The sudden 60-degree weather brought workers in South Lake Union out of their offices. Amazon customer service reps played a pickup game of basketball at a net-less hoop in Cascade Park. A receptionist for the low-income Kennedy House watched pedestrians from a wooden bench. And a half dozen Amazonians fanned out from the building’s entrance, noses down, staring at their smartphones.
The South Lake Union neighborhood is home to only a smattering of the roughly 23,000 employees who work at Amazon’s headquarters, but the Seattle City Council and local developers hope to change that. Zoning changes proposed by the council would allow developers to create structures more than 100 feet taller than existing buildings and add three 400-foot residential towers to the neighborhood, which currently boasts five city blocks of Amazon offices and retail space.
City leaders say the influx of apartments and condos made possible by the zoning changes will increase density in the neighborhood, something they’re eager to achieve to help lower the city’s carbon footprint.
But a home in this new urban idyll won’t come cheap.
Just ask Raymond Montgomery, a construction worker helping to build a seven-story residential building east of the Amazon complex. Montgomery took his lunch with a coworker at the nearby Cascade Park. He lives in Lynnwood and laughed at the suggestion that he could move with his family to South Lake Union.
Montgomery said he and his friend could barely afford the smallest units he’s helping to build, and those wouldn’t be nearly large enough to accommodate their households.
“We have families,” he said. “The big-size stuff we’re building, that’s way more than we can afford.”
The proposed zoning changes would require developers to create apartments that are affordable for people making 80 percent or less of the area median income. In order to build higher in South Lake Union, developers would have to set aside a portion of square footage for affordable housing or pay the city to build the housing elsewhere.
How much should developers have to set aside? Together, the city council has come up with four proposals that answer this question.
Three of them are very similar. Councilmembers Sally Clark, Tim Burgess and Mike O’Brien are looking to require developers to set aside less than 5 percent of every new development for affordable housing.
On the other end of the spectrum, Councilmember Nick Licata proposed developers set aside 10 to 15 percent of every new development for affordable housing.
Licata’s colleagues deemed his proposal too steep. At a March 25 meeting, Burgess called it “the Licata leap.” Licata acknowledges that under his proposal, the per-square-foot cost to developers would be more than four times what it would be under the Burgess proposal.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell said such a jump could dissuade developers from building at all.
“At what point does it become a disincentive?” he said of fees to developers.
Licata insists it’s simply a matter of perspective. When compared with other cities across the country that require much more from developers, his proposal looks modest, he said.
“The rest of the country is doing this,” Licata said of what is known as “inclusionary” housing. “By far, we are not on the cutting edge. If anything, we are in the middle, if not the back part, of the pack.”
According to Seattle’s nonbinding comprehensive plan, the city is already lagging behind on affordable housing. It is defined as rents that are no greater than one-third of the income of people making less than 80 percent of the area median income.
According to the plan, more than a third of the housing in Seattle is supposed to be affordable by 2031. Right now, only a quarter of housing in Seattle is affordable.
Rock out, Amazon in Candi Wilvang moved to South Lake Union 15 years ago, when she was in her early 30s. Back then, the neighborhood was home to light industrial business and working-class residents, as well as some pubs and concert venues.
Wilvang, who lives in a townhome managed by the Low Income Housing Institute, said she has “survivors’ guilt.” If she had moved to the neighborhood now, she probably wouldn’t be able afford the rents.
Today, a Marriott Hotel has replaced the all-ages club CKCNDY. Rock clubs are out. Online retailers are in.
“Amazon has become the community,” Wilvang said.
While the city council is currently considering raising heights only in South Lake Union, the requirement for developers to set aside a percentage of their projects for affordable housing would apply throughout downtown, because it is also in the urban core. Many believe that what happens in South Lake Union could set a precedent for how affordable housing is addressed — or not — throughout the city.
Maggie Wykowski, a policy analyst at Puget Sound Sage, a think tank supported by local labor unions, said even Licata’s proposal falls short of what is needed to produce adequate affordable housing. Seattle uses height as an incentive for developers to create affordable housing. Other cities start with a requirement.
For example, Denver and Boston require that new housing developments at any height set aside 10 to 15 percent of the units for people making 50 to 80 percent of the area median income. Some cities require as much as 20 percent.
These policies have existed in hundreds of cities for more than a decade and remained unchanged even throughout the economic collapse of 2008, Wykowski said. This has happened, she added, without ruining the profit of the private developers.
“What we’re talking about is actually a very reasonable, very fair program,” Wykowski said of Licata’s proposal.
Tell that to Licata’s colleagues on the council. While they agree that the city needs to do more, Licata is the most aggressive about asking developers to pay for it.
His fellow councilmembers counter that asking too much from developers will prompt them to take their cranes and go elsewhere. The moment the city council votes to allow skyscrapers in South Lake Union, project developers are poised to begin building them, said Council President Sally Clark.
Big changes now won’t just delay those projects, it will kill them, she said.
“People who are ready to develop don’t have time to adapt,” Clark said. “They’ve drawn up plans, lined up financing.”
Clark, Burgess and O’Brien all support taking baby steps toward requiring developers to create more affordable housing. O’Brien said he’s working hard to get the votes for his slim proposal from the nine-member council: “What’s a number that we can get five votes on? If we had more Nicks on the council, I think the number would be a lot higher.”
But Licata said even his proposal is an incremental step. New York and Boulder, Colo., for example require new developments to set aside 20 percent for affordable units. Davis, Calif., requires 25 percent.
The other workforce Developers: it’s a word heard constantly in discussions about South Lake Union zoning.
Rarely mentioned are the hotel workers, janitors and baristas who will work in the businesses that will serve the burgeoning neighborhood.
Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, said that while city leaders are working hard to accommodate a family of four making $64,000 — 80 percent of the area median income — people who make much less have fallen off the radar.
City councilmembers, Lee said, have “forgotten that the low-wage worker can’t afford to commute, can’t afford housing anywhere.”