The Primary Election And What It Means For Affordable Housing

Yesterday was Primary Day in Seattle so I wanted to talk about results and what they mean for a major theme of this city council election: housing affordability.

Seattle has been deliberating on affordability for a while now. Action has been slow. Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee met for 10 months, presented a 65-point report, raised a shitstorm of anti-density backlash, and saw key leaders already abandon some choice provisions (such as ADUs, DADUs and upzoning SFZ).

City Council Position 8 As A Bellwether

Citywide Position 8 could be a proving ground for affordability. Incumbent Tim Burgess did win 48% in early results, but former Tenants’ Union Executive Jon Grant came in second with 28% and will make it on the ballot in November. As sitting Council President, Burgess is pretty tied to the status quo but did sign onto the “Grand Bargain” on housing. I expect Grant to hold Burgess’ feet to the fire and push him to actually stand behind the “Grand Bargain” (rather than using it only for political cover) and defend his role and why action on affordability has taken so long given his eight years on the council.

Some folks think Grant’s efforts to help low income renters are misguided. I even got into a little back and forth on the comments section to a Seattle Transit Blog article. Apparently the “official” urbanist position is that Jon Grant is a traitor and no self-avowed urbanist could vote for him. That’s a little awkward for me since I already did and endorsed him to boot. Grant did ruffle some feathers when he released an alternative plan to the HALA report and abstained from the HALA vote, spoiling the unanimity of the 28-member committee. Opportunistic? Probably. Traitorous? Hardly. Grant’s plan isn’t perfect but it offers plenty of improvements that build upon the HALA recommendations.

  • A more robust linkage fee with a faster time table for implementation. The linkage fee would go into effect immediately upon passing the bill rather than a multi-year phase in: “The linkage fee would apply to all urban villages, commercial zones, low rise zones and newly constructed single family homes. Fees would be tiered along the zones identified in City Council Resolution 31444, and require 5-10% onsite performance or pay into the city’s affordable housing fund. Fees would be tiered from low to high cost zones for $14, $18, and $28 per square foot. There would be no phase in period for the fees to ensure the city does not incur opportunity costs.”
  • Targeting 9,000 affordable units for housing for people making less than 30% of area median income (AMI) rather than only the 6,000 suggested in HALA. The HALA plan directed more resources at 80% of AMI where the need is less acute.
  • Renew and fine-tune the Multi-Family Exemption Program: “This program is set to expire in 2015. The program only requires developers to set aside a handful of units affordable to those earning up to 80 percent of median income – well above what low income and even working people can afford. The program should be renewed and developers receiving these tax breaks must be required to set aside at least 20 percent of their units affordable to those at or below 50 percent of the area median income.”
  • Full throated support for ban the box, to help renters with a criminal record find housing. HALA was vague on the issue.
  • Boosts legal aid and outreach services funding AND gives a real dollar amount ($750,000, annually I believe) so tenants will have better access to legal protection and will better know their rights.
  • Blight penalties for vacant bank-owned homes.

Much of the two plans overlap or are very similar. I hope Grant supports some of the HALA provisions he omitted from his proposal, especially with regards to allowing for housing growth through easing zoning restrictions and allows denser buildings. Obviously, there are still question about where Burgess and Grant stand on the HALA report and which provisions they may actually oppose. Hopefully, their positions become clearer as we near the general election.

Differing Approaches

As you can see from the Position 8 debate, Seattle still seems pretty torn about a course of action on housing. Broadly speaking, three approaches have emerged.

The market approach has emphasized easing zoning regulations and crafting the right incentive package for developers to encourage a building boom that would increase the supply enough to drive down the price on the ol’ supply and demand curve you might remember from high school economics. A “pro-development” policy hopes to let the private market build our way out of our housing shortage and price spikes.

The regulatory or social justice approach would emphasize forcing the developers to build more low-income housing units or hit them with higher linkage fees that the city could then use to build more affordable housing. The city would spend a lot more money building affordable housing. Stronger protections for renters would be written into law so rents can’t be jacked up dramatically overnight and renters better know their rights and have more recourse for action.

The bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach calls for doing nothing. Dither and wring your hands about neighborhood character. Keep the zoning the way it is in the neighborhoods. Call for at least taking a breather since it’s all happening so fast. This approach is quietly winning—at least until the city council shepherds through a new housing agenda.

Keeping Up With Population Growth

The problem with the market approach is that Seattle’s population growth could easily outstrip the housing growth. Even if the city succeeds in meeting its supposedly ambitious goal of 20,000 new affordable units and 30,000 new market rate units in 10 years, supply might not keep up with demand.

Seattle has grown by at least 10,000 residents per year for six of the last seven years. Moreover, from 2004 to 2014, Seattle grew from a population of 570,961 to 668,342. That’s a gain of 97,381 people in 10 years. At a 10,000/year growth rate, Seattle would grow by more than 100,000 residents in 10 years. So, suddenly, 50,000 units doesn’t look impressive.

