The Houghton Community Council, which controls land use and other policies for a large chunk of central Kirkland, is up for renewal in November. We wrote about the HCC (and its sibling, the East Bellevue Community Council) back in 2017, when it was working to water down mixed-use development near the Google campus:

The Kirkland City Council has yet to review the proposal, but can only rubber stamp it (a first study session is scheduled for Tuesday). The undersized zoning changes are the creation of the Houghton Community Council (HCC). The HCC has veto power over land use changes in most of Kirkland south of 68th St, and will block any Kirkland Council action that differs from their proposal.

Community Councils (“municipal corporations” in state law) were authorized by the Legislature in 1967 to ease annexation into larger cities, and were generally viewed as transitional arrangements. There were never many, and most were dissolved over time even though state law does not require a sunset. Just two remain. The Houghton Council dates to the annexation of the city of Houghton to Kirkland in 1968. 

It’s worth emphasizing that these CC’s aren’t like the informal advisory boards that exist in Seattle. They have real power, and the ~10,000 residents of Houghton vote every four years to retain that power, inequitable as it may be. This time around, there’s an active campaign against renewal. From the “No on 1” website:

On May 4, 2021, equity consultant Chanin Kelly-Rae presented to the city council a preliminary report on impediments to equity in Kirkland. The HCC’s unique powers were one of the main focuses of her report. It is clearly inequitable for one neighborhood to have a veto power that is not available to any other neighborhood. She is scheduled to present her final report on Oct 19, 2021. 

Historically members of Kirkland City Council, who must negotiate with the HCC to avoid its vetoes, have been reluctant to speak out publicly against the HCC while still holding office. However, on September 30 during the Kirkland Alliance of Neighborhoods Candidate Forum, all four City Council members present declared opposition to the continuation of the HCC.

Perhaps change is in the air. The area’s proximity to jobs and transit mean that Houghton is primed for growth if growth were actually permitted. These sorts of issues typically fly way under the radar, so kudos to the campaign for trying to raise the salience.

28 Replies to “Eastside’s exclusionary community council is on the ballot”

  1. Unfortunately, I live just outside the boundary of this district, so will be unable to vote in this election, even though I walk through the area all the time.

    The neighborhood in question is very exclusive, especially as you get towards the waterfront. Anyone not belonging to the top 1% need not apply.

  2. Christ, is this what would happen if Tacoma annexed Ruston, or Bellevue annexed Beaux Arts?

    Mind you, both those things should happen, but yikes

    1. They should. It’s an outdated concept for annexation purposes. It takes just 1,000 residents (inhabitants, not voters) to form a CC.

      I’m a resident in an unincorporated area of Snohomish County that was eyed for annexation by the city of Lynnwood over a decade ago and went to several of the community outreach meetings that were held by the city. At the time there was a push by the state to get unincorporated regions in the designated urban growth areas annexed into one or more of the neighboring municipalities. The carrot the state put out there was a sales tax credit program that lasted for ten years. The intention was to provide additional revenues to these municipalities to cover the ramping up of city-provided services for these newly acquired residents and parcels.

      I mention this because this was when I first learned about these types of councils as the topic came up several times at these outreach meetings. The city of Lynnwood pretty much took an agnostic approach and the impacted residents themselves, at least those interested enough to attend these meetings, showed little interest in forming a community council. Thus the idea died as quickly as it was formed. The annexation never happened as well, as Lynnwood and Mill Creek got into litigation over a contested unincorporated area and then the financial crisis and ensuing recession happened and the whole effort was dropped, i.e., we never had a vote. Additionally, if my memory is serving me correctly, I don’t think the legislature ever reauthorized or extended the tax credit program that was developed to encourage these kinds of urban annexations.

      1. Transitional councils should have an expiration date as a matter of principle. Is this council supposed to be transitional or permanent?

        Although not popular, the legislature should generally examine the problems with local government structures from time to time and make revisions. It’s their mess to clean up — and if these shadow governments are allowed to permanently exist, local government democracy has a problem.

      2. “Is this council supposed to be transitional or permanent?”

        Well, I guess one would need to dig into the old documents (e.g., staff report, majority report, minority report, etc.) included with the authorizing legislation, Engrossed House Bill 115 from 1967, to determine the legislature’s ultimate intent. Even then I’m not sure one could ascertain a declarative answer to your question. My gut feeling is that the legislature was aiming for these councils to serve a transitional purpose for annexed areas. On the one hand, the controlling statutes didn’t include a specific sunset provision. On the other hand, there is the stipulation that the community councils must be reaffirmed for an additional four years by a public vote put before registered voters who reside within the service area (RCW 35.14.060). So, interpret that as you will.

