Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
On a brisk Saturday morning in March, a 27-year-old programmer named Zach Lubarsky, bundled in a fatigue jacket and knit cap, took a ReachNow rental car to the north end of Seattle and spent an hour or so scouting one of citys most desirable neighborhoods. Wallingford, as its known, offers house hunters some of the best specimens of the citys famous century-old Craftsman bungalows.
But Lubarsky wasnt hunting for a house. He wants the whole neighborhood.
To Lubarsky, a number cruncher-turned-housing activist, Wallingfords architectural jewels, with their grand front porches and exquisite topiary, are emblematic of this citys potentially fatal flaw: a housing market so expensive its throttling one of Americas biggest urban success stories. Decades ago, these tidy homes were cheap enough for schoolteachers and firefighters. Today, most cost at least a million dollars, and what was once a proudly middle-class neighborhood has morphed into a financially gated community.
Part of the problem, Lubarsky admits, is people like himself: Seattles red-hot tech economy, led by companies such as Amazon and Groupon (where Lubarsky works), has filled the city with an army of well-paid workers bidding up the price of housing. But that tech-fueled demand has tended to overshadow the other driver: insufficient supply. Since the end of the financial crisis, Lubarsky says, Seattle has added roughly 100,000 jobs, but barely 32,000 new homes and apartment units. Weve underbuilt every year since 2010, he adds. And a big part of that deficit, Lubarsky says, is due to neighborhoods like Wallingford, where zoning laws make it almost impossible to build anything other than a single-family house.
Thats why Lubarsky wants to radically reconceive the way Seattle lives. For several years, he and fellow activists have waged a data-driven campaign to change the citys zoning to allow more density in single-family neighborhoods, which account for more than half of the citys land. If this pro-density campaign succeeds, neighborhoods like Wallingford could be transformed by a wave of new construction that would gradually replace single-family homes with duplexes, townhomes, apartments and other multifamily housing types. And that would go some of the way toward solving a paradox that threatens many of Americas most successful cities: the younger workers needed to maintain that urban success can no longer afford to live there.
Predictably, the campaign has provoked a fierce backlash from homeowners, many of them Baby Boomers who arrived in the 60s and 70s. Theyve sued to block the proposed up-zones to their neighborhoods, which, they warn, will kill the very character that makes Seattles housing so charming to newcomers in the first place. But to Lubarsky, that cherished neighborhood character was always false advertising, given how few people can actually afford it. My generation is never going to have that, he says, gesturing to a tricked-out Craftsman with a tidy yard and paved driveway. There are too many of us to live like that.
Waging war on Seattles million-dollar bungalows isnt how Lubarsky pictured life back in 2013, when he took a programming job with Microsoft in nearby Redmond, Washington. Hed grown up, happily, in what he calls the capital of the single-family neighborhoodLong Island, New York. And though Lubarsky considers himself a liberal on many social issues, he says he emerged from several economics courses at New Yorks Binghamton University with the more conservative conviction that the market can solve most peoples problems.
Yet like so many newcomers to Seattle, Lubarsky quickly discovered that, in housing, at least, the market was actually ignoring a lot of problems. That failure was most obvious for the citys many low-income residents, who simply couldnt afford to pay what private developers need to profitably build housing in the city. (The Seattle area, the nations 22nd largest by population, has the third most homeless people, behind only Los Angeles and New York City.) If Economics 101 insisted that everything is supply and demand and you have these curves and its done, Lubarsky says, Seattles housing crisis forced him to acknowledge the people who are below the curve, those for whom text book economic principles arent translating into living wages. When the city ran a $290 million levy for subsidized housing, in 2015, Lubarsky volunteered for the campaign.
But it wasnt just people on the economic margins who were suffering, Lubarsky came to realize. Many of Seattles middle-class residents were also being squeezed out, in part because tight zoning prevented the market building enough new homes. The problem, in Lubarskys view, wasnt so much market failure as market restraint. Most galling, those constraints were landing especially hard on younger people, who, because they are just entering the housing market, are most in need of the very apartments and other multi-family options that many neighborhoods find so objectionable. When homeowners say theyre fighting to protect neighborhood character, Lubarsky says, it really feels to me like they just dont want young people in their neighborhood. Which makes Lubarsky, an otherwise affable and polite young man, more than a little combative. They can sue the city till the cows come home, and they are, he says of Wallingfords homeowners fight against zoning changes. But we just have to outvote them.
