Land Use Sign. Photo borrowed from Maple Leaf Life Blog.

The Seattle Times has an article up about some concerns surrounding potential redevelopment of 8.4 acres of cheap apartments near Northgate. These “concern” pieces seem to usually go one of two ways: a sad story about the loss of low-income garden homes or a story about how new development is going to destroy the community (often the reason cited is traffic). This article is a bit better, but I am still absolutely certain it’s not asking the right questions. Here’s the gist:

But a proposal to rezone the land is being opposed by advocates who fear the loss of the existing 207 apartments that are home to many low-income and immigrant families.

But the Mullally family, which owns the Northgate Apartments, has applied for neighborhood commercial zoning that doesn’t require any replacement of the existing apartments.

I suggest you read the article, my comments below the fold.

The article thankfully has  details about the zoning and I think we can infer from them something about the state of mind of the developers.

The apartment property is currently zoned MR, or midrise multifamily. If the Mullallys took advantage of the city’s incentive zoning provisions, they could build up to 2,216 units on the site, according to a calculation prepared by the Department of Planning and Land Use.

They would also be required to replace all 207 of the existing affordable units and build an additional 96 to get the maximum building capacity.

But if they kept the current midrise zoning and didn’t ask for additional height, they wouldn’t have to replace any of the housing units.

In March, the Planning Department approved the rezone to neighborhood commercial but set five conditions, including that the developers add 3 to 5 percent of each new building’s floor area as affordable housing. The 33-page ruling notes that the alternative — a less dense development at the existing zoning, and no new affordable housing — “would fall short of what is envisioned for urban centers.”

Housing advocates say 3 to 5 percent is too little housing for such a big site. And they worry that it won’t be truly affordable to retail workers who want to live in the neighborhood.

Emphasis added. I think there are two ways to reason about this. In one, the Mullally family (a local, family business that has a well-run complex with happy tenants it seems) has decided they would rather not build more units for nefarious reasons. Maybe they really hate poor and working class people, or want to spite John Fox. Or maybe they like having articles in the Seattle Times that make it look like they could be hurting poor and working class people (immigrants, too!), and who wouldn’t like that?

In the other, a way maybe we should also consider, the city’s incentives to build low-income housing do not pencil out in this case. Maybe the incentives are too small. Maybe the rules are too complex. Maybe it requires too much or too little retail. Maybe it’s not possible to get a construction loan for that many units (up to 2,216, with a commensurate amount of parking I would imagine). Maybe they want to build more units. Because, if it did turn out the problem was the zoning rules themselves, we can do something about that. The city council could change those parameters for the Mullally’s with a single vote. Then maybe we could get more market rate housing, more affordable housing, more property tax revenue and more money for the Mullally’s. Win win win win.

I don’t know what the reasons are, but had it been me interviewing John Mullally about this, I might have asked these questions. I would have at very least asked this: “Hey John, why aren’t you considering developing at midrise instead of taking the commercial zoning?” Then I would have published the answer. And then we could reason from that.

One more thing:

Fox estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 low-income units a year are lost in Seattle while, under the city’s 2009 housing levy, 300-400 are built.

I do not know why the Seattle Times prints this John Fox quote without doing any checks to see if it is accurate at all. How did Fox arrive at that number? It seems impossibly large to me, considering there are something like 269,000 units in Seattle in total. What percentage of those 269K are affordable? What is the current redevelopment churn within the city? What percentage of the affordable housing being lost is due to market forces (supply and demand) as opposed to redevelopment? I don’t know, but presumably you would have to know the answers to those to know that between 3,000 to 4,000 affordable housing units were being lost each year. Right? The article clearly makes it sound like 4,000 cheap apartments are being physically destroyed every year, in which case I’d expect 15-20 articles like this per annum from the Seattle Times.  Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case; I’m not sure I could stand my head exploding that many times per year.

26 Replies to “Affordable Apartments”

  1. Or simply being lost due to the end of useful life or obsolescence. Many structures, most especially those constructed post-World War II, only last up to 50 years due to poor construction techniques and lack of maintenance. That may explain a large number. But even that 4,000 number seems suspect on the face of it. Of course, any structure replacing obsolete structures is not likely to be classified as “affordable” as the prior structure was likely in near-condemnation status.

