Preserving Existing Affordability Now More Important Than Ever

Sean Martin | External Affairs Director

Perhaps you hadn’t heard, or didn’t notice already by poking your head out a window, but Seattle is now the number one city in the country in terms of cranes in the sky — a full 58 as of October 2016.

While HALA may have brought the discussion of density to the forefront, it appears that developers were already two steps ahead in planning based on the amount of new construction that’s transformed Seattle in recent years. There’s one market, however, where net growth has been relatively non-existent — single-family home construction.

According to the Seattle Department of Planning and Inspections’ online data, in 2016 only 818 single-family homes were constructed through December 7th in Seattle, and many of those were a simple 1:1 replacement on the same lot. The market for single-family homes has essentially peaked, as zoned neighborhoods are almost entirely built without room for further growth. What that means for the rental market is that single-family rentals are of limited supply in a city of ever-increasing demand. For many small landlords, no better time has existed to cash out on their investment as they look to retire or move their portfolio out of Seattle. A lack of available homes means many buyers competing for a market scarcity. But what of those wishing to hang on to their single-family rental property for the longer haul? If it’s unlikely that much growth is possible in their market, shouldn’t less competition as the City continues to grow incentivize landlords to hang on to those units as long as possible?

From my conversations with small, independent landlords in Seattle, the answer to that question is increasingly becoming a “No.” Why would Seattle landlords want to get out of one of the hottest markets in the country? If you read Current with any regularity, you already know the answer. Seattle Council has created an environment so complex and hostile to small landlords that the time, cost, and headache of doing business in the City is increasingly not worth it. What’s troubling for Seattle is that City policymakers are either ignorant to this fact, or perhaps even more troubling, they don’t actually seem to care.

Existing housing stock should be the first place the City turns to bolster in the interest of keeping people in the most affordable housing the City has left (new units, per Dupre + Scott data, rent for 40% more, on average.) Instead, we see regulations which force landlords to rent to the first person to complete an application, and restrictions on what landlords can charge for move-in fees — their key tool for mitigating financial risk. Banning landlords from screening for criminal records is not far behind. For the small landlord, one wrong tenant can mean financial crisis. In a city where elected leaders bemoan the loss of affordable housing and neighborhood character to “greedy developers,” we should expect to see policies which reflect those values.

We should see policies which uphold the small “mom and pop” landlords who are hanging on by a thread to provide housing that is most accessible and affordable to renters most at risk of being pushed out of the City. We should celebrate our local, small businesses who take on huge financial risk to provide housing in a city of nearly 50% renters. What we shouldn’t do is act surprised when mom and pop close up shop, sell their single-family rental, and another unit is lost for good because of endless regulation.

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