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.

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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Controversial Head Tax Passes After Weeks of Bruising Debate

After a weekend of negotiations between city council members and Mayor Jenny Durkan (and, according to council president Bruce Harrell, “conversations with Amazon, big business, small business, [and] homeless advocates”) the city council unanimously approved a new version of the controversial employee hours tax today, imposing a $275-per-employee tax on about 585 businesses with gross receipts of more than $20 million a year.  The $275 figure was a  “compromise” between the $500 tax passed out of committee last week by a slim majority of council members and the $250 tax proposed by Harrell and Durkan, which emphasized short-term shelter and garbage cleanup over permanent housing, and would have built just 250 new units of housing over five years. Durkan had threatened to veto the larger tax proposal, and as several council members noted on the dais this afternoon, the council majority was unable to convince one of their colleagues (such as council member Rob Johnson) to switch sides and give them a veto-proof majority. The $500 head tax proposal was the result of months of work by the city’s progressive revenue task force, which was appointed after a last year’s budget process and charged with coming up with a proposal to tax businesses to pay for homeless services and affordable housing. (Johnson, who was seen as a potential swing vote, cited the need for a process like the one the task force went through in voting against an early head tax proposal last year.) The task force issued their report in March.

The tax, which sunsets after five years (and which will no longer be replaced, as in previous versions of the legislation, with a business payroll tax), would raise about $47 million a year for new housing, rental subsidies, and supportive services. According to the spending plan the council also adopted this afternoon, that would be enough to build about 591 units of housing—288 for low-income people making between 30 and 60 percent of Seattle’s area median income and 303 permanent supportive housing units for formerly homeless people making between 0 and 30 percent of median. (The full spending plan is available here.) The plan also includes rental subsidies to get homeless people into “immediate housing,” funding for a total of about 250 new shelter beds and authorized encampments, more parking lots for people living in their cars, and sanitation facilities. The adopted spending plan, which allocates about two-thirds of the head tax revenues to housing, reverses the priorities in the spending plan proposed last week by Mayor Jenny Durkan and council president Bruce Harrell, which would have spent 70 percent of the revenues from the head tax in years 1 and 2 (and 60 percent in years 3 through 5) on short-term emergency shelter, garbage cleanup, and a new Navigation Team to coordinate the removal of unauthorized encampments and the people in them.

Prior to their vote for the tax, several council members expressed regret that they failed to come up with a compromise that could convince at least one of their colleagues to join them in a veto-proof majority in favor of a larger tax, such as the $350 compromise council member Lisa Herbold floated Friday. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, who was one of the co-chairs, along with Herbold, on the progressive revenue task force, said, “While I’m excited that we will be taking this vote… to reestablish a head tax… it’s regrettable that we were unable to find a path amongst our colleagues and with the mayor that they would be willing to support a higher taxation rate than $275.” Council member Mike O’Brien, who recently weathered hours of verbal abuse at an out-of-control forum on the head tax in Ballard, sounded grim as he conceded, “I’m settling for this level of service.”

Business leaders continued to grumble about the tax. The Downtown Seattle Association issued a statement decrying the tax as “bad economic policy [that] will negatively impact Seattle’s economy and city tax revenues,” and Amazon said in a statement that the “tax on jobs” makes the company “very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here.”

The next battle for homeless advocates at city hall will be over the spending plan for the tax—a component of the plan that is in many ways more critical than the amount of money the tax produces. Durkan’s proposed spending plan, with its emphasis on emergency shelter, encampment removals, and tiny houses, would have largely backfilled spending on programs for which funding is about to run out (the plan contained a $15 million-$16 million annual line item to “continu[e] programs which had one-time funding in the 2018 budget, or insufficient funding, plus unspecified “new emergency, temporary, and enhanced shelters, navigation centers… and/or service and safe parking for vehicular living”), reducing the impact of the new revenues to whatever is left over once all the programs that are running out of money are funded. Although the council adopted the spending plan, that vote was narrow (5-4, along the same lines as Friday’s vote) and the actual implementation plan will have to be proposed by Durkan and adopted by the council as part of this year’s budget process.

Before the vote, council member Teresa Mosqueda said the new revenues from the head tax “are supposed to be in addition to” existing spending, not a replacement for it. Asked specifically about this concern at a press conference after the vote, Durkan pivoted to talking about the need to examine the council’s proposed spending plan itself, which she said would fund “a number of programs, such as shelter and supportive housing,” for which long-term funding is not secure. She did not answer the question about whether she would push for a spending plan that used new dollars to pay for existing funding commitments.

The insistence on funding existing shelter beds, from some of the four-member council minority as well as Mayor Durkan, is somewhat ironic. After all, it was the city council itself (with then-mayor Tim Burgess’ support) who adopted a spending plan for homeless service providers last year that eliminated funding for many basic shelters, on the grounds that they failed to demonstrate that they could move their clients into permanent housing quickly. The new standards for shelter providers, for example, withhold funding if those shelters fail to move 40 percent of their clients into housing within three months, a standard that few emergency shelters can meet, particularly those serving the clients who are hardest to house.

The emphasis in the Durkan/Harrell plan on funding shelters rather than housing also flies in the face of what virtually every expert, from the city’s homelessness consultant Barb Poppe to the city’s Human Services Department to a Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce-commissioned report to former All Home King County director Mark Putnam, which is that a solution to homelessness requires getting people into housing, not tents and “tiny houses” (which Putnam recently referred to as “glorified garden sheds.”) Asked why she supported a split that favored spending on shelters over housing, Durkan responded, “because I think the people of Seattle think that we’ve got to make a difference in homelessness tomorrow. We need to get  people off the streets and get them a safe place to live. None of this housing will come online for years.”

