In response to several requests, this post is adapted from a recent Twitter thread that readers seemed to like, even though I impulsively started it during a break at work while irritated at some tweets.
There’s a straw man that gets a lot of abuse in online housing debates: that the more-market-oriented variety of pro-housing activists (like several of us at STB) think “housing is simple” or “supply will fix everything.” That’s never been true, and I thought it might be helpful to clarify what’s driving the refrain of “add housing supply.”
When we talk about supply, what we’re saying isn’t remotely “supply will fix everything wrong with housing.” It’s “without more supply, it’s really freaking hard to fix anything.” Adequate supply makes it much easier and cheaper to do lots of good things, both in and beyond housing. The environment of extreme housing scarcity (which has been around throughout the adult lives of many West Coasters under 35!) corrupts every public effort not only to house people, but to improve their lives in myriad other ways. In an environment of housing scarcity, landlords have so much leverage that they can completely hijack progress on many goals that have consensus support among all factions of the West Coast left. Wage increases, subsidized health care, and subsidized child care end up allowing people to pay more for rent–and, where housing is scarce, landlords can & will demand that they get all of the extra money such efforts put in people’s pockets.
Making housing public (while it may be desirable for other reasons) doesn’t address housing scarcity on its own. A government agency that operates public housing is still a landlord, and it still has leverage, even though that leverage may get exercised in ways other than higher rent. Where there’s scarcity, public homes often get allocated according to connections, insider relationships, seniority in the area, or just plain luck. Rich people make illicit deals with the lucky winners to occupy units.
Scarcity gives landlords leverage. But the best way a tenant can exercise leverage over any landlord, private or public, is to say “Screw you, I’m moving.” That can’t happen where housing is scarce. But it can happen. I’ve experienced it: in my 20s, making $11-12 per hour, I moved out of an apartment where the landlord was trying to sharply increase my rent, because other apartments were readily available at reasonable cost.
Getting to an environment where “screw you, I’m moving” is a credible threat can’t happen immediately. But it is possible, and it requires three policy changes: 1) tenant protections to make moving cheaper (which might include lower penalties for early move-out, lower security deposits, and a uniform low-fee application); 2) serious fair housing enforcement that is strong enough to address widespread discrimination against renters of color and renters with disabilities; and 3) yes, sufficient supply.
“Sufficient supply” has to be at a local level. A frequent criticism of supply-side housing advocates is that more supply helps at a region-wide level, but can have localized negative effects that people ignore. That’s valid! It doesn’t give a tenant any helpful leverage when new supply is all in other places, or when it’s all extremely expensive because there’s not enough of it. Saying “screw you, I’m moving… 20 miles away where there’s housing” isn’t real leverage. Real leverage for tenants is the ability to move locally, so that a move doesn’t upend a tenant’s life or create a horrible commute.
How to achieve that will vary, a lot, between neighborhoods. In wealthier areas with less risk that low-income tenants will be displaced, it’s good enough to say “upzone, and let developers build as fast as possible.” But we need to add supply in poorer areas too, because tenants there are so much more prone to exploitation and displacement when there is housing scarcity. It’s impossible to address housing scarcity in an area without adding lots of housing there.
And, again, supply by itself is not enough. More supply in low-income areas will not fix poverty. It won’t ever provide housing for the lowest-income populations, which don’t tend to be served well by housing markets. Initially, it won’t even provide working-income tenants with any leverage, until enough is built that scarcity is eased. All these things are true. And, even so, we still need to build everywhere in the area to have any real effect on the condition of scarcity.
If we don’t fix scarcity, other efforts will continue to spin their wheels like an articulated bus on ice. Anti-displacement and tenant activists will be Sisyphuses, trying to roll a heavy rock of landlord leverage uphill. Anti-poverty efforts will founder, because money will go to landlords instead of staying in the pockets of people with low incomes. Public housing won’t serve residents with very low incomes well, because people with more money will muscle in. New market construction will all be for the rich, even where it’s basic; so-called “luxury” apartments are rarely much different from cheap ones, except for their location. Housing abundance will ease all of these issues.
Supply is not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. But enough of it would make all of the other work that housing advocates do much easier, and is absolutely necessary to ease the stranglehold that landlords currently have on their tenants. It’s a huge project, that will take years of building, and there will certainly be problems to address along the way. But we need to keep building for the dream of a future without housing scarcity to have any possibility of coming true.
105 Replies to “A Few Words About Housing Supply”
Agreed, and thanks for providing some needed nuance! I often see arguments put forth here that feel lacking in nuance – and for good reason, I’m sure, given that they’re often secondary to the main purpose of an article. However, the nuance is incredibly important, especially when the tone often implies that if density is the only thing that matters, and that density alone will solve challenges that cities like Seattle are facing.
A lot of new density helps, but can of course have detrimental effects in many cases, and people rightly get frustrated when someone advocating a supply-based solution ignores these, or worse, shouts them down. Exchanges like this can turn people off to otherwise sane arguments pretty quickly. And it’s important to realize that at times like these, a lot of people are under significant stress, especially if you find yourself with fewer and fewer options. New housing in the neighborhood sounds terrific, but if it’s all 1-bedroom luxury apartments, it’s of little help. And if all those luxury apartments effectively change the market for stores in your neighborhood such that you can’t afford to shop there anymore, that’s also not going to help much. Moreover, what if they’re built on tear-downs of older, cheaper apartments? A net gain in units, but a net loss in affordability – at least in the short term, but potentially for a generation or more, depending on how things shake out.
As you say, we need many, many tactics to employ, including mechanisms for protecting older / more affordable units, incentives for diversifying the types (e.g., four- or five-bedroom flats) and target demographics (families, groups of friends / housemates, etc.) of new construction, etc. And yup, without a huge increase in supply all of this will be largely moot. However, we really need to stop shouting ‘supply, supply, supply,’ and start really looking at nuance, otherwise we effectively will turn off the many, many people for whom their lived experience correlates increased density to rising rents, fewer options, and increased stress. In doing so we discredit this lived experience of theirs in our eyes, and discredit ourselves in their eyes.
“we really need to stop shouting ‘supply, supply, supply,’ and start really looking at nuance”
No we don’t. We are looking at nuance, and the people those who say we aren’t are either blind or acting in bad faith. If you bake bread and it doesn’t rise you say, “I didn’t put enough yeast in”, not “Yeast doesn’t work, and nobody needs leavened bread anyway. (especially if there are a lot of people who can’t eat unleavened bread and will starve without leavened bread). Yes, upzoning can have acute negative effects when applied to a small area, but that’s where all these other policies come in. The John Fox argument is that density causes higher rents and displacement, so no growth is best, or at least no growth where 40+ year old buildings are. But density increases the number of units, often four or ten times, and that means fewer people are competing for each unit, and that decreases the pressure on the price. The reason rents have been going up anyway in spite of new housing si that it’s not enough to match the population increase and job increase. If those buildings didn’t get built at all, the price pressure would be even higher in the old units, and their low rents would last only a year or two longer anyway.
The biggest flaw in the supply-proponents’ argument is not articulating this competition for units. But it’s a basic fact of free-enterprise commerce: it applies to eggs and pork, and to apartments too. The John Foxes need to be confronted with this, and I have never seen it happen. The idea that prices will remain under-market forever assumes non-profit, altruistic landlords who will never die (or their children are the same as them) or a rent control that doesn’t exist.
Allowing ADUs or lowrise in all single-family areas does not mean that all of the lots will be uprooted. Probably only a small percent of them will, because Seattle has a lot of land relative to the demand, many homeowners want to keep their house as-is, and there will be little demand for apartments in the corners of Magnolia and Laurelhurst because they’re such isolated locations.
I think we need to parse out kind and quantity, and not just look at quantity.
“The reason rents have been going up anyway in spite of new housing si that it’s not enough to match the population increase and job increase.” This is true, but only part of the story. We can’t ignore the macroeconomic picture, and the fact that the increase in jobs isn’t just a numeric change, but a change in kind – many of the new jobs pay on a different scale than what’s been historically the norm in the region, and this has a macroeconomic cause in large part due to the global reach of the tech industry. We’re seeing a shift in the type of employment in Seattle, and the pay rates that go with it, and this is happening across large parts of the US as well, of course.
It’d be interesting to compare this to the rise of Boeing during and after WWII, as I imagine the manufacturing and engineering jobs it created also ushered in rapid growth and a new wage scale, largely due to an industry that operated and competed on a global scale – not unlike today’s situation in many respects. A key difference of course lies in our land-use, and in available land…a supply issue of course. Land was far more available here in the ’40’s through the ’80’s than it is now, and growth followed this availability in a radial pattern, but now it’s focusing inward, creating compounding challenges.
The US has gone through similar transitions before, e.g., the emergence of corporate America in the mid-20th century, and so have other countries. I’d love to see some case studies showing how other societies managed to handle large-scale economic shifts like this, especially if they managed to do it more equitably. Scandinavian countries might be a good place to look, as it wasn’t that long ago (less than a century) that they were marked by poverty and emigration – hence to some degree the Scandinavian enclaves in the Midwest, Ballard, etc.
We often treat markets like housing as true, ‘free’ markets, though they’re anything but. Land-use regulation, transportation accessibility, etc., all play enormous roles, and while supply is hands down the most visible and largest underlying factor, it exists as part of a larger milieu. We can’t entirely build our way into equity.
Also, I completely agree that we shouldn’t ban upzones in areas of older buildings, but if the older apartments are the first to go, and not the 1-story commercial strips or surface parking lots, then a net gain may feel less like a positive than it could or should. But you’re spot on that inaction or lack of construction in those areas would lead to the older apartments being renovated and becoming high-end anyway.
Lastly, one salient point missing out in some supply-oriented discussions is livability. It’s a tough issue, give that it’s often a go-to phrase for NIMBY-ism, but from a YIMBY perspective as well it’s still crucially important. Essentially the debate can turn into a false dichotomy – we can have pleasant, livable *and* dense communities (and most my favorite communities are very dense), but if density is done poorly it can compound the reasons people are fearful of it.
