3-15-15: Affordable, Family-Friendly, Transit-Friendly Housing

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Townhouses / Photo by Adam

Debates about how we ought to design our communities often get lost in the weeds fairly quickly: “build this! don’t build that! more density! less density! streetcars! none of the above! all of the above!” When we’re deep not in the weeds, we’re up at 50,000 feet, using vague adjectives like “livable,” “walkable,” or “sustainable.”  If we got the thing we’re all clamoring for, how would we even know? More importantly, what tradeoffs are we willing to make to get there?

As I watch friends start families and head for the suburbs in search of what they perceive to be cheaper housing, I wonder what it would take to make in-city living an option for more families. While there are many reasons why a family might choose to live somewhere or another, surely it’s a major civic policy failure if the only housing units available near frequent transit lines are 1BR apartments and half-million-dollar single-family houses.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology has done great work showing how suburban families end up spending on transportation most of what they’re saving on housing, but many times those costs aren’t transparent.  Suppose for a moment that we’d like housing in Seattle that’s transit-friendly, family-friendly, and affordable. What would that mean?

Here’s what I think it could mean: having a healthy supply of housing for sale or rent that meets the following criteria:

Call it 3-15-15.

Why these numbers? Well, 3 bedrooms make a nice-sized family-friendly house or apartment. Given that the local median household income is $60,000, and housing & transportation costs make up 50% of income, it seems reasonable that a family making the median income could afford $1,500/month in housing costs*, especially if said family was well-served by frequent transit and didn’t need two cars (hence the frequent transit).

Finding a house or apartment today that meets all three criteria is difficult. $1,500/month equates to roughly a $320,000 house, assuming 20% down at today’s mortgage rates. However, according to Zillow, the median 3BR Seattle currently costs $429,000 (rental costs for 3BRs are harder to come by, but at a citywide average of $1.33 per sq. ft., a 1,500 sq. ft. house would probably rent for around $2,000).  So the median house is about 30% too expensive, even before we consider transit access.

But not everyone needs to live in the expensive neighborhoods! A quick scan of Redfin at the time of this writing shows about half a dozen 3BR homes for sale in the price range, and at a glance it seems a couple of them are on or near frequent transit corridors (Aurora Ave., 35th Ave SW, Delridge Way). So it’s not impossible, but it is slim pickings, and the transit access available at this price point is barely sufficient to enable a truly car-free or car-reduced lifestyle**.

With some tweaks to the housing code, we could do much better in terms of quality and quantity. For example, we could permit more 3BR units without off-street parking or on smaller lots. Or we could address the incentives of new multifamily construction by, say, allowing a height bonus for developers who create a certain percentage of 3BR units if said units are also served by frequent transit.  Basically anything that increased the supply of 3BR units inside Seattle’s urban villages would be a win. I’d prefer market-based incentives to quotas or direct subsidies, but I’m open to a range of options. We may find out that reducing restrictions on residential zoning  is the best approach. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve more government.

Alternatively, we could expand the number of neighborhoods that have frequent transit service.  For example, a quick scan of Craig’s List shows a few 3BR townhouses for rent near downtown Bothell for $1,500.  Increasing service levels on the 522 or 372 buses might be another way to achieve our goal. There’s no reason why we can’t have 3-15-15 housing in Bellevue or Redmond, either. This needn’t be a Seattle-only thing.

I’m sure there are dozens of other ways to get there as well.  That’s the point. We need a vision for what we’re trying to achieve with housing and transportation policy, so that the various organs of municipal government can work towards a shared goal, and we can hold them accountable for achieving it.  We also need to know what we’re willing to compromise. That’s what 3-15-15 – or something like it – can provide.  The fact that family-sized, transit-friendly, affordable housing is so rare in this city counts as a major policy failure. We can do better.

* The median household income doesn’t account for varying household size. The median income of a family of four may not equal the median income of the population as a whole. Still, it works as a first-order approximation.

** It’s notable that a few of the houses I see only qualify as 3-15-15 thanks to recently upgraded service on corridors like 35th Ave SW. Perhaps the real estate market has not yet priced in the transit improvements. It might be a good opportunity to take advantage of some information arbitrage if you’re in the market for a new place. As always, Seattle Transit Blog is not authorized to give financial or investment advice.




Comments

  1. John Bailo says

    Great thread…it is starting the discussion where it should. What do people really want to live in (not what they “should” live in, although, there is always give and take between what individuals want and what we as a society can offer that best impacts others, the environment, …)

    Perhaps the thread we’ve been having on Stockholm has some answers. They seems able to create widely distributed metro area density, yet with a distinctive, almost “cozy” architecture of low rise buildings, small streets, squares.

    Then there are the “Sat Cities”…satellite cities connected by transit to handle the overflow of population and offer lower cost housing.

    So these things act like feedback mechanisms. Letting things densify up to a point, but providing release valves that keep prices from skyrocketing and density from creating high-rises that then destroy the character that made the neighborhood in the first place.

    I believe I am been living a version of the 3-15-15 life style here in Kent (more like 2-8-30), where I trade proximity to the benefits of the main city by using transit from Kent Station and my mix of bike-car transport (example, took a bike ride yesterday on Green River trail, looped back to Kent Station, had the all you can eat lunch at Trapper’s Sushi bar, and then threw my bike on the 168 for the climb up the hill).

  2. Jory says

    One of the reasons we moved… Noise. And that, for me anyway, is a big deal. The constant noise of traffic, the streetlights lighting up the inside of our home so much, that at midnight you could read a book.

    Another reason is crime and safety. When we lived in West Seattle, we had a bus stop for #21 pretty much right outside our door. There were two muggings, 4 fights, and one shooting, in 4 years, and that is just what we were aware of. I called 911 on all of them.

    • Frank Chiachiere says

      Well, yeah, not much you can do about noise. City living is noisy. But I think the crime thing would be helped greatly if we had more of the kind of housing I’m talking about.

      • David L says

        We can do something about noise: better building. I’ve lived in in-city housing that was virtually silent when the windows are closed. But that does cost some money.

      • Stephen F says

        Noise has never been a problem. Get better insulation and windows. It’s that simple.

        Crime is relatively solvable, too. Of course, that’s a citywide and neighbourhood effort, not just an individual.

      • says

        One of my co-workers from Sweden recently commented on how noisy things are in Seattle compared to Swedish cities. He says that in Sweden you can look at noise ratings before buying appliances, so people (including landlords) tend to buy much quieter vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, HVAC systems, and the like. He also thinks buildings are better insulated and vehicles are generally quieter over there.

      • Nathanael says

        Renters rarely have the option of improving their insulation.

        This is why building codes need to require stuff like this. Developers building for landlords know that they can get away with thin walls, because the people who complain aren’t the people with the power to pay to insulate the walls.

      • Yorik says

        Building better transit (bonus if it’s electric) so there’s less traffic has got to be the single best way to cut down on the noise issue. Even great insulation has it’s drawbacks because many people would like to have their windows open all summer long for the fresh air and heat relief

      • Matt the Engineer says

        Re: Building codes. I looked at this before and know at least our highrise residential code is quite good about noise requirements, so anything built in the past few years should be great. I have no idea about lowrise, but completely agree it should be code-based so renters don’t have to worry about noise.

        Oh, and for those that own older homes I highly recommend storm windows – they have the same benefits of double pane at a lower cost, and keep your antique wood frames.

      • Eric says

        Many of us on this blog make the argument that we shouldn’t require parking in private dwellings because many people don’t need or want to pay for a place to store an automobile. I agree with this wholeheartedly.

