On Tuesday, the city’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning committee took public testimony on the newly rechristened Mandatory Housing Affordability-Residential (MHAR) component of the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda proposal, which would require all residential developers to either build affordable housing (between about 3 and 7 percent of total units) or pay a fee into an affordable housing fund. The plan would upzone multifamily areas by about one story, and would rezone single-family areas in urban villages to multifamily–a change that would impact about 6 percent of single-family-zoned land in the city.
Neighborhood activists turned out in numbers for the 9:30 am hearing (held at a time, as several HALA proponents pointed out, when many working people were unable to attend), and instead of merely restating their familiar complaints about the HALA plan and process(“Heartless!” “Lack of concern for human consequences!” “Delay!”), I’ve annotated some of their specific claims, showing which ones are based in fact, which ones are really opinions masquerading as truth, and which seem to be fabricated from whole cloth. (Apologies if I misspelled any names.)
“Single-family zoning was never meant to keep minorities out of my community, but to protect families from aggressive development–buildings too tall, too big, and too close.” – Rhonda Bush, Wallingford1
“Trading 6,000 units of affordable housing for citywide upzones is very unbalanced. It eliminates obvious benefits to neighborhood stability related to the single-family model. I’m talking about a couple hundred thousand homes that people can be potentially displaced from. The timeline for this legislation is not in sync with [the Seattle 2035 comprehensive plan update] or public outreach plans.” – Bonnie Williams, MHAR opponent2
“Nowhere in these land use discussions have I heard any talk of their impacts on senior citizens. The proposed upzone boundary in Crown Hill is drawn from a computer model showing a ten-minute travel distance from transit centers. I am in the range of bus service, but the bus stop or transit center is too far for me. I am 72 years old and the bus doesn’t get me to the doctor or the grocery store, and when it does come, it’s standing room only.” – Constance Knutson, Crown Hill3
“There is no plan for preservation in this proposal. The preservation part of HALA depended upon passage of a tax break for for-profit developers which did not go through in Olympia, and in all likelihood would never pass, so we have no plan for preservation, no plan for funding it, and that leaves us 5,000 units short of the 20,000 units promised.” – Sarajane Siegfriedt, Seattle FAIR Growth4
“Why is the city rushing to adopt levies that can only drive up housing costs?” – Tom Noble, Wallingford5
“‘Affordability and inclusion’ is a terrific motto, apparently coined either in New York or London, or perhaps a private jet over the Atlantic, by wealthy people for the wealthy. … The mayor’s plan continues the net loss of affordable housing that’s currently taking place, with about 10 units being destroyed for every one unit we fund.” – Greg Hill, Wallingford6
“The areas directly north of the cut, from the Locks all way to the university area, is the largest sewage problem that we have in the entire city by far, and upzoning that area will compound that problem gigantically. It appalls me that with such an environmental atrocity happening that we want to add more fecal matter to our waterways. Why do we want to turn the Emerald City brown?” – Jim Bentley, Wallingford7
“We have enough development capacity with current zoning. According to a report last year from Seattle DPD, with current zoning, we have development capacity to add an additional 22,000 housing units–a sufficient amount to accommodate 70,000 households.” – Lucy, Wallingford8
“We already have, in Ballard, 440 percent of the housing units required for the year 2024. Crown Hill has 125 percent of the housing units required by 2024. I don’t want to see the developers who wrote HALA being able to build their buildings randomly wherever they choose and how large they choose”. – Sylvia, Ballard
“I took out a $30,000 loan to become a green energy partner with the city of Seattle [by buying solar panels]. If you are considering doing that, I would say don’t, not until the upzoning is resolved. Because if you’re like me, I realized that I could be living in a solar shadow and my $30,000 investment to assist the city of Seattle will be on me. … Affordable housing is really important, but it can’t be done at the cost of our environment.” – Kris, homeowner
And then, of course, there were the comments that invited not so much annotation as a dumbstruck awe–like this one, from a (white) Wallingford homeowner.
“I support density. I support affordable housing. I think most people here do. It comes down this question of, will we really get the affordable housing that we want, or the in-lieu fees which put people into ghettos or put them into lower-income housing areas and not in place in our neighborhoods? I want my teachers to live in my neighborhood. …The people like you with the HALA signs, I want you in my neighborhood. I do. I don’t want you to end up in a ghetto somewhere.” – Becky Benfield, Wallingford
That use of “our.” OK, on to the footnotes.
1 According to a University of Washington report, “Segregated Seattle,”
For most of its history Seattle was a segregated city, as committed to white supremacy as any location in America. People of color were excluded from most jobs, most neighborhoods and schools, and many stores, restaurants, hotels, and other commercial establishments, even hospitals. As in other western states, the system of severe racial discrimination in Seattle targeted not just African Americans but also Native Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, people of Mexican ancestry, and also, at times, Jews.
In the absence of formal zoning, Seattle’s historic racial covenants were created by developers, not the government, but they map directly onto Seattle’s modern-day neighborhoods, which are racially segregated along almost identical lines. Single-family zoning, created to “protect” neighborhoods that were created under racist covenants, has the same impact as those covenants–“preserving” Seattle’s wealthier single-family neighborhoods as mostly-white, higher-income enclaves.
