by ROBERT CRUICKSHANK
Rising rents across Seattle have generated a robust discussion about the best way to solve the affordability problem. The last thing we would want to do is make that problem worse by scaling back the opportunity to build new housing. But a new proposal being considered by the Seattle City Council would do exactly that. Incredibly, the City Council is going to consider reducing height limits in certain neighborhoods. This change could cause rents to rise further and help put Seattle on the path to becoming as unaffordable as San Francisco.
The Department of Planning and Development is billing this as a “code correction.” It’s difficult to understand what exactly needs to be corrected. Councilmember Sally Clark initiated this review with an October 2013 letter claiming that “I never envisioned developers would be able to achieve five stories in LR3 zones. I think five stories is too big a change in height and scale for the LR3 zone.”
Councilmember Clark may not have intended that to happen. But it is happening, and the results are good for Seattle. With each additional floor of height, more people are able to rent a unit in a building, helping more developments pencil out and get built. Every unit built in a new development helps protect those tenants currently renting an older building, reducing the competition for existing housing stock. More units also help ease upward pressure on rent by providing more options and more vacancies.
Seattle’s rents have been rising fast. Rent for a 2 bedroom apartment rose by 63% between 2009 and 2013, from $1165 to $1906. That’s expensive. But that’s a much slower rate of increase than in San Francisco, where rent for a 2 bedroom apartment rose by 123% over that same four year span, from $1767 to $3945. Nearly $2000 for a 2 bedroom apartment in Seattle is expensive. But nearly $4000 for a 2 bedroom apartment in San Francisco is ridiculous.
Low height limits were adopted in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction against proposals to develop high rises downtown and in several neighborhoods. The restrictions have preserved the look and feel of many neighborhoods, but at a terrible economic and human cost. San Francisco is no longer affordable for most people, unless they make incomes well above $100,000 a year.
Those low height limits, combined with other development restrictions, have made it nearly impossible to build new units in the city. This is a major factor causing rents to skyrocket, particularly in combination with regional development limits and rising demand. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s priced out most low-income and working class residents of the city, as landlords took advantage of low vacancy rates to raise rents to attract tech workers making higher incomes. This process has accelerated dramatically in recent years, pricing out most of San Francisco’s middle class as well.
San Francisco’s too-low height limits are not only a problem for private development, and private development alone won’t solve our affordable housing needs. In fact, low height limits are a major obstacle to the construction of new affordable housing by the public and non-profit sectors, particularly in the city’s less dense, low-rise neighborhoods:
The Excelsior/Outer Mission, particularly along Mission Street, appears to have a huge number of family housing sites. But the zoning restricts height and/or density to such an extent that relatively few family projects—and, to my knowledge, none with the type of deep affordability Coleman seek—can feasibly be built.
A nonprofit cannot afford to build a 20-unit affordable family project. The costs just don’t pencil out. In fact, in reviewing all of the family housing projects newly built by nonprofits in San Francisco since 2000, the smallest appears to be a 29-unit Tenderloin building. There was a 38-unit project in the Outer Mission, but most are fifty units and much more.
That’s why we will not see many new affordable family units in the Excelsior/Outer Mission unless the zoning is changed to increase height limits, and the number of allowable units in each project.
Reducing height limits in Seattle will only make it more difficult for affordable housing to be built. At a time when consensus is building in San Francisco that the low height limits need to be reexamined to help address the rent crisis.
In fact, an affordable housing development is one of the projects being cited as a reason for this code change. Capitol Hill Seattle reports that a microhousing project at 17th and Olive has fueled the most backlash from some neighborhood residents. A photo of the development from the DPD website is above. Located just one block off of Madison, a key transit corridor for Capitol Hill, the 17th and Olive building is a reasonable development that provides affordable housing in a walkable neighborhood close to frequent bus service. It’s a good example of what we should be promoting, not penalizing.
This proposed code change would be a big step backward for Seattle, and should be rejected by the City Council. But that won’t happen without a mobilization of those who care about affordable housing. DPD will hold a community meeting about the proposed change next Tuesday, January 14, at 6:30 pm at Lowell Elementary. We know that opponents of affordable housing will turn out. Let’s hope those who support affordability and who want to stop Seattle from experiencing the same unaffordable rents as San Francisco show up too.
Robert Cruickshank is the founder of the California High Speed Rail Blog, and until recently was a a Senior Communications Advisor to Mayor McGinn.