Morning Crank: Eliminating “Single-Family” Zoning Altogether

1. It’s been three years (and three mayors) since the city first adopted a plan to implement the affordable housing plan known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers to fund affordable housing in exchange for greater density in some parts of the city. Although some aspects of the plan are now in place, the most controversial element—expanding the city’s urban villages and centers to incorporate 6 percent of the city’s vast swaths of single-family land—was locked up in appeals until late last month, when city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil ruled that the city had adequately addressed almost all of the potential environmental impacts of the proposal.

The fundamental debate about whether to upzone any of the city’s single-family neighborhoods, however, continues. On Monday, at a council committee meeting about next steps, city council members Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson (with assists from Sally Bagshaw and Teresa Mosqueda) played out a miniature version of that debate, with Herbold taking up the banner for activists who claim that allowing more types of housing will lead to massive displacement of low-income people living in single-family houses. “My concern is that we are grossly underestimating the number of affordable units that are being lost to development” by using eligibility for tenant relocation assistance as a proxy for displacement, Herbold said. (Tenant relocation assistance is available to people who make less than 50 percent of the Seattle median income. A subsequent analysis, based on American Community Survey data, included people making up to 80 percent of median income, although as Herbold pointed out, this still may not capture people who share houses with roommates, and thus have a collective household income well above 80 percent of median). Johnson countered that while the council has dithered on passing the MHA legislation, hundreds of new apartments have been built with no affordable housing requirement at all. “Would it be fair to say that the ‘no-action alternative’ results in a whole lot of displacement?” he asked Nick Welch, a senior planner with the Office of Housing and Community Development. “Yes,” Welch replied.

Herbold also suggested that the council should adopt separate resolutions dealing with each of the city’s seven “unique” districts that would include “individual urban village commitments” in those districts. Johnson said that was certainly something the council could discuss in the future, but noted that the city has already spent years learning about the issues various neighborhood groups have with the upzone proposal. “I think we have a pretty good sense of what community issues and concerns are out there,” Johnson said. “We want to outline a process that would allow us to address some of those issues.” Herbold also said she was considering amendments that would require developers to replace every unit for which a tenant received relocation assistance on a one-for-one basis, and suggested requiring developers building in areas with high displacement risk to build affordable units on site, rather than paying into the city’s affordable housing fund.

Under the city’s current timeline, the council would vote to approve the legislation, with amendments in late March of next year.

2. As the council debated the merits of modest density increases, the city’s Planning Commission suggested a far more significant rewrite of the city’s housing laws—one that would include doing away with city’s “single-family” zoning designation entirely. In the , “Neighborhoods for All: Expanding Housing Opportunity in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones,” the advisory commission recommends reducing displacement and increasing economic and racial diversity in Seattle’s increasingly white single-family areas with “a return to the mix of housing and development patterns found in many of Seattle’s older and most walkable neighborhoods.” In other words: Backyard cottages and basement apartments aren’t enough; the city needs to allow small-scale apartment buildings, duplexes and triplexes, and other types of housing in those areas as well. Crucially, the report notes that these changes wouldn’t represent a radical shift or a departure from single-family zones’ vaunted “neighborhood character”; in fact, both minimum lot-size requirements and “Seattle’s current single-family zoning code came into being in the 1950’s.”

At a time when arguments about development often center on the need to protect the “historic character” of Seattle’s neighborhoods, minimum lot sizes and laws restricting housing to one house per lot, this bears repeating. “Small lot houses, duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments built prior to 1957 remain in single-family zones, but building them is illegal today.” Rules restricting development in single-family areas effectively concentrate all growth into narrow bands of land along busy arterials known as urban centers and urban villages; since 2006, according to the report, “over 80% of Seattle’s growth has occurred in urban villages and centers that make up less than a quarter of Seattle’s land. Urban villages have seen significant change and new construction, while most areas of the city have seen little physical change. Overall, multifamily housing is only allowed in 12 percent of the city’s residential land—a constriction of opportunity that perpetuates the historical impacts of redlining, racial covenants, and other discriminatory housing policies by “excluding all but those who have the economic resources to buy homes,” the report says.And Seattle’s restrictive policies don’t even work to preserve “neighborhood character,” the report points out. Instead, they encourage homeowners and builders to tear down existing houses and build McMansions in their place. “Even under current zoning, the physical character of neighborhoods is changing as existing houses are replaced with larger, more expensive ones, as allowed by today’s land use code,” the report notes. “The average size of newly constructed detached houses in 2016 was 3,487 square feet, more than 1,000 square feet larger than the average for the first two-thirds of the last century.”

The planning commission offers a number of suggested policy changes, including:

• Expanding urban village boundaries to include all areas within a 15-minute walk of frequent transit lines. Currently, the report points out, many urban villages are extremely narrow—the Greenwood/Phinney urban village, pictured below, is an extreme but not unique example—dramatically limiting housing choices for people who can’t afford to buy single-family homes. At the same time, the report recommends getting rid of frequent transit service as a requirement to expand urban villages, pointing out that this becomes a chicken-and-egg problem, where lack of transit justifies keeping density low, and low density justifies a lack of investment in transit.

• Renaming “single-family” zoning as “neighborhood residential,” with various levels of density (from backyard cottages to small apartment buildings) to reflect lot size and neighborhood amenities. Areas near parks and schools, which the report identifies as amenities that tend to be most accessible to people in single-family areas, would get more density so that more people would have access to those resources.

• Eliminating or reducing parking requirements—not just in urban villages, but everywhere. Single-family-housing activists have long argued that if the city allows more housing without requiring new parking, they will have no place to park their cars. Though the planning commission report doesn’t explicitly mention a recent study that found that Seattle already has more than five parking spaces per household, they do point out that prioritizing cars over people conflicts with the city’s stated climate goals. “Requiring parking on site takes away space that could be used for additional housing or open space,” the report says. Under their proposal, “While driveways and garages could still be allowed, people would not be required to provide space for cars over housing or space for trees–especially if they choose not to own a car.”

3. The J Is for Judge himself stepped up to the mic at city hall yesterday to explain why he wants to see more of every kind of housing in every neighborhood. At yesterday’s MHA briefing, after the authors of this piece (one of whom lives in Bellevue) claimed that the council was withholding information about displacement from the public,  Josh Feit got up to speak. Here, in slightly abridged form, is what he had to say.

My name is Josh Feit, and I am not originally from Seattle.

I did not grow up here.

I’m am not a 7th-generation Seattleite.

I was not born and raised in Ballard.

I did not go to Roosevelt High School.

I am not a lifelong member of my community.

To those of us who choose to move here, Seattle stands out as an exciting 21st Century landmark that’s taking up a brave experiment in progressive city building.

I have a public sector job.

I am a renter.

Please stop letting some residents of Seattle’s Single Family zones play Seattle First politics by mythologizing neighborhood “character” and stigmatizing renters.

That kind of dog whistling has no place in Seattle.

Please stop letting quarter-century-old neighborhood plans that were developed without a Race and Social Justice analysis be the blueprint for Seattle’s future. (Thank you, Council Member Mosqueda, for challenging the anti-growth narrative by taking a closer look at that vaunted 1994 plan.)

