There wasn’t much that The Seattle Times got right in its editorial yesterday gloating over and hailing Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner’s ruling against Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s Backyard Cottage Law, apparently preserving for a little while the sanctity of single-family residential zones. Now editorials are not primary source news reporting, but they are not supposed to straight-up lie either. The Seattle Times Editorial Board (STEB) did that as they presented “expert testimony” on behalf of the Queen Anne Community Council as fact. This was willful ignorance. One may even say fake news.

So I annotated the editorial below. My comments are in bold italics.

Ruling calls bluff on Seattle’s misguided housing policy on backyard cottages

Tuesday’s ruling on a Seattle housing policy suggests residents were being bamboozled by the policy equivalent of fake news.

Really? Seemed factual enough to make it into the pages of the The Seattle Times.

By Seattle Times editorial board

SEATTLE reached a turning point Tuesday when a hearing examiner excoriated City Hall’s plan to allow density to increase by as much as threefold in city neighborhoods.

Density could not increase by anywhere remotely near threefold because obviously not every homeowner would choose to add one let alone two accessory dwelling units. Moreover, not every plot would be large enough to qualify for both an attached and detached accessory dwelling unit.

For the first time in recent memory, the bluff was officially called on the city’s poor planning and misleading rhetoric as it enthusiastically boosts development.

The rhetoric wasn’t shown to be misleading, but rather light on citations and tripped up on technicalities. Those are different things.

Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner’s ruling suggests that residents were being bamboozled by the equivalent of post-factual, fake news.

No, it did not. Significantly more factual than a Seattle Time Editorial.

Instead of creating more affordable housing as Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council proclaimed, the policy on backyard cottages would make housing less affordable.

No. The Hearing Examiner wanted to see research on this. She did not make this claim, that was “expert witness” testimony, and only an opinion and one backed by significantly less evidence than the counterclaim. 

The policy would create a bonanza for investors, increasing housing costs. It would also hurt poor and minority residents the policy was purported to help.

Again these are just claims that the Appellant made. It’s fairly simple to see single-family homes are not providing affordable housing to new homebuyers who are poor. Look at the price tag now. Virtually everything in North Seattle is half a million dollars or more and South Seattle isn’t far behind. Zillow reports, “The median home value in Seattle is $611,500. Seattle home values have gone up 14.4% over the past year and Zillow predicts they will rise 6.3% within the next year.” How is single-family zoned land helping poor people? Charles Mudede made just this point in August, as did I in reaction to STEB member Brier Dudley’s diluted manifesto about single-family homes saving poor people.

Officials presented the policy as a way to build innocuous backyard cottages and diversify neighborhoods. But experts cited in the ruling said it “would cause displacement of some populations within the city, particularly minority populations” in the south end.

Again this is one opinion versus another. Repeatedly tokenizing minority populations to bolster claims against this new backyard cottage law will not halt displacement, and more likely will make it worse. Providing for more backyard units may cause land prices to increase, however, it will also allow the same plot to provide more units, meaning the housing cost per household may decrease. Backyard units may be targeted to moderate-income households rather than low-income ones, but single-family homes aren’t a realistic option for either.

Backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments are already allowed in Seattle with some restrictions, such as a requirement that owners live on the property.

Only 221 backyard units were built in seven years despite an incredibly hot market and about 75,000 potential sites.

Crucially, officials wanted to remove that residency requirement, and allow more and bigger rental units on single-family lots. The changes would allow most Seattle houses to be converted to investor-owned, multifamily rentals.

One theory. What’s your evidence beyond the testimony of one guy who was hand selected by the opposition? Are people who owned single-family homes and extracted a 14.4 percent one-year return not investors? People who own property ultimately decide what happens to it. This law would give them new options, not force them to do anything.

Doing so would “accelerate gentrification, driving up home values and reducing the number of entry-level single-family residences available to immigrant populations, thereby diminishing the City’s diversity,” according to expert testimony.

