When I read Erica Barnett’s piece yesterday about a small Phinney Ridge apartment project sent back to Design Review for a 4th time, I thought of my religious upbringing and Jesus’ lament in Matthew 23:24 : “You blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” Despite recent positive moves toward a more aggressively pro-housing stance, including defunding the change-averse neighborhood councils and passing the Housing Levy, etc, our instincts are still to miss the forest for the needles on each tree.
The project in question is a rare multifamily development in the heart of Craftsman land, and residents have objected loudly and often to things like the lack of A/C (the norm in Seattle) and the terrifying possibility of commerce. From Barnett’s piece:
One woman was concerned that the building’s two live-work spaces would create traffic and crowd nearby sidewalks. “If you’re maybe somebody who has clients coming and going [from the] live-work units, going in and out, and if you’re on Greenwood, they’re going to be crossing the sidewalk.
Others suggested an aesthetic test, with neighbors as judge and jury:
Give us a building that gives us joy to walk by. It’s like that saying, ‘I don’t know what art is but I know it when I see it.’ Well, I don’t know what good architecture is, but I know it when I see it.
There has been some noise lately that the ire directed at single family zones and neighborhood councils is misdirected, that it’s cynical to lay the blame upon them in the midst of an unprecedented building boom. And it’s true, we’re building roughly 13,000 new units per year, a record pace, and 9,000 planned for each of the next 3 years.
But it doesn’t really matter that we’re building. What matters is how much and where. Seattle is growing by 16,000 people per year, so 13,000 units is likely just enough to tread water, as recent slowing in the rate of rent growth shows. The more worrying sign is the 26,000 units planned for the next 3 years, and the 45,000 people likely to move here in the same period. That leaves a lot of (mostly well-paid) people, with nowhere to turn, bidding up the rent in our “naturally affordable” housing stock.
Despite our best intentions, it seems that the momentum toward upzones in exchange for Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) will induce very few new units in our multifamily zones, and that most developers will either walk away or pay the fee. With 1). these new fees likely to be passed directly into market-rate rents, 2). single-family zones remaining mostly untouchable, 3). a clear shortage of planned units, and 4) angry neighbors holding back production on account of laundry/unit ratios, it’s hard to be optimistic about our ability to keep up with growth.
We need to get to the place where housing at all levels is seen as a social good, and that the burden of process should be on those who wish to restrict it.