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Hill’s rents continue to soar as Seattle delays affordable housing plan

E Denny Way's Pantages is featured in the city's report on affordable housing (Image: William Wright Photography)

E Denny Way’s Pantages is featured in the city’s report on affordable housing (Image: William Wright Photography)

From the Seattle Workforce Housing study

From the Seattle Workforce Housing study

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 8.16.20 PMHousing costs on Capitol Hill and throughout Seattle are reaching new heights as the most recent study showed average rents on the Hill have reached $1,557 a month. That’s up $162 from this time last year when CHS reported on soaring rents in 2013.

Escalating housing costs have created what many officials say is an affordable housing crisis in Seattle. In February, Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien said there was a “sense of urgency” to develop an affordable housing plan as soon as possible. “Every day the challenge is growing, people are struggling to survive,” O’Brien said.

At that time, O’Brien said the council would have an affordable housing plan by the end of this summer following the results of three studies. At a special committee meeting last week to review one of those studies, O’Brien said the plan would likely not coalesce until September and legislation would not reach the full council until 2015.

The study (PDF and embedded below) from Portland-based firm Otak compared Seattle’s housing and demographic trends to 10 similarly sized cities, including Portland, Boston, Washington D.C., and San Francisco. The researchers also took a look at “best practices” when it came to developing affordable housing in other cities.

Many of the recommendations echoed ideas floated at the City Council’s February affordable housing summit, including creating a corporate housing fund, where big employers pool money for affordable housing projects. Other recommendations included:

  • Refine and maximize current affordable housing programs, including the Contingent Loan Agreements where the city underwrites rainy day funds on low income projects.
  • Refine the city’s accessory dewlling unit ordinace to get more affordable housing
  • Increase use of land banking for affordable housing, whereby the city purchases land in and around transit stations and within designated areas to preserve options for future development.
  • Use the Community Development Block Grant Float Loan Program to provide bridge financing for workforce housing projects
  • Increase efforts to promote home ownership. Seattle could follow the lead of other cities that offer expedited permit processing, fee reductions and bond financing
  • Articulate a more specific work force housing policy, including setting a specific goal for how much middle income housing should be built in the next year.
  • Refine regulatory requirements on developers to smooth processes, particularly the environmental review process.
  • Lobby the state legislature to allow the city more options to raise levy money for affordable housing incentives

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 8.18.22 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 8.17.54 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 8.43.42 PMThe researchers said Seattle stood out in several ways compared to other cities in the report. Not surprising is that the city’s housing levy is envied across the country by local officials who would love the legal authority to give their residents the opportunity to tax themselves more for more affordable housing.

One troubling finding was that Seattle is among the least affordable places for families, as the city had the smallest average house size among the 10 cities and a high percentage of parent-aged residents. Additionally, most of the new construction in Seattle has been apartment buildings with a focus on smaller units.

In an effort to create more affordable housing, much of what Seattle and other cities have done is create various incentive schemes for private developers, as opposed to cities and non-profits taking a more active role in developing. During Wednesday’s meeting, council member Kshama Sawant said the city could also build its own housing, or at least offer more incentives to non-profits.

“Giving incentives to private developers doesn’t not necessarily equate to better condtions for poeple who need affordable housing,” she said. Sawant is a strong advocate of rent control and has promised to fight to repeal the state law that prohibits it.


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28 thoughts on “Hill’s rents continue to soar as Seattle delays affordable housing plan

  1. I’m pretty positive a 2 bedroom in Seattle is not $1200. You’d be lucky to find a one bedroom at that price.

    • Once you get out of Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, Downtown, things get pretty cheap. I see 2 bedrooms in Beacon Hill, West Seattle, Northgate etc., under 1k/mo. Perhaps it’s those units in those neighborhoods that average things out across the city of Seattle.

      • (New Yorker film critic) Pauline Kael famously commented, after the 1972 Presidential election, ‘I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.’”

        That’s what it’s like discussing Seattle rents when all you talk about is Belltown, QA, SLU, and Capitol Hill.

      • Even so, the 20th percentile income in Seattle is around $20K/year. With that you can reasonably expect to afford around $550/month in rent if you really stretch, and that means having to split a place and/or live somewhere with a shitty commute to the central parts of Seattle, which means you’re spending more time on the bus or even more on a car and parking.

