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Chinatown-International District on deck for upzones

Mandatory housing affordability is on its way

Curtis Cronn/Flickr

Now that the University District and Downtown’s upzones have gone through, the next area on deck for is Chinatown-International District (CID).

In today’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning (PLUZ) City Council committee, city councilors heard a draft of the plan for CID, part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA).

Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) is a key part of the HALA recommendations. In this strategy, the city allows extra building size in exchange for requiring either affordable housing units or money paid into an affordable housing fund.

Initially part of the Downtown-South Lake Union area, the HALA committee separated CID out because of unique concerns about economic, physical, and cultural displacement.

A map showing MHA implementation in CID
The Chinatown-International District rezone area. Areas in green will be rezoned for MHA; the striped area is an exempt historic district.
Courtesy of HALA

The area is not expected to court a lot of development—much of CID is on the historic register, and many buildings have a complicated community ownership structure—especially west of Interstate 5.

Altogether, CID’s rezone is only expected to generate 150 affordable units over 10 years. For context, that’s only about a 6 percent of the area’s current total housing stock.

The area has about 500 housing units, affordable or no, in the development pipeline and 500 more in permitting, according to data compiled using Seattle in Progress.

Under the current plan presented to committee, the shortest residential zones would gain 10 feet, or about one story. Zones currently reaching up to 150 feet would gain 20 feet, and the tallest zones would gain 30 feet.

Commercial buildings would gain 0.5 to 1.0 floor area ratio (FAR), which could result in either additional height or bulk. In Little Saigon, east of I-5, developers would have an extra 10 feet before having to participate in incentive zoning.

In exchange, residential developments and smaller commercial buildings would either have to have 7 percent affordable units or pay $20.75 per square foot. Commercial buildings more than 85 feet would pay $8 per square foot or include 5 percent affordable units.

MHA is a tricky balance. It’s a tightrope between not letting developers off the hook, but still encouraging developments that will generate a large amount of affordable housing.

In the case of Seattle’s MHA zones, especially in dense Downtown and now with the CID, there’s increasing tension over affordable housing percentages that seem too low. While rezones in Downtown were met with a largely positive community response, many questioned whether requirements as low as 2 or 3 percent were sufficient.

An amendment by Lisa Herbold that would have required 5 percent across the board for the Downtown rezones failed in full council.

Especially in the International District, where displacement is a large concern, some question whether 5 to 7 percent is enough to keep people of all economic backgrounds in the community.

“I encourage you to actually think about the people that live in the area as you make these decisions [instead of] giving money to for-profit developers” said one CID resident during public comment, urging at least 25 percent.

Others gave more straightforward support. Doris Koo of Yesler Community Collaborative collaborative urged the committee to pass MHA as soon as possible to capture something from developers eyeing the neighborhood.

“We will see no additional affordable housing unless we implement MHA—and soon,” she said.

City Councilor Rob Johnson, who chairs the PLUZ committee, said he expects the committee to take action on the CID upzones sometime in May or early June.