Last time, I mapped the political battleground of metropolitan housing shortages. This time, I draw lessons from an attempt to unleash abundant housing by assembling a different coalition.
In the summer of 2015, long before the US national media noticed that something called the YIMBY movement had been born, before Minneapolis’s bold move allowing triplexes in its tree-lined neighborhoods of detached houses with yards and driveways, and before US presidential candidates routinely issued affordable housing plans, the biggest splash in the realm of housing policies was called the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA).
HALA was a 28-member committee established by the mayor and city council of Seattle and tasked with devising a comprehensive response to the city’s soaring rents and home prices.
HALA was a 28-member committee established by the mayor and city council of Seattle and tasked with devising a comprehensive response to the city’s soaring rents and home prices. I served on the committee, so I can attest that it was a 10-month, 28-direction hair pull. It reproduced in miniature most of North America’s urban housing debates and political dynamics. And then, to the surprise of many people, including us participants, it yielded a consensus plan.
That plan, moreover, broke new ground and won national attention—a standout among the libraries of reports that civic commissions release into the world each year. The fact that the city made at least token progress on 54 of its 65 recommendations and claims full implementation of 21 seems nearly miraculous.
Now, four years later, after the long-fought passage of two final, signature HALA recommendations, work to implement HALA has unofficially come to an end. The mayor and almost all the council members who launched HALA are gone, and their successors’ plans and priorities have superseded it. City staffers who once coordinated HALA implementation have moved to other projects. Seattle for Everyone, the coalition that mobilized in support of HALA, is quiescent. It is therefore a good time to draw what lessons we can from HALA.
What does HALA teach us about how to unleash abundant housing in low-carbon neighborhoods quickly enough to meet the challenges of the climate emergency and exclusionary housing costs? How do we build a durable governing majority that keeps housing abundant?
To jump to the conclusion, HALA’s final score is a three-handed story.
On one hand, HALA racked up a list of wins, big and small, that is impressive to behold. In the North American political context of near-ubiquitous housing lockdown, HALA’s accomplishments seem exhilarating: thousands of new homes legalized, whole neighborhoods upzoned, hundreds of millions of dollars funneled to new affordable apartments, better legal protections for vulnerable tenants, and more.
On the other hand, if you study many of these wins in detail, you learn that they are less than meets the eye. They’re compromised, flawed, or otherwise not really what HALA recommended. That’s why the housing shortage HALA set out to cure has instead worsened. Rents have escalated, and displacement has further eroded minority neighborhoods. The merciless dynamic of shortage—cruel musical chairs, as Sightline called it during the thick of the HALA battle—has kept pushing people with less money into more-cramped quarters, more-distant dwellings, or homelessness. Homelessness is markedly more prevalent, acute, and visible than it was in 2014, and arguments over how to respond have divided communities more than ever. In short, HALA’s wins, however impressive they may be compared with what’s proved possible in other places, fall short of what is achingly necessary.
And then on a third hand, HALA galvanized a new generation of activists and leaders. It may have even ushered in a new and enduring pro-housing political balance in Seattle. This incipient and still shaky new majority for abundant housing is now visible in virtually every relevant public policy debate in the city, at hearings and forums, in the media, and online. People of many races and ethnicities, many of them young adults, are showing up and speaking up. Formerly silent, they are audible now, and their arguments—for more homes of all shapes and sizes in all neighborhoods for all neighbors—now sometimes even prevail. This change is incomplete, of course. Those with power, connections, time, and money—typically homeowners, mostly white and older—still get more than their share of the air time. Still, it’s been a marked shift in who commands the attention of elected leaders in housing politics. If it proves the new normal in Seattle, it could prove more important than anything else HALA accomplished.
The challenge of HALA, or any abundant-housing plan, is to overcome the housing-obstructionist balance of power that rules almost all North American cities (and that I described last time): a five-way convergence of homeowners’ general opposition to change, turbocharged by their financial self-interest, manifested in their numerical dominance among voters, complemented by metropolitan residents’—and especially urban liberals’—distrust of private real-estate developers, and complicated by the cross-cutting racial politics of displacement and gentrification.
