Sometimes life delivers an irony that even the writers of SNL couldn’t deliver. Earlier this week I attended a community planning event to talk about how many homes Seattle needs to plan for by 2045. After everyone showed up at Seattle’s “Community Conversations” series, where the city planning staff outlines their strategy for housing growth for the next 20 years, there was a bit of a scramble when the staff realized more people showed up than expected.
This was quite fitting for Seattle’s problem with housing — stemming from a willingness to limit the number of homes we have or can have. I hope the planning staff realized the obvious parallel having significantly underestimated our last decade’s job and population growth, and realizing they do not have enough chairs for everyone to sit.
In the game of musical chairs, the contestants remain constant, with a chair being removed each round. This is not how any city’s housing and population works, but it’s worth noting that an adapted version of the game is exactly how cities have gotten themselves into the housing mess they’re in today. In the housing of Seattle, most of the chairs remain constant. The variable are the contestants. More contestants are showing up. Bigger contestants, with more capabilities to win the game and shove a lesser kid out of the circle.
As the community meeting settled into our breakout sessions, everyone took a seat in small circles to discuss their goals and wishes for the future of housing. But, as I mentioned earlier, there were not enough chairs for everyone. People were left standing outside the group, not sure if they were going to get to have a chance to speak since they didn’t have a seat. The seated group had their backs turned to them, unaware of their issue, so the planner had to go out of their way to pause eager participants to let one of the neighbors standing have a chance to speak too. This irony was all too perfect, funny and frustrating at the same time.
I kicked things off by saying “for starters, it looks like you need more chairs” and pointed out that despite their noble and best efforts, they undershot how many people would show up excited to be part of this community event. After the laughter subsided, someone seated said “can we get more chairs?” Well, the answer, obviously, was “no”. They ran out.
But that got me thinking. What if they had more chairs in the back and wanted to bring them out? If the process to add chairs was the same process for adding housing, how would these chairs be added, where would they go, and what does this tell us about where we are failing to deliver much needed supply?. Here’s how it goes:
- Planning for more chairs:
First, the planners need to figure out how many chairs we need (and will undershoot it by a lot). Planners must have a multi-year process to figure out how many chairs are needed, followed by an Environmental Impact Statement, which takes another year of approvals or appeals to finally get voted on and passed through. This is a problem because the event only goes from 6–8pm, and won’t be reconvening any time soon, so I guess those people will have to stand for a while.
2. Locating the chairs:
After the planners have decided on the woefully low number of chairs needed to satisfy the growth of this community event, where would they put them? The gym was huge with plenty of space to add chairs to all of the circles. But planners won’t do that. Instead they’ll shove them all into one circle and leave the other 13 circles alone. Then they’d plan more chairs to be next to the bathroom — an undesirable, high traffic area where lots of people come and go and the noise of flushing and odors are the last thing anyone wants to sit by. They’ll tell us people need to use the bathroom, so why not seat them right next to it? Maybe this is smart planning and offering a chance to grow the chairs next to high access corridors!
3. Building Chairs:
So, the plan is in place, we are going to shove most of the chairs in this 1 circle and line up the rest on the path to the bathroom, now it’s time to pick out which chairs we want to see. Are we going with high-back chairs? Or are those too tall and out of scale with the other chairs? Builders are excited to design and construct our chairs, but are now hamstrung by a process that wants to make sure the chairs fit the context of the neighborhood. And what about old chairs? These chairs are falling apart and probably not adequate for today’s event because they don’t seat enough or the construction on them is shoddy. New chairs can’t go in their place, despite being able to swap 6 of them for the one old chair with a broken leg and sagging cushion. People just don’t want the chairs to change so there’s even more conversation on where the chairs can be placed.
4. Environmental Review:
Once the chairs have been designed, we know where they’re going, and someone wants to add 20 chairs to one of the circles we have planned for chair growth, what we then need to do is file a SEPA report and, over 12-months, have a long legal process allowing other chair owners the chance to appeal the project of adding more chairs. Also, how much embodied carbon comes from those chairs? I sense people are really starting to get impatient…
There is obviously a high demand for these chairs, but what happens if we still don’t add enough, and people start bidding on the seating? Remember, we’ve been standing here for almost 3 years by now and people are tired and desperate. The richer attendees finally get fed up and start buying every chair available so they can have a seat. New chairs, old chairs, overpaying for a chair that isn’t big enough or in the best condition. It doesn’t matter, they just want to sit. We don’t have time for more debate!
6. Vacant Chairs:
There is a growing concern by some that these chairs are being occupied by investors. Is that really Jeff sitting in that chair or does Jeff work for Blackrock? Or are there actually empty chairs people bought up and left in the storage closet hiding them from sight because they have voluntarily operated chair ownership at a loss to skew some market condition for other chair owners? Lots of people want to know!
7. Short Term Rental Chairs:
Out of the 200 chairs available, one or two start renting their chairs out for a short period of time, offering people a chance to sit at different circles and then be on their way. This starts to annoy some of the seated and unseated guests of the event, wondering if this small problem is actually causing the whole failure to supply more chairs. But looking around, it looks like we need probably another stack of 50 chairs to say the least…
Imagine if professional sporting events only had 100 chairs. What would happen? When the team isn’t very good and there isn’t demand, it probably wouldn’t matter, like when the Mariners used to suck. But what about when the Mariners wake up and are good? What would those 100 chairs cost? Good thing there’s 20,000 empty ones!
What the planners needed was a room full of chairs ready to be deployed for any kind of attendance. When people want to attend something, we accommodate them. Stadiums hold thousands of densely placed chairs to seat as many people close to the action as they can.
We need the stadium level of chair density in our cities for housing. We need a plan for how we can deploy more chairs so the next time we don’t run out of them and spend the next decade pondering how to do this all over again. The gym is huge, there is plenty of space.
Bring us more chairs!