Tag: accessory dwelling units

Durkan’s Backyard Cottage Plan Would Have Kept Some Old Restrictions, Imposed New Ones

Mayor Jenny Durkan planned to propose her own accessory dwelling unit (ADU) legislation that would have restricted homeowners’ ability to build second and third units on their property, going far beyond the limitations in the legislation the city council passed unanimously yesterday afternoon.

The restrictions Durkan proposed would have been more lenient than previous regulations, which had resulted in just a handful of ADUs per year, but would have included many provisions requested by ADU opponents, including parking requirements for second ADUs, preserving the current owner occupancy requirement, and imposing new limits  on the size of backyard units.

Ultimately, as I reported this morning (item 2), Durkan did not propose her own legislation, and the bill the council passed yesterday does not include any of these restrictions. Still, Durkan’s ADU proposal gives a glimpse into her thinking about how much the city should limit how many people (and what kind of people) should be allowed to live in single-family neighborhoods.

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This report is based on documents I received through a records request filed in March. The mayor’s office provided unredacted versions of these documents this morning.

First, the mayor set out her goals in drafting her own ADU legislation: “1. Encourage ADUs—especially affordable ADUs—throughout Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. 2. Prevent speculative development and the demolition of existing single-family homes.” Her plan also laid out a set of “principles,” which included “Retain existing single-family neighborhood character.”

To those ends, here’s what the mayor’s proposal (which, again, was never sent to the council as legislation) might have done:

1. Imposed a cap of 1,000 accessory units permitted per year. (The legislation the council passed includes no such restriction.)

2. Required homeowners building a second ADU to sign a legally binding document stating that they would never use that ADU as an Airbnb (a new restriction that would allow someone to own two houses on adjoining lots and rent one as an Airbnb, but would ban a neighbor with two ADUs from renting out their backyard unit).

3. Required two years of continuous ownership before a homeowner could build a second ADU, such as a backyard cottage in a house that already has a basement apartment. This restriction went further than council member Lisa Herbold’s proposal for a one-year ownership requirement, which failed; the legislation the council passed does not include any ownership-related restrictions on ADU construction.

4. Required homeowners to build one off-street parking space when they build a second ADU. Notes from staff on the mayor’s proposal indicate that “many infill parcels, especially those without alley access, cannot easily accommodate off-street parking, making this requirement a significant impediment to ADU development.” The legislation that passed yesterday includes no parking mandate.

5. Imposed a new floor-area ratio (a measure of maximum density) on detached units while eliminating the previous minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet. Although getting rid of maximum lot sizes sounds like a good thing, in practice, this measure would have little practical impact while imposing a new restriction on what people on smaller lots could build. I’ve explained this in a bit more detail below*, but the impact would be that any lot smaller than 5,000 square feet would have to build a backyard unit smaller than 1,000 square feet—and the smaller the lot, the smaller the cottage. In contrast, O’Brien’s legislation allows backyard cottages of up to 1,000 square feet on all lots, subject to the city’s existing maximum lot coverage of 35 percent.

Although getting rid of the minimum lot size entirely might seem preferable, the impact would be tiny—according to the city, just 7 percent of the single-family lots in Seattle are smaller than 3,200 square feet, and ADUs on very small lots are unlikely for the reasons I explain below.

6. Required a homeowner or a homeowner’s family member to live on the property for at least six months out of every year. O’Brien’s legislation got rid of the existing six-month owner occupancy requirement because it effectively banned renters from living in at least one of the units on lots with an ADU (suggesting that backyard-cottage renters require owner supervision.) Durkan’s proposal would have continued to prevent renters from occupying every unit on lots with ADUs, but allowed family members to serve as owner proxies. The proposal doesn’t define “family member,” but other elements of the municipal code limit the number of people who can live on a single lot unless they are “related,” a term that is undefined in the code.

Because I filed my request for these documents in March, they don’t include any discussions that happened after April 1 that might shed light on why Durkan decided not to propose her own ADU legislation. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a question about why they dropped the proposal this afternoon.

*Two hypothetical examples illustrate the impact of this change on lots of two different sizes.

