Density Begins at Home

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housing crisis—we’re short hundreds of thousands of units —and the ongoing climate crisis, demands that we undo our outdated zoning laws that continue to exacerbate this dual trauma.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affordable housing crisis and the ongoing climate crisis demands that we make policy changes in Seattle, where our outdated zoning laws are exacerbating this dual trauma.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.

28 thoughts on “Density Begins at Home”

  1. I fail to see why people are trying to tack a target on the back of Rep. Gerry Pollet. No one works harder or more successfully on public interest legislation than he does.
    Rep. Pollet worked closely with Rep Shewmake to develop and pass the strongest Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) bill in the nation through the House this year (HB 1660). That will do a lot for affordable housing while keeping people in their homes. The bill doesn’t give away the keys to developers who want to build ADUs for Airbnb rental businesses. This is supposed to be about “affordable housing.”
    Rep. Pollet also introduced and moved a bill to allow cities to incentivize ADUs being added – so long as they are used for housing and not Airbnb businesses.
    The difference between Rep Pollet’s proposal for “middle housing” in HB 1981 and Bateman’s , The Governor’s requested bill HB 1782, was they wanted to mandate every lot within a half mile of every bus route with peak service be upzoned to allow 6 units. Even the Governor would not speak about 6 units on every lot when he spoke about his proposal. He only spoke about duplexes. They didn’t consider:
    • Cities like Seattle have already created very small lots, so mandating allowing 6 units on every lot ignores that we have many lots that are already too tiny without being towers in a residential neighborhood.
    • It’s important to plan how to increase density while increasing infrastructure. Their bill ignored how adding infrastructure will increase toxic storm water runoff in great volumes, hurting streams and Puget Sound. Increasing density needs to be done within the comprehensive plan process to protect the environment and health.
    • Upzoning will cause increased displacement as property values go up overnight when a property has to be valued on its potential sale for 6 units and developers can swoop in and demolish existing housing to build 6 market rate units near transit. (Just look at town house prices along 35th NE or Roosevelt).
    Most people who want to increase transit oriented development and density will agree that it is better to do it with planning and provisions to prevent displacement.
    HB 1981 would have required four units, rather than six, within a quarter mile of frequent transit, rather than a half mile). My proposal did this within the comprehensive plan process so cities would be protecting streams and Puget Sound from increased runoff, providing for transit and even fire service in upzoned areas. Increasing density with proper planning would be done on the same timeline that the Governor and Bateman proposed for the four largest counties and the following year for the remaining populous counties in the Puget Sound region.
    HB 1981 also included addressing climate change driven impacts from increasing density in the wrong places on the health of communities of color and low income communities. Does Publicola object to that?

    The Governor and Rep Bateman proposed to exempt all of the exclusive communities with homeowners’ association covenants barring anything but single family homes on large lots. This would be exempting the communities that had racially discriminatory covenants and use these covenants to keep their “private zoning” while everyone else has to live with greater density.
    Rep Pollet’s HB 1981 would have ensured that the “exclusive” communities that have their own private covenants live by the same rules as everyone else. These covenants were often part of racially/ethnic (and anti-Semitic) discriminatory covenants and deed restrictions or were put in place as subterfuges for them. Such covenants and homeowner association agreements cover large swaths of the 46th district, and even larger swaths of suburban cities. This is a major difference between Rep Pollet and the Governor’s / Rep. Bateman’s amendments. They sought to allow these exclusive communities to continue their institutional or systemic racist exclusions, while all the other neighborhoods in a city would allow duplexes or accessory dwelling units.

  2. Seattle already got rid of single family housing as most every SF lot is currently zoned to allow three living units. The YIYBY (Yes In Your Backyard) urbanist folks keep repeating many fallacies about zoning, markets, and construction costs. The zoned capacity of Seattle BEFORE the MHA upzones was already sufficient to meet the expected growth at least 2-3 times over. We are not even close to using the capacity already available, why more?

    In the MHA upzone areas, land values have DOUBLED due to the deep pocket cash developers tearing down the most affordable housing stock and replacing it with 5-pack vertical townhomes. It is a poor choice for the future, but incredibly profitable for investors now. City Council sold Seattle residents, future and existing, out to Wall Street and foreign investors.

    After MHA was implemented in my area, prices for a run-down “fixer” leapt from $700k two years ago to $1.2mil today… CASH. The townhomes that replaced the family-size fixer? They sell for $700-$800k each, or about $3.5mil to $4.0 mil gross for the parcel. The townhomes waste 25-30-percent of their floor area to stairwells.

