In his recent Op-Ed, University of Washington Professor Jonathan Warren argues that free market development, not a lack of housing supply, is primarily to blame for the housing crisis. We, as university colleagues engaged in issues of housing affordability and land-use policy, are compelled to respond.

We agree that the government must play an important role in addressing the affordable housing crisis. This involvement can and should take multiple forms, including rental subsidies, production subsidies, and public development or acquisition of housing.

Fortunately, Seattle is doing just that. It currently lists 15,600 city-funded rental units across 328 buildings. In 2021, the Seattle Office of Housing dispersed $138 million to support the development of affordable rental housing. In addition, the Seattle Housing Authority owns and manages more than 8,000 units of publicly-owned housing. While vital, the scale of these investments has not met the magnitude of the affordable housing crisis. Expansion of these, or similar, efforts is essential.

Remove the barriers to building more affordable housing

Where we diverge with Warren is on his arguments related to housing density. Currently, about 70% of Seattle’s residentially zoned land is reserved for detached, single-family homes at suburban density. Academic research on this topic overwhelmingly supports the notion that the protection of single-family zoning has constrained housing supply and increased prices. But these forms of land use have exacted other costs on our community. Single-family zoning limits the variety of housing types needed by our increasingly diverse population. By its exclusionary nature this zoning has also contributed to racial segregation, limited access to homeownership for households of color and, as Warren notes, exacerbated the climate emergency we collectively face.

We believe, and the vast majority of the scholarly evidence corroborates, that density is a necessary but insufficient condition for addressing the housing affordability crisis. We agree that land-use changes alone won’t ensure affordability, but achieving affordability without increases in density is inconsistent with the evidence. 

For the past decade, job growth in our region has outpaced housing production, which has produced a regional shortfall of 46,000 units of all types of housing, not just subsidized affordable housing. Seattle is among a number of cities nationally where this is the case and all follow a consistent pattern of steadily rising housing costs and increased rates of homelessness. Failure to supply sufficient housing drives prices higher and increases housing precarity.

Our region continues to be a desirable location for employers and residents. The Puget Sound Regional Council projects that our region will need an additional 810,000 housing units to accommodate our growing population between now and 2050. Building sufficient housing to close this gap — with existing land use — is next to impossible. An insufficient supply of housing harms incumbent residents, not highly compensated imports. Without enough housing, existing residents will face increasing housing costs and high rates of displacement, exacerbating the troubling trend of the last two decades.

We welcome greater public sector involvement in the development of affordable housing but also recognize that market rate development has an important role to play. The scale of the shortfall requires participation from all sectors of society and there is no one solution because there is no singular problem. Regardless of the strategies we pursue to address this crisis, we cannot afford to preserve exclusionary and environmentally destructive land-use policies while doing so.