Making Room in the New Seattle

Photo: Joel Mann via  Flickr
Photo: Joel Mann via Flickr. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Belltown Funky Studios in Seattle is the kind of building that inspires a double-take. No, you’re not imagining things if you think the 1890 landmark‘s three-gabled upper story looks a little wonky; it is, Angela Compton tells me, “literally concave. People make morbid jokes about it.”

The building’s an odd relic of an old Seattle—the 19th-century one that boomed with the timber industry and as a jumping-off point for the Klondike Gold Rush—but it’s also a lifeline for residents struggling to hold on to a place in the new Seattle, now the land of the Amazon Gold Rush. The building received historic landmark status in 2015, but those protections were relaxed in 2018 when a city board determined it was too damaged to save.

Meanwhile, its tiny apartments remain inhabited, a rare source of deeply affordable (albeit unsafe and poorly maintained) housing in a part of Seattle often associated with the city’s rapid gentrification. Its very existence in the state it’s in in 2019 is evidence of the boom-and-bust history of the neighborhood: the neglect and disrepair that Belltown was allowed to fall into, before being reinvented in steel and glass in recent years by a torrent of what Jane Jacobs called cataclysmic money.

Compton has been involved with efforts to find a happy ending for Funky Studios residents. Those residents and nearby businesses have been heavily involved in the design process for a replacement, meeting with the developers, and advocates are currently pushing the developer of the site to embrace Seattle’s affordability incentives (such as the Mutifamily Tax Exemption) and to offer preferential treatment for those who used to live in the funky studios so that they can remain in the neighborhood.

This is the kind of hard, grinding work—a few apartments a time, a few households at a time—often involved in making room in the new Seattle for those who aren’t the beneficiaries of the city’s dazzling tech-industry boom. Compton works as a program manager at Housing Connector, an organization that finds homes for people exiting homelessness by working with private-sector landlords and property managers to reduce barriers related to screening criteria and ensure that tenants are supported with case management once they have a place to live.

This kind of work is important, but it’s hard to scale. Seattle needs to become a city where every affordable home isn’t a battle, one where the market meets much of the housing need for a broad range of Seattlites without so much heavy lifting. Outside of her current day job, Compton has worked for years in several capacities with a huge, diverse coalition of advocates—many of them part of the Seattle For Everyone coalition—pushing for a more inclusive vision of Seattle’s neighborhoods and who they are built for. To understand this vision of Seattle’s future, it’s necessary to understand how Seattle got here. 

A 3-unit converted house in Wallingford, Seattle—a historic housing type that is illegal in most of the city today. (Image via  Sightline Institute on Flickr )
A 3-unit converted house in Wallingford, Seattle—a historic housing type that is illegal in most of the city today. (Image via Sightline Institute on Flickr)

A City Under Glass

There was a time, prior to the mid-20th century, when Seattle (or any major U.S. city) would have had a much larger range of options when it came to places to live: new buildings, old buildings, large spaces, tiny spaces, SROs, rooming houses, buildings in questionable condition but available and affordable. A lot of this kind of stuff became the target—here and everywhere—of a postwar push toward order, regularity, and suburban-style zoning associated with a much narrower conception of what an acceptable place to live is.

According to a New York Times project on single-family residential zoning, 81% of Seattle’s residential land is now zoned for detached single-family homes. This includes neighborhoods like Wallingford which grew up in the early 20th century with a much broader range of missing middle housing, including small apartment buildings that still stand today (but would be illegal to build new).

Seattle, during the postwar years, became largely a city under glass. This worked when growth was slow in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s not working anymore. Home prices and rents are at historic highs, and many longtime Seattleites who don’t enjoy the stability that comes with homeownership are at risk of losing their homes—and, if they do, finding themselves shut out of the city they feel is home.

Who Gets to Stay? Who Has to Leave? Who Can’t Come Back?

Compton’s work isn’t just a job; it’s personal. Compton has experienced housing instability and homelessness four times in her life. A Seattle native, Compton was a child when she and her mother had to leave home due to a family situation. (An important reminder that homelessness is a complex issue that affects many more people than the stereotypical unemployed, chronically-homeless people you might see on a street corner.) After staying with various relatives, they ended up living a 2.5 hour drive away on the Key Peninsula, from which her mother commuted to a job in Seattle.

By the time the family was in a position to move back, Seattle had become increasingly unaffordable and returning to the city was not an option. Says Compton: 

“My mom loves Seattle. She lived there most of her life; it’s her home. It’s crazy to think about having lived somewhere almost your whole life, and now you can’t go back there.”

Compton’s mom has a home in South Tacoma and has gone back to school, but Compton worries about what will happen when her mom and stepdad retire. 

