Yesterday, to my dismay, the Seattle city council tightened rules on micro-apartments, the neo-rooming houses I lauded last year in Unlocking Home. The council, facing its first ever round of district-by-district elections next year, appears spooked by the complaints of some noisy (but not necessarily numerous) neighbors who have exclusionary attitudes. It imposed new restrictions including a requirement for two sinks in each unit (because… um… why?), design review for some micro-apartment buildings (just like the city requires for single-family houses of a similar size—oh, it doesn’t? Ok, well, because… reasons), and nearly doubled minimum floor area in some micros (because obviously the old minimum, which was about the size of a dorm room at Harvard or Stanford and was substantially more indoor space than most people now or ever before in the world have had to themselves, was a grave threat to health and livability -snark-). The new rules are perfect illustrations of the kind of banal-sounding land-use standards that have over decades pinched off much of the historic bottom end of the private housing market in the Northwest.
The rules will likely prevent construction of hundreds of inexpensive living spaces in Seattle’s most walkable neighborhoods over the next decade. It could even halt hundreds a year. I don’t have a full tally of all the subsidized affordable housing units built annually in the city, but I suspect it’s on the same order of magnitude. (Readers: can someone tell us?) The new rules are unlikely to completely squelch neo-rooming houses, but any reduction is too big a reduction. Cascadia’s largest city ought to be building housing of all types to accommodate the waves of newcomers who are already moving Northwest-ward (and possibly to prepare for the expected onslaught of climate migrants).
The entire exercise in clamping down on micro-housing was a discouraging display of pandering to the NIMBY forces that so often dominate local planning. It gets frustrating. As I wrote a year ago in the Seattle Times,
SEATTLE should stop lying to itself about affordable housing. For all our high-minded rhetoric about creating an affordable city, and for all our housing levies, the grim reality of city rules suggests that we actually want to stamp out affordable housing, not build it.
Are northwesterners who support green, affordable housing in for more frustration and disappointment in the months ahead? Let’s hope not. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has launched a task force on housing affordability. Last week, I taped a brief segment on KUOW about it, arguing that a fundamental driver of high housing prices is that so much urban land in Northwest cities is reserved for single-family houses. (It was the point that Jerrell made late last month.)
Also yesterday, I had the chance to speak at the Housing Washington conference in Tacoma, on how cities can decriminalize inexpensive housing in order to complement subsidized affordable housing strategies. (Afterward, a local leader from Yakima told the story of trying to build a homeless shelter. He said that the city council won’t let him build it downtown; instead, the city of Yakima is telling him he must put it in a warehouse district. Literally warehousing the poor. Ouch.)
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One questioner at the conference asked what political coalition might be mobilized to support legalizing inexpensive housing. I’ve been thinking about that question since.
The question reminds me of an essay that urban aficionado David Sucher wrote in 1998, when then-mayor Paul Schell organized a summit on housing affordability. Sucher wrote “Who really wants Affordable Housing? In terms of politics, basically no one.” Homeowners, mortgage lenders, investors, realtors, builders, property-tax-dependent governments, neighborhood associations: they all want housing prices to just keep rising, Sucher argued. He’s got a point.
Until we develop a power bloc—not just a righteous band of urbanists, sustainability wonks, real-estate developers, and advocates for low-income workers—I’m afraid elected leaders will keep getting spooked by NIMBYs.
The local power blocs that have a big financial stake in housing affordability are renters and employers, and neither goes to bat to increase the supply of rental housing. For one thing, many renters hope to be owners some day and don’t much care to get political. For another, some incumbent renters just want to pull up the draw bridge behind them, by pushing for short-sighted policy solutions like rent control—which locks in rents for current tenants while undermining the incentive to build new units.
Employers ought to care because expensive rental housing makes it hard to attract and retain workers, but they typically spend their political capital on other issues. In the Seattle area, when Boeing and Microsoft wade into local politics, it’s usually to support public spending on transit and roads on which their employees can get to work. They do not send lobbyists to meet with city council members in support of liberalizing rooming house regulations or legalizing in-law apartments. True, Boeing and Microsoft don’t employ many people in the aPodment demographic, but other large employers do. The biggest employers in the neo-rooming house districts of Seattle—Capitol Hill and the University District—are hospitals and universities, and they employ huge numbers of low- and medium-wage workers. The employer power bloc was notably absent from the city council chambers when the micro-housing scrum was underway.
The housing task force is notably lacking in representatives of major employers. When a Stranger reporter asked recently if the number of real-estate developers on the panel was troubling, I wish I’d said, “I’m more concerned that no one from human resources at Safeway or Swedish Hospital is on the list.” Until we develop a power bloc—not just a righteous band of urbanists, sustainability wonks, real-estate developers, and advocates for low-income workers—I’m afraid elected leaders will keep getting spooked by NIMBYs.