Yes, it’s not just one housing market but several, at each size/quality/location level, and they are only partially connected. If a million-dollar home is available, it doesn’t matter to me because I can’t afford it. On the other hand I can afford to avoid rat-infested hovels so I do. I don’t always talk about the multiple levels because it’s more complicated and I’m not sure I underfstand all its ramifications. And the influx of people with more money simply means the landlords and sellers can raise their prices without increasing the time the unit remains empty.
The easiest way to get more apartments built is to tax ground-level parking lots — including those surrounding big box stores and grocery stores — as if they had residential housing above them up to the limit for the neighborhood. If it happens, that housing will get built on stilts above the parking lots.
And what an amazingly productive use of the land! In the day when people are away at work the parking spots are taken by shoppers. In the evening after seven or eight PM, they’re taken by the residents.
Yes, there’s a problem from three to seven PM. You can’t use all of the available parking for residents because some will get home before the spaces open up. But at least 50% of the capacity can be used in this way.
The Summit area has corner groceries, bars, and storefronts where they’ve been grandfathered. The city proposed allowing corner stores in new buildings but the neighborhood lobbied to quash it and it died. (I didn’t know about it or I would have stood up for them.) But some people don’t want retail west of Broadway or north of Denny.
Funny that you should mention health care, which, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, has more people who can afford access to it, but not immediately more people providing it, hence the growing wait times at urgent care and emergency rooms.
When NIMBYs fight everything including expansions of Children’s Hospitals, they help reduce the quality, and speed of health care, by artificially reducing the supply, at least locally. I’m not sure why Children’s didn’t just shut down and move somewhere with a higher density of children that was more welcoming of the expansion efforts they wanted to engage in, that were in turn driven by regional demand for their services. It sickens me to think that such an importance service would face such animosity from neighborhood associations.
At least with health care, any survey would say the region ought to have more of it available, even if certain sneetchy neighborhoods deem it a blight upon thars. When it comes to more residents in housing, the survey might not come out quite as overwhelmingly supportive. But at least with local elections, those opposing more housing supply have been losing, by huge margins, with the possible exception of my own district respresentative. But the inertia of laws written to benefit mansionette owners and keep renters away is taking a long time and a lot of effort to undo. (And my district representative has been doing nearly everything in her power to defend the status quo on wealthy-supremacy zoning laws.)
The human pain of NIMBYism is huge, but can be reduced. Those self-proclaimed “anti-displacement” activists allying out of convenience with the NIMBYs are making their own goals so much harder to achieve.
And yes, the cost of health care goes up because the government is paying for it, so providers and insurers raise costs to what the government will pay, but a supply-side analysis is also in order, in that the industry as a whole needs to ramp up to provide enough basic health care service to take care of the whole population. That will take time. If NIMBYism of the sneechy Laurelhurst variety is rampant in other regions, it will take even longer.
NIMBY’s does what NIMBY’s does and laugh about it.
Fundamentally, without more supply, the problem can’t be solved. It comes down to simple math. If 10,000 people want to live in a neighborhood that only has enough housing to hold 5,000, then 5,000 get to live there, and the remaining 5,000 will have to go somewhere else. How you decide who gets the housing stock that exists and who doesn’t, there are many ways. You can take the free market approach, and favor those with the most money. You can take the communist approach and have the government just dictate who gets to live where based on either lottery, personal connection to government officials, or outright bribes. Or, you can the “anti-displacement” approach and impose restrictions on rent increases to favor whoever happens to already be living there, at the expense of those who want to move to the neighborhood, but are currently living somewhere else.
With a massive increase in supply, there is no way to solve the housing crisis by using government to allocate the supply that exists. Simply buying up land to build subsidized housing costs taxpayers way too much per unit to scale to more than a tiny percentage of the population. See here for what happens when agencies tried to do this in San Francisco. Nor does requiring developers to set aside units for affordable housing scale – it just means the market-rate units have to charge more to everybody else, in order for the project to pencil out and, again, you run into land scarcity, so you can’t possibly build enough.
Rent control is not as solution to the problem either, and we need look no further than New York City to understand why. When landlords are forced to allow existing tenants to renew their leases indefinitely for sub-market rates, landlords are incentivized to everything they possibly can to get them to move out. At the same time, property owners are also incentivized to build housing that is classified as condominiums, luxury apartments, anything not subject to rent control rules.
While I do agree, that just more supply, by itself, won’t be sufficient for people of the lowest income level, it’s still a necessary condition to solving the housing problem. Without more supply, housing just becomes a game of musical chairs, and whatever you do, somebody will be displaced.
The broken link to the article about housing in New York City should point here:
“Simply buying up land to build subsidized housing costs taxpayers way too much per unit to scale to more than a tiny percentage of the population.”
It works in Europe. The problem is we’ve let it deteriorate into an outright crisis rather than building some all along, especially in the period between 1955 and 1999 when land was dirt cheap. In the early 2000s with the ultra-low interest rates and housing bubble, rents started rising 5%, then in 2008 they stopped, then in 2012 they started reaching 10-15%, and now theyre back to 5% at least this moment. But inflation has been 2% or less the entire time. So 5% should have been a warning to both upzone and build more subsidized housing, because the difference between 2% and 5% means some people won’t be able to afford the increase, but we just ignored that because “free market” and all those people are welfare queens with Cadillacs and taxation is theft.
“When landlords are forced to allow existing tenants to renew their leases indefinitely for sub-market rates, landlords are incentivized to everything they possibly can to get them to move out.”
There are different kinds of rent control, and New York and San Francsco chose what appears to be the worst kind. When you rent-control only units built before a certain year, then that puts the owners of controlled units at a disadvantage compared to new uncontrolled units. As the population increases, the number of new uncontrolled units increases, and the number of controlled units decreases through teardowns, then the difference in profit and burden becomes ever-more acute over time. And the percent of the population that can have rent-controlled units dwindles and dwindles. That’s what happened in New York and San Francisco.
But in Germany, every state has statewide rent control, and it’s set to give landlords a reasonable profit every year, like our landlords were getting in 2000. Because it’s statewide, there’s no place owners/developers can go to escape it. That doesn’t disincentivize development because landlords know they;ll still get their reasonable profit like other industries get (e.g., shopowners). And because it’s statewide, there’s no difference between the profits/burdens of controlled vs uncontrolled units, so the controlled landlords aren’t itching to get out from under it and make a killing. And the society believes in housing for everybody, even if taxes are high and you can’t make a killing being a landlord.
If every rental unit is subject to price cap, then developers will get a bigger return building condos or townhomes for sale, rather than rent. Or really large apartments over the threshold where rent control is required (with lots of parking). Or hotel rooms, which rent by the night, rather month, and are not subject to rate caps.
And, if the price cap is less than market rate, than anyone who wants to move into the affected neighborhood will find no inventory available without a long waiting list. That, by definition, is what market rate means.
I don’t know why Germany isn’t all condoized then.
You mention rents going up since 2000…
That is pretty much all you need to see to explain why rents and home prices in Seattle have shot up since 2000.
I live in a SFH near Madison Valley. It has been subdivided into a duplex (subdivide into new ADU) by the senior who had been living in it alone. Now 2 couples live there and the original owner has downsized and retired off the rents. Makes sense, no? But this is actually an illegal housing arrangement based on Seattle SFH zoning, as the owner has rented out both the primary residence and ADU at the same time. Why again is this illegal in Seattle when we have a housing/affordability crisis?
This kind of ridiculous SFH zoning is the root of the affordability problem since 2000. We welcomed 160,000 new people, mostly with good paying jobs… and did not allow housing density to increase to accommodate them.
We thought we were protecting the existing homeowners, when in reality we were setting them up to be displaced by the new deeper pocketed workforce.
Another thing that happens in Germany: most people are content to rent for their entire lives and their kids do the same, because they have long-time price stability and housing security, and because buying a house is not a fast way to become aristocratically rich, and because postwar rebuilt cities don’t have single-family houses anyway (or at least I didn’t see any in Duesseldorf or Ratingen; there may have been some somewhere).
Great points, and something I’d love to learn more about…
Dijbo, see RossB’s link to the Sightline article below. I learned about them somewhere else, in an article about Germany.
Density is essential, but not necessarily sufficient in its own right to create equitable – and equitably distributed solutions to our housing crisis. Transportation infrastructure takes decades in some cases to design and build, and there are practical limits to how much density can go in an area in a given time, and overall. Density needs to be complemented with other tools to make this happen, which David was saying, no?
It depends what you’re measuring. If you’re lookijng at an urban area like Seattle without the furthest corners, then increasing density and mixed-use means people don’t have to travel as much — the more people around them, the more likely they’ll find a job within the area, and stores they like, and friends and dates and such. On the other hand if you look at a larger scale, such as including south King County or King-Pierce-Snohomish, then good transit can start to compensate for limited housing in the inner city.
But what do we want more, transportation or diminishing the need for transportation? It makes sense to diminish the need, which is another way of saying that transportation is an inefficiency. Why not have a store and school across the street from your house rather than having to travel a mile or more to them? That’s how all cities and neighborhoods were designed before cars, and it makes the most sense.
At the same time, diminishing the need for transportation doesn’t mean you don’t need it at all. In a region of three million people there will always be thousands of people going somewhere or another, because some things are unique. If you’re visiting your grandmother, it won’t do to visit somebody else’s grandmother who lives closer instead. If you think that a certain teacher is the best or a certain store has the best products or service, it won’t do to go to another teacher or store that’s closer.
Djibo, you’ve got one thing right. Buzzwords like “density” are worst way to discuss important matter. The Black Hole of Calcutta had excellent density.
But maybe it’s because they’re used to scarce living space for centuries, but some places in Europe prove that if buildings are placed, built, and angled correctly, dense spacing can give a lot more privacy than can large large homes and yards in regimented order.
The “Cottage” complexes I’ve seen- one across Greenwood from Shoreline Community College- seem to allow space single-family homes around essentially a private park for a lawn. Wouldn’t mind one or two of them across the hedge from My Back Yard.
Complexes of this order figure heavily in my transit- centered sprawl-free regional dispersal plan. Not “how many” you have, but “what all” ways are there to provide comfort and dignity in how few square feet.
