Four Seasons under construction. (Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)])

Katherine Khashimova Long recently published a fine piece of reporting ($) on how many “luxury” condos have unclear ownership, potentially mere financial assets that are left “empty as the city grows less affordable for its middle- and lower-class residents.”

That may very well be the outcome thanks to our many arbitrary restrictions on building enough housing supply to meet demand. But in a more-forward thinking policy environment, the desire of the world’s super-wealthy to park their cash in Seattle would be a huge opportunity.

In such an environment, there would be more projects to meet this demand, which would generate construction jobs, funds for affordable housing, and a myriad of other tax revenues. More importantly, these projects would provide a stream of property tax revenue indefinitely while generating approximately zero demand for public services.

Moreover, as these units can’t leave Seattle and are likely to receive maintenance, they are likely to contribute in a small way to dampening future housing crises. At least some are likely to eventually be owner-occupied or leased. If there is another spike in housing demand, the rocketing asset value is a strong incentive to sell, providing a ready reserve of housing stock that doesn’t require any construction or permitting delays to come on the market.

In the real world, these projects consume some of the tiny allotment of land allowed to absorb population growth, so that we can preserve endless single-family monotony. We wring our hands on extending regressive taxes to address social problems, while leaving $100 bills on the sidewalk.

52 Replies to “Vacant luxury condos are only a problem if you have crappy zoning”

  1. One of the lessons to be learned from the last election is that, if you want Seattle to have more political power in regional and statewide elections, it has to upzone. As long as the state’s population is dominated by sprawl, the state’s politics is going to be dominated by people living in that sprawl.

    If we ever want to get projects like Ballard->UW rail built, Seattle needs more political power, and it won’t get that power without getting more voters. In fact, with the surrounding sprawl constantly expanding, the city must continue to upzone, just to keep whatever political power it currently has. Otherwise, its percentage of the state’s population – and its influence – will gradually decline to irrelevance.

    1. I just checked updated numbers of I-976. The 10 point lead has shrunk to a 5 point lead, and it’s now losing by a whopping 18 points in King County. Less NIMBYism in Seattle 5, 10, and 15 years ago would have meant more voters who get value out of transit, and fewer that don’t. The current deficit of about 100,000 votes is about 1/7 the Seattle population, so a bit more infill see development might have been enough to get the no campaign over the finish line.

      By not upzoning, we cede long term political power to the surrounding sprawl, and shoot ourselves in the foot when the next transit funding measure or Eyman initiative reaches the ballot. Even for local races, it matters in choosing our mayor and city council. Someone like Alex Pederson would not be able to win in a district 4 with more high rises and less single family homes.

  2. In the current boom construction market the supply of construction workers is very tight, so the cost of construction labor is very high. The idea of building more luxury condos in this market just to attract foreign investment dollars would only contribute to making the construction affordable housing more expensive.

    But, if the economy does fall into another recession, the idea of building more luxury housing while an affordable housing crisis continues would seem obscene. Particularly if the next recession is again caused by unrestricted housing speculation.

    The idea that unoccupied luxury condos come at little cost to the public also should be examined more closely. For every luxury condo that was built, how many affordable units were left unbuilt?

    STB orthodoxy has long held that we don’t need to worry about all the high-priced construction in Seattle because it would somehow create more affordable housing for the masses. But let’s be real–the only way to create more affordable housing is to build housing that actually IS affordable. Not more luxury condos for the rich.

    1. “STB orthodoxy has long held that we don’t need to worry about all the high-priced construction in Seattle because it would somehow create more affordable housing for the masses.”

      It only works if you build enough housing to bring the vacancy rate up to 5-10% persistently. Then landlords won’t be able to increase rents because renters will go elsewhere. There’s a backlog of 150,000 units in the low-income, workforce, and middle-income price points. When an average unit takes six weeks to rent, prices remain stable. When it takes two days or an hour to rent, landlords bit up the price, desperate tenants accept it, and everyone below the top 20% is shut out. The city has fanfares about a 200-unit project or plans to build 10,000 affordable units in ten years, but that’s just a tiny drop in the bucket. If there weren’t scarcity, people wouldn’t be displaced from Seattle to south King County and Pierce County, but it keeps becoming a bigger problem, and now south King and Pierce are starting to become unaffordable because their zoning is much worse than Seattle.

