(Rick Mohler is an associate professor at the University of Washington Department of Architecture, a principal at Mohler+Ghillino Architects and Wallingford resident, natch.)
Last month I moderated a forum on urban housing that was assembled by the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Having been engaged in the Wallingford Community Council’s effort to understand and respond to HALA, I opened the forum by expressing my enthusiasm for the lively, and sometimes contentious, citywide discussion that’s been initiated by the mayor’s HALA proposal. I added that many of my neighbors here in Wallingford, who barely knew the land use code existed six months ago, are now well-versed on many aspects of residential land use policy. Susanna Lin’s article is probably the best example of this I’ve seen to date, illustrating an impressive level of understanding of many complex issues. This kind of engaged democratic citizenship makes me proud to live in Wallingford and is currently making Seattle the envy of many other cities around the country that are confronting issues of housing affordability and livability but lack the political will to even have the conversation.
However, I’d like to offer a different opinion regarding a number of aspects of HALA and other points Susanna makes in her article, and that I’ve heard in conversations with many of my Wallingford neighbors.
The Affordability Challenge
To start, the post and many neighborhood conversations fail to grapple with just how quickly and the degree to which Seattle is becoming unaffordable for those who live here (or would like to) and who do not own their homes (and likely never will.) Seattle led the nation in rent increases between 2010 and 2013 and has ranked among the top ten cities since then. In the last 6 years, the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment increased nearly 100%. At the same time, ironically, the percentage of Seattleites who are spending more than half of their income on rent is falling.
How could this be? Well, this is partly due to the “dreaded techies” moving in with their high salaries allowing them to comfortably afford higher rents. However, it’s also due to the fact that those who are struggling to afford steadily increasing rents are leaving the city for locations that are more auto dependent with longer commute times and fewer opportunities for economic advancement.
This all is in the midst of a booming population, with Seattle projected to grow by more than 100,000 people by 2035. We are well on our way to becoming a city of only affluent people. This is what the mayor’s HALA proposal is intended to address and it is why so many in the city feel there’s a sense of urgency to build affordable units now and not in five or ten or fifteen years.
The questions these challenges pose for us are: Is affordable housing a public good that we in Wallingford want to prioritize? And if so, how can we reasonably achieve an equitable housing solution for those of us already in Seattle, for new neighbors moving here in the next few years, and for our children as they become adults and want to live here?
The mayor’s response to this serious challenge was to assemble a panel of 28 folks, including low income housing advocates, non-profit housing developers, for profit housing developers, and an array of other people who are very experienced with the intricacies of public/private financing mechanisms, land use law, and the requirements of the Washington State Constitution.
Contrary to what some have claimed, the HALA panel also included neighborhood representation: Cindi Barker of the City Neighborhood Council (which she describes as a coalition of neighborhood coalitions). Some may lament that only one representative from the neighborhoods was present but there was also only one representative from a host of other interests as well.
The volunteer panel met for nine months of brainstorming and finally hammered out a list of 65 recommendations that run the gamut from financing and tax legislation to land use policy. Of the 65 recommendations, three quickly came to the public’s attention: increasing land use flexibility in single family zones, up zoning single family parcels within urban villages, and using Mandatory Inclusionary Housing polices to leverage housing demand and private development forces to build affordable housing – the so-called ‘Grand Bargain’. Before I address the first two, I’d like to clarify what the “Grand Bargain” is.
The Grand Bargain
The concerns I’ve heard from many in the neighborhood is that the mayor negotiated with developers (perhaps in a cigar-filled back room) to reach an agreement he’d benefit from politically. However, based upon what’s been outlined in reports and confirmed to me by folks who were in the room, that’s not how it happened. The bargain is not between the mayor and developers, but between affordable housing advocates and developers. What actually took place is that non-profit low-income housing developers and for-profit housing developers spent weeks working together to find the ‘sweet spot’ where market rate development and affordable housing can actually support one another.
This sweet spot is complicated to find. Err too far one way and in the city isn’t adequately leveraging the market’s potential to generate affordable housing. Err too far in another and housing production in general significantly decreases thereby worsening the very problem we are trying to solve. In other words, finding the sweet spot requires a precise combination of the percentage of low income units required in a development, coupled with the stipulated percentage of Area Mean Income (AMI), coupled with market forces that will yield the highest number of affordable units at the lowest AMI without causing developers to stop building housing altogether.
