Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle

Image via Rail House Apartments.

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat has long been a hero to the NIMBY crowd. His columns about density and gentrification have created heroes and villains in Seattle’s growth wars: Little old ladies versus greedy developers; “unfettered growth” versus homeowners calling for a little restraint; “some of the biggest zoning changes in our lifetimes” versus bungalows.

In 2015, a Westneat column warned darkly about secret plans to “do away with single-family zoning — which for a hundred-plus years has been the defining feature of Seattle’s strong neighborhood feel.” The column galvanized a rebellion among the city’s slow-growthers that gutted then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, reducing new density to a tiny slice of land on the edges of existing urban villages and ensuring that Seattle’s single-family areas will remain unaffordable enclaves for the foreseeable future.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

So I was surprised to learn recently that while Westneat preaches the gospel of slow growth and “concurrency”—a buzz word for anti-density groups that argue the city shouldn’t accommodate new people until it has built sidewalks, roads, and other infrastructure “concurrent” with population growth—he and his wife own a development company that bulldozed a bungalow in Seattle’s historically Black south end and replaced it with a 13-unit apartment complex. Westneat’s wife developed the property.

Rents at the Rail House apartments, located about a block from the Columbia City light rail station, start at around $1,400 for a studio and go up from there; prospective renters must have three references from previous landlords and a minimum credit score of 650 (until recently 660). Activists for racial equality have called credit requirements a form of modern-day redlining that has no relationship to tenant quality. Westneat said the credit and reference requirements were a response to a city law requiring landlords to accept the first applicant who qualifies; that law was designed to prevent discrimination by landlords.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

Contacted about this seeming contradiction between the views he expresses in his columns and his family’s business, Westneat responded that he’s never had a problem with transit-oriented development; his issue is with places “where growth is overwhelming the infrastructure.”

“I think all transit corridors and the light rail corridors in particular are no-brainers for higher-density development, Westneat told me in an email. “I do have issues with the way Seattle has gentrified so quickly (but who doesn’t?).” Rail House, he continued, “is a classic transit-oriented development, 13 units with no parking. It works because it is right next to Columbia City light rail station, but it might not be appropriate in parts of the city that lack robust transit.”

What’s insidious about Westneat’s columns isn’t that they make a moderate case—it costs homeowners nothing to say that density is acceptable where they don’t live—but that they are an argument against the kind of density Seattle actually needs.

You won’t get any argument from me that transit-oriented development is a no-brainer. But even the most dyed-in-the-wool slow-growther would probably agree with this view today, now that battles over transit and development near transit stops have been mostly settled. (Of course, both Westneat and I have been around long enough to recall when transit itself was considered not just a gentrifying factor but one that would promote out-of-control growth in historically single-family areas like Columbia City!)

As an example of his support for appropriate density, Westneat said that he was all for Mike O’Brien’s 2016 legislation that would have “upzoned most of the city to three units.” (In reality, the city projected that the plan would result in fewer than 4,000 new units across the entire city over 20 years).

“I don’t have a longstanding editorial opposition to density or upzoning,” Westneat told me. 

I’d say that’s debatable—the cumulative effect of column after column condemning specific examples of density is an editorial opposition to density, even if those columns are tempered by general statements supporting the idea of density where “appropriate.” By opposing specific examples of density again and again, Westneat’s columns have poured gasoline on the movement against density of all kinds, including modest density (such as row houses and triplexes) in single-family areas.

But the really insidious thing about saying “of course I support density in certain cases” is that it reinforces a status quo that’s unsustainable and unjust. When cities only think of “transit-oriented development” as housing immediately around transit hubs—and not in the neighborhoods that are supposed to provide riders for those hubs—the result is lack of access to transit and car dependence. Requiring infrastructure to be in place far in advance of population growth, as the disciples of “concurrency” prescribe, is a preemptive strike against density—buses go where ridership is, not the reverse.

When cities only allow density along arterial streets and near business districts, the result is de facto segregation between renters and property owners. Laws that segregate apartments from single-family housing are a way of keeping the places where property owners live renter-free. 

Going back to HALA: When Westneat wrote his column claiming that Murray’s plan would triple development across the city, it spurred outrage from activist and speeches from the city council dais, and ultimately led to a plan that only impacts 6 percent of single-family areas, preserving the vast majority of the city’s residential land for single-family homeowners like the Westneats, whose property values continue to skyrocket while the city’s growing renter majority gets squeezed.

