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A look at how Seattle's housing got so expensive

The reasons lie in a long list of decisions by our citizens and our city officials. But there are some things we can do to help bring prices down.

Kauri Investments

Affordable housing is a concept that is tossed around by citizens and politicians alike. It is something that we all agree should exist for people of varying income levels. Yet, as our housing prices continue to soar and our vacancy rates remain miniscule, we need to examine why housing prices and rents are getting beyond the means of so many.
Allowing off-site parking would permit more apartment units to be built at this Northgate complex, while better utilizing existing parking spaces such as this nearby lot.

Why isn’t more housing being developed in a market as strong as ours? Why is there such a discrepancy between the number of new jobs in our city (50,000 in the last five years, according to the city of Seattle’s Strategic Planning Office) and the number of new housing units being built (a net increase of only 7,900 units added during the same time period)? The reasons lie in a long list of decisions by our citizens and our city officials.

In Seattle over 72 percent of the land is set aside for single-family houses. Only about 14 percent is zoned multifamily and although multifamily is allowed in some commercial zones, the amount of land available is very limited. In addition, many single-family homes continue to be situated in multifamily or commercially zoned. Given the finite amount of land, we need to build more housing in all zones, but especially in the high-density zones and on commercially-zoned land.

Starting in 1982, Seattle dramatically reduced the capacity to create new housing in multifamily and commercial zones. First, by reducing the area where multifamily housing could be built, and then by reducing the size of the multifamily buildings allowed.

Although the city increased the capacity to build housing in commercial zones in 1986, within two years it reduced that capacity by requiring commercial uses on the streetfronts (many times in areas that could not support that use) and reducing the amount of housing that could be built on each site. By 1994, 50 percent of those streetfront commercial spaces sat vacant, according to a study conducted for the city of Seattle.

During the same time, the requirements for parking spaces in new developments were increased, often reducing the number of units that could be built due to the limited footprint of the land and the prohibitive costs of building underground parking. The parking requirements were implemented city wide without regard to neighborhood, except for downtown and the Denny Regrade. The cost of adding parking below ground is between $20,000 and $30,000 per stall, which can make the cost of building additional units prohibitive or reduce the number of units that feasibly can be built.

These factors, and many others, have limited the opportunity for new housing and driven its costs well beyond what our current market can bear in many cases. Hence, the extreme shortfall in the number of units built compared to the increase in population and job creation. Recognizing where some of the problems lie makes us better equipped to reevaluate how we approach creating more housing.

Creating affordable housing requires increasing the housing supply. Increasing the height limits in multifamily zones, specifically in Lowrise 3 (from 30 feet to 37 feet) and increasing commercial zones heights (from 30/40 feet to 65/85 feet) would allow for more units (at a lower land-cost per unit) to be built. Most of the new housing should be in frame construction, which is limited to five stories and less than 75 feet high. Construction over 75 feet must be in concrete or steel construction and is more expensive to build.

More timely and binding decisions from city departments when housing is in the approval process would also support the creation of more housing, rather than hindering it with delays and uncertainties. For example, many housing projects are delayed in the permitting process because various departments have their own requirements that increase the cost to build housing. There needs to be a concerted effort by the Mayor and the City Council to prioritizing issues relating to housing costs and lowering the cost to create new housing.

All 38 of our neighborhoods have had their neighborhood plans approved, and part of that approval process was submitting an environment review. It is redundant that we then require all future developments in those neighborhoods to submit to the expense and delay of individual environmental reviews.

Housing developments in commercial zones need to have flexibility with regard to their streetfront space uses. Those units could be designed as future commercial spaces, while allowing flexibility with regard to their use today. Allowing for off-site parking would permit more units to be built on a site, while better utilizing existing parking spaces in nearby garages/lots. There are many housing projects that would be feasible throughout the city if off-site parking were allowed. For example, we have a project near Northgate that is zoned for an additional 110 units. Without offsite parking, only about 20 units are feasible; with offsite parking, approximately 80 units could be added. The evening use of a garage by residents’ cars can be a perfect fit with typical daytime-only commercial parking users. There needs to be an overall reduction in the parking requirements, specifically in those neighborhoods close to downtown and the major transportation routes.

Once we start looking outside the box of our existing rules and regulations, we discover a myriad of ways with which we can facilitate building more housing, and thus, more affordable housing. The real challenge is getting ourselves and our city to recognize the need for a shift in perspectives. We must commit to doing what it takes to build more housing and actively assist in its development. We all need to communicate to our city councilpersons, the Mayor, and other elected officials that we expect them to make increasing the housing supply a real priority.

Jim Potter has been building and rehabilitating multifamily housing in the greater Seattle area for more than 20 years. He serves as the chair of the Greater Seattle Area Chamber of Commerce Land Use Committee and is on the board of directors of the King and Snohomish County Masterbuilders Association and chairs its Smart Growth Committee.

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