December 5, 2022

This is an open thread.
A few things worth noting about Montreal. First — and this is objective — it is a very beautiful city. I’ve visited many times, and found it especially attractive. Second, with this much density, lots of people take transit. Prior to the pandemic, roughly 2.3 million people a day rode transit, with about a third of that on the Metro. Third, it is relatively affordable. So much so that it is an example of affordability for housing advocates. For all those reasons, I believe it is a model for Seattle, and hope that we evolve to be more like Montreal.
Just came back from Montreal on a short visit, I agree with Ross’s observation, a really beautiful city. It was so nice to take the metro and buses to various destinations, using a 3-day pass (CAD 21.25) for both modes. Unusual rubber tires on trains, I thought they would be quieter but are actually quite noisy in the tunnels, I can’t recall enough of my experience in Paris metro, tunnels from a long-ago vacation, to compare the noise levels, but Tokyo’s rail lines didn’t strike me as being as loud.
Other comparisons: I still prefer Pike Place to their public markets. More people ride bikes there. Food was great and a bargain with the current exchange rate. Staying downtown near Old Montreal is the way to go, and probably more welcoming than Seattle’s downtown. I’ll leave out my Chinatown experience for another reply in this thread.
The noise level of different transit systems varies so strikingly. Tokyo’s trains are, indeed, quiet compared to most other cities. I’ve noticed that in the US, systems that are aimed at the middle class (such as suburban trains) are much quieter than systems aimed at the poor (such as urban buses).
I though BART was the loudest metro I’ve ever experienced. That may be based on what you expect. You expect the New York Subway to rattle and shake, but man, BART was loud.
I think BART’s noise is well known as one of the most awful-sounding train systems in the world – because they didn’t camber the wheels.
https://www.bart.gov/news/articles/2018/news20180606
It seems like they’ve largely gotten around to fixing that on a lot of the trains, though.
BART is especially loud in the Transbay Tube under the bay. I assume there’s too much echoing.
BART also messed up and accepted a bid on new doors a few decades ago that did not meet sound insulation specifications. They kept the problem very quiet. BART accepted the doors because they were desperate to replace the existing ones that were constantly failing.
It’s situations like this why any rail transit operator needs to have an experienced rail operations manager. It’s much harder to actually run a system rather than to dream on up and draw pretty pictures and talk in grandiose terms.
Interesting article about home price to income ratios. A Timeline of Affordability: How Have Home Prices and Household Incomes Changed Since 1960? … they say a healthy price-to-income ration is 2.6. (It would take 2.6 years of median household income to purchase the median home). About a quarter of the way down the page they list price-to-income ratios by city in 2019, most affordable to most expensive. Seattle’s ratio is (or was), 5.69. San Jose’s is 9.69. But, cities in the rust belt, like Toledo and Scranton, , are in the most affordable camp, at 2.14 and 2.15. Montreal’s ratio (which I found on another website, is 8.65)
https://listwithclever.com/research/home-price-v-income-historical-study/
Recent reports show housing prices are declining by around 3% month over month, which for a $1 million house/condo is around $30,000, despite housing starts declining significantly. Rents are also declining, or increasing at a much slower rate, although rents are a lagging indicator due to lease terms, and because the high mortgage rates prevent renters from buying thus placing strain on the rental market. Meanwhile number of sales has jumped.
When you look at the three main methods of zoning you can see what influences “affordability”, although almost none of the new construction will be less than 100% AMI and will likely require a two income household.
1. Minimum lot sizes. Although population growth began on the eastside in earnest around 1970, many areas were already platted and were used as summer houses. This led to large lot minimums and smaller summer houses (like what my family moved to in 1970). This was the basic model for the eastside even as population continued to grow because of the size: Renton to
Bothell to North Bend. Many of these areas were farms or vacant land before development. The price of land depends on location, schools, public safety, and location, but as Ross notes has become more expensive, especially on the eastside.
2. House size to lot area ratios (regulatory limits). Many of the folks moving to the eastside moved there because they had families. As I noted yesterday, even today MI has an average household of 3.1 persons, even including the multi-family zones. As someone who has raised two kids it is pretty hard to do that in under 3000 sf. Many of the summer homes were smaller than that, and over the years have been remodeled or more recently replaced, and most cities have worked hard to prevent the McMansion. But a smaller house on a big lot does not increase the number of dwelling units or housing, although a bigger house with more bedrooms allows more people to live on that lot (including kids, something urbanists don’t quite understand). Ross is correct that the marginal price on construction declines per sf say from 2000 to 4000 sf (and remember most eastside cities require 2-3 stall covered garages which most buyers demand) which is why building a DADU is usually not economical, but the cost per sf of construction has soared along with the price of land. New codes (the international building code adopted in Feb. 2021), sprinklers, green mandates, efficiency mandates, etc. has significantly increased the cost of construction per sf.
