1. Seattle council member-elect Alex Pedersen, whose campaign received about $70,000 in independent backing from the Seattle Metro Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC, has reportedly made his first hire—neighborhood activist and longtime anti-density crusader Toby Thaler. Thaler, a fixture on the Fremont Neighborhood Council, was a leader of SCALE, a group that spent two years appealing the Mandatory Housing Affordability on the grounds that increased density in the city’s urban villages would destroy neighborhood character, trample the neighborhood plans of the ’90s, and harm the environment.
Thaler has also argued against density on the grounds that development only benefits wealthy interests. Neither Thaler nor Pedersen returned emails seeking confirmation and comment.
The hire confirms the sheer magnitude of CASE’s defeat in the November 5 election. Not only did all but one other Chamber-backed candidate lose to a more progressive opponent (Debora Juarez, an incumbent whose opponent was a firebrand conservative, was the highly unusual exception), the one winner they backed, Pedersen, is more likely to align with the dread socialist Sawant on anti-development measures like impact fees than to vote the Chamber’s interests.
Pedersen is also opposed to the downtown streetcar, which CASE supports, referred to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda as a “backroom deal for real estate developer upzones,” and opposed the most recent Sound Transit ballot measure on the grounds that the “biggest businesses” should pay their “fair share.” Sound familiar?
2. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office sent out a press release Thursday touting a new “Affordable Seattle” portal that will “Help Residents Easily Determine If They Qualify for City of Seattle Discount Programs.” (Believe it or not, that’s less wordy than a typical Durkan press release subject line). The portal, which replaces a website Durkan rolled out in 2018 in at the same URL, is the first project to come out of the mayor’s much-touted Innovation Advisory Council, a group of local tech leaders brought together the summer before last to suggest tech- and data-based approaches to addressing problems such as homelessness and traffic.
I went to the portal (created by Expedia), plugged in my income (above the qualifying income for any assistance programs other than homeownership help), my household size (one) and a Southeast Seattle ZIP code and pressed the button marked “find services.”
My children can’t take advantage of free bus fare because they don’t exist. I’m not low-income and I don’t own a car, so I don’t qualify for the low-income RPZ program, which isn’t available where I live anyway. And even if I did qualify for Comcast’s low-income discount (I don’t), the company doesn’t serve the ZIP code that I provided at the beginning of my search.
The next page, titled “Your Program Eligibility,” suggested I might be interested in four programs: A low-income restricted parking zone permit for my car; college assistance for the graduating high-school seniors in my household; a low-income Internet assistance program from Comcast; and the ORCA Opportunity program, which is open to middle- and high-school students as well as certain public housing residents. When I entered an income of $120,000 a year, I got the same results.
As a household of one, my children can’t take advantage of free bus fare because they don’t exist. I’m not low-income and I don’t own a car, so I don’t qualify for the low-income RPZ program. If I had qualified, additional links provided on internal pages inside the portal (one of which is broken) would have reminded me that the permits are limited to specific areas, and that my neighborhood is not among them. And even if I did qualify for Comcast’s low-income discount (I don’t), the company doesn’t serve the ZIP code that I provided at the beginning of my search.
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On Wednesday, city staffers, supporters of Mayor Jenny Durkan, and members of the media crowded into a small black-box theater at the 12th Avenue Arts building on Capitol Hill to hear what was billed as a major speech outlining the mayor’s vision for affordable housing in Seattle. (Press, many of whom had expected the event would include an opportunity to ask questions, were relegated to a “reserved” row in the very back.)
Ultimately, the event—which consisted of a State of the City-style address outlining what the city has done on housing recently, followed by an announcement of two initiatives that were already in the works—didn’t make much news. Durkan said that Seattle plans to take advantage of a new state law allowing cities to use a portion of existing state sales tax for housing, by bonding against future revenues to get about $50 million for housing for formerly homeless people up front. And she said the city would extend the multifamily tax exemption program that gives developers a property tax exemption if they agree to set aside 20 percent of new units for low-to-middle-income renters for 12 years. (The city renews the tax break every three to five years).
In fairness, the MFTE announcement did include a bit of real news: Under Durkan’s plan, the city will cap rent increases at MFTE units at 4.5 percent a year. Under federal rules, potential (though not necessarily actual) rent increases for these units track to area median income—when median income goes up, say, 10 percent because a bunch of high-paid tech workers move into the city, rents for low-income people living in tax-exempt buildings can go up 10 percent as well, even though the people living in those units obviously aren’t seeing their incomes rise 10 percent every year. (In practice, huge annual rent increases for existing units would be out of scale with the overall market in many parts of town, although it does happen). Last year, the city used some creative math to freeze rent increases at MFTE properties to prevent apartment owners from raising rents at the rate of median income increases, but the 4.5 percent cap puts a firm limit on how much landlords can charge.
Otherwise, though, Durkan’s “Seattle Housing Now” announcement raised more questions than it answered. Here are some of those questions, along with a few potential answers.
• What’s going on with the pending sale of the Mercer Megablock?
Durkan provided a few sparse details about the pending sale of the Mercer Megablock, a three-acre city-owned site in South Lake Union that could bring in upward of $100 million. The mayor will likely announce a plan and buyer—reportedly Alexandria Real Estate Investment, Inc., a real estate investment trust that focuses on life science campuses—in the next two weeks. The mayor’s office recently briefed council members on the deal, sort of: Staffers reportedly showed council members a PowerPoint that contained few specifics, and took the document with them when they left.
What we do know from the mayor’s speech is that the new development will include some housing on site (the request for proposals for the project called for at least 175 rent-restricted units), and that the city will use some of the revenues from the sale to buy properties in areas with a high risk of displacement, to provide low-interest loans to struggling homeowners who want to build cottages in their backyards, and to fund homeownership opportunities.
