The Messiah And The Wide-eyed Naive Enviros

Advocates for affordable housing provide a much needed service in a growing city like Seattle, and I have no doubt that John Fox — one of the City’s stalwarts — has the best of intentions. But as his latest rant (co-authored by Carolee Colter) sadly illustrates, his zealotry is once again eclipsing his reason.

Futurewise and the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) have written a detailed response to set the record straight, most of which is posted below (full pdf here). Unfortunately, as the Rove-led Republicans knew so well, once misinformation is unleashed, it’s exceedingly difficult to undo.

Some background: Futurewise and WLIHA are crafting State legislation designed to help the region fully leverage its investment in transit infrastructure. The proposed bill mandates that within high-capacity transit station areas, zoning must allow an average net housing density of 50-units per acre.

It appears that much of the Fox/Colter hyperventilating stems from a limited understanding of both density metrics, and the interplay between zoning and current land use. They cite gross density data, while the proposed legislation is defined in terms of net density. And they fail to acknowledge that in most urban areas, zoning typically allows several times the capacity of existing land use.

As the Fox/Colter piece notes, Belltown’s existing gross housing unit density is 25/acre. But the net housing unit density is probably closer to 40/acre, while the existing zoning allows hundreds of units per acre. This proposed tower in Belltown has a density of 1200 units/acre. The 4-story mixed-use building at Rainier Vista shown below is about 100 units/acre — not exactly Manhattan.

[ Three stories of residential over retail typically yields about 100 units/acre. ]

The bottom line is that the proposed legislation would have but a minor effect on zoning in most of the Seattle station areas. Existing zoning at the Mount Baker station likely already exceeds the 50 unit/acre threshold. But in the visions of Fox and Colter, the bill would “lay waste to whole communities.”

They also want us to believe that the bill would steal away our trees. To those with a similarly misguided Lorax-complex, one question: Which would result in more net trees lost, (A) one new 100-unit, 6-story mixed-use building, or (B) one hundred new single family homes? 

Furthermore, their fretting over potential single-family upzones — that for the record, the proposed bill would NOT require — makes no sense at all if affordable housing is the goal.  Affordable single-family is a non-sequitur. 

Whether it’s trees or housing or transportation, most density alarmists are apparently incapable of grasping that what happens on the ground in a neighborhood can have effects well beyond the boundaries of that neighborhood. Channeling Seattle’s growth to high-capacity transit station areas is one of our most promising strategies for enhancing sustainability at the citywide, regional, and even planetary scale. People cannot honestly claim to be concerned about equity without acknowledging that the welfare of people and ecosystems spanning the city, region, and planet must be appropriately weighed against the interests of local residents.

Regrettably, when John Fox lets his messiah complex get the better of him and goes all bombastic on “wild-eyed naive enviros” and “social engineering at its worst,” he is alienating many of his best allies in the struggle to ensure the availability of affordable housing in Seattle.

Futurewise/WLIHA Response:

…In response to the Fox/Colter article, we emphasize that the TOC bill would have minimal, if any, impact on the zoning of most future light rail stations in Seattle.

The TOC bill addresses allowed net density, not current use. The Fox/Colter article references the density of current land use (what is on the ground today), but neglects to mention that the TOC bill deals with allowed net density and does not force any change to current land use. The bill requires that zoning in half-mile radius high-capacity transit station areas have an allowed net density (the maximum density allowed under zoning, not including public rights-of-way) of 50 dwelling units per acre, although the current use in most areas would continue to be substantially less than that. Most future Seattle light rail station areas already have sufficient zoning in place to meet this threshold.

For example, the current land use density of Southeast Seattle may be four units per acre. However, even in a typical single-family zone the allowed net density is actually 17 units per acre (8.5 single-family homes + 8.5 detached accessory dwelling units). Multi-family low and mid-rise zones in Southeast Seattle can accommodate 100-300 units per acre. The many L-4 zones in the Hope VI developments can accommodate 72 units per acre (109 units, if lowincome). These developments are already zoned at much higher densities than that called for in the TOC bill.

Second, the TOC bill addresses average density, and would not require changes to single-family zones. Local communities should decide what shape density should take. An entire station area zoned at L-3 (allowing 54 units per acre in three-story structures) would meet the threshold. However, if a community wanted to preserve lower-density zones at the periphery of a station area, the threshold could be met by off-setting the low density zones with higher density zones closer to the core—such as do the many NC-65 sites that can accommodate over 200 units per acre adjacent to the future Mount Baker and Othello stations.

What will the TOC bill do? Because the Seattle station areas strive to be livable and walkable, without the park-and-rides found in other cities, it is imperative that land use, housing and transportation policies allow more people the opportunity to live and work in communities in which they will not need to rely on a car to access homes, jobs, and services. We therefore chose the 50 unit threshold because it is the tipping point at which more trips are taken by walking or transit than by car. The half-mile radius was selected because it is the distance up to which most people are willing to walk to access high-capacity transit.

