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Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Future of Affordable Housing

posted by on December 13 at 10:59 AM

I have piece in this week’s issue about the proposed citywide expansion of a downtown program that allows developers to exceed height limits in certain zones if they build affordable housing, or pay into the city-managed housing fund. But no matter how this zoning incentive program debate settles, Seattle still won’t have enough affordable housing.

Carla Okigwe, Executive Director of the Housing Developing Consortium of Seattle-King County, estimates Seattle must build 155,000 units for low-to-moderate wage earners in the next ten years. But non-profits can only construct one-third of those units, she says. Market incentive must drive construction of the other two-thirds. So how do we do that?

1) Expand the height-bonus area to mixed-use zones around entire city and bump up the affordable housing fee from $19 per-square-foot to at least $25—as a penalty for developers who choose to omit affordable housing from new buildings. We need housing now, not years after developers pay into a fund.

2) Rezone arterials in the Central District: Between downtown and MLK Way, on Jackson St, Yesler St, Cherry St, and Union St (plus MLK Way and 23rd Ave) units that face the street and their adjacent lots should all be zoned for 40’ mixed-use development. Property values are soaring in the CD and this would create more affordable units there. Owners whose houses are rezoned may bitch and moan, but their property values would increase overnight, and these are the primary arterials between the closest residential neighborhoods to the downtown core. As an incentive to build apartments there, provide developers a height bonus to reach 65’, waive the ground-level retail requirement, and dismiss the affordable housing penalty if they construct rental units.

3) Provide an incentive to develop small-unit and family condos: Any residential building that averages fewer than 550 square feet per unit or builds three-bedrooms units less than 1000 square feet should be allowed to use the height bonus without paying into the affordable housing fund—because that is creating affordable housing.

We can’t rely on a city-managed fund as the end-all solution to the affordable housing shortage; it pushes money around City Hall and the Office of Housing, and people will still be in committee meetings deliberating over proposals when cockroaches rule the earth. Developers are always lobbying the council for a laundry list of zoning changes, but these should be made in 2008.

RSS icon Comments


amen. allow some form of multi-unit construction in more neighborhoods. can't accomodate 155,000 (and that's just the low-to-moderate end of the scale) with most of the city as single-family-zoning.

Posted by good ideas, dom | December 13, 2007 11:48 AM

It should be noted that Carla Okigwe fought *against* increasing the percentage for affordable housing for the downtown height and density upzoning. Does she approve item #1 on your list?

Posted by la | December 13, 2007 11:59 AM

So, basically, a watered down version of my 100-story inexpensive residential apartment buildings with adjacent park-like open space ...

Look, it's either that or rezone from the 90 percent single-family residential zoning in place here that is pushing all the townhouses popping up like corn.

Posted by Will in Seattle | December 13, 2007 12:01 PM

I don't get the NIMBY opposition to increased density on arterials. Having lived in a house on an arterial, the noise from traffic is hell. If I had owned that house, I would have jumped at the chance to increase its value, opening up a way to sell it and move to a quieter street.

Posted by keshmeshi | December 13, 2007 12:14 PM

allow some form of multi-unit construction in more neighborhoods.

And be prepared for all-out cataclysmic NIMBY warfare from (probably a small subset of) residents in those neighborhoods. Everyone's for a denser Seattle until it comes to their street.

Posted by JMR | December 13, 2007 12:15 PM

Right. So split them and buy off some of them with the lure of higher property values.

Also: ease up and let owners build basement and garage apartments in the single family home zones. Keep an overall limit on the no. of people on the property.

This is eco-logical and units can come on line very quickly.

Posted by unPC | December 13, 2007 12:21 PM

All housing is affordable to someone. The fallacy is that there should be housing in all areas affordable to all people. The market distributes owners across the economic neighborhoods that they can support and maintain. This benefits owners (in that the services they require tend to be in the neighborhoods they can afford) and neighborhoods. Anything else just doesn’t make moral or economic sense…

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | December 13, 2007 12:26 PM

Most of this makes sense to me, but I would still prefer to see the requirement for ground-level retail retained.

Once you start talking about adding some 50,000 to 80,000 housing units to a relatively small geographic area, you also need to have businesses to cater to all those new residents: hair salons, banks, grocery stores, etc., etc. Otherwise, you're just creating the same conditions that density is supposed to solve, namely packing more people into a smaller area, so they don't have to travel to get to work, and essential services.

Posted by COMTE | December 13, 2007 1:10 PM

Don't kid yourself that the incentives proposed by Nickels will bring any kind of social justice or have any impact on the rising cost of property values in the city.

"Moderate" housing, when lumped together with the same funds meant for low-income housing, will further pervert the meaning of "affordable" by tilting scarce resources toward meeting the needs of people between 80 and 120 percent median income in a county with over 68,000 millionaires.

As for rezoning the city: Madison Park isn't going to be rezoned. Magnolia isn't going to be rezoned. Laurelhurst isn't going to be rezoned. It's the Central District, South Seattle, and the southern part of West Seattle that will be seriously rezoned.

Whether created by for profit or non-profit developers, the "moderate" and "affordable" rentals and condos--condos!-- created in the South end will accelerate the displacement of low-income people, disproportionately impacting immigrants and people of color. It's publicly subsidized gentrification repackaged in a rhetoric of sustainability and affordability, with light rail no less.

I actually do agree that the city should be rezoned to be less suburban. But unless we focus our efforts on developing and preserving affordable rental housing below 50 percent median, where the need is greatest and the market fails the most, this vision of increasing density will be an elitist one.

Posted by Trevor | December 13, 2007 1:41 PM

A couple of thoughts:

1. Functionally speaking, how is a massive rezone in the CD different from gentrification?

2. Street-level retail attached to housing is a terrible idea in seismic hazard zones like downtown Seattle. Basically, you make the first floor weak and flexible by removing lots of columns and walls, then you put a bunch of weight on the higher floors and make them stiffer. It's a good recipe for pancaking the first floor.

Posted by Greg | December 13, 2007 1:50 PM

Please, Will in Seattle, eat shit and die.

Posted by Fnarf | December 13, 2007 2:06 PM


there's this thing called CONCRETE. it allows 5/1 mixed use buildings: 5 stories of wood framed housing over a post-tensioned concrete structure with ground floor retail & parking below.

& it won't be permitted unless it meets our seismic zone requirements.

Posted by max solomon | December 13, 2007 2:35 PM

will, dude, they already did that.

robert taylor homes?

cabrini green?

it doesn't work.

Posted by Cale | December 13, 2007 2:41 PM

affordable housing is on the way. will you keep your job though?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | December 13, 2007 5:02 PM

Seattle has plenty of affordable housing. In Kelso.

Posted by K | December 14, 2007 9:14 AM

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