    1. 1950s construction standards seem to have been especially poor, and this seems to have persisted into the 1960s. Stuff from that period is frequently being torn down due to non-remediable structural problesm….

  2. John Fox is full of crap as usual. Demolition is much less than that. Maybe he’s talking about rising rents, which he ought to say (or the paper ought to report if he did say it). Either way, his plan of restricting supply would be directly against his goal of affordable housing.

    Actually that’s not exactly true. He doesn’t care about affordable housing at the “workforce” level. He only cares about the very low-income levels. That’s an important group to protect, but (a) we have a levy and other tools for that, and (b) it shouldn’t be at the expense of other levels of affordability.

    (disclosure…I work for a contractor but not involved here)

    1. Exactly. It would be really awesome to be the times’ local BS guy when it comes to a some topic as John Fox seems to be when it comes to “affordability”. Next time there’s a light rail piece, they could call me and I would say “Each link light rail station creates between $1 and $2 billion dollars in commercial activity each year”, and no one would check those facts.

    2. John Fox’s stats are inflated. Per the Puget Sound Regional Council’s building permit summaries, demolition permits have averaged 680 units per year in the City of Seattle between 2006 and 2010. These are all residential units including houses; affordable housing is not broken out.

      1. That’s some inflation. Even if half of the units were affordable, that’s an exaggeration of about 1000%.

        But then, 43% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

      2. The word used in the article is “lost,” not “demolished.” As Andrew mentions in the article and Matt Hays and Stephen Fesler mention above, this could also be due to rising rents or other factors. I’m not a big fan of Fox, but it’s impossible to tell from that article what exactly he said, or what the Times actually asked. Just another poor piece–either written or edited–from a crap paper whose agenda fits better in someplace like Montgomery or Tulsa.

        (I personally think Matt H’s comment is pretty spot on.)

      3. Yes that sentence says, lost, but read the next one:

        Fox estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 low-income units a year are lost in Seattle while, under the city’s 2009 housing levy, 300-400 are built.

        “We can’t afford to replace all the housing developers are destroying. Developers should share in the cost of replacing those units,” Fox said.

        That is pretty clearly tied to the previous stat (it’s the same fucking person saying both things).

    3. Let us also not forget that John Fox and friends are railing against any redevelopment of Yesler Terrace and are attempting to be quite vocal about it.

  3. Without talking to anyone closely involved in this project I think there are two ways to interpret this.

    The nefarious one similar to what Andrews outlined, is that the Mullally family is trying to get around the affordable housing requirement. I think this is a fairly poor argument since they would still need to provide a good deal of affordable housing under the proposed DPD rezone and 97 units (the difference) out of ~2,300 isn’t a fatal flaw.

    I think the more likely explanation is that this site has very high potential with respect to commercial activity, specifically shopping, which is exactly what NC zones are intended for. MR zoning would result in an almost entirely residential development, rather than the NC3 zoning which is much more in line with what you see in most neighborhood cores and the rest of the Northgate Urban Center.

    For example it should also be noted this is the only property in the Northgate Urban Center along Northgate Way that is not zoned NC.

      1. I agree. It would be silly to redevelop the site without including a significant retail component, especially given the location.

  4. This is exactly the type of complex here in Kent that I live in, and I always imagine the day I’ll return home to see one of those signs up. There are wide green belts and open spaces amidst these garden apartments that the penny-squeezers and densifiers probably salivate at the thought of ruining lives.

    In my ideal, this style of garden apartment — not too dense…not to spread out…is what the whole state should be zoning for…not against.

    However, once you start on a destructive path of density, everything nearby increases in value and hence it must continue until it’s exhausted the pool of available renters and much of their income.

    1. Most of the value increase you’re talking about is *because* of zoning limiting how high any particular building can be. When there isn’t enough of something and more people want it, it gets more expensive.

      1. And where are these people coming from in the first place?

        Outer space with bags of gold?

        If you create density and raise prices (and have access to a printing press) then anyone living rationally who is adjacent to your mess gets devoured…however vague or inane the economics are.