As you know, the Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation and upzones in front of you today did go through a displacement analysis by income and race.

Thank you for passing the six MHA Urban Center and Urban Village rezones last year.

But to make MHA work, to address the housing affordability crisis, all of Seattle needs to be neighborly.

Please pass this small but significant first step in taking down the walls that keep too many of Seattle’s residential neighborhoods–off limits for too many residents.

I am not proud that I’m from here. I’m proud that I moved here. I hope I can continue to feel that way.

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Morning Crank: Ruling Bolsters Housing Plan, Chides City for Failing to Do “Granular” Analysis Neighborhood Activists Demanded

1. Urbanists celebrated a ruling yesterday that could allow a long-delayed plan to increase density and fund affordable housing to move forward. The ruling by city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, which mostly affirms that an environmental impact statement on the plan was adequate, came in response to a challenge by a group of homeowners, the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), who have long opposed the plan. The plan, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, would allow modest density increases in urban villages and urban centers, and would rezone six percent of the land current zoned exclusively for single-family houses—currently, two-thirds of the city’s land—to allow townhouses and small apartments. Developers who build under the new rules will have to include affordable housing in their buildings or pay into an affordable housing fund.

“This ruling is a step forward for more affordable housing in Seattle,” Durkan said in a statement. Meanwhile, Seattle for Everyone, the group that formed in 2015 to support then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, planned a celebration party and issued a statement, titled “Yay for MHA!” celebrating the ruling as “a win for affordable housing.”

We’ll see. Toby Thaler, the leader of the group that challenged the  Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), told the Seattle Times that he plans to keep fighting against the MHA legislation, although it was unclear in what venue (the courthouse or city council chambers) he intends to do so. (Thaler did not immediately return an email last night, but I will update this post if I hear back from him.) Meanwhile, the city will have to do more analysis of how allowing more density will impact designated city landmarks;  according to the ruling, the city failed to consider impacts on historic properties other than those on the National Register of Historic Places, which Vancil called inadequate.

“The more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.” — Seattle Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil

Vancil’s ruling also chides the city for failing to include detailed, “granular” analysis of the impact the zoning changes would have on individual neighborhoods in the environmental impact statement, and suggested that including this kind of analysis could have forestalled the whole drawn-out appeal. “[I]t is certainly the case, at least in part, that the choice not to tell a more detailed story of the City’s neighborhoods contributed to why the City faced a very protracted appeal and hearing process from representatives in many of its neighborhoods,” Vancil writes. “While the level of analysis for most of the FEIS satisfies the rule of reason and requirements under SEPA, the more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.”

Whether you believe that a detailed neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown of the upzone’s impact would have made neighborhood opposition evaporate (dubious, given that challenging the EIS for a project is one of the most common obstructionist tactics in the Seattle neighborhood activist playbook), what’s undeniable is that while the upzones have been tied up in appeals, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of affordable housing—and hundreds of units of market-rate housing needed for the thousands of people moving to Seattle every year—remained unbuilt.

“Unfortunately …  this appeal has cost Seattle at least $87 million worth of affordable housing that we could have brought in during the year since the appeal was filed,” council member Rob Johnson, who has led the charge for MHA as head of the council’s land use committee, said in a statement. (Johnson asked for this analysis last month). “Had we been able to adopt MHA across the city without this delay, more neighborhoods would be receiving the investment in affordable housing they need, and more families in our city would have an affordable place to call home.”

2. On Tuesday, Queen Anne Community Council leader Marty Kaplan sent out a bombastic email blast (subject line: “Single-Family Rezone: Negotiation Rejected!”) announcing his intention to “proceed full-speed ahead in preparing and proving our case” against the city, in the ongoing battle over new rules that would make it easier for homeowners to build basement and backyard units on their property.

The “negotiation” Kaplan’s email refers to is apparently a meeting he had on Monday with council member Mike O’Brien, who led the charge to liberalize Seattle rules governing backyard and mother-in-law units, about a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) concluding that the proposal would not have a detrimental environmental impact on the city. was sufficient to allow the long-delayed rules to move forward. The new rules, which would allow homeowners to add up to one unit inside an existing house and one detached unit in the backyard, subject to existing height and lot coverage limits, would produce about 2,500 additional units of housing citywide.

“Unfortunately, I must inform you that CM O’Brien has closed the door to negotiating.,” Kaplan wrote. “He relat[ed] to me unequivocally that the EIS spoke to all his issues leaving no room to consider any compromise.  He remains firmly entrenched in every line-item of his legislation to eliminate every Seattle single-family neighborhood without considering any important neighborhood, property, infrastructure or economic differentiations.  One-size-fits-all!” 

“In addition,” Kaplan’s email continues, “he shared his confidence that every councilmember firmly supports him and his legislation.  He left no door open and even told me directly that there was no reason for us to withdraw our appeal – nothing would change!”

On Wednesday, O’Brien put up a blog post responding to Kaplan’s email. (The post appears to have since been taken down.) In the post, O’Brien wrote that during their conversation over the weekend, “I explained to Marty that while the legislation I plan to introduce was likely to reflect the Preferred Alternative in the EIS, I am open to changes to that legislation as we work through the legislative process.  Furthermore, even if I disagree with certain changes to the legislation, a majority of the Council, not me alone, make the decisions about what changes are acceptable.  …If Marty was asking me to cut a special, secret deal with him so that he would drop the lawsuit, I made it clear to him that I am completely opposed to that type of back room dealing.  … Despite what Marty claims in his email blasts, I explained the many doors that remain open throughout the upcoming process to influence the outcome of the legislation.”

The email concludes with “a quick note on the tenor of city politics that Marty is playing on in all of his communications,” which, O’Brien says, represented “our friendly conversation as a divisive fight.  Instead of communicating where we have common ground and where we differ, explaining the opportunities to influence the process and sharing my willingness to remain open to alternative approaches during the legislative process, Marty choose instead to double down on a mean-spirited and polarizing approach, representing the worst of our current tone in politics.  As a community, we must decide if we are going to let divisiveness prevail and be the new way we govern, or re-embrace what I have known my entire life in Seattle: a collaborative approach to policy making.” 

Kaplan responded more warmly to comments Mayor Jenny Durkan made about the proposal over the weekend, at a community meeting on Queen Anne. According to the  Queen Anne News, when a constituent asked what should happen with the appeal, Durkan said “she’d like to get all parties in a room to hash out a compromise” rather than moving forward with the “litigation” process. (Kaplan’s challenge is currently before the hearing examiner, but litigation is an option if the hearing examiner rejects his argument that the FEIS is inadequate). Durkan, according to the Queen Anne News, expressed concern at the meeting that loosening the rules too much could “fuel a more expensive Seattle by letting people speculate on that land.” That argument—that “developers” will snap up single-family houses and turn the land into triplexes—is belied not only by the FEIS, which concludes, again, that the changes would result in just 2,500 new units citywide, but by the economic logic of development. To wit: If you’re a developer (or, as Kaplan and the mayor suggest, a “speculator”), are you going to build a house with a basement apartment and a small backyard cottage in a single-family zone? Or a 20-unit apartment complex in a multifamily area?

