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Mandatory housing affordability package emerges from Seattle City Council committee

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The policy exchanges building capacity for affordable housing requirements

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Over the course of a four-and-a-half-hour meeting Monday, the Seattle City Council came close to finalizing a package of bills that would implement mandatory housing affordability (MHA) in various neighborhoods throughout the City of Seattle. It marks the end of a special committee process where city councilmembers went through the proposed planning and zoning changes with a fine-tooth comb, and gets the city close to actually implementing a policy that’s been in the works for years.

MHA was part of a suite of affordable housing recommendations proposed by a task force called the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). The policy exchanges additional building height or housing capacity for affordable housing, with developers either providing a certain amount of housing on-site or paying into a fund.

The three bills, which the council will likely vote on March 18, implement those zoning changes, amend the city’s comprehensive plan to accommodate those changes, and prepare the Northgate neighborhood for transit-oriented development.

Although the rezones are set to take place throughout the city, only 6 percent of the city’s single-family neighborhoods (which, according to city estimates, cover about 65 percent of Seattle) will be affected. Still, those neighborhoods were the subject of many amendments, especially the more controversial ones.

Most of those single-family zones are going to residential small lot (RSL) zoning, which incentivises smaller, denser housing, but also keeping existing structures and turning them into multifamily housing—but MHA still applies. In some cases, though, those single-family neighborhoods were set to go to low rise 1, which has the same height limits as RSL (which aren’t too different from single family), but can result in fatter buildings.

This was a long moment of clarification a few hours into the meeting, when councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, advocated for a swath of single-family homes near 21st Avenue SW and SW Barton Street to go RSL instead of low-rise to preserve Mount Rainier views. That amendment ultimately failed, but a suite of similar amendments for single-family zones around the West Seattle Junction passed, with the idea that zoning would be revisited pending final word on light-rail alignment in the neighborhood.

Similarly, a slate of amendments softening zoning changes in Crown Hill proposed by councilmember Mike O’Brien—who was not present at the meeting—also passed, moving many single-family lots that were previously destined to be low-rise to RSL. In exchange, the area in the immediate vicinity of 85th and 15th gained an extra 20 feet and higher affordable housing requirements. (One of O’Brien’s amendments was soundly rejected: one to lessen zoning changes in the vicinity of the Fremont Troll.)

Constituent concerns inspired the amendments pulling back on changes to single-family zoning in certain areas—and raised questions about what neighborhoods bear the brunt of Seattle’s housing needs.

If we don’t err on the side of denser zoning, said councilmember Debra Juarez discussing O’Brien’s Crown Hill amendments, “then the burden shifts to those neighborhoods that we’re trying to protect, particularly from displacement.”

But neighbors brought concerns to their councilmembers besides single-family zoning. Near the Mount Baker Light Rail Station, six lots lost 20 feet of zoning to keep a long-planned park feasible. Up by Northgate, one zoning change specifically accomodated a senior center hoping to build medical facilities. In the University District, one amendment changes setback requirements on University Way, better known as the Ave, to “maintain the human-scaled character” after a neighborhood effort that included its own beer.

Other changes involve excluding the Mount Baker Historic District and new Ravenna-Cowen Historic District—which isn’t too surprising, since the policy’s environmental review noted that historic preservation was a weak point. Another amendment allows the purchase of transferable development rights, better known as TDRs, from historic landmarks in high-rise zones (essentially, developers get to build extra somewhere that’s not the landmark).

Some amendments were more broad, like a relatively controversial amendment known as the “claw-back clause”—demanded by some neighborhood groups and disliked by many urbanists—which addresses what could happen if a court determines that the affordability piece is illegal, leaving higher-capacity zoning without any requirement for developers and property owners to provide affordable housing. The measure passed, with just Juarez, Teresa Mosqueda, and Lorena González opposed.

“I think that this entire summary of this amendment runs counter to what we are hoping to achieve out of this MHA program,” said Mosqueda, adding that the zoning changes are “very minimal” and that a moratorium on development capacity “could have adverse impacts on our efforts to build affordable housing.”

Rob Johnson, who chairs the MHA committee, said that he “philosophically” agrees with Mosqueda, “as it’s written it’s purely intent language—it’s any future council’s purview to ask however that council chooses to... I don’t love it but I’m inclined to support it.”

“The legislation itself is a unique piece of legislation,” said Herbold, who sponsored the amendment. “It is, by its very nature, proposed to be a bargain.”

While many of the amendments were relatively controversial among councilmembers, the big-picture legislation was not: All three bills passed unanimously through the special committee, although the council will need to vote on them in full council session before they’re officially passed.