Townhouses / Photo by Adam

On Tuesday night, the Seattle Planning Commission held an open house at GGLO to unveil its Affordable Family-Sized Housing Action Agenda. There was a brief presentation followed by a discussion/Q&A from the audience on a variety of topics.

A couple of notes:

  • One participant (not me!) brought up the roommates problem: how to you ensure that a 3BR house goes to a family and not a couple of roommates looking to save on rent? There weren’t any clear answers here, except to say that increasing supply of 3BR units will lower costs overall, which should help roommates and families alike (and adding family amenities like playgrounds and day care on-site may make such units unappetizing to 20-somethings).
  • An idea with some merit: exempting 2- and 3BR units from current FAR rules.
  • A slightly wacky, but intriguing idea: mandating that apartments have removable walls between them, so they can grow and shrink with demographic change.
  • While single-family zones account for 60% of Seattle’s surface area, that number is fixed. Meanwhile, the 70,000 or so units that are projected to be built will go primarily into low-rise or other multifamily zones. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that 2- and 3BR units get built in multifamily zones first and foremost.
  • Single-family zones near transit are most appropriate for an upzone to lowrise (3-15-15, anyone?)
  • I still can’t get an answer to a question I’ve had for almost a year: why do small multifamily units almost always end up as town homes, and not small condos? Is it a hangover from the lawsuit-happy 80s? Consumer preference? Any developers with answers, contact me at frank@stb.

One obvious topic that got a good deal of attention is the political challenge in implementing any of these ideas. SPC has said that the report is intended to “start a conversation” and that the political battle of when and where to change zoning law would have to happen next.

46 Replies to “Family-Sized Housing Open House”

  1. How viable or legal would it be to make that you can only build multi-family in mixed zones? I don’t know all the codes, but I remember when we were house hunting we saw one that wasn’t quite right for us, but it was on some zoning that allowed (I think) 2-3 units? It wasn’t a pure SFH zoning since it was abutting commercial land.

    Like, make it law that anything zoned thus can no longer be built SFH, if it ever gets rebuilt (with an obvious exemption/grandfathering if the ownership does not change–i.e., if my house burns down or I straight up rebuild, I’m allowed to stay SFH as long as it’s mine still).

    1. There are quite a few single-family homes remaining in zones that have since been designated multi-family zones. I really haven’t seen many (if any) cases where a new single-family home was built in a multi-family zone. There’s just such a huge demand for housing in Seattle these days that a builder would be crazy to build one home on a lot where they can legally build four.

  2. Has anybody heard of the “Cottage” developments? I remember one across from Shoreline Community College on the east side of Greenwood, and one at Langley on Whidbey Island. Both seemed to be well-designed and built, and also a lot more imaginative than the one in your picture.

    What you have are separate homes, each with a main floor, a basement, and an upstairs loft. They don’t have individual lawns, but they do have a vegetable garden per house. In addition, the houses are arranged around a common yard.

    There’s a building with a meeting room, and at least one separate garage at the edge of the property. My wife and I would have moved into the Greenwood complex if we could have afforded it. It seemed to us that this would be an excellent concept for Seattle.


  3. The “roommate problem” might be solved by adding incentives for developers to offer 3BR units for sale, not for rent — unless you get a bunch of very best friends, roommates don’t tend to co-sign mortgages together. Offering long-term leases – 5 years or longer – might also turn some rental prospects away.

    However, in the current climate of rising rents, that’s an awfully difficult proposition. The developer incentives would have to be pretty juicy.

    (There’s also the philosophical question of whether or not that’s even a good idea, whether the “roommate problem” is really a problem at all.)

    1. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to overregulate in an effort to solve the problem, because I’m not sure it’s a problem at all. As one fellow from (I think) Capitol Hill Housing brought up, co-housing used to be fairly popular in Seattle. As I’ve said before, “apodments” are just co-housing but with locks on all the bedroom doors. I think location is the key here. Build 3BR units in quiet neighborhoods with good schools, and they’ll attract families. Build them on Cap Hill or Ballard or the U-District, and they’ll attract roommates.