Kaplan did not attend the meeting with Durkan, but says that from conversations with another community council member who was there, “the take-away was that she [opposes] what I have called a one-size-fits-all rezoning of single-family throughout the city.”

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The Beauty Contest: Or, How John Maynard Keynes Explains Seattle’s Gentrification

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Earlier this month, Washington, D.C.-based economist Ben Klemens and I wrote a two-part series about how the human desire to emulate other people can help explain (and help cities address) gentrification for the website Strong Towns. The two-part series can be found here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). Here’s a bit of the beginning of Part 1, which explores a game-theory concept known as the Beauty Contest (which, as the non-economist author, I’ll describe as the process by which people sometimes make decisions based not on their own preferences or prejudices, but on the perceived preferences and prejudices of other people). The series focuses on the corner of 23rd and Union in Seattle, and the neon-clad monument to cannabis consumerism that is Uncle Ike’s.

It’s a little more academic than the usual fare here at The C is for Crank, but I encourage you to read it if you’re interested in alternative ways of looking at gentrification.

 

This story takes place in Seattle, but it could be set in any large or midsize city where gentrification is changing the political, cultural, and physical landscape. For the purposes of this story, we’ll define gentrification as the process by which the residents of historically working-class, minority neighborhoods are displaced, often rapidly, by people with lighter skins and higher incomes. [Editor’s note: Read our own previous discussion of the different understandings of “gentrification” here.] How you choose to explain gentrification says a lot about your political worldview. Do gentrifiers act out of self-interest? Racism? A little of both? Or something else entirely?

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we use the example of one Seattle neighborhood to argue that it’s entirely possible to explain gentrification with something we can easily observe—signals, which communicate to prospective homebuyers what other people like them believe about whether it’s a good idea to invest in a certain neighborhood. Then, in Part 2, we use accessible theoretical modeling to demonstrate two ways in which, even in the absence of conscious beliefs (such as racism, classism, or the belief that land values will rise over time) or preferences (a desire to live next to popular amenities), signals can still lead to gentrification.

But before we get to Seattle, we have to go back to 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes, and an economic concept called the beauty contest. In 1936—a time when newspaper sweepstakes were popular—Keynes came up with the following thought experiment: What if newspaper readers were asked to choose the most beautiful woman from a roster of photos, and the sweepstakes winner was drawn from a list of everyone who chose the most popular woman? The trick to winning that kind of “beauty contest” isn’t to pick the woman you personally find most beautiful, but to guess which woman other players think is the most beautiful, knowing that they’re doing the same thing.

The crux of the beauty contest is that we don’t form our opinions about beauty, the value of a dollar, or a house, in a vacuum—we come up with those beliefs based on a long chain of assumptions about what we think other people think. Why do I think a piece of paper printed by the Treasury that says “$1” in the corner is worth a dollar? Because I think I can give it to somebody, Steve, because Steve values it. Why does Steve value it? Because he thinks Maria thinks it is worth something. And I believe Steve thinks Maria values it because she knows Paula will accept it. And so on.

If the piece of paper said something else (maybe the ID for a bitcoin wallet), the same process might not happen. Given multiple options, it isn’t always obvious who’s going to win the beauty contest, or which centrally located neighborhood is going to suddenly shoot up in value. What is certain is that as long as human beings make predictions about value based on these signals, they will result in predictable behavioral patterns—you may not know where gentrification is going to happen next, but there will be some sequence of signals that will precede it.

So let’s make this less abstract.

Consider buying a new condo, with an asking price of $500,000. Whether it is a good deal today at $500,000 is partly a question of whether it will one day sell for more or less than $500,000. Your purchase is a wager, based on the information available to you, that the value of your condo and similar properties in the area will continue to appreciate.

Your decision to buy also depends on what amenities are nearby now. Will your friends want to move in nearby? Will restaurants and a grocery store start filling up empty storefronts nearby, and will they be able to stay in business? Will you have access to reliable transit lines when you move in? In a decade? All these questions also factor into whether you choose to buy here or across town.

There is no way to poll all the people somehow involved in such questions, so we have to play a beauty contest game, guessing what our friends, local restaurateurs, and transit planning agencies are thinking, and what they will be thinking in a decade. Meanwhile, they’re all doing the same thing: just as I don’t want to move to a neighborhood with no restaurants, no restaurant wants to open in a neighborhood where they aren’t likely to have customers.

In the 1950s, determining a neighborhood’s status was easy: check the map. As part of an arrangement by the National Association of Realtors and the U.S. federal government to limit the ability of African American homebuyers to buy houses in “white” neighborhoods, maps were developed with clear red lines around black neighborhoods and explicit racial covenants or bank practices enforced the racial divides on those maps. Today, these formal covenants have been replaced in most US cities by zoning, which walls off certain areas—often those originally segregated by redlines—as designated single-family-only neighborhoods, which tend, by historical precedent and by design, to be mostly white.

Seattle’s Central District in 1968. (Source: Seattle Municipal Archives)

Recent years have seen the demographics in the Central District nearly flip. In the 1970s, the neighborhood was more than 70 percent black; by 2016, that number was 20 percent. Whites now make up about 60 percent of the area’s population, and the trend is on track to continue.

Few neighborhood businesses more perfectly exemplify this demographic shift—or serve as more of a lightning rod for protests and accusations of racial insensitivity and white colonization—than a flashy recreational pot shop called Uncle Ike’s. (Washington state voters legalized recreational pot in 2012.) Lit by cheeky neon signs—on the next block: “Hey, stoner, around the corner”—it sells recreational pot like fancy coffee: expensive and unabashedly bourgeois. A ten-pack of Magic Kitchen peanut butter brownie bites will set you back $28, and a bottle of Moss Cow Mule cannabis ginger ale goes for $20.

Situated between an old car wash (recently purchased by Uncle Ike himself, Ian Einsenberg, and rebranded as Uncle Ike’s Car Wash) and an African- American church, Uncle Ike’s is a sign of the apocalypse for anti-gentrification activists, at the literal crossroads of old and new. Across one street: A doomed strip mall anchored by a liquor store, a barber shop called Earl’s Cuts and Styles, and Africatown, a local nonprofit working to build affordable housing and preserve the history of the neighborhood. Across the other: A sleek modern apartment box called The Central, where open-plan one-bedrooms go for $2,060 a month.

Uncle Ike’s wasn’t the first new business in the neighborhood to cater to a largely white crowd—a quaint, quirky bar next door called “The Neighbor Lady”, which a local news report said would “breathe new activity” into “the troubled corner,” preceded the pot shop by two years. But Ike’s opening in 2014 was quickly followed by an influx of new businesses catering to a similar crowd, which converged on the intersection as if summoned by a pot-leaf-shaped bat signal. Today, a strip that once housed a 25-year-old soul food restaurant called Thompson’s Point of View and was notorious for gang-related violence is home to an airy, loft-style coffee shop, a salon/cafe owned by two women who have said they were priced out of a nearby neighborhood known in past decades as a haven for artists and hipsters, a bike shop that sells $3,000 electric bikes, and a doughnut shop specializing in gluten-free mochi doughnuts.