Anti-growth activists still hate the changes HALA wrought, which include new provisions making it easier for single-family homeowners to build accessory units in their basements and backyards. But the real victory for slow-growthers was convincing the city that it should continue to segregate renters—disproportionately people of color—onto just a quarter of Seattle’s residential land, places within a very short walk of transit corridors, or next to the segregated business corrals known as urban villages. 

What’s insidious about Westneat’s columns isn’t that they make a moderate case—it costs homeowners nothing to say that density is acceptable where they don’t live—but that they are an argument against the kind of density Seattle actually needs if we aren’t going to force everyone who makes less than six figures into studio apartments or the suburbs.

5 thoughts on “Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle”

  1. I can’t get over how the little girl in the rendering’s lower right corner looks exactly like Michelle Tanner when she & Uncle Jesse wore matching backwards baseball caps on Full House.

  2. Concurrency only dates back to 2010…I wonder if all the areas that were annexed for their tax base and never got sidewalks can make a case to get them now?

    Seems pretty obvious that a newspaper columnist who coos about Seattle’s single family homes is going to look a tad hypocritical for tearing one down, no matter how appropriate the new development is.

    As for the claim that 30% of Seattle is zoned for SFHs, I am looking at a City of Seattle planning document that lists SFH housing at 54%, multi-family at just under 10% and commercial/mixed-use at 7.4% Anyone who has actually seen Seattle knows that 30% isn’t even close. And when you remember that 25% of those precious SFHs are rentals — income property to investors or old Seattle families who are cashing in on the arrivistes — not sure I buy the whole “Seattle’s strong neighborhood feel” argument.

  3. This article seemed to have no purpose at first, but I was wrong. I went back line-by-line and extracted everything Erica is trying to say and here it is:

    Erica says: Danny Westneat is a “hero to the NIMBY Crowd” which cancels out his right to make a living in real estate. He found a legal way to make a profit !!
    Progressives are not that smart but we are the experts at complaining about what everyone else is doing.

    Erica says: Danny Westneat’s early discovery of the conspiracy to eliminate single-family zoning in Seattle was such a shame. He caught Progressives cold-busted and sounded the alarm. We hate it when that happens.

    Erica says: Danny Westneat invented this evil concept he calls “concurrency”. Its not as if it is codified in state law (WAC 365-196-840) or anything like that.

    Erica says: Danny Westneat actually “bulldozed” a single bungalow and replaced it with a 13-unit apartment. How the hell does that increase density?

    Erica says: Landlords are evil when they consider the applicant’s credit score. We know this is a bad thing because racial activists told us it was ineffective. How can the willingness to pay your bills be related to your willingness to pay your rent? Move right along…. nothing to see here.

    Erica says: Danny Westneat has the audacity to use actual specific examples of where increasing density is not appropriate. How dare him. I, on the other hand, get to use the Progressive prerogative of criticizing him using generalities.

    Erica says: The real shame is those terrible people with money and property were ever allowed to exist where they are not choked out by unproductive people on a bad plan.

    Erica says: I will not rest until renters can move to a place where the cost of living is affordable for them. The evil landowners have imprisoned renters in Seattle and prevented them from moving to Eastern Washington, Idaho or Texas.

  4. Your column has an insidious message that Westneat was bad for building a high density building on a lot he owned because the City Zoning laws allowed it. And you are against this because he said in some columns that he was against Ed Murrays original idea of upzoning the entire City? We still upzoned 27 Urban Villages.

    So your larger point is anyone who speaks out against upzones is bad. Is that it?

    I really don’t agree. Your statements that the “vast majority” of Seattle is dedicated to single family homes is just not true. Less than 30% of land is dedicated to Single Family Zoning now and it’s shrinking more all the time. It’s reason that Single Family House prices are skyrocketing right now. And Seattle is such a liveable city BECAUSE of those single family neighborhoods. The growth and density needs to be increased carefully if we don’t want to completely lose that.

    I don’t blame Westneat for requiring a good credit score or three past landlord references to rent a unit. Landlords take all the risk in these situations and they need to be able to cover the mortgage, property taxes, insurance and maintenance. You won’t be able to do that if someone moves in who ends up not being able to afford it.

  5. Could not agree more. All these proud Seattle progressive homeowners have created some of the worst divides in the country between the haves (people who owned houses before the Amazon boom) and the have nots (everyone else). Trump supporters would not have behaved any differently.

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