Seattle’s housing cost crisis affects us all.
From Wallingford to Wedgwood, Ravenna to Sandpoint - our community used to be a place where regular people trying to build a life could put down roots and thrive. But this has become nearly impossible for so many of us.
This is because when Seattle boomed, we didn’t adjust–at least not nearly enough. We ignored the science from the economists and policy experts, and we ignored the historians who pointed to the racist roots of our zoning practices. We tried to keep everything the same and locked up most of the land.
Ironically, it changed in exactly the way the experts had warned. Now, we have a city most of us could no longer afford to move to–a city that will shut out many of our own kids and most people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ignoring the experts pushed most growth to our most vulnerable, historically redlined neighborhoods, increased concentrations of poverty, and exposed black and brown kids to the hazards of living alongside polluted and dangerous busy roads.
But Seattle is ready to do the right thing and to follow the science. We know we have to get serious about housing, to face it down with the same ambition that we brought to aviation and technology, to literally(!) moving mountains downtown, or digging out one of the largest light rail expansions in history.
That science tells us there are three parts to building an affordable city. These are supply, subsidy, and stability.
When the number of homes keeps up with the number of families trying to live here, price growth slows, giving incomes time to catch up. Over time, housing becomes more affordable across the board, putting it within reach for middle-income and even some lower-income households. It’s not magic market fairy dust that will make housing affordable for everyone. But if we dig ourselves out of the housing deficit, we can preserve Seattle for most people. I’ll fight to increase supply with proven policies that:
- Eliminate bans on missing-middle housing.
- Expand missing mid-rise housing.
- Make Alternative 6 part of our Comprehensive Plan.
- Eliminate silly design and preference rules.
- Streamline and accelerate the pace of permitting. Tacoma does it three times as fast as Seattle. This is a tremendous waste for everyone.
- Don’t force developments to build parking.
- Ensure this is paired with a healthy tree canopy and livability by limiting lot coverage and adding green space requirements for each lot to protect trees.
- Where tree protections inhibit overall development, add additional height bonuses to make sure we don’t pit housing against trees. (For more on trees, see my Environment Page.)
(*A note for supply skeptics below)
Even if we do everything right on the supply front, Seattle is desirable, land is scarce, and our society is grossly unequal. We cannot tackle the problem through the market alone. Only subsidies will ensure affordable access to quality housing in healthy neighborhoods for everyone. We must:
- Build more affordable housing.
- Fund and build social housing like what is proposed in Initiative 135.
- Expand rental assistance.
- Require MHA in-lieu fees to stay in the neighborhood.
- Raise progressive revenue to support these investments.
- Develop during downcycles.
Although increases in supply actually decrease displacement overall, that doesn’t do any good for families displaced by a new development. We need to take seriously the disruption and sometimes trauma that comes with displacement, especially for needy families. I will fight to:
- Protect the rights of renters.
- Lease public land - not sell it.
- Make affordability requirements permanent.
- Prohibit rent gouging: State lawmakers are considering restricting excessive rent hikes, and I support this.
- Ensure a right to return for those displaced by development.
*For my supply-skeptical friends.
I often hear about people’s genuine concern that new homes are not affordable homes, and so they don’t help with affordability. While the first half of the sentence is true, the evidence is pretty clear that the second half is not.
I know why it feels this way–but let’s take a moment to look at the evidence.
First, it should be acknowledged that new market-rate housing itself is almost never affordable housing. But it affects the price of other housing, and it has been shown to do so directly. We saw how this worked during the pandemic with cars. When there was a shortage of computer chips, new car production stalled, and used car prices soared. Eventually, chips were available, new cars were built, and the price of used cars moderated. Housing has been shown to work the same way. New housing may be the fanciest, nicest stuff on the block–but it has a moderating effect on the price of the existing housing stock.
The price-reducing impact of new housing has been shown time and time again. It’s not intuitive since new housing is usually built in places where prices are rising because demand is high. But it turns out that the places that build enough supply to keep up with demand (immigration, family formation)–keep prices reasonable. And the places that don’t build, or maybe build but not enough to keep up–end up with runaway prices. That is Seattle’s story.
This is why the overwhelming consensus on the center-right, center-left, technocratic left, even the Democratic Socialists, among economists and the Biden Administration, is that supply strangling housing practices, particularly in high-talent urban agglomerations such as Seattle, strangles economic growth, hurts minorities, and shuts millions of BIPOC children out of neighborhoods where they otherwise thrive. This is not controversial among housing economists.****
I believe we need to be practical–which means following the evidence–even when it pushes back against intuition.