Toxins, Children and Education

Toxins, Children and Education


Children are failing to thrive and learn.   People are pointing fingers at teachers, parents, curriculum, funding, drugs and youth culture.  What if environmental toxins are contributing to children’s problems?  The National Institutes of Health confirms that “the rates of obesity, asthma, autism, and some other common childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise, with no signs of abating”[i] and has launched the National Children’s Study to discover the causes of these rising health problems, including from chemical and biologic (environmental) sources.

We are exposing children to toxins in unprecedented quantity and variety, nearly all inadequately tested. In general, large center-city environments have more toxins at greater concentrations than other locales. We are observing widespread behavioral and learning problems in children in large cities without identifying direct causation.  This happened before with lead poisoning. People blamed each other for problems we now know were caused or exacerbated by low-level lead poising – a connection not made for decades.  Given the crisis in children’s health, we can no longer afford to assume that environmental toxins are safe until proven otherwise.

This is potentially a Rachel Carson/Silent Spring moment–much is going wrong and we are often too biased or blinded to look in the logical places for causation.  With leading bio-technology, global health, and medical organizations and a progressive political environment,Seattleis uniquely positioned to monitor the relationship between environmental toxins and child development and act respond quickly to protect children as new information becomes available.


  • Organize the public, nonprofit and private sector to act aggressively in response to new information from the National Children’s Study [ii] and other sources.
  • Monitor the environment aggressively, taking advantage of technical advances to sample, test, and preserve evidence of environmental contamination.
  • Lead cities in an international effort to move societies toward green chemistry.[iii]

Lead, asbestos and DDT are probably not primary causes of the failure of children to thrive and learn today since we have limited or banned these heavy metal, mineral and chemical toxins from the environment over the last half century.  But, considering what we have learned from these diverse toxins, it is surprising that we aren’t looking carefully at toxins in the environment for causes of poor child development.  With lead, asbestos, and DDT recognition of the scale of the problem was long in coming, initial alarms came from front-line practitioners, resistance to regulation was fierce, big lies were told, denial was great, and reaction from public health authorities was very slow.  The level of exposure required for significant damage to health was much lower than originally thought and with lead, the toxin that most impacted children, problems were greater in cities and in centers of poverty.

The behavior of children is noticeably different than in previous decades and many children require drugs just to function in school.  Children are experiencing alarming increases in obesity, asthma, allergies and autism, all conditions with known environmental triggers.[iv]  The observed child development issues cross city, county, state, and national boundaries and are experienced in some degree at all income levels.  In a situation that begs epidemiological investigation, we blame teachers, parents, funding, drugs and technology to varying degrees.  What if childhood behavioral problems are exacerbated or caused by unrecognized environmental toxins[v]?

Lead has been recognized as a cause of disease and behavioral problems since ancient times.  Due to corporate resistance, theUnited Statestook seventy-five years to follow some European countries and institute controls in 1978, reducing allowable levels again 2009 by another ninety percent.  Even today, children are at great risk of lead poisoning from residual lead in paint and soil and from products imported from the developing world, where use of lead is still widespread.

Lead was controlled because of acute poisoning – meaning observable impact on intelligence, illness, permanent neurological damage, or death.  But now, over thirty years later, research has shown that in addition to illness and severe learning disabilities understood earlier, low-level lead poisoning was directly related to increased crime and violence over the period that environmental lead accumulated in the environment[vi].  Researchers led by Rick Nevin found that juvenile crime and violent behavior fell dramatically in each of nine countries after measures to control lead were imposed.  In addition, high levels of lead were found in a disproportionate number of juvenile offenders.

In theU.S., controls on lead in paint and gasoline began in 1978 but juvenile crime fell only after the last generation of infants that experienced very high levels of environmental lead grew up in the early 1990’s.  As a result, increased crime and violence was not connected to lead until decades after lead was controlled.  Instead, poverty, parents, teachers, drugs, and youth culture were blamed.  The reality is that poor children were being poisoned by lead at a higher rate due to population concentration in substandard housing near congested traffic where they experienced far higher lead exposures than children elsewhere.  A disproportionate number of people in these demographic areas were ethnic and racial minorities.

Behavioral changes from toxins often occur at far lower levels of contamination than physical reactions.  Most of the 80,000 plus man-made chemicals in our environment are not adequately tested for acute reactions or behavioral changes.  Two thousand new chemicals are being added every year.  New toxins are not introduced gradually. Manufacturers substitute new ingredients for existing ones in what amounts to large-scale field tests without monitoring the results or revealing the toxins used[vii].

Lead is not the only one of our example toxins to still cause trouble.  Most of us believe that DDT and its organochlorine relatives were long ago eliminated from use.  But Californiapermits and tracks the use of a DDT-sister chemical in aerial agricultural spraying.  Californiaalso tracks where pregnant women live.  Recently, research led by Eric Roberts compared the two data sets and found the incidence of autism among children of mothers who lived close to the sprayed areas in their first trimester was two and one-half times greater than elsewhere in California[viii].

Government has essentially been captured by irresponsible elements of the food, drug, chemical and mining industries, among others[ix].  In view of the failure of the state and federal government to force corporations to adequately test chemicals and reveal those they release into the environment, cities need to show the way again, as cities have before in the areas of clean water, sewage disposal, fighting infectious disease and making dwelling units safe.  No one can say that toxins are not creating some of the behavioral and learning problems we see in young people today – and that’s why we need serious and continuous monitoring.  At the level of city politics, there is a possibility that concern for impacted children can outweigh the interest of corporations in continuing our ignorance of environmental toxins.

We can not continue to accept children as a testing ground for new toxins.  With leading bio-technology, global health, and medical organizations,Seattleis uniquely positioned to monitor the relationship between environmental toxins and child development.  The City ofSeattleshould:

  • Organize the public, nonprofit and private sector to act aggressively in response to new information from the National Children’s Study [x] and other sources.
  • Monitor the environment aggressively, taking advantage of technical advances to sample, test, and preserve evidence of environmental contamination.
  • Lead cities in an international effort to move societies toward green chemistry.

We are experiencing a Rachel Carson/Silent Spring moment–much is going wrong and we are often too biased or blinded to look in the logical places for causation.  Traditional public health authorities resist the connection between maternal and child health and environmental toxins[xi], leading to an activist movement within the public health, medical and environmental professions[xii].

It is time to act.  Environmental policy and public health policy must converge.  Cities must bring the public health lens to every issue.  One of these issues is making sure children arrive at school healthy and prepared to learn.

# # #

[i] Growing up Healthy, p.7, the National Children’s Study (NCS), DSHS, NIH.  The NCS will follow 100,000 children from before birth to age 21.KingCounty is a study area.

[ii] Data from the National Children’s study will be made available as it is collected, increasing the opportunities for action.

[iii] Following the exampleSeattle set in organizing the Kyoto Challenge.

[iv]Growing up Healthy, p.7, the National Children’s Study (NCS), DSHS, NIH: “the rates of obesity, asthma, autism, and some other common childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise, with no signs of abating.”

[v] In research by Erika Schreder titled Earliest Exposures, the Washington Toxics Coalition found toxins in pregnant women:

[vi] Rick Nevin’s study on toddler lead exposure and crime, published 2007:

[vii] The State of Washington enacted a rule to require disclosure of certain toxins in children’s toys 2011:

[viii] Eric M. Roberts led study on Autism and DDT-related pesticide in California, published 2007:

[x] Data from the National Children’s study will be made available as it is collected, increasing the opportunities for action.

[xi] The importance of Children’s Environmental Health for the Field of Maternal and Child Health:

A Wake-Up Call:

[xii] The activist movement within the public health, medical and environmental professions is expressed locally in the Collaborative on Health and the Environment – Washington:


Bedrooms without Windows


Bedrooms without Windows

Sleeping Closets a Symptom of Public Health Failures


  • Codes applicable in the City of Seattlehave reversed one hundred years of public health, zoning and building code practice by allowing sleeping closets (bedrooms with no windows). “The codes no longer require natural light and ventilation.”[1]
  • Washington State code authority supersedes City of Seattle code authority.  The state has denied Seattle the authority to amend its code to require natural light in some low-rise residential buildings.[2]
  • State committees that review codes are dominated by industry representatives, technocrats and politicians with little or no representation from public health and medical professions that helped drive early code development.
  • Sleeping closets result in fewer windows and deeper unitsyielding apartments that are inherently less healthy for inhabitants and less safe for first responders.
  • Sleeping closets have enabled bulky apartment buildings with large flat facades so boring they helped spur a design review bureaucracy.
  • Sleeping closets and other inhabited spaces that do not utilize natural light and air are inherently incompatible with City of Seattle environmental goals.[3]
  • The diminished livability of apartment units over recent decades is in stark contrast to the dramatic improvements in the livability of apartments from roughly 1900 to 1950.
  • Sleeping closets serve no public purpose, existing only to increase developer profits.  High density and bright, naturally ventilated apartments are not incompatible.

Policy Recommendations[4]

  • Review residential buildings only for passive performance standards: heating, cooling, natural lighting and cross ventilation.
  • Rather than predicting performance of mechanical systems, reward or punish actual performance with higher or lower utility rates and/or utility taxes.
  • Require low-rise residential buildings to be habitable when energy utilities are out of service[5] to the same extent that most single family homes are habitable.

 Quietly, over several decades, building and zoning codes have reversed one hundred years of public health, zoning and building code practice by allowing bedrooms without windows. In the 19th century, such rooms were called sleeping closets. Sleeping closets helped drive reforms that swept cities in the 19th and early 20th century and led to the spacious, airy, light-filled apartments of the 1920’s to 1940’s many people find preferable to the apartments constructed today. Sleeping closets are inherently dangerous to the health of inhabitants and first-responders, then and now.  Today’s sleeping closet floor plans are similar to the tenement plans that led to sweeping changes in building and zoning codes a century ago.

The return of sleeping closets has contributed to unfortunate changes in urban form and diminished the livability and sustainability of new apartments. And sleeping closets are just one symptom that public health has taken a backseat to development and manufacturing interests in the built environment.  Other examples include:

  • High ceilings have long had an association with good health due to the greater air volume they provide. The city has effectively zoned low ceiling heights by closely matching zoning envelopes to the number of stories required to fill each envelope with a ceiling height of eight feet, a historic low for middle-class housing in the U.S.  In order to provide higher ceilings, developers have to buy more land and pass on the cost. All but the most luxurious apartments now have roughly eight foot ceiling heights.
  • The city ignores serious health issues related to the widespread use of wall-to-wall carpeting. Wall-to-wall carpeting is common, poorly maintained and infrequently replaced in low-cost rental housing and may be a contributor to health disparities between groups.[6] The carpet industry promotes the idea that carpeting contributes to green buildings when hard-surface floors are more sustainable and healthy in virtually all cases.[7]

Sleeping closets and sleeping areas result in fewer windows, deeper units and less cross-ventilation; low ceiling heights mean that the reduced light available does not penetrate far into the units; and wall-to-wall carpeting increases the possibility of dirty, unhealthy air.  Fewer windows and low ceilings mean that air volume is low and natural circulation is minimal. When measured against historic standards of natural light, air, and cross-ventilation, the quality of our housing stock is deteriorating.

The sleeping closet story begins over a century ago.  In the mid-to-late 1800’s, U.S. states and cities began mandating access to light and air in and around buildings in response to overcrowding and dark, stale, unhealthy interiors.[8] New York City and State were pioneers in the enactment of early codes due to the exceptionally crowded conditions there.[9] New York State enacted or updated Tenement House Acts in 1867, 1887 & 1901. New York City enacted the nation’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1916. The 1867 act states that every room shall have a window. Subsequent modifications removed dangerous exceptions such as small air shafts.

The current Seattlezoning code for low-rise residential buildings appears to require operable windows[10] but the building and mechanical codes provide wholesale exceptions.[11] The Seattle Residential Code and the Seattle Mechanical Code allow artificial light and mechanical ventilation to substitute for windows. Fire protection systems are allowed to substitute for proximity to an exit window or door. The state code on ventilation and indoor air quality does not even contain the word “window”.[12]  Occupancy limitations, safety detection systems, electric lighting and mechanical ventilation are used to justify the change to deeper, darker units – but are no substitute for natural light, cross ventilation and immediate access to an exit window or door from public health or sustainability perspectives. To the extent possible, apartments should be safe to inhabit and as comfortable as possible when energy utilities are out of service.[13]

The return of sleeping closets is an example of how changes in codes have degraded housing quality. For most of the twentieth century, studio apartments could have no interior walls[14], reflecting the consensus that all rooms should have access to light and air. In the early 1980’s partial walls were allowed in studio apartments to define sleeping areas, typically behind the kitchen. At first, these walls could not go to the ceiling.  Later, walls could go to the ceiling but were limited in area.[15] Now you can have a door when electric light and continuous mechanical ventilation is provided, perfecting the return of the sleeping closet.[16] Increasing the allowable enclosure around the sleeping area allowed studios to feel more-and-more like one-bedroom apartments.  Studios with sleeping areas or closets, marketed as ‘urban one-bedrooms’, are becoming more common and have replaced many one-bedroom apartments in the ‘marketing mix’.[17]

Giving artificial systems equal rank with direct natural lighting and ventilation has resulted in dramatic changes to the floor plans and appearance of residential buildings.[18]  To satisfy new codes, early-mid 20th century designers utilized courtyards and wings in larger buildings to provide natural light and air to every room. The deeper, darker apartments we see today are possible because cities first allowed bathrooms to be ventilated mechanically or from shafts, allowing them to be located in the interior of the building and, later, because sleeping areas were allowed in locations remote from windows in studio apartments.[19] These changes enabled larger floor plates.  Larger floor plates have typically meant far fewer corner apartments that tend to be bright, airy, better ventilated and much more desirable than the one-exposure, one-window units that are becoming a new low standard. As a city, we spend much time making sure each building gets natural light and air but show little concern for how much of that light and air residents experience in their own apartments.

