Seattle in Progress

Note: This story was originally published on

Whenever something new is built in a city, something old is inevitably lost. Sometimes the tradeoff is clearly worthwhile, as when a parking lot or vacant commercial building is redeveloped. Other times the tradeoff is contentious. Should we, as a city, prefer six new townhomes to an old bungalow? Or a new 100-unit apartment building to a rundown but affordable eight-unit apartment?

These decisions point to the most fundamental challenges facing Seattle’s future: how do we add enough new homes to address our housing shortage, while preserving existing communities, especially in low-income areas most vulnerable to displacement?

One way to analyze this tradeoff is through a simple metric: the number of new homes built for every existing home that is demolished. This metric is useful because it gets beyond the debate over the “right” amount of new construction, and gets closer to a cost/benefit analysis that everyone should agree on: whatever our overall rate of construction, we should prefer to build in a way that minimizes demolition and displacement.

Using this metric, construction in areas zoned for higher density causes dramatically less demolition and displacement per unit built. That bigger buildings can house more people is perhaps an obvious point. But the consequences go counter to the arguments of some neighborhood preservationists and anti-displacement activists who oppose taller buildings — for example, a recent flyer promoting a University District community meeting warned that “our diverse mix of low cost housing, affordable shops, and businesses all would give way to steel and glass towers unless we stop it!”

If you accept that we need more housing — and with Seattle’s population growing by 10,000 people a year, it’s hard to argue that we don’t — then the best way to minimize displacement and preserve older buildings is to concentrate that new housing in fewer, taller buildings.


Over the last decade, the city has built about 5,000 new units of housing each year, while demolishing about 500 existing units. In other words, we build about 10 new homes for each existing home that’s demolished. But that city-wide ratio hides vast differences on a local scale.

Consider the traditional neighborhood of detached single-family homes, for example. We tend to think of single-family zoned neighborhoods as fixed in time, since no denser housing can be built there. But in fact, a quarter of all units demolished in the city are in single-family zones. These are older, smaller homes being replaced by new, larger homes, resulting in no net increase in housing stock.

Single-family zoning is not the bulwark against demolitions and displacement that it is sometimes portrayed as. It does, however, ensure that these neighborhoods cannot contribute in any significant way to housing our growing population.

When it comes to density, the next level up are the city’s duplexes, townhouses and small apartments. This low-rise housing contributes significantly to our overall housing development, providing about 1,000 new units a year. And many of these are two- and three-bedroom family sized units, which are desperately needed, but seldom found in larger buildings.

Unfortunately, low-rise housing is also our single largest source of demolitions. Despite taking up less than 10% of Seattle land area, low-rise zones account for more than a third of all units demolished. The frequency of demolitions in these zones goes a long way towards explaining the pushback against expanding the amount of the city where this sort of construction is permitted.

Our densest housing types are mid-rise and high-rise construction, found in neighborhood commercial centers and downtown. We build about 3,400 units of high density housing each year, but remarkably, only demolish about 150 units to make way for this housing.

Put another way, mid-rise and high-rise construction produce more than double the amount of housing produced by townhome and single-family home construction, while accounting for half as many demolitions.

Source: City of Seattle.

It’s not just that denser forms of construction fit much more housing onto a given lot. Much of it also takes place without any residential displacement at all, as it’s often concentrated on land that was previously surface parking lots or small commercial uses.

Displacement caused by new construction does real damage to vulnerable people and communities. The good news is that Seattle is getting better on this issue over time. Back in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, every 100 units of new housing required about 14 existing units to be demolished. In the last five years, we’re down to 9 demolitions for every 100 new units. And we know how to lower that even further: in our current mid-rise and high-rise construction, only 4 existing units are demolished for every 100 new units built.

A well-planned city provides stability for current residents while still welcoming newcomers and growth. This analysis suggests that our current single-family and low-rise neighborhoods aren’t living up to those ideals. Single-family zones as they exist today contribute almost nothing to alleviating our housing shortage, while low-rise zones add housing at the cost of high displacement.

