Let Them Eat Takes: On Housing, the Seattle Times Editorial Board is as Oblivious to Reality as Marie Antoinette

Comments

1

Great reading David Cole, he’s a handy reminder that urbanists are little more than woke suburbanites, all grown up and with the EQ of stale toast.

2

So, the assumption is that if a zoning change is made, existing property owners--the "millionaire homeowners" referred to in this piece--will demolish their dream homes and put up multi-unit low-income housing? That doesn't strike me as a realistic solution to our housing crisis.

3

Why is it woke surbanites-turned-urbanists want all the density in the nice, white parts of town and not say, down along the Rainier valley when that handy train passes block after block of empty lots for miles and miles all the way to Seatac. It's almost like they want to live month their own tribe, but in cities, but not where there's no yoga studios craft bar.

Woke suburbanites.

4

If I can make it worse for a minute; in ultra-competitive markets no one is accepting your FHA-backed offer. You need to show up with 20% down, preapproval from a familiar lender with experience in your market and hope no one shows up with cash.

@2 They won't, but investment homes currently occupied by renters will be razed or converted to multi-unit buildings. Good for the long-term supply, bad for current affordable stock.

5

@4 Interesting. So, why aren't the owners of these "investment homes" clamoring for zoning change? If they are all hot to demo existing single family homes and put up multi-unit housing, you'd think they would be vocal supports of upzoning.

6

@5 Perhaps "will be" was too immediate a proclamation. Some probably are, some probably aren't. I'd wager developers are more likely to be involved in advocacy than individual owners. It takes a lot of cash on hand to turn a SFH into a RM3. Most owners don't develop themselves but are encouraged to sell by the newfound potential windfall of their investment that upzoning encouraged.

I guess we'll see if a) upzoning happens, and b) the market stays hot.

7

Liberalizing ADU & DADU (that is granny flats and backyard cottage) rules to allow a max of three homes, and on smaller lots compared to current rules is unlikely to cause a wave of teardowns - first, if you want to add a DADU there's no need to touch the main house. Second if a house is in good shape it makes a lot more sense to modify it to create an ADU rather than raze it and start over. Rundown houses are already targets for being torn down and replaced by >$1M new single family homes; if this makes main house with ADU + DADU in backyard a competitive alternative, that's a win for affordability.

8

While there's nothing inherently wrong with up-zoning single-family neighborhoods, it represents the most pain for the least gain. The increase in neighborhood housing capacity will be slow, very gradual, and relatively far from mass transit. It will also get the most opposition from some of the most powerful groups in the city. Almost every other method of increasing housing capacity will do more for less effort. Now that rents are no longer increasing on either apartments or rental homes*, there's little incentive to direct our efforts into the political buzz-saw of neighborhood NIMBYs.

Also, I know beggars can't be choosers, but could the Stranger please have someone other than David Cole write on urbanist issues? Having commenters correct nearly everything he writes must be getting old.

*Thanks, Mike Rosenberg! David should actually read the sources he cites. It might result in less embarrassment for him, not that he seems to care.

9

Was there actually a single correction in the comments to this article? Or just taking random potshots at the author?

10

“Another incident that sticks in my mind was when he berated me in front of my colleagues because I didn’t know the brand names of the high-end kitchen appliances I was supposed to be using… “

Tell me you had all their brochures and shit in your architectural drawers, and hadn’t yet memorized them. So damn many Details, so little time – architecturally speaking.

But, yeah, Life’s too fucking short to spend at least a third of it working for or with assholes.

Too bad you couldn’t build your own little place in somebody’s backyard ... you know, fun with containers, or something ... perhaps with some sweat equity you might walk away with a decent down payment … or am I living in a Fanta Sea?

11

Although, one would need a place to live while one built. Perhaps converting a garage or chickencoop as temporary abode might do it ...

12

@9: As also pointed out @2, @3, and @6 the entire premise (insofar as the article can be described as having one) is flawed. Up-zoning single-family neighborhoods simply isn't going to make much of an impact on the current housing situation in Seattle.

@3 makes a point I've also made in another thread. Take Link Light Rail down MLK and count just how many vacant lots, parking lots, and condemned buildings you can see from the floor of a narrow valley -- all within walking distance of effective mass transit. Why bother tangling with well-connected neighborhood NIMBYs while better opportunities to increase housing stock are readily available?

13

24,669 acres of Seattle land are zoned single family(1)

+1 triplex per acre = nearly a net new 50,000 homes

In record-setting 2017, 10,000 new market rate apartments entered the market in the entire year, twice as many as any previous year(2)

Up zoning single family zones is both necessary and offers massive promise for affordability

(1) http://www.seattle.gov/DPD/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/s051322.pdf
(2) https://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/seattles-record-apartment-boom-is-ready-to-explode/

14

@13: Thank you for supporting my point. We would need to rebuild thousands of single-family lots across the entire city -- which would take decades at an absolute minimum -- to produce less than five times the number of residences we added just last year.

(We could up-zone First Hill, and southern Cap' Hill, too. There's no engineering reason to prevent 40-50 story buildings there, all within easy reach of downtown -- and inside two walkable neighborhoods. Far more opportunity there than at thousands of individual sites across the city with variable access to mass transit.)

15

See, @12, those aren't 'corrections.' Corrections are where the author makes a factual claim which is verifiably in error.

What those are are 'arguments.' (And not particularly compelling ones, IMHO.) There are commenters making arguments after most slog posts. If The Stranger had to replace everyone who got arguments in the comments after their articles, they wouldn't have a lot of writers left.

16

@15: My original statement @8 didn't apply to just this article. For example, read the comments to his article, https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2018/04/11/26028577/with-friends-like-mayor-durkan-the-seattle-streetcar-needs-no-enemies and you'll see how many words commenters had to expend on making basic factual corrections to statements a competent author might've gotten right in the first place.

We can agree to disagree on whether calling out the entire premise of an article as faulty counts as a "correction" or not.

17

@16 cool but you've read your own ideas into "the entire premise". The article's claim was that the Seattle Times is out of touch, and a subclaim that Seattle SFH are not starter homes. It had one sentence about zoning in passing.

Does the author think broad upzoning of SFH is a better idea than I think it is? Probably yeah. But that's not the subject.

18

@17: The article is indeed very poorly written (not a surprise, considering the author) but it appears the only reason for him to gas on at such length about a silly editorial was to advocate for up-zoning single-family neighborhoods. (Maybe I'm being too kind, and he just wanted to write a reflection on his career path.) It's also obvious he either hasn't read or hasn't understood the work of the reporter he praises, but that's just more fun for his reader.

19

Well, that was a nice little, unhinged rant right there.

20

@12: "Why bother tangling with well-connected neighborhood NIMBYs while better opportunities to increase housing stock are readily available?"

Because it's fundamentally about resentment and the urbanists/YIMBYs' desire to punish, in their words, "rich" "white" privileged," "evil" "racist" NIMBYs'" and not about housing more people. Otherwise they'd be clamoring for limited public housing dollars and a higher percentage of MHA to get the most bang for the buck in areas where land values are less. There's even plenty of vacant lots and abandoned buildings in expensive and desirable neighborhoods that could house thousands. And yet they sit vacant and unused year after year, while the CD gets gentrified.

In their view, anyone who owns a SF home in Seattle is wealthy and has "windfall equity" that they don't deserve. Nevermind that many are older folks who are barely hanging on, or that the only thing that increased equity means to them is ever higher property taxes until they sell. And when they finally sell, who knows where the market will be.

21

“There's even plenty of vacant lots and abandoned buildings in expensive and desirable neighborhoods that could house thousands.”

Cite?

Because no. No there is not “plenty.” There’s “some.” And the inflated land costs alone make those few lots far too expensive (without other intrusive market interference) to build “affordable” stock.

22

and to follow up, those few (quite certainly temporarily) vacant lots you do see are that way because the owner has either massively jacked up rent or put the plot on the market.

But hey, you saw a for sale sign while driving by. Clearly upzoning is a flawed concept in need of your correction.

23

@14 even if it did take 20 years to add 50k homes, 50,000/20 = 2,500 homes per year, a 25% increase over the prior record. Anything over 2,000 would be competitive with many prior year totals over the last 50 years on its own.(1)

(1)See chart: https://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/seattles-record-apartment-boom-is-ready-to-explode/

24

Funny that the critics here point to "all the vacant lots along the light rail line" as "proof" of our inability to build out high-density housing infrastructure in those areas, while at the same time completely ignoring the acres and acres of new high-density housing that didn't exist in those same areas prior to the light rail expansion.

25

@23 You understand you are advocating for a free market solution to our housing crisis, don't you? In my experience, allowing capitalism to play out generally doesn't result in a favorable outcome for the more vulnerable members of our society.

26

What's not mentioned is the pace of residential real estate development in the surrounding areas. Snohomish County is turning itself into an endless sea of concrete. Of course, that means commuting (quel horror!). But you wanna live in this area, that's the price you're gonna have to pay. Just like in every other big US city (duh).

27

I think @8 gets it the best. It's better to focus on the bigger projects right now, because they yield more benefit and at least right now, they engender much less political push-back.

Developers want the SFH land now, because in this market, building townhomes is faster, less risky, and probably has better margins than building larger buildings along MLK, etc., which I always assumed was the backbone of Transit Oriented Development (i.e., put the most people possible near the transit, so it's easy for them to use it).

