by Josh Feit
The latest effort to loosen longstanding zoning rules that put force fields around single-family neighborhoods fell on its face in Olympia last week. As Leo reported, legislation sponsored by Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) failed to muster enough support to clear the February 15 legislative deadline after it was watered down multiple times— first by single-family preservationist Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) and then by Bateman herself. Organized by the Association of Washington Cities, mid-sized cities across the state testified against the bill—arguing, in an incorrigible chorus of “local control,” that they shouldn’t have to take direction on density from Olympia.
I hope Seattle YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard) have now learned their lesson about Olympia. Obstructionists like Rep. Pollet also flogged efforts last year to allow slightly more density in single-family neighborhoods—Rep. Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) backyard cottage bill. In fact, anti-growth legislators altered the bill to the point that the proponents eventually implored Gov. Jay Inslee for a veto after it passed.
In short, the state legislature, still run by old-fashioned Democrats with knee-jerk anti-development mindsets, isn’t the best place to seek a density mandate for the place where increased density is most on point, will have the most impact, is most noticeably overdue, and makes the most sense to fight for it: Seattle.
The confluence of Seattle’s affordable housing crisis—we’re short hundreds of thousands of units —and the ongoing climate crisis, demands that we undo our outdated zoning laws that continue to exacerbate this dual trauma. Three-quarters of Seattle’s developable land is off-limits to the kind of smaller, denser housing options needed to support pedestrian-friendly, indie business-friendly neighborhoods connected by citywide mass transit. Density will also add a necessary dose of social justice by offering working-class people more options than living on exhaust-laden arterials and in car-dependent suburbs.
The confluence of Seattle’s affordable housing crisis and the ongoing climate crisis demands that we make policy changes in Seattle, where our outdated zoning laws are exacerbating this dual trauma.
Yes, pro-housing activists will also have a tough fight on their hands in Seattle. Despite the “Black Lives Matter” and “In this House…” signs dotting yards across the city, lots of homeowners aren’t actually interested in diversifying the housing stock in their exclusive neighborhoods. And their “back to basics” candidate won the recent mayor’s race. New mayor Bruce “Born and Raised Here” Harrell made it clear with his slow-growth, parochial campaign rhetoric that he’s attached to the single-family status quo.
And you can count on the Seattle Times to oppose citywide density; their editorial pages love to extol Seattle’s “neighborhood character.” Meanwhile, their influential opinion columnist, Danny Westneat, who often writes about the density debate has a financial conflict of interest on the issue. As Erica first reported, Westneat co-owns a development company with high-end condos on MLK in Columbia City that will continue to appreciate handsomely as long as development in the adjacent neighborhoods is proscribed.
But obstacles like Seattle’s entrenched NIMBY contingent, Mayor Harrell, and the biased daily newspaper pale in comparison to the unfavorable odds in Olympia where the “local control” trope gives opponents of density an out every time. Despite the obstacles in Seattle, the pro-housing movement that’s already gained steam and charted some local wins should turn the tables, take the local control mantra to heart, and exert some here.
For starters, one of the two at-large Seattle city council members, Position 8 Council Member Teresa Mosqueda, who defied last year’s conservative backlash to win re-election with 60 percent of the vote, is an outspoken advocate for adding housing density citywide. Mosqueda’s longstanding pro-housing position is tied to a social justice critique: “Preserving” most of Seattle for detached single-family houses is modern day redlining posing as neighborhood charm.
And Mosqueda’s pro-density agenda has traction on the council itself. Council Members Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Dan Strauss all joined Mosqueda, proactively supporting Bateman’s original bill as the legislative session in Olympia began this year and signed on as supporters when the House Local Government Committee first took it up.
It’s perfect timing for this pro-density bloc to turn their attention back to Seattle: As part of the city’s 2024 Seattle Comprehensive Plan update, the city council is about to start formally debating and establishing local growth management policy. And this time, a Seattle public process once dominated by single-family homeowner NIMBYS is notably balanced out by an organized and energetic YIMBY movement starring groups like Share the Cities, Seattle for Everyone, the Urbanist, Sightline, and Seattle Greenways.
Their allies at the diverse Seattle Planning Commission have, in fact, already laid out an ambitious pro-density blueprint for the upcoming Comp Plan throwdown. As the Urbanist reported, the Planning Commission’s demands include “expanding and adding more urban villages, embedding climate change and racial equity goals into planning, and incorporating a 15-minute-city framework that encourages walking, rolling, biking, transit, and local amenities.” This list is synonymous with density.
And the Jane Jacobs agenda is not a daydream. Unlike at the state level, where proposals to allow more housing keep losing, there’s actually a track record of policy wins in Seattle in recent years. A breakthrough compromise between social-justice lefties and developers—which undid the traditional anti-development alliance between neighborhood councils and the old left—led to Seattle’s landmark Mandatory Housing Affordability upzone. MHA, which the council passed in 2019, is an affordable housing mandate that upzoned Seattle’s multifamily areas (and expanded them to include a sliver of Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones) while requiring developers to either pay into an affordable housing fund or build affordable units on site.
MHA applies to every new multifamily or commercial building in the city and has since raised nearly as much affordable housing money and created more rent-restricted units in 2020 than the city’s Housing Levy. Unlike MHA, which was watered down after months of tortuous debate, the housing levy is broadly popular with Seattle voters, perhaps because it doesn’t threaten the single-family privilege of the liberal homeowners who support it.
In an encouraging sign for future MHA expansion, however, the most recent available data shows that the small portion of formerly single-family-only land that MHA upzoned generated a disproportionate amount of the affordable housing dollars for the city in 2020.
Also in 2019, after the city prevailed against homeowner lawsuits, the council passed model legislation 8-0 loosening restrictions on backyard cottages; then-council member Harrell was absent. Olympia Democrats are still struggling to pass even modest ADU reforms.
Density is not causing displacement. It’s the other way around: The prohibition against density is causing displacement. Gentrification is happening right now in Seattle under current zoning laws that prohibit citywide density. And it’s been happening under those anti-density laws for 20 years as Seattle has experienced unprecedented growth and the concomitant need for more housing.
These substantive wins, limited as they are, signal that the movement to end exclusionary zoning has already established a beachhead where it matters most, in Seattle. Pro-housing activists erred when they shifted their fight to Olympia where they had to start from scratch in order to win the argument.
And here’s the heart of the pro-upzoning argument: Density is not causing displacement. It’s the other way around: The prohibition against density is causing displacement. Gentrification is happening right now in Seattle under current zoning laws that prohibit citywide density. And it’s been happening under those anti-density laws for 20 years as Seattle has experienced unprecedented growth and the concomitant need for more housing.
When cities restrict upzones to a few arterials, hubs, and center-city neighborhoods, those limited blocks are going to come with inflated housing prices. At the same time, prices in exclusive single-family zones remain inflated, for the same reason—housing scarcity. As recent reporting shows, if you spread out new development evenly across the city instead, the increased supply makes housing more affordable for more people.
This reality—that the status quo, not the bogeyman of theoretical future development, causes displacement—undermines Mayor Harrell’s campaign trail position that putting limits on density is necessary to prevent gentrification. It is, in fact, the reverse. I admit, particularly when it comes to the ongoing displacement of BIPOC communities, there’s an earnest and nuanced debate in play. It is, however, a debate that’s more appropriate to have in Washington state’s largest city, Seattle, than in the state legislature. Let’s have it.