Getting Smarter About Public Land: Lessons from Across the Northwest

The full version of this story is available at Sightline.

As cities across Cascadia look to technological solutions, such as modular construction, to help address the region-wide shortage of affordable housing, one of the biggest factors currently driving up costs is also one of the most resistant to intervention: Land prices, which can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of producing a single subsidized apartment.

Cities don’t have a lot of tools for lowering land costs, but they do own a lot of land—Seattle, for example, is sitting on more than 180 excess or underutilized parcels, many of which are well-suited for homebuilding.

To maximize taxpayer value, most cities usually auction off their excess land to the highest bidder, just like any private landowner would do. But in cities with hot real estate markets, affordable housing developers typically don’t have the financial resources to compete for land with market-rate developers. So publicly-owned land ends up in private hands, forever forfeiting its potential to help overcome one of the biggest barriers to the construction of subsidized homes: acquisition of land to build on. The backers of Seattle’s Rainier Valley Food Innovation Hub, for example, have been repeatedly outbid by private developers.

But what if local governments viewed surplus land not as a revenue generator but an opportunity to reduce displacement and stabilize communities? Several Northwest cities have begun asking that very question. The result is a growing string of affordable housing projects stretching through Cascadia—from the largest one-time investment in housing on city-owned land in Canada’s history, to an affordable housing and preschool development on the site of a former fire station in Seattle.

How much publicly owned land is there?

Enterprise Community Partners’ interactive mapping tool shows publicly owned properties.

Until recently, if you wanted to know what public land was available in the Seattle area, there was no central database—no way to easily find out, say, if a certain fenced-off plot of land that looked ripe for development was owned by the city or Sound Transit or King County, whether it had the right zoning, and whether it was up for sale. In 2015, newly elected King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson decided to do something about that; he directed his office to create a map of every piece of publicly owned land inside county limits.

The nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners expanded on Wilson’s effort, recently launching the beta version of an interactive tool that allows any interested party to use filters to narrow down a list of about 10,000 developable public properties according to specific characteristics, such as zoning, square footage, and eligibility for tax credits.

“In high-cost cities, it’s really becoming impossible for nonprofits to develop on privately owned land,” James Madden, the Seattle-based senior program director for Enterprise, says.  “The average land price, as a percentage of the total cost of development in Seattle, is about 10 to 15 percent, and if land continues to get more expensive, [nonprofits] will be priced out completely. Once you’re paying more than $30,000 a door [for land], it gets very hard for a public agency to justify spending beyond that level on acquisition.” Market-rate developers can charge higher rents to compensate for high land costs—an option not available to affordable housing providers.

Changing the rules that have prevented public land from supporting affordable housing

Wilson, the assessor, says the mapping tools might have been merely informational—a database of public land for sale at prices out of reach for most nonprofit housing builders—if the state hadn’t taken the next step, by giving local governments the authority to sell their land below market value or give it away for free. “We raised this issue with [state House speaker Frank Chopp] last year,” Wilson says. “After we pulled together the list of publicly owned land, we said, ‘Here’s the problem: A lot of this land is owned by agencies that have to sell it for fair market value,” putting even public land out of reach for many nonprofit agencies. In response, Chopp supported, and the legislature passed, a bill allowing state and local agencies to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost.

Local leaders quickly took notice. Seattle city council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, who campaigned on the need to build more dense, affordable housing, proposed and passed two pieces of legislation this year designed to encourage the city to give away its surplus property for free. The first, which passed in July, made it possible for Seattle’s electric utility, Seattle City Light, to dispose of its excess land at little or no cost—a major departure from its previous policy, which required the utility to sell property at fair market value.

The second, which the council passed unanimously earlier this month, requires the city to consider whether surplus land can be used for affordable housing and, if so, to make it available for that purpose. The legislation also allows the city to hold onto land while a nonprofit housing partner secures financing; directs the city’s Office of Housing to partner with “culturally relevant and historically rooted” nonprofits in areas where residents are at high risk of economic displacement; and mandates that 80 percent of the funds from any outright sale of city property go into one of the city’s affordable housing funds.

Read the whole piece at Sightline.

Durkan’s Proposed Budget Adds Funding for Cops, Congestion Pricing, and Buses, But Not for Safe Consumption or New Spending on Homelessness

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $5.9 billion budget proposes hiring 40 net new police officers, funds shelter and rental-assistance programs that had been at risk of being cut while keeping overall homeless funding basically flat, and dramatically increases transportation spending, at least on paper—the $130 million in new funding consists primarily of unspent funds from the Move Seattle levy, which is currently undergoing a “reset” because the city can’t pay for everything it promised when voters passed the levy in 2015. The new transportation funding includes funding 100,000 new Metro service hours, including “microtransit” shuttles to bring riders to the ends of the existing RapidRide lines and to the water taxi in West Seattle. Those additional hours will require Metro to  work overtime to add buses, drivers, and bus parking capacity, but Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the 100,000 hours were also included in the King County budget that County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted yesterday, as part of a total increase of 177,000 hours of bus service over the next two years.

