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By Joe Nabbefeld
February 18, 2016
Lina and Andrew wanted to buy their first home. In Seattle. Their daughter was a few months old. They could afford to pay $300,000 to $400,000. Sounds like a lot of money to some, but we all know it limits your choices in this expensive city.
Enter the townhome. The lowly townhome. Lina and Andrew bought one (gasp!) two years ago and report that they love it. Crib Notes represented them in the purchase.
The height of inane criticism about these units came at a town hall-style info session on Capitol Hill about eight years ago. A move was afoot to limit their construction because some of our best, and not-so-best, neighborhood protectors felt offended and fearful. Grievances ranged across the board but sound familiar: They look cheap. Somebody's making money producing them. I might lose some constitutionally guaranteed street parking. I don't want ANY change.
Some criticisms, as always, had merit. Anything can be criticized. Anything can be prettier. But the mental gap was breathtaking: People advocated for affordable housing but then said, “No townhomes.”
“How could anyone be expected to live in one of those?” was the comment from one panel member. Surely a gulag in Siberia would be better.
Now we've come through the Great Recession. Housing prices — and rents — have soared for four years, thanks to the stem cells of our local economy: Amazon.com.
So let's wander over and take a look at what Crib Notes has dubbed Seattle's “Levittown of Townhomes.”
Levittown refers to the swaths of lower-cost, quick-built, cookie-cutter homes. Right after World War II a company owned by the Levitt family used assembly-line processes to build four large suburban subdivisions of affordable homes for vets called Levittowns in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In March 1947, 1,400 of these homes sold in three hours. A documentary a couple of decades later tracked how life played out there, with a tone of “can you believe these people survived this?” “Levittown” became a symbol for lifeless uniformity and consumers who couldn't do any better.
What, lifeless uniformity in Seattle?
Let's head west along North 85th Street, north of Green Lake, toward Aurora Avenue. There on your right — covering four blocks from Linden to Aurora Avenue North — that is the Levittown of Townhomes. It extends five blocks from North 85th to North 90th Street. Now it even extends north in a narrowed swath to 93rd or 94th.
From 2004 to 2007, it seemed like every lot in there with a 1950s two-bedroom bungalow on it (like the original Levittown homes!) was being replaced by a beige “4-pack” or “6-pack” (in some cases even an “8-pack”). They went up fast, and the quality was medium or slightly-above.
Some had vinyl siding. Most units had small cedar-fenced “pens” in front, a tiny bit of yard. “Car courts” were in the center — then a line of identical townhomes in back of that, with their pens behind them.
All beige or something similar. White vinyl windows, double-pane. Faux-craftsman style. One small garage for each, off the car court; tricky to pull into so usually just filled with stuff. A “great room” of living-dining-kitchen-powder room on the second floor. Hardwood floors. Two bedrooms and one or two baths on the third floor, carpeted. Laundry with a tiny bedroom and bath were with the garage on first floor.
Ghastly! An affront! The end of mom, apple pie and tasteful design. Except they sold for $200,000 to $300,000 (back then). Everything brand new. Nothing to replace for 20 years. All that space. The great rooms were gorgeous and perfect for families. Usually a gas fireplace.
As we all know, other swaths of townhomes popped up all over town in “L zones,” meaning areas zoned 35 years ago for “low rise” housing. Mainly toward the edges of “urban villages” and “urban centers.” L-zones often transition from higher commercial zoning to single-family zoning. Note: If your home is in a single-family zone, a townhome project can't go there (but a single-family modern home can).
Crib Notes walked these ghastly Levittown of Townhomes streets last week. Yep. Now almost every lot is built out. Most of the few that remain have land use signs saying townhomes are coming. Since the Great Recession abated in 2012, townhome builders returned from the beach and started cranking out more, almost all of them now the modern, flat-roof, big-window style-du-jour. (Oh no! Some moderns are creeping in amid Levittown's faux-craftsmans! Man the tanks! Issue “failure to blend” citations!).
Here's the strange thing: These streets feel like ... a neighborhood! Kid toys in the pens. Some cedar fences ready to be replaced. Young people walking home from school. Delivery trucks.
There is more and better retail over on Aurora, thanks to the neighborhood residents. Easy stroll south to PCC. The neighborhood is even getting the newest, much-maligned housing bugaboo: micro units. Eighty eight micros at Nesbitt and 88th.
And there's a massive reconstruction project northeast of 90th and Stone Way. Wilson Middle School is being replaced with a 660-seat elementary school and an 850-seat Robert Eagle Staff Middle School, according to the land use sign. Due to open in fall 2017. This huge campus will have football, soccer and track, and bountiful open space that will give the neighborhood a park.
Lina and Andrew say the modern they bought on 90th has the same issues as new construction in any neighborhood in Seattle. They look forward to their daughter playing at that school campus.
In the past six months, 14 townhomes and one townhome construction site have sold in that four- by five-block stretch, according to NWMLS stats. All the units were re-sales (not new construction). They averaged $435,000 each — a lot of money, but still the affordable alternative! The most expensive sale was $517,000 for three beds, 2.5 baths in 1,690 square feet, built in 2005. It sold in three days at 7 percent above the asking price.
Here's what Lina and Andrew like as much as anything about their Levittown abode: They OWN it. They could afford it. They're building equity. They didn't have to go to Shoreline, Edmonds, Mukilteo or South Everett and then blow half their lives commuting. Their commutes are reasonable. They walk to PCC and Greenlake. The last dilapidated small houses near theirs are being replaced with modern townhomes.
They told Crib to tell the critics: Come inside before you run it down. Sit by the fireplace.
Lina and Andrew had expected to own this townhome for three to five years, and then use the equity to buy something a bit bigger, a bit nicer. But as we gazed out at the future school campus Andrew said, “We're thinking maybe we'll be here longer.”
Joe Nabbefeld is a Realtor with Windermere Capitol Hill. You can reach him at www.RealSolutions.biz. He was the DJC's commercial real estate editor back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.