    2. “But let’s be real–the only way to create more affordable housing is to build housing that actually IS affordable. Not more luxury condos for the rich.”

      Much of our most affordable housing started out as housing for the well-to-do. Today’s luxury high-rises are the next generation’s hand-me-down affordable housing.

      I’m not arguing against building affordable housing as such. I’m arguing for doing both.

      The truly abominable luxury housing that should not be allowed is new single-family mansionettes, still being built in Seattle.

      1. Go to any neighborhood in Seattle and you w.ill find on most blocks at least one replacement or major expansion project underway. The cottages aren’t being amplified by ADU’s; they’re going the way of the Dodo, but for the same number of residents.

        The “missing middle” was last seen on the lam in Argentina.

      2. “Much of our most affordable housing started out as housing for the well-to-do.”

        That only happened because Seattle’s population in the 1960s and 70s fell from 550,000 to 412,000 and many of the wealthier people moved to the suburbs. That won’t happen again. If it remains like it is for decades, then the current high-end apartments will get slightly less expensive when they’re no longer the newest but they won’t drop to levels average people can afford. Instead it will get worse and worse until we eventually reach San Francisco’s $4000 rents and million-dollar minimum houses.

    3. If I were looking for a NIMBY argument to stop high-rise construction from an angle that doesn’t sound self-serving or anti-renter, I’d start with concern trolling the high emissions of cement and concrete. I’d then go to city council and ask for a requirement that all new buildings built with concrete be limited to using carbon-negative (CO2-infused) concrete. The urbanists might even buy off on such a requirement.

      1. The high emissions cost of concrete is hardly concern trolling. 10% of all CO2 emissions in Seattle come from the Ash Grove cement plant in SODO. You can’t build your way out of that problem.

      2. I don’t know; can you build your way out of that problem? Over twenty or forty years, what emits more carbon: a concrete condo in the central city and a car-free household, or a wood-frame house in the suburbs and a two-car household?

        I have no idea, but I know you need to consider both the numbers.

    4. For every luxury condo that was built, how many affordable units were left unbuilt?

      Um, “Approximately zero?” Affordable housing is not going to be builtin Belltown, nor is it going to be built by the same developers.

      1. “Affordable housing is not going to be builtin Belltown”

        So build it in Greenwood or Lake City or Crown Hill. Anywhere with walkable businesses and frequent transit is acceptable.

      2. Mike, of course. Land is the primary cost in urban housing, so of course most of the affordable houding will be built elsewhere. Thst was the point of the dtstement about “Belltown”. Those will be high-end because “location, location, location”.

  3. The penthouse units in downtown condos are a distraction. They’re irrelevant to normal people, so it doesn’t matter whether they’re occupied or not. What matters is the units in the bottom half. Absentee investors aren’t buying ordinary condos, they’re buying penthouse- or near-penthouse ones, and those are only 1% of a building’s units. The scarcity is happening in the middle third and lower third of the units, where high-paid workers are competing with middle-paid workers for the same units.

    1. I can assure you, very few middle paid workers are “competing” for $500K condos on the lower floors of those builds. The assumption that a portion of high end builds could be relevant for middle income people is a bit out of touch. Even in apartments with the smaller affordable units in the building, middle paid workers are often excluded by the income limits! No the middle paid workers are going to Everett, Marysville, Puyallup, Tacoma ect because those are the only places with sub $300K *anything*. And $300K is already a stretch that is only made possible by the Fed keeping rock bottom interest rates and banks currently being in the mood to lend. Of course, there is not much competition from high paid workers for the sub $300k houses there because it is a different market with distinct real estate listing and pricing trends, even flippers and investors are wary as nobody wants to buy at a peak.
      -B

      1. No the middle paid workers are going to Everett, Marysville, Puyallup, Tacoma etc because those are the only places with sub $300K *anything*

        That’s a bit of a stretch (at least according to a quick check on Redfin) but that misses the point. Mike and Martin’s point is that the main reason those condos on the lower floors are so too expensive is because all housing in Seattle is too expensive. The main reason all housing is too expensive is because of zoning. Not construction costs. Not rich people buying up all the land. Zoning.