One clear conclusion to draw from HALA’s four-year run is that making progress against these forces is possible. Through HALA, the abundant-housing camp tried a different strategy, built a new kind of political coalition that split old alliances and swamped housing obstructionism. They won pro-housing laws that they never would have been able to pass otherwise. Among a baker’s dozen of noteworthy victories to which HALA contributed are:
- a historically generous doubling of the affordable-housing property tax levy, one of the fairest ways to pay for subsidized housing
- a suite of reforms to local parking rules that will make home construction easier, including an obscure but consequential fix in the definition of “frequent transit” in one city ordinance, which is allowing more apartments near bus and light-rail stops
- a revision to state liability rules related to condominium construction that will speed building
- new building-code provisions allowing another floor on mid-rise buildings, by legalizing six wood-frame stories on top of two concrete ones, or five wood-framed stories on top of three concrete ones—in both cases an increase from the previous maximums of “five over two”
- a city ordinance facilitating the release of surplus public properties for affordable housing projects
- a refocusing of rules that previously allowed housing obstructionists to misuse environmental review for anti-environmental purposes
- an adjustment of the cumbersome Design Review process, aiming to streamline it
- additional protections for tenants: bans on discriminating by source of income or criminal record and improvements to the pre-existing Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance
- a bigger budget for the State Housing Trust Fund starting in 2019
- a best-in-nation liberalization of rules for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which effectively triplexed the city’s single-detached zones and could allow many thousands of middle-class families and individuals to move into the city’s most sought-after neighborhoods, and
- an upzone of apartment districts, first in pieces and then citywide, that could add tens of thousands of regular apartments and thousands of subsidized apartments to the city’s housing stock in the years ahead.
A bevy of lesser reforms also came about. Yet among all the flurry of activity unleashed by HALA, its lessons are perhaps most evident in the stories of two HALA suggestions.
Upzone the city!
Two of the 65 recommendations made by HALA seized attention at the outset, because combined, they would have upzoned the entire city, allowing dramatically more homes.
The first suggested allowing more than one household in each building in Seattle’s single-detached zones, which cover 54 percent of the city. In this proposal, prosaically known as SF.2, buildings could be no bigger than before, but they could hold multiple dwellings within them, such as duplexes, triplexes, or stacked flats. This proposal to re-legalize “middle housing” met such a firestorm of homeowner opposition—one veteran council member told me he’d never seen so many enraged constituents in his life—that the mayor and council promptly disavowed it.
This reaction was no surprise. As I detailed last time, homeowners (not all, but most) tend to oppose change in their neighborhoods, for a variety of reasons including financial self-interest. In fact, those of us on HALA who drafted recommendation SF.2 partially designed it to elicit such a reaction. We wanted to touch the third rail of land-use politics—single-detached zoning—and spark a civic conversation. We wanted to make our other proposals seem modest by comparison. Specifically, we hoped that proposing to redefine single-family zoning would make our proposal to liberalize rules for ADUs seem like a common sense, middle-of-the-road compromise.
The stratagem worked. Even the most NIMBYish candidates in the fall 2015 city council elections supported ADU reform: such support became the new political middle ground. Seattle’s 2019 ADU reform allowed almost all single-detached lots in the city to hold three separate homes: a house, one in-law apartment, and either a backyard cottage or an additional in-law apartment.
As important, SF.2 precipitated a furious and much-needed debate about the history of race and class exclusion in Seattle. At the time, reaction to HALA’s eight-word allusion to a body of academic literature on the history of zoning—“Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion”—threatened to take all of HALA down with it, but over time, the truth of our contention, validated by others, permeated the city’s discourse on housing and land use. In the 2019 primary elections for city council, for example, the exclusionary nature of single-family zoning became a talking point for many candidates for the first time. In late 2019, the city council quietly began to clear the path for future consideration of reforms similar to SF.2. Like a phoenix, SF.2 may rise again.
(Although HALA appropriately prescribed how to end exclusionary zoning, it offered fewer cures for one of its downstream consequences: the gnawing injustice of displacement. This oversight deserves fuller attention but is too multifaceted to treat adequately in this already long article. I plan a separate article on the subject.)
Taller + cheaper
The second lightning bolt in the HALA report was R.1, a proposal to upzone all the city’s other residential land, the parts not zoned for single-detached houses. The proposal suggested allowing one or two additional floors in height in almost all the areas where apartments are permitted.
The R.1 apartment upzones, unlike SF.2, came with a catch. HALA recommended a form of “inclusionary housing”: new buildings in these areas would have to include a quota of reduced-rent apartments reserved for households with lower incomes. Alternatively, builders could pay a fee to the city to allow nonprofit affordable housing providers to construct those units elsewhere. For example, in Seattle’s designated neighborhood centers, a new apartment building could rise to seven floors rather than six, but 6 percent of the units in the building would have to be priced to accommodate households earning at most 60 percent of the Seattle area’s median income.
