The C is for Crank

Legalizing Cheap Housing, Without Eliminating Standards

Sightline's Alan Durning argues that we should eliminate regulations that increase the cost of housing. We agree—until he argues against the city's rental-housing inspection law.

By Erica C. Barnett November 20, 2012


The C Is for Crank

Two weeks ago, Sightline director Alan Durning kicked off a blog series called "Legalizing Inexpensive Housing"; so far, his posts include an impassioned argument for rooming houses (known through the '90s as single-room occupancy housing, or SROs, and in a more recent variation as "aPODments"), and another arguing against the city's recently adopted rental-housing inspection law.

Rooming houses, with small private bedrooms and shared bathrooms, essentially disappeared from downtown Seattle in the last couple of decades, as real-estate developers came back to downtown and new zoning rules mandated things like kitchens, minimum living space, and private bathrooms. 

I can go with Durning on rooming houses up to a point; although I strongly believe people should be allowed to live in small spaces without amenities that drive housing prices up, like private baths, kitchens, and parking, I also support fire codes and maximum occupancy limits, two factors Durning blames for pushing SROs out of existence.

But where I turly diverge with Durning is when he arguses against the city's rental-housing inspection law, which requires landlords to register with the city and submit to inspections by city-licensed inspectors. The aim of the law, which just passed last month, is to make sure tenants aren't living in substandard conditions, and to ensure that renters aren't discouraged from reporting problems by fear of retaliation from their landlords. 

Durning raises a concern about the law: What if, by mandating inspections, the city ends up increasing the cost of housing? The problem with the analogy is that for many poor people in Seattle, Payless would be a huge step up. People are already going shoeless.

Durning believes that the more you regulate housing, the more expensive it becomes. "In fact," Durning writes, "I fear it is a move in exactly the opposite direction from where housing policy ought to be going. Where it ought to be going is toward repealing a raft of restrictions that effectively ban inexpensive housing in complete, compact communities. Repealing these rules, I believe, is the single largest sustainability opportunity that most cities have within their legal authority." 

Durning uses a shoe analogy to make his point. Poor people tend to buy cheap shoes at places like Payless (guilty), whereas rich people tend to buy them at upscale places like Nordstrom. By setting mandatory housing standards, and threatening landlords with punishment (and tenants with eviction) if those standards aren't followed, Durning argues, the city is effectively forcing everybody to shop at Nordstrom.

The ultimate result, he believes, is that some poor people will buy Nordstrom shoes (expensive housing) and scrimp on other necessities (food and electricity), or buy shoes on the black market (illegal tenemants). And some will end up going shoeless (becoming homeless).

The problem with his analogy is that for many poor people in Seattle, Payless would be a huge step up. People are going shoeless, and shopping on the black market, already. The rental-housing inspection law is about basic health and safety—making sure apartments have access to water, light, air, and heat, for example. The factors Durning cites, like limits on density and minimum parking requirements, certainly do drive the price of housing up, but they aren't addressed anywhere in the rental-housing inspection law, which aims at creating a basic floor for housing quality below which the city says, "This apartment is not fit for human habitation." 

Durning's premise is absolutely right, but his target is wrong. Of course we should make it easier for people to choose the kind of housing they live in—but not at the loss of the basic health and life-safety requirements that provide a minimum quality of life to every Seattle resident, not just those who can afford to shop at Nordstrom.

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