The Density Debate

by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox 

A 3 part series reprinted with permission from ‘Outside City Hall’ columns contained in Pacific Publishing Newspapers circulated regularly in Seattle. 

Part 1: “Runaway growth threatens Seattle’s livability but pro-growth lobby demands still more  – exposing the myth that Seattle isn’t bearing its fair share of the region’s growth” 

Every ten years, the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) requires the Puget Sound four-county area (King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap) to adjust projections for future growth, and set targets that determine where and how growth will occur.  The aim is to concentrate the region’s growth within urban areas, prevent sprawl, curb global warming, and protect the state’s rural lands and natural environment.

Twenty-year employment projections are made and then housing targets are set for each county.  It is assumed that for every two jobs anticipated in a given county roughly one new housing unit will be added.  Through negotiations, cities in turn accept a share of the county’s targets.  Then each city is responsible for adjusting its comprehensive plan and assigning a portion of its new target to each neighborhood.

In 2005’s adjustment, Seattle was obligated to provide another 47,000 housing units – about one-third of King County’s residential target—by 2024.

So is Seattle meeting its responsibilities?  The most recent city data indicates that through 2012, Seattle has added 43,309 units, including units now going through the permitting process.  In just 8 and a half years we’ve reached 94% of our city’s 20-year regional growth target.

We’re averaging over 5000 new units added per year – an unprecedented level of new construction.  The only practical limit is insufficient city staff to process permits and not enough workers and firms out there to build them at this rate.

This soaring growth rate puts enormous strains on Seattle’s infrastructure, with a $1-2 billion backlog of road and bridge repairs.  Yet Seattle remains one of the few cities in the four-county region that doesn’t require developers to pay impact fees to help cover the intense infrastructure demands caused by their projects.

The GMA specifically allows and even encourages cities to impose developer fees.  It also requires ‘concurrency’, giving cities authority to limit growth until there is the capacity and the financing needed to pay for the infrastructure necessitated by that growth. But this provision of GMA is ignored by Seattle’s leaders.

This rapid growth is occurring within the existing zoning code for Seattle and its neighborhoods.  Our elected officials recently and without public notice decided that instead of 33 percent of the county’s growth through 2024, Seattle will now accept a 36 percent share through 2031, requiring the addition of another 43,000 units between now and then.  But even with these increased targets, our city under existing zoning can easily reach that amount.  Drawing from King County’s 2007 Buildable Lands Report and then subtracting record levels of growth since then, our zoning code still has capacity for another 81,000 units.

Why then are we seeing a pell-mell rush to upzone so many of Seattle’s neighborhoods? Why upzone Roosevelt when under existing zoning, it’s reached 87% of its GMA 20-year target in 8 years? Why upzone Capitol Hill and Pike-Pine which have reached 154% and 272% of their respective growth targets?  The U-District, Southeast Seattle, Beacon Hill, Broadview/Bitter Lake, and a half dozen other areas of the city have also been targeted for upzones.

There now is a powerful pro-growth machine led by Seattle developers that dictates city land use policy.  For these interests, we’ll never have enough growth.  We’ll never reach saturation.  More is always better.  This cabal also includes a few mainstream “environmental” groups that provide “green” cover to legitimize runaway growth.  (Conflict of interest emerges when in return those groups receive and willingly accept hefty contributions from those same development interests and from city departments backing their agenda.)

Ironically there’s absolutely no recognition by these forces of the environmental impacts right here in our own city accompanying accelerated levels of growth.  What is the pouring of millions of tons of carbon-emitting concrete for all those new steel and glass towers, condos and apartment buildings doing to our city’s livability and environmental values? What is all this growth doing to our urban streams, our carbon-sequestering mature tree canopy, and what’s left of our open space?  How many more units of existing low-income housing must be sacrificed?  How many more low-income and working residents must be displaced to the gods of runaway growth?

But to the pro-growth zealots, if you raise these concerns, if you call even for managed and responsible levels of growth–you are typecast. If you say no to any more upzones or even call for more modest changes to the code (as was the case in Roosevelt); or if you ask developers to pay with impact fees for infrastructure or to help cover at least some of the costs and impacts of their projects, or pay for replacement low-income housing–you are labeled anti-environment and a NIMBY.

The push for more density and unrestrained growth demonstrates the power and influence of the interests that now have a virtual lock on City Hall.  It has nothing to do with responsible growth planning.  And it’s placing at risk the livability and affordability of our great city.

Part 2: Density does NOT produce affordable housing: Instead of “trickle down” it means displacement, gentrification, more homelessness, and an accelerated loss of our existing low income housing stock

Econ 101 textbooks offer a simple equation: More supply drives down prices. The pro-density argument to legitimize runaway growth here in Seattle is that increasing the supply of market-rate units will lower housing prices and guarantee a larger stock of affordable housing.

