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January 12, 2009

Opinion: What do we mean by affordable housing?

Special to the Journal


Seattle's discussion of housing affordability has fallen along familiar economic and ideological lines, with housing advocates calling for intervention in the market through incentive zoning and developers calling for significant up-zones with no strings attached.

Housing advocates argue that without intervention, our housing market would have limited choices, like a Safeway that only sold Spam and caviar. Developers claim looser regulations will raise housing supply and thereby reduce prices, increasing choices for buyers of all income levels. Each side claims their method will create more affordable housing.

But what do we mean by affordability? The Seattle City Council has settled on the premise that people should spend 30 percent of their monthly income on housing costs. Then they determine who needs affordable housing using some percentage (40, 60 or 80) of area median income.

Join in the discussion
Words like affordable, sustainable and livable are thrown around regularly in conversations about how Seattle should grow. But we want to know what these words actually mean, and how the city can acheive them. We are asking you to weigh in over the next month.

Today, Roger Valdez introduces the topic of affordability. Upcoming editorials on this page will offer definitions provided by members of the community, including elected officials, organizers and A/E/C industry players.

Bloggers at the DJC blog SeattleScape will also take on the debate. We hope you will join in. Here's how you can participate:

• Email our AE editor, Shawna Gamache, at shawnag@djc.com with your thoughts.

• Join the discussion at SeattleScape at www.djc.com/blogs/SeattleScape.

Do people really decide where to live based on 30 percent of their monthly income and how their income relates to the median? What about schools, safety and proximity to work? Is the city council's oft-cited fireman who needs housing at 60 percent of AMI really living in Everett just because he can't find housing for 30 percent of his monthly income in Seattle?

To achieve a meaningful and useful policy on affordable housing we, as a city, must take three steps:

First, define affordability based on the way real people make housing choices, considering quantitative indicators other than AMI and the 30 percent rule.

Second, decide who needs this affordable housing most and by when.

Finally, figure out where this housing should go. How will our city, dominated by single-family neighborhoods, accommodate more housing of all types?

All housing is affordable to someone, somewhere, at some time. The question that we are posing in this series is what do we really mean by affordability? What are the economic and cultural outcomes we want to achieve? Can Seattle commit to policies that can be effectively implemented and measured?

The cooling real estate market makes this the best time for neighborhoods, housing advocates, developers and city leaders to start this discussion in an open and comprehensive way.

Roger Valdez is a blogger on the DJC's SeattleScape blog and a former city council and legislative staffer. He now works as a consultant with an interest in using zoning to support neighborhood arts and cultural organizations.

Tell us what you think...

The Daily Journal of Commerce welcomes your comments.

  • E-mail: Phil Brown

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      Seattle, WA 98104

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