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October 23, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Affordable housing’s NIMBY problem in Seattle

Someone told me Seattleites like to say they’re fine with density — until you ask where that density should be.

I get it. I really do.

A few weeks ago, a new micro-apartment building opened up across the street from where I live in Capitol Hill. During construction, I resented the prospect of sharing limited street parking with a few dozen new dwellers. Eventually I awakened to my own sense of NIMBYism: I chose to live in a high-density neighborhood. I want jobs and people to stay in Seattle. I like living in an economically diverse community.

Parking can still be a nightmare, but it hasn’t gotten any worse since move-in day. With so many transportation options, some of those residents must be forgoing car ownership.

Some of our friends in the other hot Seattle neighborhood, Ballard, seem to be having a much harder time adjusting to high-density change. According to this Ballard News-Tribune story, many are upset and organizing an effort to stop the development of a 43-unit micro-apartment development on the 1700 block of NW 58th Street. Opponents created a web site, stop1715.0rg, complete with photos and warnings of sewage, parking and other problems.

The web site rips the developer’s decision to tear down the original house and makes the new project appear like an urban monstrosity. On Monday, I went out to see the site for myself.

The site of a micro-apartment development on the 1700 block of NW 58th Street in Ballard. (Photo by Thanh Tan)

The site of a micro-apartment development on the 1700 block of NW 58th Street in Ballard. (Photo by Thanh Tan)

Extensive work on the foundation has already begun. There’s no stopping the project. Also, it turns out the area is zoned for multi-family developments, and there are already apartments and townhouses surrounding the site on all sides.  I looked around for some neighbors opposed to the new building. One lady took a quick break from repainting the fence outside her town-home to frown and say,”That’s just a lot of units.”

Here’s another way I interpreted her comment: Who’s going to live there? Do I want to be neighbors with those people?

Seattle is home to more than 100 neighborhoods. Compared to other major cities, we also have way more single-family zones. I can understand why longtime residents are resistant to change, but if we hang on to the status quo — fighting affordable housing in a market that’s not building enough units to fill the  demand — housing costs will continue to rise and people will leave the city or become homeless. (This Atlantic Cities story points out Seattle’s homeless numbers are on the rise. Last January, the annual One Night Count estimated nearly 2,000 men, women, and children were without shelter.)

Developers, city permitting officials and neighborhoods can definitely do a better job of communicating with each other and finding some common ground on the design of micro-apartments.

Let’s have that city-wide discussion about density, too — just don’t expect any one neighborhood to be immune to change.

What is affordable housing? What’s the effect of these micro-apartments?

Affordable housing is generally defined as costing about 30 percent of each household’s income. Rising prices in Seattle are pushing even moderate-wage workers out of neighborhoods they would have been able to afford just a few years ago.

In a recent email,  Seattle Office of Housing Director Rick Hooper wrote “over 27,000 Seattle households have income less than $30,000 to $35,000 per year, and pay more than 50% of income for their housing, according to census data.  They are considered severely cost burdened, since paying over half their income leaves too little for everything else:  food, health care, transportation, child care, and all the other expenses of daily living.  These households need more affordable housing.”

Here’s a graphic courtesy of the Housing Development Consortium:

Affordable Housing in Seattle

Hooper says it’s hard to know exactly how many more units are needed, but he estimates “many thousands more.”

“We believe we need to use every possible tool available,” Hooper wrote. “Seattle Housing Levy funding (we administer that set of programs), use of publicly owned land, full use of incentive programs (property tax exemption and Incentive Zoning); none of these tools are enough by themselves, we need them all, and now micro units are helping to keep rents down.”

What’s happening in other cities?

  • San Francisco is experiencing a major exodus and gentrification of neighboring cities like Oakland, mostly because longtime residents have shut out new development and caused the price of housing to remain impossibly high. Read this report from The Atlantic Cities.
  • An opinion piece published in The New York Times Oct. 19 highlights the hard-fought success of the Mount Laurel neighborhood in New Jersey, where market-rate housing is mixed in seamlessly with low-income housing. The results since 2001 show poor families in the community are healthier and their children are performing well in school. “Where you live profoundly shapes who you are,” writes David Kirp, professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Check out the Times’ Room for Debate on affordable housing, too.




Comments | Topics: affordable housing, Seattle


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