Social Housing Skeptics Are Full of It

A playground with trees and public housing towers in the background
Public housing in Singapore, where 80% of the population live in public housing. (Photo by Sloutsch Frashine)

Last week was a weird week for public housing. On Tuesday, Substack pundit Matt Yglesias opined that public housing doesn’t solve a single problem and isn’t worthy of investment. Later that day, Raphael Warnock won his election for the United States Senate. It was the first time Georgia has ever elected a black senator. Warnock, like Big Boi of OutKast, grew up in Savannah public housing.

On Wednesday, Trump supporters, aided by police officers and with some waving Confederate flags, broke into the Capitol in a coup attempt seeking to block Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from starting a new administration, as the will of the people dictates after their decisive win with a whopping seven million more votes than Trump. It’s the first time in our nation’s history a Black woman is Vice President. With Warnock’s and Jon Ossoff’s victories, Harris will be the decisive vote breaking ties in a Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Needless to say, White supremacists like those that invaded the Capitol aren’t happy about the turn of events, particularly as a Black man and a Jew delivered Democrats a Senate majority by winning a formerly Confederate state.

With Democrats having control of both legislative chambers and the presidency, major legislation could be on the horizon. This is likely why folks like Yglesias and neoliberal think-tanks are hard at work discrediting public housing. Yglesias’s contention that Democrats will need to prioritize among competing needs is true, but the idea that public housing isn’t one of the needs is ludicrous.

Democrats have a wide spectrum of positions on social housing–a term covering not just public housing but also other forms of below-market homes like non-profit housing. While a Joe Biden housing plan calls for 1.5 million affordable homes, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minneapolis) has introduced legislation intended to create 12 million social housing units. Rarely do you see a 21st century Democrat calling for zero new social housing.

Matt Yglesias tweeted "I don’t understand exactly what problem a public housing comeback is supposed to solve. There isn’t a shortage of private capital willing to be employed building apartments in high cost metros, there are rules prohibiting its deployment? We need public investment in zero-carbon electricity, in public health, in basic science, and so many other areas — including cash assistance to the poor — but the private sector is very capable of building more dwellings if cities want that outcome."
Warning: Somebody is wrong on the internet.

The market can’t solve the low-income housing shortage.

While implying a superior understanding of markets, Yglesias actually betrays that notion by operating with a stilted, oversimplified understanding. Private capital is interested in housing, but this isn’t a permanent condition. It’s hard to rely on the market alone to just build and build until the shortage is gone. If prices drop, the private capital spigot turns off as we saw dramatically in the 2008 housing crash. A unique advantage social housing can provide is countercyclical production that can fill in the gaps during market downturns or crashes.

Beyond boosting housing production, this strategy could help limit the bleeding of construction workers and firms during the next crash–2008 absolutely devastated the industry with 1.5 million jobs disappearing, and we’re still suffering the consequences with higher construction costs due to a construction labor shortage. Pretending like housing crashes won’t happen again (and thus not preparing for them) is naïve. Imagine reconstituting the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and training a new generation of construction workers that would increase our housing production capacity.

A U-shaped graph showing the dip in construction jobs in the aftermath of the 2008 housing crash.
American construction employment peaked at about 7.7 million in 2007 before the crash wiped out millions of jobs. By 2019, the industry still had not recovered to its peak. (FRED)

In addition to coming with booms and busts, the private market tends to only add new homes at the upper half of the market. Social housing is essential to prevent wealthier folks from buying up older housing and upping displacement pressure. However, if a region is booming like Seattle is, filtering of aging housing stock down to the lower-income folks doesn’t happen in sufficient numbers–too many people are moving in or forming new households for that to happen. Seattle added 150,000 residents in a decade, jumping from 610,639 in 2010 to more than 761,000 in April estimates. King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force estimated the county faces a deficit of 156,000 affordable homes and needs to create a total of 244,000 new affordable homes by 2040, in its Five-Year Action Plan.