Within HALA, this proposal was the one that took the most work. It was complicated. It was also contentious. Before HALA, nonprofit housing providers and the political left in the city had been pushing hard for a new charge, called a “linkage fee,” on every square foot of new indoor space built, to pay for new subsidized homes, with the exception of single-detached housing. Although single-detached dwellings are the most expensive form of new residences, linkage-fee supporters exempted them, perhaps out of resignation about the clout of homeowners. It was a perfect example of the antihousing, antideveloper worldview that I described last time, with its alliance of some homeowners who oppose development and some members of the left, who distrust developers and see private development as a cause rather than cure for housing shortages.
For-profit builders, meanwhile, were preparing to sue the city if it adopted the linkage fee. Legal observers at the time thought the developers had better than even odds of winning in court, because state law bans such exactions. A giant court battle was brewing and likely to grind up millions of dollars and induce years of delay. Just in time, HALA invented an alternative: Seattle could pay for new affordable housing by building lots more market-rate housing. Upzones would pay for new reduced-rent apartments.
The principle at the center of R.1, the axle on which the whole proposal turned, was the promise of equal value exchange. That’s an eye-glazing term, but it’s a simple idea: the city, by granting upzones to landowners in certain neighborhoods, would effectively give them new wealth. Their properties would be worth more money. The R.1 requirements, as proposed by HALA, would be designed to reclaim a large share of these windfalls for the public purpose of providing additional affordable rental homes in every part of the city. Inserting housing for low- and moderate-income households in well-off neighborhoods is one of the best antipoverty strategies around. By granting upzones, the city could more or less mint new money and, through its affordable housing requirements, it could spend the new money on subsidized homes, exactly where they would do the most good.
Note, though, that if the city imposed requirements that cost builders more money than the upzones had granted them, they would be less likely to build at all. The effect would be to slow homebuilding, exacerbating the city’s housing shortage, driving up rents, pushing more low-income households out of the city, and undermining the program’s entire goal. Less homebuilding would also mean fewer reduced-rent homes: a lose-lose.
The political theory of MHA
For this reason, the careful balancing of values was an indispensable piece of the HALA agreement—the thing that allowed almost all committee members to get behind R.1. This proposal, later named “mandatory housing affordability” (MHA), became the principal thrust of subsequent HALA activity, overshadowing all other recommendations.
The principle of equal value exchange was essential to MHA’s effectiveness as policy. It embodied HALA’s overarching theme, too: more homes and more affordability. It was so important that HALA spelled out the mathematical quota of affordable apartments per building in downtown, using as its guide a much smaller, existing program in that part of the city called “incentive zoning.” City planners had designed the incentive zoning program to entice self-interested private builders to opt in, on a similar logic to MHA: permission to build taller buildings was given in exchange for providing a quota of cheaper apartments. Because it was optional, the math had to work—it had to not quash financial returns—to win participation. For the rest of the city, HALA estimated (see Appendix E) that 5 to 7 percent of new apartments might be rent-reduced for low-income households, but the committee left the details to the mayor’s team of city planners.
MHA was, as best I could tell, no HALA member’s first choice. For neighborhood interests on HALA, speaking for homeowners, the first choice was simple: no upzones. For affordable housing providers and the left, MHA was a compromise worth taking only to avoid a prolonged legal battle. Their first choice was to tax private developers: some of them stated a belief that private development is much of the problem of housing affordability and that private developers therefore should be obligated to provide affordable housing. Many of them were skeptical, moreover, about upzones, accepting a commonplace but mistaken perception that upzones would increase gentrification and the displacement of low-income families. Others on the left argued that private development is so profitable that even stiff fees or mandates would yield affordable apartments without slowing construction at all.
For private developers, climate hawks, and other urbanists (myself included), the first choice was to upzone, unleashing an abundance of homes in Seattle’s low-carbon neighborhoods, close to jobs, schools, transit, and parks. Unalloyed upzones would have awarded windfalls to landowners, it’s true, but they would have also yielded far more new homes than any other alternative. Indeed, for those of us in this group of HALA participants, the very notion of imposing fees on homebuilding to pay for affordable housing is as facepalmingly wrongheaded as it would be to tax farmers to pay for hunger relief or to impose fees on solar cell manufacturing to pay for climate solutions. Taxing problematic activities to pay for their solutions makes good sense; taxing solutions does not. And homebuilding is a solution, not a problem.
Almost all displacement, we argued, stems not from demolition for new construction but from rising rents, and lots of new construction is the only antidote to rising rents that comes without unintended negative side effects. (Recent fine-grained empirical research suggests that construction of new homes in disadvantaged neighborhoods has almost no effect on displacement rates from those neighborhoods and can be a plus for the welfare of children from low-income families.) Complementary anti-displacement policies and tenant protections can help stabilize vulnerable communities, such as communities of color, and help them remain intact.
