The Biggest Blind Spot of Urban Greens?

It's zoning.
This post is 11 in the series: Legalizing Inexpensive Housing

I have written in recent months about some of the land-use rules that make inexpensive housing uncommon or illegal: roommate caps, accessory dwelling unit rules, minimum apartment sizes and other rooming-house restrictions. What I haven’t discussed is the towering central obstacle to inexpensive housing—the elephant in the living room.

Fortunately, Slate blogger Matt Yglesias has done the job well. His concise e-book The Rent Is Too Damn High explains how tight land-use restrictions on urban density are a major ill of the contemporary United States. Enforced single-family and other low-rise neighborhoods in close-in urban zones jacks up real-estate prices, hobbles service economies’ prosperity, and turbocharges sprawl, which multiplies driving and oil consumption and carbon emissions.

Less-regulated urbanism, Yglesias argues, would allow taller buildings, which would accommodate dramatically more people, office space, and shops in the most efficient and desirable locations: close to city centers. The benefits would range from plummeting greenhouse gas emissions to surging economic productivity, from much-more affordable housing to diminishing economic inequality.

In particular, Yglesias criticizes low-density rules such as zoning for single-family houses. He writes, “Currently, the vast majority of land in and near American cities is regulated so as to restrict density.”

He’s right, of course. Almost two thirds of Seattle’s zoned land is zoned for single-family houses, and other cities aren’t too different. If Cascadian cities freed their urban land markets of height and density restrictions, we’d likely see a wholesale re-centralization of cities. Close-in neighborhoods would stretch upwards. High-rise and mid-rise neighborhoods would leap skyward around our downtowns and spread outward to replace most districts of single-family houses within an easy bike ride of employment centers and universities. The centrifugal sprawl of recent decades would slow or stop, as real-estate demand rushed inward to the places where people actually prefer to live, work, shop, and play.

Imagine a three-dimensional map of the city where you live, like the topographic models you can see at the visitor centers of national parks. On this map, however, height reflects not elevation but land value—the price per square foot of the city’s land. On a map like this, your city looks like Mount Rainier, a cone rising toward its summit at the center of downtown. Downtown properties sell for many times as much per square foot as do properties on the city’s periphery.

In a city where municipal code did not restrict density, the height of buildings would form a similar pattern. The city itself would approximate a three-dimensional map of its land values. Land values are reflections of how much people are willing to spend to live, work, or shop at those sites. At the most sought-after sites, many people are willing to spend generously, so developers can construct tall buildings and still profit.

Yglesias’s short book is a sustained argument that cities and nations would benefit greatly, as would personal prosperity and the environment, if cities would just let property owners build as much real estate as people wanted to pay for.

The problem with Yglesias’s vision of dramatically upzoned—or deregulated—urban land use is not economic. Sure, there are legitimate arguments for some height and design rules, to protect some key view corridors, for example. But the real problem with his argument is political. The process of permitting increased density is advancing in Cascadia, but it is advancing slowly, step by step. Progress is slow because the opposition of homeowners in low-density neighborhoods can be fierce.

I hope to live in a Cascadia someday in which Yglesias’s argument has mostly prevailed. Where I do live is in a single-family neighborhood in Seattle’s Ballard district.

A few years ago, I attended a block meeting in a neighbor’s dining room. One neighbor enthusiastically reported on a new local sustainability organization. I listened as my neighbors discussed with universal approval recent progress in expanding the local farmers market, installing rain gardens, developing renewable energy projects, and planning better transit service. I listened quietly, happy to hear my neighbors’ interest in the cause that’s been my life’s work.

Then something happened that reminded me how far we still have to go. Asked what the goal of Sustainable Ballard was, the presenter replied, half jesting, “To stop the end of the world.”

The questioner said, “End of the world from what?”

Then a loud voice said, “Condos.” It was a joke, but the group’s reaction was not.

The growth of mid-rise condo buildings is a key part of making Ballard a dense, walkable, vibrant, low-carbon community—more important to sustainability than anything we’d previously discussed. But the room erupted in revulsion, as if condo builders were drilling for oil, rather than providing walkable housing at a market-supported price for our future neighbors. No other topic that evening generated the vociferous intensity that condos did. My green-minded, farmers’ market-loving neighbors regaled each other with how much they hated the condo buildings rising half a mile away near the neighborhood shopping street.

This anti-density attitude remains, sad to say, the political reality in most of Cascadia’s single-family zones, and it yields a sort of collective pathology of scratching in the wrong place. Cities sworn to aggressive climate-action plans and bound by comprehensive plans that aim for sustainability—even, in Vancouver, BC’s case, becoming the “greenest city in the world”—nevertheless expend most of their public effort trying to induce modest changes: home energy retrofits, school-based solar cells, expensive new rail transit projects. At the same time, though, they never discuss the fact that they have for decades outlawed the density that would bring about sweeping reductions in energy consumption per capita. As Yglesias writes, “It’s a scandal that this country underinvests in mass transit, but it’s equally scandalous that we under-permit construction near the transit we have built.”

For this political reason, it makes sense for city leaders to focus on opening up rules for roommates and ADUs and rooming houses, rather than attempting wholesale upzones. Yglesias is right on the money, but my neighbors aren’t ready to hear it… yet.

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  1. Chris Smith says:

    We’re dealing with this as we revised Portland’s Comprehensive Plan.

    We have tremendous resistance to condos and apartments on transit corridors in residential neighborhoods. Some of this centers on how boring or unattractive the buildings are. We could set higher design standards, but that will almost inevitably increase costs and reduce affordability.

    What’s a Planning Commissioner to do…?

    • Matt the Engineer says:

      Point out that those Craftsman homes we consider beautiful today started out as the cheapest things on the block, ordered from a Sears catalog.

      Aesthetics is often a cover for what people are really against: change.

      • Alan says:

        And opposition to change is often a cover for what people are really against: people of color moving into their neighborhoods. This is really the elephant in the room in so many land use and transportation arguments.

    • portrait benschon says:

      Start by pointing out that many of the buildings that people love would be illegal under current (or proposed) rules. In Portland, for instance,

      Then expand the idea of who you serve: young people who need a cheap studio apartment and don’t care about parking, existing residents who need more supply to apply downward pressure on their rents, and everyone who will benefit from the tax revenue these buildings create. None of those people speak at public meetings the way single-family homeowners do, but they still need a voice.

