SEATTLE, WA – November 30, 2007 – Mayor Greg Nickels today urged the City Council to take action by the end of the year on legislation that could create hundreds of new, affordable homes for Seattle’s working families.
Nickels proposed the Seattle Homes Within Reach program to the Council in July, and the costs of delay are mounting. Unless the Council acts soon, the city could miss out on the opportunity to set aside as many as 1,600 new affordable apartments for middle-income workers, such as firefighters, grocery clerks, industrial workers and others who are being priced out of the city’s housing market.
“This is not a back-burner issue for people who are stressed out by housing prices growing faster than their paychecks,” Nickels said. “The longer we wait, the more opportunities we lose to keep Seattle affordable for working families. It is clear from the broad support for this proposal that people want action on this issue.”
The mayor’s Seattle Homes Within Reach strategy would expand and update an existing housing incentive program, bringing it to Ballard, West Seattle, Lake City and many other neighborhoods where affordable housing has become a growing concern. The legislation is now before Councilmember Tom Rasmussen’s Housing, Human Services and Health Committee.
“This is too important an issue to wait any longer,” said Steve Cohn, chairperson of the Ballard District Council. “There is a huge demand for affordable homes in my neighborhood. All the new housing projects breaking ground in Ballard should have the option of tapping into this program.”
City staff visited nine district councils around the city and found that the communities were very concerned about home prices and the increasing difficulty working families and individuals have finding affordable housing in Seattle’s neighborhoods. They often said it makes sense to expand the program to create affordable units within projects that would be happening anyway. Councilmembers were involved in the discussion at five of those meetings. Further, councilmembers have held two Council committee meetings at which they have gathered public comments, largely in support of proposed changes.
“We can’t afford to let Seattle become unaffordable for working families,” said Diane Zahn of the Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 21, which represents Puget Sound’s grocery workers. “We are seeing a number of projects that combine grocery stores and apartments; this proposal would give people who work on the ground level the opportunity to live upstairs.”
Seattle Homes Within Reach would provide a 12-year tax exemption on the residential portion of any new apartment building in which 20 to 25 percent of the units are set aside for individuals who earn up to $49,000 or families who earn up to $62,300. Today, there are more than 8,000 units of multifamily housing units in the pipeline in neighborhoods that would be covered by the new program, creating the opportunity for as many as 1,600 affordable homes, if all projects participated in the program.
Condo developers can also opt into the expanded program by offering units that are affordable to individuals and families who earn up to $74,760 a year for a two-person household. The income limits vary according to household size. For condos, the tax exemption would be available to only the units in the building occupied by people who meet the Seattle Housing Within Reach income guidelines.
“With so much discussion in the community about the need for work force housing, I am surprised that Council has not moved to expand the program to neighborhoods like Lake City and Ballard, where there are developments in the pipeline that could take advantage of the program and include units that are affordable to teachers and nurses,” said Hal Ferris, a principal of Lorig Associates, which is working on a project in Lake City.
Seattle has a long history of meeting the housing needs of the poor or low-income earners. During the past 20 years, the Housing Levy and other programs have created nearly 10,000 homes for those earning between zero and $45,000 a year. But a significant portion of Seattle’s work force is priced out of housing and not eligible for any of the city’s housing programs.
A new housing challenge has arisen in recent years. As housing prices climb, middle-income wage earners have found themselves increasingly priced out of the market with few places to turn. The median price of new condos now exceeds $350,000, requiring an income of more than $74,000. Median-priced single-family homes now require an income of more than $100,000.
To put that into perspective, salaries for police and firefighters start at about $47,000 a year. At a City Council hearing shortly after Nickels’ proposal was announced, Seattle firefighter Paul Hermosillo spoke out about his struggle to own a home in Seattle.
“I worked extremely hard to become a firefighter in Seattle, but it is harder to become a homeowner in Seattle,” he said. “Lots of the guys I came into the department with are in the same situation. I’d like to be able to raise a family in the city where I work. I’m saving as much as I can but it is going to take a long time to make a down payment on a house or condo.”
Under the current Multifamily Tax Exemption program, single-person households earning up to a ceiling of approximately $38,150 can qualify for housing. That ceiling shows the need to broaden the program, said Adrienne Quinn, director of Seattle’s Office of Housing.
“The fact is a significant portion of our work force is priced out of housing and not eligible for any of the city’s housing programs,” Quinn said. “The Seattle Homes Within Reach program gives us a cost-effective tool to help many more people find homes they can afford in Seattle.”
The current incentive program applies only to selected areas, including portions of downtown, southeast Seattle, and Northgate. Under the mayor’s proposal, the Seattle Homes Within Reach program would be expanded to all urban villages.
Visit the mayor’s Web site at www.seattle.gov/mayor.