At the Seattle Times yesterday columnist Jon Talton posted a very simple poll question. Is Seattle growing too fast, dumb, or just right?
I answered “Just right” almost reflexively because I know that there is a lot behind the ideas of growth being “too fast” or “too dumb.” Obviously, we’re growth champions. But when I reflect on the actions of the City Council over the last year and a half, I’d change my vote to “too dumb,” not because I don’t want growth, but that the City Council doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing.
Erica Barnett wrote a great post exposing Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s NIMBYism in pushing a horrible change to design review on behalf of a few of his angry neighbors. Sadly, her post comes too late to fix the damage or stop it, but at least the Seattle Transit Blog is allowing open criticism by name. When I wrote a similar post four years ago, I was put on probation; all my posts had to have at least one person read them. Seriously.
The fact that Barnett’s post has garnered more nods of recognition of O’Brien’s loss of his anchor to sustainability than howls of sympathy for him is, well, progress? Recognizing that the Seattle City Council is presiding, through O’Brien, over an era of dumb growth is a first step, but when are we going to do something about it? One important first step is making the Councilmembers feel uncomfortable with their bad decisions by telling them. This isn’t pleasant, but it’s what the angry neighbors do all the time. We should too.
It’s been almost a year since the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee under the leadership of Councilmember Mike O’Brien outlawed microhousing in Seattle. I can still remember Councilmember Burgess chiding the audience that the legislation passed would have no effect on the production of microhousing, even as a letter was arriving from the Mayor threatening a veto because the legislation would, in fact, do just what Burgess willfully said it wouldn’t.
But there is one last example of microhousing under the old code coming online, the Yobi Apartments. Designed by architect and HALA Committee Member (HALA stands for Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) David Neiman, the project is a stark reminder of how microhousing was improving in design and function all over the city. Neiman held an open house to highlight exactly what the City Council and bureaucrats were missing. Did any Councilmembers or candidates show up? Nope. I guess they were washing their hair.
But lots of other housing enthusiasts did. Here’s what City Builder Rob Harrison and Charlie Cunniff said along fellow City Builder Laura Bernstein’s comprehensive photos. Maybe we still have a chance of bringing more housing like this online.
Open house at an excellent example of micro-housing by Neiman Taber Architects, at 12th and Marion. There definitely have been times in my life I would have loved to live in a building like this. Unfortunately this form of housing has effectively been legislated out of existence by the Mike O’Brien-led PLUS Committee backed by the rest of City Council. All of Council, and all Council candidates, were invited to the tour, but no one showed. I think if they could see this *good* example of micro-housing they would be more open to it.
Rob Harrison on Facebook
I think that David Nieman and his team did a great job for his clients and the neighborhood. There is obviously a demand, as Seattle U has taken out a Master Lease for the entire building in order to house students that want to move on from the dorms. It is a shame that this form will not be able to built now that the City Council has essentially legislated against it. I do not think these are for every neighborhood, and maybe that was part of the problem. There was fear from many in the neighborhoods that this form would come in and overwhelm the “single family character.” But, instead of thoughtfully legislating where these could be built, they have been essentially outlawed. There is a lot of demand for housing like this and more should be allowed to be built.
I have no naive belief that these are for everyone. No form of housing satisfies the entire market. But, these will work well for some, perhaps many, particularly in and adjacent to urban villages, etc. Are they “affordable?” At about $1100, including cable, wifi, utilities, etc and in a dense, walkable neighborhood where you do not need a car, I think that they are.
Also, it was interesting to meet the Ethiopian family developers who have cobbled together the funding to build this and many other projects around our town. They have the immigrant vision that more housing is needed for the people that are already here, are being born here and are moving here. They also have the drive to create housing, which is not for the timid as it can be a difficult process.
Charlie Cunniff on Facebook
Photos by Laura Bernstein on Facebook
As if things weren’t bad enough, the Seattle City Council is considering impact fees, the charges applied to new development allowed by State law to off set the impacts of new growth. Largely limited to the suburbs, impact fees add costs to new housing and therefore increase the price of that housing. In a way, impact fees make more sense than Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s linkage tax, and illegal tax on all new housing built in the city because there is actually some related infrastructure built that benefits the residents of new housing with impact fees. We should be wary when people start saying things like, “growth should pay for growth,” when they argue for impact fees. The truth is that in Seattle, it already does. Impact fees here would simply make housing less affordable.
