Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s legislation that seeks to encourage more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments hit a snag last week, as the Queen Anne Community Council filed an appeal with the City’s hearing examiner that will delay the legislation for at least three to six months.

With its talk of a “full assault upon our single-family neighborhoods,” the community council’s opposition to this legislation (as well as related proposals to diversify the types of housing in single-family zones as part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) paints a picture of radical changes to the density and character of Queen Anne, turning quiet residential streets into dense, traffic-choked thoroughfares.

Luckily, we don’t need to imagine what Queen Anne and other neighborhoods would feel like with more of this type of housing—we’re blessed with living examples all around us. Jeffrey Linn’s excellent work mapping all of the multi-family housing (including duplexes and triplexes) in the city’s single-family zones shows how much of the city is already living the community council’s nightmare and enjoying themselves just fine, thank you.

Multi-family housing in Queen Anne single-family zones. (Jeffrey Linn)
Multi-family housing in Queen Anne single-family zones. (Jeffrey Linn)

As a resident of one of these neighborhoods and someone who has lived in (and been priced out of) this type of housing in multiple neighborhoods around the city, I can assure the community council that it’s not what they fear. I currently live near the corner of 10th and Howe, in an older apartment building a block away from a single-family zone (along 10th Avenue West and Olympic Way West) that features just about every conceivable type of housing stock: multi-million dollar single-family homes, modest old brick ramblers, Craftsman homes that have been converted into multiple units, duplexes, triplexes, ADUs, DADUs, old apartment buildings, and brand new apartment buildings. While I’m sure the neighborhood isn’t immune to a parking or noise conflict here or there, for the most part it’s a wonderful place to live.

This is the “Missing Middle” that is increasingly lacking our city—modestly sized housing units that provide a middle ground between apartment living and homeownership, which is increasingly becoming a pipe dream for middle-class Seattleites. It’s also the kind of housing that may soon be allowed city-wide in Portland, but is apparently political kryptonite in Seattle.

This kind of housing has provided a perfect option for my wife and I. It’s allowed us to enjoy the benefits of living in neighborhoods that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, being two young professionals who had the misfortune of the Great Recession occurring during our 20s. I don’t bring this up seeking pity, but only to serve as an illustration for how housing affordability affects the entire economic spectrum. We’re middle-class white people with dual income and no children; I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch rents rise for single parents, disadvantaged communities, the disabled, or those living on fixed incomes or Section 8 housing vouchers.

To hear the community council tell it, HALA’s proposed changes to single-family zones, including removing barriers to the construction of ADUs and DADUs, ignore the spirit of Queen Anne’s Neighborhood Plan and previous neighborhood planning processes.

Given the multiple stakeholders and viewpoints that go into their production, these plans inherently contain conflicting goals and policies. But the community council seems to be subjectively cherry picking which of the Neighborhood Plan goals and policies should be honored and which should be ignored.

QA-P5 reads:

Encourage an attractive range of housing types and housing strategies to retain Queen Anne’s eclectic residential character and to assure that housing is available to a diverse population.

With its opposition to efforts to encourage ADUs, DADUs, and other forms of housing diversity, the community council seems to be dismissing this goal out of hand.

Can you tell the duplex and single-family home apart? (Google Streetview)
Can you tell the duplex and single-family home apart? (Google Streetview)

The community council’s contention that ADUs/DADUs won’t provide affordable housing (Page 6) seems to misunderstand the benefit of adding this type of housing and is indicative of something that often gets overlooked in discussions about housing affordability—the middle class. To my knowledge, no one is contending that the owner of a single-family home will build an ADU or DADU and rent it out for $350 a month out of the goodness of their heart. (Though some very well may rent below market value for friends or family or in hopes of retaining a good tenant year to year.)

HALA contains many strategies aimed at providing housing for those that make 60% or less of median income, including the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, the expansion of Seattle’s Housing Levy, and direct investment in existing affordable housing stock. But the plan also speaks to the need to create additional market-rate housing for those at or around 100% of the median income, like my wife and I and thousands of other Seattle residents. A City survey found that most ADUs and DADUs rent between $1,200 and $1,800. A household making the city’s median income of around $67,000 and spending 25% of their income on housing would expect to pay about $1,400 a month on housing, making the DADU and ADU right in their sweet spot.

The concern about the role that short-term rentals such as Airbnb or VRBO plays on Seattle’s housing market is valid, and something that the City is currently seeking to address. But opposing the creation of new, moderately affordable housing stock because some of it may be used as short-term rentals overlooks that homeowners may be using that extra income from to help pay off mortgage costs. The City’s survey of DADU owners found that 43% of DADU owners found short-term rental income “very important” or “somewhat important.” Significantly more DADU owners (60%) said that the income from long-term rentals was “very important” or “somewhat important,” suggesting that more of these are being used as permanent rentals than vacation rentals.