Therefore a 502-acre station area (approximately 376 net acres) would accommodate 18,800 units. Full build-out would take 50-100 years, at which point the Seattle region is expected to grow by several million additional residents. Because buildings built today may be on the ground for at least 50-100 years, our land use policy must think equally long-term. For example, the Capitol Hill and Northgate station areas have already been zoned for decades at densities many times higher than those called for in the TOC bill. Although it will be many more decades before those communities are built-out, it is important that the zoning considers long-term projections.

…WLIHA is in the process of adding a housing element that will address many of the suggestions laid out in the article, including ways of creating a net increase of housing affordable to low and moderate income in these areas and require that units remain affordable well into the future.

57 Responses to “The Messiah And The Wide-eyed Naive Enviros”

  1. John

    Fox doesn’t understand the metrics – fine. He doesn’t seem to argue against density per se and his observation about the tree canopy is a footnote. If you look at his recommendations, he is concerned with preserving low-income housing options in the station areas. Do you actually have a problem with any of his recommendations?

    Your pro-density argument is fine, I get it, but the central question for Fox I think is whether this legislation will price current (and future) low-income people out of Seattle. Your point would be better made if you and Futurwise/WLIHA engaged him on the issue of gentrification. Your agenda is admirable, but whether you like it or not, TOD enthusiasts will need to honestly address the concerns of others with admirable agendas. Otherwise expect a thumb in the eye.

  2. jcdk

    The draft of the bill I’ve seen doesn’t distinguish between net or not. It says: “The minimum density for these transit oriented development areas must be fifty dwelling units per acre.”

    Last night I was at the SENDC in Mt Baker and was surprised to find that folks there weren’t as much against upzoning as they were against eminent domain, the state mandating upzoning, and Futurewise.

    One woman spoke of her and her neighbours’ desire to upzone their properties located near the Mt Baker station. And from what I see, even heavily criticized SFH Beacon Hill is upzoned, there just simply isn’t the development interest yet.

    My question: Why have the state require upzoning when areas around Light Rail stations are on the upzone already? What exactly will this bill be useful for, if its effect on the RV and Northgate will only be minor?

  3. Ben Schiendelman

    Oh boy. Jcdk, I’ve responded to you over on Seattle Transit Blog, and that should cover everything but your comment about ‘net or not’.

    Also, before I get to that, its effect is NOT about upzoning. Its effect is about preventing low density development from being built in the first wave around light rail stations. Most of these station areas are already zoned just fine.

    But on ‘net or not’ – this is really simple. When this is in practice, when you’re trying to develop a parcel, that’s where the requirement comes into play. An individual developer can’t be told “Well, you’re in single family surroundings, and that street is really wide, so you’re going to have to build a thousand foot tall building to make the average 50 units.” The developer is held to 50 units for their development.

  4. Ben Schiendelman

    John, I don’t see how a zoning change has anything to do with low income housing. I don’t think Fox has any understanding of how low income housing is provided – is he suggesting that old buildings that just happen to be cheap right now are ‘low income’?

    If so, then this is exactly the bill he wants. Land values are going to go up around light rail *no matter what*. These areas will already price out many current residents. So we have a choice – we can build low density to replace the old buildings currently there, as will happen without this bill, displacing current residents and replacing them one for one with yuppies, or we can build higher density, bringing not only those yuppies, but lots of other yuppies as well. So our difference is 10 yuppies or 50 yuppies.

    But wait! This is always where the low-income proponents screw themselves over. See, if you only build for 10 yuppies, the construction costs of the buildings are spread among only those 10 residents (or families). But if you build for 50 – the city can step in and say “We really want you to give those 10 original people places to live”, and there are still 40 yuppies left over to spread those costs out!

    When your choice is low or high density, you should ALWAYS pick high density, because it gives you more options. The state doesn’t govern low income housing anyway, this is just giving us the opportunity to have that battle locally.

  5. Dan Staley

    When I see phrasie-phrases like ’social engineering’, that’s my clue to tune out, as there’s a fringe ideological argument following (or a credulous person repeating what they are told).

  6. AJ

    Upzoning, people, does not mean you can build a taller/wider house.

  7. Ben Schiendelman

    Oh, god, I missed the ’social engineering’ crap. Yes, because those roads, you know, those don’t have any impact on your travel habits. Let’s all go back to 1650 New York, and just build stuff out of wood, with no rules or law!

  8. Dan Staley


    I’ll contakt my comrade apparatchik planners to see if we can tax and spend our way back to 1650 and remove all laws prior to Rights-of-way, per your suggestion. Because as you know we are engin….er…purposefully moving society toward a higher plane.