A homeowner with a 4,000-square-foot lot could cover a total of 1,400 square feet of that lot with buildings, subject to the maximum height limit of about 30 feet. That could include, say, a 1,600-square-foot two story house (covering 800 square feet of the lot) and a two-story, 1,000-square-foot backyard cottage (covering 500 square feet). Under Durkan’s proposal, though, the backyard cottage would also be restricted by the 0.2 FAR, limiting it to a total of 800 square feet no matter how the rest of the lot is configured. This is the limit that existed before O’Brien’s legislation raised it to 1,000 square feet, so in this case Durkan’s proposal would have preserved the old status quo.

A homeowner with a 2,500-square-foot lot, who couldn’t build a backyard cottage under the rules adopted yesterday, would theoretically be able to do so under Durkan’s proposal. But the restrictions would make this exceedingly unlikely, because the backyard cottage would be limited to a total of 500 square feet—on a lot where only 875 square feet can be developed in the first place. Playing this out presents some very unlikely scenarios, such as a tiny front house towered over by a narrow two-story backyard tower. The point is, the effect of these restrictions would have been primarily to limit the size of backyard units, not to expand homeowners’ ability to build them.

Families Come In All Sizes. Housing Choices Should, Too.

Editor’s note: This is a guest op/ed by More Options for Accessory Residences, a group that advocates for accessory dwelling units, such as backyard cottages and basement apartments. The city council’s Sustainability and Transportation committee will hold a public hearing on legislation making it easier for single-family property owners to build second and third units on Tuesday evening at 5:30.—ECB

Seattle needs thousands of homes for people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds over the next 10 years. Families come in all shapes and sizesand housing choices should, too. Some families love the convenience, coziness and price of an accessory dwelling unit. There’s a lot of names for a second home within, or next to, an existing house: Granny Flats, Fonzie Flats, Pool Houses, Coach Houses, Kitchenette Units, Backyard Cottages, Basement Apartments, and so many more.

MOAR – More Options for Accessory Residents—supports more accessory dwelling units for the following reasons:

  • Climate Change: (D)ADUs are one way to add new neighbors to areas with frequent transit service. This means that people can live closer to their jobs, cultural communities, and more—which means less sprawl and less dependence on cars. (D)ADUs are also much more energy-efficient then single-family houses, cutting carbon emissions by as much as half.
  • Walkable Communities: (D)ADUs support small businesses by making it possible for more people to live within walking, biking, and easy transit distance of local mom-and-pop shops.
  • Aging in place:  The new legislation has built-in flexibility for people who want to build a one-story backyard unit, making it much easier to create opportunities to age in place. In cities that make it easy to build backyard apartments, many people move into the backyard cottage and rent out the front home to offset rising property taxes.
  • Intergenerational Living: (D)ADUs help create additional living spaces for children who need an affordable place to stay during or after college, aging parents, a relative who can babysit or fill in for child-care needs, or a relative who might need at-home care.
  • Parking Requirements: Let’s prioritize housing for people, not storage for cars. The proposed legislation takes away the requirement that homeowners add a new parking space to build a second unit. And it doesn’t count interior parking or storage space against the size limit. 

  • Affordability: Right now 75 percent of Seattle is off limits to new neighbors who can’t rent a whole house or come up with a down payment to buy one. ADUs & DADUs are one way to induce mixed-income neighborhoods and more equity without changing the zoning.
  • Land Owners, Home Owners, and Neighbors Who Rent: Right now, 20 percent of Seattle’s single-family houses are occupied by renters. Under the current rules, property owners with ADUs must live on site six months out of every year—a biased policy that prevents renters from accessing this housing and takes away property owners’ flexibility to live elsewhere. The proposed legislation will allow anyone, including renters, to live on a property with an attached or detached ADU. 
  • Out-of-scale homes: Right now, the city incentivizes removing small houses so the largest possible house—sometimes referred to as a “McMansions”—can be constructed. Based on census data, the average household size is declining but the average square footage of a house isn’t. The legislation would limit the size of new homes while encouraging ADUs and DADUs by not counting second and third units against development limits.

Adding 2,000 additional homes over the next ten years by reforming the city’s approach to ADUs is a very small step on the path to making our region affordable for all our neighbors, including the ones who haven’t moved here yet. If you support this vision, please show up to City Hall June 11 at 5:15 pm to rally for MOAR Housing.