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What was unclear from Durkan’s pre-announcement announcement was how she will propose splitting up those revenues among programs that help low-income renters, middle-income workers (the “teachers, nurses and firefighters” that are a frequent Durkan talking point) and higher-income homebuyers and homeowners. Some housing advocates had argued that the city should hang on to the megablock property and build affordable housing on the site, or, failing that, invest heavily in housing for low-income people who are being driven out of the city by rising rents. It remains to be seen how much Durkan took their pleas to heart, but programs for homebuyers and homeowners tend to be aimed at people making as much as 120 percent of median income, or about $130,000 for a family of four. (For a single person, 120 percent of median works out to $91,000). If Durkan’s plan for the megablock money is skewed toward subsidizing people making six-figure salaries, it will likely come under fire from the council; on seeing an early draft of the mayor’s ADU plan, council member Lorena Gonzalez reportedly responded that the high-income subsidy (a loan product aimed at people making up to 120 percent of median) would end up disproportionately benefiting white homeowners, not people of color facing displacement in areas like the Central District. Her office says they’ve asked the mayor’s office to do a race and social justice analysis of the proposal, and that they’ve said they will.
The mayor will likely announce a plan and buyer—reportedly Alexandria Real Estate Investment, Inc., a real estate investment trust that focuses on life science campuses—in the next two weeks.
• Why didn’t the MFTE plan go further?
One perennial question about the multifamily tax exemption program is whether it results in enough affordable housing to justify the cost, which amounts to about $26 million in lost taxes every year, according to the most recent program status report. The program ensures that between 20 and 25 percent of new units are available to people making between 65 and 85 percent of median income (a number that varies depending on the size of the unit and where it is in the city). The idea behind the 12-year tax break is that by the time the tax expires, new development elsewhere will have been built to meet demand at the top of the market, and the MFTE units will have depreciated in value to the point that rents will be affordable relative to the rest of the market. Because housing development hasn’t kept up with population growth, this hasn’t happened, raising the question of whether the subsidy is deep enough to justify the tax break for developers.
One perennial question about the multifamily tax exemption program is whether it results in enough affordable housing to justify the cost, which amounts to about $26 million in lost taxes every year,
Options the mayor and her middle-income advisory council, which advised Durkan on the plan, could have proposed include lowering the income eligibility so that lower-income people could participate in the program, which would lower rents (currently, MFTE landlords can charge someone making 80 percent of median income $1,737 for a one-bedroom apartment, which is basically market rent); placing a more stringent cap on rent increases; or limiting the program to larger “family” units, on the grounds that the market is already producing lots of small units at rents basically equivalent to the units the program subsidizes with tax breaks.
• What’s up with the Uber/Lyft tax?
Durkan has been working since last year on a plan to tax Uber and Lyft rides to pay for a laundry list of transportation and housing programs, but the proposal has been slow to get off the ground. Uber and Lyft generally have opposed the plan, arguing that it won’t reduce congestion downtown, because ride-hailing services only amount to a small percentage of car trips downtown and because of a phenomenon called induced demand, where small reductions in congestion lead people to drive when they ordinarily wouldn’t have. The ride-hailing companies have called for broad congestion pricing on all downtown drivers, which (unlike a tax targeting them specifically) would require voter approval.
Durkan’s latest plan would reportedly fund new investments in housing with the tax. But it’s unclear when—or whether—the mayor will actually release a final proposal. Another question, if Durkan does end up proposing the tax, is whether the revenues will go to capital investments (building new units) or operations and maintenance (the less flashy but critical work of running them). Permanent supportive housing units for very low-income people (like the ones that would be funded through the new sales tax revenues) are expensive to run because they (unlike regular apartments) require full-time staffing and case management. If the ride-hailing tax passes, that money could be used to build housing around transit stations (providing a nexus, sort of, to justify using a transportation tax to pay for housing) while the money from the sales tax can go toward O&M. Without the Uber/Lyft tax, that equation becomes more challenging.
Durkan’s latest plan would reportedly fund new investments in housing with a new tax on ride-hailing services. But it’s unclear when—or whether—the mayor will actually release a final proposal.
• When is Durkan going to announce a new Office of Housing director?
Durkan told OH director Steve Walker (whose final day is today) he was out back in March. His deputy director, Miriam Roskin, went on sabbatical shortly after that and is not expected to return. Durkan has had four months to appoint a replacement for Walker, but has not yet done so. It’s unclear when the mayor will announce Walker’s replacement. In June, 30 housing advocacy groups sent a letter to the mayor outlining their values and recommendations for the hiring process—an effort, according to Puget Sound Sage policy and research analyst Giulia Pascuito, to “push back on [the] narrative we’ve seen from the Mayor’s office around ‘middle-income housing’ and to let the city know that advocates are paying attention” to the appointment.
• Why didn’t Durkan acknowledge state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), in her speech?
An oversight, perhaps—her official press release mentions Macri by name—but it was somewhat jarring that Durkan didn’t shout out one of the prime sponsors of HB 1406, the legislation that made it possible for the city to use sales tax revenues to fund housing, during her speech, which included praise for Macri’s co-sponsor, June Robinson, as well as house speaker Frank Chopp and state Sen. David Frockt.
