It’s a statement repeated ad nauseum in Seattle, especially by those who oppose housing. But is this statement true? The simple answer, is no. Most housing in Seattle, or any U.S. city, is market rate housing. We do not fund massive quantities of social housing. Yet.
Where does this number come from? Is it pulled from the ether? It turns out it comes directly from Council member Sawant’s opening line in her community post, Affordable Seattle: Housing for People, Not Profit!, on Capitol Hill Seattle last July.
‘The for-profit housing market is failing the majority of Seattleites: 92% of new units built in the last 10 years have been Luxury units!’
Oddly, for being about affordable housing, the post neglected to mention affordable housing is illegal in 90% of Seattle. Sawant’s piece links to a Seattle Times article by Mike Rosenberg, on a proposal for working class housing in Seattle. In it, Rosenberg writes,
‘About 92 percent of the 31,000 new market-rate apartments that have opened in Seattle this decade have been luxury units’
I’ve highlighted the key term in that sentence, oddly left out of Sawant’s post: market-rate. The cost of development in Seattle is high — financing, high land costs, high labor costs, rising construction costs, and developer profit. The statement above is about market rate construction. But market rate construction has generally always been more expensive — and when jurisdictions make multifamily housing illegal in most of the city, it makes it even more so. To quote Daniel Kay Hertz from, ‘The immaculate conception theory of your neighborhood’s origins’:
Bungalows were so much more expensive than the more modest homes that had preceded them that while the overall cost of living increased by about a factor of two between the 1890s and 1920s, the cost of an entry-level home had increased by a factor of five and a half.
Now, this wasn’t the only place the 92% statement was, shall we say, misconstrued. It was also a key introduction of Affordable Seattle, a website rolled out for a singular election cycle, with little activity since. Here it is again:
But this isn’t the whole story… From 2005–2016, Seattle added 56,000 units to its housing stock. Not 31,000. So what are these additional 25,000 units? Well, at least a third of them are below-market rate. KUOW recently ran an excellent piece (with a nifty map) on how Seattle has been quietly building affordable housing throughout the city for decades. Between 2005–2015, 8,251 affordable homes were built, largely with the Seattle housing levy, grants and MFTE. In 2015, 22% of all homes built (1,500 out of 6,738) were affordable units.
Could we be doing better? Yes. HALA will provide about 20,000 affordable units over the next decade, unless much of MHA gets tied down by predatory delay for years. And while we’re a long way off from annually producing as much affordable housing as Vienna, Seattle is actually doing better than a lot of other cities. If we really want to address our housing shortage, however, we’ll need to start going much bigger and bolder.