Election 2013
5:00 am
Wed October 23, 2013

Challenge for Seattle's Next Mayor: Making Housing Affordable

Seattle’s next mayor will face the challenge of balancing the city’s growth with affordability. 

“Because our city’s popular, because we’re adding jobs, because more people want to live in our walkable urban places, the competition for existing housing is driving up the rent, driving up housing prices,” said Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

Both McGinn and challenger Ed Murray shared their ideas, many of them similar, on ways to create affordable housing for people of all income.

Growing Too Much, Too Fast?

Seattle rents have climbed 7 percent in the past year—faster than any other big city in the country, according to real estate data firm Reis Inc. And the median home price now tops $450,000, according to Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

Affordable housing advocate John Fox blames McGinn for the loss of low-income housing. He recently slammed McGinn as being “the most shamelessly pro-developer, pro-density, pro-growth mayor” in many years.

McGinn says it's an unfortunate side effect of a good thing: the city's economy is growing, putting a strain on housing. He says boosting the housing stock for people of all income levels means addressing people’s fears.

“This is the tension. We hear simultaneously, ‘We need more affordable housing.’ We also hear concerns about ‘our neighborhoods are changing, and we don’t like the way they’re changing,’” he said.

Changing Ballard

Evan Sugden stands in front of the rock wall in the parking lot of the Lockhaven Apartments. He calls the wall, which he decorated with ornaments and succulents, his "guerrilla gardening project."
Credit Ashley Gross

The residents of the Lockhaven Apartments in Ballard are feeling the effects of that change. They recently learned they’ll soon have to move.

Seattle developer Goodman Real Estate bought the complex last summer, then posted 20-day eviction notices on some units—a move the city later said was illegal. Goodman has since slowed down the process, but still plans to renovate all the units.

Tenant Evan Sugden says his $740 rent will likely double as a result. He earns a little more than $30,000 a year as a part-time university biology instructor and a beekeeper.

“Living here at Lockhaven is the thing that allowed me to survive that way,” said Sudgen, who has called Lockhaven home for nine years. “It is stressful that it’s all just being blown away.”

Goodman says overhauling the units, which are more than 65 years old, requires that tenants move out. The developer says it's working with the city's Tenant Relocation Assistance program to help residents.

Incentives for Builders, Mortgage Help for Teachers

How will the candidates create more affordable housing?

McGinn says he plans to update the city’s incentive programs to ensure more affordable housing will be built, especially within close proximity to transit hubs to help commuters save money.

Murray, who also wants to incentivize builders, says the city should come up with an analytical tool to figure out the right incentive zoning rate to charge developers depending on the neighborhood, to maximize the number of affordable units that get built.

Seattle hasn't always had this kind of housing shortage, Murray says.

“You know, I actually grew up in West Seattle in a large working-class family, and my family could not live in this city today,” he said. “That’s the extent of the crisis.”

Murray and McGinn agree on a lot of things. They both like micro-apartments, with proper regulation. And they both wanted taller buildings in South Lake Union to maximize fees developers pay toward affordable housing.

But Murray has another idea: offering mortgage assistance for people like schoolteachers.

“A plan where the city would actually buy a piece of the mortgage to buy down the price of the housing,” he said.

Will Incentives be Enough?

Creating housing that is truly affordable is a big challenge, even with incentives for developers.

AVA Ballard, on the site of the former Sunset Bowl, is an example of the new apartment buildings popping up all over the neighborhood.
Credit Ashley Gross

In May, Laura DeFrate moved into an ultra-modern, two-bedroom rental apartment in a brand-new building in Ballard with her husband and two kids. On the site of the old Sunset Bowl bowling alley, the apartment resembles other big buildings popping up all over Ballard.  

The number of apartment units in Ballard is expected to more than double by 2017, according to the real estate data firm Dupre + Scott Apartment Advisors, Inc. Citywide, Seattle is expected to add more than 25,000 units by 2017, a 47 percent jump in the rental supply. That may cause rents to drop, but not enough to make apartments affordable for low- and moderate-income residents.

DeFrate got one of the so-called affordable units the developer set aside in exchange for a property tax break. But rent, parking and utilities total $1,900 a month—a big stretch for DeFrate and her husband.

“I’ve been trying to keep my eye open for somewhere close by. But rent prices are just going up and up, and I think we might actually have to leave Seattle,” DeFrate said.

And that’s the challenge facing the next mayor. Whether it’s McGinn or Murray, whoever takes over City Hall will have to figure out how to make it possible for people like DeFrate and her family to stay in Seattle.