Keeping it local

Given the excitement over the Seattle Public Library's "battle of the world-class architects," the design process for the new City Hall has been largely ignored. Unfortunately, for Mayor Paul Schell, some folks have been paying attention.

Insiders say Schell set up a fast-track, low-profile application process to cement the mayor's preference that a local architecture firm be hired for the job. Schell had also packed the original eight-person selection committee, which included his press secretary Vivian Phillips, longtime friend Tony Puma, and Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson, a former business colleague of the mayor.

At the insistence of several council members, two new people already have been added to the selection committee, and the application period for potential City Hall architects will be extended from one month to two.

Only eight firms had applied for the City Hall job (compared to 30 applicants for the library). Seven of these firms are locally based.

Every home a duplex

It seems like we only just visited, but it's time again to revisit the issue of mother-in-law apartments.

These apartments-within-a-house were only legalized by the city in 1994, but the City Council has already relaxed the regulations once (in 1997) and seems poised to do so again. The most controversial proposal is to allow the owner-occupancy requirement for homeowners with mother-in-law apartments to expire after five years. This is a good deal for the homeowner, who can then sell the unit as a legal duplex or move up to a larger home and operate the old one as a rental property.

Council member Peter Steinbrueck contends that Seattle's original ordinance was crafted to narrowly satisfy a state law requiring that all cities allow mother-in-law apartments in single-family zones. Fewer than 300 new mother-in-law units have been constructed since then. "That ordinance was crafted to restrict [mother-in-law units]—and it's been successful," says Steinbrueck.

There's some truth to his argument. But, minus the owner-occupancy requirement, a single-family home with a mother-in-law apartment is just a duplex with a fancy name.

And even this latest attack on Seattle's sacred single-family zoning isn't likely to set the housing market churning. Regulations aren't the only thing that have hindered the construction of more mother-in-law apartments. People like single-family homes (especially big ones). They also enjoy the private space a backyard provides. Many homeowners have no desire to assume the hassles of being a landlord/apartment manager. And, as an estimated 10,000 illegal mother-in-laws were built over the last four decades, a lot of the folks who wanted to build a mother-in-law apartment already have one.

Although mother-in-law units are invariably touted as a source of new "affordable housing," there's no logical reason why these units would rent for less than a standard apartment of similar size. The original mother-in-law ordinance dictated that the apartments be small (and therefore affordable), but the proposed changes would drop that requirement.

Let's face facts: Most homeowners build mother-in-law apartments for the same reason all rental housing is built—to make a buck. The rents for Seattle mother-in-law units have stayed low traditionally for self-preservation purposes: a disgruntled former tenant could close an illegal unit with a single phone call to city inspectors. Also, since the proximity of a mother-in-law renter makes them more housemate than tenant, a smart homeowner rents to family or friends (or someone recommended by family or friends), both of whom are likely to rate a sweetheart deal.

Don't forget that many folks remember the debate when the original ordinance was passed five years ago. "That was a promise the city made to residents—that the owner-occupancy requirement would never be removed," says Ravenna resident Richard Paille, who calls the proposed changes "a de facto rezoning" of the city. He adds that he sees no reason to believe the law won't be further weakened a few years down the road.

Steinbrueck thinks that people's attitudes toward density in general and mother-in-law apartments in particular have greatly changed in the past five years. But, in order to make the proposed changes, the council is going to have to break some fairly recent promises.

Six and counting

The ring is getting crowded with hats as yet another City Council candidate has emerged. The new guy is Alec Fisken, publisher of Marine Digest and Transportation News, a West Coast maritime industry publication. Fisken, the onetime publisher of the now-defunct weekly Seattle Sun, has never worked for the government, but he's no City Hall novice. He handled public-sector financing for Rainier Bank in the early 1980s (including some debt financing for Seattle City Light) and served as the city's outside financial counsel later in the decade. He's the sixth non-incumbent to officially register with city election regulators.

Just desserts

Council member Steinbrueck was the city's official representative to the recent dinner honoring the young Prince of Norway. He apparently had a good time, but broke with Steinbrueck tradition by not telling his colleagues all about it. "I won't go into all the details," he announced cryptically during the council's Monday morning gabfest.

"What did you have for dessert?" replied Nick Licata.

 
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