Last year, the population of King County grew 48,600, or 2.3%. The housing stock grew 14,700, or 1.6%. The gap, 0.7%, is a rough measure of our failure to create enough housing.
This is the sixth straight year when population growth exceeded housing creation in King County. Snohomish and Pierce appeared more balanced until 2014, but now face heightened housing pressures as displacement of King County workers from expensive local housing markets grows.
The gap between population and housing growth is an increase in household size. Over this decade, 11.5% more King County residents have squeezed into 8.3% more housing units. That might not seem so large, but it’s about 27,000 missing homes. Those on the margins of the housing market live with parents longer or take on more roommates. Some are homeless. The housing shortage also manifests in rationing via higher rents and rising home prices.
The other safety valve to the housing shortage has been the displacement of King County families to neighboring counties, and particularly to the South Snohomish suburbs. The role of Pierce and Snohomish Counties in the regional housing market goes beyond more housing units. Specifically, they provide much of the new single-family housing growth in the region. Seattle is 21% of the region’s housing stock, but just 2% of added single family housing since 2010 is in Seattle. Distant developments on the edges of the urban growth area have helped to fill a second housing gap, a deficit of housing for families in King County. But in recent years both Pierce and Snohomish are increasingly unable to keep up with demand.
“Single-family” is not the only form of family-friendly housing, but statistically it’s been a fair proxy in this region. While it makes obvious sense for densifying Seattle to shift toward multifamily housing forms, those forms are rarely targeted to families. 81% of new Seattle apartments are studios or one-bedroom. Only a sliver of new homes in Seattle, whatever their form factor, are appropriate for larger family units. Seattle is significantly out of step with comparable cities on this measure. It’s clichéd, but true, to observe ‘there’s not much family in multi-family’.
Elsewhere in King County, single family homes are just less than half of the increase in the housing stock, but the suburbs have grown much more slowly than Seattle with only 5.7% more housing units this decade vs 12.8% more in Seattle. Seattle is surely under-producing homes for families, while other King County cities lag on producing all sorts of homes.
Many suburban cities, and even Seattle neighborhoods, accept growth reluctantly. The Growth Management Act requires capacity for growth, setting numeric goals for zoned capacity for new housing units. The goals are indifferent to the mix of housing types. It is rather too easy for a city to up-zone highway-facing strip malls to urban densities and declare that it has planned for growth. The allowed housing caters to one narrow segment of the market while leaving others underserved.
The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties is promoting a ten-point action plan to expand housing supply. It offers a detailed agenda for easing bottlenecks in the housing market beyond doubling down on exurban edge development. Along with process fixes to reduce bureaucratic barriers and reforms to buildable lands reporting for more accurate capacity calculations, there are at least two important measures to increase the supply of a greater range of housing.
One measure is that cities be required to up-zone and reform regulations to meet a minimum net urban density of six units per acre in residential zones (net density excludes roads and public spaces). That would allow more housing in low-density neighborhoods where large minimum lot sizes hinder redevelopment.
The more dramatic reform is a minimum single-family residence requirement. Comprehensive plans, the MBA says, should include targets for detached single-family homes. This is a promising idea, though the focus on detached homes is misplaced – there are many possible family home forms that are not detached. With comprehensive plans and zoning updated to require more housing types, cities would be prevented from concentrating growth so exclusively within small areas of high planned density. For built-in cities, a single-family residence target would tend to spread added growth capacity across many neighborhoods where today’s regulation make densification too difficult.
The best answer is a mix of larger apartments, and more townhomes, and more single family detached homes on smaller lots. Long highway commutes are not a sustainable solution to housing deficits near job centers. That doesn’t mean slowing apartment building in urban areas or neighborhood centers. There’s enough demand to go around.
The next round of comprehensive plans will likely see significantly higher regional targets for housing as we play catch-up after failing to anticipate the current boom. The plans should also pay close attention to the full range of housing needs.
80 Replies to “The regional housing gap”
Excellent article. It’s pretty crazy that Seattle has suburban-style zoning over most of its land area, while we’re in the middle of a historic housing shortage. We’re a city, let’s start acting like one. I want to start seeing row houses everywhere, and build way up at our neighborhood cores. Why are there not towers on the tops of our hills? They wouldn’t block anyone’s view, and are pretty much all well connected by transit.
I bet it would look really awesome if all our crests had towers. It would block light for all the houses in the troughs, so I suspect it would still face a lot of opposition
Like that’s not happening now? Streets of Downtown Seattle already too blocked to be affected by a new Empire State Building on Capital Hill. Lot depends on the architect, in other words, disqualify whoever rendered Smith Tower and the King Street Station clock tower forever invisible.
I was literally thinking the same thing as Matt the Engineer as I read the article. Row houses. As an adult who has aged-out of apartment life, with all of the problems of sharing an un-soundproofed wall with noisy neighbors and absentee landlords or bickering HOAs. A row house, however, is a solution I could get behind. As a building that is structurally stand-alone, there would be less noise from the neighbors and fewer of the shared maintenance issues. I lived in a few row houses in the Midwest during college, naturally shared with 5 to 7 roommates, and understand the logistics. It’s family friendly, feels like a house, but is much more compact. I once lived in a 5-bedroom rowhouse that took up about 1/3 of the footprint of my current suburban 4-bedroom house. The rowhouse was detached from neighbors on each side, with a narrow “alley” on each side suitable for trash cans and egress to the back yard, and it had a very small backyard, suitable for a small barbeque. The nearest playground was a few blocks away at the neighborhood grade school, and there were two larger size parks within a mile, both accessible by sidewalks. A neighborhood business district with abundant shopping and restaurants was a block away. The house was three stories, plus an unfinished basement, and included a living room (converted to a bedroom for our purposes), dining room (functioned as living room), and very large kitchen, as well as two bathrooms. Functionally, it had the amenities that most families in suburbia are looking for, with the exception of parking. The location in a walkable neighborhood with transit and, ironically, fairly abundant on-street parking made a garage or driveway unnecessary. In theory, you could fit two cars in front of each row house, and a fair number of people just didn’t have cars since you could walk everywhere. Why we don’t build neighborhoods like this anymore, given the housing crisis, just blows my mind. It’s a great way to cram in two to three times the amount of housing, suitable for families, as the comparable suburban style neighborhood with rarely-used lawns and sprawling floor plans.
