Can Seattle save itself from a San Francisco-sized tech backlash?

Crosscut's brand spankin' new Community Idea Lab takes on the question. And we need your help.
A Google bus protest in San Francisco.

A Google bus protest in San Francisco. Photo: Chris Martin


Seattle is a city on the rise. A city, like San Francisco, being shaped by legions of tech newcomers — and the coming of Amazon's futuristic biodomes. That's a trend we can expect to continue, assuming Amazon sticks around, American migration follows projected climate patterns over the next 30 years, and we don't suddenly introduce big income taxes or completely defund our public university system.

Unlike San Francisco though, Seattle has a chance to be purposeful and deliberate about its tech boom; to shape the way our tech community fits into our city. We can learn how to avoid the Google bus riots and the insanely high home prices that are pushing longtime residents out of that city. That kind of disconnect between Seattle and its newest corporate citizens is not a fait accompli. There are other ways.

One model that's worked well (although not perfectly) in SF's Tenderloin neighborhood, is the community benefit agreement: In effect, companies that settle there can receive payroll tax exemptions in exchange for community outreach.

Zendesk, a customer service firm originally started in Denmark, has been touted as the most successful signatory of the agreement. In 2013, company employees volunteered in SF's Tenderloin neighborhood schools, served food at local soup kitchens, developed a tech lab for low-income neighbors and hired local caterers and restaurants for at least 40 percent of its events. In exchange, the city gave Zendesk a $217,000 break on its payroll taxes.

Zendesk makes community involvement part of its company culture, a model that draws its employees, even newbies to the city, into the emotional and cultural fabric of San Francisco.

Here in Seattle, it's a model that Microsoft pioneered, and Amazon is so far still ignoring in favor of margins. Former Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle City Council made noises about community benefits during the rezone of South Lake Union last year, but the affordable housing outcome of that agreement left much to be desired. Councilmember Nick Licata, the most ardent voice for more affordable housing, came out on the losing end of an agreement that will generate a mere 700 affordable neighborhood housing units in SLU, all designed for one-person households that make $45,000 or less a year. 

Licata wanted to dedicate 15 percent of the new SLU development to affordable housing, which would have put us in line with, though not ahead of, San Francisco. Which is to say that, unless something changes, there's nothing stopping Seattle from careening towards a tech-driven affordable housing crisis.

Before you hit the panic button, consider that Seattle does have some significant advantages. Like New York, we are fiercely proud of our boroughs and their character: Capitol Hill, Columbia City, Georgetown, Madrona, Ballard, the rebounding Lake City and Pioneer Square. All are unique and worth fighting for. And we have the dedication to win those battles. As a metropolitan area, we are at the top of the heap in community involvement, 3rd in the country in terms of volunteering, and 6th when it comes to voting, according to a CityClub's Civic Health Index.

We are crafty and scrappy, a community of upstarts — and startups — that embraces idealism and innovation and technology. We are tastemakers and thriftshoppers, big data nerds, biotech luminaries and engineering-minded. Our LOL Cats mine asteroids and build deep ocean observatories and we change the face of global philanthropy with crazy toilets.

And we haven't even hauled out our secret weapon yet. Imagine if we could actually master the art of Northwest regionalism. If we could harness the direct, action-oriented Eastside civic style, which breeds some of the country's smartest developments, best schools and most diverse communities. If we could follow Tacoma's willingness to be both practical and openminded about transit, education and arts innovation. (Eleven of Washington's 33 most-innovative schools are based there.) The power of regionalism is there for us to wield — as soon as we get over our existing biases.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 9 a.m. Inappropriate

I suggest that 1% of new construction be set aside for community purposes like day care, artists studios, ethnic grocery, start up business etc. The spaces need not be fully built-out but enough that the basics are there including electrical and plumbing. A more diverse community will develop quickly, many community desired activities will get a boost, and given Tax breaks by the city council, the building owners would benefit financially. In Seattle we are familiar with 1% For Arts program which sets aside money for purchasing artwork local artists. This program would be similar but would set aside space for community desired activities. A win/win opportunity.

chapala21

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 2:46 p.m. Inappropriate

"ethnic grocery"

My Asian American wife shops at Whole Foods, does that count?

