Can Building Housing Lower Rents? 

Seattle says "yes."

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click to enlarge Organized labor in Seattle also backs new housing. - PHOTO BY SOUNDERBRUCE/FLICKR (CC)
  • Photo by SounderBruce/Flickr (CC)
  • Organized labor in Seattle also backs new housing.

I first met Rumpf in 1983 when he became housing director for Catholic Charities in San Francisco. He built one of the earliest nonprofit buildings in the Tenderloin, the Dorothy Day Apartments. He then became housing director for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, directing policy for the city's largest funding base for affordable housing. He then led the California Housing Partnership, which focused on state affordable housing resources. Raised in Seattle, Rumpf moved back to his hometown in 1999. He served as deputy director of housing for Seattle for a decade before taking his current job at Mercy Housing Northwest.

Rumpf knows the housing industry inside and out. He attributed Seattle's housing success to activists who long ago recognized that building infill housing is an environmental issue: "In the 1990s, a growing environmental consciousness emerged in Seattle that believed that building housing where you have infrastructure is the environmental way."

Rumpf believes Seattle's greater environmental orientation explains why there are far fewer appeals against new housing than in San Francisco. Rumpf was aware of only four projects in 16 years that were subject to appeals. None of those appeals was filed against a Mercy Housing project. He said he cannot "recall a single project ever stopped due to neighborhood opposition." In contrast to San Francisco, Rumpf sees Seattle as "much more environment oriented. People favor green, sustainable buildings, and the city is much more pro-growth."

Rumpf's assessment of Seattle's environmentally conscious, pro-growth attitudes was reflected in the election of Mayor Ed Murray in 2013. Murray was a pro-housing mayor who, like Norm Rice in the 1990s, recognized that Seattle's future affordability and livability depended on new strategies to build more homes.

The Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda

In September 2014, Murray announced the creation of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) task force. The mayor and city council convened a broad section of stakeholders to develop a multi-pronged strategy for addressing housing affordability. After 10 months of meetings, the task force released a report containing 65 recommendations. The centerpiece was the "grand bargain," a deal struck on July 13, 2015, and described in a document entitled "Statement of Intent for Basic Framework for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Commercial Linkage Fee." The detailed document had one underlining principle: Seattle had to be upzoned for increased height and density in exchange for increased affordability.

Upzoning meant that meeting anticipated population and job growth required changing local zoning laws to allow builders to construct more units on a site. And in exchange for giving builders more units, Seattle would require that a percentage of them be affordable. It is a common-sense strategy that expands housing opportunities for those otherwise priced out, while also stopping sprawl through infill housing. Seattle's HALA plan projected 50,000 new units over the next decade, of which 20,000 would be affordable.

Bill Rumpf was among eight signers of the document spelling out the "grand bargain." Others included Mayor Murray, councilmember Mike O'Brien, and Faith Pettis. The mayor and city council appointed Pettis in 2015 to co-chair the HALA task force. She told me in 2017 that the "grand bargain" came about "in the 11th hour." In other words, an agreement was never assured. She also said that over the course of the HALA deliberations, she was reading articles about San Francisco's unaffordability and saw the city "as a case study of where Seattle would be if we did not get a housing agreement done."

Pettis saw the grand bargain as the product of an agreement between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Each was primarily represented by two other signers. Marty Kooistra, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium, represented affordable housing developers. Jack McCullough, an influential land-use attorney, was the representative for big private developers. "The nonprofits felt that for-profit developers were not doing their share for affordable housing. The for-profits felt that the nonprofits were not effectively using public funds. There were years of bad blood and suspicion between the two groups that had to be overcome to reach agreement."

In the case of the grand bargain, Pettis noted, "We all felt that something big was accomplished. Increasing density in urban areas addresses environmental problems, traffic problems, transit problems, and many other urban challenges. Lights were going off inside the heads of those in the room."

Seattle for Everyone

The HALA report and grand bargain were major accomplishments. Nearly all of the 65 HALA recommendations were included in the mayor's "Action Plan to Address Seattle's Affordability Crisis." But implementation depended on public support, which would be a challenge. Seattle's neighborhood associations were accustomed to getting their way. They strongly opposed the section of HALA recommendations that promoted backyard cottages and accessory dwelling units (often known as "in-law" apartments). These provided affordable options for workers otherwise priced out of these communities, but homeowner groups did not want tenants living in their neighborhoods. An anti-HALA Seattle Times columnist wrote, "Neighborhoods are roiling over Murray's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), protesting a 'grand bargain' struck in secret among developers and housing advocates, but not with regular citizens."

Neighborhood opposition to HALA led its key backers to realize they needed to organize and mobilize pro-housing forces to secure the plan's implementation. As Pettis put it, "Left on its own, the HALA would either die or not be implemented as the drafters intended."

This led to the formation of Seattle for Everyone (S4E). S4E expanded HALA's support base to include social justice, labor, and environmental groups and businesses in addition to the for-profit developers and nonprofit affordable housing builders whose agreement built the deal. By uniting diverse groups like Service Employees International Union 775, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the social justice organization OneAmerica, and the Downtown Seattle Association, S4E's membership alone spoke to the breadth of support for HALA.


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