        There are other contributing factors (including disparity of income and construction costs). But when most of the residential land *in the city* is zoned single family — much of it with huge lots — and every suburb is zoned similarly, if not more restrictive — I think the problem is zoning.

        We need more row houses, more small lots houses, more ADUs, and more apartments. We need that not only within Seattle and Bellevue, but in surrounding suburbs as well. If that were to happen, it is quite likely those condos in Belltown would drop in price. Even if they don’t, you would be able to buy a place somewhere else for a lot less money.

    2. “very few middle paid workers are “competing” for $500K condos on the lower floors of those builds.”

      That’s the point! Why are the units $500K? Why aren’t they $100K or $200K? The most destructive part of the scarcity is that once prices go up, they’re sticky on the way down because nobody wants to take a loss. We should have nipped the problem in the bud when prices first started rising in 2003. I agree that average people can’t afford even the smallest condo in the recent downtown buildings, but I was making a more relative point, and about the entire housing market both owned and rental. There is overlap between the low-end condo buyers downtown, the condo buyers in the neighborhoods, and the renters in the neighborhoods.

      1. They aren’t $100K because Seattle has become one of the world’s premier cities. Blame Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Oh, and Bill Gates, Bill Boeing and Jeff Bezos had bit parts as well.

        There are twenty people around the world who would LOVE to live in Seattle for every one who does. Demand >>>>>>>>> Supply.

      2. @Tom — Oh please. Seattle is not a premier city, just because you live here (or close to here, or wherever you live). It is a second tier city at best. Nothing happened culturally, geographically, or architecturally over the last twenty years to explain the huge increase in housing costs. The rest of the world didn’t just “discover” Seattle.

        Nope. It is far more simple. Lots of people started working here, and we have an extremely restrictive zoning system. Amazon (and similar businesses) have increased employment dramatically, and housing hasn’t kept up. It has happened on the East Side as well, with Microsoft (and other businesses) overwhelming the existing (and newly constructed) housing of an area that few would consider “premier”.

        The problem is that we adopted an approach that might have worked out OK if we had very slow employment growth, but it leads to very high housing costs (and a fairly boring city, to boot). We draw little circles around the city — often surrounding highways, or otherwise ugly parts of town — and basically tell developers to build there (and only there). We call those areas “urban villages”, while in other parts of the world, they call it the grand bargain. This is an approach that does *not* lead to low housing prices. What does lead to low housing prices — and beautiful cities — is to build practically *everywhere*. No, that doesn’t mean destroying an historic, or simply very nice looking old structure (as we do) . It means replacing that old bungalow in Magnolia, West Seattle, Rainier Valley (and the 2/3 of this city that currently doesn’t allow it) with multiple houses on a tiny lot, or something that holds more than one family. This is what the premier city in the world (Tokyo) does, and they have housing costs that would blow the mind of someone looking for a place to rent or own in Seattle. 300 grand for a brand new townhouse in Lake City — not on a busy street — with brand new appliances and toilets that wash your ass? Incredible here, yet common there. Because they allow it.

      3. Ross, isn’t the Original Post about empty “luxury condos”? Q.E.D.

        I don’t say that flippantly. Is Seattle Vancouver? No, not yet, but mostly because Vancouver is part of The Commonwealth, as is Hong Kong. Therefore wealthy Hong Kongers see it as a bolt hole in case Emperor Xi The First goes postal.

        Is it Hong Kong itself or London or New York or Sydney or Paris or Shanghai? No. So I guess it’s still at least to some degree “second tier”. But it’s moving up the rankings faster than any other Amrtican city.

        And my basic assertion that at least twenty times as many people who live in the City now would like to do so is “conservative”.

        You can’t fix that by building back-yard cottages. The lid needs to be ripped off the City and everywhere that has reliable transit should be allowed at least twenty stories especially the crests of the north-south ridges. What an opportunity for thousands of new view properties!

        They make it work all over southwest BC while preserving sight lines and leaving room at the street level for human-scale activities. They do it by making tall but relatively thin residential structures and checker-boarding them irregularly.

        Seattle can do the same if it only will.

      4. By the way I don’t disagree that replacing cottages on big lots with compact multi-unit structures is a great idea. It’s just that that is happening almost nowhere, even when allowed.

