Herbold Throws Shade on Johnson’s “Mission Accomplished” Moment

You might remember that I wrote about Councilmember Rob Johnson’s Mission Accomplished moment a few weeks ago when he claimed that several developers had backtracked on their already approved projects in order to voluntarily participate in the Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ). I pointed out that he simply made our case that if MIZ is so great, why is it mandatory. Just make it VIZ, Voluntary Inclusionary Zoning. Councilmember has shown why she is such a worth adversary by asking some even tougher questions.

The answer is that those projects haven’t made any commitment to participate, they simply included MIZ in their scenarios. And as I have pointed out (and pointed out to Herbold in her office a long time ago), Vulcan and big developers downtown negotiated a sweet deal in which they would pay just about what they would have paid for the existing incentive zoning scheme downtown. That is, whatever those developers would participate in is far less onerous that what everyone else in town has to deal with. Here’s an extensive quote from Herbold’s blog:

I asked for additional information about this interest of developers to opt in voluntarily to MHA in South Lake Union and Downtown and voluntarily contribute to affordable housing.   I learned that since the Downtown / SLU rezone ordinance only just became effective the actual outcome from the opt-in provision is still essentially unknown, and specifically:

  1. While some current applications without issued Master Use Permits (MUPs) have shown alternatives to the Design Review Board that incorporate the additional development capacity, none of the approximately 7 projects that could opt-in have gotten to the point of actually formalizing their commitment to opt-in by getting an approved MUP or MUP revision  that utilize the extra development capacity; and anecdotal stories statements of interest are not guarantees of future action.  But I do hope these developers do voluntarily opt in!

  2. The $25 million estimate assumes maximum build out of a site, again despite the fact that we have no specific information about MUPs approved for maximum build out. In other words, the numbers assume that a developer who might at some later date opt in will use all of the additional capacity granted through the Downtown  / SLU rezone ordinance.  That also might not be the case.  We simply do not know.

  3. Further, even if these 7 projects were to either receive MUP decisions under MHA or submit and receive new MUPs for maximum build out of these seven locations, the $25 million estimate does not derive from MHA obligations. The $25M figure is not the addition from the added MHA increment.  The total from the MHA increment would be between $2.6M and $9.1M, the existing incentive zoning program accounts for the rest.  Each of these projects already (without some future possible voluntary opt-in to MHA affordable housing requirements) would contribute between $16M and $22M under their current MUPs, depending on what’s eventually built.

 

HELP! We Need Somebody as Mayor that Will Prioritize Housing Production

The next Mayor of Seattle must pause and eventually end the disastrous policy of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ) and its expression in City policy in the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA). The policy will add cost to housing, slow its production, and pour money into an inefficient system of subsidized housing production through the non-profit housing industrial complex. But short of that, is there anything practical we can ask a Mayor to do that would improve housing production if they refuse to stop MIZ? I think there is. What Seattle’s next Mayor could do would be to follow the essence of some of the recommendations from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee (in particular, Section IV) to reduce costs through improving the permitting process.

I would call this initiative Housing Efficiency Leveraged for Production (HELP) since everyone seems to love acronyms. Housing efficiency in this context means identifying all the things both internal and external to the production of housing in Seattle that limit or add costs to its production, figuring out what those costs are, and then calculating the relationship those costs have on meeting demand. I have to emphasize I’m against setting quotas for production based on projections by planners. Instead, the City’s goal should be reducing barriers and letting demand drive production, not trying to perfectly match demand productions (which are always laughably perfectly round numbers like 6,000 units over 10 years).

The only candidate for Mayor who has ever run a city is Mike McGinn, and I’m sure he’d agree that it’s about more than making speeches. Making a difference means taking advantage of the things the City already has control of in regulation, and that depends on leadership. Here are the broad components of a HELP Program.

