IN the debate whether to increase housing density in Seattle, let’s not forget our city’s historic strengths — especially our single-family neighborhoods and the plentiful mix of affordable rental housing in places like Capitol Hill, Ballard and the University District.
Rapid change that bears no relation to this historic character can seriously undermine the very attributes that Seattle residents and leaders alike have come to value: social diversity, trees and open space, affordable housing and our sense of place.
In 2004, Seattle neighborhoods were assigned 20-year residential growth targets as required under the state’s Growth Management Act in order to prevent sprawl. Today, we have already exceeded 100 percent of those targets citywide as multifamily development has exploded across Seattle.
In many cases, the development has undermined the very qualities that are integral to the city’s character. Since 2005, Seattle has added more than 48,700 dwelling units, including those that have been permitted for construction. Neighborhoods close to downtown like Capitol Hill, West Seattle Junction, Eastlake, Green Lake and Ballard have reached 177 to 317 percent of their 2024 targets, according to the 2014 Residential Growth Report by the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
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Despite this unprecedented expansion of our housing stock, the promise that increased supply would bring down prices simply has not been fulfilled. In fact, rents across Seattle have skyrocketed — up 6 percent in the last year, the highest among 81 major U.S. metro areas, according to a Seattle Times news story. The average rent for a new one-bedroom apartment is now $1,600 a month.
Since 2005, more than 5,000 units of existing lower-density housing were torn down to make way for new residential construction. Most of the removed units were larger and occupied by the city’s poorest renters, many of them families and people of color. Permits are pending for demolition of another 1,700.
The notion that we can build our way out of the affordability crisis is nothing more than an excuse to let developers have their way without regard to the consequences that affect affordability or livability.
As Alison Roxley told the Seattle City Council in a recent hearing on neighborhood development limits, “We all live in fear that any property may be razed, sliced and diced and replaced by some creation that looks nothing like what’s already in the neighborhood,” according to a Seattle Times news story.
We’re not arguing to keep things as they are but to respect existing patterns of affordability, density and livability as the city grows. Ironically, while we debate a $15 minimum wage, many retail, service and hospitality workers benefiting from that increase would still not be able to afford an apartment in Seattle.
Let’s look at real solutions that would ensure a healthy future for residents of all income levels in Seattle, measures to control and manage growth and preserve our existing low-income stock.
Start with one-for-one requirements that would replace demolished apartments at comparable rents; use inclusionary zoning that would include a percentage of low-income apartments in new developments; and require developer-impact fees.
Then the costs of development — such as roads, utilities, parks and schools — would not be borne by Seattle taxpayers, and poor and working people would not be kicked out of their homes to accommodate Seattle’s building boom, awaiting the day when those $1,600 apartment rents to trickle down to more affordable levels.
In a recent Seattle Times’ guest opinion column, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution lauded Seattle’s position in the global marketplace. But he also warned that success is not inevitable.
Keys to our success, he said, include ensuring that “local residents have a path to good jobs” and that leaders provide regional transportation solutions. Our transportation system that many lower-income workers depend upon is fragmented and underfunded. And if our workers cannot find affordable housing in Seattle, then we have ignored two critical ingredients in creating the kind of city we aspire to be, a city where all can find a home.
John Fox is coordinator for the Seattle Displacement Coalition. David Bloom is former director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness.