Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien proposes allowing an accessory dwelling unit and a detached accessory dwelling unit to be built on a single-family lot while waiving the owner-occupancy after a year and ending off-street-parking requirements.
THE escalating cost of housing in Seattle is forcing many of our neighbors out of the city and far from their jobs. In response, the mayor assembled the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee consisting of affordable housing advocates, developers, neighborhood activists and experts in financing and land use.
Four of the committee’s 65 recommendations quickly gained attention: land-use flexibility in single-family zones, up-zoning urban villages, reducing off-street-parking requirements and “mandatory inclusionary housing” policies to build affordable housing. The package was called the “Grand Bargain.”
Some claim the mayor negotiated the Grand Bargain with unscrupulous developers to serve his political interests. However, it was actually a negotiation between affordable-housing advocates and developers to balance the market forces driving development and mandating affordable units (which, due to state laws, requires developer incentives). HALA has been criticized for not requiring more affordable units. But requiring a smaller number of units that rent to people at lower-income levels can have a more positive impact than more units rented to people at moderate income levels. Additionally, overly ambitious requirements can slow housing production, as seen disastrously in San Francisco.
Others insist that we don’t need HALA as we already have the zoning capacity for anticipated growth. But, having the capacity for growth is different from having actual housing where it makes sense. HALA incentivizes housing construction in urban villages that have robust public transportation and services in return for affordable housing. This is a nationally proven strategy to improve walkability, boost neighborhood businesses and reduce auto dependence, carbon footprint and housing costs.
Some demand a halt to new housing construction until Seattle’s transportation infrastructure catches up. Yet Seattle’s transportation infrastructure is quickly transforming. In the last few years, we built safer bike routes throughout the city. Link light rail connected downtown to the University of Washington, and ridership grew by 66 percent overnight. Expanding Link to Roosevelt and Northgate will free up existing bus service to extend more frequent service hours. The burgeoning private transportation system (including Zipcar, car2go, ReachNow, Uber, Lyft, Microsoft Connector) fills the gaps and also allows many to forego car ownership.
Some claim that we must protect on-street parking for existing homeowners and equate car ownership with livability. Urban mobility, not car ownership, makes cities and neighborhoods livable. Mandating excess parking simply encourages more cars, congestion and pollution — we have the nation’s fifth-worst traffic — giving us less mobility and less livability.
Others call for a halt in development due to concerns about sewage overflows into our waterways. This problem is decades-old, has been reduced by 90 percent since the ’70s and will be eliminated in 15 years. In addition, new developments (unlike existing ones) must manage stormwater on site and do not significantly contribute to the problem. Cars, not toilets, are the primary source of pollution, with petroleum products and heavy metals dripping into the streets and flowing into the storm sewers. Demanding we halt construction while calling for more parking just confounds the problem and its solution.
Increased land-use flexibility in single-family zones was removed from HALA upon its release due to homeowner concerns. However, City Councilmember Mike O’Brien is revisiting the issue with a proposal to allow both an “accessory dwelling unit” (ADU) and a ”detached accessory dwelling unit” (DADU) on a single-family parcel while modifying the owner-occupancy requirement and waiving street-parking requirements.
This, too, is opposed by many for fear it will compromise parking, privacy and incentivize the demolition of existing housing. However, the same concerns were voiced in Vancouver, B.C., but none of those concerns have come to fruition, and the program has yielded more housing while preserving neighborhood character.
Opponents of HALA portray the city as uninformed, unrealistic and beholden to developers. This inaccurate portrayal poses “concerns” to thwart the process rather than advances a solution. While we have choices, shielding ourselves from change is not one of them.
We can watch our neighbors be pushed out, relish our skyrocketing home equity and sit by while our neighborhoods become enclaves of the wealthy. Or we can be bold, creative and collaborative in finding a solution that maintains a balance between the physical, economic and social character of the city we call home.
Let the City Council and the mayor know your thoughts on housing affordability and how we can promote Seattle’s livability as it grows.