Following a year in which Seattle saw the largest increases in rent costs in the nation, the Seattle City Council is now taking more visibly public aim at the issue of affordable housing after a City Hall forum held last week to examine strategies to make Seattle an affordable city once more.
“Right now, there’s a lot of job growth happening, which is great, but people who aren’t participating in Amazon-level paychecks are feeling the squeeze in this city, and that’s not a good thing,” said council member Mike O’Brien.
But in some cities those corporations are apparently helping to create more affordable housing. One tactic discussed at the forum is to solicit help from local corporations to create a housing fund that would operate similarly to the city’s current housing levy — a strategy employed by cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis.
Recently, the influence that businesses like Microsoft and Amazon have in gentrifying popular neighborhoods like Capitol Hill has been under increased scrutiny following a protest of Microsoft’s Connector bus on Bellevue and Pine. Protests like this have become increasingly common in San Francisco, with anti-gentrification activists claiming that the numerous private commuting services utilized by tech companies leaves less incentive to improve upon mass transit options.
But according to O’Brien, big-name corporations like Microsoft stand to benefit by helping to make the city more accessible to people of all-income levels by broadening their pool of potential employees.
“It’s acknowledging that the future success of these companies is in part dependent upon them being able to recruit the type of talent they need,” said O’Brien. “Companies are trying to recruit a lot of talent, and at the scale that they’re trying to do that, affordability issues in places like Silicon Valley is a serious constraint and obstacle to their ongoing success. So companies there recognize that they have a financial interest in making housing is affordable, and they’re going to put their money where their mouth is.”
The forum, which saw over 200 people in attendance, drew together numerous experts on housing from across the country in order to compare how other cities have tackled the issue of affordable housing while also presenting information showing how mixed-income communities are of greater benefit to the city as a whole. Additionally, the forum also served as a means of scrutinizing the success of existing measures in Seattle in order to determine what steps must be taken to help increase the number of affordable units across the city.
“The forum was about recognizing that people are coming from different angles and we all have some personal needs to meet that are pretty powerful and important,” O’Brien said. “To work through this as a community, we wanted to get on the same page around some shared values, and also get some shared knowledge around the data to see what we know and we don’t know, and where people’s priorities are.”
At the forefront of the forum’s efforts to increase affordable housing was a review of Seattle’s Incentive Zoning program. The program, which is currently only used in areas like South Lake Union that have been up-zoned, allows developers to increase the height of their buildings if low-income housing units are also constructed. If the developers choose to opt out of providing low-cost housing on-site while still using the incentive program, developers can instead pay a fee to the city.
Results of a Council led study of the program were presented to the forum, showing that in 12 years an estimated 400-750 low-cost units have been created under the program. Approximately 40 percent of developers had chosen to take advantage of the incentive program while 60 percent chose not to build the higher height to avoid build affordable housing.
These results garnered a mixed reaction from the forum’s attendants, some of whom viewed it as a sign of success while others criticized that the majority of developers were choosing not to take advantage of the incentive program. While the low number of units has been partially attributed to the current restriction of the program to up-zoned areas rather than for the entire city, the analysts examining the program’s results suggest that other factors may be at work.
“It’s possible that the bonus is worth less than the incentive that affordable housing provides and that it just doesn’t make financial sense,” said O’Brien. “It could be that at the time a developer started a project we were still coming out of the recession, they could only afford to put 200 units online, and that project could only work for them. So over the next few months we need to get some better detail on why people aren’t accessing it. Is the program broken, or are there a whole host of other reasons for it isn’t working?”
Aside from program suggestions like these, the housing experts from other cities also offered an outside perspective on one of the central issues surrounding affordable housing in Seattle and on Capitol Hill in particular: the ongoing debate over increasing density.
“It’s often framed as a trade-off; that if you ask for affordable housing, it’s going to put a limit on density, and if you focus on density instead of affordable housing, you can get a lot more density.” O’Brien said “But folks from around the country said that this is a unique conversation to Seattle. They say that developers in their communities are not nervous about density, and the way that developers convince the public to accept density is to aggressively bring on affordable housing. I think that we’ve done a good job of convincing people in Seattle that density is a good idea, but that’s had the unintended consequence of making people think that we don’t have to do affordable housing. I worry that dichotomy may start to undermine some of our goals, and I would love to see the two working hand-in-hand.”