The Seattle City Council's big chance to create affordable housing

Guest Opinion: The City Council has a chance to create 5-10 times more affordable housing than is currently being produced. Will they take it?
Crosscut archive image.

An affordable housing development in West Seattle.

Guest Opinion: The City Council has a chance to create 5-10 times more affordable housing than is currently being produced. Will they take it?

Anyone who walks under Seattle’s many shadows of cranes and scaffolding can see that new housing development is booming. Yet over 100,000 households in this city — more than one in three — are paying more than they can afford in housing costs. Even if you are not buckling under the weight of your rent or mortgage, many of your friends, neighbors and co-workers likely are.

Without action to bring relief, many run the risk of displacement; of having to endure long, polluting, congesting commutes; of losing quality time with family and community.

There are policy options that would ensure affordability as our city continues to grow. The Seattle City Council is currently considering a policy — called an affordable housing linkage fee — that would require new development to contribute to the city’s affordable housing needs.

Council consultants estimate that an affordable housing linkage fee program could produce five to ten times the amount of affordable housing as the city’s current incentive zoning program, which this program is intended to replace. Used in strong markets across the country, affordable housing linkage fees can help ensure that the great benefits of growth are shared.

As the professional association and advocate for the King County affordable housing community, the Housing Development Consortium (HDC) represents over 100 member organizations working every day to make housing more affordable in Seattle and King County. Together, we are doing what we can to meet the needs of Seattle’s growing population and workforce. But we cannot tackle this problem alone.

Linkage fees are a strong public policy tool that can help address our city’s affordable housing crisis. This policy requires new development to contribute to the creation of affordable housing through mandatory fees, can apply broadly across the city to reach the greatest number of neighborhoods and can be structured to promote affordable units within each new development, fostering inclusive, mixed-income communities.

Council consultant Cornerstone Partnership has proposed the affordable housing linkage fee be structured as a per square foot charge in the range of $5 to $22 on new residential and commercial development. This money would be directed to a fund, used to build housing for low- and moderate-income households. The size of the fee could be tiered depending on neighborhood, but will ultimately depend on council direction.

Council consultants have suggested that, in certain neighborhoods, the city could justify significantly higher fees than those currently under consideration by the council.

The City Council has invested considerable resources to find the right solutions for making Seattle more affordable. One of its consultants — David Rosen and Associates (DRA) — recently released research showing that private developers can afford to do more to help meet the affordable housing needs of Seattle’s workers and families. The economists at DRA have reported that our market is strong — we can capture some of the benefits of growth and development will remain profitable.

DRA also conducted a nexus study, which employs a widely used economic model to draw connections between development, job creation and the need for affordable housing. Nexus studies have shown in many jurisdictions that there is a nexus between new development and increased demand for housing affordable to low- and moderate-wage workers.  

In Seattle, new development helps our city grow its service economy. Residents of high-cost housing frequent coffee shops and restaurants. They need dishwasher repairmen and high-speed Internet service. This leads to job growth — but these service workers also need somewhere to live. Seattle’s nexus study shows that new growth has made it harder for low- and moderate-income families to find homes near jobs, services and other important amenities for a healthy lifestyle. A linkage fee will help create housing affordable to these families.

Seattleites have a choice about what kind of city we want to be. Will we all share in growth and prosperity, or will our city become an exclusive enclave that only the highest-wage earners can afford? Every day that new building permits are issued, we are losing opportunity to create more affordability while low-and moderate-wage workers are being priced out of their homes.

Market solutions alone will not produce enough affordability to deal with this crisis. In order to make sure Seattle is a city where people of all incomes can thrive, we need bold public policy action. An affordable housing linkage fee is our most promising path forward.

The time for the City Council to exercise leadership is now, and we urge it to make the choice to shape Seattle into a city for all.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors