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.

Morning Crank: “As a Seattle Native”

If we allow backyard cottages, it could open the door to neighborhood character-destroying duplexes like this

1. The city’s hearing examiner heard final arguments late last month in the latest effort by Queen Anne activist Marty Kaplan to prevent homeowners from building mother-in-law units and backyard cottages (accessory dwelling units, or ADUs) on their property. (Kaplan has been filing legal challenges “as a Seattle native” since 2016, arguing that allowing two ADUs—e.g., a backyard cottage plus a basement apartment—will destroy the character of Seattle’s exclusive single-family neighborhoods and lead to rampant speculation by developers). The preferred alternative (there’s no actual legislation yet, since the proposal has been locked up in litigation) would also remove the existing parking mandate; establish restrictions on the size of new single-family houses in an effort to thwart McMansion-style developments; and lift the current owner-occupancy requirement in favor of a new rule requiring that a homeowner who has one ADU and wants to build a second must own the property for at least a year before beginning to build.

If the hearing examiner rules that the environmental review of the ADU proposal, sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien, was adequate, the council can move forward with actual legislation as early as next month. Their goal is to finalize and vote on the legislation no later than August.

But hold up. Mayor Jenny Durkan reportedly hopes to negotiate with the council to get some amendments to the legislation, starting with the owner-occupancy requirement. ADU opponents, including Kaplan, have argued that allowing up to two secondary units on a lot will open single-family neighborhoods up to “speculative development,” unless the city mandates that any homeowner who wants to build an ADU has to live on that property in perpetuity. The specter of developers descending greedily upon single-family property for the privilege of building a secondary unit (and then, after owning the property for a full year after that, building a third) might strike anyone familiar with Seattle’s existing real-estate market as absurd, but to spell it out: There’s no evidence of a speculative boom in backyard apartments in other cities, like Portland and Vancouver, where they’re easier to build; the scenario in which developers build backyard apartments, then sit on those properties for the year before building another unit, makes little financial sense; and fans of missing-middle housing for middle-class people who can no longer afford to buy anything in Seattle might consider a little development a good thing. Nonetheless, Durkan reportedly wants to put owner-occupancy requirements back on the table, and to reopen the discussion about parking requirements. Council sources say the parking idea in particular is probably a nonstarter.

The hearing examiner is expected to make his ruling by mid-May.

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2. The city’s Human Services Department found itself on the defensive in late February, after Mayor Durkan claimed in her state of the city speech that the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing.” As I first reported, that number was misleading at best—the city actually counted 7,400 exits from programs, a number that almost certainly overstates the number of actual people who have gotten out of homelessness because it counts every program as an exit (so that, for example, a household of two who stopped using five homelessness programs would count as five “exits.”)

At the time, HSD officials and the mayor’s office expressed frustration to reporters who asked questions about the discrepancy, insisting that they should have “known all along” that when the city said “households,” they really meant “exits from programs,” and that reporters should focus not on what the numbers specifically represent, but on the fact that they’re going up.  “No matter how you look at it, it’s getting better,” HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said. Nonetheless, several other reporters considered it newsworthy that the city did not know how many people it was actually helping, despite the city’s insistence that it was not a revelation.

Even as the city was telling reporters that they shouldn’t have been surprised that “households” does not mean “households,” internal communications between mayoral and HSD staffers, which I obtained through a records request, show that prior to the mayor’s press conference to discuss the numbers the Monday after my story ran, the city decided to remove all references to “households” in a talking-points memo bound for the mayor’s desk.

The shift was fairly abrupt. On Thursday, February 21, for example, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding wrote in an internal email that one of the department’s top speaking points was “30% More Households Exit (Maintain) to Permanent Housing.” One day later, and several hours after my initial story on the “households” vs. “exits” discrepancy, the mayor’s homelessness advisor, Tess Colby, emailed the mayor’s office and HSD staff to say that she had “revised the memo to Mayor to replace ‘HHs’ with ‘exits’ solely in the interest of precision.”

In all, 12 references to “households” were removed from the memo. For example, the top bullet point, which referred to “the 7,400-goal … for exiting households from the system and maintaining permanent supportive housing clients” was changed to “exits from the system and maintaining permanent supportive housing clients.” A sentence that originally read, “In 2018 431 Native American/Alaska Native households exited  homeless services programs …and 2,979 Black/African Americans households exited homeless services programs” was changed to read, “In 2018 there were 431 exits among Native Americans/Alaska Natives from homeless services programs …  and exits of Black/African Americans increased to 2,979.” And a reference to enhanced shelters “exiting nearly twice as many households” in 2018 than the previous year was changed to say, “Exits to permanent housing increased nearly two-fold.”

