Tag: density

Save the Yards!


Yesterday, longtime Seattle writer (and my erstwhile colleague) Eric Scigliano published a jeremiad on Crosscut making the case that the city should keep two-thirds of Seattle’s land zoned exclusively for single-family housing because single-family homes have yards, and yards have trees. (Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda suggests allowing very low-density multifamily housing in 6 percent of the land currently reserved for single-family houses in Seattle; a separate proposal, to allow duplexes and triplexes of the same density currently allowed in single-family zones, was scuttled after neighborhood activists protested that the change would ruin Seattle’s character.)

In short, Scigliano’s argument was that because a majority of the trees in the city are on private property, in part because we haven’t taken good care of our publicly owned trees nor planted enough of them, we need to make sure no new development encroaches on these yards so this privately owned tree canopy can continue to exist.

Once you’ve gathered your jaw off the floor and returned to seated position, I have a few rational responses to this insidious bit of anti-density sleight of hand:

1) As cities like New York make clear, density is not in itself a danger to urban tree cover. (NYC’s tree cover is comparable to Seattle’s despite that city’s vastly greater density).  Allowing two-story, low-density multifamily housing on the edges of current single-family zones, as the HALA plan suggests, does not endanger trees.

2) In fact, density is a far more environmentally sound than exclusionary large-lot single-family zoning, which uses more resources and also forces people into the suburbs when demand outstrips housing supply, as it currently does in Seattle. Suburbs destroy open space and lead to car-dependence, which contributes to the car dependence that’s currently destroying our planet.

3) Privately owned tree cover is maintained only by the private beneficence of private property owners. In other words, the tree canopy is only as good as its owners’ desire to maintain it. In other words, a property owner can chop down just about any damn tree he or she wants. Relying on the altruism of private property owners is a lousy way to make public policy, and (as anyone who’s mourned the loss of a treasured tree or bemoaned the construction of a megamansion next door knows well) often backfires. In contrast, our public urban forest, which is maintained by the city and funded by the taxpayers, can’t be destroyed at a property owner’s whim.

4) Just imagine if single-family exclusionists expended as much time and energy advocating for properly protecting and fully funding the maintenance of Seattle’s publicly owned trees as they do raging against the possibility that they might get more neighbors. Certainly, our public tree canopy wouldn’t be in the dire straits Scigliano describes in his plea to maintain low density in our growing urban area if people cared as much about saving urban forests as they do about maintaining their property values.

And 5) Density opponents forget that the quaint Craftsman cottages on 5,000-square-foot lots they are fighting to protect (because TREES) came at the direct expense of actual forests, which were razed to make all those expansive lawns and private outdoor space possible in the first place.

If erstwhile treehuggers like Scigliano really want to protect and expand the city’s privately owned tree canopy, I’m sure they’ll get behind this modest proposal (h/t Josh Feit): Raze all the city’s driveways (and ban new ones). Think about it: Driveways take up valuable space that could be turned into lovely urban groves, and who could argue that car storage is the highest and best use of potential urban forest? Just imagine all the trees we could plant if property owners just gave up their car storage and contributed (even more than they already do) to Seattle’s critical private urban forest. If my proposal goes through, lawn superfans like Scigliano will probably be able to stop paying any attention at all to Seattle’s struggling publicly owned trees (like the ones homeowners sometimes plant in public planting strips and then forget) and focus exclusively on maintaining the only urban forest that really matters: Beautiful trees on private lawns, preferably behind tall, well-fortified fences.

TONIGHT: Support the HALA Recommendations

The C Is for Crank encourages you to show up and listen or comment at tonight’s city council hearing on the Housing Affordability and Livability Committee’s recommendations, which have come under attack from single-family protectionists. Tonight’s public hearing will help the council decide which of the 65 recommendations to set in motion. It will take turnout, support, and continued pressure from urbanists like you and me to ensure they make the right decision and keep the most critical elements of HALA intact.

Iterations of the term “urbanist” have been hotly debated recently (I prefer “reality-based urbanist” myself), but the bottom line is that we all want to ensure that everyone in Seattle–not just wealthy single-family homeowners, not just Amazonian imports, not just those who got here first, but everyone–can live in safe, affordable housing in the city.

This fight is critical, because the council is under tremendous pressure to abandon the very recommendations that will have the most positive impact on affordability. Mayor Ed Murray and several key council members have already abandoned a major, symbolically important HALA recommendation, which would have allowed a greater diversity of housing types (such as duplexes and townhomes) in the 65 percent of Seattle’s land mass that’s currently reserved exclusively for detached single-family houses. Murray, along with council president Tim Burgess and council land-use committee chair Mike O’Brien, walked back their support for that recommendation after angry property owners and neighborhood activists flooded city inboxes with letters of protest and crowded council meetings to voice their complaints about the changes.

I believe that most of the city supports the principles behind the HALA proposals, even if they aren’t familiar with the details, for one simple reason: They provide more affordable housing. Mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to build affordable housing on site in exchange for the right to build more densely, combined with a new linkage fee on commercial development, would provide 6,000 units of set-aside affordable housing. Other key measures in HALA would expand the boundaries of urban villages to reflect current and future walkability and transit access, increasing total housing supply and driving down the overall cost of housing (which is true no matter how much some progressives insist that supply and demand does not exist).

