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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Go, Peter, Go!

Posted by on March 22 at 17:56 PM

Peter Steinbrueck’s amendments to the mayor’s downtown height and density increases passed 5-0 (with Jan Drago abstaining) in the council’s urban planning committee today with minimal alterations - a victory for affordable housing supporters and Belltown residents who didn’t want large parking garages at street level in their neighborhood.

In addition to upzoning most of downtown by about a third, Steinbrueck’s legislation:

• Requires developers to pay between $17 and $19 a square foot, on average, into a fund that would build affordable housing downtown (the exact amount will be determined between now and Monday);

• Prohibits new parking garages downtown except on small (30,000 square feet or smaller) lots, where developers who build parking above ground would be required to build an equivalent amount of parking below the surface; and

• Requires new parking garages to include storefronts at sidewalk level, to “create some activity” on the street.

Two amendments by Jan Drago failed 5-2 (Nick Licata left before the end of the meeting): One would have upzoned a small plot of land in Pioneer Square whose owner wants to build a residential tower; the other would have reduced the average housing bonus in Steinbrueck’s plan to less than $16 a square foot. The mayor wanted the bonus to be just $10 a foot, making the legislation the council passed this afternoon a huge victory for Steinbrueck, who had pushed for $20.

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why is this man not our mayor? can we get him to run now for 2009?

What the hell is this "affordable housing fund"?

And shouldn't condo developments that buck the "condos for millionaires only" trend and actually offer good-sized (1200 sq ft) units for around the median housing price in Seattle be exempted?

Otherwise all you're gonna get are either very poor, or very rich people downtown - nobody in the middle, especially families who need more space.

I see your point Urbanite. So, I guess my question would be: how much would a 1,200 sq ft condo sell or rent for with a tag-on of $19/ sq ft to the construction cost?

Life is good whenever a Drago proposal gets shoved up her ass.
I attended the hearing and was happily surprised by skyscraper tycoon Martin Selig's testimony that any developer who couldn't absorb the per-foot affordable housing bonus proposed by Peter Steinbrueck--and opposed by Drago and Mayor Nickels--would pretty much have to be incompetent.

"a victory for affordable housing supporters"?

Erica, you can't be serious. If you want to make housing more affordable, you increase the supply and remove unnecessary taxes and regulations that raise the cost of housing. The one thing about this that makes housing more affordable is the "Upzoning", which increases supply. But adding a $19,000 tax to a 1000 sq ft condo does not make that condo more affordable. (on the contrary, it allows developers to raise prices on similar condos in other parts of town). All these restrictions that make parking scarcer and more expensive don't lower the cost of housing either. Neither do the "green building standards". The only people this is a victory for are the people who want to perpetuate the "affordable housing crisis" so they can perpetuate their own careers.

Peter is a complete idiot. I'm OK with this proposal, but Peter is still an ass. Let's recruit someone to take him out in '07.

Hey Sharkansky: name one major city in America in the last 20 years-- one-- where a housing boom downtown, driven by condo developers, reduced the overall cost of housing in that city. No right wing think tank propaganda or stary-eyed free-market mysticism, please.

The housing trust fund won't solve homelessness, but it will do a lot more than giving a bunch of developers tax breaks to build condos downtown.

If you really want to increase the region's affordable housing stock through market forces instead of the government subsidy/ taxing the rich, then you need to change government zoning laws and building codes to bring back shoddy tenements and sro hotels. Not just downtown Seattle. Throughout the city and the burbs. Let me know when all those supposedly free market Republicans in Bellevue will jump on that idea. Until then, stop pushing that BS trickle down theory of housing (the rich move out of old expensive homes into newer ones, creating more options for everyone).

WF wrote: "Hey Sharkansky: name one major city in America in the last 20 years-- one-- where a housing boom downtown, driven by condo developers, reduced the overall cost of housing in that city. No right wing think tank propaganda or stary-eyed free-market mysticism, please."

Actually, I think you'll find that there are a number of markets where the true cost of housing has declined over the last 20 years. You just have to factor in interest rates. Every point's different in interest rates makes an enormous difference.

