Seattle: it’s not for everyone

As a motto or slogan, it’s vague enough to allow the reader to add their own meaning. Some would assume it’s the dreadful weather (you know it rains all the time here) or the omnipresent clouds.

But what came to mind when I came up with it was that it really doesn’t have room for everyone who wants to live a complete life: just as an overpopulation of grazing animals will first destroy the landscape before a population crash, Seattle can’t support the 750,000 people who live here now unless they are willing to pay more of their wage income to rentiers and speculators. The crash, if it comes, will be an exodus, not a die-off, but all it will mean is greater traffic issues as more people have to drive further to their jobs in the city.

The pandemic might have given the tech crowd the option of working remotely but the schools as well as the food — both retail and service — industry doesn’t have that option. So the things that make people brave the dreadful weather — the food and culture and access to the outdoors — all rely on the very people who are being priced out, marginalized like elk or deer when the balance of nature gets out of whack.

The solution, as with the way wolves restored the rivers of Yellowstone, is re-introduce the apex predator…in this case, it would be a tax on land that forces landowners to build and gets local people back in the game. We hear lot from the professional activist community about Vienna’s social housing. But we are never told how it works, as if it all appears by magic…

So there is the key: the city controls the land outright, buying up suitable parcels and getting them developed. Seattle couldn’t afford that but it doesn’t need to as it owns plenty of developable parcels it could allow developers to build on with a ground rent and an upfront of $0. The old Seattle PD headquarters site (at 601 4TH Ave) is more than an acre in size and right downtown, across from city hall. It could have been developed under this model 15 years ago, but is still idle, a hole in the ground. I’d call it Durkan’s Folly but it predates her and she has plenty of her own mess to own.

The current owner is a Canadian developer who has done nothing with it in the years it’s been theirs and may not for years yet. Right now, it pays $567,937.38 in property taxes on a parcel valued at 100 times that: what if that was assessed a $2 million per acre per year land rent, double the Mercer Megablock rent but for a better location? That would be $4.6 million a year plus the revenue from the actual development — jobs, retail sales tax, etc. And that’s just a pure ground rent: we could adopt a split rate with a lower ground rent and a small property tax on the development.

Either would be an improvement over a speculators hole in the ground, right here in the crane capital of the USA. The key to affordable housing is affordable land: if you aren’t including that in the conversation, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

With 2.5% annual increase and a 99 year term, this is what $4.6M ground rent would mean for Seattle: A little — or a lot – more of that and maybe we can say that Seattle is for everyone.

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