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.
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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.”
I’m sure there are many good recommendations in the HALA report, and I’m sure some of them will actually be implemented.
But the proposal to upzone all single family neighborhoods, or whatever you prefer to call it, was tone deaf and politically blind. So much so that it may, as you imply, overshadow all that is good in the report.
I loved your first analysis of the HALA report, and I love your thoughts here about what the mayor could have said. Intellectually, that is.
But I would not have wanted to mayor to say it. City council primary ballots are due on the 4th, and anything short of what the mayor said would only have given more political fodder to the ilks of Tony Provine and Jean Godden. You probably got their recent mailers too and have heard the sentiment of your neighbors who are likely voters but haven’t filled out their ballots yet. We can’t fulfill the goals of the HALA report if we have councilmembers like Tony Provine or Jean Godden, and that two or four year commitment is a bigger impediment to solving our affordability and sustainability crisis than the mayor’s stance this week.
“I promise you, we will protect the character of Seattle neighborhoods.”
You do not have it within your power to make this statement. Only the City Council can say this.
“But the proposal to upzone all single family neighborhoods, or whatever you prefer to call it, was tone deaf and politically blind. So much so that it may, as you imply, overshadow all that is good in the report.”
Ditto. You on the Committee wrote that report so you cannot possibly say you are surprised that people read it and reacted to it (particularly in the language you used).
It is completely unclear to me what happens on this issue. Publicola is reporting that the 6% of neighborhoods on the transit line WILL have their single family zoning changed. That’s certainly not fair. (And especially not fair to Roosevelt/Ravenna with our slumlord problems AND having been already upzoned in other places.)
For all to share the gain, all should share the pain.
As well, at some point, we should talk about what the report did (and did not) say about public education. What it did say – supporting charter schools (which Seattle itself voted down) and repeatedly calling schools “amenities” (they’re not) – is very troubling and shows the Committee had little idea what they understand about public education and Seattle Public Schools.
Alan, here is what I wish you had said, what I wish everyone involved had recognized and acknowledged. The HALA process failed to engage with the largest stake holder in this equation, single family home owners. The residents of Seattle’s SFZ’s have proven to be caring, generous and compassionate. They have voted in favor of schools, and as the report pointed out every single hosing levy ever presented. But somehow they were not as worthy as planners, builders, bankers, realtors and lawyers all of whom had an interest in the outcome of this process. I must say I am disappointed by this failure. How could someone such as yourself, someone who has been offended by secret deals between the Port and Shell Oil and the lack of transparency regarding oil trains, how could you fail to recognize that a significant population was being left out of the HALA conversation? I find it impossible to believe that you, the mayor, his staff and 27 other committee members failed to recognize this. You worked for 10 months and no one said, “Maybe we need to engage with the neighborhoods when we discuss changes to single family zoning?” Your failures in this regard represent a tremendous loss of opportunity. Your letter to the mayor reveals your continued myopia. “Perhaps” neighborhood meetings? Really? You think that might be a good idea now? Seriously, the HALA committee’s failure to be forthright, failure to harness the good will of Seattle neighborhood residents and failure to involve them in this process has poisoned the conversation. The opposition to HALA isn’t about scare tactics. It is about a lack of trust. Neither the mayor’s statement nor your letter does much to cure that distrust and the resulting hostility toward HALA.
Thanks for your comments, which I find hard to square with my actual experience. Consider: HALA WAS single-family residents. Two-thirds of the members live in single-family neighborhoods, almost all of them home owners. We were an all-volunteer committee and still we hosted three community meetings to gather input: north, south, and central Seattle. HALA conducted a huge online survey, with hundreds and hundreds of comments, all analyzed and synthesized and reviewed by HALA’s members. HALA organized seven workgroups, each of which included several additional participants (also volunteers). So the proposition that HALA was some sort of plot to exclude single-family neighborhoods’ perspectives is hard to square with reality. You’re entitled to your own opinions, of course.