Completely agree with both of you. Mostly this is a land-use planning issue, and effective land-use planning is far more cost-effective than large-scale transit measures, and has a much faster turnaround. There are so many rich examples of pre-automobile density that are simply incredible – more dense than what we have in most of our area, richer in amenities and connections, cheaper to service (in most respects), better for the environment, and yet more intimate, private and peaceful in many cases. Just like with mass transit, people often reject what they don’t know out of fear, assuming it will be detrimental, but once good examples start to pop up they open their eyes, at least that’s the idea (remember how much more virulent the anti-light rail attitudes were in the suburbs prior to 2009?). We need to get to this shift in attitude / perspective for anti-density folks, so how do we most effectively create an enabling environment for this shift?
Good design is an important element, of course. Mark, are you familiar with the Pine Street Cottages on the boarder of the CD / Capitol Hill? They’re the model that the Cottage Company based their approach off of. In any case, aside from a few examples like this, most of the ‘dense’ development we’ve had in the past 60 years in the Seattle area has been pretty poor, at best. Some of it is improving, but we’re not creating really lovely, intimate, and dense neighborhoods for the most part. And we’re certainly not creating much housing that meets and assortment of demands that reflect the broad diversity of people and needs, e.g., flats for friends to share, apartments for young families, affordable condos, etc. Some of this has to do with a lack of enabling legislation, restrictive or non-conducive zoning, harmful legislation or case law (e.g., in the case of condos), poor inter-jurisdictional cooperation, etc. But we need all of this to function properly in order to have a region that can respond well to an acute housing crisis. Density is key, and essential, but it’s far from sufficient.
Where are those cottages? And any other smaller-than-usual house clusters? I’ve seen the tiny-house homeless village on MLK near Othello. The Times mentioned another one somewhere but didn’t say where, and I think there’s another cottage village around Greenwood or something? Does anyone know where they are.
I’m also curious whether these cottage clusters are that much different from the mid-century small apartment buildings with a center courtyard strip going from front to back, like in Uptown and on 16th Ave on Capitol Hill and a few others.
Mike, they’re at 22nd and Pine (https://goo.gl/zfPSpf). They’re different in feel, and though the density may not mach a 3-story courtyard apartment, they could be a good alternative to the pretty ugly and expensive-to-build townhouse style that’s proliferated the past 20 years (a good example just a block away at 21st and Pine: https://goo.gl/1kKFAh). Because of the exorbitant costs building the garages, the latter gets really expensive on a per-unit basis, and car circulation completely dominates the ground floor. The cottages style does a great job providing comparable density (10 units vs. 8 units, on a slightly larger footprint, though the courtyard/garden could even be a bit smaller to match the density) with what must be a much cheaper cost, actual open space, and more modest houses. The housing size is important, too, as it would decrease the cost, and increase the range of ownership options available. There’s no real reason though that someone couldn’t build this style with slightly taller houses, or a mix of house heights, and keep the affordability by maintaining the parking strip along they alley and not having garages.
Here’s some more info on them:
How is “cottage” defined?
“If 10,000 people want to live in a neighborhood that only has enough housing to hold 5,000, then 5,000 get to live there, and the remaining 5,000 will have to go somewhere else. ”
Or they live in overcrowded illegal sublets which are unsafe, which is *extremely normal* in both San Francisco and New York City. That’s what NYC and SF get for their ludicrously restrictive zoning codes.
More housing supply is absoutely necessary. You can’t do anything without it.
Svante Myrick, mayor of Ithaca NY, has recognized this and is implementing it, *and it’s working*. Rents have actually been dropping. I have friends who initially had to live 60 miles away from Ithaca, and (without significant income increases), were able to move to the outskirts of Ithaca (across the township border), and then into the township, and finally (this year) downtown into the city proper. This is only possible because the increased housing supply has reduced the rents for the older housing. The landlords’ association is worrying about how to deal with the reduction in their cash-cow incomes!
Ithaca is a small-scale example — we never had as bad a housing shortage as SF, NYC, or Seattle. But the same principles work. Build a huge number of new apartments and condos, and you’ll bring down the rents as landlords actually have to compete with each other.
David, I agree that none of this is an “either or”. As you note, things that won’t solve the whole problem definitely can contribute to the solution. To bad “S” word is probably in logo of consultants that say fare collection doesn’t hurt DSTT schedules.
Day after tomorrow, will be at City Council meeting, running by the City the idea of using an evictions tax to subsidize wages of already employed homeless people. To keep their homes, and help each other build houses someplace else if they’d rather move.
So they can once again leave work from someplace containing a door, toilet and -best for meetings- a shower. Issue finally uniting labor and management as neighbors. Maybe asking in Seattle’s labor movement in passing if they need help moving to a closer-in camp so they can get involved.
And Thursday, will remind ST Board of regional concentration always underlying its mission. Organized dispersal that is the opposite of sprawl. Over a region laced with high-speed transit and its feeders.
Enabling people widest possible choice to live, work, go to school, and move where and when they feel like. And leaving author of their last eviction notice to watch the purple and yellow 44 go by his window in his own self-made, overpriced, boring as all Hell Hell.
Which now includes my fortunately former home in Ballard. That OK, David?
Most major growing cities in the world have a housing problem to some extent. Here, the limitations of geography (lakes, Sound, mountains) create a more acute issue.
Engineering solutions to better connect areas is perhaps the easiest solution. Both highway and transit projects change our urban form and housing stock. Consider how — on a theoretical level — the region could potentially double its population and housing to get us to this point if the Sound wasn’t there.
On another level, the way in which we promote or discourage job locations influences things. Some other regions are beginning to force local governments to look at jobs-housing balance to force how job-rich neighborhoods or cities to do more about the nearby housing supply problems that result.
The one remaining challenge is the looming transit overcrowding challenge. Unlike adding buses for more capacity, subway stations and high-frequency trains have a finite capacity that can be very expensive and time-consuming to increase. There are things that can ease the challenge like satellite city employment districts (creating non-peak direction ridership), but committing to a faster, wonderful and smooth rail ride will make future generations of riders be more attuned to overcrowding causes and solutions.
Careful how you compare buses and trains for capacity. At every LINK station, maximum-length train has four 90′ cars. Standing still, 540′ end to end. At 60 mph, same length.
But because buses can’t be coupled, “platoon” needs safety space between units. Meaning several bus lengths of empty diesel-scented air between coaches. It’s like an accordion. There’s plenty of need for buses, to be given the exclusive right of way and signal pre-empts they need.
But for heaviest line-haul, trains carry a lot more people than buses, a lot faster. But another world-wide permanent condition. From the time rail service starts, the faster and more frequent the trains, and the more capacity you add, the less chance passenger can get a seat.
Long understood wherever the system is good and constantly improving. What we consider a crush load, rest of the world would cancel the train for lack of ridership. THAT’s what “World Class” means.
Spreading out employment clusters to multiple nodes is better for bi-directional transit, regardless of the mode. Arguing that our HCT, unlike non-high-capacity transit, is going to have capacity problem is concern-trolling. The entire point of building Link is because it has higher capacity than buses.
“Unlike adding buses for more capacity, subway stations and high-frequency trains have a finite capacity that can be very expensive and time-consuming to increase. ” No, that’s comparing apples & oranges. Just like you can always throw more buses at congestion, you can always throw more train-cars at congestion. The bus equivalent to a subway station at capacity is the congestion on 3rd Ave during peak. We are building light rail to increase capacity because one rail line can carry more people than one bus line. If we have capacity problems on Link, the capacity problem with buses would be much, much worse.
The problem of having a finite amount of vehicles is not unique to trains. Right now, Metro can’t throw more buses at congestion because their bus bases are literally full. And as Mark says, you can run more train vehicles through a giving stop because the trains are platooned, unlike buses.
Bus capacity increase screeches to a halt when streets are congested and buses bunch, as happened with the 71/72/73X the last few years before U-Link.
If Link has a capacity problem, it means (1) it was silly to think that the entire mass of travelers from Capitol Hill, the U-District, Roosevelt, Northgate, Shoreline, Lynnwood, and Everett could fit on one 4-car line, and (2) ST shouldn’t have artificially reduced capacity by ordering cars with cabins at both ends that will never be used instead of open gangways, parallel seats instead of sideways, and not done those capital improvements to bring the DSTT up to 90-second frequency.
>> Most major growing cities in the world have a housing problem to some extent. Here, the [problems with being a special, unique snowflake] create a more acute issue.
Sorry, but no. There are plenty of cities that have grown their way out of the problem, and many of those cities are gigantic compared to Seattle. http://www.sightline.org/2017/09/21/yes-you-can-build-your-way-to-affordable-housing/. Yes, we have unique problems, but the biggest is the ridiculous assumption that *most* of the city shouldn’t change. Not in physical ways (Oh My God, an apartment just down the street from my beautiful house: https://goo.gl/maps/juAvsYMMNjz. There are no parking spots either — call the cops!) or even just in terms of density (What? You can’t convert that house to a Triplex! Not in my neighborhood: https://goo.gl/maps/fqoSSH1Rpy12).
Both of those places are legal, by the way and both were no doubt built well before the city got a bee in its collective bonnet and started screwing over
blackpoor people. The first building has no parking, while the second really is a triplex (according to https://jeffreylinn.carto.com/viz/681ff218-0a5d-11e6-8f50-0ea31932ec1d/embed_map) and is one of the many multi-plexes in that neighborhood that would be illegal if built now.
As many have said, *most* of the city doesn’t allow this anymore. Roughly 2/3 of the city, depending on how you count it, basically allows for no increase in population. This has nothing to do with our lakes, rivers, fish or peculiar love for soccer. It has everything to do with our antiquated, oppressive rules that date back to Leave it Beaver times.
Excellent article! (The Sightline one, of course.)
I guess I would have added that rapid population growth is a contributing factor to our current housing cost issues. I failed to mention that in my large city reference.
I’m also not saying that Seattle shouldn’t do more. I’m simply pointing out that Seattle is trying to some extent — and that other cities appear generally to not be as aggressive.
Finally, I’ll mention that on a 2017 population per Link station (ST3 completion) basis, Seattle has more current residents per station (24,991) than does Tukwila (10,072), Fife (10,154), SeaTac (14,570), Bellevue (16,049), Redmond (16,073), Lynnwood (19,137) and Mountlake Terrace (21,337). If the region is now (with ST3) paying for more new stations outside of Seattle than inside Seattle, shouldn’t these cities be expected to put conditions in place to encourage better TOD too?