3. Use. The big differences between “stacked housing” (which is just multi-family housing) and row houses are not nomenclature but: 1. regulatory limits, because multi-family housing usually needs additional height and lower yard setbacks and has a higher GFAR than a row house, and is more economical to build with very large lots; and 2. common ownership. One of the big factors in the affordability of condos is the HOA fees. Not too long ago I posted an article about a new development in SODO that could not sell its affordable set aside units because the HOA fee was over $1000/mo. Recent regulations re: inspection for older condos after the collapse in Florida has increased HOA fees for older condos too.
From what I have seen from the GMPC hearings eastside cities will be able to meet their GMPC future housing growth targets without amending their zoning (even a city like Bellevue that has I believe a 35,000 growth target) despite population estimates I think are too high, because there is so much land on the eastside already zoned for housing but still vacant, unlike Seattle, large commercial zones to allow housing, and these cities will continue to segregate uses pretty strictly except in the commercial zones in which housing is now allowed. Row houses are more attractive and more desirable than say a condo or apartment but also more expensive.
I agree with Ross that Montreal is a pretty city. It too segregates uses pretty strictly. What Montreal has from its history of converting industrial buildings to housing is a smallish (2-4 stories) middle housing market (with yards) that places like Seattle do not have, with pretty historical architecture, not the shlock you see in Seattle.
The way to create that kind of middle housing is not to upzone SFH zones even if politically possible because the lots are too small, but to micro zone parts of the UGA and multi-family zones for this middle housing. The two biggest hurdles for this are it represents a downzone for multi-family property owners which is never popular once upzoned, and the row or town houses would be quite expensive, especially if near good retail like U Village.
MI has fought over “row or town houses” for some time. Property owners in the commercial or multi-family zone don’t want to build them because it is a downzone unless very very high end ($4 million if new), and the SFH zones are adamantly opposed. Studies show that even with higher GFAR than allowed for a SFH (and some believe these row houses should have a lower GFAR and be quite small), a 1000 sf row house on a 2000 sf lot (which is 10% more GFAR than in the SFH zone) would: A. be very expensive especially if new, well over $1 million; B. risky for a builder because there is a small market for an expensive small house on MI. MI actually has a code provision to allow such a subdivision, but to date developers avoid it because they make more on a full sized, full lot house, and it requires a dedicated public green space, and the city has basically run out of subdivisions more than two lots.
What the GMPC has learned that some on this blog miss is increasing the housing supply by replacing older more affordable housing with new more expensive housing exacerbates the affordability issue. Seattle for example will place a levy on November’s ballot. The GMPC wants to require that its housing targets break down along AMI bands, like 0% to 30%, 30% to 50%, and so on, but if fact any kind of mandate backfires: eastside cities that want fewer housing growth targets will require half the new housing units be 0% to 30% AMI which no one will ever apply to build so eastside cities will get the smaller housing growth they want.
The amount of housing and kind of housing does have an effect on price, but is just one factor among many. With the new mortgage and borrowing rates we will see a steep decline in new housing starts for the next five years or so, plus a decline in housing prices, although nowhere near affordable, but maybe within reach of a two income household with 100% AMI which for Seattle today is around $230,000/year combined. If you love your home and plan to live in it for many years it doesn’t matter what the value is. If you are investor maybe time to sell.
“As someone who has raised two kids it is pretty hard to do that in under 3000 sf. ”
I grew up in a two parent two kid household in an 1800 sq. ft. house, and we didn’t feel particularly cramped. The argument that you absolutely *have* to have 3000 square feet to raise two kids is incredibly elitist.
As someone who has raised two kids it is pretty hard to do that in under 3000 sf. Um, I grew up in a <1200sf house with a sister and two parents. We never felt cramped, though this was small-city WI so we had a decent yard. I know people who grew up in NYC with even less space and no yard, and they turned out fine too. Humans are remarkably adaptable, but it's really hard to adapt to the complete lack of affordable housing.
Skylar, so what you are proposing based on your upbringing is severely reducing GFAR on eastside SFH lots? So even if I own a 10,000 sf lot I can only build a 1200 sf house? Because that will create affordable housing, even though each eastside city will be able to meet its GMPC future housing growth targets within their existing zoning, both minimum lot size, use, and GFAR?