      1. I have a hard time with that facet of this: schools can be overwhelmingly important in family real-estate decisions, yet there aren’t enough good schools to go around. Supply and demand takes it toll on an uneven system, and suburban flight begins for those who want good schools but cannot afford to pay to live near them in any urban neighborhood — a 3BR in the quiet neighborhood with good schools has no reason to be any more affordable than a 3BR in the vibrant nightlife center. Add it all up: enter the roommates, and the families flee the cities.

        (I believe that Mike’s comment below on the economics of this is spot-on: two-parent families are indeed at a competitive disadvantage against three rent-paying roommates, and it is very much a real issue.)

      2. @Adam: Yes, of course, it’s harder to afford things when you have children, all things being equal. The “renting roommates”, stereotypcially, are younger, make less money, have less job security and fewer assets, haven’t planned their futures as thoroughly, are less willing to buy. But stereotypes don’t always tell the whole story. There are plenty of families out there that haven’t saved up the money to buy. Childless couples (and other long-term co-habitants), financially, are like super-roommates, with multiple incomes and long-term outlooks. And most families will never be in a financial position to buy in Seattle’s most expensive neighborhoods. So unless you have housing applicants swear oaths about their intentions to procreate…

      3. Adam: I don’t see why we should subsidize people who choose to have children.

        3 roommates vs. 2 parents with a child vs. 2 people who are wealthy and want extra space — produce enough 3 bedroom apartments for all of them. Why not? So the 3 people without children end up with a better economic situation — well, children are expensive.

    2. Roommates are adults who all work and split the rent, so the cost per person is often the same as a studio or less. Children can’t work or pay rent so their parents have to cover them (and their food and school supplies). So each parent is paying twice as much, so they have to have a higher-paying job, so a smaller percentage of families can afford for the unit. Families have a competitive disadvantage compared to roommates, which could lead to all the 3 BRs going to roommates, which is probably what has happened on Seattle as rents have risen and our child count has become the lowest in the country (tying with San Francisco). But families are vital to the city’s well-being and balance, so if they can’t compete with roommates we need to make sure there’s plenty of housing for both, or find some other way to make housing easier for families.

      1. families are vital to the city’s well-being and balance

        I can’t let this statement go unchallenged. That is a huge leap which I’ve never seen backed up. It might very well be true, but I’d like to hear some reasons why rather than accept it on its face.

      2. Where will the next generation come from? Who will be the next generation of people who have grown up in the city? What happens when residents’ interests between city and suburbs diverge even more sharply than they have? How will the county council find compromise, for instance? What about the quality of life for families that remain in the city, when their neighbors start voting down school levies? What about a city of people largely out of touch with the needs of families, and making decisions as if children didn’t exist, on environmental and economic policy?

      3. Kyle,

        The biggest problem with suburbs is that they only really work for a narrow band of people. If you have kids at home (or is planning on having them), and you’re physically capable of driving, then the suburbs can be a compelling choice. But if you’re young and childless, you probably care more about the amenities the city has to offer than the “amenities” of a suburb (which mostly consist of open space, schools, and families with children). If you’re old or otherwise incapable of driving safely, then living somewhere with transit access is the only way to avoid being permanently trapped at home, or dependent on other people for all your basic needs.

        Before there were suburbs (in the American sense), there were cities, and towns, and rural areas. It was possible for someone to live a long and fulfilling life without ever moving away from the city or town or farm where they were born. That’s not to say that people didn’t and shouldn’t move — just that our built environments were flexible enough to meet the needs of all age groups and family types.

        If we build cities that are incapable of meeting the needs of people over 30 or people with children, then we’re setting ourselves up for failure, just like the suburbs are failing for “empty nesters” and aging in place. We need to build places that can work for everyone.

      4. Aleks, If you look around SLU and the Denny Triangle, you see a lot of new residential development that’s not designed for families with children. Why do you think that is?

      5. Aleks, with respect, there’s a pretty long band between “children at home” and “can’t drive anymore”. My kid left home a decade ago but I my mom is 85 and still drives (in Florida, where there are no other options). I take transit 95% of the time (100% of my commuting) but please don’t put me in a corner just yet.

      6. Breadbaker,

        I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that everyone loses the ability to drive as soon as their kids go to college. I was just citing an example: the group of people who are unable to drive, due to age are disability, are a group of people for whom the suburbs are categorically a bad place to live. (The fact that many people in that group live in the suburbs anyway, choosing either to stay trapped at home or to drive unsafely, is a testament to the lack of better options.)