My absolute favorite housing type is the row house I stayed in once in Brooklyn. This was 3 stories plus a basement. The family I stayed with took up 2 stories, and they rented out the 3rd floor to a single man and the basement to an elderly woman. The family levels had access to a small back yard, and all levels were quite configurable. It could just as easily have been 4 separate small units or one large family home, and a common interior stairway on one side allowed for separate entrances. The front stoop was the community space, with an entrance to the basement unit and no front yard – just a wide sidewalk where the kids played with neighbors and where neighbors chatted with others that were sitting on their stoop.
This particular design didn’t allow for cars, but the density this allows justified great transit. If we need a car-based stepping stone in less dense neighborhoods there are great examples in other cities like San Francisco’s painted ladies.
As a measurement, the rowhouse I lived in was as follows:
-Lot: 25’x105′ (0.06 ac.)
-Side “yard” (alley): 5′ wide concrete
-Front patio: 10′ deep
-Rear yard: 35′ x 25′
-3,600 finished square feet (actually, slightly less, accounting for furnace & stairways)
-1,200 unfinished square feet, basement
-Roof was flat, so rooftop deck could have replaced the rear yard and further reduced the footprint.
If every new single family home built met these specifications, we wouldn’t have sprawl. We would have communities dense enough to foster viable walkable neighborhood business districts.
To get a sense of how obscenely anti-housing our current zoning rules are, that configuration would have too much FAR not just for Single Family zones, but for LR1.
I think a lot of new developments in the suburbs are not too far off from this. My parents have been looking at buying a brand new house in the area, and unless you’re looking at million dollar houses, all new houses, even out in places like Monroe, are 5-10′ between houses, on 3-4k sq. ft. lots, with 3 stories. Million dollar houses have lots similar to what cheap houses built 40 years ago had.
You’re still going to have sprawl though, because the new houses are being built further and further away from the main transit corridors (highways/arterials).
Thanks for adding this comment. Sometimes I think a lot of the commenters on this blog haven’t actually been out to the suburbs lately and actually seen what is being built today. Most new homes in my area (SW SnoCo) do not fit the image that many often portray here of the typical suburban home (oversized home on a large lot with an expanse of lawn area). That just isn’t the case anymore.
The neighborhood down the street certainly has the same spacing between homes (5 to 10 feet between homes), but they are still wasting a lot of land with a 15′ deep front yard (zero usable space, purely ornamental) in addition to the patio and a 5-foot planter strip/tree lawn (mostly paved, because driveways and garages), and rather massive “buffers” between rows of houses to take up the slope, instead of building the slope into daylight basements and/or retaining walls. Our race-to-the-bottom forces builders to build as cheaply and easily as possible, so perfectly-level lots even when your topography is rolling or steep is the norm, at the expense of wise land use, and potential to squeeze in additional homes. Adding that third story would go a long way towards reducing 40-foot wide lots to 25- or 30-foot wide lots. So, yes, indeed, the subdivisions of today are far more dense than those of 15 or 20 years ago, but we still have work to do.
I’ve seen dense SF development in the Issaquah Highlands and central Issaquah and maybe right in the center of Covington, but others on Kent-Kangley Road east of Lake Meridian and in Maple Valley are still larger and further detached, as are the houses around Ash Way and in Marysville. They’re not as spread out as 1970s subdivisions but they’re not as dense as Issaquah either. I don’t know about Monroe because there’s skeletal transit there and I don’t have a car.
The Issaquah models would be a good starting point for the suburbs.
For Seattle, traditional row-house form factor please. And put the houses in the front of the lot with only the smallest setback, and they can have a larger back yard for their garden or lawn or whatever.
The problem with dense SF development in the outer suburbs is that it’s still car-dependent. It’s still hard to serve with transit because it’s surrounded by lower density, and far from transit corridors, and often not walking distance to anything. And it’s a really long car commute to where the jobs are. We can’t keep hoarding the desirable areas in Kirkland, Redmond, and Bellevue.
“The problem with dense SF development in the outer suburbs is that it’s still car-dependent.”
Agreed. The areas that are served by useful transit (at least in my area near Brickyard) either already have 2-3 story apartments or were built out at least a few decades ago. The new developments going up now are too far away from anything walkable. Even where I live (10 minute walk to Brickyard) is only realistically walkable for commutes, not shopping and the like.
That being said, I don’t see this changing. I don’t know about other developments, but mine (from around 1970) has standard clauses in all deeds that no substantial changes can be made to houses that fundamentally alter their characteristics. The only way to increase density here would be to buy up the whole development (probably 100 houses or so), get everything re-zoned, and then rebuild everything. Possible, but it would be extremely expensive and difficult to accomplish. I doubt it would happen until we really run out of space.
The best answer is a mix of larger apartments, and more townhomes, and more single family detached homes on smaller lots.