Interesting. I suppose if no house on the eastside could be larger than 1200 sf it would reduce housing prices, but I don’t see that happening. I also don’t see minimum lot sizes in the eastside SFH zones being reduced as that is a nuclear issue (some try to get around by increasing the number of legal dwelling units per lot like Seattle’s MHA), and even if they were builders would want higher GFAR so they could build just as large a house on the smaller lot, just with fewer trees and smaller yard setbacks.
I think the best way to understand how much sf a family needs is to raise a family, understanding different families have different goals. It is true many people raise families in very small residences, although that does not mean they would not like more space if they could afford it.
Like you I grew up in a pretty cramped house (five kids and two parents in around 1800 sf except for an unfinished basement although like you the area was quite rural with huge yards), but as a parent I certainly would not want to do that if I didn’t have to (and as the years went along my parents did “finish” the basement and add an addition like so many eastside summer homes).
Do I think some current homes are too large? Yes, and I have fought that on MI for many years, leading to the 2017 rewrite of the residential code that reduced GFAR, and removed some gimmicks from the code. But MI like most cities takes the approach it can’t tell you how big a house you can build, just how big your house can be compared to your lot area, although we do have a maximum house size per zone (8400, 10,000, 12,500 and 15,000 sf) to prevent people combining lots and building houses out-of-scale with adjacent houses on one lot. Still I think maximum house size for the R15 (15,000 sf residential) is 9000 sf no matter how large the lot is, which is quite a bit smaller than some HUGE houses that led to this rule.
I think the best way to understand how much sf a family needs is to raise a family
I raised a family, and I concur with those who feel like your statement is elitist and presumptuous. It is like someone who eats meat every day and can’t possibly understand how folks are vegetarian.
Ross, who cares what you think? I don’t …
[Editor’s Note: You are in violation of the comment policy. No personal attacks. If this continues, you will be banned.]
I don’t think anybody is proposing prohibiting somebody willing to pay for it from building a 3000+ square foot house to raise their kids in. Simply that a house that large should not be mandatory to be able to buy a house at all. All we’re asking for is an acknowledgement that different people have different needs and different budgets, and need different housing options to accommodate them.
I know plenty of European friends who live in apartments that are 320-500 sq ft in size and feel comfortable wirh their living conditions. Many would argue that 3000 sq ft is a lot of space for 4 people and borders on excessive when a lot of it will just sit empty for most of the day. McMansions like that only exist to show off wealth than be practical places for people to live.
“One of the big factors in the affordability of condos is the HOA fees.”
That’s one of the things that has deterred me from some condos. To me, the whole point of having a condo is someday you’ll pay it off and then you won’t have to pay the equivalent of rent every month and you won’t have to work as hard, which coincides with middle/retirement age. But if you have to pay $700 or $1000 a month on top of annual property taxes, that kind of defeats the purpose.
“A city’s legal obligation is to meet its GMPC future housing growth targets (even if probably inflated)”
Its legal obligation should be to accommodate its percent of the actual population, even if it exceeds earlier growth targets. Otherwise you’re shifting the burden to other cities who are building more housing. Or if no city builds housing for this above-target influx, then the housing shortage gets worse and prices skyrocket.
The PSRC growth targets may technically allow Mercer Island or Ballard to stop when they reach their target, even if they reach it 10 or 15 years before the anticipated time, but it shouldn’t allow it. And Mercer Island shouldn’t be able to say, “We built our target, no more,” if the actual population increase exceeds the target. That’s just beggar-thy-neighbor, nimbyism, “I’ve got mine so screw everybody else”
“Its legal obligation should be to accommodate its percent of the actual population, even if it exceeds earlier growth targets. Otherwise you’re shifting the burden to other cities who are building more housing. Or if no city builds housing for this above-target influx, then the housing shortage gets worse and prices skyrocket.
“The PSRC growth targets may technically allow Mercer Island or Ballard to stop when they reach their target, even if they reach it 10 or 15 years before the anticipated time, but it shouldn’t allow it. And Mercer Island shouldn’t be able to say, “We built our target, no more,” if the actual population increase exceeds the target. That’s just beggar-thy-neighbor, nimbyism, “I’ve got mine so screw everybody else””.
Mike, that is the entire point of the PSRC and its implementing agency the GMPC. Every 7 or 10 years the PSRC estimates future population growth, and where that growth will occur (and to come extent should occur), and then the GMPC allocates a city’s housing targets based on these assumptions. Your argument that cities should based future housing growth based on current population is exactly what the PSRC and GMPC are trying to avoid because naturally that burdens Seattle with the greatest future housing growth when Seattle will likely see some of the weakest population growth in the region over the next two decades.
