Creating an Affordable Place to Live in Seattle
Anushna Prakash is a recent UW graduate with a B.S. in economics and an extensive background in Japanese. She looks forward to starting a career in finance at a non-profit health insurance company in Portland, OR this July. Though she has studied abroad in Tokyo, she hopes to someday go back and dive into the economics of Japan’s fascinating housing market!
Any person who has moved to or lived in Seattle for the past decade will notice a significant change in the cityscape. Growth has occurred so quickly that the one factor blocking further construction is a shortage of cranes. While economic growth is certainly a positive for the city, Seattle residents have not been pleased to see similar growth in housing prices. Seattle has dominated rent growth lists for the past five years, with Portland, OR at a distant second (Rosenberg). Housing prices have doubled in half a decade. While many point fingers to the growth of the tech sector or foreign investors riding the rent train to turn a profit, the fact remains that rent is growing rapidly, and many residents are unable to handle the change, and many lawmakers are unwilling to. In this paper, I will show that politicians, city planners, and lawmakers have been misguidedly focusing their attention on unimportant factors contributing to rising prices, and that if growth continues at this rate, some of the most disadvantaged residents will be put economically further behind than those lucky enough to be a part of the rising tech tide. But, I will also show that not all hope is lost as there is a way for urban planners to plan a more affordable Seattle and mitigate the long-term damage that rapid rent increase has caused.
To understand the housing crisis, I will begin by reviewing the current discourse among politicians concerning the topic. Policymakers in Seattle are overwhelmingly focusing on the wrong issue to fix the housing crisis—Chinese investors. The Seattle Times reporter Gene Balk, for example, examines the relationship between Chinese investors purchasing homes in Seattle and rising housing prices and how candidates in the mayoral race respond to this information. Daniel Beekman expands upon this by focusing specifically on how race relations have come into play in the mayoral race. Mayoral candidate Cary Moon had pushed for a controversial non-resident buyer tax that “ask for a city review of vacant homes, hoping to determine just how many investors are parking their money and letting them sit empty” (Beekman). While Balk’s piece suggests that Chinese investors are not buying up properties from Seattleites, Beekman’s piece argues that a similar situation happened in Vancouver and is likely repeating itself in Seattle. There are countless articles like these two that go back and forth on the issue. Unfortunately, the evidence that rising prices can be attributed to Chinese buyers is nonexistent at worse, and controversial at best (Balk). As such, legislators are hesitant to write policies that seem discriminatory in nature, given Seattle’s ugly history of anti-Asian sentiment, like King County assessor John Wilson. Wilson refuses to participate in any legislation that, “vaguely smacks of us trying to create some kind of racially stratified list” (Balk). Those in favor of the taxes push harder and experience more resistance towards a potentially discriminatory policy. Meanwhile, The Seattle Times and other news sources continue to speculate on the issue.
While I understand the preoccupation with trying to attack foreign investors who could be artificially inflating housing prices, these articles show that the current discourse is misplaced. The discourse has almost entirely become about race and who is buying properties (rich Chinese people) and preventing them from buying, rather than who is unable to buy property (non-knowledge sector workers, the working class, minorities who often make up those classes) and helping them. The issue has become such that either policymakers like Moon believe that the Chinese are at the root of the problem, or policymakers like Wilson believe that the issue is too racially charged and would rather do nothing to the effect of continuing the fruitless debate. If Chinese investors were truly the issue, which there is little evidence to currently support, policymakers should be focusing on is the actual profit-seeking behavior of buying properties and letting them sit empty, regardless of the nationality of the buyer. However, even this misses the point. Housing has become needlessly focused overwhelmingly on targeting Chinese investors (whose affect on the housing market remains to be seen) instead of meeting the needs of the constituents who are being left behind. Preventing housing prices from rising further is certainly an important goal, but it focuses on the end of the spectrum of housing that the working class cannot reach and is thus irrelevant. While the heart of the politicians focusing on this issue are in the right place, the conversation is being misdirected to the detriment of Seattleites who must watch home prices rise while policymakers slowly debate controversial laws with nothing to show for it.