    • RossB says:

      I think this is a legitimate trade-off. Aesthetics versus density. Read my reply below for a couple simple ways to have it both ways.

      • Ethan Seltzer says:

        Don’t give in! Parking jacks up the rent, and we’ve gone to great lengths to keep new multifamily out of existing single family zones. The neighborhood owes us for maintaining their zoning. Don’t turn back from the right thing, which is creating a good supply of good rental housing, appropriately located, and without built in price escalators. We’re counting on you! Thanks.

  2. autumnthing says:

    High-rise is not a humane way to live. Research shows that buildings beyond 3 or 4 stories escape human scale. One important way to keep everyone on board with a sustainable, holistic approach to energy, resources, health, community, etc. is to keep everyone in touch with the actual, physical earth. This is hard to do if living on the 12th floor.

    The photo you’ve chosen for this article is lovely, but it is the exception when it comes to condos in this city. Most are far more densely packed, arranged so as to intentionally ignore each other and stifle cross-pollination with adjacent (nevermind nearby) neighbors. Most condos use WAY too much concrete, which is both incredibly energy-intensive and leaves little room for rain water to seep in to the ground. Additionally, most condos are made in the cheapest of ways with sub-par materials. (I’ve personally tromped through a fair number of job sites.)

    I agree that ADUs could use some decreased regulation, partly because people who own only one or two houses and rent out parts of these are not mere shareholders in the rent process, but also stakeholders. The problem with condos is that they are built by housing profiteers who may have “the best intentions” but end up ravaging the neighborhoods they “develop”.

    I appreciate that condos are helping to convince ppl that they can live in smaller, closer footprints than they might have otherwise thought (or been lead to believe). But there are too many footprints, and many of them are stomping out existing houses, families, neighbors, communities. It’s called gentrification and we need to find a better way to increase urban density without doing it on the backs of the already marginalized.

    • Bruce Nourish says:

      I’m sorry, but your comment is a word-salad of just about every laughable misconception about urban density I’ve encountered.

      “High-rise is not a humane way to live.”

      Oh puh-lease. It feels plenty human to me, and I would know, I live on the 13th floor of one.

      It’s true that lots of older high-rises have terrible urban design, with big setbacks or huge parking structures at street level, which really kill street life, and are genuinely ugly. But you can build good, bad, or terrible buildings at just about any height. And “room for rain to seep into the ground” — you do know that virtually every modern building (including SF houses) has a concrete slab base, right?

      As to gentrification, I have bad news for you: what’s driving rents into the stratosphere is the influx of highly-paid IT industry people many cities are experiencing. You can allow or prohibit development all you want, but rents are going to go up either way; but best way to moderate the increase in rent is to allow density to rise. The question is whether these newcomers end up living in older, lower-density properties, or newer, higher-density properties. Either way, lower-income people are going to be displaced. This is just how market economies work.

    • Kimberly Kinchen says:

      I live on the 6th floor of an NYC apartment building. It’s the fifth such building I’ve lived in and it’s way more humane than the southern ca suburbs I grew up in. Like anywhere, the neighbors are a mixed bag, but many people in this building have been there for 40+ years, are rooted in the neighborhood, active in local civic life and so on. I can easily commute 10 miles to midtown by commuter train, subway, or bicycle (8 miles of which is along a beautiful river and park), and live on a cul-de-sac connected to a park, and live a 3-block walk to the water, and other larger park in which it is possible to hike. My rent is, in NYC terms, quite affordable (since I’m not writing to an audience of NYers, I’ll share my secret: Inwood, on Manhattan’s northern end; and no, it’s not subject to rent-control). I can walk to the Saturday greenmarket in 3 minutes, and for half the year a CSA does it distribution in the park adjacent my building. I can get off the subway early and walk through Central Park for part of my commute to midtown if I like.

      Many if not most residences in Manhattan are within a few minutes walk of a park, and a 10-minute walk of rivers, most of which now have parks developed along them.

      Just because someone lives in a high-rise (or a 6-story apartment buildling) doesn’t mean they don’t have opportunities to be close to the earth. That’s why density is important. Done well, if not perfectly, density allows citizens of all means to have access to humanizing elements of city life.

      • Alan Durning says:

        Well said, Kimberly.

      • Ethan Seltzer says:

        I wish someone would do an analysis of the number of Nobel Prize winners that went to school in a multistory building, the number of great novels written on a floor numbered other than one or two, and the impact of altitude on music. My hunch is that we’d find that people excel at being human in other than single-story single family detached housing.

      • Alan says:

        I’ve heard of “studies” which purport to demonstrate that living above some number of stories above ground level is “unhealthy” in some fashion. These “studies” seem to be rather difficult to find and I certainly can’t vouch for them. Are there actually such studies or are they hippy fantasies?

    • Rebecca says:

      I appreciate your concerns for quality of family & community life, and I share those. I do think your concerns can be well-met by elegant design. This need not be cost-prohibitive! There are some superb examples of human-scaled living in condos & dense setting, I think especially of Vancouver, B.C.

      Rooftop gardens are all over big cities, and those I know who garden this way love it, and feel in touch with our planet. The data is clear that clustering density in cities protects surrounding farms & open space lands, which is critical to a humane & livable planet. Density by superb design IS the solution to sprawl, and sprawl is just so bad for us all, now & for future generations.

      • Toby Thaler says:

        The only permanent (i.e., “sustainable”) “solution to sprawl” is to stop growth. Until we as a culture and species acknowledge limits to growth, we will keep expanding until our footprint chokes us. Regardless of the density.

        I rarely see any consideration of the limits to growth in discussions of urban density, land use, affordability, sprawl, etc. Why not? [TOM CIVILETTI at:
        March 22, 2013 at 11:47 am touches on it.]

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    A few points:

    1. It’s worth noting that in Seattle we just passed a critical density point, and multifamily households now outnumber single family households. Once politicians figure this out, maybe we’ll be able to accelerate change.

    2. That 2/3rds of Seattle is zoned single family deserves a spothlight. It’s not just 2/3 single family, 1/3 multi-family. It’s 2/3 single family and 1/3 everything else. We have to cram all of our multifamily zoning, all of our downtown commercial zoning, our industrial zoning, universities, malls, etc. into that third. Taking the vast majority of our land area for SF homes leaves very little for anything else.

