Growing Pains

Peter Steinbrueck, Seattle City Council

Former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck says, “Seattle is gentrifying at an accelerated rate.”

Advocates for livable cities debate growth management

Seattle’s record-shattering growth has just put up staggering numbers again.

On Jan. 20, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) reported that in 2016 7,093 new housing units came onto the market while 617 homes were destroyed. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Seattle had 308, 516 homes. Since then, OPCD reports 38, 732 new housing units were built and 3,359 were demolished.

Urban thinkers interviewed by Outside City Hall differed over the effects of this growth.

Former Seattle City Councilmember and architect Peter Steinbrueck currently is the principal at Steinbrueck Urban Strategies, a consulting firm focused on “advancing earth friendly sustainable practices, creating healthy communities and livable cities.”

He is alarmed at growth’s impact, particularly, on housing. “Seattle is gentrifying at an accelerated rate. The city is less diverse. Incomes are rising. The poor are moving out in droves,” says Steinbrueck. “You can pretty much bet those demolitions are low-income, market-rate housing.”   In addition, the new homes being built are mostly luxury apartments. Zillow reports that 65 percent of Seattle’s new housing built between 2014-2016 was luxury apartments, while only 7 percent was low-end buildings.

Tim Trohimovich of Futurewise, a group that works to direct growth into cities to prevent sprawl, agrees that displacement in Seattle is a real problem. He believes, however, the essence of the issue is: “There is more demand for housing than there is housing.” In turn, the housing demand is driven by Seattle’s hot economy. “We’ve had a big pile of jobs, too,” notes Trohimovich. The Puget Sound Regional Council reports Seattle added 89,000 jobs between 2010 and 2015.

Will HALA help?

Steinbrueck is critical of Mayor Ed Murray’s principal program to manage Seattle’s housing crisis: the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) of the Housing and Livability Agenda (HALA). Murray has struck a “Grand Bargain” where developers get to “upzone” with bigger and taller buildings and, in exchange, they are required to include housing for poor and working-class people in their projects or pay into a low-income housing fund. The University District is the first neighborhood being considered for an upzone by the city council. Steinbrueck is working for small businesses on a plan to mitigate the impact of the proposed U District upzone.

Steinbrueck believes the proposed upzones are wrong headed. “Upzones inherently drive up the costs of housing, land and rent,” he says. “The trend is increasing gentrification. Will these upzones stem that? Does the city really believe that? It will accelerate gentrification and put at risk thousands of units of low-income housing. The contribution from HALA is not going to fill the gap even under the optimistic projections.”

Trohimovich disagrees and supports the upzones. “Not building new housing is just going to cause existing housing to go up in price.” He adds “I do think (HALA) will help. I see things like the upzones and MHA as part of the solution.” Futurewise is a member of the developer-funded Seattle for Everyone coalition founded to support HALA.

Trohimovich, however, does point out MHA’s limitiations. “(MHA) tends to be focused on low and moderate-income households. It’s not the whole solution. The very low-income people are hard to address under that program.” Trohimovich explains that very low-income in Seattle is $19,000 or less for a single person.

Time for Impact Fees

While Steinbrueck and Trohimovich disagree on HALA, they both think Seattle needs to levy impact fees on new development.

Not only does growth impact housing, but it also creates the need for new schools, transportation improvements and more open space, says Steinbrueck. He adds, “The growth is driving up those needs and the developers are not being asked to contribute.” He believes City Hall has made a mistake by not using impact fees.

Trohimovich explains, “Washington law authorizes four types of impact fees” on new development. These fees can be used for capital work to build new schools, improve transportation, develop new parks and construct new fire stations. “Impact fees make a lot of sense” for Seattle, says Trohimovich.

Cities throughout the state levy impact fees on new development. Since Seattle doesn’t, “it’s cheaper to build in Seattle than on the Eastside,” says Steinbrueck. He just completed a study on the subject.

Steinbrueck points out instead of using impact fees, City Hall has relied on the following special levies: 2015’s $930 million transportation measure (capital, operations and maintenance), 2004’s $197 million levy for new fire stations, 2014’s Metropolitan Parks District that levies $48 million annually in new taxes (capital, operations and maintenance).  In addition, the Seattle School District passed the $695 million Building Excellence IV Capital Levy in 2014. Seattle voters approved all of these ballot measures.

Steinbrueck doesn’t argue that impacts fees could have paid for all of these costs, but they could have helped.

Trohimovich comments, Growth “is like anything. It has to be carefully managed.” He adds, “In general, Seattle is doing a good job.”

Steinbrueck says, “Seattle is a boomtown. It has opened its doors and it has invited growth in. Are we growing the problems or are we making progress?”

Questions, tips, comments:

Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy.

About George Howland Jr

Since 1977, George Howland Jr. has lived in Seattle and written reportage, opinion pieces, memoirs, fiction and book and music reviews. He has worked at Real Change, Seattle Weekly and The Stranger. Email: georgehowlandjr(at)gmail(dot)com
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