The urbanist community spit-taked last week reading a glib op-ed in The Seattle Times that railed against a project planned for Fremont which includes small efficiency homes. The author (who lives in an ample Fremont townhome likely priced around $800,000) said living in a small efficiency is akin to “steerage” in a ship. Besides someone being wrong on the internet and the Seattle Times Opinion page, the “too small” argument–which is one plenty of housing opponents make–illuminates a contradiction in narratives.

One day earlier anti-housing ringleader John Fox had argued against tearing down Sheridan Apartments in his blog Outside City Hall because the studios within are relatively affordable at $1,170 per month. Fox failed to mentions the one-bedrooms seem to be renting for $1500 per month. Nevermind that the Sheridan has a very similar range of apartment sizes (at 340 to 525 square feet) as the project proposed for Fremont. But new housing opponents decry the Fremont project trying to replicate the Sheridan’s success at the same time as they rally to block the 440-apartment tower literally replacing the Sheridan (the exterior of the building will be retained). It seems like the common denominator here is opposing new projects–not preserving affordability.

Furthermore, we wrote about how John Fox’s infamous naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) surveys were heavy on apartments that A) weren’t actually that affordable and B) were relatively small studios. Ironically, many of these same folks oppose creating new small efficiency homes. By doing so, we’re creating a can’t-win situation. Mandating big home and lot sizes is a major reason why Seattle is on a Titanic-like course cleaving on an iceberg of massive inequality and displacement. We need the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) to keep this ship from going under. Yet apparently, some think we should try more of the same as we take in water. Seattle has led the nation in housing price increases two straight years.

Deconstructing Sheridan Concerns

It’s a similar story for the Sheridan. Fox says we’re losing 56 “affordable” homes. And we are, but since they were market-rate units only affordable by some combination of temporary landlord generosity or deferred maintenance, we couldn’t count on these NOAH units in red-hot Belltown to remain affordable for long without intervention. Fox estimates HALA’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program will only replace 18 of these affordable units, but in actuality he’s comparing apples and oranges.

For one, the Seattle Office of Housing (OH) estimates that MHA funds leverage investments three or four times over since they are matched with other state, federal, and philanthropic funds. If OH leverages MHA funds 4:1 with other sources, then the 56 currently-affordable units would be replaced. Additionally, MHA units will be guaranteed affordable for 75 years at 60% to 80% of area median income. The Sheridan has no such guarantee. Nonetheless, folks who should know better, like two-time Seattle City Council candidate Jon Grant, amplifed Fox’s misleading claims. And they are misleading: Fox’s claim that 1:1 replacement of affordable units was previously mandated under incentive zoning is misleading since incentive zoning was previously optional.

If approved, a 44-story apartment tower would replace the 56-unit Sheridan at 2005 5th Ave. (GWest Architecture)

We should seek to create more family-sized homes, and dedicate more housing levy and MHA funds to doing so. However, for plenty of Seattlites small efficiency homes work quite well and we shouldn’t belittle them by saying they live in steerage and insinuate there should be a law against living the way they do–which is one of the few ways they can afford to live in Seattle period. The other popular way to survive Seattle while of modest income is renting larger spaces and living with roommates, but classist concerns can be found for that arrangement too.

A Newbie Joins a Great Fremont Homeowner Tradition

Angela Elson, who penned the op-ed, made a show of checking her privilege. She acknowledged she’s wealthy, a “square,” and only moved to Fremont a year ago. She knows she’s not in the upper echelon of Fremont get-off-my-lawn homeowner cranks who’ve been agitating for decades against change in their neighborhood while their home values have doubled and tripled. But complaining about the new project down the block couldn’t be more conventional as far as Fremont and Wallingford homeowner activism goes. Couching those claims in concerns for the poor could not be more par for the course. Is she really concerned for people living in “steerage” or for herself having to live near said “steerage.” Street parking might even get a little tighter. Oh the horror!

