A building frenzy provokes a citywide revolt, name-calling, and arguments over whether growth is helping or hurting housing affordability. And it doesn’t look as if it’s going to end anytime soon.
By Nina ShapiroTue., Sep 9 2014 at 09:41PM
Photo by Morgen Schuler
On a sunny summer afternoon on Northwest 60th Street in Ballard, Tom Bradish decides that he isn’t going to sit idly by while construction workers are invading his street, “acting like they own the neighborhood.”
A pair of workers are presiding over a plot near the modest one-story where he has lived for the past 23 years. Where once a little house dating back to 1900 stood there is now nothing but mounds of dirt and a digger, which will soon give way to four row houses. Nearing the end of the day, the workers are unloading fencing material from a flatbed truck parked in the middle of the road. Bradish walks up to the workers and tells them to move on and stop blocking traffic.
Exactly what he says can’t be heard by bystanders, but it obviously isn’t pretty. “Don’t bitch at us,” explodes one of the workers, dark-haired, clad in a black T-shirt and nearing the end of the day working in the hot sun. “I’m here to do a job.”
He clomps back to his truck to finish up, but a minute later he’s back in the middle of the road. “Hey, I know you don’t want these houses built,” he shouts, as Bradish continues to stand in the road, watching. “But don’t start using the f-word with me. You know what? I don’t fucking care. You’re a fucking prick!”
For a moment, it seems like the pair might come to blows. Instead, Bradish barks: “Get your shit out of the street and move it.”
With slamming of doors and banging of materials, the worker eventually does as Bradish suggests and drives off. Bradish is unfazed. In fact, he looks rather pleased with himself as he confides that he intended to needle the workers. “You have to put these guys on notice.”
The needled worker is right about one thing: Bradish doesn’t like the row houses that are going up across the street from him, nor the similar low-rise developments that are popping up all over this part of Ballard, most of them on land cleared of charming and historic homes. The neighborhood is becoming denser, and—i n the view of Bradish and many of his neighbors—uglier and less hospitable to the residents who already live there.
“They don’t care about style,” he says of the developers. “It’s all about the cash.”
Except for the occasional needling, he’s not fighting it, he says. “I’m resigned to the fact that this is what the city wants. They want us to live in cubicles.” Nearing retirement, he relates that he’ll probably sell out and leave the city.
But others in Ballard—and in neighborhoods across the city that are being similarly transformed—are digging in and doing battle. In Capitol Hill, West Seattle, Eastlake, and elsewhere, residents are banding together, putting up websites and passing around petitions to stop what they contend is runaway, unregulated growth. More than a dozen such groups joined a confederation formed earlier this year called the Coalition for an Affordable, Livable Seattle, or CALSeattle.
These activist groups point to an unprecedented building boom that has led to cranes everywhere and almost 14,000 permitted units still to be built as of this spring. That’s almost half as many units as were built in the entire seven-year period ending in 2012. They will bring the city slightly above its planned growth target—for the year 2024. Ballard, including permitted construction, has already added more than three times the number of units planned for 10 years hence; Capitol Hill almost twice as many.
“When is enough enough?” asks John Fox, executive director of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and a founder of CALSeattle. Usually a champion of low-income rather than well-off homeowners, Fox has thrown in his lot with neighborhood activists because he shares their belief that development is not only destroying the look and feel of beloved parts of town but leading to widespread gentrification. Even in neighborhoods that have long been affluent, Fox and his allies warn of a demographic shift that is destroying any remaining pockets of affordable housing and creating in their stead high-priced luxury units.
Patrick Tompkins standing in front of the future home of new housing. Photo by Morgen Schuler
Patrick Tompkins, a Capitol Hill homeowner and another founder of CALSeattle, talks about neighborhoods like his turning into a “monoculture” of rich, young tech workers. San Francisco, where a virtual class war has broken out over an even more amped-up, tech-fueled real-estate market, stands as a cautionary tale.
