On Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced he would not pursue the recommendation of his housing affordability committee (HALA), on which I served, to allow greater flexibility of housing types in single-family neighborhoods, such as cottage clusters, mini-duplexes, rowhouses, and stacked flats within existing rules on setbacks and building height and size. I sent the mayor a letter yesterday, expressing my disappointment in this decision, which I fear will begin to unravel the grand bargain of more housing/more affordability that HALA hammered out over ten months—and which I hope will form a bold new model for all of Cascadia’s cities.

In the letter, I acknowledged the intense and politically damaging outcry from some residents of single-family neighborhoods and agreed that he needed to respond.

Here are parts of the letter:

Dear Mr. Mayor:

…Here’s what I wish you had said yesterday in your statement.

“Many home owners have been deeply concerned about changes in their neighborhoods. They have heard threats of developers unleashed to tear down single-family zones. Those are scare tactics. That’s not what HALA proposed, and even if it were, I wouldn’t stand for it. The council and I are in agreement: that’s not going to happen. No large-scale bulldozing of bungalows.

I promise you, we will protect the character of Seattle neighborhoods. For right now, though, we’re not going to talk about single-family zones. For right now, we’re going to talk about the other 62 recommendations in HALA’s report.

Because there are people in our city with no place to sleep tonight, and tens of thousands more who can barely cover the rent each month. Tens of thousands more have already been displaced from our city or prevented from living here by housing prices: they commute in cars and buses to work in our city, constructing our buildings, cleaning our hotel rooms, caring for our children. They ought to be able to live among us, in Seattle. And over the decade ahead, tens of thousands of other people will move here, attracted by the same things that brought us to Seattle: prosperity, a welcoming and inclusive city, a beautiful place.

  • So we’re going to work our way through HALA’s recommendations, starting with the fast-acting ones, like Mandatory Inclusionary Housing-–-the biggest, boldest new idea in the report and the most transformative. That’s the agenda right now: erecting more apartment buildings in Seattle’s multifamily zones and putting affordable units in every single one of them.

    Next year, with a new council, after we’ve got through other recommendations from HALA, we’re going to talk about single-family neighborhoods: we have no choice. We cannot be an affordable city unless we find sensible ways to house more people in the two-thirds of Seattle that’s currently reserved for detached houses. I repeat: we will talk about more housing in single-family zones. But we’re going to do it carefully, and thoughtfully, and everyone is going to have plenty of chances to be heard. And when we do, we’re going to be talking about how to gently increase the flexibility of housing types in our neighborhoods, how to keep and improve our old homes and repurpose some of them for our changing family structures, how to build appropriately scaled new homes that fit in well, and how to retain the feel and character of the neighborhoods we love and allow more families to live there.

    HALA suggested a number of ideas. We will consider them, one by one. Some, I’m sure we will reject as going too far. Others, we may embrace. You’ll have a chance to voice your views. And new ideas will be welcome too. But all of that will come later, next year, with a new city council, and it will involve communities coming together for planning and debate and council hearings and perhaps pilot projects and design workshops and neighborhood meetings.

    For now, though, I’m done with this premature debate about single-family zones. First things first.”

    Sincerely,

    Alan Durning
    Executive Director
    Sightline Institute