Houses on 30th Avenue S. near King Street, 1957

Daniel Hertz, writing at City Observatory:

Land costs are also part of why yearning for the old days of moderate-cost bungalows is unproductive. A century ago, in most cities, it was possible to find relatively cheap land within commuting distance of downtown—partly because the invention of streetcars had just radically expanded the definition of “commuting distance”—so if you could build a house cheaply, you might end up with a relatively low-cost home. But as cities grow, and especially as their metropolitan economies grow, there’s more and more people competing for a fixed amount of land within easy commuting distance of job centers. As a result, the price of easily accessible locations—that is, land—increases substantially. At that point, it doesn’t really matter so much if you can build a home very cheaply, because the cost of the land it sits on will ensure that the total price of construction will be very high.

We’ve made very little progress in the last 100 years in reducing commute times.  Every time we get a new transportation technology (i.e. cars) we burn up the time savings building more sprawl. Long live Marchetti’s Constant.  But now that we’ve hit the limits of sprawl, we’re just spending more time in traffic.

It’s becoming cliche to note that 65% of Seattle’s land is off limits to development (zoned for single-family homes and parks).  Some percentage of the remaining 35% is presumably already developed to the zoning limit. That means all the city’s growth has to happen in the small fraction that remains.  Intensive development + small amount of buildable land = high land prices.  Some may lament that new housing is only built for the top end of the market, but when land prices are high and height limits are low, expensive houses are really all that can be built.  And yet the developer, not the landowner, receives the bulk of the public’s ire.

Municipalities try to ameliorate the expensive housing with subsidies, but the cost of land eats through scarce government funds. San Francisco, for example, is planning to spend almost $900,000 per apartment to build affordable housing in the Mission because of high land costs.

The simplest answer is to build more densely where the land is cheaper, i.e. in single-family neighborhoods.   Instead, current city policy encourages people to tear down single family homes and replace them with even larger, more expensive single family homes, which seems like the opposite of making things more affordable.  The “charming” old bungalows are going away one way or another, the only question is what they get replaced with.

125 Replies to “Expensive Land Means Expensive Houses”

  1. At the request of old wealthy white landowners, our city is less affordable for anyone else. Our leaders don’t lead.

    1. And what I mean is that Murray should ask for some racial equity evaluation shiz on zoning (instead of Street paving for God’s sake). But he probably wants to be re-elected instead.

  2. Someone needs to see if they can get Seattle Weekly to adapt Willamette Week’s article series about this. It’s called “Grow Up Portland! Why those apartments everyone hates are good for you.”

    1. A few years ago, I would have had some real hope that The Stranger might have run something like that. But then unconditional Sawant-cheerleading broke their political coverage, and they more or less went all in on the lazy “greedy developers are the real problem” narrative.

      1. They’ve been super good recently though. I think Sydney and Heidi are totally on our side, along with Dan Savage, while Eli is prob like 75% the way there. We just need to keep pushing on them to get to more supply side answers.

      2. Fair enough. I’m probably overreacting to what Sawant-fandom did to paper. Prior to her, they could be extremely enthusiastic about a politician, while retaining a skeptical stance and critical distance (McGinn, for example). Not Sawant, though. But you’re right that Brownstone and Groover aren’t really implicated in that.

    2. Do you think wealthy white SFH homeowners read the Weekly? It has become indistinguishable from the Stranger, except in standing back slightly from the peak of crudity.

      1. What’s zoning got to do with personal reading matter? I’ve lived in apartments ever since I left home.

        Over years of watching The Seattle Times cover transit, I won’t wrap fish in the Times. But that’s a food safety matter.

        For the crude parts in both The Weekly and The Stranger, the problem is that since the creatures started growing more than one cell, there’s been nothing new about sex.

        The Stranger’s hasn’t been too bad about transit, has it? Thanks, Erica! Though streetcars really have worked consistently well for over a hundred years without needing very much new.

        Anyhow, only local paper I really trust, by virtue of its actually covering anything besides fish is Real Change. Wonder if Seattle has discriminatory covenants limiting a single family home owner to magazines about single family homes?


  3. “New Urbanism” isn’t happening in a vacuum; it is creating “New Suburbanism” and “New Ruralism” as it develops. High land prices and top-of-the-market housing prices near the urban center are inevitable. Close-in and affordable neighborhoods like Ballard and Columbia City aren’t going to be cheap or affordable for long. Burien will be the new Ballard, Renton will be the new Columbia City.

    1. How do you define “New Urbanism”, and how do you see it causing “New Suburbanism” and “New Ruralism”?

      The urbanism I know of and support, and which I understand you don’t like, explicitly calls for allowing a lot more people to live in the City, and to defend urban growth boundaries — the ones way out in the county, not the ones that mandate that nothing but single-family housing may be built on the other side of the line. Sure, housing will continue to cost more in the City regardless, but smart transit investments will make it possible to reduce other costs of living.

      Meanwhile, protecting the arable land closest to us will mean a closer food supply than if we just let the developers run rampant to the horizon, as the New NIMBYism calls for.

      1. By new suburbanism, perhaps he’s referring to the suburbs rebuilding their town centers with apartments?

        If so, that is pretty much inevitable and is already happening.

        It doesn’t reduce the need to push for less SFH zoning in Seattle though. Without more density in the city, close in suburbs will also become prohibitively expensive.

      2. I’m very supportive of the densification of the city core and less reliance on the multivehicle SOV suburban lifestyle that defined the baby boom era. What I’m observing–and becoming wary of–is the concentration of wealth that urbanism is creating for land owners. Look at the example in SF where new “affordable” housing units are costing nearly $1 million to build. I don’t think that’s a very sustainable example of how to create affordable housing.

        There’s another dismaying aspect of densification that I’m becoming wary of, too: homogenized retailing. Urban commercial developments are offering more and more of the same. The corporate sandwich shop, the corporate coffee shop, the corporate pizza place, the corporate burrito shop seem to be the only businesses that can afford to operate in new construction. I have some past experience in commercial real estate and I can tell you that small independent businesses have almost no chance to get a lease in newly developed urban commercial properties. Landlords are primarily interested in only 2 things when they look to fill vacancies–a proven concept and deep pockets. The hippies that started Starbucks in 1971 wouldn’t even be able to get in the door in 2016 with their unproven concept and lack of Wall Street backing.

        The changes in urban development are also creating changes in the suburban and rural landscapes. Many of the changes are positive, but I’m seeing a large degree of corporate activity that formerly was concentrated in the suburbs refocusing on the urban core with some unwanted social consequences. But I think there is a huge opportunity to redefine the old suburb into a more sustainable and vibrant living space than we are accustomed to seeing.

      3. Guy of Beacon Hill, yeah, new developments are homogeneous, and have been for years. The big but is that new developments don’t stay new for long. The ma-and-pops have always located in old neighborhoods and old buildings, the ma-and-pops like it better that way and so do the neighborhoods. And there is always old buildings available for them.

