New housing: We know we need it, but where?

Many of us hate density as much as we hate sprawl 

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

No matter where or how you live, housing is an issue.

Some argue that housing is a “human right.” I must admit that with all my years of study, I don’t have a clue what that might actually mean.

I’m guessing that it means that safe, reliable and durable shelter is a basic human requirement. The term “right” to  me, just seems to confuse the issue.

Would we all agree that stable and affordable housing is essential to individual and community health?

I believe so.

Does that make it a “right”? I’m not sure.

If adequate housing is a “right,” is eating a “right”?

I am not convinced that language like this moves us toward a solution that we all know that we need.

You don’t have to be an urban design professional to notice that neighborhoods in any given area have a completely different “vibe”.  (1*)

Here are some general observations I have made over many years of wandering streets and alleys of Tacoma (and many other cities around the world). I want to emphasize that these are generalizations and, of course, human variabilities and economic necessities and opportunities kick in and create exceptions.

The construction of "infill" housing affects every part of town. Modifications of setbacks and height variances are changing the texture of our neighborhoods.  Photo: Morf Morford
The construction of “infill” housing affects every part of town. Modifications of setbacks and height variances are changing the texture of our neighborhoods. Photo: Morf Morford

In general, the wealthier a neighborhood is, the larger the homes are, the wider the space between those homes and the quieter it is.

The poorer a neighborhood, the more likely it is to be cramped, cluttered and loud.

In the wealthier neighborhoods, it looks as if someone vacuums the parking strips (if they exist) and sweeps the streets every evening. Cars, if visible, (most  are kept in garages) are late model and clean.

In a “nice” neighborhood, you will almost never see someone working on their car (even washing it) in the street.

Poor neighborhoods are distinguished by their litter and noise level.

Cars, many times in a state of disrepair, are prominently displayed.

Dogs barking, children screaming and adults yelling (even arguing sometimes) are the ambient hallmarks of a poor neighborhood.

The “best” neighborhoods are hushed, cared for spaces where everything – from dogs to children to shrubbery – seems curated and cultivated.

In poor neighborhoods, everything from children or pets to landscaping seems out of control and a step or two from total chaos.

There are whole categories of shops and services one sees in some neighborhoods – and not others.

Wealthy neighborhoods usually feature a high level of specialty shops. You want a fresh, artisan baguette or croissant? Don’t go to a poor neighborhood.

You need a pawn shop, dollar store or a marijuana store? Don’t bother looking in an upscale neighborhood.

Rents may be lower in a “poor” neighborhood, but the cost of living may not be.

“Food deserts” (where basic grocery stores are not within easy walking – or even driving – distance) will only be found in lower income areas.

Upper income areas have large, well-stocked grocery stores every few blocks.

Oddly enough, besides more choice and convenience, better neighborhoods usually offer better prices on basics like fuel and groceries.

I mention all this to frame the three core essentials of real estate;

1. Location

2. Location

3. Location

In previous eras, housing was always available and affordable – if you weren’t too picky.

The term “affordable housing” is relatively recent.

It used to be a social assumption that every individual, and certainly every family, needed, and maybe even deserved, a home.

Shelter was a necessity, not a luxury, it was something for everyone. Some were obviously nicer than others, but a generation or so ago, there was not a major difference between a wealthy neighborhood and a middle class neighborhood, or between a middle class area and a poorer area.

Now we see McMansions within sight of  homeless camps.

Truly “affordable” housing is certainly still available – it just happens to be many miles from where most people would prefer to live.

Isolated and rural areas offer astounding real estate deals – if you can afford to get there – or support yourself independently.

In other words, if you have a reliable car (or two) and have a well-paying job in some distant urban center, you can “afford” to live in “affordable housing.”

Or you could live in “affordable housing” in an area you don’t like, don’t feel safe in, won’t stay long in and won’t take care of.

Not many of us will live in the home of our dreams, but not being able to afford shelter at all should never be one of our options.

As we get older, or our career hits a glitch, homelessness should not be yet another potential trauma on our horizon.

As with every social problem, there is no single cause for our multi-dimensional housing dilemmas – and no single solution.

ADUs and DADUs (attached and detached accessory dwelling units also known as backyard cottages or mother-in-law apartments) are part of the solution.

Accessory Dwelling Units are an infill housing option intended to increase the variety of housing options in existing residential neighborhoods consistent with their scale and character.

About fifty ADU permits have been approved in the past ten years across Tacoma.

Too put it mildly, some people love them and some people hate them.

Whether we welcome them or believe that they are destroying our neighborhood, the reality is that they are literally life savers for elderly or disabled family members. The vast majority of ADUs and DADUs are used this way.

I know people who oppose ADUs, and I understand, and might even agree with many, if not most of their concerns, but my sense is that homelessness is a far greater – and a far more immediate – threat to our communities in every way, from crime to disease, if not overall decline of community health. I can live with the inconveniences, if not nuisances, of a slightly more congested neighborhood.

Washington state is third in the nation in terms of the number of homeless individuals (homelessness is up 80% since 2006). Seattle has more homeless people than New York state.

Many states and cities have reconsidered their fairly restrictive codes and zoning laws regarding ADUs. Washington is one of the most ambitious in changing state and city regulations.   (2*)

For those who hate them, ADUs seem to be everywhere, but only a few have been built in Tacoma and only 2% of property in Seattle qualifies for an ADU.

If you have some concerns about how ADUs or DADUs will impact your neighborhood, written comments can be sent to The City Council is scheduled to conduct a first reading of adopting ordinance on March 5 and final reading on March 19, 2019.


(1*)   “Vibe” is not standard urban design jargon. Yet.

(2*)   You can see more on this here –

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