Booming Seattle region tries to manage a housing shortage

November 03, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Seattle has assets most cities would kill for. Nature deeded it snow-topped Cascade peaks, great Pacific Northwest forests, a stunning seascape. The capitalist economy awarded it Boeing and Microsoft -- megacorporations that symbolize the dazzling opportunities of the globalized economy.

Housing shortage

So why were nearly 300 Seattle region leaders, over a glorious late October weekend, cooped up in a Vancouver hotel, arguing about housing, infill development and land use?

A severe housing shortage has hit Seattle and its surrounding counties. When a house goes on the market, there are easily five or six bids by day's end. Some people submit bids with a clause offering a stated amount ($1,700, for example) over anyone else's bid.

Just since 1990, King County's population has swelled by 139,000 people, the suburban counties by another 213,000. Average King County house prices are rising $1,000 a month. The median value is now $186,100, up 7.6 percent from a year ago.

The problem is serious enough for many professionals seeking their first homes. But it's a huge barrier to homeownership for moderate-income people -- the region's retail clerks, bank tellers and child-care workers.

''We have every reason to worry we'll be San Francisco in a week, with fine upscale housing, subsidized units for very low-income people, but not much in the middle-income range,'' says Bob Watt, president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

The Seattle Chamber organized the weekend skull session in Vancouver -- what I'd call a super-regional task force. Included were executives, government officials, developers, real-estate agents, non-profit housing leaders, taken out of town to avoid distractions and to focus collectively on the housing dilemma.

Regional problems

Few regions have Seattle's hourglass geography, its limits of sea and mountains and/or its 7-year-old state Growth Management Act designed to save outlying forest and meadow lands.

But the historic pattern of single-family homes on their own lots -- 70 percent of Seattle proper is zoned that way -- is common enough across U.S. cities and suburbs. So is sometimes-fierce homeowners' opposition to apartment houses or other denser housing in their neighborhoods.

Enter the new economy. It has created vast numbers of lower-paying service and retail jobs (about 200,000 in the Seattle region since 1980). Now the problem: How -- and where -- to house the service jobholders?

Some developers would blast a hole in the Seattle urban growth boundary and let development sprawl outward. But most Vancouver conferees rejected that as too environmentally destructive. Instead, they debated a raft of alternatives. For example:

* Look abroad -- to Hong Kong, for example, where government turns over big land chunks, cost-free, to a semiprivate housing corporation, which has registered profits while building close to 1 million rental and sales units.

* Squeeze more units into existing residential blocks by sweeping away ordinances that forbid an extra apartment in a house, above a garage or in a cottage behind a larger home. Why? To house the elderly, divorced persons, even jobless NIKEs (''no income kids with educations'').

* Aim for neighborhood buy-in. Residents need to be educated on why regional land restraints require denser housing. But it's imperative they be consulted early about proposed designs. Seattle has started to do that by making a couple of disinterested architects or planners available to the neighborhood committees. They help protect them from self-interested builders.

* Recycle unused land parcels, in cities and suburbs alike, for housing. And/or -- buy out tawdry, low-density commercial strips and turn them into three-to-four story, mixed-use apartment-commercial boulevards with parking in the rear.

* Build apartments or town homes on top of commercial parking lots.

* Create real urban centers -- housing included -- out of suburban town centers. Renton moved its auto dealerships from downtown to a spot by the freeway, then put in housing and stores right beside a farmers' market and transit connections.

The bottom line from the Vancouver sessions: No single silver bullet will solve a housing crisis. But pushing a range of partial solutions could have a major payoff.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 11/03/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.