UDistrict upzone a lesson for other neighborhoods: Activists in Wallingford and Central Area know what to do

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Susanna Lin speaks to Mayor: Wallingfordites take stand against HALA upzones and Displacement (photo: KOMO TV News)

Juarez, Harrell, Bagshaw, and Gonzalez parrot Johnson’s pro-developer pro-density message and oppose efforts to minimize displacement

reprinted from a column contained in Pacific Publishing Newspapers by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox

Last month Seattle City Council unanimously approved covering the UDistrict with 240′ – 320′ high-rise towers, becoming the first community to fall victim to the Mayor’s so-called “Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda” or HALA.  And two weeks later, Wallingford and Central Area activists took a stand sending a clear message to all of us on what we must do to challenge the Mayor and City Council’s displacement inducing plans. 

Over the next year, every Seattle neighborhood, already reeling from the impacts of runaway growth under current zoning, will be asked to accept upzones and still more density. In return, developers will be required to set aside a small percentage of new units in their projects at so-called affordable levels—a fraction of the existing low-cost housing across our city we’re going to lose to the wrecking ball.

Over 1500 low-cost units are located in the University District slated for high-rise zoning and now are fated for increased rents and/or demolition to make way for primarily luxury apartments and office buildings. The neighborhood will become as dense as downtown and South Lake Union with canyons of glass and steel, much of its unique lower-rise affordable housing and historical character washed away.

The fact that all nine councilmembers voted for this massive UDistrict upzone is an ominous portent for neighborhoods across Seattle. And now we also know that it will be Councilmember Johnson as chair of the Land Use committee and representative for the 4th Council District where the UDistrict is located, who will be the City Council’s leading and most vocal exponent of density at all costs and the HALA upzone agenda.

Councilmembers Herbold and O’Brien (backed by an unusually restrained Sawant) did make an attempt to pass two key amendments that would have helped mitigate the level of displacement and and other impacts on the UDistrict, but it was Johnson successfully leading the charge to turn them back. For Johnson, only one thing matters; cramming as much density as possible into our city.

One amendment would have removed from the upzone Johnson’s last-minute addition of the three-block area north of 50th containing over 180 very low and low income rental units. This amendment failed by a 6-3 vote. It was hoped here that Harrell and Juarez would side with Herbold, O’Brien and Sawant, but they dutifully joined Burgess, Bagshaw, Gonzalez and Johnson in support of adding this area. No matter that the folks who’ll lose their homes here have incomes barely above the poverty line according to census data.

The Mayor did not recommend nor even study the impacts of adding this area north of 50th to the upzone. Other than pleasing a few more developers and speculators, why would Johnson add it when the high-rises planned for the area south of 50th will accommodate four times the neighborhood’s assigned job target and twice its housing target for 2035?

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Housing activists take stand against Displacement in Central Area (photo: Seattle Times)

Herbold and O’Brien also sought an amendment to increase the percent of affordable units a developer would be required to include in their project from 9 to 10 percent but this too failed by a 6-3 vote along the same lines as the previous amendment. Even though Council earlier passed HALA ‘framework policies’ committing the city to raising the requirement in areas experiencing greatest increases in density (and developer profit), apparently rezoning the UDistrict from current low-rise to 320′ highrises doesn’t qualify.

Johnson did accede to Herbold’s and OBrien’s request to delay upzoning of University Way, a six-block strip of historic small businesses and shops, for six months so a study could be completed and measures implemented to mitigate potential impacts on them. And Johnson heeded another request by Herbold and O’Brien to remove a half-block area and sliver of land north of 56th that saved 130 low-cost units.

As for the fate of the tenants now living in the 1500 or so existing units across the District that were upzoned, Johnson’s only argument (swallowed whole by Juarez, Bagshaw, Burgess, Harrell, and Gonzalez) was that rent increases and displacement are occurring anyway under current zoning. On the contrary, most existing units are built close to what was until now the allowed capacity so redevelopment was not feasible. Most properties had long-term owners (debt long ago paid off) and given the age and character of the buildings, not in demand by higher-income residents. Rents would have remained relatively stable.

The upzone will bring increased land values and taxes driving rents up almost immediately. It will set off a fever of speculative buying and selling of properties as developers and investors move in. The cost of refinancing sites also will be passed on in the form of 100-200 percent rent increases to cover the new debt. Demolition and redevelopment of many properties eventually will follow. The inflated land values also will preclude non-profits from acquiring these properties, closing the door on the possibility of obtaining any in perpetuity as low-cost rentals.

Hundreds of people are going to be displaced, driving up waiting lists for public housing and spurring even more homelessness. Our message to Councilmember Johnson, Bagshaw, Burgess, Juarez, Harrell, and Gonzalez, your callous disregard for these residents, including retirees, retail and service workers, those on Section 8, and students, it is the moral and ethical equivalent of “let them eat cake”. Only a strong well-organized challenge by our neighborhoods can prevent this. Remember, you are next!

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About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
This entry was posted in Affordable Housing, City Hall, Density, Housing Preservation, Neighborhoods, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.