Beyond health and livability, sleeping closets are not sustainable.  First, to be legal for occupancy, portions of sleeping closets require forced ventilation and electric light even at noon on a bright summer day. This is not a policy befitting a city striving for a small ecological footprint.  Second, buildings with sleeping closets will be obsolete when the market returns to sanity and provides apartments with more direct access to light and air.  Thus buildings with sleeping closets are the potential tenements of the future just as those with light-wells were in the past.  Those built to minimum standards in less desirable neighborhoods are likely to deteriorate quickly. Some of Seattle’s most prestigious developers are featuring sleeping closets in the marketing mix of luxury residential buildings. However, many features used to attract tenants to these buildings have the shelf life of a new car.[20]  That is, many buildings are marketed on bling, not bones.

The move away from natural light and air has had exterior aesthetic consequences too.  Since architects are no longer required to articulate buildings to capture natural light and air, mechanically ventilated apartment buildings can have flat facades on all sides.[21]  Exempting apartments from responding to the natural environment contributes to the bland, boxy buildings that drive deep public dissatisfaction with our urban landscape.  This dissatisfaction has in turn resulted in unwieldy codes, regulations and bureaucracies to remedy massing problems that do not exist when natural light and air is required for all rooms. The city would do well to focus on the experience of residents in the apartments, not just building exteriors.  High density and bright, naturally ventilated units are not incompatible.

The trend toward less desirable living spaces is in stark contrast to previous eras that brought a continuous succession of important public health improvements to residents: increased access to natural light and air, clean water, hot water, and toilets.   More recently, circuit breakers; fire sprinklers; and detectors for smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide have contributed to safety.  But for five decades of mostly unparalleled prosperity, the physical qualities of the typical Seattle apartment such as area, volume, brightness, and cross-ventilation have continuously declined.  Unfortunately, Seattle is not an outlier.  The trend away from public health principles in buildings is national.

To some extent, public health has been a victim of its own success.  From the mid-19th century through World War II, public health officials in industrialized countries had a string of incredible successes in improving the health of the inhabitants of cities through improvements to their living environments.  In addition to natural light and air, clean water, hot water, and sewers mentioned earlier, the advent of garbage removal, electricity, electric lighting, streets, sidewalks, mechanical transportation (no animal waste), and antibiotics transformed cities from dangerous unhealthy dumps to relatively benign environments.  All these earlier improvements to cities resulted from society taking relentless advantage of new knowledge to improve residents’ lives.  The false sense that any difficulty could be overcome by scientists and engineers has become a part of the problem.  For instance, persistent toxins in the urban environment have proven difficult to eliminate.

In contrast to the glory days of public health, the trend today feels more like a race to the bottom.  Improvements as basic as sidewalks and public toilets are made to seem out-of-reach for our far wealthier society.  Sleeping closets, the standardization of low ceiling height, and wall-to-wall carpeting have a negative impact on living standards from a public health perspective that is barely acknowledged. Sleeping closets negatively impact quality of life, individual health, first responder safety, and building form while conferring no short or long-term benefits to their inhabitants or to the city.  Sleeping closets exist only to increase developer profits.  The lesson for policy makers is to view the experience of the inhabitants through individual experience and the public health lens.

The city’s strategic interest is in buildings that are long-lasting; easy to renovate; pleasant to look at; wonderful and healthy to live in; utilize few energy resources in construction; use few resources in operation; and are safe for first responders. Since Seattle’s moderate climate means that it is relatively easy to achieve comfortable interior temperatures much of the year using only passive heating and cooling technologies, requiring passive heating and cooling be maximized for residential buildings will advance public health and environmental interests.  Passive performance standards for apartments might include heating, cooling, natural lighting and cross ventilation.  These standards would positively impact important measures of apartment desirability from the occupant’s perspective: the number and size of windows, distance to a window, and higher ceilings.

Reviewing passive performance only, and not reviewing the performance of heating and cooling systems, would mean getting out of the way of the private sector in building technology, potentially unleashing innovation.  The city can review systems for safety and other issues without attempting to predict system performance.  Measuring actual energy use following occupancy is far more reliable than predicting the success of complex systems and far less susceptible to manipulation.  Developments can be rewarded or punished with higher or lower utility rates and/or utility tax rates based on their actual energy use.

Over the past thirty years and more, we have obliged developers with regulatory changes that increase short-term profits by increasing the number of units on any given piece of property.  The problem is that these changes have often been at the expense of the physical and mental health of inhabitants. Long-term, most developers primarily care that the market is predictable and that approval processes are quick, transparent and fair.[22] Developers are happy to compete in the marketplace whether it requires bright well-ventilated apartments or not. But short-term, virtually most developers are servant to investors and profits.[23] Once invested in a property, developers may cut corners and push for changes to codes and enforcement that allow more housing units and less expensive construction on any given piece of property. The city needs to focus relentlessly on its long-term strategic interests and ignore the short-sighted requests of developers to make their invested properties more valuable today.  Public health, not developer profits, is the appropriate lens through which the city should make its choices.[24]

The public health lens is a powerful tool for reinvigorating progressive policy. The return of sleeping closets is indicative of trends where individual experience is lost in the in the spreadsheets of corporations. Focusing on individual experience and public health basics in policy decisions will return important and unexpected benefits to the city. Reconciling public health and environmental policies is an essential precursor to a sustainable and healthy urban environment.

# # #

[1] Maureen Traxler, Department of Planning and Development, City ofSeattle, in a 2011-11-09 memo to David Schraer (Traxler Memo).

[2] Traxler Memo. “Seattle retained an amendment requiring natural light in R occupancies but that amendment was disapproved by the State Building Code Council pursuant to RCW 19.27.060.”

[3] Ultimately, in residential uses, closed environment mechanical systems may be incompatible withSeattle’s environmental goals.

[4] These recommendations may require amending or challenging state law or the national and international codes on which state law is based.

[5] “Habitable with no delivered energy inputs” could be part of a definition of sustainable design in residential construction.

[6] Dirt, mold and small insects harbored in wall-to-wall carpeting aggravate asthma.

Seattle-King County Public Health does not mention wall-to-wall carpeting as a direct contributor to health issues on its list of “possible sources of poor indoor air quality” despite making this point elsewhere:

[8] For a description of living conditions in dense cities in the 19th century that prompted public health improvements, see the first chapters of The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 2006.

