City Hall feels NIMBYs are getting in the way of development. Have they looked out the window recently? More big apartment buildings are going up than in the previous hundred-plus-years of the city combined.
Seattle politics keeps getting more and more divorced from reality.
The most recent example of this is City Hall’s petulant fight against the NIMBYs. Mayor Ed Murray just cut city ties with the official neighborhood groups. Now, his various allies are depicting those community groups as self-dealing, white, privileged obstacles to the high-density development we need to make Seattle an inclusive city.
Yet at the very same time, Seattle’s growth boom is putting up more big apartment buildings than in the previous hundred-plus-years of the city combined.
Yes, you read that right. If you count what was built from the start of the boom, 2012, to today, plus what’s already in the pipeline to be built in the next three years, Seattle is on track to add more apartment stock in larger buildings of 20-plus units than it did in all the years combined going back to 1900.
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That incredible fact was revealed to the City Council recently by a real-estate consultant, Mike Scott of Dupree + Scott. His tracking of building permits also finds that 13,000 apartment units were built in Seattle this year and last, with an additional 26,000 in the pipeline for the next three years. That total of nearly 40,000 would blow well past the mayor’s own goal for 30,000 new market-rate units by 2025, announced just last year.
“What the whole development community has done in the past hundred years, it’s now duplicating in just eight short years,” Scott said.
Yet the feeling at City Hall is that this is a city controlled by NIMBYs?
If these church-basement groups are NIMBYs — and they may well aspire to be — then they’re the most ineffective NIMBYs of all time.
That hasn’t stopped allies of the mayor from bashing them as selfish, race-focused grouches who routinely “slow down or prevent the growth of market-rate housing,” as David Rolf of the local Service Employees International Union wrote in The Seattle Times this week.
He cited the cautionary tale of San Francisco, “where the power of neighborhood groups has prevented the development of new housing units for decades, and where the development of affordable housing for low-income people was restricted to a few blighted neighborhoods south of downtown. Sound familiar?”
No, David, it doesn’t. Look out your own window!
As Mike Scott told the council, apartment buildings are sprouting throughout the city. From 2012 through 2019, South Lake Union and downtown are adding the most units (17,000.) But after that, in order, are the supposed NIMBY fiefdoms of Queen Anne (5,000 units) and Green Lake/Wallingford (about 5,000). Next comes Capitol Hill (4,000), First Hill (3,500), Ballard and the Central Area (3,000 each) and 2,500 in West Seattle.
The city also keeps helpful lists about how subsidized housing is scattered around the city. One small example of how we’re decidedly not San Francisco: Ballard and Fremont have twice as many buildings with low-income renter units as South Seattle under the Multifamily Tax Exemption Program.
Twelve out of the 14 city neighborhoods have seen the number of apartment buildings grow by at least 50 percent during this boom, Scott found. Ballard is up 200 percent in apartments, right along with South Lake Union.
“It’s a very significant impact on a large number of neighborhoods,” Scott told the council.
For the record, we clearly need the housing, so this development is largely for the good. It’d sure be nice if the city had kept pace with the infrastructure.
But Seattle’s obviously not an anti-growth town, so what’s with the demagoguing about it?
My sense is that the city blew it. For going on five years now the city has been talking about leveraging the growth to boost affordable housing. A few years ago it was going to levy an impact fee on development to create an affordable-housing fund (called a linkage fee). Then, the mayor’s Housing and Livability task force dropped the linkage fee for another idea — to require that all new developments include affordable units in their buildings, or pay a fee.
It’s a solid idea, which cities around the country long ago put to good use. But it’s too late now to apply it to this historic building boom. While Seattle leaders were patting themselves on the back for their “grand bargain,” the hot market busted on. The 13,000 units built the past two years and the 26,000 more in the pipeline — those are gone. Those units won’t be subject to a fee or affordable-housing requirement, no matter what the city passes now.
It means the city just missed the biggest building boom in a hundred years.
They have no one to blame for that but themselves. So they’re trying to blame somebody else.