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Monday, August 21, 2006

Horizontal Sprawl

Posted by on August 21 at 9:49 AM

I’m in McHenry, Illinois, a small town embedded in McHenry township, which itself is in McHenry County. My mom’s lived out here for fifteen years. I’ve visited occasionally over the years, and I’ve watched as fields of corn and soybeans were overrun by new roads, big-box stores, and housing developments (including the one where my mother and step-father live).

Seeing a place like McHenry County puts the debate we’re having in Seattle over density into perspective. Back at home the density debate can feel somewhat abstract—do we build up or out? do we let developers run riot in the city or in rural areas?—so it’s instructive to see, first-hand, just what sprawl looks and feels like. I’m convinced that an afternoon in McHenry County would convert Seattle’s rabid anti-density dimwits into passionate backers of urban density, DADUs, increased building heights downtown, and true rapid transit. (Ahem: “true rapid transit” excludes BRT, Mr. Sims.)

The revulsion McHenry inspires isn’t merely aesthetic—if you think some of the condos going up in Seattle are ugly (and some—not all, some—of them are), you should see the rows and rows of boxy, identical houses out here—but all encompassing. The place is not just an aesthetic nightmare, but environmentally unsustainable, and, with rising gas prices and the potential “end of oil,” completely irrational as a public and private investment. Only cheap gas makes this kind of horizontal sprawl possible. (Cheap gas and the towering sense of entitlement that characterizes 99 out 100 drivers. Roads? Endless subsidies! Mass transit? Endless bitching about the tax dollars that pay for it.)

A lot of people want this, of course. People choose to live in these god-awful, sidewalk-free exurbs for a reason, as David Brooks is constantly pointing out. They want the soullessness, they want the “safety,” they want a huge fenced yard (most of which sit empty all day long), and they want to live in a house that shows only its backside—a two or three-car garage—to the street and the neighbors.

Cities can either contribute to the sprawl in places like McHenry County or slow it by growing more dense and building up. But density isn’t enough. While dense cities are more environmentally friendly, cities can’t compete with places like McHenry just by shouting, “Hey, we’re better for the environment!” The folks flooding into places like McHenry don’t give a rat’s ass about the environment. Cities can only compete by appealing to peoples’ self-interest.

Leaving a place like McHenry for, say, a place like Chicago or Seattle means leaving behind the private fenced yard and the extra bedroom. People are only going to do that if they get something of value in return. Cities have to offer not just quality housing (affordable and market rate) but also the kinds of urban amenities that attract and keep families—things like numerous public parks (large and small), good schools, and the option of living without an automobile. Shared public spaces in dense, family-friendly cities take the place of private spaces, just as shared public transportation can take the place of private automobiles.

Anyway, I’m not sure where I’m going with this—I have a bad headache, and my mom slipped me a Vicodin, so maybe I’m just blathering. It’s just that having spent the last four days out here in the horizontal sprawl has me anxious to get back to Seattle and its comparatively benign and absolutely essential “vertical sprawl.”

But simply building more housing units for the three or four hundred thousand new residents the mayor is expecting in the next decade or three isn’t enough. We have to build up the rest of the urban infrastructure too—and not just sewage treatment plants and more police officers. We have to think about the tradeoffs, the things that make city living, and density, not just bearable but attractive and worthwhile, the things that will offset the “loss” of a three car garage or a private yard.

You know, things like this. And if not this, then this.

CommentsRSS icon

sprawl wouldn't be an abstract concept around here if you actually left the city limits once in a while.

An unusually large proportion of folks I meet in Seattle come from the midwest, from environments exactly like the one you're describing. Especially young, talented, educated people - Seattle is where the "brain drain" drains to. Cities like my hometown, Louisville, are wiseing up to the fact that unchecked horizontal sprawl, while politically easy, is disastrous for a city's intellectual, cultural, and ultimately economic future. Heck, even places like Bellevue and Everett fall into this category.

Looks like the Seattle Commons project was shot down by voters over 10 years ago. Any word on reviving it?

I moved here from the suburbs of Pittsburgh for a job. Downtown Seattle needs more density. Lots of people from the suburbs would move downtown if there are more condos, and more life downtown.