Mosqueda told me before the vote that she was “not interested” in a spending plan that funds temporary shelter “that evicts people in five years and fails to build the housing we need.” The problem in Seattle, Mosqueda argued, is not so much lack of mats on the floor as a lack of affordable housing, and providing more temporary shelter beds is only a “Band-Aid” that fails to address the larger affordability problem at the root of Seattle’s inability to move people from shelter to housing. In a memo released earlier today, Mosqueda staffer Michael Maddux wrote that in the Durkan/Harrell plan, “There does not seem to be increased capacity in funding to support short-term enhanced shelter, and with the draconian cuts to the housing component, no plan appears in place to provide permanent housing for people moved into the few new beds created (about 1,000) by the Mayor’s plan.”

One thing everyone on both sides agreed on is that homelessness is a regional, not a Seattle-only, problem. “Seattle can’t go it alone,” Durkan said during her press conference. “This is a regional crisis that demands a regional response.” That quote might have been lifted verbatim from any other number of press conferences by any number of Seattle officials, past or present. Seattle officials routinely implore “the region,” usually meaning King County, to step up and pay their fair share to address every challenging problem, whether it’s inadequate transit or inadequate funds for housing.  Whether that additional funding will materialize is uncertain. Durkan announced this morning that the state has come up with an additional $40 million for behavioral health services in 2018, and $18 million to $20 million a year after that, and that King County has said it will provide the city with $5.7 million to expand shelter and “safe alternatives for people living outdoors” in 2018. Little is currently known about what strings are attached to this funding or how it can be spent.

Beyond the $5.7 million announced this morning, the county has been parsimonious with its funding to address the crisis. (It did adopt a resolution today declaring May 14-20 “Affordable Housing Week” in King County,  “all county residents” are encouraged “to embrace affordable housing opportunities in their communities.”) Last week, King County Executive Dow Constantine suggested last week that the city needs to slow down and work on a regional approach through the massive “One Table” task force, which began meeting back in January. One Table was supposed to have finished up its meetings and announced its recommendations for a regional approach to addressing homelessness by now; instead, they have canceled their past two meetings and have been very quiet since April. One Table may ultimately come back with a recommendation for a countywide levy, or a sales tax to pay for housing and services (two of the only options available to local governments in Washington State), or it may not. Either way, Seattle is moving forward with what is at least an attempt to address the crisis of homelessness within its borders. Whether the scaled-back proposal adopted today makes a perceptible, measurable dent in homelessness, or whether it merely provides more fodder for anti-tax activists who insist that the city is wasting its money because the problem isn’t getting any better, will be clear soon enough.

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Morning Crank: A Proposal to Bar Renters from Parking on City Streets

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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 (and much more). Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

1. This morning at 9:30, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning (PLUZ) committee will hold a public hearing on a proposal that would reform parking requirements to allow more housing to be built without parking in dense, transit-rich neighborhoods. The parking update would also require developers who do build parking to charge separately for rent and parking, so that people who don’t own cars wouldn’t have to pay for parking spaces they don’t use. (A 2012 study of 95 Seattle apartment buildings Seattle concluded that about 35 percent of parking spaces sit vacant at night, meaning that developers are building more parking than they need. On-site parking, according to a 2013 report from the Sightline Institute, inflates the cost of rent by around 15 percent. Essentially, many renters are paying for an extra 200 square feet of housing for cars they don’t have.)

The legislation would also change the definition of “frequent transit service” to an average frequency taken by measuring actual arrival times over an hour and ten minutes, a change that would effectively expand the areas where new apartments can be built without parking. Currently, the city allows developers to construct buildings without parking if they’re located within a quarter mile of frequent transit service, defined as service that arrives every 15 minutes or less. The problem is that if this rule is interpreted in the most literal possible way—by standing at the bus stop and measuring when each bus arrives—even one late bus per hour can disqualify a whole neighborhood. Since this is obviously ridiculous, the new rules propose to redefine “frequency” by measuring average arrivals over an hour and ten minutes; if buses arrive every 15 minutes, on average, then the service counts as frequent.

Despite the fact that the city has a longstanding official goal of reducing car ownership and solo car trips in the city,  the idea of allowing—not requiring, but allowing—new apartments that don’t come with “free” parking on site remains intensely controversial. (About half of all apartments in Seattle include parking in the cost of rent, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections). Council member Lisa Herbold, who recently questioned the city’s conclusion that much of the new parking that’s being built goes unused, wrote a blog post last Friday arguing that despite the fact that many renters don’t own cars (about 40 percent of those who live in the quarter of Seattle’s Census tracts with the largest percentage of renters), plenty of residents in other parts of town still have cars, and shouldn’t have to fight for on-street parking with tenants in apartment buildings that lack garages. Specifically, Herbold said she still has “concerns” about changing the definition of frequent transit service to a more flexible standard that acknowledges factors like traffic. “I still have to analyze the impacts of the proposed changes, but my fundamental concern is still that I question whether the case has been made to demonstrate a correlation between transit ridership and a reduction in car ownership, and therefore not needing a place to park a vehicle,” Herbold wrote.

