Solutions to Seattle’s Growing Housing Crisis: Part Four


"Increase the funding for and production of public housing ten-fold, and quick."

We live in an income-tax free state that also gets to tell cities exactly how much they're allowed to tax themselves. We just doubled our housing levy under those difficult conditions. How exactly do you propose we increase it by 10x? These words, without an actual plan, are damaging.

Finance with municipal bonds. See:

It also makes us view funding for public housing as charity for the disadvantaged instead of an effective investment to balance an economy.

The bonds can be paid off with rent, it doesn't have to be charity (read:subsidized). The important factors are a) immediately providing housing at the lower end of the market, and b) removing the profit incentive from the equation.
@2 I'm open to that. But it looks like we have only about $146M in general obligation bonds. Could we double this, spend it on something as volatile as market-rate housing, and keep our rating? I don't know, but if so that'll buy us around 730 housing units. A little bit shy of fixing the problem, don't you think? It's certainly not a 10x increase in subsidized housing - I believe that's fewer new units than the levy we just passed.
I think I like this last installment best, not least for most solutions that I support. And its the part with the least emphasis on investment capital whose effects, while definitely have impacts, are slightly overstated.

Three factors into this whole complicated, perfect storm of a discussion were somewhat missed, in my opinion:

1) Housing and urban density is an absolutely critical component in fighting climate change in the near future. Almost EVERY sustainability/resiliency/planning/professional/futurist around the world sees the efficiencies in having people living under low-carbon urban models as a huge part of *surviving* by the end of the century. There is a frenzy over the internets as information/solutions-sharing/learning/trial-and-error is taking place globally at gigabit speeds.

2) Though discussed around the edges, kind of, livability in the form of housing/shelter is a huge *red flag* underscoring the effects of forty years of neoliberalism leading to monstrous income inequality. Wages have more or less flatlined since, what, 1973. Meanwhile almost all of the economic gains due to productivity over the same period have been Hoovered up to the top 1-10%. For instance, data has shown that the largest contributing factor to gentrification is not rich people moving in and driving up prices, it's people no longer being able to afford living where they do so they leave (90% of the time).

3) The United States as a country has, for most of its entire history, hated cities and actively produced federal, state and local policies that worked against their power (for fear-based, racist, classist reasons) and minimized the ability of people to form coherent, walkable, livable, dense neighborhoods. And guess what? That is EXACTLY what people want and need now. So countering at least a century of bad public policy in the form of auto-centric planning and racist, exclusionary, sprawl-based residential zoning doesn't happen overnight. We're turning a battleship of bad outcomes around. Unfortunately, the effects of these outcomes (NIMBY's!) contribute to the snail's pace of change when we need huge heaping mounds of change, like, right now given how long all of these solutions take to implement.

Lots of solutions, big and small, are available. Many are listed here. All of the above, please! The sooner the better.

One last thing.

Besides pooling resources in the form of housing cooperatives and land trusts, Minneapolis has successfully pooled their resources at the neighborhood level in the form of neighborhood investment cooperatives (NIC) where people who live in a neighborhood can pool shares of money and then begin to make some investments in their own neighborhoods as they see fit. It would be time (and capital)-intensive, BUT it would allow for some local control as to how and what gets developed and how. Personally, I think it could be time better spent coming up with solutions rather than railing at the city.
Should get rid of Boeing's $300+ million tax break too while we're at it.
Still no solution for the middle class -- families that are too "rich" for any subsidized housing, but not rich enough to buy or rent any of the market-rate housing now being built. Their only option is moving to the suburbs.
"We need to shine the klieg lights on corporate and foreign activity in our housing market to get a much clearer picture of what is happening here."

Charles, based on currently available public records, it's a simple matter to learn the identity of the buyer in any residential real estate transaction in King County. I recognize that you are apparently unwilling to perform this research on your own, but that doesn't mean that lack of transparency is a problem.
I'm into most (nearly all, even!) of these proposed solutions. It's clear that our country's homeownership fetish and use of property as a wealth generation tool breeds a lot of anti-social behavior (NIMBYism, intergenerational wealth that breeds inequality, etc.). And as our society increasingly recognizes that urban, low-carbon living is going to be a necessity if we're at all interested in combating global climate change, it's vital that we find a way to grow our cities in a way that allows people of all income levels to stay there.

The problem with most of these solutions is that they're aspirational rather than practical. I'm absolutely in favor of turning Seattle into a European model, where the government provides housing for the middle class. Do I see that happening in my lifetime, given the political climate in this country right now? Not really.

What sort of local political action will Charles' series actually breed, while he sits around waiting for the proletariat to march on DC? Knee-jerk reactionary feel good legislation like Lisa Herbold's one-for-one affordable housing replacement measure (which would have the effect of making lots of new housing projects unbuildable unless height restrictions were suddenly removed across the city - which they won't be, based on how difficult it's been to add a single story to urban villages under HALA). Rent control that will help current residents enjoy Seattle while locking out future generations (see how that's working out for San Francisco?). And perhaps most insidiously - more ammunition for the (old, white, wealthy)n slow-growth, Lesser Seattle forces who can leverage the value of their own property investments by using the "Wall Street is Raping Our City" line to oppose efforts to build more housing.

