The Great Seattle Housing Swap

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Great Housing Swap graphic shows how single family homes could be converted to larger residential buildings with space for the homeowner. (Graphic by Ryan DiRaimo)

Imagine if you could partner with a developer to build a multiplex or rowhouse on your property, and, in exchange for the land, you were gifted a home in the new development? This is the concept for the “Great Seattle Housing Swap,” an idea that will leverage our residential land to create housing growth in our neighborhoods, allow existing residents to age in place, and lower the financial burdens of displacement and new housing costs.

This isn’t a new idea.

This great diagram by Alfred Twu explains the Polykatoikia concept. This rebuilt Athens and created housing wealth for the average Greek, not just the top 1%. (Alfred Twu)

Athens, Greece used to be a city of lowrise, single-story residences in their urban core until the 1920s when they realized their city population was not going to stop growing. People were land rich and house poor. So, what did they do? They partnered homeowners with developers and created one of the most interesting housing swap concepts ever seen. A developer would replace their house with a stacked flat, and give them a home in the new building in addition to some apartments to rent as a tradeoff. The term is Polykatoikia and it is fantastic.

Apartment building built in 1930s on Patriarchou Ioakeim and Irodotou Streets in Athens. (Photo by Dimitris Kamaras, Creative Commons)

Seattle is in a similar situation in the 2020s, where housing prices have exploded so much people have nowhere to go and only the wealthy are able to buy in. Like Athens, we need to recognize our population is still going to grow and unless we leverage the vast majority of land that mandates one housing type, we will only make it more impossible for anyone to live here.

What should Seattle do to replicate this concept?

1. Legalize it

For starters, the city must upzone every neighborhood so rowhouses or a sixplex are legal to build by-right everywhere. This will allow the city to adequately handle as much as three million people for population growth, instead of grappling with a housing crisis when we barely have more people than El Paso.

What holds us back is single-family zoning dominating 30 square miles of our 40 square miles of land we can build housing on. This means 75% of the land is restricted against housing growth. This must change first.

Allowing a sixplex would not change the maximum height allowed in neighborhoods, which is currently capped at 35 feet (or, three stories). The other change should be growing lot coverage going from 35% to 50%. This allows a 2,500 square foot footprint on a standard sized lot, allowing both units split down the middle to be comfortably sized. There are other changes we need to make such as front setbacks limited to three feet maximum, and side setbacks reduced to two feet minimum so we have the widths to create nice sized units and the requirement to push buildings to the street so back yard gardens can be shared by residents.

2. Incentivize it

In addition to sixplexes by-right citywide, we should incentivize the housing swap concept further. Any developer building a residence for the existing homeowner should automatically get a fourth level bonus. That way we can build the six homes below, and keep that family on their property in their neighborhood as well. This way a developer can look at only the cost of construction to add another unit, and not worry about dividing other costly endeavors, like utilities and land acquisition, with the seventh family. If neither side wishes for this agreement, that’s okay too; let them still build a three-story sixplex on-site and move on. The owner can cash out on the land sale, or decide they want to stay and swap the land for a single-level unit on whichever level they prefer.

3. Streamline it

The city should work with architects and designers to establish a series of pre-designed plans with flexible changes that are already approved by the building department. This will speed up the time to begin construction and recreate the catalog of kit housing that built all these Craftsman bungalows around the city. (I swear to god, if we have to listen to a group of architects bicker about brick style and color on these modest projects, I will scream.) Let’s skip design review all together and just push these projects to the building department to obtain construction permits. We don’t need long-winded meetings twice a month to talk about a multiplex on a small lot. Save that for towers and public projects. Increase the threshold for design review to be buildings greater than 10 stories so we can stop letting neighbors fight and bottleneck these types of modest housing projects typical of liberal Seattle hypocrites.