Herbold’s blog post includes several maps that do, in fact, indicate that some areas in Herbold’s district—where, she notes pointedly, 82 percent of people own cars—will newly qualify as having “frequent transit service” under the new rules. This, she suggests, could indicate that the council is being too hasty in expanding the areas of the city where developers can build without parking based on access to frequent bus service. However, what Herbold doesn’t note is that most of the areas where the definition of “frequent” service will be expanded are inside urban villages or future urban villages, where developers can already build without parking, and where the percentage of renters is already high—in her own district, for example, the neighborhoods where transit will be considered “frequent” under the new rule include Highland Park and South Park, where, according to Herbold’s maps, between 50 and 68 percent of residents rent, and where far fewer households (37 percent and 29 percent of renters and homeowners, respectively), don’t own cars.

2. Anti-development activist Chris Leman circulated an email last week urging recipients to testify or write letters condemning the proposed new “frequent transit” definition. “On-street parking is no frill or luxury,” Leman writes. “It’s central to neighborhood safety and livability; to business success; and to mobility for children, seniors, the disabled, everyone.” (The entire concept behind Safe Routes to School, by the way, is that kids should be able to get to school safely without being driven there in a car). “Without on-street parking,” the email continues, “our residents could not go about their lives, and our restaurants and other small businesses would suffer or fail.” It goes on to suggest several policy “solutions,” including new rules barring renters from parking on city streets once they get above 85 percent capacity.

This, then, is the logical conclusion of some property owners’ (incorrect) belief that they have a “right” to park in front of their house: A two-tiered system in which only property owners have the right to access public spaces. I’m sure it won’t be long before we hear this argument applied to other public spaces, such as parks and libraries, too: If we’re willing to ban people without assets from using public streets, why wouldn’t we be willing to ban them from using other public assets? A truly fair system, of course, would be one in which everyone pays equally for parking (instead of getting subsidized parking on the street in front of their house for free), but I won’t hold my breath waiting for anti-development activists to advocate for that one.

3. After holding a typically boisterous committee hearing to protest cuts to hygiene centers and to shelters run by SHARE/WHEEL (I called it a “rally,” she called it a “town hall”), council member Kshama Sawant got her wish: The council restored $1 million in funding for SHARE/WHEEL and Urban Rest Stops, ensuring that they will be funded for another year. (The money was restored as part of legislation approving the sale of city-owned land in South Lake Union, which I’ve covered in more detail here and here.) According to a Human Services Department document explaining why the group didn’t receive funding, SHARE and WHEEL’s shelter proposals cost too much per bed and did not address racial equity goals; SHARE’s application, in particular, was “the lowest scoring application among shelters serving single adults, and had poor performance data; lack of specific examples; lack of specificity about actions/policies in cultural competency; high barriers to entry; more focus on chemical dependency compliance than on housing; concerns about fiscal capacity.” (The Seattle Times covered some of the controversies surrounding SHARE back in 2013).

Oh, and if you’re wondering how the council came up with that $1 million: They found the money lying around in last year’s real estate excise tax (REET) revenues, which, according to the city’s calculations, came in $1 million higher than originally estimated.  That allowed them to reallocate $1 million that was supposed to go to a new fire facility to the programs that were cut last year.  All this new funding comes from one-time expenditures, meaning that the city will have to find long-term funding sources in future years if they want to keep them going—a proposition that, like everything else that relies on tax dollars, is easier to do in boom times than in bad.

4. Mayor Jenny Durkan hit many of the themes she’s been talking about during her first three months in office in her first State of the City speech yesterday at Rainier Beach High School (which also happened to be the first State of the City speech by a female mayor in Seattle’s history.) The speech, which I livetweeted from the auditorium, was generally sunny and full of promises, like free college for every Seattle high school graduate and free ORCA transit passes for every high school student —typical in years when the economy is booming. Durkan also touched on the homelessness crisis, the possibility of an NHL franchise (put deposits down for your season tickets starting March 1, she said), and her campaign promise to pass a domestic workers’ bill of rights. And she alluded briefly to the fact that the economy can’t stay on an upswing forever—an unusual admission in such a speech, although one that was somewhat contradicted by her promises to put more money into education, homeless shelters, and transportation. And, as I noted on Twitter,  Durkan also said she supported building new middle- and low-income housing across the city: “We need to speed up permitting, add density, and expand our housing options in every part of this city,” she said. But that, too, was somewhat undercut by a comment later in Durkan’s speech, when she said—citing a sentiment that has become conventional wisdom, fairly or not—that “growth” itself “has made it hard for the middle class” to get by.

 

Morning Crank: Parking Reform, Density Delay Tactics, Election Funding, and More

A look back at some of the meetings I didn’t get around to covering last week:

1. Last week, as the city council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning committee began to discuss legislation that would overhaul parking requirements for new development around the city, council member Lisa Herbold argued that the city should do a more extensive study of parking demand before adopting parking reforms that could result in developments with less parking per unit. A 2012 King County survey of 95 existing buildings Seattle concluded that about 35 percent of parking spaces sit vacant at night, but Herbold wondered why the city hadn’t done a more recent survey, in the years since the council eliminated parking minimums in the densest urban areas. “If we’re going to be changing policies based on our perception of our success. I think it ‘s just helpful to have data about unused parking in buildings where we’ve been doing this for a while,” Herbold said. A council staffer countered that doing so would require the city to seek permission from landlords to get inside their garages in the middle of the night, and suggested that the data probably wouldn’t be much different than it was five years ago. According to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), the average apartment has 0.72 parking spaces, and the average demand for parking ranges from 0.3 to 0.8 parking spaces per unit.