      2. There’s some nuances to this argument. The market for living space is not perfectly fungible i.e. people don’t rent or buy purely on a price/square foot basis. So current zoning may artificially restrict the supply of higher density dwellings and artificially boost the supply of low density structures. That would tend to produce overpriced high density rentals and under-priced low-density ones.

        On top of that is the argument that overall demand to live in the core is forcing prices up and there is a limited supply of land. The current uptick in apartment construction and the better retention of value of homes in the inner part of the region supports that idea so some extent.

        However, denser construction is almost always more expensive (and the taller it is the more that is the case) than less dense construction and you lose the fixed costs sunk in an older structure that is being replaced. So as you convert housing stock you’re almost always driving the real price of space up at the same time.

        Because the real costs are fairly high even subsidizing new affordable housing may not bridge that gap. Further what happens here is that the subsidies typically end up being spread out among the market rate units, artificially inflating the price of normal units. Case in point all the cities that are denser than us in the US have higher not lower housing costs and they don’t have spend any money to reach those density levels. Affordability is found in the sunbelt city examples.


      3. Garden apts are appropriate for locations with regular transit service but not in an urban center within walking distance to a rapid transit trunk line (they shouldn’t be prohibited, but also not encouraged or protected). Now that Northgate is growing up to be a major urban center, it’s upgrading its intensity of land use at the same time as it’s upgrading it’s transportation – an excellent demonstration of concurrency.

        As the region grows, other neighborhoods (East Hill?) similary graduate from rural/suburban to urban, and with that should come regular transit service and a transition to somewhat more intense land use, like single family houses->garden apts. In those neighborhoods there’s enough transit service to support low-rise density, but not enough for more intense land uses like Northgate.

        With this sort of trickle-out densification, there remains plenty of each different type of housing stock so that everyone can go with the density/transportation cost tradeoff that works best for them (subject, of course, to the constraints of finite resources).

    2. “garden” style apartments are something one sees primarily in areas where land is relatively cheap and where the developer needs to provide 1 parking space per adult living in the complex due to auto dependence. “garden” style complexes avoid the need to build structured parking which is relatively expensive.

      However such construction generally doesn’t make sense closer to “core” areas due to the cost of land and the general lack of large parcels to build such complexes on. Sure you could try to force such construction with zoning laws, but that just results in some very expensive garden apartments in close-in neighborhoods.

      In general “garden” apartments are something built on the scale of the automobile and not on a pedestrian scale, much like typical big-box stores and suburban office parks surrounded by acres of parking.

      1. History question: why are these called “garden apartments”? They usually have little or nothing in the way of gardens, but they do have acres of asphalt and quite a lot of grass. In the places I’ve visited, the ones with the most extensive *gardening* were often the rowhouses.

      2. Maybe it’s the British version of “garden,” which means “yard”?

      3. I believe the buildings were smaller and had more landscaping around them than whatever was the standard of the day. Apartments are descended from hotels, and hotels often have several stories and a lot of units. “Garden apartments”, being two or three stories and containing just a handful of units, looked small and countryish in comparison.

        But no, the term doesn’t make sense nowadays, when many garden apartments look like low-density suburban sprawl at the same level as strip malls, which are often next to them.

  5. What percentage of the affordable housing being lost is due to market forces (supply and demand) as opposed to redevelopment?

    Given that the definition of affordable is based on median income I’d expect the number of affordable units to increase as Seattle’s median income increases. However, the housing bubble and peoples hesitance to buy in a market where prices may still be trending down has driven up rents faster than income so it’s believable “market forces” in the form of rising rents could result in a loss of 1.5% in the number of units that qualify as affordable.

    1. You’ve got a really strong point. I recently bought a place near northgate — not to live in but to rent! My mortgage is $1000 but my rent is $1500, a great bargain and a free house. It still could have penciled out as place to live without a large down payment.

  6. The amount of land base in the Seattle region that is actually redeveloped for “high-density” uses of the kind in this article (eg, strip retail, parking lots, single-family or garden apartments to mid-rise/high-rise) is diminimus. Regionally, about 5k multi-family units were delivered last year. Assuming most were stacked flats (v. townhouses), at an average of 50 du/acre, that roughly 50 acres of land that turned over last year. Compare that to the approximately 20 million acres of land in King County’s urbanized areas alone.

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