        Why then should we support requiring noise mitigation through the code? A lot of people prefer quieter apartments, just like a lot of people prefer having a garage in their unit. Is it impossible, however, to imagine someone who doesn’t really care much about background noise and would be happy to pay a bit less for an apartment with thin walls? Why should we be in favor of letting the market determine the right amount of parking to provide but oppose letting the market decide how much soundproofing to provide?

      • Matt the Engineer says

        Possibly my own bias, but I can think of relatively few people that don’t value quiet. But I’m fine with instead of requiring it, requiring notification of noise properties. Either in some central database, or some small permanent plaque on the home. You can tell immediately if a home doesn’t have parking, but it could take weeks after move-in to realize a home is poorly sound insulated.

      • says

        It isn’t just insulation, though. Aside from indoor noise sources (since these are pretty much the same regardless of where you live), our outdoor noise sources, especially late at night, are pretty overwhelming. The noise of people out in public mostly dies down at night except right on the street in heavy nightlife districts, and there are plenty of urban living spaces that aren’t that. But our vehicles! In what other country do so many people install loud exhaust systems on their cars and motorcycles intentionally? Of course, people that do this love to go out at night when the roads are clear and drive fast. I think it’s actually illegal to run straight pipes most places but the law is largely ignored. In Seattle our rough roads cause extra noise, but mostly at high speeds (so it makes major highways louder).

        Additionally, some US cities’ transit systems are really loud in ways that affect nearby residents (some parts of Chicago’s L and the surface portions of SF’s Muni Metro come to mind). In Seattle the trains are relatively quiet but diesel buses climbing hills can be pretty loud (newer ones are better, and obviously the trolleybuses are nice).

      • asdf says

        Many suburban apartments are designed where you have a bunch of small-buildings with about 3-5 units each, with shared parking right outside each of them. This goes back to noise in that a lot of cars are set up to make noises when they are locked or unlocked with the electronic key.

        I used to live in such a situation and, because of this, I would be woken up at random times in the middle of the night or early in the morning simply because a neighbor decided to get in or out of his car. This was especially a problem during the summer when I prefer to open my window to let the cool air in. I never considered apartments with this kind of parking arrangement again. I needed the parking to be either underneath the apartments or far enough away so I wouldn’t have to listen to cars being locked and unlocked from my bedroom.

    • Schuyler says

      That’s the main problem with 35th Ave, it’s not exactly the safest part of West Seattle. High Point is notorious.

    • Adam Bejan Parast says

      Over my life I’ve lived in about 10 different apartment/houses around Seattle and my experience is that noise is a highly localized issue.

    • David B. says

      Not restricting 70% of the city to nothing but single-family homes would help on noise. Right now just about the ONLY places you can legally build a new SFH in Seattle are on or near busy streets. It’s something that becomes particularly obvious when you live someplace else and see how comparatively easy it is to find a non-SFH home on a quiet side street in other cities. As someone who neither needs nor wants an SFH and wants more quiet than Seattle offers non-SFH-dwellers, it’s a big issue for me, and one of the three reasons I plan on leaving Seattle this year.

  3. Stephen F says

    We could start by permitting real townhouse development. I wish we would stop calling things around here “townhouses”, most codes limit them to groups of 3 or 6 units attached. That’s triplexes and sextplexes. Not to mention, they’re generally ugly and uniform. Why are prohibiting attractive terraced housing, which is affordable on the East Coast and worldwide?

    • RapidRider says

      Agreed, what we call townhomes in Seattle are nothing more than false density at its finest. They cater to those that still want the American dream of a “yard” while still living in the city. And the people that tend towards Seattle’s townhomes would never be ok with no off-street parking.

      The funny thing is that, the price that new townhomes are going for (a 3 bedroom near me recently went for $450,000), and yet single family homes in the same area, literally a couple blocks away, are going for just a little more. No wonder developers are building so many townhomes these days, for the price of one house, you could turn around and sell four units each for that price. Easy money!

      • NSBill says

        I will bet dollars to donuts that the townhouse you describe was built in the last 20 years whereas the house was built 80 to 100 years ago (i.e. early 20th century). Hence being close in price. There are so many very old houses out there which are just plain weird and decrepit.

        In a way I think this could be a very good time for this sort of development. Inventory is so thin right now I do not understand why builders aren’t falling over themselves to build, build, build. Anything that is decent that is coming on the market receives multiple offers, not just 2 or 3, some get to double-digits. Frankly it’s ridiculous and just drives up prices. But then, these are houses, not townhouses (as Seattle sees them), and not condos. People want to live in a house. But when I say house, I don’t just mean 2200 sqft, 3BR/2BA, two-story on 5,000 sqft of land. Most of the ones I see like this are on much smaller plots of land and not even approaching 2000sqft in space.

        I too very much dislike the townhouses in Seattle. But part of that is the fact that there generally is no yard of any sort. You just have that weird concrete driveway between the units. The garages are so tiny that I would venture to guess that less than 50% are used to store a car. I’ve never understood why we cannot do row houses like in SF. Townhouse-esque, with some semblance of an outdoor space in back. Am I evil for wanting some outdoor space of my own to enjoy a nice summer day? Perhaps I am. :)

      • Eric says

        The low-rise zoning code was actually amended a couple years ago to permit rowhouses. It even encourages this form of housing by allowing a slightly higher FAR for rowhouses than is allowed for townhomes. I don’t know of any that have actually been built yet, but I’m sure there probably are some somewhere in the city.

        Providing parking on rowhouses might be difficult though. The nice thing about the ugly townhomes from a logistical standpoint is that multiple units can share a single driveway and curb cut. If this is being done on a street that doesn’t have an alley, I could see rowhouses being almost as ugly as the townhomes. The street would be dominated by a row of garage doors.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        The problem is the new real townhouses are only allowed in pedestrian zones, which are few and far between. We need to allow them in SF zones.

      • Stephen F says

        Eric, the idea that a terraced house needs on-site parking is absurd. There should be zero spaces required because that level of density is purely urban and lacks a need for parking. Parking was never a problem in Cork City (where I lived) or most European cities that I came across–and it certainly isn’t a problem on the East Coast (save for NYC anyway). I can only imagine that the parking component is what has made developers stay away from going all in. Anyway, my point about townhouse regulations still stands. I haven’t seen a jurisdiction around here have a reasonable code on it and it’s atrocious. Come on DPD, get with it!

      • Eric says

        Oh, I completely agree that it’s absurd to require parking in rowhouses. Even so, that’s what the rule is (unless the building is within a quarter mile of a 15-minute-frequency bus route).

      • Matt the Engineer says

        I said pedestrian zones earlier, but it’s really lowrise residential. Note these are not allowed at all in single family zoning. I think this pdf is a great reference for the new rules.

        It’s rowhouses that I want, not Seattle’s ugly idea of townhouses.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Here are the 4 types of multifamily developments recognized by DPD.
        Cottage Housing

        Individual cottage house structures are arranged around a
        common open space. 950 SF is the maximum size allowed for
        each cottage.

        We are never going to see a significant number of these built because of the maximum square footage.

        Rowhouse

        Rowhouses are attached side by side along common walls.
        Each rowhouse directly faces the street with no other principal
        housing units behind the rowhouses. Rowhouses occupy the
        space from the ground to the roof. Units can not be stacked.

        The blanket maximum facade length for lowrise zones (65% of lot depth) cripples these types of developments, which would otherwise be ideal for wide, shallow lots.

        Townhouses

        Townhouses are attached along common walls. Townhouses
        occupy the space from the ground to the roof. Units can not
        be stacked. Principal townhouse units may be located behind
        other townhouses units as seen from the street.

        These have been around a while and discussed to death. They’re the only type developers are comfortable building in bulk. They avoid being crippled by the facade length requirements by using multiple structures, some set behind others.