    • Dan Staley says:

      Taking the vast majority of our land area for SF homes leaves very little for anything else.

      I agree. However the built environment is durable and you aren’t going to change the fact that there are SFDs everywhere overnight. You are looking at a generation or more. In the meantime people reproduce and migrate to nice climates. That is: a lot of angst in the future and no good way to lessen it or speed change.

      • Nathanael says:

        As Alan Durning pointed out in earlier articles in this series, there is often nothing wrong with the BUILT environment… there is a problem with the ZONING CODE which restricts these houses to be “single family”.

        The exact same houses, often designed for large families with 6 or more kids, could be communes or boarding houses. What’s necessary is a change to the rules.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Re #1: Maybe they will. But, in general, as Lawrence Lessig and others have detailed, politicians act in alignment with their donors’ interests, not necessarily with average voters’ interests. And homeowners are much more likely to be affluent and, therefore, donors. Still, you’re completely right about the direction of change, as density rises, the constituency against it diminishes.

    • Alan says:

      That “2/3 single family” is made up of a huge number of houses built anywhere from 100 to 5 years ago. A very large number of the houses built from 1930 to the present are very poorly built and are already exceeding the life expectancy of their materials and construction. Currently, at least here in Portland, those houses which were poorly built of crumby materials and, in many cases, very poorly maintained, are now considered “tear-downs” and many are being replaced by McMansions. Perhaps, new zoning could be considered for these “tear-downs” instead of allowing them to be replaced by new single-family houses, usually with doubled or tripled square footage?

  4. RossB says:

    Zoning involves trade-offs. Any restriction pushes up the cost of housing, not only for the tenant, but for anyone in the area. This effect trickle throughout the area. For example, if you somehow banned all new buildings in Ballard it would push up the cost of rent in both Ballard and Queen Anne (and Magnolia, Fremont, etc.).

    At the same time, most people aren’t ready to accept an end to all zoning laws. They don’t want to see skyscrapers next to their house.

    But we don’t need skyscrapers in Greenlake to see some big, helpful changes. I can think of the following, which would greatly reduce the cost of building, which would, in turn, help increase affordability:

    1) End the parking requirements for all buildings. Whether you build a house, duplex or forty story building, the parking is up to you. Not only would this reduce the cost of building a new place, but it would probably make new buildings a lot prettier. One of the reasons that folks in Ballard don’t like the word “density” is that they remember the ugly buildings built in the 80’s. Once of the reasons that those buildings were so ugly is because they required parking spaces. The builders laid down a bunch of cement and called it a day. Suddenly, no one wanted to walk there. Furthermore, the bigger issue (within the city) is now traffic, not parking. Well, requiring additional parking spaces sure doesn’t help that. Quite the opposite.

    2) Eliminate the restrictions based on the number of units. If it is OK to build a huge house in a neighborhood, then I should be able to build the same size building, but with four units instead of one. Likewise apartment buildings. That is why the latest Apodment brouhaha is wrong. It isn’t a developer taking advantage of a loophole, it is every big, expensive house taking advantage of the loophole. If I can’t build a huge apartment building with 10 kitchens, which should I be able to build a big house with 4? It is the same size.

    We can keep other restrictions (on height, percentage of the lot, etc.) and still increase density with those two changes. The trade-off is that there will be fewer parking spaces and more people in certain areas. That is a small price to pay.

    The other trade-offs will continue (should we allow fifteen story buildings in Ballard?) but these two should be easy.

    • Alan Durning says:

      I plan to write about parking reforms soon. I agree that parking rules are a key barrier.

  5. Kevin R says:

    Funny how you buy a house and live in a neighborhood and then some developer wants to put up a cheap condo make 3 time his investment and use cheap material and cut corners and then leave with his pockets full and your house now has no sunlight and no parking and noisy neighbours who barf over the balcony every friday night.

    A zoning free for all ruins cities. Look at major European cities. Big plazas, inner city is no bigger then 6 stories yet they have suburbs but the ones that had public housing and high density go through a few years of bad times and presto, burning cars in the street.

    If you have space like a prairie town then use it. If your city has natural borders, like the ocean then build up for density, otherwise keep it downtown.

    Also the more density you have the more you have people fleeing on the weekend. In Europe the biggest traffic jams are getting out of the city on the weekends. Leaving the density areas of the cities empty on the weekends.

  6. Michael, Portland Afoot says:


    Is the implication that once we sneak density in the back door using ADUs and improvised cohousing, we will have filled up neighborhoods with people who feel differently about density?

    Isn’t it likelier that residents will always tend to prefer the status quo, whatever it is? That’s what they bought into when they arrived, after all.

    If that’s the case, then is there any time better than the present to ask for a more just and sustainable housing regime?

    • Alan Durning says:


      Thanks for your comment. I intended no such sophisticated strategy by “yet.” It was simply a reminder that the future, like the past, is a different country. And the future may bring different attitudes.

      But the story of Vancouver’s gradual, stepwise embrace of ADUs is certainly a precedent for attitudes on density shifting over time.

      • Bryn Davidson says:

        A friend of mine teaches high school in Sydney, Aus. He tells a story about various groups of students, some of whom have moved into town from rural Australia, and some that are immigrants from Hong Kong etc.

        When asked how they feel about Sydney they reply (in true teenage fashion) ‘We hate it!’. When pressed, the rural kids say that it’s way too busy and noisy, and the urban kids say it’s way too empty and boring.

        Perceptions are certainly relative, and – as is the case here in Vancouver – those perceptions about the ‘appropriate’ level of density can shift with time.

  7. John Gear says:

    First, if you want to influence people to agree with you instead of fight with you, write about ends, — better places, strong towns– instead of technocratic means like “density,” especially given that it’s easy to come up with a plethora of examples of horrible dense places. Campaigning for higher density is like campaigning for mandatory colonoscopy exams — sure, there’s an argument that, technically, it’s a good idea, would save lives, pay its way, etc. it’s also a guaranteed outrage-causer.

    If you want more affordable, attractive, economical, environmentally smart towns and cities (see, ends first), then a powerful tool is not to impose higher density but, rather, to create incentives that let people choose higher density for themselves as the solutions to their own problems. The best tool for the job is land-value taxation, or two-rate taxes: stop taxing improvements on urban land and tax the land itself instead (ideally, or increase the assessed rate on land greatly, while reducing it on improvements).

