Legalizing Inexpensive Housing

In rentals, we ban Payless, mandate Nordstrom.
This post is 1 in the series: Legalizing Inexpensive Housing

A month ago, the Seattle City Council passed the latest in more than a century of laws across the Northwest and beyond to improve the safety and health conditions of rental housing. Without a single “no” vote, council members required all landlords to register their units and submit to periodic inspections.

A bold victory for sustainable communities? I’m not sure. I do not know enough about the particulars of this policy to pass judgment on it. But it makes me nervous. In fact, 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.

I do not mean to impugn the motives of most urbanites, who tend to support the full range of housing rules. Their intention, no doubt, is to make property owners do right by tenants, even if it means cutting into landlords’ profits. My fear, however, is that for every chiseling slumlord the new rule forces to straighten up and fly right, it may scare another potential landlord away from putting an apartment on the market. How many homeowners toying with the idea of adding a mother-in-law unit in the basement will skip the project because of the extra cost and hassle of registering and seeking inspection? How many inexpensive rental buildings will convert to condos serving more-affluent families? How many property owners will throw up their hands and take their units off the market? I do not know. Perhaps the policy will have no unintended consequences, but we have reasons to be anxious that it will.

Here’s an analogy to illustrate those reasons.

Poor people tend to wear inexpensive shoes. They buy their kicks at places like Payless, not Nordstrom. Payless shoes are known for their low prices, not their sturdiness or fashion. Still, they do their job. To improve footwear among the poor, banning the sale of inexpensive pairs would do no good. Sending shoe inspectors to Payless to confiscate “sub-standard” clogs and Oxfords would eliminate them from stores, it’s true. But it would do nothing to make good shoes affordable to poor people. Sure, some poor people would buy nicer shoes, by spending extra on shoes and less on other things. Others would buy cheap shoes on the black market. Still others wouldn’t buy footwear at all: they would go shoeless.

This scenario is essentially what housing policy does in North America. It sets rules against “sub-standard” housing, banning the types of residential arrangements that once housed most of the North American working class: rooms that were safe and passable but small and bare-bones. Consequently, in most of Cascadia, with few exceptions, dwelling units are required by law not only to pass legitimate safety tests, such as fire-resistant construction, but also to meet a standard of accommodations aligned with society’s current, middle-class norms.

At present, these norms include private kitchens and bathrooms, closets in each bedroom, off street parking spaces, rooms and halls and windows that exceed codified dimensions, and maximum numbers of occupants. Building inspectors close residences that do not comply with these rules. In effect, our rules have purged the Payless rental units from the market. We’ve mandated Nordstrom.

And the consequences? Some poor people spend more on housing, while scrimping on food or heat or something else. Others live in black-market housing, illegally subletting or squatting or doubling up. Other poor people go homeless, living in their cars, shelters, and on the streets.

For many leaders and voters, the impulse behind such rules is altruistic: we want everyone to have a decent place to live. We believe that setting standards will force landlords to do right by their tenants. We know that some landlords are greedy and dishonest, and we believe that mandating decent housing will force these weasels to provide dwellings that meet our sense of what everyone ought to have. For other voters and leaders, and for many political donors, the impulse is less admirable: they want to protect the value of their houses and other real estate by pushing from the neighborhood all “undesirables” (read: poor people). And what better way to do that than to march under the banner of “decent housing for all”?

Whatever the motives, though, one effect of these rules is to force everyone, whether rich, middle, or poor, to pay more — often much more — for living quarters. Other side effects include deadened neighborhood business districts; increased energy use for heating and cooling; increased driving; worsened urban traffic congestion; decreased walking, cycling, and transit ridership; and boosted greenhouse-gas emissions.

In the next few articles in Sightline’s Making Sustainability Legal series, I will document the magnitude of these effects and detail some of the ways that local laws block common-sense, affordable, green housing solutions. In my next article, I will paint a broader picture by relating some forgotten history of housing. By the end of this history, perhaps you’ll begin to share my nervousness about mandatory rental housing inspections. And more importantly, by the time you’ve finished reading the whole set, maybe you’ll agree that repealing certain housing and parking regulations could be the biggest opportunity cities have to advance sustainability.


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  1. Rebecca says:

    Housing in the for-profit commodities market is the root the the problem, IMHO. The unintended consequences of safety regulations driving up market costs doesn’t obviate the need for safety. Let’s get at the root of the issue.

    One of the very best solutions is removing a portion of housing from the for-profit market. The Community Land Trust model does just that. It addresses stable, secure housing for modest income folks. We need an array of housing choices.

    Thanks for the article & the good thinking.

  2. Alan Durning says:

    The community land trust model is something that I find very promising, as you suggest. I’m enthusiastic about its potential.

    But housing and zoning rules constrain community land trusts as much as they constrain private development and private owners. So I don’t see “housing in the for-profit commodities market” as THE root of the issue. I’m not convinced there is ONE root issue. We’ve written in the past about the potential of community land trusts and about the potential of land-value taxation as a way to dampen real-estate speculation. We’ve written about reforming the mortgage interest deduction to make it progressive and reduce the incentive it gives to overinvest in real estate. In this article, and the next few, I’m focusing on the ways that existing housing rules get in the way of sustainability and affordability.

    • Shel Anderson says:

      Thanks for looking deeply at this issue. I recently read that the banks are allowing speculators to buy large lots of foreclosed properties which will be turned into rental units. I hope you will take into account protections for renters from these kind of owners.

  3. Justus says:

    Well, I’m not with you yet, but as always, I’m along for the ride!

    I generally agree that “repealing certain housing and parking regulations could be the biggest opportunity cities have to advance sustainability.” I would say ‘one of the biggest’.

    But I don’t know that regulation enforcement is close to the root of the problem either… What we need are better regulations, not laxer enforcement. To be blunt – saying we need more flexibility and innovation in how we provide housing is correct; but saying we should turn a blind eye to crappy living conditions is not how we get there. (Not to imply that’s what you’re saying, but it’s a dangerous precedent.)

    • Alan Durning says:


      Maybe more-flexible regulation (the focus of my articles) plus tighter enforcement (the focus of the rental inspection program) is the right policy mix. It’s an attractive idea. As I said, I don’t know enough to judge the rental housing inspection law.

      My point in talking about the rental inspection program at all is that it seems to illustrate the normal approach that cities take to improving rental housing. And this normal approach, though perhaps not this particular policy, has had enormous negative consequences — consequences unintended by people of good will but intended by many self-interested others.


  4. Tenants Union of Washington State says:

    Healthy housing is a necessary right, no the problem

    The Tenants Union of Washington State has over 35 years of experience organizing in low income communities to bring forward the change tenants want to see. With a majority low income tenant and people of color board of directors, our vision of housing justice is rooted in the vision that housing is a human right for all, and that all communities deserve housing that is healthy, safe, and affordable for our families to thrive. We are concerned by the conclusions this article draws, because they appear to be disconnected from the realities low income tenants face.

    The rental housing inspection ordinance we worked to pass in Seattle will proactively enforce the health and safety codes already on the books, but will not require landlords to renovate or improve their rental housing beyond health and safety codes. Other municipalities that have enacted similar ordinances have not experienced increased displacement. The Department of Planning and Development, the agency that currently inspects substandard housing—but only upon a tenant’s complaint and request— gives landlords considerable opportunities to correct code violations and will continue to do so under the ordinance. Inspections would only focus on basic health and safety codes and would not encourage costly remodels that could change the price of rent, nor is there any likelihood that the ordinance would disincentive new landlords from creating rental housing, unless that housing was so severely substandard it violated Washington State and Seattle laws that give tenants the right to housing that is fit for human habitation (RCW 59.18.060 and SMC 22.206.160). The object of the ordinance is not to condemn housing or to gentrify affordable housing, but to make it safety inhabitable for renting families. For detailed information about the contents of the new law, visit the DPD website at

    For more analysis on the effects of the ordinance from the Tenants Union of Washington State, visit

    Census data points to an estimate of 27,000 Seattle renters living in substandard conditions. Anecdotal evidence from a wide sampling of tenants shows that dangerous and hazardous substandard conditions cause displacement because without preventative remedies, most families are forced to move, spend their income on repairs to bring the unit up to code, or even waste needed income on the medical costs associated with preventable environmentally attributable illnesses caused by mold, infestation, and other substandard conditions.

