Editor’s note 1/26/16: Cities across Cascadia are taking on the challenges that come with growth, change, and welcoming newcomers to one’s community. This 2013 reflection on the core impediment to affordable urban housing still rings true today, as neighbors, planners, community leaders, and elected officials work together to envision the future of their communities.

I have written in recent months about some of the land-use rules that make inexpensive housing uncommon or illegal: roommate caps, accessory dwelling unit (ADU) rules, minimum apartment sizes and other rooming-house restrictions. What I haven’t discussed is the towering central obstacle to inexpensive housing—the elephant in the living room.

The real barrier to more housing for our neighbors

Fortunately, Slate blogger Matt Yglesias has done the job well. His concise e-book The Rent Is Too Damn High explains how tight land-use restrictions on urban density are a major ill of the contemporary United States. Enforced single-family and other low-rise neighborhoods in close-in urban zones jacks up real-estate prices, hobbles service economies’ prosperity, and turbocharges sprawl, which multiplies driving and oil consumption and carbon pollution.

Less-regulated urbanism, Yglesias argues, would allow taller buildings, which would accommodate dramatically more people, office space, and shops in the most efficient and desirable locations: close to city centers. The benefits would range from plummeting greenhouse gas pollution to surging economic productivity, from much-more affordable housing to diminishing economic inequality.

In particular, Yglesias criticizes low-density rules such as zoning for single-family houses. He writes, “Currently, the vast majority of land in and near American cities is regulated so as to restrict density.”

“Currently, the vast majority of land in and near American cities is regulated so as to restrict density.” -Matt Yglesias
Tweet This

He’s right, of course. Almost two-thirds of Seattle’s zoned land is zoned for single-family houses, and other cities aren’t too different. If Cascadian cities freed their urban land markets of height and density restrictions, we’d likely see a wholesale re-centralization of cities. Close-in neighborhoods would stretch upwards. High-rise and mid-rise neighborhoods would leap skyward around our downtowns and spread outward to replace most districts of single-family houses within an easy bike ride of employment centers and universities. The centrifugal sprawl of recent decades would slow or stop, as real-estate demand rushed inward to the places where people actually prefer to live, work, shop, and play.

Imagine a three-dimensional map of the city where you live, like the topographic models you can see at the visitor centers of national parks. On this map, however, height reflects not elevation but land value—the price per square foot of the city’s land. On a map like this, your city looks like Mount Rainier, a cone rising toward its summit at the center of downtown. Downtown properties sell for many times as much per square foot as do properties on the city’s periphery.

In a city where municipal code did not restrict density, the height of buildings would form a similar pattern. The city itself would approximate a three-dimensional map of its land values. Land values are reflections of how much people are willing to spend to live, work, or shop at those sites. At the most sought-after sites, many people are willing to spend generously, so developers can construct tall buildings and still profit.

Yglesias’s short book is a sustained argument that cities and nations would benefit greatly, as would personal prosperity and the environment, if cities would just let property owners build as much real estate as people wanted to pay for.

The problem with Yglesias’s vision of dramatically upzoned—or deregulated—urban land use is not economic. Sure, there are legitimate arguments for some height and design rules, to protect some key view corridors, for example. But the real problem with his argument is political. The process of permitting increased density is advancing in Cascadia, but it is advancing slowly, step by step. Progress is slow because the opposition of homeowners in low-density neighborhoods can be fierce.

Like what you're reading? Here's how Seattle can open up its single-family zoning to those who are not rich.

Yes, in my own backyard

I hope to live in a Cascadia someday in which Yglesias’s argument has mostly prevailed. Where I do live is in a single-family neighborhood in Seattle’s Ballard district.

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Jeff Thompson & Paula Rees for supporting a sustainable Cascadia.

  • A few years ago, I attended a block meeting in a neighbor’s dining room. One neighbor enthusiastically reported on a new local sustainability organization. I listened as my neighbors discussed with universal approval recent progress in expanding the local farmers market, installing rain gardens, developing renewable energy projects, and planning better transit service. I listened quietly, happy to hear my neighbors’ interest in the cause that’s been my life’s work.

    Then something happened that reminded me how far we still have to go. Asked what the goal of Sustainable Ballard was, the presenter replied, half jesting, “To stop the end of the world.”

    The questioner said, “End of the world from what?”

    Then a loud voice said, “Condos.” It was a joke, but the group’s reaction was not.

    The problem with Yglesias’s vision of dramatically upzoned—or deregulated—urban land use is not economic. …The real problem with his argument is political.
    Tweet This

    The growth of mid-rise condo buildings is a key part of making Ballard a dense, walkable, vibrant, low-carbon community—more important to sustainability than anything we’d previously discussed. But the room erupted in revulsion, as if condo builders were drilling for oil, rather than providing walkable housing at a market-supported price for our future neighbors. No other topic that evening generated the vociferous intensity that condos did. My green-minded, farmers’ market-loving neighbors regaled each other with how much they hated the condo buildings rising half a mile away near the neighborhood shopping street.

    Right question, wrong answer

    This anti-density attitude remains, sad to say, the political reality in most of Cascadia’s single-family zones, and it yields a sort of collective pathology of scratching an itch in the wrong place. Cities sworn to aggressive climate-action plans and bound by comprehensive plans that aim for sustainability—even, in the case of Vancouver, BC, becoming the “greenest city in the world”—nevertheless expend most of their public effort trying to induce modest changes: home energy retrofits, school-based solar cells, expensive new rail transit projects. At the same time, though, they never discuss the fact that they have for decades outlawed the density that would bring about sweeping reductions in energy consumption per capita. As Yglesias writes, “It’s a scandal that this country underinvests in mass transit, but it’s equally scandalous that we under-permit construction near the transit we have built.”

    For this political reason, it makes sense for city leaders to focus on opening up rules for roommates and ADUs and rooming houses, rather than attempting wholesale upzones. Yglesias is right on the money, but my neighbors aren’t ready to hear it… yet.

    Watch here: The power of building small.