Seattle City Council Common Denominator: Smothering Urban Innovation
There's a connection between the council's antipathy toward alternative transportation and alternative housing.
If the city of Seattle regulated hot dogs one can only imagine what the advent of the corn dog would provoke at City Hall. How do we define a corn dog? Is it safe? And about that breading made of corn as opposed to a bun—what have other cities done?
After lots of hand-wringing, committee meetings and confabulations with staff and members of the hot dog community, one can imagine the solution: legalizing corn dogs, but limiting them to sale three days a week and only in Pioneer Square.The city focuses on the people already here –the Yellow Cab drivers of housing—existing single-family property owners.
To anyone watching the painful process of the City Council trying to regulate ride share programs, the silly parable above isn’t too far from reality. The City Council struggles with innovation. Council member Sally Clark, on the defensive on a Facebook thread, expressed her frustration with commenters criticizing the Council’s actions. After all, she said, we made Uber legal (a justification first offered by council member Harrell, who said, “The headline should not read, ‘The Council capped anything’: It should read, ‘The City allowed ride share to come to the industry’).
Like Uber these products are more affordable than the existing alternative. And also just like ridesharing, in the case of single-family homes, small-lot development is greener.
But what council member Clark and the City Council are missing is an opportunity to take advantage of innovation that comes with growth in our city. The council’s view of Uber is consistent with the way they view housing innovation too. New housing construction is seen as an “impact” that creates trouble and problems for people already living here. And when it comes to developers finding new ways to meet demand for housing with new products, the council reacts the same way it has to Uber: impose limits, rules, and more regulation.
Take small-lot development, for example; like Uber, these products are more affordable than the existing alternative. And also just like ridesharing, in the case of single-family homes, small-lot development is greener: It’s a much more efficient use of scarce land than building brand-new Craftsmans on full size lots. These smaller homes are more energy efficient and fit perfectly into most single-family neighborhoods. Small-lot homes aren’t low-income housing, but they provide many two income families with an in-city alternative to finding single-family homes in far-flung suburbs.
But the city focuses on the people already here –the Yellow Cab drivers of housing—existing single-family property owners. For those single-family homeowners the threat is the same: loss of financial investment and competition. But here’s the truth: New construction doesn’t hurt property values of existing homes. A study by the University of Washington found the denser single-family neighborhoods actually have higher property values.
If the City of Seattle regulated hot dogs one can only imagine what the advent of the corn dog would provoke at City Hall.
Instead of commending builders for finding a way to efficiently and sustainably meet a still strong demand for single-family homes, the Department of Planning and Development has proposed legislation that not only makes it harder to build new construction, but limits the ability of single-family home owners to make additions to their own homes.
This isn’t about libertarianism, it’s about being open to change—especially when it makes people with an economic advantage uncomfortable.
If the City Council wants to lead, it needs to encourage more, not less, innovation. What the council did with Uber is impose a protectionist quota on something people are demanding, creating scarcity that is sure to drive up prices. They should undo that. And they should resist the urge to impose the same quotas on housing at a time when people are feeling the pinch of rising rents and housing prices.
Cola contribuor Roger Valdez is the Director of Smart Growth Seattle, a pro-growth, pro-housing advocacy organization. He has worked as an affordable housing developer and at the city's Department of Neighborhoods.