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?