Category: Affordability

Maybe Metropolis: Pro-Housing Democrats Poised for Action in 2023 After Ousting Obstructionist Seattle Rep. Pollet

Finetooth, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons via Wikimedia Commons

By Josh Feit

Before I get to last week’s quiet yet encouraging news out of Olympia—House Democrats removed single family zoning preservationist Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle) from his position overseeing housing policy—I’d like to review a couple of other recent, below-the-radar news items that provide context for why such a seemingly picayune parliamentary move in the state legislature matters for Seattle.

First, in October, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation decided to okay a request from Wallingford homeowners to put hundreds of houses in Wallingford on the National Register of Historic Places; this week, the National Parks Service made it official.

Expect to see more and more attempts by “In this House” Seattleites to weaponize “historic” districts as a tool against reforming local land use policy that could otherwise increase affordable housing and density in Seattle.

Meanwhile, another quiet zoning decision reflected the opposite path: Last month, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted against landmarking the “unremarkable” (as Erica hilariously put it) two-story wood-framed Jai Thai building on Capitol Hill. The decision cleared the way for a new seven-story affordable housing development.

You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Unfortunately, these two decisions taken together ultimately reaffirm the prevalence of Seattle’s off-kilter city planning philosophy: Seattle confines multi-story density to the same neighborhoods over and over, while foregoing opportunities for new housing in the hefty majority of the city—75 percent— that’s currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. Sadly, Capitol Hill’s density is a Catch-22 for urbanists: Enthusiastically adding units to one of Seattle’s densest neighborhoods provides fodder for the city’s redundant single-family zones to ward off reforms that could create new housing. This preserves the status quo: Skyrocketing housing prices. The Seattle area has some of the most expensive housing prices in the country, with median rents above $1,700 (over $2,200 in the Seattle region) and a median sale price of $810,000.

It’s no wonder King County says we need to build around 240,000 new affordable units in the next 20 years, or 12,000 new units a year. Currently, we’re nowhere close to that pace; over the last two years, according to the Seattle Office of Housing, the city averaged about 1,300 affordable units a year.

Thankfully, pro-housing folks are fighting to reverse this trend. Witness the long overdue progressive coup in Olympia. Earlier this month, under youthful, new leadership, the state house Democrats finally removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N Seattle) as chair of the pivotal House local government committee. As we have been reporting for years, Rep. Pollet has repeatedly used his position to kill pro-housing bills. (No surprise, The Urbanist has also called out Pollet for undermining housing legislation.) You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Initially, frustrated with Pollet’s history of watering down pro-housing legislation, the House Democratic Caucus voted in late November to shrink the scope of Pollet’s committee by moving all housing issues into the housing committee, whose chair, Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Everett) supports urbanist legislation. Last year, for example, Peterson co-sponsored Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill, HB 1782, that would have authorized duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in residential areas within a half-mile of a major transit stops. It was one of several pro-density bills Pollet helped kill last year. 

The move to take housing policy out of Pollet’s committee was orchestrated by a new generation of Democrats who want to send a message that affordable housing (tied to density) will be a top priority in 2023.

Two weeks later—evidently not done sending their message—the caucus voted to remove Pollet as chair of the local government committee altogether, handing the reins to Rep. Devina Duerr (D-1, Bothell), another co-sponsor of last year’s failed density bill.

With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

The Seattle Times, whose editorial board shares Pollet’s preservationist POV, ran an editorial last week lamenting the leadership sea change by parroting Pollet’s go-to  “local control” mantra, claiming that pro-housing bills would prohibit local governments from enacting affordable housing requirements. That’s untrue. The bills that urbanists like Rep. Bateman support simply give local jurisdictions the option to allow multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods, leaving affordable housing requirements in the hands of local jurisdictions.

“If we’re really concerned with affordable housing,” Rep. Bateman told PubliCola, “let’s first acknowledge some basic facts: Single-family zoning is 100 percent displacing people and causing gentrification.”

This status quo—not the bogeyman of future development—constitutes a current threat to housing affordability. For example, existing policy not only squeezes supply by making most of the available land in Seattle off-limits to multifamily housing, it also encourages teardowns and McMansions. Rep. Bateman’s pending, more ambitious 2023 proposal will challenge that status quo by authorizing fourplexes in residential areas of cities across the state—anywhere detached single-family homes are allowed.

Data show that even this modest increase in density improves affordability. Portland made fourplexes legal citywide two years ago and the first set of numbers indicates that they are more affordable to rent or purchase than duplexes, triplexes, or single-family homes. Additionally, Bateman said her legislation will create an affordability incentive with a “density bonus” that allows scaling up to sixplexes if two of the units are affordable to people making between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income.

On the state senate side, Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Everett) is cueing up legislation that would target upzones (more dramatic ones) specifically near transit hubs.

This is all to say, for more news that could end up having big implications in the coming year: Pay attention to the state legislature’s prefiled bills page and watch for new pro-housing legislation. With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

For a Welcoming City, Design Review Reforms Must Go Further

Image via Phinneyflats.com
This four-story building, the Phinney Flats on busy Greenwood Avenue North, was delayed for years by design review meetings in which critics called it “Soviet-style” architecture and said renters would disrupt their peace and quiet with loud rooftop parties.

By Laura Loe

Editor’s note: This is a followup to It’s Time to Ditch Design Review.

