Friday, November 5, 2010

'Smart growth' won't result in social equity - OUTSIDE CITY HALL

11/3/2010 1:38:00 PM  (reprinted from South Seattle Beacon and other Pacific Publishing Newspapers)
OUTSIDE CITY HALL | 'Smart growth' won't result in social equity
On Sept. 20, Nick Licata, the head of Seattle City Council’s Housing Committee, hosted an overflow crowd of 200 at a forum entitled “Can We Achieve Social Equity Using Smart Growth?”

The Seattle Displacement Coalition, Puget Sound SAGE, Washington Low-income Housing Alliance, Seattle Human Services Coalition and Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County co-sponsored the event.

Currently, Seattle is in the process of upzoning many neighborhoods, especially around current or planned light-rail stations for “transit-oriented development.”

The goal is to encourage new patterns of so-called “smart growth” that prevent sprawl and promote increased use of mass transit. By reducing auto dependency in this way, proponents hope to dramatically reduce the region’s carbon emissions and combat climate change.

While halting the pace of climate change is critical, in past columns, we’ve expressed doubt that cramming still more of the region’s growth into Seattle helps us reach that goal.

We’ve argued that preventing sprawl (and getting people out of their cars) can best be achieved through a more even distribution of growth among all of the region’s existing activity centers, not just Seattle.

But there’s another reason we’ve argued against increasing densities in Seattle, especially around rail stops. The added development threatens to accelerate removal of what’s left of our city’s low-income housing stock, including many units serving minority households in Southeast Seattle.

Preserving housing
The forum was designed to shed light on these trends and identify new legally defensible tools that Seattle could adopt to preserve our low-income housing before putting in place further “smart-growth policies.”

First, a panel of experts shared experiences from across the country. Connie Galambos Malloy, director of programs for Urban Habitat, an environmental-justice group in the Bay Area, described how San Francisco’s growth has made it the most expensive city in the United States. As a result, more city workers, especially lower wage earners, were moving to the suburbs. Commute times, car usage and travel distances went up, undermining the carbon neutrality goals of “smart growth.”

Dennis Keating, professor of urban planning from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, then described what happened to other cities adding densities under the banner of “smart growth.” The increased supply in these already-built-up urban areas did not “trickle down” to the poor. On the contrary, expensive, new residential construction — now legitimized as environmentally “sustainable” —  simply replaced the older, lower-density units.

Sarah Treuhaft from Policy Link, a national social-justice think tank, then presented a toolkit her agency developed to mitigate the effects of “smart growth” on low-income housing. Drawing from that toolkit, the audience then broke into small groups identifying several possible housing preservation strategies for Seattle, including:

•“Inclusionary zoning” laws that would require developers to set aside a percentage of new units in their projects at low-income rent levels.

•Requiring developers seeking upzones or any special exceptions above normal zoning to replace “one-for-one,” and at comparable rent, all existing low-income housing they demolish.

•“Special Review Districts” or “overlay zoning” for gentrifying low-income communities. Neighborhood advisory boards would be created and growth monitored in these areas.

And whenever too much low-income housing was being lost, more housing-levy dollars would be directed into these districts and zoning rules would be altered to require developers to set aside more low-income housing in their projects.

•“Right of First Notice” requiring owners of existing low-income apartment buildings to notify and entertain bids from nonprofit housing developers before selling these buildings to speculators and for-profit developers.

No reconciliation
Still, we remain skeptical that these “smart-growth,” pro-density policies ever can be reconciled with the goal of preventing displacement and achieving social equity.

Data presented at the forum showed that from 2005-2007 — a period of high growth in Seattle — more than 7,000 low-income units were lost to demolition, condominium conversion and increased rents.

When the economy picks up, we fear these trends will emerge with even greater force due to the upzones now being considered in the name of “smart growth.” Even if we do adopt new housing-mitigation measures to accompany these upzones, they won’t be adequate to stem the loss.

For example, a “one-for-one” replacement policy would ensure developers replace any affordable housing they directly demolish. But as Keating pointed out, upzones to these areas will push up land values and lead to rent increases on surrounding properties not directly lost to redevelopment.

More speculative buying and selling of existing rentals will also occur in these now-“hot” areas, driving rents up further, and more rentals are lost to condominium conversions.

Despite our skepticism, we strongly support one-for-one replacement, right of first notice and inclusionary zoning, if only to minimize the growing inequality caused by “smart growth.”

More support needed
Closing the forum, City Councilmember Licata pledged to get a resolution passed to consider the anti-displacement strategies prioritized by the audience, and other attending council members seemed supportive.

Ultimately, however, these tools won’t be adopted unless a larger coalition of housing and homeless advocates come together to push our leaders with the same zeal we did to get the housing levy passed last year.

JOHN V. FOX AND CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a low-income housing organization ( ). 

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