Some people in Wallingford criticize HALA for only requiring 7% of the units to be affordable at 60% AMI while some cities require much more. However, requiring only 7% of the units to be affordable at 60% AMI may actually provide more affordable units for those who need them most than, say, a 20% requirement at 80% AMI. In addition, if one is interested in producing housing units in general and affordable units in particular, one doesn’t want to put a serious damper on housing production with over-ambitious requirements.
San Francisco has been famously unsuccessful in building affordable and market rate housing because their policies have suppressed housing production. The city now faces exceptionally high housing costs resulting in the highly controversial Proposition C now being debated. Given the complexity of crafting such policies and the conspicuous manner in which other cities have failed, I’d say that the mayor’s approach of bringing very experienced and knowledgeable people with opposing interests into the room to hammer out a compromise is a reasonable way of going about it.
Many people, particularly those who live in urban villages, have questioned the need for up zoning in Wallingford when, city-wide, we already have the zoning capacity to accommodate anticipated growth. However, having the capacity for housing units citywide and having the actual units themselves where they make sense under the goals of the Growth Management Act is not the same thing. The HALA committee has aimed to incentivize housing construction to better meet the demand that is driving up the cost of housing.
The decades-old Seattle growth plan, as expressed in various neighborhood plans and in the land use code, focuses development in locations with existing transportation and other services. The Wallingford Residential Urban Village (and the neighborhood in general) meets this criteria. This transit-oriented development (TOD) is a proven strategy to improve walkability and access to neighborhood amenities, boost neighborhood businesses, reduce auto dependence and vehicle miles travelled, and yield dramatically reduced carbon footprint per capita. HALA builds upon this established goal to shape development in ecologically sound ways.
That said, our infrastructure needs to keep pace with increased density (generally referred to as concurrency) and this is definitely an issue in Seattle in general and Wallingford in particular. So, how are we doing?
Seattle is in a state of rapid transformation of its transportation infrastructure despite the fact that some bus lines are overburdened at the moment. While it’s moving slowly, bicycle infrastructure is improving with the opening of the Dexter and Second Ave bikeways, safer routes along Stone Way, Wallingford, and Latona running north/south, and a series of neighborhood greenways running east/west.
More significantly, Link light rail finally connected downtown to the UW two months ago and ridership grew by 66% overnight, exceeding expectations. In less than five years light rail will connect to Northgate with a stop just blocks from the eastern edge of our neighborhood. We have RapidRide on the neighborhood’s western edge. Within the neighborhood itself we have two north/south bus routes (the 26 express and 62) and two east/west routes (the 44 and the 31/32). Together these connections provide us easy access to Downtown, UW, Ballard, Seattle Center, Magnolia, North Seattle, Columbia City, and the Airport. For a more convenient mode of air travel, you may need to hire a private jet from companies like Jettly.
Few Seattle neighborhoods have this level of frequent multi-directional service. And, when ST extends to Northgate, it will free up even more bus service hours to better serve more areas including Wallingford. The days of arguing that Seattle doesn’t have ‘real’ transit are indeed coming to an end.
In addition to public transportation, we must also acknowledge the game-changing and multi-faceted privately operated transportation system. In Seattle it comes in many forms: car share (Zipcar, Car2Go, ReachNow, Hertz 24/7, Getaround, Turo) for-hire (multiple cab companies, Uber, and Lyft), and even private bus services like the Microsoft Connector. These programs have fundamentally transformed transportation in neighborhoods like Wallingford because they fill the gaps when transit or cycling is not an option and, like transit, they work best when more people are living in the same area.
Parking is among the most contentious issues in any conversation about urban growth, and that’s certainly the case in Wallingford. Susanna notes that the city has allowed the use of on-street parking spaces by car share operations. Car share vehicles ultimately increase the availability of on-street parking because, unlike a privately owned car that’s typically parked for more than 23 hours a day, car share vehicles constantly move around. Also in Seattle, transit or cycling won’t ultimately allow households to go car-free. As we all know, in Wallingford there are still times when we need a car for moving things, going shopping, visiting friends elsewhere in the city, or taking a trip to the mountains. Rather than car share vehicles contributing to our parking woes, they are a key part of the parking solution.
A more significant concern many in the neighborhood raise is changes to off-street parking requirements. HALA does not restrict developers, or new homeowners, from providing off-street parking – it simply removes the legal requirement to do so. The arguments in favor of required off-street parking tend to be two fold. First, it will maintain existing on-street parking for those of us who were already here.