I’ve been advocating for reforming Seattle’s design review process, in which appointed boards impose aesthetic requirements (and delays) on dense new housing, since 2016. I’ve attended many hours-long design review meetings, hosted lunch-and-learns about this gate-kept and arcane process, and created user-friendly advocacy documents to help community members participate in the process. But design review is irreparably broken. It’s a way to object to new neighbors, not an opportunity to make neighborhoods better.

The city appears to agree: In 2013, the Department of Construction and Inspections recommended simplifying the process in response to public feedback. “Most complaints [during public comment for design review] are NIMBY-ism,” one focus group participant put it.

On December 8, 2022, the City Council’s land use committee unanimously passed legislation from committee chair Dan Strauss that will extend COVID-era rules exempting some affordable housing from design review for one year. While the bill is a rare win for Seattle’s future, it does not address the scale and scope of our housing crisis.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either.

Exempting affordable housing from design review is a win for those of us who have advocated for reforms—a clear acknowledgement that design review makes affordable housing less affordable.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either. Multi-family, market-rate development in Seattle provides essential housing for Seattle renters. It contributes to Mandatory Housing Affordability, a program that requires developers to fund affordable housing either elsewhere or on site. And it increases our overall supply of housing—a necessity if we’re going combat the housing scarcity that leads to homelessness, as housing scholar Gregg Colburn and data journalist Clayton Aldern documented recently in the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem.

There have even been recent examples where market-rate housing has become available to those with deep housing insecurity through “rapid acquisition” by affordable housing developers.

A few weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that the one-year extension of the design review exemption will allow the city to conduct a full environmental review of legislation that would permanently exempt some affordable housing projects from design review and begin two new pilot programs, each lasting two years.

The first pilot would exempt from design review any projects that use the city’s (highly effective) Mandatory Housing Affordability program to produce new units on-site, instead of contributing to a housing fund. The second would allow developers of all kinds of housing, including market-rate housing, to choose whether to participate in the full design review process or a shorter Administrative Design Review (ADR) by city staff.

ADR follows the same steps as full design review; the difference is that the applications are reviewed privately by a Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) planner, not a public design review board.

The interim legislation, which is expected to pass at the tomorrow’s city council meeting, is an acknowledgment that design review is a superfluous hurdle to addressing our housing crisis. We hope to see additional bold proposals from Strauss.

While we celebrate this rare win, we are disappointed that Harrell’s announcement does not address the flaws in design review generally and doesn’t address challenges with the administrative design review (ADR) processes at all.

Merely exempting subsidized housing projects from the current design review process doesn’t come close to meeting the breadth of recommendations from community coalitions in September 2021 to fix this onerous, costly, and undemocratic process. We would like to see a complete overhaul of the program instead of the pilot Mayor Harrell has proposed, including a transformation of administrative design review itself.

One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may opt for the “devil you know” public design review process.

Although ADR is less onerous than the full design-review process, it’s still no picnic for professionals trying to build housing. One study documented delays at a high level. After initial community engagement in the early stages, projects that go through administrative review are not visible to the public. This means NIMBY neighbors can’t interfere, but it also means advocates like myself lack insight into internal deliberations and can’t to counter potential NIMBY objections from city staff.

According to several builders I’ve spoken to, ADR can be significantly more unpredictable, lengthy, and costly than going through a design review board. Builders describe city staffers interjecting their personal aesthetic tastes as they pick and choose which design guidelines to enforce— an ineffective and unjust way to apply policy. One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may not opt for administrative review and will continue to participate in the “devil you know” public design review process.

Design review is not making our city more resilient, more climate-friendly, more affordable, or more welcoming. Let’s not continue to conflate nostalgia and anti-renter calls for preserving neighborhood “character” with livability and wellbeing for all. The city must follow this rare win for Seattle’s future with the comprehensive reforms outlined by Seattle For Everyone, a pro-housing coalition that includes developers and housing advocates, with a particular focus on reforms to administrative design review.

The council will take public comment on its design review reform legislation at 2pm tomorrow, December 13. Please write or call in to support the provision to exempt low-income affordable projects from design review while pushing the city (and the mayor) to systematically fix the process.

Laura Loe is the founder of Share The Cities Organizing Collective, an all-volunteer advocacy group.

Board Declines to Landmark Unremarkable Capitol Hill Building, Allowing Affordable Housing to Move Ahead

Current photo of 229 Broadway on Capitol Hill

By Erica C. Barnett

In an unusual move for a group that has tended to prioritize preserving old buildings over new housing, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted against landmarking the two-story wood-framed Wilshire Building on Capitol Hill, commonly known as the Jai Thai building for its most recent anchor tenant. A city staff report also recommended against landmarking the building, saying it failed or probably failed to meet the two most likely criteria for landmarking.

Low-income housing developer TAP Collaborative bought the building at the corner of Thomas St. and Broadway Ave. E in 2018 with the intention of tearing down the old building and replacing it with a seven-story building that would be 100 percent affordable to people making 60 percent or less of the Seattle area median income, currently around $54,000. In 2022, that works out to rents between $1,350 and $1,450 a month for a studio, and one-bedroom, respectively. Earlier this year, City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda announced that the project would be among the first recipients of affordable housing funds from the JumpStart payroll tax.

The current building plan includes 26 studios, 69 one-bedrooms, five larger live/work units, plus retail space on the ground floor and parking spaces for 90 bikes (and zero cars). Landmark status would have almost certainly scuttled those plans.

“[Broadway] is becoming a canyon of modern buildings. So here’s a chance to preserve the exterior of one of the old ones.”—Landmarks board member Harriett Wasserman, one of two members who voted to preserve the Jai Thai building

The developer nominated the building for landmark status, a common move to get the process underway and to preempt landmark applications by preservationists, whose aim is to preserve old buildings. Historic Seattle, for example, weighed in earlier this year to suggest that the developer could both save the building and build affordable housing on site, although they did not offer any suggestions for building new apartments in or around the existing building, which is not up to seismic standards and does not have a separate façade that might be preserved as part of a new development.

“The building has long surpassed its economic useful life, given the decision at the time of construction to use inexpensive materials,” TAP Collaborative principal Rebecca Ralston told PubliCola. “When we acquired the building, we knew we were not dealing with a heavy timber or masonry structure so we had not anticipated the landmarking process. However, I cannot say it took us entirely by surprise, given its age.”

To be eligible for landmark status in Seattle, a building has to be at least 25 years old (in current terms, built before 1998) and meet one of six criteria. Three of the criteria have to do with the historical significance of the site (for example, if it was the site of a major historical event); the other three are about the building itself—whether it “embodies” an architectural style or is a distinctive work by a major architect, for example.

The building on Broadway Ave. East, designed by Seattle architect Henry Dozier and completed in 1903, has housed a number of typical neighborhood businesses over the years, including drug stores, groceries, restaurants, and a maternity home for young women where young women with unwanted pregnancies were “sent away.”

Historical photo of the Wilshire Building from 1937
The Wilshire Building in 1937, when the speed limit on Broadway was 20 mph!

Visually, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the Jai Thai building, which looks like what it is— an old, slightly run-down brick-clad wooden structure with small businesses, including the Mud Bay pet supply store and a hair salon, on both floors. But Seattle is a young city, with few buildings more than 100 years old, and local preservationists have a habit of clinging to old buildings based entirely or primarily on their age.

The lack of a specific architectural style, the lack of a notable patron, the lack of a celebrated architect, the lack of a documented historic event—these are the criteria by which a historic building should be evaluated, not whether or not one thinks it is charming and adds character to the neighborhood.”—Affordable housing developer Rebecca Ralston

At Wednesday’s landmarks board meeting, two advocates for landmarking the building—architectural historian Ian MacLeod and retired college IT director Harriett Wasserman—called out some of its distinctive features, like the arched windows on the second floor. They also made the case that Seattle’s history is “disappearing” as the city permits new buildings to replace old ones; Wasserman said the overall feel of Broadway has changed, and that preserving a low-rise commercial building, “even if it’s not as pretty as it once was,” would help stem the tide of modernity.

“The street is becoming a canyon of modern buildings,” Wasserman said. “So here’s a chance to preserve the exterior of one of the old ones.” Buildings on Broadway, like most “urban villages” around the city, can’t be taller than seven stories.

Dozier, the building’s architect, had a checkered history. Consultant Ellen Mirro, who prepared the landmark nomination, described Dozier on Wednesday as a “terrible” person who abandoned his mentally ill wife and nine children in Colorado in 1896—a story the local press covered breathlessly at the time. Dozier was also a virulent racist and early proponent of eugenics who wrote poems and letters to the editor of the Seattle Times denouncing Japanese Americans living in Seattle.

Although landmarks board members didn’t dwell on Dozier’s personal history, several were very interested in the building’s use as a maternity home, history Mirro’s firm, Studio TJP, uncovered in their research. Several board members suggested that this previously unknown history might be a basis for landmarking the building; MacLeod, for example, called the “maternity ward aspect of the history… really interesting and really unique” and suggested the “marginalized women” who used the maternity services might present a “parallel narrative” to the “LGBT history of Capitol Hill.”

Using theoretical marginalized women from the past to justify preserving the Jai Thai building today could prevent the construction of apartments for marginalized women who are currently living.

The landmark application goes deep into this history, which is indeed fascinating; it also notes that residential wards for young women with unwanted pregnancies proliferated across the country during the 1930s and ’40s, before abortion was legal. Preserving a building based on the previously unknown presence of a maternity ward, in other words, would be like preserving a structure because it once housed a patent medicine salesman—a part of medical history, for sure, but one that was common all over the city, the way barre studios and tattoo parlors are today.

Ralston said Thursday that she was “grateful” for the landmarks board’s decision. “We believe the presentation allowed the facts to speak for themselves. The lack of a specific architectural style, the lack of a notable patron, the lack of a celebrated architect, the lack of a documented historic event—these are the criteria by which a historic building should be evaluated, not whether or not one thinks it is charming and adds character to the neighborhood, [which] is completely subjective and open to much debate.”

Maybe Metropolis: The Solution Is More Density, Not Just More Taxes

Image of three developments allowed in some former single-family areas, from least to most dense: residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2.
MHA’s modest upzones on a sliver of Seattle’s single-family land include (l-r) residential small lot, low-rise 1, and low-rise 2. Images via City of Seattle.

By Josh Feit

The JumpStart tax, city council member Teresa Mosqueda’s payroll tax on big employers like Amazon, is posting standout numbers. This year, JumpStart will fund $97 million in affordable housing investments, including nearly $80 million for 1,769 units of affordable rental housing. Last year, the $71.4 million it provided toward affordable housing amounted to almost half the $153 million total raised by all the city’s affordable housing funding streams.

