Category: housing

Initiative Would Pave the Way for Social Housing in Seattle

Wohnpark Alterlaa, a social housing project in Vienna
Social housing in Vienna; photo by Thomas Ledl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

The House Our Neighbors coalition, a project of the homeless advocacy group Real Change, will file a ballot initiative on Monday to create a new public development authority (PDA) to build publicly owned, permanently affordable housing—also known as social housing—in Seattle. Funding for the PDA would come later, through future state or local legislation.

Social housing, according to Real Change advocacy director Tiffani McCoy, differs from other types of affordable housing because it’s permanently affordable, including to people whose income changes; because it gives renters a say in policies that impact them; and because it’s publicly owned, rather than subsidized or operated by a private nonprofit, like much of the affordable housing in Seattle.

“Developments MUST be permanently protected from being sold or transferred to a private entity or public-private partnership,” the proposed ordinance says.

McCoy says the coalition backing the initiative “didn’t want to just advocate for more money for the [Seattle] Office of Housing or affordable housing in general, because while those are obviously very, very important programs, they can be very restrictive in terms of what [income levels] you can serve. The proposed new authority would build housing for people earning between 0 and 120 percent of Seattle’s Area Median Income, currently $81,000 for a single person or $115,700 for a family of four.

The initiative would set up a PDA—a type of public developer—and require the city of Seattle to provide “in-kind” startup support to run it for the first 18 months; funding to actually build new housing would come later and could require the state legislature to approve a new funding mechanism, as it has for other large local projects like Sound Transit. State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43), a longtime advocate for affordable housing, is supporting the initiative and could be instrumental in creating a funding source for the authority, if the measure passes; he did not immediately return a call for comment last week.

The initiative would also require the city to do a feasibility study before selling off public land to determine whether it could be developed as social housing and transferred to the PDA. In 2019, the city sold a three-acre piece of land in South Lake Union known as the “Mercer Megablock” to a real estate equity firm for $143 million; the sale required the buyer, Alexandria Real Estate, to build 175 units of affordable housing and a make a one-time $5 million contribution to help the city address homelessness. Affordable housing advocates criticized the sale as a missed opportunity to build a much larger number of permanently affordable units on the site.

By adding the requirement that the city study the feasibility of affordable housing before selling off public land, “we just wanted to set up some accountability mechanism,” McCoy said: “A record of [the city] saying why they want this land to go to a private developer, as opposed to being for for public use.”

Initiative backers will have to collect around 26,500 valid signatures to get the measure on the November ballot; since some signatures are always ruled invalid, that means collecting around 35,000 signatures total.

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.”

Democrats Try to Counter Their Meek Housing Policy Achievements with Major Investments in Homelessness Programs

Low-Income Housing Institute tiny house village
Tiny houses, like this one in a village operated by the Low-Income Housing Institute, are a form of non-congregate shelter—the type of shelter Governor Jay Inslee says he wants to prioritize statewide.

by Leo Brine

As a counter to their meek policy achievements in Olympia this year, Democrats loaded their capital and operating budgets with historic investments in housing and homelessness response—$829 million, nearly half of which will go to local governments and nonprofits to develop new shelter and permanent housing. Governor Jay Inslee estimates the state will add 3,890 new housing units or shelter beds with $413 million in funding from the Housing Trust Fund and appropriations for rapid capital acquisitions.

The rest of the money ($416 million) will go to things like rent, mortgage, and utility debt assistance. An Inslee-backed bill to create a new office inside the Department of Social and Health Services to address homeless encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, like freeway underpasses, failed, but the budget includes $52 million that will go to local governments for the same purpose, including $7 million to help prevent future encampments in places where encampments have been removed.

Democrats killed several pieces of their own progressive housing legislation that would have created incentives for denser housing development after those bills were watered down by amendments from Republicans and other Democrats. In the house, they  killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) denser housing bill (HB 1782) at the first legislative cutoff of the session. At the next cutoff, senate Democrats killed Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit legalization bill (HB 1660).

And on the final night of the session, the clock ran out on the year’s last hope for housing policy reform—a bill sponsored by Rep. Davina Duerr (D-1, Bothell) bill (HB 1099) that would have required cities to adjust their growth plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled. The bill, which would have updated the state’s Growth Management Act to respond urgently to climate change, was a top priority for the environmental advocacy group Futurewise.

