Outside City Hall

U-District upzone puts all of Seattle at risk

In February, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved covering the University District with 240-foot to 320-foot high-rise towers — the first community to fall victim to the mayor’s so-called “Housing Affordability and Liveability Agenda” or HALA.

Over the next year, every Seattle neighborhood, already reeling from the impacts of runaway growth under current zoning, will be asked to accept upzones and still more density. In return, developers will be required to set aside a small percentage of new units in their projects at so-called affordable levels — a fraction of the existing low-cost housing across our city we’re going to lose to the wrecking ball.

Over 1,500 low-cost units are located in the University District slated for high-rise zoning and now are fated for increased rents or demolition to make way for primarily luxury apartments and office buildings. The neighborhood will become as dense as downtown and South Lake Union with canyons of glass and steel, much of its unique lower-rise affordable housing and historical character washed away.

The fact that all nine councilmembers voted for this massive University District upzone is an ominous portent for neighborhoods across Seattle.  And now we know it will be Councilmember Johnson as chair of the Land Use committee (and representative for the 4th Council District where the U District is located), who will be Council's leading exponent of density at all costs and the HALA upzone agenda.

Councilmembers Herbold and O’Brien (backed by an unusually restrained Sawant) did make an attempt to pass two key amendments that would have helped mitigate the level of displacement and other impacts on the U District, but Johnson successfully led the charge to turn them back.

One amendment would have removed from the upzone Johnson’s last minute addition of the three-block area north of 50th containing over 180 very low- and low-income rental units. This amendment failed by a 6-3 vote. It was hoped that Harrell and Juarez would side with Herbold, O’Brien and Sawant, but they dutifully joined Burgess, Bagshaw, Gonzalez and Johnson in support of adding this area. No matter that the folks who will lose their homes here have incomes barely above the poverty line according to census data.  

The mayor did not recommend nor even study the impacts of adding this area north of 50th to the upzone. Other than pleasing a few more developers and speculators, why would Johnson add it when the high-rises planned for the area south of 50th will accommodate four times the neighborhood’s assigned job target and twice its housing target for 2035?

Herbold and O’Brien also sought an amendment to increase the percent of affordable units a developer would be required to include in their project from 9 to 10 percent but this too failed by a 6-3 vote along the same lines as the previous amendment. Even though the council earlier passed HALA “framework policies” committing the city to raising the requirement in areas experiencing greatest increases in density (and developer profit), apparently rezoning the U District from current low-rise to 320-foot highrises doesn't qualify.  

Johnson did accede to Herbold’s and O’Brien’s request to delay upzoning of University Way Northeast, a six-block strip of historic small businesses and shops, for six months so a study could be completed and measures implemented to mitigate potential impacts. And Johnson heeded another request by Herbold and O'Brien to remove a half-block area and sliver of land north of 56th that saved 130 low-cost units.  

As for the fate of the tenants now living in the 1,500 or so existing units across the District that were upzoned, Johnson’s only argument (swallowed whole by Juarez, Bagshaw, Burgess, Harrell, and Gonzalez) was that rent increases and displacement are occurring anyway under current zoning. On the contrary, most existing units are built close to what was until now the allowed capacity so redevelopment was not feasible. Most properties had long-term owners (debt long ago paid off) and given the age and character of the buildings, not in demand by higher-income residents. Rents would have remained relatively stable.  

The upzone will bring increased land values and taxes, driving rents up almost immediately. It will set off a fever of speculative buying and selling of properties as developers and investors move in. The cost of refinancing sites also will be passed on in the form of 100-200 percent rent increases to cover the new debt. Demolition and redevelopment of many properties eventually will follow.

The inflated land values also will preclude nonprofits from acquiring these properties, closing the door on the possibility of obtaining any in perpetuity as low-cost rentals.  

Hundreds of people are going to be displaced, driving up waiting lists for public housing and spurring even more homelessness.  Councilmembers Johnson, Bagshaw, Burgess, Juarez, Harrell, and Gonzalez, your callous disregard for these residents, including retirees, retail and service workers, those on Section 8, and students, is the moral equivalent of “Let them eat cake”.

Only a strong well-organized challenge by our neighborhoods can prevent this. Remember, you are next!

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization.