If you live in Seattle, I strongly encourage11225268_10205677861000609_2067042418042894472_n you to show up and listen or comment at tonight’s city council hearing on the Housing Affordability and Livability Committee’s recommendations, which have come under attack from single-family protectionists. Tonight’s public hearing will help the council decide which of the 65 recommendations to set in motion. It will take turnout, support, and continued pressure from urbanists like you and me to ensure they make the right decision and keep the most critical elements of HALA intact.

Iterations of the term “urbanist” have been hotly debated recently (I prefer “reality-based urbanist” myself), but the bottom line is that we all want to ensure that everyone in Seattle–not just wealthy single-family homeowners, not just Amazonian imports, not just those who got here first, but everyone–can live in safe, affordable housing in the city.

This fight is critical, because the council is under tremendous pressure to abandon the very recommendations that will have the most positive impact on affordability. Mayor Ed Murray and several key council members have already abandoned a major, symbolically important HALA recommendation, which would have allowed a greater diversity of housing types (such as duplexes and townhomes) in the 65 percent of Seattle’s land mass that’s currently reserved exclusively for detached single-family homes. Murray, along with council president Tim Burgess and council land-use committee chair Mike O’Brien, walked back their support for that recommendation after angry property owners and neighborhood activists flooded city inboxes with letters of protest and crowded council meetings to voice their complaints about the changes.

I believe that most of the city supports the principles behind the HALA proposals, even if they aren’t familiar with the details, for one simple reason: they provide more affordable housing. Mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to build affordable housing on site in exchange for the right to build more densely, combined with a new linkage fee on commercial development, would provide 6,000 units of set-aside affordable housing. Other key measures in HALA would expand the boundaries of urban villages to reflect current and future walkability and transit access, increasing supply and limiting the growth of housing costs (which is true no matter how much some progressives insist that supply and demand does not exist).

The opposition to HALA, which has described population growth as a cancer and have suggested single-family homeowners and neighborhood activists should “take back Seattle,” is organized, motivated, and can turn out plenty of people with the means and time to attend midday hearings when most of us are working. Nighttime meetings like this are an ideal opportunity for HALA supporters to show that we, too, deserve a voice at City Hall and in the future of our city.

51 Replies to “TONIGHT: Show Your Support for HALA”

  1. I would go but it would take over an hour and a half to take the bus and a transfer the 3 miles to downtown Seattle at that time of day. Driving is out of the question, hard to find available parking and I can’t turn right to get to the meeting. Will there be extra bike racks outside? Hopefully the room is a big room, the explosive growth in the number of people wanting to attend this meeting will make the room densely crowded, but I guess that is what everyone wants Seattle to become. This is a meeting for everyone in Seattle–not just wealthy single-family homeowners, not just Amazonian imports, not just those who got here first, but everyone in the city.

  2. Above all of the HALA debate I feel like there is one hard truth that is missing.

    Seattle market-rate housing will never be affordable again.

    Nothing HALA does will change that.

    It will add some additional market rate development, but not nearly enough to even stabilize rents, much less decrease them. Those in the middle-income bracket don’t qualify for any of the affordable housing programs and are fully exposed to market rate housing costs. They are getting badly squeezed today, faced with the unwelcome choice to either become increasingly house-poor or to move outside the city.

    None of this means HALA is fundamentally wrong (I dislike certain aspects, but overall I agree with the general idea) or that Seattle should not develop more housing. However, we should be realistic about its impact on housing affordability.

      1. Except when the economy slows, wage growth will also slow. That doesn’t make Seattle housing more affordable. Moreover, the wage growth we have been seeing has been concentrated at the very high end (tech workers) and the minimum wage. Middle income wages are more stagnant.

        The only way Seattle becomes more affordable is if incomes increase faster than housing costs. I don’t see any plausible scenario in which that would occur.

        No reasonable person believes Manhattan or San Francisco will become affordable anytime in the foreseeable future. I see no reason to believe Seattle will turn out differently.

      2. When the economy slows, people will move away to get a job elsewhere or return to their hometown, and there will be less competition for the unit you want. The landlords will offer sales, and eventually lower the rent. That’s what happened in the 2008 recession: every block on Summit had at least one “For Rent” sign, and when I moved in 2010 I got $100 off the “regular” rent. So if you still have a job you’ll be able to get a place. If you don’t have a job but can afford to stay in your current place for a while, then you’ll at least have something.

