Today, Seattle is majority renter (and that’s a good thing)

When I initially wrote my op-ed published in the Seattle Times (Affordable housing in Seattle is not the enemy), I initially claimed that the city was majority renter. Much to my surprise, The ed board asked for data to back it up, and after passing it back and forth, we edited the statement to read, ‘Given population growth and housing production, the city likely leans majority renter at this moment.’

There has been a lot of… shall we say, uneasiness, amongst a set of largely anti-housing homeowners — over whether the city is majority renter or not. These are the same homeowners obsessed with trying to prove that single family zoning isn’t as pervasive as it is (I mean just look at all that yellow). Many of the same homeowners who absolutely lost it when the previous mayor stated he would stop prioritizing neighborhood groups composed almost exclusively of single family homeowners, and formed a long overdue renters’ commission.

But make no mistake — the city is in fact majority renter today — and not just in households — but also population. In a 2016 ST article, Gene Balk wrote that Seattle flipped to majority renter households in 2009, moving up to 55% of households by 2014. Using 2014 census data, Balk stated that,

‘While we’re moving to become a majority-renter city, that doesn’t mean homeowners are in the minority just yet. That’s because it’s also true that most Seattle residents still live in owned homes — about 25,000 more than live in rentals’

Seattle’s population from the 2014 census data showed we had 668,342 residents. Washington State’s OFM estimate of Seattle’s population for 2014 was significantly less than that, coming in at 640,000 residents. OFM’s April 1 2017 estimate for Seattle was 713,300 residents. Given the continued influx for jobs here in the Seattle metro over the last year, Seattle’s population has likely increased another 18–20,000. OFM’s previous three year increases for city population were all above 22,000 per year. And between 2016–2017, King County’s population increased by 32,687–6th fastest in the nation.

This would put us around 730,000 residents today — give or take a few thousand. Our population has increased by at least 62,000 residents. In that same time frame, we’ve added a rough net of 1100 single family homes, 866 condos, and 19,600 apartments. You see where I’m going with this.

The overwhelmingly majority of all new housing — and all new residents — are geared towards renters. Yes, there are many that would like to own, but there are a dearth of housing option owing to a de facto moratorium on condos (liability regulations), and (most importantly), an actual moratorium on multifamily and affordable homes in almost 90% of the city. Neither of those two things will likely change any time soon — ensuring that the city will continue to see a significant increase in the percentage of renters.

This will be good in the long run.

When the city was majority homeowner, fair housing was shot down by a 2:1 vote. Rent control was also killed, largely by homeowners. Even in the 90’s during the urban village comp plan process — homeowners/neighborhood groups killed 25% affordable housing in urban villages. Like transit? Forward Thrust was voted down 54–46, contributing to the massive congestion and sprawl we see in the region today. As a country, we subsidize wealthy homeowners through the Mortgage Interest Deduction more than we fund affordable housing. And the concept of homeownership itself is rooted in exclusion. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein wrote,

‘Terrified by the 1917 Russian revolution, government officials came to believe that communism could be defeated in the United States by getting as many white Americans as possible to become homeowners — the idea being that those who owned property would be invested in the capitalist system.’

A majority renter city will result in more equitable land use policies. We’re already seeing that today with HALA. Seattle’s urban village strategy silos renters into small areas of multifamily zoned land, which have inequitable access to open space, parks, and schools. As these areas continue to densify — the open space gap, tilted heavily for homeowners, will continue to increase. These will no longer be tenable. HALA and MHA increase the amount of land zoned for affordable and multifamily housing. Is it enough? Not even close — but it is a badly needed start.

It will result in a city revisiting why so much of our land is reserved for gender normative households. Ethan Seltzer absolutely nailed it in his letter published in city observatory yesterday, ‘That means fundamentally revisiting what we mean by ‘single family zoning,’ and confronting the history of zoning and the haziness of just what we mean by ‘family’ when we put it into land use regulations.’

For far too long, our land use regulations have codified the nuclear family to the extreme detriment of our city’s residents. We once allowed multifamily housing everywhere we allowed housing. Today, few people moving here can afford a detached, suburban home in an urban setting — the median sales price is pushing $800,000. We are effectively reserving homes for the wealthy through inequitable land use policies — while those unable to afford detached homes are facing fewer and fewer options. This policy will shift with a majority renter city.

A city that is majority renter will stop prioritizing driving — we simply will not have the space. Streets will be prioritized for transit, bicycling and open space. Parking, which is a massive subsidy for homeowners in the city, will be reformed in ways previously thought unimaginable — and we will be a stronger, more walkable, and more resilient city for it. We’re already seeing this shift today.

Lastly, when it comes to affordable housing — no city that is majority homeowner has ever instituted massive social housing programs. A majority renter Seattle will put us on the track to building more affordable housing, in more of the city, than the status quo ever could. We can and absolutely should copy Vienna’s model of social housing. We could build thousands of affordable, high-quality, transit-adjacent, park-adjacent homes in places like Talaris, or Roosevelt Reservoir.

After a century of prioritizing homeowners, we are on the path to becoming a more inclusive, more equitable, and more livable city. It will take drastic reforms, but another world is possible.