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Corporate housing fund, incentive zoning floated at affordable housing forum

Anti-gentrification protestors block the a Microsoft shuttle (Image via Tides of Flame)
Anti-gentrification protestors block the a Microsoft shuttle (Image via Tides of Flame)

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.

12th Avenue Arts, which recently broke ground, will have 80+ units of affordable housing

12th Avenue Arts, which recently broke ground, will have 80+ units of affordable housing.

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.”

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12 thoughts on “Corporate housing fund, incentive zoning floated at affordable housing forum

  1. I, for one, welcome our new gentrification overlords. I am tired of street robberies. I am tired of stepping over puddles of puke in my otherwise nice neighborhood. I am tired of the seediness that is the Broadway QFC(s). I am tired of the tweakers. I am tired of the car break ins. I am tired of panhandlers everywhere. I am tired of finding needles on the street. I am tired of these stupid protests against progress.

    Enough. Gentrification welcome. I’ll bake cookies.

    • It’s nice to know that there are people out there who feel this way too. It’s a real shame that our neighborhood places such a large focus on increasing/decreasing gentrification when there are much larger problems starring us in the face when we walk down the street.

      Rents are too high. Let’s talk about lowering/putting a cap on them for the people that can afford to live here, not subsidizing the ones that can’t.

    • well said. broadway went downhill since the 90’s, it’s really sad to see it turn into a dump. dealing is rampant on my east end of the hill and hearing gunshots from my apartment is a regular occurrence. i’d rather have respectable people with good jobs as neighbors not gangs and dealers which cops do little about. one dealer moved out of my block and townhomes went up. i wish they bulldoze the other crack houses.

    • Bury the powerlines. Repave the pot holes. Provide free wifi. Paint over the grafitti. Put up beautiful lampstandards (street lights). Get a backhoe and scape up the detritus— and then you can raise my rent- otherwise what is so attractive about CH? It’s dirty, there is garbage everywhere, and it’s more expensive than it used to be- and those three concepts don’t make sense together. Have some civic pride people! Pick up your dog poop. Recycle. Compost. Use the trash can, not the street.

      • Well, there are parts of Capitol Hill that are attractive…I would say the majority of the neighborhood. But there are also areas, such as Pike-Pine, which are trashy and unkempt…and where civic pride seems to be totally missing. But, hey!, we have the reputation as a “cool” neighborhood, so none of that matters. Not!

  2. The money from Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, etc is what keeps this city going – those employees keep the bars, restaurants, and retail going – why punish them? What Cap Hill really needs is more homeowners with a vested interest in the direction of the community and its culture. We have too many apartment buildings from real-estate investors that don’t live here willing to bulldoze B&O, or Bauhaus, or Bills, etc. It’s not as lucrative for companies to build condos, but the ownership of a bunch of apartment buildings in the hands of a few companies is what jacks up rents. We have Terravita, Hawthorne, Bellevue Terrace, the Jewel, the Heights, the Lyric, Pine&Minor, and even more luxury apartments are going up. The more this place is owned by developers instead of people, the worse it will get – we’re turning into Bellevue and nobody wants that.

  3. I have to wonder how many people drove to this protest. I can see that the Shuttle may not be the best solution, but realistically, the people on these buses are otherwise going to drive.

    What I would like to see is a serious car buyback from the city! The reality is that the city is putting an enormous amount of money into being pedestrian friendly. Statistically most car trips are a mile or less. Why is there no focus on getting people out of their cars?

    • But there is such a focus. Have you not noticed the light rail and streetcar networks? These are not finished, but they will be some day, and a lot of resources (money) are being put into them.

      And a “car buyback”…..are you serious? Where is the money going to come from for that?

  4. I guess we should make the city a hostile place for employers like Amazon and Microsoft to grow. That strategy worked great with Boeing.

    Honestly, where do the protestors think the tax revenue that funds their social services comes from?

    Protesting the Microsoft buses is especially shameful. These are people that contribute massively to the local community through their taxes, their patronage of local business, their charitable giving, and their support of local values. Let’s not forget that they’re commuting in a shared shuttle instead of driving and that Microsoft employees, and the company itself, were huge and visible supporters of same-sex marriage in WA.

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