I think my objections to density are pretty typical, and not all that dimwitted. They are what I'll call second order objections. I'm all for the idea of well designed urban cores regardless of the density, but looking at the history of development in Seattle, I'm convinced that no such thing could happen here. Instead density will happen, but in the same developper and property owner friendly way, with little regard for the negative effect the development will have on the community as a whole.
Can you honestly look back on the monorail debacle and then tell us honestly that you indeed trust city government to grow Seattle in a responsible way?
When I hear density I imagine that the reality will be more like a gridlocked sea of cars spewing ozone, nitr-ic and -ous oxides, etc. No it doesn't have to be that way, but this mayor and this city council won't prevent it from happening. They've already shown they are perfectly happy to let the status quo persist, or even degrade (increasing the 99 corridor capacity).
In fact much of the enviornmental movement is driven by such second order reservations. Sure one can build good mines, good waste dumps, good pork factorie farms, but it so seldom happens and the consequences of getting it wrong or so onerous, that the wise observer opts for just not letting it happen. You learn that the whole process is just bad when it comes to some projects, and so you object to the whole damn thing: rosy promises and all.

kinaidos' comments put me to sleep, the only possible reaction to incoherent objections to density. Now that I'm up again, I liked your post, Dan. It rules. Density is the only way if you have a conscience.

Horsehit, Dan. Get off of Capitol Hill and drive through Monroe to Sultan sometime (or the Kent Valley to hwy 410 and Mount Rainier, or I-5 to Bellingham, or...) - the kind of density you want to impose on Seattle isn't preventing much of anything in the suburbs and/or exurbs, but it is driving working and lower middle class folks out of Seattle.

I'm off to the airport, so I can't get dragged into a debate in comments. But quickly: Mr. X? The kind of density I want to impost on Seattle—me, powerful me! condos go up at my command! one phone call to my buddy Greg and the city raises building heights!—hasn't been imposed on Seattle yet. Since it hasn't happened yet, how the freaking hell is it supposed to have prevented the sprawl in Sultan or Monroe?

Too much high-end development in Seattle, I agree. We need to create housing for the working class and middle class—and amenities that will make living in the city seem more attractive. More development, more density, coupled with rising gas prices and a better civic infrastructure, will make city living more appealing than sitting alone in your "great room" in the exurbs somewhere.

Oh, and build rail to Everett and build up there too.

Over and out.

More density in theory is great. However, we have to contend with a zeitgeist, particularly in the northend of seattle and the eastside, that sprawl to accomodate single family housing is a good thing. A lot of people in these areas like their "brady bunch" neighborhoods and are willing to suffer the long car commutes to preserve their lifestyle. Gas prices will have to get way out of hand and traffic will have to get far more ridiculous than it is before most people accept far reaching changes to create more density and be willing to spend more money to create true right of way mass transit options.

It seems like middle-class condos won't come around until all the big bucks in luxury condos have been made and the market is flooded with high end shit with no buyers, then they move down the food chain.

Yes, not everyone is going to afford a condo in South Lake Union.

Seattle needs Queens: an accessible-by-transit but less than entirely desirable area.

I'm looking at you Tukwilla. Des Moines here we come!

Such neighborhoods only come from a logical, grade seperated mass transit system. It is a far fairer and more effective means of providing low and middle income housing for people whose jobs are in the city.

This post is why it's sad that the Seattle Weekly has collapsed/sold for parts to that Phoenix outfit: no real voice left who will counter idiots like Dan Savage and Josh Feit. Knute Berger and George Howland lived here long enough to know that Seattle doesn't have to be a giant city to still be a great city.
At least the Weekly was around long enough to kill the incredibly stupid Monorail.

I wonder about that issue, myself. But I figure that any increase in supply -- even if it's out of my price range -- is going to sop up buyers that would otherwise be competing with us, downmarket.

High-rises are expensive to build and not especially family friendly. Sustainable density will come from making row houses desirable and prevalent, not from moving families into high rises.

See Dutch cities for good examples.

Kinaidos: In fact much of the enviornmental movement is driven by such second order reservations. Sure one can build good mines, good waste dumps, good pork factorie farms, but it so seldom happens and the consequences of getting it wrong or so onerous, that the wise observer opts for just not letting it happen. You learn that the whole process is just bad when it comes to some projects, and so you object to the whole damn thing: rosy promises and all.

This is a little bit like making an argument in favor of socialist totalitarianism by saying, "Well, y'know, we always manage to screw up this whole capitalist democracy thing."

The idea that someone here can actually with a straight face identify nimbyism with "the environmental movement" -- well, I guess that just shows how backward Seattle still is.

All density is good. It's better for the environment, and it promotes elegant urban lifestyles. I love the great restaurants, fun nightlife, and exciting coffeshops downtown. We need more condos downtown and on Capital Hill.