The best way to counter power of landlords isn’t to threaten to move. It is by organizing with fellow tenants into tenant associations and launching rent strikes.
This is especially important given the existence and power of the landlords union (RHAWA). Finding a nice landlord doesn’t subvert or challenge the power structure or help other tenants in their struggles with shite landlords. The best way to counter it is by organizing.
Then the landlord, rightfully, terminates your lease for non-payment. What power are you trying to resist?
I can tell that you are a landlord.
Other Bob, I’m pretty sure BA is not a landlord.
I don’t have an opinion here, just wanted to note that the Bob above is not me but another Bob (just so people don’t confuse my opinions with his).
Tenant associations are great. Rent strikes in this type of market are just a way to find the sheriff watching as your landlord moves all your stuff onto the sidewalk.
You need real leverage.
A rent strike is real leverage. In the same way that a worker strike is direct leverage against exploitative bosses, a rent strike is direct leverage against exploitative landlords.
Arguing that “the cops and the state are on the side of the landlords” is basically capitulating to the power of the landowning class. Would this argument pass as a legitimate or justified reason for slaves to not actively resist the whips of their oppressors? Would it pass in the struggle between sweatshop workers and factory owners?
The power dynamic is the same. Of course the cops are on the side of the landlords. But the cops are also on the side of the bosses in the fossil fuel industry, the logging industry, the mining industry, the auto industry.
Real leverage doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from within, from building solidarity and collective power. It for sure does not come from individuals threatening to move (which is functionally similar to a rent strike, only it isn’t a collective challenge to power).
A rent strike is zero leverage when there’s a housing shortage. Someone else will happily take your apartment. Even if it’s rat-infested.
Same reason unionization and strikes don’t work when there’s a “reserve army of the unemployed” who are happy to act as scabs and break the strike because their current situation is *even worse*.
In the work case, you have to have a sufficient excess of jobs relative to workers relative to jobs to give the strikers some power. In the housing case, you have to have a sufficient excess of housing relative to people to give the people some power.
But you’re missing the point. Say I want to live in Seattle, but I look around at apartments, and can’t find anything I can afford. I work at the UW, and don’t want to live south of Seattle, so I look north. Next thing I know, I’m in Lynnwood, far from where I want to live.
In what way does a Seattle rent strike help me? At best it means that rents won’t go up there. Great, but how do I get an apartment there. If an apartment opens up, and it is below market value (because of the strike) what happens? Is it a lottery — like low income housing — and I put my name in, waiting for years?
Oh, and what if I pay the landlord a bit extra? Am I a scab?
That is where the rent strike thing breaks down. The whole idea of a labor union (and striking) is that you are forcing management to pay the workers more. But you aren’t requiring them to hire more workers. You are just asking for a bigger share of the pie.
The problem in this case is that the pie isn’t big enough. Even if landlords all froze their prices (out of the goodness of their hearts, or for fear of a tenant strike) there simply aren’t enough places to live to meet demand.
(To be clear, rent strikes have their place, and make sense as a way to deal with an oppressive landlord. If an entire building stops paying rent, then the landlord will be forced to deal with the issues, which in turn might convince other oppressive landlords to deal with their issues. But it doesn’t mean there will be more places to live.)
One thing I think Bob might be getting at, is if rent increases were primarily the result of collusion among landlords to raise prices, or one single landlord buying up all the property and acting like a monopoly, then organizing on part of the tenants could theoretically act as a counterweight for the monopolistic landlord’s leverage. Similar to how a labor union acts as a counterweight to one big factory’s monopsony on a local labor market.
But, if collusion were really the case, there would be evidence of it. We would either see a huge number of vacant apartments offered at more than people are willing to pay, or we would see apartment builders deliberately building fewer units than they’re allowed to build, in order to keep prices up. In reality, we are seeing neither, but we are seeing a large influx of well-paid jobs, thereby increasing the rent people are willing to pay under the forces of supply and demand. So, basically, RossB is right – a “rent strike” would do nothing to solve the supply problem, and people looking for homes would have every incentive to break it.
There are ways to shift the balance of power between tenants and landlords through activism and regulations… but the crux of the issue still remains- basic market forces. There is an overall lack of housing- especially within short commuting distance to where the jobs are. And the combination of increased population and increased home prices have forced a ton more people into the rental market.
People with a fair amount of money who normally would be buying a 300-500K home are now renters which massively increases demand… and they are displacing those who have less resources. The landlords profit just like the single family homeowners profit, and the root cause is the same.
Ironically, if anything Seattle has built a lot of new rental units over the last decade. The problem is that the lack of new homes/condo has forced so many more people into the rental market that it just can’t keep up. It all goes back to the core problem of Settle refusing to increase density in SFH zoned areas.
I contest that the sole purpose of a union is to get better wages and restrict the amount of employment available. That is some very management-tinted perspective there that’s very untrue in most cases. Indeed, that’s really only in some contenporary US unions, many of which have been co-opted by corporate interests and structures. The origins of the labor movement had overturning the wage and employment system completely and reforming the economy along cooperative democratic principles as goals, and many portions still do.
I don’t want to give the impression that I think a rent strike will solve all the problems, or that it’s the only tool that will work. On the contrary, the most important thing is building up that strong social network and ecosystem of groups like tenants unions, labor unions, etc. The strike is a very useful tool to use once that capacity has been built up.
Moreover, I think we are talking about completely different things here. The thing that makes the housing crisis a crisis is that it’s systemic. It’s not an issue solely of “not enough apartment units”. For example, there are an estimated 200,000 empty bedrooms around King County. In terms of absolute resources, the housing is there. The problem then is the mode of ownership, location, physical configuration: those buildings are viewed as vehicles for speculative investment by the primarily white homeowning middle class, not for housing people who need shelter the most (primarily working class black/brown/indigenous folks).
Is the type of housing ideal? No. Is the single family home/neighborhood a blight on the earth? I definitely think so. But not just for physical reasons, but also because of what it represents sociologically: absolute social isolation, the reverence of speculative finance, and mindless mass consumption.
These things can only be overcome by organizing.
“For example, there are an estimated 200,000 empty bedrooms around King County.”
That seems like a big absolute number, but compared to the Seattle region’s population, it’s not actually all that much. According to Google, the King County population in 2017 is estimated at 2.19 million. Assuming one bedroom per person, 200,000 empty bedrooms means a county-wide vacancy rate of a bit less than 10%. Within Seattle, the vacancy rate was estimated to be just 4%. You can’t get much less than that without affecting the ability of the market to function. Just as a grocery store has to have at least some unsold milk on the shelves in order for people to be able to shop, a neighborhood has to have at least some amount of unoccupied housing.
That’s a really interesting comparison. Although again I will contest that it supports our point, and it illustrates my point even more vividly. Roughly half of all food produced in the world goes to waste — primarily because grocery store and supermarkets purchase 2-3 times as much food as the can actually sell in order to keep shelves fully stocked at all costs. In the end this means half of all that food goes directly into the trash, which is often locked so people experiencing extreme poverty can’t get into the perfectly good food in the dumpsters.
If “the market working” means having twice as much housing as needed, but half of all of it locked and empty because the landlords can’t extract enough profit/need to enforce artificial scarcity, how is that solving any problems?
And for the record, this is exactly what is going on in Chicago, a city that has enough housin for roughly 1 million more people than currently live there.
Sounds like a massive failure and human rights abuse to me.
Also — 200,000 is a huge absolute number, especially compared to the number of people living outside and facing daily fascist violence from the white homeowning middle class. 200,000 is over ten times the amount of bedrooms needed to House every homeless person.
>> It’s not an issue solely of “not enough apartment units”.
Yes, it is. It most certainly is. Again, run through the scenario I just described. For some reason (pressure from the tenant union, legislation, a sudden feeling of generosity by all the landlords) suddenly rents in Seattle are 50% less. What happens now? How do I get one?
The short answer is, you don’t. Not unless you are lucky. There simply are very few places available *in Seattle*, which is where people want to live. That is because you would suddenly have a wave of people who live in Renton, Shoreline and Lynnwood “coming home” to Seattle. You might even get people who left the city, and moved to Portland or Bellingham coming back. Except, again, they couldn’t, because there aren’t enough places for them.
It is no different in many big cities. Do you think people live outside of Paris because they like it there? Of course not, they simply can’t afford to live in the city. It would be different if Paris was building lots and lots of new apartments, but they aren’t, because they want to keep the charming city exactly as it was hundreds of years ago.
One of the few cities that does allow for construction *in the central city* is Tokyo. By some measures, it is the largest city in the world, and like most cities in economically advanced countries, it is extremely popular, and demand for housing continues to increase. But in Tokyo they allow people to build, build, build. They don’t need a city wide tenant union, because if some landlord decides to jack the rent, folks know that someone else will build a new place just down the street. That simply isn’t possible in Seattle, because, for *most of the city* you can’t even convert your house into an apartment, let alone replace it with a new apartment building.
And Paris has a frequent RER system and plenty of density in the suburbs, so it’s almost like living in the central city (or living in Brooklyn or Queens), so you don’t have to face a drastic decrease in job choices, activity choices, and errand choices (e.g., supermarkets) if you live in the suburb and don’t have a car
Rent strikes are completely worthless if there isn’t enough housing.
Look at NYC and SF. If you go on a rent strike, the landlord will be happy to stop maintaining your apartment until you are forced out by lack of working sewers. Then the landlord will rent it for $1000/month to someone who is willing to tolerate living without a sewer.
The only solution is more housing: enough housing that nobody is willing to tolerate living without a sewer.
And it’s worth noting that the housing shortage in NYC and SF is so bad that illegal sublets are endemic. How do people find housing in those cities? By renting closets from other people. It’s not like it’s going to stop. It will only stop if there are enough real apartments built.
Bob, what really is the general experience with what you’re suggesting? We tenants at Lockhaven together proposed that we buy the complex from the new owner. Response, verbatim? “It’s not in the business plan.”
