Maybe Metropolis: Pro-Housing Democrats Poised for Action in 2023 After Ousting Obstructionist Seattle Rep. Pollet

Finetooth, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons via Wikimedia Commons

By Josh Feit

Before I get to last week’s quiet yet encouraging news out of Olympia—House Democrats removed single family zoning preservationist Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle) from his position overseeing housing policy—I’d like to review a couple of other recent, below-the-radar news items that provide context for why such a seemingly picayune parliamentary move in the state legislature matters for Seattle.

First, in October, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation decided to okay a request from Wallingford homeowners to put hundreds of houses in Wallingford on the National Register of Historic Places; this week, the National Parks Service made it official.

Expect to see more and more attempts by “In this House” Seattleites to weaponize “historic” districts as a tool against reforming local land use policy that could otherwise increase affordable housing and density in Seattle.

Meanwhile, another quiet zoning decision reflected the opposite path: Last month, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted against landmarking the “unremarkable” (as Erica hilariously put it) two-story wood-framed Jai Thai building on Capitol Hill. The decision cleared the way for a new seven-story affordable housing development.

You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Unfortunately, these two decisions taken together ultimately reaffirm the prevalence of Seattle’s off-kilter city planning philosophy: Seattle confines multi-story density to the same neighborhoods over and over, while foregoing opportunities for new housing in the hefty majority of the city—75 percent— that’s currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. Sadly, Capitol Hill’s density is a Catch-22 for urbanists: Enthusiastically adding units to one of Seattle’s densest neighborhoods provides fodder for the city’s redundant single-family zones to ward off reforms that could create new housing. This preserves the status quo: Skyrocketing housing prices. The Seattle area has some of the most expensive housing prices in the country, with median rents above $1,700 (over $2,200 in the Seattle region) and a median sale price of $810,000.

It’s no wonder King County says we need to build around 240,000 new affordable units in the next 20 years, or 12,000 new units a year. Currently, we’re nowhere close to that pace; over the last two years, according to the Seattle Office of Housing, the city averaged about 1,300 affordable units a year.

Thankfully, pro-housing folks are fighting to reverse this trend. Witness the long overdue progressive coup in Olympia. Earlier this month, under youthful, new leadership, the state house Democrats finally removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N Seattle) as chair of the pivotal House local government committee. As we have been reporting for years, Rep. Pollet has repeatedly used his position to kill pro-housing bills. (No surprise, The Urbanist has also called out Pollet for undermining housing legislation.) You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Initially, frustrated with Pollet’s history of watering down pro-housing legislation, the House Democratic Caucus voted in late November to shrink the scope of Pollet’s committee by moving all housing issues into the housing committee, whose chair, Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Everett) supports urbanist legislation. Last year, for example, Peterson co-sponsored Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill, HB 1782, that would have authorized duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in residential areas within a half-mile of a major transit stops. It was one of several pro-density bills Pollet helped kill last year. 

The move to take housing policy out of Pollet’s committee was orchestrated by a new generation of Democrats who want to send a message that affordable housing (tied to density) will be a top priority in 2023.

Two weeks later—evidently not done sending their message—the caucus voted to remove Pollet as chair of the local government committee altogether, handing the reins to Rep. Devina Duerr (D-1, Bothell), another co-sponsor of last year’s failed density bill.

With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

The Seattle Times, whose editorial board shares Pollet’s preservationist POV, ran an editorial last week lamenting the leadership sea change by parroting Pollet’s go-to  “local control” mantra, claiming that pro-housing bills would prohibit local governments from enacting affordable housing requirements. That’s untrue. The bills that urbanists like Rep. Bateman support simply give local jurisdictions the option to allow multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods, leaving affordable housing requirements in the hands of local jurisdictions.

“If we’re really concerned with affordable housing,” Rep. Bateman told PubliCola, “let’s first acknowledge some basic facts: Single-family zoning is 100 percent displacing people and causing gentrification.”

This status quo—not the bogeyman of future development—constitutes a current threat to housing affordability. For example, existing policy not only squeezes supply by making most of the available land in Seattle off-limits to multifamily housing, it also encourages teardowns and McMansions. Rep. Bateman’s pending, more ambitious 2023 proposal will challenge that status quo by authorizing fourplexes in residential areas of cities across the state—anywhere detached single-family homes are allowed.

Data show that even this modest increase in density improves affordability. Portland made fourplexes legal citywide two years ago and the first set of numbers indicates that they are more affordable to rent or purchase than duplexes, triplexes, or single-family homes. Additionally, Bateman said her legislation will create an affordability incentive with a “density bonus” that allows scaling up to sixplexes if two of the units are affordable to people making between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income.

