The J is for Judge: The Most Contrarian Power Point in Seattle

Mild-mannered Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Nick Welch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight. But if I was him, I would advise against bringing his recent PowerPoint presentation into a local bar.

Welch confined his presentation to the safety of city council chambers last week, where he ran his slide show in front of the Select Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability. There were no fisticuffs, but the MHA presentation did draw scoffs from the neighborhood protectionists in the audience and a challenge from their council ally on the dais, West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold.

Particularly Slide No. 10, which is possibly the most contrarian slide ever presented in Seattle.

MHA is a holdover HALA housing plan from former Mayor Ed Murray that exchanges upzones for affordable housing; HALA is expected to produce 20,000 new housing units over the next  decade, including about 6,000 new affordable units from MHA (compared to just 205, if the city simply let the market status quo play out without MHA). With Murray long gone, the remaining piece of the plan—a narrow, stair-step upzone along the fringes of 27 single-family zones —is being shepherded through City Hall by council YIMBY Rob Johnson, whose term ends next year, and with strong support from first-year urbanist all-star, council member Teresa Mosqueda.

Slide #10 is a direct response to what Welch and other OPCD staffers have heard over and over in Seattle neighborhoods (where, in fact, Welch has been gathering input in countless MHA community forums over the last few years): New market-rate housing is a threat to overall housing affordability because it’s more expensive than existing options. It’s a seemingly intuitive take on gentrification that defines the local anti-development storyline and unites everyone from Magnolia First NIMBYs to social justice socialists, from dudes at the Wedgwood Broiler to queer working artists at Kremwerk.

The ubiquity of Seattle’s anecdotal anti-development refrain convinced OPCD to see if that narrative was actually true. So the department looked at the germane historical data—market-rate housing production between 2000 and 2015 in all of Seattle’s census tracts, overlaid with the change in low-income households in the same census tracts over the same period. The finding was definitive. The text to Slide #10 spelled it out for council members: “No correlation between market-rate housing growth and loss of low-income households.”

If anything, the trend line shows the exact opposite: Affordable housing stock increased as market rate housing production increased.

A potential criticism of Slide #10? It defined affordable housing as housing that people making less than 50 percent of the Seattle Area Median Income (AMI) can afford. Affordable housing advocates could certainly contend that people making 60, 70, and 80 percent of AMI are part of the working class too, and are losing ground as more market development comes on line to serve tech bros. But, voila: Slide #11.

This slide overlaid the same snapshots of affordable households  and market-rate housing production, this time defining affordable housing as housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of AMI. The conclusion was the same. No correlation between new production and economic displacement.

The data didn’t lead OPCD to go as far as saying more market rate housing production actually led to the creation of more affordable housing, but they did present another contrarian slide illustrating their research on another bit of conventional wisdom—that the MHA upzones will lead to physical demolition of existing affordable housing at a rate that neutralizes any new affordable housing production from MHA. Again: Nope. Gaming out future physical displacement based on historic trends of production and teardowns, the data shows that teardowns remain roughly consistent whether the city enacts MHA or not. Without MHA, about 520 households would be  physically displaced by demolition, with no mandatory affordable housing to replace them. Under the city’s preferred MHA alternative, about 574 would be displaced—and those demolitions would be dwarfed by an estimated 5,633 new affordable units created under MHA.

One other bit of conventional wisdom that OPCD tried to fact-check is the notion that new development displaces people and businesses that share a common culture, a phenomenon known as cultural displacement. Perhaps even more than economic displacement, cultural displacement is at the emotional core of anger about gentrification. OPCD couldn’t confirm or disprove this observation. The data—the change in housing production overlaid on change in racial population—was all over the map. The population of some groups, including African-Americans, declined in some census tracts where market-rate housing increased and stayed put in tracts where market-rate housing increased.

Of course, one factor that could have mitigated displacement was missing from that historical data: MHA’s mandate that affordable housing be part of new development.

