In the last ten months, Zillow says my house in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has appreciated by more than $100,000. Seattle has about 135,000 houses like mine. The owners of every one of them have been getting richer daily from the city’s housing affordability crisis. One person’s affordability “housing emergency,” in other words, is another person’s cha-ching.
That’s the harsh economic and political reality that made the Seattle Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee, on which I’ve served with 27 other Seattleites during these last ten months of surging home values, such a challenging undertaking: demand for housing in Seattle is white hot, property owners are making money hand over fist, and low-income families are getting squeezed out. But do the privileged in Seattle actually want housing to be more affordable? Is there any political coalition with enough power to overcome the desire among 135,000 homeowners for the next $100,000?
As of this hour, HALA is done, its report released, and the ban its members agreed to on public comment is over. So I can finally say some things publicly about HALA. For months, I wondered if I’d be publishing a detailed critique of the process and outcomes at this point: it’s been an extended hair-pull. But to my delight, HALA did better—much better—at rising to this fundamental challenge than I expected. I’m not saying I love every one of HALA’s 65 recommendations. I don’t. That’s the nature of a 28-person compromise.
The heart of the plan, however, stands a better chance of working, economically and politically, than anything I expected to emerge from our deliberations; it could prove a breakthrough in the quest for equitable, climate-friendly cities. It stands a chance of countering the self-interest of property owners.
Much More Housing
The crux of the HALA plan is to allow much more housing construction while also requiring developers to build—and raising taxes to pay for nonprofits to build—at least three times as many apartments per year that are affordable to low-income people.
“What makes Seattle Seattle is not the particular blend of ramblers and Craftsmans on 5,000 square-foot lots. What makes Seattle Seattle is that it is a welcoming green city for all classes, races, and ages.”
The plan unleashes the private housing market by changing zoning, parking, and building rules and streamlining the processes the city uses for permitting and for environmental and historic preservation reviews—processes that NIMBYs have perverted from their true purpose into means of stopping construction. It includes many of Sightline’s past recommendations on parking (parking benefit districts and parking “cap-and-trade,” for example) and housing (more backyard cottages and in-law apartments, more neo-rooming houses, and fewer restrictions on shared housing).
It also includes many other strategies that complement and expand them: extending the boundaries of urban villages (designated growth zones, where taller buildings are paired with frequent transit, parks, and shops); updating antiquated fire codes that have kept buildings shorter because hook-and-ladder companies once couldn’t reach any higher; adding subsidized housing around parks and reservoirs and above the parking lots of high schools and community centers; and more. These strategies for compact growth should win accolades from urbanists and sprawl fighters. They deserve rhapsodies from climate hawks, because density may be the most important part of beyond-carbon living.
The HALA consensus—the new starting place in Seattle housing politics—is that the only way to hold onto Seattle’s fundamental values of opportunity, inclusion, and livability is to stop denying the reality of market pressures for growth. More limits on housing will not stop the growth of my property value; it will speed it. The opportunity to live affordably in the city depends on building much more housing.
To hold onto our values, HALA is saying, we must let Seattle’s housing stock change: physically. It’ll become more like Amsterdam or Paris, less like Sammamish or 1978. What makes Seattle Seattle is not its current particular blend of ramblers and Craftsmans on 5,000 square-foot lots. What makes Seattle Seattle is that it is a welcoming green city for all classes, races, and ages. To hold onto the latter, we have to let the former evolve. If we do, we can again be a city where everyone—barista or brogrammer, home health aide or harp teacher, roofer or retiree—can find a place to live.
Replacing the “Linkage Fee”
“Mandatory inclusionary zoning (MIZ)” is the beating heart of the HALA plan. It couples permission for taller, bigger buildings (aka, “upzones”) in much of the city with mandates on developers: under MIZ, for example, four-story zones become six-story zones, but developers must reserve a large share of the additional apartments for low-income households. Under MIZ, building more market-rate housing automatically generates more affordable housing too.
MIZ is HALA’s alternative to the city council’s proposed linkage fee—a stiff tax on construction of new commercial and multifamily residential buildings that would fund subsidized housing. MIZ builds substantially more subsidized housing than would the linkage fee. It also increases the supply of market-rate housing substantially. What’s more, MIZ means that Seattle will build affordable housing in the same neighborhoods—indeed, the same buildings—where market demand is strongest. And it means that the entire development industry, not just the city’s nonprofit housing developers, will marshal its forces to provide affordable housing.
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The “more housing, more affordability” approach is not limited to mandatory inclusionary zoning. Read HALA’s 65 strategies and you’ll find echoes of it again and again. A few examples:
- HALA’s parking reforms relax off-street parking quotas and better-manage public curb spaces, so that parking requirements are no longer a brake on the supply of housing. One person’s curb parking should never matter more than another person’s housing.
