When Colleen Echohawk thinks about growth in Seattle, the mayoral candidate thinks about coffee and new neighbors, because that’s what she got when more than 100 micro apartments were constructed in Idaho, hauled to her Bitter Lake neighborhood and assembled like Lego pieces down the street from her house, with a coffee shop below.
She also thinks about evictions and splintered communities, considering the city’s tech-job boom has coincided with housing-cost increases and displacement. Echohawk has seen those struggles while running a nonprofit that serves Native people experiencing homelessness.
Ahead of the Aug. 3 primary election, she and other mayoral contenders are under pressure to explain how Seattle can continue to thrive, without continuing to become a city largely for wealthy people. The candidates mostly agree that more housing of certain types may be needed, beyond 45,000 units added since 2015 and what’s in the pipeline. But they each have special points to make.
Andrew Grant Houston, an architect, says Seattle should allow up to eight units on every housing lot. City Council President M. Lorena González wants to make Seattle a “15-minute city,” where residents can meet their needs with a short walk or bike trip. Former state lawmaker Jessyn Farrell says the city must add 70,000 affordable units by 2030.
Former City Council President Bruce Harrell plans to seek corporate donations for affordable housing, while Echohawk wants to see more housing built by Native- and Black-led organizations.
Lance Randall, an economic development specialist, says job training will help struggling residents pay for housing. Art Langlie, a construction-industry executive, says City Hall must work with builders to design better housing models. Former Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller believes density should be mostly concentrated along transit corridors.
Seattle’s median home price was $919,000 last month, up from $729,000 in May 2017, when voters last decided a mayoral primary. The median monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment was $1,520, down from $1,660 in May 2017. Rents plunged when the pandemic hit but are climbing again.
Some households moved away in 2020, as COVID-19 surged and many office workers went remote. Migration to the city dropped. Still, Seattle clocked the No. 1 growth rate among major U.S. cities for July 2019 to July 2020.
The next mayor will play a crucial role in what happens next, with the property tax levy Seattle uses to create subsidized housing up for renewal in 2023; an update to the city’s long-term growth plan due in 2024; and the possibility of more density on blocks reserved decades ago for only detached “single-family” houses attracting buzz. The race is wide open because Jenny Durkan, the city’s current mayor, isn’t running for reelection.
The idea that Seattle should revise the single-family zoning that constrains what’s built on most of the city’s residential land — because it limits supply, is environmentally unsustainable and contributes to racial and economic segregation by excluding from many neighborhoods people who can’t buy million-dollar houses — was controversial enough in 2016 that then-Mayor Ed Murray removed the proposal from a set recommendations by a panel on housing affordability.
But the question is now part of the 2021 mayoral contest, as Seattle mulls the “urban village” strategy it’s used since the 1990s — absorbing growth mostly in two dozen mini-downtowns while keeping other blocks off-limits to multifamily housing. City Hall took some steps in 2019, expanding urban villages and relaxing restrictions on backyard cottages and in-law apartments. You now can build and rent out a house and two accessory units on each lot, within certain design parameters.
The conversation also has shifted nationally, with cities like Portland and Minneapolis taking aim at “apartment bans.” President Joe Biden has proposed a $5 billion effort to end exclusionary zoning.
A racial-equity analysis of Seattle’s growth strategy requested by the council is scheduled for release soon.
Meanwhile, the mayoral candidates are debating how to approach subsidized housing. Seattle invested about $118 million last year in affordable housing, awarding grants to 15 projects with below-market rents and mortgage payments, with rental projects accounting for all but $2 million.
The money came from the housing levy, last approved by voters in 2016, and from Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, which has required developers in urban villages to include affordable units or pay fees since City Hall rezoned the villages for slightly larger buildings in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Most of the revenue from a new tax on high salaries at big businesses passed by the council last year has been earmarked, starting in 2022, for affordable housing.
Houston, González, Farrell and Echohawk each told The Seattle Times the city should allow more housing on every block, beyond the current allowances for accessory units, while Harrell, Sixkiller and Langlie objected and Randall said maybe.
