Five years ago this month city released the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda recommendations, a.k.a. the HALA report, aimed at making Seattle more affordable and, well, livable. Thanks to lots of work from the mayor(s) and council, many of the 65 recommendations have since become law, including marquee items like Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) and ADU reform. Alan Durning, a committee member, wrote an excellent summary of the whole effort back in February.
One big change that many housing advocates still see as a missed opportunity is the recommendation to end the ban on duplexes and triplexes that currently blocks affordable housing on 2/3 of the city’s land.
You may recall that the report included language alluding to the “racist” history of single-family zones. Someone on the commission leaked a draft to the Times, and when the commission didn’t have their story straight, it became a controversy and then-mayor Murray jettisoned the proposal to save the rest of the HALA work.
2015 was also the first year of district-based elections and many assumed that neighborhood groups would run the table (in fact the districts were drawn specifically to make that happen). Best not to poke the bear, some reasoned.
Since the report was released, much has changed in terms of both the local political landscape and national trends around zoning law.
For starters, Oregon and Minneapolis have since eliminated single-family zoning. What was then controversial is becoming common sense. At the same time, states like Oregon (again) and California are experimenting with newer, less restrictive rent control measures that can provide greater renter stability without inhibiting the construction of market-rate housing.
Meanwhile, the price of the median single family house in Seattle has increased 50% to $767,000. If “starter houses” – the idea that we needed to preserve tiny old bungalows for first-time homebuyers – were a joke in 2015, they’re an absolute farce in 2020. (Oh and in the intervening five years, many of those “starter” houses have been torn down anyway – often replaced with bigger, multi-million-dollar homes).
At the same time, the NIMBY candidates did quite poorly in those 2015 elections, and the current council is probably the most pro-density we’ve had in a while.
Finally, support for Black Lives Matter has grown significantly to 62% favorability nationally. Among Democrats (which is perhaps a better proxy for Seattle) favorability is now 84%, up 30 points since 2016. Would the HALA language about racism be so controversial today, where the median Seattle voter is much more attuned to structural racism concerns?
With budget deficits and police reform front and center (and rightly so), the council or the mayor may not be interested in wading back into this fight. Especially absent the HALA“grand bargain” framework and given that the more modest ADU reform was the subject of so many lawsuits and delays.
That’s a shame, because if we care about making Seattle a more affordable, diverse city; if we care about creating affordable housing near our most high-performing public schools and ending the de-facto segregation of the city, then land-use reform needs to be part of the conversation.
57 Replies to “HALA, zoning and racism five years later”
I agree with all of your points. This is probably not the best time to address this issue. But when the dust settles, the city should go ahead and adopt “SF .2” (as Alan Durning called it). This would mean buildings could be no bigger than before, but they could hold multiple dwellings within them, such as duplexes, triplexes, or stacked flats.
This would have significant changes throughout the city. As your picture suggests, one of the big ones is housing conversions. In much of the city, the house takes up a large part of the lot, and already hits the height limit. It just doesn’t make sense to tear it down and start over, when you can get a similar amount of units with a retrofit.
In other neighborhoods (like mine) there are small houses sitting on big lots. A lot of those areas were not part of the original city, but were annexed later. This explains why the default lot size is bigger (7200 instead of 5000). Most of the lots, though, are larger, in part because of the irregular nature of growth in those areas. This is old, suburban Seattle. These are areas that were farmland before they were houses. That meant that someone had a big lot, and then split it into smaller lots when it was sold. This is still going on today. The result is that you end up with lots bigger than 7,200 — since 7,200 is the smallest allowed. Thus a small house on a 25,000 square foot lot gets town down, and they add three houses (sitting on lots that over 8,000 square feet). It isn’t too hard to find houses on lots of 12,000 square feet — lots that are huge, but not big enough to subdivide.
The irony of course, is that these rules even make it harder to build houses. Yes, it is harder to build apartments, but the lot sizes for single family housing are so big that in much of the city, you can’t add houses. You can’t add anything (although your are free to tear down the old house, and build a mansion).
It is a ridiculous, outdated approach that should change, and I believe that people would support it. I understand why city council members are too afraid to change things through regulation. Our system encourages conservatism — the folks who can afford to take time out and raise a ruckus at public meetings are way more likely to want things the way they are. But a public initiative — especially one as simply as “SF .2” would stand a very good chance of passing.
Is this more or less what Portland did, where they reduced the total building size on SF lots but allowed more units? There were also FAR bonuses for additional units, so if you wanted to maximize the structure on your lot, you needed to built a triplex.
Is there any way I could get the address of that house? Because if Seattle is in fact in its alleged death-spiral and therefore affordable, if I can’t get my Ballard home back, it’s be a second choice I could live with. Especially if it’s on 9th Avenue just west of the Frye Art Museum and a couple blocks north of Harborview. And even more especially if 9th is still trolley-wired.
But this morning’s real issue isn’t zoning, but a long-overdue end to our country’s possession of the industrial world’s worst income-distribution. Our social mobility’s also less-than-zero, isn’t it? Which really is a hundred percent of our politics. Joe? Bernie? DONALD? How come no Party’s first plank this year is the reversing of the “Citizens United” decision?
But thanks to your picture, Frank, the path for the real estate consortium I’m right now crowd-sourcing is clear. We’re going to buy that house, put a trailer under it, and make a long string of neighborhoods region-wide affordable by moving it in for a month or two, causing home prices to plummet for many blocks around.
And when its work is done, if it’s not presently on 9th west of the Frye, move it there and plant it. Where its effect on property values should let the budget for the Madison/Boren Link station put Russia’s grandest subway stop to shame.
Old-time’s sake thing too. My first Pullman, or maybe Brill ride in 1974 came in on 9th from Madrona. Drove a little white forty-footer under it while Third was being bored. Put it back.
We should allow missing-middle housing in single-family zones, but this in itself will not make market-rate housing affordable. When the median rent for a 1 BR apartment is over $1,500 and the median house is $767,000, no market-rate construction can be affordable to the majority of the workforce. Only subsidized housing can be affordable. Rents would have to fall by half and houses by two-thirds relative to current salaries before they could even start to be plausably called affordable. That’s the level they were in 2003.
Even with a significant population decrease larger than the 2008 crash, I wouldn’t expect prices to fall more than 30%. We’re not going to be like Detroit, because we have a more diversified economy, and those mountains and water views and moderate temperatures and enough water (mostly). Prices are sticky on the way down because no owner wants to take a loss. That’s why it’s critical to keep prices from rising disproportionately in the first place.