[9] New York City, Department of City Planning web site, About Zoning/History

[10] Seattle Municipal Code 22.206.130.J.1:  “Every room below the fourth story that was constructedfor, converted to or establishedfor sleeping purposes after August 10, 1972, shall have at least one (1)operable window orexterior door approved for emergency escape or rescue.”

[11] Traxler Memo. “The codes no longer require natural light and ventilation.  SRC (Seattle Residential Code) section R303 and SBC (Seattle Bldg Code) section 1205.1 allow artificial light as an alternative to natural.  SRC section 1508 and SMC (Seattle Mechanical Code) section 403.8 require mechanical ventilation and allows outdoor to be delivered to habitable spaces through ducts and other means.

[12] Washington State Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality Code (2006 Edition) effectiveJuly 1, 2007.

[13] Not an argument against beneficial technologies but to guard against the tail wagging the dog.

[14] Except around bathrooms or closets, utility rooms, and other rooms not intended to be inhabited.

[15]Seattle Residential Code R303.2: “Adjoining rooms. For the purpose of determining light requirements, any room shall be considered as a portion of an adjoining room when at least one half of the area of the common wall is open and unobstructed and provides an opening of not less than one-tenth of the floor area of the room but not less than 25 square feet.”

[16] A full history of codes and interpretations that has lead to elimination of requirements for direct access to natural light and air for residential units is not yet written. The Traxler Memo provides some answers.  This document will be updated as new information becomes available.

[17]Cultural changes have also contributed to an increased number of studios.  Prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, studios had a reputation for encouraging promiscuity due to the visible bed.

[18] Commercial floor plans have experienced even greater changes.  The issues are more varied and complex and beyond the scope of this essay.

[19] The issues created by interior bathrooms are excluded from this discussion.  Interior bathrooms do not create health and safety issues equivalent to those of interior bedrooms.

[20] The shelf life of the buildings themselves is often also in question.  Another subject entirely  . . .

[21] Historically, flat-fronted buildings often had highly articulated backs and sides – typically not the case today.

[22] Manufacturers may be another story.

[23] This is not a criticism. Developers take admirable risks to create housing and most new housing is created by local investors.  The belief is that developers always make money but recent history has proved this viewpoint as false as the bubble in which it was constructed. Few of us risk anything in order to provide another person with a home.

[24] Policy shifts should preserve the value of current investments to mitigate developer and property owner opposition.  Mitigation could mean delaying implementation or providing off-setting incentives.

Transforming Seattle


Transforming Seattle

Seattle has much to celebrate from the 2009 elections.  Few large U.S. cities have been blessed with anything like the progressive political lineup the City of Seattle now boasts.  In a time of enormous change and  many conflicting goals it is not always clear what it means to be progressive.   Following are seven principles that move Seattle toward more progressive trajectories by changing the way we do business:

1.  Convert the Deep-Bore Tunnel to Transit Use (in 30 or 40 years)

If we are committed to reducing the number of cars on the road, the city and state should commit to changing the deep-bore tunnel to transit use after car tolls have paid for it in thirty to forty years.  This is a win-win.  We know that we want fewer cars on the road and we know that we will need tunnels for subways and high-speed rail in the future.  Since tunnels last 150 years or more the deep-bore tunnel has the life to satisfy near-term and long-term needs in very different ways.  The principle:  capital projects that support single-occupancy travel short-term should  support transit long-term.

2.  One Hundred Year Plans

Think long term.  Twenty and thirty year plans don’t make sense in an era where we are looking to create long-term sustainability.  Rebuilding most of our infrastructure and buildings every generation is not going to save energy.  Let’s decide what we want our cities to look like and build to last.  Long-term planning will help us avoid whipsaw policies and the backlashes wrenching change often creates.  One hundred year plans make it easier to set seemingly impossible goals the vast majority of citizens will view as reasonable, such as reclaiming shore lands and wet lands.

3.  Inventory and Prioritize Assets

Every asset we enjoy – environmental, cultural, and human – can be measured and prioritized.  Unfortunately, we neither account for or care for most of our assets.  Trees and historic properties are two examples of assets that are frequently subjects of dispute.  Other examples abound.  The first step to preserving assets is to inventory and prioritize their importance.  Prioritizing all assets will help us decide how to utilize funds and prevent last-minute asset-protection processes from being utilized to stall change. The second step is to set up a long-term process for updating our inventories and priorities every five years or so.  The internet is a perfect vehicle for finding out what citizens and subject-matter experts think is important – but inventories place the responsibility of prioritizing and preserving our most important assets where responsibility belongs – on our political leaders.

4.  Limit Words in the Law

Seattle should limit the number of words in sections of law such as the zoning code.  There is no end to word inflation and confusion among contradictory provisions.  Today, exposing contradictions only creates more confusing clarifications.  Make no mistake – every additional word costs the city and citizens money.  If politicians and bureaucrats are forced to take one word out for every word they put in they will choose their words more carefully and look for simpler ways of achieving objectives.  The resulting simplicity will save everyone time and trouble.  Ultimately, we need a complete rewrite of many sections of city code.

5.  Base Building Permit Energy Review on Passive Use

How do we define the city’s interest in energy conservation?  The current codes examine the theoretical performance of a building and its mechanical systems as a unit.  Our current approach creates many buildings that are relatively useless or even unsuitable for occupancy without very substantial energy inputs.  The resulting buildings are often complex in ways that shorten their useful life.  For economic and security reasons the city should support the construction of buildings with useful lives of hundreds of years and that are habitable with no energy inputs – very possible in temperate Seattle.  By reviewing buildings primarily on their passive performance we ensure that buildings we erect today will be useful in fifty or one hundred years.  Taxing energy or carbon is a better way of influencing the efficiency of climate-control systems.  Many energy-consuming systems are unnecessary and will not be installed if owners are required to invest first in operable windows and floor plans that allow for cross ventilation and natural illumination.

6.  Require Density to Match Infrastructure Investment

The City of Seattle failed to up-zone land around our new light rail stations proportionate to our investment.  This profound failure of Seattle leadership threatens our future ability to fund transit and create dense neighborhoods.  Cheap, throw-away spec single-family housing was and is being built in the shadow of light rail staions.  This error is not something that can be fixed retroactively – our investment is already depreciating.  Ridership is like compound interest – if the density isn’t in the bank it can not compound.  Looking forward, we should not invest in infrastructure without enabling density first.  New infrastructure investment should lead to new areas of density, not just reinforce existing land use patterns.

7.  Pedestrian Primacy (see previous post)

In the current election, all Seattle City Council candidates elected pledged to “support war on cars”.  (The Bus has you on tape.)  We don’t need a war, we need Pedestrian Primacy.  Pedestrian Primacy means putting the interests of pedestrians ahead of automobile drivers – converting streets to exclusive pedestrian & bicycle use (not just adding sidewalks), expanding auto-free zones, measuring pedestrian & bicycle commute times and improving the quality of pedestrian & bicycle paths (and ten other ideas explored in the previous post).

