Density, Affordability, and Livability Are Compatible: The HALA Report

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I’ll be on KUOW’s live show from the District 4 this Friday at 10, countering the anti-development, pro-NIMBY narrative you may have caught on last week’s Week in Review. Listen in on 94.9FM or on KUOW’s website.

It’s a rule in Seattle that policies having to do with density, neighborhood “character,” and development tend to get hacked down to a nub by the blunt machete of consensus, even more so when that consensus is reached by a committee numbering in the dozens.

It’s even more of a rule that when committees like the 28-member Housing Affordability and Livability Committee announce multiple delays, that means they’re on the verge of imploding.

Throw in a disgruntled committee member who leaked a draft copy of the group’s long-anticipated report to the press, and there was every reason to believe that the HALA committee would come up short; the day the draft leaked to NIMBY apologist Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times, in fact, the committee frantically disavowed the draft, calling it “outdated and inaccurate.”

So it was a true jaw-dropper when Mayor Ed Murray’s HALA Committee recommendations emerged Monday largely intact. The plan (which replaces controversial linkage fees on residential development with inclusionary zoning, upzones multifamily areas across the city, eliminates many parking mandates for new development, and promises 20,000 new units of low-income housing) fully embraces the reality that it’s impossible to create an affordable city while simultaneously protecting the two-thirds of Seattle land that consists of unaffordable single-family houses on 5,000-square-foot lots. We live, essentially, on an island–an island where tens of thousands of new people want to live. The built environment must change to welcome (and “accommodate”) those new neighbors.

By acknowledging the fundamental incompatibility of protectionist NIMBYism and affordability, HALA spit in the eyes of the pitchfork-wielding old guard that really just wants to keep “outsiders” out, that resents new residents, that sees growth as numbers, not neighbors.

The city council will undoubtedly come under tremendous pressure from hardline neighborhood activists who think ceding 6 percent of their protected land area to slightly greater density will bring their homes and property values crashing around them. Those activists are organized, and they are loud. Their allies on the council, including the departing Tom Rasmussen, have amplified their voices and encouraged them to drown reality-based advocates for density out. And it will take all of urbanists’ effort to keep them from scuttling the plan, from preserving the old Seattle (which was, as HALA points out in its report, created and sustained by restrictive racial covenants) and keeping everyone new outside the walls protecting suburban-style city development patterns.

But Murray didn’t call this plan a “Grand Bargain” for nothing, and the HALA committee wouldn’t be making its plan public now if it didn’t have rock-solid support from the vast majority of the players. (One outspoken exception is committee member and council candidate Jon Grant, who not only abstained from the vote but held a press conference immediately after HALA’s announcement to roll out his own sour-grapes plan, flanked by supporters including Kshama Sawant, Position 9 candidate Bill Bradburd, and North Seattle neighborhood activist Sarajane Siegfriedt, calling for rent control and the reinstatement of linkage fees.) Despite the volume of shouting from the old guard, I’m hopeful that the consensus and determination HALA has demonstrated will hold together despite the shouting, and despite the possibility, remote but real, that a renegade developer could sue the city and scuttle the whole deal.

It’s been a crazy few days. Between life and work and blogging, I haven’t had much time to sit down and process my thoughts about HALA in black and white. Instead, I’ve been talking to friends and fellow urbanists about what the plan will mean and how we can convince our friends in the world of affordable-housing advocacy that growth is not just inevitable but good and how we can help hold the plan together until the city council passes the goddamn thing over Tom Rasmussen’s dead body. (Sorry, Tom.)

So I can’t add much to the already rapturous (and detailed) coverage from the density proponents at Sightline, PubliCola, and, well, The C Is for Crank.  Nor can I thumb my nose more disdainfully at the hardline NIMBYs at Crosscut and the Seattle Times. I can, however, encourage you to cross your fingers, write your city council members and neighborhood representatives, and urge them to support the plan that represents the best shot we’ve had in decades to preserve what’s best about our city while making sure it’s livable for the tens of thousands of people who want to become our newest neighbors.

5 thoughts on “Density, Affordability, and Livability Are Compatible: The HALA Report”

  1. Erica, I haven’t seen data that prove Seattle can’t reasonably accommodate the continuing wave of new residents, and the needed affordable housing, within the 45 existing urban centers and urban villages. HALA proposes to upzone those and even expand their footprints. Why isn’t that enough?

    SF neighborhoods are already accepting ADUs and DADUs, and I think they are willing to accept more. Why do they also need to accommodate triplexes and town homes? Where are the data, the numbers, that establish that need? All I hear from the HALA defenders is “just because” or “we want it all.”

    1. And all I hear from SF protectionists is “just because” or “we want to keep it the same.” So here’s why (and I strongly dispute the notion that no one has ever said this before–y’all just refuse to listen): Allowing a tiny bit more housing diversity in SF areas — and let’s be clear, this is about diversity, not upzones — will help alleviate the legacy of redlining, which still concentrates minorities and low-income people in areas zoned multifamily.

      1. Except the “more housing diversity in SF areas” will come from additional wealthy mostly-white buyers moving into the new rowhouses and triplexes. Developers will buy up $450K SF houses and tear them down to make room for upscale new construction. How does that “help alleviate the legacy of redlining”?

      2. Good comments Trevor. Am still waiting for an explanation for how we can get to affordable houses in SF zones by demolishing $450K homes and replacing them with multiple $700K town homes. Of course, with developers bidding against families, those current $450K homes jump in price.

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