Just as vehemently, however, another faction of the city is arguing that the development boom is exactly what should be happening, and if anything is being overregulated. In July, a developer-funded organization called Smart Growth Seattle launched a campaign, complete with video and petition, that rails against City Council members for “decreasing housing supply with legislation that adds more rules, process, limits, and costs... at a time when we are expecting 120,000 new residents.” (That’s roughly in line with a forecast by the Puget Sound Regional Council, which projects 110,000 new Seattle residents between 2010 and 2030.) The video features ostensible street interviews with person after person—white, Asian, African American, young hipsters, graying boomers—all lamenting the city’s skyrocketing cost of housing, which an anonymous narrator blames not on new expensive units replacing old affordable housing, but on the notion that there aren’t enough new units to meet demand.
This viewpoint too is represented by unlikely allies: Developers are finding support from environmentalists who promote high-density growth as the best antidote to sprawl.
Growth has been a soul-searching topic in Seattle for decades. Think of the “Lesser Seattle” campaign of the ’80s and ’90s, which arose as a half-joking backlash to the influx of Californians fleeing their overpriced market only to drive up prices here. “Keep the Bastards Out” was the motto of Lesser Seattle instigator and thenSeattle P-Icolumnist Emmett Watson. But the renewed debate brought by the recent development frenzy has reached a fever pitch, complete with name-calling and conspiracy theories. Smart Growth director Roger Valdez derides “entitled” property owners and the “NIMBY crowd” while Fox raises alarm about “rabid-pro-development” forces engaged in “green-washing.”
“It’s so polarized right now,” laments City Council member Sally Clark, chair of the Housing Affordability committee and an active player in land-use issues. A councilmember since 2006, she says, “This is the fiercest the land-use wars have felt in my time.”
They’re not going to let up anytime soon. Both sides have pledged to make the 2015 council election, when all the seats will be up for grabs in the first races determined by district, a referendum on housing policy. Also on the horizon is the task force on affordable housing promised by both Clark and Mayor Ed Murray, modeled on the mayor’s high-profile minimum-wage advisory committee, which stands to make gentrification the next pressing civic issue.
In the meantime, there’s sparring over the latest flashpoints. Neighborhood activists decry a wave of new microhousing, much of which has not had to undergo city design review because of regulatory technicalities, and which pack in a lot of people per structure. The City Council is considering new restrictions. More broadly, the city has proposed regulatory changes that will determine just how big and dense developments can be in “low-rise” zones that were targeted for growth decades ago but stayed largely single-family areas—until now.
Four years ago, the City Council and the Department of Planning and Development looked at the low-rise zones and determined that they were “underproducing,” says Clark, recalling the matter in her council office on a recent day. Comprising about 10 percent of the city, located on the edge of neighborhood business districts, these were the zones that the city had envisioned for more density as it strategized over how to absorb growth.
Yet hardly any apartment buildings had arisen, and what dense development there was tended to look all the same: “four-packs” or “six-packs” of townhomes. Why not row houses? city officials wondered, looking toward the brownstones of New York City as a model.
It’s so polarized right now. This is the fiercest the land-use wars have felt in my time.
So Clark, using DPD recommendations as a guideline, came up with a range of incentives meant to spur these types of developments. Anyone who created row houses could build out to the property line, bypassing the normal requirement for side yards. Her ordinance required virtually no front yards either, for any type of development.
Even more significantly, the ordinance raised allowable heights by as much as 10 feet in the densest low-rise zones, like parts of Capitol Hill, and allowed developers an extra four feet if they incorporated a partially submerged story into their design. That would raise the first floor, as officials saw it, thereby giving rise to front porches and stoops that would create a more appealing streetscape. For the same reason, the city said that any units below grade would not count against a new density calculus it created.
Depending on the slope of a terrain and extra height allowances that continued to be allowed for things like a clerestory, some projects could now appear five or even six stories tall. Previously, height regulations limited a developer in the densest areas to roughly three floors (give or take a clerestory).
Boosted by a recovering economy, the incentives worked. Apartment buildings arose. So did row houses and even more townhomes. This was not, however, what residents of these neighborhoods were prepared for.
