After much discussion, this month the Seattle City Council may finally vote on new zoning laws that some argue will change the face of the city.
This legislation, which was sponsored by outgoing District 6 representative Councilmember Mike O’Brien, will increase the number of accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—the technical term for mother-in-law apartments or backyard cottages—allowed on most properties from none or one to two. It will also limit the footprint of new homes per lot in a sort of anti-McMansion clause. The idea, essentially, is to encourage density rather than tearing down duplexes and single-family homes to build even bigger single-family homes for rich people.
Changes to zoning laws will, according to housing advocates, help deal with Seattle’s housing affordability crisis by increasing supply, and instead of all that money going to developers, it could provide revenue for homeowners and (hopefully) affordable housing for renters. Over ten years, Seattle city officials estimate, updating these zoning restrictions should increase the number of ADUs in the city by 2,300.
Reforming these regulations has been a long time coming. Seattle released a comprehensive housing plan in 2015—a plan that recommended increasing access to ADUs. The NIMBY-strong Queen Anne Community Council, however, opposed the reforms and appealed the proposed rules, which was upheld by a hearing examiner in December 2016. Since then, the City has undertaken an extensive environmental review process, which the Queen Anne Community Council also appealed. This time, however, their appeal was denied, and so—nearly four years after first introducing the legislation—Councilmember O’Brien reintroduced the legislation last month. It is scheduled for a full council vote at the end of June.
Not everyone, however, wants this vote to go forth. The Seattle Times Editorial Board, which is opposed to the legislation in the first place, channeled Mitch McConnell in an editorial published last month arguing that the vote should be delayed until the next council is elected in November. “There’s no reason for a lame-duck council to jam through the demise of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods,” the board wrote. “Any such changes should be handled by the fully elected and accountable council voters choose in November.” (I don’t live in the Editorial Board’s surely unified brain so this is total speculation but this feels to me a whole lot like an attempt to postpone the vote until more NIMBYs can be elected to the Seattle City Council. Just saying.)
It seems highly unlikely that the current city council will take direction from the lesser known editorial board in this town, but we wanted to know what the current crop of council candidates thinks about the proposed zoning changes, so we asked. Here’s what they had to say…
Jump to: District 2 | District 3 | District 4 | District 5 | District 6 | District 7
DISTRICT 2: Southeast Seattle, Georgetown
Tammy Morales, District 2, supports the legislation, and says, "Upzoning is one step toward increasing housing options with garage, basement, or small-scale apartment buildings, but the work can’t stop there. THe goal must also address racial equity to repair the harm done to our communities of color. We should be sure that low-income communities and communities of color are part of decision-making if they will be impacted by the change. In Rainier Beach, for example, upzoning would allow for the kind of commercial/light industrial development that meets the neighborhood need for employment centers. While we want more housing that is affordable for low-income families, we also want the upzone to allow for community-identified projects - in our case for employment centers. Additionally, upzoning should be happening in every part of the city. Upzoning only in low-income neighborhoods or only along transit corridors contributes to gentrification planning and will only trigger more displacement." She disagrees with the Seattle Times.
Mark Solomon, District 2, disagrees with the Seattle Times. “The current council should do the job they were elected to do,” he says. “Delaying until a new council is seated has the taste of Merrick Garland being denied consideration because of an upcoming election.” As for the legislation, he’s in favor of upzoning but doesn’t think ADUs should be used for short-term tourist rentals like Airbnb. “Our priority should be building more housing units for people to live affordably, not for individual property owner profit,” he says.
Christopher Peguero, also a District 2 hopeful, supports the legislation and does not think the vote should be delayed until after the election. He also says the City should expand multi-family zoning, build more low-income housing near transit hubs and in the urban core, and address the legacy of racist zoning policies like redlining. “The city must establish local rent and eviction control,” Peguero says, and “establish a requirement that developers replace displaced existing low-income and affordable family housing.”
Phyllis Porter, District 2, agrees with the Seattle Times. She also supports the legislation, supports using ADUs for short-term rentals, and thinks single-family zoning is a barrier to creating affordable housing.
Ari Hoffman, District 2, agrees with the Seattle Times that the vote should be delayed. He does not support the proposed legislation, he does think the ADUs should permit short-term rentals, and he does think single-family zoning is creating a barrier for affordable housing. “I support ADUs,” he says. “I do not support limiting the size of the home someone wants to build on their private property. I believe that is infringing on personal property rights. Just like I would not force anyone to build an ADU. If someone wants to build one, I would like to encourage that. Upzoning single-family areas is the quickest way to displacement and gentrification. It destroys neighborhoods. What I would rather see is rezoning commercial properties that should not be zoned single-family.”
