Recently I was asked to present an article written for The Urbanist titled “Seattle has the Space” for the Surrey Board of Trade (SBOT). SBOT was interested in the problems of Seattle (which they share) and how modest changes to zoning allowances can grow a city. Now, Surrey is already kicking Seattle’s ass on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) with 40+ story towers all around their 3 transit stops. We could learn a lot from Surrey, but they also are dominated by single family zoned neighborhoods and angry neighbors who want the density “somewhere else”, so we can learn a lot from each other. Here is a synopsis of the presentation:
Seattle’s Housing Crisis
Seattle is in the midst of an enormous problem. We don’t have enough homes. Solving the housing crisis has been a topic for the last 2 mayoral and city council campaigns. Starting in 2015, this problem has grown and grown to the point it is today, where an average home costs 2x more than it did in 2015. But how did we get there?
Seattle has plenty of land. At 84 square miles Seattle is 4 times larger than Manhattan and over twice the size of Barcelona. Even Paris — which has over 2 million residents — is half the land of Seattle. But people in Seattle think we are “out of space” and “too crowded” despite having a population less than 800,000. The only thing we are out of are homes. And here’s how we know:
- Population to Homes Ratio
When studying the homes per population ratio of 2010, we had approximately 1 home for 1.97 people. Today that is 1 home per 2.02 people. The small change matters a lot. To match the ratio we had in 2010, we are 15,000 homes short in present day. Our best year building housing was 2019 and we didn’t hit 12,000. So we are in a housing debt we will never climb out of unless we look for places to build more homes in our city.
2. Jobs to Homes Ratio
Even worse than the population per homes ratio, jobs per homes shows an even more significant gap. It’s worth noting that a city‘s population growth is tied to job growth. People moved to Seattle for the healthy job market, and right now the jobs per home ratio is 45,000 homes short from matching where we were in 2010. This is significant because the job growth in Seattle has been highly publicized big tech jobs, which are offering high salaries and stock portfolios to lure people from Silicon Valley or convince the college grad to skip the Bay Area entirely. What we created was a game of musical chairs, but rather than taking chairs away, we have simply left them as is and added more kids to the game. The new, stronger, more aggressive kids with more ability to secure chairs are shoving the marginalized kids out. We need to add chairs to the game so it’s not so competitive.
Seattle is mostly zoned for single family homes, a typology that was maxed out years ago. The only changes occurring there today are a net zero gain in housing growth. Old homes become new homes. Old homes renovated into updated homes. That doesn’t grow housing and that leaves nearly 30 square miles stagnant to housing growth while the rest of the city has to make space for newcomers.
Single family zoning dominates the city. It takes up 75% of the land we can build homes on, hoards bedrooms, and houses far less than the small slivers of urban zoned land does.
Seattle’s Urban Village strategy was the 1990s answer to the first Tech Boom (Microsoft) that alerted the Mayor at the time that if Seattle didn’t do something to grow housing, we would be totally screwed.
The Urban Village strategy is not enough, it’s racist, and it shoves housing on arterials, but it did truly deliver on growing housing. Just look at the charts and see how our city grew housing. But did so unequally. It shows how far small upzones can go to create homes. Imagine if we upzoned the 30 square miles of our city that hasn’t yet participated?
Unequal growth always seems to find it’s way to racism. We formerly segregated our city, which put most of the black and brown population to the southeast of the city, then decided to place the light rail right through it and shove most of the land there into an urban village boundary. Over 80% of the land upzoned for urban villages within the 1960’s redlining map of Seattle captured areas deemed “hazardous” or “industrial”, often times referring to them outright as “the Negro area of Seattle”, while leaving all the blue parts deemed “good sense of community” and “communities of the White Race” closed off to anyone else or future upzones.
Seattle Has The Space
The realization of all these intersecting problems of Seattle, particularly within single family neighborhoods, got me thinking. What does a standard 50 ft x 100 ft lot support? These lot sizes are the typical standard around Seattle’s single family neighborhoods and it’s no question modest changes to allow rowhouses, sixplexes or small apartments are going to go the extra mile.
For starters, we cannot keep promising everyone a single family home. We don’t have the space. We need to look at the modest dense options like rowhouses, sixplexes, and small apartments if we are going to get out of the constraints we have placed on our city for no good reason. 100 years ago we banned the construction of this housing variety when we created single family zoning by mandating 1 home on 1 lot maximum.
Housing options will make homes more affordable. No, a $750,000 rowhouse is not affordable to most, but it’s more affordable than a $1 million dollar backyard cottage or $2 million dollar new home. Arguing about profits is pointless too. Every developer has profited since Seattle was first platted and we also have non-profits who would benefit from this modest change too. Overall, when we house more people on a lot, even in new construction, the cost per unit goes down significantly. A $500,000 home in a sixplex is more affordable than Seattle’s existing housing stock of 3 bedrooms (which run north of $800,000). And if they end up being more expensive than that, who cares? Let’s house more people on a lot and let buyers with more capital have more space on a single lot instead of buying other lots. This keeps older homes cheaper.
Seattle DOESN’T have the space for everyone having a parking spot on site. Right now we have no parking mandates inside urban villages, which proves to be an effective way to lower costs. So why have them outside urban villages? We don’t have the space for everyone’s cars, especially when most homeowners park their own cars on the street but complain new developments “have no parking” in urban villages.
And holy crap is parking expensive to build! For apartments, forget about it. You’re dumping nearly a million dollars into the ground whether you want to or not. If someone wants to build it, great, but it shouldn’t mandate an enormous cost that gets passed onto a buyer or renter. Plus, these financial anchors will kill financing and the project may never even start.
Of course there will be resistance. But it takes bold leadership to get us back to the land use patterns we used to allow. People want to believe in science, they want to welcome immigrants, and be nice humane people, but then they will also oppose any change to make homes for these people and combat climate change. The irony is, most of Seattle’s neighborhoods have a modest apartment in them, like the picture on the right. I bet those neighbors have no issue with the character of this building, but if one were proposed down the street, they’d show up and protest.
So I have a better idea. Make it worth their while. If we offer homeowners the opportunity to get a new home for free in a new development if they partner with a developer, we can grow housing and incentivize this for both parties so they shake hands and are happy. We get density, people get to build and do business, and residents stay in their neighborhood. This is an idea that was deployed in Athens, Greece in the 1920s and it would help ease this angst that developers are the boogeyman.
Seattle’s Answers to Housing:
- Upzone single family lots to allow rowhouses and sixplexes across the city
- Eliminate parking minimums
- Increase lot coverage from 35% to 50%
- Reduce setbacks from 10' at the front to 3'; 5' on the side to 2'
- Pre-permitted designs offered by catalog.
- Owner occupancy bonus incentive
Cutting the Red Tape
Everything listed above is great on paper and can get us mathematically and politically out of the housing problems we currently are experiencing. But we must cut red tape and take the teeth out of community led hostility to housing growth.
- Design Review
I love this graphic. This is the City of Seattle’s “simplified” chart showing the 12 step process it takes to just approve your design before being allowed to apply for a construction permit. This process takes 500–600 days to go through for any modest 6 story apartment building.
Some of the topics they cover are brick color selections. This project started under President Obama and was not fully approved until after Joe Biden won the 2020 election. Their last meeting was entirely to discuss brick colors, which made you wonder what the purpose of these meetings really is about.
Some meetings even turn into graduate school level architecture thesis projects, where the architect has to explain the “rhythm of the facade” as requested by the city’s design review board — entirely made up of architects who are mostly white, by the way.
The best part about this process is we know and accept that it is too long and unnecessary for most homes! We exempt all single family homes from the program. Whether it’s a new home or renovating a 1 story home into 3 stories. Wouldn’t it be great if we acknowledged that brick colors and facade rhythms also don’t matter for small apartments?
2. Historic Preservation
Another problem is historic preservation. Seattle has very favorable rules to landmark virtually anything. All it needs to be is 25 years old and meeting a loose guideline. In some cases, it’s a developer trying to convince the city they need to tear down a non-descript laundry building to build a 7 story hotel only to be shot down and have the thing landmarked and kill their development. Sometimes it’s 5 or 6 neighbors applying their entire neighborhood of 3,000 homes for national historic districting to prevent change to their recently upzoned neighborhood. And sometimes it’s a condo who hears their view could someday be blocked by a new 50 ft tall building, so they’ll apply anonymously for a landmarking status without the building owner’s consent and it will get passed regardless. These are real examples from Seattle just this year.
Seattle loves to do process. The building code, which makes sure a building doesn’t fall down, catch fire, or burn too quickly before everyone gets out is 800 pages. But that aside, you first have to go through citywide design guidelines then neighborhood design guidelines, over 100 pages of criteria like roof shapes and building pattern requests that were mostly written by a group of busy body community members who claimed to know what was best for the city. Then there’s the land use code. This only tells you how tall, how wide, what use, and how to set back. It’s almost TWICE as thick as the building code! With so much restriction, nearly every project needs a variance, which turns neighbors against development claiming the developers are “trying to get away with something” that lowers costs and grows profit.
Seattle’s Answer to Cutting Red Tape:
- Save design review for towers and public buildings
- Reduce the zoning code significantly
- Remove design guidelines
- Make design review advisory only, no power of delay
- Reform historic preservation and take the power away
All of these things are what Seattle can and should do. Whether they will is up for debate at this year’s Mayoral and City Council forums. And after that, it’s building up the political will to do something by the 2024 Comprehensive Plan update. Because if we miss that, it’ll just be more of the same.
This presentation was delivered to the Surrey Board of Trade’s Land Use and Development Group. Surrey, BC is slated to outgrow Vancouver and be the most populated city within the metro area, and is taking big steps into housing people around existing rail networks. Find more at https://businessinsurrey.com/