In an announcement today that was more stunning than the announcement he made two weeks ago when he first unveiled his bold affordable housing recommendations, mayor Ed Murray did a 180 this afternoon, reneging on a central element of his plan.
"I will no longer pursue changes that allow more types of housing in 94 percent of single-family zones," he said, bowing to pressure from single family homeowners who were upset about his Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee recommendations to change zoning code in the 65 percent of city land that’s set aside exclusively for single families. The reforms, without having permitted any changes in the size of developments, would have allowed multi-family housing by a-okaying duplexes, town homes, and triplexes.
“I’m disappointed,” HALA committee member Alan Durning said, “that mayor Murray has folded on the HALA recommendation for more flexibility in single family zones. Seattle cannot be the kind of affordable city we want it to be without more flexibility in our neighborhoods.”
Durning, the city's premier green intellectual and the founder of local environmental think tank Sightline, was a force behind the HALA recommendation to add flexibility to single family zones. He allows that he's “not crushed” by Murray's announcement because there are another 64 recommendations in the HALA report including upzoning along transit lines in six percent of single family zones (which Murray stands by), doubling the housing levy, and relaxing parking requirements. More specifically, for Durning, another set of recommendations that's still on the table in council would allow more grannie flats in single family neighborhoods, which Durning says will create “more opportunities” for housing.
But Durning also says he “wasn’t surprised” by Murray’s about face. “Politically, the blowback has been enormous. It’s been hard for the mayor to talk about anything else.”
The once-daring HALA, now discarded, recommendation had explicitly challenged Seattle’s sacrosanct single family zones. The HALA committee said that leaving 65 percent of the city zoned exclusively for single families was “constraining” housing supply. The document went on to condemn the “exclusivity” for “limiting…access for those with less income,” saying, “the historic level of single family zoning is no longer…realistic or sustainable.” The report concluded that Ozzie and Harriet zoning, which they also tied to a history of segregated housing, “remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability.”
And just last week, as the mayor’s office was still defending its big recommendation, I was on the phone with his policy staff as they walked me through the math behind one of their central arguments for challenging current single family zoning rules: That Seattle’s 65 percent single family zoning rules were out of whack with comparable cities like Portland where only three percent is zoned that way.
Council president Tim Burgess and council member Mike O’Brien, who was tasked with shepherding the HALA recommendations through council, had both voiced skepticism of the code changes to single family zones before Murray's big reversal this afternoon. O’Brien first voiced his reservations in PubliCola last week telling me: While it’s “appropriate" to add more density by allowing more mother-in-law apartments, he wasn't okay with brand new duplexes and town homes even if they met existing size standards as HALA recommended. “Can we bulldoze and build three separate row houses? That would be taking it further than I’m willing to go, or I think the city is willing to go.”
We should take a step back from any policy that leads to...speculation, disruption, and the widespread loss of existing, more affordable housing.
However, Murray went further than either O'Brien or Burgess today. Rather than simply voicing caution, Murray simply killed his own proposal.
“O’Brien and Burgess took one step back,” Durning said this afternoon after Murray’s announcement, “the mayor took three steps back.”
Stepping back from the HALA deal does more than just undermine this (frankly inspiring) proposal. At a larger level, it undermines the important MO that Murray himself had established over his first year and a half in office. Like HALA’s divergent crew of developers and social justice advocates, Murray had a track record of bringing together disparate groups (see the $15 minimum wage task force, the ride share talks, and the West Lake bike lane brouhaha) to strike major breakthroughs. Those deals, though, were contingent on people sticking to the final product. By walking away from his own committee’s recommendation, Murray has jeopardized the central strength of his administration to date: the ability to make important breakthrough deals. Deals require trust. And after today, no one should feel comfortable trusting Mayor Murray when he says a deal’s a deal.