Last week Seattle released a much-anticipated draft of the environmental impact statement for the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which allows developers additional height in exchange for building a certain amount of affordable housing.

Three scenarios were analysed: one taking no action, and two slightly different plans for distributing the increased development capacity around 27 neighborhoods in the city. All options would leave most single families areas unchanged. No action is expected to result in “substantially less affordable housing” and “less market-rate housing supply,” according to the report. Alternative #2 implements zoning changes using existing growth patterns. Alternative #3 directs more growth to areas with a low displacement risk and easy access to transit, jobs and public amenities.

In other words, with alternative 3, neighborhoods such as Wallingford, Fremont and Ballard would see larger upzones and an expansion of the urban village boundary, allowing denser development, to areas within a 10-minute walk of frequent public transit. In the second plan, areas deemed to have a high risk of displacement and low opportunity, such as Rainier Beach or Othello, would receive less-dramatic upzones and smaller extensions of the urban village boundary.

Implementing either proposal would create roughly the same number of affordable homes — estimated at 5,500 — and generate 95,000 total units of housing over the next 20 years. The plan of no action would generate only about 200 affordable units and 77,000 new homes, remaining consistent with the Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan.

With all scenarios expected to impact the region’s transportation network, the report identified “reducing the share of SOV travel is key to Seattle’s transportation strategy.”

Transit boardings are forecasted to increase at least 74 percent in all scenarios, with light rail receiving most of that uptick. Slightly more boardings are expected with alternatives 2 and 3. No deficiency is expected, according to the report; as “It is reasonable to assume that Metro could add more buses to the busiest routes to accommodate some or all of the crowding.”

For bus ridership, the largest increase is predicted for three routes: the 120 between West Seattle and Downtown, 40 between Northgate and Westlake, and 70 between Northgate and Downtown.

Pedestrian and bicycle trips are expected to increase under all alternatives but no significant impacts are expected as the Pedestrian Master Plan and Bicycle Master Plan move forward.

All alternatives are expected to increase traffic volumes across the city roughly the same, with several segments of Interstate 5, Interstate 90 and State Road 520 not meeting WSDOT’s minimum LOS.

Three city corridors were predicted to see a decline in the level of service during the evening commute: southbound Martin Luther King Jr. Way from Rainier Ave South to the southern city limits; the Ballard Bridge going north; and 12th Avenue South between South Jackson St and Lakeside Avenue South.

The report suggests the City could simply accept a higher level of congestion on these streets consistent with other higher-density areas of the city. Instead, it could adopt mitigation strategies: increasing parking fees; modifying parking maximum limits; strengthening TDM requirements for new development to reduce SOV trips; purchasing additional bus service from King County Metro for certain corridors; and considering replacing or adding a bridge across the Ship Canal to add non-auto capacity.

48 Replies to “DEIS Shows Two Options for Adding 95,000 Homes to Seattle”

  1. The more government tries to improve situations, the worse things get, which is the main reason we’re having so many problems now. I see this as a continuation of failed attempts to help certain groups of people. All it takes is a look at Seattle’s history to understand this. And Seattle, if not already, has lost its soul.

    1. European settlers have enjoyed historic protections through the force of law, including forcing the signings of treaties at gunpoint, passing laws that ignored those treaties, barring the entry of Native Americans into town 151 years ago, creation of racially segregated schools, policies designed to push various groups to live in certain parts of town, and zoning designed to do the same when those previous policies were thrown out. Those zoning policies remain largely intact, and lots of neighborhood activists remain in denial of their intent.

      There was also the Japanese internment and confiscation of all property. And we continue to make it difficult for people to live in their own cars when they have no other housing options, and to keep pushing the homeless around and throwing away their worldly possessions.

      Yes, government has done, and continues to do, some bad, bad things.

      Seattle lost its soul when the last of the longhouses were burned down (which wasn’t done by the government, but was aided and abetted by it).

    2. Blah blah blah. No matter how hard you try to make it happen, you will not wake up tomorrow in 1952. Seattle is turning into a real city. Government should exist to manage competing needs and provide a just balance, not just protect whitey. I’m glad Seattle is actively trying to make a city for more than the upper quintile, as imperfect as that process is.

    3. The only way to get somewhere is to know where you want to go. Even to assess whether things have gotten better or worse depends on some underlying idea of what is better. So let’s start with that: what direction do we want to go, and what should the city try to do? Different people have different opinions on that. My opinion is an urbanist, equality-minded one. Some others prioritize the “quality of life” of keeping their neighborhood single-family, street parking open, and widening roads. Those who focus mostly on government failures often have a libertarian viewpoint, but again they’ll have some ideal in mind, either mostly multifamily or mostly single-family.

