Sydney Brownstone in the Seattle Times:

This year, Seattle will invest the most it ever has in affordable housing, a total of $110 million, Mayor Jenny Durkan said Monday.

All of that funding will go toward the construction and redevelopment of new units, the most ever generated through Seattle investments in a single year – 1,944 in full – across the city.

Truly good news to see the city step up its investment like this. Check out the Mayor’s blog post for more about the funded projects.

Thanks, Seattle voters! There are many reasons to be pessimistic about our housing situation but the city’s ability to fund, permit, and construct new affordable multifamily housing is a bright spot. Imagine what would be possible if the federal government got back into the housing game, perhaps by passing Rep. Ilhan Omar’s ambitious $1T housing bill .

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the city seems stuck in a vicious cycle:

Nonprofit developer Mercy Housing relied on federal, state and city financing to build the project at a cost of nearly $500,000 per unit. The per unit price would have been far higher if the city hadn’t donated the land. The cost to build one new apartment or condo unit in San Francisco today — whether market-rate or affordable — tops $700,000, nearly triple what it cost about 10 years ago.

Construction costs are rising, land values are increasing, and construction workers can’t afford to live in the city, so costs rise even more.

34 Replies to “Seattle steps up its affordable housing efforts”

  1. What I don’t understand is what is driving the construction costs. I realize that tarriffs are driving material prices up, and that labor is higher in urban areas, but when a builder in the Midwest can make a profit on the sale of a new 2,000 sf home at only $150,000, I suspect that there are too many hands in the proverbial cookie jar, taking their cut of the profit. It would be interesting to see what an investigation of potential price fixing of something like lumber, steel, or concrete would reveal.
    I’ve recently worked on a handful of projects with sub-contractors from as far away as Las Vegas, Aberdeen, and Ellensburg. They’ve gone quite well.

    1. Most of it is land costs. The difference between here and the midwest is the cost of land. Ditto for Seattle, Kent, and Lakewood.

      1. I call bull on land costs. We were recently quoted $400,000 for construction-only cost of a 2,000-sf single family home in Pierce County, on a level/graded lot with utilities ready to connect. But you can build and sell the same house, including land for only $150,000 to $200,000 in the Midwest. Actual construction costs here are way out of balance, unless we are paying every single carpenter a 6-figure salary. I get that labor costs are more here, but materials should be nearly equal in a so-called “free market.” I think what we are seeing is contractors take well more than their fair share. The more that I see, the more that I am tempted to start sending RFQs to some of my old contractor friends “back home.” Even with relocation or hotel costs, they could make a fortune here relative to their comparative incomes. I’m sure that some would happily camp in a construction trailer for a few months for a 100% markup relative to their normal rate-of-pay.

      2. You should have sent that letter long ago. Anyone with skills in the trades can make very good money in Puget Sound. Those that can also handle the business end can make a lot more. As to whether that lasts or not, well, we have a history of boom and bust around here, so you never know.

      3. I call bull on land costs. We were recently quoted $400,000 for construction-only cost of a 2,000-sf single family home in Pierce County, on a level/graded lot with utilities ready to connect. But you can build and sell the same house, including land for only $150,000 to $200,000 in the Midwest.

        It’s higher here because there’s such a backlog. GCs have so much work if you can find one that isn’t 6-12 months out before starting a job there’s probably some reason you don’t want them working on your home.

        Importing “cheap” labor is happening but it only works if people are going back to where they came from. If they expect to buy, or even rent in this area their costs are going to demand higher wages. Add to that the long commute times they are facing and you can see why it’s sort of a viscous feedback loop.

    1. I think it’s a chicken or egg challenge. By reacting to non-profit group proposals, the City avoids taking responsibility for inequitable geographic distribution. Non-profit groups look to propose projects in areas that they already know.

      Frankly, Seattle still has lots of self-identified liberals who instantly become horrified if any rental apartment is near their charming house on their storybook street, and a subsidized one would make them apoplectic.

      1. That’s because property rights are the most sacred of liberal covenants. If you want to watch a lib go full authoritarian just whisper about something that threatens their land value.

      2. Yimbys exist. And Kshama Sawant. To say most liberals are horrified at any apartments on their block is an exaggerated stereotype.

      3. Exactly, heaven forbid if you attempted to build some affordable housing in the Roosevelt District, Ravenna, Maple Leaf, or Wedgewood. Those so-called liberal SFH owners would freak.