Beyond that, WF, I think it sounds like you're not a big fan of economics. Too complex. You're presuming that an increase in the supply of downtown housing happened in a vacuum, as if there were no other factors influencing housing prices. Out of that, you want to dismiss the entire law of supply and demand.

WF wrote: "The housing trust fund won't solve homelessness, but it will do a lot more than giving a bunch of developers tax breaks to build condos downtown."

Aren't we talking just the opposite of tax breaks here? The developers were just asking to be taxed the same way they would be for any other project. Or in fact, according to Nickels' compromise, they were asking to be levied a special surcharge tax above and beyond what they would have been taxed otherwise, just at a lower rate than Steinbrueck wanted.

Here's the lead from New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's most recent column: "One of the most important laws of political debate is this: To name something is to own it. If you can name something, get that name to stick and therefore define how people think about an issue, your opponents don't stand a chance."

Now Friedman was writing about a completely different subject, but his statement called to mind how low-income housing advocates have managed to get writers to use the term "affordable housing" in place of "low-income housing" and "subsidized housing." "Affordable housing" is utterly meaningless, idiotic, an assault on language and logic, and yet in that respect, it's really quite brilliant politics.

I mean, affordable to whom? To a median income earner? And who's to say what's affordable to anyone? I had co-workers who were making an above-average income who mortgaged themselves to the hilt to buy $600,000 houses. Were those houses affordable to them? Maybe we won't get an answer until there's another economic downturn, and they're forced to foreclose on their $600,000 houses.

"Affordable" sounds so sympathetic. Who's against affordable housing? That would make you for unaffordable housing. It also sounds so very middle class, since middle-class folk obviously want to be able to afford their housing. By the same token, they don't also want their housing to be subsidized, unless we start taxing the middle class so we can turn around and subsidize the same class' housing.

I agree with Cressona, Sharkansky and Mark. Leave it to a child of privilege like Steinbreuck to add a $20k+ tax on every new condo downtown indiscriminately to fund more Belltown-style flophouses for the inebriate in the name of making downtown more "family friendly."

Instead of a tax, why not zone the new towers to require, say, 50% of the units to actually be affordable to people making a median income in this town? And specify minimum square footage and finish requirements on them, so they aren't just shoeboxes.

Then the developers can crank up the cost for the luxury units for the rich to compensate. They can afford the extra cost.

Actually, isn't that the way they get family units in Vancouver?

true that i should have used a different word than tax breaks. but that is beside the point. my argument was against the idea that "The one thing about this that makes housing more affordable is the "Upzoning", which increases supply."

to ASSUME that increased housing supply will meet the demand of everyone, while ignoring the fact that the whole region's market is structured via land use code to prevent developers from even building housing that caters to very low-income renters, is an exercise is free market theology.

housing codes structure real estate booms so that comparatively "affordable" (20 years ago) neighborhoods like the central district get what is for them above-market housing. in a bust, they get no housing starts at all. rising tides don't lift all boats. but if you don't do have to prove it, then developers can pretend they have no relationship to displacement, or it's inevitable, because, after all, it's the (land use) law.

I don't know, WF. The fact that you're so willing to dishonestly and misleadingly refer to "tax breaks" suggests that either (a) you don't know what you're talking about or (b) you're just trying to BS us.

I'm inclined to think the answer in (b) because you go on to make the bogus argument that increased housing supply "will meet the demand of everyone." (Emphasis mine.) No kidding. Nobody said supply-and-demand was a cure-all. But housing would be more affordable on the whole (rather than for just a few targeted interest groups) if we allowed greater supply to happen and let the marketplace work things out?

Does that mean I'm in favor of a development free-for-all? Of course not. I'm happy to see the City Council regulate things like garage parking and demand more open space. I'd like to see them mandate more two-bedroom and three-bedroom units to try to bring in more families.

The REAL news was:

commercial buildings building tall structures must have shower facilities for bicycle commuters;

10 or was it 15 foot awnings to keep rain off pedestrians on sidewalks for all tall buildings.

That's what matters.

Now if we could just get bathroom facilities so we don't have to walk to the library if we get a call of nature ...

Correction: You go on to make the bogus argument that we're assuming increased housing supply "will meet the demond of everyone."

