What Seattle's New "Grand Bargain" on Affordable Housing Is and How People Are Reacting So Far

Comments

1
HALA BACK Y'ALL
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Love Alan's comment in the article. Let's do this Seattle.
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What prevents the developers from simply paying the affordable housing fund fees and relying on the rapid increase in rental prices and real estate values to keep the city from being able to buy land and build affordable housing on it? Even assuming the city would have the gumption to try and eminent domain the property, the process would be locked up in the legal system for years just on appeals concerning the valuation of the property.

This "Grand Bargain" doesn't truly incentivize builders to build lower income housing. It just moves the profit point a little further in one direction, essentially slowing real estate development until the profit margins return to their present levels through market demand and decreased supply.

We need affordable housing in Seattle. At best, this simply slows the rate at which rental prices will get out of hand. For the next 10 years. These houses will barely meet current levels of demand, and won't begin to address the forecasted increases in demand (this is slightly simplified, I admit). There's also the question of the rent vs. own ration being presented here. What will the ratio on these new properties look like compared both to the present ratio of the city as a whole and the neighborhoods in which these new properties are being built?

The devil is always in the details, and these details don't look good.
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@3
"What prevents the developers from simply paying the affordable housing fund fees and relying on the rapid increase in rental prices and real estate values to keep the city from being able to buy land and build affordable housing on it?"

Nothing. But it's better than the current situation, where developers are starting to decide that being able to build a couple extra floors isn't worth the cost of paying into the fund. So we get both no contribution to the affordable housing fund, AND fewer units in new construction.

This isn't perfect, but it would be a step in the right direction, mostly by chipping away at the unassailable sanctity of Seattle's sprawling single family zones.

I bet it never happens. These proposals are going to get watered down by the city council to the point of uselessness. The BANANA crowd has too much influence in Seattle's government to ever let something like this happen.
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#5, With the current chipping away of single family zones only providing this kind of incremental change, I'm not sure SFH is really the problem. If it was, this plan would yield better results, wouldn't it?
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I don't understand the hatred of single-family housing. Too many newcomer urbanists who don't appreciate Seattle history and want to remake us into something we're not. Nobody has made a case that we cannot accommodate all the new housing we need in urban villages and urban centers. But if they do succeed in making that case, then upzone the urban villages and centers, or expand their footprint incrementally. It's really not necessary to go to war with SF neighborhoods, with SF homeowners.
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@6

It is much easier to add housing stock by making it legal to replace SFH with modest 2 or 3 story apartment buildings over a wide area, than it is to try and get 100' towers built in a handful of small enclaves. Western Capitol Hill is the densest neighborhood in the entire state, and the vast majority of housing there are old apartment buildings of moderate height, not towers. Look at cities around the world with lots of housing near the core, and you will see the exact same pattern.

Don't get me wrong, the towers help a lot, but when we're zoning neighborhoods so that towers taper down to SFH in just a few blocks (see: Roosevelt urban village), we've got a problem.
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@7
I'm no newcomer. I've been here my whole life.

No one hates single family housing. People hate being forced into single family housing against their will, or being priced out of neighborhoods because they can't afford a single family house.

The case has already been made several times that you can't fit all our new development in under existing rules, not unless you bulldoze every building that's less than the maximum height and replace it with one that is. Be realistic - no one is going to tear down a fully occupied 4 story building to build a 6 story one, even if the zoning allows for it.

The bottom line is in the numbers. Last year we added 20,000 jobs in Seattle, and only 6,000 housing units. New tech employees are outbidding low-income seattlites on existing housing stock, and many lower-level tech employees are choosing to commute from Lynnwood and Bothell instead of trying to fight through Seattle's extremely competitive housing market.

No one is going to war with single family neighborhoods. No one is going to force you to move out of your single family home and into a studio apartment. If these modest changes are made, the vast majority of the city is going to still be single family housing.

When I see comments like this, I have to wonder... when was the last time you tried to rent an apartment in this city? 1990? Have you ever had to deal with a competitive rental application process where the landlord compares the incomes of 2 dozen applicants and takes the highest one? Because that's the situation out there right now. The war is not on single family homeowners... it's on renters being forced out of the city!

