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Capitol Hill confronts change

Is Pike-Pine becoming Belltown? Are artists getting priced-out? Where is the center of gay culture in Seattle? The Hill wrestles with the complexities of change.
Will the upscale changes mess with Capitol Hill's funk

Will the upscale changes mess with Capitol Hill's funk laviddichterman/Flickr

Hill denizens gather for a forum on change.

Hill denizens gather for a forum on change. Capitol Hill Housing

It seems ironic that in the midst of Seattle's booming urban growth the big complaints about it would be coming from Seattle's most urban of neighborhoods, Capitol Hill.

But angst is palpable, even in a neighborhood that has mostly embraced change. A recent Capitol Hill Housing Community Forum took "There Goes the Neighborhood" as its theme. The core of that neighborhood is the Broadway business district which is the center of the Hill economically, culturally and geographically. It is dense, filled with young people and small retailers, and features all the urban vibrancy planners and developers pine for.

There is a lot of new development in the corridor. Chris Persons of Capitol Hill Housing said there are 2,816 apartment units in the pipeline. There is the Sound Transit remake around Broadway's light rail station-to-be. There is work on the new streetcar line. Even positive changes can trigger uncertainty. The environment is challenging for retailers because of high rents and disruptive construction. Even some iconic standbys have fallen victim: The Bauhaus project looms, B&O Espresso has fled to Ballard, and the Egyptian Theater is closing. There are worries that cheap retail space is being replaced by pricey new space, endangering small, funky, local businesses.

There is concern about life on the streets too. Some business owners and landlords see their beloved Pike-Pine turning into another Belltown with young club-goers puking on the sidewalks and homeless people sleeping in doorways. A recent Kidder Mathew's report for the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce recommends a crackdown on public drunkenness, more cops and stricter handling of panhandlers in the supposed capital of Seattle tolerance.

There is angst too about "outsiders." Partly this stems from the Hill's residents feeling priced out. The median rent for a two-bedroom unit, according to Zillow, is $2,100 per month. And there is the apodment controversy, worries that somehow it will attract the "wrong" element. Many Hill residents are young with below-the-median household incomes. Apodments or no, one question raised at the forum was whether artists, one of the Hill's cultural backbones, are being pushed out. Keeping the "creative class" creating in a neighborhood where it has flourished for decades is a challange.

Recent news coverage of a hate crime incident on East Pike described the five men accused as "outsiders" who all had "out-of-state home addresses," as if to suggest such problems are due to transients or newcomers, not locals. That characterization raised some eye-brows.

Who on the Hill is not an outsider, at least originally? Is Capitol Hill being invaded by people who don't share the neighborhood's values? Outsiders are also blamed by some for the Belltown-ization of Pike-Pine. This is the alleged place of choice for new Amazon workers (dubbed Am-holes in South Lake Union) looking to party.

Another question raised at the forum was whether Capitol Hill is still the center of the city's LBGT community. Panelist Sally Clark said that it was "one" of the centers, a polite way of saying things have changed. Evidence of that shift was immediately forthcoming when an audience member asked, "What's LBGT?" Clark had to explain the acronym — on Capitol Hill!

All of this suggests a broader anxiety that something good and character-defining is being jeopardized or replaced with something worse, or at least unknown. That concern, in different forms, has been heard throughout Seattle for years, in Ballard, West Seattle, the Central District, Cascade, the South End, Mt. Baker, Pioneer Square. . . This tension creates a civic chafing.

Those who complain about change are frequently dismissed as NIMBY's, and often rightly so. Some people are selfish assholes. But it's too easy to dismiss change skeptics. They are often the straw men and women of local debates. It's crucial that people care about their backyards, their streets, their pocket parks, as well as the well-being of their neighbors. There is plenty to suggest that Capitol Hill residents care a great deal about their turf and the urban ecosystems they have cultivated for generations. Urbanization is a phenomenon that must be managed.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jun 25, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Captures the angst and tension pretty well.

That can be a healthy tension, that helps us keep the best of the past while embrasing change.

As long as we aren't saying no to innovation like apodments (one example of many) that make us more dense or vary housing types and choices, or seeking de-facto neighborhood vetos through Seattle process.

Our building code needs to say, "this is permitted, that is not", rather than, "it might be permitted, propose it, have meetings about it, if the participants in the meeting can't agree, take it to the Planning Commission, if somebody doesn't like it, take it to the Council."

The architects get rich, bankers collect lots of construction loan interest as the process drags on, the percentage of housing costs going to sticks and bricks drops, the percentage of housing costs going to architect, permit fees, and construction interest rises, city staffers and planners get paid, housing costs rise, the market can't give buyers what they vote for with their purchase dollar (a vote for the "vibe" of tomorrow), and we don't get a variety of housing types for a variety of lifestyle choices and needs.

Posted Tue, Jun 25, 3:48 p.m. Inappropriate

The most significant point is 'priced out'. While people scream about too many more people, or (to be fair elements of preservation can be important to a sense of place) too many new buildings, the real loss is loss of people and local businesses.

For some neighborhoods, a sad thing is when your street is all of a sudden a 'destination' for everyone in the region looking for a hot place to party -- and yes DRIVING in -- as opposed to generally places for more local folks. It's a different form of 'mallification'.

I personally loved living 'above the store' on my neighborhood 'main' street in a few cities. But, they rolled up the sidewalks by about 11PM. I'd be horrified and forced out if new development always came with higher rents and loud partying until after 2AM. Those places had very strong neighborhood use reviews. So, here I live back in a multifamily neighborhood, extreme for me being away from the main street, but all we have now seems to be extremes.

Everyone does not choose to be nomadic. Not really fair that the addition of more people, isn't just addition, but being forced to be a nomad or rather forced subtraction.

