Y'all had to see this coming, right? Right?!?!?!?
Folks who know me know about my love for missing-middle housing. While there are some in the urbanist world who would eliminate zoning altogether, I just cannot support that mentality. That might look good on paper, but the reality is that the areas that would see significant and devastating change to communities are the historically neglected, black and brown neighborhoods in Seattle. With institutional racism causing wage stagnation, I-200 leaving out women and minority owned businesses from equitable contracts with governments, it's much more likely we would see continued whitening of places like the Central District and Rainier Valley. If that's where the people will sell, that's where development would go. Zoning can (and should) be used as a social justice and racial equity tool.
At the same time, there's the political realities with which we are faced. In 2015 and 2016, I spent a lot of time talking about housing, zoning, affordable housing, and homelessness with communities all across Seattle. The folks that some would call "NIMBY" were often concerned more with lot-line construction, and less with SF protectionism (mostly). And I can't say I don't share that same concern. The notion that the market alone, or that a libertarian style zoning and design system will not only help address the affordability crisis, but will also keep Seattle great, is, frankly, bullshit
Enter missing middle. If you didn't click on the link above, briefly missing middle is the type of housing that historically has been a mixture of affordable rentals and entry-level homeownership opportunities. Courtyard apartment buildings with a dozen units, rowhouses, town houses, backyard cottages, mother-in-law units.
Based on how these function, most missing-middle housing is pretty low-intensity on the density level (RHYMES!). At the same time, it allows for more families to live near great schools, parks, and transit lines in places that are affordable, while maintaining tree canopy, having shared "yards" in many cases for kids to play or adults to read a book during the summer, and, best of all, typically very affordable compared to most other new construction.
A big part of this is because it's just cheaper to build. Two and three story buildings can be built with wood over a concrete foundation. This is opposed to mid-rise and taller, which often have higher costs due to the need for steel-reinforced concrete, or steel itself, to meet building safety codes.
Aesthetically, missing middle fits in very well outside of urban villages. While urban centers are meant to see density, and often are clustered around transit lines and small businesses, missing middle affords an opportunity to be within a reasonable walking distance of an urban village. Currently, zoning in Seattle tends to lead to a cliff, if you will, from mid-rise to single family. Expanded missing middle creates a buffer, while creating more affordable homeownership and renting opportunities.
That is where the problem lies in Seattle. To allow for missing middle, we would have to have the political courage to significantly change our zoning rules. Currently, most of the city is zoned in a way that only allows detached single-family homes to be built. While, in theory, the Lowrise Zones are supposed to cover the need of missing middle, they really just are catching the small apartment building aspect. Missing still: courtyard apartments, duplexes, triplexes, etc. etc.
Some of the arguments I've heard against allowing more of this type of housing - especially in the homeownership style - goes something like this: if they tear down that house that they pay $700,000 for, and build two townhouses, they're just going to charge $700,000 for each of them.
And that may be true. But what happens when they tear it down and build one house? Then you're looking at a seven-figure house, and only one family is allowed to live there.
If we try to deny that there are market forces, it's middle-income and poor folks that will continue to lose out. While our treatment of housing as a commodity rather than a right as a state and nation is not something I support, I'm in the extreme minority. So instead of fighting for the perfect, we must be fighting for the actionable. Because if we wait for the perfect, more families will become homeless, which means more people will die. If we wait for the perfect, more workers will have to rely on cars to get to work, which means more toxic emissions will continue to degrade our environment.
The funny thing is: missing middle is already co-existing phenomenally in Seattle. Look at this, for instance:
This set of homes in Wallingford are all in an area zoned SF 5000. On the left is a small apartment complex with 5 units, if I remember right (I doorbelled this precinct a couple times personally in 2015). Most of the rest of these are stacked duplexes. So the zoning laws today would only allow 9 families to live on this block. But the actual homes allow for 18-20. You'll see plenty of available street parking. There's a corner store, dentist, and dry cleaner just up the street - and having 18-20 families means more business for these small businesses than 9 would. They are all within walking distance of a great park and playground (and tennis courts!), transit, and a grocery store (maybe a 20 minute walk). Yet this is illegal in most of Seattle.
By legalizing more housing options, we create more housing options. And this doesn't just mean rentals. Duplexes can be two home-owners with a co-operative land agreement, for instance. In an urban center that is growing, yet geographically constrained, this creates that opportunity to keep much of the aesthetic, help small businesses thrive (which is good for neighborhoods and good for workers), and ensure all families have access to the great amenities in our city, like our parks and community centers.
At the same time, it helps "spread the love" of growth. Instead of focusing 1,000 people per week into urban villages - 11% of the city - we can take pressure off of neighborhoods like Wallingford, and decrease gentrification in areas like the Central District, by having Laurelhurst and View Ridge allow for a few more families per block. To keep the tree canopy and walkability, we simply need to work out what the setbacks might look like. Or what steps the city can take to encourage courtyard apartment development where it makes sense (over block style, which makes sense in more dense parts of the city).
But it all comes back to political will. Will politicians be willing to have the tough conversations in the 55-65% of Seattle - a major city - that is zoned for 5,000 square foot plus lots that can only have one family living on them? These are questions that I believe we should be asking. MHA, MFTE, IZ, etc. - these are all fun. But sustainable affordability, and the ability to produce more homeownership opportunities, is going to require more diverse housing options. Look up at that block in Wallingford again. Is there any reason that couldn't co-exist here:
Within walking distance of transit, great parks, and small businesses. Yet only 9 families can live here.
Today is the last day of filing week. Lots of folks are talking about affordability. But I continue to wonder who will be brave enough to offer proposals to allow more affordability all across Seattle, not just in our urban villages. And I continue to wonder who really cares.