There at least here we get a quotation mark. Perhaps here even the STEB sensed the witness was on thin ice here. What a rhetorical leap! Okay, gentrification is happening because a $600,000 home may soon be worth $720,000 once it adds a backyard cottage and a granny flat according to consultant William Reid’s back-of-napkin math? What about the fact there is LITERALLY more space for people in the city with backyard cottages? What do single-family homes do for low-income folks who are being displaced? What about the fact that home with two accessory dwelling units would now have an income stream likely pulling in at least $3,000 per month? That income makes it easier for the mortgage holder to afford the mortgage payments while providing two households with housing cheaper than renting or buying single family homes.

Murray and Councilman Mike O’Brien introduced the policy as an affordability strategy. But city planners disclosed during the hearing that the objective was really to spur construction and new units probably wouldn’t be in the “affordable” category.

We are in the affordable for whom issue here, a common problem. It’s true backyard cottages are targeted at households hovering around median income (80 percent to 120 percent area median income), but that would put single family homes in the range of 200 percent area median income. Moreover, clearly moderate-income households could outbid lower income people for scarce apartments if we do not provide them options like backyard cottages. Our solution to the housing crisis has to be geared toward all income levels. We’ve hailed backyard cottages as a middle class solution. We still need a low-income solution, too, that’s why the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda addressed both.

This turning point is important to more than residents feeling steamrollered by City Hall.

I know! I hate when the City bestows citizens with more property rights. They’re the worst!

The Puget Sound region has a vested interest in Seattle maintaining its livability, infrastructure and residential appeal. The city’s ability to grow and attract companies and employees is essential to the region’s economic success. Its single-family neighborhoods will provide a lasting advantage if they withstand the current surge of Amazon.com growth and land speculators.

Just some vague Amazon scapegoating here, plus concocting a myth about single-family homes being what sets Seattle apart from the rest of America. Newsflash: it’s all suburbia in this country with few exemptions.

In the past, Seattle has been a model of progressive, inclusive governance. Tuesday’s ruling suggests that’s changing.

People obsessed with soothing themselves with Seattle’s progressive reputation often fail “to make the rhetoric real” as Wyking Garrett said at a Housing Is Human Right event recently. This ruling showed the Seattle Process is alive and well, which is no break from the past.

The ruling said planners minimized policy impacts and gave short shrift to potential harm. Tanner called for a full, objective environmental review of its impacts.

The appeal was filed by the Queen Anne Community Council — one of the neighborhood advisory councils Murray dumped in July amid pushback on his growth proposals.

The Queen Anne Community Council is not a district council. The neighborhood district councils are what Murray “dumped” in July and their members are elected by community councils, local chambers of commerce, and non-profit organizations. The Urbanist’s Scott Bonjukian did a good explantion on the difference and what’s changing. Perhaps the STEB should have read it.

The appeal process provides valuable insight into the city’s political machine. It should embolden others to challenge extreme proposals and lead to renewed civic engagement.

Some would call it obstruction, but, have at it Hoss.

City officials should be grateful for the chance to reconsider a divisive policy, especially since the hearing revealed that its outcomes are contrary to their stated values.

Again the hearing did not reveal this. Tanner asked for more research. She did not say definitively what the outcome of the law would be. Basically the City did not dot its I’s and cross its T’s. We agree the City should be more thorough in the future, but it should stay on the policy course it’s on.

Housing advocates protesting that an environmental review hurts affordability and favors “not-in-my-backyard” homeowners should read the ruling.

Already did and still feel that way. It’s available in my story on the ruling. We need environmental review but we need to refine the SEPA Checklist so that paving parking lots and ramps doesn’t continue to be twisted into an environmental virtue. Clearly promoting more impervious surfaces and encouraging and inducing demand for carbon-intensive single occupant vehicles is not a good environmental policy nor a climate change mitigation strategy.

