The University District skyline is in flux following an approved upzone that could lead to the construction of affordable housing but potentially drive up the overall cost of living.
After almost two years of debate, the Seattle City Council on Feb. 21 unanimously approved upzoning in the U District, which will now allow developers to construct high-rise housing units up to 30 stories tall. In addition to this approval came a new stipulation called “Mandatory Housing Affordability” (MHA) that requires future developers to allocate 9 percent of either their housing units or overall budget toward affordable housing.
The Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development expects that affordable housing requirement will lead to the development of anywhere between 600 to 900 new affordable housing units in the U District.
Housing is considered affordable when the cost of rent is no more than 30 percent of the household’s total income. Depending on the development, different income caps are put on who can qualify for affordable housing. In the U District, the city will likely set the cap at 60 percent of the area median income, but that has yet to be determined. So for one person making $37,980 a year, they could acquire a housing unit for $949 per month under affordable housing.
Those who wish to live in affordable housing must turn in an application and join a waiting list until units are available.
However, full-time students, who make up a large portion of the U-District population, will likely not qualify for affordable housing as they are considered dependents with their parents’ income factored in.
Even with new stipulations guaranteeing construction of affordable housing, many community members have expressed concern about raising rent prices and gentrification that may come with new development.
“In my experience, every time you upzone a neighborhood, there’s kind of this very classist bar-setting that follows,” said Kristine Scott, executive director of ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, located in the U District. “Even if all of these nice features, which I approve of, happen, it doesn’t slow down that type of gentrification effect.”
ROOTS operates out of the basement of the University Temple United Methodist Church, but due to declining revenue, the church has considered selling part of its property to future developers. Scott is concerned that this may increase the cost of their rent or displace roots altogether.
The U District also serves as a place of residence for many people experiencing homelessness. Some of these people are concerned about the future of their community, and don’t feel that affordable housing will be beneficial to them.
“If I can’t even get a job, I don’t see how this affordable housing — whatever affordable means — helps me at all,” said Michael Betcher, a homeless man living in the U District. “They’re making all these new buildings, but there are still people living on the streets.”
Seattle city planners say that other factors beyond upzoning contribute to the cost of living in the U District. There are more jobs in the city and the U District is well-connected to downtown and other parts of Seattle, said Dave LaClergue, lead planner at the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development.
“Those two factors are really going to increase rent in the U District,” he said.
For now, the inclusion of affordable housing is meant to alleviate some of the negative effects of inevitable rent increases and development, rather than solve the affordable housing crisis in its entirety.
“MHA is one tool that is going to help us mitigate and address displacement, it’s a critical tool, but in and of itself, it’s not going to be enough to address all of the affordable housing needs in our community,” said Emily Alvarado, manager of policy and equitable development at the Seattle Office of Housing. “What it will do is make sure at this point that as we grow, some piece of that housing is captured for affordability.”
The U District YMCA at NE 50th Street and 12th Avenue NE plans to construct transitional housing, now that upzoning will allow it to develop a taller building. It plans to include 20 units for young adults experiencing homelessness.
As the U District looks ahead to inevitable changes, some hope to preserve the community they have known for years.
“I’d like to think that there’s so much charm, spunk and uniqueness about this neighborhood, and I’m really looking forward to that sticking around,” Scott said. “I’m not sure that this will be catastrophic, but I’m hoping that we can recreate a neighborhood in this development and still keep our character.”
Amy Wong is a writer with UW Newslab.