Posts Tagged ‘Affordability’

Affordability and that pesky “American Dream”

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

The single biggest challenge to true growth management, and therefore the strongest driving force behind suburban sprawl, is in fact the average American household’s pursuit of the “American dream” – which ultimately becomes a very personalized definition of “affordable housing.”

The real barrier?

While the “American dream” is often loosely defined as one’s own tidy single-family home on a sizable piece of property behind the proverbial white-picket fence, in fact this dream is a moving target, influenced not only by the marketing machines of corporate homebuilders, federal tax policy, and even cable television, but also by still lingering suburbanite fears of “urban living.”

While growing up in my family of five in eastern Bellevue in the 1960’s I lived in what was then deemed a model of middle-class housing. Yet that same 1600-square-foot, three-bedroom, 2-bathroom house on a large lot is today considered substandard by most even two- or three-person families seeking new housing.

With new homebuilders and the massive media storm that has grown around them bombarding American society with imagery and messaging meant to convince us all that we should live in 3,000-plus-square-foot “faux chateaux” in the distant-most exurbs, the tidy, comfortable, and, yes, more modest suburban homes of yesteryear pale in comparison.

As a result, when today’s small family laments that they cannot “afford” a house unless they move out to the exurban fringe on yesterday’s farms and forestland it’s often because they cannot afford the current media-driven image of what they should afford. In fact, 15- to 30-year-old suburban homes in first- and even second-ring suburbs are far more affordable than houses in the brand-new subdivisions but are often overlooked. (more…)

Musings on affordability

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

We often hear the “30% of income” statistic used to define housing affordability. This is clearly inadequate. No one statistic will recognize our wide variables in lifestyle and situation. A suitable housing cost can be very different, for example, if a person doesn’t have a car, has a big family, doesn’t have a family, eats for free at a restaurant job, spends half their income on medical bills, etc.

If your expenses are mostly housing and food, paying 30% for housing seems downright quaint, however admirable and however great for retirement savings.

If a single metric is useful, how about 50% for housing plus transportation? It’s not perfect, but it’s much closer to the truth for pretty much everyone.

Local governments can do great things to encourage affordability. Some are happening now, and some aren’t.

First, take this...
Helping people live well without cars is a big start. It’s already easy for some people, but not enough. This means more housing near jobs and near transit, as well as better transit. It means corner stores, supermarkets, and other conveniences. Car sharing, taxis, and bike routes all help. We don’t have enough taxis because we don’t have enough customers, partially because we don’t have enough taxis. Again I’ll recommend a Seattle-only measure to increase bus service, since many neighborhoods are barely touched by Metro’s and Sound Transit’s planned improvements, and never will be with the 80/20 requirement.

Housing construction is expensive, and some of it is our own fault. Buildable sites are expensive because not enough land is zoned higher than what’s already there. Seattle’s famous “process” adds significant cost and risk for every project. We’re tacking on massive new fees onto projects above the older zoned heights. We’re disincentivizing new construction even though new supply is our greatest weapon to avoid SF/NY prices.

More on that: I don’t mean the new supply is affordable, because construction is expensive. But new supply means less demand for the old supply. That allows the old supply to gradually become cheaper over the years. That’s why the middle-class housing of 1920 or 1970 is generally more affordable today. (And the opposite is why similar housing in San Francisco or Manhattan is still outrageously expensive.)

Major kudos to the City for reducing parking requirements. This is already paying off as developers are developing parking in line with demand, rather than the average nimby’s idea of demand. The savings are dramatic for every space not built, and some projects that didn’t pencil with 25 spaces now pencil with 20 (with garage geometries, even one added space will sometimes trigger new costs in the hundreds of thousands).

In the third-rail department, our own expectations are part of the problem. In the US we tend to think 2,000 square feet is necessary for a family, and 800 square feet is barely livable for an individual. Basically we think we’re entitled to what much of the world would consider out-of-reach luxury. Why can’t a couple with two kids live in a two-bedroom apartment on a quiet street a few blocks from a park, at least until their careers advance a little?

What is affordability?

Monday, January 12th, 2009
Is Seattle affordable?
Words like affordable, sustainable and livable are thrown around regularly in conversations about how Seattle should grow.

But we want to know what these words actually mean, and how the city can acheive them.

In today’s DJC, SeattleScape blogger Roger Valdez introduces the topic of affordability.

On next week’s editorial page, we will run brief comments provided by members of the community, including elected officials, organizers and A/E/C industry players. (We asked them all to answer the question: “What is affordability and what can Seattle do to achieve it?” in under 50 words.)

Bloggers at SeattleScape will also take on the debate over the next few weeks. We hope you will join the conversation by commenting on the blog or emailing your comments to me at