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April 2017

Achieving an integrated approach to planning for livable cities

Urban Innovations speakers and slides

"Are We Victims of Our Own Success?"

That question set the theme for speakers from Vancouver, B.C., Portland, San Francisco and Seattle who gathered last month for an Urban Innovations Speakers Series presented by Seattle's Office and Planning and Community Development. Co-presenters included KUOW and moderator Joshua McNichols, and The Seattle Public Library, which hosted the program (the latest in 17 programs it has held on housing topics in the past year).

The program featured planners from the four cities who discussed innovative public and private efforts to support more affordable housing in an era of escalating costs for land and construction.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray welcomed the standing room only crowd, reiterating his goal to recreate a city "that is affordable, has transit and has open space."  He also noted 90 percent of the growth was permitted years before he became mayor.

Internationally recognized urban strategist Gil Kelley, Vancouver's general manager of Planning, Urban Design, and Sustainability, started the discussion by observing all four cities have unique personalities but share much in common. "All are known for livability, prosperity and sustainability," he remarked, adding, "What is lacking for all is the fourth leg of the stool - affordability.

Kelley emphasized affordability isn't limited to housing; he suggested transportation choices, child care and other things could be added to that list.

Even though Vancouver has been producing a record number of housing units, it tends to be high priced, due mostly to three pressures: the popularity of living in the urban core, wage differential between tech workers and the rest (with the gap widening), and passive foreign investment.

Kelley noted several differences between housing in Canada and that in the U.S., adding his city is initiating a big "housing re-think" along with efforts to tamp down some of the external pressures with initiatives like a foreign buyer's tax, an empty homes tax, and rule-making around short-term rentals.

Recognizing other initiatives being undertaken in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, Kelley suggested "If we figure it out, we can lead the globe."

The next speaker, John Rahaim, the planning director for the City and County of San Francisco, called his city a "bit of a poster child for the housing crisis in the U.S.," citing "extraordinary growth" since 2010 in terms of residents (up 27 percent), jobs (up 22 percent), but less so for housing (up only 7 percent).  Among other statistics he shared were the median home price ($993,250), median rent ($4,830), and median household income for a 4-person household ($101,900).

Rahaim, who served in various design and planning positions in Seattle before moving to San Francisco, discussed four elements of that city's housing work, which he described as being focused on "stabilizing, creating, understanding, and adapting."  He also described four options developers have for complying with the city's inclusionary housing requirements and the eight "buckets" that make up its range of housing strategies and tools (see pie chart).

Admittedly, some strategies won't work, Rahaim said, but added, "It's important to think about the strategies holistically."

Portland's chief planner, Joe Zehnder, said his city shares similar challenges with others on the panel, "but it moves slower." Nevertheless, its progressive populace is concerned - if not anxious - about the future, prompting across-the-spectrum actions focused on improving affordability.

In response to a declared housing emergency, Portland has made $62 million available for housing, created new funding sources, such as a short-term rental tax and a construction excise tax, added mandatory inclusionary housing, and created a Joint Office of Homeless Services to ease access to  services for people experiencing homelessness. The city is also expanding tenant protections.

Other measures designed to meet housing needs are new codes, including provisions for residential infill, limits on the scale of a building, and allowances for multiple smaller housing units.

"Financially, we will always be behind," Zehnder acknowledged, but said Portland is determined to find community-driven tactics to help balance supply and population growth.

Rounding out the presentations were Samuel Assefa, director of Seattle's Office of Planning and Community Development, and Steve Walker, director of the city's Office of Housing. They opened their segment by stating projections on growth have changed due in part to jobs in "technology and innovation" and life sciences.

Acknowledging a "legacy of racism" the duo agreed Seattle's updated comp plan will focus growth on the "back of transit," along with race and social equity, and housing affordability. The "missing middle" is also a major concern, they stated.

Walker cited research on the number of people living without Shelter (2,945), the number of households that spend more than half their income on housing (45,000) and the increase in average rent for a 1-bedroom apart in Seattle compared to five years ago (35 percent).

Seattle's efforts to increase the affordability of housing in the city are based on the Housing Affordability and Living Agenda (HALA) and 10-year goals set by a 28-member Advisory Committee. Among those goals are the creation of 30,000 new market-rate homes and 20,000 affordable homes.

At the end of the day, they agreed "It's not about numbers -- it's also quality of life outcomes." The shared desire is "A Seattle that everyone can call home."