When the government does it: Part 1, Poised to seize

January 2, 2018 | Government, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Legislation and policy, Markets, Policy, Seattle, Theory, Universities

 

By: David A. Smith

 

Nearly 90% of the way through an otherwise commendable piece of student journalism from the University of Washington Daily (November 22, 2017), I discovered that reporter Max Wasserman had buried the lede – probably because to him it wasn’t the lede, it was just the way things are:

 

As a government entity, the University of Washington does not have to cooperate with [He meant ‘comply with’ – Ed.] the city’s mandatory housing affordability program which calls for developers to include affordable units or pay a fee to have the city build them elsewhere.

 

Not comply with? I thought in surprise. 

 

 

Out tumbled onto my notes page a whole series of questions that until that road-to-Damascus moment I’d never thought about – and to do that properly, let’s set the stage: the happy booming clean-tech metropolis of Seattle, home to Microsoft and Amazon,

 

Why worry about job growth displacing housing?  I’m moving the company headquarters

 

 

1. Setting the stage: What’s at issue?

 

Community members are concerned –

 

Those four words, the Once upon a time of a certain type of story, clue us that we’ll be hearing from those who think something bad is going on and they’re being overlooked. 

 

Organizers gathered at city hall last Thursday to voice these concerns among others brought forth by the City-University Community Advisory Committee (CUCAC). The committee of community council members, business owners, and UW staff penned several concerns with the plan that, in rejection by the city and university, has fueled neighborhood discontent.

 

Whereas my opponent believes in irresponsible anarchy …

 

I’m not going to research the opposing views of responsible spokesmen, though I’m sure the university has well reasoned and visually captivating material (warning: 95 Meg) demonstrating its plan is nothing but sweet reason.

 

The campus footprint today

 

– that the UW, poised to seize upon neighborhood growth in its new campus master plan, has under-committed itself in addressing displacement [and] affordable housing for employees […].

 

Just once, I’d love a press release or headline that say, Advocates hail developer concessions. 

 

Under its proposed campus master plan, the university will develop more than 6 million square feet. 

 

That number is meaningless if decontextualized, since the square feet to be added are mostly vertical. 

 

The expansion will help absorb the projected 7,000 student increase through decade’s end –

 

The future footprint, in brighter colors

 

Here is the heart of the matter: the arm’s race of universities seeking scale, facilities, football teams, and graduate students.  Adding 7,000 students to UW’s 46,000 current enrollment is a 15% boost in enrollment, and with UW non-resident tuition at $28-35,000 (resident tuition is a relative bargain at $11-16,000), that another $200 million of annual revenue – quite enough to justify a lot of lobbying.

 

– brought in part by other neighborhood expansions: rezoned legalized skyscrapers in parts of the U-District –

 

Verticality is our friend, though you’d never know it by the neighbors’ reactions.

 

– and an unfinished light rail that will attract more than 12,000 daily passengers upon completion.

 

Don’t get oversold on that desire named streetcar, though grunge-coffee Seattle might well be among the best possible locales to give it a try.

 

We’re employment generators, man

 

In any case, this is a massive expansion, a huge upgrade for the University of Washington, a big boost to the economy – and presumably, new stress on the housing market.

 

Which raises the first question:

 

A. How much responsibility do job-creators have for being housing-creators also?

 

The UW is the third largest employer in King County.

 

Boeing is still first, with 81,000 employees, Microsoft second at 43,000, and the University of Washington 30,000.  Many metropolitan areas would kill to have three such anchor employers:

 

[Even] without campus plan changes, development in the area would be inevitable, according to Sally Clark, UW director of regional and community relations.

 

From the city to the university

 

Ms. Clark is a long-time Seattle city councilwoman, so she’s well suited to shuttling between the two.

 

As for the expansion, aside from the increase in student beds required (at four roommates to a suite, that’s another 1,750 apartments’ worth of demand), if 46,000 students require 30,000 employees, then another 7,000 students will require 4,500 employees, most of whom will be households in their own right (i.e. non-working spouse plus children), so let’s call that 3,000 new households’ worth of demand.  In other words (I’m sure the University has a detailed projection much better than mine, but I’m not going looking for it), the expansion means roughly 4,750 new apartments’ worth of housing to be created – or to push demand into the marketplace.

 

As we saw with little old Flagstaff, that much expansion disrupts neighborhoods:

 

“I wouldn’t say this document sets the ground vision of the neighborhood, so if people are trying to find that, it won’t work,” Clark said. “It’s like trying to find a fish with a bike.”

 

I fear Ms. Clark, in groping for a suitable metaphor, may have been channeling her inner Gloria Steinem, and her comment makes no more sense than did the original

 

From Gloria Steinem … and it still doesn’t make sense

 

Yet the relevant question remains: Assuming that job growth demands housing supply growth, whose responsibility is that?

 

B. How should collateral effects be factored in, and whose responsibility are they?

 

Let’s start with the easiest case, the effect of competition:

 

More than half of local businesses believe redevelopment will threaten their business, according to a recent survey.

 

A story is better with a photogenic protagonist, and here is ours:

 

Doug Campbell and his wife Gloria Seborg are proud of their store, Bulldog News, which they opened in 1983.

 

Doug Campbell, a CUCAC board member and owner of Bulldog News, one of the neighborhood’s majority owner-operated businesses, is nervous that the current campus plan would sow the [seeds of] destruction of the U-District’s cultural appeal.

 

Web site front page: pitching experiential reading

 

While Mr. Campbell’s stated argument is about the ethereal ‘cultural appeal’, forgive me for dismissing that (how would adding students and research facilities yield less culture?) in favor of the more likely explanation: economic self-interest.

 

Some U-District businesses feeling the sting of rising rents believe the University should consider the community in its expansion. 

 

Rising rents would be caused not by the university directly, but rather by the uptick in economic activity that would be inspiring private landlords to raise rents on commercial businesses that they believe are doing higher volumes, or that could be supplanted by other businesses, such R&D or professional services that generate more revenue per square foot.

 

Understandably, the university doesn’t see economic development as an environmental impact to be mitigated, at any rate not by the economic developer:

 

The university maintains that the campus master plan should be treated in isolation. 

 

Other residents, especially immigrants, fear displacement.

 

But Seattle has a Mandatory Housing Affordability requirement, so what do you have to worry about?

 

Of course I’m worried – I’m the last image before the post breaks

 

[Continued in Part 2.]

 

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