    In the complaint-based system, the full burden to enforce the right to basic health and safety code compliance falls on the tenant. This has proven to be inequitable, because most low income tenants fear retaliation from their landlords if they file a complaint and request an inspection. Ordinances like Seattle’s Rental Housing Inspection Program and other ordinances across the country advance racial and economic equity by taking the burden off of tenants. When cities proactively prevent basic health and safety code violations, we save money on costly emergency inspections, medical treatment, relocation assistance, and the biggest cost of all: the human cost of displaced and impoverished families facing housing crisis due to unlivable conditions without a good way to enforce their rights.

    The article seems to conclude that the only way affordable housing can be made available for low income families is by stripping us of our rights to habitable housing, allowing landlords to rent us housing that is substandard, unhealthy, costly, and dangerous for our families to live in. If this conclusion was manifested in policy, it would deny dignity to low income people and take us centuries backwards in the movement for civil and human rights. We believe that a true solution to the shortage in affordable housing is not to repeal the few rights that tenants have, but to incentivize construction of more affordable housing, fund section 8 vouchers and other affordable housing options, and to address the root causes of inequality and poverty.

    The rental housing inspection program in Seattle is a step in the right direction, and is considered to be a victory for families who rent in the city of Seattle as well as landlords who value dignified, healthy living conditions for their renters.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response to my introductory article.

      I appreciate the time you put into it, and I value your perspective.

      As I stated above, I do not know enough to judge the rental inspection ordinance. Perhaps, as you argue, it will be without negative side effects. I would welcome that.

      Rather than writing a more thorough response now, however, I hope we can carry on a dialogue after I’ve been able to articulate more of my viewpoint in my next few articles. We may find that we’re more in agreement than disagreement. Or perhaps we’ll at least understand our differences.


    • Alan Durning says:

      I’ve now posted my second article in this series. I wonder what you think of it.

  5. Housing Provider says:

    I am a landlord, and I think Alan and the Tenants Union both have some good points.

    The new ordinance does not seem onerous for the large-scale landlord with many units. However, it is going to hurt the supply of rental units in this city. As Alan says, owners contemplating or even now renting out mother-in-law units might decided it just isn’t. Apartment builders will slow down a bit, or choose to build in a less regulated city. You have to consider the camel’s-nose-under-the-tent factor as well – that is, now that we have inspections, the standards can more easily be tightened down and added to.

    I have invested with single-family homes and condos in Seattle. One reason that I stuck to these is because they provide an exit strategy if more and more rental regulations enter the picture. If I owned apartments, regs like these would devalue them. However, my SFRs and condos can be sold to owner-occupants. And that’s what I have been doing, selling out, albeit for more reasons than these new regs. In a couple weeks, I will put another former rental house on the market. There goes another unit.

    I know a lot of other landlords, and I just sold a house in Snohomish County to one of them. He won’t buy in Seattle.

    Berkeley, California, has some of the most tenant-friendly regulations in the country, including rent control. But several years ago, as single-family landlords were selling away the rentals, almost exclusively to to owner-occupant buyers, the city changed their regs, exempting SFRs from rent control.

    I would like to see the City of Seattle exempt single family residences from these regulations, and perhaps buildings up to fourplexes, too. There would still be plenty of multifamily rentals available for those who want the protection that the inspection rules provide.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for your comments, HP. Your comments illustrate what makes me nervous about new regulations of rental housing.

      As the Tenants Union rightly points out, we want everyone to have safe, healthful living quarters. We want everyone to have a dignified living place.

