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How Does Seattle Stack Up in Combating the Affordable Housing Crisis?

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Seattle's explosive economic and population growth—and corresponding spike in housing costs—are well documented. Seattle is the third-fastest growing economy among large cities in the U.S. As a result, the metro area is struggling with rising rents and tight rental vacancy, which has led to a housing affordability crisis. In 2015, Seattle declared a state of emergency with respect to its homelessness problem—and it currently has the third largest homeless population in the country, despite being the 18th largest city. Against this backdrop, the city is now girding itself for an influx of 120,000 new residents expected to move in over the next two decades.

Headwinds for Low-Income Housing

Developers and lawmakers face major challenges to address this crisis. New housing often targets higher earners moving to the region for lucrative tech jobs. Those living on minimum wage (on the path in Seattle toward $15 per hour and up depending on the employer) —struggle. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that Seattle offers only 29 affordably priced housing units per 100 lowest-income households—a figure below the national average of 35 per 100. Rent-subsidized units comprise about 12.6 percent of Seattle's total local rental stock, according to Census Bureau data, but this places Seattle 19th among the 25 metro areas tracked for the availability of subsidized housing.

Federal resources allocated to Seattle have not necessarily risen proportionately with the metro area's population growth, either. Among those living in subsidized housing, half receive a government subsidy, one-third live within buildings owned by regional housing authorities, and the remainder rent properties that use income-verification.

Upzoning for Affordable Units

Seattle City Council's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) was formed to present approaches for creating more affordable housing. The city has recommended an inclusionary approach to development known as Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA), which would require developers to either include affordable housing for those who live at or up to 60 percent of adjusted median income ($38,000 for a single person, $54,000 for a family of four) within each new residential housing project or pay into a fund for such development.

Developers participating would gain upzoning privileges, a policy hotly contested within some neighborhoods where residents have raised concerns about additional density that isn't linked to additional parking. The MHA plan is estimated to add 20,000 new affordable housing units over the coming decade (of the Mayor's 50,000 goal), according to city estimates.

Pushback Against Plan

However, housing advocacy groups such as Seattle Fair Growth have criticized the plan for focusing incentives on the higher end of the affordability scale. Under MHA, developers need to create housing priced for those earning 50 to 60 percent of adjusted median income (AMI)—rather than the 0 percent to 50 percent AMI. Every $100 increase in rent, the organization says, results in a 15 percent increase in homelessness. While rents on average are not growing as quickly, they remain elevated—making it likely that Seattle's affordable housing problem won't be resolved anytime soon.

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