With new information about housing costs and trends in hand, Seattle should pause and reassess whether its “affordability” policies are working.
Evidence is accumulating that Seattle needs to reconsider “affordability” policies that are falling short of their promise.
There’s a strong argument that in several ways, the city is making things worse, especially for the middle class, immigrants and others that it’s professing to help.
So before proceeding with proposals for sweeping upzones, allowing more and bigger apartment complexes in single-family neighborhoods, city officials should pause to assess what’s working and what isn’t with their “build, baby, build” approach.
Given the current 100-year flood of apartment construction, they should clarify whether additional upzoning is worth the cost to livability and long-term affordability, and who will benefit from the upzones.
This is a safe time to pause. Some developers and their lenders are taking a closer look at their pipeline, in light of the glut of recent construction.
Consider what’s happened in the last three years. Tens of thousands of new apartment units were developed, breaking city records.
Apartment supply around downtown will increase 25 percent from 2016 through 2018, according to an appraisal done for King County last summer.
The appraisal, which evaluated the potential of developing housing at Convention Place transit station, offers a refreshingly unbiased look at Seattle’s rental market.
Average rents continue to increase — they’re up about 8 percent over last year — but that can be misleading. The average is skewed upward by new apartments that rent for much more than older units.
Factoring out new construction, average rent increases in the area have been about 3.4 percent a year since 1997, the appraisal notes.
Forecasters expect the construction spree will lead to higher vacancy rates this year and next, but the strong local market will absorb the supply. Meaning: Don’t count on rents falling much, if at all.
None of this means Seattle’s a cheap place to live — those days are gone. Nor does it diminish the difficulty some have paying rent.
But it raises questions about whether this is a crisis requiring radical changes in land use that will forever alter the city’s character, especially if the benefits are uncertain.
The Census provides perspective. It reports that in 2015, two-thirds of Seattle renters (67 percent) paid under $1,500 per month for housing and 35 percent paid under $1,000 per month.
So, should the city encourage more replacement of older, relatively affordable housing stock with new and bigger buildings that drive rents higher? Does that hurt or help affordability?
Yes, the city’s new policies also require new buildings to provide a few affordable units. But that’s creating too few units to move the needle.
Then there are the issues of housing the impoverished, largely through subsidies, and addressing homelessness. They should be discussed separately — they aren’t driving the push to rezone middle-class neighborhoods and build apartments within view of Amazon.com headquarters.
The latter is justified by Seattle’s ambiguous, quixotic pursuit of affordability. The city should consider the true cost of this journey.
Recent growth is overwhelming roads, transit, parks and schools. This diminishes livability and reduces affordability, because residents must pay for new infrastructure through taxes that increase their monthly living cost.
Pausing would also give the city a chance to assess how its apartment-centric policies are affecting homeownership.
Just over half the city’s residents live in owned homes and more would like to, yet its policies call for reducing the supply of single-family homes.
Homeownership provides stability, the opportunity for upward mobility and true affordability over the long term. This benefits lower-income and immigrant communities, enabling them to join the middle class and build wealth to support and educate their children.
By deliberately shrinking the supply of houses, Seattle’s pushing their price higher and raising the barrier to ownership.
This is happening as millennials — for whom the flood of new apartments was largely aimed — are increasingly becoming homebuyers.
Utopian visions of urban workers all living in apartments near their office towers fade when the tech workers get married, have kids and start shopping for a house. This helps explain why Pierce and Snohomish counties now lead the nation in domestic in-migration.
To recap, if policies favoring apartment development lead to higher rents, higher costs for existing residents and fewer options for residents as they age and start families, who benefits and what’s the true goal?
Seattle voters should ask these questions this year as the mayor and two citywide council positions are up for election.
Employers and surrounding communities should also monitor the situation since the regional economy depends on Seattle remaining a reasonable and attractive place to live and work, with a diversity of housing options.