Horizontal – One of the biggest problems the City and any government have is coordination between departments. Breaking up the functions of government into different organizational structures makes sense. While this does help efficiency, it can also contribute to the formation of silos, when one department digs in and does what it is assigned to do without coordinating with other departments. Building housing doesn’t happen in the same way that departments are organized. For example, a water main ends up falling into the jurisdiction of both Seattle Public Utilities and the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Vertical – Leadership on housing means creating both clarity on the broader goals of the City when it comes to housing and the very specific and in-the-weeds (sometimes literally) decisions made by inspectors on site and people who review applications for and issues permits. Vertical integration in this context means allowing City employees to make on the spot decisions in favor of moving a project forward in spite of the rules. Too often enforcement of a rule or requirement or an interpretation of a rule or ordinance is subjective. If an employee isn’t empowered to abrogate that rule to move a project forward, then things get stuck.

Interactive – Very often City policy about and interpretation of very specific rules about drainage, paving, street trees, utility placement, and a wide array of other aspects of review and permitting can accumulate and add costs. And very often it is unclear why changes are made one way or another. One project might have to do a water main extension while another doesn’t and from the standpoint of the builder, the two projects look the same. Creating transparency about why the change is happening, allowing dialogue about how the goal – whether political or practical – might be met without slowing things down is essential.

Data – Usually the City is really bad about what data it uses and how it uses it if it uses it at all. Unfortunately on the ground decisions about implementation of a rule or the code is based on outliers and exceptions; one project manages to accomplish completion and rather than see that as a positive (a bunch of new housing units just became available!) the City views this as a “loop hole” that has to be closed. The City must look at the big picture, and allow innovation. When that happens in spite of the code, don’t make the code more stringent, back off the rules and let housing happen.

Narrative – The story here in Seattle is that we have a housing “crisis.” Fine. I have yet to find anyone that can tell me when the crisis began, how measure the crisis, and how we know what we’re doing has ended it. Whatever. If it’s a crisis then let’s act like it’s a crisis. When there are terrorist attacks or accidents and there is a call for donations of blood because there is short supply, the City Council doesn’t impose a per ounce tax on each donation and limit the number of ounces. It’s all hands (and arms) on deck to rapidly meet the demand for a resource.

Finally, there needs to be a high level person, accountable directly to the Mayor that can manage a HELP effort. It can’t be parceled out. Unless everyone, from Department directors to inspectors are measured by how easy they make it for housing production to happen, then people will do the logical thing, put their heads down, follow and enforce the letter of the rule and point to the other guy or to their supervisor or to the builder as the problem. A high level person who can work toward tangible and measurable production outcomes can hold everyone accountable and reward employees who help make housing happen.

Let’s look at an example. On the approved plans for a project, a utility pole is placed in a particular spot and that placement is approved by SDOT. Later, closer to completion, a City Light inspector determines that the placement doesn’t fit the letter of the rules for placement of a pole. The City Light and SDOT people get together with the builder and all determine, first, the placement is safe and won’t adversely impact electricity on the site and leaving it where it is will save lots of money have to underground or move the pole someplace else on the site. The decision is made to go forward with the placement.

These kinds of decisions are made dozens and dozens of times each day and we need to structure the City response so that the outcome of these decisions favors quick and affordable completion of the project. It’s a crisis after all!

 

The Black Hole: David Neiman on the Latest Changes to SEDUs

I know everyone is obsessing with James Comey right now, but here’s something that actually matters: what’s happening to smaller and more efficient apartments in Seattle because of regulation. Noted architect and Small Efficient Dwelling Unit (SEDU) advocate and expert has been warning the City about what their new rules are likely to do to SEDUS. The short answer is incentivize them to get bigger and more expensive for no real or good reason. The story is told in some correspondence between Neiman and the Director of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI). I think this will be far more interesting to you than James Comey. 

[May 13, 2007]

Nathan,

As you know, I have expressed concerns about Seattle’s microhousing policy and how SDCI’s recent adoption of the 70-7 rule for determining habitable area artificially inflates minimum unit sizes, making our housing larger, less affordable, and less plentiful.  This draft re-write of the directors rule for SEDUs DR 9-2017 is a small improvement over the previous version, but fails to provide the flexibility needed for architects to design SEDU’s of the size intended by the land use code (as small as 220sf). This policy issue aside, there is a larger, more fundamental code interpretation problem with this director’s rule that needs to be addressed before issuing a final version.

