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.