On the state senate side, Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Everett) is cueing up legislation that would target upzones (more dramatic ones) specifically near transit hubs.

This is all to say, for more news that could end up having big implications in the coming year: Pay attention to the state legislature’s prefiled bills page and watch for new pro-housing legislation. With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

25 thoughts on “Maybe Metropolis: Pro-Housing Democrats Poised for Action in 2023 After Ousting Obstructionist Seattle Rep. Pollet”

  1. A Joy,

    In South Pierce County, about 15 years ago, I was contacted by 2 social service agencies about signing longer term lease agreements on rental units (a rundown, market rate building in Parkland) so they could move homeless folks from King County down south. I talked to both of them for about a hour each, explaining how Pierce County had it’s own housing problems and moving low income people in from King County really doesn’t solve anything. Neither social worker really “got it”. In their minds they were helping people. In the real world they are part of the “Industrial Homeless Complex”. This is a small army of nonprofits that “provide service” to the homeless…. soup kitchens, shelters, all sorts of physical assistance… but they control very little real housing. Something like 80? nonprofits receive millions of dollars from the City to deal with homelessness… and yet the problem just keeps getting bigger. For every non-profit working with the homeless in Seattle, there are something like 12 housing vouchers per year. It’s easy… less social workers more housing.

    The real problem is there is idea that housing issues can be solved politically and “on the cheap”. They can’t. Poor Mr. Feit really believes that somehow the State Legislature is going to change the housing situation in Seattle. It won’t. The market is what the market is.

    The real solution is people moving out expensive markets into cheaper markets, and yes, the Federal Government can help with this. The Feds (with State help) can build 10 units of low income housing in North Dakota for every one unit in Seattle….

    1. I actually work with some homelessness nonprofits as a volunteer, so I feel safe in saying that by and large you are completely wrong. Nonprofits connect homeless people with already existing services, and often have emergency shelters in their offices.

      Ironically, many of NPOs that focus on providing shelter, like the UGM, SA, and SHARE/WHEEL are part of system you should be railing against. They are the ones with the financial incentives to keep the homeless homeless. Most nonprofits that do not directly profit off of housing have broad mission statements, often including POC and LGBTQIA+ work. If suddenly nobody in Seattle was homeless, they would have plenty to pivot to and still be active.

      Forced migration of the homeless in the US is reprehensible, not to mention illegal. Why would you ever advocate for such a thing?

      1. You can buy a house trailer in North Dakota for less than the fees and permit costs of building an apartment unit in Seattle. The City, by design, only works for high income people. Unless you’re hunkered down in some sort of rent controlled unit, anyone on a fixed income is at risk to be homeless in the NW. Even if you’re a senior and own a house free and clear, taxes alone will crew though your S.S. check. Housing is an emotional subject and every single Seattle politician has lied about it over and over. There is no fixing homelessness in Seattle. There is no fixing housing for thousands of folks living on the edge in Seattle. The pols talk and talk, advocates talk and talk…. but an 8 year or 10 year or God knows how long of wait for low income housing is inhumane. Harrell just doesn’t have the testicular fortitude to tell the truth. Neither does Josh Feit. There are zero options for low income people in Greater Seattle. Live in a tent or pack your stuff and move elsewhere.

        The worst thing that could happen is for the Biden Administration to give millions to Seattle to build more affordable housing. That would just be money down the drain because Seattle needs billions, not millions, for enough affordable housing. Biden could also invest millions in depressed rural America to build low income senior housing that might actually move the needle on homelessness. Twenty units in Mississippi or one unit in San Francisco? The need is so dire.

    2. “There is no fixing homelessness in Seattle. There is no fixing housing for thousands of folks living on the edge in Seattle.”

      Fixing homelessness in Seattle is easy. Taxing large corporations like Amazon works, and is an easy sell to boot. The problem is the lack of political will to do it. Harrell is part of the problem, not part of the solution. He is in that and many other respects indistinguishable from Jenny Durkan, his predecessor. Both were aggressively anti-homeless, pro-business, and against the proven strategies that the city and region need in order to start fixing the homeless crisis.

      The answers are there. All we have to do as voters is demand they are used, and only elect people who are interested in using them.

  2. Stop lying about the % of land zoned single family. In Seattle it’s around 30% now. You can’t include parks and public right of ways or lakes in your number. Journalists should report facts not lies.

    1. Actually zero percent is now zoned single family. All previously SFH only zoned areas can now have 3 homes built on them.