4. End parking minimums

This one is easy. We don’t have parking minimums in Seattle’s urban centers and much of urban villages, which take up 18% of our city’s land (including our densest neighborhoods of Downtown, South Lake Union, First Hill, and Capitol Hill). If it’s good enough for them, it is good enough citywide. Let a developer decide if it’s worth building. Chances are it won’t be since below-grade parking is expensive and ruins space.

5. Allow commercial spaces on corners

Some lots are special. Portland is famous for having shorter blocks to create more corners, since corners are valuable to urban economies. We should allow corner lots to feature retail spaces and limit them to the first floor. This means shops no larger than 2,500 square feet will be able to fit in the space, which is good for small business and rent. Who wouldn’t want to live in the same building as a coffee shop, bakery, bookstore, or general store? The Great Seattle Housing Swap will finally create blocks that feature four floors and cornerstores.

The developer is not a supervillain

When John Wallingford showed up in Seattle, he build a ton of housing for a neighborhood that thanked him by naming the neighborhood after him and electing him twice to Seattle City Council. Ironically, residents there today despise developers and love what developer John Wallingford built them 100 years ago. Perhaps with partnerships like these, we can not only build four floors and cornerstores, but we can also stop scapegoating developers and bashing them for doing what they’ve always done here and elsewhere: build housing.

A lot of people bought Seattle’s homes when they were plentiful and affordable. This is who this is for. Rather than being locked in to their house with nowhere to go, seeing prices soaring around the city and entire region, here is a chance for individuals to add housing on-site without going anywhere. Who knows, maybe when enough people sign up for this program, we will have proud generations converting spaces to live in commune with their grandkids the way the Greeks did 100 years ago.

This article is a cross-post from Ryan DiRaimo’s personal blog.

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Ryan DiRaimo is a resident of the Aurora Licton-Springs Urban Village and board member of the neighborhood group ALUV. He works at an architecture firm downtown and seeks to leave a positive urban impact on Seattle and the surrounding metro. He advocates for more housing, safer streets, and mass transit infrastructure and hopes to see a city someday that is less reliant on the car.

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Ott Toomet

Are there any advantages of such swaps over just developer buying the lot and the (former) houseowner buying a new (or a few new) apartment nearby? I know such offers have been made in Seattle.

I see one advantage of just selling-buying over swaps–the owner does not have to move twice. As your former lot (and possibly neighboring ones) will completely redeveloped anyway, I see little reason to continue to live on exactly the same spot, so another suitable flat nearby might do just as well. And now they just have to move there with all the stuff that tends to pile up at home and that’s it, otherwise they should move again to their former location in a year or two.

Antonio

Some good ideas here, as well as some that ignore reality. Rather than write a comprehensive commentary, I’ll point out that item #4 lacks a valid argument, unless saying that something “is easy” is considered adequate. It’s true that there are few parking requirements in Seattle urban centers. And, it’s a problem. There’s a prevailing notion amongst many involved with city planning that by eliminating driving lanes and parking, everyone will take to mass transit and bicycles. This largely ignores a substantial portion of the population that needs the flexibility to go multiple locations in a day, of carrying materials and children. It also ignores that many are not physically able to ride a bicycle, especially up a hill or in wet weather. Seattle is not Copenhagen. Neighborhoods that have lost their street parking due to new development experience parking wars. I’ve lived through them in Capitol Hill and the Central District. We should be learning from this mistake, not propagating it.

asdf2

It has been said here time and time again. No parking requirements is not a mandate to build no parking. It simply means whoever is constructing the building has the right to choose how much parking to build based on demand and construction cost. If you need parking and a particular building doesn’t have parking, you don’t have to live there. That’s ok.

As an analogy, take washing machines. Having your own washing machine is a nice convenience and there are plenty of people that won’t move into a unit that doesn’t come with a private washer and dryer. But, that doesn’t mean that every unit has to come with a washer and dryer because there are plenty people that are just fine putting up with laundry rooms if it means getting a good location for cheaper rent. It’s the same thing with parking spaces. If you want a parking space, choose a unit that has one and be prepared to pay extra for it. If you don’t need it, choose one that doesn’t have it and save on rent. There is no reason not to let the free market provide the choice and let residents vote with their feet which choice to make.

