Category: Density

It’s Time to Ditch Design Review

Years of controversy over the design of this Safeway-anchored building on Queen Anne galvanized opposition to Seattle’s design review process.

By Laura Loe, Wes Mills, and Mike Eliason

Seattle is preparing to update its Comprehensive Plan, which governs growth and development in the city. Between now and 2024, there will be a staggering number of public input and listening tours and community open houses, all aimed at shaping equitable development and coming to some kind of consensus about where new neighbors should be allowed to live. 

Simultaneously, the city convened an advisory stakeholder group to evaluate Seattle’s Design Review program, as required by a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) the City Council passed in spring of 2022. We question whether this advisory group, which has met three times so far, is effective or empowered to make necessary changes to this harmful program. We oppose Seattle’s Design Review program and would like it to be reduced to a routine checklist, if not eliminated altogether. We want changes to this program to be in place before the comprehensive plan update in 2024.

The intent of Seattle’s Design Review program is to “consider a broad set of design considerations and apply design guidelines that the architect must use to design the exterior of the building (and to) promote designs that fit into and relate to the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Unfortunately, the impact of design review goes far beyond aesthetics and neighborhood character. It leads to a less affordable city. According to a 2021 BERK report, Seattle needs at least 21,000 more homes for families and individuals making less than 80 percent of Area Median Income, about $95,000 for a family of four. Design reviewers are not allowed to consider the needs of lower- income people in their decision making, to say nothing of evaluating the needs of an estimated 5.8 million residents our city and region will need to house by 2050. 

Right now, Seattle planning staff coordinate community energy toward evaluating a building’s appearance—a classist and subjective process that prioritizes subjective aesthetics over equity.. Our city is not more beautiful because of Seattle’s design review process. It adds cost and limits needed homes during dual climate and housing emergencies. There is an abject futility in witnessing multiple rounds of hours-long meetings debating minuscule architectural points that would make Frank Lloyd Wright stomp out in frustration.

Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power

In contrast, there’s no process to examine whether our city’s stated values around equity, affordability and sustainability are being met. Design Review has hobbled Seattle’s ability to provide essential housing, while undermining the needs of both current and future neighbors. This process prioritizes things like the color of brick, the modulation of the back side of a building, and whether a trash pickup should be done by a 30-foot truck or a 25-foot one. It leads to complex studies of the impact of shadows on vegetable gardens. It does not support equitable development. 

In September 2021, Seattle For Everyone released a statement that made clear that Seattle’s Design Review program was failing. We agree. We have found Design Review to be one of the most anti-renter, gate-kept, exclusionary and jargon-laden of all Seattle Processes. Infuriatingly, the all-volunteer Design Review Board has been loaded with industry insider architects and process “experts.” This shuts out many people whose communities need representation, including people who are experiencing housing instability, like us. 

Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power. These locations tend to have much higher levels of air and noise pollution than the neighborhoods whose “residential character” design review aims to protect, and are considerably less safe due to traffic volumes, than residential neighborhoods. It is a public health crisis exacerbated by our bifurcated development regime. Renters deserve quiet, leafy neighborhoods where our kids can feel safe playing on the sidewalk.

The most famous example of design review’s costly and anti-renter outcomes is at the top of Queen Anne. Because of the great reporting from The Urbanist (West Design Review Board Withholds Approval for 323 Homes Atop Queen Anne Safeway), and the fantastic live-tweets by QAGreenways, dozens of people were inspired to give public comment in favor of housing on top of a grocery store. The momentum and movement to end design review has even caught the attention of Real Change advocates who specifically called out eliminating design review in their recent comprehensive plan vision

We ask the City of Seattle to remove Design Review from the building and permitting process, before we complete the Comprehensive Plan updates in Spring of 2024.   Because of the concerns raised by Seattle For Everyone, we are worried that any reforms recommended through the stakeholder group process will be worth little more than the cost of the ink used to print the very nice bound version that will be placed in the stacks of our beautiful Central Library (that probably couldn’t pass Design Review today).

The stakeholder group plans to perform “[a]n analysis of whether the program increases housing costs”. We don’t need that analysis. We already know it does—through increased processes, permitting delays, and more complex buildings. We don’t need more analysis to tell us Design Review is broken. Additionally, the council’s directive does nothing to own up to Seattle’s massive role in exporting our housing crisis to the rest of Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest. 

While we advocate for ending design review, we don’t yet have a framework for fixing our neighborhood design guidelines. One acceptable option would be to make adherence to design guidelines a low-stakes checklist-style administrative step. A few of Seattle’s design guidelines are functional and fairly useful, but others are purely aesthetic and highly questionable.  

