If you went into the Fellowship Hall of the First Baptist Church last night seeking fellowship or edification there was little to be had. Instead it was the scene of the latest set-piece battle in the wider war between NIMBY forces and supporters of growth; this particular skirmish was between supporters and opponents of micro-housing formerly known as aPodments.
What was different about this meeting was that the crowd was more evenly balanced between the two sides. It was also an effort to give equal time to developers. What emerged, though, wasn’t much new information but the overreach of opponents of small, affordable apartments.
The complaints from neighbors were the same. Noise, criminal behavior, construction, and the size of the buildings were all trotted out as reasons why this type of housing was disastrous for neighborhoods. What continues is the strain of argument that people already living here in Seattle ought to determine the way new people moving into the city should live. This housing form is bad for families because it promotes a single lifestyle. How can families move in if this is all we build, they asked? And families is what we need here!
But the NIMBY presentation lead brilliantly by Dennis Saxman went further than that, drilling down to the individual unit. The panel showed detailed drawings of a small housing unit, pointing out that it had only one sink.
“Now when a person comes out of the bathroom and tries to wash their hands in their one sink, what happens if there is a head of lettuce in there?”
Hmmm? What happens? C’mon developers, what does that person do? They have to choose between eating at home and washing their hands. Obviously, the presenter went on, these people (living like rats as one NIMBY characterized it) don’t cook at home anyway. They couldn’t possibly. And we all know that people who don’t cook at home aren’t healthy and die sooner than everyone else.
The brilliance of Saxman and his colleagues was to take the twenty minutes handed to them by the City Council for no other reason than they are breathing opponents of this type of housing and making themselves look somewhat credible. “What’s this?” a person in the crowd might ask, “they have facts and diagrams!” They’re not just irrational opponents of change fearful of the future and of new people.
But do we want Dennis Saxman and his colleagues programing our homes? Does Mr. Saxman get to decide how many sinks I should have in my house and where they are? Why? If I am new to the city does Mr. Saxman and his friends have approve my quarters? When did we turn planning and land use over to the Harper Valley PTA?
What is disturbing about the debate so far is not just the fact that Council is considering doing something to fix something that is already working—small units are meeting an obvious demand for housing—but that opponents of change want to get into the bathroom and kitchen of new residents of Seattle. They know how you should live and where you should live and what you should pay.
These local NIMBY warlords haven’t won yet, but how much longer will Council allow this debate to continue. What’s needed is an economical way to integrate this innovative housing form into the code in a way that doesn’t increase their price. Letting NIMBYs decide where new residents of our city wash their hands isn’t welcoming to new people and it isn’t necessary. It’s also just bad policy. It’s time to shut off the NIMBY’s microphone and come up with useful ways to welcome new people into our neighborhoods.