It’s unfortunate that so much of our political debate has been focused on these areas, when we already have a successful model for building large amounts of housing with little displacement. With Seattle bitterly divided over low-density neighborhoods, perhaps a more constructive conversation can be had around expanding and improving our mid-rise and high-rise housing.

Jun 20, 2016, Ethan Phelps-Goodman

Note: This story was originally published on

Signs of Seattle’s success are everywhere to be seen, from the skyscrapers sprouting from former parking lots, to the newly opened light rail stations. So too are the signs of our failure, including the dystopian world of “The Jungle” homeless encampment beneath I-5, and the sight of longtime residents packing up and searching for cheaper housing in the suburbs. There is a pervasive sense of unease about Seattle’s economic boom, much of it focused on the physical development of our city.

Are we actually building what we need? If not, how can we do better?

Seattle is facing a housing shortage of a magnitude not seen in generations. In the rental market this is evidenced by record low vacancies—down to 3 percent compared to a national average of 7 percent—and a corresponding rise in rents. Likewise, inventory of for-sale homes is at a record low and prices are rising among the fastest in the nation.

The cause of this shortage is, ironically, our good fortune. With jobs, wages and population all outpacing housing growth, prices have risen significantly. To combat this, Seattle needs to both increase its overall housing supply and to focus more resources on helping those who have benefited least from Seattle’s boom. The city’s plan to do this is named the Mandatory Housing Affordability program.

First, it would increase our overall housing production by allowing an additional story of height in our existing high density “urban villages.” Second, it would increase our affordable housing supply by requiring that all new buildings either include or separately fund a small percentage of units affordable to low-income renters.

To better understand how MHA differs from our current zoning and lack of any affordability requirements, I analyzed construction between 2011 and 2015 and compared it with what might have been built had MHA already been in place. I looked just at multifamily residential development, ignoring single family development (which is unchanged by MHA). I assume that there’s an average 5 percent affordability requirement, and that this percentage is calibrated correctly to leave development incentives unchanged.

My analysis identified 277 multifamily projects built in the last five years that would have been affected by MHA. These projects contained a total of about 25,500 units of housing. Had MHA been in effect, we would expect to have built roughly the same number of projects, but by building higher they would have accommodated 30,000 units. Of the approximately 4,500 additional units built, over one third would have been affordable income-restricted units.

That’s almost 3,000 additional market rate units and over 1,500 new affordable units, with no additional demolitions or displacement.

Together with fees on commercial development, the City expects MHA to produce about 6,000 affordable units over the next decade. It accomplishes this by combining an affordability mandate and additional height, offsetting the pitfalls of either policy in isolation. A height increase alone increases the incentive to build, which can increase displacement of existing residents. An affordability mandate alone increases average housing costs and reduces the number of new homes, exacerbating the housing crisis.

But when finely tuned, the combination should leave the economics of building mostly unchanged, so that we neither increase displacement nor push up market rates.

Whatever the accuracy of City projections, as the historic analysis presented here shows, MHA is clearly a step in the right direction. Compared to our current zoning and zero affordability requirements, MHA would give us more housing, and more affordable housing, without increasing displacement or spending public money.

City Council will be holding a public hearing on MHA on Tuesday, June 21. The debate is expected to be lively. Anyone who wishes to make their voice heard should write to their councilmembers or show up at City Hall at 9:00am on the 21st to offer public comment.

Note: This story was originally published on The Urbanist.

When the Seattle City Council passed new rules on microhousing in 2014, opponents had hoped to put an end to the small apartments, while advocates warned that the Council would be killing off one of the few sources of affordable new construction. Over a year after the new rules came into effect, there’s now enough data to evaluate the impact of the changes. Unfortunately, the results will likely be disappointing to both sides.

For opponents of microhousing, the rules failed to rein in development: about the same number of projects entered the pipeline in 2015 as the year before the rule change. But just as affordability advocates warned, the new projects no longer include the lowest priced units.

Prior to the rule change, there were two types of microhousing. The most common form, typified by the aPodment brand, consisted of up to eight individually rented sleeping rooms around a shared kitchen. An even denser model called “congregate housing” placed no maximum on the number of sleeping rooms sharing a kitchen.