8 thoughts on “The J is for Judge: The Most Contrarian Power Point in Seattle”

  1. Josh – you are missing the point. Seattle has very little affordable housing in the City. Developers are not tearing down the small number of affordable housing units building market rate housing. They are buying the lower end existing housing stock, you know the $300k-$600k houses and flipping them $800k-$1.5m housing units. This dramatically increases the demand for the lower end houses to then flip, and increases the average cost of houses for sale. Sure Seattle is protecting it’s small # of subsidized housing and creating a small # of additional subsidized affordable units with it’s MHA/HALA policies. The problem has been and continues to be tearing down existing housing and creating new market rate housing means more expensive new construction is replacing lower priced existing housing. On top of that, the City continues to increase property taxes and makes living in Seattle more expensive. Bottom line, majority of people cannot afford to buy a house in Seattle and will not qualify for any “affordable” housing units Seattle puts on the market. So yes, MHA/HALA is having a negative impact on housing for the Seattle market.

    1. Yesler Terrace, the first racially integrated public housing project in US history, begs to differ with you. I know 2016 seems like a lifetime ago. Seattle’s primary method of obtaining new housing is tearing down older, cheaper units. It is why under MHA provisions only 10% more homes would be demolished. The other 90%? Torn down for upscaling regardless.

      When the fix (as in money grabbing confidence scheme) is already in, an added bone or burden here and there just looks like another drop in the bucket. In Seattle, the fix has been in for decades.

  2. I’m not interested in disputing the facts on the slide, Josh. I’m going to concede that they are correct… but what DOES have me confused, and would love to see some research on is that I thought the City’s overall counts of housing at different income levels shows data contrary to this. In other words, while we can all see with our own eyes that market-rate housing has increased, the numbers of units available for low-income households has fallen in the same amount of time. (Again, I’m talking just raw counts of units.) We also seem to generally focus on 60%+ AMI when building affordable units, and not <30% which is sorely lacking. So how is that discrepancy explained?

    1. Oh interesting. Where did you get the data for the count of units available for low income households?

      If it is the case that those units are disappearing, I’d expect they’re disappearing to renovations, when landlords will raise rents to cover those costs.

      Re: the < 30% AMI part: I'm 100% sure Josh would be in total agreement that we need more funding from all levels of government for those folks. The Housing Levy in 2016 funded a whole lot of units, maybe we'll need to re-double it next time around.

    2. The “facts” on the slide are easy to see but difficult to interpret. They show little correlation (let alone causation) between market housing production and displacement. What they DO show is many census tracts with lots of displacement (every dot below the horizontal axis). On the last day of the hearing, appellant’s housing economist Bill Reid pointed out this obvious fact about the City’s graphs (Appendix M of the FEIS,

      The question is what is the cause of that displacement? I think the explanation and analysis by the Seattle Displacement Coalition is far more cogent than Josh Feit’s. See:

      Instead of addressing the SDC’s extensive displacement analysis or Bill Reid’s testimony (neither is mentioned ever), the Hearing Examiner’s decision ruled that “Economic displacement is not required to be analyzed in an EIS, as it is not identified as an element of the environment requiring consideration under SEPA.” Conclusion of Law 35. This conclusion is a clear error of law since “housing” is explicitly an “element of the environment.” SMC 25.05.444(B)(2)(b)

    3. As I read the chart, it can be consistent with both restricting development “not helping” prevent displacement in any given area (or, in point of fact, the slope suggests it actually helps) -and- with the total number of lower-income-affordable homes decreasing citywide. Imagine new people with more rather than less money are flowing into areas across Seattle: the best way to accommodate them with less displacement is: a multi-unit building, on either infill or non-residential-occupied land (e.g., parking lot, other use), with the MFTE program creating some affordable units. The worst way to accommodate them is one-for-one teardown of a residential house, on residential-occupied land (rather than infill or non-residential use) with no provision for any added affordable housing. So the worst case is something like a run down grandfathered in duplex on a large lot zoned single family gets replaced by a multi-million dollar big house. The best case is an apartment building replacing zero or at a very few run down houses, large enough to participate in MFTE. That all jibs with the charts.

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