State Legislative Session Falls Short on Housing As Seattle Comprehensive Plan Process Ramps Up

The Urbanist's Rian Watt discusses the Washington state legislative session's housing outcomes and the Seattle Comprehensive Plan draft, which fail to adequately address the region's housing affordability crisis, and outlines opportunities for the public to influence these crucial policy decisions.

State Legislative Session Falls Short on Housing As Seattle Comprehensive Plan Process Ramps Up

Washington state lawmakers squandered the chance to make major progress on housing affordability in the latest legislative session, despite dubbing it the "Year of Housing 2.0."

Appearing on the Hacks & Wonks podcast with Crystal Fincher, Rian Watt of The Urbanist said a litany of high-priority housing bills went nowhere. "The basic answer is ... housing is way too expensive in Washington state," he said, "and the main reason it is too expensive is that we don't have enough."

Efforts to spur denser housing near transit and enact rent control fizzled. "When these bills die, they die because Democratic senators, in particular, are standing in the way of progress and are holding up concerns from the richest and the wealthiest members of our communities, as opposed to those who are really going to need this support," Watt lamented. "And that's incredibly frustrating."

One modest bright spot was a new law removing barriers to boarding house-style co-housing arrangements. But Watt said the lack of state action puts even more pressure on Seattle's Comprehensive Plan update to allow more housing growth.

The Comprehensive Plan is the city's overarching 20-year land use and transportation blueprint. Watt warned the current draft plan "is planning for housing to get more expensive. It is simply not creating enough opportunities for housing growth to keep up with the demand that is coming."

The draft plan largely maintains Seattle's "urban village" strategy of concentrating almost all multi-family housing in limited areas. Watt said that approach fuels gentrification and displacement by "forcing apartment buildings into these loud parts of our city, we reinforce the belief that what is causing those neighborhoods to be loud is the apartment buildings and not the cars and not the traffic design."

However, Watt said it's early in the roughly two-year Comprehensive Plan process, and the City Council can still modify the plan significantly. He outlined a number of amendments to "allow really great versions of housing, like stacked flats or single-stair buildings, to be built on these lots" in more residential areas, "do modest increases to the allowable growth right along transit areas," and expand multi-family housing capacity more dramatically around downtown and light rail stations.

"If this plan is adopted without changes, [Seattle becoming more unaffordable] will continue," Watt said. "I would like us to be able to get back to the city that people grew up in, to allow future generations to grow up in a city that's welcoming to everybody, and that is the incredibly beautiful place that so many of us have been drawn to for so many years."

With most of the new Seattle City Councilmembers having "made a lot of verbal commitments" to reducing housing costs, Watt said the Comprehensive Plan "is an opportunity for them to hear from constituents about what those constituents want." He directed people to resources from the Complete Communities Coalition, the city's One Seattle Plan website to submit feedback and find public meetings, and proactively reaching out to councilmembers with their priorities.

About the Guest

Rian Watt is the Executive Director of The Urbanist. He has also worked as the Strategy Lead for International Large-Scale Change at Community Solutions, a national homelessness nonprofit; as a Senior Analyst at Abt Associates, a policy research firm; and as a management consultant for Deloitte. In Seattle, he has volunteered as a Commissioner on the Seattle Planning Commission and as a direct service Meal Coordinator two nights a week for Teen Feed, a low-barrier meal program for homeless and unstably housed youth in the University District. He rents in Capitol Hill with his wife and two cats.

Find Rian Watt on Twitter/X at @rianwatt.

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review show and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes.

Today, we're going to discuss two issues that impact all of our communities and lives in our region - the legislative session and the Seattle Draft Comprehensive Plan. Joining me for this conversation is Rian Watt, the Executive Director of The Urbanist, a premier world-class publication that I also happen to be on the board of. Welcome, Rian.

[00:01:14] Rian Watt: Thank you so much for having me.

[00:01:16] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. So let's talk about the legislative session, which was billed as the Year of Housing 2.0. Did it live up to its billing?

