Seattle should take steps as other cities have done to protect neighborhoods and make housing more affordable.
THE mayor’s retreat from his proposal to allow more density in single-family neighborhoods means that residential developers can continue to roam the inadequately regulated landscape like locusts, tearing down existing affordable houses, dumping them in the landfill and replacing them with oversized and overpriced mini-mansions.
In pursuit of quick profits, flippers will go on building poorly constructed boxes that are ludicrously out-of-scale and out-of-character compared with neighboring houses. Developers and real-estate agents will continue to drive up the price of residential housing, changing economically diverse neighborhoods into affluent enclaves. Flippers will remain profiteers, making unreasonable profits from the sale of houses, an essential good for society.
City government could rein in the developers, but it lacks the will, given the lure of property taxes and linkage fees. Rather than actively regulating development to restore diversity and affordability, the city is betting that the remedy to the harm caused by unbridled development is yet more development.
The continual increase in property values distorts social structures. Young first-time buyers tell tales of pre-bid inspections, escalator mortgages and multiple bids, only to lose out to extravagant cash bids. As housing in desirable neighborhoods becomes increasingly unaffordable, those who provide essential services and enrich our communities are locked out: teachers and laborers, first responders and artists.
Longtime residents living on fixed incomes in modest houses in newly trendy neighborhoods are squeezed by bloated property taxes. Residents lose their view of the sky to shoddily constructed, dystopian cubes that are grossly out of proportion and character with neighboring houses.
The typical response of residential developers when challenged with these adverse consequences is that their construction increases everyone’s property value, so be grateful. This response is fallacious. It is predicated on the view of a house as an investment, rather than as one’s principle domicile.
Even if towering cubes do enhance property values, which is questionable, this is an illusory gain for most owners. The increased value can only be realized when a resident sells the house and downsizes to a less costly house, which in our overheated market translates to a lower quality of living, measured by house size and location, commute time and accessibility to essential services. Until a homeowner sells, it translates only into higher taxes. The parties who really benefit from inflated values are developers. As Rowan Moore stated in The Guardian in March, “House price inflation is an addiction. It is destructive and divisive. It is a tax by the haves on the have-nots.”
Seattle is not unique in facing the social costs of unfettered development. What does set Seattle apart, however, is the lack of effective action by government to rein in development to benefit all members of our city. The inflation of house values, the “mansionization” of neighborhoods and the decreasing socioeconomic diversity of desirable residential areas are the result of laissez-faire policies adopted by generations of Seattle politicians. These negative impacts could be ameliorated by government policy, if the political will exists.
The council should act now to stop teardowns of structurally sound affordable houses and their replacement with oversized mansions.”
Other municipalities around the country are taking steps. The Los Angeles City Council recently approved temporary restrictions on the development of homes in areas where residents have expressed frustration with teardowns replaced by mini-mansions. In the Southern California communities of La Brea Hancock, Miracle Mile and Larchmont Heights, new homes cannot be more than 20 percent larger than those they replace. In Montgomery County, Md., up to 15 percent of new housing has to be affordable.
Our City Council could bring the housing market under control by adopting similar policies, such as setting reasonable limits on how much a house’s sale price could increase above its previous value when returned to the market within one year of purchase. Another option would be to scale the capital-gains tax levied on house sales to the duration of occupancy by the owner. These actions would discourage short-term house flipping and help restore economic diversity to neighborhoods. The city’s Department of Planning and Development could institute architectural guidelines as part of its permit-review process and require that new houses be compatible with existing houses.
The council should act now to stop teardowns of structurally sound affordable houses and their replacement with oversized mansions. Upsizing houses works directly against the city’s goal of increasing affordable housing. Each new luxury house locks that lot into decades of low density and unaffordability. If the mayor and council are serious about keeping Seattle affordable, then taking this step should be straightforward.
Decisions about future growth, however, should not be ceded to developers. No doubt some readers will respond that we should let the housing market work its wonders to correct these problems. It should be clear to everyone by now, however, that the distorted market that prevails here doesn’t produce more affordable housing. It is distorted by developers and buyers who treat houses as investments and thus bid up prices to exorbitant levels, and by the replacement of modest houses with costly mansions.
Seattle is at an interesting decision point about what it wants to be when it grows up. If we value those aspects of Seattle that initially made it so attractive a place to live, then we must take actions to provide affordable housing while maintaining quality of life. Our leaders must put forward proposals that appeal to all constituencies, not just the developers who stacked the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee.