Morning Crank: Kind of the Magic of the Place

1. In a State of the City address that focused on major initiatives like a $55 million property tax levy for homelessness and a potential lawsuit against the Trump Administration, Mayor Ed Murray’s brief announcement that he was activating the city’s Emergency Operations Center to respond to the homelessness emergency was easy to miss.

Murray didn’t explain how he planned to repurpose the facility, which is designed to respond to short-term emergencies like riots and weather events, to address the slow-drip homelessness crisis.  So I called up Finance and Administrative Services director Fred Podesta, who serves as the operations director for the city, to ask him how the mayor’s plan would work.

First, Podesta clarified that the EOC won’t be addressing homelessness full-time; rather, from 8:30 to 10:30 on weekday mornings., representatives from every city department—from the Seattle Police Department to the Office of Film and Music—will sit down to discuss the day’s top homelessness-related priorities and come up with a solution for addressing them. For example, if the city’s new “navigation team,” which will be headquartered at the EOC, is heading out to clear an encampment, representatives from FAS, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Human Services Department will be on hand to advise the team on connections to shelter, trash pickup, and any law-enforcement issues that might arise. (Why would Film and Music need to be at the table? Podesta says they might think of something other departments wouldn’t—like an idea for a benefit, or an impact the homeless community has on the nightlife industry that wouldn’t have occurred to other departments.)

That’s kind of the magic of the place, because it’s a very different sort of setting [than city hall], and a big place where we can get everyone in one room might shake loose some sorts of innovations that we might not have thought of before,” Podesta says. “If you lock everybody in the room and say, ‘I want a solution to this on Tuesday,’ it happens faster. Half of it is working on things we were already working on anyway. This is a way to accelerate it and get solutions that are faster and more comprehensive.”

2. UPDATE: Mayor Ed Murray’s office denies that the city has any plans to authorize more encampments. Murray spokesman Benton Strong says the city’s goal is to open just seven encampments total, including existing camps such as Nickelsville in Ballard. Four new sanctioned homeless encampments are reportedly planned as part of the city’s response to unsheltered homelessness. Last time the city announced four new encampments, they ended up opening only three, after community opposition made it hard for the city to find a suitable location. The three sanctioned encampments that opened most recently are in Highland Park, Georgetown, and Licton Springs in North Seattle.

3. Image may contain: textRemember the Women’s March, or Black Lives Matter, or the Stand With Immigrants rally at Westlake Park?

This is exactly like that, except instead of  “women”/”black people”/”immigrants fighting for their human rights,” this rally is more of a “residents of an exclusive high-rise whining that other rich people are building an equally exclusive high-rise next door” kind of thing.

To recap: Residents at the Escala condos, where units list for around $3 million, are mad because another developer plans to build a 45-story apartment and hotel tower directly across the alley from them. They want the city to intervene and enforce their nonexistent right to water views and “air,” arguing that two towers on two adjacent blocks represents too much density for downtown Seattle. I’ve been assured that this  homeowners association alert is real, so make sure you adjust your travel plans accordingly. I hear they’re bringing the Mercer Island Pipeline protesters with them.

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Morning Crank: The Right Side of History

Peter Rogoff

In the spirit of last Friday’s Morning Crank, here are five things I heard at the Transportation Choices Coalition’s New Year’s transportation forum, held last Wednesday at City Hall. I moderated the panel, which included city council member Rob Johnson, TCC advocacy director Abigail Doerr, King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. In truth, the statements I’m quoting are from Rogoff and Johnson, whose comments dealt specifically with the political situation in Seattle; this is not an attempt to silence Doerr or Balducci, the two other women on the panel, whose thoughts on Metro, transit on the Eastside, and the future of transportation advocacy were cogent and valuable. For my Seattle politics site, though, I’ve focused on the remarks specific to Seattle politics, and encourage you to watch the whole event yourself on the Seattle Channel website; the whole thing runs about an hour.

1. Johnson, on what it will take to ensure that Metro’s expansion of Rapid Ride bus service throughout the city will be true bus rapid transit, not just express buses stuck in traffic: “We need to connect with individuals on the ground about the rationale for why [we’re building Rapid Ride]. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with somebody who articulates their strong environmental values and in the same breath talks to me about how important it is for people to have more parking spaces in the city. We need to do a much better job connecting the values of our city around sustainability, the environment, and race and social justice with the importance of capital facilities like bus-only lanes.

“The 44 is a critical bus route that runs, basically, from the very tail end of Ballard all the way through Fremont, Wallingford, and the University of Washington, and I believe we should be expanding that as a Rapid Ride corridor and running it all the way to University Village. When we do, we’re going to receive opposition not just from the community but from business owners who will say, ‘Taking away a parking space hurts my business. My argument would be that everyone who gets on and off a bus has a wallet too, and they could be spending money in your business.”

“It’s really disturbing for me when I hear somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then in the next breath disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked.” – City Council member Rob Johnson

2Rogoff, on the long history of collisions, many of them fatal,  between light rail trains and pedestrians in the Rainier Valley—a lower-income area, populated largely by people of color, that is the only part of the regional system where light rail runs primarily at street level: “This is not just a light or rail grade crossing safety risk. It is also, quite frankly, more prominently a pedestrian safety risk. There’s a tendency for people to be walking on the streets looking at their devices with earbuds in their ears and it’s killed a whole bunch of people. It already did. There’s only so much we can do, frankly, for someone who insists on walking singularly focused on their device, with music playing in their ears, when our warnings, our available warnings, in addition to putting down gates to actually block [the crossing] is lights and alarms.” (Rail crossings in the Rainier Valley, it’s worth noting, do not include physical barriers between pedestrian areas and the tracks.)

3. Johnson, on the possibility that the city and county will lose federal funds in retaliation for remaining “sanctuary” jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration crackdowns: “We will fight back against those cuts. There is a strong argument that we can make that says you can’t cut our transportation dollars because of a decision that we make on immigration, but we also are prepared to lose every single penny of those federal funds to make sure that we are a welcoming city.

“The biggest concern for me is watching the appropriation process on an annual basis, making sure that the federal funds that have been allocated to us as a region actually get appropriated to us.”

4. Rogoff, on the possibility that the Trump Administration could cut federal funding, to Sound Transit (Trump is reportedly taking its cues on transportation from the Heritage Foundation, which advocates eliminating federal funding for public transit, and his transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, is a GOP insider who is closely affiliated with the foundation):  “[Trump] said a lot of things, actually throughout the campaign. … There’s a lot of upticks that come with [transportation budget] proposals in some administrations and downticks that come with proposals [in] other administrations, but often Congress levels out the upticks and downticks quite a bit. Congress is going to have to consent to the budget presented by the White House. … I would just say, watch this space and see if their proposals will be as draconian as expected.”

Rob Johnson

5. Finally, Johnson, bringing down the transit-loving, density-friendly house on the contentious University District upzone, which Johnson’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee will discuss tomorrow morning:  “This is about making sure that the council members that represent those districts where we’re going to see long-term investments are also going to be willing to stand up to single-family homeowners who are saying,  ‘Don’t turn my single-family home into a place where you can build a duplex or a triplex.’

“I feel, as the chair of the committee, that it’s my responsibility to make sure that we’re a welcoming city for everybody, and it’s really disturbing for me when I hear … somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then in the next breath disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked. I see us, as a city, really needing to build more housing for more people, because we’re adding 40 people per day but we’re only building 12 housing units per day, and that’s creating an economic circumstance where lower-income people and middle-income people are being forced out of the city, and I think we need the political will for folks to step in that space and create change for more density around those stations. I firmly believe that. It may result in me only having this job for four years, but if that’s the case, I feel like I’ll have gone down on the right side of history.”

Meet the YIMBYs

This piece originally ran in Seattle Magazine; read the full version here.

Sara Maxana is exactly the sort of person you might expect to see getting involved in her neighborhood meetings. A single mom with two young kids, Maxana lives in a single-family 1931 Ballard bungalow of the type many neighborhood activists are fighting to preserve. Ballard, where the population grew 26 percent between 2010 and 2014, is ground zero in Seattle’s density wars, which pit pro-growth advocates, many of them young renters who moved to the city within the last decade, against the longtime homeowners sometimes disparagingly known as NIMBYs, for “not in my backyard.”

What you might find surprising is that Maxana isn’t a NIMBY. She’s one of a growing group of people who say “yes in my backyard,” coining a new acronym: YIMBY.

Maxana, who once worked at the sustainability nonprofit Futurewise, had more or less retired from politics. But she got re-engaged after Mayor Ed Murray proposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) in 2015. The plan (see sidebar, below), which proposes higher density across the city—including the addition of more backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas—quickly became divisive.

Maxana started identifying as a YIMBY because she felt Seattle decision makers needed to hear a positive story about the changes that are coming to the city. She began speaking up at public meetings, studying the details of HALA and tweeting as @YIMBYmom, a quiet rebuke to those who say all urbanists—i.e., people who believe that cities should be dense, culturally vibrant, diverse places with lots of different transportation options—are single, transient renters with no ties to their community.

By embracing the YIMBY concept, Maxana joins a growing community of activists, researchers, housing experts and community-based organizations that see growth as an opportunity to create housing for all the new people who want to live in cities, rather than a hostile invading force. These groups make up a loosely organized, informal coalition of organizations and individuals across the country and, indeed, the globe (groups using the YIMBY framework have sprung up from Melbourne to Helsinki to Iowa City), who believe that the root of housing affordability is a housing shortage, and that the solution to that shortage is simple: Build more housing.

Image By: Maria Billorou
Zachary DeWolf at the 12th Avenue Arts Building: trying to make Capitol Hill a place for mansion owners and street people alike

Although they span the political spectrum, from far left social-justice activists to hard-core libertarian free marketeers, YIMBYs generally agree that cities should be accessible and affordable for everyone, whether they own a million-dollar mansion or rent a $900-a-month studio, and whether they work as a barista or just moved to Seattle for a new job at Amazon.

Seattle might not seem the most obvious axis for this pro-density revolution. For one thing, it’s a city where the single-family home, especially the iconic Craftsman bungalow, is sacrosanct. So thoroughly did Seattle embrace the postwar ideal of the detached single-family house with a yard that it’s written into our zoning code, which preserves a remarkable 57 percent of the city’s buildable land exclusively for single-family houses. (In Portland, the number is 3 percent.)

But as more and more people move to Seattle—the city’s long-range plans anticipate 120,000 new residents by 2035—tension between longtime homeowners and renters, many of them relative newcomers to the city, has mounted. Rents in Seattle increased more last year than those in any other big city in the country, and in the past five years, the median rent has increased from just over $1,500 to more than $2,000. Meanwhile, the median income of renters, $47,847, is less than half that of homeowners, $108,768.

Instead of merely complaining about the housing crisis, Maxana says, YIMBYs “see growth as something that can catalyze change and bring about good things for cities.”

“I don’t see YIMBYs as addressing a problem so much as addressing an opportunity,” Maxana says. “We’re not trying to stop things; we’re trying to say yes to change. I think it’s much more exciting to be pushing for a vision than against what’s happening.”