From the front porch of his Ballard craftsman, Matt Dadswell can see the row-house development that so irritated Tom Bradish. As Dadswell and Tess Stelzer, who lives nearby, sit there on a recent day, they note the barrenness of the construction site. “This has been scraped completely clean,” he says. “Every piece of vegetation is gone.”
That’s one reason why he and Stelzer question whether such development really is environmentally friendly. “In a fantasy world, it’s doing some good for trees,” Stelzer says, alluding to the forested areas of the state that growth-management policies are meant to protect. On the ground in the city, she says, the opposite is happening.
It would be one thing if the row houses were sitting on a block filled with similar homes, she and Dadswell continue. That’s the way New York City looks, with entire blocks of brownstones lined up against each other. Here, however, “it’s like a slice of row house has been dropped into the middle of the block,” Dadswell says.
He and Stelzer are reluctant to talk too much on the record. Stelzer says that in February, she was out canvassing the neighborhood for Livable Ballard, one of the new groups trying to rein in development, when someone started following her and taking pictures. Not long after, a website appeared with the url LivableBallard.com—substituting a “.com” for the “.org” of the neighborhood group’s site—and on it was a picture of Stelzer’s own house and her husband’s name. “Here’s the man who would stop you from moving to Ballard,” read the caption, implying that opposition to development amounted to hostility to newcomers. Stelzer says she never learned who was responsible for the site, which has since been taken down.
Their wariness notwithstanding, the two homeowners agree to give a tour of the rapidly changing neighborhood. Every half block or so is a new development: double rows of townhomes, or townhomes in back and a single-family house in front, or vice versa, or row houses in the making. Some of the developments, usually two stories high and leaving room for shrubbery in front, they classify as in keeping with the “smart urban density” they say they believe in. Not so, though, a development they come to on Northwest 62nd Street, which Stezler says “perfectly embodies the out-of-scale factor.”
In the final stages of construction, it’s of the duplex-in-back, single-family-house-in-front variety. The house is attractive in a modernist, geometric way, with rows of large rectangular windows. It is, however, a towering presence. Actually, it has what looks like a tower, which contains a staircase leading to a rooftop deck that at one end juts a story over the already sizable three-story dwelling. At its tallest point, it’s two stories higher than the houses on either end.
As we stand there, Jeff Murray drives up to his charming but tiny green bungalow. “Are you here to write about how they’re ruining our neighborhood?” asks the jocular Murray, wearing a bright tie-dyed tank top and shorts. He quips that the staircase tower, across the street from him, looks like a “helicopter landing pad.”
“On the one hand,” such development “will likely pay for my retirement,” muses Murray, who works as a chef for an engineering company. He says he’s already been offered a half-million dollars for his property, although his house, obviously viewed as a tear-down, boasts only 650 square feet. “On the other hand, my house has been here since 1862.” Or at least the builders had access to newspapers dating back to then. Murray found one in the walls some years back when he was remodeling. It announced the upcoming Seattle performance by John Philip Sousa.
Gretchen Geisness in front of her Ballard home. Photo by Morgen Schuler
In another historic Ballard home on the same street, Gretchen Geisness feels the impact of development even more keenly. Not only is she right next door to the “helicopter landing pad,” but on the other side of her red craftsman is another development, smaller in scale but still big enough and close enough to her property to block out the morning light that used to shine into her home. “To me, that’s super-depressing,” she says, talking about it on a late summer day by phone. Her 14-year-old daughter, whose bedroom window now faces a wall, has been lobbying the teen’s little brother to switch rooms. No such luck.
Geisness says she thinks about moving, but probably won’t. She likes her neighbors, her kids’ schools, and the 15-minute commute to her job downtown, where she manages a couple of Tom Douglas restaurants.
Pam Carter and Roy Hirshkowitz came to a different conclusion.
In 2012, the Capitol Hill couple learned that a courtyard apartment complex next to their house of 22 years, where they had raised two children, had been sold. They were fine with the apartment complex as it was. One story high, it had only eight units. That was part and parcel of the neighborhood they moved into, which combined stately turn-of-the-century homes with apartment buildings that often offered their own low-key charm.