The compromise reached in 2014 did away with the first model entirely and replaced it with a new category called “small efficiency dwelling units”. These units would have to be a minimum of 220 square feet and include a kitchen in every unit, among other new regulations. Congregate housing remained mostly unchanged in form, but could now only be built in commercial zones, not lowrise residential zones as before.

To evaluate the effects of these changes, I compared an official City analysis of microhousing development from 2010-2013 with permit data from 2015. (I left 2014 out of the analysis completely, since the City study that I rely on for pre-rule change data only covers through June 2014.) The map below shows all of the new microhousing developments for which permit applications were made in 2015.

Microhousing projects applied for in 2015. Click on pins to see project information and renderings.

Perhaps surprisingly, the permit applications show only a minor dip after the new regulations. Applications held steady in 2011 and 2012 at exactly 12 projects per year, then doubled in 2013 to 24 applications. In 2015, Seattle saw 23 permit applications. The decline was slightly more noticeable in terms of total number of units: 2013 applications totaled 1,285 units, compared to 1,025 in 2015.

Source: City of Seattle and Seattle in Progress.

These numbers don’t mean that the regulations had no effect, however. Applications for congregate residences, the densest and most affordable form of microhousing, dropped off from 9 in 2013 to just 2 in 2015, due to restrictions on where they can be built.

Plus, the 900+ small efficiency dwelling units applied for in 2015 must conform to the new requirements of an in-unit kitchen and a minimum of 220 square feet. It’s too soon to know rental prices on these new projects. But an analysis of six microhousing projects built under the old rules showed that the smallest units, averaging 160 square feet, rented for $785 per month, while larger units, averaging 246 square feet, rented for $954 per month. Since the new rules require in-unit kitchens and a more extensive review process, it’s reasonable to believe that the cheapest units produced under the new rules could rent for $300 per month more than the cheapest units produced under the old rules.

I asked David Neiman, an architect and developer who has produced microhousing before and after the rule change, what he thought of the new rules. “Our energy has been directed into producing housing that is significantly larger, more expensive and less plentiful than before — the exact opposite direction from where we need to be going,” Neiman said.

The Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda currently before City Council includes a recommendation to revisit the new microhousing rules. “The industry was building 1,000 units a year of affordable housing…with no public subsidy whatsoever,” Neiman says. “We could get back there in an instant with the stroke of a pen.”

Note: This story was originally published on

Signs of Seattle’s continued boom can be seen across the city. Cranes stand over the rising concrete frames of skyscrapers in Denny Triangle. Across the Pike/Pine corridor, modern apartments are nearing completion behind their historic brick facades. And just off of commercial strips all over the city, townhouses and small apartment buildings nudge neighborhoods from their suburban past to their urban future. So 2015 construction figures will likely come as a surprise to many: housing production is actually set to decline this year as compared to the year before.

Housing production took a dive from 2009 to 2011 because of the recession, but bounced back just as quickly. Extrapolating from numbers published by the City of Seattle for the first three quarters of 2015, housing production for this year will be about 6,800 units (although an end of the year surge is certainly possible). That’s about equal to 2013 levels, but off significantly from the 8,300 units produced in 2014.

Source: City of Seattle.

If you find it hard to believe that construction has slowed, that might be attributed to where you live and what kinds of construction you pay attention to. Production of single family homes, townhouses and small apartments is up by over 20 percent – single family homes specifically are up 13 percent. These projects also accounted for fully 75 percent of the roughly 600 housing units to be demolished this year, which goes a long way towards explaining the general sense that Seattle’s small scale residential neighborhoods are changing rapidly.

But these production increases in lower density neighborhoods were more than offset by a sharp decline in midrise construction—the 6 to 8 story large apartment buildings that now characterize neighborhoods like South Lake Union, Ballard or the Pike/Pine corridor. Housing production from these projects dropped from about 3,800 units last year to a projected 2,700 units this year.

Source: City of Seattle.

