The Past, The Present, and the Future: Hunting For Housing In Seattle

Photo by Andrew A. Smith.Licensed CC-BY-SA.

Photo by Andrew A. Smith.
Licensed CC-BY-SA.

It might be the number-one topic in the city of Seattle these days. And the proprietor of a downtown pizza establishment who sold me a slice on a recent Saturday night put it best – “Seattle’s a cool place But for the first time, I don’t feel like I HAVE to live here. It’s too damn expensive.”

It seems you can’t really get rich in Seattle, but you can live a pleasant life on a lot less money than it takes in bigger cities – if you know enough people who’ll help you. Mother Jones magazine – Nov. 1978.

Zillion, an on-line real estate site, ranks the median price of housing in Seattle at $450,000. (the median means roughly 50% of houses are priced under $450,000 and about 50% are over that number). But if you’re not a Vice President at Microsoft or the Seattle Seahawks’ starting quarterback, chances are you’re looking into renting these days.

In September, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, greater Seattle moved into 10th place on the list of most expensive places to rent. Across all size units, the gross median rate for rental units moved to $1,172 a month. Between 2010 and 2013, rents went up $113 in Seattle, or 11%, the fastest growing increases in the country. In the same time period, the amount of renters has increased 13%.

The aptly named Rent Jungle web-site lists the average one-bedroom unit at $1,402 and a two-bedroom place at $1,925. Capitol Hill and the UDistrict are expensive, things get cheaper (relatively) as you move away from downtown. There are outliers like Shoreline to the North and Renton to the South, and you can find a single room – what used to be called Single Room Occupancy (SRO’s) for $375 to $450 a month. Of course, they don’t fit everyone’s needs; especially those who don’t want to share a kitchen and bathroom with strangers. And lastly, there’s subsidized housing with its endless waiting lists.

In Nov. 1978, Mother Jones, the political muckraking magazine, ran a Best and Worst of American Cities issue. Amidst stories of purse-snatching on New York subways and Los Angeles’ growing Native American population, the magazine deemed Seattle America’s most livable city. Raymond Mungo, MJ’s religious editor of all things, arrived in Seattle in 1970.

Seattle lacked all the stress and financial pressure generally found in big cities; since nobody had any money, the cost of living had plummeted to unbelievable lows…Soon after we arrived, HUD virtually gave away 6,000 homes. We bought a beautiful house for no down payment at all and $150 a month – a sale price of $19.000.

Most likely, the city will never return to those halcyon days. In Mungo’s old neighborhood of Wallingford, houses are now valued at a median price of $555,055. Nobody back in 1978 foresaw something called a dot.com boom or Microsoft, Amazon and Vulcan Properties, weren’t in the vocabulary. And things aren’t getting better. The city figures approximately 100,000 people will move to the Seattle area in the next twenty years. Who knows how accurate that prognostication will turn out, but BizJournal, yet another website with a funky name, says that 9,000 new apartments were built in Seattle this past year and they’re already filled to 96% capacity.

Many compare Seattle to San Francisco, where techsters are the only ones who can afford to live in the city with the common folk chased to the suburbs. However, there have been some suggestions for how to stem the upcoming deluge. Four remedies proposed are: aPodments, rent control, inclusionary zoning and linkage fees.

aPodments is actually a trade name for micro housing which have already sprung up in Ballard, the University District and Capitol Hill. They usually include a dwelling for sleeping and a common kitchen. Last month, the City Council gave approval to new regulations concerning aPodments. Previously, the city estimated that aPodments averaged about 150 square feet, under new regulations they’ve been expanded to 220 square feet minimum and each unit must include two sinks. Common areas in aPodments will also be increased.

There’s also a mandate for minimum parking standards, which may seem odd since someone looking for cheap living quarters probably can’t afford a car. Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien, chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee noted when new rules were passed, “make no mistake this is a compromise bill.” O’Brien, who’s been wrestling with how to deal with aPodements for over a year, opposed some of the amendments tacked on by anti-aPodment NIMBYs, but was voted down.

