During Wednesday afternoon’s Seattle City Council finance and neighborhoods committee hearing, the council members and housing advocates will discuss revised policies and procedures for dealing with city-owned surplus land, building on a resolution sponsored by Council member Teresa Mosqueda that allows Seattle City Light “to sell surplus property for affordable housing purposes at a price and on terms and conditions negotiated by City Light, and as approved by the City Council through ordinance authorizing such disposition,” according to the resolution.
“Keep public land in public hands for public good,” Laura Loe Bernstein, founder of Share The Cities, said “This is the bare minimum we should be doing to prevent the next housing crisis.”
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The Seattle City Council’s policy, which passed unanimously earlier this summer, is similar to a bill passed by the Washington state legislature in March 2018. HB2382 promotes using public property for public benefit, such as affordable housing for low-income households, meaning those making less than 80% of area median income. The bill directed individual cities to pass resolutions much like Mosqueda’s.
Now, council member Mosqueda’s office is working with equitable housing stakeholders on a resolution that extends to all city-owned parcels, except those of City Light which are governed under separate policies and procedures. In the coming months, Mosqueda’s team will be working with neighboring jurisdictions to broaden the scope of this policy, according to the Seattle City Council website.
Mosqueda wants to prioritize “housing for disposition for the next five years and explicitly setting rules to give notice to community groups.”
“By adopting clear policies that prioritize use of surplus properties for this type of development, while also encouraging additional community amenities and assets as part of that development (such as open spaces, childcare facilities, health clinics, etc.), we can ensure that our guiding principles for public property are uses that met the greatest needs of neighborhoods across Seattle, one of the most important being an assurance that all families have access to sustainably affordable homes,” a statement from her office reads.
Under Resolution 31387, if passed, 80% of proceeds from the disposition of surplus property will also go to affordable housing causes, such as the Low-Income Housing Fund or the Equitable Development Fund.
The high cost of land in Seattle is a barrier to stable affordable housing in the city.
Usually, governments must sell land at fair market value so that taxpayers get the most bang for their buck and agencies don’t lose revenue, but advocates argue that this concept actually serves a greater public benefit.
“To me it’s about creating a movement for long term de-financialization of housing,” Loe Bernstein said. “Housing as [a] human right not a tool for homeowners to have a nest egg investment for retirement and not for global speculators.”
Loe Bernstein used the example of the so-called “Mercer Megablock,” two huge plots of land that the city is in the process of selling in South Lake Union. Instead of becoming affordable housing, these plots are expected to be sold at a rate too expensive for developers.
“We should not be selling these blocks to the highest bidder. We should be using this publicly owned land for public benefits and affordable housing,” Cary Moon and Michael Eliason wrote in Crosscut of these plots. “Imagine the example we could set for cities around the world.”
As of May, City Light owned 176 properties, five of which are undeveloped surplus properties, according to an assessment of city-owned properties from 2017. Beyond City Light, there are a number of other surplus properties owned by Seattle Public Utilities and Finance and Administrative Services.
“The city is in a housing crisis and if the land is no longer needed for city purposes we should be building housing,” Patience Malaba, advocacy mobilization manager at the Housing Development Consortium told CHS. “We urge Council to support Councilmember Mosqueda’s policy change proposal and embrace the urgency of this moment by using every available tool at our disposal to create more affordable housing that will serve low income families.”
“This is another step in an ongoing process to ensure that policies in Seattle around affordable housing development meet our stated values for equitable development,” a statement from Mosqueda’s office on the effort reads. “We’ll be continuing this work in 2019 through continued collaboration with community partners and the Mayor’s office, ensuring that we are doing more than just talk, and taking meaningful actions that will mitigate displacement and ensure we aren’t just building housing, but building communities in all neighborhoods in our city.”
Just because this resolution has been passed does not mean that specific acts by City Light are free from legal challenge. An attempt to sell a property for less than market value could lead to a lawsuit because this could be seen as losing
taxpayer ratepayer money.
“It’s pretty likely the city will be sued,” and the outcome could depend on “the shifting experience of the state Supreme Court,” Will Patton, a retired former assistant city attorney, told the Seattle Times.
On two previous occasions, the state Supreme Court has ruled against City Light. In 2003, the Court ruled that in charging taxpayers for street lights, City Light was imposing an illegal tax on taxpayers. In 2007, the Court stated that City Light lacked statutory authority to buy carbon offsets.