Runaway growth in our city has dramatically eroded our affordable housing stock, displacing thousands of low-income people from their homes. Unfortunately, our elected leaders continue to upzone our neighborhoods and give developers millions in Multi-Family Tax Exemptions to stimulate even more development. Now, the City Council has adopted an “incentive zoning” scheme in South Lake Union (SLU).
For more than a decade, the underlying zoning has allowed robust residential and commercial growth in SLU, well in excess of what city planners said was needed to meet that area’s 2024 growth targets. Nevertheless, last year, heights were dramatically increased from 240 to 400 feet, adding even more density — enough to accommodate nearly twice the residential and office growth projected for SLU through 2035.
In return, developers only need to “set aside” 15 percent of new space they build (office or residential) above prior zoning requirements at rents affordable to those earning at 80 percent of area median, or pay an in-lieu fee so that housing can be built elsewhere.
These are hardly onerous terms. These “affordable” units can be priced from $1,120 a month for studios to $1,440 for two-bedroom units — still out of reach for average wage-earners in Seattle making $45,000 yearly (below 55 percent of area median).
Developers usually offer some units affordable at 80 percent anyway — slightly below maximum rents — to attract tenants for less desirable units without views or on noisy streets.
Nope, say SLU developers, that’s not good enough: They’ve sued the city, alleging that somehow value is being “taken” from them.
A few bloggers have backed their claims, saying in effect, “Give them the added density and height — no strings attached. To prevent sprawl, we must do nothing to discourage developers from building as many units as possible in Seattle, especially downtown.”
To back their claim, they cite a dozen or so new projects in SLU where developers chose to build only up to the old zoning rules. It turns out, however, most of these projects either were permitted before the new zoning went into effect, or site conditions precluded the extra height, such as blocking seaplanes’ landing approach to the lake.
The real numbers
We’re not big fans of incentive zoning, either. Why grant developers still more density and height in SLU or anywhere else in Seattle, with or without these paltry, set-aside requirements?
According to a city analysis, we’ve already got enough zoning capacity citywide to accommodate 188,000 more housing units — two and half times the growth regional planners project for Seattle through 2035. Yet, city planners are moving forward with even more upzones and incentive-zoning schemes across the city.
Even research done by the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), a developer mouthpiece, casts doubt on the notion that squeezing more jobs and housing in Seattle curbs sprawl or gets people out of their cars.
The DSA’s recent Downtown Employee Commuter Survey touted an increasing percentage of people taking mass transit and 37.5 percent driving alone — down infinitesimally from past years. This triggered banner headlines in local papers as if we were on our way to a carless future.
But buried in the fine print, the survey showed a whopping 80 percent of downtown workers commute more than 5 miles to work every day, meaning eight of 10 live outside the city.
Another recent DSA survey revealed that about one-third of the 60,000 units in downtown were occupied by people who also worked downtown. Since there are 220,000 working downtown by DSA’s count, that means only one of 10 downtown workers actually lives there. Census data from 2000 and earlier decades showed at least 15 to 20 percent of downtown workers living downtown.
A falling percentage of downtown workers living downtown or even in Seattle suggests pro-growth strategies to promote in-city living are not working.
Here’s another interesting calculation. Seattle has added 20,000 new downtown jobs since 2010, according to DSA figures. Now, take 80 percent of that increase (the percent of downtown workers commuting more than 5 miles, from outside the city) — that’s another 16,000 downtown workers living in the suburbs since 2010.
Even if only 37 percent of those commuters drive alone, that’s another 5,000 cars coming in and out of Seattle each day, meaning longer rush hours; more clogged streets, air pollution, carbon emissions; and more global warming.
And there’s the staggering cost of adding light rail, streetcars and bus lanes to accommodate the other commuters taking transit.
Move them out
Whether they can’t afford Seattle — and many lower-wage retail and service workers now cannot — or simply prefer less-crowded suburbs, more downtown workers are putting up with longer and more hellish commutes. And adding more high-rent apartments and office space appears to be failing at reversing this trend.
There is a far better and obvious solution: Locate more of those jobs out there in the burbs and closer to where these thousands now live.
JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.