Upcoming Meetings: September 28, October 26, November 16, December 14

Comment on these meetings here.

Watch upcoming meetings here.

Stakeholders

The stakeholder group includes affordable housing developers, market rate developers, design professionals, neighborhood organizations, and previous Design Review Board members. Stakeholders representing specific organizations are indicated here.

Additionally, the Design Review process works differently in the Department of Neighborhoods for Special Review Districts. The International Special Review District (ISRD) has taken some steps to increase participation and influence by those who have been actively marginalized and underrepresented in Seattle. For example, the ISRD Board recently expanded their language access with translation and interpretation for meetings. We need to evaluate if community members have felt that these reforms in Department of Neighborhoods have worked, to inform the SLI driven stakeholder advisory meetings  in the Department of Construction and Inspection.  

We do not support more process, more reports, or more rounds of public debate and discussion. After viewing the first few meetings of the stakeholder group reform process, it is clear that the members are disempowered to make reforms. Design review eradication should be under consideration, too. The city must study the impacts of eliminating design review and this stakeholder group is meaningless without studying that option. 

Laura is a renter, musician and gardener in Queen Anne who founded Share The Cities. Wes is a local housing and transit advocacy volunteer who rents with his family in Northgate, where they can live without a car. Mike is the founder of Larch Lab, an architecture studio and think tank – as well as renter and livable cities activist living with his family in Fremont.

Ruling: No Need to Review New Tree Regulations’ Impact on New Housing

Trees! Better than housing?

By Erica C. Barnett

On Thursday, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled against the Master Builders of Seattle/King County in a case involving a proposed new citywide tree ordinance, concluding that the city does not have to undertake any additional review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to move forward with the new law.

The proposed new law, supported by TreePAC and City Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Alex Pedersen, would lower the size threshold for “significant” and “exceptional” trees and make them harder or illegal for private property owners to remove; removing a tree larger than 12 inches in diameter, for example, would require a developer to either replant the tree on site or pay a fee based on the value of the tree.

MBAKS, which represents small-scale multifamily developers, argued that the new rules will discourage density in Seattle, “protecting” single-family neighborhoods in leafy parts of Seattle where people of color were historically barred from living, while doing nothing to improve tree coverage in sparsely canopied, more diverse parts of the city. They argued that the city needs to do more environmental analysis to consider the potential negative effects the ordinance would have on housing development and density.

In response to the ruling, MBAKS Seattle Government Affairs Manager Aliesha Ruiz said, “Although MBAKS is disappointed in the decision of the hearing examiner, we look forward to working with our housing partners and City Council to create legislation that supports both trees and housing.”

In his ruling, Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil said the developers didn’t clear the very high bar for requiring additional environmental review, essentially by failing to prove a negative: “Appellants’ arguments that the Proposal will increase the costs of development, and will have negative impacts on the City housing supply were based on speculation, not any actual quantitative analysis that was introduced into evidence, Vancil wrote.

“Appellants’ expressed concern that development will be more expensive, uncertain, and problematic on some unidentified number of lots is not enough to demonstrate that the Proposal will likely have significant adverse impacts to future housing in the City.”

Vancil also ruled that the tree ordinance, which defines an “exceptional” tree (the most protected category) as any tree more than two feet in diameter, is consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides development policy in the city and will be overhauled in 2024. (That process is just getting underway). In their appeal, the developers argued that in addition to doing more environmental analysis, the city should consider requiring developers to add street trees whenever they build new detached single-family houses, which do nothing to achieve the comprehensive plan’s density goals.

In addition to more analysis that looks at density, not just privately owned trees, MBAKS has asked the city to consider requiring street trees when developers build new detached houses in single-family zones.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Strauss, who represents Northwest Seattle, said, “Seattle is called ‘the Emerald City’ for a reason, and we need to do better at preserving our cherished urban forestry. We know trees add value to existing homes and development and many parts of our city need more tree canopy. I am excited to finally be able to create stronger tree protections here in the Emerald City.”

 

Maybe Metropolis: The Solution Is More Density, Not Just More Taxes

Image of three developments allowed in some former single-family areas, from least to most dense: residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2.
MHA’s modest upzones on a sliver of Seattle’s single-family land include (l-r) residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2. Images via City of Seattle.

By Josh Feit

The JumpStart tax, city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s payroll tax on big employers like Amazon, is posting standout numbers. This year, JumpStart will fund $97 million in affordable housing investments, including nearly $80 million for 1,769 units of affordable rental housing. Last year, the $71.4 million it provided toward affordable housing amounted to almost half the $153 million total raised by all the city’s affordable housing funding streams.