To capture windfalls for public purposes, such as affordable housing vouchers and nonprofit construction, a handful of my fellow committee members and I favored a transition to land-value taxation. Land-value taxes capture windfalls that prospering cities bring to all property owners, not just developers. Moreover, they suppress land speculation; encourage sprawl-reversing full-development of prime, close-in urban parcels; and are strongly progressive in their incidence on taxpayers. (Unfortunately, they also face legal challenges in the Northwest.)
In short, MHA was what no one wanted but everyone could live with. Unlike everyone’s first choices, furthermore, MHA had one enormous advantage. It lined up with a political theory—a theory that held promise for getting it adopted. MHA could split the city’s affordable housing providers and political left away from the antideveloper homeowners with whom they had typically aligned. It might even bring them into a stable new coalition with urbanists: a pro-housing, pro-climate, pro-affordability coalition powerful enough to outflank housing obstructionism.
In the heady early days after HALA’s recommendations came out, it seemed that if the policy and the politics both worked, MHA could make Seattle a new North American model: sweeping citywide upzones plus affordability mandates, championed by a coalition of builders, urbanists, climate activists, affordable housing advocates, and the left. It might even spread rapidly to other booming, expensive cities.
Unfortunately, MHA fell short of these high expectations: it worked better as politics than as policy. It did pass into law, in pieces, after immense controversy and four years of struggle. Politically, it was an accomplishment: upzones across all the city’s apartment districts! But flaws in its implementation, arguably unforced errors, will make it less effective than it could have been. In places, it will prove to have been worse than doing nothing, while in others, it will work out passably well. In some cases, additional rent increases during the long delay in its adoption will outweigh the errors the city made in its design—a needless rise in prices that tenants and recent homebuyers continue to pay every month, of course. Its fate is a case study in just how difficult it is to realign local housing politics in favor of abundant housing.
I’ll turn to the politics in a moment, but sketching the policy flaws will make the politics easier to understand.
The rule of one-third
Mathematically, the easy way to balance MHA, that is, to ensure that the upzones would pay for the affordable apartments, would have been to require a consistent portion of the additional, upzoned floor space to be used for units rented at reduced rates. In general, a good guideline is one-third. A four-story zone that went to five floors would increase its zoned apartment count by 20 percent. One-third of that is a little under 7 percent, so that percentage of the building’s total apartments would have to be affordable. Raising an eight-story zone to nine would boost the building size by 13 percent—a smaller relative gain in value compared with going from four to five stories. So the affordability requirement would also be smaller: one-third of 13 percent yields 4 percent of the building. That share of units would have to be affordable apartments.
This rule of one-third would have made clear to everyone involved that the bigger the upzone in a neighborhood, the more affordable units it would provide. It would have manifested the core idea of HALA itself: more homes in all neighborhoods overall and, in lockstep, more affordable homes.
Unfortunately, the city adopted requirements along the lines of a one-third rule only for downtown and the South Lake Union neighborhood. Everywhere else, it imposed a complicated matrix of numbers: building-wide affordable apartment quotas and associated in lieu fees, all of them only vaguely tethered to the magnitude of the upzones. The result of these MHA numbers is a program that imposes haphazardly varying financial burdens on the dozens of different types of upzones across the city. In a disconcertingly large share of cases, based on the city’s own assumptions the MHA requirements were substantially larger than the value of the upzones that came with them. In other words, the “upzones” would function as downzones and squash home construction. In at least some of these cases, rising rents during the four-year fight to implement MHA may have restored profitability for landowners and developers, allowing at least some new apartment buildings to enter construction after all. But to celebrate that fact is to mistake a curse—a policy that jacked up rents—for a blessing.
Politics over policy
The source of these rampant policy-design flaws was political. City officials never attempted to calculate value exchange. HALA might have had a commitment to that principle, but the mayor’s office and the planning and housing departments had no such compunction. For them, the quest was to present quickly a schedule of MHA requirements and fees, along with estimates of resulting subsidized apartments built, that would convince the city council to give up its linkage fee proposal and adopt MHA instead. So the city’s planners made some assumptions, generated some spreadsheets, and produced estimates suggesting MHA would yield as many subsidized apartments as would a linkage fee. Those estimates had to pass the straight face test by looking like a serious-minded analysis of real-estate economics. They did not actually have to be one. (They weren’t.) They just had to get enough council votes, and the council was predisposed to be convinced. MHA solved a big political problem for them: impending legal war between homebuilders and the city.
The city did commission an economic analysis later, which it used to rationalize its already-set MHA numbers. That analysis, which never checked for equal value exchange, found that under MHA, fewer homes would be built in lower-rent areas of the city. That is, MHA was a downzone and would squash homebuilding—a clear violation of the program’s stated goals. Presented with this conclusion, city officials just shrugged and stayed the course.
