City Hall

Density Opponents Mobilize in Advance of Neighborhood Summit

A coalition of neighborhood groups opposed to density mobilize in advance of Mayor Ed Murray's upcoming neighborhood summit.

By Erica C. Barnett March 12, 2014

Several neighborhood groups opposed to development have formed a new coalition, called the Coalition for an Affordable and Livable Seattle, to pressure Mayor Ed Murray and the city council to adopt new rules making it harder for developers to build new housing in Seattle's urban areas.

The group, which includes the Seattle Displacement Coalition, Seattle Speaks Up, and the Seattle Community Council Federation, among other organizations that argue against increased density in Seattle neighborhoods, is circulating a petition calling on the mayor and council to "STOP NOW the continued displacement/gentrification of our neighborhoods." (Emphasis theirs.) 

The petition raises familiar objections to growth—new people displace existing residents, density leads to higher rents, and apartment buildings are ugly—and, as usual, ignores the fact that people are going to keep moving here no matter how much some longtime residents want to keep them out. 

Specifically, the petition demands that the council implement a total moratorium on all new development in neighborhoods that have exceeded their 2024 "growth targets" set back in 2005 until the council passes emergency legislation that would, among other new requirements:

• Require developers to pay "impact fees" to offset the supposed negative impacts of density;

• Require developers to replace every affordable housing unit torn down in the city on a one-for-one basis (a noble goal, but one that's largely irrelevant in a city where new housing tends to displace single-family homes or parking lots, and where, in the past 10 years, 40,000 new housing units were built while fewer than 5,000 were demolished.)

• Prohibit "bundling" of height bonuses to allow slightly taller buildings in some low-rise zones—the issue that led to the creation of Seattle Speaks Up, a largely Capitol Hill-based group of homeowners who oppose allowing four- and five-story buildings in largely single-family areas, like North Capitol Hill, where buildings have traditionally been limited to three stories; 

• Create a city-funded program to help tenants to buy their apartments and turn them into cooperative housing "before they’re sold to speculators or demolished"; and 

• Guarantee "equitable distribution" of all city funds to every neighborhood, instead of putting city dollars into "downtown and special interest boondoggles." 

Essentially, the group's argument is that if Seattle stops building, people will stop moving here, and rents will go down. It's an argument that not only defies the law of supply and demand (no, adding more supply doesn't necessarily lower rents, but limiting supply as demand increases inevitably increases them), but ignores the fact that people want to live here, and—if we want to limit sprawl, preserve farmland, reduce pollution, combat traffic congestion, and fight income inequality—it makes far more sense for them to live in the city than its suburbs and exurbs. 

Image via Sightline. Red indicates more density; yellow indicates less.

Moreover, newcomers want to live in the city. Nearly every neighborhood in Seattle has met or exceeded its "growth targets"—because people are moving to the area and choosing to live in the city, not its suburbs. For urbanists, that's a positive development. Shutting off growth because people want to live here is like cutting bus service because buses are overcrowded; put another way, it's telling people who want to live here that they should move to the suburbs instead, or telling people who want to use transit to give up and buy a car. 

Will the anti-urbanists' complaints have traction with the city council? Hard to say. The current head of the council's central staff, Capitol Hill resident Rebecca Herzfeld, is involved with Seattle Speaks Up (her next-door neighbors' names are among the first on the SSU petition to limit development in low-rise zones, and ), and wrote a letter to the city council opposing a proposal that would have allowed commercial uses (like corner stores) on the ground floor of buildings in her neighborhood.

Staffers are allowed to weigh in on issues that impact them, as long as they don't work on influencing those policies directly; Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett told me, "you don't give up your rights to be a citizen when you take a job with government." Barnett says it's up to the council president (now Tim Burgess) to determine whether a staffer should recuse him- or herself from an issue; I have a call out to Burgess to ask whether he's discussed the issue with Herzfeld. 

As we reported last month, the Seattle Community Council Federation sent out a call to action to neighborhood activists to come up with a unified agenda to put a stop to "runaway development, upzones, gentrification, small lot development, skinny houses, high-rise development, loss of tree canopy, lack of adequate services/infrastructure etc." The group plans to present its agenda at Murray's April 5 Seattle Neighborhood Summit to get neighborhood feedback on growth, development, and neighborhood character.  


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