At this point, I'm just glad the City Council worked things out and they're going ahead with a compromise. I'd rather see something happen than keep debating and debating.

What I find odd though is that we seem to have accepted that developers (and inevitably homebuyers in turn) should have to pay a special extra tax to raise building heights. In this day and age, increasing building heights seems like something we should be encouraging, or at least not discouraging. Instead, here we are applying a special on-top-of-everything-else tax as if this were a sin tax and we were trying to get builders to stop building tall buildings like we were trying to stop smokers from buying cigarettes.

The "magic of the market" won't solve the problem, as long as there are enough rich people to buy as many condos as the developers can put above the new hotels going in downtown.

Margins are higher on higher priced units: why build anything affordable?

It's time we harnessed the spending power of the rich and well-equitied to subsidize more moderate-income units, by enacting zoning to require them.

If the City Council and Steinbreuck were really practicing what they're preaching about making downtown family friendly and mixed income, they'd be proposing that - not some flat tax per square foot on all units constructed, for the benefit of the poor merely.

But that would be too radical, I suppose - and cost them too much developer and rich contributor support.

David Sucher gets it exactly right on his blog today - all of you "density for its own sake" types ought to read what an actual developer (you know, a guy who makes money doing this stuff) has to say about the real-world effects of your "free market" fantasy world.

David has forgotten more about Seattle land use than any five posters here - and the entire Stranger staff - actually know...

BTW - I think it's great that a "child of privilege" actually gives a shit about the lives of real working people in my City. It's a hell of a lot more than you self-righteous would-be "New Urbanists" can say...

By the way, are you really comfortable with taxpayers citywide subsidizing people who make median income? That's about 70k/year, which is a much higher income level that I'm comfortable with subsidizing (the real need is for units at below 50% of median, which, believe it or not, is about the income level of most of the working poor in this town).

Mar 23, 2006
In fact downtown development will encourage expansion elsewhere.

Seattle's skyline headed upward.

From downtown residents who want more neighbors to developers trying to build to environmental groups fighting sprawl, there's been widespread support for funneling residents and jobs to the city's core in taller buildings.

That can help spare farmlands and single-family neighborhoods from development. (italics added)

The nonsense is in the editorial comment in a news article but stated as fact that building higher in downtown will "spare farmlands and single-family neighborhoods." (Is the reporter so unfamiliar with the subject as to take political spin as fact?)

In fact quite the opposite will happen. Larger buildings with more people & activity in them will (if the street-level is designed correctly -- that's the key) make downtown Seattle more interesting, comfortable etc and will enhance the entire region's overall attractiveness. A truly urban and urbane CBD will increase Seattle's global prominence. It will draw yet more business and people to our region, thus increasing demand for new space of all types in every part of the region.

Mind, I am not aware enough of the specifics to be for or against these zoning changes. In general I share the City's goals and I am all for more development downtown, though I think the impact fee aspect is typical cheapskate Seattle ""Who me? Someone else should pay."

But it is the connection between downtown development and growth elsewhere which is the fallacy. It's dream world to believe that in any but the most marginal & remote way new construction downtown will lessen demand for new construction in other areas of the region, especially when it comes to housing nuclear families. It's good to have a vibrant downtown for many reasons but the major one is simply to have a vibrant downtown.

There is too much pool-playing, looking for caroms and ricochets, and "gaming" going on. Just do the things you want because you want them and not because of some second, third, and fourth level impacts which you hope to instigate. In this case, as I say, making the core neighborhood of the region — Seattle CBD — more interesting makes the region more interesting and thus actually promotes development everywhere. Ironic. Some would say a "damned if you do or don't" situation. There is truth to that if you don't like growth. It's Annoying. Frustrating. But it's the way real estate works. Good planning provides (or should) a "context of certainty" within which people can make large investment decisions. Really good planning actually makes an area more desirable and hence promotes growth. (Btw, I am not suggesting that Seattle has had, with some few exceptions, such good planning.)

But some folks buy into the fantasy.

Mar 23, 2006 | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Thanks for weighing in, Peter - or I assume that's who you are, Mr. X.

Me, I'm uncomfortable subsizing your salary of $100k in a city where the median is significantly less.

And why post this long blog whose only point seems to be that density downtown won't diminish it elsewhere?