The Jump Start tax teases out the nexus between surging tech job growth and housing prices by capturing nouveau corporate Seattle’s impact on the market. That is: As the hyper growth of tech companies like Amazon inflate local housing prices, the city is taxing them to help fund affordable housing. It’s a good look, and it seems like a logical offset for the influx of high-earning tech employees. And, let’s be honest: It also feels good.

However, as much as I agree with the logic of an Amazon tax, and as much as it’s bringing in, I think there’s a more germane and effective way to raise affordable housing dollars. Luckily, it’s already part of our affordable housing strategy—sort of.

I’m talking about 2019’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, a fee on new development in designated parts of the city, which brought in an impressive $50 million in 2021 itself.

Given that Jump Start outpaced MHA by $20 million, why am I focusing on  MHA as the smarter policy? For starters, MHA, which came with a series of targeted upzones that allow more housing in more places, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city. These historical zoning laws cordon off nearly 75 percent of the city from multifamily housing, pinching supply and thus fueling steep housing prices.

While conventional wisdom holds that upzones and new development inflate housing costs, a 2021 UCLA report found that the latest studies show the opposite: Five out of six studies looking at the impact of market-rate housing determined that new market-rate density “makes nearby housing more affordable across the income distribution of rental units.”

Conversely, those who warn that upzones lead to gentrification, have a hard time explaining why gentrification is alreday happening in Seattle today, under our status-quo zoning that prohibits the very density urbanists are calling for. More logically, the prohibition on new development in so much of the city is spiking prices for the limited housing that is available.

Seattle gained 130,000 people between 2010 and 2020 (13,000 a year) and another 8,400 during the first year of the pandemic, many of them tech transplants. These newcomers didn’t cause the housing shortage, though—they merely brought it into sharper relief. The MHA strategy, which encourages housing development, is actually in the position to do something about it.

MHA, which came with a series of targeted up-zones, actually attempts to undo the root cause of our housing crisis: prohibitive zoning laws that discriminate against multi-family housing in the vast majority of the city.

And MHA might be worth more money than JumpStart. The MHA data point that interests me most is $13.4 million, a subset of MHA dollars raised. This figure represents the amount of money MHA raised specifically from developments built on land where it was previously prohibited: multifamily housing built on land that was upzoned in Seattle’s previously exclusive single-family zones.

Passed in 2019, MHA didn’t merely tack a fee onto new development; it also upzoned tracts along the edges of 27 single-family zones, allowing small-scale density in some previously single-family-only neighborhoods by expanding low-rise and neighborhood commercial zones and creating a new “residential small lot” zoning designation. These modest upzones, which the city adopted on just 6 percent of single-family land, allow new housing that fits in seamlessly with single-family houses.

Interestingly, this modest bit of geography— 6% of the single-family zones, or  4% of the city’s total developable land—accounted for nearly 20 percent of all MHA dollars. This outsized production could represent an upward trend. Last year, the same modestly upzoned fraction of single-family areas brought in 12 percent of the money raised from MHA overall, $8.3 million out of MHA’s $68.3 million.

This disproportionate performance indicates that pent-up demand for development on formerly cordoned-off land could be a spigot of affordable housing cash. Consider: There’s a lot more developable land where that 6 percent came from, and the city could increase the potential density of those areas more dramatically than it has to allow multifamily and commercial development, for example. If the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell had the courage to stand up to Seattle’s NIMBY class by extending the upzones further into exclusive single-family areas and by opting for denser upzones, Seattle would generate far more cash for affordable housing.

Sure, $80 million from the JumpStart tax  is helping a lot. But the truth is, we need far more money for housing. According to the Office of Housing, MHA helped fund 990 units in 2021. But, according to the Regional Affordable Housing Task Force , we need 12,000 a year. Unfortunately, JumpStart’s impressive figures could dampen any move to expand the more on-point MHA approach, which raises money for affordable housing (and could raise a lot more) while actually addressing the crux of the housing problem by freeing up land for development.

In this way, JumpStart could unwittingly play to the interests of single-family homeowners (and their ever-appreciating property values) by shifting the focus away from the central role these homeowners play in the housing crisis, holding them harmless and avoiding bold policy solutions by taking their communities off the table.

According to the MHA numbers, the 4 percent of Seattle that we timidly opened up to more housing construction is trying to tell us something: The table is bigger than we think.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents

Bellwether Housing's Anchor Flats building in South Lake Union
Bellwether Housing, whose properties include the Anchor Flats apartment building in South Lake Union, is limiting rent increases this year. Image via Bellwether Housing

By Katie Wilson

It’s no secret that rents are rising. Landlords are making up for lost time after pandemic-era rent freezes, and passing inflation-driven cost increases on to tenants. After a brief exodus from urban areas, many renters who left have now returned. Climbing interest rates are forcing potential homebuyers to wait, crowding the rental market.

With all these pressures driving up market-rate rents, it must feel great to live in an affordable, rent-restricted apartment right now. Right?

Maybe not. A quiet wave of large rent hikes is coming. For some, it’s already here. Earlier this month, seniors at a building operated by Mercy Housing in Bellingham hit the streets to protest a 9 percent rent increase that left some residents owing more than 60 percent of their monthly income to their nonprofit landlord—twice as much as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s definition of “affordable” housing.