        Multifamily housing that is not cottage housing, rowhouses, or townhouses is considered apartments. Apartment units may be stacked.

        This includes subdivided single family houses. Facade length maximums cripple them a bit, but in LR2 and LR3 zones they get a density limit boost (1 unit/1200sf land in LR2 / 800sf in LR3) that only rowhouses can beat. However, NIMBY’s hate these developments more than anything else you can possibly suggest.

      • Eric says

        The blanket maximum facade length for lowrise zones (65% of lot depth) cripples [rowhouse] developments, which would otherwise be ideal for wide, shallow lots.

        I know it’s typical for townhome lots to be legally divided before construction so that the units can be sold separately. I would imagine the same would happen with most rowhouse developments. If this is the case, wouldn’t you only need to worry about the facade length as it pertains to each individual lot? I would hope DPD isn’t interpreting this rule to mean that you can’t have more than a handful of rowhouses next to each other without some empty space in between…that sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

      • Adam Bejan Parast says

        I want more clarity on the “65% of lot depth for portions within 15′ of a side lot line that is not a street or alley lot line, and 40′ for a rowhouse unit located within 15′ of a a lot line that abuts a lot in a single family zone.”

        What is the purpose of this rule? What is the design implication?

      • Stephen F says

        I don’t understand why terraced houses cannot be stacked with units. That’s absurd. Again, something terribly common as condoised/apartmented terrace housing is prohibited by Seattle. For what rational reason???? Christ. Zero creativity and freedom for good and affordable development and choice.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Adam:

        What is the purpose of [the facade length] rule? What is the design implication?

        I would speculate that it’s supposed to be a buffer or transition between single family and midrise zoning. It’s more flexible and permissive than the hard and fast front/rear/side setbacks that regulate facade length in single family zones, yet still restrictive enough to prevent the kind of monolithic block-long facades possible in midrise zones. I think the blanket rule predates the addition of rowhouses to the code, and rowhouse developments could potentially be improved by giving them specified minimum side-setbacks, similar to the ones in single family zones.

        Eric:

        wouldn’t you only need to worry about the facade length as it pertains to each individual lot?

        Negative, DPD reviews the development as a whole, not the individual units. And developers like it that way, as they often need some shared/semi-shared amenities on one portion of the site to meet other code requirements – landscaping features required to meet the overall “green factor” (which the center units of a rowhouse would have a difficult time satisfying on their own) immediately spring to mind.

        Stephen:

        I don’t understand why terraced houses cannot be stacked with units. That’s absurd. Again, something terribly common as condoised/apartmented terrace housing is prohibited by Seattle.

        They’re not prohibited at all, they’re allowed in any lowrise zone. Anything with stacked units simply gets categorized in the catch-all “apartment” category. That category is pretty restrictive in LR1 zones (max 3 units, max 45′ facade, 1.0 FAR), but pretty free and practical in the denser lowrise zones. It’s actually the category with the tallest height limits and highest FAR in LR2/3. They’re still stuck with the same blanket 65%-of-depth facade length limit as the rest of the categories, though.

      • Eric says

        So, under the current code, if I happened to own a whole block of LR1 land and wanted to put row houses on it, I wouldn’t be able to fill the entire width of the street with houses, as is done in so many other cities throughout the world? I would have to make a gap every 65 feet for trees? Trees are nice and all, but this is the city, and there’s still plenty of room for greenery in front of and behind the row of houses.

      • Lack Thereof says

        So, under the current code, if I happened to own a whole block of LR1 land and wanted to put row houses on it, I wouldn’t be able to fill the entire width of the street with houses, as is done in so many other cities throughout the world?

        No, you couldn’t do that in LR1 or any other lowrise zone. You’d need a denser zone for that.

        I would have to make a gap every 65 feet for trees?

        Not necessarily trees. It could be gardens, lawns, patios, picnic tables, swingsets, or (most likely) surface parking. Really, it could be anything that breaks up the structure by a minimum of 10 feet, and isn’t explicitly banned. Developers are quite adept at satisfying green factor without resorting to groves of trees or anything so obtrusive. fencing the property with a “vegetated wall” and using permeable paving in the parking area is usually good enough to get a project at least halfway to the requirement – landscaping the planting strip with native shrubbery usually gets you the rest of the way there.

        But for any of this to matter, first you have to find an entire block of scrapable/buildable land to buy. Typically developers are lucky if they find 2 adjacent lots to buy at the same time, hence the ubiquitous single-lot 4-pack.

      • Mike Orr says

        So the “rowhouse” and “townhouse” categories sound almost the same except for a few trivial details. Is there some reason I’m missing why these differences are important?

      • Lack Thereof says

        So the “rowhouse” and “townhouse” categories sound almost the same except for a few trivial details. Is there some reason I’m missing why these differences are important?

        The rowhouse category is new, and its creation was Sally Clark’s pet project. It’s basically trying to steer developers away from the townhouse 4 packs (the design of which is the subject of much citizen complaints), and encourage more diversity of design in LR zones.

        Rowhouses are supposed to be more street oriented, with main entrances required to be facing the sidewalk, rather than facing inward to the parking court like a typical townhouse project that turns its collective back on the street. It’s a small but significant distinction. Not allowing units to be built behind other units further encourages this street-orientation.

        The code encourages rowhouses over townhouses by:
        * Giving them no density limit – developers can subdivide them into as many small units as the market will allow, where townhouses are restricted to 1 unit per 1600sf.
        * Smaller front and side setbacks, giving the developers more buildable area to play with.
        * Slightly higher FAR, giving the developers more square footage to sell.

        Honestly, it’s not a huge difference, at least not at this point. Maybe a few code revisions down the line it will be.

      • Eric says

        But for any of this to matter, first you have to find an entire block of scrapable/buildable land to buy. Typically developers are lucky if they find 2 adjacent lots to buy at the same time, hence the ubiquitous single-lot 4-pack.

        Sure, I don’t expect a whole block to go for sale at once in the real world. I’d instead imagine a scenario where lots get bought one at a time by different developers. Let’s consider a block of typical 50′x100′ single-family lots that gets rezoned as LR1. A developer manages to buy one of those lots and builds three rowhouses in that 50′ of horizontal space. A year or two later a different developer gets his hands on the lot two houses down and does the same thing: three rowhouses, each with an average width of 16’8″.

        What happens when the lot in between gets sold? If the 65% facade rule applies as you have stated, the developer of this middle lot would basically not be able to build rowhouses. He could extend the buildings on either side by 15′ each, but the required 10′ gaps would eat up the entire remainder of the lot width. So much for that idea…townhome four-pack it is!

      • Lack Thereof says

        Naw, if they were developed piecemeal at different times like in your scenario, they would each be considered individually as separate projects. They wouldn’t even need to be spaced out – side setbacks are 0′ for rowhouses (unless they abut a single family zone).

        The restriction would only kick in if all three lots were being developed as one uberproject.

    • Mike Orr says

      So what do you mean by townhouse and rowhouse then? To me, pretty much any two-or-more story unit is a townhouse, especially if it’s “narrow and tall” and has the bedrooms on one floor and kitchen/living room on another. I lived in such an apartment in Bellevue in the 80s and we and our neighbors considered them townhouses. Later I lived in a 1930s apartment building that was more like a reconverted house, and we also called our two-story unit a townhouse although you couldn’t tell it from the outside.

    • Lack Thereof says

      The code doesn’t limit them to groups of small numbers of townhouse units. It’s the lots they’re building on that restrict them. Code only limits them to 1 unit per 1600sf of land.

  4. says

    I’d say family friendly housing needs to be affordable at less than the household median. Most of those households are child free, and child care in Seattle can cost around $24,000 a year. That nullifies more than a third of the household income. $1500 is thus too expensive for a family of three if one is not school age.