- HALA’s redoubled commitment to preserving large buildings of old, inexpensive, private apartments—through repair subsidies, a new tax exemption, and even public purchase—all paid for (by us Zillow-rich homeowners) with an increased affordable housing property tax levy.
- HALA’s plan for strengthened transitional assistance to displaced renters, including bigger cash grants and better counseling and referral services, again paid for by taxes that recoup some of the wealth that housing price escalation is showering on developers and property owners.
- HALA’s stand for banning discrimination against prospective tenants on the basis of past felony convictions, because Seattle’s housing market should be no part of the “new Jim Crow.”
- HALA’s call for everyone in the city who is benefitting financially from the hot real estate market to chip in to the housing fund for those left behind, through the housing levy, a new real-estate excise tax, and other revenue sources.
Changes to Single-Family Zones
“More housing, more affordability” is also the principle behind the lightning-rod section of HALA’s report. That section concerns increasing flexibility in single-family zones, and it’s the part that drew the ire of Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat when he published a leaked early draft last week.
Single-family zones across almost two-thirds of Seattle are, by their very existence, the principal barrier to housing growth in Seattle. They are economically exclusive by nature: scarcity means only well-off people can live there, and a large and growing share of detached houses in Seattle now cost more than half a million dollars. Their roots are tangled together with the history of exclusion by race and class in Seattle.
Still, HALA’s recommendations for single-family zones are modest. HALA suggests upzoning a tiny slice of the city’s area that is currently zoned single-family and that sits inside of or adjacent to the city’s designated urban villages. Other single-family zones would stay under existing rules for how big their buildings can be. What would change is the forms those buildings could take. HALA recommends more in-law apartments, backyard cottages, clusters of cottages, small and separately owned duplexes and triplexes, courtyard housing, rowhouses and townhouses, and flats within single detached houses. The neighborhoods will feel the same, but more people—maybe our children—will be able to live in them, for less money. In some parts of Vancouver, BC, such flexibility has allowed a more-than-doubling of population density without any change in the architectural ambiance of the neighborhoods.
“More housing, more affordability” is good policy, in my view. It’s not perfect policy. Were I the czar of land use and housing, and were politics and law immaterial, I would implement sweeping upzones, a stiff land-value tax, and a guaranteed minimum income, plus much more supported housing for the most vulnerable among us. But here on Earth, HALA’s plan is by far the best we can hope for. In fact, it’s much better than I expected even two months ago.
HALA’s report could be a breakthrough, not just because it has sparked a long-needed discussion about single-family zoning, but because it presents a plan built on a compelling political logic. “More housing, more affordability” forges a new coalition that includes urbanists, affordable housing advocates, developers, climate hawks, and many others. Imagine developers asking the City Council to impose mandatory inclusionary zoning on them, while affordable housing advocates organize low-income tenants to march for taller apartment buildings. This new coalition could form an effective counterweight to the neighborhood obstructionism that too often rules City Hall.
It might even be able to withstand the political firestorm of 135,000 homeowners eager for their next $100,000 of Zillow appreciation.
One of Westneat’s main points is that you need to build infrastructure (transportation, schools, sewage treatment) to accomodate more people. The simplest thing to do is to tie those costs to the developers and landowners who are raking it in over increased real estate values. It doesn’t appear that HALA addresses infrastructure needs at all, though.
Yes, why didn’t the (developer-heavy) HALA committee address impact fees? They are not just the simplest but also the most equitable method of paying for the transportation projects and school capacity needs created by increased density.
If you’re talking about increasing the property tax to pay for badly-needed improvements, I’m fine with that. If you’re talking about charging “developers” only (which cost is passed along to the buyer), I can’t get behind that. If we as a community want to have more subsidized housing and improved transit and other things, we all need to pay for it, not just those who buy brand new housing.
I totally agree Eric. Impact fees are appropriate in greenfield development, where there was no population base at all, and now there is. In a city, the newest person to the city shouldn’t have to bear the entire burden of constructing a new school. The new school/subway/bus/police station benefits all the residents, not just the new ones.
Eric said: “If you’re talking about charging “developers” only (which cost is passed along to the buyer), I can’t get behind that. If we as a community want to have more subsidized housing and improved transit and other things, we all need to pay for it, not just those who buy brand new housing.”
Developers MUST pay impact fees.
I can’t figure out if you’re a shill for developers, Eric. But quite a few of your answers are seem so incredibly biased in favor of developers that I suspect you have a hidden agenda.
The problem is that developers just pass the fees onto renters (all renters) in the same way that sales taxes are passed onto customers. Of course the store could just pay the tax and not charge any more, but the store owner has no incentive to do that. No can undersell him/her. The same is true when you charge a fee for development. New developers must charge more, or it isn’t worth the cost of building. Existing landlords can charge more, knowing a new building won’t be built, because the costs are so high. Ultimately, the cost is paid for by renters.
