Seattle is poised to vote on a policy threatening its wonderful single-family neighborhoods, a cornerstone of the city’s success and character over the last century.
Deceptively billed as allowing backyard cottages, this is one of the most consequential land-use decisions in city history. It should not be made by a lame-duck council over summer vacation. Any broad changes should be done by the new, accountable council voters will elect in November.
Seven of nine council seats are up for election, including four without incumbents. Meanwhile, the council’s land-use committee is headed by a recent appointee, with zero legislative experience, who was soundly rejected by voters when he ran for council in 2015.
That means the majority may not have to answer to voters after permanently altering the neighborhoods. Seattle deserves better governance and stewardship.
Besides, there’s little urgency. Seattle actually began allowing backyard cottages in 2006 and since 2009, they’re allowed on most lots.
The new proposal is a wish list for developers, private and nonprofit, allowing nearly every single-family lot to be used for triplexes. Large lots could be split, replacing a single house with six rentals, 24 tenants and zero additional parking.
Starting in 2015, former Mayor Ed Murray and outgoing Councilmember Mike O’Brien led this charge to allow two rental units to be added to each lot. The plan calls for bigger, taller rentals closer to adjacent properties, removing open space and potentially thousands of trees. It cuts the requirement that accessory-dwelling units have a parking space, even though the city expects each unit to add 1 to 1.3 additional cars. O’Brien also pushed to remove owner-occupancy rules, so these rentals can be owned by remote investors.
With hearing-examiner appeals done, O’Brien is aiming for passage this summer, including a committee vote June 18.
But arguments for this drastic change have dissipated.
Backyard-cottage construction has taken off under existing rules, more than doubling since 2014 when 53 were built. An average of 120 were permitted annually over the last three years.
Counting attached units, such as basement apartments, accessory-dwelling production averaged 252 the last three years, up from 128 in 2014. At this pace, the city may see as many units built, with no rule changes, as it originally sought by removing neighborhood protections.
Existing rules provide flexibility, such as parking requirement waivers. If the city wants to help homeowners add an additional unit, streamline permitting and lower utility connection charges.
This change isn’t needed to accommodate growth. In March Seattle upzoned and enlarged urban villages, where density is supposed to be clustered. The city projected this would add capacity for 69,520 additional housing units. So there’s no pressing reason to negatively impact half the population living in single-family neighborhoods comprising 48 percent of its land use.
Housing affordability is a problem requiring a multifaceted response.
But weakening livability standards and tripling neighborhood density will have only a “marginal” effect on affordability, the city’s own analysis concluded. The biggest change will be more pricey units in expensive areas. Noting concerns about displacement, particularly in diverse neighborhoods, it said that should be offset by additional rentals.
Don’t be fooled by advocates calling this a moral imperative. This mostly helps politicians’ benefactors: developers and labor groups wanting license to build rentals virtually everywhere. If the goals are increasing housing opportunity and reducing economic disparity, why not preserve and widen pathways to homeownership and the middle class? Why turn Seattle into a sea of rentals and make families wanting yards commute from suburbs?
Those hoping to someday buy a house in Seattle should be wary.
Investors from all over are seeking rentals in Seattle. That’s largely why so many apartments are being built and there’s extraordinary pressure and slick propaganda to upzone neighborhoods.
The landscape has changed. Thousands of affordable housing units are being developed, backyard-cottage construction is soaring, tens of thousands of apartments and condos are permitted and massive capacity was added in urban villages.
What’s in ever shorter supply are houses, especially older, below-median-price starter homes that aren’t yet targeted by developers.
There’s no reason for a lame-duck council to jam through the demise of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Any such changes should be handled by the fully elected and accountable council voters choose in November.