      4. The worst form of homogeneity is no businesses within walking distance. Combine high-priced housing and the need to drive to the nearest food supply, and that is a recipe for unaffordability.

        I betcha most people complaining about the presence of first-floor retail are used to driving everywhere.

        And you can’t stuff first-floor retail below a single-family house.

      5. Reducing “other costs of living” does very little to help most people. Please tell me where I can recover the $500 or $1,000 per month (or more) premium on rent or mortgage in the city versus a suburb? A beater car costs $2,000 or less (a one-time cost), and if one spends $1,000 per year in gas ($3/gal, 30mpg, 40 miles roundtrip) and $120 per year in oil changes, even if you bought a new beater car every year, you’d be looking at $3,120 in commuting costs. You eat that up in a few months in additional rent if you are in the city, and most people will nurse along the old Honda, Toyota, or Kia for more than a year. In my situation, I found a job in Pierce County and, quite frankly, won’t go back to Seattle/King County unless and until I have a whole ton of cash in hand for a fat down payment, accumulated in part by saving money living and working not in Seattle. Let’s assume I do get that big old down payment for premium Seattle real estate. If I were to choose to move, it would be a move of convenience and environmental sustainability (giving me the ability to drive a whole lot less and probably live in a smaller home), but a very small marginal amount of my increase in housing costs will be offset by decreases in other costs of living.

        All that being said, I’d love to see more densification of suburban King County, particularly the areas that are already urban landscapes (Federal Way, Auburn, Kent, Burien, Shoreline, etc). A move of employment operations to some of those areas would be desirable as well, in addition to and in combination with stronger UGA rules to prevent the sprawl from spreading out to places like Eatonville & Black Diamond. There is no reason why the massive parking lots of, say, SR 99 couldn’t be parking garages in combination with multifamily housing and retail, alongside light rail. Offering people employment opportunities in a place where they can actually afford rent or a mortgage goes a long way towards developing a sustainable economy, which we currently do not have. More money in people’s pockets = more money towards purchasing a condo or house and more ability to benefit from rising housing prices and scarce land. Moreover, a spread job base to match the spread housing stock will net a reduction in commute distances. We can’t exactly undo the sprawling housing developments of 1960 to 2010, so maybe we need to redevelop to accommodate it. All of this plays into developing the Light Rail Spine from Tacoma to Everett, which is already urban, mostly built-out, and ripe for renewal and redevelopment.

    2. New Urbanism is basically the belief in building walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods like they were universally built before WWII. As such, in cities it’s identical to old urbanism. But new urbanists have mostly focused on suburbs and planned communities (greenfield developments). That makes some sense because it’s where most people live and where walkability is most egregiously lacking. They’re similar in a lot of ways to 19th/20th century “garden cities”; i.e., “not too large, not too small”. What we would call lowrise density (1-6 stories in outer areas, 3-10 stories in inner areas). Rainier Vista, New Holly, the Issaquah Highlands, Redmond Ridge, Snoqualmie Ridge, and the apartments at 135th & Aurora are more or less new urbanist and walkable. Similar density WITHOUT walkability is in central Issaquah, Ash Way P&R, Bothell-Everett Highway; that’s densER but not really new urbanist: they’re an example of “transit-adjacent development” (you can theoretically walk to transit but the paths are hostile to it). Then there’s the isolated 6-story buildings that could grow into a new urbanist village in the future but there’s not enough village yet: 216th & Pacific Hwy, Renton downtown, The Landing, and other blocks I see but forget where they were.

      New urbanist developments in the suburbs and exurbs are sometimes called “new suburbanism” although that’s not really a formal term. I think Beaverton and Hillsoboo have some areas like that?, although I’ve only been there once years ago.

      “New ruralism” I’ve never heard of. Is that meant for things like Redmond Ridge and Snoqualmie Ridge that are isolated? I wouldn’t call that ruralism because rural to me is like Vashon Island or Bainbridge or Arlington, and these developments contradict that.

      1. Sorry I can’t offer a precise definition for “New Urbanism”, “New Suburbanism” or “New Ruralism”, but my point is that the dramatic changes in urban lifestyle that have occurred (and will be occurring) during this generation will also have a dramatic effect on suburban and rural landscapes and lifestyles.

      2. I’m not sure how you call central Issaquah non-walkable. It’s two-lane streets, tight grid, frequent crosswalks and locally-owned small shops is essentially the essence of urbanism, new and old.

      3. Maybe Mike Orr is talking about the spawly devlopment along Gilman Blvd., or the area north of I-90. The old town seems very walkable.

      4. He’s talking about Issaquah Highlands, which is walkable enough in theory except it is on a huge hill and almost all of the commercial development is auto-oriented.

        Front Street and the older parts of Issaquah are quite walkable.

      5. I’m taking about the area the 554 goes through between the transit center and the Highlands. There are a lot of apartments but they’re situated so it’s a long walk between them and a long walk to anything else.

    3. New Urbanism seems as if it can mean many different things to many different people. I think at a minimum no one would dispute Issaquah Highlands, Salishan in Tacoma, High Point in West Seattle and the HOPE VI project on MLK in the Rainier Valley as ‘New Urbanism’. From what I’ve noticed, people however seem to have a 20+ year old definition of New Urbanism as solely greenfield suburban new towns in deep suburbia (Seaside, Kentlands, Celebration), I personally think New Urbanism is much more. But regardless, the question is whether all new walkable street-oriented mixed use urban infill is New Urbanism, and everyone you ask will have a different answer. Perhaps its a lot like “transit oriented development”, you know it when you see it but its hard to draw a line between what is “TOD” and what is just plain-old urban development in neighborhoods well served by transit.

    1. My thoughts exactly. This is stating many interconnected obvious and known things. Not really anything news worthly. Well another slow news day at STB.

    2. It’s important to articulate it so that people see the connection. STB regulars do, but the target audience also includes policymakers and the general public.

      1. Sorry Mike, but that’s weak: in many organizations where the upper echelons of management, government included, wish to be informed regarding opportunities for improvement that they don’t have an ear to the ground on, Present the information DIRECTLY to your target audience. People like Ed Murray have their head on a swivel and will never see this information directly on a consistent basis. So what does he do? He gets an assistant that works for him to dive into this in conjunction with (presumably) a target issue that Ed is willing to politically take a risk on with SDOT and he gets the Cliff Note’s version. Again, assuming someone like Mayor Murray even sees any of this. If you think city hall works in subtleties, think again.

      2. Murray, Constantine, and other ST boardmembers and city/county councilmembers read STB. Dow says he reads it every morning and often takes an article excitedly to his staff saying, “This! We should do this. Can we do it?” He said that at Metro’s long-term plan kickoff at the library. (I think that was the event.) They may not read every article or comment but they see some of it. And STB has gotten more mentions in the Seattle Times and other media, which has brought a lot of new readers in the past two years (judging by the increasing number of comments and new names).

