Tag: single-family housing

The J is for Judge: The Most Contrarian Power Point in Seattle

Mild-mannered Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Nick Welch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight. But if I was him, I would advise against bringing his recent PowerPoint presentation into a local bar.

Welch confined his presentation to the safety of city council chambers last week, where he ran his slide show in front of the Select Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability. There were no fisticuffs, but the MHA presentation did draw scoffs from the neighborhood protectionists in the audience and a challenge from their council ally on the dais, West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold.

Particularly Slide No. 10, which is possibly the most contrarian slide ever presented in Seattle.

MHA is a holdover HALA housing plan from former Mayor Ed Murray that exchanges upzones for affordable housing; HALA is expected to produce 20,000 new housing units over the next  decade, including about 6,000 new affordable units from MHA (compared to just 205, if the city simply let the market status quo play out without MHA). With Murray long gone, the remaining piece of the plan—a narrow, stair-step upzone along the fringes of 27 single-family zones —is being shepherded through City Hall by council YIMBY Rob Johnson, whose term ends next year, and with strong support from first-year urbanist all-star, council member Teresa Mosqueda.

Slide #10 is a direct response to what Welch and other OPCD staffers have heard over and over in Seattle neighborhoods (where, in fact, Welch has been gathering input in countless MHA community forums over the last few years): New market-rate housing is a threat to overall housing affordability because it’s more expensive than existing options. It’s a seemingly intuitive take on gentrification that defines the local anti-development storyline and unites everyone from Magnolia First NIMBYs to social justice socialists, from dudes at the Wedgwood Broiler to queer working artists at Kremwerk.

The ubiquity of Seattle’s anecdotal anti-development refrain convinced OPCD to see if that narrative was actually true. So the department looked at the germane historical data—market-rate housing production between 2000 and 2015 in all of Seattle’s census tracts, overlaid with the change in low-income households in the same census tracts over the same period. The finding was definitive. The text to Slide #10 spelled it out for council members: “No correlation between market-rate housing growth and loss of low-income households.”

If anything, the trend line shows the exact opposite: Affordable housing stock increased as market rate housing production increased.

A potential criticism of Slide #10? It defined affordable housing as housing that people making less than 50 percent of the Seattle Area Median Income (AMI) can afford. Affordable housing advocates could certainly contend that people making 60, 70, and 80 percent of AMI are part of the working class too, and are losing ground as more market development comes on line to serve tech bros. But, voila: Slide #11.

This slide overlaid the same snapshots of affordable households  and market-rate housing production, this time defining affordable housing as housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of AMI. The conclusion was the same. No correlation between new production and economic displacement.

The data didn’t lead OPCD to go as far as saying more market rate housing production actually led to the creation of more affordable housing, but they did present another contrarian slide illustrating their research on another bit of conventional wisdom—that the MHA upzones will lead to physical demolition of existing affordable housing at a rate that neutralizes any new affordable housing production from MHA. Again: Nope. Gaming out future physical displacement based on historic trends of production and teardowns, the data shows that teardowns remain roughly consistent whether the city enacts MHA or not. Without MHA, about 520 households would be  physically displaced by demolition, with no mandatory affordable housing to replace them. Under the city’s preferred MHA alternative, about 574 would be displaced—and those demolitions would be dwarfed by an estimated 5,633 new affordable units created under MHA.

One other bit of conventional wisdom that OPCD tried to fact-check is the notion that new development displaces people and businesses that share a common culture, a phenomenon known as cultural displacement. Perhaps even more than economic displacement, cultural displacement is at the emotional core of anger about gentrification. OPCD couldn’t confirm or disprove this observation. The data—the change in housing production overlaid on change in racial population—was all over the map. The population of some groups, including African-Americans, declined in some census tracts where market-rate housing increased and stayed put in tracts where market-rate housing increased.

Of course, one factor that could have mitigated displacement was missing from that historical data: MHA’s mandate that affordable housing be part of new development.

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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Murray Gives In to Bullying, Abandons Housing Diversity Plan

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As most readers of this blog probably know by now, after city council president Tim Burgess announced he would join his colleague Mike O’Brien in opposing new rules allowing duplexes and townhouses in single-family areas, Mayor Ed Murray disavowed this controversial element of his own Housing Affordability and Livability Plan, citing “blowback” from angry single-family homeowners as his reason for tossing aside ten months of work by the committee he  himself appointed.

When your best reason for abandoning a carefully considered policy that would bring Seattle into the mainstream of cities nationwide (currently, with two-thirds of our land zoned exclusively for single-family detached houses, we are very much an outlier) is, as Burgess put it on his blog, that “some believe it will lead to speculators buying up homes, tearing them down, and replacing them with more expensive multi-family structures,” you aren’t making an argument. You’re saying that a relative handful of very vocal single-family homeowners with the resources and the time to yell the loudest are enough to sway your opinion on major public policy decisions.