The prior Vision Statement was through 2035; the most recent Vision Statement is through 2050, but is based on 2018 data. Although I think the future population growth targets are likely high based on ahistorical growth from 2010 to 2018 post pandemic — depending on whether last year’s 1%+ population loss by King Co. is an anomaly or not — the reality is these population growth figures will be reviewed in 7 to 10 years.
It makes no sense for a city to build or permit more housing than the GMPC tells it it will need. There is no point in you being moralistic about creating additional housing at market rates, which in most eastside cities is not remotely affordable. Some cities like Tacoma, Shoreline and Lynnwood may want to exceed their housing targets for the development revenue and to revitalize and gentrify their cities, but that only means other cities will have lower housing targets next time the PSRC prepares a new Vision Statement.
One factor some miss is the PSRC/GMPC also estimate and allocate job growth. The 2050 Vision Statement wanted to get away from the model in which all jobs are in downtown Seattle and housing outside Seattle, and move to a cluster model of job and housing centers to cut down on commuting. So the GMPC also allocated job growth, which is harder for a city to meet because it is hard to create jobs. For example, how does Mercer Island force businesses to move to MI with Bellevue and Seattle to the east and west?
The pandemic and WFH accelerated the PSRC’s goal to spread jobs throughout the region in a way the PSRC could not have anticipated, and much more suddenly than anticipated, although it did accomplish the goal of reducing work commuting. Unfortunately the sudden move to WFH and away from commuting to downtown Seattle has stressed transit budgets when TOD was a key element of the 2050 Vision Statement, and actually incentivized sprawl. It also reallocated tax revenue in a way not anticipated, and will likely have very severe ramifications for downtown Seattle’s commercial development which is a huge source of revenue for the city.
What the PSRC and GMPC haven’t figured out yet is how to allocate and require affordable housing throughout all the AMI bands. Ideally private industry would do it without cost to the state (who came up with this system) or county, or that cities would fund the affordable housing, but most cities are broke, their stimulus money (like MI) will all be used to balance their 2023-24 general fund budgets, and police and fire CBA’s are resetting with 9% COLA’s when the levy can only increase 1% per year.
Seattle is asking citizens to pass a levy to build affordable housing because Harrell’s proposed budget has a $194 million hole (without addressing the bridge issues) because IMO the only way you get “affordable” housing is with public subsidies. The irony of course is levies are property based and so are passed onto renters by landlords, although I don’t think a lot of renters understand that, and think levies are free money (which to some degree they are if county wide). My guess is the state progressives would like to force eastside cities to pass affordable housing levies but doubt they would pass. I doubt a county wide affordable affordable housing levy would pass either, UNLESS it relieved eastside cities of their obligation to meet the GMPC’s housing targets, which actually makes sense because to build affordable housing you begin with affordable land, and today that is not 90% of the eastside unless you count SE King Co.
Asdf2, there isn’t a single code I am aware of that requires a house be at least a certain size and no smaller. That is just the market at work. Most codes I am familiar with actually RESTRICT the maximum size a house can be by using regulatory limits to limit the house to lot area ratio.
The house I grew up in was an 1800 sf summer house on a 22,000 sf lot on lake Washington. We left a much larger and more polished brick Tudor on lower Capitol Hill for about the same cost in 1970.
A future owner could either build another 1800 sf house (the family still owns the house and property) or build a 7500 sf house in the zone, maybe bigger. My guess is somewhere in between if not built on spec, say around 6000 sf. But if the lot costs $5 million…
Of course if progressives get their wish and use state law to require the city to upzone properties within 1/2 mile of East Link —even though none of these folks will ride Link — we will be able to subdivide the property into three separate legal lots and I am retiring to Hawaii (because my house across the street will also be subdividable).
Will any of the new units be remotely affordable? I certainly hope not.
“ Of course if progressives get their wish and use state law to require the city to upzone properties within 1/2 mile of East Link… we will be able to subdivide the property into three separate legal lots and I am retiring to Hawaii.”
More housing, and you get to move to another island with impoverished people begrudgingly serving you – your favorite!
Win-win!
I believe every city regulates a minimum housing unit size. Not sure if this is covered in the zoning code or the fire/safety building code.
Small Efficiency Dwelling Units, or ‘microhousing,’ are by definition the smallest allowed dwelling unit in a city.
https://www.theurbanist.org/2017/07/13/sdci-adopted-new-rules-microhousing-large-notice-signs/
In trying to find how much the 1954/55 homes in Eastgate originally sold for, I could only find articles that reference Lake Hills and Surrey Down. Surrey Downs homes, in 1953, were selling for around $13,000. And same for Lake Hills. In 1955/56 homes where going for about $13,000.
