Last week, three city council members—frequent allies Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, along with their less-likely comrade Tim Burgess, who’s facing two serious challengers in the August primary—sent a letter to Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura asking DPD to come up with a fifth alternative for Seattle 2035, the policy document that will direct Seattle’s growth for the next 20 years. The four alternatives in the current plan range from doing nothing, to concentrating density in the city’s already-dense urban centers, to dispersing density strategically across the city’s light-rail and bus hubs so that new residents will have easy access to transit.
The “fifth alternative” they were requesting, the three council members wrote, would address the high potential for displacement in Seattle’s “high-risk” communities, mostly near transit hubs in South Seattle, by directing growth away from those areas and toward areas with “high access to opportunity” and “low displacement risk” areas, and by adopting strategies to reduce displacement in those high-risk neighborhoods. In practice, that could mean abandoning the goal of “transit-oriented development” by discouraging development near transit centers (where lots of “marginalized populations,” to use the city’s term, currently live) and encouraging it in the most expensive parts of the city—places like Upper Queen Anne, Ravenna, and Fremont, according to the city’s equity analysis of the four alternatives.
That strategy, by itself, wouldn’t put much of a dent in Seattle’s projected housing need. Since these are mostly fancy single-family neighborhoods (with exceptions like South Lake Union, which is a fancy multi-family neighborhood), most of the new development in these areas would (again according to the city’s equity analysis) consist of backyard cottages and row homes. We aren’t going to accommodate 120,000 new residents with mother-in-law apartments and four-pack townhomes. So not only will directing growth to high-income neighborhoods be unpopular with the city’s powerful homeowner lobby, it will be designed to fail.
In addition to directing new housing away from areas like Othello, Rainier Beach, and Beacon Hill, Burgess, Licata, and O’Brien also suggested placing new controls on development, including mandatory inclusionary zoning (requiring developers to build permanently affordable housing on-site) and potentially one-for-one “or even greater” replacement of all de facto affordable housing demolished for new development. One-for-one replacement is a decades-old aspiration of activists like Seattle Displacement Coalition leader John Fox, who believe the city should never tear down a dilapidated ’60s apartment building without replacing the previous’ tenants housing with new units at below-market rents.
The issues with this scheme are pretty obvious (what developer in his right mind would build apartments that could rent for $2,000 and lease them for $600, and how much government subsidy would it take to make him change his mind?), but that doesn’t keep it from being popular—who wouldn’t be in favor of letting low-income people stay in their homes, or even better, get fancy new ones at the same price, instead of watching their neighborhoods morph into white yuppie playgrounds? Even if the city did get past that hurdle, by, for example, massively subsidizing new replacement housing, the result would be short-term gain (preserved housing now) for long-term pain (no economic reinvestment in low-income areas, which will continue to lack basics like diverse housing, sidewalks, and town centers). Like rent control, the idea of one-for-one replacement is economically unrealistic, but emotionally appealing.
Even so-called urbanists are getting on the anti-TOD, tax-the-developers bandwagon. In a recent editorial arguing for their own version of the council members’ “alternative 5,” The Urbanist’s editorial board (which previously called for significant new taxes on development) decried what they called “transit-oriented displacement”—meaning, if you build transit and let people build apartments near it, the people who are already there will get priced out and have to leave. “It would be unfair and inequitable to ask lower-income residents to bear the brunt of the city’s growth — and yet both alternatives [3 and 4, the ones that concentrate growth near transit] essentially gloss over new and effective potential mitigations for this problem,” the board writes.
Gauntlet thrown. Growth, in this description, is explicitly a “problem.” Something people must to “bear the brunt of.” Something that could, if unchecked, cause Northgate to turn “into a gated community,” make walkability “the sole privilege of those who live downtown,” and gobble up all developable land in Ballard, to use just three examples from the Urbanist’s (essentially anti-growth) editorial.
In reality, there’s plenty of development capacity left in Ballard, building housing and town centers increases walkability, and limiting housing supply by reducing “growth,” which is to say housing for those 120,000 new people, will only drive prices up. And the alternative–preserving Sound Transit’s empty, fenced-off gravel lots as if they’re historical sites, “saving” rundown six-unit apartment buildings and the overgrown lots they sit on, making sure the vast majority of poor people never have the opportunity to live in areas well served by transit–is short-sighted and won’t work.
How about this “Alternative 5”? Let’s stop thinking of “growth” as a monster threatening to swallow our city, and instead think of it as new people we should welcome. Let’s stop talking about “bearing the burden” of those new people and start figuring out how we can accommodate all of us without resorting to market-distortions like rules that make transit-oriented development impractical. Let’s figure out a smart way to fund affordable housing without artificially constraining development Let’s stop doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.