Editor’s Note: Home, Sweet Home?
Now isn’t the time to emulate Berkeley’s housing policies.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
On a recent visit to Berkeley, where I attended the University of California in the late 1970s, I was struck by how little the city had changed. The neighborhoods are still lined with century-old houses. Still visible in the occasional garden amid a profusion of wild roses and sweet-smelling jasmine and wisteria are funky sculptures of metal, wood and glass. Not there: the monstrous mansions, boxy townhomes and high-rise apartments sprouting across Seattle. Strict rent control, imposed in 1978, cast its magic spell and left the city frozen in time.
Well, not exactly. There’s the small matter of price. The friend who took over the spacious, one-bedroom apartment where my wife and I lived 36 years ago still lives in that time warp. She pays just $550 a month. But thanks to the rent control and zoning rules that have discouraged new construction, new arrivals in Berkeley must contend with sky-high housing costs. The median home value in Berkeley is now $1.1 million, while the median monthly rent will set you back $3,772. Those prices are about twice Seattle’s levels.
Then there’s the matter of jobs. With the “People’s Republic of Berkeley” so anti-business, there are relatively few jobs available other than in government or at the university.
Is that what we want in Seattle?
We should count ourselves fortunate to be a city brimming with energy and innovation. Entrepreneurs are creating the jobs that we and our children can fill. By 2022, Amazon alone expects to take enough office space in Seattle for more than 80,000 employees, twice the level the company employs today in the city.
All those new employees will create huge demand for more housing. Yet our city council is moving to discourage new housing by asking the state to give it the ability to impose rent control. In July, it will begin enforcing a series of new regulations, including one that requires landlords to select tenants based on the order in which they applied. Landlords facing less control over the tenant selection process — and therefore higher risk — have responded by tightening the criteria for new tenants to include such things as high credit scores. That’s not good for tenants, and it will push rents up even more by discouraging new construction.
As Jeanne Lang Jones points out in the story beginning on page 26, the American dream of owning a single-family home is now out of reach for many young couples. That consequence may simply be the cost of becoming a major metropolitan area. Even so, instead of driving up costs by imposing new regulations, we need to encourage more construction of housing. We could, for example, take advantage of hundreds of acres of vacant or underutilized industrial land by allowing apartments to be built there, provided the first floor is reserved for industrial tenants, much as we do now for retail.
Seattle has never been content to remain frozen in time like Berkeley, and we shouldn’t start now. We have always looked to the future for a better way to do things. When it comes to housing, we need to do that now more than ever.
LESLIE HELM is executive editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.