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One Street’s Abiding Lesson: More Housing Of All Kinds For People Of All Levels Of Income

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at September 3, 2021

More than 12 years ago now I wrote blog posts for a now defunct blog at Seattle’s Daily Journal of Commerce

. SeattleScape was subtitled, “Design and Urban Development in the Emerald City.” I discovered an old post titled, “Reading the Scale,” (check out the the archived version of it on Wayback Machine). In Seattle, the discussion about housing changed from one about density and neighborhood scale — quantifiable and tangible — to a debate about the more amorphous “social justice.” My old post was about a street in Seattle that showcased how all sorts of housing could work together in a densely populated neighborhood. Taking a walk down that street today confirms at least that fact hasn’t changed.

As I’ve posted elsewhere, Seattle has had a long history of struggle with growing as a city. Some people, like the late Emmett Watson, championed the notion of “Lesser Seattle,” a sense that Seattle should stay more like Portland. Others, like the late Jim Ellis, pressed for a Seattle that would become a world city like San Francisco. In many ways, the city has always wrestled with its identity, with some wishing Amazon

would go away and others longing for more growth and density.

It used to be that “density” was the key word. Sometime in the second decade of the 21st century, the term “social justice” took precedence over everything else in this liberal, left leaning city. What does that term social justice mean? It’s hard to figure that out. Generally, it means a lot of things to a lot of people from defunding the policy department to affirmative action. Somewhere along the line the term density, the number of people per square mile or acre in a city, got swept into social justice as well. As I’ve pointed out, the notion that single-family typology is somehow racist has caught on. I’ve pointed out that is not a useful direction for the debate to have taken.

My post was about 14th Avenue East in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Neighborhood, more specifically, a quarter mile stretch of the street from Volunteer Park at the north to John Street at the south.

My post was a little bit sarcastic because what I discovered at one end of the tree lined street was series of huge houses, mansions really.

And as I walked further down the street I found apartment buildings. While these apartments are of modest scale, brick, and even somewhat historic looking, there are still multifamily housing, the kind of housing typically resisted often by single-family neighborhoods wishing to keep their neighborhood “identity.” This was a typical battle line for the housing debate more than a decade ago.

My point here was to illustrate not only that typologies can co-exist happily on the same block but that the very diversity in typology was, in fact, what gives 14th its identity. Gigantic homes with lawns and terraces work well with apartment buildings if we just let that happen.

But what about economic diversity? Aren’t all the people living on 14th wealthy white people? Sure those are apartments, but they’re probably like apartments on the upper west side of Manhattan: full of maybe not so rich white people, but still pretty well off white people. But hold on a second.

Yes, that is a high rise apartment building less than a quarter mile away from a mansion near the park. And it isn’t just any high rise; this building is owned and operated by the Seattle Housing Authority. Yes, that much reviled “concentrated poverty” of subsidized public housing.

Is this little strip of Seattle a unicorn? Hardly. Almost any city in America has abundant examples of, well, as Bill Murray put it in Ghostbusters “mass hysteria.”

Yes, dogs and cats living together. Mansions, tree lined avenues leading to a park with a mix of smaller single-family, apartments, and yes, a public housing high rise. Yes, you can put all of those typologies together, create identity, affordability, and yes, you can even have the tree lined streets. Sarcasm, see.

Has anything changed? Well, I just walked down 14th Avenue East and no, it’s just about the same except for some new multifamily housing (I think) going in next to that big house.

There they are cats and dogs, lions and lambs all happily living together as they have for many, many decades. No design review. No hysterical meetings. No social justice or inclusionary zoning just a city doing what a city does if it is allowed to. Oh, also, something else that’s new since 2009, right near the public housing, there is microhousing, small apartments (200 square feet) with no kitchens, less than a quarter mile from mansions that probably have more square feet than this entire building.

So we don’t need a war on single-family housing to create affordability. We don’t need zoning or really much planning at all. What’s needed is simply for people who need housing to meet those that produce and operate it to meet, make a deal, and get on with their lives. The lesson of 14th Avenue will still be there when the latest planning and “Urbanist” catch phrases, bromides, and buzzwords have faded from use. In a decade you’ll still be able to go there and see lots of housing of all kinds for all sorts of people of all levels of income. In other words, mass hysteria.


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