Local Character? It Really Does Complicate Housing Policy Reform


Editor: This is the fourth installment of the author’s examination of housing density and costs. Previous articles on these topics are here, here, and here.

When it comes to housing, politics really matters. The two essential ingredients, land and infrastructure, are controlled by local governments, and nothing gets built until approved by them. Cities, counties, and special districts also have their hands on the levers that can make housing easy or difficult to build.

The evolution of the region, accelerated by the state Growth Management Act (GMA), has altered the political environment for housing. By emphasizing infill and urban-center development and putting cities in charge of nearly all of King County’s theoretical housing capacity, the GMA has distorted the market and led to a serious imbalance in the types of housing being supplied.

I don’t mean to cast aspersions on local governments. They are doing what they have been set up to do, and the GMA pushes local governments, cities in particular, to behave in ways contrary to their nature. Having spent most of my career around local government, and having served as a councilmember and mayor of a small Eastside city, I am totally sympathetic to the bind that cities find themselves in. 

A new political environment for housing

Back in the good old days housing was not often a political matter. Starting in the late 19th century, as the Seattle area started to grow rapidly, large-scale development tended to happen outside city boundaries, and when an outlying area reached critical mass, it would incorporate as a home-rule city, or annex nearby territory. King County had the old three-commissioner structure and would receive little or no pushback on development proposals. And if citizens did object to a development, they had few legal tools to work with.

By the 1950s fears about adverse development impacts led to a surge in incorporations and annexations. Another wave of incorporations came in the 1990s, when the GMA raised fears that county government would not protect unincorporated communities, and King County saw the creation of ten new cities. Large-scale annexations have continued in places like Finn Hill in Kirkland and north Burien.

In 1989, unincorporated King County held 41 percent of the county’s population. By 2022 that had dropped to 11 percent and will continue to fall. According to King County’s 2021 Urban Growth Capacity Report, less than 2 percent of the housing-development capacity of King County is in unincorporated areas inside urban growth lines. 

We have transformed the political environment of housing in King County from the benign neglect of three county commissioners to the intense and heated focus of 39 cities. This has a lot of implications.

Voting with their feet

In the mid-1950s a young economist at Northwestern University named Charles Tiebout (later to join the UW faculty) wondered how local governments decided on taxation and provision of public goods (local services such as police) as well as non-economic goods like land-use patterns. His conclusion, written in one of the most influential papers in urban economics, was that in a metro area with many cities, households self-select into the city that most closely meets their needs and expectations. Once that happens, these cities join others with similar expectations, elect councilmembers with the same views, and the politics of the place self-perpetuate.

Anyone finding they are not in agreement with the local pattern of taxes and public goods will leave—vote with their feet—rather than try to change the city’s policies. Over time, individual cities develop strong characters that resist change. 

When citizens and their elected leaders claim that a change in land-use patterns threatens “local character,” this is a very real thing. That character has evolved over decades and has been the magnetic force that attracted nearly all of the current residents, most of whom want the city to remain just as it was the day they moved in. Conversely, not many city residents will embrace change. According to Tiebout, they would have moved away to a more congenial place long before getting around to advocating for new tax, spending, or land-use policies.

So, what did the GMA and the Countywide Planning Policies do? They required cities to embrace change. To survive this, cities needed some help.

The silver bullet: urban villages

As the immediate post-GMA panic subsided, a calm fell over the land. Facing the dilemma of “no one likes density and no one likes sprawl,” we had found the magic solution: urban villages. Put a large share of new housing in old commercial parts of cities where few will object. We can provide lovely architectural renderings that make the dingiest arterial look like Paris’s Boulevard Saint Germain. And if we zone for midrise and high-rise, regardless of the economic feasibility, we can get all the capacity we need ON PAPER to meet our housing targets.


Now, the planning establishment clearly had this ploy in their back pocket all the time, since it had been planning orthodoxy for years. They baked the urban center/urban village idea into regional plans and the comprehensive plans of cities across the region. These assumptions of high density in urban centers then gave cover to the extremely tight urban growth line. The politics was comforting: we have taken a stand on sprawl and we will still house everyone. 

For the elected officials, this was a win-win. They could say they had done their part to rein in sprawl by supporting the work at the Puget Sound Regional Council and the Growth Management Planning Council that were pulling the urban growth line tighter. At the same time, they were giving their cities a harmless boost by revitalizing old commercial areas while leaving neighborhoods untouched. Tiebout would be proud.