It’s unfortunate that you were on the HALA committee and yet left out this part of the final report. You stated:
“HALA suggests upzoning a tiny slice of the city’s area that is currently zoned single-family and that sits inside of or adjacent to the city’s designated urban villages. Other single-family zones would stay under existing rules for how big their buildings can be.”
but the report also suggested (section MF.4) upzoning single family zones that are near arterials and nowhere near urban village boundaries. The Mayor’s office released a not-very-detailed map showing this.
But the bigger picture is that the 6% of homes in the upzoned single family areas will suffer a decline in property values, increased construction noise, and other ills associated with increased density, while home owners a block away will be unaffected. And this change will make little difference in the number of homes developed: given an average 10 year residence in a home, and assuming all homes are replaced with duplexes after a sale, then this would add about 450 homes a year, which is less than 10% of the planned growth in the Mayor’s plan.
So, why was this proposed? I believe that it was a cynical attempt by developers to make inroads into potentially lucrative single family zoned regions of the city. If you only pick off 6% of the SF areas, there’s less likely to be outrage because 94% of SF homeowners won’t be affected. I guarantee you that if this is approved by the City Council, there will be further efforts to gradually eliminate single family zoning (as stated in the leaked proposal).
Why do you assume an upzone would decrease property values in the affected area? Your house will be just as useful as a house regardless of its underlying zoning, but the value of the land it sits on would increase because there are so many more lucrative ways to redevelop it.
“Your house will be just as useful as a house regardless of its underlying zoning, but the value of the land it sits on would increase because there are so many more lucrative ways to redevelop it.”
Are you kidding? You’re absolutely wrong, Eric. The value of the houses on my street would go DOWN as more and more triplex’s are squeezed in.
Sure, to developers the value of the land goes up. But the quality of life for those of us living here goes down.
Those are two different things, though, aren’t they? Some people like the increase in density, you obviously do not. But to suggest that property values decrease because the land is worth more sounds rather backwards. I can’t think of any case where this has happened. Quite the opposite. Areas like Capitol Hill and Fremont have seen very rapid house price increases. This is anecdotal (it may be a case of price increases first, followed by new development) but this is consistent with standard economic theory. If you allow more uses, then the value goes up.
There are exceptions, of course. If they allowed a city dump on your neighbors property, then the value of your house would go down. But we are talking about a housing structure that went along with most of the development in the city (small apartments along with houses). Places like Wallingford are not exactly hell holes.
The other thing I understood from the report is that all Single Family housing will be redefined to allow things as large as duplexes and triplexes to be built on single family lots anywhere in the city. This isn’t “leaving 96% of the single family zones unchanged”. It IS a change. It removes Single Family Zoning altogether in my book. And doesn’t do much for affordable housing either. The biggest benefit will be to developers themselves.
Could one of you summarize what this “6%” issue is all about? I’ll admit that I’m more likely to read a lengthy comment section than the report itself. I’ve heard that 6% of SF zoning will be upzoned, and I’ve heard that all SF zone will be upzoned. And it seems this incongruity is the ammunition for the Westneat crowd with regard to the Mayor’s defense of the committee’s recommendations. It sounds to me like each side is simply referring to different aspects of the changes in zoning to SF zone. Am I missing a real nuance?
Alan, thank you for laying out your full analysis (and defense) of the HALA committee recommendations. I agree that the best part of the process is that people are being forced to confront how their seemingly benign preferences (easy parking, traffic, construction disruptions, crowded schools, ugly housing, noise) have some seriously harmful undertones, such as not letting poor people in your neighborhood, not letting different kinds of people in your neighborhood, high carbon footprint, making the city unaffordable to their own children when they grow up, and profiting personally through inflated housing prices when they sell.
I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that SFH in MF zones have decreased property value. All the evidence I have seen says the opposite. Maybe I just haven’t seen everything, but could you please link in your source for that assertion?
A follow up to my last post: you used Vancouver B.C. as an example of where density has doubled due to infill development, but you omitted the fact that the cost of a single family home in Vancouver is now around $1,000,000 and prices for a two bedroom condo are running about $500,000. Certainly not affordable for a median wage earner.
In fact, are there any locations where population in a relatively urbanized city have rapidly increased and housing prices have stayed affordable? If not (as I suspect), then what’s the basis for believing it will work here?
To be clear, housing is not affordable in Seattle now. Developers have hijacked the term. One always has to ask, “affordable to whom?” Those making less than $20 an hour will not benefit from inclusionary zoning. Loss of affordability is the reason 70% of attendees in the three outreach meetings said displacement was their #1 concern.
Keep in mind that 20% of SF homes are rented, and rented homes are the only option for families who need 3+BR. The report has no real recommendations for family housing.