For Maxana, that vision includes more new neighbors, more interesting shops and coffeehouses, more places to walk and bike and ride—in other words, more of all the things that are coming to her Ballard neighborhood already. “In Ballard, we have all these new breweries, and they’re child-friendly and they’re dog-friendly, and there are places to sit outside with your kids,” Maxana says. “I see more people in the parks, on the streets, on the bus. In my neighborhood, I can walk to five bus lines that get me across town to everywhere I could possibly need to go in the city. And all of that activity lends itself to more vibrancy, and just a more interesting place to live.”

Maxana can rattle off the statistics that describe Seattle’s housing crisis—for example, 40 new people and 35 new jobs are added every day, yet only 12 new housing units a day. But she and other YIMBYs argue that statistics don’t change minds; values do. “We cannot convince anybody with the data alone. We have to be speaking about our values and we have to be speaking from our heart—not ‘I feel this way and so should you,’ but ‘I’m a mom in Ballard and I want my kids to be able to live here when they grow up, and ultimately, this is why I support [density].’”

YIMBYs are starting to make waves at city hall. In July, under pressure from YIMBYs and other urbanists who argued that the city needed to do more to include marginalized groups such as renters, immigrants and people of color, Murray announced the city was cutting formal ties with the 13 neighborhood councils that advise the city on growth and development, eliminating their funding and creating a new advisory group to come up with a more inclusive neighborhood outreach strategy. (The neighborhood councils, Murray noted, are dominated by older, white, wealthy homeowners, and are not representative of an increasingly diverse city.)

While the YIMBYs didn’t make this change happen on their own, their support helped provide political cover for Murray and his neighborhood department director, Kathy Nyland (a former Georgetown neighborhood activist who is openly sympathetic to the YIMBY cause), for what turned out to be a controversial move. Many neighborhood activists liked the neighborhood councils as they were.

Some neighborhood groups are starting to move in a YIMBY direction. A Capitol Hill renter and self-identified YIMBY, Zachary DeWolf stepped into a leadership vacuum on the Capitol Hill Community Council in 2014. He was first elected vice president in 2014, and then president in 2015. As president, he restructured a traditional neighborhood group dominated by older homeowners into an organization run almost entirely by young renters.

His goal: to make the group that represents Capitol Hill more welcoming and inclusive. He has encouraged young renters to run for leadership positions; changed the style of the meetings from a traditional format with leaders sitting at a table facing the audience, to a circular roundtable where everyone can participate; and instituted more after-work hours/evening “community conversations” and “socials” to give a wider range of people a chance to get to know each other and discuss neighborhood issues.

The group’s policy emphasis has been different, too. Instead of advocating for anti-urbanist causes, such as banning corner stores in residential areas and placing a moratorium on new micro apartments as it did in the past, the council is discussing how to accommodate a supervised drug-consumption site in the neighborhood. As DeWolf puts it, “Instead of pushing [drug users] out to neighborhoods that are farther out, where there’s less resources and community, why not just keep them here and take care of them ourselves?” He adds, “At the end of the day, every person that’s in our neighborhood—whether it’s someone living in North Capitol Hill in a gajillion-dollar mansion or someone sleeping in the doorway on 15th in front of someone’s business, every type of person is our neighbor. To me, that is very YIMBY.”

Dennis Saxman, a longtime Capitol Hill activist and renter who opposes what he sees as out-of-control development and gentrification in his neighborhood, believes YIMBYs are well-meaning, but that they misunderstand the root causes of Seattle’s affordability crisis. “I don’t think they understand that Seattle was once notable for the strength of its neighborhoods and their differing characters, and that at one time, that was seen as something important to preserve and desirable,” Saxman says. “Now it’s seen as a way to market neighborhoods while at the same time destroying what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood.”

Saxman says he admires a lot of what DeWolf has done to bring new people into the council, but argues that “they’re falling short” when it comes to including more racial minorities, longtime residents and low-income people. “I don’t think they’re authentically community-based,” he says.

Will Seattle’s future look more like DeWolf and Maxana’s vision—an ever denser city, where newcomers and their ideas are welcome—or more like the city of the past, where conversations were dominated by residents resistant to change? That may depend on whether YIMBYs can make the leap from a vocal group of contrarians who provide a counterpoint to conventional wisdom at city hall to a force that helps guide city policy while bringing new allies, including more single-family homeowners, on board.

One sign that yimbys in Seattle are having an impact came last June from 1,300 miles away in Boulder, Colorado. A group of 150 YIMBYs from all over the country convened at an inaugural conference, YIMBY 2016, to talk about their challenges and successes. The Seattle contingent, which included Maxana, Sightline Institute staffer and Capitol Hill renter Serena Larkin, and University District renter and YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein (who tweets at @YIMBYSea), showed up feeling a bit discouraged by local rancor over HALA. But they left energized after delegations from other cities expressed enthusiasm for what they see as an inclusive coalition of Seattle groups that support HALA, which include urban activists, developers, environmentalists and social justice organizations.

“All these other groups and cities kept telling us, ‘We need to do that work—how did you get all of those people at the table together?’” says Larkin. “It wasn’t the policies [the details of HALA] we came up with, but the relationships that they saw had been built through HALA.”

When you’re in the thick of things in Seattle, it’s hard to see what’s being accomplished here, notes Bernstein. “But when you compare Seattle to other cities, then all of a sudden we look like the success story. I think that there are battles that we’re losing, but we’re winning the war.”

Maxana points to the success of the housing levy, which funds low-income housing and which Seattle voters approved by more than 70 percent in August, as a sign that many Seattleites support the idea of building more housing, including affordable housing. “I see that, and I just have to believe something is clicking,” says Maxana. “And even though you have such a volume of vitriol on [private social media site] Nextdoor and in some of these neighborhood meetings, I think, for the most part, when I look at the city, I see people who want a good place to live not just for themselves, but for their kids and their neighbors.”

