Morning Crank: Adapting Parking Policies for the Next 50 Years

Dark gray: No parking minimum. Light gray: No parking minimum within 1/4 mile of frequent transit service. Orange: Multifamily and commercial areas with reduced parking requirements. Green dots: Bus stops along frequent transit corridors.

1. The city council continues to debate legislation that makes modest changes to the current rules regulating parking in new buildings, with West Seattle city council member Lisa Herbold continuing to lead the charge against changes to the code that might impact drivers in her district by increasing the walk between their cars and their homes. The updates would, among other changes, change the definition of “frequent transit service”—a direct response to a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners challenging a development on Greenwood Avenue that is directly on a major bus route. The homeowners claim that because the route’s actual schedule varies at rush hour due to traffic, the area doesn’t actually have frequent transit service.

Additionally, the legislation would:

• Allow “flexible-use parking,” which would allow shared parking between buildings (for example, if one apartment building had empty spaces during the day, a retail building without parking next door might rent some of those spaces for their customers.)

• In developments where parking is required, allow that parking to be up to a quarter-mile away from the building (up from 800 feet), in keeping with the definition of accessible transit  as all areas within a quarter-mile of a bus stop served by frequent transit.

• Require landlords to charge for parking separately from rent, to “unbundle” the cost of parking from the cost of a unit.

• Reduce parking requirements for some large institutions and affordable-housing providers.

• Require more bike parking in new developments.

Herbold, who previously argued that the city’s studies showing a low level of car ownership among renters in dense areas don’t account for areas like her district, where most people drive, made the case Tuesday that the city should open up developments where parking is not required to challenges under the State Environmental Policy Act, which are generally intended to mitigate the environmental impact of proposals, not their impact on convenient car use. If SEPA analysis determined that there wasn’t “enough” parking in an area, the city could take a number of actions, including—Herbold suggested—denying residential parking zone permits, which are currently available to all residents of the city, to the tenants in that building. (Herbold pointed out that her proposal would also apply to people buying new condos, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of new units in Seattle are apartments, not condos).

Herbold also argued that the proposal to allow parking a quarter-mile away from new buildings that are required to have parking could discriminate against elderly people, for whom, she said, “I’ve seen estimates that an acceptable walking distance” is between 300 and 600 feet. “We talk about Seattle wanting to be an age-friendly city, and I’m just concerned that the proposed change to a quarter mile does not serve the needs of that aging population.”  A few minutes later, though, she undermined her case by saying that if the quarter-mile rule for car parking passed, she would propose that developers be allowed to move their mandatory bike parking up to a quarter-mile away; after all, she argued, if a quarter-mile is the rule for cars, shouldn’t it be the rule for cyclists, too? Council member Mike O’Brien pointed out that cars and bikes have very different impacts and serve different purposes; instead of “trying to pretend that cars and bikes are identical and have the same impacts,” he said, the city should adopt bike parking requirements that actually work for bike riders—and encourage cycling, which is already official city policy.

2. If Herbold’s RPZ idea sounds familiar, that’s because it has been proposed loudly and often by homeowner activists , who see it as a kind of “gotcha” that will demonstrate that people who move into buildings without parking actually own cars and plan to park them on the street. Taking away their ability to park on the street serves as both a punishment meted exclusively against renters in new buildings (on behalf of homeowners and incumbent renters who own cars) and a targeted I-told-you-so.

RPZ restrictions were one of many proposals to stick it to developers and renters during a rowdy meeting of the Phinney Ridge Community Council Monday night. Staffers from the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Department of Construction and Inspections, and council member Rob Johnson’s office came to present the legislation and ask questions, but the “Q&A” devolved into a shouting match before it even began.

SDCI’s Gordon Clowers, Johnson staffer Spencer Williams, and SDOT staffer Mary Catherine Snyder only made it through a few minutes of their presentation before members of the crowd—mostly white, mostly gray-haired—began pelting them with rhetorical questions. “Have you considered shift workers who might work at night” in your parking vacancy studies, one woman wanted to know.  (Yes). “If you say, ‘You can’t lock your door'”—a reference to shared parking, which would allow shared use of parking garages—”and there’s a whole lot of break-ins, who fixes it?” (That’s a question for the landlord.) “If most neighborhoods are facing growth and most people are looking for on-street parking, there’s eventually going to be such a rat race of parking demand, looking for that last free spot, that it’s not going to be viable.” (Not a question).