These trends also vary greatly by neighborhood (see City of Seattle’s report). Large apartment projects can have two or three hundred units, so the completion of a single project in one year versus another can sway the neighborhood level statistics significantly. Bucking the city-wide trends, we saw production continue to accelerate in Capitol Hill, First Hill, the U-District and Columbia City. The Pike/Pine corridor in Capitol Hill is a notable example, with five large projects (Ava, Pike Motorworks, the Broadstone, Cue and Evolve) collectively adding almost a thousand units of housing to a few square blocks.

Cue Apartments: a typical example of midrise construction with an older brick facade at street level.

On the other hand, South Lake Union, Northgate, Queen Anne, Ballard, Green Lake and Roosevelt all had a paucity of big projects reaching completion compared to 2014. South Lake Union had the most notable decline. 2013 and 2014 each saw the opening of five or six large apartment projects. This year there’s only been a single big project completed, the 118 unit AMLI apartments.

This doesn’t necessarily represent a fundamental slowdown, however. There’s a huge amount of housing still in the works for South Lake Union. 2015 in South Lake Union is probably best seen as a statistical blip of calm before the storm: 15 large apartment projects totaling almost 4,000 units are already approved in the neighborhood and another 19 projects totaling 6,000 units are going through permitting (as covered in an earlier story on South Lake Union).

This year’s decline in mid-rise construction likely points to a shift in where our new housing comes from.

Midrise has been the dominant force over the last five years, accounting for almost half of the net housing production. But the neighborhood centers where six to eight story construction is permitted may be reaching saturation. Going forward, a wave of high-rise construction in downtown, Denny Triangle and South Lake Union is perfectly timed to take its place. There are currently 32 towers of at least 13 stories permitted, and another 40 in the application stage. Together they would encompass 20,000 units of housing, although not every one of them is likely to be built.

The seven or eight thousand units produced each year should be kept in context with the City’s projection of 120,000 new residents moving to Seattle over the next 20 years. New construction is inevitably expensive, and highrise towers even more so. But without significant new housing, the vast number of new residents—and newly wealthy residents thanks to the tech industry—are certain to push out ever more low income residents.

Oct 20, 2015, Ethan Phelps-Goodman

Note: This story was originally published on The Urbanist: Fact Check: No Explosion in Demolitions.

Two recent articles, the first in ARCADE magazine, the second a follow-up in Seattle Magazine, have claimed that Seattle is experiencing an enormous and unprecedented increase in demolitions.

This simply isn’t true.

The erroneous analysis started in Schema Design’s ARCADE magazine, which ran a story and accompanying graphics showing the number of demolition permits per year growing from a mere 14 in 2005 to an expected 875 in 2015. Knute Berger followed up with a column in Seattle Magazine that cited the ARCADE piece and a supposed 8-fold increase in demolitions. In reality, demolitions are down from their previous peak in 2007 and 2008 and roughly in line with long-term trends.

Schema’s mistake? They draw their 10 year analysis from a dataset titled “Building Permits issued in the past five years”. When they plot this data, it’s no surprise that 2010-2015 looks dramatically different from 2005-2009, a period that isn’t included in their source data. The data does contain a few holdovers from previous years, making the resulting graph look plausible if you’re already inclined to believe the article’s conclusions.

(I contacted Schema Design and they amended the article with a statement expressing regret for the misleading analysis.)

[Update: Knute Berger has posted a follow up piece in Seattle Magazine.]

Here are the actual statistics on demolitions, straight from the Department of Planning and Development. Note that this graph shows the number of housing units demolished, whereas the ARCADE piece used the number of demolition permit applications, so the numbers are not directly comparable.

Graph of Seattle demolitions over 10 years. Source: City of Seattle.

Demolitions are indeed up in 2014, but only by about 60 percent over the 20-year average, and they look to be going down for 2015. As a whole, 2010-2015 demolitions are actually down by a third compared to 2005-2009. That’s a far cry from the 8-fold increase stated in the Seattle Magazine.

We build about 9 new units of housing for every unit we demolish. Source: City of Seattle.

The articles in ARCADE and Seattle Magazine no doubt tap into a widespread feeling that there are a lot of demolitions. As a value judgement, people can disagree on what constitutes “a lot”. What should be clear from the data, however, is that there’s no explosion in demolitions. In fact, the pace of demolitions is entirely average.

