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Downtown and SLU housing affordability rezones pass City Council

The second in a series of rezones is moving forward

A view of South Lake Union and Downtown from the east Wonderlane/Flickr

In a unanimous vote Monday, the Seattle City Council passed rezones to Downtown and South Lake Union (SLU) that exchange building size for affordable housing.

The Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements, a recommendation of the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), are the second in a string of rezones citywide.

Residential height increases will increase proportional to a zone’s current maximum height, and commercial buildings would be given additional floor area ratio. The legislation grants additional height to buildings with more than 10 three-bedroom units—big enough for families.

In exchange, developers would have to either create a certain percentage of affordable units or pay into an affordable housing fund. Exactly how much they have to build or pay was the subject of fierce debate.

The ordinance, in line with the original plan from the HALA committee, calls for 2.1 to 5 percent affordable housing in residential development, depending on the specific zone, or $5.50 to $13.25 per square foot paid into the fund.

For commercial development, that goes up to 5 to 10.6 percent, or $8 to $17.50.

City Councilor Rob Johnson said 75 percent of developments will pay 4 percent or more, and if the city doesn’t get it right, the they will have an opportunity to adjust next year. He says similar programs aren’t as geographically broad, and in some cases—he points to San Francisco specifically—they’re preventing more affordable housing from being built.

While some, including the Sightline Institute, say the pan strikes the right balance, it’s been the subject of a lot of public criticism from those that feel those requirements are too low.

At a public meeting last month, many supported the MHA rezone in general, but felt the affordable housing requirements were too low. This concern has only increased in the past few weeks, notably in a guest editorial by City Council candidate Jon Grant in The Stranger and in a blog post by City Councilor Lisa Herbold.

A city-commissioned study from 2013 that shows the area could support much higher affordable housing requirements.

An amendment by Councilor Herbold, which ultimately failed, proposed raising the in-lieu fee to $14.75 per square foot and 5 percent across the board.

During the public comment period of Monday’s meeting, several, including Grant, the Tenants’ Union, and Washington Community Action Network, testified in support of the amendment—the Raging Grannies even sang a song in support.

In discussion of the bill, Councilor Johnson said that while he respects Herbold’s “data-driven” approach, he worries about the amendment hindering development. City Councilor Kshama Sawant called concerns about raising requirements “voodoo economics.”

The upzone is expected to create more than 2,000 affordable units for the city, but whether those units will be in Downtown or SLU is up in the air.

The city expects most developers in this area to pay into the fund—raising concerns that Seattle won’t benefit from any affordable housing.

Evan Clifthorne with Project Belltown wrote an open letter to the City Council, warning that Belltown could become “another Broadmoor” or Laurelhurst or Blue Ridge—referring to upper-class, exclusive communities with a history of racially-restrictive covenants—if funds from Belltown aren’t used to address inequity in Belltown.

A recital passed in committee emphasized the City will “employ strategies” to create affordable housing in Downtown and SLU with funds from the in-lieu fee, but creates no specific benchmarks.

Another amendment passed in committee allows projects that have already gone through design review to opt to participate in the ordinance, taking advantage of the extra height in exchange for the new zoning requirements. From the dais, Councilor Johnson encouraged developers with plans in the works to look into participation.

The rezone will go to the Mayor’s desk before going into effect.

This story has been updated since its original publication to add commercial performance and in-lieu fee information.