Herbold also questioned the city’s conclusion that between 40 and 48 percent of Seattle renters do not own cars, citing a statistic showing that 77 percent of people living in multifamily units own cars, until a city staffer pointed out that that data was regionwide. And, in a letter to SDCI director Nathan Torgelson that was included in last week’s committee materials, she questioned whether rents would actually go down if parking was “unbundled” from rent, meaning that renters without cars could not be forced to pay for parking spaces they will never use, and suggested that “most parking is unbundled,” a conclusion Torgelson said wasn’t accurate. “[D]ata from 2017 indicate that in the region about 50% of apartment buildings… have parking bundled into the costs of rents,” Torgelson wrote—a number that is higher in the southern half of the city, an area that  includes Herbold’s West Seattle district.

The legislation would also change the definition of “frequent transit service” (one measure that determines where apartments may be built without parking) to an average frequency taken by measuring actual arrival times over an hour and ten minutes. Currently, if a bus is supposed to arrive every 15 minutes but it arrives one minute late once an hour, it doesn’t count as “frequent” enough to reduce or eliminate parking requirements; the new measure would average actual arrivals over time, to account for the fact that buses, like cars, sometimes get stuck in traffic.

The PLUZ committee will hold a public hearing on the parking reform proposals on February 21.

2. Reducing parking requirements for new buildings is one key element of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, a plan to add housing, including affordable housing, across the city. Another cornerstone of HALA is a new requirement called Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers of multifamily housing to include units affordable for people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle-area median income, or to pay into a fund to build affordable units elsewhere. A group calling itself SCALE (the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity) has sued to force the city into a longer, more drawn-out environmental review process to assess the impact of MHA, and a representative from the group, longtime Lake City neighborhood activist Sarajane Siegfriedt, gave a progress report to the Phinney Ridge Community Council last Tuesday.

Never has a room full of white North Seattle homeowners (most of them over 50, which I point out not to be ageist but as a sign of who generally has time to get super involved in neighborhood activism) acted so concerned about the fate of “large immigrant and refugee families” who would, Siegfriedt said, soon be unable to find houses for rent in Beacon Hill, Othello, and Rainier Beach if MHA went forward. “These are the only places where large immigrant families can rent,” Siegfriedt said, “so when we start talking about people living in single-family homes being exclusionary, well, that’s not true on the face of it. In fact, it’s a refuge.”

SCALE’s big objection to HALA is that it proposes allowing developers to build low-density multifamily housing in 6 percent of the nearly two-thirds of Seattle that is currently zoned exclusively for single-family housing. These upzones, which are confined to areas immediately adjacent to already dense urban villages and centers, will help accommodate some of the 120,000 people expected to move to Seattle by 2035. Siegfriedt said that by forcing the city to do individual environmental assessments for every single neighborhood that would be impacted by MHA, SCALE hopes to “delay [MHA] a year or more—and I hope we could get neighborhood planning back on the table.”

3. On Friday, the council’s finance and neighborhoods committee dug into the details of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to spend $2 million on rental vouchers for certain people at risk for becoming homeless. The program targets a subsection of people on the waiting list for Seattle Housing Authority Section 8 vouchers—federally funded housing vouchers that people can use to rent housing on the private market, as long as that housing is below the fair market rent set by HUD, currently around $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment. The $2 million is part of $11 million the city expects to see from the sale of a piece of land in South Lake Union that currently houses the city’s radio-communications repair shop; the rest of the proceeds (which also include an early payment  into the aforementioned MHA affordable-housing fund, for a total of $13 million) will pay to design a new fire station in South Lake Union, relocate the communications shop, and for “bridge housing” in the form of tiny houses and a seventh authorized encampment, this one for chronically homeless women.

To qualify for a temporary city voucher, a person must be on the SHA waiting list, currently housed but at risk of becoming homeless, and at or below 50 percent of area median income.

To give a sense of how many people who need housing and will actually be eligible for Durkan’s Bridge to Housing funding over the two years the pilot will be underway, consider: 22,000 people entered the lottery to get on SHA’s 2017 waiting list. Of those 22,000, just 3,500 won slots on the waiting list to get a voucher sometime in the next two or three years, or fewer than 16 percent. According to the city, about 15 percent of people on the 2015 waiting list were housed when they got on the list but became homeless. Using that figure, I extrapolated that (very roughly) 525 people on the current list are housed but at risk of becoming homeless. Extrapolating further, the average assistance for a person on this list works out to $158 a month over the two years of the pilot program. I’m sure there are factors I’m not accounting for—don’t @ me—but that’s a pretty paltry sum in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment now costs around $1,800.

4. It will be another month or so before the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission releases its first-year report on Initiative 122, the voter-approved measure that imposed new campaign contribution restrictions and authorized public campaign financing through “democracy vouchers” sent to every registered voter, but two of the unsuccessful candidates for city council Position 8 (won by Teresa Mosqueda) showed up at the commission’s meeting last Friday to offer their own takes on what worked, and didn’t, about the program. Jon Grant, who received the maximum possible amount of $300,000 in public funding for his race against Mosqueda, praised the program, calling it “an outstanding success—and you know I’m telling the truth because I’m the guy who lost.”

But Hisam Goueli, another “guy who lost” in the same race—he failed to make it through the primary—said if he ever ran again, he wouldn’t participate in the program. Goueli said he spent “several hours every day begging people to complete the process,” which required candidates to receive and have King County Elections validate at least 400 signatures, along with 400 contributions of at least $10, from registered voters, before they were eligible for public funding. Goueli said he was finally cleared to use democracy vouchers the day before the election—too late to do a mailing or a last-minute ad push. Because he had opted to participate in the democracy voucher program, Goueli was subject to smaller contribution limits—$250, as opposed to $500—than candidates who didn’t participate, but he never saw any of the benefits.

