Tall Tales in South Lake Union

Promises of affordable housing have the whiff of sandwich meat.

Mayor Mike McGinn is selling his proposal for a vastly taller South Lake Union with the lure of affordable housing. Under the plan, aired at a hearing last week, Paul Allen's Vulcan would get to build three 24-story towers in exchange for donating an acre of land that could be used for affordable housing and other public benefits. Vulcan, or any other developer, working on additional projects in the area would also have to chip in for affordable housing if they wanted to build extra-high.

We're skeptical of how sweet a deal this is for one reason: A lot of "affordable" housing isn't all that affordable.

By city guidelines, a one-bedroom renting for $1,320 a month would count as affordable. What makes this all the stranger is that in September, the average Seattle-area rent was only $1,103, according to a Dupre + Scott survey, and that reflected recent rent hikes attributed to landlords gaining the upper hand.

How can "affordable" housing be more expensive than the going rate? Chalk it up to bureaucratic math, which figures that people can pay 30 percent of their income on rent. There's also the highly politicized question of whom affordable housing is targeting. Nonprofits trying to serve the truly needy often have in mind people earning 30 to 60 percent of the median income.

But the concept of affordable housing has become expansive over the years as municipalities worked to adopt regulations that developers could live with. In the South Lake Union proposal, most affordable apartments are aimed at people making 80 percent of the median income (roughly $49,000 for an individual), according to Marshall Foster, city-planning director at the Department of Planning and Development. Affordable condos and houses would be for people making a full 100 percent of the median ($62,000 for an individual).

That's why John Fox of the Displacement Coalition calls the purported public benefit of the South Lake Union plan "baloney." He says the "affordable" units generated won't be within the reach even of average "working people," never mind the "low-income."

"That's a fair concern," Foster allows. But he says the affordability levels in the South Lake Union plan are consistent with prior developer incentive plans passed by the City Council—plans meant to "work in tandem" with city levy money funding the creation of housing for the poor.

Even if you have the same ideas about affordability that the city does, you still might wonder whether the South Lake Union plan is a good deal. Former councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, a consultant for a neighborhood coalition opposing the plan, says he's taken a look at the amount of money the city estimates will be funneled to affordable housing: $45 million over 25 years (which Foster says includes the value of the land Vulcan would donate). An architect by training, Steinbrueck did a rough calculation of how many units he thought could be built for that figure, and came up with 300.

Compare that, he says, to the 12,000 market-rate units the plan will produce. "These are going to be in luxury towers with expensive rents," he says. Now consider the redevelopment pressure that all those new luxury units will put on the neighborhood, resulting in the teardown of existing affordable housing.

Any way you slice it, the neighborhood is headed one way, and it's not toward affordability.

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