Squeezing affordability out of the land use code

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Creating affordable housing in Seattle

I have a colleague and friend here in City Government who just returned from a Policy Link meeting in Detroit. If you read much about urban affairs you know Detroit is the crucible for everyone’s anger about the economy, the tanked automotive industry, bank foreclosures, overwhelmed public services, you name it. She said she thought Detroit was worse than New Orleans at this point in terms of crumbling public infrastructure and decimated neighborhoods.

Detroit is also the city where innovators are trying new things, taking over swaths of former single family neighborhoods and rowhouses as urban farms. Artists are re-colonizing and, if you can find a good paying job, you can find a house (most likely bank-owned) for less than $20,000. But can you live with the schools and transit….

Affordability is, to me, one of the toughest elements to produce in a city. No city aspires to follow Detroit’s path, but housing within reach for average people? I’d love to have more of that.

Affordability has multiple definitions depending on your economic standing. The most direct way we affect housing affordability is through direct subsidy — a voucher to pay the rent; a loan to share the cost of new construction; a tax break to buy down the rent. Because we’ll never have enough money to subsidize affordability for everyone (nor should we), it’s been important to me to squeeze, cajole and (bonus word alert) incentivize some level of affordability using the land use code. This has been a priority for me for my whole four years chairing the land use committee.

In general, “affordable housing” means housing that someone earning a region’s median income – or less — can afford.  We still use the long-standing benchmark of spending no more than 30 percent of your income on rent or mortgage, though, many of us would argue that adding in transportation costs would be a better measure of the true cost of housing. Like many American cities, Seattle struggles to keep affordable housing near where people work – a 2009 study showed that workers in core sectors — such as child care providers, office staff, maintenance personnel, and municipal workers — can’t afford to live in the city.

Even a high school teacher doesn’t earn enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle; that apartment requires an hourly wage of $30.17, which is 16 percent more than a teacher’s salary. These days rent and homeownership frequently require multiple incomes per household.

While working to increase housing support for people earning way, way less than median income through the Seattle housing levy, I’ve tried to incorporate affordability into the basics of how we build new housing. Here are some of the ways I’ve worked in the Committee on the Built Environment (COBE) to make more housing affordable, and also to preserve the unique quality of Seattle’s neighborhoods while we’re at it.


Backyard cottages

Allowing backyard cottages is a smart and modest step to create more affordable housing options, help someone pay their mortgage, age with dignity in their own home, or to make a room for a son or daughter moving back home. Backyard cottages (officially known as detached accessory dwelling units) are separate from the main house and typically found in either the backyard or above a garage.

Thanks to legislation we passed through COBE, property owners city-wide now have the option to build a backyard cottage provided they meet certain criteria:

  • Cottages are limited to 800 square feet, including garage and storage space.
  • Your lot must be at least 4,000 square feet and not be in a Shoreline District.
  • The maximum height of the cottage depends on how wide the property is, and total lot coverage requirements remain the same as for all single-family-zoned lots — no more than 35 percent of a lot can be covered with a structure, including the cottage.
  • The property owner must live in either the house or the backyard cottage a minimum of six months every year.


Incentives for workforce housing

Incentive zoning is proven way to involve the private market in producing units that workers in core sectors can afford to live in. During my term we expanded incentive zoning from downtown to include urban centers, urban villages, and major transportation corridors.

Incentive zoning particularly targets those earning just less than area median income. These are not low-income rents, but they are affordable to mid-level workers in the sectors expanding in the city. Under these new rules the City Council can change the zoning in an area to set a base development level and also set a higher “incentive” height or density. To reach that higher development level a builder needs to provide a public benefit in exchange. The majority of that public benefit comes in the form of housing that must rent for no more than 80 percent of the area median income. The developer can choose not to include the affordable housing in their building, but then they must pay into an affordable housing fund, or, in some cases, provide a public benefit through open space, childcare, historic preservation, or use of development rights from another “saved” building or green area outside the city.


Updating multifamily code for green density

I worked to update the multifamily code in an effort to clear out obsolete restrictions that stood in the way of creating affordable housing while encouraging green development and density in urban


villages. We passed a collection changes – some radical — that add up to a positive vision with incentives that yield better places to live. Before, we saw cookie-cutter townhouses pop up everywhere. In the next building cycle I hope instead we’ll see different housing types providing more options and more housing where it makes sense (near transit and services). The overall cost of living for people should decrease as they have more opportunities to live near effective transit. OK, that assumes we can keep Metro solvent and expand service. All of our land use dreams are dependent on that little issue.

The changes we approved to the multifamily code went into effect in April 2011, and do the following:

  • Encourage a diversity of housing types among townhomes, rowhouses, cottages, apartments, and auto-court townhomes;
  • Promote keeping trees or planting new ones;
  • Waive density limits for certain housing types when good design features are achieved;
  • Require new design features to improve quality overall. For example: At least 20 percent of street facing façades must be windows and doors, and building materials must be varied;
  • Provide incentives for “green building” and hiding parking underground or at the back of the lot;
  • Allow for shared open space, for larger usable common areas;
  • Change the lowrise height limits to match the height limit for single-family zones in most cases;
  • Waive parking requirements for projects in growth areas and within .25 mile of frequent transit service (15 minute headways), allowing the market to dictate the level of parking to provide;
  • Use a new flexible standard of measuring floor space, “Floor Area Ratio,” rather than previously restrictive setback and lot coverage requirements;
  • Require Streamlined Design Review for townhouses with three or more units, but not for rowhouses, cottages or apartments in multifamily zones, and
  • Reduce the number of zones from five to three (LR1, LR2, LR3) for code simplicity.

Curbing the spread of “megahouses”

While working to create new options for affordable housing, I also focused on retaining the charm and individuality of Seattle’s neighborhoods. One problem that came to my attention early on was the spread of McMansions, or MegaHouses, in Seattle’s neighborhoods: Out-of-scale, out-of-character houses seemingly plunked into neighborhoods, overshadowing houses around them.

Working with Council President Richard Conlin, COBE adopted legislation to help curb the impact these massive structures create on neighborhood character.

The new rules did the following:

  • Adjusted the formula for how much of a lot may be covered by the structure,
  • Better protected neighboring homeowners from being overshadowed by removing the provision that allowed a new house’s height to be based on neighboring property heights, a weird spiral upwards in some cases,
  • Limited the location and visibility of garage doors that face a street,
  • Restricted allowable height for houses on sloped sites; and
  • Waived parking requirements on lots of less than 3,000 square feet, reducing the prominence of a garage as part of a structure.


Next week I’ll look back briefly at some great work we did by reaching into the street use rules.