Editor’s note: This is a guest op/ed by More Options for Accessory Residences, a group that advocates for accessory dwelling units, such as backyard cottages and basement apartments. The city council’s Sustainability and Transportation committee will hold a public hearing on legislation making it easier for single-family property owners to build second and third units on Tuesday evening at 5:30.—ECB
Seattle needs thousands of homes for people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds over the next 10 years. Families come in all shapes and sizes—and housing choices should, too. Some families love the convenience, coziness and price of an accessory dwelling unit. There’s a lot of names for a second home within, or next to, an existing house: Granny Flats, Fonzie Flats, Pool Houses, Coach Houses, Kitchenette Units, Backyard Cottages, Basement Apartments, andso many more.
Climate Change: (D)ADUs are one way to add new neighbors to areas with frequent transit service. This means that people can live closer to their jobs, cultural communities, and more—which means less sprawl and less dependence on cars. (D)ADUs are also much more energy-efficient then single-family houses, cutting carbon emissions by as much as half.
Walkable Communities: (D)ADUs support small businesses by making it possible for more people to live within walking, biking, and easy transit distance of local mom-and-pop shops.
Aging in place: The new legislation has built-in flexibility for people who want to build a one-story backyard unit, making it much easier to create opportunities to age in place. In cities that make it easy to build backyard apartments, many people move into the backyard cottage and rent out the front home to offset rising property taxes.
Intergenerational Living: (D)ADUs help create additional living spaces for children who need an affordable place to stay during or after college, aging parents, a relative who can babysit or fill in for child-care needs, or a relative who might need at-home care.
Parking Requirements: Let’s prioritize housing for people, not storage for cars. The proposed legislation takes away the requirement that homeowners add a new parking space to build a second unit. And it doesn’t count interior parking or storage space against the size limit.
Affordability: Right now 75 percent of Seattle is off limits to new neighbors who can’t rent a whole house or come up with a down payment to buy one. ADUs & DADUs are one way to induce mixed-income neighborhoods and more equity without changing the zoning.
Land Owners, Home Owners, and Neighbors Who Rent: Right now, 20 percent of Seattle’s single-family houses are occupied by renters. Under the current rules, property owners with ADUs must live on site six months out of every year—a biased policy that prevents renters from accessing this housing and takes away property owners’ flexibility to live elsewhere. The proposed legislation will allow anyone, including renters, to live on a property with an attached or detached ADU.
Out-of-scale homes: Right now, the city incentivizes removing small houses so the largest possible house—sometimes referred to as a “McMansions”—can be constructed. Based on census data, the average household size is declining but the average square footage of a house isn’t. The legislation would limit the size of new homes while encouraging ADUs and DADUs by not counting second and third units against development limits.
MOAR (More Options for Accessory Residences; @moarseattle) is a group of Seattle residents concerned with the future of the city, housing availability and affordability. We have diverse backgrounds, experiences and housing situations, but we’re all Seattleites who want our city to allow more options for accessory residences—for us, our neighbors, and future generations.
After nearly five years of public hearings, open houses, legal challenges, amendments, and debate, the city council adopted the “citywide” Mandatory Housing Affordability plan on Monday by a 9-0 vote. The legislation (which does not actually apply citywide) will allow developers to build more housing in parts of the city where density is already allowed, and will allow additional housing, ranging from a second house to small apartment buildings, on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.
In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay a fee to build housing affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income. The amount developers will pay to build will be higher in areas where the city has determined the risk of displacement is high and access to opportunities is low, and lower in areas with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago
The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes.
Public comment on Monday was dominated, as usual, by homeowners who argued that the proposed changes will “destroy” neighborhoods, rob property owners of their views, and—a perennial favorite—”ghettoize” places like Rainier Beach by forcing low-income people of color to live there.
The specter of “ghettos” was both explicit—two white speakers mentioned “ghettos” or “ghettoization” in their comments—and implicit, in comments from several white homeowners who expressed concern that their (unnamed, absent) friends and family of color would be displaced from their current neighborhoods. “I want to provide affordable housing to my children and grandchildren, who are of all colors, but I want to protect her [Seattle’s] natural beauty,” one speaker said, after inveighing against the potential loss of views from North Capitol Hill. Another speaker (also white) invoked her “many… friends and family of color [who] have been displaced from the Central District and particularly from Columbia City… to the Rainier Beach area, and now it s up for upzoning.” Where, she wondered, would these anonymous friends and family be forced to move next?
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After listening to more than an hour of such comments—including one white speaker who claimed that “upzoning is the new redlining”—the council’s women of color were eager to correct the record. Lorena González, whose own Mexican-American family would have been excluded from much of the city under both the formal racial covenants that ended in the 1940s and the unofficial redlining that replaced them, noted first that “this legislation is not even close to citywide—there are approximately 127 neighborhoods in the city, and this legislation only relates to 27 of them.” The remaining 100 neighborhoods, she said, are still “currently and strictly zoned exclusively single-family.”
She continued: “I’m not calling anyone a racist. I am, however, calling out the reality that we are living in a city that has a history of implementing and preserving housing laws designed to keep certain people out of certain areas of the city, and as a policy maker, it is my duty to undo this history and to support legislation to begin the process of dismantling… laws that are intended to exclude people who look like me from owning or living in a single-family home.”
Teresa Mosqueda added more historical context. “What we have done over the last few decades is we have zoned our city backwards,” she said, referring to the fact that as recently as the middle of the last century, multifamily housing was allowed on much of the land Seattle now preserves for exclusive single-family use. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes. That is the next conversation we need to have.”
“The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.” – Council member Rob Johnson
Today’s vote served as a bit of a swan song for council member Rob Johnson, who is widely expected to step down after the end of April to start his new job as a transportation advisor to Seattle NHL. Johnson, who spent much of his single term shepherding the legislation, sounded a bit wistful as he closed out debate and called for a vote. After thanking city staffers, other council members, and his wife Katie, Johnson noted the signs all over Seattle that oppose “build the wall” rhetoric. “Well, zoning is building a metaphorical wall around our city.” By adopting MHA, he said, “We’re starting the process of dismantling walls around our neighborhoods that have given exclusive groups sole access to the resource-rich communities around our city. … The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.”