One of MHA’s vulnerabilities as a policy is its complexity. The need to specify upzones, apartment quotas, and fees for every one of the dozens of distinct city subdivisions hands a gargantuan assignment to city staff. The program quickly became so elaborate that few could understand whether it matched HALA’s stated goals. Even developers had difficulty parsing the net effects of some MHA rules.
Old politics return
Once the mayor’s office had submitted its MHA proposal to the city council, including its cockamamie matrix of numbers, the familiar old pressures of city housing politics reasserted themselves. Some affordable housing providers and some on the left insisted that the city raise the MHA requirements higher—more subsidized, affordable apartments; higher fees on developers! They branded the proposal, which in fact would squash homebuilding in many cases and consequently worsen the housing shortage, as a “giveaway to developers.” Neighborhood groups representing homeowners echoed the same talking point but instead insisted that the city grant smaller or no upzones. Both wings of the familiar old homeowner-left axis, in other words, reverted to form.
For-profit housing developers are, by reputation, power players in urban politics, and you might think they would be the biggest force for upzones and more housing. In fact, they play a surprisingly mixed role. As a rule, developers are not team players. Their profession rewards secretiveness and shrewd bargaining, and they tend to see other developers not as allies but as rivals. They’re like the hiker in the tired old joke who, when entering grizzly country, stops to change from boots into running shoes. His companion ribs him, “You’re never going to outrun a grizzly!” He responds, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.” Just so, many developers care more about stealing a march on their competitors within a tightly restricted zoning regime than about opening up opportunities for all builders.
True to form, during the HALA implementation process, developers displayed little unity. Downtown developers got what they wanted—a well-balanced MHA. They set aside their planned linkage-fee law suit. But the smaller developers, in particular the ones who build rowhouses and townhouses, lost out; unaided by their downtown peers, they made plans to adapt by working outside the city or searching harder for projects that would still pencil. In other words, they built fewer homes.
It could have been worse?
Sightline pointed out that the city’s MHA proposals were flawed, of course. We made this argument at the time, repeatedly: in general, for highrise buildings downtown and in the University District, mid-rise buildings, low-rise apartments, and rowhouses. We made the point both privately and publicly to two mayors’ staff members, city planners, city council members, the pro-HALA coalition Seattle for Everyone, the media, and just about anyone else who would listen. Obviously, we were not sufficiently persuasive; with just a few exceptions, the best we could do was help keep the MHA numbers from getting worse.
Then-council member Rob Johnson, who shepherded MHA to adoption, told Sightline that he would have fought for whatever MHA numbers came down from the mayor’s office, but that politics prevented him from fixing them. He could only try to hold the line. Seattle for Everyone similarly accepted the city’s numbers and took its job to be defending them. The errors, once made, couldn’t be undone, went the political logic, because corrections to the MHA numbers would mostly have looked like concessions to developers—the “greedy developer” narrative is extremely potent politically as an explanation for why housing is expensive, though it’s false.
Seattle’s city council adopted MHA first in a handful of neighborhoods and then, in March of 2019, across the rest of the city. Its passage was heralded far and wide as a signal achievement. It passed more or less as it was proposed by the mayor’s office. Its proponents, including Sightline, staved off attempts at making it worse. In this sense, it was a political victory. To some, any kind of a citywide upzone is a victory.
At a minimum, some advocates have argued, even a flawed MHA is better than the linkage-fee would have been. The fee would have imposed a stiff city-wide charge on new buildings, other than single-detached houses, to pay for subsidized apartments, suppressing homebuilding much more than did MHA. The linkage fee appeared likely to win city council approval in 2014 and 2015, so MHA proponents have a point. Of course, the courts might have thrown out the linkage fee. We’ll never know.
Others have suggested that Seattle can fix MHA’s crazy-quilt assortment of mismatched upzones, apartment quotas, and fees in the years ahead. That proposition seems politically naïve, like telling a baker not to worry about measuring her ingredients, because she can always take her cake apart later and reassemble it differently. Think about it: Is any neighborhood likely to lobby for a bigger upzone because the original one didn’t adequately compensate landlords for the affordable apartments it required of them? And what broad coalition would rally to reduce the pounds of flesh extracted from developers for affordable housing?
No, the more likely future political consequence of MHA in Seattle is not a fine-tuning and correction of its demands but instead an extension of its precedent to future land-use legislation. Future upzones may come wrapped in the expectation of money for affordable housing or other public goods. New requirements will get stacked on top of the old ones. It’s a troubling prospect, because housing in low-carbon neighborhoods is one of the scarcest public goods around, and upzones are the way to generate it, quickly, in vast quantity, at no cost to the public treasury.