But there was a catch. Unfortunately, little of this new urban center housing is affordable. Mid-rise and high-rise buildings are expensive to build and so rents are high. The political expedient of urban centers has left us with big gaps and inequities in the housing supply.

The golden ticket: subsidized housing

Cities in the Seattle area have a long history of supporting subsidized housing beyond the federally funded housing authorities. Seattle launched its first housing levy in 1986 and has created over 11,000 units. A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH) has been pooling local government money on the Eastside for years. The South King County Housing and Homelessness Partners (SKHHP) was formed in 2019. 

These agencies do great work, and the housing they provide is invaluable. As mayor of Medina I attended a combination ribbon-cutting and groundbreaking for a project in Kingsgate that housed youth who were aging out of foster care. It was truly inspiring, and the event was well attended by local elected officials. Few things will warm one’s heart more than providing homes for people who truly need them (we all want to be George Bailey) and the local elected officials who attend these ceremonies are justified in feeling good and patting their backs about their participation.

But ya gotta do the math. Subsidized housing can’t scale to the size of the problem and will never come close to meeting the affordability needs of the region. All the projects we could conceivably fund won’t make a dent in the backlog of need, let alone meet the needs that keep growing as housing prices outstrip incomes.

The mandate: middle housing

Infilling commercial urban centers and subsidized housing have enabled cities to meet some of their housing obligations in expensive but seemingly politically acceptable ways. With little single family capacity left, and many people not wanting to live in mid-rise and high-rise buildings in urban centers, cities need something between the two.

Enter the new temporary fix: “middle housing.” Twenty years ago I ran a small think tank called The Housing Partnership that was busily advocating for what would later be called middle housing: cottages, townhouses, accessory units, small multiplexes all built in single-family neighborhoods. However, the reception to these ideas among local elected officials was tepid at best. The idea of allowing something other than traditional detached homes into single-family zoned areas was anathema. It mostly still is. After all, most voters live in detached, ownership housing and would prefer that their councilmembers not mess with the neighborhood.

But cities are creatures of state government. Although states have traditionally been wary of dictating detailed land-use policies to cities and counties, legislatures around the country have begun to push back against the fierce protectionism of single-family zoning. In Olympia, HB 1110 woud require (if it passes) all cities in King County to embrace higher densities in their single-family zones.

While it won’t do much to increase the supply of the traditional detached homes that most families want, the new law would provide alternatives to high-density housing. The critical unknown is the extent to which these new housing forms will lure empty nesters and retirees out of their large homes so those homes can cycle back to young families. If that happens, it could ease some of the political pain, as voters find they can transition to a smaller, more manageable home, stay in their neighborhood, and maybe pocket some cash in the transaction.

An Existential Crisis for Cities?

HB 1110 provides some safeguards against cities finding loopholes and creating onerous requirements that have historically made it difficult to develop the new middle housing. But these cities are going to have to deal with a brand new political environment in which the majority of their voters will disagree with the new order handed down from Olympia. 

There is a compelling argument that the most important purpose of city governments, especially smaller ones, is to protect local zoning. Many small cities contract out for most city services but retain the one function that really matters: planning and zoning.

With that central purpose undermined by the potential passage of HB 1110, how will cities and single-family housing areas react? Can they embrace the kinds of changes to “local character” they have resisted for so long? 

Michael Luis
Michael Luis
Michael Luis is a public policy consultant who has been wrestling with housing, growth and economic development issues around Washington State for over 30 years. He is author of several books on local history and served as mayor of Medina.


  1. Yeah, it’s great to see the efforts of municipal planners go down the drain. Stunts like trying to concentrate population around walkable retail cores – unbelievable.

    So that developers can get a windfall of properties that will pencil out as tear-downs when the zoning changes, Washington cities go ’50s/’60s retro, changes to the landscape that will last for generations. Don’t worry about the voters – that’s why this is happening in Olympia, Democracy Lite.

  2. The newest and best “game” in town. “Urban Villages” or 20 minute neighborhoods:
    In Vancouver, Wa it is called “The Heights” Subarea Planning. City bought an old shopping center in the established neighborhood of single family homes and voila’ out came “the pretty pictures” and “conceptual designs.”
    The City Council majority are former Planning Commission members and who was pushing the “New Urbanism.” Oh, the Planning Department and City Manager, all Planners.
    The City promoted a major “public involvement” for 18 months. But while they “heard” they did not listen. Minimal non substantive changes The parking overfill to established neighborhoods is only one issue. There will be subsided housing and maybe, if the legislature deigns, no minimum parking requirement. A developers dream.
    In time, New Urbanism will be replaced by another “Urban Village.
    Some of us will – in time – vote with our feet.
    But sad to see the way “urban planners” and the GMA which with modification I support) can wreak havoc with established single family neighborhoods..
    And the voters – even very educated – don’t understand “the game.”

  3. Two comments: When Mayor Norm Rice enacted urban villages for Seattle, there was not enough money for the promised amenities, meant as incentives for upzoning and expanding the commercial districts. The other problem was that the exempt neighborhoods complained mightily about not getting these goodies.

    The article makes it clear that local governments have run through their bag of tricks for fighting sprawl and promising more housing. The new ruse will be the promise of backyard cottages, which are expensive to plan and build.

    I would urge more attention to adjusting the Urban Growth Boundary to get some more land for development, and incentivizing the kind of neighborhood-friendly multi-family housing such as triple-deckers and garden-encircling apartments such as Anhalt once built in the city.

    • David: Agreed, it is a “bag of tricks” and the Urban Growth Boundaries need to be adjusted, and not just for Seattle. By any any name, “Urban Villages” or “20 minutes neighborhoods”, the City planners are close to significantly harming existing impacts.

    • David, do you think there’s half a chance that would be considered? I’ve been thinking expanding the urban growth boundary would be sacrosanct, but I’d also been thinking the protectors of growth management would be shocked to see legislation mandating zoning changes instead of setting performance goals; or a model legislation found first on libertarian (AEI) websites, or a mindset suggesting environmental rules and public engagement are the reason we have affordability issues.

      If you want urban villages you need to lay out street patterns that facilitate direct walking paths and land uses that give pedestrians places to walk to – all of which requires planning and engagement. With the urbanized area fully built out with large lot auto-captive land uses, probably the only way to get to more walkable 15-minute neighborhoods would be to expand the urban growth boundary only for smaller-lot, walkable mixed use neighborhoods with connected street grids.

  4. Whatever happened to “limits to growth?”. I remember when that phrase was an integral part of environmentalism. It is now replaced with “growth is inevitable, we must accommodate.” When, in response to this new “unarguable truth” design review is rendered impotent and developers drive zoning, neighborhood character and sense of place are the first casualties. In the service of development urbanists then brand anyone who cares about the vanished low-rise village as a “pearl clutcher.”

    Existing garden apartments and modest six unit flats, the logical place for older people, (the downsized) who cannot do stairs to move to, are being torn down in favor of three story townhouses massed in block-long rows. Why? They are the fastest and most efficient unit of housing on which developers can make a profit. They exclude most elderly, all disabled, and make it very difficult for people with children.

    We are allowing an architectural monoculture to become essentially the only new housing outside of apartment houses. The one exception is the developer-built ADU/house/DADU which is now replacing single family houses on lots too small for a four plex. The developers get variances on lot coverage that result in virtually no space between neighboring property and what appears to be at least 80% lot coverage. The three units are then converted to condominiums and a 1,000 square foot house two feet from the big house sells for $700-900k.

    This is then promoted as “affordable” because the little house costs slightly less than the original bungalow turn down. But like the bag of spinach I bought yesterday than has 20% less spinach and cost 25% more, the square foot price is significantly higher, there is no yard, often no garage, and no room for expansion if a family wants to grow or welcome parents to live with them. This revision of the norm of what square footage should cost contributes to the wild escalation of housing costs. It encourages a housing unit of 1.5 people.

    Unless the city steps in to look at what is actually being incentivized and practices active planning we will have no new family or senior housing built moving forward. Dan Strauss, under the guise of “tree protection” has been pushing changes to Seattle’s tree protection ordinance making 85% lot coverage the new allowable coverage in any residential neighborhood. When I remodeled my house in 2014 I had to prove down to the brick pavers that I was not exceeding 35% lot coverage— this is a drastic change.

    HB 1110 is now passed. Every residential lot in Seattle, with virtually no exceptions for history or charm, can now have a minimum of 4 houses on it and if your nearby bus stop is declared “major” you can look forward to a neighborhood composed entirely of 6 and 4 plexes within ten years. Before moving the growth boundary how about doing the math on the added density this will bring? Even before HB 1110 was passed the mayor’s own Comp Plan report said we had enough upzoning under existing HALA changes and the urban village upzoning to accommodate growth fir the next 50 years. 30 percent of Seattle’s housing stock has been built in the last 20 years. Housing costs have tripled. It’s time to look at growth, and recipes for affordability, differently.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.