    • Frank Chiachiere says

      Thanks Chris, that’s a great point. I’m looking for better data on what’s affordable to families, especially young families. I’m open to refining the numbers if the data support it.

      • Adam Bejan Parast says

        On the flip side, young families by definition are much more likely to have two people of working age rather than single households. Household income is most closely related to the number of working age adults.

      • The Dog Lady says

        I suggest you all take a look at the “Multifamily Tax Exemption Program” that the city put in place I think about 10-12 years ago. The orginal idea was that this program would allow for “affordable” apartments in all these new developments that are being built. The problem is the ratio that was worked out a person earning mimium wage or just above it cannot afford to live there. This program also gives the developer 12 years without having to pay property tax. In a new development I just recently looked at a 2 bedroom was renting for $3,300 per month.
        Now from what I have been reading if the “MFTEP” was rewritten by the city requiring these new developments to REALLY have affordable living in them they could also include a quota of so many really affordable 3 bedrooms apartments for young families. If you take a look at Yale Town in Vancouver BC they have schools and a community center right there geared towards young families. Yes public transit is very assessable.

        Twelve years of not having to pay King County Property Tax is a lot of money that our state is loosing from most of these new developments, that are really not filling the need.

        Also now Seattle City Council wants to raise property tax with this raise going to help for people who wants to run for city council to help pay for the campaign. So in the next election your tax dollars could be given to someone on the city council who you wouldn’t vote for, but you will be helping to finance their campaign.

    • John Bailo says

      Was looking at a recent census offering, high income counties. High income is defined as 191,000 or more. King County is in there because it meets the criterion of having 5% of households in the high income bracket.

      http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-23.pdf

      So no matter how many ways you slice it, you are going to be up against the income of you neighbors if you choose to live in Seattle (and King!) proper.

      This is why the solution is to “build more Seattle” and hook it all up with transit and rail and better highways. That is, short of everyone getting a 300% raise, you are never going to have that 3-15-15 design work around here unless you start to develop the surrounding areas, even the whole state!

      • Mike Orr says

        Yes, build more Seattle. But that’s not what you’re doing. You’re trying to build more Kent. I would love to see more neighborhoods like… let’s be generously small/suburbanish and say Beacon Hill or Roosevelt… either within Seattle or outside, on a Link line. But that’s not going to happen with huge parking lots and large house lots, as you insist on.

  5. says

    It turns out I live in Affordable, Family-Friendly, Transit-Friendly Housing(TM). 3 bedroom townhome on Delridge, mortgage less than the price stated, frequent transit service on the 120. Such housing is quite available in Seattle, if one heads south.

    I agree that Seattle needs way more of this type of housing. I solution I came up with a while ago is tweaking the Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE) program to give greater incentives for 3-bedroom apartments. This is the program where the City exempts the building from property tax for a certain period if a certain percentage of the units meet affordability criteria and are reserved for people earning less than a threshold income.

    The current economics of apartment construction tilt heavily towards 1 bedrooms. Government involvement may be required to adjust the incentives so that the private market provides larger units.

  6. Adam Bejan Parast says

    I think one of the biggest ways to encourage more of 3-15-15 type housing is to simply expand the area of the city zoned for low-rise development. Besides Capitol Hill, CD, Eastlake, Fremont, Ballard and U-District most areas only have small slivers of low-rise housing, usually just one parcel deep off of an arterial if at all.

    (http://www.seattle.gov/dclu/Research/gis/webplots/smallzonemap.pdf)

    If the city rezoned all parcels within a 1/4 mile of a bus stop with frequent, all-day transit service you would see a significant jump in the area where 3-15-15 could occur.

    • David B. says

      Yes, and much of that housing would be in quieter and more desirable surroundings than most current non-SFH options in Seattle.

    • Lack Thereof says

      This is what I’ve been saying. Take every 15-minute bus line in city limits, and upzone everything within a 5 minute walk of a stop to lowrise. Problem fucking solved.

      • Mike Orr says

        I can just see single-family NIMBYs demonstrating to REDUCE the bus route to avoid this.

        Of course, that means more service hours for another route!

    • Mike Orr says

      “simply expand the area of the city zoned for low-rise development”

      Yes, exactly. But until we can get the city to approve this, we have to do something else.

  7. says

    It’s even crazier and more out-of-whack in Kirkland. $700k minimum for a three-bedroom in a relatively walkable neighborhood with good transit. Occasionally you’ll see something crop up for $500k-ish, but it’ll be gone in a heartbeat.

    Check out this listing, for example. You can walk to a grocery store and get to the 255 bus (<= 15 min headways).

    It's nuts. And frustrating.

    • Bernie says

      First off they’re lying in the listing. That’s not DT Kirkland it’s Houghton. Still it’s a very pricey area. It’s 2240 sqft, 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, new deluxe construction. You expect that to be “affordable”? Try Totem Lake along 124th if you want something with as good or better walk-ability and transit for half the price or less.

      • says

        I’m not super familiar with Totem Lake (I’ve only been there once, on a bike, but I was mostly on 124th) but nothing about it screams “walkable” to me.

        Actually closer to downtown Kirkland proper it’s even crazier than in Houghton. On 3rd Street South (Kirkland street grid, not the county grid) there’s a big corner lot that’s being divided into 15 small lots with a house on each. Now… the original lot was big, but even so, the 15 resulting lots will be pretty small. Sign by the street says the houses will be starting in the $900s. These are new houses in a really desirable location, but… yeah. Downtown Kirkland is not very affordable.

        And the solution for that shouldn’t be to tell people, “Go live by the freeway in Totem Lake.” Downtown Kirkland has good bones — an old, walkable commercial core with high door density, granular use mixture, generally good pedestrian conditions, frequent transit to Redmond, Bellevue, Seattle, and Totem Lake, and less frequent transit connections elsewhere in the northern eastside. It’s a desirable place to live and partly because of building restrictions it’s an expensive place to live.

      • Bernie says

        been there once, on a bike, but I was mostly on 124th

        Yikes! I see people riding on 124th in the dark during the PM commute and wonder if they have a death wish or really believe they are immortal. There are a lot of apartments (maybe some are condos) right across the street from the QFC. There’s a boat load of restuarants, a BECU, two thrift stores a couple ethnic groceries all next to Kirklands largest jobs center. It’s a 10 minute walk to the transit center that has flyer stop connections to DT Seattle, Bellevue, Lynnwood and Everett. Bike commuting options aren’t great although I’m fortunate to have a decent route from Bellevue. Sport biking routes are quite good. Try the Cascade Bike Club Eastside Tours to learn the backroads. Kirkland moving ahead on the Cross Kirkland Corridor is a game changer. Better than buying next to a future Link Station :=

      • says

        Are you talking about 124th Ave or 124th St? I’m talking about the avenue. Google Maps says there are bike lanes on it and it turns out that’s largely not true. Even so 124th is no worse than any other route north from Kirkland. 124th St looks worse because of the 405 interchange.

        And that’s exactly the thing. How can you call Totem Lake walkable when it’s cut to pieces by 405, pedestrian-hostile interchanges, unconnected cul-de-sac roads, use-separated zoning, big car-pipe surface streets that are hard to cross, car-centric intersections, etc. Totem Lake was built up around the freeway and it would take a radical facelift to get many people walking out of anything other than pure necessity.

        Downtown Kirkland was not built up around a freeway, it’s largely pretty pleasant to walk between homes and businesses, and people actually do it at fairly high rates. But people in Kirkland are so afraid of traffic congestion that they want to channel growth out along the freeway in Totem Lake.

        We will never build the city we want to live in if we channel all our growth along freeways. We have to make it possible for more people to live and work and shop in truly walkable places. That means far from freeways.

