From Capitol Hill to City Hall, Citizens Battle the Scourge of Rising Rents

As high-income tech workers flood Seattle, can we preserve affordable housing?


On February 10, as the workday was getting under way, masked protesters walked into the busy Capitol Hill intersection of Bellevue Avenue and Pine Street. They unfurled a banner reading GENTRIFICATION STOPS HERE and stood, blocking commuters in cars and Metro buses for 45 minutes—all casualties of war in an effort to stall their intended targets, the Microsoft Connector buses.

These corporate buses transport Microsoft employees living in Seattle to the tech giant’s campus in Redmond—something the protesters didn’t like very much, according to the flyers they handed out at the scene: “We’re trying to prevent the tech companies like Microsoft from sucking out what’s left of Seattle’s soul. The Microsoft Connector bus is an active agent in the hyper-gentrification of Capitol Hill and other rapidly transforming Seattle Neighborhoods . . . Well-paid tech industry employees have flooded Seattle’s neighborhoods, driving up the cost of living.”

Via CapitolHillSeattle.com

Facebook and Reddit lit up after the Capitol Hill protest. A cascade of Seattleites weighed in, almost evenly split between people who claimed the protesters had a point, those who thought they were complete idiots, and those who thought the protesters had a point and were complete idiots.

What everyone could agree on was that the masked traffic-blockers were clearly riffing on the Google Bus protests in San Francisco, a city that’s indisputably succumbed to an insane influx of tech workers and a subsequent steep housing price hike. Over the past three months, protests of the Google Bus in San Francisco have become increasingly tense, with citizens decrying Google’s private use of public bus stops. The larger issue in the Google Bus protest is the gentrification that has accompanied the shuttles—rent next to Google Bus stops has increased 20 percent since the routes began.

Unlike the Google Bus, Microsoft Connector buses don’t use Metro bus stops at all, and are completely city-approved. The complaint San Franciscans have about Google Buses backing up public-transit traffic is also absent from the Seattle conversation; the protesters blocked traffic longer than a Microsoft Connector ever has.

But the questions remain: Is Seattle on its way to becoming San Francisco? Can we preserve affordable housing as more and more high-paying techies flock to our city.?

On February 13, just three days later, an Expert Advisory Team created by the Seattle City Council to look into the state of the city’s affordable housing programs attempted to answer those questions during a day-long public Workforce Housing Forum.

The answers to both questions seemed to be yes. Comprising consultants from Otak and Cornerstone Partnership, two affordable housing firms, the panel seemed hopeful that as Seattle grows, it can also avoid skyrocketing rents.

“I think there are important similarities between Seattle and San Francisco—there’s sort of an underlying common dynamic,” says Rick Jacobus, the director of Cornerstone Partnership. But, he adds, “Seattle’s at a much earlier stage in the process, and the good news is that you have a much better chance at avoiding what’s happening in San Francisco—especially the gentrification. San Francisco’s population economically has just changed really dramatically. The city more or less responded to that change after it was over. Seattle is now in the middle of that sort of change, so you have a much better chance at preserving affordability for working people.”

Right now, the monthly rent for a one-bedroom unit in San Francisco averages $2,713. In Seattle, the Expert Advisory Team found the average to be $1,279. While that number might look a lot nicer than $2,713, it’s still not very affordable—and becomes increasingly frightening when paired with a 2013 study that designated Seattle as the #1 city in the nation for rent hikes, with an average six percent increase per year.

To the masked protesters’ credit, experts at the forum unanimously agreed that the record rent hike was due to job growth in the region—jobs from companies like Amazon and Microsoft. Developers in turn have produced new high-density condos and apartments that have changed the face of neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Ballard, where construction cranes now loom overhead year-round.

But those protesters might be heartened by the news that in May the city council will begin revising our current affordable-housing programs. One major revision might be to expand the narrow swath of the city currently targeted by the incentive zoning program, which rewards developers for building affordable units. There is also a suggestion to get rid of parking requirements in the zoning code, which reduces the number of units developers can build and thus lowers supply and increases rent. Another potential solution came from the concerned citizens and local housing experts that made up the public forum’s audience: Change the definition of “workforce housing.”

Currently, “workforce housing,” which is what the council is looking to create more of in the upcoming revision to the housing resolution, is defined as housing for people earning 60 to 80 percent of the area median income in Seattle. What the council should be focusing on, according to many at the forum, is the 50 to 60 percent area median income range. That idea, said Kurt Creager of Otak, will indeed make its way into the Expert Advisory Team’s final recommendations to the council in May.

In the end, the biggest hope for Seattle in avoiding its seemingly imminent San Francisco fate is its citizens—though they might do more good in the seats at City Hall than in the streets with banners sprawled.

ksears@seattleweekly.com

Read about tenants in a Ballard apartment complex being evicted due to a developer-induced rent hike here.

 
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