Hal Ferris, a local developer, has achieved some notoriety of late with his report on incentive zoning, completed at the behest of Mayoral candidate and current City Councilmember Tim Burgess. But maybe Ferris should be known as the inventor of the now famous firefighter fantasy, concocted six years ago the first time incentive and inclusionary zoning was seriously brought before the Seattle City Council.
Here is Ferris on so called work force housing back in 2007 in an article in the Daily Journal of Commerce:
Imagine you are a schoolteacher, firefighter, police officer, health-care worker, retail clerk or any other median-income worker whose job is essential to the economic vitality of our cities. If you work in Seattle, chances are you don’t live there. And in cities across our state, this is becoming an all-too-common scenario, one with major environmental and social impacts, including lengthy and pollution-inducing commutes, sprawl development and the disenfranchisement of people from the communities in which they work.
Imagine walking around Seattle with your axe over your shoulder and your helmet under your arm desperately looking for that apartment unit in Seattle that’s affordably priced. No wonder there are so many firefighter calendars — you just don’t make enough money to live in the city that you risk your life every day to protect. Now you have no choice but to move to Bellevue, where housing is cheaper, and you’ll end up contributing to global warming.
It’s a great story, great visual, and politically expedient, but it’s simply not true. Even a cursory scan of data available on the internet should extinguish the sad firefighter story. While there are certainly firefighters and other workers in Seattle who can’t find housing here in Seattle, for firefighters it isn’t because of low wages.
The  starting salary for a Fire Recruit is $64,884 per year with scheduled pay increases per union contract. Specialty and administrative premium pay can add an additional 5-20% depending on the specialty.
The Real Area Median Income (RAMI) in Seattle in 2011 was $64,085, slightly less than what a firefighter in Seattle would make as a recruit. The typical normative standard for affordable housing –what you should be paying for housing– is 30 percent of monthly income. That means a beginning firefighter could afford about $1,621 for housing per month. How does that compare to average rents in Seattle versus a place like Bellevue. The Seattle Times reported that in 2012
The average third-quarter rent in downtown Seattle, Belltown and South Lake Union in August was $1,628, Apartment Insights said, second only to downtown Bellevue’s $1,756.
So our firefighter could settle down in an affordable apartment in Belltown and still be paying an affordable 30 percent of her monthly income. Why move to Bellevue and pay more when she could walk to her firetruck in Belltown?
Still, the narrative of the firefighter, teacher, or healthcare worker earning $51,268 (80 percent of RAMI and thousands less than what the City says an actual firefighter earns) a year but unable to find a place to live in Seattle is influencing public policy.
City Councilmember Tim Burgess has decided that the public would benefit by taking Ferris’ advice, charging developers who are building new housing in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood a tax to fund the development of more housing, and then making them put that housing priced the way he wants it in their buildings. Burgess is pursuing this policy even when market studies say that without more housing supply, price will go up.
The Dupre + Scott study quoted in the Seattle Times found last year that
73 percent of landlords responding to that company’s survey said they plan to increase rents over the next six months.
The average projected bump: nearly 4 percent.
Renters pay more and must look harder for vacant apartments in close-in Seattle neighborhoods, according to both research firms.
The vacancy rate is just 2 percent on First Hill, 2.2 percent in the University District and 2.3 percent on Capitol Hill
If we’re worried about affecting housing price the obvious solution is to increase the supply of housing. More housing means more competition between landlords and developers and lower prices for firefighters and everyone else. However, the paradoxical view that we should tax new housing (a tax that will add to the cost of housing and increase its price) in order to achieve fairness, equity, and affordability persists.
In his 2007 article Ferris said that the “shortage of workforce housing is a silent epidemic.” The real epidemic is an intellectual one; the stubborn insistence in the face of basic economics that the way to lower perceived high housing prices is to increase costs and limit supply. Let’s hope we find a cure for this epidemic in the deliberations about zoning in South Lake Union before it spreads elsewhere.