I have already pointed out that new development already pays lots and lots of fees, taxes, and charges that contribute adjacent infrastructure (e.g. sidewalks and drainage) and infrastructure all over the city. Take a look at the Cumulative Reserve Subfund (CRS), funded by Real Estate Excise Taxes (REET). Here’s a breakdown from last year’s City budget proposal on what the CRS pays for citywide:
► CRS REET I Support to Transportation $3,500,000
► CRS REET II Support to Transportation $26,534,000
► CRS Street Vacation Support to Transportation $2,056,000
► CRS Support for Operating & Maintenance Expenditures – $1,000,000
► CRS Support for Operating & Maintenance Expenditures – $1,000,000
The CRS also funds about $400,000 in tenant relocation assistance. And that vacation support to transportation? That comes out of the fees builders and developers pay when they get an alley or right of way vacated by the City; it’s something that they pay fair market value to the City.
So tell the Seattle Times, the City Council, and others that want growth to pay for growth that, in Seattle, it already does. Oh, and guess what? Almost all of these costs are also paid by non-profit housing developers buying land and building housing with subsidies and borrowed money. In the case of private for-profit developers these costs are absorbed by the renters. In the case of non-profit housing, that gets paid for by, ironically, the taxpayer since the subsidy gets consumed by these costs rather than by actual housing construction. That’s part of the reason affordable housing is so expensive to build.
Instead of trying to address these costs in ways that would reduce housing costs, the City Council is making it worse, spending precious time trying to figure out how to add even more costs to housing and thus to its price for the consumer with impact fees. It’s like I said over the weekend, sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
Event InformationTUE, AUG 25, 2015 AT 5:30 PM
Yobi Apartments, Seattle, WA
The Yobi Apartments are a significant step forward in the design of Urban Microhousing. The Yobi was designed from the ground up with the conviction that congregate housing can be a desirable housing option where the architecture can support chance interaction and help to build community among the residents. For microhousing proponents and critics alike, we welcome you our open house to tour this project to learn more about what microhousing is and what it can be.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015 from 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM (PDT)
Yobi Apartments – 1219 E Marion St Seattle, WA 98122 – View Map
Here’s a Facebook exchange over at City Builders about my last post about neighborhood process and the recommendations of the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee in which I pointed out that the HALA Committee WAS the public process for future upzones that will create affordable housing:
This is a crucial phase for the HALA package of recommendations but especially for the so called “Grand Bargain.” If 30 different neighborhoods are allowed to second guess the recommendations and substantially change or attenuate them, the whole deal would likely fall apart. But can Seattle resist the urge to fuss and fret and wring its hands over the recommendations? Can Seattle’s civic leadership say the deal won’t be renegotiated neighbor by neighbor over the next two years? Is there precedent for imposing a solution?
There is. When the Growth Management Act (GMA) passed through the legislature in the late 80s it called for very specific planning for growth in cities in Washington, particularly in the State’s largest city. The solution was the comprehensive plan promulgated by Seattle’s Mayor Norm Rice. It didn’t try to renegotiate the basic principles of the GMA, that growth would happen mainly in the city not outside of it, but it offered a way to plan for that growth, the Comprehensive Plan with an Urban Village component.
This is why I’ve called for a restoration of the Neighborhood Development Manager, the crew of six people hired at the end of the last big planning process in the 1990s. The NDMs (and I worked as an NDM from the beginning of the program) had a unique role, brokering and leveraging new development for neighborhood benefit. We need this function restored at the City as soon as possible! In the 90s neighborhoods had the expectation that growth was coming, even if they didn’t want it. The question was explicitly, “what’s in it for us?” The answer was a list of neighborhood improvements facilitated aggressively by City staff committed to keeping the promises made during the planning process.
I think the NDM job was still just about the best job I ever had. I was a neighborhood planner in two different neighborhoods, and when I took on the job I was determined to get as many things done as possible. People put thousands of hours into planning and the last thing we needed was to betray that trust by putting their work on the shelf, shrugging, and doing whatever was already going to happen. The majority of neighbors will accept the upzones even if they are imposed just they way they were mapped out in the HAPA process; I know they will. But only if the statement is made clearly at the outset, “these are not up for negotiation, but we will work with you every step of the way to make these changes mean a better life for you and your family where you live.” Anything less than this will open up the recommendations and wipe out the delicate balance.