        As far as I’m aware, our state’s courts haven’t weighed in on this specific aspect of the authorizing statutes. The cases that have come up at the higher courts, such as Sammamish Community Council v. City of Bellevue (August 2001), have dealt with challenges to the council’s limited authority, the outcomes of which have largely constrained said authority to the statute-specified elements.

        The interesting thing about these councils is that they get their funding from the very city council that they are frequently in opposition with. That support extends to the city attorney’s office and was highlighted in another Court of Appeals case from 2001, Sammamish Community Municipal Corporation v. City of Bellevue (July 2001). (Spoiler alert: the city prevailed.)

        Anyway, that’s my two cents’ worth.

    2. If the state created these councils, could the state uncreate them?

      The state can, and should. There have been bills that passed the House, but never got to the Senate floor. I’ve heard that’s because Pam Roach bottled them in Committee. Fortunately, she’s no longer in the Senate. The Legislature is likely less inclined to tolerate this sort of privilege now, particularly as it’s been exercised mostly to undermine legislated housing policy.

      1. “I’ve heard that’s because Pam Roach bottled them in Committee.”

        Yup. I’ve heard the same thing from my sources.

        Repealing the statute in regard to new councils is pretty straightforward. The tricky part is dismantling existing ones and avoiding litigation.

      2. What is “legislated housing policy”?

        My position is zoning is a local issue, and should be left up to cities. Isn’t that legislated housing policy?

        Instead I see people who don’t live in these cities or communities trying to determine these cities’ zoning, or naïve urbanists trying to use the state legislature to create affordable housing for them in expensive urban white neighborhoods, which is just a matter of cost, that almost always backfires, like relaxing the warranty on new condo development (which was based on good intentions, but relied on builders with amoral intentions).

        Ironically nearly every part of unincorporated east King Co. that was annexed or incorporated because of King Co.’s terrible land use policies ended up with stricter zoning. Laissez faire zoning is what they fled.

        I had a friend who lived in unincorporated Rose Hill. His bedroom community had a neighbor who insisted on keeping old rusting cars on his lawn. According to King Co. that was allowed.

        Finally Kirkland annexed this part of Rose Hill. A Kirkland land use inspector came to this person’s house. The owner in no uncertain terms told the inspector no one could make him get rid of his cars. The inspector told him he had even better news: his cars would soon have a new three car garage.

        Taxes did go up, but adding Kirkland to the address increased everyone’s property values significantly, and the man with the cars sold, and a brand new house — with three car garage — was built on the property.

        It is a mistake to think zoning is a moral decision, or your choice of housing is more moral, or right for someone else. Find the kind of zoning you like and live there, if you can afford it. New zoning won’t fix it if you can’t afford to live there in the first place.

      3. It is a mistake to think zoning is a moral decision

        Exclusionary zoning is classist and racist. There is no reason to limit the number of different families living on a single parcel if you do not similarly limit the number of available bedrooms, unless you simply don’t want multiple families pooling resources to afford a plot of land.

      4. Nathan, in fact the legislature just passed legislation that prohibits a city from limiting the number of unrelated persons who can live in a house. Seattle before that limited the number to 13. Now subject to fire codes the number is unlimited. Think fraternity without the Greek letters.

        “ESSB 5235: Housing Unit Inventory — Removing Limits on Unrelated Persons Cohabitating

        “ESSB 5235 prohibits cities from regulating or limiting the number of unrelated people who may occupy a house or other dwelling unit. There are some exceptions: occupant limits on group housing regulated under
        state law or short-term rentals, any lawful limits on occupant load per square feet, and generally applicable health and safety provisions (i.e. fire code).”

        A single family house only requires a single kitchen, and residents of the house can share bathrooms. Converting a SFH into 4 or 6 brand new multi-family units with 4-6 bathrooms and 4-6 kitchens is not moral, and does not increase housing, and makes the housing less affordable since the construction is new, so not sure how a SFH is racist or classist.

        Housing policies that discriminate based on race are prohibited, although ironically gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods like the Central District through upzoning are not. Either way, The Central District went from 85% Black to 15%. No wonder one of the biggest groups opposed to upzoning South Seattle is Blacks. Guess they don’t know what is good for them, despite the trail of tears from The Central District to South Seattle.

        All housing is “classist”, which is a fancy progressive term that means you don’t have enough money to live in certain neighborhoods. That will never change (see, downtown Bellevue with tremendous density and insane property prices), but the real irony is upzoning and new multi-family construction with a kitchen and bathroom for every unit is less affordable than the single family house it replaces per resident.

