Baugruppe in Berlin-Friedrichshagen, by Kaden Klingbeil Architects.

How the City could lead the US in piloting an innovative model for better housing.

Imagine with me: what if Seattle had a model for building multi-family housing that was more affordable and greener than what we’re currently building?  Okay, you’ve already heard that part; but what if the City actively supported that model–even made it a centerpiece of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA)?  This article proposes establishing a city-wide policy to support Building Communities.

Baugruppen Bandwagon

Baugruppe (singular) is a German term, meaning ‘building group’–just like it sounds. I prefer a less literal but more evocative translation: ‘building community’. It’s an innovative development approach in the tradition of housing co-ops and intentional communities. For anyone not familiar with the concept, The Urbanist ran a great multi-part series in 2014 (which is a re-post/expansion of articles written by Mike Eliason for Brute Force Collaborative in 2013), which generated a lot of interest on urbanist sites like Grist and Curbed.

Building Communities remain one of the most compelling solutions to our housing affordability problem–they have been a sort of grail for urbanists. In fact, I have a sense that if you got together all of the people in this city who are mildly (or not so mildly) obsessed with this idea, you could…well, start a baugruppe. However, they have also felt slightly out of reach; perhaps unrealistic, in our current political and economic climate. Development costs are high, timelines are slow, banks are reluctant to finance unfamiliar approaches, neighborhood opposition…the list is long.

But what if the change we need to make this possible isn’t fundamental? What if it just needs a little direct support, like some regulatory infrastructure provided by the City?

Living Building Challenged

Seattle has several policies and programs to support green building, including the recently extended Living Building Pilot Program (LBPP), which is intended to promote extremely high performance buildings along the lines of Capitol Hill’s Bullitt Center. After seven years, the pilot has been met by exactly two buildings: Bullitt and Stone 34 in Wallingford.

The intention is not to criticize the pilot, but to suggest an opportunity…  We have a proven development model that could provide badly needed housing more affordably than the private market; and we have a City program that needs projects. A number of European municipalities have identified ways to support Building Communities.

Whether through the LBPP, or as a new stand-alone policy, this is how I envision it working in Seattle:

1. The City creates a new Land Use designation: ‘Building Community.’

This is important to differentiate Building Communities from other uses, in particular from single-family housing and traditional multi-family development. This step may even be legally necessary, since zoning laws require that similar uses be treated similarly, and the point is to preference Building Communities over other uses. This step would also define what a Building Community is: how large, how small, where allowed, etc.

This article doesn’t get into the politics of implementation (that needs its own article), but this is one place where the City could anticipate those politics while supporting the fundamental purpose of Building Communities. For example, eliminating parking requirements but requiring deed restrictions (or similar) on individual car ownership. Or reducing certain lot coverage / setback requirements in exchange for form-based design standards. You could even cap the number of units, particularly if using the pilot approach (while I’m generally opposed to this, the Building Community model doesn’t lend itself to large groups anyway).

The kicker: within those parameters, Building Communities would be allowed anywhere in Seattle that allows residential development.

2. The City provides financial backing.

This could be direct (e.g. providing funding from an innovation fund, or similar) but would more likely be indirect. Guaranteeing loans, issuing construction bonds, or any other mechanism that reduces the cost of financing would dramatically decrease overall project cost. (An unfamiliar development model will be considered higher risk, which means higher rates to borrow money. This is certainly not the only challenge for Building Communities, but it is a major one.) We have reached the outside edge of my expertise, in terms of the best approach for financial support; if you have knowledge in this area, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Last, Building Communities would go through priority permitting, which is another form of direct financial support (the development review and approval process can be extremely expensive). This is directly connected to the third and final part of the policy:

3. The City mandates the greenest residential buildings in Seattle.

This is where it makes sense to connect this to the LB Pilot Program, though it’s not strictly necessary. Building Community projects would be required to meet exceptionally high performance standards for green building–either Living Building or Passive house (Passivhaus).

Building Communities resolve one of the fundamental issues with developing to these standards: split incentive. High performance green building, at this level, costs more up front–sometimes significantly more. In traditional development, the developer pays these initial costs, but the building owner reaps the benefit. These are almost never the same people. Typically, the increased cost gets passed on to the tenants. In a Building Community, the developers are the owners are the tenants. They have every incentive to spend more up front to build the healthiest, most efficient building possible.

There is abundant precedent for this ‘trade’ – the City grants exemptions from normal rules (e.g. greater density than otherwise allowed), in exchange for advancing City priorities like green building (and affordable housing). Functionally, this is just residential incentive zoning.

If it’s not HALA or homelessness, we’re not interested

Why would the City be interested in pursuing such a policy? And who in their right mind would propose another major land use change right now!? The elegance of this proposal (if I may use that word–feel free to express your disagreement in the comments) is in how well it supports numerous City priorities, and how well it integrates with, or directly supports, existing efforts.

  • Housing affordability. It accelerates development of less expensive housing without dipping into the housing levy, or otherwise competing for Affordable Housing funding (Building Communities are not Affordable Housing per se, meaning they are not designated for specific percent of median income).
  • Transit-oriented development. It is potentially a mechanism for reducing displacement from upzoning, by allowing residents to form a Building Community instead of being priced out of new speculative development. This is hugely important because Seattle is going to upzone a lot of neighborhoods in the years to come–between HALA, expanding Urban Growth Boundaries (e.g. Urban Villages), and around new transit investments. (There is an intriguing opportunity with ST3, where Sound Transit is required to prioritize affordable housing on their property.)
  • High-performance green building. It advances sustainable development beyond pretty much anything being built in the City today.

A Building Community policy wouldn’t need to compete with HALA, it could just be a new component. By targeting transit access and sustainable development in specific communities, it supports the Race and Social Justice Initiative (especially if it does prove effective in reducing displacement). It does more than any current approach to support the City’s sustainability and climate goals…I could go on. I suspect that in the scheme of things, even with financial support of one kind or another, it wouldn’t even cost much.

So, who wants to help me draft a policy, so we can all finally get our baugruppe?!

The featured image is a Baugruppe in Berlin-Friedrichshagen, credit to Kaden Klingbeil Architects.

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Justus Stewart (Guest Contributor)