An organization called Historic Wallingford is proposing to have a section of my home neighborhood encompassing over 600 homes designated as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. Their request must be heard by the state committee administering the program in Washington state on October 14.
In 2021, architect Mike Eliason reviewed this proposal as it developed and, writing for The town plannerasked, “Are historic districts a new variant of covenants?”
I can’t answer for sure, but as I’ve learned more about the program since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that the historic designation process itself and its promised effect are clearly inconsistent with two values that I want my neighborhood to embrace: affordability and inclusion.
The first is one of the most pressing challenges facing the neighborhood. Still, the state agency that administers the program here (the Department of Architecture and Historic Preservation, or “DAHP”) promises “increased resale values” as a result of such a listing.
This would arguably exacerbate the most pressing challenge facing the neighborhood – one that is already costing us longtime neighbors – here is an example:
We have been tenants in Wallingford for over 10 years and have just bought our first home in Crown Hill because we couldn’t afford anything in Wallingford despite putting up over 5 offers on homes listed around 800 which have cost 1.3 million.
On this last point – inclusion – the historic designation process needs to be carried into the 21st century.
It includes provision for a yes or no vote – but exclusively from landowners. Tenants living in the neighborhood have no say. This strikes me as inappropriate for Wallingford, where the majority of households (62%) are renter-occupied. But it also strikes me as absurd that a taxpayer-funded program would make ownership a requirement for full and equal participation in 2022.
That’s why I’ve joined hundreds of other current, former, and potential neighbors and others across Seattle in signing an open letter asking that the review of the Wallingford National Historic District designation currently pending on October 14 be postponed in order to do two things: create a voluntary and inclusive voting process and align the timeline with the Seattle Global Plan Update process.
Nothing would stop Historic Wallingford from choosing to do the inclusive thing and hold a voluntary advisory vote that also treats tenants as first class citizens and then respecting the results. I also hope that the DAHP – which works with taxes paid by tenants, not just landlords – will take a proactive stance in recommending that any future applicants for historic district status do the same.
Specific to Seattle and Wallingford, Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan Update is our best opportunity to bend the curve in housing affordability, and it’s already underway. It makes sense to integrate how we choose to commemorate the past with how we choose to shape the future.
We can even see reason to believe that creating a more affordable future and celebrating the past might already work “better together”.
Through the Visions of Wallingford project, I learned the story of Kelli Refer. His was yet another tenant family in Wallingford facing the prospect of moving in order to become landlords.
Fortunately, they had friends who owned a house here who offered them the opportunity to build a garden cottage (technically called a “Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit” or “DADU” – and functionally a “Tiny House”) on their property. . It is an 800 square foot house on two floors, sharing the 4,000 square foot lot with the main house. In a win-win situation, Kelli and his family are responsible by legal agreement for their share of the land, thus reducing the burden of property tax on their friends (DADUs can also be co-owned, allowing them to be sold purely and simply.)
This is where the Global Plan update gets interesting: political choices matter. With new city rules in 2019, a backyard cottage up to 1,000 square feet can be built on any neighborhood residential lot that is 3,200 square feet or more.
A reasonable approximation for the construction cost is $350,000 ($350 per square foot). For comparison, this 1,384 square foot 1916 bungalow on a small lot (2,543 square feet) sold for $1,050,000 in April 2022.
Nothing prevents anyone from building a garden chalet that is a faithful replica of a classic bungalow. Imagine if the city added a “classic bungalow” to its set of pre-approved DADU plans. Imagine if the neighborhood organized a registry to match tenants with a budget – but not a full market price budget – to buy with landlords willing to trade in part of their yard for a fair, but below market. price, provided that the DADU is of a classic style.
We could create radically more affordable ownership opportunities by adding new examples of traditional architecture to the neighborhood. (As a benchmark, based on income, a $500,000 mortgage would be considered affordable for a few Seattle Public School teachers with typical qualifications and about five years of experience.)
By doing things the right way at the right time, I believe this community could find cumulative gains by shifting focus to affordability, demonstrating inclusivity, and sharing knowledge from the past. But there is also a price for doing things wrong.
During the process of nominating part of their neighborhood as a historic district, a group called “Friends of Ravenna-Cowen” distributed an FAQ. It included this statement: “The National Register has studies that indicate homes in a historic neighborhood sell for more than comparable homes in other neighborhoods.”
Yet rather than stopping to think about whether making homes even less affordable might be a bad idea and trying to learn how it could be avoided, and rather than going the extra mile to consider yes or no desires people with the most skin in the game tenants who hope to own it, they have gone ahead and completed the process.
We can do better.
Historic Wallingford says a ‘primary purpose’ is to ‘raise awareness of the important cultural values of Wallingford’. It predicts that “elementary, middle and high school students will benefit from a sense of identity through the identification of a common past.”
Let’s not create a “common past” in which a student from a landlord family and a student from a tenant family will learn that the parents of the former chose to value their property to the detriment of the latter without even thinking about it. When and how we choose to celebrate the neighborhood’s past also creates its future – let’s do it right in Wallingford.