Q&A: Why Upzone?

Q. Why is it important to upzone?

A. We can’t create more land. As more people want to live near Seattle’s many good jobs, housing will become increasingly expensive unless we allow more homes on the same amount of land.

Q. Why should I care whether people can or can’t live near jobs?

A. Reducing commutes is good for the planet. Enabling parents to spend with their kids instead of on the road is good for families and has been proven to contribute to kids’ future success. A shortage of housing near jobs reduces diversity and increases economic and racial segregation as people with more money outbid those with less, leaving the latter no option but moving away.

Q. Is upzoning being done for the benefit of property developers?

A. When President Roosevelt was fighting for changes that would helpe people afford “a chicken in every pot,” he wasn’t doing it for the sake of poultry farmers. When President Obama was expanding healthcare coverage, he wasn’t doing it for doctors.

“Zoning” is a tool in our city government’s s policy toolbox. We have to decide what we want to achieve using zoning policy. Allowing more homes on our limited land will help enable more people to rent or buy a home for themselves. Developers make their living building houses and apartments—just as farmers make a business raising chickens and doctors by providing medical care. But the reason for and goal of upzoning is to enable more people to get something they want and need. Like chickens and check-ups, someone has got to deliver the goods.

Q. Can you give me example of how allowing more and more types of housing helps?

A. Seattle is adopting a $15 an hour minimum wage. This is a great opportunity for people at the low end of the wage ladder to get ahead, provided we make living near these jobs affordable.

The city defines housing affordability as no more than 30% of income. Today according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology people here are spending, on average, a total 46% of income on housing and transportation combined (30% on housing plus 16% on transportation).

Imagine that Jamie is a dishwasher in a Wallingford restaurant.  What if we made it easy for him to find an apodment or micro-housing home with waking or biking distance of his job?

At market rates, his rent might be $900 a month.  This is $10,800 per year or 35% of his $30,600 annual income.  It’s a bit over the city’s 30% target, but if he’s spending the average of 16% of his income or $4,896 a year on transportation and he drastically reduce it (for example, by going car-free) he’s way ahead. In fact, he only needs to save $1,620 a year on transportation to make this a good option. Eliminating a daily bus commute just might do the trick for him.

Q. Why aren’t shared single family homes a great solution for Seattle and people like Jamie?

A. Imagine Jamie and 2 or 3 his friends get together as roommates to compete for single family house rentals. This puts them in direct competition with the affluent who want the houses and less affluent families struggling to find and afford multi-bedroom homes. Since single-family homes, relatively speaking, take up a lot of land per home, it is hard and expensive to make a lot more of them. And doing so would lower the number of homes possible on our limited land near jobs.

This is a situation where the rich call the tune while those with the least suffer for it.  When housing is scarce, those with the most money have the most latitude to spend more of their income to get it because they have slack in their budgets.  Once Jamie and his friends reduce what they spend on transportation as much as they can, they start cutting bone. So they either lose the home or the opportunity to get ahead. Or both.

Opening more land to more types of housing reduces this competition.

Q. What does upzoning have to do with racial justice?

A. Because gaps in income and wealth by race persist, African-American households and others with less rather than more money are less likely to be able to afford single-family detached homes on large lots (here’s the data for who lives where in Seattle). Prohibiting multi-family housing in high access to opportunity areas, around the most well-resourced schools, and near parks and open space stacks the deck against integration and equal opportunity.

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