      5. Hi Dan,

        Thanks for your continued interest in this issue! Your 2017 piece helped inspire our “Vote No on Prop 1” efforts.

        Here is an update about potential state legislation to dissolve the community councils who still have obstructionist veto power.
        State Representative Amy Walen posted a letter to the Houghton Community Council (HCC) and then publicly on her Facebook page on October 11. She advocates that Houghton residents vote No on Prop 1. If it passes, she requests that the HCC councilmembers resolve to sunset the HCC. “But as the creation of the Councils was by state legislation, another alternative would be to approve state legislation to sunset them. If that is the preferred choice of the Community Council, it is my hope the Council will work with me, the Kirkland City Council, and city staff to prepare the appropriate legislation to do so.”

        The entire letter is available on her FB page and on our “No on Prop 1” website:

      6. Good for the legislature.

        I didn’t say a single family house is racist or classist. I thought reading comprehension was important for lawyers?

        Exclusionary zoning is classist because if housing density doesn’t keep up with job density, only the high earners or early-buyers can afford to live near their work. Classist policies are generally also racist because generational wealth takes generations to accumulate, and we have only recently stopped preventing people of color from accumulating generational wealth.

        This is not a debate – unless you consider the shape of the Earth to be debatable as well.

        If you’re going to pull the Gentrification card every time upzoning is discussed, why not argue in good faith and support upzones in already-wealthy neighborhoods and cities? Your implication that replacing one 2-million-dollar house with multiple $700k townhomes is somehow inherently less affordable is inane.

      7. Nathan, I do support multi-family zones. In fact on Mercer Island our town center is zoned all multi-family, even the commercial zone which is rare.

        Of course most new units in the town center start around $2 million despite the multi-family zoning, and like I noted the change in warranties for new condos is leading to older, more affordable multi-family housing being demolished and replaced with brand new, very expensive multi-family condos. Not sure how you stop that. We are losing our affordable housing.

        I also support single family zones. Any decent house on MI on a lot of say 10,000 sf will get you 4000 sf in buildable GFA under the same rules as for a SFH in that zone, with a 30′ height limit, 30% to 40% impervious surface limit depending on slope (and much of MI is very steep), that determines footprint, 20′, 25′ and 15′ front, back and combined side yard setbacks, and two onsite parking spots per unit.

        Is that classist? Of course. But is the builder going to take a loss. F no.

        So you buy the house and lot, tear down the house, and build say three condos for the same 4000 sf of buildable GFA each (if on a flat slope) with their own bathroom and bedroom and two onsite parking stalls while paying interest on a $4 or $5 million bridge loan. Don’t forget the city’s impact fees and school fees for each unit, which will be around $25,000 each unit, and the very high permitting costs.

        Total cost for land, demolition, new construction, loan interest, and permitting: $6 million, or $2 million for each 1333 sf condo less parking with its own kitchen and bathroom, because no one is going to pay $3 million for the property to build low end construction. This is the low end cost per unit, except no one moves to MI neighborhoods for 1333 sf. So for the builder $2 million is the break even point.

        Total occupants in the three new small units: maybe 6. Total occupants in the SFH if you have kids like most do: 4 to 5. Total net gain in housing: 1. But at least you don’t have to worry about gentrifying the neighborhood.

        Now I can go to the town center and get a 2000 sf existing very nice condo for $2+ million, so why would I want to live in a remote MI neighborhood on a steep access road with no retail and no transit in a 1333 sf unit for the same price when I can do much better for the same $2 million in the town center? And why I would want to live in any multi-family housing in a remote MI neighborhood with no transit on a steep access road?

        You need to stop reading Wiki or The Urbanist about how builders think and pick up a hammer. You are not creating affordable housing by upzoning land that is already very, very expensive, and you are not solving racism. You need to get involved with affordable housing groups like ARCH, because you will learn affordable housing begins with affordable land, and that is not Kirkland waterfront.

        Look at areas with intense density: downtown Bellevue, downtown Kirkland, the future Spring District, anywhere: are the units affordable because there is density? No they are not, unless subsidized or required as part of the permit, which usually means 80% AMI, or in Bellevue $101,600 annual income for one, which is like hitting the lottery.

        Do you have $2 million for a 1333 sf condo in a remote MI neighborhood? Why not just move up to $3 million for the existing SFH on the same lot and invite a friend or two to live with you, or get married and have kids.

      8. “…. older, more affordable multi-family housing being demolished and replaced with brand new, very expensive multi-family condos. Not sure how you stop that. We are losing our affordable housing.”

