Is Seattle Growing too Fast, and Can We Do Anything About That?

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Seattle is growing too fast and needs to get on a diet. The growth rate for Seattle and the Puget Sound region, for decades among the fastest in the nation, is outpacing the local political will needed to meet demand for a rapid increase in housing supply, or to stay up with necessary road and bridge repairs and other public services. Have we exceeded out local carrying capacity?

These components of the Growth Machine are likely to remain baked into our local anti-car and urbanistic politics. So if we can’t change the politics, should we instead tamp down growth? Some suggestions below.

The Growth Machine is a long tradition in Seattle. In the earlier days of the city the business leaders were waiting for the railroad and its growth and wealth spurt. Then came the surge in population (outpacing Tacoma and Portland), goosed by the Alaskan gold rush, wartime industrial production, Boeing, and tech booms. (Next, the AI boom?) The city became a boomtown, rather like Texas and Florida Sunbelt cities. And we seem intent on perpetuating that destiny.

The usual solution to congestion and corrugated streets has been more transit, getting people out of cars. But the expensive reliance on Sound Transit has not had much effect on congestion, since it involves mostly moving folks from slow buses to smooth rail transit. The Sound-Transit skeptics at Smarter Transit estimate that by 2050 only 3% of all trips will be on Sound Transit trains and express buses, and only 5% will be on local buses. Moreover, our transit systems are in a world of hurt, as commuter patterns shift from downtown and cutbacks loom.

There is, to be sure, a smarter way to deal with transit: more east-west bus lines in Seattle, automated shuttles, on-demand cars and vans in most neighborhoods, fixing highway choke points, congestion pricing for freeways and downtown. But that would mean taking on the Sound Transit political juggernaut, and the agency (with 77 positions in communications alone) is unlikely to budge.

Some cities, notably Singapore, have tried to restrain runaway growth by successfully driving down fertility rates. Such cities fear the loss of sustainable quality of life, escalating environmental costs, rising housing prices driven by demand, and the rising costs of servicing that growth. Cities like Boulder, Colorado, have used water shortages to draw strong urban growth boundaries, albeit with a tradeoff in high housing costs. San Francisco is famous for all the NIMBY obstacles to housing developments.

By contrast, Seattle’s developer-driven politics has exploited our competitive advantage by making construction of housing and office towers comparatively easier. Seattle, for instance, has put up thousands of new residential units, so far with little effect on housing prices.

The real driver for growth in Seattle has been in-migration. Our fertility rate is quite low (1.77 births per child-bearing women), and the life-expectancy rate in Seattle is quite high, so affecting what is called “natural growth” seems unlikely. That leaves coping with net migration, which is quite high (about 60,000 a year in Seattle), due to all the jobs in the region, the outdoors lifestyle, and climate refugees. The whole Puget Sound region, Poulsbo to Redmond, is now wall-to-wall urbanized. 

We used to tamp down that migration influx by spending comparatively little on advertising the region to the nation, but that has now changed. Seattle-pitching posters are now in San Francisco subways, tapping the exodus from California. Our major investments of late have been on four big-dollar projects: the Waterfront Park, Climate Pledge Arena, the Seattle Aquarium, and a $2 billion expansion of the Convention Center. All these are aimed directly at the visitor market. Since tourism is likely essential to downtown rejuvenation, changing that reliance on the visitor market will be politically difficult.

Add up these juggernauts for rapid growth and you have a city that hopes to reach 1 million in population by 2050 (surpassing San Francisco). We are on track to a central Puget Sound region that could reach 10 million in 25 years. That’s a boatload of change to our social structure, environment, and congestion. 

The Growth Gang has always held sway in commercial Seattle and now in Bellevue and the Northeast King County boom-belt. One new, hedged convert is Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, who wants to build 100,000 new housing units to accommodate the 250,000 people expected to move to Seattle by 2045. Business interests always need new customers, and the city cash registers ring with the yield of newcomers and taxable new buildings. 