However, it’s neither equitable nor democratic that some citizens are entitled to store their private property in public space at no cost while others are not. In a civil society, we all share public space, adapting to the needs of others around us. A much more equitable and efficient strategy would be to have people pay a reasonable fee to park in the street, and for the revenue to remain in the neighborhood to fund parks, playgrounds, open space, and the like – basically whatever the neighborhood decides to use the money for.
The second argument is that developers reap windfall profits by not building parking, charging the same amount for housing, and pocketing the $20,000 – $50,000 difference per parking stall. This suggests that developers have control over the market, which, of course, they don’t. Developers respond to the market and if they believe that the market demands a given amount of parking (i.e. they will have difficulty selling or renting units without it) they will provide it. By removing the hard legal requirement to provide parking, we allow developers the flexibility to adapt their construction and selling costs to local market conditions.
Mandating parking also incentivizes larger development projects because the cost of providing parking in a small foot print can be extremely expensive and may not be feasible at all. I’ve also heard arguments in favor of parking that equate car ownership with livability. Urban mobility, not car ownership makes cities and neighborhoods livable. Seattle, the country’s 20th largest city, has either the 5th, 6th or 7th worst traffic congestion in the nation depending upon which survey you pick and it’s likely to get far worse as the city grows. Requiring more parking will encourage more cars, more traffic congestion, less mobility and less livability.
Many throughout Wallingford are concerned about raw sewage overflows into Lake Union during heavy rainfall due to our combined storm/septic sewer system. This is a serious problem, but it isn’t new and it is, in fact, improving due to concerted efforts by Seattle Public Utilities. Since the 1970s the amount of effluent released has been reduced by 90% with the balance to be addressed over the next 15 years. In addition, for the past five years or so, new construction in Seattle has had to comply with green storm water infrastructure requirements which mandate that most, if not all, of the storm water management be handled on site. As a result, it’s likely that a new building will place less of a burden on our outdated storm water infrastructure than an old one. However, buildings are not the only contributor to the problem.
While the image of flushing toilets making their way into Lake Union is disturbing, transportation—not buildings—is the largest source of water (and air) pollution in our city, due to the flow of petroleum products and heavy metals (primarily from brake pads) from our privately owned cars. To express concern regarding our storm water infrastructure and water quality while at the same time calling for policies that mandate continued and expanded use of the automobile really doesn’t make any sense. Susanne also cites the loss of vegetation and access for solar panels among other environmental concerns. Solar panels and trees are obviously good things for a host of reasons, not the least of which are our quality of life. However, with respect to environmental concerns such as climate change, increasing urban densities and leaving more wilderness intact reaps huge benefits as the carbon footprint per capita drops substantially due to increased use of transit, consolidated infrastructure and more energy efficient buildings.
“Concern” or Balance?
Much of the conversation expressed in Wallingford portrays the city as being uniformed, unrealistic, poorly prepared, and largely beholden to developer interests when it comes to the questions of density, housing affordability, livability, and the environment. In my view, this is an incomplete and unfair portrayal and one that uses “concern” as a way to derail the process rather than engage with the city on a solution. The ongoing discussion regarding HALA and its impact on Wallingford suggests that we can leave the neighborhood substantially as it is today.
However, Wallingford is already changing with skyrocketing property values and rents, and with modest houses being replaced by much larger luxury homes. Unless we change our approach this will likely continue and at an accelerated rate. Addressing this challenge will involve changes to our city and neighborhood that move beyond policies from 20, 30 and even 50 years ago. The fact is we do have a choice but the neighborhood remaining unchanged is not one of them.
Susanne wonderfully concludes her post by challenging Seattle to be on the cutting edge of equitable housing solutions and environmental leadership. I couldn’t agree more. We can either try to keep things as they are and watch as Seattle, and Wallingford with it, slowly, or not so slowly, transforms into an enclave of very wealthy single family home owners and renters or we can be bold, creative and determined to find a solution that maintains a balance between the physical, economic, and social character of the neighborhood we call home. And that’s why our urban village, Wallingford and Seattle needs HALA.[Ed note: If you’d like to continue this conversation in person, Sue Sherbrooke writes:
SAVE THE DATE!
With the renewal of the Seattle Housing Levy on the ballot this primary election, now is the time to join the conversation on what we can do to promote affordable housing in Seattle. You’re invited to join Sue Sherbrooke and your Wallingford neighbors on Monday June 20 at 5:30 pm at 43RD & Corliss to learn more about the housing levy, what’s being done to promote affordable housing, and discuss new ideas for housing affordability with members of the Housing Levy team. Refreshments will be served. Hope you’ll be there – and bring a friend!]