Nine hundred FIfty dollars for a studio. Eleven hundred dollars for a one-bedroom apartment. Those are the kinds of rents the Seattle City Council--all of its members homeowners--considers "affordable" for people making up to 70 percent of Seattle's median income, or $38,150 a year.

On Monday, the council voted 6-3 to give an estimated $30 million tax break to developers who build such "affordable" apartments in 17 different neighborhoods. Taxpayers elsewhere in the city will have to pick up the cost of the exemption. Under the legislation, developers will receive a 10-year tax break on the value of new buildings in which at least 30 percent of the units are set side for people making up to 70 percent of Seattle's median income, or in which 25 percent are reserved for people making up to 65 percent. In addition to supporting outlandish rents, the legislation includes neighborhoods that the city's own analysis shows are already growing without the subsidy; and it targets private developers, who are already building apartments at rents similar to those the council's tax break will subsidize.

Nick Licata, who voted against the legislation, provided a needed reality check on his colleagues' misguided notions about what constitutes "affordable" housing. Brandishing a report provided to the council by the city's own consultants, Dupree + Scott, Licata pointed out that the market is already providing housing at the levels the council was voting to subsidize. According to the report, the only neighborhood in which average rents even approached rates the council considered "affordable" was Belltown, where recently-built studios rented for an average of $874 and one-bedrooms averaged $1,181. "We are subsidizing units that are above what the market is already creating," Licata said.

Initially, Capitol Hill, the University District, and South Lake Union were left out of the program because they failed to meet two of the council's criteria: They weren't showing signs of "economic distress," and they were already growing faster than anticipated. The council ultimately decided to include the neighborhoods, citing the need for more "workforce housing." But City Council Members Peter Steinbrueck, David Della, and Nick Licata questioned their colleagues' definition of "workforce housing," pointing out rents that top $1,000 are out of reach for many in the city. "It seems to me that workforce housing includes everyone who works, which includes a lot of working poor," Steinbrueck said.

Licata also worried that the only people who would benefit from the program would be for-profit developers, who already have plans to build housing in the three fast-growing neighborhoods. After 10 years, the affordability requirement will disappear, and developers will be able to charge any rent they want. Nonprofits, in contrast, are required to keep their housing affordable for at least 40 years.

The city's Office of Housing provided its own analysis of "typical" market rents in the three contested neighborhoods. In a spreadsheet, the housing office detailed rents at six handpicked buildings; at one, the Travigne in the University District, rents for a one-bedroom apartment ranged from $825 to $1,275. A canny Licata staffer, armed with a Polaroid, decided to take a look at this "typical" building. A photo of the Travigne, which Licata distributed to his colleagues Monday, shows a sign above the door that reads, "Luxury Apartments Available." Right next door, the Licata staffer discovered another building--also brand-new--offering one-bedrooms for $850.