#ADUs, the #EIS, and the #SeattleTimesEdBoard
When I worked for the City, a recurring joke (that may have actually been true?) was that if we wanted to secure support from the Mayor’s office on something, we needed either support or neutrality from the Seattle Times Editorial Board and/or Danny Westneat. If you look back on their opinion pieces and correlation with policy proposals before the City, it makes sense.
Luckily for Seattle, the Mayor has already expressed support, albeit tepid, for some aspects of the proposal for more relaxed Accessory Dwelling Unit regulations in Seattle. Sure, she has made statements that suggest such a change really should be rooted in protecting generational wealth and preventing renters in neighborhoods (“…we don’t want to create an incentive to basically transform it into a rented-out triplex.” - Mayor Jenny Durkan) And sure, some of her “ideas” around owner-occupancy, for instance, are troubling. However, this is legislation that has been in the making since before this Mayor has shown an interest in local policy, and it is clear from public testimony that there is broad support for the ADU legislation that will ultimately be considered by Council.
Why is that “lucky” that the Mayor is (more or less) on board? Because the Seattle Times (all-white) Editorial Board - Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Brier Dudley, Mark Higgins, Derrick Nunnally, and William K. Blethen - are up with one of the stupidest editorials I’ve seen them waste paper with. And Lord knows they’ve been able to bring some hits to the table over the years.
In their most recent missive - “Let new council decide Seattle neighborhoods’ fate” - we see the team fully embrace the flawed logic of Mitch McConnell in 2016. In their mind, the (frankly) modest changes to City code regarding ADUs should be slowed further, despite years of predatory delay by Marty Kaplan and the Queen Anne Community Council, joined by TreePAC. In their mind, there is “little urgency” (I’m guessing all of the members are not only homeowners, but wonder how many actually live in Seattle) to address affordability with this tool. In their mind, the current council is not “accountable” to residents of the City, and as such, should not be allowed to move forward with legislation addressing ADU restrictions. In their mind, ADU construction of a whopping 252 per year is enough to meet the housing demand in our region. In their mind, Council is “lame-duck”, and shouldn’t be doing their job.
Honestly, I would love to live in their mind for a bit. It sounds like an amazing wonderland.
The idea that Council should sit back and do nothing for the rest of the year is preposterous. Eight members were elected to do work, and for the issue at bar, that work has been delayed for years. Back in June, 2016, QACC (Queen Anne Community Council, pronounced “Quack”) filed their original appeal of the Determination of Non-Significance associated with an early proposal to loosen restrictions for ADUs in Seattle. Then-Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner, a Queen Anne homeowner, ultimately sided with QACC, offering some additional extra-judicial opinions in her decision requiring a full-EIS be performed prior to legislation being considered. Nearly two years later, the final EIS (which, frankly, is a 400+ page DNS) was filed, and what did QACC do? That’s right, they appealed the sufficiency of the EIS, with a final decision upholding the adequacy of the EIS.
In fact, loosening of restrictions on ADU production was a theme during the 2015 and 2017 elections and, broadly, candidates who supported loosening those restrictions won more often than not. Further, comments submitted to the City - whether through the EIS or during the MHA discussion - have been overwhelmingly in favor of loosening restrictions on ADU production, and we are seeing almost every candidate for City Council embracing this concept. So where the Seattle Times Editorial Board sees a lack of “accountability,” the reality is that, to be accountable, it is incumbent upon the Council to move forward, and not exacerbate predatory delay tactics that are exacerbating our homelessness crisis and leading to suburbanization of poverty (and the adverse ecological impacts associated).
While the Seattle Times Editorial Board sees the potential adoption of legislation as “a lame-duck council [jamming] through the demise of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods,” the reality is a select few homeowners with significant wealth accrued in their properties have delayed this change that has been years in the making. There has been extensive public engagement. And the overwhelming response: move this legislation forward. I get it, the Seattle Times Editorial Board is against housing diversity (and, it appears, diversity in general). But to suggest that this council doing nothing is responsive or is indicative of any sort of accountability is, for lack of a better term, bullshit.