Inslee’s senior adviser for housing, Jim Baumgart, said Inslee wants to move away from “mats on a floor,” and “cots in a big open room” shelter model and toward a system where people get their own space. “If we can, the goal is always to get people into permanent housing. The way to end homelessness is to get people into permanent housing,” Baumgart said.

“It’s really hard to know what projects will come in and what those proposals will be for. Thomas said. “Our hope is the vast majority of the funds are for permanent housing solutions.”

Unfortunately, it’s not clear how much permanent housing the state will add with the Democrats’ investments. According to Baumgart,  “housing units” refers to “all non-congregate housing options,” from shelters  and transitional housing to permanent housing, supportive and otherwise.

Baumgart said it’s “really hard to estimate” that figure because of the rising cost of building materials and they don’t know which projects local governments and nonprofits will submit for grant funding.

Michele Thomas, from the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance, is also trying to figure out how much permanent housing the budget creates, but says she won’t know for a while. She said the grants in the budget can go to a variety of projects that deal with homelessness, not just permanent housing. Continue reading “Democrats Try to Counter Their Meek Housing Policy Achievements with Major Investments in Homelessness Programs”

Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda

Despite Democratic control in both houses, Washington state’s tax code remains deeply inequitable.

By Leo Brine

Last Thursday marked the end of the 2022 legislative session. Lawmakers only had 60 days to pass legislation, write and pass two supplemental budgets, and pass a transportation spending package. At the outset of the session, Democrats, who have a 57-seat majority in the house and a 29-seat majority in the senate, said they wanted to pass bills to help with housing affordability, homelessness, environmental sustainability, and the economy.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola, “it was not a great year in terms of policy.” Macri pointed out that Democrats killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill to allow denser housing statewide (HB 1782) and Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bill (HB 1660), both of which could have helped the state increase its housing stock. Bateman’s bill would have required all Washington cities to include denser housing options, like fourplexes and courtyard apartments, in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing, while Shewmake’s would have permitted mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages in all types of residential neighborhoods.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) said “it was not a great year in terms of policy.”

The legislature also killed Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21, Lynnwood) tenant protections bill (HB 1904), failing to vote on it by the first legislative deadline.  Michele Thomas from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said it was “one of the biggest losses of the session,” adding, “Democrats in the House shouldn’t have been afraid to vote on that bill.” The bill would have required landlords to give tenants six months’ notice before increasing rent; capped fees for late rent payments at $75; and provided tenants who could not afford a rent increase assistance moving somewhere they could afford. Thomas said the bill was tame and didn’t propose any kind of rent control, typically a third rail for legislators.

Democrats did manage to pass some homelessness bills that will provide temporary help to people living on the streets. The house and senate passed Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43, Seattle) bill that attempts to connect people under the state’s Apple Health (Medicaid) program with permanent supportive housing (HB 1866). Although the bill initially passed without funding, Democrats secured $60 million for the program in the capital budget. Macri saw the provision as a necessary upgrade. “Being on the budget team, I tried to focus on making sure we had strong investments because we didn’t have the strong policy I wanted to see pass,” she said.

To respond to the ongoing climate crisis, which is only getting worse, Democrats used their transportation package to try and reduce the state’s overall emissions by investing in electrified ferries, expanded transit services and better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Climate Solutions Washington Director Kelly Hall said she was pleased with the investments Democrats made with the transportation package and hopes they will allocate more of the funding from the transportation package toward electrifying heavy-duty machinery, like long-haul trucks and construction vehicles, between now and the 2023 legislative session.