The Jump Start tax teases out the nexus between surging tech job growth and housing prices by capturing nouveau corporate Seattle’s impact on the market. That is: As the hyper growth of tech companies like Amazon inflate local housing prices, the city is taxing them to help fund affordable housing. It’s a good look, and it seems like a logical offset for the influx of high-earning tech employees. And, let’s be honest: It also feels good.

However, as much as I agree with the logic of an Amazon tax, and as much as it’s bringing in, I think there’s a more germane and effective way to raise affordable housing dollars. Luckily, it’s already part of our affordable housing strategy—sort of.

I’m talking about 2019’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, a fee on new development in designated parts of the city, which brought in an impressive $50 million in 2021 itself.

Given that Jump Start outpaced MHA by $20 million, why am I focusing on  MHA as the smarter policy? For starters, MHA, which came with a series of targeted upzones that allow more housing in more places, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city. These historical zoning laws cordon off nearly 75 percent of the city from multifamily housing, pinching supply and thus fueling steep housing prices.

While conventional wisdom holds that upzones and new development inflate housing costs, a 2021 UCLA report found that the latest studies show the opposite: Five out of six studies looking at the impact of market-rate housing determined that new market-rate density “makes nearby housing more affordable across the income distribution of rental units.”

Conversely, those who warn that upzones lead to gentrification, have a hard time explaining why gentrification is alreday happening in Seattle today, under our status-quo zoning that prohibits the very density urbanists are calling for. More logically, the prohibition on new development in so much of the city is spiking prices for the limited housing that is available.

Seattle gained 130,000 people between 2010 and 2020 (13,000 a year) and another 8,400 during the first year of the pandemic, many of them tech transplants. These newcomers didn’t cause the housing shortage, though—they merely brought it into sharper relief. The MHA strategy, which encourages housing development, is actually in the position to do something about it.

MHA, which came with a series of targeted up-zones, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city.

And MHA might be worth more money than JumpStart. The MHA data point that interests me most is $13.4 million, a subset of MHA dollars raised. This figure represents the amount of money MHA raised specifically from developments built on land where it was previously prohibited: multifamily housing built on land that was upzoned in Seattle’s previously exclusive single-family zones.

Passed in 2019, MHA didn’t merely tack a fee onto new development; it also upzoned tracts along the edges of 27 single-family zones, allowing small-scale density in some previously single-family-only neighborhoods by expanding low-rise and neighborhood commercial zones and creating a new “residential small lot” zoning designation. These modest upzones, which the city adopted on just 6 percent of single-family land, allow new housing that fits in seamlessly with single-family houses.

Interestingly, this modest bit of geography— 6% of the single-family zones, or  4% of the city’s total developable land—accounted for nearly 20 percent of all MHA dollars. This outsized production could represent an upward trend. Last year, the same modestly upzoned fraction of single-family areas brought in 12 percent of the money raised from MHA overall, $8.3 million out of MHA’s $68.3 million.

This disproportionate performance indicates that pent-up demand for development on formerly cordoned-off land could be a spigot of affordable housing cash. Consider: There’s a lot more developable land where that 6 percent came from, and the city could increase the potential density of those areas more dramatically than it has to allow multifamily and commercial development, for example. If the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell had the courage to stand up to Seattle’s NIMBY class by extending the upzones further into exclusive single-family areas and by opting for denser upzones, Seattle would generate far more cash for affordable housing.

Sure, $80 million from the JumpStart tax  is helping a lot. But the truth is, we need far more money for housing. According to the Office of Housing, MHA helped fund 990 units in 2021. But, according to the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force , we need 12,000 a year. Unfortunately, JumpStart’s impressive figures could dampen any move to expand the more on-point MHA approach, which raises money for affordable housing (and could raise a lot more) while actually addressing the crux of the housing problem by freeing up land for development.

In this way, JumpStart could unwittingly play to the interests of single-family homeowners (and their ever-appreciating property values) by shifting the focus away from the central role these homeowners play in the housing crisis, holding them harmless and avoiding bold policy solutions by taking their communities off the table.

According to the MHA numbers, the 4 percent of Seattle that we timidly opened up to more housing construction is trying to tell us something: The table is bigger than we think.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Is It Time for Seattle to Do Away With Design Review?

The Safeway building that led to seven years of aesthetic debate

By Andrew Engelson

In a city facing an extreme lack of affordable housing, Seattle’s process for permitting apartment buildings has become a bit of a circus. For months, an unelected board debated the color and style of brick on a grocery store and apartment complex in Queen Anne. Wealthy residents of an apartment tower in Belltown bogged down the construction of an apartment tower next door by insisting the design include more curves to match its architectural context. And a new multi-family building on Capitol Hill had to be redesigned because it looked “too historic.”