    First, though, let me fill out Form 1656 A (one each) in triplicate, for your signature and return to me, K. um, Ben at the Castle…er…planning office.

    But non-sequiturs aside K., I’m not sure how your reply addresses the subject of my brief comment. Surely we need low-income housing, but calling densification ’social engineering’ is merely adopting an ideology’s vapid talking point and doing nothing to address the issue.

  9. John

    Thanks Ben,

    It’s probably the second part of your scenario, where the city steps in to save the day for low income residents, that elicits suspicion. Folks in S.Seattle, where I live are as often as not skeptical that the mayor and the city will do right by them.

    I know the new incentive zoning scheme requires that units be saved out for lowish (middle, really) income people in exchange for permission to build higher, but if that doesn’t apply what’s the mechanism in your scenario for insuring that all 50 units don’t go to yuppies?

    Anyway, I appreciate your explanation. My point was that to counter Fox’s arguments, it’s necessary to talk about the same thing he’s talking about — how the legislation will or will not affect low income housing. Do you consider his recommendations misguided? They don’t seem to intrude on the TOD agenda.

  10. Matt the Engineer

    Without getting too deep into this conversation, I’d like to point out that new low-density housing built in the city will never be low-income. The land value alone precludes it.

  11. Dan Staley

    Matt, its the same everywhere. The only thing that seems to please most people is to try to provide more units, hoping the price might go down a little bit. Folks don’t seem to like the gummint subsidizing part of the cost – Oakland CA comes immediately to mind…

  12. Tony

    On trees:

    This is a bit of a tangent, but you mentioned the tree issue in your post and it has come up before.

    There is something to be said about urban trees specifically. Dan seems to assume that a tree is a tree. With that assumption, cutting down 10 trees in Seattle in order to save 100 trees in rural King County is a good trade.

    In reality, many ecological and all of the aesthetic benefits of trees are local, not global. Losing 10 trees in the city is a loss for the city, even if it saves 100 trees somewhere else. It makes the CITY less green and more gray. The environment that people see and experience every day has been damaged in order to preserve a part of the environment that most people will never see.

    This value of LOCAL trees is what is driving some of the anti-density advocates.

    Now, if we were to concentrate all the growth in Seattle into a few urban villages and preserve and expand (yes expand) single family zones, we would save trees in the city. A few nodes of towers surrounded by SF will have more trees than if we covered the entire city with townhouses.

    The tree issue is really an analogy for the entire growth management issue. The citizens of seattle (most of them) have no interest in sacrificing their local quality of life for the good of preserving land they will never see. The only way in city growth works is if it is seen as a benefit TO THE CITY, not as a sacrifice the city makes for the county.

    Growth CAN be a good thing. It can enhance LOCAL quality of life, but ONLY if it is planned and designed well. We have to get past blindly pro-growth and blindly anti-growth and focus on how we create good growth, because it doesn’t happen on its own.

  13. Hey Wait

    Fox is mostly an idiot. He is homeless housing advocate so focused on homeless housing that he forgets that there are a lot of work-force people that need housing as well.

    Unfortunately, non-profits and individuals that like to complain about growth (all those tiny “social-justice” non-profits you’ve never heard of, and people like Knute Berger and Irene Wall***) love to hold him up as their “affordable housing guy.”

    Meanwhile, the affordable housing community that actually gets stuff done (those non-profits that are the members of Housing Development Consortium, that write the housing levy and actually build affordable housing) steer clear from Fox and his bullshit when lobbying the City Council.

    ***RE: Irene Wall, here’s the money quote:

    Irene Wall, chairwoman of the Neighborhood Council’s Neighborhood Planning Committee, said adding density is unpopular in the Greenwood-Phinney area, where she lives.

    “We’re just not suited for it,” she said. “We have a lot of small lots.”

    The city should focus first on making development in multifamily zones look better, Wall said. Reacting to wide distaste for recently erected townhouses, officials recently have proposed changes to multifamily design rules.

    The city also needs to have a wider discussion about where the growth ends, Wall said. “What this city needs to do and allow its citizens to do is have a really thorough discussion about how big we really want to be when we grow up.”

    Every few years, officials come up with new growth projections, she noted. “That turns out to be just kind of this rolling total. There never seems to be a point at which we say: ‘Hey, we’re full.’ “

    This is what we’re up against!

  14. Tony

    “Affordable single-family is a non-sequitur.”

    Dan, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head right there. You know it; we all know it, but I believe that there is a large contingent here in Seattle that remembers and laments the passing of a bygone era in which single-family housing was affordable. So many people believe that if we just somehow find a way to screw developers enough that SF housing will become affordable once again.