Houston, González, Farrell, Echohawk and Harrell said the city should boost taxes on large corporations; Randall said maybe. Houston and Sixkiller said they would support raising property or sales taxes; González, Farrell, Echohawk and Harrell said maybe.
Many residents have been displaced because the urban village strategy has channeled almost all development into areas that previously had less-expensive housing, Houston says, arguing growth should be spread out.
Houston wants to simplify Seattle’s land-use code while investing more in community-led projects and raising the minimum wage to $23 per hour. Though Seattle is adding accessory units more quickly now, larger-scale changes are needed, he says. Seattle could try a practice common in Athens, Greece, where property owners trade land to developers for some apartments in what the developers build, he adds.
González attributes the crunch to generational poverty and market-driven “luxury housing.” By legalizing multifamily housing across Seattle, City Hall can open up many more blocks to subsidized units, unlocking neighborhoods to more diversity, she says.
Concurrently, the city should expand MHA and bolster tools like nonprofit land trusts, which sell homes at below-market prices, with restrictions, she says. The next levy will likely need to be somewhat larger, González says, pointing to Copenhagen, Denmark, as an example of density with character preserved.
Farrell says Seattle’s zoning and housing policies are outdated and inequitable, arguing for at least some additional density “in every neighborhood,” more land trusts and low-interest loans for building accessory units.
The region needs a massive plan to build affordable housing, she says, without laying out where the money would come from. Farrell points to the 18-acre Talaris site in Laurelhurst as a spot near jobs, transit and shopping that should be redeveloped with options denser than detached houses, while keeping trees.
Echohawk senses that “our communities are ready” for changes in single-family zones, saying duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes are where Seattle should start — perhaps adding 1,000 quadplexes in four years. At the same time, demolitions of older apartments have been damaging, she says.
Building affordable housing is a challenging, wonky process that Echohawk knows from her time leading the Chief Seattle Club, arguing the city should empower community groups to design projects and work with the Seattle Housing Authority to build new public housing.
Ending single-family zoning shouldn’t be the litmus test for anti-racism, Harrell says, noting that educational, employment and legal equity also are important. Though zoning has exclusionary history and Harrell is open to a new paradigm, changes should never be made without community input, he says, saying there already are opportunities to add housing, schools and child care near transit stations.
Seattle’s design-review process slows down housing construction and must be streamlined, Harrell says, calling MHA a smart step and suggesting Seattle should do more to help striving homebuyers with down-payments.
Sixkiller wants to preserve the city’s existing housing stock and “do density in the right places,” he says, citing the midrise blocks around the Roosevelt light-rail station opening soon. Houses are an important option for residents with children, says Sixkiller, who rents one in Phinney Ridge.
He says City Hall should seek property tax increases for a $1 billion bond measure to build 3,000 units of housing with services for people leaving homelessness. Like Houston and González, Sixkiller thinks MHA should be tweaked to incentivize more affordable units mixed into market-rate projects.
Randall is wary of what he calls “cookie cutter” changes, as opposed to “staggered residential zoning with density limits responsive to the neighborhood.” City Hall should pay more attention to job training,because subsidized-housing residents who make income gains can move on, leaving more space for others, he says.
MHA should be altered, because the fees are a barrier for longtime homeowners of color who want to redevelop their properties while contending with soaring property-tax bills, Randall says.
Seattle has been adding a lot of housing, but too much of the wrong type — 1- and 2-bedroom rentals, Langlie says. The city should preserve single-family houses, which are in demand among techie couples, while adding more micro apartments for young people and condos for homebuyers with modest incomes, he says.
State rules that cause condo developers to fear pricey lawsuits over construction defects have stymied production, even with some recent reforms, Langlie says, arguing the city’s Olympia lobbyists should prioritize the issue. He says Seattle’s tenant protections are discouraging landlords.
State law bars cities like Seattle from establishing rent control for housing not associated with government programs, but that could theoretically change, as in Oregon recently. Houston, González and Farrell said they would support enacting some type of rent control, while Echohawk, Harrell, Sixkiller and Randall said maybe.
Staff reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this story.