Council member Sally Clark hosted a "workshop" at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center last night on the transit-oriented communities bill—legislation that would upzone the areas around 28 of 42 light-rail stations (14 stations were exempted from the mandates after neighborhood objections; they're allowed to make up the difference by increasing access to their stations), mandate affordable housing in new developments, and require cities to come up with plans to reduce driving. As expected, it was contentious. The panel consisted of Stephen Antupit of the Urban Land Institute; Don Vegihe from Seattle's GGLO Architects; John Fox from the Seattle Displacement Coalition (and the only opponent of the legislation on the panel); Rachael Myers from the Low-Income Housing
Institute Alliance; and Bill LaBorde of Transportation Choices Coalition.
Although Clark started off the discussion by insisting, "this will not be a contact sport," the room was divided into two very distinct, and passionate, factions: Homeowners who oppose new apartment buildings in their single-family neighborhoods; and environmentalists who believe that the bill both ensures affordable housing and protects the environment.
You'll notice that I didn't mention any faction worried about displacement of low-income people. That's because, as former Real Change advocacy director Myers's presence on the panel suggested, the vast majority of low-income advocates support the bill, which mandates that 25 percent of new housing units be affordable to people making less than 80 percent of the county median income, with 10 percent affordable to people making less than 60 percent of that median. The bill also mandates one-for-one replacement of any housing affordable to low-income (60 percent or less of median) people that's demolished for redevelopment at a rent or mortgage level comparable to what those households were paying before. (For reference, 80 percent of the King County median is $45,600 for an individual and $52,100 for a couple; 60 percent of median is$34,200 for an individual and $39,060 for a couple.)
Those two things—housing affordable for people lower on the income scale, and one-for-one replacement of existing housing—are exactly what anti-displacement activists like Fox have been saying they want for years. (Fox would prefer that the affordability levels be lower, but politics is compromise—even for activists.) Given how much the bill would do to provide and protect affordable housing, it's hard to reach any other conclusion than that Fox, like his NIMBY allies in the neighborhood movement, cares more about "saving" suburban-style single-family neighborhoods than making sure poor people can live in the city. That, or he's just delusional.
But back to last night's workshop.
Antupit opened the discussion by explaining that, as the Urban Land Institute sees it, there are three reasons to build dense developments with lots of bike and pedestrian access around transit stops. First, dense communities reduce greenhouse-gas emissions—something I also mentioned yesterday. Second, transportation costs are the number-two item in the typical American's budget (after housing)—and the further out from a city center you live, the more money you spend getting from place to place. Third, investing in housing around transit increases transit ridership. The reasons that's desirable should be obvious: If you've invested billions in a transit system, you want people to actually ride the thing.
Vehige followed up by explaining the difference between net and gross density. It's a boring distinction, but it matters: Using gross density (which includes land that can't be developed, like streets and parks) has enabled bill opponents like Fox to make the proposed changes sound much more drastic than they really are. Net density is a more accurate (and widely accepted) measure of density, because it only measures the number of units per acre on land that can be developed. (Much more about that here.) Using net density as a measure, Vehige demonstrated that many parts of Seattle are already denser than what the bill would require—including Rainier Vista, a development on the light-rail line that clocks in at 66 units per acre.
LaBorde, who lives in Rainier Vista with his wife and two kids (belying Fox's later claim that families "can't" live in non-single-family housing) followed up by pointing out that much of the land around the proposed South End light rail stations is actually vacant land, not the cherished single-family housing that activists like Fox (and his allies in the neighborhood movement) claim they're trying to protect. LaBorde said the bill was attempting to prevent "under-utilization"—light-rail stations surrounded by vast parking lots full of cars, a common sight in other cities that haven't managed development around transit stops.
Myers's presence on the panel was interesting—not just because she was the only woman besides Clark on stage, but because the former Real Change activist supports the bill specifically because it mandates higher levels of affordable housing than any existing city law. The endorsement of advocates like Myers takes some steam out of Fox's overheated claim that the legislation would "destroy" affordable housing and push families out of the city. Myers noted that although "we've been listening to John and talking with John and trying to address some of his concerns," the affordable-housing mandates in the bill are better than anything that would happen if the market took its course, as Fox wants to let it do. "If you own an apartment building [on the light-rail line], there’s going to be quite an incentive to sell that or convert it into condos and displace people" anyway, Myers said. "This bill does not exacerbate the problem" of displacement.
Fox, of course, disagreed. Not only did he insist the bill would force people out of their homes, he even claimed that denser developments increase driving—a claim for which there is not a scrap of evidence. (He also complained that King County Metro is rerouting bus lines in Southeast Seattle—without mentioning that the reason they're rerouting them is to provide better access to light rail for neighborhood residents). Fox also blasted a provision in the bill that eliminates minimum parking requirements at developments around light-rail stations—a bizarre objection, from an affordable-housing perspective, since every parking space adds tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of an apartment or condo. And he posed an impossible-to-answer rhetorical question: Could anyone on the panel show a particular piece of land where sprawl has been prevented by density? It's an absurd question, both because it's impossible to prove a direct correlation between one sprawling development and one dense one (e.g., this tract of forest here was saved by this dense development over here), but because our state has passed a whole raft of laws encouraging development in cities and discouraging development in rural areas. It's all those laws working together (including this one, if it passes) that encourage density and discourage sprawl.
At this point, it's hard to see what Fox's housing-related objections to the legislation actually are. Sitting onstage last night, arms crossed defensively, he sounded more like a NIMBY than an affordable-housing advocate. And judging by the applause from the many neighborhood activists crowded in the auditorium last night, they considered him a kindred spirit.