I sat and listened as a woman behind me stage-whispered, “SO WRONG. SO WRONG. SO WRONG” while Williams explained that people living in subsidized housing are less likely to own cars, and I watched as people shouted him down when he tried to explain the rationale behind allowing buses that sometimes arrive every 16 minutes to count as “frequent transit service” for the purposes of parking policy.  I heard a dozen people start yelling in unison when Williams was insufficiently surprised that 1,700 apartment units are in the pipeline along the 5 bus route from Shoreline to Fremont (“That’s been part of our growth strategy since the 1990s”), and I listened as grown adults screamed “Bullshit!” when Clowers said the city wasn’t trying to force people out of their cars and when a different person told Clowers he was full of, again, “bullshit,” because “you can interrupt us but we can’t interrupt you.”

Listening to the Phinney Ridge homeowners in the room, you would think that Seattle is a city where it’s impossible for anyone to get around without a car, where no one takes the bus because they’re all too full anyway, where the local transit agency fabricates bus schedules from whole cloth, and where parking policy is made without consideration for “working-class” residents with work trucks and delivery vehicles. If I hadn’t known that I was sitting in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city, in a roomful of homeowners motivated not by altruism but by the desire to park their cars near their houses, I would think Seattle was in the middle of a class war between elitist city policymakers and paycheck-to-paycheck laborers getting screwed over by policies designed to crush working-class renters.

But that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the city is starting to make progress toward adapting its parking policies for the next 50 years, when driving alone in privately owned cars will become the exception, not the rule. It’s hard to see the future when the present is all that’s in front of you—if you and all the people you know own cars, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else does, too, and will for the foreseeable future. Policy makers, and elected officials, are supposed to look beyond the next few years and think about how people who haven’t even arrived in the city yet will want to live 20 years from now, especially when crafting land-use policies that will have implications for decades. It’s a shame when otherwise progressive elected officials can’t see beyond the immediate self-serving demands (for ample, free, convenient parking; for laws preserving single-family neighborhoods) of their current constituents.

3. In an example of the kind of inconveniences transit riders are frequently subjected to, King County Metro will relocate its Route 4—a lifeline route that serves downtown, Harborview and Swedish Hospital, Garfield High School, and the Central District down to Judkins Park—for a year, moving the line four blocks to Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. S. in the Central District. That’s inconvenient enough, but Metro is adding an extra wrinkle: Bus riders will also be forced to transfer to a different bus at 21st and Jefferson, making an already slow route that is frequently delayed even slower. Metro says they had to add the transfer because there aren’t enough diesel hybrid buses to run along the route, which is on wires until it gets to 23rd and Jefferson, on weekdays. In response to my tweet about this yesterday, Metro said that “to minimize the inconvenience, hybrids will serve the entire route on weekends, when hybrids are more available than during the w[ee]k.” I have asked why hybrids couldn’t be made “more available” for this route, given that riders will already face a year-long route change; they said they’d get back to me later today.

Last year, the agency dead-ended the route at 21st Ave. and Jefferson Street, forcing people headed south to transfer to the Route 48 bus two blocks away.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Fake News, Anecdata, and Things that Feel True

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Murray: “I Did Give In to Single-Family Pressure.”

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Last week, Mayor Ed Murray reversed his position on a key portion of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee’s recommendations, which would have allowed a small amount of housing diversity (duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes) inside the 65 percent of Seattle’s land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. Citing significant “blowback” from the same neighborhood activists who had opposed HALA and portrayed it as a conspiracy between developers and the political elite since its inception, Murray said he was abandoning both the recommendation to allow more housing forms (not density) in single-family areas and a separate proposal that would have made it easier for homeowners to build secondary units (detached or attached apartments) on their property.

