Seattle Zoning Map, Single family zones in yellow.
Seattle Zoning Map; Single family zones in yellow.

STB did its endorsement interviews late in the day, but that wasn’t enough to catch all late policy revelations. I think it would be an overreaction to actually retract an endorsement — they didn’t rest on that thin of a reed — but the changes are notable.

First, in her interview District 5 STB endorsee Mercedes Elizalde strongly implied she was not for linkage fees, before signing up for the Jon Grant/Kshama Sawant drive to amend the delicate HALA compromise in just such a way. Erica wrote about the apparent contradiction or change on her personal blog, so check it out. We’re sticking with Elizalde, who impressed us with her developer wonkery and good service planning instincts. In any case, some of us are skeptical of linkage fees rather than violently opposed. But if this is more of a dealbreaker for you than it is for us, then I’d suggest Sandy Brown as your next best choice in a stacked 5th District race.

Second, endorsees Mike O’Brien and Tim Burgess led the stampede out of changes to single-family zones (SFZs), soon followed by Mayor Murray himself. Here’s Burgess:

While the list of recommendations from HALA is long, one specific policy has received the most attention and criticism from neighborhoods across Seattle. It’s the recommendation that single-family zoning be relaxed in all areas of the city to allow for new duplexes, triplexes and stacked flats, a policy some believe will lead to speculators buying up homes, tearing them down, and replacing them with more expensive multi-family structures. We should take a step back from any policy that leads to that kind of speculation, disruption, and the widespread loss of existing, more affordable housing.

And here’s O’Brien, speaking to Josh Feit at Publicola:

While O’Brien told me he supports “in principle” tinkering around the edges of SFZs (rezoning about six percent of SFZs around transit corridors, urban villages, and SFZ/multi-family borders)—though he still wants to evaluate the specifics of each rezone—he also told me that allowing the possibility of tearing down an existing house for new duplex or triplex construction in the remaining 94 percent of the SFZs “would be taking it further than I’m willing to go—or I think the city is willing to go.”

While only one aspect of a very large plan, the SFZ proposals was probably the biggest qualitative strike for diverse and affordable housing types in Seattle. Duplexes, triplexes, and row homes in single family zones are by far the most plausible path to more large-family housing in Seattle, and critical if we’re not to restrict such housing to the very prosperous and the winners of the subsidized housing lottery. Furthermore, it also further endangers the compromise between all the interest groups on HALA.

You don’t have a great alternative in District 6, but in Position 8, Burgess opponent John Roderick blasted the flip-flop.

We can’t talk about Seattle’s severe shortage of affordable housing without talking about how how much of the city is zoned single-family. This is part of why the HALA report made it clear that it was a package deal — everyone has to give a little for the city to gain a lot, and it’s disappointing to see even the most basic changes to zoning laws, like allowing more duplexes and mother-in-law apartments, sacrificed on the altar of single-family zones and “neighborhood character.”… If I am elected and HALA hasn’t been implemented yet, I would vote for it and push other councilmembers to support it, and I say that as a homeowner in a single-family area myself.

To her credit, District 3 candidate Morgan Beach, not endorsed by STB but in a weak field in terms of urbanist candidates, also criticized Mayor Murray’s capitulation on single-family zones.

These events haven’t radically changed our perspectives. But if existing trends continue, it could absolutely affect how people like us approach the general election in November.

43 Replies to “Candidate Land Use Positions Evolve”

  1. I’m not sure O’Brien is as bad as that quote. In his post here, he wrote: “if there are creative ways to allow families to convert existing housing in single family zones to allow families to share a house, beyond the mother-in-law apartment model we already have, I am open to exploring that. On properties where redevelopment makes more sense for structural reasons or out of necessity, I would like to see the new buildings take the same size and scale of buildings already allowed in the neighborhood, even if it means more people live in those buildings.”