    3. Lots of our articles are “old news”. We usually only get complaints about running non-news posts when people disagree with what is being advocated, like upzones. I appreciate when people argue points directly.

  4. It should also be noted that on top of the criminal amount of land zoned for increasingly expensive houses – huge swaths have been downzoned from multi family to single family. West woodland, the CD…

    Then there is 40 years of less expensive forms of housing that ‘neighborhood activists’ have worked to kill or slow considerably with absurd restrictions:

    Garden apartments
    Backyard cottages
    Micro housing
    Don’t even think about allowing duplexes or triplexes or condoizing an accessory unit in SFZ.

    Our housing crisis is the result of a century of poor zoning and NIMBY fealty.

    1. Let me tell you about ADU’s. I am attempting to build an ADU in a close-in neighborhood in Seattle. Six months and $30,000 later, all I have are a pile of architectural drawings and increasingly absurd demands from the City of Seattle. The politicians say we want and need more density but apparently that message has not been heard at DPD.

      1. I gave up on my ADU plans for this reason, the costs are punitive on purpose. Instead of a nice 300-400sqft studio I can use for guests and summer sleeping. I can be build a 700sqft “garage” that will have no plumbing, but bed and a couch.

        Garage is an over the counter permit, that only requires one inspection.

        Or I can triple the size, and rooms of my single family house, nearly no limits there!

      2. Same story here. After a few meetings with architects it was clear that trying to build anything small and relatively cheap would be a massive and costly mistake. I decided that it would be easier to just keep mowing the backyard.

      3. At this point, we are still pushing forward. We are either getting a building permit in the next two months or $10,000 or we are calling it quits.

        The most recent demand was a geotechnical report for a basement finish out. Oh well, I guess I didn’t need that $2300.

        Meanie – you are correct. Going from an over the counter permit to a full plan review is a killer. You would think I was asking to build an oil refinery in the middle of Ballard. At this point, that might have been easier than building a two bedroom apartment in my basement.

      4. We want to build an DADU in our backyard – 800 sf, two story (with a single room loft on the second floor). Basically a place where my mom can ‘age in place’. Nothing fancy.

        Our design team came back with a cost estimate of $300-$360K to build this. We had been planning $200K.

        Not cheap housing that anyone can build, IMO.

      5. This is because the developer, engineering, and architecture community are the ones writing the rules and running DPD. They don’t want people like you and I using hard work, ingenuity, and sweat equity to build more housing, because this eats away at the bottom line of the development industry and takes business away from consultants. But, hey, what do I know?!

    2. It’s more than a century. Those longhouses the original European settlers burned down were multi-family housing. The single-family housing movement has an uglier history than even the City is willing to talk about.

  5. The Master Builders Association really needs to come up with a solid critique of the city’s buildable lands study. They talk about it a lot but no one has done the work to show that the city’s estimates are wrong.

    1. The Master Builders are advocating for an expansion of the Urban Growth Area to enable more sprawl.

      1. Ok, sure. But so what? They are the ones that need to be doing the critique of the city’s buildable lands study. The buildable lands study is the document that justifies present zoning levels.

      2. The Master Builders largely represent single family homebuilders and in general think we need more land for single family subdivisions out on the edge. They think we have more than enough capacity for multifamily development in urban areas. So I fail to see what any analysis they’d do of Seattle’s buildable lands report would tell us that we don’t already know.

      3. The MBA does not think we have enough multifamily capacity, as far as I know. If you have some source that says that I’d like to see it but they are pretty agnostic about capacity type.

        Look, this is the group that has the resources to mount a serious critique of the buildable lands report. If you think zoning in Seattle is inadequate then it’s the MBA who is most likely to do the leg work to show that is true and, thus, mount a case with the Growth Management Board. I’m simply saying if people think capacity is inadequate, we should be pressuring the MBA to make a serious critique. So far they haven’t.

        And so far no one has done an actual critique of the buildable lands report methodology. That means, for instance, making specific critiques about steep slopes, critical areas, demand models, etc.

      4. MBA has issues with the Buildable Lands Report as a whole, not super specific to Seattle or any other city in King County. They do look at individual cities and provide feedback, but I’m not sure if they provided feedback specific to Seattle. They definitely provided feedback to King County when Buildable Lands was being updated a couple of years ago.

        MBA doesn’t think there is enough multifamily capacity because it is mostly “redevelopable” land. The problem is, to address that issue you need to open up greenfields and encourage more sprawl. They also note that we’ll run out of space for single family homes probably around 2030.

        2014 statement on Buildable Lands
        Current webpage about Buildable Lands

        The planners who do the actual work generating Buildable Lands are quite well aware of its value and limitations, as well as the assumptions underlying the current methodology.

  6. Seattle’s large natural water features are the biggest restriction to available land, compared to a place like Kansas City or Dallas, where water doesn’t reduce accessible land so significantly.

    One challenge that we have is the Downtown Seattle has increasing primacy. It’s unfortunate because places like Downtown Tacoma and Downtown Everett and Downtowns in the SR 167 corridor could be more important job and activity centers than they are. The only way to fix this is through a larger, frequent rail system and strategic community planning to do this.

    While we often scoff at destinations outside of Seattle, we should reconsider how best to move jobs and activities to those places once they are connected to high-frequency rail – not in a free-parking and low-rise kind of area, but in one with 10 to 20 floor buildings and parking charges. A good example would be a deliberate state strategy to grow UW Tacoma into a much bigger place to address the state’s shortage of engineering graduates.

    In other words, residential land costs are heavily influenced by nearby non-residential attractiveness so merely allowing lot densification is essentially playing at the edge of the issue and not the core issue itself – and won’t put much of a dent into the land cost challenge.

    1. Well, no. Taking 10% of SFZ space and turning it into density would do a lot more to alleviate prices. And would be paid for with private money instead of really expensive rail lines. And it could start happening this year.

      Most of the jobs are *already* outside of Seattle. We should certainly also develop density in some other locations, but saying Renton is an appropriate release valve because of an infrequent train that might be built in 20 years isn’t our best solution.

      1. Actually, merely rezoning for higher density will raise land prices. A lot owner can ask for more money because they can build more units if the market demand is there, and it’s there in central Seattle. Sure the costs may end up being less per unit, but the added costs of building higher or disrupting more earth will eat into that aspect.

        On the other hand, if we have seven more high-density downtowns beyond Seattle and Bellevue (say Redmond, Issaquah, Tacoma, Everett, Lynnwood, Federal Way and Northgate) — all linked by high-frequency rail in several directions and lots of 20 story or even 30 story buildings — and nearby denser housing, we would begin to see a reduction in land costs and more affordable housing all across the region.

