My Affordable Housing Policy
What's going wrong...
Despite a construction boom, housing is still unaffordable for too many low- and middle-income people in Seattle. This is due to a combination of several factors, including market forces, poor leadership, and lack of vision by Seattle's land-use planners. We'll never build our way into affordability, because as new housing units are built, they fill up. Seattle's a popular place now, and the law of supply and demand dictates that the price for all housing units, if left to the marketplace, will rise accordingly. We need to welcome new arrivals, but we also need to ensure that we are keep a balance of different income levels among our citizens. How can that be done?
What could go right... but probably won't
HALA / Mandatory Housing Affordability In May 2016, after a lengthy process involving the City and 28 "stakeholders," the Mayor's office released a set of recommendations and requirements designed to create more affordable housing. Collectively, they were known as the "Mandatory Housing and Affordability for Residential Development Legislation" or MHA. The MHA is the culmination of a years-long process known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA. The basic idea behind the MHA is that residential developers will be allowed to build taller buildings, and more of them, in exchange for creating a certain percentage of "affordable housing" units on site. Developers are also eligible for tax exemptions when they set aside a portion of any new multi-family units they create as "income and rent-restricted."
Will the MHA work? ~ Very likely not. Or at least not as desired. The new laws require residential developers to set aside a maximum of 11% of new construction for low- and middle-income families but, by definition, "the middle" alone would have to account for more much more than 11%. That means that MHA will cause the balance of Seattle's housing stock to continue shifting toward higher-priced units. There are other problems with the MHA as well. It is so complex, and so contentious, that it's practically an invitation for lawsuits from developers, who will claim that the set-aside burden is too onerous and will make their business unprofitable. If the City Planning and Development Department had a good track record when it came to being clear and consistent with developers, there would be cause for optimism here. Unfortunately, Planning has been a political football, and that will likely continue until we see some new leadership at City Hall.The Ultimate Test ~ Perhaps the biggest problem with MHA is that could actually lead to a net loss – yes a net loss – of genuinely affordable housing in the city. The MHA is likely to accelerate the current trend in upzoning of residential neighborhoods. The only thing that will change from the status quo, even under the most optimistic predictions, is that more technically "affordable" units will be created along with the "unaffordable ones." But even there, we're losing ground. Truly affordable rambler cottages and duplexes are being torn down in Ballard and the University and being replaced with looming, shadow-casting high-rises whose cheapest units are several hundred dollars higher than what the old units were going for. And this is happening all over the city... We're losing livability without gaining affordability.
Unless the MHA can reverse this trend, which doesn't seem likely, it will have to be considered a failure.
What I would do better...
Fix (but don't abandon) the MHA ~ I would let MHA go forward, and as it went I would take a close look at how well it was working. To be successful, it will need to produce a net gain in genuinely affordable housing units without destroying our neighborhoods. That will probably mean redefining what we mean by "affordable units" – so that would be the first change I'd make to the MHA. Much of the work around so-called urban villages was designed to keep the city livable while managing growth, but the urban village model is clearly not working as well as it needs to, so we will have revisit that regularly as well. Wherever possible, I would use moral suasion and the bully pulpit of the Council chambers to fix the MHA. I would build coalitions of neighborhood people, small businesses, and developers to reach an amicable and just agreement on how to move forward. I prefer that to having lengthy policy discussions that won't satisfy anyone and will produce reams of new regulations that developers will just ignore anyway. If moral suasion fails, then I would urge the City permitting department to deny permits to any developers who were acting in bad faith. If I felt some neighbors were being unrealistic in their expectations of limiting growth – I wouldn't let that stop me from acting in the City's interests, but I would never take action on something that affected neighborhoods without making sure I had spent time with neighbors and heard their concerns.
► Redefine "Affordable" ~ Some of the candidates for Mayor and City Council are recommending higher set-asides of affordable housing from developers. This won't work unless we first get clear on what "affordable" really means. Affordable housing should not be seen as an arbitrary calculation based on the median income. The median household income in King County, for example, is somewhere above $75,000, but this is considerably above the amount that most white collar and blue collar workers make, to say nothing of older people or people on fixed incomes.) Affordable must therefore be redefined to answer questions like: How much could a teacher, or a construction worker, or a retiree afford to pay for housing? –If we are not producing housing that ordinary people can afford to get, then we are not producing affordable housing.
► Take Street-by-Street Affordable Housing Inventories ~ For any neighborhood that was being upzoned, I would ask the Department of Neighborhoods to take an inventory of existing affordable housing. Let's say 30% units of housing in the neighborhood were found to be affordable by a realistic definition (see "Redefining Affordable" section above) then we should require any new developments to not just maintain that level of affordability but to add to it.