MOAR (More Options for Accessory Residences; @moarseattle) is a group of Seattle residents concerned with the future of the city, housing availability and affordability. We have diverse backgrounds, experiences and housing situations, but we’re all Seattleites who want our city to allow more options for accessory residences—for us, our neighbors, and future generations.

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.

Morning Crank: Prohibitive and Frustrating

1. Marty Kaplan, the Queen Anne activist who has filed multiple legal challenges to delay new rules that would allow homeowners to add up to two additional units to their property, is reviewing the final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposal and deciding whether to press on with his appeal, according to an email he sent to members of the Queen Anne Community Council last week.

In the email, Kaplan notes that the group has until October 18 to file an appeal, and suggests that they adopt the following motion: “If the ADU FEIS is found by Martin Kaplan to be deficient in representing a comprehensive environmental study as required by the Hearing Examiner in our former appeal and outlined with our letter of comment pertaining to the ADU DEIS, then Martin Kaplan is hereby authorized to file an appeal on behalf of our QACC.” Kaplan has not said whether he plans to continue pursuing his case against the city, or whether thousands of Seattle homeowners will finally be able to build secondary units on their properties.

The FEIS, released last week, added a fourth, preferred, option to the three alternatives in the draft document, which I covered in depth in May.  If the city adopts the preferred option, homeowners will be able to build up to two accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their property—two attached (mother-in-law) units, or one attached unit and one detached apartment, subject to maximum rear lot coverage of 60 percent. (The total maximum lot coverage—35 percent for lots over 5,000 square feet, or 15 percent plus 1,000 square feet for lots under 5,000 square feet—will remain the same). The minimum lot size for building an additional unit will be reduced from the current 4,000 square feet to 3,200 square feet, and rules requiring homeowners to build an extra parking spot for each unit, and to live on the property at least six months a year, will be lifted. However, in an odd concession to opponents like Kaplan, homeowners who want to build a second ADU won’t be allowed to do so until they’ve owned the property for at least a year. Both attached and detached units could be up to 1,000 square feet—up from the current 800—and up to 12 unrelated people could live on a lot with three units, allowing (for example) a house, basement apartment, and backyard cottage with four roommates each on a single lot. (This has been a particular sticking point with single-family activists who say so many unrelated people shouldn’t be allowed to live on a single lot). Unlike one of the alternatives the city originally considered, the preferred alternative would not require homeowners to pay into a city affordable housing fund if they want to build a second accessory unit.

Finally, in an attempt to mitigate the spread of new McMansions in Seattle’s single-family areas (and encourage homeowners to add density instead), 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. A 2,500-square-foot house on a 5,000-square-foot lot would have a floor-area ratio of 0.5, even if that 2,500 square feet is spread over two stories; so would a 3,600-square-foot house on a 7,200-square-foot lot, and so on.

Because the the city used slightly different assumptions in calculating the number of second and third units that will be produced if the new rules move forward (assuming, for example, that homeowners will have access to pre-approved standard plans for accessory units, and that the city will lower other regulatory barriers that drive of the cost of adding extra units), the new preferred alternative is expected to lead to slightly more units than any of the options the city previously considered. Overall, the preferred alternative would produce about 2,460 more accessory units than the no-action alternative (a total of 4,430), which would correspond to about 3,960 additional residents in single-family areas, spread across Seattle (6,645, compared to 2,955 under the do-nothing alternative.)

2. Saul Spady—the grandson of Dick Spady, of Dick’s Burgers, and one of the most vocal opponents of the “head tax” for homelessness that was overturned earlier this year—has been busy. Since September, Spady has reportedly been meeting with prospective city council candidates for 2019, including Erika Nagy of Speak Out Seattle and Ari Hoffman, who unsuccessfully sought for $230,000 in “homeless-related damages” to a cemetery in North Seattle. On Friday, Hoffman officially filed to run for council in District 2, the South Seattle council seat currently held by three-term incumbent Bruce Harrell. Spady, whose parents spend decades advocating for charter schools,  sent out an email in September seeking funds to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy renewal and to recruit “common sense candidates” to defeat council incumbents—a solicitation that could put him at odds with city and state election  laws.

