Guests: How Seattle can create more affordable housing
Numerous Seattle Times reports, editorials and guest columns over the past year have outlined how rents are skyrocketing throughout the city. Cranes and bulldozers are a common sight around Seattle, but there still isn't enough supply to meet the demand for diverse housing options. Guest columnists Michael Manville, Alan Durning and Monte Paulsen write about the ways Seattle can encourage the development of more affordable housing options.
Want cheaper housing? Stop requiring parking
SEATTLE, like every city in the country, has minimum parking requirements in its zoning code. These laws require developers to provide at least one parking space with every housing unit they build in most parts of the city. The laws also make housing more expensive.
When cities require all new housing to include parking, the cost of housing rises and the price of driving falls. Parking requirements convert a cost drivers should pay at the end of their trips, the cost of parking, into one developers must pay at the start of their projects.
Developers faced with these requirements often build less housing. The supply of housing, and especially affordable housing, falls, and its price rises.
One space per unit may not seem onerous, and in low-density suburbs maybe it isn't. But urban developers often work on small parcels in dense areas. Parking requires lots of space, and when space isn't available it requires lots of money.
Surface parking is an enemy of urbanity; it uses valuable land to house empty cars instead of living people. When parcels lack space for surface lots, providing even a few spaces can require digging subterranean garages, at a cost of a million dollars or more.
Parking requirements also make it difficult to convert old buildings, which often lack parking and the space to add it, into housing. Historic buildings should be an urban advantage. Cities have them and suburbs don't. But shortsighted parking regulations often keep handsome old structures vacant.
When Los Angeles removed parking requirements for old commercial buildings in its downtown, developers rapidly converted hundreds of vacant buildings into thousands of housing units. Many of these units did not include parking, making them more appealing and less expensive for people who did not own cars.
If parking is required by the city, developers can't build housing explicitly for people without cars. Parking requirements help explain why almost 85 percent of Seattle's housing includes parking in its rent or purchase price.
Hiding the cost of parking in the cost of housing makes owning a vehicle seem less expensive than it actually is. It also means that the city forces people who can't afford cars, or who just don't drive, to pay for parking they neither want nor need. Those who do not own vehicles carry some of the costs, in their rent, for those who do.
To be clear, removing parking requirements isn't the same as prohibiting parking. Ending a mandate isn't the same as enacting a ban. Parking is important, cities need it, and most developers will provide it, even without minimums.
But they would likely provide less of it — a recent study by King County Metro found that Seattle-area apartments have far more parking than cars. They would also provide it more cost effectively: Rather than dig expensive garages, for instance, developers might lease existing spaces nearby. Many vehicle owners would walk a half block to their cars.
But what if someone develops a building with no parking at all? If the new residents have cars, won't they congest the street spaces?
The city can solve this problem with parking meters or residential parking permits. You can't hog free street parking if street parking isn't free. When a city manages its on-street parking well, off-street parking often takes care of itself.
In fairness, Seattle has lower parking requirements than many cities, and no requirements at all in some areas.
But zero parking requirements should be the rule, not the exception. People, not parking spaces, make cities great. No city can afford to make housing expensive just to keep driving cheap.
Michael Manville is an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University in New York.
Information in this article, originally published Dec. 28, 2013, was corrected on Jan. 3, 2014. A previous version incorrectly stated that people who own vehicles carry some of the cost of parking in their rents for other car owners.
In-law apartments could provide affordable housing
SEATTLE should stop lying to itself about affordable housing. For all our high-minded rhetoric about creating an affordable city, and for all our housing levies, the grim reality of city rules suggests that we actually want to stamp out affordable housing, not build it.
We have constructed a gauntlet of regulations in our land-use codes that makes it impossible for builders to profitably construct modest dwellings as quickly as demand has grown.
One underused source of less expensive housing in Seattle is in-law apartments, backyard cottages or, as planners like to call them, accessory dwelling units. City rules constrain the creation of this housing in many ways.
Like most cities, Seattle enforces a limit on the number of unrelated people who may share a dwelling, even if it's an enormous mansion. This roommate cap is discriminatory and morally bankrupt. It's also a poison pill for accessory dwelling units
Seattle applies its roommate cap to houses and these units combined, so the city's large houses, such as the big homes on Capitol and Queen Anne hills, often cannot add in-laws or backyard cottages. Vancouver, B.C., treats an accessory dwelling unit as a separate dwelling with its own separate roommate quota.
Seattle requires an additional off-street parking space for each in-law apartment. Such parking is often impossible or prohibitively expensive, especially in the proximity neighborhoods where renters most want to live. Neither Portland nor Vancouver has a parking quota for these units.
To operate an accessory-dwelling unit in Seattle, the owner of the property must live on the site. This requirement makes financing the units difficult. If you're a bank and you have to foreclose on the property, you can't live in the house and rent out the apartment. Legally, you could only rent out one of the units. So you won't make construction loans to build this type of housing.
When Portland scrapped its owner-occupancy rule, the number of this type of housing surged.
In-law units in Seattle have been legal, but restricted since 1994; backyard cottages have been legal, but restricted since 2009. Still, a Seattle homeowner can only have one or the other.