      As for Seattle’s soul, that’s even more amorphous. Do you mean the Indian hunting-and-fishing soul? The working-class logging soul? The gee-whiz space-age soul of the World’s Fair? The countercultural soul on the Ave and Broadway? The quiet soul of understated Scandianvian wealth in Ballard? Or something else?

      1. “Understated Scandinavian wealth?” Who knew all those little 2-bdrm bungalows were owned by millionaires? I’m sure Sven and Helga will have a good laugh at that one.

      2. @Aubergine They are now, just by owning one. Property values have become a ridiculously easy investment scheme…

  2. The last paragraph needs to be edited for clarity. I’m super involved in these issues and don’t know what many of those acronyms mean.

    1. Looks like around “Ballard”, Pg. 1.25:

      “Continue ongoing monitoring of volumes across the Ballard Bridge and complete a feasibility study of a bridge replacement (or new Ship Canal crossing) with increased non-auto capacity if ongoing traffic monitoring identifies a substantial increase in PM peak hour traffic volumes across the bridge.”

      Though the map on pg 3.178 (PDF pg 292) suggests something closer to this:
      https://www.seattletransitblog.com/2013/04/12/a-better-ship-canal-crossing/

  3. OMG – not more riders on the 40! This route is already overwhelmed during morning and evening rush hours. I live in Ballard and work at the northern boundary of the SLU neighborhood and it often takes me 90 minutes to get home in the evening because of the number of buses full of Amazon employees that pass my Westlake and Mercer stop. Even if the 40 is turned into a Rapid Ride, I do not see that improving.

    1. Just a suggestion but biking might be a decent option. It’s only like a 20 minute bike ride from Ballard to SLU using the Burke/Westlake cycle track and most of it is separated from traffic.

    2. More buses are sure to be on the way soon. 40 screams for more peak frequency every day now.

    3. The more passengers added to the 40, the more frequency will be added, the shorter your wait time will be, and hence the shorter your commute will be.

    4. Metro was in a crash crunch during the recession years when the worst overcrowding occurred and it didn’t have money to add buses. (And it didn’t have spare drivers, and when the recovery used up the bus capacity it didn’t have spare buses until they could be ordered and delivered.) Now it has more of a cushion to add a bus here or there to relieve overcrowding. That doesn’t mean everything is solved, but it means things aren’t likely to get as bad as they were a few years ago.

      I rode a 40 morthbound to Fremont Friday morning, which I’ve never done before. I’ve used the 62 more often, and it gets some or a lot of people who deboard at several stops along Dexter and Fremont. But this 40 was standing room only and then almost everyone got off at one stop, Westlake & Harrison. I don’t know if it’s usually like that, or this was a big group, or the geography makes it impossible to spread out deboarding like they do on Dexter.

      It was also amusing that this is the corridor the streetcar supposedly serves, yet tons of people were taking the 40 and I know they also take the 70 and 62. So much for streetcars being high-capacity rail transit.

  4. If MLK is going to get worse, that seems like a logical justification for Seattle to be paying for grade separations for Link on MLK.

    1. Good point.

      I was struck more that two of the worsening corridors are in south Seattle and only one in north Seattle. I’m wondering if that has something to do with south Seattle being more neglected, or if it simply comes down to different land uses in south Seattle vs north Seattle. I would actually expect more growth in the north, and thus more increased traffic there. So I’m puzzled why two out of the three corridors are on the south side.

  5. This appears to add only 19K more units at maximum buildout.

    Considering that the current zoning allows for 76K more units yet we still have a expensive housing cost problem, going to 95K units won’t really help that much. Consider too that much of that is set up to be studio and one-bedroom apartments. Given Seattle’s current population growth rate, the additional units created by the alternatives will only add about a year of housing supply.

    In other words, this does very little to profoundly improve housing affordability or add supply.

  6. 95k dwelling units in 20 years is a joke. We are currently adding 8k to 10k units a year. To get to 95k we would have to cut our current rate of addition just about in half, and even at current rates we aren’t meeting demand.

    or am I missing something here?

    1. The No Action current plan adds 76k total homes, 200 of which are ‘affordable’. Assuming your 8-10k per year current rate is accurate, this projection indicates that this rate is not sustainable over 20 years.

      The alternatives add 95k total homes, 5500 of which are ‘affordable’.

      The headline is pretty misleading: the proposals only _add_ 19k homes, as Al S. mentioned just above. The important part in my mind is that we would bump the ‘affordable’ home ratio from less than 1% under the current plan to nearly 6% under the alternatives..

    2. In 2012 people said the current crop of under-construction apartments would saturate demand and they were worried that too many would remain empty. In 2013 they said the same thing. And in 2014, 2015, and 2016. “A slowdown is just around the corner.” So we should expect it to keep growing until we see the whites of their eyes. (Or not see them, since they won’t be there.) However, it clearly can’t continue at this rate forever, and 20 years seems long enough that it will surely fizzle out before then. Still, after making so many mistakes underestimating the population, it would be refreshing to overestimate it for once. (And that would help ease the demand for housing a bit.)

