In Seattle’s red-hot housing market, a group of millennial techies is using data skills to alter the look, and affordability, of their adopted city.
n a brisk Saturday morning in March, a 27-year-old programmer named Zach Lubarsky, bundled in a fatigue jacket and knit cap, took a ReachNow rental car to the north end of Seattle and spent an hour or so scouting one of city’s most desirable neighborhoods. Wallingford, as it’s known, offers house hunters some of the best specimens of the city’s famous century-old Craftsman bungalows.
But Lubarsky wasn’t hunting for a house. He wants the whole neighborhood.
To Lubarsky, a number cruncher-turned-housing activist, Wallingford’s architectural jewels, with their grand front porches and exquisite topiary, are emblematic of this city’s potentially fatal flaw: a housing market so expensive it’s throttling one of America’s biggest urban success stories. Decades ago, these tidy homes were cheap enough for schoolteachers and firefighters. Today, most cost at least a million dollars, and what was once a proudly middle-class neighborhood has morphed into a financially gated community.
Part of the problem, Lubarsky admits, is people like himself: Seattle’s red-hot tech economy, led by companies such as Amazon and Groupon (where Lubarsky works), has filled the city with an army of well-paid workers bidding up the price of housing. But that tech-fueled demand has tended to overshadow the other driver: insufficient supply. Since the end of the financial crisis, Lubarsky says, Seattle has added roughly 100,000 jobs, but barely 32,000 new homes and apartment units. “We’ve underbuilt every year since 2010,” he adds. And a big part of that deficit, Lubarsky says, is due to neighborhoods like Wallingford, where zoning laws make it almost impossible to build anything other than a single-family house.
That’s why Lubarsky wants to radically reconceive the way Seattle lives. For several years, he and fellow activists have waged a data-driven campaign to change the city’s zoning to allow more “density” in single-family neighborhoods, which account for more than half of the city’s land. If this pro-density campaign succeeds, neighborhoods like Wallingford could be transformed by a wave of new construction that would gradually replace single-family homes with duplexes, town homes, apartments and other multifamily housing types. And that would go some of the way toward solving a paradox that threatens many of America’s most successful cities: the younger workers needed to maintain that urban success can no longer afford to live there.
Predictably, the campaign has provoked a fierce backlash from homeowners, many of them baby boomers who arrived in the 1960s and ’70s. They’ve sued to block the proposed “up-zones” to their neighborhoods, which, they warn, will kill the very “character” that makes Seattle’s housing so charming to newcomers in the first place. But to Lubarsky, that cherished neighborhood character was always false advertising, given how few people can actually afford it. “My generation is never going to have that,” he says, gesturing to a tricked-out Craftsman with a tidy yard and paved driveway. “There are too many of us to live like that.”