        The way to stop that is to allow more multi-family housing, because there is a huge unmet demand for it. It wouldn’t be selling for $2 million each if there weren’t a market for it at that price.

        With only a very few areas getting upzoned, the only way to create more of that high end high density housing is for it to displace existing affordable high density housing.

      9. Dan, you say your “affordable” condos are being torn down and replaced with market-rate condos. If Mercer Island’s zoning is so great, why aren’t the single-family houses next door being torn down instead? I can’t imagine it’s cheaper to purchase an existing condominium, tear it down, and replace it rather than to buy the stick-framed house next door, tear it down, and replace it with a multi-story building or a row of townhomes.

        To continue to restrict dense (or even dense-ish) construction to small cores is a 20th century strategy to corral those who can’t afford picket fences away from those who can – but you correctly observe that new housing is still expensive. You know the old adage: a thing is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. Enough people are willing to pay high prices for “small” condos that builders are willing to build for those prices. Once the output of new housing units outpaces the input of high-wage earners, the price of housing will go down. Otherwise, those high-earners will just buy an affordable condo and flip it to market rate.

        Meanwhile, if we want new affordable housing, you’re right that it must be heavily subsidized. So, pay those taxes and get it done. Or continue to let Community Councils like Houghton say no to housing in their back yards.

  3. It’ll survive handily just like the East Bellevue Community Council did when it was last up: a crushing 80% majority supported renewal.

  4. So is the proposal to eliminate the HCC being proposed by developers and the Master Builder’s Assoc.? Because you have to be pretty naïve to think any of the development will be “equitable”, unless you are talking about rich people of color (and there a lot more of those on the eastside than in Seattle).

    After all, how many on this thread live in Kirkland? Or are you holding off putting down a deposit on a new waterfront condo in Kirkland because you have already placed your deposit on a two bedroom high-rise condo in The Spring District with two underground parking stalls that cost an addtional $150,000 you were lucky to get if you ever want to sell.

    Of course the Kirkland council would like to get rid of the HCC, if the voters don’t rebel. Whom do you think contributes to their campaigns? Developers?

    Even if they wanted to Kirkland and most parts of the eastside really can’t zone for poor people, just like most areas of Seattle, certainly north of Yesler where more urbanists want to live, with some kind of delusion builders want to live with them and neighborhoods want them living there. The land is just too expensive. Sure a SFH might only cost several million dollars, but the lot is under 10,000 sf and the height limit low, so per sf the cost is high

    Without public subsidies new multi-family construction creates very little new net housing because the SFH is now replaced with four to six smaller units with 4-6 kitchens and 4-6 bathrooms and 4-6 parking spots, and of course new construction is the least affordable of all. Of course all the trees on the lot are removed, and the lot vegetation, so now Kirkland looks like Wallingford, which for some reason urbanists think is nirvana (not the band; he lived in a huge SFH mansion in Seattle).

    What builder in Kirkland wants to build affordable housing that only drives down the value of their other developments in Kirkland, and what agency is going to subsidize affordable housing in Kirkland except a few one off ARCH projects for the elderly on land they bought years ago because the land is so expensive?

    I get so tired of this debate. Real estate on the eastside appreciated 37.5% in 2021, with a few months to go. Not because zillions of folks moved to the region in 2021, or restrictive zoning, but because few are moving due to the pandemic, many are leaving Seattle, WFH, schools, and high incomes. It will be the same in 2022.

    The market always wins. For example, the legislature relaxed the long tail on new condo construction to create more condos and fewer apartments so poorer folks could buy a place and share in the equity of ownership (except from 2009 to 2016). What happened. Developers began to buy up older multi-family housing in expensive areas like Mercer Island that serve as basically the only form of affordable housing to demolish those older buildings and build very high end condos. It is an old but true saying: buy low, sell high. Low means old exisitng multi-family housing because it is the least expensive in an expensive neighborhood per sf because of lot size and height limits.

    The city of Mercer Island likes it because they hope expensive new condos — especially with detached walls — will create retail vibrancy, and the construction sales tax helps with budgets, and Islanders looking to downsize from a SFH but stay on the Island don’t really like shared wall condos or condos that were originally built as rentals (it used to take three years of renting to eliminate the long tail of the warranty on new construction). But they start at $2 million.

    Let me know when Seattle’s residential zoning kicks in and prices drop, although I will say home prices in Seattle did appreciate much less than on the eastside, but I don’t think that had anything to do with zoning.