    After Murray flipped on the issue I wrote to the council encouraging them to still support the measures. The reply I got from his office pointed to that post and said more plainly: “Our office still intends to advance legislation that would relax development constraints on mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages, and encourage duplexes and triplexes within existing structures or at the same bulk and scale allowed in the zones now. “

  2. I’ve been a Roderick skeptic on other issues, but color me impressed with the cogency (and appropriate urgency) of the above statement.

    1. Same reaction.

      Burgess’ statement is particularly depressing because I really don’t think he believes or supports it, which means he probably thinks it’s electorally necessary. And he’s a canny enough politician that I expect he’s right about that. The cruel indifference a majority of SF homeowners in this city have for renters, for property rights, and for the environment is just mind-boggling.

      1. I don’t think a majority of homeowners have this described cruel indifference. I think a vocal minority have enough deep contempt for and fear of renters that they organize around that fear. Everyone else has better things to do with their time than show up repeatedly at neighborhood or homeowner meetings, and deal with the ugliness.

        That someone like Jon Grant, a supposed tenants’ advocate, would play into their fear of renters for the ulterior motive of killing HALA, is distinctly lacking in class analysis, not to mention class. I don’t see him ever getting invited to serve on a city board or commission again.

        Let us hope, for the sake of civility, and housing affordability, that Roderick, and not Grant, makes it through.

      1. I honestly can’t remember for whom I voted in 8, and it was only a couple of days ago. Might have been him. 8 is a race where every candidate seems to have massive blind spots on various important matters.

        But yeah, the unvarnished (yet non-confrontational) truth-telling quoted above will reflect well upon his candidacy should he make it through to the general.

        (I’m still a skeptic on his understanding of transit issues, and a skeptic that The Long Winters have ever been culturally important.)

  3. Good thing I delayed voting until today.:) I ended up writing all the names down and putting +’s and -‘s next to them for all the things I did or didn’t like about them. Burgess and Banks came out about even on top. I was surprised about Burgess — wasn’t he the notorious anti-urban? — but checking confirmed it was the other one with “ss” in his name, Rasmussen.

    In D3, I have to give credit to Banks, she came up all +’s and no -‘s, better than anyone else on my ballot. I’ve been negative on Sawant because I don’t want a leftist entrenched on the Council forever as could so easily happen in this district. But she has unexpectedly impressed me sometimes, once in a radio interview and now in supporting HALA’s single-family density after Murray’s rejection. I’ll probably do a “Nickels” and vote for Banks assuming Sawant will get the other position and I can make a final decision then. But that didn’t work for Nickels. On the other hand, I’d be shocked if 40% of the district isn’t voting for Sawant no matter what.

    As for Burgess’ statement above, the most positive outcome if we can’t pass the whole thing would be to pass the rest of HALA and then come back to the single-family features one by one. He’s right that the goal isn’t a wholesale sellout to developers, it’s a mutually-beneficial arrangement between individual homeowners and their future tenants. I’m not convinced that allowing triplexes and row houses leads directly to developerification and nothing in-between can compete, but we can see if some tweak to the policy can lead to that in-between outcome. But that 6% upzone and ADUs should go through anyway, to make sure we at least have something. Because otherwise it’s all building higher in the existing multfamily zones, and that’s too small an area to give people choices in the cost and type of housing they want.

  4. The abandoning of the single family home upzone is not just disappointing but also telling of our supposed urbanist council members and mayor. To me, it seems like Burgess is just playing both sides. Jon Grant is a lot more appealing to me despite failing to garner an endorsement from this blog or the urbanist blog. Urbanist types seem to write him off as too leftist and not market oriented enough but I think a half century of enshrining the SFZ’s has a lot more to do with the market failure to serve those seeking low and middle income housing than a bigger linkage fee or rent stabilization would ever do to impede housing growth. The pace of change in HALA is much too slow even without the capitulation on SFZ upzoning. Grant at least offers a solution in scale with the problem of rapidly rising housing costs.