Don’t forget ADUs. There are similarities, of course, when it comes to the detached ones. Making the lots smaller will help. In some neighborhoods (like mine) it would make a huge difference. There are a lot of gigantic lots with small houses on them that get subdivided. But the limit is 7200 square feet. There is no reason why they can’t squeeze in a few more houses by going to 3600. Smaller houses on smaller lots would actually be more in character with the neighborhood than the current giant houses going up. Of course town houses would be even better.
But for a lot of the city, and lot of the suburbs, you can’t expect them to tear down the old house. The neighborhood is simply not that attractive, and the old house is just too big and valuable as is. But you can definitely squeeze in a small backyard cottage or allow a basement apartment. You could also subdivide the land, and simply sell off that backyard cottage, if you allowed smaller, unusual lot sizes. Personally, I don’t care how you do it. But it is crazy that so many people are sitting on so much land — or so much house — and not allowed to rent it (or sell it) to someone who needs it.
The lack of 3+ bedrooms is more about apartments/condos rather than houses I think. The overwhelming majority of apartments/condos since 2000 are studios/1BR. Are new houses really just 1-2 bedrooms, hardly any 3+? Many 3-person families want a second bedroom for a den, and many 4-person families want a room for each child. That’s where the demand is coming from.
Jane Jacobs’ rule of thumb is that a unit is overcrowded if it has more people than the number of rooms, not including kitchens/bathrooms/closets. It doesn’t have to be a bedroom, but a place where everybody can be alone when they want to. That supposedly keeps tensions from rising, and crises from spilling out into the neighborhood. It seems pretty accurate to me.
Was net household vs housing units data not available? Seems like an easier comparison to make.
6 RU’s per net acre? That really made me chuckle.
If that is really the standard that the MBA is proposing than most of Seattle’s classic neighborhoods already meet the standard and are already over dense!
My street is a mix of 0.11 and 0.09 acre lots, with an occasional oddball size thrown in. So we already meet the standard. A lot of Seattle is similar.
Never trust anything that comes out of the MBA, but in this case it would appear that they are thinking in terms of suburban subdivision type development. That is what their bread and butter is anyhow, and I’m sure they want more of it.
Format makes for fractured discussion, Lazarus, but this one should finish point I made below. Every wave of involuntary changes of address densifies the pro-transit side of politics in districts long-written-off. With a different outlook than we’re given credit for.
What exactly is your definition of “Density”? Not all words that Buzz don’t Sting. “Density With Dignity” better bumper sticker. Seattle is truly getting an undeserved reward for the indecency of its current efforts: the influx of fine young people into its ever smaller and more expensive quarters.
Who deserve a density of well-designed compact towns along fast electric railroads, interspersed with landscapes that will make passengers demand wrap-free windows and window-lines below eye level. Which will also bring down both Seattle’s overcrowding and stratospheric housing prices at nobody’s negative expense.
No rule (of Nature or physics) that Ballard can’t be a corridor the length of which people can live in homes their own wages can earn them. Attracting any economy’s major source of energy: Young people running away to it. “Dead-man” device on a controller handle means my chosen place to die won’t even knock over any passenger’s latte.
Shown them before, here they are again. Just across Greenwood from Shoreline Community College. I’ve seen them, if I had a family I’d live there, and never seen or heard of them once in any discussion. What am I missing?
Somebody remind me why we’re putting a LINK station in the middle of a slum somebody’s gone to so much expense to create.
Allegro is still there? Holy cow, that was my favorite coffee place when I was going to the UW. If I wasn’t head down in my studies in the Graduate Reading Room, or watching the Dawgs beat up on the Cougs in the Apple Cup, or blowing off steam at the College Inn, I was usually there.
Nice to see that at least a little bit of Seattle character is surviving our growth spurt.
“Many suburban cities, and even Seattle neighborhoods, accept growth reluctantly.”
My guess is that a large part of this is that current residents don’t want to deal with more traffic and don’t want to end up paying for upgrades to their city caused by increased growth. My impression is that developers don’t contribute that much to the city budget when building a new development.
So I’m curious, does anyone know how much a new 30 house development contributes to a city’s and school district’s budget? That development (especially outside of Seattle) is going to “generate” 30-60 new cars. Yet from what I’ve seen, streets rarely get upgraded. Transit rarely gets improved. Yes, there’s new property taxes generated, but I’m guessing the city also has to take over maintenance of the roads in the development, etc… so I doubt they’d pay for any near-term improvements.
These are excellent questions, so I hope others who might have some insight on this respond to your post. I just chimed in here to say, don’t forget the additional costs associated with increased police and fire protection services, which are frequently overlooked in this regard.
Eventually there will be a price to pay for neighborhoods and regions that resist growth–the incremental loss of political power. As urban neighborhoods become denser they will gain political power at the expense of areas that resist densification. If current trends hold through 2020 the King-Snohomish corridor will gain seats in the state legislature at the expense of slower growing areas. Within the city of Seattle, now that we elect city councilmembers mostly by districts, neighborhoods that are resistant to new construction will also find political power drifting towards the denser neighborhoods.
“My impression is that developers don’t contribute that much to the city budget when building a new development.”
That’s the wrong question though. The city should represent everybody, not just people who already have houses or apartments. Everybody should share in the burden of building enough housing and infrastructure and squeezing together to fit everyone. If we had grown like Chicago or New York, most of those 1950s houses wold be lowrises or townhouses now, and the housing crisis wouldn’t exist because we could accommodate a million people or more. And there would be more things within walking distance everywhere and we’d have a larger tax base to support more frequent buses and more rail lines. And sprawl would have been less of an issue because people wouldn’t have to go to Issaquah or Marysville to get a house. But when I say “everyone should share in the burden”, I mean for a decent small-lot house or lowrise on frequent transit, not an unreasonable demand for a low-density house with parking in the city; they can pay on their own for that upgrade. And certainly not McMansions. There should be a moratorium on mansions until the housing crisis is over.
