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    How the heck did we get here? A history of affordable housing in Seattle

    As the city reviews its current housing programs, Geoff Spelman recounts four decades of affordable housing initiatives.
    Aerial view of Seattle International District in 1969. Photo via WikiCommons/Seattle Municipal Archives

    Aerial view of Seattle International District in 1969. Photo via WikiCommons/Seattle Municipal Archives

    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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    Posted Thu, Jun 5, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate

    UW study: Land-use regulations add $200,000 to cost of homes in Seattle.



    Posted Thu, Jun 5, 12:37 p.m. Inappropriate

    I'd imagine that having a wrecking yard, chemical plant, or flophouse adjacent to my single family home would reduce it's value by quite a bit...


    Posted Thu, Jun 5, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

    When Governor Inslee put a moratorium on capital punishment, was it a moratorium on all criminal sentencing?


    Posted Tue, Jul 22, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

    Maybe you shouldn't buy a house in an area that would also make for a good chemical plant.. It's not the your fellow citizens responsibility to bail you out for your purchasing ineptitude.


    Posted Thu, Jun 5, 9:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    This whirlwind tour covers most of the bases but is in such a hurry that facts not that hard to find have been overrun by rumors and lore standard to the industry.

    You miss entirely what got Belltown going and made it possible for ordinary people to live there: the mid-1980s Seattle Planning Comission's recommendation to DOWNZONE a lot of it to five over two (five floors of wood frame over two noncombustible).

    West Seattle objections to urban villages do not condense to the West Seattle Junction (the Big Junction). For one thing, the ring leader, Charlie Chong's locale was the Admiral Junction. For the real and entire bill of fare, type "West Seattle Defense Fund" at Google search and up pops the Growth Management Hearing Board's Final Decision and Order.

    With benefit of hindsight, what city planners planned and Charlie, et al, feared turned out to be the opposite of what has come to pass—the urban village problem has been gentrification and displacement, not apartments affordable to low income and working families who can not, may never, afford to buy a house. As you allude, bonuses, upzoning, and whatever else that raises density raises land prices unless, that is, long term affordable units are the ONLY bonus granted.

    Although such a thing has been allowed in Washington state for many years, public officials have been "encouraged" to see no distinction between goodies i.e. "benefits" that increase rentabilitity (rents) and quality, affordable, well designed housing. Unless one is a non-profit frantically shopping for all the grants, etc. one can find, the land prices inching skyward in the name of affordability and imagineering prescribe the problem, aka "the solution renews the question anew." Engels 1872, The Housing Question.


    Posted Fri, Jun 6, 5:21 p.m. Inappropriate

    It's interesting that Mr. Spelman starts out with the Ozark Ordinances and the resulting declining availability of cheap housing. Our City Council has recently passed an "Housing Inspection Ordinance" which has a similar motivation: namely to force property owners to bring their buildings up to something similar to present day code compliance. The obvious downside of that is that once the uninvolved landlord makes the required upgrades he is no longer obliged to rent the dwelling for a concessionary price so the rents go up. Who would have ever foreseen that?


    Posted Sat, Jun 7, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

    There needs to be some skepticism concerning the Eicher study--the figures presented lead to an absurd conclusion.

    According to the TIMES coverage, "Between 1989 and 2006, the median inflation-adjusted price of a Seattle house rose from $221,000 to $447,800. Fully $200,000 of that increase was the result of land-use regulations, says Theo Eicher…" If true, this would mean that without new regulations housing prices would have risen only $26,800 over a period of almost 20 years.

    Given the growth in the number of Seattle residents (and would-be residents) in that time, it is absurd to claim that the cost of houses (a fixed resource given that the city single-family neighborhoods were already largely built out in 1989) would have gone up at a rate of only $1500/year. Or is Eicher claiming that without new regulations house prices would have remained low because so many existing single-family lots could have been cut up into smaller lots with many, many more new small-footprint but taller houses?

    Posted Sun, Jun 8, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yes, it's easy to get too navel centric.

    contains a chart of national housing prices, rent equivalents & mortgage rates 1970 to 2013+. How odd, the entire nation went on urban containment steroid in 1999, rudely yanked off in 2006, and ?

    charts on Table 2 page 12 that in 2002, metro-Denver, followed closely by metro-Seattle, led the nation in sprawling the least..."consistent with the recent finding in the Brookings Institution paper, “Who Sprawls Most?” which found that land is consumed for urbanization on a far more efficient basis in the West than in other parts of the nation, and that the Northeast uses land much less efficiently (Fulton et al. 2001)." page 11.

    warns again and again in 2002 of the need for further research. Finally in 2012 comes the news:


    "Strict containment of urban expansion destroys the homes of the poor and puts new housing out of reach for most people. Decent housing for all can be ensured only if urban land is in ample supply."

    To find out why the advice is primarily aimed at urbanizing Asia and Africa one is encouraged to purchase a rather think sounding book. Or one could look around booming again Seattle, which gets us back to where we came in. Truth is stranger than fiction.


    Posted Tue, Jul 22, 12:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    Why should low income residents be mixed into expensive neighborhoods full of people who actually contribute to society enough to afford such places? If you want to see wages on the low end go up close to downtown, remove all this bullshit low income housing and employers will have no choice but to pay more to find labor in that area.

    Every single regulation causes a wound we then blame on the only thing that can heal that wound.. the free market.


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