For over three decades neighborhood groups, low-income housing advocates, and environmental organizations have worked together. Their collective efforts led to passage of the Growth Management Act, Shorelines Act, and other environmental laws. They blocked the Bay Freeway, the I-90 and 520 expansions and a host of other bad auto-oriented projects. They worked together, locally, to secure support for growth limits on downtown high-rise expansion, controls on demolition of low-income housing and helped preserve the Pike Place Market.
Now it seems, in an attempt to advance an aggressive pro-density agenda, our mayor and a few other elected officials are trying to pull these natural allies apart. Unfortunately, they are having some success with these efforts. After meeting behind closed doors in the mayor's office, a few prominent leaders in the environmental movement as well as some low-income housing providers have come out in favor of elements of the mayor's plan to upzone large areas of Seattle including Northgate, the U-District, and South Lake Union. What's worse, some of these folks are also leveling heavy criticism at neighborhood groups. Anyone striving to preserve the unique social and physical character of their community is automatically labeled a pro-sprawl, anti-mass transit "NIMBY."
The issue of density admittedly is divisive. In theory increasing density along public transit will encourage ridership, making transit more cost-effective, while preventing sprawl in rural areas outside the city. In reality, increasing density leads to the loss of low-income housing, driving poor people out of the city into the surrounding suburbs. In an earlier column this past July we pointed out that new units, even with some sort of public subsidy, cost so much to build that they can never be rented or sold for close to the cost of the units they replace. Because Seattle is built-up with little vacant land, most new development results in removal of the existing, truly affordable units. Preserving older apartment buildings and small single-family homes is the most cost-effective way to keep housing affordable in Seattle.
We've heard Manhattan held up as an ideal for the future of Seattle. A recent check on the web showed the cost of buying a home in Manhattan exceeds $1.2 million and rents even for a studio run above $2300 per month.
Perhaps when we think of sprawl, we envision wealthy people living in McMansions on the Issaquah plateau, driving SUV's to work in downtown Seattle. Whether that stereotype is true or not, there is another type of sprawl to consider: people who work as janitors, dry cleaners, wait staff and retail clerks in all those little businesses expected to pop up at transit stations. These folks are forced to live out in Kent or Renton because they can't afford the rents in Seattle, and they drive their more humble cars to work.
While low-income people get forced out of Seattle by economics, some at the other end of the scale might opt out in favor of more trees, more open space, more breathing room. Are families with children going to prefer to live in apartments in South Lake Union if they could afford to live in a single-family neighborhood-or Issaquah? We can't make them live near where they work, so we have to think in terms of making it attractive to do so. We would argue that one reason Seattle has attracted and kept people at the higher-earning end of the spectrum is its single-family neighborhoods with their trees, gardens and other small, natural spaces.
Moreover, single-family neighborhoods are not just for the wealthy. Note that 20 to 25% of single family homes in Seattle house low-income families.
People who put down roots in a neighborhood often get attached to what makes it distinct, socially and physically. When housing prices go steeply up, neighborhoods lose some of their human diversity. When large hulking structures sprout up blocking sunlight and views, these places lose some of their visual diversity, too. The sameness of architecture we've seen going up lately along Seattle arterials is disheartening. If that is what upzoning is going to mean for a neighborhood, you can see why people would fight it.
Ironically, the push for higher density at all costs and without consideration for impacts on the physical or social character of our city has done more to erode affordability and contribute to sprawl than any other single policy thrust upon Seattleites by city government. Growth must proceed, of course, but first we must insist on regulations that ensure the following:
* Design and siting criteria respectful of the existing character of the neighborhood.
* Requirements that developers replace all affordable units they remove and at comparable price.
* Promotion of in-fill over demolition and redevelopment.
Even under existing zoning, and even with some vacant land locked up in single family areas, we still have substantial capacity to accommodate new development that does not require tearing down existing housing or historic structures. We can meet and even exceed our growth requirements without a lot of demolition.
Ultimately, the long-term solution for growth in our region is to relocate some employment now planned for downtown to suburban areas closer to where many are going to choose to live anyway. The greatest cost of a transportation system is the cost of energy and infrastructure needed to move people longer and longer distances to work whether its by road, rail, HOV, or vanpool. Instead of the Manhattanization of Seattle, lets work toward this polycentered approach to growth, making more effective use of areas already zoned commercial/industrial but currently underutilized.
Environmental and pro-mass transit goals, historical preservation, and housing affordability are not advanced by trashing the neighborhood movement. The only beneficiaries are large development interests that put profits ahead of a quality of life in our communities.
This column is one of a series of monthly commentaries from the Seattle Displacement Coalition. The Coalition brings a 27-year history of advocacy around low-income housing and neighborhood issues here in Seattle.