And “those people who had the most money in democracy vouchers”—Grant and Mosqueda—”still won the primary,” Goueli said. “The program is a cumbersome process, and even if you do it, it doesn’t limit big money” in the form of independent expenditures, which the city does not have the authority to restrict. Mosqueda, who was the political director at the Washington State Labor Council before joining the city council, benefited from about $200,000 in outside spending by unions.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

How Effective Is Seattle’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Law?

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald

Later this year, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant plans to introduce legislation that would require landlords who raise their rent more than 10 percent to pay lower-income tenants the equivalent of three months’ rent should they move out because of the resulting increase. The proposal, based on a similar law in Portland, is aimed at addressing “economic eviction,” when tenants are forced to move by rising rents.

The city already has a tenant relocation law on the books, although you may not have heard about it, because it only applies to certain renters in a limited number of situations. In anticipation of Sawant’s proposal, which her office says she plans to introduce later this spring, here’s a primer on the current law and what to expect from the proposal to expand it.

What is tenant relocation assistance and who currently qualifies?

Back in 1990, the Seattle City Council adopted a tenant relocation assistance ordinance (TRAO) to help low-income renters who have to move because of housing demolition, major renovations, or land use changes (for example, if an apartment building is converted into condos or a hotel). Tenants must make less than 50 percent of area median income (currently $33,600 for one person, or $48,000 for a family of four) to qualify for assistance; those who do receive a payment of $3,658 to help them move to a new location. Half that amount is paid by the city, and half is paid directly by landlords.

Property owners who are demolishing or converting a building have to get a tenant relocation license from the city, and are required to give tenants 90 days’ notice before demolishing a building or making other major changes.

The legislation has been amended periodically over the years—most recently in 2015, when the city council added a provision barring landlords from raising rent more than 10 percent in an effort to get tenants to move out so they can avoid paying relocation assistance before demolishing or renovating their building. The 2015 amendments also prohibit landlords from evicting tenants, except for good cause, after filing for a tenant relocation license.

How often does the city pay out rental relocation assistance, and how much does it cost the city?

Since 2004, the earliest year for which payout records are available, the city has paid more than $5.5 million to 1,881 tenants. In 2017, according to records from the Department of Construction and Inspections, the city provided relocation assistance to 235 households, for a total of $380,000 (landlords paid the other half).

What would Sawant’s proposal do?

Council member Sawant’s proposal would require landlords to pay three months’ rent to tenants who make less than 80 percent of the area median income ($48,500 for a single person or $72,000 for a family of four) and have to move as a result of a rent increase of more than 10 percent. Unlike the existing relocation ordinance, Sawant’s proposal would make landlords pay the full amount of assistance; Sawant’s aide Ted Virdone argues that the higher obligation is more than fair, given that it would only apply in cases where “the landlord has raised the rent substantially without having even the expense of a remodel or reconstruction.”

Couldn’t landlords just get around the law by raising rent by 9.9 percent?

Yes, although Virdone says the intent of the proposal is to address landlords who raise rents by an unreasonable amount, and 10 percent seemed like a reasonable floor. “People who have lived the majority of their lives here in Seattle should have a choice to stay,” Virdone says. “If we don’t put in place ordinances like this, there will be even more people moving out of the city.” Reliable information about individual rent increases in Seattle isn’t readily available, although rents went up 7.2 percent, on average, in 2016.

What do advocates for landlords say about the proposal?

Not surprisingly, groups like the Rental Housing Association, which represents about 5,500 landlords in Seattle, oppose the legislation, calling it another burdensome rule that will cause small “mom and pop” landlords to sell their properties to larger apartment management companies. “The biggest concern we should all have is that the more burden you put on landlords, the more risk you throw on them, the more likely they are to sell, and that property’s not going to be on the affordable end any longer,” says Sean Martin, external affairs director for the RHA. “We’re already seeing an uptick in folks that are selling.”

Isn’t imposing a penalty for rent increases over 10 percent a form of rent control, which is banned under state law? 

Sawant’s office says no—“This is just about what the tenant needs; it isn’t about trying to impact landlord behavior,” Virdone says—and the RHA, unsurprisingly, says yes. “If you’re making it economically unfeasible to raise the rent by whatever percentage is appropriate, that’s a restriction on rent,” Martin says. In either case, if it passes, the bill is certain to be challenged in court. In Portland, where rent control is also illegal, two local landlords sued the city over its almost identical. Although a federal judge upheld the ordinance, the landlords have appealed, and the case is currently working its way through the federal courts.

Morning Crank: Resolutely Pro-Housing

1. Queen Anne homeowner and anti-housing activist Marty Kaplan, who scored a victory in his fight against backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in 2016 when a city hearing examiner ruled that the city must do a full environmental impact statement on new rules that would make it easier for homeowners to build secondary units on their properties, is taking his show on the road.

Specifically, Kaplan is going to Bellingham, where he’ll share his experiences “fighting city hall” with the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition, a group that says it’s fighting “over-densification, parking [problems], congestion, tree canopy loss, noise, and removal of open space” in the small town. As in Seattle, it’s hard to see how allowing homeowners to convert their basements into apartments or build backyard mini-cottages will lead to any of those things (unless we’re now referring to private backyards as “open space”?), but as in Seattle, Bellingham’s homeowner activists appear to be for property rights except for property owners who want to share their property with renters. At any rate, they seem to have adopted some very familiar (and Seattle-specific) rhetoric: The meeting notice suggests that a proposal to allow backyard cottages will lead to “Bellingham being ‘Ballardized’ as city leaders legalize the bulldozing of historic housing stock to be replaced by duplexes, tri-plexes, four-plexes, townhomes, and apartments.”

