Sticky Narratives: The Real Story of MIZ, and the Non-Profit Housing Industrial Complex

I was never a huge fan of the show X-Files although I did watch it and I am familiar with the two lead characters, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Agent Mulder believes in aliens and other spooky things. Agent Scully is more of a skeptic. Many of the shows are about something unusual happening, the agents investigating it, and the kind of background debate about what the explanation might be. This is a familiar trope, perhaps one of the best examples is Scooby Do, where a group of kids and a goofy dog in a van manage to expose some supernatural event as really some kind of ploy to dupe people out of money or property. The notion of truth and what it really is as old as human beings: what’s really going on and what is behind what we’re experiencing in the world? I feel a lot like Fox Mulder these days, but slowly I think people are figuring what’s going on with affordable housing.

Two news outlets, one local and one national, have picked up on the idea that there is something wrong with the way we’re funding and building affordable housing. Locally, George Howland, who has worked for both The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly as well as a stint at City Hall wrote a very solid story about the problems with non-profit built housing at Outside City Hall. Howland sometimes gets attacked because Outside City Hall was created and is highly associated with John Fox, who I would call an opponent of growth. But Howland is working as a journalist with a point of view not unlike almost every other blogger and reporter on the civic beat.

Howland’s story is the first and only one other than my own writing here, to actually look at the numbers and ask questions about how expensive non-profit affordable housing has become to build and ask why. Not a single reporter has expressed even the slightest curiosity about why per unit costs are approaching $500,000 per unit. Like most things about housing in Seattle, after long explanations, eyes glaze over and interest drops. Most reporters and writers think the story is too complicated and too difficult to explain. The notion that production costs for non-profit housing are climbing, subsidies are running out, and that non-profit developers are now seeking money from the private sector sounds like, well, a conspiracy theory. Its much easier to write lines like, “HALA will exchange increases in density for inclusion or fees” and just leave it at that.

Laura Sullivan a reporter with National Public Radio called me early this year for a series she put together with Frontline about low income housing tax credits (LIHTC).

Sullivan told me in our several conversations that I was the only person that would criticize the program. I asked her more than once to resist the “greedy developer” narrative. I think it’s false and that the real issue isn’t that some for profit developer was able to leverage the creation of some affordable units into a profitable market rate project, but that the reason the program is producing less for more is that costs are out of control.

Sullivan was already very far along in her work on the story, and she already had much of it put together. But I am still hoping that they’ll take as hard of a look at how non-profits, at least on the west coast, are using the poetical process to extort money out of market rate builders of housing in the name of helping the poor instead of advocating for broad policy reform to lower the cost of producing all housing. This is why we’re pushing for an outside, bipartisan study of housing costs by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee (JLARC) to get to the bottom of costs and push to reduce them across the board. I think most of them are self imposed by regulation and that we could make things easier for real people looking for housing if we removed these restraints.

The truth is out there, folks. Our planet is under surveillance by powerful alien minds of uncertain motives. That, and local non-profits that have huge political leverage are running out of cash for their projects because they have limited rent revenue, too many rules, and are inefficient and now they’re coming after market rate builders to squeeze them for cash to build ever more costly units of housing that won’t meet the growing demand for housing. We’re on the knifes edge, if Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ) is fully implemented we will see inexorable increases in housing costs as the market it forced to rationalize the costs of inclusion and fees, those costs will price up land and other costs in the region, subsidies will be consumed at an even greater rate, and this will require deeper inclusion and fee demands by non-profits.

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