It is not just policymakers who have been slow to react—city planning is also failing to meet the needs of Seattle residents by continuing to use mixed-use zoning. In “Planning for Mixed Use: Affordable for Whom?”, Markus Moos argues that the mixed-use style of city planning fails to improve housing affordability. Mixed-use zoning is a policy that is widely advocated in North America for its ability to increase density, promote active transportation, and add diversity to cities, but “… findings suggest that housing in mixed-use zones is increasingly affordable only to those workers who are already in the best position to pay increasing housing costs” (17). These results are particularly dreadful news for Seattle, a city that “practically wrote the book on mixed-use development” (“Mixed Use Residential”). Both current discourse on the topic and current city planning is systematically failing to meet the needs of residents who earn lower incomes on average, and work in the industries that are hit hardest by effects of mixed-use zoning: “those working in social and public service, trades, cultural, sales and service, and manufacturing occupations” (17).
To compound these problems, the zoning regulations for areas that are ripe for development are far too strict to promote any sort of growth within the city. Currently, lawmakers and politicians who often are in favor of increasing the housing supply are too strict in their restrictions on where this can occur. They are often referred to as the “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) group. The issue with strict zoning restrictions on where new housing can be built is that working-class citizens cannot afford to live where their labor would be most productive (Moos 93). Instead, these NIMBY politicians push for housing to be developed elsewhere, often further away from the heart of the city, which is often where service workers and other members of the working class are required the most.
This is a similar problem that African Americans experienced from the early 1900s to even today in trying to find affordable housing. For decades, the U.S. government was complicit in segregating African Americans via housing policies. As Richard Rothstein writes in The Color of Law, “local and federal officials began in the 1910s to promote zoning ordinances to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes that lower-income families of all races could not afford” (48). Whether intentionally or not, NIMBY groups end up promoting this same kind of zoning when they wish for Seattle to grow, just “not in my backyard.” They prevent affordable housing from being built in neighborhoods that could take the extra capacity, which ends up affecting low-income households and the minorities that make up that group. Many inequalities were created by and stemmed from the housing ordinances that white policymakers made in the early 20th century, and its effects are still being felt today (Rothstein viii). If policymakers are not wary looking forward, they could very well end up recreating a similar situation, intentionally or not, and the situation already is looking dire for low-income earners.
There is a real harm to having slow-moving policymakers and city planners try to combat a complicated and quickly changing problem. In terms of housing affordability, there are many studies that have explored the effects of poor housing affordability on a community, and the consensus is that poor affordability has long-term effects, on people who are already disadvantaged. Zhu Xiao Du, for example, suggests that even when renting is relatively cheap, homeowners experience more long-term wealth than their non-homeowning counterparts. His study essentially concludes that someone’s parallel universe twin who is the exact same except for the one decision to buy a home rather than rent will come out on top financially after only seven years (288). While the result is quite unfortunate by itself, it is important to consider the reality that there is already fundamental and deep-rooted difference in the classes of people who can and cannot afford to buy houses. Those who belong to the working class or low-income households have the most trouble clawing their way into a higher tax bracket and could stand to gain the most from purchasing property. Yet, the only ones who are eligible to do so earn substantial incomes to begin with, and therefore have less to gain. As Rothstein suggests, the effects of the housing ordinances from a century ago are still present today, and Du’s study certainly gives credence to that statement. The failures of the government to fix housing affordability only serves to widen the already widening financial gap between the working class and the “knowledge economy” class (Moos 11).
Despite knowing the effects of a lack of affordable housing, many have tried to cast aside the approaching housing crisis as simply a natural result from economics. Those who argue this say that the reason housing prices are rising so quickly is simply a matter of supply and demand: Seattle is becoming a prime location to live and those who can afford to live here will raise prices so that they can indeed live here. I find this argument, while based in truth, dismissive and close-minded. To say that a complicated market like housing in Seattle is ultimately just due to supply and demand is reductive. There is real evidence that zoning policies affect housing prices (Moos, 93). And, there is evidence that the government has stuck its nose in housing before, for less admirable reasons (Rothstein). Regardless, even if this problem were just because of supply and demand, that does not mean that policymakers should give up on trying to mitigate the effects. For example, supply and demand drives companies to want to offer the lowest possible wages to their workers, yet we have instituted minimum wage policies because having such incredibly low wages would greatly harm those who must accept them in the labor market. In the same way, there are ways to help lower the rate of price increases for housing, and historical reason to do so. To do otherwise would promote a classist view that low and middle-income class people do not deserve to live in Seattle because of economic forces that are feasibly controllable.
