February 13 2014

Should Seattle Be Worried About Affordability?

Compared to some of its counterparts, Seattle is not terribly expensive. But as population quickly grows, decision makers will have to grapple with affordability. Recently elected Councilwoman Kshama Sawant made rent control a staple of her campaign. Others believe relaxing planning rules so developers can build is the best remedy. The enigma of affordability plagues many cities, so what direction should Seattle go? Advocating “affordable housing” is not enough, a larger-scale attempt to increase the supply of diverse housing options will be needed.

While urban planners champion anti-sprawl and affordability, the rules don’t adapt fast enough to allow development in neighborhoods where people want to live the most, driving up prices. Often the worry is that adding affordable development can hurt neighborhood character, especially in historic or areas with primarily detached homes. Many areas still lack diversity in housing, and 49% of Seattle’s land-use is designated as single-family. Protecting unique urban neighborhoods is a must, but allowing new housing options can absorb supply, and when density is done correctly, can increase vitality.

Apodments on Capitol Hill

One tactic already being used is “affordable by design.” Micro-units (shown above) are becoming increasingly popular, and are often half the cost of rent next door. Smaller condo units are a popular option for those who prefer urban amenities over a front yard. To preserve character, some historic neighborhoods are using re-use strategies, turning large lot homes into multiple dwelling units. Atlanta is taking it a step further with “ScadPads,” a parking garage retrofitted into micro apartments for students.

Attitudes towards housing are changing. Square footage used to be king, and the suburban home the ideal. Now, demand for large lot homes is expected to decrease, and it is estimated that half of housing demand will be for attached dwellings. As much as 80% of growth in households will be families without children, and 40% single-dwellers. Much of this growth will take place in urban centers.

Affordable housing minimums are being used (called “inclusionary” or “incentive” zoning), which can be effective, as well as politically convenient. Newly approved skyline development in South Lake Union will require 10% affordable housing. This practice should be continued, but we can’t rely on it. Requiring a small percentage of affordable housing does not solve the problem of affordability. For a sustainable solution, zoning regulations and development need to be more aggressive at bringing down housing at market rate in the long-run. A restricted housing market, and a lack of affordable units, means that ownership is only possible for the affluent.

New Development on Capitol Hill

Seattle has added 3,000 units per year to the housing supply for the last two decades, faster than San Francisco. While San Francisco has a higher stock of subsidized housing and rent control than Seattle, supply of new development is tightly restricted, and median rent is double that of Seattle.    In fact, Seattle is experiencing a “building boom”, and in 2014 rents are expected to be stable or even dip.  The answer to the title of this blog is that we don’t need to worry much…yet.

Seattle is in a good position to handle its expected growth, but we will need to be smart about how, as well as where, development takes place.  A larger share of housing will need to go to smaller, attached units. Lower density areas at the edge of the city are primed to absorb supply with smarter planning and mid-rise development.

Is it possible?  Can we have our growth and afford it too?

Credits: Images by Mckenna Paddock. Data linked to sources.

Colin Poff

Colin Poff is a recent graduate from Western Washington University where he studied Political Science and Economics. He currently interns at the City of Redmond, where he is providing research and analysis for the long-range planning department. While traveling in Europe and in China Colin became a critical observer of modern cities, and curious about how policies can be crafted to facilitate economic development with community values in mind. In his career, he would like to make cities more dynamic and livable by encouraging mixed-use areas and people-focused design. Next fall, Colin intends to pursue a Masters in Urban Planning. When he is not in the city, you can find him in the mountains, skiing with his friends.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, February 13th, 2014 at 9:54 am and is filed under Housing, Land Use, Social/Demographics, Urban Development/Real Estate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “Should Seattle Be Worried About Affordability?”

  1. Robert Poole Says:

    Great piece Colin! I live in San Francisco, and whenever we talk about housing affordability, Seattle comes up as the comparison city. It’s another place going through a economic boom, which attracts new workers and residents. But as you point out, Seattle has doubled SF’s rate of housing production, which is a large part of the reason your housing prices have risen significantly less than ours.

    Do you know what the permitting process is like in Seattle? I’m asking because in San Francisco, it’s a nightmare. It can take five years to get a building permit, and then 2-3 to actually build the project. There’s a huge resistance to change in San Francisco and many neighborhood activists often oppose projects because they’re too tall or out of character with the neighborhood, event though they’re code compliant. And with that being said, what’s the culture like in Seattle. Are residents ok with new development?

    Last point. You mentioned that San Francisco has a lot of subsidized affordable housing, and that’s true. We’ve done a good job of building for the lower income group and a really good job of building for the upper income group. But we suck at building for the middle-income. We often look at micro units, which you mentioned, secondary units and using public land for middle-income housing as options to build for that income group. How prevalent are your “affordable by design” concepts in Seattle?

  2. Colin Poff Says:

    Hey Robert thanks for the comment! Sorry that San Francisco takes so much heat with these kind of topics. I think the culture here is more receptive to change than say Portland or San Fran. I think that economic centers are taking on a lot of the development, since we have a fairly business friendly environment here.

    But I see long term issues in affordability…Many neighborhoods are resistant to any change. A lot of the development is high end, and people feel okay about it because of the 10% affordable housing concession. I think this has the potential to perpetuate inequality, and a long term solution is to urbanize (i.e. housing diversity) pocket neighborhoods at the edge of the city, which also creates an added opportunity for better planning.

    Affordable by design concepts are a small part of the picture here. Some have gone up here at Capitol Hill, and it hasn’t hurt the neighborhood character, which some were worried about. It’s just an example of how housing diversity can work, but we should expand it into greater Seattle.

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