      4. In Roosevelt’s defense, an affordable housing development is going up on the Link construction staging site, and the core of the neighborhood has densified considerably, although less than I would have preferred.

        Absolutely direct your fire at Ravenna, Maple Leaf, and Wedgwood, though.

      5. “In Roosevelt’s defense, an affordable housing development is going up on the Link construction staging site,”

        Source? (Thanks in advance.)
        And is this site one of the surplus properties resulting from the parcel acquisitions related to the Roosevelt Link station itself? IIRC, ST ended up with 50% surplus for this one station.

      6. “Those so-called liberal SFH owners would freak.”

        Who said they were liberal? You’re assuming a lot about the economic/social politics of single-family homeowners. Have you surveyed all of them? The stereotypes of “limousine liberals” are as false as the stereotypes of “welfare queens”. Real people have a wide variety of opinions.

      7. Mike, on the one hand we’ve all dunked on photos of side-by-side “in this house we believe” and “no HALA” yard signs, plus you can see the way the recent council elections in D4 went down, with SFH land going hard for Pedersen and the denser bits going for Scott, and similar trends in other districts. So these broader trends of SFH districts being more reactionary are probably valid.

        On the other hand, Scott somehow won almost every precinct in Wallingford, which is known for its awful NIMBY community association and hardly a bastion for red rose types. So who the hell knows.

      8. What does liberalism mean to you? To me an international liberal supports democracy, open markets, and relatively free trade. A US liberal supports government interventions to reduce inequality, guarantee a robust social safety net, manage the economy, and undo discrimination. Sawant clearly fits into that pattern.

        Likewise, an international conservative favors incremental reforms over radical revolution. A US conservative, well, it’s a mess, but the most common thread nowadays is favoring a social hierarchy with white heterosexual Christians on top, and a laissez-faire form of capitalism, few government interventions (at least for corporations), and low taxes. (Not military interventions because there are significant conservatives on both sides of it.)

      9. Mike, Sawant is Trot. She is not a liberal by any stretch of the definition and I can almost guarantee she’d agree. Most leftists do not consider themselves in the same camp as liberals.

  2. Pushing back against rising housing costs is difficult to do. It always has been regardless of city or era. It’s admirable that something is being done.

    The issue remains if we are both the right and the cost-effective thing. I’m not sure if handing over sums of money to non-profits is always the most appropriate strategy.

    I have to wonder if we would do better to create opportunities by also taking a hard look at how to better encourage development of well-located vacant or underutilized parcels — even outside of the City limits. I also wonder if a shorter-term strategy needs more funding instead; temporary or mobile or pre-fab options exist if land (or water for floatable housing) can be found and those can be occupied much more quickly and created much more cheaply than building from scratch is.

    Finally, I think that a regional or county-wide fare-share system is needed. Why is it fair for all Seattle residents to fund affordable housing when Mercer Island or Newcastle residents don’t?

    1. We have to do something, and having nonprofits build it is better than nothing. If you really want to pursue those other things, they need to be started in parallel with the current efforts rather than delaying things and possibly never getting anything approved.

      We need to start with the number of people who want to live in Seattle but can’t afford a market-rate unit at 1/3 of their income or less. That’s the number of units we need, and the backlog is not 1,944 but more like 150,000. That includes both Seattle residents who are cost-burdened, those who are homeless, those who were displaced to the suburbs when they could no longer afford to live in Seattle, and those who didn’t try looking in Seattle because they knew it was above their means.

      This housing crunch is very recent: it didn’t exist 20 years ago and it was much less acute 10 years ago. The difference is not because inflation was so high because it’s been 2% or less since 2000. It’s because the number of housing units hasn’t kept up with the population increase, and it finally reached a tipping point in 2012 when costs started escalating, like a line in a grocery store that is usually 2-3 people long but when it reaches capacity it grows quickly to 6-10 people.

      All cities should care about housing every one in the community, but Seattle is the only city where lots of people and several councilmembers prioritize it. It’s also the largest city and should have almost everything and everyone. Mercer Island and Newcastle have been excluding lower-income people since their beginning. That doesn’t make it right, but the political establishment allows them to, and we’re not going to overturn the entire political establishment right now. The most we can do is build the housing we should have built fifteen and twenty years ago, and be an example of a city that takes its housing responsibility seriously.