In contrast, Vancouver allows both. When Vancouver legalized backyard cottages citywide in 2009, it increased the city's zoned housing capacity by 70,000 units. When Seattle legalized them the same year, it barely increased capacity. All we did was say you could put your in-law apartment in the backyard instead of the basement.
Emancipating these dwelling units from these four rules may seem immaterial, but in-law apartments have big potential.
Almost two-thirds of zoned land in Seattle is reserved for single-family houses, and half of the city's dwellings are single-family houses. Just copying Vancouver's rules could add tens of thousands of modest apartments and cottages to these neighborhoods in the years ahead, without any public expense.
Almost 30 percent of bedrooms in Seattle are empty on a typical night; many of these could become in-law apartments.
Lately, Seattle has been building about 200 in-law apartments a year. That adds up to one large apartment block. In Vancouver, homeowners are installing close to four times what Seattle does, and it had a huge lead to begin with. Some Vancouver neighborhoods already have in-law apartments at more than half of the houses, and one-third of new houses come with built-in apartments.
Seattle talks a good game on housing affordability. Our rules, however, have almost frozen our neighborhoods in amber. The city's rules effectively admit only those who can afford to spend a half-million dollars on a three-bedroom bungalow.
It's high time for Seattle to stop its self-deception about affordable housing. Let's admit we're virulently opposed to it.
If we're actually for it, let's stop banning it.
Alan Durning directs Sightline Institute, a progressive think tank in Seattle, and wrote the book "Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Communities."
Trim utility bills to make housing more affordable
HALF of Americans now spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
We feel your pain.
Here in Vancouver, B.C., we look back with nostalgia on the era when we could house ourselves for half our income. Vancouver renters pay up to $1,443 a month for a studio apartment the city classifies as "affordable." Our average buyer now coughs up 84 percent of pretax household income for the privilege of owning a million-dollar bungalow.
But even such astronomical housing costs are made up of three simple components: land cost, construction cost and operating expense. Land cost lies beyond the city's control, except in instances where bonus density can be exchanged for affordable apartments. Construction costs are likewise market-driven. Operating expense — which starts at $250 per door per month for slumlords, with conscientious property managers allotting twice that amount — include hard-to-trim line items such as taxes, upkeep and utility bills.
The surprising truth buried deep in most real estate spreadsheets is that the utility bill is one of the easiest to trim.
In the Pacific Northwest, cheap rental apartments and affordable condos tend to be older wood-frame buildings with lightly insulated walls and single-paned windows. They're energy hogs.
Three simple yet game-changing technologies represent untapped energy conservation options that would make housing more affordable: changing heaters, improving insulation and adopting Passive House building standards.
Electric-resistance heaters, common in older buildings, are astonishingly cheap to install. The heat-load calculation is simple: Each kilowatt of energy purchased from the utility is released as one kilowatt of heat in the home, whether the heat is flowing from a baseboard heater, a space heater, a hair dryer or an incandescent light bulb.
Replacing this older heater with a newer system known as an air-source heat pump could provide an average of three kilowatts of heat for every kilowatt of electricity in our mild coastal climate -- and slash heating bills by about two-thirds. A ductless mini-split-style heat pump is particularly well-suited for replacing electric-resistance heaters and can be installed for as little as $2,500.
The energy return on investment from this off-the-shelf product is so advantageous that it begs a policy question: Is it time for Seattle to phase out electric-baseboard heaters, for precisely the same reasons incandescent light bulbs are being phased out?
Insulation is almost always a better investment than new heating systems or windows, simply because it's more durable and can therefore be amortized over a longer period. But many landlords are understandably reluctant to submit themselves to the inconvenience and lost income associated with ripping open walls.
Rigid rockwool is a relatively recent development that precludes all that. A natural project made from recycled fibres that breathe, rigid rockwool can be fastened to the outside of an existing building. Because it blankets the studs, just two inches can often double the insulation value of a typical two-by-four wood-frame wall.
As it becomes easier to upgrade existing buildings, is it time for Seattle to require insulation upgrades whenever a renovation permit is issued?
New construction presents opportunities for dramatically deeper energy savings. Nothing illustrates this opportunity better than the fast-growing Passive House standard.
Homes, apartments and other buildings constructed to the Passive House standard consume 90 percent less heating energy than typical new buildings, yet cost only 10 percent more to construct. Most Passive House owners start saving money in the first year, because the combined cost of their mortgages and energy bills is less than the combined cost of the slightly lower mortgages and significantly higher energy bills they would have paid had they built a code-minimum building.
Once operating costs are fully counted, Passive House emerges as the most affordable way to build almost any type of building. That's why groups such as Habitat for Humanity are building using Passive House.
These particular strategies won't fit every building. And energy efficiency alone won't solve the vexing housing affordability crisis in Seattle or Vancouver.
But given the vast and relatively untapped opportunities to reduce housing operating costs through energy efficiency, isn't it time to include deep energy retrofits as part of every housing affordability strategy?
Monte Paulsen is a partner in Red Door Energy Advisors, an energy modeling and green building consultancy based in Vancouver, B.C. On Twitter @RedDoorPro
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