Three of our city's most thoughtful and longtime urbanists, Sightline researcher Dan Bertolet, Stranger writer Charles Mudede, and activist Cary Moon, published in-depth articles on the affordable housing crisis yesterday; Mudede and Moon teamed up for one of the articles and Bertolet wrote the other.
Bertolet's piece, heavy with surprising local data—"In total, from 2010 to April 2016, Seattle added almost 13 times as many units as it demolished in all zones citywide"—pushes back against the seemingly self apparent idea that development, which is literally tearing up our city, is the problem rather than the solution.
Conversely, Mudede and Moon tack more to Seattle's left wing consensus that demolition is an apt indictment of development. They write: "Seattle has demolished 7,000 units of “naturally affordable” housing in the last few years, or 11,000 units since 2004. As each building is torn down, 20-100 families are forced to leave their homes and go after the remaining affordable housing units—competing with the growing number of workers in our retail and restaurant industries, who are trying to get by on just $13 per hour."
*That 7,000 stat isn't correct, according to the data linked in Bertolet's piece: There were about 1,700 total demolitions in 2013, 2104, and 2015. Nor were 11,000 units demolished since 2004 according to the data, it's more like 6,215.
By the way, like Bertolet, Mudede and Moon are not without their own contrarian assertions too; they push back both against Seattle's dominant single family zoning and the demonization of transplants.
They write (and please listen):
And let’s stop blaming the newcomers, OK? Young people with a tech sector salary are not the problem. Pulling up the drawbridge, denying access to future generations, is absurd. And kind of impossible. And that’s not what cities are about. Instead, how about inviting newcomers and young people into the civic conversation and collaborating together to find solutions? Millennials are probably the hardest hit by this predatory version of neoliberal capitalism we currently live in.
Personal anecdote: In June, I met a guy at a local bar while I was watching the NBA finals. "Are you from Ohio?" he asked excitedly, even hopefully (as if that would explain why I was interested in Cleveland and LeBron James). It turned out he was from Ohio. And, in fact, had just moved here. That very day. He was a young Indian guy, maybe 25 max. "Oh, why'd you move here?" I asked. And he said: "I got a job with a local tech company."
A local tech company?
"What company?" I asked.
He was visibly nervous. He said sheepishly, defensively: "Amazon."
That's bad Karma, people. Yes, we live in a city, like a lot of American cities right now, that seems cursed by new comers and gentrification. But we also live in a city that's blessed with genuine thinkers who can nudge our populist anger away from a leftist and local version of Trumpism.
Seattle is lucky to have such patient and smart writers like Bertolet (a former PubliCola columnist), and Mudede and Moon working in our city right now as we struggle with the housing crisis; rents have skyrocketed 51 percent in Seattle since 2010.
The careful treatises these local writers published yesterday almost seem to be in conversation with each other—Bertolet unpacking the details of local supply and demand and Mudede and Moon positing that there are larger forces, "global capitalism" as a Marxist like Mudede has it.
Here are two key excerpts from both.
Seeming to address the city council's recent HALA amendment that added the possibility of a new developer fee for future displacement, Bertolet writes:
To stem economic displacement, advocates often propose another plausible-sounding remedy: preserve existing low-cost homes, so-called “naturally occurring affordable housing.” But this prescription, too, is destined to fail overall, because it doesn’t treat the underlying disease: a shortage of housing.
In booming cities such as Seattle, legal restrictions on housing construction create a situation in which the need for homes increasingly outstrips the supply of homes available to rent or purchase. And this enforced housing shortage creates a preservation paradox: conservation of existing inexpensive private-market housing—whether by halting demolitions or by instituting rent restrictions—does not reduce displacement. It only rearranges where the displacement happens—and can even increase its occurrence.
The simple explanation: because preservation adds no new housing to the city’s stock, it doesn’t relieve the demand for housing. When people hunting for housing outnumber homes, the inevitable results are rising prices and economic displacement of those at the bottom of the economic ladder—people with more money move in, and those with less have to move out. The simple solution: build more housing. The closer we get to having enough homes, the fewer families will face displacement.
To be clear, new housing is not the only means to mitigate displacement. Targeted low-cost housing preservation can serve social justice goals for low-income neighborhoods that face acute risks of displacement. Or in wealthier neighborhoods, saving what low cost housing is left may be necessary to retain lower-income residents and preserve economic and racial diversity. Localized public investments can provide support for fragile cultural or economic communities to help weather displacement pressures. Requirements that landlords give ample notice of rent increases can help at-risk tenants plan for alternatives. And when displacement does happen, cities can—and should—be ready to provide robust tenant relocation assistance.
In a bidding war for scarce homes, however, the only way everyone can come out with a place to live is if there are enough new dwellings added for everyone who is bidding. Preservation, when policymakers pursue it, must be matched with citywide housing growth, or else displacement will only shift to other blocks and neighborhoods, protecting certain people from displacement by exposing others to it. Ultimately, no action is more effective at curtailing displacement across an entire city than creating more housing choices for the diverse families and individuals who need them. The following sections provide detailed support for these conclusions.
Meanwhile, Mudede and Moon, if a bit over dramatically, seem to directly address Bertolet.
What is wreaking havoc now is all the other factors escalating demand, with the frenzy fed by both an asset-inflating debt bubble and the deluge of the world’s excess capital. Our local housing market is being colonized by the global financial elite. Or, said more calmly by Ha-Joon Chang in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, “Because finance is efficient at responding to changing profit opportunities, it can become harmful to the rest of the economy.” Our housing market used to be contained fully within our simple local economy. Now it operates as part of global finance, reacting to dynamics beyond what we can see and know how to control. The difference between normal and this condition cannot be overstated.
I hope this smart local conversation leads to smart, national solutions.