      1. “…those who were displaced to the suburbs when they could no longer afford to live in Seattle, and those who didn’t try looking in Seattle because they knew it was above their means…”

        So we should be building housing for people who don’t live here anymore (its a big assumption that somebody who moved away regardless of the original reason will want to move back), and for people who aren’t even considering moving to seattle?

        More market rate workforce housing – designed to be economical to operate and be naturally more affordable – yes. Expand programs to help people who have housing but are cost burdened – without penalizing property owners or discouraging housing investment – yes. More – efficiently run – supportive housing for those who need it with expectations of progress toward self sufficiency where realistic – sure.

  3. How many affordable homes has Sound Transit acquired and demolished that ultimately became, or will become, surplus properties because the parcels were only used for staging areas or temporary parking?

  4. Elite homeowner communities are pretty hopeless for getting much affordable housing built. They just have too many resources to fight with, and often don’t have good transit. But the cities (beyond Seattle itself) that are adding jobs have a moral obligation to add housing too. Are they doing so?

    1. What suburban cities are adding large numbers of jobs other than Bellevue and Redmond?

      Something like 70% of Seattle is within a 10 minute walk of frequent transit. The transit in suburban cities is almost universally worse than it is in city neighborhoods that block dense housing, like Ravenna or Phinney Ridge. We should absolutely be adding more housing in the city first, where the employment growth is concentrated, before encouraging inevitably auto-oriented suburban housing.

      1. Lynnwood is trying to get jobs downtown like Bellevue. It probably won’t happen until after Lynnwood Link opens, both due to business interest and to the city’s timing.

    2. Are all homeowners by definition elite?

      A lot more gets done when there is something in it for everybody. Pushing policies that reduce quality of life for 48% of people to try and make it better for 52% is basically a zero sum game.

      I bet a lot more ADUs and DADUs would be built in ‘elite’ areas if the costs were not so extreme and process not so complex – things the city has some control over. And a lot more such units would get created over time if it wasn’t getting so risky to be a small scale landlord in seattle.

      1. ADU and DADU law has been simplified twice now with no surge in building as a result. The process isn’t all that complex as it is and yet they aren’t being built. There’s just no demand for them.

      2. “Elite” is a meaningless term. Homeowners are well-off in the sense that they have a home immune to rent inflation, and it’s an asset they can sell or pass down to their children. That allows them to build intergenerational wealth. That wouldn’t matter as much if non-homeowners had guaranteed housing, but we’ve reached a crisis point that a full-time minimum-wage job can’t even rent an apartment, and it has already crept up into half the middle class. We desperately need more housing, but 70% of Seattle’s land is locked up in single-family zoning. That forces all additional housing into the multifamily zones, so that more people are competing for a few lots and bidding up each other, both developers and renters/owners. That forces buildings to be midrise/highrise to fit everybody, and large buildings are more expensive than small buildings. Seattle used to allow missing middle housing in buffer areas — small 4-8 units apartments and duplexes/triplexes — but many of those areas were downgraded to single-family in the 1970s. Returning to a lowrise limit would make those areas better, not worse, and would allow more housing units in a wider variety of configurations, and fewer people would be competing for each one so prices would slow down and eventually stop. We need to saturate the market with supply availability, not constrain it with artificial scarcity. That scarcity does nothing but drive up prices for renters/buyers, and makes a nice windfall for existing homeowners. That’s unfair, and the people who block upzoning are exacerbating it, and those mostly overlap with single-family homeowners. There’s also a racial/class dimension, because zoning was created to confine nonwhites and the working class to a few neighborhoods, and that prevented a lot of them from owning a house or building intergenerational wealth. So single-family homeowners have an extraordinary advantage, and they’re a shrinking minority of the population, and the situation for everybody else is getting ever more critical. So we must build a lot more housing, and we must increase the area where multifamily and missing middle housing is allowed.

  5. The City blog post noted that the $110 million in City funding is combined with $600 million from other sources, for a total investment of $710 million to build 1,944.

    For those keeping score, this comes out to $365,000 per apartment, versus $700,000 claimed for San Francisco.

    1. if that $365k is all financed from somewhere, then the interest on it, assuming overall rate of 3% is $11K/yr or about $900/month just in interest payments per unit.

      I’d be interested to know what the overall carrying costs typically are on such a unit. loans, taxes (if any), utilities, insurance, management, maintenance costs, legal costs, etc. (Not considering case management expenses, e.g. supportive housing – just the basic operating costs)

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