Is there any way to build dams against these floods? One reasonable idea to ease congestion is to fund in each neighborhood more convenient and subsidized on-demand cars and vans, resulting in fewer cars on our choked roads. (The worst cities for congestion are Chicago, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia — all with extensive transit systems.)

Other ideas: Fix highway chokepoints. Give buses more priority lanes. Resist (or fairly estimate costs) for inundation events like the Olympics or the World Cup. If NBA basketball comes to town, steer it to the Eastside. Call a stop to Sound Transit-3 planning and make that runaway agency accountable by directly electing its board. Get serious about creating a second city nearby, as the Silicon Valley techies want to do. Steer urban growth to Bellevue or Tacoma or Everett, real second cities. Slow down building permits and tie their issuance to building of concurrent infrastructure. Move the urban growth boundary outward to allow more urban expansion.

Modern Seattle politics in the 1960s got started by fighting freeways, but the genie of growth wriggled out of that stoppered bottle. Look at what happened to Ballard and the sun-starved canyons of our dreary downtown. Do we as a region sit back and try somehow to cope with all this growth? Or do we shift the fight to the exploded promises of our runaway Growth Machine?

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

32 COMMENTS

  1. Emmett Watson foresaw this. He headed an organization called KBO – Keep the Bastards Out. As often was the case, Emmett was ahead of his time.

  2. David, I fear you’ve become the hero of a lost cause. What you’ve inherited is the Emmett Watson pulpit and the need to get Seattle busy on anti-Seattle propaganda: It rains all the time, the roads are a disaster, the Seattle Freeze is real and all that’s left is to go out into the garden and eat worms — or maybe the slugs that devour all greenery.

  3. We cannot stop change, we can only adapt. People move here because there is lots of money to be made. The surest fix for this is for our local economy to crater – like all of biotech, aerospace, tech, the Port, the business engined by our universities, and probably more sectors I’m missing. The school system is doing its darnedest to drive out families, so there’s that bright spot for ya.

    Every large city has traffic, but only with below grade rail do we now have a choice to sit in traffic or move more quickly underground, on foot (it’s changed my life, I love it!). My favorite saying is that you aren’t stuck in traffic, you ARE traffic. If you are unhappy with the state of things, reflect on how your personal behavior is driving this. I’m much happier walking around this city than grumbling alone in my car.

  4. Finally, someone is asking the question, “what is the carrying capacity of Seattle? ” The proposed new One Seattle Comprehensive Plan (out for public comment now) is full of happy policy language promising future residents plentiful affordable housing, walk scores of 100 in a 15-minute city where you can ditch the car (there won’t be anywhere to park it) and where allowing a few hundred feet of open space shared among the four townhouses squeezed onto formerly single family lots is considered adequate. Of course the accompanying Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) claims there are no impacts to all the growth that can’t be “mitigated” under existing regulations. Of course, there is no estimate of the cost to achieve this urban nirvana. Note that the latest $1 billion housing levy will only fund a fraction of the units allegedly needed for residents with low incomes. Hopefully a few members of the City Council will question the “grow or die” mentality and get back to a truly Sustainable Seattle approach with realistic growth projections and a plan for infrastructure concurrency.

  5. Seattle (8792 res sq mi) isn’t even half as dense as San Francisco (18,635 residents per square mile). It’s true that we have been adding housing much faster than they have over the last decade plus, but we’ve got a loooong way to go to catch up with them. Factor in on top of that that all the projections show we are going to continue to grow here in Seattle, and if we don’t add enough housing we are only going to exacerbate the existing supply/demand problem Seattle faces when it comes to housing. Add it all together and I’d argue the conclusion is inescapable that we can and should be adding housing faster than we currently are.