        What is happening is teardowns with a three-times-as-large single-family structure replacing the cottage. That’s because that is a VERY good investment for the tearer-down so banks bend over backwards to fund them. It’s easy to find a competent contractor who will assist the owner in being his or her own “general”.

        The multi-family projects, however, require professionals at every level. And it’s easy for a greenhorn to get in over his or her head. But if they are all done by professional developers, the Lefties go all “Shame on those greedy developers!!!”

        Not an easy path to greater useful density, though it would be GREAT.

      5. I would say the “Shame on those greedy developers” isn’t a refrain from ‘Lefties’.

        I’ve heard it more from the “Don’t mess with the character of our neighborhood” crowd.

        It’s more of a suburban NIMBY mentality, I’ve found over the years.

      6. “By the way I don’t disagree that replacing cottages on big lots with compact multi-unit structures is a great idea. It’s just that that is happening almost nowhere, even when allowed.”

        Come to Capitol Hill, Look at Rainier Valley.

        “What is happening is teardowns with a three-times-as-large single-family structure replacing the cottage.”

        That is largely a phenomenon of single-family zoning, or locations that are several blocks away from multfamily areas.

        “That’s because that is a VERY good investment for the tearer-down so banks bend over backwards to fund them.”

        Townhouses or small condos are an even better investment. You can only get so much out of one buyer, but you can get more out of three or eight buyers.

        “The multi-family projects, however, require professionals at every level.”

        What about those 4-8 unit apartments with outdoor walkways or courtyards in the 1950s and 60s? Who built those? My first apartment was owned by two men in their 50s who were their own construction company and had bought a handful of houses and apartments one by one. Mom and pop can turn into one of those or hire one of those.

        There’s also a problem with zoning that’s only one story higher than the existing buildings. The difference between that and the existing buildings is not enough to incentivize replacement. That happened in many lowrise areas in Seattle that remained single-family for decades and some were later downzoned to match their current use.

        We need to expand urban villages horizontally; then multifamily housing will fill in the areas adjacent to existing ones, and those are the locations witi the best walkability and transit. Apartments may not occur several blocks away from it, like in Magnolia or Seward Park or parts of northeast Seattle, but those are the least critical areas. Townhouses will occur, at least a few of them, because they’re happening now where allowed.

      7. @Tom — Funny you should mention Vancouver. Not too long ago, they had very affordable rents. One of the main reasons given was their liberal approach to ADU laws (https://www.sightline.org/2016/02/17/why-vancouver-trounces-the-rest-of-cascadia-in-building-adus/). Of course they failed to take the next step and deal with the big increase in demand (after Hong Kong went back to the Chinese). Instead of allowing subdivisions and small multiplexes *everywhere* (by allowing low rise development) they took the reverse approach. Like Toronto, they made a “grand bargain”, freezing *most* of the land, while allowing gigantic towers in a handful of places. The result is the same as Toronto — apartments and houses are expensive. It isn’t like Montreal, or Tokyo. Speaking of Montreal, let me quote a section about it from an excellent essay about housing affordability:

        Canada’s second most populous metro area is vastly less expensive than greater Vancouver, BC–––less than half as much for a typical house. It’s even cheaper than much-smaller cities such as Saskatoon. Montreal is growing, as traffic engineer and Montreal blogger Simon Vallee points out: Montreal in recent years has grown 1.2 percent a year, while Vancouver has grown 1.3 percent a year. More important is that greater Montreal keeps building residences, adding more homes over the last decade not only than Vancouver, BC, but also than similarly sized US metro areas such as Seattle and San Francisco, according to US and Canadian census data.

        Beyond the numbers alone, Vallee argues, is that much of the metropolitan area is dominated by land zoned for low-rise—typically three-story—flats and mid-rise apartment buildings. Montreal’s zoning is the inverse of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver’s. The latter give most of their land to detached single-family houses, then concentrate high- and mid-rise buildings along arterials and in pockets. Montreal gives most land to low- and mid-rise apartments, and little land to detached, single-family houses or expensive-to-build high-rises. Instead, it builds three-story walkup apartments and the like by the square-mile section, both in the city and the suburbs: such neighborhoods are dense enough to support transit, cycling, and walking and are also made up of the cheapest form of housing to build and operate. Overall, metropolitan Montreal is the second densest city in Canada, trailing greater Toronto by a whisker and substantially leading greater Vancouver, despite the famous skinny residential towers of the latter’s downtown skyline.