Simon

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 4:08 p.m. Inappropriate

"ethnic grocery" are a "community purpose?" Uwajimaya is run as a charity?
Sheesh.

Oh, ethnic grocery except not for Asians and Jews and Italians and Latinos...all of whom are (obviously if you look around the city) well capable of starting their own "ethnic grocery".

Crosscut, can't you avoid being a parody of Seattle liberalism?

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 6:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Basically what she wants is tax dollars to what ever pet minority group she likes.

Simon

Posted Mon, Apr 28, 7:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Maybe you should call your tax assessor and ask for a summary of tax exempt properties that are already being used for community purposes. Many of them are standing vacant and unused. The list is HUGE in Seattle and King County.

We own more than we use. Already. Acquision phases should be over. Remodel, rebuild should become the new green.

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 9:27 a.m. Inappropriate

" Amazon is so far still ignoring in favor of margins." Amazon's profit margin is famously thin, I think they actually showed a loss last quarter. Obviously not relevant to the point of your article which is intriguing. But still.

kieth

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Kieth, good point. That's actually what I meant, although you put it much more clearly than I did. Their margins aren't big enough that they find Microsoft's brand of community engagement a viable option.

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 12:01 p.m. Inappropriate

California has a very high state income tax and has pretty much defunded its public universities, yet San Francisco and Silicon Valley continue to thrive. Some say it's because of Stanford and Cal Berkley, research universities existing on a much higher plane than UDub.

As Jim Lynch noted in his novel Truth Like the Sun, Seattle has created more millionaires and even billionaires than almost anyplace else in recent times, yet it has little if anything to show for it. That will probably be a greater cause for backlash than anything you suggest. That, and skyrocketing rents...

orino

Posted Mon, Apr 28, 7:31 p.m. Inappropriate

You're kidding, right? On so many levels.

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 1:16 p.m. Inappropriate

"We can learn how to avoid the Google bus riots and the insanely high home prices that are pushing longtime residents out of that city."
*************
You just got off the boat then, eh?

I've lived here since 1989; a nice one-bedroom in West Seattle could be had for $350. Those one-bedrooms now go for around $1200 - $1400 a month! Don't believe me - look at Craigslist Seattle for apartments in West Seattle near California Ave.

You are very very late to this party. Its already happened. And there was plenty of noise about low income housing, yada yada yada back then. Have prior efforts at keeping rents down worked? I say not.

ALP

Posted Mon, Apr 28, 8:19 p.m. Inappropriate

ALP, you seem to believe that a $350 apartment in 1989 should be the same price today, yet it is now 2014. 25 full years later.

Rents do not stay the same for 25 years ... in fact, $1200 - $1400 today isn't even the terrible increase as you'd like to believe.

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 2:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Lots of cheap housing in Tukwila and Seatac and an easy train ride into Seattle. When North Link is finished, Lynnwood will be a short hop skip and a jump to Seattle. Also very affordable: Rainier Valley, Skyway, White Center, Lake City Way.

There, your affordable housing problems have been solved.

Simon

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 4:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Exactly. The real housing problem is not enough affordable housing per se but enough walkable neighborhoods. Capitol Hill etc is expensive because it is walkable -- if Kent could figure out how to do it, people would flock to Kent.

The notion of subsidizing more people to live _in Seattle_ is short-sighted.

The real problem is we don't know how to re-create Capitol Hill etc etc In fact we are only doing a half-assed job of preserving what we already have. Conversion of suburbs into urbs is the holy grail of urban planning.

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 6:25 p.m. Inappropriate

The problem is spoiled white people who want to live near other white people but can't afford it and god forbid they live where there is affordable housing, places like White Center, Tukwila, Seatac.

Simon

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 6:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Agree, plenty of housing, and will be more coming, by light rail. Young tech workers willing to pay, or throw a tantrum demanding, a 'right' to live on Capitol Hill, only have the 'right' to pay. Most of us who moved here in decades past, moved to where we could afford -- and that was usually not Capitol Hill.

