What stands in the way of affordable housing?

Sightline Executive Director Alan Durning considered the issue of affordable housing in the series “Legalizing Inexpensive Housing” which examines how regulations which, on the surface, appear to ensure high quality housing actually impede the development of new affordable housing. Durning says that the problem with many rules intended to prevent undesirable types of housing is that they ensure that only unaffordable housing will be built. While the proponents of these laws may have good intentions to improve the quality of life of residents, the result is often displacement of the poor who cannot no longer afford to live in their old neighborhoods and have no new affordable options.


image source: http://www.seattlemet.com/

Many of these regulations put limits on density by preventing certain types of housing. Boarding houses have historically been a solution to affordable housing, but current occupancy limits prevent roommates from legally renting unused bedrooms and developers from building micro-housing with small private rooms and shared kitchens. Boarding houses Accessory dwelling units (more commonly called in-law units) are another form of potential affordable housing which already exists in Seattle but cannot legally be rented out under current rules.



Image Source: http://ubanplanner.blogspot.com/

In another report, Sightline also looked at the effects of subsidized parking spaces which are often required by zoning codes and which can increase rents by an average of $246 per unit. Seattle zoning regulations require apartment buildings to provide parking spaces to residents, usually more spaces than tenants need or want. Although these spaces cost developers a lot of money, renters don’t usually see the true cost, which is usually bundled into their rent.  Some apartments offer free parking, other charge a greatly reduced annual price for parking, but in most cases the bulk of the costs are hidden in rents. The problem is that many renters don’t own cars or use the parking spaces, yet rents go up for everyone. These requirements remain the same despite reductions in the demand for parking as more and more residents have given up their cars to save money, relying instead on busses, biking, walking and services like Zip Car, Car-To-Go, Lyft, and Uber. Low-income renters are the most hurt by these requirements because they are less likely to own cars but more affected by rent increases.

image source: www.seattlemet.com/

While Durning gives proponents of these rules credit for a good-intentioned but short-sighted desire to ensure high-quality housing for all, the current debate over micro-housing regulations shows that NIMBYism may be a larger motivation for many. A recent petition to prevent aPodments had a mix of motivations including fears of five-story buildings blocking out the sun, insufficient parking, a desire to prevent the poor from being forced to live in undesirable housing conditions, and changing character of the neighborhoods. However, I am skeptical of these motivations and think that the true concern for many is a fear that affordable housing could allow the “wrong kinds of people” into the neighborhood. Irrational fears and classism are not a good basis for public policy; Seattle would be a much more sustainable city if we took restrictions on desirable affordable housing out of our zoning codes. 


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