Pedestrian Primacy


Pedestrian Primacy

In the current election, all Seattle City Council candidates elected pledged to “support war on cars”.  The Bus has you on tape.  We don’t need a war, we need Pedestrian Primacy.  Pedestrian Primacy means putting the interests of pedestrians ahead of automobile drivers.  The Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan does not seriously address  obstacles to increased walking or the primary impediment to improving walk commute times – systematic preferences for automobile traffic.  Targets in the plan that identify ‘increase’ or ‘decrease’ are giveaways (there are no numbers that allow anyone to be held accountable) and the plan allows ten years to establish pedestrian education in all schools!  Do I detect a lack of urgency?  This is not the kind of planning that built the interstate highway system.  We need a new pedestrian plan written with gusto and verve and measurable outcomes.  Fourteen disparate ideas to consider:

1.  Convert Streets to Exclusive Pedestrian & Bicycle Use

Convert a small measurable fraction of residential streets to exclusive pedestrian and bicycle use each year to create a dense network.  Provide exceptions for residents.  How about a goal of making 5% of our streets auto-free by 2020?  Conversions could be, in part, by local election.  What homeowner wouldn’t like the street in front of their house reserved to pedestrians, bicycles and their own vehicles?  In some cases these streets and paths can be shared with transit.  Converting streets without sidewalks to pedestrian and bicylce use would eliminate the need for new sidewalks.  Widespread conversion of residential streets to pedestrian and bicycle use will free up space for hundreds of acres of trees and permeable surfaces.

2.  Expand Auto-Free Zones

We already have auto-free zones at parks, schools and other property.  We should expand these zones by converting adjacent streets to exclusive pedestrian and bicycle use with exceptions for residents.  We should increase the number of streets closed to cars for recreational use and very gradually increase the frequency of closures until some of these streets are auto-free.  Closing streets adjacent to shorelines should be the number one priority.  Identifying the streets to be closed long before the closure is planned will allow people who want to live on closed streets to migrate there and reduce the impact on residents when closures become permanent.

3.  Measure Walk & Bicycle Commute Times

Real travel times for walkers and cyclists must be studied, recorded and improved – just like we do for autos.  If we are serious about walking, we need to maximize the speed of walkers rather than drivers.  We need to measure how fast a normal person can walk from place to place legally. With the current auto-oriented stoplight system, the closer you get to centers of employment the slower you have to walk – unless you jaywalk.  It is very likely that the only solution is to make jaywalking legal.

4.  Improve Pedestrian & Bicycle Street & Path Quality

Pedestrian and bicycle streets and paths need to be built to a higher standard than streets for cars.  Small bumps and holes are much more problematic for pedestrians and bicyclists than for cars and trucks.  The idea of not reinforcing sidewalks is an old idea.  Nondestructive testing can prevent the sidewalk collapses that prompted the strange policy of building inferior sidewalks whose deterioration makes them a constant hazard. The cracked and warping asphalt bike and pedestrian paths in our parks force runners and cyclists on to the streets.

5.  Automate Traffic Signals Singapore-Style

The Seattle area is home to software giants yet our traffic signals seem to be run by punch cards.  There is no reason why we can’t have both local intelligence and remotely control our traffic signal system in real time.  The savings in pollution alone is enough to justify this investment.  The resulting increase in pedestrian, bicycle and even auto commute times will just be a bonus.

6.  Designate Pedestrian/Bicycle Streets Vancouver Style

Create designated pedestrian/bicycle streets parallel to arterials with preferential signals for the pedestrians at crossing arterials.  In Vancouver, where pedestrian/bicycle streets cross arterials, walk buttons  stop auto traffic immediately (unless auto traffic has been recently stopped for pedestrians).

7.  Eliminate Walk Buttons at Traffic Signals

Except for buttons that stop traffic immediately, walk buttons at traffic signals should be removed.  A walk button that ‘allows’ pedestrians to cross at the next green light is an insulting example of current auto primacy.  Why should every pedestrians be required to wait?     Where installed, walk signs  should operate at every signal change.

8.  Use All-Way Walk Signals

All high-pedestrian-traffic intersection should have all-way walk signals.  A high-pedestrian-traffic intersection is one that has even a few people waiting for the light in the busiest times of the day.  All-way walk signals are especially helpful for five-way and other complicated intersections.  Crossing two or three streets at once is a real boon to the pedestrian.

9.  Help with the Hills for Walkers and Cyclists

Walkers and cyclists need help getting up steep grades such as First Hill – something faster and more frequent than buses.  Think ski lift or funicular – Portland has one and we don’t.  If the objective is to get people from downtown to First Hill for instance, it isn’t necessary to build a streetcar through the International District to get there.  The streetcar is great – but it is not the most efficient route to get from the Ferry Terminal to Harborview.  That would be Yesler or an unused street alignment (see below).

10.  Grid Restoration for Walkers and Bikers

We need bridges that provide shortcuts for walkers and cyclists (and not autos) across highways and waterways.  Streetcars might also share these shortcuts.  There are many available street alignments for non-auto crossings – they just need a bridge.  I-5 offers many examples. A pedestrian/bicycle bridge connecting Stone Way with Dexter Avenue would be a minor miracle for many commuters.

11.  Prioritize Waterfronts for Pedestrian, Bicycle and Transit Use

All waterfront needs to prioritize transit, pedestrian and bicycle use.  Not having to deal with cross-traffic benefits travel times for walkers, cyclists and transit.  Some of our waterfront, such as that in Southeast Seattle, is barely served by bus service and that what service is available is typically point-to-point rather than extending along the waterfront.  You can’t take a bus from one area of our Lake Washington waterfront to another without first going far inland.  This is no doubt a legacy of discrimination.  The waterfront should be quiet place so transit should be electric or natural gas powered.

12.  Corner Grocery Stores

A city is not walkable if you can’t walk to a corner store for essentials.  The fight with NIMBY interests will be legendary but return the corner stores we must.  There are ways to do this without upsetting too many people.  For instance, the City should set a maximum distance to a corner store and then ‘auction’ the right to change zoning for a store location or two in each un-served area.  The application with the most neighborhood support (property owners and residents) would be the winner – and the auctions could be weighted so that the closest residents and property owners would have the greatest impact on which site wins.

13.  Walk-Around Business Districts

Many of our business districts were designed as auto-oriented strips.  Districts such as Columbia City would benefit from business district zoning two or more blocks deep.  People like to walk around blocks – not up and back the same way.  In Columbia City it would make sense to extend the business district to the nearby light rail station.

14.  Awnings that Keep Pedestrians Dry

New and reconstructed buildings in areas that are designated as pedestrian-intensive should have large awnings that keep people dry.   These awnings should extend the entire length of the building and should be glass.  The awnings should be required to be maintained for the life of the building.