The battle over MHA is not over, of course. SCALE, the group that spent much of the last year and a half appealing the plan in front of the city’s hearing examiner, said in a statement Monday that they were “considering appealing the inadequately considered impacts of the MHA legislation to the [state] Growth Management Hearings Board.”
2. González and Mosqueda weren’t the only ones feeling salty before Monday’s big vote. Sally Bagshaw, who is also leaving the council after this year, took the opportunity to correct an op/ed by Queen Anne homeowner and anti-density activist Marty Kaplan that ran in this Sunday’s Seattle Times. Kaplan has spent much of the last several years appealing a city proposal that would allow homeowners to add up to two accessory dwelling units (one attached, one in the backyard) to their properties. The Times ran Kaplan’s factually challenged rant alongside a pro-MHA piece by Johnson, suggesting that an elected city council member and a neighborhood activist who spends his time fighting people’s right to build garage apartments are on roughly the same level.
“Here’s what makes me grumpy,” Bagshaw began. “There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make something so.” Kaplan’s piece, Bagshaw continued, said that the city was “railroading” neighborhoods and would “eliminate all single-family zoning,” and “nothing could be further from the truth. We are going to be retaining 94 percent of the single-family zones,” Bagshaw said.
“Here’s what makes me grumpy. There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make something so.” – Council member Sally Bagshaw
Bagshaw didn’t get around to demolishing all of the false and absurd claims in Kaplan’s editorial one by one, so I’ll add a couple more. Kaplan claims in his piece that allowing homeowners to build backyard or mother-in-law apartments on their own property will “eliminate single-family housing regulations citywide, erasing 150 years of our history.” Single-family zoning didn’t even exist 100 years ago, much less in 1869, 15 years after the Denny Party landed at Alki. Moreover, allowing people to retrofit their basements to produce rental income or add an apartment for an aging relative does not constitute a “threat to single-family neighborhoods”; rather, it’s a way for homeowners to stay in the neighborhoods where they live, and provide new people with access to those neighborhoods—a rare commodity in a city where the typical single-family house costs more than three-quarters of a million dollars. Kaplan even suggested that “lame-duck politicians, who know they can’t get reelected” (four of the nine council members who voted for MHA are not running again) should not be “allowed” to vote on zoning policy, as if only universally popular politicians who plan to keep their seats forever should be allowed to vote in a democracy.
Kaplan isn’t done with his own fight against density. In an email to supporters last week, he vowed to continue appealing the environmental impact statement on the accessory dwelling unit proposal. Unlike some of Monday’s public commenters, Kaplan didn’t couch his opposition to density in concern for low-income homeowners or renters at risk for displacement. Instead, he was straightforward (not for the first time) about whose interests he cared about (emphasis mine): “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners,” Kaplan wrote. “Representing every Seattle neighborhood, our team of volunteers, professional consultants, and attorneys continue to advance our appeal to prove that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is deficient and inadequate in studying and transparently revealing the true impacts to every Seattle property owner.“
3. Right at the beginning of yesterday’s meeting, council members voted to move the nomination of interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson as permanent director out of Kshama Sawant’s human services committee and into the select committee on homelessness and housing, which is chaired by Bagshaw and includes the entire city council. Sawant has opposed Johnson’s nomination, arguing that Mayor Jenny Durkan did not institute a “transparent and inclusive process” for choosing an HSD director, and has held multiple hearings to give Johnson’s opponents opportunities to denounce him publicly. On Monday, she cited the results of a survey of HSD employees that revealed widespread dissatisfaction with management, particularly among workers in the Homeless Strategy and Investments division. Sawant said the council was “stabbing [communities] in the back” with the “shameful” decision to move the appointment out of her committee. Bagshaw’s proposal passed 7-2, with Mike O’Brien joining Sawant in opposition to the move.
This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.
After almost five years, dozens of hearings, hundreds of public comments, multiple legal challenges, and enough environmental and legal analysis to fill a small apartment, the Seattle City Council is finally poised to pass the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) plan, which has been in the works, as part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, since 2014.
The city council passed the plan out of committee on a unanimous 8-0 vote last Monday, February 25, a fact that is remarkable in itself. The council spent hours debating some final nuances of the legislation (and ultimately rolled back upzones in some areas), but all nine council members fundamentally agreed on the overall goal of building more housing, including affordable housing, throughout the city—a notable turnaround from just four and a half years ago, when a Seattle Times story on a leaked draft of the plan sparked so much backlash that then-mayor Ed Murray decided to scale back the proposal.
MHA allows developers to build taller, denser residential and commercial buildings in the city’s multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages—neighborhood centers, typically located along major arterial streets, that have long been designated for future growth because of their proximity to transit, jobs, and services. It also expands some of those urban villages to allow second houses, townhomes, duplexes, and small apartment buildings on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.
The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes. This was a major point of contention during the MHA deliberations. Urbanists pointed to Seattle’s history of redlining and studies showing that exclusive single-family zoning perpetuates racial and income inequality to argue that the city should get rid of single-family zoning altogether.
In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay into a fund to build housing that is affordable to people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle median income—currently $48,150 for a family of two. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago. The legislation the council has been considering for much of the last year concerns the rest of the city.