The opposition to HALA, which has described population growth as a cancer and have suggested single-family homeowners and neighborhood activists should “take back Seattle,” is organized, motivated, and can turn out plenty of people with the means and time to attend midday hearings when most of us are working. This and other nighttime meetings are an ideal opportunity for HALA supporters to show that we, too, deserve a voice at City Hall and in the future of our city.

O’Brien Amendment Sidesteps HALA to Add Months to Small Projects

Image via Division Ave blog.

Last week, after residents in his new council district protested a new live-work development in Ballard, city council member Mike O’Brien took the unusual step of slipping a new design review mandate into an otherwise standard-issue omnibus cleanup bill. The change O’Brien made would require design review–a process that can add more than a year to a project timeline–when the combined development proposals on two adjacent lots exceed the maximum for a single lot according to the city’s design review standards. In low-rise zones, which is where the change is targeted, that means that two adjacent lots under development can’t exceed eight units total. That design-review trigger applies even if two adjacent lots are being developed by different builders; more than eight, and you’re looking at an automatic, time-consuming design review.

The amendment, which O’Brien acknowledges was unorthodox, was intended to address developments like the controversial townhouses going in at 71st and Division in Ballard, where six live/work units will replace a single-family home that sat astride two historic lots; in that case, the developer took advantage of an old lot line that hadn’t been used in decades to build three units per lot.

But the change will have sweeping implications for development potential on smaller lots across the city.  O’Brien says the new requirement is “intended to address instances where a developer in a low-rise or neighborhood commercial zone will break a project up into a couple of different projects to avoid going through design review.” O’Brien acknowledges that the city already has plans to overhaul the design review process next year, but says that in the meantime, “we’re going to continue to set rules that ware going to allow more and more people to live in Seattle, but there’s got to be an expectation that when we set those rules, they are going to be followed.” Continue reading “O’Brien Amendment Sidesteps HALA to Add Months to Small Projects”

“High-Rises and Dumps,” “No Flowers, No Trees,” and Other Reasons Urbanists Don’t Participate

Walker: “Where are we going to grow?”

One place where the urbanist perspective on growth and development and the anti-density perspective collide, at least superficially, is that both sides claim to want more widespread participation in the process of deciding how to build Seattle for the next 20 or 50 years.  Urbanists talk about the need to provide more information to people who aren’t already engaged, and may not have a ton of flexibility during the day, to help them engage in discussions that tend to be dominated by homeowners and retirees. Density opponents say they’d love to hear what renters and other citizens who aren’t in the typical neighborhood-council demographic have to say, but that those folks  just don’t show up to meetings. Both sides appear to agree that more participation by everyone leads to better outcomes.

Where this surface-level unanimity breaks down, however, is in practice. While casual urbanists and renters with an interest in improving the city (and keeping rents under control) appear to genuinely want an invitation to the table, no one already at the table extends a hand, and meetings dominated by people who make mean-spirited generalizations about renters (or single people, or newcomers, or lower-income groups) as a class can be pretty alienating for members of those groups who do show up. Meanwhile, daytime meetings at City Hall are tailored for those with a lot of time on their hands (like retirees) and financial motivation to show up (like homeowners who want to protect their property values), not those with hourly jobs or those who just want the city to be a welcoming place to the next newcomer but don’t have time for endless subcommittee meetings. I spent a few hours this Saturday at a 9am meeting of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, held at the Central Area Senior Center (now apparently rebranded as “The Central”), where Seattle Office of Housing Director Steve Walker faced off against a roomful homeowners (if there were renters, none identified themselves that way) who responded to  Walker’s brief presentation about what changes the Housing Affordability and Livability Committee had proposed to mitigate displacement, provide affordable housing, and preserve existing single-family neighborhoods with a barrage of mostly-rhetorical questions.

“[The] affordable housing levy that we have passed four times, that remains the darling of the country, that has built over 12,000 units of rent- and income-restricted housing that will remain that way for the next 50 years—that is the foundation” of the city’s affordable housing strategy, Walker said. “It’s the cornerstone to our city’s affordable housing strategy, and what is being proposed [in HALA] is to double down on that strategy.”

Earlier this month, Mayor Ed Murray said he would no longer pursue land-use changes in the 65 percent of Seattle’s land mass zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes off the table in response to blowback from angry homeowners and the Seattle Times, who argued that allowing duplexes and townhouses in some single-family areas would destroy the “character” of Seattle’s historic neighborhoods. (Last week, Murray indicated to me that that decision might not be final.)

If the point of taking single-family off the table was to appease angry neighbors and keep them from fighting other elements of the deal, it hasn’t worked so far. At various times during Saturday’s open-ended meeting, participants likened new residents to a “cancer” on the city (seriously, can we retire this metaphor?), suggested that Seattle could stop growth by making the city less appealing to developers and businesses, and decried the HALA committee as a secretive, closed-door cabal of developers who would have never been able to get away with proposing changes to single-family areas if all their negotiations had been public.

