I’ll admit it: I’m bummed. I’m a newbie neighborhood activist; I’m a little green. I just joined this fight in January of this year.
I really thought we might get the City Council at least to delay a vote on Mandatory Housing Affordability – Residential (MHA-R). Delay until the HALA Focus Groups were finished meeting. Delay until there was a count of naturally occurring affordable housing that is at risk of redevelopment. Delay until the Environmental Impact Study was complete.
So I’m bummed that last Monday the full City Council voted to pass MHA-R. For a vote that could change the face of our city, it was unceremoniously lost amid a very impressive showing from the Black Lives Matter group against the new police “bunker.” Many from that group argued against the outrageous price tag of a new police precinct and that these millions could be better spent towards affordable housing. I agree with them! And my hat’s off to them for holding the City accountable for their reckless spending habits.
The City sometimes seems to play with our money like it’s a game of Monopoly. The police bunker’s price tag was $88.5 million only four years ago. Now it’s up to $149 million. That’s an increase of (let me get out my calculator)… $60.5 million in just four years!!! How many people could we get off the street for $60.5 million? With a median house price in Seattle of $585,400 the City could outright buy 103 homes. Many more people could be housed if we spent the money on shelters or rental subsidies.
Housing first! Not military style police bunkers.
And yet, on the same day as the protest against the over-priced bunker, the City Council votes to pass MHA-R, a program to get funds for affordable housing. The City likes to pretend that the only way it can get funds for affordable housing is basically selling our neighborhoods (in the form of upzones) to the developers. In exchange, the City gets a small amount back from the developers to build new affordable housing (never mind all of the privately owned affordable homes that will be bulldozed in the process).
That’s where Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien’s anti-displacement amendments come in. These amendments to address displacement were added to the MHA-R legislation before it passed. This is our consolation prize: “Yeah, we’re still going to upzone all of your neighborhoods. But we’ll promise to first take a look at how much displacement it will cause.”
Displacement is an interesting concept. The City’s definition may not always concur with ours. “Displacement” in the City’s eyes is when an affordable unit is lost and the person living there involuntarily has to leave. So this is our small victory: The City will take a look at low cost rental buildings, and where many are at risk of demolition due to MHA-R, the formulas will be adjusted to require developers to build more affordable units to make up for what is lost.
The Formulas Are Important
But if you’re cynical, like I am, you realize that those formulas can be manipulated. What counts as an affordable unit? It’s likely that a low-cost, usually older, one-bedroom or studio rental will count… but what about rental homes? What about shared housing (often the cheapest way to rent)? What about the older, fixed-income couple whose mortgage is cheaper than a current studio apartment? Do any of those count in the displacement equations? (I’m worried they may not.)
You must realize that the discussion of “housing units” is skewed. One “affordable” efficiency apartment renting for $1,000, where one person lives, could count as one unit. But a single family home where four people live also counts as only one housing unit. That single family home – with a mortgage of $1,300 a month that houses four people – will likely not count as an “affordable” unit and if it’s demolished the residents will not be considered “displaced.” Being squeezed out of your neighborhood or boxed in like Edith Macefield may not be part of the City’s displacement equation, especially for single family neighborhoods.
I hope an independent consultant is charged with determining how many affordable housing units are at risk of displacement. If the U District design is any lesson, it teaches us that the City’s assessment of displacement risk may be vastly different than neighborhood groups. The formulas need to be determined by an independent, trusted consultant. And there needs to be a look at affordability not just by housing unit, but by person (or at least by bedroom) which is how affordability is determined in real life.
Watch what the City does with the displacement amendments. Keep an eye on those formulas. They’re important, people!