These changes may seem minor, but they (and their timing) are significant. The mayor’s office got called out for overstating its success in responding to homelessness. Publicly, they went on the defensive, telling reporters they were making a big deal out of nothing. Privately, though, the mayor’s office appeared to realize the confusion was warranted.

3. Speak Out Seattle, a group that fought against the head tax for homelessness, opposes tiny house villages and encampments, and backed an initiative to ban safe consumption sites,  held a forum for District 2 council candidates Thursday night, although only four of the seven declared candidates decided to attend. (Two, Tammy Morales and Christopher Peguero, had previously stated their intent to boycott the forum). The remaining candidates were bounce-house rental company owner Ari Hoffman, Socialist Workers Party Henry Dennison, Seattle Police Department crime prevention coordinator Mark Solomon, and Rainier Valley community organizer Phyllis Porter.

I live-tweeted the event, which was attended by an incongruously white audience given that D2 is the least-white district in the city. I’ve included a few key moments below, and collected all my tweets in a Twitter moment here.

Morning Crank: “We Have Zoned Our City Backwards”

“I’m not calling anyone a racist. I am calling out the reality that we are living in a city that has a history of …  housing laws designed to keep certain people out of certain areas of the city, and as a policy maker, it is my duty to undo this history.”

After nearly five years of public hearings, open houses, legal challenges, amendments, and debate, the city council adopted the “citywide” Mandatory Housing Affordability plan on Monday by a 9-0 vote. The legislation (which does not actually apply citywide) will allow developers to build more housing in parts of the city where density is already allowed, and will allow additional housing, ranging from a second house to small apartment buildings, on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.

In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay a fee to build housing affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle median income. The amount developers will pay to build will be higher in areas where the city has determined the risk of displacement is high and access to opportunities is low, and lower in areas with low displacement risk and high access to opportunity. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago

The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes.

Public comment on Monday was dominated, as usual, by homeowners who argued that the proposed changes will “destroy” neighborhoods, rob property owners of their views, and—a perennial favorite—”ghettoize” places like Rainier Beach by forcing low-income people of color to live there.

The specter of “ghettos” was both explicit—two white speakers mentioned “ghettos” or “ghettoization” in their comments—and implicit, in comments from several white homeowners who expressed concern that their (unnamed, absent) friends and family of color would be displaced from their current neighborhoods. “I want to provide affordable housing to my children and grandchildren, who are of all colors, but I want to protect her [Seattle’s] natural beauty,” one speaker said, after inveighing against the potential loss of views from North Capitol Hill. Another speaker (also white) invoked her “many… friends and family of color [who] have been displaced from the Central District and particularly from Columbia City… to the Rainier Beach area, and now it s up for upzoning.” Where, she wondered, would these anonymous friends and family be forced to move next?

Support The C Is for Crank
If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

After listening to more than an hour of such comments—including one white speaker who claimed that “upzoning is the new redlining”—the council’s women of color were eager to correct the record. Lorena González, whose own Mexican-American family would have been excluded from much of the city under both the formal racial covenants that ended in the 1940s and the unofficial redlining that replaced them, noted first that “this legislation is not even close to citywide—there are approximately 127 neighborhoods in the city, and this legislation only relates to 27 of them.” The remaining 100 neighborhoods, she said, are still “currently and strictly zoned exclusively single-family.”

She continued: “I’m not calling anyone a racist. I am, however, calling out the reality that we are living in a city that has a history of implementing and preserving housing laws designed to keep certain people out of certain areas of the city, and as a policy maker, it is my duty to undo this history and to support legislation to begin the process of dismantling… laws that are intended to exclude people who look like me from owning or living in a single-family home.”

Teresa Mosqueda added more historical context. “What we have done over the last few decades is we have zoned our city backwards,” she said, referring to the fact that as recently as the middle of the last century, multifamily housing was allowed on much of the land Seattle now preserves for exclusive single-family use. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes. That is the next conversation we need to have.”

