Committees Ask: What Will Affordable Housing Look Like, and Are We Willing to Sacrifice for It?

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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.

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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.

 

 

Geographically, Demographically Diverse HALA Applications Defy Early Trend

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Since I first reported that the vast majority of applications for five community focus groups that will provide input on the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability agenda came from just three North End neighborhoods—Wallingford, Ballard, and Phinney Ridge—hundreds more applications have poured in, and the good news is that they’re far more representative of the city as a whole, demographically and geographically, than the original batch of applications.

The bad news? Some parts of the city, particularly far Southeast Seattle, remain underrepresented among the applications, with only a handful of applicants. North Rainier, Rainier Beach, and Othello each have half a dozen applicants or fewer, as do Roosevelt, Eastlake, and Bitter Lake.

Ballard, Wallingford, and Phinney Ridge remain vastly overrepresented in the applications—with 41, 55, and 26 applications, respectively. Other than Capitol Hill (with 51 applicants), those are the only three neighborhoods with more than 20 applications.

Overall, though, the number of applicants—more than 650, or several times the total number of people who participate in their neighborhood district councils citywide—and their diversity is encouraging to Nyland, who was initially concerned that most of the applications would be from plugged-in homeowners north of the Ship Canal with a vested interest in avoiding zoning changes that might increase density in their neighborhoods. However, she says, people who are opposed to HALA on principle still need to be part of the process. “I think they’ll be part of the conversation whether we put them [on the focus groups] or not, so it’s better that they’re on this list,” Nyland says.

In her office at City Hall last week, Nyland said the goal of the HALA groups is to bring together all perspectives and “push people outside their comfort zone. I think it would be a misstep to only include like-minded people.”

In a departure from the way the city usually arranges advisory groups, the HALA focus groups will be organized by type of neighborhood, rather than geographic area, bringing together “folks who are going to be experiencing like changes, though not necessarily in like parts of the city,” Nyland says. For example, one group, focused on hub urban villages, will likely include not just central neighborhoods like Capitol Hill but also Ballard, Lake City, and the West Seattle junction; another group, focused on areas where urban villages will be expanded under HALA, will include Columbia City, Roosevelt, Rainier Beach, and Crown Hill. All the groups will meet at City Hall so that no one has to drive, bike, or bus all the way across town—say, from Crown Hill to Rainier Beach.

The 661 applications, obtained through a public records request, include:

A young renter and attorney focusing on Indian law who was priced out of Judkins Park and wants to make sure all Seattle residents can afford housing, “Whether that person is currently on the street, makes over $100,000 a year, or makes 60% of the AMI.”

A Beacon Hill resident whose home has been in her family for generations who wants to make sure people are able to keep their homes even as the city densifies around them

A retired resident of Madrona who writes, “I am not an advocate of protecting neighborhoods by creating fortress communities where sensible zoning adjustments cannot intrude.”

A 27-year-old Belltown renter and lifelong Seattleite who says she wants to “be a voice for renters and young people – Seattle’s fastest-growing demographic and that most in need of affordable housing.

A Wallingford homeowner who says it’s “important to me that Seattle protects existing owners from structures that are too tall and/or too close to their existing homes” but also says, “I see way too many people opposing change out of fear, and they don’t even understand what’s in the HALA proposal or have constructive suggestions for improving it.

A New Holly resident and immigrant mother who wants to be a voice for refugees and low-income Somali families.

A property owner and landlord in Green Lake who grew up poor, had “bouts of homelessness in my 20s,” and now says, “I deeply believe in the need to provide a safety net and system for the poor and middle class in order to allow for stories like mine to exist.”

Nyland says the focus groups will be geographically representative despite the fact that certain neighborhoods are overrepresented in the applications.

HALA Focus Group Applicants Overwhelmingly Hail from Wallingford, Phinney Ridge, and Ballard

The deadline for applications to serve on one of the “community focus groups” that will help guide the implementation of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) is in less than two weeks, and so far, city sources who have seen the applications say the majority of the applicants so far appear to be white North End homeowners–precisely the sort of people most inclined, if numerous heated HALA presentations over the past few months are any indication, to oppose the plan altogether.

A breakdown of applications provided by the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development indicates that as of last Friday, half (49%) of all applications for the focus groups come from just three North End neighborhoods: Wallingford (22%), Greenwood-Phinney (17%) and Ballard (10%). The other neighborhoods with more than one applicant are the University District, 23rd and Union-Jackson, Capitol Hill, Uptown, Belltown, Fremont, and North Rainier; the vast majority of neighborhoods, including most of the South End and West Seattle, have no applicants so far.

Why does it matter where the HALA focus groups come from, or whether they’re renters or homeowners? For one thing, the HALA groups are supposed to represent the wishes of the city as a whole, including all geographic areas, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and income levels. If wealthy, white homeowners from richer parts of town like Magnolia and Ballard are overrepresented in the focus groups, the policies those focus groups will advocate are likely to be those that protect single-family zoning, long-time residents,  and homeowners’ interests at the expense of renters, recent transplants, and lower-income people who are priced out of Seattle by artificial constraints on new housing supply.

As I’ve reported here many times, there is a very loud, very vocal contingent of homeowners from north end single-family neighborhoods who oppose HALA because they believe it will bring more “density” (AKA renters) into their single-family areas, reducing their property values, destroying the midcentury “character” of their neighborhoods, making it impossible to find on-street parking in front of their houses, and eliminating their light, air and access to nature. Those voices have a seat at every table in City Hall, and they’re hard at work shaping the city’s housing and land use policies to be hostile to the homeless and inhospitable to everyone else who doesn’t already own property in the city.

For the city’s neighborhoods to be truly represented, these voices must be counterbalanced by an equally vocal, equally committed contingent of renters, low-income families, newcomers, would-be first-time homebuyers, and residents of neighborhoods that aren’t wealthy, white, and north of the ship canal. The only way urbanists and their allies will get land use that isn’t hostile to density, newcomers, and the poor is if they claim their seat at the table.

The focus groups do require a commitment of between five and 10 hours a month, which is obviously much easier for retirees and professionals with flexible schedules and cars than for people who work nights, get paid by the hour, and use public transit. But if those people don’t get heard, the city may assume they just don’t care. And if that happens, the city could continue on its current path to being a place where the people making six figures a year determine whether those of us making five figures or less can afford to live here. So I strongly encourage anyone who thinks they can find the time for this temporary (nine-month) assignment to fill out an application, especially if you don’t see your neighborhood represented in the applications the city has received so far.

The deadline is February 26. To find out more about the focus groups, attend one of two upcoming meetings. The first, focusing on how renters can get involved with HALA, is at 12th Avenue Arts (1620 12th Ave.) this Thursday, Feb. 18; the second is at the New Holly Gathering Hall (7054 32nd Ave. S) on Thursday, Feb. 25.