IN THE RABBIT HUTCH: What human height and ceiling height tells us about our society.



What human height and ceiling height tells us about our society


  • Over the past 150 years, the U.S.lost world leadership in average height to the Netherlands and eight other countries, whose people grew taller faster.[1]
  • Relative average height is considered a good way to compare overall physical health between societies[2] but not between individuals[3].
  • There is little or no genetic component in the ultimate height of diverse human populations.[4]
  • U.S.citizens are becoming shorter, relative to the people of other nations, because we provide lower quality environmental conditions, health care and nutrition than the ‘taller’ nations.[5]
  • Over the past 150 years, as U.S.citizens grew taller, ceiling heights fell.
  • We are allowing the construction of dark airless apartments, relative to the recent past, for reasons that are unrelated to the public good, namely profits.
  • We can restore balance to the design of buildings by placing broad public health issues and individual experience at the center of every discussion on building design.
  • Buildings that respond to the natural environment to provide natural light, direct fresh air and cross ventilation will be better to live in and interesting too.
  • Viewing mundane issues through the public health lens can result in important insights and improvements to our quality of life and overall health.
  • U.S.loss of leadership in human height and lower ceilings relative to height are symptoms of our failure to put people first, physically and psychologically.

Policy Recommendations[6]

  • Place public health issues and resident experience, such as direct access to natural light and air, at the forefront of every discussion of residential building design.
  • Require residential buildings perform as well as possible passively with no external or internal energy inputs, including site-generated solar and wind power.
  • Change zoning codes to allow the construction of high ceilings without requiring developers to purchase additional land.[7]
  • Change codes to remove disincentives to thick walls.
  • Require volume and area be listed in for-sale or rent ads.
  • Require passive heating and cooling performance be listed in for-sale or rent ads.

What human height and ceiling height tells us about our society.

In a slow-motion version ofAliceinWonderland,U.S.citizens grew taller while ceiling heights shrank over the past century and a half.  And, while a small but growing percentage of the U.S. population has to duck to pass through a standard 6’-8” high door, the really bad news is that the U.S. lost world leadership in average height to the Netherlands and eight other countries, whose people grew taller faster, over the same time frame. There is simply no good news in these facts.  What do these trends in human height and ceiling height tell us about our society?

The average Dutch male has gone from 3-1/2” shorter to 1-1/2” taller than the average European-American in just one hundred and fifty years.[8] From 1850 to 2000 the Dutch increased in height from 5’-5” to 6’-0” while white European-American s went from 5’8-1/2” to -5’10-1/2”.[9] The statistics for Canadians and African-Americans are similar to those of white Americans.[10] As a result, Americans went from being the tallest people in the world to ninth and the Dutch went from eleventh to replace us as first. The Dutch increase in height is attributed to the Netherlands providing the best prenatal and early childhood health care and nutrition of any nation in the world.[11] The rate of height increase for Americans stalled after the 1950’s, a change that is attributed to declining health care, nutrition, and environmental conditions relative to places like the Netherlands and especially for pregnant mothers, infants and children.[12]

Scientists have recently determined that, with few exceptions, there is little or no genetic component in the ultimate height of diverse human populations.[13]  This finding backed up by the experience of African-Americans whose height has increased from 5’-6-1/2” to 5’-10” from 1850 to 2000, U.S. immigrants in general[14], and populations in rapidly developing countries.[15]  Thus Americans may be as tall as the Dutch a generation after we get our health care and nutrition to comparably high levels.  And we may have more extra-tall people than the Dutch, since our diverse genetic pool will produce a broader range of outcomes–more very tall and more very short people–than a more uniform genetic pool.[16]

Relative height is considered indicative of a good general measure of overall physical health of a society[17] but not between individuals.[18]  This correlation is an observation that many Americans would once have welcomed and may still embrace since we still perceive ourselves standing tall among the peoples of the world.  We can see that Asians are getting taller.  Who can see that Americans are getting taller at a slower rate than people in other industrialized economies?  Who can see that while we are living longer we are improving our health care and environmental conditions at a slower rate than people in other industrialized economies?

TheU.S.population is generally ignorant of our loss of relative stature and the underlying connection to our overall health as a people.  Yet surprisingly little political hay has been made of the loss ofU.S.leadership in human height, the loss of symbolic world leadership or of how meaningful this bad report card is for society.  Much more has been made of the decline relative to the rest of the world. But since the same environmental factors that support human height probably also support the development of intelligence and maturity required to succeed in school, the decline in human height and poor performance of our schools may even be related. One thing is certain; our failure to keep up with other industrialized countries in human height is, like education, another indicator of a broad societal decline, however relative and temporary, relative to our peer nations.  Americans are becoming exceptional for the wrong reasons.

If our height tells us something about how we compare to other societies, our ceiling heights tell us something about what we think of ourselves. High ceilings have long been viewed favorably by our society and are still mentioned as a positive attribute of homes and apartments for sale today. Yet residential ceiling heights in the U.S.continue to fall relative to human height.  To be accurate, the predominant residential ceiling height was standardized at about eight feet after WWII while human height has continued to increase.  The zoning code, building codes, and industry standards all reinforce the institutionalization of eight foot ceiling heights and 6’-8” door heights for most dwellings at a time when millions Americans are over 6’-3” tall.[19]

It hasn’t always been this way.  Most houses built middle class families before the standardization of eight-foot building materials had ceiling heights of nine to fourteen feet.  From the mid-late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, the average American was an inch or two shorter than today yet their ceilings were typically far higher.  The high airy ceilings, ventilated attics, wide porches and shade trees made many of these homes pleasant or tolerable on all but the hottest summer days.  The houses were optimized for the summers because there were other ways of dealing with the winter cold.  Up to the 1950’s, parts of a home were routinely closed off and unheated for the winter or for a portion of the day or week.  This was possible because heaters were almost entirely point-source rather than central and distributed.  Warm clothes, a comforter, warming stones, many children in one bed and a spot close to the fire were well-used options.  Being close to the fire was a compromise; a good average temperature does not always equate to comfort when one side is too cold and the other blistering hot.  As long as wood and coal were the fuels of choice the cook-stove was a good source of heat in the kitchen, the most-used room, from early morning to early evening.  The kitchen was often warm all day and hot around mealtimes. Dining rooms were often heated only in the morning and evening.  The parlor was left unheated except for company.  Bedrooms typically had no heat whatsoever and bedroom windows were often cracked year-round to provide fresh air and eliminate condensation.

Ceiling height changed with technology.  By the post-WWII boom, the eight foot ceiling was becoming a standard.  Reasons included a desire for inexpensive housing, standardized building materials, increased cost of building materials, central heating, mechanical ventilation, thermostats, and changing patterns of dress and behavior.  As a result, home built to post-war standards were almost universally less comfortable in summers than earlier homes had been.  When air conditioning became common, cooling strategies such as cross-ventilation, open stairwells, high attics, wide screened porches and screened double-hung windows were often summarily dropped.  From the mid-twentieth century on, more and more American homes were built in a way that made them intolerably hot without air conditioning.