The process is clearly broken. In response, last November, the Seattle City Council directed the Seattle of Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to assemble a stakeholder group to examine its design review program—a complicated permitting process that many architects and housing advocates say is deeply flawed, contributes to excessive delays, and adds significant costs to new multi-family housing projects. The group, which will present its report later this year, is supposed to come up with ways to make the review process faster and more efficient, and to look at the racial and economic equity impacts of the program.  

City councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored the legislation, told PubliCola, “Long permit review times often slow or prevent the building of urgently needed housing in Seattle. I am working to address permitting delays and streamline housing production, and as part of that process design review has often come up as an area that needs fixing.” 

Design review has nothing to do with whether a building conforms to safety and construction codes. Instead, it critiques the overall appearance of a building, how it relates to the terrain and adjacent properties, how pedestrians and vehicles access the site, and the quality of the building’s materials and landscaping. The all-volunteer boards serve four-year terms and include a mix of architects, landscape designers, developers, and local residents. The decisions they make are final, and there’s no formal appeals process. When the city’s eight regional design review boards dictate aesthetic changes, it can lead to delays of months or even years and add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of apartment projects. Single-family houses, no matter the size, are not subject to design review. 

Architects and developers have been reluctant to criticize the program in the past for fear of retaliation by the volunteers on the boards, which wield a surprising amount of power and have held up projects over minor concerns such as the color of brick facades and the placement and style of public benches.

But several architects agreed to speak to PubliCola on the record about their frustration with a process that many urbanist advocates say is inconsistent, capricious, and so cumbersome that many developers are now hesitant to build new multifamily housing in Seattle.

“I think it is broken, and it can be fixed,” said Brian Runberg, founder of Runberg Architecture Group, who has seen many of his firm’s projects bog down in long delays during design review. “Currently it is not efficient or predictable. And it’s not fair nor inclusive.”

Seattle’s west design review board agonized over which array of taupes and browns to require on the front of a Safeway supermarket that’s supposed to look like a bunch of little storefronts.

Runberg was the lead architect on a 7-story apartment building, anchored by a Safeway grocery store, on Queen Anne Avenue—a project that has become notorious for its delays and finicky debates over aesthetic concerns. Originally proposed in 2016, the project went through two architects and two developers and then was held up for six months while the west region design review board and the architect haggled over the precise color and pattern of the store’s brick facade. In addition, the board requested that the facade of the Safeway approximate the look of small individual retailers – even though the one ground floor tenant is a single grocery chain.

Responding to the board’s concerns, Runberg’s staff prepared dozens of studies of brick colors and patterns for the Safeway, with negligible difference in the end product. The project was permitted late last year; after groundbreaking, construction should take about 18 months. As PubliCola reported, design review added between $750,000 and $800,000 to the project. All of the changes were purely aesthetic. 

“That’s a total of seven years to build a Safeway with apartments on top,” said Mark Ostrow, a Seattle Neighborhood Greenways board member who live-tweets about design review hearings at Queen Anne Greenways. “For the Olympic Games, the host city gets seven years to totally transform an entire city. They build massive sports venues and transportation systems. And the city of Seattle can’t even build a Safeway.”

Though the boards are formally tasked with enforcing the city’s design guidelines (which vary from neighborhood to neighborhood) sometimes the critiques veer into abstract aesthetic concerns. 

Often, the issues that review boards raise feel random and frivolous, Bradley Khouri, the founder of B9 Architects, said. Khouri remembers presenting to the east region review board for a project on Capitol Hill. The board had deliberated, and was voting to wrap things up when one board member suddenly expressed concerns, Khouri recalled, that the building was not “refined enough.” Another board member agreed to change their vote and call for another review meeting. “I’m on a video call,” Khouri remembers, “I’m in my house. And think: I can’t stop this train. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Fortunately, everybody else said no,” and the project went forward.

Khouri said he’s seen the minimum time to permit a multi-family housing project in Seattle go from about a year in 2008 to nearly two years today. When projects are held up, it’s often over minor details, Khouri said. “You could spend six months with a planner on these corrections back and forth,” he said. “And for what? At the end of the day, they may have added a little nicer material or adjusted the height of the canopy. But it’s preventing housing from getting produced in a city that’s desperate for it.” 

He pointed to an apartment project his firm designed on Capitol Hill seven years ago. “The client committed to spending over $300,000 on additional siding— today that would be half a million dollars,” Khouri said. “And the building’s more attractive as a result. Did that really need to happen? I don’t know. I like our building as it’s built, but I think we could have done just as nice a building without having to spend all that. But our client knew if he didn’t do it, he wasn’t going to be able to build this building.”