“The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.” – Council member Rob Johnson

Today’s vote served as a bit of a swan song for council member Rob Johnson, who is widely expected to step down after the end of April to start his new job as a transportation advisor to Seattle NHL. Johnson, who spent much of his single term shepherding the legislation, sounded a bit wistful as he closed out debate and called for a vote. After thanking city staffers, other council members, and his wife Katie, Johnson  noted the signs all over Seattle that oppose “build the wall” rhetoric. “Well, zoning is building a metaphorical wall around our city.” By adopting MHA, he said, “We’re starting the process of dismantling walls around our neighborhoods that have given exclusive groups sole access to the resource-rich communities around our city. … The only way to create universal access to housing is by building a housing-rich city.”

The battle over MHA is not over, of course. SCALE, the group that spent much of the last year and a half appealing the plan in front of the city’s hearing examiner, said in a statement Monday that they were “considering appealing the inadequately considered impacts of the MHA legislation to the [state] Growth Management Hearings Board.”

2. González and Mosqueda weren’t the only ones feeling salty before Monday’s big vote. Sally Bagshaw, who is also leaving the council after this year, took the opportunity to correct an op/ed by Queen Anne homeowner and anti-density activist Marty Kaplan that ran in this Sunday’s Seattle Times. Kaplan has spent much of the last several years appealing a city proposal that would allow homeowners to add up to two accessory dwelling units (one attached, one in the backyard) to their properties. The Times ran Kaplan’s factually challenged rant alongside a pro-MHA piece by Johnson, suggesting that an elected city council member and a neighborhood activist who spends his time fighting people’s right to build garage apartments are on roughly the same level.

“Here’s what makes me grumpy,” Bagshaw began. “There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make  something so.” Kaplan’s piece, Bagshaw continued, said that the city was “railroading” neighborhoods and would “eliminate all single-family zoning,” and “nothing could be further from the truth. We are going to be retaining 94 percent of the single-family zones,” Bagshaw said.

“Here’s what makes me grumpy. There have been so many things that have been said on the con side of this that I just think have gotten in our way, and repeating untruths over and over against simply doesn’t make  something so.” – Council member Sally Bagshaw

Bagshaw didn’t get around to demolishing all of the false and absurd claims in Kaplan’s editorial one by one, so I’ll add a couple more. Kaplan claims in his piece that allowing homeowners to build backyard or mother-in-law apartments on their own property will “eliminate single-family housing regulations citywide, erasing 150 years of our history.” Single-family zoning didn’t even exist 100 years ago, much less in 1869, 15 years after the Denny Party landed at Alki. Moreover, allowing people to retrofit their basements to produce rental income or add an apartment for an aging relative does not constitute a “threat to single-family neighborhoods”; rather, it’s a way for homeowners to stay in the neighborhoods where they live, and provide new people with access to those neighborhoods—a rare commodity in a city where the typical single-family house costs more than three-quarters of a million dollars. Kaplan even  suggested that “lame-duck politicians, who know they can’t get reelected” (four of the nine council members who voted for MHA are not running again) should not be “allowed” to vote on zoning policy, as if only universally popular politicians who plan to keep their seats forever should be allowed to vote in a democracy.

Kaplan isn’t done with his own fight against density. In an email to supporters last week, he vowed to continue appealing the environmental impact statement on the accessory dwelling unit proposal. Unlike some of Monday’s public commenters, Kaplan didn’t couch his opposition to density in concern for low-income homeowners or renters at risk for displacement. Instead, he was straightforward (not for the first time) about whose interests he cared about (emphasis mine): “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners,” Kaplan wrote. “Representing every Seattle neighborhood, our team of volunteers, professional consultants, and attorneys continue to advance our appeal to prove that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is deficient and inadequate in studying and transparently revealing the true impacts to every Seattle property owner.

3. Right at the beginning of yesterday’s meeting, council members voted to move the nomination of interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson as permanent director out of Kshama Sawant’s human services committee and into the select committee on homelessness and housing, which is chaired by Bagshaw and includes the entire city council. Sawant has opposed Johnson’s nomination, arguing that Mayor Jenny Durkan did not institute a “transparent and inclusive process” for choosing an HSD director, and has held multiple hearings to give Johnson’s opponents opportunities to denounce him publicly. On Monday, she cited the results of a survey of HSD employees that revealed widespread dissatisfaction with management, particularly among workers in the Homeless Strategy and Investments division. Sawant said the council was “stabbing [communities] in the back” with the “shameful” decision to move the appointment out of her committee. Bagshaw’s proposal passed 7-2, with Mike O’Brien joining Sawant in opposition to the move.