High ceiling spaces have better air through greater volume and circulation, an advantage more apparent when heat is from smoky stoves burning wood or coal.[20] Low ceilings have reduced volume and less natural circulation from convection.  High ceiling spaces are more easily lit using natural light from high windows.  The move away from high ceilings was accompanied by increased use of artificial lighting, fixed windows, mechanical ventilation, air conditioning and a decreased emphasis on natural and cross ventilation, changes that also decreased the passive performance of the homes.

The paradox is that passively heated and cooled homes in temperate climates benefit from high ceilings and large volumes while mechanically conditioned homes are most energy efficient when building volumes are small. Different strategies result in different investments. For long-term sustainability, dependence on mechanical conditioning is the wrong strategy.  We may want to consider some of yesterday’s strategies and especially rid ourselves of the idea that entire homes and apartments need to be uniformly heated 24/7.

As the demand for central heating, air conditioning and mechanical ventilation increased, giant industries formed around the sale and installation of these systems.  Gradually, it was assumed that more and more buildings, residential and commercial, would have centralized mechanical systems. The high energy use of systems that conditioned large areas and volumes then drove the creation of conservation-oriented codes that focused on efficient mechanical systems.  The current Washington State Air Quality Code does not even mention ‘window’.[21]  The resulting environmental designs often inadvertently lowered the amount of natural light and air entering a building, limitations that have resulted in buildings with reduced air quality, that rot prematurely, and that may contribute to increased depression.  The response has not been to revisit the big picture.  Rather, the response has been more codes, more devices, and more complexity.  The response has decidedly not been to mandate more direct access to natural light, fresh air and cross ventilation.  Studies showing that depression is more likely in people with little exposure to natural light do not seem to have had an impact on building codes.[22]

Cities would be well served to review the performance of buildings in the passive state first, to make sure that they may be inhabited for some time with no input other than water and sewer connections.  A primary focus on natural light, natural ventilation, passive heating and passive cooling will encourage better design and more healthy buildings.  Such buildings are complex in their own way–but in ways that are sustainable, contribute to human health, and are responsive to local conditions.  Investment should be aimed first toward making buildings that require no energy input whatsoever to be comfortable on as many days as possible.  Designing to satisfy such meaningful conditions would result in organically complex buildings.  The many unfortunate zoning provisions designed to make buildings ‘more interesting’ would not have been entertained if we required spaces to have relatively high ceilings with ample natural light and cross ventilation.

An additional argument for reviewing buildings in the passive state is the way we treat energy use as a society.  We do not tell people they can not heat a 10,000 square foot house or an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  We do, in practice, limit the natural light and fresh air available to small apartment or condominium dwellers by maintaining exceedingly minimal standards for light and air while aggressively tightening the mandates on energy efficiency. If all buildings were reviewed for success in the passive state, we might have many fewer people, rich or poor, using mechanical heating and cooling most days.  The real question is whether we should review mechanical solutions at all.  The market will eventually take care of energy waste.  Codes and regulations that embrace and support mechanical heating and ventilation–even today’s efficient systems-may well leave a legacy of buildings uninhabitable without significant energy inputs.  Cities should take the long view and imagine how we will work and live in buildings where little energy is available for heating, cooling and mechanical ventilation or such energy is too expensive.

The growing popularity of loft-style living in older buildings seems to be, in part, a result of individuals’ inclination to desire light and volume. It is not surprising that the rise of loft living almost exactly reflects the arrival of low ceiling heights.  Most loft-style dwellings are created in existing commercial buildings where the ceiling height required already exists.  Unfortunately, the economics of creating high ceilings of any kind in new spaces is made artificially expensive by the zoning code.  The zoning code maintains a close and deliberate relationship between the height of the allowed building envelope and the number of eight-foot-high residential stories that can be constructed in the envelope.  The relationship is so close that developers often build ground floors partly above or below grade simply to cram in an extra floor.  To provide high ceilings, developers must eliminate one or more floor levels, drastically increasing the cost of each unit since more land must be purchased to build the same number of equal-area units.

To encourage high ceilings, we must separate the zoning height from the allowable number of eight-foot stories that can be crammed in.  Designers need additional height to create sensible buildings – and it is unreasonable and to expect developers to give up building rights they have already paid for to provide this height.  Rather, the zoning envelope should allow for a minimum of 12 feet per floor for both residential and commercial construction.[23]  Developers will have no reason to build retail spaces above and below grade.  The greater design height per floor will make for buildings that can be easily converted from commercial to residential uses and back again.  Flexibility is a benefit for the city as well as for owners and designers.

There is no good reason for people to live or work in dark, stale, low-ceiling spaces.  There is a reason that dark, low-ceilinged rooms are still commonly used in literature to describe spaces that symbolize poverty, danger and unhealthy conditions.  Meanness in design reflects on our character.  The reasons many Seattleites live in relatively dark airless spaces are entirely artificial and unrelated to the public good.  This is not a dated problem – hundreds or thousands of studio apartments have been built in Seattleover that past two decades with one sliding glass door for both light and ventilation. Many of these studios are about fifteen feet wide and twenty-five to thirty feet deep.  Astonishingly, codes recently began allowing enclosed bedrooms with no natural light or ventilation.  Such rooms are known as sleeping closets and ridding the world of them was a driving force of zoning and fire codes that were developed over one hundred years ago. [24]

We can restore balance to the design of buildings by restoring consideration of basic public health issues to every discussion on building design.  We can orient codes to make every building as successful as possible with no energy inputs (including site-generated energy inputs such as solar and wind power).  Buildings built to maximize public health will have rooms with high ceiling rooms, great natural light and cross ventilation.  They’ll be interesting too.


[1] The statistics in this article are for male adults unless noted otherwise.

[2] pending

[3] pending

[4] The exceptional populations where genetics make a meaningful difference in height are small, such as Watusi and pygmi peoples.

[5] pending

[6] Recommendations to increase average human height in theU.S. is someone else’s book.

[7] My recommendation – allowable building height should allow twelve feet floor-to-floor heights.

[8] pending

[9] pending

[10] I have not found amalgamated statistics.

[11] pending

[12] Other environmental factors may also play a role – exercise, substance abuse, and environmental pollution are possible examples.

[13] There may be a genetic component in the height difference among individuals.

[14] Recent Maya immigrants fromGuatemala to theU.S. gained a record four inches in one generation.

[15] Japanese, Chinese and South Koreans have gained 1 to 1-1/2” every decade since the 1950’s.

[16] pending

[17] Although the relationships between the observations and the underlying forces are not well understood, the relationships exist.  There is more controversy over relationships between height and socio-economics.

[18] There are positive and negative health aspects associated with being both short and tall.

