Why We’re Making So Little Progress with Affordable Housing


Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of the author’s series on why our local housing costs so much. The first article, on middle-housing, is here. The second, on the impacts of a tight Urban Growth Boundary, is here. The third, on high rents in apartments, is here. The fourth, on how cities will resist increased density, is here.

The first article in this five-part series made a straightforward claim: our housing affordability problems are the result of policy decisions we have made. Housing has been affordable in the past, and it is affordable today in other successful metro areas. But we have made distinct choices in this state and region that have made housing very expensive. And we could make other choices.

Think of those decisions as a “trilemma.” The classic trilemma is about getting your car fixed, when you want the repairs done inexpensively, quickly, and properly. Now, pick two, since you will need to make a choice to sacrifice cost, timeliness, or quality.

The evolution of our region has created a classic trilemma. We can have:

Robust growth. Population and economic activity grow faster than the national rate.

Compact development. We rein in sprawl and increase densities in certain areas.

Affordability. The workforce, especially those with modest incomes, can afford homes appropriate for their stage of life.

We can only have two of these things. Since growth is something prosperity has had handed to us, our choice is whether to sacrifice compact development or affordability. We have chosen to sacrifice affordability. This is often dismissed as a “false choice,” but the choice is not false, it is very real. Other metro areas in the country have made the opposite choice and have retained affordability.

The fact is, contrary to the wishful thinking of 1990, compact development is expensive and low-density development is more affordable. The second and third stories in this series outlined the reasons that our growth-management strategies have driven prices higher for both single-family and multi-family development. Any argument that low-density development comes with higher infrastructure costs has been blown up by the $70 billion (and growing) tab, funded by regressive taxation, for the Sound Transit light rail system that has been deemed essential for a compact development pattern.

Further, we have committed to a land-use strategy that has proven to be far more costly, in both public and private terms, than we were led to believe back in 1990. Despite abundant evidence that this strategy is failing to provide adequate housing, we keep doubling down on it.

These planning approaches have mostly been done in the absence of rigorous economic analysis. Instead, magical thinking has conjured up supposed trends that would make the plans work (a social scientist would describe this as motivated reasoning or confirmation bias). It turns out that Baby Boomers and Millennials do NOT have a hankering to spend their lives in urban centers. The exurbs are not, as the urbanist Christopher Leinberger claimed, turning into ghettos of abandoned McMansions.

Our growth strategies have done a good job of creating a lot of expensive, stacked-flat apartments, but not much else. Most households live in detached single-family homes, and yet our plans make very little provision for expanding the supply of them. (Less than 10 percent of King County’s development capacity is found in single family zones.) Pre-pandemic, over 300,000 people commuted to King County from more affordable areas of Pierce and Snohomish Counties.

We have also tied ourselves into political knots. The previous article described the negative consequences of moving housing decisions from counties to cities. Cities are designed to respond to the stoutly defended needs of current residents, and housing is about the needs of unknown future residents. When the future has to negotiate with the present we know who usually wins.

Housing faces other structural political problems, as follows:

Imbalance of benefits and costs. When crafting public policy, decision makers try to come up with a reasonable balance of benefits and costs, based on the values of their residents. But with housing, few benefits accrue to current residents/voters, while costs will be imposed on them. In a fragmented region, and with long time lags between policy decisions and the completion of housing built under new policies, very few current residents will benefit directly from new pro-housing policies.

Finding a pro-housing constituency. Related to the benefit-cost problem is the difficulty of identifying pro-housing constituencies to get involved in the political process. Sure, builders, Realtors, and local service providers will welcome new housing, but they are perceived as self-interested. The real constituencies for new market-rate housing—the people who will actually live in new homes—are unknown and cannot be mobilized to support pro-housing policies.

A public need provided by private enterprises. The supply of housing is a public need, yet the vast majority of housing is built by private enterprises. Consider two other public needs provided by the private sector: food and energy. The federal government has vast and expensive programs at the Departments of Agriculture and Energy aimed at making sure that business can meet demand. But when it comes to housing, federal and state governments have no significant programs to ensure market-rate supply. We have robust programs on the demand side—mortgage interest deductions, Fannie and Freddie—but subsidizing demand in a supply-constrained environment just drives up prices.

Easy to stop, hard to start. Governments have zoning and police powers that enable them to stop things they don’t want, but few powers to promote things they do want. It’s easy to draw an urban growth line and restrict the amount of land for single-family homes. But can governments create alternatives that will be appealing to families? The answer, so far, is no.