WE NEEDED HALA IN 2O00!!! Then we could have nipped runaway housing costs in the bud. In case people have forgotten, the dotcom bubble ended in 2000 with a recession. As the economy recovered in 2003, the Fed kept interest rates low (as W advocated to boost his reelection chances). This created the real-estate bubble, boosted by novel financial instruments like collateralized debt obligations. That’s REAL-ESTATE bubble, as in places people live in, or essential housing. If we’d had comprehensive zoning reform by 2000, then we’d have entered the real-estate bubble ready for missing-middle housing and more units, and the money would have followed this attractive opportunity for more multifamily units and duplexes/rowhouses. Rents and prices would not have risen as much because fewer people would be competing for each unit, so owners would have to keep the prices moderate to fill the unit. And don’t believe they wouldn’t build. They were building before 2003.
But we would still need a lot of subsidized housing for those making less than $1,800 x 3 = $54,000. The above reforms would allow some of it to be in the form of row houses. Or if we abolish single-family zoning like Oregon and Minneapolis have done, it could also be in the form of small 4-8 unit apartment buildings, and lowrise but compact buildings (like those in Pioneer Square). If we abolish the microaparrtment ban, microapartments and tiny-house villages could also be part of the solution.
I ran some back-of-the envelop numbers obtained through Google searches, and calculated the cost of a $1000/mo. rent subsidy for the bottom 40% of Seattle households to run at around $300 million/year, a figure that is probably obtainable, and isn’t that much more than the Amazon tax the city council already passed.
But, economics is complicated, and might have some weird second-order effects. For example, if the housing supply does not go up, the subsidies themselves would create more competition of limited housing stock, pushing prices up further, requiring ever increasing subsidies to compensate (if the goal is to keep rents in the city affordable for the bottom 40%), leading to a feedback loop. To prevent this feedback loop (and the resultant windfall for landlords), you would need rent control. But, then you get an imbalance in the housing market with demand significantly exceeding supply. If the imbalance cannot be resolved through price increases (or supply increases, due to NIMBY pressure), it would have to be resolved some other way, such as multi-year waitlists for everybody wanting to move to the city that doesn’t already live there, and/or very extreme rents for newly built luxury apartments, not subject to rent control restrictions.
In the long run, trying to ensure housing affordability through subsidies and regulation simply won’t work, so long as the total supply of housing does not increase. The 80% of land reserved for single-family homes is indeed the elephant in the room and it’s only going to get bigger and bigger.
We need all three: zoning liberalization, subsidies, and moderate rent control. Just one or two of them isn’t enough and we’ll always be in this trap. There was a time when zoning liberalization would have been enough, but that was in 2003. We’ve let it go for so long that now more drastic measures are necessary.
There’s not only people who are cost-burdened now, but people who have been displaced from the city for the past fifteen years or went straight to the suburbs because they couldn’t afford anything in Seattle. They should have the opportunity to return.
Or at least build neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Ballard, and Greenwood in the suburbs so that people don’t have to choose between downtown Bellevue and the Spring District (which they can’t afford) and sprawl hell (Juanita, Factoria, Renton, Newcastle, east Kent, north Kent 192nd, etc).
Rent control is a trick issue. On the one hand, you have to keep supply and demand in balance in order to have a functioning market. On the other hand, people that intend to live in the same home for 30 years, rather than 2 benefit from the financial security of knowing up from how much their housing will cost and be protected against increases. Homeowners have long been able to achieve this type of financial security in the form of a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage, but for those that lack the funds for a $100,000 down payment, such security simply does not exist.
In principle, it seems like such security could be offered by the private sector, for the right price. For example, a landlord could offer a 10 year lease with a guarantee of annual rent increases limited to the consumer price index, with flexibility to leave at any time with 60 days’ notice, in exchange for a higher base rent than you’d otherwise be paying without that guarantee. Or, perhaps, an insurance policy independent of the landlord that covers rent increases beyond a certain amount (the lower the amount, the higher the premium). In some ways, it would be kind of like a parallel to the homeowner situation where most people choose a fixed rate loan over a variable rate loan, even though the interest rate is higher, in exchange for that guarantee that the interest rate won’t rise.
I’ve never heard of such contracts being offered to renters anywhere, not am I sure they’re even legal. But, it could represent a private sector solution that provides the function of rent control, without government mandates, while also allowing those who really want to stay for only a year or two to find better deals (since they don’t need to buy the insurance).
Of course, the “contract” solution, by itself, is not perfect; those who can’t afford the rent are still shut out, and regulation may be needed to prevent predatory contracts that offer renters little to no value for what they’re paying.
From a public policy perspective, the root problem still all boils down to the pigeonhole principle. If a neighborhood has fewer homes than the number of people that want to love there, something has to decide who gets one and who doesn’t. You can leave it up to the free market and advantage the wealthy, you can enact rent control and advantage those lucky enough to have moved in earlier, when demand was less, or you can enact subsidies to advantage the low income, in exchange for shutting out some middle income people whom the subsidies price out.
Which approach is best is subject to debate, but at the end of the day, the only way to please everyone is to either increase supply (get rid of single family zoning), or, as Mike said, build more walkable neighborhoods elsewhere, so everyone who wants a walkable neighborhood doesn’t have to compete for homes in a few places.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.
“a landlord could offer a 10 year lease with a guarantee of annual rent increases limited to the consumer price index, with flexibility to leave at any time with 60 days’ notice, in exchange for a higher base rent than you’d otherwise be paying without that guarantee.”
This exists in the form of rent stabilization. I’ve known people in Seattle who’ve had it. I gather it’s for five years and the rent is set between the current market rate and the projected fifth-year higher rate. I think tenants still have to stay in year increments; you can’t just leave anytime. This is some kind of city program that some landlords participate in, a kind of “rent control lite” or a moderate level of affordability.
Homeowners get a mortgage interest deduction, which was never intended for that. When income tax was instituted in the 1910s, only the top 5% paid it, and all interest was deductible as it was usually a business expense. Mortgates became common in the 1940s, and the interest was deductible by default. Renters had no difficulty affording a place until the 1990s or 2000s so it wasn’t a big deal. It might make sense to make rent deductible. That would at least equalize the situation and give renters 20% relief. The argument that homeowners are better residents because they aren’t criminals and they improve their houses breaks down when 50% of people have no chance of owning a house/condo and have trouble affording an apartment.
Rent insurance is an interesting idea; it would be like inflation-protected bonds or time deposits or a fixed-rate mortgage.
“If a neighborhood has fewer homes than the number of people that want to love there, something has to decide who gets one and who doesn’t.”
That’s why the number of units must keep up with the population. Chicago allows sufficient infill growth to match its population fluctuations. Dallas and Houston allow sufficient sprawl to match the population. That’s exactly what Seattle doesn’t have, and why prices are escalating.
There’s only one Space Needle and Pike/Pine nightlife area, so people will pay a premium to live there, but the premium is exacerbated by the housing shortage. Other people just want to live in a walkable, mixed-use, convenient location, and would be just as happy in Greenwood, West Seattle, Lynnwood, or Kent. They should have an equal quality of housing choices in those areas, even if it’s not near the Space Needle or the premier nightlife spot.