Including neighbors they don’t even know yet.

Do Latest HALA Plans Penalize Developers for Density?

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Earlier this week, the city released maps showing what the proposed upzones under the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) plan could look like. Dan Beekman at the Seattle Times has a good summary of the changes that could come to multifamily and commercial areas, which could see buildings that are one, two, or three stories higher than what’s currently allowed.
One aspect of the upzone proposal that hasn’t gotten much coverage, though, is a change that would require developers to build (or pay a fee in lieu of building) more affordable housing in new buildings in neighborhoods where upzones are greater; so that, for example, someone building in a Lowrise-2 area that used to be single-family, a substantial jump in zoning capacity, would have to provide more affordable housing or pay a larger fee than a developer building in an area that got just a one-story zoning jump. “When more value is given, there would be a larger affordable housing requirement associated with that,” Nick Welch, a senior planner at the Office of Planning and Community Development, explains.
The result is that developers who are adding substantial density to an area would pay a larger penalty for doing so. The exact percentages haven’t been worked out yet, but the percentage that has consistently been discussed for a “typical increase” in zoning capacity is between 5 and 7 percent, so anything above a “typical increase” would presumably be more than that. On the map above, and the three new designations–M, M1, and M2–identify increasingly large jumps in density.
The new three-tiered set of designations would be in addition to another aspect of HALA, which HAS gotten some coverage, that would discourage density in areas (like Southeast Seattle) where people are at a higher risk of economic and physical displacement.
It’s easy to see the city’s logic–that developers who take advantage of greater increases in density should pay more in exchange for the higher profits that come from taller buildings–but another conclusion might be that the higher affordable housing requirements will discourage building in the areas with the most capacity for future growth.  If HALA makes a seven-story building possible in an area where only three stories are currently allowed, but requires developers to pay an extra penalty to build in that area, will developers just stay away? Given that our affordable housing crisis is largely a housing shortage, that seems like a question well worth asking.

Fact Checking Marty Kaplan, the Queen Anne Homeowner Who Wants to Stop Backyard Cottages

img_0328On September 30, a city hearing examiner will hear closing arguments in an appeal by the Queen Anne Community Council and its representative, former council president Martin (Marty) Kaplan, of legislation sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien to make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments. The council has appealed a finding that the change will have no significant environmental impact under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), and is seeking to force the city to put the legislation through a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a process that would introduce significant cost and set the legislation back months.

The proposal, which was announced as part of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) last year, would remove parking mandates for secondary units, loosen owner-occupancy requirements, and allow single-family homeowners to build both a cottage and a basement apartment on their property.

Kaplan argues that the changes will lead to rampant speculation by developers, who will buy up existing houses, tear them down, and replace them with a new house (shaped, in every rendering Kaplan brought during the initial hearing earlier this month, like a windowless, monolithic box) plus a tall backyard structure that will destroy neighbors’ privacy and take away their light and air. This developer rampage, to hear Kaplan tell it, will quickly turn Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods  into canyons of “triplexes” whose occupants overwhelm Seattle’s parking, road, sewer, bus, and electrical infrastructure and quickly render the city “unlivable.”

One of the speakers at Monday night’s Queen Anne Community Council meeting, where Kaplan gave an update on the appeal, predicted the cottage legislation would “unleash a waterfall of development that will make our neighborhoods unrecognizable. What gives them the right to rewrite the contracts of all single-family owners in our city? This is a part of our contract that we bought. Who are they to say that doesn’t exist anymore? What city has ever done that?”

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At the hearing on his appeal, where discussion is supposed to be limited to environmental impacts, Kaplan has been relatively measured—kept in check by hearing examiner Sue Tanner, who has reeled him back in when he’s started in on tangents about “neighborhood character” and “the largest rezone in the city, ever.” In front of his supporters on Monday night, though, Kaplan was less constrained. I decided to fact check some of the claims Kaplan in front of this completely friendly audience.

The claim: “People have said they’re not really triplexes, but that’s not my word—the word ‘triplexes’ was used in the HALA agenda when they were discussing this legislation … and the mayor quickly pulled that back … and he said, ‘I’m not touching the single-family properties, you’re right.’ But in the document they called it a rezone, essentially allowing triplexes on single-family property.”

Fact check: Kaplan is right that the original HALA report called for “allow[ing] more variety of housing scaled to fit within traditional single-family areas to increase the economic and demographic diversity of those who are able to live in these family oriented neighborhoods.” And he’s correct that Mayor Ed Murray backed down on housing diversity after a misleading column by the Seattle Times’ homeowner advocate Danny Westneat prompted an anti-renter backlash. However, the “triplexes” HALA refers to are just that: Triplexes, three-unit buildings housing three unrelated households, not backyard cottages or in-house mother-in-law apartments. “Triplexes” is a rallying cry for anti-density homeowners, I believe, because it evokes images of low-income renters living in rundown, ramshackle buildings.

The claim: “O’Brien’s idea is that this is going to be affordable housing. You can build a bunch of these things and it’s going to help out. And it will change the character of single-family neighborhoods and that’s okay as far as he’s concerned. …

“The average cost of these backyard cottages is between $300,000 and $350,000. If you do the numbers, which I did, these ‘affordable housing units’—if you want to rent an 800-square-foot housing unit, you’d be paying about $2,500 to $2,800 a month to live in a backyard cottage [of that size], and that’s their own testimony, so there’s no affordability component to this at all. That’s the Madison Avenue approach to convincing everyone that these will bring the cost of housing down. … I think that any reasonable person would look at it and realize that $2,800, $3,000 a month is not the goal that they’re shooting for for affordable housing. Affordable housing in this city is $500 a month. These are not affordable.”