The plan, on the whole, is modest, and its impacts won’t be visible right away. In most places, it bumps land up just one or two zoning designations—allowing two-story stacked flats, for example, in areas where only townhouses are allowed today, or raising the maximum height for apartment buildings from 30 feet to 40. It also restricts most of the biggest changes to major arterials, which already tend to be pretty dense. And since many of the changes in MHA are subtle (houses built under a new type of zoning called Residential Small Lot, for example, may be virtually indistinguishable from houses built under the previous zoning), people living in single-family areas that get upzoned might not even notice the difference.
The city has prevailed against legal challenges to the plan so far. The most recent of these was in November, when a city hearing examiner ruled against neighborhood activists who claimed the city didn’t do a sufficient environmental analysis of the proposal. But the final legislation does include a “clawback” provision, supported by MHA opponents and sponsored by West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold. It states the council’s intent to invalidate any upzones implemented under the plan if a court finds MHA’s affordability requirements invalid in the future.
This was another point of contention. Opponents said including the clawback provision in the bill was an invitation to lawsuits, while proponents argued that the provision ensured that developers wouldn’t get “something for nothing”—that is, if a court ruled against the city’s affordable-housing requirement, they wouldn’t be allowed to build denser housing anyway.
The full council is expected to approve the final MHA plan on March 18.
Next week, the city council is expected to adopt an emergency one-year moratorium on development at the Halcyon Mobile Home Park in North Seattle, to prevent developers from buying the property while the council crafts legislation to preserve the park in perpetuity. That future legislation, which will be developed in council member Rob Johnson’s land use committee, would most likely create a new zoning designation allowing only mobile or manufactured homes on the two properties, similar to a law Portland adopted last year.
If this is the first you’re hearing about the plight of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park, you’re not alone. Although the park, which houses dozens of low-income seniors and their families, has been on the market since last June, it recently caught the attention of council member Kshama Sawant, who called a special meeting of her human services and renters’ rights committee last Friday afternoon to discuss her emergency legislation, which she said was necessary to prevent “US Bank, a big financial institution that does not care about ordinary people, [from] selling the property to a corporate developer called Blue Fern.”
Urging Halcyon’s elderly residents to write to the council and turn out in force for public comment at the full council meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Sawant did not mince words. “It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it,” Sawant said.
“It’s important to remind the council that if they don’t act on this, they will be kicking Grandma out, and that’s going to be on their conscience, so we need to make sure that they understand what political price they have to pay for it.” —Council member Kshama Sawant, urging residents of the Halcyon Mobile Home Park to write the council
The sudden “emergency” was news to council member Debora Juarez, who said she couldn’t attend Sawant’s special committee meeting on Friday due to a prior commitment. (Sawant’s committee ordinarily meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, although it has only met once since last July.) On Tuesday, after Sawant repeated her claim that “the developer, Blue Fern, could vest literally any day now,” Juarez took the mic to “correct the record.”
Among those corrections: Blue Fern has not filed plans to develop the property. The property is not owned by US Bank. And no development plans are in the offing.
It’s true that the property, which was owned by one family but is now part of a trust, of which the University of Washington is a beneficiary, is on the market—with US Bank as the trustee and Kidder Matthews as the broker—but Blue Fern, after inquiring about the preapplication process last October and attending a meeting with the city in December, has decided they do not plan to move forward with the proposal. According to a spokesman for Blue Fern, Benjamin Paulus, “Neither Blue Fern Development, LLC or its affiliated companies are under contract to purchase this property.”
The sudden panic—the last-minute committee meeting, the declaration of emergency, the chartered bus that ferried Halcyon residents and supporters to today’s council meeting—was, in other words, at least partly based on misinformation. Confronted by her colleagues about this, Sawant said the specific details didn’t matter, because “it is only a matter of time before another corporate developer comes along and decides to buy this property, so the residents haven’t been misled.”
Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reexamined single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council was busy arguing over every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere if we had built somewhere else for them to go.
Many of the residents themselves—one of whom fell down during yesterday’s council meeting, causing a brief hush in the room —appeared to believe, as late as yesterday afternoon, that they were at imminent risk of losing their homes. Several residents choked back tears as they testified, saying they were terrified about becoming homeless. These are real, legitimate fears—of nine mobile home parks that existed in Seattle in 1990, when the city council passed a series of similar development moratoria, just two remain—but it’s hard to see how stoking them, by suggesting that the bulldozers are practically at the gate, serves the interests of vulnerable low-income seniors.
Mobile homes are naturally occurring affordable housing, and developing them into other kinds of housing—in this case, townhouses or apartments—creates a very literal kind of physical displacement. It’s understandable that the city council, faced with the prospect of tossing dozens of senior citizens out of their homes, would do everything in their power to prevent that from happening, including creating special new zones that protect mobile home parks in perpetuity.
But there’s a larger question such parcel-by-parcel anti-displacement efforts elide: Why are apartments still illegal almost everywhere in Seattle? Every time the city decides to preserve one apartment building, or one mobile home park, without asking about the opportunity cost of that decision, they are putting off a crucial conversation about Seattle’s housing shortage, and how to solve it. Every time the city walls off another block from development—whether it’s the Showbox, which also got the “emergency moratorium” treatment, or a mobile home park for low-income seniors—without addressing the astonishing reality that two-thirds of Seattle is zoned exclusively for suburban-style detached single-family houses, they are making a deliberate decision that this same thing will happen again.
None of these choices happen in a vacuum. Every individual decision to “save” a property, however justifiable in isolation, puts off until another day a discussion we’ve been avoiding since well before the current building boom. Imagine if the city had reformed single-family zoning and adopted mandatory affordable housing laws 20 years ago, back when the council and anti-displacement advocates were busy litigating the fate of every dilapidated apartment building being torn down in South Lake Union. Maybe we would have built thousands of units of affordable housing, and the “luxury” apartments of that era would be affordable to middle-income renters today. Maybe the residents of Halcyon Mobile Home Park, and other naturally-occurring affordable housing, wouldn’t feel so desperate at the prospect of moving elsewhere, if we had built somewhere else for them to go.