Another factor is that housing prices are like a supermarket checkout line. When a little more demand trickles in you start seeing a line of one or two people but the cashier can keep up. When it reaches five people, even if the rate doesn’t increase, it overwhelms the cashiers and the line starts growing exponentially. That’s what happens in housing. In the 1960s Seattle’s population fell as I said so there was a surplus of apartments and houses. In the 1990s that had reduced and rents and prices started going up. But there were still a lot of undesirable mid-century cheap apartments for $450 for those who couldn’t afford better ones. By 2008 these had increased to $700 (studios) and $1000 (1 bedroom), and $120-200K (condos). In the 2008 crash people moved away and prices fell 10-20%. In 2012 the Amazon boom started, and it wasn’t just the largest influx of people, it was the final slack being completely squeezed out. Many of those undesirable $600 apartments were replaced by larger expensive buildings, but also importantly, the ones that remained went up to over $850 (studios) and $1400 (1 bedroom). So many people were competing for even those units that the owners jacked up the rents. That’s when people who could only afford $700 a month really got displaced to South King County. And then so many people moved down there that prices started accelerating faster than Seattle, and people who couldn’t afford that had to move to Pierce, Snohomish, and Thurston Counties. Another problem was that South King County built hardly any new housing during that time, unlike Seattle and the Eastside and Snohomish and Pierce Counties. So demand in South King County increased but supply didn’t, so people ended up having to leapfrog it.
We should allow missing-middle housing in single-family zones, but this in itself will not make market-rate housing affordable.
Prove it. Seriously, let’s try this, and see what happens. My guess we would find that we aren’t really that special, and like many cities, prices go down and become affordable if you loosen the restrictions: https://www.sightline.org/2017/09/21/yes-you-can-build-your-way-to-affordable-housing/
To be clear, there will always be people who can’t afford market rate housing. But that is true in any market. It was true fifty years ago in this city. That is where public assistance comes in. But public assistance goes a lot farther if market rate housing is cheap, and public assistance doesn’t alter market rate housing much at all, unless you are willing to spend way more than we are willing to spend.
Adding housing is affordable at levels far below what exists now. Go back to that example I had up above — a developer subdivides a 25,000 square foot lot, and puts up three houses. The three houses go for 1.2 million a piece. That is 3.6 million. So instead, the builder builds 20 row houses, with enough room left over for a few trees. Each row house goes for a quarter million. That means the developer gets 5 million, instead of 3.6 million. The $1.4 million is way more than the difference in construction costs. Thus the developer makes more money, while selling houses for $250,000.
Of course in this market, the house wouldn’t sell for $250,000 — it would sell for twice that. But the point is, it is only the restrictions on the land that leads to that price. Keep in mind, this is a brand new house. What this means is that if there is enough land, and enough construction, over time, the price of the houses go roughly to this level — a house for $250 grand, if not cheaper.
Then you have condos. Condos are even cheaper to build *per unit*. So in this case, on that same plot of land, we are talking about 40 units (probably in two or three buildings). Again, if the owner charges $120 grand, they likely come out way ahead.
This is how things work in a free market. But since the market is heavily restricted (essentially a cartel) prices are going to be high.
Very little land is allowed for apartments in this city. Making matters worse, much of the land is owned by businesses that have no interest in selling, on land that is appropriate for what they are currently using it for. I don’t want to live on the busy part of Lake City Way. No one wants to. But for buying a car, it is great. Getting there is easy, and test driving is easy as well. The car dealers know this, and even though they might sell, where would they move? Even if it made business sense, they can’t move to a residential location — that is against the law. What is true of car dealerships is true of a lot other businesses as well. Maybe you have an old, small office building on a busy street. It is only two stories, but as an office building, it is quite valuable. Down the street is an empty lot — but that lot only allows single family houses. So if you want to put up an apartment, or row houses, or anything but a house on a very big lot, you have to wait until housing prices are so high that buying (and then destroying) a perfectly good office building makes financial sense.
The point is, there would a lot more houses, and apartments, if the city allowed them. At first they would be expensive. But over time, it would still make financial sense to buy up lots like I mentioned up above (25,000 square feet, with one old house on it) and add apartments, row houses (or a combination of both). Eventually, that pushes down the price.
Houston and Tokyo had permissive zoning before their population surges. It’s much easier to forestall prices from rising than to roll them back afterward. Prices are sticky on the way down because nobody wants to take a loss. If you remove the zoning restrictions, prices would level off, but it’s another question how much they’d decline and how fast. Developers might stop building when they see prices decline, and only a trickle of building would remain, enough to keep prices where they are. It might take decades if ever to roll back prices 50%, and if you don’t do that, it’s still unaffordable. The current generation can’t wait fifty years; it needs housing now. A house in forty years doesn’t help. We need lots of subsidized housing until such a time that most people can afford market-rate housing.
. Prices are sticky on the way down because nobody wants to take a loss.
Yes, but as my (very lengthy) example shows, it doesn’t matter. Developers still make money. That is my point. Even at today’s high prices for property, a developer would make more money building a lot of row houses or a small apartment — and charging an affordable amount — versus what they do know, which is build giant houses. Even if they charge $250,000 for a house, or $120,000 for a condo, they make more money. That means that those other places can be as sticky as they want — someone is going to undersell them. If someone is selling a brand new condo for 150 grand, my guess is the landlord is going to lower the rent.
If anything, a collapsing market would lead to a panic. People who are wondering whether they should sell or not, sell. If you really are thinking that eventually you will move to the country, but take that big gain from your house, the last thing you want to do is hold on to your house when it has obviously reached its peak.
Besides, what else are going to do? Stay in your house? Fine. Join the crowd. But eventually you die, and your heirs sell the property. They have the same choices.
Rent it out, hoping for a rebound? Great — and now the rental company tells you that the best thing to do is convert that nice four bedroom house into a a triplex, which means three times as many units for the city.
Keep in mind, price decreases, in areas like Detroit, did not prevent people from selling. In this case it would be different. It would be driven by new units on the market, not decreasing demand. But the result is the same: lower prices.
I just don’t see why timing would make any difference. Yes, there is much catching up to do. But we actually did OK — we added a bunch of apartments, which is why the city grew much faster than the surrounding suburbs. With our bizarre system of “urban villages” we artificially increased density in selected neighborhoods. But *most* of the city, has room for more units. This means that when we do grow organically, we are ready for a crash. We could double the number of apartments and houses in this city easily, even if the houses are slim (and share a wall). Doing so would be relatively cheap (as I pointed out) which in turn means that housing would be cheap. No, you couldn’t buy a house in Capitol Hill for a hundred grand, but you could buy a house in a second rate neighborhood (like mine) for three hundred grand, and a condo for half that.