“When you talk to people who’ve been pushed out of Seattle, the ones who used to live in our single-family neighborhoods, they want to come back. They want to see our neighborhoods change, and to accommodate different lifestyles and life changes.

For my own parents, if I could afford a house and build a mother-in-law, it’d be amazing. We’re glad some changes are happening, but we’re not seeing enough.”

Seattle’s economic boom is in many ways a good problem to have. But it is also home to thousands of stories like that of Angela Compton’s mother, of people who find themselves displaced or excluded from their hometown’s boom times. 

The Resident Action Project, a project of the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance, helps tell the stories of Seattle residents who have experienced housing instability. The broader housing activist movement in Seattle, too, has focused much of its work on bringing a broad range of voices to the table, including those historically shut out of the public conversation about what a strong neighborhood looks like and who its residents and stakeholders are.

Organizing Around Common Ground

Calvin Jones is conscious of the “evil tech bro” stereotype—the notion that tech industry workers are the problem with affordability in Seattle and can’t be part of the solution. Jones is a member of the Seattle Renters’ Commission and an organizer with Tech4Housing, a group of tech workers who advocate for abundant and affordable housing. He sees the role of tech workers like him as to “Constructively engage in the conversation, but also lift up other voices. Use our privilege, and take a supportive role.”

Jones attributes the success of pro-housing activism in Seattle to a strong consensus between various activist groups, ranging from anti-displacement and anti-racist groups to YIMBY to transit to environmental advocates and more. A big-tent approach means people who might not, instinctively, be drawn to housing policy have inroads to understanding how it affects them. Says Jones:

“We’re mobilizing people that might not have been interested in housing policy issues, because they’re opaque and hard to get into. But we’re also doing so in a way that is super conscious of race and social justice issues that are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. We don’t want to make people who might disagree with us on policy issues feel left out or insulted or not respected. We take a constructive approach, really focus on where we have common ground, and emphasize how many values we all share. 

The tenor of the conversation needs to go high, so we’re not screaming at each other. Change requires consensus.”

What has this consensus, thus far, produced? Two flagship victories in the first half of 2019, for one thing. Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) standards that took effect in April 2019 require that developers in a handful of “urban villages”—neighborhood commercial districts scattered throughout the city, often on major transit lines—either provide a percentage of income-restricted affordable units or pay into a fund that will be used to build such housing.

In June, the city also passed sweeping Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) reforms. As I wrote in July, 

Seattle categorically allowed ADUs on single-family lots citywide. What’s better, the Seattle legislation does this without any of the onerous restrictions—owner-occupancy requirements, unreasonable parking minimums, strange size and design restrictions—that make ADUs practically infeasible even in many places they’re nominally allowed. You can even build two ADUs on the same property. Now, in Seattle, you can essentially have up to 3 modest homes on a normal residential lot

Charles Marohn has written about efforts like this in other cities where they have faltered, such as the implosion of Austin, Texas’s zoning overhaul, CodeNEXT, in 2018.  It does seem that Seattle activists’ inclusive, common-ground approach, and perhaps the city’s unique political culture—the symbolic power of equity and social-justice issues in a place that prides itself on its progressivism—have led to a different result.

But are the policy victories won so far enough—either to make Seattle broadly affordable, or to make its neighborhoods broadly strong and resilient?

Seattle is a Trickle vs. Fire Hose city. It’s a city where a small handful of neighborhoods are subject to rapid change, while many more are insulated from any substantial change. And in areas like the historically African-American and redlined Central District (which we published a piece about in 2018 by Seattle journalist Erica Barnett), rapid change—cataclysmic money—still risks the displacement and disruption of deeply-rooted communities.

2019’s round of housing policy victories should be celebrated but aren’t—yet—enough to fundamentally fix what ails Seattle, a city whose fabric economic forces are stretching to the breaking point.

What needs to come next for Seattle?

They call it the “Seattle process.” It even has its own Wikipedia entry:

The term has no strict definition but refers to the pervasively slow process of dialogue, deliberation, participation, and municipal introspection before making any decision and the time it takes to enact any policy. An early definition came from a 1983 editorial in the Seattle Weekly, “the usual Seattle process of seeking consensus through exhaustion.”

Seattle’s housing activists—a strikingly broad coalition of pro-tenant, anti-displacement, racial justice, urbanist, environmentalist, and pro-market groups and individuals—have been playing the long game, and know a thing or two by now about “seeking consensus through exhaustion.”

But that approach makes for frustrating pitched battles between those who benefit from delay and those who are threatened by inaction—say, homeowners secure in their ability to afford a home and stay in their neighborhood, versus renters who might be one rent hike or job loss away from having to leave the city they love and never move back.