My wish list for Seattle:
Row houses
More transit options
Richard Daley

Dan Blather: Yes, there is a density problem, but it's in your head. Good schools, to good parents, are more than a green-space amenity. Good schools (no definition necessary because they're like Potter Stewart's porno; we know them when we see them) are what parents seek when they work to liberate themselves from the education ghetto of urban-monopoly public schools. And the preferred instruments of liberation from urban pathology are personal cars on public roads. Cars, not monorails or yuppie trains subsidized at $400/trip, make it possible to get up & out by voting with our feet & our wheels.

Families -- red & yellow, black & white -- tax themselves for the privilege of doing what privileged people like you did when you bugged out of Illin******'ois: MoveOn.


There was a neighborhood planning process in which lots of neighborhoods were upzoned and significant new density resulted. You advocate trashing Broadway height limits set during that collaborative process (for just one example), so yeah, I'm talking about YOU imposing YOUR vision on Seattle. And, as you acknowledge, you want even more density than is already occurring under this, the greatest growth spurt this City has experienced in my lifetime, so yeah, it's on you, dude.

And, like I said, if you bother to go to our existing suburbs and exurbs you can see for yourself that it is making not one whit of difference.

I bet Cressona will be real mad that you're advocating a sprawl train to Everett, too.


Not if increasing that supply means tearing down the existing supply of housing that the not rich can actually afford. The problem with infill/redevelopment is that it's displacing thousands of units (if not tens of thousands) at the bottom/low-middle price range (say 500-800/month) of the rental market and replacing them with units that rent for $1000/month and more - usually a lot more.


I have a hard time reconciling the last sentence of your post with your strong advocacy for blocking a protected view from 4 Columns Park so the County could add a few more stories to a development project.

The irony of your position is that self-styled environmentalists/"smart growth" types like you would apparently cut down every tree and build on every greenbelt in Seattle to facilitate massive increases in density far beyond that adopted in the Complan in the name of protecting the rest of the region from "sprawl" - even though that level of in-City density isn't stopping it anywhere in the Puget Sound region except at the far fringes of the Urban Growth Boundary (even while it is driving poor, working, and middle class people out of the City in droves).

So excuse me if I object to your calling everyone who paid attention during the Complan and neighborhood planning process dimwits, or try to hold you accountable for the policies you advocate (in a rather shrill amd condescending manner, IMO).

Dense as a Brick: education ghetto of urban-monopoly public schools...

Ghetto? Always glad to see you anti-density folks dredge up the classic racial code words. It's funny, we live in one of the most lily-white areas of the country and you still can't resist.

Anyway, what evidence is there of the inferiority of Seattle's schools? (I don't know, I'm just asking.) And what's to prevent gentrification from continually making the schools better as more education-oriented families move in?

Mr. X: The irony of your position is that self-styled environmentalists/"smart growth" types like you would apparently cut down every tree and build on every greenbelt in Seattle...

Come on, you know as well as I do that there's not a density supporter around who wants to cut down trees and build on greenbelts. But hey, if you're desperate enough to resort to lies, go for it.

Anyway, Mr. X, I admire that you've assumed the mantle of "champion of the oppressed working class" who are being forced to sell their modest abodes for $500,000 and more. There hasn't been this kind of exploitation around here since the U.S. government forced the native peoples onto the reservations.

Phoo, and to think I got upset when Mom moved from Evanston to Wilmette.

Dan, you're the Editor In Chief of a city paper with a coveted demographic, and you're a nationally syndicated columnist to boot. Enough with the "li'l ol' me" shtick, already. You're way past the point where you can plausibly use that kind of argument, no matter how much you empathize with the genuinely marginalized.

More Mr. X: I bet Cressona will be real mad that you're advocating a sprawl train to Everett, too.

Actually, I would love to see some really good mass transit service to places like Everett and Tacoma, provided it serves the actual cities and not the park-and-rides.

Anyway, I love the continued use of Orwellian language: "sprawl train," "vertical density." Maybe Orwell should have added a fourth party slogan:


Mr. (Fo)X,

Thousands of units!? Give me a break! You trot out these canards without a whit of evidence and use them as justifications for stopping any and all progress in this city. How many units were actually built/converted, etc in our city last year? Obviously not enough to alleviate enough of the demand to impact the growth rate in our suburbs. Obviously not enough to alleviate all of the price pressures within the city, which is the real reason that rents and prices increase. The answer is to build more, not less. Unless, of course, you deny the principle of supply and demand (which I suspect).

What's the matter with having beautiful suburbs and a dense downtown? Chicago has a great downtown and lovely suburbs. Binary thinking is your problem. Dan's mother lives in a suburb that people like - other people want downtown living. There's plenty of room for both. If Dan's mother has lived there fifteen years, it must not be that souless and empty for her.