2 The expansion of urban villages and transit-accessible walksheds (areas within a 10-minute walk of frequent transit service as well as those adjacent to other amenities and services) will impact just 6 percent of Seattle’s existing single-family zones. The idea that this tiny fraction of Seattle’s exclusive single-family land contains “a couple hundred thousand” houses whose occupants would be displaced under HALA is a fantasy. If the objection, rather, is that HALA as proposed would allow homeowners to build backyard cottages and basement units in all single-family zones, this claim is also a fantasy; backyard cottages are in addition to, rather than a displacement of, single-family houses, and the city council is poised to preserve the owner-occupancy requirement for cottages for a year, addressing (also, frankly, fantastical) concerns that developers will seek to make a killing building two units per lot rather than constructing more lucrative denser housing in actual multifamily zones. Even if that somehow penciled out, it’s absurd to suggest that every single homeowner in the city would sell out to this mythical developer of garage apartments.
3 As Crown Hill is at the very end of Metro’s D Line, the commuter line for Northwest Seattle, this claim is very hard to believe, but even if it is true, the 2015 Move Seattle levy, along with Seattle’s Prop. 1 from 2014, includes funding to expand and add service to RapidRide corridors to reduce travel times and ease crowding. HALA doesn’t specifically allocate better transit service because transit is provided by King County Metro, not the city. Moreover, HALA does talk specifically about senior citizens in several places, specifically suggesting the expansion of the state Housing Trust Fund, enhancing programs to promote homeownership for low-income people and seniors, creating a low-cost capital fund, and foreclosure prevention programs.
4 While it’s true that House Speaker Frank Chopp killed Seattle-backed legislation that would have given a tax break to existing property owners who keep 25 percent of their units affordable to renters making 60 percent of median income or less, the city will have the opportunity to propose a version of the bill again next year including compromises aimed at winning Chopp’s support. In the meantime, HALA includes an 11-point list of proposals to preserve existing housing, only one of which depends on state legislation. That list includes: the creation of a fund for housing acquisition by the city; creating new financing tools and low-cost loans for owners of existing affordable units to improve their properties in exchange for guaranteeing affordability; and offsetting the cost of code requirements that mandate expensive upgrades to some older buildings.
Additionally, the housing levy renewal on the ballot in August includes funds for strategic purchases of existing housing to preserve affordability as well as funds to rehab and reinvest in existing affordable units.
5 The housing levy is not being “rushed.” It is the renewal of a 2009 levy that has come up every seven years since 1981. Details of what the housing levy will fund are available here.
6 “Affordability and inclusion” was not, as far as I can tell, a concept concocted in New York, London, or by oligarchs on a private jet, although it’s a laudable goal no matter who came up with combining those two particular words first. Similarly, the ten-to-one ratio of demolished units seems to be a fantasy.
7 Josh covered this issue thoroughly over at PubliCola, but to briefly recap: Neighborhood activists in Wallingford complained recently about the addition of new toilets in new multifamily buildings, arguing, essentially, that new density will leave Seattle swimming in shit. The city responded by saying that new developments are required to take care of their own stormwater, and noting that raw sewage makes up only 10 percent of city sewer flows, and the city is already designing a Ship Canal Water Quality Facility to bring combined sewer overflows in Ballard, Fremont, and Wallingford into compliance with health standards, preventing nearly all combined sewer overflows in those neighborhoods.
8 Ah, the “we have plenty of existing capacity for everyone” canard. The only way the existing “capacity” would actually provide sufficient housing for the 120,000 people expected to move here by 2035 is if all the current, existing housing on every parcel built under its zoning capacity (say, every single-family home sitting on land that allows a three-story apartment building) was demolished and redeveloped. Additionally, the point of planning development is to channel new residences into urban villages and urban centers in keeping with the existing neighborhood plans: Random development would work against those established goals, and would lead to chaotic neighborhoods with no community cores or rapid transit corridors. In short, this is an absurd and disingenuous claim, and I’m guessing none of the single-family homeowners who raise it would actually want to live with its ramifications.
9 “Growth targets” are another canard. Anti-growth activists like to claim that their neighborhoods are “already above our growth targets” when in fact those “targets” have always been minimum growth projections, not ceilings. Hitting a target does noetmean an area has also hit its growth capacity.
Since the 1990s, Seattle has grown more then planners anticipated. Fortunately, to address the second point of this claim, HALA does not allow “random” growth; as mentioned above, it hews to the city’s adopted urban village and urban center strategy by targeting development in those areas and in places with access to frequent transit service.
10 The notion that solar panels on, say, a two-story house will completely cease to function with, say, a three-story townhouse next door seems to be disproven by the existing of solar panels in proximity to apartments and townhomes all across the city, but I’ll admit I’m no expert on solar. What I do know is that the positive environmental impact of dense cities far outweighs the negative environmental impact of losing some solar power generation on single-family house on a large, suburban-style lot in Seattle. Density produces massive environmental benefits, including lower overall energy and water usage (apartment dwellers save through efficiency and lower energy needs in smaller spaces compared to sprawling houses with lawns); significantly reduced reliance on cars, which are the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Washington State; and the preservation of forest land that would otherwise be lost to suburban sprawl. Compared to those (and other) proven benefits, I think I’ll take density even at the cost of some solar capacity on individual single-family homes.