    2. The percentage depends on what you are comparing them with. We can talk about parks, roads, lakes and whatnot, but that really misses the point.

      Roughly 37,000 acres in Seattle are zoned. Roughly 31,000 acres are zoned for housing, and roughly 25,000 acres are zoned single family. That works out to:

      67% of all land that is zoned is zoned for single family housing. 80% of the land zoned for housing is zoned single family.

      1. And thousands (if not tens of thousands) of older single family homes form the backbone of what remains of Seattle’s affordable rental housing. Encouraging (or taxing out) older owners to cash them out to build a three-pack of $800+K new and more expensive housing does jack shit for working class and poor folks.

        Or to put it another way – melting down old Ford Escorts to build Teslas and Benzes doesn’t reduce the price of cars.

        And Ross/Josh/ECB wonder why a lot of folks on the left find their neoliberal/developer boosterism insufferable….

  3. The new lawsuit filed against the City of Seattle by a local government employee related to the “grand bargain” cost impacts to build on her existing property, and the City’s knowledge of the impact on middle- and low- income housing areas, is a great example, and real life look, and what the heck this is really about and what the heck is going on here when our Council rushes into terrible legislation impacting every day lives they seem to care little about: https://seattlepapertrail.com/new-legal-challenge-to-mha-program/

  4. I see two big problems with the MMH Bill.

    First, missing middle housing is not going to solve our issues. It simply doesn’t build enough units, much like the ADU/DADU reforms that have not yielded the predicted units. We need high rise housing, and at best this MMH would give us more 5 over 1 boxes of ticky tacky, with the blight that is floor level retail.

    Second, the focus is on 30-80% AMI. We need over 20,000 0-30% AMI units just to meet today’s needs in Seattle alone, and that number only rises daily. What good is ignoring such a large and growing need going to do us?

    1. I disagree about low rise housing, but it also depends on the nature of the low rise housing. Low rise housing varies. Brooklyn brownstones, for example, have more people per area than practically anywhere in Seattle. A similar city is Montreal — here is an interesting video showing the density levels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYCAVmKzX10. I’m sure these numbers surprise some people. 15,000 people per km — Wow! Seattle just doesn’t have that. As in, absolutely no one (according to the data, although it might not count some of the new residential towers).

      But the devil is in the details. Duplexes on large lots with giant setbacks aren’t going to do it. In contrast, Brooklyn/Montreal type development (skinny lots, buildings right up to the edge with an apartment on each floor) and you dramatically increase the amount of housing per block. Throw in a few bigger buildings (like we are building anyway) and you have yourself enough capacity to meet our needs. It will take a while. The problem wasn’t created in a day, it won’t be fixed in a day either.

      There are other issues as well, like parking mandates and design review. Both of these push up the cost of housing. When the cost of building housing becomes too expensive, nothing gets built.

  5. This write-up is a disservice to readers – including donors – when missing the new lawsuit information and coverage about the rent cartel activity in the Seattle market covered by ProPublica and Seattle Times repeatedly this year. Those suites and coverage do not even cover all the subcontractor management companies like the one used by my building owner which use the same soft-ware. It’s boasted about to “clients” on the real estate giants website in passing in marketing its side business to property owners. I’m in a 13 unit 3 level building in central Fremont with almost no amenities. An approx. 700 ft. 2 bed walk-up with no office or secure delivery etc was almost $2,600 back in 2015 for an old structure that was not seismic retrofitted when rehabbed in 2014. There are constant electric problems and recurring safety and break-in problems.

    If ProPublica is going to stay silent on the real dark side of the rental business, zoning is not going to get us far. The crux of the problem is dirty business keeping rental units empty rather than fill at market rate. The tactic has resulted in swinging rents higher than market rate and still churning a profit.

    Thank you.

    1. Pardon, we need PubliCola to cover locally – certainly when the topic is directly connected to housing market affordability and what’s been creating that problem – what national outlets like ProPublica have covered and they only captured the biggest, most obvious bit of the local price corruption. In my 13-unit building I helped long-term renting coupled in 1 bedroom units “leap-frog” into empty 2 bedroom units sitting on the market by sharing the unit defects with those people to the apply for and request a “price adjustment” to those units during covid. In November all renters got the 6-months notices for rent increases. No comps exist for the rate increases. Our unit is managed by Crosby & Co by their hidden wing called Seattle Management Services. Despite being a well established company the owner rep uses a non-business email address. It took us filing a public disclosure request with the SDCI for the Owner Rep to get complaint with the rental laws and update the building registration from the last owner – who started the sell to them shortly after flipping it years ago.