Every April, HUD releases income and rent limits for certain types of affordable housing, based on area median income. Once upon a time, these limits might rise in King County by 1 or 2 percent a year, but starting in 2017, the annual increase jumped as high as 7 percent. The pandemic briefly slowed this ascent, but the increase announced this April is truly startling: In HUD’s calculation, King County’s median family income rose by 16.3 percent from 2021 to 2022. That means rents at properties governed by HUD’s formulas may also rise by 16.3 percent this year—or even more, if a unit wasn’t already priced at its upper limit.

Of course, the fact that King County’s median household is now pulling in $134,600 instead of $115,700 doesn’t mean that lower-income households suddenly have more money to spend on rent. Seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, working families earning near the minimum wage—they’re not getting raises like that. Therein lies the problem.

Although many types of affordable housing are protected from large rent increases, many buildings financed with federal low income housing tax credits (LIHTC) and tax-exempt bonds are not. The same is true for most units whose rents are restricted through state and local multifamily tax exemptions (MFTE) and programs like incentive zoning and Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program.

When the HUD limits began rising sharply several years ago, the city of Seattle changed the rules for new MFTE units so that maximum rents wouldn’t go up more than 4.5 percent a year. That change has kept rent hikes within reason for more than 200 units so far, but tenants living in older MFTE units—about 5,600—are subject to the escalating HUD limits.

That’s how Fatima ended up with a rent increase of over $600 a month. (We’ve changed the names of renters to protect their privacy).

More than a year ago, Fatima moved into an MFTE unit in North Seattle thanks to a rapid rehousing program run by a domestic violence organization. (Rapid rehousing is a form of temporary rent subsidy that helps low-income renters pay for housing). The rent was $1,500 for a 2-bedroom—significantly less than the going rent for the area, possibly because there weren’t many takers during the pandemic slump

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

Fatima said her landlord assured her that the rent wouldn’t go up drastically. After the rapid rehousing support ended, she was selected for an emergency housing voucher, a federal COVID relief program similar to Section 8 (now known as Housing Choice) that pays for a portion of a tenant’s rent.

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

“We said, hold on, you told us it wouldn’t be that much. They said, you know, it’s based on the market,” said the housing advocate. “That put it over the [rent] limit for her voucher.” 

This week, Fatima’s landlord agreed to lower her rent to fit her voucher limit, allowing her to stay in her home. But not every renter is able to negotiate that kind of agreement.

Seniors on fixed incomes are an especially vulnerable group. King County’s area median income has been rising faster than social security payments for some time now. When the rent rises beyond seniors’ means, “we simply have nowhere else to go,” said Sarah, who lives in a senior housing complex in Seattle.

Sarah’s building was financed through the federal LIHTC program, and up until four years ago, it was run by a nonprofit. “Rent increases were minimal, and management was responsive to tenants’ needs,” she said. Then a national for-profit company bought the building. By that time, many tenants were also voucher holders, seeking out lower-cost units as market-rate rents rose beyond what their vouchers would cover. The corporation quickly showed itself to be all business.

“A tenant association begun under previous ownership was not allowed to use common rooms for meetings,” said Sarah, and a manager threatened to evict a tenant who started a Facebook group for residents. The corporation also tried to require electronic rent payments, until residents pointed out that this is illegal in Seattle.

Now some tenants are facing rent increases of $175 a month, surpassing some residents’ voucher limits. “Because some voucher holders have disabilities involving psychological difficulties, this situation caused much anguish,” said Sarah. “All tenants, including those with vouchers, know that buildings like ours are their only answer—they are shut out of market-rate housing and waiting lists for low-income apartments are years long.”

Not every resident of affordable housing is in trouble. Programs that receive federal operating funds typically limit the amount of rent tenants must pay to 30 percent of the person’s income; this includes many buildings owned and managed by the King County Housing Authority and the Seattle Housing Authority. Housing Choice voucher holders are similarly protected—as long as they live in units with rent low enough that a voucher will pay for them. Many nonprofit housing providers also receive operating funds from other sources that come with limits on rent hikes.

“The city of Seattle is a funder in most of our buildings,” said Michelle House, director of compliance at Community Roots Housing. “This year, Seattle restricted [rent increases] to 4.2 percent. We did follow that guideline for most of our apartments.”

Susan Boyd, CEO of Bellwether Housing, says that rent increases at their properties depend “on the building and which entities regulate the building, if any.” But Bellwether made a decision this year to limit rent hikes to an average of 3 percent.

“Notwithstanding ever-increasing rents in the market and significant inflation in operation costs, this will be the first year since 2019 that we have raised rents at all. We are very careful to ensure that our residents do not get overwhelmed by steep rent increases, regardless of what is happening with the HUD rent levels,” she said.

Continue reading “Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents”

Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments

1. The Seattle City Council voted not to overturn Mayor Bruce Harrell’s veto of legislation that would have directed a research university, such as the University of Washington, to collect information from landlords about the size of their units and how much they charge. City Councilmember Alex Pedersen sponsored the proposal because, he said at Tuesday’s meeting, it would help the city “validate [the] affordable benefits of smaller mom and pop landlords,” informing the city’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan rewrite; Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2) co-sponsored it because she said it would give renters better information to make housing decisions and could ultimately bolster support for rent control.