        Finally, this is not putting our jobs in suburbs or relatively low-rise campuses. This is instead creating places like Rosslyn, Ballston, Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek, Lenox, Lindbergh, Crystal City or Silver Spring. Other urban areas have gotten this as part of their rail systems, and with Link coming on board, it could be a reality here. Consider what Bellevue was like in 1960 compared to today and just project that occurring in other areas.

      2. >> On the other hand, if we have seven more high-density downtowns beyond Seattle and Bellevue (say Redmond, Issaquah, Tacoma, Everett, Lynnwood, Federal Way and Northgate) — all linked by high-frequency rail in several directions and lots of 20 story or even 30 story buildings — and nearby denser housing, we would begin to see a reduction in land costs and more affordable housing all across the region.

        I doubt it. Land prices will still be very high in the city, because that is where people want to live. Brooklyn has become a very popular place, yet it really hasn’t pushed the price of Manhattan real estate down. Because it is still Manhattan. Despite the very good public transportation system (arguably the best in the continent), there aren’t enough places where people want to live outside Manhattan (or outside New York) to push down the cost of land in the center.

        What is true of New York is probably more true here. Brooklyn has history. Lynnwood does not. These places will never be really popular. Meanwhile, the only affordable places in all these cases are ones where crime is too high, or it is just too far away. Fixing the first problem could go a long way towards making things more affordable, but the second problem is just geography. If you could fix the crime problem in parts of Oakland, then lots of Oakland would be popular with people, and this would put some downward price pressure on the nicer parts of Oakland. But most people would rather live in San Fransisco. It is great that you can take a train from parts of Oakland to San Fransisco, but if you are in San Fransisco, you can just walk.

        >> Sure the costs may end up being less per unit, but the added costs of building higher or disrupting more earth will eat into that aspect.

        Yes, absolutely. But it would go a long way to making things more affordable. In the case of Seattle, the problem really isn’t building higher, it is simply allowing more density. There are a ton of houses that could easily be turned into apartments, but that is illegal. If the regulations were changed, a lot of smaller houses could be added really cheaply as well. The land itself might keep going up in value, but more units means that more people can afford more places.

        It is really telling to me to look at how much land has developed around Link. Areas close in have seen a lot of development, while areas farther out haven’t. You can easily make the case that Link has had no influence at all. Rainier Beach is simply less attractive because it is farther away from the city. Some of that is a history of redlining — gentrification slowly moving south — but I think it is more than that. Even though I think it is very nice (Seward Park is a great park, Rainier Beach is a great school, etc.) it is farther away. If I lived in the Central Area, I could walk to Capitol Hill or even downtown. Rainier Beach is “out there”, and will forever be less popular than areas closer in. What is true of Rainier Beach is even more true of the areas you mentioned. Public transit is not magic — it can play a role in tying together a city — but it can’t make up for basic geography.

      3. “merely rezoning for higher density will raise land prices….. Sure the costs may end up being less per unit, but the added costs of building higher or disrupting more earth will eat into that aspect.”

        Residents don’t rent/buy a whole building, they rent/buy a unit. So the owner’s profit doesn’t matter; what matters is the unit cost. You can avoid the cost of digging down or building high by building small (4-8) unit buildings, duplexes, and row houses. These developments were very common in the 1960s and 70s but now regulations make them too difficult to build. If we relaxed the regulations in lowrise areas, there would likely be even more of them sprouting up than midrises, because homeowners can finance them themselves or with a small loan.

    2. Lol, all we have to do is stop restricting tall buildings. There’s plenty of room but for government restrictions.

      1. “Judging from all the tower cranes in sight, Seattle has very few restrictions on tall buildings.”

        Of course it has plenty of restrictions. Some of the buildings going up right now could have been taller and housed a lot more people, but for the NIMBY movement. And that could have required fewer cranes.

        I would dare say the NIMBYs have forced there to be more cranes than there would have been otherwise.

        Want to preserve neighborhoods? Don’t keep housing around light rail stations to just 4-6 stories. That will barely make a scratch in the pent up demand for a roof to live under.

        When that pent-up demand fails to be satisfied, it won’t be the 4-story apartments that are torn down to make room for 5- or 6-story apartments (the maximum the next wave of NIMBYs will allow). It will be some single-family houses. The NIMBYs did this to themselves.

    3. The primacy of downtown Seattle is a good thing for all of us. There’s no excuse for anyone to drive to get there.

      1. It’s increasing land prices the closer one gets to Downtown. Sure it encourages density, but it makes all housing less affordable no matter what the density is.

      2. Well, except for the fact that Seattle’s near-total dearth of decent transit options makes it a colossal waste of time trying to get downtown any other way. But it’s a choice between wasting time riding the bus and wasting money paying for parking, so it’s not great whichever choice you make.

      3. My guess is very few people who drive downtown are just commuting. I agree, that would be pretty stupid, since transit to and from downtown is great. But I know people who drive in to work once a week so they will have a car after work. In his case he visits his dad who lives in Lacey. That’s a tough problem to solve (although hourly car rentals at park and rides might do it).

        It is also common for people to want their car for an event after work. Let’s say you live in Roosevelt, work downtown, but want to catch a show after work on Capitol Hill. You can rely on public transit, but spending 45 minutes just getting home is not exactly appealing (when it is about a ten minute drive).

    4. Seattle is fortunate to have retained a significant downtown job share and now a major expansion. It’s easier to provide infrastructure and amenities and high-capacity transit and “urban vibrancy” in a concentrated area. That doesn’t mean there’s no role for suburban downtowns, but it does mean that complete decentralization is not good. Decentralization is what the 20th-century suburban movement was all about, and it has advocates here such as John Bailo who want everything “like Wallingford” and “like Kent”. We should grow downtown Tacoma and Everett and Lynnwood into real urban centers like downtown Bellevue, but we shouldn’t actively push jobs out of Seattle; we should encourage the majority of jobs to be in the downtown-Northgate axis and perhaps Bellevue-Redmond now, as is happening organically. The exception being heavy industry which needs lots of space for trucks and warehouses and such.

      1. I agree, although I would argue that trying to convert Lynnwood into an urban center would be a bad idea. Tacoma has a history — it has “good bones” — it could be revitalized, and be a very attractive place to live. That just isn’t the case with Lynnwood, and even Everett is a stretch. Whatever growth in jobs there would likely just lead to sprawl, as it has with the east side. I realize the east side grew way back when, but areas like Sammamish have grown much faster than areas like Lynnwood in the last twenty years, and that is because lots of people in Sammamish work in Bellevue or Redmond. Tacoma can function as an independent, attractive city — I fear that if Lynnwood adds a significant number of jobs, the area around there will simply sprawl faster.

      2. OK, Lynnwood may not have the “good bones” of Tacoma or Everett, but what should it do? Just remain a faceless suburb filled with subdivisions and strip malls, and one mega-mall? The area around the Link station at the P&R, that’s a great site for a high-density urban center.

  7. As a bogey man, “developers” are a relative new kid on the block. Land owners and land speculators need their proper due at the top of the housing prices villian list – if for no other reason than to spur policies that focus on fixing affordability issues rather than aimlessly pointing fingers.

    1. Turning “greedy developers” into the primary villain was a stroke of absolute genius and an impressive coup for the rentier class. That they got avowed “socialists” to carry water for this deeply cynical strategy is depressing beyond words.

      1. Yep. And they had a lot of help from nativists and the like. Add this to the fact housing moves slowly and analyzing it requires a decidedly long view and you have a recipe for a successful misinformation campaign.

        Kudos to their PR people.

    2. Some of you may not have been around to see it happen, but “greedy developers” was applied to those who wanted to build out beyond the urban growth boundary. They are still around and still trying.

      I would suggest that we start recognizing “good developers” — those who want to build housing for the masses, and do so where the services like transit are. Yes, they still want to make a profit, and if we want them to build here, we should let them. The people who want to live next to light rail want to make a profit, too. Even the Socialist Alternative wants their operation to be lucrative.

      1. “Green Field Developers” works fine for me. We can use it as a dog whistle meaning “Total A-Holes.”

      2. I say we stop moralizing them altogether. They’re self-interested actors, just like single family homeowners and everyone else. Sometimes their self-interest overlaps with the public interest to varying degrees, sometimes it doesn’t–just like everyone else. There are lots of public policy tools we can use to shift more of their activity into the ‘overlaps with public good’ category; we should do those things and not worry about what is in their hearts.

      3. Or we can stop trying to morally characterize developers. There is nothing obviously immoral about big buildings or building in greenfield. If, as a society, we don’t want them to build outside a boundary or over a certain size, we should make rules. We already do.

      4. Haha, yeah guys – I should have pit /s on my comment.

        On the issue of green field development, generally, though –
        yeah, I do have a problem with it at this point in our spawl behavior- but I put the onus to change it on us/government – not with developers.

      5. And if as a society, we decide that we are going to put certain land off limits for development, we need to understand that we are going to make housing more expensive and less affordable. That’s fine, it’s okay not to prioritize affordable housing over everything else. What’s not okay is making these choices, but blaming their effects entirely on others.

    3. In Bellingham, citizens largely turned against developers because they (in the form of the local Building Industry Association) obnoxiously inserted themselves into every single element of city politics, generally along the lines of let us build anything anywhere. Sometimes hate towards developers is earned.

  8. Oh, if only we could solve all our housing problems by abolishing SF zoning! The reality is that tearing down $450K SF houses results in replacement MF units going for $650K and up. More housing units but at much higher prices.

    And I’m sure many of those new MF units would’ve been built in existing MF zoning but instead get shifted to SF neighborhoods for higher profits to their builders.

    I still support the original Grand Bargain — build new MF housing in urban centers and urban villages where it can be served by high-frequency transit, where homes are within walking distance of shops and restaurants. Many Seattle SF neighborhoods are without sidewalks or where buses run only every 30-minutes, or where there are no shops within walking distance — areas ill-suited to MF development.

    And if those urban centers and urban villages no longer provide adequate area for higher-density development, then they should be upzoned and/or have their boundaries extended (both features of the City’s proposed new Comp Plan, btw).

    The reality is that SF zoning is not going away in Seattle; it’s pointless to continue pushing this one polarizing element of urbanist orthodoxy.

    1. That’s only because of the scarcity of multifamily units. When you saturate the high end of the market, you’ll have to start building for the middle and low end at more moderate prices or forego that potential profit. What’s driving up the land prices is the artificial scarcity caused by excessive zoning. If Seattle allowed ADUs everywhere like Vancouver does, and lowrise in half the single-family land, and bumped up the current lowrise districts slightly, and a few highrise buildings around Northgate, Roosevelt, U-District, and Mt Baler stations like New Westminster BC, then there would probably be plenty of housing for everyone at all price points. Dallas and Houston don’t have this affordability problem because they allow construction to match the population demand. It’s not because they’re sprawling and car-dependent — which we don’t want — but because they allow supply to keep up with demand.

      1. This has all been patiently explained to Roger more times than I can count; even if he’s forced to concede some ground in the short-term he’ll be back with the same boilerplate nonsense the next time related issues come up. I’m not sure he could pass a Turing test.

      2. Roger who, Valdez? He’s not the problem. It’s the obstructionists like John Fox who are the problem, with the false false belief that you can keep all the old buildings in place and they’ll remain affordable and they’re enough units for everyone.

      3. “This has all been patiently explained to Roger more times than I can count;” Yes, and I just stubbornly refuse to accept faith-based planning, to drink that Kool-Aid,

    2. So, what we should be tearing down to make room for more housing is the existing multi-family housing in the designated urban zones. Is that what you are trying to say?

      1. Nope. There are plenty of old houses in MF zones that are candidates for teardown. With the underlying MF zoning, there’s no incentive for owners to keep them up. They get redeveloped over time into MF buildings. Go exploring in those LR zones. Kinda hard to miss what’s going on.

    3. Before Sam says that Vancouver is not inexpensive, I’ll note that world-class cities have a special problem. Vancouver, New York, London, San Francisco, etc, attract the worldwide rich. Many of them want a more stable investment than their own countries can provide, or a fallback place to live, or just want to consume conspicuously. Seattle has mostly been able to escape this by not being desirable enough, but that’s starting to change as tech money pours in and Chinese families move to to Bellevue to get their kids into Eastside schools. We can’t prevent that but we can try to keep a lid on it. So far, the demand for million-dollar condos downtown has been mostly hot air, but it could increase and then overwhelm the neighborhoods. The only thing we can do is build a lot of housing, particularly middle-class type and in the less desirable areas (Lake City, Delridge) that will be the last places the rich and investors will go. And build some downtown condos for the rich as bait so they don’t buy up the neighborhoods.

    4. Once again, Roger posts from an alternative universe where he favored deal from the 1990’s is still working to pruduce sufficient housing supply to keep the city affordable. In that universe, Roger, perhaps no major changes are needed. In this universe, well, we have a name for people who insist on continuing to stick to a failed policy that benefits them, but with devastating consequences for newcomers and the next generation, because they like it that way. But this is a family blog.

      1. Hah! The “alternative universe” is the one where people actually believe the City of Seattle will abolish SF zoning everywhere.

      2. I certainly don’t believe that. I may well think they *should*, for some values of “abolish”, but lots of bad policies are virtually impossible to change and persist for a very long time; it would be Pollyannish to believe otherwise. What comment serves as the basis for this accusation?

