Last week, the local hotel workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 8, sent a letter to Seattle DPD recommending that the 1620-room hotel project planned for the Greyhound site (and the rest of the block around it) require a supplemental environmental impact statement for downtown, rather than just an addendum to the existing downtown EIS, because it has a significant unplanned impact on downtown employment and housing affordability.
This project, to me, is fascinating. My first response, upon speaking with UNITE HERE earlier in the year, was frustration – slowing down downtown development drives up prices, impacting affordability and adding pressure for sprawl. But during that initial conversation, I realized my frustration was misplaced. A hotel doesn’t have those kinds of impacts – it’s not a factor in housing supply. Or, at least, not usually.
Right now, aside from the Greyhound station, the site where this hotel will be built also contains the old Bonair Apartments, a residential building that serves as de facto affordable housing. As Jane Jacobs covers for an entire chapter, old buildings tend to become affordable as they age, and the Bonair is an excellent example – most of its 48 units are priced low enough to be considered affordable by those earning 50% of Area Median Income (AMI).
The hotel project also contains affordable housing – 160 units (for 50 years). That housing, however, is only required to be affordable by those earning 80% of AMI – so while that level of affordable housing is also needed, this project isn’t a clear benefit. It will displace some low income people, many likely downtown service workers, and replace them with people making more money. Arguably, that’s still a wash – it’s the other side of the equation where the real impact lies, and why UNITE HERE is involved.
More below the fold.
UNITE HERE is a young union. I have yet to meet someone there who strikes me as a lobbyist. The people I’ve met are organizers – Saul Alinsky style, well educated and dramatically underpaid. Their goal is to make sure the workers hired for this hotel earn enough that they don’t have to commute from Puyallup or Marysville, and have benefits that keep them from going bankrupt when their kids have a cavity.
Most of the major hotel brands have flagships in downtown Seattle, with the notable exception of Marriott, which is extremely anti-union in their urban center properties, where their business model seems to be undercutting competition. UNITE is reasonably expecting the hotel to be a non-union Marriott. In search of their goal, though, they’ve brought up points that affect both transit and housing.
This hotel will employ close to 1000 people, and as a non-union hotel, most of those people would likely earn below 50% of AMI, meaning they can’t afford to live near work – they’re going to be commuters. Amazon, and most office building expansion, hires higher paid workers who are able to live where they choose – but a maid can’t afford to live in Belltown, SLU, or Capitol Hill without getting into affordable housing. We don’t have 600+ units of 50% AMI affordable housing just lying around – that’s as much as is built in the city in an entire year, and the city doesn’t keep up with demand even without an increase like this.
I’m generally against requiring much affordable housing be paid for by new residential development, as the construction of that residential development is already reducing housing pressure. It’s essentially a tax on a thing we want, rather than on something we don’t want. I do, however, think that a new employer who causes increased housing demand well below market rate should have to either pay their workers enough to afford housing nearby, or provide other mitigation for the impact they cause.
That’s where this gets back to the downtown EIS. Currently, the EIS expects lots of office and housing growth, but it expects only about 3300 new hotel rooms – this project would be a 50% increase. Hedreen, the developer, provided an addendum to the EIS, but UNITE’s letter points out a whole host of places where Hedreen’s addendum significantly underplays the hotel’s impact. As I understand it, an addendum requires no public review, so UNITE is calling for a supplemental to the downtown EIS so that other parties (like affordable housing and transit advocates) can comment.
This strikes me as very similar to an earlier discussion. In July, the mayor recommended to SDOT that they block the alley vacation request for the Whole Foods project, citing the Seattle Comprehensive Plan (emphasis from the Stranger coverage):
One of our core economic development goals is to provide fair and livable wages and benefits for our residents. The Economic Development elements of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan contain clear language to this effect: “seeking a greater proportion of living wage jobs that will have greater benefits” and “support key sectors of Seattle’s economy to create jobs that pay wages that can support a family, provide necessary benefits, and contribute to the vitality of the City including, but not limited to, the industrial, manufacturing, service, hospitality and retail sectors.”
A few weeks before, Murray had also suggested this specific approach – the candidates agreed right up until McGinn did it (at which point Murray reversed course to attack). The city council, who makes the final decision (SDOT only makes a recommendation), chose to kick the decision out five months to at least December, stalling the project and, in effect, agreeing.
In much of the media, this was covered as some kind of union pandering, but I think that portrayal shrouds a more important point: The West Seattle recommendation, the minimum wage increase on the ballot in Sea-Tac, and Seattle’s new paid sick and safe time ordinance all represent government stepping up to do, not work for unions, but the work that created demand for unions in the first place. Like we and the Transit Riders Union work to create a city in which everyone can afford good transportation, all these factors are important parts of the equation of livability.
While I would prefer not to use process to slow growth, this instance is quite different than the residential projects I would normally defend, and the impacts are, as UNITE points out, significantly outside what the downtown EIS expects. The additional data gathered in an SEIS would help bolster the case for future transit investment, for increased funding for affordable housing, the need for a minimum wage increase in Seattle, and even a conversation about what benefits we should require employers in our city to provide.
In cases of changes to transit projects, a supplemental EIS is often required to add a station or significantly change an alignment. I agree with UNITE that for the downtown EIS, this hotel should require a supplemental as well.