I have to admit that I’m a little confused by this guest op-ed in the Seattle P-I criticising Seattle’s proposed high-rise development for exacerbating low-income housing problems.  The crux of the argument:

The past 30 years have seen the greatest development boom in our city’s history since the turn of the 20th century. During that same period, however, we have seen an explosion in the numbers of homeless people and of working households living on the economic margins that are paying 50 percent and 60 percent of their meager incomes for housing. We have also seen a growing movement of lower-income racial minorities out of the city into south King County in search of affordable housing.

No amount of increased density is going to answer the question of where these people—many of whom perform essential clerical, service and retail tasks—are going to live, especially when increased density comes at the expense of the existing supply of affordable—mostly rental—housing. With the combined effects of the high cost of new construction, developers’ profits, demand for higher-end housing and the evaporation of government subsidies for low-income housing, changing the city’s zoning laws to allow greater density is more likely to hurt than help our affordable housing supply.

I hate to quibble with this, since I share some of the author’s concerns—I’m very interested in strategies for providing affordable housing for those at the bottom end of the income scale.  But I am genuinely baffled about a couple of the author’s points.

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  • First, there’s this:  I have no idea what he means when he says that we’re on the tail of the biggest development boom of the last 100 years.  According to the US Census, Seattle’s population in 2000 finally surpassed the level it reached in 1960.  From 1960 through 1980, the city’s population declined (largely due to declining household size).  From 1980 through 2000 it rose, and it’s increased a bit since 2000 as well.  So the last 30 years saw Seattle’s population grow in the range of, oh, 70,000 people.  But compared with any 30 year period from 1900 through 1975, that growth rate was simply anemic, both in absolute and percentage terms.

    So unless the author has some specific definition of "development boom"—perhaps related to the big downtown office high-rises—no, the past 30 years have decidedly not seen the "greatest development boom in [the] city’s history since the turn of the 20th century."  Not by a long shot.

    Second, and more generally, I’m a little confused about the hostility towards density per se as undermining housing affordability.  I mean, if there hadn’t been a condo boom in Belltown, or new low-rise development in neighborhood centers, would real estate be more affordable for the poor than it is now? It’s hard to see how: housing would be scarcer, meaning that people with high incomes would be competing for a more limited pool of available housing. I don’t know if anyone’s looked at this in any depth, but it seems like the latter scenario—no new development and tighter housing markets—could be worse for people who rely on low-income or subsidized housing.

    In fact, the only no-housing-growth scenario that would seem to maintain or increase the supply of low-income housing in the city center would be one of urban decay—with jobs and high-income folks fleeing the center city to the suburbs and urban fringe.  (Think, e.g., the hollowed-out urban cores of some rust belt cities.)  Is that kind of concentrated poverty really better for the poor? I think the experience of the last few decades suggests not.

    Now, I think it’s both fine and fair to criticize Seattle’s plans for new high-for not doing enough to address the problems of low-income housing. I think that providing low-income housing is a laudable goal, and expanding the supply of housing that’s affordable to low income folks (or, better yet, improving their incomes) should be a part of a larger strategy to address problems of poverty and of sharpening income disparities.

    But I’d hate to have someone read an article titled "Density won’t make housing affordable" come away with the impression that the only real alternative to increased density—ie., rampant low-density development at the urban fringe—will.