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Seattle releases full housing affordability rezone plan

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Instead of specific neighborhoods, this affects ‘urban villages’ across the city

Urban Images/Shutterstock

Editor’s note: This story is developing and may include updates throughout the day.

Today mayor Tim Burgess and city councilor Rob Johnson released a plan to implement mandatory housing affordability (MHA) rezones throughout the city. It’s a key part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), expected to generate about 6,000 affordable homes in the next 10 years out of HALA’s goal of 20,000.

“Whether you’re one of the 70 people moving here every day or you’ve lived here for 70 years,” said Johnson under a rain tent at Broadway Hill Park, the city “will be affordable to you and your family.”

These rezones have been implemented on smaller scales throughout the past year, first with the U District, then downtown, Chinatown International District, and a few hubs along 23rd Avenue in the Central Area.

The new plan seeks to harness growth in what they’ve dubbed “urban villages”—neighborhood hubs that provide both housing and employment, the majority of them near transit. You can view an interactive map of the zoning changes here.

The basic idea is this: Developers who build in these areas are allowed to build more or higher. In exchange, they need to either provide affordable housing on-site (“performance”) or pay into an affordable housing fund managed by the city.

The performance-to-fee structure is designed to have the cost be about equal to the developer, and the city expects—or hopes—that an equal amount of projects will participate in both.

Units built for homeownership will be affordable to those making 80 percent of area median income, which varies based on household size. For rentals, they’ll be affordable to those making 60 percent of area median income. Affordability will be preserved for a 75-year term.

The amount a developer has to build or pay is currently determined by two compounding factors: the usual housing cost of a geographic area and the scale of the zoning change.

For example, a high-cost area where a single-family zone bumps to neighborhood commercial would net the highest return in affordable housing: 11 percent performance or $32.75 per square foot. An area that’s already low-cost and has minimal zoning changes would also have the lowest MHA requirement: 5 percent or $7 per square foot.

When a developer pays a fee instead of building on-site, the Seattle Office of Housing will manage those dollars, leveraged with federal and state housing dollars. It’s a priority to build city affordable housing near the projects that produce the funds. They’ll be providing maps to the city council for annual review.

A year after the changes are implemented—they require city council approval and are still several months out—city council will have a chance to review the rezones to make sure they’re working.

Family-size housing and development standards

52 percent of new apartment units constructed since 2012 have been one-bedrooms—and 29 percent have been studios. That leaves few options for families looking for lower-cost or denser housing in a market already dominated by housing for single people or couples in close quarters.

With the rezone comes stricter development standards, including some requirements for family-size housing. In certain low-rise zones, for every four smaller units, a developer would have to build at least one unit greater than 800 square feet with at least two bedrooms.

The zoning provides other incentives in certain neighborhoods based on neighborhood feedback. In the Seattle mixed zones in Northgate and Rainier Beach, developers will be allowed to build higher when they include certain features in their buildings.

Other development standards set by this rezone include privacy standards and side façade modulation in low-rise zones without design review; a high-rise zone, mostly in First Hill with taller, more slender towers; landscaping requirements that prioritize trees; and required upper-level setbacks in zones higher than 65 feet.

Displacement and equity

Displacement is already a large concern in fast-growing Seattle—and the same fears have been echoed during the MHA process.

The city developed a matrix for evaluating urban villages, tracking displacement risk against access to opportunity, like transit, schools, and employment. The plan directs more capacity for housing and jobs into communities with low risk of displacement and high access to opportunity. In their matrix, this includes South Lake Union, Fremont, Uptown, and Ballard.

For neighborhoods with a high displacement risk and low access to opportunity, like Rainier Beach, Highland Park, Bitter Lake, and South Park, changes are minimal. A couple of exceptions were built-in for 100 percent affordable housing projects that already have a site ready to go.

For all communities at a high displacement risk, changes are concentrated within five-minute walks of frequent transit nodes. That’s defined as either light rail or the intersection of two or more bus routes providing a level of service of 15 minutes during peak hours, providing access to at least two other urban villages.

Single-family zones

The rezone applies everywhere in the city that’s not currently zoned single-family or industrial, excluding certain historic districts. But because urban villages encompass everything within a 10-minute walk to a frequent transit node, a small amount of the city’s wide swaths of single-family zones, about 6 percent of them, are getting a tweak.

A very small number of single-family zones are getting bumped up to low-rise, but most of the single-family zones within urban villages are getting a carefully crafted new zone: residential small lot (RSL).

RSL zoning is actually stricter than single-family in many ways: It has a floor-area ratio limit of .75, where no limit existed before. It has higher tree-planting requirements.

In exchange, RSL zoning codifies and incentivises a slight increase in density. This zoning allows for standalone, attached, or stacked homes, with up to three units in stacked apartments. It sets a maximum dwelling size of 2,200 square feet and sets limits to lot area to discourage standalone single-family homes.

All new buildings, of course, would be subject to the new housing affordability requirements.

While single-family zoning has been a bit of a sticking point among neighborhood groups, data from a city canvass of the 10,000 homes that would be affected by the change shows that people they reached were largely supportive.

Of the 13 percent that answered the door at one point or another, around 40 percent were either slightly or very supportive of MHA rezones with only 20 percent opposed—and the support only dropped a couple of points when they found out their neighborhood would be affected. Support swelled to more than 60 percent when they found out what their specific zoning would do, with more than half strongly supportive.

Regardless, the rezone doesn’t require any redevelopment to take place, so property owners that don’t want to redevelop their property can keep on keepin’ on. And 94 percent of the city’s single-family zones will be entirely untouched by this proposal, although density could ever-so-slightly increase with upcoming changes to accessory dwelling unit rules—also a HALA recommendation.

Next steps

Like with the smaller-scale rezones, this proposal is being introduced to council—but this time as one big piece of legislation—likely within the next couple of weeks. That will trigger a legislative and public engagement process that will take several months.

A committee of the whole council (like the civic arena committee) will convene to discuss and propose changes to the plan. During that time, the city will host open houses, public hearings, and lunch and learns on specific MHA topics.

The city expects the city council to take action in the fall of 2018, although Johnson said action could happen in July or August. City staff have built a possible hearing examiner appeal into that timeline.

“Those who haven’t found one of our rare vacancies are forced to choose between paying rent and paying healthcare,” said Susan Boyd of Bellwether Housing at the press conference. As long as she’s been working in housing, she said, “housing and social justice advocates have called for an inclusionary housing program... this is the closest we’ve ever been.”