In 1980, the median value of a house in Seattle was about $65,000. The entry-level firefighter qualified for a house valued at about $75,000, some 15 percent more than needed to buy the "average" house. In 2006, the median home value in Seattle was about $449,000. That year, the entry-level firefighter could qualify for a house valued at about $228,000, some 95 percent less than needed to buy the "average" Seattle house.The problem is, city leaders have done little more than hand out crying towels about this situation. Better politics has been to sock it to developers of fancy new condos, making them pay for greater height by building low-income housing. (In turn, that raises the prices on the units in the condos.) Meanwhile, affluent and politically organized neighborhoods put the squeeze on new apartments, demanding amenities like storefronts and limiting the number of apartments allowed, driving costs up further. Royer lists some of the ideas that "should be on the table," such as multifamily property-tax exemptions, transportation investments in dense, walkable neighborhoods, and programs to help employers give their employees more living choices closer to work. Significantly missing from his list is "inclusionary zoning," a popular idea (though not with local developers) that requires all new housing developments beyond a certain number of units to include a small percentage of units that must be sold at significantly discounted prices, putting a few in reach of renters of modest means. (Of course that means the remaining units get slightly more expensive.) Denver and Montgomery County (a D.C. suburb) are leaders in this idea. As Royer rightly notes, Seattle is becoming a city both richer and poorer. Talk to law firms, and they will tell you how the attorneys can live locally but the support staff has to commute from Tacoma or Kent. It's a recipe for bad class feelings. The problem is, the politics of helping the middle class always runs into complaints about the plight of the poor. That's the point where most local politicians retreat from "middle class welfare." Little wonder that Royer raises these essential questions with such a delicate tone. He's poking a great big nest of bees.
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