Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Good Life Could Always Be Better

We've all heard the mantra by now. Seattle is becoming a city of rich and poor. We need to prioritize workforce housing so that cops, firemen, and teachers don't have to take three buses to fight a fire, arrest a child pornographer, or earn their pittance slaving in the vineyards of Seattle's second rate educational system.

As we move toward renewal of Seattle's housing levy in 2009, we'll be hearing more of this. A new group called the Middle Income Housing Alliance, chaired by former Mayor Charles Royer, has formed in response to our plight.

I say "our" because this is me that they're talking about. My income puts me pretty much squarely at Seattle median. Homeownership within Seattle wouldn't work for me. My family bought in Shoreline, where lower home prices and better schools proved an irresistible draw.

But buy we did, and as a result, I receive my fair share of the four dollars in tax breaks that flow to middle-class homeowners for every federal housing dollar that goes to the poor.


But some are feeling like that's not enough.

A Seattle Times Op-Ed by Royer last November makes the case. Only San Fransisco has fewer children per capita than Seattle, and fewer than forty percent of our fire fighters now live in the City. This, argues Royer, is a question of "values," and we need to resist the unhelpful rhetoric of class war to put more resources behind the relatively privileged.
We have not really had a conversation in Seattle about how this new middle-income housing crisis is affecting our core values. That is, how are our kids growing up and our families coping? What does the continuing loss of the middle class mean not only for those families, but also for us, as a community, both in terms of our economic health and our social fabric? Does it matter if kids growing up in Seattle never live next door to a firefighter, or a police officer, or a teacher? What is a good neighborhood without the presence and the participation of the people who work hard for the city, yet cannot afford to live here with their children? ...

I think the conversation about our core values needs to start now. And it needs to start with housing our middle-income work force.

It needs to be a civil conversation. It needs to resist the harsh political tactics that pit the haves against the have-nots. We've already seen some of that. And, it is neither honest nor helpful.
Wow. Imagine growing up and never having the opportunity to live next door to a firefighter, teacher, or cop, subjected instead to an unwholesome mix of Merrill-Lynch executives and crack whores.

Is he serious?

Have you ever noticed how when the "have-nots" push back, that's a "harsh tactic," but when the haves exert their substantial power, we simply call that "the market?"

Among their recommendations is to greatly expand the Multi-Family Tax Exemption. This program, which gives developers tax breaks (a projected $10 million thus far) to include housing affordable to those at up to 80% of Seattle median income in their construction, has been criticized as a "give-away" that creates housing that is more expensive than that delivered by the market itself.

While the MFTE is widely viewed as a not terribly effective program, the solution, apparently, is to make the giveaway even more developer friendly by raising the required affordability to 120% of median, which would mean a single person pulling down around $65K annually. The Office of Housing just released a new report to the City Council that makes the Middle Income Housing Alliance's case. Support for their agenda is also a priority of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Strangely, the King County 2006 Housing Benchmarks report doesn't really support this dire picture of a disappearing middle class. The most severely challenged income group, believe it or not, are those earning 40% or less of median, where 99,200 households compete for just 31,40 rental units. Those earning 80% of median or more have far more options.
Close to 40% of King County’s rental households - more than 100,000 renters - earn above 80% of median household income. ... Almost 84,000 of these households occupy rental units that would be affordable to lower income levels, which decreases the supply of housing that is actually available to the lower income households.
So, not only is there sufficient housing stock to meet the needs of the middle-class, bargain hunters that we are, we spend a lower proportion of our income for housing than most by poaching on that which, in a more just world, might be reserved for the poor.

I guess that tax giveaways to developers to spur more housing for the moderately well-off would, in theory, free up cheap rental stock for those further down the housing food chain, but that seems a rather indirect approach. Why not solve hunger by subsidizing PCC shoppers to not hog all the specials at Safeway?

I hate to harsh Royer's buzz, but in these times of growing inequality, there's something obscene about giving tax breaks to wealthy developers so they'll produce housing that's more expensive than what the market already produces. Why not invest those dollars we give away to developers directly into the schools? Then maybe those of us who have options will have a reason to stay.


Trevor said...

The workforce housing issue is a scam.

First, there is no right to an affordable condo or house any more than there is a right to affordable stock options in successful businesses. If the city were building coops, that would be one thing.

Second, it will actually use the catchword of "affordable housing" as a vehicle for accelerating displacement. New homes and condos are likely to be converted or built on top of what remains of Seattle's affordable housing stock. Rentals at 120 percent median are likely to be built in neighborhoods in the South end where those rents are ABOVE MARKET RATE, thereby accelerating displacement.

Third, this is PR for undermining our investments in rental housing, just like Nickels is using the 10 year plan to shift money from shelter to housing. Politicians say they are supporting affordable housing while actually shifting the benefits to people who are nowhere close to the poverty line. Certain affordable housing developers continue to get city contracts but do less advocacy for the poor. People who say that you can do both should keep a close eye on the next housing levy.

Bill said...

The Benchmarks made its way into the hands of the state democratic caucus in the 2007 session. Rep. Maralyn Chase did a 40+ page power point to inform the caucus members, cuz as she said, nobody knows this stuff. The report points out we have enough units to house everyone. We just have landlords who want the rent they think they deserve for their units, so the huge gap is at the lower end, as Tim says. I think we need a tax on vacant units that are not being re-habbed. Make the tax high enough to press renting the unit, but low enough so that renting for 30-50% off the desired rent still brings income to the landlord/investor. Right now these vacancies probably just bring about some tax deduction or similar benefit. Why else would so many units sit vacant? Even when the vacancy rate is low, that tells us we have vacant units. Let's fill them. Make it illegal to carry vacant units not being renovated. Bump folks up who can afford better, just like the airlines do it when someone gets moved from coach to 1st class. Do we have the will to end homelessness, or not?