After five hours of colorless discussion of “side sewer permitting,” and “floor area ratios,” things got unexpectedly dramatic in the remote office on the 40th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower. Sue Tanner, the city’s bespectacled hearing examiner, had to rein in a witness’s testimony against green-lighting a city plan to increase the number of so-called mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs), as the city bureaucracy identifies these mini housing options.
“I don’t want you arguing with or at ‘these guys,’” Tanner warned Martin Kaplan, the witness representing the Queen Anne Community Council who had just grilled two city planners sitting across the table from him at the August 31 hearing. Fearing that more housing would upend the character of Seattle’s single-family zones, Kaplan’s neighborhood council had filed a case with Tanner’s office to challenge the city’s decision to forgo an environmental impact study.
Kaplan, in a loose dark suit jacket, dark dress pants, and a pair of gray Nike running shoes, went on to accuse city staffers of producing “intentionally obscure” documents that “misrepresent” the city’s proposal. “It’s a great drawing,” Kaplan concluded sarcastically about the official illustration, “but it doesn’t show an impact.”
A hearing on mother-in-law apartments may sound picayune. (Besides me, only a retired city planner and one other reporter were in the audience in room 4009 by the second day of the interminable hearing, not counting two confused seniors who wandered in before being escorted out to the right meeting.) But in truth it’s Seattle’s ultimate existential battle. The Queen Anne appeal symbolized the traditional neighborhood movement’s last stand against the city’s push to make Seattle denser.
Single-family neighborhoods make up 60 to 65 percent of Seattle. And we’re expected to grow by 120,000 people by 2035. To accommodate affordable housing amid that growth, mayor Ed Murray wants to build 50,000 new units in 10 years. And some Queen Anne neighbors are clearly nervous. This summer activists stapled large signs onto telephone poles all around the quiet, leafy neighborhood on the hill with its expensive bluff views of both the sound and downtown. “Queen Anne Needs Your Help,” the posters blared. “We Don’t Want to Live in Another New York City.”
One of Murray’s recommendations? Increase the production of accessory units. DADUs have been legal in Seattle’s otherwise untouchable single-family neighborhoods since 2009. However, Murray’s planning department found that only 221 had been built on the city’s 75,000 eligible single-family lots during that time.
Channeling the low-carbon, urbanist ideals of walkability and density, Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien proposed allowing two add-ons (one of each type) per property instead of just one, removing the requirement to provide one off-street parking spot and permitting units to be built on smaller lots while increasing the allowable square footage of the units themselves. Those changes could produce between an estimated 4,000 and 6,000 accessory units in the next 20 years—about a 5 percent increase over the current rate.
“We don’t all support the [antidensity] flyers on the poles,” says Andre Vrignaud, a Queen Anne homeowner who likes O’Brien’s proposal. He wants to refashion his garage into a DADU. “I have several friends who simply haven’t been as fortunate as me. It’s a win-win if I can offer them a nice place to live, at fair or even discounted friend-rate rent.”
It’s no surprise that Kaplan, who once actually supported a DADU pilot project, got upset with the city bureaucrats at the hearing. An architect and former Seattle Planning Commission member who once ran for city council, Kaplan, 67, thinks the land use policy has been hijacked: In mid-May the city concluded the proposal didn’t require any further environmental study. Calling that decision “unconscionable,” he filed the appeal in early June.
It didn’t help his mood a month later when Mayor Murray—arguing that district councils such as Queen Anne’s are too white, old, and dominated by homeowners—unilaterally decided the city would no longer rely on the councils as arbiters of neighborhood priorities.
Sitting at El Diablo Coffee on Queen Anne Ave days after the hearing, Kaplan, awaiting the examiner’s decision, told me the city had ignored the public by rolling out “marketing pitches.”
He may be happy to know the city did get input, and much of it was in his favor. “Instead of policies designed for people who don’t even live in Seattle yet, please design policies that...recognize the value and desires of those currently living here, not a transient yet-to-be-here population,” read one comment to the planning department. Another read, “Please carefully study the attractiveness and viability of a neighborhood that has no available parking.”
Noting that 50 percent of the city’s developable land would suddenly be subject to multifamily development, Kaplan told the hearing examiner the proposal was “this city’s largest rezone and redefinition…ever.”
The veracity of Kaplan’s claim is still to be determined, but the bureaucrats who faced off across the table from him made a strong argument of their own.
Car ownership decreases as house size gets smaller, John Shaw, a Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection advisor, told Tanner, the hearing examiner.
Nick Welch, who wrote the city’s report at issue in the appeal, pointed out that in Portland, two-thirds of accessory dwelling residents don’t have a car taking up street parking.
Finally, under O’Brien’s plan, neither lot coverage nor the number of people living there can go beyond current limits for single-family plots—even when an accessory dwelling is added.
O’Brien’s proposal does, however, ditch the existing rule requiring the property owner to live on site. Critics have seized on that change as the most egregious amendment.
By allowing the owner to live off site, said economist William Reid, a witness for the Queen Anne council, the city will create a speculative market where developers replace single-family homes with three units. These new units will replace affordable housing, he warned, because the only way developers can turn a profit in the teardown equation is by targeting cheaper housing stock.
Sightline, a local environmental group, sees it differently, arguing that speculators now tear down and replace single, cheap houses with single, more expensive houses. ADUs and DADUs, says Sightline analyst Dan Bertolet, could increase the possibility that more housing—a smaller house plus a basement apartment and a backyard cottage—gets built. “It’s like musical chairs. If you have 10 people and nine chairs, the poorest person ends up on the floor. But if you add more chairs…”
When it came time to cross-examine Kaplan, the city planners got their chance to strike back, asking him a bombshell: Did Kaplan think renters were somehow more of a threat to Queen Anne than homeowners?
Kaplan allowed that with renters there would “not [be] the same kind of investment in your neighborhood street.” Realizing that smacked of elitism, Kaplan’s attorney steered him back on point.
“It has nothing to do with renters,” Kaplan continued. The problem was city hall’s new math for single-family neighborhoods where “instead of a family living next to you, now you’ve got three.”