Is it not true that many of the HALA committee members, who you say are single family residents, are also developers who might stand to benefit if the HALA recommendations are implemented? And, if this was an inclusive committee, why were neighborhoods so poorly represented?
The outreach effort clearly failed. How else can you explain the outrage when the first HALA draft was leaked? The online survey you mentioned doesn’t even mention zoning until the very last optional question, and it is buried in a list of other suggestions/recommendations. And the survey response results on the Mayor’s web page say nothing about what the response to this question even was!
I’ve seen nothing to indicate any signs of contrition by either the Mayor’s office or HALA committee spokesmen. Instead of blaming the messenger, the Mayor and the HALA committee needs to publicly acknowledge their missteps and restart the discussion with all Seattle citizens in an inclusive way.
At the core of many single family home owners’ opposition lies the fact that their homes are their biggest financial asset. For many it is their retirement fund. We fear zoning changes because we fear that our retirement fund will lose value.
Despite your outreach, this didn’t register with the committee as something to be taken seriously. You explicitly denigrated that concern in the first paragraph of your first blog post on the released HALA report: “One person’s affordability “housing emergency,” … is another person’s cha-ching”. And you gave it another twist in the next paragraph with “property owners are making money hand over fist”.
FYI and for some perspective: our house in a single family zone in Phinney has appreciated half as much as the S&P500 in the 13 years since we bought it.
Of course we don’t trust you or the committee after reading these statements. And I don’t see much reason for starting to trust that my concerns are taken seriously after this latest blog post.
Alan, thank you for your response. I appreciate that we have your attention if not your understanding. The mayor and the committee failed to engage neighborhoods in this critical conversation concerning them. The public outcry accompanying release of the plan is proof of the failure. However, you say this opinion does not square with your experience. I think you miss the point. Your experiences with Shell oil, the Port, coal trains, oil transportation should have informed your work on HALA. I remain incredulous that during your 10 month project there was no discussion about involving neighborhood representatives in the process. Your meetings were not open to the public so we can never know. However, I have to believe that the issue was raised and rejected. Any other conclusion strains credulity. The argument that members of the committee are themselves homeowners is specious. Are we to believe that each homeowner on the panel was charged with representing the views of the affected neighborhoods in addition to providing insight based on their professional expertise? If so, it is never mentioned in the materials. In fact it is clear that people were selected for service based on expertise, not as neighborhood representatives. Another little bit of sophistry, intentional or not, is the claim that by hosting three community meetings and a voluntary online survey you provided ample opportunity to engage and collect opinions from the neighborhoods. Participation in the meetings and the survey was entirely by self-selection, the results statistically irrelevant. You know this. The meetings themselves were not directed to home owners and attracted very few of them. The materials provided at those meetings mention “neighborhood” exactly once! The online survey questions were pointedly slanted in favor of recommendations the panel ultimately presented. How did that happen unless the committee had already made a determination of what their recommendations regarding neighborhood zoning would be? My point to you and to the mayor is simply this. The process was seriously flawed. Neighborhood interests and opinions were not sought out or considered. Whether neighborhood exclusion was inadvertent or by design I doubt we will ever know. The mayor’s capitulation on city wide up-zoning notwithstanding there remains concerted resistance to other zoning proposals. You should admit the obvious that the process failed to include neighborhoods and that this was a mistake. Such an admission would go a long way to restoring trust and undoing the serious harm done to advancing the overall conversation.
Max, right on, you nailed it.
Failure to involve those involved. You can’t spring this stuff on people, people need to be brought on board.
Mr Durning, I’m sure you are a great guy, but you tend to come across as speaking down to those that don’t immediately gasp at the brilliance of your ideas.
What worries me is that the City already has published a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the next edition of our Comprehensive Plan that describes rezoning Seattle single family zones as well as reducing tree canopy by 10% in order to accommodate growth. Seattle Comprehensive Plan Update Draft EIS May 4, 2015
Already in the works. Just how much revenue can the city expect from new buildings through the Real Estate Excise Tax?
