Some things worked, some failed. Some opportunities were lost. Some are the envy of other progressive cities. As Crosscut thinks about affordable housing as part of its Community Idea Lab, we remember the affordable housing policies that have come before and the effects they've had.
1970: Boeing chooses not to develop its supersonic aircraft (SST). Tens of thousands lose their jobs and vacancy rates hit 16 percent. Seattle goes into a serious funk. Even the rain puddles are depressed. People are offering you their house for free. They are actually willing to give you the key rather than see it go back to the bank.
Kurt Cobain is only three but later would later write:
Disease covered Puget Sound
She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars
And leave a blanket of ash on the ground
Is he thinking about Seattle’s housing plunge because it rhymed with grunge? Clearly not. But speaking of fires….
1970: Fires in downtown! After two multi-fatality fires in downtown single-room occupant (SRO) buildings, the Ozark fire ordinance is passed.
Preservation Seattle, an online newspaper of the nonprofit Historic Seattle, would later write:
These two tragedies, which were some of the worst in Seattle history, resulted in retroactive amendments to the fire code in 1970 and to the minimum housing code in 1972. The laws collectively became known as the Ozark Hotel Ordinances, and mandated extensive safety upgrades for most of Seattle's older hotels and apartments -- upgrades that many owners could not afford. As a result, thousands of low-cost housing units were lost, buildings were vacated, redeveloped or demolished, and the character of some of Seattle's oldest urban neighborhoods was forever changed.
Many buildings remain closed from that point onward and the housing market took a tumble: Rents for one-bedroom units fell from $141 in 1968 to $109 in 1971.
1975: Many of the buildings affected by the Ozark Ordinance are in the International District. Concern with preserving cultural identities and affordable housing sparks the creation of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority and International District Housing Alliance.
These groups start out as activist organizers, defending the district from the effects of the Kingdome, but eventually morph into non-profit housing developers. Despite a variety of financial incentives, many building owners in the ID resist the call to upgrade their buildings and the upper floors of many buildings remain empty.
A Kingdome protest in the International District. Photo: IMLS Digital Collections.
A long recovery continues. Homes are available in Wallingford for $25,000. That would be for a home on a double lot, but who cares? No one has any money, and the city is still trying to find its feet after getting clobbered by the Boeing bust.
1975: With rents now rising off depression lows, feisty attorney Marie Donohoe organizes a campaign for rent control. Landlords show up in force and Ms. Donohoe and her campaign are squished at a hearing before City Council.
1976: Capitol Hill Housing begins as a home improvement program, but later morphs into a stalwart neighborhood-based housing development organization.The organization first renovates and later builds new buildings, providing 1,800 housing units in 44 buildings.
1978: An important year for housing and growth.
- Seattle home prices, after languishing, suddenly shoot up, the first of several end-of-decade jumps. The city launches new zoning code, which manages to simultaneously anger both single-family preservationists and housing activists.
- Neighborhood organization Southeast Effective Development (SEED) calls for 1,000 units of new low-income housing to be dispersed throughout the city.
- Activist John Fox and the Seattle Displacement Coalition start meeting in the basement of a Capitol Hill church. John is single-minded — he decides to devote himself to the issue of preserving Seattle's affordable housing, particularly downtown. He will spend the next forty years plying his argument that the city has a moral responsibility to preserve affordable housing.
- Reverend David Bloom, associated with the Church Council of Greater Seattle (and a co-conspirator with Mr. Fox), calls attention to rising prices and displacement. The Church Council starts a task force on Housing and Urban Decay, later changed to Housing and Urban Growth. This explicitly marks the change from community concern about decay and disinvestment to concern about the consequences of reinvestment and growth. Looking for the beginning of churches and tent cities? In a 1978 Seattle Times article, Reverend Bloom ponders “an intriguing possibility” for churches to look at the property they own and find ways to use it to reduce the housing crunch.
- Meanwhile, the city launches a new zoning code, Single Unit Detached Residential. Among many inconsequential changes, one stood out, at least to traditional neighborhood interests: The city’s decision to change the words from “single-family” to “single unit.” Seattle yawns, except for someone on the Queen Anne Community Council. “Density is Death!” he shouts. Concerned about duplexes and a possible conspiracy to change the city's single-family zoning, he rallies the Federation. The Seattle Community Council Federation that is.
Originally founded in 1946 to help resettle Japanese-American internees returning to Seattle and help Black veterans coming back from the war, SCCF eventually morphed to protect and preserve traditional single-family neighborhoods. At one time, this was a powerful alliance of neighborhood organizations that had substantial clout. Even though the City Council was elected at-large, individual neighborhood councils like the Mount Baker Community Club — which gave birth to such leaders as Ron Sims and Norm Rice — could band together under the Federation’s banner and stop policy initiatives in their tracks. The Federation successfully blocks detached residential buildings in single-family areas, which will remain sacrosanct, off-limits to redevelopment. This means that other areas in the city will have to be the place for growth.
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