“This could mean, for tenants, that they finally have the ability to make an informed decision and to make a choice between units when they’re searching for a new home—something that landlords have been able to do with background checks on tenants for decades,” Morales said. “We would finally have concrete data that dispels the illusion that private-market, trickle-down economics is the solution to our affordability crisis.”

Renters, unlike homeowners, lack access to crucial information to help them make informed housing decision. While home buyers can easily access public information about what a house sold for most recently, the assessed value of adjacent and nearby houses, and (through data maintained and published by the Multiple Listing Service) the average prices of houses in a particular area, renters have to rely on sites like Apartment Finder and Craigslist to get a general idea of local rents. Searches for the “median rent” in Seattle yield numbers that vary by hundreds of dollars, making it impossible to know whether the rent a landlord is charging is reasonable. 

In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information.

Overturning a mayoral veto requires a minimum of six council votes; as in the original vote, just five councilmembers supported the legislation this time.

2. JustCare, the COVID-era program that engaged with people living in encampments and moved them into hotel-based shelter, will no longer continue in its previous form. The program, run by the Public Defender Association, ran out of city funding at the end of June. Its new iteration, which will focus exclusively on encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, will be funded using state dollars allocated in a supplemental state budget for shelter and services tied to encampment removals on state-owned property.

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare. That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.”—Lisa Daugaard, Public Defender Association

The funding is only available to groups that focus on encampments in sites “identified by the department of transportation as a location where individuals residing on the public right-of-way are in specific circumstances or physical locations that expose them to especially or imminently unsafe conditions, including but not limited to active construction zones and risks of landslides.”

By moving its focus to encampments in state rights-of-way, such as highway overpasses, JustCare will lose its geographic, neighborhood-based focus, PDA co-director Daugaard acknowledges. 

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare,” Daugaard said. “That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.” Continue reading “Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments”

What Is Social Housing?

Photo depicting the exterior top half of renovated and renewed complex of block of flats with a colorful facade.

By Erica C. Barnett

Later this year, Seattle voters could take a first step toward building a new kind of permanently affordable, mixed-income public housing known as “social housing.” The House Our Neighbors! Coalition — a project of the housing advocacy organization Real Change — is collecting signatures for Initiative 135 (I-135), which would create a new public development authority (PDA) to build and operate new housing; funding for the PDA would come later, through future State or local legislation.

What Is Social Housing? 

In the U.S., most affordable housing is either public housing (built and maintained by government authorities) or housing built or purchased, and operated, by private nonprofits that receive government funding. (Housing subsidies, such as Section 8 vouchers, are aimed at helping renters afford market-rate housing.) In other parts of the world, including Europe and South America, “social housing” refers broadly to a type of housing that’s permanently affordable, with rents capped at a percentage of renters’ income.

The umbrella term “social housing” can refer to many different models, including some that incorporate private and nonprofit developers into a public funding scheme, and the term does not refer exclusively to low-income housing. The Vancouver, British Columbia, definition of “social housing” has been a source of recent controversy, because it serves people making up to six figures, as would Seattle’s.

How Would It Work in Seattle? 

Initiative 135 would achieve a social housing model by creating a public developer to build, acquire, and operate housing that would be funded by State or local revenues, including bonds. This publicly owned housing would have to be permanently affordable (costing less than 30% of monthly income) to a mix of people earning between 0% and 120% of Seattle’s area median income — as of last April, $81,000 for one person living alone, or $115,700 for a family of four. Under the authority’s charter, renters could not be kicked out if their income rises; their rent would simply rise accordingly.

After an initial startup period, the PDA’s 13-member governing board, which would manage the authority, would include a seven-member renter majority elected by residents. Each building would also have its own elected governing board, a kind of public HOA that would advocate to the board on behalf of residents and make building-level decisions, like how to spend the annual budget for common areas.

How Would It Be Funded?

Supporters of I-135 say they deliberately did not include a funding source in the initiative in order to avoid violating the State “single-subject rule,” which limits ballot initiatives (and State laws) to a single issue.

The initiative would simply set up the development authority and get it going, creating a temporary board and requiring the City to provide “in-kind” support to get the authority ready to build new housing or buy existing buildings once funding is in place. Other public development authorities in Seattle, such as the Pike Place Market PDA, also started without a funding source and pay for the market’s operating budget and capital improvements through rents, investments, and a 2008 ballot measure that increased property taxes to pay for $73 million in improvements.

Supporters have been vague about where future funding might come from, saying all potential sources are on the table, including State- and City-backed bonds, the State capital budget, and private philanthropy. “We are working on identifying progressive revenue sources,” Real Change Advocacy Director Tiffani McCoy said, “but we wanted to put together the structure and the vision and build up that startup support” first.

Seattle is currently facing a budget shortfall brought on by the end of COVID-era federal support but could be in better financial shape by the time the PDA comes to the City Council seeking funding through the City budget or Council-issued bonds. Continue reading “What Is Social Housing?”

Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice

Seattle generalized zoning mapby Leo Brine

Last week, the state house and senate Local Government and Housing Committees held hearings on Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) and Sen. Mona Das’ (D-47, Kent) “middle-housing” bills, which would let cities build denser housing in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

If passed, the bills would require all cities with more than 20,000 residents to allow multi-family housing such as six-unit multiplexes, row homes, courtyard apartments and other medium-density housing options in areas within a half-mile of frequent transit service—places where buses or trains arrive at least every 15 minutes during peak hours on weekdays. Cities would also need to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods further than a half-mile from transit. Under the legislation, cities would have two years to update their comprehensive growth plans to allow this type of housing.