Although I hear Murray has privately blamed others, like Burgess, for caving to noisy NIMBYs first (Burgess’ defection made it harder for Murray to stand by his mandate), one mark of leadership is standing up to pressure even when doing so makes people mad at you. A hallmark of Murray’s administration, as Josh points out, has been bringing together warring groups and coming up with a consensus solution that the mayor then puts his political capital behind. Previously, Murray would walk into political hurricanes to preserve deals like the phased-in $15 minimum wage. Now, he’s ready to abandon a hard-won agreement at the first sign of a stiff wind.

The wind, or “blowback,” came in this case from the Seattle Times (chief instigator: Columnist Danny Westneat, owner, with his wife, Mercy Housing staffer Sarah Westneat, of a $700,000 house in Madrona), and an organized cadre of single-family activists who firmly believe that a townhouse or a duplex next door will ruin their property values, produce intolerable noise, undermine the aesthetic they prefer for their neighborhood, or make the neighborhood “unneighborly.” In the furious Twitter and Facebook discussions over the news in the last few days, neighborhood activists have even gone so far as to suggest that people who live in multifamily housing, as a class, don’t interact with their neighbors, participate in community activities like National Night Out, or have potlucks. (They’ve also said single-family homeowners don’t want to live near townhouses and duplexes because the people who live in places like that are constantly making noise, and they–unlike those of us who live in multifamily dwellings–like to sleep at night.)

It’s easy to other and demonize a large group of people if you’ve never socialized with one or visited any of their homes. (Seriously: No potlucks?) It’s even easier to fight factual statements, such as the observation that Seattle’s current zoning, housing patterns, and disparity in homeownership rates between white and non-white citizens,  reflects a racist past, with rhetorical gambits. Those include semantics (“That racist practice wasn’t technically ‘zoning,’ so you aren’t allowed to talk about its impacts today!”), double-reverse-backflip accusations (“I think it’s just appalling that you’re calling XX a racist!”, and straw men (“You’re saying that brand-new townhomes will be affordable to low-income people!” or “You believe in trickle-down Reaganomics!”), among others.

And it’s easier still to shit all over density proponents for not respecting the Very Important History of Seattle’s (overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly wealthy) single-family neighborhoods, which are, by the way, a massive anomaly among major cities; we need only look down the road to Portland, where just 3 percent of land is zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes, for an example of what an outlier Seattle is in refusing to allow housing diversity on 65 percent of its land mass.

What’s harder, apparently, is for single-family protectionists to come up with one single reason for their frantic efforts to keep two-thirds of the city all to themselves. The honest ones may say, “Because I don’t like the way that one building down the street looks!” but that’s about all you hear. When people respond to comments about the racial history of exclusive neighborhoods or the need to accommodate 120,000 people moving here in the next 20 years in a way that doesn’t crowd them all into high-rises on a few acres of the city by saying “But, but, but — what about what YOU’RE saying?” what they’re saying is that they don’t have a reason. Except maybe a feeling, a ticklish twinkle of discomfort that things change over time, and change can be hard to accept. When former city council member Judy Nicastro called Seattle “Mayberry with high-rises” more than a decade ago, she couldn’t have known how true her words would still be today.

Neighborhood activists, narrowly defined as those who live in single-family homes and have the time to show up at endless meetings and launch letter-writing campaigns and donate to politicians who then grant them an audience and take their views seriously, have always been a powerful force in this city. So it’s little wonder that a relative handful of these activists were able to cow Murray into abandoning a plan that a group of 28 people worked out over 10 months and that was backed by the full faith and credit of not just Murray but O’Brien, Burgess, and other council members who later turned tail. Little wonder, but a disappointment. Murray’s decision to cave under the same pressure that always faces political leaders in Seattle sends a message to single-family protectionists that victory is determined by who makes the most noise. Cry the loudest, and you’ll get your candy.

There’s another theory, though, that could also explain the mayor’s turnaround. Maybe single-family zoning was never really on the table to begin with. Murray and Burgess have both called the issue a “distraction,” a side issue that could undermine the entire HALA plan, including upzones in multifamily areas, if he let it drag on. If this second theory is true, then the single-family changes were always red meat for the neighborhood activists to latch on to and tear to bits while the mayor and council moved forward on other aspects of the plan that might otherwise have raised a similar outcry. Distraction gone, activists appeased (and given the opportunity to seem reasonable by not opposing the multifamily upzones), let’s move on.

Whatever the politicians’ reason for caving, they set economic integration back years by rejecting this small move toward a more diverse, and neighborly, city. They showed that they have no respect for hard-won agreements and will abandon them at the first sign of public pressure. And they taught well-connected, heavily entrenched neighborhood activists an important lesson: Bullying works.