  6. Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development admitted to me that the recent Zoned Building Capacity Report shows that Seattle has sufficient viable zoning to absorb all the growth in the 20-year plan. Josh, could you do a story on that?

  7. Beware of the Missing Middle Housing bill.

    I have been a housing advocate for 20+ years. We all agree we need a lot more housing, at least 250,000 low-income homes statewide. Contrary to the Market Urbanists, just building more high-end units will house more high-income tech workers, but it does not relieve a huge shortage of homes for households earning less than 60% of the Area Median Income, about $34/hr per person. Trickle-down housing takes 40 years to become affordable. We need it now.

    The previous Missing Middle Housing bill contained no provisions for affordability nor any anti-displacement measures. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of anti-displacement words, but no programs to help actual families who are forced to move to regain homes in their neighborhoods (to retain families, churches, schools medical care, i.e., support systems).

    Worse, the MMH bill is supported by environmentalists who claim adding density per se would preserve urban growth boundaries and decrease car trips. Sprinkling multifamily housing (duplexes up to 6-plexes) everywhere without regard to frequent (15-minute) accessible transit would force low-income families to own a car. In fact, multifamily low-income housing grants include access to frequent transit as one criterion for siting.

    About 80% of the rental housing gap is needed by households with incomes <80% of AMI. The questions to be decided are not IF we need much more low-income housing, but where and what kind.

    Furthermore, the previous bill would void all impact fees which are allowed under the Growth Management Act to pay for infrastructure. No wonder cities were unhappy. The bill pre-empted local zoning. Cities will never allow this extreme measure. This creates a fight among Democrats, with Republicans opposed.

    Last session, in their haste, proponents failed to work with stakeholders beforehand to craft legislation that protects shorelines, steep slopes and wetlands. This is local zoning.The bill was supported by the infill Master Builders and not by the Housing Alliance. Gerry Pollet worked hard with stakeholders to pass it out of his committee and out of Appropriations. It died in Rules, for lack of enough Democratic votes. Stop blaming Pollet and work the problem with pre-empting cities' control of zoning. A bill that simply allowed duplexes, triplexes and ADUs in all single-family zones could pass easily.

    We need legislation that strikes a balance.

    See http://www.seattlefairgrowth.org

    Sarajane Siegfriedt
    Community Housing Advocate

    1. Well Biden is bringing the Federal government into the housing crisis, so maybe that’s going to help? There’s just no way, no way in Hell, to ever build enough low income housing in Seattle to meet half the current need. The Federal government could choose to spend its money wisely and build low income housing in depressed areas of the US… like Indian Reservations, small towns in the Midwest and Deep South, rundown cities in the Rust Belt… and move seniors and disabled folks on a fixed income to some community they could possibly afford to live in. Not Seattle. 250,000 units of low income housing in Washington State? Not going to happen ever.

      Liberals love their money. After all the talk and postering, Seattle won’t pay up for near enough low income housing. Never happened in the past, will not happen in the future. If you’re on a fixed income in Seattle and you don’t own a home, you need to just move on because their is no room for you.

  8. I must of missed something here. Since when does dense housing equal affordable housing? It hasn’t so far in Seattle. Tearing down modest houses in R1 neighborhoods and building a posh upscale 4 plex just means that 4 well heeled families from California get a nice place to live in the Emerald City. Doesn’t do jack for the poor bastards making pizza. It’s all about supply and demand…. the supply of rich, creative people who want to live in Seattle will always outstrip the housing supply…and it’s damn near impossible for working class folks to survive in the PNW now. .. (See San Francisco or NYC for details.)

    The solution is for people to admit they can’t afford Seattle and just move away. I know so many people in their 30s and 40s living greater Seattle who barely get by, don’t own a home, have no real clear idea of what retirement is going to look for them. There isn’t going to be a political solution to any of this….. ever. Unhealthy attachments often end badly. Just admit you’re in over your head and pack up. There is life outside Seattle..so move. You can thank me later.

    1. Isn’t it better to tear down 1 modest house to house 4 Calfornia families than tear down 4 modest houses to build 4 giant mcmansions for 4 California families? Because that seems to be the actual decision on the table.

    2. Tacomee, the vast majority of 0-30% AMI housing I have seen in Seattle is high rise housing. At least it is taller than 5 over 1 missing middle housing. So dense housing does equal affordable housing.

