A month ago, the Seattle City Council passed the latest in more than a century of laws across the Northwest and beyond to improve the safety and health conditions of rental housing. Without a single “no” vote, council members required all landlords to register their units and submit to periodic inspections.

A bold victory for sustainable communities? I’m not sure. I do not know enough about the particulars of this policy to pass judgment on it. But it makes me nervous. In fact, I fear it is a move in exactly the opposite direction from where housing policy ought to be going. Where it ought to be going is toward repealing a raft of restrictions that effectively ban inexpensive housing in complete, compact communities. Repealing these rules, I believe, is the single largest sustainability opportunity that most cities have within their legal authority.

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  • I do not mean to impugn the motives of most urbanites, who tend to support the full range of housing rules. Their intention, no doubt, is to make property owners do right by tenants, even if it means cutting into landlords’ profits. My fear, however, is that for every chiseling slumlord the new rule forces to straighten up and fly right, it may scare another potential landlord away from putting an apartment on the market. How many homeowners toying with the idea of adding a mother-in-law unit in the basement will skip the project because of the extra cost and hassle of registering and seeking inspection? How many inexpensive rental buildings will convert to condos serving more-affluent families? How many property owners will throw up their hands and take their units off the market? I do not know. Perhaps the policy will have no unintended consequences, but we have reasons to be anxious that it will.

    Here’s an analogy to illustrate those reasons.

    Poor people tend to wear inexpensive shoes. They buy their kicks at places like Payless, not Nordstrom. Payless shoes are known for their low prices, not their sturdiness or fashion. Still, they do their job. To improve footwear among the poor, banning the sale of inexpensive pairs would do no good. Sending shoe inspectors to Payless to confiscate “sub-standard” clogs and Oxfords would eliminate them from stores, it’s true. But it would do nothing to make good shoes affordable to poor people. Sure, some poor people would buy nicer shoes, by spending extra on shoes and less on other things. Others would buy cheap shoes on the black market. Still others wouldn’t buy footwear at all: they would go shoeless.

    This scenario is essentially what housing policy does in North America. It sets rules against “sub-standard” housing, banning the types of residential arrangements that once housed most of the North American working class: rooms that were safe and passable but small and bare-bones. Consequently, in most of Cascadia, with few exceptions, dwelling units are required by law not only to pass legitimate safety tests, such as fire-resistant construction, but also to meet a standard of accommodations aligned with society’s current, middle-class norms.

    At present, these norms include private kitchens and bathrooms, closets in each bedroom, off street parking spaces, rooms and halls and windows that exceed codified dimensions, and maximum numbers of occupants. Building inspectors close residences that do not comply with these rules. In effect, our rules have purged the Payless rental units from the market. We’ve mandated Nordstrom.

    And the consequences? Some poor people spend more on housing, while scrimping on food or heat or something else. Others live in black-market housing, illegally subletting or squatting or doubling up. Other poor people go homeless, living in their cars, shelters, and on the streets.

    For many leaders and voters, the impulse behind such rules is altruistic: we want everyone to have a decent place to live. We believe that setting standards will force landlords to do right by their tenants. We know that some landlords are greedy and dishonest, and we believe that mandating decent housing will force these weasels to provide dwellings that meet our sense of what everyone ought to have. For other voters and leaders, and for many political donors, the impulse is less admirable: they want to protect the value of their houses and other real estate by pushing from the neighborhood all “undesirables” (read: poor people). And what better way to do that than to march under the banner of “decent housing for all”?

    Whatever the motives, though, one effect of these rules is to force everyone, whether rich, middle, or poor, to pay more — often much more — for living quarters. Other side effects include deadened neighborhood business districts; increased energy use for heating and cooling; increased driving; worsened urban traffic congestion; decreased walking, cycling, and transit ridership; and boosted greenhouse-gas emissions.

    In the next few articles in Sightline’s Making Sustainability Legal series, I will document the magnitude of these effects and detail some of the ways that local laws block common-sense, affordable, green housing solutions. In my next article, I will paint a broader picture by relating some forgotten history of housing. By the end of this history, perhaps you’ll begin to share my nervousness about mandatory rental housing inspections. And more importantly, by the time you’ve finished reading the whole set, maybe you’ll agree that repealing certain housing and parking regulations could be the biggest opportunity cities have to advance sustainability.