“You May Not Like My House, But I love It!”
About 18 months ago, my family and I moved into a new modern home built in beautiful Madison Valley in Seattle. We love the location: its proximity to parks, restaurants, and other amenities, and the fact that it would cut our daily commute to work in half. We love the house built by GreenLeaf Construction. It was nearly a 4 star certified built green home and we upgraded the insulation in the crawl space and replaced the water heater with a 90% efficient one.
The house is fantastic. It has lots of natural light coming in from all angles and the space inside the home is wide open so you can see from one end of the house to the other. The natural light level is so good that we don’t have to turn on any lights in the house until late evening and the house is so well sealed that it very effectively traps the thermal transfer from the sunlight entering the house. This was pretty important to me since I believe strongly in energy conservation and smart engineering.
The home is very attractive to us, and the market demand for these kinds of houses confirms that (see the NYT article on the Bullitt Center to see where contemporary design and building engineering are going in Seattle). Nevertheless, some of our neighbors apparently feel differently and voiced their objections to the building of such homes in sub-plats in our local Nextdoor.com community forum. Given that our house falls squarely into this category as it was built on the side property of our next-door neighbors (who we are very lucky to have as neighbors), I thought I should posit a few thoughts on the matter since, like many things, our understanding of the world around us is very often a matter of perspective.
There is a movement in Seattle called One Home Per Lot, and they claim that such houses are not good for our neighborhoods. Some of my neighbors in an attempt to enlist the support or our community went so far as to call these houses (my house) “ugly boxes” and “unsightly.” I looked at some of the examples they gave of before and after photos where similar such houses had been built in side-yard and back-yard spaces (See photos). In almost every case I actually thought the houses were cool looking and improved the street appeal of the neighborhood. They may not have been like the houses around them, but then you wouldn’t expect a builder to build a new house like something built 30-100 years ago. People lived differently then.
Still, I respect that in a diverse and vibrant urban environment, we will have different aesthetics and opinions on any number of topics. For example, my own mother who is 70 years old probably hates the style of my house, but then she also hated the Levi jeans I wore as a teenager and I suspect she still can’t stand the rock & roll music that I listen to. The difference is that my mother never said to my face that she doesn’t like the style of my house; after all, what would she have to gain by saying so? And therein lies the rub: what do our neighbors have to gain by disparaging these houses and consequently the neighbors who live in them? If your goal is to offend someone, then kudos, otherwise, you missed the mark.
The point of such community organizing for the purpose of influencing municipal rules and policies should be to address empirical issues; otherwise your goal would be to overwhelm city officials with subjective grievances. I’ve read a few of these grievances, such as water pooling up in a side yard or the need to use a sump pump unlike 35 years previously.
Another one involved the loss of view of the neighbor’s trees. These are not empirically based. The legal system established in Western culture is primarily around the rights of property owners and with the founding of our country and a few amendments later, a bunch of individual rights as well.
So which rights are being impacted by builders creating houses on sub-plats? If the builder buys the property, it becomes his/her property and subsequent rights are transferred. I’m not aware of any rights to a view or sky rights. And as for water drainage, I grew up digging perc holes for septic systems, so I’m familiar with different types of soil and how well they drain water. In the Madison Valley/Arboretum area, the soil doesn’t drain well. Just go into the park on a wet day and you’ll see standing water in a grassy field despite the fact that there are no houses around.
To those who wish to influence city policy on future home building, here are a few suggestions:
Make sure the issue you target is empirical; evidence based, and can show real harm. For example, if you could show that building such homes causes long term damage to an existing property, then you have a real complaint.
If, on the other hand, your complaint is that the new home will lower the value of your existing home, then you don’t have a case because that position is highly speculative. Speculation is for stock traders and entrepreneurs, not city/government policy.
The truth is, houses are part of a large marketplace, and markets are always unpredictable. Trying to restrict developers from building new homes is sort of like battling macro-economics. The city of Seattle expects approximately 2 million more people to move into the Seattle Metropolitan area by 2020, which will drive a lot of demand for new homes and properties of all kinds.
The fact is, the Seattle/Bellevue/Kirkland/Redmond corridor is where most of the good jobs are in this area. People are moving into this area because this is one of the places in the country where there are good jobs to be found. And people, like me, want to live closer to where we work because life is short and I don’t want to waste it in a car doing long daily commutes. Be happy that your problems are not like those who live in Detroit.
You can try to restrict developers from building new homes that people clearly want to buy in a city where people clearly want to live, but keep the issues objective. You may not like my house, but I love it and I wouldn’t want any other kind of house. Like I said to my mother long ago, Rock & Roll is here to stay!