[00:01:26] Rian Watt: No. And I think as we start to get into what happened with housing this session, it's really important to back up and talk about why we need a Year of Housing in the first place. And the basic answer to that is because housing is way too expensive in Washington state. And that affects everybody - it affects young people who are trying to rent their first apartment, it affects parents of young kids who are trying to find a place to live with growing families, it affects our elders who are trying to age in place. It affects everyone. And of course, it's also the single biggest driver of our parallel homelessness crisis. So the problem is that housing is too expensive, and the main reason it is too expensive is that we don't have enough. It used to be that when people moved to a place to work, or to go to school, or just to live here, the private market did what it always does - which is meet demand. And people would build more and more housing until it was cheap enough that they stopped. But then we put a bunch of restrictions in the way - restrictions on what people can build where. And those restrictions, in addition to creating redlined communities that lock Black and brown folks out of opportunity for generations, put an effective cap on the amount of housing growth that we have in this state. So that's where we are now - lots of people who want to live here, which is great. But not nearly enough housing to keep up with that demand - and that's making this one of the highest cost places in the country, and also with one of the worst homelessness crisis to boot.

[00:02:41] Crystal Fincher: How does the lack of housing impact homelessness and housing costs?

[00:02:48] Rian Watt: I think a lot of people understand intuitively that homelessness is related to housing, but they maybe don't understand how directly homelessness is related to housing. I think when your experience with homelessness - if you don't have direct lived experience of it yourself, or have friends or family who have experienced it - is of seeing someone outside on the streets, probably an older person, probably a male-presenting person, maybe they have some visible mental health challenges, or maybe you can see them using. And so I think it's easy to see that in your day-to-day experience and assume that a major driver of homelessness in this state and in this country is maybe mental health challenges or addiction challenges. But the fact is that for the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness, the thing that pushes them into homelessness is that housing costs are just too high. They simply cannot afford a place to live, and they've gone through all of their backup options - staying with friends and family, staying in a car, any number of options that people use to try to keep themselves off the street. So what happens when we don't build enough housing is that folks who are at the upper end of the income spectrum continue to have housing - they just pay more for it. And folks who are at the lower end of the income spectrum can't afford housing at all. And so one of two things happens - they either get pushed farther and farther away from job centers, places where they might want to work, places where their communities are for generations. This is a big driver of gentrification in our neighborhoods and displacement. Or they simply can't afford a place to be at all and they end up in a shelter or on the streets.

[00:04:14] Crystal Fincher: So moving into this past legislative session, leaders of the legislature said this is going to be the Year of Housing 2.0. What was the 1.0 and how did that tee up this session?

[00:04:26] Rian Watt: First of all, I want to give a huge amount of credit to one of our great reporters at The Urbanist, Ryan Packer, who has done a tremendous amount of reporting on the legislative session this year and last - as part of a great editorial team, including Doug Trumm and others. And I definitely recommend that you check out Ryan's reporting on this subject. Last year was a huge year for housing. There was a really broad coalition of organizations, including Futurewise - a great organization that I'm on the board of - and led by great partners in the legislature, including Representative Jessica Bateman and Senator Yasmin Trudeau, to pass just an incredible suite of bills to make housing cheaper. So there was a bill that made it way easier to build accessory dwelling units, which are the little housing units that sit to the side of an existing home. There were huge investments made in the Housing Trust Fund. There was a real estate excise tax, so basically a tax on home sales for very expensive homes, to help create opportunities for marginalized communities to buy homes. And perhaps most importantly - and if you've heard one thing about last year's legislative session, you heard this - a bill that legalized what's called "missing middle housing" in most places around the state, including Seattle. So this is the type of housing that's somewhere between a single-family home and a huge apartment building in size - so you're thinking duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes. It's a type of housing that used to be super common across North America - and in fact, across Seattle, you can see older versions of this across the city to this day. But it's really disappeared since zoning legislation took hold in the middle part of the 20th century and banned people from building anything but luxury single-family homes in most parts of the city. So this bill that passed last year required most major cities in Washington and the cities nearby to allow up to four housing units - so quadplexes - on almost all land in their cities. And this is a huge deal. It isn't saying that you have to build a quadplex or four housing units. If you want to build a single-family home on your land, you can. It's just saying that you can build up to four units on your land - and that's huge in a state and a region where we have so much pent-up demand for housing.