For both homeowners and renters, stacked levies are escalating property taxes far beyond the cost of living. We are facing the gargantuan $930 million Move Seattle levy and the $350 million King County Children’s levy in November, followed by the ST3 and the double-or-nothing $300 million Housing Levy gamble in 2016. It is unwise to base all of the very low-income housing either on asking the State Legislature to further increase the State Housing Trust Fund $6 million (city’s projected share of 2-year $75 million capital budget) or three other funding recommendations that depend on asking the State Legislature for favors they are not inclined to grant.
The report has no real recommendations for family housing.
Read the report again, with special attention to pages 28-29. The suggested reforms on this front may not be adequate to meet the full demand, but they’re there, and they’re not nothing.
I had to look it up, but the term you are looking for is “Ceteris paribus”. It means “all other things being equal”. So, all other things being equal, houses in Vancouver are cheaper. In other words, if not for the changes, houses would be worth 2 million.
Seattle is booming right now, and all of this development puts a negative pressure on rent. But at the same time, employment is booming as well, putting positive pressure on rent. Without one, the prices would change dramatically (up or down).
But generally speaking, the development in this city has been expensive, for several reasons:
1) It is limited to a handful of areas. These areas tend to have expensive property.
2) Development tends to involve throwing away perfectly good houses. This is because of the high value of the land and parking costs. It usually doesn’t pay to add a couple bungalows and convert a big house to an apartment, because once you get done with the new parking, you are better off throwing away the house and just building bigger.
The new laws would change this. Adding a bungalow is very cheap. That doesn’t mean that housing will be cheap — it just means that all other things being equal — it will be cheaper.
Excellent summary, Alan!
Paul Byron Crane
Good work! Now let’s see what is eaten away when it goes to Council.
We need a more detailed map – with street names. Does one exist?
I’m with you – can’t tell if my block is “upzoned” or not.
Fred, it has indeed worked in Vancouver, B.C. Years ago, when that city was experiencing it’s own rapid development, it identified a number of single neighborhoods located meet transit corridors to receive a different kind of zoning by-law. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple counterpart name in the U.S. for what was done.
The City allowed each house to have a second unit built within it so long as the entry was to the side, not facing the street. That is much like our ADU ordinance in place today.
But Vancouver went beyond that by allowing TWO additional small units in the rear, accessed from the alley. Canadians call this “laneway housing.” They are typically several hundred square feet in area and located above a garage.(Many U.S. cities used to allow this under the name “carriage housing.”) These units are aimed at singles and young couples.
The end result was four units per lot but with the appearance of detached housing. Being simple wood frame construction, this kept the cost of rental units more reasonable. So that kind of zoning creativity has worked.
As a final note, Canada does not provide a tax break for owning a home. (Not to most other countriwe) The U.S. has only allowed it since the early part of the 20the Century. Over the decades this has been, in effect, a massive subsidy of single family home owners.
But, how affordable are these ADUs? This site indicates it’s about $700/sq ft to purchase an apartment in the city center, so even a tiny 500 sq ft. apt would be pretty expensive. And, while a tiny ADU is good for singles or couples, not so good for families, no?
And one correction: the mortgage interest deduction applies to any kind of condo or home, not just single family homes. So your “massive subsidy” to single family home owners statement is just not true.
In my mind the right question would be: How expensive would things be *without* these ADUs? Basic supply and demand says that if there were less housing available, prices would be even *higher*. Living in a modern city center is always expensive, but these are helping keep costs lower. Also, even if smaller units are mainly good for singles and couples, it means that in some cases they will live there, leaving bigger spaces available for larger families who need them.
1) No one unit types will accomodate all populations. ADUs are better for singles or childless couples and inappropriate for families. True. But 3 Bedrooms are inappropriate for singles and good for families. Being inappropriate for families doesnt make ADUs not useful for a real and growing population. We cant look to any one housing type as going to solve everyones problems.
2) The subsidy is real, in that it makes people who have wealth more wealth. Renters do not get the subsidy. Thus people with equity are getting a government break while those without wealth just have to deal with it.
You were looking at the site in CAD, not USD. It is already cheaper to rent an 1 BR Apt. in downtown Vancouver than it is in Seattle.
You are looking at the website in CAD, not USD. Vancouver’s rent for a 1 BR downtown is already cheaper than Seattle.
You’re ignoring Fred’s point about affordability. Vancouver’s increased density hasn’t made living in the city affordable. This plan won’t either.
The tax subsidy for home ownership is absolutely NOT a massive subsidy for single-family home owners, but rather is a subsidy for the mortgage and banking industry. The tax write-off of interest will recover, at best, 25 percent to 35 percent of the interest paid to the bank, making some folks think they are saving money when they are still paying between 65 and 75 percent of that interest to the bank.
The tax code DOES, however, directly subsidize landlords and developers through tax write-offs and waivers of fees.
“Please keep it civil and constructive” is the wording used about making comments.