    There is one, and only one, way that SF housing will be affordable: Destroy our economy. Been to Detroit lately? Housing is very “affordable” there. Unless we make Seattle a miserable place that no one wants to live, there is no way to make SF housing affordable in the city. Until this point is understood, we will never be able to move forward.

  15. joshuadf

    Please note that trees are being lost in single-family areas without any zoning changes! The lots are so valuable that larger homes (or townhouses where allowed) are replacing small houses… and the trees in the yard. I’m sure it’s slowed down with the economy, but it will continue as long as structures are worth less than the lot. I’ve said elsewhere that some neighborhoods should be made historic districts, but other than that density is the answer.

  16. Dan Staley


    Well said. Your:

    This value of LOCAL trees is what is driving some of the anti-density advocates.

    Now, if we were to concentrate all the growth in Seattle into a few urban villages and preserve and expand (yes expand) single family zones, we would save trees in the city.

    Is the work I have been presenting and writing about. We can achieve higher density and increase our canopy cover, but things have to change. I’ve been working on what those things are.

  17. Spencer

    Two quick things…Tony, layoff Detroit. Say only nice things about Detroit – jab. It’s annoying to listen to people crap on Detroit when it was my home for many years and I assume they have not ever set a single foot within city limits (which I am doing here). Second, with the way density likes to be developed (5 wood framed levels over one concrete) I hardly see the argument over saving trees as sustainable in either argument’s case.

    John Fox is a great advocate for low-income people. I wish more people had his initiative and motivation for people less fortunate than all of us posting here. That said, he does, like all of, skew facts and figures to make his argument more appealing. But, even Futurewise/WLIHA are double talking numbers in plain sight.
    “Multi-family low and mid-rise zones in Southeast Seattle can accommodate 100-300 units per acre. The many L-4 zones…can accommodate 72 units per acre.”
    L4 is the most dense low-rise zone in Seattle and they say it’s at 72 units per acre which isn’t even as high as their low-end density figure (100) they use just one sentence in front of it. And, I’m sure we all know there are three other low-rise zones with less density per acre they care to not mention too.

    Next, Futurewise/WLIHA are also bending the accessory dwelling unit (ADU) density numbers as well, “even in a typical single-family zone the allowed net density is actually 17 units per acre (8.5 single-family homes + 8.5 detached accessory dwelling units).” If only the case in SE Seattle were that every lot was over 4000sf and every single family lot could accommodate for an addition 800sf of lot coverage. Then and only then would their statement be true. That ever Single Family zoned lot in the SE is 4000sf and over is just not the case.

    So, both are skewing numbers blatantly and we are only holding one’s feet to the fire, why?

    I can’t disagree with the need for increased density. It’s evolution. It’s Darwinism. It seems just, so right. But, it’s necessary for Seattle to become a second rate city (like Detroit – jab). I do have to agree with John Fox that we need to replace every low-income housing unit lost, but we also need to plan for more low income units in the mean time. I think we all have felt the impact our economy is having on us, friends and family. People will not be getting richer in the coming years and as many of you have stated above, property values are not decreasing enough to house our “working (middle)class” or our low-income families. In fact I bet we see more people fall below that 80% median income level very, very soon.

    In my eyes, John has the right target in mind. We need more low-income housing, not more market rate and not more work force level housing and we need to replace that lost housing where it currently exists.
    Most of the low-income housing lost to development has been moved to locations further away from Seattle’s core. If you ride the bus then you already know all routes lead to downtown before you can get elsewhere. This means that our working poor have to travel longer to get to their low paying jobs (and many have to go to a second or third job in yet another part of the city). The train will only shorten that time by half for two legs of a multi-leg journey.

    Also, if we create more inexpensive housing targeted below the 80-100 median income level it means we will have a surplus of that housing that can be rented/sold to people living at the “work force” level giving them a chance to get a leg up to a more refined type of housing.

  18. Ben Schiendelman

    Dan, I think we miscommunicated there, I was laughing at Fox’s social engineering comments. :)

    I don’t at all advocate going back to 1650! I’m just saying that’s what it’d take to get rid of any claim of such.

  19. Ben Schiendelman

    Oh, by the way, I love tiered low-income housing, but it’s not and never will be the job of the state to provide it – nor do we want it to be, because then it’ll be a set of blanket requirements that wouldn’t fit the needs of Seattle versus the needs of Spokane. It’s well outside the scope of this bill, regardless, it shouldn’t even be coming up – it’s totally unrelated to how much we build.

  20. Dan Staley

    The general conclusion is the price is typically the best measure of the carbon footprint. If it’s cheaper it uses less fossil fuel.