While DR 9-2017 offers SEDU’s a little flexibility with regard to the 70-7 rule, there is no such flexibility given to other unit types.  SEDU’s have a maximum size of 320sf, but under the 70-7 rule many studio apartments will be challenged to achieve a 220sf living room in less than 360-370sf.  Combination of the 70-7 rule and DR 9-2017 creates a situation where many studios between the size of 320-370sf are simply not legal – too small to be a studio and too large to be a SEDU. This is an absurd outcome, where SDCI’s interpretation of a code section intended to protect the public from (supposed) ill effects of living in too-small housing leads to an outcome where a larger unit is illegal but a smaller unit is allowed.

This is not a trivial flaw.  For a real life example, see the plans for Plymouth Housing’s recently opened Sylvia Odom’s Place<http://web6.seattle.gov/dpd/eplan/GetDocument.aspx?id=143549&src=WorkingDocs&n=Approved%20Plan%20Set>.  About half of the units in this project are studios in the 340sf range. They are too big to be SEDUs, but the living room areas that comply with the 70-7 rule are only about 180sf (40sf short of the 220 sf requirement).

This isn’t a hard problem to fix, but it will require that SDCI and CCAB grapple with the fact that the 70-7 rule is overly conservative, inconsistent with what has been allowed in the past, and damaging to the city’s affordability goals and the HALA agenda.

To fix the problem, we need to expand the exception to the 70-7 rule created for SEDU’s in DR 9-2017 so that it applies to the measurement of habitable area in general, not just the habitable area within SEDU’s.  DR 9-2017 allows 20% of the required living room area to be smaller than 7′ wide.  If this 20% allowance was expanded to be a general rule, applicable to all minimum room areas in all unit types (not just SEDU’s), this would create a reasonable allowance for nooks & crannies that are typical in all unit types while still maintaining a requirement for a larger contiguous room consistent with SDCI’s goals. For example:

Unit Type            Living Rm Area req’d                      Area >7′ req’d                   Area < 7′ allowed
SEDU                     150sf                                                     120sf                                       30sf
Studio                    220sf                                                     176sf                                       44sf
1 Bedroom             120sf                                                      96sf                                        24sf

The solution above would be consistent with the CCAB’s rationale in creating DR 9-2017 while addressing its most egregious flaw.  I implore you to give this matter the attention it deserves.

Regards,

David Neiman
Principal, Neiman Taber Architects, PLLC

[June 6, 2017]

Hi David—sorry for the delay in response.  A lot is happening at SDCI.

Before I respond in full, I don’t exactly understand your issue with studios, specifically Sylvia Odom’s Place. Are you trying to qualify all studios as SEDU’s in order to take advantage of the different thresholds for SEPA and design review and in limited areas the parking requirement?

Nathan Torgelson
Director

[June, 6, 2017]

Nathan,

I can appreciate this may not be a top-of-the-agenda item, so thanks for getting back to me.

To answer your question: No, I am not trying to qualify all studios as SEDUs to avoid a land use process threshold. I am trying to resolve a problem in the way SDCI is interpreting and measuring minimum room sizes in dwelling units that creates a class of units between 320-370sf (or larger in some instances) that are simply illegal.  To help explain, I have attached a pdf that shows a plan of Slyvia Odom’s place, along with some calculations of the unit size and the living room size for some of the typical units.  Blow-ups details of those areas are pasted into the email below. This is a problem that we are running up against in all of our new projects that contain studio apartments.

The unit sizes shown are all larger than the 320sf maximum allowable size for a Small Efficiency Dwelling Unit (SEDU), so they would be classified as an Efficiency Dwelling Unit (EDU). An efficiency dwelling unit (also known as a studio) requires a minimum 220sf living room.  Because of the way the new 70-7 rule excludes all room areas less than 7’ dimension from the living room area count, the living rooms of these studios are too small be considered a legal dwelling unit.

