The City Council has decided to eschew Vulcan’s offer to give millions for affordable housing so Vulcan could build taller towers on a few blocks in South Lake Union. I disagree with that decision, but no one gets what they want all the time. So fine.
But this has my blood boiling:
“One hundred and sixty feet gives additional density and makes a wonderful place for all, not just those who can afford to live in the towers,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.
Class warfare is a really nasty business. So before Sally Bagshaw congratulates herself overmuch, it’s worth noting that this isn’t some sort of victory against solely “those who can afford to live in towers”, but also a rout against those struggle to afford housing at all. Vulcan was going to provide $10~$12 million dollars worth to provide for affordable housing in this plan, and the council is putting an end to that.
A wonderful place for all, just not those who can’t afford it.
65 Replies to “Who Can Afford What”
Also in the bigger picture, Alan Durning’s facebook reaction nails it:
The council’s decision against 24-stories by South Lake Union is a decision for more sprawl, more driving, more climate change. Kudos to Richard Conlin, Mike O’Brien, and Tim Burgess for standing up for Seattle’s values and the principles in its comprehensive plan and climate action plan.
So feeling that 24 stories is too high for that neighborhood and voting against it automatically means more sprawl, more driving, and more climate change? Wow, that’s quite a jump a logic.
Having read your blog, I know you have a flair for the dramatic, but that reaction is comical.
It does mean that, yes. Here’s a breakdown of the outcomes:
1) If there is demand for the units at the rent for which they would have been offered, that amount of rent will end up being paid by the people who make up that demand, for a cheaper existing unit. That pushes straight down the market and forces poor people out of Seattle.
2) If there was not demand for the units at that rent (if they reflect overbuilt capacity), they would drop in price until they were filled, pulling rents downward across the city as people moved from other Seattle units into them and created availability for others who currently can’t afford to live in Seattle.
Either way, the building reduces demand for exurban growth. Not building that square footage means that much of our region’s new population goes outside the city, reducing in more carbon emissions.
I know you have an agenda Ben (and Dan), with which I usually agree, but this reaction/argument is nothing but histrionics. You’re making huge assumptions about the impact of a theoretical building, but are also advocating density for density’s sake and not thinking about what may be good for a neighborhood and those who live around it (think QA/Cap Hill/Wallingford).
Personally, I think 24-story towers that far north in SLU would be a travesty: they would be out of scale and would just necessitate further and more dramatic upzones in the rest of the area. I think 16 stories is a great compromise.
But by the logic in Dan’s post, I am therefore advocating sprawl and raising rents and driving more and killing kittens and shopping at Wal-Mart. It’s all or nothing with you people.
To clarify, I believe Vulcan was going to give the City a piece of property they paid the City about $4 M a few years back instead of paying the approximatly $12M in fees that would be required under the ordinance if they got 240 feet. The City still will require in-lieu fees for or affordable housing within the 160 ft towers, so all is not lost, just some.
Yeah, part of the problem with Vulcan has always been not so much what they want to do, but that they like to decide exactly what the public tradeoff for it must be. It was not “affordable housing” it was “our valuation of what giving you back this particular block should be worth and you count that exact amount as being affordable housing.”
If the issue is that they want more money, you say you want more money. Taking 240′ off the table isn’t going to get you more money.
In fact, it results in less money.
MarkSJohnson , at least some part of what your saying isn’t accurate. There’s currently no ordinance for incentive zoning on the books in that area.
There are a few moment about all this that must be disclosed first: South Lake Union absolutely has no regional transit and nothing is planned at all, let alone funded. Even the 16 story tower has no place there. In the mean time the light rail corridor has the same height limit as Auburn and Kent. SLU is already denser than the current and future light rail station locations. To build more, will look really bad in the future, as everyone will eventually start asking why the city authorized so much density in a transitless congested neighborhood and nothing on the light rail line.
Another important issue is the legitimacy of this so called ‘low income housing’. This program, where developers provide a number of units for ‘low income’ housing came under fire and may even end up in a lawsuit. At first it seems like a good thing, but the devil is in details. Besides the fact that developers are getting huge tax breaks from the city, a so called affordable 1br goes for $1,295. So in the end, this looks more like a business deal between developers and the city… This rattled the city’s cages and they are now very careful about this… because it’s pretty much a scam and only a lawyer away from a lawsuit, just a matter of funding the lawsuit…
you are confusing a couple of issues. Vulcan wasn’t going to build affordable units, but rather give the city land to build affordable units on.