But the project that was to be built next to them was something different. Receiving extra allowances for a partially submerged basement, the structure would hold 49 units and rise four stories and then some (including the semi-above-ground floor). Carter and Hirshkowitz agonized for months over the loss of light and privacy that they foresaw. Finally they decided to accept $800,000 from the same developer, who now plans to tear down their house and build even more units.
“We kept trying to figure out a way to stay there, but then finally decided why?” recalls Hirshkowitz. “It is a nice, old 1904 house, but it doesn’t have the right to be here forever. It clearly wasn’t wanted.” He’s referring to city plans to encourage more density in the neighborhood.
Carter and Hirshkowitz bought a new modernist home with a view in the leafy Admiral district of West Seattle, which by virtue of its single-family zoning they know will not follow the way of their old neighborhood. The couple say they’re enjoying their new life.
Back in Capitol Hill, though, bad feelings over the development linger. On a Notice of Use billboard in front of the property, which sits at the intersection of 18th Avenue East and East John Street, a sticker proclaims: “Stop the Destruction. Save old Seattle. Boycott New Buildings.”
Standing there one day, Patrick Tompkins, whose 1908 craftsman is up the street, casts the departure of Carter and Hirshkowitz as part of a strategic “block busting.” Once one development goes in, he contends, builders hit up nearby property owners who might be motivated to move.
Indeed, everyone around here has been flooded with unsolicited offers. Walking around the neighborhood, we run into Stanley Perkins, a retired pipefitter who has lived in his house since 1973, when he bought it for $17,500. Asked to bring out some of the offers that regularly arrive in the mail, he heads into the house and comes back with carton after carton.
“Dear Stanley,” begins one letter from a repeated land suitor. “As I have stated in my letters to you recently, the land market may be in a bubble and 2014 could be the top of the market.” The letter’s author goes on to say that he represents buyers who “are so eager to purchase your property” that they have agreed to pay all of the usual commissions. Perkins didn’t bite.
Like many of his neighbors, after all, Perkins has the choice of whether to accept an offer or not. Even if homeowners feel, as some say they do, that the city and developers are making them unwelcome in their own neighborhoods, they can always resist the pressure.
Tompkins—ironically a semi-retired contractor who once participated in hyperdevelopment on the East Coast before he turned to lower-scale projects in the Bay Area—falls into this camp. Yet he insists that he’s just as perturbed by the dislocation of residents who don’t have a choice—renters, typically living in aging apartment complexes run by similarly aging owners who have kept rents fairly reasonable. One renter who lived near Tompkins, Tawanda Vengesay, saw the rent for his basement studio rise from $625 to $1,350. That’s after a new owner bought the building, renovated, and drew up plans for a new structure in the parking lot. Vengesay, a landscape worker who had lived there for 15 years, says the amount was too much for him and he left for another older building on the outskirts of Capitol Hill.
Although Vengesay pays considerably more than he used to, he’s managing. But he still laments what he sees as the dying spirit of a neighborhood once populated by artsy types “trying to figure out what they were doing and where they were going.”
Gentrification is not just a concern for those nostalgic for Capitol Hill’s bohemian air. At a press conference on an early July day in Ravenna, Tenants Union organizer Eliana Horn asks: “What kind of city do we want to be? Is this going to be a city just for the wealthy?”
Theodora resident Shawn Walton in his room. Photo by Morgen Schuler
Before her stand some of the last remaining tenants of the Theodora Apartments, a spacious and pleasant complex for seniors and disabled people operated for decades by a national Christian nonprofit called Volunteers of America. The nonprofit is selling the 115-unit building to Goodman Real Estate, a local company that plans to renovate the complex and build an additional wing in the parking lot. Goodman is the same company that bought Ballard’s Lockhaven apartments and dramatically raised rents. While Goodman CEO George Petrie did not return requests for comments, Horn says she anticipates something similar happening at the Theodora.
Volunteers of America sent a letter to tenants last summer telling them to relocate. Most did. But a couple dozen remain as of this press conference, held to announce the filing of a federal suit seeking to block the sale. The suit contends that the deal would violate the Fair Housing Act by disproportionately impacting people with disabilities.
