Four citizens, each experts in different fields, met together on Wednesday evening to discuss whether the tech companies that have brought rapid economic change to Seattle also have a responsibility to help keep the city affordable and livable for all residents. The panel discussion was part of an event hosted last night by Redfin called “Shaping Seattle’s Future: Creating Livability for All.”
Redfin, the Seattle-based, tech-powered real estate brokerage, brought together Ed Lazowska, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Chair of the University of Washington’s computer science and engineering program; David Cutler, a principal urban planner and designer at the Seattle firm GGLO; Nela Richardson, Redfin’s chief economist; and Pamela Banks, the President and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, an advocacy group focused on equal opportunities for African Americans.
The debate was moderated by KIRO 7’s Natasha Chen, who turned the discussion toward the tech sector once the panelists talked about the responsibilities of policy makers and builders in fixing the problem of many Seattle families being priced out of the city.
Read on for excerpts from the conversation.
Chen: “I want to bring this discussion to the tech sector. It gets to be the punching bag, if you will, of why we’re in this position. We often kind of hear this blame — ‘oh it’s because of the tech people.’ And, at the same time, it’s the reason for our city’s wealth right now — well, not the sole reason, but it’s a large reason of why we’re growing, and that’s a good problem to have, as Mayor Murray talked about.
So in the Bay Area, you see some of these companies providing some way of housing. In fact, I think some of the big companies pay into a fund, to be able to allow more workforce housing in the area near their headquarters. Do you feel like that’s something that Seattle should look at? Should tech companies play a role in making sure that there’s affordable housing? Is it their responsibility?”
Lazowska: “So let me talk more generally about income re-distribution. I have to say, like some people on the panel, I might not be able to afford my house today. And I have two sons, two adult sons, who are never going to own a house unless my wife and I die and leave ours to them. So I’m sympathetic to this problem. But there are many people who can afford to live in Seattle and can afford to build in Seattle — they should cross-subsidize those who can’t, in my opinion.”
Chen: “When you say “they,” do you mean companies?”
Lazowska: “The companies or the individuals, when they purchase homes, and the developers when they develop housing units. It seems to me that we have a civic obligation to make the city livable for as many people as possible.
Let me give you an example of this, which or may not be to the point. I work at the University of Washington. Last year the legislature reduced UW tuition by 15 percent over a two-year period. That, to me, seemed crazy, and here’s why: tuition was about $10,000 a year. The vast majority of UW students and their parents can afford that. They did not need a 15-percent tuition reduction. Rather, what one should have done is use that money to provide scholarships for the people who truly couldn’t afford that price. Now, there’s no latitude for cross subsidy. That’s just an example. So it seems to me that those who can afford should help subsidize those who can’t in order to create a community we can all live in.”
Cutler: “I think there are a lot of layers to that question, actually. There are a couple companies recently that have made huge investments in downtown, Amazon being one. They’re developing three blocks in South Lake Union. They bought a street car to help provide public benefit for the return they’re getting on that land. That’s putting tens of thousands of jobs downtown, which is supporting local business, which is supporting developers who are looking to provide housing for people who work there.
One of the things we hear — we do a lot of housing, we’re a design company — is that a developer will provide one unit for every seven jobs. That’s kind of a rule of thumb. Seattle has a lot of jobs and it has very, very few units relative to those jobs right now, which is one of the reasons why you see so many cranes up in the city right now. In fact, we’re importing cranes from other states because we don’t have enough cranes here.
Part of the equation is encouraging tech jobs to locate downtown, which spurs other development and provides other necessary and essential components of livability like street cars, or public investment from the tax revenue that’s generated to create more parks and open spaces for people. Granted, that’s not enough — you always need more parks, you always need more transit, but that’s a start. You can think of it as a modern company town.”
Weyerhaeuser’s is moving to downtown Seattle. It just moved out of its Federal Way building, which was this giant, beautiful, sprawling green campus, and they’re moving into a little building, which could fit on, I bet, if you did the math, probably one percent of its site at Federal Way. It’s a fourth of a city block. And Expedia is moving downtown. So I think these changes are transforming the market for housing development, which is one of the positive things and one of the things that the market can deliver on the supply side.
These things are all connected. Transit is connected to housing, and housing is connected to transit. Grocery stores are connected to housing — they don’t go in unless you have 3,000 rooftops around. So, you want a grocery store? You need high residential density. All of these pieces are part of a bigger equation.”
Richardson: “I’m a big fan of the tech sector. But I’m starting with that because I’m about to say something not so nice. I’m saying this because it reminds me of the macro and the micro — the national and the local. I just wish that tech companies would pay their taxes. Let’s start there. A lot of them are keeping money abroad so that they don’t have to pay taxes — national, state, or local. So I think if we start with just paying taxes, we might get a first step in paying dues in terms of being a responsible member of a community.
In terms of the role they play within cities, I think it’s inescapable that tech has changed the landscape of Seattle for the better. But with that growth, I mean, they didn’t do it out of the generosity of their hearts. They got rich in the process. And I think there is something about accountability and what lies in your wake.
But how do you do it? How do you force any member of society to play by a social contract? You can’t. It’s a nice thing to wish for, but I’d just start with taxes.”
Chen: “There will be people who will argue that companies won’t do something just because it’s nice. There has to be some kind of incentive in there.”
Banks: “Just on that piece, around the access and opportunity for those tech jobs, if we don’t have a education system that will get African Americans and people of color the opportunity to get into the tech field — and it might not just be designing apps; it could be creating that wall design here at Redfin, or janitorial work, or whatever— that income inequality will just further enhance, especially in Seattle and especially among African Americans. If you look at income inequality right now between African Americans and whites, the average income is around $98,000 for a white family, and it’s about $28,000-$30,000 for a black family in Seattle.
We’ve got to talk about that, as well, because when we talk about housing affordability and livability, and when we talk about Seattle, you know, we’re pretty segregated. When you think about the people north of the ship canal, we’re pretty darn segregated. And now, south of the ship canal, when you look at the Central District, it’s getting segregated and it’s going to go into this ‘very diverse zipcode’ that the mayor and everyone likes to brag about that has 150 languages. Those 150 languages won’t be able to afford to be there, because that’s where the land is right now. That’s where the affordable housing is, if you’re able to find it. For us at the Urban League and others in our business, we are concerned about what we’ll look like. Will we look like this room? Or will we look like north of the ship canal? Schools in North end are better than schools in the South end and that all ties in to these questions of diversity and tech.”