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16 things CHS heard at the Capitol Hill ‘Gentrification Conversation’

Thursday night, Capitol Hill residents and community members gathered at First Baptist Church for a “Gentrification Conversation” to formally discuss the radical and rapidly occurring changes in the neighborhood.

Organized by the Capitol Hill Community Council, the forum’s panel featured Tricia Romano — a Seattle Times lifestyle writer and author of the recent front page story on the Hill’s gentrification — and a slew of various community members, many of whom were interviewed for her story, including performer Ade Connere, Michael Wells from the Chamber of Commerce, co-owner of the Wildrose bar Shelley Brothers, Diana Adams (owner of the Vermillion bar and gallery), and Branden Born, an associate professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington and Capitol Hill resident.

With Romano’s nerve-touching article as a springboard, panelists discussed their own experiences with the influx of capital and “bros” on the Hill, neighborhood identity, and public safety amongst increasing incidents of violence and LGBTQ hate crimes in Pike/Pine.

Here are 16 things CHS heard Thursday night:

  1. “People are coming here specifically to party. I’ve actually heard people call it ‘party mountain’,” said Romano.
  2. “The idea that you hear all the time is ‘that’s just the way the market works.’ Don’t believe that,” said Born. “Your economics professor was lying to you.”
  3. Born said that the city has an organizational flaw in having the DPD and the Department of Neighborhoods separate from one another, adding that DPD is funded via developer fees which incentivises them to approve frenzied development projects.
  4. Romano noted that while there has been a significant decrease in local property ownership, some of those who cashed out on their real estate investment are also long-time community members deserving of the payoff. “They [small time property owners] should be sipping drinks on a beach somewhere.”
  5. “The perception of scarcity of apartments is not really reality,” said Romano, adding that vacancies in new high end apartment developments in Seattle have poked holes in the traditional supply and demand housing argument.
  6. “Every new building that comes online is essentially the most expensive building in the city,” said Born.
  7. Romano said that ten years down the road new apartments will be converting to condos, and there may be yet another clash between new families in condos contesting with the Hill’s booming nightlife.
  8. Q-Patrol came up and whether something similar should be reinstated for public safety purposes. Wells said that while the Q-Patrol had its time, it’s unlikely to be a long-time solution to LGBTQ violence due to the intense volunteer energy that is required to keep the service going.
  9. Connere said that while she has seen the Hill more  as a diverse neighborhood than a gay neighborhood, it’s becoming less gay friendly because of the influx of the bros or the “bridge and tunnel crowd.”
  10. Wells had a great quote when talking about the traditional diversity of the Hill which elicited some laughs from the crowd saying, “Let’s not forget about the little old ladies with diamond rings and poodles up at volunteer Park. That’s all part of the mix, and that to me was the really exciting thing about Capitol Hill.”
  11. Brothers said that the Hill has had “woo girls” ever since violence in Pioneer Square and Belltown started pushing bar goers to go to the Hill instead.
  12. “There’s a lot of trans violence, there’s a lot of gay bashing going on. But there’s also a lot of really stupid in the street fighting violence and if people think they can get away with it, they’ll try it,” said Brothers, adding that emphasis patrols and consistent police presence on the street has helped significantly.
  13. Brothers went on to say — and Adams agreed — that educating the “bros” might be one of best ways of dealing with the cultural clash, such as demanding patrons act “civilized” and speaking up more when bros say hateful or discriminatory things.
  14. Adams said that it’s more frightening to see the Vermillion absent of its traditional patrons than the task of “babysitting” bros on the weekends. “People don’t want to come near Capitol Hill.”
  15. One audience question asked whether the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District has been successful. Wells responded by saying that while the proponents —who were “good local developers”—didn’t get as much comprehensive preservation as they would have hoped, it has saved some character of the auto row.
  16. At the end of the forum, representatives from #caphillpsa introduced the project and encouraged attendees to join. “These [stats about racial economic disparities in Seattle] are the most violent aspects of gentrification that are being accelerated in Capitol Hill right now,” said Courtney Sheehan.

What to do? Panelists made the point that while monied tech workers might be an easy target for rage, “greedy developers” and the speculative real estate market — as well city regulations’ lack of commitment to affordable housing — are really who and what should be on the receiving end of neighborhood pushback over spiking rents. Another big theme was how to define neighborhood identity — diversity seemed to be the consensus for describing the neighborhood — and possible ways to preserve community.