    Planning and zoning and calls for density are doomed to fail in creating better places because they are trying to push uphill against the huge gravitational pull of our tax system, which punishes precisely what we want and rewards what we don’t want (sprawl).

    • Alan Durning says:

      As you know, John, I support land-value taxation, and we’ve published about it over the years. Land-value taxation, however, does not change the tight restrictions on housing. It just encourages fuller utilization of urban land — UP TO THE LEGAL LIMIT.

      The previous ten articles in this series have focused exclusively on the positive, stepwise, modest increments of change that cities can and are taking to achieve better housing and better communities. This article is, if you read it carefully, an argument for NOT campaigning for big upzones now. It’s an argument for incrementalism.

      • Jonathan says:

        Yes, but under a robust LVT that legal limit becomes increasingly expensive to maintain, and it’s often assumed that the need for zoning would slowly evaporate.

        From what I’ve seen, an all-level revenue-neutral shift just within the current property tax would actually bring SF tax bills down slightly, except for the larger lots.

        Even shifting all local revenues onto land, which would just barely fit under the rate limit, would probably not be enough to really move the market. For that we’d need to shift the state sales tax.

        Of course, all of this is illegal six ways from Sunday, and politcally impossible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it!

        Even if it’s not enough to move the market, any opportunity to offset regressive deadweight losses and get the costs of living and doing business down for everybody is positive.

        If you look at the upzones that are taking place now, the land-to-total-value ratios are still only .33 at best, and if the land value is compounding at 15-20% (or more) a year, it won’t be long before we’re paying mostly for location again.

        So in many ways the more restrictive the zoning is, the more important it becomes to share the location values and use them to offset the costs of living.

        That really is the underlying issue here, and the biggest blind spot for the greens, I think. It’s part of their platform now, but they sure do have a hard time explaining it.

      • Alan Durning says:


        Thanks for your comment.

        Why do you think density limits would become increasingly expensive to maintain under LVT? And why do people assume the “need for zoning” would slowly evaporate?

        I can see how under land-value taxation, the costs (in lost tax revenue) of development limits would become more visible. But they’re already substantial, and that seems to be no political problem. My neighbors could care less that upzoning their area would generate more revenue for city, county, and state. They don’t even really care that it might increase their net worth.

        I think I’ve seen the same studies as you, showing a slight decline in property tax bills on single-family lots from a reweighting of existing tax assessments onto land values. Large lots are one exception, as you point out. But I think the 15-year-old King County study also showed that close-in single-family neighboors (in Seattle: Queen Anne, Magnolia, Capitol Hill, for example) would see higher taxes.

        Why do you say that anything less than shifting, in Washington, the state sales tax burden onto land would not “move the market”? It seems likely to me that every shift toward LVT would have an effect, shaping some decisions. The higher an LVT, the more it would do to end land speculation and promote full development (up to legal limits) of premium sites.

        And yes, LVT is illegal in Washington under the state constitution. It is not illegal in the rest of Cascadia. And BC, while is does not do LVT, does seem to lean much more heavily on the land in its assessments than do US jurisdictions in Cascadia. (Or, at least, this was what I heard a decade ago, when I was actively researching the subject.) And even that can make a difference in real-estate decisions.

        Agreed that we should talk about it!

  8. Ruben says:

    Alan, I am a giant fan of yours, and a pretty big fan of density. In fact, I will have several thousand words, many of which are about the benefits of density, coming out soon on the Spacing Vancouver website. So, I hope you will treat my question with the seriousness with which I ask it.

    If density delivers affordability, shouldn’t Tokyo, London, Paris, Osaka, be among the most affordable cities in the world?

    I remember seeing a news story–which sadly I cannot find again–looking at Seattle’s laneway cottages. The article pointed out they were cheaper to buy–until they were resold, at which point that affordability vanished.

    I support density for a lot of reasons–most of them relating to reduced energy use. But we mock economists for their hard-line adherence to ideology, and at the same time we believe the “law” of supply and demand will create affordability. Real estate, and most other purchasing decisions, is not so rational. Supply and demand delivers affordability in Detroit, but who wants to promote Detroitization as public policy?

    What reality has shown around the world is that urbanites will continue to pay more for less and less space–getting neither affordability nor a quality of life many would find acceptable. (google “Cramped Apartments in Hong Kong Shot From Directly Above”)

    If density delivers affordability, shouldn’t Tokyo, London, Paris, Osaka, be among the most affordable cities in the world?

    • Ruben says:

      And the link for that is Cramped Apartments in Hong Kong Shot From Directly Above–separated to avoid delays in comment moderation.

    • Matt the Engineer says:

      How do you know these places aren’t affordable? Remember, affordability isn’t simply the opposite of high rent. A reasonable definition would be: affordability = (income)/(cost of living). Big cities are efficiency machines, and incomes scale with city size. I recently looked up teacher salaries in Manhattan, and they’re 4x what you see in the rest of the country.

      As incomes increase, so do rents. If adding housing is constrained, then rents increase faster than incomes. That’s what lowers affordability. Is it possible that when cities become too large, then adding homes becomes too expensive even without artificial constraint? It’s possible, but Seattle is a long, long way from that point.

      • Ruben says:

        Well, I am surprised to hear anyone argue that London, England, or Hong Kong might be affordable. And please remember, this article is about density and housing affordability, so I am not arguing about food deserts here, or other impacts on the cost of living. But, to summarize this report:
        “In affordable and normal housing markets, house prices do not exceed three times annual household incomes”

        And here is the the report: go to page 47 to enjoy the numbers on Hong Kong and London–and Seattle.

      • Jeremy says:

        Yeah, a coworker recently fled to Germany, was tired of exorbitant Seattle rents (e.g. Berlin has ~200 Euro/month rentals, if you don’t mind upgrading to ex-Soviet housing from what Seattle offers). Being nearly run down multiple times per day for the trouble of walking probably helped tip the scales as well… (a car was too expensive, and the bus slower than walking).

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        Thanks for the study – great stuff in there. I will point out that there’s nowhere in the U.K. that meets that definition of affordable, so perhaps there’s something wrong with the country itself (or the metric). I am surprised that London only has around a 10% premium in income compared to other UK cities.

