by RENEE STATON

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2016 started with a new, energetic Seattle City Council focused on implementing the Grand Bargain and other recommendations in Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Liveability Agenda (“HALA”). The new year appears to have also renewed efforts by those who oppose the HALA recommendations.

Last Wednesday, anti-HALA organizers Greg Hill and Catherine Weatbrook presented their perspective on HALA to an estimated 150 people gathered for a Wallingford Community Council meeting. No City of Seattle presenters were invited to speak, though Councilmember Rob Johnson (District 4) attended and listened to the presentation and public comment. Unfortunately, people who went with an open mind to learn more likely walked out of the Wallingford meeting equipped with one-sided, misleading information.

For the HALA recommendations to pass, urbanists need to provide the other side of that conversation over the next two years. HALA and the Grand Bargain represent the best opportunity Seattle has for achieving greater housing affordability in one of the fastest growing U.S. cities. The HALA policy recommendations will produce and preserve a record number of income-restricted units in Seattle, will accommodate projected population growth without sacrificing affordability, and will leverage our significant public investments in light rail and bus transit by providing households of all incomes a place to live within easy access to jobs and schools.

That process kicks off at a city-wide event tomorrow. Those who want to see HALA recommendations implemented should attend tomorrow’s meeting and stay vocal and engaged in the months ahead. It will be a long process, and supporters need to remain visible in their support. Some of the HALA recommendations, especially those that involve zoning changes or that impact parking, are controversial. Opponents are well organized and it will be extremely important for pro-housing urbanists who support these changes to attend meetings, to speak at them, and to write the Mayor and Council expressing support. Organizing in support of HALA is essential if we want to keep our city great and ensure that Seattle stays affordable and accessible for our children, baristas, teachers, and newcomers to our city.

Important upcoming ways to show your support for HALA and housing affordability in Seattle:

Seattle at Work: Housing Affordability & Livability Agenda
Tuesday, January 26, 2016, 5:00 – 7:00 PM
Seattle City Hall, 600 4th Ave, Bertha Knight Landes Room
https://www.facebook.com/events/1116203131753630/

Telephone Town Halls with Mayor Ed Murray
Mayor Murray will host three Telephone Town Halls. Call-in numbers and additional details will be updated as announced.
North, January 31st 4-5 pm
Central, February 2nd 6-7pm
South, February 4th 6-7pm

Writing to Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle City Council
Send a quick note to council@seattle.gov and seattleatwork@seattle.gov to let them know that you support housing policies and programs that give more opportunities for people of all walks of life to live and work in Seattle. Tell them that you support the HALA recommendations and want to see them implemented in your own neighborhood and citywide.

Renee Staton lives in Seattle’s Pinehurst neighborhood where she has organized on issues related to land use, transportation, affordable housing and parks.

26 Replies to “ACTION ALERT: Time to Start Pushing HALA Through”

  1. More of a question. Could development rights to add a medium size apartment building replacing a single house be sold by buying rights from neighboring houses. Likely adjacent houses and those across the street, around 10 houses typically. On a corner lot it might be the the 8 closest houses to the corner. If at a later time another apartment were added rights from those houses and the first apartment would sell development rights again.

    Currently the city holds power to change zoning and allow those units, but only the immediate seller of the property gets all the benefits. Complicated.

      1. Good point there, Ron. MF development best fits in walkable neighborhoods with good transit access. Neighborhoods without sidewalks are not very walkable. Similarly neighborhoods where midday buses only run every 30 minutes, or where there are no (or only few) stores to walk to.

      2. Glad to hear you’ll be a resounding yes for upzoning the highly transit-accessible single family zoning in wallingford, ballard, greenwood and fremont RD.

      3. Yes, “upzone away”, i’m there in principle, but the devil’s in the details, as they say. Such upzones might be easier done if the noisiest urbanists would back off of their “SF zoning is evil and must be abolished” mantra.

    1. I have heard something like that regarding parking, where the neighborhood would get a percentage of parking fees to improve the neighborhood with. That puts residents into a pro-paid-parking mindset and diminishes opposition to apartments (by eliminating the “apartment dwellers will fill up my free parking space in front of my house” argument — the space isn’t free anymore anyway).

      However, “neighbors’ development rights” for housing sounds problematic. NIMBYs already have an unjustified sense of entitlement to veto what other people do on their own property. This would not only legitimize that entitlement but endow it with a property right — even though they’ve paid zero for the neighbor’s property. If this is to be fair, it would have to go to a neighborhood development fund rather than straight into the neighbors’ pockets. Otherwise you would see investors buying single-family properties merely to receive these fees, which is kind of like a patent troll.

    2. I don’t think that would gain you much. People object to new apartments in their neighborhood, not just next door. There are several objections. First there is the loss of the old house. Second there is the lack of parking and third, the fear of renters.

