The J is for Judge: Lesser Seattle Has Gaslighted the Pro-Housing Movement

Image via City of Seattle.

Well, that was like passing a kidney stone. After single-family zone stalwarts spent two years stalling the city’s efforts to allow more mother-in-law and backyard apartments, the city has finally returned with a new proposal to loosen restrictions governing  attached and detached accessory dwelling units.  Three cheers for that.

However, I will say: Unless the proposal—the preferred alternative from the city’s new Final Environmental Impact Statement for accessory dwelling units—is part of a broader series of citywide land use changes that include more actual apartments  in Seattle’s single-family zones, urbanists should not hail this new plan as a pro-city victory. To do so would just confirm how badly housing activists have been gaslit by Lesser Seattle and the convoluted story line that equates building more housing with some sort of George Soros plot.

I’m obviously not as sanguine as Sightline urbanist Dan Bertolet about the city’s latest plan to loosen restrictions on  secondary units in single-family areas. But nor am I as disappointed as the Urbanist, which thinks the changes should do even more to catalyze ADU and DADU development.

Mostly, as someone who has been reporting on this city’s push to increase density for decades now  (and who covered the Queen Anne Community Council’s original challenge to the new rules back in 2016), my reaction is mostly just: “Meh. About time, Seattle.” (Crosscut has an eye-opening timeline on the stalled push for more ADUs and DADUs in Seattle.)

The proposal certainly does some good.  And ironically (as I predicted at the time), the plan is the outcome of an Environmental Impact Statement the city was forced to do after the Lesser Seattleites from Queen Anne won their case to stall these long-overdue land use reforms.  The city’s new proposal increases ADU/DADU development capacity from current standards in place since 2010 by allowing taller and larger detached accessory dwelling units, also known as backyard cottages,  while simultaneously allowing development on smaller lots. The new preferred alternative allows two attached units, providing more flexibility for homeowners who want to build two extra units but may not have the space for a separate backyard apartment. It gets rid of the (pathological) off-street parking requirements for secondary units. It eliminates the requirement for the owner to live on-site if a house has an ADU. It gives one to two additional feet of height for DADUs that have a green design. And—oh no, watch out for laundry on the clotheslines!—it increases the number of unrelated people who can live on one lot from eight to 12.

Merely green-lighting more ADUs and DADUs and declaring victory in the fight to build housing in Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods is like proposing a congestion pricing scheme that only charges Uber and Lyft and ignores the 25 percent of downtown commuters who drive to work alone.

Perhaps the best change (Sightline’s Bertolet calls it “radical!”)— and one that blows QACC’s cover story that they were trying to prevent small existing houses from being torn down and replaced by huge single-family monstrosities— is that the new preferred alternative shuts down the potential for any McMansion craze. As Erica noted: The proposed new rules limit new houses to just 2,500 square feet or a 50 percent floor-area ratio (FAR), whichever is larger. FAR is the ratio of the square footage of a building to the lot that it’s on.

These are all welcome changes; the original 2009 law that allowed ADUs and DADUs in the first place (itself overdue) underperformed thanks to the rigid guidelines the new proposal unwinds—only 221 were built on the city’s 75,000 eligible single-family lots, or just 37 a year, between 2010 and 2016. Council Member Mike O’Brien’s initial reform proposal (the one the QACC dragged to the hearing examiner in 2016)  was expected to produce about 4,000  accessory units in the next 20 years—about five times the current underwhelming rate.

Burn on the QACC: The new-and-improved proposal doubles that, to an estimated 4,430 new units in the next 10 years.

Still, the proposal doesn’t solve the underlying problem: Seattle’s ongoing housing shortage, which is exacerbated by the fact that 65 percent of the city’s developable land is exclusively reserved for single family zones. Merely green-lighting more ADUs and DADUs and declaring victory in the fight to build housing in Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods is like proposing a congestion pricing scheme that only charges Uber and Lyft and ignores the 25 percent of downtown commuters who drive to work alone.

In the absence of more meaningful changes to the city’s exclusionary zoning laws, simply allowing more ADUs and DADUs is not a win—it’s a capitulation to anti-density activists who have moved the goalposts by keeping most of the city off-limits to any development, making even incremental victories like this one seem more significant than they are. Building 4,000 units over the next ten years falls far short, for example, of the 14,000 affordable units Seattle needs to simply address the existing homelessness crisis.

The ADU/DADU proposal must be coupled with other land use reforms that dismantle the wall around single family zones. The city’s actually “radical” 2015 proposal to allow multi-family development in single-family areas (which it  dropped after the Seattle Times stoked a privileged neighborhood tantrum of Lindsey Graham proportions)  has since been whittled down to allowing some multifamily housing in just six percent of the areas that are currently zoned single-family—and only along the edges. Hopefully the city will eventually enact this mild reform as well. (Another Lesser Seattle neighborhood group is now challenging this scaled-back proposal in front of the hearing examiner, naturally).

Until the city allows more housing of all types in walled-off single-family zones, slightly more permissive rules for secondary units will represent a limit, rather than a license to increase housing stock.

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