    Flats use the space more efficiently, are family-friendly being on one level with 1, 2, or 3 bedrooms. Ground floor flats are senior age-in-place-friendly. However flats are not being built because City Council elected to not require an HOA for vertical townhomes, but DOES require projects with flats to set up an HOA. This, even though both building types have similar shared maintenance needs. Good luck in 10 years when those townhomes need painting or repairs to parking areas, fences, or roofs or to other shared areas and repairs.

    Density did not have to be zero-sum, but Council and the YIYBY folks chose to make it so. Bulk, height, and lot coverage could have been the same as existing homes to mitigate adverse impacts. Trees and open space could have been respected to help future-proof Seattle from heat island effects that are coming down the pike. One did not need to deprive neighbors of access to natural ventilation and light, shade solar panels, and gardens. It is a shame.

    Finally, if the YIMBY folks are insistent on driving existing residents from their homes due to taxes or loss of access to light and ventilation, perhaps it would be a more respectful and neighborly approach to provide empty-nesters a place to move. Little to none of what is being built under MHA today is suitable for the elders.

    1. “The townhomes that replaced the family-size fixer? They sell for $700-$800k each,”

      If pre-MHA single family fixers that sold in the $700s were good because they were were the “most-affordable ownership opportunity” then enabling more townhomes that sell for the same price is a good thing, because we have multiplied the number of the most affordable ownership opportunities to 3 or 4 or 5 instead of just 1 on the same amount of limited land.

      “or about $3.5mil to $4.0 mil gross for the parcel.”

      Yes – we can create new $700k ownership opportunities quickly through townhome construction that competes with rich people wanting $1.5M up houses filling a whole lot instead. The grouped purchasing power of folks with smaller budgets gives them a fighting chance!

  3. Sarah and Ruth, please see this article What Would Mass Upzoning *Actually* Do to Property Values? In a market like Seattle that has a severe shortage of housing if just a small amount of new housing is built it is going to be very expensive. But building a lot of new housing brings down the price. In other words, if there are people of all income levels who can’t find housing then any new housing that is built will be built for the highest income level. As more housing is built each income level is accommodated. Widespread building will bring down the cost of housing. Increased supply produces lower costs in every market including housing. As a renter I have seen this play out in real time. Years such as 2018 when a lot of new rentals became available citywide and in 2021 when Covid caused demand for apartments to go down my rent did not go up and dropped respectively. Every other year my rent goes up…a lot. Supply and demand.

    1. I see the site but not the article itself – please link? I am in support of legislation that brings affordable housing anywhere, but market rate is only affordable to those who make $100k+. Where is the guarantee that developers will build permanent affordable housing? Building more market rate housing will only benefit the $100k+ crowd. Will take decades for this new housing stock to down cycle to affordable housing, which we need now. This article makes a case that trickle down housing doesn’t work.

      1. “Building more market rate housing will only benefit the $100k+ crowd. ”

        There are new buildings in our area with studios listed at $950/month and 1 bedrooms at $1,890/month which – by the commonly used “30% of your income on housing standard – means they are affordable to folks making $38k/yr and $76k/year, respectively.

      2. There is no guarantee and this legislation did not offer one. The only way to build housing that is affordable is if the government pays to have it built – e.g. subsidizing it.

    2. Hello. The most-affordable housing is older, existing housing stock, which has a huge target on its back due to MHA and is being gobbled up by the investor class. New construction will never be cheaper than existing. Better (and far greener) is to repurpose and reuse existing buildings rather than incentivize teardowns.

      Rents behave different than ownership opportunity. It is not a good thing than Seattle has surpassed 50-percent renters. A primary method for a family to advance economically is to be able to build equity in their home.

      1. I would love to explore subdividing my home or adding an ADU. Is there technical assistance available through the city? Loans? I think a lot of homeowners would like in on this real estate boon, and have some say/control/agency with how units are added, with some support and flexibility from the City.