        Having said that, I do know lots of people who moved (or plan to move) from the suburbs to the city as soon as their kids go to college. It’s not because of driving; it’s because the main amenities of the suburbs are schools and other families with children, and once you don’t have kids at home, those don’t matter any more.

      7. Mike: the next generation can come from immigrants. SOMEONE is going to have children, there’s no doubt about that.

        The obsession with “keeping up the birthrate” is a favorite one of the right-wing, and frankly it’s crazy. We have too many people in the world overall. If we get to the point where the overall population is dropping — which we will eventually — then the housing crunch will thin out and there’ll be room for the children.

        I suppose that there is one valid kernel of an idea here: if you have a childless family who’s dedicated to Seattle, and they *decide* to have children, you don’t want them to feel like they’ve been *forced out*. So provide enough apartments to supply them, as well the groups of roommates.

        But giving some sort of bizarre explicit preference to people with children is the *worst* form of social engineering; it’s actually contrary to sensible goals.

      8. Also, to put it bluntly, the shortage of larger apartments for “co-housing” of extended friend groups is *also* a problem.

        There’s a lot of people who like to live in that kind of larger community environment, rather than in the 1950s “nuclear family”. And there’s no housing for it becuase it’s been largely prohibited by social-engineering zoning codes.

        So yes, expand the supply of 3 bedroom, 4 bedroom, and 5 bedroom apartments — and don’t worry about who occupies them. Hell, maybe a pair of couples each with a child will want to share a six-bedroom.

      9. “Hell, maybe a pair of couples each with a child will want to share a six-bedroom.”

        I have a lot of friends doing things like this, and it makes a lot of sense. The kids get to grow up with a playmate around, which generally seems to be good for them, and the parents can pool some of their childcare efforts and thus reduce the burden on everyone. One group of friends bought one of those big mansions on North Capitol Hill; there are three kids, seven adults, and five or six bedrooms.

        Friends who have kids and move to the suburbs disappear and are never heard from again. Friends who buy big houses to share and raise kids in become centers of their communities.

    3. Interesting note: Seattle’s child count is low in spite of being more famiy-friendly than many cities. Familes tend to like the large single-family housing stock in Seattle, and the numerous “safe” neighborhoods, and the school quality is average. But families are fleeing to the suburbs more than in more crowded, less safe, lower-quality-school cities. Why is that? The answer seems to be housing costs. Families would like to live in Seattle but can’t afford a house, and there are essentially no large apartments/condos available, so they go to the burbs.

      Poverty may also play a role, since we don’t have large concentrations of poor families who can’t afford to move, which would raise the child count.

      1. Do you mean like this? If you got to http://www.rentometer.com and put 98109 (Queen Anne, SLU) into the address box and select 4 bedrooms, the average rent in that zip code is $2927/month. But if you put 98002 (Auburn) into the address box and select 4 bedrooms, the average rent is $1490/month.

      2. In most first world cases, density and affordability conflict, and when people say this is a problem that must be fixed, hold onto your wallets, because the only way you can let people live in places that they otherwise can’t afford is through some form of wealth redistribution. And I really think that’s starting to get beyond the scope of government. I don’t mind if the government takes my hard-earned money to fund the schools, but when they tell me they want to take my money to subsidize Auburn families that want to live in Seattle, that’s not what government is for.

      3. Don’t worry, there are no Auburnites trying to move to Seattle. If they can afford Auburn they can afford Burien, Tukwila, Renton, or Kent, which are much closer to Seattle.

  4. Re removeable walls, some people are experimenting with sliding walls which transform one room into another. Slide the office wallk to reveal the kitchen, and the bookcase wall to reveal storage, etc. This would only work in a single unit rather than between units, but it shows the variety of possibilities which have been mostly untapped.

    1. If you’re going to have removeable walls between separate apartments, they had better be soundproof. Otherwise, it would never work. Between rooms within a single apartment, though, the situation is much different.

      1. I don’t really think the situation is different. Kids don’t like being able to hear their parents through the thin walls between their rooms and vice versa. ALL rooms should have thick, nearly soundproof walls.

        I grew up in a house with very thick walls between every single room, and I can’t get used to the junky construction of walls in most modern houses, let alone apartments. It’s inhumane.