Maybe if all the evicted tenants- and home-owners in the city organized into a single political force and, say, refused to move? Does the sheriff’s office (hard to imagine a sheriff named Mitzi Johanknecht evicting everybody at gunpoint.
But being a full moon tonight, wouldn’t doubt Jenny Durkan will grow fur and fangs and turn into her real form as a Prosecutor. And after watering every fire hydrant in Seattle, feeding taxpayers’ money to that private prison at Angle Lake to compel people who won’t snitch on their friends for contempt.
And everybody she bites turns into an assistant one! Well, since Olympia owes her one for doing that to harmless people- people in Olympia scold you for repeating that violent George Gershwin song about a recruit killing a bugler for waking him up- if Thurston County’s main cash crop is marijuana, maybe we can legalize wolfbane too.
Another reason for the Sounder to go there.
Rent strikes have a long and effective history. The problem with asking a corporate landlord to buy them out is a bit of a miscalculation IMO: they aren’t there just to recoup their investment (which most do within a couple years or so), they are there to extract as much rent as possible from the tenants. Tenants are their capital; we pay all their bills and profits.
So basically when talking with a corporate landlord and trying to negotiate to purchase, we play on their turf. They have all the power in that conversation, they have the threat of throwing people out on the street, raising rent, etc. They will not bargain in good faith because they have far different goals than most tenants. We want low rent and opportunity of ownership (I.e. to not pay rent at all); they want us to pay as much rent as possible for as long as possible.
The rent strike subverts that notion because it says “we no longer accept this extractive relationship, we are not your capital,” etc. It says, “we dare you to try to use the cops to evict 100 tenants. Cave to our demands or we will evict you.”
Also as a followup: it’s not in the business plan for oil companies to stop drilling for and burning carbon. We have two years to peak carbon pollution; what do we do about that business plan?
We vote in climate-progressives in the federal government. But in order to do that we first have to convince enough voters, eliminate voter-suppression laws that disenfranchise them, and clean up gerrymandering and the Electoral College system so we can get enough votes (we’d need only a few thousand at the presidential level; more on many Congressional districts). All that take a time; it can’t be done in a year.
And we do it before Trump nominates another Supreme Court judge and he gets through (I assume he won’t nominate a she) and the current Senate stacks the federal courts like they want to do before November. Fortunately they get divided among themselves pretty easily and that slows things down.
You have no power with a rent strike if the landlord is certain he can replace you with other tenants.
If there’s a housing shortage… he can. He just has to figure out how to make life intolerable for you. Someone else will happily replace you.
This dynamic *only* plays out when there’s a severe housing shortage. Build enough housing, and the landlord actually has to worry about his reputation, and whether anyone else will be wiling to stay in his building.
” It says, “we dare you to try to use the cops to evict 100 tenants. Cave to our demands or we will evict you.””
If there’s a severe enough housing shortage, the landlord will use the cops to evict 100 tenants, will reject your demands, and will fill the building up within a week with new tenants. And laugh at you.
If there’s a housing shortage, you lack bargaining power. If there’s a lot of housing supply, you have massive bargaining power.
This really is a lot simpler than people try and make it. Any increase in housing stock- regardless of price point- helps everyone. The only problem is when you are replacing affordable housing with newer expensive housing (tearing down a cheap old rental and replacing it with an equal number of pricey homes.) But that is not an example of increasing housing stock.
In simplest terms, say you have 12 people and 10 homes. The 12 people are distributed from rich to poor. The cheapest home has 3 buyers fighting over it. Ultimately, the poorest 2 will end homeless. But add 2 new homes at any price point and you have a musical chairs effect where everyone gets a better or cheaper home. The median home is no longer getting offers from one of the wealthier buyers, because they have been shifted into the newer high end homes.
Right now the crux of the supply issue is that new wealthy people are moving in and competing with established non-wealthy people for homes. This results in wealthy people spending big money on mediocre homes (that had been considered entry level homes 10 years ago) and non-wealthy people getting priced out (and poor people getting forced onto the streets.) Builders want maximize profit by constructing pricey homes. Established homeowners want to tap into equity by adding renters. The city wants affordable homes built… All of these help, as long as you are not removing too many affordable homes and replacing them with pricey ones.
But believe it or not, it actually helps to tear down a small SFH on a large lot and replace it with 4 pricey townhouses. That likely houses 8 people instead of 2 (assuming the old home had 2 retirees.) Yes, most people can’t afford the new townhouses… but the 4 rich couples who buy the fancy townhouses are 4 less couples that everyone else is competing with to buy that traditionally affordable SFH in a nice neighborhood that has gone from 200K to 900K over the past decade.
This also extends to the rental market…
Along the same lines, when there are not enough homes for traditional homeowners, a huge number people are by default forced into the rental market. People who would historically buy a 400K home, are now forced into competing on the rental market (That home now goes for 850K and was sold to a higher income tech worker.)
So rentals that 15 years ago had housed lower wage workers now get rented out to those who would traditionally have bought that affordable house. And the people who would have traditionally been in the rental are best case forced into the exburbs or worse case are living on the streets.
Back in 2000, a “pricey home” in Seattle was <500K and a lux townhome was 350K. Had the city added 20,000 more pricey homes/condos and 60,000 lux townhomes at those price points back then they would be filled by the new high wage earning tech workers… and the existing Seattle homes would still be affordable and occupied by "traditional homeowners" and the rentals would likewise be affordable and not subject to nearly the same upward price forces.
Instead the vast majority of Seattle was zones off limits to increased density. And the result is that the "urban villages" that had been where all the affordable rentals were located has had to soak up all of the new population growth… with tragic consequences.
I'm not saying building expensive homes is the answer. I'm simply saying that any type of increase in housing stock helps everyone… even if much of the new housing stock is not affordable to most people. Because the wealthy people who buy it are no longer competing with everyone else for the existing stock of homes and rentals.
Carries the ring of a wonderful incident in the career of George Bernard Shaw, the satiristic playwright. At a formal dinner in his honor (“honour” in his language) a young woman admirer approached him and enthused:
Something like “Oh, Sir George, it’s so noble how you love The Poor!” His reply? “Madam, I hate the poor and look forward to their speedy elimination!” In 2018 Seattle’s parlance: “Hire them, pay them, and unionize them!”
Reminder to Mayor Durkan and Council members Tim Burgess and Rob Johnson: Started Franklin Roosevelt’s five-term career.
Heard on the radio day before yesterday that every $100 rent hike increases number of homeless for the City to care for by 15%. My tax on evictions? Don’t call it a tax. Call it a bill.
Local is 100% correct and understands the dynamics completely.
As does my local mayor, the mayor of Ithaca, NY, Svante Myrick. Ithaca didn’t build any apartments to speak of from the 1950s to the 1990s, despite significant population growth. He decided to catch up and lots of apartment buildings are going up. They are all expensive to rent, and fully rented before they’re even *constructed*. The thing is, the people renting them were previously renting 80-year-old subdivided houses… and those houses had to cut their rents in response. The people who are moved into those houses were previously living in people’s basements in the suburbs, which also had to cut their rent. Those basements are now being occupied by people who were driving 100 miles from another town to get to work. It all helps.
And if course the simpler answer is to allow duplexes and attached housing in sfh areas. Current zoning just exacerbates the problem.
Maybe what Seattle pro-density homeowners should do is build their actual grandmother a sweet little house in their back yard, and see if Mitzi – isn’t that a great name for a Sheriff?- would dare send deputies to do anything about it.
Knowing full well the risk they’re taking of being turned into gingerbread. Even worse, could be tempting to go down to the sanctuary in Tenino and bring back a real girl wolf to dress up in one of grandma’s nightgowns.
Only problem: Friend who works there tells me that a lifetime of relatives murdered by gunfire and horrible fanged traps has given wolves more PTSD from humans than Grimm’s worst alleges about wolves.
First deputy who says “All the better to make a rug out of you with!” will kill any fur-bearing fake grandma from shock. Unhappy outcome for Emergency Response guy when he tries to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Seriously, could be conspicuously bad publicity for the law to evict an elderly close-relative from an attractive, well-built little home. Could, in the public mind, call to mind deputies huffing and puffing trying to demolish a house made of Shuksan- hard green rock from nearby mountain of same name.
It’s not the answer, it’s a partial answer. There aren’t enough lots in Seattle to accommodate everybody with one more household per SF lot. Especially since only a fraction of the lots will get built, and I doubt many ADUs will be large enough for families.
>> There aren’t enough lots in Seattle to accommodate everybody with one more household per SF lot. Especially since only a fraction of the lots will get built, and I doubt many ADUs will be large enough for families.
Of course not, but at the same time, there are apartments being built. It is the combination that would result in a bunch more units. Seattle has 134,000 houses. If we had the same ratio of ADUs as Vancouver (roughly a third*) that would mean about 45,000 new units. Add in the other units being added in the urban villages, and it is quite possible it would be enough to meet demand.
As far as the size of the ADUs go, it really depends on the rules. It is quite common for large houses to be converted to apartments. It is also typical for many of those units to have more than one bedroom. Even a one bedroom apartment is enough for many families. Sleep in the main room (as you would if you owned a studio) and then put your kids in the main bedroom. I’ve done it, and it is quite common when you can’t afford anything bigger.
I don’t think I agree because you are conflating the regional housing market with the local neighborhood market. Suddenly adding a bunch of new housing to a moderately priced neighborhood will raise prices across all housing in that area because the new construction signals to the market that this is a desirable neighborhood. Generally, we call this gentrification. I believe the data shows that adding new housing can hurt lower income renters who live nearby by driving up rents.
So often the conflict is between pro-development, who are looking at the problem regionally, and preservationists, who are looking at the problem locally.
I believe this is the issue in the Rainier Valley. Low income activists who are blocking development are simply trying to save their neighborhood from pricing people out. So the argument they hear is, “Hey, this will be great for the region, but you and your friends/family will be priced out of this neighborhood” – it’s a logical appeal to cold utilitarianism, which tends to not be persuasive for people who are being run out of their homes.
You can make the same argument about consequences of improved public transit. The Link was intentionally routed into lower income neighborhoods to improve their access to the city, because only having Link stations in wealthy neighborhoods would not be equitable. And now we see intense gentrification within the walk-shed of every Link station, which hurts many of the individuals that were supposed to be benefiting from improved access. But that does not mean we should stop investing in improved transit access to undeserved areas.