While Hall supports the transportation package, she said the legislature failed to pass bills that would reduce emissions from the state’s gas-heated buildings and from other common polluters people don’t often think of. Hall pointed out Rep. Macri’s bill (HB 1918) would have exempted the purchase of energy efficient lawn equipment from the state’s sales tax and encouraged more people to ditch their gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers for zero-emission models. Gas-powered lawn tools “emit a lot of toxic air pollution right in our communities,” Hall said. Continue reading “Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda”

Downtown Sweep Highlights Urgency of Resolving Seattle’s Other “Top-Priority Encampment,” Woodland Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Last Wednesday, police and parks department workers removed a highly visible encampment in downtown Seattle after a weekslong standoff between protesters and the city. Mayor Bruce Harrell justified the no-notice sweep by saying the encampment was an “obstruction to pedestrian access” along Fourth Avenue between James and Columbia Streets—a stretch of sidewalk that happens to be visible from the mayor’s office on the seventh floor of City Hall.

Across town, the sweep left advocates and outreach workers wondering whether the city would take similarly swift action to clear a controversial encampment at Woodland Park—the largest remaining park-based encampment in the city, and one Harrell has repeatedly identified as a top priority for his administration. During his campaign, for example, Harrell said the encampment would be gone by “January or February” of this year, “because I work with a sense of urgency.” In January, Harrell officially identified Woodland Park as a “top-priority” site. Then, last month, he re-emphasized the point in his state of the city speech, saying, “we will continue our efforts on top priorities like Woodland Park. … Woodland Park is a gem in our city—and trash, fires, continued inhumane conditions are not acceptable, period.”

Last month, a fire at a campsite in Woodland Park destroyed a tent and damaged a park shelter, prompting renewed neighborhood calls for the city to clear the encampment.

To address trash, the city installed five Dumpsters in the park at a cost of $2,000 each, according to a spokeswoman for the Parks Department.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the neighborhood surrounding the park, has said the city will take a methodical approach to clearing the encampment—creating a list of every person living there, then moving each of them individually to appropriate shelter or housing before securing the area against future encampments and reclaiming it for general public use. The city took a similar approach at the Ballard Commons, with one major difference—when the city closed the Commons, dozens of new shelter and housing spots had just become available, making it much easier than usual to relocate people into places they actually wanted to be.

“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park. We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.”—City Councilmember Dan Strauss

At Woodland Park, in contrast, the city must rely on its existing, inadequate pool of shelter and housing options—a tiny house here, a single bed in a gender-segregated shelter there—and hope that people both “accept” referrals to shelter and actually go shelter and stay there instead of coming back.

To that end, the city is reserving “approximately half” of whatever shelter beds open up for people living in Woodland Park, Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “Otherwise, the timeline for making offers of shelter to those residing in Woodland Park would only be further extended given the number of people residing onsite”—between 60 and 80, according to outreach workers in the area.

Another difference between Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons is that Woodland Park is much larger and can’t easily be contained, like the Commons, by a fence. This makes it easy for new people to move in—which, Strauss acknowledges, they are doing now.

“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park,” Strauss said, including some who have arrived specifically because they’ve heard that the city is making shelter and housing available to people living there. “We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.” Outreach workers say that when the city announces an encampment will be swept soon, people usually show up from other places, hoping to get access to shelter and services that are unavailable to people living elsewhere.

To ensure the list of people on the list for shelter and services at Woodland Park doesn’t get longer, outreach workers are creating a “by-name list” of people eligible for expedited access because they lived in the park before a certain date; those who arrive later will get “the same priority as everyone else in the city,” Strauss said. The city prioritizes people for shelter based on their “vulnerability,” a grim calculus that includes factors like a person’s age, disabilities, and the length of time they’ve been homeless. Currently, there are only a handful of shelter beds available on any night for the tens of thousands of people the King County Regional Homelessness Authority now estimates are homeless across the region.

Katie Jendrey, a volunteer with a mutual-aid group that has been working in Woodland Park for months, said the existence of a fixed “by-name list” suggests an officially sanctioned division of Woodland Park’s homeless population into haves and have-nots—those who might get shelter because they got there first, and those who will, by official city policy, be left behind.

“I do think the city is doing something right in doing intensive outreach over an extended time,” Jendrey said. But, she added, “we’ve been nervous about this by-name list thing, because the population always fluctuates. To say ‘We’ve got a list’ [is to say], ‘This is who we’re going to give services to, not those people.'” Continue reading “Downtown Sweep Highlights Urgency of Resolving Seattle’s Other “Top-Priority Encampment,” Woodland Park”

With Advocates Watching Closely, Legislators Propose Office to Respond to Encampments

By Leo Brine

On Thursday, House Democrats amended legislation creating a new office to deal with encampments in public rights-of-way, removing many of the provisions that homeless advocates feared would be used to sweep encampments indiscriminately—and leaving unanswered questions about what its actual impact would be.

