Guest Opinion

The Slippery Slope of the Affordable Housing "Grand Bargain"

How social justice advocates can save the grand bargain.

By Dan Bertolet September 14, 2015

The most ground-breaking component of the City of Seattle's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) is the so-called "Grand Bargain" that grants upzones for increased housing development capacity in exchange for the provision of subsidized units in new market housing developments. This proposal is far better than the proposed housing linkage fee it superseded, and it has created an unprecedented political alliance between private developers and nonprofit affordable housing advocates.

The HALA Grand Bargain has the potential to result in increased production of both market rate and income-restricted housing in Seattle—but only if upzones of sufficient magnitude can be implemented. And unfortunately, cit council approval of the upzones is by far the most fragile element of the bargain.

I would submit that it is the leaders of Seattle's social justice community who have the greatest capacity to provide the kind of backing that will be necessary to keep the upzones—and therefore the Grand Bargain itself—alive through the legislative process. By leveraging their moral high ground, social justice activists have the potential to be the most effective advocates to call out and push back on the hordes who will doubtless be protesting the upzones.

If social justice leaders can step outside their comfort zone and proactively defend the idea that upzones benefit everyone, not just developers, I believe it would open the door to a truly united front that will support both the Grand Bargain, as well as ongoing initiatives to promote long-term affordability in Seattle.


Ironically, the conceptual heart of the grand Grand Bargain itself is an impediment to the kind of cultural shift necessary to garner political support for upzones. The problem is that because the bargain sanctions a trade-off between upzones and affordability, it perpetuates the widely held misconception that allowing increased housing density is a necessary evil at best. But the truth couldn't be any more opposite—the positive effect on affordability in particular, not to mention reduced sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions, along with improved human health and productivity.

The primary reason housing prices in Seattle are becoming more and more out of reach to lower income households is demand outpacing supply. It follows that we should seek to remove regulations that needlessly restrict the amount of housing that could be built in any given development project. In other words, the upzones for increased development capacity half of the Grand Bargain is something we should be doing anyway, whenever and wherever possible, with no strings attached.

If food prices were rising because farm production couldn't keep up with demand, we wouldn't be calling for a grand bargain that would allow farmers to produce more but also require that they sell a portion of their crop for less than the cost of producing it. No, we would do everything in our power to enable them to produce more food, full stop. And we would find other sources of public funding to provide food for people who couldn't afford it—a proposal to tax the production of food to pay for subsidizing food wouldn't pass the laugh test.

Enduring solutions for housing affordability in Seattle will require a cultural shift towards thinking about developers more like farmers. Yet the framing of the Grand Bargain does just the opposite by publicly legitimizing the idea that the development of housing should be subject to a penalty, which in turn implies that new housing is a bad thing that must be mitigated. In addition, all the focus on politically expedient exactions from developers means the city will be less likely to seriously pursue innovative alternative funding possibilities—such as a high-earner income tax or a capital gains tax on single family houses—that are more equitable, but also far more politically challenging.

The fundamental premise of urbanism is that putting more housing and jobs in cities like Seattle is one of the most important things humanity can do to improve the long term prospects of people and the planet. And as I see it, that means urbanists ought to be questioning if the way the Grand Bargain compromises that paramount ideal could do more harm than good over the long term. Because it's a slippery slope. It's a bit like a proposal to allow same-sex couples to marry, but only if they pay a special fee to offset their supposed negative impact on heterosexual marriage.


All that said, it may well be true that the Grand Bargain compromise is the best we can hope for in Seattle's current political climate. Unfortunately, due to that same climate, most of the upzones will be vigorously challenged by residents. If the recent debate over the relatively esoteric lowrise upzones could fill council chambers with an angry mob, should we expect anything less in response to the Grand Bargain's far more impactful upzones throughout all the city's neighborhoods? In Ballard, for example, where so many residents are already incensed over too much development, is there any doubt but that there will be a massive outcry against height upzones from 85 to 125 feet on Market Street?

The reality that the Grand Bargain upzones would be—by design—a financial wash for developers won't stop the onslaught of developer giveaway indictments. That the upzones are tied to affordability may mollify some of the opposition, but if history is any guide, it will be the John Fox "all upzones are bad" narrative that has the biggest influence on Council votes.*

On top of that, the Grand Bargain upzones are going to be extremely difficult to define and implement citywide in a way that fairly balances the value of the increased development capacity with the cost of subsidizing the affordable units. Density, height limits, building types, and housing demand all vary widely across the different zones of the city, and real-estate market conditions change significantly over time. And if the financial burden on developers is too great, the result will be a drop in housing production that exacerbates the very affordability problem the policy is meant to address.

In short, the Grand Bargain upzoning process can be expected to be both a political and practical clusterf*ck. If we don't start the public debate with a united recognition that upzoning is a good thing in itself, the all but inevitable result will be watered down upzones or none at all, in which case the Grand Bargain is toast.


Two weeks ago high-profile Seattle urbanist A-P Hurd, vice president of Touchstone Development, stood with mayor Ed Murray at a HALA press conference and said "yes" to an affordability tax targeted specifically on her own business. What was missing is commensurate support from the social justice community for the other half of the Grand Bargain—that is, someone like Real Change's Tim Harris for example, standing up with the mayor and saying, "Build more housing! Upzones now!"

During the recent brouhaha over the HALA recommendation to allow duplex and triplex in single-family zones, many in the social justice community called out the truth that single-family zoning is inherently exclusionary, and therefore an affront to social justice. But what's true for regulations that would enable more equitable access to single-family zones is also true for regulations that would enable more equitable access to multifamily zones—that is, upzones. In both instances social justice is served simply by sharing the city.

The HALA Grand Bargain deserves that namesake when considered within the current political and cultural context of Seattle. But from the perspective of long term progress toward both affordability and sustainabilty, we should also recognize that adversarial "bargaining" for upzones is ultimately a counterproductive approach. Popularizing that recognition will require deep cultural change—essentially it comes down to seeing developers as partners rather than adversaries. And social justice advocates are in a uniquely powerful position to inspire that cultural shift. For the sake of the Grand Bargain and beyond, I hope they rise to the challenge.

Dan Bertolet is an urban planner with VIA Architecture.

*In another layer of irony, it may turn out that the new Council Districts work in favor approving the Grand Bargain upzones, since the local council member can vote "no," while the rest can vote "yes" because they have no accountability to a neighborhood outside their District.

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