Compared to some of its counterparts, Seattle is not terribly expensive. But as population quickly grows, decision makers will have to grapple with affordability. Recently elected Councilwoman Kshama Sawant made rent control a staple of her campaign. Others believe relaxing planning rules so developers can build is the best remedy. The enigma of affordability plagues many cities, so what direction should Seattle go? Advocating "affordable housing" is not enough, a larger-scale attempt to increase the supply of diverse housing options will be needed.
While urban planners champion anti-sprawl and affordability, the rules don’t adapt fast enough to allow development in neighborhoods where people want to live the most, driving up prices. Often the worry is that adding affordable development can hurt neighborhood character, especially in historic or areas with primarily detached homes. Many areas still lack diversity in housing, and 49% of Seattle’s land-use is designated as single-family. Protecting unique urban neighborhoods is a must, but allowing new housing options can absorb supply, and when density is done correctly, can increase vitality.
One tactic already being used is “affordable by design.” Micro-units (shown above) are becoming increasingly popular, and are often half the cost of rent next door. Smaller condo units are a popular option for those who prefer urban amenities over a front yard. To preserve character, some historic neighborhoods are using re-use strategies, turning large lot homes into multiple dwelling units. Atlanta is taking it a step further with “ScadPads,” a parking garage retrofitted into micro apartments for students.
Attitudes towards housing are changing. Square footage used to be king, and the suburban home the ideal. Now, demand for large lot homes is expected to decrease, and it is estimated that half of housing demand will be for attached dwellings. As much as 80% of growth in households will be families without children, and 40% single-dwellers. Much of this growth will take place in urban centers.
Affordable housing minimums are being used (called "inclusionary" or "incentive" zoning), which can be effective, as well as politically convenient. Newly approved skyline development in South Lake Union will require 10% affordable housing. This practice should be continued, but we can’t rely on it. Requiring a small percentage of affordable housing does not solve the problem of affordability. For a sustainable solution, zoning regulations and development need to be more aggressive at bringing down housing at market rate in the long-run. A restricted housing market, and a lack of affordable units, means that ownership is only possible for the affluent.
Seattle has added 3,000 units per year to the housing supply for the last two decades, faster than San Francisco. While San Francisco has a higher stock of subsidized housing and rent control than Seattle, supply of new development is tightly restricted, and median rent is double that of Seattle. In fact, Seattle is experiencing a "building boom", and in 2014 rents are expected to be stable or even dip. The answer to the title of this blog is that we don't need to worry much...yet.
Seattle is in a good position to handle its expected growth, but we will need to be smart about how, as well as where, development takes place. A larger share of housing will need to go to smaller, attached units. Lower density areas at the edge of the city are primed to absorb supply with smarter planning and mid-rise development.
Is it possible? Can we have our growth and afford it too?
Credits: Images by Mckenna Paddock. Data linked to sources.