2. This happened a couple of weeks ago, while I was out of town, but I wanted to highlight it here: Dupre + Scott, the real-estate research firm that since 1979 has been the local source for information about trends in apartment development, sales, rents, and vacancy rates in the Seattle area, announced in late December that they were shutting down at the end of the year. Patty Dupré and Mike Scott, who are married, made the announcement on the Dupré + Scott website on December 27. The closure will leave the city without a critical source of information and analysis about what’s going on in Seattle’s rental market, an especially troubling loss at a time when renters are poised to outnumber homeowners in the city and when rents continue to rise in response to an ongoing housing shortage in the city.

Plus, I’ll miss the hell out of their goofy videos. The latest, and last:

3. Last night, I attended back-to-back public hearings on two proposed developments, both of which could help address Seattle’s housing shortage, albeit in very different ways.

The first meeting was a special review board discussion of a proposed high-rise condo building in Japantown (part of the Chinatown International District), which would be built what is currently a surface parking lot at the intersection of Fifth Avenue S and Main Street. The project, which has to go through a special design review process because of its location in the historic CID, is, predictably, controversial.

Opponents have argued that the 17-story glass-and-steel tower, called Koda Condos, is out of character with the surrounding neighborhood and will contribute to the gentrification of the area. While the building, which is definitely tall and definitely modern, doesn’t look much like the two- and three-story brick-clad, tile-roofed buildings that dominate in the neighborhood, neither did the surface parking lot it will replace. Marlon Herrera, a member of the city’s parks commission, said the building will contribute to the “repeated bastardization of this community” and that the developer’s plan to include “privately owned public space” in the project “is a sham. Only rich white yuppies drinking lattes will be allowed to use this space and everybody else will be forced out by security,” Herrera said. The review board will hold at least one more meeting before deciding whether to permit the project.

The building would add more than 200 new condos to the downtown area, and is one of a small handful of condo projects currently underway in Seattle, where for years developers have focused almost exclusively on new apartment buildings.  Developers tend to favor apartments over condos because the state subjects condos to higher quality assurance standards than any other type of housing in Washington state, making rental units a safer bet.  Although condos don’t generally constitute affordable housing, they are still cheaper than single-family houses—about one-third cheaper, according to Sightline—making them a viable homeownership option for people who can’t afford the median $725,000 house in Seattle. The Koda condos will start in the mid-$300,000 range, according to the developer’s website—if the city allows them to be built.

The second meeting last night, of course, was a public hearing on a planned development on long-vacant Army surplus land at Fort Lawton, in Magnolia next to Discovery Park. Opponents say the proposal, which would include between 75 and 100 units of affordable rental housing, 85 supportive housing units for seniors, and up to 50 affordable houses for purchase, is too dense for a part of the city that several speakers described as “isolated” and “remote.” (Notably, some of the speakers who disparaged the area as an unlivable wasteland lacking bus service, shops, grocery stores, sidewalks, and other basic amenities  live in the area themselves and somehow manage.)

One speaker, Aden Nardone with SOS Seattle, said building housing at Fort Lawton would be tantamount to putting low-income people “in internment camps”; others suggested that nothing should be built at Fort Lawton until there was enough infrastructure (sidewalks, bus routes, retail stores, groceries, sewer lines, etc.) to support it.

I wondered on Twitter what the speakers claiming to support “infrastructure” at Fort Lawton would say if the city actually did divert its limited resources toward funding infrastructure to an uninhabited area, rather than the many neighborhoods that are always complaining they don’t have frequent bus service or sidewalks. And:

A big crowd in the back, which dissipated a little more than an hour into the meeting, seemed to be the source of most of the night’s heckling. People in the back booed a woman who was talking about how affordable housing reflects Seattle’s values as a welcoming city for all people, and repeatedly shouted that people who own homes in Magnolia were somehow being prevented from speaking. For example:

For the most part, though, the speakers at last night’s meeting were resolutely pro-housing, a welcome change from many meetings about homelessness and affordable housing, including several at the same venue (the Magnolia United Church of Christ), that have been dominated by anti-housing activists. A majority of those who spoke, including many who identified themselves as homeowners in Magnolia, renters in Magnolia, people who were born and raised in Magnolia, and people who were priced out of Magnolia, supported the proposal. And some people with actual experience living in affordable housing spoke up about the stability it brought to their lives  as children:

To read all my tweets from last night’s meeting, check out my Twitter feed.

 

Fake News, Anecdata, and Things that Feel True

I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon at the Hilton Airport Conference Center (steps from the light rail station!), attending the Washington State Wire’s first-ever Re–Wire conference, where I was on a panel with WSW founder Jim Boldt, TVW president Renee Radcliffe Sinclair, and Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen. The topic: Polarization, fake news, and the future of media. The topic was way too big for four people to handle in 45 minutes, obviously, so I spent my 10 minutes or so (gently) pushing back against the notion that newspapers are going to save us (they aren’t) and the idea that local news consumers can’t tell the difference between “real” news and “fake” news. Boldt, in particular, seemed sold on this notion, claiming that nearly 9 in 10 news stories we read are generated by artificial intelligence. I find that number highly implausible, simply because local coverage is obviously generated by human beings; you can follow their bylines and see them in the flesh if you go to a community meeting or hang out at city hall. It could be that what he  meant is that nearly 9 out of 10 things that are posted online, or 9 out of 10 things that are posted on Facebook are AI-generated, but that’s a different problem than “why there isn’t much reliable local news.”