    • Our biggest housing problem is not lack of supply (“add enough housing” to solve the “existing supply/demand problem”). Our biggest problem is fealty to trickle down “supply and demand” economics. The City’s own study (Seattle Market Rate Housing Needs and Supply Analysis, BERK 2021) clearly shows that our biggest need is more housing affordable to low income households, not just “more housing.” Here’s a link to the document: https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OPCD/OngoingInitiatives/HousingChoices/SeattleMarketRateHousingNeedsAndSupplyAnalysis2021.pdf
      Check out the data on p. 71.

      BERK 2021 concludes that “If trends continue, Seattle will become increasingly exclusive to higher income households.” (“Key Findings”, p. iii). The market rate focused solutions to this problem that the City and consultants to most politicians continue to push will not produce the needed low income housing.

      The City papers over this obvious problem: Open the One Seattle Draft Environmental Impact Statement and see if you can find any reference to BERK 2021. It’s there, but well hidden because “BERK” is not included in the citations. Here are the only two references I can find:

      P. 3.11-64 (Under “Fire/Emergency Medical Services”):
      “Data gathered via Seattle’s Market Rate Housing Needs and Supply Analysis (2021) as well as the Seattle Racial and Social Equity Index (2018) indicate that housing structures in the Southwest, Southeast, and East Central regions of the city are more likely to be older and to potentially benefit from fire prevention outreach.”

      P. 4-42 (In “References” by subject under “Fire” (not “General” or “Land Use Patterns & Urban Form” or “Housing” {which subsection does not exist separate from land use):
      “Seattle Office of Planning and Development. 2021. Market Rate Housing Needs and Supply Analysis.
      “https://www.seattle.gov/documents/Departments/OPCD/OngoingInitiatives/HousingChoices/”

      Aside from dropping the author (“BERK”—same as main author of the DEIS), the link in References does not take you to BERK 2021; it takes you to “404 Error: Page Not Found.”

      Another key document the City had prepared for to track the equity implications of the prior comprehensive plan is not cited even once: “Heightened Displacement Risk Indicators: Part of The City of Seattle’s Equitable Development Monitoring Program,” Urban Displacement Project, 2015. The HDRI report is not available on any City web page I can find. I have put the HDRI report (and a few other related documents) here:
      https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fo/gwqhfc69qkc9h09vpqh06/h?rlkey=k5pwuasrv494mhm37l4raqpb4&dl=0

      Here’s a quote from p. 3 of the HDRI report:

      “The Heightened Displacement Risk Indicators are intended to complement the Displacement Risk Index in the City’s 2035 Growth and Equity Analysis (Equity Analysis). As part of the Equity Analysis, which was completed in 2016, OPCD created and mapped both a Displacement Risk Index and an Access to Opportunity Index. The Equity Analysis informed both the recent major update of the City’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan and the Equitable Development Implementation Plan. The Displacement Risk Index in the Equity Analysis was designed to identify geographic areas where marginalized people are at a risk of displacement currently and over the longer term. The City used the results of the Displacement Risk Index to calibrate anticipated 20-year housing growth rates for urban villages in the Comprehensive Plan. The Displacement Risk Index continues to guide implementation of the Equitable Development Initiative (see Appendix III).
      “We understand that OPCD plans to maintain and periodically update the Displacement Risk Index in the Equity Analysis. This index is a fundamental tool for guiding the City’s anti-displacement work and should be refreshed with ample lead time to meaningfully inform the next update of the City’s Comprehensive Plan.”

      In the DEIS the “index” is Exhibit 3.8-31. Seattle Displacement Risk Index, 2022

      In addition to burying the HDRI the City has not updated the Growth and Equity Analysis, and action needed to comply with the displacement and disparate impact analyses required by the Growth Management Act.

  6. Long time forest policy advocate Marcy Golde had the region’s trend pegged a long time ago: She called what is happening production of “a wet and soggy Los Angeles.”

