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Building Codes, Homelessness, and Risks
September 12, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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Balancing risks from high prices with risks to safety, in building codes

Imagine you have been given the power to change the building codes in a city. Presuming that you are only interested in the public good, and not in, say, the profits of architects, construction companies, or landlords, what would you do? [Think about it before reading the rest.]

One thought that should occur is to make building cheaper, so that the cost of new homes or apartments is lower. Also, the same capital would build more homes, making it easier for people to find rentals or homes to buy, and at lower prices.

But you should remember why building codes exist. Buildings before code enforcement tended to be unsafe. Without building inspectors, the builders might take shortcuts, which might not be immediately apparent, as when substandard wiring is hidden behind walls. Then there were the famous great fires, like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire or the Chicago fire of 1871 So there needs to be a balance between risks and costs.

In Seattle, and in most cities, the building code takes into account the risk of collapse without external forces; fire; collapse with external forces like wind, flooding, and earthquakes; and sanitation risks. We also have an architectural Design Review Board that takes into account the risk of a building not looking good, at least not to the architects. "Design review can't consider comments about things like housing affordability, displacement, permitted building height, density, parking, traffic, potential landslides, etc. The City of Seattle has other code requirements for those topics, but they are not part of Design Review."

In failing to adequately consider affordability in the building code, a consequence as dangerous to (at least some of) the public is overlooked. Crowding has a negative effect on human happiness and behavior. When the situation goes beyond crowding to homelessness (or being unhoused, in PC speak), the effects can be as bad a an earthquake, fire, or sanitary incident.

Which is the greater risk to people in Seattle: an earthquake, or homelessness? Step outside and see 10,000 or so unsheltered people. An earthquake will, some century, likely cause more immediate deaths and more unhoused people. So we have made it expensive to build new structures, to withstand earthquakes, and have demanded that older structures be retrofitted. Trying to insure against the risk from earthquakes is one reason we have so many unsheltered and crowded people, plus people who would like to own a home but who are forced to remain renters.

Another strange thing is the city's allowing people to be housed in tiny house villages or RV encampments. These are not built within code. Nor are the sometimes elaborate tent structures many of the homeless live in. Why can't Seattle allow some cheap, dense apartments to be built? Would not that be better than forcing people to live in tents along our streets?

An easy answer is that the city should rapidly build a sufficient number of apartments that are up to the current code. That should have been started 20 years ago, but it was not. It could have been done 10 years ago, when the homeless population had jumped up, but it was not. It is not on the planning boards today.

As far as I can tell the only thing positive that has been done in the past two decades is zoning more of the city for multi-family apartments. That does allow single family homes, and low rise apartment buildings, to be torn down to be replaced with high density residences.

The risk of a major earthquake is probably real in the long run, but the risk of homelessness is not just a risk. It is a current reality. The risks should be weighed to best serve the public. There is no end to earthquake proofing. Set the code for a 7.0 quake, and what happened it we get a 7.5? Set it for 8.0, and what if we get a 9.0? It is like Florida, where they did increase the codes to try to keep roofs from blowing off houses in hurricanes. That is not a bad thing, but with global warming, should not every house in the state get a retrofit for potentially even higher winds?

I've watched the slow process of building new, high-density units in my neighborhood. Don't hold your breath. And keep in mind that many homeless (ahem, I mean unhoused) people in Seattle have serious problems that may keep them wandering the streets, shouting at lamp posts, even if they are given free housing. But cheaper rents, and starter condo prices, would be a boon to the half of the city that do not work for high pay at tech companies. So bring up this topic, if you have a chance, as we elect the next round of City Council members in this year's election.

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