess what — again, illegal!

      1. The several areas of Magnolia where it is allowed were built on very quickly. I’ve been watching that area for the last 5 years or so. It’s either going to wind up with most of the single famy homes demolished and converted into tightly squeezed narrow and tall single family houses, or if zoning gets changed it will get a few more multi family buildings and a fair amount of everything else gets to stay as it is for a decade or so.

  20. It’s amusing to see some of the nonsense imputed to me, based on some of my blog comments. Unfortunately, a comment thread is a poor place to carry on a conversation about complex issues, and an intelligent conversation is impossible.

    If you folks ever have another meetup, I’d suggest a panel discussion among some of us with different opinions about Seattle housing issues. With some Q&A with the rest of the folks. Or maybe you should just stick to public transit… :)

  21. Well said, Martin. You’ve really condensed the main issue into an excellent article. Great work. I plan on linking to this piece when discussing the issue on other forums.

    There are trade-offs with every zoning policy, Various changes can address the housing shortage in various ways. But the first step is understanding that we have a housing shortage, and you have done so really well here.

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