A graph of new home produced per year in the USA showing a historic low for the last decade.
Before the 2008 crash, 1982 was the only year since 1968 the US produced less than 1.2 million new homes, but we were below that rate of production for a decade following the crash. (Credit: Freddie Mac)

If the cost to build a typical home is $300,000–a reasonable ballpark figure for Seattle–the market cannot provide housing below that price (without assistance anyway). Enter $350,000 into a mortgage calculator and younfind the monthly payment is approximately $1,655. This isn’t a perfect conversion to likely rents for an apartment, but it gives an idea of the kind of rental prices the market responds to versus the rents that are too low to support market-rate construction. If you were hoping new full-sized apartments will hit the market with rents below $1,600 in Seattle, it appears a pipe dream at this point–a fact underscored by the fact developers qualify for the Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE) if they hold a quarter of their apartments at a reduced $1,628 rent for income-qualifying households (75% of area median income for a one-bedroom apartment, typically).

Microhousing can help for some, but doesn’t work for families. That leaves the bottom half of the market bargain hunting in older housing stock or at the mercy of government or nonprofit assistance. There’s not enough to go around. Investing in social housing gets us closer to enough, and empirical research suggests it’s twice as effective at reducing displacement pressure compared with market-rate housing. We can’t leave on the shelf one of our most effective tools for countering displacement and promoting mixed-income neighborhoods in high-demand cities.

Rent vouchers alone aren’t sufficient

Public housing skeptics like Yglesias tend to point to cash assistance and housing vouchers as the preferred solution. However, vouchers have significant downsides, especially if they’re expected to do all the heavy lifting on their own. A voucher program or cash assistance can invite price gouging. The Econ 101 supply and demand curve would suggest higher prices–more income means more demand, moving the equilibrium to a higher price. Landlords aren’t stupid. Most will charge more rent if they think their tenants can bear it, and as more and more real estate is gobbled up by corporate conglomerates, they’re getting more sophisticated about squeezing tenants. A pairing with rent control could help address that, but typically doesn’t go over well with market urbanists.

The other major downside of vouchers is landlord discrimination against voucher-holders. Seattle recently passed a ban on source-of-income discrimination, but some landlords still flout it. Without investing more resources in enforcing the ban, most will likely get away with it. Social housing is far from perfect in that regard, but government or nonprofit housing has more oversight than the private market.

One of the main arguments for Section 8 vouchers is that it gives low-income voucher-holders access to higher-income neighborhoods instead of concentrating poverty in one place. Racial discrimination erodes that benefit, and dispersing social support networks (as opposed to letting support networks grow with stable social housing) has negative consequences. Raj Chetty’s reanalysis of the Moving to Opportunity experiment–which had been the intellectual bedrock of the ‘vouchers good, public housing bad’ political consensus–found no evidence that portable Section 8 vouchers helped people increase their income over counterparts still in placed-based housing programs.

There simply is no reason to think we can’t do social housing well in this country, given the many other countries that have figured it out. To think otherwise is American Exceptionalism, or exceptionalism as it were.

In 2018, Yglesias recognized the value of regulating the market and investing in social housing in tandem with upzones. He seems to have drifted to a more laissez faire position–unless his tweets were intended only to provoke. Social housing is an indispensable part of the solution, so hopefully a consensus builds that more closely resembles his earlier, more nuanced position. With Senator Warnock helping deliver Democrats a senate majority and bringing the perspective of someone who has actually lived in public housing, we have a real opportunity to go big on social housing.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Ben Mitchell

I read the Matt Yglesias piece that is referenced and I think Doug misrepresents the arguments in that piece. Folks should read the Yglesias article and judge for themselves, but my understanding was that he was saying that dollar for dollar there are better ways for governments to get at the goal of getting people who can’t afford market-rate housing into homes. But again, just go read the Yglesias piece and judge for yourself.

I also think that Doug’s points under the rent vouchers being insufficient heading aren’t that strong:

1) A voucher program can invite price gouging – If the vouchers are big enough, so what? Couldn’t you just make the voucher program something that grows with the pace of housing costs?

