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Seattle mayor announces affordable housing ‘stretch goal’

Ed Murray at Civic Cocktail Credit: David Kroman

Mayor Ed Murray announced an ambitious goal to add 50,000 housing units in the city of Seattle Thursday. The units would phase in over the next ten years through partnerships with the non-profit, public and private sectors.

Under Murray’s plan, 20,000 of those units would qualify as affordable housing and 30,000 will be market rate. Exactly how those numbers will be achieved is still unclear, left largely to the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee (HALA). Their recommendations are due in May.

It’s become Seattle lore that, when the Income Inequality Committee, tasked with hashing out Seattle’s new minimum wage ordinance, was at an impasse, Murray stormed in and demanded results. While Murray denies this, the mayor’s approach to housing sounds similar. Co-chair of HALA, David Wertheimer, said Murray had a “robust discussion” with HALA Thursday morning, presenting the committee with his numbers and giving them the responsibility of formulating a strategy for achieving his goals.

HALA’s 28 members have been meeting since November. Wertheimer described HALA’s reaction to the mayor’s goal as enthusiastic, saying that the recommendations have come at “just the right time. We’ve had seven work groups that have been developing strategies to promote housing affordability.”

On the market rate side of the housing equation, adding 30,000 units appears achievable in as little as three years. The Daily Journal of Commerce published an article Wednesday saying housing market research firm, Dupre and Scott, predicts 12,000 housing units will open this year, 11,000 next year and as many as 48,000 by 2019.

When asked why the city need set goals for market-based housing, considering that 23,000 units are predicted to open in just two years, Councilmember Sally Clark, who is the chair of the Housing Affordability Committee and who served as an advisor in the mayor’s housing discussions, said you never know what’s going to happen in the market. “We don’t have a crystal ball,” she said,implying that the market could turn at any time. “We do have an interest in overall supply.”

The road toward 20,000 affordable housing units, on the other hand, is much less clear, both logistically and financially. Both the mayor and Wertheimer acknowledged the challenge, calling 20,000 units a “stretch.” “This is a number we can reach towards,” said Wertheimer, “and hopefully achieve.”

Clark also said the goal was a long shot, but added, “What gets measured gets done. Without a goal, we talk in short term spurts.”

Neither the mayor nor HALA offered concrete strategies for achieving the affordable housing goal or even who, exactly, the affordable housing would benefit. Only those earning 80 percent or less of the area median income (AMI) would be eligible to apply for the income restricted housing, but there is not yet a breakdown of how many units would be available to those earning 0-30 percent, 30-50 percent or 50-80 percent of the AMI.

Murray defended his focus on the 50-80 percent bracket, saying “moderate income households are being priced out of the city.”

The city currently produces an average of 700 affordable units a year, largely a result of the $145 million Seattle Housing Levy passed in 2009. That levy will expire in 2016. Steve Walker of the Office of Housing said they would look to voters in 2016 to extend the levy.

However, proposing a new levy will not be a magic pill for housing affordability. The mayor’s new goal would require 2,000 new affordable units to be produced each year, more than double what is currently being produced. There is some question of whether Seattle voters, who have lately proven willing to tax themselves, will have the stomach for another levy in 2016. Especially so close on the heels of the mayor’s $900 million transportation levy, which will be on the ballot next fall. Murray was not worried: “Seattle pays fewer taxes than any Washington city except Bellevue,” he said

According to Clark, even if a new levy passes, in fact even if the new levy is twice as large as the current Seattle Housing Levy, it wouldn’t on its own meet the mayor’s ambitious goal. There is not a one to one correlation between dollars and units. “Doubling the levy would not double housing production,” she said. The solution needs to be more creative, perhaps including things such as linkage fees, which would charge developers per square foot if they did not include affordable housing.

“We need to find some new ways to get those units: More dollars, more partners, more projects,” said Clark.

It’s hard to know how HALA’s strategy development is coming along: All of its members except co-chairs Wertheimer and Faith Li Pettis have been forbidden from speaking to the media, according to Murray spokesman Viet Shelton. But Wertheimer kept referring to the “variety of opinions” within HALA’s 28 members. “When the mayor gave his number, some felt it was a really ambitious goal, others thought it wasn’t what we needed,” he said.

“Everything is on the table,” said Wertheimer, adding that HALA has even discussed rent control, although that would need to be a state policy.

Also in the discussion is a $500 million bond proposed by the newly formed Seattle-focused Community Housing Caucus (CHC) two weeks ago. The panel, formed with on the advice of Washington State Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, advocated for calling Seattle’s housing issues an emergency, thereby opening up the city’s rainy day fund and freeing up the city’s bond capacity.

A full article on the CHC can be found here, but their recommendations include requiring developers to replace demolished affordable housing one for one with new units, linkage fees, stricter zoning laws to protect mobile home parks and rent control. They define those in need of affordable housing as people making 50 percent AMI or below.

Ambitious as it is, groups like the CHC believe the city needs more than 20,000 units. Murray acknowledged this, drawing a parallel to the $15 minimum wage. “A living wage in Seattle is not $15 an hour, it’s $21.” But, he said, it’s a step.

Seattle is bound by Puget Sound, Lake Washington and some pretty big hills. If market housing is growing as quickly as the Daily Journal of Commerce suggests, is there even room for affordable housing? For Clark, part of that depends on the good will of people living in the city. “We love our neighbors to be a diverse set of people,” she said. “I don’t think any of us want to give up.”

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