Here's Where the Seattle City Council Candidates Stand on Upzoning

Comments

1

Alex Pedersen may not have responded, but he did share this editorial on his campaign Facebook page on May 22. I think it's safe to say he agrees with the Seattle Times editorial board...on this and so much more.

2

Several thousand ADUs scattered across the city, with no guaranteed access to transit or parking, will do little to address our need for more housing. Too little, too late, CM O’Brien.

Luckily, we may have a new CM who gets it:

“We should upzone around light rail stations and major transit hubs, and do so with adequate capacity increases in necessary infrastructure.”

“...tie the parking requirement to walk score and proximity to mass transit...”

Nice to know some actual help may finally be on the way.

(Yes, I know those quotes are from two different candidates. Good!)

4

@3: Cutesy glibertarian jargon does not build houses, either.

As this conversation is about “affordable” (below market-rate) housing, greedy capitalist developers will be of little help.

6

Rent control or everywhere is going to be affordable housing.

7

@5: Restating basic economics does not build housing, either.

What would it take to get mid-rise apartments onto all those vacant lots along MLK?

8

Obviously we should care more about single family homeowners and their pristine neighborhoods lucky enough to have bought their home 20 years ago instead of everyone else in the city who need a place to live. You know, the people who clean their houses, cook their food and take care of their children. Screw them they can live in Lynnwood or something. Just as long as single family neighborhoods are never disturbed

9

@5:

Only to a certain extent. If developers build 10,000 units that price out at $700,000 each - the current median in the Seattle market - it doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that, if there aren't enough people around who earn $122,000 per year (approximately the annual income needed to afford a mortgage on a $700K home of around $2,800 per month - assuming of course they also had $140,000 available to cover a 20% down payment), those surplus units aren't magically going to come down to $600,000 just because there's an excess of supply. The old rules of supply-and-demand won't apply for the very simple reason that the developer isn't going to sell new product at a loss, especially when the bank isn't going to take a loss in turn on their loan to the developer either. Instead, the units will stay on the market for a longer period of time, with perhaps a very modest price reduction - which is exactly what we're seeing.

But the problem is, the current median annual income in Seattle is only around $100,000, so wages would have to rise quite a bit to meet that gap. That's why people are talking about "affordable housing", that is, housing constructed at a price-point people making at or less than the median could actually purchase. And while the market is indeed cooling off, the depreciation in average value is only projected to be around 2.6% for the next 12 months - not enough of a "correction" to open things up to anyone at or below the income median, and certainly nowhere near enough to make a new $700K unit come far enough down in price to be "affordable".

10

@8 Yes, we should absolutely care about single family homeowners. Unless and until they decide to redevelop their single family homes into multi-family units, upzoning has no effect whatsoever on housing availability.

Upzoning is a market-based solution to our housing crisis. The people that control the market are those who own the parcels that would be upzoned. So, we are all just sitting back, crossing our fingers, and hoping that the couple that just won a bidding war for an $875,000 cottage in Ballard will suddenly decide a single family home isn't really what they wanted after all.

12

@11:

Well, opening up more land would be one step in the right direction, but Seattle doesn't have an unlimited amount of that, and in fact has a lot less than, say, Portland, where the city isn't hemmed in by large bodies of water. And it's not like the $700K units aren't selling - they're just not selling as ridiculously fast as they were one or two years ago - but in any event the profit margin is still high enough that even if it takes an extra month or two to sell it, it's still going to yield a far better return than quickly selling two or three $350K units - which nobody seems to be building now anyway. And it's not like land is even really the issue, but rather that developers have become so used to the insanely high ROI of high-priced dwellings, that they can't even fathom making less in terms of actual dollars than the 19% or 20% gross margins they're getting now.

13

@5. Developers came into my neighborhood, took a pair of $700k homes, subdivided the lots and built four monstrous $1.85M homes.

Based on the current zoning rules, this down sizing of the lot, with a giant sizing of both the home and the price is what’s happening throughout the city.

14

Upzoning is the slowest and least efficient way to get more housing. It’s also the toughest to implement, what with residents not wanting stories like @13 on their blocks.

Residents who always vote and will organize to stop horror stories like @13.

Meanwhile, vacant lots remain vacant along MLK, near light rail stations. How about The Stranger ask CM candidates for ideas on developing those?

