Seattle Desperately Needs the GMA to Promote Affordable Housing

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A street with a row of single family homes with one under construction.
Typical Seattle block under single family zoning. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

When I moved to Seattle from New York City last summer, I was struck by the drastic difference in the housing provided by each city. In Brooklyn, apartment buildings took up whole city blocks. Here as newcomers, my girlfriend and I spent a lot of time touring houses or duplexes instead. We weren’t interested in a luxury downtown highrise–and couldn’t afford one anyways–so we settled on an old house in Fremont–one that was near the top of our budget and cost a lot to heat every month with its poor insulation.

It was less than ideal. On a plot of land that could have housed four or five families, there was just one slightly decrepit house. At the time, I considered this an inconvenience and didn’t dwell on it. However, after learning about the Growth Management Act (GMA) and Seattle’s lack of dense affordable housing, it became clear to me that this was a much more dire issue than I had initially understood. 

Seattle is full of neighborhoods like mine that have strict limits on density. I see old homes getting demolished regularly. Instead of affordable housing, million dollar townhomes spring up in their place. Over time the neighborhood transforms — becoming unaffordable, and bland. I look out my window now at rows of townhomes and miss the vibrancy of my former block in Brooklyn, where every building was home to dozens of families, and somebody’s grandma spent Sundays drying her laundry in the courtyard, and you couldn’t go more than two blocks without encountering a deli. The sounds and smells of many, many dinners being made; the din of radios and TVs and car alarms; these little tidbits of life are markedly absent.

Updating the Growth Management Act could bring them back, but this is about so much more than my own nostalgia, or what I think a neighborhood should look and feel like; it’s about real people’s lives, which will be improved if Seattle chooses to prioritize housing that is inclusive, affordable, and dense.

Seattle doesn’t need more detached housing, and it certainly doesn’t need more luxury apartments (in fact, lots of them now sit empty, a cruel irony considering how many people are on the streets). We are experiencing a crisis of homelessness, exacerbated by the pandemic, and I believe a long-term solution can be found in updating the GMA. Recently, I learned about urban growth boundaries–those lines in the sand that a city draws that decide where the sprawl must stop. In order for these boundaries to work, they have to be strict. Otherwise, the sprawl leaks out, folks chasing affordability continue to inch further out of the city, commute times go up, and green space is lost to residential builders.

But there’s a better option–one that can address the needs of all Washingtonians–and updating the GMA can help us get there. By making urban boundaries more strict, and making density actually possible (via funding, zoning laws, and streamlining the approval process), we can begin to build up, not out. We can make it possible for anyone to live in the city who wants to, to cut commute times in half, to preserve green spaces, and to prioritize affordability. Thus, I feel compelled to urge my legislators to update the GMA in accordance with these priorities. We cannot wait another decade for the next opportunity to do so; we must act now.

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Emma Banks (Guest Contributor)

Emma Banks is a Seattle-based writer and reporter with a focus on queer culture. She is originally from Glasgow, Scotland, but now calls Texas home

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kevin

IIRC the minimum cost to build a new apartment of any size in Seattle is about $400K. There’s no way to make that affordable compared to an apartment in an old deteriorating home. You can tear down old houses and put up apartments, but it still won’t be cheap.

Daniel Thompson

In the article about the Lewis proposal to build supportive housing one goal is to build 6500 subsidized units at a cost of $1.6 billion, which works out to less than $250,000/unit, about half of what public subsidized housing — including maintenance — has run in the past in Seattle, before all the new international building codes become effective Feb. 1 2021.

Marty Oppenheimer

Apparently the author never looked for housing on Capital Hill, the home to many, many apartment buildings with studios, and 1 and 2 bedroom units.. They are not rent controlled like NYC, but there are plenty of smaller apartments if you look in the right neighborhoods. Capital Hill has older apartments. So does the U District and Lower Queen Anne.

YIMBY

“I see old homes getting demolished regularly. Instead of affordable housing, million dollar townhomes spring up in their place.”

Hmm.. this reads like a NIMBY talking point. I see old homes getting demolished regularly too, but I see $2M single family homes spring up in their place.

Anonymous

The dynamic in our neighborhood is this:

One old small detached house, sale price in the $800s demo’d and replaced by one new big detached house, sale price $1.5M plus

or, where zoning allows

Old small detached house, sales price in the $800s. demo’d and replaced by as many as 5 new townhomes, sale price also in the $800s.

