Seattle District 1 Candidate Lisa Herbold made some good points in the clarification of her position on HALA. I especially welcome her support for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Most interesting, however, is what she said about displacement, as that’s where the tension is strongest between the stated social justice goal of displacing no one, and the environmental (and public safety, urban-agenda, economic) goal of welcoming as many people to Seattle as possible.
First, I agree with Ms. Herbold that a workable strategy to replace affordable units destroyed by development is desirable, especially if it doesn’t deter said development. At the same time I’m not willing to delay a badly needed upzone process indefinitely in search of such a strategy.
But her most powerful argument is a forceful challenge to my just-maximize-the-units ideology, taking the example of a cheap single-family home replaced with a new triplex:
I have more compassion for a displaced low income family renting one of our scarce affordable family-sized rentals who has to move their family out of the city, pull their children out of school, and suffer a long, emissions-producing commute like this family who Janet Tu profiled in her excellent piece in the Times, than I do for the three higher-income families who otherwise would likely be buying the new homes that are built in the place of that one low-income rental. Do you know why? That low income family has far fewer options, and the hardship they will experience will be much, much greater than the 3 higher-income families will experience not being able to buy one of those 3 pricey new homes.
I absolutely agree that exchanging one cheap unit for one expensive unit is in most cases a net loss for society, for the reasons she describes. But as the ratio of new households to displaced households increases, the benefits start to overwhelm these concerns. The environmental impact of three middle-class families in the suburbs and a low-income one in Seattle greatly outweighs the reverse. Seattle is much more likely to convert some of those families’ wealth into social services, transit, and subsidized housing, thanks to the generosity of its voters. And an ever-increasing population increases Seattle’s weight in Olympia, which helps in the arena that blocks most transformative policy change.
Unfortunately there is no formula that “proves” the minimum ratio where the benefits of growth exceed the pain of displacement. For me, that figure is low — probably less than 2. And that’s because outlawing duplexes and triplexes doesn’t ultimately prevent displacement. Herbold is right that an upzone increases the incentives to redevelop, but this only accelerates an inevitable process where the affordable house gives way to one new home (under current zoning) or up to three (under the proposed change). Meanwhile, our three hypothetical families may not end up in the suburbs; they may very well outbid three other families elsewhere in the city who are less equipped to deal with the inconveniences of displacement.
Once again, it would be ideal if Seattle can craft a policy to replace demolished affordable housing without impairing new construction, rather than achieve its goals on the backs of the displaced. But delay in achieving those goals, or failure altogether, is much worse for thousands of households like the one a preservation policy strives to save.