      As you point out, property owners are not captive to one market. They shop around, and they avoid risky investments. This brings us back to Rebecca’s comment about community land trusts and explains their appeal. At the same time, as long as most property is privately held, the overall regulatory environment matters.

      I don’t want to get ahead of myself in this series, but I will say that the distinction between legitimate health and safety regulations, on the one hand, and middle-class standards of “decent housing,” on the other is really important to keep in mind. It’s also sometimes a line that’s hard to draw, as we’ll.

      • Alan Durning says:

        *as we’ll see. I meant to say.

      • Corey Snelson says:

        I was a renter in a single family home that was broken into separate units and established illegally. Exempting single family homes from this is exactly what SHOULD NOT be done, simply because my landlord, and many, many others do not feel the need to comply with local laws about how mother-in-law units should be established. This is a particular problem in the U-district, Wallingford, and any area close to the University of Washington. For instance, I am PhD holding scientist, and this, because we are not paid well, still happened to me. I understand that the vast, VAST majority of single family home owners are going to comply with the law, but you cannot spare certain individuals because they don’t have a “bad record” and try to punish only those that deserve to be punished.

        One other thing that I like to point out about this legislation is that this is not just a benefit for the tenants. Clearly it’s a major win, and because I was so involved with the campaign myself, I consider it a huge victory. Where it is also a victory for landlords lies in the fact that sometimes landlords will not come to a property if they are happy with their tenants and the tenants are also happy with their landlords. However, things happen to properties, say a foundation crack, a deteriorating furnace, or something that could end up costing the landlord many thousands of dollars to fix, could be identified by an impartial 3rd party, giving the landlord plenty of time to fix it before trying to put their property on the market and get something from their investment, or fixing it before becomes a REAL problem and increases the amount of money to get it fixed. Doesn’t it make sense to see it as a benefit for all involved? Also, doesn’t it behoove neighbors, who do not want to see their property values decline in any market, to support this legislation?

        Yes. This is HUGE for renters. But it doesn’t have to be an us vs. them. The only people who are really going to suffer here are people who are only out to make a buck and don’t give a hoot about public health.

        And I’m sorry, and I mean no disrespect – but if you’re going to slam legislation in a public column, it really helps to understand all the aspects of it before doing so.

  6. Michael says:

    Here’s where I think you make a mistake, Alan. You described substandard housing as “rooms that were safe and passable but small and bare-bones.” Maybe you know about cities with strange standards about the size of bedrooms and the amount of kitchen appliances. These are not the standards that most people think about. Instead they think about standards that have everything to do the safety and health.

    Take a look at the uniform code for property management or international building codes. It’s about roofs that don’t leak and controlling mold, about making sure that water heaters work and don’t present risks of harm, about fire exits, about railing and handrails, about fire detectors, about grounded electrical outlets, about pests and vermin, etc. Slums and substandard housing are not slums because they lack dishwashers or double-paned windows. They are slums because they are unsafe and unhealthy.

    I’d say your attention should not be on the simple fact of landlord registration and inspection, but upon the standards to which land owners are to be held. Are they safety and health standards? if they are, your whole argument fails. If they are comfort and convenience codes, then you may have a point.

  7. Alan Durning says:


    Thanks for chiming in. As I noted above, the line between “safety and health standards” and “comfort and convenience codes” is important but not always as clear as we would like.

    I agree that most of the international building code is in the former category. I’m focused more on local housing and land-use codes in these articles. That said, there are elements of the international codes that are arbitrary and stand in the way of sustainability. For example, there are fire code requirements for sprinkler systems and other expensive fire-safety features once buildings reach a certain height. The height is set by what used to be the maximum height of a hook-and-ladder truck’s tallest ladder. And the height limit is set from the lowest point of the site perimeter, even if it’s on a steep Northwest hillside. The code is not dynamic. It does not reflect circumstances at particular sites, and it doesn’t change with other advances in fire-safety and fire-fighting technology.

    The consequence of the rigidity of this fire code rule, across all of the Northwest, is that we build shorter buildings with fewer units. Does it improve fire safety? Maybe and maybe not, but it definitely reduces the supply of rental units and therefore increase their price.