-LT out
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#8, I don't see any suggestions for replacing SFH with 2-3 story apartment buildings or row houses. I see mother in laws and duplexes in the current plan (please correct me if I missed something). I don't see duplexes and mother in laws solving our housing problems.

In the end, I suspect we agree on many things. SFH in Seattle will simply have to be reduced. Height restrictions on towers in urban villages will have to rise, and the size of those urban villages as well as their buffers will have to increase. As much as I hate the gentrification of Ballard (as an example), soon we will have to start asking ourselves which we would rather save: the character of Ballard or the character of the Snoqualmie Valley (as an example of an urbanite's desired short jaunt to a natural destination)? Especially if we start getting climate refugees from California, these types of tough regional housing location questions are going to have to not only be asked but answered, and with clearer data than we currently get from our elected officials.
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can someone cite this or did i miss it? "that's a $37,680 annual salary for a household of one; $43,000 for a family of two"
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These efforts are laudable, but inadequate.

There's too much land in and around Puget Sound tied up in low density building.

Vertical density isn't an answer. Mansion busting with high property taxes, especially ones which are progressive and start to magnify once a person uses up more square footage than a person needs, is an answer.

WHY CAN’T WE BUILD AN AFFORDABLE HOUSE?

It is a vicious circle. Smaller houses on smaller lots are the logical solution to the problem of affordability, yet ­density—­and less affluent neighbors—­are precisely what most communities fear most. In the name of fighting sprawl, local zoning boards enact regulations that either require larger lots or restrict development, or both.

These strategies decrease the ­supply—­hence, increase the ­cost—­of developable land. Since builders pass the cost of lots on to buyers, they justify the higher land prices by building larger and more expensive houses—McMansions. This produces more community resistance, and calls for yet more restrictive regulations. In the process, housing affordability becomes an even more distant ­chimera.


http://wilsonquarterly.com/quarterly/sum…
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@7, When you wall off 65% of the land base from taking new housing supply and an additional 12% that is zoned industrial and isn't taking housing, you are left with less than 1/4 of the land supply to build new housing units on. With little competition, those landowners can sell or lease for a premium to each person seeking to create an additional housing unit for a growing population. 12% of the land supply to take 120,000 new people. I would love to have the bargaining position of the 12%.

Alan is so right. The alternative is San Francisco, where my sister lives. They won't allow more units hardly anywhere. But that doesn't stop people from coming. That means my sister, for $3k a month, rents a closet in a SF home, with a half-dozen other closet dwellers, kitchen sharers, and bathroom sharers. Its single-family across most of San Francisco, but that has not made it less crowded, less congested, less of a magnate for job seekers, or less expensive sfSF is the future vision of the Bungalow and Craftsman preservationists (elitists) in Seattle, not something more equitable for all housing consumers.

Murray is right!
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@9, re your "People hate being forced into single family housing against their will…" What kind of bizzaro world do you live in? People being "forced" into single-family houses against their will? Beyond weird.

OK, you may not hate single-family housing, but you sure wish Seattle had developed differently, with much higher density neighborhoods, maybe like Philadelphia or Chicago. But we didn't. Our ancestors didn't have the wisdom to do that. They responded to the markets and land available and built Seattle as a city largely of SF detached homes, and I humbly suggest that can't be undone. The future development of Seattle must respect what's here today; not pretend it doesn't exist or wish it away.
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@7 "I don't understand the hatred of single-family housing."

Roger, stop it with these ridiculous strawmen. I live in a single family home on a 4500 Square foot lot in the city, and it's great. If someone down the block from me wants to build a basement apartment, and I think that's perfectly fine (and, frankly, none of my business in the first place), and I shouldn't use the coercive power of the state to throw a bunch of arbitrary hurdles in his way, why does that mean I "hate single family housing"? I have an elderly couple who would like to stay in their home where they lived for 40 years, but it's too much home for them. They'd like to convert it to a duplex to they can afford to stay. Does thinking they should be given the tools of financial flexibility necessary to stay in their home mean I "hate single family housing"?