And, of course, there were the requisite murmurs about how everything had been downhill since former mayor Nickels fired former neighborhoods department director Jim Diers … nearly 15 years ago. “We need to talk things through in an open format, not like the secret HALA [process], Beacon Hill resident Roger Pence said. “There’s this myth out there among the urbanist generation that the neighbors are all NIMBYs and we don’t want to see anything built. That was certainly not true in the 1990s. ” Walker noted that the HALA committee included 28 people, plus many others on its advisory subcommittees, and that members were not prohibited from talking to the public or discussing the negotiations with the groups they represented. However, he said, the HALA committee—like a similar committee that came up with the widely praised $15 minimum wage compromise—needed some level of privacy just to build trust. “We had closed meetings because we wanted to generate, within that committee of 28 people with very different views on what makes sense on variety of issues, a  very engaged conversation that was not influenced by the media and was not influenced by politics,” Walker said. “And they, over time, had to develop a sense of trust to just begin to have some of these conversations. It wasn’t intended to be secret. It was intended to generate the kind of intense discussion we had, and a lot of those conversations were intense because the lot of those parties disagreed.”

Little boxes on the hillside.
Little boxes on the hillside.

Walker (along with new neighborhoods department director Kathy Nyland, who joined him for a few minutes in the dunk tank) repeatedly ran up against a fundamental difference of worldview between the city and its discontents. For example, when one man asked Walker a rambling “question” that included quotes from The Monkey Wrench Gang and Cadillac Desert, accused him of being manipulated by a shadowy group of Oz-style developers hiding “in the wings behind the green curtain,” and concluded, “Why are we going lot line to lot line, with no trees, no flowers, no grass, and why do I get the idea that it’s really developers who … on the subcommittees, because none of the neighbors I know were ever invited to serve on those committees?” Walker basically just sighed. “Where are we going to grow?” he asked. “Because people are coming.” “So you’re assuming growth?” the speaker responded. “I’m not assuming; it’s happening.” “My hope is that growth will go to other cities and other states.” Walker left shortly after that particularly discouraging exchange, but the meeting didn’t end there. For another hour and a half or so (I left at noon), residents vented about growth, the planning process, and the “dismay[ing]  “conditions that [some renters] live in.” (The speaker who made that comment claimed he had Realtors knocking on his door and sending him flyers several times a week to try to buy his old house out from under him.) Finally, one resident, Beacon HIll neighborhood activist Melissa Jonas, pointed out one reason urbanists, renters, and other groups that are typically shut out of traditional neighborhood groups might feel unwelcome in echo chambers like this one. “Outreach is not just outreach to people you agree with,” Jonas said. I think neighborhood groups sometimes believe we know best, and we don’t invite people [who disagree]. There’s a sense of, I’ve lived in X neighborhood for X long [so I have a right to speak]. Someone who just moved there has the same right to participate in that conversation, whether they’re a renter or homeowner, driver or nondriver, parent or nonparent—we all have a right to have a voice.”

Leschi Community Council member John Barber scoffed at the notion that neighborhood groups don’t welcome everyone. “I don’t know who these exclusive neighborhood groups are—our neighborhood is dying for people to come to our meetings,” Barber said. “We have a monthly newsletter that is distributed at libraries, grocery stores, by mail, and in many public places. We really want people at our meetings.” The comment reminded me a bit of companies that say, “We’re dying to hire more women and minorities, but they just don’t apply!” If you don’t make an affirmative effort to include those traditionally excluded groups (starting by adjusting the tone of your comments about the poor people and renters you claim you want to see at your meetings), your lament is going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps that fact is best illustrated by another comment the “growth is cancer” guy made after Walker and Nyland left.

“The city council has this idea that we’re all rich. I can tell you right now that [my wife] and I could no more afford our single-family house in Wedgwood [today] than a man on the moon,” the speaker said.

“They have this idea that growth is acceptable and we have to accept it, but we don’t have to accept it on growth’s terms. Because growth is like cancer and it kills cells and growth will kill us,” he continued. Once developers cash in and leave for Santa Fe or Arizona, he said, “we’ll be living with the high-rises and the dumps and all the developments that are built lot line to lot line. … There’s a minority, like those of us in this room, who will participate because we care.”

The implication was that that renters and urbanists and poor people and newcomers and minorities don’t care, because only white single-family homeowners with many years of financial investment in Seattle make the effort to show up at neighborhood council meetings on Saturday mornings. If all those other people cared, they’d be at the Central Area Senior Center. The fact that they weren’t there is proof that they don’t.

Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to prove them wrong.

Racism? Classism? Not in MY Backyard!


Our current zoning system, which restricts low-income people to a tiny percentage of the city and preserves two-thirds of the city as exclusive enclaves for mostly wealthy homeowners, has its roots in racism and classism.

That may not be the motivation of current Seattle homeowners who want to preserve these enclaves today, and certainly there are no explicit racial rules or covenants anymore, but any honest single-family neighborhood resident should admit that he or she is the beneficiary of a system built on racist, classist housing policies.

That, in fewer words, is what the development plan that spawned a thousand think pieces (and at least one sputtering editorial), the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda report, says on Page 24, where its authors note that Seattle’s existing zoning map, which preserves two-thirds of the city as exclusive enclaves for mostly wealthy homeowners, “has roots in racial and class exclusion.” Those seven words have shocked and offended many of the plan’s opponents, who argue that racism and classism are in the past, that those policies were built by individual racist bankers, not a racist system, that history has no lasting ramifications.

They’ve also served as conversation stoppers for many in the odd coalition of politicians and activists opposing the plan, a coalition that includes everyone from homeowners who say, “I support density, but…” to low-income housing advocates who claim that any upzones will just benefit developers who want to replace modest single-family homes with “$900,000 townhouses.” The most common diversion tactic (used by no-growth conservatives and anti-development liberals alike) goes something like this: “It’s just ridiculous to suggest that our zoning is racist. How dare they? This calls all of the HALA conclusions into question.”