“In 1955, Lake Hills was proposed as the largest planned community in the Pacific Northwest. As Seattle Times described it, a “self-contained city in a country atmosphere” (Boswell), integrating education, recreation, shopping, and worship with a carefully designed community of single-family homes. Homes in Lake Hills were about 1000 square feet and faced one another across streets with no curbs, lights, or sidewalks. The development project was inexpensively built on inexpensive land, and met an acute postwar need for middle income housing.”
RossB: excellent. I visited Montreal for three days in January 2003. I did not visit the highlighted areas, but did see close in areas with retail below residential. It was very walkable. The video showed two-way cycle tracks; when researching what SDOT was doing on Broadway, I found a few articles from Montreal. Other tangential comments: the Montreal metro was similar to that of Paris with rubber tires and the same green paint job. The limited access highway through the center city is buried. In Seattle, Eltana serves Montreal style bagels on Stone Way North and 12th Avenue East.
“I grew up in a two parent two kid household in an 1800 sq. ft. house, and we didn’t feel particularly cramped. The argument that you absolutely *have* to have 3000 square feet to raise two kids is incredibly elitist.”
And you probably walked five miles in the snow to get to school, and held three jobs while attending school and pulled yourself up by the bootstraps. What you don’t state is if you raised a family in an 1800 sf house.
You don’t absolutely have to have 3000 sf (and many want more). There is nothing “elitist” about wanting a bigger house to raise a family. I wish some on this blog would cut with the privileged and elitist crap like they grew up in Africa.
I grew up in an old summer home on Mercer Island that was less than 1800 sf with five kids and two parents, so your living conditions sound palatial to me, although I would not state it makes you elitist. I never had my own bedroom until my last year in HS. The strange thing is I am 63 and have never lived alone, ever, and for the last 20 years have lived in a 2400 sf house with four of us, or 600 sf/person. Finally when my son and his lacrosse friends became taller than I am we had to convert one of our three garage stalls into a playroom. Wasn’t cheap but man was the extra space wonderful.
If you have the lot area and the city has a GFAR ratio that preserves the yard setbacks and character of the neighborhood so you can’t build a McMansion build whatever you want. I am not going to tell parents how much sf they need based on my upbringing 50 years ago, or that they are “elitist” because they want a home office or great family room or bedroom for each kid or laundry room or theater or three car garage.
If you personally have not raised a family you really don’t know how much a family needs in SF.
I believe in SFH zoning. You are right 3,000 ft² is not enough to raise a family. When I was growing up, we lived in 9500 ft². This allowed for each of us to have our own playrooms, and each of our own nannies had their own private sitting room. The staff had their own areas too, including sleeping accomodations for the chef, butler, and driver. Anything less than $4,500 ft² is barbarian and uncivilized. If you’re going to live in something that’s small you might as well consider yourself a caged animal.
A Joy, you are poor. Can you tell us how you survive in a small living space?
@Tom — Well done.
I think my first time at Eltana in Stone Way was about 5 yrs ago when I took a friend to Archie Mcfee’s. He had not been to that newer location yet. They had coupons for free bagels if you spent a certain amount. That is how I ended up with a bacon wallet and Jesus action figure. Tasty bagels. We spent more on the spreads they had.
I had previously refrained from commenting on the placement of the ST3 CID station, as it is a sensitive topic with well-informed experiences and opinions on all sides. But now, having just vacationed in Montreal this past weekend (my first time), I got a chance to visit its Chinatown in the evening, and my experience strengthened my support for a more rider friendly ST3 station near Seattle’s CID stores/restaurants/services.
There was a short section (Rue de la Gauchetiere?) that was closed off to cars. It was clean (no visible dumpsters like in Seattle’s CID) and packed with people of all ages, most of whom seemed to be locals. The restaurants in this block are also packed, and actually even those on the perpendicular street which are not closed to cars, but it was definitely way more pleasant walking through the pedestrian only section. This made my wife and I think, why can’t we have this type of clean and safe street within the CID, that many people wouldn’t mind walking in the evening after dark?
It’s sad that station construction on 5th will have unavoidable impact to nearby CID businesses, but some of the opposition is based on loss of parking or car access. In the long run, though, more CID patrons will prefer pedestrian only streets where available, and they are the ones who will stop to go and shop at stores, not the car drivers who are just passing through. There is no question in my mind the way forward is to support pedestrian/bike/transit friendly business locations, and it will be self-defeating to insist that the CID oppose that trend.
