Laman Luther Tiny House, interior
Over the past almost one hundred years, the unintended consequences of well-meaning zoning regulations have destroyed housing opportunities for thousands. Attempts to “fix” the problems with more regulation often make matters worse – Seattle’s story of the killing of micro-housing – small cunningly crafted spaces that young folk can afford – is just another in the long and lengthening case file.
Beginning in 2009, developers in Seattle became leaders in micro-housing [“a niche option in cities with expensive housing”]. As the name suggests, micro-housing consists of tiny studio apartments or small rooms in dorm-like living quarters. These diminutive homes come in at around 15–22 square metres, each and usually aren’t accompanied by a lot of frills. Precisely because of their size and modesty, this option provides a cost-effective alternative to the conventional, expensive, downtown Seattle apartment model.
Unfortunately, in the years following its creation, micro-housing development has all but disappeared. It isn’t that Seattle prohibited micro-housing outright. Instead, micro-housing’s gradual demise was death by a thousand cuts, with a mushroom cloud of incremental zoning regulation finally doing it in for good. Design review requirements, floor space requirements, amenity requirements, and location prohibitions constitute just a few of the Seattle Planning Commission’s assorted weapons of choice.
It began so optimistically as a way for young folk especially to get their own albeit small space in the city and embrace the urban lifestyle economically from their own place.
The story begins in 2009, when micro-housing appeared in Seattle’s interior neighborhoods, spurred on by the renowned late local developer Jim Potter. Production ramped up in the next few years, and by 2013 micro-units accounted for nearly a quarter of Seattle’s housing growth, with 1,800 units produced that year. By 2015, the ‘Seattle Times’ claimed that, with another 1,600 units in the pipeline, Seattle was by far the national leader in the trend.
So what happened? Seattle architect David Neiman takes up the story. Outlawing “a smart, affordable housing option for thousands of its residents,” Seattle’s grey ones killed micro-housing “one bad policy at a time.”
There’s no one single moment when we lost the war. Rather, it’s been a process of accumulated bad decisions. In short, rule changes made by the city mandate larger and therefore costlier units, drastically limit the areas in which they can be built, require the extra process and expense of formal design review, and discourage participation in the city’s multi-family tax exemption, a program that lowers rents substantially for working-class households.
His article ‘How Seattle Killed Micro Housing’ is “a case study in how regulations can metastasize indirectly”
It’s not that any one Seattle law states, point-blank, that micro-housing can’t exist. But the units have become so burdened by design reviews, parking mandates, micromanagement of layout, and location limits, that they make little economic sense for developers, and few are built. In this respect, they have become de facto “illegal.”
Neiman’s chronological sketch plans for Seattle micro-housing tell the story in pictures (dimensions are in feet):
As a result of the exacting new regulations placed on tiny homes, explains Vanessa Brown Calder, Seattle lost an estimated 800 units of low-cost housing per year.
While this free market (and free to the taxpayer) solution faltered, Seattle poured millions into various housing initiatives that subsidise housing supply or housing demand, all on the taxpayer’s dole.
To a politician or bureaucrat, that is how you “fix” a problem. Any problem.
Sadly, Seattle’s story is anything but unusual. Over the past almost one hundred years, the unintended consequences of well-meaning zoning regulations have played out in counterproductive ways time and time again. Curiously, in government circles zoning’s myriad failures are met with calls for more regulations and more restrictions—no doubt with more unintended consequences—to patch over the failures of past regulations gone wrong.
In pursuit of the next great fix, cities try desperately to mend the damage that they’ve already done.
Euphemistically-titled initiatives like “inclusionary zoning” (because who doesn’t want to be included?) force housing developers to produce low-cost apartments in luxury apartment buildings, thereby increasing the price of rent for everyone else.
Meanwhile, “housing stabilisation policies” (because who doesn’t want housing stabilised?) prohibit landlords from evicting tenants that don’t pay their rent, thereby increasing the difficulty low-income individuals face in getting approved for an apartment in the first place.
The thought seems to be that even though zoning regulations of the past have systematically jacked up housing prices, intentionally and unintentionally produced racial and class segregation, and simultaneously reduced economic opportunities and limited private property rights, what else could go wrong?
Perhaps government planners could also determine how to restrict children’s access to good schools or safe neighbourhoods. Actually, zoning regulations already do that, too.
Just ask all the non-residents of Double-Grammar Zone properties in Auckland.
Given the recent failures of zoning policies, it seems prudent for government planners to begin exercising a bit of humility, rather than simply proposing the same old schtick with a contemporary twist.
But as they say, never expect a bureaucrate to reconsider.