Fact check: Although OPCD acknowledges that their initial estimate of the “average cost” to build a DADU, $55,000, was artificially low (that average included renovations by homeowners who simply needed to get an existing DADU up to code, for example), they say Kaplan’s $300,000-$350,000 estimate is absurdly high for a 1,000-square-foot unit. (The legislation increases the maximum size from 800 to 1,000 square feet). This is backed up by reports from other cities that have less stringent regulations on backyard cottages; for example, a 2014 report by the state of Oregon found that the average cost of building an accessory dwelling unit was $78,760, or $221,240 less than the low end of Kaplan’s “average” estimate. In 2011, Governing magazine estimated that an “elaborate” backyard cottage could a Seattle homeowner up to $140,000, still less than half Kaplan’s claim.

Kaplan’s  rent estimates, too, seem concocted out of worst-case scenarios and thin air. Typical rents for DADUs, according to the city, are “affordable” (meaning they cost no more than a third of a renter’s income) for people making between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area median income, meaning about $1,500 to $2,000 a month, or a little less than the Seattle-area average of $2,031. A quick Craigslist search for backyard cottages yielded three results in Seattle, ranging from $1,500 to $1,600 for both one- and two-bedroom cottages, and a search for mother-in-law apartments brought up eight results ranging from $925 for a one-bedroom basement apartment to $2,175 for a three-bedroom unit that occupies the bottom half of a house.

Kaplan, like many homeowners, has apparently lost touch with the rental market in Seattle, too: Although $500, which he cites as an “affordable” rent, is close to what the city considers “affordable” for a very low-income person in a studio apartment, non-subsidized apartments at that level effectively do not exist.

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The claim: “In order to protect neighborhoods, we want to make sure that there’s not an incentive … for people to speculate, to come into a neighborhood and say, ‘I’m going to tear that house down and build two of them, and I’m going to rent them out, and over time I’ll do that ten times and I’ll make more money from it because now I own part of the neighborhood.'” And: If the legislation is adopted, “a speculator can buy the house next door to you and set up an LLC—because they all will be LLCs—and then have his nephew live there for eight months and then, good, he’s gone.”

Fact check: The legislation requires the owner of a backyard cottage to live on the property one year, starting with final approval of the building permit, “as the owner’s permanent residence.” That requirement is designed (necessarily or not) to discourage speculation. But the fact is, builders aren’t exactly scrambling to  build extremely low-density developments (three units, at most, per property) in single-family areas; instead, they’re building low-rise apartments and townhouses in areas zoned for low-rise housing, because that’s what’s profitable. Since Seattle’s zoning code changed to allow backyard cottages in 2009, only 220 have been built citywide, and there’s no evidence that allowing a basement apartment would open the doors to a developer frenzy.

The claim: “If you have a big enough site, you can just fill it up with a 1,000-square-foot backyard cottage, a 1,000-square-foot mother-in-law apartment, and a house of unlimited size.”

Fact check: This is simply not the case. In single-family zones, “big” sites–those over 5,000 square feet–are limited to 35 percent lot coverage, which means that two-thirds of the lot must be open space. So on, say, a 7,200-square-foot lot, which is one of the largest lot-size designations in Seattle, the maximum amount of building on a lot would be 2,520 square feet, or a 1,000-square-foot cottage and a house with about a 1,500-square-foot footprint. Theoretically, a creative homeowner could shoehorn a 1,000-square-foot apartment into the basement of that main structure, but given that the house itself couldn’t be taller than 35 feet, the remaining living space would be very much “limited” by existing city regulations.

The claim (referring to the fact that new cottages might be built where residents currently park their cars): “The parking, a lot of times in single-family, is kind of open space. If you’ve got a garage and a driveway that goes up to it, that’s open space and it allows your neighbor light and air.”

Fact check: The city of Seattle defines “breathing room open space” as consisting of “parks, greenspaces, trails, and boulevards”; it does not include parking spaces or driveways in that definition.

The claim: “There could be a real impact on density, to the point where it takes away the tree canopy. City hall should be really concerned about that, because there’s what’s called the Urban Forestry Commission in Seattle that comes up with goals and plans for growing our tree canopy. … That has been thrown under the bus. There is not one mention of preserving a tree.”

Fact check: Kaplan is right: The proposed legislation is silent on the question of the city’s tree canopy. However, as I’ve written previously, “Save the trees!” is  just a sneaky slogan that makes single-family advocates sound like they’re in favor of sound environmental policy while supporting policies (like preserving two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land for single-family use) that promote sprawl. And it’s sprawl, not a lack of trees on privately owned land, that is destroying actual forests and farmland, even as it “saves” the odd backyard conifer.

The claim: “What we’re talking about here is [rezoninig] half the area of the city of Seattle with no public input, no right for you to comment, and only a proclamation from city hall that says ‘There’s no environmental impacts, let’s just lie this sucker through.'”

Fact check: The city council adopted a resolution back in 2014 committing to explore changing land-use rules to allow more backyard cottages. In 2015, the city released a report that includes detailed descriptions of the potential code changes that the city was considering, including allowing both an ADU and a DADU on a single lot, eliminating the owner-occupancy requirement, and removing the parking mandate. In January and February of 2016, O’Brien and the Office of Planning and Community Development held two public meetings to discuss the legislation, and took public input that is summarized in this report.

