With the goal of bridging the political divide and challenging my own assumptions, I sat down with Sarajane Siegfriedt (SS) and Jon Lisbin (JL) from Seattle Fair Growth, a group of neighborhood advocates who believe that the HALA grand bargain is “deteriorating” our city “from unrestrained development.” Nonetheless, they are adamant that they are not NIMBYs or slow-growth advocates. Instead, they recognize growth is coming and want to find ways to accommodate that growth. They believe that growth should pay for growth, that infrastructure should be built concurrently with housing, and that neighborhood groups should have a larger role in shaping growth.
In the second part of the interview, we touched on racism, infrastructure concurrency, transit, where missing middle housing should go, mother-in-law units, that amorphous idea of “livability,” and what Sarajane and Jon think urbanists are getting right and wrong in the housing debate.
A transcript of our interview is available below, lightly edited for clarity. Check out part one of the interview here.
The Housing Debate
BC: What do urbanists get wrong in the housing debate?
SS: That filtering thing. You just can’t tell people to wait 30-40 years for them to be affordable. It’s ridiculous.
JL: We think it’s wrong to be saying that the more you build, the lower housing cost is going to be. It doesn’t make sense when you’re building luxury units. It’s actually increasing the median cost of housing when 95% of new housing is luxury units. There is the law of supply and demand but we don’t see that working in this case because of the way that housing is being developed.
SS: Part of that problem is affordability. Part of it is upzoning everything everywhere–that one size fits all. I don’t understand the visceral hate of single-family homes and single-family homeowners. It’s not rational. The stuff that comes at me–that we’re all racist for owning single-family homes. We may be racist but that’s not the reason [laughter].
JL: Speak for yourself [laughter]. We all are in some way.
SS: I’ve been to plenty of anti-racism trainings and I understand the concept.
Another thing that is really wrong is that 65% of Seattle’s land is single-family zoned. It’s not. It’s just flat out wrong. It’s 35%. That’s based on acreage. You cannot include parks in single-family zones, and you cannot include right-of-ways. When it gets down to the actual single-family parcels, it’s 14,000 out of 53,000 [editor’s note: the City of Seattle estimates 64.8% gross acres of land is zoned for single-family residential, including city-owned open space and rights-of-way (34,404 parcel acres out of 53,113 total). Excluding open spaces and rights-of way from all zoning estimates yields an estimated 62.5% (21,217 parcel acres out of 33,940 total) still dedicated to single-family zoning.].
When you look at the carrying capacity, when you multiply all the mid-rise–and I do believe that pretty much all of the urban villages are going to be upzoned to mid-rise and that we need the density–but when you look at the carrying capacity, it’s eight-, nine-, ten-times in those urban villages. There’s no need to upzone single-family zones. So the logic of building townhouses on all those parcels–I don’t know why, I don’t get it. Other than the fact that I understand you don’t like my lifestyle.
JL: That’s what we alluded to before, that the amount of new units that are coming on, if you consider two persons per household, is keeping up with the amount of new high-tech workers that are coming to Seattle.
The other thing that I think the urbanist have wrong about what they perceive of Seattle Fair Growth is that we’re slow growthers. I don’t think we believe that. We never discuss slowing down growth. What we discuss is concurrent growth–that infrastructure should be concurrent with growth. We know that people are moving here and we welcome everybody that moves here. I love to see companies like Amazon coming to Seattle and all the high-tech companies. I’m in a high-tech business myself. That’s more business for me. We want to make sure that, like Sarajane says, we don’t destroy what we have that’s beautiful in order to bring all those people in.
SS: What we’re really missing, and I hope the urbanists will join me in advocating for, is family zones. As we both know, developers are not interested in building three-bedroom family units at all because they can make more money off of an efficiency unit and a one-bedroom. So that’s what they build. This city has a toe into getting some two-bedrooms for certain zoning. There was a study done in [Seattle City Councilmember] Mike O’Brien’s committee about two-and-a-half years ago about how we get family housing. In other words, we can take the study off the shelf. There were six recommendations.
What families are doing now if they need three bedrooms–you have to rent a house. So 25% of single-family homes are rented [editor’s note: we were unable to verify this claim]. The irony of saying that the single-family homes are racist. No. If you have a large family and you’re from an immigrant community, that’s the only option you have. You go rent a house. We really need to look hard at low-rise. Instead of sprinkling low-rise, the missing middle type of housing, throughout the neighborhoods, which really wouldn’t do anything, what we need to do is concentrate them, encircle the urban villages. When you see that diagram that we’ve all seen about the missing middle, and you see single-family, then there are some townhouses, rowhouses, courtyard buildings, stacked apartments, then mid-rise. They’re all shown in one flat row. That’s the middle part–they are a transition between mid-rise and single-family. What I’m proposing is that we actually do that, what the diagram says, not sprinkle them but use them as a transitional form around the urban villages as a transition to single-family so that there will be ground-related family housing and we would require it to be large enough for families. It would be close enough to transit to take advantage of our investment in transit.
BC: Would you be willing to rezone some single-family zones around urban villages to accommodate missing middle [housing]?
