Category: Development

Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?

1. Last week, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington told PubliCola that the city has to make sure police are present at every encampment removal because Parks Department workers, who are in charge of removing tents and disposing of unsheltered people’s belongings, were being “assaulted” by “protesters” who show up at sweeps. The parks workers’ union raised the issue, Washington said, because the workers didn’t feel safe without police in the area.

Although we’ve been present at many encampment removals, PubliCola couldn’t remember seeing or hearing about any physical assaults by mutual aid workers who show up at sweeps—including from local TV news reporters, who are generally eager to jump on any drama related to homelessness.  Asked for clarification, a Parks Department spokeswoman said Parks employees had been both threatened and physically assaulted.

For example, the spokeswoman said, “a staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

The Seattle Police Department has lost about 400 officers since the beginning of 2020, and continues to lose more officers than it hires.

The Parks Department did not directly respond to a question about whether the Parks union requested and received a contract modification or other written agreement to ensure police would be present at all encampment removals. “When our labor partners came to us with employee safety concerns, we worked together to address them and act,” the spokeswoman said.

“A staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

2. As the West Seattle Blog reported last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation decided to “spare” a large, multi-trunked horse chestnut tree in West Seattle whose roots have caused the sidewalk to buckle, making it unsafe for pedestrians. SDOT said it had not decided what to do about the tree, which is at least several decades old, but was glad to have found a solution that doesn’t require cutting down the tree. 

The solution, which the Seattle Times summarized as “a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” comes at a cost to the city: About $45,000, according to a spokesman for SDOT, to build a new “parallel/corner curb ramp with minimal tree root trimming that should not harm the tree” and move a fire hydrant across the street.

It’s unclear what impact the success of this tree protest will have on future attempts to remove trees that are damaging public infrastructure or are in the path of development. Historically, “Save the Trees” has been a rallying cry in Seattle (and elsewhere) for laws that prevent the construction of new housing—particularly in North Seattle’s tree-lined, largely white single-family neighborhoods, where people of color were historically barred from living.

Horse chestnut trees are a rapidly growing invasive species that, along with mountain ash, “make up the majority of the non-native deciduous species” in the city, according to the city of Seattle. That quote comes from a report recommending the removal of these trees from a natural area in Southeast Seattle that is “infested” with them, hindering the growth of native species.

3. The Seattle Police Management Association, which represents fewer than 100 police captains and lieutenants, have negotiated changes in their contract that, if implemented (the full contract is on the city council’s agenda next week), would cost the city about $3.39 million this year for retroactive and current wage increases. This extra cost would come out of SPD’s salary savings for 2022—$4.5 million the city saved because SPD was unable to hire all the officers the council funded in SPD’s budget last year. (The council could also decide to fund the contract costs from some other source, but that would require new legislation; paying for salaries out of the salary savings does not require legislation.)

Back in May, the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell agreed to a “compromise” proposal that released $1.15 million in unspent salary savings to boost recruitment at SPD, after Councilmember Sara Nelson spent several weeks arguing that the city should just hand the entire $4.5 million to SPD for hiring bonuses. Conveniently enough, that $1.15 million, plus the money it will cost the city to fund SPMA’s contract in 2022, adds up to right around $4.5 million—money that would not have been available if Nelson had gotten her way and released the full $4.5 million.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said “it was purely coincidental that those two figures lined up.”

We’ll have a more detailed report on the SPMA contract later this week.

4. Last week, the King County Council agreed to delay a vote on a proposal by Councilmember Claudia Balducci to give voters the chance to decide whether to move county elections, including the races for county executive, county council, and county elections director, to even years. Balducci, echoing many progressive groups, has argued that even-year elections would boost turnout over the current system, in which many local races (including Seattle elections) are conducted in “off” years, meaning those without statewide or national elections. Continue reading “Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?”

Nelson, Breaking from Frequent Ally Pedersen, Says Landlords Shouldn’t Have to Divulge Rents

City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen (l) and Sara Nelson (r)
City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen (l) and Sara Nelson (r)

By Erica C. Barnett

When City Councilmember Alex Pedersen proposed legislation that would require landlords to report basic information about their rental units, such as the size of each unit they own and how much it rents for, twice a year, his intent wasn’t to make it harder for small landlords to stay in business.