In addition to his work recruiting local candidates, Spady has an upcoming speaking engagement in front of members of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative/libertarian-leaning think tank. The group’s annual Young Professionals Dinner includes speeches and “exclusive Q&A sessions” with two keynote speakers: Spady, and former US House Speaker-turned-Trump apologist Newt Gingrich. Non-member tickets start at $75.

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3. Speaking of potential council candidates: A few other names that are starting to circulate in the rumor mill for 2019: Former Nick Licata campaign manager Andrew Lewis (District 7, currently held by Sally Bagshaw); former Seattle police chief Jim Pugel, also in District 7; Beto Yarce, a onetime undocumented immigrant and entrepreneur who now runs a nonprofit that helps launch small businesses (District 3, held by Kshama Sawant); and community organizer Tammy Morales, who came within 400 votes of beating District 2 incumbent Bruce Harrell in 2015 and is widely expected to run for his seat this year. Bagshaw is widely expected to step down this year, as is District 4 council member Rob Johnson. Sawant has given no indication that she won’t seek reelection, and Harrell’s plans are currently anybody’s guess.

4. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2019 transportation budget includes new investments in “adaptive signal” technology—a term that typically describes systems that monitor where vehicle traffic is heavy and adjust light cycles to give traffic more time to get through crowded intersections. Seattle has a system like this in place on Mercer Street in South Lake Union, which “detects cars in each lane at every intersection … determines traffic levels, predicts the flow of traffic, and adjusts the amount of time available to each movement through the intersection.” These marginal drive time improvements often come at the expense of pedestrians, who are forced to endure long waits as the city gives cars extra time to drive through intersections (and to dash across the street on short walk cycles designed for maximum vehicle movement), which is one reason the National Association of City Transportation Officials says that “long signal cycles … can make crossing a street or walking even a short distance prohibitive and frustrating, [which] discourages walking altogether,” and recommends adaptive signals only for suburban areas.

However, the new budget also includes funding for a pilot project at the University of Washington that could at least start to restore the balance between pedestrians and cyclists and the almighty car. The project, which will also be funded by the UW and the Federal Highway Administration, will test passive pedestrian detection and pedestrian counting—technologies that could eliminate the need for walkers to push a “beg button” to cross the street and allow longer crossing times for large groups of pedestrians, respectively. (One way to obviate the need for a beg button, of course, would be to assume there are always pedestrians trying to cross the street in busy areas like South Lake Union and the U District and provide a walk cycle during every green light, as pedestrian advocates across the country have been requesting for years, but baby steps.)

The pilot project will also test an app that will enable cyclists to trigger signals at intersections that equipped with weight-sensitive sensors in streets, which don’t detect vehicles lighter than cars. Cyclists (and, presumably, motorcyclists, who are also usually too light to trip pavement-embedded signals) will be able to download an app that will notify any signals equipped with the new technology that a bike is present, causing the light to change even if there aren’t any cars around. This “solution,” of course, will only work in the limited number of signals near the University of Washington that are equipped with detectors, and for cyclists who download the app and have it running on their phones when they approach those intersections.

This post has been edited to reflect that maximum lot coverage rules will remain the same under all accessory dwelling unit options; the change is to maximum rear yard coverage, which would increase to 60 percent for new detached accessory dwelling units.

This post has been updated (March 25, 2019) to reflect the fact that Ari Hoffman submitted a claim to the city for $230,000 in “homeless-related damages”; he did not, as KIRO Radio originally reported at the link provided in this article, which has since been altered, sue the city.)

Looking for Common Ground Between Anti-Tax and Pro-Housing Advocates

During the overheated debate about the head tax—a tax on high-grossing businesses that would have funded housing and services for Seattle’s homeless population—it was easy to see the overlap between neighborhood groups that opposed the head tax and neighborhood groups that oppose zoning changes on the grounds that density will ruin the “character” of their exclusive single-family neighborhoods. Anxiety about visible homelessness and anxiety about visible renters often takes a similar tone: Spending on homelessness will encourage more of “those” people to come to Seattle, and allowing triplexes or apartment buildings in single-family areas will allow more of “those” people to live in “our” neighborhood. As SEIU 775 president David Rolf told the Seattle Times , the companies that funded the head tax repeal campaign “targeted conservative voters, residents who miss old Seattle and people upset over street camping, among others. ‘They figured out how to knit those groups together[.]'”