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Bringing “New” People Into the Planning Process

A Seattle backyard cottage–the kind of development some neighbors say will bring unacceptable density to single-family neighborhoods. via seattle.gov

At an early-morning Downtown Seattle Association breakfast at BlueAcre Seafood last month, the subject was neighborhood involvement in city planning and the speaker (along with Capitol Hill Community Council president Zach Pullin and me) was Kathy Nyland, the Georgetown activist-turned-Department-of-Neighborhoods-Director who’s in charge of getting neighborhood residents involved in implementing the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda.

The question Nyland and Pullin were attempting to answer was this: How can the city get renters, tech workers, and other Seattle residents who don’t participate in the traditional system of neighborhood councils or go to traditional “neighborhood” meetings involved in shaping the future of the city? The problem Nyland and Pullin described is that neighborhood councils tend to be ossified and, as a result, exclusionary, dominated by 50-and-older white homeowners with little incentive to invite newcomers into their midst. Nyland said she hears from those folks all the time; what she wants to do is add new voices to the chorus of retired single-family homeowners. As part of that effort, DON recently took over the HALA outreach process, and actively encouraged people of color, recent immigrants, and renters–who make up half the city–to apply for seats on the four HALA community focus groups.

But integrating new residents and renters into the HALA process remains a challenge, and the loudest voices–the people that occupy most of the city’s field of vision–are the longtime neighborhood activists who have plenty of time to spend at long neighborhood meetings where the overwhelming sentiment is anti-renter, anti-development, and anti-change. At the same time, people who feel alienated from city planning, or who feel (sometimes correctly) that their voices aren’t welcome or being heard, are left on the sidelines and often have no idea how to make their voices heard.

(If you want an example of how NOT to participate in traditional neighborhood organizations, look no further than this guy, a self-described Fremont resident who apparently showed up at the Wallingford Community Council and demanded a seat on their governing board. In a see-I-told-you-they-all-hate-renters gotcha post on the Urbanist blog, he complained that he had been “sidelined” from “my seat” in an elaborate process designed to ensure that no renters would be represented on the board. He does not appear to have participated in the Wallingford Community Council at any previous point, which probably explains the main reason he wasn’t elected: As Nyland and other urbanists who are actually working to organize renters and other disenfranchised folks repeatedly emphasize, you can’t just show up and demand to be taken seriously, you have to organize, and that means getting people to show up in numbers. Tales of woe like this one do nothing but reinforce the common misconception that renters and urbanists have no interest in context or history and don’t care about the concerns of longtime residents. Pullin, in contrast, is working actively on Capitol Hill to organize renters, who represent more than half the city, as my old PubliCola colleague Josh Feit reports today).

So as pro-HALA groups like Seattle for Everyone try to gather steam in neighborhoods across the city for the still-controversial “Grand Bargain”–developer fees for affordable housing as a tradeoff for greater density–I strongly suggest that they attend meetings like the one I went to late last month, where city planning and neighborhood staffers faced off against an angry crowd of more than 100 neighbors who showed up to voice their near-universal disapproval of the proposal at a meeting of the Queen Anne Community Council on top of Queen Anne Hill.

“Those of us who are involved in planning in our communities for a very long time are used to being involved at city hall. … Usually, you go to a public hearing and you get to speak. You get to say, ‘If a guy builds a 27 foot [detached accessory dwelling unit] next to my house, it’s going to wipe out my sun, it’s going to wipe out my light and air,’ and that’s not what’s being done.”

To kick the meeting off, Marty Kaplan, a community council member, homeowner, and former city planning commissioner, offered a lengthy introduction to the two city officials who presented the details of the proposal, Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Geoff Wendlandt and planning commission staffer Jesseca Brand, which set the (accusatory) tone for the rest of the discussion.

“One of the problems that I have is that those of us in the neighborhoods were left out of the conversation” about HALA, Kaplan said. “Those of us who are involved in planning in our communities for a very long time are used to being involved at city hall. … Usually, you go to a public hearing and you get to speak. You get to say, “If a guy builds a 27 foot [detached accessory dwelling unit] next to my house, it’s going to wipe out my sun, it’s going to wipe out my light and air,” and that’s not what’s being done.”

Kaplan continued: “There’s a lot of things that will eventually take away a lot of the physical things that you enjoy in your house, or even if you’re in an apartment. … There’s a lot of impacts in here [and] we’ve been used to being able to talk about this with planners and city hall and come up with some pretty good and respectful partnerships.” In contrast, Kaplan said, the city is now trying to shove a “one-size-fits-all” approach down longtime neighborhood residents’ throats.

Wendlandt and Brand fielded Kaplan’s comments and complaints from neighbors for about two hours. Most of those complaints fell into one of three categories: 1) Concerns that the city has failed to involve neighbors in the HALA process; 2) Complaints that HALA will upzone the entire city; and 3) Objections related to “concurrency,”  the idea that the city needs  to add roads, transit service, and sewers before adding housing. (The urbanist response to those complaints, in turn: Neighborhoods are well-represented on the four HALA focus groups and the city continues to hold meetings like the very one at which this comment was made; HALA will not upzone the whole city, though it will expand some urban villages and make it slightly easier to build backyard corrages; and Seattle is expected to add about 120,000 people in the next 20 years, and those people need places to live).

