Photo of Rian Watt wearing a t-shirt from the National Civil Rights museum and an unbuttoned button down shirt. He is smiling slightly.
Rian Watt has been at the helm at The Urbanist since June 2023. (Courtesy photo)

If you’re seeking a succinct explanation of our housing crisis, check out the interview The Urbanist’s Executive Director Rian Watt did with Crystal Fincher on the Hacks and Wonks podcast, which aired today. Fincher is a political consultant who also serves on The Urbanist’s board.

The show begins with the news that Washington state lawmakers squandered the chance to make major progress on housing affordability in the latest legislative session, despite dubbing it the “Year of Housing 2.0.” Watt explained how a litany of high-priority housing bills went nowhere and the impact this would have on people’s lives.

“It’s really important to back up and talk about why we need a Year of Housing in the first place,” Watt said. “And the basic answer to that is because housing is way too expensive in Washington state. And that affects everybody — it affects young people who are trying to rent their first apartment, it affects parents of young kids who are trying to find a place to live with growing families, it affects our elders who are trying to age in place. It affects everyone. And of course, it’s also the single biggest driver of our parallel homelessness crisis. So the problem is that housing is too expensive, and the main reason it is too expensive is that we don’t have enough.”

Efforts to spur denser housing near transit and enact rent stabilization fizzled in Olympia. “When these bills die, they die because Democratic senators, in particular, are standing in the way of progress and are holding up concerns from the richest and the wealthiest members of our communities, as opposed to those who are really going to need this support,” Watt said. “And that’s incredibly frustrating.”

Watt said the lack of state action puts even more pressure on Seattle’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan update to allow more housing growth, but that the draft proposal from Mayor Bruce Harrell isn’t doing enough and “is planning for housing to get more expensive. It is simply not creating enough opportunities for housing growth to keep up with the demand that is coming.”

The draft plan largely maintains Seattle’s existing “urban village” strategy of concentrating almost all multifamily housing in limited areas near major arterial roads and highways, which have more issues with pollution and traffic safety. Watt said that approach fuels gentrification and displacement by “forcing apartment buildings into these loud parts of our city.”

But it’s not too late to change the plan and fight for improvements. The Harrell administration still needs to wrap public comment on the draft, submit a final proposal, and allow the Seattle City Council a chance to weigh in with amendments. This process is far from over.

Watt focused on three changes to address housing affordability and abundance.

First, was fixing the fourplex and sixplex zoning to actually allow “great family-sized housing” and not cramped skinny townhomes. Right now, the City is risking a legal challenge from the state because it has not fully implemented new state mandate and at best is doing the bare minimum. The state model code would allow as much as 80% more housing space in sixplex zones. Increasing the floor area ratio (FAR) cap to the state standard would ensure family-friendly housing is actually built in Seattle’s ubiqituous neighborhood residential zones.

“Second, I think that we can really try to get ahead of what I expect will be state action on transit-oriented development by doing modest increases to the allowable growth right along transit areas,” Watt said. “I think that’s something that will save the city a lot of time and expense later on — when they have to comply with state law in a couple of years once it’s passed — and I think it would do a lot to bring people close to the transit that gets them around the city.

Thirdly, Watt pointed to the need to allow more apartments in Regional Center neighborhoods. “If we’re going to double down on this strategy of focusing growth in some areas, we need to go really big in those areas,” he said. “I don’t think we should build 60-story buildings all across the city, but I do think if we’re going to concentrate growth like Downtown and Capitol Hill and in the University District, we need to be really, really open to a lot of density in those places if the density is going to come anywhere. And so we need to significantly increase the capacity in those neighborhoods…”

With most of the new Seattle City Councilmembers having “made a lot of verbal commitments” to reducing housing costs, Watt said the Comprehensive Plan “is an opportunity for them to hear from constituents about what those constituents want.” He directed people to resources from the Complete Communities Coalition, the city’s One Seattle Plan website to submit feedback and find public meetings, and proactively reaching out to councilmembers with their priorities.

Give the whole episode a listen and follow the excellent Hacks and Wonks podcast.

Article Author

The Urbanist staff occasionally teams up to cover breaking news or tackle large projects. See more about our team on the staff page.