After all, inaction is a policy preference too, not a neutral position.

According to activist and Housing Connector program manager Angela Compton: 

 “The people who are fighting things like [Mandatory Housing Affordability, an inclusionary zoning policy for designated “urban village” areas] are on the front lines, ready to sue the policy before many people who are struggling and care about affordability even know what policy is being talked about. It took so much work to get MHA over the finish line. I was hired for 6 months and ended up in it for almost 2 years—being stonewalled in court by people with money who could use the system to try and stop affordable housing policies.”

So what would it take to get Seattle to the point where the market meets most of the city’s need for affordable homes on its own, without years of political mobilization to pass policies that tinker at the margins?

On the day of the MHA vote in March 2019, The Urbanist published an in-depth “how we got here” retrospective that is an insightful look into the Seattle Process, and the political realities that led to the particular package of reforms passed so far. 

“What would it take to get Seattle to the point where the market meets most of the city’s need for affordable homes on its own, without years of political mobilization to pass policies that tinker at the margins?”

Most notably, as early as 2015, Seattle leaders flirted with a citywide upzone of all residential neighborhoods to allow the next increment of development: duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats in single-family zones. This is essentially the same policy that the City of Minneapolis and the State of Oregon would later draw national attention and much praise for embracing; in an alternate universe, Seattle could have beaten them to the punch by years. It was one of 65 recommendations in former mayor Ed Murray’s sweeping HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) initiative, an attempt to reframe the whole housing debate with a holistic package of policies that addressed nearly every niche concern about growth and displacement.

After the Seattle Times scooped the story about the single-family upzone proposal, a political cacophony of outrage and misinformation erupted, and Murray hastily withdrew that part of the HALA package. One part that survived, in somewhat evolved form, was the MHA program finally passed in 2019, in which developers can build significantly more intensely in 27 city-designated “urban villages” but must either provide 5% to 11% rent-restricted affordable homes, or pay into a City fund to build such homes.

MHA, according to Calvin Jones of Tech4Housing, was presented by city officials as a “grudging concession to developers” in order to get affordable housing built. Jones thinks that was a necessary political reality, with anti-developer sentiment strong in Seattle.

“I view MHA as a big mobilizer. At the beginning of the process, we didn’t really have a lot of groups out there. MHA helped strengthen the pro-housing consensus in the city, and unite people under a common banner. I think this has really teed up [the issue of housing affordability], and shifted momentum in our direction.

The 2019 council elections are going to be a determining factor about whether single-family zoning is up next.”

The big outstanding question is whether MHA will actually help lower rents and stem the tide of displacement in Seattle. It is representative of a type of policy that some urbanists and economists are critical of because of its possible unwanted side effect of dampening the market for any new development. (Here’s a critique of IZ by the Mercatus Center, and here’s a defense from Seattle blog The Urbanist’s Owen Pickford.)

Nearly everyone seems to agree that to the extent that inclusionary zoning produces new affordable units, it won’t be nearly enough to meet the enormous need in Seattle for places to live. But neither, says Jones, will upzoning across the board meet the need for deeply affordable homes for those earning, say, 60% of the area’s median income. “I don’t think there’s any credible argument” that market-rate development will serve those households in the foreseeable future, he told me.

The Seattle Process encourages an emphasis on coalition-building and a pragmatic, “Yes, and…” approach that can result in policies that really do help people, or at least are effective band-aids. But if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, what would effective prevention look like to make sure the next front isn’t another years-long, rancorous policy process and spate of lawsuits along the way?

Letting All of Seattle’s Neighborhoods Grow and Evolve

The next frontier, says architect and urban designer Ace Houston, is opening up all of Seattle to incremental change and evolution, not just the urban villages. The big frustration among those who would like to go this route, according to Houston, is that MHA is already perceived as a compromise given the years of wrangling that went into it, and yet it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Recent “urban village” development in West Seattle (Photo by Joe Wolf via  Flickr )
Recent “urban village” development in West Seattle (Photo by Joe Wolf via Flickr)

Roughly 8 percent of Seattle’s land is within the urban villages affected by MHA. The program attempts to strike a bargain similar to what Austin attempted with its ill-fated CodeNEXT initiative (Ace, an Austin native, has also been involved in housing advocacy there): allow dramatic increases in development intensity in select pockets of the city, in exchange for leaving much larger single-family zones more or less untouched. This is an inequitable approach, says Houston:

“The Urban Village approach is effective at getting housing built, and given the large gap we have here—we need something like 14,000 units of publicly subsidized affordable housing to make up the gap—it gets us part of the solution.

