What a fancy dump can teach us about keeping Seattle affordable | KUOW News and Information

What a fancy dump can teach us about keeping Seattle affordable

Sep 14, 2017

The south end of Wallingford used to stink because of a smelly old transfer station. 

But it doesn't reek anymore. Now moms like Marissa Ciccarelli bring their kids here like it's a trip to the zoo. 

"I don't think it stinks at all in the neighborhood," Ciccarelli said. In fact, she met a friend there for a picnic. Her son, Bryce, watched the garbage trucks through a giant window while chewing on an apple slice.

"Beep beep," he said, imitating the noise of the trucks backing up. 

There's something to learn from this transfer station rebuild. That's because the project, along with a growing tech sector in Fremont nearby, have allowed a micro-neighborhood to spring up on Stone Way nearby. 

This part of the neighborhood offers clues for what could happen should Seattle's affordable housing plan come to pass. 

Up the street from the dump are big new apartment buildings. About 20 percent of the apartment units are subsidized for people on lower incomes, but you wouldn't know it to look at them, or their websites, which compete for high-end renters by offering unique amenities. 

Doug Trumm's apartment complex, called Velo, is marketed to cyclists, from its name (velo is French for bike) to its state-of-the-art exercise bikes.

Another building, The Bowman, has an urban farmer vibe.

“There’s a chicken coop on the top, on the roof deck,” said Trumm as he showed me around the neighborhood. The rooftop eggs are shared by the building’s 278 apartments. “I should have asked how they distribute those,” he said.

Trumm is a blogger for The Urbanist. And though he lives in a trendy building, he’s not rich. In fact, he’s there to save money. He lives near transit, which means he doesn't need a car.

“A lot of people in my generation, whether we want to or not, this is the direction we have to go,” Trumm said.

Doug Trumm, Wallingford renter and blogger for The Urbanist.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Plus, he and his wife live in one of the subsidized units, which typically rent at $1,300 for a one-bedroom. In the building with the chicken coop on top, the discounts save you $600 to $1,000 off the market rate. To qualify, a two-person household must earn less than $57,000 a year.

The city’s affordable housing plan would create a lot more apartments like that. Under the program, they’d be more deeply discounted and reserved for people earning even less. 

There's a downside, of course: Most of the apartments in these new buildings are not subsidized. That allows older apartment buildings nearby to raise their rents too.

“Our rent has gone up 10 percent a year for the last four years,” said Libby Nichols, a retired social worker on a fixed income. Her husband also retired as a social worker. They live in a 1969, four-unit apartment building a few blocks up hill from the transfer station. 

“I feel like there’s nowhere for us to go," she said. "I feel like we’ve fallen off the face of the earth here.”

Libby Nichols, a renter who's just barely hanging on in Wallingford, thanks to her son, who helps her with rent.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Luckily, Nichols has someone looking out for her.

“The only reason we’re here is that my oldest son is really rich," she said. "That’s all. He’s really rich, and he can help us,” she said. But if rents increase much more, the Seattle native may have to move to Spokane or Tucson. 

These two renters demonstrate the benefits – and the risks – of Seattle’s affordable housing plan.

On paper, Seattle will get more affordable housing. “We can’t have a city where only rich people can live," said Doug Trumm.

But it won’t stop people from getting priced out, because the nicer units in those buildings set the tone — and the price — for the neighborhood. Libby Nichols said the plan “speeds up this process. It just sort of opens up the gates and says, go at it, do it some more.”

That's the downside to this plan. It's experienced block by block, street by street, where the sample size is smaller. Rising rents cause us to reorganize, forcing low- and middle-income renters to leave the comfort of older apartments and enter the red-hot competition for rent-restricted apartments.

According to the city's draft environmental impact statement for this program, the new units will be more abundant than the ones that get destroyed. But there’s no guarantee that the people who get displaced will find their way to the new apartments meant to help them, because people are moving here faster than we can build new places to live. That means even though supply is rising, so is demand.

We don't have much choice. The city studied what would happen if it didn’t pursue an affordable housing plan. It concluded that rents would still rise. And people would have even fewer options.

It's kind of like a rebuilt transfer station. The old way of doing things stinks. The new way has clear benefits. But it would be a mistake to say there are no side effects.