Seattle must preserve single-family neighborhoods, one of its most precious assets. Mayor Jenny Durkan should suspend an ill-conceived proposal to triple density in neighborhoods, especially since a city study says that will have little effect on affordability.
Seattle must preserve single-family neighborhoods that are essential to its livability, character and economic success.
City Hall is aggressively pushing legislation to allow nearly every single-family lot to become a multifamily apartment site.
Under the guise of allowing backyard cottages, this is one of several broad zoning changes now being considered by the city. Affordability is a concern but Seattle can’t destroy one of its greatest assets, single-family neighborhoods.
The proposal would allow single-family houses to be replaced by up to three units, irreversibly changing the city’s character.
This is billed as a way to create affordable homes but it’s a false promise. It would do little for affordability — a city study expects “marginal” effects.
But it would create tremendous uncertainty for 300,000 mostly middle-class residents supporting the city through homeownership, removing certainty about the neighborhood and city they bought into.
Tripling residential density with upzones will also reduce the number of starter houses to buy as they’re snapped up by developers. This shrinks opportunities to achieve true, long-term affordability with ownership.
Justification for radically altering Seattle neighborhoods is evaporating. A surge of housing construction in recent years created a rental glut, with about 5,000 new units vacant regionally and 26 percent of downtown Seattle apartments empty.
This comes as Washington’s population growth rate slows, according to new state data. Seattle’s comp plan says it already has plenty of capacity under current zoning to accommodate forecast growth through 2035.
Seattle must think bigger in responding to affordability and homeless challenges. Regional approaches are needed, encompassing greater variety of housing options accessible via investments in transit and ferries.
Mayor Jenny Durkan should suspend this misguided upzoning effort.
Attached “mother-in-law” units have been allowed for years. A 1998 pilot program allowed detached backyard units on most lots 4,000 square feet or larger.
What’s now proposed are changes that would enable lots as small as 3,200 square feet to add two rentals, becoming triplexes. They would also allow taller backyard units, reduce or eliminate on-site parking requirements and allow structures to cover up to 60 percent of rear yards.
This was the most divisive of the housing proposals made by former Mayor Ed Murray and Council Member Mike O’Brien. Their plan was suspended in 2016 after a hearing examiner ruled the city failed to adequately study harm to the environment, parking and infrastructure.
Instead of reconsidering, Durkan is essentially pushing the same policy, which could be approved later this year.
Altering every neighborhood at once diminishes opportunities for meaningful citizen participation. It’s overly complicated by simultaneous proposals to increase the size of urban villages where density is supposed to be concentrated.
Massive changes require objective review of impacts neighborhood by neighborhood. Seattleites deserve that consideration, not reheated policy leftovers that were objectionable the first time around.
Reconsideration is also needed because the backyard cottage proposal is muddied by a jumble of misconceptions.
No, Seattle is not “mostly” single-family. Less than half its land is used by single-family homes, and 44 percent of its homes are stand-alone houses, according to the impact study. Even with no change, 1,890 accessory units will be built.
The study also claims few additional units would be built if the rules are relaxed, just 1,210 to 1,440. That’s a negligible 0.4 percent increase in housing stock. But the study may be lowballing impacts to avoid addressing negative effects on parking, tree cover and other issues. It also absurdly concludes that tripling density has no significant adverse impacts.
The study acknowledges that market demand is working: Under existing rules, accessory-dwelling construction has tripled since 2015.
The hearing examiner decision noted the proposal encourages converting houses to income properties, making them more attractive to investors. Increasing values and reducing availability of entry-level houses causes displacement, especially of minority populations, according to testimony the decision cited.
So why jam this through? Is there institutional bias against the lifestyle of those living in houses?
The diversity of housing choices provided by single-family neighborhoods is one of Seattle’s most precious assets. That’s far too valuable to risk with an ill-conceived, unjustifiable and ineffective land use change.