IMO, the answer to this unintended consequence is to give support to those who are potentially displaced by this, because the net benefit of increased transit and increased housing is good for equity, even if it is bad for certain specific residents. We should still strive to make more neighborhoods easily accessible to where the jobs are. We just have to do a better job of anticipating and accommodating those who end up on the wrong side of an overall positive change.
More housing, improved transport, more high paying jobs are all positives that should be encouraged, even if these also lead to gentrification,displacement and resource scarcity. But it is also our responsibility to help those who get the short end of the stick (and it’s easy to anticipate who these people will be.) This is no different than any other type of progress. You have to find a balance where you are maximizing the net positives and spread some of the increased wealth this brings to help those who fall further behind.
Then again, I’m basically spouting center left political orthodoxy. So that probably aligns me more with Durkan and maybe Farrell… which might have some traction at this blog, but is not exactly the the most activated voice in Seattle. Much like the nation Seattle seems to be getting more polarized, with little energy from those who have more centrist views.
Very few seems to clamor for a blend of pro-growth and progressive pro-safety net policies. It seems like now days you need to be on one side or the other.
“Suddenly adding a bunch of new housing to a moderately priced neighborhood will raise prices across all housing in that area because the new construction signals to the market that this is a desirable neighborhood. Generally, we call this gentrification.”
That’s just a symptom of the housing shortage. The richer people wouldn’t come if they could find a place closer in/more desirable, but they can’t, so they come to Renton MLK and Tacoma Hilltop. People don’t pay high rent because a marketer calls a neighborhood desirable; they pay high rent because the housing is there and it’s cheaper or more vacant than some other area. If someplace next to that other area were more vacant, they would go there, and then the new apartments in the outlying area could go to people with incomes similar to the existing neighbors.
Suddenly adding a bunch of new housing to a moderately priced neighborhood will raise prices across all housing in that area because the new construction signals to the market that this is a desirable neighborhood. Generally, we call this gentrification.
What??? That is like saying that being overweight causes me to eat more donuts. Sorry, you have it all backwards. You’ve confused cause and effect, big time.
Building apartments is expensive. It only happens when the owners figure they can rent out the apartments for a lot of money. If they don’t build, then rents will go much higher.
If all it took was building new apartments to spur demand, then Detroit would have done that years ago. Same with lots of other cities. Just ask developers to build apartments, in much the same way the U. S. government asked the railroads to build in the west. The apartments would pay for themselves quickly, as rents went up, which means everyone wins. Why didn’t Detroit think of that?
Because it doesn’t work that way. There are plenty of places which have banned new construction, and seen prices skyrocket. There are also plenty of places where you are more than welcome to build new apartments, but there simply isn’t enough demand to justify the cost. Then there are places — like Seattle — where demand is high (because of increased employment) — but the supply is not high enough to keep up with it.
“Building apartments is expensive.”
Building large breadboxes is expensive. Building small apartment buildings is not. But we’re stuck between Wall Street-financed breadboxes on the one hand and zoning restrictions on the other. Ma and pa can’t locally finance their dream apartment building on one or two house lots because it’s either prohibited or the height/parking/setback restrictions and permitting process make it impractical, and they can’t build in the urban villages because the breadbox developers outcompete them. So there’s a huge gap between single-family houses and a few unaffordable townhouses on the one hand, and huge unaffordable breadboxes on the other. In between is where most of the housing sixty years ago was, and the kind that’s most affordable.
“Suddenly adding a bunch of new housing to a moderately priced neighborhood will raise prices across all housing in that area because the new construction signals to the market that this is a desirable neighborhood. ”
You talk as if there are any moderately priced neighborhoods in Seattle!
Frankly, this so-called “gentrification” dynamic is not meaningful when there’s a housing shortage and every neighborhood is nose-bleed expensive. Once you have neighborhoods with 25% vacancy rates, you can talk about gentrification (and there, it’s generally considered a good thing).
I agree completely with this editorial. Like most problems, there are multiple causes. In my opinion, there are five big causes of the housing problem in America:
1) The destruction of the safety net.
2) Disparity in income.
3) Regional disparity in job opportunities.
4) Overly restrictive zoning.
5) Poor infrastructure.
The first two are very closely tied. Lack of a decent safety net means that even if relatively affordable housing is available, a significant portion of the population can’t afford it. It also means that much of the housing stock is undesirable for middle class residents. For example, Chicago has very high rents in much of the city, while places that are affordable have very high crime rates. If the safety net was fixed, those places wouldn’t be so crime ridden, and would attract more people. Gentrification is somehow a bad word now, but only because a significant part of the population (the folks that have lived there a long time) are not experiencing the rise in incomes and wealth that newcomers have (or experienced years or generations before). There really wasn’t much complaining about the gentrification that occurred coming out of the great depression.
High disparity of income also means that there are lots of extremely wealthy people, who can buy up housing.
Regional disparity is a major problem, and a big cause of our woes. Seattle has added lots of jobs, Detroit hasn’t. You can find cheap housing in many Midwest cities, but you can’t find a good job.
Overly restricting zoning is also a major problem in cities like Seattle, that are experiencing growth in demand. The housing supply simply can’t keep up, and zoning is the biggest reason.
Finally, poor infrastructure makes things worse. Even if you allowed more housing closer to the central city, you would expect housing to be cheaper a little bit outside it. Even if affordable townhouses dominated the landscape in Seattle, it doesn’t mean that folks could get around easily.
These factors combine to make life harder for lots of people, and make solutions more difficult. Maple Leaf, for example, doesn’t have the density to justify a light rail station, let alone a separate line.
What is different about Seattle now is that it is is suffering most from regional disparity in jobs and overly restrictive zoning. The shredding of the safety net has been a slow, ongoing problem for the last 48 years. But the very high rents that effect people with jobs and with a little in the bank is a relatively new phenomenon. We really can’t do much at the local level to change the jobs situation (nor do we really want to) but we can change the zoning.
I also think it is striking that Tokyo manages to do well on most of these fronts. Their only weakness is that regional demand is sending people to Tokyo. So that city does get a bigger share of the demand for new housing. But unlike Seattle, it is already big, and unlike Seattle, Tokyo manages to do everything else really well.
They have a better safety net, and are much better than the U. S. on disparity of income measurements (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality).
But it is in infrastructure and zoning that they do especially well. Being a big city, Tokyo has a very good subway system, that lets you get just about anywhere from anywhere. But you don’t have to move to the boonies, and take a commuter train for an hour to get an affordable place to live. As this article points out (http://www.sightline.org/2017/09/21/yes-you-can-build-your-way-to-affordable-housing/) average prices are fairly low in parts of Tokyo that are well within the city. It isn’t just micro-apartments in the bustling central city, either. Check out this video of how a typical house in Tokyo costs 300 grand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGbC5j4pG9w&feature=youtu.be. That is a house that is basically as far away from downtown as Northgate is. This is in Tokyo a city of roughly 30 million people. Here is a tour of a brand new house that costs a bit more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jv6SbFlZMbU. That is 400 grand for a four bedroom house with a dining room, living room and garage.
In contrast, you won’t find any house in Seattle for under 300 grand right now. Not a townhouse, or detached house (like this one) — nothing. For 400 grand you can find houses (mostly in White Center) but you would be hard pressed to find anything that nice (brand new, four bedroom) for that kind of price without going well outside the city. In fact, I couldn’t find any new construction east of Puget Sound for less than $450,000. That in itself is rather striking — in the midst of a huge housing shortage, no one is building new houses in the Seattle area and selling them for less than $450,000.
But the bigger point is that Tokyo — freaking Tokyo! — has more affordable houses, let alone apartments. It should be obvious that when it comes to addressing housing affordability, we are just doing it wrong. Like the 1970s when the U. S. was building big, unreliable cars, the Japanese are just doing it better.
It’s no surprise that Japan is doing it better. Japan doesn’t have single-family zoning or any of the other similar crap, because *single-family zoning was an act of racism*, and Japan doesn’t have the same sort of anti-black racism we have here. (They have xenophobia, but since foreigners have great difficulty moving to Japan at all, there’s no attempt to keep them out of particular neighborhoods.)
And Japan’s population is decreasing, which means that future generations will have all this housing already built and more space per person, as Seattle did in the 1970s to 90s.
I just realized the housing debate is starting from the wrong point. The issue is the need to house X number of people so that nobody is displaced or cost-burdened, and how will we do that? There has been no comprehensive study of the number, but we know that six thousand people show up when a new affordable apartment building appears, and Seattle’s affordable-housing waiting list has 4-5000 people on it, and the number of homeless in the county is over 4000, and the number of people who don’t qualify for subsidized housing but still don’t make three times a $1500+ rent must be in the tens of thousands. So all these strategies that gain a hundred units, a thousand units, ten thousand units, are just the tip of the iceberg. I suggest we need 50,000 units in the next ten years as a starting point. NIMBYs get away with turning away upzones because there’s no realistic estimate of how many people are being harmed by it, and many of them aren’t being counted by the numbers that do go around. It may be more effective to argue to anti-upzoners that they’re not just displacing a vague number of people, but that 50,000 people are being turned away from Seattle because of them.
Honestly, Seattle has accommodated lots of new housing units. The current population increase of 17,000 in one year is a testament to that. The problem is that job growth is occurring at a higher number in this current economic cycle.
I do think that a better process to encourage more density outside of the City of Seattle is needed. More than half of all new Link light rail station are committed to be in locations outside of the city limits. That’s on top of the BRT, Express and Sounder services. Except for Bellevue, most suburbs are only taking baby steps to denser neighborhoods — a few blocks of TOD at most and almost nothing over 100 feet tall. If you look at last year’s city population estimates growth in King County but outside Seattle or Bellevue, it’s very slight.
It’s too bad that the region has yet to require local cities to commit to more housing and jobs around new suburban Link stations beyond lofty policy promises. Seattle is sincerely trying; most other cities aren’t even doing that beyond some token projects.
