West Seattle's Affordable Housing Crisis
Is "crisis" too strong a word to describe the state of affordable housing in West Seattle? I'm going to lay out some information here and let you be the judge.
First, let's define "affordable." The simplest definition is that the rent is affordable for anyone working full time (40 hours a week) at minimum wage.
As of January, 2021, the minimum wage in Seattle is $16.69/hour for most workers. At that rate, a full time worker will make $34,715 a year, or $2,693 a month, before taxes. After taxes, that worker will clear $29,599 a year; or $2,467 per month.
What can that worker afford to pay for housing? The standard rule of thumb is that housing should cost about 30% of gross (pre-tax) income, which works out to $868/month for a worker making $16.69/hour.
If you look at what's available in West Seattle, though, you probably won't find anything that low. The cheapest unit I could find in the Junction area, doing a search just now, was $900/month for a 287 s.f. studio. I also found a loft apartment, 312 s.f., for $1,255/month. Many of the available units in the area are $1,500+. These are one-bedrooms or studios ranging between 450 and 600 s.f. - the larger ones might work for a couple. None are suitable for a roommate situation.
To be realistic, most low income renters spend over 30% of their income on housing. Often it's more like 40 - 50%. But even at 50%, or $1,447/month, there's not much available. And what is, doesn't seem very appealing. A 400 s.f. space is pretty small. A person might have to get a separate storage locker for their belongings, which means more rent to pay.
How Do Low Income Renters Find Housing They Can Afford?
The two main sources of affordable housing in West Seattle are private, small-scale landlords and city-subsidized programs.
1) Small Scale Rentals
For decades, the main, reliable source of affordable housing has been small scale, mom-and-pop rentals. These owners have a couple of older homes, or maybe a duplex, a triplex, or some other small rental. These are people who have rental property as a side project - they aren't in the business of large multi-family complexes.
Some of these properties are high end, but most are modest and priced accordingly. There are other advantages. The owners are more likely to be willing to negotiate with renters than corporate leasing agents would be. They might give someone with poor credit a chance, for example. Or offer a break on the rent in exchange for maintaining the landscape. Property owners are usually more responsive to requests for repairs - since they own the properties - than professional property managers, who don't.
Unfortunately, many of these rental property owners are selling their Seattle properties. There are various reasons for that, of course, but a big one is that the City Council has put so many restrictions on landlords in the past few years. A report commissioned by the city, and conducted by the University of Washington in 2018, found that 40% of small-scale landlords had either already sold their properties or were planning to, citing their frustration with new city ordinances. Over 60% said that they are raising rents and tightening rental criteria in response to city policies, effectively moving away from providing affordable housing.
Chief among those ordinances is the "First in Time" requirement. This means that a landlord has to rent to the first person who applies and meets their written criteria. According to this law, "The Seattle first-in-time ordinance affords no discretion to the landlord. Failure to comply with these requirements may result in landlord liability for civil penalties, rent refunds or credits, attorney fees and costs, and other potential repercussions." Landlords believe that this policy takes away control of their property, which for many, is a significant financial asset.
Supporters of the First in Time ordinance argue that it prevents discrimination, which no doubt exists in the market. However, when the city mounted a sting operation, hiring people to pose as prospective renters in order to catch landlords violating the ordinance, they found only 23 in violation. There are thousands of landlords in Seattle. The city's budget for this testing was $50,000. They were able to recoup only a little more than $19,000 in settlements from landlords.
In addition to First in Time, landlords can no longer do background checks on prospective tenants. A single woman, who owns and lives in a small rental, has no idea if the man she just rented to, and who now lives next door to her, has a history of domestic violence or armed robbery. She can check the sex offender registry, but that is all. Moreover, landlords can be sued by neighbors because of violence or criminal activity perpetrated by tenants.
It is interesting to note that these restrictions apply only to private rentals. City subsidized properties are not subject to the First in Time ordinance and their leasing agents are allowed to do background checks.
Now there's talk of banning credit checks. A landlord will have no idea if a prospective renter can even afford to pay the rent.
This article from Pacific Legal Foundation explains in detail how many of the city's new ordinances are creating unintended, negative consequences. Some former small-scale landlords are sharing their stories at Housing Lost.
As these properties are sold, they leave the affordable category. With high demand for single family homes right now, they won't be sold as rentals. Properties that will remain rentals will be more expensive - the people who buy them are paying a lot of money for them, and they won't be able to offer low rents. Some of these will be turned in to vacation rentals or Airbnbs, where more money can be made. Other properties will simply be torn down to make way for new, and unaffordable, housing.
2) City Programs
The City's Office of Housing offers several options.
One, is a list of affordable senior housing. You'll note that none of the properties on the list are in West Seattle.
Two, there is a list of affordable housing providers. Only one, Delridge Neighborhood Development Association (DNDA), is located in West Seattle. They own 7 buildings and offer 144 units for rent. Currently, all units are full and the waitlist is at least a year.
Three, affordable housing search. This is a listing of properties that off low income housing. There is only one property on their long list that is available in West Seattle right now. The rest have waiting lists or the waiting lists are closed.
Four, the Multi- Family Tax Exemption Program. This program gives tax credits to developers who set aside 20% of their units for affordable housing. Here's a list of the properties. For those who qualify, the rent is calculated on a sliding scale according to income. To see an example of how this works, there's a chart on the city's MFTE page.
These units are priced right for low income people. But there are two problems.
1) There are not many of them in West Seattle, especially given that nearly 20% of Seattle's population lives in this neighborhood.
2) They are going away, some as early as this year. Developers get tax credits for the first 10 years of the property's life. After that, the units revert to market levels.
Here's a summary of the MFTE units we have now.
As of today, we have a total of 31 properties in West Seattle.
They provide 686 housing units.
In the next 5 years, 14 of those properties will age out.
That will be a loss of 283 affordable units, or 45% of the current inventory.
The MFTE status of the Mural Apartments expires in 2021, a loss of 28 affordable units in West Seattle. The Altamira Apartments will also age out this year, a loss of another 32 units.
I don't know how much new housing was expected in West Seattle this year, before life was derailed by COVID. But even if there are new apartment buildings in the pipeline, it will be at least two years before any of them are ready for occupancy.
Thirty-six percent of Seattle workers are in the low wage category. It makes sense that 36% of housing in the city should be affordable for them, so they don't have to find housing elsewhere and drive long distances to get into the neighborhood to work. These commutes, and the commutes of people leaving West Seattle to work are a major factor in traffic congestion and CO2 emissions. These commutes rob people of time that could be better spent, and reduce the quality of life for everyone. If we are to cut CO2 emissions by 50% by the end of this decade, things need to change.
Sadly, with small-scale landlords leaving, about all we're left with is "social housing," that is, housing that the city subsidizes. As of February of this year, that supply was a dismal 8.6% - a far cry from the 36% actually needed.
Potential remedies include:
1) Recognize that the MFTE program, as it exists, is merely a bandaid, not a solution. The number of properties set aside for affordable housing should increase to 35% and the tax breaks should be permanent. Otherwise, we'll always have a deficit in affordable housing.
2) The City should start working with private landlords, not punishing them. Why not offer incentives to landlords who accept low income renters? Do more to reach out to homeowners with information about adding Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Make it more attractive for landlords to create full time rentals instead of making units into Airbnbs.
Above all, dropping the double standards and hostility toward private landlords would go a long way toward improving working relationships between city and property owners. That, in turn, will lead to better solutions for the urgent need for affordable housing.