When my younger daughter told me that a number of her friends were planning to move out of the city and commute to Seattle for work, I realized that housing prices were getting out of hand. But I shrugged and thought, “Oh, well,” because isn’t that the cost of progress, of growth?
Recently, I read Genesee Martin’s article on HALA, Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Living Agenda (“HALA in full swing, pleads for community support,” March 16, www.queenannenews.com). Martin confirmed the housing plight of not only youths but seniors, low-income neighbors and working families. But she also described solutions that are being explored by dedicated folks in our city.
Seattle is growing rapidly with, according to Martin’s article, 1,000 people a month moving here. However, the influx of new people is driving housing costs up and, consequently, driving out those who cannot afford them — my daughters and their friends, for example.
They cannot pay the monthly cost of a one-bedroom in Ballard, now upward of $1,800. Many of their peers are either jamming into group houses or leaving the city.
Similarly, teachers, police, firefighters and others in that income bracket are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of housing in the very communities they serve.
Is Seattle becoming a city where only the wealthy can afford to live and where those who serve them will be forced to commute from outlying communities?
A ‘suite’ of solutions
My friend Deb Guenther is involved in the Seattle for Everyone Coalition (seattleforeveryone.org), a group of for-profit and nonprofit developers, labor unions, environmental activists and business leaders, formed to ensure the HALA recommendations are implemented. I asked Guenther to explain the situation and HALA’s efforts to me, as this is not my area of expertise. Here is what I learned.
“Development will happen with or without HALA, as long as the economy is growing,” Guenther said. “HALA is a way for us to be smart about the current wave of development and use it to shape the city we want.
“The HALA recommendations work as a suite,” she explained. “For example, the Housing Levy is being considered by [the Seattle] City Council and proposed for the Aug. 2 ballot. Seattle voters have supported the levy for over 30 years to develop affordable multi-family rental housing, prevent homelessness and provide homeownership opportunities for low-income renters. Another recommendation is Mandatory Housing Affordability, which requires developers building in urban villages to provide 5 to 7 percent of new housing at below-market rates. In exchange for providing the affordable housing, they will be allowed an additional story.”
Robin Koskey, strategic advisor at the City of Seattle Office of Housing, described another HALA proposal the city is exploring: an Employers Trust Fund, where businesses can voluntarily contribute to affordable housing programs.
Modeled after the Housing Trust of Silicon Valley, the concept addresses the impacts of employers bringing higher-paid workers into Seattle, which drives up rental costs, thus making it more difficult for lower-wage workers to live in the city. Contributing to this fund works for everyone and helps employers with retention of lower-wage employees.
Koskey, a Queen Anne resident, described how the Employers Trust Fund fits in: “The HALA recommendations mean everyone gives a little, the developers give with Mandatory Housing Affordability, the taxpayers contribute with the Housing Levy and employers give through the fund.”
When I first learned about HALA, I assumed it was about finding a way to house our rising numbers of homeless neighbors, something I agree with.
Guenther clarified, “HALA is about keeping an economic mix of housing that benefits everyone. Housing inequity weakens all families through increased segregation. A generation of young people that aren’t relating to each other across socio-economic lines is a generation that can’t problem-solve global issues or create healthy communities here in Seattle.”
Queen Anne Helpline executive director Lisa Moore, speaking of our Queen Anne neighborhood, said, “Because many people lack a safety net, rising rents create a dilemma for people who have raised their families in the neighborhood and can no longer afford to stay, but also cannot afford to move and don’t want to be uprooted from their community.”
Moore has seen a particular impact on seniors where Social Security is not keeping up.
“There is a 45-percent increase in seniors at the Queen Anne Helpline,” she said. “It takes a multi-pronged approach to get the socio-economic diversity that makes a healthier city for everyone.”
I’m not an investigative journalist. But I can see from delving into this issue just a bit that, at its heart, this conversation must be about building a city that welcomes everyone: seniors, working folks and low-income families. Creating more affordable housing provides a way out for those of our neighbors who teeter on the edge of homelessness.
HALA’s recommendations are about making our city affordable for those who serve our communities. They are about allowing our city to grow in a way that does not force our own children — who grew up here and would be good stewards of their hometown — to leave.
IRENE PANKE HOPKINS lived on Queen Anne for 20 years. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.