      3. If only the City of Seattle would abolish SF zoning everywhere. What a relief that would be! But we are not likely to be so lucky. Still, if we lobby for full-scale abolition, we might get a mediocre approximation of a small part of that solution, which wouldn’t really solve the problem but might ease the pain a little, and that would at least be an improvement.

    5. And, Vancouver was inexpensive through at least 2002. You could get a 13th floor condo with a spectacular view for $75K. That’s with thirty years of density and skytrain. It was only in the mid 2000s that Vancouver got overwhelmed with population, international investors, and BC Bud drug lords laundering their loot.

      1. I think the big change was when Hong Kong transitioned to Chinese rule. A lot of people saw it coming, and sure enough, a lot of wealth left the area and went to Vancouver.

        I also think Vancouver has become a destination city for the country and the Commonwealth. It is the warmest city in Canada, and one of its nicest for outdoor activities (lots of mountains and sea). In that respect, it is like San Fransisco. Some say Seattle is becoming more like that, but I don’t buy it. I think what is driving 99% of Seattle’s growth is jobs. There are rich people who can live anywhere and choose to live here, but very few (or at least very few that could also live in New York or San Fransisco).

      2. The Hong Kong money was in the 90s. to establish a place abroad before the transition in 1997. I started going to Vancouver monthly in early 1998 through 2001 or 2002. Housing was cheap then: condos were less than in Seattle, and Seattle rents were still reasonable. After 2002 I started going different directions but I still talked to my friends in Vancouver. After a few years of Chinese rule, the Chinese Canadians felt it wasn’t as bad as they had feared, and some of them moved back to Hong Kong. So the influx from the transition did not cause the real-estate skyrocketing.

        The skyrocketing happened several years later, when the US was in the height of its real-estate bubble. The bubble started when Greenspan refused to raise interest rates in the dotcom recession recovery, so investors flew out of stocks and into real estate. I don’t know how much that affected Canada because it has a very different system: no 30-year fixed mortgages (only seven years and refinance), no liar loans, etc. But American investment money could have spilled over into Vancouver somewhat. And maybe there was a larger Hong Kong influx after 2005; I don’t know.

    6. @RDPence,

      Concur 1000%. It is what it is, and it isn’t going to go away. And calling SFH owners racist isn’t helping the discussion. And it simply isn’t true.

      Plus this is all about developer’s profits anyhow. With low end SFH’s in good neighborhoods going for $600k there are a lot of small scale developers who are just salivating at the chance to knock down one $600k home and build and sell 3 $800k ones.

      And the 65% figure is bogus anyhow. The only way you get to 65% is to add in all the residential street and park area, and last I heard nobody was talking about developing our streets and parks.

      I expect better from this blog. SFH zoning is here to stay – deal with it.

      1. Exactly 0 people have ever, ever called “SFH owners racist”. That’s incredibly dishonest and intentionally misses the point.

      2. “this is all about developer’s profits anyhow”

        No it’s not. People say we shouldn’t build something because a developer will profit, but that’s what misses the point. It doesn’t matter whether developers profit. What matters is that would-be residents can find a place to live. Right now we have a housing shortage or rents wouldn’t be going up. Since housing is a necessity, the proper thing to do is build more housing, and that means letting developers build.

      3. @Mike Orr,

        I am not against a developer making a profit, in fact I celebrate that. What I am against is the city government subverting and contorting regulatory policy for the sole purpose of generating profits for developers. Government does not (or at least should not) exist for the sole purpose of artificially propping up business, and zoning policy should not be driven by developer access to profits.

        And this is all so unnecessary anyhow. Drive anywhere in town and try to tell me that this city is anywhere close to being built out even under existing zoning. It simply isn’t. There are too many big box stores with massive parking lots, too many arterials with no meaningful amount of development along them, too many low rise buildings with zero to minimal housing attached.

        Na, SFH zoning iclearly is not the problem, but the fact that we aren’t getting meaningful development in the areas that can take it surely is. Why that is and what to do about it is a lot more complicated problem than just wagging “your” finger at SFH owners and making them out to be racists.

    7. Roger, it’s strange that either “cottage communities” stopped being built, or paying any attention to them. There’s one across Greenwood from the gate of North Seattle Community college- or used to be, I haven’t been out that way for a few years.

      Single-family houses built around a single lawn, which could as well be a park. Garden space beside each house. A single multi-car garage at the edge of the complex.

      Seems like a good start at an answer. At least anybody in Seattle, including the City, objects, they’ll have less ground than for anything else go date.

      But something else the years seem to prove. A lot of the old brick buildings so beloved of people with a large amount of money, became living space for artists and other people without a large amount of money wanted to live anywhere near the industries that were in process of abandoning these buildings.

      So what’s everybody’s idea of a place of a “fixer-up” of a whole neighborhood.
      Or county? Which in addition to providing us with a place to live, could also be a workplaces that the locals might really appreciate.


      1. Good points, Mark. I’d like to see cottage communities, as you call them. The City has a non-functional transition zone called RSL. That zoning category needs to be fixed to support various small-scale ground-related development options such as cottage housing, town homes, triplexes, etc.

    8. >> The reality is that tearing down $450K SF houses results in replacement MF units going for $650K and up. More housing units but at much higher prices.

      What? That makes no sense? Are you really saying that you can tear down a singe house worth $450K, and then replace it with multiply houses worth $650K? Dude, that is ridiculous. It never works that way.

      OK, first of all, if the house is more valuable for its land, then it will be torn down. That is why there are so many tear downs in the city. That house and land may be worth $400K, but if the developer mows it down and puts up a big house it will be worth $750K. That is why this whole idea that restricting development is somehow preserving housing affordability is a myth. As long as demand keeps going up, the cheap houses will be destroyed. There are just too many wealthy people that want a house.

      But you are right, there is demand coming from the other end. There is demand for more affordable housing. There are people that would love to live in a $250K house, but if they find one, they are out bid by guys wanting to tear it down and replace it with a nicer house. So those people just settle on a condo. But even condos are very expensive, because they aren’t enough of them. Likewise with apartments. Which gets us back to adding units.

      The cheapest thing to do is convert a house to an apartment. There are plenty of big houses out there that could easily be converted to an apartment. Take that big $600K house, and convert it to 4 apartments. It only costs $100K to do that, so now you can make a decent profit by selling each unit for $200K. Someone who wants to live in the whole thing still might outbid the other four buyers (or renters) but it is four against one. While high income people may be responsible for most of the bungalow destruction in the city, there aren’t so many of them that they can outbid a bunch of middle or low income folks. The house gets converted, and more people own a home.

      Except that in most of the city, that is illegal. The current structure is not meeting many of the goals you seem to want. It is not keeping houses affordable (obviously). It is not preserving old buildings (more houses got torn down for new houses than for apartments last year). All it is really doing is keeping density low in certain neighborhoods, causing very high prices in others (which leads to more houses being destroyed) and adding more parking (which renters pay for). That hardly sounds like smart policy to me.