    Apologies, Ben. I had my browser’s “irony” button turned off. ;o)

    Spencer, I was born blocks from Cooley High (we fled for weeks in ‘67), grew up catching frogs and salamanders in Warren, religiously watched Aurelio Rodriguez vacuum everything and miss sitting in the upper deck at Olympia. IMHO Detroit is a great example and case study of how not to react to social changes. Graft, bribery, corruption, continued upholding of social stratification and lack of economic diversity is nothing to laud.

  21. Dan Staley

    BTW, Dan’l is echoing the series of voices decrying the ineffectual actions of the environmental movement (I call it the ‘fuzzy bunny’ movement) – some readers here had to read Schellenberger & Nordhaus’ The Death of Environmentalism, but IMO a more cogent look at the background behind Dan’l’s post title may be found here:

    The Idols of Environmentalism
    by Curtis White
    Published in the March/April 2007 issue of Orion magazine

    ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION proceeds apace in spite of all the warnings, the good science, the 501(c)3 organizations with their memberships in the millions, the poll results, and the martyrs perched high in the branches of sequoias or shot dead in the Amazon. This is so not because of a power, a strength out there that we must resist. It is because we are weak and fearful. Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide.

  22. tres_arboles

    Dan B’s being generous to Fox. If that guy had any idea of what he was doing, he’d be piggy-backing on the efforts of the authentically well-intentioned Futurewise, on behalf of his consituency.

  23. Bill Bradburd

    The concern over the Futurewise bill is multi-faceted. Local communities throughout Seattle have voiced concern over the bill because of the blanket density dictates of the bill. My understanding is that most TOD thinking is not a fixed density, but one that varies based on the area (urban vs suburban, etc). See for example, “The New Transit Town” by Dittmar and Ohland.

    A key point being discussed is this taht this is not isolated to light rail stations. Many lower density communities along a bus rapid transit or trolley line would also be eligible.

    The concern that John Fox has expressed is about the displacement of poorer people that would occur. While related, they are two separate issues.

    As many of us in my neighborhood in the Central District have seen, our property taxes are rising. This is because the County taxes at ‘highest and best use’. Since much of the neighborhood is zoned multifamily, we are being taxed at a rate that assumes multiple residencies on our lots even if we have a single house.

    If the area is rezoned by the City – for example in preparation for the Link II station at Rainier/I-90 – near my house, as it is planning to do for McClellan and other stops, this bill would require TOD density zoning over the neighborhood. Either in the average 50 units be acre (L-3 for example) or in a ‘wedding cake’ model suggested by LIHA very high densities closer to the stops). This would then allow the County to increase these people’s property taxes – perhaps forcing people to leave (Fox’s displacement issue). There may also be waves of speculative buying as parcels are amassed.

    Futurewise says this could be a 50-100 years. Is there any doubt that proximity to downtown or Bellevue (with Link II)that my neighborhood will be developed more rapidly developed? What about other points along our future trolley or BRT lines.

    We all want public transit and we all want to stop sprawl and carbon emissions. The current legislation is not the way to do it. It is too much a ‘one-stop-shopping solution’. Unfortunately it could also be a ‘meat-clever’ to our community when what should be used is a ‘scalpel’.

  24. jcdk

    I find Bradburd’s comment intriguing and would like to hear a response. Density variations appear to be healthy in a neighborhood – take Rainier Vista’s Elderhealth building (pictured above) as an example. Behind is a neighbourhood that averages 16 units per acre. The densities of the properties in Rainier Vista vary greatly – isn’t that better than a blanket 50 units/acre?

  25. ugh.

    i agree with bradburd’s intent, or at least of what i understand from it (what works in one neighborhood might not be appropriate in another). but it doesn’t seem relevant since this is talking about average densities. it’d be relevant if this was saying let’s blanket these areas with 50/acre (or perhaps more to the point, to hell with single family zoning). but that’s not what appears to be happening here. if a neighborhood wants to keep its single family zoning, it can, it just needs to allow slightly higher zoning somewhere else. and if they’re right that you can get 50 at three stories, that doesn’t exactly feel like the world is coming to an end. nor any neighborhood.

    or really, since this looks like it’s just says these areas have to allow this density, rather than require it, there’s nothing stopping only single family houses to continued to be built in these areas. wait, is that right?

  26. Bill Bradburd

    A 1/2 mile radius around a station is about 480 gross acres. Let’s assume 25% loss for streets and 25% loss for open space (HA!), and another 25% commercial uses, etc, so net buildable acres is 240. (pardon all my well rounded maths). That would yield 12,000 units of housing for that station.

    I hope those trains go somewheres with jobs. Right now they go to the airport and the mall.

  27. joshuadf

    The requirement is simply 50 units/acre average net density in .5mi radius. It does not change the “density variation” in existing zoning.

    Yeah, I sure wish the light rail went to a major employment center like downtown or UW. What a waste!

  28. Bill Bradburd

    And Bellevue, and (almost) First Hill.