Why should everyone “share in the burden of building enough housing and infrastructure”? My view is primarily from the suburbs, but this sort of view removes any incentive from developers to build lower-impact housing. If impact fees were higher, maybe there should be more multi-family housing built in the suburbs. If you adjusted impact fees to the distance the average person would have to travel, sprawl would also have a financial impact. Seattle is different, but I don’t think enough densification will happen in the suburbs without some incentives for developers to build multi-family housing.
The Eastside and Shoreline are being held back only by zoning as in Seattle, because everything is being built to the zoning limit. At least multifamily is being built to the limit. Single-family may be harder to tell because once you decide to build a house or townhouse, you may not be able to reach the limit without distorting the building in undesirable ways. In south King County the reasons may be more mixed: both zoning restrictions and the lack of developer interest. Multifamily developers have been building in city centers but not in other areas they’re allowed to. Fixing that may require a more creative approach, or maybe we just have to wait a couple years for the buildable lots in Seattle and the Eastside to shrink further. Snohomish and Pierce Counties I know less well but they have robust construction in the fringes. If multifamily restrictions around the urban villages were lifted, you’d see more multifamily construction in the inner suburbs. Because multifamily dwellers, especially transit-riding ones, want to live in a place with convenient destinations nearby, not way isolated like some single-family dwellers do. The movement to the fringes is not only about affordable housing, it’s also about “getting close to the country and away from the city”.
I don’t understand what you mean about “everyone sharing the burden” as hurting the suburbs. I was mainly talking about Seattle, because if Seattle accommodated more people the suburbs wouldn’t have to grow as much, and if we had done this in the 1960s then the outer suburbs would still be rural. But in any case, all I’m suggesting is that we should relax zoning restrictions, and we shouldn’t put high fees on developers. That’s the same thing as saying, “I’ve got my house, everybody who doesn’t can go to hell.” Building housing is a good thing and contributing to the community, but we treat it like somebody putting a private airplane or plague-ridden rats in their yard.
” Eastside and Shoreline are being held back only by zoning as in Seattle” – that’s simply not true. It may be true in the Kirkland-Redmond-Bellevue triangle, but it is not true elsewhere in east King. Yes, upzones would be great, but building Ballard/Cap Hill type development still doesn’t pencil out outside of the hip, expensive neighborhoods.
In Issaquah, Central Issaquah is zoned for 8~10 story mixed use. There is zero VMU in the pipeline because the financials don’t yet pencil out. Simply put, right now rents in Issaquah are high enough to cover development costs for 5 story wood-stick apartments (single use), but not yet high enough for 5 over 1 wood & concrete mixed use buildings.
See my article here for links to studies: https://www.theurbanist.org/2017/03/02/issaquah-extends-moratorium-development/
In the Highlands, the city is considering a minimum FAR of 1.0 for the few remaining undeveloped lots, and the property owner is screaming bloody murder because they don’t think they can build a project right now that pencils out with a FAR of 1, mostly because a minimum FAR basically prevents them from building non-structured parking. They have entitlement to over a million square feet, but they only want to build a few hundred thousand right now because that’s all they think the market can handle.
You can disagree, but you aren’t the one making multi-million investment decisions.
As for everyone sharing the burden, the current draft of the King County growth plan I think has Seattle absorbing 50% of future growth. So it’s basically 50-50 between Seattle and the ‘burbs, i.e. equally important role in adding housing stock.
I suspect “doesn’t pencil out” means it will make a profit but not the high profit expected by investors. And I suspect it has luxury units like most new developments do rather than smaller no-frills units, and that adds to the cost.
I’m not talking about the percentage of units between Seattle and the suburbs. I’m talking about whether the financial costs of more housing and infrastructure, and the physical impacts of squeezing closer together and all that, should be borne solely by developers and new residents or spread across the entire community. Too much I hear “Make developers pay”, “Newcomers should pay the full cost of the new infrastructure for them”, “More units generate more cars and they should be required to have off-street parking so they don’t increase competition for on-street spaces”, “Keep them out of my single-family neighborhood. Apartments, duplexes, or ADUs would make the neighborhood unpleasant and lower my property value.” When we need more police or schools, we don’t charge newcomers, we charge everybody. Because everybody is a member of the community and should share in the benefits and responsibilities thereof, and the community should have make sure it has enough housing as the population fluctuates.
If somebody builds a house two miles from the edge of town, then sure, charge them tens of thousands of dollars to extend a sewer line to their one house. But if it’s infill development, then treat it as the city as a whole getting bigger, not newcomer invaders being a negative impact. And if a compact development goes in two miles outside of towm because the city refuses to upzone its single-family areas for infill devleopment, then treat it as infill development, not as “those awful sprawlers who shouldn’t live there and should pay big bucks for their access road”.
“I suspect “doesn’t pencil out” means it will make a profit but not the high profit expected by investors. And I suspect it has luxury units like most new developments do rather than smaller no-frills units, and that adds to the cost.”
Nope, wrong on both accounts. Yes, a profit is included, but that’s necessary – why would someone invest millions of dollars if all they are going to get back are the same millions of dollar with no increase? And no, “luxury” units are not driving up the costs – a 4-story wood-stick building and a 5 story VMU can have the exact same fancy countertops. The difference is in the actual building materials, not what gets put inside the units.