    3. I agree that it’s inadequate and we need more, but comparisons to 2016-2018 rates aren’t really all that enlightening. Obviously, we’re not going to be dealing with the kind of overheated economic growth motivating the current housing boom we’re seeing now for 20 years in a row.

    4. “95k dwelling units in 20 years is a joke. We are currently adding 8k to 10k units a year.”

      Seattle has its Comp Plan growth target, and the DEIS baseline is constructed within those assumptions. If overall demand stays strong, all of these numbers will be larger, probably more or less in proportion.

      It doesn’t matter a lot. The policy question is whether one alternative works better than another. They’re all layered on the same baseline, so raising the baseline raises all the outcomes without changing the relative advantages.

      1. @Dan R,

        Your assertions about the policy implications of the baseline are false. If we significantly underestimate the baseline level then we are getting almost everything wrong in our planning.

        Get the baseline wrong and we wouldn’t be zoning to the demand and therefore might be artificially constraining supply. And most importantly, we would be underestimating the willingness of developers to shoulder requirements like additional affordable housing, public amenities, ped improvements, etc.

        Getting the baseline right is of paramount importance. It is not something to be dismissed like so much fake news. Getting it right actually does matter.

      2. Yes, and no. The next comprehensive plan cycle is only a few years out (2022?). If we update the comp plan and zoning etc to a higher target then all is well. It means that all these scenarios are a bit understated, but the lasting policy impact is not large.

        On the other hand, if we get to 2022, and everybody persists with a too-low target, then I agree with you. The zoning constraints become a lot more binding over time if not updated.

  7. What does the EIS assume about ST’s TOD program? They are about to sell property at Roosevelt and First Hill that will add 500-600 affordable units in the next couple of years. They own big parcels at Mt Baker, Columbia City and Rainier Beach that are subject to affordable hosing requirements. Another 100 units are about the break ground at Capitol Hill.

    It seems like the no-build understates the effect of ST3, and thus understates the totals in options 2 and 3.

  8. Rather than higher densities within a 10-minute walk of frequent transit, I would like to see much higher densities within a 5-minute walk of frequent transit.

    1. After a certain point, taller buildings have higher price/area. Your strategy would exacerbate the housing costs even further

      1. You can have much higher densities without going tall if you want. Paris averages around 55,000/square mile with the vast majority of residential buildings no taller than 8 floors. Not saying that’s what I favor.

    2. We could always just go for the best of both worlds, high density in 5-10 minute walk and much higher density <5 minute walk

      1. My issue is that a 10 minute walk isn’t “close” for most people. That’s a 20 minute walk round-trip. It’s nice to assume everyone is willing to walk 20 minutes round trip every day on just one end of their commute, but it’s not realistic.

        To me “close” ends at a 5-6 minute walk.

      2. 10 minutes is the national average that Americans are willing to walk to high-quality transit. The assumption is that 5 minutes is an easy walk, 10 minutes is the limit of convenient, and 20 minutes is a secondary limit for a subset of people or less common trips.

        We’d need to define “high” and “higher” density to tell how feasible Ben’s point is. Most of debate revolves around height and assumes a western American standard for spacing between buildings and the layout of blocks. But as ChrisC says, by shrinking those to a Paris/Boston/Edinburgh level, you can get a lot more units even at a lowrise level. But it’s hartd to get most politicians and residents to recognize this.

  9. Welcome Liz! Looking forward to reading your work.

    A quick question: Can you clarify the paragraph below? Are you saying all that Alternative 2 does is provide less dramatic upzones and smaller extensions of the urban village boundary in high-risk/low opportunity neighborhoods? Or does it also include the upzone you mentioned for Alternative 3?

    “In other words, with alternative 3, neighborhoods such as Wallingford, Fremont and Ballard would see larger upzones and an expansion of the urban village boundary, allowing denser development, to areas within a 10-minute walk of frequent public transit. In the second plan, areas deemed to have a high risk of displacement and low opportunity, such as Rainier Beach or Othello, would receive less-dramatic upzones and smaller extensions of the urban village boundary.”

  10. It’s an interesting document. I just hope that they had PhD types doing the statistics, because I always get nervous when amateurs with a statistical software package start popping out regressions and throwing them in reports. It’s not as easy as just selecting an ‘independent’ and ‘dependent’ variable from a pulldown menu and running with the results.

  11. Keep in mind that these appear to be zoning maximums, and not market conditions. Depending on the actual lot characteristics like slopes and other factors, the theoretical maximum numbers may easily not be built.

