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Missing the Forest for the Trees

A bill pending in Washington’s state legislature makes mistakes typical to poor housing policy.

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(LittlenySTOCK/Shutterstock)

Seattle's City Council passing a new tree-preservation ordinance while many in the city simultaneously root for state legislation to allow more housing development is reminiscent of the irony in Macbeth, in which the invincible protagonist ultimately falls to the invading forces disguised as moving trees from Birnam Wood. While I’ve pointed out that House Bill 1110, which is likely to become law, won’t really create many new units of housing, the fact that local government is yet again turning the screws on housing production highlights how supposedly progressive legislation from state legislatures ends up being undermined by other prevailing agendas. When it comes to housing, the city of Seattle often can’t see the forest for the trees.

At first glance, House Bill 1110 seems to remove nettlesome barriers set by local city councils to build more housing on lots currently zoned only for single units. The problem is that in a nod to the powerful non-profit housing lobby and other activists, “affordability” requirements are always baked into the changes in state law. House Bill 1110 requires that denser housing include a percentage of lower priced units, which, if ever built, would be subsidized by higher prices in market-rate units. Measures such as California’s Senate Bill 9 include similar requirements to avoid “investor speculation.” 

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These bills are intended to encourage and incentivize the creation of more housing in cities that have resisted allowing more units per lot in single-family zones. But the drafters of new legislation in front of the Seattle City Council have added even more onerous rules about trees. In Seattle, most people who build housing would agree that the existing tree rules are already adding costs to housing production, and thus to prices and rents. If a lot has trees on it that are twenty-four inches in diameter or greater, the tree must be replaced somewhere else on the site, and that tree must “provide the same canopy coverage at maturity” as the tree it’s replacing.

The code has separate provisions for trees it deems “exceptional.” A tree is “exceptional” if it meets the subjective assessment of city staff as having “unique historical, ecological, or aesthetic value” or “constitutes an important community resource.” Establishing whether a tree on a small, already-hard-to-build-on lot qualifies as “exceptional” isn’t paid for by the city, but the developer, and requires a lengthy assessment by an arborist that can slow or stop a project in its tracks, adding time, which in development is money. Of course, that cost gets passed on to the consumer, raising housing prices. 

There are two critical questions about this legislation: "Is there a problem here in the first place?”, and, "If there is a problem, where is it coming from, and how do we solve it?" 

The City of Seattle’s own report doesn’t seem to indicate that there is a significant problem with loss of tree canopy. Between 2016 and 2021, a period of significant growth in Seattle, the tree canopy dropped less than 1 percent, from 28.6 percent to 28.1 percent—about 255 acres out of more than 15,000 acres of identified canopy: That's a less than 1 percent loss of tree canopy over five years. Furthermore, the greatest loss of trees was in parks, not residential areas. Even though neighborhoods have the bulk of the canopy (47 percent), and have experienced growth, they lost less than parks, in part because of replacement requirements. The report also concludes that 70 percent of the loss is not related to development. 

Seattle doesn’t really have a tree-loss problem, and to the extent trees are being lost, most are lost due to natural attrition and changes in the tree canopy, not new housing. Trees don’t live forever, often are blown down, removed from public areas for safety reasons, and yes, removed to make room for new housing. But because the existing requirements are so stringent, including the requirement that the net loss of trees from new development be replaced, the current system appears to be working, even while adding cost to housing. 

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The authors essentially echo this point, as they recommend the city

Expand upon what’s already working. We are already investing in growing our tree canopy through multiple public-private partnerships and City interdepartmental initiatives and programs. 

The report suggests doing more, but their list of recommendations does not include tightening requirements on development or adding fees. House Bill 1110 and advocacy groups, however, have proposed instituting fees, which is wrong-headed. Those fees will add even more costs that will slow development of needed housing and get passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices and rents. The proposed ordinance also expands where tree reports and replacements would be required, and demands not just one replacement for removed trees, but more. If Seattle really thought there was a “housing crisis,” the City Council would be revising the existing code to make it less, not more, onerous. 

At a time when environmentalists, so-called YIMBYs, and other activists are calling for "an end to single-family zoning," and the legislature is trying to force the issue, why are they supporting a bill that would make housing creation more challenging for builders in those exact areas where they say they want more density? 

In Seattle, the council and mayor need to ask themselves: Which is more important, saving every tree or group of trees at the expense of higher prices and rents, or improving the system that already adds costs and appears to be striking the right balance?

In the end, it all comes back to the basic economics of housing. When prices and rents go up, it reflects the scarcity of housing supply. Policy needs to favor reducing the costs of housing production: This principle is true whether the costs are demands to set aside, subsidized units, or building around and paying for replacement trees. The Seattle report on trees doesn’t support the conclusion of tree protectors who argue that trees are disappearing. It isn’t hard to draw the conclusion that those advocates love the equity in their single-family homes at least as much as trees, equity that will stay high and get higher as long as housing is scarce.