16

@13 -- Yes, this is an issue that hasn't gotten nearly enough attention. ADU reform should be the easy part. We should have done this years ago. But there are people who hate even a minor change, like allowing renters to live in the main house and a basement apartment at the same time (Ahhh! Renters!).

But that isn't our only problem. Our minimum lot size is too big. When you have a lot that is very large, you can't build bungalows, like this: https://capitalresearch.org/app/uploads/Seattle-Zoning-Commission-poster.jpg. By the way, these houses are still there. Here is a Redfin listing of one that sold a couple years ago: https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/715-Summit-Ave-E-98102/unit-A/home/30689. There are 8 houses on a lot that is less than 8,000 square feet. Yes folks, that is less than 1,000 feet per square feet for a stand alone house. Not a duplex, not a townhouse, but a complete unattached house. They just don't build them like that any more (because that would be illegal).

There are other examples. This one is in Greenwood, and it happens to be for sale: https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/9110-Fremont-Ave-N-98103/home/8187424. Sure, it is a dump, but holy shit, around 300 grand for a house in Greenwood. The main reason is that it sits on one of the tiniest lots in Seattle, a mere 1,500 square feet. The point is, someone could replace that house with a very nice tiny house (3 bedroom, 2 bath) for less than 500 grand. Someone handy could restore what is there for a lot less. But in most of the city, a place like that doesn't exist because a lot that size would be illegal.

One more example. Check out this house: https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/343-NW-90th-St-98117/home/100518. Now check out the aerial view: https://goo.gl/maps/y5Gp1JUvuwGj8vUy7. Interesting right? A small house (not in great shape) that sits at the far end of a pretty big lot. You could restore the house and build two pretty big houses in front with a shared walkway. Each house could sell for 400 grand and the builder would make a big profit. Everyone wins.

Except you can't. That would be illegal. The only choice is to either restore the bungalow, or build something big. My guess is, they will build something big. When a large lot in most of the city gets subdivided, they build large houses, because they end up with big lots. So instead of a dozen row houses, or half a dozen small houses, you have three gigantic McMansions. It's fucked, and it is because of antiquated, classist and (at the time anyway) racist laws.

17

@14 -- The Rainier Valley situation is complicated. Here is a good story by a former Stranger writer: https://southseattleemerald.com/2017/09/06/empty-lots-abound-why-are-there-so-many-vacant-properties-near-rainier-beach-light-rail/. The story is a bit old, but most of the issues still exist. The one thing that has changed is that there actually is a lot of development in the area -- it just isn't happening as fast as some would like. (Oh, and spoiler alert -- zoning is an issue there as well).

18

@10 -- No, we shouldn't expect someone who owns a house to suddenly decide to convert it to an apartment. But we should expect a home buyer to convert a house to an apartment, add additional units, subdivide the land and otherwise add more housing. That is what would happen in Japan, because that kind of shit is legal there. That is why Japan has very low housing prices for their very high standard of living. Even Tokyo -- one of the biggest cities on the planet -- is quite affordable. I'm not saying we will adopt a policy that progressive (we aren't that civilized) but there is no reason why we can't allow smaller lots -- more in keeping with a real city -- along with obvious changes like adding basement apartments and backyard cottages. Holy shit, we are trailing fucking Minneapolis when it comes to the missing middle. It is one thing to be behind Tokyo, but being well behind Minneapolis is just fucking embarrassing.

19

I’ve never been clear on what makes people decide houses are not full of other people.

Is it their assumption that since they demand their own personal living space, that everyone in a house owns it?

“If I is this, you is this” is a fallacy, FYI.

There are like six bedrooms in all of them.

It’s like this forum being a republican hotbed and people here somehow finding it reasonable to flip out on “nazis”.

I’m sure for some it’s because they need their own space for their chosen labels to stay above their heads, and you can’t argue that living in concrete misery is more dense, but that still leaves some heads to be scratched.

I like my walkway, storage, 2 beds, and onsite laundry for the price of a studio, thanks.

I locked myself out and she showed up in forty minutes. I forgot to leave a check and texted her from the airport. She said to pay when I get back in two weeks.

It’s like not being a corporate drone has benefits.

Seattle. It’s a place.

18 -
It’s stupid not to.

20

@8 Your comment shows that you don’t actually know any single-family homeowners. I am not one, but I can assure you that the homeowners I know are not fabulously wealthy — far from it — and do not employ nannies and housecleaners. Of course, the homeowners I know live in the dumpy, 1950s era, 1000-sq-ft ramblers. Maybe the McMansion people are the landed gentry you imagine.