Read the rest of this piece, and Part 2, at Strongtowns.org.

City Budget Roundup, Part 1: Soda, Short-Term Rentals, and Legacy Businesses

I’m leaving town just in time for election day this year (one more year, and it’ll be a trend), but before I do, I wanted to give a quick rundown of what’s happening with the city budget—specifically, what changes council members have proposed to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget plan, which holds the line on homelessness spending and includes a couple of controversial funding swaps that reduce potential funding for programs targeting low-income communities. None of these proposals have been passed yet, and the council has not started publicly discussing the cuts it would make to the mayor’s budget to fund any of their proposed new spends; this is just a guide to what council members are thinking about as they move through the budget process.,

This list is by no means comprehensive—the list of the council’s proposed budget changes runs to dozens of pages. It’s just a list of items that caught my eye, and which could cue up budget changes or future legislation in the weeks and months ahead. The budget process wraps up right before Thanksgiving, but the discussions council members are having now could lead to additional new laws—or constrain the mayor’s ability to spend money the council allocates, via provisos that place conditions on that spending—well into the coming year.

Sweetened Beverage Tax 

As I reported on Twitter (and Daniel Beekman reported in the Times), council member Mike O’Brien has expressed frustration at Mayor Jenny Durkan for using higher-than-expected revenues from the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, which is supposed to pay for healthy food initiatives in neighborhoods that are most impacted by both the tax and health problems such as diabetes and obesity, to balance out the budget as a whole. In a bit of budgetary sleight-of-hand, Durkan’s plan takes away general-fund revenues that were paying for those programs and replaces them with the “extra” soda tax revenues, which flatlines spending on healthy-food initiatives (like food banks, Fresh Bucks, and school-lunch-related programs) aimed at reducing consumption of unhealthy food… like soda.

“The intent was pretty clear when we passed the legislation last year about how the funding would be spent,” O’Brien said last week. “What we saw in this year’s budget was [a proposal] that may have technically met the letter of it, but certainly not the spirit.”

O’Brien’s proposal would create a separate fund for soda-tax proceeds and stipulate that the city should use the money from the tax in accordance with the recommendations of the advisory board that was appointed for that purpose, rather than reallocating them among the programs the tax is supposed to fund, as Durkan’s budget also does. (See chart above). The idea is to protect the soda tax from being used to help pay for general budget needs in future years, and to ensure that the city follows the recommendations of its own soda tax advisory group.

Airbnb Tax

When the city passed a local tax on short-term rentals like Airbnbs, the legislation explicitly said that $5 million of the proceeds were to be spent on community-led equitable development projects through the city’s Equitable Development Initiative. This year, state legislators passed a statewide tax that replaced Seattle’s local legislation, but council members say the requirement didn’t go away. Nonetheless, Durkan’s budget proposal stripped the EDI of more than $1 million a year, redirecting those funds to pay for city staff and consultants, prompting council members including O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, and council president Bruce Harrell to propose two measures restoring the funding back to the promised $5 million level and creating a separate equitable development fund that would include “explicit restrictions” requiring that the first $5 million generated by the tax go toward EDI projects, not consultants or overhead.

“I think the mayor did this intentionally,” O’Brien said last week. “I don’t think she doesn’t like the equitable development initiative—I think she’s just struggling to make the budget balance—but this is a priority. We’ve seen with the sweetened beverage and the short-term rental tax that …  when we say we are going to impose a new revenue stream and here’s how we’re going to dedicate it, and then less than a year later someone says we’re going to dedicate it a different way, I think that is highly problematic on a much larger scale than just these programs.”

The council appeared likely to reject a separate, tangentially related proposal by council member Rob Johnson to exempt all short-term rental units that existed prior to September 2017, when the council first adopted rules regulating short-term rentals, from the new rule restricting the number of units any property owner could operate to a maximum of two. Currently, this exemption only applies to short-term rental units downtown and some units in Capitol Hill and First Hill; by providing the same exemption to short-term rentals across the city, Johnson said, the council could provide some certainty that the city would actually bring in $10.5 million in annual revenues, which is what the state projected and what Durkan assumed in her 2019 budget.

O’Brien, who drafted the original short-term rental regulations, suggested Durkan had jumped the gun by assuming the state’s projections were right before the legislation had even taken effect. “Typically, we try to be conservative when we have new revenue sources,” he said. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Belltown, said she had heard from constituents who bought downtown condos as retirement homes who told her their buildings have turned into 24/7 party hotels with few permanent residents. “The idea of opening this up just for budget reasons is disturbing,” Bagshaw said.”

Totem poles

Photograph by Rick Shu via Wikimedia Commons

As Crosscut has reported, local Native American leaders want the city to remove the totem poles erected in Victor Steinbrueck Park, because they have nothing to do with the Coast Salish people who have long populated the area in and around what is now Seattle. Other totem poles in Seattle, including the Tlinget pole in Pioneer Square, are similarly controversial. Council member Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, is sponsoring an item that would direct the city’s Office of Arts and Culture to address the issue—not by simply removing the offending poles (which is controversial among some historic preservationists and Pike Place Market advocates) but by reviewing and making recommendations about all the Native American art on all city-owned land in Seattle. In response to Juarez’s proposal, budget chair Sally Bagshaw cautioned that she didn’t “want to get bogged down” in a massive study if the problem of offensive or inappropriate art could be addressed on a case by case basis “when they come to our attention. Otherwise,” Bagshaw continued, “I can imagine someone [stalling the process by] saying, ‘Well, we haven’t looked at our 6,000 acres of parks.'”

Legacy Businesses 

In announcing a proposed $170,000 add for the legacy business program—a plan to protect longstanding neighborhood businesses by providing cash assistance and incentives for landlords to keep renting to them—council member Lisa Herbold called it the policy for which she is willing to “fall on [her] sword” this year. Previous budgets have provided funding to study such a program, but Herbold’s proposal this year would actually get it off the ground, by providing startup and marketing costs for the program. “Much like landmarks are a bridge to our city’s culture and history because of their physical form, sometimes businesses as gathering places are also a bridge to our city’s history and culture,” Herbold said.

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Critics have said Herbold’s proposal, like similar programs in other cities, could prevent the development of badly needed housing by saving struggling businesses out of a misguided sense of nostalgia.

In response to a question from council member Teresa Mosqueda about whether the program might allow businesses to relocate or reopen in new developments, Herbold said yes, citing the Capitol Hill writers’ center Hugo House as an example. However, it’s worth noting that the Hugo House is a nonprofit, not a for-profit business, and it was “saved” not by government intervention but by the  private owners of the old house in which Hugo House was originally located, who promised to provide the organization with a new space when they redeveloped their property.

 

Morning Crank: “Preparations are Underway for a Litigation Budget” on Fort Lawton

1. Elizabeth Campbell, the Magnolia neighborhood activist whose land-use appeals have helped stall the development of affordable housing at Fort Lawton for so long that the city now has to pay to secure the former Army base out of its own budget, says she isn’t giving up yet on her effort to stop the plan to build 415 units of affordable housing, including 85 apartments for formerly homeless families, in its tracks.