      • Bernie says

        Are you talking about 124th Ave or 124th St?

        Ah, sorry. A very common source of confusion since Totem Lake is the intersection of 124th and 124th! I use 124th Ave as part of my bike route NB. But I use Slater SB as it’s only one block over and a veritable country lane. 124th Ave and 132nd Ave both have good bike lanes albeit 124 becomes hell at 116th St. FWIW south of there is considered North Rose Hill. Totem Lake is a working class neighborhood and priced accordingly. Walking across 405 at the transit center is easy and common. Evergreen Medical Center is the largest employer in Kirkland. It’s better than trying to cross 405 at Bellevue TC by far. In exchange for taking the bus to trendy DT Bellevue/Kirkland/Seattle you get housing that’s a fraction of the cost. Sorry, no view of the yacht basin.

      • says

        Bernie,

        Anything between 60th Street and 85th street, west of the freeway is walkable and well connected, whether you call it Houghton or downtown. This area is substantially more walkable than Totem Lake in my opinion. Between the giant freeway interchange, the endless sea of car dealerships, strips malls, and disaster that is the Totem Lake mall, the area is far from walkable–although the plans for Totem Lake are fantastic and should change that in 15 years.

        But yeah, I completely agree, Houghton (and downtown) are no where close to affordable—I want higher density 3-bedroom-like multifamily dwellings in this area so that it can be affordable. And yes, I agree, Totem Lake is more affordable, but it’s further away from my work. But isn’t this the point of the discussion? Why is an area like Houghton so expensive? It meets two of the three criteria (3 bedrooms, 15 min headway), but gets blown out of the water on affordability.

      • Bernie says

        Anything between 60th Street and 85th street, west of the freeway… is substantially more walkable than Totem Lake in my opinion.

        I disagree but that’s fine. Houghton has one grocery, ex QFC now a Metropolitan Market. There’s very little else there as far as commercial. One block either way of 108th is all Single Family land. It’s a steep slog east/west and like the rest of Kirkland west of I-405 the N/S street grid is non-existent. It’s got Google but that’s not as big of an employer as Evergreen.

        Between the giant freeway interchange, the endless sea of car dealerships, strips malls, and disaster that is the Totem Lake mall,

        All that is east of I-405 and south of the Hospital. The area west of 405 has a large but nice by suburban standards business park with 2-4 story buildings and a fair amount of the parking below the office space; even a couple of food trucks! It’s got a Marriott, a QFC, a Freddy Krogger, Olive Garden, Azteca, a couple of banks, doctor/dentist, etc. all within an easy 15 minute walk between the hospital and the dog park which are at opposite corners. Totem Lake is a failed mall but as you say the City has Bel-Red type aspirations for it. In the meanwhile it does have a Trader Joes, Guitar Center a Post Office and a bank all in the upper mall.

      • says

        I certainly wouldn’t count Houghton within the walkable core of downtown Kirkland at this point. Houghton basically wants to be a quiet bedroom community, so who cares about it? There’s some industry near the disused railroad tracks, some of which has been redeveloped into commercial and retail space (including the Google office). Most of it isn’t much in scale and pretty much all has parking between the sidewalk and the building, which says all that needs to be said about pedestrian priority. There are big parts of Kirkland where the pedestrian network is ridiculously disconnected. But it has a really walkable core. Shame they won’t let anyone build anything significant there.

        Nobody would dispute that there’s a lot of stuff in Totem Lake, and a lot of it is useful. But it just wasn’t built for walking. If you want to walk from anywhere to anywhere you’re probably walking through a parking lot on both ends of the trip; you’re probably walking out of your way because of the disconnectedness of the street grid; you have few choices of routes because the side streets are cul-de-sacced. Overall, something like the planned street connections in the Spring District is desperately needed in Totem Lake for it to be considered generally walkable.

      • says

        All that is east of I-405 and south of the Hospital. The area west of 405 has a large but nice by suburban standards…

        I had never thought of it like that, but you’re totally right. That particular area is quite good, and you can probably meet the 3-15-15 criteria there pretty reasonably. The freeway completely divides Totem Lake, and I (erroneously) only considered the east half.

        I certainly wouldn’t count Houghton within the walkable core of downtown Kirkland at this point.

        No way am I going to defend the Houghton neighborhood as “walkable” (although it does have sidewalks, which is more than I can say for where I live in Kirkland). Anything south of 60th street gets pretty isolated and is in no way walkable. BUT, it’s less than a mile from the Metropolitan Market to downtown Kirkland and/or the downtown QFC—which pretty much makes that whole area from 60th street north moderately walkable.

  8. Mark Y says

    How many young families can put 20% down? That’s $64K on that $320K house. What they end up doing is getting an FHA loan and putting down 3.5%. But then they cannot afford a $320K house, but more like $225K-$250K.
    At that price range though, now you’ve excluded most of the single family homes, so you’re left with condos and townhouses. Problem is, those units have HOA feels of $200-300 a month, so now that young family can only afford $200K.
    At this point you start looking in the hinterlands.

    I’m going through this exercise right now.

    • Bernie says

      Realistically, you’re looking in Tacoma. Median value of owner-occupied housing for Tacoma $239,200. The ship sailed 10-15 years ago to find housing that cheap in Seattle. Median price for the entire State is $280k and it’s $270k in Everett! Lots in Seattle are worth a 1/4 million because even in dumpy areas people are holding out for a rezone and/or gentrification. It’s called the price of success.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        “Lots in Seattle are worth a 1/4 million because even in dumpy areas people are holding out for a rezone and/or gentrification.”

        That’s just not true, and goes back to your illogical assumptions about what drives housing prices. Lots in Seattle are valuable because people value them. I don’t know anyone looking for a house in Seattle that’s willing to pay a premium in the hope that it will be upzoned one day. People pay a premium because they value the location over that of the suburbs.

      • Bernie says

        I don’t know anyone looking for a house in Seattle that’s willing to pay a premium in the hope that it will be upzoned one day.

        Sisleys; everyone is paying a premium because Seattle is a hot market and prices are expected to rise. Prices could be high because Seattle is a snowflake. That doesn’t change the fact that the price of dirt in Seattle is high and new housing will always be more expensive than the existing stock of older units.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        Think about every regular home purchase ever. Do people really pay twice the price in Seattle because the home price is likely to go up faster than in Everett? Is this even true?

        No. It’s location, location, location. People pick homes where they want to live, and if they can’t aford them they either compromise on home quality or look further away from where they’d like to live. Prospecting for future zoning changes has nothing to do with it.

      • Bernie says

        I never said the entire difference in price was because of speculation You’re just blatantly make crap up. Because someone buying a home isn’t interested in rezoning and the value increasing for other reasons (i.e. gentrification) the person selling certainly accounts for that in the price they are willing to take. You might not care about drivers side airbags but if you’re buying a new car you’re going to pay for it without even thinking about it. Location, location location is why Seattle is a hot market. Whatever way you want to assign value, schools, employment, natural beauty doesn’t matter. The dirt is worth what it is and nothing short of a Detroit style economic collapse is going to change that.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        But you were claiming to assign a reason for the price of dirt as “holding out for a rezone and/or gentrification.” I think this claim is extrodinary and, frankly, wrong. Yes, a square foot of dirt in the city is worth more than a square foot of dirt in the far suburbs. But that value comes from people wanting to live in the city, not some idea of it adding value in the future faster than somewhere else.

        Even shifting the blame to the sellers doesn’t hold water. You can try to charge triple for any number of reasons, and if a buyer won’t meet that price there’s no sale. On top of that, the claim is again ridiculous – how many people do you honestly think are refusing to sell because they’re holding out for an upzone or gentrification? People sell because they want to buy somewhere else, and they set the price based on the amount they think they can get. That’s all there is to it.

