Can Building Housing Lower Rents? 

Seattle says "yes."

Page 6 of 8

Seattle rents rose faster than those in any other city from June 2015 to June 2016 (9.7 percent vs. San Francisco's 7.4 percent). Rolf argued that slowing these hikes required "every neighborhood to have an adequate supply of emergency housing, low-income housing, and workforce housing," and to "dramatically expand the supply of market-rate housing fast enough to bend the cost curve in rents and home prices."

According to Rolf, the neighborhood district councils "stand in the way of both objectives. By always arguing against new development, they help slow down or prevent the growth of market-rate housing. That, in turn, causes price-spirals during periods of high demand. By always arguing against smaller units, relaxed parking requirements, accessory dwelling units, and any type of affordable housing for low-income people or renters, they help create a de-facto economic apartheid that preserves housing wealth and privilege for those who already have the most."

Rolf urged Seattle not to follow the lead of San Francisco, "where the power of neighborhood groups has prevented the development of new housing units for decades."

In 2017, I asked Rolf why he decided to get so involved in the housing affordability debate. As the leader of SEIU 775 and an international vice president of SEIU, Rolf's chief focus is labor issues. He led Seattle to become the first city in the nation to pass a $15 minimum wage. He tells the story of the campaign in his book The Fight for Fifteen: The Right Wage for a Working America. "We are a large union of low-wage working people, many of whom get displaced by the lack of affordable housing," he explained. "Our workers see affordable housing as a social justice issue. When they have to commute one or two hours to work because they cannot afford to live in Seattle, that is a hidden tax on their time." Born in 1969, Rolf is a Generation Xer whose pro-housing views align him with most millennials.

Arguing that opposition to housing is a "conspiracy of entrenched interests to keep poverty and privilege in place," Rolf saw HALA as a "giant leap forward." He still thinks there is "a lot more to do" to add housing to the city's core single-family-home neighborhoods: "If I were king for a day, I would upzone them all."

Rolf is among a number of Seattle civic leaders exploring ways for Seattle to offer rent subsidies for working-class tenants not currently eligible for such assistance, as well as strategies to raise affordable housing funds through a linkage fee or so-called mansion tax (a levy on residential properties that sell for over a certain amount).

With labor and environmentalists strongly on board, S4E's broad coalition drove HALA's implementation. By design it was not a quick process. HALA backers wanted to ensure ample community input. Anyone familiar with land-use issues knows that opponents of change often raise process issues to derail plans. Ensuring a fair public process eliminates this objection.

By September 2017, the key neighborhoods in which HALA had proposed a lot of new housing had already been upzoned. Under the core principle of Mandatory Housing Affordability, or MHA (Seattle's name for the implementation of the "grand bargain"), new developments either include affordable homes on their site or make an in-lieu payment for affordable housing elsewhere in Seattle. MHA alone is expected to create nearly 6,000 affordable homes in the next 10 years.

Murray's termination of the city's funding of neighborhood groups opposed to housing brought him heavy criticism from the Seattle Times and neighborhood activists. But cities cannot bemoan the pricing out of the working and middle class while funding groups that promote that outcome. HALA laid the groundwork for Murray's goal of building 50,000 homes over the next 10 years, a goal that had broad public support.

State Limits

Constructing new housing has enabled Seattle to achieve greater affordability than San Francisco despite Washington state's denying Seattle the power to enact rent-control and just-cause eviction laws. The lack of rent control contributed to Seattle rents jumping 40 percent between 2013 and 2016 and a whopping 65 percent since 2010.

In 2015, Seattle councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata led the city council to pass a resolution urging the state government to overturn its 1981 rent-control ban. In 2018, a bill to restore Seattle's ability to enact rent control was introduced in the state legislature, the first such effort since 1999. Seattle officials strongly backed it, and Democrats controlled the Washington legislature for the first time in years, but the bill failed to make it out of committee. Sawant and other city officials saw the debate spawned by the bill's introduction as a sign of progress, and a new effort in 2019 may be likely.

The state also bars Seattle from imposing mandatory inclusionary housing on all developments. The mayor's MHA proposal cleverly circumvents this ban. It is also entirely voluntary. But many developers will gladly provide below-market units in exchange for a taller or denser project.

Every high-housing-cost city whose state bars inclusionary housing should implement the MHA approach. While increasing height and density can promote gentrification if done the wrong way — as in New York City under Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio — Seattle shows how upzoning can be used to preserve and expand neighborhood affordability. Seattle has upzoned the right way.


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