Campbell filed a complaint alleging that the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the affordable-housing plan failed to adequately consider all the potential environmental impacts of the project; that  seeking and receiving several postponements, Campbell failed to show up at recent hearings on her appeal of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the development, prompting city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil to say that he would be justified in dismissing the case outright but would give Campbell one last opportunity to hire a lawyer and make her case on strictly legal grounds. Vancil’s order stipulated that Campbell could not introduce any new evidence or call any witnesses.

Late on Friday afternoon, Campbell’s new lawyer, a fairly recent law-school graduate named Nathan Arnold, filed a new brief asking Vancil to re-open discovery in the case, which would allow her to interview and cross-examine witnesses from the city. (Campbell and the Discovery Park Community Alliance were represented until at least this past January by an attorney at Foster Pepper, to whom the group paid about $15,000 for their services, according to Campbell.) The city has until next Friday, November 9, to respond, and Campbell has until the following Wednesday, November 14, to respond in turn.

Meanwhile, Campbell is preparing to sue the city. In a message to the DCPA email list, she writes: “It is not known how soon after November 2nd the examiner will issue his decision. However, when it is issued and if it affirms the adequacy of the City’s FEIS then DPCA will need to promptly shift gears and prepare for a judicial appeal and review of the FEIS. In fact, given the probability that this will be the outcome preparations are already underway to establish a litigation budget and to start exploring the grounds, the causes of action, for a lawsuit in either King County Superior Court or in U.S. District Court.”

Campbell’s email also mentions an alternative “workaround plan” that she says would turn Fort Lawton into part of Discovery Park—without housing—”while deploying a network of currently-owned properties that meet and exceed housing objectives crafted for Fort Lawton land.” The email also says that the DCPA has already met with interim Parks directory Christopher Williams and deputy mayor David Moseley to discuss this alternative.

2. Rebecca Lovell, the tech-savvy former head of the city’s Startup Seattle program, stepped down as acting director of the city’s Office of Economic Development this week after nearly a year in limbo under Mayor Jenny Durkan. Lovell, who was appointed acting director by former mayor Ed Murray, is joining Create33, an offshoot of Madrona Ventures, which Geekwire describes as “a unique hybrid of co-working space and a community nexus.” OED’s new interim director is Karl Stickel, a city veteran who most recently was OED’s director of entrepreneurship and industry.

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In addition to OED, the city’s departments of  Transportation, Civil Rights, Human Services, Parks, Human Resources, and Information Technology are all headed by acting or interim directors.

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3. City council member Kshama Sawant, who used the city council’s shared printer to print thousands of anti-Amazon posters during the head tax debate, spent as much as $1,700 in city funds on Facebook ads promoting rallies and forums for her proposed “people’s budget” (and denouncing her council colleagues) between the end of September and the beginning of this month.

The ads, which include the mandatory disclaimer “Paid for by  Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s Office,” denounce Mayor Jenny Durkan, Sawant’s colleagues on the council, and the “Democratic Party establishment.”

“Seattle is facing an unprecedented affordable housing crisis,” the Sawant-sponsored ads say. “And yet, Mayor Durkan and the majority of the Council shamefully repealed the Amazon Tax that our movement fought so hard for, which would have modestly taxed the largest 3% of the city’s corporations to fund affordable housing.”

Because Facebook only releases limited information about its political ads, the cost of each ad is listed as a range. Of the five ads Sawant’s office has funded since September 28, two cost less than $100 and three cost between $100 and $499.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett  says that “since these are about the budget process, she can use city funds to pay for them without violating the ethics code. There’s no electioneering here that would trigger the need to pay for these with non-public funds.” I have contacted Sawant’s office for comment and will update this post if I hear back.

 

Seattle Magazine’s “Influentials” Include YIMBYs, Mosqueda, and Others Working for a Better City

Credit: Seattle magazine

I was proud this year to once again participate in Seattle magazine’s “Most Influentials” issue, which focuses every year on people and institutions that are making a positive difference in Seattle. At a time when it’s easy to notice only what’s negative about the city—the escalating homelessness crisis, the affordable-housing shortage, debates over whether the city has lost its “soul” (it hasn’t), the issue is a timely reminder that Seattle is actually a pretty great place, with people doing amazing work in fields that don’t always get their due, from bus driver/artist/filmmaker Nathan Vass, whose essays about driving the Route 7 are urban poetry, to TransYouth Project leader and UW psychology professor Kristina Olson.

Here are a couple of my contributions to the issue; read the whole list, along with Rachel Hart’s editor’s note about the issue, at Seattle magazine’s website, or pick up a copy on newsstands now.

The YIMBYs

YIMBY—the acronym stands for “yes in my backyard”—started as a national rebuke to so-called NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”), residents who oppose development in their neighborhoods. Today, the politically diverse movement has an active Seattle presence that is focused on saying yes to new density in urban neighborhoods. In the past year, YIMBYs have helped elect two council members: freshman Teresa Mosqueda and incumbent Lorena González, both of whom faced anti-density opponents.

They’ve advocated to allow homeowners to build second and third units on their property; pushed the city to convert the Talaris Conference Center site in Laurelhurst into affordable, high-density housing; and testified in favor of tiny-house villages to serve as temporary encampments that provide shelter to homeless Seattleites. And they also have helped to reframe the debate about a proposed affordable housing development in Magnolia’s Fort Lawton.

Battles over zoning and housing move slowly, so the true impact of today’s YIMBY activism might not be visible for years. What’s clear is that YIMBYs are framing important debates—and changing what it means to be a neighborhood activist.

Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda

In her first several months on the council, Mosqueda, an energetic former labor lobbyist elected in 2017, proposed a plan, one that shouldn’t be radical yet is, to give surplus city land to affordable-housing developers, instead of selling it to the highest bidder; cast one of just two votes against repealing the “head tax,” which would have paid for housing and homeless services; passed new city protections for domestic workers; and stuck her neck out as a high-density housing advocate at a time when a revanchist neighborhood movement is ascending. Rarely has a City Council freshman taken a mandate and run with it quite as hard as Mosqueda. In doing so, she’s proving to be a bridge player on an increasingly fractured City Council.

Getting Smarter About Public Land: Lessons from Across the Northwest

The full version of this story is available at Sightline.

As cities across Cascadia look to technological solutions, such as modular construction, to help address the region-wide shortage of affordable housing, one of the biggest factors currently driving up costs is also one of the most resistant to intervention: Land prices, which can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of producing a single subsidized apartment.

Cities don’t have a lot of tools for lowering land costs, but they do own a lot of land—Seattle, for example, is sitting on more than 180 excess or underutilized parcels, many of which are well-suited for homebuilding.

To maximize taxpayer value, most cities usually auction off their excess land to the highest bidder, just like any private landowner would do. But in cities with hot real estate markets, affordable housing developers typically don’t have the financial resources to compete for land with market-rate developers. So publicly-owned land ends up in private hands, forever forfeiting its potential to help overcome one of the biggest barriers to the construction of subsidized homes: acquisition of land to build on. The backers of Seattle’s Rainier Valley Food Innovation Hub, for example, have been repeatedly outbid by private developers.