    1. I just wrote to my city manager and council to ask them to explore creating a Community Council to form a layer between the zoning in our residential neighborhoods and the planning commission and council who too often in the past represented the developers and builders.

      We have master plans to protect our parks, and next year plan to permanently protect our park zoning by requiring a vote of the citizens before changing the zoning of a park to avoid the incredible acrimony on Mercer Island in the past over rezoning park land, so why not a Community Council and basically a master plan for our neighborhoods that serve as an additional layer of protection from our planning commission and council?

      So thanks for the article.

      1. Daniel, please read the relevant RCW that I linked to in my comment above. It should clear up any misunderstandings you seem to have.

    2. I’ve said this before, but if you want tree preservation, you have to require tree preservation, not use single family homes with yards as a proxy for tree preservation.

      Down the street from where I live, a developer just demolished and old house and, yes they did chop down all of the trees. But the problem isn’t development per say, it’s developers who are lazy and want to use cookie-cutter plans that assume a completely clear site, rather than having to do the extra work of designing the building and construction process around existing trees. This should be a solvable problem with proper regulation. Even if it meant the new building would be slightly smaller, it would still host vastly more people than the one family that lived on the property before.

      Meanwhile, somebody else buys a single family home down the street from me and immediately chops down two large trees in their backyard, for no reason except the desire for a more open backyard. But, since the house is still occupied by only one family, it’s considered perfectly ok for a single family zone.

      As I’ve said, if you want tree preservation, have rules that require tree preservation. And limiting the number of unrelated persons allowed to occupy a property at a time does not preserve trees.

      1. I agree asdf2. We worked long and hard on a tree ordinance on Mercer Island. It mainly applies to tree preservation of significant trees during development. It requires that a house be sited to preserve mature trees unless the siting would result in more than 15% of lot coverage/GFAR loss, and requires much better tree replacement. Still only half a tree ordinance since trees on private property are not regulated as much, but it is the developers/builders and not private property owners who were the biggest problem.

        Before that builders would remove every tree on a lot during development because it was cheaper and easier, and replace them with saplings,.

        We also redid our tree ordinance for our rights of way which have many mature trees, unless PSE has butchered them to death, so the ordinance in the ROW mainly involved pruning and having an arborist on site during pruning.

        Ideally we wanted Sammamish’s tree ordinance which is a model on the eastside, but developers balked. Kirkland’s tree ordinance was also not a favorite of builders. Or Issaquah’s. Snohomish Co. does not have a bad tree ordinance (for Snohomish Co.), and was suggested by the Master Builder’s Assoc. and includes regular tree canopy studies as part of its ordinance if IIRC. We didn’t look at Seattle’s tree ordinance.

        However, in the end, trees exist in pervious surfaces. They don’t grow in concrete or foundations. That means front, rear and side yards are where trees and vegetation must exist. Not too many trees on downtown Seattle lots because lot coverage is basically 100% impervious surfaces. Not too many trees or vegetation on multi-family lots for the same reason.

        If you live in suburbia you want mature trees in the neighborhoods, or it really isn’t suburbia, and this area of the world is unique for the number of very tall evergreen trees. Maybe it is different in more urban areas like Capitol Hill, but that is not what suburbia is about.

      2. “If you live in suburbia you want mature trees in the neighborhoods,”

        The irony, of course, is that much of Seattle actually has better tree coverage than much of suburbia. A large reason why is that streets in Seattle tend to have green space between sidewalk and street with large trees on the , while streets in suburbia tend to have sidewalks right up against the street, leaving the burden of tree planting and retention entirely on private property owners.

        There is one block in Houghton, just south of 68th St., which has a buffer between sidewalk and street with large trees on it. The trees make the block really stand out from what’s around it. Unfortunately, due to very limited supply, the houses on that block are available only to the 1%. Ideally, tree lined blocks would be everywhere, so you don’t need to be rich to be able to live on one.

  5. Thanks Tisgwm. Too bad. Back to battling our planning commission and council over our neighborhoods and town center, although these days we have a much better council that obtained a net zero new housing growth target through 2044 (unfortunately after Prop. 1 failed in 2018 by 57.5% based on the prior council’s unpopular positions on growth). Look for eastside cities to follow Sammamish’s lead after the new housing targets to amend their comprehensive plans to state they are “built out”, which Sammamish threatened during the allocation of housing targets.

    Now we have to amend our zoning which would allow thousands of more units than our housing targets require. Some very foolish people think development and density pay for themselves, which is why NY City has such a low tax rate per capita despite the financial industry.

  6. I’d love to see Bellevue and Kirkland un-annex these two areas. If they want to come back on a level playing field, then we’ll talk.

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