She’s really a quick study, but the reality is these alligator tears are useless to Seattle’s rent-burdened masses. Give us more housing. Spare us the sob story about neighborhood character.

About 3959 Fremont Ave

The plan calls for 26 small efficiences and three apartments. (Neiman Taber)

A closer look at the Fremont small efficiency project hardly reveals the boogie man that Elson portrays. Will people have to take a slight detour or a steep scamble to reach Fremont Avenue? Yes, they will. Will people still happily choose to live there? Yes. Hills are kind of what people signed up when they moved to Seattle, yet Elson seems flabbergasted:

The kicker is that the hillside complex does not include access down to Fremont Avenue, which would force anyone differently abled to detour three or more blocks to access a main road. If you’ve ever walked up the steep slope of Fremont Avenue — or, God forbid, ridden a bike — I’m sure you can appreciate this undertaking.

3959 Fremont Ave N is across from B.F. Day Elementary. (Neiman Taber)

Whether or not this site includes a private stairway to Fremont Avenue, people who can’t use the public stairs at N Bouduin St or N 40th St would conceivably still need to detour N 41st St to reach Fremont Avenue and a Route 5 bus stop–a three minute trip as a pedestrian. This holds true whether it’s built as townhomes or efficiencies. So is this a legitimate reason to block an efficiency project, or yet more concern trolling?

Cross section showing steep slope. (Neiman Taber)

In contrast to Elson’s claims that the project is not well thought out, Neiman Taber Architecture has a reputation for designing livable small efficiencies. Microhousing is one of the firm’s specialities. The early design guidance proposal suggests a project well intergrated to the neighborhood and nestled between trees. Small balconies break up the facade and provide some outdoor space for tenants.

Architects will refine the early design ahead of the project’s Recommendation design review meeting. Even at this early stage, it’s clear that the 29 homes would make a positive impact on the Fremont neighborhood regardless of what you read a Seattle Times Opinion page.

Doug Trumm shared a tiny microhousing unit with a roommate while a college student like most other students, and he survived to tell the tale. In fact, he came away with almost exclusively fond memories. He shares a 500 square foot apartment with his spouse and his cat–less than 200 square feet for each of them–and by George they like it.

Microhousing Is Not A Prison Cell, Look To The Housing Crisis For A Villain

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Doug Trumm is the Publication Director at The Urbanist. He joined the exodus to Seattle in 2014, leaving behind his home state of Minnesota. Living on disputed land between Wallingford and Fremont, he is doing his best to improve both neighborhoods. He is a grad student at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and a marketing intern at King County Metro. His views are his own and do not represent his employer.

44 COMMENTS

  1. ‘Give us more housing. Spare us the sob story about neighborhood character.’

    amen. reminds me of this passage from Bruno Lasker’s “Unwalled Towns” (1920)

    ‘There is, for example, the zoning regulation introduced in perhaps a score of western cities which distinguishes between residence districts in which “no building structure or premises shall be erected, constructed, altered or maintained which shall be used or designed or intended to be used for any purpose other than that of a single family dwelling” and other districts which may be used also for two-family dwellings, multiple dwellings, flats, boarding houses, lodging houses, clubs, apartments or hotels.

    Why, in this country of democracy, is a city government, representative of all classes of the community, taking it upon itself to legislate a majority of citizens – those who cannot afford to occupy a detached house of their own – out of the best located parts of the city area, practically always the parts with the best aspect, best parks and streets, best supplied municipal services and best cared in every way? Why does it deliberately “segregate” the foreign-born who have not yet become sufficiently prosperous to buy or rent a home under building regulations which preclude the possibility of inexpensive development and construction?’

    • What do you mean, “best aspect, best parks and streets, best supplied municipal services?
      When I look at a map of parks in Seattle, I see a huge section of north Seattle with no parks, and I see many more parks in the south part, if you exclude the industrial area and downtown.

      If you look at the residential areas in south Seattle, there are many more parks. Where, exactly, are these “best located parts of the city”? The MHA area is putting almost all the new development north of the ship canal, which has the worst road surfaces, much less park area than south Seattle, which is where most of the development should go.