That’s the theory. But what does empirical experience in Seattle tell us?

For the last 35 years, since Seattle came out of its mid-1970s economic bust, periods of accelerated residential development have always directly coincided with more demolition of low-income housing, higher rents, lower vacancy rates, longer waiting lists for subsidized housing, increasing levels of homelessness and higher housing costs for all Seattleites. Each successive wave of growth leaves in its wake a growing divide between rich and poor, white and non-white in our city.

So how does the simple economic maxim of “more supply lowers prices” get turned completely on its ear? In a built-up urban environment, there’s less and less vacant land over time, and the consequence of new development means removal of the existing supply of lower-density housing. Housing that’s older, non-debt-supported and affordable gives way to new, more expensive housing.

 Following the numbers

Here are some real numbers from the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and updated through March 2012, which highlight our point. Since 2005, more than 5,000 units of housing have been torn down to make way for new residential construction. Conservatively, 3,000 of those 5,000 units that were lost served the city’s poorest renters. (Our surveys over the years of tenants in buildings facing the wrecking ball indicate that anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of these units were low-income rentals.)

As for the new units that replaced this lost housing, they’re priced hundreds of dollars above what most low-income people could afford — or even what the average wage earner or tenant in Seattle could afford.

Most new construction might provide, for example, a studio for $1,100 a month or $1,500 for a one-bedroom. The average Seattle wage earner makes about $43,000 a year and, to spend no more than 30 percent of income on housing, needs a rental at $1,075 a month. The average tenant earns around $39,000 and needs a rental below $975.

Those with incomes below 40 percent of the median, who need a rental below $700 to $800 a month, face a conspicuous shortfall. According to the King County Housing Benchmarks report, in Seattle, there are 40,000 households whose income falls below that threshold, but only 10,000 units at rents affordable to this group. In all of King County, there are some 70,000 households whose incomes are below 30 percent of area median but only 300 (you read that right) rentals affordable to that group. Consequently, there’s a long waiting list for subsidized housing.

More housing development coincides with more demolition of existing low-income housing. The expensive stuff that gets built adds to our total supply. In fact, since 2005, Seattle has built more than 35,000 new units and reached over 70 percent of its 20-year growth targets.

But even at this level of growth, the increased inventory has not reduced prices — in fact, it’s just the opposite. Prices fall when development rates fall, when the number of demolitions falls. Vacancy rates fall at these times, as well. So does homelessness. So do the waiting lists for public housing

New construction (and upzones designed to stimulate higher rates of new construction) also has the effect of driving up surrounding property values, and the resulting higher taxes get passed on in the form of higher rents. This encourages a more rapid turnover of surrounding properties — buying and selling and refinancing of existing units — which also serves to drive rents up on surrounding properties.

 Saving lower-priced rentals

No matter how much new construction we see in Seattle, it’s never enough to offset rising demand accompanying the influx of newcomers attracted to work in those shiny, new downtown and South Lake Union office towers. And we only recently upzoned downtown for another 17 million square feet of office space to ensure an influx of new workers who will raise demand even more.

If our concern really is affordable housing, our local government should intervene to slow growth down, rather than stoking the flames of rapid growth through upzones.

And what growth does occur should be preceded with mechanisms that prevent removal of existing, lower-priced units and that promote in-fill over demolition.

And when this cannot be done, let’s require developers to replace one-for-one what they remove, at comparable price.

More proactively, our city should acquire and purchase existing, lower-priced rentals before they are lost to the wrecking ball or before speculation drives rents above low-income thresholds, and transferring these buildings to nonprofit ownership, cooperatives and land trusts. Slowing growth down and reducing speculative pressure on existing units gives government more time to do this.

Simply unleashing the forces of the market by promoting more density through upzoning has only led to more displacement, higher housing costs and more inequality and human suffering in our community. And those — especially elected officials — who promote added density and rely on the myth of supply-and-demand to justify it, are guilty of abetting these trends.

Part 3:  Despite push for more density, Seattle workers are fleeing to the suburbs  –  Runaway growth in Seattle accentuates sprawl and auto dependency in the region when by contrast, a poly-centered or multi-activity centered approach to regional growth is the only environmentally sustainable option

Over the last decade, we’ve upzoned the hell out of our city.  “More density!” has become our city leaders’ mantra.  In the process, we’ve sacrificed tree canopy, urban streams and green space (not to mention signature views of the Space Needle, Sound and mountains), and demolished several thousand low-income units for denser development. It’s all been done under the banner of getting people out of their cars, curbing sprawl and saving the planet.  But has it served these purposes?

Seattle since 2000 certainly has added population and we’re at record levels of new residential construction. But according to federal Journey to Work” data and “American Community Survey” (ACS) data the percentage of those working in Seattle who actually live in Seattle has fallen dramatically from 49% in 2000 to 37% by 2012.