In March, the pro-density coalition Seattle for Everyone published a report with data from the consultant ECONorthwest that found the total time to get a master use permit from SDCI increased 84 percent between 2010 and 2018. By  2020, the amount of time required for a project to complete full design review had increased to 805 days, or 2.2 years, on average.

“Seattle is not known for its beautiful midrise apartment buildings. It’s actually known for its ugly ones. And this is under a system where we are legislating aesthetics. So clearly, that’s not working.”—Mark Ostrow, @QAGreenways

Runberg said that as a result, most of his developer clients now shy away from building new housing in Seattle. Five years ago, he said, about 5 percent of his firm’s multifamily residential work was on the Eastside and most of the remainder was in Seattle. “Presently, 90 percent of our work is on the Eastside,” Runberg said. “These are all the same developers we’ve had for 20 years. And it all comes back to the fact that the process is unfair and unpredictable. It’s too risky for them.”

A 2016 study of Seattle’s design review process published by University of Washington urban planning grad student Scott Cutler found that design review boards’ recommendations about the aesthetics of buildings and site plans are often applied in an arbitrary manner. “It is clear from the case study findings that Seattle’s Design Review Program suffers from inconsistently-applied scrutiny and an unpredictable bureaucratic timeline, which both need to be fixed to ensure fairness and accessibility to the process,” Cutler concluded.

In 2018, SDCI did make minor reforms to design review, but Khouri argues that the changes, though necessary, were “so minimal” compared to the kind of changes that are needed. The reforms increased the threshold for a project to be subject to full design review, created a streamlined review process and moved smaller projects and townhouses into what’s known as administrative design review—a internal, non-public process in which SDCI staff review plans.

This Belltown tower went through six months of delay because design review board members (and neighbors in a nearby luxury high-rise) didn’t think its original “rectilinear” shape worked with round buildings nearby, including the Westin hotel towers.

According to figures provided by SDCI, the number of multi-family and commercial building permits issued has declined dramatically in the past four years. Although the pandemic was certainly a driver in 2020, the overall trend since 2018 has been downward. In the last six months of 2018 after the reforms were implemented, 104 projects went through streamlined design review, 143 through administrative, and 221 projects went through full design review. By 2021, those numbers had plummeted to 66, 103, and 99, respectively. 

Not all of the decline is the result of design review, of course—high labor costs, supply chain issues, and high property values are also factors. But Brady Nordstrom, a coordinator with Seattle for Everyone, notes that design review is part of this decline in construction of multifamily housing. “We can’t control labor prices and we can’t control demand for housing,” Nordstrom said. “But we can control how we permit and move housing through permitting.”

Khouri contends that requiring aesthetic architectural review during a climate crisis and a massive surge in housing prices is unnecessary and harmful. “If we’re doing a project three blocks from light rail,” Khouri said, “should there really be a conversation about height, bulk, and scale?”

SDCI director Nathan Torgelson defended design review, which the city created in 1991 in reaction to the construction of a host of new skyscrapers downtown. “Most buildings are going to last anywhere from 50 to 70 years,” Torgelson said, “so the aesthetics of the building is absolutely important to the fabric of the city and how it fits in a neighborhood context. But we can definitely improve the process.” Continue reading “Is It Time for Seattle to Do Away With Design Review?”

Councilmembers Say Better Rent Data Could Help Preserve “Mom-and-Pop,” “Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing”

 

Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of "naturally occurring affordable housing"
Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of “naturally occurring affordable housing”

By Erica C. Barnett

Until 2017, elected officials (and reporters) hoping to get a handle on the availability and cost of rental housing in Seattle relied on reports from a private company called Dupre+Scott, whose forecasts used cheeky videos and graphics to illustrate market predictions and trends. Since Dupre+Scott shut down, the city has relied on Census tract-level data to assess housing trends, including residential displacement—a blunt, high-level instrument that does not account for differences between adjacent neighborhoods that may be in the same Census tract.

Earlier this week, City Councilmember Alex Pedersen rolled out legislation that would require landlords to submit detailed information about their rental units—including the size of each unit, the rent they charge, and whether a unit is occupied or vacant—to a research university, such as the University of Washington, twice a year and to certify under the city’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO) that they have done so. The university would analyze the information and submit reports to the city, which would use them to “identify displacement risk” and “inform [the city’s] housing policy,” according to a staff report on the bill.