[00:06:17] Crystal Fincher: Now, coming into this Year of Housing 2.0, there were a lot of conversations - a lot of jubilation, really, after the great successes of the prior session on housing. But there were still some people - the shorthand for them is NIMBY, standing for Not In My BackYard - who opposed middle housing legislation, who opposed this move to make zoning more comprehensive, less restrictive. What are their reasons and how reasonable are they?

[00:06:48] Rian Watt: What a great question. I think that it's very natural to be afraid of change in your communities. I live, for example, right next to Madison here in Seattle, where for the last several years and for the next several months, we have had huge amounts of construction to build RapidRide G, which is a bus rapid transit lane. I am so excited for that bus rapid transit, and it has been such a pain in the butt to have that construction next door. It has been loud, it's been noisy, it's woken me up. It's made me take different routes as I'm trying to get around the city. It's a pain. But I understand that that is the trade-off for a couple of years for significantly improved mobility going forward. I think that when people are in the middle of their day-to-day lives, when they've maybe worked really hard to try to save up money for a down payment to live in what they view as a really desirable neighborhood, they don't want anything to get in the way of what they've worked hard to achieve. And it can be hard for them to think of what it means to the rest of the community to have so much opportunity locked up in neighborhoods that they're a part of. I think one of the central paradoxes of housing policy is that we have a system that's designed to do two opposing things at one time. On the one hand, policymakers in general are trying to bring housing costs down - because most people need to spend the largest proportion of their income on housing, and so it's good for society if we have housing costs that are lower. On the other hand, if you are a homeowner or if you view yourself as representing homeowners, your incentives run exactly in the opposite direction. You want the value of your house to go up. So we have a whole set of policy that is focused on trying to make the cost of housing go up by increasing people's home values. And then we have a whole another set of policy that is focused on getting the cost of housing to go down. This is a very difficult political problem to solve, because - I'm not a mathematician - but it's very hard to make a number go both up and down at the same time. And so this is really a trade-off where we have to choose between visions of society. The vision of society that I would really like to see and that many of our state legislators would like to see is one in which everyone can afford a home, where everyone has a safe, stable place to live. That will mean that folks who are in some of the most exclusive, highest opportunity parts of our state might be welcoming some new neighbors over the next couple of years. I think that's great, I think that's exciting - but I also understand that those people are gonna have some feelings about that.

[00:09:08] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. Lots of people who initially may have started hesitant, but wound up eventually supporting the need for additional housing, is that it's hard to age in place now. Housing costs have gotten so high that it's hard - once people retire, once they're looking at perhaps downsizing to a more accessible home - it's really challenging to do in the same areas where people are. And people with kids are having problems with kids being able to afford to live in neighborhoods and cities where they grew up, near their parents. And so it's such a major issue that so many people are focusing on - which brought so much momentum into this latest legislative session, which recently ended. What happened when it came to housing? What were the biggest takeaways?

[00:09:58] Rian Watt: The basic answer is - not a lot happened on the housing this session. There was a lot of great energy from some of the champions from previous sessions - Representative Bateman, Senator Trudeau were again leaders, Representative Julia Reed came in really strong with a really great transit-oriented development [TOD] bill. And there was also significant effort to pass Alvarado's rent stabilization bill. Unfortunately, none of those really came across the finish line. And here maybe it's helpful to think about what is the framework that these legislators who are really pro-housing are trying to fill. And that framework is a three-part one - it's we need to increase the housing supply, we need to stabilize people in their homes, and we need to subsidize housing for those at the lowest part of the income scale. So supply, stabilize, and subsidize. We made great progress last year on the supply side - there's more work to do, but there's great progress there. We even made great progress last year on the subsidize side, with those investments in the Housing Trust Fund. What we have not made significant progress on - and it's so frustrating that we still have to have this fight - is on the stabilize side.

So these two bills - both were intended to tackle one of the two pillars. So the TOD bill was there to help tackle the supply pillar. And the rent stabilization bill, of course, was to tackle the stabilization pillar. TOD, or transit-oriented development, is maybe not something that people are familiar with if they're not already wonky in this space. But the basic idea is that we should try to have a lot of people live where there is already good, frequent, reliable public transit. In other words, instead of building massive parking garages next to transit stations, if we build people's homes next to transit stations, this first mile/last mile problem that people often have with public transit - where the bus gets you nearly to where you want to go, but not all the way there - is often solved if the bus stop is literally outside of your house. And so a lot of planners talk about wanting to build these two up together - build housing opportunities next to transit and build transit near housing opportunities. And so this bill, which was really led by Representative Julia Reed, was trying to allow for more housing and more growth near transit corridors. This is a fantastic idea - I thought it was a real shame that it didn't get forward in the legislature this year.