But what if local governments viewed surplus land not as a revenue generator but an opportunity to reduce displacement and stabilize communities? Several Northwest cities have begun asking that very question. The result is a growing string of affordable housing projects stretching through Cascadia—from the largest one-time investment in housing on city-owned land in Canada’s history, to an affordable housing and preschool development on the site of a former fire station in Seattle.

How much publicly owned land is there?

Enterprise Community Partners’ interactive mapping tool shows publicly owned properties.

Until recently, if you wanted to know what public land was available in the Seattle area, there was no central database—no way to easily find out, say, if a certain fenced-off plot of land that looked ripe for development was owned by the city or Sound Transit or King County, whether it had the right zoning, and whether it was up for sale. In 2015, newly elected King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson decided to do something about that; he directed his office to create a map of every piece of publicly owned land inside county limits.

The nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners expanded on Wilson’s effort, recently launching the beta version of an interactive tool that allows any interested party to use filters to narrow down a list of about 10,000 developable public properties according to specific characteristics, such as zoning, square footage, and eligibility for tax credits.

“In high-cost cities, it’s really becoming impossible for nonprofits to develop on privately owned land,” James Madden, the Seattle-based senior program director for Enterprise, says.  “The average land price, as a percentage of the total cost of development in Seattle, is about 10 to 15 percent, and if land continues to get more expensive, [nonprofits] will be priced out completely. Once you’re paying more than $30,000 a door [for land], it gets very hard for a public agency to justify spending beyond that level on acquisition.” Market-rate developers can charge higher rents to compensate for high land costs—an option not available to affordable housing providers.

Changing the rules that have prevented public land from supporting affordable housing

Wilson, the assessor, says the mapping tools might have been merely informational—a database of public land for sale at prices out of reach for most nonprofit housing builders—if the state hadn’t taken the next step, by giving local governments the authority to sell their land below market value or give it away for free. “We raised this issue with [state House speaker Frank Chopp] last year,” Wilson says. “After we pulled together the list of publicly owned land, we said, ‘Here’s the problem: A lot of this land is owned by agencies that have to sell it for fair market value,” putting even public land out of reach for many nonprofit agencies. In response, Chopp supported, and the legislature passed, a bill allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.

Local leaders quickly took notice. Seattle city council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, who campaigned on the need to build more dense, affordable housing, proposed and passed two pieces of legislation this year designed to encourage the city to give away its surplus property for free. The first, which passed in July, made it possible for Seattle’s electric utility, Seattle City Light, to dispose of its excess land at little or no cost—a major departure from its previous policy, which required the utility to sell property at fair market value.

The second, which the council passed unanimously earlier this month, requires the city to consider whether surplus land can be used for affordable housing and, if so, to make it available for that purpose. The legislation also allows the city to hold onto land while a nonprofit housing partner secures financing; directs the city’s Office of Housing to partner with “culturally relevant and historically rooted” nonprofits in areas where residents are at high risk of economic displacement; and mandates that 80 percent of the funds from any outright sale of city property go into one of the city’s affordable housing funds.

Read the whole piece at Sightline.

Morning Crank: Toward a Redefinition of “Single-Family”

Council member Teresa Mosqueda released more details last week about her proposal to do a full race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy—a neighborhood planning framework that was adopted in collaboration with homeowner-dominated neighborhood groups in the 1990s, long before the city adopted its Race and Social Justice Initiative. The memo suggests that the city might move toward a “redefinition of ‘Single Family,’ that includes attached family-dwellings in areas that may not have frequent transit service, but have good transit service, and access to community assets within walking distance (such as parks, open spaces, and community centers) that are otherwise missing from many of the Urban Villages?”

Mosqueda’s memo notes that single-family zoning currently occupies 86 percent of the residential land in Seattle, but it hasn’t always been so. Prior to the 1930s, when the federal government officially encouraged the separation of multifamily and single-family housing through formal redlining, the city had two residential zoning designations—First Residence, which was single-family-only, and Second Residence, where multifamily housing of all kinds was allowed. Much of what is now single-family was in that second category.

The urban village strategy, adopted in the post-formal-redlining 1990s, concentrates development tightly around arterial streets, preserving the vast majority of the city’s land exclusively for detached single-family houses, a development pattern that has contributed to the city’s housing shortage and helped drive up housing prices to levels that are unaffordable to working- and middle-class people.

Mosqueda’s plan, if it’s allowed to play out, could point the way toward an alternate neighborhood-planning strategy that includes renters, low-income people, and people of color in decision-making—a strategy that would likely lead to more density in areas that have been walled off by existing neighborhood plans. Last week, council members (particularly budget committee chair Sally Bagshaw) raised questions about whether Mosqueda’s plan would duplicate work that has already been done and whether it impacts an ongiong legal challenge by a group of neighborhood activists seeking to invalidate the city’s mandatory housing affordability (MHA) policy, in part, on the grounds that the city didn’t do a race and social justice analysis of the impact of increased density. (More on why that challenge is disingenuous here.)

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In the  memo, Mosqueda’s staff quickly dispensed with the latter concern, noting that a racial equity analysis of existing neighborhood plans would have no bearing on whether one was done for MHA (and that it’s outside the scope of the state environmental policy act, which is the basis for SCALE’s challenge, anyway). In response to Bagshaw’s concern—that the analysis has essentially already been done—the memo notes that all the analysis the city has done of the impacts of housing policy on people of color and low-income people so far, including an oft-cited report by former council member Peter Steinbrueck, “appear[s] to start and end with the proposition that the [Urban Village Strategy] is the preferred growth strategy. None appear to actually question the efficacy of the current strategy [or include] an exploration of whether to engage in a new strategy.”

It’s far from clear that Mosqueda’s colleagues will consider this argument persuasive; last week, even Rob Johnson, who supports the idea of revisiting the urban village strategy in principle, suggested that the council might put it off until later in 2019.

The city continues its budget deliberations next week. Last week’s budget discussions  included a debate over Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to use higher-than-expected revenues from the soda tax to cut general-fund spending on the education and food access programs the tax funds, rather than increasing funding for those programs; a discussion about the availability of enhanced shelter beds (almost nonexistent) and whether the mayor’s homelessness budget spends too much on back-office staff; and a proposal, from Mosqueda and Mike O’Brien, to increase pay for all human service providers that contract with the city by 3.5 percent. Durkan’s budget would increase the pay of front-line workers who provide services to Seattle’s homeless population by just 2 percent, and would only benefit those whose jobs are funded through the city’s general fund; increasing and expanding that wage hike would cost just shy of $6 million a year.

The council also talked about the seemingly moribund proposal—recommended unanimously by the county’s opiate task force in 2016—to open a supervised drug consumption site somewhere in the county. Durkan’s budget carries over $1.3 million for a site from the 2017 budget, but doesn’t actually propose spending the money. Durkan, a council staffer told council members last week, “has indicted that opening a [safe consumption site], either leasing or acquiring property, is unlikely is because of the expense and for this reason they have pivoted to a so called fixed mobile site”—i.e., a van. The city is looking at a variety of models for this theoretical site, ranging from a site that does not offer medically assisted treatment (AKA prescriptions for suboxone, an opiate drug that reduces cravings for more dangerous and addictive opiates) and is open only during 9-5 business hours, to a 70-hour-a-week model that does include MAT. “People struggling with addiction aren’t doing it within the course of a 40-hour work week,” Johnson noted.

