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January 7, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Affordable housing in Seattle just as important as minimum wage

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray chose to make a $15 minimum wage for city employees the topic of his first official press conference last Friday, but he also reiterated that increasing wages alone won’t fix the city’s affordability problem.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray conducts his first press conference. His main topic was implementing a $15/hour minimum pay for all City of Seattle employees. (Photo by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray conducts his first press conference. His main topic was implementing a $15/hour minimum pay for all City of Seattle employees. (Photo by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Murray said education and housing are two other issues that must be dealt with if Seattle is to remain a place where people from diverse backgrounds and income levels can work and live.

He’s right. For now, let’s single out the housing part.

In case you missed it, The Seattle Times editorial pages featured a special section on affordable housing last month. Read those op-eds here. In November, our board called on city leaders to develop a coherent strategy to fix the housing shortage.

Since then, Seattle Times reporter Sanjay Bhatt reports rent increases may be stabilizing, but not by much. And most of the housing stock that’s available is out of reach for low and middle-wage workers. Remember, affordable housing generally means the cost of utilities and shelter should not exceed 30 percent of household income.

Here’s a link to the city’s wait list for subsidized housing, which is perennially long and can last years. Many lower-middle class workers don’t quality for assistance. Thousands more remain homeless, including hundreds of families with children.

If we know the city of Seattle needs more shelter and housing, how do we pay for it? New and existing developments rely heavily on federal funds, the Seattle Housing Levy (which is up for renewal in 2016) and the state’s Housing Trust Fund. The new mayor and City Council’s challenge is to develop policies that will stretch those limited dollars further. This isn’t a public sector-only dilemma. City officials need to set a vision and engage with communities, non-profit and private developers, and philanthropists to increase the housing supply. (Here’s my previous Opinion Northwest blog post about the need for thousands more units.) An overall strategy from the mayor and city council should include better incentives and more predictable processes for private developers to build long-term affordable housing on-site, preserving old buildings that can be renovated instead of leveled and built into expensive units, and more creative planning so that high-density housing is welcome in communities and located near transit, schools and other amenities.

Some other policy ideas:

  • As I wrote in this September 2013 blog post. a high percentage of bedrooms are unoccupied on any given night in Seattle. The city could add more units quickly by legalizing rooming houses, allowing more roommates per household and making it less difficult for single family homeowners to rent out in-law apartments and backyard cottages. Those are the big ideas proposed in Durning’s e-book, “Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Communities.”
  • Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant campaigned for rent control, which is illegal in Washington. It’s worth a discussion, anyway. The Legislature might listen and take action.
  • The city could develop publicly owned workforce housing modeled after the University of Washington’s dormitories. To pay for the costs, the city could charge market-rate rent to pay down the cost of the building. After a certain period, those publicly owned assets would become permanent housing for low to moderate-wage workers.
  • Local governments should work with charities and churches to help transition the homeless to permanent structures. As The Seattle Times reported on Christmas Day, local Olympia parishes opened their space to a tent city in 2007, then followed by creating a nonprofit to build a village with 30 cottages offered at subsidized rent.
  • Form private/public partnerships and build more projects near and above transit sites. The pilot Village at Overlake Station in Redmond, for instance, offers more than 500 affordable units for people making 60 percent of area median income (which is about $35,000 to $40,000 annually). A day care, social services, stores and retailers are within a short walking distance. Could this be a model for other areas?

All this matters in the first place because a lack of affordable housing in the city is forcing some to move outside Seattle, farther from jobs and opportunities. When I think of those who are most affected by high housing costs, I think of receptionists, teachers, baristas, hospitality workers, day laborers, students, the elderly and veterans.

Don’t people who work in Seattle — the same people who keep this place so vibrant and diverse — also deserve to live here?

Tell us what you think. Describe examples of affordable housing that you think the city of Seattle should adopt. Where should more housing be built? What would keep more people from moving outside of Seattle? Share your ideas in the forum below. As always, first and last names are required. Addresses and phone numbers are for verification purposes only and will not be publicly posted.

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Comments | Topics: affordable housing, minimum wage, Seattle


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