Recently, we wrote about a plan to upzone the University District to 340-foot towers. The University of Washington, some other large property owners and planners at City Hall aim to transform the diverse economic and social mix of the neighborhood into a high-tech “incubator hub.”

We warned that such dramatic changes in zoning would cause the loss of affordable housing, displace dozens of small businesses and irrevocably alter the physical and social character of the community.

Now the Displacement Coalition (of which we are the coordinators), University Park Community Club, University District Community Council and Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness have appealed the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the planned upzone. They’re asking the hearing examiner to send the EIS back for further study. They’re also asking for new laws to prevent the loss of open space and low-income housing and to mitigate the enormous traffic jams the upzone would inflict on the community.

In the EIS, city planners argue that the upzone would bring no more growth than what is already occurring in the U-District under current lower-density zoning. And under that assumption, impacts on traffic, parking, open space, tree canopy and other infrastructure would be no greater, either. Unbelievably, they even assert that the upzone “may” only cause the loss of 40 to 60 low-income and affordable housing units.

 

Higher values, rents

We conducted a drive-by survey to count potentially vulnerable low-income and affordable housing units in all blocks within the areas proposed for upzoning. This involved a specific count of mailboxes and electrical boxes and, where needed, direct interviews of tenants to confirm total units in each building.

We did not include newer homeowner townhouses, most condominiums, short-term furnished apartments, higher-rent apartments or any apartments and apodments in newer buildings.

We then used a series of criteria to determine whether a building was at direct risk, based on age, type and condition of the building and gap between existing and future uses allowed in the event of upzones.

We counted more than 1,250 privately owned, low-cost units meeting our criteria for high risk of loss. We identified an additional 400 units at risk in areas of the U-District proposed for more modest upzones.

While the current low-density zoning doesn’t completely protect these units and while rents continue to rise, such losses would multiply exponentially in the event of an upzone.

At present, the difference between current use and existing zoned capacity in the U-District is marginal. In most instances, it’s simply not economical to tear down, say, an existing three-story brick structure or single-family “group home” subdivided into three to five apartments — not when the allowed replacement use is only marginally greater in size and density to the current use.

But the economics of redeveloping change dramatically if the area is upzoned to 240- to 340-foot towers. The difference in the size of the envelope between what exists and what would be allowed is so extreme that even buildings like the aging eight-story, 123-unit Malloy Apartments are at risk.

Most existing housing in the U-District, however, is much lower in density, and therefore, the risk of demolition increases dramatically.

The upzones also would immediately set off a host of speculative forces that would push up rents on any low-cost units not lost to demolition. Land values and taxes would rise, and owners would pass those costs on to their tenants. Other owners would sell their buildings to cash in on those higher land values and/or escape the higher taxes. When such turnover occurs, apartments are refinanced, and these costs are passed on to tenants, as well.

The increased value of upzoned sites also would price-out nonprofit housing developers, who could no longer afford to acquire and retain these buildings as low-income units. Or they would be outbid by large investors and corporations planning high-rise developments.

The U-District upzone would rival densities in downtown and South Lake Union, where, not coincidentally, only a handful of privately owned, unsubsidized, low-income buildings remain.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that few of these 1,250 existing affordable units would remain in the neighborhood if the upzone is approved.

A loss on this scale represents more than 2 percent of the 49,000 remaining low-cost rental units for the entire city. In a tight housing market, that would push rents up significantly on the remaining supply, cause more displacement and drive up demand for shelter and subsidized housing.

 

Can happen anywhere

Our $145 million housing levy approved in 2009 was designed to produce 1,600 subsidized, low-cost units over seven years. This upzone effectively would wipe out three-quarters of that taxpayer contribution.

If special interests can get away with such a dramatic remake of this community, then truly it can happen to any neighborhood in Seattle. It ups the ante tenfold in the high-stakes battle over density and the future of our city.

 

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.