      • Bernie says

        But you were claiming to assign a reason for the price of dirt

        Yes Matt, a reason, one reason is that in all likelihood people will continue to want to move here. You know full well that future expectations drives up prices no matter how you want to spin it. It’s why there were so few new listings until prices started to rebound. And again, it doesn’t matter how you want to break down the Seattle premium, it’s the price of success.

      • says

        And this, coupled with the “open space” back-and-forth we keep having, is why it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see large numbers of families in the heart of the city. (Even in New York, aren’t most of the non-ghetto families in the outer boroughs?)

      • Matt the Engineer says

        @Bernie Sure, people try to time the market. I’ll agree with that. But you’re not attributing price fluctuations to timing the market. You’re attributing the base price of land throughout Seattle purely to anticipating upzoning and gentrification. That just isn’t true.

      • Bernie says

        You’re attributing the base price of land throughout Seattle purely to anticipating upzoning and gentrification

        No, you’re the only one saying this. Stop making up crap and use blockquote. Note for example I said, “even in dumpy areas” and you translate as “the base price of land throughout Seattle”. The fact remains that dirt, even in areas that are not very desirable today is expensive. That’s largely because the market thinks it’s going to improve much sooner than a similar property in Everett or Tacoma.

        why there were so few new listings until prices started to rebound.

        Holding onto property from 2008 to 2012, most likely property they’ve owned for many years, is hardly “market timing”.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        “The fact remains that dirt, even in areas that are not very desirable today is expensive.” Based on what? Your estimation of desirability? There’s an easy way to find out how desirable something is: see how much someone is willing to pay for it.

        It sounds to me like you’re claiming to know that someone that bought a house in an “undesirable” neighborhood is prospecting for an upzone or gentrification. If you have some way of knowing that, back it up. It’s much more logical that a run down neighborhood is more expensive in the city than the far suburbs because it’s in the city and close to jobs and services.

        And as a side argument: The word “even” in “even in dumpy areas” implies a wider set these “dumpy areas” are part of. As you started that sentence with “Lots in Seattle”, that’s clearly the set you were talking about.

      • Bernie says

        Matt, you’re just being obtuse. I’m done trying to explain why expectation of future return is driving the big money to markets like Seattle. I end back where I began; Sisleys.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        I’m not being obtuse, I’m holding you to your argument. And I honestly don’t understand the logic behind it.

      • Mike Orr says

        “Realistically, you’re looking in Tacoma.”

        Tacoma, which is about to lose weekend transit….

  9. Al S. says

    Should there be one more “15″ for walking? We don’t often recognize the importance of walking in affordability but it can be a huge factor. We have the walk scores available, but it’s not easily explainable to the average person on the street and it often presented as an aggregate measure. Perhaps something like “Within 15 minutes, an adult can walk to buy food to prepare a meal, obtain prescriptions at a pharmacy, mail a package or a letter, retrieve money from a bank ATM, and dine out — all using a safe route.” would be a start. For “served by transit”, it might be that the walk distance to a stop needs to be defined (and I would think that might need to be within 10 minutes of frequent transit service).

    • JohnS says

      As much as I love WalkScore, it’s also far from a panacea. There are plenty of instances where ‘grocery store’ means different things to different folks. And WalkScore doesn’t really give you walk quality either – there’s no way of knowing, say, if a given route involves heaved sidewalks or asphalt patches or things that would be difficult for seniors or mobility-impaired folks.

      So I agree with you that it’s an important concept as part of what Frank is talking about (particularly since the more trips are taken on foot the less need there is for parking, and the more money is saved for the person who’s buying or renting these 3-15-15 units). But we have more work to do to get the data to where it’s truly useful.

  10. says

    “Surely it’s a major civic policy failure if the only housing units available near frequent transit lines are 1BR apartments and half-million-dollar single-family houses.”

    What is the evidence for this? I live on a transit line, in an apartment building, where there are plenty of larger apartments AND sub-half-million-dollar single family houses nearby. This framing just plays in to the notion that “density proponents want to force everyone who isn’t rich to live in shoeboxes.”

    • Andrew Smith says

      Yes, I agree with you. In fact, if you go past 100th, there’s lots of places that fit this 3-15-15 criteria. I bought a house near northgate and the mortgage is $1100 a month, and it’s three beds, three baths, is across the street from the 41 and will be a few blocks away from light rail in ten years’ time.

      Now, this isn’t true in Capitol Hill, but not everyone has to live in Capitol Hill or Belltown.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Very little north of 100th is on 15 minute transit lines, and much of what is actually on Lake City Way, or Aurora, or Greenwood, isn’t particularly walkable. I looked for a 2 bedroom apartment up there last year, and was locked out of every walkable, transit accessible rental listed at semi-affordable prices by their competitive application processes that select the highest income applicant.

        Once you hit the county line, they don’t even have service at all on sundays.

      • Geoff says

        Go north of 85th and your commute on the bus to downtown is equal to or longer than a commute on the freeway in your own car to the suburbs (with a few exceptions, like if you live near the 41 south of Lake City).

        Given a choice between an old house in a sinking neighborhood like Greenwood, spending nearly an hour each direction on the #5 to and from downtown or driving my own car about an hour to and from downtown from my newer, larger home with cheaper property taxes, I know which most will choose. And I speak from direct experience in doing both. Suburbs win by a landslide.

        Now, OTOH, if grade separated transit were to be built, this would instantaneously change for myself, and many others I would assume.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Re: Commutes
        There’s also a lot of really nasty, ugly transit trip-routings when you’re that far north. Even if you’re not going south of the canal, you’ll end up with a bus ride south over one bridge, a transfer point south of the canal, and then a bus ride back north over a different bridge.

        However, I think it’s safe to say that everything in that department will change once Link to Northgate comes online.

      • says

        @Lack: Everything changes when Link comes online *if* everything is trips from Northgate to Cap Hill. Those are really important trips (probably the most important ones in the corridor, the ones Link should fix first). But routing, traffic, and pedestrian conditions near Northgate could use some attention. Northgate has emerged as a big transfer node, but a lot of routes in the area take circuitous routes into it, such that there’s often a major penalty taking transit into Northgate compared to driving even if you’re not transferring.

        Maybe the speed and directness of Link cures all ills… IF the north end’s east-west routes are good enough to feed it.

      • asdf says

        “Given a choice between an old house in a sinking neighborhood like Greenwood, spending nearly an hour each direction on the #5 to and from downtown or driving my own car about an hour to and from downtown from my newer, larger home with cheaper property taxes, I know which most will choose. And I speak from direct experience in doing both. Suburbs win by a landslide.”

        If you live in the suburbs and are willing to drive a couple miles to a P&R and you work normal 9-5 hours, you will have much better transit, at least for getting to work, than you would in Greenwood. Yes, transit will suck for all non-work commutes, but if you’re willing to drive for every trip except work, you don’t care.

      • says

        Exactly: I should add that I do NOT live in Cap Hill or Belltown, because I can’t afford a 1BR that close in. But I don’t live as far “out of town” as 100th, either.

      • Mike Orr says

        “a sinking neighborhood like Greenwood”

        What does sinking mean? It sounds like “deteriorating, possibly to a ghetto”. AFAIK Greenwood near 85th is still the antique-store-and-pleasant-neighborhood thing it has been for the past 30 years. Above 100th has expanding multifamily housing. The bus service isn’t great but it’s above Seattle’s average, and it has both the 5 and the 358 nearby. So how is it sinking?