      1. You’re right, most low-income housing in Seattle is midrise. To deliver permanent supportive housing services with economies in staffing you need at least 50 units. Simply building smaller houses in wealthier areas does not create affordability, or even any rentals. Allowing Builders to sell three units on one lot as condos is subverting the intent of the ADU ordinance.

      2. You’re the expert here…. what’s the real wait for low income housing in King County? Apply now and maybe a unit comes available in 10 years? Maybe 7? Maybe 15? I think Seattle uses a lottery plus a wait period? Even if Seattle cut off people from applying for low income housing for the next 10 years, (and that is the honest and noble way forward) there still would be a backlog right? For a decade? There’s a great deal of dishonesty with low income housing providers and the Homeless Industrial Complex in general when dealing with the down and out.

        I’d guess low income units cost over $300,000 each to build in King County right now…. $500,000+ in desirable neighborhoods like Capitol Hill. It’s also possible to build $30,000 modular homes in a factory and build trailer parks in places like Eastern Montana, Arkansas, New Mexico. Maybe low income people just no longer belong in greater Seattle? Those might SSI checks go a lot further in, say, Jackson Mississippi? The Federal government might help out here, and that a good thing because Seattle is 100% helpless to build enough low income housing for the people who currently need it. The billions of dollars to fix low income housing in Seattle just isn’t there.

      3. The real wait time? I have not gotten onto the SHA or KCHA waiting list in eight years. Each holds a lottery roughly every two years, with only ten percent of applicants getting on the list. The average wait once one is on the list is about five years, but can vary between two and twenty.

        As bleak as that is, it is no excuse to just throw up our hands, say it is impossible, and give up. Because the need increases every year, and as the MMH bill shows nobody is even talking about 0-30% AMI housing. We are failing our own local citizens at a rate that death and moving way cannot meaningfully adjust. This is a true housing emergency, and yet nothing is being done about it.

        And the Homeless Industrial Complex is by and large a myth. The few who keep people homeless for profit are more likely to be found at SHARE/WHEEL than at the new county programs level. It isn’t that the money isn’t there either, as the price per unit scales down as the number of units scales up. What isn’t there is the political will at all levels of government, from city through state. Jenny Durkan spent close to 100 million dollars on homeless sweeps in four years. Even by your math, that would have built a lot of homes.

    3. “Since when does dense housing equal affordable housing?”

      Since the middle ages, I’m guessing. Seriously though, dense housing leads to lower prices, all other things being equal. It is supply and demand. A city like Seattle has a huge amount of demand (thanks Amazon) but not much supply. The reason the supply is so low is complicated, but one big reason is that regulations make it difficult for public or private developers to build enough housing. It simply isn’t legal on much of the land. This pushes up the cost. That is the gist of it.

      They have done studies showing this to be true. In most of America, for example, the housing costs match the cost to build (i. e. labor and equipment). When lumber prices go up, housing costs go up, for example. But in a handful of areas, the market is broken. There is a big disconnect, and the prices are much higher. These are areas where the regulations limit the supply. It is basically a cartel, and prices are pushed up.

      Zoning isn’t the only regulation pushing up costs. For example, they’ve studied the requirement for parking and found that it added roughly $20,000 to the cost of every unit. A simple regulation pushes up the cost of new housing, which of course pushes up the cost of all housing.

      In other parts of the world they have different regulations. They essentially encourage density in Japan and Germany, and as a result, it is much cheaper to live there. In Tokyo — one of the biggest and most popular cities on earth — you can get a skinny house for around 300K not too far from the city center (in the equivalent of Northgate). You won’t have much land, but it is a real house. That is simply not possible in Seattle (let alone New York City) and it is because of the regulations.

      1. In lived in house in Wallingford that my roommate bought bought with a couple of thousand down and owner contract… in 1978 when Boeing was a in deep slump. It was a rundown Prairie Box that’s worth maybe 2 million today. Why? Has nothing to do with zoning and everything to do with supply and demand. Young Liberals with money love Seattle. Tech companies love Seattle, Retirement age Californians with money, also love Seattle. With that much money rolling in it’s hard to see housing prices going down.

        Of course building your way to cheaper housing is an idea, but the numbers don’t support it happening. The Seattle construction industry builds less than 15,000 units a year. As long as Seattle keeps attracting people with money, nothing is going to really change.

        I do think a number single family homes will be torn down and 4 and 6 plexes will be built, but those units (with parking a a small patio or deck) will rent for over $40,000 a year. Take down a 200 houses, build 1000 high rent units for the new money moving in. The construction industry loves this… high end means less units, less permit costs, less bullshit from the City, more profit. If you’re making pizza in Georgetown ? Things don’t look good for you.

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