OTOH, Amazon and others should consider building some housing next to or inside of their fantasy glass bubble. Pied-a-terres or pods for those they import and who need some time to settle in and figure out where they want to live.

Kent and Redmond will become more walkable, or maybe who cares if people drive a couple of miles to go out to eat or shop. What will help dense up places outside of downtown is some more jobs at the light rail and commuter rail stations so everyone does not need to commute into Seattle. Decently dense commerical with residential, not suburban strip malls or office parks, right by fixed rail transit.

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 11:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting that Simon et al have not mentioned the defeat of the Metro proposition on the King County ballot 4/22. Sadly, car tabs and Tim Eyeman and Washingtonian's aversion to paying for its infrastructure will result in a transportation mess in this region, except for the railroads hauling coal and Bakken oil. Sure, folks can live in the outer communities like Burien but without sustainable transit, getting into Seattle is going to be very difficult. So, here come the Google Buses and there go the ethnic neighborhoods like Ballard and Rainier Valley, just like the loss of the Mission in SF to the plaid shirted dorks of Google.

Posted Fri, Apr 25, 9:58 p.m. Inappropriate

"ethnic neighborhoods like Ballard"

Thanks for the laugh.

Simon

Posted Mon, Apr 28, 8:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Ya sure, ya betcha.

Posted Fri, Apr 25, 1:12 p.m. Inappropriate

The introductory paragraph suggests an income tax here would be a bad thing. No real argument for that proposition is put forward. The author does make a vague allusion though to how an income tax here might mean Seattle no longer would be “on the rise”.

California has a state income tax, and it has been “on the rise” for decades.

A state income tax should be part of the revenue-raisers Washington uses. California now is running a large budget surplus -- it is billions of dollars in the black -- and it was that state's income tax that caused that good development:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/us/californias-new-problem-too-much-money.html?_r=0

Why, exactly, don't the democrats here want to emulate that success?

crossrip

Posted Mon, Apr 28, 5:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Success? WA state with no income tax has never been the mess that CA was until very recently and CA is still a financial mess. Sorry dude, voters will NEVER support an income tax in WA. It's one of the reasons I moved here.

Simon

Posted Mon, Apr 28, 7:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Agree.

Posted Wed, Apr 30, noon Inappropriate

Why would imposition of a state income tax that targets profitable corporations and the top, say, 10% of households here be a bad thing, especially if sales taxes were reduced somewhat at the same time?

I'm sure you two wouldn't pay it, and it would mean your families pay less in sales tax. The government heads would like it, as it would balance out the swings of sales tax revenues.

Are your objections to that kind of income tax just knee-jerk responses, or can you actually explain them in rational terms?

crossrip

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 10:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Because there's no way that the state would 1. lower the sales tax and 2. Only tax the top 10%. Once they get their fingers in the pot and the state workers union smell the cash on their paid-for politicians' fingers, you can guarantee they will lower the income tax to the middle class.

Simon

Posted Fri, Apr 25, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

"assuming... we don't suddenly introduce big income taxes or completely defund our public university system."

Derp, derp. Favorite oxymoron of the modern fiscal hawk. Don't raise any money, but pay for the stuff we just realized is important after systematically de-funding it for 3 decades.

Oh, wait. I'm sorry, you said "don't COMPLETELY defund universities." So as long as our contribution isn't ZERO, we can say we're doing something. Way to set the bar high. How about we just start with funding public education in a way that isn't ILLEGAL. We can work up from there. Maybe. But probably not.

nullbull

Posted Sun, Apr 27, 1:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Berit, I hope you'll bring in more 'comparator cities' than San Francisco; I'd toss out Portland, Minneapolis, Austin, and Denver as example towns that could be profiled as you move this first project along. I think they represent other approaches.

Another commenter noted that "it" (the loss of affordable housing, the erosion of diversity in racial, financial, occupational, etc., groupings) has already happened in Seattle--and I reluctantly agree with that assessment. It is very, very late in the game to expect a reversal of structural factors that result from "late capitalism."

