Is tech or the city responsible for Seattle’s housing crunch? Report explores roots of affordability crisis

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This article was originally published by GeekWire on April 27, 2018.

Seattle housing
Seattle 4 Tech believes single-family zoning is the root of the city’s housing crisis. (Flickr Photo / Harold Hollingsworth )

Two fast-growing Seattle-area tech companies went public this week. DocuSign and Smartsheet both opened with higher stock prices than expected, bringing in big cash infusions that will allow the companies to hire even more workers as part of Seattle’s tech boom.

“You are really starting to see scale established in Seattle,” Smartsheet CEO Mark Mader told GeekWire. As the two companies “hit their stride” Mader said he expects they will bring more tech talent to the region.

In the Seattle tech industry, this is a success story. But it’s also part of a broader and more complicated story of a mid-sized city with working-class roots growing rapidly and leaving many behind in the process. In that story, the tech industry is often portrayed as the villain.

Seattle Tech 4 Housing wants to change that narrative. The organization was featured in a Politico story Thursday detailing the history of Seattle’s housing crisis and debate over single-family zoning. The group was founded by tech workers “who believe that the tech boom can and should benefit every Seattle resident,” according to its website.

Zach Lubarsky, one of Seattle Tech 4 Housing’s founders, acknowledges that newcomers drawn to Seattle for lucrative job opportunities in tech are part of the issue but he believes that obscures the bigger problem: zoning.

Here’s how Politico frames it:

Lubarsky is keenly aware of the irony of tech workers lecturing Seattle about the need for a freer housing market. As in San Francisco and other tech-fueled boomtowns, people like him are widely blamed not merely for driving up housing prices (Lubarsky rents a higher-end apartment near the downtown), but also for justifying the carnage in coldly libertarian terms. In fact, one of [the] objectives in founding Seattle Tech 4 Housing was to counter the image of callousness that has emerged in Silicon Valley around the issue of affordability.

Seattle Tech 4 Housing connects people working in tech with volunteer opportunities to alleviate the city’s housing and homelessness crises. That involves hooking tech workers up with non-profits and connecting them to technology projects that need help getting off the ground. For example, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance is looking for help to develop an algorithm that finds apartment listing ads that deny housing vouchers.

The group also advocates for rezoning Seattle neighborhoods that currently make it close to impossible to build anything other than single-family homes. It’s a sentiment echoed by Jon Scholes, CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association which represents 2,200 businesses, non-profits, and residents in the city’s urban core.

“We’ve grown very quickly,” he said in an interview with GeekWire. “We’ve had a lot of job growth and housing production hasn’t kept up. I don’t think the city — City Hall, or the City Council — have had enough urgency on the issue of housing production throughout the city. We have too many limits and restrictions on what can be built and where and as we increase jobs in that environment, it puts pressure on housing prices.”

Although the notion of upzoning to encourage the free market to build more housing is picking up steam in Seattle, there are still longtime residents worried about the rapidly changing character of the city. There are also skeptics, like former Seattle City Council candidate Jon Grant, who worry that the free market can’t be trusted to create affordable housing.

From Politico:

In neighborhoods that lose their single-family zoning restrictions, Grant says, landlords who currently operate houses as group rentals will have an incentive to replace these modestly profitable properties with far less affordable triplexes or town homes. “What the free-market urbanists don’t acknowledge is that density just for density’s sake doesn’t in itself create more affordable housing,” says Grant. “It creates more market-rate housing.”

It’s a debate that is destined to rage on as tech giants, like Amazon, continue to grow rapidly in the city amid newer growth companies, like DocuSign and Smartsheet. The issue has come to a head with a proposed tax on Seattle’s highest businesses, which is currently under consideration by the City Council.

Read Politico’s in-depth discussion of Seattle’s housing crisis, zoning, and the tech industry here.