April 10, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 15

Community & Editorial

The city council can help low-wage workers put down stakes in South Lake Union

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Seattle City Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Mike O’Brien have proposed zoning changes that would amount to huge housing subsidies for people who make $28 to $40 per hour, so that these middle-income workers can live in South Lake Union (SLU). By offering these changes, the councilmembers are ignoring the real needs of thousands of low-wage workers who make between $9 and $18 per hour in sales, service and hotel jobs. It’s these households that would benefit from living close to their jobs in SLU and downtown.

Why would Burgess and O’Brien want to prioritize housing for people who make 80 to 100 percent of the area median income and pull in annual incomes of up to $86,700?  Have they gone too far with this concept of supporting mixed-income housing and forgotten the truly needy?  Is there a new concept of social equity that ignores the homeless and the working poor?

There is plenty of housing around for middle-income people. People earning between $60,000 and $86,700 can find ample housing not only in SLU, but also nearby in Eastlake, Capitol Hill, First Hill, Queen Anne, Ballard, Belltown, Wallingford and other desirable neighborhoods.

A quick review of SLU apartments on craigslist.com found many attractive two-bedroom units that rented from $1,200 to $1,600 per month, rents that middle-income households could afford. Some apartments came with decks and Lake Union views.

A renter earning our state’s minimum wage of $9.19 per hour can only afford to pay $478 a month, assuming 30 percent of that person’s income goes for rent. If that person earns double the minimum wage, or $18.38 per hour, he or she can afford $956. Well, there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in Seattle where hardworking men and women make less than $18 per hour. Where can a family trying to survive on minimum wage find affordable rents in Seattle? Almost nowhere. Rents are out of reach for families with incomes of $20,000 to $40,000.

In a major policy shift, Burgess and O’Brien are moving away from Mayor Mike McGinn’s SLU incentive zoning program. The mayor’s plan proposes that developers who want to build taller buildings contribute to an affordable housing fund. The money would be used by nonprofit organizations to build or preserve housing for families who earn between $18,480 and $44,000. Alternatively, developers can build some middle-income workforce units in their residential towers. Burgess and O’Brien want to add a hefty 20 percent penalty to discourage developers from contributing to the low-income housing fund — thus diverting tens of millions of housing dollars away from those most in need.

The city owns land in SLU that should be turned over to nonprofits to build housing for low-income families, including the SLU trolley barn site. Then there’s a parcel near Mercer Street and Dexter Avenue North called Block 59. The parcel encompasses property owned by Vulcan Real Estate, the city and the state. More than 15 nonprofits envision that Block 59 could support 400 units of mixed-income housing, along with much needed affordable childcare and a job training center. You’d think the idea would get the full support of city council, but some councilmembers want to ditch this plan.

The city council should take leadership in preserving existing low-income housing in SLU. It should support the transfer of development rights, known as TDR, which allows unused air rights to be sold by existing housing developments. Then these buildings can be repaired and preserved for the future. This proposal is supported by the Low Income Housing Institute, Immanuel Community Services, Puget Sound Sage, Compass Housing Alliance and Downtown Emergency Services Center. Councilmember Nick Licata champions this idea, and the council should support him.

A recent bipartisan national commission, comprising 21 leading Democrats and Republicans, issued a report called “Housing America’s Future.” It stated: “The commission recommends that our nation transition to a system in which our most vulnerable households, those with extremely low income (at or below 30 percent of area median income) are assured access to housing assistance if they need it.” The city council should heed this advice and keep Seattle affordable by housing our most vulnerable families.

So let’s tell the councilmembers by their Committee on South Lake Union meeting on April 15 that if they rezone SLU for taller and denser buildings, the council should target public benefits to house low-income families. The council should turn over city-owned land to house needy families and preserve the stock of existing affordable housing.



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