‘Keep public land in public hands for public good’ — Seattle looks for path to use surplus city land for affordable housing

“The Mercer Megablock”

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.

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7 thoughts on “‘Keep public land in public hands for public good’ — Seattle looks for path to use surplus city land for affordable housing

  1. So, this is about the long term definancialization of housing? Heaven forbid homeowners or anyone else be allowed to develop a nest egg for retirement via their homes. While I am not necessarily opposed to using city owned land to facilitate the building of affordable housing, I am not inclined to support the more radical vision of some quoted in this story. There is nothing wrong with utilizing housing as an investment to secure your financial future.

      • Yeah, exactly. That is exactly my position. No nuance, no complexity, no grey area. Glad I conveyed it so well. Or maybe there is some tiny slice of middle ground between advocating policies that eliminate the investment potential of personal housing and condemning half the population to screwing themselves.

      • Ryan, disappointed that was your hot take from Glenn’s comment… Would’ve expected a less trollish response from one of the Urbanist’s senior editors.

  2. “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.” Wow this person has quite the monumental movement to begin. Owning a home is one of the last ways an average person can amass any real long-term wealth. Furthermore, selling city owned land for less than market value sounds less than smart. Given the fact that taxes continue to rise along with administrative costs to run this city, I don’t think Seattle should be leaving any money on any table. You can guarantee the city will be sued once they squander taxpayer owned land.

    • …that’s the thing….it’s no longer the average person that can own a home. So we bicker and fight over land and homes (as BIPOC continue to be homeless, rent burdened or foreclosed on in disproportionate numbers) as the people above us make wealth from wealth and “democratically” cut us off from what every citizen deserves: public education, health care, affordable homes, fair wages. The bottom tier of our universal civic/bodily needs.

  3. It’s really odd that anyone would consider using some public land for affordable housing, for those who cannot afford our city’s million-dollar homes, as being in opposition to home ownership. Or is the real objection that mega-developers and land speculators will no longer be able to purchase city property at bargain prices? As land values inevitably seem to increase in our town, selling off public land seems like a really bad deal for taxpayers. Holding onto our public land and using it for the public good is just sound fiscal policy.

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