  4. Wow, No strong opinions here! Not sure what an “urbanism” is but do believe – after 70 plus adult years – that’ the “planning” profession adopts different policies over time. Well intended to make our community better – in their opinion. One of the latest is “infill” and abolishing single family zoning. These often operate together with “the 15 minute neighborhood.”
    Shouldn’t say this – very politically incorrect – but planners advice is to be listened to but not necessarily accepted as gospel. And there is a vested interest among planners too.
    Maybe not everyone who wants to live in Seattle – or an area with too little or expensive housing – should do so.Certainly there is no right to live here and demand housing at not to exceed 30% of your income.
    There are other places to live that have jobs and affordable housing. You may prefer Seattle or an urban environment but your preference is not an “entitlement” and we who live here – call us NIMBY if you want – are unde no obligation to help you achieve your “preference” at our expense, whether financially or quality of life.

  5. This article espouses the view of urbanists and developers who would love to tear down all single family homes and build 4 plexes so they could make millions. Who cares if people are pushed out and gentrified. And your articles on the subject also lied about how much of Seattle would have been up,ones by this proposal. Because we have such good transit – every lot would allow 4 plexes and no single family homes would be left. This is too much – too greedy. I will never vote for a candidate that would approve such a proposal. Zoning Should Be Local!!!!!

    1. Median annual household income for folks living in single family detached houses in the Seattle area is $120k. For folks living in 2-4 unit apartments, it is $56k. Single family detached houses are the cause of gentrification and displacement, not ‘plexes.

      1. Single family homes have been here for years and didn’t push people out. It is only now that more people are moving here that gentrification has become an issue. It’s the developers buying the homes that push people out and “gentrify”

      2. Hi Bryan, that seems backward to me. It seems that policy that incentivizes the teardown of our most-affordable ownership opportunity is what drives gentrification, not that this affordable stock exists in the first place. Having the price of a “fixer” leap from $700k to $1.2 mil due to MHA is not helping.

        Also, every SF parcel is currently zoned for three units under ADU/DADU.

        I do not agree that we needed to increase the height, bulk, and lot coverage in order to increase density. There are many existing duplex, triplex, other MF properties that do so within the same or similar parameters as SF, without the adverse impacts to neighbors that the vertical monsters create.

        Density does not have to be painful or zero-sum. I do not care to have a 45-foot tall wall built 8-feet from my southern wall, blocking access to passive solar that warms my home in the winter. Not a fan of the City throwing all the folks that installed solar photovoltaics under the bus by allowing these new monstrosities to shade my roof five months off the year (in my case, others may be worse).

    2. Tear down all single family housing? No Seattle legislation could possibly be passed that would mandate that. If you own a detached house in a SF-zoned neighborhood, you cannot be required to sell your house unless you CHOOSE to do so. As for gentrification, multifamily housing next door to your house hardly qualifies; instead, it means that Seattle residents who can’t afford $800K for housing will be able to live in Seattle neighborhoods. Your argument boils down to nothing but “I don’t want to live next door to those people.”

    3. Gentrification is happening BECAUSE there is no density to create more housing and lower prices. And as single family home prices push towards the one million mark, who is greedy? People who want less expensive housing or existing homeowners?

      1. “Gentrification is happening BECAUSE there is no density to create more housing and lower prices. And as single family home prices push towards the one million mark, who is greedy?”

        Exactly. Up until 2019 our area was zoned single family only. I know two houses that were being rented out while the owners (to be frank) let them fall apart until prices were high enough to get whatever amount they wanted nonetheless. The renters are gone, and the smaller one Zillows for $1.02M. The other sold in 2018 for a cool $1M despite needing work, and now Zillows for $1.3M.

        Conversely, a few blocks away you can rent a 2 bed apartment in a grandfathered small apartment building for in the $2000’s. And on a lot recently redeveloped with townhomes thanks to the zoning change, you can own for the low $700s.

  6. Ruth and Sarah (BELOW): You offer more evidence that Progressive policies do not help the people that Progressives claim their policies will help. Smart people already know that. You also offer more evidence that Progressive policies have unintended consequences which the Progressives are not smart enough to consider in advance (or they just don’t care). Smart people already know that. Are your comments directed towards Progressives or smart people ? I am just asking because Progressives cannot be educated, only made fun of. However, smart people can be entertained by these continuous Progressive failures…thank you for your service. Steve Willie.

    1. Not interested in “taking sides” Steve Willie – just pointing out flaws in the Seattle urbanist belief that density creates affordable housing. Folks that care about housing equity should ask those most impacted by lack of affordable housing what *they* want. The only people who will benefit from more luxury apartments (the only thing developers care to build) are those that already rent luxury apartments who will have more choices and maybe get a lil discount.