        I belive Hong Kong has a limited housing market not necessarily from regulations, but simple geography. That’s what I was talking about above. We’re pretty far from turning into Hong Kong here.

        I do notice that the most affordable cities in that report had amazingly cheap housing (Detroit MI $75.7k, Evansville, IN $69.4k). Short of a large amount of our residents fleeing the city (Evansville has been losing population since 1960, and you know about Detroit), we’re just not going to get housing that cheap. And the cheap places to build in our region are far enough to have commuting costs overwhelm housing costs, eating back into affordability.

        Which brings me to the flaw in that report: it ignores the cost of a commute. Commutes from sprawl can easily end up costing as much as a home.

    • Eric says:

      In popular places, allowing more density creates more affordability than restricting density. Suppose there are a million people who want to live in a city, but zoning has limited the number of housing units such that there are only enough for half that many people. What will happen is that prices will rise until the poorest half is priced out of the market and will have no choice but to move elsewhere.

      If zoning allows for higher density, the market will create additional housing units until the marginal cost of creating a new housing unit comes into equilibrium with the market rate for renting or selling that unit.

      Notice that there are two limiting factors affecting the equilibrium here — the zoning code and the cost of building new housing. In areas that are already dense (like Tokyo or Hong Kong), to add more housing units you might have to do something like tearing down a ten-story building to construct a twenty-story one. That’s going to be a much more expensive way to add more housing units than tearing down an old single-family house to put in six townhomes.

      Once density increases to a certain level that equilibrium price for creating a new unit at a constant size will go up. That’s when you see things like those tiny apartments in Hong Kong. Building a new 500 square foot studio in that environment will still be more expensive than many people can afford, so the only way to have affordable market-rate housing at the lower end of the market will be to gradually reduce unit sizes.

      • Alan Durning says:

        Good points, Eric.

    • Alan Durning says:


      Thanks for your excellent question. I encourage you to read Matt Yglesias’s book. He wrote it to respond to questions like yours.

      The answer is fairly simple: the only relationship that matters to THE RENT is the relationship between supply and demand. And demand dramatically outstrips supply in the cities you mention. It does so in all high-price cities. No matter how densely built a city is, if demand outstrips supply of housing, prices will go high. And most cities restrict supply tightly — prominently including the cities you mention. In the Northwest, we hold density down with enormous areas of single-family zoning. Left to the market, we’d have a lot of mid-rise apartment and condos in close-in neighborhoods in the Northwest In Manhattan, it’s zoning for four-unit brownstones where real-estate values would support high-rises.

      In short, don’t think about the relationship between density and price. Think about the relationship between demand and supply. Demand is incredibly high in some cities we think of as dense, and supply is high, but not incredibly high.

      More esoterically: Imagine the 3D real-estate value maps I described in the article. Then, in your mind’s eye, superimpose them over the actual cityscape of buildings. The disparity between actual building height and real-estate values is what drives up the rent. However tall the buildings are in Tokyo or New York, the real-estate value map would show they are way shorter than a less-regulated market would make them.

      • Ruben says:

        Alan, I will add Yglesias onto my teetering stack of books.

        I do understand the relationship between supply and demand, and your thought exercises are very clear. I want to be clear I am not a NIMBY anti-density type, as my forthcoming series will show. I believe and advocate for a sweet-spot of urban density that balances housing with food and energy production.

        But what those dense cities show, well illustrated in the photo series I linked to, is that sometimes density is just a treadmill—as you say, “No matter how densely built a city is, if demand outstrips supply of housing, prices will go high.”

        So, because of nebulous factors we can’t understand or control, some cities want to keep growing, some reach equilibrium, and some crash and depopulate.

        Now, if you use the supply and demand argument, you must accept that your city may be one that keeps growing, and that could end up with a family living in 80 sq. feet. That is the logic of supply and demand. That is shown in the pictures (cue racism of “only Chinese people would live like that”—and then go look at Paris).

        There is zero chance you can take those photos down to Seattle City Hall and say “This is our vision of housing affordability”. Nor can I take them to the City of Vancouver and expect any success. This is not what the people of Cascadia want, but it is the risk of relying on supply and demand—you just gamble with how much you can grind people down.

        So, the residents of Cascadia do not want to live in 80 sq.ft., but you can’t show any way the mechanism of supply and demand will stop before then. In addition to the inability of construction to keep up with demand, there is no incentive for developers to overbuild in order to provide the excess supply that generates affordability. Look at the fenced off vacant lots all over downtowns—developers would rather sit on land and make more profit.

        So, let’s stop letting the economists move our lips for us. There are other ways to increase affordability. The municipality of Whistler is building worker housing, so the people who run ski lifts can afford to sleep. For all its problems, New York has rent control. There are all sorts of possible tools that could lock in affordability, if we choose to have complex conversations.

        But, there is no possible physical or political world in which supply and demand can guarantee affordability. What real-world cities show is that, if you do not lock in affordability, all of your gains may be overcome. All of the zoning changes and integrated design and occupancy changes and multi-generational co-op living etc. etc. just shift the market and you lose the affordability.

      • Ruben says:

        Eric perfectly articulates my argument (in my response at 11:24, I don’t know if it will end up above or below this in the comments).

        “Once density increases to a certain level that equilibrium price for creating a new unit at a constant size will go up. That’s when you see things like those tiny apartments in Hong Kong. Building a new 500 square foot studio in that environment will still be more expensive than many people can afford, so the only way to have affordable market-rate housing at the lower end of the market will be to gradually reduce unit sizes.”

        So, what that says is, “We have no idea if Seattle will end up like Hong Kong or not, and so if we choose this policy path, you all may end up living in tiny apartments like the ones in these photos.”

        I think we should choose different policy paths.

      • Eric says:

        Rent control is a great deal for those who are living in existing housing, but does nothing to increase the availability of affordable housing for new people moving into an area. For that, you need more housing.

        The first step is to allow more housing to be built. That will reduce market prices compared to a system where the number of housing units is artificially constrained through government regulation.

        Even after you reach a market equilibrium between demand and construction cost for units of a certain size, some people will not be able to afford those units at a market rate.

        There will always be people who can’t afford market-rate housing, but the number of these people will be less if you allow more housing to be built than if you restrict the supply through legislation. If Hong Kong suddenly banned all units smaller than 250 square feet, a few of the people in these “cubicle apartments” might be able to afford larger units at a larger percentage of their income, but most would simply be left homeless or forced to move elsewhere.

