Afternoon Jolt

HALA Committee Challenges Seattle Status Quo

Never Mind Rent Control, Murray's Task Force Rolls Out Truly Radical Idea: Challenges Sanctity of Single Family Zoning

By Josh Feit July 7, 2015

Jolt axth2t

A developers’ fee. Yawn. Rent control. Wake me up when you're done Licata and Sawant.

Mayor Ed Murray’s affordable housing committee is contemplating an actual challenge to Seattle’s status quo. Never mind supposedly radical Kshama Sawant's easy political gimme against bogeymen developers. (Just about every council member and candidate supports a developer fee, by the way.) No, Murray’s committee wants to rewrite longstanding Seattle law that protects real Seattle privilege: Your supposed Constitutional right to single family zoning.

It’s easy for Seattle liberals to support something like a developer fee because it doesn’t touch them. But simultaneously holding single-family zones harmless for the very problem that Seattle's 1950s, suburban template has created—skyrocketing housing costs—is untenable (or as Murray’s committee says, “is no longer sustainable.”)

So, how will liberals feel about a policy that actually comes to their front doors?

I’ve been writing Jolts for years, and my jaw is on the floor. The draft recommendation, from the committee (known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, HALA), leaked to the Seattle Times this afternoon, says this:

 Approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land …is zoned single family, severely constraining how much the city can increase housing supply. Among its peer cities, Seattle has one of the highest percentages of land dedicated exclusively to detached single family structures and a small number of accessory dwelling units. The exclusivity of Single Family Zones limits the type of housing available for sale or rent, limits the presence of smaller format housing and limits access for those with less income. Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city's goals for equity and affordability. In a city experiencing rapid growth and intense pressures on access to affordable housing, the historic level of Single Family zoning is no longer either realistic or sustainable.

HALA recommends allowing more flexibility and variety of housing in Single Family zones to increase the economic and demographic diversity of those who are able to live in these family oriented neighborhoods. In fact, HALA recommends we abandon the term “single family zone” and refer to such areas as low-density residential zones.

In addition to the standard ideas about making it easier to build accessory dwelling units and detached accessory dwelling units—basically grandma apartments (a fine, but limited idea that doesn’t add the amount of housing stock we need), the recommendation specifically calls for looking at more flexibility in SFZs to allow multifamily housing.

It says:

The City should pursue changing Single Family zoning to a low density residential zone that allows more variety of housing in these areas. A broader range of low density housing types, such as small lot dwellings, cottages or courtyard housing, duplexes and triplexes, would all fit within the character and scale of traditional single-family areas.

This “low density residential zone” will allow more variety than single family housing but will be less intense than the Lowrise 1 multifamily (LR1) zone [Townhomes.]

The recommendation only appeared to challenge the sanctity of single family zones near urban villages—and contemplated it as a pilot project. From the draft: "The low-density residential zoning could be tested in single family areas that are within walking distance to an urban village or commercial area, or places close to frequent transit service.The program could take the form of land use code changes, or it could begin as a pilot program with a limited time period and a maximum number of units."

The HALA committee quickly issued a statement today saying the Times headline treatment—“Mayor Murray’s housing-affordability committee is considering a controversial idea: Get rid of single-family zoning”—was exaggerated.

 HALA co-chair David Wertheimer said in a statement:

The draft of the report that was prematurely leaked by the Seattle Times today is outdated and inaccurate. While respecting the process of the committee’s work, which will be finished by next week, we can say that HALA has no intention of recommending the elimination of all single family zones in the city.  As co-chairs of the HALA, we take strong exception to the Time’s characterization of the draft, incomplete HALA report as recommending “doing away with single-family housing.”  That assertion is both untrue and inflammatory and is precisely the reason we urged the Times to refrain from distributing the draft report prematurely.  The HALA recommendations need to be taken together as a package once the Committee has completed its work and delivered its final product to the Mayor and Council next week.

Wertheimer (and the mayor’s office) are only taking exception at the dramatic assertion that single family zoning will go away altogether. Seattle should definitely expect a HALA recommendation next week that will challenge the sanctity of an equally dramatic status quo where 65 percent of the city is zoned single-family only.

 Politically possible?

 “It is the mayor’s goal that the recommendations, based off consensus of the committee  will result in  actionable policies,” Murray spokesman Viet Shelton told me this afternoon.” (A consensus, Shelton said, would be a significant majority of the 28-member committee. The Times reported that HALA’s idea to change single family zoning had a 19-3 subcommittee vote.)

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As for a fee on new development, known as the linkage fee—committee members are still working out the specifics, and the draft leaked to the Times doesn’t spell out the pending recommendation on developer fees.

The HALA committee also slammed outgoing council member Tom Rasmussen's proposal for so-called Neighborhood Conservation Districts, legislation that would give homeowners the final say on new development. Calling Rasmussen out by name (pg. 15), the report goes on to state:

The HALA recommends that the City not establish a Neighborhood Conservation District program. Such a program could reduce the areas of the city available to increase housing supply and affordability, and is thus at cross purposes with other recommendations in this

report. The program could make approvals for new housing more time consuming and expensive. The program could also be used to limit the diversification of lower density areas of the city by creating a new avenue for existing homeowners to oppose the addition of new infill housing in their neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, there’s a set of ideas in the HALA draft that goes after another supposed Seattle Constitutional right—parking.

Under the header “Reduce Housing Costs by Reforming Parking Policies” the draft suggests: reduce parking requirements for multi-family housing outside of urban villages or centers; do not re-introduce parking mandates in urban villages or centers; new development in multifamily zones outside of urban villages and centers can see a 50 percent reduction in their parking quotas if the lot is within 1/4th mile of a frequent transit stop; remove the parking requirements for smaller format housing types in single family areas; consider removing the parking requirement for single family homes.

And later on in the draft, under the header “Comprehensive Reform to On-street Parking Regulations,” the committee floats urban planning school stuff like: create a parking “cap and trade” pilot program and reform pricing structure to make off-street parking rates more competitive with on street rates.


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