SFH land is like Filet Mignon, soft tender cuts that cook up fast and are hard to mess up (just don't overcook them). Vacant lots on MLK are like brisket, bigger, tough cuts with a lot of flavor that require considerably more skill and time to cook well.

From an urban planning standpoint, we need to cook that brisket first and get those bigger buildings along the light rail. It's the only way we'll get the density we need to support good transit, which in turn will eventually support higher density in SFH neighborhoods near to transit and allow more people to let go of one or more of their cars.

The worst possible outcome imho is to build a bunch of townhomes, while leaving the lots on MLK (and elsewhere) empty. Then, the economy tanks. We're stuck at a density of around 9,500-10,500 per sq mile, when we need at least 12,000 per sq mile to support frequent transit. All the new townhomes have destroyed the parking situation in a lot of SFH neighborhoods, by adding more cars without adding more parking. People can't lose their cars, because the transit isn't good enough. So we're stuck in this purgatory place, with the worst of both worlds. Bad parking, increasingly bad traffic, and not good enough transit.

On the other hand, if we cook that brisket, and then the economy tanks, more of the density is close to transit, so even at 10,500 per sq mile, transit is viable for more people, parking is less of an issue in the rest of the city, where transit is less practical, and while things will still kind of suck around traffic (as they do now), perhaps they won't suck quite as bad for everybody.

28

@20: Bingo. These “upzone” fantasists really just want to take away the SFH neighborhoods. This just makes those residents work harder to keep the current zoning intact.

@23: You need to add in the time it will take to upzone those neighborhoods. Will that happen next year? In five years? Ten? Fifty?

You’re like a guy still standing in the blocks, watching the other runners disappear down the track, talking big about how you just know you’ll pass them once you start running.

@22: assertions made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

29

@25: we certainly need to invest in social housing for those with the least (or no) money; but "the market" can happily adapt to serve people who might not be rich but still have money to spend...if it is allowed to; for example:

Between 1880 and 1930, 16,000 triple deckers housing about 192,000 people sprang up in Boston.

The triple decker never won any architectural awards, but it enjoyed enormous popularity because it gave working- and middle-class families a chance to own a home. They could live in one unit and rent out the other two.

The triple decker 'succeeded remarkably in housing and helping the poor,' wrote Howard Husock in his 1990 article Rediscovering the three-decker house.

Unlike New York’s cramped, windowless brick tenements, New England’s triple deckers offered the worker a big, airy living space with heat and hot water.

An ambitious clerk or mechanic who earned an average of $25 a week could rent for $20-$25 an apartment with a parlor, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, stove, hot water, two bedrooms, two porches, heat, electricity and hardwood floors.

http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/rise-fall-rebirth-new-england-triple-decker/

30

@25: I lived for two years in a Cambridge, Mass Triple Decker. You're right. It is a pretty nice way to go. Maybe they wouldn't have won any architectural awards compared to the nicest homes of their time, but compared to the average 6-pack townhome being built in Seattle over the last decade, they are in a whole other aesthetic ballpark. IMHO, so much more attractive.

That said, even in the early 1990s when I lived in that Triple Decker, those kind of structures were becoming increasingly out of reach for low income folks (at least in Cambridge and reasonably desirable parts of Boston).

For the most part, the owners were people of some means and in plenty of cases they had been converted to a condo kind of deal, where each unit had a different owner. In other words, they were very much like the Townhouses being constructed today in Seattle: perhaps a bit more affordable than a SFH, but not really affordable for the kind of low income folks you are describing.

It just seems backward to me to create too many incentives to build these units when we have not filled in the vacant lots nearest to rail.

That being said, once those spaces have been filled in, it will be time to push more multi-family structures in SFH neighborhoods adjacent to the larger buildings. And it will be much easier to effectuate that too, because the added density around the stations will likely mean more voters who support additional upzones in these places. But that feels like a 2024 type of thing. Not a 2018 type thing. By then, Rail goes to Lynnwood, Federal Way, and the East Side. More than likely Rainier will be lined with apartments from Jackson to Walden. Hopefully MLK will be filled in from Mt Baker Station to Rainier Beach (hell maybe they'll finally put a Graham Street station in too).

I don't see how opening up more SFH land right now is going to incentivize development along these major corridors.

31

@30: Fist bump for the triple decker love. Grew up in them. Agree they aren't a silver bullet in Seattle today because we've let land costs get too out of hand...but they are an example of what "the market" could come up with (and as you say would still be more affordable than SFHs).

But wrt "I don't see how opening up more SFH land right now is going to incentivize development along these major corridors."

