Forget Amazon: Local Housing Builders May Have to Leave Seattle Too

Editors note: This post was originally an email responding to a fundraising request. Smart Growth Seattle is funded largely by small and medium sized, family owned business like the one Gary Cobb operates. While the Seattle Chamber of Commerce is just waking up to the deliberate efforts to slow and stop new housing development, builders like Gary Cobb face real hardships because of runaway regulation based on ideological excess. 

Hi Roger,

With the city of Seattle’s new permitting levels, I am faced with a year of no income. I am feeling like I have been fired from my own business. I have 2 projects in for permit totaling 9 new town homes and all should have been completed and sold about now, leaving money on the table and the ability to move on new projects, but the dirt has not been touched, due to lack of permits.  These sales would have given plenty to offer up support to you like I was able to do the past.

I am in serious thought that it will get much worse to build in the city before it gets any better.   With design review, we are faced with permitting that is two times as slow at best.  It now takes up to 2 years or longer to get a 4-unit town home project ready to build.  This makes the turnaround time on a 4 unit to be about 2.5 to 3 years or longer.  In the past or even a year and a half ago we could turn a project from purchase to sale in about 12 to 14 months.  This, and added linkage tax, more income tax for the city, and other proposed taxation will, in my estimation, end a lot of small builders careers in this city.  Yes, they will try and even think they can hang on and some may, but others will go by the wayside under the heavy taxation and lack permitting that disallows them to do their work destroying their businesses not to mention laying good people off.

This thought takes me back to mayor Nickels.  In his first term of office, he came to our meetings explaining that he was making it his goal to support the builders and wanted the jobs that it created, along with the tax base, and the new homes we built for our city.  He made it a goal to speed up the permitting processes, while streamlining the Department of Planning and Development that was out of control.   Back then that we had to wait 4 months for a permit, far, far less time than we are facing today.   With mayor Nickels, I was able to see permits in 2 weeks for 2 multifamily projects.  Yes, it can be done in 2 weeks, believe it or not.   I think this administration wants us gone, leaving only the very big builders that focus on high-rise apartments. This is the future that the city wants for generations to come, or so it seems.

The members of the Master Builders are small family owned businesses.  Yes, some are a good-sized builders, but even when I ramped up to building 100+ homes a year and was the 18th largest builder in King County, it is still possible to get busted down with just one major change in the economy, like the 2007 downturn that takes it all away.

We place everything we have on the line to do what we do.  We give all we must to be out there building.  This is a business of risk and reward with high finance, economic changes, and unforeseen problems at every turn.  One can say it’s all about the money, but more than that we are doing what we love to do and that is build.   We love to create new buildings that blend into our city.  We love to hear from a neighbor that the neighborhood looks so much better when we are finished.  We love to hear from a buyer that we did a great job in building the new home they chose to live in.  We love getting up in the morning to do it all over again.  We love looking at new properties seeing the opportunity, sometimes when no one else could.

Most of the in-city builders are working out of their trucks and spending all hours at night to catch up on the paperwork and emails.  We work nights and weekends and lay awake at night planning our next day; we lose sleep in wonder of how we will cover the bills.  No 8 to 5 here, no way.  We sign our own homes away to guarantee the needed moneys from a banker to build.  Many a builder’s pride and joy, their own home, has been taken by a banker unwilling to give a little to allow the builder to survive in hard times.

Most of us are doing what we do because we love doing it and are willing to take the risk.   We are hardworking honest people that really take pride in what we do day after day, and year after year.  On the other hand our city seems to take a different stand and looks at us as rich people dozing our way through the streets and bulling our weight around the city, all for the money. It seems as they think they found a cash cow to take from and to slow down growth so as not to destroy the pristine neighborhoods we now have.

Roger, as my email states I am concerned about the future of the small builder in the city of Seattle. I don’t want our city to go to large high-rise developments and become a base for large out of state developers and owners.   The small builders live here, work here raise families and grow old here.  We really do care about our future here as well as the city I have called home all my life, born and raised.   If I am not permitted to build here then I can’t run a business here.

If some changes are not in the works to fix this problem now then I must assume that the city of Seattle is meaning to create this problem in wanting the builders to leave. It could be worse in that we could be working in Key West FL today. I was just there last month. I can only ask God to help them, as it was such a beautiful place.  I hope it still is…

Kind regards,

Gary Cobb, GNC LLC

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