Thinking About Gentrification, Part 2

So last post I highlighted tax increment financing and inclusionary zoning as two policies to reduce displacement caused by gentrification. Then, I talked about the Seattle City Council was up to and how little that had to do with good urban planning and actually achieving a healthy amount of affordable housing. I can’t emphasize enough how shortsighted the Seattle City Council has been, particularly in the recent population boom.

If you need recent proof of that shortsightedness, look no further than this. To sum Erica C. Barnett’s great summary of recent council machinations, Seattle City Council members Nick Licata, Mike O’Brien and Tim Burgess are seeking an “Alternative 5” for Seattle 2035—an important plan that would direct growth for the next two decades—that would essentially put the kibosh on transit-oriented development. Barnett explained it thusly:

“The “fifth alternative” they were requesting, the three council members wrote, would address the high potential for displacement in Seattle’s “high-risk” communities, mostly near transit hubs in South Seattle, by directing growth away from those areas and toward areas with “high access to opportunity” and “low displacement risk” areas, and by adopting strategies to reduce displacement in those high-risk neighborhoods. In practice, that could mean abandoning the goal of “transit-oriented development” by discouraging development near transit centers (where lots of “marginalized populations,” to use the city’s term, currently live) and encouraging it in the most expensive parts of the city—places like Upper Queen Anne, Ravenna, and Fremont, according to the city’s equity analysis of the four alternatives.”

Alternative 5 sounds like a recipe for disaster. The city might succeed in freezing South Seattle like it is for a few years longer, but when the Seattle housing market doesn’t grow as fast as Seattle job market—as is inevitable when you exempt entire regions and try to get Upper Queen Anne, of all places, to be a leader in dense development—the whole city will end up expensive regardless of location. Moreover, abandoning transit-oriented development almost guarantees worsening traffic congestion. And congestion is already pretty bad.

Babying The Developers

As disastrous as Alternative 5 would be, I wouldn’t go as far as Barnett in handing over all the incentives to the developers. She seems dismissive of one-for-one replacement schemes in which developers have to build low-income units to replace affordable housing stock they demolish to make way for their new developments: “The issues with this scheme are pretty obvious (what developer in his right mind would build apartments that could rent for $2,000 and lease them for $600, and how much government subsidy would it take to make him change his mind?), but that doesn’t keep it from being popular…” The point of a mixed income apartment complex isn’t to construct all luxury $2,000 apartments and mandate a huge financial loss for the developer or a huge government subsidy to house low-income tenants.

The developer can add in the frills—the granite counter tops, elegant balconies, and in-unit washer/dryers—that help an apartment rent for $2,000 to the luxury units and build more modest units for low-income tenants. The ample profit margin on the market rate units should compensate for the low rates on the low-income units. The City of Seattle could sweeten the deal for participating developers by decreasing permitting fees and expediting the lengthy permitting process. Time is big money for developers and a faster and less costly process might be enough to make them stop whining about requirements for low-income units. And even more importantly, the city council could stop dragging its feet and up-zone more city acres to lessen the bottleneck on housing.

Barnett is right, though, that Alternative 5 is set up to fail as a development strategy. Seattle is adding too many jobs for a tentative and half-assed strategy for adding new housing. A massive increase in housing stock is the only way to keep Seattle an even moderately affordable city.

Downtown Growth Engine

Downtown Seattle is booming with a whooping 15 million square feet in office space under construction downtown. For perspective, downtown Seattle already contains 44 million square feet in office space—half of all office space in the metropolitan region—15 million square feet is a big effin’ deal—to paraphrase Joe Biden—a 34 percent jump in office space downtown. Housing growth has to keep pace with job growth. That is, UNLESS you want well-paid techies to bid up the limited housing in Seattle, driving the price ever skyward. Some techies might end up in the suburbs—and some Seattleites would say good riddance. But actually, considering again their high paying jobs, it’s more likely you (you know someone not pulling in six figures) end up in the suburbs and they end up paying the rent you can no longer afford in a trendy Seattle neighborhood.

So if you think there is Brogrammer Backlash now, wait until rent hits San Francisco levels due to the knee jerk reactions of our city council to avoid displacement and keep an ineffable sense of neighborhood character through a quixotic campaign of ill-conceived measures that essentially failed before they even began.

‘Burb Your Enthusiasm

One glaring hole in the “let the suburbs absorb the growth” theory is the suburbs don’t want to grow either—at least not in their expansive single-family home zones. Mercer Island has literally put a moratorium on development. Other suburbs wouldn’t be far behind in this scenario. Another glaring hole is climate change. Sprawling out rather than building up levels carbon-absorbing forests, covers more land in heat trapping concrete and asphalt, and demands ever-greater carbon-belching vehicle miles, not to mention forcing extremely costly investments in far-flung infrastructure.

City Council Member Mike O'Brien is fourth from the right. He's very active in the shaking your fist at Shell Oil arena, not as active in making a coherent smart growth strategy for Seattle.

City Council Member Mike O’Brien is fourth from the right. He’s very active in the shaking your fist at Shell Oil arena, not as active in making a coherent smart growth strategy for Seattle.

Seattle has a lot of laudable sustainability and equity goals, but when it comes to implementation in the here and now, we dither, think small, and pass the problem off on another city or another generation. Seattle’s leaders have been cowards. It’s one thing to hop in a kayak and navigate it to a drilling rig to angrily wave your paddle at Big Oil like ‘kayaktivist’ council member Mike O’Brien. It’s another thing to navigate your city to a better future where many more Seattlites use much less fossil fuel, not because we are a city of the filthy rich and everyone can afford to own a Tesla, but because we have harnessed growth to build high speed mass transit and affordable housing all across the city and to make the city inviting to newcomers rather than let it decay into the curmudgeonly, aristocratic enclave we seem to be in the process of enshrining. Seattle is good at externalizing its problems; it’s not good at challenging the status quo and forging a smarter path to follow.


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