MHA, on balance
To me, the story of MHA, like the story of HALA, is three-handed.
On the one hand, in every apartment zone in Seattle, the city allowed an extra floor or two (or more, in a few places) in just four years, theoretically providing opportunities to build tens of thousands of additional homes and thousands more affordable apartments. A new political coalition overcame the longstanding housing-obstructionist alliance of homeowners and the antideveloper left, validating MHA’s political theory. Seattle for Everyone demonstrated that it’s possible to build a coalition that brings together developers, urbanists, environmentalists, affordable housing providers, and labor unions around upzones plus inclusionary requirements. Forging this coalition was not easy, and its organizers deserve enormous credit. Ideologically, the people in the coalition included everything from neo-Marxist activists to corporate real-estate MBAs. Not surprisingly, those on the ideological edges of the coalition were never entirely comfortable, and some of them left it, including at least one prominent voice of communities of color. Still, it was a Herculean undertaking, and it achieved its political ends.
On the other hand, the city’s abandonment of the principle of equal value exchange means that, more often than not, MHA upzones and quotas are imbalanced. The political win was a policy mess. Many quotas are too high and will suppress homebuilding compared with what would have happened without MHA. A few are just right: downtown, they’re right because HALA members made the calculations themselves and inserted them in their report; elsewhere, where HALA left the math to city staff, if they’re right, it’s only by luck.
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In the University District, where the MHA numbers were egregiously imbalanced, a few years of extremely rapid rent increases appear, ironically, to have stanched the bleeding. Sightline’s analysis, based on the city’s own rent assumptions, projected few high-rise buildings would come out of the ground because of the onerous MHA requirements. Instead, however, market rents rose so steeply in recent years that some new high-rise buildings are now in development. But should we celebrate that rising housing expenses rescued a poorly designed affordable housing program? Had the U District upzone been executed in accordance with the principle of equal value exchange in the first place, more homes and affordable homes would be opening their doors there sooner.
Will MHA’s technical flaws stop homebuilding entirely? Of course not. Many projects will still pencil, just not as many as before, perhaps thousands of fewer homes. Imposing additional costs on new homes is like turning down a dimmer, not flipping a switch. Big, growing cities such as Seattle hold within them hundreds of thousands of potential new building projects, with many alternatives on each parcel, and hundreds of them are under study by developers at any given time. Every major change in policy flows into developers’ financial scenarios, and MHA, by placing larger costs than benefits on many of those pro formas, pushed many apartment structures that developers would have otherwise built into the red—and out of existence. We’ll probably never know the exact effects, though. Housing markets are far too complicated to isolate the consequences of individual policies like MHA.
Still, the fundamentals are clear. Any slowdown in building worsens the city’s housing shortage. A worsened shortage raises rents permanently and unless new offsetting cost savings are found, these increases will be irrevocable. Higher rents siphon more money from tenants and push more low-income people from their homes and from the city. Eventually, it’s true, rents will rise enough to turn red ink black again: projects that MHA made unprofitable will become profitable again, as appears to have happened in the U District. Some have argued that means there’s no problem, that miscalculations by city staff will be corrected by the market itself. But that’s Newspeak: higher rents cannot solve an affordability problem.
The fact that homebuilding continues means that developers’ MHA problem has been solved. The public, rich and poor, continues to pay for the program’s flaws with bigger monthly rent checks.
During a housing shortage and a climate emergency, the only fixes to MHA we ought to embrace are ones that would build more homes soon. Unalloyed upzones would have been better, but no political coalition could have pushed them through in Seattle in this decade. MHA is a clever, second-best approach to doing so, with a plausible political theory for winning adoption. It could have been a new model for politically winnable affordable and abundant housing. Instead, unforced errors in implementing the idea yielded only a partial victory.
Perhaps the MHA model can work better on future attempts elsewhere. Indeed, one city insider I spoke with speculated that the subsequent rise of pro-housing voices in local and North American policy debates might have caused city leaders to hew to the principle of equal value exchange if the MHA process had just started a year or two later. The impulse I mentioned previously to punish developers—to stick it to them because they make money on a basic need and, besides, they seem rich—was an unspoken assumption behind city decision-making, in this person’s view, and the importance of abundant market-rate housing, in addition to subsidized apartments, has become much more accepted since 2015, thanks to a steady continentwide drumbeat of research, media coverage, and mobilization in support of housing abundance. Which is, in a nutshell, the third hand.