    2. Also, “urbanists” are not necessarily “progressive.” They’re about building functional city systems and I agree with a lot of those principles. In very urban centers like NY and Chicago, conservatives can also see the value in turning a parcel of land from three housing units to twenty. I mean, who doesn’t want to collect 6+ x more rent???

    3. You were probably addressing the other Ruth here, but in my view, we are living in very odd times when people who support free-market policies, like upzoning the city with no strings attached that might dent developer profits, can call themselves ‘progressive’.

      1. It is called Progressive because it is being done in response to the increasing homeless issue, which of course it does not address at all. That is how all Progressive programs work. 1. They don’t solve the problem. 2. They don’t help the people they are supposed to help. 3. They have unintended consequences which require passing more laws, with new restrictions, more waste, more costs, etc (an endless cycle of failure).

  7. I live in Seattle’s densest neighborhood, in a 24-story high-rise. None of the high-rise residential buildings downtown are being built to provide workforce housing. Prices continue to escalate through the roof. Most units sit empty as second and third homes doubling as investment properties. Developers are not eyeing single-family-neighborhoods because they want to build affordable housing. Profits are the primary motivator, for builders as well as global investors, and ultimately for taxing authorities like Seattle City Council. Go ahead, fling open the doors to increase density, but only after you have conceived of a holistic plan that prioritize diversity and rent controls that will ensure there is a sustainable balance of service, labor, and mid-level professionals living within each neighborhood to create a balanced community.

  8. Urbanists conflate density with affordability. Yes, more units keep prices down, but ONLY in that strata of the housing market. My neighborhood saw 5k new units in the last 5 years due to up zones around a transit hub and guess what? None are affordable to those making 60% of AMI. Down-market housing was removed to build those new $2-3k/mo units. I’m cool w these new units because there is value in density around transportation. But if we are selling Seattle on globally upzoning to fix the affordability problem for families (who need more than 2 bd) or those who don’t have other housing options, that is a misrepresentation. Y’all bought the “trickle down” housing theory product sold by developers.

    1. “Down-market housing was removed to build those new $2-3k/mo units”

      I don’t quite understand. Are you saying that cheap apartments were torn down so they could build more apartments? Why didn’t they just tear down the old houses that sit on big lots. In the Lake City/Northgate area, this happens all the time. A small old house sits on a big lot. But instead of building apartments (or even townhouses) they subdivided the property (into as many lots as possible) then built large houses. Why didn’t the developer build apartments there?

      Oh yeah, zoning. The developers built as many homes as they could. They would have built dozens and dozens of apartments, but they couldn’t. And yet you think this has no effect on the high cost of housing?

      1. Yes, see Cicily-ville (sp?) Man was a nasty slumlord, but folks lived there cheaply until houses were razed. Many cities have a place for affordable housing as older units age and moneyed folks move elsewhere. Seattle doesn’t have much of this and will lose more as property taxes go up and opportunity awaits to build fancy new housing.

        I wrote extensively above about how building new lux apartments only helps those in that market in my other comments. It doesn’t actually trickle down to struggling folks.

      2. “Yes, see Cicily-ville (sp?) Man was a nasty slumlord, but folks lived there cheaply until houses were razed.”

        Yes, Sisley’s houses were cheap because they were poorly-maintained substandard housing. The worst house on the block will have the lowest rent. Who knew?

        In a city where there were enough homes for everyone, replacing the worst home in the neighborhood with ten really nice ones would be seen as an unmitigated good thing. It would give ten households the opportunity to move into a nicer home than they previously occupied. The landlords owning the ten worst rentals remaining would be forced to aggressively decrease rents and/or improve their properties in order to find tenants at all.

        Couple this redevelopment (adding a net of nine homes) with ten households moving into the city, and someone’s going to lose out. In many cases it will be that person who was living in the worst home on the block and can’t afford as much rent as their neighbors. Maybe they move in with family or roommates, maybe they move out of town, maybe they become homeless. None of these results are desirable.

        Prohibiting demolition of decrepit buildings to add more homes doesn’t prevent these bad outcomes from happening. Those ten new households still came to town. They need a place to live. Landlords will just raise the rent, little bit little, until the poorest ten households move out in favor of the newcomers who can afford more.

        The housing crisis is a complicated, multifaceted problem. “Just build more” isn’t a complete solution, but building a lot more must be a major component of any plausible package. Those “more” homes need a place to go. Build them on a vacant lot when you can find one, sure. Once you’ve exhausted those, it’s all-around better to replace a falling-apart home than a well-maintained one.

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