QA-P12 reads:

Legal non-conforming uses exist in Queen Anne’s single-family neighborhoods, and these shall be allowed to remain at their current intensity, as provided in the Land Use Code, to provide a compatible mix and balance of use types and housing densities.

This goal seems to coincide with SF:1c in the HALA Plan (“Develop a clemency program to legitimize undocumented ADUs and DADUs”), which would help legitimize existing affordable housing stock in Queen Anne. By questioning these units’ “legal right to exist,” the community council appears to be suggesting that the duplexes, triplexes, ADUs, and DADUs that predate existing zoning code and were “grandfathered in” should be eliminated, which is surely the wrong direction to be moving during an affordability crisis in our city.

QA-P19 reads:

Promote methods of ensuring that existing housing stock will enable changing households to remain in the same home or neighborhood for many years.

ADUs and DADUs can play a vital role in helping meet this goal. ADUs and DADUs can provide flexibility for families that experience changing circumstances. There’s a reason they are often referred to as “mother-in-law apartments”—ADUs and DADUs can provide a separate living area for a child home from college for the summer or an ageing parent. The City’s survey found that 77% of DADU owners said that they built the extra unit for this reason.

Two great examples of multi-family housing in a single-family neighborhood, near the corner of 10th Avenue West and West Blaine Street. (Google Streetview)
Two great examples of multi-family housing in a single-family neighborhood, near the corner of 10th Avenue West and West Blaine Street. (Google Streetview)

They also make it possible for an ageing homeowner who wants to downsize to stay in the same neighborhood while renting out their primary residence. A DADU could also provide a place for an in-home care provider to stay. The City’s survey indicated that 32% of DADU owners said it was “very important” or “somewhat important” to have the extra unit to house a “live-in service provider such as a childcare provider, assisted living professional or property caretaker.”

QA-P29 reads:

Strive to diversify transportation modes and emphasize non-SOV travel within the Queen Anne neighborhood.

QA-P37 reads:

Strive to provide improved facilities for transit.

With limited public funds, transit agencies are often forced to prioritize service to the most productive routes based on ridership. On the east side of Queen Anne, King County Metro is currently in the process of consolidating the 3 and 4 routes into a combined corridor, making a longer walk to transit service for approximately 120 to 135 riders per day in single-family neighborhoods. Adding more residents to these areas puts Queen Anne in a better position to argue for more frequent transit service, particularly given its relatively close proximity to regional job centers like Downtown and South Lake Union.

Finally, the community council’s appeal of the City’s Office of Planning and Community Development Determination of Nonsignificance on this legislation questions the environmental implications of allowing more ADUs and DADUs in our community, but makes no mention of the largest environmental threat facing this generation—carbon and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change. As Queen Anne residents, we are truly blessed to live in a walkable, bikeable, and transit-rich community that is in close proximity to job centers in Downtown and South Lake Union. Nixing potential housing units in our community does one of two things (and probably a little of both): it drives up the price of existing housing stock as more people compete for a fixed amount of housing, and it pushes residents who would prefer to live in Queen Anne to further flung neighborhoods and suburbs, where they are more likely to commute to work via more carbon-intensive transportation options. Land use and transportation is where the rubber meets the road on climate change, and as residents of a neighborhood well-suited to low-carbon lifestyles, we have a responsibility to the next generation to welcome more neighbors into our communities.

Calling Seattle’s rising rents a “crisis” isn’t hyperbole—by some metrics, Seattle is one of the only major metro areas in the country where the pace of rent increases is actually accelerating—from 8% in 2014-2015 to 12% in 2015-2016. Job growth in Seattle shows no signs of slowing in the immediate future, which means housing will be no less in demand in the coming years. Even at last year’s more modest 8% rate, we’re on pace to be at San Francisco levels (~$4,500 a month) in 8 years. I don’t believe that outcome—a beautiful coastal city that has no place for the middle class—is consistent with the community values of the Seattle that I know.

Even if Councilmember O’Brien’s optimistic projection of 4,000 new units city-wide becomes a reality, DADUs and ADUs alone aren’t going to solve our affordability crisis. But they do represent low-hanging fruit in the effort to provide more housing in our city. They provide more options for middle class Seattleites while respecting the aesthetic and architectural character of our existing single-family neighborhoods. The community council’s opposition to efforts to encourage this type of housing is inconsistent with many of the community’s stated planning goals and counter-productive in the fight to ensure that the middle class still has an outside chance at calling Seattle home in 2030.

Caleb Heeringa is a former journalist that has worked for the Bellingham Herald and Sammamish Review. He is pursuing Master’s Degrees in Urban Planning and Public Administration at the University of Washington. He likes his cities dense, his wilderness wild, and his baseball teams winning.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Great piece. The appeal is damaging. I bet the appellant lives in a $2 million dollar house and profits heavily of status quo.

    But more importantly this piece point out the absurdity of community councils. It is long past time to disband the clueless, malicious, unrepresentative, anti-tenant community councils.