I am not discounting that CID businesses will suffer more from a ST3 shallow station construction on 5th, but the best approach is to see the long-term benefit and really work with the community, constructors, stakeholders to minimize the impact to the shortest amount of time possible.
https://stdenisthompson.com/en/our-work/chinatown-arches-and-pagoda
I don’t really understand the point of “missing middle housing”. As far as I can tell, this sort of architecture made sense back when we had more primitive technology (in both transportation and construction). But now 6-story buildings are far more efficient, in terms of not only land use, but also labor and materials. Let’s not let our fear of tall buildings get in the way of cheaper housing.
Some might argue 6 story height limits are middle housing. It depends on the architecture and massing. Others would argue that if 6 story buildings “are far more efficient, in terms of not only land use, but also labor and materials” why not 12, or 24 stories? Or like downtown Bellevue 60 stories. I don’t see where height necessarily translates to more affordable housing. Often just the opposite.
The practical reality is 2-3 story middle housing like in Montreal or Brooklyn (especially if the architecture has some design and is not cookie cutter cheap like in so many areas in Seattle) in a mixed use zone tends to create a good mixed use “urban” zone, and Montreal’s zoning is mostly by accident by history. 6 stories becomes oppressive and you lose the retail, and there is no point to a mixed use zone without retail. We see this on Mercer Island: the five story mixed use buildings are not very conducive to a vibrant retail zone.
Why are Ballard and Capitol Hill vibrant neighborhoods? Who knows, but they are. Urban Planners, which is the definition of the light sciences, don’t know either. Other areas in Seattle are dead. Would a six or twelve story height limit in these neighborhoods kill that vibe? I believe it would, and believe the 14 story height limit in the CID will kill that vibe too. Not every Seattle neighborhood needs to be like downtown Bellevue. Luckily steel framed buildings with elevators and underground parking need around 22 stories to pan out, so for now the CID is still the CID although the push is on by developers to raise the height limit in the CID to … drum roll … 22 stories, so it can look just like The Spring Dist. when it is developed.
Sone believe height is the most important regulatory limit because height more than anything else determines a zone’s character, and what “use” you end up with in a mixed use zone. Start getting to tall the units tend to be high end, and even taller and commercial dominates.
Lowrise density (row houses, triplexes, etc.) can still be materially cheaper if they don’t require vertical conveyance – unless you can point me to 6 story walk-up new builds? IIRC, ADA requirements are stricter for ‘midrise’ and high-rise.
The point of emphasizing “Missing Middle” is to remember that there value in allowing housing forms that provide a transition between lower density outer neighborhoods (where less people are interested in living due to distance from goods and services), and higher-density neighborhoods (where more people are interested in living due to access to goods and services). Today, the assumption is that the middle-density housing forms that were popular and affordable in the mid-to late 20th century (bungalow courts, dingbat apartments, etc.) are now largely uneconomical to build because of regulatory limits, not economic limits; hence discussions of a “missing middle” in new construction.
For example, Sam’s hypothetical of a high-rise apartment/condo tower in an otherwise low-density neighborhood is ridiculous (and therefore not worth engaging) not because of NIMBYism, but because high-rise housing in an anotherwise low-density neighborhood would be logistically ridiculous in terms of inadequate public and private services regardless of the residents’ choice of transportation mode. A new high-rise residential tower on the periphery of Downtown makes sense because there are plenty of stores and businesses to support the needs of the residents, long-established high-density transit, and other needs, and naturally (historically), density grows outward from a core economic engine. Allowing the “missing middle” between areas of high economic activity and low economic activity allows new housing to be created without the major investment required for 6-story mixed-use apartments, but allows space for new residents, which engenders customer base for new local business, which (over time) attracts more interested residents, which then makes it economical to redevelop the middle-density housing again into updated, higher-density forms. Simple, natural growth.
The culture of a neighborhood is created by the nature of its residents, not the nature of its buildings, so when housing is allowed to gradually densify over time, the change in character of a neighborhood is similarly gradual and acceptable.
There isn’t that much difference in terms of density between 3 and 6 stories. But there is a huge difference in terms of what people will accept, and want around them. Most of Seattle is zoned for single family housing, and yet you can’t build a six story house. It can be very wide and deep, it just can’t be tall.