Keep in mind, a “housing crash” sounds terrible to a lot of people in this city. My attitude is: boo hoo. There are plenty of Saudi’s that are terrified of a world without petrol. Tough. The rest of the world would prefer it. In a similar way, the vast majority of Seattle residents would benefit from a collapsing housing market.
But like I said — prove me wrong. Adopt a Minneapolis style zoning change and let’s see what a condo costs in my neighborhood.
There’s nothing funnier to me than the cognitive dissonance of Wallingford homeowners with the “All Are Welcome Here, Black Lives Matter, etc.” sign in their yard right next to the “No HALA” one. All are welcome here as long as they can afford a $1M craftsman!
Want more affordability? Head north to Shoreline, Edmonds, Bothell, Woodinville, or South to Kent, Federal Way, Tacoma. Keep that house a couple of years then sell and move to Seattle. Or look for condos and townhomes. Or backyard cottages.
Nice if you can afford to own a car and buy a house. Crap if you can’t.
The whole issue here is that condos and townhomes are too expensive because single-family zoning rules out building them.
You end up just trading time for money. And adding in the cost of fuel and maintenance and parking, you really don’t save money. It’s a bad deal, adding to a low income family’s already bad options.
Calculations from 12 years ago.
Lol, no? 100 miles gets you to Ellensburg.
@AJ I know, right? The calculation works the same as you scale down to more reasonable distances. But there are real people making these kinds of choices. Original post here. “A large number of my coworkers have families and can’t afford to live in the city so they drive between 30 and 100 (seriously) miles away so they can live cheaper.”
From an article in the Seattle P-I in Oct 2004 –
“More than 1,250 people commute from Kittitas to King counties, according to 2000 census information.”
Lol was at the “don’t actually save money” comment. I moved to Issaquah so I could afford the home I live in. It was definitely cheaper – the lower property taxes alone more than offset the mildly higher transportation costs.
We tail-deprived monkeys aren’t alone in our need for commerce. My sister-in-law once told me about finding roofing nails on the driveway beside her car, and then noticing birds- crows or blue jays I forget which- after leaving their nail, flying away with a cherry from a nearby tree.
Worldwide and throughout history, in every human arrangement, governmental or religious,”Market Forces” have always had their place. Accompanied closely by strict orders from not only top of Government but also the Divinity however we conceive Him or Her, to keep them directed toward the common good.
The King James and the Koran say a lot more about weights and measures than bed-partners’ gender. And the founders of what we call “Capitalism” – in Europe, 1500’s Germany, maybe- considered monopoly to be a disease of their system, not its goal.
Behind the term “Market”, the Creator’s intent is pretty clearly this: Regardless of gender, rank or circumstance, whether someone is buyer or seller, employer or employee, borrower or lender, NOBODY is allowed to become the poor creature hanging on the hook. Who also taste a lot better if both their lives and departure are humane.
There is a whole “racist” element around single-family zoning that goes unnoticed: the regulations discourage extended family housing situations – which are considerably more popular in communities of color, and especially immigrant communities. The early zoning concepts were developed to promote income and racial separation, just after overtly racist zoning laws were declared illegal. Before rigorous application, it was even common to let anyone have a small boarding house — like my Dad lived in while attending college in the early 1950’s. It was even common for homes to have onsite apartments for “hired help” before the enthusiasm for single-family districts took hold.
What is a “residential unit“ anyway? It’s mostly defined by where a stovetop and oven are located and by key controls. The concept dated from a time when kitchens were much more dangerous and house fires were much more common. Technology has made these physical definitions much grayer and less important from a safety aspect anyway, so it is going to be harder and harder to draw the lines.
Now with more work-from-home, the blurring becomes even fuzzier as home offices are becoming commonplace and it’s only a matter of time before home “workshops” are common. Consider the situation of something like a tamale maker in business, who could now sell tamales online with an app and have them delivered or shipped — yet can’t officially sell tamales-to-go to someone who wants to drop in and pick some up. That even has implications for health inspections, as home businesses probably can’t legally sell food (meeting food safety inspections) although it’s a much safer food service approach that entering a restaurant in a pandemic. Could an artist set up a home art gallery? Can an employee work in someone else’s home part-time or full-time?
So, it seems that a reexamination of the whole concept of zoning as it applies to housing needs a refresh.
Zoning came out of private covenants, which started in the 1880s to make new greenfield developments exclusive. The developer would write into the deed that the house couldn’t be sold to nonwhites. That there could be no apartments. that the occupants couldn’t have food animals (chickens, pigs) but only useless animals (dogs, cats). And the streets were curvy to maximize the distance so that people would have to have their own transportation (a horse carriage or car); they wouldn’t be able to use transit. All this was to exclude both minorities and working-class people, to make the neighborhood more exclusive and maximize the price.
In the 1910s cities started standardizing these principles citywide. Industry was generally on one side of downtown, so the opposite side was reserved for the better people with apartment bans, height limits, minimum lot sizes, etc. The justification was to prevent pig farms and polluting factories in residential areas, but they could have done that under public health authority. Zoning was mainly about social exclusion, like the private covenants it was modeled after.
Racial discrimination in housing became illegal in the 1960s. More than forty years after zoning was established.
Seattle in the 1920s had corner stores in Fremont with people living above them, that turned into fully-residential houses later.
In the 1950s residential-only zoning was established but it was still less strict than now: this is when the mid-century dingbats, small apartment buildings, and courtyard apartments were built. Some lots remained single-family even though they could have become multifamily, because the owners didn’t want to sell, they couldn’t build something big enough to make it worthwhile (two stories to four stories isn’t much), or the demand hadn’t reached their neighborhood. SRO hotels were allowed; that’s where low-income people lived.
In the 1980s or so Seattle tightened zoning further, converting lowrise areas that were still single-family into single-family only. It closed SRO hotels with no replacement, thus starting the era of homeless people.It eventually settled on an urban village strategy, where islands would allow multifamily development, and the 70% rest of the city would be single-family only.
Expecting everybody to live in bungalows was feasible in the 1920s when the population was 200K and greenfield developments could be built in Greenwood and Columbia City. The population spontaneously decreased in the 1960s and 70s due to white flight and the Boeing Bust, so housing was plentiful and cheap. In that environment, limiting 70% of the land to single-family was less problematic. The existing residents already lived there, their successors could live there, and the number of people coming in was small and could be channeled to the surplus cheap apartments.
That becomes completely unrealistic when the population is 750K and growing, and King County has 2.3 million. The percent of single-family residents in Seattle dipped below 50% five years ago. An ever-shrinking minority insists that nothing can change in single-family areas, and they’re not all that wild about height in urban villages either. And as people sell their houses, wealthier people replace them, and some build McMansions. And they have a lot of equity. They’re essentially a developing aristocracy. And they justify it by saying low-density neighborhoods are part of Seattle’s character, and old small-lot bungalows are inexpensive starter homes so that new families can get established. Except they aren’t inexpensive: most people can’t afford even the old fixers. We need to focus on housing everybody and making neighborhoods more walkable, not on allowing existing single-family homeowners to entrench their aristocracy. They can learn to live in a city like Chicago or Boston, as a city of 750K+ should be. Or they can move to the exurbs.