    • Bernie says

      the only housing units available near frequent transit lines are 1BR apartments

      I’ve tried wooden stakes and silver bullets and it’s a myth that just won’t die. I guess it doesn’t need to be true if you recite it enough times that people start to accept it as fact.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Apply for some of those “affordable” 2/3bd apartments yourself, see if you get in.

        Just because it’s listed on Craigslist doesn’t mean it’s available. Apartment managers are taking dozens of applications for the same unit over a period of a couple weeks, and accepting the highest income applicant.

      • Bernie says

        If an apartment manager is getting dozens of qualified applicants they have to sort through why don’t they raise the rent?

      • Lack Thereof says

        If I was the manager I would. But for all I know, they go back to the “most qualified” applicant and say “we’re willing to accept you, but only for $list_price ++ 200″. I never made it that far so I can’t confirm/deny. Or perhaps managers of apartments in that price range are just badly misgauging market demand – none of the large, nationally-managed apartment complexes are advertising in that price range.

      • Bernie says

        Seriously? You really think it could be a massive bait and switch scam? I can tell you where I’d tell such manager to shove his deposit. Likewise hard to believe they are all misgauging market demand. As a landlord I can tell you the way to have a new renter without ever advertising is to offer at below market rate. How do you know they are taking dozens of applications and deciding on highest income? I’m pretty sure that would put landlords at odds with the law regarding anti-discrimination statutes. Of course I’m not so naive as to believe that discrimination doesn’t happen and it’s pretty hard to do anything about.

      • Lack Thereof says

        How do you know they are taking dozens of applications and deciding on highest income?

        Several months of apartment hunting have borne this out. After blowing a couple hundred dollars on application fees $25/$50 at a time, to always be turned down, even though I have a *10 year* rental history never missing a payment with the same landlord (who reports never once being contacted for a reference, despite all my applications), I started asking managers flat out what they were looking for before submitting an app. They all bottom-lined it for me as income. I started verbally disclosing my income before submitting an app (which is just high enough to not qualify for public assistance without children), and they would generally tell me quite openly that I didn’t stand a chance (thus saving me a fortune in application fees).

        Burien is about as close-in as you can get and avoid this policy. There’s some nice apartment complexes off of Ambaum, walking distance to the frequent 120 bus and plenty of retail amenities, with managers who are only looking for a deposit in-hand and no felonies.

        I’m pretty sure that would put landlords at odds with the law regarding anti-discrimination statutes.

        I’m not sure why… discriminating on the basis of income is both totally legit and also kind of the entire point of the rental application process. A higher income applicant obviously has a better ability to pay rent than a lower income applicant. Remove that check, and why bother having an application at all?

        Me and my wife, in the end, resolved this problem not by moving to Burien, but by applying for a mortgage. We had no difficulty getting approved for a mortgage with a much higher monthly payment than anything we were trying to rent (we obviously did not go for the full offered amount, but stayed within our existing budget). The interest rate penalty for sub-20% down payments is greatly overstated – we are doing 15% but could have gone as low as 5% while still affording the payment and without having to go FHA. There were plenty of sub-1000 sqft single family bungalows in the suburban city neighborhoods that we could afford, mostly short-sales and foreclosures. Sure, they’re not in tip-top condition – think built in the 1940′s and renovated once in the 1970′s – but they’re just as good as any of the places I’ve rented, and month-to-month it’s cheaper than the apartment.

      • Bernie says

        After blowing a couple hundred dollars on application fees $25/$50 at a time, to always be turned down

        Wow! That’s quite a [almost but probably not legal] racket and explains part of my initial skepticism. So, a large number of the apartment ads on Craigslist are a scam. Who’d a thunk it? Got to admit it’s awfully tempting to place adds for a rental that “might” be available; just send me $25, non-refundable. OK, I believe you that most of the Craigslist ads are bogus. Buying in Burien; 10 years from now will prove to be the best investment you’ve ever made. My crystal ball says you’ll be moving upscale and keeping that property as a landlord that renters respect rather than loath. Good for both parties in the transaction.

      • Lack Thereof says

        FYI the listings I used were not all craigslist. There were a fair number of old-media listings in the mix; Little Nickel, Seattle Times et al.

        And they weren’t pure scams. The apartments /were/ available, and they /were/ eventually rented to someone (typically after a 2 week application window), and if you asked the apartment manager the right questions during the showing, they were totally polite and honest about the competitiveness of the application process, and your likelihood of getting the rental.

        If they were straight-up pure scams, the managers wouldn’t have been so frank with me about our chances of getting the apartment, so that they could collect more application fees from tenants they knew were going to be turned down. After a brief discussion, the managers basically would tell me (politely & professionally) to save my application money and not bother applying.

        The straight up scam listings you could always tell because the rate was even lower, they were usually listed as furnished, and usually didn’t ask for any income verification. Also you wouldn’t come up with anything, even Yelp ratings, when you Googled the alleged management company.

        And I should have been clearer – we’re not buying in Burien, we’re buying in a suburban neighborhood of Seattle. Our choice was between renting in Burien and buying in Seattle.

    • Adam Bejan Parast says

      I think you’re reading this wrong.

      The point I believe Frank is making is that good public policy would encourage a diversity of housing types and prices points, not just apartment development that isn’t family friendly and single family housing that aren’t affordable for many. Those things aren’t bad, it’s the lack of other options which is the problem.

      I find that critique spot on.

    • Frank Chiachiere says

      This framing just plays in to the notion that “density proponents want to force everyone who isn’t rich to live in shoeboxes.”

      Huh, I don’t see it that way. And if it comes across that way that’s certainly not my intention. If I’ve missed out on a stash of awesome, affordable 3BR houses with good enough transit access to enable a family to live car-free, then point me to ‘em! I’m more than happy to be proven wrong here.

  11. Mike Orr says

    Good idea to look at this as a package of amenities rather than just each one in isolation. It allows people to picture the kind of household that’s looking for this, how average they are, and how many choices they have. Right off the bat it shows the dilemma, because a newer 1BR in central Seattle (N 65th to S Weller) is approaching $1500 and a 2BR is already above that, and you haven’t even gotten to 3BR yet. I’d also argue that Metro’s definition of frequent (15 minutes Monday-Friday 6am-6pm) is inadequate because many of people’s errands are evenings or weekends. So the lower-priced areas (Aurora, Delridge, Lake City) can be included only because frequent is defined so low. That may be good as a starting point but we should ultimately aim for higher than that, with full-time frequent transit (Monday-Sunday until 10pm) to all these areas.

    • asdf says

      I absolutely agree. For anyone who works a normal 9-5 job, frequent service in the middle of a weekday is only useful for the rare days you need to arrive at work late or leave early. Frequent evenings and weekend service is much more important.

      Also important is having frequent bus routes going multiple directions, not just to downtown. Fremont is pretty good with the 40 to Ballard and the 31/32 to the U-district. But without these crosstown buses, Fremont would be a lot less attractive for anyone wanting a transit-oriented lifestyle.

      • William says

        Exactly! Sometimes I wonder if frequent bus service would actually be more useful on the weekends than in the midday. I know I’d definitely use it more then, at least, and I can’t imagine it’d be different for most other non-self-employed people. Are there any numbers comparing the two times, I wonder?

      • David L says

        Saturday ridership is typically higher than midday ridership, for what it’s worth, but Sunday ridership is lower.

      • Mike Orr says

        Part of the reason it’s lower is that the frequency is half of Saturday’s on many routes, so people have gotten used to driving, staying home, or shifting their trips to Saturday.

  12. kpt says

    The issue extends beyond price and availability of the three bedroom house to the definition. Nearly all the three bedroom townhouses you see listed on Craigslist don’t really count. Our building code essentially forces them into a 2 BR on top, living space on floor two, garage and third “bedroom” on the ground floor configuration. No family with young children wants to put one of them two floors away. So, they stack two kids in one BR (this is fine, but in that case, a 2BR place would do). People really want three BR on the same floor.

