Why won’t the city add more density in single-family areas?
Why is the city violating the sanctity of single-family areas?
Those were the two contradictory questions in play at the first meeting of the five focus groups that will help determine the shape of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, a plan to build 50,000 new housing units, including 20,000 affordable units, over the next 10 years through a combination of incentives, zoning changes, and additional affordable housing dollars.
The HALA meeting, held in the Bertha Knight Landes room at City Hall while a separate meeting on the housing levy was wrapping up in council chambers upstairs, brought all the focus group members together for an initial overview of their work plan for the coming year. The focus groups, made up largely of people who aren’t well-represented on the vocal, historically influential neighborhood community councils and citizen interest groups, are divided not by geographic region but by neighborhood type–hub urban villages with hub urban villages, urban village expansion areas with urban village expansion areas, and so on. (Downtown and South Lake Union are part of a separate rezoning process, as is the University District.)
Most of the meeting was procedural–a lineup of city staffers extolled HALA’s virtues using catchphrases like “placing without displacing” and explained the history of HALA and the “Grand Bargain,” a deal struck between developers and affordable-housing advocates like Puget Sound Sage to build more affordable housing while providing upzones that benefit builders’ bottom lines.
But the main focus of the city’s reassurances, and the audience’s questions, was how HALA–which would expand the boundaries of some urban villages, making up a total of about 1 percent of city land, into what are now single-family areas–will impact Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Although HALA staffer Michelle Chen told the crowd preemptively, “The mayor is not proposing any changes to single-family zones that are outside the urban villages,” the very first (and majority of) questions were about how the proposals will impact single-family areas; specifically: Does HALA go too far in allowing more development in historically single-family areas, or does it fail to do enough?
The very first question–“Why don’t single-family zones have to contribute to housing?”–got to the heart of this debate. “The mayor has taken a position that outside of the urban village areas we are not changing single-family zones,” Chen said. “That is the direction from the mayor, taken after a big outcry from the neighborhoods, from the communities that are changing.” Diane Sugimura, interim director of the new Office of Planning and Community Development, jumped in, adding that the city’s comprehensive plan (which guides all macro-level development in Seattle) “has directed the majority of growth to urban villages.”
But will growth in urban villages be enough? In addition to the 120,000 people expected to move here in the next 20 years, Seattle has a growing affordability crisis that impacts the people already here, and no one is more impacted than the very lowest-income residents, those who are homeless or in transitional or marginal housing. Upstairs in council chambers, council members heard testimony from dozens of folks who supported the housing levy, and none who didn’t–a unanimity rarely present at public meetings about tax increases. (The $290 million levy would double homeowners’ annual contribution to low-income housing, to $122 a year for a median-value home.)
Organizations that provide or support low-income housing–Solid Ground, the Housing Development Consortium, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the Low-Income Housing Alliance–showed up armed with damning statistics. “If Seattle wanted to hold a public meeting and invite everyone who is homeless or severely rent-burdened, we would not be able to fit everybody into CenturyLink stadium,” Keri Williams of Enterprise Community Partners said. But it was the recently homeless speakers, who made the case as plainly and indisputably as possible that without housing levy-funded programs, they would still be on the streets, who made the greatest impact.
Linda Pritz*, a formerly homeless woman who lived at the YWCA’s Opportunity Place in downtown Seattle, told the council that “as a resident of affordable housing for the past 12 years, I know firsthand how important it is to have sustainable housing.” After years of spending 80 percent of her income on rent an utilities, eating ramen and neglecting her diabetes, she said that “when I moved into the building in 2004, I was so relieved that I had found a place that I could afford that I sat down on the bed and cried. Pritz now spends just 30 percent of her income on housing.
Another speaker, Hope Green, said she had been homeless for years, dealing with a failed relationship and “an addiction that was spiraling out of control” and moving all over the state before she found affordable housing in Seattle. “I counted 112 places that I slept until I landed in the [Catholic Community Services’] Referral Center … where I received a hot meal, a shower, and referral to a safe and comfortable nightly shelter at the Noel House,” a shelter for single women.” Since then, Green said she has been able to work on her recovery, start paying off her debts, and recovered some of the self-esteem she lost living on the streets.
The housing levy and HALA are inextricably connected, because the city won’t meet its goal of 20,000 new affordable units without levy funding. The levy election is in August, and the HALA focus groups will meet for the rest of this year and into 2017.
* My apologies if I mispelled Linda’s name, which I wrote down as she spoke.