In Issaquah, a developer would happily turn an old strip mall into a dense subdivisions of 2 story townhomes – that’s happening all over the place on developable land along the edges of Issaquah. But Issaquah doesn’t want that in their core – they want midrise development with commercial & office space mixed with residential. That kind of structure currently doesn’t “pencil out” in this market, hence the current development moratorium as the city tries to re-think it’s zoning rules to ensure the market provides dense, high-quality development
Mike, I’m not sure how much you’ve been out in the suburbs, but at least in Bothell, most developments are on the outskirts of town because that’s the only place left to develop. And I’m not talking about converting one large lot into two – I’m talking about razing acres of land and building 30-50 houses there on an arterial that has zero transit.
From my point of view, we should definitely be charging these people more money. If you’re basically developing new parts of the city, you will need to increase police, fire, and school bus coverage. Why should the existing residents be paying for that?
If you want to stop sprawl, make them pay for the increase in services. Then give discounts for lower impact development. Building in downtown Bothell? Eliminate all those fees. Sure, we might need to hire an extra police officer, but at least we don’t need to build a whole new station and increase in property taxes can cover the costs of that.
I’m curious what pencils out in the various suburbs, not just the Eastside. Is there anywhere that data is available? Or is this a matter of needing to look at what is being built?
My personal interest is northshore (Shoreline, LFP, Kenmore, Bothell, Woodinville) cities and near south end (North Highline, Burien, Seatac, Tukwila, Skyway, Renton) but having data for areas further out in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties would be useful as well.
Christopher – check out the links in my article, it should get you back to the original study the city commissions (let me know if you can’t find it). The analysis is basically a financial model for a potential development in an area (as opposed to a specific site), similar to what an analyst would do when working for a developer who is making a go/no-go decision on whether to buy a lot and built something.
This particular study looked at just Central Issaquah, so the analysis would differ for each city depending on land prices, prevailing residential & commercial rents, and other local factors like parking requirements. Some inputs like construction costs should be comparable across King County.
You can definitely look at what is being built as a proxy for this analysis, but what is being built will lag the fundamentals by a year or two, while this analysis I’m referring to is trying to look forward.
I would imagine some parts of north shore support VMU, particularly in Shoreline adjacent to future Link stations. Bothell was able to get built some high quality VMU in their downtown, but I think they had some pretty robust incentive zoning. In Kirkland, downtown Kirkland rents support VMU but in Totem Lake they do not, but high parking requirements contribute to high cost of VMU construction in Totem Lake.
Check out page 12 for the model equation, but I’d recommend reading through the whole presentation.
What is the source of your data, charts and graphs?
Charts are my own. The source data is all from WA State Office of Financial Management which produces annual (April 1) estimates of population and housing.
Good to know; thanks Dan
How does your chart account for the difference between population growth in individuals (the line) and housing growth in units (the bars), where single units house families and multifamily units house an individual or two, in studios or one bedroom units, since few two-bedroom units for couples or roommates and virtually no three-bedroom apartments are being built by for-profit developers? Apples and oranges?
The chart doesn’t directly address that, but you’re right that it makes a difference. Basically, I’m understating the gap between housing growth and population growth a bit. In a better functioning market, both the number of units and the mix of units would be keeping up with demand. But when I point out that people are squeezing into relatively fewer units, they’re also squeezing into smaller units that aren’t designed for several occupants.
The simple analysis misses at least two other twists that also lead to understating the problem somewhat. As I mentioned lower in the article, there’s some involuntary displacement into other counties. There’s also an unknowable number of people who involuntarily move out of state, or choose not to move in. Hard to put numbers around these effects, but they all point in the same direction of a larger gap (and need for more added housing) than the simple chart analysis.
Dan the Moderator;
Great blog write-up. I’m real happy you’re addressing housing supply within the Sound Transit District.
With respect, disabled folks – like I – who find the Sound Transit District appealing due to quality transit and ability to access not just services & a real life social life but JOBS to pay for the first two also find 2.5, 3 hour one-way transit commutes disabling in of themselves. I think when you say, “Long highway commutes are not a sustainable solution to housing deficits near job centers” – you should also add “long highway and transit commutes are not a sustainable solution to housing deficits near job centers or to improving disabled employment“. Thank you for understanding.
Joe, what’s the density of new SF developments you see in Snohomish and Skagit Counties? Does it look like full-size houses on slightly narrower lots compared to 1980s houses? Or is it more compact than that? I see the former in Snohomish and Kent-Kangley Road, and the latter in Issaquah.
In SW Snohomish County where I live, there have been a ton of townhouse (common walls) style units constructed as well as those being built presently. My own property, purchased some 15 years ago, has been upzoned twice during the county’s GMA Comprehensive Plan’s 10-year updates in 2005 and 2015. My lot has gone from urban low density residential (SF, R-8400) to urban high density residential (MF, MR). All of that means I could now build condos or an apartment building on my property (or sell to a developer who would), subject to the other zoning requirements in the SW MUGA. That’s quite an increase of density by Snohomish County, should it come to fruition, for this suburban area. Of course, that requires property owners such as myself to make certain financial and lifestyle decisions.
Oops. I meant to include the following link since Snohomish County uses different zoning designations.
Any particular examples? Something on an ST or CT bus stop?
Mike. Here’s one example not too far from me that’s near two CT routes. The 56-home development was built on 5 SnoCo tax parcels (4.3 acres total but not all buildable land) I believe. The units range from 1344 to 1968 sq. ft. They are 3, 4 and 5-unit townhome style structures.
Excellent piece. One of the best I’ve read on this blog in a while. Thank you, Dan.