In fact, one of the goals of the proposal was to provide data to demonstrate the value of protecting so-called “naturally occurring affordable housing”—private, nonsubsidized apartments that rent below market rate—against development, through limits on density in areas that might otherwise be redeveloped into high-rise apartments.

So it was somewhat surprising when, earlier this month, Pedersen’s frequent ally Sara Nelson accused him of trying to impose onerous regulations that would “burden small landlords” who are “really struggling to deal with the impacts of the pandemic on their businesses.” Comparing housing to consumer goods, Nelson said the legislation would force landlords to divulge “proprietary” information that other types of businesses don’t have to disclose.

“We don’t ask other small business owners for this kind of detailed information,” Nelson said during a May 20 meeting of the council’s renter’s rights committee. “For example, we don’t ask all produce vendors to submit the kinds of vegetables they sell and the prices they charge.” (Actually, we do, and on a much larger scale.)

Pedersen, seeming a bit startled by the analogy, pointed out that “the current prices of products are publicly available, whereas we don’t know what the current contract rents are for an apartment project.”

“The problem here is that the price of housing is not known,” added committee chair Kshama Sawant, who supports Pedersen’s legislation. “I don’t understand how it is a burden to disclose the amount of rent you charge—it seems to be the most basic form of information that landlords should be required to share.”

In response, Nelson said people can find out what rents landlords are charging, “kind of, when you’re looking for units,” and that if the city wants to know more about rents they should hire a contractor to do a study. Then she said supporters of the legislation should be honest and acknowledge that “this information is going to be used for other political purposes, such as rent control.”

Sawant, a socialist, supports rent control; Pedersen, a former aide to onetime City Council member Tim Burgess, does not. Continue reading “Nelson, Breaking from Frequent Ally Pedersen, Says Landlords Shouldn’t Have to Divulge Rents”

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?”

Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase”

1. On Tuesday, the city council will impose new restrictions on construction or alterations at two historic landmarks: The Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union, and an early-20th-century houseboat known as the Wagner Floating Home.

One building that won’t be getting new protections—at least, not yet—is a one-story former bank building near downtown that, for more than a decade, has housed a drive-through Walgreen’s store. Fifteen years ago, the Seattle landmarks board granted landmark status to the building, which has a handsome facade on one side but is otherwise unremarkable. In its “statement of significance,” the landmarks board seemed to struggle to explain why, exactly, the building on Denny Way—one of multiple copies around Seattle of a building designed by a different architect—merited extraordinary protection. Among other points largely unrelated to the 1950 building itself, the board cited the defunct bank’s connection to the city’s logging history and the Denny Regrade, the history of drive-through banking in the US, and the “unprecedented freedom” of mid-century Modernist style.

It doesn’t take much for a building to win landmark status in Seattle; a building is only required to be at least 25 years old and meet one of a list of criteria that includes being “associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, city, state or nation” or being characteristic of an area.

Landmarks status usually leads to limits on the demolition of, or changes to, buildings; the Walgreen’s building is unusual in that 15 years have passed since it first received landmark status. During a meeting of the council’s neighborhoods committee two weeks ago, an attorney with McCullough Hill, representing Walgreen’s, explained that protections would result in profits for the company, which could sell off the development rights for the site. This “transfer of development rights” would allow another developer add density elsewhere while preserving a one-story, car-oriented building in the middle of one of the city’s densest neighborhoods.

Committee chair Tammy Morales decided to delay imposing controls on the building, saying she was “just trying to understand what the benefit for the city is” of protecting the one-story Walgreen’s. We asked a similar question on Twitter. In our highly nonscientific poll, 89 percent opposed protecting the former bank. The committee will take up the landmarks question again at its next meeting on May 14.

2. Woodland Park, which Mayor Bruce Harrell used as the backdrop for his campaign vow to remove troublesome encampments, is still the site of a large encampment, several months after Harrell initially told neighboring residents it would be removed. The delay has allowed the city to use the same deliberate approach that was largely successful in relocating most of the people living at the Ballard Commons, which the city closed and fenced off last December. City Councilmember Dan Strauss and advocates for unsheltered people have been championing this approach, even as sweeps have ramped up dramatically since Harrell took office.

According to outreach workers and advocates who have been working with encampment residents over the past several months, the city has worked effectively to find shelter or temporary housing for several dozen people living at the encampment. As they did at the Commons, outreach workers with the nonprofit REACH and the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team created a list of 61 people living at the encampment in February and began working to move people on that list off site. At the same time, the city’s Parks Department set up portable toilets and started removing trash—two key factors that reduce the amount of visible garbage and human waste, which result when people don’t have places to throw stuff away and relieve themselves.