These units fall into the “black hole” I have described – too large to be a SEDU and too small to be a studio. We have projects that are running up against this problem & I have no way to proceed with the design of the project on a rational basis. Should I assume that SDCI is going to enforce the code this way & create a unit size between 320-370sf that is simply illegal? Or should I assume that SDCI will apply the dimensional flexibility for SEDUs outlined in DR 9-2017 to other unit types?

Projects like the Sylvia Odom [see below] could be “fixed” by widening the corridors to pull space out of the units to reclassify them as SEDUS. This would have the ironic effect of forcing applicants to reduce the size of their unit living rooms, an odd outcome given that the whole issue is driven by SDCI’s code interpretation aimed at ensuring that unit sizes do not become too small.  Alternatively, the problem could be solved by reducing the unit count in order to make the units larger, resulting in housing that is more expensive and less plentiful, contrary to the city’s HALA agenda.

Does this explanation help?

-DEN

 

 

Surprise! Rental Inspection Program Isn’t Working

The Stranger and others have raised more hue and cry about the City’s failing Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO) is, as we pointed out a year ago, failing. The pattern has been consistent: both the press, tenant activists, and Councilmember Sawant and her colleagues that blindly follow her on Council pass legislation and write stories without ever talking to or engaging with the people who actually rent and manage housing in the city. Last year when the punitive (and perhaps defamatory) “Carl Hagland’ ordinance enhancing RRIO passed we said it wouldn’t work. Nobody listened. We said that the City’s existing program didn’t work because the City staff was already overwhelmed. We also said the program would create, “big disincentives to take on improvements to older, more affordable rental properties.”

Slap your forehead! Here’s what Heidi Groover at The Stranger reports in that story. 

[C]ity staff don’t actually know details about the conditions of the vast majority of buildings . . . [and landlords have] little incentive to fix code violations until they get caught

When I was a landlord, at a non-profit, we had the same kind of inspections. And small fix it violations were always found. Like anything else, rental properties aren’t perfect. I don’t know what it would take to address the issues in the specific case in the article, but as I’ve pointed out before, the City and some in the press are obsessed with specific cases rather than as we suggest, working to “refine and improve this program” of inspections that would surface real issues and get them fixed. 

Inspections are nothing new. Neither are mechanisms to complain to the City. But as we pointed out a year ago, nobody talks to landlords. The Council simply speculates, the press shares horror stories, and then actions are taken that don’t fix the program nor do they address the underlying issue. So here’s what we wrote a year ago. Will anyone listen now? Can we actually work together to find the worst cases and get them repaired? 

——————–

New legislation will be proposed this week on controlling when landlords can raise rents. This is a joint statement prepared by Smart Growth Seattle and the Rental Housing Association of Washington. 

At a time when there is deep concern about housing prices in Seattle, the City Council and Mayor should use every available existing tool and new ones to address rising rents. Unfortunately, the recently proposed Tenant Protection Ordinance (the so called “Carl Haglund” law) does neither, creating a new bureaucracy, costs, and confusion for renters and landlords. And the proposal was crafted with absolutely no communication with or advice from landlords or developers.

Existing Tools Need Improvement 

The existing Rental Registration and Inspections Ordinance (RRIO) Program allows for inspection of units in any building for substandard conditions and creates an avenue for tenant complaints – and holding building owners accountable for substandard conditions. However, only a third of rental properties have been registered for the program. The City should continue to refine and improve this program.

It’s worth noting that the apartments in the building that spurred this legislation actually passed an RRIO inspection before it was sold.

Creating New Problems 

The new program would,

  • Create a parallel reporting process for tenants along side the existing programs;
  • Involve the City in legally allowed and even small rent changes all across the city;
  • Disincentivize repairs and improvements, ensuring some lower rents but at the expense of making the unit or building better;
  • Dramatically increase the work load of already thinly stretched City staff; and
  • Expose the City to legal action for violating the State’s preemption on rent control.

Taken together, this legislation will simply add confusion for tenants and housing providers, more costs for the City, and big disincentives to take on improvements to older, more affordable rental properties. This proposal has been made with no data to support it, only anecdotes, and without the involvement of people who own and operate rental housing in the city.