It's striking to me that under proposed solutions, Charles and Cary fail to even tangentially mention Mandatory Housing Affordability, an actual, tangible policy that is on the table right now, which would create a permanent, lasting connection between market-rate housing and affordable housing. It's more modest than a lot of us would like, but it's got a better chance of creating actual affordable housing than this masturbatory intellectual naval-gazing and howling at the moon about the injustices of global capitalism. But I assume that Charles, like a lot of the Hard Seattle Left, is too morally opposed to the concept of people making money off real estate to see the forest for the trees.
I liked this article series. However (on a more banal note) I would say that the writing style, particularly for the conclusion text, is atrocious. I typically like your writing but not your style of writing. But whatever my opinion of it, it is yours, and it is passable. This last text must have been written by your co-author. The yays, the absurd cheeriness, the chattiness, give it a way. Appallingly awful.
I'm going to piggyback on @9's comment and say that, while I didn't find the writing in this series finale "awful," I was blown away by how much space was filled up with questions. I was taught in my high school journalism class that that's weak writing; a journalist should feel confident that they have facts most readers don't know, state them, and, in an opinion or persuasion piece like yours, show how they can be linked to lead to certain conclusions.
This shit is crazy to me, why do we have to move to Seattle? Renton, Delridge, Shoreline, South Park are all a bus ride to the city
How did San Francisco do it in the Gold Rush era? It went from 500 to 150,000 residents in a very short amount of time, i think 5 years at most. Surely there's a lesson in there for us somewhere?
@12, I don't think it's anywhere comparable, but it's fun to read about that era:…
What a rambling, unfocused series of articles. I can see why The Stranger chose to publish this on its esteemed Internet blog pages instead of turning their print edition into a bizarre, inscrutable manifesto. Apparently the only solution to Seattle's immediate housing crisis is a fundamental reformation of the essentials of the modern global economy. Who knew?

The urbanist fight for density and better transportation options is not some banal, insignificant quest that should be minimized because it doesn't fundamentally transform the modern concepts of an economy. There are things we can do right now, right here in Seattle that will make positive changes in housing affordability and availability. Even without a civilization-changing global revolution.

Hey. A socialist economy and the devaluation of real estate as a financial instrument is a super cool goal, bro. But it's going to take more than a long-winded four-part internet weblog entry to change that. And it's not going to happen overnight, either.

In the meantime, the rest of the reality-based community will continue to advocate for the things Seattle can do, immediately, to make this a more livable city.

Have fun writing cool stories, bro.
We have public housing projects already, I wouldn't want to walk through them on any night.
We're 16 comments in and Mistral hasn't taken a break from blowing the entire Cato Institute long enough to post. This is noteworthy!
Good finish to the series by listing needed actions. @4's comments are a good addition. Your 3rd point (American hatred for the inherent radicalism of cities) is especially important and relates to a number of other key points, like the regressive tax structure imposed by the state legislature. This state's (and others') dysfunctional governance is not a simple D:R dynamic, being much more urban:suburban:rural.

Regarding Piketty, see this critique showing that even he has bought into the neoliberal presumption that growth must continue without end.

@8, we have to figure out how to have low-carbon lifestyles without requiring everyone to live in the dense urban centers. Every city on the planet has sprawl and moreover is intimately connected to and reliant on a vast area for ecosystem ser…, related stocks of material (metals, wood), and subject to the same risk of economic downturn due to a debt ridden casino political-economy wit….
Thank you for this in depth piece. I'm moving back to the area after 10 years away. The affordable housing issue is of significant interest to me, and your insight is helpful as I try to understand the problem.

Going forward, I would suggest as the discussion pursues solutions, the language might better support constructive dialog if you sought more inclusive terms and considered the viable perspectives of more people. For instance, as @18 indicated, tougher eviction restrictions have an adverse function as well, particularly to the local mom and pop landlords who don't have the time, inclination, or litigation support to deal with problem renters. Yet they are part of a comprehensive solution.

Denigrating any player in this complex problem will only force those who have been declared "the enemy" to fight back, rather than join the effort for a win-win solution. I believe that if we get the right minds working on it, innovative solutions are possible, even including the "evil" Wall Street investors and big banks. But it starts with respecting their position and value to the solution, beginning with the language you use to describe them and their perspective, particularly if you don't agree.

Thanks for moving the discussion forward!
Charles and Cary, why can't we attempt all of these solutions *and* unleash supply?

Why can't we also redirect the firehose of global savings into the *production* of new supply (instead of the inflation of existing housing)? I venture NIMBYs and overzealous zoning, myself.

"Let’s remove the bureaucratic barriers that prevent smaller infill projects."
C'mon, the NIMBYs and BANANAs are never going to agree with you, so go ahead and say what you really meant to say.

From the Forbes article about Germany managing their economy to achieve diminishing housing prices: "A key to the story is that German municipal authorities consistently increase housing supply by releasing land for development on a regular basis." SHOCKER.

p.s. I love non-owner occupied/pied-a-terre taxes & community land trusts; both are way too often overlooked, so I am delighted to see them in your list.
@20 (to clarify myself)

When I ask, "Why can't we also redirect the firehose of global savings into the *production* of new supply (instead of the inflation of existing housing)?" My answer "I venture NIMBYs and overzealous zoning, myself," is incomplete.

I would also add a dearth of tax code to encourage the things we want (new, additional housing) and to discourage the things we don't want (the inflation of the value of existing housing).

"Dear City Council Members and Palo Alto Residents...

...The loudest voices in the community feel that the desire to create more affordable housing is spoiled entitlement. Until renters, younger people, and people of more modest means organize, this problem will continue throughout the Bay Area."

THIS, which was published two days ago and already reverberated around the internet, is where Seattle is heading unless we move towards the emerald-green, sustainable city that we can become for all by building more housing — by any and all means necessary...
Public housing is a literal drop in the ocean. We never fund it (used to code for WA St LIH so I know that)

End all racist SFH zoning. Immediately rezone all arterial blocks as 6+2 MFH with ground floor retail daycare schools etc.

Remove all parking requirements.