The third hand
On this hand, MHA, more than any other HALA proposal, helped mobilize a new generation of pro-housing voices in Seattle politics and establish a new conventional wisdom in support of abundant housing. I canvassed two dozen past mayors, councilors, and government department heads, plus long-time journalists, advocates, affordable housing providers, developers, and others, including many former HALA members, promising confidentiality in exchange for their unvarnished view of HALA’s outcomes. Many of them will tell you that different people speak up than used to.
Young adults testify at hearings now, raising their voices for more homes as they never did before. The old cast of characters mostly included neighborhood representatives arguing, typically, for less construction, and developers arguing for their own projects. Now, when pro-housing proposals come up, at least in majority-white neighborhoods, hearing rooms fill not only with the old cast but a new one too: renters and union reps, climate hawks and transit nerds, social-justice warriors and tech workers, and employers, big and small. There are lot more people of color; there are a lot more tattoos. And the common refrain, like a drumbeat running under all the new voices, sounds something like, “This is our city too. Where are we supposed to live?”
Citywide activist groups such as Tech 4 Housing, More Options for Accessory Residences, and Share the Cities are joined by neighborhood-based pro-housing assemblies, such as Welcoming Wallingford. They are offering a previously silent counterpoint to the relentless and previously dominant narrative of “I support density but . . .“ voiced by housing obstructionists.
One after another, my sources told stories of how things have changed: A builder finds permitting agencies in Seattle and beyond are now intrigued and helpful when he proposes to install clusters of miniature apartments with no parking spaces. A long-time activist fought valiantly a decade ago for upzones around transit stops and said, “I cannot tell you what lonely work that was.” In contrast, this activist said, at all but one of the dozen-plus MHA debates before the city council starting in 2017, proponents outnumbered housing obstructionists, often by a large number. Two former elected officials remembered that single-detached zoning was an untouchable third-rail in Seattle politics, rarely even mentioned, but then HALA not only touched it but also injected a racial-equity lens into its discussion. Now, these observers say, single-detached zoning’s days seem numbered.
My sources described HALA differently, as everything from a modest accelerator of progress to a watershed or even a sea change, but perhaps the most apt metaphor was from a former city council member who said HALA was a crucible—a ceramic melting pot in which to forge a new political alloy. The ingredients were fast-shifting demographics in the city, with tens of thousands of newcomers added, mostly young, many of them highly educated, and almost all of them renters. Homebuilding could not keep pace because of zoning restrictions, so rents and prices soared. The result was an entire population cohort in the city evicted from the dream of home ownership and furious about that fact. This cohort, more diverse than any previous generation of Seattleites, was more ready to accept and speak out about the racial, ethnic, and class dimensions of exclusionary zoning. A steady stream of books, video, and media attention to pro-housing voices near and far contributed too. HALA didn’t cause any of these trends, but it was the crucible in which Seattle cast itself a new conventional wisdom: more housing—much more housing—and more equitable housing too.
Before HALA, the city’s dominant housing narrative celebrated tens of thousands of community-spirited homeowners for tending the city’s aging stock of single-detached 1920s bungalows, 1950s ranch homes, and 1970s split levels in mostly quaint, tree-lined, and attractive single-detached neighborhoods. With HALA, that story began to bend and buckle in the face of new and pressing questions posed by younger people. Were the older homeowners actually hoarding the city, resisting change, blocking the addition of homes for the next generation? Were they, wittingly or unwittingly, even perpetuating an ugly and shameful history of exclusion by class and race? Were they possibly not the heroes of the Seattle story after all?
Understandably, the resulting political fight was intense and visceral. In the end, when the smoke finally cleared, city politics had found a new balance point. The city council voted unanimously for ADU reform and to adopt MHA. The new balance point was that obviously Seattle should add a lot more homes, especially affordable ones, including cottages and in-law apartments in single-detached neighborhoods but also apartments everywhere else. The city should make room: “This is our city too.”