First of all, this area is well served by transit. I’m no big fan of streetcars, but this neighborhood already has one. The best thing about a streetcar is that it can handle lots of people. Way more than buses.
Second, it isn’t that far from other places. This means that lots of the folks who would live there would just walk to their destination. That is what happens when a place reaches a certain level of density (and the more dense, the more walking). Speaking of which, if I lived there, I would just walk to the light rail station. It isn’t that far, and it is fairly flat. It is about a ten minute walk according to Google.
Lastly, transit often follows density, not the other way around. Why do you think we built the bus tunnel? To support future development? Hardly. We built it to serve downtown right now. In other words, we will eventually have to improve the transit options in South Lake Union one way or another. The more people in that neighborhood, the more likely we are to serve it really well. Maybe we build an underground spur line, or maybe we build a gondola, but these ideas make a lot more sense the more people move into that area. They simply become more cost effective.
Ross, you’re right. If the rapid streetcars to Fremont/Ballard and Eastlake/U District aren’t built, eventually Link will have to go to Ballard, and it will probably go through SLU and Fremont rather than Lower Queen Anne and Interbay.
Unless Sound Transit is doing something very different from what it looks like they’re doing, the decision to build Link through Interbay will come significantly before we would decide that streetcar won’t go through Fremont. We’ll just have to keep fighting for streetcar through Fremont until we get it.
If the Ballard Link line merges with the DSTT at Convention Place, it could go north to SLU, west to Uptown, and then either (A) northwest to Interbay and Ballard; (B) north to QA/Boston, Interbay and Ballard; or (B) north to QA/Boston, Fremont, and Ballard. This was one of my suggestions to ST at the open house.
But Mike, don’t you think Belltown should have a station in the neighborhood proper? It is one of the densest residential districts in the City – I feel like bypassing it would lose a lot of potential ridership.
Yes, that’s the tradeoff, Belltown or SLU. It’s not obvious that one is more important than the other. The main issue for me is that if we can leverage the DSTT, that would save millions of dollars over a new tunnel, which would make it much easier to get the line approved.
HCT absolutely should serve Belltown, especially since serving Ballard and QA with HCT would seriously diminish the river of frequency of buses on 3rd Avenue that Belltown currently enjoys.
The thing is, I don’t think Belltown is compatible with using the DSTT. A Belltown alignment would meet it on the northwest side of Westlake station, and require a north-south platform. If the line terminates at Westlake maybe they’d make a pedestrian tunnel between the platforms, but I can’t see them making a rail branch on the west side of Westlake station.
Have you asked the city council to upzone around train stations?
This is bad for several reasons. First, it makes housing more expensive. Basically, every landlord in the city should congratulate Bagshaw and the rest of the council. Second, along with lowering the cost of housing by building more units, they were actually going to build additional low income units as part of the deal. Crazy, really. They shouldn’t have to. If we want to build extra low income housing (a laudable project) why should we fine those who are actually working to lower the cost of housing? It boggles the mind. But they were willing to pay it, and we rejected their offer.
In case someone doesn’t understand why landlords are overjoyed by this news, give yourself a minute to think about it, then come back to this paragraph. What happens to landlords who rent places that look just like this? They can raise the rent, since now they have less competition. Likewise, what happens to places that are not quite as good as these and just a bit cheaper? Well, they just saw the nicer place raise the rent, so they will follow suit. On and on and it goes. It is simple supply and demand.
Of course, the overall price of rent may go up and down depending on supply and demand elsewhere, which is ever changing. But supply just took a hit. All renters will pay. All owners will end up with more valuable property. All so we don’t have to put with taller buildings. Fine. Just don’t call yourself progressive, or a liberal, or an environmentalist when you do these things, because you aren’t. You are basically acting like a self centered owner of a nice house in a gated community. Enjoy your lawn.
You have a very facile handle on economics if you think that the potential cancellation of all or part of a project will somehow raise rents today, or ever. Today, we’re a hot housing market. Who knows if that will be the case when this project would have been completed. Another project may get financed because these won’t proceed as planned. Relax.