But at its worst malevolence, bad Zoning has got a context: There’s really no way to overstate how energetically race prejudice has permeated our country since a couple centuries before Independence. And how much sustained effort put behind it.
First of all, no accident how accurate the word “chattel” becomes if you take out the “h” and put the “l” in front of the “e”. Though the truth is, for our country’s Founding history, more like all the fossil fuels at once, maybe the reason for their color.
In Scripture, the Lord’s Command minces no words about treating your indentured help as human beings whose fortune has fallen into your hands. Meaning He still can’t get Hell’s temperature hot enough to deal with how much worse slavery got when the Union Army broke and ran in 1877 and the Democrats brought it back.
An ante-bellum “Massa” at least had society’s most desperate market incentive to keep his slaves not only alive and healthy, but also skilled at a trade. Remember, to hereditary aristocracy, fact of working made the richest millionaire smell indecently of sweat. “Make my OWN duelling pistol? Call ME a (N-WORD)? SUH! I demand SATISFACTION!”
In Reconstruction’s heartfelt wish for “No Hard Feelings” over the “Lost Cause”, the 13th Amendment’s Bill of Rights slavery-permission cured the problem to this day. Louisiana Department of Corrections saw to it Simon Legree need never more fear organized labor. “Worked another one to death. Simon? Good thing ten more just walked too close to a railroad this morning! Good customer gets a Bargain Price!”
And from Appomattox on, Jim Crow’s north-facing back porch viewed the St. Lawrence River. While, literally compact-pressurizing the problem, the North’s every class-and-birth-touchy European immigrant could finally agree on who they could now all jointly hate and fear as a matter of Patriotism.
We Jews? Barely same subject. “Ostracized?” Like that big Australian bird? Double-No Problem! Country club we just built, not only can you finally afford the food, but you can also stand to eat it. Got your membership right here! But above all, don’t worry. Anybody tries to make you LIVE IN OUR neighborhood, that’s why we just founded the ACLU!”
Few years back, prison chaplain from our womens’ reformatory at Purdy sat next to me on a flight east. “We’ve got so few Jewish inmates there’s barely need for a chaplain.”
I wasn’t there when Charleena Lyles was killed. And if the robber who got my cab door open had stolen a smaller, sharper knife let alone a razor….I can’t fault fear of a blade weapon, let alone one in each hand. But across society, incident statistics show lethal prejudice too long-term constant to be laid aside, regardless of mitigation. Zone ourselves out of that? I’m all ears.
Yes, racism was a primary motivation for zoning and covenants. The US has a certain kind of racism that’s different from other Western countries; the closest comparison seems to be South Africa. According to James Webb, slaves were originally under the indentured servant system like poor white immigrants. They had to work for several years to pay off a debt, in their case a made-up debt. Then a particularly brutal form of chattel slavery arose in the Barbados sugar plantations and was imported to the US. Slaves were now permanent property, and their descendants were also property. Southern society was restructured along these lines. The benefits went to rich white landowers; poor whites mainly saw blacks as competiton for jobs. They might have united against the aristocracy and for the Union against the Confederacy but, Webb says, the rich white aristocrats brainwashed poor whites into ignoring the inequality between them, and convinced them to see themselves as a caste above blacks. “I may be poor and have no opportunities, but at least I’m not black.” And appealed to their patriotism to support the Confederacy. And in the North, Manifest Destiny fed into another kind of racism that overlapped with the southern one.
And private covenants came out of that environment, although they were about more than just race. They were also intended to exclude working-class people and thus form a kind of country-club quasi-gated community. And zoning came out of that. In Seattle nonwhites and mixed marriages were heavily discouraged from living north of the Ship Canal. A friend in high school had parents who were white and Japanese, and had settled in Mt Baker because southeast Seattle was more accepting of mixed marriages than the rest of the city.
Is there any way tax laws could be written so that the capital gains tax on the sale of property was paid to Seattle, rather than the IRS? For sales within Seattle. The amount gained would be huge and could be used for subsidized housing.
Just wondering, as we mail in our check this week.
There was a transit aspect to HALA and it was timid. The notion was to upzone the parcels next to frequent transit service. But only the urban villages were included. There is frequent transit service provided to many parcels zoned single family in between the villages. Examples include 35th Avenue NE in Wedgwood (Route 65) NW 85th Street (Route 45); 24th Avenue NW (Route 40). So, more of Seattle SF zoning should have been shifted to low rise or residential small lot. But when this was pointed out, Seattle said they could not amend the HALA without too much delay due to environmental process.
So, Frank points out an opportunity to amend zoning further. New councilmember Dan Strauss chairs that committee.
The urban village process stems from the Rice administration in the 1990s. Architects tend to think and plan around nodes. That fits subway and Link stations. But it does not match the stop spacing of bus routes or streetcars. The defacto urban villages of Seattle were developed in the first third of the 20th century around streetcar lines and are linear, not nodal; consider California Avenue SW, Beacon Avenue South, Rainier Avenue South, University Way NE, Broadway, and Fremont-Phinney-Greenwood avenues North.
Architects tend to think and plan around nodes. That fits subway and Link stations. But it does not match the stop spacing of bus routes or streetcars.
Yes, exactly. If Seattle really wanted to build a subway with TOD in mind, then it would do exactly this. All of the various “urban villages” would be tied together with subway lines, providing good transit for those areas.
But that isn’t going to happen. A lot of those urban villages aren’t going to get a subway station. Density in this city will not be especially “spiky”. There will not be a “string of pearls” anywhere. Instead, there will be a lot of moderately dense areas, with buses running on corridors. At the very least, these corridors should have higher density.
But if we really want to have an affordable city, we need to allow density everywhere. That, in turn, would lead to a much better transit system, even if some of the new density is a few blocks away from frequent transit. Because, believe it or not, people are willing to walk a couple blocks for a frequent bus.
While redlining was a huge problem in Seattle, that does not mean SFH zoning is racist. On the contrary, it means that absent external forces, in general people of any and all ethnic backgrounds prefer SFHs. While HALAs data is technically accurate, their conclusion is askew, to say the least.
This human preference extends to the “missing middle” myth. Developers are a significant political force in Seattle today, and have been for decades. If there truly was a market for duplexes and MFH, legislation would have changed to allow them long ago. We saw this with DADUs. Seattle thought there was a market for them, and relaxed legislative requirements for building them. Twice. Yet DADUs aren’t being built en masse.
I am all for upzoning our urban villages. I even support upzoning the spaces between our urban villages, forming a new, larger, dense urban core, knowing full well that would impact many (if not most) SFHs in Seattle. But turning all SFH zones into duplex-MFH permitted lots is a solution in search of a problem, HALA or no.