That wasn't 30 years of white flight from our urban-ed ghetto, Cress, that was flight. In fact, your own Doorknob Dan did the dialectic: urban pathologies and their remedies (getting in the Suburban & getting out) cleave along fractured lines of class, not race.

But you may be right: After the exodus or the hejira or the diaspora, after Raj shuts down schools by the baker's dozen, revival & reconstruction may happen when bargain-hunting greedheads & yups like you gentrify the neighborhoods from which others flew.

Illinois Transplant: What's the matter with having beautiful suburbs and a dense downtown? Chicago has a great downtown and lovely suburbs. Binary thinking is your problem.

Um, did I miss something? Was Dan calling for a complete ban on suburbs? Did you see Dan walking around with a torch insisting that the suburbs be razed? I did not, but again, I probably was not paying as close attention as you.

Oh, where to start.

Cressona - I'm not as concerned about the working class people who are selling modest houses (as often as not to be torn down to make way for a mega house on a or 4 townhomes, etc, and usually for a lot less than $500k, at least in my neighborhood) as I am the renters who are being pushed out when their landlord makes the above sale (or when their old 50's era lowrise apartment is torn down to make room for a 6-story built to the lotline revenue-maximizing box). On the other hand, though, I do think it's sad that people are forced out of their homes because their taxes/assessments are rising a lot faster than their incomes are (and, by the way, since most of these people couldn't afford to buy in Seattle now, off they go to those dreaded suburbs if/when they do sell).

Drive up Sylvan Way in West Seattle and you'll see lots of greenbelt being removed to make room for a big single-family housing development. Funny, but I didn't see any "smart growth" folks objecting to that. Not all greenbelts are publicly owned, and changes in land use regulation combined with a permissive attitude from DPD are making it much easier to build on heretofore undevelopable lots.

To the contrary, if one reads the Stranger/Slog, it is hard not to get the impression that they - and like minded people such as yourself - think that the highest value is in-City density (in the name of preventing sprawl, of course), and every other value is secondary to that. Given how people who do try to preserve some of the quality of life in Seattle are vilified by the Stranger/et al, I think the metaphor is apt (btw - there's a proposal to build a bunch of single-family houses in an environmentally critical area on W. Marginal Way at the bottom of the West Duwamish Greenbelt - you'll get right on that, I'm sure.)

Read today's story on Sound Transit's commuter rail system to see how well regional mass transit will work w/o park and rides, btw. Or would you prefer that suburban commuters just drove all the way into Seattle because their bus service won't get them to and from the trains on time? Those are the real world choices that people are making (and I have seen posters here object to regional mass transit on the basis that it will encourage sprawl - my apologies for attributing that sentiment to you).

ProgressiveLady - it's hard to pin down actual numbers for housing displacement, as DPD doesn't track how many units are torn down to make way for the new development projects popping up citywide in a way that is easy to follow, but I think thousands of units is a reasonable estimate for the last several years (I certainly wouldn't use that figure for one year, though I wouldn't be surprised to find out that close to 1000 affordable units were demolished in some years, given that DPD says we're netting about 4000+ new units or so annually).

As to your point re supply and demand, Seattle is not a blank slate - if you tear down all of the older units with cheap rent, it will be decades before the considerably more expensive new units that replace them will see their rents fall similar levels.

Of course, since demand for suburban housing is largely separate from the demand for in-City housing (verify this with a realtor, if you'd like), additional construction in the City doesn't affect that market much, anyway.

An aside, when the Complan was adopted, there was a lot of lip service paid to affordable housing. At the time, the goal was that 25% of new housing built in urban villages was supposed to be affordable to people earning less than 50% of median income. How much progress do you think we've made on that, or on preserving the existing housing in Seattle that is affordable to people in that income bracket? I'd be surprised if any new unsubsidized units rent for what was originally defined in the Complan as "affordable".

OTOH, the City did pass a multifamily construction tax break to new units that rent at 80% of median - which means that that portion of the tax burden is shifted onto the backs of people who couldn't afford to live in those units. Such a deal!

Of course, I suppose that the wholesale exodus that people of color are making from the Central Area/Rainier Valley to Renton, Kent and Auburn is just a figment of my imagination, too.

A better choice would be to permit 200 story tall apartment buildings in Wallingford along the arterials, with a requirement that they be surrounded by public parks of five times the space taken by the foundation.

That would serve density and solve more problems more quickly.

That or building the monorail instead of that insane underwater tunnel.