  5. @ “why do small multifamily units almost always end up as town homes, and not small condos? Is it a hangover from the lawsuit-happy 80s? Consumer preference?”

    Profit per unit; ease of finance; don’t have to wait for all units to be complete to allow move in (I’m not positive on that one, though it is true if you break up the development into separate builds); ease/speed of building; less likely to have HOA suing you, that’s why they separate the lots – no HOA needed.

    1. I question the premise a little bit. Do small multifamily units almost always end up as town homes and not small condos? I’m not sure if this is even true.

      1. The linked article is old, but still true. Developers don’t organize a building as a condo unless there’s no practical way around it. The litigious propensity of HOA’s means that a developer has to pay an extra $50k per unit in liability insurance when building condos compared to townhomes or apartments. So if a developer can reach the same FAR with a townhouse or rowhouse-style development instead of stacked units, they will build the townhouses.

      2. I don’t think honest developers would need to worry about this. But then I’ve never met an honest developer — they *always* try to cut corners on construction.

        I know a story of a friend of the family who had a custom house built. He specified every last detail of the contract, and whenever he caught the contractor trying to cheap out, he forced them to rip it out and do it right, because he’d specified every last detail in the contract.

        Shortly after finishing the house, the contractor declared bankruptcy. All the contractors’ bids were based on cheating the customers, and having to do one honest job drove him bankrupt.

        The friend of the family was pleased by this. Had a slight vindictive streak.

        Anyway, this seems to be standard in construction, unfortunately.

  6. Based on the most recent population figures, over the last two years tracked (2010-2012) Seattle has added 23,000 people or 12,500 per year. Based on what I’ve read in this blog, accommodating 12,500 per year, with modern building arrangements should be quite easy. It could be done with a few square blocks of land. Thus, it might not be necessary at all to re-zone, re-design, or re-build much of anything inside Seattle proper.

    This comes as population increase in King County has effectively crashed to near zero — for the first time in 100 years King County is ground slower than Seattle. That means that the “buffer” contiguous to Seattle will start opening up with lower prices and more buying opportunities relieving pressure on Seattle proper. That is, for those who move to this region, but absolutely want a SFH, they will soon be able to easily buy in parts of King County or the surrounding counties.

    The key chart is here:


    1. “This comes as population increase in King County has effectively crashed to near zero — for the first time in 100 years King County is ground slower than Seattle. That means that the “buffer” contiguous to Seattle will start opening up with lower prices and more buying opportunities relieving pressure on Seattle proper.”

      There’s nothing remarkable in that statistic. From the chart, it seems it’s looking at growth rates. Early in the last century, it makes plenty of sense that the suburbs would grow faster than Seattle because they started from a smaller base. Then in the 60s-80s, Seattle lost some population while the suburbs gained population. As the rest of the county gets more populous, it’s growth rate naturally declines. Meanwhile, there is less flight from the city and added demand for housing there.

  7. Some of the ideas in the document make sense, but others seem flat-out silly. In some cases they’re perpetuating our problem of only having commercial and other public land uses on the busiest car streets by designating entirely residential land use on the ground level on entire non-arterial streets. That sounds like a mistake to me.

    1. I’m not entirely sure what you’re trying to say, but here’s where I may disagree:

      I’m increasingly convinced that Seattle’s nonexistent experience with urban-form construction outside of commercial zones is why our LR codes are so bad: setbacks, set-forths, set-betweens. Even our newly-allowed row houses are forbidden from integrating with the rest of the street (they may only be built as part of a consolidated lot, and set apart by code from anything else).

      As such, Seattleites associate any kind of street-fronting, uninterrupted urbanity with the expansion of commercial bustle and the encroachment on their residential peace. This is not the case in Boston or Brooklyn or SF, where there are literally thousands of unbroken-frontage blocks with “entirety residential use on the ground level”.

      You and I both oppose the “growth quarantine” that encourages clear-cutting, mega-projects, and inorganic results in the few places development is actually allowed. If Seattle is going to warm to the charms of a more urban composition elsewhere, we need urban-formed designs that are not paint-by-numbers mixed use to become part of what we make.

