In February 2014, the Seattle City Council convened a workforce housing forum in order to deal with the challenge of insufficient affordable housing. A panel of consultants and housing experts attended from around the country in order to share information about best practices, as well as review Seattle’s current housing plan.
After an afternoon of panels and presentations, the consultants tasked by the Council to look at this issue confirmed what many in Seattle already knew – Seattle’s current housing policy is not working.
Instead of encouraging growth in our city’s neighborhoods zoned for density, recent policy instead discourages the construction of new housing units in our urban centers by increasing the fees for building to max height, and the incentive zoning program the City Council designed to grow the affordable housing supply has proven to be ineffective and costly.
Many of the housing experts agreed that in order for Seattle to meet its housing needs, our city needs to undertake a variety of approaches to tackling affordable housing and growing the housing supply. While the City has focused most of its time and energy on the incentive zoning
program there are a number of other tools that will likely be more effective at creating affordable housing. One idea being explored around the country is making more effective use of city-owned land.
A Better Use
While repurposing public land is not a new idea, it is being revisited by cities across the country as a way to deal with a shortage of affordable housing. Today, the City of Seattle owns or manages more than 7,000 acres of public land across the entire city (see Figure 1). From parks and parking lots to police stations the City of Seattle controls a significant amount of property, some of which could likely be put to better use. Vacant and unused property could be repurposed to help alleviate our affordable housing shortage and other community needs. Of the City’s 7,400 acres of owned, leased or managed public land there are:
- 5,034 acres of parks and open space
- 1,283 acres of library, community and cultural facilities
- 60 acres of unused/undeveloped vacant land, and
- 23 acres of parking
East Precinct Lot Before
While nearly 70 percent is designated as park or open space, a significant amount of city-owned land potentially could be put to better use to help alleviate Seattle’s affordable housing challenge. As Rick Jacobus, a consultant with Cornerstone Partnership, stated at the workforce housing forum, “It’s almost impossible to design a program that works with the housing market and doesn’t get in the market’s way if the market is changing all the time.”
So rather than attempting to adjust housing incentive structures in the hope of accurately
12th Ave Arts Development
predicting the market, many cities are choosing to contribute their own resources to creating affordable housing.In Philadelphia, for example, officials recently announced plans to grow the city’s affordable housing supply by redeveloping 1,500 vacant, city-owned properties. Through a combination of tax breaks, bond measures and land banking efforts, Philadelphia plans to encourage owners to rehabilitate old residential properties, and in exchange maintain affordability, as well as partner with community organizations to develop new units.
Vacant: City-owned lot on Capitol Hill
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee has called on all city departments to take inventory of their vacant/underdeveloped sites in order to see what parcels might have potential for development.
Seattle has already begun to utilize this tool though not systematically. The 12th Ave Arts development exemplifies the potential for underused city-owned land in Seattle. On what had been a parking lot for the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct,
Vacant: City-owned lot in Greenwood
Capitol Hill Housing (CHH), in partnership with the City of Seattle, will develop artist studios, two flexible theatre spaces, as well as
88 affordable housing units.
Throughout the City of Seattle, there are potentially hundreds of acres that the City could
begin putting to use quickly in order to increase the supply of affordable
housing. With the need for affordable housing rising, the city should undertake a systematic review of notjust vacant sites, but all city-owned property, and determine what other affordable housing projects may be possible on any underutilized land.