The half-dozen or so residents now assembled before Horn live on disability or Social Security payments. They have been paying roughly $900 for rent plus three meals a day at the Theodora and can’t afford much more. Shawn Walton, for instance, says he receives $1,100 a month in disability assistance.
The last time he paid rent in a market-rate apartment building was in 2010, when his longtime Wedgwood studio cost only $500 a month. That was before he suffered a cardiac arrest, although only 44. He says he was found early in the morning one winter day, lying on the ground near his apartment. Due to frostbite and septis, both his legs and four of his fingers had to be amputated. He normally walks now with prostheses, but occasionally uses a wheelchair that can easily roll down the wide hallways of the Theodora. Living near his old neighborhood, he says, has allowed him a modicum of normalcy. He doesn’t expect that to last.
After the press conference, walking steadily but with some fatigue on his prosthetic legs to a balcony off the second floor of the Theodora, Walton explains that he contacted the Seattle Housing Authority about a subsidized apartment—hopefully nearby—and was told the wait is at least six months long. If the sale goes through, he’ll have to leave before that.
Searching online classified ads, he’s found some apartments in the $900 to $1,100 range—doable if he doesn’t eat. Even those, though, tend to lie either far north or far south, making his hopes of returning to work someday unlikely given what would be a long bus commute. “I don’t see how I’ll be able to resume an independent life that far out of town,” he says.
Sally Clark has taken her own tours of the low-rise zones with unhappy residents. She is sympathetic. Speaking in her City Council office, she speculates that when officials made the decision to target these zones for more density decades ago, they surely never imagined that the transformation would happen “to the degree and with the intensity” that is now occurring. For residents, “that’s painful.”
She still talks about these zones as facing an inevitable “transition.” But in October, she asked DPD to come up with regulatory revisions that would prevent the kind of “massive” developments she says she has seen of late.
DPD came back with a list of proposed changes. They included eliminating height and density bonuses for partially submerged basements and requiring side yards for row houses next door to single-family homes.
Meanwhile, the City Council has started to discuss how to get developers to help create more affordable housing. In July, the housing committee floated two ideas. One would tinker with an incentive program that allows developers to build bigger if they either create affordable housing or pay a fee that goes toward building such housing. Under a council proposal, the fee would go up. A more radical idea would ask all developers, not just those opting for incentives, to pay an affordable housing fee.
Neighborhood groups are only partially appeased. “We’re only getting half a loaf here,” Tompkins says. He and his allies had asked for deeper height reductions, protection of greenery, a requirement that developers replace every low-income housing unit they tear down with a comparable unit, and the enactment of impact fees. Used by other cities around the state, but not Seattle, such developer-paid fees help pay for the added parks, schools, roads, and mass transit that growth necessitates.
The City Council faced even more ire, however, from the man who has emerged as the voice of developers and the loudest advocate for growth: Roger Valdez. “I would call it a disaster,” he says.
Roger Valdez standing in front of the Stackhouse. Photo by Morgen Schuler
He’s explaining his views in a shared conference room of a sleek “coworking” space in South Lake Union called WeWork. Fittingly, he moved into this slice of new Seattle—marked by glass walls, an airy lounge stocked with drinks and sandwiches, and the buzz of stylish young entrepreneurs—shortly after he became a full-time employee of Smart Growth in January.
In the ’90s, Valdez, then a resident of Beacon Hill, was a neighborhood activist himself, then a planner for the Department of Neighborhoods. He shared an office with Clark, also then employed by the department. “He had a better sense of humor” then, Clark quips.
Perhaps, but it was a different time. A neighborhood revolt against growth had settled into something more harmonious, as activists worked with the city to design neighborhood plans that envisioned how growth would look in each area of town. This ability to have a voice really turned the tide, according to Jim Diers, then the director of the neighborhoods department. Ultimately, none of the neighborhood plans challenged growth targets that, when introduced some years prior, had caused an uproar. “It wasn’t just about growth any more, but how do you make a neighborhood livable,” Diers says. The plans came up with proposals for new parks, libraries, and community centers.