Queens? Yes! We need a Queens! (PS, I’m from Queens, so I might be biased).
My parents live in fancy, 24/hr doorman two bedroom co-op apartment in an amazing neighborhood for less than 200g’s. It’s within easy walking distance of 4 subway lines, about a five minute walk from the LIRR (which brings you to Manhattan in about 12 minutes, but unfortunately, only runs every 20 mins), equidistant to the two airports, and on about a gazillion bus routes. While visiting, I had some friends over. I apologized because the bus was taking so long. It was 3am, and we had to wait ten minutes. Plus, there’s about 10 delis (2 kosher, 1 Russian, 1 Pakistani, the rest run of the mill), 3 grocery stores, 2 variety shops, a florist, 4 vegetable stands, dozens of restaurants, and even a food coop within half a mile.
Now, I live in Seattle. I’m about a 20 minute walk from downtown, but the bus only comes every half hour. I have 3 grocery stores, 2 corner markets, a liquor store, 5 gas stations and a Starbucks within half a mile.
I love it here, but this “city” makes me sad sometimes…

I like Will in Seattle's suggestion for the apartments in Wallingford. Or to take it further, start rezoning much of the north end--ravenna, wedgewood, magnolia--to allow for more construction of apartment buildings to help create a more constructive density in seattle.

I agree, thanks for expanding on it.

But I also agree that subsidizing commuter rail at $14 a trip is just plain wrong - better to take that money and double Seattle bus transit which actually runs many lines at a PROFIT.

Never mind the urban sprawl, I am just tickled pink that Dan Savage visits my little suburb!

As was pointed out, there's a lot to be said for the sprawly suburban life, most of which has to do with not having the density. Me, I get stressed just driving in Schaumburg, never mind walking around Chicago itself. Fifteen, twenty years ago I thought the city was great. Now I don't.

But seriously, Dan, next time you're out here, drop me a line and meet my nephew Danny, The Gayest Boy In McHenry!

You're up against a monster, Dan.

I think the sprawl lifestyle will preserve over decades as gasoline cedes to alternative, renewable fueling methods. Peak oil and the economy will essentially mandate the change.

check out affordable rent for 50, 60, 70, 80% median income:


Gomez: I think the sprawl lifestyle will preserve over decades as gasoline cedes to alternative, renewable fueling methods. Peak oil and the economy will essentially mandate the change.

Oh, if only it were that easy. Nothing gives you a bang for the buck the way oil does. Oil consumption will eventually cede to renewable fuels and -- you know what? -- those renewable fuels are going to be mighty expensive for what they deliver.

Here's a quote from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof: "U.S. ethanol sometimes takes nearly as much petroleum to make (in fuel to run tractors to harvest corn, for example) as it saves."

Within five years, when gas is $6 a gallon, the equivalent amount of biofuel is going to cost the same. The funny thing about the exurban way of life is that people adopt it for purely selfish reasons, but soon enough, people are going to abandon it in large numbers for purely selfish reasons -- because they literally can't afford it.


Ever heard of economies of scale?

Biodiesel is still a boutique product, yet manages to be reasonably competetive with gas/regular diesel in price.

Brazil makes their ethanol from sugar cane waste at a fraction of the cost of the heavily subsidized ethanol now produced in the US (where it is mostly a subsidy for the corn industry anyway), and they are approaching a point where they will achieve meaningful self-sufficiency with a renewable fuel product.

Of course, none of that fits your agenda, so I can see why you might have left it out.

I agree that we need to do more to build a truly regional mass transit system (as opposed to a ground-level trolley designed to gentrify the Rainier Valley), but Gomez is right - private automobiles will be with us for a long, long time to come.

Sorry to disappoint you.

Savage and Feit on land use planning are as reliable as Judy Miller on Iraq.

Everyone is supposed to bow down to the interests of nightclubbing yuppies. Seattle's planning strategy is to replace the low-to-middle income population with high earners.

Increasing the housing supply in the city doesn't discourage suburban development. If anything it encourages it by keeping it more affordable to people moving to the area from other regions, by reducing the local demand. To hear Savage and Feit tell it, you'd think there's a law that puts 1000 sq ft of land off-limits to development in the suburbs every time a 1000 sq ft townhouse goes up in the city, but of course there is no such effect.


Just got a meeting invite in my email. As you can see, my guesstimate of the annual loss of affordable housing wasn't too far off base at all. Pity this thread's about done, but here it is for the record...(forwarded message follows)

Join us for a forum and discussion on the loss of affordable housing in Seattle:
Wednesday, September 13th, 5 to 7 PM in the Bertha Knight Landes Room at City Hall
(600 – 4th Avenue, between James and Cherry.)