This city does not mitigate well for displacement, nor respect the people who currently live in a place and businesses that serve those people. We are expendable doncha know? Even though I pay more in property and sales taxes than anyone taking an entry level job at Amazon.

The triplex next door is rented by young professionals and musicians. I overheard them walking down the street coming home one evening. They were commenting how their friends claim they live in 'the suburbs' and their response was that it is a short walk from the hill and nice and quiet so they can sleep and get to work in the morning!

Posted Tue, Jun 25, 10:29 p.m. Inappropriate

I'd love to take the affordable commercial space issue up. Apodments are the opportunistic developers version of "affordable housing". I live with an apodments configuration here in my house minus the greed. We need to worry much more about this and commercial space / small business space affordability. Non Profit Real Estate Investment Trusts are the basket where I currently put many of my housing, commercial space and art space eggs.

Posted Wed, Jun 26, 7:23 a.m. Inappropriate

I am curious how the apodments configuration in your house is done without greed.

Is the physical layout different in such a way that you are more generous with space for each tenant, or are you just charging below market rate rents?

jeffro

Posted Sun, Jun 30, 12:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Kate Martin, I don't know whether to laugh in your face or rail against your deviousness. Which is to say, I don't know you well enough to judge whether you're as naive as you try to suggest, or whether it's all a corrupt act. I think I'd have a shade more respect if it was Door #2. America has always prized its criminals more than its fools.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jun 25, 10:31 p.m. Inappropriate

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323528404578451023072622486.html

Posted Wed, Jun 26, 12:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Kate,

I have worked for many housing non-profits. The problem I see, is that they pay the same real-estate costs and construction costs. A recent study by the Dept. of Community Trade and Economic Development, has those costs as higher than the private sector. Non-profits spend more building the same units.

The bigger problem is that long-term, they have no skin in the game, and no incentive not to let deferred maintenance pile up, until they can't keep the buildings habitable. They often are serving populations that can't afford (and don't) pay rent comenserate with what it costs to truely operate their housing, even if that housing is financed all with grants (public and private) so their is no loan payment. The non-profit strugles to pay operating costs and extract enough cash to pay the staff required for the non-profit to fullfill the role of owner.

So flash-forward 20-years when the roof finally gives out, and they have set-aside only 30% of the cost of the roof. The rent growth has been limited by the income growth of their residents who are at 50% of Area Median Income (AMI), and they don't have the cash-flow to support a new loan to pay for the roof, like a for-profit owner who has seen higher rent growth. They say to the public funders, "We can't continue to limit ourselves to charging rents affordable to folks at 50% AMI, and we certainly can't fix the roof and other big ticket capital items. We need you to give us a new grant to pay for this roof." The public funder says, "But that is what you covenanted with us to do when you bought and built the project. Would you like us to 'foreclose' since you are violating the 'Low-Income Housing Covenant' your organization signed when you took public money?" The non-profit would rationally reply, "We'll do better than that, we will sign it over to you, so you can assume our position of negative cash-flow and restrictions on how much we can charge for rent. Where would you like us to go to sign the papers?"

The non-profit loses no equity. They have no shareholders who will lose their capital. The staff gets laid off, but in the process go to work elsewhere and get raises. The Board of Directors has made a reasonable and justifiable business decision, lacking other viable alternatives. If they raise rents to market, they arne't meeting their mission to serve low-income households and the public funder will rightly take the property. Having chosen the best decision from a list of rotten alternatives, they have excercised "due care" in their oversight of the non-profit and have no liability. If they are sued for "erring or omitting" in their board responsibilities, the E & O Insurance Policy purhcased for those board members (they would be nuts to volunteer for board service without it. Board service means volunteering expertise and time, fundraising, etc., but becomes prohibitive if your net worth and income are at risk by virtue of that volunteering) will provide legal representation, and pay in the unlikely event, somebody sues and prevails.

What is the incentive for the non-profits to do anything different under the scenario above? All involved are heartbroken at the failure of the non-profit to continue in its mission, but in practical terms they gave it their all and did everything possible to prevent the inevitable.

The public funder now ownes a property that no other non-profit will take ownership of, because its a money pit, with rent restrictions that make it impossible to change that. Legislators are outraged. Not just Republicans because the public will have to buy the housing they already paid for once, but Democrats because the new expenditure impacts their ability to spend on public education and other social services.

Non-profit, affordable housing providers, using public money, are esenetial to providing housing for those that are too poor for the private sector to profitably serve. But I don't think, we, or you have thought through the unintended consequences of creating something with no potential for profit or equity. There is nothing to lose or wealth to walk-away from when roofs and other "big-ticket" repairs and replacements drive outgo past income.

We might be better off letting the non-profits, after say 15-years, lose the rent restrictions, as each tenant moves out of their unit, so they can get loans, make upgrades that will allow them to compete for higher income renters, raise rents, and produce cash-flow they can plow back into staff raises (to stay closer to the market wage for the skill-set) and into producing more income. We might actually see middle-income rental housing in this City, not just rental housing for the top end of the market, and more tax-payer supported housing for the very poor.

Posted Sat, Jun 29, 11:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle's excuse for a corrupt city government has never met a neighborhood it didn't want to destroy. It was Capitol Hill's turn. There's rich irony in that, given that Capitol Hill's voters have strongly supported the "progressives" that did them in.

Ordinarily, I'd say "stabbed them in the back" rather than "did them in," but in this case the Seattle "progressives" really never made any secret of their aims. But the people on Capitol Hill voted for these corrupt clowns time and time again nonetheless. Only at the last minute did a few of them pause at the door of the slaughterhouse and profess to be shocked, just shocked, at what is now inevitable.

It's very hard for me to sympathize, If there was ever an example of people getting what they asked for, this is it.

NotFan

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