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Can politics solve Seattle’s housing problem?

(File, KIRO Radio)

Seattle’s homelessness and housing crises have prompted arguments over whether they are the result of economic or political causes.

It’s a little bit of both, according to James Young with the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington. But what Seattle leaders may not understand is that their decisions, often based on politics, have affects they may not realize. For example, the companies building housing in Seattle need consistency from the city. That’s where political decisions come into play.

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“You cannot be changing the rules every six months,” Young told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “It takes a long time for real estate developments to come on board … if a developer is worried about the rules changing or the housing market dynamics changing because of political action — in a one-year time when they are not finished yet — that uncertainty is going to create a pause. Changing the rules is the problem; not necessarily the rules.”

That somewhat differs from the arguments waged by Roger Valdez, who says Seattle needs to cut a lot of red tape and let developers put up housing much faster. Young says that faster housing would be great, but we still need safety codes.

Young stresses that he works with data. He understands a dilemma when housing decisions are made — data constantly changes when it comes to complex issues.

“I don’t think decisions are being made in ignorance of the data, it’s one of those things where you can find data to say anything you like, especially if you are looking at it from a political point of view,” Young said. “You need to understand whether you are making a political decision where the data is driven by politics, or you are making an economic decision in terms of the economic data. Those two don’t marry well together.”

If a city wants to develop subsidized housing for the homeless and knows it will be X cost, Young says, who is going to pay that cost? Because someone will — either through rents, fees or taxes.

“People think we can do this and the market will just absorb it,” he said. “Well, they are going to absorb it in a way that may mean higher prices for someone else; that perpetuates the problem because the market rate housing is going to get more expensive as more development levies are added to pay for homelessness housing … That’s what we are doing now.”

Dave argues that the Seattle region has declared homelessness a crisis — twice — and the area’s leaders have been unable to solve the problem. In fact, it’s gotten worse. So perhaps it’s time to try a different approach — economic and development solutions similar to what advocates like Valdez promote.

“Asking politicians to take a back seat is a big ask,” Young said. “I don’t know many politicians who would do that.”

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