The costs of renting or owning a home continue to rise, causing stress and financial struggles for a growing number of Seattle residents. It has been nearly 10 months since our City Council put on hold their “Linkage Fee” proposal for affordable housing, so that another task force could formulate more solutions. That 28-member task force, appointed by the Mayor and City Council and called the “HOUSING AFFORDABILITY AND LIVABILITY AGENDA” (H.A.L.A.) Advisory Committee, issued their final recommendations on July 13. The Mayor immediately issued an “Action Plan” to embrace them.
On July 7, Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times published a early draft of the HALA recommendations emphasizing changes to single family zones and, on July 10, published a column entitled “More Density Would Only Inflame Seattle’s Growing Pains.” Therefore, many were anxious to see the final HALA recommendations and the Mayor’s plan on July 13.
Many smart and dedicated Seattle thought-leaders volunteered their time for HALA. In addition, the staff within the Mayor’s Office, Office of Housing, and City Council are hard-working housing gurus.
Yet, after all of the hours invested and the recent fanfare, “the devil will be in the details.” There still needs to be (1) an opportunity for genuine public input on the Mayor’s Action Plan, (2) actual city ordinances that spell out the details of each proposal, and (3) dollar figures disclosed to show how much for-profit real estate developers will be required to contribute toward affordable housing. Some have already expressed concern that the recommendations fall short on both “Affordability” and “Livability” and that a cynical motivation to “strike a deal” was the threat of lawsuits from for-profit developer attorneys rather than sound public policy. Many are still hoping the “Affordability” can be stronger and faster. And many are soul-searching about what “Livability” means to them, as our city’s population grows rapidly with the influx of high-tech jobs.
Ideally, “Livability” will start with “Civility.” Personally, we are not ideologues about either increasing density or preserving all single family zoning. But we believe residents should have their voices heard. We bristle at the name-calling and stereotyping that runs rampant on Twitter and on blogs. “NIMBYs,” “Density Diehards”, etc. are overly simplistic labels that dismiss diverse human beings — people who love various aspects of their city — and their valid concerns from all sides of this complex issue. As Stephen Covey used to say, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” After reading the various proposals, attending related events, and listening to neighbors, here are some thoughts:
ENOUGH LINKAGE? The initial good news for “Affordability” is that the Mayor’s “Action Plan” (based on HALA) would link new up-zones in existing commercial and multifamily areas to a requirement for real estate developers to contribute toward affordable housing. Even developers building office/retail would need to contribute to an affordable housing fund. But, apparently, developers would NOT need to contribute to affordable housing when they build duplexes and triplexes in existing “single family” zones throughout the city. (See “Livability” discussion below)
ENOUGH UNITS? The Mayor set a goal to “build or preserve” 20,000 affordable units over 10 years. How much of that would be built (i.e. a net gain of new units) vs. simply “preserved“? The Action Plan states that its version of mandatory linkage fees would create 6,000 affordable units. But are dollars generated from the developers enough to create the 6,000 units in whole (at least $200,000 per unit) or is there double-counting because it will require money “leveraged” from the Housing Levy and other sources? And what about the other 14,000 units?
Doubling the Seattle Housing Levy (as recommended by HALA) is a no-brainer; we could have announced that a year ago. But the expensive Parks Levy coming on the books and the even more expensive Transportation Levy (Move Seattle) heading to the ballot in November could jeopardize a future effort to tax property owners for a larger housing levy. Many of the other HALA ideas for affordable housing have NO funding source and/or are not fleshed out enough to quantify how many affordable housing units could be built toward the other 14,000 units needed to reach the goal of 20,000 units.
ENOUGH INCLUSION? In the lexicon of affordable housing, the purest form of “Inclusionary Zoning” is a city requiring developers to build a % of affordable housing units (typically 10% to 20%) in their building whether or not the city up-zones or provides other sweeteners to the developer. The Action Plan, as presented, is NOT Inclusionary Zoning. While the report says “require,” it not only provides up-zones (a sweetener to the developer) but also allows developers to pay a fee “in lieu of” actually building the housing. So — as in past attempts to get developers to contribute to affordable housing in Seattle and in other cities — the rub will be, how much? A new unit typically costs about at least $200,000 to build, but the “In Lieu” fees of the past have been as low as $20,000.
WOULD ALL SINGLE FAMILY LOTS BE UP-ZONED (or “UP-CODED”) AS HIGH AS TRIPLEXES? City Hall conveyed mixed messages about what would happen to single family housing zones, including a misleading map that implied most single family zones would be “single family.” Thankfully Danny Westneat clears it up with a column in the Seattle Times dated July 14. Under the HALA proposal all single family zones would, in fact, be allowed to have triplexes if City Council adopts the proposal. I say this neither for or against the idea, but rather to convey the information.