Kshama-Sawant-Affordable-Housing-Town-Hall-4.23.15-PosterAffordability will also be on the table next week as Seattle City Council members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant host an Affordable Housing Town Hall:

Councilmembers Sawant & Licata, with support from SEIU, SAGE, IBEW, LIHI, Community Housing Coalition and others will host a Town Hall to hear rent hike stories and share ideas for how to expand tenant rights:
Thursday, April 23rd 6:00 PM, City Hall Council Chambers 600 Fourth Ave, Floor 2


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41 thoughts on “16 things CHS heard at the Capitol Hill ‘Gentrification Conversation’

  1. The root of both the increase in rent, the design review, and culture problems is foreign ownership. Developers that want to make a buck and don’t need to care about the community. No new homes or condos are being made available to own, because apartments are too profitable. Lack of home ownership and local smaller landlords further reduces the competition on rent increases.

    I wonder if the city could somehow enforce an apartment/condo ratio on developers rather than attempt price control.

    • I don’t disagree that the profitability of apartments are pushing their development, but the lack of condos being developed has been made more expensive by the “costs” associated with ongoing litigation. This is not just the legal and/or insurance expenses of the developer, but also all the design professionals associated with the project. Instituting a ratio won’t address the issue (much less stand up in court) it will just result in less housing. The buildings built now avoid the insurance and litigation issues by playing out the statute of limitations and making it the converters issue.

      • Well I mean you’d have to create a ratio using tools like taxes, incentives, and zoning to get it to work legally. I have heard the litigation argument mostly from developers themselves – maybe there’s something to it, but the concern is that developers would dump shoddy construction on people if they have no interest in its longevity.

        I suspect apartments are still simply more profitable regardless and investors want to hold then as such until the price increases peak before converting to condos.

      • Well apartments are more profitable because they eliminate the insurance/litigation angle. Condos are typically a much higher quality of construction because they have to be in order to minimize insurance/litigation issues. But, speaking as an architect, the insurance requirements for condos keep lots of firms from considering these types of projects. If they do, the costs for insurance are passed on to the developer in the form of fees, which in turn are passed on to the purchaser at the end.

        So either the cost of the condo goes up or the profit margin of the developer goes down. Not that I care to defend the profits of developers, but they are often chasing those profits for their investors and not necessarily themselves. So they actually have a fiduciary responsibility to seek the best returns they can for their investors. But the real estate market has an upward limit, which, despite how crazy it may currently seem, is still providing a lower and riskier return on investment than apartments.

        How to correct the balance? How do you create a tax the differentiates between a condo and an apartment (not sure this is even legal in WA)? What kinds of incentives does the city provide to help mitigate the risks a condo presents over those an apartment does not? Part of this is self induced (check WA’s condo laws), which in turn was a reaction to the crap being dumped on the market by developers of yore. But in the end, it is going to cost more money to get good quality housing in which individuals are investing (and therefore feel vindicated in rooting out flaws [whether or not those are reasonable]) than it will cost to build housing in which people are not personally invested. This is not to disparage renters (which I was for 20+ years), but there is a difference in both mindset and legal rights when it comes to housing that is owned versus leased.

      • I don’t have the solution figured out, but I don’t think anyone has done a good job stating the problem which is often simplified to “amazon workers” or “greedy developers”. I believe that much of the problem is lack of diversity in the new supply of housing because of the current rules as you noted. It’s all seven story luxury apartment buildings with ground level retail and sky-high rents.

        This leads to a lack of diversity in not only buildings, but also in the residents – mostly moneyed, younger renters. Renters are more transient, they have less reason to care about the future of the community. The stalwarts of local culture are being squeezed out – both the old buildings and people – replaced with the Bros the community likes to complain about. We are tearing down Capitol Hill and building Little-Bellevue in its place. Some might say that’s inevitable and a good thing – I’m not sure.