    Thanks very much for mentioning some key concepts, like “carrying capacity,” that are basically ignored or paid little more than lip service. A quarter century ago EPA scientist Robert Lackey (since retired) observed:
    “The near certain growth in the human population in the Pacific Northwest
    through this century, coupled with little indication that most people will accept the
    enormous life style changes necessary to perpetuate, much less restore, wild salmon, means that restoring “fishable” runs of wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho is a policy objective that is not likely to be achieved.”

    Source: Lackey, Robert T. 2000. Restoring wild salmon to the Pacific Northwest: chasing an illusion? In: What We Don’t Know about Pacific Northwest Fish Runs—An Inquiry into Decision-Making. Patricia Koss and Mike Katz, Editors, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, pp. 91-143.

  7. I get it. This is an April Fools joke. I almost thought it was serious at first. Thank god. Because it’s flat out insane to think Seattle is “full”. Seattle is mostly full of bad ideas, like wanting to leave it a low lying suburban city as soon as you walk 5 minutes out of downtown, or to think that we can actively tell people to move away. Another flat out insane idea is thinking the solution is more deforestation and developing farm land far out of the core and expecting a bus or train to bring those people downtown. Like I said, I thought this was a ridiculous suggestion until I realized you’re playing a big joke on all of us. At least, I sure hope you are.

  8. Seattle has so many small multi-plexes in single family zoned areas as is without much of any complaint about them. We have so much space to add housing without being a car dependent suburb or requesting people build homes in plowed over forests or farm land. I don’t think that’s the right attitude. Seattle is going to grow and it is only a painful process if we keep our zoning limitations in place that make growth expensive and harder to approve, and force people to live further away and rely on cars. We have over 100 bus routes in Seattle and every home is within a 5 minute walk to transit. Seattle is the place to grow. More density = less cars, more diversity, more stability for businesses and cities to balance their budget.

    • Well, not my home. It’s a 20 minute walk up a very steep hill, longer in the rain. Then the indeterminate wait for a bus that sometimes doesn’t show up for another half hour. I’m often the only passenger for half the ride on a huge diesel articulated monster that spews fumes and zig zags scenically through an indifferent neighborhood. And when I do get off, almost always it’s nowhere near my intended destination.

  9. I strongly support your advocacy for congestion pricing and better east-west bus connections as remedies for Seattle’s transportation gridlock. Significantly greater investment in bus and rail transit are needed, as the space required by cars for current residents and future expected growth simply isn’t there. However, denser housing in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown is the best policy solution for reducing vehicle miles traveled.

    Unfortunately, Mayor Harrell’s draft comprehensive plan calls for a paltry 100k housing units over the next 20 years, significantly less than is currently being built, and orders of magnitude less than is required to address the housing crisis. There are many downstream impacts of too-slow housing growth, including worsening homelessness and ensuring families and young people can’t afford to live in the city. The plan itself seems to acknowledge 100k isn’t enough, considering the ratio of planned units to expected growth. Current city leadership seems entrenched in this anti-housing mindset, and unless something significant changes, the biggest problems facing the city are going to get worse.

    The only way to slow growth is to make the economy or the city worse, and no one should want that. The question should not be how to slow growth but how to adapt to it. The consequences of allowing too few new housing units, or investing too little in public transit are the many problems related to affordability, and the environmental and transportation impact of sprawl.

    Seattle should welcome anyone who wants to live there. Residents should especially care about being welcoming to immigrants and people fleeing red state policies and persecution. Not accepting and planning adequately for this growth is akin to rejecting people in need. Saying people shouldn’t move to Seattle, and that growth should be the “problem” of another city or a new city just doesn’t seem very welcoming, and evokes the rejection/fear of outsiders inherent in the conservative ideology most Seattle residents reject.

  10. Seattle might benefit from a City Manager form of government.
    Let the Manager implement, and Council do the budget and its wacky-doodle policies.

    But Sound Transit: OMG. Call me Rip Van Winkle, already: The Sound Transit political juggernaut, and …with 77 positions in communications alone).

