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March 12, 2014

Affordable apartments on Capitol Hill? New Seattle housing plan due this summer

Capitol Hill Seattle Blog

Bryan Cohen

Are these the people who will deliver affordable apartments on Capitol Hill? Mike O'Brien, far right (for only time in his life) says yes

As the minimum wage debate rolls on in Seattle, it's worth remembering the underlying premise at play: working people ought to be able to afford some basic standard of living on their hard-earned wages in an increasingly expensive city. One way to meet that goal is to increase wages, another way is to hem the cost of living.

"Every day the challenge is growing, people are struggling to survive," Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, who is leading an effort to enact a comprehensive affordable housing plan in Seattle, tells CHS. "There's a sense of urgency, that puts a lot of pressure on this process to come up with some results as soon as possible, but we also need to be strategic."

CHS previously reported on the City Council's February Workforce Housing Forum, where experts from outside Seattle gathered to discuss how their respective cities have developed affordable housing. Broadening Seattle's limited incentive zoning program and creating a corporate housing fund were just a couple of ideas floated at the forum.

The effort stems from a 2013 ordinance where the City Council promised "a thorough review and update of Seattle's incentive zoning and other affordable housing program and policies."

The council is now awaiting the results of three studies, expected to arrive in May, looking at the possibilities in Seattle. O'Brien told CHS he's committed to developing and passing a plan by the end of summer.

For many workers, and particularly those on Capitol Hill, a huge percentage of their income goes towards housing. To get an idea of where Capitol Hill stands, we went to Craigslist. We looked at 70 of the cheapest studios listed on Craigslist for Capitol Hill from February 24-March 3. The average median rent was (conveniently) just about $1,000. A full time minimum wage worker makes roughly $1,500 a month (40 hour weeks) in Seattle, meaning they would spend 66% of their income on a median priced studio on Capitol Hill.

Housing is generally considered affordable at or below 30% of income, so a current minimum wage earner would need to work about 81 hours to "afford" a median priced studio on Capitol Hill. (Working 40-hour weeks at $15 an hour, a worker would take home roughly $2,400, making the median Capitol Hill studio close to, but not quite, affordable.)

Meanwhile, a building boom continues around Capitol Hill with analysts at Kidder Mathews forecasting that 1,200 apartment units will have entered the market in the area in the 2013-2014 period.

The February housing forum at City Hall divided into two tracks towards addressing affordable housing: incentive zoning and everything else.

Incentive zoning, currently only used in South Lake Union, allows developers to increase the height of their buildings if low-income housing units are also constructed. If the developers choose to opt out of providing low-cost housing on-site while still using the incentive program, developers can instead pay a fee to the city.

Under the current model, incentive zoning for affordable housing can only be expanded after a neighborhood-wide up-zone. Lowering the barrier for expanding the program and increasing the developer's opt-out fee are both on the table. Other options may include expanding microhousing, allowing for more backyard cottages and splitting lots, or increasing fees on developers who opt out of an incentive zoning offer.

Part of the housing solution might be figuring out how we turn Capitol Hill's most distinguishing neighborhood feature into an affordable housing asset.

"There's a tension [in Seattle] between more density or affordable housing," O'Brien said. "In every other jursidiction, it's density and affordable housing, they go hand in hand."

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