[19] Door heights in middle class housing have also been standardized at a shorter height than those a century ago.

[20] Unfortunately, the elimination of polluting heat sources did not eliminate all air-born pollutants from the home since they were replaced by emissions from building materials and products brought into the home.

[21] Washington State Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality Code (2006 Edition) effectiveJuly 1, 2007.

[22] pending

[23] We should not decrease density by lowering the number of stories allowed – we should increase the height of the zoning envelope.

[24] See Bedrooms without Windows:

Hobbling the Design Professions

Hobbling the Design Professions

In college, I had a professor, James Fitzgibbon, who was Buckminster Fuller’s partner for decades.  Jim was a visionary too, and also an artist, architect and engineer.  He and Bucky built structures in 93 countries.  Jim was an outstanding educator who taught people to think beyond conventional terms and who maintained a deep concern for the welfare of his students after graduation.  Jim told us of an excruciating ordeal he put himself through each year – serving on the state committee that reviewed the design portion of the architectural registration exam.  The interesting part is why:  Jim discovered that his best students were regularly failed if he wasn’t in the room to explain their designs to the other examiners.  He was not always successful.

I am reminded of Jim’s martyrdom by our failed approach to shaping the design of buildings and the urban landscape in the United States – as closely observed in Seattle.  We do not lack good designers so much as a stable and supportive environment.  Ways in which government hobbles the design profession:

  • Moving Public Health from the center to the periphery in discussions on buildings and the built environment.  Rather than being the central question around which other issues are organized, Public Health has become a checklist of minimum standards.  On the code side, industry standards prevail.  On the zoning side, we worry far more about what a building looks like than about whether occupants have excellent access to natural light and air.
  • Too many bureaucracies within government and the increasing use of organizations outside of government to perform quasi-governmental roles.  The goals of various bureaucracies often conflict in unresolved ways.  The goals of outside organizations are not always in the public interest.  Conflict-of-interest issues abound.  Few bureaucracies inside or outside of government are eliminated, streamlined or simplified in a meaningful way – they just reproduce.
  • Complex and unstable building and zoning codes are counter-productive. The bureaucracies currently do not have incentives to be succinct.  The number of words in our codes should be limited to a reasonable size.  When one word goes in another should come out. Codes should be stable and revised – at most – once a year, all on the same date.
  • Punitive fees, time-consuming submittal requirements and lengthy review processes together make up a substantial and growing percentage of building cost.    Rather than deciding on the change we want and encouraging this change with inexpensive, expedient and reasonable processes, we treat all change with equal suspicion and obstacles.  Time is money – and time devoted to unnecessary process is money that can not be spent on design.

The combination of standardized construction products, market forces, narrowly focused regulations and overall complexity contribute considerably to the rarity and expense of excellent design.  In a series of posts, I will examine various ways we discourage, or fail to encourage, design excellence.  The issues are complex: What is good design after all?  I focus on quantifiable human issues, light and air among them, and ignore the vagaries of style and taste to the extent possible.

The Housing Levy is also Symbolic

Written for the March 2009 issue of Housing Washington.  Housing Washington is a statewide newsletter published by the Low Income Housing Institute. Housing Washington focuses on the politics and events surrounding affordable housing in Washington state.

The Housing Levy is also Symbolic

The Seattle Housing Levy is important for two reasons. First, the levy provides funds that preserves existing affordable housing and produces new affordable housing, improving the quality of life of our neighbors and community. Second, the levy is a highly symbolic act where citizens ratify efforts to address Seattle’s shortage of affordable housing.

While the numbers seem large, housing levies would have a very limited impact on the availability of affordable housing without leveraging federal, state, local and private resources. We are so short of affordable housing that no effort to solve the problem by building new permanently affordable housing appears possible without a historic shift in public outlook. In Seattle, a $100 million levy dedicated to building new permanent housing outright would build perhaps 400 housing units over five to eight years against a shortage of many thousands today. The current recession will put us further behind. The inability to focus on permanently affordable housing is unfortunate because the public receives the greatest benefit (return on investment) from permanently affordable housing – subsidized housing owned by the public or mission-driven nonprofit organizations.

All levies feature a bewildering variety of solutions carefully crafted to maximize leverage from other funding entities. Strategies include financing permanently affordable housing, supporting the private development of term-limited affordable housing, home buyer assistance and rental assistance, among others. The objective of most affordable housing programs is to provide quality housing at an affordable price relative to income. A subset of affordable housing is targeted to groups that need a combination of housing support and services that together may exceed the cost of free housing, including housing the homeless. However, providing free housing to extremely disadvantaged or troubled individuals and families has been shown to save money when the social and economic costs of not providing decent housing, such as emergency services, is included. Understanding this paradox is the historic shift in public outlook we are working towards. Like the closely related issue of health care, education by circumstance may be the only meaningful agent of change. If our current recession persists and worsens, our common education may be at hand.

Two issues related to affordable housing levies remain relatively unexamined. First, how do we move more term-limited affordable housing into the permanently affordable column? Much can be done in this area. For instance, all publicly supported term-limited affordable housing should feature a transferable option for public purchase at a pre-set price and first right-of-refusal on subsequent sales. We should not buy the same affordable housing benefits over and over. Second, how does the Byzantine myriad of housing standards impact our ability to provide decent housing now? While publicly-supported affordable housing standards typically exceed the actual conditions of lower-income households, the discrepancy is glaring for homeless individuals and households. Our high-minded standards are a huge barrier to providing publicly supported permanent or semi-permanent housing to the homeless. Secure and comfortable tent cities are not only possible, they are provided to refugees all over the world. We can do far better than overnight shelters without getting anywhere near HUD standards – and it’s time we do. There are times we should temporize standards in favor of a higher good.

In recent times, Seattleites have shown a willingness to invest in their future, voting for libraries, parks and transit when measures have clearly articulated future benefits that serve the common good. The generosity of Seattleites in their support of housing levies has been good, passing long-term levies in 1981, 1986, 1995 and 2002. Seattleites even supported the failed over-reaching $150 million county-wide levy in the midst of the 1992 recession. The symbolism of the levy can not be overstated.

Direct citizen support for levies creates momentum for change, gives politicians cover to support affordable housing efforts beyond levy funding, and upholds our view of Seattle as a compassionate place – however short we fall in execution. In addition, the high quality of publicly financed affordable housing provides an aspirational standard for all housing.

In formulating a new housing levy, we need to keep these principles in mind:

  • The bulk of benefits should be targeted to the least fortunate
  • Deal terms should provide opportunities for future public purchase (when the housing supported is not permanently affordable)
  • High standards should not interfere with providing homeless people a permanent address

And since the need is so great, the levy should be as large as we believe the public will support.

David Schraer

David Schraer is a Seattle architect with in-plain-air architects and was the first executive director of the White Center Community Development Association.  See and for his work and writing.