Editor's note: This is a guest op/ed by Tenants Union organizers Eliana Horn and Stina Janssen about incentive zoning in South Lake Union.
As we've reported, the council is considering several different proposals to allow developers to build denser, taller buildings (the incentive) if they pay for amenities like affordable housing and child care.
On the low end, Mayor Mike McGinn's proposal would require developers to pay between $15 and $22 per additional square foot of space into a fund to provide housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of median income. And on the high end, City Council member Nick Licata's proposal would require developers to pay a fee of between $60 and $96 per extra square foot or make 10 percent of new units affordable, half of those at lower income levels than the mayor's proposal).
Although Licata's proposal seems unlikely to pass—last month, he called it "the maligned yellow sheet," referring to the color of paper it was printed on—as an opening gambit, it could shift the debate and ultimately lead to stronger affordability requirements.
The City Council must enact a strong incentive zoning policy for South Lake Union to counter the hemorrhaging of affordable housing in downtown Seattle.
Today the Seattle City Council, meeting as the South Lake Union committee, will vote on a new zoning policy to create affordable housing in the profitable area of South Lake Union.
Currently, almost all of the proposals the council is considering fail to produce the affordable housing South Lake Union needs: They propose to create hundreds of units, when the need is in the thousands. In most of the proposals, the units would only be affordable for renters earning up to 80% of the Area Median Income—meaning a single tenant, for example, might earn $45,100 a year.
Most of the proposals do not create housing affordable for the low-income families and low-wage workers, many of them people of color, who are now increasingly squeezed out of Seattle. In the last two years, at least two buildings with hundreds of housing units for low-income tenants in the downtown Seattle area have been sold to for-profit developers. Low-income renters have been forced to relocate far from the public transit, medical care, and social services they depend on.
The Downtowner, a 240-unit building in the International District with a HUD rent subsidy, was once filled with very low-income tenants who earn below 30% of the area median, primarily seniors, people with disabilities, and immigrants.
For Solomon Berhane, an interpreter, having an apartment in the downtown area was crucial for finding employment. Berhane says, “The Downtowner Apartments were a suitable place for me because I could move around with ease of transportation, and it gave me a chance to reach the jobs when they are available.”
When the building was bought by Goodman Real Estate in 2011, and redubbed the “Addison on Fourth” it was converted to a subsidy that, like the majority of city council members’ South Lake Union proposals, targets renters earning less than 80 percent of median income. The rents went up to from $740 to $940 a month for a renovated studio and from $790 to $990 for a one-bedroom apartment, and the cost of parking in the building’s lot went up from $40 to $193 a month. The new rent went beyond the payment standard for any tenant with a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher.
As a result, nearly all of the tenants in the building have been displaced or are looking for housing elsewhere, including Berhane. Moving out will have far-reaching effects on other areas of his life. Berhane says, “I have been searching for apartments in the South Jackson area but the rents are more than $1000 a month. Finally, I applied for housing in Senior Housing Assistance Group, and I have located one in South Seattle, but…if I have to reach a job within half an hour, I won’t be able to make it. So that’s a loss of job opportunity.”
Another renter, who preferred to be referred to only as John, lived in transitional housing before he found permanent housing at the Adams Apartments, a 32-unit building in Belltown that was subsidized through the Seattle Office of Housing. When Ethos Property Group bought the building in late 2012, they allowed the rent restriction to expire, providing no protections from rent hikes to the low-income tenants living there. The result: after living there six years, John’s rent was doubled from $736 to $1450 per month.
John was hoping to find another place in Seattle, but he moved out of the city after finding something affordable in his rural hometown near his elderly parents. In John’s experience, “all of the affordable housing for people in the buildings [with rent restrictions] are getting sold and turned over into for-profit buildings, and out goes the affordable housing and we’re made homeless. I got lucky.”
Another Adams resident, Tupelo Bahir, has lived in the building for 10 years and loves her home. Formerly homeless, Bahir relies on the resources for homeless and formerly homeless women nearby and on being within walking distance of her doctor, her sister, free Internet access and food banks. Bahir’s rent was also increased from $735 to $1400.
Bahir says the prospect of moving "has been very traumatic. … I'm looking [for housing] in the downtown and Belltown areas, but I haven't got anything confirmed yet. It's been very difficult to find anything that would fit my Section 8 limit, but I have a disability and my doctor has written a note saying that I need to be within walking distance of my resources. The lowest-rent place I could find anywhere near downtown was a smaller unit at $1150 per month.” Several of John and Bahir’s former neighbors are currently homeless and unable to find housing affordable at their income and close to the transit they rely on for work.
Meanwhile, the development of South Lake Union will bring 100,000 new jobs to the greater downtown area over the next two decades. One in four of these jobs will pay wages too low for workers to live in market-rate housing near those jobs. The city’s own Office of Housing estimates that 5,500 units of affordable housing are needed in South Lake Union to accommodate the work force alone.
As the main land owner and developer in South Lake Union, Vulcan, Inc. is in a position to make immense profits from its developments in the area, while Seattle continues to lose more affordable housing each year. It is commendable that the city has recognized this problem and has pledged to address it by creating affordable units through incentive zoning, but almost all of the current proposals seem to ignore the city’s own estimates of the current need for housing and come nowhere near meeting that need. Only council member Nick Licata’s proposal actually begins to address the problem the city is facing, proposing the construction of 2,800 affordable housing units by 2031, half for renters earning below 60 percent of area median and half below 80 percent of AMI
With its vote this afternoon, the council will take on a simple question: Are we a city that values diversity, low-wage workers and low income families living within proximity to their jobs and public transit, and will council members take the action that's needed to reach their own affordable housing goals? Seattle tenants are holding our breath.
The Tenants Union is a membership-based non-profit that provides tenant rights counseling and advocates for fair public policy that respects Washington’s tenants and the dignity of low income communities and communities of color. Reach us at www.tenantsunion.org.