It's still there, lurking under the surface of the political waters, a daily fact of peoples' lives in the Seattle area that no politician has managed to adequately address: housing is expensive here and getting more expensive all the time. What's to be done?
A year ago, the issue of low vacancy rates, skyrocketing rents, and prohibitive first-time home-buying costs achieved its highest profile when Paul Schell made it the most visible priority of his new administration. Schell's plans culminated in the lofty-sounding Seattle Housing Action Agenda, four drafts of which led to the Seattle Housing Action Summit. On March 21, 1998, more than 800 people crammed into Seattle Center meeting rooms to give the city their ideas for how to address the housing crisis. Heads nodded, brainstorms got transcribed, dogs and ponies were proudly shown, and everyone went away feeling that while the process wasn't perfect, at least the city was trying.
It's been more than a year. What's happened?
Schell's Agenda remains the cornerstone by which the city's efforts to preserve and/or build more affordable housing are measured. It's not necessarily the most coherent plan out there, but it's the one with the weight of the city behind it. Schell's plan is largely a supply-side document: The idea is to encourage the building of new housing units to ease the crunch. This has a few flaws as a primary emphasis: New units tend to be more, not less, expensive, and the biggest crisis is in low-end housing, precisely the sorts of properties that are being cleared out to make way for the new condos. Supply-side incentives are longer term, while the crisis continues to be an immediate problem. Homelessness wasn't even mentioned. And so on.
Of Schell's 21 recommendations, seven are essentially favors to developers: streamlining permitting and upzoning to increase density. Others are incentives to develop: new funding mechanisms, "partnerships with local banks," tax incentives, and the like. Others are hopelessly vague ("use RTA and Monorail to support housing"), or likely to enrage neighborhoods (putting a denser neighborhood plan on the ballot). And some are simply old chestnuts the city hasn't acted on in decades (using public land for housing; increasing the overall land supply for housing).
A year later, progress on this plan to address the city's urgent crisis has been slow, and impact on the housing market itself has been negligible. Only one initiative has made it through council and onto the books: a tax abatement program, passed in December 1998, that allows exemptions from the city's share of property taxes for the development of new rental properties.
The first project to receive the abatement was approved by the City Council on March 24, for the Pioneer Square Community Development Association. It proposed 20 units of new housing, eight to 10 of which will be "affordable" (that is, with rents that are manageable for families at 80 percent of median income levels). A second project, in the International District, was approved by the council on April 14. This one will have 88 units, 22 of which will be designated affordable. The developers for this project got about $25,000 in city tax exemptions for this civic contribution. But the project clearly was economically viable without the bonus, so it essentially amounted to a simple bit of corporate welfare.
Three more developments eligible for the tax abatement are scheduled to be considered by the City Council in June.
It's foolish to pin all our hopes and expectations for resolving Seattle's housing crisis on one tax abatement program for developers. At the moment, though, it's all we've got.
But there are still plenty of other possibilities. At the time of Schell's agenda a year ago, a consortium of housing activists issued an alternative plan with a number of proposals that are still worth looking at. They include:
Passing a right-of-first-refusal law (requiring a house's seller to offer it to current tenants before putting it on the market);
Passing a stronger citywide anti-abandonment law;
Reinstituting mandatory housing code enforcement for low-income housing;
Requiring all neighborhoods to take a "fair share" of the city's low-income housing initiatives;
Committing at least $10 million annually in additional low-income housing funds;
Ensuring that Seattle Housing Authority sticks to its promises of "no net loss" in public housing, especially in redesigns like the upcoming one at Rainier Vista;
Restoring laws (such as inclusionary zoning) that make private developers share in the cost of providing housing to low-income persons threatened with displacement;
And, not the least, revisiting Mayor Schell's well-intentioned but unsuccessful Christmas pledge, and guaranteeing a shelter bed for each homeless person in Seattle.
Of course, these steps are also only a part of the process, and supply will at some point also need to be addressed. But in Seattle's housing squeeze, few are claiming that it's the developers who are suffering the most. It seems only reasonable that they be required, rather than bribed, to be part of the solution.
Tina Podlodowski's exit, creating a second open seat in this year's City Council elections, also does interesting things for the incumbents. Most notably, it boosts the stock of Peter Steinbrueck, who will probably be the council's leading vote-getter this year (he has not thus far attracted any serious opposition). Steinbrueck is widely rumored to have long-term interests in succeeding Paul Schell as mayor, and Podlodowski was seen as his leading council rival. (Unencumbered by endless committee meetings, of course, she could still be interested.) As Charlie Chong can attest, it's not easy for a populist to get elected mayor; such ambitions could accelerate the trend of quiet centrism that (convention center notwithstanding) has marked many of Steinbrueck's council votes. Look for the flaming green rhetoric of Peter's 1997 campaign to be toned down quite a bit this time around.