1. As the city council begins what could—could—be the final round of discussions about the Mandatory Housing Affordability proposal (the plan, in the works for two years now, would upzone 6 percent of the city’s exclusive single-family areas and require developers to fund new affordable housing), density opponents are sharpening their pencils.
The Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE), which blocked the plan for a year with environmental appeals, produced a list of proposed amendments to the plan that would effectively gut the proposal, by forcing the city to charge developers to pay new “impact fees” to offset the perceived negative impacts of new housing, instituting minimum parking requirements for new developments, quadrupling the fees developers would pay toward affordable housing under the ordinance, and rolling back many of the zoning changes entirely.
The proposed amendments include things like increasing tree canopy requirements (thereby reducing development capacity) in low-income neighborhoods; changing the definition of “family-sized” housing to exclude two-bedroom apartments; requiring large open spaces or even yards for new multifamily developments; and reducing the MHA rezones to reflect the affordable housing targets in existing neighborhood plans, which did not contemplate the massive population growth nor the rise in inequality that Seattle has experienced over the last ten years.
SCALE’s Toby Thaler, who argued the group’s case against MHA before the city hearing examiner, did not respond to an email with questions about the document. While some of the amendments the group is proposing are obviously fanciful—no one is seriously talking, for example, about blowing up the “Grand Bargain” with developers by requiring them to fulfill 50 percent of their affordability requirements with on-site housing—they could serve as a kind of Overton window (or, if you prefer, opening gambit) for the upcoming discussion about neighborhood-specific changes to the plan, which begins next week.
Housing advocates will want to keep an eye out for what citywide and block-by-block changes council members (and Mayor Jenny Durkan) propose, and whether those changes track with the proposals put forward by SCALE. (The amendments aren’t available yet, but I’ll post about them as soon as they are.) Durkan has said in the past that she believes “neighborhoods” should have more input into the city’s development decisions; whether that means acceding to homeowner advocates’ demands during the final stretch of the MHA debate will become clear in the coming weeks.
2. The city will spend $75,000 this year (of $100,000 allocated in last year’s budget) on a contractor who will advise the mayor and council on whether the Showbox should become a permanent part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. According to the scope of work for the contract, obtained through a public records request, the contractor will “Review the historic significance of the Showbox theater, study the relationship between the Showbox theater and the Pike Place Market, consider amendments to the PPMHD Design Guidelines related to the Showbox theater, draft legislation, conduct outreach to stakeholders, and conduct State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review on permanent expansion of the Historical District, as appropriate.” According to a spokeswoman with the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, DON has not chosen a consultant yet, but remains on the schedule outlined in the work plan.
The contractor will have to get all that work done quickly; the city’s schedule calls for any SEPA findings to be published in March, with all the work wrapping up in April, and a council vote to permanently expand the historical district in June. Two to three months is a remarkably short time frame for a single contractor to conduct a full public outreach process, do a thorough environmental review, and draft legislation for the council to consider and pass. To put this timeline in historical context, the Market Historical District has been expanded twice before: Once, in 1986, to include Victor Steinbrueck Park, and again in 1989, to add a parking garage and senior housing. Seattle Times archives show that the debate over the latter addition lasted more than three years, and archival records at the city clerk’s office show that the council was receiving letters on the draft legislation fully nine months before they adopted the expansion.
Under the city’s current schedule, the Showbox building would become a permanent part of Pike Place Market three months before a trial is scheduled to begin in a lawsuit the property owners filed against the city; that suit charges that the city violated the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires council members to remain neutral on so-called quasi-judicial decisions like historic district boundary expansions, as well as the owners’ First Amendment and due process rights.
The debate over the Showbox’s fate began when a developer, Vancouver-based Onni, filed plans to build a 44-story apartment building on the property, which the council had recently rezoned to allow just such a development. The Showbox itself is owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, and is a tenant in the building, which is owned by strip club magnate Roger Forbes; AEG’s lease expires in 2021.
3. After pushback over the fact that its original “service area” was confined almost exclusively to neighborhoods north of I-90 (including many north of the Ship Canal), Uber announced today that its JUMP bikes will be available in South and West Seattle. The company, which launched its bikesharing service in Seattle late last year, got some bad press last week when the Seattle Times reported that riders who left bikes outside the service area could be charged $25. (An Uber spokesman says the company has not imposed the fee on any riders.) Lime Bikes, Uber’s competitor, launched citywide in the summer of 2017.
The red outline on this map shows the new service area, which includes three of four “equity areas” (low-income communities and communities of color) designated by the city. The original, blue-outlined area included just one of the equity areas, which includes the Central District and a sliver of South Seattle that extends down to the Mount Baker light rail station.
This is hardly the first time a “sharing economy” company has decided to serve the wealthier, whiter areas of the city first. Six years ago, Car2Go launched with a service area that excluded the entire South End and West Seattle while serving areas as far north as Bitter Lake.
Mild-mannered Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Nick Welch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight. But if I was him, I would advise against bringing his recent PowerPoint presentation into a local bar.
Welch confined his presentation to the safety of city council chambers last week, where he ran his slide show in front of the Select Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability. There were no fisticuffs, but the MHA presentation did draw scoffs from the neighborhood protectionists in the audience and a challenge from their council ally on the dais, West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold.
Particularly Slide No. 10, which is possibly the most contrarian slide ever presented in Seattle.
