I’d been meaning to comment on Danny Westneat’s recent column suggesting real estate development impact fees as an alternative to the current round of proposed tax increases, and I want to start by thanking Danny for at least attempting to think creatively on the issue. Really. I’m a big fan of using one’s media presence in the service of public brainstorming.
That said, while I’ve got nothing against them in theory, I don’t think impact fees can or should be a big part of the solution here in Seattle.
For example, take Danny’s inspiration: being crowded onto a sweaty No. 8 bus. “By state law impact fees can’t be used directly for transit,” Danny writes. So then, um, what’s the point? Seattle’s transportation benefit district—the same authority Mayor Ed Murray has proposed using to raise vehicle license fees and sales tax in order to buy back Metro bus service cuts—also has the authority to levy impact fees on commercial (nonresidential) development. But that’s not going to add any service hours to Danny’s No. 8 bus.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t use this authority to help fund roads and stuff, just that it does nothing to solve our immediate crisis.
Second, the notion of charging residential impact fees (Danny says that Bellevue charges $2,600 per house and $1,300 per apartment unit) would run headlong into Seattle’s efforts to address our city’s growing affordable housing crisis, both by making new housing more expensive, and potentially more scarce. Furthermore, anything that holds back new construction ends up adversely impacting property tax revenue, as new construction is exempt from I-747’s absurd 1 percent cap on regular levy revenue growth, and thus the engine of revenue growth in general.
Third, the logic of impact fees just doesn’t hold in a dense urban center like Seattle the way it does in a sprawling suburb, where new developments on virgin residential land often require the construction of new roads, new sewers, new fire stations, new schools, and so forth. Most residential development here in Seattle consists of in-filling in areas where all of these basic services already exist, so it just doesn’t carry with it the same sort of additional public infrastructure costs as a new suburban subdivision.
But finally—and this is my biggest complaint with Danny’s solution—impact fees do nothing to address the heart of the problem: our refusal to tax the people who can best afford to pay higher taxes. You know, the wealthy!
Implicit in Danny’s column is the acknowledgment that Seattle’s public services and infrastructure are underfunded. He’s not arguing with the need to expand bus service, maintain our parks, or fund universal preschool. He just seems to think that the latest round of proposed taxes are too much for the average taxpayer to bear. That’s debatable, but if you presume that it’s true, simply shoving the burden onto the backs of newcomers isn’t much of a solution. Instead, we should be looking for ways to ask our under-taxed wealthy to pick up more of the cost of maintaining the city in which they prosper. Not just out of fairness, but out the very pragmatic logic that they are the people with the most extra money to spare.
I look forward to Danny joining me in attempting to brainstorm a solution to that vexing problem.