To Amazon and other Seattle-area employers: instead of fighting things like head taxes, work with us to help fix Seattle’s broken land-use policies. On Monday, the Seattle City Council successfully passed an employee head tax. Not only does the tax fall far short of the desired goal of building thousands of units of low-income housing, the tax also fails to address the real reason that we’re in the midst of a housing affordability and homeless crisis. Seattle’s broken land-use policies are the root cause of our housing problems.
As Mike Rosenberg recently explained in the Seattle Times, huge portions of our city are zoned for single-family homes compared to other cities. The remaining land that’s zoned for multi-family structures ends up absorbing most of Seattle’s increasing density. This artificial limit has made it illegal to build affordable housing in most of the City, and also raises the cost of land needed for low-income housing.
Those land-use restrictions have very visible consequences for affordability. A recent report pointed out that high housing costs and homelessness are very highly correlated. An editorial by the Affordable Talaris group pointed out how, in the midst of our housing crisis, an 18 acre property (near jobs, schools, and transit) will be turned into 60 suburban-style homes starting at $2 million dollars each. Had that area been zoned for multi-family, the developers would have the option of building at least three times as much housing, and would also be building or paying for affordable housing through our Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements.
Elsewhere, the City has struggled for a decade to build low-income housing at Fort Lawton. This plan has been derailed due to lawsuits over environmental review. We’ve made micro-housing illegal, which was previously able to create dense housing in single-family zones. We’ve shrunk and down-zoned urban villages, and added onerous requirements to even the most basic mother-in-law unit. Folks wanting to build Community Land Trusts to create low-cost shared living situations are stymied by restrictions. We’ve created this housing crisis, and I fear that we lack the political will to fix it.
No matter how much money we raise for low-income and affordable housing, we still need places to build it. We need to streamline the process for building it. We also can’t rely on low-income housing alone. Market-rate housing will ease the housing supply crunch at the higher end (as jobs bring more well-paid people to Seattle), as well as providing even more affordable housing through MHA.
Here’s where Seattle’s business community comes in. There’s a clear business case to be made for cheaper housing in Seattle. Employees are drawn to vibrant cities where they can afford to live, play, and raise a family. Higher costs of living are reflected in the need for higher salaries and longer commutes (which results in less productive workers). Seattle’s housing problems will only get worse as your businesses grow, and moving to another city with its own set of land-use problems will bring only temporary relief.
Amazon, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and others: this is a plea to commit serious money to funding low-income housing, with the requirement that the City fix its broken land-use policies. Even with this current head tax, calls for taxing businesses to address housing woes will continue. Be proactive. You can put some money up to show goodwill, but make it count - require that we upzone everything within a mile of current and future light rail stations, for example. Rename “single-family” to “residential” zoning, and allow 4-5 story multi-family buildings in all residential zones. Require the City to work with advocates from immigrant and low-income communities to create tenant protections for places that have high displacement risks.
If Seattle fails to satisfy these requirements, it costs you nothing. If we succeed, you end up with lower business costs, happier employees, and you can brag about how you’re doing your part for the community by funding low-income housing.
Seattle is well on its way to turning into San Francisco, with crippling housing costs and rampant homelessness. That doesn’t have to be our future, though. Instead of fighting taxes, help us fix housing in Seattle. Please work with us to create the political pressure to allow the new housing that we so desperately need.
Andres Salomon is a former Mayoral candidate, bike and pedestrian advocate, dad, and Free Software hacker. As a single-family homeowner, he wishes that he had other 3-bedroom housing options in Seattle.