City budget director Ben Noble said that if the city wanted to significantly increase spending on homelessness, “that is going to have to happen through reprioritizing [funding] or some as-yet-unidentified source of revenues.” Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that, given the ongoing homelessness crisis, “it is unconscionable to put forward a biennial budget … without additional resources for housing.”

The budget would also eliminate about 150 mostly vacant positions, eliminate funding for 217 basic shelter beds provided by the group SHARE after June of next year, fund a new city “ombud” independent from the Human Resources Department, to help employees in city department navigate the process of filing harassment or discrimination claims, and pay police officers $65 million in retroactive pay and benefits from the four years when they were working without a union contract. Officers, Durkan said, have “gone without even a raise but also [without] a [cost of living adjustment]. There hasn’t been pay raise since the beginning of 2014, so that’s four years of pay increases. …  You can get to seemingly large sums really quickly.”

Support

In contrast, the budget proposes making an “inflationary increase adjustment” to what it pays front-line homeless service providers of just 2 percent—less than the actual inflation rate.. Earlier this year, the Downtown Emergency Center sought more than $6 million for salaries and benefits—enough to raise an entry-level counselor’s wages from $15.45 an hour to $19.53 and to boost case managers’ salaries from a high of about $38,000 to $44,550 a year. (Currently, the lowest-paying job listed on DESC’s job board pays $16.32 an hour.) “Even a non-police officer, just a clerical position in a city department, is earning more money in salary—let alone salary plus benefits—than somebody whom we are asking to go out under bridges and work with people who have had years of being brutalized in this world,” Eisinger says.

I’ll have a lot more to say about specific budget proposals over the coming weeks as the city council digs into the details in a series of budget briefings that start on Wednesday, but for now, here are a few more highlights from the mayor’s proposal:

• Durkan’s proposed budget does not include any additional funding for a supervised consumption site (mobile or permanent); instead, it simply pushes $1.3 million that was supposed to fund a place for users to consume their drug of choice under medical supervision, with access to wound care, treatment, and case management forward into this year’s budget. Durkan said Monday that the city would not move forward with supervised consumption site until Durkan is “sure [that King County is] still willing to step up and fund the treatment portion of” a supervised consumption site. Activists, including at least one mother who had lost her son to a heroin overdose, stood outside the Pioneer Square fire station, where Durkan delivered her budget speech, protesting the fact that Durkan’s budget calls for continued inaction on safe consumption sites. It has been more than two years now since a King County task force unanimously recommended supervised consumption as part of a holistic strategy for tackling addiction to heroin and other drugs, the rest of which is slowly being implemented and funded. 

Marlys McConnell, whose son Andrew died of an accidental heroin overdose in January 2015, was wearing a “Silence=Death” t-shirt and holding up the right side of a large banner that read, “Overdose is killing a generation. Is it time to act yet, Mayor Durkan?” She said a safe consumption site could have helped diminish the shame her son felt about his own addiction, which he tried to hide from his family. “Had there been a space available for him, I would very much hope that he could have gone and taken advantage of it and been treated with love and respect and dignity. That could have been a bridge to treatment and other services early on.” McConnell is aware of the argument that safe consumption sites enable drug users to continue in their active addiction, but says, “You don’t get [recovery] ’til you get it.”

• Durkan said she would not support selling off more public land to pay for city budget priorities, as the city has done in the past. (The sale of land in South Lake Union funded new shelter beds and “tiny house village” encampments, as well as a rental-assistance program—all part of the nearly $20 million in services that this year’s budget proposal makes permanent.) The city has put its largest remaining property in South Lake Union, the so-called “Mercer Megablock,” on the market, but Durkan said the city would strongly prefer leasing the property long-term under a master lease to selling it outright. Affordable housing advocates have suggested that the city hang on to the property and use it to build high-rise affordable housing. Noble told me that nothing technically bars the city from using at least some of the land for affordable housing (either city-owned or built by a nonprofit housing provider); however, he noted that because the Seattle Department of Transportation used restricted gas-tax funds to pay for some of the Mercer Corridor Project, which used part of the megablock for construction staging, the city has to pay back SDOT (a cost that could account for about 40 percent of the proceeds from the property) before it can start building anything or funding other projects on the property. The city also has taken out significant debt on the future proceeds from the sale of the megablock site, which would also have to be repaid. Finally, high-rise housing is generally much more expensive (and therefore less appropriate for affordable housing) than low-rise, because it involves glass and steel, although advances in technology are slowly making high-rise affordable housing more feasible.

• Durkan’s budget is mostly silent on the question of the over-budget Center City Streetcar (currently stalled so city consultants can determine whether the city should finish building the downtown connector or cut its losses), but it does include about $9 million in funds over two years to help operate the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars. Previously, the city had backfilled streetcar revenue shortfalls periodically as revenues consistently fell short of projections. The new budget pays for those anticipated shortfalls up front. “We’re trying to be more upfront and honest about what it’s costing for the streetcar so that we won’t continue to run in the red and having to incur the debts that we’ve seen” in the past, Durkan said.