I disagree completely. Sure, Seattle has grown at a very fast clip, but apartments are still very expensive, and the cost of houses are going up even faster. And sure, it would be great if the suburbs also grew at a more reasonable pace, but that really isn’t where people want to live. People aren’t paying *more* to rent or buy a place in Seattle, because places in the suburbs aren’t growing fast enough. Quite the opposite. People aren’t adding more places in the suburbs because more people want to live in Seattle.
Seattle just isn’t growing fast enough. 50,000 in the next ten years sounds great. We could get roughly that if we simply allowed ADUs. If we managed to liberalize the rules, and get the same sort of ratio as Vancouver, we would reach that milestone. Of course there would be more apartments built along the way, especially in areas that are really underdeveloped. There are places in Lake City that have sat still, waiting for governmental approval, while others have decided to keep selling cars, instead of suffering the same fate.
Which means we really need to change the rules everywhere, and we could get way more than what Mike (and everyone wants):
1) Allow more subdivisions inside the city.
2) Allow more townhouses in various parts of the city.
3) Liberalize the ADU laws.
4) Get rid of the parking requirement (everywhere).
5) Ease up on the review process.
Right now folks are ignoring much of the city, where people could care less about losing the “classic craftsmen”. In other words, much of the city already is “the suburbs”. I live in Seattle proper, but don’t have sidewalks, and see plenty of houses that sit on huge lots. It is the suburbs, for all intents and purposes. When they sell, they bulldoze the house (goodbye cute little bungalow) and put up as many McMansions as they can. Not because there is a view, or anything special, but because they might as well. They can’t put up townhouses, or apartments, so they might as well build as big as possible, since the cost of construction is relatively small right now. It really doesn’t cost much more to build a big house versus a small one. Each lot is gigantic (7200 square feet) so you might as well fill it.
Yet this is not what the neighbors want. Folks would be just fine with building row houses there. But those aren’t allowed, nor are apartments. Heck, even just a basement apartment requires so much paperwork and extra, unneeded construction that most people don’t bother.
Yes, Seattle is growing. But *most* of the city is not. As the recent Seattle Times article pointed out, *most* of the city is zoned single family, and that part is not growing. Before we talk about more apartments in Auburn, let’s see if we can get *most* of Seattle to grow.
“Except for Bellevue, most suburbs are only taking baby steps to denser neighborhoods”
I actually think most cities with HCT node are pretty aggressive with zoning. The problem is not that many suburbs have Link stations, yet. I think once stations actually open in Shoreline, Redmond, Lynwood, Kent, etc., growth should perk up. Development is places like Lynnwood and Issaquah are well below zoned capacity – in other words, zoning is not the limiting factor.
I don’t think this has to be an either/or argument. You can increase central density/access while growing employment/commerce at transit hubs. The Seattle Times spoke of 30 story mixed use towers sprouting up around every transit station in the Vancouver metro.
I doubt that would be embraced here, but there must be some middle ground where we grow areas near link stations not just in terms of housing, but also in terms of regional job centers. You’d think Northgate, Tukwilla and maybe even places like Hillman could grow into regional employment centers the same way the jobs have migrated into SLU and Fremont over the last decade. Heck, even central Capitol Hill could use some increased job growth to better balance out its residential and restaurant density.
You want a great, dense urban center, but you also want to maximize your ROI at your pricey new transit hubs. Having more jobs in the walk-shed of each station really helps these investments pay off and leads to better utilization of each station.
“Honestly, Seattle has accommodated lots of new housing units.”
The issue is not the absolute number of housing units but its relative change compared to the population. Seattle is not building enough units for the number of jobs that are opening, or enough to prevent displacement. (We also have a limited time before climate change and world resource depletion catches up with us and construction becomes impossible.)
“I do think that a better process to encourage more density outside of the City of Seattle is needed.”
We Seattlites can’t control what other cities do. If we say, “They should build it” and they don’t, then we’re stuck with the status quo, which will have deteriorated even worse.
“I actually think most cities with HCT node are pretty aggressive with zoning.”
Not at all. Bellevue and Lynnwood have found decaying commercial/industrial areas that they’re willing to zone for midrises, but overall they’re even further behind in serving their citizens at all income levels than Seattle is, they have an even higher percentage of single-family-only land, and they’re even more resistent to asking their single-family areas to be part of the solution. There’s no HALA in the suburbs. Kent has an impressive mixed-use zone on 99 and has upzoned part of downtown, but it conspicuously has done nothing on East Hill where most people live and where housing is and could be more affordable and the neighborhood more walkable.
“You want a great, dense urban center, but you also want to maximize your ROI at your pricey new transit hubs.”
Link will never have a significant percent of the population within walking distance of it, because there’s so little of it compared to the population, and many of the stations’ walksheds are hampered by freeways, 8-story maximums that taper down to two-story in four blocks, etc. So the future will mostly be along RapidRide lines. We need to focus on housing density and mixed-use density there, where there can be much more housing near stations.
Agaon, rents were going up 5% even before the crash, while inflation and cost-of-living increases were 2% or less. So the problem is bigger than just since 2011. But before it was only affecting people who couldn’t afford $600 rent, so “them”. Now it’s affecting people who can’t afford $1000 or $1500 rent, which is a lot of the middle class, so “us”. That makes the political reaction bigger but the problem actually started around 2003.
Another indication: Section 8, the federal tent-subsidy program, pays the rent gap between your income and the price, and extra if you have high medical expenses as many elderly people do. But it will pay only up to a certain rent level, and many King County units are above that level, so either you have to convince the landlord to accept the Section 8 maximum of you don’t get the unit. So from the federal government’s perspective, King County’s rents have risen beyond reasonable and it won’t pay more just to line the landlord’s pockets and serve fewer people. That’s another canary in the coal mine.
That why I listed the population figures:
People talk about Seattle’s prices going up like we are victims of some sort of external forces outside our control, when the opposite is actually the case.
We pretty much knew what the goal posts were for new residential growth and just failed to step up and allow for enough new housing units. And we have pretty good projections of similar growth moving forward over the next 15 years. So not only do we need catch up, we need to accelerate housing growth to keep from falling behind. It’s not a problem of lack of options, its simply lack of will by existing homeowners to make compromises moving forward.
Like I said, existing homeowners put up road blocks to growth to protect what they have… and then ironically are the ones who are ultimately displaced by the higher wage earners that move in to their neighborhoods. They block growth, then complain about their increasing real estate taxes and then either they or their children end up being out-competed when its time for a new purchase.
Mike: in tiny Ithaca, NY, our mayor calculated that to keep up with population growth since 1950, Ithaca should have added *50,000* more bedrooms than it actually did. He’s trying to catch up, but it’s hard.
The thing is, Seattle has grown by a lot more in absolute numbers than tiny Ithaca, NY. You probably need to have more like *200,000* more bedrooms just to keep up with population growth.
Nathanael, looks like there are two of us on this thread in Ithaca – small world. There are some legitimate similarities with Ithaca and Seattle – geographic / social / political constraints limiting growth outside the cities and creating bottlenecks for traffic (which can be a really good thing to encourage transit use and keep sprawl down a bit, assuming good transit and land-use planning), historically low infill housing in the older areas, a relatively robust and higher-paying job base (tech in Seattle, CU in Ithaca) that effectively creates divergent pay structures.
Why aren’t urbanists using the Seattle initiative process to help out? As long as ballot language is simple, people are likely to support logical proposals even with huge-money push-back (in other words, we should be making positive incremental steps this way, not attempt a major zoning overhaul). I would think successful proposals would look like
-“Within 3/4 mile of all Link stations, remove the option of single family zoning and replace with Residential Small Lot zoning.”
-“Allow two and three unit condominiums that conform to existing building volume allowances within single family home zones.”
-“Replace existing single family zones city-wide (SF-5000, SF-7200, and SF-9600) with SF-3000”
-“Allow duplexes and up to 900sf ground-floor retail on corner lots in all areas walkable to frequent transit”
I agree with all of these measures. I’m curious what people think the expected effectiveness of these would be if put in effect tomorrow. Would it reverse the current (non)affordability trends and over what time period?
I think the combination of Seattle/King red tape/regulations and the high cost of doing business (hard and soft construction costs) would make progress very slow. There needs to be incentives in place to get the ball moving.
There are a lot of empty-nesters/seniors living in SFH who have lots of equity but not much liquid assets. There should be programs that help people turn their residences into multi-family housing (ADU’s or condo conversion.) But right now, I doubt many of these people have the resources and wherewithal to even figure out whether they have protected trees and the cost of removal let alone the cost of a architectural appraisal.
IMO the people with a seat at the table are developers, SFH NIMBY’s and city council political ideologues. And there is only so much progress that can be made when negotiations only involve these groups.
I’ll take a stab at an “order of magnitude” affect for various “single adjustment” zoning changes by making broad (but, I think, fair) assumptions and guesses. Other people may be able to add some areas of expertise. The proposal to relax rules on ADUs and DADUs provides us with some starting numbers. Over 10 years, we expect 1890 new units with the current rules (which require large lots, off-street parking, and owners living on-site). By relaxing those rules and streamlining the review process, we expect 3330 units over 10 years. Because ADUs have been allowed for a long enough period that there isn’t the sort of pent-up demand you’d get with a brand-new housing option, I think some of the proposals I detail below that are materially different from an ADU would result in a greater number of units.
7000 units in 10 years:
1) “Allow up to three-unit condominiums that conform to existing building volume allowances within single family home zones.” –> These have a chance to be a “missing middle” ownership opportunity for Seattleites who are fairly well-off but currently excluded from Seattle home-ownership. This is a very different product from ADUs because developers would be willing to jump in and start building right away; it is a very different product from apartments because the units would be sold individually and the occupant could own it. Because this is city-wide, I think a lot of new units would come on-board, where each tear-down house is replaced with 3 units. This is pretty arbitrary, but the total number of (D)ADUs the city is aiming for after 10 years will be >5000, and the total number of existing “plexes” (ex: duplex) units is about 7000 (source: sightline.org); I have no reason to believe a new, more developer-friendly, option wouldn’t result in at least as many units as the greater of the two. If developers and home-buyers really get excited about it, it could be a lot more.
