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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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