“My interest,” City Councilmember Sara Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

The context for the proposal is the upcoming update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which provides the framework for all city decisions on land use and zoning. The comp plan, for example, could prescribe the creation of more neighborhood business districts, encourage zoning changes to add density in single-family areas, or require future land-use policies that encourage the use of nonmotorized transportation. Or it could encourage policies that protect existing rental units at the expense of new housing, preserve trees by maintaining Seattle’s ban on development in single-family areas, or require full infrastructure buildout (roads, sewers, transit service) before an area can be developed—a ’90s neighborhood planning concept known as “concurrency.”

Pedersen, who has been a vocal opponent of allowing more density outside existing urban villages, said the city needed more accurate rental information to determine where “naturally occurring affordable housing” exists and might be at risk of demolition if the city allows denser housing in more areas. “If additional land-use changes were pursued without first putting into effect displacement prevention laws,” Pedersen said, the city might end up adopting policies that lead to the demolition of “affordable, below-market rental housing on the Ave [in the University District] and throughout our city.” (Pedersen cited the Pacific Apartments, pictured above, as an example of naturally occurring affordable housing. Although the website for the building didn’t have any current listings, a 450-square-foot studio was listed at $1,200 last year).

“Naturally occurring affordable housing” generally refers to older units that cost less than newer housing nearby. Advocates for laws to protect this type of housing often refer to the “mom-and-pop landlords” who tend to own such older buildings, without regard for the specific challenges faced by renters who live in this kind of housing, which may be less well-maintained than professionally managed buildings.

Thanks to the rental registration ordinance, the city does have some general information about how many rental units are available each year. In 2020, according to the most recent RRIO report, the number of registered units in the city declined by about 14.4 percent, “but the total number of units stayed relatively stable with only a 0.65% decrease.”

“Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”—City Councilmember Kshama Sawant

Although the report notes that registrations may have declined for any number of reasons, including landlords not bothering to update their renewals during the pandemic, Councilmember Sara Nelson said the decline in registrations, combined with the relatively small decline in apartments on the market, “indicates to me that it is the small mom-and-pop landlords that are basically taking properties off the market.

“My interest,” Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who said she supported Pedersen’s legislation, pushed back at the idea that landlords were going out of business because of renter protections. “That is a claim by landlords,” she said. “Nobody else is claiming that. The reality is that property values are skyrocketing. Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”

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. Continue reading “Density Begins at Home”

Evening Fizz: Watered-Down Density Bill Dies in Olympia

Not this year: A bill to allow duplexes and other low-density housing next to transit lines died Tuesday in Olympia.
Not this year: A bill to allow duplexes and other low-density housing near frequent transit service died Tuesday in Olympia. Credit: Nyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Leo Brine

Legislation that would have allowed denser housing in cities across the state died this week in Olympia. Legislators in the House failed to move Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) denser housing bill (HB 1782) forward before Tuesday’s legislative cutoff.

Bateman wrote on Twitter Tuesday evening that she was “very disappointed” by the outcome, but grateful for everyone who advocated for the bill, which, she said, lays “the foundation for an even stronger policy proposal next year.”

She added that “philosophic beliefs about ‘local control’ are crippling our ability to take this necessary step. There is a real disconnect that limits fully appreciating the impact of our housing crisis & the necessary urgency of taking action.”

In an effort to make the bill passable, Bateman tried to appeal to the House’s “local control” NIMBY representatives by proposing a watered-down version. The (unsuccessful) attempt to satisfy opponents of the bill would have limited density housing to fourplexes and only required cities to plan for them within a quarter mile of frequent service stops—ensuring that most of the state’s exclusive single-family enclaves would remain that way.

Bateman also removed denser housing requirements for all jurisdictions with population under 30,000.

Her original bill would have made all cities with populations greater than 20,000 plan many types of denser housing, including sixplexes, in areas currently zoned for single-family residential housing and within a half-mile radius of a major transit stop. The original would have also required cities with populations between 10,000 and 20,000 to plan for duplexes in single-family residential zones.

And in a near-comical loophole, her revised bill would have also let jurisdictions prohibit all types of denser housing so long as they included in their countywide planning policy how the county and its cities will meet existing and projected housing needs for all economic segments of their community.

With Backing of Build Back Black Alliance, YIMBY Housing Bill Moves Forward

Housing like this Seattle duplex is currently banned in single-family-zoned areas across the state, including in Seattle. University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Housing like this Seattle duplex is currently banned in single-family-zoned areas across the state, including in Seattle.
University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

by Leo Brine

The House Appropriations Committee narrowly passed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) housing density bill (HB 1782) on Monday, by a 17-16 vote, and sent it to the House rules committee with a “do pass” recommendation. Her bill would require cities with populations greater than 10,000 to rezone single-family residential neighborhoods for more housing options, such as duplexes and fourplexes.