On the contrary, it means that absent external forces, in general people of any and all ethnic backgrounds prefer SFHs.
OK, then, wonderful. Absent external forces, people prefer single family homes. In that case, changing the zoning laws won’t matter at all. There is no need to prevent people from doing something they don’t want to do.
I’m glad to hear that you support getting rid of SFH zones, and allowing apartments, multi-plexes, and row houses everywhere in the city. Might as well get rid of the regulations, since, according to you, no one will bother building any of those things, given their preference for single family homes.
SFH zones do serve an important function. They keep speculative and artificially inflated property values in check. Eliminating SFH zones entirely within Seattle city limits would simply price out SFH owners.
There is no need to prevent people from doing something they don’t want to do. There is a need to protect people so that they can do what they want to do. Especially when the alternative is a literal land grab by corporate investors. Handing property over to the 1% won’t help anybody but the 1%. An infanous NYC brownstone owner’s history of letting his properties become rat and roach infested slums is clear evidence of that.
I don’t support row houses at all. Having been in the row houses of downtown London, I can tell you they are also suboptimal housing and not something to encourage.
We need housing, not a multi story equivalent of what used to be next door to Roosevelt High.
Eliminating SFH zones entirely within Seattle city limits would simply price out SFH owners.
That is ridiculous. That runs contrary to basic ideas of economics even a ten your old would understand. I can just imagine a kid saying “Sorry, you can’t sell lemonade in this neighborhood. I’m selling lemonade. If you start selling lemonade, the prices will go up”. Uh, no.
The point is, let the market decide. If people want houses, they will buy houses, and they will build houses. Right now, you can’t build houses! That is the point. Just down the street from my house, they tore down a house on an old lot, and built three houses. They could have build a dozen. Hell, they could have built twenty row houses on that enormous lot. But they only built three, because legally, that was all that was allowed. In much of the city, they tear down a house and replace it with one, even though almost all lots in this city could hold at least two.
Meanwhile, the very high cost of condos pushes up the cost of housing. Of course it does. If the price of used cars goes up, then the price of new cars goes up.
This is pretty obvious when you play it out, but we don’t have to theorize. In Tokyo — a massive city that is the most popular on earth — you can buy a brand new stand-alone skinny house for 300 grand (at least you could, before the pandemic). This is a city that is growing in popularity, with increasing numbers of immigrants. This is a city with demand similar to New York, except with housing prices much, much lower. This is because *all* housing is cheaper, mainly because they build so much of it, each and every year. To be clear: land is not cheap, but housing is.
I don’t support row houses at all.
Ah, now we are getting at the root of it. You really don’t care about whether an apartment or a house is affordable. Your stance is the height of elitism. You simply want to preserve extremely expensive housing, because that is what makes you happy. Marie Antoinette wanted the commoners to eat cake (another word for bread). Your attitude, apparently, is that if they can’t afford a fancy house on a big lot, tough luck.
You’re completely missing the councilmembers and legislators sympathetic to NIMBYs, or who are afraid of getting voted out of office if they relax zoning more than a little bit. Even if they won’t get voted out, they still fear that they will. The full HALA recommendations included abolishing single-family zoning and allowing lowrise everywhere (like Minneapolis and Portland but before them). The reactionaries mobilized, and scared Murray so much that he stopped consideration of those measures. That’s what Frank alluded to: “then-mayor Murray jettisoned the proposal to save the rest of the HALA work”. What Murray specifically jettisoned was abolishing the single-family category and allowing row houses and small apartments everywhere.
ADUs were relaxed but there’s still a lot of red tape and permitting and restrictions that make it too much of a hassle or cost for many people. And ADUs alone are not enough to fill the 150,000 unit gap. Only one person or maybe two or three can live in an ADU. So if you double the number of houses in a neighborhood, that’s still not many, and ADUs are generally smaller than the main house, not big enough for a family. And even if all lots allow ADUs, at least half or two-thirds of the homeowners won’t build them.
What’s needed is to allow everywhere ADUs and duplexes and triplexes and row houses and 4-8 unit apartment buildings like one I lived in on NW 65th Street, and all forms of housing between single-family and large apartment buildings (the “missing middle” like Vancouver has). They won’t actually be built eveywhere because demand will be saturated long before that, especially if the urban villages are enlarged too, and we allow highrises around Link stations like New Westminster has. For every development in an obscure peripheral location there will be several near frequent transit routes because that’s where the demand is. People want convenience or views.
Most people may want to live in a house, but 750K+ people in Seattle can’t fit into all single-family houses. And if you say enlarge the urban growth boundary so they can all have a house in the exurbs, then you would pave all the way into the Skagit Valley agricultural area and up toward Bellingham and east to the Cascades. That would create a horrendous environmental disaster and vulnerability. Robust proportional transit is not likely to follow because that’s an alien concept up there, car bias is stronger, and people are more hostile to taxes. But really, what are people there going to do when they can’t afford to put gas in their car?
Redmond Ridge has an hourly bus to Redmond and a peak express to downtown. Monroe and Snohomish (city) seem to have vaguely around that. Snoqualmie and North Bend have a bus every couple hours, weekdays only. Skykomish used to have a bus but hasn’t for a couple decades. Even if a lot of people move to Skagit County, Skagit Transit is not likely to become as comprehensive as Community Transit.
750K+ people in Seattle can’t fit into all single-family houses.
They probably could if they were row houses.
Your argument misses the fact that preferences change. The relevant point is not a choice between a single-family home and a rowhouse – it’s a choice between a single-family home for $750,000 and a rowhouse for $300,000. Back in 2000 or earlier, the choice was different (and cheaper).
Really, it’s a specious argument to say that the existence of a current legal structure (particularly one that has been around for most of a century) indicates that people prefer it.
It feels frustrating to me that even proposed housing reforms are so weak. “Abolishing single-family zoning” sounds radical, until you consider that it might only allow one extra unit per lot. Few existing homeowners will have any interest in dealing with a tenant, so the gains from such a policy change are minimal.
I am reminded of my time living in Philadelphia. Almost all of the city is made up of rowhomes – much higher density than most of Seattle would have, even with ADUs. And yet in most of Philadelphia, the walkability is really quite terrible, and it does not have the density to support a major expansion of rapid transit.
We should, at the very least, be allowing 5-story apartment buildings everywhere. Then we could have the walkability of outer borough New York City, which is pretty good.
I guess you have to start somewhere, though.
Whether it counts as conclusion or an invitation to further communication, I think it’s time to say this. In The United States of American, size, layout, arrangement, or construction of a home is a lot less than secondary. First order of business is the absolute right to not only have but own one.
In the wreckage of 2008, every single Senator and Congress-person who approved putting our banking industry back in the hands of the exact same people whose signature contribution to home ownership was “Liar Loans” should all have lost their seats for life. Along with whichever President should’ve vetoed their decision fastest and hardest.
