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September 26, 2013 at 7:07 AM

Three ideas to solve Seattle’s affordable housing shortage

Seattle’s rental market absolutely should not go the way of New York City and San Francisco prices.

In Tuesday’s Seattle Times, reporter Sanjay Bhatt wrote a news story revealing landlords plan to increase rent by about 3 percent between September and March, on top of an estimated 7.5 percent increase over the last 12 months. Part of the problem is people in the millennial generation (born between the early 1980s and 1990s) are moving from bigger cities to Seattle. They’re accustomed to paying much more, and landlords know it. According to Bhatt’s news story:

In New York, renters in that age group spend roughly 70 percent of their income on housing, reports JLL, which compared millennial income data from to its own data on rents. In San Francisco, it’s about half their income.

In Seattle, rent consumes about 30 percent of millennials’ income.

Courtesy Sightline Institute

Courtesy Sightline Institute

There’s nothing wrong with people moving to Seattle. Quality of life here is great. If rent continues to eat up a greater portion of paychecks, though, the working poor and young adults will soon be priced out of the city’s urban core. Allowing that to happen will make Seattle less diverse and exacerbate traffic problems by forcing more people to live farther out and drive to work. Also, the more people spend on housing, they less they save or spend on food and the local economy.

In a Sept. 3 editorial, our editorial board encouraged the mayor and city leaders to pursue policy changes to increase affordable housing options.

I’m also intrigued by Sightline Institute Founder Alan Durning‘s e-book released last July, “Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Communities.” Durning, a Ballard resident and expert in sustainable living, studied the history of affordable housing throughout the northwest. In the 50-page book, he identifies three “less controversial” and politically feasible reforms that have worked. He says the city could make some simple changes in code to create thousands of additional units in existing neighborhoods. The three keys are:

  • Legalizing rooming houses. Okay, we’re sort of seeing this already with the micro-apartment housing boom, but the idea could be expanded to other large houses, vacant buildings or old hotels. Just a century ago, boarding houses were a common sight in urban areas around the country. Durning argues a “coalition of self-interested” and “well-meaning” property owners successfully banned housing for the the lower-income by pushing for regulations on occupancy limits, requiring private bathrooms and parking spaces, etc. Fast forward to today: We’re seeing a revival. Americans may like their privacy and space, but a growing number of single, child-less people are moving toward minimalism (living with less “stuff”) and renting small units with communal kitchens. Having appropriate design standards is key to making these rooming houses work.
  • Decriminalizing roommates. Seattle currently restricts housing occupancy to eight unrelated roommates. Durning says research shows that’s an ineffective policy because bedrooms in existing buildings, such as large mansions in Capitol Hill, are a source of cheap rent for tenants and extra income for homeowners. He estimates about 27 percent of Seattle bedrooms are unoccupied on any given night.
  • Increasing in-law apartments and backyard cottages. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are legal in Seattle, but homeowners aren’t choosing to rent them out because the process is so arduous. The city requires homeowners to meet strenuous design standards and mandates additional parking, occupancy and size limits.  Seattle could learn from Vancouver, B.C., where officials allow both detached and attached ADUs. They also don’t require property owners to live on site. Since 2009, Durning estimates Vancouver, B.C.’s housing capacity has risen by tens of thousands of units.

At least two city council members, Nick Licata and Sally Bagshaw, have reviewed Durning’s book. During an endorsement meeting Wednesday with our editorial board, Bagshaw expressed enthusiastic support for all three concepts. Licata was less certain, saying homeowners are wary of living next to overcrowded houses.

None of these ideas will be easy to implement, but they represent common sense thinking. Bagshaw and Licata should lead a citywide discussion.

Comments | Topics: affordable housing, nick licata, sally bagshaw


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