P.S. Thank you also for providing your source in the comment above.
I really wish we had an expanded analysis that looked at our elongated north-south layout of a metro area with a wall of congestion (Downtown Seattle to Capitol Hill to Montlake to Bellevue to Redmond) right through the middle. That congestion wall acts like a mountain range that is so problematic to cross that people avoid crossing it. Link extensions will give as another “bridge” but we need to balance our land uses carefully so that we won’t tip too far to one side.
Great point on the congestion “wall,” the Lakes and even the Sound also creating walls between job centers and more affordable housing stock. But not sure I follow what you mean by “tip too far to one side”?
I don’t understand it either. I think he means don’t increase congestion further.
I’m simply pointing out that if the jobs-housing balance on one side of this wall is too out-of-whack, congestion will increase getting through this wall and the housing market will also change. For example, if we plan for more housing in Shoreline, Bothell, North Seattle and Snohomish County and more jobs from Downtown Seattle and points south, we’ll not only create longer commutes for people but we’ll have a strong directional pattern to manage in both highway and transit systems. We need an analysis to demonstrate how our jobs-housing balance is doing in a different geography than is shown here.
OK, sure. But I think that’s being taken into account by most cities, which are trying to target growth around transit nodes. See Edmonds up-zoning a narrow corridor along SR 99 (SWIFT), Seattle and Shoreline creating urban villages around future & existing Link stations, or Bellevue aggressively up-zoning it’s downtown core while leaving it’s SF neighborhoods generally untouched.
Not “more jobs points south”. There are no major employers south of Dearborn Street exceot Boeing and the airport; it’s a bedroom community that mostly commutes elsewhere for work. The desire is to get more jobs into south King County so that the 800,000+ people there can commute less. People won’t preferentially live in north Seattle and work in south King County because housing costs are higher in the north end. South King County may not be the best place for a wide-drawing tech company, but the county and cities aren’t particularly pursuing that specific niche. Renton Southport is, but it’s a private developer on one lot, not the entire city or subarea.
This is a good piece. There are lots of models of rowhouse, attached single family housing.
In Vancouver, new residential towers have to include a certain amount of “ground-based housing.” These are essentially townhouses/rowhouses though they are not separate structures.
In some old parts of Philadelphia, there are rowhouses which are small (a few hundred square feet), tall (often 3 stories) buildings. These don’t have off-street parking spaces, so it might be hard to build quite as dense, but it makes for a lovely urban fabric
This would be a fair statement if the existing housing stock matched up pretty well to the existing family size demographics. Is that actually the case though?
Let’s take a look…
Per the Census Bureau, 37.5% of Seattle’s existing housing units have three or more bedrooms. However only 25.6% of Seattle’s households have three or more people.
Do the math and you can see that at minimum one out of every three Seattle homes with at least three bedrooms has an empty bedroom. That’s assuming every single 3-person (or larger) household lives in a 3-bedroom (or larger) home and every member of those households has their own bedroom. In reality you’ll find that most families have a couple of adults who share a master bedroom (leaving one more bedroom open than if each family member had their own), and certain families do just fine with fewer than three bedrooms.
Seems that we have a relative glut of “family-sized” homes at the moment. Given that, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised or dismayed that the percentage of new family-sized homes isn’t very big.
There’s no residential zone in Seattle where constructing larger homes is illegal. However the result of the existing oversupply of larger homes means that a 3-bedroom home doesn’t sell for a whole lot more than a 2-bedroom, not enough more to justify the extra construction expense. Builders notice this fact and build more smaller homes because that’s where the housing shortage is strongest, and they therefore see more profit per square foot serving that segment of the market.
After some years of building mostly small homes, we should expect to see the overall distribution of home sizes better match the overall distribution of family sizes. At that point we should then expect to see the difference in profit for smaller homes vs. larger ones mostly evaporate, and the lack of family-sized construction should evaporate with it.
You make a lot of good thought-provoking points. Something else to keep in mind when you discuss this idea of a family-size home “glut” is accounting for empty nesters and retirees/seniors who still reside in the same house they raised their families in. For example, both my mother and mother-in-law, now in their 90s and 80s respectively, still reside in their family homes.
I agree, empty nesters certainly exist, and I’d bet they’re responsible for a lot of the 3-bedroom (and larger) homes than are occupied by fewer than three people.
Does it make sense for them to stay in that home for decades after their kids move out? With real estate prices being what they are, you’d think many of them could stand to benefit from downsizing to a home that fits them better. They could recapture some of their home equity for other retirement expenses while moving into a smaller, easier-to-maintain home. Seems like a good deal, but you still have a lot of folks staying in their larger homes. Why is that?
I think a big part of it is that our single-family neighborhoods are really nice places to live in a lot of ways, with quiet residential streets and gardens and things like that. People can be reluctant to move out of that environment if they don’t have to. Unfortunately most of the two-bedroom and smaller units being built are in larger buildings, often on busier commercial streets. That type of location certainly isn’t for everyone.
I think that if we could reform our single-family zoning to allow smaller units without greatly changing the look and feel of the neighborhood (through more ADUs, allowing duplexes as an alternative to “McMansions”, etc.), you might find more empty nesters willing to downsize and let families move into the family-sized homes.
If someone has been in a home for a long time I can see why they might be unwilling to move, all practical considerations aside.
Allowing someone to perhaps stay on the same property is one way forward. This would mean making it easier to build ADUs and DADUs. The empty nester could downsize to the smaller unit while staying on the same property.
Along similar lines we need ways for people to stay in the same neighborhood while downsizing. If I’ve spent a good part of my life in Maple Leaf it is probably easier to sell me on a small condo a few blocks from where I currently live than it is on a move across town.