Bateman’s and Das’ bills (HB 1782 and SB 5760, respectively) would dramatically change Seattle’s zoning laws, permitting denser housing options in most parts of the city. Currently, most of Seattle’s residential land is exclusively zoned for detached single-family housing. Many of these single-family-only areas are within a half-mile of frequent transit stops, meaning that if the bills pass, most of Seattle’s neighborhoods would have to allow significantly denser housing options. We’ve reached out to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development for a more detailed description of how the bills would alter Seattle’s housing landscape.

Seattle Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, and Dan Strauss all signed on to support Rep. Bateman’s bill at the House Local Government Committee’s public hearing.

The bills do offer an alternative option for cities that don’t want to allow denser housing in all single-family residential zones. Cities could instead meet average minimum density standards within their urban growth areas. If a city opted for this approach, it could theoretically allow a high-rise apartment or condo complex far away from single family neighborhoods, meeting average density goals without allowing a mix of denser housing development throughout the city. However, that opt-out alternative only applies to single-family residential zones more than a half-mile from transit areas; Seattle has few of those, so even if the city chose the alternate route—which would accomplish the opposite goal of increasing housing stock citywide, by the way—it would still have to permit denser housing options in most places.

Mosqueda said she supports the bill’s statewide approach to addressing both housing affordability and supply problems. “I think this will help ensure we’re building housing for our region so that fewer people have to commute hours into their jobs or into city cores,” she said. “That will be good for environment as well.”

Mosqueda, who’s been pushing to allow more density in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods, said that the legislation wouldn’t preempt or disrupt the city’s pre-existing Mandatory Housing Affordability law, which increased density allowances in some areas that are already multifamily (and slightly expanded some multifamily areas) while requiring developers who take advantage of upzones to build or fund affordable housing.

Sen. Das said, “there’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard.’”

Das, who has tried to pass state legislation requiring denser housing options for four-years running, addressed one of the persistent fears about upzones: gentrification. Rather than causing displacement, she argued, the legislation will give “BIPOC community members an opportunity to get in the [housing] market with a condo or a townhouse” in the neighborhoods they live in, rather than having to uproot themselves to find housing they can afford in other parts of the state. “There’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard,’” Das added.

Responding to concerns about displacement, Bateman pointed to last year’s HB 1220, sponsored by Rep. Strom Petersen (D-21, Lynnwood) and Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), which requires cities to adopt anti-displacement measures into their comprehensive plans. (Seattle’s next comprehensive plan update is slated for 2024.)

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Despite Das’ assurances, there is still concern that new developments will result in high-income residents moving into new housing, gentrifying low-income and vulnerable neighborhoods. On the other hand, people are being displaced and priced out of Seattle already under our current, inflexible zoning regime, where rents continue to increase largely because demand (the number of people, particularly wealthy people, living in and moving to the city) eclipses supply (the number of new units being built). Continue reading “Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice”

City’s Hotel Shelters Face Predictable Challenge: Where Will All the Residents Go?

Mayor Jenny Durkan

By Erica C. Barnett

The homeless service agencies running Seattle’s two hotel-based shelters are running into a predictable problem: Now that the hotels are full, few of their residents are moving out.

The reason, the shelter providers say, is simple: Most of the people currently staying at Kings Inn, run by the Chief Seattle Club, and many of those living at the Executive Pacific Hotel, operated by the Low-Income Housing Institute, have complex challenges, including chronic homelessness and disabling medical conditions, that make them poor candidates for the rapid rehousing program the city said would be hotel residents’ path to self-sufficiency.

Last October, when the city announced plans to open three hotel-based shelters using federal COVID relief funds, city officials said the providers that ran the hotels would move residents into housing quickly using rapid rehousing subsidies—short-term rental assistance that dwindles over time as people gain income and can afford to pay full rent in private, market-rate apartments. When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the plan to open around 300 hotel rooms as temporary shelter by December of last year, the city estimated that about 231 hotel residents would receive rapid rehousing subsidies through the federally funded program.

“I would say that the majority are not candidates for rapid rehousing,” said LIHI director Sharon Lee. “They’ve been chronically homeless, they have significant drug use, significant disabilities, and their status is unlikely to change.”

Two of the promised hotels, totaling around 200 rooms, opened in March. So far, though, only a handful of people have “exited” the hotels into rapid rehousing through the programs the city funded for this purpose, and the people moving into the hotels, most of them from “priority” encampments that are scheduled for sweeps, need intensive, long-term services, not just a subsidy.

“I would say that the majority are not candidates for rapid rehousing,” said LIHI director Sharon Lee. “They’ve been chronically homeless, they have significant drug use, significant disabilities, and their status is unlikely to change.” (A person is chronically homeless if they have a disabling condition and have been homeless more than a year.) “When you have people who have co-morbidities and are high-acuity, it’s very challenging” to use rapid rehousing, Lee said.

Anne Xuan Clark, a development consultant for the Chief Seattle Club, added, “Most of our residents have mental health and substance abuse issues, and are better suited to PSH [permanent supportive housing],” where residents receive long-term services and are not expected to pay full rent.’