        How you ensure that everyone has a place to live is a related but separate problem — you can allow smaller market-rate units like Hong Kong has done, or you can subsidize more units for low-income workers like Whistler has done, or plenty of other things.

        Regardless, when there are more units on the market, prices are lower for everybody. Affluent people who can afford market rates will find the rates are lower because there’s less competition for each unit. Governments that subsidize units for the poor will find that they don’t have to subsidize as many because fewer people need them.

  9. Alan Durning says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    You made a couple of leaps of logic where you left me behind, scratching my head, wondering, “Why does he conclude that?”

    You wrote: “So, because of nebulous factors we can’t understand or control, some cities want to keep growing, some reach equilibrium, and some crash and depopulate.” I thought: “cities” don’t want at all. People do. But, the outcomes for cities are every imaginable point along the spectrum you outlined.

    You wrote: “Now, if you use the supply and demand argument, you must accept that your city may be one that keeps growing, and that could end up with a family living in 80 sq. feet. That is the logic of supply and demand.” No, you don’t have to accept that. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere in this series, every city in the NW regulates housing size by setting square footage minimums (or, in BC, person/bedroom minimums). There are vast universes of policy tools that influence housing in our region. Arguing for higher density as a strategy for improved affordability and sustainability in the current context of Cascadia does not mean committing oneself to a libertarian no-regulation housing future.

    You wrote: “So, the residents of Cascadia do not want to live in 80 sq.ft., but you can’t show any way the mechanism of supply and demand will stop before then. In addition to the inability of construction to keep up with demand, there is no incentive for developers to overbuild in order to provide the excess supply that generates affordability. Look at the fenced off vacant lots all over downtowns—developers would rather sit on land and make more profit.”

    Now, you’re just jumping all over the place. As I’ve argued, we probably should allow single people to live in 80 square foot one-person squats. The fact that we don’t is part of the reason for the prevalence of homelessness. See the first few articles in this series.

    Who said construction cannot keep up with demand? I never said that. And who said that we need “overbuilding” to lower prices? “Overbuilding” may happen sometimes, but it’s the consequence of hundreds of developers making gambles on the future housing market and supplying more housing than demand materializes for. In time, demand usually catches up.

    Fenced off lots, and surface parking lots in downtowns, are either temporary holding patterns or they are land speculation. And a land-value tax is the best cure for land speculation, although other tools can help, too.

    I agree that a variety of tools can help with affordability. Some that you mention, such as rent control, have negative side-effects that undermine their promise. And none of these tools — inclusionary zoning, housing subsidies, workforce housing, co-housing — operate in a universe separate from the private market. They influence it and are influenced by it. So the overarching rules of zoning and land-use regulation discussed in this series are important to all of them.

    • Ruben says:

      I knew cities “wanting” would be problematic, but I couldn’t figure out a better way of saying it. Building “successful, world-class cities”, like Seattle and Vancouver aspire to be, seems to be kind of like making a video go viral. Everybody hopes it will happen, but there is not an easy formula to follow. There is only one Tokyo, only one London, only one Paris. Dubai has tried to buy a world-class city, and it is a shambles. So I know the concrete and pipes don’t have desires. What is that? A synecdoche, I think? But the movers and shakers typically want more and higher. And yet not everybody becomes Paris. Some are only Seattle. Only Boise. Or even Detroit. But yes, I was projecting the desires of the residents onto the concrete and steel.

      On to your other points—I am in favour of housing the homelessness. But, by virtue of not paying rent the homeless do not skew housing affordability, so that is just a straw man (slight sarcasm at play here).

      Who said construction cannot keep up with demand was the Director of Planning and all the senior bureaucrats of the City of Vancouver. Yet if there is not overbuilding, there is no oversupply, and you are left with demand. And demand means prices rise.

      To me, this is the blind spot of urban green density advocates. If you argue for more supply to increase affordability, you have to be able to show where that has happened. Where that happens is in cities that are not doing as well as the cities that have the affordability crisis, and nobody wants to change places.

      The law of supply and demand means to produce affordability through supply, you must have more units than there are people. That is oversupply. That is very undesirable for the people who build units.

      As for the rest of your points, I agree with them all. All the zoning, all the tax shifting, all the design changes and social infrastructure. All of them, and whole bunch more besides. And they will not produce one jot of affordability, because there is no mechanism to trap that affordability in the market. So, as we see in the real world all around us, the market shifts and we complain about the new normal.

      So, I don’t think I am missing something here, but please correct me. If policy generates supply, and supply generates lasting affordability, we should be able to see some if it in the world. Otherwise, using the mechanism Eric described, over the generations our cities may fill with 80 sq.ft. apartments (size restrictions constrain supply and reduce affordability). And we will pay more for those 80 sq. feet than we pay now.

      I think we must have a mechanism to retain affordability once it has been generated by all the tools you suggest. If we do not, those tools may just speed us towards Hong Kong-style apartments. Am I wrong?

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        Sorry for jumping in, but with regard to “to produce affordability through supply, you must have more units than there are people.”, The choice isn’t between building too few units and too many units. The choice is between building units in the city versus units in the far suburbs. Restricting developers from building in the city doesn’t just pushes them to build elsewhere.

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        (remove the word “doesn’t)

  10. TOM CIVILETTI says:

    I am not convinced that high-rise urbanity will prove sustainable in the long run. There are inescapable energy demands when people are separated from the natural systems that support them. I expect a higher proportion of population will live on farms and in villages a century from now. They will not be commuting to urban cores or industrial parks. They will work where they live.

    • Ruben says:

      I agree Tom. As I said above, “I believe and advocate for a sweet-spot of urban density that balances housing with food and energy production.”

      Thought I have maddeningly lost the source, Jane Jacobs once said we would have to re-settle the cities out into the rural areas.

  11. Michael O'Brien says:

    Alan, in general I agree that increased density can bring benefits to a city. However, having served on a neighborhood association board for some years, I think there may be legitimate concerns. For one example, when Portland decided to allow splitting 5,000 SF lots in half for two dwellings, Bill Cunningham at the Planning bureau published an excellent guide to designing houses to fit such lots, but developers mostly ignored the suggestions and built what I would describe as low-value housing–no design and low-quality, code-minimum construction. Such developers are hoping the value and desirability of the existing neighborhood will allow them to charge premium prices for their minimal investment. Why should adjacent homeowners welcome this type of density?