2) Landlords can discriminate – Yes, they can. But so could Seattle Housing Authority staff. This seems to me like a straw man, and the way to address discrimination would be through rules and regulations and lawsuits that make that not allowed.

3) Government and nonprofit housing has more oversight than the private market – So institute more oversight of the private market. That seems easier to do than to create from whole cloth a ginormous, nation-wide, social housing program

4) Dispersing social support networks has negative consequences – I’m skeptical of this claim, and I’d be interested in seeing evidence that undermines the rigorous work by Raj Chetty that shows pretty definitively that neighborhood integration is incredibly positive. The link in Doug’s piece takes me to a contact list for the Washington state legislature.

5) There’s no reason to believe we can’t do social housing well – Really? Is Doug saying that when he surveys the history of public housing in the U.S. it all looks peachy? I think Doug is right to lift up Vienna as an example of social housing done well, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done poorly too.

At the end of the day, no program is a sure thing and everything is vulnerable to bad actors and politics. If there’s an easier path to getting everyone into good housing we should take it. I think a huge, and generous voucher program that would be an entitlement like medicaid, is easier than a massive, nationwide-wide construction effort of social housing.


I’ve always been a supporter of public transit, but there are big difference in economics between public transit and public housing. With public transit, the more people that ride it, the more efficient the system becomes as full buses cost less per rider to operate than empty buses.

Public housing is different, in that a home is, by nature, attached to a particular individual or family for the long term, so every $300,000 unit is, by necessity, a large recurring subsidy to just one particular person or family. No matter how many units you build, serving one more person requires building another $300,000 unit – the price per unit doesn’t go down with scale like transit does. That’s not to say it’s completely impossible.

The federal government does have the ability to pay for social programs of an order of magnitude that states can’t, but it also has other priorities. For instance, a housing subsidy of $1000/mo. for $100 million people adds up to $1.2 trillion annually, enough to pay for a decent chunk of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or other proposed programs. It would also be enough to pay for free college and free child care many times over. While the government can probably tax and borrow its way to one new $trillion/year program, there are limits; I don’t see how you pay for this *and* Medicare for all *and* the Green New Deal, etc. Medicare for All, alone, would stretch even the federal government’s ability to tax and spend to the breaking point.

Daniel Thompson

That is the rub asdf2: cost.

Private development won’t create affordable housing because:

1. It can’t. After the cost of the land (which is rising) and construction costs, plus permitting and cost of the loans and insurance, there is just a base cost in this region which results in new, unaffordable housing. Builders are not doing this for free, and trying to build affordable housing is a kind of no man’s land for the builder; and

2. They don’t want to. What some on this thread misunderstand is where a builder or developer makes their profit. It isn’t from the purchase of the land, drywall, roof, framing and so on, it is from the finishes like Nancy Pelosi’s $26,000 refrigerator, wood floors, wine cellar, media room, Wolf range, fixtures, and so on. A very high end kitchen remodel on the eastside or in Washington Park can easily cost $250,000 or more, with a lot less financial risk then upzoning and developing a multi-family site. This is is why a single family home on a multi-family zoned lot in the right neighborhood can still be more profitable for the developer or builder, if the build is high end enough.

So that leaves either public mandates like rent control, or banning Airbnb rentals to two per owner in Seattle, or public funding of housing, either vouchers, tax incentives which are government funding, or the government actually building and owning the housing, like ARCH.

The issues right now for government construction and ownership are each unit, when built by the government, is much more expensive than when built by a private builder (plus it is new construction), and land values are escalating, in part due to upzoning which increased the government’s cost to purchase property too (either for Sound Transit ROW or affordable housing).

On another Blog Ross posted a link to Redfin with houses for sale in the Seattle area for $350,000 or less. I was surprised there were 141 listings. Yes, they were mostly small and older, but they already exist. My suggestion if Seattle wants to get into the affordable ownership game is it buy existing properties, because they already exist and are cheaper than government construction of new housing. And exist, although 141 units is a small amount. It would take decades to build 12 million affordable units because the government will still be competing for the private workers and builders who make more profit building high end construction.