        Montreal demonstrates the power of “missing middle” housing on a massive scale.

        It isn’t about building higher on only a handful of lots. It is about adding density *everywhere*. Studies have shown that adding “missing middle” housing is the best way to add affordability, which is why Seattle needs to add it. Taking baby steps (and ADU reform was a baby step) is nice, but we also need to allow row houses, apartment conversions and short apartments *everywhere* housing is allowed. It is the only proven path to housing affordability.

      8. Your hated “grand bargain” is built into the valuations of the homes in Seattle’s SFH zones. The potential loss of that premium eill breed Republicans by the NEOPANAMAX shipload if you try to take it away.

  4. Another aspect of this: Arguably every luxury condo creates a NIMBY bubble around it in which it becomes more difficult to build transit oriented (read: reduced or no parking!) affordable housing and more likely that what is newly built within the bubble will also be luxury condos. Now this is less of a big deal if zoning policy were inclusive enough to actually allow the luxury market to be satiated as a *minority* of new builds, and more affordable housing to be built throughout the city. I always say, start with the busy corner lots and major thoroughfares, which are less “desirable” from a homeownership perspective and which tend to have decent transit options.

    1. I don’t think so. Condo owners are by definition in a dense building and a non-single-family neighborhood. They accepted some level of density and urbanism when they bought the place. The loudest voices against apartments and lowering parking minimums and affordable units comes from single-family homeowners. Their front door is right on the street and the street parking in front of their house may be important to them. Condo owners live a few floors up in a secure building and an underground garage. An apartment building next to them or even a low-income apartment building doesn’t affect them as much, and I don’t think they’re the kind of people to be the loudest opponents. In any case, they can’t fight density if it’s already zoned around them and is what enabled their condo building in the first place.

      1. Less NIMBY than single family homeowners, for sure, but my thinking is they’re still more NIMBY than no frills condo owners. Still going to complain about parking and traffic and perceived crime issues while walking the dog or going out for a run. The old “character of the neighborhood” comes into play, and views may come in to play. Condo associations can carry political weight as well.

        But yeah, for Seattle’s currently, it is definitely the single family homeowners who are most opposed to change.

      2. You’d be surprised, Mike. Anyone involved in high rise design and construction in DT Seattle will tell you that the “I got mine; FU” attitude is not limited to single family homeowners – not by a long shot. There are more than a few people who want to “pull up the drawbridge” right after moving into their own tower, and it can cost developers – and the City – millions as they wend through the design review and permitting process (these are aside from valid issues that are raised during the process).

    2. I’m with Mike on this. I don’t think luxury housing leads to a larger demand for parking. If anything, it is the opposite. Buy a condo in Bitter Lake, and you get upset if your friends can’t park there. Buy a luxury condo downtown, and it is no big deal.

  5. Let’s also keep in mind that just one single owned but vacant condo unit contributes more in property taxes than all the property tax-exempt affordable apartment buildings in the county, combined.

    1. Good point! We do need to have some luxury condos around.

      From a sustainability and climate impact perspective, 200 condos > 200 suburban McMansions!

      -B

    2. Apples to oranges. Property tax on high-end condos and ordinary houses is to generate revenue for public services. Tax-exempt affordable units and public housing reflect a completely different government goal, that of ensuring lower-income people have some kind of housing. It’s like transit fares. Full-price fares generate revenue for operations. ORCA Lift and sliding-scale fares fulfill a separate goal of making transit accessible to low-income people. Governments have several goals in their mission, and these are two of them.

      1. The government needs property taxes to run. I’m saying, instead of getting out the pitchforks over empty condos, we should be writing the condo owners thank you notes.

  6. Real estate. The last bastion of failed trickle down economics. Condos don’t become affordable housing. They stay unaffordable to most, and especially to the poor.

    1. East Portland has some for under $200,000. If there isn’t a shortage of them in an area they can be affordable.

      1. The real estate market is far too regulated to be considered a simple supply/demand issue. That type of facile reductionism ignores the reality of the situation.

      2. Condos don’t become affordable housing. They stay unaffordable to most, and especially to the poor.

        [Next comment]

        That type of facile reductionism ignores the reality of the situation.

