Soon after Mayor Ed Murray took office in January, he asked more than 20 Seattle politicians, business leaders and labor representatives to agree to a higher minimum wage in Seattle.
After months of haggling, with negotiations nearly falling apart, the group introduced a plan to slowly increase the minimum wage in Seattle to $15 over the course of six years, beginning in 2015.
In the fall, the mayor will form another group of 20 or more heavy hitters, this time from the world of housing and development. Their task: look at Seattle’s ever-rising housing costs and the loss of affordable housing units.
“The mayor essentially wants to duplicate the strategy he used with the minimum-wage conversation and apply that to housing,” said Jeff Reading, the mayor’s spokesperson.
The city has 325,000 housing units, and an estimated 70,000 households will move to the city over the next 20 years.
Average monthly rents in Seattle have increased more than $200 since 2010. The city is losing previously affordable housing developments, such as Lockhaven Apartments in Ballard, as private developers remodel them into luxury apartments (“Locked out of Lockhaven,” RC, Nov. 6, 2013).
Councilmember Sally Clark, who chairs the council Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee, is backing the mayor. She is drafting a council resolution that will call for another committee to develop the Seattle Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. It will support the development of affordable housing over the next 10 years.
The Income Inequality Advisory Committee had a clearer goal: how much to increase minimum wage for Seattle workers.
The Seattle Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Advisory Committee’s task is larger and more complex.
There is no easily identifiable marker — such as how much workers should make in an hour — the committee can reference to solve Seattle’s rising rents, loss of affordable housing units and long waiting lists for public housing.
“I don’t know that it’s going to be one thing that this housing task force should come forward with,” Clark said. “There’s no magic bullet for housing affordability for a city of this size.”
The task is large, and Councilmember Mike O’Brien appreciated the mayor’s comparison to the minimum-wage effort.
“It’s an ambitious scope — and it should be ambitious — and that’s great,” O’Brien said.
While city officials grapple with the problem, Seattle becomes less affordable every year.
From the second quarter of 2013 to the second quarter of 2014, average monthly rents went up 7.8 percent to $1,284 a month, according to Apartment Insights Washington, a real estate research company in West Seattle.
Vacancy rates among the most affordable rental units are below
5 percent, which shows heavy demand for housing.
According to the Housing Development Consortium, a single adult raising a preschooler needs to earn $23.05 an hour to pay for housing, groceries, childcare and other basic necessities.
People earning low to moderate incomes end up struggling to find housing, said Stephanie Valasco, community outreach coordinator for the Housing Development Consortium.
“We’re seeing that a lot of these workers are either not able to live in Seattle at all and must commute hours to get in to work, or they’re paying much more than they can afford,” Valasco said.
Among nonprofit housing advocates and for-profit developers, there are a wide range of opinions on what the city needs and how to create housing.
Smart Growth Seattle Director Roger Valdez said he worries that the committee will be too divided. Smart Growth Seattle advocates lowering demand for housing by deregulating development to allow the private market to increase supply.
He said housing advocates who favor imposing taxes and fees on developers will clash with pro-density groups who favor removing barriers to development and saturating the market with housing.
“It’s going to be hard to compromise between those two positions,” said Valdez, arguing that the mayor’s minimum-wage committee created a complicated system instead of setting a clear higher minimum wage. “Someone needs to say, this is what the data indicate we need to get new housing, and here’s how we’re going to do it. You don’t need to talk about it to get it done.”
Others appreciated the city delving into housing affordability with more intention.
“We need to stop nibbling around the edges and really dive into the housing crisis,” said Jonathan Grant, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington, a group that advocates for renters and has protested private developers turning previously affordable housing into luxury apartments.
He said the mayor’s committee will need to lean into the issue, rather than managing the existing housing programs. Grant said it will need to come up with public solutions as well as concessions from private developers.
“That is what is really going to determine the usefulness of this committee,” he said.
Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, said currently, the city’s housing money comes from property taxes as well as federal and state funding.
Lee said the city has benefited from “tremendous expansion” but has not dedicated a single dollar of its general fund money to create affordable housing.