Mr. Durning starting out the gate with making everyone who owns a house in Seattle greedy doesn’t really lend itself to civil conversation. He doesn’t define “privileged” unless he means you own a house. (He also seems to somewhat accuse homeowners of being racist because redlining happened here. It’s true it happened – I read up about it – but my owning a house doesn’t make me racist.)
I live in Roosevelt/Ravenna so I know about density and welcome it. But yes, if you throw “rowhouses” up, you will change the neighborhoods. The backbone of this city is our neighborhoods (no matter what developers or downtown interests think). Radically change those neighborhoods and you will not know Capitol Hill from Wallingford.
I didnt get the impression that he said that SFH owners were personally racist. He pointed out that SFH were originally concieved as a way to keep out minorities, and that even though the current residents don’t have that as a goal, they are still effective at keeping out minorities.
Melissa, since your comment and thinking is typical, I’d like to respond to it and others like it.
When it comes down to it, the correct economic choice for Seattle homeowners is to fight tooth and nail against relaxed zoning and up zoning. I don’t think this is greedy (your words) but simply a product of sensible self-interest. It’s the government working for you, as they say.
In terms of neighborhood personality, I hear this a lot. It seems that building greater density destroys a personality of a neighborhood. Is the personality of the neighborhood determined primarily by the age and architecture of the original buildings? Nobody seems to have a good explanation for what they mean. Why does the preservation or personality of a neighborhood trump the need for affordability?
You need to read Mr. During first two paragraphs – greedy is the right word for what he is describing. And, I agree to many things that are being suggested so thanks for ignoring that and saying “I’m fighting tooth and nail.” I’m not.
I didn’t say that the neighborhood is about the buildings – you inferred that so let me make it clear. The neighborhood is about the people who live and work there and make a conscious decision about what it looks like, feels like and how liveable it is. That’s not about buildings.
And that last sentence of yours? Quite the twist of words because I think most Seattle residents believe we CAN do both. But this hurry up and get it done timetable makes some of us very suspicious. And, that some of us have been “abused” (that would be City Attorney Peter Holmes’ word usage) by the Sisley brothers – for decades without the City doing, well really, anything – tends to make us a bit suspicious about what is to come.
You can’t blame us for that.
I agree Melissa. What is the timetable for all this building? From what I have read most of our neighborhoods have enough housing to accommodate the population for the next ten years. Are we going to complete the rest in the next 5 years? Will there be a building moratorium after that? Or will there be a housing value collapse due to all this available housing. We should be going for slow steady growth. Not boom and bust.
Ooh, can I register my vote for “housing value collapse?” I”m a renter, with a working class job and a family, so all that home value appreciation some of you are enjoying will soon push me down to Kent.
From my perspective, a decrease in property values would be a boon to our thriving diverse city.
Those figures about available zoning capacity are bad data. It includes unbuild but potential stories above existing MF structures. That means that a 4 story apartment building would get torn down to make a 6 story one. That almost never pencils out financially, so it isnt good to include those 2 stories as unused capacity.
Melissa, no of course owning your own house doesn’t make you racist, and the report neither says nor implies that. The fact is that like all American cities Seattle’s defining land use policies were mostly enacted during a time of widespread racism, and the policies reflect that. The fact that leadership at our city is for the first time acknowledging this fact should not be threatening to you.
Well, During said this:
“They are racially exclusive in historical fact: their roots are redlining and racial covenants.”
He points this out as if anyone who might buy in those areas is supporting those historical roots. And, therefore, probably doesn’t care. That’s how I read that sentence.
It does not threaten me in any way; I just don’t like the linkage.
He points this out as if anyone who might buy in those areas is supporting those historical roots.
That seems like a deliberatively uncharitable reading. That you choose to interpret it that way says more about you than the words on the page, I think. I live in a SF zone, and I certainly didn’t take from that statement any such accusation directed at me. As an educator, I teach college students about American history and politics. They know all about the classic civil rights stories–bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins and MLK–but they know virtually nothing about redlining and the role zoning played in segregation. It’s just nice to see a part of our government actually acknowledge this shameful part of our history, rather than gloss over it as usual. There’s no reason at all to take it personally.
The city has never enacted racist policies or any racist zoning, per the UW professor who wrote the book. Redlining was a policy of the banks, and was ruled illegal. Racist covenants were written into sales contracts by developers. Don’t blame past racist practices on homeowners. Keep in mind that 20% of people who live in SF home are renters, and this is the only option for large immigrant families who need 3+ bedrooms.
I don’t know where the idea comes from that Seattle never enacted racist policies. In Seattle’s ealiest days Native Americans were barred from living inside the city limits. Chinese too.
If you are African American or Asian American or another group that was historically excluded from certain parts of the city, it doesn’t probably matter if it was because of city ordinances, Federal home lending policies, or restrictive covenants.
These practices did not end instantly when fair housing laws were passed. Alan is right. Though long ago outlawed, past racist practices still influence the shape of our cities today.
