The bulk of Seattle’s “natural” or “market-rate” affordable housing is found in old apartment buildings and homes. But there's serious stress among some at City Hall,that this housing is disappearing, costing low-income residents their homes without creating an affordable replacement. But could part of the problem be, perhaps, you?
Last week, councilmember Lisa Herbold pitched her plan to save this form of cheap housing. It starts with a pilot project: have the city buy one market-rate building and keep it at its low-price. If that works, expand the effort, creating a pot of money and putting many such buildings on the city’s credit card.
There’s another problem facing this housing, however, beside its supply. While the city has rough ideas of how much exists, it basically has no idea who lives in them, and if the cheap housing is occupied by the people who need it. Perhaps as a result, the city has largely steered clear of saving pre-occupied, naturally affordable housing: Not a dime of the 2009 Housing Levy went toward its preservation.
And while it’s not really the fault of deal-hunters to live below their means, if everyone living in a cheap apartment who didn't need it moved somewhere more expensive, we might not have an affordability crisis at all.
For example, my partner and I pay $1,350 for a two-bedroom apartment. At that amount, our apartment is right on the cusp of "affordable housing" and "workforce housing." But, while our place is relatively cheap, we don't literally live in "affordable housing" — our rent is not subsidized. Instead of subsidies, we have cockroaches. We also have mold. We also have baseboard heat. The combination means our landlord made a calculation that our place could not fetch more than $1,350 a month.
Based on our income, we make pretty close to what we should to live in proper “affordable housing” (which reminds me, Crosscut's having its spring member drive!). Our place among the cockroaches means we are not seeking any of Seattle's scarce supply of subsidized housing. But if we did live in that housing, we'd have to prove that we qualified, and that anything would be more than a third of our income.
Where do you stand? If you’re interested you can calculate whether you’re underpaying (or overpaying) your rent in the charts below. If you're like me, you protect your good rent deal with your life! But if you pay less than a third of your income to rent, you may be like an overzealous trophy hunter – impressed by the quality of your kill, even if you’re unsure why you need 800 pounds of buffalo.
Compared to the relatively simple logic of public housing, the market-rate affordability world is much fuzzier and can make even the most stalwart lefties sound like trickle-down economists. For example, Dan Bertolet, housing policy analyst with Sightline, simultaneously advocates for supply at the top and preservation at the bottom.
"I think the important point is that new development is not a major cause of the loss of existing affordable housing," he says. "The main cause is inflated prices throughout the market caused by demand outstripping supply, and new housing helps reduce that problem."
By this logic, when upper-income people living in low-rent apartments decide to move, more expensive options will be there for them, leaving the cheap places for those that need it.
But for officials like Councilmember Kshama Sawant, this argument doesn't really hold water. Sawant has consistently blamed new development for displacing affordable housing. Her friend-in-ideology Jon Grant advocated for a mandatory one-to-one replacement on the campaign trail last November.
Councilmember Herbold lands a little more in the middle. "I understand that there are higher income people that are occupying rental units that are lower cost that they can afford," she says over the phone. By that token, she is not opposed to expensive development. But, she says, "it doesn’t help us solve our affordable housing problem, it helps it get less worse."
For Herbold and others, the loss of that lower-tier market-rate housing is the culprit of gentrification. "Those already here deserve to stay if they choose," said Giulia Pasciuto, policy analyst with Puget Sound Sage at a Wednesday Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods and Finance Seattle Council Committee meeting.
So Herbold is trying to sway the opinion of her fellow councilmembers that they ought to fill this preservation gap left largely unfilled by the Housing Levy and the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda recommendations. By Herbold's estimate, tax revenue from booming construction could supplement levies and replace property taxes as a faucet for the earmarked affordable housing.
Combine that with use of the city's bonding capacity, argues Herbold, and you've got a path to preservation. The city bonds on major projects, like bridges, police precincts and the seawall and then pays them off over many years. Sawant has been a consistent advocate for bonding, but the City Budget Office has been tepid, to say the least. Ben Noble, the office's director, lives in fear that if the city borrows more than it already does its AAA credit rating will be downgraded.
Although the city does not have right of first refusal on for-sale buildings, it does require 60-days advance notice for any building with affordable units. So if the city was ready to jump, it would have a considerable advantage over would-be remodelers/rent raisers.
About half a hypothetical $13.5 million price tag for Herbold’s proposed pilot project of buying a building of market-rate housing would come from private funds (non-profits, for example), just less than half from bond funds and a small chunk from the housing growth fund.
"The idea is more about identifying non-levy funds to do work that the levy isn’t designed to do," says Herbold. "And in making it successful we get the city and the community together in recognizing that this work is important."
But something lingers...and it's still potentially you! If the city buys up cheap apartments, it would want to give them to people who need them. So where does that leave the people who already live there who might not technically qualify for affordable housing? Would some people be allowed to stay and others booted?
Herbold wasn't too concerned. "There have been mixed income purchases in the past and tenants have figured it out before," she says.
Determine your income relative to the area's median, and whether your rent would qualify as "affordable", using the charts below...
Correction, April 11, noon:
A previous version of this story misstated the timeline required for landlords to notify the city of intent to sale cheap housing. It is 60 days, not 15.