DISTRICT 3: Central Seattle
Incumbent Kshama Sawant, District 3, supports the legislation, and says, "I support citywide policy changes to increase multi-family affordable housing, and to increase density throughout the city. I believe density is integral to making urban spaces both sustainable and affordable. But we need higher density to go with creating affordable housing for working families and communities of color. Seattle has been the construction crane leader four years running. Yet working people, the LGBTQ community, and people of color continue to be rapidly gentrified out of our neighborhoods, with more than 90 percent of new housing built as luxury apartments and condos." She disagrees with the Seattle Times.
Logan Bowers, District 3, says, “I enthusiastically support ADUs and DADUs [detached accessory dwelling units], but I do not support the limit on the size of new single-family homes because I think that will make it harder to legalize duplexes, triplexes, and small multifamily apartments. ADUs/DADUs alone can't solve our severe shortage of housing, so we need to be paving the path for future zoning changes that can.” As for short-term rentals, he says, “Airbnb-type rentals are a part of a healthy housing mix, but do still require regulation and limits.” He disagrees with the Seattle Times Editorial Board. “I don't think housing policy in Seattle should be Merrick Garland'ed. We elect the council to do their job and they should do it.”
Zachary DeWolf, District 3, supports the legislation, disagrees with the Seattle Times Editorial Board, is okay with ADUs as Airbnbs, and says, "I believe much of the affordability and housing issues we face today are because of restrictive and discriminatory zoning policies. Dating back to the landmark US Supreme Court decision in Euclid Ohio v Ambler Realty in 1929, de facto apartment bans have been a barrier to our city resolving the structural issues we face today. We absolutely need more missing middle housing types, and ADUs and DADUs are a good idea to achieve our affordability challenges. Overall, we can and should be creative. One idea I've shared in my community, at forums, and during canvassing is to utilize the partnership between the City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools. Prioritize the 105 schools equitably distributed across the city (and not just in urban villages or commercial districts), whereby we allow more missing middle, duplexes/triplexes/fourplexes, affordable housing, and more in, let's say, a four-block radius around our public schools, which will increase diversity, allow more teachers and low income students/families to live near their schools, and help us prioritize transit corridors to connect our schools to our communities."
DISTRICT 4: Northeast Seattle
Frank Krueger, District 4, supports the legislation, does not think the vote should be postponed until after the election, and does su
pport ADUs being used for short-term rentals. “The affordability of single-family homes has dropped significantly since 2008,” Krueger says. “Back then, about 50 percent of people could afford a home. Now, less than 15 percent make enough money (according to a presentation given to the Committee). We have to increase density to get some control over these prices and give opportunities to people not working ridiculously high-paying jobs.”
Ethan Hunter, District 4, disagrees with the Seattle Times that the vote should be delayed, supports the legislation, is fine with Airbnbs, and thinks single-family zoning is a barrier to creating affordable housing.
Same for District 4 candidates Cathy Tuttle and Joshua Newman. Newman adds, “The Seattle Times is playing the same horrible game as Mitch McConnell, claiming the duly-elected representatives shouldn't do their jobs because ‘it's an election year.’ This is an unconstitutional and illiberal argument; Seattle should unequivocally reject that precedent.” As for the legislation, he says it’s good, but “it adds to the complicated zoning rules and is difficult to follow. Instead, we should simply allow up to 4 units on most lots in area zoned for single-family homes.”
Beth Mountsier, District 4, says she supports the legislation as well. “I fully support the expansion of ADUs and DADUs in Seattle single-family areas along with more diversity of housing. Single-family zoning was only applied in Seattle post-war. Allowing more housing types and density is a 'return' to the types of housing you find throughout Seattle. However, I am not sure that the design guidance and requirements are sufficiently developed to prevent a backlash from single-family homeowners and small builders. They should either be developed more before passage or this legislation should wait for the new council. Introducing more density into neighborhoods can be easily accommodated and can be beneficial to homeowners (additional income and aging in place, etc.) and users of the new housing.” As for short-term rentals, she says, “The first unit should be for long-term rentals or ownership. Second unit can be for short term. Preference is long-term rental units. Subsidies for homeowners adding ADUs/DADUs should only be allowed if they are providing housing for 'below-market' housing.”
Heidi Stuber, District 4, says, “I do support the ADU legislation. ADUs are a way to add low-impact density across the city without changing neighborhood character. They are the low-hanging fruit of housing supply and can help add the missing middle housing Seattle so desperately needs. I think the city may need to look again at the floor-area ratio and whether that would negatively impact larger or multi-generation families who need a larger home.” She disagrees with the Seattle Times Editorial Board about delaying the vote.
DISTRICT 5: North Seattle
John Lombard, District 5, supports the legislation, does not think ADUs should be used for short-term rentals, although he says he hasn’t given it much thought and is open to arguments in favor of using ADUs for Airbnb. He doesn’t think the vote should be delayed and, he says, “I don't think single-family zoning per se is a barrier for affordable housing, but I do support ideas in the Seattle Planning Commission's Neighborhoods for All report that would make a variety of changes in single-family areas to increase affordable options in the city.”