SS: Sure. That’s what’s happening now. That’s the nature of the urban villages is to look at a bit of upzone. But we had neighborhood plans. Each neighborhood deserves to have a say in where it goes and what it looks like. I just looked at the Uptown plan which was presented to the [Seattle City] Council on Monday [July 31st]. It looks really good. It’s very thoughtful. They’ve got the highest rises over off of 5th Ave by the Hyatt and they’ve got medium-rise along Queen Anne and then lower buildings at the foot of Queen Anne Hill. That came from the community, it came from their process about how they thought it should be done. The same thing in Roosevelt when we said the parcels directly south of the high school should be a little lower. It doesn’t make sense to build high rises and block the view of the school. Have some sensitivity to the inputs of the neighborhoods. What the Comp Plan has done is remove the neighborhoods from having any standing.
JL: And what the Mayor has done
SS: Yeah. So we’re asking for the neighborhood planning function to be restored. For the city planners to include it in their consideration legally. [Seattle City Councilmember] Lisa Herbold presented an amendment like that at the same meeting and it was two-to-one and she lost. You can’t get any traction on that stuff. So that’s frustrating.
The other piece is that the neighborhood councils have been disinvested and cut off at the knees. The irony is that the things that were criticized for–I’m on the Lake City [Neighborhood] Alliance. We don’t have just homeowners. There are all kinds of organizations–the small businesses are represented, there’s a Somali family organization, there’s a teen organization, there’s the Thornton Creek Alliance. It represents all the different interests in the city–the bicyclists are part of that. We’re all at the table in the Neighborhood Alliance. We’re part of communities that are part of north district, and it’s north district that got defunded as part of 13 district councils. There was no data that they lacked diversity or who even made up those counts. It was just an on-the-fly sort of thing. What this really goes back to is in 2009 when there were huge budget cuts and [then Mayor] Mike McGinn was trying to cut $67 million off his budget, there was an audit done of the district councils, and the district councils all said, “We want more diversity.” The way we would get that is with translators and interpreters and IT support, better web design, and better communication tools in order to get more people involved. Then, of course, there was no money to do that. So the exact same things that the district councils were criticized for and was given as the reason for defunding them were the things that the audit recommended that the district councils had asked for. All we’re asking is for them to be restored for very little money–$500 per month for meeting space and a couple hours of staff time.
JL: It should be restored with those other recommendations.
SS: And improved with the city agreeing that the district councils and the community councils have a role just like the renters. I mean, why not?
JL: Back to the misunderstanding about single-family neighborhoods. I think Sarajane alluded to that. There are a lot of renters in single-family neighborhoods. Anecdotally, on my block, I’m pretty much surrounded by renters. We just had a renter move into our house right next door. We’re a mixed community. We’re renters, we’re homeowners.
SS: If there’s one thing that I would want to communicate to the urbanists, it’s: what is your solution for family housing? We’ve got to address this. It’s absolutely necessary.
JL: I think that’s also why that’s happening–because there is no family housing. For instance, our neighbor has two new children, so where are they going to go? They’re paying a lot of money for a house because they need that. Much more than I would expect.
SS: Another piece of this is–what do you suppose happened to the “L” in HALA? You read the report, I presume. Do you remember anything about livability?
BC: What would you have liked to have seen from the report?
SS: I would like them to address livability. I’ve asked, I’ve talked to a lot of people about it, we all have our own opinions. There’s just no consensus at all about livability. There’s one use of the word in the report and it has to do with transportation. I know it’s more than that. I’m proposing that the City conduct a city-wide conversation on livability and that the next mayor take this on and that the community councils have that as one meeting, everybody talk about it, come up with five or six measurable goals, and then those are synthesized and we come up with a set of city-wide measurable goals for livability that then would be incorporated in the comp plan. It’s not okay not to include livability in what we’re striving for. We all know it’s missing.
I think tree canopy is a piece of it, but that’s me.
JL: Everybody has a different feeling. For me, Seattle now has some of the worst traffic in the country. I feel that we should have multi-modal transportation. I’m an advocate. I ride a bike to work and I think we should have better bike lanes. We should have alternatives so that less cars are on the road. I don’t think that there should be a war on cars, but I think we definitely need to have less cars on the road. There’s no way around that with everybody moving here. We need a great transit system, which we don’t have. That’s part of livability. I came here when Seattle was called the most livable city in the country. It was a Newsweek article 24 years ago. You can’t say today that Seattle is the most livable city in the country. I came here from Florida where it was strip malls, everything was the same, there was USA everywhere. You came to Seattle where you had small businesses, you had all these restaurants from private owners, not national chains, and you also had a community here that I felt like was in every single district. It was so cool that Capitol Hill had its own vibe, that Fremont had its own vibe, that Ballard had its own vibe. We don’t want it all to be commoditized into one big amalgam. We want to keep that uniqueness of all the communities as much as possible. We know that tons of people are moving here. But that’s something we’re trying to protect as advocates.
SS: The way to do that is to give the neighborhoods a voice, not the deciding voice, but to consider their input into keeping neighborhoods livable and interesting.