Right now I don’t see the money for this at the federal, state or city level. Around 15% to 20% of Medicaid’s annual $50 billion in expenditures is nursing home care for the elderly poor with states kicking in around an equal amount, and this would dwarf that.

I read an article today that suggested Seattle could see a doubling of its homeless population if tenants underwater are evicted. Every dollar has to be spent to keep those tenants in their current private housing, and hopefully restart the economy. Since March the federal government added $4 trillion to the national debt, and will likely add another $1 trillion just to keep the economy alive. The best cure for housing insecurity is jobs and a hot economy, and keeping the housed housed. Ideally citizens don’t want to have to rely on the government for their housing, or live in affordable housing, so minimum wage and other pro-worker reforms are the best cure for affordable housing, at least for those who work. Unfortunately right now this region is spending all its housing funds on the homeless, leaving the working poor out in the cold.


I do think there are some parts of the nation where there is an income/jobs problem, not a housing problem (to use a crude framing), in which case private actors can & should provide the vast majority of new housing stock; in a shrinking city, social housing organizations mostly need to preserve naturally affordable housing. Puget Sound is not one of those areas.

Good chart on annual housing production. Unlocking more housing production – private or public – will have an immense benefit to our economy in creating jobs and wealth, in addition to alleviating a housing shortage that exists in most cities.

Daniel Thompson

Hi Doug, thanks for the article. I will just repeat that I don’t believe upzoning and new construction creates affordable housing through some kind of trickle down theory. Without some kind of rent control like in Vienna it is very, very difficult to create affordable housing in a non-affordable area. I would also add that despite your introduction housing insecurity in rural areas is equal to those in urban areas.

I think that 20% for the cost of land for development costs is low, DEPENDING on where the land is located. Eastside housing groups like ARCH will tell you the cost of the underlying land is the most critical factor in where to build subsidized or affordable housing (followed by transit which is why urban areas with lower land costs are best).

Social housing is a new and very broad term. I think it helps to determine the different social housing needs under this umbrella term that are mostly based on the amount of public subsidy that is needed, which determines total public cost, and the best tools.

For example, on one end emergency housing for the homeless requires 100% public subsidy, and is addressed by shelters, enhanced shelters, or under King Co.’s new approach, repurposed hotels. Medicaid housing for the elderly poor is another example. This is often the most expensive, at least until the homeless person migrates through the system, ideally to non-subsidized housing.

On the other end, the MFTE is a flawed tool to allow those who work and can afford a fairly high rent to live in a wealthier area that often requires a car. The public subsidy is tax breaks that in some cases exceed what direct purchase or subsidies would have cost. The goal was the MFTE would create affordable housing for families which need more area. The problem however is as the area becomes wealthier the MFTE loses its advantage for developers to set aside those units.

In between you have rent control, limits on Airbnb rentals, publicly built housing, and direct subsidies like vouchers.

Seattle rents have declined in the downtown core 22% during the pandemic, but rental rates have not declined in Seattle’s neighborhoods. It isn’t clear if this is permanent.

Seattle now leads the nation in the percentage of residents who rent, and my belief is a lot of this has to do with the concentration of housing ownership in Seattle. Generally these properties are not sold until a permanent decline in rents or property values looks likely, and of course upzoning the property increases its sale and rental value, and discourages selling the property.

Of course the downside of upzoning is gentrification. In 1970 85% of the Central District was Black whereas today that percentage today is 15%. It is hardly surprising that today residents in South Seattle are resistant to upzoning, because where do they go next?

A recent article estimated 15% of local renters will be evicted when the moratoria expire. This isn’t a housing issue since they have housing, it is a jobs issue, primarily in the service sector.

