What's this all about?
Current trends suggest that people are gravitating back to cities, choosing to live more urban lifestyles than generations prior, and Seattle is no exception. In many cases it is young singles or couples and empty nesters that are answering the call to urbanity. They come for the trendy restaurants, walkability, shops, transportation options, parks, people, and the energy buzzing on the sidewalks. What happens, however, when these young singles become young couples, and these young couples start to have children?
Will they flee to the suburbs, their children in tow? Will they head out on the highway to where, more likely than not, they can afford what they were taught is a “good place to raise kids”--to a land of longer commutes, better schools, and seemingly more convenience? Or will their preference for more culture, more transportation options, more diversity, less driving, and more sense of place lead them to shape a new vision of the city?
Buying a home or condo is often one of the biggest financial decisions a family will make. Subsequently, where a family chooses to buy a home will have major effects on the neighborhood, the city, and the region. In simple terms, a family will buy the best house they can afford. But tied up within this purchase are factors that are weighed against one another, factors that will enhance or compromise the family’s desired quality of life. Basic economics dictates that more desirable qualities fetch greater rental or purchase prices, especially if the supply is limited. While it is true that on a per-square-foot basis, larger units rent for less than smaller units, the fact remains that a two bedroom condo or rental apartment in the city is much more expensive than a similar-sized residence further from the city’s core.
As a member of the Seattle Planning Commission, the decisions embedded in a family’s housing choice are very fresh in my mind. Our recently released report, titled Housing Seattle, highlights the fact that Seattle lacks affordable family-sized units. For the purpose of the report, a family-sized unit is defined as having 3 or more bedrooms. Amazingly, only 2% of market-rate rental apartments in Seattle have more than three bedrooms. And only half of those units are affordable to those earning 80% of Area Median Income (AMI). As part of my research, I plan to use this report to help me tease out demographic information related to families and housing choices.
So what really ends up driving young families out of the city? Is it the cost of housing, the near nonexistent supply of family-sized units, the perceptions of the school system, or the requirement to have that piece of green lawn to help complete the American Dream puzzle. Or do people simply love their cars? Some people are challenging this norm today, and it is happening across the country. I hope to interview families, planners, developers, and designers to get to the root of these issues. As it turns out, I am the product of parents who were faced with this exact dilemma. They met and married in Chicago, and only moved to the suburbs when my little sister was born. Yet they moved to the suburbs because that is what people did when they had kids. Stay downtown? Why? How? Today people are looking at cities differently and asking for more.
Ultimately, I’d like to see Seattle as a place where family-sized housing, excellent inner-city public schools and plentiful urban amenities for parents of newborns to teenagers exists in more urban locations. The purpose of this travel-fueled research project would be to tease out policy and designs that other cities in the United States and Canada are using to successfully accommodate families living downtown.