    1. Did you miss how Grant played a key role in riling up the single-family homeowners to kill the SFZ upzoning? I don’t think anyone is writing him off as too “leftist”. I think people are dismissing him as lacking in credibility.

      1. Brent, yeah I did miss that. Grant’s plan did sidestep the SFZ issue but now the HALA plan does too so I don’t see much difference. And if you have any evidence he was riling up single family homeowners to prevent the upzone I’d happily reconsider my support of him. Pushing folks to a more aggressive affordable housing plan is not the same as scuttling HALA just for his own personal gain or for NIMBYism sake.

      2. Grant abstained on HALA on a vote on which it otherwise overwhelmingly passed. Danny Westneat, while calling for transparency on HALA, refused to be transparent about who the leaker of the draft was. But the set theory points pretty clearly at Grant being the leaker. If it was somebody else on the committee who was really offended by the possibility of allowing homeowners to build something other than traditional freestanding single-family homes on their property, why didn’t that somebody else vote No on the final report?

        Note that Grant has neither confirmed nor denied that he is the leaker.

        Westneat could also, for the sake of “transparency”, especially regarding someone who wants to be a public official, either confirm or deny that that someone is the leaker.

      3. “A set theory” is not on par with evidence. There are plenty of other ways that report could have gotten leaked. I’d hope you’d have more than rumors to go on. Grant did stir the pot no doubt by holding a dueling press conference but not sure that rises to the level of gross incivility and betrayal that you suggest.

    2. Grant is inexorably bought and paid for by the same NIMBY forces that are floating Bradburd, killed HALA etc. Grant is for rent control, and the only urbanist blog that is for rent control is, ironically, The Urbanist. All other urbanist people and publications see Grant, Sawant and the NIMBY coalition for what they are.

      1. All this fear mongering about rent control is way off base in my opinion. First off, rent stabilization would be a ways down the road because we’d have to change state law first, but it does engage renters in the political debate more than wonky zoning and planning discussions does. And renters do not vote at the rates that homeowners do so we need to get them voting more to shepherd affordable housing provisions through.

        Second, I don’t think rent stabilization is incompatible with urbanism. We’ve spent hundreds of millions on more dubious projects (Bertha, stadiums, floating bridge F-ups) than helping poor folks out with their rent. Ideally we wouldn’t need rent stabilization but the housing supply in Seattle is lagging so far behind it seems worth exploring to maintain a modicum of economic diversity in the city.

      2. Rent stabilization is just a rebranding of rent control from a different name. Many cities have something they call rent stabilization that’s strictly ineffective. Also, inb4 the Berlin example, which hasn’t been law for more than 60 days.

        Rent control has nothing to do with spending money on stuff – even though it’s so precious that the examples you chose to highlight are all state or county policies and not city policies. Rent control has to do with restricting how much landlords can charge rent, which isn’t a spending bill.

        And I do notice that you don’t deny the fact that jon grant is bought and paid for by nimbys and will be strictly beholden to them. John Roderick, on the other hand, has a large base of supporters from around the country who want nothing more than great visions of the future and cannot extort him for campaign promises.

        You can’t be an urbanist and vote grant. Full stop.

      3. I’m open to smarter versions of rent stabilization (which have not been put forth yet). I am not open turning a blind eye to Grant’s behavior. He pretty much demonstrated he is unfit for public office.

      4. I’ve been impressed with Roderick lately. And I get it you guys really dislike Grant, but Grant has been lagging far behind both Burgess and Roderick in raising money do it’s hard for me to take these “bought and paid for” accusations seriously. Big developers and the chamber of commerce seem to be the ones investing the most in council races and that’s not likely to be headed Grant’s way.

        As to rent control not being about spending money, inevitably it does lead to less money in city coffers than would be in there otherwise since lower rents also means less tax revenue the city can collect from landlords. Sorry my examples weren’t directly from the city budget; although, Seattleites still end up footing the bill for those expenditures. Rent stabilization is a dramatic step but I think loosening state law to allow it would at least give Seattle options should the market solution prove inadequate to meet the massive demand for Seattle housing.

