Last November, the Seattle City Council approved a decision agenda that includes consideration in 2016 of upzones for every neighborhood in Seattle. It’s all part of Mayor Ed Murray’s so-called affordable housing plan, better described as a colossal giveaway to developers and a blueprint for the continued gentrification and displacement of low-income people from our city.

But City Councilmember Michael O’Brien has gone one step further with proposals that would eliminate nearly all restrictions on mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages in single-family zones — dubbed respectively, “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) and “detached accessory dwelling units” (DADUs).

O’Brien’s proposal includes eliminating requirements for parking and for the property owner to reside on-site. Some setback, height and permitting requirements also would be removed.  

All this would be done under the guise of expanding affordable housing opportunities in Seattle. On the contrary, this looks more like just another attempt to cram as much density as possible into our city at the expense of the liveability and affordability of our neighborhoods.  

 

Not a ‘real option’

If this were an effort to actually provide a real option for struggling low-income homeowners and to create a few more truly low-income and affordable rental units, we could see making some thoughtful adjustments to build more flexibility into the rules to reflect conditions within those areas where the new rules would apply. We could see this occurring where there was some degree of community “buy-in” and community participation in development of these adjustments.

Even so, such changes could not be done without also providing deep public subsidies to assist lower-income owners in creating DADU or ADU units, as well as building in explicit rent restrictions on these units once created to ensure they are affordable to very low-income households. 

The city’s own analysis shows that to recoup financing, land and construction costs, without the subsidies, an owner must charge as much as $1,800 a month. That’s well above the $600 to $800 a month a low-income household in Seattle can afford.

But absent those subsidies, O’Brien’s proposals are simply a big gift to developers and speculators, i.e., letting them loose and rewarding them to do as they please in single-family zones. 

Parking and street congestion in many neighborhoods already are a nightmare. And transit, energy, sewer and water Infrastructure lags behind current levels of growth. Who will cover these costs: the developers or taxpayers?

To us, O’Brien’s proposals are more “supply-side” baloney, not unlike the motivation behind all the other upzones in the mayor/O’Brien Housing Affordabiity and Livability Agenda (HALA) plan. Those calling for still more unrestrained density readily admit they’re dismayed that the mayor retreated from his proposal to replace single-family zoning with a low-density designation, allowing triplexes, courtyard apartments and townhomes. Among some zealots, there’s even talk now of doing away with zoning altogether — that zoning itself is “outdated.”

Given that 25 percent of renters in Seattle live in single-family homes, the net effect of these proposed DADU/ADU changes likely would be to drive up land values, taxes and rents throughout single-family-zoned areas, not just on sites that include a DADU or ADU. This only creates greater hardship for owners and renters alike.  

City planners report that values and assessments go up on properties that include DADUs and ADUs. But no attempt was made to examine how much land values will rise on all properties in these neighborhoods. How would that impact rents or property taxes low-income and senior residents pay on their homes?  

And if tax breaks or similar relief also is offered to those building DADUs or ADUs, what would be the greater burden shifted onto everyone else? How much speculative activity and property turnover would be set in motion? What impact would these changes have on mature tree canopy and open space? What about traffic and transportation impacts in areas now underserved that lack capacity to handle loads there now? 


Expected backlash

The Displacement Coalition first made a call for expanded opportunities for creation of “mother-in-law’ units in 1979. Working with former Seattle City Councilmember Michael Hildt, we sought to liberalize rules in single-family areas but with owner occupancy and on-site parking required. So we’re not a stranger to DADUs and ADUs nor inherently opposed to them. Our proposal was shot down, however.

Some neighborhood activists are open to altering the rules to allow more truly affordable DADUs and ADUs — but within reason and not in a way that would create open season on single-family areas (the thinly veiled real objective of most seeking these changes). 

We think at some point, as the mayor, O’Brien and others move through their agenda and timeline for these upzones, we’re going to see an enormous backlash from our neighborhoods. It’s only a matter of time: They’re already getting better organized — and they’ll need to be — to turn back these radical changes that are being proposed.

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.