Data and research ought to guide the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan as they consider policies that would permanently harm unique city resources. But, sadly, they are relying on ideology and lobbying as they upzone every single-family neighborhood in Seattle, with legislation expected to pass at Monday’s council meeting.
Voters electing seven of nine council members this fall should note City Hall’s current priorities and how it spins policies favoring special interests over current residents.
But it will erode livability, negatively impacting half the city’s population, and reduce options for those hoping to someday buy a house and stop paying landlords. Those are lesser concerns for ambitious politicians, who would rather allow the insatiable housing oligarchy — including investors, financiers, developers, consultants and labor leaders — to gorge on the entire city.
To deflect attention from what’s really happening, there’s talk of McMansion bans and Airbnb restrictions. The essence of O’Brien’s proposal is unchanged: allow investors to convert virtually every remaining single-family lot into three apartments with no parking, minimal setbacks and little to no yard or green space. So much for green Seattle — say goodbye urban tree canopy, and hello triplexes.
O’Brien tacked on the misleading “McMansion” ban after neighborhood challenges. Actually, his proposal allows investors to build multiple structures collectively as big as an oversized house, squeezing just as much shadow-casting bulk onto the same lot. It also removes permanent owner-occupany rules, affirming it’s not about helping residents stay put, it’s helping others profit off neighborhoods.
None of this is needed to allow “backyard cottages.” They’ve been allowed since 2009. Current rules are flexible enough that construction of accessory-dwelling units has more than doubled in recent years. If City Hall wants more, start by reducing costly permit and utility-connection charges. Or test O’Brien’s plan with a pilot project in a willing neighborhood.
O’Brien’s proposal is something else entirely. It’s a blanket upzone allowing three units on lots now designated for one. These single-family lots comprise less than half the city’s land use, according to city data, while housing half its population.
If there was nowhere else to build, changes might be worth considering on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, since each part of Seattle has different constraints and opportunities for growth.
Meanwhile Seattle has abundant capacity for all projected growth, according to city data. On top of that, Seattle just upzoned and expanded urban villages, creating massive additional capacity in places where multifamily apartments are supposed to be built now.
Affordability is a challenge. But the city’s economic analysis said O’Brien’s policy will only “marginally” affect affordability and mostly result in pricey rentals. It may increase displacement in lower-income neighborhoods.
Seattle is experiencing a housing boom, building tens of thousands of apartments and thousands of subsidized units for low-income residents. What’s in truly short supply are houses to own, particularly older homes for first-time buyers. Those struggling to buy and enter the middle class shouldn’t have to compete with rental investors.
Then there’s the roughly 350,000 people living in houses today. Most are middle class, including teachers, firefighters and laborers who bought before prices jumped. Two-thirds of Seattle home-owning households earn less than $150,000 per year and 42 percent earn less than $100,000, according to a Census Bureau survey.
Upzoning won’t make it easier for them to get by, according to the city’s analysis. Those struggling to pay the mortgage can’t afford to build costly rental structures, either. But it will impact their quality of life and livability of their neighborhoods.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that this uber-progressive council no longer hates Amazon.
Instead, it’s helping Big Tech by allowing upscale apartments everywhere, despite the impact on today’s working-class residents and tomorrow’s middle-class homebuyers.