The median house in King County sells for more than $300,000. That number, reported last week, is disturbing. When the cost of the private housing market goes up, the cost of a...

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The median house in King County sells for more than $300,000. That number, reported last week, is disturbing.

When the cost of the private housing market goes up, the cost of a minimum, starter house goes up. This hurts the poor house hunter relative to the affluent, and the young relative to the old. High housing costs undermine businesses that need to attract talent. They may be evidence of economic vitality but they are also a tax on it.
Sprawl and density are part of the problem. People ask government to control both, and it should. But when what is needed is more housing, we should be careful about adding too many burdens upon those who create it.

Rules add cost. All builders complain of this, including the nonprofit providers of housing for the poor.

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“We have the same problems as the private builders,” says Carla Okigwe, director of the Housing Development Consortium. Seattle’s building department is the Department of Planning and Development. “They have to pass it to the Fire Department, to City Light, to Public Utilities and the Department of Transportation, and each one looks at it differently,” Okigwe says.

In most cities, a multifamily project of 20 units requires an environmental impact statement. Seattle sets the threshold in the low-rise multifamily zone at four units. A consultant told us of a six-unit project that had its building permit delayed for months for an EIS, and that the report will cost $1,000 per unit. The people of Seattle, who have imposed that $1,000, might ask what they get for it.

The city’s Department of Planning and Development is proposing to relax certain rules in areas around downtown. The intention is good, but the department is limited in what it can do. The big rules — on tree cutting, wet spots, private open space, slopes, height, bulk, unit density, setbacks, parking spaces, etc. — are created by the City Council. Seattle’s land-use code is more than 1,000 pages long, and was not written in any systematic way. It is the sediment of a generation of neighborhood battles.

All cities have such codes, but several, including Renton and Tacoma, have adopted new codes radically simpler and more favorable to housing than Seattle’s. Apartment builder Jim Potter says the less-fashionable cities tend to be the most willing to solve these kinds of problems. “There is an idea,” Potter says, “that in Seattle we’re the economic center, so we don’t need to.”

The cost of this attitude is paid partly by builders, which is why they complain about it, but it is also paid by families who need a place to live. Authorities are not doing the people a favor by ignoring this problem.