SEATTLE’S rich socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural diversity is threatened by a shortage of affordable housing. City officials must give this issue urgent attention.
The City Council can streamline the permitting process and change zoning laws to create incentives for developers, but additional leadership is needed from Seattle’s highest office. Candidates for mayor and council should spark a robust public discussion.
The economy is improving. Hiring is up. People are moving in. But as The Seattle Times’ Colin Campbell reported in a July 1 news story, construction of affordable housing has not kept up with demand. Rent surged by 3 percent citywide within the past three months alone, while vacancy rates dropped to 4.41 percent from 4.83 percent a year ago, according to Apartment Insights. The average rent increased from $1,155 to $1,190 per unit. In the Capitol Hill neighborhood, rents soared 8.2 percent to $1,395 each month.
While companies such as Amazon.com are offering competitive salaries, many other workers are being squeezed out of the market or forced to spend more than the generally recommended one-third of their income on housing. The effect is less money to spend on transportation and other essentials.
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According to 2012 data compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the estimated median income of a renter in King County is $42,914 and an affordable monthly rate should be about $1,073. Imagine what skyrocketing prices are doing to someone who earns the minimum wage of $9.04 per hour and can afford only $470 per month on rent.
Over the years, Seattle has encouraged more mother-in-law dwellings, micro-apartments, mixed developments and subsidized housing through the Seattle Housing Levy.
A major redevelopment is planned for Yesler Terrace. But the private market is not responding adequately to the immediate dearth of affordable units.
A special advisory group is supposed to recommend solutions by 2014. Possible changes include:
• Embracing a market-based understanding of development, including ensuring that unnecessary and costly regulations do not discourage affordable housing;
• Adjusting the Multi-Family Tax Exemption program, which requires developers who want the exemption to dedicate at least 20 percent of units to tenants with lower incomes;
• Encouraging residential construction in centrally located areas close to transit, jobs, schools and parks;
• Adopting best practices from other cities, including New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s much-publicized competition to promote better micro-apartment design standards.
Candidates should make affordable housing a priority issue in their campaigns.