    Another example of how safety-justified standards can actually harm safety AND increase cost comes from outside of the housing sector. We’ve written repeatedly about California’s flammability standard for upholstered furniture:

    In any event, my series focuses on the latter, on what you call “comfort and convenience codes.” The registration and inspection program explicitly focuses on health and safety, as it should. And perhaps it’s a much needed improvement in housing regulation. I didn’t say I opposed it, just that it makes me nervous.

    I’ll let you decide if I, in your words, “have a point.”

  8. Dick Conoboy says:


    I won’t bother going over the excellent points made by the Tenants’ Union of Washington State and Michael above. Suffice it to say that cities such as Pasco, WA have had inspection programs in place for years and the sky has not fallen. I would recommend you call the Pasco enforcement officer, Mitch Nickolds to find out what actually happens after an inspection program is put in place. Their program has been in effect for over a decade. You may also want to contact the rental safety program folks in Gresham, OR where a rental inspection program has been in place for years. My blog, Twilight Zoning in Bellingham contains much information on rental safety and health and refutations of the tired arguments put forth by the shills for real estate and building industry organizations. Most of these arguments claim gloom and doom for the landlords if they are required to provide safe units for their tenants. Ah yes, “better those renters live in filth and danger” is the logical consequence of such logic.

  9. Sabra Marcroft says:

    The underlying problem is often in the state and county code and how compliance is measured and not in the requirement for rentals to meet safety standards. If the code stipulates which solution is allowable to solve the problem, then property owners have to buy that (usually)expensive solution. Performance based codes on the other hand, approve a set of parameters within which everything that meets them is legal. The basic requirements of home health and safety have been the same for a very long time. It shouldn’t be expensive and onerous to meet them. If a woodstove is allowed, so should a cleaner, safer, less expensive model be, if one becomes available, but that is not the case with code that stipulates down to exact materials and dimensions. ReCode Oregon is working on getting performance based coding for compost toilets. They already got grey water irrigation approved for the state. I hope they take on home heating and power next. Everything that’s safe and healthy should be legal.

  10. Michael H. Wilson says:

    As a Libertarian I don’t want any government official inspecting anything I have for any reason. If I haven’t done anything wrong they have no business being involved in my life. If the government can start checking rental units what is going to stop them from inspecting your home for fire hazards? After all you do expect the fire department to show up if there is a fire and a yearly inspection will keep the costs down.

    As someone who is often critical of the government policies that cause harm to our fellow citizens you are right we need to get the government out of the way and reduce the regulations that add to the costs of housing. It needs to be pointed out those regulations such as zoning laws and building codes have been used for the purposes of racial discrimination.

    As some who cares about protecting the environment I will argue that government regulations such as zoning laws and building codes often harm the environment by contributing to sprawl.

    Last but not least as a renter I do see a need for some sort of program to provide information on the quality of the facility being rented. My wife and I had to move last winter because the place we were in had a mold problem and it was making both of us ill, especially my wife. When we began the search for a new place I called the electric company to see if they could give us an idea as to how much electricity a place we had picked out would use. They could not do that.

    If I buy a freezer or another appliance that uses electricity I can find out how energy efficient it is. There needs to be some sort of voluntary group that rates rental units for quality, cleanliness and other concerns.

    • Dick Conoboy says:

      Mr. Wilson,

      You are mixing apples and oranges here. The issue of rental inspections is not one of zoning but is one of safety and health. The two should not be confused as there is much to be discussed about zoning issues/sprawl, etc. as you have pointed out.

      You have also raised the red-herring argument about the government coming into one’s own privately-owned home for purposes of inspection although nobody has even remotely suggested that this is a follow-on intent by local governments. If you can find me an instance of that happening in a city that has ordered rental inspections, please let me know.

