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Originally published May 15, 2014 at 5:23 PM | Page modified May 16, 2014 at 9:18 AM

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Guest: Build more to drive down Seattle housing costs

The best way to help people with less money to spend on rent is to build more housing of all kinds throughout the city, writes guest columnist Roger Valdez.


Special to The Times

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SEATTLE is in the midst of a serious and important debate about housing, specifically whether new housing growth is disproportionately displacing existing housing and what to do to reduce housing costs. The City Council is currently considering legislation that would impact new and existing single-family housing, microhousing, and mid- and high-rise development.

Some say that new growth is happening too fast, and it is squeezing out poor people. There is even a movement calling for a moratorium on new housing.

Having to move is disruptive and even threatening to a person’s health and well-being. But how many people are really being displaced? The reality is that as Seattle has grown, it has done so largely without destroying many existing housing units.

Data from a King County inventory of housing show that the ratio of new housing to those replaced is about 8-to-1. City data also show that about a third of those units removed were replaced with new housing units from the housing levy. The truth is that new growth is not coming at the expense of displacing lots of existing households.

According to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development, between 1995 and 2014, 8,724 housing units were demolished while 68,433 new housing units were created.

When it comes to the price of housing, the best way to help people with less money to spend on rent is to build more housing of all kinds throughout the city. Increasing the supply of housing helps relieve pressure all along the price continuum.

Often people of higher incomes look for bargains and outbid people with less money to spend on housing. It’s called downrenting, and it happens when there are too many people chasing after too few rental units.

Increasing supply, even market-rate supply, means landlords competing with each other for renters rather than renters competing with each other for scarce housing.

Opponents of new housing would make the problem worse for poor people, removing options and creating scarcity. When there are fewer units, people with more money win.

And worry about change has turned into discrimination against newcomers. In the Eastlake neighborhood, for example, neighbors used code words like “established neighborhood” in a flier campaign to persuade the City Council to make it more difficult to build new microhousing. Seattle should welcome new people with open arms, not put up barriers to change.

The Seattle City Council has a choice: Allow more housing to be built so everyone has more options or make things worse by clamping down on new housing with more rules, regulations and fees. That would mean more costs, less competition and higher rents. Seattle needs more housing, not less.

The Seattle City Council shouldn’t do to housing what it did with ride-service operations and impose a protectionist quota on innovative new ideas for housing. Small-lot development, microhousing and more market-rate options would open up competition, and that is good for renters and homebuyers of all income levels.

We still need subsidies for families, especially for those who can’t pay enough rent to cover the costs of land, construction and financing of new housing. And there are many ideas and tools the council should consider before making more rules and imposing fees on growth. Growth in Seattle is the sustainable choice too, creating jobs and housing without contributing to sprawl.

That’s why Smart Growth Seattle has offered “Ideas for Change: Seattle’s Housing Future,” a set of wide-ranging ideas and programs that, if explored and implemented, would allow our city to grow and prosper in a way that would give opportunity for everyone in all parts of the city.

Roger Valdez is director of Smart Growth Seattle.



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