We Can’t Solve 21st Century Housing Problems with Failed 20th Century Strategies

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Last week, three city council members—frequent allies Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, along with their less-likely comrade Tim Burgess, who’s facing two serious challengers in the August primary—sent a letter to Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura asking DPD to come up with a fifth alternative for Seattle 2035, the policy document that will direct Seattle’s growth for the next 20 years. The four alternatives in the current plan range from doing nothing, to concentrating density in the city’s already-dense urban centers, to dispersing density strategically across the city’s light-rail and bus hubs so that new residents will have easy access to transit.

The “fifth alternative” they were requesting, the three council members wrote, would address the high potential for displacement in Seattle’s “high-risk” communities, mostly near transit hubs in South Seattle, by directing growth away from those areas and toward areas with “high access to opportunity” and “low displacement risk” areas, and by adopting strategies to reduce displacement in those high-risk neighborhoods. In practice, that could mean abandoning the goal of “transit-oriented development” by discouraging development near transit centers (where lots of “marginalized populations,” to use the city’s term, currently live) and encouraging it in the most expensive parts of the city—places like Upper Queen Anne, Ravenna, and Fremont, according to the city’s equity analysis of the four alternatives.

That strategy, by itself, wouldn’t put much of a dent in Seattle’s projected housing need. Since these are mostly fancy single-family neighborhoods (with exceptions like South Lake Union, which is a fancy multi-family neighborhood), most of the new development in these areas would (again according to the city’s equity analysis) consist of backyard cottages and row homes. We aren’t going to accommodate 120,000 new residents with mother-in-law apartments and four-pack townhomes. So not only will directing growth to high-income neighborhoods be unpopular with the city’s powerful homeowner lobby, it will be designed to fail.

In addition to directing new housing away from areas like Othello, Rainier Beach, and Beacon Hill, Burgess, Licata, and O’Brien also suggested placing new controls on development, including mandatory inclusionary zoning (requiring developers to build permanently affordable housing on-site) and potentially one-for-one “or even greater” replacement of all de facto affordable housing demolished for new development. One-for-one replacement is a decades-old aspiration of activists like Seattle Displacement Coalition leader John Fox, who believe the city should never tear down a dilapidated ’60s apartment building without replacing the previous’ tenants housing with new units at below-market rents.

The issues with this scheme are pretty obvious (what developer in his right mind would build apartments that could rent for $2,000 and lease them for $600, and how much government subsidy would it take to make him change his mind?), but that doesn’t keep it from being popular—who wouldn’t be in favor of letting low-income people stay in their homes, or even better, get fancy new ones at the same price, instead of watching their neighborhoods morph into white yuppie playgrounds? Even if the city did get past that hurdle, by, for example, massively subsidizing new replacement housing, the result would be short-term gain (preserved housing now) for long-term pain (no economic reinvestment in low-income areas, which will continue to lack basics like diverse housing, sidewalks, and town centers). Like rent control, the idea of one-for-one replacement is economically unrealistic, but emotionally appealing.

Even so-called urbanists are getting on the anti-TOD, tax-the-developers bandwagon. In a recent editorial arguing for their own version of the council members’ “alternative 5,” The Urbanist’s editorial board (which previously called for significant new taxes on development) decried what they called “transit-oriented displacement”—meaning, if you build transit and let people build apartments near it, the people who are already there will get priced out and have to leave. “It would be unfair and inequitable to ask lower-income residents to bear the brunt of the city’s growth — and yet both alternatives [3 and 4, the ones that concentrate growth near transit] essentially gloss over new and effective potential mitigations for this problem,” the board writes.

Gauntlet thrown. Growth, in this description, is explicitly a “problem.” Something people must to “bear the brunt of.” Something that could, if unchecked, cause Northgate to turn “into a gated community,” make walkability “the sole privilege of those who live downtown,” and gobble up all developable land in Ballard, to use just three examples from the Urbanist’s (essentially anti-growth) editorial.

In reality, there’s plenty of development capacity left in Ballard, building housing and town centers increases walkability, and limiting housing supply by reducing “growth,” which is to say housing for those 120,000 new people, will only drive prices up. And the alternative–preserving Sound Transit’s empty, fenced-off gravel lots as if they’re historical sites, “saving” rundown six-unit apartment buildings and the overgrown lots they sit on, making sure the vast majority of poor people never have the opportunity to live in areas well served by transit–is short-sighted and won’t work.