If the issue is street parking, the solution is not to require so much off-street parking that nobody wants to parking on the street anymore. It’s to properly regulate the street so that there’s always an empty space on every block. And, yes, this means if you want to park on the street, you’re going to have to pay for it. After all, a car takes up about 150 square feet, and expecting the city to just provide you with 150 square feet of pavement, for free, indefinitely, in an expensive neighborhood, just because you’re using it to store your car, is not reasonable. After all, nobody gives you such space for free to store anything else.

Trademark

I love the idea my only question is where do the homeowners live while the building is being constructed?

Ben

This is a really interesting piece. I had never heard of this concept, and was not familiar with the history of Athens’ housing stock. Thank you!

Reading the comments before mine, I have the say that the notions that only SF homeowners have the right to comment on this issue, or that apartments are “blight,” or that London is some sort for dumpy city, are just completely unhinged.

Let the record show, that I own a single family home and I very much understand the stakes of “plunking down” a large amount of debt and I would WELCOME apartments in my neighborhood or the chance to do the housing swap thing. That sounds amazing to me.

large buildings are also not “blight.” I have my own disagreements with the fixation that some people have on Vienna-style social housing, but leaving that aside, cities like Vienna, Hong Kong, Paris, Tokyo are all places that have very few SF homes and also high value property that are not blighted.

And I don’t know what to tell you about the prevalence of rats in some London apartments. It happens. They’re rodents. Last time I visited London it was still very much a lovely city, with all sorts of great stuff, and also extremely expensive. i.e., the rats don’t seem to have dissuaded people from wanting to live there.

Bryan

Let the record show, that I own a single family home and I very much understand the stakes of “plunking down” a large amount of debt and I would WELCOME apartments in my neighborhood”

Well said. Big +1

Vic Hardy

If you’re commenting on this forum and don’t own a SF home, especially in Seattle then you probably don’t understand the stakes of having plunked down $500K to $1M or more and then have to deal with the change in your property values when a blight (sorry, but yes, it’s a blight to a SF home owner) pops up on your block.

Three years ago I sold my childhood home on 27th ave in Magnolia so we could afford care for my mother who has dementia. It was a small, < 2000 sf tear-down and the best offer came from a developer at $800K. He tore it down of course and put up a SF 6K sf 3 story block house and completely out of character with the rest of the neighbohood, except for the similar one across the street bought by a developer friend of his who used to work for him. Even though he’ll sell it for about $3M, the neighbors are livid, especially the 4 that are right next to it.

Now replace those with 4 or 6 story apartments and you should get it. It’s the beginning of the end for SF housing. Maybe that’s what so-called land-use bureaucrats want, and perhaps it will be a good thing in the end, but it’s certainly not where I’d want to live.

Douglas Trumm

I think you’re assuming everyone shares your preference of living a 2,000 square feet plus single family homes. That’s not true of everybody. For people like me of who prefer living in apartments in walkable neighborhoods near things to do instead of a sea of other single family homes, we could just as easily assume everyone shares our preference. They don’t. The difference is Seattle is the ideal place to add dense apartments and condos in our region, but single family literally can go anywhere and the land use patterns across the region generally reserve about 3/4 of the residential land for single family homes. It’s not a lifestyle that’s in danger.

Chris

You think your property value will go down if it’s legal to replace it with 6+ units? How would that even work? Your property value is artificially lowered because of the SFH zoning now.

Vic Hardy

A Joy, you can strike bookshop from your list; Amazon (a Seattle company ironically) took care of that :). In any event, I grew up in Seattle, not downtown but in the Magnolia district, in a small single family house and have fond memories of the yard and neighbors. The whole concept of urban upheaval by allowing zoning changes so a greedy neighbor can build apartments and throw the whole neighborhood in turmoil is discouraging. People will then start selling and eventually there will be no SFH at all and everybody who wants a fence and a yard will move to the suburbs.