When local leaders talk about ending homelessness these days, they usually focus on
expanding funding for low-income housing and social services. Advocates for ending
homelessness work to pass housing levies, increase the state’s Housing Trust Fund,
and look for creative ways to expand homelessness resources. But at the same time,
we’re losing more low-income housing than we gain every year.

Over the last year in Seattle, 2,000 rental units were converted to condos and 681
units were demolished. Add affordable rentals lost to speculative sale and those
lost to increased rents, and the loss of existing low-income housing outpaces the
creation of new units at least three to one annually. The City doesn’t have the
ability to fully regulate this, because state law overrides the City’s power, but
there are steps the Mayor and City Council can take to slow down or reverse this
trend. But will they? What’s the effect of the growth and gentrification on our
efforts to end homelessness? Do we have to choose between increasing density in our
urban centers and preserving affordable housing, or can we do both?

Come join in or listen to a discussion on these issues. Guests include Tom
Rasmussen, chair of the Housing, Human Services, and Health committee of the Seattle
City Council, John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and Sharon Lee of the
Low Income Housing Institute.

For more information, contact Rachael Myers at or call
206-441-3247 ext. 201.

Consider the source. I'd trust their numbers slightly less than I trust our President's pronouncements concerning Iraq.

Given the front-page treatment given the demolition of the Lillian (with only 34 units)and the conversion of the Washington Shoe back in 2000, I can't imagine 100 units being demolished in a single year, let alone 681. Could it be that the affordable housing advocates (whose very jobs depend on perpetuating the myth of an affordability crisis) have included the tally of units demolished at High Point, Rainier Vista, etc by the Seattle Housing Authority to make way for more, new affordable housing?? Their 3 to 1 figure is absolutely preposterous!

If you'd bother to dig into the real numbers you'd find that the city admits that 70% of the rental units downtown are affordable at 60% of the median income. In other words, we would need 30% of our rental units to be priced at $X or below - but in actually a full 70% of the units are at or below that number. I would be willing to wager that the percentage of affordable units is actually higher as you get further from downtown. Affordability crisis? I think not.

Don't buy into their hype. We need our shrinking public resources to go towards REAL issues (schools, transportation, health care, libraries, etc) rather than lining the pockets of "non-profit" housing providers like Sharon Lee.

Those numbers came from DPD at a briefing of Tom Rasmussen's Committee.

How's that for a source?

Are you really arguing that 70% of downtown rental units rent for $800 per month or less (the HUD/City standard for a studio for a 1-person household at 60% of median income, which is about $33k/year? A one-bedroom apt by these standards would rent for close to $900/month, BTW)?

Put down the crack pipe, lady, and try picking up the real estate classifieds instead - you'd be hard pressed to find any unsubsidized older units available at that price, and the new ones being built largely rent for double that.

BTW - I'd venture to say that you're none to progressive if you're gonna use right-wing NIMBY language for good people and agencies who actually provide very low income housing.

Oh, and Rainier Vista and other HOPE VI projects are providing fewer units for very low-income people than the projects they are replacing, and have spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating mixed-income communities instead of increasing the supply of hard units for the poor. But little facts like that evidently don't matter much to you, I guess.

The source for the FACT that 681 units were demolished last year is the City Department of Planning and Development. If you'd like to watch the briefing yourself, in Councilmember Tom Rasmussen's Committee see here:

and click on the link for the last item:
"Department of Planning and Development Director's Quarterly Report"

I'll send the written report later.

Re: "the city admits that 70% of the rental units downtown are affordable at 60% of the median income"...there are no documents from city govt. or the real estate industry that say anything at all like that at all. In fact the City's Consolidated Plan, if I didn't think proglady was a troll I'd look it up and send you all the link, say just the opposite.

ProgressiveLady - here are the sources that you find so preposterous...

This is the DPD document that shows the 1162 condo conversions:

This is the DPD map that shows the 681 housing demolitions for the period covering 7/05 - 6/06

If you have any interest at all in reading about the real needs (not hype) of families in this city, read this short summary housing needs assessment in the Consolidated Plan.

Is this really the best that you can do?! You people (or person (X and LH)) are more deluded than I feared.

- Condo conversions: X stated that there were 2,000 last year. When that is challenged, LH lowers the number to 1,162. Unfortunately, LH didn't bother reading the report because it shows that those conversions were over a 30 month period. Not sure where you're from, but most of us here in Seattle consider a year to be 12 months.

