The editorial board of The Seattle Times came out in opposition to the Seattle City Council’s plan to upzone most of the city’s single-family neighborhoods. The board argues for “preserv[ing] single-family neighborhoods that are essential to [Seattle’s] livability, character and economic success.” The Seattle City Council would do well to disregard this anti-development opinion.
For context, the proposed changes are one part of mayor Tim Burgess and city councilor Rob Johnson’s new zoning plan: allowing plots in single-family zoned areas to construct separate stand-alone structures, often referred to as “mother-in-law” or “tiny” homes. Olympia, Washington is considering zoning changes to encourage the development of these smaller units, ideal for older residents with limited mobility.
The Times rests its case on two main arguments: the modest effects of the policy on housing affordability and the need to preserve neighborhood character.
Let’s address the affordability argument first. The Times maintains that the changes allowing the development of small add-on units would be “marginal.” A 2015 Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) report disagrees. Indeed, Seattle’s capacity for these smaller units is large. Only about 1% of Seattle’s 120,000 single family lots have such units, and these units “allow homeowners to earn additional income [and these units] are expected to serve moderate income households.”
Perhaps this relatively narrow proposal will have only modest effects on affordability or housing supply in the aggregate, but these effects are anything but marginal for households that decide to add another unit to their property. Adding another unit provides supplemental income, making ownership (which the editorial refers asserts as the path to “long-term affordability”) a more profitable enterprise for average homeowners.
Even if this is the case, a lack of sweeping changes isn’t a valid argument against this specific proposal. If anything, it’s an argument for greater zoning liberalization. About 70% of developable land in Seattle is zoned for single-family dwellings, and in 2017 88% of new housing was built in just 18% of the city’s land area. Meanwhile, since 1995 only 8% of new housing was built in single-family zones. If one of the fastest growing cities in the country wants to make room for new residents, it needs to expand the areas available for greater housing density.
But, the editorial board maintains, “[j]ustification for radically altering Seattle neighborhoods is evaporating. A surge of housing construction in recent years created a rental glut, with about 5,000 new units vacant regionally and 26 percent of downtown Seattle apartments empty.”
How can this be? Just because apartments are available doesn’t mean they’re affordable. From The Seattle Times’s coverage of its high vacancy rates, we get a cogent explanation for this phenomenon:
“[T]his doesn’t mean Seattle is suddenly cheap — the typical two-bedroom apartment is still above $2,000 a month. And the slowdown in the rental market follows seven years of rent hikes that totaled nearly 60 percent, among the biggest increases in the country. It’s just that things are no longer getting any worse, which, at this point, is what constitutes a victory for renters.”
In 2016, the Seattle offices of Housing and Planning and Community Development found that, on average, a renter needs to make 103% of the area median income (AMI) to afford a medium-to-large apartment unit in the city. Only the cheapest 25% of apartments are affordable for those making 60% or less of the AMI.
Clearly, more aggressive reform is needed. But whatever the economic benefits, The Seattle Times editorial board isn’t convinced. Why, the authors argue, should the Seattle City Council make such sweeping reforms that should be decided on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis?
The first reason is political. The main advantage of the not-in-my-backyard-ers (NIMBYs) is their ability to mobilize effectively in a small political arena, where those who have been priced out of the neighborhoods don’t have a voice. They have a vested interest in preserving restrictive zoning laws to keep property values higher than they otherwise would be with more liberal zoning regulations. The political dynamics of making housing decisions at the neighborhood level lend themselves more to policies that benefit property owners rather than the public at large.
Second, just because the zoning regulations change doesn’t mean every single-family home will be bulldozed. The economic incentive to develop land combined with less restrictive zoning rules means more housing will be built “up,” but the land is still privately owned, making the final decision the property owners’.
If, as the editorial implies, Seattleites don’t (or shouldn’t) want the character of the neighborhood to change, then homeowners won’t develop. But even if some homeowners decide to build “tiny homes” for their retired parents instead of having grandma move into the spare bedroom, this “marginal” increase in supply will alleviate pressure to develop elsewhere. The logic is straightforward, when there’s more housing on one plot of land, on the margin this reduces the need for more housing on others. Indeed, greater density not only allows more room for single-family homes, but for parks, monuments, and other environmental amenities.