    9. I’m all for increased density and development as a die hard urbanist. But lets not fool ourselves, almost all of what is built is garbage and a poor replacement. Its a real shame we aren’t creating new large buildings that people agree are worth replacing nice old houses. As trivial as architectural aesthetics might sound, its kind of the root of the problem.

      1. I would say it is a mix. I think some of the newer apartment buildings are pretty nice. Much better then a lot of the crap built in the ’80s. Here is an example of a pretty nice building in Fremont:
        I don’t think it is as great as some of the classic ones, but still pretty nice, and better than what was there before (a warehouse). What you can’t tell from that picture is how well it fits into the block (and unfortunately Google Maps isn’t up to date). It looks nice, in my opinion. It stands out, but doesn’t dominate or detract from any of the other structures.

        The same is true with houses. There are a few new interesting ones going up, but there is a lot of crap. Mostly what I’ve seen is just huge houses with very little character. This is a brand new one for sale in my neighborhood: Here are a couple similar houses built a few years ago:

        This is the type of development that goes in my neighborhood. The first set are selling for close to a million dollars a piece. This is the cheap part of town, too. This is probably the most affordable neighborhood north of the ship canal (it wasn’t too long ago that it was common to see cars up on blocks on the lawn). But the little houses are being torn down, and replaced by giant houses. This is why the idea that we are preserving little quaint houses or cheap affordable houses is laughable. You could probably build something affordable in that area. Those lots are huge — you could easily build three houses on each lot (and sell for $400K) but the city won’t let you. No row houses, or even little houses next to each other. So those tiny houses are just being mowed down to make room for million dollar houses. I don’t see why anyone is happy with that.

  9. “The simplest answer is to build more densely where the land is cheaper, i.e. in single-family neighborhoods.”

    What was the question?

    1. The tech industry created a problem that they want others to correct and pay for. “We moved to town and made housing prices go up. Oops. Our bad. But here’s what we’ll do for you. We’ll suggest you put apartment buildings next to single family homes. That might lower rents a smidge. You’re welcome.”

      Many of the apartment buildings around crossroads predate tech. In the 60’s through the 80’s, they were very affordable. Now they are not. What’s the variable?

      1. Imagine three cities. They all get an influx of tech jobs. One city has more housing than people, because earlier there was a recession or white flight and people moved away. The affluent tech workers take the vacant units and rents stay the same.

        Another city has housing for its immediate needs but not for the influx of workers. This city builds enough housing to accommodate the workers. Rents may go up a little but not much. It may be tight for 2-4 years until the new housing is ready. It may It may be harder to live in the the hippest neighborhood because all the yuppies move there, but everyone can find a place somewhere. Also, this city has several walkable neighborhoods and frequent transit between them, so even if you live in an obscure corner of the city it’s easy to get around.

        A third city also has enough housing for its immediate needs but not for the influx of workers. They refuse to upzone, and the vacancy rate goes down to 3%, 2%, 1% and stays there. Rents go through the roof, the wealthiest people take the choice places, and the poorer people they displace have to move to the suburbs or sleep under the freeway.

      2. More demand. What do you do in response to more demand? Increase the supply of housing. Since sprawl is bad, that means we need to increase density.

      3. Good Post, Mike.

        The first city is where Detroit or Flint might be if they ever got some tech jobs.
        The third is San Francisco (or for that matter, anywhere in California)
        Seattle is the second. As everyone has noticed, Seattle is building housing like mad, and hints of an oversupply at the high end have just started to trickle in. If this is the case, the lower rents caused by this oversupply will work its way into the middle, then low ends, of the market.

      4. Seattle is the third. The second is an ideal city, and I can’t think of one exactly like it. But Chicago is pretty good.

      5. You could say that the third is Portland, except Portland hasn’t been bit by the tech bug quite like Seattle or San Francisco.

        Except for a few places on the inner east side, we insist on having something like half the land area devoted to SF housing.

        When new developments happen in the suburbs, much of that is SF housing too.

        Oregon as a whole now has the nations lowest vacancy rate

        My understanding is that Portland is down in the 1% range, and has been there a while, and was recently regarded as being the tightest rental market in the country. Worse than SF, despite the fact that our tech industry is nothing like SF.

        It doesn’t have that much to do with a huge influx of tech workers, which much of rural Oregon certainly hasn’t had. The problem is, plain and simple, a lack of land on which to build apartment buildings due to the huge emphasis on zoning land for single family development.

        Don’t follow Portland into this type of mess.

  10. Re south King County, there’s a potential need that’s not being addressed. Pierce County has an established jobs center (downtown Tacoma), and Snohomish County has a potential jobs center in the middle of it (downtown Lynnwood). But in south King County, except for Boeing, most of the local jobs are low-wage, and getting a higher wage requires commuting to Seattle or the Eastside, which is longer than Bellevue-Seattle or Lynnwood-Bellevue. So the answer would be a large high-paying jobs center in the middle of south King County. But none of the cities are planning for that. Tukwila’s, Kent’s, and Renton’s plans are significant but small and residential-based. And physically it would have to be around Tukwila or Kent to be the shortest average commute for the entire south county. So what should the cities do, and should we focus more on this?

    1. The airport comes to mind as a jobs center. A lot of low paying jobs for sure, but a lot of good jobs as well.

      There are a lot of jobs in the valley from Renton down through Auburn. The area is littered with light industrial businesses of all sorts, PACCAR, Weyerhauser, the Group Health logistics center, various aerospace, manufacturing, and shipping companies. But I don’t know if any of them are big enough to be a center unto itself. The cheap real estate means the buildings are separated by seas of parking and rather difficult to serve in a cohesive way with transit.

    2. Mike Orr, RE: South King, Federal Way would be an excellent location for tech jobs. It is located along Link and has plenty of low value “junk” to be redeveloped. The north end of FW is pretty central between FW, Auburn, Burien, and Renton. There’s also waterfront homes nearby for the higher-ups to get their dose of luxury. Problem is, nobody at FW plans for anything beyond strip malls and SFR.

      Fletcher, Mike was right about the lack of good paying jobs. Just as in Seattle, the jobs available in South King don’t match the housing cost. Great, get a job at a warehouse. You can now afford a house in Roy. As far as the ability to serve with cohesive transit, with Link to Federal Way, I certainly believe that it could, but it would require massive restructuring and the political will to build a bus infrastructure that induces demand, and Puget Sound voters don’t have that kind of political will. If the density of 1985 Wallingford or Northgate could support mediocre bus routes that provide solid coverage, so can fully built-out 2016 Federal Way and Kent.

  11. Frank;

    Maybe – and I’m from Skagit OK – but maybe it’s time to let some of these single-family households sell their homes to an apartment developer and pocket the money to live in a condo or in the suburbs (preferably in the Sound Transit district). Good grief.

