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Renters In Need Inspire Seattle To Ask More Of Developers

caption: Cousins Tiara Jinka and Tiana Jordan can't afford to live in Seattle.
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1 of 4 Cousins Tiara Jinka and Tiana Jordan can't afford to live in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

It’s a tall order: Get skeptical private developers to help build 20,000 units of affordable housing in Seattle in the next 10 years.

Some of them say Mayor Ed Murray’s “grand bargain” doesn’t pencil out, at least as currently envisioned in the city’s new housing plan.

The need is clearly there. Take Tiara Jinka. She works at Rudy’s Barber Shop on Capitol Hill, but she lives 20 miles south, in Normandy Park.

“I have two kids and I haven’t been able to separate from their dad ’cause I can’t afford my own place,” she said.

Her cousin Tiana Jordan drove down from Shoreline to meet her on Broadway.

“The only thing that’s affordable are things that are far away,” Jordan said. “I love downtown, and I love to be in Seattle, and if I had the option I would definitely live over here. But I don’t. It’s not an option because things are so expensive.”

To help people like Jinka and Jordan, the city might require for-profit developers to help build affordable housing. That could mean requiring affordable units in every new apartment building, at least in the kind of dense neighborhoods planners call “urban villages.” The idea is that if you make builders put affordable apartments in every building, you’ll have low-income families living where the jobs are, where the buses are.

Some developers are upset about the proposal.

The city has tried to ease their pain by letting them build bigger, taller buildings. But for developers like Scott Shapiro, “It’s not enough.”

He points to the property he’s developing next. It’s right across the street from the Capitol Hill light rail station. The zoning here lets Shapiro build 44 feet – that’s about five stories, including a basement.

“Sites like this should be zoned 85 feet, 125 feet, maybe 180 feet. Whatever,” he said. “You go to other major cities around the country, around the world, sites like this close proximity to an underground train system would have much higher zoning.”

Shapiro says that if he were allowed to build that high, it’d be easy to absorb the cost of a few affordable apartments. But the city’s offering far less: letting him build six stories instead of five.

He says just giving him one extra floor is not a good deal for him because something major happens when a building goes from five stories to six: It gets a lot more expensive. The building code only lets you build five stories out of wood. Wood is cheap. If you want to build six, you have to build the first level out of concrete.

“It’s a much more intense process,” he says. “There’s multi-ton cement trucks that drive in with the huge tires and guys that are trained to lay cement within a certain time frame before it cures.”

Shapiro says the income from the affordable units won’t pay for all that concrete work.

“So to make up for that cost, I would have to charge more for the other units that I’m doing,” he said.

Shapiro prefers other ways of creating affordability. He likes to build microhousing. That's market rate housing that rents for less because the units are small. He also likes another, less stringent affordable housing program, which allows units to revert to market rate after 12 years.

Shapiro is glad this property will be built under the old rules, before this new “mandatory inclusionary housing” program kicks in. When it does kick in, he’ll still have the option of letting someone else build those affordable units, somewhere else – if he pays a fee. But city officials hope to set the fee high enough that most developers will just suck it up and build the affordable units themselves.

Seattle isn’t the first place to ask this of private developers. From Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Boulder, Colorado, cities have been giving away extra density and requiring affordable housing for years. The very first program to try it was in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The year was 1973, and the county was booming.

“Building was very rapid, prices were very high,” said Royce Hanson, who was on the county planning board then.

A new law required builders to set aside around 12 percent of their homes for families on limited incomes.

“There was bitter opposition to it initially from the builders,” Hanson said.

But after a while something happened.

“It became routine,” he said. “Generally, when developers know what they have to do, and it’s pretty clear that they’re gonna have to do it, they’re gonna find a way to do it.”

Hanson has been in and out of local government in Montgomery County over four decades. Over that time, he’s seen the program change his community.

“For instance, children from low-income families, who live in neighborhoods and go to the same schools as kids from high-income families, there’s been less of a gap in achievement in school and things like that,” he said.

This program is expected to generate affordable housing in 2017 if the Seattle City Council approves it.

You may hear people refer to this program as "Mandatory Inclusionary Housing." It's based loosely on an older voluntary program called "Inclusionary Zoning." That program offers developers the right to build bigger if they build affordable housing or pay a fee. Very few for-profit developers actually build the units - most choose the fee. Learn more about Seattle's existing affordable housing programs here.

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