On rent stabilization - I think this is a lot more intuitive to people - we simply cannot have a situation where a landlord can, out of the blue, decide to raise prices by 20, 30, 40%. This is eviction in another name - there is no reason that we should allow this. A couple of years ago, Oregon passed some really strong statewide rent stabilization legislation - I think for a lot of West Coast states, that's been the model. This bill had some similarities to Oregon's legislation and some differences. I think rent stabilization is one of the areas where the details really matter because the last thing you want to do is stabilize rent so that housing supply is impacted. But I think there's many ways to pass stabilization bills that keep people safely housed, protect people from really egregious landlord practices, and also don't have an impact on supply. Rent stabilization bill, which would have capped rent increases at 5% in the House version and 7% in the Senate version, ultimately died - didn't go anywhere. And it was because of opposition within the Democratic caucus. I think it can be really easy for folks to blame this lack of progress on Republicans, but Republicans don't hold the majority in either of our houses at the moment. When these bills die, they die because Democratic senators, in particular, are standing in the way of progress and are holding up concerns from the richest and the wealthiest members of our communities, as opposed to those who are really going to need this support. And that's incredibly frustrating.

[00:13:31] Crystal Fincher: So we talked about the rent stabilization bill, which had so much support - passed the House, died in the Senate. Transit-oriented development bill - again, lots of momentum, but did not make it through. Was there anything that did succeed this session?

[00:13:47] Rian Watt: I think the major bill that got through that will make a difference for supply is HB 1998, which legalizes co-living homes statewide on all lots that currently allow multifamily housing with six or more units per lot. So the background here is that up until about the 1980s, a really common type of housing for low-income Americans was basically what you might think of now as boarding houses - though that term has really fallen out of use and hopefully will not come back. But these were places with standalone bedrooms for folks - typically very small, but maybe a shared kitchen or common spaces. So if you think of all those stories of early Seattle and folks coming into town for maybe the Yukon Gold Rush or what have you - a lot of those folks who were low-income were staying in these boarding houses where they had shared communal spaces. For a variety of really good reasons leading up to the 1980s, this type of housing was phased out because a lot of those were incredibly unsafe and had really bad living conditions for those in them. Unfortunately, we had a bit of baby-out-with-the-bathwater situation because in banning those kinds of living situations, we solved the problem of them being unsafe, but we removed a huge amount of housing that was affordable to people with very low incomes. And so what this bill does is it allows us to build these kinds of co-living places in places where apartments are already available and institute safety and accountability standards to protect people living in them from harm that was coming to folks in the earlier version of this type of housing. I'm really excited about this. I think there's a lot of folks who might benefit from this - folks who are students, for example, who want to find a relatively small space. Folks who are potentially exiting homelessness but don't have a lot of behavioral or support needs - just need a safe, affordable place to live - it's a great option for them. And people who want to build really intentional communities with others around them, which I think is always really exciting. So I think there's a lot of really great stuff that will come downstream from this, and it's a great opportunity to add more housing at the lower income side of the spectrum.

[00:15:43] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. I think that's a major one. It addresses a major element of supply that's necessary, that's immediately affordable. This is not the market rate housing category, so this is supply that will be affordable out of the gate. So building upon the consequential, but certainly not comprehensive wins that lots of people were hoping for out of the end of this session, what comes next? What is the prospect for the types of changes, particularly when it comes to the stabilization element of that three-item menu that you broke down? Where do we go from here after this session to set up next session for success?

