Advocates for low-income housing are outraged by comments made on the Seattle City Council dais on Monday, comments they say are thinly veiled suggestions that Seattle "redline" the poor into designated ghettos. Council Member Richard Conlin made the case to his colleagues for focusing subsidized housing "along the light rail line in Rainier Valley" where it's cheaper to build instead of the "very hot neighborhood" of South Lake Union, where potential new zoning rules will actually generate the money to build that low-income housing.
Philippa Nye, of Ally Community Development, was the first to speak at a comment period, denouncing the idea: "Having everyone commute from Rainier Valley or Rainier Beach feels like housing segregation to me."
She was hardly alone—I heard from several people this week. "Having council suggest redlining and segregation is part of Seattle's future makes my stomach hurt," says Rebecca Saldaña, a program director of the housing advocacy nonprofit Puget Sound Sage. How the city should use resources generated by allowing taller buildings is an age-old dispute—one we saw seven years ago when the council allowed taller buildings in the adjacent Denny Triangle neighborhood and downtown—and raises a key question of urban planning: Are the wealthy entitled to monopolize an enclave of the central city while workers are expelled to the outskirts?
The issue came up as council members discussed how much affordable housing developers should build in exchange for the right to construct taller towers in the South Lake Union neighborhood. This is a little wonky, but the line of questioning goes something like this: In exchange for letting developers build taller, how much of a new building should be rented below market rate (5 percent or more)? If developers choose not to include low-income housing, how much should they pay into an affordable housing fund (the range bandied about is around $17 to $27 per square foot). And finally, if they pay into that low-income housing fund, where should the city build it? In South Lake Union, where the development is happening but costs more to build, or should low-income housing be constructed in cheaper, far-flung parts of town?
At Monday's meeting, Council Member Mike O'Brien pointed out that workers in the neighborhood shouldn't all leave South Lake Union at 5 p.m., they should be able to live there.
Council Member Conlin, who chairs the council committee on the neighborhood's rezone, replied: "We may not be as successful if we devote our resources into the new housing in a very hot neighborhood in producing as much help for people who need affordable housing as if we focus our resources on, say, along the light rail line in Rainier Valley, where there is easy access to some of those jobs and where there are lots of great communities, such that can be built up there. It is a matter not so much about, say, everything there and not here, but what is where is the most effective way in which to deploy the resources that you might be able to have, which we know we can't create all the affordable housing that we would like to have. The government efforts are not possible to do that. So we have to figure out where our resources are most effective."
O'Brien acknowledged the city could certainly subsidize more housing in the South End, but he hit back, saying, "If we do strict cost effectiveness, there is no doubt in my mind it is most cost effective to build all the units along light rail in the Rainier Valley. I think there are other values we want to balance."
Futurewise's Brock Howell adds that Conlin's comments are "certainly worrisome. The ramification is repeating historical patterns of designating some neighborhoods as being poor and other neighborhoods where the wealthy growth is."
Saldaña says it's not just a matter of fairness, but of practicality. "We want our high-tech workers and our hotel workers and janitors to be able to live where they work," she says. "Our city has a history of red-lining and we at Puget Sound Sage are committed to making sure that history does not repeat itself."
UPDATE at 4:40 PM: Of course Kshama Sawant, the Socialist Alternative candidate running against Conlin, is pouncing on this opportunity. She says by e-mail that these remarks show Conlin would "allow real estate corporations to gobble up large chunks of land in the central areas of the city to build upmarket condos, and for low-income people to be pushed farther out into the fringes of the city. If this is not income and race segregation, I don't know what is."