      I think all of these arguments are misguided, but simply trying to placate the next door neighbor would have little effect.

      The last couple arguments are simply value judgements (people want renters to pay for parking and they don’t like renters in their neighborhood). You can appeal to their sense of decency or fair play, but many (based on my experience) will refuse to acknowledge their selfishness and make convoluted arguments to support their idea.

      But the loss of old houses is probably the most frustrating and the most misguided argument. I understand the idea. I think it is a shame to lose nice houses. But our rules are partly to blame. In an effort to shield some neighborhoods from the horrors of a small apartment or two (https://goo.gl/maps/mU3ZfMS4uvJ2) they have drawn a line in the sand, and only allow development in very small areas. The result is that very nice, very big old houses get torn down, while old leaking houses a few blocks away sit idle.

      Or they get replaced by monster houses. There is nothing preventing anyone from building this: https://goo.gl/maps/AJ14k79mxXt. This is just about as tall and bulky as that apartment, but each one holds only one family. In that neighborhood, just like most of Seattle’s neighborhoods, you can no longer build anything like that apartment building, but you can build that house.

      The result is a perversion of the market. You see very few houses converted to apartments, because in most neighborhoods it is not allowed. Where it is allowed, you often see the old house simply being torn down. The value of an apartment is so high (because of the zoning) that it makes sense to tear it down, instead of doing the much cheaper conversion.

      It is like only allowing six story buildings on a very small section of town. Eventually, if demand is high enough, five story buildings get replaced by six story ones. All the while across the street a lot sits vacant. This is absurd and guarantees sky high prices for units, but happens when the rules are not well thought out.

      1. “You can appeal to their sense of decency or fair play, but many (based on my experience) will refuse to acknowledge their selfishness and make convoluted arguments to support their idea.”

        RossB you must be a professional diplomat. I would have phrased it “respond with sociopathic word salad.” :)

      2. While I am sympathetic to saving old houses because I do prefer the architecture, I prioritize increasing density and walkability over saving them. I’m more than a little annoyed when I see an old craftsman home torn down for a giant single-family home. I walk by 22nd/Roy daily and have been seeing this happen for the past several months. The home that was lost wasn’t an architectural jewel by any means, but I was hoping for some extra density next to a frequent bus corridor. I’m sure an apartment building of the same dimensions would have brought out the neighbors’ pitchforks.

  2. I would see the owner of the lot sold for the development getting most of the money. Somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 (1/2?) of the increased value of the lot because of converting to a multifamily goes to neighbors. But note, the buyer of the lot retain the same rights to receive money as further as further development takes place.

    A real-estate economist may be able to optimize all of this.

  3. In an ideal optimization the neighbors are selling development rights. As further lots are developed neighbors in turn sell development rights. If the economics were perfect it would work out that if all of the block was developed each owner gets the same amount of money as if all sold at the same time.

    A seller of a lot to a developer in effect buys development rights from neighbors. But that lot now is comprised to two assets, 1) the lot to develop and 2) some development rights to the remaining lots on the block

    1. What are these development rights you’re talking about? Are you saying that people who don’t own a piece of property, but only have property near it, own development rights over that property? I don’t think that is true.

      If it was true, nothing could ever get built because you can never get a whole group of people to agree on things. One hold out could screw up any project.

      We already have something similar to what youre talking about, it is called an Environmental Impact Study. It ensures that new projects mitigate any damage they cause to the surrounding environment. The assessment is done fairly, and is not subject to the whim of a few people.

      1. The idea of Transferrable Development Rights is, crudely, this: I want to develop, say, a 30 unit apartment building. But the zoning only allows me to build, say, a 25 unit apartment building. Meanwhile you’re sitting down the street with your nice little single family house. If you built your property out to the zoning envelope you could build six units, but you don’t want to do that. So you sell (“transfer”) me the right to build the five extra units. I can now build the 30 unit apartment building that I always wanted to, you have extra cash, everybody’s happy.

        Unless your property were further upzoned, you’ve sold your development rights and they’re gone, because you can’t build that imaginary six plex twice.

        There’s a lot more complexity to it,. but that’s the basic idea.

      2. @wanderer,
        that’s a interesting idea. But not the one posed. The rights would be saleable again and again anytime someone wanted to build something near other property owners. It sounds to me as a basic bribe to not be unhappy about things changing, and a veto ability if a cranky neighbor doesn’t want something to happen.

      3. What is the public benefit of this public policy? How is it better than the current situation where owners can build anything they want subject to the zoning? Isn’t zoning supposed to be a statement of how the city should ideally be laid out? If we think 65′ is better than 40′, why don’t we just zone 65′ rather than having 15′ of “transferable development rights”. It gives the current neighbors a financial right and veto right that the rest of the city’s residents and would-be residents don’t have. What about existing apartment buildings? Would they have to share one vote because they’re on one lot?