    The problem is that’s a lot of white collar jobs being served. We need more spur lines, trolley, etc to reach other economic sectors. Not everyone works at WAMU. Doh!

    And are those well-paid white-collar jobs really going to move to a dense 5-over-1 condo and give up that waterfront property?

    Part of the problem is that all this Light Rail investment WE are making today is providing for future residents. Many of us would like to see inclusionary zoning and impact fees brought into our toolkit.

  29. J.R.

    Hey Spencer:

    You made some interesting statements, including this one:

    “We need more low-income housing, not more market rate and not more work force level housing and we need to replace that lost housing where it currently exists.”

    But, it would help if you would explain who you are referring to when you use the term “we.” The government, through the housing levy and other subsidies to non-profit developers, is doing about as much as it can to create new affordable housing. Your average citizen has to pay for their own mortgage and doesn’t want to raise taxes to add to government’s limited housing funds. Washington law doesn’t allow the government to force developers to replace affordable housing that is torn down for development. So who, exactly, is “we?”

  30. joshuadf

    Bradburd, I’m not sure I follow you. Don’t people of all income levels work all over the city? I’d love to see a better transportation web.

    I’d agree that the Light Rail investment is for the future, but it’s covered by sales tax so near-future residents (and tourists, and anyone else who buys things in the Sound Transit District) are paying right along with us. The Seattle condo market is doing surprisingly well according to the December 2008 MLS report. I’d like to consider a downtown condo or new apartment, but it’s out of my middle class price range. I guess those white-collar workers like ‘em, though.

  31. Spencer

    When I use the word “we” I mean it as everyone (you, me, the government), in general.

    Further along in my post I said that I feel considering our current economic situation our affordability structure will not follow the same path that we are currently seeing. That is, people in Seattle will not be getting richer, but poorer. More people who we fit into the “working class” will be falling out of the 80-100% median income. In my opinion, good foresight will put resources and development strategies toward building lower than 80-100% median income residential buildings. With our current change in economy the vision to build more 80-100% residential buildings is outdated and reactive to past housing information.

    You are absolutely right that WA state law does not force developers to build low-income housing. It could be said that developers would do it create future clients out of the lower income home owners.

    I am not sure how personal property taxes directly corresponds to low-income housing and I am not sure that if we build more low-income housing property taxes will increase. Even if taxes increase, why shouldn’t we be more responsible for taking care of each other? After all, we are on this planet to take care of (both the planet and) our each other. Social Darwinism is a dinosaur of a philosophy. It will take everyone making changes to redirect our culture and humanity to “safer ground.”

    I guess I have a question for you. Are you concerned about helping someone else out who you think is lazy, unmotivated and unwilling to help them self?

  32. J.R.

    Nope. I’d probably vote for your “Housing For All” ballot issue. I’m just pointing out that every local government’s general fund money is already spoken for (and then some) to pay for functions like police, fire, roads and libraries. And, as Tim Eyman is ever-busy nipping at this pot of money, the sort of massive government-sponsored housing build-up you advocate would have to be paid for with new money, through some sort of voter-approved tax increase. Sales tax or property tax?

  33. serial catowner

    Bradburd is making a few basic mistakes. The first is to assume he’s being taxed on what might happen (highest and best use), when in fact he’s being taxed on what did happen (comparable value). And if this weren’t the case, we’d be back in the bad old Joe Diamond days, when Diamond demolished thousands of units of low-income housing because he paid almost no taxes on the parking lots he built where the housing once stood.

    Secondly, it is exactly future riders and future residents who will pay for the transit systems. The transit is funded with bonds that get paid off over time. Most of the costs of building and running the systems will be paid by people who aren’t here yet.

    As for the low-income housing, there are really only two kinds of low-income housing. The first kind is the free-enterprise kind, where you find a place that is cheap compared with the general prices, because it is old, poorly maintained, far from amenities, or has an owner who simply doesn’t raise rents. It’s not realistic to think this will go on forever. Sooner or later the property will be sold, or the neighborhood will become more valuable, or something, and the housing won’t be cheap anymore.

    And, having been a landlord renting out housing for less than it cost me to provide it, I can tell you the quickest way to get rid of low-income housing is to start imposing rules on the landlord who is already losing money.

    The second kind of low-income housing is of a public nature, either government or foundation, with tenants paying a part of the costs of the housing, the rest funded by non-profit corporation or government, and the tenants assured of tenancy as long as they fulfill their part of the agreement.

    In general, the best way to keep most of the neighborhoods stable and underdeveloped is to supply massive amounts of housing in a few (i.e., highrise) neighborhoods. Expanding the supply of the housing reduces the price- this is not rocket science. Reducing the price that can be charged takes pressure off neighborhoods where the developer would have to tear down a perfectly good single family home to build condos or rentals. Again, not rocket science.