        This lack of housing diversity also pressures prices up. Low-cost rental options are demolished and larger high-cost options are built. The homeowners perceive that there is expected future growth and don’t sell so the supply is low on the buyers market, yet demand is strong due to record low mortgage rates. Vacancy rates are decreasing for the low-cost rent options, but not the high-cost buildings – so there is low and middle class demand with only high-class rental supply which is leading to increased prices everywhere and increasing social stratification in the area.

        Therefore the solution should encourage increasing supply with diversity in housing options. Simply letting a developer build a rent-restricted building (<30k workers) in exchange for tax incentives doesn't solve this because they build those in less-desirable areas, it doesn't help the middle-class majority, it doesn't solve the problems on the buyers market, and it doesn't help build the community.

        We might see at some point an oversupply of high-end buildings. You'd expect this to lower rents with all the competition, but there are actually few competitors. Only a handful of developers own multiple properties and so they'll keep rents high. Condo-owners were previously a hedge against this as they tend to adjust rent less rapidly, but we're seeing those being replaced.

        Diversity is key, otherwise you'll have a boom-bust cycle where we build all of these new apartments, the developer recovers the cost off renters, they get older and convert to condos as the market crashes. Repeat. The winner is investors, the loser is the will be the community.

      • Wes, I respect your opinions….but am not sure what you mean by “housing diversity.”……perhaps taller buildings, which you have advocated for previously? If so, what makes you think that the rent in those buildings would be any lower than current rents? Yes, the total supply of units would be increased, but that does not necessarily translate into lower rents, especially if demand remains as high (or higher) than it is now.

  2. I agree about local ownership – but I also recall the huge condo boom of a decade ago, where affordable housing – in the form of apartments for rent – was being plundered as older apartment buildings were converted, and smaller buildings were razed, to make way for condos. So I’m a bit skeptical about going back to condos.

    I can’t be mad about local owners taking an overwhelming offer, but the prices have gotten to the point that almost any house in key areas of Capitol Hill can’t be bought by someone who intends to live in it. I just assume now that every single house from Broadway to 15th that goes on the market will be razed and turned into an aggressive, fugly box, even if the owners would prefer to sell to private owners instead of developers. Who can turn down the money being tossed around?

    • I’m not suggesting all condos either, but a healthier balance of both. I think we see that if the needle swings too far in either direction, you wind up with and unhealthy market.

      We also see that a single developer that owns too many properties in a single area has undue influence in local rent prices. Look how many properties Pacific Crest has in Cap Hill, for example:

  3. Holy crap what a freaking NIMBY-fest. These people holding and attending these forums are simply out of touch with reality. Developers are not to blame for increasing rents – the increase comes from the influx of new residents unlike anything we’ve seen before. They’re here because there are jobs here. That’s a GOOD THING.

    A developer could build million-dollar units, and as long as those new units replace parking lots and single homes, adjacent rents don’t go up. Why? Because of filtering. The millionaires who take residence in that new fancy building now don’t have to compete with the 500,000-aires. So now they get homes in their range and don’t have to compete with 100,000-aires. And so on and so on.

    This is the disconnect that these people attending this event have. To reverse rents you can either:

    1. Intentionally crash the local economy. (Demand decreases)

    2. Allow for over-building of new units by re-zoning more areas for density. (Supply increases)

    3. Make Seattle a really unattractive place for newcomers. (Demand decreases)

    Two of those things require a person to be incredibly cynical and selfish.


      That said there are decreased vacancy rates for the less expensive buildings, not these new luxury ones. So the competition is hitting the bottom hardest because there isn’t an increasing supply of lower-rent buildings despite increasing overall supply.

      It seems like #2 isn’t solving the problem because developers can make more profit racing to the top on the higher-end apartments (and dragging low-end rents up as those people are displaced).

      • Yes, yes, yes. I agree with, um, “Me” above. OP Nick seems to have missed reading point 5 – there is no scarcity of vacancies – especially among higher end apts.

        The problem is that the new higher-end develops are taking over land from older homes and smaller apartment buildings where residents paid more reasonable rent. It’s the supply on that end which is gradually dwindling and raising rents on the lower-rent spectrum – compounded by the fact that some landlords of the older buildings are presumably seeing what the new “average” rent for the neighborhood is (thanks to the new higher end developments) and adjusting their rents upward.