JL: The reason I got involved was a sad story. Our street has gotten busier and busier and busier and we couldn’t get crosswalk safety. We tried. I’m wondering with all the building that’s going on downtown, and there’s no money for crosswalk safety on our block? And our neighbors dog got out and got killed. That’s what prompted me–there’s something wrong here with all this development going on and yet we can’t pay for the little things that we need for safety in our neighborhood and our kids. Then, as I started getting more involved, and I saw what was happening in our urban village in Ballard with all the development going on, and talking with some of the people who are affected by it, and seeing their views, people who want to live and retire there, seeing big buildings that are totally out of proportion go up around them. They’ve got this little house over there, and they want to retire, and there’s construction on all sides. It’s easy to make policy but when you come down to the individuals and how they’re affected. That’s something, when you’re talking one-on-one with these people, you realize there’s something wrong with that.
SS: Something else I want to bring up. I think that we’re all in favor of more mother-in-law apartments. That’s something that urbanists and our group have in common. I’ve been begging and nagging, when it was Mike O’Brien’s committee, for years to ease the regulations on mother-in-law apartments, to get rid of the requirement for off-street parking. We have very few [mother-in-law apartments]. They’re legal. But there are too many restrictions and regulations so people don’t do them. Although, I have one and it’s not permitted and I just want it to be legal but I can’t get them to address the regulations.
What Portland has done is actively encourage mother-in-law apartments. Eliminate the permitting fee, which would be a big help. Because each of us only does this once, actually have somebody in the permitting department shepherd the process and maybe even own some goals–I’ll make 200 this year, 300 next year. We could have 1,000 naturally affordable units of mother-in-law apartments with no investment by the City. We don’t even have to pay for them. People have to pay themselves. Mine cost $20,000 because I have one of those mid-century modern with a half-finished basement so all I had to do was finish the basement and turn the half-bath into a whole-bath and put in a kitchen. It already had a daylight basement with its own entrance. There are a lot of opportunities like that that not only make it below market rate housing but–and this is crucial–you have to have homeownership as part of the definition of a mother-in-law apartment. Otherwise it’s not a mother-in-law, it’s a duplex. It’s that relationship that makes it affordable. Once I find a tenant who is trustworthy and reliable, I’m not going to just jack-up the rent and make them leave. I’m going to cover my costs but I’m going to keep them there. The developers are the ones that keep pushing on the City Council to get rid of the homeownership requirement and it makes no sense if we value affordability.
BC: You mentioned mother-in-law apartments being common ground with urbanists. So as a twist on a previous question, what do urbanists get right in the housing debate?
SS: That’s one, right.
JL: I don’t know if it’s a Seattle Fair Growth opinion, but personally I feel that development should be occurring in the urban core. You tell me if that’s an urbanist value, I’m not sure, but I do feel that that’s what millennials are gravitating towards right now–living downtown all over the country. I think that makes complete sense. I also think that there should be development around light rail and high-capacity transit. I’m personally an advocate–and we don’t all agree on this–but I’m an advocate of light rail and I was also an advocate of the monorail back in the day. I wish that was built. We need transit, we need transit alternatives, to get around the city. There’s no doubt about that. I wish we could have a subway if we could pay for that.
SS: I include the missing middle in part of that commonality. It’s just where you put it. It’s really inappropriate to sprinkle around duplexes and triplexes. Talk about frustrating–building three or four rowhouses instead of a block. You don’t go to Europe and see partial this and partial that. If you’re going to build them, you have to build that type of housing so that it’s significant and makes a statement. Then all the backyards have gardens. It’s not this way and that way.
JL: Bottom line is, I don’t think Dan Savage and his comment that you mentioned before, that he doesn’t agree with anything we agree with. I think he just doesn’t know yet or he doesn’t talk to us. I’m sure he does agree with a lot of the things that we believe in. That’s why we appreciate this conversation.
SS: I agree that we need a lot more housing, that’s one [laughter]. It’s just that we need a lot more subsidized housing for the people that are really hurting.
JL: We don’t oppose MHA entirely. We’re more along with some of the candidates like Jon Grant that feel that it should be a better deal, there should be much more asked of developers to be comparable to other cities. We don’t think that that will slow down growth in Seattle. That would be pretty hard to do.
SS: I get really tired of hearing the Roger Valdez’s who say if you put on impact fees, they’ll just stop building. Come on. We all know that it’s on the margin. It’s not black or white like that. The continual “oh, if you do this, no one is going to build anything.” No. It doesn’t work that way. I went to business school. I can do spreadsheets. You look at the whole thing. In fact, if Bellevue is imposing impact fees and all the other cities around us that are growing like crazy, then something in our assumptions is wrong.
JL: We know that it has to pencil out for developers. But we also know that demand is continuing, developers will meet that demand, and the reason for that demand, and I don’t know what the urbanists feel about that, is primarily because it’s still a lot more affordable to live here than Silicon Valley. When people from Amazon or other high-tech companies move here, they have a lot more disposable income after paying for housing. That’s the bottom line, that’s why people are moving here.