On another note, I’m honestly surprised to hear so many candidates say they’re okay with Airbnb.

21

This is a little off-topic, but one of our very own here on Slog just got a very prestigious award!! I hope everyone will congratulate tensor, winner of Dead Horse Magazine’s “Mansplainer of the Year” Award for 2019!! From the announcement:

“Although it is only June, we feel totally confident that when you know, you just know. We are witnessing the all-time pinnacle of tendentiousness and condescension. It will be hard to top it in 2020, but if anyone can, it is this man!!”

This is tensor’s second-greatest achievement, right after being voted “Most Likely to Get Shot in a Road Rage Incident” back in high school in New York.

22

"it could provide... (hopefully) affordable housing for renters..."

So YIMBYs want to irreparably destroy our neighborhoods for a "hopefully."

No thanks.

23

@17: Thank you for the link. If we really want more affordable housing within sight of light-rail stations, the issues along MLK can be solved. Seattle can re-zone, has eminent domain, and Seattle’s Mayor sits on the board of Sound Transit. The pieces fit together more easily than endless fighting to upzone Ballard in the hopes that new ADUs along NW 137th St will do jack to provide adequate housing.

24

I will now translate @23: “Despite this new, relevant information, I will just repeat what I have already said approximately 4,000 times. Why are we bothering the nice white folks of the north when there are people (of color, purely coincidentally I am sure) in the south that we could displace first?’

25

"Why are we bothering..."

"Bothering?" But all this time the YIMBY/urbanist crowd has been insisting how wonderful these upzones will be for our neighborhoods. Didn't you get the memo? You can't go telling folks the truth and expect them to support your agenda, can you?

26

@25 - My point was: why is tensor so fixated on MLK? I mean, I kind of get it: he commutes past it. I saw some of the same vacant lots fly past the window on the couple of occasions I followed the man known as tensor to work; but as long as we are engaging in flights of fancy about urban development, I would like to see a light rail line from the waterfront, up Elliott, along 15th, with increased density moving north from Ballard into Loyal Heights and Crown Hill. 15th is already a pretty high-volume corridor. True, we would have to do something about the Ballard Bridge, but hey, the mayor has the power of eminent domain! Make it happen!

Or let’s talk about Northgate, since light rail is already going in there. But no, tensor is just obsessed with MLK. This idea that you can’t fight the NIMBY’s ignores the ugly history where the northern neighborhoods were very intentionally kept white, and under-represented populations were steered to other neighborhoods, neighborhoods like Rainier Valley.

It’s lazy thinking to assume those same neighborhoods need to bear the brunt of the massive growth needed now to increase housing stock while we preserve the in-city suburban bubble of the historically (and presently) white enclaves - suspiciously lazy. We have a word for that kind of suspicious laziness...

27

"Meanwhile, vacant lots remain vacant along MLK, near light rail stations. How about The Stranger ask CM candidates for ideas on developing those?"

Ever notice that Urbanists are all white tech bros who want to live north of the Ship Canal?

29

@28 The problem is not market rate development; there is plenty of that happening. The problem is inadequate affordable housing—social housing and capitalized older existing housing. You're correct that ADUs cannot possibly provide the needed supply in either quantity or affordability (although internal ADUs can help low income people stay in their homes).

The City has pursued policies that make it more difficult to build social housing (by driving up land costs with city wide up zones), and do not mitigate for the loss of existing housing in the rush to incentivize market rate housing (justified by a fraudulent "inclusionary zoning" MHA program to solve past racist housing policies). The result, documented by the City's own race and social justice reviews, will be more racist impacts—displacement and resegregation.

Check out the info by Census tract at this site; the City of Seattle is doing nothing to change the trend of the past 20 years shown on these maps—https://myottetm.github.io/USMapBoxIMO/USLwDispConc.html
The data on these maps is confirmed by similar analyses in Appendix M of the MHA EIS.

People need to wake up: who is spending money to ensure the voters support candidates who will push for more market urbanism policies. Those pushing those policies are neither "progressive" nor socialist.