Data show that between September and March, just 196 of 534 people who received shelter referrals from the HOPE Team actually showed up at shelter within 48 hours and stayed for at least one night—an enrollment rate of less than 37 percent.

The result, according to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, has been “at least 30 referrals to shelter or housing,” including three housing referrals and 26 referrals to enhanced shelter or tiny house villages, in addition to 10 people who have “voluntarily relocated from the park” and are presumably living unsheltered elsewhere.

A spokesman for HSD said outreach “efforts will continue over the coming weeks in an attempt to resolve this encampment through outreach strategies alone.” However, advocates working at the encampment note that unsheltered people have continued to move to the area since February, when the city created its list; as a result, the encampment is scarcely smaller than it was when the city’s outreach efforts began. (The HSD spokesman notes that the city has referred at least five of the new people to shelters).

“We’re seeing people get into at least transitional shelter or tiny houses,” a neighbor who has been doing volunteer outreach at the encampment told PublICola. “We wish there were more staff to do [outreach and placements] and, really, more resources behind it.” Continue reading “Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase””

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.”

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”

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.)

Support PubliCola

Hey! Did you know PubliCola runs entirely on contributions from readers like you?

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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”

Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property

Photo by Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, the city council rejected a proposal by Councilmember Lisa Herbold that would have required churches to build more deeply affordable housing in exchange for density bonuses (upzones) that could double the value of property they own. The legislation the council adopted will provide a financial incentive for religious institutions to build apartments for people and households earning up to 80 percent of the Seattle area median income—for a one-person household, about $65,000 a year.

The legislation has its roots in anti-displacement efforts. Back in 2019, the state legislature adopted legislation requiring cities to give religious institutions density bonuses—essentially, the right to build more housing—on property they own, if they agree to use it for affordable housing. Three months ago, the city council adopted, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed, legislation stipulating that starting in July 2022, the housing that churches build on upzoned land must be, on average, affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income—about $49,000 for one person, or $70,000 for a family of four. 

After the legislation passed, several local churches asked Durkan and council members to change the law to increase the affordable threshold to 80 percent. At that affordability level, apartments are essentially market-rate—around $1,620 for a studio apartment, or $1,850 for a one-bedroom unit, no matter where they are located in the city. In contrast, the legislation the council and mayor approved in June required average rents of around $1,200 for a studio and $1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Herbold’s amendment would have continued to allow religious institutions in neighborhoods the city has identified as having a high displacement risk, such as the Central District, Rainier Beach, North Beacon Hill, and Lake City, to build housing affordable at the higher-income threshold, while retaining the 60 percent affordability requirement in other areas.

Nearly seven in ten Black households make less than half of the Seattle median income, and only 10 percent fall between the 50 percent and 80 percent income levels. In other words, fewer than 10 percent of all Black renter households in the city will even theoretically qualify for new church-based housing at the higher income levels the council adopted.

Representatives from local churches argued that requiring deeper affordability anywhere in the city would make it difficult for them to build housing, resulting in the displacement of churches and their congregants, because housing affordable to people making lower incomes simply doesn’t “pencil out” on church property. 

“The [new] legislation, as originally developed, created a win-win scenario where these institutions—almost all of whom make significant contributions to service and justice in the city—can continue to thrive where they are in our neighborhoods and contribute to the crying lack of affordable housing,” Michael Ramos, head of the Greater Seattle Church Council, wrote in an email to Herbold’s office opposing her amendment.

“The ideal is that we have affordable housing at 60 percent area median income across the city, and we have so many policy mechanisms and funding mechanisms to do so,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored both bills.  “Churches need the flexibility to be able to have people [earning] up to 80 percent AMI in their buildings, so that they can either choose to have people move back into the community that have been displaced or to use that revenue to create the services that other residents are receiving to meet the needs of their community.” Continue reading “Council Raises Income Level for “Affordable” Housing on Church-Owned Property”

Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts

Evolution Block in Vancouver, B.C.—the kind of multistory industrial building that could come to Seattle under a new proposal for industrial areas. Photo via PC Urban.

by Erica C. Barnett

Walk through the stretch of Ballard that runs roughly from 14th to 8th Ave. NW between NW 53rd Street and Leary Way, and you’ll find no shortage of breweries and taprooms selling hoppy IPAs and farmhouse ales to take home or drink onsite, along with an eclectic assortment of food trucks offering everything from dim sum to burgers to Polish food. What you won’t see is housing: No apartments, condos, or artists’ lofts to break up the area’s single-story industrial monoculture.