The one thing that I do sort of agree with: this legislation is designed to create more rental units throughout Seattle. And that is not the best route for our city to go. I’m pretty sure I come at this for different reasons, however.
While I am all-in for ADU liberalization (there are some aspects of the preferred alternative that I don’t care for, such as the one-year owner requirement before a second ADU can be added), the concept of ADUs is still predicated on the idea that people should be subject to a landlord-tenant relationship, and the power imbalance that provides. Yes, anecdotally, landlords in ADU situations are generally “better” and less intrusive, but ADUs are still a means of generating income and wealth for one side in that relationship.
This is why the ADU bill is important, but what happens next is vital to sustainable affordable housing options in Seattle. This is especially true with the Legislature’s passage of condo liability reform this year.
All twelve regular readers of the Hashtag already know where I stand on single-family zoning. It’s rooted in racism, and its perseverance exacerbates racial and socioeconomic inequity. Even with ADU reform, while there remain options to mitigate displacement in communities of color, by maintaining space for people to rent without addressing underlying obstacles to homeownership opportunities, we will essentially maintain a lot of the status quo. This is why it is important not only for the current City Council to adopt the preferred alternative of the ADU EIS, but to prepare for the next step: an EIS, just as broad, on reformation of detached-single family zoning, eliminating the designation, and implementing a new designation.
We learned a lot from the hearing examiner’s decision in the ADU appeal. What really stood out to me was this line:
The Examiner concludes that the City has made a thorough and commendable effort to provide necessary information to policy makers regarding the potential impacts of the proposal.
This nugget is in the summary on page 48 of the decision. Typically, an Examiner comes to a simple conclusion: was the EIS adequate in all or in part? For an Examiner to take an extra step and highlight how thorough an EIS was is not something I have seen often, and suggests that an EIS on single-family zoning reform similar to what we saw with the ADU EIS is the right path. And with the condo liability reform passage, new housing types (such as stacked flats) become more palatable to developers, and create a new housing type that doesn’t necessarily require going up and down stairs in a narrow home, but having a single-floor layout, and just having stairs to get to the front door.
That said, any EIS needs a budget. And that is why this year’s budget process will be crucial for any significant zoning reforms in Seattle. The City would be abdicating its responsibility by failing to fund an EIS to explore implementation of a zoning designation plan similar to the Neighborhoods for All recommendations in this coming budget, especially given that the major Comprehensive Plan amendments (necessary as part of any major zoning change) begin planning in early 2020. The only reason not to fund such a measure would be opposition to housing diversity in Seattle.
However, simply funding an EIS may not be enough. I would suggest that it is incumbent on the Council to identify the guidelines for this work, and maybe go so far as to retain jurisdiction to ensure that it is done well. We all saw what happened with the MHA EIS - it was overly conservative in many areas, leading to Councilmembers having to tell residents wanting more that they couldn’t make that change.
To that end, I would go so far as to suggest studying upwards of four options, using the ADU EIS as a guide-book to a successful and robust study, looking at allowing up to four attached units per 5,000 square-feet of land, or four “cottage” units per 6,000 square feet of land. Or, something like this. Ensuring that there is funding for this work, along with clear guidelines for what is expected, can be one of the most important things that Council does during the upcoming budget season.
When combined with the Racial Equity Toolkit that is ostensibly being done right now, the next Council will have all of the information they need to not only move forward with a policy proposal that builds on the ADU legislation, providing more homeownership opportunities throughout Seattle and leading on environmental sustainability, but also an implementation framework to center such a change on racial equity.
The budget is months away, but now is the time to make clear to Councilmembers the importance of this component. And then keep doing it. Because for Council to sit on their thumbs and do nothing for the rest of the year, as endorsed by the Seattle Times Editorial Board, would be a gross abdication of responsibility, and lead to further delay for long-term, sustainable policy changes to address affordability, stability, and environmental sustainability, for generations to come.