At the same time, I noticed a surprising counter-trend among some head tax opponents: While they expressed many of the same reasons as traditional neighborhood activists for opposing the tax (bad for business, the city needs to show progress before we give it more money, and so forth), they also argued that the city should open up its restrictive zoning codes to allow more housing in all parts of the city—an idea that’s anathema to most traditional neighborhood groups. (The first time I heard this argument, as it happened, was during an over-the-top vitriolic town hall meeting in Ballard, from a guy who kept screaming directly in my ear, “NO HEAD TAX! CHANGE THE ZONING!”) This is an argument you hear all the time from urbanists and YIMBYs—who, generally speaking, support policies that encourage more housing at every income level—but I’d never heard it coming to someone who opposed a tax that would have paid for housing. I wondered: Could this be a rare area of common ground between anti-tax and pro-housing advocates?

So I put a call out on Twitter, asking people to contact me if they opposed the head tax and supported reducing restrictions on where housing could be built in Seattle. Quite a few people got back to me, and I had a number of interesting offline conversations from people who didn’t want to be quoted, but who gave me some hope that even in the absence of new revenues to address our current crisis (revenues, I should add, that I still think are desperately needed), progress is still possible.  This isn’t data—the people who responded, all men, represent a tiny, self-selected slice of the larger group of Seattle residents who oppose the head tax and support density—but it is an interesting look at why at least some people who opposed this specific tax are open to other solutions, and why increased density might be an area where people on both sides of the head tax issue can agree.

“Deliberately Divisive”

Mark (not his real name) is a thirtysomething tech worker and longtime Seattle resident who lives on Capitol Hill. He considers himself socially liberal and fiscally conservative—the kind of person who votes for taxes if he thinks they will make an actual, measurable dent in solving the problem they’re supposed to solve. Mark says he opposed the head tax because the spending plan for the tax failed to identify how it would address different homeless populations with different needs (people in active addiction or with debilitating mental illness will need different approaches than, say, someone who has just lost their job and is living in their car); because the city isn’t acknowledging or addressing the problems created by tent encampments; and because he doesn’t trust the city council, particularly Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant, to spend the money well.

“In my time as a Seattleite, I’ve never seen council members as deliberately divisive as those two, and they’ve fractured the council into a group of individuals who can’t actually accomplish anything. I miss folks like Tim Burgess and Nick Licata (and on the KCC side, Dow Constantine). I often disagreed with their opinions, but they were truly interested in talking with everyone and doing what was best for the city,” Mark says. He believes that O’Brien and Sawant “would rather fund an  ineffective solution than release information that reveals it’s ineffective, and continue to willfully ignore encampments as long as homelessness or even affordable housing hasn’t been solved.”

Mark says he would “love to see …  a significant city-wide upzone.” He believes 2015’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which recommended upzoning a tiny sliver of Seattle’s single-family areas, is “laughably inadequate” and that the “grand bargain,” in which developers agreed to pay into an affordable housing fund (or build affordable housing on site) in exchange for higher density, has failed. “The HALA Committee proposal left too much of the city untouched, and what was passed was a notch above nothing.” While it’s reasonable to debate the maximum height of buildings in different areas, he says, “What isn’t reasonable is the city acting like it’s still 1995 (and yes, I lived here then), nor using its own policies to protect certain groups at the expense of others. Just like it would be insane for the city to say ‘You can’t build a single family house here,’ it’s insane to say ‘You can’t build a multifamily building here.'”

“At some level, we need to acknowledge that not everyone who wants to live in Seattle is going to be able to afford it, let alone be able to afford a place they want to live in. I’d love for that threshold to be as low as we can practically make it; IMO, re-zoning is the single biggest impact we can make on that, followed by allowing smaller units (pods), and incredibly, both of those are free to do.”