► Have Office of Neighborhood Preservation ~ Using existing City staff, we should create an Office of Neighborhood Preservation within the Department of Neighborhoods. This office would build on the work of the historic preservation work already being done by the DON. The Office of Neighborhood Preservation would be tasked with studying the character of neighborhoods being upzoned and would issue recommendations on how to preserve the essential character and livability of a neighborhood while accommodating density. We do not have to accept the claim that Seattle has to find a place for every person who wants to live here, no matter the cost to ourselves and our communities. As citizens, we should have a say in the destiny of our city.
► Create more mixed-income housing ~ One easy way to preserve or improve neighborhoods, while increasing density and adding affordability, is mixed-income housing developments, such as the ones recently built to replace the old "housing projects" at High Point and Park Lake Homes. A mixed-income development is a planned development of compact town homes and low rises, where a certain number of units is set aside for low-income tenants, another percentage for middle-income tenants, and a third for homeowners. All the units are built to a theme (same color scheme, same architecture) and all are built around amenities such as parks, playgrounds, and community centers. In some cases, an on-site business district of bodegas and cafes, maybe even a library, is included. In the Park Lake Homes development (now called Green Bridge) density was more than doubled. The number of low-income units was not lowered, it was raised. And the area now has a contingent of middle income homeowners and a business district that it never had before. Even though more low-income people live there than before, it no longer feels like "the projects."
► Look at Foreign Investment ~ Foreign investors (predominantly from China) have been pumping money into the Seattle housing market, driving prices up. This trend may have accelerated when Vancouver Canada There is no hard evidence to show the connection between foreign speculators and housing prices, but local real estate agents have told me that the phenomenon is real. They describe scenarios where their clients are beaten out by foreign buyers who bring cash to the table and can quickly drive the bid price up over a hundred thousand dollars. In some cases the buyers intend to live in the home; in others, they see it only as a investment. In either case, they are having an impact on the cost of housing. A foreign buyer tax like Vancouver's is not necessarily the best way to go, but at a minimum we need to understand what's happening. The City should commission a study to determine how many local homes are being bought by individuals or companies residing outside the state. The study authors could then give an opinion on whether (or how much) this pressure is affecting the local market and they could advise the Mayor and Council on possible ways to address the problem.
► End the War on Landlords ~ In the last several years, since ideologues like Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold were elected to the Council, the Council has taken an increasingly anti-landlord posture. A series of laws have been been passed that sound good on paper but which, in their totality, place a significant burden on small "mom an pop" landlords. "First in Time," "Don't Check the Box," the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO), move-in fee cap, security deposit financing... The latest blow came when CM Sawant tacked on an amendment to the Soda Tax bill (!) requiring landlords to provide voter registration info to all new tenants, as if that had anything to do with the landlord-tenant relationship. landlord's as generated an increasingly harsh series. These anti-landlord laws have little to do with protecting renters; they are all about a class-warfare worldview in which landlords are seen as "oppressors" and tenants are "victims." Landlords aren't the enemy. I know many small landlords, and many of them offer affordable housing to people at below market rate. They are feeling squeezed, and feeling vilified. Many of them are making plans to sell their properties and get out of the business... or out of Seattle. When they do, what will become of their rental properties? They'll be sold for development, and there will that many fewer affordable housing units available in our City. These laws should be modified or repealed. Most landlords are good, conscientious people. The many should not be vilified because of the bad actions of a few.
► Backyard Cottages & MIL Units ~ Backyard cottages and Mother-in-Law apartments (also known as Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs) and mother-in-law apartments can be used to create thousands of affordable housing units across the city without changing the character of neighborhoods. If just 5% of Seattle homeowners put in ADUs, it would add 5,000 housing units (Source: Seattle Times). Currently, the permitting regulations on these units make them so expensive and time-consuming to build that many people who start the process give up in frustration. Permitting requirements and fees for these units should be eased, but the stipulation that only homeowners occupying the main units can put cottages in. (This will prevent non-resident investors from driving the rental price up on cottages.)
► Get the Big Guys on Board ~ The Seattle area is home to ten Fortune 500 companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, Costco, Starbucks, and Expedia. As these companies grow, we can encourage them to decentralize that growth, directing more of it outside of, but close to, Seattle. Heavy hitters like Amazon should be incentivized to develop new housing-and-work campuses specifically for their workforce. Those campuses should be along existing transit and development corridors.
Difficult but Do-able
Housing affordability is a complex and difficult issue, but we can still tackle it. With good leadership and a thoughtful, straightforward approach to the problem, we can build a city that is affordable – and livable – for all. That's what I'll be working for.