The breweries have brought some street-level excitement to this part of Ballard, but the vitality is limited: You can drink beer and buy food from a truck here, but you can’t work in an office, browse in a retail store, or dine at a restaurant—and you certainly can’t live here. Tap rooms (and marijuana shops) represent the limit of what’s allowed in an industrial area like this one in Ballard, which will eventually be a short walk away from Sound Transit’s Ballard light-rail station.

The future of Seattle’s industrial land has been a subject of debate for decades, but the idea of integrating non-industrial uses into these areas, which make up about 12 percent of Seattle’s land, has accelerated in recent years as smaller, more human-scale industrial businesses have replaced smoke-belching traditional manufacturing enterprises in Seattle and across the country. Under a new strategy created at the behest of Mayor Jenny Durkan, however, innovation in these areas would be restricted to small edge zones on the outskirts of industrial districts—and housing would continue to be banned altogether.

In addition to those new restrictions, a proposed amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan (the document that governs land use and zoning in Seattle) would make it virtually impossible to take land out of industrial use for any reason—a zoning restriction on par with laws preserving Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones.

In effect, the amendment would bar anyone who owns industrial land from even asking permission to remove it from industrial use—say, to add housing in an area right next to a light rail station. Historically (including this year), individual land owners have asked permission to change their property from industrial to another use as part of the comprehensive plan amendment process, and historically, including this year, the city has rejected such requests.

On Monday, NAIOP Washington, a lobbying organization for commercial real estate developers, wrote a letter to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development asking for more zoning flexibility within a quarter-mile of light rail stations and requesting a more flexible definition of “industrial” to allow a wider range of uses. And they asked the city to reject the proposed comprehensive plan amendment. “[W]e do not believe all 5,000 acres of our City’s industrial lands should be treated the same,” the letter, signed by NAIOP Washington director Peggi Lewis Fu, says.

“We believe in some areas, this work could go further… ensuring that this effort fully considers the billion-dollar taxpayer investment in current and future light-rail transit stations that fall within this study area,” the letter continues.

The new recommendations introduce the concept of “high-density employment” in industrial areas near transit stops—multistory industrial buildings that, in some cases, might include office space. In practice, this type of development would encourage a one-way in-migration to jobs and a one-way out-migration to homes, much as 20th-century transit and highway planning assumed people would commute to cities’ downtown cores from distant residential neighborhoods and suburbs.

Jessica Clawson, an attorney at the firm McCullough Hill Leary in Seattle, asked the city council’s land use committee last month to delay considering the comprehensive plan amendment until next year, when the city will have a better idea of where Sound Transit’s new stations in Interbay and Ballard will go.

“Why would the council docket and study a comp plan amendment now that would make it more difficult to consider these really important transportation decisions when making land use changes [in the future]?” she asked. Clawson’s firm is headed by longtime developer attorney (and political heavy hitter) Jack McCullough, who co-chaired the committee that produced the 2017 proposal.

The Industrial Innovation Network—a group of property owners who want to remove their land from industrial use, allowing them to develop it—has filed an appeal to the city’s determination of [environmental] nonsignificance for the amendment, arguing that the proposal would make it impossible for them to develop housing, including affordable housing, in historically industrial areas near light rail stations “In addition, the Proposal’s restriction of land to only industrial uses will cause some properties to remain vacant or underutilized, with buildings in a state of disrepair, resulting in blight,” the appeal, filed by McCullough Hill Leary, says. 

In a letter to OPCD a week before the IIN filed its appeal, Clawson argued that would take away property owners’ rights to “petition their government” for a land-use change, reduce the usefulness of light rail, and contribute to the housing shortage by taking land out of residential use, potentially “in perpetuity.” 

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter, signed by Clawson, says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

The council voted to move the amendment forward; they haven’t acted on the industrial advisory group’s recommendations, which will face environmental review. The city hearing examiner’s office has the property owners’ appeal on its docket.