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“There Is No Plan”

Neil, who owns a duplex and four-unit apartment building on Beacon Hill (and lives, with his wife, in one of the apartments), has worn a lot of hats in his life: Business owner, CPA, landlord—he even ran a “distressed fishing lodge” in Alaska for a number of years. An independent who mostly votes for Democrats, he says he has supported most of Seattle’s recurring tax levies, but voted against the most recent Sound Transit ballot measure “because of my frustration with recent governance in Seattle, and [because] the $50 billion price tag was too big to decipher.”

Neil says the main reason he opposed the head tax was because it was “too small,” because it applied only to a narrow group of businesses (those with gross receipts above $20 million a year), and because he did not have confidence that the city council and the progressive revenue task force that recommended the tax were starting with the right goals or had the right expertise for the job. “The annual tax raised by the original [head tax] proposal [during last year’s budget discussions] was $24 million, then it was $75 million but really needed to be $150 million but they settled with $47 million.  My observation: The council concentrates more on how much money they can generate rather than what is needed and how it will be used.  Whether real or perceived, it feeds the narrative of ‘there is no plan,'” he says. Additionally, he says, council members and advocates who campaigned for the head tax by vilifying Amazon were being “cynical and destructive to the well being of Seattle. … Good policy should stand on its own, at least in principle.”

Neil, unlike Mark, doesn’t support major citywide upzones; he thinks that allowing more attached and detached accessory dwelling units (backyard and basement apartments) in single-family areas, and implementing the HALA recommendations throughout the city, will do a lot to address the current housing shortage. “Personally, I am fine living in and amongst apartments,” he says.  “But my situation is unique and we are not surrounded by five-story buildings.  ADU[s and] DADU[s] seem to be low-impact personal housing alternatives. [They] also promote investment and vitality at a neighborhood level.”

“We Need WAY More Density”

Jeff, a software engineer who has lived in Seattle twice, for a total of about 15 years, owns a house in the Green Lake/Roosevelt area, on a block where two single-family homes are being torn down and replaced with larger single-family houses. He says that although he has consistently voted to raise taxes for housing, education, and transportation, he opposed the head tax because he “disliked the ‘stick it to the rich’ sentiments behind” it, and believes it punishes high-grossing, low-margin businesses, like grocery stores and restaurants. (Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s hamburger chain Dick Spady, made this argument in his PR campaign against the tax, for which his consulting firm was  paid at least $20,000).

Jeff believes that, had the head tax passed, companies might choose to locate in the suburbs, rather than in the city proper, working “against the trend towards a higher density city, which is the direction I think we should be moving in. ”

“I think we need WAY more density,” Jeff says. “Traffic sucks, but high density should make transit more viable and also means there are enough people within walking distances to support local businesses without driving.” In particular, he says he would support removing “almost all” restrictions on basement and backyard apartments in single-family areas, allowing row houses and triplexes in those areas, getting rid of parking mandates for new developments, and reducing restrictions on efficiency apartments and rooming houses, which “traditionally have provided housing for low-income people.”

“For those currently on the street, even building complexes of semi-permanent buildings with sanitary facilities and availability to drug treatment would be a step up,” Jeff says. “I don’t know the costs and also there are some that wouldn’t want to go there, but people setting up camp in the parks and on highway medians isn’t acceptable for them or for everyone else.” Locking people up when they refuse to go into shelter or treatment is too expensive, doesn’t work, and leads to a lifetime of misery, Jeff says. “We can offer people something pretty good for much less than the cost of prison.”

“Upzone Like Crazy”

Andrew is a longtime Seattle resident who lives in a townhouse in South Seattle and works in finance for a telecomm company in Factoria. He says he’s “definitely on the liberal end of the spectrum—he voted for Cary Moon in the primary and general elections last year—but he “tend[s[ not to support the kinds of solutions provided by Kshama Sawant or Nikkita Oliver that engage in class warfare at the expense of good, progressive policy.”

Andrew’s concern about the head tax stemmed from the fact that it “appeared largely to demonize Amazon despite its broad impact on large headcount businesses that don’t necessarily share Amazon’s profit structure. … It is not, generally speaking, the fault of business that the city has not absorbed its growing population or kept housing in check,” he says. Another problem with the head tax, he says, was that its spending plan would have gone all-in on building new housing (which can cost more than $300,000 a unit) instead of spending more on less-expensive solutions like services, diversion, treatment, and rent subsidies until housing supply can catch up with demand.

