Record rates of new residential construction since 2012 continue to keep pace with rates of population and employment growth in Seattle


Yes there’s a problem but it’s not a supply problem?

By John V. Fox and Carolee Colter, reprinted from Pacific Publishing newspapers

We hear a common refrain from developers that we’re not adding enough new housing to keep pace with soaring population and employment growth in Seattle. In common economic parlance we’re told that supply isn’t keeping up with demand. This notion is fully embraced by most Seattle Councilmembers and Mayor to legitimize citywide upzoning at the center of the “Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda” or HALA plan.

But how much truth is there to the claim? Since 2012 we’ve broken records for new residential construction and it’s generally kept pace or exceeded on an annual basis the increased number of households relocating to the city. There also is more than enough capacity under current zoning to easily accommodate future growth without the need for more upzones called for under HALA.

Since 2012, Seattle’s total population grew by 114,400 people, an 18.5 percent increase. However, since the average household size rose over the period from 2.06 to 2.12 persons, that translates into an additional 45,500 households over the period, only a 15.2 percent increase. While employment grew by 98,000 or about 20 percent, federal transportation data indicates only about 40% of all Seattle workers choose to live in the city, so that’s an increase of 10% in number of job holders seeking housing in Seattle since 2012.

By comparison, during the same period, counting units pending and soon to come on line, new residential construction grew by 18.8%. In fact, annual rates of new construction since 2012 are 2-3 times normal rates and show no sign of abating.

Screenshot 2018-10-10 at 9.51.59 AM - Edited

Sources:  Family Size:  Job Growth: Housing Growth

Current zoning certainly hasn’t strangled growth despite developer complaints that too much of our city’s land area is ‘locked up’ by single-family zoning. Quite the contrary, we’re ‘overzoned’. In 2005 the city was assigned a new 20-year growth target and required under the Growth Management Act to accommodate another 47,000 units by 2025. But at that time, planners estimated our city’s zoning code had capacity to absorb another 115,000 units.

The city then went through an exhaustive process apportioning those 47,000 units to all Seattle neighborhoods. The share set for each neighborhood was based on what its infrastructure could support, location of transportation facilities and hubs, and other planning factors including neighborhood input. No community was exempted.

Then over the next decade, the city went on an upzoning binge creating room for a total of 220,000 additional units. One city staffer said that was enough to accommodate growth into the next century.

These zoning changes also brought with them an explosion of new development. By 2015, nearly all of Seattle’s 40 or so designated centers, villages and neighborhoods had exceeded targets they were expected to reach by 2025. Neighborhoods like Wallingford, Fremont, Ballard and Lake City we’re drowning in growth, exceeding their 2025 residential targets by 200-300%.

Rather than pausing to consider if our neighborhoods could absorb such rapid growth, city leaders in 2015 decided instead to “pour it on”. First they eliminated the neighborhood district council system, dropping any pretense of involving affected residents.

And then they moved the goalposts. Residential targets were reset so the city had to accommodate another 70,000 units by 2035. And the HALA plan was launched calling for even more dramatic upzoning that would add capacity for another 60,000-80,000 units.

That would bring our total zoned capacity to over 280,000 units, four times what’s needed to accommodate the city’s 2035 growth target. As the old saying goes, when is enough enough? Even with all these upzones already imposed and rapid growth in new housing construction over a six year period, increased supply did not bring prices down and over most of the period vacancy rates remained low.  Only in the last six months has the rate of rent increases even slowed generally while rents on older apartments, especially lower priced ones, continue to go up at higher than normal rates. 

So what’s the point of still one more upzone? Why do we need to add even more capacity? There’s really nothing that can be said to a true believer – to those who view unrestrained growth and unbridled density as a religion. The Cult of Density always requires more and it’s destroying our city.

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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