      What you do in your own home is your business and you accept health and safety problems at your own risk and that of your family. The health and safety issue with respect to rentals is quite different in that the landlord is offering a product (the rental) to the public for money. That rental ought not cause harm to the individuals renting it as you unfortunately found out when you rented a home that made you and your wife ill. Were one to follow your logic, we would cease inspections of restaurants and let the poor diner evaluate the cleanliness by exposing himself and his family to a meal of uncertain quality and cleanliness.

      I am also much puzzled that you and others bring up much in the way of extraneous issues such as electrical efficiency which has absolutely no bearing on the issue at all. I also am continually surprised by the fact that not once in the past five years or so that I have been working on this problem has anyone looked up any source or contact I suggested to find out precisely what does happen when an inspection program is in place. I suggested that to Alan in my comment above and I expect that he may actually do that before commenting further on this issue. I do my homework before I write and I expect others to do the same. If I am wrong, let me know but sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt as you have done in your comment does not advance a reasonable discussion of rental safety and health.

  11. Michael H. Wilson says:

    Mr. Conoboy;

    It is not my intention to mix apples and oranges but it seems to be the government’s intention to push its nose in our tents as far as possible and then some or so history has taught me.

  12. Michael Geller says:

    Alan, you’re absolutely right…as Warren Chalk, one of the founders of Archigram argued many years ago…in every major city you have to let some housing rot!

    Now I’m not advocating rotting housing, but I do also argue for reduced housing standards, especially to accommodate those who might otherwise be on the streets or in shelters. Here’s an idea I proposed when running for Vancouver City Council in 2008. It got some traction, but never moved forward. Perhaps this is an idea that might be implemented by Seattle or other US cities. Merry Xmas

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for your comment, Michael. I read the link with interest. I was interested to see you say this:

      “permanent housing solutions in Vancouver often cost significantly more than they should….in the order of $300,000 a unit. or up to $1000 a foot for projects like the Pennsylvania Hotel.”

      Do you have an explanation for this? I’ve heard similar things from friends in the housing field in Portland: that building a unit of “affordable” (aka, publicly subsidized) housing there costs about $250,000.

      You’ll also be interested in the subsequent posts in this series, which get detailed and practical about the specific regulatory barriers to inexpensive housing.

  13. Paul Conte says:

    Excellent arguments Alan! Especially since they apply equally well to letting Chinese peasants work for pennies in substandard conditions, for the new surge for “right-to-work laws, and so forth. From my sampling of the series — from inspections to resident limits — I found the arguments disappointingly simplistic. And, FWIW, I live in a old, mixed and not-gentrified neighbor and have worked for years to support both stability and diversity. It’s much more complicated than you seem to realize, since one of the constant realities is that stable households (of all compositions) who intend to invest love and money in the long-term well-being of their neighborhood will relocate if the conditions deteriorate below a tolerable threshold.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for your comments, PC. I’ve written thousands of words now on housing rules, and I don’t think I’ve been simplistic in the least. To the contrary, I’ve tried hard to articulate arguments that typically remain unstated — the true rationales for occupancy limits, for example. And then I’ve given them a fair hearing.

      I have argued strongly for certain kinds of rules and against other kinds, it’s true. It sounds like you disagree with my conclusions. I’d be happy to hear your reasoned critique and counterarguments. I’m not interested, however, in sarcasm and generalized mis-characterizations. As I responded to “Jonathan” on the latest post in the series, such sentiments — typically all mashed together in a noxious blend of unstated stereotypes and logical fallacies — are all too common in debates about housing codes. That’s the problem.

      I’d be interested to hear a reasoned argument that long-term residents of neighborhoods will stop investing or will relocate in the absence of the specific rules I’ve critiqued in this series. Those rules are: occupancy limits, extra scrutiny of congregate housing, and minimum unit sizes. In my history of rooming houses, I also mentioned as destructive those zoning rules that exclude hotels from most residential neighborhoods. Oh, and I expressed nervousness — but not opposition — to mandatory universal rental unit inspections at property owners’ expense.

  14. Jean Sandy says:

    Excellent series – just ran across it today. Thanks for articulating this in an intelligent thoughtful way.

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