      And what does “segregate the foreign-born have to do with anything? There is plenty of room for development in areas that are not zoned single-famlly. I drive along Rainier Avenue and Martin Luther King, and see miles of poorly-kept housing that could be replaced by high-rise density, and everyone would be better off.

      We should use this growth an as opportunity to improve crappy neighborhoods, instead of destroying the nice neighborhoods.

      • What you are saying is that we should put all development in poor areas, and leave rich areas alone because they are rich?

        • Unlike Fremont or Wallingford, there happens to be an existing light rail running straight through these “poor” areas. The die has been cast, tell the developers to knock off their tears and do some actual development.

          • They’re building a lot if you hadn’t noticed. The problem lies in expecting giant towers and mega midrise complexes to do pretty much all the lifting. Eventually we’ll run out of big sites, plus mega-developments tend to serve upscale markets. We need modest low rise apartments like this one to serve a broader swath of renters.

            This North Seattle or South Seattle argument is a false dichotomy and frankly a bit absurd. All areas of the city should contribute to growth and benefit from redevelopment.

          • The MLK and Rainier corridors have been largely stagnant until very, very recently. And, in comparison to the acreage of open land, there’s very little new supply coming outside of nodes, like Othello. Hopefully, the coming few years will see a big change, because the light rail has been there a while now (unfortunately, the depression flew in shortly after Link went on line)

          • “Eventually we’ll run out of big sites.” What happens when we run out of sites for anything, big or small? Or is that so far off in the future for Seattle that it’s irrelevant to you? Do you not care about future generations who will live here? Do you think limits don’t apply to Seattle? These are serious questions; don’t you ever think about infinite growth being impossible?

          • we only run out of sites if we continue to let the privileged homeowners in this city, who are now a minority, prevent needed multifamily housing from 3/4 of the city where housing is legal. a hundred years ago, multifamily was legal everywhere, there was no single family zoning. we should look at reverting back to this.

            you feign concern about future generations living here – while talking about limits to growth. the overwhelming majority of new residents in seattle are renters – so this looks a lot like thinly veiled classism. who gets to issue new propiski – white homeowners? do you think limiting housing will stop people from moving here? will it stop families from having kids who need a place to live? will it stop climate refugees who are already moving here from coming here? do you think preserving million dollar homes in the majority of the city will preserve affordability for those future generations you feign concern over?

            you might enjoy this: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/9/26/16356524/the-population-question

          • I see you’re still polite AF.

            The vox article is interesting, and I understand the author’s positions and arguments. I agree with many of them. Some time when I have time, and when you are less angry and judgmental, I would be happy to discuss them with you.

          • I agree 100% about smaller developments and their target markets. Still, there’s heaps of empty land and devo opportuniy in south Seattle. There’s even quite a bit in way-north Seattle.

        • Develop those areas well, and they may not stay poor. I’ll bet the opposite happens. Plus, if we’re aiming for affordability, it seems sensible to me to focus on areas with good amenity support and low-impact commuting opportunities.

          • A major problem is that so long as we have gross and growing inequity, when an area does “not stay poor” it leads directly to displacement. “Developing those areas well” will lead to gentrification by definition.

          • I get that line of thought; it’s reasonable, for sure. At the same time, it’s easy to find the following argument applied to fully developed locales: “additional units will reduce prices”.

            So, we can focus development in wealthy areas, and that housing will super expensive but will lead to less displacement, the thinking goes. We can focus development in undeveloped areas where new units will be cheaper but displacement will be higher. How might the other options be described?

          • You define the problem well. CM Herbold points out that OPCD has not adequately evaluated displacement risks. That’s a first step. Then design programs, including real inclusionary zoning (which MHA is not), that will produce housing for a broad range of low AMI households (and homeless!) in as many neighborhoods as possible, while avoiding or mitigating impacts on existing communities as much as possible.

