Moon and Durkan: Neither Candidate Has What We Need for More Housing

I’ve got some good news and some bad news. We’ve looked at 21 resumes, done the interviews, and winnowed it down to two candidates. The bad news is that when it comes to housing, neither of the finalist are qualified. We’re gonna have to open up the position again. That’s what I’d do if I was the hiring manager bringing on a new Mayor after watching the two final candidates, Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon, answer questions about housing in a recent debate on KOMO. The Seattle Times has the whole debate on line. Let’s look at two key answers to see why we have to go back to the drawing board.

The question is what would you do about housing prices?

Here’s part of Durkan’s answer:

We could make almost every single-family lot into a triplex over night. But we’re having impediments. We need to make it a priority and the Mayor needs to say to the zoning and housing people we’re gonna speed up affordable housing, we’re gonna give people the ability to have density and then we’ll move forward.

Does Durkan really want to turn every single-family lot into a triplex over night? I doubt it. Not even advocates for densifying single-family neighborhoods have said anything like that. And if she really did, how would she accomplish such a technically and politically ambitious goal? She acknowledges that we have “impediments.” Like deep and ugly opposition to density among single-family homeowners who have convinced the City Council, in succession, to stop development of single-family homes in single-family zones with crushing legislation ending small-lot development, legislation ending congregate microhousing, and legislation essentially downzoning low-rise zones, zones that already allow the so called “missing middle” housing in Seattle. It isn’t missing, it’s just really hard and expensive to build with growing regulatory requirements like water main extension and many others. And there is more coming, like Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning, impact fees, and more design review.

How would Mayor Durkan overcome these “impediments?” She would talk to the “zoning and housing people.” Who are the zoning and housing people? I can just imagine Mayor Durkan on her first day in office asking, “Let’s go talk with those zoning and housing people. Where are they anyway?” Well, Mayor, they work for you. And what in the world does, “speed up affordable housing” in this context mean? Putting rocket boosters on an Seattle Housing Authority high rise? Clearly Durkan is just tossing a very special housing word salad. The recipe is “affordable housing” with “duplex and triplex” and a dash of “zoning” tossed vigorously with “speed.” Durkan simply doesn’t know the housing issue and doesn’t want to get any better. But she is doing a great Casey Stengel impression.

How about Moon’s response.

This housing market with these steep price escalations, rising twice as fast as any other city in the country, is simply not natural. There’s something happening in our housing market that we need to understand and it’s speculation and we need to look at the data the shows exactly the dynamic and put in the right disincentive to stop it.

Hmmm. Something happening. Something not natural. Something terrifying. Something not of this Earth! Run for the hills!

Of course Moon is speaking of THEM, the evil cabal of foreign investors mostly from China who are pouring vast amounts of capital into Seattle, buying up lots of housing, emptying it out and leaving it empty. Except this isn’t happening. And I was profoundly disappointed first to hear Moon still rambling about this nonsense, but in such conspiratorial terms. Not natural? How bizarre. Of course it’s natural: it’s called supply and demand. See, if you have a lot of people wanting something, and there isn’t a lot of that thing, well….well. Well, forget it. Moon isn’t listening. I would have been satisfied had she spoken of the need to gather more data and to figure out if there is a “speculation” problem. But her ranking that as the first thing she’d do and her weird conspiracy take means she’s still not connected to how the housing economy works.

So on the one hand we have a candidate, Jenny Durkan who knows nothing about housing economics and is doing her best to say lots of words that make people think she does, and another candidate who seems to know about housing but has all the wrong ideas. Neither candidate has evolved or shown any interest in talking with people who actually build housing in the city. Maybe Durkan really is looking for those, “housing and zoning people.” Well, we’re here! And I suppose Moon will keep looking for Bigfoot. In either case neither candidate has demonstrated an ability to get to the main problem we have in Seattle with housing: we’re not making enough. And if we are going to be smart about subsidies we need to make sure that we don’t boost the price of market housing so high with overreaching regulation that people making $100,000 qualify for assistance. It’s actually pretty simple: build more, then build even more, then build more than that. Whoever is still struggling with housing costs after that gets lots of help.




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