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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As we reported in January, the people who tend to do best in rapid rehousing are those who are working or who can find work, those who have been homeless only a short time, and those who don’t face significant barriers to employment and housing.

Instead of seeking out people with those characteristics, the Human Services Department has reserved rooms in the hotels—particularly the Executive Pacific—for people living in encampments the city decides to sweep. The result of this somewhat random process is that, according to Lee, “we’ve only moved two or three people into rapid rehousing.”

The city believes these numbers are turning around. At a press conference about new federal investments in housing and homelessness Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Durkan touted new numbers showing that between the two hotels, about 50 people had “enrolled in a rapid rehousing program.” But all that means, according to Catholic Community Services deputy director Dan Wise, is “that they have met with our team and have said that they believe rapid rehousing is a good path forward for them.”

The city’s hotel strategy was explicitly based on the premise that a couple hundred rooms would be able to serve far more individual people, as many residents moved quickly on from the hotels and into market-rate units using rapid rehousing subsidies

Wise said CCS is nimble enough to “pivot” when it turns out someone who initially wanted one service turns out to be a better fit for another program, as the agency does frequently in its long-term rapid rehousing program for veterans.

“What we know is that if we engage a veteran and [a certain] service isn’t the right match for them along the way, then talk to the VA about another opportunity, like a long-term voucher or supportive services,” Wise said. “So I think what we’re learning from the hotel is to allow the participants in the hotel to lead their own process listen to them and what they want out of housing and then work with the city to support that.”

Asked whether the mix of people currently at the city’s two hotel-based shelters has made the city’s plans to cycle people through quickly using rapid rehousing, Durkan said, “It’s impossible to classify any category of people as a monolith. Are they eligible for rapid rehousing? Are they not? It really is going to depend on the individuals. … The first thing you have to do us bring people inside and get them stabilized in an enhanced environment, and then you will see what paths are available.”

The problem is that the city’s hotel strategy was explicitly based on the premise that a couple hundred rooms would be able to serve far more individual people, as many residents moved quickly on from the hotels and into market-rate units using rapid rehousing subsidies. If the truth is that most of the people living at Kings Inn and the Executive Pacific need permanent supportive housing, a much more expensive and scarce solution, it means that the city’s current practice of using hotels as receiving sites for encampment sweeps is running smack into the city’s promise of turning hotels into short-term lodging for people who just need a little financial boost. Continue reading “City’s Hotel Shelters Face Predictable Challenge: Where Will All the Residents Go?”

Guest Post: New Affordable Housing Dashboard Promotes Transparency and Accountability 

by Claudia Balducci

It’s no secret we have a dramatic housing shortage in King County. This has real human consequences, leaving too many with insecure housing and contributing to an unacceptably high level of homelessness. Many people and organizations – public and private – have been working hard to tackle the problem. We’ve seen increased investment at all levels of government and from private companies, partnerships to provide affordable housing near transit, new funding sources to support subsidized housing, zoning changes to allow more housing in some areas, new regional collaborations, and much more.

But the headlines keep coming: housing costs continue to rise and COVID times have brought job loss and the risk of housing loss for many more people than before. Many thousands of families spend more than half their income on housing, leaving them just one extra expense away from homelessness. Questions should be asked:  Are our efforts enough? What more must we do to ensure that people have access to the housing that they need and deserve? To understand the answers to those questions and to be sure our efforts are working, we needed to know more.

That’s why I’m excited to share that this week the Growth Management Planning Council’s Affordable Housing Committee, which I chair, released a Regional Affordable Housing Dashboard to track our county’s progress toward our goals. This new tool will help hold us all accountable to the bold and ambitious goals set by the Regional Affordable Housing Taskforce to build or preserve 44,000 affordable homes by 2024 and 244,000 homes by 2040.

The dashboard will help jurisdictions track their progress, arm housing advocates with data to make their cases, and provide the public with information to hold elected leaders accountable.

To our knowledge, no dashboard like this has ever been built. The dashboard will help jurisdictions track their respective progress, arm housing advocates with data to make their cases, and provide the public with information to hold elected leaders accountable. The dashboard’s “Jurisdictional Snapshots” section offers information about housing affordability and policy enactment by city. Additionally, a wide variety of affordable housing data— from housing policies to transit-oriented development and displacement—are available for download either as raw data or charts.

The tool itself illustrates the power, and challenge, of working together. The Affordable Housing Committee, which is composed of 19 elected, nonprofit and business leaders, provided an umbrella for the hard work it took to identify data sets, analyze the data and reach agreement on how to interpret the data.  This collaboration across our county is something to celebrate.

Here’s what the dashboard tells us already:

• King County lacks an adequate supply of affordable homes for the lowest-income renters who must compete for the limited number of rental homes affordable to them in the private market. Only 27 units are affordable and available for every 100 extremely low-income households (those making between 0 and 30 percent of Area Median Income, or AMI).

  • Black households are severely cost-burdened (defined as paying more than half of one’s salary for housing) at twice the rate of white households. Twenty-six percent of Black households are severely cost-burdened, as compared to 13 percent of white households.
  • Our region established a goal to build or preserve 44,000 homes affordable to households with incomes at or below 50 percent of AMI between 2019 and 2024. To meet this goal, we need to create 8,800 affordable units per year; but in 2019, only 1,595 affordable units were created.

Continue reading “Guest Post: New Affordable Housing Dashboard Promotes Transparency and Accountability “