(This is an opinion piece by a Wallyhood writer. Wallyhood welcomes everyone in our community to contribute their perspectives on the issues that impact our community. Please contact us at [email protected] if you would like to add your voice.)
The City is just days away from passing sweeping zoning changes across Seattle. Led by City Councilmember Rob Johnson, Seattle City Council is pushing through zoning changes for 27 urban villages throughout Seattle, including Wallingford, with a final vote scheduled for March 18. The upzone legislation is unfortunately expected to pass.
These zoning changes are part of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA); recommendations made by a committee convened in 2015 by former Mayor Ed Murray and dominated by the largest and wealthiest developers in Seattle.
Are big developers taking us for a ride?
In exchange for the city allowing developers to build taller, denser buildings with higher profit margins, HALA would require them to include some affordable units in their projects or pay into an affordable housing fund.
It should be easy to determine if these wealthy developers pushing the upzones are driven by self-interest or to truly fix the affordable housing crisis. Simply look at how much affordable housing contributions they agreed to in the areas where their projects dominated, Downtown and South Lake Union.
The wealthiest developers shaped the HALA committee recommendations, but will contribute the smallest percentages towards affordable housing. And they refused to do more.
Vulcan Real Estate, a company valued at $1.5 billion, is at the forefront of powerful development firms supporting upzoning. But in 2017, when rezoning was quietly passed for Downtown and South Lake Union where Vulcan and a few other big developers rule the land, they were only required to set aside a meager 2 to 5% of their units as affordable or pay an equivalent in lieu fee. The City conveniently left out these embarrassingly low numbers in virtually every document, only stating that the Downtown/South Lake Union rezone was based on the “current incentive zoning rate.”
While the wealthy high rise developers are only required to set aside 2 to 5% of their units as affordable or pay the fee, when these new set of upzones pass in the neighborhoods, the smaller developers that are building neighborhood scale developments with less profit margins will be required to set aside a higher 5 to 9% of their units as affordable or pay the equivalent fee. These affordable housing requirements are especially disappointing when you realize that other cities with similar Incentive Zoning programs set aside 10-30% of their units as affordable.
When attempts were made to raise the Downtown/South Lake Union affordable housing requirement to a meagar 5%, these wealthy and powerful developer interest groups did not jump at the chance to contribute more to affordable housing. Instead they organized under the name Coalition for Housing Solutions and sent a letter protesting to City Council saying that changing the terms would violate the “Grand Bargain” agreement.
The Coalition’s lawyer also reminded the City Council who holds the purse strings: “The Coalition for Housing Solutions has maintained its commitments through the grand bargain… We have provided financial support measured in six figures to the Seattle Housing Levy campaign and to the operations of Seattle for Everyone… to support implementation of the HALA plan.”
Of course Seattle for Everyone, a pro-HALA group that claims to advocate for affordable housing, did not protest the low affordable housing requirements for Downtown and South Lake Union. Which is not surprising when you realize, as the letter makes clear, that Seattle for Everyone is funded at least in part by the Coalition for Housing Solutions, a group made up of the largest power players in the Seattle building industry. This move gave those building industry giants increased financial benefit from the Downtown/South Lake Union upzones, where their projects dominate, while pushing the real burden onto the neighborhoods and those smaller developers who build there.
Vulcan and others like them can afford to do better. But this is how the biggest development companies get rich. They pass the buck.
Big money is behind well-crafted HALA messaging.
Seattle’s most powerful developers, and the self-proclaimed ‘urbanists’ who believe in them, not only have the clout to win face time at City Hall, but they also have the money to fund what amounts to market research to further their agenda. Just one example is grants given by Open Philanthropy Project to pro-upzone groups Sightline for $750,000 and for $50,000 to Seattle for Everyone, grants specifically to “promote” HALA land use changes.
That’s almost a million dollars from a single donor to promote HALA upzones (with likely more funds behind the scenes from groups like the Coalition for Housing Solutions). How could regular people even compete?
Sightline in many ways acted like a marketing firm would, including focus group research to develop messaging that would be appealing to their target audience. For example, focus group participants favored the message that Seattle needs more homes, all shapes and sizes, for all our neighbors. Sightline goes on later to explain: People are more open to density when it’s framed as “options.” These talking points then get passed on to groups like Seattle For Everyone whose field directors recruit people to show up at City Council meetings arming them with a virtual script.
If increasing density were an effective strategy to combat displacement, wouldn’t areas at high risk of displacement and gentrification be asking for it? They are not. In the International District Humbows not Hotels is actively fighting larger developments that displace their communities. A Central District resident in this Reuter’s article spoke to the unfortunate trend of one black family home in her community being torn down and it being replaced by four to six townhomes, which were often bought by people who are affluent and white. Mobile home parks residents have reached out to City Council to protect their affordable living situation from being redeveloped into more dense and expensive housing.
Vulcan, and other big developers like them, wield great influence in this town. But look past the slick talking points and look into the numbers. The biggest developers are increasing their profits while pushing the real burden onto the residents of the neighborhoods and the smaller developers who build there, neither of which ever had a real say in this plan in the first place.