Building of the type that Montreal has would be a dramatic increase in density (you saw the numbers — Wow!). Yet they wouldn’t get the kind of opposition that six story buildings — of any type — gets. You are far more likely to get literal NIMBY opposition from potential political allies with a city-wide change to six-story buildings. Many, many people (who support an increase in density from a general standpoint) would object because they don’t want to live next to a big building. But homes the exact same height as what is currently allowed — but with a lot more density — is far more likely to happen.
You can build a three-story house in Seattle? I know there there are Queen Anne-style homes which have a “garret” level with one or two rooms and gabled windows, but a full three story home (other than a daylight basement)? Where does the City allow that?
The lowest density zone allows structures up to 30’ if your lot is 30’ wide, but the FAR is 0.5, meaning that if it doesn’t really make sense to build a 3-story house when you could just have a 50% wider two-story house.
You can build a three-story house in Seattle? … Where does the City allow that?
Pretty much everywhere. It is really based more on height, rather than the number of stories. But it is fairly common to see new houses that are that tall. For example, this is a new one in my neighborhood: https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/1910-NE-120th-St-98125/unit-A/home/116890. Here is one in Tangletown: https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/5847-McKinley-Pl-N-98103/home/304474. I knew someone who rented that one. The first floor is quite functional — it has a large room (that could work as a bedroom or play room) and a bathroom. The second floor has a kitchen and living room, while the third floor has bedrooms. There is even access to a rooftop deck (but I don’t think that counts). Very vertical.
Thank you. I guess that with eight foot ceilings and a pretty flat roof, one can get three floors in 30 feet.
This shows the hypocrisy of single family zoning. A 3 story 5000 SQ ft foot for just one household? Perfectly ok. Split the same building space between 5 households? Suddenly, it’s not ok anymore.
And, of course, the business of single family zoning being necessary for tree preservation is also a joke. Chopping down all the trees to build a giant mansion for one person is considered perfectly ok. While building even a simple duplex that preserves existing trees is considered not ok. Etc.
Roof can go up to 5′ above height limit, at a minimum 4:12 (1:3) slope.
http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cms/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/dpds021570.pdf
This shows the hypocrisy of single family zoning. A 3 story 5000 SQ ft foot for just one household? Perfectly ok. Split the same building space between 5 households? Suddenly, it’s not ok anymore.
Yeah, exactly. The rules are really designed to preserve a lack of density. Even aesthetic arguments are BS.
Which is not to say that folks aren’t worried about aesthetics. If you ask people why they don’t want density, the first thing they will tell you is that the don’t want a big apartment next to them.
The crazy part is that is just as possible with single family homes as with apartments: https://goo.gl/maps/xLHZPHqeHyTwnoeo9. Same with the idea that you are preserving the “look and feel” of the neighborhood. If anything, small bungalows being replaced by McMansions is a much bigger change than replacing them with townhouses or apartments (the latter being more middle-class).
That is why I think we can convince enough people to modify the zoning codes. Simply saying “More Density!” is not going to win many votes. The “all or nothing” approach has failed miserably, in many ways. But pushing for attractive, high density, low rise development (like in Montreal) could very well get widespread support. The existing rules are focused on density, but most people don’t care. If you allowed — and encouraged — converting houses to apartments, you would likely get a lot of support. Keep the house, just add density. Unfortunately, like so much of our code, it does the opposite.
We need policies that encourage density, while encouraging attractive and relatively short structures. This means getting rid of the parking requirements, along with FAR, setbacks and the like.
To add to Ross’ point, dwellings are the only land use primarily limited by number of units per lot as well as parking spaces per unit. The rest of the land uses in zoning codes are regulated by height, setback, sq feet and FAR — but don’t vary based on the number of “units”.
And units are defined by where kitchens and locked doors are located. These are things that can quietly be changed without filing permits in a house. Most cities have tons of “illegal” apartments as a result.
The solution is ultimately to regulate residential like every other land use — height, setbacks, sq feet and FAR only. The only reason that units are counted go back to the days when residents didn’t want “renters” on their block (a code term for POC back in segregation days). Of course, they would opine that “renters” are “blight” in a neighborhood to be prevented.
“To add to Ross’ point, dwellings are the only land use primarily limited by number of units per lot as well as parking spaces per unit. The rest of the land uses in zoning codes are regulated by height, setback, sq feet and FAR — but don’t vary based on the number of “units”.
“The solution is ultimately to regulate residential like every other land use — height, setbacks, sq feet and FAR only.”