Another popular objection, one I’ve heard many times over the years in Seattle, was that the city “already has enough capacity to accommodate all the growth we’re going to get,” a claim based on the absurd premise that many thousands of small apartments and single-family homes will be demolished across Seattle so that all the city’s land can be redeveloped to its maximum zoning capacity. The “existing zoning capacity” objection also ignores the fact that HALA, unlike roughshod redevelopment, will actually build affordable housing, which is what everyone says they want.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? For urbanists, anyway, it’s that if you don’t like the way neighborhood groups are framing development or the shape they want to take the neighborhoods we all live in, it’s important to be meaningfully engaged–not just showing up alone to a meeting or two to shake your fist at the way things are, but turning out in numbers to learn, listen, and participate, both in traditional homeowner-dominated neighborhood groups and new organizations that challenge the status quo. For city officials, it’s that engaging people outside traditional neighborhood groups is critical, and that those groups don’t represent any consensus except a consensus among themselves. Renters, low-income people, disabled and elderly residents, and others who aren’t usually at the table need to be invited in and listened to, whether that means outreach specifically aimed at renters (guess what? When you “inform” a neighborhood by placing flyers on people’s doors or porches, you miss most of the people who live in apartments) or broader outreach at events and in groups that include a more representative sample of Seattle residents than, say, a community council or a private Nextdoor group.  Ultimately, as Nyland noted at the DSA meeting at Blueacre, inviting more people into the planning process may also mean deemphasizing the voices that have traditionally held sway at city hall; the city is well aware of what single-family homeowners tend to think, but they may not be as familiar with what low-income renters or homeless residents think. For those voices to be heard, some people, however reluctantly, are going to have to sit and listen.

HALA Focus Group Applicants Overwhelmingly Hail from Wallingford, Phinney Ridge, and Ballard

The deadline for applications to serve on one of the “community focus groups” that will help guide the implementation of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) is in less than two weeks, and so far, city sources who have seen the applications say the majority of the applicants so far appear to be white North End homeowners–precisely the sort of people most inclined, if numerous heated HALA presentations over the past few months are any indication, to oppose the plan altogether.

A breakdown of applications provided by the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development indicates that as of last Friday, half (49%) of all applications for the focus groups come from just three North End neighborhoods: Wallingford (22%), Greenwood-Phinney (17%) and Ballard (10%). The other neighborhoods with more than one applicant are the University District, 23rd and Union-Jackson, Capitol Hill, Uptown, Belltown, Fremont, and North Rainier; the vast majority of neighborhoods, including most of the South End and West Seattle, have no applicants so far.

Why does it matter where the HALA focus groups come from, or whether they’re renters or homeowners? For one thing, the HALA groups are supposed to represent the wishes of the city as a whole, including all geographic areas, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and income levels. If wealthy, white homeowners from richer parts of town like Magnolia and Ballard are overrepresented in the focus groups, the policies those focus groups will advocate are likely to be those that protect single-family zoning, long-time residents,  and homeowners’ interests at the expense of renters, recent transplants, and lower-income people who are priced out of Seattle by artificial constraints on new housing supply.

As I’ve reported here many times, there is a very loud, very vocal contingent of homeowners from north end single-family neighborhoods who oppose HALA because they believe it will bring more “density” (AKA renters) into their single-family areas, reducing their property values, destroying the midcentury “character” of their neighborhoods, making it impossible to find on-street parking in front of their houses, and eliminating their light, air and access to nature. Those voices have a seat at every table in City Hall, and they’re hard at work shaping the city’s housing and land use policies to be hostile to the homeless and inhospitable to everyone else who doesn’t already own property in the city.

For the city’s neighborhoods to be truly represented, these voices must be counterbalanced by an equally vocal, equally committed contingent of renters, low-income families, newcomers, would-be first-time homebuyers, and residents of neighborhoods that aren’t wealthy, white, and north of the ship canal. The only way urbanists and their allies will get land use that isn’t hostile to density, newcomers, and the poor is if they claim their seat at the table.

The focus groups do require a commitment of between five and 10 hours a month, which is obviously much easier for retirees and professionals with flexible schedules and cars than for people who work nights, get paid by the hour, and use public transit. But if those people don’t get heard, the city may assume they just don’t care. And if that happens, the city could continue on its current path to being a place where the people making six figures a year determine whether those of us making five figures or less can afford to live here. So I strongly encourage anyone who thinks they can find the time for this temporary (nine-month) assignment to fill out an application, especially if you don’t see your neighborhood represented in the applications the city has received so far.

The deadline is February 26. To find out more about the focus groups, attend one of two upcoming meetings. The first, focusing on how renters can get involved with HALA, is at 12th Avenue Arts (1620 12th Ave.) this Thursday, Feb. 18; the second is at the New Holly Gathering Hall (7054 32nd Ave. S) on Thursday, Feb. 25.

Save the Yards!

25860653-beige-big-house-with-small-column-porch-and-red-stairs-beautiful-flower-bed-decorative-trees-and-law

Yesterday, longtime Seattle writer (and my erstwhile colleague) Eric Scigliano published a jeremiad on Crosscut making the case that the city should keep two-thirds of Seattle’s land zoned exclusively for single-family housing because single-family homes have yards, and yards have trees. (Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda suggests allowing very low-density multifamily housing in 6 percent of the land currently reserved for single-family houses in Seattle; a separate proposal, to allow duplexes and triplexes of the same density currently allowed in single-family zones, was scuttled after neighborhood activists protested that the change would ruin Seattle’s character.)

In short, Scigliano’s argument was that because a majority of the trees in the city are on private property, in part because we haven’t taken good care of our publicly owned trees nor planted enough of them, we need to make sure no new development encroaches on these yards so this privately owned tree canopy can continue to exist.

Once you’ve gathered your jaw off the floor and returned to seated position, I have a few rational responses to this insidious bit of anti-density sleight of hand:

1) As cities like New York make clear, density is not in itself a danger to urban tree cover. (NYC’s tree cover is comparable to Seattle’s despite that city’s vastly greater density).  Allowing two-story, low-density multifamily housing on the edges of current single-family zones, as the HALA plan suggests, does not endanger trees.

2) In fact, density is a far more environmentally sound than exclusionary large-lot single-family zoning, which uses more resources and also forces people into the suburbs when demand outstrips housing supply, as it currently does in Seattle. Suburbs destroy open space and lead to car-dependence, which contributes to the car dependence that’s currently destroying our planet.