The first option serves those with a strong attachment to a particular property. The second serves those with a strong attachment to their neighborhood and neighbors.
This is far from academic. The block I used to live on in Maple Leaf was predominantly empty nesters. 3 older homes on my block had sold to young families and the box McMansion on a subdivided lot (before the city banned splitting lots on old subdivision lines) sold to a single adult tech worker.
One of our neighbors before they sold looked into putting in an ADU or DADU but the regulations made it unfeasible.
With work-at-home increasingly popular, a decent percentage of all those “empty bedrooms” are actually work-at-home offices. Officially, the census reports 4 to 5 percent work at home within the city, but that doesn’t count those who work at home probably in their office a day or two a week. Sure some of those work at home people are working elsewhere in their house. Still, the work at home factor is a decent share — if not the majority share — of what’s going on in those rooms you think are empty.
We don’t have $700k to purchase or the desire to spend $3k to rent a home that could suddenly be sold from underneath us. So this 3 bedroom housing is not available to me in my neighborhood. Also not every bedroom is really a bedroom. In some of the new town houses being built the access to the back yard is through a “bedroom”. In one home the bedroom was a loft above the living room – hardly family friendly.
I’ll agree some of the “bedrooms” are in name only at best. I’ve seen older homes where 2 of the 3 bedrooms were in a partially finished basement, and those were pretty rough at best.
In the house I’m currently renting one of the 4 bedrooms is barely that being only 7×7 with no closet. In theory it is my home office, but right now is being used for storage.
“Bedrooms” are adaptable to just about anything. I’m typing this comment from a “bedroom” I use as a home office. One can also use a bedroom for storage, gaming, or many other purposes.
I can totally understand an elderly couple who’s been living in their home for 30 years stay put if they can afford to do so. It’s not like they wouldn’t be to sell the place later, anyway.
Two big indications about whether a home is intended for families or individuals are the number of bathrooms and the size of the kitchen. As a single person, it is much easier to find use for an extra bedroom than an extra bathroom, or an oversized kitchen counter or refrigerator.
People are staying in their large old houses because in this extremely low-inventory market they can’t find another suitable house, they keep getting outbid on them, they can only find a worse bargain than what they have, or they’re afraid of being priced out of Seattle completely if they sell and can’t find another place they can afford. That’s one of the corollaries of having extremely low inventory and rapidly-rising prices, and why we shouldn’t have allowed it to happen in the first place. People can live with stable or slowly-changing prices, but when prices rise or lower rapidly it causes lots of casualties. People are remaining in their houses far longer than they did before 2008. At first I thought it was a short (2-3 year) stall because of the recession, but it has been going on for nine years. Now it’s not just because of the recession and underwater mortgages any more, it’s because they can’t find as good a deal as what they already have. Many of them will remain there until they die or their kids will inherit it after that, so it will be off the market long-term.
I wouldn’t call it glut. My grandma stayed in her “officially 3-bedroom” but in reality 6 bedroom house (grandpa remodeled the attic in mid 60s) until she died a few years ago at 93 years old. She owned the home outright. Tons of memories, and who was going to move all of her stuff? Who was going to help her house hunt? Who would host Christmas and Easter? Over the years, several of her children had even moved back in, for short term stays, in between buying and selling homes, after a divorce, and before a marriage. When an out-of-town guest needed a place to stay, naturally, it would be at Grandma’s. It is so easy to point the finger and blame (oh, the glut!). She and Grandpa needed a huge house with a family of 10 when they bought it back in the early 60s, and by the time it made sense to move, she had arthritis, Grandpa had died, and her kids were juggling jobs, careers, and kids of their own. She didn’t want to move and had the financial stability to stay put.
For the record, I hope that by the time I am 70, I can stay put in my house and not need to move. The thought of packing up my belongings, moving furniture, arranging rooms, and negotiating with profit-driven real estate agents at an age when my mind is probably not as sharp and my joints will probably hurt simply does not sound appealing.
Thanks for sharing some of your personal story. I think I’m probably a generation ahead of you but I can totally relate to your post.
My mom, now in her 90s, still lives in the converted Victorian duplex that I grew up in. She and my dad raised 10 of us kids in just 4 small bedrooms in the lower duplex. They rented the upper unit to a couple with 5 kids themselves, as well as their paternal grandparents. That made for a total of 21 individuals all living under one roof. Talk about your density. Lol.
My spouse also comes from a large family and my mother-in-law, now in her 80s, still lives right here in Seattle in the home she raised her family in. The grandparents built the home in the early 1960s and subsequently lived in the home with my mother and father-in-law and their 7 kids until their deaths. That made for a total of 11 relatives living under one roof as well.
So, needless to say, I can relate to much of your post above about such things as holidays and adult children living back home for a bit and all the rest. I can certainly see why such empty nesters and seniors/retirees want to stay put in such homes, despite all those extra bedrooms that simply are used for other purposes now. It’s hard to think of such homes as part of the “glut” to which the OP refers.
Again, I really enjoyed reading your post.
Although these anecdotes are excellent, it’s important to look at marginal behavior. Nobody is (or should be) *blaming* grandparents for staying in place and wasting bedrooms. And nobody will try to force them out of their homes. What we’re talking about is creating the right incentives in place so that singles and couples have another choice. Then we let the magic of thousands of individual decisions choose *who* will be the ones that choose the (cheaper, more convenient) condos over the larger single family homes.
I absolutely know people that live in larger homes because they’re comparatively cheap for what you get. That’s only because we have artificially large premiums on condos here.