    And while we are at it, dump neighborhood land use plans. Local control amounts to rent-seeking, codified classism and racism at best.

  2. The recommendation would open single family zones to:

    houses with two front doors

    outbuildings that shelter people rather than cars.

    It tells you something when people describe that as a “threat.”

  3. I attend both of the City’s public forums last winter on the subject of Backyard Cottages, and the reception was overwhelmingly positive, even among the neighborhood leaders in attendance. Appeals are always a part of the process; no need to over-dramatize them.

  4. Article seems rather fuzzy on the issue. At first, it’s about duplexes and triplexes. Would O’Brien agree that his proposed changes amount to that?

    OK, next it’s about the virtues of accessory dwelling units … which are already legal.

    Well, sure, it’s about the appeal of the DNS. Because there indeed will be no significant SEPA effects? Oh, global climate change … but that isn’t how we find no significant SEPA effects, by adding up the effects to see if they cancel each other out. O’Brien did a sloppy job of trying ram through a big wad of changes that included a couple that were very unpopular. The city made up a sloppy DNS that essentially depends on the assumption that the legislation will fail to achieve its intended effect. Queen Anne has a pretty good case there, and good for them for spending their time and money to keep the city honest.

  5. This appeal is not to block everyone’s right to have an ADU or DADU on their property under the current land use code. This is about thoughtful, appropriate growth.

    The city’s non-transparent proposal right now asks to rezone almost all single family neighborhoods and 50% of Seattle land area into maximum development zoning with NO environmental impacts and NO impact studies or inclusive transparent public input.

    Several places on Queen Anne now sport a 4 story skinny house sitting on the alley, in place of a mother-in-law over a garage. The new “house” looms over the rest of the block like an eyesore. It is not low-income housing. If anything, it replaced housing of that type. Believe me, if you all of a sudden had one hovering over your yard, you would be aghast too. Let’s all slow down and thoughtfully confirm best practices here. No NIMBYs. Just people who care.

    • maximum development zoning? How are duplexes and townhouses considered maximum development zoning? We’re not dumb like we were in the 90s. We now know that “slow growth” is code “fight any growth near me.”

      Townhouses are actual slow growth. It makes sense for a neighborhood to progress from detached SFHs with private yard to attached SFHs with private yards. If you could look past the 1950s, you would realize that.

      • Duplexes and townhouses are being built already. This is about thoughtful future growth, limiting eyesores on the alleys, and concern about zero environmental impact evaluations going forward. Low income housing concerns should be addressed with intelligence, not a free-for-all open door to any developer. Please read more and inform yourself.

        The Queen Anne Community Council, it should be noted, was supportive of the homeless shelter on Roy St. in the former City Light building, as it was just sitting vacant. The council also supported that 2 more floors of housing be built over the new CVS building at QA Avenue & Mercer St. The plan at first was to only have a 1 story pharmacy. Again, please read more and inform yourself before you throw the baby out with the bath water.

  6. I own a small home in a working class neighborhood in Seattle, I have for 40 years. I prefer the look of DADUs, especially the older, modest ones, over the urban mansions and looming skinny boxes that look so jammed in our neighborhood. But I was curious what the legalized subdivision of single family lots would do to the availability of planting spaces for trees. At 35% lot coverage, it reduces the amount of contiguous pervious land to under the minimum needed to grow a medium sized tree (900 square feet according to the City).

    Why does it matter? Over 50% of the city’s trees are in the Single Family zone. That’s more than the next three zones combined.And SF has most of City’s unfilled ‘planting spaces.’ about half of their pervious land. The City is already 64% impervious land and we suffer the environmental consequences for that–sewer overflows and pollution of the Sound costing us tens of millions to fix by federal order. DADUs also receive an automatic pass on building permits and can be built in the Environmentally Critical Areas. Since the single family zone comprises over half of the of the City’s land that means these changes will, over the course of time, have dramatic environmental impacts.

    Trees and green space mitigate the unwanted consequences of rapid urbanization. Research over the past two decades shows that the Urban Forest reduces water and air pollution and moderates temperatures lowering energy use. There are fewer mudslides, less urban flooding, less smog, less heat and stress related illness, and a host of other problems that the public will have to pay to deal with later when the cumulative effects are felt.

    Most environmental degradation occurs slowly and incrementally, hardly noticeable on a case by case basis. Like global climate change, by the time you figure it out, you may have a very serious problem, one that is difficult or perhaps impossible to fix.

    What is missing in the discussion is that housing can always go up, green space must be on the ground. You can meet both your density goals and green space goals by building ‘up, not out’ inside the City. Whether it is a city covered in DADUS or a covered in skyscrapers, it will be an ecological disaster if there is insufficient green to mitigate the hard, reflective, impermeable surfaces. Picture the surface of the ‘Death Star’, no one wants to live there.

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