Although industrial areas enjoy an enviably low vacancy rate (about 5 percent, compared to an office vacancy rate of 15 percent), the definition of “industrial” continues to shift in ways that have led other cities (notably Portland) to allow some mingling of homes, shops, and restaurants in once walled-off industrial areas. The idea of allowing housing in industrial areas has long been off-limits in Seattle, but the city’s growth—even at the height of COVID, the city grew by 8,400 people, cementing our status as one of the fastest-growing US cities—may force the issue, especially in a city that restricts new apartments to a tiny sliver of its buildable land.

In Seattle, conversations about the future of industrial land have been slow and fitful. In 2016, then-mayor Ed Murray assembled a group of stakeholders—including industrial land owners, planners, developers, and maritime advocacy groups—to come up with a new framework for developing industrial areas in the future. The update was long overdue: Since 2007, when the city dramatically downzoned industrial land by placing strict size limits on office and retail uses, Seattle’s industrial areas have been effectively closed to non-industrial development—a status that keeps land costs lower (no competition with residential and office developers), but can produce dull streetscapes prone to potholes and blight.

“That first [set of meetings] started so contentiously that they couldn’t even have the two sides of the table in the same room for the first three meetings,” SODO Business Improvement Area director Erin Goodman recalled. The argument boiled down to “development version preservation of industrial land—this is a hot button issue down here.” Continue reading “Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts”

What’s a YIMBY To Do? Part 2

Mayoral Candidate Lorena González Photo credit: Steve Dipaola

by Josh Feit

Historically, Seattle mayoral campaigns have been frustrating for voters like me. Pro-city YIMBYs are usually stuck picking between two disappointing choices. There’s the establishment candidate who stands by Seattle’s formula of sequestering development downtown and into select hubs, while obediently keeping density out of exclusionary single-family neighborhoods. Or there’s the populist candidate for whom development is a dirty word that only means one thing—gentrification.

Fortunately, with a wide-open field this year, there’s room for an urbanist to defy Seattle’s traditional, binary script and step in with a progressive third way that calls for transit-oriented neighborhoods, where density and mixed-use zoning can remake our city for equity. (The pandemic has certainly provided breathing room to this new vision by letting voters actually experience their neighborhoods as more than just bedroom communities for downtown.)

In March, when the race first got underway, I flagged two potentially promising candidates, Jessyn Farrell and Andrew Grant Houston, who could step in and rally the long-overlooked pro-city constituency—Farrell due to her record of transit advocacy or Houston with his exciting to-do list.

Last week, however, at a mayoral candidate forum co-sponsored by the MASS Coalition and other key urbanist groups (moderated by PubliCola’s own Erica C. Barnett), a different candidate emerged as the unflinching, outspoken leader of the pro-urban cause: Seattle City Council president Lorena González. González is an at-large city council member who was first elected in 2015 as a police accountability activist and attorney.

Here’s what I wrote about González in March, explaining why I chose to highlight Farrell and Houston: “That’s not to say police accountability superstar González hasn’t voted for YIMBY legislation, but it’s far from the focus of her agenda.” However, when Barnett pressed the candidates to articulate their pro-city agenda during last week’s forum, González flew the urbanist flag more unapologetically and forcefully than anyone else in the crowded field. It’s also worth noting that González has already won two citywide races—she was re-elected in 2017—and has a history of supporting progressive legislation at City Hall.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by González’s righteous edge on urbanism; when the city deigned to modestly increase density on the fringes of Seattle’s single-family zones back in 2019, González was all in, saying let’s do this already, and also saying it wasn’t nearly enough. She used the occasion to school the NIMBYs about the city’s “cloud of exclusionary zoning.” 

The fight to rid the city of exclusionary zoning as a front-and-center-policy choice seems to define González’s agenda. Asked to name the single most important thing she could do as mayor to fight climate change, González, unlike any of the other candidates at the forum, went right after single-family zoning.

Listen to her connect the dots: “We have to build a city that gives people incentive to get out of cars and stay in their neighborhoods. We can build that kind of city across every single neighborhood. I think the most important thing we can do is dismantle exclusionary zoning laws that create the most expensive and the least climate-friendly buildings for living. Those are single-family homes.”

“I think the most important thing we can do is dismantle exclusionary zoning laws.”—City Council President Lorena González

The once-radical belief that single-family zones are exclusionary, and that easing Seattle’s affordable housing crisis will require eliminating them, is finally widely accepted. And as we pointed out earlier this week, most candidates generically support the concept. González, however, goes beyond just checking that box; she connects all her dots to the issue, making equitable and complete neighborhoods the centerpiece of her city planning vision. (Newcomer Houston is adamant about getting rid of single-family zoning too.)