Al, you miss the entire point I have tried to make over and over. If the regulatory limits in a SFH zone remain the same no matter what the “use” is it does not create more housing. Height, yard setbacks, impervious surface limits, GFAR limits, parking minimums, are what create the character of a SFH neighborhood. But with the relatively small lot sizes if the regulatory limits for a SFH stay the same you won’t create more housing by changing the “use” for the lot. The number of bedrooms actually declines because now each unit needs its own bathroom, kitchen, entry, etc.
The reality is each of the zones has all kinds of restrictions or requirements that other zones don’t have. Some require retail and onsite parking for retail. Some require green space set asides. Some require a certain percentage for affordable units, and almost all multi-family zones require a certain mix of studios, one, two and three bedroom units.
Today if you want you can rent out any number of bedrooms in a SFH. In fact the state just eliminated any restrictions on the number of unrelated people who can live in one rental house (depending on the fire code). Converting this into some kind of separate legal dwellings each with their own kitchen, bathroom and entry plus living room reduces housing on the lot, or even worse creates a shared condo style ownership which would be nightmare.
The other two big problems are either you are converting the most expensive land per sf for housing, or you are going to gentrify poor areas like south Seattle, which is a huge issue before the GMPC today. Pretty soon Seattle won’t have any POC unless they are rich.
It’s also a matter of ownership and property upkeep. Most 6-story buildings are rental housing owned by large corporations and financed as investment projects. They must have elevators and common hallways. They must also go through a long, elaborate approval process that includes heightened fire safety requirements which adds months if not years until the housing is ready for occupants.
The Montreal housing allows for easier homeowner purchases and even the ability to own 2-3 units and rent out the extra units for income. It’s also a great concept for extended families. Finally, many designs aren’t markedly out of a street’s character and fit in nicely with single family dwellings.
“It’s also a matter of ownership and property upkeep. Most 6-story buildings are rental housing owned by large corporations and financed as investment projects. They must have elevators and common hallways. They must also go through a long, elaborate approval process that includes heightened fire safety requirements which adds months if not years until the housing is ready for occupants.”
Multi-family housing rental buildings require the property owner to hold onto the property for a very long time to return their capital. A smaller builder cannot do that because they need to sell the development when completed to fund the next project, and there is tremendous risk in holding onto this kind of property as 2008 and the pandemic showed. REIT’s are the biggest builder of multi-family construction, and for many reasons including taxes and the requirement their investment pool have a certain percentage of capital invested in property they prefer rental properties, not condos. Or did.
The state tried to incentivize more condo construction because smaller builders can sell those when completed to repurpose their capital by reducing the long tail on warranties for new condo construction so they could get insurance and thus a loan, but all that did is incentivize builders to renovate or replace older already zoned multi-family buildings (rental or not) with new, much more expensive construction that actually reduced the amount of affordable multi-family housing, which basically is the only kind of affordable housing. Buy low, build, sell high.
The stock market has lost $10 trillion in capital since Jan. 2022. REIT’s have been badly hit, both commercial and housing. Interest rates and construction costs are too high, so REIT’s are scaling way back on construction, as are private SFH home builders. The recent DECLINES in property values — especially commercial and large multi-family projects — is putting tremendous strain on REIT’s and investors are bailing.
So look for way fewer housing starts of all kinds over the next five years, and with federal borrowing rates going from 1% to probably 5% this year to higher next year payments on the debt will become a heavy drag on federal spending. A local government can zone all they want but unless they are the one building the housing they can’t force builders to build when the market is bad.
Recently the new government in Great Britain announced tax cuts and energy subsidies and the currency tanked jeopardizing its vast pension system, so the government backtracked. Already calls are for the U.S. government to begin a policy of austerity because otherwise inflation will result in the bond market forcing government borrowing rates so high is it will begin to consume the discretionary budget. Same thing at the state and local level.
Over the last 10 years through quantitative easing 1, 2 and 3, followed by the Covid stimulus packages, the market was perfect for property developers of every kind. Thus we had lots of housing (and office) starts and high housing and office prices. We thought that was bad. Even worse, which 2008 proved but who remembers 2008, is when housing starts plummet but even worse housing prices begin to decline while adjustable rate mortgages reset. If you have cash — like Warren Buffett after 2008 — you probably will be able to get some great deals on housing in the next five years and owners default out.
Here’s an Eastgate starter home that was built in 1954, and probably originally listed for around $13,000. Parcel Viewer says it’s 950 sqft, 3 bed, 1 bath. It just sold in Jan 2022 for $1,275,000. I believe it was sold to a home builder. At the bottom of the Parcel Viewer Property Detail page, it says the house is going to be demolished.
https://blue.kingcounty.com/Assessor/eRealProperty/Dashboard.aspx?ParcelNbr=2203500405
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