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Seattle mayor endorses community preference policies with executive order

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The order strengthens a years-long effort to fight displacement

Illustration by Janna Morton

Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed an executive order concerning gentrification, proposing a suite of reforms aimed at preventing displacement as Seattle grows. Rather than implement any ready made programs, the order largely directs various departments to cook up solutions that could have an effect in the future.

The most immediate one directs Seattle’s Office of Housing to put together a “Community Preference Policy”—which generally means prioritizing members of a surrounding neighborhood for spots in affordable housing developments. The idea is communities actually benefit from affordable housing sprouting up in their neighborhoods.

“We have to do this together with the developers on a case-by-case basis,” said Durkan during a press conference Wednesday. “But by creating this incentive and this policy in place we want to make sure that the first people to be pushed out by redevelopment and growth can be the first on the list for the housing that the city is investing in.”

It’s something that the Office of Housing has been planning since the passage of Council Resolution 31754 back in 2017, included as a companion resolution to rezones in Chinatown International District (CID), one of the first of the city’s mandatory housing affordability (MHA) bills. The resolution was in response to outcry from CID community groups that rezones would put the neighborhood at a higher displacement risk.

“I think it’s great that the mayor is endorsing this policy and supporting it because it could be a real game changer for anti-displacement work,” said Office of Housing spokesperson Robin Koskey in a phone interview Thursday. The policy, said Koskey, “will be a good thing for our community and give us a good tool in the toolbox to counter the displacement that’s been happening.”

The Office of Housing released a memo in March 2018 that includes studies of similar programs in New York, San Francisco, and Portland. They all work differently: Portland’s for example, is designed to offset a city urban renewal project that was actively displacing residents in a historically black neighborhood. 40 percent of units in new, city-funded projects are set aside to prioritize families with historic roots in North and Northeast Portland, especially those who lost property through eminent domain.

San Francisco, meanwhile, has kind of a hybrid policy: With some projects, 40 percent of units prioritize those who live in any of the city’s high-displacement-risk neighborhoods, and with others, priority goes to the immediate area of the project. In New York, which has had a policy in place since 1980 but has gone through various changes, half of city units are set aside for a lottery of those from the neighborhood—but it’s been in court for years after a challenge alleged it resulted in more segregation, something the Office of Housing said in the memo that it’s watching closely.

Since the release of the memo, the office has been developing its own policy for Seattle, working with community groups and hosting community discussions on the policy in collaboration with the Office of Civil Rights. (While the most recent community meeting and panel discussion at El Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill was canceled during the snowstorm, it’s been rescheduled to February 27, said Koskey.) Support has been growing among neighborhood groups and advisory boards, including the International District’s InterIm CDA, which Koskey said has been working with the office on the policy since the beginning.

“Obviously we haven’t transmitted the policy to city council yet, so I can’t speak to what the exact parameters of the plan will be,” said Koskey. “But what community has asked us [for] is a policy that will include people that currently live in the community, people who lived in the community prior, and people who work in the community.”

It can, however, be difficult to get around federal guidelines—San Francisco’s hybrid policy came partially from working around HUD’s disapproval. The mayor’s executive order requests looping in the City Attorney’s office to create a “legal and analytical framework for how Community Preference can be designed in a manner consistent with local, state and federal Fair Housing laws.”

Koskey said a case-by-case policy, the Durkan alluded to in the announcement, is what the office has been developing. The office believes it’s something HUD can work with.

“We’ll be looking at each case of each building that wants to use this policy,” said Koskey, “and we believe that by adopting a case by case strategy that we will not run afoul of fair housing law.”

In addition to community preference, the executive order directs the Office of Housing to draft a few more policies: One encourages homeownership on publicly owned sites. Other elements are aimed at keeping people in place and current programs robust. The order directs the Office of Housing to expand the city’s home repair program, which provides no-interest loans to homeowners that need to keep their spaces livable, and to collaborate with Seattle Housing Authority to acquire subsidized buildings that are about to expire. It also calls for an extension of the Multifamily Tax Exemption program, or MFTE, which creates low- and middle-income housing in private developments.

As for community preference, though: The Office of Housing is gearing up to transmit legislation to the Seattle City Council in the next six weeks or so. That timeline hasn’t changed because of the executive order, but Koskey said the mayor’s support strengthens the effort to get legislation passed and adds some options for community outreach.

“We’re really excited about bringing this policy to fruition,” said Koskey.