“Massive Blowback” Has City Hall Cowed In Affordable Housing Debate

This morning, a group of eight left-leaning city council candidates assembled before a row of TV cameras in the city hall lobby to announce their support for a more radical approach to Seattle’s housing crisis. Their message was essentially a “Yes, and” response to the recent HALA recommendations for how to address Seattle’s affordable housing crisis. Led by city council candidate Jon Grant and councilmember Kshama Sawant, who is running for re-election, they presented a series of left-leaning housing proposals including a tax on developers and a half-billion-dollar loan from the city to fund affordable housing. (Retiring councilmember Nick Licata was also present.)

But the thorniest proposal in HALA is to allow greater density, in the form of duplexes and triplexes, in single-family zones, which cover the majority of Seattle’s land area.

On that hot-button issue, the radical octet was silent, despite repeated questions from the press. Grant and Sawant stressed that the group wasn’t taking a collective position on single family density. “This policy proposal represents shared agreements among all of us,” Grant said.

Those candidates aren’t the only people backing away from the issue. As Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat (who leaked an early draft of the HALA report under the headline “Get Rid of Single Family Zoning?”) pointed out yesterday, both council president Tim Burgess (who is running against Grant) and councilmember Mike O’Brien (who acted as a HALA liaison for the council) both put up blogposts recently in which they backed away from the idea of allowing duplexes and triplexes throughout single family zones.

“We should take a step back from any policy that leads to that kind of speculation, disruption, and the widespread loss of existing, more affordable housing,” wrote Burgess. Regular readers will recall that O’Brien has been under similar pressure from anti-density homeowners for months, leading him to support legislation that clamped down on development in Lowrise Zones (areas designed to be denser than SF).

If you’re cynical, this probably looks like election-year waffling. SF density is perhaps the single most polarizing issue in Seattle politics right now, and the primary election is a week away. It makes sense that both incumbents and their challengers are scrambling for the least unpopular position.

But Burgess says this isn’t electioneering; it’s politicking. “I think it’s both a practical and a tactical decision” to de-emphasize SF density in the face of “massive blowback from the neighborhoods,” he says.

“I feared, and still do, that the blowback on that is so intense that it puts at risk all the other stuff that the so-called Grand Bargain includes,” he says. “Which, frankly, are more important to the issue of affordable housing.” Burgess says it’s more important to “move the needle” (a favorite phrase of the self-styled pragmatist) on mandatory inclusionary zoning, a commercial linkage fee, and relaxing rules for mother-in-law cottages (see our explanation of these wonky subjects here).

O’Brien agrees. While he acknowledges the political pressure that homeowners have put on candidates, he says that the question of SF density is tangential to affordable housing. “The majority of what we’re trying to do is get the development community to fund six thousand units of 60 percent AMI of lower affordable housing,” he says. “The issues around single-family zoning really don’t come into that calculation, or if they do, just on the edges, and so there hasn’t been much discussion about what I think is the meat of the agreement.”

(By the way: concentrating on “affordable housing” for people making 60 percent of area median income, rather than at 30 percent where need is more acute, is one of Grant & Co.’s criticisms of the HALA package.)

Bottom line: aside from strategic considerations, do Burgess and Grant support duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones?

Burgess says sort-of. “I don’t want to say, like HALA has said, everywhere in single family zones,” he says. “I support the concept [of duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones], if it’s done correctly.” Two examples of what “correctly” looks like, according to Burgess, are duplexes/triplexes on corner lots, or homeowners being allowed to rent out parts of their existing homes to tenants.

O’Brien says no. “The issues about duplexes and triplexes are, I think, beyond where I’m ready to go and where the people are ready to go,” he says. “Right now, I don’t think that that adds to affordability.”

This afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray added his name to the list of the Not In My Electorate politicians. Echoing Burgess’ comments about strategic legislation, he said in a press release: “The Council and I created the HALA process because our city is facing a housing affordability crisis. In the weeks since the HALA recommendations were released, sensationalized reporting by a few media outlets has created a significant distraction and derailed the conversation that we need to have on affordability and equity...To advance the broader conversation about affordable housing and equity, I will no longer pursue changes that could allow more types of housing in 94 percent of single-family zones. Instead, we will refocus the discussion on designing denser Urban Centers, Urban Villages and along transit corridors that include more affordable housing.”

On Twitter, urbanist blogger Erica C. Barnett vented her displeasure at the mayor’s and council’s sudden retreat: “Ed Murray just confirmed that bullying speaks louder than reasons. SF zoning is sacred forever, just because property owners yelled loudest.”

“I get that it’s convenient to get rid of the part of HALA that’s controversial,” she added. “But it shows a real lack of political courage.”

Update:

Candidate Lisa Herbold, one of the eight economically lefty candidates at Wednesday morning’s press conference, explained her reluctance toward relaxing density rules in Single Family zones in her press release response to the original HALA recommendations:

“I will not support proposed upzones in single family and low ride zones without a preservation strategy for the thousands of units of private, unsubsidized housing that will be vulnerable to redevelopment pressures with the incentive created by the proposed upzones to tear down existing housing and build bigger. For example, a strong preservation strategy would prohibit redevelopment of existing market rate affordable housing without a one one for one affordable housing replacement requirement like we have in our existing incentive zoning programs. A strong preservation strategy would also include seeking local authority from the state regarding rent regulations.

“43,000 single family, duplex, triplex, and fourplex structures are homes to renter families today. If we lose them in the quest to build 20,000 new units of affordable housing, what will we have accomplished?

“Growth in the West Seattle Junction Urban Center is *155/284% of the 2004-2024 goal for new housing units, with 10 years still to go. The Morgan Junction Urban Village is *69/92% of the goal. The Admiral Urban Village is *47/116 of the goal%. Only Westwood/Highland Park is behind its goals at 40%. More upzones in the Junctions & the Admiral District could create a disincentive for the very development and investment that Westwood/Highland Park is seeking. [*Built/permitted but not yet built.]

“The City of Seattle reports in its Housing Capacity Report that we currently have the capacity for three times (224,000 units) our 20 year housing unit growth goal (70,000 units). We must consider very carefully the impacts of upzones as it relates to affordability, creating disincentives for growth in neighborhoods that need and want it, and a lack of investment in transportation solutions before we unquestioningly accept the need for them as part of our affordable housing strategy.

“Everyday I talk to people in District 1 who support the goals of dense, walkable neighborhoods but feel that without a solution to our transportation and affordability challenges we have reached a tipping point.”

 
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