Housing: We can build up, build out, or accept astronomical prices

I am frequently confounded by what passes for housing policy in Seattle. City government has lots of ideas on affordable housing and no clue on how to actually make housing more affordable.

Or maybe it’s more of a matter of no interest than no clue. The Seattle City Council seems more focused on “affordable housing” – government-mandated or government-owned units that are set aside and doled out – than on housing that is affordable.

As Seattle and the region try to accommodate incredible growth, it’s clear on the evidence that a few approaches will not work:

  • Rent control – In the long run, all these schemes do is create disincentives to new housing supply, helping fuel the very problem they purport to solve.
  • Larger developer fees and set-asides – The idea that we’re going to make housing more affordable by adding fees and costs is non-sensical.

We can add a third point to that list: Not doing anything will also not work to make housing more affordable. Yet that has essentially been the default in Seattle, and to some extent the region.

Partly generational
While I don’t think too highly of some of the Left’s ideas for tackling affordability, ideology is not the main sticking point here. Competing issues and values are in conflict, not just within the community or at the ballot box, but within individuals.

If you’ve ever wondered how your kids and grandkids will afford to live in the region, shook your head at sprawl, and worried about changes to you neighborhood, you understand these conflicting feelings.

Some of this conflict is generational. Politico recently highlighted this divide in a fascinating piece on Seattle’s housing market. On one side are younger workers, many with high-paying tech jobs, who still can’t afford to buy in Seattle. On the other are residents, mostly older, in established neighborhoods such as Wallingford who don’t want to see single-family homes replaced by denser housing.

Unspoken in this is that neighborhoods will change – some would just prefer to be gone before it happens.

A big sticking point
The politics of infill are difficult. Many acknowledge the need to densify, they just want it to happen somewhere other than their own neighborhood. Previous mayor Ed Murray tried to allow more options within neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family homes, but soon dropped his proposal. The opposition from some of the most consistent voters in local elections, established home owners, was too fierce.

But ignoring the need to densify, or thinking it should just happen somewhere else, amount to the “do nothing” option. To see how that works out, you need only to look to San Francisco’s truly absurd housing market.

A succinct summation
While Seattle is officially the fastest-growing big American city of the last decade, we’re far from the only region dealing with these issues. The themes in this article on growth in Minneapolis sound just like Seattle’s issues.

A housing expert quoted in the Minneapolis story perfectly summed up the dilemma our area faces:

“If you don’t like to densify and you don’t like sprawl, then the only other option is to just say ‘Sorry. Prices are going to be high,’” he said.

That’s exactly right. Realistically we can build up and fill in, we can build out, or we can shrug our shoulders and accept astonishing housing costs and the consequences that flow from that. There is not some magic fourth option that satisfies everyone.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.