Home improvements

Mayor Schell's modest housing agenda: many small tweaks and a boost to the market.

THE WAIT IS OVER. Mayor Paul Schell's long-anticipated housing summit (since renamed the "Community Conference on Affordable Housing") is set for this Saturday, March 21, at 9am in the Seattle Center's Northwest Rooms. Public review of the mayor's housing proposals has so far largely been linked with individual neighborhood planning efforts; observers are eager to see how Schell's ideas play with the general public. Although few city officials and neighborhood leaders have embraced Schell's so-called Housing Action Agenda, most find something to like in its long list of ideas. Council president Sue Donaldson notes that most of the proposals are not new, but they've never been presented in a coherent city strategy.

Others are hesitant about what they see as the mayor's market-based approach, which aims to lower housing prices by increasing housing supply. A critique of the agenda by a group of housing advocates urges developer incentives and bonuses tied directly to providing low-income units in new buildings. "We should not be in the business of subsidizing middle-income or upper-income units," says former City Council aide Matthew Fox, one of the critique's eight authors. "Producing a bunch of upper-level housing and making life easier for developers is not going to lower the price of housing."

The housing advocates' alternative proposal (whose authors include low-income developer Sharon Lee, Seattle Displacement Coalition leader John Fox, and the Archdiocesan Housing Authority's Flo Beaumon, in addition to Matthew Fox) calls for a more ambitious city agenda on the issue of homelessness—including a guarantee of shelter beds for all persons, dramatic increases in city funding for housing and homeless programs, and a right-of-first-refusal law that would allow residents of privately owned low-income housing scheduled for redevelopment to purchase their units. The alternative also proposes an innovative "fair share overlay" for neighborhood plans: a requirement that all neighborhoods accept low-income and social service facilities in

return for some control over siting of future market-rate housing and institutional developments.

THIS ALTERNATIVE PROPOSAL will be presented at a March 20 brown-bag lunch discussion on renter's issues in City Council chambers. Council member Peter Steinbrueck agrees that the city should concentrate on the lowest levels of the housing market, including the homeless and renters. "On a macro level, we don't have a supply problem; we have an affordability problem for people at moderate- and low-income levels and the homeless, and that's where we should focus our efforts," he says.

Schell, who won election last fall partially by vowing his willingness to tackle Seattle's housing problems, has pledged to stimulate housing production at all levels of the market. Although the most recent draft of the Housing Action Agenda calls for focusing incentives in neighborhoods that most need affordable housing, the mayor's critics fear programs may be expanded citywide, exacerbating market forces that already focus development in higher-income areas. The mayor's agenda now proposes restricting a property-tax exemption for new housing to eight pilot neighborhoods, including Columbia City, the International District, and Rainier Beach, a mechanism currently authorized by state law. Other possible city incentives, which would require the Legislature's approval, include property-tax relief for owners of below-market-rate housing and a sales-tax exemption for new housing construction.

Council member Nick Licata proposes taking this approach a step further and investigating whether the city can raise real estate taxes on new high-end housing. "We want to create disincentives for that kind of speculative market and incentives for lower-cost units," he says. Queen Anne activist Anna Nissen also questions the crisis mentality that seems to be underlie the agenda. "I think they're moving in some good directions," she says of Schell's latest draft. "But I think they've concocted an emergency which may be over before they get on the road."

PERHAPS THE MOST interesting counterproposal comes from Wallingford activist Gregory Hill, who argues that the housing market is too large, too reactive, and too much affected by factors outside the government's control to justify Schell's approach. A more workable strategy, argues Hill, would be for the city to shut down its economic development programs. He cites a recent city/county/Port deal to subsidize the building of a new Immunex facility along the waterfront, touted as creating more than 1,000 new high-wage jobs. These new workers need housing, and their presence in the housing market drives up prices for everyone, notes Hill, who sees a connection between the city's economic development focus during Mayor Norm Rice's second term and soaring city housing prices. "Why are we spending one dollar on economic development?"

The response Schell has received illustrates the sticky nature of housing issues. Take his housing mantra: "To dramatically increase the supply of housing for all income levels in neighborhoods that welcome it and in ways that enhance our sense of community." What's a dramatic increase? What types of housing "enhance our sense of community"? The latest draft of the agenda makes the housing mantra even longer by adding the words "from shelter to market-rate" after "housing for all income levels"—added, mostly likely, in response to concerns that the draft is short on policies addressing homelessness.

But the draft's incremental strategies point out the lack of a "silver bullet" for housing problems. Regulatory approaches are modest, if many; direct government intervention carries a big price tag. While the Schell administration isn't likely to embrace Hill's "no economic development" mandate, the Housing Action Agenda's focus on little tweaks to the process at least proves the activist's point: The housing market is a Goliath. And so far, the city is using a mighty small slingshot.

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