By Josh Feit
Before I get to last week’s quiet yet encouraging news out of Olympia—House Democrats removed single family zoning preservationist Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle) from his position overseeing housing policy—I’d like to review a couple of other recent, below-the-radar news items that provide context for why such a seemingly picayune parliamentary move in the state legislature matters for Seattle.
First, in October, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation decided to okay a request from Wallingford homeowners to put hundreds of houses in Wallingford on the National Register of Historic Places; this week, the National Parks Service made it official.
Expect to see more and more attempts by “In this House” Seattleites to weaponize “historic” districts as a tool against reforming local land use policy that could otherwise increase affordable housing and density in Seattle.
Meanwhile, another quiet zoning decision reflected the opposite path: Last month, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted against landmarking the “unremarkable” (as Erica hilariously put it) two-story wood-framed Jai Thai building on Capitol Hill. The decision cleared the way for a new seven-story affordable housing development.
You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.
Unfortunately, these two decisions taken together ultimately reaffirm the prevalence of Seattle’s off-kilter city planning philosophy: Seattle confines multi-story density to the same neighborhoods over and over, while foregoing opportunities for new housing in the hefty majority of the city—75 percent— that’s currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. Sadly, Capitol Hill’s density is a Catch-22 for urbanists: Enthusiastically adding units to one of Seattle’s densest neighborhoods provides fodder for the city’s redundant single-family zones to ward off reforms that could create new housing. This preserves the status quo: Skyrocketing housing prices. The Seattle area has some of the most expensive housing prices in the country, with median rents above $1,700 (over $2,200 in the Seattle region) and a median sale price of $810,000.
It’s no wonder King County says we need to build around 240,000 new affordable units in the next 20 years, or 12,000 new units a year. Currently, we’re nowhere close to that pace; over the last two years, according to the Seattle Office of Housing, the city averaged about 1,300 affordable units a year.
Thankfully, pro-housing folks are fighting to reverse this trend. Witness the long overdue progressive coup in Olympia. Earlier this month, under youthful, new leadership, the state house Democrats finally removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N Seattle) as chair of the pivotal House local government committee. As we have been reporting for years, Rep. Pollet has repeatedly used his position to kill pro-housing bills. (No surprise, The Urbanist has also called out Pollet for undermining housing legislation.) You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.
Initially, frustrated with Pollet’s history of watering down pro-housing legislation, the House Democratic Caucus voted in late November to shrink the scope of Pollet’s committee by moving all housing issues into the housing committee, whose chair, Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Everett) supports urbanist legislation. Last year, for example, Peterson co-sponsored Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill, HB 1782, that would have authorized duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in residential areas within a half-mile of a major transit stops. It was one of several pro-density bills Pollet helped kill last year.
The move to take housing policy out of Pollet’s committee was orchestrated by a new generation of Democrats who want to send a message that affordable housing (tied to density) will be a top priority in 2023.
Two weeks later—evidently not done sending their message—the caucus voted to remove Pollet as chair of the local government committee altogether, handing the reins to Rep. Devina Duerr (D-1, Bothell), another co-sponsor of last year’s failed density bill.
With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.
The Seattle Times, whose editorial board shares Pollet’s preservationist POV, ran an editorial last week lamenting the leadership sea change by parroting Pollet’s go-to “local control” mantra, claiming that pro-housing bills would prohibit local governments from enacting affordable housing requirements. That’s untrue. The bills that urbanists like Rep. Bateman support simply give local jurisdictions the option to allow multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods, leaving affordable housing requirements in the hands of local jurisdictions.
“If we’re really concerned with affordable housing,” Rep. Bateman told PubliCola, “let’s first acknowledge some basic facts: Single-family zoning is 100 percent displacing people and causing gentrification.”
This status quo—not the bogeyman of future development—constitutes a current threat to housing affordability. For example, existing policy not only squeezes supply by making most of the available land in Seattle off-limits to multifamily housing, it also encourages teardowns and McMansions. Rep. Bateman’s pending, more ambitious 2023 proposal will challenge that status quo by authorizing fourplexes in residential areas of cities across the state—anywhere detached single-family homes are allowed.
Data show that even this modest increase in density improves affordability. Portland made fourplexes legal citywide two years ago and the first set of numbers indicates that they are more affordable to rent or purchase than duplexes, triplexes, or single-family homes. Additionally, Bateman said her legislation will create an affordability incentive with a “density bonus” that allows scaling up to sixplexes if two of the units are affordable to people making between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income.
On the state senate side, Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Everett) is cueing up legislation that would target upzones (more dramatic ones) specifically near transit hubs.
This is all to say, for more news that could end up having big implications in the coming year: Pay attention to the state legislature’s prefiled bills page and watch for new pro-housing legislation. With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.