In the confrontational stance of Lubarsky and his fellow activists, you can read an important new storyline in the housing crisis that is stalking Americas booming urban centers. Even as cities like Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, and San Antonio have benefitted from a massive influx of younger workers, especially those with tech and other knowledge-based skills, they are failing those same workers when it comes to housing. In Seattle, one of the top five most popular cities for millennials, only 29 percent of them are homeowners, below the national average of 34 percent (itself a historic low). And although millennials in Seattle earn more, on average, than in any other city, more than half of them fear theyll be forced to move due to soaring rent.
Indeed, for many millennials, who make up nearly 23 percent of Seattles adult population, the only way to live near the urban core, with its prime jobs and cultural amenities, is to embrace a range of increasingly Dickensian housing optionslike crowded group homes and absurdly overpriced apodments, where $930 a month gets you 150 square feet of living space, a single bed, a microwave and a communal kitchen. And woe to the millennial who dares dream of starting a family, warns Myra Lara, a 30-year-old architect and affordability advocate. Of her Seattle friends who have become parents, all but one has been exiled to the suburbs. It sucksI never see them, says Lara. But thats what they have to do.
This generational friction in Seattle and other urban housing markets was perhaps inevitable. Successful cities may depend heavily on a steady supply of millennials, but it is still older residentsand especially Boomerswho largely determine where and how those young newcomers will live. It is generally Boomers in city government who set housing policy. Boomers run most of the development and real estate firms, control most of the housing investment. And, of course, Boomers own most of the real estate. Not only was it easier for Boomers to buy a home, thanks to a surge in postwar housing construction and wage growth, but, as homeowners they frequently lobbied for rules that restricted or banned multi-family homes.
Such nakedly self-interested politics have been all the more insulting to millennials, a generation that, surveys suggest, puts a huge store in fairness, personal sacrifice and community building. Today, says Ethan Phelps-Goodman, a 37-year-old former Facebook engineer who works with Lubarsky on housing issues, many millennials find themselves looking at earlier generations and asking, You got yours, and now you dont want anyone else to have theirs?
And yet, its also in places like Seattle where this generational imbalance could be hitting a tipping point. As urban housing markets become less hospitable for millennials, more and more members of this supposedly apolitical generation are realizing theyre going to have to fight for affordability, says Robert Cruickshank, a veteran Seattle housing activist. How long that fight will last isnt clear. But given that the millennial generation is the nations largest demographic group, its reasonable to imagine not only that they will win this fight, but that, in doing do, housing in urban America will never look the same.
Twice a month, Lubarsky joins Phelps-Goodman and a handful of other tech-industry workers at a coffee shop not far from Amazons headquarters to plot housing strategy. Phelps-Goodman launched the group, Seattle Tech 4 Housing, in 2016, as part of a larger push to engage the tech community in a crisis that many in Seattle blame the tech industry for creating. One goal is to use the sectors enormous expertise to target specific housing problems. A case in point is WeCount, a peer-to-peer platform, built by tech sector volunteers, that allows homeless people to make anonymous requests for clothing and other essentials which area donors can then buy and ship to 30 regional social services sites.
More broadly, the Seattle Tech 4 Housing has leveraged the tech communitys data skills to drill down into the causes of the housing crisis and come up with fixes. Lubarsky, for example, has been using his facility with spreadsheets to demonstrate how the lack of legal representation for low-income residents during eviction cases adds substantially to overall homeless rates. The group hopes to use the data to lobby local governments for a legal defense fund for low-income residents.
Other data-driven efforts have been more controversial. Last fall, Lubarsky published a critique of a proposal to require that a quarter of the units in any new housing development be rented at below-market rates, in exchange for allowing taller buildings. Housing advocates say the proposal, which goes well beyond the citys current requirement, offers a way to generate affordable units with fewer public dollars. But according to Lubarskys analysis, such a steep requirement simply isnt economically plausible. To compensate for the lost income, he says, landlords would need to raise rents on the remaining units by 10 percent or more, which would make a lot of projectsmost projects in factnot pencil out. For similar reasons, Lubarsky has also been skeptical of calls by some Seattle housing advocates for rent control, which he believes will likewise kill developers incentives in building much needed housing.
