Seattle’s Affordable Housing Ordinance Makes Housing Unaffordable

Suranjan Sen
Suranjan Sen  ·  February 1, 2023

You are probably not a housing economist. But you don’t need a degree in economics to understand that making housing more expensive will, well, make it more expensive; that’s just common sense. Unfortunately, there is not much of that in Seattle, where the city—in the name of “housing affordability”—won’t let people construct a home on their own property unless they either pay an exorbitant fee or build additional housing they do not want and will not use. 

Anita Adams, a lifelong resident of Seattle’s Central District, had always dreamed of owning her own home. After Anita married her high school sweetheart, the young couple saved up and eventually bought the house on the corner—Anita’s favorite since she was a child. Anita hoped that her children could stay nearby as they grew into adulthood and started families of their own. So when their college dorms closed for COVID-19 (forcing them to move into Anita’s basement), Anita and her husband decided to take out a second mortgage and build them a house next door. 

Seattle would allow the Adamses to build that house—for a price. Because of Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability ordinance (MHA), Anita cannot receive a building permit unless she first deposits a lump sum of $77,000 into the city’s “affordable housing” fund (and that’s not including other permitting fees, which add thousands more to the price tag). Alternatively, Anita could agree to construct two additional dwelling units and provide them as below-market “affordable housing” rentals—for 75 years. Like most Americans, Anita cannot afford to do that and still cover the costs of building her desired house. As a result, the space beside Anita’s home remains empty, and Anita’s children have had to leave town to find housing they can afford. 

Why is Seattle doing this? Because MHA, as acknowledged by the Seattle mayor, was a deal with “major players,” including large developers, who, unlike their smaller competitors, can afford its upfront costs and pass them on to luxury clients. 

Government cannot abuse permit applicants like this. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that land-use permitting demands must be related and roughly proportional to the impacts of the proposed new use. So if your new house would require an extension of sewer lines, government can charge you for that; it cannot charge you for renovations to City Hall, nor can it charge you for extending sewer lines to the entire block. Otherwise the “permit condition” isn’t really a permit condition—it’s an opportunity to extort you, to use the permitting process to take your property (be it money, extra housing, or something else) without compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. 

Unconstitutional housing regulations, like MHA, harm ordinary people and violate property rights. They directly increase the cost of building a home and, consequently, make building lower- and middle-income developments uneconomical. They crowd out small builders, like the Adamses, who cannot absorb the costs on the front end. They contribute to ongoing housing shortages and indirectly increase rent. What makes housing “affordable” is that there’s plenty of it, and if you want more of something, you probably shouldn’t make it considerably more expensive to produce.

That’s why, in December, IJ filed a case against Seattle on Anita’s behalf, seeking to strike down MHA’s extortionate conditions on housing development. The Adamses, like all Americans, should be allowed to build a house for their own family, on their own property, with their own money, without government standing in the way. With IJ’s help, they intend to do just that.

Suranjan Sen is an IJ attorney. 

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