    The architectural and zoning reasons are all detailed here (I got this link from STB, so I know this has been posted before).

    http://seattleurbanism.blogspot.com/2009/10/townhouses-part-2-problem.html

      • Lack Thereof says

        It is. The rules it cites are dated, there was a big revision to the lowrise code a year or so after the blog post was written, but it’s still mostly true.

    • David L says

      The best of the townhouses are the “four-bedroom” ones. Those typically have four stories, with a master bedroom on top and two smaller bedrooms on the third story. They actually work well for young families, but they are more expensive and less common.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Less common because they run afoul of height limits in anything less than LR3, and there is very little LR3 zoned land in the city.

      • Eric says

        I rented one of those four-story L3 townhomes for a year. It had two tiny bedrooms and a bathroom on the bottom floor, garage and laundry on the next floor up (the garage was on the second floor because the lot was on a hill), kitchen/dining/living rooms on the third level, and a master bedroom/bathroom up top. It was a fine layout for roommates, but I can’t imagine trying to raise kids when their bedrooms are three stories below yours.

  13. Adam Bejan Parast says

    Don’t forget about quality school. For lots of parents good schools trumps just about anything else. A friend of mine made a pretty convincing argument that the city should take oven the Seattle school district to bring more accountability to the issue. Unless Seattle does a better job of keeping families they will continue to move to suburbs.

      • says

        (Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” So what I’m about to say is perhaps deeply conservative, and maybe some hopeful optimistic educators disagree.

        It seems that parents have a bigger impact on students’ success than schools do at this point — schools may be able to do something for student outcomes but there’s a lot they can’t do. And we mostly measure school performance by students outcomes, so a big part of what we measure when we look for “good schools” is really a measurement of the parents sending their kids there. Concerned parents of means will continue to fret about school performance and avoid poorly performing schools, perhaps with little or no effect on their children’s success, but there may not be much the schools can do about it.)

      • Adam Bejan Parast says

        As with most things the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.

        Of course parents are critical to having good outcomes in just about any measure, but we’re not just talking about the ability of a few kids to succeed because of their parents, we’re talking about making sure all kids can succeed.

        No parent wants to take a gable with their kids future and if parents feel the Seattle school district is they will continue to leave.

  14. Allison says

    Certainly agree that a shared vision can help improve the “various organs of municipal government.” A couple folks have stated this, but a huge part of this conversation should be about schools. Sure, lots of families move to the suburbs to get more square footage, but many move to access higher quality education. Plenty of peole move to the eastside to send their kods to public schools, rather than stay in the city an have them in private schools. As a new mom, a transportation planner, and someone who lives in the CD/cap hill area, it’s becoming clearer to me that we need to have solid choices as to where we send our kids to school. It’s not just a matter of affordable housing and good transit choices (though these are all critical pieces of a larger conversation).

    • Frank Chiachiere says

      Agree. But what Al said directly above about schools being a trailing indicator is also true. One challenge with urban schools is that you have this doughnut hole: the poor kids go to the public schools, the very rich go to private schools, and the middle class for the large part move to the suburbs. If we could provide great urban family housing, I feel like we could create more of a constituency for better public schools.

      • JohnS says

        I don’t know, Frank, we just passed two more school levies, to the tune of over a billion dollars. We certainly aren’t afraid of throwing money at our public schools. And we have a clear constituency that lobbies in favor of voting more money to the schools.

        The issue in the CD, as I’ve seen it over the last 15 years, is more what Adam said, that parents are afraid to gamble with their own kids if they have a perception their neighborhood school is not as good as what they expect. And in many cases, even as things have improved at individual school levels, the initial impressions still aren’t great. The District’s administration’s ongoing struggles with financial mismanagement, the reputation of the central office as the “Death Star”, earnest but tone-deaf principals…the list goes on. And it results in that doughnut hole, indeed. And I don’t see much on the table that’s going to change the equation.

    • Bernie says

      One school does not a district make but kudos to LOWELL ELEMENTARY ranked 4th best in the west. It does prove that Seattle School District can produce good schools. But there’s not much the district can do to win the battle on the home front in less affluent parts of the City.

  15. Martin H. Duke says

    Frank,

    I share your personal preference for families staying in the city, but can you come up with an argument from first principles as to why that’s an important policy objective? That’s a sincere question, not a rhetorical one.

    • Frank Chiachiere says

      I don’t think it’s about being “in the city.” I think it’s about creating affordable family-size housing with really good transit no matter where you live. Like I said, I’m happy for more 3-15-15 housing to sprout in Bellevue or Bothell. And I think that’s important for a myriad of reasons related to environmental sustainability.

      Secondarily, I don’t want Seattle to turn into a techno-Dubai, full of migrant workers who come to toil in the Amazon cloud for a few years and send remittances back home. But that’s a more minor concern.

    • David L says

      I’m not Frank, but here are a few reasons:

      - Just like singles, families have lower environmental impact in the city.
      - Having easy access to city culture and amenities is fantastic for the development of kids, particularly those old enough to move around the city independently.
      - Diversity in many respects is good for the city’s culture, and families add to that just like all other types of city residents.
      - Having children grow up in the city will add to the population that has roots in the city and cares enough about it to advocate for its interests going forward.

      • Frank Chiachiere says

        David, I’m not sure what “I’m not” refers to, but I think you’re saying that it’s good to have families in the city. I agree! My point about Bothell and Bellevue is simply that I want to get away from arbitrary classifications of “city.”

  16. says

    Add onto that Five in Five–five serviecs within five minutes walk. A corner grocery/Farmer’s Outlet, restaurant/pub, drugstore/postal outlet/digital output shop, library kiosk/community space, and coffee shop/deli.

  17. Mike Orr says

    One thing to remember is the 30-minute and 60-minute transit circle in each location. From my apt near Convention Place, in 30 minutes I can get to anywhere in Center City or the U District. In 60 minutes I can get to anywhere in Seattle (except the deepest single-family enclaves), the suburban transit centers, and part of Bellevue. But from 125th & Greenwood or 125th & Lake City Way, the transit circles are much smaller. 30 minutes gets you to part of north Seattle. 60 minutes gets you to downtown, north Beacon/Rainier, and most of north Seattle, and Shoreline/Edmonds (from Greenwood) or Bothell (from Lake City), but forget about Kirkland/Bellevue/Renton. From Delridge & Sylvain Way, the transit circles are even smaller. This is important if you work outside those circles, or if you get laid off and have to go interviewing everywhere.

    The most interesting metric I’ve seen is that from Magnuson Park it takes 45-60 minutes to get to Phinney Ridge or 105th & Aurora. In other words, even getting to Ballard or 130th & Aurora takes over an hour, to say nothing of Beacon Hill. Isn’t this what we expect if you’re travelling from someplace like Issaquah, not from a north Seattle neighborhood?

  18. Nathan Landau says

    Vancouver, B.C. requires the inclusion of “ground-oriented” housing in towers. Basically these are townhouse units within residential towers. This approach means that there will be housing in the central city which is at least physically suitable for families with children.

  19. Orv says

    I may be dropping a turd in the punchbowl here, but: I used to live in an apartment building where a family lived above me. After years of being woken up in the middle of night by crying babies, and in the morning by toddlers thumping around and falling, I’m not sure the goal expressed here is a good one for anyone’s quality of life. Older kids from other units would play in the parking lot and throw play balls at my car, or yell insults at me when I rode my bike.

    Kids and dogs both need room to run around. Neither belong in the city. It’s cruel to them and to the people around them to put them in such confined surroundings.

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