New Single-Family Housing Is Not the Enemy
Smart Growth Seattle's Roger Valdez responds to a Crosscut piece opposing development in single-family neighborhoods.
It’s hard to know where to start dismantling Mark Hinshaw’s testament against new development in Seattle in Crosscut.
Hinshaw, a local writer on planning and urbanism, unspooled an indignant indictment against what he calls “developers abusing the well-intended rules” in Seattle’s land use code. While Hinshaw’s sentiments wouldn't be surprising from the usual no-growth crowd in Seattle, they are a bit of a surprise coming from a self-professed “growth-management” junkie. So let’s just start at the beginning.
First, Hinshaw never really says what kind of “increases in density” he isn't happy with.
Seattle has a long history of trying to encourage sensible increases in density only to find a few developers abusing the well-intended rules. The stretching of development projects beyond any recognizable version of reasonable intention is happening again. The city has to figure out a good way to deal with a new wrinkle that has big houses sprouting in backyards.
Is Hinshaw talking about Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs), development on historic small lots, or people knocking down small single-family homes and replacing them with megahouses? He doesn’t really say. We get a hint in the next paragraph.
The problem has grown severe enough that the city has imposed a moratorium to study possible changes.
Hmmmmm. Hinshaw must be talking about the recent kerfuffle over development on historic tax parcels that provoked “emergency” legislation from the Seattle City Council last year. The problem is that the council didn’t pass a moratorium. What they did do is impose standards on any new small lot development and limit the use of property tax records to qualify small pieces of existing lots for development.
Currently, Smart Growth Seattle supports the essence of the limits the council placed on small lot developments. Personally, I find the shock and outrage expressed by Hinshaw at small lot development on historic parcels a little bit strange. The fact is that developers did their homework, identified parcels that could be legally developed, and took the requisite risks to generate a return on their investment and the investment of property owners. What they built was new housing. That sounds like innovation and business smarts to me. Here’s what Hinshaw thinks of it:
But there is a kind of pro-development position that merely lines the pockets of a few people who try to take advantage of loopholes in codes or impose a mind-numbing, thoughtless pile of construction on neighborhoods with an established scale or smaller, home-grown shops and services.
Wow. How do you really feel about people who build more housing? And what “home-grown shops” are found in single-family neighborhoods? Or is this just about development in general? Hinshaw’s finger wagging goes on:
Development should create community, add to diversity, expand choices and recognize that not every household is a double-income earning couple with a penchant for conspicuous consumption.
Who, exactly, is Hinshaw talking about here? Generalizations and broad brushes are fine; I use them all the time. But is Hinshaw seriously characterizing the people who buy new homes in Seattle—of any form or type—as somehow not part of our Seattle community? Does "community" consist only of lower-income people, singles, and families where one parent stays at home? Or is Hinshaw saying that pretty much anyone who builds new housing is somehow destroying the community?
[It's also worth noting that the "megahouse" in Wallingford that sparked the council debate is all of 1,400 square feet–small enough to qualify as a dreaded "shoebox" in the eyes of many density opponents.–Eds.]
Hinshaw offers another canard:
Unfortunately, in this metropolitan area we have had a history of people in the development sector who look for ways to misuse or stretch well-intended regulations for their own financial gain. And what that does is paint everyone else doing development as conniving, rude and rapacious.
Here Hinshaw also makes the classic mistake of conflating profit with greed. Is he going to be the final arbiter of when the former becomes the latter? Does he, or anyone in Seattle for that matter, work for free? Some of us are lucky enough to get paychecks every couple of weeks. Other people, including developers, take risks for their payday. Sometimes they lose and sometimes they win—maybe even win big. But a key tenet of business is that the more risk one takes, the more reward one should get. I would love to see the greed index Hinshaw uses to decide when there is too much reward for too little risk.
Hinshaw says the solution to this “problem” of greedy developers building houses for fabulously wealthy people to destroy community is—are you sitting down?—Floor Area Ratio. (FAR, at the risk of oversimplifying, is a number that represents the relationship between the size of a lot and the total floor area of a building; a building with an FAR of 1, for example, could consist of one story taking up the entire block, or two stories taking up half the block).
Hinshaw argues that putting limits on FAR for new developments will put a halt to the scourge of profit seeking developers trying to get a return for their work building more housing in Seattle and make everything better. What would that accomplish?
So the folks who try to build a house on a remnant lot that is, say 1,000 square feet, would be stuck with building a tiny, cottage-like dwelling. For most rapacious people, the trouble would hardly be worth it. And even if they managed to make it work financially, the impact on neighbors would be pretty minimal.
In Hinshaw’s Seattle, even though many people want to live in new single-family homes, they couldn’t. Their choice would be to live in a Hobbit Holes (so as not to disturb those community-oriented neighbors who oppose change), or move to the suburbs where they can buy a house. Forcing that choice people who want to buy homes in Seattle seems like a pretty bad one, especially for a growth management junkie.
Roger Valdez is a hired hand who works on his own time for Smart Growth Seattle, a group of developers who build new housing in single-family neighborhoods.