Most of us here would welcome more density all over the city.

What we need is zoning and regulation to ensure a mix of people can afford it - and not just the rich and (thanks to direct subsidies) the poor.


The point I'm making is that we - the public - have NO BUSINESS subsidizing market rate housing when that housing is affordable only to those who are making 60% or more of median income. The City's own housing studies show that, in fact, the market is ALREADY PRODUCING housing sufficient to meet the demand at those income levels (you know, all of those new units that rent for $1100-1300/month that are replacing the units in older buildings that rent for $600-800/month that working stiffs can actually afford).

I work part time for a whole lot less than a Councilmember's salary, thank you very much, and would prefer not to have to move to Tacoma or somesuch unless I choose to do so - so I most definitely have a dog in this fight.

I, as a Seattle taxpayer (renters pay taxes too, you know), in effect have to shoulder the shifting tax burden that results when you exempt new construction that is called "affordable" because it rents at 80% of median from taxation.

If we were talking about subsidizing housing at low and very low income levels, I'd have a very different view, as I think there is a legitimate public purpose there (BTW - Vancouver BC requires the inclusion of just such "social housing" in their high-rises). But to give developers tax breaks in the name of reducing sprawl - which the post I quoted effectively refutes - is a different matter entirely.

The "Most of us here" you cite doesn't represent everyone in this City, unless you think Seattle is comprised only of Downtown and Capitol Hill (or the newbies in older neighborhoods who live in the overpriced shitty yuppie anthills that are the hallmark of the Nickels Administration).

By the way, well over half of these new downtown jobs (probably closer to 2/3 or 3/4) will be held by people who live outside of Seattle - let alone Downtown and its immediate environs. This fuels housing demand and sprawl, and you're just kidding yourself if you refuse to acknowledge it.

Economics, huh? Then why are you suggesting that this tax "adds $19,000" to the price of a 1,000 SQFT unit? That price is set by what the market will bear. You can't just raise your price because your costs go up; others who don't have those costs, or who can find a way to mitigate them, will undercut you.

The $19,000 doesn't change the price of the unit; it changes the profit the developer makes. That's in exchange for the city allowing him to make a profit in the first place.

Next you be telling me that high baseball-player salaries drive up ticket prices....

By the way, the fact that a right-wing knob like Sharansky agrees with some of the posters here basically proves my point that you developer apologist types are just spouting warmed-over trickle-down Reaganomics. I hope you're proud of yourselves....

Wow, Mr. X, if you do enough name-calling, e.g. "fantasy world" and "self-righteous," and do enough guilt by association, e.g. Sharkansky & Reagan, you can get away with avoiding any arguments of substance.

Since you're so good at labeling, could you tell me, do I qualify as a "working person" since my pay does not fall below the median?

Actually, I do agree with Mr. X on this front: "By the way, are you really comfortable with taxpayers citywide subsidizing people who make median income? That's about 70k/year, which is a much higher income level that I'm comfortable with subsidizing (the real need is for units at below 50% of median, which, believe it or not, is about the income level of most of the working poor in this town)."

I don't have a problem with subsidized housing per se, as long as it's reserved for low-income people and as long as we as a community tax ourselves equitably for it rather than just taxing "the other guy."

Even price controls are an implicit subsidy that could do more harm than good.

David Sucher's piece is classic "lesser Seattle:" let's save our environment by getting all those nasty human beings to move into someone else's environment. By his logic, the way to prevent sprawl is to make Seattle as crappy as possible. While Tacoma's trying to make itself more like Seattle, Seattle can try to make itself more like Tacoma. (Please forgive the Tacoma dig, Jen Graves et al. I like Tacoma.) A recession would be very effective as well.

In any event, the proof of Sucher's fallacy can be found in the contrast between Vancouver and Portland, on the one hand, and Phoenix and Houston, on the other. Vancouver and Portland have been successful in concentrating growth in their downtowns and, thus, have been successful in containing sprawl.

It's easy to throw up our hands and say, "Sprawl is such a big, difficult, complicated thing that we can't 100% stop it. So let's just give up trying." The fact is, we can make a dent, a pretty darn big dent.


