Housing Cost and Supply: Evidence, Dialogue, and Neighbors

Does increasing the supply of housing lower the price?  It seems to me basic logic that the answer is yes, and therefore we need to encourage much more housing in expensive cities like Seattle. I also happen to believe that increasing housing in transit-friendly neighborhoods is desirable for a host of reasons, including sustainability.  However, I’ve had conversations with people who believe new housing hurts affordability, partly because they see new apartment buildings with expensive rents.  I tell them that those buildings are keeping rents stable in other buildings, but they don’t really believe that.  Then the conversation stalls.

In fact, some advocates for renters believe new housing increases prices.  In a Seattle Times article last summer, the executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State stated that new development is hurting housing prices.  “’The reality is that these units are high-cost, and often these were taken out of affordable-housing stock,’ Grant said. ‘That’s why you see this theory of supply and demand being turned on its head.’”

It seems to me that there is not enough conversation between affordable housing advocates, developers, city officials, and neighborhood associations on this issue.  Further, the conversation needs to include studies and data about the link between housing supply and price.  (While I found the readings by Glaeser, Bertolet, and Wallace-Wells to be convincing, none of the articles listed details for studies on the subject.)

As it happens, I just noticed that the Seattle City Council is doing a review of “Affordable Workforce Housing” and will be holding a Seattle Workforce Housing Forum on February 13th, which I hope to attend.  According to the website, the study will consider affordable housing policies (like incentive zoning) as well as “zoning changes.”  I am curious if the issue of overall housing supply and its link to affordability will be discussed.

If we gain broader agreement that new housing supply lowers price, we then need to consider what is preventing more housing from being built.  Neighborhood opposition seems to be one of the primary obstacles in Seattle.  Almost every day I read a blog article about neighbors opposing a development in some part of Seattle or trying to lower building heights.  Last year I attended two public meetings about “microhousing” – the very small apartments (200 square feet) with shared kitchens that have been popping up in Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods.  There were a lot of upset local homeowners at these meetings who do not want microhousing.  A couple of weeks ago, I was unable to attend a public meeting in Capitol Hill about building heights, but followed the news coverage (Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, King 5, Publicola).  A MUP student who attended spoke at the meeting about the need for the city to be welcoming to newcomers; he was quoted in several news stories.

Public meeting on building heights

Public meeting on building heights

My first reaction to hearing these neighbors (both at public meetings or reading the news coverage) is often anger.  I believe they are privileged (homeowners in desirable neighborhoods), that they are not being welcoming to others, that they are selfishly placing their own aesthetic concerns above the needs for people to have basic shelter, and that they are self-righteous.  However, when I calm down, think it over, and also talk with a colleague who’s a homeowner, I take a more measured view.  I try to put myself in the place of the homeowner, and consider that if I had a nice house in a great neighborhood with other single-family houses nearby, lots of light, etc., and wasn’t expecting taller buildings to be built near me, I might not like it either.  And while I believe that compact neighborhoods are very desirable – the density allows for more vibrancy, more neighborhood businesses, and better transit – I can also understand how people enjoy living with more space and fewer people nearby.  Of course, I do believe it’s a duty of everyone to consider the larger goals in society, such as environmental sustainability and housing for people.  But it’s important to consider where people are coming from, rather than simply judging them harshly, if we want to come to some level of agreement.

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