      1. Maybe so. I think it’s a shame that so little commercial activity is found off of big arterials and was looking at the document’s rendering for 8th Ave N in an area where Dexter and Westlake are really wide and thinking it wouldn’t be so great for these big arterial streets to be the only commercial streets around. But there are also east-west streets, and 9th, none of which are much today but could save the neighborhood from putting all its businesses on Westlake and Dexter. I guess there’s a pretty big difference between that and the neighborhoods where the only commercial street is Aurora (or LCW or Rainier), where we really do need to make more commercial streets.

      2. Realy interesting thought regarding Seattle psychology with respect to housing form, d.p.

  8. I didn’t have time to read all of the comments, but recently did some research and thought these fact might help the discussion:

    The average household size in Seattle is 2.06. Only 72,000 households have 3+ people, yet we have 143,000 single family homes.

    1. Seattle is a big place, and housing demand is heterogeneous, even at the very small scale. As an example, between 85th and 105th, Greenwood Ave has a ton of spare zoning capacity. It’s zoned C-60, and several lots are empty, while several others have one-story buildings with deep setbacks. On the other hand, 87th and Dayton has single-family housing. On balance, you might think that Greenwood has lots of capacity, but you can’t actually build in the places where people want to live.

      It’s true that Seattle has lots of single-family houses. But if you want to live in an urban center, then these houses are going to be way more expensive than the average family can afford. In addition, several of these houses are huge — much bigger than an individual family would want. If a family wants to live in Upper Queen Anne or Ballard, it’s no good if the only 3BR they can afford is a house in Columbia City.

      This is exactly why attached housing exists. But Seattle doesn’t (yet) have very many rowhouses. You can’t buy a house without also buying lots of empty space on every side. That costs money, and it hurts walkability. And if you need a car anyway, why not save some money and move to the suburbs?

      1. I agree on all points. But all of these arguments apply to singles and couples as well.

        My read on those stat’s is that we need much, much more housing for singles and couples in dense units. The main reason much of these singles and couples are occupying SF homes in Seattle is that SF homes are comparatively a good deal. Sure, they’re a bit more than condos*, but not much. And the only reason they’re not much more than condos is that condos are strongly limited in supply.

        Yes, let’s build family sized units too. I’d strongly support that – dense family housing has a wide array of benefits. But if we’re going to spend energy increasing the number of families in the city, it’s possible that any increase in supply of any dense type of units will be just as effective as building dense family-style units.

        * and I’m using “condos” as a shorthand for any dense unit, whether owned or rented.

      2. I have known families who rented two adjacent apartments due to the inability to find a single 4-bedroom apartment. It’s a hack, but people will do it.

  9. I can speak to the townhome-vs.-small-condo issue, as I owned a unit in a 3-unit condo in Washington DC.

    The small condo format obviously makes for much more appealing spaces in small but tall multifamily buildings. But a small condo really is a pain in the butt, and as a consumer I’d go in with a strong bias toward a townhouse. Condo associations of any size have to comply with a substantial number of bureaucratic requirements in order to ensure 1) that the condos are insurable and 2) that they are sellable. Of the three owners in my case, none of us had time to run the association properly. We were perpetually behind on paperwork, budgets, and meetings, and had to do a lot of work before I and one of my co-owners were able to sell. For larger associations you can just hire a professional manager, but for a 3-unit building that results in extraordinary overhead expense.

    1. A family member owns one of four condos in what was once (in the distant past) a large single-family row-house in Boston. They hire a professional manager, which isn’t terribly expensive because there are plenty of management firms in Boston that exist just to serve small associations like theirs, with many clients per firm.

      When a living arrangement/ownership circumstance becomes commonplace, it becomes a whole lot easier. Economies of scale: the magic of cities.

      1. Those Boston managers need to grab a slice of the DC pie. Hiring professional managers in DC would have literally doubled our condo fees.

      2. Being locally-based is key, of course, to responsive management. I suppose condo-ization in the brownstoney parts of DC is a more recent phenomenon than in the brownstoney parts of Boston. Hopefully the professional-management infrastructure will catch up.

        On the other hand, the coop model in New York has been around for more than a century, and coop fees down there can be jaw-flooringly high.

      3. Well, everything is jaw-droppingly expensive in NYC. I’ve stopped even using it as a point of comparison because it’s just so damn weird. (Many people blame rent control for the distortions.)

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