The virulently anti-neighborhood, pro-developer Sightline Institute recently posted a story attempting to prove that the demolition of low income and affordable housing in Seattle is not a problem. The author cherry picks 19 developments where only 21 existing housing units would be removed while, on the other hand, 1,764 spanking new market rate rentals would be added to the city’s overall supply.  

For the author this is prima facie evidence that displacement does not exist in Seattle and that we must let the market work its magic.  Allegedly, by dramatically expanding the stock of newer market rate units eventually some affordable housing over time will trickle down to the poor. While those few who are displaced should get some relocation assistance (of course at “public,” not developer, expense), the net gain in units far outweighs the inconveniences faced by these few.  

Such a conclusion, on the basis of such limited evidence, couldn’t even pass a laugh test.

According to city planners, 6,365 units of existing housing have been removed between 2005 and 2016 with applications pending for removal of another 1,892. Our sampling of the buildings being demolished tells us that about 80 percent were affordable rentals. Many were larger family rentals in lower-income single-family zoned areas close to major arterials, or low-rise multifamily areas. Another significant portion were lower density multi-family rentals in older duplex, triplex, or two- to three-story red brick and garden style apartments.  

Consider that over this roughly 10-year period that these affordable units were demolished, the city committed $150-200 million dollars in voter approved housing levies that produced 2,200-2,500 new subsidized units. In effect, for every one subsidized levy unit we taxpayers created, developers destroyed three existing affordable units.  

The Mayor’s so-called Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), aimed at upzoning the entire city, will only accelerate losses and increase this disparity unless measures are first put in place to prevent still more demolition and displacement. Only a one-for-one developer replacement obligation at comparable price stops this — something so far our city leaders have been unwilling to consider.  

Yes, as Sightline’s study and the city’s chart of demolitions show, there was a very substantial net gain of total units (new construction minus demos) over the last decade, and especially the last five years. But so what? How do units priced at $2,000 or more a month serve the needs of several thousand who were displaced from their homes — units that were renting for $800 a month or less? 

About 75,000 households in Seattle live on incomes below 50 percent of median income. Only about 20,000 of them are living in subsidized units, so that’s 55,000 or so depending on a stock of “naturally occurring” unsubsidized older units — most built before 1980 — and precisely the stuff we are tearing down to make way for new construction.  

As city reports make clear, there is little or no “trickle down,” (or “filtering” as planners describe it), even at these record levels of new construction.  Even units built 15-20 years ago as they age, most still are not priced at rates affordable to those at 60 percent percent of median income.  And they’re nowhere near what’s affordable to those with lower incomes disproportionately represented by seniors and families of color - the ones tossed from their homes due to unrestrained demolition, speculation, and increased rents. 

If it’s true, as Sightline suggests, that most new development occurs on parking lots and does not require removal of any existing units, then why not impose a two-year moratorium on demolition of existing low-cost older buildings of four or more units? Our studies of demolitions show this would only affect about 5 to 10 percent of all new developments, barely slowing the rate of new market rate construction in the city. 

This is in fact what the city did once before, in 1987, in order to preserve low-income buildings in downtown until measures could be adopted and monies found to acquire older buildings threatened by rezones there. As a result, the city was able to save a lot of those older low-income apartments. In the end, there was a net loss of low-cost units, from 10,000 to about 6,000. But at least we were able to save many, and of those that remain today, nearly all are subsidized nonprofit units.

Let’s adopt a moratorium again to give the city time to adopt an effective “one-for-one” low-cost housing replacement requirement all developers must meet when they tear down existing low-cost units.

But watch Sightline and their developer friends kick and scream if a moratorium is even considered. Their professed concern for those displaced and their bogus arguments that runaway growth means less displacement remind us of a line from a song by the great union organizer and songster Joe Hill referring to what rich often say to poor: “Work and pray, live on hay, there’ll be pie in the sky when you die”.

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. More information on the coalition can be found at www.zipcon.net. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.