[00:16:25] Rian Watt: I think this is an area where housing policy, again, has this really weird structural feature that makes it really important that you, the people listening to this show, speak up. And that structural feature is that if you are someone who is living next door to a place that is going to be developed into a quadplex or into townhomes or what have you, and you don't like that, you have a really strong incentive to tell your legislators about it loudly. And so our state legislators are constantly, constantly, constantly getting messages from people who want to stop housing - and they all have a specific project in mind. On the other hand, if you're a person who, like me or like you, has a general but kind of diffuse interest in more housing - there's no one specific project you're organizing around - you have much less of an incentive to reach out and say, Hey, in general, I want more housing. It is therefore critically important that you do exactly that so that legislators know that there are hundreds of thousands - frankly, I think millions of us - who just want housing to be affordable in this state. And so I think there's lots of prospects - I think rent stabilization will come back in future sessions, I think a transit-oriented development bill will come back. I think there's lots of room for state action - both at the legislative and bureaucratic level, rulemaking level - to make missing middle work to really produce the housing we need. We need significant more investments in the Housing Trust Fund. All of those things will be helped by you reaching out to your legislators and asking them to support more housing - letting them know that you're voting on that basis. And I think this is particularly important for folks who live outside of Seattle in the broader Puget Sound region - because without naming names, a lot of the legislators who have been the biggest barriers to housing progress in the Senate are not from the city of Seattle, they're not from far eastern Washington. They are from our region outside of the city. So if you live in any of those places, please write to your legislators telling them you want more housing.

[00:18:11] Crystal Fincher: Great advice. I'm also wondering - part of some of the organized opposition to those bills this session, which impacted their failure in the Senate, was that of local officials appealing to legislators to resist housing. Particularly outside of the city of Seattle - and in fact, in one of Seattle's suburbs, Burien - we saw the mayor, Kevin Schilling, speaking in opposition to housing bills. Do you think it's useful for people to engage with their local elected officials around this too?

[00:18:44] Rian Watt: Absolutely. I think it's fantastic to engage with them around these issues - to explain that you want more neighbors, that you want more opportunities. Again, a feature of this space that is really odd is the people who live in the city right now who are trying to keep new neighbors out - they write to their elected officials. The people who are barred from living in that city because the apartment building didn't go up, because the townhouse didn't go up, because the co-living space didn't go up - they're not living there yet, so they don't know who to write to because they're not there yet. If you're living in a place that is having this fight around housing, write to your legislators and tell them you want more neighbors - tell them that you want a community that's affordable to everybody. I think that's absolutely right. That said, I think that when we win on housing, it will be at the state level and not city by city by city, because the nature of the fact that we have so many cities is a function of our housing market. A lot of the reason that we have so many small cities around Puget Sound is so - and this is a controversial take - these cities can function essentially as homeowners associations to keep property prices high. That is, quite literally, their function. And they're playing that function really, really well. Absolutely reach out to your local elected officials, but I would say, make sure that you reach out to your state officials, because that is the level at which I think we are going to make significant progress.

[00:20:03] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Now I want to shift to talking about Seattle's Comprehensive Plan, which is looking to incorporate, or ideally should incorporate, changes that were made last year's legislative session and absorbing more housing. What is the Comprehensive Plan and why is it so important?

[00:20:23] Rian Watt: The Comprehensive Plan is basically the fundamental planning document for any particular city. So the Comprehensive Plan we're talking about is the plan for the City of Seattle, but there are other comprehensive plans around the state for different cities and regions. And this is a process that's actually state mandated under the state's Growth Management Act. And what it does is it gives us as a community the opportunity to say - where new housing, new transportation, new businesses will go. So once every 10 years, we make these major updates to the Comprehensive Plan, and that's the cycle that we're in right now.

[00:20:54] Crystal Fincher: And this plan is pretty comprehensive - we're both actually former planning commissioners. But this is really the vision for how you want a city to grow, to evolve, to develop. It impacts everything from how people get from point A to point B in cities, has massive impact on how we progress with climate, how we mitigate pollution, and really just how our neighborhoods are shaped. So Seattle has this opportunity to deliver on many of the promises that we've heard over the last several years - to make tangible progress on our climate goals as a city, to expand our transit network, to expand mobility options beyond driving - biking, walking, making that more hospitable - and for absorbing the estimated 200,000 to 250,000 people who are projected to move here over the next decade or so. Does it look like Seattle meaningfully addressed those in this Comprehensive Plan?