At the local level, I argued, the problem isn’t so much that there’s “fake news” (Nextdoor and your neighborhood Facebook group excepted), but that the interpretations of the news that does get reported are increasingly polarized. (Maybe this happens more in Seattle, where an army of newly minted socialists swarms my Twitter feed every time I sound too skeptical about a policy they support, than it does in, say, Tacoma or Kent). A neutral headline like “Rents increase for fourth quarter” will be spun as “excessive regulations force landlords to avoid poverty by increasing rents” by those on one end of the spectrum and as “greedy landlords bleed tenants dry” by those on the other. The problem arises, I said, when media who are deeply invested in one perspective being true dispense with fact-checking and rely on anecdata and alternative facts (or seem to eschew fact-checking altogether) to support their preordained conclusions.* For example, former mayoral candidate Cary Moon insisted, in the Stranger, that “hot money” flowing “out of China” was one of the main reasons housing prices have been going up in Seattle, and the paper, whose endorsement undoubtedly helped push Moon through the primary, did not dispute those claims.

Ultimately, Moon was never able to present evidence supporting her assertion that “hot money” was to blame for high housing prices, and brushed off evidence that refuted it with statements like, “We need to look at the data” and “Something’s going on.” But her supporters had already taken her initial sweeping claim—that foreign capital is a major reason housing prices are high in Seattle—and run with it. Foreign buyers snatching up property and leaving it vacant, creating an artificial market shortage? Feels true. And it’s certainly easier to blame “wealthy foreign investors” than have a complex and heated debate about Seattle’s restrictive zoning codes.

Recently, I’ve encountered the same resistance to numbers and reliance on anecdata in the debate over Airbnb regulations. (This week, the council passed new rules restricting most short-term rental operators, except those already operating in the downtown core, to two units total.) Opponents of services like Airbnb argue that they obviously increase housing prices by taking units off the market. And it feels true, especially when you happen to live near an Airbnb that used to be a long-term rental.  (As, it so happens, I do.) But when you confront them with facts, they often respond with anecdotes or observations, which are data points but are not the same thing as data.

Fact: There are, according to the website Inside Airbnb, a total of 426 units that meet the definition typically used by advocates who argue that short-term rentals are removing apartments from the long-term rental market. These units are whole units (that is, not rooms in someone’s house) that are frequently booked (too often to allow a long-term renter to live there), highly available (meaning they are listed as available to rent most or all of the time) and owned by people with more than one listing (meaning that they aren’t someone’s primary residence.) Even assuming that every single one of those Airbnb hosts would switch to being a full-time landlord (unlikely, given that, according to occupancy numbers, most hosts rent their units out only part-time), 426 units simply isn’t enough to influence rents one way or another in a city with hundreds of thousands of apartments and thousands more people moving here every month.

And yet anecdotes seem to win the day. “I know two people who have Airbnbs that they could be renting out as full-time units.” “We live in an era of landlords sitting on vacant properties.” “I watched two neighboring buildings get converted to full-time Airbnbs [in San Francisco] It’s a thing.” I mean—no one said it wasn’t “a thing.” There’s an important argument we should be having right now about revisiting ex-mayor Ed Murray’s decision to preserve restrictive single-family zoning across the city, but that’s such a difficult, fraught conversation. Easier to blame foreigners and rich people making a killing off their Airbnb empires. It feels true.

This is not to condemn people for basing their policy views on anecdotes from people they know, or their gut feelings. Everybody does that sometimes, especially when they lack full information. Instead, it’s a lament that there aren’t enough local media sources with the time or inclination to challenge assumptions that feel true—rent control will lower rents citywide because my rent won’t go up anymore; offering homeless people a bed in a crowded shelter will work because a shelter is obviously better than a tent—by presenting facts that are true.

* I should say here that I have my own biases—I’m pro-housing,  favor moving people over moving cars, and oppose punitive approaches to crimes of poverty and addiction—but I’ve changed my mind on issues plenty of times when the facts have pointed in a different direction than I thought they did. But this is usually in favor of a more nuanced position (it turns out some kinds of involuntary treatment do work) rather than a polar opposite extreme view (addicted people should be dragged off the streets and thrown into hospitals against their will.)

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Why “I See Lots of Apartments Going Up” Is Not an Argument Against Building More

Last week on KUOW, former Seattle Times editorial board member Joni Balter took issue with my statement that the reason apartments are so expensive in Seattle is that we simply aren’t building enough of them. “I don’t know, have you been to Ballard lately?” she asked (rhetorically, I think, although the answer is yes I have.) I managed to get out the words, “But the numbers don’t support that. Numbers-wise, we aren’t—” before she interrupted me and directed a question to the other guest: “So here’s a question for you, Tim Burgess…”

That’s cool. I get that the only real response to facts that defy arguments based specious anecdata is to deflect or change the subject, and I’m used to people doing it. “But I know someone who…” is basically always the first response any time I bring up an economic or land-use fact that defies the wisdom of the anecdote. So here’s my response to Joni Balter’s claim that we’re building more than enough housing for everyone who’s moving here, based not on that one time I went to Ballard and barely recognized it anymore, but on numbers.

According to new-ID statistics from the state Department of Licensing, which is a fairly accurate proxy for the in-migration (it fails to count people who don’t update their IDs, like students and short-term residents, so it’s a lowball, which is fine for our purposes), 60,527 people moved into King County from elsewhere (out of county or out of state) in the first ten months of 2017. Taking the monthly average (which varies widely and does not depend strictly on season) and assuming growth of 6,053 people a month for November and December, we arrive at total in-migration to King County of 72,632 people in 2017.