MHA is a holdover HALA housing plan from former Mayor Ed Murray that exchanges upzones for affordable housing; HALA is expected to produce 20,000 new housing units over the next decade, including about 6,000 new affordable units from MHA (compared to just 205, if the city simply let the market status quo play out without MHA). With Murray long gone, the remaining piece of the plan—a narrow, stair-step upzone along the fringes of 27 single-family zones —is being shepherded through City Hall by council YIMBY Rob Johnson, whose term ends next year, and with strong support from first-year urbanist all-star, council member Teresa Mosqueda.
Slide #10 is a direct response to what Welch and other OPCD staffers have heard over and over in Seattle neighborhoods (where, in fact, Welch has been gathering input in countless MHA community forums over the last few years): New market-rate housing is a threat to overall housing affordability because it’s more expensive than existing options. It’s a seemingly intuitive take on gentrification that defines the local anti-development storyline and unites everyone from Magnolia First NIMBYs to social justice socialists, from dudes at the Wedgwood Broiler to queer working artists at Kremwerk.
The ubiquity of Seattle’s anecdotal anti-development refrain convinced OPCD to see if that narrative was actually true. So the department looked at the germane historical data—market-rate housing production between 2000 and 2015 in all of Seattle’s census tracts, overlaid with the change in low-income households in the same census tracts over the same period. The finding was definitive. The text to Slide #10 spelled it out for council members: “No correlation between market-rate housing growth and loss of low-income households.”
If anything, the trend line shows the exact opposite: Affordable housing stock increased as market rate housing production increased.
A potential criticism of Slide #10? It defined affordable housing as housing that people making less than 50 percent of the Seattle Area Median Income (AMI) can afford. Affordable housing advocates could certainly contend that people making 60, 70, and 80 percent of AMI are part of the working class too, and are losing ground as more market development comes on line to serve tech bros. But, voila: Slide #11.
This slide overlaid the same snapshots of affordable households and market-rate housing production, this time defining affordable housing as housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of AMI. The conclusion was the same. No correlation between new production and economic displacement.
The data didn’t lead OPCD to go as far as saying more market rate housing production actually led to the creation of more affordable housing, but they did present another contrarian slide illustrating their research on another bit of conventional wisdom—that the MHA upzones will lead to physical demolition of existing affordable housing at a rate that neutralizes any new affordable housing production from MHA. Again: Nope. Gaming out future physical displacement based on historic trends of production and teardowns, the data shows that teardowns remain roughly consistent whether the city enacts MHA or not. Without MHA, about 520 households would be physically displaced by demolition, with no mandatory affordable housing to replace them. Under the city’s preferred MHA alternative, about 574 would be displaced—and those demolitions would be dwarfed by an estimated 5,633 new affordable units created under MHA.
One other bit of conventional wisdom that OPCD tried to fact-check is the notion that new development displaces people and businesses that share a common culture, a phenomenon known as cultural displacement. Perhaps even more than economic displacement, cultural displacement is at the emotional core of anger about gentrification. OPCD couldn’t confirm or disprove this observation. The data—the change in housing production overlaid on change in racial population—was all over the map. The population of some groups, including African-Americans, declined in some census tracts where market-rate housing increased and stayed put in tracts where market-rate housing increased.
Of course, one factor that could have mitigated displacement was missing from that historical data: MHA’s mandate that affordable housing be part of new development.
Well, that was like passing a kidney stone. After single-family zone stalwarts spent two years stalling the city’s efforts to allow more mother-in-law and backyard apartments, the city has finally returned with a new proposal to loosen restrictions governing attached and detached accessory dwelling units. Three cheers for that.
However, I will say: Unless the proposal—the preferred alternative from the city’s new Final Environmental Impact Statement for accessory dwelling units—is part of a broader series of citywide land use changes that include more actual apartments in Seattle’s single-family zones, urbanists should not hail this new plan as a pro-city victory. To do so would just confirm how badly housing activists have been gaslit by Lesser Seattle and the convoluted story line that equates building more housing with some sort of George Soros plot.
The proposal certainly does some good. And ironically (as I predicted at the time), the plan is the outcome of an Environmental Impact Statement the city was forced to do after the Lesser Seattleites from Queen Anne won their case to stall these long-overdue land use reforms. The city’s new proposal increases ADU/DADU development capacity from current standards in place since 2010 by allowing taller and larger detached accessory dwelling units, also known as backyard cottages, while simultaneously allowing development on smaller lots. The new preferred alternative allows two attached units, providing more flexibility for homeowners who want to build two extra units but may not have the space for a separate backyard apartment. It gets rid of the (pathological) off-street parking requirements for secondary units. It eliminates the requirement for the owner to live on-site if a house has an ADU. It gives one to two additional feet of height for DADUs that have a green design. And—oh no, watch out for laundry on the clotheslines!—it increases the number of unrelated people who can live on one lot from eight to 12.
Merely green-lighting more ADUs and DADUs and declaring victory in the fight to build housing in Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods is like proposing a congestion pricing scheme that only charges Uber and Lyft and ignores the 25 percent of downtown commuters who drive to work alone.
Perhaps the best change (Sightline’s Bertolet calls it “radical!”)— and one that blows QACC’s cover story that they were trying to prevent small existing houses from being torn down and replaced by huge single-family monstrosities— is that the new preferred alternative shuts down the potential for any McMansion craze. As Erica noted: The proposed new rules limit new houses to just 2,500 square feet or a 50 percent floor-area ratio (FAR), whichever is larger. FAR is the ratio of the square footage of a building to the lot that it’s on.