I’d like to share an interesting article, reflecting aspects of San Francisco’s experience.
This article shows how much San Francisco is concerned with legislating/regulating affordable housing. I wish the article mentioned smaller alternatives like co-housing, however. Also, I wish in Seattle that some of the storage units (see I-90 and Dearborn, for example) could be replaced by housing units.
But frankly, I am concerned that in aspects of HALA and the rhetoric around it, I’ve seen a kind of Wizard of Oz mentality, where density will equal affordability as if all it took was clicking one’s heels.
I do not trust developers in general (read the article above too) to truly, truly add–with fees or space–to affordable housing. What I fear (and what many others do as well) is that modest homes in Seattle (1200 square feet, etc.) will be torn down and more expensive versions will be put up. As someone who lives in the Columbia City area, I relate to a neighbor posting on Nextdoor (the community list-serv) that they (SDOT, etc.) are trying to turn the neighborhood into what Capital Hill is like. That is not a compliment!
While I believe that those who work in an area should have access to affordable housing, sometimes that isn’t possible, but people can live at a reasonable distance (a 20- to 30-minute commute by light rail) from work and have affordable homes. Hence my belief that Lynnwood and areas north or south of Seattle (even Renton or Everett)that are less developed could be places to build affordable housing AFTER there is affordable and sensible transportation options.
Look, let’s be real: not everyone can live in Seattle. It’s limited geographically–bridges, bodies of water, etc. Unless we turn it into aspects of Vancouver (lots of sterile tall buildings in too many parts) or NYC, it is not possible. So many folks talk about the character of Seattle’s neighborhoods as one of its draws and charms. That is key. Now, I am not against change, but I am against what seems to be one of the big delusions: that density will equal affordability.
So, to summarize, it’s hopeless, put “those people” somewhere else, business as usual for the lucky few cash-cow SFH owners and the developers they will sell out to? I believe Arnold Toynbee had a few words to say about such ossification.
Well, where did you see my saying it’s hopeless? And…you neatly ignored the other suggestions, along with a warning about the rhetoric of affordability being just that.
However, it is true, not everyone can live in Seattle. That’s true of San Francisco, Vancouver (B.C.), New York City, etc. My family could not afford NYC when I was a kid; my father took the train into the city daily and that was what was possible. Jeremy, your attempt to turn my comments into “those people [sic]” isn’t warranted nor does your comment further the conversation.
“But frankly, I am concerned that in aspects of HALA and the rhetoric around it, I’ve seen a kind of Wizard of Oz mentality, where density will equal affordability as if all it took was clicking one’s heels.”
But you see, Arlene, the minute you suggest something else, you are turned into someone who doesn’t want to help.
There can be common ground but I’m not sure if that’s really what is wanting. Is it truly to be all or nothing?
@Arlene the problem is that if the majority of residential land in San Francisco or New York City were zoned for single family detached homes on 5,000 SF lots, homes there would be orders of magnitude less affordable than they already are.
Seattle’s current zoning sets us up to be a city that’s vastly less affordable than either.
Brian, is the majority of Seattle land zoned that way? And…what about the many homes that folks share but do not own? I wonder what will happen to those types of housing under HALA.
There’s also this diversity about Seattle that I have liked: smaller more modest homes next to larger homes. In other words, in many ‘hoods, there are not cookie cutter buildings.
I agree, Melissa, that it seems like the minute you suggest something (or disagree with something) there is a demonization (i.e you don’t want to help) that occurs. My main take away from much of HALA and this is this:
people do not feel as if they have been heard or represented AND people feel that density will not equal affordability. And because to many affordability (and consequently accessibility/diversity) seems to be the goal, many do not feel we’re on the right track (or tracks). As a city, we need, I believe, a clearer and longer discussion of what TRULY will create affordability–and without sacrificing folks or demonizing those who disagree.