Save the bungalows! A retired librarian suggests we can build thousands of units of truly affordable housing without tearing down a thing.
As a retired librarian, Annie Stixrood doesn’t have any special credentials as an urbanist or developer or housing advocate.
But for my money — and maybe for yours — she’s got the best idea yet for dealing with Seattle’s growth and affordable housing problems.
“Use what we already have,” she says.
The mayor’s plan to upzone the entire city will definitely juice the development of more housing, and more housing is needed in a growing city. But by upzoning single-family areas to allow for triplexes, what may be lost, over time, are Seattle’s humble, signature bungalows.
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In my last column I used the example of a $400,000 bungalow making way under the new rules for three $600,000 condos. The argument of the mayor’s housing committee is that currently that bungalow is a candidate to be replaced by a $1.2 million home, so it’s better for long-term affordability and growth to have three smaller homes there.
But instead of incentivizing developers to raze Seattle’s older housing stock for triplexes, what if the city instead incentivized people to repurpose their old houses?
Enter Stixrood. Two years ago, she and her husband, Carl, became empty nesters. They decided to convert a level of their 2,000-square-foot house into a mother-in-law rental apartment.
Almost nobody does this in Seattle. The mayor’s housing committee urged more of it, and recommended relaxing parking codes to make it easier.
But coming up with the $50,000-plus it takes to retrofit a rec room or basement is a big hurdle. Currently there are no financial incentives — the tax exemptions and housing subsidy programs are geared toward developers or nonprofits building multiunit complexes.
“They could have a low-interest loan program to help people get started” on converting a rec room or basement, she suggested. Or maybe a property tax break if the unit is leased at low rates (as long as it’s not to tourists through Airbnb.)
The Stixroods rent their new 1-bedroom flat for $1,200, about 25 percent below the superheated Capitol Hill market. It was snapped up in less than a day.
Knute Berger, author of “Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice,” has noticed that the occupancy of our homes has plummeted. In the 1960s, Seattle had nearly 3 people per housing unit. Now it’s down to two and slated to go below 1.8 by 2035. So part of the reason we need to keep developing like crazed Ayn Rand characters is because we aren’t utilizing the houses we already have.
“Could we repopulate them by creating incentives to take in boarders, co-owners, roommates, renters, etc.?” Berger wonders. “I know, we need more housing. But we never seem to look at ways to use what we have better.
“Instead of tearing down bungalows, let’s fill them,” he enthused.
Portland is doing it. For five years, Portland has given a $10,000 incentive toward putting in a mother-in-law unit. Construction soared twelvefold, from 30 per year to 360 this year.
The rents are below market — sometimes all the way to zero if you’re “aging in place” with extended family.
“It doesn’t fall under the official structure of what’s called ‘affordable housing,’ but it’s an organic form of very affordable living,” says Kol Peterson, of Accessory Dwelling Strategies, a consultant in Portland. “Plus they’re a great strategy to help homeowners stay in their homes.”
If we could induce just 5 percent of Seattle’s 120,000 homeowners to put in rental units, that would create 6,000 units of affordable housing — comparable to what the city estimates it will get from its proposed multifamily upzoning and linkage fee.
With a $10,000 incentive, that would run $60 million — which is real money. But it would go to the people, to house the people. Best, it wouldn’t involve a single tower crane.
Remember the Farmland Preservation Program? Voters here approved $50 million in taxes decades ago to buy the development rights of farms to stop them from being carved into subdivisions. In King County, 13,200 acres were permanently protected.
We could do this again, only in the city and to accommodate growth. A fund to save our old houses, not by preserving them in amber, but by using them.
Call it the Seattle Bungalow Preservation Program.