Seattle has an affordable housing problem, and the city’s attempts to fix it aren’t working. On this point, everyone from housing activists to real-estate developers can agree.
With the minimum wage fight behind it (for now), the Seattle City Council is turning to an equally complicated issue: how to prevent Seattle from achieving full-on economic segregation. The city hosts some of the fastest rising rents in America, and unlike New York City and San Francisco, there’s no rent control to keep things slightly in check. Individuals and families are being priced out of their longtime neighborhoods, often into the city’s outskirts.
To address this, the council is aiming to enact new housing legislation by the end of summer. A 2013 ordinance, which vowed to update Seattle’s affordable housing program and policies, paved the way for an epic, eight-hour public forum this past February. More than 200 people attended, weighing in with their opinions and listening to presentations from national housing experts, Silicon Valley developers, D.C. think tankers, gentrification opponents and others.
Since that meeting, the council has awaited the results of three commissioned studies, which will guide their next steps. Those studies began arriving Friday, when their authors met with council members in an all-day workshop to start hammering out formal policy recommendations. These are due to be unveiled in a July 14 public meeting.
The Seattle process has a way of taking its time, with a seemingly bottomless appetite for information gathering over move making. But it has also produced some of America’s most forward-thinking civic policies. As new residents flood into the city, there’s real urgency to transform Seattle’s approach to housing creation.And elected officials express a degree of confidence that the city can get it right, where cities like San Francisco have not.
Anytime affordable housing is re-examined, the term “incentive zoning” must rear its dull-sounding head.Meant to be a central tool in creating new affordable units, the city's program hasn’t yielded many dividends in the city, and will inevitably be a focus of the upcoming reforms.
The term is fairly descriptive. Housing developers can often expect to make more money on taller buildings, given the added amount of units. The city therefore offers the possibility of zoning modifications to incentivize developers into making some units “affordable” — currently targeted at those making 80 percent or less of the area’s median income (AMI). In lieu of actually building units priced within the AMI guidelines, developers can pay into a fund that helps build that housing elsewhere in the city.
The last time Seattle tinkered with this mechanism was early 2013, when developers sought to build taller buildings around South Lake Union to accommodate the tech sector’s rapid growth there. Before that point, property owners opting not to create affordable housing on-site paid a fee of about $19 per square foot for units above the site’s applicable height limits.The council ended up increasing the fee to $21.68 per square foot, in an attempt to extract more public benefit from South Lake Union's increasing density.
Councilmember Nick Licata called this a “step in the right direction,” though he had sought an escalation of the fee to $96 per square foot. In reality, it seems to have been less a step than a kick — of the can down the road.
The SLU debate pitted affordability advocates against property owners like Vulcan, and neither side was happy with the outcome. Simply put, incentive zoning is meant to create neighborhoods where Amazon managers live on the same block as the people serving them happy hour. No one believes the current approach is achieving that goal.
As it stands, the burden of creating affordable housing in Seattle falls mainly to the public, in the form of the housing levy, repeatedly approved by voters. Using city data, the Downtown Seattle Association points out that levy funding has created more than 3,700 units in the last 12 years, while incentive zoning has only created 616.
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