Anyone who thinks kids need a backyard should meet mine, who never spend time here.
Anyone who thinks kids need a backyard should meet mine, who never spend time here.

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 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?

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.