Growing Pains: As Seattle housing costs rise, so does concern for low-income families

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By Stephan Yhann

After decades of stagnation, America’s cities are growing again – and Seattle is no exception.

According to census data, Seattle’s population grew by eight percent from 2000 to 2010, adding an extra 45,000 residents. Last year, it was named the fastest growing city in America.

Yet, social-justice advocates argue not all ships are rising with the tide. They warn that high housing costs could push out low-income residents and make Seattle less diverse.

Housing Costs Rising Rapidly

While Seattle’s population has increased, so has its cost of living. Data from the American Housing Survey shows a 12 percent decrease in the number of affordable living spaces.

Between 2007 and 2012, Seattle lost more than 14,000 units – which the survey defines as anything from a house, to an apartment, to a room in a boarding house – with rent of less than $1,000 per month. During that same period, Seattle added 16,000 units with a rent of $2,000 or more.

According to professor Luis Fraga, who studies urban politics at the University of Washington, that pattern can pose a problem for low-income and working class families.

“Even though they may be working, when their wages are not sufficient to cover any increases in cost of living, families have two options,” Fraga said. “Moderate their consumption as best they can or to move to areas where the cost of living is less.”

Stephen Deal , the capital development director for El Centro De La Raza in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, says that he’s already seeing the impact.

“I used to live in this neighborhood,” he said. “Beacon Hill has traditionally been a diverse population, a really nice neighborhood, but not super nice houses– just working people houses.” Now, houses in the neighborhood that sold for $150,000 10 years ago, go for $400,000, he said.

A recent study authored by urban studies professor Ali Modarres of the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus, indicates that low-income families are choosing to move as prices rise. Modarres wrote that both Tacoma and Seattle’s growth pattern “follows the same script” as other metropolises across the country, where a region’s “most unaffordable cities rely on their less costly [suburban] neighbors to house their working populations.”

Who’s Moving Out

Some worry increasing housing costs could make Seattle less diverse.

Fraga notes that cost increases may pit long-time city residents against new arrivals.

Dating back to the 1800s, immigrants new to the United States have been one of the oldest sources of city residents. According to Fraga, cities have traditionally been places for people seeking to “gain a foothold in the American economy.” Cities can be especially friendly to immigrants, who benefit from established social and cultural networks, same-language communities and family concentrated in certain neighborhoods.

Now, Fraga says those immigrants in the city are being joined by young professionals and older residents. That increase in population is driving up housing costs and driving out working-class families.

Modarres offered a similar assessment. “When I look at housing affordability and where people live, primarily you look at lower socioeconomic status,” he said, “and you’re seeing more people living away from Seattle.”

According to Modarres, when examining movement out of the cities, “You have to consider the market. And because of housing affordability issues, you can’t assume that people are choosing to live together [in certain areas] just because they want to.”

It is unclear whether or not these factors are impacting diversity.

While analysis from the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) shows some of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods in south Seattle became less diverse from 2000 to 2010, it also shows that areas in traditionally white North Seattle saw some increase in non-white populations.

Seattle Demographer Diana Canzeroni says the data shows Seattle isn’t becoming less diverse.

“There is some perception that Seattle is actually overall losing its diversity, which is not accurate,” she said. Despite its significant population growth, she pointed out that Seattle actually became more diverse in the last census. From 2000 to 2010, the non-white population increased from 32 to 34 percent.

There is one caveat, however: King County’s non-white population is growing much faster than Seattle’s.

“Its important realize that we’re diverging from the rest of King County in terms of how fast we’re growing, in terms of the number of people of color,” Canzeroni said. From 2000-2010, King County added more than 210,000 new non-white residents. The result: in 2010, 35 percent of the county’s population was people of color, as opposed to 27 percent in 2000.

Canzeroni said the Seattle Planning Commission (SPC) is very concerned about the city’s lack of affordable housing – especially when it comes to family housing. According to a report issued by the SPC in January, only two percent of Seattle’s apartments had three bedrooms or more.

That lack of family housing might be depressing the growth of diversity in Seattle. According to Canzeroni, the growth rate for non-white families was much higher for King County than in Seattle. Most of Seattle’s diversity came from younger, single people.

According to Deal, availability isn’t what’s keeping families out of Seattle – it’s affordability.

“In the years that we’ve been working with families and people looking for housing, we’ve worked with over 600 families,” he said, describing El Centro’s work with families at risk of homelessness. “All 600 families – who may have jobs, can afford some housing – all of them have had to be placed in housing outside, south of, Seattle.

“Seattle has become unaffordable for modern, low-income people.”

Seeking Solutions

As housing prices rise, city officials and nonprofits are ramping up efforts to meet rising demand for affordable living spaces.

City Councilmember Sally Clark, who heads the committee responsible for affordable housing, said Seattle has “multiple ways” to address the problem, starting with the Seattle Housing Levy.

Approved by voters in 2009, the Housing Levy will have provided the city with a projected $145 million for affordable housing efforts by the time it expires 2016, including $104 million currently allocated specifically for rental units.

According to Clark, these efforts are supplemented in two ways.

The first is Seattle’s inclusionary zoning policy. Under that policy, the city allows developers to erect a building taller than normally permissible if developers offer a set number of units to low-income residents at a reduced rate, or they pay mitigation fees to Seattle’s housing fund. The second is by offering developers property-tax breaks in exchange for renting to low-income tenants at sub-market rates.

Describing the city’s strategy, Clark said, “What it means is that in broad terms, we both use the voters generosity to create affordable housing and rehab housing, and private developers who we trade a development bonus for housing affordability”

According to Clark, the money from the levy is not used to build city-owned rentals. Rather, the money is used to offer partial funding to nonprofits seeking to build affordable housing. The city relies on both inclusionary zoning and city-nonprofit partnerships to add sub-market rate units to Seattle’s housing stock.

El Centro de la Raza is an example of that partnership. The organization is working with city, county, state and private funders to build affordable housing for low- and middle-income residents near the Beacon Hill light rail station as part of a planned $41 million expansion of El Centro’s campus.

The extension – called Plaza Roberto Maestas – will add 110 units, 68 of which will have two bedrooms or more and will be available to families making $24,000 to $55,000 per year, depending on their family size.

The plaza is part of El Centro’s and the city’s larger goal of preserving affordability near essential services. In addition to apartments, the plaza will include seven new classrooms for El Centro’s child-development program, as well as easy access to social services housed in its main building and public transportation via the light-rail station.

This approach fits with what Modarres says diverse populations often need. He argues that access to the schools, social services and public transit helps level the playing field.

“We have inherited cities called unequal cities, cities of inequality,” he said. “Cities and policy makers must do what they can to create more equal cities – what we call in the literature, ‘Just Cities.’”

What Modarres calls a “Just City,” Deal calls “the beloved community,” a term popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. The goal is to open the benefits of living in Seattle to all people.

“If we can give someone – a family – a home in a stable neighborhood, a place that they can stay close to their jobs, their commuting costs goes down,” Deal said.

According to Deal, reducing commute times can not only save working-class families time and money, but can also help parents spend more time with their children.

“All that stuff […] kind of adds up to the quality of life,” he said.

Efforts to replicate Plaza Roberto Maestas along Rainier Valley have run into difficulties, and the city has faced criticism for the way it works with developers.

“The need for affordable housing outpaces what we are able to provide in any given year,” Clark said. She said the council is examining its exemption policy and expects a report this summer.

Regardless of the outcome of the study, Fraga said the city’s growth has reached a turning point when it comes to affordability issues.

“There are clear winners and losers, and local and state governments will decide who the winners and losers are,” he said. “They will decide through both their action and inaction.”