      3. Never is a long time when all it should take is one rip-roaring dark ever-rainy sci-fi Venusian winter. Don’t discount the power of SADD. :)

    1. I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. The HALA proposals would open up a huge percentage of the land that is now unavailable for development. At the same time, it would liberalize the type of development that is fairly cheap. To convert a house to an apartment is fairly cheap (especially if you don’t need to add parking). To add a backyard cottage is also very cheap. Having lots of potential units — units that are very cheap to construct — puts great downward pressure on rents.

      Right now, there is almost none of that. A lot of the land that is developed has valuable structures on it that are simply destroyed. Replacing a house with an apartment only makes sense when rents are high, which means that it will in turn not lower rents. By severely limiting the areas where apartments are allowed, we greatly reduce the chance that a cheap property will be converted to an apartment. There just aren’t that many empty lots in urban villages. But there are plenty of empty lots and a huge number of big lots with small houses in the single family zoned neighborhoods. This is because, as it says in this article, most of the city is zoned single family.

      1. More ADUs and DADUs will not provide more than a slight boost to housing supply, not even remotely close to what multifamily will do. They will certainly not put appreciable downward pressure on rents. Portland saw 200 ADU permits in 2013 after it liberalized its rules (probably reflecting some pent-up demand, also). That’s trivial compared to the 1000s of multifamily units coming online each year.

        Second, construction labor in Seattle is very expensive and not getting any cheaper. Labor, materials, and other non-land development costs are the same regardless of location. That puts a floor under new construction rents, below which the developer will not undertake the project. Add in the cost of land, and I’ll wager that the new construction minimum rent is probably close to “unaffordable” for the average worker.

        Third, interest rates will rise (at some point), which will make multifamily development less attractive. Institutional investors (pension funds, etc.) have been going into real estate development big time. We’ve seen Chinese investors, Scandinavian pension funds, Canadian developers, and investors from other parts of the US fund projects in the Seattle market. They want to generate the stable cash flows they used to earn from bonds, which are at historically low yields. Also, financing a project is a lot easier with low interest rates. The spread between bonds and real estate yields will narrow substantially as interest rates rise. Capital will flow back into the bond market and away from multifamily residential real estate.

      2. That’s mostly speculation with little evidence. Even if it’s right long term, we can’t predict when or how much. Every year since 2011 the real estate experts have said, “Seattle is building so many new apartments that demand will be saturated this year or next year”, but every year the new housing is absorbed yet still the vacancy rate doesn’t budge from its dangerously low level. So it’s always next year or next year. So we’d better make contingency plans rather than assuming it will stop soon, and when it actually stops we can adjust. If the developers overshoot they’ll end up with 1-2 years of vacant/unsellable inventory and they’ll stop building. Likewise, we’d better not underestimate the potential of ADUs, or get the land/labor costs reversed, or assume that changing bond yields will cause people to stop moving to Seattle. When the economy slows people will stop moving to Bend and Las Vegas and Wichita before they stop moving to Seattle, especially with the long-term increase of droughts and hurricanes in most of the rest of the country.

        Most of the rise in housing prices is the cost of land. Labor and materials have been pretty steady. Identical new buildings in Seattle, Tukwila, and Auburn have significantly different rents and sale prices. The labor costs are roughly the same, and the materials come from Asia the same way, but still the rental difference is several hundred dollars a month. That’s because a lot more people want to live in Seattle and they bid up the price of land. There’s not many job markets like downtown or the U-District or First Hill, and so many apartments within five miles of them. In Auburn there’s a much more limited number of jobs, it’s a long commute to higher-paying jobs, it’s hard to get around by bus or walking so you have to drive all the time, so fewer people want to live there and the cost of housing is lower. Of course, a lot of Auburnites love their house and yard and closeness to the outdoors, but what they’d love even more is a nearby job to go with it so they don’t have to commute as far. But jobs are the one thing Auburn doesn’t have a lot of, so people work near Seattle/Bellevue, and try to find a place to live near there, and bid up the prices. Unless there’s enough housing there that all of them can find something without bidding it up.

      3. Forgot to say (the computer ate my first draft), it’s not either/or. We can have both multifamily upzones and ADUs. If the market doesn’t want them, they won’t be built in significant numbers even if they’re allowed. But if the market does want them, they could full a very needed hole in the housing supply.

      4. Conversions of large single-family homes into duplexes and triplexes — conversions which cost *very very little*, because they don’t even involve new buildings — can add hundreds of housing units (as they did in Portland) very quickly without needing to bid in the hot construction contractor market.

        Don’t understimate it.

