Land use: Seattle's oh-so-human hesitations about change

Crosscut archive image.

A land use notice sign in Seattle: Sometimes people get worked up.

Now that Mayor Ed Murray has shifted Housing and Livability Agenda (HALA) priorities away from changes to single-family zones and back toward Seattle’s traditional focus on density and urban village or urban centers, it strikes me, based on 30 years of experience, that the real work has barely begun.

Writing now from a world of detached simplicity, while on vacation—far away from my hometown's bombastic debate—I am benefiting from the gestalt of reflection.  Suddenly, I remember simpler, yet similar times 25 years ago, and have some cautionary tales to tell about human nature amid the specter of change.

In 1986, early in my law practice, I left Seattle for six years in Connecticut and experienced an incomparable primer in the basics of the American land use regulatory system. By the late 1980s, associated civic involvement led me to chair a zoning commission in a small town outside of Hartford.  Under state law, the zoning function in most Connecticut towns rests with citizen commissions, and the commissioner positions were largely elected.  I ran for election and won in a town comprised largely of single-family homes.

Up for review came a project that generated tremendous opposition—the very first condominiums in a town of 5,000 people. The faces from that battle merge with the personalities in today’s HALA debates—the neighbors, the realtors, the developers and the citizen opposition. Residents Against Condominiums (known as RAC) formed to fight the project. Human nature breeds déjà vu, and after all these years, things seem eerily the same in Seattle.

During that period, other Connecticut towns made it difficult to develop affordable, smaller homes. New regulations required minimum lot coverage for residences, virtually mandating larger houses. In the more rural towns, minimum lot sizes per dwelling limited housing types. Accessory dwelling unit regulations existed on the books, but requirements for expensive “safety” requirements on existing homes frequently made such otherwise-affordable projects prohibitively expensive. In response, by the early 1990s, state law was amended to create a specific, protective provision for affordable projects, where a town had the burden of proof in litigation to justify any project denial.

I remember my guest Op Ed piece in the Hartford Courant one Tuesday, about how many people, including teachers and municipal employees, could no longer afford to live in their hometowns.  Using some borrowed irony, I wrote that the historic homestead entitlement of “40 acres and a mule” had been replaced by large-lot, exclusionary zoning expectations of “two acres and a Porsche.” It was the first time I had ever been published in a major newspaper, in 1989.

Since I was the town zoning commission's chair, the phone regularly rang at home, and I remember one weekend feeding my then-young son Aaron while a RAC member gave me a painfully long telephone lecture about the kind of people who move to condominiums, including “people who don’t belong in town, and who don’t have families.” It was a local resident’s version of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sutherland’s talk about “parasite” apartment residents from a landmark land-use case. After some heated debate, my commission approved the condominiums in the summer of 1992.

Later that year, we returned to Seattle, expecting to find a more progressive place, open to new ideas and innovative solutions. Expectations did not entirely mesh with reality. I walked into the Seattle Comprehensive Plan discussions regarding the urban village and urban center ideals, a direct precedent to last month’s sensational debates about single-family zoning’s future. It was a bit of Connecticut all over again as I saw human nature wrestle with the prospect of neighborhood change.

In the years since, I had relegated my old Connecticut stories to faint memory, but now, all these years later, I realize how even the enlightened Seattle of 2015 could once again fall victim to universal fears spurred by an evolving city.  As they say here in France, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

However, while things have come full circle in my memory, Seattle need not repeat the cautionary vignettes reflected from Connecticut.  I am mindful of at least five trend lines that I have watched since 1992 that could, in the end, ensure a more inclusive city

Politics of Inclusion. Given our inclusiveness and attention to process and participation, Seattle fosters public dialogue that frustrates some, but provides a forum for a wide range of voices.  A case in point is the recent single-family zoning dialogue, and the related input that informed Mayor Murray’s recent HALA recalibration. While it may not please all interests at all times, Seattle’s approach to openness often goes beyond the legal requirements for public participation or comment period niceties. Seattle has an unconscious place in its heart for the strident gadfly, and the associated politics of inclusion.

The Density Dialogue. Seattle takes seriously Growth Management Act-based obligations to allow for more density in places that make sense. To my mind, the urban village/urban center dialogue of the 1990s never ended.  Instead, it morphed into a transit-based discussion for at least a decade, while Sound Transit and bus rapid transit initiatives evolved. Now, the HALA Report has re-emphasized the equity and affordability issues central to transit-oriented communities, including a capstone emphasis on increasing housing opportunities near transit.

The Range of Funding Tools. Seattle has wrestled with direct and indirect methods to provide affordable and market rate housing at a variety of income thresholds for years. For example, both the multi-family tax exemption and housing levy tools have played major roles, and have largely stood up to serious scrutiny. Not coincidentally, proposed enhancements to these tools play a major role in the HALA Report, as well.

The Public-Private Dance. Since 1992, Seattle has attempted to find the right mix of land-use regulatory approaches to provide for and/or fund affordable units. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Washington Supreme Court, in landmark cases, royally slapped the City’s hands for overstepping state constitutional and statutory bounds against illegal taxation in the form of “substantive due process” violations. In the intervening years, the “incentive” or “bonus” approach prevailed, allowing more development capacity in return for voluntary contributions by developers of affordable units or to a dedicated trust fund. The City largely avoided any fee-based linkage or impact assessments, but HALA, through a "Grand Bargain,” now proposes an upprecedented compromise approach involving these tools.

The Unprecedented “Grand Bargain.” Finally, I have watched and participated in many task forces surrounding land use and affordable housing issues driven by Seattle inclusionary politics, but with inconclusive results. Only a few years ago, the Regulatory Reform Task Force under then-Mayor Mike McGinn achieved only some of its goals in the face of neighborhood opposition and allegations of under-representation by certain groups. This time, the HALA-associated Grand Bargain shows that a wide spectrum of people development/business communities, housing and equity advocates, environmental groups and organized labor) actually aligned on a method to achieve more affordable and market-rate units. The Grand Bargain includes a commercial development fee in commercial zones for affordable housing and enhanced incentive/inclusionary zoning techniques in urban villages and centers, tied to increased density through zoning changes.

I did not serve on HALA, or any of its subcommittees, but I believe the HALA report and pending revisions to the Seattle Comprehensive Plan actually speak to the trends I’ve observed. One positive byproduct of Mayor Murray’s recent HALA refocus is that the report's most significant recommendations can now get the positive attention that they deserve, allowing many of the trend lines I have identified since 1992 to coalesce, and resolve.

I’ve come full circle since my Connecticut days and so should Seattle. Now is an ideal time to move beyond misunderstandings and strident tones about broadening our affordable housing opportunities.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as a London-based urbanist writer, photographer, land use consultant and former Seattle land use and environmental attorney.