- 681 demolitions: I'd say that your map very clearly demonstrates that X, LH and their ilk are twisting data for their own ends. What I saw in that map was that NOT A SINGLE APARTMENT BUILDING GREATER THAN 10 UNITS WAS DEMOLISHED. Tends to go against your alarmist screed they are tearing down the cheap apartments to build high-end housing. I counted a total of 13 buildings of greater than 5 units that were torn down - 13! Not exactly the end-of-the-world issue that you'd like everyone to think that it is. Everything else on your map looked to be single family homes and a handful of duplex/fourplex - no doubt replaced by the ubiquitous attached townhome project (which has actually tend to HELP housing affordability in Seattle).

- 70% affordability: You can start by going to
The press release from the Office of Housing points out that over 1,000 new affordable units have been created from funding by the housing levy (of course, that doesn't count all the units created through federal, state and other city funding - so the total number of units created is obviously much, much higher).

The press release proudly states that 70% of downtown units are affordable to incomes up to $41,700. While that is 80% of median for an individual, not everyone in Seattle is single. The $41,700 roughly equates to the 60% level for a family (or living unit, like roommates) of 3. Of course, it probably goes against every fiber of your being to think that some people may need to split rent with a roommate...

As to your contention that there are no units in Seattle that rent for $900 and below - you're once again clearly off the mark. try surfing over to Craigslist every once in a while. Just did a quick check and found that there are 1,772 apartments listed for rent at 900 and below in the Seattle area (1,019 within Seattle itself). Very interestingly, a similar search of LA returns about 70% fewer units for a population roughly 6 times the size. I'd say we're already doing a pretty damn good job at supplying affordable housing.

I don't doubt your passion for the issue - but that passion is getting in the way of common sense. Affordable housing for all is something that we need to be concerned with - but we have let it dominate the agenda for too long. We spend a dispropoprtionate amount of time and resources on affordable housing when we have MUCH MORE IMPORTANT social issues. There are very worthy causes that you could get just as passionate about that would be so much more beneficial for EVERYONE.


OK, so we've gone from you not being able to imagine 100 units demolished in a year to having to acknowledge that 681 were demolished in 2005, but I'm the one who is deluded.

You read a narrative and chart for 3 years of condo conversions showing 3163 total, then you wrongly assert that the 2006 YTD figure of 1162 cited as of June '06 covers the whole 30 month period (and, I would add, that the report clearly states regarding 2006 that "If this pace continues, we expect to receive requests for well over 2000 by year's end."). Read it again, and you'll see that we're right and you're just dead wrong.

It isn't specified in the data, but I suspect the reason larger buildings aren't being demolished is that it is easy and lucrative to convert them to condos. Those 1162 units (as of 06/06) didn't materialize out of thin air - they were real apartments with real people living in them.

Regarding "affordability" - I think that the HUD guidelines are flawed, but they are the universal measure government uses. First off, what they call "affordable" rental rates assume that someone is paying 30% of their gross income for housing. Try doing the math for that on someone who earns $10/hr, or just a little under 20k gross per year. By this standard, 794/month for rent is affordable. If you think that most people earning $10/hr at a full-time regard that as affordable, once again, you're just wrong.

People who make the kind of money I'm talking about do indeed have roommates - and I'd venture to guess that more than a few of the people who occupied those 600+ demolished single family units in fact lived in shared housing – most likely with each of them paying 300-500 per month, which I (and they, I suspect) would consider to actually be affordable in the real world of working folk who live in unsubsidized housing. I've lived in these kind of situations a number of times, and lots of people I know do, too.

Speaking of subsidized housing, I supported the housing levy (despite my concerns that some of those funds are allowed to be used to subsidize units for 80% of median income), but if you think we can subsidize our way out of a growing affordability crisis in Seattle (let alone the region - where people are loath to raise taxes for this kind of stuff), you're also dead wrong. Those 1000 units you cite were constructed over a 4-year period, by the way, and the number does not grow exponentially (or even arithmetically) with the addition of state and federal funds (and even a subsidized 2-bedroom at High Point or New Holly rents for nearly $900, though that does include some utilities).

