Is history partially to blame for Seattle’s housing dilemma?

Jan 5, 2018, 7:06 AM
The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board protected the dilapidated Wayne apartments, putting an end to plans for a 124-unit apartment building. (Dan Bertolet)
(Dan Bertolet)

Seattle faces a considerable housing crisis under the pressure of growth. But what most people don’t realize is that Seattle also faces another challenge to affordability — history.

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That’s the message of Dan Bertolet with the Sightline Institute. He wrote an article arguing that the city’s historic preservation boards need greater awareness of the Seattle housing system. Otherwise, history is standing in the way of housing — homelessness and affordability are the results.

“You have to appreciate who pays the cost when 200 units of housing don’t get built,” Bertolet told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “Most people might assume, ‘So what? Some wealthy tech bros didn’t get their fancy apartments in Pioneer Square.’ But that’s not where it stops because housing is a system. Those people, because they are relatively wealthy, will just go find another apartment in Seattle and outbid someone else.”

“It’s very important to not have regulations that needlessly stop the construction of market rate, new homes in the city,” he said. “In the end, the people who pay the price are the people at the low end of the economic ladder.”

The Sightline Institute is an independent think tank. Bertolet’s recent article on the institute’s website argues that about 1,000 units of housing have been lost over the “past few years” due to historic preservation.

“What we’re concerned about is when historic preservation is abused by people who don’t like to see change in their neighborhoods in a way that has a negative impact on housing affordability in Seattle,” he said.

Seattle housing vs Seattle history

One “egregious” example Bertolet points to happened in Pioneer Square where the city previously changed codes to accommodate more, larger housing.

“A developer proposed a 200-unit apartment building and in order for that building to be approved it had to go before the Pioneer Square Preservation District board – a board of volunteers – and they had to approve the design,” Bertolet said. “They weren’t happy with the design, basically because they felt the building was too big compared to a lot of other historic buildings around it.”

The board did not approve of the apartments. A parking garage still stands in its place.

“The epitome of what the city doesn’t want in that neighborhood is still there because historic preservation was used as a means to stop that change,” Bertolet said.

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Another issue is the safety of buildings. Many of Seattle’s oldest buildings are old masonry without reinforcement — meaning they have no rebar or other materials to keep them standing. They would likely crumble in an earthquake. But upgrades to the buildings often also get put up against historic arguments.

Another building in Pioneer Square is slated for an upgrade, Bertolet notes. The developer wants to preserve the building, but add four floors on top that would pay for the upgrades. The historic preservation board has not yet decided on the matter, but some opinions already expressed indicate many members feel the addition would ruin the character of the building.

“So the developer wouldn’t do the addition, and wouldn’t do the retrofit, and the city would be left with a death-trap building sitting there,” Bertolet said.

Bertolet and the Sightline Institute are encouraging city officials to educate historic organizations on the housing issue — provide them a larger picture of the housing system. He would also like to see something like a housing budget implemented in Seattle.

“If you are in a given neighborhood, like Pioneer Square, if the community decides they want to save a building that results in a loss of potential housing, then that neighborhood has to make room for that housing somewhere else,” Bertolet said.

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Is history partially to blame for Seattle’s housing dilemma?