The committee passed the bill with an almost party-line vote. The only Democrats to vote against the bill were Reps. Tana Senn (D-41, Mercer Island) and Jesse Johnson (D-30, Federal Way). Seattle-area representatives Steve Bergquist (D-11), Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-37), Noel Frame (D-36), Nicole Macri (D-43), Gerry Pollet (D-46), Eileen Cody (D-34), Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) and Frank Chopp (D-43) all voted yes.

The bill also includes an amendment added by single-family preservationist Rep. Pollet that would allow any city to opt out of the fourplex requirement by achieving an average density goal of 33 units per acre within a half-mile of frequent transit stops. Cities would be allowed to achieve that average density by concentrating housing in certain areas, much as it is now in Seattle—allowing density only along busy arterial streets and highways, for example, instead of allowing duplexes and fourplexes next to single-family houses.

Citing the possibility of “unintended consequences,” officials from Gig Harbor, Auburn, Issaquah, and other Washington cities had urged committee members to stop Bateman’s bill from moving out of committee.

Taking up a “local control” stance, those cities opposed the legislation because, they said, they’ve already developed their own plans to add denser housing options to single-family residential neighborhoods. Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly told the committee more than 45 percent of Issaquah’s residential land is already zoned for multi-family, but they haven’t figured out “how to get people to build there.”

Other officials complained that new development would make single-family homes in their region unaffordable. Kent Mayor Dana Ralph told the committee, “Kent has some of the most naturally occurring affordable housing” in King County, and “these homes may be displaced” because of Bateman’s bill. However, data from Redfin shows houses in Kent are unaffordable now, indicating that prices are skyrocketing under the status quo, in which density is largely prohibited. In 2021, the median sale price for a housing unit in Kent was  $617,000, 37 percent higher than it was the same time the year before. Continue reading “With Backing of Build Back Black Alliance, YIMBY Housing Bill Moves Forward”

Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density

1. Seattle Municipal Court judges are instructing people they convict of misdemeanors to report to jail two months after their sentencing hearing, a decision related to a staffing crisis at the jails brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates in January. The judges consulted with jail administrators, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office before deciding to temporarily stem the flow of people from the municipal court to the jail on January 14. There may be some exceptions: Defendants who were already in custody when the municipal court sentenced them to additional jail time, for example, may remain in custody.

The judges’ decision came just as the unions representing King County’s public defenders and corrections officers joined forces to raise the alarm as COVID-19 infections surged among both jail staff and inmates, overwhelming the jails’ quarantine units and placing dozens of guards on sick leave. The ensuing shortage of staff left many inmates locked in their cells for 23 or more hours a day, sometimes missing court dates and deliveries of prescription medication. The two unions have asked King County courts, along with the county executive and prosecutor’s office, to take emergency measures to reduce the jail population in response to the outbreak, albeit with little success.

The judges’ decision won’t prevent police officers from booking people into jail to await trial for a misdemeanor offense, though people facing misdemeanor charges or convicted of misdemeanors make up a relatively small portion of King County’s jail population.

2. Homeless service providers and advocates are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of encampments scheduled for sweeps with 48 hours’ notice on the grounds that they constitute “obstructions” or hazards in the public right-of-way. In addition, some encampment removals are happening outside the official list that providers receive directly from the city. Former mayor Jenny Durkan dramatically increased the pace of this type of sweep, which does not require any offers of shelter or services.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule, which does not include all sweeps, calls for three encampment removals and two RV site “cleans” in each week of February. Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

After a press conference on public safety Friday, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington told PublICola that the apparent rise in encampment removals was the city returning to normal, before the CDC’s COVID guidelines led the city to stop removing encampments. “Last year, in the last six months of the year, we removed some of the largest encampments that we’ve ever seen in city history,” Washington said. “Now the ones we have left is Woodland Park. So of course you are going to see an increase in removals, because now we’ve addressed the largest encampments. So it may appear like there’s more removals happening just randomly, but actually, it’s just getting back on track to the rhythm that we had before COVID-19.”

Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

3. Washington mentioned Friday that the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority are working closely with community groups, like the Phinney Ridge Community Council, to address conditions at Woodland Park. The encampment was one of a couple of hot topics that came up during a recent presentation by City Councilmember Dan Strauss to the Phinney council, whose members complained about feeling unsafe because of the presence of so many homeless people relatively near their houses.

At Woodland Park, the city is trying to do what amounts to a slow sweep—removing people one or two at a time as shelter becomes available while attempting to discourage new people from moving in. One way the city is doing this, Strauss said, is by creating a “by-name list” (a fancy term for: a list) of everyone living in the park; people who are not on that list because they moved in after it was created won’t get access to shelter and assistance. “It’s very important for us to have a firm list so that we are able to measure success,” Strauss said.