So, where do we go from here if we want to improve housing affordability in the region? First, let’s get rid of some magical thinking that has failed us:

Multifamily is not a substitute for single family. About two-thirds of households live in detached homes, a ratio that has changed very little region-wide. Very few families want to raise their children in multi-family housing, and most families stay in their detached homes long after their children move away. We can hope for some changes at the margins as the new middle-housing options attract empty nesters and retirees who would not move to traditional multi-family. But the pace of this shift remains an unknown.

Density does not save money. Density is expensive, for both the public and for residents. Light rail is costing more than all other major transportation infrastructure investments combined. New, stacked-flat urban center housing will never be affordable and smaller lot sizes have not reduced housing prices. Retrofitting old water and sewer systems for higher density is more expensive than building new systems.

City governments will avoid actions contrary to the perceived interests of their residents. Without mandates from the state, city governments will take few actions that will alter the single-family neighborhoods that make up most of their zoning. Cities will avoid actions that will be perceived as increasing traffic, parking demand, and general crowding.

We cannot subsidize our way out of our affordability problems. The need for affordable housing far outstrips the most ambitious subsidy programs we might imagine. Subsidies will fall short of the needs of those who cannot ever support themselves, let alone the needs of the working poor.

After 30 years of growth management the results are in. We have some success with vibrant but expensive urban centers, a market acceptance of much smaller lots for single family homes, and a general understanding of what “middle-housing” forms will work. But the drastic shortfall of detached housing and inexpensive apartments are a direct result of growth strategies that we need to change.

The starting point for a new planning approach is to target production of specific housing types, not just “units.” We need to allow enough land capacity for detached housing and lower-density apartments, and there needs to be enough excess in land supply that speculation in land becomes a less attractive investment.

This drives us to a predictable place: more development on the periphery of the urbanized area. The Growth Management Act was sold to the state with the promise that it was not a growth “control” mechanism, but a way to make sure that growth was orderly and did not outstrip infrastructure development. Let’s return to that promise and loosen the urban growth line to allow more homebuilding.

That will help get city government out from the center of the process. Putting all the burden of housing supply on cities is unfair to them and, ultimately, will result in less housing than we need. HB 1110, which will require cities to allow more middle housing in their single-family neighborhoods will likely work modestly, but we cannot keep ramming mandates down the throats of city councils.

This puts the county back in the leadership position on housing. The new land that should be available for single family construction is all in unincorporated areas, and the county has the final say on movement of the urban growth line. Cities adjacent to the line will need to plan for eventual annexation of the newly developed areas.

We can achieve the original intent of the GMA and have orderly development, without choking off the opportunity for young families to have the lifestyle that most of our region’s leaders already enjoy.

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. The Luis article dares to suggest modifying the Urban Growth Boundary. Keep in mind there are good ways and bad ways to do this. One good way is to create the infrastructure first (sewers, water, transit) and then allow the housing to follow. The bad way is just to encourage wasteful sprawl. And remember, when the UGB was sold to voters, it always envisioned moving the boundaries as growth took place.

  2. The benefits of suburban sprawl might be a little overstated here. There’s no question plenty of people will take that option if it’s available, over the multifamily residential that’s been developed here in recent years, but it sure isn’t going to make housing affordable to either residents or municipalities.

    Housing prices have been going up all over the world, presumably for common systemic reasons like speculative investment, labor cost etc. In the Seattle area, if there were some way to have suppressed the unsustainable growth of the preceding decade, that would have brought costs down to some degree of parity with the rest of the country; deregulatory solutions like increasing the urban growth areas wouldn’t have done much to create more housing, because housing was already being created as fast as the industry could go.

    The cost to municipalities of suburban sprawl isn’t entirely a myth either. If you think the current light rail boondoggle is alarming, consider what happens if we add lots more residents to automobile dependent suburbs. But the incalculable cost is the permanent loss of `open space’ uses. Land cleared for a suburban housing development will never go back to forest or farm.

    When Seattle’s planning department was given the task of pitching Murray’s MHA upzones, they painted some pretty pictures of garden cottages. Of course the outcomes rarely if ever resembled those promises, but that’s because no one really cared enough about it. If we wanted to make denser housing more attractive, I think we know how to do it, but builders don’t care because they have their buyers over a barrel, and the city doesn’t care because in effect they serve the builders. Maybe rather than looking back at the suburban dream of half a century ago, we should try to look forward.


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