To that end, Andrew says, “the city needs to upzone like crazy. … I honestly see no reason why all of the single-family zones in the city shouldn’t be upzoned to” low-rise 2 or low-rise 3, which would allow townhouses and two- or three-story apartment buildings. “My townhome has earned as much money in appreciation as I have at my six-figure job in the two years we’ve lived here” thanks in no small part to Seattle’s housing shortage, he says. “This is ridiculous rent-seeking and I don’t need it, nor does any other homeowner who bought in the good old days”. I would rather see housing prices decline to 2010 levels in the city if it meant that everyone had a place to live.”

“In my ideal world, people would be prohibited from living on the street because we had ample shelter, services, care, and support to provide to them through official channels. Only then do we have the right to chase them from view.”

“A More Collaborative Process”

Ian, a city employee who lives in a four-bedroom house in North Seattle with his wife, two children, elderly in-laws, and a roommate, has always voted for every housing, education, and transportation levy, but says he has started considering such measures more carefully in recent years, given the rising cost of living in Seattle. He opposed the head tax because of its potential to cause what he calls “collateral damage”—impacts on companies other than Amazon and “Big Tech” firms that could have easily absorbed the cost of the $275-per-employee tax.

For example, Ian says, “I have a friend who’s a longtime Nucor employee; apparently his management told them point blank that if the tax had passed in its original ($500) form, the plant would close. That mill’s been here for over a century and is not part of the reason why housing and living costs have skyrocketed, so why ‘punish’ them and their employees? How many other businesses like that would meet a similar fate?” Ian says he was also concerned that grocery chains would have increased prices to offset the tax, which would have disproportionately impacted homeless and rent-burdened people. (This was a point hammered home by head tax opponents, who frequently argued that the cost of groceries would go up if the tax passed. Before the head tax was repealed, a phone survey asked Seattle residents whether they would be more or less likely to support the tax if they knew it would raise their grocery prices.)

Ian, like  Neil, believes the progressive revenue task force was the wrong approach; if the city wanted to come up with a tax that would enjoy wide support, he suggests, they should have created  “a more collaborative process, like what happened for the minimum wage increase. I thought it was weird that the Council didn’t pursue a similar strategy for the head tax, and cagey that the Council seemed to avoid talking about which specific business would actually be affected outside of the tech industry.” As I noted after Amazon and other big businesses launched their formal campaign to kill the head tax, former mayor Ed Murray took a much different approach to passing the $15 minimum wage, bringing reluctant businesses, labor groups, and activists to the table to hammer out a compromise everyone was willing to sign off on before rolling it out in a press conference that featured some of the same players who gave thousands of dollars to the anti-head tax campaign.

Ian supports “eliminating single family residential zoning in its current form” altogether, but adds, “I don’t think that the market will solve affordability by itself; having worked in private sector construction management, I know for a fact that it won’t. Developers primarily want to build more expensive housing for incoming tech workers and that’s not going to change any time soon. But zoning changes could still have a significant effect on availability and pricing.” This is the argument made by many urbanists, who point out that if developers can’t or don’t provide huge amounts of housing at the high end to accommodate the thousands of new workers who move to Seattle every year, they will be forced to compete for existing mid-range housing, driving up prices all the way down the line. And today’s high-end housing is tomorrow’s mid-range housing. Ian also supports “open[ing] up City-owned land for dedicated low-income housing development, to help more people on the edge keep from falling into homelessness.” A new law that just went into effect this month allows government agencies, including the city, to provide land to housing developers for free if it fulfills a public purpose; this could lead to more housing on public land, and will, in theory, create an incentive for the city to hang on to property it owns instead of selling it to the highest bidder for a one-time profit.

Supporters Outnumber Naysayers as Backyard Apartments Move Closer to Reality

A couple of weeks ago, I schlepped up to the Queen Anne public library to watch a presentation by Marty Kaplan, the architect and homeowner who sued the city to stall a proposal that will make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages and basement apartments on their property. Kaplan’s lawsuit effectively forced the city to do a full environmental review, or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), on the policy—a review that concluded that not only do garage apartments not harm the environment, they provide significant benefits, such as reducing the number of single-family homes that are torn down and redeveloped as McMansions and improving equity in neighborhoods that were originally designed to keep poor people of color out.