These positions havent gone over well with some of the citys more traditional housing advocates, some of whom dismiss this pro-market stance as too closely aligned with landlords and other players in the development sector. One critic disparaged Lubarsky and his colleagues as a cohort of centrist data miners who think the goal of city housing policy should do more to keep the material interests of landlords in mind. But Lubarsky, who now proudly introduces himself as a centrist data miner, is unapologetic. Given the depth of Seattles housing crisis, he says, affordability policy should be aimed at adding more seats to the table versus controlling the price of those seats.
In truth, for all their pro-market trappings, the supply-side solutions that Lubarsky, Phelps-Goodman and other techies are pushing are more or less in step with an emerging strand of the affordability movement. Known variously as urbanism, practivism and YIMBYism (Yes In My Backyard), the movement argues that the urban housing crisis has grown so severe that traditional approaches to affordability, such as rent control or state-subsidized housing, are wholly inadequate. Consider: the $290 million Seattle recently committed toward subsidized housing will produce only a few hundred housing units a year over the next decade, or barely a tenth of what city needs for its low-income residents, by some estimatesand none for the many middle-class workers also being priced out of the city. For urbanists, the only realistic solution is a hybrid: Use your limited public funds for the people the market cannot reach, but allow the market to produce as much market-rate housing as fast as it can, wherever it can, for everyone else. Or as Lubarsky puts it, up-zoning costs zero dollars.
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 for justifying the carnage in coldly libertarian terms. In fact, one of Phelps-Goodmans 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, where all too frequently, he says, the biggest a--holes were the ones who got the mic.
In fact, Lubarsky himself, as he has become more immersed in the housing issue, hasnt always been a paragon of diplomacy. He once tweeted, Dear Seattle Socialists: rent control is an anti-youth policy. Think about that when you advocate for it. #HardTruths. And last fall, Lubarsky opined that, relative to cities like New York, Seattle isnt THAT expensive, a tweet that was widely mocked among housing advocates. Lubarsky acknowledges that his political style still has some rough edges. Its something Im still learning, he says. But Im not going to go away from data analysis, because I think the data is true. And what the data is telling him, Lubarsky says, is that Seattles housing market needs less regulation, not more.
Thats especially the case in single-family neighborhoods, whose resistance to increased housing density feels increasingly out of step with the demands of a growing citynot least to its younger residents. People hate development because it looks tacky or seamy, and I can understand that, says Lubarsky. But when the alternative is a housing sector that is slowly but surely ejecting both its middle class and a younger generation, he says, somethings got to give: I really dont see why people cant see past the aesthetics argument when we have this huge housing shortage.
In a real sense, these debates over fuzzy concepts like aesthetics and character mirror a larger struggle over who has the power define what is, and isnt, the best kind of housing in a modern city. And in Seattle, that definition is clearly changing.
In Wallingford, just a few blocks from where Lubarsky was scouting, 76-year-old Carl Slater sits at a dining room table strewn with paperwork that documents how neighborhoods like his are losing the definitional battle. When Slater arrived in Seattle in 1969as a well-paid engineer for Seattles original tech firm, Boeinghe was able to buy his charming three-bed, one-bath home for around $14,000. At the time, Seattles single-family neighborhoods, especially in whiter parts of the city, had considerable pull with City Hall. That was made clear in the 1970s, when developers came to Wallingford and started replacing single-family homes with duplexes. A community group, assisted by an ally in the building department, threatened to sue the city and won what Slater calls the largest down-zone in the history of Seattle.
But those days are over. Even as their housing values have soaredSlaters home was recently assessed at just under $1.3 millionthe neighborhoods power has declined. In 2015, the city negotiated a largely secretive deal with developers and activists under which builders agreed to produce a certain number of low-income housing units in exchange for, among other things, an up-zone allowing greater density across the cityand especially in single-family neighborhoods. A backlash forced the city to scale back its plan; the neighborhoods sued anyway. But the shifting political winds were evident in the language of a leaked first draft of the first zoning proposal: Seattles zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the citys goals for equity and affordability. In a city experiencing rapid growth and intense pressures on access to affordable housing, the historic level of single-family zoning is no longer either realistic or acceptable.
And while that strong language was the product of the previous city administration, neighborhood groups still feel both targeted and neglected. The citys planning department, says Slater, has a very jaundiced view of single-family dwellings.
Still, Slater and his neighbors are hardly alone in worrying about the proposal to change the citys zoning. For many of the citys more conventional affordability advocates, the housing sector today is simply too vulnerable to be handed over to an unbridled market. In Seattle, as in most booming cities, demand is driven not merely by an influx of well-paid techies, but also by outside investorsfrom distressed property hedge funds to Chinese millionaireseager to speculate on the high returns that come from soaring rents and rapidly appreciating homes. In such a distorted market, says Jon Grant, an affordability activist who is skeptical of the free-market approach, it is often only the existing zoning that prevents the remaining affordable housing from vanishing entirely. Case in point: 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 townhomes. What the free-market urbanists dont acknowledge is that density just for densitys sake doesnt in itself create more affordable housing, says Grant. It creates more market-rate housing.
How this debate plays out is still unclear, but the early evidence suggests the pro-market side may be gaining ground. Although Seattles rental market has cooled somewhat recently, as new apartment units finally come on line, many urbanists argue that far more construction is necessary to bring back any semblance of real affordability. Whats more, the citys politicians show few signs of slowing the push for more density. Even die-hard progressives, who have historically supported policies that favor workers and private citizens over corporations, no longer have the luxury of an older generations anti-development sentiment. In the last seven years, we have fundamentally not done what we needed to do keep the city affordable, says city councilmember Rob Johnson, a 39-year-old fifth-generation Seattleite whose district includes Wallingford yet who has emerged as one of the strongest supporters of pro-density policies. At some point, we have to make some hard political choices.
Just as important, Seattles policymakers can see that the political tide is changing. In the last two elections for city council, nearly every candidate who ran on an anti-density or highly growth-skeptical platformincluding Grantlost by 20 points or more, notes Seattle pollster Ben Anderstone. And if voter demographics are any indication, that new political tide will only strengthen. While anti-density candidates fared poorly across all age groups, Anderstone says, they did significantly worse in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of younger voters and renters. One likely factor: Anderstone says younger voters may see housing in the same way they view other big cultural issues, such as immigration or diversitynamely, as instances where individuals need to tolerate change and shifting norms for the betterment of society. Any reluctance to embrace a new approach to housing, he says, reminds millennials of the cultural attitudes that they think are causing problems on the national stage.
But Anderstone says theres plenty of anecdotal evidence for an even more basic generational gap: The millennials he knows who are moving into Seattle simply arent as attached to a traditional single-family home as people of past generations. Even those who want to raise families, he says are more willing to consider multifamily options in order to stay close to the urban core. They moved here to because they liked the city, he says. And they dont totally want to give that up and move farther away from amenities just because theyre starting their families. Its a shift in priorities that may signal a new era of housing policy and the end of an older idea of the definition of housing success. In fact, according to Laura Loe Bernstein, a long-time affordability advocate, Seattles younger residents have already pushed the city into the opening stages of a deep cultural shift in what it means to be successful, and, especially, in the connections between success and housing. Ten years from now, she says, city residents may give very different answers to questions like is property a measure of success or not? Is living in a detached home a measure of success or not? What does success look like? Millennials, adds Loe Berstein, are forcing Seattle to engage in nothing less than a re-imagining of the American dream.
Back in Wallingford, Lubarsky is looking for ways to speed up that re-imagining.
For example, Lubarsky has a plan to use city housing data to show single-family homeowners that their neighborhoods already contain quite a few duplexes, triplexes and other multifamily housing, all built before the downzones. In other words, residents who have such a fear of density have already been living with density and the world is not falling down.
But Lubarksy admits hes skeptical that his data, or anything, will lead people here embrace more multifamily housing, given their opposition so far. He points to a yard sign that many of the homes here Wallingford have. The sign depicts a cartoon excavator demolishing single-family homes to make way for a darkly menacing apartment tower, all as a tiny family looks on in horror. The message, Lubarsky says, is clear: apartments, and the kind of people who live in them, dont belong.
But that kind of person is already here, and they have more than just raw numbers. They have resources. The same salaries that have helped inflame urban housing markets may now help fund a political solution. We have a big network and were going to try to fund the candidates who we think are going to do best on our issues, Lubarsky says. Opponents, he adds, are going to try the same thing, and well see who wins.
Paul Roberts is a journalist in Seattle who writes about technology, business and politics. His latest book is The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification. Follow him on Twitter @pauledroberts.