That would be true if there were an infinite supply of land zoned for very high density. But there isn’t. Part of the reason very-high-density projects like this are good for housing affordability is that they have an outsize impact on the city’s total supply of housing. The council just threw part of that potential impact down the drain.
I think you need to read my last paragraph over again. I put that in there for a reason. I’ve seen people get confused over this point, and this why it is important. You see this with big, complex arguments all the time. For example, let’s say Boeing decides to lay off 100 workers. Does that help or hurt overall employment? The obvious answer is that it hurts. So, they do that, but then next month you read the unemployment statistics, and the number of unemployed actually dropped. What gives? The short answer is that it would have lowered it even more had Boeing not laid off the workers. The overall economy of the region, with thousands hiring and firing each month, had a bigger effect. But Boeing laying off the workers still hurt employment. Consider this small restriction similar to the Boeing layoff. It raises the overall price, but it will be very difficult (if not impossible) to point to the actual event and say how much it effects the price of housing.
You are absolutely correct in assuming that there will be, and will continue to be other factors involved. If Amazon, Microsoft or Boeing goes bankrupt, then housing prices will go down. If the UW cuts enrollment and closes the hospital, prices will go down. These all effect demand.
But supply effects things too. What if the city simply banned all new housing construction? What effect would that have on housing prices? The obvious answer is that the prices would go up. But if those other changes occur at the same time, then prices might actually go down, just not down as much as they would otherwise. Likewise, this is a much smaller ban, but it will have the same effect. Whether it results in an overall increase in housing price depends on numerous other factors, including the demand as well as the cost of labor, material and regulations. But I think you will agree that the effect of this change is to increase the cost of housing more than it would be otherwise.
Excuse me, but what is your evidence that more stories and more units would have led to more affordable housing? If you can get $2000 for a unit in a 16 story bldg…..that’s what the market will bear; you are not going to lower your rent if the city allows you to go higher to say 24 stories. The developer will charge the same $2000 per unit. Density and taller bldgs don’t automatically lead to more affordable housing.
It’s not about the cost of the extra units. It’s about the several hundred people who can afford those new units who will now be competing with other people for cheaper units instead. That will drive up the prices of units elsewhere in the city that are today cheaper.
Supply and demand.
That only works if there is infinite demand. There isn’t, even in this market. Either the developer or his competition will have to lower prices on some units.
You might want to read my followup above your comment as well (I was commenting on Breadbaker’s comment). I put in a third paragraph to emphasize that this is just one factor in a huge mix of factors that determine housing prices. I also didn’t word my main sentence very well. So, let me try again: This raises the price of all housing compared to what it would otherwise be. Because of all of the other factors, housing prices might go up or down. But this action, taken by the city council, will negatively effect renters and positively effect landlords.
It’s not just “affordable” housing, which is a narrow range of income in the legal definition. it’s about easing the rent pressure over the entire housing market. In one sense there may be multiple separate markets, because ordinary people can’t afford a $500K condo or $2000+ rent, so it makes no difference to them whether there’s a vacancy at that level or not. But people who can afford higher levels will often move into them, vacating something less expensive which is then available to a lower-income household.
Yes, there’s also a trend of landlords raising rents because a new expensive building opened nearby, and that supposedly raises the “value” of their building… if they can find enough tenants willing to accept that line, people who won’t just move into the new building instead. But at the most BASIC level, rents and sale prices follow supply and demand. They’re sticky on the way down because owners don’t like to take a loss. But owners can’t ignore the fact that more supply means fewer people making offers on their units, so it at least slows or stops the rate of growth.
Rents going DOWN is another issue: it usually takes a depression or population decline to do that. Because owners will try one-year sales (“First month free!” “10% off first year!” “Free microwave!”) as long as they can before lowering the base rent. In the 2008 crash, the Summit area was awash in sales, and rents flattened rather than decreased. (I suspect rents declined in non-transit-friendly areas but I don’t know for sure.) But in the 1930s, rents decreased, and in Detroit, the low-end rental market disappeared when you can buy a house for $20K.
Allowing growth in density and height does mean housing is more affordable compared to not allowing that growth.
