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"What price growth...?"
Copyright 1998 The Seattle Times Company

Editorials & Opinion : Friday, May 15, 1998

Modest, measured steps toward a housing plan

by David Brewster
Special to The Seattle Times

MAYOR Paul Schell's sudden, bold plans for a new City Hall were a lark. His Housing Action Agenda, just released, is a long slog. One was a quick, big cure, nixed by the City Council. Housing is complex, filled with political land mines, central to the mayor's agenda. It requires sustained, creative, habit-busting pressure from the top.

Schell's plan emerged after a hectic four months of brainstorming, talking to all the parties, a raucous summit, and a realistic pruning of the wilder growths. It seems very prudent, as if Schell has learned some lessons from his earlier approach of gleefully turning over apple carts.

"Nothing happens quickly," observes Denna Cline, a special assistant to the mayor working on housing, sounding the new note of patience.

"All the big ideas take money," comments Joel Horn, another key architect of the housing plan. "And there is no money."

Others involved in the process say that the chastened, incremental, almost Clinton-like approach in Schell's plan reflects the post-Commons, post-Pine Street Garage, post-Stadiums mood in Seattle politics. "Big ideas become big targets," says one scarred veteran of the Commons. "Our confidence in large projects is gone."

What we get, in this cloudy climate, is a smorgasbord of not-too- threatening first steps, some of which might take off and make a real difference. Call it ellipsis politics, as in the proposal to have a competition for designing better small houses, followed by a show of the results and a published catalog, and then . . . The three dots leave unstated the desired follow-on strategy, which could be the spread of these small houses, at lower prices and pre-approved permits, throughout the city. But don't say that, for fear Charlie Chong revives his attack ads about relegating young people to tiny houses.

Under-the-radar politics makes sense since housing is the third rail of Seattle politics, which you touch at your peril. Norm Rice's plans for urban villages, putting apartments where transit planning dictated, blew up his administration. Accordingly, Schell suggests some zoning flexibility, relaxed parking requirements and detached accessory units just in those neighborhoods that say they want growth. The hope is that some of the successful innovations in those pilot neighborhoods (University District, Central Area, Capitol Hill/First Hill/Pike-Pine, Delridge and Rainier Valley) will then lead to emulation in growth-wary neighborhoods.

This will take a long time, during which resistance, rather than comfort levels, may build up. Such an approach is also an abdication of comprehensive planning, since transit lines might dictate one area for taking new growth and affordable homes while neighborhood veto-groups will suggest another distribution.

Beacon Hill, for instance, is a natural area for growth: close- in, great views, lower land costs, lots of smallish homes for starter-buyers. But it presumably declined the honor of being a pilot neighborhood, so many of the experiments will take place in desirable, already costly neighborhoods like Capitol Hill.

The most logical way to deal with the housing crunch is to concentrate on the have-less neighborhoods, where prices are low and sustained public investment in sidewalks and parks could attract the developers.Yet, these neglected, government-fearing neighborhoods dread apartments, rising tax assessments, gentrification and the loss of Seattle's small-city, Winnebago-in-every-side-yard lifestyle. So we build new housing in expensive neighborhoods and wonder why no one can afford it.

A case can be made for more density - more kids to play with in the neighborhood, better shops nearby, better transit, urban pluralism to stimulate - but it seemed to come wrapped in ugly concrete apartments in Ballard when we last tried it. This time, the Schellies are banking on better design, tailored to different neighborhoods, and with an emphasis on getting more people in existing buildings (such as converting an attic or a garage) than building new and tall. "Grow with grace," as the mayor said in the campaign.

One unmentionable factor in housing prices is that the main culprit is likely Boeing, whose surges of new workers come too quickly for the building industry to anticipate. Maybe it's time to explore a trigger device during rapid growth, whereby booming companies put money into the housing market, to stimulate supply.

One idea is a mortgage pool that becomes a limited partner for strapped first-home buyers. The homeowner pays nothing down and zero- interest for 20 years; the limited partner fronts the money and gets 50 percent of the appreciated value of the home upon sale.

All the while, the city gives lip service to solutions, such as mother-in- law apartments, and then strangles these token gestures in red tape. Seattle used to build all sorts of smaller homes and row houses, back when it was a blue-collar town. These days, such solutions are legal but virtually impossible to get through the bureaucracy.

The dirty little secret keeps peeping out between the lines of "Seattle Housing Action Agenda: Options to Consider." Through layers of well-intended regulations, through enshrined Nimbyism as the official city religion, through entrenched lobbies for low-income housing that drive up prices, and through years of aversion to apartments, Seattle has become a city that conspires in every imaginable way to drive up housing prices. Sorry about that.

We tried a top-down imposition of growth through Rice's exploded urban villages plan. Now, if the Schell administration will hold to its course and if the current neighborhood-plans process turns out to have educated lots of neighbors to better approaches, we're going to try a seemingly modest but cumulatively comprehensive set of pragmatic adjustments. It's probably the only route that might work, however slight and slow it will be.

David Brewster can be reached at DavidBrew@AOL.com

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