How about this “Alternative 5”? Let’s stop thinking of “growth” as a monster threatening to swallow our city, and instead think of it as new people we should welcome. Let’s stop talking about “bearing the burden” of those new people and start figuring out how we can accommodate all of us without resorting to market-distortions like rules that make transit-oriented development impractical. Let’s figure out a smart way to fund affordable housing without artificially constraining development Let’s stop doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

14 thoughts on “We Can’t Solve 21st Century Housing Problems with Failed 20th Century Strategies”

  1. Tangential: We decry the “sound bite”, emotion-driven, lizard brain narrative promulgated by the Right and their oligarch financial backers. And yet in Seattle a corner of the progressive crowd – does Exactly the Same Thing to insult and demonize developers and the folks that might dare to want to live in the housing they might build.

    Does no one else see the rank hypocrisy on display? Bueller? Bueller?

    1. Maybe it’s because instead of “the Right and their oligarch financial backers” we are dealing with “the neoliberal Left and their oligarch financial backers.” Not as lizard brained—they are “liberal” after all—but still oligarchs and anti-democratic. Have you checked out Logan and Molotch’s book, “Urban Fortunes”, or this page discussing the political-economy in question: http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/local/

  2. Through the Seattle Public Schools lens:

    – Schools in Southeast Seattle in general are better-suited to accommodate increases in enrollment generated by new development, both in their current facilities and their potential for future expansion. Example: Rainier Beach High School has a current capacity of 1,150 and an enrollment of 600. Its site could also support a future expansion to 1,600 seats – the SPS standard for a comprehensive neighborhood high school.

    By contrast Roosevelt High School – the campus that serves Ravenna and the rest of near NE Seattle – is over capacity with an enrollment of about 1,700. There is no way to add seats/capacity to Roosevelt. It will receive some relief with the re-opening of Lincoln HS in 2019, at a total cost pushing $90M.

    Further, facilitating development in Southeast Seattle would bring greater racial and economic diversity to the area’s school population.

  3. “places like Upper Queen Anne, Ravenna, and Fremont… these are mostly fancy single-family neighborhoods” — You clearly have never gotten on (or off) the standing room only #5 in Fremont, or you weren’t paying attention. We have a number of blocks of “fancy” SF houses (primarily along the west facing hill side), but most of Fremont is zoned Lowrise Multifamily, Commercial/Neighborhood Commercial, and Industrial, along with many blocks of small working class houses in SF zone.

  4. I don’t understand why one-for-one replacement is such a big problem. If there is high demand for housing, then the potential revenue is there to replace existing affordable homes AND build new housing on top of it.

  5. Most cogent piece of writing on the topic I’ve read in a while. Keep it up, Erica.

  6. Currently, we are using a very simple economic model to build new housing: tear down affordable houisng and build unaffordable housing. The problem is not the lack of government/taxpayer money or private investment. The problem is the lack of land. But there are tens of thousands of acres of land available in Seattle. In front of every significant business, store and institution in this city are acres of open parking space. North Seattle Community College–13 acres, Northgate Shopping Mall–49 acres, the Home Depot at Lander Street–2+ acres and the list goes on and on. With a carrot-and-stick approach (the carrot is to streamline the permit process, the stick is to tax the open parkingspace as if it had apartments). Generous rewards for including affordable housing; even more generous rewards for including low-income like waiving property taxes altogether. There is space above Seattle’s parking lots for a minimum of 150,000 units. Extra added bonus: the city could require all parking lot projects to include a huge tree-filled drainage basin in the front of every lot.

  7. Be careful with that 120,000 number. According to today’s DJC article we added 64,500 jobs last year (4.3% growth in employment in 2 counties x 1.5 million jobs). Most of those jobs (the ones that don’t pick up the unemployed, or are the 2nd job in a 2 worker household) bring the need for another housing unit. In these same two counties we added just 10,500 new apartment units last year.

    I’d say it’s a better estimate that we need 120k units next year, to make up for those that are losing their homes this year.

  8. Wow. A stunning demonstration the ECB doesn’t have a social justice bone in her body. So many vast, untrue generalizations. Those 120,000 new people equates to 50,000 new units, of which 20,000 will be “affordable” at <80% of Area Median Income, according to the Mayor's goals. What part of them can be absorbed by more mother-in-law apartments, backyard cottages and invisible duplexes, without changing the character of SF zones and without upzoning? Let's say, 2,000 of the 20,000 affordable units, rented at 80% of AMI because they are basement apartments and because homeowners would rather select for reliable housemates over higher rents. That leaves 18,000 NET affordable units to be built in 10 years, say, 9,000 very low income and 9,000 workforce ($11-$22/hr), or 1,000/year of each. That's achievable.

    Inclusionary zoning exists in dozens of cities. Why not here? According to the data in the Seattle Times, Seattle is being hollowed out, losing its middle class. One-for-one replacement also works in other cities. Why not here? Even uber-urbanist Owen Pickney has written that a moderate lonkage fee will not discourage development in our over-heated market. Toss this opinion, do some research and try again.

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