Seattle City Council Introduces New Affordable Housing Policy Options

Seattle’s housing crisis has gone from bad to worse.  Over the next 20 years, we will simply not have enough housing for the number of people who need and want to live and/or work in Seattle.

Right now, 40% of Seattle’s residents are low-income – and our city is becoming too expensive for nearly half of our population.  The influx of new workers in high-paying, largely tech jobs, combined with the development of high-end (and more expensive) housing, has caused housing prices to skyrocket, driving up the cost of rent by 33% since 2010 in some areas of the city.

Seattle is now 40% Low-Income (Makes Less than 80% of the Area Median Income). Data provided by Seattle City Council Housing Needs Data Report–Existing Conditions: Workforce and Affordable Housing
40% of Seattle’s residents are now considered low-income. They make less than 80% of the Area Median Income. (Data provided by Seattle City Council Housing Needs Data Report–Existing Conditions: Workforce and Affordable Housing)

While 2 out of 5 people in Seattle are low-income, only 1 in 5 newly built homes are affordable to them and their families.  Making things worse, higher and median-income people are forced to compete with lower-income residents for the lowest priced housing in Seattle.  This is called “down-renting” and squeezes lower-income people out of housing that should otherwise be available to them.  These pressures are displacing low-income people – mostly immigrants, refugees and people of color – out of Seattle to the suburbs – where there is limited public transportation.

Seattle has a few policies in place that attempt to address this crisis.  One small slice of this policy pie is called “incentive zoning.”  It requires market-rate developers to build affordable units – or pay a fee in-lieu of building the units on-site – in exchange for permission to build a taller/bigger building.  Developers often choose to pay the fees, instead of building affordable housing on-site.  However, incentive zoning has resulted in very few affordable homes, because the program is voluntary, restricted to only a few neighborhoods, and it is often not as profitable for developers to build affordable housing in order to build bigger and higher.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee, chaired by Councilmember Mike O’Brien, presented two policy options that could address our housing crisis.  The first option would increase the fees for developers who participate in the voluntary incentive zoning program: resulting in a bigger bucket of money for affordable homes, and ideally, encouraging developers to build affordable units instead of paying the in-lieu fee.  The City’s economic analysis suggests that the success of this option would be incremental.

The second policy option is a “Linkage Fee,” which is a mandatory fee for potentially all new projects across the city, regardless of density or location.  The revenue from the linkage fees would be used to build affordable housing at designated locations throughout Seattle.  In other words, it could result in significant amount of new affordable units.  In order for the fee to be legal, it must be based on a study that connects the impact of development with the need for affordable housing.  This study, called a “nexus” study, will be released from City Council shortly. This study will also determine the amount of the fee and locations of Seattle where the fee will be implemented.  It is too soon to tell how the money will be used, and for what purpose.  We will hopefully have more information by early September.