Last edited 4 months ago by Vic Hardy
ballardite

Yes – it will cause the urban sprawl we are trying to avoid. Empty apartments are everywhere in Seattle. Go to any of the new buildings – all have vacant units. Want a condo? Go downtown – entire new buildings for sale. Right now there isn’t a shortage of spaces to live – only a shortage of single family homes.

Ott Toomet

It causes more sprawl if you move more people away from jobs than closer to jobs. If you build apartment tower in downtown (and it does not stay empty), you move ~400 working adults close to jobs. If you remove 5 SFH-s in the process, you move ~10 adults away from jobs. They must move very-very far away, while the new apartment dwellers must come from nearby for this to increase sprawl.

It is probably true that there is (relatively) plenty of free apartments now. If this remains like this for _low-rent_ apartments, we should see the housing crisis going away, and also the construction boom fading in ~3yrs time frame.

Eric

I’ve never seen an apartment building “throw a whole neighborhood into turmoil.” Can you tell me a bit more about this “turmoil” and how people deciding to share walls on the other end of your block will completely upend your life?

Vic Hardy

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. When the goofy Seattle city council finally pushes through their agenda of eliminating all SFH zones, then one or two neighbors a door or two down sell and a 6 story apartment appears. ‘Sharing walls’ as you put it completely changes the feel of the neighborhood and every time you walk outside or look out the window you think about moving.

Nothing upending per se, but not what you signed up for when you paid $600K for your home 5 years ago. And now parking and probably crime start an uptick. The good news is that it’s still Seattle and for now you can sell at a profit, so another developer can put up another apartment building.

Nobody who can afford better buys a house next to an apartment building.

Maybe it’s a noner for you but I think the first reaction of most SF homeowners is to bail.

Last edited 4 months ago by Vic Hardy
Bryan

Nobody who can afford better buys a house next to an apartment building.”

There’s literally a $2.5M+ new single family house that was a $1M teardown on my street that was built next to a grandfathered duplex. Not by a speculative developer – start to finish by the family that lives there.

Vic Hardy

A duplex is a bit different due to scale, but a developer will build the largest, most profitable building he can by zoning.

I will add to my comment above, if not obvious to all that when an apartment goes up, property values on that block will go down. It’s not obvious in crazy Seattle right now but logic says it is. If you’re a buyer and have to choose between a $1M (are there any $1M nice houses for sale in Seattle right now?) next to a ‘big’ apartment or one in a neighborhood that still has SF zoning, you’ll choose the later.

Bryan

Most of the folks advocating for ending single family zoning are in fact advocating for restoring small scale residential minus the single household restriction (exactly as many single family neighborhoods were prior to downzoning) – because most of the time, small wooden walkup apartments are the most affordable form of urban housing.

mixed.jpg
Ott Toomet

There are a couple of points:

  • if land is upzoned, your house may lose some of the value as those who like small town atmosphere value the location less.
  • the land, however, increases in value as the option value of building something larger grows.
  • A separate point is related to housing affordability. It is extremely hard to get both increasing house prices and increasing affordability. In most situations more cheap housing, in whatever form, will also lower the house prices, and the other way around.
Bryan

I think we also shouldn’t neglect Walk Scores as a driver of home value – particularly in close in Seattle neighborhoods whose health was hamstrung by suburbanist mindsets (Wallingford) the big increase in walkability (thanks in part to grandfathered multifamily, new construction where its allowed, and some upzoning) has likely contributed quite a bit to home values.

https://seattle.curbed.com/2016/8/8/12404754/walk-score-point-seattle-home-price

Last edited 4 months ago by Bryan
Chris

I’d love to see an example of a place in Seattle where zoning was increased and property values went down. That just makes no logical sense.

Eric

“…every time you walk outside or look out the window you think about moving.”