    Another example–smaller dwelling units can work well, where life can spill out onto streets and plazas, such as along these woonerfs in The Netherlands: Ben Hamilton-Baillie has been to Portland and made a good case for woonerfs, but Portland officials resist this type of change.

    Developers like Eli Spevak of Orange Splot, who create innovative and delightful housing, have to go through many hoops while code-minimum developers skate through permitting. If homeowners knew they could expect good design and reasonable quality construction, I think it would help them accept more density.

    • portrait benschon says:

      My opinion is that neighborhood opposition to higher density is a combination of the following concerns:

      1. Parking may get more difficult.
      2. New buildings are ugly.
      3. I don’t like change.

    • Nathanael says:

      “Bill Cunningham at the Planning bureau published an excellent guide to designing houses to fit such lots, but developers mostly ignored the suggestions and built what I would describe as low-value housing–no design and low-quality, code-minimum construction.”

      The UK has a solution for that. It’s called “planning permission”.

      In short, EVERY project has to get individual design approval. This removes the incentive to design as cheaply as possible while staying within the “letter of the code”, because *there is no letter of the code*.

      • Toby Thaler says:

        Good luck with that. The fiscal and political limits on design review in Seattle make the broad application of the process you propose very difficult. Perhaps with the new structure of district council elections and some recalibration of the power dynamics in Seattle, some kind of agreement could be reached.

        Many of us in the SF zones would welcome an increase in density along the lines you suggest, but the current and historic extensive abuses of numerous loopholes in both SF and especially transitioning L zones by many (most?) developers is in part what lead to the 2:1 passage of Charter Amendment 19, as well as the eviction of Richard Conlin.

  12. portrait SteveG says:

    I just sent this article to “Portland Neighbors for Responsible Development,” the group that’s trying to re-impose parking minimums on apartment buildings in close-in Portland.

    I hope a few of them read this article with an open mind.

  13. Louise Stonington says:

    There was one mention of parks in the comments here, as being something that complements living in high density areas. A study of hospital patients showed that they recovered faster when they could see green, evidence that access to green scenery reduces medical, including mental health costs? In single family, or townhouse type housing, people can more often see trees and enjoy physical and mental health benefits of proximity to nature than in high rises.
    Second issue, exercise. The upkeep of housing with a yard provides the opportunity for some exercise in maintaining the building. In addition, owners can combine exercise with saving money by doing their own painting, scrubbing, repairs, washing and tree trimming. Many city dwellers go on weekends to second homes in the country or vacations in warmer climates. Arguably having a home with some green outdoor living space allows people to relax without driving or flying elsewhere, saving carbon load of keeping second homes from freezing, and of transportation.
    Then there is the issue of urban farming that people can do in yards that are not shaded by high rises.
    And finally, use of roof space for solar water or PV electric installations is a potential benefit of smaller houses.
    So the bottom line question is not whether we need density, but at what point does it become counterproductive. Certainly homes spaced an acre apart or more are huge consumers of resources. However, I question whether high rises end up being that much more energy efficient than small houses or attached townhouses, three stories high, with yards attached, or sharing common greenspace.

    • Ruben says:

      Amen, Louise. These are the sorts of questions that need to be discussed to find the “urban sweet spot”.

      • Nathanael says:

        Regarding greenspace: The current regulations do not require greenspace and do not create greenspace, particularly not within single-family districts.

        “Second issue, exercise.”
        This is silliness; actual studies show that people living in dense, downtown, urban housing get more exercise than people living in suburban ranch houses. Period.

      • Toby Thaler says:

        Nathaniel–SF houses in Seattle neighborhoods are not full of “people living in suburban ranch houses.” I walk/bike miles almost every day, garden in the p-patch, etc. I’ll bet you a beer on average everyone on my block gets more exercise than residents of Belltown or Capital Hill apartments.

        And what do you mean “current regulations do not require greenspace and do not create greenspace, particularly not within single-family districts”? The zoning codes have explicit lot coverage and set back requirements; how is that not requiring greenspace?

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for your comments, Louise.

      There is room in our cities for many kinds and heights of buildings, and air travel and second homes are important dimensions of a holistic assessment.

      But the vast preponderance of evidence from studies of energy consumption in cities across five continents supports the conclusion that greater density leads to substantial reductions in per-person energy consumption (and, consequently, emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants). Sightline has been documenting this relationship for 20 years.

      • TOM CIVILETTI says:

        I think those studies are probably correct, Alan, at present. That is because suburban and rural residents drive long distances to work and recreate. That will become rare as energy costs increase. People will work and play close to where they live. I believe the energy balance will shift then.

        We need to think long term. We cannot make large investments in high rise buildings now if they will be defunct in 40 years. We need building usable for a century or more.

  14. Bob Simmons says:

    Alan, this may be the best discussion I’ve seen on this devilish question. It is splendid. Even so, it seems to me there’s a valid question that’s barely referenced. Are city people who choose to live in a small, single family home with some flowers, 2 or 3 hens in the back, a small vegetable garden in front, open to a walkable street (think Greenlake, Finney, Columbia or the older sections of Kirkland); are they on the wrong side of the green movement? Could be, but I can’t find it in my farmerish soul to criticize urban ground dwellers who wish a window on something not made by man. Especially when I see how much one has to pay for so little in the condominium market, then pay it again to a condo association that does not allow you to disturb the institutional greenery.

    • Alan Durning says:


      Thanks for your comment, and it’s good to hear from you.

      Single-family homes on small lots are a wonderful way to live. I have lived in such homes for the last 20 years (though I won’t for the next 20!)

      The argument for complete, compact communities that include much more multifamily housing than most Cascadian cities now offer is about public policies, not about virtue. When you write, “Are they on the wrong side of the green movement?” I think you’re asking the wrong question. This is not a discussion of “sides.”

