Why can’t Seattle just build more affordable housing on the extra land it owns?

It’s no secret that housing is a big deal in Seattle. As our region’s grown, so has the magnitude of our county’s homelessness crisis. Will the shiny new apartment towers be balanced out with enough more affordable housing?

That feeling of urgency prompted reader J.J. to ask us this question…

“Why can’t the City of Seattle just take land that is available or land they already own and just build affordable housing?”

It’s a question and frustration J.J. says he’s heard a lot in local conversations about housing and how we can help our neighbors trying to stay afloat. So he asked us to look into it.

There’s been a push for the city to build affordable housing on underused land for a while. Local housing advocates have said this wouldn’t solve all our region’s housing issues on its own, but it’d be a step in the right direction.

But what would building up these spaces look like — and how would we do it? Let’s dive in.

Have we built on extra or underused land before?

Yep. If you head to Capitol Hill, you can see one prime example: the 12th Avenue Arts building, which opened in 2014. It used to be a parking lot for the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. Capitol Hill Housing raised $4.6 million to transform the space into a complex with 88 affordable apartments, sitting on top of two theaters, three restaurants, and office space. SPD officers still get to park in the underground garage, too.

Why does Seattle have this “extra” land? And how much is there?

Some of our surplus land, a.k.a. space that’s either vacant or not being used to its full potential, is left for landscaped spaces or future city projects and utilities. In some cases, the city can work with local and state agencies like the Washington or Seattle departments of transportation to develop housing on land left over from construction projects.

In 2015, the department found that although it had 210 “surplus, excess, or underused properties” across the city, only about 33 of them could be cost-effective sites for affordable housing.

We asked how many of those properties had been turned into housing, but the city didn’t immediately have an answer. We’ll update when we hear back. Department spokesperson Robin Koskey did say, though, that the city’s housing office is “taking a more expansive view” of the extra land they identified.

Why? Because of changes to local and state laws that said how city-owned spaces could be given away. More on that in a minute.

We’re in the middle of a housing crisis. What keeps us from building on our surplus properties?

Totally valid question. The oversimplified answer: Building housing is hard.

Steve Walker, the director of the city’s housing office, says it’s “a misperception that the city’s just sitting on a ton of land.”

But there is available land around the city. Why does it get ruled out for housing development? In some cases, parcels are just too small, Steve said. The city’s housing office typically uses a 100-unit apartment building — which needs about 15,000 square feet of space — as an ideal scale to build something cost-effective, The Seattle Times reported.

Since 2015, the city housing office has been taking another look at some of those small parcels. Building affordable townhomes there would give locals more opportunities to own property, which sounds like a good move, Robin said.

Then there’s zoning. Some land is zoned only for industrial uses or for public utility centers, so building housing there would be — for the moment, anyway — illegal. (Check out our primer on Seattle’s zoning here.) Other times, planners have to consider construction logistics (like whether a space is on too steep of a slope), or public health (like if housing was built on contaminated soil that’s too expensive to fix), Steve said.

Plus, there’s infrastructure to think about. And some land is just too far away from things like public transit, jobs, schools, and grocery stores.

So is anything making this easier?

Actually, yes. Last year, our state legislature approved a plan that would allow cities to give away its surplus land for free or sell it for less than market rate if it’s going to be used for building affordable housing. (Here’s more on that from Crosscut.) This was a big deal, because it gave cities more opportunities to develop on different kinds of surplus lands, Robin said.

Then, last fall, our city council passed a resolution reaffirming that new state law, saying that Seattle’s top priority is to create affordable housing when it has land it’s not using. On top of that, if the land’s sold and it doesn’t create more affordable homes, 80 percent of the net proceeds have to go toward efforts that do.

So what’s next?

In a word, city planners and developers are gonna have to get creative to avoid underusing our limited space.

And that creativity extends to how our city looks for its extra or underused land. Local housing nonprofits Enterprise Community Partners and Futurewise developed and are testing a new mapping tool to help other affordable housing developers find more potential sites for homes.

In the meantime, Steve says the housing department is looking for ways to include affordable units whenever something like a new community center is getting built. Whatever the building, Steve says, his team “wants to be in the room talking about putting housing on top of it.”

Want to learn more about housing? Check out our handy explainer about how our city’s zoned here. We also geeked out with local housing voices about what they’d hope Seattle looks like in 2030.