The Seattle Times published my op-ed on housing in Seattle’s single-family zones this morning. Here’s the slightly longer version I submitted:
“The point of affordable housing is not the housing, it’s the people who will live in it.”
In 1993, when I was 28 and my second child had just been born, I rented a two-bedroom house in the Central District near where I grew up. I paid $800 a month. That’s how my Seattle housing story begins, and it’s typical of my generation. In that house, I started the venture I still run, which now employs 14 people. In time, I was able to buy, and now I live in a house in Ballard that’s somehow appreciated to a shocking $700,000.
The housing stories of young people nowadays are radically different. My friend Tania who grew up in the CD a generation after me, cuts hair downtown and commutes by bus from a row house in Everett. That’s the closest family-sized place she, her husband, and their baby girl can afford. She hopes to start a business as a clothing designer soon, if she can get ahead of her bills. My friend Meaghan, a new mom, may move to Renton to find an affordable two-bedroom place. Her husband is starting a new career, and Seattle’s rents are crushing their finances. Tania and Meaghan are among the lucky ones: they have jobs and supportive families. Thousands of members of our community sleep under bridges or in cars each night, pushed there in part by our city’s white-hot real estate market.
Housing affordability has become the defining challenge of Seattle’s growth. For the past ten months, I’ve served on the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) Committee. Mayor Ed Murray asked us for a plan to turn Seattle back into an affordable city.
Of all the recommendations in HALA’s 65-point plan, the most controversial part concerns the city’s single-family neighborhoods. It deserves explanation fourways.
First, the purpose of changing single-family zoning is to welcome families who aren’t rich. It’s to enable the Tanias and Meaghans to live in these neighborhoods too, renting and perhaps buying someday, and contributing their talents to our city all along the way. The point of affordable housing is not the housing, it’s the people who will live in it.
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Second, HALA had no choice but to recommend changes to single-family zoning. Affordability demands the reforms. Almost two-thirds of Seattle’s zoned land is currently reserved for detached houses. Seattle cannot accommodate the tens of thousands of people who are moving to our community without many of them landing in the single-family zones. Already, growth has made these neighborhoods exclusive to the point of exclusion: intensifying scarcity means only people with money or people from families with money can buy there now. Even small houses in popular neighborhoods start above half a million dollars. Seattle is well down the path to Silicon Valley’s $1 million entry price for home ownership.
Third, HALA’s recommendations for bigger buildings in single-family areas is limited: fiddling around the edges, literally. HALA says to upzone just 6 percent of them. This 6 percent sits inside of or adjacent to the city’s designated growth hubs, its urban villages, or alongside arterial strips already lined with big buildings.
“Seattle is well down the path to Silicon Valley’s $1 million entry price for home ownership.”
Fourth, HALA recommends more flexibility, but not bigger buildings, on the other 94 percent of the single-family zones. These areas would stay under existing rules for building sizes: same height limits, same restrictions on total square footage, same setbacks. What would change is that city codes would allow more options in dividing up that square footage. We recommend more in-law apartments, backyard cottages, cottage clusters, miniature duplexes and triplexes, courtyard housing, rowhouses, townhouses, and stacked flats. We also recommended allowing separate ownership of these dwellings, so that more people can afford to buy homes.
These suggestions reflect the range of housing types that actually already pepper our single-family neighborhoods, left over from before current restrictions. My friends Chris and Mary live in Wallingford on a neighborhood greenway. The three-story home they have restored themselves is surrounded by gardens and a chicken coop. It’s divided into three flats; they live on the top floor. My friends Valerie and Brian live in a classic old Capitol Hill house with a downstairs in-law apartment, which they rent to a single mom. Two doors up from my friends Pete and Christine, in a single-family zone in Ballard, is a triplex—two up, one down—built decades ago. My friend Rick lives near Greenlake and can point to the converted corner stores with apartments up top that are sprinkled through his neighborhood.
HALA means to say, in short: more like that! Neighborhoods will feel the same. The same tree cover and lawns, the same porches and rain gardens, the same chicken coops and tiny lending libraries. But more people. More people like Tania and Meaghan and their husbands and children. More people like my own children, now in their twenties, who I hope can live in their hometown someday and possibly own homes. And more people like 28-year-old me.
We bought our home in a Single Family 5000 zone in Greenwood. We loved the neighborhood, and we saw it as an investment for our retirement. It did appreciate, by Zillow’s estimate 53% over 12 years. This is the equivalent of an annual 3.6%. Of course we paid property taxes during this time. For comparison, investing in the S&P 500 gained 107% in the same period, requiring no property taxes nor upkeep.
The only shocking thing about the appreciation of our retirement investment is how bad it has performed, gaining less than half of the stock market return.
HALA calls for eliminating our single family neighborhood – we are located in the 6% of SF5000 area to be rezoned.
The value of our house will drop when it is no longer in a SF5000 zone, while the value of our small lot by all forecasts will not compensate for the loss. HALA’s plan thus arbitrarily devalues our retirement investment. I’m using ‘arbitrarily’ because I see no ethical nor economic rationale that would justify this injury to our financial security.
How can you justify that?
You would not ask for government action to devalue investment portfolios of stocks or bonds. Why investment in housing? Because you can, I presume, and because you calculate that resistance from the 6% of single family homeowners whose assets and neighborhoods are destroyed can be pushed aside.
There is a strong distinction between mother-in-law apartments or backyard cottages, which are options that enhance the homeowners value, and duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, row houses, courtyard buildings and stacked apartments, which would only be done by developers tearing down the existing, more affordable home. Three new triplexes that would sell for upwards of $600,000 each is no one’s definition of affordable. This is where the HALA ran off the rails.
How do you know that your home value will decrease? What evidence do you have of that?
Tony, I think it is you who needs to supply some evidence — Chris’ position is the intuitive one. Though either way I have not been able to find any relevant studies searching online.
I am in the same situation – I own a SF house in one of the urban village sacrifice zones to be upzoned to LR. I accept that the land value will rise as there is more demand for lots to build the LRs. But let’s say you have nice house on it worth maybe $800K or more now. Developers buy the small and shabby for teardowns, the lot is not worth $800K to them. Now consider the buyer looking for an SF home and presume the same two SF buildings, one in an SF zone the other in a LR zone — It seems obvious to me that buyer will prefer, and pay more for, the SF in the SF zone. The difference is the amount the owner in the LR zone has lost. Seems obvious that my house is worth more surrounded by SF houses than by 4-storey apartments. And add to it that I have a view I stand to lose, and that also has a dollar value.
If you can find studies that contradict this, please post links, it would make me feel better because I think I am losing value. And there are more, less tangible loses — more noise, less parking, you’ve heard the litany.
Still, I am not anti-HALA. I just think that as a matter of justice if you are going to upzone my SF zone you have to either upzone all SF zones equally (to LR) or compensate me for my loss. It’s going to be very hard to watch people around me making money doing what is losing me money without significant compensation.
Alan, you say you have an SF house so you must have thought this through. Given your stated views, are you advocating for upzoning your area to LR? Seems to me you have to either do that or advocate for compensation for those upzoned, or you are participating in defining a geographic minority to carry your water for you. Put another way, it would make you a NIMBY.