When the underlying economy is booming, population is growing, inventory is limited and the location is a desirable coastal metro, as in Seattle, measures to make housing more affordable stir a lot of debate.
Skyrocketing housing prices aren’t always synonymous with a bubble. This is especially true when the underlying economy is booming, population is growing, inventory is limited and the location is a desirable coastal metro, as in Seattle.
According to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey for 2016, Seattle ranked among the major markets with “severe unaffordability” for middle-income people.
The urban-development consulting organization creates a “median multiple” to measure affordability. For example, the most affordable major metros in the United States stood at 3.7 last year. In other words, the cost of the median house was 3.7 times the median income.
By contrast, Seattle was 5.2 and Portland 5.1. This was better than San Jose at 9.7, San Francisco at 9.4 and San Diego at 8.1. That helps explain why Seattle is appealingly affordable for high-paid tech workers. The situation is much less optimistic for those with lower incomes.
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The situation is no better for renters. Seattle ranked as the nation’s 10th most expensive city, according to Apartment List. Seattle-based Zillow says median rent in the metro area was $2,007 a month in May, up 9.1 percent from the same month last year.
Some deeper national trends are at work, too. Middle-wage jobs have been declining. Wages have been stagnant or even falling for millions. This is especially pronounced for lower-paid workers. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing studies estimates that 11 million people paid half or more of their income for rent in 2014, and 21.3 million spent 30 percent or more — both record highs.
But what can be done? Here are some potential responses:
• HALA. The city of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda is a multifront effort, including, perhaps, greater densities outside existing dense districts.
Its centerpiece is the “grand bargain” where developers of all new commercial projects would pay a fee to help with affordable housing. With new multifamily projects, developers would either set aside a percentage of units (depending on the location) for lower-income renters, or pay a fee to help with lower-income housing elsewhere.
Pros: It’s big, imaginative and pushes the envelope of Seattle’s comfort bubble. If HALA gets developers and enough NIMBYs working together, the city could approach the goal of adding 20,000 affordable units over the next 10 years. HALA also opens the gate to more density in some places, which if done with quality and human use in mind, will improve the city.
Cons: It’s big, imaginative and pushes the envelope of Seattle’s comfort bubble. Plenty of people want Seattle to remain a place of ramblers on big lots circa 1970. I’d be happy with Amsterdam on the Puget Sound, but I may be in the minority.
Others merely want to preserve their street of bungalows from a seemingly senseless teardown and replacement with a big, ugly apartment complex. Even downtown residents worry that poor spacing requirements will leave them facing another wall.
Implementation, details (such as overlays to protect historic districts) and listening will be important. So will learning best practices from elsewhere. Is HALA ready for prime time? We’ll see.
• The housing levy. Again in the city and as a part of HALA, voters will be asked in August to approve a $290 million measure to fund affordable housing, preservation of existing workforce apartments and homeless assistance.
Pros: It’s double the funds raised by the existing levy. Nonprofit developers could get short-term loans to buy buildings with reasonably priced units if they commit to keep the housing affordable. Landlords could also receive help in upgrading their buildings if they keep cap rents on some apartments. Another advantage is preserving some of Seattle’s distinctive, low-rise brick apartment buildings.
Cons: Few, if any. The effort is modest so as to be palatable to a majority of voters. It doesn’t, and can’t, address issues on a regional level.
• Market urbanism. This is a spacious term that can include many approaches, but it emphasizes market forces, rather than planning. The model city of market urbanism is Houston, which has no use-based zoning and employs liberal market policies.
Here, that might mean eliminating or expanding urban-growth boundaries, as well as drastically reducing regulation and permitting for developers.
Pros: Supporters would say market forces will work faster than government mandates to add inventory and reduce housing costs. And elements of market urbanism have support in perhaps unlikely places. California Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing a streamlined permit process for building housing for low-income residents.
Cons: Liberal economics would be a hard sell in a politically liberal city (ack, the confusion of labels today). Nobody wants Seattle to be Houston, and it doesn’t have the abundance of land anyway.
Growth boundaries help preserve the environment that Washingtonians love. Not only that, but further thinning out development through car-dependent sprawl is inefficient and adds a host of new costs. It enriches developers and starves the common good.
I am skeptical of those peddling “solutions” to Seattle’s affordability problem. Not all of it can be solved. But I suspect some intelligent responses can be found in the best elements of the approaches discussed here.