• The transportation budget is otherwise a mixed bag for transit proponents. It includes $1 million to pay for an expanded study of congestion pricing (as currently conceived, a toll for people who want to drive into the center city during certain hours); funds new investments in adaptive signal technology, which Durkan touted as a solution for slow and delayed buses but which the National Association of City Transportation Officials says “can result in a longer cycle length that degrades multi-modal conditions” and is best for moving cars in suburban areas; and proposes asking the legislature to change state law barring the city from using traffic cameras to enforce rules against blocking bike and bus lanes. “Right now, you have to have an actual officer come over and pull them over,” Durkan said—an expensive proposition. The budget also eliminates funding for the “Play Streets” pilot program, which permanently activated some street right-of-way for active (non-car) use, and cuts funding for any new “Pavement to Parks” projects, “takes underused streets and creates public spaces for community use on a year-round, daily basis,” according to the budget.

• The proposed budget moves almost half a million dollars from parks department spending on the city’s four golf courses into the separate capital budget as a “bridge solution” for an ongoing revenue shortfall. Although the city recently invested in improvements to its golf courses—hoping that better facilities, along with higher fees, would bring in more revenue—that hasn’t panned out, and the city has hired a consultant to evaluate the program. Asked why the golf courses aren’t penciling out the way the city had hoped, Noble said that it may be that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least some of the city’s golf courses and using them as sites for affordable housing.

The city council begins hearings on the mayor’s budget this week; a full schedule of budget meetings is available on the city’s website.

Afternoon Crank: Public Land Sale Materials Tout Restrictive Zoning, Barriers to Homeownership; Details on Bike Lane Mediator’s Campaign Contributions

1.The official request for proposals for developers interesting in buying the so-called Mercer Megablock—three sites that total three acres in the heart of South Lake Union—includes some revealing details about how the city is pitching itself (via JLL, its broker) to potential property buyers. Alongside standard marketing language about the city’s booming economy, growing tech base, and wealth of cultural and natural assets, the Megablock marketing materials tout the fact that Seattle has restrictive zoning and “high barriers to entry for homeownership,” along with some of the highest and fastest-rising rents in the nation, as positive assets that make the city a great place to build.

From the RFP:

This area is also one of the most dynamic real estate investment markets in the country, benefiting from a combination of strict land use planning, topographical constraints on supply, and employment growth that consistently ranks above the national average. Favorable “renter” demographics, positive job numbers, strong population projections and a low unemployment rate, together with high barriers for entry in home ownership, also position the region as a strategic market for multifamily investment gains.

 

What, exactly, constitutes “a strategic market for multifamily investment gains”? A pull quote in the RFP puts a finer point on it: “Housing prices have grown at the fastest rate in the country for the past 17-consecutive months. The 12.9% year-over-year growth is more than double the national growth rate. Multifamily rents increased by 3.1% year-over-year and vacancy is just 4.2%. ”

Obviously, when you put artificial constraints on housing supply (such as zoning laws that make multifamily housing illegal in most parts of a city), housing prices increase. Usually, we think of that as a bad thing, because it means that all but the wealthiest renters (and those who can afford to buy $800,000 houses) get priced out of neighborhoods near employment centers, transit, and other amenities. But the city’s marketing materials turn this idea on its head: Restrictive zoning, “high barriers” to homeownership, and spiraling rents make Seattle the perfect place to buy one of the city’s last large parcels of public land—a parcel which, if housing advocates had their way, would be used for affordable housing that might help address some of those very issues.

Support

2. After I reported yesterday on the city’s decision to hire a mediator with the Cedar River Group to facilitate a series of conversations  with groups that support and oppose a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE, architect/intrepid YIMBY Mike Eliason dug through the city’s elections website and discovered that the mediator, John Howell, has given money to both Mayor Jenny Durkan (who directed SDOT to initiate the mediation) and onetime city council candidate Jordan Royer (who, along with attorney Gabe Galanda, is representing the Save 35th Avenue NE anti-bike-lane group in mediation). Howell, who is a principal and founder of Cedar River Group, contributed $275 to Durkan last year and $250 to Royer in 2009.

Rules adopted after the passage of Initiative 122 in 2015 bar contributions from contractors who made more than $250,000 from city contracts over the last two years; according to the city’s contractor list, Cedar River Group made $399,757 from city contractors between 2016 and 2018. However, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission last year dismissed a similar case involving contributions from Paul Allen, who owns a large stake in City Investors (the real estate arm of Allen’s Vulcan Inc.) , concluding that restricting Allen’s ability to donate to local candidates would violate his right to free speech. The “rationale,” according to SEEC director Wayne Barnett, was that “giving a campaign contribution is protected speech under the First Amendment.”  I asked Barnett if that finding might also mean that (under Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that unleashed unlimited political spending by corporations) that the contractor contribution restrictions themselves were unconstitutional. Barnett said that was an interesting legal question but that it hasn’t been tested (yet).