Morning Crank: Rethinking the Vaunted Neighborhood Plans of the ’90s

In a move that could reveal hard truths about the city’s vaunted 1990s-era neighborhood planning process, city council member Teresa Mosqueda wants the city to do a full race and social justice analysis of the so-called urban village strategy, which concentrates all new development in narrow bands near arterial streets and preserves two-thirds of the city exclusively for detached single-family houses. The urban village strategy was crafted more than 20 years ago by neighborhood groups that were dominated, then as now, by white homeowners who wanted to ensure that the “character” of their neighborhoods would remain unchanged. The monoculture of exclusive single-family zoning, and the “character” of Seattle’s suburban-style neighborhoods, is a legacy of redlining—the process by which people of color and renters were systematically excluded from many parts of Seattle.

Introducing her proposal at Thursday’s council budget hearing, Mosqueda noted that at the time the urban village strategy was adopted, in 1994, there was no Race and Social Justice Initiative. That came in 2004, and “it wasn’t until 10 years after that that the race and social justice strategy was expanded to include policies that impact the urban environment,” Mosqueda said. “One of our questions is whether or not we are investing in urban villages equitably throughout Seattle. … I’m interested in whether or not we are crafting policies that are allowing more people to live here.”

The city recently completed a race and social equity analysis of a proposal that would make it easier for homeowners to build second and third units on their property. That analysis found, not surprisingly, that allowing more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments will disproportionately benefit white Seattle residents, because most homeowners in Seattle are white. (See chart, below). However, the analysis (like the environmental impact statement the city recently completed on the proposal) also found that allowing more backyard and basement apartments wouldn’t contribute to displacement; and it suggested several steps the city could take to make it easier for homeowners of color to build accessory units, such as pre-approved building plans and assistance with permits and financing. A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions. Neighborhood activists, in other words, are likely to oppose it. Channeling them Thursday, council member Sally Bagshaw raised objections to Mosqueda’s proposal, which she said might be “duplicative” with work the city has already done. (It isn’t.) “Good heavens, this feels like déjà vu to me,” Bagshaw said. Council member Rob Johnson, who supports Mosqueda’s idea in principle, said, “I think that the issues that council member Mosqueda brings up are very appropriate for us to consider,” but suggested that the council might fund it later in the year.

Neighborhood activists, ironically, actually raised the need for race and social justice analysis in their ongoing attempt to prevent the city from implementing its Mandatory Housing Affordability strategy arguing (disingenuously) that the city didn’t do a race and social justice analysis of the proposal to allow slightly denser development on 6 percent of the city’s single-family land. (Developers building under the new rules would be required to build affordable housing on site or pay into an affordable housing fund. The new rules have gone into effect in denser parts of the city, including downtown). They’re still fighting that one, a year after the council passed the legislation.

It’s hard to quantify how much funding for affordable housing the city has lost because single-family activists have locked MHA up with a series of seemingly endless appeals. Hard, but not impossible. About a week ago, Johnson asked the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development to do an analysis of how much money the city has forfeited from developments that would have happened under the new rules if they had gone into effect a year ago. “I’ve asked them to run the numbers about projects that might have vested under MHA, had we adopted it when the bill was first sent down to us,” Johnson told me yesterday. “As you can imagine, vesting times really vary, so  it’s difficult analysis for us to do.” However, Johnson hopes that by looking at the development cycle that just ended, the city can get a sense of how much affordable housing Seattle has foregone while activists have filed appeal after appeal.

A race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy would likely reach similar conclusions—restricting development to the areas directly adjacent to major streets helps drive up housing prices and lock lower-income people and people of color out of many neighborhoods—and point to more radical solutions.

Speaking of appeals, the Queen Anne Community Council filed another one against the accessory dwelling unit proposal yesterday, arguing that the proposal—which would add about 2600 basement and backyard apartments, citywide, over what will likely be built anyway—”ignores, disrespects, and eliminates the citywide Neighborhood Plans.” The appeal, filed by Queen Anne homeowner Marty Kaplan and his attorney, Jeff Eustis, reiterates Kaplan’s claim that the plan will upzone the entire city, effectively turning single-family neighborhoods into wall-to-wall apartment blocks. The complaint concludes, spaghetti-at-the-wall style, by listing a litany of supposed ills that will befall neighborhoods if the city allows a few thousand more backyard and basement units in a city of 700,000: the “displacement and destruction of older, more modest and
affordable housing, the displacement of populations, the loss of historic buildings, the change in neighborhood character, the unstudied stresses on existing utilities and infrastructure, the amount of available on-street parking. and the ability of
residents and emergency vehicles to circulate through neighborhood streets, and other population pressures among many more.”

Johnson notes one potential bright side to all this delay. If the appeals of MHA and the accessory dwelling legislation drag on indefinitely,  he says, the city’s planning department will have more free time to do the kind of analysis of single-family zoning that Mosqueda is requesting.

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The J is for Judge: It Takes One to Know One

Critics of Seattle’s out-of-whack zoning scheme—two-thirds of the city is zoned exclusively for single-family housing—have been arguing for decades now that Seattle needs to grow up (or build up, actually) and function like an actual city, not a suburb.

This isn’t an argument about aesthetics. It’s an argument for housing affordability and environmental sustainability, both urgent issues given the homelessness crisis and the latest climate change data from the U.N., respectively.

The blunt argument from pro-city urbanists is this: The Magnolia First ideology that single-family zoning stalwarts adhere to  (or Laurelhurst First ideology or Wallingford First ideology or Phinney Ridge First ideology) selfishly defends an unsustainable lifestyle of privilege and exclusion (including the delusion that people have a constitutional right to free parking in front of their houses).

In short: The NIMBYs’ aesthetic position—that we must preserve the “character” of exclusionary neighborhoods—is undermining Seattle’s livability and affordability for the rest of us.

If you think the urbanist critique of single-family zoning lacks credibility because hipster urbanists supposedly don’t have kids or haven’t lived here long enough or are too young or don’t own houses (most people in Seattle are renters, by the way), let me introduce you to the latest critic of Seattle’s refusal to grow up and act like a city: An actual suburbanite, who lives in an actual suburb, state Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1, Maltby).

Palumbo is proposing a bill  that would make Seattle do something it refuses to do on its own: Upzone its suburban-style landscape to take on more density.

The 45-year-old state senator argues that Seattle’s failure to play its designated urban role in our region is undermining the state’s anti-sprawl Growth Management Act.  Palumbo’s point: Seattle’s refusal to accept more growth is causing sprawl, the very opposite of what smart cities are supposedly about. (Maltby is northeast of Kirkland and Woodinville, and due east of Lynnwood.)

