An Open Letter Regarding Design Review

Before most new buildings in Seattle can be constructed, their plans must first go through a process known as “Design Review”. Design Review Boards (DRBs) consist of volunteers selected by the city. These boards review building proposals and recommend changes to make building designs more aesthetically pleasing and functionally integrated into their surroundings. Sounds good, right? There are two problems: first is that there's no objective definition of good design. What may seem like a good or at least acceptable design to one person may be objectionable to another. Design review is as likely to suppress interesting designs as it is to avoid “bad” designs. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the time it takes to undergo multiple design revisions raises the cost of building housing. This applies to both for-profit and nonprofit buildings alike.

Fortunately, the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) report identified design review reform as a priority. The goal was to reduce the costs that  design review adds to the price of new housing by exempting more smaller projects from design review and creating an abbreviated  design review for medium projects while reserving the full design review process for the largest projects. Since smaller projects are more sensitive to costs and uncertainty, this makes a lot of sense. It's also the case that a small project is less likely to become a visual eyesore than a large one.

The HALA report was published in July 2015 and the Seattle City Council is just now getting around to implementing this proposal. Housing Now has written them the following letter expressing our ideas about this proposal and how it can be improved

An Open Letter To the Seattle City Council and the Mayor of Seattle


Re: Design Review Reform

From: Housing Now Seattle

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Don’t start a housing org while sleeping on couches...

...but since we did...


By Alex Broner, Founder and Director of Housing Now

It was 2015 and everything was topsy turvy. I was back in Seattle, over-educated, and under-employed.  My masters degree in urban planning was tucked in my suitcase.  I was moving from couch to couch, relying upon the goodwill of friends and family. One job interview after another fell flat. Looking outside at those sleeping on the streets, I knew I was lucky, but it didn’t feel that way.

It’s easy to give advice to any one person in poverty on how to improve their condition: go to school, learn a trade, save your money, apply to jobs, network...etc. Yet when millions of people are going through the same thing, at the same time, and have been for years, individual advice falls short.

One thing I don’t advise, if you find yourself in a similar situation, is trying to start a Housing organization. That’s what I did. 

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Housing Now website update

Housing Now has taken a major step forward in its mission to expand publicly financed housing by publishing a major update to our website and policy goals. This update is the product of over 2 years of research by our volunteers. It includes input from architects, advocates, developers, planners, and other experts. This isn't the end of the process, but it's a huge leap forward in our ability to communicate what we've learned. In the days and weeks to follow we'll be further refining the site and progressing to additional action steps to expand affordable housing!

If you have questions about the new site contact or wish to get involved, please email

What we're working on (5/18/2016)

In November of 2015 our allies on the city council introduced a measure that would have directed the city to study how to expand publicly financed housing. That measure was narrowly defeated in a 4-4 vote with one absence. Despite this, we have pressed on to conduct this research ourselves. We've been consulting with a number of housing experts and developing some ideas. In the coming months we'll be rolling out a series of editorials and action items related to these ideas. We're going to be focusing on the following areas:

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Housing Now Director Alexander Broner testifying. (Seattle Channel)

Two weeks ago, the Seattle City Council budget committee, consisting of all nine members, considered a budget request of critical importance to local housing. For the past year, Housing Now has been working with housing experts, policy experts, nonprofit leaders, and City councilmembers on identifying ways to expand publicly financed housing. What emerged out of this process was a budget resolution sponsored by Councilmember O’Brien, Sawant, and Licata.

Check out our full post over at The Urbanist.

UW Student Researchers Working with Housing Now

For the past few weeks, five student researchers from the University of Washington have been working with Housing Now Seattle to do research into affordable housing. The topics they're studying include cost analysis (land and construction), a literature review focused on the policies and politics of affordable housing in other cities, and comparison of costs between Seattle and Washington DC. Their work will contribute to the (soon to be released) Family Housing Cost Model and to various reports and written materials to be published on the Housing Now website.


Above: Five students plus Alex, Ian, and Kate at our first planning meeting.

Bellow the jump are the names and bios of the five researchers:

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Housing Now at the People's Budget Town Hall

Ian and Alex had a great time last night at the "People's Budget Town Hall" at Seattle City Hall. We collected a bunch of signatures for the petition and got to hang out with lots of great people.

Many speakers mentioned the public finance idea positively, including Council Member Sawant who announced that she was advancing legislation to move forward with it. We've been working with a number of council members on this idea and we're glad to hear that she'll be helping advance it legislatively. We'll have more to say on this in the near future!

Housing Now Team is Growing

We're please to announce two additions to the Housing Now team. Ian Lefcourte is an urban planner with a background in affordable housing. He has been assisting us with data modeling and policy analysis. Kate Brunette has a background in community organizing and has been helping get our advocacy efforts in gear. Click the link to find out more.

If you'd like to get involved, let us know over at:

Public Finance Gaining Steam

In the heat of ongoing debates over the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) recommendations, single family zoning, and rent control, it sometimes seems like there is little consensus on clear next steps for affordable housing policy. Yet one progressive solution has been gaining steam while largely flying under the radar: enhanced public financing of affordable housing.

Housing Now Seattle has been meeting for months with councilmember, candidates, advisers, and experts. There is a clear and growing consensus supporting public financing for affordable housing, yet the trend has slipped under the radar. It’s time that public finance receives the attention it deserves. We need to elevate attention to this idea so we can turn this growing consensus into more affordable housing. Read more over at The Urbanist.

Solving Affordability Requires Understanding It

One of the reasons why so many cities struggle with achieving affordability a poor understanding of what constitutes affordability. This is why Housing Now has spent so much time on the The Family Housing Cost Model (FHCM).  This cost model is an important starting point for the policy discussion in Seattle and beyond. We've been hard at work on this and hope to release a public "beta" of the model by the end of June.

The cost model itself is derived from an approach pioneered in this article by Stone, Burke, and Ralson from 2011. The "Residual Income Approach" they describe has three great advantages:

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