DISTRICT 6: Northwest Seattle
Sergio Garcia, District 6, supports the legislation. “Although development is a form of creating affordability, preserving current affordable properties are also extremely important in the overall approach of a more affordable Seattle. Backyard cottages are definitely a creative way to provide current homeowners with options in order to preserve their homes while providing additional spaces at an affordable rate.”
Same goes for Jay Fathi, also of District 6, who says, “I support backyard cottages and ADUs as a mechanism to increase density and the number of housing choices in Seattle's single-family zones. These types of units are more accessible for low and middle-class earners, and can help prevent displacement by allowing seniors to age in place, and by simply providing additional, affordable housing choices in Seattle.”
Heidi Wills, District 6, supports it as well and says she gets this question all the time on the campaign trail. “I know it’s unpopular with many homeowners in my district,” she says, “but we have a housing crisis, an affordability crisis, and a climate change crisis. We must make room for more people who work in our city to live close to where they work.”
Dan Strauss, District 6, supports it too. “ADUs and DADUs provide homeowners an opportunity to supplement their income while adding affordable housing options to our neighborhoods,” he says.
Jon Lisbin, District 6, is also on board with the legislation. “It’s important that we make it easier for homeowners to build mother-in-law and backyard cottages to help them age in place and offer renters more affordable living arrangements,” he says. “I am aligned with the Mayor, who stated this should be about giving homeowners more flexibility not developers, while giving renters more choices. I believe that hinges on the ownership requirement, which the current ordinance is removing. I would prefer that the owner lives on site for at least two years prior to development and feel that’s a fair compromise.” As for limiting home size, Lisbin supports that, too. “I fully support blocking McMansions, which is a component of the ordinance, and so do the neighbors and residents I have talked to.” And he agrees with the Seattle Times. “I believe decisions like these, which will have an impact for decades to come, should be made by the incoming council rather than the current council, who will not be accountable for their decision.”
Melissa Hall, District 6, support the legislation as well. “I strongly support this kind of flexibility for people who are living in single-family homes," she says. “It is a form of housing I personally support as someone who rents in a quadruplex developed from a single-family home. Ten people now live there comfortably. It isn't enough by itself to create the housing we need, but there is not a good single-strategy solution.”
Terry Rice, also of the 6, says, "This is a great piece of legislation. It will help us create a more affordable, equitable, and green city."
Joey Massa, District 6, says, "I think the legislation is a good step forward but that changes to ADUs, DADUs, and house size regulations won’t fully address the shortages we’ve been facing. We should be making it as easy as is reasonable to create additional affordable housing in Seattle. This includes increasing opportunities to create ADUs. We still need more density around our urban & transit centers to support our past and future growth. I also hope to see additional regulations regarding short-term rentals. Many municipalities have found that excessive short-term rentals tie up properties like ADU’s or DADU’s. It doesn’t look like that will be addressed by the current City Council, however."
DISTRICT 7: Pioneer Square to Magnolia
Gene Burrus, District 7, agrees with Seattle Times Editorial Board and disagrees with the proposed legislation. “When it comes to affordable housing, you cannot fight supply and demand,” he says. “We don't want demand to reduce (that would mean a recession or businesses and employees leaving Seattle), so increasing supply is essential. However, this should be done in ways and in places that account for adequate planning around infrastructure and transportation. We should upzone around light rail stations and major transit hubs, and do so with adequate capacity increases in necessary infrastructure.”
Isabelle Kerner, District 7, agrees with the Seattle Times that the vote should be delayed, agrees with the proposed legislation, think Airbnbs should be permitted, and says, “I think we have a surplus of ‘affordable housing’ because it is not actually affordable. I do not think we should eliminate single-family zoning entirely, but I do support homeowners being able to build ADUs.”
Andrew Lewis, District 7, also supports the legislation—with some qualifications. “I believe in liberalizing our overly restrictive ADU legislation, but I still want to see a few changes to the bill,” he says. “My preference is for a hard limit on height at 14 feet across all lot sizes and an 800 square foot limit instead of 1,000 square feet for detached buildings. Moreover, I would tie the parking requirement to walk score and proximity to mass transit rather than categorically getting rid of it. I want to preserve the owner residency requirement for short-term rentals like Airbnb to incentivize offering them on the rental market. I want to keep the provision preserving legacy trees currently included in the legislation, because legacy trees are essential to fighting climate change and once they're gone we cannot get them back.” Lewis also disagrees with the Seattle Times that the vote should be delayed.
Incumbents Lisa Herbold and Debora Juarez, along with all candidates not mentioned here, did not respond to a request for comment.
Note: This post has been updated with comment from Kshama Sawant, Tammy Morales, Zachary DeWolf, and Joey Massa.