With regard to the SF situation, Chester Hartman in "City for Sale" chronicled the way in which city politics, developer-controlled "planning," permissive statutes and regs, and the inevitable rise in land values laid the groundwork for current-day San Francisco. This happened in the 1970s, and once the essential pieces were in place, everything else just unfurled in the following decades. It's instructive to read his concluding chapter on "The Lessons of San Francisco," which begins:

"San Francisco's development history in the post-World War II period has been overwhelmingly dominated by business interests, by those in the position to reap the large3st profits from this development. They have by and large controlled and peopled the city's government at all levels. They have established their own planning and watchdog mechanisms and agencies, and funded others, to ensure the kind of future they want. The connections between the business community and public policy run the gamut from massive plans to intimate personal ties." (...and so on)

Note that investors don't have to be as heavy-handed as "establishing their own planning agencies"--they just have to make sure that those and similar functions are kept weak and reactive, not strong and prescriptive.

And how in the world could a strong and prescriptive approach be defined and pursued in the sphere of our public dialog and dithering? A huge hidden assumption in our speculations about "how can Seattle do 'x'?" is that "Seattle" exists, or can exist, as a more or less unified decision-making entity. In what currently feasible way could directional clarity and community intent emerge, when virtually all of our structures and processes are riven with so many competing points of view and energetically pursued goals?

These limitations and resistances aren't unique to Seattle--they are built into a way of thinking that sacralizes individual freedoms and in effect devalues community, except as a platform for pursuit of happiness. And while "community values," as mentioned, are difficult to coax into view, there is no such difficulty in the ability of individuals (and corporations are people, my friend) to lock and load in the hunt for a brighter tomorrow. OUR tomorrow!

Seneca

Posted Sun, Apr 27, 2:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Another well told San Francisco history: http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/local/san_francisco.html

louploup

Posted Thu, May 1, 11:44 a.m. Inappropriate

I wish people that suggest tax breaks are some kind of magic salve that gently nudge private interests toward behavior that is beneficial to the community would take a minute to consider that every tax break puts more pressure on local government to reduce existing services or go to the voters hat-in-hand begging for another tax increase that ends up falling on whichever group is least able to resist at the polls. Most economic activity that results from tax breaks displaces other taxed economic activity and ultimately drains the treasury. There seems to be an ongoing assumption that all tax breaks will result in some edge case laffer-curve wet dream of community benefits and an increase in economic activity (and subsequent tax revenues) that never pans out in the real world. Whether it's tax-increment financing for an arena or some community benefit scam, the only people that really make out on these deals are the ones who get the lower tax bill. If a publicly funded computer lab, basketball court, or tutoring program is the thing needed to enhance a neighborhood, the city should cut out the middle man and pay for it directly. Then taxes are distributed more fairly and decision is taken out of the hands of one private citizen (or corporation) and made by people accountable to voters.

swendr

Posted Fri, May 2, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

The current Seattle planning is to increase density in the most dense pats of town, rather than spread it out, and create liveable, walkable neighborhoods in the parts of the city that do not already have them.

Instead of going into the over-dense parts of the city like the U-District, Ballard, Capital Hill, and downtown, and putting in even more density, how about increasing the density in areas like the west side of Queen Anne (including Interbay and Magnolia), the south and eastern parts of West Seattle, the area around 14th and Dearborn, and the areas west of Lake City? These are all areas that have wide streets, lots of parking, but need more density. You have to get in your car and drive a couple of miles if you want to buy a newspaper or loaf of bread. They have no neighborhood retail core. We need more of those throughout the residential parts of our city.

Instead, the city seems to be committed to ruining the nice neighborhoods we already have, instead of building more.

I can understand why developers would rather build 200 units in an area where each unit is $350K, instead of an area with lower housing prices, but they can still make a profit, and the city's interest, not the developers' interests, should be paramount. That's why we have a planning department.

And if these huge developers want to turn up their noses at building projects that won't give them returns of tens of millions of dollars, maybe we can go back to the days when local, smaller developers were satisfied with more modest returns.

I find it difficult to believe that if the city planning department started driving development to the parts of the city that would be helped by it, instead of hurt by it, there would be no takers for those projects. They might be local developers, rather than the big, global corporations that are doing the building now, but I don't necessarily see that as a bad outcome.

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