[00:22:01] Rian Watt: Absolutely not - although I think it's really important to say upfront that this plan is not final yet, and there are lots of opportunities to engage, and we'll talk about some of those. I think the last point that you made there about hundreds of thousands of people coming to this region and the City over the next decade or so is really important, because I think that not enough people appreciate that as the fact that it is - people wish growth away. But the fact is that every 125-degree day in Phoenix, another family packs up the RV, packs up the van, and starts driving northwest. People are going to come to this region - it's a great place to live, it's a great place to raise a family, there's great employers here. So the question is not whether or not people will come - the question is what kind of society will greet them when they get here. And unfortunately, this Comprehensive Plan is planning for housing to get more expensive. It is simply not creating enough opportunities for housing growth to keep up with the demand that is coming. And so we are going to be in a position, unfortunately, where 10 years from now - we are going to look back on this plan as a tremendous missed opportunity to build the kind of affordable city, the kind of affordable communities, the kind of walkable communities that are full of resources for everyone that we want. And that is a tremendous shame.

[00:23:16] Crystal Fincher: So as we think about this Comprehensive Plan - as you said, very important to note, this is a draft. This was a draft submitted by Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell that will go through a public comment process that the city council will consider - and so there are lots of opportunity for engagement. And there was lots of opportunity for input in development of the plan. Unfortunately, the draft plan that was released did not reflect a lot of the input that was received - most of the input that was received - and so there are people that have major thoughts about this. We talked about housing - it does not accommodate nearly enough housing as we need. In fact, by one analysis, it only creates, I believe, 20,000 more units than if we literally did nothing - so it's just kind of the same as taking no action or not being strategic at all.

[00:24:09] Rian Watt: I think here it's worth backing up and talking about the basic structure of the plan, which emerged out of a compromise in the 1990s - and that strategy is basically to focus growth in a few specific areas. So if you've ever wondered why there are tall apartment buildings going up in the U District, there's apartment buildings going up on Capitol Hill, apartment buildings going up in Belltown and Lower Queen Anne, but there aren't any apartment buildings going up - or not nearly as many - in Magnolia and Laurelhurst, in some of the places that are most desirable in this community. It's because the Comprehensive Plan has funneled growth into just a few neighborhoods in the city, and those neighborhoods have taken the brunt of the development impacts in terms of construction noise, in terms of change. And they're also the places where people have had the least ability to stay in their homes. And so, one of the things that this plan does - to a really major degree - it doubles down on that strategy. It does do some good things - it significantly expands the boundaries of a couple of those urban villages, it adds a new sort of denser area near the future 130th Street Station in North Seattle. But in general, it continues the approach - which I think we can say confidently at this point - has failed to produce enough housing of the previous couple of generations of comprehensive plans. It does try to concentrate housing near where there is going to be transit in a couple of key areas - 130th being one of them, Ballard, which is receiving light rail perhaps in the next 15 years or so, was another of them. But it doesn't do much to increase housing supply along transit corridors, so neighborhood bus stops along the way. And that too is going to mean that our public transit system, which is key to achieving many of our climate goals as a city, is not going to be able to reach all of the people that it could with more ambitious - some might even say "Space Needle thinking."

[00:25:59] Crystal Fincher: So talking a little bit more about these areas where growth is targeted to be concentrated - some of those terms have been rebranded over time, but the approach of saying, These are specific areas that we're going to develop in - those areas being mostly near arterials in already developed areas, and still some areas in the city seeing next to no changes being off-limits and largely remaining single-family residential areas with no plans to change that. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that kind of approach?

[00:26:35] Rian Watt: I think the advantages are largely political - that's why this is the approach that has been taken. If you only concentrate growth in a few areas, you have that many fewer neighborhood groups and NIMBY groups who are coming out to meetings and shouting at you. And people can choose to opt-in to those neighborhoods to some extent. Newer folks, if you move to Capitol Hill - as my wife and I did a few years ago - you sort of know what you're getting. That's the sort of life that we wanted and lifestyle that we wanted for ourselves. So the advantages are really political. The disadvantages are that we are not building housing in all of the places where people want to live, and we're not building enough housing. We're also reinforcing people's bad instincts about what multifamily housing looks like. Because we force multifamily development into typically high-traffic, high-arterial areas, people assume that if you want to live in an apartment, you have to live in a not-quiet neighborhood, in a loud neighborhood. If you want to live in an apartment, you have to live in a neighborhood that is far away from schools. If you want to live in an apartment, you have to live in a neighborhood that is far, far away from green spaces. People want to live in Magnolia and Laurelhurst because those places are quiet, because those places have great schools, because those places are really wonderful places to raise families. Those places are not made wonderful because they have single-family homes. They're made wonderful because of those other things I mentioned. And by forcing apartment buildings into these loud parts of our city, we reinforce the belief that what is causing those neighborhoods to be loud is the apartment buildings and not the cars and not the traffic design. This is really important to me as an urbanist - if you walk around major European cities or even other North American cities that have a more forward-thinking approach to planning, you'll see that the quiet neighborhoods are the neighborhoods with large apartment buildings - they're leafy, they're beautiful, they're residential, and they can house more than enough people who want to live in that type of neighborhood.