Because the result was a precision duplicate of the way the South re-set slavery when the Union troops pulled out. For millions of our people, the bankers whose deliberate criminal negligence lost them their homes became, and remain, their landlords. Often previous to their eviction. Making it ‘way past time that We The People finally give every robbery victim their house back and call it settled.
But even more important, in order to become the homeowner my own addition would replace the Thirteenth Amendment to mandate, what a very large majority of our people need to have is the lifelong ability to earn a living. In a workplace that individually or cooperatively they own and operate. Not “share-crop.” Same for the government under the trained and skilled control of their own work-hardened hands.
Which leads me finishing up by bringing the my real concept HOME to keep. To me, the fully pre-paid monthly pass on my ORCA card terminates my days as a renter, let alone a debtor of the Agency that issued it. And if you ever again call me a thief for a mistaken card-tap, SUH! I shall have my “Seconds” rent the grass that will be your bed-spread until Gabriel’s Trumpet awakens every Southern Abolitionist!
Everybody, quick go to Netflix for “The Free State of Jones.” Really important recipe advice as to what, when roasted, does not taste like chicken.
I realize the original post was adressing HALA and zoning in Seattle specifically, but why do all discussions regarding increasing density to address housing demand/cost focus exclusively on Seattle. Where are the calls for increased density on Mercer Island, or Bellevue for example. These cities are far less dense than Seattle (about 1/3 of Seattle’s population/sq mi), and in the case of Bellevue and Mercer are soon to be connected to our regional rail system. Shouldn’t we be encouraging the city councils of all central Puget Sound cities, etc. to be revising their zoning codes to increase density?
You raise an important point. On a per capita basis, Bellevue, Redmond, Shoreline and Mercer Island will have more Link stations than Seattle will by 2025. Further, more land around many of these cities’ stations will be better suited for residential development (as compared to non-residential uses).
Yes, but this isn’t news. Our entire region’s growth management plan is built around this idea. ST explicitly places stations in PSRC growth centers … ST follows the regional growth plans, no the other way around. I’d go so far to argue “use our regional rail system to drive growth in the housing stock throughout the region” is one of the primary reasons to support ST3. Ballard Link will have the highest ridership because of what is already there, but every other ST3 project is predicated on robust growth in the housing stock in the (project relevant) suburb/city.
The discussion focuses on Seattle because it’s the largest city and will absorb ~40% of the region’s growth, much more than any other single city. Also, writers and readers of blogs tend to live and Seattle. Nonetheless, more housing has been, is, and will continue to be added outside of Seattle than inside of Seattle.
Bellevue and Redmond are upholding their end. Take a look at their active project lists. Redmond is the only city matching Seattle in growth rate. Bellevue is both building a dozen 400′ skyscrapers downtown and creating an entirely new neighborhood in the Spring District.
Other cities like Lynnwood, Kent, Shoreline, Federal Way, Kenmore, Bothell and Issaquah have all upzoned their stations areas to 5~6 stories or higher (much higher in Lynnwood). Development hasn’t followed because rents are not high enough yet to merit a wave of new construction outside of Seattle and the Kirkland/Bellevue/Redmond tech triangle. Tacoma and Everett are desperate for a Seattle (or Bellevue) level construction boom and have zoned accordingly.
Pointing to a few outliers like Lake Forest and Mercer Island (which has a dense but little downtown) misses out on the great work done by most of the large & medium sized cities in the region. Seattle needs to fix its zoning before pointing a finger elsewhere.
Put another way – in most of the region (Not Seattle, Kirkland, Bellevue, and Redmond), zoning is not what stands in the way of increased density around transit nodes.
In Issaquah, we had a consultant do an analysis, and their story was basically “your rents aren’t yet high enough to merit vertical mixed use housing.” We looked at Bothell, which has done a nice job driving VMU development downtown, and the story there was the city did the hard work of assembling parcels and then bid them out to private developers. Other cities like Kent actually have tax breaks for denser development (in contrast to Seattle, which penalizes density via the HALA ‘grand-bargain’ fees). In Issaquah, my position was: great, we have the right zoning in place, our Link project is decade(s) away, so we should continue to invest in our community and the density will come in time … whether it’s 5 or 15 years will be dictated by the market, not zoning, but either way the density in the valley will be there before Link.
I see the stations-per-capita issue more as an indictment of our regional light rail planning that encourages distant stations as well as a political vibe to not disturb many existing residential areas inside Seattle. If Seattle had 15-20 more stations beyond those planned in ST3 inside the City, the density discussion would hopefully different.
To illustrate my observation, what if there was an Aurora, Boren, 12th, Beacon 40-mph surface light rail line and strategic property takes were part of the project? What if West Seattle Link was augmented by a wider network of 40-mph surface light rail and strategic property takes were part of the project? Environmental impacts and engineering challenges aside, these projects would incentivize densification in the region in ways that a station in Fife can’t.
“what if ….” then we should throw out our existing regional growth plan and direct 90% of the region’s growth into Seattle, tax the entire region to fund infrastructure in Seattle, and tell the rest of the region to just chill in the 1990s for the next 40 years.
But the other cities *want* to grow, so I don’t see why we would put all of our eggs into one city’s basket.
then we should throw out our existing regional growth plan and direct 90% of the region’s growth into Seattle
Now you are getting it.
tax the entire region to fund infrastructure in Seattle
No, we are just fine taxing ourselves, as long as you let us.
and tell the rest of the region to just chill in the 1990s for the next 40 years.
Yeah, pretty much.
But the other cities *want* to grow, so I don’t see why we would put all of our eggs into one city’s basket.
Not as much as Seattle wants to grow. Seriously, even with the restrictive limits that Seattle has put on growth, most of the growth has occurred in Seattle. Housing prices are much higher in Seattle, which is a reflection on demand.
That being said, I would have no qualms if say, the heart of Auburn grows. But if they continue to build sprawling developments well outside of any amenities or transit, then it increases automobile dependence, which is bad for everyone. What is true of Auburn is true of Everett and many other cities. I’m all for loosening the restrictions in those areas. But unfortunately, even if you do, it is quite possible that they won’t grow, simply because the demand is higher in the city. The main thing that is driving sprawl are the restrictions in Seattle. Yes, inner suburbs (like Shoreline) should loosen things, but it is far more important if Seattle liberalizes their housing rules.
In my case it’s because I’m a Seattle resident and the city council will listen to me as a constituent. Other city governments won’t. And the other cities are more dominated by single-family interests and less willing to densify, so it’s more of an uphill battle. Bellevue’s densification is following a 40-year old plan and is limited to downtown Bellevue and the Spring District. Nothing in the rest of Bellevue: NE 8th Street, Crossroads, west of Bellevue Square, or greater Surrey Downs. Other suburbs are offering up old industrial districts to keep growth out of existing residential areas. (The Spring District is one such industrial area. Yes, Bellevue had an industrial area.) Mercer Island begrudgingly offered about four stories for its station area.
