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Housing advocates hope for new era with Mayor Jenny Durkan

Jenny Durkan speaks to a crowd of supporters after initial election results favored her Nov. 7, 2017. (KIRO 7)

As Seattle prepares for Mayor-elect Jenny Durkan to begin her first term in office, one interest group is hoping for a new era of affordable housing and development in the city.

“(The city council) talks about affordability, not price,” Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, told Seattle’s Morning News. “To them, they want to talk about building more affordable housing. Our message is build more housing so it is affordable. There’s a big difference there.”

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Smart Growth Seattle is an advocacy group that promotes developer and free-market approaches to the city’s housing issues. Seattle has a shortage of homes. What little becomes available is put on the market at prices that many cannot afford. The result is rent that is out of reach, except for the most highly paid, pushing people out of town. There is also a homeless crisis that experts partially attribute to the high cost of housing.

The main issue for Valdez and his group is that Seattle maintains a status quo of regulations on developers. Valdez says this drives up the cost of building more units. In turn, that drives up the cost for people to live in that housing. Instead of tackling old regulations that contribute to the problem, Seattle keeps costs high.

“The city has lost the eraser on its pencil,” Valdez said. “So for every single problem they’ve got to come up with a new rule, regulation, fee, fine, tax, whatever. If we had that eraser we could get rid of some rules, fees, and fines and open up the production of housing so there could be more of it. The reason housing is expensive is it’s scarce. There’s not enough of it.”

New mayor, housing, and possibilities

Valdez and his group are hoping that Seattle’s new mayor, Jenny Durkan, will come into office with such an eraser. She may be more receptive to developers as a solution to Seattle’s housing shortage than past mayors. While running for office, Durkan told the Puget Sound Business Journal that the city needs to include developers when finding these solutions.

“There is no way we can even start to make a dent in the amount of affordable housing we need without having the participation of developers,” Durkan told the Business Journal when talking about Seattle’s Housing and Affordability Plan. “I think this process is the one thing that’s going to give us the tool and funds to make dent immediately.”

Durkan has said that she wants to accelerate the HALA program and shorten the time period for developers to get permits. She also will direct city departments to find ways to speed up affordable housing projects during the permitting and review process.

Those ideas aren’t everything that Valdez and Smart Growth Seattle seek from the city, but it could be a start. Valdez promotes opening up the door to developers to come into the city and start building faster and without burdensome regulations. If more market-rate housing is built, that could cheapen existing housing, or at least keep it at current prices, he said.

Valdez would also like to get rid of the design review process — when city officials consider developers’ plans for windows and paint. He says that the city should stop requiring redundant infrastructure. For example, developers are often required to build extra water mains for new projects, even if one already exists.

“They want to build out the infrastructure of the whole city,” he said. “They want to get water mains everywhere they possibly can and they want us to pay for it. But we don’t pay for it. The customers pay for it … because Seattle Public Utilities doesn’t want to pass that cost along to ratepayers. Somebody has to decide if we are in a housing crisis or a utility bill crisis.”

“If we are going to build more inside the city, we have to open up the market so it can be built,” Valdez said. “Otherwise we’ve got two things going against each other — rising demand and not enough supply. That means higher prices. That means poor people suffer. Rich people don’t suffer when you choke off housing supply. That’s really the tragedy that’s playing out in front of us now. Those camps and people sleeping in cars are the creation of a city council that won’t allow more market-rate housing.”

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