Sometimes people point to another city and say “they’re more dense and less affordable!” The thing that makes them less affordable is that they no longer allow growth in density and height. The baseline you start with isn’t the important part, it’s whether you’re satisfying the pressure or not.
Mike, absolutely right, but let’s not forget that even those cheesy “sales” are effectively a lowering of the price. “First month free” is really a 9% price reduction assuming a one-year lease; the developer is just trying to make it psychologically easier to raise rent later.
“First month free” may be even more useful than a base rate reduction for a lot of people who are short of cash.
What really gets me is the statement about how 160 feet makes a great place for all, as though 240 feet would somehow be worse for people. Who exactly does that height difference negatively affect? The only people I can think of who benefit are people with views, exactly the well-off people Bagshaw seems to needlessly be sticking it to in her statement. This is backwards on so many levels.
I assume Bagshaw’s reference is to protecting the new park (views from and shading of).
Which park? The one around MOHAI, or something newer? I can understand shading (although I don’t think it’d be nearly a big enough issue to warrant this limitation), but I don’t see how the view FROM a ground-level park is meaningfully worse from a 24-story building than a 16-story one.
So: The amount of shade in a park that mostly only rich people have access to is more important than money for affordable housing.
By the way, if you read the Times comment section, THOSE are the people the mayoral contenders are courting with their anti-transit positions.
Ya, the times comments a filled with super negative isolated trolls imho
And they vote, disproportionately.
Does anyone else feel that this is an inflection point? That Seattle has just changed in a fundamental way? I’m not talking about the policy issue of the specific height limits and all that. Instead let’s think about what it means that one very wealthy investor has just redefined downtown Seattle — defined as an area in which twenty-five story and taller buildings should be built — as stretching all the way to the shores of Lake Union.
That essentially would double the size of the downtown core, especially if the new development areas stretched all the way from Aurora/Seattle Center to the I-5 bluff.
I guess the council didn’t want to occlude Amazon’s views of the lake.
Amazon’s views (at least the current SLU campus) are already going to be blocked by the 16 story towers.
Aren’t the new towers south of Denny going to be much taller than 16 stories — nearly 40? That’s the buildings I meant. You’re clearly right about the shorter existing buildings, though.
I’ve noticed this “inflection point” as well, and have been expecting it, though it isn’t a bright line. Pioneer Square, of course, is the original downtown, which has been spreading, primarily to the north and to some extent east and south, for a century. There’s an emerging “center city” of continuous urbanity (varying but high density) stretching from the historic core of downtown Seattle to the south shore of Lake Union (modulo the useless donut hole in the Denny Triangle that will soon and thankfully be filled in), stretching part way up Queen Anne hill, east halfway across Capitol Hill, including First Hill, and soon to include the (huge) new Yesler Terrace and growing Stadium District. Look at satellite images and it sort of jumps out already. That urban fabric is naturally scaled down on the physically constrained east and west sides of Lake Union. Ballard, Fremont and the U District are vital close-in satellite urban districts that are likely to feel even more knit into the urban core as they densify and transit is built out.
All of that is good, to this former Chicagoan, as is the fact that we haven’t zoned for high density everywhere in Seattle, or made it a free for all. In the big picture, concentration of new development makes for better functioning cities that are better configured for transit investments. Some nice old character buildings do get torn down, which always makes me sad, and affordability is a big problem, but overall Seattle feels a lot more like a real city than it did 20 or even 10 years ago. We’re no Vancouver, though, in high rise construction.
Growth will happen, whether it’s one wealthy investor or others who appear to be a proximate trigger. I don’t find 24 stories in SLU to be excessive, having grown up in Chicago where buildings across the street from lakefront parks vary from 3 to 100 stories, though I do think the shading of the park at this high latitude is a factor worth considering.
That high rise construction is what helps solve the affordability problem – for a given amount of demand from new people, taller buildings mean fewer old, affordable buildings get demolished.
And because this is a third rail for so many people, let me be absolutely clear about that statement: Helps solve. Not solves. We need to fund affordable housing directly on a larger scale than we are today. But we will not be able to afford to house all of the people who can’t afford market rents if we limit upward growth, because limiting upward growth causes more people not to be able to afford market rents!