What’s more, although HALA’s recommendation SF.2, which would have re-legalized duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats citywide, died a swift and ignominious death days after its introduction in 2015, its substance is rising from the ashes. Now, in 2020, the future of single-detached zones is in play in a way unprecedented since the city’s first zoning code in 1923, which was the first of several ordinances to successively strengthen bans on multifamily housing on 75 percent of the city’s residential land. We’re three years from the centennial of that fateful code’s adoption, and stacked flats, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, rowhouses, and other forms of “middle housing” are on the agenda, especially around schools, parks, transit stations, and job centers. The Seattle Planning Commission, which is a purely advisory body in Seattle, called in early 2020 for a fundamental overhaul of the city’s strategy for managing growth, including a redefinition of single-detached zoning itself to allow up to four homes on each house lot and the addition of a raft of new density hubs or “urban villages” to the handful designated in the 1990s. Despite what’s likely to be a Ragnarok-scale fight with housing obstructionists, Seattle’s city council is inching its way in the same direction: re-legalizing multifamily buildings everywhere. Teresa Mosqueda, a city council member with a strong citywide following who is a likely bet for one-day mayor of Seattle, said “Policy changes to right the historic wrongs of past discriminatory housing and land use policies, as well as increasingly restrictive zoning, are long overdue in Seattle. We need to tear down walls of exclusion, act decisively on climate change, and create a city that is welcoming for all. This means allowing more homes of all kinds, coupled with investments and supports for those who are struggling to make ends meet or being pushed out of their homes and longtime communities as housing costs rise. It’s time to match our laws with our values.”
As ever, the process of change threatens to be gobsmackingly, excruciatingly incremental, slow, and compromised. Nevertheless, in the 2019 city council election campaigns a strong majority of candidates said it’s time to rethink singled-detached housing. Full stop.
Even before that class of council members took its seats in January 2020, though, the previous council inserted money into the city budget for an environmental impact statement to accompany the city’s next comprehensive plan. It was an obscure bureaucratic chess move, but the ultimate purpose was to study a rezone that is basically SF.2. HALA was not the only reason for this budget proviso, but it was the crucible from which it arose.
Next up: Portland and Vancouver, BC?
To win abundant housing in Seattle, HALA drafted an ambitious, multifaceted plan, and HALA participants launched a new political coalition. The centerpiece MHA plan won adoption, as did a dozen other HALA recommendations—a vindication of the approach, at least in part.
Still, to win on the scale that’s required by the twin imperatives of climate change and housing shortages, even HALA and its champions proved inadequate. We needed to somehow protect the plan from the pitfalls of implementation—the technical complexity of MHA made it prone to malformation anyway, and city politics malformed it. Then, it proved resistant to correcting.
Other cities attempting the same can perhaps avoid these mistakes. For example, Portland’s Residential Infill Project (which Sightline is almost as intimately involved with as we were with HALA) is nearing completion, and it seems to have sidestepped these pitfalls. It’s nowhere near as multifaceted a plan as HALA. In truth, it’s about the size of SF.2. More power to them, if Portlanders can pass it!
Vancouver, BC, has long welcomed ADUs citywide and has built them on one-third of its formerly single-detached lots. In 2018, it legalized duplexes on all of its house lots. Its city council plans to vote this spring on whether to permit four- and six-story apartments on some of these same lots—those that are close to parks, schools, shopping, and transit in a large share of the city. More power to Vancouverites, if the council passes this plan!
The ultimate impacts of HALA, of course, remain unwritten. They are likely to be less in the specific policy wins it has logged than in the way it upended the city’s housing politics, mobilizing a new generation of residents and telling a new story, still contested, about housing. In that new story, Seattleites’ values translate not into a future of lawns, driveways, and free parking on sleepy streets. Instead, they translate into a future of more homes, of all shapes and sizes, in all the city’s neighborhoods for all who want to live there. In that future, housing is abundant, opportunity is for all, and greenhouse gases are absent.
The quest of this series is to identify the best strategies for winning the war for abundant housing in post-carbon cities. HALA exemplifies much that’s essential for any city-level battle plan: a galvanizing and visionary plan with strong leadership from elected and community leaders, a bold new coalition that intentionally assembles just about every organized interest in the city (from tenants’ advocates to bankers, from climate hawks to trade unionists) to counter the homeowner obstructionism that otherwise dominates local politics everywhere, and an upwelling of quieter, younger voices who have the most to lose from housing shortages and climate emergency. In Seattle, even the confluence of these forces led to only a mixed outcome. HALA has made Seattle much more of a success story than many other cities, but it’s still not rising to the challenge. HALA is something to celebrate, but it’s still inadequate—not enough to win the war. Similar approaches are worth trying elsewhere, with extra emphasis on mobilizing a new generation of activists and with a gimlet eye on any upzones-for-inclusion bargain such as MHA.
Fortunately, this city-level approach is just one of several political strategies for abundant housing. Others may have better odds of success, because homeowner interests loom largest at the city level of government. In subsequent articles in this series, I’ll examine attempts to outflank the housing-obstructionism bloc in city politics by taking the issue of housing shortages to higher levels of government: state and federal. But first, next time, I’ll go in another direction and explore a truly novel, long-shot proposal from England and New Zealand: the counterintuitive idea of moving zoning decisions down to the level of individual city blocks and empowering neighbors to upzone themselves.
Next time: What is hyperlocalism and might it work?