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Seattle has a family-size housing problem

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The majority of apartments built in Seattle are one-bedrooms or studios—especially recently


Seattle’s recent construction boom has been dominated by one-bedroom apartments. But just one bedroom doesn’t fit all types of households.

Seattle’s lack of family-sized housing is nothing new. A 2011 city report found that low- and middle-income families needing three or more bedrooms have the greatest difficulty finding housing, and a 2014 follow-up whitepaper from the Seattle Planning Commission urged city leaders to “foster a greater variety of housing.”

But the problem has only gotten worse. A whopping 52 percent of multifamily units constructed in Seattle since 2012 have been one-bedroom apartments, according to data provided to Curbed Seattle by real estate data group Costar. 29 percent of new units are studios.

Just 17.5 percent of units built since 2012 are two-bedrooms—and just over 1 percent are the ever-elusive three-bedroom.

With more than 80 percent of new construction catering to people living alone or, at best, couples, where does that leave everyone else—people with families they care for or people they prefer to stay with?

It also leaves little recourse for those that want to follow an oft-repeated piece of advice for finding affordable housing in the city: “Get a roommate.”

How Seattle stacks up to other cities

Multifamily construction by number of bedrooms, 2012-2017

City Studio One-bedroom Two-bedroom Three-bedroom Other
City Studio One-bedroom Two-bedroom Three-bedroom Other
Atlanta 13.8% 50.4% 32.2% 3.5% 0.1%
Austin 7.9% 53.5% 33.7% 4.6% 0.3%
Boston 27.6% 38.7% 28.1% 4.8% 0.7%
Chicago 24.5% 43.3% 25.5% 6.5% 0.2%
Dallas 9.9% 59.4% 29.4% 1.3% 0.0%
Denver 14.9% 50.4% 30.9% 3.9% 0.0%
Houston 5.3% 59.3% 31.0% 3.9% 0.4%
Los Angeles 29.7% 38.0% 27.9% 4.3% 0.2%
Miami 5.4% 44.9% 40.9% 8.7% 0.0%
New York 39.5% 34.0% 19.5% 6.2% 0.8%
Philadelphia 18.7% 48.3% 30.1% 2.7% 0.1%
Phoenix 15.0% 42.3% 37.0% 5.7% 0.1%
Portland 24.0% 49.0% 24.0% 3.0% 0.0%
San Diego 13.8% 42.3% 34.5% 8.5% 0.8%
San Francisco 22.7% 43.1% 31.5% 2.6% 0.0%
Seattle 29.2% 51.9% 17.5% 1.3% 0.1%
CoStar Group

While one-bedroom construction dominates nationally, most other cities comparable to Seattle don’t show the same disparity in construction for single people versus families or groups.

Out of 16 major cities, Seattle ranked dead last even in two-bedrooms built since since 2012. The closest city to us is New York, still with 2 percent more overall. Other comparable cities ranged from 24 percent in Portland to 41 percent in Miami.

Seattle also brings up the caboose in three-bedrooms, tied with Dallas at 1.3 percent. No city has a glut of new three-bedroom construction, but Portland has nearly double the concentration of three-bedrooms, at 3 percent. Looking to bigger cities, 6.5 percent of new units in Chicago have been three-bedrooms, and 6.2 percent in New York.

Family-size housing and affordability

In an increasingly-dense city, single-family homes come at a premium. Earlier this year, more than 40 percent of Seattle single-family houses—where more options for people that need more than one bedroom lie—were listed at $1 million or more.

This is why Seattle’s Housing, Affordability, and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee initially recommended more flexibility in single-family zones. As Sightline founder and committee member Alan Durning wrote in the Seattle Times in 2015:

Affordability demands the reforms. Almost two-thirds of Seattle’s zoned land is currently reserved for detached houses. Seattle cannot accommodate the tens of thousands of people who are moving to our community without many of them landing in the single-family zones. Already, growth has made these neighborhoods exclusive to the point of exclusion — intensifying scarcity means only people with money or people from families with money can buy there now. Even small houses in popular neighborhoods start above a half-million dollars. Seattle is well down the path to Silicon Valley’s $1 million entry price for homeownership.