      As Matt Yglesias points out in his book, market segmentation research suggests that about one-third of American households are dead-set on living in single-family houses. Another third are eager to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods where most housing is multifamily — and multifamily housing is just fine with them. The final third of Americans are open to either option, depending on circumstances and prices. Yet in cities across Cascadia, we allocate overwhelming majorities of land to single-family zoning (and restrict in-law units there, all-but-ban rooming houses there, and cap how many roommates can share a house). Yglesias’s argument, with which I agree, is that we should let housing supply approximate housing demand: a lot more multi-family on the most-valuable lots near city centers. But, as I said in the article, most close-in single-family neighborhoods aren’t ready for that yet. Hence: my focus on modest steps like legalizing in-law units, roommates, and neo-rooming houses across our cities, including in single-family zones.

      • Nathanael says:

        The “intermediate” constructions somewhere between most people’s image of the “single family ranch house” and most people’s image of the “big apartment building” are extremely popular, actually.

        Duplexes, rowhouses, “small” (3-story) apartment buildings, small-scale condos etc. These have been largely banned by zoning.

  15. Mark Spitzer says:

    From having lived and traveled in Europe, I think that a middle approach works best for most people. That would be 4-6 story housing with great private space to go with the density. Many city housing ‘blocks’ there appear to fill up everything; but when you enter them, you discover that the centers are open and often filled with interesting social spaces and gardens. We were struck with the street facade severity of some Barcelona housing – until we got a look at the balconies, terraces, gardens and trees in the inside centers of the blocks. Same experience in Copenhagen. These spaces provide the semi-private / semi-public spaces that make for a civilized transition from busy public streets to private residences.
    Sprinkle in some nearby parks, decent transit, a variety of retail shops and restaurants and you’re in business!

  16. Jonathan says:

    Take a look at what Sao Paulo did with their Charges for Development Rights:

    This was the largest of several programs that managed to capture 80% of the newly granted FAR. But if you really want to nerd out, check out the CEPAC program. These guys securitized their development rights 10 years ago and auctioned them on the stock exchange, capturing the full market value! For a number of reasons, I think they’d be better off auctioning leases that could be reassessed periodically and then issuing bonds against that if they want cash up front, but it’s impressive either way.

    So if voters were to realize that the city is giving away hundreds of millions — even billions of dollars — for no reason,

    And the city starts to look at its vertical space as a virtually unlimited source of non-distortionary revenue,

    I think the political economy of the zoning discussion could start to change.

    Under these circumstances, the upzones become infinitely more valuable to the city than the current use monopolies are to the neighborhoods, and, at the very least, putting a clear price tag on it would help voters better evaluate these decisions.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Thanks for this comment, Jonathan.

      A high LVT would be a cleaner way to capture public value, no doubt, but it’s interesting to consider the mechanisms you cited as second-best solutions.

      • Jonathan says:

        In terms of generating revenue quickly with minimal legal and political friction, sales of development permission could actually be the best option. It has the potential to instantly turn the most valuable locations in the city into leaseholds, much like Hong Kong or Amsterdam.

        By the way, the PSRC could really use some help with this. They didn’t look at upzones, land banking, excise taxes, TBDs, probably a few others. This stuff is on the docket now, and it is unlikely we will get another chance to capture the upzones or the LINK investments.

        As far as LVT eliminating zoning, that may be a very libertarian assumption for the PNW! But as you were alluding to above, the higher the LVT rate, the more we should expect density will tightly conform to land values, be more responsive to changes and naturally gravitate towards major arteries and intersections, to the point where zoning becomes a redundant nuisance.

        And just because there are legal limits on improvements doesn’t mean that the location value won’t continue to rise. You can imagine an SFH in lower Manhattan commanding a rent that very few people would be willing or able to pay.

        But shifting everything short of the sales tax in Washington… what does that look like? 60% increase in SF tax bills? Not that much — certainly not doubled. There’d be turnover, but would that be enough to remove the political resistance to upzones in those neighborhoods? I don’t know. Might it even make the neighborhood more exclusive?

        The really tricky thing is that in a market like we have here in the PNW, where the increments are about as high as anything in the world, there may not be a conceivable LVT rate that would chase away the speculators.

        Chapters 2&4 address some of these uncertainties:
        it’s a very complex problem!

  17. mike eliason says:

    This is something I really struggle with, especially whenever I make it back to the EU – the overwhelming amount of area in Seattle dedicated to pseudo-suburban living. It is both awkward and insane.

    In many EU cities, there are strong alternatives to the developer-driven model of housing – which will never really be ‘affordable’ for the majority of workers (even if height restrictions are lifted). Or if it is ‘affordable’, quality suffers and we get really awful projects w/ horrible ‘modulation’. In Berlin and other German cities (e.g. Freiburg’s Vauban) – there has been a growth in baugruppen – essentially co-ops that remove the profit-driven model, thereby saving up to 30%, even with the hiring of a PM to ensure budgets/schedules met. Many of these projects are highly innovative – and oh yeah, uber energy efficient (e.g. Passivhaus or near-PH) and well-designed. I wrote about some of them last year on our blog…

    Another model is that of non-profit state-owned orgs like Neue Heimat Tirol (co-owned by Tirol and Innsbruck), building architecturally significant, low-energy mid-rise projects for low-income residents, like baumschlager & eberle’s incredible
    wohnen am lohbach – which cost an phenomenally low $120/sf (INCLUDING parking). The finishes on this project are incredible – milchglas railings, copper shutters, triple pane windows, super-insulation, high level of quality in common spaces… 298 units on 15,000 m2 – what is that, 80 dwelling units per acre? And the buildings cover less than 1/3 of the site? Winning…

    It really kills me that Seattle lacks older, decent low-rise neighborhoods a la CPX’s Kartoffelrækkerne. Another issue I struggle with is many of the city’s LR lots being developed into single family houses, thereby under utilizing their dwelling unit capacity significantly. Unfortunately, I believe ‘affordability’ will continue to suffer under these models.

    • Matt the Engineer says:

      I question whether developers really get 30% profit on multifamily developments. You’d think that would drive more people into the development business, until the profits were at a more reasonable level. I just put a little bit of my retirement in a REIT, and I’m not expecting close to that level of return.

      That said, I’d welcome the building models you mention for another reason: NIMBYs won’t have big evil developers to beat up on anymore.

  18. lys dexia says:

    On “the rent is too damn high” e-book, I don’t know if it’s the format, the writer, or the reader, but I am having a tough time wading through it.

    • Serena Larkin says:

      Hi, Lys,

      Sorry you’re having trouble reading that e-book, but it’s not Sightline’s work, so you’ll have to report the issue to the original publisher. Thanks for being in touch.


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