This guest post is by Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, a group supporting more housing in Seattle.
There are three types of land use that have generated lots of discussion and debate about how and whether Seattle grows in the next 20 years: zoning in South Lake Union; small, affordable apartments; and infill development. Who will control this growth? Who will determine how much housing will cost? How much will we build? Where will that growth happen?
We simply can’t and shouldn’t micromanage coming growth, trying to control the price of every apartment, the roofline of every new home, and the siding and color of every new apartment building. Trying to do that will slow growth, having the effect of lowering housing supply, increasing the costs to accommodate new people, and, in the end, increasing housing prices. And remember, dense cities are better for the environment, more efficiently using land, energy, aggregating demand for transit, and creating fewer climate-changing emissions per capita than sprawl.
Seattle has got to move beyond the confused notion that we can make the city more affordable and livable by imposing price controls on rental housing and trying to have a hand in the design and particulars of every new development. We’re a big city, too big to be acting like a couple rearranging furniture in their new apartment.
The broad outlines of what we need to do are pretty simple if leaders in the city can steer the debate in a different direction:
Lower Housing Prices: If we decide that housing prices are too high, then we need to increase supply (grant more building permits) and lower barriers and costs by reducing regulations and rules. Adding more process, imposing fees on new housing, and reviewing design won’t help lower prices—it will cause them to go up. A recent New York Times story reported that falling housing supply and increasing demand for housing is leading to rising prices. Nationwide prices went up 7.3 percent in 2012. "After six years of waiting on the sidelines, newly eager home buyers across the country are discovering that there are not enough houses for sale to accommodate the recent flush of demand," the paper reported.
Expand Choices: We need lots of choices for housing—from small, affordable apartments and cottages to new single-family homes. Singling out one form or another and bashing it doesn’t help. If it provides safe, healthy shelter and someone is willing to pay for it, we should permit it and let it get built.
Define Affordability: We need a better definition of affordability. I’ve suggested one called the Residual Income Model that would consider broader measures to determine what factors are making it more expensive to live in the city. Monthly housing price is only a slice of the costs of living in the city, if we can appreciably lower other costs—such as child care, health costs, and transportation—we can make it more affordable to live here. Putting price caps on housing will discourage new building and result in, surprise, higher prices.
Welcome Growth: We need to get over our selves. Yes, change is difficult. That new house or building going in down the block might end up being ugly and full of felons. That’s a risk we’re going to have to take. And in the end, the buildings and people will be just fine. We’ll forget what used to be there before and we’ll say “hello” to the new people and sit next to them on the bus. Growth means jobs, people, and more housing and buildings. These are all positive things in the end and are the things that make a city.
We will not make our city affordable by imposing price controls on a few units of housing. We will not “grow with grace” by fiddling with the details on every single new project or zoning change that is proposed. Yes, process is important, but too much is making us look like we’re a group of insular, suspicious people afraid of change. We need to stop using code language like “good density” and “density done right” the way gun nuts use “states rights” to mask their immoral support of open air gun markets.
More supply and choice in the housing market will make our city accessible and affordable to more and different kinds of people. We are an open-minded people, aren’t we? Didn’t we get all excited at the hope and change offered by Obama? What happened to that? We are going to be fine. We need to relax and welcome change. It won’t hurt a bit. I promise.