Proponents and opponents of a University District upzone are telling very different stories about potential displacement. One is comforting, while the other is frightening. Both deserve asterisks.
As few as 40 housing units demolished. Or as many as 1,500 households pushed out.
Depending on whom you ask, those would be the displacement results of Seattle’s proposed University District upzone.
One number is incredibly low, the other startlingly high. You can blame the discrepancy on proponents and opponents using different approaches to arrive at numbers that suit their views.
Seattle officials say allowing towers to climb up to 320 feet on U District blocks near a planned light-rail station would give new options to home-seekers struggling with steep rents and sales prices.
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Minimal displacement, they say, in a neighborhood already gentrifying would be a small price to pay for smarter growth, and for hundreds of below-market-rate units that developers would be required to build.
Foes claim the upzone would pave the way for more upscale development and turn one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods into a playground for rich people.
The city planner’s work
Now that you know the background, let’s dig into the numbers.
When Seattle planner Dave LaClergue and others at the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development set out to address displacement, he began with the amount of expected development.
Historically, 3 percent of the city’s growth has been in the U District, LaClergue found. That share could swell to 7 percent because of the upzone, the light-rail station opening in 2021 and the UW making the neighborhood a hub for startups, the planner reckoned.
Based on growth expected citywide, LaClergue calculated the U District could add 5,000 units over the next 20 years.
Then he looked at the sites where those units might be built, consulting a 2013 market analysis, and he talked to property owners.
For each site in the neighborhood, he asked: What development would be allowed? How profitable? Does the owner control adjacent properties?
Those criteria helped LaClergue run a simulation: He allocated 5,000 units to the properties rated most likely to be developed. Some were parking lots.
The end product was a map of properties and, using tax records, LaClergue identified 40 existing housing units on them. Voilà! He had a demolition estimate.
The planner later gauged how many units would be torn down under a supercharged scenario in which every site that could be developed indeed was, and the U District added more than 9,800 units. That upper-range number was 275.
John Fox’s calculations
To come up with a very different number, John Fox started by walking the neighborhood.
The Seattle Displacement Coalition activist counted as endangered every building he thought might ever be torn down and those he thought might see rent hikes.
While LaClergue had studied direct displacement — demolitions — he hadn’t investigated economic displacement — people pushed out by mounting costs.
Why? Rents and property values change for various reasons. Upzones can actually slow rent increases because they allow more housing to be built, LaClergue says.
“There are so many layers of speculation, it’s hard to draw a clean line between a zoning change and rents,” he said.
But Fox did delve into economic displacement. To ignore the phenomenon would have been to abandon common sense, he says.
U District rents are lower than the citywide average. When upzones allow taller buildings, property values soar, driving rents and taxes up, Fox says. People move out.
The neighborhood’s most ramshackle buildings are bulwarks against gentrification because they contain some of Seattle’s least-expensive market-rate units, he says.
To account for people sharing single-family houses, Fox says he tallied mailboxes rather than structures. To measure rents, he talked to some tenants and checked online listings.
Like LaClergue, Fox weighed what the upzone would allow on certain properties. But more than the planner, he relied on a not-so-scientific eyeball test.
Fox looked at existing buildings and wondered: Would someone like to knock this down and build something taller?
The longtime U District activist — who no longer lives in the neighborhood but works out of the University Heights Center — is skeptical of LaClergue’s prediction that the neighborhood would add 5,000 housing units. The planner’s own research says the upzone would allow as many as 10,000 to be built.
Fox’s survey last year identified 1,250 units as threatened. His total grew to 1,500 after officials tweaked the upzone proposal.
Very different numbers
LaClergue and Fox reached some very different conclusions.
For example, Fox marked the 123-unit Malloy Apartments in danger of demolition because the building’s block would be upzoned to 320 feet. LaClergue didn’t.
Though a new project could be much taller, other zoning controls would limit its girth and therefore the number of additional units that could be built, the planner said.
Fox listed a rooming house on a block that would be upzoned to 240 feet. But the site wouldn’t accommodate a large project on its own. LaClergue didn’t put it on his map.
Finally, Fox included the University Regency, where Ron Bass lives. The 71-year-old pays $700 per month at the 48-unit building, which didn’t make LaClergue’s map.
Bass agrees with Fox about what the upzone would mean. “They’re going to get rid of these buildings,” he said, gazing up, where he imagines new towers will rise.
But LaClergue says upzone opponents are missing the big picture. They’re not taking into consideration that the U District already is changing, he says.
Buildings are being torn down now and rents are up. From 2010 to 2016, the neighborhood added 1,795 housing units.
From March 2011 to March 2016, U District rents jumped between 31 and 40 percent, depending on building age.
“Anybody who spends time in the neighborhood sees how much growth is happening,” LaClergue said.
The U District has the capacity to add thousands more housing units even without the upzone, he says. The important question is where and how units are added.
When LaClergue simulated the next 20 years under existing zoning, he predicted 60 units would be demolished, more than with the upzone. That’s because the upzone would allow more units per property.
There’s more: U District developers aren’t building much below-market-rate housing with existing incentives, LaClergue says. But the upzone would trigger new requirements passed this year by Murray and the City Council.
In order to build thousands of market-rate units, developers would be required to build or pay for more than 600 below-market-rate units, he says.
Those units wouldn’t necessarily be built in the U District, Fox warns. The city should stem displacement first — the upzone would make things worse, he says.
“Like pouring fuel on a fire, like destroying a village in order to save it,” he said.
No final answer
Forty to 275 housing units demolished? Or 1,500 households gone?
LaClergue’s numbers don’t consider economic displacement, and even when it comes to direct displacement, 40 is hard to believe. The U District has lost 124 units to demolition since 2010.
But Fox’s number assumes a doomsday scenario and blames all direct and economic displacement exclusively on the upzone, even though people are being pushed out regardless.
Carolina Gomez hasn’t been tracking the proposal. Her work as a UW biologist keeps her busy.
But the 41-year-old lives on a U District block ripe for development, so she has a stake in the plan.
She’s not sure what to think.
“When cities expand they take habitat. Sometimes it’s better to increase population density,” Gomez said. “But there’s definitely a downside.”
How much downside is what LaClergue and Fox are debating, and it would be simpler for the council if one had the perfect number and the other had it all wrong.
But neither number tells the entire story, and neither is particularly comforting for Analyn Unpingco, who moved to Seattle from Los Angeles three months ago.
Though Unpingco was able to snag a U District studio for less than $1,000 per month, she might not stay. She sees many people of color headed south, where rents are lower.
“There are colleagues of mine who have moved to Auburn,” said the 23-year-old.
Unpingco teaches immigrants who mostly live south of the city. “They’re not even touching the U District,” she said. “They’re not even thinking North Seattle.”