Note: This story was originally published on In South Lake Union, Explosive Growth Is Just Getting Started.

The transformation of South Lake Union over the last 15 years has been undeniably dramatic. The former low-lying industrial neighborhood has been replaced by mid-rise offices faster than anyone anticipated. Now, with nearly every block home to such buildings, it would be easy to think that the South Lake Union transformation is done, the new character of the neighborhood fixed.

In fact, South Lake Union is about to enter another stage of transformation. For the first time, skyscrapers are coming. And they’re coming en masse.

Two tower projects are already approved for construction: 25- and 26-story residential buildings a block apart on 9th Avenue. Another 11 towers are going through the permitting process, six of which are at least 40 stories tall. Permitting and construction will take several years, during which some projects may fall through and additional projects may be proposed. All told, if every one of the projects in the pipeline today reaches completion, there will be 13 new buildings, each over 20 stories, where today there are none over 12 stories. These new towers, all of them residential, will fundamentally alter the character and the function of South Lake Union yet again.

The map below shows each of the planned 20+ story residential projects. Click on the pins to see the permit descriptions, then click on the image to flip through the full design proposals. (Two 42-story towers going up at 121 Boren are not on the map because the developer hasn’t yet submitted a design proposal to the City.)

Planned 20+ story residential projects. Click on the pins to see the permit descriptions, then click on the image to flip through the full design proposals.

Throughout its recent boom, South Lake Union has been primarily a commercial neighborhood. Its approximately 3,500 units of housing are dwarfed by the estimated 35,000 jobs in the area. The new high-rise projects could bring nearly 5,000 new units of housing.

Put another way, the population of just these new towers could be significantly larger than the current total population of South Lake Union. Another twenty or so mid-rise residential projects will add almost 5,000 more units to the total, meaning that in a few years South Lake Union could potentially nearly quadruple its residential population.

Total housing units in South Lake Union.

While the permits don’t show whether the developers plan for the projects to be apartments or condos, the recent trend has been almost exclusively apartment construction. If these trends persist, South Lake Union will be very much a rental market.

With the rising residential population, South Lake Union will have to invest in appropriate amenities and infrastructure. The restaurant and bar scene will probably boom, with businesses able to take advantage of large lunch crowds and the fast-growing number of locals in the evening. But schools likely won’t be coming, as South Lake Union residents are overwhelmingly childless.

Development at 901 Harrison St.  Credit: Ankrom Moisan Architects
Development at 901 Harrison St. Credit: Ankrom Moisan Architects

The hardest part of the infrastructure challenge will be transportation. New office and residential projects together could add 15,000 parking spaces. How all those new drivers will get in and out of an already gridlocked neighborhood is unclear. Marginal improvements may come from more frequent and reliable public transit, but there’s nothing in the works that will fundamentally change the equation. Even the far-off Ballard to West Seattle light rail line being considered may bypass South Lake Union.

Affordability will also remain a challenge. The concrete and steel construction of high rises is significantly more expensive than the wood frame construction used in low-rise and mid-rise housing, making it inevitable that the new towers will cater to the high end of the market.

The affordable housing plan released this summer by the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda commission (HALA) contains two main provisions for tying new development to affordable housing: a commercial linkage fee, which is a tax on new development used to fund non-profit developers, and mandatory inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to build a small percentage of affordable housing on site. But even if these proposals do eventually become law, they will come too late to affect the round of projects currently underway.

The boom in South Lake Union residential construction is nevertheless likely a good thing for the affordability of the city as a whole. Without these new apartments, an additional 10,000 higher income households could be looking for housing in the existing neighborhoods, bidding up prices and pushing out lower income residents. In the mean time, the rapid pace of growth should give some urgency to City Council’s consideration of the affordable housing proposals currently before them.

Aug 7, 2015, Ethan Phelps-Goodman

The City of Seattle has launched a new development map, and for users of Seattle in Progress it will feel very familiar. The layout and design, the information presented, even the name (“Shaping Seattle: Buildings”) all borrow heavily from Seattle in Progress. Sadly, that’s not the result of any collaboration—the City has just made a (poor) copy of Seattle in Progress.