Fortunately, there is hope yet. There is a way to plan an affordable city that will not continue to worsen current socioeconomic gaps and still cater to the changing needs of a rapidly growing city. The answer lies in the paper “Planning an Affordable City” by Roderick J. Hills and David Schleicher. They argue that “binding and comprehensive urban planning… could be part of an antidote for regulatory barriers strangling our housing supply” (91). Counterintuitively, by creating a binding plan for future land use that is updated regularly like a budget, city planners can promote liberal land-use procedures and free up future zones for residential housing that benefit the lower income classes. Basically, this works by disincentivizing NIMBY lawmakers from hindering development in their backyards. Hills and Schleicher write, “Even when voters and legislators all acknowledge the overall need for more housing, individual legislators oppose individual developments in their own districts for fear of getting more than their fair share of housing growth. Binding comprehensive plans… [allow] legislators to create ‘contracts’ across electoral districts, aided by mayors, who… are usually the most pro-development figures in local governments” (95). In this way, the wishes of both parties are honored: legislators do not have to worry about their neighborhoods being overdeveloped, and the mayor can build a plan that incorporates low-income housing for those who truly need it. The overall result is that more housing is developed that specifically caters to the needs of those who require it most. It is an opportunity to provide a voice to the working class and integrate them into existing neighborhoods, rather than push them further away from their workplaces.
Seattle is currently facing a major housing problem. Anyone who lives here is aware of this and realizes how deeply this issue can affect their finances and subsequently their quality of life for years to come. While the debate rages on about whether the wealthy Chinese are to blame about our current situation, the necessary actions to improve it remain to be seen. Seattle continues to promote mixed-use development, and NIMBY politicians are hesitant to share the space available in their neighborhoods. Something must be done, and luckily for Seattle residents, there is a way to move forward from here. While it will certainly not be easy to get politicians to agree about land-use in an entire city, it is necessary in the effort to promote affordability moving forward. To do otherwise would mean intentionally averting one’s eyes from the masses of people who require affordable housing the most: the low-income earners and the working class. Seattle is certainly not the first city to experience affordability problems, but if politicians and city planners can cooperate long enough, it could be one of last.
Beekman, Daniel, et al. “Proposed Seattle taxes targeting foreign buyers, investment properties take fire.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 24 Aug. 2017, www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/proposed-seattle-taxes-targeting-foreign-buyers-investment-properties-take-fire/.
Di, Zhu Xiao. “Do Homeowners Achieve More Household Wealth in the Long Run?” Journal of Housing Economics., vol. 16, no. 3/4, 2007, pp. 274–290.
Guy, Gene Balk. “Chinese millionaires pick Seattle as No. 2 place in the world to live, survey shows.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 27 July 2017, www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/chinese-millionaires-pick-seattle-as-no-2-place-in-the-world-to-live-survey-shows/.
Hills Jr., Roderick M. and David Schleicher. "Planning an Affordable City." Iowa Law Review, vol. 101, no. 1, Nov. 2015, pp. 91-136. EBSCOhost, offcampus.lib.washington.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=110842733&site=ehost-live.
“Mixed-Use Residential.” Weber Thompson, www.weberthompson.com/splash/178.
Moos, Markus. “Planning for Mixed Use: Affordable for Whom?” Journal of the American Planning Association., vol. 84, no. 1, 2018, pp. 7–20.
Rosenberg, Mike. “Seattle Home Price Growth Is Nearly Double Any Other U.S. City.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 26 September 2017, www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/seattle-home-price-growth-is-nearly-double-any-other-u-s-city/.