The bill, originally requested by Gov, Jay Inslee (SB 5662) and sponsored Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-48, Bellevue), would create a new Office of Intergovernmental Coordination on Public Right-of-Way Homeless Encampments within the Department of Social and Health Services.

The job of the office would be to coordinate efforts to respond to homeless encampments Washington State Department of Transportation right-of-way, such as underneath highway overpasses, with the ultimate goal of “reducing the number of encamped persons through transition to a permanent housing solution so that the encampment is closed with the site either restored to original conditions or preserved for future use.”

Kuderer said the office would identify new permanent housing or shelter options and offer them to people living in WSDOT rights-of-way before removing people from where they are—“meeting people where they’re at” and connecting them with services and resources. 

The bill’s ultimate goal is to transition people living in encampments to permanent housing, she said, but Kuderer told PubliCola she wanted to include temporary shelters and other sanctioned encampment options in the bill so people will have a place to live that’s not next to a highway while the state tries to create more permanent housing.

Affordable housing and homeless advocacy groups like the ACLU, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness fear that without changes, the bill could be used to justify encampment sweeps.

Alison Eisinger, the Executive Director of the Coalition, told PubliCola, “We appreciate the changes made in the House, and we really like investments in housing and services, but we would be opposed to any bill that encourages sweeps.”

Currently, the bill says encampments on WSDOT property will get priority access to shelter and housing, with encampments that pose “the greatest health and safety risk to the encamped population, the public, or workers on the right-of-way” rising to the top of the list. In practice, this could mean that people living in encampments on WSDOT property would get priority for shelter, services, or housing over other unsheltered people because of their location alone.

“Shelter or housing plans should be complete before engaging persons encamped on the public rights-of-way,” the bill says. However, the bill also stipulates that if there are “concerns over public health and safety, worker access and safety, and public access,” jurisdictions could remove an encampment and displace campers without offering them anywhere to go. In Seattle, a similar set of guidelines has enabled the city to define virtually any encampment in any public space, including sidewalks and parks, as an “obstruction,” allowing it to remove encampments without offering shelter or services and without any advance notice.

Advocates also point out that the bill’s description of the process for transitioning people into housing is vague. The bill expresses the “intent” that cities and other jurisdictions will “engage” unsheltered people “with teams of multidisciplinary experts focused in trauma-informed care” and offer them “provisions of service” with the goal of moving them to permanent housing. But it does not explain who the experts would be, how they would provide “trauma-informed care,” what counts as “service,” and what counts as a “housing solution.” 

WLIHA’s Michele Thomas told lawmakers at the House Housing, Human Services and Veterans committee the bill is “a skeleton of a concept” that  “could actually have harmful impacts” if it isn’t fleshed out. Continue reading “With Advocates Watching Closely, Legislators Propose Office to Respond to Encampments”

Effort to Extend Eviction Moratorium Fails; House, Senate Budgets Differ on Housing, Homelessness

1. The Seattle City Council rejected a proposal by Councilmember Kshama Sawant to extend the citywide eviction moratorium until the end of the city’s declared emergency on COVID, which is currently indefinite. The legislation was a last-ditch attempt to thwart an executive order by Mayor Bruce Harrell ending the moratorium at the end of this month. Councilmembers Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda, and Lisa Herbold voted for the extension.

In her comments before the vote, council president Debora Juarez argued that there are already plenty of protections for renters seeking to avoid eviction, including rental assistance, a guaranteed right to legal counsel, and the just-cause eviction ordinance, which restricts the reasons for which landlords can evict a tenant (nonpayment of rent among them). “We cannot have a healthy economy when nobody pays rent,” Juarez said.

The council also rejected, on a different 5-3 note, a proposal by Herbold to extend the moratorium to April 30 “in order to allow the council to consider alternative measures for tenants that they have been unable to pay their rent due to financial hardship.” Mosqueda and Councilmember Dan Strauss joined Herbold in voting for the shorter extension, while Sawant joined the majority and voted against it, telling her supporters “we cannot trust the establishment” to protect renters’ rights.