These are all welcome changes; the original 2009 law that allowed ADUs and DADUs in the first place (itself overdue) underperformed thanks to the rigid guidelines the new proposal unwinds—only 221 were built on the city’s 75,000 eligible single-family lots, or just 37 a year, between 2010 and 2016. Council Member Mike O’Brien’s initial reform proposal (the one the QACC dragged to the hearing examiner in 2016) was expected to produce about 4,000 accessory units in the next 20 years—about five times the current underwhelming rate.
Burn on the QACC: The new-and-improved proposal doubles that, to an estimated 4,430 new units in the next 10 years.
Still, the proposal doesn’t solve the underlying problem: Seattle’s ongoing housing shortage, which is exacerbated by the fact that 65 percent of the city’s developable land is exclusively reserved for single family zones. Merely green-lighting more ADUs and DADUs and declaring victory in the fight to build housing in Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods is like proposing a congestion pricing scheme that only charges Uber and Lyft and ignores the 25 percent of downtown commuters who drive to work alone.
In the absence of more meaningful changes to the city’s exclusionary zoning laws, simply allowing more ADUs and DADUs is not a win—it’s a capitulation to anti-density activists who have moved the goalposts by keeping most of the city off-limits to any development, making even incremental victories like this one seem more significant than they are. Building 4,000 units over the next ten years falls far short, for example, of the 14,000 affordable units Seattle needs to simply address the existing homelessness crisis.
Until the city allows more housing of all types in walled-off single-family zones, slightly more permissive rules for secondary units will represent a limit, rather than a license to increase housing stock.
A couple of weeks ago, I schlepped up to the Queen Anne public library to watch a presentation by Marty Kaplan, the architect and homeowner who sued the city to stall a proposal that will make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages and basement apartments on their property. Kaplan’s lawsuit effectively forced the city to do a full environmental review, or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), on the policy—a review that concluded that not only do garage apartments not harm the environment, they provide significant benefits, such as reducing the number of single-family homes that are torn down and redeveloped as McMansions and improving equity in neighborhoods that were originally designed to keep poor people of color out.
Kaplan’s presentation, delivered to several dozen members of the Queen Anne and Magnolia Community Councils, was ostensibly about the results of that review, but anyone who actually read or even skimmed the 364-page document would be understandably confused by his interpretation of the report. The city’s preferred alternative, Kaplan claimed, would lead to the development of “three houses on every lot,” with “12 [unrelated] people on every lot. … If you’ve got a big family, 20 people could live there, I guess.” And without rules requiring homeowners to provide parking for all those new tenants, Kaplan continued, “if there’s 12 people living on site and ten of them own cars, then they’re going to park them in the neighborhood,” contributing to an already untenable parking situation in neighborhoods like Queen Anne. (As he said this, I thought of the four parking spots directly in front of the library that I had walked past on my way into the meeting.) In the background, as Kaplan spoke, was a slide of the city’s theoretical “full build-out” scenario (above), which Kaplan characterized as what the city hopes will happen within the next few years. Moreover, Kaplan said, backyard units would never be affordable to regular people: “It’s proved that in order to build a unit, you’re going to spend $300,000,” he said. “You’re not going to rent that out for $80 a month.” (Fact checks on all of those claims below.)
It was refreshing, then, to go to a well-attended public meeting at city hall a few days later—a meeting that Kaplan had told his neighbors would be “basically Madison Avenue coming in and telling you what you should like”—and see that the proponents of the long-delayed proposal outnumbered the naysayers by a factor of about 15 to 1. (Maybe the housing opponents were put off when Kaplan told them it wouldn’t make any difference if they showed up?) Tech workers in their 20s talked about their desire to share the city with people who didn’t have the good fortune to work in industries that pay six-figure starting salaries; homeowners talked about wanting to build backyard apartments so that they could share the city with new neighbors; and environmental advocates talked about density as an important solution to the climate crisis. Several people said they hoped the city would go even further than the preferred alternative and allow three accessory units per property—two inside the main house, and one in the backyard.
But my favorite comment of the night came from Zach Shaner, a renter who lives on Beacon Hill. Shaner (whose name you may recognize because he used to write for Seattle Transit Blog) started off by noting that in the time the city has been working on the EIS, the cost of a median home in Seattle has risen from $591,000 to more than $725,000. “This political process is not morally neutral,” Shaner said. “While we’ve talked and studied and dithered, owning a home has gotten $131,000 harder. In the meantime, my family has given up on owning a home in Seattle.” Shaner and his wife would like to help their friends build an extra unit on their property, he continued, but the current rules make it illegal for them to do so. “I really dream of the day that we have painstaking processes to stop housing rather than to permit it, but in the meantime this is a small but substantive step in the right direction.”
Now for that fact check: In reality, the preferred alternative would increase the number of unrelated people who can live on a lot from the eight allowed under existing rules to 12, and would allow homeowners to build one backyard cottage and retrofit their basement into a living space. The maximum number of buildings on a single lot, in other words, would be two—and any new construction would still be subject to the same rules that limit the amount of lot coverage on single-family land today. The “full build-out” scenario, which Kaplan portrayed as the city’s desired outcome, is clearly captioned, “The Full Build-Out Scenario is included for illustrative purposes only and is not an expected outcome of any alternative analyzed in the EIS.” And it actually looks overbuilt not because of backyard cottages, which are the small red boxes in the image above, but because of all the enormous single-family houses that are technically legal now but have not been built because most homeowners would rather live in charming homes with backyards than cover their lots with eight-bedroom megamansions. The city’s parking study concluded that “each additional ADU would generate between 1 and 1.3 additional vehicles using on-street parking,” not 10. And although higher-cost garage apartments can certainly cost well over $300,000 to build, many cost substantially less; and it would require a breathtaking ignorance of the current rental market to actually believe that you could rent so much as a bean bag in the corner of an unfinished basement in Seattle for $80 a month.