If you only know Chicago and San Francisco (following up on Jared’s comment a couple days ago), keep in mind that those are among the top ten cities in the country re density/transit. (The others being New York, DC, Boston, and Philadelphia.) Yes, Seattle is much worse than those, but it’s doing excellent compared to 90% of the country. Try to find Seattle’s density or frequency or subways or pedestrian districts (Broadway, U-District) in San Jose or Atlanta or San Diego or Denver or Columbus or Cleveland or Dallas or many other cities — you can’t. That’s what frustrates me: I can’t take jobs in any of these places or it would be a significant degradation to my no-car quanity of life. If I want a better pedestrian/transit experience, my only choices are a few cold-and-hot-and-humid northeastern cities (often more expensive), or San Francisco which has good city transit but spotty regional transit and is sky-high expensive, or Canada/Europe.
Those other more dense cities have similar restrictions on new development. There’s demand to grow upward that they aren’t allowing.
Mike: San Diego is actually pretty good, though with some glaring holes in its system. I can’t disagree with you on the rest.
I attribute the situation in San Diego to two things: the tourist trade and the Tijuana border. The result is that the service is biased in odd ways.
One of the bloggers here was bragging a few months back that he had just moved into a high-priced SLU tower. Funny he’s remaining the silent about it now.
Home prices are more a function of location than density. That’s why apartments, condos and homes cost 20% to 70% more next to high-paying, high tech businesses. Living in neighborhoods like SLU (Amazon), Kirkland (Google), Fremont (Adobe Systems), Redmond and Bellevue (Microsoft), people will always have to pay a premium. If you care about truly affordable housing, you would encourage housing to be built in areas that aren’t next to high tech headquarters and offices.
If lowering housing prices is your first priority than you would encourage more housing to be built everywhere. More property next to those high tech centers will mean lower prices in those high tech centers and elsewhere.
It’s a tradeoff, to be sure. I’m not one to advocate for more housing everywhere. But every restriction negatively effects renters, whether they rent in that area or someplace close. The closer they are, the more if effects them. It’s just supply and demand.
Home prices are a function of supply and demand, more than any other factor. We have demand. We are restricting supply. That pushes price up for everyone in the city and region, not just those locations.
I work in lower Fremont for a tech company. I am currently renting in upper Fremont. If there weren’t places for me to live in Fremont I (along with my techie neighbors) take my horrible tech money some other place and drive up rent there; maybe Ballard or Phinney Ridge or Westlake.
The debate over height essentially revolves around increasing density v. maintaining the character and livability of the neighborhood. Height restrictions are an incredibly arbitrary way to pursue the ends of ‘livability.’ Instead of restricting heights the city council and stakeholders in SLU should pool assets and develop the area in a systematic and comprehensive way. I think Steinbreuck’s “doing density right” is indicative of this approach. It seems ridiculous that SLU should be developed in a completely ad hoc manner considering the relatively few actors and their wealth. Vancouver’s success in increasing density has come largely from allowing very high levels of development coupled with increased open spaces and the preservation of sight lines. Height restrictions stifle development while failing to achieve their supposed goals.
Yes, Vancouver B.C. is a fantastic model. Throughout the peninsula north of False Creek and west of Quebec Street there is a cluster of amazingly co-ordinated but architecturally interesting high-rises. Yet there are sight lines throughout the area, because they use a slightly randomized “checkerboard” pattern of development. Most of the buildings have a a view in a couple of directions above the fourth or fifty story.
To the east of False Creek between Quebec and Main Streets there’s a new cluster of buildings which repeat the design but are closer together, clustered around a big SkyTrain station. There is a gap between each pair of buildings along Quebec which is filled by a similar building on Main Street, so the Main Street structures have a view of the False Creek waterfront, too.
It’s really quite amazing how well they’ve planned for sight lines.
There is nothing ad hoc about Vulcan’s plans. There are just lots of elements the neighbors don’t like. One of those neighbors is a retirement living facility for whom Peter is a paid lobbyist.
I’m not going to say I like what Vulcan plans to do. But I will say that whatever they do, we may as well get the best deal with them that we can. I want as many housing units as can fit on that land. I want as many of them as possible to be affordable. Peter’s “doing density right” is meaningless until he spells out some goals beyond word soup. Until then, it is code phrase for keeping more people from moving into Seattle.