        Did you mean to rebut yourself, or did that just happen by accident? Either way, touché. Well done.

      3. No self rebuttal at all.

        One was a comment about a specific subset of the housing market, and current popular opinion about it. The other was a comment on real estate in general, and current popular opinion about it.

        There are no housing supply issues in Seattle, or in neighboring cities/environments. The real issue is housing cost, mostly due to absurdly inflated land prices. This is why we see homelessness spiking in LA, SF, and NYC. Their land prices are even more absurdly inflated.

        All disagreements aside, we do agree on one thing. The “urban village” concept Seattle has is part of the problem.

      4. “There are no housing supply issues in Seattle, or in neighboring cities/environments. The real issue is housing cost, mostly due to absurdly inflated land prices.”

        That’s right but it’s the same thing. Land prices are going up because more people are moving to the area, and housing prices are going up because the cost is spread across only one or two units per lot. I say “only one or two” because 70% of Seattle’s residential land is single-family. That’s the problem right there. Multifamily development is squeezed into 30% of the ever-increasing land, and they bid each other up and Wall Street money outbids mom n pop money. If you saturate the area with more zoning capacity than needed so that multifamily/townhouses can be built everywhere, then developers will build as much housing as the market demands and the cost of land will be spread more widely and diluted into nothing.

      5. A Joy wrote:

        Condos don’t become affordable housing. They stay unaffordable to most, and especially to the poor.

        That ignores the fact that there are plenty of condos throughout the world that are affordable. The reasons why some condos are cheap and some are expensive are complicated.

        The real issue is housing cost, mostly due to absurdly inflated land prices.

        Yet Tokyo has much more expensive land (some of the most expensive on earth) but much cheaper condos (and houses!). Your statement’s are, how can I put this, facile reductionism ignoring the reality of the situation.

      6. Land prices in Seattle have much more to do with artificial speculation than with housing. Even vacant fields (the type one could put a tent city in to help address the homelessness epidemic) are priced too high to be put to good use. It isn’t just residential zoned land that has its price artificially inflated. Commercial and industrial zones suffer the same issue. If the problem was only insufficient housing, wouldn’t those other zones be by and large unaffected?

        I do agree that SFH housing unfairly dominates Seattle’s landscape. But this is a double edged sword. Seattle’s character as a city, whether we like it or not, includes SFH neighborhoods within the city limits. Which is why I advocate growing the urban villages together into a denser and larger city core. We can still have SFH neighborhoods, but they would be pushed into a kind of outer ring around the city. A compromise (that I admit is practically impossible due to NIMBYs) that keeps the city’s character.

      7. Land prices in Seattle have much more to do with artificial speculation than with housing.

        Again, you are conflating land prices with housing prices. I’m not really concerned about the cost of land, I’m concerned about the cost of housing. The reason housing is so expensive is because they dramatically limit the amount. It is essentially a government sponsored cartel, not unlike OPEC. In the 1970s, they got together to limit supply in an effort to boost prices. It worked. I’m not saying that Seattle has the same motivation, but that the results are the same.

        Let me give you an example. Here is a lot fairly close to where I live. Until recently, it was part of a much bigger lot, that extended to the west. This is not rare, as there are plenty of big lots left over from when the area was rural. The original lot was about 25,000 square feet. It was subdivided, and the old house was demolished.

        25,000 square feet is big. You could easily fit 20 row houses on there, with room for backyards and parking. Each row house could be built so that it could house three different families (like a Brooklyn brownstone). So, that would be about 60 units, along with a backyard for each one. There could be a mix, with some built that way, and others built for a single family. The point is, you could easily fit 30 people in that area, and yet the building would be no bigger than the houses they are building.

        You may wonder how many stand alone houses they are building. If they allowed small houses like on Capitol Hill (https://goo.gl/maps/89mkWSXuByJcNQcv6) you could add about 25 (although it would mean no parking — gasp!). With parking, along with space for neighbors, you could add a dozen, easily. In much of Seattle, they would be allowed to build 5. In this case, they were allowed 3.

        Yep, instead of building a couple dozen houses, or a small apartment, they build three houses. That is all they are legally allowed to build.

