Affordable and attractive housing – is it really that difficult?

What is more basic and universal than housing?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

One of the most striking features as one walks the avenues of most of Europe and Great Britain is the housing.

We in America, for better or worse, are wedded to the idea of a stand-alone single-family dwelling with a front and back yard and, if possible, a garage.

And our preferred housing space is about double the square footage of the average European.

This is our normal.

If you follow the housing industry at all, in fact even if you don’t, two things become immediately and undeniably obvious; our approach to housing is unsustainable and unaffordable.

Stratospheric housing prices and ever increasing numbers of homeless are the two extremes of our housing spectrum.

As we can see in almost every town, if not neighborhood, housing construction in the South Puget Sound region has exploded in the past five or so years.

Many of us knew it would. It had to.

As I pointed out in many of my classes in those years during and following the Great Recession, even though (mostly for financial reasons) housing construction essentially stopped for several years, the population didn’t.

In fact for most of those years, from 2008 to about 2015, global population grew by about 80 million (approximately the population of Germany) each year.

Our current “housing crisis” (and the related level of homelessness) was entirely predictable. And preventable.

It’s hard to even imagine now, but just a few years ago, abandoned and foreclosed homes were on almost every block.

Now there are construction projects and sometimes even cranes at work. It is obvious that we are playing a massive game of catch-up when it comes to housing construction.

But are we building the right kind of housing? Are we building what we, as a community really need? Are we constructing housing that local people, people with deep historic and family roots here, need, want or can afford?

BECU has as one of its advertising mottos “People over profit”. Sometimes I get the feeling that construction companies have forgotten that simple principle.

I may be biased, but I know that I am not alone in thinking that the vast majority of housing under construction is both vastly over-priced and, if not antiseptically uninspiring, just plain ugly.

This is not a new problem, and it is certainly not limited to the Pacific Northwest.

The city of Denver has had controversy wrapped around what they call their “Fugly” housing. (1*)

Los Angeles has had a continuing conversation about their ugly housing for years. (2*)

I am not an architect or an urban planner, but it seems to me that there is absolutely no reason for ugly housing.

And what is the point of building housing that local people need but could never afford?

Every good or service is marketed to an intended audience. Housing is no different.

In Tacoma, or even across the country, we have a mismatch between what is being built and what is affordable to the average potential home buyer.

In a recent The Atlantic article, the first line is “In Manhattan, the homeless shelters are full, and the luxury skyscrapers are vacant.”

This is the ultimate example of a “tale of two cities”; New York City has 80,000 in shelters or on the streets while the average price for a new condo is just under 4 million dollars. Half of those built in the past five years remain unsold.

As with all housing, the question must be asked – who were these condo built for?

These London row houses were built to last for centuries - and they have. Photo: Morf Morford
These London row houses were built to last for centuries – and they have. Photo: Morf Morford

As with much or our housing, they were not built for local residents. They were built primarily for “foreigners with tens of millions of dollars to spare. Developers bet huge on foreign plutocrats—Russian oligarchs, Chinese moguls, Saudi royalty—looking to buy second (or seventh) homes.”

The Atlantic’s conclusion is reflected in the title of the online version of the article – “American housing is insane”.

To put it mildly, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Tacoma might not have Russian oligarchs, Chinese moguls or Saudi royalty buying our freshly built condos, but we do have outsiders buying them and living in them for a month or two each year and leaving them empty the rest of the time.

This drives up prices and keeps vacant properties off the market.

I have friends who live at Point Ruston. They told me that all of the units are sold, but very few are occupied.

Tacoma does not need to copy the ugliness or the financial speculation that plagues other cities.

What bothers me about most of the new construction in the greater Tacoma area is the cost and the scale; the units are too big and they cost too much.

Too many of them dwarf the immediate neighborhoods and are owned (and possibly occupied) by those with no connection or roots to the community.

“People over profit” has clearly not been a defining guiding principle. In fact it looks, in too many cases, as if “people” were never factored into the construction equation.

The solution is actually quite simple – we need to build mid-sized, non-luxury, market-rate housing.

Forget the convoluted (and controversial) tax-abatement programs – just build housing local people can afford.

It is not that difficult. Europe (and most of the world) has been doing it for centuries.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the traditional architecture of Europe is striking; there are few “towers” (and if they exist at all, they are relatively recent).

The vast majority of their housing is smaller scale than ours, more affordable and more attractive.

There is no mystery about this – they have a system that works and has worked for centuries. (3*)

I know it is hard for most Americans to believe, but there is nothing sacred about having a big yard and a two car garage.

Our “planning” has created a problem rarely, if ever, seen in historic cities – the mythical contrast of sprawl versus density.

Suburban sprawl requires massive infrastructure on the part of municipalities and cars on the part of the residents.

Density, if done right, doesn’t need to “feel” dense. If you’ve ever lived in a neighborhood that is close to everything you know that “convenient” might be a better word.

Few Americans know, or would even recognize, the power, safety and security of a stable neighborhood.

As with everything else, we only have it if we build it.



(3*) You can see some basic European floor plans here –