Open up enough dense housing, and some people will absolutely choose them over SF homes, leaving these SF homes for families. This can all be done without displacing anyone’s parents.
While I mentioned upthread the desire of some to create a way for them to age in place on property they’ve owned for years. The reverse is also true. Many people have an aging relative who wants to stay independent but needs to downside and perhaps wants family nearby.
Making it easier to build multifamily even in the form of ADU and DADU makes it easier for people to have multi-generational homes. If the kids can build an ADU or DADU for mom and dad perhaps downsizing isn’t so unattractive as they can see the grandchildren every day.
The extra bedrooms of existing houses are most often owned by Baby Boomers whose goal is to age in place. This must also be the goal of society because we cannot afford as a society to move them into expensive assisted living and nursing homes. Instead, we must find a way to provide homecare services to keep them in their homes as long as possible. In-law apartments could greatly increase density in these areas while supplementing fixed incomes. As long as homeownership is maintained, these unobtrusive units are very likely to remain naturally affordable, because of the trust telationship beteeen landlord and tenant. In-law apartments are built at no cost to the City, Portland has greatly increased their numbers by reducing regulations and eliminating permit fees. Seattle should act speedily to facilitate in-law units.
I’m a big fan of triplexes. My experience is that they “feel” the same as having your own single story house. Since the entrances are separate, I don’t think I once saw my neighbors in the two years I lived in a triplex.
I don’t think expanding the urban growth boundary is a good idea. Aside from the environmental consequences, we really don’t have the transportation infrastructure to bring lots more commuters in from far flung towns.
I suspect the need for more single family homes is pretty overstated. Single family homes have gotten bigger even as US families have shrunk dramatically. The average family size in the US is 2.5 people. In Seattle area it’s even lower. There are more single family homes in Seattle than there are children.
The real issue is that the single family home is seen as a status symbol. Even couples without children, wealthy individuals, and empty nesters buy single family homes. Actual families in SFH are a minority.
What families with young children have the money to buy a house anyway? Only a handful of the wealthiest. I live in a SFH neighborhood now, and there are maybe a couple of families with kids on my block. Mostly empty nesters whose kids have their own apartment.
Seattle’s current vacancy rate is at 6.8% according to this article which includes new apartments. The article says vacancy rate is only going to increase in next few years as new places get finished and open up: https://seattle.curbed.com/2017/9/29/16386922/seattle-apartment-vacancy-rate.
That’s what they’ve said every year since 2012 and they keep underestimating the growth. I’ll believe it if my rent increase next June is only 3-4%. 6.8% vacancy sounds high (equilibrium is around 5%), but if a lot of new buildings just opened it may just be a short-term spike. When a building opens suddenly it’s 100% vacant and it may remain above 25% for several months, like those recent buildings in Ballard, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the city goes into a fire sale. There are different markets at different price points. The cost-burdened can’t afford any of those new units even if they’re 25% vacant; they can only afford something less than the median rent. So for them the vacancy rate is not the citywide 6.8% but the below-median 2.5%.
They also say that rents have increased by 57%(!) in the past 6 years. It’s possible that we’re building enough right now that there will be some vacancy – and some relief from rent increases. But that in no way means that we have enough housing. It means building has caught up to rent increases for the moment.
Builders build when demand for housing increases rents (justifying building on the more-expensive land that is left to build on). How do we actually decrease rents without touching demand? The secret is zoning. Allow far, far more than 13% of our land area to have multifamily housing. This increases the supply of buildable land, dropping those land prices, and builders can start construction at lower rent levels.
Over 20% of single-family homes are rented. Because almost no single-family apartments are being built, and no new market-rate house is affordable, older single-family homes are the only option for large, intergenerational and immigrant families needing three bedrooms or more.
Right, my rent for a studio on First Hill in 2003 was $450 (a good deal at the time); in 2005 I moved to a Summit studio at $550. By 2010 it had grown to $700 and I moved into a 2000-era one-bedroom for $1195. The rent didn’t go up for a year or two, but then it started creeping up and reached $1500 by 2014. It’s now $1800.
Inflation has been 2% or less per year since 2000, so if we take the $1195 in 2010 as a starting point, the inflation-adjusted rent would be $1400 now.
Wow. I have no idea how people are coping with such rent increases when their salaries have not kept pace. I moved out of my 1-br daylight basement apartment in Wallingford, where I happily lived without a vehicle for a decade, before purchasing my home in Snohomish County in 2003. My rent at the time I left was $550/mo and even included my utilities. I can only imagine what that unit is going for today. It was an older building with just six units (think Seattle’s World Fair era) but it was in a great location, had easy access to transit and other amenities, tenant laundry room and even tandem parking for two cars for each rental unit. I tried to puchase a small home in the Wallingford, Fremont, Greenlake area but was already priced out of the market.
Before you blame the greedy landlords for rising rents, it’s important to take note that the landlords, themselves, may (depending on when they bought the property) have large mortgages that they need to pay, and need to charge market rate in order to make their payments.
In 2000 I was renting a 2 br basement apartment in Wallingford for ~$800 The building had been built as a single family home. I’m not sure if the second unit was a legal duplex or not. I finally moved when the owner sold the building.
Currently I’m getting a bit of a steal and renting a 4br home in Maple Leaf for $2500/mo. The landlord is likely to want to remodel and sell in the next couple of years so I will have to move again. To be honest I fear not being able to find something that meets my needs in the city at a price I’m willing to pay.
Be careful to avoid equating population growth the same as household growth. Household sizes vary across the metro region but are always greater than 1.0, so the housing gap is not as clear-cut as presented (though yes, in general it is clear there is a shortage!).
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