Ignoring facts — the city shortchanged environmental concerns, housing costs will increase and the disadvantaged may suffer — puts such protesters in the same boat as those who refused to accept the FBI’s decision that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be prosecuted. Their “NIMBYism” chant is Seattle’s version of “Lock her up.”

False equivalency is a trademark of fake news. Those are distinct phenomena but clearly some anti-growth rhetoric has gotten unhinged, even downright Freudian. Can we declare a moratorium on insinuating our political opponents are Trumpian unless they literally support Trump’s policies? And let me get one last one in before the moratorium: who is trying to build a wall against newcomers to Seattle? The people trying to build more backyard cottages and apartments, or the freeze it in amber crowd? And don’t even get me started on the othering of people experiencing homelessness by the single-family sanctity crowd.

As Seattle updates its growth policies it should pay heed to lessons from Tuesday’s ruling. One is that residents care deeply about the negative effects unbridled growth has on their city and they’re tired of being spun. Another is that Seattle’s tight housing market is not a simple supply-and-demand problem.

True. It’s not simple. But certainly we need many more homes, and outlawing any new units on the single-family zones that make up the majority of Seattle land is extremely counterproductive and shortsighted.

The supply of single-family land in Seattle is finite and diminishing. Demand for this precious resource is nearly infinite, and comes from people wanting homes and investors wanting profits.

Sometimes one and the same. Let’s build more homes!

Officials must weigh these competing demands and balance them with interests of existing residents whom they’re supposed to serve.

Tuesday’s ruling is a welcome opportunity to start fresh, with a more transparent and inclusive process.

A process can be ostensibly “inclusive” while privileging white, wealthy homeowners and defending exclusionary zoning that helps further enrich them at the expense of the common good. We’ve made such progress!

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Donna Gordon Blankinship, Brier Dudley, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

Can’t the Blethens content themselves with screwing up only the land use policy of their native Mercer Island, where a four-month building moratorium was recently enacted?

38 COMMENTS

  1. Looks like the urbanist movement lost with this court ruling. The war of words above does little to allow people to understand where the city went wrong with their own proposal.

    • They will do their EIS and be back again. It is not final, just postponed a year, which is too bad for those who are currently getting priced out of Seattle.

      • Right? The only people who are celebrating this perversion of justice and contorting of the law are white homeowners. The new redlining. Shameful.

        • Have you ever stopped to think that these homeowners who are “perverting justice” worked hard for many years to be able to afford to buy a house? And the reason they bought a house is because they wanted to live in single-family neighborhoods with a little space and a backyard? Why do you think you have a right to destroy these single family neighborhoods?

          • I’m sure some of these so-called urbanists would be surprised to find out many homeowners are POC. That would spoil their blather about racism.

          • “to live in single-family neighborhoods”

            Because exclusionary zoning is morally intolerable.

            You can’t accept a duplex or 3 flat within the same massing as a single family house?

            The building is not different….just the incomes of the people.

          • Morally intolerable? Good grief. If someone doesn’t have enough income to live in Seattle, they just have to look elsewhere. It’s that simple. When I moved to Seattle, I wanted to live in a penthouse high rise with a lake view – but I didn’t make enough money. Still don’t. I bought what I could afford. And FYI, two of my immediate neighbors have converted their homes into ADUs – and I’m fine with it.

          • “If someone doesn’t have enough income to live in Seattle”

            because of zoning that prohibits duplexes and triplexes, as opposed to the bottom-line cost of land, construction, and materials, then we can and should change the zoning.

          • As if upzoning SF neighborhoods will suddenly unleash a wave of affordable (<$300K) housing for the middle class. Pure hogwash (as we used to say). Developers are eager to buy old SF homes to tear down and replace with $700K-900K townhouses — because that's where the profits are!

          • Because there are ample existing homes for under $300k for middle class families?

            Good grief, Charlie Brown. I haven’t heard a whopper that big in decades.

