Shaky Affordable Housing Leads to Pressing Problems

Sophia Magnano and Ben Burman

For decades public officials have promised to rebuild affordable housing units that would crumble in the presence of an earthquake. These units are in the University District, Capitol Hill, Belltown, and Pioneer Square. In fact, many of these units are close to prep. These closely packed units would benefit from some upgrading. However, a much more urgent problem is that they are not structurally sound.

In a March 2020 article from the Seattle Times, Daniel Beekman and Daniel Gilbert reported that the Department of Inspections and Construction found 1,873 apartments for low-income renters to be unsafe in case of an earthquake. This leaves over 2,000 occupants at probable risk. The walls in unreinforced buildings are not bolted to floors and ceilings, increasing the risk of catastrophic damage during earthquakes. Repair would cost anywhere from $80 million to $1.3 billion or $45 per square foot. The city’s preserved money for affordable housing upgrades is not nearly enough to encompass the volume of retrofits required.

Currently, the city is faced with the decision to either create more affordable housing units, which are in high demand, or to fix the existing ones. Officials have been discussing the matter since the 1970s and, unlike in Oregon and California, they have made very little progress. These discussions alone cost Seattle $250,000 in consulting fees.

If the problem is continually ignored Seattle could end up like a very similar city in New Zealand that lost 42 people in 2011 when a shallow earthquake hit. While promises have only progressed into paper plans in the past, the State House Bill 2405 has recently passed. Some advocates believe that this may be the silver bullet that leads to action. The bill would enable building owners to finance retrofits that would be paid over 10 to 20 years by special loans. Furthermore, the bill would allow owners to obtain private capital for clean energy or seismic upgrades and repay those loans over time.

The issue of affordable housing and earthquake safety in Seattle has been a long-standing problem that has yet to be fully addressed. With nearly 2,000 apartments for low-income renters deemed unsafe in the event of an earthquake, the risk to over 2,000 occupants spread throughout Seattle cannot be ignored.  Despite the little progress that has been made over several decades, the recent passing of State House Bill 2405 may provide a glimmer of hope for advocates, as it could provide a means for building owners to finance retrofits. Ultimately, it is crucial for the city to take action to ensure the safety of its citizens, and the passing of this bill could be a step in the right direction.