1) Bellevue is also looking for growth along the I90 corridor (Factoria and Eastgate), and I believe Crossroads has some excess zoning – the zoning designation for Crossroads Mall is identical to the zoning of T-Mobile’s HQ.
2) Bellevue & Redmond are the exception is looking to re-purpose industrial. Pierce and Snohomish are more like Seattle where they try to protect their industrial land from non-Industrial uses. Instead, most cities are looking to redevelop their commercial zones. Kirkland with Totem Lake, Tuwkilla with Southcenter, Edmonds with their 99 corridor, Lynnwood with their ‘downtown’ & Alderwood mall, etc.
3) Shoreline is carving out 2 stations areas using land that is entirely SFs, upzoning to ~5 stories. Montlake Terrace is using construction staging to clear out existing single family homes and consolidate into TOD. Kent is replacing a golf course with apartment buildings. Issaquah already allows duplex everywhere in the city. Tacoma abolished parking minimums. Etc.
I roll my eyes at the Mercer Island potshots. The non-single family footprint of Beacon Hill station is smaller than Mercer Island … Beacon Hill has better density around the Link station because Link is in the tunnel not a freeway trench, not because the zoning is better.
Yes, we should have more missing middle. Yes, it’s ridiculous Surrey Downs is single family. But the suburbs are not a single family monolith, and the suburbs continues to provide more new housing for our region than Seattle does.
As I heard Rob Johnson state at one point, it would be best to change all of Seattle’s current residential zoning (SF-) to Residential Small Lot (RSL).
My neighborhood was upzoned to RSL recently and based on the first developments proposed by my house the existing house is preserved and they’re going to add 4(!) more units. Two townhouses and another residential unit with an attached ADU.
If this proposed development is any indication of the future of SML it’s a great policy to increase density and keep existing structures from unnecessary demolition since this developer isn’t one to care about design or historical character of the neighborhood.
While the zoning designation appears to be good, I can’t help but notice what neighborhoods took the brunt of the recent up zones. We need our zoning policies to be applied uniformly across the city to ensure density is applied evenly and slow the gentrification of our previous redlined neighborhoods. So to conclude, I have to agree with Rob Johnson and say all single family should be up zoned to RSL at a minimum.
I agree, tactically “abolish SF zoning” probably ends up just updating the zoning to RSL. For example, the council could just updated all SF parcels to RSL within 15 minute walk of our top 15 (or whatever) highest frequency routes. That would significantly upzone whole neighborhoods, while leaving poorly served neighborhoods as-is. This would spread out the city’s growth beyond the urban villages while still trying to drive growth around our transit corridors.
The lack of “character” in new construction is a contributing PR problem to getting denser residential zoning. It’s unfortunately systemic; unless the local marketplace demands more character in new residential buildings, we are doomed to a generation of housing that look like office buildings.
It’s also not new – every generation complains about contemporary construction. Today’s breadboxes will become nostalgic in a few decades. Neighborhoods gain character over time.
It may stand the test of time — but it’s not likely to please current neighbors. Getting acceptance of denser housing in existing neighborhoods is the better goal, and compromising to get compatible character seems like a modest but strategic action to attain that goal.
Unfortunately, our codes have two levels — universal acceptance/ rejection or a tedious individualized review process. Some sort of “middle” approach to disarm densification opposition in existing neighborhoods may be warranted if it could be created.
What caracter do you want? I would prefer pre-modernist styles: traditional, art deco, or something similar. But developers keep saying most customers want modernist and simple clean lines, and premodern detailing is too expensive. I think they just haven’t been creative enough. Architects are artists; they should be able to come up with a contemporary successor to art deco following traditional aesthetic principles. (vertically-oriented, moldings, small-scaled accents, not too much pure geometric shapes).
The best thing current developers have done is restorations, like the Pike Motorworks, Sunset Electric (?), etc. Just make new buildings like that! If the detailing is too expensive, find some middle ground that doesn’t look geometric and grotesque.
The second-best thing current developers have done is fake brick. Some people deride it as fake or ugly, but it’s the best example of contemporary traditional aesthetics that I’ve seen, and it avoids the environmental-safety problems and expense of real bricks. The bricks don’t have to be real, they just have to look good.
What is vinyl siding? I keep hearing how ubiquidous and bad vinyl siding is, but I’ve never seen a wall that looks like the vinyl chairs and sofa we had in the 70s. So what does it mean? Is fake brick vinyl siding? Are those grayish walls vinyl siding? Some walls look like metal nowadays. Are the ones that almost look like metal vinyl siding?
“Today’s breadboxes will become nostalgic in a few decades.”
I seriously doubt that. The same was said when the first wave of gentrification hit the Belltown neighborhood in the 90s. I don’t see a lot of nostalgia over the moderately-sized residential and mixed use buildings that went up during that era of redevelopment. They served a purpose but I wouldn’t say they ever gave the area any “character” other than a bland functionality.
I think in a couple of decades the same will be said about the residential buildings that have gone up in sections of Capitol Hill, SLU, Columbia City and MLK Way, the U-District, etc. over the last several years. Of course, we will be glad that they were built due to the city’s growing housing needs, but I don’t think people will look back on these structures from a particularly nostalgic perspective. I guess in the end it really all comes down to one’s aesthetic preferences and what one means by nostalgia in the first place. For me, the latter connotes a sense of longing to preserve a particular neighborhood’s overall “feel”, an admittedly incredibly nebulous concept that incorporates the aspect of the neighborhood’s physical structures themselves. So this is where architectural styles and building design aesthetics come into play and I have to agree with Al S. here. There is just a lot of uniform blandness to a lot of the MFR buildings that have been erected in the city over the last decade.
Toronto and Vancouver (imho) suffer from this as well, the former on a much larger scale. I’m linking to an article from a couple of years ago that I bookmarked that I think you might enjoy reading. It’s a discussion on this very topic between a principal in an architectural firm and a developer-consultant from Toronto. Fwiw.
With the ADU reform, one could build a triplex on sf lots (primary unit + 2 ADUs; no homeowner residency required). Does that count as “eliminating” sf zoning? I love missing middle housing too- my fav apt ever was the top floor of a 3-story row house. Even if developers build them, I wonder who will buy, own and manage all these missing middle buildings? Many of Seattle’s small landlords seem to be getting out of the business. And 3 or 4 unit condo building can be very challenging for a variety of reasons.
the Mike O’Brien suggested ADU ordinance passed. RossB: for spiky density see greater Vancouver BC next to stations.
What groups in Seattle are working to advance changes to land use policy? Who are the entities holding council accountable for inaction? It’s hard to figure out what could actually be done/how to get involved beyond the comments page.
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