Several of González’s answers to questions during the forum were defined by remaking Seattle’s neighborhoods.

In her opening statement, she rushed right to the comprehensive plan, the city’s governing neighborhood planning document, saying city hall needed to take the pending 2024 Comp Plan update as a chance to “build a 15-minute city”—a guiding urbanist principle that means every household citywide should have 15-minute access, “without relying on a single-occupant vehicle,” to goods and services.

And when asked during the “Yes or No” lightning round whether she supported making SDOT’s COVID-19-era pedestrian-friendly streets permanent, González not only said Yes, duh, but felt compelled to add: “Already working on it. And I would also make sure that they are not mixed modality.” In fact, earlier in the forum, she brought this issue up on her own, segueing into an anti-car tirade: “I love the [pandemic-era pedestrian streets], but they are still mixed modalities. We need to eliminate cars on those streets to make sure they continue to be safe, and will be safe for those of us who are not in a steel machine.”

González’s star turn at the MASS Coalition forum also featured this refreshing bit of impatience with Seattle’s car-centric status quo. Asked if she would take action (where the current mayor has not) to set up an enforcement-camera pilot to protect bus-only lanes and bike lanes, she said: “Yes, and yes. And I would just do it. I don’t think we need a pilot project to know that this is something that is effective.”

Lest you think former police accountability attorney González, with her history of taking on biased policing, has subbed out her racial justice lens for a pro-transit lens—nope. She added: “I will also say, it’s really important to make sure we are not creating any disproportionate or disparate impacts on low income or people of color who might be targeted through the automated enforcement.”

Urbanism and social justice have been inching toward each other for nearly a decade, but the over-simplistic dynamics of Seattle’s mayoral elections have thwarted the smart combo by forcing pro-city voters to choose one or the other. No longer.

Ultimately, this is the power of González’s urbanism. Just as her call for multifamily housing in Seattle’s exclusive neighborhoods is fueled by her visceral sense of racism (go to the 2:06:18 mark for  her 2019 history lesson about redlining), so are her calls for transit access.

Urbanism and social justice have been inching toward each other for nearly a decade, but the over-simplistic dynamics of Seattle’s mayoral elections have thwarted the smart combo by forcing pro-city voters to choose one or the other. No longer. Judging from her momentum at the MASS Coalition forum, González is the right woman at the right time to press the Jane Jacobs agenda.

Two important footnotes.

1) Houston, who is young,  BIPOC, and queer, also runs urbanism through a smart social justice lens. For example, he stood out during the MASS Coalition forum lightning round by coming out against congestion pricing, saying simply, “No, it’s inequitable.” Everyone—even the unimpressive Bruce Harrell—gets that congestion pricing will hit poorer people harder because housing prices force poor people into far-flung, car-dependent suburban living. I respect Houston’s hard-line stance (as did ECB!), but the ultimate wisdom of charging people to drive downtown (González said yes) can easily be designed to exempt poor people. As mayor, there’s no question Latinx González will craft a just congestion pricing program.

Yeah yeah, they’ve got their spoiled-brat campaign against Sawant (which reads like a Brett Kavanaugh temper tantrum)

And, here’s a thought about the council election:

2) If you believe the Seattle Times, establishment polling firms, and conventional wisdom, Seattle voters are fed up with the City Council—their woke politics, their YIMBY POV, their commitment to organized labor, their “permissive” (harm reduction) approach to homelessness, and the fact that they had the nerve to hold Carmen Best accountable for the SPD.

Reality check: NO LEGIT CANDIDATE CHOSE TO RUN AGAINST THE COUNCIL’S AT-LARGE LEADER OF THESE AWESOME POLITICS, Position 8 Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda.

Probably because the establishment is gaslighting you, and they actually know there’s no way to beat Mosqueda, because people actually agree with her progressive, YIMBY agenda. Meanwhile, the establishment’s former bestie, the mayor, dropped out of her bid for reelection. Hmmm.

Yeah, yeah, they’ve got their spoiled-brat campaign against Sawant (which reads like a Brett Kavanaugh temper tantrum), but that’s a longstanding obsession, and it’s unrelated to Mosqueda’s specific, get-shit done, agenda.

Josh@PubliCola.com