For decades, Seattle land-use policy centered on the idea that growth should be funneled into urban villages — tall residential buildings with ground-floor cafes and restaurants, walkable grocery stores, and most important, access to frequent transit.
As Seattle wrestles with ever-rising housing prices, that philosophy is under attack. Not only have urban villages failed to lower rents, say some advocates, they have perpetuated and increased market forces that push people with low incomes to the margins. What’s needed, goes the argument, is more so-called middle housing: townhomes, courtyard apartments, units ranging from duplexes to six-plexes, all in neighborhoods that are now mostly single-family homes.
Throwing out 30 years of housing policy is ill-advised. Urban villages must remain the centerpiece of the city’s growth strategy. Despite the challenges, thoughtful, concentrated development is the best way to build the kind of city that meets affordability, climate and livability goals.
The great majority of Seattle households live in apartments and houses developed by the private sector with prices and rents set by the market.
Those costs can be eye-popping. The phrase “red hot” is the go-to cliché to describe the Seattle housing market. Nearly 46,000 households are spending more than half of their incomes on housing costs, classifying them as severely cost-burdened by federal standards, according to a city-commissioned study on Seattle’s housing needs.
Since 1994, Seattle has focused housing and job growth in designated urban centers and villages. All light-rail stations in the city are within urban villages or in industrial areas that prohibit housing. About 86% of housing growth in the last 15 years has been in urban villages, such as downtown, Lake City, Columbia City and the West Seattle Junction.
People of color now comprise 48% of residents in urban villages, up from 41% in 2010. Outside of urban villages, people of color are roughly 35% of residents, according to the city Office of Planning & Community Development.
There is plenty of space remaining. Under current zoning, Seattle has the capacity to build an additional 172,440 units, according to the city’s housing-needs study. Of that, 81% is available in the highest density areas — 48 units per acre and above.
Urbanism as a local land-use philosophy once supported building dense housing that shrank the city’s carbon footprint and was designed so that residents could rely on buses or light rail. The “new” urbanism wants to transform single-family neighborhoods.
A bill requested by Gov. Jay Inslee would override local land use codes and direct cities to allow fourplexes in all single-family lots, and sixplexes and town homes in lots within a half-mile of a transit stop. There is no requirement that developers make the units affordable.
“For years, we followed the best intent on planning, which was to focus new housing in dense corridors within cities,” said Bryce Yadon of the advocacy group Futurewise, speaking in favor of increased density in single-family zones during a legislative hearing last week.
“While these were meant with the best of intentions, we realized that the impacts and outcomes resulted in larger negative impacts on low-income communities and communities of color who have been priced out of the cities and the best transit.”
This is a striking change in tone from housing advocates.
“To me, it is a huge departure,” said Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, chair of the House Local Government Committee. He supports developing middle housing within the comprehensive-plan process, the framework that guides big-picture decisions on jobs and housing. “To have a livable community you need shopping, you need schools and you need open space. I firmly believe that we should continue to plan for urban villages.”
As a Seattle native, I watched development take out horse farms on the Eastside, transform forests into cul-de-sacs and pave over some of the most productive agricultural land in the nation.
The state’s Growth Management Act, first adopted in 1990, was meant to curtail sprawl by requiring fast-growing cities and counties to develop detailed plans to manage population growth. For Seattle, that meant urban villages.
Almost 20 years ago, I bought a home in West Seattle that was average in every way. It has no view, even if you stand on the roof. On the plus side, you can walk to schools and shops. Last time I checked on Zillow, it was worth more than $1 million, more than twice what I paid for it.
My son, in his early twenties and soon to enter the job world, cannot afford a house like mine. The only way he could live in his hometown would be to rent an apartment, hopefully close enough to transit so that he wouldn’t have to buy a car. He is not going to buy or rent a town house, duplex or sixplex. And one would have to embrace trickle-down economics with the ardor of Ronald Reagan to believe the domino effect of million-dollar townhomes in Magnolia or Phinney Ridge would one day lower housing costs for him and thousands of others looking for a place to live within city limits.
Still, the pressure to open up Seattle neighborhoods to more density grows more powerful, even as rules changed to allow two units under the same roof and a separate dwelling in the backyard of most Seattle lots.
A poll by Seattle PR firm Quinn Thomas showed that 55% of respondents would allow apartments and condominiums in Seattle neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family homes.
That same poll showed 83% of people surveyed would prefer to live in a single-family home.
This seems to suggest people are all for changing Seattle’s neighborhoods, if it gives them a better opportunity to buy what homes remain on the market.
To be clear: Seattle neighborhoods should evolve and change. More middle housing should be built, but within the urban-villages framework. The focus should be on increasing affordability, avoiding displacement and making sure growth fits with existing infrastructure such as schools, parks and utilities.
Housing is difficult to plan and predict. It is too soon to declare urban villages a failed policy. The market changes and evolves, and so must strategies to make sure no one is left behind.
It shouldn’t be “either-or” but “more-and” — more options, more affordability, more density and more public money for housing for those who can least afford it.
This is how Seattle will meet the seemingly inexhaustible demand for a place to call home.