The Pros and Cons of Upzoning in Seattle

Feb 19, 2018

As people continue to filter into the Puget Sound, multiple challenges arise. These include the never-ending traffic, increased cost of living, and a decrease in housing supply.

In fact, not only are the inflated home costs pricing thousands of people out of the market, but there also just isn’t a large number of homes, to begin with.

The City of Seattle has recognized this and is scrambling to find an answer to the low housing inventory we currently face. Yet, it seems as though no answer will make everyone happy because, like anything else, each comes with its own challenges and opponents.

One solution is the idea of upzoning in Seattle to allow for an increase in multi-family developments in and around the city. These zoning code changes would increase density on single lots, which will, in turn, allow for more people to live in less space and, ideally, for less money.

Yet, as the City of Seattle begins implementing policies such as Mandatory Housing Affordability, there’s a mixed reaction in the Seattle community as to whether upzoning in Seattle is the right choice for the city.

The Argument for Upzoning

In October 2017, The Guardian published an article discussing the rise of a newly priced-out-and-angry activists known as urbanists, or more recently, as YIMBYs (Yes, in my backyard). Urbanists fight for progressive housing – upzoning, new development, and an increase in density which would, in theory, keep them from being priced out of highly desired cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. This makes them the opposition to preservationists, which we will explore later on.

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The article tells the story of a council meeting in Berkeley where a woman protesting a new development complained that the taller building would block the sunlight from her garden. Although she expected the community to be on her side, she was surprised when instead, someone stood up and said, “You’re talking about zucchinis? Really? Because I’m struggling to pay rent.”

Those who encourage upzoning and development are often millennials who, whether new to the city for job opportunities or have grown up in the area, are being priced out of ever-increasing rents and home prices.

When rents and housing costs continue to rise with no end in sight, these young adults are struggling to make it day by day. Although these cities may offer great jobs with good pay and high employment rates, paying the bills every month is a constant struggle.

Recently, The Huffington Post published an article explaining why millennials are “facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression.” About halfway down the article, the author introduces Tyrone, a man who moved to Seattle when he was 23 and struggled, like many, to find housing that he could afford within a reasonable distance from his employment. The interactive article jumps into an animation explaining how housing in America got so expensive.

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It starts by showing an illustration of a made-up downtown. It explains that most people want to live within 30 minutes of work, so that’s where housing shows up. Once that filled up, freeways were built. Then, traffic got bad. Following that, demand for housing near downtown exploded because no one wants the commute. For a while, the city built up, developing apartments and townhomes to increase density and allow for more people to live near the city. Then, in the 1970s, zoning changes came into play and made it illegal for many plots of land to be developed to allow for higher density.

That was when rents and housing costs began to rise. Now that we have hundreds of people moving here every week with very little housing to go, the demand is overwhelmingly outranking supply and therefore pushing out anyone who doesn’t have wealth, or seniority, built up over time. That is what Seattle urbanists, or YIMBYs, want to change.

The Argument Against Upzoning

Now that we know why people would want to upzone more of Seattle, what about those who don’t? Opponents of zoning allowing for more development in Seattle are known as “neighborhood preservationists.”

According to a 2015 article in Seattle Weekly titled Anatomy of a NIMBY, the basic idea behind the preservationists opposing development stems from the idea that “market-based housing development […] is synonymous with gentrification, displacement, and the sacrifice of Seattle’s soul for the sake of developer profits.”

A common misconception about preservationists stems from the largely degrading term, NIMBY, which is often used to describe this group from the urbanists’ side. NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard” which originates from the supposed hypocrisy that preservationists are OK with projects such as homeless encampments or upzoning, as long as it’s not in their neighborhood.

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However, preservationists have a much different view of their fight. While everyone seems to agree that the balance of supply and demand caused by Seattle’s growth is a bit out of hand, this group is adamant that all developers don’t have people’s best interest in mind when they develop. To them, a developer isn’t someone looking to transform the land into the highest and best use for everyone, but instead a way that squeezes out the most profits for them.

To preservationists, development is often synonymous with displacement of the poor, gentrification, and a capitalist mindset focused only on growing profits.

Summary

If solving Seattle’s housing supply problems was as simple as publishing an article, we would have everything figured out years ago. However, the challenge has much deeper roots than that and therefore isn’t easy to solve.

With that said, one particular solution may provide a partial answer to our housing needs. This is Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA), a policy which requires developers to allocate affordable housing – either in their own projects or through a portion of their costs donated to a fund.

The plan also puts more emphasis on Urban Villages – hubs within neighborhoods designed to be a walkable, livable, and self-sustaining communities near public transit.

In 2017, MHA was enacted in six various neighborhoods across Seattle, adding development capacity near such community assets as parks, public transit, and jobs. The goal is to implement “less intensive changes in areas with higher risk of displacement, environmentally sensitive areas, and areas with fewer community assets” while focusing on neighborhoods without those major concerns.

Mandatory Housing Affordability is a part of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) in Seattle. It’s designed to create more homes, and more affordable housing, in a city that severely needs it.

Of course, not everyone is excited about the new policy. However, to many, this is one step closer to increasing housing supply with as minimal displacement and interruption of neighborhood character in a city that needs answers to these problems.

Are you concerned about the proposed zoning changes in Seattle? Reach out to our team for a free consultation on your home’s property value to find out how you may be affected by these updates.