Cranes, cranes everywhere
September 7, 2015 10:59 PM   Subscribe

How is Seattle able to build so much new housing, and so quickly?

I just got back from a trip from Seattle, and I found it kind of startling how many apartment complexes and hi-rises are under construction right now — especially coming from the Bay Area where our local governments have yet to undo their collective massive craniorectal inversion and figure out how to build (relatively) affordable, dense housing en masse.

There're three huge apartment complexes on separate empty lots under construction on my friend's block in Fremont right now, in addition to his brand spanking new building (2014 vintage). Such a sight would be unfathomable in SF (well, maybe not so much, but you wouldn't be paying $1400/mo for a new 1BR down here like him). So naturally I'm wondering — and I know Seattle is in the midst of a general apartment-building boom right now, given massively increased demand from Amazon etc. — but what are the factors in play in Seattle to make such a boom possible, factors that don't exist in the Bay Area? Is it just easier to get these kinds of projects approved up there (i.e., no onerous review processes, environmental impact reviews, etc.)? More permissive zoning? Cheaper land (not necessarily more empty land — most of the city seems pretty built up already, akin to SF)? Less NIMBY influence? Or a bit of all of the above?
posted by un petit cadeau to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Unlike San Francisco, Seattle has no rent control.
posted by saeculorum at 11:30 PM on September 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

A great deal of the development is being sparked by Vulcan, the Paul Allen company.

Why is this happening so much faster than S.F.? There are so many things at work there.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:52 PM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

A foreclosed house next to ours was torn down and replaced with two cheaply-made townhomes within eight months.

This was possible by hiring cheap labor and contractors who cut the gas line to our home and discarded dangerous nails and other waste on our roof, backyard and sidewalk throughout the construction process.

It's easy and fast to build stuff when Seattle allows developers to do whatever they need to do to build expensive houses on the cheap, without regard for the safety and well-being of the people who already live here and pay taxes.

In addition to letting developers do whatever they like to people already living in the city, corporate welfare makes for profitable deals between developers and the city government, and Seattle's mayor got caught red-handed trying to finish backroom deals with developers on the sly, deals that would rezone land in a way that would be very profitable to developers.

Basically, right now, Seattle is a gold rush for profiteers and investors looking to make a quick buck off regulatory shambles and legislative corruption.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:17 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

SF proper is on a peninsula - it can't spread out, only up.... But for Earthquake zoning.

What happens in the city I work for is the state goes: hey you! You're going to need to accommodate 50,000 people in the next X years. Then when we do periodic long term planning the urban planners go: crap. Ok let's rezone this light industrial area for high density housing. Then we wait for developers to submit proposals, and as long as there's no reason to say no...we say yes. Then they appoint a private certifier to do the building inspections, and bobs your uncle!
posted by jrobin276 at 2:34 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Earthquakes have little to nothing to do with San Francisco development.
posted by ryanrs at 3:36 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

When I left Seattle about two years ago, there were many areas in designated "Urban Villages" like Fremont where zoning allowed much greater occupancy than was built. For example, much of Downtown Fremont (in Area 75 of the Seattle zoning map) is zoned for 40 ft to 65 ft of height, but had single-story buildings or surface parking lots. If you're building within current zoning, it's much, much easier. If your project is small enough to avoid full Design Review, it's easier still.

Even if you want to rezone in Seattle, it's much easier than in San Francisco. In San Francisco, anti-development activists have put changes approved by the Board of Supervisors into a referendum where they were promptly turned down by voters ("8 Washington condo project loses big in S.F.").
posted by grouse at 4:09 AM on September 8, 2015

most of the city seems pretty built up already

Not true - 65% (!) of Seattle is still zoned for single family housing and that's very politically difficult to change. Development in Seattle has been and continues to be concentrated in a minority of the city's land area.

Unfortunately I don't have an answer to your question, but I do follow a handful of Seattle urbanists on Twitter. Could be worth asking people like @bruteforceblog and @ericacbarnett.
posted by ripley_ at 7:42 AM on September 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

>that's very politically difficult to change

You can see the kind of resistance it faces by a lungful of dragons surprising description of the recent committee draft suggestion that it should be gotten rid of as the mayors "backroom deal with developers on the sly".
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:46 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Development and density is a big deal in Seattle, it's pretty much the number 1 civic issue these days. Paul Allen and other wealthy landowners have had a tremendous amount of influence in the direction of redevelopment. Read the links a lungful of dragon shared above, those will give you a sense of how different stakeholders feel about it. I now live in Shoreline (just north of Seattle city limits) and we have our own redevelopment on the horizon - our city council has approved a massive rezoning plan that would make Seattle blush - 50+ acres of single family home plots rezoned up to 6 story buildings. It's not a blighted area. The city council says it's about being progressive, but reading their own documents showed me that it's all about that sweet, sweet tax revenue.
posted by stowaway at 7:54 AM on September 8, 2015

Also, I don't have the time right now to dig up good articles that explain it, but we can't talk about density in Seattle without bringing up the WA Growth Management Act. As I understand it, in King County at least, it's a legal mandate to protect undeveloped areas and farmland. So the growth of suburbia is somewhat restricted.
posted by stowaway at 8:06 AM on September 8, 2015

Market rate infill multi-family housing development is basically manna from heaven. Everyone makes money.

People who own the targeted land get to sell it at a huge premium to their cost basis. Contractors and suppliers make big money. Unionized tradesmen and laborers get hired at very good wages. Cities and school districts get a huge boost in tax revenues with relatively little incremental services burden (people who buy / rent market rate infill apartments don't consume social services and have very few public school kids relative to the number of units). Owners of nearby businesses and commercial property get lots of new customers and retail tenants.

And, above all, developers make a huge return for modest risk. You can sell condos at a 30% markup to your costs with a weighted average hold period of 18 months. You can rent at 10% return per year with the out of a condo conversion or sale to a REIT at any time you want other than the depths of a deep recession (which you basically might have to wait out for a year or 16 months).

The low level of development in San Francisco is the aberration -- and exists only because NIMBYs have a powerful set of tools to use -- tight zoning rules, seismic safety codes, affordable housing first ideology, and deployment of the parking paradox (more apartments = more cars fighting for street parking, but putting garages in buildings = encouraging carbon emissions).
posted by MattD at 10:05 AM on September 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Other things to consider about Seattle construction:

* Many American cities saw negative population growth in the 70s (mostly white flight to suburbs), but Seattle was hit particularly hard, because the city did not have a highly diversified economy -- downturns at Boeing affected the entire region. There were declining population figures in both the 70s and 80s. It got to the point where it was a local joke.

* This meant that Seattle construction lagged behind similarly sized cities -- after all, if people are leaving, why should you build houses, roads and public transportation?

* The growth since then caught the city flat-footed.

* The situation is worsened by political gridlock, cronyism, etc. Moreover, flight to suburbs has reversed -- young professionals want to live in the city, and there is a "reverse commute," as people leave the city to get to jobs on the Eastside.

The city is now performing a massive correction, playing catch-up on an epic scale (and setting itself up for even worse problems when it realizes it's building apartments first, transportation later). Hence, the crane forest and the traffic.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:31 AM on September 8, 2015

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