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The meeting didn’t get particularly rowdy, though, until the conversation turned to  legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) that would allow very low-rise density—duplexes, triplexes, and four-unit buildings—in single-family areas like of Phinney Ridge, currently no-go zones for most renters and anyone who can’t afford the median house price of just under $1 million.

The community council, like many such groups created in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a single-family preservationist movement that persists today, is dominated by white homeowners who purchased their houses decades before Seattle’s population growth and cost of living took off in the current century. Their main talking points were based in an understanding of Seattle and its population and politics that has not noticeably evolved in 30 years: Why can’t all the density go in the places that “already have plenty of capacity to take it?” Didn’t Strauss know that neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge have already “accepted capacity way beyond the growth targets”? Why do density proponents want to eliminate all the “$650,000 starter houses” like “most of us got into our homes ages ago”?* Continue reading “Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density”

Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice

Seattle generalized zoning mapby Leo Brine

Last week, the state house and senate Local Government and Housing Committees held hearings on Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) and Sen. Mona Das’ (D-47, Kent) “middle-housing” bills, which would let cities build denser housing in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

If passed, the bills would require all cities with more than 20,000 residents to allow multi-family housing such as six-unit multiplexes, row homes, courtyard apartments and other medium-density housing options in areas within a half-mile of frequent transit service—places where buses or trains arrive at least every 15 minutes during peak hours on weekdays. Cities would also need to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods further than a half-mile from transit. Under the legislation, cities would have two years to update their comprehensive growth plans to allow this type of housing.

Bateman’s and Das’ bills (HB 1782 and SB 5760, respectively) would dramatically change Seattle’s zoning laws, permitting denser housing options in most parts of the city. Currently, most of Seattle’s residential land is exclusively zoned for detached single-family housing. Many of these single-family-only areas are within a half-mile of frequent transit stops, meaning that if the bills pass, most of Seattle’s neighborhoods would have to allow significantly denser housing options. We’ve reached out to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development for a more detailed description of how the bills would alter Seattle’s housing landscape.

Seattle Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, and Dan Strauss all signed on to support Rep. Bateman’s bill at the House Local Government Committee’s public hearing.

The bills do offer an alternative option for cities that don’t want to allow denser housing in all single-family residential zones. Cities could instead meet average minimum density standards within their urban growth areas. If a city opted for this approach, it could theoretically allow a high-rise apartment or condo complex far away from single family neighborhoods, meeting average density goals without allowing a mix of denser housing development throughout the city. However, that opt-out alternative only applies to single-family residential zones more than a half-mile from transit areas; Seattle has few of those, so even if the city chose the alternate route—which would accomplish the opposite goal of increasing housing stock citywide, by the way—it would still have to permit denser housing options in most places.

Mosqueda said she supports the bill’s statewide approach to addressing both housing affordability and supply problems. “I think this will help ensure we’re building housing for our region so that fewer people have to commute hours into their jobs or into city cores,” she said. “That will be good for environment as well.”

Mosqueda, who’s been pushing to allow more density in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods, said that the legislation wouldn’t preempt or disrupt the city’s pre-existing Mandatory Housing Affordability law, which increased density allowances in some areas that are already multifamily (and slightly expanded some multifamily areas) while requiring developers who take advantage of upzones to build or fund affordable housing.

Sen. Das said, “there’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard.’”

Das, who has tried to pass state legislation requiring denser housing options for four-years running, addressed one of the persistent fears about upzones: gentrification. Rather than causing displacement, she argued, the legislation will give “BIPOC community members an opportunity to get in the [housing] market with a condo or a townhouse” in the neighborhoods they live in, rather than having to uproot themselves to find housing they can afford in other parts of the state. “There’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard,’” Das added.

Responding to concerns about displacement, Bateman pointed to last year’s HB 1220, sponsored by Rep. Strom Petersen (D-21, Lynnwood) and Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), which requires cities to adopt anti-displacement measures into their comprehensive plans. (Seattle’s next comprehensive plan update is slated for 2024.)

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution of any amount, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Despite Das’ assurances, there is still concern that new developments will result in high-income residents moving into new housing, gentrifying low-income and vulnerable neighborhoods. On the other hand, people are being displaced and priced out of Seattle already under our current, inflexible zoning regime, where rents continue to increase largely because demand (the number of people, particularly wealthy people, living in and moving to the city) eclipses supply (the number of new units being built). Continue reading “Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice”