Longtime readers of the #Hashtag (all three of you) may recall a post from 2016 - #Greenwood. Not only was this the first #Hasthag post to see syndication (running in the Urbanist, if I recall correctly), but, at the time, it was - by far - the most read post with my byline. I’m imagining that this was, in part, due to the sharing by Seattle 4 Everyone, an advocacy organization supporting the MHA legislation (it’s been that long). What I like to think of as the greatest takeaway: “Neighborhood Character” should be defined by the people and small businesses that make our communities great.
Think about it: when was the last time you ventured to a part of the city to look at it’s detached single-family houses? (I mean, I’ve gone on trips to look at housing diversity and architectures, but I’m an insufferable nutter). My experience, and that which I have discussed with many-a-people, we take trips to check out what neighborhoods have to offer, and so often those are dictated by the characters in those neighborhoods.
To wit, the restaurants and businesses that inhabit the Junction make it dope. We visit Greenwood to hit up the ‘noff. Georgetown provides awesome food and drink. Wallingford has that energy inefficient, and yet amazing, Taco Time. My own neighborhood is most known for the Zoo.
Yet too often we are seeing these amazing institutions shut down, without similarly dope places moving in. It’s almost as if the lack of affordable homes for the people that made these places thrive is leading to wealthier folk with different tastes, and instead of cheap beer and passable pizza, we’re left with $5 cupcakes and over-complicated cheeseburgers.
And herein lies the greatest fault of the MHA legislation, driven by policy-makers who let the EIS be too narrow in scope in order to preserve a relic of our white-supremacy past: detached single-family zoning. The result: trying to cram all new homes, with more expensive building types, into just a few parts of the city.
So why does this matter? A few pieces. For one, the cost of building. Much hullabaloo has been made about the overwhelming majority of new rental units being “luxury” units. However, when we look closer, we see that the new capacity being created through zoning changes necessarily requires more expensive building types. Sightline ran an excellent piece outlining what goes into rents for new construction, and the higher we go, the more expensive it is to build, the higher the rents must be to “pencil out.” While phasing in of Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) and mass-timber may lower the cost of mid- to high-rise construction, the reality is lower-height construction is cheaper all-around.
But even there, the limitations placed by local decisions drive up the per-home cost due to the cost of land. By effectively banning row-housing, and placing an arbitrary density limit in Lowrise 1 zones (limiting development to 3 units per 6k square feet, if I recall correctly), our city has effectively banned the ability for the potential of lower-cost units. Coupled with the limitations in the State’s Condominium Liability Act for condo-style housing (think stacked flats), lower-cost-to-the-consumer row-housing, stacked flats, cottage housing, and small condo buildings are effectively banned through our zoning choices).
And, unsurprisingly, this drives up the cost of the few products produced.
I know, there’s a new article published in CityLab that some suggest throw cold water on the concept that more housing options will slow the rate of growth in housing costs. However, I would posit that the research there proves the point. As I’m reading it, the Chicago example relies on upzoning higher near transit stations, and focuses on ownership only. As noted above, of course that is going to have a different result than more gentle zoning changes in “buffer” zones between urban centers and less-urban areas within urban growth boundaries (#urban).
See, none of these live in vacuums. Building material type and height contribute to the cost of building, and by shoehorning all new homes into these few areas, the natural result is increase cost to the consumer. But by not only expanding “walkshed” to more reasonable distances (I would say up to a mile), and allowing more housing diversity in areas that we are, for some reason, restricting to detached-single family housing (disallowing attached family homes that would cost less to the consumer), the increase cost is expected. Further, we freeze out developers who are likely more connected to communities, and more likely to proactively engage in design elements with surrounding neighbors.
So what does this have to do with small businesses? EVERYTHING! Small businesses thrive when people shop there. As we see more and more folks turning to online retail, what makes neighborhood shops thrive (aside from getting into the online-retailer game) is more neighbors. And more neighbors with more eclectic tastes comes with more affordable homes. More affordable homes comes with more housing diversity.
This gets to the other constraint with MHA, but one that can be fixed: first and second floor commercial.
What makes our small business corridors successful is largely the ability for small businesses to afford storefronts. Unfortunately, the financing scheme for a lot of housing developments has weird square footage requirements for first-floor commercial in order for a loan to process. The best way to force the banks’ hands: require smaller first-floor commercial spaces, and even look at working to expand commercial requirements to hit the second floor (they’re doing this in D.C. with some success that could be replicated in parts of our region.
Moving forward, as the City considers MHA Round 2 (which it should, and the Council should take jurisdiction over the EIS process), looking to find ways to preserve and expand these small business opportunities - in exchange for more housing opportunities - may be a smart way to truly preserve Neighborhood Character.
The alternative: the characters of our city will be priced out. The small businesses that we love will be shut down. And we will be left with a hollowed-out version of Seattle. We can do better, but it’s going to require all of us to be a little more comfortable with being welcoming to more diversity in housing types, more neighbors, more characters.