          • Let me rephrase for you. Upzoning SF neighborhoods would not result in construction of homes affordable to the middle class. Rather the result would be more $700K-900K town homes, because they are more profitable to developers. Capeesh?

          • From someone who has been on the market and been to open houses in this century; townhouses are consistently 20%-30% cheaper than an freestanding house in an equivalent condition. If a townhouse in a given neighborhood costs 700k, then any freestanding homes (on SF zoned plots too!) in the 700k pricepoint in same that neighborhood are in such bad condition that they don’t qualify for a mortgage.

            In that climate, I consider townhouses a step in the right direction. There is no magic button that will create unsubsidized 300k single family homes. Solutions to tough problems usually result in incremental improvements.

          • You might be right on those numbers, but those are not family homes where a middle class couple would want to raise a kid or 2. Maybe a “starter home” before the kids come along.

            But why would any developer build such units when they can add $15K in construction costs and sell those units for $450K instead of $300K? Add the granite countertops and fancy bathroom tile work and upgraded fixtures and units move to a much more profitable level.

            Seattle’s going to continue with the hollowing out, the diminishing middle class. I’ve given up hope.

          • “But why would any developer build such units when they can add $15K in construction costs and sell those units for $450K instead of $300K? ”

            Because – if we allowed them – between $450k and $500k triplexes or 3 flats become viable, so families would be able to choose at that price between “800 SF with fancy finishes” versus “1,000 SF with simple finishes”

          • Developers will always choose to build the most profitable units. And those won’t be affordable to middle-class families.There appears no getting around this, certainly no zoning silver bullet.

          • For profit developers generally do go where profit margins are highest but our non-profit developers must play by the same rules, which is one reason why easing zoning restriction makes sense. Encouraging backyard cottages and granny flats like this law would do gives small-scale developers and non-profits options.

          • Backyard cottages and ADUs exist and are there to enable homeowners to remain in their homes, in spite of rising taxes and utility bills. I support easing the rules to make it easier for homeowners to build these units. The proposal under appeal went beyond these needs, an unnecessary over reach.

          • Developers can’t just do what they want without constraint: why did our single family house have mundane fixtures rather than fancy fixtures that would have enabled the developers to sell it for 25% more?

            Because if they did that, it would have put our house into competition with smaller single family houses with plainer fixtures but which had a view ( – which ours doesn’t have), and we might have made a different choice.

            There is certainly a floor below which housing costs (barring some economic disaster) aren’t going to go. But multi-family housing that fits within the single family scale of 35% lot coverage x 3 stories high could open up a lot of say $350k – $500k 2BR options.

          • Seattle is revising the RSL zone to allow such structures in expanded urban village boundaries, areas now zoned SF. Time will tell what happens, but I highly doubt it will be middle-class family housing. Probably mostly high-end units targeted to singles and couples.

          • You are living in a fantasy world if you think building a triplex on a SF lot will somehow make those units “affordable.”

  2. There’s more compounded tit-for-tat to deal with than I have stomach for right now, but just for starters, let’s consider that in the scheme of things for accessory dwelling units and more housing, particularly affordable housing — production of backyard cottages is not the big story, and sure does not justify the “outlawing any new units on the single-family zones” rhetoric. Backyard cottages are expensive and marginally practical, compared to mother-in-law units which can be added at much less cost.

    If this were really about providing more accessory dwelling units, as normally understood, in single family neighborhoods, then this legislation could have sailed through, but that isn’t what it’s about, it’s about perverting the concept to smuggle in triplex development. They pretended this would have only moderate incremental impacts, but emails showed they were lying, and it’s no wonder the decision left them looking kind of unsavory.

    • I’m beginning to share the opinion of some observers that the City’s proposal was written by developers and not by the City folks who staffed the public forums last winter. The proposal overreached and created far more controversy than it should have.

      • Even in Vancouver there are very few developers building what this would allow. But we have a ton of small builders who do well buying the less expensive homes you NIMBYS whine about.

