Thursday, February 14, 2008

Growth Management Act Drives Up Seattle Housing Prices

Or Maria Cantwell Hates Poor People

I have posted before about my opinion that the Growth Management Act of 1990 was artificially inflating home prices (here and here). Finally an economist backs me up:

Backed by studies showing that middle-class Seattle residents can no longer afford the city's middle-class homes, consensus is growing that prices are too darned high. But why are they so high?

An intriguing new analysis by a University of Washington economics professor argues that home prices have, perhaps inadvertently, been driven up $200,000 by good intentions.

Between 1989 and 2006, the median inflation-adjusted price of a Seattle house rose from $221,000 to $447,800. Fully $200,000 of that increase was the result of land-use regulations, says Theo Eicher — twice the financial impact that regulation has had on other major U.S. cities.


A key regulation is the state's Growth Management Act, enacted in 1990 in response to widespread public concern that sprawl could destroy the area's unique character. To preserve it, the act promoted restrictions on where housing can be built. The result is artificial density that has driven up home prices by limiting supply, Eicher says.

Long building-permit approval times and municipal land-use restrictions upheld by courts also have played significant roles in increasing Seattle's housing costs, he adds.


As an example of how this plays out, Eicher explains that "the statewide growth-management plan gave King County few options but to require that landowners in rural areas that haven't already cleared their land to keep 50 to 65 percent of their property in its 'natural state.' This forced greater density in Seattle."

Then a King County referendum to repeal some of the county's land-use restrictions was judged illegal in 2006 by the state Supreme Court because it violated the state's Growth Management Act.

"The state is intervening to restrict supply. It's not that there's no land at all," Eicher says.

Economists hold that housing costs are driven by supply and demand, and say those factors have certainly influenced the cost of Seattle's housing.

But Eicher argues that "demand does not need to drive up housing prices."

Cities such as Houston and Atlanta, which have few growth restrictions, have shown that. They've been able to add enough housing to meet demand, so their home prices have risen more moderately than heavily regulated San Francisco and Boston, which have a harder time increasing housing.

According to the Wharton study, cities such as Seattle that have high median incomes, high home prices and a large percentage of college-educated workers tend to have the most land-use regulations.

Sjoblom says that makes sense: "People with higher incomes want the kind of amenities that regulation provides," he says. "If you're a homeowner and growth controls are imposed and housing prices shoot up, you're grandfathered because you own the place. In theory people will say it's [rising prices] a bad thing, but in practice it's not hurting them."

Sjoblom says that's why making the changes that would foster affordability are so hard to get past the public, some 68 percent of whom are homeowners. "When you bring up specific things, like allowing multifamily housing in their neighborhood, they have misgivings."

That frustrates renters, who suspect they're being priced out. And they're right, according to a housing-affordability index created by the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University.

Last summer, King County's potential first-time buyers earning the median family income ($75,143) had just 37 percent of the financial wherewithal to buy the median-priced single-family house ($477,000) at the prevailing interest rate (6.47 percent).


Of course this will change nothing but if feels good to point out that it's the Democrats that are sticking it to the poor.

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