Understanding #SeattleCAN

Updated: Feb 9

Rise Up Belltown's proposal to save our community (and all Seattle) from rampant gentrification is dense, because it tackles big, systemic issues. Here's an overview of the why, the what, and the how.

In Brief

Our plan is to save the places in Seattle that still have soul, and the places where working people can still afford to exist. We'll grow more and faster, but we'll put a price on all the new growth to make sure we can afford to save all those important places AND to build enough affordable and workforce housing.

We'll invest new revenue in Seattle's land and people, and to make sure we don't leave people behind, we'll invest in our workforce, we'll work to address homelessness, and we'll prioritize affordable public transportation. And we'll get the ball rolling with public votes on up-zones, historic districts, and new revenue.

The Why

Like others from across Seattle, the #HumansOfBelltown have been sharing their stories about being forced out of their homes, their businesses, their jobs, and their community centers. It's been happening in places like Belltown for decades, and now it's happening to communities in almost every neighborhood in Seattle.

The process of growing by displacing others' communities is as old as European expansion to the Americas (and even older) but it has always been an unenlightened approach. Today, new immigrants to Seattle create diversity, opportunity, and innovation. We propose that Seattle is creative enough, bold enough, and caring enough, to pursue a path of growth and expansion that says fundamentally that community displacement is not an option.

We believe a marketplace can help us.That's the second reason why it's worth trying something new: because Seattle could be leaving billions of dollars on the table.

This proposal seeks to monetize 35,000 new acres worth of developable space in Seattle under a system which would seek to make that new space worth as much as the land on ground. Land on the ground is worth on average $9.9 million per acre. That's a potential public/private valuation of over $346 billion dollars. Even if the system we design only captures a small fraction of that value, and even if the public captures an even smaller fraction of the revenue, we would already have out-paced the capacity of local taxes to be functionally comparable as a revenue source.

The What

The plan is to set aside a network of land, weaving through every neighborhood in the city, where the goal is not to grow as much as possible, but to preserve affordability and to keep communities intact.

(attn zoning experts out there, this would act like an industrial zone, where land stays cheap because economic realities demand it, except in this case the zone is for community gathering places and affordable housing.)

Affordable and workforce housing is an absolute necessity for a functional economy, and new housing could be added inside that network as well as out. At the same time, community, culture, and creativity all rely on spaces where human beings gather and connect with each other. Our small neighborhood shops and restaurants, our community centers, and historic churches, and live music venues, and theaters, and even our green and open spaces -- all these places are essential to keeping communities intact, and all require affordability over the long-term.

Yet growth is inevitable. And in a capitalist marketplace, land has to be purchased. That means we need a system in which new growth creates new money up front, so public and private landholders can afford to keep the network affordable. Then we have have to actually grow a lot to generate that money from the land sale.

Without the places that make Seattle special, we likely couldn't generate the new growth we'd need to save them. And without space for the vulnerable, the workforce, and middle classes, Seattle's economy will wither with time. A creative solution tackles both problems at once.

The Seattle Community and Affordability Network relies on four key steps:

  1. Switch to a revenue-generating growth strategy.

  2. Invest that revenue into Seattle's land and people.

  3. Ensure we're not leaving communities behind.

  4. Get the ball rolling with some public votes.

These steps all build on the current work the City is pursuing, in which the public asks developers to add some affordable housing to their projects (or to cut the public a check, if not) when they build new housing buildings in certain, specific parts of the City. It has been called a grand bargain between development and affordability. We believe #SeattleCAN is a similar but grander bargain; a bargain which would leave fewer communities behind.

The How

Part 1: A Revenue-Generating Growth Strategy
  1. Everyone Deserves a Working Heart Small neighborhood business hubs are Seattle's economic engines and cultural hearts. they also happen to be where most low and moderate income workers can find housing. Places like Columbia City, Ballard, and Pike Place Market are great examples of how preserving neighborhood hearts drives new growth. A series of historic and special use districts could protect neighborhood hearts throughout the city, while stimulating essential growth in every community. e.g. What would the "Pike Place Market of your neighborhood" look like if it was preserved as a commercial and social hub for your community?

  2. The Only Way to Grow is Up Land is only bought and sold on the ground, but everyone pays rent by the square foot. This proposal is built on the notion that a square foot of space has financial value, whether it's on the ground or built in the air. In other words, the "ability to build square footage" is worth something on its own. Since anything that's worth something can be bought and sold in a marketplace, this plan monetizes an up-zone with a system similar to a cap and trade framework, on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis. (e.g. Fremont could only sell or buy within Fremont; Mount Baker could only sell or buy within Mount Baker.) Watch a nine-year-old explain this concept with Lego & Star Wars! The video uses Belltown as an example, but under #SeattleCAN, the entire city (except industrial and a few other zones) would be given the equivalent of "one story" worth of new development capacity. For example, a 5,000 sq/ft lot would get 5,000 feet of new capacity, to either build into, or to sell to a neighboring property in their community. The question of who sells and who builds would be based on community assets and affordability, with neighborhoods themselves at the center of those decisions.

  3. One Size Rarely Fits All There are a lot of different ways to add density to a neighborhood, and every community in Seattle has unique conditions that are understood best by the humans who live in, work in, and love that community. #SeattleCAN would empower community stakeholders to draw their own growth maps, under a framework designed by the City to ensure that the maps are fair, inclusive, and feasible. The growth maps would define the local marketplace of land where "new square footage" would be either bought or sold. To empower neighborhoods to make the best choices for their communities, the City's "menu of growth strategies" would expressly allow every type of growth strategy that a community might select. A few examples of potential strategies include residential small lot, row housing, form-based coding, duplexes and triplexes, multi-family cross-laminated timber, green mid-rise, and even creative high-rise solutions for residential areas.