    One top of that, the number of units can vary wildly depending on the mix of studios, one-bedrooms, two-bedrooms and larger units. I get concerned that the theoretical counting focuses on assuming tiny apartments, which create more units but frankly often don’t house more people.

    Finally, just like a three or five percent vacancy is considered an over-saturated housing market, the allowable residential zoning should always have enough of a buffer so that vacant properties can be purchased and developed based on market fluctuations from year to year. If we have an affordability problem today with 77K more possible homes, that suggests that we need more than this 19K extra to get our rental market back to a healthy affordability status.

    To put some numbers on this last point: According to the City (http://www.seattle.gov/opcd/population-and-demographics/about-seattle#housing), Seattle had 340K housing units and 327K households in 2016. The baseline of 77K listed here is about 21 percent of a buffer in the market. The 95K appears to take that to about 25 percent of a buffer. It’s a slight ease on the market, but not really significant. Consider that the theoretical maximum buffer was probably about 25 percent just two or three years ago, and housing was often unaffordable then.

    For another data point, consider that we have added 32K more housing units between 2010 and 2016 according to the City. The proposed change is only for a theoretical 19K more (note that the maximum is not likely, as explained above). We would need to add 32K to our maximum residential capacity just to keep up with the situation in 2010. I’m not sure when the last major rezone was implemented, but surely it is further back than 3 or 4 years ago. I would even suggest that the target number for the reforms should be at least 32K just to get the market more affordable again — and not this mere 19K.

  12. I would like to see the numbers of Option D: Implement the original plan that came out of the HALA task force. That had all of this plus a change in zoning to allow a lot more ADUs. Maybe the next mayor won’t scuttle the efforts of a committee she creates.

    1. Shoeboxes have already been outlawed, because neighorhoods didn’t want the type of people happy to live in shoeboxes moving into Seattle. It was concern trolling of the ugliest variety, and the council fell for it.

    2. Never mind that the type of people happy to live in shoeboxes are currently living in full-sized apartments in the same neighborhoods. Some of them can’t afford it but some of them can, so they’re there. They may not want all the space or the parking space or the high rent and they’d prefer to live closer to the neighborhood center, but they take what they can find. I don’t hear that they’re causing an increase in wild parties or drug dealing or the browning of the neighborhood or whatever else anti-microhousing people are concerned about.

  13. Anyone have any thoughts on why MLK, 12th Ave S, and 15th NW are expected to get the worst impact?

    I don’t understand what “12th Avenue South between South Jackson St and Lakeside Avenue South” means. 12th Ave S is the west side of the top of Beacon Hill, and Lakeside Ave S is along Lake Washington at 35th Ave so they never even get close. Is this a mistake? Does it mean north Beacon Hill around the 60, or somewhere around east Jackson and the 14 or 27?

    12th I can understand because there aren’t many ways to Beacon Hill, the intersection of 15th & Beacon isn’t very robust, so if the population significantly increases it could overwhelm the roads.

    MLK, really? With Rainier next door? That’s two highways along the valley. a not particularly dense landscape, and strong resistance to upzoning. So overcongested MLK seems unlikely.

    15th Ave NW is also hard to see. It’s six lanes, and the gap between the north end and I-5 is awkward and not particularly desirable for drivers. I have seen the part at Interbay fill up and slow down at rush hour like Aurora does, but not the part north of Market Street. So I’d say the worst bottleneck is between Mercer Street and Market Street, not “the bridge on north”.

    1. I think MLK congestion is quite likely. Othello area traffic on MLK is already quite bad. The current lane reductions on Rainier have pushed cars to MLK and the extension of the concept to Rainier Beach will push more. Congestion between I-5 and I-90 is bad enough to shift people onto MLK and that will worsen. There are many, many new and denser housing projects under construction; Link has greatly improved transit and that in turn has improved the area’s land values creating a huge market for private redevelopment. I’m guessing that the additional units put there send it past the congestion threshold.

    2. On 12th & Lakeside being parallel: this paragraph is an even worse summary than you thought. The quote in the source is “South of S Jackson St–12th Ave S to Lakeside Ave S in the southbound direction”. This is referring not to a corridor but to a “screenline… an imaginary line across which the number of passing vehicles is counted,” which says to me we’re talking about possibly several parallel corridors at once.

      The other two screenlines that “are expected to exceed their thresholds in the PM peak hour in 2035 in all alternatives” are:
      * South City Limit–Martin Luther King Jr. Way to Rainier Ave S in the southbound direction
      * Ship Canal–Ballard Bridge in the northbound direction

      So the DEIS is actually saying that all these streets will see increased congestion: the bridge into Ballard, MLK/Highway 900 going up the hill parallel to the freeway, Beacon Ave south of its discontinuity, Renton Ave through Skyway, Rainer along the lake, and each of 12th, Rainer, 23rd, MLK, 31st, and Lakeside between Jackson and I-90.

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