    • Can someone explain to me why 77 people in communications positions is so terrible? It serves three counties, had 48 million riders in 2019, and is ambitiously expanding more light rail lines. I imagine that public engagement is extremely important to ensure the vast range of needs are accommodated and provide real time info on changing conditions. If there is a metric out there on what this takes to staff, but otherwise, 77 is a number without context.

  11. The solutions presented here seem totally unmoored from both the realities of climate change and the social obligation we have to accept new neighbors — suggestions that we build outward (which is just sprawl, damaging more of our already fragile ecosystem, locking more people into carbon intensive car dependency), reduce car traffic by adding… more cars (autonomous/”on demand”/ or not, mass car dependency is a disaster for climate and human health, not to mention incredible wastes of precious urban space), and the sneering at “what happened to Ballard” and describing downtown as “sun starved” (there are parks and plazas all over!) all suggest what seems to me a loathing for cities as such. To imply we’re even close to capacity here in Seattle is also utterly baffling given that cities from Seoul to Sao Paulo have over double Seattle’s density with no lack of open public spaces or compromise of amenities. Also, referring to new neighbors as a “flood” just smacks of either private misanthropy or perhaps more charitably the decades discredited neo-Malthusianism of Paul Ehrlich and his disciples. I suspect it’s a bit of both, but in any case, it’s a very lousy and ethically impoverished way to talk about your new neighbors. The solutions to our present affordability and livability are obvious to anyone who has traveled to great cities abroad: more and denser housing, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, fewer cars and highways, and steep investments in creating public spaces where life can happen without necessarily having to buy something. Cities as diverse as Paris, Vienna, Taipei, Bogota, and Cape Town all demonstrate this authoritatively. It does mean giving up the primacy of the suburban housing mode and car-first transportation, but that is hardly a loss to anyone who values the climate, clean air, social equity, or public safety. I would suggest that if the city stops being the suburb that many incumbent residents want to live in, there are many communities in the surrounding King County that remain suburban, and to decamp accordingly. The rest of us choose to live in a city, and it’s high time we stop listening to the selfish folks whose highest aspiration is to freeze their neighborhoods in amber and pull the ladder of social mobility, uniquely available in cities, up behind them.

    • I choose to “live in a city.” But I also want to retain some quality of life that includes climate resilience A lot of us don’t want to “freeze their neighborhoods in amber” but we do want the land use system to be changed to promote production of more housing for low income people. And increase tree canopy, not eliminate it like the Master Builders are doing.

      Also, “the decades [of] discredited neo-Malthusianism of Paul Ehrlich and his disciples” is not an accurate statement about the current state of science regarding biophysical limits to growth and the consequences of exceeding ecological carrying capacity. Paul Ehrlich’s inaccurate predictions five decades ago do not reflect current best available science. The fact of anthropogenic global warming alone proves this.

  12. As I convert my gas stove, HVAC and hot water heater to electric, and add 100,000 new neighbors, while Microsoft and Amazon build new data processing centers……. where is the power coming from?

  13. Well, interesting. I guess the April Fool’s explanation is pretty ironic – April Fool’s on people who care about Seattle.

    As I must always mention: the SLUs. The first/existing SLU, that Nickels et al. spent maybe $1B fixing up, and the next one in the University District if UW can realize its ambitions drawn up in the last campus master plan. Whatever people thought on the occasion of the first one, it must be pretty clear that we can’t afford the second – SDOT’s analysis laid it right out there for the surface streets, and of course for housing it’s just a kick in the gut, thousands of new people looking for north Seattle homes.

    At this point, after over a decade of the lastest unsustainable growth surge, when we add a lot of new office jobs here, we simply present people with a dilemma – go for the employment you need, or steer clear of the deteriorating mess you’d have live in, or at least near. That’s “welcoming” in the sense that we “welcome” a mouse into a trap.

    There’s a way for Seattle to become a great city like the usually cited Paris, but think instead Rome – because Rome wasn’t built in a day. Crash project cities are not great.

