Seems like there’s been a rash of anti-density columns in Seattle of late. First there was last week’s Mossback column in the Seattle Weekly (which I discussed here). Then, on Saturday,  P-I columnist Joel Connelly got into the action with this chestnut in a piece about Seattle’s struggling middle class:

Are working families going to move into the higher buildings and downtown condos championed by Mayor Nickels? Not likely. The new living space seems intended for affluent empty nesters.

Granting Connelly his due:  that may well be right.  But if so, it’s exactly the sort of thing that would help middle-class families who are being squeezed by high housing prices.

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  • The developers who are planning to build some of the downtown residential high rises are probably hoping, very much, that they will be in demand by empty nesters—folks who’d like to downsize from the single-family homes where they raised their kids, and are looking for a slightly less expensive and more manageable abode.  In fact, for the developers, it would be a dream come true if that happened, since some empty nesters would have a fair bit of cash on hand if they sold their homes.

    But what happens when a lot of people sell their single-family homes?  Well, if the number of single family homes on the market goes up, then their price should go down—or, at a minimum, not rise quite so quickly. 

    Which goes to the heart of the matter:  all else being equal, building more housing tends to make housing less expensive.  And one reason that housing prices are rising so quickly is because there’s just not enough of it to meet the current demand. Of course, the supply of single-family homes with yards within city limits is pretty much fixed, which means that just about the only way to build more housing is to build a) small accessory dwelling units (also called grandma flats), b) townhouses, or c) multifamily housing, such as apartments or condos.  (Well, you could also cover Lake Union with houseboats, but let’s not get into that here…)

    This is all pretty basic stuff, but apparently it’s easy to lose sight of. 

    In fact, it seems to me that some folks who are so critical of increasing density are confusing cause with effect.  They see the cost of housing going up; they see new condos being built, and proposals to build even more; and they figure the new construction is causing the price increases.  That’s sort of silly, when you think about it:  the pressure for high-rises, new apartments and condos, etc., is an effect of high housing prices, not their cause. In fact—and at the risk of anthropomorphising an abstraction—new condo construction may be an example of the market’s invisible hand trying to bring housing supply into line with demand.

    In terms of affordability, if there’s one hidden danger with the new construction, it’s this:  if you build intersting neighborhoods with abundant housing, nice amenities and a good mixture of stores and services, you may also be creating the kinds of places where people really want to live.  The sort of neighborhoods that people are willing to pay a premium to be a part of.  So if you do too good a job of creating nice places to live throughout the city, then people will start migrating to Seattle for its high quality of life. 

    Which is, in many ways, a nice sort of problem for a city to have.