The Seattle Times has an article up about some concerns surrounding potential redevelopment of 8.4 acres of cheap apartments near Northgate. These “concern” pieces seem to usually go one of two ways: a sad story about the loss of low-income garden homes or a story about how new development is going to destroy the community (often the reason cited is traffic). This article is a bit better, but I am still absolutely certain it’s not asking the right questions. Here’s the gist:
But a proposal to rezone the land is being opposed by advocates who fear the loss of the existing 207 apartments that are home to many low-income and immigrant families.
But the Mullally family, which owns the Northgate Apartments, has applied for neighborhood commercial zoning that doesn’t require any replacement of the existing apartments.
I suggest you read the article, my comments below the fold.
The article thankfully has details about the zoning and I think we can infer from them something about the state of mind of the developers.
The apartment property is currently zoned MR, or midrise multifamily. If the Mullallys took advantage of the city’s incentive zoning provisions, they could build up to 2,216 units on the site, according to a calculation prepared by the Department of Planning and Land Use.
They would also be required to replace all 207 of the existing affordable units and build an additional 96 to get the maximum building capacity.
But if they kept the current midrise zoning and didn’t ask for additional height, they wouldn’t have to replace any of the housing units.
In March, the Planning Department approved the rezone to neighborhood commercial but set five conditions, including that the developers add 3 to 5 percent of each new building’s floor area as affordable housing. The 33-page ruling notes that the alternative — a less dense development at the existing zoning, and no new affordable housing — “would fall short of what is envisioned for urban centers.”
Housing advocates say 3 to 5 percent is too little housing for such a big site. And they worry that it won’t be truly affordable to retail workers who want to live in the neighborhood.
Emphasis added. I think there are two ways to reason about this. In one, the Mullally family (a local, family business that has a well-run complex with happy tenants it seems) has decided they would rather not build more units for nefarious reasons. Maybe they really hate poor and working class people, or want to spite John Fox. Or maybe they like having articles in the Seattle Times that make it look like they could be hurting poor and working class people (immigrants, too!), and who wouldn’t like that?
In the other, a way maybe we should also consider, the city’s incentives to build low-income housing do not pencil out in this case. Maybe the incentives are too small. Maybe the rules are too complex. Maybe it requires too much or too little retail. Maybe it’s not possible to get a construction loan for that many units (up to 2,216, with a commensurate amount of parking I would imagine). Maybe they want to build more units. Because, if it did turn out the problem was the zoning rules themselves, we can do something about that. The city council could change those parameters for the Mullally’s with a single vote. Then maybe we could get more market rate housing, more affordable housing, more property tax revenue and more money for the Mullally’s. Win win win win.
I don’t know what the reasons are, but had it been me interviewing John Mullally about this, I might have asked these questions. I would have at very least asked this: “Hey John, why aren’t you considering developing at midrise instead of taking the commercial zoning?” Then I would have published the answer. And then we could reason from that.
One more thing:
Fox estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 low-income units a year are lost in Seattle while, under the city’s 2009 housing levy, 300-400 are built.
I do not know why the Seattle Times prints this John Fox quote without doing any checks to see if it is accurate at all. How did Fox arrive at that number? It seems impossibly large to me, considering there are something like 269,000 units in Seattle in total. What percentage of those 269K are affordable? What is the current redevelopment churn within the city? What percentage of the affordable housing being lost is due to market forces (supply and demand) as opposed to redevelopment? I don’t know, but presumably you would have to know the answers to those to know that between 3,000 to 4,000 affordable housing units were being lost each year. Right? The article clearly makes it sound like 4,000 cheap apartments are being physically destroyed every year, in which case I’d expect 15-20 articles like this per annum from the Seattle Times. Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case; I’m not sure I could stand my head exploding that many times per year.