        As someone who does not qualify for subsidized housing and who could afford the rent of a luxury building (but I have absolutely no desire to live in one and have better things to do with my money), I find they are actually a far better value than some of the older, and often dumpier apartments (lookin at you Littlefield!) that are now in the $1400-$1500 for a one-bedroom range.

        Nick – you can make deductive inference from supply and demand and trickle-down assumptions all day, but with that limited view you still won’t see the empirical realities and economic complexities as they really exist.

      • hmm, i’m not sure i totally believe point #5 above. where’s the data source to back that statement up? sounds to me like romano might be pulling “facts” out of thin air to prove her point. i personally would like to see a study or some data that shows the total units available on capitol hill and the corresponding vacancies.

        and i would also correct that data for those buildings that have only opened in the past 6 months.

        i would also counter that there is plenty of local ownership on the hill – i own my place and so do several of my friends. the problem is that we went through this recession and most people’s home values dropped (our mortgages didn’t). so people like myself can’t sell without taking at least some small loss. add to that fact that most developers can’t get financing to build condos because banks are still wary of the market and hink they are a bad risk.

        i remember moving here in 2007 and hearing about all the new condos that were being planned. the market crashed and so those plans turned to apartments because nobody could get financing and apartments were what the public wanted.

      • It’s not only because apts was what people wanted– they had no choice. Foreclosures left a lot of people with no choice but rentals. Wealthier people snapped up foreclosures as investments as people lost their homes and were forced into the rental mkt again. That pushed up rents due to demand. Many of those former homeowners had good incomes but no down payments left. So they had to rent.

      • To zeebleoop’s first point, Romano does seem to be twisting the “facts” she uses to suite her purpose. Her article mentions rents for one bedroom apartments at Sunset Electric (which are really expensive, don’t get me wrong) as renting for more than $4500. I checked out the building’s site, and by “one bedrooms” she means the one “one-bedroom work loft” that they are asking $4649, but still have yet to lease— perhaps she should say “a one bedroom unit asking for more than $4500 a month” because what she is in fact saying seems purposefully vague and misleading to the point of being manipulative. There are wildly high rents in the neighborhood, but the one instance she’s chosen to latch onto is an outlier. Something more meaningful would be an analysis of the median rents for apartment units in these buildings with the data bracketed to compare new buildings to the rest of the neighborhood. But choosing a single instance for a unit that has not yet rented to reference (repeatedly) is manipulative and is not really helping solve anything.

    • This is a good point. There are a lot of good – even great things – happening on the Hill right now. The expansion of transit is really exciting, I’m hearing sighs of relief from lots of retailers and we have the ear of City Hall.

      That’s not to ignore that there are real, difficult to solve problems.

      If I didn’t make it clear last night, I think this is a really exciting, challenging time for Capitol Hill. And I’m happy that smart people are wiling to have these discussions.

    • I wonder if it would be possible to argue a point of view without using the N-word NIMBY. It might make your arguments less aggressively personal.

    • Hey, the public culture in Seattle is nothing if not “process”. Endless discussions, few tangible outcomes. Meanwhile, economic pressures and market conditions forge the changes.

      Is it accurate (I read somewhere) that the city department overseeing planning and development is funded by the fees developers and others pay? If so, that is an obvious, perhaps unintended but natural source of bias.

    • I get your point but in the end housing has to work for ALL levels of employment and income for a city to function. Relying solely on “the marketplace” to make housing determinations for a city is like handing out everyone’s house keys to a burglary ring. What do you think the real estate culture is going to do left to its own devices? It remains fact that absent investors are building high rate units for profit regardless of the impact, property managers are using that as a pretext to up “market rate”, and no one in government is effectively protecting affordable housing or raising their hand and saying wait-a-minute regarding the opening of bar upon bar in a small area of the city.

  4. As an aside, can someone explain to me why “incent” no longer works (#3), and we now need to “incentivize”? Does this mean soon an “incentive” won’t be enough, and we’ll need an “incentivization”?

    • i think the point is that some in those older circles want people from newer circles to go back to where they came from. it’s a form of elitism. as long as it’s their mountain and everyone parties the way the think people should party, then there won’t be a fuss.

    • Hrrrrm, I’ve lived on the hill since 1990 and I’ve never heard anyone refer to it as party mountain. Ever. Even at parties.