  14. Brewster replies. Thanks for all the good insights and debates. It’s easy to cartoonize my position, and I recall the Emmett Watson running gag of keeping the bastards (meaning Californians) out. All I meant to say was there are ways to ease up on the accelerator of growth and do a better job of coping with congestion, affordability issues, and outpacing our carrying capacity. Remember that Seattle is a geographic hourglass, and you can’t just keep loading in sand. I’m calling for a tapping on the brakes of growth, without paying the price of sprawl or a bad economy. It’s part of Seattle’s arrogance to think urban density is our destiny, particularly when so many are moving to smaller cities for livability, schools, jobs, and urbanism.

  15. I am just thrilled to see someone calling for Sound Transit to be changed to an elected (and ACCOUNTABLE) Board!

  16. David, you haven’t addressed density. Are the densities of Seattle appropriate now for the kind of city we imagine ourselves to be? Sandeep cited numbers, what are yours? In spite of the Seattle hourglass figure there is still plenty of room, plenty of front yards that can be populated with new houses that weren’t there 50 years ago. Not to mention our discriminatory zoning history. Here’s a practical excercise, old dry cleaners remediation site at edge of Columbia City on Rainier Ave, vacant for years, 400 apartments, good or bad?
    Seattle needs to grow up, figure out how to infill, and lose the addiction to personal vehicles. It is going to be difficult but the economic forces are undeniable, and largely out of control. No one is whipping growth in Seattle, no need to. And stop complaining about traffic. That’s you if you’re in it!

    • Um, Ubers have replaced “personal vehicles” for folks who think like you do, and instead of cutting car trips they’ve added enormously to them and have taken a big chunk out of transit mode share instead.

      Wish in one hand, you-know-what in the other…………..

      (PS – Black people like single family houses too – but white gentrification has pushed them to South King County to find them now. Yay, I guess!).

      But yeah, 400 apartments on Rainier Avenue could be nice – you might ask why developers aren’t leaping on that potential goldmine instead of trying to subdivide single-family areas far from transit so they can build $1M+ SF houses on old lots.

    • “addiction to personal vehicles” is not a Seattle problem: it’s a national and increasingly global problem.

  17. There are many assumptions baked into the comments here that are taken as gospel and have gone unchallenged in almost all conversations about Seattle development.

    Why, for instance, is there a moral obligation for Seattle to take all comers, regardless of how their numbers change the livability, charm, sense of place, sustainability and affordability of the city? The densest cities in the world are, with rare exceptions, the most expensive. Density has never been a recipe for affordability in places that are desirable. More jobs simply drive more desire for housing and more growth, as Brewster noted. Seattle City Council’s well meeting desire to balance the expense by raising minimum wage has now made taking Lyft from North Seattle to the ferry terminal $150 round-trip. Latte and a pastry $12. Stirfry? $18 plus tip and tax. New York is actually less expensive for eating out and getting around.

    In 20 years of unprecedented growth and development we have built 30% percent of our new housing — and housing prices have doubled and tripled. What is density‘s numeric tipping point at which suddenly the $2000 per month apartment is $1000 per month? 300,000 more apartments? One million? And how is new market-driven construction ever going to be “affordable“ when the property values are so high, income taxes and utilities continue relentlessly upwards and most of the building is done by profit-driven companies? Investor arithmetic means that new construction will always be more expensive to rent than the older buildings, which we are tearing down as fast as possible.

    A recent look at what is going on in the University District through the lens of apartment availability and rents revealed a profound lack of what I would call livable space, and surprisingly high vacancies. I entered in Zillow a maximum rent of $1,200 for a 6-mile radius of Maple Leaf. 860 units came up in that price range. However, all but 250 were micro Apartments of 150 to 200 ft.². Essentially what’s available in the university district is closets for students to study in at an astronomical cost per square foot. There has been a recent lifting of restrictions on what are officially called apodments, which are essentially the same thing with another name, so we will be looking at much more of this.