        Of course there are places that aren’t building anything at the moment (inertia is a powerful force) but all new construction maximizes density.
        Every development I’ve ever looked at — and I’ve looked at a lot — has been built for the maximum number of units. If they allow an apartment, they build an apartment. If they allow a townhouse, they build a townhouse. If they can subdivide it, they subdivide it, putting up as many houses as they can. They add as much density as possible. The problem is, the city has put very big limits on that density.

        Not all cities do this, but it common in the U. S. The reason you can buy a nice condo in Montreal (one of the prettiest cities on Earth) for less $200,000 American is because there are so many of them. The reason there are so many of them is because the city allows you to build. We put artificial limits on density — preventing growth on *most* of the city — and wonder why rent is so damn high. (By the way, the book by the same name — https://www.amazon.com/Rent-Too-Damn-High-Matters-ebook/dp/B0078XGJXO — addresses zoning as well).

        No, zoning isn’t the only factor for high housing costs. But in Seattle — an area with extremely restrictive zoning — it is clearly the biggest.

      8. I’m not conflating housing prices and land prices at all. I am saying the latter causes the former.

        I’m a homelessness advocate. I have a brother living on the streets today. So I’ve looked at other US cities with high homelessness rates for solutions and issues. All of them have very high land prices. Across the board, not just in residential zones. Surely that is an indicator that zoning and housing prices alone are not the problem.

        I am concerned with the price of land, because it directly correlates to the price of housing in the US. Not every US city with a high rate of homelessness has restrictive zoning. Zoning certainly exacerbates the issue, but it is not a base cause. It is more of a catalyst, making the result even worse.

        I am going to confess, I hate row houses. I spent two weeks in one that had been converted to a bed and breakfast in the heart of London. The heart of row houses. I’ve seen better slums. Row houses are exactly what I don’t want to see in Seattle. Many brownstones in NYC are similarly subpar. NYC has a right to housing, but many of the lower end brownstone houses aren’t up to code. Their electrical systems are fire hazards if they’re working all. Heating and cooling are in the same boat. Rat, roach, and bedbug infestations run rampant. I am all for density, but every time I’ve visited the type of density advocated here, I feel my brother is living a better life in his tent. Building for the maximum number of units isn’t helpful if those units are crap. And yet they are building crap units, even here. Residential units that are deadly black mold havens because they were built out of particle board in the rain and moisture (and Tyvek doesn’t help) are incredibly common.

        I am intrigued by your tales of Montreal. I plan on adding Canadian cities to my studies as a result. But US city data indicates that land cost/value is more causal than zoning. This may just be a US thing, I’ll admit.

  7. What do we know about the actual breakdown of the vote on the car-tabs-etc. initiative (s)?

    Mark Dublin

  8. Where do we go to get rational analysis of the way ahead for creating more affordable housing? I’m quite sure that Upzoning is not the magic bullet some here are asserting.

    1. It depends on what you mean by affordable housing. Poverty in the U. S. is a major problem — we have a much bigger problem than most industrialized nations. The widespread and very brutal poverty means that lots of people can’t afford middle class housing. Government needs to step in to either address the housing, or address the poverty (or both).

      But right now, middle class housing in Seattle is largely non-existent. So if you are interested in creating more middle class housing, then there is no question that zoning is hugely important. Not only does that lead to more people being able to afford to live without public assistance, but it means that public assistance money goes further.

      As to your doubts about the importance of zoning, I suggest you read up on the issue. Sightline has a very good series of articles about affordable housing, but this one is a good start: https://www.sightline.org/2017/09/21/yes-you-can-build-your-way-to-affordable-housing/.

      It isn’t a magic bullet — there are other issues that can contribute to expensive housing, but the correspondence between liberal zoning and affordability is a strong one.

      1. What I’m looking for is objective analysis from an organization without an “agenda.” I read Sightline fairly often, and they just want single-family zoning gone ~ so th cheapest SF houses can get torn down and replaced with MF units. But in the real world, those MF units (town houses mostly) are each more expensive than the old SF fixer that got hauled to the landfill.

      2. Also in the real world, old single family homes get torn down for newer, more expensive single family homes all the time, which are always more expensive than new townhomes would’ve be *if* townhomes had been legal on that lot. But I don’t see you raising a fuss about that.

        This idea that single family zoning prevents teardowns or preserves affordability is total bunk.

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