            All easy to say and difficult to do. And all made more difficult when constituencies with legitimate interests are excluded from the discussion. Notwithstanding the position of people like mike eliason who denigrate and deny the legitimacy of the interests of many. [cue up for spew…]

          • Most IZ programs have an opt out. Most IZ programs are not catering to ‘a broad range of low AMI households’. Most IZ programs are not effective. The same ‘constituency’ that has spent decades fighting housing, fighting to preserve most of the city as out of bounds for affordable or multifamily housing, the same ‘constituency’ that largely doesn’t even RESIDE in an urban village – thinks IZ is a magic bullet that will solve our affordability crisis – especially if we only crank up the fees. Seems to be working out really well in Portland, huh? http://www.oregonlive.com/front-porch/index.ssf/2018/02/apartment_construction_is_dryi.html

            Just like it did for SFO? One of the most absurd housing markets in the world (exacerbated by the same anti-housing tactics a certain class of homeowners in this city adores) and the number of IZ units dropped. Hmmm.

            If we really want affordable housing, we will have to tax – broadly, including homeowner wealth, $14BILLION in Seattle alone in last year – to build it. Vienna is the most efficient and productive with regards to this. No single family zoning and multifamily and affordable housing being legal everywhere housing is legal – as we used to have a century ago – also helps.

          • I do not think IZ is a “magic bullet.” Nor am I (or SCALE etc) “fighting to preserve most of the city as out of bounds for affordable or multifamily housing.” That’s your projection.

            IZ was developed because of the difficulty of extracting money from developers or requiring a contribution of affordable/low income housing in developers’ projects due to the 5th Amendment Takings Clause (and state equivalents) as interpreted by the courts. IZ is at best a partial solution to the problems of inequity and segregation. Even in city’s with much stronger and more truly “I” programs than Seattle’s (e.g., NYC) it does not stop gentrification and displacement.

            I disagree with your solution (primarily taxing “homeowner wealth”). The “wealth” that is causing the problem is not the myriad of homeowners who now sit on $.5MM in equity (and pay $10M/yr in taxes). The problem is the huge amount of capital set into motion by economic forces well beyond the control of anyone (likely to be) on this blog. If we could find a way to tax more of that capital and its transactions, we would generate far more revenue to build needed housing than MHA, or even a truly inclusionary IZ program, will ever produce.

            Until we implement more aggressive progressive taxation, our city government should have the honesty to state what it’s proposed MHA program really is and what it won’t do. Inclusionary it is not, and prevention of displacement it will not do.

            Vienna is not Seattle, Austria is not WA state, and Europe is not the U.S.

          • A friend of mine grew up in GreenLake. He says that when he was a kid, Green Lake and Wallingford were for poor families. The wealthy lived in Mag, Cap Hill, and QA.

          • Some of the wealthy still live in parts of Magnolia, QA, and North Capitol Hill. And on the Eastside far more than in Seattle. See There is almost no overlap between UVs targeted for MHA rezones and higher income neighborhoods. On this point I’m sure most readers here will agree; IMO wealthier neighborhoods are not taking their share of growth. On the other hand, poorer neighborhoods like South Park, that do not meet the criteria to justify UV designation, are targeted for gentrification.

          • Yes, you would say something polite, wouldn’t you, Mike. How many people do you work with from South Park?

            Cheers, spew on…

          • I’ve collaborated with a good friend who lives in South Park. Does his work on his neighborhood plan not count?

          • Speaking of neighborhood plans, I heard a recent local anti-housing NIMBY was bragging about how fremont’s ‘neighborhood’ planning cut the urban village nearly in half with no zoning changes. Sure did a lot to preserve affordability, huh?

          • You mean gentrification in South Park, because it’s not getting much upzoning?

            I’d like to see many more blocks bumped up to RSL, especially near nascent corridors, like 35th Ave NE, Phinney, 24th Ave NW, downtown Magnolia, 34th Ave E, etc

          • Yes, exactly. South Park is the last place that should be gentrified in the name of producing a pittance of MHA funds.