  2. So what can we overpaid white-collar tech workers do to help? I already donate quite a lot of money to the Low Income Housing Institute (, both for their low-income housing subsidy program and for their Urban Rest Stops) but is there anything else that well-to-do individuals can do specifically to help the less-fortunate in a systematically-useful manner?

    I’m well-off, but not so much that I could buy an apartment building and rent units out at below-market rates, for example.

    • Refuse to pay such high rents simple as that. If the paying public would just say enough and start using our boycott power the land lords would soon take notice.

      • That’s just not realistic, Mark. If you earned a higher income, wouldn’t you rent or own the nicest place you could afford? Do you expect a higher-income person to rent or own some dumpy place?

      • Not to mention that rents are high not only because of “supply and demand” but because of mortgages and property taxes being so high. If I were to rent my 2br condo out I’d have to rent it for $2400 to break even. Granted, about half of that is my mortgage, but even if I had infinite wealth and could pay it right off, $1200/month wouldn’t cover all of the additional monthly expenses that would then go into it (such as maintenance and income tax and either hiring a property management company or considering the management to be an opportunity cost).

        So, again, are there any programs other than LIHI that we well-to-do-but-not-infinitely-rich people can contribute to in order to help out lower-income people who are just struggling to get by on rent?

      • Getting slightly off topic but that is part of our countries problem. We “buy to the max”. I could afford a more expensive home but choose to own a modest 1 bedroom condo so I’m not house poor. With rental prices, I would assume most in our area are “rental poor”, spending more than 50% of their income on rent.

        I’m not sure how someone can ever become a homeowner or even save for retirement if they are spending most of their money for a place to live. But its a really unfortunate reality…

  3. A FB friend recently commented that ‘The rent is too damn high’. Another chimed in that ‘at least Seattle is allowing lots of apartments to be built, San Francisco won’t let developers build. Its all about supply and demand’. The ugly truth is this: Developers can only provide new apartments. The affordable apartment stock is found in buildings 50 to 75 years old. New construction is expensive, and rents in those buildings will be high, so people shouldn’t expect anything ‘affordable’ in the hotter parts of town where the new construction is.

    I can only hope that light rail and the streetcar bring more affordable neighborhoods closer in to CH.

    • Rapid transit will eventually support the gentrification of the outlying neighborhoods, just as it does in New York’s outer boroughs. Maybe the land value under apodments in inner neighborhoods will become so high that they will all be torn down and replaced by homes attractive to those with very high incomes in 10-20 years.

  4. Among the cities listed, density is much better than “degree of regulation” as a predictor of rent levels. Rent increases with density with a correlation coefficient of 0.7; rent increases with “degree of regulation” with a cc of only 0.3.

    • Among those cities, a negative correlation between percent population in the center city and median rent is dubious (cc= -0.23).

  5. This is just so sad. This awesome city we all call home isn’t a home anymore but a corporate climate set to make the maximum. Goodbye culture. Hello mall kittens. Bellevue to the max.

  6. This survey is flawed…first off..Denver and Phoenix are so sprawling and low density, the fact that the “city” is a huge area is meaningless. They should be using urban density in the city and suburban densities.

    And I have no idea where in SF you find a 2 bedroom for $2146 a month ha..that’s like .5 bedrooms, 1 bath.

    • Denver’s land area, 153 sq mi, is below the mean, 184 sq mi, of the cities considered.

      But the percent of population living in the central city is certainly complicated by the fact that the land areas of the cities considered differ by more than 10 fold, and some (e.g., San Francisco, Seattle) have obvious geographic constraints and limited geographic connection to their larger suburbs, in contrast to Denver and Phoenix. City land area and median rent (correlation coefficient of -0.33) are only weakly negatively correlated.

      Land areas in sq mi:
      SF 47
      Boston 48
      Minn 54.9
      D.C. 61.4
      Seattle 84
      Atlanta 132
      Portland 133
      Denver 153
      San Jose 176
      Austin 321
      San Diego 325
      Dallas 341
      Phoenix 516

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  14. I am 80, my partner of 58 years is 85, no longer can we afford to live on the Hill.
    Our 2 bed 2 bath went up to $3, 050 a month.
    We have moved to Long Beach Ca. in the same space with a small terrace and two, yes folks, 2 parking spaces , a pool , jacuzzi, large meeting rooms, a sauna, for $2100 a month. The apartment is filled with light, marble bathroom and granite kitchen tops. Our apartment in the Joule was furnished with Walmart shit.
    We miss the great city of Settle, but at our age have no other choice