Councilmember Tammy Morales, who supported Sawant’s proposal, was absent. Had she been at the meeting and voted for Herbold’s amendment, Sawant would have been in the position of casting the tiebreaking vote to either extend the moratorium two more months or defy “the establishment” by killing the compromise proposal and ensuring an earlier end to the moratorium.

2. House Democrats included Rep. Nicole Macri’s (D-43, Seattle) $78 million budget request to provide homeless service workers with $2000 stipends in their 2022 supplemental operating budget proposal, which they unveiled at a press conference on Monday. As PubliCola reported last week, Macri proposed the stipends as one-time assistance to service providers who often make poverty wages themselves.

Thanks to higher-than-anticipated tax revenues this year, both the House and Senate budget proposals increase funding for K-12 schools, public utilities, transportation, and human services, among other program areas.

The House Democrats’ budget proposal committee includes more than $520 million for housing and homelessness, including $400 to quickly acquire properties that would be converted into shelters and permanent housing. Buying up existing properties is faster and generally cheaper than building new housing from scratch. Michele Thomas, of the Washington Low-income Housing Alliance, said the investment was “what a response to an emergency looks like.”

Another area where the House and Senate budget writers differed was rent assistance. The House budget allocates $55 million for rent assistance programs throughout the state, while the Senate includes no funding for rent assistance. However, the Senate does carve out $5 million for the landlord tenant mitigation programs they created last year. The funding should help King County continue their rental assistance program past February 28, when the Seattle eviction moratorium expires.

In the Senate budget, Democrats took a different approach to homelessness, allocating $46 million to Sen. fund Sen. Patty Kuderer’s (D-48, Bellevue) bill (SB 5662) that would create a new office inside the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to focus on encampments in public rights-of-way. The bill requires the state to reduce the number of encampments by moving people into shelter and permanent housing, but doesn’t specify a mechanism for doing so.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness argue that the bill is primarily about sweeping encampments, not identifying and investing in places for people to live.

—Erica C. Barnett, Leo Brine

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.

It’s Past Time to Re-Legalize Affordable Homes in Washington

Historic fourplex in Seattle.
Sightline Institute: Missing Middle Homes Photo Library, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patience Malaba

Look around an older neighborhood in just about any city in Washington state. Hidden in plain sight is a century-old secret that can help us find our way out of today’s housing crisis.

Scattered among single-family houses, you’ll see old corner stores with homes tucked above or behind, Craftsman duplexes here and there, and maybe a small, brick apartment building.

But in most newer neighborhoods, that variety of homes is missing. Smaller-footprint, less-expensive housing is missing because about three-quarters of our cities’ residential areas now allow only the most expensive type of housing: big, detached houses on large lots. Everything else is prohibited by law.

Companion “middle housing near transit” bills in the Senate and House would empower Washington’s cities with a range of options for allowing more homes in established urban areas and lifting restrictions on homes that more people can afford.

From Bellingham to Walla Walla, and in cities all over Washington state, neighborhoods where working-class families can afford to live are vanishing. Week after week, year after year, we’ve all heard the news stories: home prices climbing ever further out of reach for Washingtonians who lack multigenerational wealth. Tenants facing the worst rental shortages in decades. Too many of our neighbors living unsheltered or just one paycheck or hardship away from homelessness.

This is the displacement that befalls our communities when there aren’t enough homes available. Bidding drives up prices, and escalating prices drive people with lower incomes further and further out, resulting in cities increasingly segregated by race and income.

Sadly, this zoning system is working exactly as originally intended. Starting in the 1920s, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that affordable home types, such as apartment buildings, were “mere parasites,” cities started to restrict what housing could be built. By the 1960s, most cities had banned even duplexes from half their residential areas.

I’m not typically nostalgic for the policies of the past. But to add the homes Washington families need today, it’s time to reverse that history of downzoning near our job centers and re-legalize a range of modest, mid-sized homes in our cities. The one-size zoning we’ve got now isn’t working.     Continue reading “It’s Past Time to Re-Legalize Affordable Homes in Washington”