The term “affordable housing crisis” has been batted around Seattle with increasing fervor recently — an indication of a city where many low-to-middle income residents are being priced out, and home ownership is increasingly out of reach to all but the wealthy.
At a Seattle City Council meeting Wednesday though, where consultants delivered a long-awaited report meant to guide new housing legislation, the mindset was far more relaxed. The city's updated affordable housing plan was originally slated for passage by the end of summer. At the meeting, it was announced a plan will now be passed by the end of the year, and legislation won’t be passed until 2015.
Intended to serve as a nationwide “best practices” primer, Wednesday’s presentation — delivered primarily by Kurt Creager of design and urban planning firm Otak — compared affordable housing in twelve other American cities, in an effort to weed out ideas that could work here.
“We’re not the only city grappling with this,” said councilmember Sally Clark. “The good news is you [the consultants] are going to tell us we’re doing pretty well, but the bad news is we need a lot more [units].”
As Clark predicted, Creager patted the council’s back many times, saying the city has “led the way for 30 years” in national affordable housing policy, and is “on the right track” because of the “council’s values.” Early on, he noted that while “rental and ownership housing is unaffordable for many lower and middle income households, Seattle ranks near the middle of the comparison jurisdictions in terms of housing rental rates and sale prices.”
Not everyone was so laid-back about the issue, however. Freshman councilmember Kshama Sawant was stone-faced throughout the meeting. After perhaps one too many jokes between other councilmembers, exclaimed, “This needs to be infused with a sense of urgency! We’re in a crisis situation.”
Sawant’s frustration certainly has legs. Nearly all of Creager’s praise revolved around Seattle’s housing levies. Those are an action by voters more than the council, with taxpayers shouldering the burden. City Hall’s main instruments to encourage affordable housing are incentive zoning (which we’ve covered in-depth previously) and multi-family tax exemptions (MFTEs) — neither were explored in-depth Wednesday. The city’s approach to the first has been called severely flawed by both developers and affordability activists, and Councilman Nick Licata says Seattle’s MFTE policies “suck.”
As the city undergoes a housing construction boom, this announced delay — matched with only small changes in housing policy last year — could represent an inability to strike while the iron is hot. The real estate market doesn’t wait. The only question is how the city can best capitalize on its changes.
Still, Wednesday’s meeting wasn’t meant to be a major policy pow-wow. Just a Powerpoint walkthrough of a longer report that councilmembers are still digesting. Less than 20 people attended, and only two used the public comment period to make relevant statements. One asked that Seattle’s new housing policies be “rooted in race and social justice.” The other stated that Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are “bloodthirsty killers” and that the city shouldn’t build any housing, for fear of becoming like China.
Public engagement will likely start ramping up next month. The council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee will be holding a public feedback session on July 14, focused on how developers can be encouraged to create more affordable housing. Another meeting on preserving this housing will be held at the Ballard Community Center July 16. All this leads up to September, when the council now hopes to pass a resolution as a precursor to future legislation.
In the interest of informing that future conversation, below are three of the “best practices” presented in the report.
Getting Employers Involved
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