The term “missing middle” housing often refers to once-popular, slightly-denser housing options that have fallen by the wayside, like duplexes and rowhouses. Some of the initial HALA recommendations would have allowed housing options like these—which are often more accessible to families—to exist in single-family zones, which currently make up around half of the city.

That particular HALA recommendation was ultimately scrapped, which leaves many areas of Seattle as one or the other—dense or single-family. While the denser options have their share of luxury housing, the shorter neighborhoods are almost always more expensive.

That leaves few options for those who can’t afford a single-family house but need a family-sized space.

Where are Seattle’s three-bedrooms?

Multifamily construction in Seattle by neighborhood

Submarket Cluster Studios One-bedroom Two-bedroom Three-bedroom
Submarket Cluster Studios One-bedroom Two-bedroom Three-bedroom
Ballard (2012-2017) 24% 60% 15% 0%
Ballard (Before 2012) 14% 55% 29% 2%
Central Seattle (2012-2017) 37% 48% 15% 0%
Central Seattle (Before 2012) 29% 51% 19% 1%
Downtown (2012-2017) 16% 64% 20% 0%
Downtown (Before 2012) 32% 45% 21% 2%
Lake Union (2012-2017) 17% 66% 16% 1%
Lake Union (Before 2012) 21% 59% 19% 1%
Lynnwood (2012-2017) 31% 52% 17% 0%
Lynnwood (Before 2012) 7% 55% 37% 2%
Northeast Seattle (2012-2017) 34% 43% 20% 2%
Northeast Seattle (Before 2012) 24% 44% 27% 5%
Queen Anne (2012-2017) 20% 67% 13% 0%
Queen Anne (Before 2012) 16% 55% 27% 1%
Renton (2012-2017) 2% 33% 63% 2%
Renton (Before 2012) 4% 42% 48% 6%
South Seattle (2012-2017) 10% 57% 34% 0%
South Seattle (Before 2012) 14% 61% 24% 1%
West Seattle (2012-2017) 26% 55% 19% 0%
West Seattle (Before 2012) 5% 60% 34% 1%

The highest number of three-bedroom apartments in Seattle exist in Northeast Seattle, which hasn’t changed in recent development. Among housing built before 2012, 309 three-bedroom units existed in the area, or 5 percent of total stock, according to Costar’s data. Since 2012, 52 have been added, or 2 percent of new construction.

Close behind is Renton, with 200 three-bedrooms in buildings from before 2012, or 6 percent of their total stock—but only three more added since then.

Two-bedrooms are much easier to find, although still not as common as a one-bedroom or studio—and construction of two-bedrooms has fallen in all neighborhoods.

In Ballard, for example, two-bedroom construction made up about 30 percent of units before 2012. In new construction built since then, two-bedrooms only made up about 15 percent.

The suburbs are not immune to the same decline. Lynnwood had 37 percent two-bedrooms before 2012, respectively. For construction since 2012, that’s fallen to 17 percent.

Renton is one of the few places where two-bedroom construction is up—it made up 63 percent of new units since 2012.

Family amenities also on the decline

For those with dogs, new apartments are full of conveniences—it’s not uncommon for new construction to include a dog run and a grooming station.

But amenities for human children are a little less common. While about 5 percent of market-rate housing complexes built in Seattle before 2012 included playgrounds, less than 1 percent built starting in 2012 do. In affordable developments, the number also fell, from 19.7 percent to 4.5 percent.

City living more expensive for families

Costar’s data drives home what many already know: It’s hard for families without money to burn to live in Seattle.

Back in March, a report co-authored by Zillow and found that based on property taxes, mortgage payments, and childcare costs for two children, moving to the ‘burbs costs $11,376 less than living in the city—around $1,000 a month, well above the national average of $9,073.

$7,000 per year of that money was in housing costs alone. In a city where more than half of residents make less than $50,000 a year, that’s a healthy chunk of change.