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Amid Rising Housing Costs, Mayoral Candidates Offer Ideas For Keeping Seattle Affordable

Ashley Gross
Community members in the Beacon Hill neighborhood showed up at a public meeting to support Esther "Little Dove" John, whose apartment building is slated to be torn down and redeveloped.

One of the biggest issues animating the race for mayor in Seattle is juggling the interests of homeowners with the need to create more affordable housing. 

On average, 57 people move to Seattle every day, which has been pushing home prices up faster than any other large metro area in the country.

Both Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan agree Seattle is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis, and they each have put forward ideas for possible solutions.

'It was like I had descended into hell'

In Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, south of downtown, the rapid pace of change is palpable.

Esther “Little Dove” John knows firsthand. She’s an African-American and Native American community activist and musician as well as a director of the Beacon Hill Council.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Esther "Little Dove" John has lived in her apartment in the Beacon Hill neighborhood for 12 years. Now, she's searching for a new place to live because the building is slated to be demolished and redeveloped.

In 2016, John got some bad news: Her landlord had sold the apartment building where she has lived for more than a decade.

“Then a few months later, I saw a placard saying the building was going to be demolished,” she said.

The new owner wants to build 42 small units on the site. The building where John lives has just 4 apartments.

John and community activists are trying to block the development. She now calls herself the poster child for displacement in Seattle.

When John heard that her building had been sold, “it was like I had descended into hell somehow,” she said. “I wasn’t planning on moving until I absolutely had to move because I couldn’t take care of myself anymore.”

John is 65 years old. She pays $960 a month and said she can’t find anything comparable.

Both Moon and Durkan say people like John need to be able to stay in Seattle.

Moon: 'This isn't about politics as usual'

“This isn’t about politics as usual,” Moon said in an interview with KNKX. “This is about who are we going to be and who gets to live here.”

Moon is an urban planner by training and has never held elected office. She said she has watched with dismay in recent years as long-time residents – especially people of color – have been forced to leave the city as rents surge. It’s one big reason why she decided to jump into the race for mayor.

Moon said the city needs to play a bigger role in helping nonprofits construct subsidized housing near transit hubs. She also wants to explore how to use the city’s own surplus property for more affordable housing.

“This land is just lying there, not being used. It’s city owned. How can we bring it into productive use for housing?” she said.

Still, Moon acknowledged that approach is not enough to solve the problem.

About one in seven households in Seattle pays more than half their income on housing. Moon said the city should build more, including in areas zoned for single-family homes.

“When you create a condition where there are 5,000-square foot lots, and you’re only allowing one home to be on that lot, and you’re blocking mother-in-laws, backyard cottages, people turning their homes into duplexes, we’re creating a condition where only people of a certain wealth level can afford to live in that neighborhood,” she said.

But Moon doesn't want to dictate to neighborhoods in a top-down way. Instead she advocates spelling out to residents the different options for adding more housing and getting their input.

Durkan: 'Every part of our city has to get denser'

Durkan, a former U.S. attorney also running for office for the first time, told KNKX in an interview that she’d reexamine areas zoned for single-family homes.

“I think every part of our city has to get denser,” she said. “There’s no part of our city that isn’t going to get more crowded and more dense.”

Durkan said she’d continue the upzone process that former Mayor Ed Murray started. But Durkan said she wants to incentivize developers to build more affordable housing in their projects instead of paying into a fund for units to be built elsewhere, which she said has negative consequences.

“We are really segregating low-income housing from market-rate housing, and I think we have to have a blend,” she said. “We want to have every kind of person living in every part of the city.”

Durkan has other ideas for ways to help renters, including property tax relief for some landlords.

“There’s landlords that have decent rents now, but property taxes are rising so high, they raise the rents and then people get displaced,” she said. “I want to be able to go to those landlords and say, 'Keep your rents down, we’ll keep the property taxes down. Raise the rents, up go the property taxes, and you got to pay us back.'”

An Urgent Matter

For Esther “Little Dove” John, the matter is urgent. Fellow activists are trying to help prevent her from being displaced, and they pushed the city to hold a public meeting on the proposed development.

One after another, people spoke about the stress of trying to live in an increasingly expensive city.

“We need to keep people rooted in place and we cannot continue to displace people,” said Jill Mangaliman, executive director of the advocacy group Got Green.

“We cannot allow ourselves to be pushed out no more,” said Mark Lowe.

John said she has been hunting for a new place to live, but no luck so far. She signed up on the waitlist for public housing through the Seattle Housing Authority.

“I called them and said, 'Why haven’t I gotten any play here?’” she said. “And they said, 'Well, it’s probably going to be eight years before something comes up for you.’”

John said she hopes the next mayor prioritizes building affordable housing and market-rate housing so that everyone who wants to live here – and stay here – is able to do so.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.