Last week, Real Change and the Seattle Alliance for Good Jobs and Housing for Everyone (SAGE) sponsored a community forum provocatively titled "Zoned Out: Who Wins and Loses in the New Downtown Plan." Speakers, who included former neighborhoods department director Jim Diers, Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, and low-income downtown worker Tim Allen, argued that Mayor Greg Nickels's plan to raise building heights downtown should go further to provide housing and amenities for low-income people downtown. "We've had more and more and more density in this city. Has housing become more affordable? No!" Diers said.
Currently, two plans are on the table: Nickels's, which requires developers who build above current height restrictions to pay $10 a square foot into an affordable-housing fund and requires no new downtown amenities; and Council Member Peter Steinbrueck's, which doubles the affordable-housing requirement and mandates extensive green-building standards, historic preservation, and other downtown amenities. Critics, including many downtown developers, have assailed Steinbrueck's proposal, arguing that it would make developing downtown prohibitively expensive.
But Steinbrueck's $20 figure, far from being arbitrary, is based on a little-known 2005 study that analyzed the link between downtown housing development and low-income households in Seattle. The study, commissioned by the city's office of housing, looked at the number of low-income jobs created by new downtown residents' demand for services, and quantified how much downtown developers would need to pay toward affordable housing to make up the "affordability gap" between market-rate housing and what low-income workers could afford. The answer: between $22.25 and $27.68 a square foot—higher even than Steinbrueck's proposal, and more than twice what the mayor has suggested. "I even gave them a $2.25 discount," Steinbrueck jokes.
Housing advocates at last week's event said Steinbrueck's proposal doesn't go far enough. The advocates' alternative plan would require the city to build more housing for the very poor, create a "reliable and frequent transportation system," require developers to disclose the wages and benefits they provide employees, and mandate extensive new human-services infrastructure—laudable goals, Steinbrueck says, but expensive (how much would "reliable and frequent transportation" for downtown workers cost taxpayers and Metro riders, for example?) and, in some cases, politically infeasible. While no one on the liberal Seattle City Council opposes the idea of affordable housing, there's something to be said for setting the bar at a reasonable level. (Tim Allen's contention that "those making $24,000 a year should have just as much right to live and work downtown as an executive making $240,000 a year," for example, seems off base: Housing may be a human right, but that right is not typically understood to include the right to specify any neighborhood you want.)
Steinbrueck is sympathetic, but realistic, about the activists' proposals. "I'm spiritually very with them, but there are some realities in terms of what can be imposed strictly from a legal sense—let alone political and financial," Steinbrueck firstname.lastname@example.org