      5. It is hard to expect good public servants to go against the will of Seattle voters, who voted down rent control the last time it was on the ballot.

        I think a better menu of rent stabilization ideas and field-tested policies that don’t have the effect of raising the drawbridge against future renters (in contrast to the attempts to reinvent the flat tire that I’ve seen put forth) is a necessary step before wasting the legislature’s and city council’s time.

        The vast majority of the time, candidates I support are not on the receiving end of independent expenditure campaigns. On the rare occasion candidates I like get that kind of support, I feel queasy about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

        Renters and developers have a common interest on the housing affordability issue, but Grant, for one, has mis-analyzed that relationship. If we put a linkage fee on residential development, you know what we’ll get, right? … more commercial development and less residential development. If we want to incentivize increasing the housing supply, then a linkage fee on commercial development just happens to do that. Indeed, I’d be happy to see an even higher fee on commercial development (one that still doesn’t approach removing all profitable uses of the land, in line with torte history), that isn’t set up to reward reduced scale, in exchange for having NO linkage fee on residential development. That is how we treat housing affordability as a true policy priority.

        And, oh yeah, that’s pretty much what HALA does, and brings along promises from major developers not to tie policy proposals based on HALA up in court. What’s not to love about that outcome? A lot of good people put months, years really, of effort into reaching that near-consensus. But Grant knows better than all of them. Except he really doesn’t, given his clear mis-analysis of how to get the most housing out of linkage fees.

      6. I’m pretty skeptical there’s some clever and politically viable way of tweaking rent control/stabilization in such a way that it’s likely to do more good than harm in the long run. But even if I thought it was a fantastic idea, I would be pretty turned off by politicians like Grant who focus on them in this environment. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a good, bad, or maybe kinda OK idea, we can’t do it, and the chances of the legislature changing that are vanishingly low in the short term and not much better in the medium term. Happily, there are many better policies to address affordability that are both legal and doable. Unhappily, they all either cost money or inflame some entrenched interest. In this environment, “We need rent control” is pure demagoguery–it can be safely promoted without worrying about the practical downside, because the demagogue knows he’ll never have the chance to enact it. As a form of low-cost pandering, it’s a handy way to craft a certain kind of political self-image. But it’s exactly what I’d expect someone more concerned about political-identity maintenance than actual problem-solving to do. That’s Grant in a nutshell.

      7. Kind of a straw man phallacy to suggest Grant or Sawant have only been worried about rent stabilization when their platforms include many other tenets including doubling the housing levy. Admittingly, rent stabilization could end up being a distraction but expressing interest in something that might take 5 years to implement doesn’t immediately make them demagogues. Seattle has neglected housing affordability for a lot of years. I’d prefer suggesting a farfetched and more long-term solution to business as usual. Apparently it easy to trivialize, but the Tenants’ Union of WA has legitimately been the last line of defense for a lot of disenfranchised renters and Grant did a good job leading that organization. I don’t think he has completely “mis-analyzed” that relationship or experience.

      8. I like the HALA recommendations. Taken as a whole, they’re definitely an improvement over the status quo. However, I think critics have a point in that the benefits for developers are immediate while the affordability benefits are more theoretical and off in the future, especially after Murray backed down on ADUs, DADUs and the upzone. Plus, developers are under no legal obligation to not sue and some of them could always change their minds and sue after all. So I get why Grant is holding out for a better deal even if it feels nicer to havr said it was a 100% unanimous decision and argue we’ve discussed it enough albeit in a panel weighted toward developer interests. And it’s naive to think the single family backlash happened only because of the leak. Danny Westneat definitely was a muckraking weasel on the issue but he would have written those things sooner of later given his troll tendencies.

