City leaders make a mockery of Seattle's 10-year plan to end homelessness

Last week Seattle's Office of Housing released its long awaited inventory of low-income housing. There were some startling findings including a dramatic and continuing loss of low-income housing in our city. In just the past two years we lost 800 units to demolition and over 3,200 units to condominium conversions, helping to drive vacancy rates down and rents up. More homelessness and even longer waiting lists for our city's limited supply of subsidized housing are the consequences.

For all the lip service given to affordable housing and ending homelessness we hear from our city government, one might have expected the Office of Housing to sound the alarm and issue a call for immediate action to stem this loss: not this administration.

Last week at a meeting of the Seattle City Council's Housing Committee, Adrienne Quinn, director of the Office of Housing, was asked by councilmember Rasmussen what she'd learned "that was new" from the Low-income Housing Inventory Report. Ignoring the growing crisis for those with incomes at or below 40 percent of median income (about $25,000 per year), Quinn stated that it was a "surprise" to her that "people at 80 percent of median income (about $50,000 a year) can't afford to live in Seattle" and are "leaving the city."

Quinn provided the chart ("Percent of Seattle workers who live in Seattle"), purporting to prove a shortfall of units in our city that are affordable to those around, or slightly above, 80 percent of median income. Of course this would justify Mayor Greg Nickel's often-stated agenda - to eliminate obstacles to more density while providing more incentives and subsidies/tax breaks for housing priced at these higher income levels the mayor euphemistically calls "workforce housing."


When viewing the Office of Housing's chart, try as we might, we find no basis for Quinn's conclusion of a flight of households at 80 percent of median or of her assertion of a housing shortfall for this group.

In the first place, the data in this chart is drawn from the 2000 U.S. Census and represents a snapshot in time rather than a trend. When we compared the updated 2005 census to 2000, it showed no such out-migration of households at 80 percent of median. The percentage of Seattle households at this income level dropped slightly by about one or two percentage points since 2000, but so has the percentage of households with incomes between 30 and 40 percent of median. On the other hand, the percentage of households with incomes above median increased significantly.

For a more accurate picture of who can or cannot afford to live in Seattle and the rest of King County, take a look at the chart from the 2006 King County Housing Benchmarks Report entitled "Supply and demand for affordable rental housing: 2006."

For 99.5 percent of households countywide with incomes at or below 30 percent of median, there is a shortfall of affordable units. What this means is that those 73,390 households are paying more - in most cases much more - than 30 percent of their income on housing.

For the 25,800 households in King County between 30 and 40 percent of median, there are 30,730 units priced at their income level. However, they must compete for that supply with the 73,700 households in the lower-income category. So that leaves a cumulative total deficit for this income group of 68,460 affordable units.


On the other hand, note that there are huge surpluses of housing affordable to people with incomes above 60 percent of median, including a surplus of 101,020 units for those at 60-80 percent of median.

So please, Quinn, don't state there is a shortage of housing for folks in the 80 percent income category or that they are leaving our city in droves. It's just not true.

We know, given the rising home prices, that it's difficult for anyone below 100 percent of median to buy a house, or even a condominium, in Seattle. But as the county's chart shows, there is an ample supply of rentals for this group. Not so for those below 40 percent of median.

It was bad enough that Quinn downplayed, and even overlooked, a growing crisis for those at lower income levels - especially in light of a net loss of about 2,000 rentals city-wide since 2005, as noted in the Low-income Housing Inventory Report.

But then to hear Quinn lament the hardships of the moderate-income category when a tsunami is breaking over the heads of our low-income residents is galling. This selective focus on the data reveals Quinn's intent to promote the mayor's agenda.


If Nickels has his way, we'll give away even more of our public funds in tax breaks for developers and subsidies for the less poor at the expense of the truly poor. The council will gladly enact more up-zones aimed at promoting still more high-end and mixed-income development regardless of its irrevocable impact on the physical and social character of our communities.

No matter that - as this housing inventory indicates - such development has set in motion speculative forces that have caused the loss of several thousand low-income units due to conversion, speculative sale, and demolition.

We'll be told we're sacrificing our lower-density neighborhoods for the social good. But note that it's never higher-end, single-family neighborhoods that get up-zoned or luxury apartment buildings that get torn down so that bigger, taller buildings with more units can be put in their place.

The people displaced by increased density are the very people in whose name the density is promoted. And it will be even worse if the poorest are kicked out so that the less-poor can have publicly subsidized homes in their place.

Of course accelerating levels of growth - without mitigation or measures to steer it or control it - will make this city less livable and less desirable. But by displacing the poorest of the poor, this growth means more homelessness as well. It makes a mockery of this city's "Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness."

The city's housing agenda should first be directed toward preserving what remains of our low-income stock. Otherwise we'll continue to spend tens of millions to add low-income subsidized units - taking one step forward, but then three steps back.

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter of the Seattle Displacement Coalition may be reached by writing to[[In-content Ad]]