    1. To some extent that’s what’s happening. Retiree are deciding that they’d rather not have to maintain that big house, they sell it, move to a little condo or senior community, and city willing, a developer builds apartments and high-rises.

      The key piece of this, is, of course, city-willing. My aunt just lived Everett to move to a smaller place in the Skagit, but Everett doesn’t allow multi-fam in her neighborhood.

      1. The bans on multi-family housing are egregious. Are they even constitutional? Someone should retry the Euclid precedent and overturn it.

      2. According to “Dead End” by Benjamin Ross, Zoning came out of private covenants, where the buyer agrees not to do certain things and passes the terms on to subsequent buyers. The terms are set by the neighborhood developer, or a group of homeowners can form their own covenant. They’re technically voluntary, but if you violate them the other homeowners or developer can sue you for degrading their property value or their interest in the neighborhood. Zoning started as a way to standardize these terms and make it illegal to violate them. The courts at first ruled against zoning, saying it was a violation of the homeowner’s property rights to do as he wished. They said zoning is only valid if it’s a citywide plan, so that it applies equally to all lots in the city rather than just some lots. It has to look like the city has a rational plan for putting houses here, apartments there, parks there, commercial there, or whatever it says — that it at least claims to make a better city for everyone rather than restricting certain people’s rights. But the courts haven’t ruled much on zoning, and there’s a question whether it would really stand up in court, so the cities try to keep it out of court in case it would be overturned wholesale.

      3. Doesn’t it make more sense to steer new MF development into walkable neighborhoods, ones that are well-served by public transit and have shops and restaurants within walking distance?

  12. Excellent post, Frank. I completely agree.

    There are a lot of trade-offs with zoning, but there are also a lot of myths. One of them is that the current system preserves the bungalow, or that it preserves affordability for single family houses. Neither is the case. Increasing density means that you have more people per lot. This means that you have less demand for each lot. Restricting density (as we do) does the opposite. When a bungalow sits on land that is rapidly increasing in value, the land can easily exceed the value of the structure. When that happens, the bungalow will be torn down and replaced by either another house or (if allowed) an apartment. Thus the restrictions aimed at preserving a low density neighborhood lead to a handful fewer apartments being built in the neighborhood (and a bunch of conversions never happening). But ultimately it leads to a lot more houses being replaced by bigger houses and those that aren’t town down will be more expensive.

    1. True. Despite a lot of hype, upzoning or having liberal ADU/triplex rules in single-family areas will NOT ever reduce the price of single-family homes in the City. They allow more people to live on the same land, reducing the price/housing unit.

      In the absence of upzoning, SF homes in the City will continue to escalate in price as long as demand is steady, as the total quantity is fixed (or slowly declining).

      In upzoned areas in the City, SF homes will appreciate even faster, as they now have the potential for more housing.

      Either way, 6,000 ft2 plots will continue to increase in value.

      1. Related to this concept, the only future for “affordable family housing” in the City is multi-family. Townhomes and 3-bedroom apartments designed with families in mind can be created in large quantities if the zoning and incentives allow. There will never be more single-family homes in the City than their are now.

        It will require a major shift in cultural expectations – both on the part of families and developers.

      2. I agree with you, but I will make a minor distinction. The term “single-family” has a specific definition when it comes to zoning. It basically means “single house on a set lot size”. There are very few lots smaller than 5000 square feet. This is silly. You could easily break up a bunch of big lots (especially in the north and south end) and build a lot of affordable houses. These wouldn’t even be row houses — you wouldn’t share the wall. These would simply be small houses on small lots (and relative to a lot of the city, not that small).

        But that won’t happen under the current regulations. Even odd lot, skinny houses are discouraged.

        From a zoning perspective, row houses and even cottage houses (which is a variation on the type of thing I’m talking about) are considered lowrise. But from a practical standpoint, they are very similar. A rowhouse or a townhouse is essentially just a regular house, except that you share the wall. You still own the land and no one is above or below you.

        Most of the city does not allow that type of construction, which is ridiculous. The height limits should be the same as the rest of the neighborhood, but other than that, it should be allowed.

        But I would go farther, as you suggest. As long as the apartment is no bigger than a house, I don’t see why you should have restrictions on the number of units. I also oppose a lot of the other regulations, like the required parking. A lot more of the city should be zoned low rise, and the low rise zones should be a lot more accommodating.

  13. Thats just hilarious. The answer is staring you in the face Seattle.

    Clue: “partly because the invention of streetcars had just radically expanded the definition of “commuting distance””

    Solution: High Speed Rail – people can commute for 30 to 45 minutes and get quite some distance from their job to where housing is … tada! Cheap!.

    Snoose err news at 11.

    1. HSR is neither cheap to install, nor cheap to operate. It won’t be a solution for daily commuting for most people. Where it already exists, it could be viable for weekly trips.

  14. On suburban downtowns: Building in transit-served suburban downtowns is a good thing. It provides housing and there are substantial numbers of people who want to live in/near a suburban downtown rather than in the metropolitan core. It also provides a choice of housing types for suburban residents, and allows them to stay in their hometown as they move through the life cycle. There are also the suburbs which are employment centers, though usually not in their downtowns.

    But suburban downtowns probably aren’t going to provide enough housing to solve the housing problem in the core city. Even a reviving secondary urban downtown, like Oakland, can’t necessarily do that with a housing shortage like San Francisco’s. There are the people who do want to live in the central city. And then in the Bay Area (and New York and probably other places) there are transit capacity issues. The system is already at capacity moving people across the Bay Bridge corridor in BART and buses, and it’s only going to get worse.

    I’m all for rezoning and redeveloping single family neighborhoods, that’s what American cities have done for over a century.. My question is how the economics of that work now. When there are 650K bungalows (even more in the Bay Area) does it really work to demolish and replace with a triplex? Or does it require a dense apartment building to make it work?

    BTW, the dump on developers stuff is nonsense. We live in a capitalist housing market. No homeowner wants to sell their house for less than market value, we want to get all that it’s “worth.” For better or for worse, the way the US builds the vast majority of our housing is via private profit-motivated developers. I wish it were otherwise. but I don’t see anybody proposing a practical way to build millions of social housing units every year.

    1. Wanderer, maybe the solution isn’t for suburban downtowns to supply the housing. Maybe it is for them to be standalone cities with jobs AND housing. Yes, this may mean that jobs shift away from an urban core, with the benefit of people having a net shorter commute. I grew up in a small town. Most people worked and lived in the same town, or, perhaps, the next town over. The number of jobs matched the housing stock very closely. There was very little growth. In fact, the trend was for people to buy an old house and either remodel it or tear down and build new. There were a couple of small (2 to 5 homes PER YEAR) subdivisions. It’s time for the business community to realize that to serve their own employees well, that their headquarters address may need to read “Kent” “Lynnwood” or “Burien”, not “Seattle” or “Bellevue”.

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