Sen. Palumbo’s state legislative district (which largely overlaps with Snohomish County Council Districts 4 and 5 on the charts below) has, in fact, seen  growth on par with Seattle’s, at least as a percentage of population—around 14 percent, including 17.4 percent growth in portions of the district. It’d be one thing if that spike in growth simply represented small-town numbers growing to slightly bigger small-town numbers. But we’re talking an extra 40,000 people added to a population of 285,000. It’s as if everyone on Mercer Island picked up and moved to Palumbo’s district. And then a couple of years later, half of Mercer Island picked up and did it again.

Seattle itself has grown 17.2 percent over the same time (2010 to 2017). But Palumbo isn’t arguing Seattle hasn’t grown significantly; he’s pointing out that it should be growing a lot more than the suburbs if the region is going to grow sustainably.

“They are taking growth,” he says of Seattle. “The problem is the growth they aren’t taking is moving at too high a level to places that aren’t equipped to deal with it and service it. Snohomish is taking the growth that should be in Seattle,” he reasons. “If Seattle only built the types of housing people wanted and needed,” he adds, it would also increase housing supply, slowing the increase in housing prices that are nudging people out to the remote suburbs. Sprawl.

Palumbo condemns Seattle’s rigid zoning because, he says, it’s forcing families who would actually prefer to live in the city to move into his suburban southwest Snohomish County district instead. “Seattle is zoned low-density, single-family,” he says.  As a result, “people can’t even afford one of the few and overpriced houses there, and they have to move. And they move out to the suburbs. ”

Why, there oughta be a law!

Lucky thing Palumbo is a state senator.

According to Palumbo, his draft bill (which the Urbanist first reported earlier this month),  would require increased density within a mile of frequent transit service—areas near light rail stations or near bus stops where buses arrive at least every 15 minutes. Although the details of the bill could change, Palumbo envisions a mandatory density that slopes down as development fans out: 150 dwelling units per acre within a quarter-mile of frequent transit; 45 units per acre within half a mile of transit; and 14 units per acre within a 1 mile radius. (Asked whether cities could build more densely than the minimums required by his bill, Palumbo said he hadn’t thought of that.)

Palumbo tells me his legislation isn’t a one-size-fits-all bill, and those particular numbers are only intended for Seattle. Different numbers would apply to transit-friendly neighborhoods in smaller cities and towns where transit is less frequent and where target densities are lower. (He also acknowledged that his “units per acre” metric was a bit backwards—that is, you can’t logically prescribe units-per acre rules on an individual development without a universal picture of all the proposed developments in the upzoned area.)

He said his metric was simply meant to describe the ultimate density he envisions, and that Seattle could apply units per lot and floor area ratio metrics to achieve the 14 units per acre within his 1-mile radius performance standard, for example.

Seattle is already (sorta) moving in this direction, though as cautiously as a cat burglar tip-toeing up the stairs.

This year, the council is taking up a plan that’s been in play since 2015 to upzone a tiny percentage of the city’s vast single-family neighborhoods. Focusing on the edges of single family zones that are near designated residential urban villages, the city proposal, known as  Mandatory Housing Affordability (it simultaneously makes developers fund affordable housing), would upzone six percent of single family zoned land into slightly denser residential small lot zones, low-rise zones, and Neighborhood Commercial zones. The changes would help create  what pro-housing urbanists call the “Missing Middle.”

The density increase Palumbo’s proposing within a half and quarter mile of frequent transit service—45 and 150 units per acre, respectively—would already be allowed (though not required) under both current Seattle zoning and under MHA changes to Lowrise zones and Neighborhood Commercial zones.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the MHA rezone area  in strict single-family zones (so about four percent of that current zoning)—the   Residential Small Lot upzone—would permit density of about 20 units per acre, according to some back-of-the-envelope math city staffers did after they read about Sen. Palumbo’s proposal for comparison’s sake.

Again, while not required (as it is in Palumbo’s formula), that would actually be slightly more permissive than the density Palumbo is proposing a mile away from transit stops (his 14 units per acre). But that’s only in the sliver of single family areas rezoned under MHA; under Palumbo’s mandate, the larger swath of single family areas left untouched by MHA would face a significant upzone.

In other words, when it comes to the majority of Seattle’s single family zones, Mr. Palumbo of Maltby is far more woke about requiring dense, sustainable land use than Seattle and its leaders—even though today’s leading climate scientists are demanding dramatic action to address pending environmental calamity.

Seattle leaders do not have a good track record when it comes to standing up to the Magnolia First faction and making this change. Back in 2009, former Mayor Greg Nickels initially backed  a Futurewise/Transportation Choices Coalition state bill that would have promoted more density around transit hubs. But when traditional neighborhood activists said the proposal would turn Seattle into Mumbai, intimidating Nickels’ wary deputy mayor Tim Ceis, Nickels stepped away from the bill as his reelection loomed. (The legislation failed.)

And, of course, former Mayor Ed Murray folded on his original proposal to upzone all single family zones in 2015, watering his proposal down to the current six percent plan when the NIMBYs at the Seattle Times protested on behalf of their home-owning readers.

I contacted the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office to see if they supported Palumbo’s urgent push for more density. A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said she hadn’t seen the bill, which is still in early draft form.

Meanwhile, Seattle City Council Member Rob Johnson, who’s leading the city’s limited MHA upzone effort, responded. Johnson, who was the director of TCC back in 2009 when the pro-transit  group went to the mat for the state upzone legislation, cautioned: “Been there done that.” He did note, though, that Palumbo was starting “an interesting conversation.”

Ultimately, Johnson argued that Palumbo’s statewide approach isn’t likely to succeed, pointing out that some suburban cities, such as Sammamish, Issaquah, and Federal Way, have gone so far as to impose moratoria on new development. (After a year, the Sammamish City Council effectively lifted the moratorium  as did the Issaquah City Council. )

However, Johnson has a point. Several Puget Sound cities have enacted development bans, making it clear that A) they’re queasy about more density and B) they’re not going to take kindly to some dude from the state legislature telling them how to manage growth.

Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

Johnson says the local approach he’s now heading up as a Seattle City Council member is more likely to work, although—recalling how Nickels backed away from the Futurewise/TCC bill—he acknowledged there’s dedicated resistance to new development in Seattle as well.  For example, he lamented the fact that single-family home owners are currently funding a legal effort to tie up the MHA upzone in a  battle in front of the City Hearing Examiner.

Resistance to development in Seattle has already undermined the rezones Johnson passed in 2016 and 2017 as part of MHA Part 1, when the city upzoned five (already) densely populated commercial/residential Urban Centers,  including downtown, plus one Residential Urban Village at 23rd & Union-Jackson.

To wit: After unanimously passing the downtown upzone, the city council halted one of the first proposed developments proposed under the new zoning (even drafting talking points for the opposition) when a developer wanted to tear down the talismanic  Showbox music venue to build more housing.

Johnson does have a point about state legislation: The merits of Palumbo’s bill are likely to be overshadowed by a meta question of governance that could stall the state senate legislation: Should the state have the right to micromanage local land use issues?

But Palumbo has a point too. When local policies spill over legislators’ borders to threaten a green and progressive state law like the Growth Management Act, which was intended to combat regional problems like sprawl, then yes, the state has a role to play.

It takes one to know one. Suburbanite Palumbo is telling it like it is: Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

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