But we’ve targeted a lot of the change to the places where low-income people and people of color live. They bear the brunt of it. Meanwhile, lots of Seattle is still off-limits to change, and these areas are wealthy areas.”

Another problem is the potential for the city’s focus on Urban Villages to lead to greater incentives for speculative, transformative development in those areas. Strong Towns’s Chuck Marohn has written about the problems that arise with spot upzoning—allowing large leaps in development intensity in small areas, like the replacement of single-story commercial buildings with a city-block-sized, mixed use complex. These problem include driving up the value of land, as the owners of those older, smaller buildings wait and hope to cash out for a windfall. Many of them never will; simple population math ensures that. So intense clusters of redevelopment may well be matched by broad swaths of stagnation and stasis outside the cluster. Meanwhile, that top-down, concentrated redevelopment risks displacing communities, or at least community-oriented businesses and institutions, from very specific locations in which they were long established.

Another problem? The type of development occurring, and envisioned, in Seattle’s urban villages is far from cheap to build. Especially with layers of regulatory constraints and obligations as part of the process. A program to allow more housing that restricts that housing to 27 urban villages in a city of over 700,000 (and where 81% of residential land is still zoned single-family) is a program that is unlikely to allow small-scale developers in on the game, or the creation of a significant amount of missing-middle housing—small rental buildings like triplexes or row houses that are the absolute least expensive way to build homes for people.

Allowing the Missing Middle in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods died a swift death on the political rocks in 2015. But Ace Houston thinks the city will circle back around to the idea and that it might receive a different reception next time. In his professional life, he is interested in combatting narrow perceptions of how we design places where people can thrive. Houston is an architect and urban designer who runs House Cosmopolitan, a design firm that describes itself as “Innovative and Future-Thinking, Respectful of Regionality, Inclusive and Community Focused, Urban Revolutionaries and Culture Celebrators.”

“I’ve lived my whole life in rental housing,” he tells me. “There needs to be a really concerted look at how we design for people to live more closely while still recognizing their individuality, identity, and desire for privacy.”

Seattle think-tank the Sightline Institute, another strong advocate of opening Seattle up to the next increment of development, is also working on changing public perceptions of what that increment could look like and whether it is a threat to the character of desirable neighborhoods (hint: it’s not). Sightline recently began to crowd-source a free Flickr database of photos of missing-middle housing. The goal: to help advocates normalize what, indeed, used to be completely normal everywhere before we started banning it, and to demonstrate that these building types are commonplace, compatible, and attractive in residential neighborhoods.

The “urban village” strategy has politically mobilized Seattle renters who want to be able to remain in Seattle. But it doesn’t fundamentally disrupt the paradigm of a city under glass: the belief among some homeowners that your own neighborhood ought not to have to change, even as the city changes. And as long as it doesn’t disrupt that paradigm, it’s not likely to fundamentally change the way the market serves Seattle’s needs.

Angela Compton thinks a lot of people out there would be “game for radical housing ideas” but don’t consider themselves interested in housing policy or know much about that world of activism:

“There are so many people living under rocks these days, trying to stay away from media because of all the horrible things that are happening in the world. And so they’re kind of missing the opportunity to advocate for good things. I have nerdy friends who are excited about these ideas when I tell them, but they’ve never heard of them. We need more people to hear about it. We need to make it mainstream.”

If we’re going to make it mainstream, then allowing the next increment of development everywhere needs to no longer be considered a “radical housing idea” at all. And here’s the thing: it isn’t.

For most of human history, in most cities, neighborhoods were not in stasis. They evolved in response to constant feedback, and as buildings were replaced or upgraded, these places grew incrementally denser, wealthier and more resilient over time. The most beloved placemaking experiments would persist; others would be undone. Fine-grained development, led by an army of small-scale developers instead of a few deep-pocketed ones, meant that the redevelopment process virtually never wiped out the whole character of a place in a short span of time.

We can see the legacy of this traditional development pattern in many of our most beloved places, throughout the world and in America alike. Including in Seattle. Now we just have to bring people on board with the value of getting back to it.

Thanks to Strong Towns.

Categories Urbanism

Daniel Herriges serves as Content Manager for Strong Towns, and has been a regular contributor since 2015. He is also a founding member of the organization. Daniel has a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota. His obsession with maps began before he could read. His budding environmentalism can be traced back to age 4, when he yelled at his parents for stepping on weeds growing in sidewalk cracks. His love of great urban design and human-scaled, livable places has also been lifelong. Daniel has a B.A. from Stanford University in Human Biology with a concentration in Conservation and Sustainable Development. After college, he worked as an environmental activist for several years, in support of indigenous people's rights and conservation in the Amazon rainforest. He can often be found hiking or cycling. Daniel is from St. Paul, Minnesota.

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