Whatever we do these individuals must stay housed until they can pay rent again because these renters don’t have a lot of social issues to overcome to become housed. If I were going to spend public money right now it would be some kind of payments or tax breaks to landlords to incentivize them to not evict tenants, which by far would be the best use of public dollars.

Seattle is relatively new to the affordability issue. Cities like NY and London (I have lived in both) and San Francisco have tried to solve this issue for decades, and are the least affordable

. One benefit we may have from a questionable rail line from Everett to Tacoma is the ability to locate affordable housing on more affordable land along this line, although TOD so far doesn’t appear to be focused on affordability. However the Seattle Times had an article today that noted the same size apartment in Tacoma now rents for the same rate as Capitol Hill, and Spanaway is the hottest housing market. All I can figure is light rail is driving this.

Douglas Trumm

Seattle does not lead the nation in % who rent. Miami, New York, Boston, LA, Long Beach all have more for example.

Displacement in the Central District was not caused by upzoning. It was caused by mix of Black people getting outbid for existing housing stock and leaving voluntarily because the Fair Housing Act of 1968 had opened up a lot more of the region to them whereas formerly only the Central District and a few other area had landlords that would rent to them and realtors that would sell them on a consistent basis. Most of the resistance to upzoning is concentrated in wealthy White single family areas North Seattle, not Southeast Seattle. Voting patterns confirm this. The biggest opponent of upzones on council (Alex Pedersen) represents Northeast Seattle, not Southeast.

The affordability issue in Seattle is old… particularly if you’re a Black, Indigenous or person of color , who have been historically been given fewer housing and employment options by our not-so-enlightened society. Is your implication that since NYC, SF, and London have tried to solve affordability and failed the solution is to not try? Not very logical. And there’s always a counterexample: Paris has tried to solve affordability and made a lot of headway by greatly boosting social housing production.

Upzoning DOESN’T discourage people from landowners from selling their property to developers. What evidence do you have otherwise? If anything getting a higher price, would encourage people to cash in, no?


There is no way that we can build enough affordable housing unless we change the zoning rules. The problem isn’t construction costs, it is land availability. I’ve used this example before, so I won’t link to it: There is a 25,000 square foot lot close to where I live (in Pinehurst). It was subdivided into three lots — because that was the most lots allowed under current zoning. Houses were built for the same reason. The three houses were huge, and each were sold for around a million dollars. The only reason they built huge houses is because it is relatively cheap to build houses. The contrast between construction fifty years ago (when most of those houses were built) and today is striking. It is obvious that construction costs have dropped to the point that it is relatively cheap to build huge — you see this all over the United States. It is rare to see a new small house on a large lot. The cost of construction is not the problem.

If it was allowed, the developers would have built smaller houses, on smaller lots and made a bigger profit. They would have built apartments or condos and made more money. But they aren’t allowed to do it. And neither is the government! They can’t build there. They are allowed a very small sliver of the city in which to build. Many of those land owners don’t want to sell. A lot of those places already have apartments, or relatively small lot houses. The government is forced to compete with the free market, which means their construction just pushes up the cost of building market rate housing. Prices don’t come down, because there aren’t enough units, and low income people have to win the lottery to get a home.

On the other hand, if you allow more construction, the free market will reduce the cost of housing. At some point, the cost of construction does become an issue, and the cost of housing is too much for a low income resident. At that point the government can either build low income housing, or subsidize renters. Yes, landlords can make it difficult for those paying with vouchers, but with enough competition for tenants, enough landlords will chip in.

Right now, developers are maximizing the number of units. If the zoning code allows a smaller lot, they subdivide for the most lots. If they allow row houses, they build row houses. If they allow apartments, they build apartments. No one is tearing down an apartment, and building a big house. Nor are they combining lots. The free market is screaming for more housing, but the government — acting as a cartel — is limiting it.

Government housing won’t build enough units unless they change the zoning laws to allow it. Changing the zoning laws to allow it will result in a huge increase in housing. At some point the cost of construction becomes an issue — but we are nowhere near that yet.