In fact, vacancy rates could be even tighter than they are now, since rental units averaged only 1.83 residents per unit according to 2010 census estimates. Owner-occupied units averaged not much more at 2.31 residents. Thus 50,000 new units might not even cover population growth, let alone easing housing market pressure on current residents. At least with publicly funded housing, low income housing will continue to exist in Seattle. If we can get the private market to pump out 50,000 new units, all the better. But the subsidized units are a necessary safety valve in a era of very rapid growth.

Starting this election, seven council seats will be decided by district and the final two seats will be citywide.

Starting this election, seven council seats will be decided by district and the final two seats will be citywide.

Council District 1: Braddock and Herbold

In a crowded field in West Seattle/South Park, Shannon Braddock and Lisa Herbold appear to eked through to the general. Self described “PTA mom” Braddock has taken home a big haul from the Chamber of Commerce and will likely have pro-developer tilt. Herbold was a longtime staffer to retiring council member Nick Licata. She has voiced support for Grant’s housing plan and has earned the ire of rentiers for supporting rent control.

Council District 2: Harrell Dominates, Again

The Stranger nailed it in their very half-hearted endorsement of Harrell saying he got the nod only because his opponents were so ill-prepared. It’s hard to know where Harrell stands since he changes or avoids positions frequently, but his Southeast Seattle district has struggled with displacement as Seattle grows and housing cost skyrocket and will watch the Grand Bargain negotiations closely. Tammy Morales will face off with Harrell in November.

Council District 3: Sawant’s Strong Showing

Socialist Kshama Sawant led her nearest challenger, Pamela Banks, by 15 points. This bodes well for Sawant to win in November. Sawant has signed on to Grant’s plan. Some urbanists consider her too anti-development and perhaps comprised to wealthy single family homeowner interests that are a force in her Capitol Hill/Central District turf, but I think she may end up being a pretty big champion for a lot of HALA provisions.

Council District 4: Godden Falls

Incumbents did well except for Jean Godden in my home district. She may not even make it on the ballot, finishing third in early returns behind Rob Johnson and Michael Maddux. Godden seemed to latch on to single family homeowners as her base of support and that didn’t pay off. Both Johnson and Maddux would be much more aligned with HALA recommendations. Johnson has been the Chamber of Commerce’s darling and figures to be pro-development. Longtime political operative Maddux garnered the vaunted Stranger endorsement and would be the only openly gay council member if elected. District 4 stretches from Wallingford east to Lake Washington and north to Roosevelt.

Council District 5: Juarez Leads

Debora Juarez led the crowd with 38% of the early vote while Sandy Brown appears to have locked up the other slot with 20%. District 5 covers the far north of Seattle. Juarez has made some pro-density statements and got a strong Stranger endorsement for, among other things, her strong “Rihanna bitch-better-have-my-money vibe.”

Council District 6: Mike O’Brien Paddles To Victory

Incumbent Mike O’Brien figures to be a HALA supporter, but is also sympathetic to Grant’s position. O’Brien earned environmentalist hero status for his joining the kayak flotilla protesting the Shell rig while it was in Elliott Bay. He got endorsed by both The Urbanist and Seattle Transit Blog. Catherine Weatbrook earned the privilege of getting beat by O’Brien again in November. District 6 encompasses wider Ballard and Green Lake.

Council District 7: Bagshaw Wins

Sally Bagshaw also got a Stranger endorsement tinged with regret and bemoaning the lack of a legitimate alternative. Bagshaw won 76% of the vote. Deborah Zech-Artis will also be on the ballot to take another shellacking. District 7 covers downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia. Bagshaw is considered a reliable vote for transit and development.

Council Position 8: Burgess and Grant Advance

Council President Tim Burgess’s lead seems safe for now, but Jon Grant will hope to pick up much of John Roderick’s support and close the gap. More renters will turn out in November so Grant has a chance, albeit a slim one. Position 8 is a city-wide seat.

Council Position 9: Gonzalez Crushed That NIMBY Guy

Lorena Gonzalez gained a solid 64% of the vote in her first council bid. Bill Bradburd attempted to channel opposition to new development and champion Seattle’s suburban character in his campaign, but garnered just 15% of the vote, perhaps signaling anti-growth backlash might not be as strong as many had thought. Perhaps the HALA zoning backsliding by Mayor Murray may have been premature given how poorly “NIMBY” candidates did. Position 9 is a city-wide seat.

The Council Collectively

With Harrell, O’Brien, Sawant, Bagshaw and Burgess probably holding on to their seats, the council will have some continuity. However the new faces could really alter the character of the council to make it more urbanist and social justice oriented. Districts No. 1 and No. 4 could be crapshoots, but in each race, the contenders are both urbanist minded with Braddock and Johnson skewing Chamber of Commerce and Herbold and Maddux skewing toward social justice urbanism. Lorena Gonzalez seems assured of victory and she gained some urbanist endorsements. Debora Juarez in District No. 5 seems to have the lead and she is expected to play along with urbanist policy changes. So, it looks to be the most urbanist city council in Seattle modern history. The question is whether the “urbanist” policy the council ultimately passes will look only to housing growth and ignore affordability, only to affordability and ignore growth, or find a happier balance.

And one last thought on Grant: It could be not all of his ideas pass muster but at least he is exploring the idea that growth alone might not solve all our ills and he’s looking for policies that tackle displacement from another angle.