Have you seen the statue in that little park at the end of the Streetcar line at Westlake? That guy got famous because he managed to talk the white citizens out of forcing all the Asians out of the city. The whites had forced them onto boats at gunpoint, and this guy convinced them that the Asians were too useful to get rid of. Seattle was not a bastion of racial integration or tolerance. It still isn’t.
It seems like a leap to imply that because codes were written when there was racism, that therefore all codes are racist. My own neighborhood began as area covered in coal dust (my attic was covered by black dust) where low-income families could afford to live. It is far more likely that economics drive where a family chooses to live rather than race. The quotes discussed were inflammatory, incorrect, and likely intended to try to deflect opposition to the HALA Report by making folks fearful of being called “racist”. The report is a give-away to developers.
I would argue that what makes Seattle Seattle is a combination of our varied single family neighborhoods and our access to so many beautiful natural resources.
Refusing to give up our peaceful neighborhoods doesn’t make us selfish or racist. There are other solutions. Come back with these suggestions for zoning changes after the urban villages (and SODO) are completely built out.
Refusing to give up our peaceful neighborhoods doesn’t make us selfish or racist.
The idea that a duplex across the street or a basement studio apartment next door would make your neighborhoods less “peaceful” has no basis in reality. Why on earth would that disturb the peace? I live in an SF zone next to an old, grandfathered triplex that rents for a fair amount less than anything else on the block. I know all the neighbors. They’re great. There’s an elderly couple in one of the units who are neighborhood stalwarts–they know everyone, keep an eye out for trouble, and even watch another neighbor’s kids after school a couple days a week. They also could never afford to live in this neighborhood had the SF zoning come in a bit sooner and banned the triplex. The neighborhood would not be better off without them. What do you think is so awful about living near people like this? What public good would be served by preventing these lovely people from living in the neighborhood they know and love, just because they’re not well-off enough to afford a whole house here?
Straw man argument. Couldn’t you have the same neighbors if they lived in an ADU or DADU, either of which could be built in a single-family zone under current code? The urban village in our neighborhood has not even come close to being built out under current code, yet exceeded its growth target for 2024 several years ago. Developer self-interest is a horrible basis for setting city policy.
Greg, you don’t seem to get it. You don’t want neighborhoods to be “built out under current code”. If that happens, there is NO FLEXIBILITY for the market to function. If that happens, you have a housing shortage and nobody can build additional housing. It is wasteful and awful for a neighborhood to be “fully built out”.
You have to make the zoning *more flexible* than you want the neighborhood to actually be.
PS. No, those neighbors could not live in DADUs or ADUs under the current code. Please look up the extreme restrictions under the current code on ADUs and DADUs. For one thing, they allow no way for three separate families to rent from the same landlord.
So will this set-aside for low-income or affordable housing actually work? Because from what I have seen of recent new apartments in Seattle is that they are tiny and prohibitively expensive. For several years now, we have seen a boom in apartment construction in neighborhoods like Capital Hill. They are all over the place. And they run $950 a month for 400 square feet. I am all for more housing inventory in Seattle, but I am dubious about claims rent will come down.
Matt, I lived in SF for several years. Despite more apartments, the rent never went done. Fast forward a couple of decades and it’s even worse.
More apartments will NOT make the rent come down for the vast majority of people who do rent.
Despite more apartments, the rent never went done.
San Francisco has restricted new housing far more than Seattle. It added very, very few units 1990-2010, and is only just now starting to them a bit more aggressively. The demand for housing in San Francisco has gone up much, much faster than the supply. The only way to keep prices stable is for demand to keep up with supply, not just a tiny fraction of it.
djw: Yet, as mentioned earlier in this thread, Vancouver B.C. has doubled density and real estate prices there are among the highest in North America. I will repeat my mantra: find me a city, anywhere in the developed world, where massive development has restored affordability to a rapidly growing city. It hasn’t happened in other cities and it won’t happen here.
Affordability is a sliding scale, of course. When you have a highly desirable rapidly growing city, where the growth is fueled by high-tech jobs, there’s probably no set of policy tools, given standard political constraints, available to most North American cities that will get that city to the affordability level of Cleveland or even Columbus. But the variations within expensive cities are important as well. Seattle and Vancouver are both considerably cheaper to live in than San Francisco, and that’s in large part because they allowed more growth to occur than San Francisco did. See also DC–it was growing fast and getting more expensive fast, then they started getting serious about adding more units, and rents have stabilized in the city and started to fall a bit in the surrounding suburbs. This isn’t rocket science; you can’t entirely solve the problem merely by adding demand (as HALA obviously acknowledges) but without a serious boost to demand the problem is going to be a lot harder to solve.
