That housing committee really did call to upzone all single-family zoning in Seattle. One of the architects of the plan explains and defends it.
When Mayor Ed Murray announced Monday that he was endorsing all the proposals of his housing affordability committee, he took great pains to say it wouldn’t cause much change in Seattle’s single-family-zoned neighborhoods after all.
For special emphasis, he said this twice.
“I’m going to say this again, because there’s been a little fun out there about us plowing under every single-family neighborhood,” Murray said. “Under our plan, 94 percent of existing single-family neighborhoods will see no upzones.”
That’s a strong statement, but is it true? The reliability of a talking point is usually inversely related to the number of times a politician repeats it. So I decided to just ask a member of the Housing Affordabily and Livability committee to walk me through the facts.
The first thing architect David Neiman said when I got him on the phone wasn’t exactly aligned with the mayor’s spin.
“I think the mayor was trying to do some messaging there,” Neiman said. “The rules definitely would change in all the single-family zones in Seattle.”
If approved, the new rules would cover the entire city and would, Neiman said, be an upzone to all single-family lots in Seattle.
Neiman is a developer who strongly backs the housing committee’s final report. He also lives in my neighborhood, Madrona, which like many of the lower-density parts of Seattle has houses on 5,000-square-foot lots centered on a commercial district with some apartment buildings.
He said a way to visualize the proposal for Seattle’s single-family zones is this: It effectively triples the density of development allowed today, while retaining the same housing bulk and lot coverage limitations.
“So you could take a lot where you are currently able to build one home, and you could slice it into three units,” Neiman says. “That could be three free-standing small homes, or one building divided into three flats, or three row houses, or three condos.”
You wouldn’t have to build any of these things. But the economics of the change likely would spur redevelopment across many single-family zoned parts of the city.
Neiman sketched out the upzone this way: Imagine a small $400,000 Seattle bungalow in, say, West Seattle. Under current boomtown conditions, that house is a candidate to be torn down and replaced by a new home, priced at $1 million plus.
With the changes, a developer could raze the bungalow and instead build three smaller homes or condos in a triplex building, with a goal of selling each for, say, $600,000, Neiman said. Suddenly the $1 million plus project is a $1.8 million project, with roughly similar construction costs.
“When you can put three units there instead of one, it’s got a lot more juice to it,” Neiman said.
This juicing would likely cause widespread redevelopment of lower-priced single family home stock over time. The wealthier single family areas would be more likely to remain unchanged.
“You’re probably not going to see a string of triplexes going up in Broadmoor,” he said.
People could hold onto their bungalows as long as they please, or even build new ones. But many of Seattle’s smaller and older houses would make way for higher-density development.
That’s the whole point of that part of the housing plan, Neiman said — to spur development in single-family zones. The goal is to densify without trampling the leafy neighborhood feel. But, “it’s enough of an upzone that the committee talked about trying to get something back for it,” such as a payment into an affordable-housing fund whenever a property is redeveloped at the higher zoning, Neiman said.
Messaging all this, or whatever we’re calling what the mayor did, seems to me to be a poor way to start a citywide conversation on some of the biggest zoning changes proposed in Seattle in our lifetimes.
So thanks go to Neiman for laying it all out there, unvarnished. I’m already on record that I think it’s an overreaction to upzone the entire city, especially until we get better infrastructure to handle the growth. Plus: save the bungalows!
But Neiman earned the last word. I asked him: Why is this a good idea?
“You and I couldn’t afford to live in our own neighborhood if we moved to Seattle now,” he said. “Right? So without some redeveloping, we’re simply closing the door behind us.
“This does mean we’re going to lose some of the old Seattle fabric, some of the bungalows. But we’ll create a new fabric. This city has to change or else we’re going to be a city only for the very rich and the very poor.
“I came to the conclusion that sitting there with your arms folded is not a reasonable response anymore.”