      4. At a Roosevelt Station hearing, a single-family dweller adjacent to the QFC lot spoke against ST’s plan to put TOD there because she wanted the neighborhood to remain single-family. Should neighbors like that be able to veto stations or station-area TOD or demand settlement money for it?

  4. Much of the opposition I’ve heard has boiled down to not wanting their neighborhood to end up like dense neighborhood x. In the short run, I think organized support of hala is the best we can do, but in the long run, taking care of our homeless would probably go a lot farther.

    1. Unfortunately the Grand Bargain was totally driven by politics and is devoid of the nuance needed to make such a sweeping policy implementable. It only makes sense at the highest concept level, and when applied to specific circumstances the problems become evident. For example, take a 65-foot zone in northgate. Could the local politics support 85 feet? Perhaps. Is there market demand for it (in a way that would offset Inclusionary zoning to any degree)? No. For another example take a 65-foot zone Wallingford along 45th adjacent (no alley in most case) from SF zoning. Market might work for 85-feet, but there is an obvious urban form challenge. And is that where we want to spend political capital picking a fight over relatively small amounts of capacity in any event? At any rate, a lot of downtown developers signed onto this because they could pay a fee and be done with the matter, but in the neighborhoods with the mandatory inclusionary elements developers seem to be against it. Even the most rah-rah urbanists, myself included, will see the flaws in the peanut butter approach. So who other than the affordable housing groups will be the advocates? …I’d rather spend efforts raising a massive levy for affordable housing and using the city’s debt capacity to leverage it.

      1. How much affordable housing could HALA optimistically/realistically/pessimistically provide? How high an additional levy rate would be necessary to accomplish the same without HALA, remembering that homelessness / lack of workforce housing is not the ONLY demand on the city’s bonding capacity?

        Does anyone have some numbers that are at least semi-realistic?

      2. Affordable housing, homeless housing, and workforce housing are different things at different income levels, and homeless housing is further divided between those who have a job and those who don’t. The affordable housing cutoff is low, at around a family of four with one person making minimum wage. But there are a lot of singles and two-person households with janitorial work, entry-level work, baristas, or part-time jobs without benefits who make too much to qualify for affordable housing but can’t afford market-rate housing, or sometimes they can find something but the units are few and prone to disappearing when the rent is raised our the unit is converted to something else.

        As for homeless people, some of them are working and making money, but they don’t have enough for first month and deposit, or they don’t make three times the rent and are disqualified. They could get into affordable housing with a little boost and more available units (not a seven-year waiting list). But those without jobs and little chance of getting a steady job couldn’t make the typical affordable rents and would need a rent at or near zero.

        We need a range of solutions that work for people making between $0 and $60,000, not just the narrow affordable housing range.

  5. Some additional ammunition may be provided by pointing at Portland. As has been mentioned in the past, rents have skyrockets in many parts of Portland, with vacancy rates dropping to 1% or so in many areas.

    I’ve not been able to find a copy of the article online, but about a week and a half ago the Oregonian published an article that said that some national real estate group named SE Portland’s Hawthorne District as being the 5th most desired market in the country, based on vacancy rates, housing price increases and similar statistics.

    In short, there goes what’s left of our last remaining 1% vacancy (at least until people realize housing prices have far outstripped the wages available here and half the people go back to wherever they came from – this type of thing happened once in the 1990s too).

    The interesting thing is that if you look around the Hawthorne district, you find dozens and dozens of craftsman and one or two remaining rare Victorian houses that have been converted to multiple units, some scattered apartments from the 1920s with garages with 0 setbacks from the sidewalk, and mixed in to all that significant amounts of single family housing that takes the majority of the land but probably represents less than 50% of the population in the Hawthorne District.

    In the past, when I have pointed out some of the duplex, triplex and quadplex conversions that have happened in southeast Portland as examples of how to retain older homes while increasing density, there has usually been a commenter or two that has responded by saying “But what about decreased property values due to nearby renters?”

    If what is going on in the Hawthorne District, as measured by whoever it is that published this report (and I really do wish I could find it on the Oregonian’s web site so I could provide you the link), nearby renters don’t decrease property values or desirability of the neighborhood at all.

  6. One benefit of single family housing is the green that is preserved in the yards surrounding the houses. You have to admit, that green makes the city more liveable for everyone as Seattle’s park to population ratio is really not that great, and more growing things mean better air and more pleasant surroundings. If we replace single family with multi unit vertical construction to increase the housing supply, could we not then mandate and subsidize green roofs and walls so that the cost of those green roofs/walls does not impact the rent? I believe this would mitigate some of the concerns about increased density in predominantly SF neighborhoods.

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