The press release from the Mayor's office stating that 70% of downtown units are affordable to those making $41,700 or less would sound a lot less impressive if they had added that that means a studio apartment that rents for $1070 a month, a one bedroom for $1117, a two bedroom for $1341 or a three bedroom for $1564. Once again, you misread the data - which show that a 3 person family would be at 80% of median if they earned $53,650 (I do agree that several individuals earning 60% of median could pool incomes and rent together, of course, but your analysis of the data is wrong). What they don’t say in the press release is how many of those 70% of units have “affordable” rent (respectively, for the same unit types) of $817/876/1051/1215/month for 60% median individuals. The way the phrase is quoted, fully 100% of those 70% of downtown units could rent for $1 less than the rates at 80% of median I describe above. I’m not arguing that they do, mind you, but I would venture a guess that very, very few unsubsidized units exist on the open market downtown below $800 per month – and I would bet that none of them are in new buildings.

The Craigslist figure of 1772 available apartments under $900 that you cite includes apartments from Seattle neighborhoods such as Woodinville, Tacoma, University Place, Everett, Olympia, and Renton, so you might want to rethink that talking point. But just for grins – and without removing apts outside of Seattle, if you do income searches, that same number goes down to 1281 available under $800, 773 available under $700, 342 under $600, 107 under $500, and 21 under $400. If you think this proves your point regarding the availability of affordable apartments, you are – once again – wrong.

BTW - I didn't say that there are "no units in Seattle that rent for $900 or below" - I said that new units don't rent at that rate. Which, even you have to admit, is really sort of different, isn't it?

Here's a $695/month apt in an older building that is exactly the kind of housing that's at risk in Seattle right now

The cost of living in LA is way higher than it is in Seattle, so that comparison is statistically irrelevant. I would note, though, that LA actually has rent control and limits on condo conversions, so they're ahead of us on at least two progressive policy issues.

You really ought to hang out with some regular working class folks (or students, or artists, or musicians, or seniors…) for awhile if you really are trying to argue with a straight face that there isn’t a major crisis in affordability of rental units in Seattle.

Oops, one correction. Regarding the discussion of the Mayor's press release regarding 70% of downtown units being affordable to 80% median or below, a 3-bedroom apartment would indeed be considered affordable to 60% median by HUD guidelines at a rent level of $1215 (assuming a combined household income of $42,060). My bad.

...of course, at that price, you could also do what two of my friends recently did and rent an older but spacious house in Lake City, too (or at least until it's demolished to make room for some new townhouses)

Who says biofuel will be the only renewable fuel source in 10-20 years? You assume no new, viable sources will be created or discovered.

And, back to my earlier post, I wonder how we're coming along with that Complan goal that 25% of new units in urban villages should rent for $681 (studio), $730 (1 BR), $876 (2BR) or $1012 (3 BR)?

Probably not so good, I'd guess...


I want my wind/solar/electromagnetic energy hybrid car, and I want it NOW!

However, I would settle for a reliable used biodiesel friendly vehicle, but they ain't cheap (even used).

An even bigger correction,

My calculation on a $10/hr employee was WAY off, and actually should corrospond pretty well to the HUD guidelines, which say that a person at that income level (30% of median) can afford $408/438/526/etc in rent. Of course, this is also where I think the need is, and these are the units are disappearing at an alarming rate.

And try finding one of THOSE on Craigslist....


Your early post said: "city admits that 70% of the rental units downtown are affordable at 60% of the median income." WRONG.

This was one of 2 of your points that I set out to disprove.

You then produced an OH press release that contradicted your point and says: 70% of downtown units are affordable to incomes up to $41,700.

The difference is the difference between being affordable for incomes at ~$42K and affordable for incomes at $33K. The difference in rent is the difference between a studio apartment that costs ~$1,000/month and one that costs ~$800/month.

The percentage of income that people pay for their rent is larger the poorer you are. (Read the Consolidated Plan report on housing needs I linked to earlier). There are a couple ways to say this. One way is: the likelihood that one pays more than 30% of their income increases the lower income you are. Another way is: the likelihood that you can find affordable housing - costing no more than 30% of your income - decreases the lower income you are.

Because the number of affordable units (30% of the corresponding household's rent) available on the market decreases the lower income one is and because the rental housing market's ability to meet the need is most insufficient at the lower income levels the concept of subsidized housing was born.

Sadly, the need is so great that we CAN'T subsidize enough units to meet the ever growing need.

So, I don't care to debate how much 80% median income housing is out there. The market serves that population just fine. My point is that the conversion of rental housing to condos and the demolition of housing is not being mitigated by the development of other housing that is affordable to those with the lowest incomes...folks at 60% median income and lower.

BTW - I'm debating the availability and affordability of rental housing. But the press release you sent ALSO mentions this homeownership program: "In 2005 the City launched a new home ownership program for Seattle Public School teachers, providing up to $45,000 in a low-interest long-term loan..."

Did you happen to read about the "success" of that program here?

And on the impact of condo conversions:

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