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Ruling Puts Hold on Adding Density to Single-Family Neighborhoods

The city hearing examiner sides with a Queen Anne Community Council appeal about backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments.

By Josh Feit December 14, 2016

City Hearing examiner Sue Tanner sided with the Queen Anne Community Council in a seemingly obscure, but potentially epic ruling issued Tuesday. Tanner ordered the city to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) on city council member Mike O’Brien’s proposed legislation to loosen requirements that are currently limiting the production of mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages, known as ADUs (accessory dwelling units) and DADUS (detached accessory dwelling units), respectively.

The ruling doesn’t kill O’Brien’s proposal; it simply puts it on hold. However, as O’Brien decides his next move (he told me simply that he needs "at least a few days" to "[take] a look a the decision and weigh our options"), Tanner’s decision underscores the traditional neighborhood movement’s sense that the city is being too cavalier about the push to add density to Seattle’s neighborhoods. “It’s O’Brien up in his office,” Queen Anne Community Council leader Marty Kaplan told me about O’Brien’s legislation back in the summer, “saying, ‘we don’t give a shit what anybody has to say. We can get this thing done a lot quicker if we don’t bother with getting people’s opinion.’”

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Image: Joshua Huston

Now, O’Brien has Tanner’s opinion in front of him.

While literally just a formal decision about process, Tanner’s ruling is ultimately a political statement in Seattle’s continuing standoff over urbanization as 50 new people move here every day on pace to adding 120,000 new people in the next 20 years. The statement? Single-family neighborhoods are going to fight change every step of the way.   

Earlier this year, taking up one of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) recommendations—increase the production of ADUs and DADUs—O’Brien proposed several changes to the current ADU/DADU rules that he hoped would encourage production: Getting rid of the off-street parking requirement, allowing two add-ons per property instead of just one, and permitting the units to be built on smaller lots, while increasing the allowable square footage of the units themselves from 800 square feet to 1,000 square feet. Those changes, the city believed, could produce between an estimated 4,000 and 6,000 ADUs and DADUs in the next 20 years—about a five times more than current rate; only 221 ADUs or DADUs have been built on the city’s 75,000 eligible single family lots since they were allowed in 2009, just 37 a year.

It’s important to note that under O’Brien’s proposal neither the total lot coverage overall on a single-family site, nor the total number of people living on a site, could go beyond the current limits for single family plots—even when you add the ADU and/or DADU to the site.

But last summer, the Queen Anne council appealed the Office of Planning and Community Development’s decision to issue a Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) on the proposal, meaning no further study of the potential impacts of more ADUs and DADUs was required. Queen Anne Community Council member Marty Kaplan, noting that proposed changes were loosening regulations in the city’s sacred single-family zones (estimated to take up about 58 percent of the city’s developable land), told the hearing examiner this would be “this city’s largest rezone and redefinition…ever.”

The Queen Anne activists contended that by issuing a DNS, OPCD hadn’t fully studied the kinds of impacts that more residents (without an increase in parking spaces) and bigger units (on smaller lots) would have on single-family neighborhoods.

Yesterday, the hearing examiner agreed, stating, for example, that the city hadn’t done an adequate analysis of the potential impact on parking. “There is no citation to any studies or any objective data as the basis for the conclusion that parking impacts would be minor,” Tanner wrote in yesterday’s decision. The city had testified that while there’s an average 1.4 cars per household, that doesn’t generically translate into a proportional increase in cars when you add ADUs and DADUs. The likelihood of car ownership decreases as house size gets smaller, John Shaw, a strategic advisor with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection who focuses on parking impacts told Tanner. And OPCD staffer Nick Welch, pointed out during the hearing that in Portland, where rules also do away with parking requirements, two thirds of the ADU/DADU residents don’t have a car taking up street parking.

No dice, Tanner wrote yesterday, saying that the Portland study wasn’t germane because OPCD hadn’t included it in its original DNS checklist. Politifact would only rate Tanner’s claim partly true, I think, because the DNS cited the OPCD’s Director's Report, which explicitly referenced the Portland study. Still, Tanner also pointed out that Portland only allows one accessory dwelling unit in its program, whereas O’Brien’s proposal would allow two.

Tanner also said that the OPCD’s renderings of the potential impact of greater height, bulk, and scale didn’t correspond to the extent of the actual proposal. “The analysis of height bulk and scale impacts,” she wrote, “must be done in the context of the actual development environment created by the legislation and must include renderings that accurately represent at least the maximum height bulk and scale that could be constructed.” This affirmed the Queen Anne council’s complaint that OPCD’s illustrated examples of the proposed changes misled the public by failing to illustrate the potential for development on the smallest allowable lots, 3,200 square feet. (The O’Brien proposal lowers the minimum lot size that’s allowed to host a DADU from 4,000 square feet to 3,200 square feet. The change, wouldn’t, however amend the allowable lot coverage percentage for DADUs, keeping it at 35 percent for lots 5,000 square feet or larger or 1,000 square feet plus 15 percent on lots below 4,000 square feet.)  

In addition to these predictable concerns about parking and bulky development, the Queen Anne complaint highlighted an issue that allows comfortable, single-family homeowners living atop Queen Anne to align themselves with the social justice left. The Queen Anne appeal argued that O’Brien’s proposal, while claiming to be all about creating more affordable housing, could lead to gentrification.

O’Brien’s proposal recommended getting rid of the owner-occupancy rule that requires the property owner to either live in the principle home, the mother-in-law apartment, or the backyard cottage in perpetuity.  By allowing the owner to live off site, William Reid, a Portland economist and witness for the Queen Anne Community Council testified at the hearing earlier this year, the city would create a speculative development market for “income properties” rather than “a single-family equity asset” where developers will buy up single family homes and replace them with three units. Reid warned that the new units will replace affordable housing because the only way developers can turn a profit in the “teardown” equation is by targeting cheaper housing stock to buy and replace. (That doesn’t seem like much of a problem for Queen Anne, though, where housing stock is increasing in value at the highest rate in the city. But it might explain why the Queen Anne Council also brought in a former resident of Southeast Seattle to testify on this point, focusing on gentrification and displacement in poorer parts of the city.)

The OPCD said they considered that issue, but told Tanner that creating 4,000 new units over 20 years dispersed throughout the city didn’t warrant any further study about displacement.

Meanwhile, Sightline, a local environmental group that believes ADUs and DADUs are a key part of the affordable housing solution, argues that making ADUs and DADUs more possible will actually counter gentrification. They argue that in the current teardown market, speculators look to tear down single, cheap houses and replace them with single, more expensive houses. But if ADUs and DADUs were a more practical option, Sightline analyst Dan Bertolet says, “rather than replacing a single home with an expensive single McMansion,” it would increase the possibility that more housing—a smaller house plus a basement apartment and a backyard cottage—gets built. Pointing to the impact of adding more small apartments into the overall market, Bertolet adds: “It’s like musical chairs. If you have ten people and nine chairs, the poorest person ends up on the floor. But if you add more chairs…”

Whoever’s right, Tanner thought the question made an EIS necessary. While she gives a nod to the fact that gentrification isn’t a likely issue for Queen Anne, she wrote: “The testimony showed that that the proposal is likely to cause significant adverse impacts to housing, including existing lower income housing, and is likely to displace vulnerable populations. … OPCD characterizes the impacts discussed…as purely economic in nature and thus not required to be analyzed in a DNS. But they are not. SEPA requires analysis of both the direct and indirect impacts that would occur over the lifetime of the proposal. As with other zoning legislation, the direct impact of the proposed ordinance would be to alter the economic environment for development, in this case within single-family zones. However, the evidence here shows that indirect impacts of the legislation would adversely affect and cause displacement of populations. These are significant adverse environmental impacts that must be studied in and EIS in the context of the development/economic environment that would be created by the proposal.”

In that sense, an EIS on this proposal could take up the fundamental question that’s dogging this city’s political debate right now: Is more development a good thing for affordable housing or a bad thing for affordable housing?

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