In effect, more city workers are spreading out to the suburbs, commuting longer distances. Conversely, the data also show an increase in Seattle residents reverse-commuting to jobs in the suburbs. As commutes lengthen for more households, the environmental impact worsens, regardless of whether they drive or take mass transit. Adding costly infrastructure to carry commuters longer distances, whether by roads or by rail, is extremely energy consumptive.

Further, there’s evidence that few folks in the city have given up their cars. A 2012 poll by public relations firm Weber Shandwick indicates that 64% of all Seattleites say they now drive alone to work or school. And INRIX, a national traffic and information services group, lists Seattle and its metro area as the eighth most congested out of 100 nationally, with 81% still driving to work. 

So what’s going on here? Seattle has grown but census data shows that’s primarily due to a younger population of smaller households with higher disposable income, moving into more expensive, smaller sized housing units – the ones we’re now building at record levels. Younger professionals who work elsewhere also want to live in Seattle for the “urbanista” experience.

Meanwhile a lot of other long time residents are “getting out of Dodge”. We’re reminded of the famous Yogi Berra quote, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded”. For some Seattle residents, moving out of the city means escaping the congestion, the rising prices, the noise and increasing chaos that go with runaway growth. Perhaps they hope to find a few more trees, a little more green or “god forbid” a parking space. Maybe out there they can even afford a single-family home, raise kids, and live out the good ol’ traditional American dream.

Others have joined the exodus to the suburbs involuntarily, as excess development destroys our existing affordable housing stock and displaces a lot of low-income retail/service workers and blue-collar families, African American and other minority households. In fact, about 700-1000 units per year give way to new, much more expensive development.

Notwithstanding Seattle’s recent growth, it accounts for only about 12 percent of population added in the four county area since 2000, with an increasing amount occurring out on the edges. What’s more, most of these people commute to work and shop at other activity centers far from light rail or downtown Seattle, or even Bellevue or Everett or Tacoma, for that matter.

Yet these areas lack resources for any form of mass transit–buses, vans, carpools, anything besides the private automobile. As long as most of the region’s transit dollars are swallowed up by a fixed light rail system that at best will serve no more than 3-5% of the region’s commuters, the vast majority in the suburbs will have no choice but continue to drive cars. We could increase zoning capacity around rail stops to accommodate Manhattan but it would do nothing for over 3 million people now living and working outside Seattle in surrounding counties.

By contrast, setting reasonable limits on growth in Seattle and promoting a multi-centered growth model would respond to these real-world suburbanization and exurbanization trends.  It would mean redirecting more of our transportation dollars from rail towards creation of more cost-effective, energy-efficient, smaller transit centers with buses, carpools, vans, and bikes moving along corridors to and from other regional centers.

This would mean city and regional land-use policies that respond to and encourage a more even distribution of jobs and housing into these other existing activity centers and along now non-existent transit routes serving those centers–rather than vainly trying to squeeze most of our region’s growth into Seattle or along rail routes serving Seattle. A multi-centered growth model holds a real prospect that more of the region’s commuters will get out of their cars in favor of other modes of travel.

There’s nothing “green” about adding still more density in Seattle and it’s time to shelve such a fraudulent narrative.  We’re accepting more than our share now.  And other than putting money into developer’s pockets, it’s simply accelerates regional growth trends that are not sustainable either for Seattle, the region, or the globe.

A Note about sources for part 3 including “journey to work” and other data referenced there – see the following:

For source showing percent of Seattle workers (49%) who actually lived in Seattle in 2000, see 2007 “Low Income Housing Inventory” page 48 drawn from 2000 census information for Seattle”:

For source showing percent of Seattle workers in 2011 (37%) who also lived in Seattle see “Community Attributes Report” page 21

based on American Community Survey (ACS) data for Seattle:

(Keep in mind that comparisons of 2000 figures to 2011 figures is a little bit apples to oranges – that is to say 2000 figures are drawn from the 2000 census, while the source for 2011 calculations is based on ACS ‘estimates’.  The 2000 figure is thus a harder and likely more exact number compared to 2011 ACS estimates – with a greater margin of error.  That said, demographers at the county and PSRC both agreed the large disparity between these numbers appeared to confirm a significant drop in the percentage of Seattle workers living in the city)

For Weber Shandwick Poll showing 64% of Seattleites still drive alone to work or school

For the Inrix survey showing Seattle with 8th worst large city in nation with 81 percent still driving to work

For ACS data showing Seattle has 3rd highest among cities over 500,000 population for “commuter adjusted population change (meaning during the day, a large part of the workforce comes into the city from somewhere else):

For more information contact the Coalition at 206-632-0668