    2. What’s missing in new construction is small apartment buildings, 4-8 units. These are inexpensive to build and maintain, and can fit in one or two small lots. In the 1950s and 60s lots of them were built, but current zoning regulations are so restrictive they don’t pencil out. When you subtract the setbacks and parking and height limits, there’s not enough space left to fit a profitable number of no-frills units. That prevents mom n pop companies from building small apartment buildings, so the only thing we get is large expensive breadboxes. Again, it worked in the 1960s and it could work again now — if the regulations would incentivize them rather than disincentivize them. I’m not sure if HALA goes far enough, but at least it’s a large step in the right direction.

      I’ll be at the hearing and will speak if I don’t have to wait two hours for it.

    3. Seattle market-rate housing will never be affordable again.

      All housing is affordable for somebody, namely the person who buys it. Demolishing functional buildings to put in a few more units is an expensive proposition that only pencils out when prices are high, so it’s hard to imagine development actually lowering prices in the short run. But when you compare it to an alternate universe where we have more restrictions on development, I don’t think you can really make a claim that prices are higher with development than without. This is not how supply and demand works.

      The richest people are going to pay what it takes to live where they want to live. The poorest people are going to live where they can find subsidies, or on the streets if they can’t find real housing anywhere. Some people in the middle will get squeezed out: not rich enough for the market rate units, not poor enough for the subsidized ones. The HALA proposals seem to come at the problem from both sides, increasing the number of subsidized units for the poorer end of the spectrum and increasing the number of market rate units for the richer end. There will still be people in the middle getting squeezed out, but there will be fewer of them than if we do nothing.

      1. Affordable for the “average” worker. Obviously someone can afford it.

        I’m not claiming that development will raise prices (not sure where you read that). I think it would take a massive amount of new development to actually stabilize or decrease prices. Such a vast amount of development is highly unlikely, given that apartment developers would have little incentive to undermine their highly attractive market position.

        I don’t think it is realistic to expect HALA to stop rent increases, or even reduce them to the general inflation rate. If, hypothetically, new housing developed because of HALA cuts annual rent increases from 7-10% to 4-7%, that’s certainly better than the status quo, but still more than average wages are rising. Affordability would still get worse.

  3. Using “single-family protectionists” doesn’t really help you case. It doesn’t describe your opponents. Most folks like to have single-families (more is just a pain). Use a term that actually deals with the issues.

    1. Unfortunately, too many urbanists resort to such name-calling — protectionist, NIMBY, exclusionist, etc. etc. This tactic shuts down the conversation, or maybe they don’t want a conversation, they just want to “win.”

      And it may come as a shock to Erica but there are lots of non-wealthy single-family homeowners in Seattle who want to continue to live in their SF neighborhood.

      1. Many anti development home owner similarly want to shut down debate by referring to “greedy developers” and “stacked people” or “transient housing” when talking about small studio apartments.

        I too would welcome a more civil debate, but we need willing participants from both sides.

        If you’re interested in a discussion on how to produce more housing and how to achieve the goal of also having more affordable housing, I’m perfectly willing to have a discussion about it.

        If your starting point is “we have enough housing” or “we don’t need any more up-zones” then we’re probably going to have trouble talking to each other.

      2. One more point.

        No one is asking you to leave your SF neighborhood. If there had been a change in the SF zoning it would have allowed a few more duplexes and triplexes to exist in the neighborhood. It may come as a shock to you, but quite a number of these already exist in the single family neighborhoods and predate the current zoning.

        The current changes on the table are only about zone changes to existing urban villages and areas already zoned for taller buildings.

        How is this in any way asking you to give up your single family home? Please explain.

      3. People who argue that the 65% of Seattle’s land zoned exclusively for single-family housing should remain that way are literally saying, “Protect our single-family areas” from encroachment by multifamily housing. That isn’t name-calling, it’s describing what they are saying.

      4. So what the fuck should we call people? Seriously, what is the moniker you prefer?

        NIMBY is apparently an insult, even though lots of people clearly believe that is the best policy. If you think all growth should happen in urban villages, and you don’t live an urban village, then you are, by definition, a NIMBY.

        Protectionist is somehow an insult as well, but isn’t that precisely what folks are trying to do? Protect the houses that dominate the city? Protect the neighborhood from increased density (oh my God, more people have moved into the Johnson’s old place — we have to protect against that).

