Donna Mercer works in the tech-support department at one of Seattle's best-known companies—she prefers not to say which one—near downtown. Among her immediate coworkers, she's the only one who lives in Seattle, she says. Some commute each day from as far as Federal Way.
Mercer, unlike her colleagues, is able to live in Seattle due to some precious units of affordable housing in the Central District, and she loves it. For two years, she's rented a small apartment at Squire Park Plaza on Jackson Street and 18th Avenue. On the rooftop, there's a gorgeous view of Puget Sound, and on her small patio, she's growing fuchsias and setting up feeders for hummingbirds and goldfinches. She's currently paying $1,100 in monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment, not including utilities.
Over the past few months, Mercer was mentally preparing to be uprooted from her building and forced to move "further out," she says. The nonprofit Central Area Development Association (CADA), which owns Squire Park Plaza, had signed a purchase and sale agreement with one of the largest for-profit developers in the country.
The 60-unit complex was built in 2007 on government-owned land with $9.7 million in public financing, according to the Tenants Union. The return on taxpayer investment, everyone agrees, was supposed to be the long-term provision of affordable workforce housing to people like Mercer, designed to combat the interlocking trends of skyrocketing rents and gentrification. The building has a baseline affordability covenant that even a private developer must legally abide by, and that covenant lasts for another 13 years. It mandates that 51 percent of the building's units remain affordable to those who make 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). (That's $44,750 a year for a single person.)
But the affordability covenant doesn't cover people who, like Mercer, make less than $44,750 a year. The current owner, CADA, has been going above and beyond the minimum requirements, so that rent in an additional handful of units isn't crazy expensive for those at the 60 percent AMI level. (That's $37,080 a year for a single person, which is about how much Mercer makes. According to the Seattle Office of Housing, for her monthly rent to be truly affordable, it ought to be $993, utilities included.)
Mercer expected that if the building's sale went through, Squire Park's new owner would hike rents in all the units not covered by the affordability covenant to market rates or higher.
On July 16, she and a dozen of her tenant neighbors in the building held a press conference to protest the building's potential sale to a for-profit developer, especially given that the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) had made an offer to purchase the building and increase affordability levels in the units over the next 50 years. Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and a legislative aide to Council Member Nick Licata joined them.
Late that day, however, Mayor Ed Murray announced that the for-profit company had pulled out of the deal. Why? "The affordable housing requirement which was part of the original agreement does not pencil out," he said, via text. In other words, the company decided it couldn't keep a bare majority of the units at an affordable level for tenants who make about $44,000 annually and still earn the profits it wanted off the building.
Crisis averted, at least for Mercer. "I'm excited," she says. "Where there's a will, there's a way."
Murray says he grew up in a working-class family in West Seattle and that his family could not afford to live in the city today. "That's the extent of the crisis," he says. At present, according to the Seattle Office of Housing, just 8 percent of the city's housing stock is rent-restricted. "Assuming that the household income distribution remains the same," according to data compiled by city officials, "Seattle would need to add approximately 28,000 new affordable units over the next 20 years to meet future demand."
So what does Murray plan to do now that he's the mayor? His administration was at first curiously silent on the transfer of Squire Park Plaza to for-profit hands, with Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim initially telling me, "It wouldn't be appropriate for the city to try to tell CADA who to sell to," and then clarifying later that she meant the city couldn't compel CADA to sell the building to a nonprofit instead of a developer. After the sale to the developer fell through, Murray told me, "I think it's great that a nonprofit takes it over." But, he groused, "We're going to have to put more resources into that project [that doesn't pencil out], instead of a project where we could build more units in the same neighborhood." (Murray believes the city is going to have to contribute monetarily in order for a nonprofit like LIHI to take over Squire Park, and he believes those dollars can be better spent elsewhere.)
As for the rest of the city, the mayor plans to convene another of those grand-bargain-style stakeholder committees—forcing property developers, affordable-housing advocates, low-income tenants, and "people who work here but can't afford to live here" all into one room—to hash out a major plan to "keep this city affordable." Murray has had success with this method on the minimum wage and the fight between rideshare companies and taxi drivers. In both cases, the committees (after delays and much hemming and hawing) produced compromise proposals. Then the city council approved them as law. Murray expects the council to officially empanel this new committee before the end of the summer.
On the issue of housing, however, "It'll be far more difficult than the last two processes," Murray warns.