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Appeal of housing affordability rezones drags on

The rezones were one recommendation of the city’s HALA committee

An aerial view of homes in West Seattle.

It’s been about nine months after a coalition of neighborhood groups filed a legal challenge to a series of proposed Seattle rezones, and the city seems no closer to a resolution. The Seattle Times reported earlier this week that despite a series of closed-door negotiations with the city, no agreement has been reached yet that could allow legislation to move forward.

The neighborhood groups—which include the West Seattle Junction Neighborhood Association, but the Eastlake Community Council, University District Community Council, Wallingford Community Council, and Magnolia Community Council—filed an appeal to the hearing examiner over the city’s mandatory housing affordability (MHA) plan, which exchanges extra building height for either affordable housing or contributions to an affordable housing fund.

When then-mayor Tim Burgess and city councilor Rob Johnson first announced the full plan for rezones, they acknowledged that a hearing examiner appeal was likely. But it’s been going on longer than they initially estimated—originally, the city estimated that a City Council vote would happen this fall, or potentially earlier in July or August.

“We anticipate that the Hearing Examiner will make a decision on the appeal in late October or November,” Johnson’s office tells Curbed Seattle.

The hearing examiner is deciding whether the final environmental impact statement (FEIS)—a standard step in Seattle policy making—for MHA was sufficient to move forward. “If the FEIS is deemed sufficient, the council will likely take up the legislation beginning in January,” estimates Johnson’s office. “If the FEIS is determined to be remanded, the city will have to do additional analysis of the MHA proposal and the timeline will depend on what additional analysis is required.”

In the meantime, the city council has been proceeding with public hearings, workshops, and constituent communications. We asked if any changes to the final legislation were plausible.

“We have heard lots of ideas about potential changes, both to the MHA program as well as site-specific zoning changes,” says Johnson’s office. “Council will certainly be discussing and considering those ideas after the appeal is resolved.”

The neighborhood group, which calls itself the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE)— presumably a jab to Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which the rezone plan grew from—claims the city’s mandatory housing affordability plan will make the city more unaffordable, with less diversity and more pollution. Especially at odds for these groups: Seattle’s single-family zones, which currently make up around half of the city (depending on how you’re measuring and who you ask).

94 percent of these single-family zones will stay intact under the current zoning plan. The remaining 6 percent affects about 10,000 homes.

The coalition started as a collaboration between the West Seattle Junction Neighborhood Association (JUNO), the Seattle Displacement Coalition, and Seattle Fair Growth. In the Junction specifically, bigger low-rise and commercial zoning is concentrated along California Avenue, Alaska Street, and Fauntleroy Way, what the city considers a small change (or an “M” change) to the area. Most were already low-rise.

Proposed rezones for the West Seattle Junction.
Via City of Seattle

The single-family parcels closest to the Junction are moving to low-rise zoning. But many previously single-family zones in the rezone area are moving to the new “residential small lot” (RSL) zoning, which allows attached and stacked homes—a maximum of three—but also sits strict development standards, like a new floor-area ratio and higher tree-planting requirements.

RSL zoning incentivises smaller, denser housing, but also keeping existing structures and turning them into multifamily housing. The key part of RSL zoning, though: MHA zoning applies, so anyone who built new projects in one of those areas has to contribute to affordable housing through either building on-site or paying into a fund.

Once the parcels get a few blocks from arterials and bus lines, though, West Seattle’s single-family zoning is largely preserved—along with 94 percent of zoning around the city.

Proposed rezones along Greenwood Avenue North.
Via City of Seattle

In Wallingford—the Wallingford Community Council is also involved in the appeal—preserved single-family zoning as close to half a block away from the neighborhood hub of N 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue creates kind of a lollipop-shaped zoning map.

JUNO, in a position paper responding to the city’s draft impact statement (an earlier version of the final proposal), said they “don’t want to ban development in our own backyard,” but the proposal “fails in its mission to create appreciable affordable housing in our area.” They claim the plan “increases density without improving already-strained parks, schools, and transit,” and that analysis on the impacts of the plan are flawed and not neighborhood-specific enough.

JUNO’s paper also said that the plan “destroys single-family neighborhoods.”

The 28 groups involved in the coalition “demand an honest and unbiased assessment of the impacts of upzoning on neighborhoods, tree canopy loss, displacement, schools, and small businesses,” wrote SCALE member Seattle Fair Growth. The Times also reports that the coalition alleges that the rezone plan tries to address too many neighborhoods at once.

The rezones, if they move forward as planned, are expected to generate 6,000 affordable homes.