I think single family houses are a sufficiently popular and useful form of housing that they can survive proximity to ADUs, DADUs, and duplexes just fine. Why on earth couldn't they? I used to live in an older part of Wallingford that was built up before it became SF zoned. It's mostly single family homes, with some small apartment buildings, rowhouses, garden cottages, and duplexes mixed in. It's great neighborhood, and the homes there are expensive and desirable. It's just fine. The overrreaction to these modest changes.
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RDPence:

I'm really trying to make sense of your mentality, and I'm struggling. If you could give me direct, straightforward answers to the following questions, it might help.

Why does the argument "it's been this way for a long time, therefore we shouldn't change it" only apply to SF zoning and not other zones? Why should residents of a particular kind of neighborhood have an affirmative right to no changes ever, even as that means much greater changes in other parts of the city?

Why does the possibility of living on the same block as a house with a basement apartment or a duplex seem like such a horrible imposition to you--something so bad you feel justified in using the coercive power of the state to criminalize it? What is the concrete, specific harm you must be protected from in these cases?

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David, I'm tired of the people, mostly newcomer urbanists, who lament that Seattle developed the way it did. They wish that Seattle neighborhoods were full of row houses or stacked flats or Haussmann-style apartment blocks. Yesterday it was Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona that we should emulate. It may be too strong to say they "hate" single-family neighborhoods, but from their rhetoric, they sure wish they weren't here.

That said, sure, let's loosen up on ADUs and DADUs. In neighborhoods where street parking is not a problem, remove the off-street parking requirement, where they can put doorways, and so forth. I do think they should keep the requirement for egress windows in basement bedrooms, however. But change the zoning to allow the demolition of "affordable" single-family bungalows to rebuild with expensive and unaffordable town houses or stacked flats? Nope, I'm not there.

And I am for allowing modest increases in densities in urban villages, and even modest expansions of their footprints. Along the historic streetcar suburb lines, allow low-density MF housing on the blocks on either side of the arterial, like along Greenwood or California.

The devil's in the details, to use to tired old saying. I strongly believe Seattle can grow gracefully within the context of what's here, and we should not be dreaming of remaking Seattle into something fundamentally incompatible with what we are today. We need to respect the past; something we told an earlier generation of urbanists who insisted we had to tear down the Pike Place Market and replace it with seven high-rise towers. Let's have a process that regular people can be involved in, to help shape the future of Seattle, not just 28 hand-selected elites. Let's not have our future forced on us through some top-down planning process forged in the back rooms of City Hall.
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Thanks for clarifications on your views on ADU/DADU. That makes your opposition to the proposed changes all the more baffling.

As for this:

But change the zoning to allow the demolition of "affordable" single-family bungalows to rebuild with expensive and unaffordable town houses or stacked flats?

You seem to be implying that a city with less housing units available will be a more affordable one. This is makes no sense in theory, and it's demonstrably false in practice. Glance at Silicon Valley, of course, and you'll find plenty of unremarkable 3 bedroom craftsmen selling for well north of a million dollars. Protecting housing stock that "looks" affordable because it's old and boring doesn't prevent it from becoming unaffordable, as we're seeing all over the city right now.

I notice you avoided any attempt to answer the following question: Why does the argument "it's been this way for a long time, therefore we shouldn't change it" only apply to SF zoning and not other zones? This seems to be something you very firmly and deeply believe, so it seems like you should be able to give a logical explanation of *why* you believe it. SF zone dwellers aren't the only ones whose lives are impacted and disrupted by change. SF zone dwellers aren't the only humans who grow accustomed to things as they are and fear change.
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David, Trickle Down has been a failure as a national economic policy, so I have trouble accepting it for local housing policy. As to other non-SF zones, there was a Grand Bargain struck some 20 years ago, that density should be focused on urban centers and urban villages where it can be serviced most efficiently by public transit and other local infrastructure. These are the areas where we can get 15-minute frequent bus service during off-peak hours. Put the density within easy walking distance of that frequent transit. That made sense to a lot of us back then, and I haven't seen a convincing analysis to the contrary, that we instead need to move to a "density everywhere" model.
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RDPence, your last comment demonstrates a common but frustrating confusion about what we mean when we say "trickle-down economics doesn't work." Trickle-down is a metaphor for supply side economics--the theory, promoted by lots of elites in the 80's and a smaller but still too large group of dead-enders today, suggests that is we use tax policy and other policy instruments to put more money into the hands of rich people, they'll do things with that money that will benefit non-rich people, thus making everyone better off. We now have a very good understanding of why this fails. There's an economic reason for the failure and a political one. First, the economic reason: as should have been obvious, rich people simply spend less, dollar for dollar, than the rest of us when they get more money. So insofar as that money might otherwise have gone to a less rich person, or a worthwhile government expenditure, it does relatively little to stimulate economic activity. The political reason: one thing rich people do do with their money is buy political access and influence, and they use it to protect and extend their privileged access to an ever-increasing size of our society's overall wealth. Their success on this front makes the economic problem worse, and you get the vicious cycle of slow growth and increased inequality we see in our society today.