The liberal anti-developer crowd was represented the other night by council members (and homeowners) Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant, who faced off against developer lobbyist Roger Valdez and Ellensberg Republican Matt Manweller before a Sawant-friendly audience at Town Hall. Although the topic of the “debate” was rent control, the discussion returned repeatedly to the HALA recommendations, which fundamentally shakesup the old assumption that single-family zoning is sacred.

Licata argued that development inevitably leads to displacement of people who live in buildings that are older and have fewer amenities, which function as de facto affordable housing, and Sawant accused her pro-density foes of believing in “trickle-down housing,” the idea that a greater supply of expensive condos and townhouses at the top of the affordability scale will lead, all by itself, to more affordable housing options at the bottom. Both council members accused their opponents of advocating free-market anarchy, unrestrained development without any government rules to help lower-income people survive in the city.

In truth, no one in Seattle is arguing that the government should do nothing to preserve and create affordable housing, or that “the market” will solve all our problems. Manweller may be saying stuff like that out in Ellensberg, but HALA certainly isn’t: Among the 28-member committee’s 65 recommendations is a comprehensive suite of affordable-housing interventions, from doubling the housing levy to expanding the housing trust fund to mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to build affordable housing on site in exchange for denser zoning.

In reality, all those straw-man claims that HALA opponents make about their opponents are camouflage for their real target: Provisions in HALA that would allow slightly more density in single-family areas (a duplex or row house where an expansive lawn once sprawled across the urban landscape) and multifamily zones (an extra story or two on a low-rise apartment building). Increased density and growth, they believe, is the root of all gentrification and displacement, and the only way to stop it is to preserve Seattle’s single-family zones.

The problem is that gentrification and displacement are already happening, and will only be made worse by policies designed to exclude new residents from two-thirds of the city. The HALA report acknowledges that in the short term, giving developers more freedom to develop may not “immediately decrease rents.” But, they continue, it will ensure “a growing supply of larger multifamily housing across the city [that will] help to stem rent increases over the long-term.”

The idea, espoused by liberals like Licata and Sawant, that we should restrict new development to avoid gentrification, intersects conveniently and precisely with the conservative argument against allowing new people inside Seattle’s exclusive single-family communities, which says that we need to keep things as they are because that’s the way they’ve always been. (They would say they want to “preserve neighborhood character,” but it amounts to the same thing.) What this camp fails to mention is that single-family homeowners are the main beneficiaries of Seattle’s housing crisis; as renters are forced to compete for a limited supply of housing on a tiny amount of land, their property values increase by hundreds of thousands.

This curmudgeonly faction of no-growth advocates are represented not by the council members on stage at Town Hall this week but by pundits like Knute Berger and Danny Westneat, who can give you every reason from here to Spokane about why single-family zones are just sacred, they just are, and why rules that crack open the gates of those “exclusive” (HALA’s word) communities to people of color and the lower-middle class will destroy everything charming and wonderful and unique about Seattle.(It might also disrupt the upward trajectory of their home values, which increase in direct proportion to the affordable-housing crisis for everyone else.)unnamed

In a recent column, headlined “Save the bungalows and create affordable housing,” Westneat pined for the Seattle of days gone by, when households were larger (back when moms stayed at home and had four or five kids, and a man could pay the mortgage on a little bungalow on a Boeing salary) and the city had no need for 21st Century ideas like townhouses and duplexes and nontraditional families. “In the 1960s, Seattle had nearly 3 people per housing unit. Now it’s down to two and slated to go below 1.8 by 2035,” Westneat laments. “So part of the reason we need to keep developing like crazed Ayn Rand characters is because we aren’t utilizing the houses we already have.”

Actually, the reason we need to keep developing isn’t because developers are “crazed” Howard Roark clones but because people want to live here, and they need somewhere to live. Turn all the rec rooms you want into basement apartments (Westneat’s suggestion to avoid visible new density in single-family neighborhoods), but you still won’t make more than a tiny dent in housing demand. Westneat suggests that one in every 20 homeowners can be convinced to retrofit and rent out part of the family home, producing 6,000 affordable units. That’s optimistic, and it assumes affordability based on the premise that homeowners are inherently kind-hearted and won’t seek to profit from their tenants. Westneat should ask the owner of a small apartment building if that’s how it works.

Oh, and third: The new tax break Westneat would create to pay for all these basement and attic apartments would cost city taxpayers $60 million. That’s nearly half the current housing levy. For a tax break that would only benefit homeowners, that’s a pretty big ask. I know I’m not voting for it. But then, I don’t believe in trickle-down housing.

Berger, whom I debated before a live audience last Friday on KUOW’s Week in Review, took a typically mossbackian approach in his own recent column denouncing the mayor’s plan, which he said would ravage Seattle’s “bedrock single-family neighborhoods to accommodate” renters and other non-property owning life forms. (I like and respect Berger, but if a housing form that dates from 80 years ago is our “bedrock,” we need to rethink the entire premise of our city.) Seattle, Berger continued, is “a special place to live” and “a cool place to be” because it isn’t “elite” like Shanghai or San Francisco. Growth, Berger concludes, might be “simply a serpent devouring its own tail.” The more of them we let in, the more they destroy our quality of life, the very thing that makes them want to live here.

Obviously development must be shaped and directed, not allowed to run rampant. The problem is that no-growthers like Berger (“don’t destroy our bedrock!”) and single-family preservations like Westneat (“I guess we could handle a few more poor people, as long as we hide them in existing houses”) don’t have a comprehensive solution. All they have is delaying tactics.Screen shot 2015-07-22 at 10.33.50 PM

Which brings us back to classism and racism. When the HALA committee bravely pointed out that Seattle’s current zoning “has roots in racial and class exclusion,” they were referring to redlining, restrictive covenants, and other practices that kept non-white and non-wealthy people out of white, wealthy areas. It’s no coincidence that the areas “protected” by redlining by mortgage brokers and other private entities correspond to the single-family areas that exist,  and remain largely the province of the white and wealthy, today.

Single-family protectionists of all stripes–from standard-issue NIMBYs to well-meaning low-income activists–have responded that there may have been racism once, but that was all a long time ago, and the problems we have today are because of new residents, not past policies.

The defenders are dug in. They include apologists like University of Washington architecture professor Jeffrey Ochsner, who recently wrote a mass email (subject line: “Seattle’s zoning is not racist”) to neighborhood activists claiming that redlining is completely different from zoning because redlining was done by private individuals like mortgage lenders, not the government. “People who conflate zoning with racially restrictive covenants or red-lining are confusing legally quite different methods of land use control,” Ochsner writes. “They are also misinterpreting the available historical research.”

This dismissal-by-semantics is an insult to both history and people’s lived experience. To say that Seattle land-use policies became progressive the moment redlining was outlawed (by federal fiat, in 1968, after Seattle voters overwhelmingly voted to uphold it) is as laughable as saying that the Confederate flag became a neutral symbol of “heritage” the second the North and South were reunited. To say that laws preserving white enclaves today have no historical antecedent because their roots are in practice, not law, is to say that structural racism does not exist. And to suggest that Seattle’s current color and economic boundaries are mere accident, not legacy, is to whitewash redlining.

And this, ultimately, is the truth that few who talk about preserving “our single-family heritage” want to admit: That the “heritage” and “character” they are clutching is a direct result of excluding those who remain excluded today; that fancy enclaves would not have been creative and preserved without low-income ghettos; and that policies that continue to keep that heritage intact now are the legacy, if not the inevitable result, of our classist and racist history.

Density, Affordability, and Livability Are Compatible: The HALA Report

Screen shot 2015-07-15 at 10.48.46 AM

I’ll be on KUOW’s live show from the District 4 this Friday at 10, countering the anti-development, pro-NIMBY narrative you may have caught on last week’s Week in Review. Listen in on 94.9FM or on KUOW’s website.

It’s a rule in Seattle that policies having to do with density, neighborhood “character,” and development tend to get hacked down to a nub by the blunt machete of consensus, even more so when that consensus is reached by a committee numbering in the dozens.

It’s even more of a rule that when committees like the 28-member Housing Affordability and Livability Committee announce multiple delays, that means they’re on the verge of imploding.

Throw in a disgruntled committee member who leaked a draft copy of the group’s long-anticipated report to the press, and there was every reason to believe that the HALA committee would come up short; the day the draft leaked to NIMBY apologist Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times, in fact, the committee frantically disavowed the draft, calling it “outdated and inaccurate.”

So it was a true jaw-dropper when Mayor Ed Murray’s HALA Committee recommendations emerged Monday largely intact. The plan (which replaces controversial linkage fees on residential development with inclusionary zoning, upzones multifamily areas across the city, eliminates many parking mandates for new development, and promises 20,000 new units of low-income housing) fully embraces the reality that it’s impossible to create an affordable city while simultaneously protecting the two-thirds of Seattle land that consists of unaffordable single-family houses on 5,000-square-foot lots. We live, essentially, on an island–an island where tens of thousands of new people want to live. The built environment must change to welcome (and “accommodate”) those new neighbors.

By acknowledging the fundamental incompatibility of protectionist NIMBYism and affordability, HALA spit in the eyes of the pitchfork-wielding old guard that really just wants to keep “outsiders” out, that resents new residents, that sees growth as numbers, not neighbors.

The city council will undoubtedly come under tremendous pressure from hardline neighborhood activists who think ceding 6 percent of their protected land area to slightly greater density will bring their homes and property values crashing around them. Those activists are organized, and they are loud. Their allies on the council, including the departing Tom Rasmussen, have amplified their voices and encouraged them to drown reality-based advocates for density out. And it will take all of urbanists’ effort to keep them from scuttling the plan, from preserving the old Seattle (which was, as HALA points out in its report, created and sustained by restrictive racial covenants) and keeping everyone new outside the walls protecting suburban-style city development patterns.

But Murray didn’t call this plan a “Grand Bargain” for nothing, and the HALA committee wouldn’t be making its plan public now if it didn’t have rock-solid support from the vast majority of the players. (One outspoken exception is committee member and council candidate Jon Grant, who not only abstained from the vote but held a press conference immediately after HALA’s announcement to roll out his own sour-grapes plan, flanked by supporters including Kshama Sawant, Position 9 candidate Bill Bradburd, and North Seattle neighborhood activist Sarajane Siegfriedt, calling for rent control and the reinstatement of linkage fees.) Despite the volume of shouting from the old guard, I’m hopeful that the consensus and determination HALA has demonstrated will hold together despite the shouting, and despite the possibility, remote but real, that a renegade developer could sue the city and scuttle the whole deal.