“These requirements will drive up the costs and make (aPodments) infeasible,” said Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, which advocates for affordable housing in the city. Currently, aPodments are approximately $700 in Seattle, but if prices continue to rise, these one unit dwellings won’t be any cheaper than some apartments.

Seattle is growing, traffic is worsening, buildings getting taller, housing more expensive, collection agents more ruthless and air pollution more serious. Mother Jones, Nov. 1978.

In her campaign against Speaker of the House Frank Chopp for State Senator in District 43, Jess Spear of Socialist Alternative made Rent Control an issue. Currently, rent control’s illegal in Washington state. A rent control initiative made it onto the Seattle ballot in 1980, was voted down, and soon after it became illegal. Most observers don’t foresee the legislature dealing with rent control in the near future.

The term rent control’s pretty self-explanatory – putting a ceiling on rent for a specific apartment. In Washington, landlords are regulated in some areas. They can raise rent as much as they like as long as they comply with appropriate notice periods. Seattle landlords are required to give tenants 30-day written notice to change a term on tenancy.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled rent control was constitutional in 1921. Laws vary from state-to-state, but rent control is enacted in about 40 countries. In some, like the United Kingdom, virtually all of public housing comes under some form of rent control. Arguments for rent control are that it provides more stability among renters, individual buildings and even neighborhoods. The con is that it stymies new housing development.

Some of the criticism of rent control may come from the way it has been applied. Many cities have enacted rent control only to existing buildings. Anything built after the law passed became exempt, so that further housing construction isn’t discouraged. But there have been cases in San Francisco and New York where renters who hold on to their rent controlled apartment have a much lower rent than people even moving into the same building.

Spear, who also ran Seattle’s successful 15Now minimum wage campaign, would apply rent control to all units. At least, someone would know what they were getting into when the move into a new apartment. Sudden and massive rent increases have been reported in Seattle in recent years. Recently, a complex on First Hill that included many elderly residents, increased its rents on studio apartments from $768 to $1356 a month.

To explain Inclusionary Zoning we should look at zoning and exclusionary zoning, which led to inclusionary zoning. The first zoning laws originated in New York City in 1916 to combat the increasing amount of high-rises. Ten years later, the US Supreme Court ruled zoning laws were constitutional.

However, many early zoning laws were used to promote racism and classism. Not only were some areas zoned for only single-family houses and no apartments, but laws could be passed (including in Seattle) where races of people could be prevented from buying a house or living in a particular neighborhood.

When the 1970’s began, many municipalities combated this type of exclusionary zoning with laws that ensured when new housing was built, developers would provide low-cost housing for other residents. The first inclusionary zoning policy, passed in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1971. That mandated developers of more than 50 units of multi-family housing provide 15% of their units at affordable prices to residents within 60 to 80% of the median income. Currently, Seattle generates some incentive zoning money; when developers exceed height limits in areas like South Lake Union.

Linkage Fees have recently entered the discussion because Inclusionary Zoning in Seattle only takes place in certain neighborhoods and with certain buildings. In late October, the Council by a 7-2 margin passed a resolution directing the Office of Housing and the Department of Planning and Development to develop linkage-fee legislation for the council to vote on by June 15, 2015.

Linkage fees are a per-square-foot charge to be imposed on developers building new commercial and residential buildings in the city. The fees would then pay for the building of affordable housing. The city also has to look into whether linkage fees are actually legal and Smart Growth’s Valdez says the fees will be passed on to renters, further driving up the cost of housing in the city.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has also appointed a 28-person Housing Affordabilty & Livability Advisory Committee to review the housing crisis and explore new ideas. That committee will report back to the Mayor in May, 2015.

The future is dangerous for Seattle. Its secret is out; fat Winnebagos are nosed in our direction, like bombs from Seattle or Boston. The new mayor (Charlie Royer or Ed Murray?) embodies all the well-meaning and light-hearted qualities of the citizenry. It remains to be seen if he can stop the glut or the new ugliness. Mother Jones November 1978; Seattle Star, November 2014.