    John Fox is simply the Tim Eyman of the Seattle land-use discussion.

  34. Sabina Pade

    Serial Catowner indirectly makes what is perhaps the strongest of all arguments in favour of subsidised housing : given that the less materially fortunate among us will certainly live somewhere, it is in our collective interest that this somewhere be a convenient, adequately policed and physically attractive place. Slums, be they urban or suburban, and highway viaduct tent cities are a lose-lose situation.

    Not everyone has the altruism gene; it’s unrealistic to expect that all people behave as if they did. But Seattle’s density NIMBYs might see their own belly buttons rather differently if they were to first take a closer look at what happens when urban agglomerations thumb their nose at the working class.

  35. spencer

    “given that the less materially fortunate among us will certainly live somewhere, it is in our collective interest that this somewhere be a convenient, adequately policed and physically attractive place”

    If you have followed John Fox’s career, this is exactly what he is fighting for. Far too often the public housing developments have not followed through on replacing low-income housing on the same site one-to-one. Much of their replacement housing relocates our city’s poor to locations further away from resources and jobs. The problem with Fox is that he comes across as a crack-pot and looks just as homeless as the people he advocates for. It is unfortunate that we still attribute knowledge and skill to physical appearance. Also, as I stated above, Fox also skews his facts and figures to make his point more compelling but I would bet anyone of us would do to make our argument more solid too (which I then pointed to inaccuracies in figures stated by the Futurewise/WLIH response).

    Though our Tent-cities are a stepping stone to slums we are fortunate enough to have a great safety net for our city’s poor and homeless. In my first hand experience with Tent-cities I believe they empower people to improve their living conditions and reenter society in a productive manner. We have to remember we are working with people who have experienced the harshest conditions that our cities can impose on a human. They are beaten down to a place where man can no longer define as crisply as you and I the differences between right and wrong. Tent-city allows for a transition out from a harsh world to one that gives promise and hope. It is hard for me to begin to think Tent-city is a lose-lose situation when I think in these terms. Maybe you have another point of view?

  36. Sara @ Futurewise

    What a great discussion! Sorry I am chiming in so late. I’ve attached below the language pertaining to station areas as it will appear in the introduced legislation. As you will see, “Station area” is fairly narrowly defined to be light rail, commuter rail, and certain BRT stations. Street car stops are not included.
    We have worked closely with the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance to include strong affordability provisions to address the very concerns raised by John Fox and many on this discussion thread.
    We have also prepared an FAQ on station area impacts that I would be happy to send to anyone interested. Just drop me an email at

    New required section in the GMA related to transit-oriented development

    NEW SECTION. Sec. 9. A new section is added to chapter 36.70A RCW to read as follows:

    (1) Except as provided in subsections (6) and (7) of this section, comprehensive plans and development regulations adopted under this chapter must authorize transit oriented development within one-half mile of a major transit station. The allowed net density for these transit oriented development areas must average fifty dwelling units per acre. The adopted plans and regulations also must:

    (a) Include standards for streets, sidewalks, and buildings that encourage walking and bicycling, and a process to ensure that these standards are met;

    (b) Prioritize safe walking and bicycling connections to proximate major transit stations and transit centers;

    (c) Provide for a net gain in housing units that are affordable to low and moderate-income households;

    (d) Require one-for-one replacement of demolished or converted housing units that are affordable to the income level of the displaced residents. The replacement units are in addition to other affordable units required by this section. This subsection (d) applies if the following are demolished or converted: (i) Rental housing units that are affordable to households earning sixty percent or less of the adjusted county median income; and (ii) ownership housing that is affordable to households earning eighty percent of the adjusted county median income;

    (e) Require that all new housing or mixed-use developments provide housing that is affordable to the income groups in (f) of this subsection and receive density bonuses equal to the number of housing units produced under this subsection (e), or provide for master planned zoning that identifies locations and incentives sufficient to provide housing that is affordable to the income groups in (f) of this subsection. The housing units required by this subsection must be constructed within one-half mile of a major transit station and most be comparable to the associated market rate development. Affordable units required by this subsection (e) must be affordable for a minimum of fifty years, but counties and cities should consider employing tools to permanently maintain affordability;

    (f) Require that: (i) Twenty five percent of rental units be affordable to people earning less than eighty percent of the adjusted median county income, with ten percent of the rental units being affordable to people earning less than sixty percent of the adjusted median county income; and (ii) Twenty five percent of ownership units be affordable to people earning less than one hundred twenty percent of the adjusted median county income, with ten percent of the ownership units being affordable to people earning less than one hundred percent of the adjusted median county income. Affordable units required by this subsection (f) must be affordable for a minimum of fifty years, but counties and cities should consider employing tools to permanently maintain affordability;

    (g) Authorize the waiving of minimum parking space requirements for any land use; and

    (h) Require developers to provide the following to renters earning less than eighty percent of the adjusted median income who will be displaced by development: (i) No fewer than ninety days notice of an order to vacate the affected premises; and (ii) relocation assistance in an amount determined by the applicable county or city. Relocation assistance provided under this subsection (ii) may not exceed an amount equaling three months rent for an affected tenant.

    (2) A major transit station includes any of the following within an urban growth area:

    (a) Stations on a high capacity transportation service approved by the voters and funded or expanded under chapter 81.104 RCW. For purposes of this subsection (2), streetcars are not considered a high capacity transportation service;

    (b) Commuter rail stations;

    (c) Stops on rail or fixed guideway systems, including transitways, but excluding stops in a streetcar system; and

    (d) Stations on bus rapid transit routes that operate on designated rights-of-way for sixty five percent or more of a route.

    (3) For purposes of this section, “transit oriented development” has the same meaning as defined in RCW 36.70A.108.

    (4) Density determinations made in accordance with this section must be calculated by dividing the number of allowed dwelling units by the net acreage of the applicable area.

    (5) Counties and cities must report the number of affordable housing units created in accordance with subsection (1) of this section to the department and the appropriate committees of the legislature by January 1, 2015. Subsequent reports to the department and the legislature must be completed according to the schedule established in RCW 36.70A.130(4).

    (6) Nothing in this section modifies or otherwise affects planning or regulatory requirements for airports.

    (7) This section does not apply to lands: (a) Designated for industrial or manufacturing uses in comprehensive plans or zoning regulations; or (b) upon which stadiums that seat twenty five thousand or more persons are located.

  37. Sabina Pade

    Somewhat tardily, to Spencer : no, I haven’t followed John Fox’s career, and I intend no slight to his person or his efforts. Too, there’s no doubt that, faced with the choice of a park bench in the rain or a warm dry tent, the latter is preferable.

    Just, that this is a choice an advanced society shouldn’t ever oblige its members to make. Everyone should have access to decent housing. Full stop.

    Providing decent housing, in populous urban agglomerations, and particularly when it is intended for people without the means to pay for it at market rates, is most efficiently done by building to high densities – densities higher than those presently found in Seattle.

  38. Spencer

    I think this is the part of the Land-use Code John Fox has trouble with. (Thank you Sara for posting the code language)

    “(d) Require one-for-one replacement of demolished or converted housing units that are affordable to the income level of the displaced residents. The replacement units are in addition to other affordable units required by this section. This subsection (d) applies if the following are demolished or converted: (i) Rental housing units that are affordable to households earning sixty percent or less of the adjusted county median income;”

    It’s ambiguous about where the one-to-one replacement will happen. Fox is responding to the historic record of Seattle’s replacement of low-income housing.

    I also drove past the Mt. Baker Station the other day. Seeing all the established and national chain businesses makes think that the development we think will occur there likely won’t happen for sometime. I also think the High School is within that 1/2 mile of the station too and not likely to be redeveloped any time soon.


  39. Spencer

    Me too. When faced with a choice between one housing level to a lesser most people can easily make that choice. There are some who, however, can not. It is for those people that we need to create transitional housing means that will help them transgress from living in the danger of the streets.

    Although I am in agreement about building in high density we still need to review our current housing stock and not neglect it as well. While we still have an enormous number of Single Family zoning (not likely to change any time soon) with below average housing sucking our natural resources dry we should, ALSO, focus on making those housing units better and more efficient. That, combined with improving education and a healthy balance of wealth and power, our population should come under control making growth and density more likely to happen.

  40. dan bertolet

    Spencer, re: your comment @17: Equating Futurewise’s calculation error with John Fox’s massive distortions is ludicrous. Fixing Futurewise’s error might change the answer by a few percent, but the overall picture is the same: the bill would require very little change from the current zoning. Meanwhile Fox uses massively bogus numbers to support massively incorrect conclusions as a strategy to create fear and garner support for his positions. For example, check his website:

    In the chart he claims to correct Futurewise’s calcs by using the buildable lands figures, but that metric is irrelevant — the bill makes it very clear that it is based on current zoning. He was corrected on this in a public meeting about a week ago, but it’s still up on his web site.

    Further down the page he shows a photo of a NYC high-rise neighborhood and quotes a density number that is the wrong metric — gross density rather than net density. That development has a deceivingly low gross density because it has tons of open space between the towers. In previous docs he acknowledged that the Futurewise bill refers to net, not gross density, but he’s still putting up scary images with incorrect data.

    The reason John Fox is ignored is not because of what he looks like. It’s because he has a habit destroying his own credibility. And like I said, that’s too bad because Seattle needs effective affordable housing advocates.

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