Over the past 18 months, five King County cities have adopted a building moratorium, temporarily putting the brakes on new home construction.
While a moratorium is legal, it does not mean it is good policy. At a time when demand for housing is far outpacing housing supply, which drives up both home prices and rents and makes housing less attainable, building moratoria certainly are not good for housing. They also are not good for our economy or the families and workers looking for a home closer to job centers. Furthermore, they potentially could run counter to our region’s transportation investments that contemplate the need for more transit-oriented development in certain areas.
A moratorium can be put in place for a variety of reasons. The city of Federal Way, for example, was under moratorium for multifamily development from June 2016 through June 2017, citing the need to reevaluate its zoning standards and multifamily development code. The city of Duvall has had a moratorium in place since February to complete policy updates needed to implement its 2015 comprehensive plan. The city of Issaquah has been under a moratorium on certain types of development since September 2016, so the city can address several issues related to its Central Issaquah Plan, which guides development in its urban core.
Other cities with a development moratorium in place include North Bend and Newcastle – the latter of which is expiring soon – and at least two other King County cities are considering one.
Development moratoria enacted throughout King County pose one of the biggest challenges to our region’s ability to keep pace with growth. The cumulative effect of having six or more building moratoria in effect at one time artificially limits housing supply.
But perhaps the biggest problem with building moratoria is that they are counterproductive to solving our housing affordability crisis. Simply put, moratoria are a bad deal for anyone looking for housing—they only make it harder for current and future residents to find a home they can afford.
Even for projects put on hold by a moratorium that are completed after it is lifted, the cost of delay can add significantly to the selling price of these housing units once they finally reach the market. Some projects in earlier stages of planning, for which significant resources have already been invested, simply never move forward due to a moratorium. In these ways, a building moratorium limits supply and worsens our housing affordability crisis.
At the same time, moratoria unnecessarily place a greater burden on surrounding cities to meet the demand for housing. To the extent that a city can slow down or stop growth six months at a time, they essentially are passing the buck to neighboring jurisdictions to meet our region’s housing needs.
This also represents a missed opportunity for cities, who stand to lose significant revenue from the new construction. Cities that enact a building moratorium lose local income, jobs, taxes and other benefits of new housing. Not only does housing provide for a basic human need, it is also a major economic driver that benefits our entire region by helping to fund valuable local services, including schools, parks and more.
Instead of enacting policies designed to slow or halt housing, local governments should work within their communities to expand housing supply and choices for families. Housing goes hand in hand with a strong economy and vibrant community.
A building moratorium is not the answer to our housing affordability crisis.
Allison Butcher is a senior policy analyst at the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.