    Sustainability on the other hand would suggest that a city needs families and children and generational diversity. We need large apartments and flats where families with children and multiple generations can live together. When a “studio“ apartment is barely 350 square feet it is very hard for two people to share it, whereas a one or two bedroom apartment can be shared and the rent becomes far more affordable. Is there a way that we can either incentivize the building of these larger units or penalize the proliferation of a micro spaces? What kind of city is it that thinks living in a closet with no room for art, furniture, history, personal projects, family or having company is a good thing?

    Another unchallenged assumption is that “suburban lifestyle” is a bad thing. I live in the far north end in what was once a “suburb” of Seattle. We have vast tree canopy. We have clean air. We have, during a heat dome, temperatures that are 10 to 15° lower than in the Ballard or Belltown. We have the ability to grow our own food, we have gardens, we have wildlife, we have houses where multiple generations can live and thrive. And this is bad? Yes we have cars. The best way to encourage us not to use them is to give us sidewalks and to switch the focus, as Brewster suggests, (thank you!) to more customized forms of transit, like affordable ride-share shuttles that might actually go where we want to go.

    Again, and again, the urbanist growth advocates hold up other cities as models—Paris, for instance. Paris is having demonstrations in the streets because there are not enough trees left in Paris, and it is too hot. These cities that are considered models will not make it in an era of global warming without monumental use of air conditioning: that is neither sustainable nor green. I suggest that we look at Seattle for what it is and where it has come from: We are a city of the West and the last-populated corner of the frontier. We will never be Paris or New York or Boston and there’s no reason why we should be. Nor should we be Houston or Dallas. We should determine a destiny that fits this place, that honors the natural world, and includes a vision of true sustainability.

    • One small but significant step would be for the City to stop allowing developers to “buy out” of the obligation to provide a percentage of affordable units in each project. The developer is the most cost effective builder, but instead the money gets largely wasted in the City bureaucracy.

      • On what basis do you claim that the MHA “in lieu” payments largely get wasted in the City bureaucracy? If anything, the opposite is true. The city tracks and spends out the money carefully, and has become quite adept at getting matching grant funds from state, federal and private sources that have significantly multiplied the impact of the money. Because of that, in-lieu payments create more units than set-aside units. The only difference is that with in-lieu payments the new units get concentrated in a smaller number of new apartment complexes rather than sprinkled a few at at a time across a much larger set of sites. https://www.seattle.gov/documents/Departments/Housing/Reports/2022_MHA-IZ-AnnualReport_Final.pdf

        • In addition to Bob Stevens’ accurate comment (in-lieu payments vs performance increases both economic and racial segregation due to loss of existing units and location of new units somewhere else years later), I don’t believe there is any data showing that “in-lieu payments create more units than set-aside units.”

          In-lieu payments do not pay for new low income units 1 for 1; the money is combined with other sources such as state housing trust fund. IOW, the City’s MHA reports do not tell us what percentage of new housing units comes from in-lieu funds, nor the percentage of costs per in-lieu units or vis-a-vis the cost of performance units.

      • Love MHA or hate it, it’s in a rounding error on the problems she’s pointing at. Seattle is at a crossroads. Well, it’s far enough past the crossroads that we can all see what it’s like on this road, but maybe not so far that all hope is lost.

        A few subsidized affordable units is like the duke tossing out doubloons to the rabble as his carriage goes down the muddy road. It makes people feel like the state is on their side, but it doesn’t materially reduce the problem. That would take lot more affordable units than your property tax bills are capable of covering without kicking you over to the other side of the diagram.

        And it wouldn’t make a gracious, desirable landscape that serves its inhabitants well in times of heat domes, 100 year rain storms etc. Etc. The question has to move from band-aids and feel-good measures to paper over the bleeding sores, to the real motive of city hall. What is “success”? The city’s efforts had a lot to do with the economic development that led to a 100K new residents and the various problems that came with them. Are they still at it? Why?

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