      Cast aspersions on my partying bona fides if you need to but you should slap every single person you hear say “party mountain” in a sentence. Hard. Then give them a kiss :)

      • I think very few people who’ve lived in Capitol Hill ever called it “Party Mountain”–the name has the connotation being a destination, not a home.

  5. (I wish I had been free to go to this meeting.)

    As one of the getting-older ladies who does not wear diamond rings, and who moved to a Roy and Belmont apt in 1976, I want to add a second voice about remembering that many people in many different life stages live here.

    One of the most important reasons I moved to the Hill at age 27 was the diversity. I figured that I could go from young to old here and fit in no matter what age I claimed. I could live with whomever I loved, wear whatever I wanted, without shocking the neighbors.

    Capitol Hill has always been more than our party places.

    • Also, even the diamond-ring-wearing older ladies included a lot of women who were wild in the 1930s and tough in the 1940s. Amazing stories, mostly gone now. Something to live up to!

  6. I’ve lived on or near the Hill since 1983. Things have definitely changed, and not for the better. Gay bars are overrun early in the evening by straight bros and their girlfriends looking to get tanked fast at low prices. It goes downhill from there. By the early morning hours, the intersection of Broadway and Union looks like a hooligan riot outside a soccer stadium. Streets are blocked by intoxicated young people. In the old days, all the gay guys were home by that time screwing more or less quietly.

  7. I am an 80 year old artist, I love the great city of Seattle, but when my rent went up from $2100 to $3,050 for the 3rd year I moved to Long Beach, Ca.
    I have Social Security and a very small pension, there’s no way I could afford it, even after looking around for a month or so.
    I now pay again a rent of $2100, for the same space I had in Seattle. The building has a heated pool, a jacuzzi, an exercise room with a sauna, a 24 hour door person, and guess what……two parking spaces.
    The building I was in is called a luxury building. The fixtures were Early Walmart, the office management changed every other week. The fridge ice maker was never fixed after 6 months. There was a pair of elephants, running a bowling alley above me. I can afford art supplies again. I will always miss Seattle, reading the daily blog daily. Also I was two blocks from Dick Blick. Sigh!

  8. I attended the meeting on Thursday evening as part of my attempt to learn more about the neighborhood. I moved to Capitol Hill about 9 months ago after 10 years as a homeowner in West Seattle. And yes, I live in one of those apartments that costs more than my mortgage did. The walkability and accessibility to downtown is absolutely amazing.

    A few things I noticed at the meeting:
    1) The “Rent is Out of Control!” event was promoted at the start of the meeting to get support. This promotion and resulting motion of support seemed very one-sided. Endorsements like this in other organizations would be handled much more seriously and debated. I didn’t raise my hand in objection, it was my first meeting and after seeing the overwhelming yeas it seemed like it was a rally. There was a request for yeas, nays and abstentions.
    2) It felt like there was an agenda from the organizers of the meeting. I appreciated the panelists grown-up answers that were not just echoing Romano’s and the host’s views. What I was disappointed in was the lack of representation of people who were new to Capitol Hill or developers. Remember the whole inclusion thing, not “this is how it was and new is bad”.
    3) Even in the notes in this article, the Michael’s comment around Q-Patrol was selectively chosen. He also mentioned that it went downhill and became very militaristic in addition to the fact that volunteers might be hard to come by.
    4) I appreciated the commentary around being safe, Seattle is now a big city and what our parents have always told us still stands: don’t walk alone late at night and/or inebriated, be aware of your surroundings at all times. It’s not that if you don’t do things you deserve to be assaulted (no one deserves this), but you change your odds significantly. There are many ways to get home safely from the free-ride organization mentioned that is still active to a cab, Uber, friend, or even NightHawk if you are a SU student.

    We’re all humans and respect for each other as individuals is what everyone really deserves. I think about relationships in a continuum: embracing, accepting, tolerating, spiraling down to hating. What we shouldn’t do is push our individual agendas onto others.

    Continue the fascinating discussion.

  9. Very impressed with the scope of the comments on this article. I have to agree primarily about the idea put forth regarding a core problem that could be described as some sort of Triad of distant developers in it for the real estate speculation, local government that fails to protect affordable housing, and a poorly contrived over emphasis on bars as the predominant business model appearing on Capitol Hill.

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