Can Building Housing Lower Rents? 

Seattle says "yes."

Page 5 of 8

click to enlarge The Seattle Sierra Club, unlike the Bay Area chapter, is committed to infill housing. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • The Seattle Sierra Club, unlike the Bay Area chapter, is committed to infill housing.


Environmentalists Back Housing

As Bill Rumpf acknowledged, Seattle's pro-housing agenda is propelled by an environmental consciousness that recognizes the green benefits of infill housing. The Sierra Club's Seattle chapter and other environmental organizations offered strong support for HALA. On Nov. 15, 2016, Jesse Piedfort, chair of the Sierra Club's Seattle Group, and Noah An from the Young Democrats at the University of Washington co-authored "Now More than Ever, Seattle Must Welcome Upzones." The authors argued that taller apartment buildings in the area around the university would be a "boon for affordable housing" and a "necessity for our climate as well." Their piece expressed the green motivation driving support for Seattle housing: "When people can afford to live in the city near job centers and transportation hubs, we avoid long commutes and suburban sprawl and opt for clean and green transit options instead."

The Seattle Sierra Club is so committed to infill housing and preventing sprawl that it backed the original version of HALA, which rezoned exclusively single-family-home neighborhoods to include in-law apartments, duplexes, and triplexes. Mayor Murray quickly backed away from the recommendation after getting strong resistance from the Seattle Times.

Yet a June 2017 poll found Seattle residents backing the upzoning of all single-family-home neighborhoods by 48-29 percent. This likely reflects public recognition that with 57 percent of Seattle's buildable land zoned exclusively for single-family housing (compared to Portland's 45 percent), the city's housing demand — particularly in light of Amazon's hiring boom — requires upzoning such neighborhoods.

The joint statement issued in 2015 by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups stated, "It is better for society, the environment, and families if people can afford to live close to where they work."

Gene Duvernoy, president of the Seattle regional sustainability organization Forterra, argued that HALA reflected the importance of "concentrating growth into existing cities and towns." The grassroots green group 350 Seattle identified housing as "an urgent climate justice issue," since "when people are pushed out of the city due to rising rents [or unable to move into the city due to a lack of housing], they are pushed to places that are poorly served by transit, so they need to drive more."

The Seattle Sierra Club's strong pro-housing position differs strikingly from the stance taken by San Francisco's Sierra Club chapter. Despite the fact that the San Francisco Bay Area suffers from suburban sprawl and two-hour driving commutes, the San Francisco Sierra Club has long opposed infill market-rate housing. As one critic who catalogued many of the opposed projects put it, "The chapter has a solid track record of opposing dense projects — time and again — that would be located along transit lines either inside or near San Francisco proper."

While San Francisco workers moved to exurban East Bay cities like Brentwood, Union City, and even Tracy in search of affordable homes, the local Sierra Club remained a key ally in the city's anti-housing coalition. It has opposed nearly every market-rate project proposed for San Francisco on which the club took a stand. In 2017 it even backed an appeal for the conversion of a parking garage into a 66-unit residential building (with nine affordable units).

Labor on Board

Organized labor was another backer of HALA and S4E. Just as green activists saw building infill housing as promoting environmental goals, labor's pro-HALA advocates felt building housing would expand opportunities for the working and middle class.

Labor's willingness to take a high-profile role in backing HALA became clear in July 2016 when Mayor Murray signed an executive order to cut the city funding and staff support previously enjoyed by the city's district neighborhood councils. These councils had long shaped Seattle land-use policies, and not in a way that served tenants or the city's working and middle class. While 52 percent of Seattle's residents were renters, with a median age of 36, the neighborhood councils were overwhelming composed of white homeowners over the age of 40.

Murray stated in signing the order, "We cannot move forward if most of the people in this city — the diversity of this city — are not represented in the very neighborhood groups that this city helps fund and run." The councils were "barriers" to "immigrants and refugees, low-income residents, communities of color, renters, single parents, youth, people experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ ... to become involved in the city's decision-making process."

The mayor made his announcement after the ongoing neighborhood backlash against HALA's efforts to increase density in 94 percent of Seattle's single-family-home districts. But according to the Seattle Times, union leader and author David Rolf spoke for labor, progressives, and housing activists in backing a move that "would get city dollars and city staff out of the business of lobbying against much-needed changes to increase housing affordability. ... While it is important that we find ways to encourage civic participation in Seattle, we should not be using taxpayer money to support neighborhood groups that have an agenda excluding renters, people of color, the young, the poor, and those who need social services from their neighborhoods. Mayor Ed Murray has had the courage to finally pull the plug on public funds for these unelected and unaccountable vehicles for homeowner self-enrichment."

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