3) Privately owned tree cover is maintained only by the private beneficence of private property owners. In other words, the tree canopy is only as good as its owners’ desire to maintain it. In other words, a property owner can chop down just about any damn tree he or she wants. Relying on the altruism of private property owners is a lousy way to make public policy, and (as anyone who’s mourned the loss of a treasured tree or bemoaned the construction of a megamansion next door knows well) often backfires. In contrast, our public urban forest, which is maintained by the city and funded by the taxpayers, can’t be destroyed at a property owner’s whim.

4) Just imagine if single-family exclusionists expended as much time and energy advocating for properly protecting and fully funding the maintenance of Seattle’s publicly owned trees as they do raging against the possibility that they might get more neighbors. Certainly, our public tree canopy wouldn’t be in the dire straits Scigliano describes in his plea to maintain low density in our growing urban area if people cared as much about saving urban forests as they do about maintaining their property values.

And 5) Density opponents forget that the quaint Craftsman cottages on 5,000-square-foot lots they are fighting to protect (because TREES) came at the direct expense of actual forests, which were razed to make all those expansive lawns and private outdoor space possible in the first place.

If erstwhile treehuggers like Scigliano really want to protect and expand the city’s privately owned tree canopy, I’m sure they’ll get behind this modest proposal (h/t Josh Feit): Raze all the city’s driveways (and ban new ones). Think about it: Driveways take up valuable space that could be turned into lovely urban groves, and who could argue that car storage is the highest and best use of potential urban forest? Just imagine all the trees we could plant if property owners just gave up their car storage and contributed (even more than they already do) to Seattle’s critical private urban forest. If my proposal goes through, lawn superfans like Scigliano will probably be able to stop paying any attention at all to Seattle’s struggling publicly owned trees (like the ones homeowners sometimes plant in public planting strips and then forget) and focus exclusively on maintaining the only urban forest that really matters: Beautiful trees on private lawns, preferably behind tall, well-fortified fences.

TONIGHT: Support the HALA Recommendations

The C Is for Crank encourages you to show up and listen or comment at tonight’s city council hearing on the Housing Affordability and Livability Committee’s recommendations, which have come under attack from single-family protectionists. Tonight’s public hearing will help the council decide which of the 65 recommendations to set in motion. It will take turnout, support, and continued pressure from urbanists like you and me to ensure they make the right decision and keep the most critical elements of HALA intact.

Iterations of the term “urbanist” have been hotly debated recently (I prefer “reality-based urbanist” myself), but the bottom line is that we all want to ensure that everyone in Seattle–not just wealthy single-family homeowners, not just Amazonian imports, not just those who got here first, but everyone–can live in safe, affordable housing in the city.

This fight is critical, because the council is under tremendous pressure to abandon the very recommendations that will have the most positive impact on affordability. Mayor Ed Murray and several key council members have already abandoned a major, symbolically important HALA recommendation, which would have allowed a greater diversity of housing types (such as duplexes and townhomes) in the 65 percent of Seattle’s land mass that’s currently reserved exclusively for detached single-family houses. Murray, along with council president Tim Burgess and council land-use committee chair Mike O’Brien, walked back their support for that recommendation after angry property owners and neighborhood activists flooded city inboxes with letters of protest and crowded council meetings to voice their complaints about the changes.

I believe that most of the city supports the principles behind the HALA proposals, even if they aren’t familiar with the details, for one simple reason: They provide more affordable housing. Mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to build affordable housing on site in exchange for the right to build more densely, combined with a new linkage fee on commercial development, would provide 6,000 units of set-aside affordable housing. Other key measures in HALA would expand the boundaries of urban villages to reflect current and future walkability and transit access, increasing total housing supply and driving down the overall cost of housing (which is true no matter how much some progressives insist that supply and demand does not exist).

The opposition to HALA, which has described population growth as a cancer and have suggested single-family homeowners and neighborhood activists should “take back Seattle,” is organized, motivated, and can turn out plenty of people with the means and time to attend midday hearings when most of us are working. This and other nighttime meetings are an ideal opportunity for HALA supporters to show that we, too, deserve a voice at City Hall and in the future of our city.

O’Brien Amendment Sidesteps HALA to Add Months to Small Projects

Image via Division Ave blog.

Last week, after residents in his new council district protested a new live-work development in Ballard, city council member Mike O’Brien took the unusual step of slipping a new design review mandate into an otherwise standard-issue omnibus cleanup bill. The change O’Brien made would require design review–a process that can add more than a year to a project timeline–when the combined development proposals on two adjacent lots exceed the maximum for a single lot according to the city’s design review standards. In low-rise zones, which is where the change is targeted, that means that two adjacent lots under development can’t exceed eight units total. That design-review trigger applies even if two adjacent lots are being developed by different builders; more than eight, and you’re looking at an automatic, time-consuming design review.

The amendment, which O’Brien acknowledges was unorthodox, was intended to address developments like the controversial townhouses going in at 71st and Division in Ballard, where six live/work units will replace a single-family home that sat astride two historic lots; in that case, the developer took advantage of an old lot line that hadn’t been used in decades to build three units per lot.

But the change will have sweeping implications for development potential on smaller lots across the city.  O’Brien says the new requirement is “intended to address instances where a developer in a low-rise or neighborhood commercial zone will break a project up into a couple of different projects to avoid going through design review.” O’Brien acknowledges that the city already has plans to overhaul the design review process next year, but says that in the meantime, “we’re going to continue to set rules that ware going to allow more and more people to live in Seattle, but there’s got to be an expectation that when we set those rules, they are going to be followed.” Continue reading