Screenshot of Seattle in Progress and Shaping Seattle: Buildings Two views of U-District construction: Seattle in Progress next to the City’s new site.

There are plenty of differences between the two sites, but the most important issues to many users are comprehensiveness, timeliness and accuracy. In all of these respects, Seattle in Progress equals or beats the City’s own site.

In terms of comprehensiveness, Seattle in Progress is working with the same official permit databases as the City’s site. Seattle in Progress loads the complete dataset automatically, without any manual data entry that would allow for errors or omissions.

In terms of timeliness, Seattle in Progress updates its data every night through entirely automated mechanisms. This contrasts with the City’s app, which relies on City staff to manually capture and upload a screen shot from each new design proposal. If the City falls behind on this daily task their site will become out of date.

Finally, in terms of accuracy, Seattle in Progress puts a lot of effort into correctly interpreting ambiguous permits. In the screen shots above, you’ll notice that Seattle in Progress shows four projects while the City’s site shows seven. This is not because Seattle in Progress is less comprehensive. It’s because the City is incorrectly reporting three completed projects as being still under way, a mistake that’s widely made on the City’s map.

You’ll notice some other functional differences if you play around with the two sites. Seattle in Progress lets you swipe through the pages of the design proposals on your phone or desktop; the City’s site requires you to download a large PDF, which is slow on desktops and nearly unusable on a phone. Seattle in Progress provides a calendar of upcoming meetings and lets you subscribe to calendar updates over email, Twitter or Facebook; the City’s app has no easily accessible calendar. Seattle in Progress colors pins by project status and gives you the option to include single-family construction; the City’s app shows only larger projects and makes no attempt to distinguish the pins of proposed, approved or completed projects.

When Seattle in Progress launched in November 2014 I had hoped to be able to collaborate with the City. Unfortunately, despite strong support from City staff, I wasn’t able to get any decisions makers to engage in a substantive discussion. Still, the City’s attempt to replicate Seattle in Progress validates our efforts: as a civic technologist, one of the the most impactful outcomes I can hope for is to push government to improve its own technology.

GeekWire has more coverage of what happened: City of Seattle Takes Cues from Indie App.

The City will hopefully make improvements to their site over time. In the mean time, there are a number of great new features in the works for Seattle in Progress (many of which are available today in our Pro version). Stay tuned for more announcements soon.

Last week I reported on the controversy around tall buildings in lowrise neighborhoods and the bill before City Council to roll back some of the density allowances put in place in 2010. (See The end of tall buildings in residential neighborhoods?) On Monday of this week Council voted to approve the legislative compromise before it. That means that many of the 33 tall buildings in lowrise 3 (LR3) zones that I profiled last week would no longer be approved if proposed today.

The legislation does not, however, have any impact on projects that are already under construction or approved for construction. Searching the City’s permit database revealed 21 such projects currently under way in LR3 zones. Not all permitted projects will actually be built, but even assuming a few don’t come to pass, that still means the next year or so will likely bring as many new tall LR3 buildings as 2013 and 2014 combined.

Here are the remaining projects that were approved under the older, more permissive rules:

All 4+ story buildings under construction or approved for construction in LR3 zones. Click on any pin for more information about that project.

As with the already completed buildings, most of the construction is focused on Capitol Hill and the U-District. (And as before, this is not to say there isn’t heavy construction in districts such as Ballard. They just don’t contain as much LR3 zoned land.)

Jul 6, 2015, Ethan Phelps-Goodman

One of the goals of Seattle in Progress is to provide data and research to help ground policy debates. Of the many development issues Seattleites have been debating recently, the question of how big to build in lowrise zones has been one of the most passionately argued. I took a look at this debate in a piece published on last week.

The centerpiece of the research is a map of every 4+ story building built in a lowrise 3 (LR3) zone since the rules were adjusted in 2010 to allow more density.

All 4+ story buildings built in LR3 zones between 2011 and June 2015. Light pins are traditional apartments, darker pins are microhousing. Click on any pin for more information about that building.

My main findings are that:

  • 33 buildings have taken advantage of the increased height allowance in LR3.
  • those buildings are mainly in Capitol Hill and the U-District, with 12 buildings each.
  • over half of the new tall buildings are microhousing.