      9. that might take 5 years to implement

        This is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not at all based in reality. What makes you think the composure of the legislature over the next two election cycles make it at all likely that the state law will change? I see nothing in our status quo politics that would make it remotely likely. Even if the Democrats take back the Senate, I’m quite sure there are plenty of suburban Democrats who are going to be queasy about rent control in general, or worried about what massive rent hikes for newcomers in Seattle–a very possible, if not probable, outcome–would mean for rental markets in their districts. It’s fantasy politics, pure and simple; there’s absolutely nothing to suggest the significant changes in political circumstances that would make such a legal change remotely plausible are imminent.

      10. Sure changing rent control law faces an uphill battle, but with Seattle’s population gaining as much as 18,000 residents per year and rents having jumped more than 10% in some years, this is hardly a static city on the issue. It’s hard to predict future attitudes given the unprecedented rent hikes. I don’t see how talking about it is so damaging or disingenuous. If you don’t want rent control to be a legal option then it’s obviously convenient to say don’t waste your time talking about it since it will take years. But if you want the option of rent control, you have to start the conversation somewhere to eventually gain enough support. Sometimes public opinion changes rapidly. People certainly wouldn’t have predicted attitudes toward marriage equality would have changed so quickly.

  5. Personally I’m for linkage fees. I think it should have a density component scaled to cover infrastructure costs caused by population growth. I also think it should have a luxery component where the more expensive the unit is, the more is charged to cover the cost of low income housing. What there shouldn’t be is ambiguity and deals. The cost should be clear, and the alleys should either be for sale or not for sale.
    But as far as zoning goes, I think it all idiotic. We should just drop the whole institution. If you like freedom, the rules are an unnecessary impingement – I should be able to do what I like on my land. If you like social equity, zoning constricts the supply hastening the inevitable result of population growth – namely a time when only the rich can afford a decent place to live. If you like variety, zoning enforces homogeneity. Somehow, in American of all places, zoning has become viewed as the natural order of man. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I just don’t get it

    1. “Somehow, in American of all places, zoning has become viewed as the natural order of man.”

      Others have pointed this out, like Benjamin Ross. People who are otherwise free-market somehow don’t recognize that zoning is central planning, and that restricting what other people can do with their land is a limitation of property rights. Somehow they think zoning is necessary to preserve the American way, which they equate with single-family houses.

      1. Zoning isn’t just central planning — as typically implemented, it’s the worst, most extreme micromanagement version of central planning.

        I mean, good central planning gives some leeway to the people lower down in the hierarchy to do their own planning. Regulating every little detail is micromanagement, of the sort which is bad for any organization.

    2. Wow. Then why can’t I do what I want with ALL of my money? Why can’t I send my kids to the school of my choice without having to pay twice? Etc., etc.

      1. You might not be able to send your kids to the school of your choice because if they are private, they might have the right to decline to accept them. And just like with housing, they have limited space, so not everyone who wants to go there will get in. (Some of the same applies to public schools.)

        What you can do with your money on your own property is limited in the most excessive ways if you happen to live in the 2/3 of Seattle where only free-standing single-family houses are allowed, with all the other setback and open space ratios. Thanks to the Bill Bradburds of the world, it is still technically illegal to even build a backyard mini-apartment. Yes, a lot of houses have them, but the City is simply turning a blind eye. Has anyone asked if Bradburd is going to seek to prosecute all these lawbreakers if he gets onto the council?

      2. Idk, but I’m glad we have socialized education. Without minimum education standards, I think the cultural and fiscal gap between the fortuned and the poor would grow even wider. I’m not much of a libertarian myself, I was just pointing out how zoning is inconsistent with both libertarian and socialist ends of the political spectrum. Zoning is really more in line with old school conservatism where a hundred poor will die in battle and the only thing people are interested in is the close call a noble had, where the class stratification is viewed as the social order that preserves the peace that the lower orders benefit so much from. The proponents of zoning feel the access to light, lawns, silence only broken by landscapers, and unobstructed views for the few who can afford to compete on price is more important than the hundreds of people who have no choice but to put out more than half their income for the housing or live hours from work.

