Fitting more housing into the city

Seattle is suffering from a deep housing affordability crisis, with more and more people being priced out of living there. At the same time, it’s been deeply resistant to changes in zoning that would allow enough new housing to be built. One of the examples of this is that it has a program called “Encouraging Backyard Cottages”, and has gone through at least two rounds of legal reforms to support that, but figuring out whether one can be built on any given lot still involves going through a long checklist about the exact dimensions of the site and intricacies of zoning.

In theory, DADUs (Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, the much less appealing legal term for “backyard cottages”) allow a lot of small, affordable housing to be added to single-family zoned neighbourhoods and spread out enough to not feel like a radical change in the streetscape. In practice, the complicatedness of the process adds enough of a barrier that relatively few have been built so far. Hatchback Cottages has a plan to solve this with a set of ready-to-build designs and a package of support to help people through the process.

Even with their expertise, assessing a site under the arcane rules is a time consuming process. But computers are good at applying lots of rules and calculating all the measurements, so Hatchback contracted me to run a GIS analysis assessing every residential lot in Seattle for suitability.

A map of one city block with individual lots shaded green if they could have a DADU and red if they couldn't.  Existing building outlines and the area in which a DADU might fit are also shown.

Fortunately for us, Seattle and King County publish very comprehensive and regularly updated open data about zoning and development, so I had a lot to work with. The analysis takes into account existing building footprints, lot characteristics and potential complicating factors like steep slopes and landslide hazard areas. It will never be a complete replacement for a knowledgeable human looking at the site, but by ruling out all the sites that definitely won’t work it saves my client a lot of time. Now the experts can solely focus on sites that have a relatively good chance of working out.

Britain’s footpaths

I grew up in Britain.  I rarely feel like moving back, but there are some genuinely wonderful things about the place.  One of them is the incredibly comprehensive network of public rights of way, especially in rural areas.  The basic principle is that any path that’s been in common use, stays in common use, even if the “path” is nothing more than a customary route across the middle of a field.  Landowners are not allowed to obstruct public access on foot, and in turn walkers are supposed to respect farmland by sticking tightly to the established path, keeping dogs under control, and so on.  And because most of the British Isles have been relatively densely populated for a long time, there are customary routes all over the place.

Although there are sometimes conflicts, the system mostly works.  It’s helped along by strong social norms, and a healthy dose of fierce and nerdy advocacy.  Landowners aren’t generally obliged to do trail maintenance, so sometimes it’s done by local governments, and more often by volunteers.  Farmers do tend to maintain stiles to allow access from one field to another without letting livestock out, and in the more populated parts of the country there’s usually someone providing stream crossings.

a stile and wooden bridge on a footpath
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Housing: short vs long views

If you know contemporary Seattle, you probably know that we have a housing crisis. If you know me at all, you’ve probably heard about how I grew up in London and most of my school friends can’t afford to live anywhere in London, which terrifies me about Seattle’s future. So it should be no surprise that housing affordability is a huge issue in local politics, and one that I pay a lot of attention to. Equally unsurprising: even among people who agree that we have a problem and it’s important, there’s wide disagreement about what to do, and these disagreements often get very bitter.

Against that background it was a relief this evening when a panel discussion about the housing crisis managed not to bring out any of that vitriol, and stayed a respectful, interesting airing of differing views. At the risk of caricaturing the panelists’ views a little, I would summarise them as:

  • Hodan Hassan of Got Green, making a strong and convincing moral case against displacement and for paying particular attention to the displacement of minorities, and opposing market solutions because capitalism and land ownership are themselves the problem.
  • Zach Lubarsky of Seattle Tech 4 Housing [full disclosure: I’ve done a tiny bit of volunteer work for this org], arguing that the market has to be used in solving this problem, and the reason it hasn’t worked so far is restrictive zoning getting in the way.
  • Laura Loe, who did an outstanding job of threading the needle between these two positions, which is what I really want to talk about.

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