It’s been a crazy few days. Between life and work and blogging, I haven’t had much time to sit down and process my thoughts about HALA in black and white. Instead, I’ve been talking to friends and fellow urbanists about what the plan will mean and how we can convince our friends in the world of affordable-housing advocacy that growth is not just inevitable but good and how we can help hold the plan together until the city council passes the goddamn thing over Tom Rasmussen’s dead body. (Sorry, Tom.)

So I can’t add much to the already rapturous (and detailed) coverage from the density proponents at Sightline, PubliCola, and, well, The C Is for Crank.  Nor can I thumb my nose more disdainfully at the hardline NIMBYs at Crosscut and the Seattle Times. I can, however, encourage you to cross your fingers, write your city council members and neighborhood representatives, and urge them to support the plan that represents the best shot we’ve had in decades to preserve what’s best about our city while making sure it’s livable for the tens of thousands of people who want to become our newest neighbors.

Tom Rasmussen: Not Going Down Without a Pout

Screen shot 2015-07-06 at 8.37.15 PM

City council member Tom Rasmussen may be leaving office in December, but you’d think he was pandering to the zero-growth faction of the Seattle electorate at this afternoon’s council meeting, when he gave an impassioned speech on behalf of amendments that would have made bad legislation that did pass this morning even worse.

Last week, Rasmussen failed to pass five of eight amendments to a bill, sponsored by Mike O’Brien, that will make it more difficult to build in low-rise zones—areas adjacent to single-family areas where low-density multifamily housing, like townhomes and small apartment buildings, are allowed. The legislation adopted today lowers density by a variety of means, including counting exterior stairways as part of a building’s “density,”  limiting the height of clerestories (small additions to allow lofted ceilings), and requiring gaps between “rowhouses” or even row houses that stand alone, which raises a pretty big existential question: How can a row house be a row house if it isn’t in a row?

Even all those new restrictions weren’t enough for Rasmussen, who said the new density restrictions would still allow developers to “bulldoze our neighborhoods” and destroy their historical character with new buildings. “With this legislation, the table is set, and the developers will have a feast,” Rasmussen said.

And then, as if there was somehow a shortage of wealthy white homeowners available to organize and turn out for a daytime meeting from which lower-income folks and renters were effectively excluded, Rasmussen effusively applauded those landowning activists who showed up in scores to testify about how their neighborhood “character” (or at least the character of their property values) would be destroyed if developers were allowed to build four-foot lofts in the third story of their buildings, or if the city no longer forced developers to include parking for studio apartments in the middle of the city.

After assuring the single-family activists that “your voices and your concerns will be reflected in the legislation that I will put before the council” last month, Rasmussen did them one better today and suggested that a group of “developer advocates” were calling them NIMBYs as “a tactic to discourage participation” by scaring them away. (NIMBY, remember, just stands for “not in my backyard,” which is exactly what the folks in council chambers today were saying about small apartment buildings and two-story townhouses adjacent to their properties).

“We must do more than allow everybody to speak for one or two minutes at a public hearing,” Rasmussen, growing increasingly animated, continued. “We must make sure that everyone is allowed the opportunity to provide meaningful involvement in planning and accommodating growth.” At the words “accommodating growth (because growth, remember, consists of abstract numbers, not actual people), the crowd burst into uproarious applause.

Rasmussen, like every departing council member, wants to leave his mark on the city. Six months before his last term ends,  it looks like the legacy he’ll leave is a string of failed, increasingly petulant efforts to give a particular class of residents (homeowners, ranked in value according to how long they and their families have lived in Seattle) veto power over what their new neighbors are allowed to do.


We Can’t Solve 21st Century Housing Problems with Failed 20th Century Strategies

Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 10.14.40 PM

Last week, three city council members—frequent allies Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, along with their less-likely comrade Tim Burgess, who’s facing two serious challengers in the August primary—sent a letter to Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura asking DPD to come up with a fifth alternative for Seattle 2035, the policy document that will direct Seattle’s growth for the next 20 years. The four alternatives in the current plan range from doing nothing, to concentrating density in the city’s already-dense urban centers, to dispersing density strategically across the city’s light-rail and bus hubs so that new residents will have easy access to transit.

The “fifth alternative” they were requesting, the three council members wrote, would address the high potential for displacement in Seattle’s “high-risk” communities, mostly near transit hubs in South Seattle, by directing growth away from those areas and toward areas with “high access to opportunity” and “low displacement risk” areas, and by adopting strategies to reduce displacement in those high-risk neighborhoods. In practice, that could mean abandoning the goal of “transit-oriented development” by discouraging development near transit centers (where lots of “marginalized populations,” to use the city’s term, currently live) and encouraging it in the most expensive parts of the city—places like Upper Queen Anne, Ravenna, and Fremont, according to the city’s equity analysis of the four alternatives.

That strategy, by itself, wouldn’t put much of a dent in Seattle’s projected housing need. Since these are mostly fancy single-family neighborhoods (with exceptions like South Lake Union, which is a fancy multi-family neighborhood), most of the new development in these areas would (again according to the city’s equity analysis) consist of backyard cottages and row homes. We aren’t going to accommodate 120,000 new residents with mother-in-law apartments and four-pack townhomes. So not only will directing growth to high-income neighborhoods be unpopular with the city’s powerful homeowner lobby, it will be designed to fail.