Valdez recalls, too, that being an activist “meant demanding things. We spent a lot of energy discussing traffic circles... more street trees.” In the economic slump of the early aughts, then–newly elected Mayor Greg Nickels fired Diers and walked away from the neighborhood plans. Without the same voice for positive suggestions, the neighborhood faction became more negative.
If somebody’s view gets blocked, that’s not a serious problem. The serious problem is where are 120,000 people going to live?
As Valdez sees it, activists today are preoccupied with “shutting things down.” Their mantra is “Don’t touch it, don’t build it, leave it alone.” He says Clark is making “a terrible mistake” by listening to this. “If somebody’s view gets blocked, that’s not a serious problem. The serious problem is where are 120,000 people going to live?”
For the same reason, he has no empathy for property owners who bemoan the demolition of historic single-family homes to make way for denser projects. “That’s what we want,” he says. The denser, the better, in Valdez’s view. “We should not be leaving [a single] housing unit on the table.”
The proposed changes to the low-rise zones leave a lot of units on the table, he contends. They would essentially eliminate a floor, or about 20 percent of units in the densest projects, he calculates.
In June, he filed an appeal challenging a DPD determination that the revisions would have no significant environmental impact. He contends they would—“by shutting the door to new people moving into our city, forcing them to pay more for housing, or, worse, living outside the Urban Growth Boundary [mandated by the state’s Growth Management Act, passed in 1990 to help protect natural resources from sprawl]. A decision by the city’s hearing examiner is expected in October.
Similarly, Valdez argues that increasing the fees that developers are required to pay for city-designated affordable housing to be built will only lead to less affordability. Developers will be less likely to build and the demand/supply ratio will go further out of whack. “You think it’s expensive now? Just wait.”
Whether development creates more affordable housing or less is a difficult question to definitively answer. Empirical data doesn’t settle the question because cities don’t typically build enough housing to create the glut needed for prices to come down, observes Rick Jacobus, a Bay Area housing consultant who made a presentation to the Seattle City Council in July. Speaking by phone, he explains that “In every major city, we only build high-end housing, and there’s not enough of even that.”
So building booms are often accompanied by price increases. Seattle’s average rents rose roughly 8 percent to more than $1,450 a month in the year leading up to last September, according to a report from Dupre+Scott Apartment Advisers. Frantic bidding wars over single-family homes drove a yearly increase of twice that rate. Last month, the median sale price reached a record height of $544,000, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
Provocatively, Jacobus maintains that the more we build, the greater the need for affordable housing. This is true, he says, not only because the new units are up-market but because the new units’ occupants bring more low-wage workers to the city to work at new restaurants and other amenities.
Valdez, it should be noted, doesn’t argue that the market alone will create sufficient affordable housing. His solutions, though, run more along the line of government subsidies and developer incentives than fees or mandates. As an example, he points to South Lake Union’s Stack House, developed by Vulcan, one of Smart Growth’s funders.
Before heading into WeWork for our interview, driven there by the noise of ongoing construction, we stood in front of the recently opened apartment complex, which boasts a beautiful brick façade and a towering chimney that date back to its days as a turn-of-the-century laundry facility. Valdez pointed out that this outpost of growth includes roughly 50 affordable units. Vulcan is thereby taking advantage of a city program that offers a tax exemption in exchange for reserving part of a project for people making no more than 80 percent of the area’s median income.
The program does indeed mean that it’s not only people who can afford market-rate rents that top out over $3,500 a month who can live in this bustling complex, whose towers wrap around a courtyard and boast a sports court, a media room with “gaming stations and surround-sound big screen,” a “winter garden” with a glass ceiling, and a community room with billiards and a “chef’s kitchen.”
But here’s the reality of Seattle’s housing market: an “affordable” studio, based on a calculation derived from the region’s high median income, rents for nearly $900 a month. Anyone calling about such studios this summer might have discovered another reality: None were available. In a market where this is as good as it gets, they had all been snatched up.