Single-family exclusionists–those who argue that all of Seattle’s non-property-owning class should be segregated into a small portion of the city’s developable land area and live in towers there–like Danny Westneat at the Seattle Times–applauded the decision. Westneat, who owns a $700,000 house in Madrona and was one of the most prominent voices against the 28-member committee’s recommendations, crowed disingenuously that the real reason Murray had lost is that he didn’t open HALA’s heated and lengthy negotiations up to the public (a process that would have likely sunk another large, closed-door committee compromise, the $15 minimum wage), like Danny Westneat had told him to in the first place.  (Not to dwell on one smug, self-interested writer, but it’s worth pointing that Westneat smirks, dishonestly and with zero evidence, that if only Murray had played nice and given him and the single-family protectionists what they wanted–apparently, transparency–then maybe they wouldn’t have forced him to throw his committee under the bus.)

Westneat and the Times, in a separate editorial praising Murray’s cave on Sunday, claim that Murray blamed the media for killing his plan. That strikes me as the kind of self-centered echo chamber that happens in hidebound editorial boards that don’t know much about the majority of Seattle that doesn’t match the Times’ white, wealthy, land-owning demographic. My sense was that Murray has been caught in the headlights, with no clear idea of who to blame. At times, he did blame the media;  at others, it was that (totally, 100% predictable) NIMBY “blowback”; at  other times, it was erstwhile HALA allies like city council president (and current candidate) Tim Burgess. And sometimes, as it was when I talked to him last week, Murray blamed himself. (He did also kinda blame the media.)

I talked to Murray on Thursday night, and at that point, he was taking the line that he didn’t do enough to promote the single-family changes as a positive development and soothe neighborhood activists’ fears. Once he saw how much opposition there was to housing diversity, he had to abandon it, essentially, to save the rest of HALA from a similar fate. Losing mandatory inclusionary zoning for the sake of a few duplexes and townhomes would be a far worse fate than jettisoning that political ballast and keeping the rest of the plan intact.

I’m not sure I buy that. For one thing, there’s always the possibility that single-family changes were an intentional distraction in the first place. For another, Murray is usually very careful about how he rolls out plans like this “grand bargain.” Even if a disgruntled committee member (and at this point, I think which member that was is an open secret) hadn’t leaked the document to Westneat before it was ready for release, Murray’s a savvy enough guy to know that the self-appointed “neighborhood representatives” (those with the time and money and motivation to spend hours crafting battle plans and showing up at daytime meetings and lodging their complaints via letter-writing campaigns) would have a fit. For now, though, that’s his line and he’s sticking to it.

Here’s what Murray had to say late last week.

I don’t disagree with what you’ve written.  [I wrote: “Murray Gives In to Bullying, Abandons Housing Diversity Plan.”] I did give in to single-family pressure. [Single-family] isn’t where the numbers are for creating affordable housing and low-income housing. It helps, but the numbers aren’t there. It helps provide what we we’re talking about. Look at Portland or Vancouver. It does provide a lot of options for people who are buying their first home, or for people who are elderly and looking to downsize.

But I didn’t want to see [mandatory inclusionary zoning] lose over a proposal we weren’t even proposing. We weren’t going to turn every single-family house into a duplex or a triplex, but that’s what people were saying. We weren’t making the case. Perhaps if we were not in the middle of the first district elections in the city’s history, we would have had the time to explain to people who were saying we were proposing something we were not proposing. But unfortunately, there are a lot of council members running for election who are flipping on what they said they supported.

I feel like we’ve made our job to get to a grand bargain much harder. Because people have conflated this proposal with a plan to destroy single family [zones]. The blame lies with me. We didn’t do a good job of explaining the plan. I don’t believe we would get inclusionary zoning if we continued to have a confusing argument about a proposal we actually didn’t make, because we couldn’t explain to people about Portland or other models. The only thing we were able to talk about was the issue of single-family.

Murray also noted that, in Portland, just 3 percent of the land area is zoned the same way as Seattle’s single-family zones, which cover two-thirds of the city’s land mass. What that tells me is that we’ve got a long way to go.