2000 units in 10 years:
2) “Replace existing single family zones city-wide (SF-5000, SF-7200, and SF-9600) with SF-3000” –> This one is tough without doing a bunch of research, because most homes in these zones already have lot sizes that are under 6000sf (which means they wouldn’t be able to be split into two lots). If you look north to Victory Heights neighborhood, as just one example, the very large original lots have been split, and pretty much every lot has an additional house on it by now — most seem to have been built in the ’60s. Given the huge number of large-lot homes in Seattle, the number might be a lot greater than the 2000/10yrs estimate. Here, my number is both arbitrary and conservative.
1000 new units in 10 years:
3) “Within 3/4 mile of all Link stations, remove the option of single family zoning and replace with Residential Small Lot zoning” –> This has an opportunity to transform specific neighborhoods because there will be high demand for living within walking distance of link lines. Because it covers limited swaths of the city, I’m guessing it will result in only 1000 new units over 10 years. But, this is the best kind of added density because these folks won’t need cars. Additionally, as link expands, this rule will have exponential effects.
750 new units in 10 years
4) “Allow duplexes/triplexes and up to 900sf ground-floor retail on corner lots in all areas walkable to frequent transit” –> I think it would take quite a long time for most corner lots to transition from an existing home to a mixed development. Because here we’re limited to just corner lots in just transit-rich areas, there are less potential sites than a city-wide change, but they will be built in pedestrian thoroughfares first (where retail will pencil out), so they will tend to be built as high-value density where residents won’t need cars. If these corner developments catch on, though, there is potential for thousands of units.
Would these changes make a difference? Last year and this year we have (and will have) built 12,000 new residential units per year. There are differing theories, but the one that seems most credible is that this has sort of put a stop to the crazy rapidly increasing rents in Seattle. Going forward, we will probably need 10,000 new units annually while we continue to boom, and 5000 per year afterwards…more to actually bring rents down. So the ~11,000 units over 10 years that the four changes above might make are significant on the margins (which still do matter greatly for rental prices!), but not game-changing. Where they might really make a difference is in allowing home-ownership to people who can’t get in the market — almost all of the new homes being built now are apartments for rent, plus just a handful a $1M highrise condos.
And finally, relaxing zoning in these ways means more potential for the housing stock to react to price pressures and the changing preferences of people living in the city: yea, perhaps 11,000 additional units in 10 years is likely if we make the 4 changes above, but many many times more than that is made *possible* in the event that people keep moving here (or people really embrace the idea of 3-unit condos or living above a corner-market).
Thanks for the numbers and the estimate.
Gwed, thanks for the detailed reply.
I look at the divided SFH I live in that can house 2 small families (SFH where with 800 sqfr 2B/1B ADU and 1250 sqft 2B/2BA primary and wonder how many homeowners are open to this route.
As it is currently our owner is actually non-compliant by renting out both units. The owner spent a lot on the conversion, and yet the home value went down because any potential buy would have to either be wanting to be a on sight landlord or pay to convert it back to a SFH (since currently homes with ADU’s can’t have both units rented out, one unit must be owner occupied.)
One of the 3 proposed new ADU proposals will allow non-owner occupancy, which I think would really help get more people on board. But its still a lot of work and a big investment by any homeowner. So not the easiest option for empty nest seniors hoping to retire in place unless they get a lot of assistance. You really need to get either developers or the city itself (through aiding homeowners) to get the level of adoption we see in places like Vancouver.
But honestly, Seattle needs more. It needs to find a way to allow higher density in SFH areas. Row-homes or attached homes would conform with neighborhood scale, and offer less expensive construction options and allow for more density on a residential scale. A lot of the premier neighborhoods in legacy cities like DC, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago and Toronto are row-home neighborhoods. It’s the right way to have an intermediate between mid-rise and traditional SFH. And it is not all that different than the current practice of tear-down and lot subdivision into a small cluster of townhouses.
Evidence from Ithaca, NY is the following.
If the Mayor is elected on a “build more apartments — really, build more apartments” agenda and has a large majority and a mandate, and makes the city council back him, you can get a hell of a lot of projects built very quickly. It’ll probably still take 10 years to catch up with population growth.
I don’t think a ballot initiative would be as effective as a mayor-advocate, however. Ithaca’s Mayor, Svante Myrick, started this campaign when he couldn’t afford an efficiency apartment without a roommate — even on the *mayor’s salary*. Bit of a clue there.
I will note that Ithaca already had substantial flexibility on converting houses into apartments, offices, and back again. The City just didn’t authorize any apartment buildng construction for decades.
“3-unit condos” sounds like they would be very similar to existing townhouses, and would get the same kind of neighborhood reaction. Is the difference that condo placement would be more flexible; i.e., they could be stacked rather than vertically self-contained, and it would be airspace ownership (the airspace within the unit and a share of the building/land) rather than fee-simple ownership (the unit and land under it)? These sound like they would make a difference to the buyers but not much to the buyers, since a 3-unit condo would have a similar size and footprint to three townhouses. So is the advantage that they give developers more flexibility in the footprint (and conversely they give buyers less ownership rights and flexibility)?
They would be a bit different from current townhomes..the building would have to conform to existing SF volume requirements and setbacks (essentially, it would need to look like a large house — four-square, queen anne, or more likely, modern…but whatever, as long as it conforms — only with three front doors), so it wouldn’t look like the townhomes, which have their own setback, facade, volume, and orientation requirements. I’m envisioning a lot of large single family homes (or small ones with major additions) being converted into 3 units. We have a lot of grandfathered duplexes and triplexes in the city that are like this, but the difference here is that the tenant would instead be an owner.
Is there a precedent for subdividing existing houses into condos? it sounds risky for the buyer: if the developer doesn’t think if everything a self-contained condo would need and the buyer doesn’t notice it before the sale, they’ll be SOL. front doors or access to an interior door are obvious and won’t be forgotten, but other things might. Then the layout of the existing house and wall and windows and where heavy things can be located — lots if details to keep track of.
3-unit condo = triplex?
The biggest difference is that a townhome cluster is much more expensive because it requires tear-down and new construction. Our current 2000 sqft home was subdivided. Add an addition and it would fit 3 families and the total cost of construction would be a fraction of tearing down and building 3 new townhomes.
The issue is regulation. Currently you can only have 1 ADU and the home must be owner occupied. Even under the best current proposal (http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2018/05/capitol-hill-community-post-seattle-evaluates-options-to-encourage-backyard-cottages-in-law-apartments/ ) option 2 allows 3 total units and removes the owner occupancy requirement… but we are still only talking rental units and the homeowner must take on this big project. Building an addition and subdividing is more likely a project to be taken on by a developer or flipper and not an easy task for an empty nest senior on a fixed income.
I think what Gwed is suggesting goes the next step and allows developers to buy an existing SFH, upgrade it into 3 units and sell each unit as a condo. This additional layer of opening this up to condo developers is the key. This would potentially bring a lot of investors and professionals who would be willing to take on these big projects. And it creates a whole new class of condo that have lower cost that can maybe bring the 400K unit back to the marker.
These 400K buyers have been forced into the rental market, which has a cascading effect that leads to displacement and homelessness. You give 25,000 buyers a 400K condo option (or new rental options) in prime neighborhoods and all of the sudden the rental market is completely disrupted in a good way.
On the flip side, this could lead to a buying frenzy of SFH’s by flippers/developers… creating even more upward price pressure in desirable neighborhoods, and lead to even less seniors or lower income residents with homes to be able to remain/retire in place.
That is why I’d like to see a major program where the city partners with homeowners to convert their SFH into a conforming duplex or triplex. Maybe have the city provide funding/support/expertise and in exchange the city gets paid back either by a portion of the rental income (by way of a property tax surcharge) or with a lump sum if the triplex is sold as condos (in the form of a surcharge excise tax.) This type of scheme would encourage density, support existing homeowners, create new housing options that ultimately help the rental market and indirectly decrease homelessness… and the city would likely come out with a nice profit in the short terms and a long term profit down the road through increased real estate taxes (3 X 4K instead of 1 X 8 K.)
Back in the bad old days in New York rent strikes were used when a landlord wasn’t maintaining his property, was negligent. They were backed up by pro-tenant laws, which were based on the assumption that many tenants would stay in place for decades, if not for a lifetime. The problem is that most Americans’ real “savings account” is their house, so they’re pushed into homeownership–like it or not.
I’ve been a big proponent of “supply increases are good” but now I’m starting to get wobbly. When you get to a situation like San Francisco’s, every location becomes a “good” location, including the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. So new housing becomes a signal for higher rents pretty much anywhere.
Only a vast excess of new housing can drive down or even stabilize rents. Basically, bankers and developers have to be so over-optimistic that they build a big overhang of housing. To my knowledge, the only 21st Century American city where this has happened is the other Washington.
Even with a lot of new market rate housing, there still needs to be social, cost-limited housing. That’s another big feature of the Vancouver model Barring economic catastrophe, there’s no reasonable chance of market rate housing driving down rents to a level poor people can afford. It just makes renting possible for the (upper) middle class. And you want to insert market rate units at the cheapest possible level–so they’ll free up cheap units below them. Microunits could help with this.
“Only a vast excess of new housing can drive down or even stabilize rents. Basically, bankers and developers have to be so over-optimistic that they build a big overhang of housing.”
What other choice do we have? $2000 (Seattle) to $4000 (San Francisco) rents is not sustainable given the current inflation/wages/price profile in the rest of the economy. We can’t keep a 4000+ and climing homeless population forever, or denying working-class and middle-class people a basic apartment to live in. Yes, we should vastly expand public/subsidized housing for those who can’t afford even stabilized/rolled-back rents, but if we don’t expand it even further to subsidized housing for the 90%, then we need to tame rent increases in the market-rate area. The only two feasable alternatives that have been proposed are infill housing in Seattle and the inner suburbs, or exurban sprawl to all of Western and Central Washington and the loss of farmland and forests.
“Only a vast excess of new housing can drive down or even stabilize rents. ”
This is correct. San Francisco is so bad off that the only solution is to eliminate maximum limits on height, number of units, FAR, etc. for the entire city simultaneously. There will be a megaboom in housing and it’ll drive down rents. But it’s gotten so bad they basically need to wipe out most of the zoning code to fix it.
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