The belief that housing will miraculously “trickle down” to the poor by allowing rampant development and upzoning Seattle neighborhoods is a pernicious myth.
Since 2013 here in Seattle, residential construction has reached record levels, with more than 40,000 new market-rate units built and 22,000 more in the pipeline. Despite the unprecedented growth, vacancy rates remained low and rents climbed 7 to 8 percent annually over the same five-year period — highest in the country among larger cities.
So why hasn’t the added supply brought prices down? Since 2013, 3,900 existing housing units were torn down to make way for that new construction, and applications are pending for removal of another 747 units.
We estimate, based on our survey work, that far more than half of these demolished units were inexpensive rentals occupied by households with incomes below 50 percent of area median. Many were single-family homes renting to families, often people of color, or up to eight unrelated individuals, meaning even more low-income people were displaced than the number of demolitions would indicate.
The development boom also drove up taxes and accelerated speculative resale of other older apartment buildings that weren’t demolished — pushing rents up on these — and forcing other low-income households from their homes. Given these losses, it’s no surprise that 6,320 people in King County go unsheltered nightly, with most on Seattle streets.
Few leaders from the dozens of agencies and private-sector players in regional coalitions like “One Table” and “All Home” even acknowledge that runaway growth is destroying our unsubsidized, low-cost housing stock and that without measures put in place to prevent these losses, it will only mean more homelessness in our communities.
And what about local government? The answer is “put the pedal to the metal.” In recent years, the city council has upzoned our communities to over twice the capacity we need to meet Seattle’s regionally assigned 2035 residential growth target. And the proposed “Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda” (HALA) calls for more dramatic upzoning to accommodate still more growth across the city.
If we were “mayor for a day,” we’d suspend the HALA upzone plan and propose an immediate moratorium on demolition of existing affordable apartment buildings. This action wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 1987, Mayor Charles Royer imposed a moratorium to save downtown housing. Since less than one in 10 developable lots citywide contain an existing low-cost apartment building, this action would barely affect rates of residential growth.
During the moratorium, we’d propose requirements for developers to replace one-for-one units they remove at comparable price, and requirements for developers to pay impact fees to cover their share of the costs of streets, schools and parks, freeing up current city funds for more low-cost housing. We’d also tap the city’s excess bonding capacity and divert tens of millions now being poured into developer boondoggles like streetcars and stadium improvements.
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In 2015, the city passed a “right of first notice” law requiring landlords to notify, and consider offers to purchase from, the city and nonprofits before selling their low-cost apartments to developers. But it’s not been enforced. Using this law and these extra city funds, we’d acquire existing older apartment buildings not yet hit by the wrecking ball and turn them into tenant-run and managed co-ops and land trusts to remain affordable to low-income residents in perpetuity.
There has been considerable hand-wringing recently over why the number of unsheltered homeless continues to rise despite nearly quadrupling what government spends on homeless programs. Angry citizens are accusing agencies of mismanagement, and elected officials are promising more accountability. Ironically, it likely will mean more dollars that could go for shelter instead will go to data collection and “reorganization.”
But like similar attempts from past decades — there have been many — it will make no measurable dent in homelessness so long as our leaders continue to blindly push more density and upzoning. The belief that housing will miraculously “trickle down” to the poor by giving away the keys to market-rate developers is a pernicious myth. It’s the moral equivalent of telling thousands of seniors, low-income people and people of color now being displaced to “let them eat cake.” And it renders bankrupt any claim that Seattle leaders truly care about stemming homelessness or overcoming inequality in our city.