As Seattle deals with the largest population boom in its history, the Sightline Institute, an independent, nonprofit research and communications center, hosted a panel Wednesday night at the Rainier Arts Center to learn from Chicago and San Francisco affordable housing experts.
In a moment perhaps emblematic of the very issues to be discussed, the majority of the audience, by a show of hands, had never before been to the South End’s popular community center.
Sightline Institute executive director Alan Durning likened the housing crisis to musical chairs.
“But in the housing market you don’t have to be fast,” he said, “you just have to be rich.”
Durning subsequently asked: Can you stop the game of cruel musical chairs without sprawling?
He insisted it’s possible, referencing Tokyo, among others, where housing has outpaced population growth.
“Home construction is extremely easy,” Durning elaborated. The same goes for Houston, Texas. He simply urged the answer is to build more housing for all needs and of all sizes. Easier said than done.
Daniel Hertz, a senior policy analyst at Chicago’s Center for Tax and Budget, explained Chicago doesn’t have as many geographical barriers as Seattle. The city additionally has no giant employment boom thanks to tech giants. Nonetheless, Chicago’s core downtown averages $2,240 but that equates to Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a place that isn’t remotely comparable to the downtown prices.
Hertz noted rent over $2,000 isn’t affordable but it’s still moderate for the richest in Chicago’s city.
“By building so much housing you can really at least slow the growth of cost,” he said.
Then came suggestions from Kim-Mai Cutler with Initialized Capital, a San Francisco firm.
Cutler herself comes from a family of refugees who saw California’s Bay Area growing and moved to seize the opportunity.
Cutler noted both the Bay Area and Seattle are littered with tech companies, have wide income gaps, and similar geography. However, Seattle builds twice the amount of housing that San Francisco does per year.
Growth control greeted San Francisco in the ‘70s due to an oil crisis, heightened environmental consciousness and deliberate class and racial community make-up after the civil rights movement.
More than anything, however, Cutler discussed how property taxes act as a heavy hand in incentivizing and disincentivizing building. Property taxes in San Francisco remain at roughly the amount they were when a homeowner initially purchased a property.
The property and its subsequent taxes can be inherited as well, which causes very little turnover. People wait to maximize profit as property values have doubled every decade since the ‘80s.
As a result, California’s general state fund comes from personal income taxes. It’s not given to individual cities. This means cities lean toward hotels and offices that will bring astronomically more tax revenue than housing.
Such disseminated and unequal amounts of housing change leads to something Cutler called “mega-commuting.” Residents get pushed farther and farther away from their jobs to the point where they’re forced to commute three hours to work. Additionally, Cutler pointed out it disproportionately impacts people of color.
“We do have a lot of government-subsidized housing in America, it’s just being targeted inappropriately,” Cutler said. “It we could re-channel that and target it toward more needy households it would make housing more affordable for many Americans.”
According to Cutler, much of the struggles associated with American city’s dealing with growth are due to money. It’s simply allocated in a for-profit direction. In places where density is considered, it almost always equates to more affordable housing.
As Durning fielded audience questions for the guest experts present, he noted it would be unfair for them to weigh in on Seattle politics and policies unfamiliar to them. Hertz however did comment that he was impressed by the amount of midrises in Seattle.