        I can think of a few other terms, but my guess is you won’t like them either. How about:

        Ignorant home owners. I think this label works well for those who don’t believe that supply and demand have any effect on housing prices. Somehow we can live in a city with huge demand at the same time we artificially restrict housing supply, yet this will magically result in low rents. But then again, I’m sure there are people who are well aware of the effect that the policies have on rents, but choose to look the other way. Which suggests another label:

        Selfish Home Owners. Oh, I know — too harsh. How dare we call people selfish, when they are willing to push up the cost of living for those that were born somewhere else, or born at the wrong time (tough luck, kids). But hey, when you write a letter to the mayor saying you couldn’t possibly tolerate a duplex or townhome next to you, it sound pretty selfish to me. People like that are basically saying that they are willing to see people pay a lot more in rent, so that they don’t have to live next to more people. Crazy, really. My neighbor can tear down his old house, put up a huge one next to me that towers over my house, but if the guy across the street even thinks about converting that old four bedroom house to a duplex, I’ll write the mayor.

        >> maybe they don’t want a conversation, they just want to “win.”

        Holy shit, man, both sides want to win. The difference is, the folks on the other side are clearly winning, despite the fact that they are probably outnumbered. Put the HALA vote to the public and see if it passes. The results (like the votes in the city council races) may surprise you. This is because there was a conversation. It was a very long, drawn out conversation, and it lead to a major compromise, called HALA. But then the folks (who shall not be named, apparently) rejected it. They weren’t interested in a conversation, they were simply interested in winning.

        Look, here is how a typical “conversion” goes down:

        Liberal — Rent is too damn high. We need to liberalize the zoning laws. I say we allow six story apartment buildings everywhere.

        ? – No way, that is crazy. I don’t want to live next to a big apartment.

        Liberal — Fair enough. Allow low rise apartments and row houses. These will be no bigger than the existing houses.

        ? – No way, I don’t want to live next to a small apartment.

        Liberal — How about allowing houses to be converted to apartments or backyard cottages.

        ? You don’t get it man. I don’t want to live next to people who rent. If I did, I would have bought a different place.

        Please tell me what the group with the question mark is called, because they have a huge amount of power in this city (enough to make the mayor reject the compromise proposal made by a group of people after months of study and debate).

      5. @Erica — Exactly. It is probably one of the nicer, more Seattle friendly terms you could use.

        The more general term is “conservative”. Those that want to keep the policies the same or change them very little are, by definition, conservative. Those that want to see the regulations liberalized are, obviously, liberals (by several definitions of the word).

        With the terms in place, it emphasizes the point you made. The conservatives have an over sized influence on the city leaders, when most people in this town consider themselves liberal. Representatives should listen to their constituents, and of course consider letters sent to them. But they should also realize that such correspondence is often more conservative than the public at large (as it is in this case).

        I hope that the city council considers the HALA recommendations in full after the next election — an election where liberals clearly defeated conservatives by a very wide margin.

      6. CharlesB, you have never heard such name-calling from me. I’m happy to discuss Seattle’s housing needs (both affordable and market-rate) and how and where they can be best accommodated. Send me a note at rpence (at) cablespeed.com

      7. Dude — I find labels for people I agree with and disagree with. It is how people communicate. Barack Obama is a Democrat. So is Hillary Clinton. Jeb Bush is a Republican. I could write thousands of words describing each person’s political leanings, but it should be rather obvious that Clinton and Obama are much closer to each other than they are to Bush. Thus the value of labels.

        I feel sorry for people who are so damn sensitive when it comes to labels that they somehow take it personally when someone mentions a very accurate label for a group of people based on the position they took.

      8. Many anti development home owner similarly want to shut down debate by referring to “greedy developers” and “stacked people” or “transient housing” when talking about small studio apartments.

        One of my only excursions into the fora of local democracy about housing was to a forum on apodments. I went to speak about how an older but similar housing arrangement had been beneficial to me in my 20’s in a variety of ways, and how there’s value in letting more young people have such options going forward. I wasn’t my acerbic internet self; I spoke only positively about my own experience–but the kinds of things that the…Roger, would calling them “nothing but single family homes anywhere near me enthusiasts” be acceptable?…said about me and people like me–my utter disregard for the neighborhood, the crime and misery I’d inevitably bring in my wake, and so on–grossly exceeds the most intemperate treatment I’ve ever seen my urbanist allies dish out. And all to my face, as well! I can get a little testy online, I admit, but I’m never like that at all in person. One of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had in years.

        So no, I’m not particularly inclined to take tone policing from single-family zoning enthusiasts particularly seriously. They dish it out plenty.

      9. And as Erica points out, there’s really nothing inherently negative about “protectionist.” If we’re talking about national parks, I’m a protectionist! I’ll happily own it. There’s no shame in that label, if the thing your protecting is worth protecting for public reasons, rather than merely private ones. (That you find it offensive is something some might say is a bit telling.)