  4. Affordability Creates Community Seattle's single family neighborhoods are cultural treasures, but ever-rising home prices means it's harder and harder for working families to ever hope of buying a home in Seattle. As we grow into a denser City, #SeattleCAN would give options to communities of neighbors who want to endow future generations with affordable access to Seattle's single family neighborhoods. By establishing an equity-based certification program for public and private community land trusts, Seattle could allow small groups of neighbors to preserve the historic nature of their communities. In return for endowing majority portions of their community to land trusts, homeowners would receive generational, or multi-generational, leasing agreements matched to local property tax reductions. Such an incentive program would allow existing residents to stay in their homes and reduce their tax burdens, while ensuring affordability for future generations.

Part 2: Invest that Revenue into Seattle's land and people.
  1. Invest in Land Seattle has an impressive track record of community stewardship of public land, through the use of public development authorities such as the Pike Place Market PDA, the Chinatown / International District PDA, and the Historic Seattle PDA (an affordable housing developer). Establishing a district in which development is managed for community and affordability will almost certainly result in some private landholders who will no longer wish to own property in managed areas. Since landholders are entitled to fair market value, it essential to have a plan in place for essential public acquisitions. A land buy-back program, inspired by the U.S. Department of Interior's Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, would make use of new or existing public development authorities to bring essential portions of the community and affordability network under public stewardship.

  2. Invest in Partnerships Seattle is a city much-beloved by the people who own shares of its land. For those who grew up here, and those whose parents and grandparents grew up here, Seattle is a place of history, culture, and community. Even newcomers often find themselves wrapped up in the majesty of our blue and green city on the Salish Sea. The result is that for many private landholders in Seattle, their interests in the land extend far deeper that just their financial interests. By establishing a partnership program with legacy landholders in a managed network, the City can support long-term private stewardship within those areas. Support could include strategies such as historic landmark tax incentives, and additional development capacity sales, and public/private partnership agreements, among others.

  3. Invest in People Long-term success of #SeattleCAN means generating new revenue from new growth - but that growth will only be successful if people want to continue moving here. Even with climate refugees and continued tech growth, people will only keep moving here if it continues to be an interesting and exciting and connected place to live. A direct investment in Seattle's creative economy, through a series of neighborhood-level micro-stimulus packages for music and the arts, would spur cultural growth and desirability in neighborhoods throughout the city. Since most of Seattle's creative communities are also low and moderate wage-earners, an investment in creativity is also an investment in our local workforce, helping creatives hang on to their homes and day jobs while we work to create places for them to live.

Part 3:Ensure We're Not Leaving Communities Behind.
  1. An Apartment for your Bartender When local employees can live near their jobs, everyone wins. The employee wins. The employer wins. The economy wins. Even Mother Nature wins, when less resources are being spent on transportation. #SeattleCAN calls for establishing a workforce housing support program to connect a neighborhood's local workforce with local housing nearby.

  2. A Home is More than a House A person’s home is more defined by a person’s community, than by the structure in which they live. Those living outdoors in Seattle can be empowered through programs that treat their communities like a community. This plan proposes to provide the same infrastructural supports (i.e. health, safety, sanitation, transportation) to communities living outside as are provided to communities living inside. As a part of that response, #SeattleCAN calls for a study of ecologically sustainable outdoor infrastructure, such as the expansion of the managed encampment program, and/or the conversion of parts of Seattle's public forests to accessible residential communities.

  3. Mobility Sets Us Free The most fundamental pathway out of poverty is mobility. The power to get where we need to go, when we need to get there, is a power that sets us free. Leveling the playing field for our workforce and most vulnerable populations means ensuring that people can get to their jobs, can get to public services, and can get to gathering places where they can build and strengthen their communities and circles of friends. #SeattleCAN calls for an increase in affordable transportation investments (such as a free ride zone and affordable bikeshare), and a prioritization of affordability and access within Seattle's transportation master plans.

Part 4: Getting the Ball Rolling with some Public Votes
  1. All Big Boats Need Pilots Parts of Seattle’s community, culture, and affordable spaces are disappearing so fast that without acting immediately, those critical areas will be gone for good. Key community, cultural, and affordability-critical areas facing an imminent and high risk of displacement would serve as pilot regions within a Community and Affordability Network, and would receive immediate relief from displacement pressures through the establishment of new and expanded special zoning districts. These areas will serve as pilots during the process of community self-determination.

  2. Everything Always Costs Something This plan is premised on the notion of generating long-term public revenue through the sale of new development capacity, yet making these ideas viable will also require major financial resources up-front. The City will be instructed to put to the people a public referendum on a proposed philanthropic request to the Seattle region’s specific individuals of significant means, whose individual financial resources are in excess of ten thousand times the Seattle median income. As a secondary alternative, the City would be instructed to develop a public referendum on a new high earners tax in lieu of a public / private partnership with individuals of means. In the interim time period, the City shall be authorized to use bonding capacity.

  3. Engines are Built by Engineers If Seattle social influencers can build audiences comprising hundreds of thousands of people, our City has the power to be just as good at communicating with voters. #SeattleCAN calls for new benchmarks for civic engagement to ensure a public dialogue is taking place, and also empowers civic leaders and policy professionals to be innovative, collaborative, and nimble in implementing these proposals.

Download the #SeattleCAN Circulation Draft

Together, Seattle can do better.

You can follow @RiseUpBelltown on Instagram for daily updates, or sign-up for our weekly email updates, and/or you can follow our updates here on this blog. If you would like to help shape these community meetings, we would welcome your support! Get on the BOAT, and join the Events or Resources Team. We'd love to have you. :)