Home AEC Who Took the Affordable Out of Affordable Housing? 

Who Took the Affordable Out of Affordable Housing? 

Tiscareno Associates Seattle Scott Glazebrook
Photo by Ryan Wilson on Unsplash

How a cumbersome approval process works against the affordable housing we need. 

By Scott Glazebrook 

Over the last decade, affordable housing has become one of the Seattle area’s most urgent needs. A number of circumstances, including an abundance of high-wage tech workers and a scarcity of available housing units, have driven up Seattle’s median home prices to $815,000 (Sept 2022, Northwest Multiple Listing Service). The latest projections from the Puget Sound Regional Council put 1.8 million more people in the Seattle area by the year 2050. We will not all be millionaires.

Where will we live? 

As a partner at Tiscareno Associates, which specializes in multifamily and residential mixed-use architecture, this question has been on my mind a lot, particularly over the last two years. Among the many things the pandemic has taught us is the critical importance of home. Generally, a public-spirited and socially conscious group, most architects in my experience place real value on creating reasonably priced quality homes for all. 

Problem is, the well-meaning methods municipalities and other permitting bodies have in place for encouraging the development of affordable housing too often end up discouraging it. And, the sheer length and cost of development project approvals practically erases any ability to provide housing affordably.

As any firm with a focus on affordable housing architecture in Seattle could attest, getting a project through the approval process is complicated and cumbersome—more cumbersome than it needs to be. Layers of approvals are often required, from both municipal and community review boards. Community input is great and can contribute to a better outcome as they often know the hyper-local issues better than we can. However, often aesthetic, and other objections from review boards can sometimes appear to be arbitrary and subjective, and additional time needed to address such objections is costly to developers interested in delivering housing at a reasonable price. 

Getting a project through the approval process is complicated and cumbersome

This may be a response to the era of failed public housing in the last century. In those days, large box-like structures made of concrete became a public-housing norm, favored for their durable materials and thrifty use of public funds. Most of the time, aesthetics were not prioritized.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we can now identify the ways many of those public affordable-housing projects ran afoul of their communities and tainted the concept of affordable housing as blighted: sometimes casting whole neighborhoods in their least attractive light, fostering little pride of place among residents, and feeding the myth of pulling down property values. But it is not just public housing. Privately funded market-rate housing, with and without an affordable component, has also been painted with the same brush. Sometimes deservedly-so.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons the design review process began to get clogged with the proliferation of design guidelines and increasingly lengthy land-use permit processes we see today. In the name of protecting community values, regulations have metastasized to a point where they begin to work at cross-purposes with their affordability goals.

Take windows, for example. Because they are frequently the most expensive part of an apartment building’s façade, windows in affordable apartment buildings have traditionally been smaller to help manage construction costs while still providing ample daylight, ventilation, and views. Today, design review guidelines sometimes strictly regulate minimum window size—the element that can push projects outside the realm of the affordable. Without a doubt, larger windows provide more daylight and greater opportunities for fresh air and ventilation. But having some wiggle room in the size of windows could mean the difference between a project that pencils out—and one that cannot get built. Requiring large expanses of glazed surfaces also runs counter to the energy conservation goals implemented in building and energy codes as well.

Make no mistake: this is not an argument for no regulations. Design guidelines and other development regulations are critical for holding up community aesthetic and quality of life standards for cities and for protecting the well-being of their citizens. Design guidelines help achieve the best vision for what our cities can be. 

But too many guidelines add unsustainable time-consuming and expensive layers of review. Original power to regulate development came from zoning. Design guidelines and standards were added to protect community interests, which led to the addition of reviews by a large group of experts. Design is subjective, and well-meaning design review boards and city staff have stretched the guidelines to where well-meaning efforts by developers and their design teams face big challenges changing a design beyond mid-way through design. The time and money the architect spent developing a design in accordance with the rules can be in part tossed out—sometimes based on subjective preferences on the part of a reviewer—and the architect is back to the drawing board. This costs time, it costs money, it stalls projects—and it brings a layer of uncertainty to the review process that disincentivizes investors from funding needed housing developments in the first place.

These days those community reviews tend to come earlier and earlier in the process, carrying the potential for subjective decisions, which staves off the impacts of later input, but adds yet another layer of review during the early design process.

In my view, these layers of regulation are by and large imposed by people who are working hard to do the right thing but working in silos without a complete understanding of how their decisions impact the big picture. Any given project’s land-use permit approval process may require approval from a long-range planning department of the city, the current planning department, the departments of real estate and economic development, department of transportation, environmental departments, and other administrators of the city, county, state, and sometimes agencies of the federal government. Each is in a different department, often scattered beyond city limits, and each is working independently within its limited authority without any holistic oversight. Add to that a general misunderstanding of how developers search for, acquire, and fund housing projects.

This means that—as recently happened to us—a single city department, which withheld commentary in early iterations of a multi-round Master Use Permit approval process, can swoop in at the 11th hour with potentially project-ending requests that would have meant a significant re-design at best. If we had not succeeded in developing a mutually agreeable solution over time that did not require re-design—itself a major outlay of time and money—the project would have been significantly delayed even further with substantially additional cost. 

Which takes the affordable right out of affordable housing. 

Fortunately, creative solutions may exist to achieve livable and affordable housing in the face of this kind of unintended resistance. Earlier in my career, we worked with the city’s building department to develop a training program for city staff. Our architects volunteered to train a group of senior planning officials from the relevant departments, putting them in the shoes of applicants by asking them to put together a mock permit application. This role-play proved remarkably successful at helping them to see challenges they had not seen before and to comprehend the complexity of the process. Conversely, we architects also learned what the regulators go through, including some of the unexpected limits of their authority. 

Architects can also think about ways they can encourage the creation of infrastructure in some of the secondary and tertiary markets better positioned to absorb some of the affordable housing needs. Farther out from the central business district one finds both lower-cost land and regulations more streamlined to encourage approval. What is lacking in these areas might be public transportation, waste-water treatment access, electricity, and other services needed to support affordable housing. Beyond our day-to-day work for our clients, if architects can advocate and support programs to improve and expand these necessary infrastructures, much could be done to shift the focus away from the outdated “megacity” approach to growth and toward a more human-scaled “satellite urbanism” approach to growth. 

Ultimately, it probably will not just be the politicians, bureaucrats, or attorneys who take on the issues making it so hard to build affordable housing in the Northwest. It will be the creatives: the affordable housing architects in Seattle who are on the front lines of the problem—and have the best access to the solutions.

Scott Glazebrook, AIA 

Principal, Tiscareno Associates

Having been a leader in multiple firms over 25-plus year career in architecture and urban design, Scott Glazebrook has worked on numerous project types including master planning, civic and arts facilities, health care facilities, offices, hospitality, and commercial tenant improvements; but, his deepest expertise lies in creating livable multifamily communities (condominiums, apartments, affordable housing), from concept through completion with an emphasis on sustainable practices.  

Most recently Scott served as conceptual design lead, project manager, and partner in charge for the under-construction Redmond Grand and Redmond Central, a combined a 600+ home high-visibility downtown transit-oriented mixed-use development whose large size and urban context required nimble problem-solving. He has also served as the conceptual design lead and project manager for the completed Modera Redmond, an urban 300 home multi-family development; and as partner in charge for several other large projects including: the affordable housing project Solera, The Spark, and The Line.These projects highlight Scott’s ingenuity in both the aesthetics of design and the complexities of aligning multiple different voices to deliver client goals.