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Affordable housing is good for the environment

SeaCAP RGBBlog post by Councilmember Mike O’Brien

Urban density is important, especially for meeting our environmental goals as a city. The exercise of developing our Climate Action Plan over the past year has been one of ascertaining not if Seattle should develop into a denser city, but how. This includes shortening distances between where people live, work and play. When we do so, we drive less and reduce our carbon footprint.

As we’ve engaged the community over the past year, what we hear consistently—from residents, from other cities, from experts, and from environmental leaders on our own Green Ribbon Commission—is that we must center equity in our strategies for reaching our environmental goals.

I want the benefits that density brings to neighborhoods. I want people to be able to bike and walk to work. I want close-knit neighborhoods with active open spaces. But I want everyone to be able to access these neighborhoods.

Modest wage workers are increasingly unable to afford to live in the dense city we’re building. When families are forced move to nearby suburban cities where housing is affordable, they lose access to transit service and become more likely to drive, thereby increasing our collective carbon footprint.

I cannot support a vision sustainability that looks like wealthier people living in dense high-rises with modest wage workers living further out and relying on longer commutes (and likely living in less energy efficient housing).

My vision for a sustainable city includes those who currently live in Seattle sharing in the prosperity that comes with growth and denser development. In communities like the Rainier Valley, equitable development means helping immigrant business owners grow their business so that when land values go up, they have an opportunity to capture that value for their families and community and remain an important part of the fabric of our city. It means building a multi-cultural community center so existing communities become anchored in the neighborhood, share resources and create a neighborhood where they feel at home. These strategies must be part of our environmental community’s agenda. (See the report “Transit Oriented Development that is Healthy, Green and Just” and the Community Cornerstones program in the Office of Housing for more on these strategies.) These strategies will enable us to grow up into a denser, more sustainable city together, and to collectively reduce our carbon impacts rather than shifting emissions around.

In a community like South Lake Union on the verge of significant redevelopment, one way to center equity is to ensure that modest wage workers have access to the job opportunities that are being development in the neighborhood. This means we need to consider local hire provisions in our public infrastructure work and connect vocational training programs with opportunities in the neighborhood to build pipelines into these opportunities.

Another way to center equity is to increase the supply of affordable workforce housing in South Lake Union so that more modest wage workers are able to live near where they work. I, along with several of my colleagues, are proposing a modest increase in the price developers pay for affordable housing in exchange for additional height and floor area accessed through our incentive zoning program. I am not proposing this out of some maliciousness towards developers or density. I am proposing this because our environmental goals require it. Our equity goals require it. And our city’s own Comprehensive Plan goals require it because we know that unless we ask for greater performance in the neighborhood, the currently proposed incentive zoning program will not put us on the path to meeting our affordable housing targets.

In response to this idea, I hear several of my friends in the environmental community and pro-density community making the case that affordable housing is good, but our strategy should be to simply increase the supply of housing. I’ve got an MBA and a background in finance, so I’m inclined to be sympathetic to this case—let the market do its work.

But it’s a more complex story than simple supply and demand. People want to live in our city. When we build great neighborhoods, even if expensive, more folks come. Apartments fill with new higher-wage technology workers imported to Seattle by firms like Amazon. We welcome their talent and are glad to have them working in our community. But, this phenomenon alters the supply and demand equation. We can build a huge supply, but prices in a desirable new neighborhood like South Lake Union won’t become affordable for modest wage workers for decades to come.  We cannot wait 40 years for the housing stock to age. Entire generations of households will have left our city by then.

We must be more thoughtful in our approach to building the dense, sustainable city that many of us in the environmental community want. The public sector will continue to subsidize very low income housing for those in our community most in need, although sequestration and the federal budget issues we face will make this increasingly difficult. We must also continue to ask our private sector partners to help create the housing that allows modest wage workers to live and play near where they work.

I support 240 foot towers on the waterfront and would support additional height up to 160 feet in the Westlake “panhandle.” I support density and want to see South Lake Union developed with great density.

Centering equity does not run counter to our environmental goals, but instead helps make meeting our environmental goals possible.