The Mayor is selling this proposal as an affordable housing proposal. To most people, including me, that means affordable by at least a majority of residents, which would mean that a household with median income should be able to purchase some sort of housing (a condo or house). According to Census figures, median household income in Seattle is around $65K, which would allow you to purchase roughly a $270K condo. If you read today’s Seattle Times article, one of the HALA committee members talks of developers developing new $600K condos, which would require $130K of income, more than twice the median income.
So, no matter how you spin it, this proposal largely benefits wealthy developers and very well off home buyers. The Mayor also throws a few crumbs to housing advocates, but it’s hard to see how you get to 20,000 affordable units in 10 years with this proposal.
But this attitude just doesn’t make sense. You seem to be saying, in essence, “if we can’t reach the full goal, it doesn’t really matter how close we get.”
I don’t think the policy and political environment we’ve currently got has much of a chance of making Seattle fully “affordable” across all or even most income levels, or anything like the benchmark you propose. As far as I can tell, neither do you. Where we differ seems to be on whether we think getting as close as we possibly can to that goal “counts” for anything. To me it seems fairly obvious that it should–if, say, and anti-poverty program proposes a 50% reduction in poverty and only achieves a 40% reduction, in a sense it failed, but in a very important sense it was a whole lot better than doing nothing. This isn’t a sporting event where losing 15-0 is the same as losing 15-14, these are people’s real lives we’re talking about. Seattle is better than SF on affordability right now in large part because we’ve added more units during times of growth. The relationship between new units added and affordability in the tech hubs in this country is very, very strong.
It seems obvious to me the closer we can get to affordability benchmarks, the better. Do you disagree? If so, why?
First, the graph you linked to is very misleading — it’s comparing apples to oranges. With the exception of Seattle, all of the cities to the left of San Diego (Raleigh, Austin, DC+suburbs, Bethesda, Middlesex County) are low density regions — all less than 3K sq/mi, and all, by the way, dominated by single family homes. By contrast, Seattle is near 7K sq/mi. I’m guessing that if you plotted price as a function of density you’d get a much stronger correlation.
My argument is not that this program won’t have *any* effect, just that it will have a marginal effect. Think about it: the Mayor is calling for building 5000 housing units per year for the next ten years. That will add about 1.5%/year to the housing stock, all while population pressures continue. The only people that this will help will be people on the upper end, with the exception of the indeterminate number (probably smaller than predicted) of low income residents who benefit from inclusionary zoning. If that $600K drops to $500K it will still be unaffordable for 75% of Seattle residents. So it’s not a case of not reaching the goal; its a case of not even being on the same playing field.
The starting point of 7K density–low by and reasonable global standard for developed cities–means adding more housing wouldn’t help. Your point isn’t wrong; it’s easier to build more and stay cheap when there’s lots of cheap land around. But the overall effect of building more is the same, at a different level.
Even if all the new housing built ends up being expensive, it still doesn’t just help the wealthy. The think is, rich people are coming, whether we build houses for them or not. Each rich person storage unit is one less fancy unit a rich person won’t be bidding on.
The HALA recommendations are a direct assault on what little is left of the middle class in Seattle, and a HUGE gift to the developers. They are the only real winners here. Oh and the tech elite which are the only class of people that will be able to afford the new housing created by the decimation of the neighborhoods most affected. As stated in Danny Westneat’s article today, none of the upzone is likely to affect the wealthiest neighborhoods. But in less affluent neighborhoods like mine, doubling the housing levy will push out older, less affluent homeowners who have no choice but to sell. Developers are already salivating. Those of is in those neighborhoods have benefited financially on paper only, we only realize those benefits when we sell and cash out. The HALA recs are specifically designed to force that to happen sooner than later, and sacrifice the those who don’t have the resources of a Laurelhurst to fight back. Older folks will just lose their houses sooner and head for the nursing home. Better to get those old people out of the way. How progressive.
Thank you Cathy I agree wholeheartedly.
I agree as well; I’ve been in my modest home since 1999. It is practically the cheapest home in the ‘hood (which is another form of diversity–significantly less expensive houses next to more expensive ones). Soon (too soon, actually), I will reach retirement age. I’ve been a professor in the Washington state system, and I’m only, ONLY this year getting my first cost of living raise in ten years. I also bicycle all over–for exercise, for joy, and to reduce my use of fossil fuels.
Soon I, I who have paid taxes; voted on taxes for education, parks, transportation, etc.; I will be one who is likely to be tossed out of my ‘hood at some point due to aspects of what HALA has set up. To echo the writer above, how progressive is that?
Finally, most of us wish to create affordability; however, density does NOT seem to equal that in the way it is marketed. We will have dense housing near sorely needed public transportation, but will that new housing be affordable? I find it an immense delusion to believe developers will develop affordable housing in any meaningful fashion.
> density may be the most important part of beyond-carbon living.
> It’ll become more like Amsterdam or Paris, less like Sammamish or 1978.