In addition to directing new housing away from areas like Othello, Rainier Beach, and Beacon Hill, Burgess, Licata, and O’Brien also suggested placing new controls on development, including mandatory inclusionary zoning (requiring developers to build permanently affordable housing on-site) and potentially one-for-one “or even greater” replacement of all de facto affordable housing demolished for new development. One-for-one replacement is a decades-old aspiration of activists like Seattle Displacement Coalition leader John Fox, who believe the city should never tear down a dilapidated ’60s apartment building without replacing the previous’ tenants housing with new units at below-market rents.

The issues with this scheme are pretty obvious (what developer in his right mind would build apartments that could rent for $2,000 and lease them for $600, and how much government subsidy would it take to make him change his mind?), but that doesn’t keep it from being popular—who wouldn’t be in favor of letting low-income people stay in their homes, or even better, get fancy new ones at the same price, instead of watching their neighborhoods morph into white yuppie playgrounds? Even if the city did get past that hurdle, by, for example, massively subsidizing new replacement housing, the result would be short-term gain (preserved housing now) for long-term pain (no economic reinvestment in low-income areas, which will continue to lack basics like diverse housing, sidewalks, and town centers). Like rent control, the idea of one-for-one replacement is economically unrealistic, but emotionally appealing.

Even so-called urbanists are getting on the anti-TOD, tax-the-developers bandwagon. In a recent editorial arguing for their own version of the council members’ “alternative 5,” The Urbanist’s editorial board (which previously called for significant new taxes on development) decried what they called “transit-oriented displacement”—meaning, if you build transit and let people build apartments near it, the people who are already there will get priced out and have to leave. “It would be unfair and inequitable to ask lower-income residents to bear the brunt of the city’s growth — and yet both alternatives [3 and 4, the ones that concentrate growth near transit] essentially gloss over new and effective potential mitigations for this problem,” the board writes.

Gauntlet thrown. Growth, in this description, is explicitly a “problem.” Something people must to “bear the brunt of.” Something that could, if unchecked, cause Northgate to turn “into a gated community,” make walkability “the sole privilege of those who live downtown,” and gobble up all developable land in Ballard, to use just three examples from the Urbanist’s (essentially anti-growth) editorial.

In reality, there’s plenty of development capacity left in Ballard, building housing and town centers increases walkability, and limiting housing supply by reducing “growth,” which is to say housing for those 120,000 new people, will only drive prices up. And the alternative–preserving Sound Transit’s empty, fenced-off gravel lots as if they’re historical sites, “saving” rundown six-unit apartment buildings and the overgrown lots they sit on, making sure the vast majority of poor people never have the opportunity to live in areas well served by transit–is short-sighted and won’t work.

How about this “Alternative 5”? Let’s stop thinking of “growth” as a monster threatening to swallow our city, and instead think of it as new people we should welcome. Let’s stop talking about “bearing the burden” of those new people and start figuring out how we can accommodate all of us without resorting to market-distortions like rules that make transit-oriented development impractical. Let’s figure out a smart way to fund affordable housing without artificially constraining development Let’s stop doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Linkage Fee Could Include Single-Family Houses, Cost Up to $28/sf

A new proposal from the Department of Planning and Development, quietly released via DPD’s Land Use Bulletin today, would allow linkage fees (square-footage taxes on development to fund affordable housing) of up to $28 a square foot for all new residential development–the equivalent of about a 10 percent tax on new housing, or about. That includes (importantly, and for the first time during the long linkage fee discussion) not just multi-family but single-family housing, which could be subject to the same linkage fees as the “yuppie condos” some linkage fee proponents have said deserve to be targeted by the tax. A 4,000-square-foot house, for example, would require a payment of $112,000 if the council adopted both the maximum fee and applied it to single-family development.

In addition, a new review of the proposal under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) affirms an earlier finding by DPD called a Determination of Non-Significance (DNS), meaning that the proposal has no major environmental impacts and will not have to go through a full environmental impact statement. (See the full SEPA checklist for the proposal here). Two months ago, under pressure from pro-density linkage fee opponents, DPD withdrew its initial DNS for further review.

The proposal is only a framework for future discussions about the linkage fee, intended to allow the city council and Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee the broadest possible range of options, including the maximum linkage fee. (Council member Kshama Sawant, who’s running in the Third District, which includes rapidly gentrifying areas like the Central District and Capitol Hill, has said repeatedly that she supports the maximum possible linkage fee). The options now also include taxing new single-family housing instead of exempting standalone houses from the tax, which could help mollify linkage fee opponents, who protested the seeming unfairness of taxing one class of development (condos and apartments) while exempting another (houses).

The logic behind the linkage fee goes like this: New development has a negative impact on affordability, because it drives up housing prices (rents are higher in new buildings) and displaces existing residents whose current housing is more affordable. The opposing argument is that a tax on new development will inevitably reduce the number of developers building in Seattle, which will reduce overall housing supply, which will drive up rents in a landlocked, mostly single-family-zoned city that’s expecting 120,000 new residents in the next 20 years.

DPD says they don’t intend the proposal to be a recommendation, and expect that HALA and the council will come up with a joint proposal (likely somewhere below $28 a square foot, and potentially taking single-family houses out of the mix) when HALA makes its recommendations. Those recommendations have been delayed one month past their original deadline, until the end of July, to give the committee more time to discuss affordable-housing options.