You are basically arguing for government cheese instead of food stamps, while there is a major dairy shortage, created and encouraged by local governments. Let’s allow the dairy producers to make more cheese (which will in turn mean that the food stamps go further, and we can buy more government cheese).

Douglas Trumm

So my whole argument was an all of the above strategy that includes ending apartment bans and upzoning broadly. What you’re proposing that the market has some magic that it continue building at an accelerating rate through construction labor shortages, economic downturns that scare off banks and investors, gluts in the high-end market, and a work-from-home trend that make it tougher to project local demand. All this friction adds up. The government role as countercyclical investor/builder and training and expanding construction workforce could be a game changer.

The rule of thumb in development world is that land is about 20% of costs on a typical project. It’s a big chunk, and widespread upzoning could help moderate skyrocketing land costs and give developers more options to build, and that helps but it doesn’t wholly remake the housing market. We still have to grapple with the other 80% of project costs and ramping up production in a way that doesn’t unduly exacerbate them.

And land cost is complicated by the fact landowners generally try to capture the residual land value for themselves. Most landowners considering a sale know what they’re zoning is and that upzoning will increase their property’s value. Even if they don’t, the fact the cost of single family homes are high and skyrocketing higher means buying them up for redevelopment is expensive even in landowners don’t get wise to the redevelopment plans. The median single family home price is Seattle is $800,000 and upzoning isn’t likely to lower that initially.

You seem to recognize the law of supply and demand also applies to construction contracting and labor by arguing the government could crowd out the private sector. But wouldn’t the private sector trying to double production tomorrow also do the same thing? If you’ve been following construction projects in the region, you know it’s already a tight market. That one of main things that is driving up Sound Transit’s ST3 costs. Upzoning is great, but it can’t fix the labor shortage (and contractors using the leverage that give them) overnight.


It is a tight market, but a market that can grow. There is no natural limit, really, other than maybe wood (of which there is plenty around here). In contrast, there is obviously a limit in the number of properties that can be developed. It starts with the land that is available (a small fraction of just about any Northwest city). Then it includes people who have no interest in selling their land (e. g. there are car lots on Lake City that are still car lots, despite being zoned for apartments. The folks who own them like the car business.)

But if you believe that the market has hit its limit, and is incapable of building things faster, then what difference will it make if those building are public or private? Either way you build the same number of apartments every year, dictated by the ability of the folks who build such things.

I keep going back to that local example. Three houses were built, on land that could handle a dozen (or two dozen big apartments). The work would be similar. I’m not talking about big cranes — I’m talking about low rise apartments and row houses. Instead of those workers building three McMansions, they build a dozen small houses or an apartment. It is what they would be building, if the city allowed them.

There is very little evidence that allowing high-rise apartments (i. e. those requiring steel, or big cranes) leads to low prices. There is plenty of evidence that allowing lots of low rise development does. There is simply a lot more land, and a lot more people willing and able to do the work. A great example is Toronto versus Montreal. In short, Toronto builds very high, but only a small portion of land. Montreal is much shorter, but much more of the city. Toronto is expensive, Montreal isn’t (

Built in this way, eventually a city becomes affordable. The bigger the city, the farther you have to go to get affordable property, but for a city like Seattle (which isn’t huge) we might not have to go beyond the city limit, or at most cities like Shoreline.

Douglas Trumm

All units are not equal. In the piece, I pointed to the Berkeley study showing that a social housing unit is twice as effective as a market-rate unit at lowering displacement pressure. Given that, boosting production anyway we can is good, but, given finite construction capacity in a given year, it’s going to be advantageous to include a healthy mix of social housing, not just market-rate. The net effect decreasing displacement and segregation and increasing access to high opportunity neighborhoods will be greater that way.

I agree with you that we need much more low- and mid-rise zoning in place of single family zoning. But your example is a bit oversimplified. Yes Montreal has better zoning on large, but that’s not the sole determinant of the price differential. For one, Toronto median income is much higher than Montreal’s. In fact the median household income in Montreal (now ~$70k) means that it’s housing price to income ratio was similar to Seattle’s, at least as of 2018.