The latter is light years better for affordability. (Of course un-banning apartments on more land so ‘plexes are economically competitive would be best!)

billt47

With regard to the point that was being made, that’s a distinction without a difference.

Anonymous

It’s an enormous difference…a two earner couple with good middle class jobs can qualify for an $800k mortgage (2 x $80k income each = $160k total income). To qualify for a $1.5M mortgage each earner must make at least $150k or one earner needs to be in a job paying a quarter million a year or more.

Matthew Lewis

People consistently will choose detached housing if that is available. We need more detached housing, obviously.

“ Seattle doesn’t need more detached housing, ”

billt47

That’s like saying “People will consistently choose to drive, if they have a car,” to justify not funding transit. The point is to allow alternatives, and to recognize that not everybody prefers, or can afford, the same thing.

Jeff Berner

Umm….the street in that photograph is the next street over from mine. The photograph was conveniently cropped to not show the boarding house that is immediately left out of frame. Our neighborhood is single family but I have seven UW sharing a house next door to me.

billt47

So? The image is intended to represent a typical SFR neighborhood in Seattle, not your particular location.

rdpence

I’m surprised that people can move from Brooklyn to Seattle and then be surprised that Seattle isn’t like Brooklyn. [ad hominem attack removed] And no, we can’t and won’t remake Seattle to look like Brooklyn.

Anonymous

The ID and Bushwick don’t look all that different in places.

Doug Trumm

Roger, a pleasure as always. I think it’s fair to compare Seattle and Brooklyn in the spirit of learning from each other and taking idea from what works well about other cities. The goal is not to make a photocopy but challenge our preconceived notions and grow as a city. If you’re not into, feel free to keep your head in the sand, but no need to call people who want to do otherwise naïve.

Daniel Thompson

https://www.bestplaces.net/compare-cities/brooklyn_ny/seattle_wa/people

In 2010 the population of Brooklyn was 2,466,782. In 2010 the population of Seattle was 595,240.

In 2010 the population density per square mile of Brooklynn was 37,210.8, whereas the population density of Seattle was 8207.0. And this doesn’t even begin to get into the massive amount of land north, south, east and west of Seattle with very low densities.

Zoning for Seattle based on Brooklynn would be like zoning Seattle for Laramie Wyoming. Future population estimates for Seattle put population growth barely above 1%/year, and the same for King Co.

Seattle does not need amendments to the GMA to change its zoning. It has that power already under the GMA. But zoning and land use is politics, in the most visceral way. Getting into a viscous zoning fight when the other side has all the money is usually unproductive. The perfect way to stop upzoning is gut transit.

If large houses bother you then lowering gross floor area to lot area ratio is the remedy, and increasing yard setbacks that preserve lot vegetation and trees. If affordable housing is the goal you will need public funding somehow, and new construction in the most expensive neighborhoods through upzoning will not accomplish that goal. The first consideration for affordable housing is the underlying cost of the land. Upzoning Laurelhurst won’t accomplish anything, except if you are angry at the wealth and housing of the residents. At worst Laurelhurst will adopt restrictive covenants on multi-family housing that supersede zoning, like Mayor Durkan’s neighborhood, or seek to incorporate which takes a very large tax base with it.

If declining and limited transit funding and frequency are the issue, and future levies look questionable, then concentrating frequency on existing transit in already dense areas makes the most sense, because right now what some are talking about is upzoning undense neighborhoods with little or no transit despite declining future transit levels of service, which I guess means lots and lots of street parking for cars.

As the author of the post noted her first desire was to live in downtown Seattle, and with rents dropping 22% over the last year that is now more affordable for the Brooklynn kind of experience she seeks. Our problem is Seattle’s downtown has none of the attractions or retail density of Brooklynn (not surprising considering the huge gap in total population and density), which has a much higher cost of living and housing despite — or really because of its density. https://www.bestplaces.net/cost-of-living/seattle-wa/brooklyn-ny/300000

RossB

In my opinion, the biggest difference between Brooklyn housing and Seattle is that Seattle lacks low rise development. Brooklyn (like Boston, Montreal, Paris) has lots and lots of high density neighborhoods where the structures are as high as typical new house in Seattle (three stores, with maybe a basement). Row houses can fit a lot of people, especially when you allow a different family on each floor. So can short apartments.

This type of development is illegal on almost all of the land in Seattle. As you wrote, they are instead building huge houses. It isn’t about height, it is about density. A sweeping overhaul, applying to all private land — as was recently done in Portland — is long overdue. If Portland can do it, we should be able to.