Read the full piece here: The end of tall buildings in residential neighborhoods?.

Jul 2, 2015, Ethan Phelps-Goodman

The following is a repost of an article I wrote for The Urbanist in February 2014, about six months before launching Seattle in Progress. In it I warn that Seattle is heading down the path of San Francisco, which by some measures is now the nation’s most expensive city for new renters. I argue that the tech industry—the industry in which I have always worked—has an obligation to push for more housing, more affordable housing, and an end to homelessness. With the launch today of the Seattle in Progress Blog, it seems appropriate to start with why I think this work is important.

Original article here: Why Tech Workers Should Care About Housing Issues.

Technology industry works are not apathetic. The industry is known for its passionate defense of civil liberties, the unprecedented scope of the philanthropy of its most successful members (and not just Bill Gates–Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Pierre Omidyar of Ebay and Sergey Brin of Google were all amongst the top 10 philanthropists in the US last year), and growing movements in both education and immigration reform. Working in such a transformative industry naturally leads people to think and care deeply about societal issues. But I suspect most tech works have hardly given a moment’s thought to housing issues. That needs to change.

The history of the technology industry was mostly written in the suburbs, whether in Silicon Valley or Redmond. But today tech companies and tech workers are increasingly choosing to locate in city centers. In San Francisco the arrival of Twitter has brought an influx of tech companies downtown, while here in Seattle, Amazon has completely transformed South Lake Union. Given the large and ever-accelerating size of the tech sector, these companies and their employees are increasingly shaping the character and policies of the cities. That gives the tech industry a responsibility for engaging constructively on housing issues, which are so central to life in a city.

For a sense of urgency, look to San Francisco, the obvious example what happens when a tech boom combines with failed housing policy. If you haven’t been following the growing hostilities of the last few months, here’s a quick summary of the conflict unfolding there. New residents have been flooding into San Francisco during the latest tech bubble, while construction of new housing continues its decades-long stagnation (see Gabriel Metcalf’s piece in The Atlantic Cities for a great summary). Predictably, already high rents have skyrocketed. Rightly or wrongly, the tech workers have been cast as the villain in all this. Protests against evictions, rising rents and gentrification have become so frequent that they’re making national news. The improbably lightning rod for these protests has been the company buses that ferry tech workers each day to campuses south of the city.

protesters block Google bus (Photo credit: Chris Martin)

In a sense the protesters are right to blame tech workers for rising rents: with its severely limited housing stock, wealthy tech workers are directly competing with the poorer residents for the few available apartments. But in another sense the blame is misplaced: had San Francisco built housing to keep up with demand then there wouldn’t be ever more people fighting over the same limited housing stock. This is why the tech industry should be pushing hard for more density: because without it, their workers really are pushing out the poor.

The tech industry should be a powerful voice for more housing, more affordable housing and an end to homelessness. But unfortunately, the message from the tech community that’s gotten the most attention is ex-CEO of AngelHack Greg Gopman’s rightfully reviled rant against the poor. Gopman’s contention that the poor should be forcibly removed so as not to bother the rich reads as almost too movie-villain evil to be real. But sadly, he has become the public face of the tech industry for many.

Being seen as the enemy will have real consequences for the tech workers. Companies like Twitter and Amazon are able to locate in downtown cores because city leaders have welcomed them. If public sentiment turns against them, as it has in San Francisco, tech companies will surely find it more difficult work in downtown cores. And the new construction that houses so many tech workers in city centers will only continue if the public is convinced that density and growth is good for the city as a whole.

Seattle is thankfully in a far better position than San Francisco. We’ve continually added to the housing supply, keeping rental prices from rising as rapidly as they have in San Francisco. But debates about growth, density and affordability are far from settled. The tech industry in Seattle should heed San Francisco’s warning and get involved now. For their own good and the good of the city, tech workers should stand up to demand enough housing for everyone who wants to live here.


Seattle in Progress is a desktop and mobile web app for seeing what's being built in your neighborhood. Our goal is to promote a more informed public discussion about development in Seattle. If you haven't already, check out the main site.