* Since 2005, more than 5,000 units of housing have been torn down to make way for new residential construction. Conservatively, 3,000 of those 5,000 units that were lost served the city’s poorest renters. There are permits pending for demolition of another 1700 units. (Our surveys over the years of tenants in buildings facing the wrecking ball indicate that anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of these units were low-income rentals.)
* As for the new units that replaced this lost housing, they’re priced hundreds of dollars above what most low-income people could afford — or even what the average wage earner or tenant in Seattle could afford. Most new construction might provide, for example, a studio for $1,100 a month or $1,500 for a one-bedroom. The average Seattle wage earner makes about $43,000 a year and, to spend no more than 30 percent of income on housing, needs a rental at $1,075 a month. The average tenant earns around $39,000 and needs a rental below $975.
* Those with incomes below 40 percent of the median, who need a rental below $700 to $800 a month, face a conspicuous shortfall. According to the King County Housing Benchmarks report, in Seattle, there are about 40,000 households whose income falls below that threshold, but only 10,000 units at rents affordable to this group. In all of King County, there are some 99,000 households whose incomes are below 40 percent of area median but only 63,116 rentals affordable to that group. Consequently, there’s a long waiting list for subsidized housing.
* More housing development coincides with more demolition of existing low-income housing. The expensive stuff that gets built adds to our total supply. Since 2005, counting units going through permitting, Seattle has added more than 49,000 new units and reached over 100 percent of its 20-year regionally assigned growth targets. But even at this level of growth, the increased inventory has not reduced prices — in fact, it’s just the opposite. According to the King County 2012 Housing Needs Assessment, prices fall when development rates fall, when the number of demolitions falls. Vacancy rates fall at these times, as well. So does homelessness. So do the waiting lists for public housing.
* New construction (and upzones designed to stimulate higher rates of new construction) also has the effect of driving up surrounding property values, and the resulting higher taxes get passed on in the form of higher rents. This encourages a more rapid turnover of surrounding properties — buying and selling and refinancing of existing units — which also serves to drive rents up on surrounding properties.
* No matter how much new construction we see in Seattle, it’s never enough to offset rising demand accompanying the influx of newcomers attracted to work in those shiny, new downtown and South Lake Union office towers. And we only recently upzoned downtown for another 17 million square feet of office space to ensure an influx of new workers who will raise demand even more. If our concern really is affordable housing, our local government should intervene to slow growth down, rather than stoking the flames of rapid growth through upzones. Upzones, residential or commercial, simply serve to stimulate even more demand, more housing demolition, and speculation and rent increases on surrounding existing older apartments.
* And what growth does occur should be preceded with mechanisms that prevent removal of existing, lower-priced units and that promote in-fill over demolition. And when this cannot be done, require developers to replace one-for-one what they remove, at comparable price.
* More proactively, our city should acquire and purchase existing, lower-priced rentals before they are lost to the wrecking ball or before speculation drives rents above low-income thresholds, and transferring these buildings to nonprofit ownership, cooperatives and land trusts. Slowing growth down and reducing speculative pressure on existing units gives government more time to do this.
* Simply unleashing the forces of the market by promoting more density through upzoning has only led to more displacement, higher housing costs and more inequality and human suffering in our community. And those — especially elected officials — who promote added density and rely on the myth of supply-and-demand to justify it, are guilty of abetting these trends.