          • So, you want no upzoning in South Park? New money is going to come into South Park either way. Or, perhaps you’re making the argument that upzoning accelerates price increases. (truly trying to understand, at least for a little while longer).

          • I don’t want to represent South Park in more depth on this forum. Please ask the people who live there if you want reasons for their position. You can find the name of the appealing organization in the SCALE appeal.

      • http://beachworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/MHA_Overview.png

        -most HALA MHA areas are below the ship canal

        -North Seattle is richer and whiter than South Seattle, new construction in South Seattle causes greater displacement than in North Seattle

        -Stop with that gentrification is good narrative

        -North Seattle doesn’t have worse roads than South Seattle

        North Parks:
        Carkeek, Ravenna, Golden Gardens, Magnuson Discovery, Woodland, Greenlake, Gasworks

        Central Parks:
        Interlaken, Volunteer, Cal Anderson, Leschi, Sculpture Park/Myrtle Edwards

        SE Parks:

        Genessee, Seward, Atlantic City, Colman

        SW:

        Schmitz, Mee Kwa Mooks, Hiawatha, Lincoln, Westcrest

        All of Seattle has really nice parks. Most of them are surrounded by single family housing. Some of the nicest are in North Seattle (I’d rank Schmitz > Discovery > Careek > Ravenna > Seward > etc)

  2. I live a couple blocks away and I’d recommend you actually check out where the lot is situated. Its proposed entrance is a narrow, no-name alley nestled between Fremont and Evanston. I’m all about building density and don’t care about the lack of parking. But I do believe that we should be building to connect with the rest of the neighborhood, transit and the main thoroughfare (Fremont Ave) and not wall off the community. Nearly all the other buildings on that block of Fremont have direct access to Fremont Ave, which makes sense.

    • I walk and bike this area frequently. There are public stairs just to the north and to south. So while I’d also like to see direct access, I think the plan is quite workable without it. Having a three minute walk to a transit stop is not bad, it’s really good.

    • The other buildings on that block of Fremont Ave have direct access to it by rather steep staircases, necessary because of the way the land is shaped (I imagine it was shaped this way by humans to smooth the grade of Fremont Ave many years ago). That’s where the “wall” comes from.

      If this building is built residents will use the alley and public stairways, and the path to transit and other destinations really isn’t any longer. I used to live a few blocks from there, so I’ve walked up those staircases and alleys many times (I particularly like the stairway at 40th, with its tile-work and places to sit). Having more people walking through there will be great. The Times author’s concern for folks that can’t climb stairs applies equally to the existing houses, or anything else that would reasonably be built there.

  3. “The other popular way to survive Seattle while of modest income is
    renting larger spaces and living with roommates, but classist concerns
    can be found for that arrangement too.”

    What does that mean? What is classist about shared housing?

        • Let me know when you get unanimity of opinion when there’s three or more humans involved. Not even pizza toppings.

          • You’re the one saying there needs to be unanimity before proceeding. I’m agreeing there’s rarely unanimous approval, but if it meets code build it.

          • I have never said any such thing (your first sentence).

            And “meets code” includes design review and SEPA. They are part of the “code” last time I looked.

  4. The referenced article is really just someone processing their middle aged myopia setting in, for the rest of us to read. “I used to live in one of these, I got older, I got my $800K house, and now we should stop building them.”

    Good lord. Welcome to your 30s, living in a city. Things will change. Like all the time. In fits, starts and lurches. That’s cities. I’m a 4th gen. Seattleite, and it STILL blows me away how parochial Seattleites insist upon being sometimes.

    They’re putting 52 units on 2 formerly single family home lots across the alley from my house. But then, I bought a place 2 blocks from a light rail station 11 years ago. So, this was bound to happen. I lost my very modest view, planted some fast growing trees instead, and moved on. People get to move here and afford where they live more than previous options allowed. I’m over it. We’re changing, lurching ahead again. It’ll keep happening.

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