        They get torn down for massive homes and no net increase in units, exacerbating gentrification and displacement.

        You are essentially looking for conspiracy theories where there are none. Just like the fake news the ST delivered that the NIMBYS are gushing over.

    • Son, if you think backyard cottages are expensive, you should try buying one of these affordable houses the NIMBYS keep yammering about.

      The median home pice in Seattle is approaching three times the cost of a nicer backyard cottage. You people are not just absurd, you are malicious.

      • I’m having a hard time making sense of this comparison. Cost of construction of backyard cottage, compared with market price of SF home? My point is that the affordability story here should be about mother-in-law units. Developers would like you to fixate on low production of backyard cottages, and blame that exclusively on regulation, but even if you buy that, it isn’t clear why it’s discussed as if it’s only thing that ever mattered. (Unless Queen Anne is right, but your chance to set that straight.)

        • There are zero developers building backyard cottages in the city and relaxing DADU regulations would not “unleash” development of them. They are a niche market because the mark up for profit is significantly reduced, unlike the yuuuuge million dollar homes you’d prefer to replace $500,000 homes.

          It should be about all if them. They are all needed to address housing shortage. It matters because it shows that even the sensible things to relief housing crisis for tenants will be challenged by privileged white homeowners. This is a microcosm of why we have a crisis, why we have 40,000 renter households struggling to afford to live here it’s a struggle overprivileged white homeowners are completely detached and apathetic to.

          • The “unleash tremendous development” came from OPCD email. They clearly thought that someone who’s been building zero backyard cottages would turn over a new leaf.

            We don’t have a “crisis”, which implies a before and after. Until we accept responsibility for managing growth at sustainable levels, this is more of a permanent phenomenon, and a thoroughly exploitive one. Homeowners are caught in the middle – we aren’t harmed as much as everyone else, but we aren’t getting the payoffs either, and we aren’t in control. Downtown uses the Homeowner Problem for a convenient scapegoat, while milking this growth for all it’s worth. Thank heavens the Seattle Times isn’t suckered in by this malformed ideology.

          • Oh yes. Thank goodness the progressive ST ED board is looking out for little people in $800,000 homes like the good anti-affordable housing homeowners in Wallingfird!

  3. Please be careful using the Fake News epithet. FN is not merely news / facts that you disagree with. FN is pure fiction cut from whole cloth for purposes of deception. See the Big Lie, Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Hitler. There’s a lot deserving of criticism at the Seattle Times, but Fake News isn’t one of them (except perhaps for Breitbart / InfoWars true believers).

    • This is what Seattle Times Editorial Board wrote: “Tuesday’s ruling on a Seattle housing policy suggests residents were being bamboozled by the policy equivalent of fake news.”

      Are you agreeing with STEB that the City policymakers used “fake news” to craft this policy?

      • I don’t believe the City used anything that could be called Fake News. Better to call them honest mistakes based on City enthusiasm for outcomes they expected.

        • It’s hard to square “honest mistake” with what came out in that decision. The planners saying no significant impact, because modest incremental increase, and then saying “unleash tremendous growth” in email? It wasn’t honest, and it wasn’t a mistake, they just got caught. The real story they were hiding there, and the way they were hiding it, is the big news for me. The angle I can maybe connect to “fake news” in some way, though I’m not saying this is a strong case, is the narrative from electeds that this legislation and others like it are about housing affordability (and OPCD disclaiming any such notion.)

  4. An editorial is an opinion piece. Your piece was also an opinion piece. Learn to tell the difference between an actual news story and an editorial, please. Fake news, my a$$.

    • Feel free to reread my first paragraph if you’re confused. The hearing examiner did not say the expert testimony was correct, only that the proposal must address those criticisms.

      Very likely the City will do the EIS and pass essentially the same law. This is a delay tactic not some grand gesture in which the Queen Anne Community Council singlehandedly saves the city from gentrification, land speculation, and environmental degradation in one fell swoop.

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