It's both-and. The worst possible thing that can happen today is an old run down single family house gets torn down and replaced by a brand spanking new single family house that is almost certain to be $1.5M+...that piece of land has been effectively seized by rich people for a generation. Seattle Times reported 1/day in King County last year. Giving more than one household that isn't rich a shot to compete through 'plexes is a big positive step and urgently needed.

32

@31: When will the City Council vote on your re-zoning proposal?

How many new residential units will become available in non-SFH zones during the time prior to the vote?

Will the Referendum to repeal the vote gather more or less than 47,000 signatures?

33

@8 tensor: Well, at least that's some good news--I'm glad to hear that rents aren't skyrocketing as much in Seattle anymore. Hopefully the trend continues and surrounding communities in our region are also spared further out of control high-end urban development for the wealthy only. How many more looming luxury condos at $2+ million a pop do we really need?

34

@33: Many of the recent real-estate developments in Seattle are actually solidly middle-class. (My family and I reside in one.) It's just that middle-class families haven't lived in the centers of American cities for such a long time, no one really knows what it looks like anymore. With the huge numbers of new residences finally reaching pace with the astounding growth of Seattle's population during this decade, prices are softening. (There's some heresy about "market forces" and "supply and demand" lurking about, but I don't feel like inviting more nasty personal attacks...) It will be fun to watch some of the ultra-high-end places you mentioned become available to the rest of us, if prices continue to fall.

We do need to recognize there will never again be one-bedroom apartments for $500/mo in the Pike-Pine Corridor, and so the writers at the Stranger will always and forever complain about a "housing crisis". (As always in America, the term "crisis" describes only one type of situation: when middle-class white people might suffer some small, temporary hardship.)

35

@34

I would certainly agree that there hasn't been any housing crisis for those who can afford housing.

But I wonder if you'd agree that there is or has ever been a housing crisis for the poor, particularly for people who have no wealth, have no income, and have no way to obtain income-- people who, in other words, simply can not participate in The Market at all.

Some of them are old and frail, some are maimed, some are mentally incapacitated. Some are below the legal age of employment. What they all share is that they are outside The Market.

I am also curious as to whether or not you believe Seattle is experiencing a "Homelessness Crisis," that is, in your formulation: a situation in which homelessness is causing middle-class white people to suffer some small, temporary hardship.

36

@32 "How many new residential units will become available in non-SFH zones during the time prior to the vote?"

Hopefully an extremely large number!

I'm not sure what your concerns about timelines are...Seattle's been a city for more than a century, and hopefully will be for a century and more into the future. The sooner we liberalize zoning (whenever that is), the less preventable hardship people with less rather than more money will experience.

With regard to political viability, the track record of single family zoning apologists for city council (Bradburd, Muramaki, and Grant) has made which way the wind is blowing abundantly clear.

37

@36: “I'm not sure what your concerns about timelines are...”

Wil this upzone happen in the lifetime of any current resident of Seattle?

“The sooner we liberalize zoning (whenever that is),”

I’ll take that as a “no.”

“With regard to political viability, the track record of single family zoning apologists for city council (Bradburd, Muramaki, and Grant) has made which way the wind is blowing abundantly clear.”

It’s not like a 9-0 vote can be reversed with a month, now is it?

38

@37 Last year a plurality of Seattle voters supporting rezoning (48%) versus less than a quarter (22%) opposed, with outright majorities of people under 39 and renters in support; some of strongest opposition was from people over 65 (1)

I'll take the over-under on change in time to give folks living here today a hand.

(1) Q7 - https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3870797/Survey-Results-on-Seattle-Mayoral-Candidates.pdf

39

@38: A poll which had Mike McGinn as the front-runner in our Mayoral primary election (!) also told you:

(1) there is no majority support for re-zoning;
(2) persons least likely to vote are in favor;
(3) persons who are most likely to vote — and to own SFH — strongly oppose.

If that’s the best evidence of support FOR re-zoning you can find, your cause is truly lost. (Not that you seem to care.)

How’d Mike McGinn do in the general?

40

@35: “But I wonder if you'd agree that there is or has ever been a housing crisis for the poor, particularly for people who have no wealth, have no income, and have no way to obtain income-- people who, in other words, simply can not participate in The Market at all.”

Ivy, is that you? :-)

Of course there have always been persons — in your next paragraph, you obliquely mention children — who cannot provide for themselves. If anyone who opposed the EHT also opposed public housing and Mary’s Place, the supporters of the head tax somehow never exploited his cruelty.

‘...Seattle is experiencing a "Homelessness Crisis," that is, in your formulation: a situation in which homelessness is causing middle-class white people to suffer some small, temporary hardship.‘

Of course that is why then-Mayor Murray declared a “crisis” — the voters he cared about were complaining. Our ten-year plan to end homelessness didn’t just fail overnight after 9.9+ years of going swimmingly.