Thank you so much for writing this. Heartening and inspiring.
By the way, here are some pictures I recently took of Capitol Hill train station. I’m sure many here will enjoy them.
Naïve comments about the funding for affordable housing. Right now it seems we mostly consider property taxes and taxes on developers. What about a small income tax (or corporate tax) that would make the basis much broader and include all the rich renters who are part of the problem (along with the corporations that employ them).
If you look at France for example, there was initially a 1% tax on all compensations. I think it was later reduced but it’s still there and it funds affordable housing. If you compare Seattle with Nantes (Nantes is half smaller) they have Nantes Habitat, an agency that manages the public funding and from the data I have seen they built as many new units and renovated ones than Seattle does with half the population). The ultra rich corporations could easily fund affordable housing as could also the uber-rich individuals if they were willing to use some of their billions to fund impact investments. How much money would be needed, is needed? I bet any amount would be attainable from rich pockets (with a small amount of their wealth). They just have to decide to do it. Let us take Microsoft for instance: what would be a $100 million a year investment for them? pocket change. Same for the Gates Foundation of the Gates family…
The claim “It’ll become more like Amsterdam or Paris” is at best disingenuous. I’m sure Alan During knows that those cities’ public transportation systems enable the density. There is zero likelihood that we’ll develop equal transportation systems here. We don’t have the publicly owned space needed, nor the political will to finance such an effort.
So HALA is aiming to give us Parisian density without the Metro, without the trams, without the buses, without the RER, without the trains.
I was not represented on the HALA committee. It was a committee of developers and low-income housing advocates. They developed a compromise that worked for them. What about the rest of us? Getting rid of SFZ? What were they thinking?
I was surprised at seeing higher Zillow, but it mostly means higher taxes and insurance as I am retired in place below the median income, and only developers would buy, leaving me with worse housing st higher cost. I would propose dual rolls for taxed, with a break for owner occupancy, and a so-called homestead exemption on the first $50K or so to make it more progressive for lower-income owners who live in their homes.
For the health of a neighborhood and our City, I will trust the self-interest of the resident property-owners far, far more than the self-interest of developers. I have witnessed the damage that a bad-apple developer can do. My opinion of the HALA report is that it places the future of our City in the hands of the speculative development.
All of the growth needed to meet housing needs into the future can be supplied under the EXISTING code, up to 250,000 new units. Affordable housing is existing housing. We need incentives for mom-and-pop to hang onto that old apartment building, or for homeowners to consider adding a DADU or ADU, not encouragement for more rampant speculation and development that the recommendations in the HALA report will create.
Under the existing, highly restrictive code, in order to meet all those growth needs, pretty damn near every existing building in every “multifamily” zone would have to be knocked down and replaced with a code-maxed building. Do you really want that? Because, Greg, that’s what you’re advocating for: slash and burn destruction of historic properties.
Every one of Seattle’s single family homeowners is not getting as rich as you want people to believe Mr Durning. I paid $400K for my modest two bedroom home in the Ballard area ten years ago. It is worth about $75K more than I paid for it, if that right now. I have paid $35K in property taxes in that ten years. Add to that the fact that it would cost me about $40K in real estate commissions and costs to sell it and I haven’t even broke even in ten years. Modest home improvements, interest, insurance aren’t even accounted for in that. There is your ca-ching. Insulting modest homeowners in Seattle isn’t going to help this cause and I am suspicious of the rhetoric behind this whole thing from saying single family housing has it roots in racism to saying modest homeowners are greedy all the while not one word of this plan touches the wealthiest neighborhoods in town. No wonder there is little support for the HALA committee.
I’ve not read all of HALA, nor every single thing written by Sightline about housing density and the cost of parking cars. I do believe in affordable housing, and in reducing the use of cars – though I am a bit less anti-car than this organization (which I have supported financially).
All of the actions to reduce available parking, decrease the number of vehicle lanes, add bike lanes and increase housing density depend on viable and available transit options. Seattle does not have adequate transit.
The actions taken to date are making the city a miserable place to live, and do have an impact on commerce and cultural activities. We need transit options first – not as an afterthought once the ability to get around is curtailed. People may be guarding their neighborhoods, in part, because it is becoming impractical to mix with others throughout the city.
I have a desperate situation in that I am a 72 yr old male on SSI and Social Security with a set income of less than $9,500.00 per year.
I have lived in my own Apt. for the past 10 yrs, and been able to pay my rent every month without tardiness. However, on March 4, 2016 my Apt Building was sold and will not be able to afford the more than double rent increase.
I am also a Master Leather Craftsman with 4 comercial sewing machines for making custom leather projects and have all the necessary tools/equipment for the trade of my past 60 yrs.
It is apparent I’ll soon be out on the streets without a home or a work place for all my leather equipment.
Is there any kind of hope for me and my situation?
Any assistance would be deeply appreciated.