Absolutely nothing about the what we now know about the failure of trickle-down economics tells us "supply/demand ratio has nothing to do with cost" as you are claiming it does. The evidence that claim is false is plain as the eye can see--in cities where supply is greater than demand, housing is generally quite cheap. In places where there is a pretty good balance, it tends to track the cost of construction + a little profit. In places where demand outpaces supply, housing gets more expensive. Washington DC is a great example right now of a city that stemmed out of control rent increases by aggressively adding supply to meet demand. It's not a comparable case in any respect. Indeed, a better analogy would run in precisely the opposite direction. If the proper lesson is "a policy that enriches a particular privileged group is likely to fail to serve the common good" the lesson would teach us the folly of creating artificial scarcity that inflates the value of a particular asset. Single family homeowners who bought into the Seattle market a long time ago have been the beneficiaries of, hundreds of thousands of dollars of unearned income, a good portion of which is due to the policy of creating artificial scarcity. They, in turn, use their wealth and influence to promote the extension of that policy in perpetuity, no matter how much it screws over newcomers, the environment, and so on. The lesson we can take from trickledown economics, if there is one, is precisely the opposite of the one you suggest.

As to "there was a grand bargain 20 years ago" this is just another argument by assertion. Why should there be only one grand bargain, ever, for all of history? The reason HALA was created is that it's become very, very clear that as a vehicle for delivering a mix of housing options priced in such a way that the present and future residents of the city will be able to find something they can afford, it has clearly failed, on economic and political grounds. (The 8-1 vote to downzone LR last month demonstrates that the solution of putting most of the growth in those zones isn't politically sustainable). So we look for a new bargain; perhaps a more equitable one that offers a greater mix of housing options and doesn't continue to treat the interests of people who live in single family-zoned neighborhoods as more important than the interests of other people.

Finally, with respect to transit, you've got it backwards. Accepting a bit more widespread low-impact density like ADUs and duplexes might just add demand, as well as more people to build the tax base, which might lead to more frequent service. My main route (28) goes mostly through SF zoning north of Fremont, is currently half-hourly off-peak. We have demand to justify that level of service, but it's rarely full; there's room for more. One of the many reasons I'd love to see more people living in the area--especially people living in smaller places with less parking, since they're more likely to be transit users--is that it might provide sufficient demand to increase service to 20 or even 15 minute headways. More frequent bus service around the city, based on demand, is another reason to support this plan.
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The median monthly rent has risen 27% in the rent controlled super liberal controlled San Francisco. The only people who can live in the city are the rich, and the poor on subsidy. The rest are forced to travel by car, bus, train, or boat. Basically middle class is extinct in San Francisco. So why are we pushing for the same policies? If you make the developers pay fees then the rent goes up for the units. That money goes to the government who isn't helping the middle class any time soon. This is anti middle class Seattle. We tax the rich and give to the poor. But no one asks about the middle class who are asked to move elsewhere.
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I don't think redefining the meaning of Single Family Zoning is a "modest change". The new definition basically does away with Single Family Zoning throughout the city.

And what is so "urgent" about these housing needs anyway? All our neighborhoods have enough housing stock to accommodate the population for the next ten years. When are they proposing building all the new housing that is so "urgently needed"? In the next few years? And what then? Are we going to place a moratorium on building after those units are complete? Nothing about this plan sounds good for anything - not for our economy, not for communities, not for neighborhoods and sadly not for providing affordable housing either. The only people who benefit are developers!