31

@30—your first sentence is not clear: What "market driven incentive based policies" do you mean? The City just up zoned significantly; isn't that a "market driven incentive based policy"? And which "problem" do you mean? There is no shortage of market rate housing; it is being built as fast as the growth machine can crank them out. Most cranes in the country blah blah, plus many low and medium rise as well. All over town. What are you talking about?

"A properly functioning market driven building industry" in a booming city will never produce housing for the lower end of the market. Got an example where it has? Your fealty to "supply and demand" totally ignores the current capital driven paradigm of urban development. https://newleftreview.org/issues/II53/articles/david-harvey-the-right-to-the-city

Loans to facilitate ownership by low income households—I agree.
Your second "solution" solves nothing; it just gives more public asset (the zoning capacity) to the banks and developers. Where is the housing for lower income households in this scheme?
Rent subsidies, sure, but they don't facilitate ownership. They just move the money away from social housing to Section 8 type programs. Why would you, an obvious capitalist, want to encourage more government bureaucracy?

Your last paragraph might be right, but it's just babblerant without any content.

32

@26: “Or let’s talk about Northgate, since light rail is already going in there.”

Northgate and the Roosevelt District are already being visibly built up in anticipation of the light rail extension to Northgate, so I saw no need to mention them. The question is, why bother with the politically costly and slow upzone when the high-density development we do want is already happening? Why not just replicate that ongoing success in another neighborhood?

34

@32 -- The simple answer is that it won't be allowed. You can't expect every neighborhood to allow six story buildings. I can't think of any American city that allows that. Even Japan has zoning restrictions for different neighborhoods -- they don't allow huge buildings everywhere.

What you can allow is the so called "missing middle". Small apartments, townhouses and of course, ADUs. These types of structures often hold a lot of people. Brooklyn or San Fransisco townhouse neighborhoods are as densely packed as any neighborhood in Seattle, even though they don't rise above 3 stories. The big difference is that they allow tightly packed houses, with multiple families in each house.

Even if you allow development everywhere, it simply won't happen the way that it has happened in the high end neighborhoods. Places like Lake City, White Center, and yes, Rainier Valley will still have low density housing. That is because high density housing is expensive to build. Think about what has to happen. First you destroy a perfectly good house (worth, say, 3/4 of a million dollars). Then you have to wait for your design to be approved, which means sitting on an empty lot for months, if not years. Then you have to pay to build it. All of this is very expensive, and requires a bank. It only gets built if the bank is pretty sure that rent will be high when the whole process is complete.

Now imagine what it takes to create a basement apartment. You probably already have a bedroom. You may need to add a bathroom, although that is often already there. So all you do is build a kitchen, and that can be very small and simple. Building a backyard cottage is also really cheap. You can often add multiple houses (with several units) without touching the main house. It doesn't require a lot of money and the payback is practically immediate. Banks will not fund this.

This means that new units are added even when housing isn't especially expensive. This is what other cities have done, and it could happen here.

35

@32 "Building a backyard cottage is also really cheap." That's not true, unless you call $200 - $250k "really cheap." Very few homeowners can swing this much without a loan, and the need to cover that loan necessitates market rents. Many of the commenters and candidates have referred to backyard cottages as a source of affordable housing, but, really, they are not.

In-law apartments can be built from a half-finished basement for about 1/10th of that cost, so the homeowner who shares a house and values a trustworthy tenant can afford to rent at less-than-market, or "naturally affordable" rates, with lower rent increases to retain the tenant. There is every reason to believe that in-law apartments will be affordable while backyard cottages will not. They should be treated differently, with in-law apartments getting free permits, a dedicated staff and an outreach program with a goal of 250 units per year.

36

@33 Oh, so you're incapable of responding to simple questions? Thanks for not wasting my time with more gibberish.

37

It seems that few of the candidates appear to not realize that ADU/DADU have been legal in Seattle for twenty years. O’Brien’s proposal is about whether the privilege to build should remain with the owner-occupier if the property, or if corporate developers should’ve allowed to profit. Many feel that the reason rents for ADU/DADU are usually reasonable is because they are PRIVATELY owned. Opened up to speculative development and rents with be based on corporate returns. O’Brien favors developer-built, Queen Anne and others support keeping corporate real estate money out of ADU/DADU.
By the way, the reason QA appealed had little to do with NIMBY and more to do with O’Brien’s laziness at just writing “no impact” for nearly every item in the SEPA checklist. Please get the story straight. The City dropped the ball. Every citizen advocate should have called them on it!

38

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