  6. I think there is no logical reason for this one-unit-to-a-lot obsession. Most of the country before WWII that had zoning always allowed at least two units per lot. Even in prestigious areas, a second unit was often needed for extended family members of servants (and even house slaves in the Old South). This concept is pretty much an outgrowth of the post-WWII suburban development movement. The other origin was segregation; with single-family lots and redlining, it made sure that people of “those” ethnicities or “those” college students didn’t ever move into the neighborhood. It’s partly based on racism, classism and FEAR!

    With airbnb, a rising proportion of foreign-originated families, the role of extended families in child care (with two income parents or single parents) and seniors who need nearby care so delay going into an expensive living facility, this arcane Leave It to Beaver mindset needs to be thrown out!

    I think it will take some guts for the current politically correct set of elected council people to come around to realizing that it’s really just a fad restriction and not something of the past to hold onto. It’s going to take years of reassurance.

    Finally, the current law encourages unofficial additional “units” in a house (with hot plates and microwaves and toaster ovens and mini-fridges) and that’s not good for electrical or fire codes.

    1. It’s actually a privacy violation to start policing how many ‘families’ there are in each house. :-P I don’t think this has been noticed by the “single-family housing” fanatics.

      This is why ‘form-based zoning’ might be better. But I’ve found that most attempts at ‘form-based zoning’ aren’t: they’re still ‘use-based zoning’ with a thin veneer of form. If you have “residential, commercial, and industrial” zones, you’re not doing form-based zoning, you’re doing use-based zoning.

  7. Why do they always talk about SFHs but not SFMs or SFEs (Single Family Mansions, Estates).

    There are some huge properties within Seattle that could easily be converted without harming the already small plots of land of the SFHs in Seattle Proper.

    And corridors. Corridors around here have very low rise retail or even 1 story residences, even when they are wide and would be somewhat unpleasant for a homeowner. Rather than convert swaths of already small plot homes you could line these corridors with moderate or even high rise apartments and run rail along them.

    This whole thing is presented (like almost every crooked scheme in Washington) as a “Must Be Done”.

    But when I look at the simple facts, it appears more like a “Who or What is Doing This To Us?”

    1. The map isn’t detailed enough to show such stuff as Magnolia Village, which is very much obviously commercial (restaurants, a few stores, etc). It’s very much along the lines of what you are talking about in terms of “corridors” except that there, the corridor doesn’t go anywhere.

      Pretty much any of the commercial stuff should be rezoned to be mixed use. It won’t happen immediately but that would allow those places that want to to become residential + commercial.

      For what it is worth to you, Portland has been working on trying to tackle some of the outdated zoning designations here. They are working towards developing a few new types of planning and zonging designations.

  8. The Seattle committee recommends that the city take those barriers down by replacing single-family zones with low-density residential zones and upzoning practically everywhere else.

    1. That was in the leaked “draft” HALA report, which was watered down in the final. The draft report recommended eliminating the single-family zone, replacing it with a minimal lowrise. The final report recommended keeping single-family zones but allowing a wider variety of building styles within the footprint (=maximum FAR). The major rejected that, so now the question is which individual features of it might be allowed later. This is all separate from the 6% of single-family zones that are recommended to be upzoned.

      1. Bleah. A “lowrise zone”, with a wide variety of building styles allowed, would be good. Allow any low-customer-level daytime use — allow an accountant’s office, a walkup convenience store, etc., rather than requiring RESIDENTS MUST COMMUTE ELSEWHERE TO WORK OR SHOP — and you’ve got a neighborhood.

  9. D3 voter here, just waited to fill out my ballot until now, glad I did, my positions match the STB general positions… went with Rod Hearne (D3), John Roderick (D8) and Lorena Gonzalez (D9). Courtney Gregoire (Port #2) and Darrell Bryan (Port #5). Spent a lot of time going between Burgess and Roderick. Considered Bassok for D9.

  10. Glad I have a spare ballot (I got first very late and put in a request for a second)

    I can rip up the first and change my D8 vote :)

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