On Monday, you have a chance to speak to Seattle city council members about one of the greatest challenges facing our society: building more houses for people. In Seattle, our housing shortage does not arise either from a lack of technology nor of capital, but primarily from laws that reserve more than half of the city’s land area for the most spatially-inefficient kind of urban housing ever to achieve mass adoption — the detached single-family house, with mandatory setbacks and car parking — and stringently regulate development on the tiny slice of land where multi-family housing is allowed.

Unlike other challenges we face, many of which require help from reluctant or recalcitrant higher levels of government, we in Seattle control* our own land use laws. We have nobody else to blame for the invisible wall of exclusionary zoning that we allow to stand around our city. The good news is that we have elected City Council members who, mostly, understand our housing problem and care about rectifying it. Last week’s Council vote, to stop forcing many people who live in transit-rich areas to have parking spaces they may not want, suggests our council members are willing to turn concern into legislation, even over the objections of a vocal, litigious, and extraordinarily privileged ($) minority.

The bad news is that privilege dies hard. To listen to much of the testimony at a zoning hearing is to fall into a netherworld where building more homes will not help our housing shortage; where open resentment of immigrants and newcomers is acceptable; where people who live in pre-war bungalows that would never meet today’s codes denounce modern apartments as Dickensian fire traps and health hazards; and imagined slights by the city bureaucracy invalidate years of open public process. To be a person who speaks at these hearings, for the radical proposition that roofs over people’s heads are both a public and private good, is definitely Type II fun.

But speak we must. Housing in the city, both subsidized and market rate, is an ethical and economic imperative, and if we fail to speak for it, we leave our elected leaders out on a limb. On Monday’s agenda is the citywide HALA rezone, a long-discussed, modest rezone of existing urban villages, coupled with a linkage fee. This rezone is worthy in its own right, and you should speak for it, but it must be thought of as a beginning, rather than an end; a down payment on a much more extensive and diverse housing stock that we have yet to legalize. As Minneapolis is considering, we must fundamentally reexamine single-family zoning throughout the whole city.

  • What: Public Hearing: Mandatory Housing Affordability in Districts 3 & 7
  • Where: Seattle Central College, Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway
  • When: April 16, 2018 6:00 PM (be early! — speaking is first come, first served)

If you’d like to join up with an awesome, supportive group of people, consider Seattle 4 Everyone or Seattle Tech for Housing.

* Well, mostly. The playing field isn’t really level — upzones go through an exhaustive state environmental process that the status quo mostly never had to.

2 Replies to “Monday Evening: Speak for Housing”

  1. I’m a Seattle homeowner. While I wouldn’t use the word privileged, I sure am grateful to own my own home in an increasingly expensive city. My block will be upzoned to apartments (L-1) if the HALA rezone goes through. While the NIMBY anti-HALA yard signs are all around me, I am pro-HALA and pro-density. Also I will be able to sell my old worn-out 107 year old house to housing-recyclers who will put the land adjacient to frequent transit (C-LINE) and shops and business within walking distance (Morgan Junction) to its highest and best use. This transforming and recycling is what cities are all about. I would like to lower some of the retoric vilifying homeowners. They are just seeking their own self interest. Don’t we all in so many areas of life. However, the health of the city and future generations of those desiring to live in the Seattle and the highest and best use of land are competing interests. Upzoning is in the best interest of the city. Amber zoning is not.

    1. As another homeowner in another homeowner neighborhood, I agree. As it turns out, my neighborhood will not be upzoned. I think most of my neighbors think that is a shame. Or at the very least, silly.

      I live in Pinehurst, which is not the nicest neighborhood in the city. Most of the folks who moved here did so because that is all they could afford. They knew there were better neighborhoods — places with bigger parks, views of mountains, urban amenities (like sidewalks) — but we couldn’t afford that. We moved to a classic suburban neighborhood, in that it wasn’t quite as good as the core of the city. It was the farmland that surrounded the city — great for raising crops, but not good at all if you want to just live and work in town. You can still see remnants of the old farmland all over the neighborhood. Small cottage houses that sit on very big lots.

      Which is why the zoning laws are silly. My house is zoned SFH 7200. That means you can only build one single family house on a lot that is at least 7,200 square feet. If you happen to come across an old, agricultural lot (of which there are many) you are limited in what you can build. You can’t, for example, build townhouses. Doing so would certainly be in the character of the neighborhood. I would say it would exemplify the neighborhood — working class houses in a working class neighborhood. But you can’t do that. You must — by law — build no more than one house per 7,200 feet. That is an enormous amount of land for which you can build a house. So big, in fact, that a four bedroom, 2.75 bathroom, 2,800 square foot house will feet easily within the confines of the lot. Building such a house is actually quite easy, and not much more expensive than building a small bungalow. That is because the nature of home construction has changed — building big isn’t a lot more expensive than building small .That means that builders build what they can build. If they are allowed to build lots of places for lots of people to live, they will build that. If they can only build one place on a huge lot, they are going to build a very big house. The result, of course, is that my neighborhood — a traditionally cheap, working class neighborhood — is left with expensive older houses, and brand new, extremely expensive big houses. This represents a very big, very dramatic change from the character of the neighborhood. Much bigger than if they built townhouses, or even apartments everywhere. I have no complaints, or problems with my wealthy neighbors who buy such houses (who am I kidding — as a homeowner, I am suddenly wealthy). But if you are going to worry about preserving the look and feel of the neighborhood, it is silly to outlaw small lots, while allowing million dollar mansions.

      Yet that is precisely what the zoning laws do. To be clear, I understand why people oppose loosening the rules, and allowing things that I, personally would favor (like quadruplexes in the entire city). But at the very least, we should allow smaller lots, and more ADUs. Done right, such reform would be much better for the middle class housing aesthetic that so many find attractive in this city. Folks never wanted to preserve the houses in Wallingford because they were snazzy, or grand — no one would dare compare them to the giant mansions on Capitol Hill. But they represented a marvelous, very beautiful, relatively compact representation of a middle class lifestyle.

      Unfortunately, those days are gone. When a little 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom house costs three quarters of a million dollars, the dynamic has changed. We have to adjust to the times. That means building a lot more places to live. Loosen the rules, and many of the the big houses that exist in the core of the city will be converted to apartments. It doesn’t make financial sense to do anything else. At the same time, the places that have small house on big lots get torn down. But instead of being replaced by new, million dollar mansions, they are replaced by tiny apartments, or townhouses.

      It isn’t that complicated. I agree with Rob — no one is an enemy here. No one wants this city to become really ugly, and no one wants the city to become (any more) unaffordable. We have to understand that our old system — whether it was well meaning or not — is simply out of date. It is terrible when it comes to preservation, and even worse when it comes to affordability. It needs to change, and unfortunately needs to change very quickly.

      I would argue this, in front of a crowd, if not for the fact that for me, personally, I find it Type III fun. I would rather have a root canal, or be off-route and climb a nasty knife edge ridge of crumbling rock (both of which I’ve done) than spend time explaining to the public how asinine the current zoning laws are.

      But that is just me. Hopefully people who are wired differently — or are simply braver — will speak up for this city.

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