YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE SIDEBOOB BUT IT WAS THE CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT!
  • Aaron Huffman
  • YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE SIDEBOOB BUT IT WAS THE CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT! To be honest, poor City Council President Tim Burgess has nothing to do with this particular story.
Good morning! Let's give you a second or two—or, um, two thousand—to recover from that image.*

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Okay? Now, we present a new Slog column: "City Hall Sideboob Shocker!" 'Cause sometimes there's a wonky policy thing that sounds so boring that we don't know how to trick you into caring about it.

This week in fascinating and important but boring-sounding policy items: Linkage fees!

Stick with us, you're about to become so smart.

Linkage fees are the hippest new thing in affordable-housing funding. In case you hadn't noticed: Seattle is growing like crazy, there's cranes in every direction, yet even though tons of new buildings are going up, rents are going up, too, companies are luring rich people here from other cities to come take high-paying tech jobs, and tons of smart people fear that we'll soon become a San Francisco–style City of Rich Tech Asssholes and No One Else™.

One important thing to do to keep the city affordable is to build enough housing. (Too much demand and too little supply generally equals very high prices.) But there's a certain percentage of the population who the housing market will never really serve—people who make the city run, people the city relies on to do important service jobs for inadequate pay.

We've tried to fix some of that by raising our city minimum wage, but that's a long, slow process, and even $15 an hour isn't always enough to live on here. Yes, you could expect poor people to live in the cheaper suburbs and commute in, but we don't have a great transit system, either, so you're just begging people to drive crappy old cars many miles into the city to clean your office building—have fun with the traffic and greenhouse gases, y'all! Screw up the city and the earth at once = LOSE.

So the city government builds affordable housing, because a city that gives up on the poor is not only morally disgusting but really dysfunctional and crummy to live in. How do we pay for affordable housing? One way is by asking the people who build (and profit from) those giant office buildings and swanky high-rise apartments to kick in some money.

Regular citizens of Seattle already help out a lot—we pay for 58 percent of the city's affordable housing through a housing levy. But still, asking developers to pay is hard. There are legal limits on what you can require of them, and sometimes they get pissed about fees and sue you. So linkage fees are a new fee proposed by the city council's land-use chair, Mike O'Brien, and they basically ask developers to pay a dollar amount per square foot of new building going in. The fee depends on how expensive rents are in that neighborhood.

Here's how that would work: The city gets mapped out by average rent into low, middle, and high rent neighborhoods. Anyone putting up a new building in those neighborhoods gets charged a fee, from $6 to $15 per net square foot (that means actual usable space, not like, stairwells and elevators and stuff). For big buildings in expensive neighborhoods like downtown, this could net the city a few million dollars per building. Alternatively, developers could just set aside 3 percent of the building for moderately low-income people, and poof! Their obligation will be fulfilled, since they will have created affordable housing already. (That's called "on-site performance," if you want to show off your vocabulary at parties).

This new fee is supposed to fix a big problem with one of the city's current affordable-housing programs, called incentive zoning (IZ). Right now, IZ lets developers add a little bit of extra height to buildings in exchange for a similar fee-per-square-foot payment. But that IZ program is only in a few neighborhoods, and the fee is only on that last little bit of height that a developer builds. Such a small program means the city's only gotten about 700 affordable units out of it since it started in the early '00s. The other kind of fees on developers that people like to talk about are called "impact fees," but by state law those can only be spent on a few specific things, and affordable housing isn't one of them. Linkage fees aim to fix the limits on incentive zoning and simply apply similar rules to projects of any scale all over the city instead of a few South Lake Union high rises.

In the grander scheme of things: The city expects to add somewhere around 70,000 new units of housing over the next 20 years and thinks there'll be a need for around 28,000 affordable units (affordable can mean lots of things, but is basically for people who make anywhere under about 80 percent of the area's media income). To be honest, the city doesn't really have a plan for all that. They're just trying to throw whatever they can toward it. This program would hopefully create a few thousand of those units, which is better than nothing. But when you hear developers griping about it, remember that they're griping about something that will nowhere near fix the problem.

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Also: People advocating for developers will make the argument that this fee will just cause people's rents to go up and make housing more expensive. O'Brien and the rest of city council have to base their decisions on economic modeling, and the modeling they have seems to say this will not problematically add to the cost of housing. (We can get into that later, but aren't your eyeballs tired?)

There! Now you are smart! Go forth! The next committee meeting on linkage fees is on Tuesday, October 14. I hope this knowledge gets you laid. Now go back to searching the internet for actual sideboob.

*Thank you, Stranger art department, for making all our dreams nightmares come true.