Today the Times is protesting a program that would create more affordable housing, calling it “distinctly hazardous.” The heat rises from a poropsal going before the city council later this month. Here’s how it would work: Developers could build taller buildings—which allows them to sell more units and make more money—and in exchange, they would have to rent or sell 20 percent of the new units at affordable rates. Say the great minds:
There is equity in that, and social benefit — but also problems. The no-profit units amount to a tax on new housing. Tax a thing and you tend to get less of it. We're for taxing cigarettes and liquor, because less of those is all right. Taxing new housing gives us pause. Even pricey new housing creates slack in the market and tends to benefit all buyers.
So taxing stuff is great when “less of those is all right.” But as Erica points out, James Vesely, editor of the Seattle Times’ editorial pages, wants to tax cyclists. So the Times, we conclude, wants less cycling. But the Times doesn’t want to “tax” developers—even if they would make bigger profits from taller buildings. It's the opposite of Robin Hood. There’s nothing wrong with developers or land-owners making money, of course, but why not get some public payback for increasing the value of their land?
Times owner Frank Blethen—who drives a Posche to work—has been personally lobbying city council members over the past couple years to block the incentive housing program (paying special attention to Sally Clark, chair of the land-use committee), say sources at city hall. The paper owns a few blocks of South Lake Union, which stands to be upzoned.
“I just think it should be known that the Seattle Times are landowners and they will be impacted by program,” says Anna Markee, outreach director of the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County. Seattle Times' Jill Mackie sat on a “stakeholder” board for Clark’s committee, advocating on behalf of the Times. “[The Seattle Times is] not just coming at it from what is best for the community but they have their own interests,” says Markee, who also sat on the stakeholder board.
Biases aside, the crux of the Times' argument is that any “tax” will hinder new housing. But when the city council passed incentive housing rules downtown several years ago, buildings proposed under those rules boomed. They are still under construction despite a recession. Meanwhile, plans for residential construction continue along neighborhood arterials. People are still moving to Seattle and we need more housing, increased density around rail stations, and affordable places for workers—especially in the neighborhoods where the current proposal would apply.
The Times says the incentive should kick in for buildings over 80 feet. But buildings over 80 feet aren't allowed in most areas outside downtown, so that proposal is a meaningless gesture.
“I’m disappointed that the Seattle Times seems very concerned of the impact of this on developers,” says Markee. “I didn’t see that much attention to questions about how are we going to provide enough housing in the city for all the people who need it.”