Some favor more density, believing it will naturally lead to more affordable housing. Some criticize this as a trickle-down, supply-side theory of economics that would (continue to) enrich speculative for-profit real estate developers while displacing existing affordable housing. For example, if a family is renting a single family house for $1,000 a month, but the owner sells it to a developer to build a triplex and then charges $1,500 per month for each unit, the supply tripled but the affordability did not.[UPDATE from Seattle Times 7/30/2015: “Mayor Murray Withdraws Proposal to Allow More Density in [nearly all] Single Family Zones.”
Interestingly, the Seattle Times points out that “a recent survey of developable land in Seattle found there’s enough capacity under current zoning to add 224,000 housing units — 73 percent more than the current stock of 308,000.”
LESS PARKING? Residents and small businesses who have felt the pinch of parking in neighborhoods like East Lake, Roosevelt, and Wallingford and wonder why there are no parking requirements for many new residential buildings will be further disappointed. The recommendations would allow developers to provide NO parking spaces in more parts of the city — not only in city government-defined “Urban Villages” and “Urban Centers” but also in “single family” neighborhoods. To confirm whether you already live in an “Urban Center” or “Urban Village”, click here for a zoning map, zoom in to your neighborhood, and then click the “Urban Villages” box. Moreover, the Action Plan would expand the boundaries of Urban Centers and Urban Villages.
SCHOOLS AND TRANSPORTATION? (still need Impact Fees) Our public schools are over-crowded. The HALA report recommends increasing density around schools. In our view, this is another reason why Developer Impact Fees, as seen in over 75 other Washington State communities, should be on the table: to help to expand or build schools so the school district can accommodate the growth fueled by these city government policies. The City Council commissioned two different rounds of financial studies (Ferris in Feb 2013 and Rosen in July 2014 / Jacobus in Sept 2014) that confirmed development projects would still be profitable even after they pay additional fees. Once the actual financial calculations from the city planners and real estate developers are made public, it will be possible to make sure the combination of fees would still yield sufficient profit to encourage development. Less rhetoric, more math, please.
SOME WORTHY IDEAS:
The HALA recommendations contain some excellent ideas, including a Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) to fund affordable housing, an effort to encourage major employers to contribute to workforce housing (as their job growth contributes to housing demand that drives up rents), and the city using its credit rating to “enhance” long-term financing that enables buildings to charge lower rents.
Some would like to see “Affordability” strengthened with the following ideas that HALA and the Mayor did NOT recommend:
- Rent Stabilization (not to be confused with New York City “rent control”): rent increases citywide would grow modestly and predictably with inflation, but could be increased to the market rate when a tenant moves out or the unit is substantially renovated.
- City Bonds: As you may recall, the city had been planning to use its ability to issue tax-exempt bonds to help build a basketball arena. The city could also use its bonds to build affordable housing (the net operating income of the new apartment buildings would pay back the bonds). This could be done in several different ways. Here’s one version from the prominent Seattle writer Goldy. The March 2015 “Community Housing Caucus” offered a version as well.
Suggested Next Steps:
(1) Make it better. Rather than hiding behind the HALA recommendations or proclaiming the Action Plan as a train that everyone needs to hop on, our City Council should improve it.
(2) Include neighborhoods. Construction and zoning changes should not be something “done to” neighborhoods, but rather crafted with input from Seattle residents.
(3) Show us the financial calculations. Let’s review the math together, so that we can determine whether developers could afford to set aside 10% to 20% of the new units for lower income households rather than the 5% to 7% proposed.
Our elected officials are the policymakers; not the real estate speculators. While dozens of City Council candidates are hesitant to ask tough questions of the interest groups funding their campaigns, the housing crisis is too important to let special interests dictate the outcome.[UPDATE from Seattle Times 7/30/2015: “What City Council Candidates think should be done about Seattle’s housing affordability“]
The newly created “Select Committee on Affordable Housing” comprised of all 9 current Councilmembers meets for the first time Monday, July 20 at City Hall. Unlike the HALA task force which met in secret, the Council meetings are naturally open to the public. While this Council Committee meets at a time inconvenient to working families (2:30 p.m.), the Council is likely to hold public hearings in the evenings in the future.[UPDATE 7/30/2015: Additional meeting times of the City Council’s Select Committee on Affordable Housing in 2015:
- Monday, August 10, 2:30 p.m. (or after Full Council), Council Chamber, City Hall
- Monday, August 17, 2:30 p.m. (or after Full Council), Council Chamber, City Hall
- Wednesday, September 9, 5:30 p.m. (Public Hearing), Location to be determined
- Friday, September 18, 9:30 a.m., Council Chamber, City Hall
- Monday, September 21, 2:30 p.m. (or after Full Council), Council Chamber, City Hall]
You can also watch on Seattle Channel. To contact city officials with ideas for solving the affordable housing crisis, anyone can send an e-mail to email@example.com. For guidance on how to write an effective e-mail to your city officials, CLICK HERE.