The “full build-out” scenario, included in the EIS for illustrative purposes only, shows massive single-family houses on every lot, an outcome that is already allowed under current rules.

Kaplan’s presentation, delivered to several dozen members of the Queen Anne and Magnolia Community Councils, was ostensibly about the results of that review, but anyone who actually read or even skimmed the 364-page document would be understandably confused by his interpretation of the report. The city’s preferred alternative, Kaplan claimed, would lead to the development of “three houses on every lot,” with “12 [unrelated] people on every lot. … If you’ve got a big family, 20 people could live there, I guess.” And without rules requiring homeowners to provide parking for all those new tenants, Kaplan continued, “if there’s 12 people living on site and ten of them own cars, then they’re going to park them in the neighborhood,” contributing to an already untenable parking situation in neighborhoods like Queen Anne. (As he said this, I thought of the four parking spots directly in front of the library that I had walked past on my way into the meeting.) In the background, as Kaplan spoke, was a slide of the city’s theoretical “full build-out” scenario (above), which Kaplan characterized as what the city hopes will happen within the next few years. Moreover, Kaplan said, backyard units would never be affordable to regular people: “It’s proved that in order to build a unit, you’re going to spend $300,000,” he said. “You’re not going to rent that out for $80 a month.” (Fact checks on all of those claims below.)

The preferred alternative, Alternative 2 in the EIS, shows the actual anticipated development pattern after 10 years under the new rules.

It was refreshing, then, to go to a well-attended public meeting at city hall a few days later—a meeting that Kaplan had told his neighbors would be “basically Madison Avenue coming in and telling you what you should like”—and see that the proponents of the long-delayed proposal outnumbered the naysayers by a factor of about 15 to 1. (Maybe the housing opponents were put off when Kaplan told them it wouldn’t make any difference if they showed up?) Tech workers in their 20s talked about their desire to share the city with people who didn’t have the good fortune to work in industries that pay six-figure starting salaries; homeowners talked about wanting to build backyard apartments so that they could share the city with new neighbors; and environmental advocates talked about density as an important solution to the climate crisis. Several people said they hoped the city would go even further than the preferred alternative and allow three accessory units per property—two inside the main house, and one in the backyard.

But my favorite comment of the night came from Zach Shaner, a renter who lives on Beacon Hill. Shaner (whose name you may recognize because he used to write for Seattle Transit Blog) started off by noting that in the time the city has been working on the EIS, the cost of a median home in Seattle has risen from $591,000 to more than $725,000. “This political process is not morally neutral,” Shaner said. “While we’ve talked and studied and dithered, owning a home has gotten $131,000 harder. In the meantime, my family has given up on owning a home in Seattle.” Shaner and his wife would like to help their friends build an extra unit on their property, he continued, but the current rules make it illegal for them to do so. “I really dream of the day that we have painstaking processes to stop housing rather than to permit it, but in the meantime this is a small but substantive step in the right direction.”

Now for that fact check: In reality, the preferred alternative would increase the number of unrelated people who can live on a lot from the eight allowed under existing rules to 12, and would allow homeowners to build one backyard cottage and retrofit their basement into a living space. The maximum number of buildings on a single lot, in other words, would be two—and any new construction would still be subject to the same rules that limit the amount of lot coverage on single-family land today. The “full build-out” scenario, which Kaplan portrayed as the city’s desired outcome, is clearly captioned, “The Full Build-Out Scenario is included for illustrative purposes only and is not an expected outcome of any alternative analyzed in the EIS.” And it actually looks overbuilt not because of backyard cottages, which are the small red boxes in the image above, but because of all the enormous single-family houses that are technically legal now but have not been built because most homeowners would rather live in charming homes with backyards than cover their lots with eight-bedroom megamansions. The city’s parking study concluded that “each additional ADU would generate between 1 and 1.3 additional vehicles using on-street parking,” not 10. And although higher-cost garage apartments can certainly cost well over $300,000 to build,  many cost substantially less; and it would require a breathtaking ignorance of the current rental market to actually believe that you could rent so much as a bean bag in the corner of an unfinished basement in Seattle for $80 a month.

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