Now let’s look at apartment growth. According to a recent analysis by the Seattle Times, the city is on pace to add a record number of units this year—nearly 9,900 of those in Seattle alone. Overall, King County as a whole is on pace to add just over 10,600 units. Next year, that record pace is expected to continue, with apartment forecasting firm Dupre + Scott, the source for the Times’ information, predicting that more than 12,500 units will open in Seattle.

 

Notice a difference between those “record” numbers of units opening up and the number of people moving here? Me too. It’s a ratio of about 1 to 7.

I’ve been listening to a great podcast series about the rise of the flat-earth movement—people who literally believe that the earth is shaped like a pizza, with walls around the edges so we don’t fall off. The specifics vary—some flat-earthers think the sky is just a giant dome built by the government, others believe that there is no such thing as “space” and we only think there is because of implanted memories. But all have one thing in common: They rely on an absolute belief in what you can perceive with your senses. Plainly, the horizon is flat because that’s how it looks. Clearly, the earth isn’t spinning because we aren’t dizzy.

Obviously, we’re building more than enough apartments because just look at all that construction.

Except that we aren’t. And the longer we make decisions based on people’s gut feelings about how the way things look, the more inadequate our response to the housing shortage will be.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

As City Moves Forward With Modest Upzones, Single-Family Housing Advocates Lawyer Up

Mayor Tim Burgess released the final environmental impact statement for what will likely be the most controversial set of upzones required to implement HALA yesterday.  The proposal, known as the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, will increase allowable building heights in urban villages, multifamily zones, and commercial areas across the city, including modest upzones to just six percent of the city’s single-family land. The remaining 94 percent, which represents more than 60 percent of the city’s residentially zoned land, will still be preserved exclusively for detached single-family houses). In exchange for increased building heights, developers will have to make between 5 and 11 percent of their units affordable to people of modest means, or pay the equivalent (between $5 and $32.75 per square foot) into a fund that will finance housing construction elsewhere. City staffers say they expect about half of developers will decide to build on site and half will pay into the fund; however, this estimate is based not on empirical data (there isn’t any) but on the fact that the city tried to make the cost of building and the cost of paying the fee roughly equivalent. [*See wonky footnote for more on how this 50-50 split came to pass.]

 

To single-family preservationists, the new rules represent an unprecedented incursion on their right to own property without having to live in close proximity to (and share scarce on-street parking space with) renters who may be younger and lower-income.

 

The MHA proposal splits the baby between two earlier alternatives—one that would spread new density evenly between all parts of the city and one that would limit housing production in areas the city considers at “high risk of displacement” with “low access to economic opportunity,” like Rainier Beach and South Park. To housing advocates, this is maddening—by artificially restricting housing development in the places where demand and the risk of economic displacement is highest, the rules practically ensure that more low-income people will be forced out of those areas. To single-family preservationists, the new rules represent an unprecedented incursion on their right to own property without having to live in close proximity to (and share scarce on-street parking space with) renters who may be younger and lower-income.

 

The city has built some cushion into its timeline for the inevitable lawsuits. Residents and groups that oppose the upzones have until the Monday after Thanksgiving to appeal the FEIS, and neighborhood groups are already lawyering up; last month, the West Seattle Junction Neighborhood Organization (JuNO), the Seattle Displacement Coalition, and Seattle Fair Growth distributed a call for neighborhood groups to sign on to their planned lawsuit against the proposal, and neighborhood groups in Wallingford and Miller/Madison Park have also expressed strong opposition to the proposal. Any appeal would go to the city’s hearing examiner (who has already ruled in favor of single-family preservationists in another case involving backyard cottages); that process generally takes about six months, although a successful appeal could require the city to make changes to the plan and prepare a supplemental EIS, which would take longer. After the city council actually passes the legislation, opponents will have another opportunity to challenge the law, by taking the city to King County Superior Court.

City staffers and officials stuck by their timeline yesterday. Council member Rob Johnson, chair of the council’s land use committee, said the council “can do all the work that is necessary to get the bill ready for a vote while litigation is occurring—we just can’t take action. If we’re still under litigation this time next year, we just won’t be able to vote.”

The plan also includes new tree planting requirements, mandatory setbacks for buildings over a certain size, rules designed to discourage development near freeways, and new standards designed to encourage food-production businesses near the Rainier Beach light rail station, where development has been slow to follow light rail.

Read the EIS for yourself here, or check out the interactive map to see what the city has planned for your neighborhood.

* Wonky footnote, as promised: This is a change, though a subtle one, from the preliminary discussions that led to HALA; originally, during discussions of the voluntary “incentive zoning”  proposal in South Lake Union, council members proposed making the so-called “fee in lieu” more costly than actual construction, to encourage developers to build on site. By abandoning this plan to make the fee roughly equivalent to the cost of building, the city has eliminated the incentive for developers to build, which could push affordable housing away from the most desirable parts of the city. The MHA plan has provisions to mitigate this effect—by “distribut[ing] affordable housing units generated by in lieu MHA payments, and which will be developed by or for the City’s Office of Housing (OH), in locations proportionate to the area’s share of anticipated citywide residential growth”—but acknowledges that the city rejected the notion of encouraging affordable housing development generated by the fees in any particular area as “extremely speculative,” given that the city can’t predict where land will actually become available. The bottom line is that under the proposal, developers can pay fees to build housing in other neighborhoods, and the city has no real ability to require affordable housing in high-end neighborhoods like Wallingford or South Lake Union. A higher fee-in-lieu might have accomplished this.

Here’s how the city expects the distribution of housing generated by the fees to shake out:

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