Secondly, Toronto accepts about four times as many immigrants as Montreal, which is a function of that stronger economy and Quebec’s more restrictive immigration policies. Demand is lower in Montreal which encourages prices to stay lower. If Toronto had Montreal’s zoning, it wouldn’t achieve Montreal prices any time soon (though it would help) because the higher demand suggests a higher price equilibrium. And when latent demand is high it takes a while to build your way out.


“a social housing unit is twice as effective as a market-rate unit at lowering displacement pressure”

The fact that is an area where displacement is an issue shows that we are doing it wrong. Replacing a small apartment with a big apartment is crazy in a city where most of the land is single family housing. Consider this project: This is a proposal to change the existing zoning from Lowrise to Midrise. Good right? Not so fast. This area already has an apartment building. So that means that many of those residents will be displaced. I have no doubt that if you built a new public housing building there, those residents would have a better chance of getting a space — it might even be built in, as part of the process. Urbanists can argue whether it is a good thing, with or without us building projects.

But why is this even happening, when *most* of the city is zoned single family? Why would a company wipe out dozens of apartments, just so they can build a new building, with only a few more? This isn’t downtown — where there is great inherent value, and people will pay big bucks for a high rise apartment. This is Northgate — a place people settle for, not prefer. Tearing down a functioning, money earning apartment to build something only slightly bigger only happens when there is a huge amount of demand for apartments. This only happens because of zoning. There wouldn’t be this kind of demand if all the single family land was eliminated, and replaced with low rise. In almost all cases, this sort of development would involve no displacement. It would mean that when someone bought a house (especially a small house on a big lot) instead of building another house, they would build an apartment (or row houses). Low rise neighborhoods (like Brooklyn or Montreal) can hold about as many as a huge apartment, if built without the huge car infrastructure.

There are issues with huge cities (like New York) where you either tear down small apartments and replace them with big ones, or build quite a ways away from the urban core. Seattle is nowhere near that level. Between Northgate and downtown there are hundreds if not thousands of houses — most sitting on large lots — that could see a huge increase in density at very little cost.

Holy cow, consider that one of the big reasons why people oppose apartments in single family zones is because they want to retain or increase the value of their house! That is how a cartel works, and it is very effective at increasing housing costs (of all types).

As for Montreal and Toronto, of course there are particulars, as there are with every city. It is just one example amongst many. The point is, you will be hard pressed to find a city that has taken the Toronto approach — the same approach we take — that also has affordable housing. There is nothing wrong with building high rise apartments in a handful of places in the city. But it isn’t sufficient. You need to also allow low rise pretty much everywhere. If not, then it doesn’t make much difference who builds the apartments — they won’t be cheap.

This is a Seattle blog. Public projects won’t make any difference in housing costs for the overwhelming number of people who live here (or want to live here) unless we change the zoning.


Here is a simpler way to summarize my argument. Check out this map: Zoom in so that you can pick out the individual symbols. I am looking at an area that includes Northgate and Lake City, but not much more. The teardrops are new apartments, while the circles are houses. I will often look at those apartments and go “Wow, that’s a nice apartment building — cool”, or maybe do the opposite (“More parking than apartments? Why?”). I’m sure if more of those teardrops were public projects, they would be better. But I don’t think there would be any more teardrops.

But holy cow — look at all those circles! It seems like all of those construction workers that managed to survive the recession are busy building new houses. Why so many houses, and so few apartments? Because of zoning, that’s why.

You might think it is “Transit-Oriented”, given the bustling nature of Northgate. But this proposal ( to tear down a small apartment building (to build a bigger one) is farther away from the station than this house:

Fix the zoning, then worry about whether the new construction is public or private.

Nicholas Hansen

I give up on seattle. The people who live here are too right wing and ignorant to ever support public housing. The city will eventually die because of all the ignorant neoliberals and white supremacists. I am disgusted and saddened, there is no hope.