Once in awhile an idea so dumb comes along it’s like a supernova. You need to look away lest you blind yourself and zap every last brain cell with it’s mind-numbing power. Normally a supernova is a rare event, but I feel that way just about every time I read a Brier Dudley column. For the low, low price of $3.99 per week, you can have a paper with a high supernova probability delivered to your doorstep on a daily basis. The value!

Yesterday’s Dudley supernova announced itself early in The Seattle Times headline: “Seattle’s ‘build, baby, build’ frenzy leaves affordability in the dust.” It’s downhill from there. Basically Dudley read a report and it confirmed his preconceived notions. Surprise! That notion is that Seattle builds a lot but prices are still increasingly high. Ergo, screw it: let’s give up and not build at all. Logic. Anyone can do it.

It’s an old Dudley canard (delivered in an earlier supernova) that single-family homes are a primary driver of affordability in Seattle. The truth is single-family homes are generally out of reach for low-income families. Zillow estimates that the median home value in Seattle has climbed to $624,700, jumping 11.4% in one year. What middle class family can qualify for that mortgage, let alone a low-income family? If you don’t have a large down payment, even a mortgage for a $500,000 home can easily cost more than a million dollars over its lifespan. So basically Dudley’s policy boils down to ‘let poor people figure out how to become millionaires.’

Now, Dudley’s chicanery would have been easy enough to ignore if he hadn’t got a big assist from Nikkita Oliver, the mayoral candidate who is Mayor Ed Murray’s most credible challenger. Oliver praised Dudley’s article at Brett Hamil’s Shadow Council event last night. The Stranger‘s Heidi Groover was able to locate and tweet out a transcript of what Oliver said:

The Seattle Times put up a really great article today—I don’t say that often, but they did today—they were talking about the need to maybe put a pause on development and reassess. And I think what needs to happen is going back into communities and having conversations about what does Seattle actually want and who do we actually want to be.

The comment jolted a few urbanists who had expected Oliver to support single-family zoning changes–legalizing duplexes and triplexes–based on the tough lines of questioning Oliver pushed during a panel with Mayor Murray. Oliver said, “Not only does the discussion with single-family zoning need to happen about how those areas need to change, but there’s actually not been a lot of push on those areas to change because their pushback was we don’t want those people here…” It would appear at this early stage of her campaign Oliver backed away a little from her inclination that single-family neighborhoods need to change. Oliver will likely clarify her views as the campaign progresses. Her campaign kick off is Sunday at 3pm in Washington Hall in the Central District.

 

Regardless, the “pause and reassess” attitude is well worn by NIMBYs and the original backlash to single-family zoning changes were stoked by Dudley’s colleague Danny Westneat. If we want to ease displacement pressure on minority families in the Central District and the Rainier Valley, it’d be wise to open up the vast swaths of sanctified bungalow-land across North Seattle to single-family attached development. This wouldn’t even necessarily require changing the zoning; changing development standards would be sufficient to allow attached units like triplexes in single-family zones. I’ve suggested we go the route of Portland and pair these changes with a McMansion ban to make clear the intent for middle class housing. Additionally, Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s backyard cottage bill would have gotten after the same goals, but unfortunately the bill ran into a backyard supernova and a group of wealthy single-family homeowners living Dudley’s American Dream willing to bankroll a lawsuit to deny others that dream. The lawsuit delayed the bill by at least a year in order to complete an environmental impact statement.

Even if we were to accept a goal of more homeownership in Seattle, the resulting policy wouldn’t be to build nothing in single-family areas. People are moving to Seattle whether we build or not, and by not building enough of the right kind of housing we’re speeding economic displacement. To allow more people to own homes, Seattle would have to build more triplexes and rowhouses to replace lower intensity uses thereby allowing the total number of owner-occupied units to jump.

Any way you slice it, leaving single-family neighborhoods entirely as-is doesn’t make sense in light of Seattle’s ambitious goals. We need to spread the benefits of urbanism across the city. Where Dudley sees overcrowded buses, we see future RapidRides (since Metro Transit prioritizes fast-growing neighborhoods for service upgrades). Where Dudley sees higher taxes, we see more taxpayers to shoulder the burden. Where Dudley sees parks “overwhelmed” with patrons, we see a vibrant bustling city we love calling home.

A Housing Solution Detached From Reality

10 COMMENTS

  1. Good post.

    In today’s AMA Seattle confirmed they have no plans to touch our sacred SF Zones. So apparently we have to cram any growth we want into our tiny multifamily zones. (sigh)

    (this one was discussing MHA, but several times they talked about not touching SF zones)

    The proposed Mandatory Housing Affordability implementation would rezone single family zones in urban centers and villages (areas with the best access to transit and services) to allow a greater range of housing. We are not proposing to rezone single-family zones outside of these areas.

  2. “let’s give up and not build at all.” — he didn’t write anything like that.

    “single-family homes are a primary driver of affordability in Seattle.” — he didn’t write that, either. He does say home ownership is an opportunity for upward mobility and true affordability, and there’s a strong case for that. Sure, the first rung on that ladder has gotten pretty high, but it still matters how high it is, and you know it isn’t just about prices within city limits – as rental stock takes over in Seattle, that affects the market all the way out to the foothills.

    “… willing to bankroll a lawsuit to deny others that dream.” Another bizarre distortion. You’re right, though, about O’Brien’s legislation – it was indeed about allowing triplexes in single family zones – but masquerading as a low impact change to accessory unit standards, and he was busted for that.

  3. Wow. I’m open to the idea of supporting a left/progressive challenge to Murray. Oliver has now made very clear she’s not that, and unworthy of any such support.

  4. Spreading the benefits of urbanism is subjective.
    I have 3 kids and need a backyard. Why? Because my wife works irregular hours and I require a passively supervised space for the kids to play outdoors (well, two of them, the other one is too little) while I deal with domestic things vital to home economics, like preparing meals, laundry, etc. That requires an absolutely secure yard space that I can passively watch kids play with next to no traffic. In other words, I require for basic child safety and functional upbringing, what those SFD neighborhoods have. We need whole lots more of it as Millennials like myself child-up. My kids deserve the safe backyard I had to become healthy, active, engaged citizens who can share that space with peers. Instead I get clamouring for more “mixed use” in areas where coffee shops cannot stay in business more than 90 months due to too much commercial space. how many esthetics parlors do we need at the expense of family-sized, ground-oriented, and properly spacious housing? I both want and need a “bungalow” because it is by far the ideal space for family rearing. Most urbanites are not getting that message. Instead parents like myself get routinely lectured at for wanting a certain space that has worked for decades worldwide in prosperous countries.

    • There are lots of examples of Multi-Family housing with the amenities you describe that aren’t bungalows. These urbanists do hear you and want that type of housing so more people can enjoy the amenities you describe.

      • Show me MFD where a 4 year-old can play safely outdoors and then navigate themselves in to pee and back out, all with only passive parental supervision. There’s a reason why Midwest and East Coast cities removed their MFD social housing “projects”; minority families refused any elevator access for children as dangerous and impossible to supervise with both the courts and child welfare advocates (from the left, BTW) deriding such infrastructure as not only sub-optimal for safety and child development, but also a means to deny equality of opportunity to minorities through housing typology (why the Chicago projects were torn down under court supervision and replaced by low rise bungalows and duplexes). What I hear here is a bunch of white West Coasters advocating a housing typology that was decades ago rejected by minority housing advocates as discriminatory. Now because white urbanites want to “share” the urban amenities, they are right back to reducing livability…killing the backyard for children in favour of hyped up consumer “walkable” areas. The whole discussion is a housing typology regression that has never worked elesewhere. Shame.

        • There’s tons of multi-family housing that is safe for children all of the world. Many people have great childhoods in dense cities. I’ve personally lived in multi-family housing with a yard in London and have had family members who lived in multifamily housing with yards in Chicago, SF and Washington DC. It’s incredibly common.

          If you want to preserve detached single family zoning in central Seattle you need to demonstrate how that expands access for additional families rather than simply escalates the price of housing until it’s out of reach for low and middle income families. Here’s a particularly good example:

          https://www.archdaily.com/793287/bigyard-zanderroth-architekten

          • Really? We have immigrants who move to this country en masse precisely to get to superior housing options that are not MFD. One of the main reasons for immigration to North America is larger, self-standing houses. That’s why the tenements empties to the suburbs. The 2016 Pritzker Chilean architect had to restructure all his MFD. concepts due to hunger strikes over the multi-story total (and near violent) rejection. There have been riots in countries like South Africa, Bolivia, and even Malaysia when families have felt they were forced into unacceptable MFDs. Brasilia’s “world class” high rises are almost empty of children as the civil servants decamped to favela low rises for ground access for their small ones. It created a mini-scandal pitting the MFD architects against young families (the latter one, and now Brasília sprawls for low rise families). No one called the Georgian or Edwardian rowhousss in lonfpdon MFD. Many have a larger footprint including garden than most Seattle bungalows (lived in one in Highgate).

            What you need to demonstrate is how the new housing stock you promote metes the same private amenity criteria for family friendliness (and build in granny suite flexibility for the infirm in-laws, a staple in ownership housing in Middle Europe), ground oriented, about the same floor plan 1500sf), backyard, and make it more affordable than now per sf. Densifying to affordability is a myth and it reduced the typology for families. The reason why the pushback on SFD is that they are overwhelmingly the preferred and successful housing type for raising kids (who now boomerang). The moment China dropped their one child restrictions, SFD production went ballistic.

          • Not all multi-family units are Pruitt-Igoe-esque slum towers. People aren’t rioting or going on hunger strikes in Montreal over living in triplexes and quads.

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