Solutions

A real solution would be to provide help with financing improvements to older buildings; this would lower costs and the savings could be passed on to renters. This solution would both incentivize improvements and preserve existing affordable housing. This proposal made by Smart Growth Seattle has tentative public support from the Tenants Union. Even better, it’s an idea in the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee recommendations. Recommendation P4 reads, in part

As part of expanding its preservation efforts, the City should develop and market a low-cost rehab loan program to complement its existing weatherization grants. This program would provide a compelling incentive for existing owners to improve their properties in exchange for an affordability covenant. Effective outreach, marketing and technical support will be critical components to the success of the program. The City should build on the success of its weatherization program by helping owners through the contracting process and with ongoing program compliance (page 32).

The Rental Housing Association of Washington and Smart Growth Seattle would like to work with the City on solutions, but oppose this ordinance; it is unnecessary and doesn’t solve a problem but makes things worse.

Non-Profit Uses Vacant Homes to Support Re-Entry From Prison

Currently the City is considering “doing something” about the fact that many people with criminal offenses on their record have a difficult time finding a place to live. It is a real problem. But in true form, the Council simply wants to mandate that people who rent housing would have to simply ignore that record all together. This mandate won’t work. As I’ve written before, here and on Facebook, many times, the problem with renters with criminal records, bad credit, or spotty rental history is risk. Helping to offset this risk is a big part of making it easier for people who are motivated to get back on track to find housing. Another problem is vacant houses waiting for demolition before new housing is constructed. Because of problems with the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance (TRAO) and rules preventing demolition of existing structures until a permit is issued, builders end up having to leave houses vacant to avoid slowdowns or problems with relocating existing tenants. Those buildings end up being havens for crime and squatters and even arson.

Imagine if we found a solution to both of these problems.

Yesterday, I spoke with Amy King who owns Square Peg Development in Seattle. King and her husband have created a non-profit called Weld Seattle that is working with builders to create short term housing for people releasing from the prison system using temporarily vacant housing waiting for demolition. Weld is an impressive start up, only 9 months old, that tackles the challenges of keeping vacant buildings secure, providing low cost housing for hard to house people coming out of jail, and creates training opportunities and jobs in the construction industry where labor is scarce.

Here’s a simple explanation of what Weld Seattle is all about:

Vision
Everyone deserves an opportunity to reintegrate, belong and thrive.
Mission
To ensure a successful reintegration by overcoming obstacles to housing, employment and community connection.
Our People
Individuals actively engaged in reintegrating into their community following incarceration or recovery.

As I’ve written previously, there are many challenges to people when they leave prison or jail, and housing is a big one. People who otherwise would be released often have to wait, in jail, while they find an address to release to. This means extra time in a cell for them, and more costs for the government. The Department of Correction’s voucher program is a big help in this transition, but it’s often not enough. Landlords don’t have a crystal ball that can tell them how a person is going to act once they get into an apartment; all they have to go on is past behavior.

For most of us, this isn’t that big of a deal. But when the past includes criminal behavior and jail time as well as bad credit and no or little good rental history, people renting housing just don’t have much to go on to protect themselves from bad outcomes. It’s not a question of being biased against people with jail time in their past, but trying to figure out what comes next and will the person end up being a financial liability or worse in the future.

What Weld Seattle does is create value for builders, putting people in homes that otherwise would be vacant, the beginnings of a good rental history, training and a job for the person exiting the system, and more workers for a labor market in housing construction that is running low on qualified workers. We’ll be watching and working with Weld Seattle closely both to create safer and higher use for vacant buildings and to support Weld Seattle’s broader effort to take advantage of the tremendous potential of people coming out of prison.

The City Council could easily make this harder to do by passing a mandate that doesn’t take into account what people leaving prison need (which is more than just a lease and an apartment, but a job and a support system) and what landlords and people renting their homes need to offset the risk of renting to someone with a record. We all need to take a chance on people who are trying to turn their lives around, and they need support, and opportunity not just a mandate that is intended to punish land lords and that won’t give them the kind of broader support for them to be successful.