The fight of the condo

Density development to accommodate a growing population is the only policy that makes sense, says the director of research for Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank. Here he responds to an earlier article by Crosscut's Knute Berger.
Crosscut archive image.

Clark Williams-Derry, research director of Sightline Institute.

Density development to accommodate a growing population is the only policy that makes sense, says the director of research for Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank. Here he responds to an earlier article by Crosscut's Knute Berger.

Editor's note: This article is cross-posted with permission. The original can be found on the Sightline Institute Web site. Let's leave the vitriol aside for the moment. In a recent Mossback column, condo-critic Knute Berger makes the following claim about Seattle's gradual move towards denser housing: We know that these green-backed policies [i.e., the ones promoting dense development in Seattle] are making the city more unaffordable. No, in fact, we do not know that. Of course, it's a common complaint. Apparently, lots of people view condo development as the root cause underlying the runup in Seattle housing prices. But as we've argued before, this gets the relationship between condos and housing affordability completely backwards. Condos do not make housing expensive. Expensive housing makes condos. If anything, new condos – along with apartments, duplexes, townhouses and the like – have helped keep real estate prices from soaring even further into the stratosphere. This is just plain old supply and demand. You see, like it or not, the demand for housing in Seattle is rising, because of demographic trends (rising regional population) and macro-economic forces (increasing wealth and income, particularly at upper rungs of the socio-economic ladder) that Seattle policymakers have essentially no control over. We all know what happens if demand goes up faster than supply: prices rise. And when prices rise, people who own land that's zoned for multi-family housing do what "market forces" – i.e., other people – are asking. They build more housing. Mossback seems to think that this is sad; he apparently liked things the old way. That's understandable, and I don't begrudge him his nostalgia. But think of what would happen if there were no new apartments, duplexes, townhouses or condos in Seattle – say, if the city council passed a law that downzoned all of the land that's currently zoned for multi-family housing, or put some sort of moratorium on new construction. The supply of housing would thereafter remain fixed, even as demand (i.e., regional population and income) rose. Housing close to downtown would reach even more ridiculous levels. Young folks of moderate means would have no option but to move far away from the city center, to distant suburbs where – quite literally – all of the new housing would be located. With new apartments and other multifamily housing, folks in the middle income range who are looking to move close to downtown – whether to be closer to jobs or to the bustle of the city – at least have a few options. Even super-luxury highrises can help with housing affordability (for the middle class, if not the poor), since they tend to attract the kind of folks who otherwise would put down seemingly ridiculous bids on single family homes. But shut down new multifamily housing, and we're shutting new residents of all income levels out of the city. And that would send a clear message to anyone who's trying to make ends meet in Seattle: sorry, if you don't have enough cash for a detached single family house, you're just not welcome here. In the end, I just plain don't understand Mossback's vision for Seattle, or what he thinks the region should do in the face of of the demographic challenges it faces. Should we hope for a severe, region-wide economic downturn that keeps potential new residents from considering the city – or even sends existing residents packing, in search of enough money to pay their mortgages? (Shades of the late-1970s Boeing-bust billboard: "Would the last person who leaves Seattle please turn out the lights?") Or should we aim for a miserable quality of life – say, rising crime, terrible schools, and polluted air – that pushes people away from the city? Or should we ask for a development moratorium in already-dense areas and established neighborhoods, forcing new housing to sprawl across the region's last remaining farmland and forests and condemning residents to ever-rising transportation costs (not to mention CO2 emissions)? I don't know what Knute's vision for pushing people away from Seattle is. We've spent quite a bit of our time in recent years trying to promote fair and humane ways of moderating the region's population growth – largely by reducing unplanned pregnancies, and increasing access to contraception and family planning services, so that women can make their own choices about childbearing. But I haven't heard a peep about what Mossback would do to hold back the tide. Copyright © 2007 by Sightline Institute. Reposted with permission.


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