[00:28:29] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. And not just noise, but also air pollution - particulate matter that are so consequential to people's health. We have so much more research and information than we used to 10 and 20 years ago, even, understanding the horrible, health impacts that result from this. And we've had conversations on this show and certainly at-large about - just in Seattle, the differences in life expectancy in some areas of the city versus others - and there being more than a 10-year difference in some of those areas.

[00:29:04] Rian Watt: It's shocking.

[00:29:05] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. And this is a lot of the reason why - where we basically herd people and force people who do not have, unfortunately, tremendous wealth into these areas that because of how we have developed these areas and communities have predictable and reliably negative consequences on the residents there. Is there anything in this Comprehensive Plan that mitigates that, or improves that over the next decade?

[00:29:35] Rian Watt: I wish that I had a better answer for you than - there's not a lot. There's a policy which I think is really great, which allows more corner stores throughout neighborhood residential areas - although there's a question about what kind of parking requirements are going to be included in that and whether it'll actually allow them to be practical to be built. But in general, I think this plan, again, is a plan to make Seattle more expensive for everyone. And that cannot be the case in a city that has ambitious leadership under a mayor who says that he wants to make Seattle one of the great cities in the world - which is an aspiration I completely share. We need to do more. We need to think bolder. We need to think bigger than what this plan does. And I think we have the potential to have the kind of leadership that will do that, but this plan isn't achieving it right now.

I do think that there are some opportunities to significantly improve this plan, even if you accept the premise that we want growth to go to a couple of areas. And I think there's basically three of those areas. So, one is to really work to make sure that the nitty-gritty design details of what's allowed to be built in the Neighborhood Residential zones allows really great housing to be built. I won't bore everyone with the wonky details, partially because I don't understand them myself - I'm not an architect or a planner. But something called Floor Area Ratio, which is a ratio that determines basically how high or how wide you can build on a particular lot - the standards in this proposed plan would mean that even though you could technically build four units on a lot once it's proposed, you're probably only going to be able to build four townhomes. Now, lots of great people live in townhomes, many people love townhomes. But a lot of people hate the idea of walking upstairs and downstairs 30 times a day. What we want is to allow really great versions of housing, like stacked flats or single-stair buildings, to be built on these lots. And so there's some technical tweaks to how we're doing things and complying with state law that will allow us to build great family-sized housing across a lot of the city. Second, I think that we can really try to get ahead of what I expect will be state action on transit-oriented development by doing modest increases to the allowable growth right along transit areas. I think that's something that will save the city a lot of time and expense later on - when they have to comply with state law in a couple of years once it's passed - and I think it would do a lot to bring people close to the transit that gets them around the city. And then third, if we're going to double down on this strategy of focusing growth in some areas, we need to go really big in those areas. I don't think we should build 60-story buildings all across the city, but I do think if we're going to concentrate growth like Downtown and Capitol Hill and in the University District, we need to be really, really open to a lot of density in those places if the density is going to come anywhere. And so we need to significantly increase the capacity in those neighborhoods which are correctly called in this plan - Regional Centers. So I think those three areas - I would go further myself, but looking at where the political tea leaves are and understanding the limits of what this mayor and this council are trying to do - I think those are areas that are consistent with what's been proposed and would make it significantly more likely to reduce housing costs in the city.

[00:32:38] Crystal Fincher: That makes sense. So how can people go about advocating for these things?