Nope, I don’t relate to that. I live in a single-family home a few blocks from a nice little mini mixed-use district. There are a handful of 1-4 story buildings of various ages: usually small businesses at the ground level, apartments/condos on top. When I take a walk I tend to go through that area rather than the purely residential streets nearby, it’s a more interesting collection of architecture and people to watch. Far from this nearby density making me think about moving, I lament that it’s illegal to build stuff like it on my street. Segregating people by the amount of living space they need is illogical.

“Nobody who can afford better buys a house next to an apartment building.”

The single-family-zoned houses right next to the mixed-use area I mentioned above are hardly dumps. A few of them are actually quite a bit nicer than average. It’s almost as if your opinion is not universal, and that many people who have the money for a nice place actually like living steps away from amenities such as a coffee shop and a sushi restaurant and a convenience store.

A Joy

Having spent a fair amount of time in the iconic rowhouses of London, I can assure you we absolutely do not want to permit them in Seattle. They’re rat traps, basically little better than slum housing and more poorly maintained than the Yesler Terrace houses the city deemed unsafe for habitation. The staircases take up a significant amount of their footprint too, leading to them being even tinier than they look.

The floor level retail is also a bad idea. First of all, we have a glut of it on the market today. Second of all, quite a few people would prefer living on the ground floor of a housing complex. Why should we limit the floors people can live on just so that commercial interests can make a quick buck? I know relatively few if any people who want to live in the same building as a coffee shop, bakery, bookstore, or general store, and orders of magnitude more who do not want to under any circumstances. Are we to say they do not deserve to live in future Seattle?

Last edited 4 months ago by A Joy
N.P.

Mixed use development aka living on top of coffee shops, bakeries and bookstores is extremely in demand currently. Millennials, Gen Z, and even empty nest boomers are all flocking to areas that provide this which is why these urban mixed use villages normally ask for some of the highest rents in the city.

To say that nobody wants this is completely ignoring very clear market trends. Allowing these areas by right in more places would bring down the costs and allow people from every income bracket to enjoy a mixed use, car free life

A Joy

Floor level retail is a sign of commercial urban blight that takes away square footage better devoted to housing. We need units, not coffee shops or bakeries. The “clear market trend” is a corporatist land grab, and much like SFH even if it is popular that does not make it good or a best practice.

ballardite

Agree about the london rowhouses. If you want a city devoid of trees and greenery the rowhouse will create that for you. I liken it to the Seattle rowhouses that are now being built in all upzoned areas. Only about 20% of land is now zoned Single family in Seattle and if you take that away our City will no longer have the high livability rating it currently has.

Bryan

This is not at all necessarily the case. In fact rowhouses enable you to collect the land otherwise chopped up into little private yards and turn it into essentially park for every very-small-number of homes (like crescent housing – IIRC this is St. James in London).

crescent housing.jpg
Bryan

This is not London, it’s Bath, but the same [thumbs up emoji] housing type

crescent.jpg
A Joy

While I haven’t been in the row houses in this picture, I have been in ones less than 2 miles away in an even higher end part of London (closer to Hyde Park). These are precisely the narrow rat traps that I was talking about.

Bryan

Ah yes the savage deprivation of life in terrace homes near Hyde Park.

terracehouse.jpg
A Joy

Funny. I’m all for massive amounts of zoning reform in Seattle. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the realities of what happens when an entire city is rezoned with no forethought. I’ve advocated growing Seattle’s “urban villages” into a new, dense, and large urban core and keeping a handful of SFH homes on the fringes to satisfy the NIMBYs. But rowhouses and the mythical “missing middle” are not the solutions to our real housing issues, any more than letting retail steal an entire floor of a residential complex is. We need to see what types of housing are in demand (hint: It isn’t duplexes, triplexes, and ADUs/DADUs) and combine it with subsidized housing, especially for the 0-30% AMI community. I really like the housing swap idea. I just don’t want to see the bad tossed in with the good when it comes to the concept.

AJ M

Allowing ACUs on corners in residential zoning might be a great way to facilitate #5?
https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2020/8/15/accessory-commercial-units