Density Opponents: Seattle Will Look Like “Eastern Europe” Unless Council Intervenes


Density opponents mobilized in their dozens for this afternoon’s council planning and land use committee meeting, winning plaudits from neighborhood conservation district booster Tom Rasmussen and foreshadowing a potential vote for a more-extreme version of a proposal to restrict development in low-rise neighborhoods.

The legislation, which I described in detail last month, would effectively downzone Seattle’s low-rise neighborhoods–areas that make up about 10 percent of the city’s land–by placing new restrictions on what can be built in those neighborhoods and by recalculating what counts as housing development. The proposed changes include counting things like exterior stairways toward density limits, limiting the height clerestories (small additions to allow lofted ceilings) mandating wedding-cake-style setbacks at the tops of buildings, and prohibiting some row houses.

The effect of all the new regulations, which were proposed by council member Mike O’Brien over objections from Mayor Ed Murray, would be to decrease allowed density in low-rise zones between 20 and 25 percent.

However, because O’Brien’s version does eliminate some of the more egregious elements of the Department of Planning and Development proposal (including a provision that would effectively bar daylight basement apartments on sloped lots and one that would have mandated a three-foot gap between many “row houses”), single-family homeowners were out in force, hankies and photos of their “ruined” neighborhoods in hand. (Seriously: At least two speakers cried during their testimony about the impact newcomers would have on their neighborhoods).

Only two or three folks who supported scaling back the downzone slightly showed up to speak, thanks most likely to the fact that the meeting was held at 2 in the afternoon, a time much friendlier to the retirees who came out to speak than the renters who didn’t. People often say policy is determined by who shows up. But when you structure the whole system so that only homeowners, the wealthy, and those with leisure time can do so, it becomes pretty hard to argue that the system isn’t rigged.

So, who showed up? In shorthand terms, people who argued that their neighborhoods were being destroyed; people who suggested that newcomers were all rich and didn’t care about the neighborhoods were destroying; people who believed, and said explicitly, that people who moved here more recently should have less say over what happens in their neighborhoods; and people who seemed to genuinely think that homeowners should have the right to dictate the terms of development, no matter what the law or city council have to say about it.

Remember, the homeowners who turn out to object to development in low-rise zones by and large do not live in single-family areas, which are protected and treated as sacrosanct by all the city’s long-term planning documents.

Some themes that emerged from the hearing, which began, as all good public hearings do, with indistinct shouting:

Gay people/poor people/old people will end up on the street if you don’t downzone low-rise neighborhoods to be as much like single-family zones as possible.

“I’ve lived in Fremont since 1981. No one seems to be speaking for Fremont because everybody has left. The people moving in to Fremont now make $100,000 a year.”

“I bought house when I was making $7 an hour. Please protect your people from the ravages of greed that have been unleashed over them.”

“‘Affordable housing’ is only a ruse for further profit.” (Oh, wait: That last one was city council member Kshama Sawant).

Conversely, if you allow this particular downzone to pass, those people are going to come here, which will also ruin the neighborhood.


“The process has been discarded into the round file. Microhousing [buildings are] hotels for transient people coming in[to] our Ravenna Woods urban village. … We are going to be receiving over 110 micro units with no provision for parking or design review.”

People have dreams, and the city council exists to crush them.

“My husband and I dreamed of moving into Seattle and living where we only need one car or no car. With 44 units [going in], I’m not sure we’re going to be able to have that dream anymore. It shouldn’t always be about next residents that are coming into town. What about the people who are here?”

“I love my house. I always thought I would die in our house. And as soon as my daughter goes to college, I’m leaving. I can’t stand what you have done to our neighborhoods.”

Neighborhood residents (those who own houses, at least), not the city, should have the power to dictate what development looks like.

“If you’re listening to these people (developers), I’m afraid. Please, can you make them look like houses in our neighborhood?” (The speaker later clarified that these were “Craftsman houses.”)

“[We’re saying], keep the neighborhoods the way they were when we first saw them, and in comes a bunch of developers with shoddy development and very little concern about working with the community.

Density (again: we’re talking four-story buildings here) will turn once-quaint neighborhoods into barren urban hellscapes/Cold War Romania/treeless wastelands where the sky is only a distant memory. But mostly, post-communist Eastern Europe.

“Dear architects, please stop this city from looking like an Eastern Bloc city. … You are creating a monster of gridlock such that in an emergency, no one will be able to get out of the city.”

“What you are doing is sanctioning these developers to cram in as many wealthy people as possible into giant buildings that look like they’re in an Eastern Bloc city.”

“I recently traveled to Eastern Europe, and I look at Ballard and I see that, Oh my god, this is Eastern Europe. This is where we’re headed. Do you not get it?”

At the end of public comment, after one speaker responded to Mike O’Brien, who told her she was at the end of her time, by spitting, “And so are you!”, Rasmussen praised the crowd for a “very, very impressive turnout,” adding, perhaps unwittingly, that “if we had had it in the evening, we would have had a much bigger turnout.

“I want to assure those who are here and those who can’t be here that I will ensure that your voices and your concerns will be reflected in the legislation that I will put before the council,” Rasmussen said, before promising to either amend the legislation to increase its density restrictions or propose legislation of his own–apparently an oblique reference to his proposed neighborhood conservation district proposal, which would effectively create and empower homeowners’ associations in Seattle neighborhoods.

Rasmussen, Licata, and Sawant (who does not sit on the PLUS committee but showed up for this hearing) will likely vote to roll back the O’Brien changes when they come up for a committee vote later this month.