Want to preserve neighborhood character? Allow lots and lots of people to live as far away as possible from the single-family suburbs within the city limits.
I agree with both points. Vulcan gets blamed because they seem organized and have an agenda (horrors). It hasn’t occurred to a lot of people that their agenda might actually be good for everyone. Imagine a rich guy who decides to buy a lot of low income rent property in south Seattle. Now lets assume the same guy decides to put millions into the local schools. Someone might cry “Why, he is just trying to make the neighborhood a better place to live so that the property values go up! He doesn’t really care about the people here.” Maybe it is both, or maybe it doesn’t matter. Either way he should be encouraged, and only the most provincial ninny would think otherwise.
As to Steinbreuck, I agree as well. I would love it if he read this review (as well as the book) and told us that this is what he has in mind: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/03/why-we-need-stop-obsessing-over-density-all-costs/4862/
If so, then I might respect his opinion. As of right now, though, Durning has a vision of Seattle that is probably a lot more in keeping with the book and that review.
The ‘ad hoc’ reference was in regard to SLU on the whole not just the properties held by Vulcan and I should have articulated that more clearly. The entire framework of the debate makes no sense. Arbitrary height limits which only serve to decrease density while doing nothing to maintain the character of SLU. The difference between the effects of a 160ft 240ft or even 300ft building on the surrounding area are marginal. My issue is with the council seeing height as a proxy for preserving the character of SLU when there is no connection. While ‘character’ is an incredibly vague term a big part of it is preserving sight lines of Lake Union. Vulcan has served as an incredible catalyst for SLU but the Council’s policies in regard to SLU make no sense. They’ve confused restrictions with planning. Connecting affordable housing to height limits simultaneously makes it harder to increase density and funds affordable housing in a regressive manner.
I consider these sentences very important:
“They’ve confused restrictions with planning. Connecting affordable housing to height limits simultaneously makes it harder to increase density and funds affordable housing in a regressive manner.”
This blog has once again missed the point in its insane drive to cram as many people into neighborhoods to justify its lust for streetcars and rail. We need a livable city. Simply put, 24 story towers on the lake front do not make a livable city that it enjoyable for all residents and visitors.
This blog should focus on transit issues, not urban development. Stick to a topic you know something about.
Why not? The very most livable part of the whole city of Chicago has towers along a lake that are a whole lot higher than that.
People here continually treat the idea that dense neighborhoods can be livable as self-evidently insane, not even justifying a specific rebuttal, when there are tons of examples of dense, livable neighborhoods in other cities all over the world.
SLU looks like a pocket park compared to the space Chicago has devoted to it’s lakefront. It’s more like Sandpoint except Sandpoint isn’t close to DT and has limited access via public transit.
24 story towers on the lake front do not make a livable city that it enjoyable for all residents and visitors.
Even leaving aside the contradictory examples David points to, they make it possible for more people to live there at lower prices. That makes it more livable to me.
From article: “…a complex deal in which the city would buy most of a nearby block from Vulcan, in order to create a hub of affordable housing and social services.” A complex deal? This could be the same deal as the city had with many other developers, where those affordable/low income units cost about $1,200/month today. But of course it was all baloon and banners when the city announces the deal and gives lifelong taxbreak deals for the developers. As far as transit goes, I stand by my words that there is no REGIONAL transit planned or funded in SLU. Street car is not regional transit. How many times in your life do you need to go to ghetto westlake mall, even if it’s extended, its slow and unreliable… it’s pretty much set up for accidents and delays. You live next to an express lane of an Interstate, so you gonna take a slow trolly into the drama of downtown first, and then take an express bus that will pass by your window 30 minutes later. it’s mental…
This doesn’t mean that I want short wide buildings, skinny and tall is much more progressive, but build them along the light rail line and other permanent rapid transit lines, like in Vancouver for example. Seattle is more like Miami Metrorail which was build more than 30 years ago and still has no density along its route, while other neighborhoods that have bad transit exploded in development with residential skyscrapers… and the line wasn’t even that bad, very fancy with grade separation and little sky movers to/from big stations so people don’t walk in heat or rain… Developers got the money, city isn’t, so whatever developers like, that’s where the density will be… whoever got money they seem to be in control in this country. And if a public works idea is successful it’s only because some rich brat liked it …
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