Sure, I just wouldn't subsidize your rent (but I suspect you're probably a lot closer to middle class - or maybe lower middle class - than what I would consider Seattle's typical endangered working class renter).

BTW, Cressona - success in "curbing sprawl" all depends on how you define it.

Drive on out to McMinnville, Oregon sometime and tell me that the Pearl District in Portland magically cured sprawl.

Wishing does not make it so...

Yes, Mr. X. Life is not simple. Sorry.

BTW - you miss Sucher's point entirely - he's for increased activity downtown, but doesn't think it will have any effect on stifling development in other areas and will in fact do the opposite - it will encourage it.

And, with over 30 years of real-world experience observing land use, development and regional politics in Seattle, I happen to agree with him.

Also, I can hardly imagine a more "simplistic" construction than your article of faith that building bigger downtown will reduce sprawl elsewhere.

I'll think I'll swear off this slog comment thing after this - it leads nowhere.

But before I do, just wanted to say I'd like to apologize to Mr X for calling him Peter Steinbreuck, and that in review his comments I think I actually agree with what seems to be one of his points - that housing subsidies should only be for the truly poor.

Subsidizing people making 80% for the median so they can buy condos downtown - when people making 150% of the median can't even afford one that's large enough to meet their needs - is truly idiotic.

And as Steinbreuck admitted on The Conversation today - his proposal does nothing to end that disparity.

I suppose next I'll be accused of accepting the superiority of capitalism over socialism as an article of faith. And after that, someone will point out that the theory of evolution is just a theory.

Let's just play along with Mr. X and say that bringing dense development downtown does absolutely nothing to curb sprawl. That is, 0% of those folks moving in downtown would have been living in auto-dependent housing if not for the downtown option. It's a silly thought, but just play along. Even then, shouldn't Seattle be encouraging that kind of development so that it doesn't go elsewhere? Those are property tax dollars going to Seattle and not somewhere else, especially the wealthier those residents are.

get your median income and affordability definitions straight people!

go here:

click on 2006 and check out the rent affordability for each income level.

I bet everyone who is arguing here would agree that subsidizing a studio that rents for more than $1,000 a month for a person making almost $42K a year isn't such a swell idea.

Cressona - where the heck do you get the idea that your $70K a year is median income?

Martin Selig is a brilliant man.
He is an extremely competitive man.
But he doesn't build housing,
So his remarks about what housing developers -- or more to the point, their buyers -- can afford should be viewed through the prism of business competition for downtown land.

Please read what I wrote, not an astral projection of what I wrote.

Oops, that bad 70k figure came from me. Sorry!

That said, I still don't support subsidizing $1k/month apartments for people making 42k/year, either.

You almost have to get down to the very bottom of the City's income scale to get at what the working poor (who mostly do not receive government subsidies) actually earn...just where the hell is someone who can only afford $400/month supposed to live in the grand new "world class" city that will need them to clean the floors and toilets?


Read my post - I acknowledge that perhaps 25-33% of those who fill new jobs downtown will live there. The problem is that the rest of them (the 60-75% who don't) will exceed the ability of our transportation (and other) infrastructure to accomodate them.


Apology accepted - s'alright!

David Sucher says: "Please read what I wrote, not an astral projection of what I wrote."

Astral projection? Actually, Mr. Sucher, I'm merely taking what you wrote to its logical conclusion. You were the one who wrote that whatever will "increase Seattle's global prominence" will contribute to sprawl. Therefore, if we want to prevent or reduce sprawl, we should do whatever we can to prevent Seattle from gaining global prominence.

This is a bit like saying, let's control population by killing people.

It also smacks of thinking locally and not globally. Suppose every metropolis in the United States and Canada adopted the policy that they were going to freeze downtown development so as to reduce prominence, thereby allegedly controlling sprawl. So what happens when there's no downtown to move to -- whether in one's own city or another city? Unless people decide just to kill themselves at that point, where would they move? Well, to the suburbs, the exurbs. And there you have it, sprawl.

The odd thing is that land use and transportation issues, economic and environmental issues are so complex, with no opportunity to observe causes and effects in a vacuum, that people like David Sucher feel brazen enough to throw logic by the wayside.

Just leave, dude - we'll all be happier.

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