[00:32:44] Rian Watt: There's two places I would direct people to. One is the website of the Complete Communities Coalition. So this is a coalition of groups, including The Urbanist and including Futurewise, that are trying to make some of the points that I've been making in this conversation - trying to explain the ways in which this plan can be improved to meet the demand that's going to be coming. So that website is - and I'm sure it can go in the show notes. We have links to resources, we have explainers on what the Comprehensive Plan is, and we have a list of policy priorities that you can share with your elected officials. The other thing that I would recommend that you do is go to - again, that'll be in the show notes. It's a City of Seattle website - it lists all of the feedback opportunities, including open houses in each of the city council districts, over the next couple of weeks. Some of those will have passed, I think, by the time this episode is released, but there will be more going - and that will be the place where those opportunities will be listed. The last thing I would recommend is write to your city councilmembers. We have a very new city council. For the most part, we have a city council that ran on lowering housing costs - they've made a lot of verbal commitments to the kind of policies that we need. And I think this is an opportunity for them to hear from constituents about what those constituents want. And again, I think there's a lot of reasons that housing policy - you hear from the loudest, angriest, most anti-growth voices the most often. So if you are a listener to this podcast, I feel very confident in saying that you are one of the people that our city councilmembers need to hear from. So write to them, let them know you're a constituent, let them know that you want more housing.

[00:34:19] Crystal Fincher: Those are great suggestions - highly suggest people follow those. And as you said, it's worth noting that - I think every single one of these new councilmembers that we have on council have supported higher-density plans, or have committed to supporting higher-density plans, than we see in this draft. So that would suggest that there is ample room for improvement, for compromise moving forward, that this doesn't have to be the final end-all-be-all plan, that hopefully there's grounds and substantiation for dramatically improving this. If we don't make changes to this, if there aren't significant changes made to the plan - what does that mean for the city of Seattle?

[00:35:10] Rian Watt: I'm relatively new to the city, so I don't very often say the thing that I hear a lot, which is - Boy, this city's really changed since I've lived here. But I hear from a lot of people who've been here for decades or for generations that the city's really changed - that it's become for the wealthy, that it's become harder and harder to get by, that the soul of the city that they grew up in has turned into something a little bit more corporate. Not all of that is housing, but I think a huge portion of it is - it has become more expensive to live here. If this plan is adopted without changes, that will continue. I would like us to be able to get back to the city that people grew up in, to allow future generations to grow up in a city that's welcoming to everybody, and that is the incredibly beautiful place that so many of us have been drawn to for so many years. I think that's the stakes of this Comprehensive Plan - I think it's about the kind of community we want to build. And I think there's opportunities to let your city councilmembers and let the mayor know that that's what you want.

[00:36:05] Crystal Fincher: So we're talking about the Seattle Comprehensive Plan, and this is absolutely extremely consequential for the city of Seattle, but it's also really important to the region and the state. Why is that?

[00:36:19] Rian Watt: It's because our housing issues don't respect city borders. When people are priced out of Seattle, they move to Renton or they move to Burien. When people are priced out of Bellevue - which does happen - they move to those places too. People can move around this region and they do move around this region. And so what happens in Seattle, and what happens in Bellevue, and in Kirkland, and Redmond, and frankly even farther afield - in Everett and Tacoma and Olympia - matters for what happens everywhere else. These issues are linked because our lives are linked and our communities are linked in so many different ways. As we've mentioned earlier, the plan we've been talking the most about is the Seattle Comprehensive Plan, but there are versions of this process happening across the state and will be happening over the next couple of years. And so again, if you don't live in Seattle - if you live somewhere else in this region - find out when your community's Comprehensive Plan update process is happening. Find out how you can plug into it - there are almost certainly opportunities for engagement. And communicate to them that you see your community as part of a regional and statewide approach to solving our housing crisis.

[00:37:18] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for having this conversation with us today. Housing is so consequential - and whether it's through legislative action or in Comprehensive Plans - we all need to make our voices heard to ensure we can build the kind of communities that will accommodate us, our families, and the type of people who make communities whole and fulfilling. So absolutely appreciate you having this conversation with us, Rian, and we will continue to follow this as it goes along.

[00:37:49] Rian Watt: This was so great. Thank you so much for having me.

[00:37:51] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks, which is produced by Shannon Cheng. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on every podcast service and app - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review shows and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at and in the podcast episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.