      10. Hey Ross–you had a great comment a a while ago–maybe a month or two, I’m not sure–nicely breaking down how all the various potential rationales for the land use restrictions that make up current single family zoning actually work at cross purposes (as in, parking minimums work against anti-congestion and aesthetics, rules against subdivisions work against preservationism, etc etc), and the only way they make coherent sense is if the goal is to keep as many people out as possible. But I don’t know what thread it was in, any my searches have not succeeded. If you remember where that was, I’d appreciate it. I want to quote it and riff off of it in a blog post.

      1. True,

        Having online comment forums for people who can’t be there in person would go a long way to balance the conversation though.

    1. That’s easy, there are always plenty of garage spaces at Pacific Place and thereabouts, even during a Seahawks victory parade. They’d just have to walk from there, or take a tunnel bus or train.

    1. Even if you accept that article’s percentages – and they’re debatable, to say the least – do you have any statistics on how much is zoned multifamily? A quick glance strongly implies that most of the non-single-family land is actually industrial.

      1. Yes, and then start adding private surface parking lots to the mix.

        Eventually you get the idea that one of the main reasons that cities in the USA have such trouble being affordable is the sheer amount of land devoted to road traffic.

    2. Oh, nonsense. Not counting ROWs and parks is perfectly reasonable and more or less standard for land use discussions–certainly more common than not. This is NIMBYs looking for a gotcha.

  4. The hearing room overflowed with people, sixty speakers signed up, and most of the councilmembers were present. The council was officially considering two resolutions that would (1) set a high-level policy to implement HALA, and (2) adopt mandatory inclusionary zoning (=mandatory affordable unit percentage in all development), Several people from STB and the Urbanist spoke. The irony of the day was that John Fox spoke immediately after Roger Valdez; those two opposite viewpoints. Here’s my testimony, paraphrased:

    “Please implement HALA. It’s a sensible, balanced, citywide approach that preserves our variety of neighborhoods while dealing with the population increase. Expand urban village boundaries to maximize housing in the 20-minute walk circles around transit stations and frequent bus stops. Allow the unrealized lowrise areas to be built out. Allow ADUs, duplexes, triplexes, and row houses throughout the city. It’s working well in Vancouver BC, where all these types exist side by side, for instance in the Broadway and Kitsilano neighborhoods.

    “I have rented in Seattle for 28 years, in the U-District, Ballard, and Capitol Hill/Firfst Hill. Luckily I’ve been able to live in walkable neighborhoods with frequent transit. That’s getting harder as rents rise and more people compete for housing; I don’t know whether I’ll be able to live in Seattle the rest of my life. In Ballard I lived in an 8-unit apartment built in the 1960s, on a street with all single-family houses. I don’t think our building offended the neighbors or lowered their property values. I don’t have a car so I wasn’t competing for parking. But unit came with a parking space that sat empty. I could buy a condo/house now but I’m saving up to have no mortgage or a small mortgage to minimize debt and interest if I decide to buy someday.

    “In the past I would have lived in an apodment if they had existed. In the future I could see myself possibly wanting to live in an apodment or ADU, or buy a house with an ADU, or build a tiny house, or buy a small apartment building like the one I mentioned earlier.

    “Families with children and extended families have it hardest. They have more people than incomes, and they often need three or more bedrooms. These are few and expensive, which forces them to the suburbs even when they don’t want to.

    “Many people want these same kinds of things, and want to live in Seattle. Please pass HALA and implement it.”

  5. At least half the speakers spoke up for HALA and density, maybe two thirds, during the first 45 minutes that I was there. The opposition points were the usual: keep the beautiful single-family neighborhoods as-is, and density obliterates affordable housing.

    1. Thanks Mike. I had an emergency and couldn’t be there, but emailed the council and mayor I supported HALA and asked for it to be implemented. I appreciate the report here.

    2. “The opposition points were the usual: keep the beautiful single-family neighborhoods as-is, and density obliterates affordable housing.”

      See, the first opposition argument there, I disagree with — I don’t think there’s anything virtuous about banning duplex conversions — but it’s at least a coherent argument. Some people want to freeze the neighborhood in amber; keep renters out; keep communes out; keep students out; keep extended families out. I think this is an unpleasant attitude, but it’s coherent.

      The second opposition argument, by contrast, is just utter nonsense. Garbage. Bilge. Here in reality-land, housing density *creates* affordable housing. That nonsense argument could only be said honestly by someone who has never heard of supply and demand, and in this country, *everyone* has heard of supply and demand. I suspect people who use that dishonest nonsense argument of being disingenuous.

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