City Council misses mark on workforce housing

by JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER, Seattle Displacement Coalition – July 8, 2014

We have a big problem with City Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s call for workforce housing in Seattle.

There’s no doubt about it, there is a real issue that needs to be addressed. For many years, the average worker has been priced out of the homeowner market. And, now, rents are so high — up 8 percent in just the last year — that a majority of workers cannot afford even the average-priced rental in Seattle.

Over the last six months, O’Brien’s Housing Committee has held hearings and dedicated hours of staff time and thousands of dollars for consultants to examine how the city can legislate an expansion of the stock of workforce housing.

So why do we have a problem? For starters, O’Brien’s committee defines “workforce housing” as units affordable to those earning 60 to 80 percent of area median income — that means an annual income of $42,000 for a two-person household and $52,000 for three. “Affordable” is based on a federal standard that no one should pay more than 30 percent of his/her income on housing.

There’s plenty of housing already for this group. According to a February Office of Housing Report, there are about 32,000 households in Seattle that fall into the 60-to-80-percent-of-median category. And according to the American Community Survey there are well more than 80,000 (out of Seattle’s total 160,000) rentals that would be affordable to these 32,000 households.

By contrast, the Office of Housing report shows a shortage of units serving those with incomes below 50 percent of median. And only about half of the 47,000 households in Seattle earning below 30 percent of median live in a unit they can afford.

In light of these numbers, we find it perplexing that O’Brien and his committee — and now we learn also the mayor — have made it a priority to add to the stock of units serving those whose incomes are between 60 and 80 percent of median.

To top it off, according to Washington State Employment Securities, the majority of the county’s wage earners (as opposed to those who receive income from investments, retirement and the like) actually earn less than 60 percent of area median.

Why have our leaders continued to fixate on this group when the real problem is finding solutions to the shortage of units affordable to those with lower incomes? For those on the lower rungs of the income scale, it’s literally a matter of forgoing meals, health care, child care and other necessities or become homeless.

Helping the wrong group

What’s also disturbing is that O’Brien’s committee is examining solutions to this wrongly defined problem that take the form of giving still more incentives to developers: more tax breaks, fast-tracking permits, eliminating environmental requirements, tax-increment financing and more upzones, provided they set aside a few more units in this 60-to-80-percent-income category.

(The consultants hired by the Housing Committee dismissed the idea of charging developers impact fees for construction of units serving this income group, calling incentive programs “low-hanging fruit” and preferable to requirements.)

In recent years, we’ve upzoned the heck out of our neighborhoods and dramatically expanded the stock of market-rate units.

And in the last decade, we’ve given away $200 million in multifamily tax breaks to developers to encourage them to set aside some of their new units affordable to those between 60 to 80 percent of median and above.

We’re breaking records for new residential construction, but that new development has resulted in the loss of thousands of existing units affordable to low-income and working people due to demolition, increased rents and sale of older rentals to speculators capitalizing on the boom, who then jack up rents on those units.

It hasn’t resulted in a shortage — at least, not yet — in rentals serving those with incomes at or above 60 percent of median, though it has deeply impacted those with lower incomes.

Addressing the real need

A recent check of public-housing agencies in the area shows several thousand applicants on waiting lists for public housing or to get vouchers that help them pay the rent in privately owned rental units. These are households whose incomes are at or below 30 percent of median. They must wait years for these forms of assistance.

This is where our city’s efforts should be focused: coming up with new laws that prevent displacement, gentrification and the continued loss of our existing low-income rental stock.

It means holding developers more accountable, making them replace housing they remove and focusing more of the city’s subsidies toward adding to the stock of units affordable to those on the lower end of the income scale.

Our City Council and our new mayor so far have made no move — no hearings, no consultants, no staff time — in the direction of addressing the real need.

In a recent press release, O’Brien praised his own committee’s work and quoted his colleague Sally Clark as saying, “Seattle leads much of the country in housing-affordability efforts.” If this is leadership, our condolences to the rest of the country.

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (, a low-income housing organization.

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