Zoning, Anti-Trump, and Hypocrisy

Generally, I like to think of myself as pro-urbanism. The tenets, as I understand them, include focusing development near transit centers, and building out infrastructure that prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. In 2015, I specifically used the term "Social Justice Urbanism" to describe my general philosophy: Yes, we need more types of housing, yes we need more affordable housing, but we also must be cognizant of the impacts of our growing city on communities of color that were all but forced into certain parts of the city and built strong communities regardless.

A part of this is because I believe we must be a welcoming region. In particular, we should be leaders for those facing real displacement - people fleeing war-torn countries, and looking to ensure their children have a better chance. The response of my city to the current administration's attempts to deny entry to our country based on peoples' religion is heartening, to say the least. As a community, we are making clear that we do not support putting walls up around our country.

Photo Credit: Rick Mohler to City Builders

Photo Credit: Rick Mohler to City Builders

Now, some of our neighborhoods? That's a different story. As the "worst city council member" in Seattle (according to some who comment on Crosscut), I have been paying attention to the HALA process. I also get around in District 4 (at least a little bit), and have seen the "No Grand Bargain" signs produced by the Wallingford Community Council. But something I'm seeing more and more of are these signs right next to signs directly or implicitly denouncing our current Administration and its policies against people (particularly black and brown people).

The message is clear: We support all of the liberal things, we support allowing refugees into our country, but we do not support anything that might let those refugees live in our neighborhood.

What's striking (unsurprising?) is that these signs are exclusively (or damned near) in the yards of people living on "Single Family" lots, or placed in public right of way. On its face, SF zoning is exclusionary. It literally requires that, for someone to live in an area, they have to be able to afford a single-family home on a decent-sized lot, typically 3,000-7,000 square feet. With the skyrocketing costs to purchase or rent, that means that working-class folks are no longer allowed in these neighborhoods. 

I often hear from folks in Wallingford specifically about how, when they moved in, it was a working-class neighborhood, and that housing was affordable. The idea seems to be that if we block any change from happening in the neighborhood, we can go back to the good old days when white, middle class families could afford Wallingford. The reality, though: those days are over. 

The fight against HALA has been fascinating to watch. There is this idea that long-term residents' opinions matter more than newer residents. That property owners have more at stake in the city than renters. That the idea is all about a big giveaway to developers, and that all developers are evil.

This all started when the recommendations were first released, and included recommending a pilot project allowing duplexes in triplexes in SF zoned areas. The opposition was immediate, and the proposal was scrapped without any public process

Next up: Queen Anne Community Council fighting against backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments as part of a broader strategy to produce more low-density affordable housing. With the support of many of the same folks who opposed duplexes and triplexes, there has been success is slowing down this avenue to provide for more housing in a way that would keep the general aesthetic of a neighborhood. 

At the most recent hearing on the U-District rezone, speakers from Ravenna-Bryant and Ballard came out in force opposing allowing for greater building height and developer-paid affordable housing near a light rail station. The Wallingford Community Council sent a representative who actually spoke against developer-paid affordable housing. 

It is not uncommon that many of those who are opposing HALA (a) are offering no alternatives, and (b) make assertions that with the proposed HALA rezones in more dense urban areas, we will see a decimation of "naturally affordable housing," referring to buildings that are 20+ years old. One thing I notice: most of these folks are Single Family homeowners who have no direct experience with what is going on in the market right now. 

As a renter, I know that my housing situation may change with minimal notice. And recently, that happened. I found out that my home will see an annual rent increase of 10% if I sign on for a one-year lease. 30% if I don't. My building is over 20 years old. "Naturally affordable" only stays that way if we continue to construct homes that will become "naturally affordable" in time. Doing nothing means we all get priced out. The ongoing delay has priced me out of my home.

That's not to say I am without sympathy to those who fear the impacts of rezones. Dramatic change is scary. However, with many of the anti-HALA players having been fighting incremental change for years, I'm less sympathetic to the current "plight." Adding in that the proposed changes are far from dramatic, I call shenanigans.

(I do believe the city must stand firm with Mandatory Housing Affordability minimums that help to meet our need, while not making it impossible to deliver the total housing production required to match growth in our city (and lessen suburban sprawl). While some urbanists believe we should all be "upzone no matter what!", I do not fall into that camp. We have a disjointed revenue system, and this is using an option available to help us get closer to meeting our affordable housing needs without relying solely on regressive taxes. I'm also supportive of calls for planning to address transit infrastructure needs concurrent with zoning changes - TOD only works with good transit, after all)

There remains no reason that the city cannot effectively work with neighborhood partners on how our rezoning should work. However, that requires neighborhood partners who are coming to the table willing to actually work for more inclusive communities. The outreach that we have seen from the city and from city council members shows they want to be a partner. Yet, so often this work is derided as "not enough" - the city is going to doorbell every single SF house that is facing a rezone to LR1 to answer questions and get feedback, and that is considered "not enough" by some.  But we still do not hear what the rules of the game should be. We still do not know what the preferred outcome is - other than drowning certain neighborhoods in amber to prevent change from happening.

But let's consider consider what the actual effect of the proposed zoning changes are: converting LR1 to LR2 (both currently have 25' height limits, with 10' allowance for a roof), LR2 to LR3 (LR3 has a 30' height limit, with 5' allowance for a pitched roof), and some Residential Small Lot (1 home per 2,500 square feet, no height limit) to LR1 (1 home per 1,600 square feet with a height limit). This is the majority of the proposed changes in Wallingford. Nobody is forced to sell. And at "worst," a 25 foot house might have a 35 foot building with 6 homes next door. 

Frankly, I don't think that is the end of the world. And by expanding housing types and options - even as incrementally as HALA actually does throughout most of the impacted areas - we not only will ensure long-term, sustainable affordability for working class families across Seattle, but will actually ensure we are a welcoming and affordable city for young families, refugees, and the folks who do the work that make Seattle function. 

I end with this picture, which I found particularly interesting, considering that easing the ability to build mother-in-law apartments is a part of the HALA Grand Bargain.