The Seattle City Council held a public meeting this week regarding the commercial linkage fee and upzone proposals from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) report. Councilmember Mike O’Brien kicked off the meeting by discussing the resolution under consideration. He outlined the two-step process for implementing the Commercial Linkage Fee (CLF), clarifying that the full process would not be complete until 2017. After this brief introduction, public testimony began.

Comments generally fell into two different categories. The majority of commenters voiced support for the Commercial Linkage Fee with an upzone. Many of these supporters also voiced support more generally for the the entire body of HALA recommendations. Groups voicing support included a number of labor unions, Solid Ground, Puget Sound Sage, Futurewise, the Housing Development Consortium, Seattle Sierra Club, and many more. These speakers urged the Council to act quickly because of the affordable housing crisis facing the city.

Strangely enough, many of the people voicing opposition to the policy also cited a citywide housing crisis. At minimum, it seemed as if there was a consensus the city is seeing intensdisplacement and gentrification. There is some data to back up this claim.

Measuring Displacement

The personal stories people tell about gentrification and displacement are compelling, but some have claimed these stories are a myth, or at least overstated. This point of view is supported by the data comparing demolished units to built units. These numbers make it clear that new development is not causing an avalanche of displacement by demolishing buildings. Yet these numbers don’t actually measure displacement for various reasons, one of which is that it doesn’t capture rent increases that cause people to be displaced. There have been a few stronger attempts to measure displacement and gentrification, some of which supports the stories people are telling. For example, data comparing the 1990 and 2000 census show drastic change in low income neighborhoods, especially those in South Seattle.

Seattle Gentrification Maps and Data2
(Governing Magazine)

Fewer neighborhoods qualified to be measured for gentrification between 2000 and 2010, but unsurprisingly, South Lake Union gentrified.

Seattle Gentrification Maps and Data
(Governing Magazine)

This research doesn’t make value statements about whether or not these neighborhoods are better or worse because of the investment they’ve seen. It also doesn’t quantify the number of people that had to move due to rent increases.

It does make it clear though that housing prices increased dramatically at a time in which incomes saw very little increase. It seems implausible to believe that this could happen without displacement. Furthermore, there is plenty of data showing gentrification is real. For example, the above maps show rising housing costs in traditionally non-white neighborhoods. It seems likely these cost increases are hitting residents that already struggle the most to pay for housing.

Seattle Housing Affordability  Key Background Data1
(City of Seattle)

It’s important to be critical of the stories people tell since exaggeration is often used as a political tool. But these stories seem sincere and they are bolstered by evidence.

Opposition To The Linkage Fee With An Upzone

Even though the linkage fee would be used to mitigate displacement, the policy under consideration didn’t sit well with everyone. Most of the critics at the hearing focused on dead horse arguments against upzones:

  • The upzone and linkage fee don’t include 1:1 replacement of existing market rate affordable units;
  • Drawing causal relationships between rent increases and upzones;
  • The city is losing tree canopy; and
  • The HALA recommendations are a product of developers.

These criticisms have been debunked previously:

  • Requesting 1:1 replacement is a nice talking point, but a practical policy that would work is vague at best;
  • Rent increases that happen at the same time as upzones may have happened anyways, or have been worse, without upzones;
  • Living more densely means less sprawl which ultimately protects forests and can even free up city space for parks;  and
  • The HALA working group clearly had a diverse spectrum of stakeholders.

The last criticism is especially interesting considering the turnout for the event. No private developers testified in support of the the upzones, let alone the linkage fee. This should be surprising to people who see developer fingerprints all over the HALA recommendations.

This also touches on another interesting criticism. Some have voiced concern that the HALA recommendations are at risk because Social Justice and Affordable Housing Advocates won’t vocally support upzones. Your’s truly used a parallel argument, urging urbanists to support affordable housing subsidies in order to build good will among a larger coalition. Yet both an earlier HALA meeting and this one was stacked with various affordable housing, social justice, and labor organizations advocating for the entire HALA package, including upzones. There were some urbanists in attendance speaking in favor, but no private developers. In fact, one of Seattle’s lobbyists for developers, Roger Valdez of Smart Growth Seattle attended the meeting but didn’t testify. Instead, Valdez spoke critically of the proposals while being interviewed by King 5.

Two other notable topics were raised during testimonies. First, there was a clear, organized effort to have the University District upzone delayed until the linkage fee is passed. This would mean that the fee would apply to those upzoned properties. Second, a number of testimonies specifically asked the city to consider bonding to build or acquire more affordable housing.

Overall the hearing was good for supporters of HALA. There was clearly a majority of support from a broad and diverse spectrum of advocates.

Article Author
Owen Pickford holding a beer, wearing a Sounders shirt in front of a bridge, river and large towers in Tokyo.
Owen Pickford

Owen is a solutions engineer for a software company. He has an amateur interest in urban policy, focusing on housing. His primary mode is a bicycle but isn't ashamed of riding down the hill and taking the bus back up. Feel free to tweet at him: @pickovven.